February 28, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

And what curious flower or fruit
Will grow from that conspiring root?

—Elizabeth Bishop

Those lines are from the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s reimagining of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Bishop has admitted that she was hoping someone would compose tunes for her suite “Songs for a Colored Singer” (an acceptable title in the 1940s). “I think I had Billie Holiday in mind,” she said in a 1966 interview. “I put in a couple of words just because she sang big words so well — ‘conspiring root,’ for instance.”

The Bishop-Holiday connection was pointed out by Paul Alexander in Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year, the subject of last week’s column. In fact, a misprint in that article (“Back” for “Black”) is the reason I’m  returning to Holiday and rereading Bishop with particular attention to “The Man-Moth,” a great New York poem inspired by a newspaper misprint for “mammoth.” more

February 21, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

I was going to begin with some lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts” — except that setting the passage as an epigraph would have been typographically unsightly, and the only thing it has to do with Billie Holiday is that I can hear her singing it, beautifully, in her special way, making new words of old words. I can also hear her singing of “something given and taken” from the same sequence, and of “selflessness and self-surrender” and “the moment in and out of time.”

It’s fun to imagine Lady Day enlivening Eliot as she did various Tin Pan Alley songwriters. You can hear her on YouTube singing “My first impression of you was something indescribably new” to words by Charley Tobias (“The boy who writes the songs you sing”) and music by Ukrainian-born Sam Stept — but first I had to skip an ad flogging Trump bobbleheads and the call to arms for a second American Civil War that follows it. more

February 14, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

…when love finally calls the tune, it almost always comes from the least expected direction — from the bohemian, the excluded, the marginalized and least powerful folks, and the most hidden places.

—Ted Gioia

On Valentine’s Day 2024 I’m thinking about the way love happens in a song that’s been synonymous with February 14 ever since I sang along with it as a teenager. Although “How Little We Know” comes from a relatively “hidden” songwriter, it was put on the map in 1956 by Frank Sinatra, one of the “least marginalized” and “most powerful” of performers. According to Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford University Press 2015), Sinatra brought a “new level of sophistication” to the romantic ballad by adding “layers of irony, sometimes outright cynicism, to the emotional immediacy of the torch singers,” which resulted in “a performance that delivered the inner meaning of the lyric while also offering an arch commentary on it.”  more

February 7, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

People who listen to the Beatles love them — what about that?

—Richard Poirier in The Performing Self (1971)

Remarkable, unspeakable New York!

—Henry James, in The American Scene

My mood at the moment is best expressed in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which I was reading when the Beatles landed at JFK on February 7, 1964:

“I enter upon this part of my story in the most pensive and melancholy frame of mind that ever sympathetic breast was touched with…. Every line I write, I feel an abatement of the quickness of my pulse, and of that careless alacrity with it, which every day of my life prompts me to say and write a thousand things I should not.”

Truer words were never not spoken. Did I really care about the Fab Four? I had no choice since my transistor radio was permanently tuned to Top 40 servings on WINS from Murray the K, the DJ who liked to call himself the Fifth Beatle. My idea of musical bliss in those days was a moment in Sonny Rollins Vol. 2 on Blue Note, the change of pianists that occurs in Thelonius Monk’s “Mysterioso,” after Rollins delivers one of his boldest statements and Monk makes way for Horace Silver as J.J. Johnson’s trombone booms overhead. Never did it occur to me that a bunch of funny looking characters from the U.K. could compete with that.

At the time of The Great Arrival, I was living in a small front room of a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street, with a poster of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles over my bed and one of Joan Miró’s The Farm on another wall above a portable stereo and a box of jazz LPs. My window looked across the street to No. 26, where Billie Holiday had been living at the time of her death in 1959. Lady Day’s “townhouse” sold for almost $14 million in 2022. In 1964 I was paying $120 a month. Most likely Billie had a couple of furnished rooms in 1959. She reportedly died with 70 cents to her name. It’s been four years since I felt like going into New York. The city I love is not the one where Billie Holiday’s townhouse sold for $14 million.  more

January 31, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Today, January 31, is Franz Schubert’s birthday. Born in 1797, he died on November 19, 1828, age 31. Toward the end of that year he was composing his last three piano sonatas and vicariously exploring the backwoods America of James Fenimore Cooper. I’ve been intrigued by this deathbed connection ever since I read Schubert’s last letter, in which he tells a friend, “I am ill. I have eaten nothing for eleven days and drunk nothing, and I totter feebly and shakily from my chair to bed and back again…. Be so kind, then, to assist me in this desperate situation by means of literature. Of Cooper’s I have read The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, The Pilot, and The Pioneers. If by chance you have anything else of his, I implore you to deposit it with Frau von Bogner at the coffee house….”

For the past week I’ve been reading The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) and listening to Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A-major completed on September 26, 1828. The sonata’s haunting second movement, the Andantino employed so powerfully in Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, has been following me around ever since last Wednesday’s  mist-making Schubertian snowfall. more

January 24, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

This is an anniversary year for Franz Kafka, who died on June 3, 1924, a doubly noteworthy centenary, given the immensity of the author’s posthumous presence, which suggests that if ever a writer was born on the day he died it was Kafka. No wonder, then, that a photograph of his face dominates the January 24 entry in A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984) when all he accomplished on that day in 1913 was to interrupt work on a book he never finished. Originally titled The Man Who Disappeared, it was retitled Amerika after his death by his best friend and executor Max Brod, who is best known for ignoring Kafka’s wish that all his unpublished writings be destroyed. more

January 17, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

January is the birth month of two ageless poets of the snow, Anton Chekhov, born on the Feast Day of St. Anthony the Great, January 17, 1860, and Franz Schubert, born on January 31, 1797.

Chekhov’s 1886 story “Misery” has a wintry atmosphere like that of “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” the last song in Winterreise (1828), Schubert’s song cycle about a man whose snowy wanderings end with an old organ-grinder playing “with numb fingers as best he can,” holding his little plate, “with no reward to show,” for “no one wants to listen.” Chekhov’s epigraph for “Misery,” which I first read as “Heartache” in Avrahm Yarmolinksy’s edition of The Portable Chekhov, is “To whom shall I tell my sorrows,” a reference to the plight of a bereft St. Petersburg cabby, who sits unmoving in the snow, waiting for a fare.  more

January 10, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

Robert Donat may be the only movie star Holden Caulfield would ever think of calling on the phone. Donat, who plays Richard Hannay, the hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The 39 Steps (1935), “could draw us further into himself by his very modesty,” according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Writing about Donat’s performance in Knight Without Armour (1937), another movie J.D. Salinger liked to show on his 16 mm projector, Graham Greene observed that he “is sensible, authentic, slow; emotion when it comes has the effect of surprise, like plebeian poetry.” In contrast to the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood that Holden hates, Donat has, in Greene’s words, an “invincible naturalness.”

In The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (Crown 1970), David Shipman calls Donat’s story “a heart-rending one,” using an adjective also favored by 7-year-old Seymour Glass in Salinger’s extraordinary, still unpublished novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, surely the longest, strangest letter home from camp ever written. What makes Donat’s story “heart-rending” is that this “highly gifted actor,” known “for a beautiful speaking voice and a quiet and diffident charm,” was plagued by chronic asthma. As Thomson points out, Donat’s “illustrious” career included only 19 films, due to the major roles he turned down because of “the profound tentativeness at the root of his stammer and nervous breathlessness.” Even so, in one of his least compelling parts, as the title character in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Donat beat out Clark Gable for the Best Actor Oscar, thwarting Gone With the Wind’s sweep of the 1939 Academy Awards. more

January 3, 2024

By Stuart Mitchner

His tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there. 

—William Faulkner on Holden Caulfield

“If you really want to hear about it,” the first thing you need to know is that J.D. Salinger was born in New York City on the first of January 1919, 105 years ago. The first and only time his creation Holden Caulfield appeared in the The New Yorker was on December 21, 1946, in “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” a story that got bumped from the 1941 Christmas issue after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The writer who crafted The Catcher in the Rye’s famous “all-that-David-Copperfield-kind-of-crap” opening sentence clearly had another character in mind in the story’s “Holden Morrisey Caulfield,” who wore his hat “with a cutting edge at the ‘V’ of the crown.” The character who came to life in his own voice in 1951 is the one who left “all the goddam foils” of the Pencey Prep fencing team on the subway the same morning he bought a hat “for a buck” in a sports store and wore it with the peak swung “way around to the back” because he “looked good in it that way.”

One of the few times the later Holden’s presence can be felt in “Slight Rebellion” is during a theatre intermission when someone calls the Lunts “absolute angels” and Holden thinks “Angels. For Chrissake. Angels.” You hear him again when he and his date Sally are talking about school and he says, “Boy, do I hate it!” and “hate” gets him going. He hates living in New York, the Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue busses “and getting out at the center doors” and “the Seventy-second Street movie, with those fake clouds on the ceiling.” You get another hint of the reading world’s Holden when he tries to talk Sally into running away from New York with him. more

December 27, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

He has too much talent for his genius; it is a dreadful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from nor set at rest. You would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson on Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Tree” in the December 21, 1850 issue of his weekly journal Household Words. While there are references to “bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness” that echo the spirit of A Christmas Carol (1843), the later, shorter work reveals a much darker vision of Christmas and childhood.

Just as Scrooge tries to dismiss the horror of Marley’s ghost as “a slight disorder of the stomach … an undigested bit of beef,” Dickens tells himself that the “prodigious nightmare” embodied by the Christmas tree may be “the result of indigestion, assisted by imagination …. I don’t know why it’s frightful — but I know it is. I can only make out that it is an immense array of shapeless things … slowly coming close to my eyes, and receding to an immeasurable distance. When it comes closest, it is worse.” The apparition reminds Dickens of “winter nights incredibly long; of being sent early to bed, as a punishment for some small offence, and waking in two hours, with a sensation of having been asleep two nights; of the laden hopelessness of morning ever dawning….” more

December 20, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

A glorious day, really! So clear, so crisp, so bracing! If only it weren’t Christmas!

—Henry Miller, from Nexus

Henry Valentine Miller’s antipathy to Christmas must have begun in the womb. Somehow the “literary gangster” who wrote Tropic of Cancer convinced his mother to put off delivering him for a day. Born December 26, 1891, in Yorkville on the Upper East side of Manhattan, he grew up in Brooklyn on what he called “the Street of Early Sorrows.”

Humphrey DeForest Bogart, who broke through in films as the gangster Duke Mantee, was born into a wealthy Upper West Side family on December 25, 1899, a birthdate that was subsequently moved into late January 1900 by the Warner’s publicity department. In the fantasy world of Hollywood, no way could an actor famed for playing “villainous” roles carry a Christmas Day birthdate.  more

December 13, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

You know the greatest films of all time were never made…

—Taylor Swift, from folklore

Imagine a world without Taylor Swift, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Jarmusch, all born on this date, December 13, the singer songwriter in 1989, the actor in 1957, the director in 1953. Now imagine a world without The Winter’s Tale, a work that, as Harold Bloom says, “surges with Shakespeare’s full power” and might have been lost had it not been preserved 400 years ago in The First Folio seven years after the poet’s death.

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead 1998), Bloom calls The Winter’s Tale “a poem unlimited” because “we cannot come to the end of Shakespeare’s greatest plays”; there are always new perspectives opening on “fresh vistas.” A “vast pastoral epic” that is “also a psychological novel,” the play begins with the “nothing-have-these-nothings-if-this-be nothing” eruption of sexual jealousy from King Leontes of Sicily that leads to the seacoast of Bohemia, the songs of Autolycus, the romance of Perdita and Florizel, and the immortal stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” more

December 6, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I love this time of day, 1:30 to 3 a.m., kitchen to myself, cleaning up to music from the Bose Wave. I turn on WWFM in time to hear the first two movements of Haydn’s string quartet No. 23 in F minor, which creates a nice slow weaving motion that goes surprisingly well with sweeping the floor.

According to his biographer Albert Christoph Dies, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) once claimed that musical ideas were pursuing him: “If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier…. I am really just a living clavier.”

Basie the Piano

Pondering the idea of a composer or a player becoming the embodiment of their instrument, my thoughts turn first to Red Bank’s favorite son Count Basie. If anyone this side of Glenn Gould or Duke Ellington qualified as “a living piano” it was Basie playing one or two incandescent notes between the heaves of big band storm. Listening to the 1975 RCA session with Basie and tenor man Zoot Sims while sweeping the tile dance floor in my night club kitchen at 3 a.m., the number I keep coming back to is a medium slow blues Basie calls “Captain Bligh.” After much looking online I’ve given up trying to find out why he named a blues after the deposed commander of HMS Bounty. In my search of the Net, however, what I found was a smile: of course, Basie’s big band recorded two albums of Beatles songs in the 1960s, one of them with liner notes by Ringo Starr. more

November 29, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

It was while exploring “In the Company of Good Books: From Shakespeare to Morrison” at Princeton University Library’s Milberg Gallery that I found myself face to face with George Eliot. An hour later when I walked back into the light of day from this 400th anniversary celebration of the “First Folio of 1623” and other Firestone Library rarities, an unmissable show that I very nearly missed (it closes December 10), all I could think about was the woman gazing out at me from Frederick William Burton’s charcoal drawing, a preparatory study for his fuller, more detailed, but less intriguing colored chalk portrait in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Eliot would have been 44 on February 14, 1864, when, in the words of her journal, “Mr. Burton dined with us and asked me to let him take my portrait.” According to the curator’s note, the fact that Burton was a friend “may account for the closely-cropped, full-frontal and altogether more intimate portrayal of her face.”

Maybe it was the aura of intimacy that drew me in and held me, so serenely sympathetic were her pale blue eyes, the only color in the drawing; at the same time, I knew I was in the presence of the author of this remarkable sentence, from her masterpiece Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” more

November 22, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Cover art for “Murder Most Foul” by Bob Dylan. (Columbia Records)

Today is the 60th anniversary of November 22, 1963, a date Bob Dylan claimed a share of in late March 2020, bringing Shakespeare along for the ride in “Murder Most Foul,” a 16-minute whirlwind pop-culture tour of the Kennedy assassination. Dylan first heard the news with his then-partner Suze Rotolo and others in her sister Carla’s Greenwich Village apartment. According to his friend Bob Fass, Dylan’s response was “What it means is that they are trying to tell you ‘Don’t even hope to change things’.”

So it was already they for Dylan when most of us who were alive on that day were too stunned to think beyond he, him, it. And in MMF it’s they who “blew off his head while he was still in the car.” And it’s they in “Roll On John,” Dylan’s powerfully sung response to the murder of John Lennon (“They shot him in the back and down he went”) which, like “Murder Most Foul,” uses lyrics to carry the message (in this case, Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” “Come Together,” “Instant Karma”). At the same time, Dylan’s words seem to transcend a single subject. A line like “they’ll trap you in an ambush” could just as easily refer to the slain president. And if you happen to be thinking about Dylan’s controversial identification with the accused assassin who also died violently that weekend in Dallas, Oswald seems a more likely fit for rhetoric like “They tore the heart right out and cut him to the core” and “rags on your back just like any other slave / They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth / Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave.”


November 15, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Approaching the “last Beatles’ song,” my first thought is how well the title “Now and Then” fits the occasion. The dominant line, “It’s all because of you,” works for people who have lived more than half a century with the group as I have, as well as our generation’s children and grandchildren, like the 23-year-old who says “I was 1 when George Harrison died” in a November 3 New York Times article about Gen Z Beatles fans on TikTok.

The Romance

In last Sunday’s Times (“At the Heart of the Last Beatles Song, A Love Story”), Ian Leslie views “Now and Then” in the context of the book he’s writing about Lennon and McCartney’s “love story in songs.” While he seems to agree that “their love story is “our love story, too” and that  “their songs still permeate our lives,” Leslie views “Now and Then” as a song based on Lennon’s last words to McCartney in the hallway of the Dakota, “Think about me every now and then, old friend.” However, highlighting the romance inevitably distracts from the fact that the song and the official video with its doctored clips of Beatles “now and then” is being presented to the world as a technologically achieved Beatles reunion. While George Harrison’s searing guitar was the defining force in the 1994 “reunion” that produced “Free As a Bird,” this time it’s Paul who “came up with a slide guitar part played on a lap steel guitar,” according to the liner notes, “in homage to George,” who had dismissed “Now and Then” as “rubbish” when they first tried to work with the demo in the late nineties. more

November 8, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.

—James Dean (1931-1955)

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye…

—Taylor Swift (born 1989)

The reality of writing an open-ended weekly column is that at the last minute someone or something may come out of nowhere to redirect a piece that was originally triggered, in this case, by controversial basketball coach Bobby Knight’s front page obituary in the New York Times. First thought is you’ll be writing about growing up with Indiana basketball, which goes according to plan until you remember a player you admired as a 10-year-old, who reawakens thoughts of James Dean, the actor you were obsessed with at 17.

It seems incredible that at the time I was buying everything about James Dean I could lay my hands on, I missed the poem with the line about dreaming and living that contains other “last words” such as “Forgive quickly, kiss slowly,” “Dance as if no one’s watching,” and “Love as if it’s all you know.” Any one of those lines could be the title of a song by Taylor Swift, who brought Dean dancing back into the pop culture conversation in 2014 and then again last week in her rerecorded version of “Style.” more

November 1, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

The youth was not conscious that he was erect upon his feet. He did not know the direction of the ground. Indeed, once he even lost the habit of balance and fell heavily.

—Stephen Crane (1871-1900), from The Red Badge of Courage

According to R.W. Stallman’s biography, Stephen Crane claimed to be prouder “of his baseball ability than some other things” even after The Red Badge of Courage had made him an international celebrity at 25. Asked how he could write about war without seeing combat, Crane once again cited baseball: “The opposing team is an enemy tribe.” A Syracuse teammate recalled that Crane played ball “with fiendish glee.” On the field, “he was constantly in motion, agile on his feet, a fast base runner.” more

October 25, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I didn’t know what I would find
When I went looking for a reason…

—Taylor Swift, from “The Outside”

I didn’t know what I’d find when I went looking for a reason to go downtown last week. The last thing I expected was a paperback at Labyrinth called Taylor Swift In Her Own Words (Agate $12.95), edited by Helena Hunt. All I knew of her at that moment was the spectacular silver on black image looming on the cover of the October 15 New York Times Magazine (“The Kingdom of Taylor”). The faceless figure framed in black reminded me of nothing so much as a sexy, satiny, silver-booted, silver lamé alien, an ideal mate for Gort, Klaatu’s armor-plated robot in the original Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). So that was Taylor Swift? Really?

Still, the grotesque, off-putting image made me curious. I didn’t know Swift’s music, couldn’t have named a single song, and found the idea of her billion-dollar Gala Tour totally unappealing. Not really expecting to find her in “her own words,” I opened the book and read the first thing she had to say, which was set apart on a single page in front: “I feel no need to burn down the house I built by hand. I can make additions to it. I can redecorate. But I built this.” Right away I was asking myself, “Who is this person whose illustrious namesake, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, might have written those words, such was their cranky, in-your-face command of the moment. What followed was admittedly less Swiftian: “And I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t had corkscrew-curly hair and worn cowboy boots and sundresses to awards shows when I was 17’…. Because I made those choices, I did that. It was part of me growing up. It wasn’t some committee going ‘You know what Tayor needs to be this year?’” 

Never mind, the opening sentence about burning down the house was worth a thousand glitzy cover images, so I bought the book.  more

October 18, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Introducing his Elizabethan tour de force “Tarquin of Cheapside” in Tales of the Jazz Age (Scribners 1922), F. Scott Fitzgerald admits it was “a product of undergraduate days at Princeton” that he’d since “considerably revised,” adding that “the peculiar affection” he feels for it has more to do with its age than “any intrinsic merit.” In fact, it had taken a passionate last-minute plea to convince his editor Maxwell Perkins to make space in a Jazz Age collection for a tale about Shakespeare on the run from sword-wielding pursuers.

In her introduction to Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories (Scribners 1959), Fitzgerald’s daughter Frances Fitzgerald Lanahan provides a facsimile of a handwritten list of her parents’ monthly expenditures for 1923 and wonders “how there was a moment left for the bathtub gin and the splashing in the Plaza fountain.” Everyday expenses ranging from taxes, rent, and food to typing amounted to $1,629.40. The cost of “trips, pleasure & parties” came to $2,396, including $100 for “Wild Parties.” Lanahan takes comfort in the fact that as “wasteful” as it was that her father died so young, “there must have been 48 hours a day in that Golden Era,” making it possible for him pack “at least two lives into those 44 years.”  more

October 11, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

A little over two months ago, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was all the rage, and Princeton and the Garden Theatre were at the center of the cinematic universe. A little over 10 years ago, in May 2013, Baz Luhrman’s big, jazzy, flamboyantly picturesque improvisation on The Great Gatsby was all the rage, and Princeton and the Garden Theatre were again at the center of the cinematic universe. One big difference is that Oppenheimer himself, or Hollywood’s version of him, was the hero, or anti-hero, of the celebration. Ten years ago the true hero, Gatsby’s creator F. Scott Fitzgerald, seemed to be the forgotten man, overshadowed by his own creation.

As I wrote at the time, “Gatsby lives, while his creator, the poet laureate of Old Nassau, is a tragic phantom. The charismatic Gatsby is front and center along with the Great Baz and a lot of chatter about poor boys, rich girls, and the American dream, while Fitzgerald seems to be hanging on to his creation’s coattails.” And when the author died in 1940, a self-confessed Jazz Age has-been, the novel appeared to be dead as well. Dorothy Parker famously made the connection, so the story goes, with her remark, “The poor son of a bitch” at Fitzgerald’s passing, a direct quote of the comment made by the only one of Gatsby’s party people who bothered to come to his funeral.  more

October 4, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s the center of all these things. It’s the center of all these ideas.

—Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017) on New York City

In a C-SPAN interview about his book Damon Runyon: A Life (Ticknor & Fields 1991), Jimmy Breslin is asked to compare his journalistic style with Runyon’s. After saying Runyon “had his own way,” Breslin describes a card game that goes on for 26 hours and does not stop until one guy says, “He wins, I lose.” This is the source of Runyon’s “first-person-with-no-contractions present tense, or the historical present, as somebody calls it,” which Runyon decides will sound “great and comic and stilted coming out of the mouths of Nathan Detroit and people like that.” more

September 27, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Mr. Gershwin was a child of the Twenties, the Age of Jazz. In the fast two-step time of the years after the war he was to music what F. Scott Fitzgerald was to prose.

—from the July 12, 1937 New York Times obituary

After pairing George Gershwin and Scott Fitzgerald as voices of the Jazz Age, the Times obit observed that “Four years after that mad decade began, Paul Whiteman sent the strains of Rhapsody [in Blue] cascading far beyond Broadway and the music they called Jazz had come of age. Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra played his work and the capitals of Europe called for more.”

When Fitzgerald died three and half years later, the December 23, 1940 Times obituary spoke of a career “that began and ended” with the 1920s, its “promise never fulfilled.” The paper does at least note that “the best of his books” was The Great Gatsby, published “at a time when gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession.” In it Fitzgerald was “at his best,” which was in his “ability to catch the flavor of a night, a snatch of old song, in a phrase.”  more

September 20, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Music is only understood when one goes away singing it and only loved when one falls asleep with it in one’s head, and finds it still there on waking up the next morning.

—Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

You know how it is at dusk when the day has ended but it hasn’t? The ambiance of that time of day was all through everything we played.

—Richard Davis (1930-2023) on recording Astral Weeks

I’m driving Mr. Schoenberg around Princeton on his 149th birthday, it’s a fine September day, everything’s clear and bright, and we’re listening to Pierre lunaire, the atonal 21-song “melodrama” Mr. S. composed in 1912 and conducted in Berlin that October.

“Poor brave Albertine,” Mr. S. says, referring to the soprano Albertine Zehme, the vocalist/narrator at the Berlin premiere. “The real melodrama was in the audience. She had to contend with whistling, booing, laughter, and unaussprechlich insults, but the loudest voice in that crowd was the one shouting ‘Shoot him! Shoot him!’ Meaning me.”

To those who say there’s no way I could be conversing with an Austrian-American composer who died on Friday the 13th, July 1951, I’ll quote my passenger, who in 1909 announced his “complete liberation from form and symbols, cohesion and logic” because it’s “impossible to feel only one emotion. Man has many feelings, thousands at a time, each going its own way — this multicoloured, polymorphic, illogical nature of our feelings, and their associations, a rush of blood, reactions in our senses, in our nerves” is all “in my music… an expression of feeling, full of unconscious connections.” more

September 13, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

You can see it isn’t easy to get on with me. But don’t lose heart because of that.

—Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Harvey Sachs begins and ends Schoenberg: Why He Matters (Liveright 2023) with those words from an August 30, 1923 letter the composer sent to “a new acquaintance.” The statement’s simplicity is reflected in the way Sachs demonstrates why an artist as notoriously difficult as Schoenberg is worth “getting on with.”

The “difficulty” is addressed in Schoenberg’s Wikipedia page under the heading “Twelve-tone and tonal works,” which begins by noting that he once compared his discovery of a new compositional method to Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics. The language from Ethan Haimo’s 1990 book Schoenberg’s Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of his Twelve-Tone Method, 1914–1928 is nothing if not daunting, difficult, and discouraging (try getting on with “hexachordal inversional combinatoriality” or “isomorphic partitioning”), especially compared to the composer’s own simply, vividly worded “painting without architecture … an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colors, rhythms and moods.”  more