Coincidentally: The Savage Breast Soothed

As music is by a universal consent of philosophy the highest of arts, it can be counted on to have the most inspiring power over the intellect and will. So phenomenal a power able to stir the stern brow and soothe the savage breast must have other influences too. The art of the gods at their lyres may actually cause bewilderment, especially when it becomes entangled in a morass of inexplicable coincidences.

For starters, there is the example of national anthems. It is an open secret that the Austrian anthem was based by Haydn on the Croatian song, “Vjutro rano se ja vstanem.” That is merely a curiosity and no odder than taking “The Star-Spangled Banner” from an English drinking song. More than only curious is this: Julia Ward Howe, author of what may be unofficially our second national anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” died in the same year (1910) as BjOrnstjerne Bjornson, author of the Norwegian national anthem “Ja, Vi Elsker Dette Landet.”

Again, it may be nothing more than a curiosity that neither Richard Wagner nor Hector Berlioz could play the piano, so both composed their works on the guitar. But while the operettist Jeannette MacDonald sang a less complex repertoire, she left the musical world a poignant circumstance long to be pondered, dying on a stage in Detroit on January 24, 1965, as she was singing her signature song “Ciribiribin.” In a different milieu, in 1230, Walther von der Vogelweide, the Rudy Vallee of Swabia, sang his last song as a five-year-old Thomas Aquinas was entering Monte Cassino.

Surpassing odd is the extraordinary length of Donald J. Grout’s Short History of Opera, nearly twice the size of his whole History of Western Music. Other oddities pile up if you listen for them with a sharp enough ear and sense of timing. Chaucer’s prologue to his Canterbury Tales can be sung to the tune of “Glow Little Glow-Worm” and all the published poems of Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

I should be glad to let items like that pass. They harm none and take the butter off no man’s bread. There is a coincidence that cannot be ignored or passed off as simply odd, however, and it will palpitate until the last note is sung by the last human voice: Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, and Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples, all in 1685. Both

Handel and Scarlatti were 24 years old when they participated in a Roman musical competition presided over by Cardinal Ottoboni. Bach and Handel had the same oculist (Handel going completely blind after submitting to the man’s scalpel) and Handel and Scarlatti had weight problems, although Scarlatti’s obesity was greater to the extent that he had difficulty crossing his hands at the keyboard of a harpsichord.

The Italians have a saying, “E meglio cader dalle finistre che del tetto,” the deeper sense of which is obscure though it basically means that it is better to fall out of windows than off a roof. The phrase must be from a period after Tasso’s golden age of aphorisms. I should think that, applied to music, it could mean that it would be better to be fat or even blind than deaf.

Which reminds us: On an American brig, the “Otis,” sailing to the West Indies when Emily Dickinson was only eight years old, died Johan Nepomuk Maelzel who designed Ludwig van Beethoven’s ear trumpet. Obesity, as we have observed, poses some difficulties for musicians, and so does blindness, though the latter also can stimulate the musical sense. But deafness in a musician is high tragedy, and for a composer to lose his hearing would be like a scholar losing his mind or a bishop losing his voice.

Winding up this musical interlude is a circumstance both curious and coincidental. On the centenary of the Metropolitan Opera, October 22, 1984, an intruder crashed the gates of the Augusta National Golf Course and took seven hostages as President Reagan was teeing off. It was also the 15th anniversary of the discovery of the famous cache of virginal and lute books in Forfarshire, Scotland, the birthplace of golf.

The decline of music in our day to a new and awful corybanticism should concern us all. Consolation is rare, but if it is to be found, it will be by pressing to our nation’s savage breast the considerations above that I have brought to the attention of what one hopes is a not inattentive audience, to the end that they might become more lyrical than perplexed.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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