Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Other 1809 birthday boys needed more days than Mendelssohn got

 
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On Sunday,  I heard a great performance of the Mendelssohn F minor string quartet in a concert in Palm Beach by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and besides the musical excellence of what I heard, I also thought about the two other 200th-birthday boys: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Mendelssohn’s last string quartet was written in the summer of 1847, three months after the death of his sister Fanny and four months before he died after a series of strokes. The Mendelssohns had a history of fatal strokes in the family, and it’s likely Felix, Fanny (as well as their father, Abraham, and grandfather, Moses) died of what was an inherited condition.

The quartet is a great piece, and I remember on hearing the six mature quartets of Mendelssohn how astonished I was at how good these pieces are. I’m happy to be hearing them more often this year, but this last one is particularly remarkable, and it’s worth thinking about where that might have led him had he lived past 38.

I mentioned this idea in an earlier post when I talked about Lincoln, but after the concert I started thinking about the same question from the vantage point of Mendelssohn: What were Lincoln and Darwin doing at this point? Lincoln and Darwin were both born on Feb. 12, 1809; Mendelssohn was born nine days earlier.

If Lincoln and Darwin had the exact same lifespan as Mendelssohn, they would have died in mid-November of 1847, and their legacies would have been profoundly different.

Lincoln was in Washington, waiting to take his seat in the 30th Congress, which assembled in December 1847 for its first session. The former four-term state legislator had been elected on the Whig ticket, and remained a loyal party man during his sole Congressional term, working hard in 1848 to get out the vote for Zachary Taylor. 

But in November 1847, he was living in a Washington boarding house with his family and other Congressmen-elect, and had made only a limited impact on the national stage.  Only historians would have heard of him had he departed the scene when Mendelssohn did.

Charles Darwin was living in Kent, in the house he had moved to a few years earlier., and was working on barnacles, the study of which helped buttress the opinions he had laid out in an 1844 sketch for a paper that would form the basis on which he would build On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

 Darwin had written a note to his wife in 1844, essentially staking the claim for the species theory, and instructing her to get it published if he were to die. But he was not ready to publish, and it took him the barnacles study plus a painstaking review of his work aboard the HMS Beagle, not to mention pressure from the work of Alfred Wallace, who had independently arrived at the same conclusion.

Had he died in November 1847, certainly historians of science would have given him credit for the 1844 paper as well as his Beagle memoir, and he would be recognized as an early proponent of a theory that perhaps would now be associated with Alfred Wallace instead.  But again, the world at large would not have heard of Charles Darwin.

As it happened, the world is familiar with the work of all three men, and for me, it says something about the essential unpredictability of life and the part that luck plays in it. And it also says that while Mendelssohn’s life was far too short, he was in those 38 years granted to him to leave a large body of great work that secured his posthumous legacy.

It is certainly easier with an art like music to make a strong impression early in life and leave something of your time on the earth for future generations; the history of music is full of short lives that contained tremendous accomplishments. But it’s often been noted that even someone like Mozart, who lived an even shorter life (only 35 years), was a late bloomer artistically, and what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven (56 years, which would have meant Mozart dying in 1812) remains a tantalizing what-if that music lovers like me can’t resist speculating about.

The most important thing to do is celebrate the life and music of Mendelssohn as it was and is, and appreciate a masterpiece like the F minor quartet without asking for more. Still, it’s worth remarking that had Mendlessohn lived as long as Darwin, he would have died in April 1882 — just a couple months before the birth of Igor Stravinsky.

Reviews: Here are some other recent reviews (all positive, as it turns out) I’ve done of violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the Mozart Piano Quartet and the Palm Beach Symphony. The season’s in full swing here, and it’s only going to get busier next month.

Gottschalk, Lincoln and history

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Concert at Washington. The President of the United States and his lady are to be there. I have reserved seats for them in the first row. The Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, accompanies them. Mrs. Lincoln has a very ordinary countenance. Lincoln is remarkably ugly, but has an intelligent air, and his eyes have a remarkable expression of goodness and mildness. After an encore I played my fantasia, The Union, in the midst of great enthusiasm.

Thus Louis Moreau Gottschalk, writing on March 24, 1864. The country’s first real crossover composer, the New Orleans-born Gottschalk was a fervent Union man. He was on a boat off Mexico and heading for California when he heard of the assassination in April 1865 from a steamer captain who came on board to tell Gottschalk and his fellow travelers not only that the Civil War had ended, but that the president had been killed:

We do not know the details of the horrible outrage — the name only of the assassin is mentioned — Wilkes Booth. I remember having seen him play a year ago in Cleveland. I was struck at the time with the beauty of his features, and at the same time by  a sinister expression of his countenance. I would even say that he had something deadly in his look. A literary lady among my friends who knew him told me that he had as much natural talent for the stage as his brother Edwin, but that his violent and fantastic character would not permit him to polish the natural brutality of his manners any more than to restrain the fury of his acting within the ordained limits of his art.

The next day, the ship’s passengers gathered to remember the fallen president by voting on resolutions that then were presided over by a Supreme Court justice who apparently happened to be on board (Stephen Field, 1816-1899):

Where now are those frivolous judgments on the man whom we are weeping for today? His ugliness, his awkwardness, his jokes, with which we reproached him: all have disappeared in presence of the majesty of death. His greatness, his honesty, the purity of that great heart which beats no longer, rise up today, and in their resplendent radiancy transfigure him whom we called the “common rail-splitter.” O Eternal Power of the true and beautiful! Yesterday his detractors were ridiculing his large hands without gloves, his large feet, his bluntness; today this type we found grotesque appears to us on the threshold of immortality, and we understand by the universality of our grief what future generations will see in him.

These are excerpts from Gottschalk’s valuable memoir, Notes of a Pianist, which tells us a lot about what the life of a traveling musician was like at the time. He’s also a sharp-eyed reporter, giving us good detail about the things he sees in language that’s vivid and immediate.

(A pianist named Richard Alston plays The Union in this clip I found on YouTube:)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lli2DL2oAPE&hl=en&fs=1]

It’s a voice I found myself wanting to hear today on the bicentennial day of Lincoln’s birth. He’s a hard man to really know amid all the worship that has followed him since his momentous presidency of only four years. Had he lived as long as the man who shared his exact birthday, Charles Darwin, he would have lived to 1882, and thus a few years past the ivention of the phonograph, and perhaps we would have a snippet of his voice to listen to.

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I’ve thought a lot about Lincoln over the years, and what strikes me today is that he is one of the singular examples of the single-man view of history. Had he not existed, or come to the political stage just when he did, it’s very unlikely the country would have remained intact, and it’s further likely that slavery would have lasted as long as it did in Brazil, where it hung on into the 1880s. 

In addition, there’s little question in my mind that had Lincoln not gone to Ford’s Theatre, and had he survived to carry out his apparent plan of different strategies of renewed Unionship for each of the Confederate states, I doubt Jim Crow would have taken root the way it did after the fraudulent election of 1876, which doomed African-Americans to second-class status for the next 90 years. Four days before his death, his announcement that he favored giving the vote to “very intelligent” black men and in addition those who had fought  for the Union was the thing that set off John Wilkes Booth.

And it took until 1965 for a right Lincoln proposed 100 years earlier to be guaranteed by the law. I think that shows how bold Lincoln was planning to be; if it doesn’t seem like much now, in 1865 it was a thunderbolt.

But many other people have written more eloquently about Lincoln, and I only wanted to add a word or two by bringing up Gottschalk’s memoir and by saying that Abraham Lincoln was the only real genius ever to occupy the White House, and I’m including  Thomas Jefferson when I say that. Lincoln is unique: not just a politician who was decades ahead of his time, but a writer of extraordinary power, a craftsman who belongs on the small shelf of canonical American writers. Like most of our greatest historical figures, there’s no end to the man, no end to the interest he provokes, no getting around the essential miracle of his providential arrival on the scene.

I also wanted to mention something briefly about Lincoln and music. He doesn’t appear to have been particularly musical, but he responded to the music of words. I read somewhere that he was fond of the old Irish song Oft in the Stilly Night, and we have this newspaper account of what he said the day after Appomattox:

I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular number which I will name. Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought Dixie one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he have it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.

Here’s the Federal City Brass Band from YouTube, doing The Bonnie Blue Flag, Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPFdMurkYrw&hl=en&fs=1]