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Last Night’s Rendezvous with Destiny

April 4, 2011

Roosevelt and Lincoln…a new piece of Australian music… the New Sydney Wind Quintet…and the Art Gallery of NSW:  an unusual assignment.

Lyle Chan, an Australian composer, wanted to produce a cento, a piece of art produced by using existing art works – in this case, letters of Abraham Lincoln, speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and poems by Stephen Vincent Benét.

Like, for example Benét’s “Election Day, 1940”, a paean to Franklin Roosevelt who was seeking an unprecedented third term as president:

      We remember, F.D.R.
      We remember the bitter faces of the apple-sellers
      And their red cracked hands,
      We remember the gray, cold wind of ‘32
      When the job stopped, and the bank stopped…

      Well, it’s quite a long while since then, and the wise
      guys may not remember.
      But we do, F.D.R.
      It’s written in our lives, in our kids, growing up with
      a chance,
      It’s written in the faces of the old folks who don’t
      have to go to the poorhouse
      And the tanned faces of the boys from the CCC,
      It’s written in the water and the earth of the
      Tennessee Valley…

    Benét also wrote a wonderful, insightful poem on the death of John Brown in which he took up the notion that the Old South – “the bygone South” – should be buried with its prophetic enemy who was hanged in 1859 after making a raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia,  with the goal of initiating a slave uprising in the South.

      Bury the South together with this man,
      Bury the bygone South,
      Bury the minstrel with the honey-mouth,
      Bury the broadsword virtues of the clan….

      Bury the whip, bury the branding-bars,
      Bury the unjust thing…

      And with these things, bury the purple dream
      Of the America we have not been,
      Bury this destiny unmanifest,
      This system broken underneath the test,
      Beside John Brown and though he knows his enemy
      is there,
      He is too full of sleep at last to care…

    Narrator Bob Carr with composer Lyle Chan and members of the New Sydney Wind Quintet

    I’m still reading Cloudsplitter, the sprawling novel by Russell Banks, which is a dramatisation of the life of John Brown. I will review it shortly.  It is one of the best historical novels about the U.S.  It clarifies Brown’s importance.  Brown and his friends staged a military attack on the South because they believed that slavery was a sign of Satan’s rule in America.  He was hanged after being captured by Robert E Lee. It was a prelude to the Civil War.  It alarmed the South and nudged them towards the decision to secede when the next bit of Northern provocation came (the election of Lincoln as president in November 1860).  Considered in another light, Brown’s terrorist strike at Southern slavery was a precursor of the military mobilisation of the North to abolish slavery.

    Even to my unmusical ears Lyle Chan’s music is fantastic.  His text, however, might need an American accent to do justice. 

  1. Richard permalink
    April 4, 2011 11:29 pm

    Lincoln was too lenient with the South

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 5, 2011 7:06 am

      He said, “I want to let the South down gently”. And shown by son Robert pictures of Lee he expressed his admiration of the fine man. With his death Reconstruction became the biggest domestic failure in US history. Given that he was killed within days of the war ending I am not persuaded you can pass judgment on how he treated them.

  2. lylechanpresident permalink
    April 5, 2011 9:49 pm

    The text needs an American accent to do it justice? But which American accent – Even sidestepping the current range of American patois, the fact that all the characters in the text, from John Brown to William Sycamore to Roosevelt to Lincoln would have had strikingly different accents makes this a moot point.

    I’ve now received a stupendous amount of feedback saying that Bob’s delivery, diction and accent were perfection for an American-themed work created entirely by avid Australian observers of that fascinating country. For my two-cents worth, I regard ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’ as a work of art where something is learned and created anew with each performance; it isn’t a documentary or movie where we’re after ‘accurate’ recreations of historical persons.

    Bob, congratulations on a triumphant debut as the narrator of a musical work 🙂 The field is now wide open to you: perhaps ‘New Morning for the World’ by Joseph Schwantner, to words of Martin Luther King Jr?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 5, 2011 10:25 pm

      I must say that FDR’s voice is my favorite of the president’s. I believe Lincoln had a high-pitched voice. What would he have sounded like ? I like upper class or patrician Us voices, like Franklin’s and Eleanor’s. ( my favorite Australian ? Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s ).

      Lyle Chan’s music invested my flat Australian tones with melody and rhythm, especially the opening FDR passage. Quite an achievement for the composer !

  3. April 6, 2011 9:44 pm

    I wish I’d been there to hear this! Will it be recorded?

  4. Bob Carr permalink
    April 11, 2011 4:31 pm

    Just speaking to Lyle now. To be recorded over the next few months, another concert in September.

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