Last Night’s Rendezvous with Destiny
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
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
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
He is too full of sleep at last to care…
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.