(one operagoer's notes)
It’s a Classical Life George Bailey walked out on the bridge, miserable and alone, his mind swirling with unhappy thoughts. He was sick and tired of struggling against the forces of stupidity and backwardness. When uncle Billy, in one of his characteristic empty-headed gestures, accidentally lost his score, the one that would redeem him from undeserved obscurity, something broke in him and he ran screaming out into the streets, meandering aimlessly, meaningless sounds burbling from his lips until he wound up here, on the bridge, teetering over the edge on the verge of a long, life-crushing fall into the dark waters below. It hadn’t always been this way. Many years ago, George had started out full of hope. He had studied and played the works of the great composers and vowed to continue their great tradition as a composer, himself, but with a modern twist, just as they had assimilated the work of their predecessors yet imbued their own work with an originality derived from their very being and the times they wrote in. He was not after glory, although he would not have rejected it. But what he really wanted was to reach the heights of expressiveness, create music that could move people and enter their hearts and minds; music that affected people in the way that his great mentors affected him. In short, he wanted to compose intelligent music for intelligent people. The only flaw in George’s plan was the fact that the musical intelligence of people was not getting greater, it was getting worse. Take Mr. Preeble, the kindly manager of the town’s Five and Dime over on Main Street (next to the feed store). Preeble was a good enough listener to appreciate George’s music and enough of a critic to give George some good ideas about improving it. “That coda,” Preeble would say, “isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the sonata. You might pay a little more attention to that tempo there…it kind of whimpers out. And don’t forget our big sale this weekend…those jackets you like are almost half price.” While Preeble senior was with the program, Preeble junior was a different case. His interests ran to running around in a beaver coat and dancing the Charleston. Although he was George’s age, and had a kind of business cunning that made him successful in the dry goods field, he had no use for the kind of introspection offered by George’s music or that of any other classical composer. And then there was Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter was the richest man in the area and a holy terror. He hated the little people whose lives he made miserable at every opportunity. Crabby and hateful, he gouged his renters, foreclosed on anyone foolish enough to miss a mortgage payment and had no qualms about buying up a business, gutting it and throwing its unfortunate employees into the street. Potter’s only saving grace was his support of the Bedford Falls Symphony Orchestra, a 30 piece band that played the classics and some contemporary pieces including a number of works composed by George Bailey. Potter’s donations were large and he was listed in programs as the orchestra’s sole Gold Patron. However, on the night that George balanced precariously at the edge of the bridge, the worst night of his life, Potter had severely wounded George in a way that George did not see coming. After Uncle Billy had lost George’s new opus, George had received a phone call from the symphony board chairman asking him to hurry down to the Rotarian lodge where the board was meeting on an important matter. He hopped into his old Huppmobile (a broken down thing which was all George could afford since most of his spare funds went for his music) and headed downtown. The room where the board was in session was hot and smoky. As he strode in George could hear the words “This is an outrage” and “Never!” and as he drew closer he could see that the center of attention was Henry Potter whose pinched, nasty expression was directed at him. “Here he is,” Potter sneered, “Bradford Falls’ great composer.” A murmur of dissent swept the room. “As I’ve been telling these gentlemen, George, the time has come for a change. I’ve shelled out plenty of cash to this organization for many years…” “And don’t think we don’t appreciate it,” simpered Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, whose daughter was a First Violin. “Your generosity has…” “Oh cut the bull, Gower,” said Potter. “You and I both know your little symphony is all washed up. Who needs it? I can’t stand the music you play. No offense since I hate any kind of music pretty much. I was only donating because it made me look good to be a ‘patron of the arts’. But who cares about the arts now? Especially those German pieces you keep playing. We just kicked the butts of those Krauts. But, no, you want to play the same kind of music Hitler liked: Beethoven, Wagner…Mozart!” “What about me?” said George pugnaciously, “Am I a German too?” “Bailey…” said Potter thoughtfully, “could have been Bailstein originally. But that’s not the only reason I’m pulling out of your little tea party. I know you can’t see the writing on the wall but I can. Last night I had a Christmas vision and it shook me gentlemen, it shook me so that I can’t forget it and must act on it.” While sleeping fitfully after a meal of undercooked, black market beef Potter awoke to a horrible wailing and clanking. A terrible wraith appeared in his bed chamber, cloaked in an old fashioned costume and wrapped in chains that rattled as he lumbered toward the bed. “Ohhhh, help me,” cried the wraith. “Heeeelp me.” It was old Marley, Potter’s business partner who had passed away twenty years ago to the day. “I am the ghost of Marley,” said the wraith, rather unnecessarily. “I am doomed to walk the earth…in these terrible chains…for my sins.” Potter, who had known Marley as a good businessman and close friend was taken aback. “How can this be?” he queried. “You were always a fine banker and decent enough chum.” “To you, to you, “replied Marley,” but who was I to the rest of the world? I was a conscienceless exploiter of men, a ruiner of families, a disgusting plutocrat who cared nothing for anyone but myself.” “Piffle,” said Potter somewhat Britishly. “You donated to charities. You were on the board of the Bradford Falls Philharmonic.” “Yes, I was on that board and supported that orchestra, not because I liked that kind of music, I have a tin ear and much prefer dirty limericks to concert music, but because it was the thing for wealthy men like me…and you…to do. But in the end it meant nothing. I died and was still damned as a greedy exploiter of mankind. And now I have to wear these chains and wander about moaning like a B movie character.” Potter was quick to catch on. “So there’s no point in supporting culture, is there?” “What is culture, anyway?” Marley replied. “Kids today want to have fun. They don’t need stuff that requires thought and just drags them down into some kind of angst. All those serious Germans, what good did they do the German people – when crunch time came they all flocked to Uncle Adolph like a bunch of lemmings.” Culture is anything, thought Potter suddenly. It could be ukulele music or an electronic oscillator playing random notes or just taking some crap you found on the ground and putting it on the floor of a museum with your name on a plaque next to it. It could be the music they used to play while they danced themselves into oblivion with the Charleston prior to the Great Depression. It could be fatuous Hollywood movies with well-known actors. It could be anything at all! Of course Potter was a bit ahead of his time in thinking all this. The time had not yet come when countless intellectuals of the professorial persuasion would take up the cudgels and declare minor celebrities to be great cultural icons so they could write books about them and appear cool. So it was no wonder that George Bailey and the symphony board could hardly believe their ears when they heard Potter say: “So not one more red cent for this outdated, outmoded and even ridiculous institution. Gentlemen, I have spoken.” George sunk to his knees in despair. This was the final blow. It was bad enough to watch helplessly while Benny Goodman and his band became national celebrities whose musical exploits were touted all over the radio and whose following included most of the youth of Bedford Falls while he, George Bailey, toiled away anonymously, hoping to have a few minutes of music played by the now-defunct symphony orchestra. “Damn you to Hell, Potter,” he screamed and ran out of the lodge into the wintry night heading nowhere. As he stumbled on it seemed the entire town was taunting him. “How many records have you sold, Bailey? Even Zazu Pitts’ debut album sold more copies than all of yours put together. Even Dimitri Tiomkin, who sold his soul to Hollywood, can beat you in the market place. And, as Potter knows, the market is everything. You think we fought the Nazi’s because they were evil…that was just window dressing. We fought them because they were after our markets. Ditto the Japs. The new millennium of greed is here and the market is its supreme arbiter.” And that’s why George Bailey wound up on the bridge that Christmas eve about to jump to his doom. So now, I suppose, you are expecting to hear how an angel named Clarence comes down from Heaven and jumps in the water instead, inspiring George to jump in and save him. And when George says he wishes he never was born, Clarence, with his angelic powers, turns that into a temporary reality. You’d like to hear that, but, as Potter would say, life is hard. Instead of that stuff what happens is this: “I wish…I wish…I wish there was no classical music,” George cried. “You got it,” said Clarence and suddenly everything was transformed. George ran back to the lodge, hoping to apologize and win Potter over by explaining to him that not all composers were Germans, but the Rotary hall was empty, the floors spic and span as though no meeting had taken place that night. When he returned to his house he found everything as expected. His wife and four children crowded around hugging and kissing him. “Oh George, we were so worried,” cried his wife between hugs and kisses. “The kids are getting ready for Santa (wink, wink) and I had no idea when he might show up.” One thing was a little strange. When his oldest daughter sat down at the piano to play the carol she had practiced over and over she unexpectedly pecked out a syncopated tune from the Broadway show, “Gold Diggers of 1946”. Its sentimental melody fit in well with the Christmas mood but it was a bit startling to George. “Oh, Mary, you have no idea what happened tonight,” George began, but decided to drop it since telling his wife that an angel named Clarence had saved him from killing himself seemed like a bad move. Instead, George decided to go upstairs and see if he could find his notes for the symphony that his uncle had idiotically lost so that he might begin to reconstruct it. But, dear reader, as you have already guessed, there was nothing in his study even remotely associated with symphonic or any other classical music, nor were there any phonograph records except for some tunes from a band called Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Without saying a word to Mary or the tykes, George left by the back staircase and headed downtown where he peered into the record store to see if his recording was still displayed there. It wasn’t. He pounded on the door of the closed shop and, finally, the owner, who lived above the shop, came down. “Harv,” George cried desperately, “you’ve got to help me. Potter just dumped his support of the symphony…why am I telling you, you were there!..and now I can’t find any of my…” “Calm down, George,” crooned Harvey. “Symphony, you say? What’s that? And what do you say Potter has done now?” “Oh Harv, you’ve been imbibing too much of the Christmas sauce. You know all about Potter and as for the symphony…isn’t this your store? Aren’t most of the records in here this symphony or that? Aren’t some of them done by the Bradford Falls philharmonic? Wake up Harv, I need your help.” “Symphony?” Harvey repeated dumbly. George rushed past him into the store and grabbed some phonograph records from the bins. “Yes, symphony, symphony...like this.” But the record in his hands was not a symphony at all. He had dipped into the “B” bin assuming he would come up with Beethoven or Bach but in his hand was actually… “Basie,” corrected Harv. “The Count himself. Beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar!” And he started dancing. He had, in fact, been imbibing the Christmas sauce and he felt saucy. “There must be some mistake,” muttered George and he rummaged through that bin and then another but with no classical result. Seeing behavior like this, reader, one must wonder why it is that such plots always protect the hero against a remark he made only minutes earlier which, against all logic, he has somehow forgotten. But that’s show business, as Mr. Potter’s west coast equivalents would say with relish. As we so easily remember, Clarence had granted George’s ill-conceived wish and classical music was banished from the world. Do we need to hear more of this? Do we need to know how, with Beethoven and Bach and even Humperdinck gone, mankind missed one of the greatest, most transcendent experiences of human existence? True, there was still plenty of music available, but, contrary to the renegade professors of the cultural studies persuasion, entertaining as it all was, it didn’t hold a candle to what had been lost. And, even when Clarence rescinded the wish, in this version of the story George did not suddenly become happy and celebrate with friends and family the return of great culture because he knew that the Potters of the world would sell anything down the river if it meant revenue and the intellectual flunkies of the world would justify with pen and word until it was all gone.Roger RudensteinDecember, 2007 www.rogerrudenstein.com
Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.