The Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
I would like to believe it has been more the norm, across culture and time, to respect and to try to preserve human life, but we all know that that has not always been the case. Human sacrifice, in a pagan prehistory, is what Stravinsky imagines in The Rite of Spring. The music begins mournfully, and it is ominous throughout—sometimes vicious. Stravinsky requires musicians to play their instruments unnaturally—the bassoon, for example, in an extremely high (and almost impossible) register. I think Stravinsky, through his instrumentation, is making the point that murder goes against human nature: it is instinctual in us to rush to save anyone, even strangers—people sometimes lose their lives trying to save someone they have never met. Murder is a conscious choice to deny our instinctual altruism. In The Rite of Spring, the final murderous blow of the drum is unsanctifying: it is hideous to hear.
This music, and the ballet that accompanies it, caused a riot in Paris when it was first performed in 1913. Thomas Kelly, on NPR's "Performance Today: Milestones of the Millennium—Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring," states that "the pagans on-stage made pagans of the audience." Did the audience perceive in Stravinsky's music a prophecy of what loomed: a time when it would become necessary to speak such new (to them) phrases as "World War" and "death camp"?
Igor Stravinsky, born today 134 years ago, is a focal point of history: he is a man who changed things. His music defines the twentieth century. When I thought about what of his I wanted to hear again, it was at once The Rite of Spring. It is as raw and brutal as I remembered it. You do not forget it.
Here is a link to Jaap van Zweden conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (from the album Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Apollon Musagete):
In April 2000, Drew and I attended the Millennium March on Washington: a gay rights' protest that brought one million people to Washington, D.C. It was an inspiring experience. Washington rolled out the red carpet. The works of gay writers and artists were featured at all the capital's museums—Jackson Pollack and Robert Mapplethorpe at the National Gallery; Willa Cather, Herman Melville, and Gertrude Stein at the National Archives. We met interesting people from all over the country. We marched with the contingent from Utah onto the Mall, then worked our way toward the Capitol—and looked back on a sea of faces. President and Mrs. Clinton addressed the gathering: then we had the signal honor of hearing three of the living original Stonewall protesters speak. "We were nobody," one of them said, "until we fought back."
I have not wanted to write these next paragraphs. I have put them off and put them off until my self-imposed deadline is only two hours away. I finally had to ask myself if I was going to write them at all: but I think it is important that I try to say something about the Holocaust and about visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., difficult though it may be to relive horrifying images and facts of history.
Let me begin with this brief memory from childhood. When I was 10, one of the television stations in southeastern Idaho ran a week-long series on the Second World War. One night was dedicated to the Holocaust—and images from that program have haunted me all my life, particularly one of a young father trying to pick up his little girl (who looked like my little sister) and hold her before they were shot. The photograph features a German soldier with his gun pointed at the panicked father and his crying daughter moments before they are killed.
Fast forward to the Millennium March on Washington. Drew and I flew to the capital a day early so that we could attend a day-long conference at the Holocaust Museum about the gay holocaust. The things we learned there are understandably disturbing. Gay people were the group least likely to survive the death camps: the death rate for gay people (not the total number killed, but the percentage of the group killed) was the highest of all the groups the Nazis persecuted. In the camps, the various groups would help each other: but no one helped gay people. After the camps were liberated, everyone was set free but gay men, and some of them were held in prisons until the 1960s, when finally West Germany freed the handful still alive.
Each group in the camps had to wear a distinguishing symbol on their clothes at all times. For gays it was an upside-down pink triangle. That symbol of persecution has become the symbol of gay people and gay rights all around the world, something today wore proudly and with hope for the future.
When the conference finished, those of us in attendance were taken on a special tour of the Holocaust Museum, where I once again saw images that will haunt me to my grave. You begin a tour there by receiving a card with the name and story of someone who died in the Holocaust, and you carry this with you throughout the exhibits. You walk through the gates that once stood at Auschwitz. Detailed exhibits explain the worsening conditions in Germany for Jews and other groups in the 1930s. No one thought it would end the way it did. There are pictures of Kristallnacht, the burning of books, and the burning of all the synagogues: then of the death camps, and those in them dead or about to die.
At the end of the tour, you come to a wall where the names of the Just, or, "The Righteous Among the Nations," those non-Jews who tried to save Jews from extirmination, are carved into granite. It is not a large wall. One line reads: "The Entire Nation of Denmark," because of how heroically the Danes fought to save their Jewish fellow-Danes. I was inspired to see photographs of the brave Danish king, who, shortly after the Nazi occupation of his country, rode out into a public park wearing the Star of David, the symbol all Jews were required to wear; news of what he had done spread, and soon the whole country wore the Star of David. Because of that, the Nazi's could not easily or quickly single out and round up the Danish Jews—and then the remarkable story of how the Danes smuggled the Jews into fishing boats and on to safety in Sweden. For all this, the entire nation of Denmark is listed among the Just.
Here is a link to the Holocaust Museum:
We will never have adequate answer, I think, for how the Holocaust could have happened.
One of the homeless people I took in and tried to help after Drew died was a man who had spent 14 years in prison. His life was ruined by the experience. When I first met him, he was just out of yet another year in prison because he had missed one meeting with his parole officer: he was sick, tried to reschedule, and they arrested him and he had had to serve another entire year for missing one meeting.
In all those years in prison, he had become influenced by white supremacists; he had said anti-Semitic things to me, and we had quarreled about it. When he asked me to help him, I told him that I would only if he agreed to go with me to see the Anne Frank exhibit that was touring the country, and which was then at the library in downtown Salt Lake City. He agreed to this, and one Saturday morning, we went.
As we began the exhibit, he was thrilled to see pictures of the triumphant Hitler at the Eiffel Tower after the fall of France, and pictures of Hitler giving speeches to vast crowds. But as we moved through the exhibits, he grew more and more quiet. Finally, he turned to me and said: "The Jews are just people!" I don't know what he imagined them to be before then. The exhibits culminated in a movie about Anne Frank. When it finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the audience, and he cried, too. There was no more talk from him about white supremacy or about Hitler and the Nazis.
During our trip to Washington, Drew and I had not found time to visit the Corcoran. I particularly wanted to see, there, Frederick Church's Niagara. Church (1826 - 1900) is, to my mind, one of the greatest American painters. I had thrilled to see his Heart of the Andes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on a different trip, and I had studied his life and works in the years since. Drew and I were already packed and ready to check out of our hotel. The Corcoran was just five blocks away. I looked at my watch and realized that, if I ran, I would have barely enough time to see that painting and get back again to meet our taxi to the airport.
Drew was not feeling well, so he stayed behind. I ran to the museum, bought my entrance ticket, and rushed inside. A docent there met me, and I explained to her that I had time only to see the Niagara: would she please tell me how to get to it? "You have no idea how many people ask for this," she said. She hurried me through exhibit after exhibit that I wish I had had time for. Finally, we stood in front of Church's masterpiece, for too few minutes, then she helped me find my way back to the street, and she waved to me as I ran off.
I will end this post with a final image of transcendent beauty. Here is a link to the Corcoran, and to Frederick Church's Niagara:
I created "Rise Up a Seventh Time," the image above, on my computer in 2006. The image is based on Mandelbrot fractals; the title is from Proverbs 24:16 (KJV): "For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again."