Genetic Note:
Not So Simple
17 October 2018

¶ At dinner a weekend or so ago, a friend persuaded me to give 23andme a try. She thought it would be interesting to find out how Irish I am.

Needless to say, I couldn’t care less about that — except that I’d be thrilled to discover that I’m a hundred percent Nederlands, which I rather doubt. Sometimes just plain Danish would do. Anything to be Continental. But Irish is the most likely story. According to one of the few shreds of paper that I have from the Foundling Hospital, my birth mother claimed that her father was a US Navy captain, posted mostly in Central America — which led to her incarceration in some Catholic girls’ boarding school in “the South.” (What a thought, really! It makes me work hard to imagine the other three grandparents!) She also claimed that my birth father told her (in a tender moment?) that he was a divorcé from San Francisco who had already sired three children. When I consider how strongly my daughter (in every way possible for someone of the opposite sex) and my grandson (in his wits and height) resemble or at least remind me of me, it’s very hard to work backward and imagine all these people. It comes, I think, from being the product of typical Boomer irresponsibility — committed, though, by an earlier generation. What did Boomers look like before there were Boomers?

So I signed up. I signed up for the cheaper version. I won’t learn anything about likely diseases, which is just as well given the ones I’ve already got. This ought, I think, to have spared me a lengthy and rather tiresome questionnaire about my medical history. Nobody warned me about this. I had to try to remember when I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, along with nearly a million other tediosities. The questionnaire is surely geared to younger, healthier clients, who can breeze right through it. 

I admitted to having smoked a hundred cigarettes in my lifetime. (I didn’t have to say that that was well under my weekly habit for twenty years.) They didn’t ask me how long it has been since my last drag, but I can tell you: 35 years. 

Then came the spitting. There must be something I don’t know. It took at least fifteen spits to reach the “Fill to Here” level — grueling work. If I had done it in the morning, and coughed up a blob of phlegm, it might have been easier. But there were no instructions or guidelines about any of this, and I felt, throughout, that I was botching the whole thing. 

The final conundrum was how to mail the packet back to the lab. The Post Office has gotten rather shirty about depositing packages in the mailbox, so I went to the local branch, where I was told that I could have I could have dropped it in the mailbox right outside the coffee shop across the street, but, as long as I was there, I would be given a receipt. So now I just wait. 

I omit the glitchy details of setting up a password for my 23andme account.

When the results tell me that I’m as Irish as a leprechaun, I won’t be unhappy. I used to be somewhat ashamed of my alleged lineage, but now I know that the Irish write the best English, or at least set the standard. Just my luck that so few people actually speak English anymore. 

Reading Note:
16 October 2018

¶ Farewell to Matthew Josephson, the final chapter of whose Robber Barons I found immensely exciting, even though I’d read about the events recounted therein at least twice before. Josephson doesn’t admire any of the plutocrats he writes about, certainly not JP Morgan, who imposed law and order on the chaos of development that followed the Civil War, but at the cost of healthy competition, exposing the economy to the follies that led to the Crash. Nevertheless the reader will probably root for Morgan during the final battle for control of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

I’ve already written about Josephson’s sparkling prose. All I want to do here is to add another example. Josephson is writing about the speech that Charles Schwab gave at a large dinner party in December 1900. (It precipitated the organization of US Steel.) 

A born actor, an emotional and imaginative after-dinner speaker, using a plain, hearty, workaday charm with real disingenuousness, Schwab played his part to perfection. (424)

Real Estate Note:
15 October 2018

When I read the Real Estate section in the Sunday Times, I focus on the ads, hoping to find a house in Bronxville that I happen to remember. Most I don’t. But I had barely taken a glance at a page featuring properties available through realtors William Pitt/Julia B Fee/Sotheby’s International when I spotted a very familiar façade.

Of course, when I last saw it, it was a dump, at least on the outside. That was probably in the winter of 1967-8, soon before the owner of the house, my father’s brother, took a new job in New Hampshire, and my own family moved to Houston. There was no swimming pool, needless to say. I think that there was some sort of reflection pond, but one was discouraged from closer examination by the parlous state of the steps. There was no landscaping to speak of, no gay awnings, no holiday tables. 

It’s on the market for $6,495,000. If you think that’s a lot of money, let me tell you that it’s on page seventeen of the Web site — the immediately preceding page has a whole bunches of houses priced at $6.5 million. But it’s certainly a very great deal more than my uncle paid for it back in the sixties. I think that he bought it, in slightly derelict condition, from the heirs of the people who commissioned David Adler to build it. In those days, there was hardly any market for houses like this. My father thought my uncle was nuts — also needless to say. My aunt and uncle, envisioning long years of DIY improvements, called it Millstone. But they lived there for only a few years. 

Of course, it was the grandest thing I’d ever seen, and the first time I visited, I wanted to move in. If my parents died in a plane crash, then this would be home. I adored my aunt and uncle, and when they died (not together), I had to work through a lot more unexamined grief than the deaths of my parents had caused. It was not very pleasant to see how needy my affection was, and how wilfully I inflicted myself upon them. I can make excuses, but that’s all they are; it’s not very pretty. But the house certainly is, wouldn’t you say? 

Closet Note:
Linens &c
12 October 2018

¶ The only way to deal with closets, drawers, and other spaces that can be closed to view is to empty them every now and then. Without the gift of OCD, “every now and then” is never going to come close to “often enough,” but we do what we can, or at least what we do. Today, I emptied the linen closet, for the first time since we moved in, nearly four years ago. Actually, Ray Soleil did all the work. He took everything out and put almost all of it back. 

Who knew what was in it? In the event, there weren’t any surprises, except, possibly, a sheaf of knitting pamphlets that Kathleen may have been looking for — what with a full weekend and most of next week in Dallas, she won’t get to it right away. A few odds and ends could be thrown away, while a box of unused Christmas cards and an upholstered portfolio seemed not to belong in the closet at all.

Everything pertaining to the air mattress (except the thing itself) was stowed more or less as it had been, on the top shelf, and the bottom shelf needed only a bit of straightening up. It was the disorder on the second shelf from the top that prompted the airing. Sheets and towels were in ever more extravagant disarray. But when Ray refolded the towels, everything fit very neatly where just yesterday there was chaos. 

As for the other two shelves, the only point of interest is that there is empty space on both of them. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t expect it to last very long. 

Medical Note:
11 October 2018

¶ This is the examination that I dread.

First of all, it’s very uncomfortable. I have to stretch out on my left side, which I never do in nature, and support my head with my left arm — a Buddha in agony. Then there’s the sonogram part. It’s all very nice to check out fetuses: there are no bones in the way. The heart is in a birdcage, playing peekaboo. The device in the doctor’s hand must be pressed hard; it sort of hurts. And all that goo, which takes about a dozen paper towels to scrape off. 

Second, I can’t bear to watch. It’s revoltingly obvious that natural selection has played no role in the appearance of internal organs. And even though mine is very slightly enlarged, the heart is really very small. Surely this can’t be right. 

Finally, there’s the possibility of terrifying news! I get so worked up about this beforehand that I’m almost disappointed when there turns out to be no news at all, when everything is more or less the same as it was last year, only slightly more worn and torn. That was again the case this time. My aortal valve is slightly blocked (not opening all the way, I think), but I was assured that there is nothing to be done about this for several years at least, by which time “the procedure” will probably be performed via catheter, not open-heart surgery. 

I take the doctor’s word for it. I do not come home and Google things. My faith in my doctors is very firm, and they cost the earth besides. I also understand that they can’t do everything, even today! So, as long as my heart keeps me alive, I won’t be thinking about it (I pray) until next year.

As a young man, I often wondered if I would live to see the new century. I have every reason to believe that, without the attentions of modern medicine, I’d have missed it. 

Library Note:
Two Down
10 October 2018

¶ Books about English history, Medieval history, and General history (including a few books about history) have been shelved in the history bookcase. Their locations have been recorded in Evernote. There is a little bit of wiggle room on each shelf. 

I have filled the rear of a third shelf with European history books. I have to pull them out again, to take note. Then I’ll do the same with the other half of the European history books, and line them up in the front.

French and American history books will go together on the next shelf down, and then histories of areas outside the West will take the bottom shelf.

Meanwhile, I am still reading Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons, and it is still striking the note of plus ça change… There seems to be an instinctive rapaciousness in large-scale American innovation. And why not? The American marketplace is obviously too large. There’s little to distinguish the arrogance of Rockefeller from that of Zuckerberg, except that where the former simply denied it, the latter apologizes. But nothing changes. 

Reading Note:
The New Sally Rooney
9 October 2018

¶ Just a small note of rave for Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I read a review somewhere that suggested that Rooney wrote Normal People first, before the novel that she published last year, Conversations With Friends. Maybe she did, but although I was very intrigued by young woman at the center of Conversations, I was nowhere near as moved by that book as I was by Normal People. 

Connell and Marianne are not normal people. They are both very bright, and both very complicated. They fall into a deep friendship in the last years of high school, but their friendship is a secret, because Connell’s complications are secret — he passes as a jock — while Marianne’s complications are baroque and austere at the same time. He’s a popular guy; she has no friends at all. If it were known that they were lovers, Connell would not know how to navigate the publicity. You know how high school is.

Then they both go to Trinity in Dublin, where they excel. They are lovers, as we say, but they are not quite in love. They miss too many connections; mutual misunderstandings pile up. They are saddled with low self-esteem, a problem that neither seems able to help the other with. This inability to form a stable relationship, to settle either in love or in friendship gives Normal People more than a strain of Romeo and Juliet: you worry that something terrible is going to happen accidentally. 

At one harrowing moment, Connell is flooded by a sense of how easy it would be to hit Marianne, to hurt her. He is so mortified by this vision that he slinks away as soon as he can, without having done anything but clam up. Only later do we see that Marianne has a taste for submission; retrospectively, we wonder, was she surreptitiously inviting Connell to gratify her itch?

When I put Normal People down, the idea that two people could fall in love and live happily ever after freakish, not human somehow. But I was sorry to reach the end. Normal People is a great love story. 

New Recipe Note:
Poulet à la crème
8 October 2018

¶ Why haven’t I known of this dish for years? In fact, I never heard about it until it was mentioned in a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Then I looked it up in Mrs David. As I recall, she wasn’t very keen on it — too creamy and drab. I ought to have borne that in mind. Instead, I downloaded a recipe in French. I learned three things from the recipe. Revenir means, among other things, “to brown.” A boîte of mushrooms is a tin of cooked mushrooms. And don’t use this recipe again. Way too creamy and drab. 

My second mistake was to try to sauté eight pieces of chicken in one batch. Inevitably (but I hadn’t sautéed chicken in a while), the pieces stuck to the pan and the skin tore off. So the dish was deprived of the revenu — the chicken wasn’t really browned. The third mistake was to cook a package of pre-sliced button mushrooms. The mushrooms were slightly tired-looking when I bought them, to be honest. And then there was the crème fraîche. Cream or even sour cream would have had more flavor. 

Next time, I’ll sauté the chicken in my twelve-inch nonstick skillet. I’ll choose better mushrooms, and substitute shallots for the onion. As for the cream, how about stirring in some grated pepper jack? 

Shopping Note:
Yes To Tom
5 October 2018

Although I felt really pretty awful, there was one thing that I had to do today, and that was to shop at Agata & Valentina for tomorrow night’s dinner — a dinner for friends that has been put off again and again since July. So, without letting myself get involved in anything else, I got dressed and ran the errand, taking taxis both ways. Boom boom. 

It was so odd to have done this — to have gotten the shopping done first thing, instead of creatively procrastinating — that, all afternoon, after I had unpacked the bags (and tidied up the fridge a bit in the process), it seemed that I had gone to A & V yesterday, not today. Either that or, disconcertingly, that I still had to go.

Reading Note:
Operatic Understatement
4 October 2018

The Robber Barons, by Matthew Josephson, was already an old book — first published in 1934 — when I was in school, and that was one strike against it. Worse, it threatened to be a tedious screed about the rapaciousness of Gilded Age millionaires. I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to Gilded Age millionaires, but I believed that retrospective scoldings were not going to amount to much, unless, in the alternative, they had amounted to a lot, as witness the extinction (so we thought) of Gilded Age millionaires. But as it was a book that everybody was supposed to have read, I kept a copy on hand, in case of need. 

That’s no longer reason enough for a book to take up space in my library. The speculative criterion — “this may come in handy” — has itself been sent to the scaffold. Along with one or two other books, I brought The Robber Barons to my reading chair, and opened it in the middle, with “The Fight For Erie.” Just a few pages in: 

“Buy Erie,” Vanderbilt ordered his brokers. “Buy it at the lowest figure you can, but buy it!” His holdings increased visibly, and knowing nothing of the secret acquisitions of the Erie ring he assumed that the market would soon be bare of offerings. He possessed more shares than were known to exist. Erie’s stock climbed to 95. The shorts, he told himself gloatingly, would be soon trapped as in the famous Harlem corner. But suddenly a wave of crisp, newly printed Erie shares struck Wall Street, 50,000 of them, and smashed the market, so that the price broke to 50 a share, and Vanderbilt in the calamitous process was loser by some millions of dollars to the party headed by Daniel Drew. 

The rage and mortification of the Commodore now passed all bounds. (123)

It isn’t funny, exactly, but it is very tasty. “He possessed more shares than were known to exist” — that’s what I mean by operatic understatement. Then, that “wave of crisp, newly printed Erie shares.” Finally, “rage and mortification,” words plucked from Il Trovatore surely, only actually better, given the circumstances, in English. I sense the acute penmanship of W S Gilbert on every page.

I chose the extract for brevity; most of the book’s delights would require rather more copying. There’s a wonderfully ironic bit on the “probity” of the young Pierpont Morgan that runs from page 59 to 60. You have to read every word, and there are plenty of them, but what might have been dull outrage is too well-seasoned by giggles and snorts. 

Eventually, of course, I had to go back and start at the beginning, to find out what “the Harlem corner” was. (I had been under the impression that trying to corner the market in something never works. Not so!) Now, the point of opening The Robber Barons was simply to determine if the writing was any good. If it was, I was supposed to put the book down and look at the next one. But no, here I am reading the whole thing as if I had nothing else to do. 

Rep Note:
Ham Steak Rev’d
3 October 2018

¶ Last night, I took a different approach to supermarket ham steak. This time, I borrowed some of the ingredients from a recipe that I first noticed in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. I mixed small quantities of cream, mustard, and tomato paste, and poured them onto the ham after it had sizzled in butter for four minutes (two on a side). With only a bit of stirring, the sauce reduced to almost nothing immediately. The result was really quite delicious.

The ingredient that I didn’t borrow was mushrooms. I wasn’t in the mood. Child’s recipe, “Ham Steak Surmain,” is an adaptation of a recipe for cooking a whole ham that she took from chef André Surmain. I tried the whole-ham recipe once, but found it less interesting than the sautéed steak, probably because there were none of those savory brown bits that not only improve the flavor of any meat dish but that also marry the sauce to what it’s blanketing.

I also had another go at roast sweet potato, this time coating the chunks with a mixture of a few tablespoons of oil and rather more maple syrup, combined with rosemary and the usual seasonings. (Kathleen had reminded me at an earlier dinner of the maple syrup that I used to use.)  Much improvement! Not perfect, though. Some chunks developed somewhat rubbery skins. I think that I need to try a hotter oven.

Library Note:
Under Attack
2 October 2018

¶ The history books have launched their attack. They’re all shouting, “Read me — and then get rid of me, if you dare!”

Some books go straight to the discard pile. Garrett Mattingly’s book about Catherine of Aragon, for instance. All it took was a sentence that began, “Catherine must have rejoiced at this evidence of her husband’s orthodoxy” — or words to that effect; but the “rejoiced” is a quote. Must have rejoiced. You can’t say that sort of thing in a genuinely historical biography. Of course, when writing about aristocratic women who lived centuries ago, it’s sometimes the only thing that you can say, since great ladies considered candor indecorous, and had most of their writing done for them.

What’s giving me a bit of trouble now is a collection of David Cannadine’s book reviews, published in the Nineties, entitled History in Our Time. There’s a lot of very dated stuff about Charles, Diana, & Co that’s sort of priceless, really, because in the intervening twenty years it has become so hard to regard Camilla as infréquentable or to imagine a world without Kate and her lovely children. (Kate is so much prettier than Diana, really.) Aside from that fluff, which is all considered in the long term of the Hanoverian monarchy’s durability, there’s a lot of information about mid-century figures such as Harold Macmillan and Oswald Mosely, all framed in beautifully-structured essays that are written in a donnishly stylish prose. (The review of a biography of the Duke of Windsor begins with a paragraph that could describe his career but is actually a sketch of Bonnie Prince Charlie.) It’s the highest and most useful form of journalism, and I can’t put it down. I suppose that I’ll keep it, but I feel that I ought to give it away.

While I labor to make such decisions, books totter on a TV table, the shelves are in disarray, and the book cart is parked out in the foyer. (Its bookroom parking space in directly in front of the history bookcase.)

We’re having old friends to dinner on Saturday. (Poulet à la crème, I think.) If the cart is still in the foyer, so be it.

Greybeard Note:
Not For Prophet
1 October 2018

¶ The other night at dinner, a woman in her thirties, a successful, self-employed professional, undertook to persuade me that there are some very good shows on the premium networks these days. My heart began to sink, and it kept on sinking long after the evening was over. In a way, my heart simply drowned. I can no longer undertake to persuade such intelligent people that, no matter how many excellent qualities a given show might exhibit, it is still passive visual entertainment that mirrors its audiences’ interests and provides everyone who watches it at the appointed time with something to talk about at work the next day, and that it is therefore a waste of time. If two or three thoughtful people can’t quickly reach their own interesting topic of conversation within five minutes, one that involves neither sports nor traffic-and-weather nor what happened on the latest episode of Game of Shows, then you end up with a reality TV star in the White House. 

Game of Thrones is proof that the frogs has been loitering in the hot water too long. Everything that I hear about this execrable show* leaves me amazed that anyone would admit to watching it, but people are positively enthusiastic about watching Game of Thrones. Kathleen’s colleagues spend five or ten minutes on the morning after catching up on the plot twists. 

I’m too old to take up the mantle of a Biblical prophet — repent, O Israel! Besides, the damage is done. It’s up to future generations, born amidst the wreckage wrought by television, to do what must be done. If there is still a world to fix. 

I read in the Times that President Trump said that Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was “compelling” — and that he said the same of his Supreme Court nominee’s. Good TV all round, wouldn’t you say?

So I’m taking a break from the other blog. Who knows for how long.

*On the depravity of the books behind the show, see Peter Hitchens at First Things.  

September 2018

Sobbing Note:
Playlist &c III
28 September 2018

Remember my complaint about Carnival of the Animals? In the rebuilt playlist, its slot is taken by Britten’s Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, also known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Listening to it reduced me to sobs. 

Well, I was reading Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. It’s a  superb book, and I look forward to reading it again. (For the moment, I’m reading the novel that, according to the author, inspired it, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices.) My only complain is that it was too quick and easy a read. Totally engaging and satisfying — excellent writing and all that — but too soon finished and done. I found myself hoping, foolishly no doubt, that Atkinson will write a second Juliet Armstrong book, about her thirty years in Italy. You know how it is: all we readers really want is more. But the novel left more than a whiff of Darkest Hour stoicism &c. 

The thing about playlists — well, one thing, among many — is that, unless I’ve listened to a playlist too many times, the music takes me by surprise, as if I were listening to the radio, which is of course exactly the effect I aim at when I compile them, with the important difference that music that I don’t like never comes up. So the Purcell Variations were an unexpected treat. Serious music intended for children always makes me damp with nostalgia for a childhood that I didn’t have (or maybe did, sometimes). Britten’s essay in the genre is one of the finest: assertively unromantic, usually suggesting a spectacle that it would delight a child to see. (The trumpets, in their variation, are greyhounds, racing in a circle.) At the end, Britten pulls off being monumental without a tinge of the bathetic: from the busy flights of tootling winds and cackling strings emerges, like HMS Victory out of a mist, Purcell’s simple but stately tune. It capture everything that is fine and grand about England, or at least presents the illusion of doing so.

The sudden thought of Brexit, which ought to have shut the tap, did no such thing. This England? 

Medical Note:
27 September 2018

My bad. Last month, I dilly-dallied about making an appointment for the next Remicade infusion. I continued to dilly-dally into this month, even until the week when I ought to have had it. By then, there were no openings in the schedule until the end of September, which is now. Nearly three weeks late; to put it another way, not much less than half the recommended time between doses. Years ago, I could go for thirteen weeks between infusions, but those days are over.

For the past week and more, I have been feeling tired and unwell. My colon has been increasingly unruly. My hips and quads ached on the smallest errands, and my shoulders ached for no reason at all. How much of that was heart disease; how much of it was fallapart, or some as-yet undiagnosed malady; and how much was attributable to the depletion of Remicade? I’ve been taking Remicade for more than fourteen years — a very long run. That it should still be effective at all is somewhat miraculous. The silver lining of an overdue Remicade infusion is the opportunity to see how well the drug deals with any of these wearying issues.

The infusion was scheduled for tomorrow, but the Infusion Unit called this morning to ask if I could come in today. They had had an unusual number of cancellations, whereas tomorrow’s schedule was packed. Much as I was looking forward to a day of staying home, I liked even better the idea of staying home tomorrow, with the infusion behind me. I even showed up a half-hour sooner than I said I would, and they took me right away. That was at about 2:45. By 5:15, I was walking up 71st Street to get a taxi; it was one of the quickest procedures ever.

Now we’ll see.

Library Note:
Six Inches
26 September 2018

It’s uphill work, but I’m trying to convince myself that progress was made this afternoon, when I shelved some books for the first time since acquiring the new library cart. By “shelving,” I mean taking note of where books already are, and, if possible, making room for a few new ones. This is important work, if I’m to know what books are hidden behind the row that shows, without pulling them all out.

Last week, I pulled out most of the books on the top shelves of the history bookcase in search of something to read. (I’m going through a difficult patch.) It was only today that I got round to putting them back, and noting the locations in handy Evernote tables.

And only when I was done did I see that I had done the very same work a year and a half ago. I could have used the tables that I created at that time to tell me how to replace the books I’d pulled down, and got on with the real work, which is dealing with the big thick books on the lower shelves and making room for the tall stack of history books on the cart. By the time I was through with the top shelves, though — having organized them rather differently and, I like to think, better — I hadn’t the energy to forge on. 

There was some genuine evidence of progress: a six-inch pile of books to discard. But still.

Video Note:
25 September 2018

¶ In bed with the vapors, I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. The way everyone speaks of this extraordinary movie, it ought to be called Isabelle Huppert’s Elle. She seems to be in charge of everything, even when she’s gasping on the floor after a sexual assault. 

I rented the video on Thursday; it was due back Sunday. I could have used my September coupon and, for the first time, used up the entire annual booklet. But I couldn’t manage to see the film when Kathleen wasn’t around. Ordinarily, she’s impervious to movies she’s not watching, but I sensed that there would be some screaming and grunting, hard not to hear, and boy, was I right. So, here I was, too days late. 

After the astonishingly satisfying surprise ending, I thought, That’s that. But a few hours later, I was still haunted — not by the gruesome scenes, but by Huppert’s unflinching imperturbability. Her character ought to come across as the monster that she is, but Huppert presents us with a very complicated, wryly charming bonne bourgeoise. Will I rent this video again — or will I buy it? Maybe I ought to watch 8 Femmes again first. 

Menu Note:
Simple Dinner?
24 September 2018

¶ One of the worst mistakes that I make in the kitchen is to think that I’m making a simple dinner. Because, too often, “simple” is a dog whistle that summons mindlessness.

Over the weekend, we had another couple to dinner, and the menu was determined by my wish to serve the same meal that I used to feed to the young man (no longer quite so young). Rib steak, asparagus with hollandaise, and roast sweet potatoes. None of these is difficult for me to make, not even the hollandaise, but they still had to be prepared in the correct order, and that’s where I screwed up. Except with the potatoes. The potatoes were a bust because I forgot to blend maple syrup into the oil and rosemary mixture with which I used to coat the potatoes. Kathleen reminded me of that at the table.

Mindlessly, I cooked the last-minute things, the asparagus and the hollandaise, a little ahead of time, to get them out of the way. Pretty dumb. I ought to have waited until the thick rib steak came out of the oven, and worked on the vegetable and its sauce while the meat set. (Although I broil it, the rib steak is very much a roast.) Since I didn’t do this, the asparagus went cold at the table, and the hollandaise lost its fresh punch. I had a hard time eating any of it.

Happily, my guests tucked it all away. Aside from mine, clean plates all round.

Dessert? Let’s not. I’m tired of this story already. 

Music Note:
Rebuilding a Playlist II
21 September 2018

Perhaps I’ll rebuild the Liebeslieder playlist again. I completed the second version, or variation, shortly after writing about it (10 September), but dissatisfaction with my library led me to order a few CDs, among them a second choral version of the Brahms, this one performed by the Chamber Choir of Europe. I prefer hearing a chorus sing this music, instead of the understandably more common four soloists. There aren’t many choral recordings out there, and although I’d never heard of the Chamber Choir of Europe, I’ve bought enough CDs on the Berlin label to be assured that they would sing it very well — and they do. Even more striking is the accompaniment, by pianists Friederike Haug and Jürgen Meier. Haug and Meier play as if they weren’t accompanying anybody, which is how it ought to be done. The polish isn’t quite as suave as that of Robert Shaw’s recording, which is good, too. It’s somewhat more German, if you know what I mean.

Listening to it with something like rapture, I was nonetheless reminded — because modern life teaches us to take note of the thorns — of Brahms’s not very successful and conceptually quite unpleasant Triumphlied, written to celebrate the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war. And that brought up, for a moment or two, the awful question of how a culture so committed to beauty could have done such terrible things — death camps and so forth. And even thought that they were right. The question is easily enough answered: people are capable of anything when they’re worried about infection (whether or not they have any good reason to be). But it’s still an awful question. I have a recording of the Triumphlied somewhere; I don’t know how the performers got through it. Musically, it’s on a par with Wagner’s American Centennial March — dreckulacious — but its sentiment stinks. 

Sometimes, these days, I feel as though I belong to the last cohort of listeners to enjoy the music of Brahms. Of course I hope I’m wrong. But I know that the authority that this music used to possess — one ought to like it — has evaporated. Someone said to me the other day, about classical music, “I wish I had the knowledge,” as though you have to know about the music before you can enjoy it. While it’s true that knowledge, accrued gently over time, can greatly enhance the pleasure of music, it can never engender it. I fell in love with the Liebeslieder because two of the songs were used in the opening credits of The Group (great product placement), and they thrilled me to my bones. Einem, einem, zu gefallen… I was certainly gefällt. Knowledge had nothing to do with it; I had to ask around to find out where the music came from. 

I remember finally getting Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. I knew it, but I didn’t like it, until I heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, led by Kurt Masur, play it in Houston. Suddenly it was the most beautiful music in the world. Just like that.