Saturday

May 17, 2014

Deceiving the Gods

by Ellen Bass

The old Jews rarely admitted good fortune.
And if they did, they'd quickly add kinahora
let the evil eye not hear. What dummkopf
would think the spirits were on our side?
But even in a tropical paradise
laden with sugarcane and coconut,
something like the shtetl's wariness exists.
In Hawaii, I'm told, a fisherman
never spoke directly, lest the gods
arrive at the sea before him.
Instead he'd look to the sky,
the fast-moving clouds, and say,
I wonder if leaves are falling in the uplands!
Let us go and gather leaves
.
So, my love, today let's not talk at all.
Let's be like those couples
eating silently in restaurants,
barely a word the entire meal.
We pitied them, but now I see
they were always so much smarter than we were.

"Deceiving the Gods" by Ellen Bass from Like a Beggar. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment on this date in 1954. An eight-year-old girl named Linda Brown in Topeka, Kansas, had to travel 21 blocks every day to an all-black elementary school, even though she lived just seven blocks from another elementary school for white children. Her father, Oliver Brown, asked that his daughter be allowed to attend the nearby white school, and when the white school's principal refused, Brown sued. The court had five school segregation cases from different states on its docket, so the justices combined them under one name: Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. The Supreme Court justices decided to list Brown's case first because it originated in Kansas, and they didn't want to give the impression that segregation was purely a Southern problem.

The legal basis for segregation came from the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established that separate facilities for black and white students were constitutional as long as those separate facilities were equal. When Brown v. Board of Education first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, most of the justices were personally opposed to segregation, but only four of them openly supported overturning such a long-established precedent. The tide shifted in September of 1953 when Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died of a sudden heart attack, and President Eisenhower chose Earl Warren as the new chief justice. As governor of California, Earl Warren had overseen the internment of many Japanese Americans during World War II, and regretted it. Since the war, he had devoted himself to the cause of civil rights.

Warren's vote alone made the decision 5 to 4 in favor of overturning segregation, but Warren wanted a unanimous decision for such a controversial case. Once he had all the votes, Warren announced the decision to a crowd at the court on this day in 1954. Justice Stanley Reed, a justice from Kentucky who had been the final holdout, wept as the decision was read.

Even though the nation's highest court had weighed in, it took many more years and several more Supreme Court cases before most Southern schools were fully integrated, and de facto segregation still exists in some communities.

Beethoven's famous Kreutzer Sonata was first performed on this day in 1803 at Augarten-Halle in Vienna, Austria. Beethoven had been asked to write a sonata by George Bridgetower, a handsome and ambitious half-West Indian violin virtuoso who wished to perform the piece with the great composer. But Beethoven hated writing custom pieces, and so he put off writing it until the last minute, leaving the pianoforte copy almost entirely blank. For the finale, a resentful Beethoven simply tacked on a finale from an earlier work.

But when Beethoven and Bridgetower began to play at the 8:00 a.m. concert, both performed beautifully, and Beethoven was so impressed with Bridgetower's performance — Bridgetower improvising much of it — that he jumped up and hugged the violinist midway through the performance.

Later, however, Bridgetower and Beethoven quarreled (scholarly opinion differs on the nature of the argument — some say it was about man they both knew, some say it was about Beethoven doing such a last-minute job on the original composition) and Beethoven angrily undedicated the sonata to Bridgetower and rededicated it to Rudolph Kreutzer, a prominent Parisian violinist who had recently traveled to Vienna. It is rumored that when Kreutzer first saw the composition, he proclaimed the part written for violin too difficult to play. He is believed to have never played the sonata that now carries his name.

What became of Bridgetower after the Augarten concert is lost to history.

It's the birthday of composer Erik Satie, born in a seaport town in northern France in 1866. He's known for his simple piano pieces with exotic titles like Veritable Flabby Preludes (for a Dog) (1912). When he was accused of writing music without form, he immediately composed a series of piano duets called Three Pear-shaped Pieces (1903). Many of his scores gave unusual instructions to the performers, like "Light as an egg," "With astonishment," or "Work it out yourself." He invented what he called "furniture music," which was meant to be listened to in the background. He was a friend of Picasso and collaborated with him to create the ballet Parade (1917), which included typewriters, pistols, factory sirens, and airplane engines in its orchestra. He said, "Before writing a work, I walk around it several times accompanied by myself."

Known as "the velvet gentleman," he owned 12 identical velvet costumes, 84 identical handkerchiefs, and nearly 100 umbrellas. He walked several miles to a cabaret in Paris every evening, where he played all night before walking back with a hammer in his pocket for protection. He said: "My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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