Monday, October 20, 2008

The Election Heats Things Up at Stravinsky's Tavern

Another in the series of somewhat surreal stories from the collection, Stravinsky's Tavern.

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“Everybody’s talking about change but after they’re both done with us, that’s all we’ll have left in our pockets,” Beethoven muttered as Sarah the Serving-Wench brought them each another beer.

It was a windy night in late October: fall was definitely in the air. Lots of people had gathered in Stravinsky’s Tavern, including Beethoven who was sitting in one of the corner booths with his old friend, Johann Sebastian Bach, munching on peanuts and muttering about the election campaign that was heating up in the final weeks.

“Ja, it’s an odd thing, don’t you think?” Bach looked around at the crowded bar, though very few were paying attention to the TV monitor. “One wants to go back to the Good Old Days and reinvent the past while the other one wants to annihilate the world to rebuild it fresh.”

It was a slow night for sports – not much to show at the moment but the World Series was only a day or two away, now. With the election two weeks off, it was as if they were interrupting the political ads to bring you up-dates on some of the games.

They looked up and saw Mozart come in with a gaggle of young women, heading straight for the billiard room which was already fuller than usual. He waved blithely at The B’s and saw they were watching the TV. There was an ad urging people to go and vote on Election Day, extolling the patriotic pleasure one would receive after doing your civic duty, your aesthetic responsibility after pulling the lever for the composer of your choice.

He shrugged his shoulders playfully. “The Progressive Party? The Conservative Party? Who cares, as long as it’s a party, right, guys?” And with his loud obnoxious giggle, he disappeared into the crowd.

Everywhere you turned it was Brahms this, Wagner that. Even the political signs around town were becoming annoying.

It was an especially difficult decision for Bach and Beethoven, watching this campaign. They were constantly being bombarded by both candidates looking for last-minute endorsements that would signal yet another ad-blitz, more talk-show appearances and press releases.

They both agreed, though, that Wagner’s “Chief Spin-Doctor,” Karl Loewe, was behind a lot of this. He was the Erl-King personified. After he’d gotten Berlioz elected, he was intent on making sure Wagner and his futurist cronies would continue in power. Beethoven was convinced if it hadn’t been for that third-party ticket – Fine & D’Indy – no doubt Spohr would be President today. Not that Hector wasn’t a lot more entertaining.

When they had run for President and been elected the full number of terms they were allowed in each generation – just like Mozart – it wasn’t this big media extravaganza it is now.

“It’s more like a circus, today. We used to have fun with it, not so cut-throat,” Beethoven said after a long slow sip. The beer was not great but it was cold and wet. Beer was never as good as it was in the old days, either. Nothing was, especially the music.

Bach agreed. “And the money!” He adjusted his wig. “How many musicians and court house-composers could we support in our time with the kind of money they spend on these ads today! It’s disgraceful. I’m surprised Brahms” – he was well-known for being thrifty but secretly generous to his friends – “would even have anything to do with this.”

“And Wagner, spending it on something as silly as an attack ad, just because he’s behind in the polls.” Wagner was always raising money for lavish buildings and to support his luxurious life-style. He was the only composer ever to have had a whole hour on Robin Leach’s old show Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, taking the world on a private tour of his opera house and that fancy villa he built for himself in Bayreuth, all champagne wishes and caviar dreams. “How else could such a man run the country, except into the ground?”

Bach looked deep in thought, oblivious to all the noise. “Brahms has a very sound sense of structure, you know – and he can write a good fugue. I like that in a President.”

Beethoven winced. Did Old Bach think he, the Great Beethoven, couldn’t write a fugue, himself? He couldn’t write one like Bach, no, but why would you want to do that? He let it pass.

“And Wagner,” the Old Pig-tail sighed with a dismissive wave of his hand as he took another sip, “he’s just noodling around. Noodle-noodle-noodle,” his hand wafting around in the air like a bird looking for someplace to land. “My sons tried that and look where it got them...”

Again, Beethoven glared at him: “Me, that’s where it got them, you old fool...”

Brahms was especially looking for their endorsements. After all, he was the Third B and after eight years of Berlioz as President, we needed a Different B in the White House. The Past was important to him – just not the Immediate Past.

“And how’re you going to negotiate with these terrorists if you can’t show them you can write solid counterpoint?” Bach thought everybody needed to know that but in fact very few schools did more than offer today’s students an introduction to what was now considered old, out-dated and academic technology.

“There he goes again,” he thought. Beethoven was once a terrorist, as far as Bach was concerned. “We all were, when we got started, except maybe Mozart and Mendelssohn.” He wasn’t sure about Brahms: his early stuff wasn’t that well known any more so he never knew what it was that turned Schumann on so. Today, though, terrorists were everywhere, tearing down the very idea of going to concerts and writing well-composed symphonies.

Who was that French guy who had said they should burn down the opera houses? Imagine burning down an opera house! What an affront to civilization! And now he’s conducting in them. “Boulez, ja – Boulez, that was his name. And he had a long association with Wagner’s music,” he pointed out, but the Conservative’s complaint that he ‘palled around with terrorists’ was silly compared to the name no one would mention, that house-painter with the mustache who was so fond of Wagner...

“Brahms ripped off my ‘Ode to Joy’ platform in his 1st Symphony,” Beethoven complained sourly. “Hah, took him long enough to figure it out, too. But you know, I really envy Wagner’s ability to write operas...” The initial reception for his only opera was still a sore-point with him, but it’s not like that was the only opera he wanted to write.

“Ja, but don’t forget,” Bach chuckled, wagging a finger at him, “it took him almost 25 years to write the Ring, too.”

Beethoven hated it when he needled him like that – needle-needle-needle. Bach, humbug!

He shrugged his shoulders. “But that was four operas – that’s not like just one symphony! I wrote all nine of my symphonies in the time he was trying to figure out how to write his first one!” He took another swig. “Still, it IS a good one, ja...”

“Ach, there – he said it again.” And Bach took a swig himself. The ad on TV was another one where Wagner was describing himself as a maverick.

“I,” Beethoven said, pulling himself up in his chair, “am the Original Maverick! Such night-soil...”

“I’m sorry, Herr Ludwig, but I think the Original Maverick was probably the guy who introduced major and minor thirds into the musical vocabulary during the Middle Ages.”

Then there was that guy Brahms had wanted to choose as his Vice-President, the Progressive Party’s Whipping Boy, Arnold Schoenberg, but you couldn’t go across party lines like that, they said, and just pick somebody who had some affinity with you. They were afraid he would really alienate the Conservative Bass and most of the Tenors, too. Now Schoenberg was trying to paint Brahms as a closet progressive, no doubt trying to win over some liberal-minded independent voters who were dismayed by Wagner’s political writings – especially his anti-Semitism – but who liked his music.

Then Wagner started saying in a recent ad, “If you hate Modern Music, don’t blame it on me – it’s Brahms the Progressive.”

Bach was afraid it would just turn off voters all together. He knew if it were just a write-in campaign, the winner would probably be Andrew Lloyd-Webber. He looked into the beer stein and wondered if maybe there was enough left he could drown in.

The newest ads were desperately focused on Brahms’ early days, playing the piano in brothels and snidely pointing out he wasn’t married, was he? Of course, Wagner’s camp couldn’t really defend the “Sanctity of Marriage” issue, could they?

“Why is Brahms’ NOT being married more of an issue than Wagner being married to a woman he stole from her first husband when she’s the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt in the first place?” Thinking back to his own happy domestic life, Bach continued to have enormous difficulty with what he considered the degenerate 19th Century lifestyle.

Of course, the whole Clara Schumann thing was just beyond him.

Beethoven agreed. Brahms had originally thought it was time for a Woman Composer on the ticket and had suggested Clara Schumann as his running mate but then what did you do with a husband like Robert Schumann hanging around the White House?

Just then, Stravinsky came over to their table to see how they’re doing. He often liked to make small talk with his customers whether they were regulars or not.

“So, who are you guys going to vote for, as if I need to ask?” Like most people in town, Stravinsky assumed they’d both be voting for the Third B.

Bach was pretty sure he would be voting for Brahms, but Beethoven still wasn’t entirely sure. There were things he liked about both composers.

They turned their attention to the TV monitor which now had another noisy ad. Wagner had attacked Brahms because he couldn’t write an opera. So now Brahms was countering by saying “When was the last time you heard a piece of chamber music by Wagner you actually liked?”

At the end came the tag line in that high squeaky voice which always amused them: “I am Doktor Johannes Brahmsss, und I approve zis message, ja?” Brahms always pulled out his doctorate – even if it was honorary – as if that would give him any real “culture cred,” as they liked to say.

Immediately after that was a Wagner ad in which they said Brahms was out-of-touch with modern life because his music was so old-fashioned, all those academic forms like fugues and that bone-dry passacaglia in his 4th Symphony.

Bach shook his head: like that’s a bad thing?

Beethoven argued if Brahms’ going on a pub-crawl to listen to Gypsy bands with his rowdy friends wasn’t a populist touch, how did that compare to Wagner’s living in plush villas and always hanging out with the aristocracy trying to bleed them for money?

Brahms often was very generous to his friends – like Clara Schumann or Antonin Dvořák – though he didn’t talk about it much. Still, Wagner’s idea of “redistributing the wealth” only went as far as himself.

Stravinsky added with a sly wink, “and what does Wagner write about in his operas, anyway? Incest? Old dead gods and magic swords? Hah – singing dragons!? What does that have to do with modern life?”

But Bach, who had no use for opera, knew it would all come down to the stupid economy, as Berlioz had called it during his first term. When they were asked what they’d cut from their music – since obviously they’d have to cut something – Brahms and Wagner just kept playing more and more notes. Wagner talked about adding more tubas to his orchestra and Brahms wanted to write more variations, maybe another symphony.

At the last debate when moderator Leonard Bernstein asked them about their educational policies, Brahms played his “Academic Festival Overture,” but Wagner started to play the fugue from Brahms’ “Handel Variations” then say, before he’d fall asleep, “why would you teach them old out-moded stuff like that? We need to cut the crap, that’s what we need!”

When they talked about the economy, Brahms played a bit of Tristan und Isolde, then something from the first movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and said, looking right into the camera, “why would you want to vote for the same failed harmonic schemes from the last eight years?” He was constantly harping about “the bridge passages to nowhere.”

Everybody knew Berlioz’ star had dimmed considerably after his sequel, Lelio, failed. Bach said he might as well have called it The Lame Duck Symphony. Beethoven thought more like The Dead Duck.

People were looking for change. But a change to what?

Beethoven had once suggested Stravinsky would make a good candidate. He wasn’t German, for one thing – and people were always going on about “The Teutonic Plague” in the White House all these years with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and now this choice between Wagner and Brahms. They’d finally gotten a French composer in there, but then look what happened: chaos!

Unfortunately. Stravinsky turned out to be a bad candidate, always flip-flopping on the stylistic issues. People felt they’d go to a concert to hear Stravinsky but never knew what the Real Stravinsky was.

This time, Stravinsky said maybe they should’ve run someone like Erik Satie – “there’s an economical composer!” Or maybe one of the younger composers like Philip Glass or Jennifer Higdon. But people in the party rejected the idea of not nominating a Dead Composer.

When the Progressives talked about patriotism, they always played the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in the background, then when the disembodied voice would ask “What does That One have to say about ‘Country First’?” switching over to Brahms’ “Tragic” Overture. Wagner’s new slogan was “Faster and Louder!”

When it came down to his choice, he told Stravinsky, Beethoven figured he might as well flip a coin. So he reached into his pocket and pulled out a penny, tossing it high in the air. With a ping, it hit the edge of the table and bounced off, rolling across the floor. Beethoven flew into a rage.

“Wait a minute,” Stravinsky said, “is anyone writing this down?”

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I'm Dr. Dick and I approve this story.
© 2008

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