XXIX. The Overture

We’re presently enjoying an entr’acte, here, a quiet stage. So, I thought I’d take this time to compose an overture.

When Thomas Jefferson served as American envoy in Paris in 1786, he encountered beautiful, Anglo-Italian artist Maria Cosway. It is said he fell in love with her the day they met. She had accompanied her husband, miniature portrait painter Richard Cosway, to Paris. The Cosways made their home in London. She was an accomplished painter, composer, musician and society hostess. She and Jefferson took long walks together, toured the sights, and engaged in brilliant conversation. After she returned to London, he wrote, on October 12, 1786, his well-known 4,000-word letter to her, “Dialog Between My Head and My Heart,” marking the beginning of a lifelong correspondence between them until his death in 1826. In his concluding paragraph, he writes, “As to myself my health is good, except my wrist which mends slowly, and my mind which mends not at all, but broods constantly on your departure.”

This is the most beautiful love letter. I can well relate to Jefferson’s feelings, to where I could write a love letter on the same thought. On the other hand, if I could write as well as Jefferson, they would have asked me to write the Declaration of Independence. Anyway, I wasn’t available at the time (unless there in an earlier version of life).

Jefferson wrote his letter with his left hand. He dislocated his right wrist in September of that year apparently when he attempted to jump a fence in the Cours-la-Reine. His injury cut short his sightseeing with Maria Cosway, for he was forced to remain housebound for a month. The two surgeons who attended him did not set his bones well, thus he suffered wrist pains for the rest of his life.

Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway saw each other occasionally again in the autumn of 1787 when she was visiting Paris. She broke their final appointment on the morning of her departure, so they had no final farewell. Their romance lasted more than three years, recorded in their private billets-doux.

Back in his beloved Monticello, Thomas Jefferson had his library. Just think, though, that in his love for books, he had no access to the great literature of the 19th century. He loved music and played the violin until he injured his wrist. He couldn’t visit an online music library and download a song, but, in Paris, could attend the Academie Royale de Musique and listen to a Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice Overture. Yet he could not watch a performance of the magic-fingered “rock star” of his time, Niccolò Paganini, still a child. And, I can’t imagine living without the music of Chopin. He could not attend a performance at the Paris Opera Palais Garnier, not yet built, nor listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – Tchaikovsky hadn’t been born. Mozart had only just completed his opera Le Nozze di Figaro in April 1786, with its popular overture, and conducted the first performance on May 1 in Vienna. Jefferson’s fractured wrist postponed his trip to the South of France, and in any case, he couldn’t slip over to Israel on a side trip.

Napoleon III commissioned the construction of one of the grandest European theatres, the red and gold Paris Opera, the Palais Garnier, built from 1860 to 1875, after an assassination attempt on him and Empress Eugénie following an evening at the opera when their carriage passed through the rue Le Peletier. The emperor wanted a protected side entrance. (Another, often compared theatre, is the blue and gold Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, opened in 1860.)

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The Paris Opera Palais Garnier

Of the Paris Opera, composer Claude Debussy is quoted as saying, “To the uninformed passer by, the Opera looks like a railway station…inside one might be forgiven for thinking it was the central lounge of a Turkish bath.”

Click to see enlarged image (well worth it): http://thescheherazadechronicles.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Palais_Garnier1.jpg

The Opera’s cellar was built on top of an underground lake and stream. Writer Gaston Leroux explored the outer parts before the opera house was completed, including the cellar, which at one time was used as a torture chamber.

Click this link to see images of the Mariinsky Theatre. (No wonder the peasant uprising.) http://www.balletandopera.com/index3.html?sid=9D7B5zC28ak5K71ny3N1%26%2312296%3B=eng&page=z_mar_opis_virt_tour&feedback=1

In 1896, a counterweight fell from the six and a half ton chandelier killing a patron. This tragedy sparked Leroux to write The Phantom of the Opera, a horror romance describing the end of a ghost’s love story. Supposedly, the Paris Opera ghost does exist. Doesn’t every theatre have a ghost?

Today the Paris Opera uses the Palais Garnier mostly for ballet performances.

The great 20th century violinist Yehudi Menuhin performed at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Emma was in the audience to see him in the 1930s. She saw Benny Goodman and his band perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City around then, too.

When I was a teenager, Emma took me to see Gene Krupa playing drums on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. I stood right in front of him. Some years later, I stood in front of Eric Burdon at the Whiskey a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. We could have shaken hands. Another time, I sat in the Los Angeles Music Center Dorothy Chandler Pavilion orchestra section, near the stage, to see a young Zubin Mehta conduct. I took my daughter. She was elementary school age, the present age of my two granddaughters. We were amused by the cellists, when idle, making subtle humorous gestures across to the violinists. What can I say? That’s L.A., laid back. They performed Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. We, the audience, gave Mehta a standing ovation.

I’ve gone off on a nerdy binge here, but that’s me. These – books and music, especially classical music and ballet – are my greatest interests, and I tend to indulge. In this screen-time age (I’m putting this politely), I have few people with whom to discuss these interests. To my great pleasure, the other day when our music therapist visited Emma, she and I conversed animatedly about this composer and that classical piece; and she suggested I read Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise. When this book was published a few years ago, I had wanted to read it, but then forgot about it. So, before I could say Jeff Bezos, I had it downloaded to my Kindle.

Emma read to me, recited nursery rhymes and sang children’s songs, such as “Frère Jacques” and “Horsey, Keep Your Tail Up,” from the time before I was born. My father had a huge collection of classical music and big band recordings. We had a black Steinway baby grand in the house. Both parents played and my father, who also played the clarinet in his youth, would sit at the keyboard and compose. He wrote a novel, too, but when he sent it out to be published, it was rejected. Of course, Emma gave me piano, ballet and tap lessons – my teacher was Jeannette MacDonald’s sister, Marie; and my daughter and I studied ballet together for years. We became family with our fellow dance students, some remain our friends; and our teacher, who had danced on Broadway, became a master teacher with American Ballet Theatre. (Our teacher for the first two years had danced under Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, thus threading our teacher lineage all the way back through Diaghilev to the Mariinsky.) From the time I learned to read, I always had a book in my lap, and I wrote.

Love letters come in different formats. They come in songs, for instance. “This is a good song,” a guy I worked with would say to me. And then he’d sing a line of the lyrics. He is a rock musician. When he first came to work at our company, I didn’t want to have anything to do with him; I didn’t want to have to work with him. But our superiors forced us together, like an arranged marriage. We found we had a lot in common – love of the Beatles, and we both had huge record collections, for example. To my surprise, we talked, laughed and had a lot of fun together. He pursued me and pursued me, always coming to talk to me in the catering warehouse where we worked. He made overtures. The radio was always on, tuned to a pop music station. I’d catch myself talking to him in my mind when I was in my car or at home, when he wasn’t around. I couldn’t figure out why I did this, why I felt this way, and I couldn’t figure out why he continually pursued me, always by my side, always talking to me; he was married. And then I realized I was in love with him; it was probably love at first sight, but I didn’t think about it, because, well, he was married.

“This is a good song,” he’d say, and then he’d sing the words conveying his feelings for me. I guess we women like to think, Well, he’s going to divorce his wife and be with me. But it didn’t work out that way. His four-year-old daughter needed an operation, so he had to find a job that offered medical insurance. One day, soon before the final curtain dropped, “This is a good song,” he said, when it came on the radio: How can you just walk away from me, when all I can do is watch you leave?So take a look at me now, ‘cos there’s just an empty space. And there’s nothing left here to remind me, just the memory of your face… You’re the only one who really knew me at all. (Phil Collins, “Against All Odds”) I stood there one day and watched him walk away: I never saw him again. That was 23 years ago.

It seems like yesterday. The song of life plays fast; before you know it, it is almost over. Seldom is there a refrain. If there is, I know I’d better sing it. As the curtain rises on my third act, I make this overture to you. The lyrics go that these days I choose my friends carefully. If I meet you and I like you, I invite you into my life, like picking notes from a basket to form a new measure. I want to talk to you, laugh with you, get to know you better.

Am I picky or simply discriminating? I have the honor to know some very special and unique human beings, some who have been my friends for 40 years. Among the things we have in common is agreeing that we don’t know how we got this old. It is comforting to know that Zubin Mehta is older than I. Well, and Thomas Jefferson – way older. Trust me on this one.

–Samantha, October 1, 2011

One Response to XXIX. The Overture

  1. Thank you for having written this. I fully agree with your thoughts.