Sunday, March 24, 2019

Much Ado over Nothing [UPDATED]

The whole of the District of Columbia, to say nothing of the rest of the country, is on pins and needles as we wait to find out just what is in the final report that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has turned in to Attorney General William Barr. The latter is supposed to produce a summary of it for public consumption by the end of today. (See "UPDATE" below.)

As I write this post, no news source has yet claimed to be in possession of a copy of the report, or even of its conclusions. All we know at this point may be summed up in two statements:
(1) There will be no more indictments coming from the Special Prosecutor. His investigation is finished. 
(2) At no point in the process did the Special Prosecutor make any recommendation, or take any prosecutorial action, which the Attorney General had to block, or reject. The Special Prosecutor's investigation had no limits whatsoever (in terms of budget or otherwise) placed upon it, and the Department of Justice did nothing to hinder or interfere with it at any step along the way. 
Let me summarize from those two statements: Robert Mueller did not even try to indict President Trump, let alone subpoena him for questioning. Despite two years of unhampered investigation, costing tens of millions of dollars, Mr. Mueller found nothing on which to base any actionable charges against the President based on conduct during the 2016 election.

After two full years of insinuation, innuendo and inanity, in other words, neither the Special Prosecutor nor anyone else in Congress has produced or elicited the slightest evidence that President Trump's 2016 campaign conspired with any other persons, whether inside or outside the Soviet Union, to bring about the defeat of the Democratic Party's candidate in that election.

All contentions to the contrary, over the past two years, have been wishful thinking, baldfaced lies, or pure hogwash. It would be well to keep in mind those who repeatedly assured us that the evidence of duplicity was there, or would shortly be confirmed.

What is astonishing is how many partisan politicians are staking out their positions even before they know what is in Mr. Mueller's report. Because of those two irrefutable points I set out above, there are no grounds whatsoever upon which to expect that further investigation will lead to facts that could be used to impeach the President. Yet the partisans in Washington are insisting that no stone be left unturned -- that nothing in the report be withheld from them, even if to do so would violate the law (such as revealing testimony before the grand jury, which by law remains sealed).

Already the House committee chairmen are taking the tack that Mueller's investigation was "too limited" in scope, and that only a broad fishing expedition, backed by Congressional subpoena power, will finally reveal the hidden truths about the President's impeachable "high crimes and misdemeanors." In other words, they will never be satisfied with simply finding out what is in the Special Prosecutor's report.

Can the nation as a whole tolerate two more years of grandstanding, posturing, distortion, and yes, flat-out lying? And that spectacle on top of an election campaign with more than twenty contenders, each one grasping at ways to capture the public's attention?

Batten down the hatches. As the old salt said, "You ain't seen nuttin' yet."


[UPDATE 03/24/19, 4:15 PM PST: Attorney General Barr's four-page summary for Congress of the Mueller report has now been made public. It notes that the report itself consists of two parts: the first part addresses Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election; the second part deals with the factual issues bearing on whether the President attempted to obstruct justice in any way.

The summary states that with regard to the first part, "the Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election." That should put a definitive end to speculation that Trump or anyone working for or with him "colluded" with the Russians -- but just watch how Democrats in the House will proceed to subpoena witnesses and documents as though that conclusion had never been expressed.

In contrast to the report's first part, which specifically exonerates President Trump and his campaign from any findings of conspiracy or coordination with the Russians ("collusion" is not a defined federal crime), the second part of the report neither establishes criminal acts by President Trump amounting to obstruction of justice, nor exonerates him from such charges. Instead, the Special Prosecutor noted the unique circumstances and problems in determining whether a sitting president could be found to have attempted to obstruct justice in the process of carrying our his duties to supervise the executive branch of government. His report thus catalogs all the conduct and evidence which the Special Counsel regarded as potentially relevant to the charge, and expressly leaves it to the Attorney General to make a "prosecutorial judgment" on the matter in light of DoJ policies and guidelines.

The Attorney General's letter to Congress spells out how he, in consultation with Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, the Office of Legal Counsel and other departmental officials, and "after applying the principles of federal prosecution that guide our charging decisions . . . concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense." In other words, there will be no attempt to bring charges against President Trump for obstruction of justice.

This conclusion, while exonerating President Trump from the DoJ's point of view, unfortunately will not be the end of this business.  Watch for the Democrats in the House to demand that Attorney General Barr release to them all of the evidence and contents of the report so that they may use what Mr. Mueller gathered in their plans to draft a bill of impeachment against President Trump; and watch especially if House Speaker Pelosi backs off from her current stance against impeachment.]

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Marriage of Words and Music for Christmas

At Christmastime, we turn to carols to express the season in words and music. Although some may be traced back for centuries, we rarely sing them any more; most of the familiar ones originated in the 19th century (although Adeste fideles dates from the mid-18th century).

When it comes to choosing carols, we are most likely to prefer the ones we heard as children. Yet there are some that stand out for their almost perfect union between words and music. For Christmas 2018, I would like to present you with first the text, then two different settings, and three different performances, of a particularly lovely carol in order to illustrate my point. First, the text -- by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, as first published in Scribner's Monthly in January 1872:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago. 
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ. 
Enough for Him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore. 
Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss. 
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.
The meter is as stark as the setting. Even though snow does not normally fall in Bethlehem, Rossetti probably has in mind John Milton's imagery of pure driven snow at the Savior's birth as necessary to cover the ugly sins of mankind (On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, lines 37-44). In the second stanza, she draws on imagery from the Book of Revelation to draw a paradox with the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth. The third and fourth stanzas create similar contrasting images of striking simplicity, while the final stanza expresses the author's own humility when faced with her creator God.

The lyrical form of the poem invited a simple, homophonic setting which composer Gustav Holst gave it in 1906. In doing so, he gave the world a new and wonderful carol. Listen to its beauty -- and to its perfect marriage of music with words -- in this classic performance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge:






Just three years after Holst's composition, Harold Darke, a young organ student at the Royal College of Music in London, gave the poem another stellar setting, in which again the simple homophony sparkles with cascades of passing tones and unexpected chord progressions that serve to emphasize the purity of the infant Savior amidst his crude, rustic surroundings. Here is a lovely performance of the tune under the direction of John Rutter:





To drive the point home, here is a final performance of the Holst setting (just the first and last stanzas), which I can describe only as sung by an angel (who in this case is the Norwegian soprano, Sissel Kyrkjebø). She is accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle choir and orchestra.




A blessed and joyful Christmas to all my readers!


Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Brazen Plug on Beethoven's 248th Birthday

Your Curmudgeon is pleased to announce that his new book on Beethoven's Third Symphony is now available (paperback or eBook) on Amazon, and has garnered two (!) five-star reviews to date.

The book is entitled Beethoven Unbound: the Story of the Eroica Symphony, and is based on the honors thesis I submitted for graduation in 1966. Here is a brief description of what it is about:
There is one musical theme that Ludwig van Beethoven used on four different occasions, in four separate works. He first conceived the theme while composing the music in early 1801 for a ballet based on the legend of the Titan Prometheus, who brought clay human figures to life with divine fire stolen from Vulcan’s forge. Jupiter then punished Prometheus severely, by chaining him to a rock so that each day an eagle could swoop down on him and gnaw out his liver, which then would regenerate during the night, to be eaten again the next day. Prometheus endured what he regarded as a most unjust punishment for his gifts to mankind. He defied the gods until Hercules unbound him from his chains.

This book traces how Beethoven, who was agonizing over the onset of deafness, came during his work on the ballet to identify with the Titan’s ordeal. He saw deafness as a most undeserved fate for a composer who spent most of his waking hours sketching and polishing musical works as his own gifts to mankind – but also as a cruelty that would force him to withdraw from Viennese society. By identifying with the determination of Prometheus, Beethoven generated his own inner resolve to surmount his suffering and emerge with skills that enabled him to forge, beginning with his revolutionary Third Symphony (the Eroica), an entirely new path for music in the nineteenth century. As with Prometheus, so Beethoven himself became unbound.

The music Beethoven wrote for the ballet’s finale, in which Prometheus’ originally clumsy humans advanced under the Titan’s tutelage to be fit to dance with the gods, took on a special significance which he may not fully have appreciated at first. But by the summer of 1802, when he realized he could no longer hear the sounds of nature which had for so long inspired him during his periodic escapes from the city, Beethoven returned to his Prometheus-melody as the basis for an unprecedented set of piano variations. As this book shows through his surviving sketches, he noticed that the bass line for the theme could be developed independently, and gradually built up until the treble melody could emerge in all its glory, much as the humans had emerged to glorious heights in dancing to the same tune at the end of the ballet.

Beethoven’s personal crisis came to a head in October 1802, when he admitted in his secret “Heiligenstadt Testament” (not discovered until after his death) to having entertained thoughts of suicide. That bout with despair, however, was overcome by a new burst of energy as Beethoven saw how much more he could still do with his Prometheus-theme. He began to fill page after page of his sketchbooks with new ideas for further variations – much more than he could ever include in the set that he eventually published.

This book draws for its thesis upon a sketchbook that was auctioned among the composer’s papers after his death, found its way to the library of a Russian count in Moscow, and now is in a state museum there. It contains the pages on which Beethoven set down his very first ideas for what in time would become his monumental Eroica symphony. As such, it provides the missing link to tell the full story of that work’s genesis out of the music Beethoven had written for his 1801 ballet. That story not only has not been set out anywhere before, but also establishes that it is the Titan Prometheus, and not any human figure such as Napoleon, whose heroism lies at the heart of the Eroica.

Note that the Kindle edition is $6 cheaper, but contains the same contents as the printed book. Moreover, there are hyperlinks in the Kindle version between the text and the endnotes, which make jumping from one to the other and then back again as easy as can be. Finally, the illustrations in the Kindle, unlike in the paperback, are in full color and at a higher resolution that makes it possible to enlarge them to see greater detail.

If any reader here does purchase the book, I hope he or she will be motivated to leave a review at Amazon, for which I will be most grateful. Meanwhile, Ludwig van is 248 today, and will be 250 on this date in 2020. In celebration, please enjoy this stellar performance of the piano variations (op. 35) on which he was working in Heiligenstadt in the summer and fall of 1802, when he despaired of his future as a composer due to his ever-worsening deafness.

In this set of 15 variations and closing fugue, Beethoven forged well ahead of his contemporaries and laid the ground for his path-breaking  Eroica Symphony. As noted, his sketchbook shows he conceived the Symphony at Heiligenstadt, as the outgrowth of all the effort he poured into elaborating on the theme he first used in his 1801 ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, and around which he constructed these fantastic variations. (Notice how they begin, as described above, with just the bass of the theme itself, stated in octaves. The "Prometheus"-theme does not emerge in full until the fourth variation.)







Napoleon was the furthest person from Beethoven's mind when he was writing this music, which is all about the heroism and triumph of Prometheus, who provided just the inspiration Beethoven needed at a crucial turning-point of his life.