Nov 222018
 

On this date in 1963, president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and the world took notice. His death overshadowed the deaths of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis on the same day, and it feels now as if their deaths went unnoticed. Obviously, close friends and family paid attention to their passing, but few others did. Why was the death of one U.S. politician more important around the world than the deaths of two English writers? The unfortunate coincidence of Huxley and Lewis dying right around the time JFK was shot did not escape some people’s attention and is the subject of Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley.  Did JFK’s death merit more attention than the other two? I’d like to tease that question apart.

People of my generation, especially in the US, can recall the details of what they were doing when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. It was as game changing in its day as the events of 9/11 were to a later generation. I was 12 and living in South Australia at the time. I heard the news on the morning of Saturday, November 23rd on the way to play cricket, but because of the time difference between Dallas and Adelaide (16 hours), the news was only a few hours old, and very little was known about the precise events in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Then events seemed to happen in lightning succession. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, then when he was being transported, he was shot by Jack Ruby in front of television news cameras. Then there was the funeral, and the investigation which brought to light some grainy photos and amateur movies. It was all a hailstorm of incomplete information that added little to what we already knew, but fueled endless conspiracy theories. Was this retaliation by Cuba or Russia? Was there more than one shooter? Were shots fired from the grassy knoll? Etc. etc. Some of these conspiracy theories won’t die, but it is unlikely that any new information will ever come to light at this stage to change the conclusions of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone, even though doubts linger.

In some ways, the prominence of JFK’s assassination in the news cycle, more or less to the exclusion of other news, is no great mystery. The US was certainly no stranger to the assassination, and attempted assassination, of presidents, but there were few people alive in 1963 who could remember the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 – the last successful attempt, although virtually every president thereafter had been the subject of at least one attempt. It still came as a profound shock because Kennedy represented something new. He was a new kind of president for a new decade – bringing a sense of youth and vitality to the White House which many called Camelot. Perhaps he was the best that the US had to offer in the way of royalty – a blue blood, war hero (young and energetic: not a seasoned veteran general like Eisenhower, but a decorated naval lieutenant PT boat commander who was in the thick of fighting in the Pacific theater with tales of bravery surrounding him). Jack and Jackie presided over a glittering spectacle at the White House brimming with artists, musicians, and actors for their courtiers.

Kennedy was also a knight in shining armor in the Cold War. He had faced down Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when Sputnik showed the Russians up to be the leaders in the Space Race, he vowed that the US would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Of course, there was a downside: the Bay of Pigs, and the full throated approach in Vietnam being the most salient.

All in all, Kennedy’s era was one of renewed hope, with the post-war Baby Boom coming of age and expecting great things to emerge. A bullet from Oswald’s rifle ended that hope, and replaced it with a brutal reality. There is no need to wonder why Kennedy’s death pushed Huxley and Lewis off center stage. They were not world leaders, and they had died in their beds. Admittedly Huxley died tripping on two doses of LSD administered by his wife as he lay dying, but this fact was not made public until some time afterwards. It was certainly a fitting end for the man who had blazed a trail in the realm of the psychedelic. Lewis seemed to be improving from kidney problems that had plagued him for a few years, but then suddenly collapsed and died in his bedroom in his home in Oxford. In that sense the deaths of Huxley and Lewis, although tragic, were not unexpected, and they had left a stack of completed work. Kennedy, on the other hand, was in the prime of life – a father of young children, with much left to be accomplished. He was cut short with a great deal of unfinished business.

So, yes, there is a reason that Kennedy’s death overshadowed the other two. But should we remain in the same pose we were in back in 1963, 55 years on? I think not. We have had time to let the dust settle and assess the three men dispassionately. What did they leave behind that is lasting?  We have to be fair to Kennedy in arguing that he might have accomplished great things if he had lived. He may not have ratcheted up the Vietnam War in the way that Johnson did, and he might have presided over Civil Rights and the landing on the moon. We cannot know now. However, we can say that his legacy has not endured to the same extent that those of Huxley and Lewis have.

C.S. Lewis

We cannot lay the whole of fantasy fiction at Lewis’ door, but he was a giant in its creation, and the many tales of Narnia are still big sellers as books and on the big screen. His popular apologetics for Christianity should probably be consigned to the trash can of history. I suppose it’s all right for people who don’t think too much about religion, and want easy answers, but it’s amateur stuff at best – “God can’t make beautiful sculptures of us without chiseling bits off which hurt” – that sort of thing. All lame thoughts of someone who has not read theology deeply, nor knows anything about world religions.

Aldous Huxley

Huxley explored pain from a somewhat different, yet related, angle. Brave New World describes a world without pain. I don’t know if it is read much any more. It does not have the insight of Orwell’s work, partly because it envisages a world that cannot exist because he has his facts all wrong about the possibilities of eugenics and psycho-social conditioning. But he does raise the key theological question: “What is the point of life if it is mechanical?” Pain and suffering are what inspire artists and poets to great heights. If you give up the one, you forfeit the other. Is it worth it? Very good question. The Doors of Perception not only gave us Jim Morrison and The Doors (in more than name only). It gave us Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and a generation intent on exploring the limits of perception and consciousness.

While I would not say that Kennedy’s legacy in the political sphere has endured well, his and Jackie’s tastes did change White House kitchens. Previous White House meals were a rather dull affair. None of the recent occupants had been what could be considered gourmets. Calvin Coolidge inexplicably referred to any and all meals as “supper,” even if it were breakfast time; the Roosevelts famously served hot dogs to the king and queen of England; and a menu for the state dinner for the crowned heads of Greece given by the Eisenhower administration is depressing: “toasted Triscuits, fish in cheese sauce, sliced lemmon [sic].”

Not long after the inauguration, Jackie Kennedy hired a French chef, René Verdon. Quickly, the White House menus changed from featuring saltines and beef stew to more sophisticated fare, such as sole Veronique and strawberries Romanoff. Verdon’s influence was felt throughout the country, as magazine and newspaper articles went crazy for all things Kennedy. Julia Child’s celebrated public television program The French Chef began about this time, too.

Perhaps the most celebrated White House dinner of the Kennedy years was held at president Washington’s grand house, Mount Vernon, in honor of the president of Pakistan. Guests were transported down the Potomac on yachts, with dance music played and champagne freely poured. The French meal was prepared in the White House kitchen, and trucked the 15 miles to Mount Vernon in specially modified military vehicles. Guests were treated to a crabmeat and avocado mimosa, poulet chasseur and fresh local raspberries with whipped cream. You can find my recipe for poulet chasseur here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/orient-express/  Fresh raspberries and whipped cream scarcely need a recipe. Here is crabmeat and avocado mimosa:

Crabmeat and Avocado Mimosa

Ingredients

2 ripe avocados
1 scallion, minced
2 tsp lemon juice, divided
¼ tsp salt (or, to taste)
hot pepper sauce
3 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp chili sauce
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
white pepper
8 oz cooked fresh crabmeat
2 cups watercress
2 hard cooked egg yolks
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Instructions

Peel half of one avocado. In a small bowl, mash avocado half. Add scallion, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and hot pepper sauce to taste. Stir until well combined. Reserve.

In separate bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, chili sauce, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and remaining teaspoon lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Reserve.

Peel the remaining 1 ½ avocados, cut into half-inch cubes, and place them in a large bowl. Squeeze the excess moisture from crabmeat. Add to cubed avocado and gently combine. Fold in the mayonnaise.

Line the bottoms of 6 chilled open champagne glasses or small glass serving dishes with watercress. Divide crab mixture evenly among glasses. Top each with a dollop of mashed avocado mixture.

Press the egg yolks through a fine mesh sieve and combine with the parsley in a small bowl. Sprinkle the yolk/parsley mixture evenly over each portion. Mimosas can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 hours.

Serve chilled.

 

Nov 282017
 

On this date in 1909 Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 3 in D minor (affectionately known as Rach 3) was first performed by Rachmaninoff himself with the now-defunct New York Symphony Society, Walter Damrosch conducting, at the New Theater (later rechristened the Century Theater). Rach 3 has the, well-deserved, reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical repertoire. Here’s a recording of Vladimir Horowitz who is largely responsible for making Rach 3 as popular as it is today:

Rachmaninoff played the concerto again on January 16, 1910 under the baton of Gustav Mahler, which Rachmaninoff treasured because of Mahler’s famous attention to detail. Rachmaninoff wrote:

At that time Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare amongst conductors. … Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.

Rach 3 generally follows the classical, standard form for a concerto. It has three movements:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto (D minor)

The first movement involves a first theme, a diatonic melody, that resonates throughout, and a second theme in B♭ major, that drifts in and out.  The movement reaches a number of ferocious climaxes, especially in the cadenza. Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of this cadenza: the chordal original, which is commonly notated as the ossia, and a second one with a lighter, toccata-like style. Both cadenzas lead into a quiet solo section where the flute, oboe, clarinet and horn restate the first theme of the exposition, accompanied by delicate arpeggios in the piano. The cadenza then ends quietly, but the piano alone continues to play a quiet development of the exposition’s second theme in E♭ major before leading to the recapitulation, where the first theme is restated by the piano, with the orchestra accompanying, closing with a quiet, rippling coda reminiscent of the second theme.

  1. Intermezzo: Adagio (D minor → F♯ minor → D♭ major → B♭ minor → F♯ minor → D minor)

The second movement has two themes, moving from minor to major in a series of developments and recapitulations before the first theme from the first movement re-emerges. The movement is closed by the orchestra in a manner similar to the introduction, but then the piano gets the last word with a short cadenza-like passage which moves into the last movement without pause.

  1. Finale: Alla breve (D minor → D major)

The third movement is quick and vigorous, containing variations on many of the themes that are used in the first movement. However, after the first and second themes it diverges from the regular sonata-allegro form. There is no conventional development; that segment is replaced by a lengthy digression using the major key of the third movement’s first theme, which leads to the two themes from the first movement. After the digression, the movement recapitulation returns to the original themes, building up to a toccata climax somewhat similar but lighter than the first movement’s ossia cadenza and accompanied by the orchestra. The movement concludes with a triumphant and passionate second theme melody in D major. The piece ends with the same four-note as both Rachmaninoff’s second concerto and second symphony: claimed by some critics as his “musical signature.”

Rachmaninoff, under pressure, and hoping to make his work more popular, authorized several cuts in the score, to be made at the performer’s discretion. These cuts, particularly in the second and third movements, were commonly taken in performance and recordings during the initial decades following the concerto’s publication, particularly by Horowitz. More recently, it has become commonplace to perform the concerto without cuts.

Rachmaninoff composed the concerto at his wife’s family’s country estate, Ivanovka, where he often retired to have the serenity to compose in peace; completing it on September 23, 1909.

The concerto is respected, even feared, by many pianists. Josef Hofmann, the pianist to whom the work is dedicated, never publicly performed it, saying that it wasn’t for him – presumably meaning he was afraid to play it.  Gary Graffman lamented he had not learned this concerto as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.” Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff himself could not practice the piece while in Russia. Instead, he practiced it on a silent keyboard that he brought with him while en route to the United States.

I am not a pianist, so I cannot speak to the technical difficulties of the piece. It is often called the K2 of the piano repertoire, K2 being the second highest peak in the world, but the most dangerous mountain to climb: killing one in four people who attempt to reach the summit. Some players or commentators claim that the technical difficulty of the piece derives from the fact that Rachmaninoff had abnormally large hands’ with very long fingers, and may also have had Marfan syndrome, meaning that he had unusually flexible joints. From thumb to little finger he could span a major 13th (an average player can span an octave — that is, perfect 8th).

While Rachmaninoff’s physical peculiarities are a matter of record, they do not, in and of themselves, explain the technical difficulties of the piece. Django Reinhardt played amazing guitar solos using only two fingers on his left hand because the others were paralyzed. I’m not saying that Reinhardt and Rachmaninoff are comparable in any way; merely pointing out that you do not have to be a genetic freak to play difficult piano passages – but you do have to work hard at it.

The movie Shine (1996), concerning the life trials of the Australian pianist David Helfgott, features the concerto, and is responsible for giving it the nickname Rach 3. It contains this dialog between Helfgott and his teacher, Cecil Parks:

Parkes: Rachmaninov? Are you sure?
David: Kind of. I’m not really sure about anything.
Parkes: The Rach 3. It’s monumental.
David: It’s a mountain. The hardest piece you could everest play.
Parkes: No one’s ever been mad enough to attempt the Rach Three.
David: Am I mad enough, professor? Am I?

In my amateur opinion, I would venture to say that the Rach 3 is not so very different from many other technically difficult piano pieces in that it’s not just a matter of getting the notes right, but doing them justice.

Rachmaninoff often has the reputation these days for being a rather lugubrious presence because he was tall (6’ 6”/198 cm) and thin, and given to long bouts of depression, especially following poor receptions of his works. But his friends always tempered this judgment by saying that he loved good food, and was a rollicking dinner companion. He and Stravinsky were good friends, despite their radically different musical visions, and often dined together in Russia, leading to one of those tales that musicians love to tell about the famous. One night, Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, “Four Norwegian Moods,” and, as he was dozing off, he was startled by footsteps on the porch outside. A minute later, Rachmaninoff was towering over his bed carrying a huge jar of natural honey. A few nights previously, over a meal, Stravinsky had mentioned how much he loved honey, so Rachmaninoff felt compelled to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

I also have a newspaper clipping from a reporter in Texas who interviewed Rachmaninoff over dinner when he was on tour. The reporter notes that Rachmaninoff ordered lobster salad in avocado, seafood chowder, and a salad. It’s a start, and prevents me from digging into my archive of Saint Petersburg recipes. I think that pairing lobster salad with avocado is an excellent idea, but I prefer to serve the lobster and avocado separately (with some lettuce), to able to control the balance of lobster and avocado better. If you simply remove the avocado pit, the remaining hole does not have much room in it for the lobster. Furthermore, I like the lobster meat in lobster salad to contain some nice big chunks.

For four diners I’d start with 1 lb of cooked lobster meat with the claw and tail meat as whole as possible. If you want smaller pieces break it up with your hands, rather than cutting it.  Toss the lobster in freshly squeezed lemon juice and add ½ cup of thinly sliced celery. Mix everything together with about 5 tablespoons of the best mayonnaise you can find (or make it yourself). Peel and slice one whole avocado per person. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice, and serve the avocado with ¼ of the lobster salad on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens. Served this way it is a main course.