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Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Earlier this morning, I spent a pleasant half hour listening on YouTube to the Alban Berg Quartet playing Beethoven's Opus 59 # 3, the third Razumovsky Quartet.  Listening to it here in Paris triggered a memory about which, I find, I wrote on August 2, 2009, not long after I began serious blogging.  As the post indicates, the hot political topic then was the struggle for the health care law that eventually came to be known as Obamacare, but on reflection, the lesson I drew in that post applies even more urgently to the current concern many of us have about the future of the Bernie movement.  I have decided therefore to reprint my seven year old post.  Here it is:

I find myself caught in the cross-currents of the wise advice given to me by my two sons. Two years ago, as I contemplated with apprehension my imminent retirement, I confessed to Patrick, my older son, that I was not certain how I could fill my days. I had been in school continuously, in one capacity or another, since 1936, when my parents enrolled me in the Sunnyside Progressive School, and I was not certain that there was life outside the academy. He suggested that I might try writing a blog, and with the help of Google, I launched The Philosopher's Stone. My younger son, Tobias, cautioned me that writing a blog could become all-consuming -- quite different from simply offering an opinion now and again in polite company. It seems they both were right. This little effort certainly soaks up the spare time, but it is relentless. Now that my readership has swelled, perhaps to as many as twenty friends and acquaintances. I experience what aesthetic theorists some years ago took to calling the "objective demand of the gestalt."

Having written yesterday about the play of competing interests in the writing of health care reform legislation, I think I should like today to say a few words about cooperation and collective undertakings. I shall begin with a wonderful little story that appeared in the NY TIMES five years ago. It seems that the sixteen violinists who made up the first violin section of the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn were suing to earn more money because in most of the compositions selected by the conductor for performance, they played more notes than the wind and brass players, not to speak of the percussionists. [Honestly, I am not making this up. You can Google it.] The reporter, tongue firmly fixed in cheek, pointed out that oboists play more sustained notes, which ought to count for something. He concluded by predicting that the German audiences were likely to hear Brahms' Serenade No. 2 a good deal more often, it being a piece that Brahms scored for NO first violins. I am glad to report that the suit failed.

At the time, I was playing the viola regularly in an amateur string quartet that met weekly at the home of the now sadly departed Barbara Greenstein, second violin. The three other members of the quartet, with extraordinary patience and forebearance, permitted me to join them while I took weekly lessons and practiced feverishly until I was able to hold my own. We spent a cheerful quarter hour laughing about the story before returning to our Mozart.

Some while later, we decided to tackle the third Rasomouwsky quartet, Beethoven's Opus 59 No. 3. This was definitely at the outer edge of my abilities, so I took my viola and the music to Paris with me for a four week stay, and spent a week practicing each of the movements. The fourth movement of Opus 59, No. 3 is especially beloved by violists because it is in the form of a fugue in which the viola states the subject, playing gloriously all alone for ten whole measures. This is unheard of in quartet music, the viola usually being consigned to a subordinate status [rather like Nanki Poo, who masquarades as the second trombone in a traveling band to escape the loving attentions of Katisha.] Beethoven must have been in one of his manic phases when he wrote the quartet, because he gives as the tempo for the movement a quarter note = 162 -- which is to say, one hundred sixty-two quarter notes per minute. The only string quartet I have ever heard play the movement at this impossible speed is the Emerson, which is in general famous for playing everything very fast. At that speed, the music goes by so fast that you cannot actually listen to it. You must simply cringe in your chair and let it assault you.

Well, there was no question of my playing the damned thing at that speed, but with serious practice, I did get up above 100. When I got home, the quartet met, and at the start of the fourth movement [which starts attacca subito right after the third movement, so there is no pause to discuss tempi] I launched into my solo as fast as I could manage it. After a measure or two the others coughed politely and told me that they were not up to playing their parts at that speed. The over-achiever in me gloated secretly at having "won," but the musician in me, always struggling to get to the surface, recognized that winning was simply not part of the collaboration that constitutes quartet playing. Getting to the end of a movement first is an occasion for embarrassment, not congratulation.

You see, playing quartets is an inherently cooperative venture. The cooperation is not instrumental to the activity [if I may be permitted that word], it is essential to it. The collaborative character of the activity is part of the value of it. [This is one of the ways in which amateur chamber music differs from professional performance. For professionals, all that matters is the quality of the music produced. Cooperating with their fellow musicians, while usually instrumental to that end, is not at all an essential part of the experience.]

What has all of this to do with health care reform and American politics? Very simply, and far too briefly [I refer you to the last chapter of The Poverty of Liberalism for a fuller discussion], the American political system completely fails to make an important place for the ideals of comradeship, collective action, and the intrinsic value of shared commitment. To be sure, many people who become active in politics find these valuable experiences as they work to advance some agenda, but the genius of the American system is competition, not cooperation.

I think this is why I fell so completely in love with South Africa when I first went there in 1986, before liberation. In South Africa then, the instant I met someone, I knew that person was either my comrade or my enemy. The practice of calling one another comrades was not some automatic verbal tic, as in the great old Peter Sellars movie, I'm All Right, Jack. It was an expression of a living commitment to a collective undertaking whose value lay at least in part precisely in its collective form.

That is part of what I was trying to capture in my vision of a college as a community of shared responsibility. So, by all means, let us collect signatures and ring doorbells and contact our representatives and try to bring on them sufficient pressure to get a good health care bill. But let us also search for ways to build into our lives the ideal of comradeship that inspired the early Socialists, and still has the power to capture at least some hearts today.


s. wallerstein said...

I wonder if that comradeship still exists in South Africa. Something similar was omnipresent on the left in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and it made life and even risking life worth it, but 25 years of neoliberalism (and easy consumer credits) since the end of the dictatorship have made Chile ultra-individualistic, probably worse than the U.S., since the puritan ethic in the U.S. includes (or did include) a sense of responsibility towards others, while there's no puritan ethic in Chile.

I'll listen to the Beethoven string quartet in YouTube.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The simple answer is, not in the same way that it did. To a considerable extent, South Africa has failed to live up to its promise, alas.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out if you were trying to insult the Emerson Quartet or not.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good God, no! Are you kidding?

Anonymous said...

I didn't think so, since I love them myself, but rushing is a common musical problem.

Alan Nelson said...

When I was in high school, I took a class conducted by the original Cleveland Quartet. They played the metronome markings one after another which was quite an experience!