Race and Music – Four Great American Divas

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

Marilyn Horne

Marilyn Horne

Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman

Kathleen Battle

Kathleen Battle

The story of American black singers is one of triumph of talent over racial prejudice.

Marian Anderson(1897-1993) was a contralto whose voice was described as rich and vibrant.
Her parents were devout Baptists and she started singing in their church’s choir at age 10. She was paid 25 cents a song. As a teen she applied to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy but was told, “we don’t take colored.” In 1925 she won 1st prize in a singing competition. She had her formal debut in 1933 in London at the Wigmore Hall .

Anderson then started performing in concerts and recitals. In 1939 she made history when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her permission to sing in Constitution Hall. With help from Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed at an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. She was the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. She also participated in the March on Washington in 1963. In 1961 she sang at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony. Throughout this long career, Marian Anderson broke down barriers for other black performers.

Marilyn Horne (1934- ) is a mezzo-soprano opera singer who was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in California. She studied at the University of Southern California and sang in the Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorus. After many years as a background singer, she was discovered by Igor Stravinsky and performed at the 1956 Venice Festival. She remained in Europe for three seasons. Like many of the black singers of the day, she waited until she was well established abroad before starting a career in the United States.

She returned in 1964 to appear in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the San Francisco Opera. Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera wasn’t until 1970. She has since performed all the major bel canto roles, although she also sings traditional and contemporary American music. On July 5, 1986 Marilyn Horn performed in a televised New York Philharmonic tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The performance in Central Park was conducted by Zubin Mehta.

Kathleen Battle (1948- ) was born in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1948. She is a lyric soprano and started her career singing Brahms’ German Requiem in 1972. James Levine selected her to sing in Mahler’s 8th Symphony. She went on to a career in opera and recitals. She was “Rosina” in The Barber of Seville and “Suzanna” in The Marriage of Figaro. By then it was acceptable for a black woman to sing white roles. She also sings spirituals, sometimes with Jessye Norman. Kathleen Battle has been accused of behaving capriciously like the stereotypical caricature of the “prima donna.”

Jessye Norman (1945- ) was born in Augusta Georgia. She is a dramatic soprano and was inspired by both Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. Her statuesque build, regal bearing and opulent voice make her perfect for Wagnerian roles. She first established herself in Europe and sang the Marseillaise in France to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Jessye Norman can sing both soprano and the deeper range of the mezzo-soprano. She is a perfectionist and has been called a “grande dame.” Jessye Norman is also active in civil rights movements. Her autobiography is called: Stand Up Straight and Sing, her mother’s advice to her.

There are now many more wonderful black opera singers. Because of these four pioneers they have become part of the mainstream classical musical scene.

Inauguration Day 2017

ravens

 

In the kingdom of Howcouldthispossiblyhappen, a new king was being sworn in. It was in the month of January and Inauguration Day dawned cold and inhospitable. Arctic winds blew and covered the Inaugural platform with icy frost. The sky was obscured as darkness descended at noon. The people of the land could have watched on their televisions, but in truth many did not want to see the king whom many described as ugly. So they huddled together in their homes, schools and offices trying to find some warmth and hope.

 

And so it was that King Turnip and Queen Melon and their motorcade rolled down Panoramic Avenue through  deserted streets.  Clad in splendid purple and ermine, Turnip and Melon waved wildly to the non-existent crowd as their procession rolled slowly toward the Palace where liveried footmen awaited their arrival.

 

The people of Howcouldthispossiblyhappen were sad. They already missed their old King Banana and his wife Mango and the two beautiful young princesses. During their reign much had been accomplished, for King Banana cared about the welfare, good health and secure old age of the citizenry. They had heard rumors that King Turnip intended to wreck everything that had been carefully constructed, disrupt their peaceful existence and make war on their neighbors. They also feared that “barbarians” would be kept out of the kingdom and friendly “aliens” exiled. Many had come to realize that their new king was not only ignorant and unintelligent but also malevolent.

Soon the royal cortege arrived at the Palace to be greeted by polite and attentive staff that showed them to their quarters and helped them unpack their royal clothing and regalia.

 

For the first time in anyone’s memory, the sky was darkened as hundreds of ravens circled the palace.

 

 

 

Rushing for the Exits…….

 

Jose Eduardo dos Santos

Jose Eduardo dos Santos

Yahya Jammeh

Yahya Jammeh

 

LEADERSHIP of African countries has always been fluid, but I’ve noticed a lot of movement just lately. As I started to collect these for you, further resignations elsewhere in the world are surprising us…this list changed in the few days since I originally started on this post.

 ANGOLA

Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, will step down in 2017 after having ruled for 37 years during which time he exerted total authority. His designated successor will be  Joao Lourenco. There are no direct elections in Angola. The head of the ruling party becomes president. Relinquishing power is so unusual in an African country that everyone was stunned.

THE GAMBIA

The Gambia is a small English-speaking enclave in Senegal, a much bigger French-speaking nation which surrounds it on two sides. It does not normally attract anybody’s attention. Now its president Yahya Jammeh is making news too. After having ruled for 22 years, he was defeated in the December 2016 elections by Adama Barrow. He conceded defeat and agreed to hand over power. Well, say you, that is normal isn’t  it? Not in Africa, it isn’t.  To understand how unusual these two occurrences are, one has only to remember the regular-as-clockwork protests, chaos, riots which normally accompany many African countries’ elections.

Late breaking: Jammeh recanted his acceptance, does not accept defeat and said he would call for new elections.

 

Paul Kagame

Paul Kagame

 

 

 

Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe

 

 

BURUNDI, RWANDA, ZIMBABWE

Some African rulers have managed to stay in power for more than 35 years.  In Burundi Pierre Nkurrunziza sparked a revolt and mass protests that killed more than 240 people while clinging to power. Paul Kagame of Rwanda was trying to do away with Presidential term limits as did Yoweri Musaveri in Uganda.  Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, 92 ,is clinging to his seat with such determination that not even a tornado could dislodge him.  All these rulers know that their position gives them power, prestige, influence and a means to milk their respective countries for personal enrichment. Out of power you are nobody.

 

 

Akofo Addo

Akofo Addo

John Mahama

John Mahama

GHANA

 In Ghana opposition leader Akofo Addo won the 2016 election and outgoing president John Mahama congratulated him and said: I respect the will of the Ghanean people.

 

 

Ali Bongo

Ali Bongo

IVORY COAST, GABON

The French Government under Francois Hollande has had to intervene several times in the affairs of its ex-colonies when violent disturbances followed elections. In the Ivory Coast in 2011 the outgoing president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to hand over power to his elected successor. In Gabon, in 2016 the French succeeded in forcing Ali Bongo to agree to the results of another contested election.

 

Francois Hollande

Francois Hollande

FRANCE

The final surprise comes from President Hollande himself. In December he announced that he would not be running for a second term. This is the first time during the Fifth Republic (which started after the war with General de Gaulle) that an incumbent President has chosen to forego his second term.  Having come to power on a leftist platform of labor reform, he quickly angered everyone by pushing for harsh reforms that would deprive Frenchmen of their entitlements. Massive street protests followed. Somehow he managed to anger both the left and the right. After Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor who was known for his flamboyant style, Hollande dubbed himself Mr. Normal.

He did have some successes in Africa and he did pass legislation that promoted marriage for all, but to many Frenchmen these were marginal issues. The main issue was the state of the economy and that was not good. Taxes and joblessness rose.  Unemployment is currently at 10%.  Napoleon had said that an army marches on its stomach; voters too march on their stomachs. What matters to them are bread and butter issues and they felt they were worse off under Hollande. In addition, terrorist attacks had killed more than 230 people in the last two years and people were angered by immigration and Islamic jihadism.

Add to that Hollande’s bland persona and messy private life involving his ex-wife Segolene Royal, his lady friend, journalist Valerie Treveiler, and his other lady friend, actress Julie Gayet, and it all combined to drag down his popularity. His approval rate plummeted to 4%. (Some even say 1%.)

Realizing that he was headed for certain defeat if he ran again and not wanting to drag down his party with him, he removed himself from the race. He had finally made a popular choice.  In sum one might say: Nothing in his presidency became him like his leaving of it.

 

Since the above was written, two more Prime Ministers have, suddenly, called it quits.

 

Matteo Renzi

Matteo Renzi

ITALY

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned on December 4th after voters rejected his suggested Constitutional Changes.

 

John Key

John Key

NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key shocked his country when he announced he would step down on December 12th. A popular three-term Prime Minister, he was considered a shoo-in for a fourth term. He said he was resigning to spend more time with his family.

 

Fanfare for the Common Man – 2.0

Editor’s Note” This is a repeat of a post from 12 months ago.  (see below for a clip of the music)

New foreword from Simone:

A year ago in November I wrote about the roots of anti intellectualism in America. I was prompted to do this by the rise of the Tea Party with its anti-scientific bent and by the appearance of Donald Trump on the political scene, complete with incoherent, rambling thoughts and undisguised hatred.
I should therefore have been prepared for Donald Trump’s rise to power and yet I would never have believed that this marginal , populist movement would enter the mainstream and eventually triumph.

I was therefore totally unprepared for Trump’s election and have not yet come to terms with it. In fact I would like to hide in a cave and reemerge when this is over.

—————————————————————————————-

“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” is the title of a book by Richard Hofstadter which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was written shortly after Adlai Stevenson had lost the Presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower partly because Stevenson was said to be the “egghead” who read books but did not know much about real life.

Hofstadter argues that this kind of anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in American culture. He sees it as the fusion of evangelical religion and the business ethos which suggests that practical training should take precedence over book learning. Intellectuals form an elite and Americans are deeply suspicious of elites because they see them as a threat to democratic aspirations. You have to be average to be liked, thus the lowering of culture to the lowest common denominator. Publications like Readers’ Digest and the trivialization of Walt Disney adaptations come to mind.

Our founders did not subscribe to this anti-intellectualism. In fact they were suspicious of the masses. They were the heirs of the Enlightenment and very well educated. They loved books and were keenly interested in scientific discovery. But their values were threatened by the Puritan strain exemplified by John Cotton who wrote in 1642:”The more learned and witty you be the more fit to act for Satan you be”. Andrew Jackson was the first president who styled himself as “a man of the people.” I guess they did not use the term “folks” at that time.

Two other books that treat this same theme are Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” and Isaac Asimov’s “The Cult of Ignorance.” Both report an unfortunate belief shared by many people who don’t have any respect for knowledge and who then say “Democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Thus the dumbing down of America. We call intellectuals eggheads, nerds, geeks and dorks. About half of Americans between 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries. More than one third consider it “not important” to speak a foreign language. Many think that one’s education needs to lead primarily to immediate financial benefits. One can see this anti-intellectualism still alive in the Republican party and in the utterances of the Tea Party. When they don’t like what science has discovered, they deny it. Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting everybody in America to go to college.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia was the educated, professionally active population. It consisted of spiritual leaders, artists, writers and scientists. The tsars repeatedly tried to clip their wings because they challenged their absolute power. The Russians are very proud of this cultural heritage. The worst insult you can hurl at a Russian is to call him/her “nekulturny” (Not cultured).
Russians cherish their rich history of art, literature, music and ballet. They revere the Bolshoi and Marinsky theaters and the vast collections of history and art in the Hermitage Museum. They are also deeply in love with poetry. Their national hero is Aleksander Pushkin who wrote Eugene Onegin, a novel entirely in verse. I suspect that even Vladimir Putin is proud of this heritage as long as it does not threaten his power.

According to Hofstadter, intellectualism consists not so much in accumulating knowledge and feeling superior about it but rather as a habit of mind. It is being sensitive to nuances and seeing things in degrees rather than in absolutes. It is essentially relativist and skeptical but also circumspect and humane. It also means constantly exploring and widening one’s horizon.

 

 

Russia’s Autocrats – Part 4 of 4 Autocracy’s New Clothes

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Coiled Viper

Coiled Viper

Vladimir Putin 1952-

Vladimir Putin was a KGB Officer when Boris Yeltsin plucked him out of obscurity and gave him the reins of power. He had no government or administrative experience. Did Yeltsin realize that he had picked up a cold and coiled viper that could strike at any time? Putin believed that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. He started his reign in the new millennium intent on restoring its past glories. High oil prices helped him by helping the economy grow.

But plain unadorned autocracy was no longer in fashion and had to be camouflaged as democracy. The State Duma became the Legislative body which Putin quickly tamed. A judiciary system entirely under his control was put in place and opposition parties were quickly declawed. A government as false as a beautiful Potemkin village was created. The trompe l’oeil was perfect.

After serving 2 terms Putin was ineligible for reelection in 2008. He then selected Dmitri Medvedev to keep his seat warm for 4 years and himself became Prime Minister. From this position, he extended the Presidential term which allowed him to magically reappear having manipulated the system until it fell in line with his ambitions.

Vladimir Putin started by dismantling the power of the new oligarchs. Any attempt at meddling in politics was nipped in the bud. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was then the richest man in Russia, head of Yukos, an oil company formed during the privatization of the 1990s. As soon as Khodorkovsky showed any interest in politics he was charged with fraud and tax evasion and promptly exiled. Viktor Gusinsky, a media tycoon was arrested for misappropriation of funds and imprisoned. Sergei Magnitsky was an auditor at a Moscow law firm and uncovered a massive fraud by tax officials and police officers. He was arrested for reporting this to the authorities and died in custody at the age of 37. These are only a few examples of the clampdown on any opposition.

Next came the press and the intelligentsia. Liberal parties like Parnas and Yabloko slowly died. Election results were manipulated so that political opponents like Alexei Navalny were prevented from winning elections because results were manipulated. Navalny himself spent five years in a corrective labor colony. Those in the press who had described Putin’s party, United Russia, as a party of thieves and crooks simply disappeared. There is now only one television channel which broadcasts the news and it is entirely controlled by the state.

Political murder is also employed with increasing frequency. Journalists have become prone to mysterious fatal accidents. Alexander Litvinenko who defected to Britain died of radiation poisoning by polonium. His slow death was shown on television for many days. Boris Nemtsov, a Putin opponent, was gunned down on the streets of Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta and a human rights activist was found dead on the stairs outside her home. At least 21 other journalists have died under suspicious circumstances. Judges have been murdered for not following instructions.

Putin’s Russia is suffering from the sanctions imposed after his incursion in Ukraine and from the collapse of the ruble because of low oil prices. Corruption is rampant, everything is for sale. Putin is left in the difficult position of denying any wrongdoing such as the downing of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine’s territory and the state controlled doping of athletes. The latest blow has been the deliberate targeting of civilians during the massive bombing of Aleppo. The United Nations is now labeling this as a war crime. All this seems to have caused an increased belligerence on Putin’s part. It also seems to have had the effect of increasing his popularity at home.

It seems that many Russians don’t mind living in an autocracy.