Saturday June 17, 2017

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To Daffodils

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
     You haste away so soon:
As yet the early-rising sun
     Has not attained his noon
               Stay, stay,
     Until the hasting day
               Has run
     But to the evensong;
And, having prayed together, we
     Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay as you;
     We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
     As you or anything.
               We die,
     As your hours do, and dry
     Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
     Ne’er to be found again.

“To Daffodils” by Robert Herrick. Public domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of religious leader John Wesley (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England (1703). He was saved from a fire when he was five years old, and later believed that God had saved him for a purpose. He became a priest and joined a religious study group that other people nicknamed the “Methodists,” because of their emphasis on methodical rules of living: they prayed and fasted according to strict schedules.

Wesley was the most methodical of them all. He wrote in his diary: “Have I prayed with fervor? Have I after every pleasure immediately given thanks? Have I been or seemed angry? Has good will been and appeared the spring of all my actions toward others?” At first he asked these questions of himself each day, and then he began to ask them each hour, keeping track of his answers.

In 1735, Wesley moved to the United States to serve as the priest for a settlement in Georgia. But the settlers didn’t much care for his methodical ways of living, and they ran him out of town.

He returned to England and began to travel around the wilderness on horseback, preaching to all the common people he came across: factory workers, miners and farmers. He preached in rented halls, on street corners, and in fields. He ultimately rode about 250,000 miles through the English, Scottish, and Irish countryside, preaching 42,000 sermons along the way. He said, “Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I did seven years ago.”

Wesley was always a member of the Anglican Church, and his only idea was to create small groups within the Anglican Church to meet regularly for prayer and Bible study. But when Methodists missionaries traveled to the United States, their ideas took hold, and their followers considered themselves members of a new religion. They appointed their own bishops and ministers and created their own church laws and traditions, separate from the Church of England. The Methodist Church became the church of the colonists on the frontier, as well as African Americans, both slave and free.

By 1850, the United Methodist Church held more members than any other Christian denomination in the United States. It was thought of as the most mainstream of all denominations. A convert needed only to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and everyone’s personal savior. Methodists believed that all other questions about Christianity were up for discussion. Wesley said, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”

Methodists have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other Protestant denomination. A 19th-century Methodist preacher named William Booth noticed that his lower-class converts were often turned away from respectable churches, so he founded the Salvation Army to reach the poor and needy. Methodists also started Goodwill Industries in 1902, with stores across the country that employ people with disabilities to repair furniture and mend old clothes to be sold at a discount.

It was also Methodists who started the temperance movement, and a Methodist founded the YMCA. Methodists were a big part of the abolitionist movement, and the anti-segregation movement, and it was a Methodist who signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, integrating major league baseball for the first time.

Americans who were brought up in the Methodist Church include Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley, as well as Barry Goldwater, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Bob Dole, and Hillary Clinton.

It’s the birthday of Igor Stravinsky, born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of St. Petersburg, Russia (1882), to an opera singer father. He wasn’t a happy kid. He described his childhood as, “a period waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell.” He didn’t have many friends and he didn’t do well in school, but he liked music. When he was two years old, he surprised his parents by humming from memory a folk tune he had heard some women singing.

Stravinsky’s first major success as a composer was a ballet based on a Russian folk tale called “The Firebird” (1909). It was wildly popular and he traveled all over Europe to conduct it, becoming famous. Then, one night, he got an idea for a ballet about a pagan ritual in which a virgin would be sacrificed to the gods of spring by dancing herself to death. Stravinsky drew on dozens of Russian folk songs for the melodies, but instead of using those melodies in any conventional way, he chopped them up and threw them together into a dissonant collage of sounds with a relentless off beat rhythm.

He composed the piece on a piano in a rented cottage, and a boy working outside his window kept shouting up at him that the chords were all wrong. When Stravinsky played part of the piece for director of the theater where it would be performed, the director asked, “How much longer will it go on like that?” Stravinsky replied, “To the end, my dear.” Stravinsky’s ballet was choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky one of the most experimental choreographers at the time. Instead of having the dancers leap gracefully about, Nijinsky ordered them to perform a primitive dance, bowing their heads and pounding their feet on the floor along with the rhythms of the music.

The theater director Sergei Diaghilev knew that the ballet could cause a scandal, and so he encouraged it. He deliberately invited people he knew would love the piece, and people he knew would hate it. He took an ad out in that morning’s newspaper, suggesting that this new ballet would provoke passionate discussions. And he gave orders to the conductor that the performance should go on to the end, no matter what happened.

But no one could have known how violently the crowd would react. It was unseasonably hot on this evening in May 1913, so it’s possible that the audience was more restless than usual. The audience sat quietly through the first several minutes of the piece, but when the music suddenly turned harsh and dissonant, people in the audience began to shout at the stage.

Fights broke out between the audience members. People who were enjoying the music attacked those who were booing. People spat in each other’s faces. Men exchanged cards in order to fight duels the next day. The police were called to remove hecklers between the first and second acts, but the disruption continued.

Stravinsky was so upset by the response that he left his seat in disgust. Nijinsky spent the performance standing on a chair in the wings, shouting out the counts to the dancers, who couldn’t hear the music over all the booing. The piece lasted only 33 minutes, but by the end, the audience had nearly erupted into a riot.

The event went down as one of the most legendary artistic moments of the 20th century. Like Woodstock, many more people claimed to have been there that night than could actually have been there. Almost overnight, Stravinsky became one of the hippest artists in the world. A year after its premiere, “The Rite of Spring” was performed without dancing, and when it was over, members of the audience carried Stravinsky out on their shoulders.

Stravinsky went on to compose many more pieces of music. He never waited for inspiration to compose. He said he kept banker’s hours at his worktable. After his early success, he began to compose colder, more intellectual music, though he also once composed a polka for a dancing elephant in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Igor Stravinsky said, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

And, “My music is best understood by children and animals.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®