Yesterday I mentioned a composer with an unsurpassable name, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. But as impressive as that is, I have reflected about it and concluded that he is not, in fact, the coolest composer. That would be Johan ("Jean") Julius Christian Sibelius (1865-1957).
True, Sibelius does not enjoy the foundational regard which Beethoven enjoys, or the utter compositional brilliance of Mozart or even the looks, bass-playing skill and monetary success of Paul McCartney. But Sibelius is cool for a number of reasons, which I shall now list for your edification.
1.) He had a big, impressive, bald Nordic head and piercing blue eyes. He must have been striking in person.
2.) There is a website devoted to describing in detail what booze Sibelius liked. (Like Gene Autry, he was a recovered alcoholic.)
3.) The monument to his memory in Helsinki looks like something out of a Terminator film. (You know, those liquid metal T3 killer robots?) That’s Sibelius' face, at the bottom.
4.) He named his home after his wife, "Ainola". In 1972 his surviving daughters willed it to Finland and it is open to the public. I have always wanted to visit; perhaps some day I shall.
5.) During his career his music elicited strong responses both pro and con. "If Sibelius is good, then the musical criteria that have been applied from Bach to Schoenberg (…) are invalid." - Theodor Adorno 1938. Even better, "Sibelius, the worst composer in the world" - René Leibowitz 1955.
6.) Did this worry him? Not a bit. He is often quoted: "Never worry about what the critics say. Nobody ever built a statue to the memory of a critic."
7.) He kept the concert music world guessing for thirty years at the end of his life when he didn't write any major music at all. This was called “the Silence at Jarvenpaa” (after the location of Ainola).
8.) Sibelius wore white jackets, vests and trousers like Mark Twain (see above). And like Ulysses S. Grant he smoked cigars. There is a website describing in detail what cigars he liked. And one of them was named in his honor.
9.) I think what I like best about Sibelius - besides his second and fifth symphonies - are the photos taken of him. Especially this one: No! I wasn't asleep! Just resting my eyes!
10.) Last, but certainly not least, nature itself prognosticated Sibelius' demise. One day, after one of his forest walks, he excitedly announced to his wife that the cranes were coming, the "birds of his youth." As they flew overhead, one broke off from the group and slowly and majestically circled Ainola. Sibelius died two days later.
Now, I don't care what kind of music you prefer - that's cool.
I voted in the Virginia primary yesterday, and affixed my "I Voted" sticker to the CD I was listening to at the time. (Normally I stick it in the book I'm reading, but this is one of those rare periods when I'm not reading a book.) It received national attention that the names of two of the four GOP candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, did not appear on the ballot - and by law a voter is not allowed to write in a candidate's name. There was much complaint about this, that perhaps Virginia's process is too unwieldy. I see it differently. Running the United States is an unimaginably complex job, requiring much staff work. How is a candidate supposed to be able to do that if his campaign cannot get his name on the ballots of all fifty states? I view it as a sort of intelligence or credibility test.
I watched an excellent British World War II espionage film last night, The Man Who Never Was (1956). Even Clifton Webb, who normally ruins films with his old queen demeanor, was good in this. It's the true story of how, in 1943, British Intelligence used a corpse to plant disinformation, "Operation Mincemeat." They created official-looking documentation describing a main attack upon Greece, and arranged for the Germans to get it. The Germans believed it and reorganized their forces expecting an attack upon Greece; the Allies then attacked Sicily. The plan was credited with saving thousands of lives.
There is a scene of real pathos in this, when a naval officer visits the father of a recently departed son and requests permission to use his body without being able to tell the father why. After a sad conversation, the father agrees. It reminded me of the best scene in Troy, when a heartbroken King Priam (Peter O'Toole) requests the return of the body of his son Hector from the vengeful Achilles (Brad Pitt).
For many years the real identity of "Major Willie Martin" (as the corpse was named) was a closely guarded secret, but it finally came to light that the body was that of a Welshman who committed suicide, Glyndwr Michael. His grave in Spain carries both his fictional and real names.
World War II: There is no end to the fascinating stories generated by that terrible conflict...
The movie starts and ends with an otherworldly Scottish poem from 1550:
Last night I dreamed a deadly dream
beyond the Isle of Skye
I saw a dead man win a fight
and I think that man was I
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