San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



July 1962

Last Stand of la Vie Méditerranée
Packing in the Sierras
The Intermountain Country
Research for Peace?
The Aspen Idea
A Tribute to Darius Milhaud
Midwest Trying to Be French
Debussy’s Lovely Trio




Last Stand of la Vie Méditerranée

Back when I was a young lad I had a job with one of Chicago’s red hot publicity men. We used to marry people in balloons and photograph judges in cowboy hats. It was a big day when we got pix on the back of the pink sheet of lady opera stars in the black panthers’ cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

This kind of PR still goes on. Nifty gents in bow ties still get paid substantial sums for setting it up, even though the papers seldom use it any more. I don’t just wonder if it pays. I wonder if, in this latter day, now that everybody is frightfully overcivilized, it is worth anything at all. I suspect it has a reverse effect.

One of the most remarkable examples of effective mid-20th-century public relations hereabouts is also one of the more enjoyable musical events of the year. I am not even sure if it was started with any public relations end in view. Knowing the people involved, I am inclined to think it was in fact a devotion to good music finding outlet in an act of gracious patronage. Whatever the intention, it surely must be good indeed for the business concerned.

As you may suspect, I am talking about “Music at the Vineyards,” the chamber music concerts which the Fromm brothers stage each summer at the Paul Masson winery above Saratoga. Last Sunday was an all Schubert day, with the Trout Piano Quintet and the Octet in F Major. The music is amongst the loveliest of its kind. It was played with a swinging ease that matched the setting. But it was the setting itself which, as always, was the star of the show.

The site reminds me of a place I stayed a few years back with my girls — the convent-pension of Monte Berico, perched on a shoulder of the Berico hills, overlooking the Veneto plain, above Vicenza.

This was as near to paradise on earth as I have ever experienced, but the site of the Masson winery must run it a close second. Palo Alto is not Padua, but it has its towers; Sunnyvale is not Venice, but there’s the dome of the old dirigible hangar, all shimmering in the midsummer haze.

What counts are those essential signs of civilization, the vine, the olive and the fig, falling away in terraces, high above the busy towns. The birds are not nightingales, but as the violins rise to the high notes and fall away, they sing just as madly in the pomegranate trees. Even the winery itself — it’s just a winery, though very old by California standards, but it looks much like a little Romanesque church perched above some Italian village, unknown to tourism.

What is really important is not that it is like Italy, but that it is like northern California. It’s ours, and it is we who are the last stand of la vie méditerranée, the life of the vine and olive around that slopping tideless sea which is all the civilization Western Man has ever been able to manage.

Barcelona is a haunted city. Even the Provençals say Marseille is “just like Chicago” — even though it isn’t, quite. Genoa and Naples are warrens of blood-chilling poverty. Athens, with all its joy of life, is today a provincial town. The light that shone on the Jerusalem of Solomon, and the Athens of Pericles, and the Rome of Marcus Aurelius has come to shine on us, half way around the world.

I suppose one of the signs of such a life is precisely a common talent for intimate patronage, personally concerned, in what might be called a domestic setting. Certainly back in the old days, one of the most San Franciscan things about San Francisco was the music presented to the public in her home by “Aunt Cora.” We haven’t any emperors or kings or city despots or grand dukes about, but how nice it would be if this habit would catch on again and a whole lot of Mrs. Koshlands and Senator Phelans would spring up.

It might even be very good business — I can’t imagine Mouton Rothschild or Chateau Lafitte giving public concerts and handing out free wine, but I do imagine that the Fromms have found that it sells more merchandise than getting photographed in a cage with a black panther.

[July 1, 1962]




Just back from Anchorage, Alaska (before that at Aspen, Colo.), and I got to thinking about the immense meaning of America. Then I noticed that this column would appear on the Fourth of July. Before I sat down to write I remarked that I thought I would do a piece on patriotism for the occasion. So everybody said to me, “I suppose you will start off quoting Sam Johnson.”

So I will start off quoting Sam Johnson, who in his dictionary put the entry: “Patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel.”* “Flag waving,” “Fourth of July oratory,” almost all the words and phrases connected with patriotism are words of contempt. Is this because the bulk of the population is unpatriotic? I think not. Quite the contrary, the less the patrioteering, the greater the love of country.

This is true of nations as well as individuals. Germany has been a nation only since 1870. Japanese chauvinism and emperor worship was invented by a tiny group of intellectuals about the time of the French Revolution. Russia is ridden by sectional rivalries, and to the amazement of the world a huge Ukrainian army deserted and went over to the Nazi invaders.

The British, on the other hand, are always making sarcastic remarks about the insufferably middle-class royal family, the absurdity of the medieval rituals of their government, the death of their empire, and their personal inefficiency and inadequacy as people.

I remember the night somebody read Chesterton over the shortwave BBC. “The men who fought for England, they have their graves afar. The men who rule in England, alas, alas for England, they have no graves as yet.”** In that night the Chamberlain government fell and the young men who had signed the Oxford pledge went out to die in the sky over London by the thousands.

Patriotism is as inseparable from modesty and honesty is from courage. You cannot exercise the one virtue without the other.

I don’t talk about the glories of America, but I’ve seen them all from Point Barrow to Puerto Rico, and its highways and airways and railroads are like nerves in my own body, its rivers like blood vessels and its mountains like bones.

I may point the finger of sarcasm at its follies and view its errors with dismay, but folks tell me I am as American as Will Rogers. On the other hand, when I am abroad the locals refuse to believe I am an American. They always think I am from some part of their own country where people speak a particularly abominable dialect.

I don’t want to be immodest about my own modesty — but I do think that’s it. The man who truly loves his country is at home anywhere in the world. Love of one’s country includes responsibility and kinship with all men everywhere. Such patriotism may be inconspicuous, but it does inspire confidence.

[July 4, 1962] 


*The remark was indeed by Samuel Johnson, but he made it in conversation, not in his Dictionary.

**Rexroth is quoting roughly from memory. The actual Chesterton poem reads: “The men who fought for England, / Following a falling star, / Alas, alas for England / They have their graves afar. / The men who rule in England, / On stately conclave met, / Alas, alas for England / They have no graves — as yet.”



Packing in the Sierras

Back up in the mountains on a pack trip with my two daughters. I find myself thinking of the difficulties in the way of getting proper recreational use of the Sierra Nevada wilderness areas.

The season is too short and the capital outlay too great for pack outfits to make substantial profits. In addition, the overhead is tremendous.

The days are gone when the cowboy used to say, “I’ll work fourteen hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year for a dollar a day, but by gum, the rest of my time’s my own.” Nowadays they get high wages. All the horses must carry heavy insurance, whether they are working or not, camp cooks are almost unobtainable, and it’s a long time since the Forest or Park Services have been giving away the country for free. Although prices are many times what they were when, as a boy, I worked as a packer, the demand is still there. But the work and the return are so unsatisfactory that it’s a declining business.

It’s too bad, because this is all the taste of the Old West anybody but a few cowboys in Wyoming and Montana is ever likely to get nowadays. I have gone in the mountains every summer since I first came west 37 years ago. My daughters have had their birthdays on pack trips excepts when we were in Europe. I guess it will last my time, but it is a dying sport.

What will take its place? At present there are hundreds of sections in Sequoia-Kings River National Park which are never visited over periods of 10 years. Traffic is too heavy along the main trails; other areas, equally beautiful, have been visited only by the original surveyors.

Suppose this is all opened up to helicopter? The Sonora Pass region is the finest high mountain country immediately accessible to San Francisco. What will happen if it is possible to leave the city and be established in a camp at a lake in Emigrant Basin in a matter of minutes?

Still in America we have wildernesses larger than many European countries. Here our civilization, which is getting further and further from its roots in nature, can literally recreate itself, on skis in winter, with a trout rod in summer, with a rifle in autumn. There’s only one trouble. More and more people need recreating. Not only that, but they demand it and can afford it.

As it is now, what the head shrinkers call their case load is more than the State and National Parks and the National Forest Services can handle. It is a case load too, and they are engaged in an essential activity of public health. Yet many wilderness regions of the United States get less money from the public purse now than they did 40 years ago. I know dozens of important trails in the mountains that have not been repaired since the Three C boys went through in the ’30s.

What will happen when we stop making bombs and devote the money to life enhancement instead of destruction? Unless we are very careful, we’ll just transport our problems from the Western Addition to the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Another things that has occurred to me on this trip is the changing patterns of vacations themselves. They too are yielding to group dynamics. Friends of mine have taken over the old Strawberry Hotel in the Sonora Pass country. They plan to run it as a hostel for group conferences, seminars, even possibly musical and art gatherings. What this is planned to be is a kind of poor man’s Aspen. Funding Aspen cost Walter Paepcke a vast pot of money. Now the idea is catching on as a feasible commercial proposition.

Nobody will ever make a fortune at it, but it’s fun to run, and, as the fellow said, you meet such a nice class of people.

This is the same scheme as Mike Murphy has at Big Sur Hot Springs, where I was before Easter. I know, cynics say, “What are people going to do with all this leisure? Most of them will just get drunk or watch television or both.”

As a matter of fact, some of them are apparently going to start acting like Socrates and his friends, and others are going to make a modest competence taking care of them while they do. Some of the human race behave quite nicely if given a chance.

[July 8, 1962]



The Intermountain Country

Katherine, my younger daughter, is becoming quite a wit. Possibly it’s self-defense, because I sometimes think Mary, the older one, acts like a juvenile combination of Harriet Martineau and Ida Rubenstein. Younger daughters usually, perforce, take a humorous view of life.

The other morning, our first day in the mountains, Katherine sat up in her sleeping bag and asked, “Do geese have people pimples?” Later, driving over Sonora Pass and then up to Tuolomne Meadows by Tioga Pass, she told us a story about the rich old Indian whose son, Falling Rocks, said to his father, “I’m going up in the mountains to hunt deer,” and who never came back. And so the old man spent his fortune searching for the lost boy. On all the mountain roads in the United States and Canada he put up signs: “Watch For Falling Rocks.”

We had a fine time in the mountains. At first we were going to pack out, but the boss packer where we stopped was, as they say, a doubtful quantity at best, so we went over to Tuolomne Meadows and stayed in the auto camp and hiked all over the Sierra uplands.

The peaks were still under snow, and the meadows were in the first flower of spring. This means, of course, that they were also full of mosquitoes, but then Sierra mosquitoes don’t really know how to bite for keeps. The water was too high and there was too much feed (the mosquitoes) to fish. Natheless, we had one of the best times ever.

I know of few more beautiful mountain trips by car than the circuit, Sonora Pass, Bridgeport, Mono Lake, Lee Vining, Tioga Pass, Tuolomne Meadows. I once had an opportunity to settle in Bridgeport and I’ve always rather regretted that I didn’t take it up. I wonder what kind of person I would have become?

It’s one of the earth’s most noble landscapes, the dark sedge meadows and pale olive sagebrush plains and bare peaks of the intermountain country.

It always thrills me, in the spring of the year, to cross the Sierra and drop down through the perfumed air, picking up, one by one, the characteristic flowers of a biological province that stretches with little variation from Canada deep into Mexico. Prickly white poppies, large pale blue pentstemon, blazing star, and pale blue Nevada iris in all the meadows, with the yellow-headed blackbirds singing over them, and at night, the sky full of bull-bats, Texas nighthawks with their lonely piercing cry and the startling zoom of the wings as they dive and recover in their dance in the evening air.

Yes, maybe I should have stayed in Bridgeport. I might have become a character in an Ernest Haycox novel. There are worse fates. Probably, though, I would have left and returned to San Francisco and in July 1962 would be writing a column about the beauties of the intermountain country. You can’t fight City Hall.

[July 11, 1962]



Research for Peace?

Recently I was in a discussion group with a director of one of the largest research and development organizations working for the Armed Forces. This outfit is often referred to as the National Academy of Death and Destruction.

Those who deal in words must feel that their commodity is vital to the public life. If they lost confidence in their merchandise, they might have to go out and get a job. Newspapermen are almost the only word merchants who look on their products with a slightly jaded eye. Editorial writers know through years of bitter experience that what the public is interested in, by and large, is the funnies, the sports pages, society gossip, recipes and crime — “candy, sex and bloodshed” — urchins will be urchins.

Anyway, I am inclined to think that my friend’s research organization is much more like the WPA Writers’ Project than it is like the organization of mad scientists that take over the planet in horror comics.

That is not, however, what I want to write about. I want to write about one little question and one little answer in his long talk and the following discussion. This man is in a position to know pretty much what is going on in every research and development outfit in the country.

Someone asked him, “Is there a research and development program concerned with planning for peace? With the possibilities of ‘phase-out’ (which is a technical term for a kind of stud poker of step-by-step disarmament)? With the techniques of transition to a peacetime economy?” He answered, “Not that I know of.”

If he didn’t know, it is not likely that anybody else does. The small audience was composed exclusively of people who by the nature of their work, should know. Nobody did.

What’s going on here? Here we are in a super-Keynesian economy, where everybody is getting rich throwing away money. Doesn’t anybody at all believe enough in even the remote possibility of peace breaking out to waste a little conspicuous expenditure of the taxpayers’ money on it? It’s not 100-percent completely ridiculous to contemplate. Peace just might break out.

I sometimes wonder if maybe the economic fictitious values of precisely our Keynesian economy have not corrupted the very things for which we spend our funny money. They say of the fortunes you are supposed to be able to make in Hollywood that it’s snow money and melts away on your outstretched hand and can only be negotiated for swimming pools. Maybe everything is getting like that; maybe it’s all one big WPA Writers’ Project and Hollywood cocktail party.

I was around in those days and I must say I find more and more sections of real and earnest life getting to be just like those Egyptian fleshpots of my youth.

Recently, across the top of the editorial page, we’ve run pieces on two of the most pressing problems of our time. These are, it occurs to me, microcosmic and macrocosmic aspects of precisely the same thing. They are the international chaos resulting from the liberation and enfranchisement in our poor excuse for a “Parliament of Nations” of 32 African nations and the liberation from centuries of oppression in the South of a sizable proportion of the newly migrated population of our northern cities. Is anything being done about this dual problem, really?

Sure, there is a lot of statistically buttressed, Ph.D.-employing, hand-wringing, heavily financed by Foundations and Government. Does it mean anything?

We do not have a phase-out program for the remote possibility of peace. Neither do we have a phase-out program for the immediate pressing actuality of the vast changes taking place in the life of our great cities. Is there some hidden economic factor that determines that our public money be spent only destructively or foolishly?

You’d think that here in the Bay Area, where it is still possible to do something, people would buckle down to — not some fatuous sociological survey — but a hard-nosed action program that would begin to cope with actualities. We are still short of the critical point which is a point of no return.

Recently I was entertaining Herb Hill, labor secretary of the NAACP. We got into a discussion of the problems of Chicago. After an hour or so in which some ten people gnawed at Chicago, we came to unanimous agreement that the best thing to do would be simply to walk away and leave it. The only way to cope with Chicago is to evacuate it — abandon it to the horror of the archeologists of the year 3500 A.D.

If we don’t watch out, some day we are going to be saying that about San Francisco. In fact, some day we are going to be saying it about the planet Earth.

[July 15, 1962]



The Aspen Idea

ASPEN (Colo.) — I am getting to be a regular inhabitant of this place and I must say it doesn’t bother me at all. There is nothing I enjoy more. Besides, I know of no educative process of any kind, dealing with any age group, which is, per capita, more effective.

CBS is up here doing a TV show, “The Aspen Idea.” With characteristic Madison Avenue marksmanship they have missed the target altogether. When Walter Paepcke established Aspen, he thought of the executive seminars as the heart of the plan. The Music Festival, skiing, and all the conferences on questions of culture and society — like the recent design conference and the one on science and the citizen that I just attended — these were to be subsidiary.

The main idea was to involve those men in the national community who determine its politics, its wealth, and possibly its fate, in a continuing dialogue about the most important issues of life.

The curious thing is that this is something like what the Bolsheviks do in Russia, something like what the Fathers of the Church and the philosophers of the Middle Ages did, too. The significant difference is the free-ranging choice of topics and the still freer liberty of discussion.

I would like to see this thing spread from Aspen through all our society, like an infection from a single puncture of a mosquito’s proboscis. This is one benign disease we’d all be better for having, all the time.

Freedom of thought is meaningless unless it is exercised. A dying beggar woman in the gutters of Calcutta has always been at perfect liberty to dream she was the Queen of England. It is freedom of thought in action that matters. And this means that those who assume responsibility for acting in society’s name, if they are to be really responsible, must continuously question the meaning — the immediate meaning, and the ultimate significance — of their acts. A leadership which does not have the power to recollect itself is at once sterile and dangerous.

It may seem very silly to the unenlightened to suggest that it would be a good idea if police chiefs, once a year, found themselves involved in discussions of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” or bankers did a little worrying about Marx or Adam Smith. It is not the texts that matter, although certainly the topics should be as provocative as possible; it is the conflict and testing of ideas in the minds of those who know how to make ideas work.

The great trouble with an academic seminar in the Golden Rule or the Communist Manifesto or the banking laws of the State of California, is that nobody engaged could possibly do anything about such matters if he were given the chance, and he isn’t likely ever to be given the chance.

If, in every community in America, the people who can “do something about it” periodically sat down and discussed what is “do,” what is “something,” what is “about,” and what is “it,” I for one think things would start picking up.

[July 18, 1962]



A Tribute to Darius Milhaud

Big doings at Aspen last week. It was Darius Milhaud’s 70th birthday and the 14th of July was turned into a town-wide celebration — of France and of Milhaud. Since he has been, for a good many years, as much a resident of the Bay Area as of his native country, I think we, too, owe him something of a tribute, even though it is not likely to take the form of dancing on Market St.

Customarily, tributes like this take the form of lavish and uncritical praise. Being a chronic exceptionalist, I would like to try to estimate his significance just a bit more accurately.

Back in the days after the First World War, when he and his associates amongst modern French composers formed the famous group, Les Six, he towered above the rest of them. There was a kind of masterful ordinance and confidence of delivery in his music that they could not manage. In addition, the first Piano Sonata, the Saudades do Brasil, the early songs, speak with an intonation new to French music.

As the years have passed, the relative weight of the contributors to that famous collection of little pieces that constituted the manifesto of the group has changed. Some are forgotten. Auric went on to write amongst the best, and amongst the very most engaging music ever written for films. For a while Honegger occupied, so to speak, the center of the stage. As it came out, his music seemed fresh, exciting, one of the last words in modernism. Much of this work is seldom played today. His most popular work remains his oratorio, where he returns to and modifies profoundly the musical tradition from which he sprang.

At the present moment I suppose Poulenc, once the clown of the group, stands highest in popular estimation. He is certainly what we mean when we say he is the “most French.” He is closest still to the master of them all, to Erik Satie, whose music still functions, like the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, as the pivot, the turning point or watershed of modern French music.

Poulenc has ranged far from the musical vocabulary of Satie, but he has never lost that master’s pricelessly French qualities of reasonableness, clarity, order and, above all, wit. Musically he is still a clown, but a transcendental clown. In this, his development has been somewhat like Prokofiev’s.

I wonder if Darius Milhaud’s most popular record to this day may not well be La Création du Monde. This is a tour de force if ever there was one. It is really the only piece of so-called classical music to use the materials of American jazz convincingly.

Furthermore, it advances those materials to a point which jazz itself was not to arrive at for another 15 or 20 years. Back in the days of Jelly Roll Morton and Jack Teagarden, Milhaud wrote something that sounds remarkably like Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington a full generation later. The difference is that it is incomparably more complex in both musical and emotional meaning and so much more satisfying.

Having so proved his point, Milhaud never returned to this idiom — at least not for any very ambitious work.

Then a curious change takes place. Possibly under the influence of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, Milhaud’s music become superficially more simple, more chaste, more “white,” even more diatonic, often medieval, that is modal, in structure. At the same time the ethnic, musicological, so to speak, resources of music assume greater prominence, or at least they seem to do so.

Do they really? After all, the Saudades do Brasil are folkloristic enough to satisfy anybody. What Milhaud really did, it seems to me, was to continue to dig at the roots of music, but at less exotic roots. He returned to the sources of his own tradition as a man — to the folk music of Provence, and to his specific inheritance in Jewish music.

There is a town named Milhaud in Provence. Under the beautiful 18th-century synagogue in Carpentras, not far from Milhaud’s Aix-en-Provence, lie stones that were once the foundations of the oldest synagogue in Europe. Jews have been in that part of the world as long as anybody. They were there centuries before the Romans, and probably before the Greeks.

As Poulenc speaks for the Metropole, with its irony, its sophistication, and its ennui, Milhaud speaks for the sorrows and the fun and the wisdom of that Mediterranean life whose roots go deeper into an earth that has been cultivated for thousands of years longer than the fields of the Gauls, and whose soil is fertilized with the blood and bones of uncounted generations . . . as a famous Jewish exile once said, he is a citizen of no mean community.

[July 22, 1962]



Midwest Trying to Be French

Some years back, without previous consultation, President Lynn White of Mills College and I appeared the same month in a couple of magazines with stories explaining San Francisco to the rest of the country. We both made the point that San Francisco and New Orleans were the only large cities in the USA that were not settled overland by the westward spread of originally British and predominately Puritan populations.

Remember the great New Year’s Eves before the Second War when they used to close off all of Market Street and the whole population danced and capered about? I always thought it was much better than New Orleans’s Mardi Gras, and it was completely spontaneous and uncommercialized. I was most forcibly reminded of those nights last week in Aspen, Colo.; in fact, I was shocked.

Aspen, which is a summer and winter resort with no other occupations than pleasure, fashion and culture, decided to celebrate the 14th of July as a tribute to Darius Milhaud, who has been a leading figure in its music festival for years, and as a sort of general homage to France.

The community convulsed itself to stage an authentic Bastille Day, a genuine streets of Paris in the Rockies. There was to be dancing in the streets, fireworks, balloons and even a fake guillotine you could get yourself photographed in — in other words, “Cut loose, feel free, let joy be unrefined.”

How did it go? It laid an egg, in fact an ostrich egg. The children and I went into town expecting at least we’d be able to “dance in the streets,” an activity that had been discussed around us with bated breath for a week — as though it were one of the more lurid of what the press calls “deviations.”

Standing around a windy bandstand occupied by a group of disorganized young men who were trying hard to make like Bix Beiderbecke and not succeeding, were the music students. In costume and grooming they did resemble Jack Kerouac’s more disgraceful associates, male and female. Did they dance? No. They just stood around self-consciously and goofed off. Then three lads, possibly really French, struck up with a farandole on pipe, accordion and tambour. Mary and I danced. Everybody else formed a snake dance and blundered through the crowd. And that was that. That’s all the Quatorze there was.

Mary said, “What’s the matter with these people?” I said, “Mary, you have looked on the face of the Middle West trying to be French. Never forget it.”

However, down at the other end of the street the only people who enjoyed themselves that night were square dancing, sashaying and doseydoing with vim and vigor.

Lynn White and I were right, you can’t teach an old culture new tricks.

So when I say, as I often do, that if I had to leave San Francisco and still stay on this side of the water I’d go to Montreal, you’ll know what I mean.

I flatly refuse to learn doseydo or eat succotash and I don’t care for the pictures of Grant Wood. I don’t even think they’re funny.

[July 25, 1962]



Debussy’s Lovely Trio

Gracious migracious, I’ve certainly been doing a lot of gadding about this summer.

Back in town for a couple of days between trips, with just enough time to take my daughter to Music at the Vineyards today. It is an all-Debussy program and features the lovely posthumous trio for flute, viola and harp, for my taste the best thing Debussy ever wrote. Not only does it have a special quiet complexity, the summation of a lifetime of musical exploration, but it is a marvel of instrumentation. It makes the three instruments sound as if they were invented just for the purpose of playing it.

Curious, how modesty and an exquisite sense of color and intonation can make three of the oldest kinds of instruments known to man sound utterly new and absolutely just. Yet on the other hand, all my lifetime, from Leo Ornstein through Henry Cowell and George Antheil and Edgar Varèse and Harry Partch to the bubble and squeak of the electronic and concrete boys, once the moans and whistles and miscellaneous racket would let up — what came out? Something, I fear, very much like “Danny Boy” or “The Kashmiri Love Song,” or “Dardanella” on the Theremin.

True musical originality may well be exactly the opposite to the hankering for “new musical resources.” Music after all says things, not verbal things, but quite definite communication nonetheless. In the greatest composers these things are new and urgent and create new forms because they demand utterance on their own terms. Sometimes they are absurd, as in Scriabine, and all the novelty is only rhetoric. It is even possible to be original with a kind of hackneyed originality, as for instance in the case of that insectivorous musician, Reger.

Like Stravinsky, Debussy was gifted in his day with an accurate originality — it fitted its subject exactly, it went straight to the heart of its target. So it is still original while Leo Ornstein isn’t even very funny.

* * *

I have come back from Aspen with a sense of foreboding. Last year Izler Solomon, the conductor who had made Aspen what it is, resigned after what someone called a clandestine struggle of unique duplicity had blown up under his feet. The effect of this on the morale of the orchestra was, to put it mildly, conspicuous.

Every effort was made to make this the greatest year of all. I don’t know about the rest of the season, but the two weeks I was there were a failure — a “failure of nerve.” Great artists, special guests — namely Messiaen, Piston, Sauguet (with Milhaud as a regular composer in residence) — all this glamour and talent could not overcome the evident fact that the place was suffering from a hangover.

Resentment and bitterness simmered underneath and erupted in personal rudeness, squeaky violins and missed high C’s.

Walter Susskind is a masterful and careful conductor and he did manage to hold the orchestra together and make it sound more or less like a unified instrument, but you were always aware of the limits of his control. You felt that, the second his back was turned, the musicians would not start hitting each other over the head with their instruments, but that certainly they would, in short order, be playing at sixes and sevens. Needless to say, a situation like this puts a conductor at a considerable disadvantage.

The lesson is obvious. If this can happen at Aspen, worse can happen at San Francisco.

I don’t want to pluck at our bandages — but we certainly have a problem. Somehow we have got to make the next Symphony season a long morale-building session.

Aspen, after all, has been famous for years for the togetherness of its musicians and the skill and engaging personality of its conductor. I guess they are pulling through, and probably all the way in one summer, but it will be with considerable strain and muscular soreness.

The danger, of course, in situations like this, is that things get out of hand completely, and like the French Revolution and the Workers’ Fatherland, faction spreads and festers and at last everybody ends up purging and guillotining everybody else. What Aspen needs is the soothing hand of some musical Florence Nightingale laid on its fevered brow — and so does San Francisco.

It is a law of medicine that when music gets sick the convalescence is more critical than the disease.

[July 29, 1962]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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