Christmas music to accompany your viewing:
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa – Happy Everything, and Everyone.
So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….
When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.
Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.
Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:
In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.
(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)
Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.
She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.
from the Wikipedia entry
Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)
The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:
As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:
Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.
Next up: Claudius:
Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’
Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.
Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome
Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)
As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.
But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.
Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.
How was she ultimately rewarded?
Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.
Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.
Then abruptly the roof fell in.
By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby – and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:
A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.
As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not – and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.
Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.
Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:
‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.
The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.
‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.
Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.
A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.
These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:
These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)
I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall. I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)
Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.
This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:
Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.
Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014. It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:
After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.
Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.
Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!
The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.
From the Naxos site
Here are the three novels in the trilogy:
I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:
I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.
It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.
The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.
Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:
Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course, Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)
Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.
So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.
For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!
First, the music:
Then, the gift of great art:
Images of love, with the profoundest gratitude:
And finally, the closing scene of A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim ‘s somewhat over-the-top portrayal of Scrooge, but in a great cause, in a film that channels Victorian London in a way that’s almost uncanny. The message could not be more profound: Redemption is always possible, but it’s best not to wait too long. Scrooge almost did. He was lucky.
I’m deeply fortunate to be blessed with so many loving friends and such a marvelous family. I wish all of you the Merriest Christmas possible!
On October 7, Carnegie Hall opened its 2015-2016 with a concert featuring the New York Philharmonic led by music director Alan Gilbert. The program opened with the world premiere of Vivo, a piece by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. (The shade of Sibelius, Lindberg’s countryman, must be rejoicing!) This was followed by Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 by Maurice Ravel.
A marvelous program, to be sure. I’ve long loved the Ravel work, a masterpiece of moody evocation. As for the Tchaikovsky, I hadn’t listened to it – really listened to it – for a long time. He’s one of my favorite composers, but in recent years, I’ve been immersed in the symphonies and orchestral suites, worked I can listen to again and again and be thrilled every time.
For those of us of my generation, the Piano Concerto No. 1 will always stir memories of Van Cliburn’s stunning victory at the 1958 International Piano Competition in Moscow. At the height of the Cold War, a gangly Texan brought the trophy home to the U.S. He was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway, the only classical musician ever to be so honored.
RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to go platinum. It was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade, eventually going triple-platinum. Cliburn won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance for this recording. In 2004, this recording was re-mastered from the original studio analogue tapes, and released on a Super Audio CD.
[from the Wikipedia entry]
My parents owned this album, as did many of my friends.
Carnegie Hall is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary. Peter Tchaikovsky himself traveled from Russia to New York City for the opening of the Hall in 1891. Among the works he conducted on that occasion was the Piano Concerto No. 1.
Last Wednesday night, the soloist was Evgeny Kissin. You can judge for yourself how terrific this performance was. I’ve watched it at least four times, and it gives me chills every time. I’ve not been able to get the music out of my head. Intense lyricism and masterful orchestration combine to create a work of transcendent power.
As for Kissin – in the New York Times review, Anthony Tommasini comments:
Mr. Kissin, who turns 44 on Saturday, has been playing Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto since his teens. Yet the hallmark of this performance was the searching curiosity he conveyed throughout. Taking a somewhat spacious tempo in the well-known opening section of the first movement, with its soaring melody and resounding piano chords, Mr. Kissin emphasized its majesty and lyricism. Not surprisingly, this consummate virtuoso effortlessly dispatched the difficulties of the piece — the arm-blurring bursts of octaves, spiraling flights of finger-twisting passagework and more.
“Arm-blurring bursts” indeed – he was a marvel!
I would watch this video sooner rather than later. I’m not sure how long it will be available online in its entirety. If you’re pressed for time, watch the Tchaikovsky, If you’re even more pressed for time, watch the Third and final movement of the concerto.
Follow this link to the video.
Lately, there’s been so much in the news that’s appalling and heartbreaking; I wanted to offer two items as harbingers, however small, of hope.
Second: a while back, in Chicago, my son Ben and I were watching my granddaughter Etta at soccer practice:
Meanwhile, Ben had struck up a conversation with another Dad. When he realized he hadn’t introduced himself, he did so, with an extended hand:
Hi, I’m Ben.
The other extended his hand also, smiled, and responded:
Hi, I’m Mohamed.
I remember thinking immediately, This is one of the (many) reasons that I, granddaughter of immigrants. love this country.
That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did. For me, Donna Leon almost never disappoints, and she didn’t this time. The saga of Flavia Petrelli, an opera singer bedeviled by an obsessed fan, was enriched as usual by the incomparable Venetian setting. Added to that, the opera in question is none other than Puccini’s Tosca.
I found myself almost pathetically eager to be once more in the company of the cultured Commissario. At the Questura, he deals skillfully with difficult, often dense superiors and prickly administrative assistants – yes, that would chiefly be the mercurial Signorina Elettra. At home, he is buoyed by the companionship provided by Paola, his spirited and fiercely intellectual wife, and his children Chiara and Raffi. (And these four really are present in one another’s lives. Not only are their dinners often festive affairs, but they also frequently lunch together – at home, enjoying delicious feasts prepared by Paola.)
In his book Opera as Drama (1956, revised 1988), Joseph Kerman famously referred to Tosca as “a shabby little shocker.” In a recent essay collection, Leon herself calls it “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” My response to all of this vilification is…YES!! Tosca is everything an opera should be: turbulent, melodramatic, filled with over the top exploding passions and glorious music, and – well, quintessentially operatic.
As usual, the city of Venice is itself a character in the drama. There are the inevitable laments over its deterioration and despoiling, particularly by the hoards of tourists who are bent on destroying what they supposedly love. And yet…As Brunetti and Paola are walking homeward on a moonlit night, they experience this:
There was no wind, so the moon was reflected as though on a plate of dark glass. No boats came for some minutes, and Brunetti remained silent, as if afraid that the sound of his voice would shatter the surface of the water and thus destroy the moon. The footsteps on the bridge stopped, and for a long time there was silence. A Number One appeared down at Vallaresso and crossed over to La Salute, breaking the spell and then the reflection. When Brunetti turned towards San Vidal, he saw motionless people on the steps below him, all transfixed by the now-shimmering moon and the silence and the facades on either side of the canal. He looked to his right and saw that the railing was lined with more motionless people, faces raised for the moon’s benediction.
Paola is moved to exclaim: “We live in Paradise, don’t we?”
I’ve featured this segment in previous posts, but it’s always worth seeing and hearing again:
I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent – Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:
Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:
In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to this strange event is 1854. The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:
David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.
Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.
Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.
Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.
This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes. Further information and speculation is therein contained.
At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?
In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.
To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.
In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil. His stated aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.
In other words, he disappeared.
This picture of a triumphant troop of Russian-backed Ukrainian soldiers appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal:
The photo, with its air of exuberant comradeship, reminded me of The Reply of the Zaporoshian Cossacks, a painting by Ilya Repin:
A Wikipedia entry tells of how this monumental work was created, and also the story behind it. (Click twice on this image to achieve maximum enlargement.)
In the video below, the painting serves a backdrop for a haunting aria from The Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev:
Sergei Prokofiev, born in the Ukraine (as were all four of my grandparents).
I have two other favorite works by Bizet. One is L’Arlesienne, in particular the Farandole from Suite No.2. I love this spirited performance, by the Deutsch-Niederländische KammerPhilharmonie (German-Dutch Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Otis Klöber.
Bizet has incorporated a medieval French Christmas carol into this music. It is called ” La marche des rois mages” (March of the Kings). Here it is, sung by the Robert Shaw Chorale:
Finally, here is the famous “Au fond du temple saint” from the opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). I don’t really know the opera, but this duet I have long known and loved. I’ve trawled YouTube listening to various performances and have not found one that comes close to this magnificent offering by baritone Alan Titus and the great tenor Jerry Hadley: