Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bumps Along the Road to Freedom

We may escape a close encounter with tyranny. As the GOP self-destructs, The Nation declares that Democrats are poised to roll back the excesses of George W. Bush. The battle is won when Democrats retake the government; the war is lost if Democrats fail to restore the republic and the Constitution. We have stared into Nietzche's abyss and saw ourselves! We remain our greatest threat since the 1930s.

Every heroic struggle deserves an equally heroic soundtrack. In 1830, Hector Berlioz orchestrated not a film score --but a life score: La Marseillaise.

Casablanca - Rick´s Bar

The year 1830 was recalled by Hector Berlioz in his memoirs. While he had been two weeks shut up in the Paris Conservatoire writing a cantata, a revolution had broken out.

I was finishing my cantata when the Revolution broke out," "I dashed off the final pages of my orchestral score to the sound of stray bullets coming over the roofs and pattering on the wall outside my window. On the 29th I had finished, and was free to go out and roam about Paris till morning, pistol in hand. A day or two later I was crossing the courtyard of the Palais Royal when I heard a tune I knew well - a dozen or so young men singing a battle hymn of my composition [one of the Neuf Mélodies on texts of Thomas Moore]. Unused as I was to this kind of popularity, the discovery delighted me and I pushed my way through to the circle of singers and requested permission to join them. The audience grew steadily and the space round the little patriotic band got smaller and smaller. We barely escaped, and fled with the crowd streaming behind us till we reached the Galérie Colbert. There a haberdasher asked us up to a second-floor balcony, where we could 'rain down our music on our admirers' without the risk of being suffocated.

We struck up the Marseillaise. Almost at once a holy stillness fell upon the seething mass at our feet. After each refrain there was a profound silence. This is not at all what I had expected. On beholding that vast concourse of people I recalled that I had just arranged Rouget de Lisle's song for double chorus and full orchestra, and that where one normally writes 'tenors and basses' I had written instead 'everyone with a voice, a soul and blood in his veins.' After the fourth verse I could contain myself no longer, and I yelled, 'Confound it all - sing!' The great crowd roared out its Aux armes citoyens! with the power and precision of a trained choir.

--Memoirs of Hector Berlioz on La Marseillaise

Berlioz dedicated his setting of the Marseillaise to the anthem's author, Rouget de Lisle, who, by 1830, was living in indigent retirement in Choisy, on the southern fringes of Paris. The rise in popular democratic zeal surrounding the 1830 Revolt caused a renewed interest in his patriotic hymn, and King Louis-Philippe granted the poet an annual pension of 1500 francs. De Lisle wrote Berlioz a letter of appreciation on December 30, 1830, inviting Berlioz to visit him in Choisy to discuss an unnamed proposal. "I heard later," Berlioz continued in his Memoirs, "that de Lisle - who incidentally wrote many fine songs besides the Marseillaise - had an unpublished libretto on Othello that he wished to offer me. Being obliged to leave Paris on the day after I received this letter [for Rome as prize winner], I sent my apologies and explained that my visit would have to wait until after my return from Italy. The poor man died in the interval. I never met him."

--La Marseillaise - Berlioz

And in historical New Orleans, a reminder that the city's current problems with the Federal Government in Washington are not new.
New Orleans, LA (AHN) - The City Council of New Orleans unanimously voted to demolish 4,500 government-subsidized homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, despite overwhelming criticism and riotous protests that included a brawl in the council chamber before the vote.

The 7-member council supported a redevelopment plan of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to replace the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte and St. Bernard public housing projects with a mixed-use development that has 744 public housing units. ...

--Update 2: New Orleans City Council Unanimously Votes To Demolish Public Housing, December 20, 2007 7:01 p.m. EST

History, it seems, does repeat itself. Certainly, the battle for "liberte" is not won. In 1917, the government of the United States --the War Department, I believe --imperiously decided that certain parts of New Orleans had no right to exist. Those areas were "shut down", residents forced to relocate. The War Department presided over the destruction of property. I call that tyranny!

Billie Holiday & Louis Armstrong - Farewell to Storyville

The area is known to us as "Storyville" for Alderman Sidney Story, who decreed in 1898 that prostitution should be legal in the area called by locals --"the District". The photographic images of photographer E J Bellocq, circa 1912, are among the few visual records of Storyville that survive. Bellocq, a commercial photographer for shipping companies, is remembered for the "studies" he made of working women in Storyville. His images, at once prurient and artistic, capture perfectly the ambiguity with which the rest of the US regarded New Orleans --a "French city" in America, a city in which the famous French Impressionist Edgar Degas lived for a while and produced important work. He found himself in the middle of post-Civil War politics. New Orleans itself was comfortable "in its own skin" if puritans elsewhere in the South were not.

I have yet to find the legal authority for the Federal Government's closure of Storyville during World War I. The New Orleans City Government protested vigorously to no avail. Nevertheless, with the Storyville's loss segregated "dens of prostitution" emerged around the city. By the 1930s very little remained of famous old mansions along Basin Street, some of the finest structures in the city. It seemed a deliberate effort to erase the very memory of Storyville. Efforts to rename Basin Street "North Saratoga" failed. Today, Basin Street is Basin Street and a classic blues tune bears its name. The video above is from a 1947 film featuring Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.

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