gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Music”

Music in American Life

Between editing anthologies like his Pleasures of Music (1951) and The Delights of Detection (1961), Barzun also managed to produce two influential bestsellers, a volume of his critical essays, a research-and-report handbook (still in print with a sixth edition), and a little survey that’s easily overlooked:  Music in American Life. His essay of 117 pages was written from January–July 1955, soon after publication of his other American panorama, God’s Country and Mine.

Rereading Music in American Life after “Berlioz and Barzun” recalled my initial expectation that the work would be insubstantial.  I found instead that it is fundamental, an ear-witness account of “Music Unlimited”, as an early section title sums up the effects on daily life of ubiquitous broadcasts, canned music, and the mass production of vinyl records.  His attitude remains central: “Music shares my devotion with the other arts as well as with ideas and concerns remote from art; so that my aggressive passions and my lust for rationality disperse themselves (harmlessly, I hope) over a wide territory.

That passion for Reason shows how Barzun made his own the Enlightenment’s driving force.   Yet his defense of Romanticism led some to call him a Neo-Romantic.  Rather than seeing them as irrational worshipers of emotion, Jacques championed the Romantics for making ‘an intellectual point about the emotional life.’  (Please forgive the paraphrase and lack of a citation; I may add them later.) When first reading Music in American Life, the recognition of Barzun’s Modernist ways prompted this marginalia:

If Shaw’s generation got into the habit of using the inversion trick, it may be said that JB’s talent for showing many sides simultaneously belongs with the Cubists, helping the reader to move from the dogmatic single vantage where truth has a vanishing point and use the mind to hold multiple perspectives in a single pulse of thought.

There are many examples throughout his work of the long sentence or paragraph rapidly assembled from disparate elements that Jacques chose not to break down into a rat-a-tat-tat of simple declarative sentences.  There are better examples, but here is the Music in American Life paragraph (p. 82) on LP records (“discs”) that reinforced my view that Barzun is altogether Classic, Romantic, and Modern:

“The moral is simple:  any musical addict ought to make a point of balancing his diet. Discs sustain the musical life, but the vitamins of live music make it flourish.  To vary the image, the disc is to the amateur an introducer and a reminder; to the performer it is an aid to study; to the critic, a means of comparison and judgment; and to all a source of recreation and refreshment akin to a library of plays.  But its auditory and intellectual rigidities are esthetic limitations to be mentally corrected, just like the bad acoustics of a given hall, the bad fingering of a member of the string ensemble, the bad tempo of a manic conductor, the bad mood one may be in from a stomach ache.  Music is never perfectly heard or rendered, which is why it has to be ‘monitored’ by the receiving mind, even and especially after it has been monitored in the studio.”

§

This post marks the 105th anniversary of Jacques Barzun’s birth.

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musical expression

San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastien Lang-Lessing asked guest of honor Jacques Barzun whether he would like to say anything about the evening’s Berlioz selections.  Barzun drew applause from musicians and audience alike by deferring to the orchestra’s imminent performance.  Jacques made way for the music as he rolled from front-and-center to wheelchair space along the left aisle.

Anyone there unfamiliar with Barzun’s criticism might suppose that the response to music he advocates – even after the last bar has been played – is silence.  Thanks to Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun Reader, his answer to the question “Is Music Unspeakable?” can be heard in full (pages 323–337).  Barzun begins with the elemental: “After a concert there is a natural urge to talk.  Music is a strong stimulus that calls for outward release.  But there is also the wish to be safe, the fear of saying the wrong thing.  This awkward relation of words to music is what I hope may be made clearer by considering some neglected facts.”  Jacques inoculates listeners against the “snobbish and fallacious” malady of critics and musicians who treat music as “pure” or “mathematical” and beyond the help of words.

I know Barzun much better than Berlioz, so what I have to say about the concert may sound foolish.  Though I was attending the same performance as Jacques, his experience of “Berlioz and Barzun” must have been much richer.  His keen musical perceptions and profound knowledge of the composer would resonate throughout the performance.  The distance between our seats made a difference, too.  Jacques saw the back of Concertmaster Ertan Torgul who faced the orchestra; my view from the third row right showed Mr. Torgul in profile.  Barzun’s eyes and mine were below stage level so that we could not see many musicians beyond those downstage.

From the first beat of Le Carnaval romain overture I saw the truth of Barzun’s assertion, “That the response is visceral is vividly shown when we look at players and conductors in action.”  Lang-Lessing’s baton gamboled along with his entire being.  Torgul moved with vigor despite being constrained by the violin under his chin and confined to a chair.  Between the two I could clearly see Associate Concertmaster Bonnie Terry whose spirited playing showed both through her bodily motions and the expressions flashing across her beautiful features.

Bonnie Terry
Associate Concertmaster
San Antonio Symphony

Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink may recall his last chapter, “Listening with Your Eyes.”  He relates the story of trombonist Abbie Conant’s blind audition for the Munich Philharmonic in 1980.  A screen made her gender invisible to the judges and her ability won them over.  Her unveiling prompted pay discrimination and later demotion to second chair. Eventually vindicated in court and in concert, Conant was a harbinger of the gender balance – through careers open to talent  – evident in orchestras like today’s San Antonio Symphony.  So I dismissed the lazy conjecture that Ms. Terry had been promoted for her loveliness, or denied the Concertmaster’s chair because of her sex.

Eventually I closed my eyes to her beauty, the better to attend to the entire orchestra.  Before then, however, I saw something extraordinary, a look that combined so many feelings that I still struggle to describe them.  Seriousness was there, as it had been since tuning her instrument.  Concentration focused her eyes like lasers.  If the moment had been filmed, I could pause the replay as the crucial passage approached and identify the measure about to move her eyebrows – not into a furrow or frown, but into some configuration of recognition, comprehension, an intense understanding of the composer’s meaning.  Remembering her complex expression months later, I better understand Barzun’s assertion: “What is stirred up by music lies below the emotions, or at least at the core of more than one at a time.”

Barzun elaborated his distinction between visceral and emotional responses to music in his 1951 Elson Lecture at the Library of Congress, “Music into Words.”  There he also explained by analogy how all true arts provide reverberation beyond their daubs of paint, stone shapes, or strings … of words.  Returning to Hamlet, the tragedy that helped to save young Jacques’ life, Barzun chose passages to show how art works after preparing the ground, “… art differs from workaday communication in that it transcends the literal—not excludes or denies it, for it contains it—but goes beyond.  If this is so, then another imaginary barrier between music and the other arts disappears: no art denotes or gives out information.”  The reflections on Yorick’s skull that follow – one page of twenty-seven devoted to music – should not be missed by anyone who cares about Art, especially literate artists.

No wonder that the final piece by Berlioz that Jacques wanted to hear live was the “Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet” from Tristia (Opus 18).  The conductor gave his 21st century listeners advance warning that sounds of gunfire would come from the music – presumably not from the audience or a drive-by shooting.  Crackling like fireworks comes about two-thirds of the way through the funeral march, but I do not recall whether the selection halted there or whether the orchestra played the remaining third.

In either case, that was not the last Berlioz composition performed that night.  Lang-Lessing chose as an encore the piece that Jacques asked to be excluded from the program:  the “Marche Troyenne.”  Barzun had adopted the music as Columbia University’s graduation processional and told the conductor that he was tired of it, just as many teachers grow weary of “Pomp and Circumstance.”  I hope that this last lagniappe caused Jacques no worse indigestion than the prospect that his legacy may be boiled down to that of an “educationist.”

Barzun deserves a better fate.  He has been recognized as a Great Teacher and will remain one for as long as his works continue to be read.  That happy thought suggests that more of his works should be inscribed with digital ink.  HarperCollins may find it too great a challenge to translate From Dawn to Decadence into e-reader formats.  A Jacques Barzun Reader, however, is perfectly suited to Nook, iPad, Libre, Kobo and other devices. The Harper Perennial paperback is currently out of stock at Amazon, but we can encourage HarperCollins to digitize Barzun’s cross-fertilization of the arts by simply clicking on the “Tell the Publisher! I want to read this book on Kindle” link (right column, next to picture of e-reader).

Brief quotations of Barzun can be a disservice to reader and author alike.  The lines quoted here apply well enough to the occasion, but they are hardly nutshells of either lecture or essay.  I wish that I could link to complete texts of “Is Music Unspeakable?” (originally in The American Scholar, Spring 1996, pp. 193–202); to “Music into Words” (printed in The Score, December 1954; Music and Words: From Addison to Barzun, Jack Sullivan, ed., pp. 14–31) and to Critical Questions, pp. 3–29, as editor Bea Friedland also includes “The Meaning of Meaning in Music” (pp. 75–98; and in The Musical Quarterly, January 1980, pp. 1–20) where Barzun explains:

Music—and every other art—is expressive in the same sense as a cry or a gesture.  We say to the same effect a ‘facial expression’—it has no name, but it means.  Music is of course far more complex than cries, faces, or gestures, but like a brilliant pantomime its consecutive intention is immediately perceived and understood.  No need of mentally guessing, translating, converting its passing forms into another realm of abstract or concrete perceptions.  The better word for this power is not expression but expressiveness, which—to me at least—gets rid of the imagined second term that cannot be named but would be tacked on to ‘of’ if one could name it.”

a few words before the concert

Maecenas

The Express-News report on the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert came close to accurately quoting the honoree.  Jacques compared San Antonio Symphony benefactor Charles Butt to Horace and Virgil’s patron Maecenas, the “wealthy Roman who thought that his compatriots ought to have a more elevated pleasure than having gladiators kill each other.”

Whether an editor snipped column inches or the reporter chose to turn a deaf ear to Barzun’s next remark is impossible to say.  Jacques did go on: “I was trying to think of an equivalent of gladiators killing each other and I finally hit upon it,” then he paused before delivering a punchline.  He didn’t refer grimly to the UFC’s caged combatants locked in their bloody mixed martial arts. Instead, Barzun made the orchestra and audience laugh with his musical analog to a Colosseum spectacle: “rock and roll.”

Why not rap?  Public Enemy’s Chuck D claims that music education budget cuts in New York City during the 1970s deprived youth of Barzun’s “more elevated pleasures.”  The musical instrument vacuum was filled by hip-hop and rap.  Barzun named rock, though, and the Express-News may have left that out to avoid controversy.  Not Jacques.  Nor will I.

Free tickets to the Majestic Theatre performance drew a varied crowd, from blue jeans to suits, and from elders to kids.  Seeing children in the foyer before the concert reminded me of Jacques’ first public music experience, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps.  I have since recalled my own – another free concert – outdoors during the Strawberry Festival in Orange County, California, when I was around ten.  A band played the opening electric guitar melody of “Get Together” by the Youngbloods and I felt reverberation for the first time. Songs on the little plastic radio at home did not do that.  Popular music was all that I really knew until Barzun’s words opened my ears to Berlioz.  Then it was on to Furtwängler’s Beethoven and more.

Having grown up with rock, though, I can imagine how easily others might dismiss Barzun’s joke – especially in print – as the cranky humor of an elitist curmudgeon. JB’s jabs can startle, shove aside timeworn ideas, and create an opening for the unexpected.  His barbs are sometimes meant to serve that purpose, as suggested in an epigraph to his Energies of Art from John Jay Chapman:  “So long as a man is trying to tell the truth, his remarks will contain a margin which other people will regard as mystifying and irritating exaggeration. It is this very margin of controversy that does the work.”

Barzun achieves surer results when the occasion allows him to better develop his thoughts.  When rock-and-roll’s golden oldies were still recent releases, Barzun delivered “A Request for the Loan of Your Ears” (1961) to an audience about to hear for the first time compositions from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  His listeners in the McMillin Theatre included lovers of classical music and, among the students at least, some fans of rock as well. Strangers to the new creation, Jacques first invited them to take pleasure in the effort to comprehend unknown works, but

“To understand in this fashion does not mean to accept passively because someone says that the stuff is new and therefore good, that many believe in it, that it’s going to succeed anyway, so it’s best to resign oneself to the inevitable.  This kind of reasoning has gone on about modern art for some thirty years and nothing has been more harmful to the arts. It is an inverted philistinism, which eliminates judgment and passion just as surely as did the older philistinism of blind opposition to whatever is new.”

Then by combining critical and historical insights with Jamesian psychology he alerted his listeners to their minds’ natural conservatism.  Openness and equipoise become the way to discover richer pleasures – old and new.

Barzun’s double-action thought reveals unknown art, delivering democratic access to the best that he’s discovered.  The Majestic Theatre audience – almost everyone hearing for the first time at least some of Barzun’s favorite Berlioz marches – included a cross-section of class and culture.  I thought of Maya Angelou’s complementary line, “No less to Midas than the mendicant.”  Then I heard the music.

Living Books

The inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club (JBBC) might not have occurred on Monday, 14 May 2012, if Mr. Eric Robert Morse had been unwilling to take a risk.  The conversation described in “Classic Barzun” was diverting for a time, but the chances of engaging in much anticipated “Jacques talk” were dwindling like my beer.

Then I recalled that to make coordination possible Eric had gambled and put his cell phone number on the Internet.  Now I wished that I’d captured it earlier, instead of trusting to an old-fashioned rendezvous.  Still, I managed (with the help of 1Password) to get my mobile to locate his number online.  Moments after making the call I shook hands with Eric who had a great table out on the patio.  All along we’d been just a hundred feet from each other.  His lookout had been over the other entrance to Citrus – at the top of the stairs leading up from Riverwalk.  (Take note, future participants in the San Antonio chapter of the Jacques Barzun Book Club.)  Thank you, Eric, for being patient and for taking the chance that made our first meeting happen.

We settled into adjacent seats, facing west and the river.  The first thing I noticed on the table was Eric’s paperback copy of A Stroll with William James, my old friend.  A well thumbed first edition remained in my backpack, along with the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1969), and the bibliographic database of Barzun’s works.  Eric’s posting the day before suggested the possible value of bringing my laptop:  “We will probably discuss Dr. Barzun’s works in general and lay out a plan for future readings.”  I’m glad to report that we didn’t get to the planning that night.

Let the record show that Stroll was the JBBC’s first topic of conversation.  We quickly moved on to other favorites, and I glowed within.  Only the horizon showed signs of gloom as dark clouds piled upward.  The slowly advancing thunderheads stole none of the warmth.  Our talk did turn to the next night’s Berlioz concert and its curious ending with a funeral march.  I mentioned to Eric my recent exchange with Peter Bloom.  He had been struck by the marche funèbre closing a program meant to honor a 104-year-old man, considering it in questionable taste … unless Barzun’s strong preferences had governed the selection.

Recounting for Eric the powerful conclusion in each of Barzun’s several editions of Berlioz, I elaborated on the nutshell reply I’d sent to Professor Bloom:  “My response to the Berlioz selections was similar to yours.  My bet is that Jacques did ask for the funeral march, and at the brief concert’s conclusion.  There is a certain fitness to combining the personal importance to JB of Hamlet and HB’s funeral music to remind us of the horses bolting through the cemetery gates with Berlioz alone.”  Would the World War I survivor make a similarly dramatic departure the next night, expiring with the musketry at the march’s conclusion?  I dismissed the phantasm, deciding that Jacques would not allow himself such a breach of decorum.

Happier thoughts followed and we eventually ordered appetizers and antelope.  Already the author of several published works, Eric described his first reading of Barzun, saying that he discovered something needed that had been missing.  I poorly convey his meaning, and hope that he will take the first opportunity to correct and amplify what I only mention.  I also look forward to seeing what effect reading JB may have on his future work.  May Barzun’s influence be as salutary for Eric Morse as it was for Tony Hillerman at the outset of his crime fiction career.

Like any good book group we wandered off topic, covering our past residences in San Diego (his recent, mine ancient), his auspicious beginning in San Antonio, and when the Spurs’ playoffs run came up our shared enthusiasm for basketball.  (Barzunian orthodoxy is an oxymoron, cf. baseball.)  We also watched out for Eric’s friends who planned to join us after their conference broke up.  And the clouds kept coming.

We frequently returned to Barzun’s latest masterwork.  My recent rereading of From Dawn to Decadence had been unplanned.  I was about a third of the way into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when the almost inevitable thought occurred to compare Gibbon’s treatment with Barzun’s handling of the theme in From Dawn to Decadence.  The anticipated quick comparison turned into a renewed perusal of Barzun’s most complex work.  (Gibbon calmly waits for me to return as soon as I finish reading the third of Jim Lynch’s sparkling novels set around Puget Sound.)  I wondered aloud to Eric whether a couple of centuries from now From Dawn to Decadence will be as accessible as The Decline and Fall is to present-day readers.

The conversation that had been both humorous and serious tapered off when Eric’s guests arrived.  Introductions exchanged, his friend from northern California was hardly surprised but thoroughly delighted that Eric had started a book group during his first week as a San Antonio citizen.  We talked a bit about Barzun and then shifted the conversation to their conference and lives.  We felt a few sprinkles but remained outside, leaning forward under the table’s umbrella.  Soon thereafter, but after several wonderful hours, the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club had to be called on account of rain.

Eric and I resumed play the next night, following the concert and reception, as we ate a less exotic but still delicious late supper at a riverside restaurant’s bar.  That’s when Eric brought up the question of which Barzun works to read next, asking me to send recommendations along as soon as I had the time.  I whipped out my pocket notebook instead.  I laughed when he said it was like getting assignments done in class in order to avoid homework.  True enough, though the context of our discussion provided the right preparation for the impromptu list I made.

I began with The Energies of Art, explaining how the commercial success of Teacher in America, praise for the first edition of Berlioz, and a recent bestseller also favored by critics, God’s Country and Mine, had created a market for Barzun’s work as scholar-critic in the collection of essays.  The earliest among them, “Truth and Poetry in Thomas Hardy” from The Southern Review (Summer 1940), recast for Energies as “Hardy’s One World”, shows Barzun as much more than a journeyman building up to From Dawn to Decadence.  The cultural historian lived in literature (as well as the musical and fine arts), and then turned his experience into cultural criticism, re-presenting art for life’s sake.

It’s hard to imagine a Jacques Barzun Book Club as a batch of Baker Street Irregulars or a Wolfe Pack, confined to a single canon.  When his admirers find themselves back at the beginning with The French “Race”, and no more of his books to read, there need not be an end.  The glory of Barzun is that his thought coruscates with others’ works that merit attention.  Those bring me back to Barzun’s brilliance, as his explorations discover what is most valuable – as well as disposable – in each of them.  A Barzun essay coupled with the work discussed would afford an excellent opportunity for rewarding conversation.

Anyone who cares to test the assertion might try reading Barzun and Stendhal “On Love”, and then savor “William James and the Clue to Art”.  Until the acidic paper turns to dust, the best version of Energies will remain the Vintage edition of 1962, despite a pair of reversed lines in the sharp new preface.  The good Greenwood Press printed five of Barzun’s books on paper made to last, but the 1975 reprint of the original Energies of Art, despite library binding, cannot preserve what it does not include.  Here is a brief sample from Barzun’s four-page credo in the Vintage paperback:

“I believe that criticism is a serious undertaking, but I do not believe that it is a technical process requiring rubber gloves and manufactured apparatus.  Works of art are complex, but that does not seem to me a valid excuse for making criticism complicated and leaving no room for the reader to enjoy art through fugitive, inexplicit response.  One would have thought that modern pride in subtlety would have prevented the manhandling of that fragile flower, Response, just as the devotion to the Work of Art should have kept criticism from being called ‘creative.’  But both abuses exist and indeed prevail.” (page ix)

I look forward to listening more than talking if FaceTime or Skype makes it possible for me to attend the next meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on July 8th.

Eric Morse (on the left) launched the Jacques Barzun Book Club. John Adams joined him that first night and in this photo following the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert.

Media Mail

I am no friend of Facebook. Nor do I believe that brevity is the soul of tweet. Even tiny raindrops can turn into an extended deluge. More valuable things have come to me through Media Mail than all social media combined. And yet …

I did join Facebook in 2007, not coincidentally the year that Jacques Barzun celebrated the completion of his first century on this earth. Webmaster Leo Wong drove me to it. His Jacques Barzun Centennial Celebration website brought hundreds of JB admirers from all over the world together in a joyful chorus. Many of his visitors were simply appreciative listeners.

Until the centennial itself neared, I said very little. But I followed his leads, which I should call links. One of them sent me to Facebook, where Mr. Charles Huff had formed the Jacques Barzun Fan Club. The Facebook policy said Members Only, and I balked. But the lure of Jacques was too great and I joined a couple of days later.

That’s how I learned that the atomized distractions of social media were not for me. Why did I answer the persistent question – “What are you doing right now?” – with a sentence on the alluring smell of breakfast cooking? And why bother with the daily doings of the friend of a Facebook “friend”? So I unfriended all my friends, and even disowned my family (but only in the virtual world). I went on calling my loved ones, but kept coming back to the JB Fan Club – a quieter site than any English gentlemen’s club.

Within the last year I tried to help Leo with the seldom satisfying job of fishing the Internet for recent Barzuniana to post at the JBFC. I was glad to see Mary McCleary contribute, as I’m delighted that Mr. Christopher Reid pushed our membership past 200. Still, I admit to feeling a certain restraint about commenting when the new Facebook format pushes my sextant silhouette back into the spotlighted header for little more than clearing my throat. (Am I alone in this?)

Then about a month ago, on April 19 at 12:36 p.m. to be exact, Leo posted the tremendous news that the San Antonio Symphony would perform a special concert of Berlioz to honor Barzun. My current employment as a shipping agent made it next to impossible that I might attend. Still, I wanted one of those free tickets, though I hated the idea of taking a souvenir while leaving an empty seat that someone might have enjoyed in person. I rationalized that if no miracle occurred and Port business kept me home I’d return the ticket in time for some hopeful night-of-performance caller at the ticket window.

So I called the symphony box office and had a happy experience with the staff member who told me that tickets to the performance at the Majestic Theatre were still available. Aurora advised me about the relative merits of the remaining locations. There were open seats on the orchestra level, but they were tucked away beneath the balconies (about which see Mr. Mike Greenberg’s fine review of the concert). The bright young lady’s name prompted me to mention the late season display of Northern Lights that recently had shone over Valdez. We laughed about the warped pronunciation of Spanish place names like Los Angeles and Val-DEEZ as she took my mailing address (P.O. Box 1174, Valdez, AK 99686 … for those averse to Internet comments). To the nominal shipping charge I added a small donation to the San Antonio Symphony. Aurora and I said good-bye after she reviewed the details of my mezzanine seat.

Meanwhile, back in print, the San Antonio Express-News announced that the concert commissioned by Mr. Charles Butt would have as its guests of honor Mr. and Mrs. Jacques and Marguerite Barzun, PhDs. Attendance now seemed almost urgent. How many more opportunities would there be to get a first glimpse of my living hero? And then my ticket arrived in the mail:

Thank you, dear Aurora!

I would also love to give credit to my generous employer who found a way to say yes to my unusual request for three days off during a busy season. Unfortunately, corporate policy prohibits naming the agency, even as my benefactor. If word got out that I admire the radical empiricist – and a “Frenchman” to boot – Jacques Barzun, well the business consequences may be imagined. But I jest regarding Jacques, as I made no special request to headquarters to publish my gratitude to the company. Just following the policy, and the Internet detectives among my readers will have no difficulty figuring out which shipping agency I mean.

So with relish I made the reservations detailed in “Pilgrimage” and returned to the Jacques Barzun Fan Club. There, on April 27th, Mr. Eric Robert Morse proposed the formation of a Jacques Barzun Book Club, based in his new hometown of San Antonio. My journey to the Alamo city underway on May 13th, I suggested the following evening (the night before “Berlioz and Barzun”) for an inaugural meeting – a revelation of actual travel that would have incredible consequences.

Pilgrimage

I open this post with the first person singular in order to satisfy a pair of requests.  First, Mr. Bill Sweetland of Chicago urged Barzun’s gentle rereader to reveal a bit more about himself.  Then a new friend insisted that I make the “ridiculous travel itinerary” for my pilgrimage to San Antonio part of the story.  He enters the tale following the San Antonio Symphony concert “Berlioz and Barzun” (commissioned by Mr. Charles Butt) in a forthcoming post.

Well, three thousand miles is not such a long way to go when the planes, train, and cars lead to Jacques Barzun.  Millions of visitors to Mecca, Jerusalem, Lumbini and other sacred places journey farther.  Still, the desire to see a legend while he still lives was strong enough to bring me down from the Great Land to little Texas.

The experienced Alaska traveler builds in buffers whenever an event must not be missed.  A concert on May 15th meant planning an arrival in San Antonio two days ahead.  Fortunately, Alaska Airlines flies into Austin, but only from Anchorage with at least one stop and a plane change, usually in Seattle.  And I would still need to get from my home at the end of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in Valdez to Alaska’s largest city, population around 150,000.

Valdez is home to about 4,000 people and gets more snow than any other sea-level town in the U.S.  We even had a smattering the week before the concert.  Fog is the main enemy for fliers during the summer months, but spring brings the most sunshine of any season in this part of the state.  Nevertheless, I booked a commuter flight more than 8 hours in advance of the red-eye to Seattle, just in case clouds descended on the Valdez airport.  Then I’d still have time to make the gorgeous six-hour drive through Keystone Canyon, Thompson Pass, and past the Matanuska Glacier on the way to Anchorage.

There was rain from low clouds the morning of my scheduled departure on an eight-seater Beech.  The weather reduced the number of pilots willing to risk participation in the annual Valdez Fly-In that same Saturday.  The usual carnival atmosphere prevailed, however, and I arrived early enough before my departure to wander through the booths and enjoy meeting my new Valdez neighbors emerging from winter hibernation.

But first I made a pest of myself at the counter, telling Bob about the reason for my trip and how important it was that I be on that flight.  Then I walked out onto the tarmac to wait for the plane to arrive from Anchorage.  I greeted the pilot a few minutes after he’d rolled to a stop, discharged his passengers, and got out to stretch his legs.  He saw that I was eager to get aboard, promised that an announcement would be made in the terminal when it was time to do so, and headed for the restroom.

So I went back to watching the bush pilots compete for honors in the shortest take-off category (a vital skill for remote Alaska airstrips and beach landings).  Suddenly a helicopter sprang into the air, lifting off in reverse!  Heads snapped left and right as folks exclaimed to their companions, “Did you see that?!”

It would have been great to remain outside to watch longer, but I was afraid I’d miss the boarding announcement.  The small terminal was crowded as non-passengers visited the booths inside and residents caught up with each other.  The counters were packed, and I stayed close to the doors.

Then I saw John, whose office is just down the hall from mine, and he described the short-landing judging that he’d been asked to do.  When he asked where I was going, I pulled out my copy of A Stroll with William James and told him about my favorite author and the trip to San Antonio.  We also talked about the Fly-In and shared our amazement at the helicopter’s backwards take-off.

I stepped back to the doors to check on my flight, saw a few people standing around 25 meters from the plane, but since they weren’t boarding the Beech, I returned to my conversation with John.  Already he was talking with someone else, a snow bird who spends her winters in Hawaii and summers in Valdez.  The introductions included the two Johns offering surnames, and we learned that her name was Leigh Coates.  She also offered her card, and our eyes popped when we saw that her company was Vertical Solutions.  She was the helicopter pilot who had just taken off backwards.  Leigh was a distraction, but I wouldn’t have missed an announcement that my flight to Anchorage was boarding.

Chief Pilot Leigh Coates above the Columbia Glacier

Chief Pilot Leigh Coates above the Columbia Glacier

Still, I wondered what was holding things up.  So I walked back to the glass doors and looked out … and saw my plane rolling out to the runway without me!  I dashed to the air carrier’s back door, hollered that the plane had left me behind and called, “What happened to the announcement?”  Maybe what came next occurs in commercial aviation elsewhere, but I thought: ‘Only in Alaska.’  Instead of blaming the passenger, he quickly radioed the plane and then told me that the pilot had agreed to taxi back and pick me up.

Bob stepped onto the boarding ladder and took the blame – “My bad” – saving me from any sneers.  I buckled up, added my apologies, and was met only by smiles and assurances that no connections would be missed.

And so my pilgrimage began.  A nap in the Anchorage airport preceded the red-eye.  Nothing was stolen while I nodded off.  The hop to Seattle went smoothly and I made the connection to the Austin flight with time to spare.

My taxi fare to the Austin Amtrak station was double what the train ticket to San Antonio cost.  Instead of renting a car in Austin, I decided to ride the Texas Star in part because of JB’s love for trains.  The opening line from God’s Country and Mine conveys as much: “The way to see America is from a lower berth about two in the morning.”

I enjoyed the legroom and footrests in coach while rolling through Hill Country, but remembered JB’s criticisms in “Trains and the Mind of Man” (Holiday, February 1960) and added one of my own when I learned that the only sustenance – besides scenery – to be had on a regular run starting from Chicago was junk food: candy bars, chips, and sodas.  Alert the First Lady!

At least the train was making good time.  The conductor announced that we could arrive at our destination as much as an hour ahead of schedule.  Even pausing to let a freight train use the track didn’t put us behind schedule.  We reached the outskirts of San Antonio before dark, and slowly rolled through town.  Then, with less than three miles remaining to reach the station, we came to a full stop.  An eighteen-wheeler truck was disabled on the tracks ahead.  The announced wait of half an hour to remove the truck turned into an hour and then an hour-and-a-half as a mechanical engineer was needed to inspect the tracks at the scene.  I could have walked to my hotel from where we were stopped, but regulations forbade that.

We arrived at last, and I was plenty early for the Tuesday concert … and the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on Monday night.

The Guest of Honor

Majestic Theatre – view from the balcony

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Berlioz & Barzun – Majestic marquee

American Panorama

Short critical introductions to books recommended in American Panorama, Eric Larrabee, ed., New York: New York University Press, 1957.  Kessinger Publishing Company [reprint], 2010.

This volume’s subtitle summarizes the Carnegie Foundation project:  “Essays by Fifteen American Critics on 350 Books Past and Present Which Portray the U.S.A. in Its Many Aspects”.  Please click on either link above to view more details of the project, Barzun’s contributions to it, and recommendations of his own books included in the set.

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