The Corner


Stories of Our Time

Ned Rorem (Screenshot via Youtube)

Impromptus today begins with a story from the University of Georgia — a story of our time. A professor, Irwin Bernstein, came out of retirement to teach a couple of classes. He is 88. He had one rule: Students had to wear masks; if they did not, he would not teach. (Professor Bernstein has diabetes and other health problems.) One young woman refused to comply. So he simply walked out of class — retired again. Before he left, he told his students that he had been willing to risk his life for his country while serving in the Air Force, but was not willing to risk it to teach a class with an unmasked student during a pandemic.

In this story, many issues arise — issues that are being hotly debated today: political, medical, social, and moral. What are our individual rights? What are our obligations as citizens? What about the Golden Rule? Does it come into play? (I think of Professor Harold Hill: “Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!” Ah, Americanism, in arguably the Great American Musical.) (I did argue that, in a piece, long ago. Which I cannot find via Google.)

Elsewhere in Impromptus, I discuss a Cuban dissident, Islamist terrorism, January 6, Josephine Baker, golf, baseball, and more. (Josephine Baker will be re-interred in the Pantheon, the first entertainer to be so honored.) (Not bad, as I say in my column, for a St. Louis girl, the granddaughter of slaves.)

After I wrote my column, there was some news out of Georgia — some COVID news, or pandemic-war news: “Anti-vaxxers shut down vaccination event, harass state health workers.” (Article here.) This is now commonplace. Health workers and election workers alike face terrible harassment, sometimes violence. There ought to be a general national stand against this.

At the end of today’s Impromptus is music: a note on Leontyne Price, and her singing of a Ned Rorem song: “Ferry Me Across the Water.” (This sets a poem of Christina Rossetti, which is about death, as the title indicates.) The song is simple, lulling, and, by its conclusion, moving. A marvelous little number.

“I attended 13 Price recitals,” I once said to Price herself. She answered, with an almost coquettish air, “So few?” I pleaded that I’d gotten a late start. As I say in my column, she always included American composers on her recital programs around the world. It was important to her. Mainly, she sang her personal friends, who sometimes wrote for her directly: Barber, Rorem, and Hoiby.

I interviewed Rorem back in 2002 (and you can find excerpts from our conversation here). Today, he is 97, about to turn 98. Leontyne Price is 94.

“The performer is more important than the composer in the mind of the general public,” Rorem told me, “and the performer almost always performs music of the past.” The public “has no notion of what it is we composers do,” he continued. “We’re a despised minority. Actually, we’re not even that, because we don’t even exist, and to be despised, you have to exist.”

That is a very tough statement — I have quoted it many times — and there is truth in it. Still, songs such as “Ferry Me Across the Water” will be sung long, long after Ned Rorem is gone. These little gems add sparkle or consolation to life.

Again, those interested in today’s Impromptus should go here.


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