Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two (aghrivaine) wrote,
Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two

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Ode To Joy

Life in the Army actually involved quite a lot of doing nothing. I laugh when in "Two Years Before the Mast" Dana looks down his nose at what he calls "sojering" - which is to say "soldiering" which is standing around doing nothing. But work in the Army is feast or famine, and one is either completely overloaded, or bored to tears. As a result, loafing and talking about any damn thing were something of an art form, and despite a tendency to dwell on the five F's (food, fucking, farting, fighting and feces), I witnessed or participated in some crazy talks about anything imaginable.

Even so, one of those conversations was more improbable than the others, at least in my memory. This was actually in the PA National Guard, and out at Ft. Indiantown Gap, our scout platoon had been separated for the day with the armor element running around on M-113's, a precursor to the Bradley. Us proper scouts has been on foot all day, and when the platoon reunited for the evening, we had basically nothing to do after we did our AAR (After Action Report). So I'm sitting on a big rock, squatting with an MRE open, and one of my cronies in the platoon, who's name was, I kid you not, Sgt. McCool, an ex-ranger who looked like a gym teacher, but was actually studying for a phd in biology, if I recall, but anyway, McCool calls down from the 113 he's sitting on, "Hey, Krieger, if you could travel back in time to see any performance, what would it be?"

"Performance? Like...not seeing the crucifixion or Napoleon at Austerlitz or something like that - but a performance?"

"Yeah. That other stuff is boring, everyone says that. I'm talking culture, not history."

So I said I'd pick the very first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, 4th Movement, "Ode to Joy" . Think about it. It's May 7th, 1824, Vienna. The world has never heard the human voice elevated to the same weight and importance as the rest of the orchestra. The world has never heard Romantic music before, it has been dominated by the more austere classical movements which have come before. But this...this piece - it's like nothing anyone's heard before. It's power and emotion are so raw, that Beethoven himself - stone deaf - insisted on conducting. The theater director secretly conducted from behind him so that the orchestra, which had only rehearsed twice, could keep time with Beethoven's movements but take direction from someone who could actually hear them. Beethoven is so entranced that he thrashes from standing a-tiptoe to crouching maniacally, appearing to want to play the entire orchestra himself. When the final crescendo is reached, the audience is stunned. Absolutely stunned. They don't know what to make of what they've just heard...and Beethoven, unaware that the piece is over, is still conducting his heart out! Finally the audience breaks out into wild, whole-hearted applause, standing on their seats, raising hats and kerchiefs, and going absolutely berserk. The contralto singer in the choir finally takes Beethoven by the hand and turns him around so that he can see he's being applauded. Five ovations are given to Beethoven, which is two more than are given even to the Emperor of Austria himself, and unprecedented in musical history. Obviously Western civilization changed that day, but personally, I think maybe human hearts did, too. This was music for the spirit, not music for the ear - and maybe it's never been equalled since.

Yeah, that's what I'd like to see. And when I finish explaining why, McCool and I start singing what we know of it and getting really excited, waving sticks like conductor's batons. We're out in the middle of the woods, exhausted, dirty and completely removed from civilization, but still that piece, and that night have the power to reach through time and stir us near to tears.

That's where I'd go, if I could go back anywhere in time. How about you?

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