March 17, 2011

Hector of the flashing (green) helmet

I lost track of days this week, so it wasn't until I saw the third passer-by done up in neon green that I remembered that, yes, it's today that's St. Patrick's Day. I'm one-quarter Irish, which is probably just the right amount to enjoy an American St. Patrick's Day with some equanimity—not inclined to full-blown plastic leprechaun hat embarrassment, but not so Irish that I can't get behind the idea. Kind of like Christmas, I tend to embrace the sheer unmoored weirdness of St. Patrick's Day: a religious observance gone brazenly secular, a national celebration that thrives an ocean away from the nation it celebrates. (I remember once, a long time ago, spending St. Patrick's Day in a bar that marked the occasion by hiring a Highland bagpiper, kilt and all—even the Irish-Americans seemed to take it in the sort of "eh, why not" spirit in which it was intended.)

Driving around this morning, I got to thinking about who would qualify as the most "Irish" composer there is. Now, there are plenty of composers who are actually Irish (my go-to is always Charles Villiers Stanford, on the grounds that Elgar hated him; if you're annoying the English, then, as an Irishman, you're doing something right), but I'm talking about a composer whose personality and/or music fits the crazy American stereotype of Irishness that gets a lot of play every March. You know the image: a charming rogue, a garrulous spinner of tall tales, blasphemous yet sentimental, irresponsible yet lovable, &c., &c. There's not many. Wagner, maybe—nobody spins a tall tale like Wagner—but, then again, his irresponsibility isn't so much "lovable" as "obnoxiously self-centered and anti-Semitic." For a while, I toyed with the idea of Poulenc—the puckishness fits—but his Catholicism is more St. Teresa than Father Ted.

So I'm going to throw my one-quarter-Irish weight behind Hector Berlioz. Tall tales? In spades. More charming the more delusional his grandeur? Absolutely. And really, throwing a brass band into a Requiem mass is a pretty Irish move. Plus, he was Irish by marriage, at least for a little while. So there you go: Hector Berlioz, stereotypical Irishman. Strange? Sure, but not really any stranger than the holiday itself. Slainté!

2 comments:

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for this video, Matthew. It is more than just a celebration of the day, it's a celebration of "back in the day." Check out the outside third seat first violinist at 3:32. It's Joseph Silverstein, and then at 4:30 we see Winifred Mayes, the first ever female BSO string player (she's sitting next to Bob Ripley), and then at 6:30 there's a great shot of Tiny Martin at his un-tiny-est, along with a shot of Olivia Luetcke, another female BSO pioneer, playing the harp.

I came across a site that lists (almost) all the BSO players throughout the orchestra's history:

http://www.stokowski.org/Boston_Symphony_Musicians_List.htm

The person keeping the site used "screen grabs" from this film for many of the players. It is really quite fascinating. I think you and your readers will enjoy looking at it.

amanda said...

There are some nice pieces of Berlioz at www.SheetMusicX.com