(Crisis Magazine) Like Proust’s “episode of the madeleine” which occasioned an involuntary flood of memory, I remembered a flush of things when I chanced upon a Coolidge-Dawes campaign button among items in one of my grandmother’s souvenir boxes. Charles G. Dawes was a fitting companion for the classically-trained Coolidge, whose eloquence has been ignored by jaded historians. Coolidge was the last president to write his own speeches, and the so-called “Silent Cal” held an informal, chatty press conference every week. Without teleprompters, he honed his words and many of them were lapidary: “It is a great advantage to a president and a major source of safety to the country for him to know that he is not a great man.”
The number of public officials who have actually composed music is small, although many have been musicians. Condoleezza Rice did us proud with her performance before the Queen in Buckingham Palace, but we still suffer the occasional politician playing aesthetically unsettling music on an acoustic guitar. Among heads of state, Harry Truman practiced two hours a day as a boy and became a fine pianist, and a self-deprecatory one at that: after playing a piece for a group of Methodist ladies in 1945, he said, “When I played this, Stalin signed the Potsdam Agreement.” John Quincy Adams was a harpist, Woodrow Wilson treasured his violin, and Warren G. Harding could play every instrument in a band he organized except the slide trombone and E-flat cornet. The decline from Thomas Jefferson playing Vivaldi, Corelli, and Haydn on his Amati violin, to William Jefferson Clinton playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone, is another hole in the balloon of social Darwinism. In recent times, King Frederick IX of Denmark’s House of Gluckensburg both played the piano and conducted orchestras. King Bhumibol of Thailand plays the clarinet. As heads of state in waiting, Crown Prince Naruhito plays the viola and Prince Charles is a cellist.
Among heads of state who were composers as well as players, David soothed Saul with his harping and seems to have annotated the singing of the Psalms. There is the hapless case of Nero who made the Romans listen to his compositions. Richard Coeur de Lion delighted in being his own minstrel. And there are Henry VIII who may have written “Greensleeves” and George III who only began to compose for the harpsichord after he went insane. Then there was the edgy King Ludwig II of Bavaria, patron of Wagner, who endowed the Staatstheater am Gartnerplatz in Munich. Farther back were the especially fecund Thibault IV of Navarre and Alfonso X of Castile; and Louis XIII of France whose motets and a ballet are extraordinary. The Hapsburgs are in a category of their own, because all of them from Frederick II to Karl VI, were composers. Frederick the Great wrote 121 flute sonatas and a symphony plus some marches. Though not a head of state, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, eventually Prince Consort in 1857, played the organ to the delight of Mendelssohn in 1842 and composed more than forty published works, mostly lieder, some of which are still performed. Richard Nixon is said to have composed for violin and piano, both of which he played. When Josep Pilsudski was president of the Second Republic of the land that gave us Chopin, it is not surprising that his prime minister was Ignacy Paderewski. As an aside, one notes that George III’s consort, Queen Charlotte, the mother of fifteen children, chose as her music master Johann Sebastian Bach’s eleventh son Christian , and sang an aria in 1764 to the accompaniment of an eight year old Mozart. Considering that Mozart was the last of seven children, J.S. Bach the last of eight and the father of twenty, and the tenor Johann Haydn, a younger brother of Joseph, whose father’s seventeenth child was born when he was 63, artificial contraception would have greatly reduced the world’s repertoire of music.
Back to my original theme, Vice President Dawe’s “Melody in A Major” enchanted Fritz Kreisler who made it one of his signature pieces. As a prodigy, Kreisler had entered the Vienna Conservatory at the age seven, and then, with the support of his Jewish father who worked hard to pay his expenses, he studied in Paris under Bruckner, Hellmesberger, and Massenet, and came to the United States in 1888 to perform in Steinway Hall at the age of thirteen. At one point, in a state of dejection after failing to be admitted to the Vienna Philarmonic because of his vibrato, Fritz gave up the violin to study medicine, but he returned and in 1910, the Catholic master Sir Edward Elgar dedicated to him the “Violin Concerto in B Minor “ which Kreisler had commissioned and performed at its premiere. Later on, Kreisler lived in New York City at 2 Sutton Place where Bishop Fulton Sheen, then an auxiliary bishop, met him while calling on a neighbor. Soon he received Kreisler into the Church. The great musician had a great soul, and studied the Scriptures diligently in Hebrew and Greek. He adapted one of his compositions to a waltz tune as theme music for Sheen’s television program. Shortly before his death, he became blind and deaf in a traffic accident, but was uncomplaining, and died with edifying serenity in 1962. Kreisler was probably the last major performer to use catgut for strings. Possibly with Kreisler in mind, Sheen frequently use the image of beautiful music coming from the gut of a cat, but in this he was mistaken since catgut usually is from sheep’s intestines. But that is better than the fourth string on Paganini’s violin which was said to have been an intestine of his much beloved late wife, although Liszt denied this.
It does seem that an ear for music goes along with a gift for languages, and Kreisler was a polyglot. Sheen was virtually tone deaf and although his French was grammatical and fluent, he spoke it with a poor accent. Kreisler took an interest in the building of the Church of Our Saviour of which I am the sixth pastor. Bishop Sheen often remarked that he was to be the first pastor but that did not work out for reasons known best to him and Cardinal Spellman. He lived across the street and often visited what are now my rooms. I think the good bishop would be pleased to see in my study a fine bust of Kreisler, carved in 1949 by the Czech sculptor Mario Korbel. It came my way by almost miraculous circumstance. Carved on it are the opening notes of his “Liebesfreud.”
These were some of the memories that infused themselves when I came across that Coolidge-Dawes campaign button, and, if they ramble a little here and there, they are, after all, involuntary. It is just that some of this might be worth noting, or else they could be lost. I should give the last word to John Henry Newman whose sister, Harriet, thought that he had the potential to become another Paganini, although we assume not in every detail. Newman took up the violin at the age of ten and performed for his Oxford colleagues, for the near destitute children of Littlemore, in his Oratory school, and alone, even composing for a comic opera. He writes in The Idea of a University: Music, I suppose … has an object of its own … it is the expression of ideas greater and more profound than any in the visible world, ideas, which center indeed in Him whom Catholicism manifests, who is the seat of all beauty, order, and perfection whatever, still ideas after all which are not those on which Revelation directly and principally fixes our gaze.”