Let’s talk about Nero. He was a Roman emperor who fiddled. While Rome burned. Or he may have played the cithara, or the lute, which both preceded the violoncello, named from the Latin vitula, a stringed instrument.
Watching Yo-Yo-Ma play Sir Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85” at the Kentucky Center on Sunday afternoon, and then Teddy Abrams conduct a piece simply entitled “Fiddling,” made me think of Nero, who played the Romans like a fiddle, and how art and artifice create the modern American political landscape.
The outcome of the presidential election could be a beginning, or an end, or the beginning of the end, or the end that signals a new beginning. Your reaction to our new president depends on multiple socioeconomic and psychological factors, including the value you place on country, autonomy, humanity and even the arts.
First, regardless of who is president, our country will survive. Our founders had the prescience to create a system of checks and balances. Should we crash our economy, jail journalists, declare immediate war or fail to vote on a Supreme Court nominee, our infrastructure may be weakened. But like the hero of yesteryear, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” we will rebuild, though. We very bigly have the technology.
Steve Austin was somewhat of an Uberman, at least physically. Nero, and some contemporary leaders would convince you of their exalted status, yet their Ubermanity is based primarily on their ability to expose your weakest parts for their maximum benefit. It’s the essence of charming manipulation, and it describes most charismatic leaders. Charisma goes both ways: It can motivate us to be our best or worst selves.
Authentic leadership embodies a sort of maestro status at one’s craft and motivates others to be better at their respective games. It’s like the people in longterm romantic relationships who say their partner makes them a better person. Master craftspeople make those practicing want to be better at what they do.
Arts are soul-salve for mortals. Their ability to reach us in places we may have thought no longer existed, in whatever circumstances, justifies federal funding for them and mandatory childhood immersion in them. Master works across the humanities prove cataclysms can wreak genius. The bright side of a Trump presidency is the art that may present itself during it.
Antonin Dvorak composed his “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95: From the New World,” (the final piece Yo-Yo-Ma performed with the Louisville Orchestra Sunday) in 1893. An appreciation of the music required no knowledge of that era, nor its economics, to grasp the chaos that precedes a more gentle order. According to the notes from Mark Rohr in the playbill, Dvorak believed the future of music was rooted in what we now call jazz. “America can have her own music,” Dvorak said, “a fine music growing up from her own soil and having its own special character — the natural voice of a free and great nation.”
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but the voice of the free and great nation Dvorak witnessed in 1893 wasn’t really free was it? It wasn’t until 1920 women’s voices would be heard at the ballot box across the United States. It would take another 70 years from Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9” composition for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make race- and sex-based discrimination a federal violation with a concomitant federal remedy.
While Nero may, or may not, have actually fiddled while Rome burned in 64 A.D., history portrays him as throwing Christians to the lions for fun and as an egomaniac seeking an audience for his art. Mary Frances Gyles writes in a paper dedicated to what instrument Nero likely played, that as Rome was burning, Nero “stood on the loftiest tower of the palace of Maecenas, delighted by the beauty of the conflagration, and clad in tragic costume, declaimed the Iliad.”
“Oh Brother. Where Art Thou?”
I hope next Wednesday, I am singing “Good Morning To All” (now known as the “Happy Birthday Song”), also written in 1893 by the Hill sisters, rather than “In Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys. The important thing is that we keep singing.