Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More “On Language”: Safire and the Russians

The universe seems to have more to say about readers, reading, and language: I learned that William Safire died on the day I began to learn Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil Service, known as the Vespers. For two decades the former was the touchstone for the care and proper handling of this English language that we so callously abuse, misuse, and torture to varying degrees, and the latter is one of the great achievements of twentieth century music and an enormous challenge to sing in the Russian language.

In a cosmic connection, Safire’s New York Times obituary says, “In 1959, working in public relations, he was in Moscow to promote an American products exhibition and managed to steer Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev into the “kitchen debate” on capitalism versus communism.” Imagine that.

The American Autodidact

I did not follow Safire’s political career. I never read his Op Ed columns; in fact, I didn’t even know he wrote them. To me he was the master of the “On Language” columns and nothing more. I was drawn to his aura of compositional authority and his care of and love for the lowliest of details of grammar, syntax, denotations, connotations, usage, trends, even portmanteaux (a particular column that has stuck with me, and I found with the clever title “Listing to Portmanteau”.)

He wrote about one of his greatest errors of all time in a column about copy editing mistakes. He had run into a bad error in print and shared it as an example of a copy editor having a bad day. He then said (I’m paraphrasing, because I can’t find the article):’ I made a copy editing error once. And it’s on the moon. In bronze.’ I never laughed so loud. He had added A.D. to the date of Armstrong’s walk, as though it were B.C., July 16, 1969, A.D. A.D. means Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, and goes before a date (this being before BCE broke into common usage).

Safire died from pancreatic cancer, that horrifying certain death sentence of all the cancers. Our language will miss this great watchman.

The Russian Soul

My childhood was tinged by the Red scare. The days of “duck and cover” under your desk were over, but the Russians were still the evil empire to be feared. And yet, there were the artists, who could not be denied: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff. Such towering intellects. They have to be, living inside their language. Nouns decline in 6 cases in singular and plural. From Wiki: “Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those without, the so-called soft and hard sounds. This distinction is found between pairs of almost all consonants and is one of the most distinguishing features of the language.”

I have never sung the Russian repertoire. The Vespers piece follows the Russian Orthodox Service: Come, Let Us Worship; Lord, Now Lettest Thou,; Rejoice O Virgin; My Soul Magnifies the Lord; The Great Doxology; To Thee the Victorious Leader. It was written in 1915, during World War 1, before the revolution that broke apart Russian life.

The edition we sing is transliterated above the original Cyrillic, and even with that the combination of letters is very difficult for the English speaker.

Blagoslova, dushe moya, Ghospoda. Bless the Lord, O My Soul.

Still, it is a thrill to wander for a bit in this extraordinary language, to touch the mind of Rachmaninoff, the exquisite pianist, the student of Tchaikovsky. He died in Beverly Hills in 1943, from melanoma. He is buried in Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, in the company of Wendy Barrie, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, Anne Bancroft, Billie Burke, Paddy Chayefsky, Lou Gehrig, Danny Kaye, and Ayn Rand.


Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

First Bill Buckley now Bill Safire. Two of the few remaining intelligent conservatives within the space of so short at time. The voices of reason within the conservative movement are dwindling by the day.

My left-leaning ways notwithstanding, although I did not agree with him much of the time, when William Safire spoke, I listened.

Meanwhile the movement that the two men were so identified with - the movement they both tried to save from the kooks, criminals and fools who have hijacked it - continues to implode.

Isn't life wonderful?


Tom Degan

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Tom. Thanks for stopping by.