Tuesday, September 2, 2014

'And Make Our Garden Grow': Voltaire's Earthy Wisdom

            Let's put on a play, said the performers of the Berkshire Theater's second stage Unicorn Theater, who were celebrating opera with a week-long festival that climaxed with a production of Verdi's 'La Traviata.'
            Apparently a week of great music was not a sufficient outlet for their artistic energies, so the musicians put together a kind of classical cabaret last Saturday night(8.30) called "The Paris Salon." The show leaned heavily on the talents of remarkably passionate and learned pianist Michael Fennelly and talented soprano Megan Weston, plus lots of backup from fellow cast members.
            The result was an informal history of the kind and range of musical performances you might see if you were lucky enough (or rich enough) to get invited to the intimate setting of a salon -- some 20 to 40 people drawn to the living quarters of a cultured hostess who had the taste and foresight to encourage artists like Chopin and Liszt. In a time of wars and revolutions many of Europe's most gifted and ambitious artists migrated to France to stay ahead of the upheavals in their own lands, Fennelly told the audience. France was used to wars and revolutions; Paris shrugged them off.
            Weston sang arias from beloved and widely performed operas of Guonod and Donizetti. We heard piano works by Chopin, Liszt, his contemporary rival Thalberg, Debussy and others. Other selections included one of my favorite  arias, "The Flower Duet" from the opera 'Lachme'; the swan ballet from Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals" danced by a beautiful young cygnet; a flute performance of themes from Bizet's "Carmen" arranged for solo instrument (a once popular musical genre).
            And then we reach the 20th century and the Americans get into the act, with two songs from Bernstein's "Candide" and a solo piano rendition of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
            The night's finale, from "Candide," bears the wise and spectacularly appropriate title (for me) "Make Our Garden Grow." The phrase comes from the conclusion of Voltaire's satirical novel in which an innocent young man ("Candide") discovers the world is not at all like his teachers and priests told him it was. Chastened by experience, Candide and his beloved, the equally disabused (and deflowered) Cunégonde's sing:

You've been a fool
And so have I,
But come and be my wife.
And let us try,
Before we die,
To make some sense of life.
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...
And make our garden grow.

I thought the world
Was sugar cake
For so our master said.
But, now I'll teach
My hands to bake
Our loaf of daily bread.

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...
And make our garden grow.
[lyrics by the poet Richard Wilbur]

            The astute novelist and critic Julian Barnes describes Voltaire's oft-quoted "moral" il faut cultiver notre jardin as "a philosophical recommendation to horticultural quietism."
            It's clearly more than that. The philosophical advisory to "cultivate your garden" is recognized as a metaphor for taking care of business, doing the most with what you have, "cultivating" your own talents as a route toward satisfaction and happiness... and many other aphoristic interpretations. Still, it's hard to get away entirely from the literal impact of that concrete noun "jardin."
            Whatever else he may be implying, he's also telling us to get our hands dirty in making a home for ourselves in the place directly beneath our feet. To do what we can to make the piece of earth where we live productive, fruitful and beautiful -- at least in part because none of us can do very much to "grow" the world into the home we'd like it to be.
            Revolutions are short, and violent, and don't come out the way you want them to. Life is relatively longer (if we're lucky) and, on the micro level at least, can be improved.