Thursday, July 03, 2008

There is Really Nothing New Under the Sun

Gene Weingarten, of the Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize (in part for "originality") for an article he wrote last year on world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell playing tunes at the subway for change. Turns out it wasn't so original. Not because he plagiarized, but because life is so wonderful and interesting.

You may like or dislike my columns. You may think I am a fine fellow or a jackass. But there is one fact you may no longer dispute: I am a brilliantly original thinker.

I would not say it if I didn't have proof, namely, the Pulitzer Prize. I won it for an article I wrote last year about what happened when a world-famous violinist played for spare change, incognito, for three-quarters of an hour outside a subway station. Playing his priceless Stradivarius, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, a onetime child prodigy, made a few measly bucks and change. Most people hurried past, unheeding. It was a story about artistic context, priorities and the soul-numbing gallop of modernity.


In the days that followed, I obtained a copy of the original article from the long-defunct Evening Post. The main story, bylined Milton Fairman, was on Page One, under the headline "Famous Fiddler in Disguise Gets $5.61 in Curb Concerts." The story began: "A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbstone concert yesterday noon on windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears ..."

We learn from this story that two of the handful of songs played by Jacques Gordon were Massenet's "Meditation" from "Thais" and Schubert's "Ave Maria." Two of the handful of songs played by Joshua Bell last year were Massenet's "Meditation" from "Thais" and Schubert's "Ave Maria." Of the hundreds of people who walked by Gordon, only one recognized him for who he was. Of the hundreds of people who walked by Bell, only one recognized him for who he was.

I telephoned Bell -- he, too, had not heard about this other street corner stunt. But, though Jacques Gordon died two decades before Bell was born, Bell knew of him. The two men had shared something intimate. From 1991 through 2001, Bell played the same Strad that Gordon had once owned, the same one Gordon had played on the Chicago streets that day in 1930. For 11 years, Bell's fingers held the same ancient wood.

That which has been is that which will be,And that which has been done is that which will be done.So there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NAS)

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