Two Greats, One Composer, One Actor

Paul HindemithIt’s a big day in drug history. Seventy-five years ago, Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. I remember a story (possibly apocryphal) dating back to the 1970s. On the first day of Introduction to Chemistry, a certain professor would walk in and write “C20H25N3O” on the calk board. He would say, “This is the chemical formula for LSD. I don’t want to be asked for the rest of the year!” Of course, it would take at least another year of chemistry to gain the skills in organic chemistry to learn how to make it. In his way, Hofmann was as much an advocate for the drug as was Timothy Leary. And he was so right up to his death a few years ago at the age of 102.

On this day in 1907, the great actor Burgess Meredith was born. I don’t even know where to start in talking about him. I think that everyone knows and loves him. Here is a little gem. In 1961, Meredith starred in an American television version of Waiting for Godot with Zero Mostel as Estragon. It is done more as straight comedy, but I rather like it. Since then, Beckett’s notes of the play have become public and now everyone does it exactly the same way. This is a very different approach and it looks quite good, although I haven’t finished watching it. But go ahead, I’ll wait; it’s only two hours.

[Update: the video is gone. Here is a short scene from it. -FM]

Other birthdays: Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 BC); mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717); the last king of Hawaii Kalakaua (1836); composer W C Handy (1873); playwright George S Kaufman (1889); libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (1938); speaking of LSD, Terence McKenna (1946); actor Lisa Bonet (46); and actor Maggie Gyllenhaal (36).

The day, however, belongs to the great modern classical composer Paul Hindemith who was born on this day in 1895. I always thought of him as a really difficult composer. But as I went back and listened to some of his work this morning, I had a realization, “He isn’t difficult to listen to, he’s difficult to play.” That isn’t to say that he’s exactly easy listening. But it is quite fun. He uses counterpoint much more aggressively than most modern composers. A lot of his work has a distinctly Bach flavor to it. Here is Glenn Gould playing the fourth movement of Hindemith’s Piano Sonata Number 3. This is especially appropriate because Gould was renowned for playing Bach and this movement is (nominally) a fugue:

Happy birthday Paul Hindemith!

1 thought on “Two Greats, One Composer, One Actor

  1. When I was in a New York military school (not West Point), our best source for LSD was chem students at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. That stuff was blue-Heisenberg quality. Impossible to get nowadays, although that’s probably for the best. Still, back in the day, if you didn’t have any responsibilities during the next 36 hours or anything you couldn’t sleepwalk through for the subsequent 36, it was fun.

    The best thing about hallucinogens in military school is that your average grumpy officer doing morning inspections has no idea you’re ripped to the tits. If you’re drunk, you think you can hide it, but those old drunks can tell. If you’re flying solo in the stratosphere, you agonize over that guy with robot tentacles seeping out of his eyeballs knowing you’re high, but he just sees "fear" and smells nothing.

    I’ve forgotten everything I once knew about chemistry (use it or lose it, folks), but I wonder if the old CIA experiments with mind-altering chemicals had any link to the various mood-altering prescription medications developed later. Did those pharmaceutical companies draw on existing government research data? Or did they come at their discoveries independently? Not that it matters in the slightest, I’m just curious.

    When it comes to how the brain works, we’re still in the "poke it with a stick and see what happens" phase; there’s a long way to go.

    And (rambling) on the subject, this is why I know for a fact that men invented beer. Imagine the scene. A vase full of barley that was stashed in a corner somewhere and forgotten gets rediscovered, full of weeks of rainwater, with a sickly odor and ooky foam on the surface.

    Any sensible woman would toss the contents out and clean the vase for re-use. But you know guys. "Dude — I dare you to drink that." "No way!" "Chicken!"

    (Alternate version: the local wimp gets forced by local bullies to drink the barley soup, and after half an hour of them laughing at his repeated vomiting, gets punch-drunk and breaks the biggest bully’s nose.)

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