Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 28, 2007

Remembering Oskar Morawetz

The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

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The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

Morawetz composed a meditative concerto for harp (an instrument that rarely seems pensive) available on CBC Records, and a rambunctious Carnival Overture in the tradition of Dvorák, available on Naxos, and a deft, angular clarinet sonata (sensitively played by the virtuoso soloist Joaquin Valdepeñas) on CD from Musica Viva. Morawetz also wrote more somber works inspired by historical figures such as Anne Frank and Martin Luther King; these are frequently performed, although they lack the appealing lightness of his other compositions. Prone to severe depression, Morawetz composed sprightly works with an element of triumph over his natural low spirits, born of a lifetime of historical and personal struggle. A longtime bachelor, he embarked at the age of 40 on a miserable marriage lasting a quarter-century, through which he continued to compose. Only the death of his mother ten years ago at the age of 103 silenced him.

Lest Canada feel too proprietary about his achievements, it is useful to recall that Morawetz was almost refused admission as a refugee. Canada’s wartime director of immigration, Frederick Charles Blair, blocked the entry of all but a paltry 5,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 (by comparison, Mexico accepted around 20,000 escapees from Hitler and the U.S. around 140,000). When asked how many imperiled Jews Canada should offer refuge to, Blair notoriously replied, “None is too many.” Still, Morawetz was finally allowed to join his family in Toronto in June 1940.

An apt memorial tribute to Oskar Morawetz would be the long-overdue transfer to CD of a brilliant recording on Capitol Records of his Piano Concerto No. 1 by the Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (led by another Czech-born refugee, Walter Susskind). Morawetz (a trained pianist) made his own recordings of piano pieces like Scherzo and Scherzino, which would also be well worth transferring to CD. CBC Records, which has kept a quantity of other Morawetz CD’s in print, should consider releasing these valuable documents of his talent.

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The War on the War on Terrorism

The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for documents concerning the legal basis of the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program. The New York Times calls it “the most aggressive move yet by lawmakers to investigate the wiretapping program since the Democrats gained control of Congress this year.”

The program enabled the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and emails of persons in the United States, including U.S. citizens, whom the agency believed were linked to al Qaeda. The interception of such calls is the very core of counterterrorism. If our intelligence agencies are to connect the dots that will prevent another 9/11, these calls and emails constitute the critical dots.

The program was already damaged, if not completely compromised, when its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in December 2005. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other allies of the Times on Capitol Hill are now coming in for the kill.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for documents concerning the legal basis of the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program. The New York Times calls it “the most aggressive move yet by lawmakers to investigate the wiretapping program since the Democrats gained control of Congress this year.”

The program enabled the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and emails of persons in the United States, including U.S. citizens, whom the agency believed were linked to al Qaeda. The interception of such calls is the very core of counterterrorism. If our intelligence agencies are to connect the dots that will prevent another 9/11, these calls and emails constitute the critical dots.

The program was already damaged, if not completely compromised, when its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in December 2005. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other allies of the Times on Capitol Hill are now coming in for the kill.

To be sure, the legal status of the program is a crown of thorny issues. In various memos and briefs prepared by the administration, they have relied on Congress’s 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, which they claim trumps the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that formerly had governed all such wiretapping. They have also suggested that such surveillance is an inherent power of the President under Article II of the Constitution.

One of the most compelling briefs against the program was written by Louis Fisher, an estimable scholar at the Library of Congress, and I have yet to see it comprehensively answered. But I also have few doubts that, at the end of the day, the courts will side with the President on this one, based upon some variation of the premise that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The fact is that if Bush had failed to authorize such monitoring, and we were struck by another major attack on our homeland that had been planned and executed by terrorists employing cross-border communications, that presidential lapse would itself probably be grounds for his impeachment.

All the same, one of the actions of the Bush administration that has long troubled me, and which has made it the target of withering criticism, was its failure to ask Congress to amend FISA when the program first began. The whole immensely damaging controversy would have been skirted if the administration, in the wake of 9/11, had simply worked with Congress to engage in this kind of surveillance within the framework of a revised law.

Why did that not happen?

We now have an answer: it can be found on page 238 of George Tenet’s new memoir. Tenet writes:

At one point in 2004 there was even a discussion with the congressional leadership in the White House Situation Room with regard to whether new legislation would be introduced to amend the FISA statute, to put the program on a broader legal foundation. The view that day on the part of members of Congress was that this could not be done without jeopardizing the program (emphasis added).

Is Tenet simply passing the buck by blaming Congress? I don’t think so, but since he does a lot of other buck-passing in his buck-passing memoir (see my analysis of it here), I can’t be sure. But Tenet has no particular reason to cover his tracks in this instance. For once, he had helped put in place an effective program.

If senior members of Congress of both parties rejected the idea of congressional action to amend FISA, the Judiciary Committee’s grandstanding now on this critical matter of national defense is even more disgraceful than it already appears.

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Good Bad News from Iran

Good news from Iran. The Associated Press reports that “Iranians smashed shop windows and set fire to a dozen gas stations in the capital Wednesday, angered by the sudden start of a fuel rationing system that threatens to further increase the unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Why is this good news? Because it reveals the unpopularity of the theocratic dictatorship in Tehran, and its vulnerability to pressure.

As the AP article goes on to note: “The rationing is part of a government attempt to reduce the $10 billion it spends each year to import fuel that is then sold to Iranian drivers at less than cost, to keep prices low. Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but it doesn’t have enough refineries, so it must import more than 50 percent of the gasoline its people use.”

That’s a point of leverage that various analysts have suggested exploiting. In the pages of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman argued for (among other things) imposing a naval blockade to stop the gasoline imports and oil exports that are the lifeblood of the Iranian economy. In USA Today this week, Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution suggested not only imposing a blockade, but also counterfeiting Iranian currency to drive its economy deeper into crisis.

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Good news from Iran. The Associated Press reports that “Iranians smashed shop windows and set fire to a dozen gas stations in the capital Wednesday, angered by the sudden start of a fuel rationing system that threatens to further increase the unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Why is this good news? Because it reveals the unpopularity of the theocratic dictatorship in Tehran, and its vulnerability to pressure.

As the AP article goes on to note: “The rationing is part of a government attempt to reduce the $10 billion it spends each year to import fuel that is then sold to Iranian drivers at less than cost, to keep prices low. Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but it doesn’t have enough refineries, so it must import more than 50 percent of the gasoline its people use.”

That’s a point of leverage that various analysts have suggested exploiting. In the pages of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman argued for (among other things) imposing a naval blockade to stop the gasoline imports and oil exports that are the lifeblood of the Iranian economy. In USA Today this week, Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution suggested not only imposing a blockade, but also counterfeiting Iranian currency to drive its economy deeper into crisis.

Those may seem like radical steps. But they are in fact amply justified by Iran’s continuing development of nuclear weapons and its support for terrorists in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places. Iranian proxies have been killing Americans in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet we have been looking the other way for fear of seeming too “warlike.” Even if we don’t have the political will to meet Iranian attacks with military force—and we don’t at this point—we could still try to make the Iranian government pay a price for its aggression. An embargo would be one way to do it. It’s an act of war, but not as extreme as air strikes.

Even if we’re not prepared to go that far yet, greater economic sanctions could have an impact given another fact noted in the AP story: “Iran’s government is seeking $12 billion in investments to boost refining capacity from 1.6 million barrels a day to 2.9 million barrels in the next five years. It also hopes to increase oil production to 5.3 million barrels a day by 2014, from the current 4.3 million.” If the U.S. could convince other countries in Europe and Asia to join our boycott of Iran, the investment that the mullahs need to buy off their own people might not be forthcoming.

That’s the intent of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Tom Lantos, which just passed in the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a vote of 37-1. Among other things, it would end the President’s authority to waive penalties under existing sanctions laws on companies that do business with Iran. (This waiver authority has been used to let European firms off the hook.) Unfortunately, the Bush administration, which talks tough on Iran, opposes this genuinely tough legislation.

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