Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On the Other Hand ...

"Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be. The gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You have performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you've already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom or the pen. As to these works, they're for you because you and the piano will always be as one."

Charles (David Ogden Stiers)

From time to time, MASH managed to enlighten its viewers. I always appreciated that, just as I appreciated the way that the West Wing did the same thing a couple of decades later.

MASH didn't do that all the time, though — which, I suppose, made those occasions when it did so much more special.

Thirty–five years ago tonight was one such occasion.

As usual, the story started with a bit of misdirection. Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) was tired of the complaints he received from the surgeons about the quality of the recreational activities at the 4077th so he appointed Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and B.J. (Mike Farrell) morale officers — whereupon they discovered how challenging it can be to boost a unit's morale.

Eventually, they decided on a clambake with fresh seafood. Klinger was drafted to pick up the seafood and bring it back to camp.

Charles (David Ogden Stiers) had no problems with morale. He had just completed some rather tricky surgery on a young man who had suffered a serious wound to his leg and was pleased with the results. By taking grafts from the young man's right hand, he was able to save the leg with minimal loss of dexterity to the hand. He would be able to walk. That was the bottom line, the big picture.

Just one problem, though. The young man (James Stephens) had been a concert pianist in civilian life, and he had planned to resume his career when his military service was over. Walking was unimportant to him compared to having 10 nimble fingers to play the piano.

When music–loving Charles learned the truth, he was determined to motivate the young man to continue his career, and he gave him a composition by Maurice Ravel that had been commissioned by a man named Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated in World War I. Wittgenstein, too, was a pianist, and the pieces he commissioned were written for the left hand. Few composers would accept such a challenge, Charles told the young man — although, in fact, several of the most prominent composers of Wittgenstein's day did accept the challenge.

Charles didn't tell the young man (and the viewing audience) the whole story. Wittgenstein didn't perform every piece he received, but he retained exclusive lifetime performance rights to them; after he was dead or no longer performing publicly, he wanted the pieces to be available for others.

He died nearly eight years after the end of the Korean War so I have long wondered exactly how Charles was able to acquire the sheet music. Perhaps that is part of the Wittgenstein story with which I am not familiar. Perhaps the Ravel piece was available because Wittgenstein had performed it in public — or perhaps Ravel retained certain contractual rights on most — but not all — of the compositions he commissioned.

Personally, I find that hard to believe because Wittgenstein himself wrote to a colleague before the U.S. started sending troops to Korea, "You don't build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine. ... But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that's only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer."

That suggests to me that Wittgenstein saw to it that every piece he commissioned was exclusively his as long as he continued to perform. So the writers for MASH were mistaken. In reality, Charles could only tell the young man about the pieces. He wouldn't have been able to share the physical sheet music with him.

But that wouldn't have made the story as effective, would it?

I give the writers for MASH high marks for attempting to enlighten their audience on this night 35 years ago. They took what they probably considered poetic license in their treatment of Wittgenstein and his commissioned compositions. Ravel's name probably carried the most weight at the time, his "Bolero" having been used in the movie "10" a few months earlier.

Poetic license. That isn't how I see it. If the writers knowingly fictionalized their account, they crossed an ethical line. They should have clearly labeled the product they wished to sell.