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    When William Faulkner was told that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, he gratefully accepted the prize but said he would not be able to attend the official ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. “I doubt if I know anything worth talking two minutes about,” Faulkner, who was then 53 years old, explained to the Nobel committee.

    Words of solace: a poetry reading at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    However, he soon changed his mind, as Senator Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll tell us in their book In Our Own Words (Kodansha America). The book is a collection of great American speeches by men and women “white and black, yellow and red, old and young, Jews, Christians, Muslims, socialists and capitalists, and many more,” in the words of the historian Stephen Ambrose.

    Faulkner delivered what is considered one of the finest Nobel acceptance speeches ever given. He mentioned poets and writers, but he could have been talking about all artists. He said that the poet and writer “must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

    It is the “privilege” of the poet and writer, Faulkner said, “to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man. It can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

    I kept thinking of Faulkner’s words when I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art three days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Met and all New York museums had been closed at Mayor Giuliani’s request on September 12 but reopened, as he had suggested, the following day. Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s director, and David E. McKinney, its president, wrote to the museum’s members, to visitors, and in newspaper ads that art museums “testify to the permanence of creative aspiration and achievement and offer solace, affirmation and a spirit of renewal so essential to our recovery.”

    They said that the Met’s responsibility was “to provide the public the opportunity to nourish the human spirit. For great art from all parts of the world can enlighten, inspire awe and ultimately, help heal.”

    Each day at noon, the Met presented a series of free concerts in the Medieval Sculpture Hall titled “Sounds of Solace: Music for Reflection, Inspiration and Hope.” The one-hour concerts consisted of classical compositions by a string trio, violin ensembles, and other instruments. From 200 to 500 people attended each of the concerts, which were held over several weeks. One day, one of the other instruments was an organ that was brought out from the museum’s musical instruments collection. The organist played works by Bach, Frescobaldi, and Corelli.

    During World War II, London’s National Gallery presented daily concerts. The art critic William Feaver, one of our London correspondents, told me, “The pianist Myra Hess played virtually every day from 1939 to the end of the war. It was amazing. It was set up by Kenneth Clark, who was then director of the gallery. The gallery’s paintings had been evacuated to North Wales, but there were temporary shows. One Old Master painting a month was brought from Wales. The queen—now the queen mother—once sat next to Clark during a concert. It had an enormous effect on morale.”

    On Friday night, September 14, the Met resumed its regular Friday and Saturday evening concerts at its balcony bar. Usually the concerts consist of music by Strauss and Lehar and are held alongside some of the Met’s treasures, 14th- and 15th-century Yuan and Ming dynasty porcelains.

    Beryl Diamond led the group in playing everything from Strauss’s “A Thousand and One Nights” waltz to Jerome Kern’s “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” to a Mozart piano concerto. The concert closed with a special arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Nearly 200 visitors cheered for about five minutes. Seldom had the Met heard such tumultuous applause. “It was a very healing moment,” Diamond said later.

    One of the waitresses at the balcony bar, Vanessa Longley-Cook, occasionally works in the trustees’ dining room. “There was a couple in here yesterday,” she said. “The man told me he had been able to leave Number Seven at the World Trade Center. He said he had come to the museum because he wanted to see beautiful things.”

    Another visitor was John Kowk, a 41-year-old computer programmer. “I’ve come here a couple of days. It’s tranquil, peaceful, serene. It’s giving me a chance to try to keep some perspective and to look at the best aspirations of mankind and to think good thoughts.”

    A few days later, I went to a concert in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. A string quartet was seated in front of the 18th-century choir screen from the cathedral of Valladolid in Spain. Next to the musicians was part of a 14th-century frieze from a French church that depicted six apostles. The program was Schubert’s String Quartet in C Major. In the audience were about 250 people of all ages, some with tears in their eyes. At other concerts, there was music by Bach, Haydn, and Vivaldi, among many others.

    An hour after each concert, the Met presented poetry readings in the Charles Engelhard Court of the American Wing. Actors and actresses read poems by Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and others.

    A poem by Whitman, in which he expresses his great love of New York, opened and closed each reading. It is called “Mannahatta,” the aboriginal name of the city:

    The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,

    The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,

    The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,

    Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,

    A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,

    City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!

    City nested in bays! my city!

     

    Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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