As a bored pre-teen with nothing to do in the hot summer months between school, I picked up a piston valve, brass BB-flat tuba one day and started to blow. The local youth orchestra loaned instruments and offered morning classes taught by classically trained volunteers, all at no charge. Before long, powerful bass tones belted out by my tuba pierced the thick, sweltering air inside the high school gymnasium where we rehearsed.
A prodigy euphonium player and member of the United States Army Band stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, befriended me and I was invited to workshops, rehearsals and concerts. I became a protégé of "Pershing's own" United States Army Band and "the President's own" Marine Corps Band. I became one of the best amateur tuba players in the country before I was legally old enough to drive and then got my very own horn: an affordable B&S rotary valve CC tuba handcrafted, ironically, in East Germany.
Convinced that the Army Band was my future, I practiced and performed regularly, and within a few years, learned the bass line to the score of hundreds of military marches, symphonic tone poems, overtures and symphonies. Works like the Planets by Gustav Holst, the Procession of the Sardar, John Philip Sousa's the Washington Post March and the Rakutsky March from the Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz. These were the tunes that filled my ears and and my favorite composers were those who had written prolifically for my instrument: Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Sousa.
At the age of fifteen, I bought a five-dollar, obstructed view ticket to see the National Symphony Orchestra matinee performance of Das Rheingold, Wagner's four hour introduction to the Ring Cycle. I was unfamiliar with Wagner's operas and the German mythology and history surrounding them. With a few exceptions such as the Prelude to Act Three of Lohingrin, which I had performed, his works were too long, expensive and complicated for all except the most determined orchestra companies. Students and amateurs didn't even attempt them. In the RingCycle, Das Rheingold is followed by Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). These four operas make up the epic fifteen-hour Ring of the Nibelung, intended to be performed over four days.
When composers wanted to speak loudly and deliver a forceful message, they chose my instrument to express themselves. Instead of counting hundreds of rest bars while sweet violins serenaded the listener, I was kept busy projecting baselines and even melodies. Certain composers repeatedly call on the tuba to deliver their message. Stars and Stripes Forever, Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, Slavianka's Farewell and the incomparable Preobrazhensky March stir powerful emotions in an audience.
The Preobrazhensky March, first performed on Red Square for Peter the Great, was the last music Generalissimo Stalin's troops heard on the night of November 7, 1941, before they were sent to meet their doom against Hitler's invincible Wehrmacht. They smashed it to bits on the outskirts of Moscow.
Then one day it hit me: the more nationalistic the composer, the more active my part. Claude Debussy didn't write for tuba, but Brahms sure did. So did Mahler. Wagner even designed a new tuba for the sole purpose of playing his operas. As unlikely as it may be, the tuba has lessons to teach about nationalism, militarism and geopolitics. Now, viewing Wagner's opera as a non-musician and member of the audience, it speaks to me about the leitmotif of avarice and Bernard Madoff.
Twilight of the Gods starts in the watery realm of the Rhine. The Rheinsmaidens guard a hoard of gold and make fun of the ugly gnome, Alberich, who steals their gold and condemns himself to a loveless life. With the loot, he builds a slave empire and acquires two marvelous things: a ring of gold that brings infinite power and a tarnhelm (magic cap) that can make the wearer invisible. He is enabled to commit great evil with impunity. When he loses everything to the mighty Wotan, he places a curse on him and all those who would possess the ring.
Wagner's message, delivered by the pit orchestra and entire stage cast, is that all the wealth of the world matters little if love is absent. Wotan learns it too late after paying for Valhalla with gold that didn't belong to him, breaking his word and defaulting on binding contracts that ruin his family and leave him broke. He is homeless when the three Norns arrive to study the rope of time for clues to the future.
Thus begins the cycle of insatiable greed in the pursuit of power and wealth. Wotan buys a palace he can't afford and Fafner the giant dies depressed that happiness has eluded him in spite of his great wealth. George Bernard Shaw interpreted the Ring Cycle as an attack on the selfish barons of Gilded-Age Capitalism. The magic hat, he wrote in "The Perfect Wagnerite," "is a very common article in our streets, where it generally takes the form of a tall hat. It makes a man invisible as a shareholder and changes him into various shapes, such as a pious Christian, a subscriber to hospitals, a benefactor of the poor, a model husband and father, a shrewd, practical independent Englishman, and what not, when he is really a pitiful parasite on the commonwealth."
Fast-forward six generations. Botox, hair weaves and liposuction are standard procedure for a man (and now a woman) of means. Keeping up with the Joneses means outspending them while forcing the Hands of Time to stand still. Tan, trim and buff personalities have replaced the corpulent plutocrats in hilarious black stovepipe hats and handlebar moustaches of old. Yet now more than ever, in this era of inconvenience, harassment and invasion of privacy in the name of phony wars on drugs and terror in which everyone, especially people of color, are seriously suspect if they have money (athletes and entertainers excepted), Madoff proves that your identity and appearance are really what counts when it comes to access. The appearance of things: the automatic business-deal approval and red-carpet social reception that the New York financial ruling class gives its own allowed the Madoff family to engorge itself on a scale comparable to the income of ten-thousand people making $100,000 a year.
For twenty years "due diligence" was never done on the Madoffs because they were...Madoffs. Gullible people, many of them "sophisticated" hedge fund managers and "savvy" investors, sent their money to Madoff every month because they "knew" how to invest. Now, the same Ayn Rand quoting conservatives who rail against government interference are demanding that the Securities and Exchange Commission be held accountable for lack of oversight. Deep down, they long for tax relief or other indirect help from the government to blunt their appalling losses. Wagner's Fafner dwelled in a cave, having morphed from a giant into a dragon to better sit on his glittering pile of gold. Today's Fafners on the Upper East Side and the Hamptons have been had. The Town Crier told them they were sitting on iron pyrite and now they bemoan the loss of their illusory paper Ponzi wealth. And Madoff investors who got out in time must disgorge fifteen years worth of profits. Truth be told, Madoff's scheme is not unlike the perfectly legitimate sale of fresh equity by Fortune 500 companies with little cash on hand (think GE) before their quarterly dividend payment of billions of dollars to stockholders comes due. Nor is it unlike the asset bubbles that require ever-increasing valuations and sales prices to make the last in the line of investors whole. Its called the Greater Fool Theory. Madoff crossed the line and became a pariah by creating his own bubble called Madoff Securities, which was separate and aloof from the larger bubble called Wall Street, whose murky ownership leads in a million directions.
R. Allen Stanford's Stanford Bank followed a similar path and Sir Allen can look forward to playing Texas-Hold-Up decked out in a bright orange prison jumpsuit along with three-time losers doing a mandatory twenty for shoplifting at the local Winn-Dixie. Alas, through no miscalculation of his own, the mark-downs on Wall Street created a cash-crunch for Bernie's faithful and redemptions he could not meet, not unlike a run on a bank, which is also a kind of Ponzi scheme that lends 2000% more than it has in assets and cooks its books before being bailed out by the taxpayer in the name of staving off a new Great Depression (think Bank of America)
In this version of The Fall of the Gods of Plunder, the sequel to Twilight of the Gods, the cave collapses in on Fafner and crushes his fool's gold and everyone who touched it in to dust...