2017 July 2: My Country 'Tis of Thee

July 02, 2017 10:30

Theme & Variations on “My Country ’Tis of Thee”   L. Beethoven (1770-1827)

In Beethoven’s day a popular musical form was “Theme and Variations”. The template was to take a popular tune of the day — the ‘theme’ — which the composer states rather simply, and follow it with ‘variations’ which displayed the composer’s imaginative powers. Beethoven was regarded as the “Chuck Norris” of that form and wrote twenty-two sets just for piano.

The themes Ludwig chose were very familiar in his day but have long been forgotten — thus much of the punch of Beethoven’s imagination is lost on modern ears. But one set is based on a theme that is still very familiar, namely “My Country ’Tis of Thee”.

As an historic aside, Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) is infamous for being a colonist turned traitor to the American cause. What isn’t as well known is the grand irony of his decisive rôle in the colonists’ ultimate victory. For all of General Washington’s abilities, the harsh reality was that he simply lacked the resources to defeat what was then the world’s reigning superpower. What the colonists needed was to convince a major power to come to our aid — at that time that would be France. France, for her part, was reluctant to do so until she was reasonably certain we could hold up our end of the bargain — she didn’t exactly want to back a loser and irritate Britain.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), schmooze-meister extraordinaire, was in Paris doing his darndest to woo the French to our side. Badly needed, however, was one good solid American victory over the British to prove to the French that we had what it takes, and Major General Benedict Arnold provided just that at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. (Arnold achieved his victory by brazenly disobeying the orders of his commanding general. Consequently Arnold was both decorated and reprimanded.) Between Arnold’s victory and Franklin’s silver tongue, the French scales finally tipped towards sending men, materiel and navy to our aid. Meanwhile, Congress broke one too many promises to him and Arnold switched to the British side in 1780. His foresight which had served him so well at the Battle of Saratoga completely failed him on this decision: the Americans & French ground to ultimate victory for the colonists at Yorktown a year later in 1781 — a victory for which Arnold had laid such a critical cornerstone.

After the American Revolution, Arnold and his colonist wife moved to England. The British provided handsomely for Arnold, but never completely trusted him. He was never given an important military command. The Arnolds moved to London where he found no job, some admiration and even contempt. He moved his family to Canada where he reentered the shipping business. Many there disliked him and had no use for him, and eventually he returned his family to London. When the fighting began between France and England in 1793, he tried again for military service, but to no avail. His shipping ventures eventually failed and he died in 1801, virtually forgotten.


David Dennis (July 08, 2016 08:18)

The military engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko was also an essential element in the victory at Saratoga. It was Kosciuszko's brilliant artillery placement that so surprised the British as Arnold led them into the trap. It was Kosciuszko's plans for West Point that Arnold attempted to sell to the British. Kosciuszko was also owed a great payment in back salary for the entire Revolutionary War, but instead of betraying the US, he dedicated all of the debt to buy the freedom of Jefferson's salves, insisting that it was impossible for him to imagine the author of the Declaration of Independence owning slaves. The money owed Kosciuszko was more than enough to set them all free, but the case dragged on and eventually went to the Supreme Court. Washington did free his slaves at the end of the war and went broke. Jefferson did not, and still went broke much later. For a fascinating and engaging account of all this and more I recommend the recent book:

The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution (2010) by Alex Storozynski

Kosciuszko returned to Poland after the American Revolution to lead liberation movements there. Kosciuszko was a close friend of Washington but he is rarely mentioned. The recent drama "Turn" about Washington's spies, shows Arnold, Hamilton and Lafayette, but Kosciuszko is never mentioned although he was an essential part of Washington's inner circle. The only voice of modern engineering and science (along with a bit from von Stueben). Perhaps these names are just too hard to pronounce, not British enough, or, as I suspect, their views were far too revolutionary, even for our times.

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