Elegance - I wish I had it!
By Manfried Rieder Starhemberg
When I grew up in my grandparent's home in Austria in the 50's, "Elegant" was a painting by Gustaf Klimpt (above is an excerpt of his wonderful painting "friends"), or my grandfather's portrait of the great conductor Herbert von Karajan, complete with his shock of white hair, baton poised, ready to conquer the Salzburg Music Festival. I actually attended some master classes by Karajan at the Mozarteum and he was truly "elegant" in his subtle nuances, the underpainting of his orchestral readings, the muted brasses, the almost inaudible oboes.
I shall never be elegant. I could possibly dress up well in my good suit and have my hair done, but I just don't have what it takes. Once a Volkswagen, always a Volkswagen. There were no Bugattis in my family, no Hooper bodied Rolls Royces, no Lamborghinis, not even a lousy Amati fiddle. Just normal folks. However, I know elegance when I find it. Last week I visited an ailing friend who has been wheelchair bound for seven years. He had his table impeccably set with a lone flower in a vase, two finely polished glasses on a lovely table cloth and a good bottle of red wine decanted well ahead of my arrival, so that we could enjoy the wine at its finest. This man cannot change his diapers but he is well spoken, well shaven and apologetic not to be able to rise to greet me. If this is not elegance, I do not know where to find it.
Elegance surrounds us but it has to be found in the minutiae of daily life. A simple flower can be as elegant as the best Monet painting, a reflection of the moon in a pond, the smile of a well mannered girl at the grocery store. or a well crafted letter written to a friend or received from one. I have traveled extensively and I still recall the elegance of tribal songs in a Kenyan village or the majestic sight of a lone giraffe on the Serengeti. And there is the majesty of a sunset on the horizon of an ocean or the incredible sight of brook trout under a bridge in a clear stream. Nature is the great teacher of elegance, because she needs no makeup, no handlers, no artificial light. It is there for us to enjoy the never ending elegance of our surroundings even in their simplest form,from the parachutes of dandelions to the fine texture of a walnut shell.
Birds are elegant, even pigeons. Just watch them go about their daily work - they are among the Lord's greatest creations, so immensely beautiful and elegant in flight and graceful in repose. I do not think that Calvin Cline or Yves St. Laurent could create a picture of elegance like I saw a few days ago on my way to Derby, an 8 point stag in full majesty in a field. He looked like a lord striding about his grounds with grace and dignity.
Of course, since I love music, there is elegance in works such as "Appalachian Spring" or "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland, or the incredible adagio from Dworak's "New World Symphony". This is aural elegance far superior to me than a lot of other music as it appeals to the simple elegance of man, is based on folk songs,elevated by the genius of a composer to soar above and make us simple folk feel "elegant" and appreciated.
In Japan,the late master of haiku poetry Masaoka Shiki is revered as the embodiment of literary elegance. His 17 moras, in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 moras respectively, have set the standard for haiku poetry which is another embodiment of human elegance as a simple story, a moral or a greet feeling is condensed into an incredibly elegant tiny text of words.
Elegance can also be found in mathematics, in chemical formulas, in a well composed thesis or in a newspaper article. To a degree it sets apart the common dross from the shining example, the laborious meandering of words to Hemingway's sparse prose, the "I have a dream" peach by Martin Luther King, to the ravings of a lunatic African dictator.
I also admire architectural elegance. The Vietnam memorial in Washington is the embodiment of elegance as, (for me), is the new triangle at the Louvre in Paris.There is immense elegance in bridge construction as well. My grandfather was a bridge architect and he approached every project with the same intensity a painter would harness to sketch out a new masterpiece. "A bridge must not just bring people from one point of the valley or the river to the other, it must blend in, be not offensive to the natural surroundings and must be built to last for 50 years". This was his credo. He also stated: "Every bridge has a limited life span and people must be made aware of what that life span is, otherwise they will have huge problems later on".Well, he was my embodiment of "Elegant" and right now he would have a bit of fun with the problem of most of America's bridges. Some of his have lasted for 90 years.