This is a kinescope of an episode of I’ve Got a Secret that originally aired on February 9, 1956:
The guest, Samuel J. Seymour, was the last surviving eyewitness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was ninety-five years old when he appeared on TV, and he died a bit less than two months after the telecast.
I’ve always found this clip to be fascinating, and not just because of its intrinsic value as a kind of electronic relic. It also interests me because I was born three nights before it originally aired, which means that my parents, who were fans of I’ve Got a Secret, might possibly have watched it in the hospital. Of course I couldn’t have “known” Samuel Seymour, not even in theory, but it’s still true that our lives overlapped in time, just as it’s true that my own high-school piano teacher happened to be in the audience when Sergei Rachmaninoff gave his very last piano recital in Knoxville in 1943. For that matter, I once knew a man who saw Nijinsky dance and heard George Gershwin play the premiere of his Second Rhapsody in Boston in 1932.
We are so very, very close to what we think of as the distant past, and much of that distance has been all but erased by the invention of sound recording, film, and TV. Take a look at this video:
It’s a silent film of Camille Saint-Saëns conducting, shot around 1915. The soundtrack is an unrelated 1904 recording of Saint-Saëns playing the opening solo of his Second Piano Concerto, which was composed in 1868, followed by an improvised cadenza to another piece of his called Africa. At the end of the latter performance, you can briefly hear him speaking.
For the record, Saint-Saëns was born in 1835, the year in which Lucia di Lammermoor was composed and premiered, and died in 1921, the year in which Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio. He was present at the first concert performance of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1914. He walked out midway through the piece, declaring that the composer was “mad.” The American Civil War was a mere blip on his screen, assuming that it made any impression on him at all.
What does it all mean? I’m damned if I know. I merely offer it for you to ponder, glossed by a quote that I’m sure you’ve encountered, surrounded by a context with which you may not be as familiar. George Santayana said it in The Life of Reason:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.
Food for thought on a Monday morning.
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Incidentally, Saint-Saëns may not have given any thought to the assassination of Lincoln, but another assassination played an interesting part in his later life. In 1908 he wrote the score for a silent film called The Assassination of the Duke of Guise:
It was, so far as is now known, the first film of any kind to feature a musical score by a composer of any significance.