- It was so hard for me at first. I knew about three songs and when it was time for us to play onstage I was all shaky, so I had to play behind the curtains. I just couldn’t get up in front. Then you get so very discouraged. You hear different bands playing around you and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you are. Most people give up at this point, but it is best not to. Just keep on, just keep on. Sometimes you are going to be so frustrated that you hate the guitar, but all of this is just a part of learning. If you’re very stubborn, you can make it. [Jimi Hendrix, from Janie L. Hendrix and John McDermott, Jimi Hendrix: An Illustrated Experience (Atria Books, 2007), p. 21.]
- “. . . we sing amid our uncertainty . . .” [W.B. Yeats, Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Anima Hominis, section V (1917).]
Perseverance is vigilance in the face of failure or persistent obstacles. Tenacity, a related concept, presumes the existence of an obstacle.
My eldest sister may be the most compassionate person I have ever known. She has always been a tiger for children, not just her own but any children. I had a dream about her one night, some years ago, when my other two sisters were having an ugly disagreement. In my dream, monsters had gotten into Judy’s house. I came in after the fact and found Judy lying dead on the stairs leading to the bedrooms on the second floor, where the children slept. A stick was in hand. She may have been old, overweight and out of shape but the only way for those monsters to get to those kids was to go through Judy. My sisters and I had not been children for a very long time. It made no difference to Judy. She would fight for us to her dying breath.
I had a battle royal with Helen this morning. Although I try very hard not to force issues, I find it very difficult to avoid them. Helen's table manners are appalling. She puts her hands in our plates and helps herself, and when the dishes are passed, she grabs them and takes out whatever she wants. This morning I would not let her put her hand in my plate. She persisted, and a contest of wills followed. Naturally the family was much disturbed, and left the room. I locked the dining-room door, and proceeded to eat my breakfast, though the food almost choked me. Helen was lying on the floor, kicking and screaming and trying to pull my chair from under me. She kept this up for half an hour, then she got up to see what I was doing. I let her see that I was eating, but did not let her put her hand in the plate. She pinched me, and I slapped her every time she did it. Then she went all round the table to see who was there, and finding no one but me, she seemed bewildered. After a few minutes she came back to her place and began to eat her breakfast with her fingers. I gave her a spoon, which she threw on the floor. I forced her out of the chair and made her pick it up. Finally I succeeded in getting her back in her chair again, and held the spoon in her hand, compelling her to take up the food with it and put it in her mouth. In a few minutes she yielded and finished her breakfast peaceably. Then we had another tussle over folding her napkin. When she had finished, she threw it on the floor and ran toward the door. Finding it locked, she began to kick and scream all over again. It was another hour before I succeeded in getting her napkin folded. Then I let her out in the warm sunshine and went up to my room and threw myself on the bed exhausted. I had a good cry and felt better. I suppose I shall have many such battles with the little woman before she learns the only two essential things I can teach her, obedience and love. [Annie Sullivan, Letters, March 6, 1887.]
Abraham Lincoln struggled with depression, and lost most of his political races. He also struggled mightily with attitudes toward race, including perhaps his own. Today, historians recognize him as perhaps our greatest president.
- Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008): this massive biography has become the definitive work on Lincoln’s life.
- Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010): Lincoln is no paragon in Foner's searching portrait, but something more essential--a politician with an open mind and a restless conscience.
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (1926).
- Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (Random House, 2009).
- Sidney Blumenthal, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, 1809-1849 (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
- Sidney Blumenthal, Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, 1849-1856 (Simon & Schuster, 2017). “How the Lincoln-Douglas rivalry defined a nation.”
Another exceptionally tenacious public figure was Mohandas Gandhi. Ramachandra Guha portrays this is his two-volume biography:
- Gandhi Before India (Knopf, 2014): “In South Africa, Ghandhi forged the philosophy and strategies that would steer India to independence.”
- Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 (Knopf, 2018): “ . . . a portrait of a complex man whose tenacity remained constant, even when his beliefs changed.”
Other true narratives in which perseverance is a main theme:
- Douglas Brinkley, Cronkite: A Biography (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012): “Perseverance was the hallmark of Cronkite’s surprisingly choppy career.”
- Qian Julie Wang, Beautiful Country: A Memoir (Doubleday, 2021): “. . . a child’s-eye view of what it’s like to find your way in a strange land.”
- Jennifer Croft, Homesick: A Memoir (Unnamed Press, 2019): “ . . . the story of a singular consciousness, a strikingly personal account of a deeply troubled young girl’s efforts to absorb disaster — and to persevere — buoyed by her passion for language, its infinite permutations and enigmas.”
- Brian Moynahan, Leningrad: Siege and Symphony: The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014): “Like a movie camera, he zooms in and out on the besieged civilians, the bitterly cold troops on the city’s edge and the simultaneous efforts of Shostakovich to set these experiences to music . . .”
- Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency (1967-1971): “Ditlevsen’s refusal to present her failings as steps on the path to some mythical plane of self-awareness reminds me of how potent the form can be when stripped of that pretense.”
- Bernadine Evaristo, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (Grove Press, 2022): “Her unconventional path is laid out here in breezy prose, as she proselytizes on the stamina, discipline and P.M.A. (positive mental attitude) that counterbalance her 'wild, disobedient and daring' nature.”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)
- Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat (1946)
- J.M. Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K. (Penguin, 1985).
- C. Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel (Riverhead, 2020): “Set during the Gold Rush with elements of magical realism, it focuses on two orphaned siblings who are fending for themselves in an American West where tigers roam. . . . the siblings, Lucy and Sam, go into survival mode after their father dies and they are left penniless in a hostile town.”
- A.B. Yehoshua, The Tunnel: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020): “Zvi has a small atrophy on his frontal lobe, a harbinger of dementia. He has been forgetful lately. First names are often beyond his grasp.”
- Akwaeke Emezi, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty: A Novel (Atria Books, 2022): “. . . a young widow stumbles into new life and romance while grieving for her past love.”
Film and Stage
- All the President’s Men, about the reporters who worked tirelessly to unravel and expose the Wagergate scandal
- Heartland, about subsisting in rural Wyoming
- Though predictable and sometimes trite, An Officer and a Gentleman is a good film about not giving up.
- America, America, about an immigrant’s tenacity
- Here Comes Mr. Jordan: even death couldn’t stop him
- Young Mr. Lincoln, an early-Hollywood account of the our 16th President’s early adulthood
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Though Edward Elgar expressed a disdain for “programme music,” he wrote this of his Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 55 (1908): “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” In his notes for recordings of the work, Michael Kennedy writes: “All this is expressed by the purely musical metamorphoses of this tune.” This active metamorphosis does not seem likely in the first three movements but is achieved through perseverance. Elgar in 1930, Boult in 1949, Barbirolli in 1956, Boult in 1977, Colin Davis in 2002 (the movements are linked individually in the discussion section, below), Hickox in 2007, Andrew Davis in 2010, Petrenko in 2014 and Barenboim in 2016 conducted top performances.
- 1. Andante. Nobilmente e semplice - Allegro. “. . . the long opening theme (an unusually daring way to open a symphony!) is a ‘motto’ for the whole work, with the distinct feeling of a procession that passes by, is glimpsed now and then from afar, and eventually returns.” The business of life emerges a symbolic theme, with alternating bursts of energy and calm. The strings wrap in the opening theme amid daily business. Both points of view contend with each other throughout the first movement.
- 2. Allegro molto. The movement begins bombastically in the brass section. The strings scurry about but then the flutes usher in a little serenity. Again, the main struggle is between calmness and agitation.
- 3. Adagio. A statement of assurance opens the movement but soon turns gray. The struggle of the first two movements appears through a new theme. Occasionally, the symphony’s inspiring opening theme sounds, briefly. The movement ends quietly but is this peace or resignation?
- 4. Lento - Allegro. The final movement opens quietly but unsettled, but than a clarinet sounds a hopeful note. Is this about hope and aspirations? Struggles continue but then the opening theme emerges, surrounded by swirling strings. By persevering, we have survived, and held to our ideals and vision for a better future.
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30: here are links to performances by Horowitz in 1978, Horowitz in 1951, Argerich, Weissenberg, Kern, and Rachmaninov the composer playing his own work.
Marcel Dupré, organ works:
- 15 Versets sur les Vêpres de la Vierge, Op. 18
- Variations sur un Nöel
- Magnificat, Op. 18
- Symphony in G minor for organ and orchestra, Op. 25 (1928)
- Concerto in E minor for organ and orchestra, Op . 31 (1928)
- d’Ollone: Piano Trio in A Minor: pressing forward (1st and 3rd movements) in the face of doubt (2nd movement)
- Hoover, String Quartet No. 2, "The Knot": The music “moves forward precipitously until it gets caught in a knot; thern there is a fairly graphic depiction of shaking, and pulling at strings to undo the knot. Later, it gets caught again, but the second knot is untied in a much different way . . .” [the composer]
- Flagello, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1956)
- Wieniawski, Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22
- Hayasaka, Overture in D Major (1939)
- Raga (Rag - Ragam) Enayetkhani Kanada - Vilayatkhani Kanada: Vilayat Khan composed and performed this raga, drawing on raga Darbari. It alternates between hope and despair but the natural course of an Indian raga brings it to an upbeat conclusion.
- Raga Puriya Dhanashri (Puriya Dhanashree) is a Hindustani rag for early evening (performances by Banerjee, Kashalkar and Vilayat Khan)
- Raga Manomanjari is a composition of Nikhil Banerjee (performances by Banerjee, Banerjee, and Banerjee)
- Hiromi Urehara, Silver Lining Suite: “If anyone was going to come out fighting against the pandemic it was bound to be Hiromi Urehara. (She) has risen to the challenge of finding harmony amid tragedy.” [Andy Robson, Gramophone magazine, November 2021 issue, p. 91.]
Albums - not all blues - on a standard blues theme: press on despite your problems:
- Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, “Long Way Home”
- Fenton Robinson, “Somebody Loan Me a Dime”
- Pat Metheny, “Road to the Sun”
- The Oculus Ensemble, et. al., “Continuum”: music of Julie Cooper, about the widely shared sense of unease during the COVID-19 pandemic
That even as we grieved, we grew.
Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor— / Bare.
But all the time / I'se been a-climbin' on, / And reachin' landin's, / And turnin' corners, / And sometimes goin' in the dark / Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back. / Don't you set down on the steps. / 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now— / For I'se still goin', honey, / I'se still climbin', / And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
[Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son”]
- Theodore Roethke, “Big Wind”