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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Of M*A*S*H and Motivation

Charles Emerson Winchester III, played by David Ogden Stiers.
Image © 1980 20th Century Fox Television/CBS.
I woke up early this a.m. and flipped on a re-run of M*A*S*H*. And I caught what happens to be the best music-related episode of that long-running series.

The episode, "Morale Victory" is from the show's eighth season, right before the decline of the later seasons. And it features my favorite character on the show, Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, the classical music-loving Boston surgeon, played by David Ogden Stiers in the later seasons of the show.

This also happened to be the first episode I saw as an 11pm re-run in 1985, starting a life-long love affair with the show. M*A*S*H became a bed-time ritual for many years. In the dark days following the September 11, daytime re-runs of the show provided familiarity, comfort, and that all-important sense of time passing in a world numbed with shock.

Winchester operates on Pvt. David Sheridan's leg and injured right hand. He saves the leg, restoring full mobility, but the injury causes ever damage to three fingers on his hand. Problem is this soldier is a concert pianist, and feels that he has has now lost his ability to play music.
The pianist Paul Wittgenstein.
Charles brings his patient to the Officer's Club and its rickety old piano. He presents him with sheet music: the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written by Maurice Ravel for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Private Sheridan is reluctant at first, but Winchester persuades him to play:

"Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be... The gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

"You have performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul.

"Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world--through the baton, the classroom, or the pen. As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one."

Despite the piano being old and beaten up, the beauty of Ravel's music comes through, and the young man discovers that he hasn't lost his gift.

In the last scene, Charles is back in the Swamp having a brandy. Hawkeye and BJ come in and tell him he missed a great party--the clambake that the two doctors spent the rest of the episode organizing. He answers.

"Each of us must dance to his own tune."
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.