Holy Week with Fra Angelico

April 17, 2014

At her blog The Three Prayers, my friend Janet has been writing this Holy Week about Fra Angelico, and specifically about the panels he painted for the Armadio degli Argenti which depict many scenes from Holy Week. The pictures are wonderful, and Janet’s remarks on them are very much worth reading.

You can find posts on this topic here, here, here, here, and here, or you could just try the home page, since she may well write more posts between now and Easter.

Contrariwise, things will be quiet around here for a few more days. If it is not precipitant to do so, I wish everyone a very happy Easter.


Lenten reading: Traherne III

April 9, 2014

Wants are the bands and cements between God and us. Had we not wanted we could never have been obliged. Whereas now we are infinitely obliged, because we want infinitely. From Eternity it was requisite that we should want. We could never else have enjoyed anything: Our own wants are treasures. And if want be a treasure, sure everything is so.

– Thomas Traherne, Centuries, I.51.


Great moments in opera: Falstaff

April 6, 2014

Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, written six years after the triumph of Otello, when he was in his late 70s. The subject came as a surprise: it was, if I am not mistaken, Verdi’s first comedy. Although it has not been as popular with audiences as his great tragedies, it is generally considered to be a masterpiece on its own terms.

This opera is prodigiously inventive — indeed, it is almost too full of ideas, restless and fleet of foot as it leaps nimbly from one thing to the next. A beautiful musical line will come up, the sort of thing that in another opera would be lingered over and savoured, but here it makes its appearance and is dropped. The music dashes off to something else. The opera is also notable for the number of ensemble pieces it contains. Mozart, whose comedies had (and still do) set the standard to meet, had laid down an implicit challenge to later composers in his marvellous ensembles, especially the famous septet in Le Nozze di Figaro. Verdi accepts the challenge in Falstaff: there is at least one nonet, and also, if I remember rightly, an octet. They are a lot of fun, full of complicated rhythms banging up against one another.

Something which immediately strikes the listener, maybe especially the non-Italian-speaking listener, is how very wordy this opera is. It is not quite patter songs all the way through, but there is a lot of rapid dialogue, very few melismas, and the rhythms are brisk.

A big question about Falstaff is how faithful its central character is to Shakespeare’s original. Granted, it takes a kind of mad courage to even attempt to adapt this character, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most miraculous creations, to another medium. If I tried it, I should surely fail. I am not convinced that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, entirely succeeded either. The basic lineaments are there: Falstaff is a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, with a passion for life and adventure. But Falstaff the invincible comic spirit, the magnanimous heart, the man whom Chesterton described as “shaking with hilarity like a huge jelly, full of the broad farce of the London streets” — I am not sure that he makes an appearance in Verdi’s version. In the DVD performance I watched, I did not see him — this Falstaff was more of a buffoon, rather sadly fallen prey to his own follies — but I am not sure how much of that impression to attribute to the particular production I saw and how much to the opera itself. It’s a question that I leave open for now.

After that rather long preamble, let’s hear a few excerpts from the opera.

Although most of the music of Falstaff is jaunty and hasty and doesn’t try to ravish the listener’s ear, there are two characters, young lovers named Fenton and Nannetta, whose music is always lyrical and romantic. Whenever they open their mouths, and especially when they are together, it is as though we are transported into another world, or another opera (and Verdi has some fun with this later, as we’ll see). But, as with almost every musical idea Falstaff, even these lovely interludes don’t last long. Here are Fenton and Nanetta singing a duet called Bocca baciata non perde ventura; it is over in about 40 s.

The basic story of Act I is that Falstaff, who owes a large tab at the tavern and finds himself penniless, sends love letters to several local women with the hope of seducing them and getting their money. The trouble is that the women in question all know about his duplicity. In this section, which closes Act I, they — and their husbands — all swear to revenge themselves on Falstaff. This nonet is one of the big ensemble numbers of the opera. I apologize that the quality is not great; it goes on for about 2 minutes.

In Act II the women plan to trick Falstaff and they hatch a strategy. The action eventually results in Falstaff’s hiding in a laundry basket which is carried out and dumped into the river, much to Falstaff’s chagrin and everyone else’s amusement.

In the final act, Falstaff is tricked again in an elaborate scheme that involves dressing up as fairies and much besides; I confess I didn’t quite follow all the details. The action takes place outside the town, by an old oak tree, and before Falstaff and the others arrive we have a nice little scene with Fenton and Nannetta. Fenton arrives first, and sings a beautiful aria, as though he were in a bel canto romance and not a Verdian comedy. He sings Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola / (“From my lips, a song of ecstasy flies”), dilating at length on his love for Nannetta. When he finally sings “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure,” Nannetta enters with a charming answer: “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon.” The two join in a ravishing duet that seems to be building to a glorious climax but — and this is a really nice comic moment — they are interrupted at the last moment by the entrance of another character. The interruption is so abrupt that it is as though the music falls off a cliff. Here it is (with Spanish subtitles, alas); the interruption occurs at 3:30 in this clip:

In the same act Nannetta has a ravishing solo aria, Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, which she sings in the guise of the Fairy Queen, calling the fairies to a dance. Here it is sung by an unnamed soprano, with English subtitles:

But Verdi saves his best for last: the most famous section of Falstaff is the finale, Tutto nel mundo (Everyone in the world). The composer has one final trick up his sleeve: a fugue! I do not know if there are fugues in any of Verdi’s other operas; right now I cannot think of one. In any case, it is a form that is not associated with Italian opera, to put it mildly, and the fact that Verdi reached for it in the final section of his last opera strikes me as quite remarkable. Is it a tribute to Bach, one master to another? Or merely a sparkling musical witticism? Here it is:


Happy birthday, J.S. Bach

March 31, 2014

It’s Bach’s birthday, and, turning the tables, he has kindly offered us a gift. Here is the “Dona nobis pacem” section that concludes the Mass in B Minor:

That’s Jordi Savall on the podium, leading La Capella Reial de Catalunya.


Lenten reading: Traherne II

March 27, 2014

They in Heaven prize blessings when they have them. They in Earth when they have them prize them not. They in Hell prize them when they have them not.

– Thomas Traherne, Centuries I.46.


Last piece of gum, Jamaican rum, etc.

March 22, 2014

The comment thread to a recent post brought to my attention Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest rock albums. In the Top 10 one finds both the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and (much the better of the two!) Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Reading through the blurbs about each album, I was surprised to learn that there is a connection between John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” and Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” (which appear, respectively, on the two records in question). Since one of the aims of my pop music odyssey is to explore influences between the singers and songwriters I am following, this seems a good case study.

There are contradictory reports about the direction of influence. Some say that Dylan wrote “Fourth Time Around,” played it for the Beatles, and that Lennon subsequently wrote “Norwegian Wood” as a kind of homage, trying to incorporate aspects of Dylan’s songwriting style. Others say that Lennon wrote “Norwegian Wood” first and that Dylan, hearing it as attempt to ape his style — nobody denies that Lennon wrote it with Dylan very much in mind — wrote “Fourth Time Around” as a rejoinder and, possibly, as a rebuke. Lennon was allegedly left shaken by the final lines of the song (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”), which he took, rightly or wrongly, as directed at him.

Although I don’t know that I’ve had made the connection between these two songs without reading about the background, there are similarities. One of the striking things about “Norwegian Wood,” for instance, is that its meaning is unusually opaque — unusually for the Beatles, that is, who had made their fame on straightforward love songs. Dylan, on the other hand, was the master of opacity at this point in his career, and “Fourth Time Around” is a fine example of his craft. In both songs, despite the occluding surrealism and the missing details, I think we can descry a lovers’ quarrel — much milder in the case of “Norwegian Wood,” but still hinted at (“this bird has flown”). The melodies are even similar, each with a lilting motif that turns back on itself. Dylan’s melody actually seems to move in a circle, fittingly given the title of the song.

Anyway, let’s listen to both songs. Which do you prefer?

**

Dylan’s studio recordings are hard to find on YouTube; this version of “Fourth Time Around” is from a 1966 concert in London.


Lenten reading: Traherne I

March 20, 2014

Your enjoyment of the World is never right, till you so esteem it, that everything in it, is more your treasure than a Kings’ exchequer full of Gold and Silver. And that exchequer yours also in its place and service. Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works? He is Himself in everything. Some things are little on the outside, and rough and common, but I remember the time when the dust on the streets were as precious as Gold to my infant eyes, and now they are more precious to the eye of reason.

– Thomas Traherne, Centuries I.25.


de Lubac: The Drama of Atheist Humanism

March 13, 2014

The Drama of Atheist Humanism
Henri de Lubac, S.J.
(Meridian, 1967) [1950]
253 p.

As I understand it, Henri de Lubac was one of the leading theologians in the decades leading up to Vatican II who advocated and exemplified an approach to Catholic theology which emphasized engagement and dialogue with the modern world. I don’t know if that is a fair characterization of his work as a whole — for this is the first of his books that I have read — but it is a good description of what is going on in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, in which de Lubac sympathetically enters into conversation with the sources of contemporary atheism in an effort to both understand and challenge them.

For de Lubac, atheist humanism is rooted in the thought of a handful of nineteenth-century men: Feuerbach (and, through him, Marx), Nietzsche, and Comte. He considers each of them to be a “humanist,” in the sense of being one who takes a high view of the human capacity for greatness, and who wants to see that capacity developed and praised. Yet each conceives of the relationship between God and humanity as being one of competition, and it is in that apparent conflict that de Lubac identifies the principal motive of modern atheism: “Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness which, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”

Even the atheists, however, realized that the overthrow of God would exact a price. It was Nietzsche who perceived this most clearly; he foresaw “the rising of a black tide” as God’s influence over human affairs waned. He saw that to reject God was to reject everything founded on Him, and that this would be the greatest upheaval, both intellectual and moral, that the world had ever known.

de Lubac respects the honesty and integrity of these atheist thinkers, granting them credit where it is due, though of course he stops well short of endorsement:

“The criticisms which served as their starting-point were often shrewd, with a shrewdness cruel in its accuracy; and certain of their manifestations have an imposing grandeur which, for many fascinated eyes, masks the horrors that were their purchase price.”

It is Nietzsche, especially, who earns de Lubac’s admiration. Nietzsche was thorough and fearless: he followed his thoughts to their conclusions. It is notable that although he was of course opposed to Christianity, he refused even to argue against Christian theology, for to do so would have been to concede the eminence of truth, which would have been a concession to the principles of theism. Instead, the battle was for him a matter of values expressed through culture, a struggle of wills for domination. de Lubac remarks: “…never, before Nietzsche, had so mighty an adversary arisen, one who had so clear, broad and explicit a conception of his destiny and who pursued it in all domains with such systematic and deliberate zeal.” As I have said before, Nietzsche did everyone, theist or atheist, a great good service simply by clarifying the terms of the debate and its implications.

It is interesting that de Lubac saw the atheists of his time — the mid-twentieth century — as having assumed this same mantle of courageous and integral atheism. He writes, for instance, comparing them to the French philosophes and other early modern atheists:

“How timid those men now seem who, for instance, fought against the Church but wanted to keep the Gospel! Or those who, while claiming to be released from all authority and all faith, still invoked principles derived from a Christian source! “Free thinkers,” but not very bold and not very “free” as yet! Those who have come after them deride their illogicality as much as their impotence and lump them together with believers in a common reprobation. Those of the new generation do not intend to be satisfied with “the shadow of a shadow.” They have no desire to live upon the perfume of an empty vase.”

I have to wonder, however, whether this sort of high-octane atheist has survived into the present day in any large numbers. One of the principal criticisms of the crop of so-called “New Atheists” has been precisely that they are superficial, complacent, tame, and so forth. They take “values” for granted, coasting on the fumes of a religion from which they profess to have cut themselves off. It’s an interesting question. I wonder who were the mid-twentieth-century atheists whom de Lubac had particularly in mind when he wrote the above? Sartre and Camus, perhaps? If so, I think it would be fairly uncontroversial to say that our most vocal atheists today fall well short of the standard.

Yet in the end de Lubac argues that the atheists’ efforts to disparage God have, despite their often praiseworthy intentions, only ended up hurting humanity, and this because there was an obscure truth in the claim (made by Feuerbach and Nietzche) that God was a kind of mirror of humanity, in whom we find our highest ideals and ground our self-understanding. When we rejected Him, we quenched our own guiding light, lost our own balance. From a Catholic perspective, this had to be so, for God is in truth so intimately present to humanity that He could not be forsaken without doing damage to ourselves:

“For man, God is not only a norm which is imposed upon him and, by guiding him, lifts him up again: God is the Absolute upon which he rests, the Magnet which draws him, the Beyond which calls him, the Eternal which provides him with the only atmosphere in which he can breathe and, in some sort, that third dimension in which man finds his depth. If man takes himself as god, he can, for a time, cherish the illusion that he has raised and freed himself. But it is a fleeting exaltation! In reality, he has merely abased God, and it is not long before he finds that in doing so he has abased himself.”

Thus those who, as Comte said, set out “to discover a man with no trace of God in him” were on a quixotic quest, for the man so discovered would turn out to be a pale shadow, a cipher, or a mere tool.

(Parenthetically, to move from Nietzsche to Comte is rather like switching from scotch to lukewarm tea. Although he was in his lifetime apparently considered a formidable adversary of religion, a systematic thinker who rode the crest of modern “scientific” thought into an imagined blissful future, he has none of the guts and fire of Nietzsche. In this he resembles our “New Atheists” — though as a scholar of culture and society he easily surpassed even them. It is also, I confess, difficult to take seriously any man who thought sociology the highest of the sciences (!). But de Lubac does relate a hilarious anecdote about Comte’s overtures to the Jesuit order, whom he saw as potential allies to his ambition to bring about a secular world order. Alas, his knocks on the door went unanswered.)

***

de Lubac’s discussion of the leading atheists constitutes only the first third of the book. In the second and third parts, he turns to two prominent humanists who wrote in opposition to atheism. The first is Søren Kierkegaard, and the second is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. About the former he has relatively little to say — the discussion focuses on Concluding Unscientific Postscript and not much else — other than that Kierkegaard was a kind of herald of transcendence to a culture that had grown almost deaf to it. He called people back from abstraction and speculation to the inner life of faith, to a personal encounter with God. de Lubac cites his maxim from the Postscript: “Preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading books or in making surveys of world history, but in deeper immersion in existence.” For Kierkegaard, contra the atheists, it was precisely by more serious and devout faith, by grounding oneself more firmly in God, that one could become more fully and maturely human.

The long final section of the book is a detailed engagement with the novels of Dostoyevsky, whom de Lubac sees as something like the archetypal man of our time: “in him the crisis of our modern world was concentrated into a spearhead and reduced to its quintessence”. He describes Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche as “hostile brothers,” united in their experience and understanding of a world conceived apart from God, but responding to that vision in opposite ways. For him, Dostoyevsky is something like an antidote to Nietzsche:

“To put the matter succinctly, he forestalled Nietzsche. He overcame the temptation to which Nietzsche was to succumb. That is what gives his work its extraordinary scope. Whoever plunges into it comes out proof against the Nietzschean poison, while aware of the greatness of Nietzsche.”

There are many atheists within the pages of Dostoyevsky’s novels; de Lubac identifies three principal types: the “man-God” (the individual who is a law unto himself), the “Tower of Babel” (the social revolutionary who proposes to ensure the happiness of mankind without God), and the “palace of glass” (the philosopher who rejects every mystery). Each is portrayed by Dostoyevsky, and each is, in a sense, refuted, not by abstract argument but by a means appropriate to a novelist and humanist: by exposing its defects from the inside. Although even those most sympathetic to Dostoyevsky might wonder whether Alyosha Karamazov, wonderful as he is, quite refutes his brother Ivan. But the point is sound: Dostoyevsky has felt the force of atheism but has pushed back in a way that merits the attention of thoughtful readers.

Among whom I hesitate to number myself. As much as I admire Dostoyevsky, and as much as I saw the importance he has to de Lubac’s overall argument in this book, I confess that I found myself skimming through this final section. To really sink one’s teeth into it one would need to have read the novels recently enough to remember many details, and in some cases it has been many years, too long, for me. Regrettably.

***

In closing, I will make mention of a short section of the book, placed somewhere near the mid-point and called “The Spiritual Battle”, which functions as something like an extended homily. de Lubac steps back from his analysis of atheist humanism to ask an important question: why has this movement arisen in our culture, and in what ways does the Church bear responsibility for its emergence? He concedes that many of the atheist critiques of Christianity — that it is stale and timid, say, or that its adherents lack true commitment to their professed ideals — have much truth in them that ought to be of grave concern to Christians. He sees, for instance, that even Nietzsche’s scorn for Christianity had something noble in it that we could profitably emulate. In a noteworthy passage he writes:

“Nietzsche’s feelings with regard to Jesus always remained mixed, and so did his judgments on Christianity. There are times when he sees in it not so much a false ideal as one that is worn out. “It is our stricter and more finely tempered piety”, he says, “that stops us from still being Christians today.” Thus his animosity is against the Christians of our day, against us. The lash of his scorn is for our mediocrities and our hypocrisies. It searches out our weakness, adorn with fine names. In reminding us of the robust and joyous austerity of “primitive Christianity” he calls shame on our “present-day Christianity”, as “mawkish and nebulous”. Can it be contended that he is quite wrong? Should “everything that now goes by the name of Christian” be defended against him? When he says of us, for instance: “If they want me to believe in their Savior, they’ll have to sing me better hymns! His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!”—are we entitled to be indignant? To how many of us does Christianity really seem “something big, something with joy and enthusiasm”? Do the unbelievers who jostle us at every turn observe on our brows the radiance of that gladness which, twenty centuries ago, captivated the fine flower of the pagan world? Are our hearts the hearts of men risen with Christ? Do we, in our time, bear witness to the Beatitudes? In a word, while we are full alive to the blasphemy in Nietzsche’s terrible phrase and in its whole context, are we not also forced to see in ourselves something of what drove him to such blasphemy?”

He goes on to argue that the recovery of “the radiance of that gladness” must be the keen desire of modern Christians who hope for the Gospel to attract modern souls. We need, he says, a new infusion of joy and seriousness in our religion, and we must find the resources for this renewal by delving deeper into our own tradition, not by casting about outside it: “…it is not a case of adapting it to the fashion of the day. It must come into its own again in our souls. We must give our souls back to it.” It is only if we exemplify “gentleness and goodness, considerateness toward the lowly, pity for those who suffer, rejection of perverse methods, protection for the oppressed, unostentatious self-sacrifice, resistance to lies, the courage to call evil by its proper name, love of justice, the spirit of peace and concord, open-heartedness, [and] mindfulness of heaven” that Christianity will be an effective leaven in society, for

“it will never have any real existence or make any real conquests, except by the strength of its own spirit, by the strength of charity.”

And this seems a good thought on which to draw these notes to a close.


Ash Wednesday, 2014

March 5, 2014

Of all the many musical settings of Psalm 51 130, my favourite is Arvo Pärt’s. It is luminously simple, but it never fails to move me. Even if you’ve not heard it before, I expect you would find it not too difficult to sing along with the score, and what better day to do it?


Divine comedies

February 28, 2014

The folks at Image Journal (a fairly high-brow arts journal informed by Christian faith) have put together a list of what they are calling the ‘Top 25 Divine Comedies’ — a list of films broadly comic yet concerned, in one way or another, with “questions of ultimate import”. The list is here, and some introductory comments (with a remarkably Chestertonian flavour) can be found here.

The first thing I notice, with some gratification, is that my all-time favourite comedy sits atop their list. Clearly they are on to something. I am also surprised to find that I have seen nearly three-quarters of the films they selected. That doesn’t usually happen with me. I suppose it must just be my superb comic instincts.

In years past Image Journal has produced a number of other similar lists, including a list of horror films, films about marriage, and even a Top 100 Films list.


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