Shostakovich, at the end

September 17, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve been enjoying a big listening project — no, not that one. I’ve been listening to all of Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, in chronological order. There are 15 of each, and they are both generally considered to be major contributions to their respective traditions. Certainly they are full of tremendously good music. I am more fond of the string quartets than of the symphonies, and this listening project hasn’t changed that, but I have gained a new appreciation for some of his symphonies, especially Nos. 7 and 14. I continue to hold Nos. 4, 5, and 10 in high regard.

The last piece in the survey is his devastating String Quartet No.15, written in 1974 while Shostakovich was in failing health and faltering spirits. I consider it to be one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, and among the greatest string quartets ever written. Here is the Emerson String Quartet playing the final movement. Farewell, dear Shostakovich! Requiescat in pace.


Singing like a Byrd

September 13, 2014

One of my favourite choirs, Stile Antico, has a new recording out this week, and the news sent me scrounging for some concert footage. I found this clip of them singing William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, recorded last year at Wigmore Hall. This piece is one of the “greatest hits” of the period; certainly it is one that I love. The sound here is tremendously good, and the singing is so precise that one can hear all four parts clearly. Follow along with the score?


Pratchett on Chesterton

September 3, 2014

Since I like to keep an eye on Chesterton-related items, I’ll draw your attention to a recent interview with Terry Pratchett in the New York Times Book Review:

Sell us on your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer.

G. K. Chesterton. These days recognized — that is if he is recognized at all — as the man who wrote the Father Brown stories. My grandmother actually knew him quite well and pointed out that she herself lived on Chesterton Green in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, here in the U.K. And the man was so well venerated that on one memorable occasion, he was late in sending a piece to The Strand Magazine and a railway train actually waited at the local station until Mr. Chesterton had finished writing his piece. When she told me that, I thought, Blimey, now that is celebrity.

[...]

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? And the prime minister?

Well, it would have to be The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a damn good read that I believe should be read by everyone in politics.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman, because he’s a mate who knows how to order the most excellent sushi.

The whole interview is worth a read; it’s not long, but it brings in Tolkien, Kenneth Grahame, and an old joke that Chesterton himself once used.

I confess I’ve never read one of Pratchett’s books, but on this evidence perhaps I ought to do so. That he would bring Neil Gaiman to dinner with Chesterton and Twain is not surprising: Pratchett and Gaiman co-authored a book some years ago called Good Omens and they dedicated it to Chesterton, “a man who knew what was going on”. Indeed, he did.


Mechanical bliss

September 1, 2014

My pop music odyssey recently reached the mid-1970s and I have been listening to an assortment of things by Van Morrison; today I’d like to share a curiosity.

According to his official discography, Van Morrison recorded nothing between 1974’s Veedon Fleece and 1977’s A Period of Transition, but actually there was another record in there which, owing to contractual problems, was never released. It’s unofficial title is Mechanical Bliss. Some of the songs recorded for that album eventually made it onto Van Morrison’s back-catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone in 1991, but one of the songs that didn’t make the cut was “Mechanical Bliss” itself. I’d never heard it until just these past few weeks.

It’s an interesting song that I’ve been having a lot of fun with. I’m convinced it is a parody of the Beatles in their late period, and a pretty good one too. I’ve never heard anything like this from Van Morrison before. Have a listen:

As I say, it’s a curiosity, but undoubtedly very curious indeed.


Brown: Augustine of Hippo

August 28, 2014

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown
(California University Press, 2000; Second Ed.) [1967]
563 p.

Though it is now nearly 50 years since its first publication, I believe that this biography by the distinguished historian Peter Brown is still considered to be among the most eminent modern studies of Augustine’s life and thought. I first read it — in a fragmentary and harried fashion — when I was an undergraduate taking a course on medieval philosophy. To revisit it now, many years later (though still under circumstances that only a satirist could describe as leisurely), has been a great pleasure. I may have greater affection for one or another saint of the Church, but there is no saint whom I revere more than Augustine.

All biographers of Augustine have to contend with the fact that they are writing about a subject who has already written, famously and with penetrating insight, about himself. Of course his Confessions were published when he was yet “in the middle of the way,” and there remains much to say about his long and productive life. Brown covers the principal events of his life — his boyhood in north Africa, his migration to Italy as a young, ambitious man, his embrace of Manichaeism, his encounter with St. Ambrose and conversion to Christianity, his election as bishop of Hippo, and his many subsequent struggles to defend the Christian faith against rivals, struggles which decisively shaped Christianity itself. More than this, however, his purpose is to set Augustine in his context, filling in the background not with gold-leaf, as in so many of those beautiful medieval portraits, but with the intellectual and social ferment of the times. In this he is notably successful, though it must be said that even his living, breathing Augustine turns a bit wan and pale when Augustine’s own voice is given room on the page. Is there another figure from antiquity who speaks to us today with such immediacy?

Brown emphasizes the influence of Plato, mediated by Plotinus and Porphyry, on the thought of Augustine. His reading of Plotinus was a deep and creative one; he assimilated that mystical system so thoroughly that he was able to extend it in a way that was distinctively his own, grafting it fruitfully onto his theological work. Yet as he aged he moved away from the neo-Platonism of his youth in important ways, and the care with which Brown traces this gradual change is one of the principal virtues of the book.

As a young man, Augustine believed that with the proper discipline, education, and determination it would be possible to achieve a kind of complete spiritual transformation in this life, to live the life of a “philosopher”: wise, virtuous, and untroubled by sin. But his own experience, not to mention his troublesome duties as a bishop among his wayward flock, gradually convinced him that this was mistaken. Our hearts are so ‘wounded’ (his own word) that in this life they are likely never to be entirely healed; even our baptism does not lift this burden from us; we struggle onward, helped by grace but struggling even to co-operate with it. Much of his most potent and valuable philosophical and theological work, on grace and freedom, on faith and reason, and on love, was born directly out of this darker view of our human condition. Brown puts the matter this way:

“The ideal remained the same: the ‘purification’ of the mind, where shadows gave way to reality. ‘In the morning I shall stand before Thee and contemplate.’ But the process of ‘purification’ itself, had become infinitely more complex. In Augustine’s early works the soul needed only to be ‘groomed’ by obvious and essentially external methods, by a good education, by following rational demonstrations, by authority conceived of primarily as an aid to learning. In his middle age, this ‘purification’ is treated as more difficult, for the soul itself, he thought, was more deeply ‘wounded'; and, above all, the healing of the soul has come to involve more parts of the personality. The problem is no longer one of ‘training’ a man for a task he will later accomplish: it is one of making him ‘wider’, of increasing his capacity, at least to take in something of what he will never hope to grasp completely in this life. No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart’. This profoundly human truth is what Augustine will always tell his readers: they must ‘look into the Scriptures, the eyes of their heart on its heart’.

“… To separate ‘faith’ and ‘reason’… goes against the grain of Augustine’s thought. For what concerned him was to set a process in motion: it was to ‘purify’, to ‘heal’ a damaged mind. He never doubted for a moment that this process happened through the constant interplay of the two elements: of faith ‘that works by love’, of understanding, ‘that He may be known more clearly and so loved more fervently’.”

And, in another place:

Augustine’s early ideal had been to lead a life of spiritual elevation achieved through intellectual effort and in the company of like-minded friends. He later came to see himself much more as a pilgrim, seeking something which he would never find in this life, and always necessarily incomplete: “Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? … I cannot refrain from this longing: I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control; and, in this sweet yearning, I seek some small consolation.”

These mature views entered directly into Augustine’s famous conflict with Pelagius. In many respects, in fact, Pelagianism bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s own youthful views, consisting as it does of an essentially optimistic view of human nature, a simple notion of human freedom, and an expectation that a life of moral perfection is attainable in this life. In struggling with Pelagius, Augustine was, in a sense, struggling again with his own self, and this perhaps accounts not only for his perceptiveness but also the passion with which he entered the fray.

Against Pelagius’ rosy view of human nature, Augustine’s can seem dire. Yet Brown argues that it was, deep down, the kinder and more forgiving: “Paradoxically … it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.” And he did find room: it is reassuring to hear the language with which this pastor of souls discussed his own moral failings and those of the flock entrusted to him: “Many sins are committed through pride, but not all happen proudly… they happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress…”.

For Augustine in his maturity, self-control and reason were insufficient: man was beset by unconscious and conflicted desires that eluded control, and could only be healed by a long process, under grace.

A fundamental difference between Pelagius and Augustine was the way they understood freedom: “For Pelagius, freedom could be taken for granted: it was simply part of a common-sense description of a human being…” For him “the difference between good and bad men was quite simple: some chose the good, some the bad.” But for Augustine matters are more complex: “‘I could say with absolute truth and conviction (that men were not sinless) because they did not want to be sinless. But if you were to ask me why they did not want to be so, then we are getting out of our depth’.”

At the root of our action and even our thought, for Augustine, is our love. He distinguished his two great cities, the City of God and the City of Man, on the basis of the objects of their love. “My love is my weight,” he said, and so no account of human life can be adequate if it does not place love at the center of things:

“For an act of choice is not just a matter of knowing what to choose: it is a matter in which loving and feeling are involved. And in men, this capacity to know and to feel in a single, involved whole, has been intimately dislocated… Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love…

“Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.”

That last thought is a rather striking one. I remember being startled by it when I first encountered it — not in the pages of Augustine, mind you, but in Aquinas. It is, perhaps, just one small indication of the pervasive influence which Augustine’s life and work has had on subsequent Christian history.

There are many threads running through this book; I have here plucked at only a few. In an extended (~100 p.) epilogue for this second edition, Brown surveys the extensive academic work that has been done on Augustine and his world since he first wrote. I was surprised to learn that substantial collections of otherwise unknown sermons and letters of Augustine were discovered as recently as the 1970s and 1990s; he gives an overview and discusses their importance. And he candidly assesses his book’s strengths and weaknesses. The latter, while not absent, are rather minor when set beside the book’s sobriety, competence, and humane spirit.


“Of all the noises known to man…”

August 22, 2014

My series of posts on “Great moments in opera” consistently garners widespread indifference. But I can’t resist drawing attention to an interesting article by Roger Scruton on the operatic art. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with his claim that opera is “the supreme art form” and that “the inner life is essentially operatic”, but there is nonetheless much of interest in what he writes. Scruton is himself an opera composer, and he has good insight into the allure of opera:

Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky’s one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma “Mozart”.

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu’s Oedipe, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Pfitzner’s Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

He also makes some probing remarks about the recent practice, all too common, of saturing opera stage productions in violence, sex, and a general ugliness (which Heather Mac Donald has also written about):

Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them. An urge to desecrate is the inevitable successor to a lost habit of reverence. Hence Siegfried is dressed in schoolboy uniform, Mélisande is lying on a hospital bed in sheltered accommodation, Rusalka is taking a bath in a whorehouse, and — well you know how it goes. The best one can hope for in the state-subsidised opera houses of today is that the singers will all be dressed in Nazi uniform, but otherwise allowed to get on with the plot.

It’s a good article. Read the whole thing.


Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

August 20, 2014

I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
(Harper, 2004)
738 p.

A satire about modern university life has, among the many targets that leap into view, three that are nearly irresistible. There is, first, the prevailing political correctness. A related second target is the quality of intellectual life in our halls of learning, which consistently — and, one sometimes suspects, deliberately — fails to turn out students who are educated, in the sense of being well instructed in the great intellectual tradition of the West. Third, there is the delinquent social life of undergraduates.

In his novel about freshman life at a premier American university, Tom Wolfe has touched on all three of these themes, but his focus falls very much on the last: the drunken debaucheries and sordid spectacles that pass for social functions, the predatory and exploitative sexuality that passes for dating, the inarticulate vagary that you know passes for like intellectual life, and the corrosive effect of all this on the hearts and minds of the students.

Charlotte Simmons has been raised in a small mountain town in North Carolina, but earns a full scholarship to the (fictional) Ivy League university of Dupont. She is extremely intelligent, academically far superior to anyone she has ever known, and she looks forward with anticipation to starting university, eager to live the life of the mind to its fullest. But Dupont is not what she expects. To be sure, she takes classes, and has a few moments of joy in intellectual discovery, but mostly she is appalled. Her fellow students are, if anything, more surly, debased, and vulgar than those she left at home. For a while she maintains her balance and her focus; “I Am Charlotte Simmons!” she says to herself. She is destined for greater things.

But before long a crushing loneliness together with a complete lack of privacy in the student dorm (even the bathrooms are co-ed at Dupont) conspire to break Charlotte’s spirit. It’s hard enough not having friends; it’s worse to be rejected and excluded as a killjoy or a naif. Urged on by friends (whom she meets while ‘sexiled’ from her room at the insistence of her skanky roommate), Charlotte ventures out to some parties, and begins to attract the attentions of a number of men. From there the details of the story become more complex, but the general shape of the story does not: it is the beginning of a long, slow spiral of decline for Charlotte.

Why is it, I have often wondered, that those whose lives are most debauched and corrupt also show the greatest confidence in the conduct of that life? They are the most shameful and the least shamed. This happens at Dupont, and Charlotte, to her peril, falls for it.

There are a few central male figures in the story. Each of them has an interest in Charlotte, and that interest enters into their personal struggles to grow up as men. There is Hoyt, the ultra-cool frat boy who has his pick of campus women, and sees Charlotte’s innocence and reticence merely as a special challenge. Then there is Adam, a nerdy, slightly pretentious intellectual, who nevertheless has a genuine passion for learning and a good heart, and who proves, in a time of crisis, to be the only real friend that Charlotte has. And there is ‘JoJo’, a campus basketball star (Wolfe has a lot of fun skewering the phenomenon of the ‘student-athlete’) whose friendship with Charlotte does him great good. All of them see in Charlotte something extraordinary, and respond to it in different ways. Hoyt sees her as prey, something to despoil; Adam sees beauty and intelligence, and falls in love, but is too unsure of himself to be successful; JoJo is simply, confusedly, dazzled, encountering in her something intangible that he has not known before, but which he is unable to bring into focus. The ways in which these relationships unfold and interconnect are central elements of the story.

Wolfe’s writing is, on first acquaintance, decidedly mediocre. He is no great stylist. The tone is colloquial, informal, artless. There appears to be little craftsmanship in the prose, and the dialogue is unremarkable — unremarkable, that is, except for the astonishing density of profanity. His characters speak a kind of patois in which certain four-letter words function as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, imperative, and pretty much any other part of speech. It’s appalling.

Yet, on further acquaintance, my assessment of his craftsmanship changed; the merits of his writing become more obvious on the large scale. The novel is well-constructed, the characters are life-like and distinctive, and the story is compelling. Indeed, I liked Charlotte very much, and it was hard to watch her wander, step by painful step, off the high road. And although it is true that his dialogue is poorly written, perhaps this is only because if you were to write down what people actually say, it would be poorly written dialogue.

The book could be read as a critique of the sexual revolution, and in that respect would make excellent penitential fare for the baby boomers who raised the liberating cry in the 1960s. What hath freedom wrought? On Wolfe’s campus, the old standards of decorum and respect, which were guardians of the sense of mystery which the one sex ought to inspire in the other, are entirely gone. The moral law and its social adjuncts, which had rightly sheltered the intimacy of lovers from the wolves of appetite and power, has been forsaken. Even the tradition of dating has died, replaced by ‘hooking up’, a euphemism for casual and frank mutual sexual exploitation. These young people who have learned the technicalities of sex before having experienced love, approach sex mechanically, so that it almost fails to be interpersonal at all — a condition captured brilliantly by Wolfe in a jargon-laced depiction of Charlotte’s seduction.

Perhaps most painful was Wolfe’s canny portrayal of this crack-up on young women. In this book they have forsaken the feminine virtues of modesty and grace, yet remain strong on the feminine vices of manipulation and guile. Worse, they have begun to adopt the vices that have traditionally been the peculiar province of men: they are foulmouthed, lewd, and boorish. Is there anything less attractive? Is there anything less likely to inspire in men the honour and devotion that men are able, and, in my opinion, really want to owe a woman? It is very sad.

I said at the beginning that this is a satire of university life. Like all satires, it reveals while concealing. The world presented here is not the whole of campus life — certainly it bears little resemblance to the life I lived on campus, but then I expect that I was rather atypical. Much of what Wolfe portrays rings true (take, for example, his superbly barbed depictions of campus dance parties, so aptly called ‘clubbing’), and that is both admirable and depressing.


Toward appropriately festive feasting

July 31, 2014

I dare say I yield to no-one in the annoyance I feel when I look at cooking blogs: all those colourful utensils, long ingredient lists, and gently-lit photographs of unburnt confections are enough to drive me out of the kitchen entirely. But I do like the idea of feasting on feast days, and I can see the argument for celebrating those special days with something apropos (rather than, say, just eating a bag of beef jerky).

Which is why my usual annoyance is moderated when I look at a blog called Catholic Cuisine. The good folks who run it have all the usual photographs of little bowls and clean countertops that you’d expect, but they redeem themselves by coming up with some great feast-day-themed recipes.

For instance, today, for the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, they show us how to make Jésuites — little French pastries, it turns out. For tomorrow, which will be the feast of St. Peter in Chains, they are making a kind of pretzel chain.

A few weeks ago, for the feast of the Sacred Heart, they put together a really nice vegetable tray in the shape of the Sacred Heart. Blessed is he who has not seen and yet has believed — but in this case you really ought to see it anyway.


Goldberg Variations: Aria

July 28, 2014

Bach died on this day in 1750. Here is Daniel Barenboim playing the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. A few years ago, when we had an old piano in the house, I spent a good deal of time trying to learn to play the opening bars of this piece. I never did get very far.


Great moments in opera: Der Rosenkavalier

July 16, 2014

Richard Strauss made an operatic name for himself with the dark and exotic dramas of Elektra and Salome, with their bloodthirsty heroines and tumultuous scores, so it was, perhaps, a surprise when his next project proved to be a genteel drawing-room opera with music based throughout on the Viennese waltz. Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) was a hit nonetheless, and has remained popular in opera houses in the intervening century.

There are four principal roles.  The Marschellin, an older woman, is carrying on an illicit affair with a young man, Octavian; meanwhile, a philandering older man, Baron Ochs, seeks the hand of a young woman, Sophie, in marriage. Over the course of the opera Octavian and Sophie fall in love, and their marriage is contrived with the help of the Marschellin and at the expense of the Baron.

That’s it, in a nutshell, but Strauss and his long-time librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, have made more of it than a brief plot sketch would suggest. Consider, for instance, the long monologue which the Marschellin sings at the end of Act I; in it, she reflects on growing old, the inevitable passage of time, and mortality. It’s a melancholy monologue, but Strauss has infused it with a delicate, beguiling beauty that resonates graciously in the ear. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa singing it, with English subtitles:

We can hear the same music sung by the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf here, albeit without English subtitles. Live footage of Schwarzkopf is rare, so this is a treat. If you don’t know, she was one of the greatest Strauss sopranos of the ‘golden age’ of opera recordings in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of Act I, immediately prior to the Marschellin’s solitary ruminations we just heard, Baron Ochs had deputized the young Octavian to take a rose to the home of Sophie, presenting it to her on the Baron’s behalf. (Octavian is thus the titular ‘cavalier of the rose’.) At the beginning of Act II he arrives at her home, enters, and presents the gift — except that as he does so, he falls in love with Sophie, and she with him. This is a wonderful scene. The two of them sing a sprightly and ravishingly beautiful duet. Here are Anneliese Rothenberger (Sophie) and Sena Jurinac (Octavian); unfortunately I could not find a clip of this scene with English subtitles. You’ll notice that Octavian’s part is sung by a soprano; apparently it doesn’t prevent his being attractive to Sophie.

Strauss saves the best for last, however. As Act III draws to a close, and all of the machinations of the plot are winding down, he gives us two gorgeous ensemble pieces. The first is a trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt, sung by the Marschellin, Octavian, and Sophie. This is one of the few triple-soprano pieces that I know of; one might have to go back to baroque opera to find another. Here are Anna Tomowa-Sintow (the Marschellin), Janet Perry (Sophie), and Agnes Baltsa (Octavian) in a 1980s-era Salzburg production, with English subtitles:

This is followed by the opera’s final number: a ravishing duet between Octavian and Sophie, which begins at about the 10 minute mark in the clip above, and is unquestionably one of the opera’s high points.

Der Rosenkavalier is over three hours long in performance, and, though the plot is slight, parts of it are truly excellent, as I hope this post has made clear.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 150 other followers