Archive for May, 2008

A Disputed Question

May 27, 2008

Whether I am rightly called a resident of Toronto?

It would seem that I am not rightly called a resident of Toronto, for:

Objection 1: Place of residence can be inferred from various factors, such as where one receives mail, where one rents property, and where one spends most of one’s time. In my case, for several years all these factors have been true of Ottawa, but not of Toronto. Therefore I am not rightly called a resident of Toronto.
Objection 2: Residency can be predicated of only one locale at any one time. Yet the Government of Canada affirmed in their recent tax package that I am a resident of Ottawa. It follows that I am not rightly called a resident of Toronto.
Objection 3: I am employed in the Ottawa area, yet the distance between Ottawa and Toronto is over 400 km, which is much too far to commute. Therefore I am not rightly called a resident of Toronto.
Objection 4: I have frequently made derisive and insulting comments about Toronto, calling it “Big Smog”, “Slough of Despond”, “Den of Iniquity”, “Great Beast”, “The Seventh Circle”, “Corrupter of Youth”, “Solipsist City”, “Toronto the Bad”, and “Filthy Hog-town”. But “A man’s home is his castle”, and to make such comments about one’s home is thus a kind of treachery and impiety. Yet I am generally considered both loyal and pious. Therefore I am not rightly called a resident of Toronto.
Objection 5: It is well known that I am a “country boy”, and I enjoy country music. Yet Toronto is a seething urban cesspool devoid of rural virtue, where country music is mostly unknown, and, where known, anathema. Therefore I am not rightly called a resident of Toronto.

On The Contrary, my employer has declared to me: “We authorize your relocation from Ottawa to Toronto, effective 31 May 2008.”

I Answer That, place of residence is a mutable property which can be altered by the individual will or by legitimate authority. Furthermore, my beautiful betrothed resides in Toronto, and recalling the truth that “Love is stronger than Death” we understand that my love for her overcomes the many deadly evils which would otherwise prevent my taking up residence in that city. As such, my residency in Ottawa will be terminated on 31 May 2008 and transferred to Toronto.

Therefore I am rightly called a resident of Toronto.

Reply to Objection 1: Historical data can indicate place of past residency, but cannot reliably determine place of future residency.
Reply to Objection 2: Though the Government of Canada is a formidable authority on such matters, the sed contra above indicates that another authority has overridden the previous declaration, authorizing the transfer of residency from Ottawa to Toronto.
Reply to Objection 3: I have been hired by an employer in Toronto, and can therefore reside there without needing to commute to Ottawa.
Reply to Objection 4: When we ascribe a property to a group, we sometimes ascribe the property to every member of the group individually, and sometimes to the group collectively but admit certain exceptions. My disparaging remarks about Toronto were of the second type, and contained an implicit exemption for my home, my fiancée, and my friends. Therefore my remarks indicate neither treachery nor impiety, and the objection is answered.
Reply to Objection 5: It is widely acknowledged that Toronto is a stinking metropolis where one can neither smell the earth nor see the sky. Yet it does not follow that no “country boys” can be found there. Was not Lot saved from Sodom? Nor is it impossible that country music be played within the city, if done in secret.

**

The movers descend on me in the wee hours tomorrow morning, to tear down my life and stuff it into boxes. It will be some time before it is reconstituted elsewhere. Things will be quiet around here in the meantime.

War and Peace, and much else besides

May 27, 2008

War and Peace (1865-69)
Leo Tolstoy (Knopf, 2007; trans: Pevear/Volokhonsky)
1291 p. First reading.

These little Book Notes of mine are all very well in their way, but certain books throw their middling ambition into stark relief. War and Peace is not only much larger than can be compassed in this forum, it is much larger than me. Rather than try to draft something with pretensions to adequacy, I resort instead to few brief comments.

* I was most impressed by the enormous scope of the book, and not just the historical scope, which is impressive enough, but the breadth and depth of the inner world that it unfolds. I am tempted to say that there is no aspect of human life that this story leaves untouched: family relationships, romance and love, grief, spiritual life, friendship — it is all here, and is treated with great sensitivity, and a certain reserve, allowing the thoughts and feelings of the characters to emerge naturally, in all of their complexity.

* There are some writers — I think of Nabokov or Borges — who keep their stories on a short leash, such that the reader always knows that the author is very much in charge of what is going on. The experience of reading Tolstoy was almost the opposite. I had the feeling that he was not controlling the narrative so much as simply trying to contain it. I suppose that I am touching again on the naturalness of the development. The story has a messiness that rings true — people want things and do things that ultimately don’t seem to lead anywhere. But they happened, so there they are.

* The book — I am trying to avoid calling it a novel, since Tolstoy himself rejected that label for it — narrates historical events, and many real historical figures make an appearance. I found myself fascinated by how he integrated that public, historical aspect of the story into the lives of his fictional characters. Sometimes the history occupies the foreground, as in the scenes of Napoleon, or the battles, but more often it recedes into the background, into seemingly incidental detail. For instance, we might learn about the status of the army through a snatch of overheard conversation at a dinner party. He keeps us informed, but without being overt about it.

* The overall historical narrative of the book recounts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812-13, and the battles that accompanied it are important hinges for the story. The book is by no means naive about war, and the terrible price it exacts is vividly conveyed, but neither could it be said to be “anti-war”. Tolstoy’s portrayal of the thoughts and feelings of his young men as they enter battle surprised me by its generosity: yes, they hardly understand what they are doing, but their hearts swell with courage, daring, loyalty, magnanimity, and even, in the case of young Pyotr Rostov, a kind of spiritual ecstasy. It provoked me to wonder how I would respond if placed in that position. I had always imagined that I would be anxious and afraid, end of story. Is it possible that those circumstances might produce something quite different in me? I suppose it is possible that Tolstoy intends a layer of irony that I am not perceiving, but I don’t think so. The war’s effect on Pierre Buzekhov suggests that ultimately all that physical destruction doesn’t touch what is truly important, which is the inner life, and that the upheaval and material hardship of war may even be a catalyst for growth in goodness. It is not that violence is somehow benign, but that there is a difference between committing it and suffering it — witness the scene in which Nikolai Rostov sees military action in Ostrovna (III, 1, XV) — and that the latter is not the greatest of evils.

* Tolstoy famously interrupts the action of the story to expound a theory of historical causes, or at least to oppose one. He rejects the Great Man theory of history, in which historical events are caused by the will and actions of a few great figures — “geniuses” — like Napoleon. He presents a few arguments in defence of this idea: that no military science is possible because there are too many unknowns and intangibles in war, or that the number of causes is not less than the number of people involved and no-one can know them all. In his view, historians are fond of oversimplification and unjustified attribution of causal influence. Instead, Tolstoy compares the army to a great mechanical clock, and soldiers to waves crashing against a bridge. The so-called Great Men are really prisoners of circumstance, constrained to act in certain ways by the conditions in which they find themselves, and unable to oppose or alter the course of things. They are like the foam on the crest of the wave: they draw our attention and appear to be special, but are just an effect of the seething ocean underneath. Napoleon he calls “that most insignificant instrument of history” (IV, 4, V).

This theory of the impotence of the will is not confined to large-scale historical events. Tolstoy seems to believe that it goes all the way down, affecting all human action. There are numerous points at which characters act without knowing why. (For example, Pierre’s marriage to Hélène (I, 3, II)). This method is not used consistently, however, and I am in some doubt as to how seriously Tolstoy intends it to be taken.

It is unclear what he proposes in place of the theory of Great Men. At times it seems he attributes the cause of history to Providence, at times to deterministic mechanisms, at times to the incalculable outcome of millions of wills acting with and against one another. At all times he stresses the inscrutability of historical causes, and the folly of believing that history has a simple explanation.

I could meet him half-way. Of course not everyone acts from the same motives, and to propose that such-and-such occurs because “the people desire X” is too simple. It is also true that some historical events acquire a certain air of inevitability, as though there is such a thing as a Zeitgeist that manifests itself without anyone really knowing why. Yet I am not willing to abandon the freedom of the individual person to act within the circumstances confronting him, and I see no reason why a Great Man could not, by persuasive force, convince his hearers to act differently, and so affect a great historical change. I am not ready to entirely forsake the theory of Great Men.

* If there is a center to the story — and in a book with over 500 named characters, perhaps 20 of whom could be considered central, it is not obvious that there is — it would be Pierre Bezukhov. He grows and deepens immensely over the course of the story, and a major part of that growth is a spiritual awakening. The catalysts are his suffering in the war, including a close encounter with death, and the influence of the peasant Platon Karataev, who lives a life of luminous simplicity in the midst of great upheavals. Tolstoy’s narration of this inner journey is very subtle and suggestive, and his portrait of Pierre as a mature man is immensely attractive.

* Passages. For my own benefit, let me note several of my favourite passages. The battle of Schöngraben (I, 2, XV-XX), especially for its evocation of the eve of battle, the anticipation before the action commences. Prince Andrei listening beneath Natasha’s window (II, 3, II). The wolf hunt (II, 4, III-VI), and the subsequent evening that Nikolai and Natasha spend at their uncle’s house, singing and dancing (II, 4, VII). Moscow as a dying beehive (III, 3, XX). Pierre’s spiritual awakening (IV, 4, XII : XIX). Pierre and Natasha’s marriage (Epilogue, 1, X : XVI).

****

The military centerpiece of the book is the Battle of Borodino, in which neither side was obviously the victor, but which struck a serious enough blow to the French that it may have been a cause (keeping in mind the difficulty of accounting for such things) of their eventual defeat. Tchaikovsky wrote his famous 1812 Overture to commemorate the battle, and I can think of no reason not to listen to it right now. Here is Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra:


Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan

May 24, 2008

Today Bob Dylan celebrates his 67th birthday. I went fishing on YouTube for some retrospective material on his long and illustrious songwriting career, and, from the many interesting items I found, I selected two.

Here is a performance of “Chimes of Freedom”, a song that first appeared on the Another Side of Bob Dylan album in 1964. This is a live performance from the Newport Folk Festival that same year. It is not one of his greatest songs, but it is an awfully good one, in which an evening thunderstorm is transmuted into an eloquent hymn for the poor, the oppressed, and the down-and-out. There is something about this performance that is mesmerizing. He can hardly contain himself in the tumbling final stanza. (Duration: 7-1/2 min.)

Most of the good concert footage of Dylan comes from those early years. For the past few decades he has disallowed video recording of his concerts, and often the best one can find are recordings made with cellular phone cameras. Moreover, the few official videos that have been released (such as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1995) and “Things Have Changed” (2000)) are “unembeddable” by decree of the record label, so I can’t show them here. The cream of the leftovers is this poor quality, apparently half-finished video for his nevertheless excellent song “Not Dark Yet”, from his 1997 album Time Out of Mind. (Duration: 6-1/2 min.)

Those are two wonderful songs, roughly bookending the career of perhaps the most vital and creative songwriter our times have known. May he have many more years. Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan.

Feast of St. Brendan the Voyager

May 16, 2008

The Brendan Voyage
Tim Severin (Hutchinson, 1978 )
292 p. First reading.

The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis is a medieval tale of the life and sailing adventures of St. Brendan and his companions. It tells of his quest to reach the Land of Delight, a paradise to be found far over the western sea. Brendan was but one of the Irish priest-sailors who navigated the north Atlantic in the sixth-century, and evidence of their habitations, in the form of churches, monastic buildings, and domestic artifacts, have been found in western Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. People had long speculated that Brendan’s Land of Delight, which he did reach after long effort, may in fact have been the east coast of North America. If true, it would make him — or one of his contemporaries — the first European to reach these shores, and that several hundred years before the Vikings landed. Textual evidence from the Navigatio is inconclusive, and skeptics had long argued that the Atlantic crossing would have been impossible using the boats available at the time. Tim Severin set out to test that claim by building an early medieval boat and attempting to sail it from Ireland to Newfoundland.

Early medieval boats in Ireland, called curraghs, were relatively small (30 foot), low-lying vessels constructed from light Irish wood and covered with a hull of animal hide. Severin worked with boat builders in Ireland to design and construct the frame, and talented leather-workers to select and prepare the skins. Their boat, christened Brendan, was constructed without using any metal, for they were committed to building it entirely with materials available in Brendan’s time. The frame itself was held together with hundreds of leather thongs, and the hull consisted of 49 oak-tanned ox-hides stitched together with leather thread.

It is one thing to build an experimental vessel as an historical curiosity, and another to entrust your personal safety to it, but having built Brendan, Severin brought on a small crew of four and, after some preliminary testing, they raised their sails and set out. Sailing up the Irish coast, they soon reached Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, where Brendan himself is known to have visited St. Columba at the famous Iona Abbey. Severin was an experienced sailor, and he vividly conveys his delight at Brendan‘s sea-worthiness. He describes, for instance, how the hull would flex to adjust to the waves, giving them the feeling of riding inside a living thing. They sailed up the west coast of Scotland and made landfall at the Faroe Islands after about a week on the open seas. The next stage of the journey took them to Iceland after a journey of about ten days. Poor weather prevented their sailing any further that summer, so they docked Brendan and returned the following spring to continue. They set out from Iceland, and seven weeks later landed at Peckford Island, Newfoundland. It was an arduous journey: frigid temperatures, fog, storms that swept great waves over the boat, ice chunks swept off the Greenland ice-shelf and strewn in their path, one of which punctured the hull and required a daring on-board repair job. But in the end they did reach the end of their remarkable journey, thus demonstrating that the idea of St. Brendan having reached North America cannot be dismissed on the grounds of its having been impossible.

Along the way, Severin enjoys speculating about how aspects of their journey may be reflected in the text of the Navigatio. It describes, for instance, Brendan and his companions visiting the Isle of the Birds, and Severin notes that one of the Faroe Islands is a major nesting-ground for northern birds. They witnessed huge flocks filling the sky as they launched themselves from sheer cliffs. The Navigatio also relates how, as Brendan’s boat neared the Isle of the Blacksmiths, the sea began to bubble and hot rocks were hurled at their vessel such that the sea around them steamed. It sounds fanciful, but Severin reminds the reader that Iceland is a volcanic island, and in 1963 an undersea volcanic eruption in the region produed conditions very much like those described in the story, suggesting that the episode may reflect memory of a real event, albeit one embellished for narrative effectiveness. Similarly, no-one who reads the Navigatio can forget the delightful relationship between Brendan and Jask, the whale, whom Brendan’s crew at first mistake for an island. To their astonishment, Brendan‘s crew discovered that whales found their little vessel fascinating, and they were frequently accompanied by one, and at times by up to one hundred, whales, far more than is typical with modern sailboats. On one occasion they were even scouted by a killer whale. They breathed a sigh of relief as it departed, for who could be sure it would not mistake their animal-hide boat for an actual animal?

It’s a terrific story, and a terrific book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been living for too long in a comfortable, carpeted, air-conditioned apartment block, but I had been lusting of late after a bracing true story of daring adventure and danger, of man against the elements. I found it here, with the added bonus of an absorbing historical connection to St. Brendan, whose story has long been a favourite. The book contains a generous number of full-color photographs taken during the voyage — though I wish there had been even more. Some of them are truly spectacular, and they make an already good book better. Highly recommended.

Fighting form

May 15, 2008

I have known that my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literature is spotty, but I now have a fresh appreciation of that fact. I’ve just learned of an Old Saxon poem called the Heliand, an alliterative poem of some 6000 lines which tells the story of the life of Christ using the conventions of Saxon heroic saga. The four evangelists become singers, the Last Supper becomes a mead-hall feast, Jesus a liege lord, and his disciples his warrior vassals. It was written in the early ninth century as a contribution to the inculturation of the Gospel among the warrior tribes of northern Europe.

I am stupified, first because I’d never heard of this poem before, and second because it sounds so wonderful. Chesterton somewhere has a line about renewing one’s appreciation for a thing by approaching it from a new direction, with fresh eyes and ears (in fact, his novel Manalive is an elaboration of this same principle). Just think: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John filtered through the sensibilities of Beowulf! I desperately want to read it.

Alas, there seems to be only one in-print translation into modern English, by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. Regrettably, it is a prose translation. Still, I think it could be well worth looking into.

**

Speaking of Chesterton, and of martial religion, Maria Lectrix has recorded a sung version of Chesterton’s long poem Lepanto. This is a fine poem, full of gallantry and fighting spirit, that was begging to be sung to a marching tune. She has conjured up a fitting melody, complete with drum beats, and done us all a service. I’d like to hear it accompanied by kettledrums, flutes, and fiddles, and sung by a minstrel (perhaps even a juggling minstrel, for good measure).

A commonplace book

May 14, 2008

The May issue of First Things has an interesting essay* by Alan Jacobs on the commonplace book. A commonplace book is a personal scrapbook of sorts, something one fills over time, yet it differs from a diary or a journal in that its content is not original, but gleaned from elsewhere.  It is not for recording one’s own thoughts, but the thoughts of others: sayings, poems, or observations that one wishes to remember.

Jacobs points out that the commonplace book emerged in the sixteenth century in the wake of printed books, in part as a forum into which to distill the overwhelming flood of words that broke upon the people of that time. Those flood waters have only risen in the intervening years, and a commonplace book remains an appealing means of appropriating the best that comes our way.

I have myself maintained something like a commonplace book for several years, although I haven’t called it by that name — not least because, in my case, it is not a book. I maintain a set of computer files, organized topically, into which I transcribe quotations that strike me as worthy of remembrance. I would imagine that anyone who spends time reading sees the appeal of such a jewel-hoard; it is good to have these gems at one’s fingertips rather than scattered through many volumes. To return to one of these topical compilations after several years of adding content can be edifying; if one is lucky, the assembled observations will illuminate the subject from many angles.

In his essay, Jacobs points out that while commonplace books have a long history, new technology has spawned a new variation on the theme: the blog. Most blogs contain original content, but it needn’t be so. One could use the blogging platform to offer quotations and observations, without commentary, for the edification, instruction, or provocation of whoever happens to read it. In fact, Jacobs himself does just that.

I’ve been musing on this idea. As some readers know, in just a few short weeks I will be married, and along with all the happy changes that I anticipate, I also foresee a sharp reduction in the time I can devote to this site. I love having it, but other things are more important. It occurs to me that it might be possible to carry on, at least to some extent, if I shift the weight off myself. Less blog, more commonplace book. I’m thinking about it.

* Not, alas, available online.

Grammar

May 12, 2008

This cuts rather close to the bone. I’ll confess to a certain flutter of elation when I discover a grammatical or spelling mistake in a book. If the book in question is in a second or higher edition, I may even give an audible cheer. “Sticklers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your sense of perspective.”

I also confess that there are some grammatical situations in which I become confused. For instance:

(i) toward vs. towards, afterward vs. afterwards, etc. I’m never sure which is correct.

(ii) “He found that he, together with his friends, was confused about which conjugation to use.” Should that “was” be “were”?

I know there are those who wield their grammar hammer even more readily, and confidently, than I do. Perhaps they can help me along — gently?

Messiaen and bird song

May 9, 2008

When writing up a recent brief tour through bird song in music, I began citing some examples of the music of Olivier Messiaen, but quickly found that YouTube had some really interesting material on him, enough to warrant giving him his own post. So here we are.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a black sheep — or, better, a white sheep — of the twentieth-century avant-garde. He taught several of the most pitiless musical revolutionaries that that unfortunate movement produced, and it is true that his own music is seriously eccentric, but where his fellow travellers turned out bleak gnashings of teeth, his creations are full of light, colour, song, and joy. His music is perhaps daunting on first acquaintance — it is hard for me to remember, as I was long since won over — but familiarity breeds affection.

The primary elements of his musical language, as I understand it, are a unique harmonic system (the technical niceties of which are beyond me, but I can recognize it when I hear it), highly complex rhythms derived from Hindu music, and, what is most relevant for us today, bird song. Birds are forever flitting in and out of his musical textures, in the flutes, in the percussion, in the winds. Sometimes, as in his orchestral work Réveil des oiseaux, or in his massive piano compilation Catalogue d’oiseaux, bird songs constitute the essential musical material.

He was serious about birds. “They are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs,” he said, and he believed that their calls were a music that manifested the music inherent in creation. He wandered through the forest with his writing pad, notating the songs that he heard, and later transcribing them for instruments. This attentiveness had a result that was perhaps unexpected. We tend to think of birds as very melodious and easy on the ear, and they are, but they do not, for the most part, sing in Western musical modes. If you listen carefully, their songs frequently contain highly peculiar pitch combinations and highly complex rhythms. When they are played on musical instruments, they can sound quite bizarre. Sometimes Messiaen’s music sounds like chaos, until you remind yourself that it is bird song. Then it sounds like bird song.

What I propose to do today is simply to review some of the interesting background material that is available on YouTube, and then point interested listeners to a few relevant examples of Messiaen’s art.

First, let’s go straight to the horse’s mouth. Here are two short clips of Messiaen himself discussing birds and music. The first shows him describing the nightingale’s song, and his wife Yvonne Loriod imitating it on the piano. Did you know that this song includes a “victorious torculus”? Neither did I. The second clip shows Messiaen out in the woods, listening to bird calls. (Duration: 2 min. total)

This year is the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London is marking the occasion with a special series of concerts and events. They have produced this short documentary about birdsong in Messiaen’s music, narrated by Peter Hill, a pianist who has been among the most eminent interpreters of Messiaen’s music. (Duration: 6 min.)

I like that they made a connection between Messiaen’s love of bird song and his religion. In many of his works, Messiaen gave creative and original expression to his Catholic faith, and bird song was one means that he used. I also found the question of Messiaen’s faithfulness to bird song to be interesting. He took great care to notate their songs carefully, but sometimes took liberties when integrating them into his music.

We can get a better idea of just how faithfully he reproduced bird calls by listening to this marvellous clip, which compares the call of the Song Thrush to Messiaen’s version of it. It also gives us our first chance to hear an extended passage of Messiaen’s music, in this case the section called “La grive musicienne” from Catalogue d’oiseaux. (Duration: 4 min.)

I find that completely fascinating.

With that general background under our belts, we can turn to a few more musical examples. Perhaps Messiaen’s most famous composition is Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written and first performed in a World War II POW camp. One of the movements, for solo clarinet, is called “Abime des oiseaux” (Abyss of the birds), and is written “in the style of the blackbird”. Here is a truncated performance (Duration: 2:40):

That, I think, takes considerable liberties with the blackbird’s original. A later piece, Le mèrle noir (The Blackbird), for flute and piano, is more faithful. I am told that this was one of the first pieces Messiaen wrote that was inspired through and through by bird song. The flute is a wonderfully agile instrument, better than most at reproducing the darting quickness of the bird call. (Duration: 6 min. [the piece begins at about 0:55 in this clip])

Hearing one bird at a time is all very well, but they can sound pretty wild when thrown together and given to an orchestra to play. Oiseaux exotiques was written to show off the sounds of many bird calls, using the broader palette of tonal colours that an orchestra permits. Here Pierre Boulez (at the podium) and Pierre Laurent-Aimard (at the piano), together with an unnamed orchestra, give it a good showing. It is interesting to hear how Messiaen uses percussion instruments to give voice to birds. (Duration: 15 min. total)

The apotheosis of bird song in Messiaen’s music comes in his great opera Saint-François d’Assise, following the scene in which St. Francis preaches to the birds. The orchestra explodes into a flurry of bird calls, notated in the score on over 70 staves! It is out of control, but worth hearing. There are no good samples that I can find online, so I’ll serve this one up myself. Hold onto your feathered-caps! (Duration: 2:35)

****

There is much more to learn and love about Messiaen’s music. I’ll leave interested parties with a few links.

London’s Southbank Center is holding a Messiaen festival this year, and they have produced a short film about his life and music. It can be viewed here.

As I mentioned earlier, the Philharmonia Orchestra is also staging a Messiaen festival, and the festival’s web site is here.

I must not overlook the visually affronting, but informative, Olivier Messiaen page.

Olivier Messiaen at Wikipedia.

March for Life

May 8, 2008

Today the annual Canadian March for Life took place on Parliament Hill. It is a fitting time to remind ourselves, if we had forgotten, that Canada is the only developed nation in the world to have no legal protections for the unborn.

In 1988, the Supreme Court struck down, on a technicality, the section of the Criminal Code governing abortion, and the Criminal Code has yet to get up and dust itself off. Contrary to what one often hears, there is no legal “right to abortion” in Canada — the Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions on abortion legitimately fall within the jurisdiction of Parliament — but since we have no law whatsoever on the matter, there is a de facto right. Abortion legislation is considered a hot political potato, and no party seems willing to bring forward legislation that would provide substantive protections for the unborn.

There is currently a private member’s bill working its way through the legislative labyrinth that has garnered some press. Bill C-484, the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act”, would permit harsher penalties for violent acts against women that also result in the injury or death of their unborn children. Some claim that this is an attempt to reinstate penalties for abortion, but this is not true: abortion is explicitly excluded from the provisions of the bill.

Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 4 pregnancies in Canada end in abortion, making a womb by far the most dangerous place that one can be in this country.

I am well aware that this is a sensitive topic. For all our apparent collective lassitude about it, I have found that few things can inflame an uncivil exchange as readily as this can. Nonetheless, the issue persistently reasserts itself, and it is unhealthy to turn away. Polls show that the Canadian public is very far from being of one mind about it, yet proposals to introduce protective legislation are deemed “extremist”. Remember: this is the only developed country in the world with no legal protections for the unborn. If any position is extremist, surely it is our status quo.

Chesterton and Leighton

May 7, 2008

Kenneth Leighton - The World\'s Desire (Hyperion CDA67641)

Last weekend I was at the record shop and picked up this new disc of choral music by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), sung by choirs from Wells Cathedral. Leighton’s music is not extremely well known, and all of the pieces on this disc are new to me. The centerpiece of the program is The World’s Desire, “A Sequence for Epiphany”. (Clearly, it is highly unseasonable music, but bear with me.) In this piece Leighton sets a number of texts, from the Bible and the liturgy, as well as hymns by Reginald Heber. Most interesting to me, however, is that he includes a setting of G.K. Chesterton’s poem “The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap”. I believe this is the first time that I have heard one of Chesterton’s poems set to music.

The text of them poem reads:

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

It is very simple, but touching in its tender portrait of mother and child. According to my edition of Chesterton’s poems, it comes from the late 1890s, when Chesterton was a young man. Note that the third stanza contains the phrase “the world’s desire”, which means that the title for Leighton’s work, and for this disc on which it appears, are drawn from this poem.

Here is Leighton’s setting of the poem (Duration: 4 min.):


[From Hyperion CDA67641: Matthew Owens; Wells Cathedral Choir]

That is beautiful; I’ve been humming it to myself all day. It also gives an indication of the high performance standards on this recording. Highly recommended.

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