Archive for February, 2010

Sleepy bunny

February 26, 2010

Sleepy Bunny
(Golden Books, 2003)
7 p.  One hundred and twenty-ninth reading.

Sleepy Bunny is one of those works of literature that saturate and transform one’s imagination.  Between the first page, when we are ushered into a quiet room where it is “time for bed”, and the last page (a mere 6 pages later, but what pages!), in which we look out at a dazzling night sky and drift to sleep, it is as though time is suspended, and we live in a fairy land of endless possibilities and bedtime snacks.

Philosophers have often said that sleep is a “little death”, and that preparation for falling asleep is an emblem or a symbol of how we, mortals all, must also prepare for death.  Sleepy Bunny subtly provokes such reflections.  Indeed, more than once in my many re-readings of this work I thought that I might actually die.  The book rehearses bedtime rituals which unite all humanity: cleaning up toys, saying goodnight to the family pet, reading a book (a sequence sure to send some especially sophisticated readers into fits of postmodern, self-referential ecstasy), and having a snack.  In so doing, it reminds us, allegorically, of the romance and dignity of manual labour, of the profound ecological relationships uniting all organic life on our planet, of the importance of education and intellectual development to the well-lived life, and of the conviviality and fellowship of a shared meal.  Only when such lessons are well-learned are we truly prepared, the book implies, to enter into our rest, gazing upwards in wonder at the stellatum, beyond which dwells inapproachable light.

Life is mystery, too, and Sleepy Bunny gently turns us toward it, though without attempting to cheaply “solve the puzzle” of existence.  In several of the book’s illustrations, a mysterious knee-high giraffe appears.  This giraffe is nowhere mentioned, or even alluded to, in the text, nor does it play any obvious role in the narrative.  Yet there it is, where we least expect it, like an unlooked-for blessing or a useless widget.  The fact that giraffes are never, in this world, knee-high only adds to the wonderment which this magical creature evokes.

Perhaps most remarkably, Sleepy Bunny is more than a book.  Indeed, one could say that it is a book only by analogy.  Sleepy Bunny is made of soft, plush fabric.  The “pages” are almost like pillows; they cannot be torn, and they can easily withstand even sustained chewing.  By fashioning the book in this way, I believe the book-maker is intending an elaborate pun on the use of “sewn” bindings in high-end “cloth” books, though to what purpose I cannot say.  Moreover, several of the pages are three-dimensional, with sewn pockets, and the book is accompanied by a small bunny which can be slipped into these pockets, just as one slips into bed.  How fitting.  This bunny is evidently the sleepy bunny.

Sleepy Bunny is a work of considerable originality and quiet beauty.  It can be revisited again and again and again and again and again, as I can attest from personal experience.  Though its merit will be best appreciated by a discerning adult, the book could also be suitable reading for young children.

Great moments in opera: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

February 25, 2010

Fresh from Tristan und Isolde, and preparing myself for Der Ring des Nibelungen, I listened for the first time this week to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and I fully expected it to fall into line with the others: monumental and tragic, but also ponderous, dramatically slack, and at least twice as long as it needed to be.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Die Meistersinger is a comedy!

It is true that, if brevity is the soul of wit, Wagner would have to be accounted one of the least witty men in history, but Die Meistersinger has surprised me with its good humour, spacious geniality, and gentle exuberance.  It is still very long (about 4-1/2 hours in performance) but it has a good story and a set of good characters that were a pleasure to watch.

The story, briefly, is about a young man, Walther, who seeks entrance to the guild of the Master Singers in 16th century Nuremberg.  The beautiful young woman whom he loves, Eva, will bestow her hand in marriage upon the winner of a singing contest, but only members of the guild are eligible to participate.  The guild Masters complain that Walther’s manner of song is unconventional and ugly, breaking all of the established rules, but one member, the cobbler Hans Sachs, sees the merit in Walther’s composition and helps him to gain admittance to the guild.  He sings beautifully, of course, and he and Eva live happily ever after.

It is not difficult to discern the self-regarding allegory at the heart of Wagner’s story: Wagner himself is Walther, and the guild Masters are the musical establishment, deaf to the glories of his new manner of song.  To his credit, he did not write a simple-minded celebration of artistic radicalism; at one point Sachs reminds the irate Walther that conservatism protects and sustains much that is good and praiseworthy.  And even if the opera is one giant criticism of those who opposed Wagner’s artistic vision, he was magnanimous enough not to indulge himself in shrill denunciations.  The work is genuinely light-hearted and charming.

I read, with some surprise, that Die Meistersinger was a favourite of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  The founding of the Nazi party was celebrated by a performance of the opera, and its music was used in Triumph of the Will.  For the life of me I cannot see why it should have tickled Hitler’s perverse fancy, unless it be on account of the brief episode near the end when everybody sings the praises of German art.  Pretty benign stuff.  This is a good reminder — which will be even more important to keep in mind when we come to the Ring cycle — that the meaning of an artistic work is only partly due to its history of appropriation.  Hitler does not get to tell us definitively what Wagner means.

The music of Die Meistersinger is unlike anything else that I have heard from Wagner.  It is bouyant, sometimes lyrical, and always good-natured.  The use of leitmotifs is pervasive, and in certain scenes (such as at the end of Act II), used to superb effect.  I was amused to hear the Isolde leitmotif from Tristan und Isolde making a cameo appearance as well.

**

Enough talk.  Let’s hear some music!  The most famous music from this opera is the orchestral prelude, which can be heard here.  I have selected two other episodes that I particularly enjoyed.

The first comes from Act II.  Beckmesser, the most curmudgeonly of the town’s Meistersingers and a rival with Walther for Eva’s hand, practices his song beneath her window on the night before the competition.   Earlier in the day Beckmesser had “marked down” Walther’s song, rejoicing at each transgression of the rules.  Here Sachs gives him a taste of his own medicine, striking his cobbler’s hammer each time Beckmesser makes a mistake.  Beckmesser is sung by Thomas Allen and Sachs by James Morris; the production is from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  English subtitles are included:

In Act III, the central characters prepare for the festival at which the singers will compete, and they pause to sing a lovely quintet.  This doesn’t advance the story at all, but it is sure pretty.  Here is some footage from the 1963 Bayreuth festival, with Josef Greindl, Anja Silja, Wolfgang Windgassen, Erwin Wohlfahrt, and Ruth Hesse singing.  Text and translations here (scroll down to where Sachs sings “Die selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise”).

Toot toot! Do it yourself

February 24, 2010

Not to toot my own horn, but this week I posted what I think is a particularly good quote at The Hebdomadal Chesterton.  It is vintage Chesterton: witty,  windy, and wise.  His point, once you get to it, is that constantly absorbing mass entertainment suffocates the imagination, and that it is much more stimulating to be actively creative and make one’s own entertainment.   One who did this would enlarge himself:

His interests might be more local, but they would be more lively; his experience of men more personal but more mixed; his likes and dislikes more capricious but not quite so easily satisfied.

Now, I am as likely as anyone — and perhaps more likely than most — to listen to music rather than make it, to watch a film rather than stage a play, and to read a book rather than write one.  But I agree with Chesterton all the same.  Some people know that for the past few months I have been on paternity leave, and during my “spare time” (which does not really exist) I have been working on a creative project.  It has been very challenging, and is not turning out very well at all, but I have enjoyed myself very much.  There is something stimulating about sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and having the freedom to make whatever one wants.  The feeling is like that of looking at a deep blue sky.  Chesterton is right.

Everybody must get cloned

February 24, 2010

R.R Reno had an interesting essay yesterday at First Things about the  political consequences of the ideological uniformity of faculties of higher education.   That university faculties are overwhelmingly liberal is sometimes contested (always, in my experience, by liberals), but as Reno points out the evidence is unequivocal.   The fact that the political views of faculty tilt so heavily in one direction makes it difficult for the ideal of the university as a forum for reasoned debate of important (political) questions to be realized: there is nobody to defend the other side.  And since our political system depends, at least in theory, on such debate taking place, the contemporary university is, in Reno’s words, “a civic failure”.

It’s not good for America to have a major political party and important elite institutions dominated by people trained to ignore—or worse, sneer at—the conservative ways of thinking that motivate most Americans. The civic failure of higher education has contributed to this sad state of affairs, and, unfortunately, there are no signs that it will change.

Read the whole thing. I know there are a few graduate students who occasionally read this blog and I would be interested to hear what they think of Reno’s arguments.

More than once Reno remarks that faculties of science are exceptions to the kind of ideological homogeneity he is describing.  I think that is true, although in my experience conservatives are still a significant minority.  Of course, the political views of faculty do not matter nearly as much in science, so nobody much cares.

Provide the podium

February 23, 2010

Five years ago the Canadian Olympic Committee launched a $110 -million program called “Own the Podium”.  The goal of the program was to help Canadian athletes top the medal standings at these Winter Games.  Today is day 12 of 17 at the Olympic competitions, and Canada has 10 medals.   We are in fourth place, behind Russia, Norway, Germany, and the United States.  The United States has 25 medals.

But there is only one medal that really counts, and that is the gold medal in men’s hockey.  And so as if it weren’t enough that our Yankee friends are collecting so many medals, they also had to go and beat our hockey team on the weekend.  Not very sportsmanlike of them.  Americans probably have a hard time understanding how demoralizing it is for Canada to lose to the United States at hockey.  About 2 in 3 Canadians watched the game in which our boys went down to defeat.  The loss was announced on the front page of every major newspaper in the country.  Before the game, caribou were ritually slaughtered across the nation, and baby seals were clubbed on both coastlines.  It was not enough.  We still have a remote chance at a medal, but should we fail the picture will not be pretty.  The federal government will probably declare some sort of multicultural day of mourning.  Horrors.

If you watched the fateful game on Sunday, as I did, you know that in fact the Canadian team played well, and for most of the game was all over the Americans.  The US won the game because of their goaltending, and we lost because of ours.  I could not believe my eyes when Martin Brodeur went out for timbits and a double-double during game-play.

If we beat Germany tonight, and if we beat the Russians tomorrow, it is still possible that we will play the Americans again before this tournament is over.  Or we could go down in ignominious defeat, leaving the podium and the gold medal to the good old U.S. of A.

If worst comes to worst, we can always take solace in the fact that we won the War of 1812.  Nobody can take that away from us.

Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence

February 23, 2010

From Dawn to Decadence
500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Jacques Barzun (HarperCollins, 2000)
890 p.  First reading.

Jacques Barzun, whose pen has been dispensing sweet reason for a long time now, poured a lifetime of learning and critical judgement into this monumental overview of the Modern period in Western history. It is an ambitious attempt to survey and evaluate the huge sweep of our cultural history over the past half millennium, with principal reference to political, social, and artistic history.  He believes that the cultural changes which began, roughly speaking, about five hundred years ago have now run their course, and he therefore sees our time as an appropriate one to review “the great achievements and sorry failures of our half millennium”.

The book is far too large for me to attempt anything like a detailed summary or appraisal.  Let me say a few words about the title instead.  The “dawn” imagery might lead one to suppose that Barzun believes that the modern period arose like the sun from the shadowy murkiness of the Dark Ages.  Fortunately, he does not, and in fact takes some pains to correct such misunderstandings of history.  He acknowledges the achievement of the medieval era, which built a civilization from hard beginnings, and acknowledges the many debts which the modern period owes its predecessor.  He admires many of the social institutions of medieval Europe, especially the universities and their educational programmes, and also the feudal system and principles of governance.  (The dominant rule in medieval politics, he says, was “no rule was held valid if not approved by those it affected”.  That’s a provoking way of putting it, and I need to think it over.)  Having said that, he rejects the idea that the distinction between the medieval and modern periods is a fiction; there really were significant changes, beginning with a religious revolution, that warrant the historian’s inauguration of a new age.

As to “decadence”, he contends that we are surrounded by it.  Barzun is not a curmudgeon, and, though he is a kind of moralist, he is not of the shrill or scolding variety.  His assessment of the decline of our times is sober and matter-of-fact.  The word “decadence” literally means “falling off”, and Barzun perceives in our time an exhaustion of social institutions, education, and art.  We live in a time that cannot see its way forward, and casts about for something new.  Decadence is characterized by “boredom and fatigue”, by “open confessions of malaise”, by “a floating hostility to things as they are”.  To say that our culture exhibits such symptoms is obvious; to show that they are characteristic of our times requires a longer argument, and this book supplies it.  But if you want to hear the argument, you’ll have to read the book.

A few words about the structure of the book, which is quite creative:  Barzun recognizes that something as complex as culture cannot be divided into neat little boxes, each to be discussed separately.  On the contrary, everything is connected.  He therefore incorporates into the text a series of “hyperlinks”, pointing the reader forward and backward to sections to which the current topic of discussion relates.  These links make it possible to read the book in an order that completely ignores the sequential page numbering, but I have not tried this.  He has also woven his narrative around a number of strong cultural threads, recurring tendencies of our period such as Analysis, Abstraction, Self-consciousness, Secularism, Individualism, Scientism, Primitivism, and — the modern theme par excellence — Emancipation.  Such themes provide a backbone to the story he tells, giving it structure and intelligibility. His period is punctuated by four different revolutions, separated from one another by roughly a century: first religious, then monarchical, then liberal, and finally social; this too lends shape to the story. The book is peppered with potted biographies of interesting or important figures.  I didn’t count these, but I would not be surprised if there were roughly one hundred of them all told.  The prevalence of these little biographies doesn’t mean that Barzun subscribes to the “great man” theory of history; it means only that some especially interesting people have lived interesting lives.  The main text of the book is also enlivened by the addition of many marginal notes, mostly quotations from across the centuries that illustrate the points being made.  Together, the links and themes and biographies and marginalia make for a richer than usual reading experience.

The really substantial richness, of course, comes not from the format of the book but from its content.  Barzun has himself been alive for about one-fifth of the period he covers, but he also brings his immense learning and finely balanced critical acumen to his subject, and the book is replete with canny observations and fruitful insights.  He wears his learning lightly, and writes in an accessible and conversational style, with “a touch of pedantry here and there,” he wryly remarks, “to show that I understand modern tastes”.  The title of the book might sound broadly polemical, but Barzun is not polemical.  He is so fair, in fact, that his sympathetic understanding of ideas now out of favour are, he says, “bound to offend the righteous”, and the book is all the better for it.  Apart from an occasional turn of phrase which might indicate a bit of dry humour at play, he is patient and restrained even when his story throws up some outrageous characters and ideas. There is usually a reason for such things, and he simply tells us what they are.  But I found myself wondering what he himself thinks about his subject.  It is plain enough when he likes something, but less plain when he does not.  In any case, it is a wonderful and endlessly interesting book, the likes of which does not get written very often.

A final word of caution: throughout his text Barzun has dropped parenthetical suggestions for books an interested reader might peer into on a given topic.  In consequence, reading this book may very well cause your reading list to grow uncontrollably, with concomitant damage to your financial security.

[Modern humour]
Modernist works of derision did not provoke laughter and were not meant to.  They were mock-funny, which means serious, and those called “amusing” are designed to leave one hardly smiling but moved to reflection… This muted elation is what the people of the period [between the wars] urged upon one another and boasted of possessing but misnamed “the sense of humour”.  It was not the ability to see life as comedy, which needs no special recommendation.  It was the readiness to laugh at oneself when among others, a feat that rarely sparks explosive laughter; it is only Self-Consciousness made into the habit of self-depreciation.  It requires no reform, but has its use in forestalling criticism.

[Perfection]
The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

[Book trouble]
The book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties.

[Art and morals]
Virtue is inseparable from good art.  It is taken for granted [in the sixteenth century] that a work reveals the artist’s soul as well as his mind.  But what is more important, the work of art must by its order mirror the hierarchical order of the world, which is a moral order… That all art must be moral is the rule until the 19C, when it cuts loose from moral significance, from regard for virtue in the maker’s character, and from the expectations of the public.

[Status of women]
One standard for judging the status of women is the contemporary status of men.  In the hierarchical society of the 16C and later, they too were deprived — of education, or openings for talent, of the means to leave the narrow space in which they toiled — hence there was little or no lateral mobility, let along vertical.  In the Renaissance this constriction was greater than before because of the diminished prestige of the clergy.  The Middle Ages had offered the humblest boy a chance to be educated and to rise to high posts in church and state.  After the Reformation, laymen more and more filled these places.  What John Stuart Mill in the 19C chose to call the subjection of women was thus matched for a long time by the subjection of men.  And since Mill had in mind his own day, in which a good many women did emerge into public notice and power, a second mode of comparison might well be to measure their status against that of women in Mohammedan countries.

[Innovation and resistance]
Not all, but many of the great achievements of western man have followed [a] tortuous course, visiting more or less harsh punishment on the doers.  This “tradition” is not the result of perversity.  It is not the clash of stupid men opposing an intelligent one: Columbus’s interviewers were right to question his calculation of the distance to India: he made it 2400 miles short of the actual 10600.  And it is true that the promoters of the really new more often than not look and talk like cranks and mis-state or mistake their goal.  Their behaviour is often arrogant or seems so from their impatience with cautious minds.  The upshot — humiliation and penury — is disproportionate to the offense, but it expresses the culture’s need to defend its rational ways, to ward off the genuine cranks, and to avoid moving too fast into the untried.

[Aphorism]
The road to the present was hard and long because the old systems were good.

[The rise of science]
For science to arise from previous speculations, a strange idea had to become clear and fully accepted — the idea of body as such, the purely physical, devoid of qualities so as to be capable of quantity.  Earlier conceptions were not sufficiently geometrical; their truth was pictorial and poetic.  They mirrored the universe clearly but symbolically, which is to say full of meanings; whereas the purely physical has no meaning; it just is.

[Scientism]
Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue.  Again and again, the bright thought has occurred, “If we can only define our terms, if we can only find the basic unit, if we can spot the right ‘indicators,’ we can then measure and reason flawlessly, we shall have created one more science”…
The motives behind scientism are culturally significant.  They have been mixed, as usual: genuine curiosity in search of truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank…
The clue to the fallacy of scientism is this: geometry (in all senses of the term) is an abstraction from experience; it could not exist without the work of the human mind on what it encounters in the world.  Hence the realm of abstraction, useful and far from unreal, is thin and bare and poorer than the world it is drawn from.  It is therefore an idle dream to think of someday getting along without direct dealings with what abstraction leaves untouched.  The meaning of this contrast is that the enterprise of science has its limits.

[Aphorism]
Toleration — allowing freedom of expression — has no logical limits.

[Aphorism]
Dessert without cheese is like a pretty girl with only one eye. (from Brillat-Savarin, Meditations (1825))

[Aphorism]
Sustained dieting is something bureaucracies find as hard as individuals.

[Aphorism]
When nothing is revered, irreverence ceases to indicate critical thought.

[Modern conveniences]
It has not been noticed that mechanizing the home had laid another load on the laborer’s back: it has made simple poverty impossible.  No household today can remain without the conveniences, beginning with the telephone and other utilities (as they are called), and going on to the car, radio, and television.  Needed for holding one’s job or socially imposed by the neighbors and one’s children, they are part of an oppressive ‘standard of living’.  For some families this means moonlighting or perpetual debt; for others, who refuse the struggle, it is abject poverty instead of the tolerable life that an earlier age might have afforded.

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

February 22, 2010

The Petrine feast days are as close as I get to patronal festivals (on the understanding that Peter = Rock = Crag = Craig).  Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which chair, for the especially literal-minded, is shown below.  In The Golden Legend Jacobus de Voragine very kindly enumerates four reasons for the institution of this feast.  In past years I have transcribed the first two of these reasons (one and two), and this year I give the third.

The feast of the Chair of Saint Peter used to be called the feast of Saint Peter’s Banquet, and this brings us to the third reason for its institution.  It was an ancient custom of the pagans (as Master John Beleth tells us) to offer a banquet on the tombs of their ancestors every year on a certain day in the month of February.  Then, during the night, demons consumed the food, but the pagans thought it was the souls of the dead, which they called shades, that wandered among the tombs and did away with the viands.  According to the same author the ancients said that when the souls are in the human body, they are called souls, when they are in the underworld, they are manes, ghosts, when they ascend to heaven, they are called spirits, and, when they are recently buried or wander around the tombs, shades.  The holy fathers of the Church wanted to eradicate this custom of the banquets but saw that it would be difficult to do so, and in its stead instituted the feast of the Chair or Enthronement of Saint Peter.  This combined the Roman and the Antiochene feasts on the same day when the old banquets were held, and so there are some even now who call this feast the Feast of Saint Peter’s Banquet.

- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
(trans. William Granger Ryan)

Sunday night Mahler march

February 21, 2010

Our local jug band has announced that they will be opening their 2010-11 season with a performance of Mahler’s mighty Symphony No.2, the “Resurrection” symphony.   I have just bought tickets.  This is my favourite symphony, and for years I have wanted to hear it played live.  The pity is that I have to wait until September for the concert to actually happen.

In the meantime, I have a few recordings of the symphony with which I can content myself, and, for visual stimulation, there are some good performances on YouTube.  Here, for example, is the opening section of the massive first movement, played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Simon Rattle.  (This same orchestra and conductor produced my favourite recording of the symphony.)  This clip introduces most of the musical raw material that makes up the first movement, especially the ominous and majestic funeral march that we hear at the beginning.  At about 6:40 the march yields to a beautiful quiet section in which a set of counter-themes are introduced.

The whole first movement lasts about 20-25 minutes; the rest of it can be found here and here.

Great moments in opera: Tristan und Isolde

February 18, 2010

My Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book begins its discussion of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in this way:

All who have made a study of opera, and do not regard it merely as a form of amusement, are agreed that the score of Tristan und Isolde is the greatest setting of a love-story for the lyric stage.  It is a tale of tragic passion, culminating in death, unfolded in the surge and palpitation of immortal music.

That’s an exaggeration, but an understandable one.  Tristan und Isolde is a great opera.  The love that it portrays is obsessive and ultimately destructive, seeking and finding its fulfillment in death, but that the opera taps a deep vein of mythic power is hard to deny.  The music with which Wagner has furnished the story is desperate, yearning, restless, and darkly beautiful.  One doesn’t have to admire his artistic vision to agree that he has realized that vision thoroughly and brilliantly, and in so doing has created something powerful.

The opera is autobiographical to a unique degree in Wagner’s work.  While writing it — and, as always, he wrote not just the music but also the text — he was carrying on an affair with a woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, who was married to his friend and benefactor.  In his letters he seems to have cast himself in the role of Tristan, and her in the role of Isolde.  By the time the opera was finished, the affair had ended, but the passion and turmoil survive in the music.

Tristan und Isolde was the first of Wagner’s operas to be performed after Lohengrin, but he had been busy in the meantime.  After completing Lohengrin he had begun work on Der Ring des Nibelungen, and he had mostly completed the first two operas in that cycle before he, needing some money, turned aside to write a “small” opera on the legend of Tristan and Isolde.  It may have started small, with just five principal characters, but Wagner’s muse was expansive, and the completed opera is nearly four hours in performance, and is among the most difficult in the repertoire.  It demands incredible power and stamina from its small group of singers.  Wagner’s compositional methods also developed between Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde.  The leitmotif technique plays a much more significant role here than it had previously.

I have chosen one highlight from each of the opera’s three Acts, but before getting to them we must pause to hear the orchestral prelude.  It is not only the most famous music from the opera, but is one of the most famous and “important” pieces in all of Western music.  Wagner’s use of dissonance, chromaticism, and careful avoidance of a closing cadence anywhere gives the music a disorienting, unsettled feeling expressive of the tormented love that is the opera’s subject.  Here is Daniel Barenboim leading the young players of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at last year’s Proms:

In Act I, Tristan is bringing Isolde by ship from Ireland to Cornwall where she will marry Tristan’s uncle, King Mark.  She, harboring a secret love for Tristan, is unwilling to marry another, and, also hating him for having killed her fiance (in events which transpired before the opera begins), she decides to kill both him and herself with a poisoned elixir.  As the ship approaches Cornwall she offers him the poisoned cup.  Her servant, however, has replaced the expected poison with a love potion, and when the couple drinks they find, not death, but an overwhelming passion for one another.

The scene in which they both drink of the cup is magnificent.  The voices fall silent for a time, and in the orchestra we hear several of the opera’s most important leitmotifs portraying Tristan, Isolde, fate, and love.  Eventually the voices do burst forth again: “Tristan!  Isolde!”  The deed has been done; this passion will lead them both to destruction.

Here is the scene from a television production, with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen.  (Yes, there really was a Wagnerian tenor — and a great one — called “Windgassen”.)  Here is the text with English translation; this excerpt begins with Tristan’s line “War Morold dir so wert”, about one-third of the way through the scene.  If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, pick it up at about 7:00, as Tristan prepares to drink the cup (singing “Tristans Ehre – höchste Treu’!”).

Act II contains one of the longest and most opulent love duets in all of opera.  Tristan and Isolde have met under cover of darkness, away from the watchful eyes of King Mark, and they declare their love for one another.  The duet goes on for nearly half an hour, and so is far too long to include here in its entirety.  Here is the section beginning “O sink hernieder” (text and translation here), sung by Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen at the Metropolitan Opera:

In Act III, Tristan has been fatally wounded after he and Isolde were discovered together.  After singing for a long time, he dies, and Isolde takes center-stage to deliver her final oration: the famous Liebestod (Love-death).  One pities the soprano who has to stand up at the end of a long night of singing and confront this monumental conclusion.  Here it is, sung by Birgit Nilsson in a concert performance.  Text and translations here. (Scroll down to the bottom.)

**

I practiced full Tristan-und-Isolde-immersion this week, hearing or viewing four different performances of the opera.  I watched the production from the Metropolitan Opera that I linked above, with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the main roles.  Heppner was excellent, but I found Eaglen a little underpowered at times.  On CD I listened to the famous 1936 recording with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior.  The singing is amazing — many contend that there has never been an Isolde to match Flagstad’s — but the sound recording technology of the time was not able to capture the richness of the orchestral music, and in Wagner the orchestra is at least as important as the voices.  I also heard a recent recording with Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme; the sound quality was glorious, and the singing was good, but it didn’t get my blood boiling the way this opera ought to.  In the end I returned to my favourite recording: the 1966 Bayreuth performance led by Karl Böhm with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen.

Ash Wednesday, 2010

February 17, 2010

Prayers of St. John Chrysostom
for each hour of the day and night

O Lord, of Thy heavenly bounties deprive me not.

O Lord, deliver me from the eternal torments.

O Lord, forgive me if I have sinned in my mind or my thought, whether in word or in deed.

O Lord, free me from all ignorance and forgetfulness, from despondency and stony insensibility.

O Lord, deliver me from every temptation.

O Lord, enlighten my heart which evil desires have darkened.

O Lord, as a man have I sinned, have Thou mercy on me, as the God full of compassion, seeing the feebleness of my soul.

O Lord, send down Thy grace to help me, that I may glorify Thy name.

O Lord Jesus Christ, write me down in the book of life and grant unto me a good end.

O Lord my God, even if I had not done anything good before Thee, do Thou help me, in Thy grace, to make a good beginning.

O Lord, sprinkle into my heart the dew of Thy grace.

O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me, Thy sinful servant, full of shame and impurity, in Thy kingdom.  Amen.

O Lord, receive me in my penitence.

O Lord, forsake me not.

O Lord, lead me not into misfortune.

O Lord, quicken in me a good thought.

O Lord, give me tears and remembrance of death, and contrition.

O Lord, make me solicitous of confessing my sins.

O Lord, give me humility, chastity, and obedience.

O Lord, give me patience, magnanimity, and meekness.

O Lord, implant in me the root of all good – Thy fear in my heart.

O Lord, vouchsafe that I may love Thee from all my soul and mind and in everything do Thy will.

O Lord, shelter me from certain men, from demons and passions, and from any other unbecoming thing.

O Lord, Thou knowest that Thou dost as Thou willest.  Let then Thy will be done in me, sinner, for blessed art Thou unto the ages.  Amen.

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