Great moments in opera: Death in Venice

February 25, 2014

Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which premiered in 1973, was his last opera. It shares with most of his late music an understated and austere manner, and it deals with difficult subject matter.

Those difficulties are manifold. The opera, like Thomas Mann’s novella on which it is based, is concerned with the power of beauty over the life and work of an artist, or, more generally, with the power of eros in human life, where eros is to be understood in its widest connotation: as a longing directed toward the good, true, and beautiful. In his great book on love, Josef Pieper reminds us that in our tradition of moral and aesthetic reflection eros has been revered for its power to shake us out of complacency, to bring us face to face with the mystery and beauty of life, to call us out of ourselves. The touchstone philosophical text is Plato’s Phaedrus.

This is very much the theme of Britten’s opera, in which a renowned composer Gustav von Aschenbach (I almost wrote ‘Adrian von Leverkuhn’!) travels to Venice for refreshment and inspiration and finds himself shaken by an unexpected and overwhelming encounter with beauty. It is for him an occasion of profound spiritual awakening, calling into question his artistic vocation and his self-understanding.

And therein lies a further difficulty, for the beauty that so unnerves Aschenbach is the beauty of a young adolescent boy. Britten handles this delicate subject with kid gloves, so to speak, having Aschenbach refer to his “father’s pleasure” in the contemplation of young Tadzio, but subsequent developments suggest that this paternal stance was as much a result of Aschenbach’s failing resistance to his own feelings as anything else. It seems fairly clear that the love which springs up in Aschenbach’s heart is the fruit of eros in the wide sense, yes (and Aschenbach himself explicitly tries to interpret his own experience through the lens of the Phaedrus), but also eros in the narrower, sensual sense, and that gives the story an unsettling feeling. For these reasons, Death in Venice is a work that has about it a slightly sickening air — not wholly inappropriately, given the way the story unfolds.

And this is an important point: the story, though it flirts with pederasty, can hardly be seen as a celebration of it. The power of beauty to arouse passion is undeniable, and Aschenbach, who has lived a life of great discipline, is inspired by the luxurious backdrop of Venice, presided over by “the wanton sun”, to surrender himself to the beauty that he sees shining through Tadzio. He falls into a kind of frenzy, a loss of self-composure, in the presence of his beloved, and becomes a man of folly, even in his own eyes. It is a tailspin from which he is ultimately unable to free himself. So the opera, like the novella, presents itself as a forum for a great contest between eros and civilization, giving eloquent voice to the power of beauty over the human soul, but, in the end, sounding a warning about the dangers of surrender to it.

There are very few excerpts from this opera on YouTube; it is safe to say that never will a section of this opera appear on one of those “Greatest Hits of Opera” collections. Nonetheless, let’s hear a little of it.

We can begin at the beginning: the opera opens with a long monologue in which Aschenbach relates the personal and artistic cul-de-sac in which he finds himself, exhausted and without inspiration. Here is the opening portion of the monologue, sung by Hans Schöpflin in Barcelona in 2008:

Following this scene he has a series of mysterious encounters with a figure who reappears throughout the story in many guises (all sung by the same person). Under his influence, Aschenbach decides to journey to Venice for rest and renewal. Here is the scene in which he arrives in Venice, preceded by the “Venice overture”. The gondolier is the same mysterious figure he saw before.

From there the opera winds its slow way downstream. Aschenbach encounters Tadzio, is overcome with feeling, and has long discussions with himself about the experience (and it must be said that Death in Venice is an unusually wordy opera). In the second half, he learns that cholera has come to Venice, causing many foreigners to flee. Aschenbach decides to go, but changes his mind when he remembers that it would mean leaving Tadzio. Eventually, of course, he himself falls ill. Hence the title.

Here is an excerpt taken from near the end of the opera, in which Aschenbach, his strength now failing, reflects once again on the troubling connections between beauty, passion, and “the wisdom poets crave”. Britten has supplied a haunting musical line, hinging upon a repeated figure with each occurrence of the name ‘Phaedrus’. Here again is Hans Schöpflin. The text, which is a little difficult to understand, I have attached below the clip:

Socrates knew, Socrates told us. Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus? Yes, but through the senses. Can poets take this way then? For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, passion leads to knowledge, knowledge to forgiveness, to compassion with the abyss. Should we then reject it, Phaedrus, the wisdom poets crave, seeking only form and pure detachment, simplicity and discipline? But this is beauty, Phaedrus, Discovered through the senses, and senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, and passion to the abyss. And now Phaedrus, I will go. But you stay here, and when your eyes no longer see me, then you go too.

I cannot find any other excerpts of sufficiently good quality to post here, so this will have to do. I suppose that, on balance, I have been slightly disappointed by this opera. The theme, of the power of beauty, is one that actually means a great deal to me, and I count myself an admirer of Mann’s original story, but its operatic realization is a little too thorny, and perhaps too slow, to have won my affection.

All about Septuagesima

February 20, 2014

Earlier this week was a special day in the Church calendar: Septuagesima. This is one of those days (together with Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, and Elevensesagesima) that has fallen into obscurity since the Second Vatican Council. To be honest, I’m not even sure they are still officially on the Church calendar, nor what their observance would involve.

I was delighted, therefore, to find this helpful little primer at The Low Churchman’s Guide to the Solemn High Mass:

A popular custom associated with this season is the “burying of the Alleluia.” Because “Alleluia” will not be said or sung from Septuagesima until Easter Eve, the preceding Sunday’s worship includes a special “Alleluia Office” – a variant of Solemn Evensong, differing from the normal Sunday office in that an Alleluia is sung between each verse of the Magnificat, a Te Deum with seventeenfold Alleluia is sung instead of the Nunc dimittis, and each word of the Apostle’s Creed is pronounced “Alleluia.”

I’m not entirely confident that our loyal churchman has all the details exactly right, but no doubt he’s doing his best, and I appreciate the help.

Read the whole thing.

A pop music odyssey

February 18, 2014

I suppose that everybody (with the exception of those who buy those confounded iPod Shuffles) has some way of structuring their music listening. I myself am partial to listening projects: I pick a certain period or genre or artist and focus on it or him or her for a while. I have in the past dwelt at length on Schubert’s songs, Josquin’s masses, Mahler’s symphonies, and Wagner’s operas, to name a few.

This year I’ve decided to embark upon a new listening project: a pop music odyssey. I’ve chosen a handful of singers whom I admire, or think I ought to admire, and I’ve decided to listen to their collective discographies in chronological order.

The cornerstone of this project will be the music of Bob Dylan, starting in 1962 and extending, over the course of 50-odd albums, to the present day. Interleaved with his albums I am also including the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and (the dark horse) Nick Cave. Actually, I’m only committing to a few of Nick Cave’s records because I’m more curious than fond, and I don’t think I’ll want to shell out for all of his records.

I thought of including Bruce Springsteen as well, but I did a Springsteen listening project three or four years ago, and I feel like there’s too much music there. This odyssey is going to be a long journey even without him.

For the record, here is the list, in order, of the records I am intending to include:

Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan (19 March 1962)
Bob Dylan – Live at the Gaslight (1962)
Beatles – Please Please Me (22 March 1963)
Bob Dylan – Freewheelin’ (27 May 1963)
Beatles – With the Beatles (22 November 1963)
Bob Dylan – The Times They are a Changin’ (13 January 1964)
Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (26 June 1964)
Bob Dylan – Another Side (8 August 1964)
Bob Dylan – Live 1964 (31 October 1964)
Beatles – Beatles for Sale (4 December 1964)
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (22 March 1965)
Beatles – Help! (6 August 1965)
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (30 August 1965)
Beatles – Rubber Soul (3 December 1965)
Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (22 May 1966)
Bob Dylan – Live 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” (25 May 1966)
Beatles – Revolver (5 August 1966)
Beatles – Sgt. Pepper (1 June 1967)
Van Morrison – Blowin’ Your Mind! (Sept 1967)
Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (27 November 1967)
Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding (27 December 1967)
Leonard Cohen – Songs Of (27 December 1967)
Neil Young – Sugar Mountain [Live] (10 November 1968)
Neil Young – Neil Young (12 November 1968)
Beatles – White Album (22 November 1968)
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (November 1968)
Beatles – Yellow Submarine (13 January 1969)
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline (9 April 1969)
Leonard Cohen – Songs From a Room (April 1969)
Neil Young – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (14 May 1969)
Beatles – Abbey Road (26 September 1969)
Van Morrison – Moondance (Feb 1970)
Neil Young – Live at the Fillmore East (March 1970) [2006]
Beatles – Let It Be (8 May 1970)
Bob Dylan – Self-Portrait (8 June 1970)
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush (31 August 1970)
Bob Dylan – New Morning (19 October 1970)
Bob Dylan – Another Self-Portrait (1970)
Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir (15 November 1970)
Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971 (19 January 1971)
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate (March 1971)
Van Morrison – Tupelo Honey (October 1971)
Neil Young – Harvest (14 February 1972)
Van Morrison – St. Dominic’s Preview (July 1972)
Tom Waits – Closing Time (March 1973)
Bob Dylan – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (13 July 1973)
Van Morrison – Hard Nose the Highway (August 1973)
Bob Dylan – Planet Waves (17 January 1974)
Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now (January 1974)
Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece (February 1974)
Bob Dylan – Before the Flood [live] (20 June 1974)
Neil Young – On the Beach (16 July 1974)
Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony (August 1974)
Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night (October 1974)
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (17 January 1975)
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night (20 June 1975)
Bob Dylan – The Basement Tapes (26 June 1975)
Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner (October 1975)
Bob Dylan – Live 1975 “Rolling Thunder Revue” (November 1975)
Neil Young – Zuma (10 November 1975)
Bob Dylan – Desire (16 January 1976)
Bob Dylan – Hard Rain [live] (10 September 1976)
Neil Young – Long May You Run (20 September 1976)
Tom Waits – Small Change (September 1976)
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams (1977) – unreleased
Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (April 1977)
Neil Young – American Stars ‘n Bars (13 June 1977)
Tom Waits – Foreign Affairs (Sept 1977)
Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man (November 1977)
Bob Dylan – Street Legal (15 June 1978)
Van Morrison – Wavelength (September 1978)
Tom Waits – Blue Valentine (September 1978)
Neil Young – Comes a Time (2 October 1978)
Bob Dylan – At Budokan (23 April 1979)
Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps (2 July 1979)
Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming (20 August 1979)
Van Morrison – Into the Music (August 1979)
Leonard Cohen – Recent Songs (September 1979)
Neil Young – Live Rust (19 November 1979)
Bob Dylan – Saved (20 June 1980)
Van Morrison – Common One (August 1980)
Tom Waits – Heartattack and Vine (September 1980)
Neil Young – Hawks & Doves (3 November 1980)
Bob Dylan – Shot of Love (12 August 1981)
Neil Young – Re-ac-tor (2 November 1981)
Van Morrison – Beautiful Vision (February 1982)
Neil Young – Trans (29 December 1982)
Van Morrison – Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (March 1983)
Neil Young – Everybody’s Rockin’ (1 August 1983)
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombone (September 1983)
Bob Dylan – Infidels (1 November 1983)
Van Morrison – Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
Nick Cave – From Her to Eternity (18 June 1984)
Bob Dylan – Real Live [live] (3 December 1984)
Van Morrison – A Sense of Wonder (December 1984)
Leonard Cohen – Various Positions (December 1984)
Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque (8 June 1985)
Neil Young – Old Ways (12 August 1985)
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (30 September 1985)
Neil Young – A Treasure [Live] (1985) [2011]
Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (July 1986)
Neil Young – Landing on Water (28 July 1986)
Bob Dylan – Knocked Out Loaded (8 August 1986)
Neil Young – Life (6 July 1987)
Tom Waits – Frank’s Wild Years (17 August 1987)
Van Morrison – Poetic Champions Compose (Sept 1987)
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (February 1988)
Neil Young – This Note’s for You (11 April 1988)
Bob Dylan – Down in the Groove (31 May 1988)
Van Morrison – Irish Heartbeat (June 1988)
Nick Cave – Tender Prey (19 Sept 1988)
Bob Dylan – Dylan & The Dead [live] (6 February 1989)
Neil Young – Eldorado (17 April 1989)
Van Morrison – Avalon Sunset (6 June 1989)
Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy (22 September 1989)
Neil Young – Freedom (2 October 1989)
Neil Young – Ragged Glory (10 September 1990)
Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (11 September 1990)
Van Morrison – Enlightenment (October 1990)
Van Morrison – Hymns to the Silence (September 1991)
Neil Young – Weld (22 October 1991)
Neil Young – Arc (1991)
Tom Waits – Bone Machine (8 September 1992)
Bob Dylan – Good As I Been To You (27 October 1992)
Neil Young – Harvest Moon (27 October 1992)
Leonard Cohen – The Future (27 November 1992)
Van Morrison – Too Long in Exile (June 1993)
Neil Young – MTV Unplugged (15 June 1993)
Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong (26 October 1993)
Tom Waits – The Black Rider (2 November 1993)
Van Morrison – A Night in San Francisco [Live] (May 1994)
Neil Young – Sleeps with Angels (16 August 1994)
Bob Dylan – MTV Unplugged [live] (25 April 1995)
Van Morrison – Days Like This (June 1995)
Neil Young – Mirror Ball (27 June 1995)
Van Morrison – How Long Has This Been Going On? (June 1995)
Nick Cave – Murder Ballads (5 Feb 1996)
Neil Young – Dead Man (27 February 1996)
Neil Young – Broken Arrow (2 July 1996)
Van Morrison – Tell Me Something (October 1996)
Van Morrison – The Healing Game (March 1997)
Nick Cave – The Boatman’s Call (3 March 1997)
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (30 September 1997)
Van Morrison – The Skiffle Sessions [Live] (1998)
Van Morrison – Back On Top (9 March 1999)
Tom Waits – Mule Variations (16 April 1999)
Neil Young – Silver & Gold (25 April 2000)
Van Morrison – You Win Again (25 Sept 2000)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (11 September 2001)
Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (9 October 2001)
Neil Young – Are you Passionate? (9 April 2002)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (May 2002)
Tom Waits – Blood Money (4 May 2002)
Tom Waits – Alice (4 May 2002)
Neil Young – Greendale (19 August 2002)
Van Morrison – What’s Wrong with this Picture? (21 Oct 2003)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (3 October 2004)
Leonard Cohen – Dear Heather (26 October 2004)
Van Morrison – Magic Time (16 May 2005)
Neil Young – Prairie Wind (27 September 2005)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (7 March 2006)
Neil Young – Living with War (8 May 2006)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (29 August 2006)
Neil Young – Living with War (19 December 2006)
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II (23 October 2007)
Van Morrison – Keep It Simple (17 March 2008)
Neil Young – Fork in the Road (7 April 2009)
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life (28 April 2009)
Neil Young – Le Noise (28 September 2010)
Tom Waits – Bad As Me (21 October 2011)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (31 January 2012)
Neil Young – Americana (5 June 2012)
Bob Dylan – Tempest (11 September 2012)
Van Morrison – Born to Sing (2 Oct 2012)
Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill (30 October 2012)


I have no idea how long this project is going to take, but I hope there is a reasonable chance of my finishing before I die. I am looking forward to hearing not only how each individual singer developed, but how they influenced one another, if indeed they did. I don’t think many would disagree that Dylan was an important influence on everybody else, with the possible exception of Van Morrison.

When putting this list together, I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Cohen’s Songs Of were released on the same day. What a day that was!

It is fair to say that most of these folks, great as they are, have declined in creativity as they have aged. I suppose there is a possibility that I might abandon the project once I reach the desolation of the 1980s, but at the outset I have the wind in my sails and a song in my heart. Happy sailing to me.

Caldecott: Secret Fire

February 5, 2014

Secret Fire
The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien
Stratford Caldecott
(Darton Longman Todd, 2003)
144 p.

This slender book is a thoughtful attempt to explore the spiritual roots and background of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. It draws on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also delves deeper into The Silmarillion and the fragmentary History of Middle Earth. It is not a book for casual Tolkien fans, but is accessible to readers (like myself) who have limited acquaintance with this “background” material. (The scare quotes are only because I am not sure Tolkien woould agree that it is background.)

Tolkien was a Catholic, and Caldecott argues that “an understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their influence on the story for which he is famous can only enhance our appreciation of this great work of art”. Some readers might contest, or at least not understand, the relevance of Tolkien’s Catholicism to the stories he told. There is no overt Catholicism in his tales (not in the best known ones, at least) and, even more remarkable, no overt religion at all. But Caldecott has a trump card in the form of a famous letter in which Tolkien wrote:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

It is an authorial claim that gets one thinking, and the Christian resonances soon become more evident: Tolkien’s stories turn on themes of humility, power in weakness, the parasitic nature of evil, Providence, and mercy. And there are some specific allusions to Christianity as well: Caldecott reminds us that the date of the destruction of the One Ring was March 25, the date of the Catholic feast of the Annunciation — the date on which the power of sin in the world was decisively (if still, in history, partially) undone.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a sacramental realm as well: material things have spiritual meanings and powers. From the background mythology Tolkien demonstrates that though the material world was created good, Morgoth’s power has disseminated through it, making it subject to corruption and decay, making it subject to his will, and making the dark magic of Saruman (for example) possible. Gold and fire are especially under his dominion, which casts the One Ring and Mount Doom in a new light (or a new shadow). Of all the elements of the natural world it is water that is most outside his influence; hence the watery backdrop of Rivendale, for instance.

There are also strong Marian themes in Middle Earth. Tolkien said that his “own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” was founded on the Blessed Virgin, and he poured that beauty into certain characters, especially the female elves such as Galadriel. Caldecott argues that the longing for beauty, especially as experienced by the elves, is a Marian element of the mythology, and that that longing is sacramentally associated in the stories with starlight (perhaps under Mary’s title ‘star of the sea’), with music, and (again) with the sound of water.

(Incidentally, Caldecott has very interesting things to say about the place of elves in Tolkien’s world. They serve as a kind of experimental forum for him: they are immortal yet are confined to an earthly life. Their love and their longing are all directed at this world, rather than, as is fitting for men, at the next. Therefore although they long for transcendent beauty, they can never actually hope for it, and their longing is inflected by “a sense of melancholy, of infinite distance or separation.” This is an aspect of elvishness which I had not previously considered.)

One of the strongest conjunctions of Tolkien’s mythology with Catholic doctrine is to be found in the Creation myth which opens The Silmarillion. This section is one of the choicest jewels in Tolkien’s treasure chest, incredibly beautiful on its own merits. It begins with song, as Ilúvatar, the One, sings the world into being out of nothing. Caldecott spends quite a lot of time on this myth, examining its stages and various aspects in concert with Christian tradition, and it is among the most rewarding sections of the book. The notion that the Valar are “living Forms” (in the Platonic sense) was arresting; this was apparently how Tolkien himself thought of angels.

I said above that the Middle Earth mythology, however infused with Christian metaphysics and redolent of a Christian moral vision it may be, is nonetheless silent on the specific claims of Christian theology. And, of course, this is quite fitting, for the events with which Tolkien is concerned occurred long before the Incarnation. Yet I was surprised to discover that buried deep within the History of Middle Earth, in a section called “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”, Tolkien wrote of a prophecy that

“the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.”

One could hardly ask for a more direct indication that the world which Tolkien created was intended as an imaginative reconstruction of a Christian cosmos. And it was just one of many interesting things I learned from this intensely interesting little book.

Nunc dimittis

February 2, 2014

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, also called Candlemas. The Gospel reading tells of how the Christ-Child, brought to the temple for the first time, was received into the arms of St. Simeon and St. Anna, and of how Simeon sang a canticle that has been set to music hundreds of times since:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Here is Arvo Pärt’s setting, sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir:

Happy Candlemas!

Beauty and a numinous glory

January 27, 2014

In the experience of the beautiful, and of its pure fortuity, we are granted our most acute, most lucid, and most splendid encounter with the difference of transcendent being from the realm of finite things. The beautiful affords us our most perfect experience of that existential wonder that is the beginning of all speculative wisdom. This state of amazement, once again, lies always just below the surface of our quotidian consciousness; but beauty stirs us from our habitual forgetfulness of the wonder of being. It grants us a particularly privileged awakening from our “fallenness” into ordinary awareness, reminding us that the fullness of being, which far exceeds any given instance of its disclosure, graciously condescends to show itself, again and again, in the finitude of a transient event. In this experience, we are given a glimpse — again, with a feeling of wonder that restores us momentarily to something like the innocence of childhood — of that inexhaustible source that pours itself out in the gracious needlessness of being.

Beauty is also the startling reminder, even for persons sunk in the superstitions of materialism, that those who see reality in purely mechanistic terms do not see the real world at all, but only its shadow. Standing before a painting by Chardin or Vermeer, one might be able to describe the object in terms of purely physical elements and events but still fail to see the painting for what it is: an object whose visible aspects are charged with a surfeit of meaning and splendor, a mysterious glory that is the ultimate rationale of its existence, a radiant dimension of absolute value at once transcending and showing itself within the limits of material form. In the experience of the beautiful, one is apprised with a unique poignancy of both the ecstatic structure of consciousness and the gratuity of being. Hence the ancient conviction that the love at beauty is, by its nature, a rational yearning for the transcendent. The experience of sensible beauty provokes in the soul the need to seek supersensible beauty, says Plato: it is, in the words of Plotinus, a “delicious perturbation” that awakens an eros for the divine within us. All things are a mirror of the beauty of God, says the great Sufi poet Mahmud Shabestari (1288-1340): and to be seized with the desire for that beauty, says Gregory of Nyssa, is to long to be transformed within oneself into an ever more perspicuous mirror of its splendor. Kabir (1440-1518) says that it is divine beauty that shines out from all things, and that all delight in beauty is adoration of God. For Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674), one of the sanest men who ever lived, to see the world with the eyes of innocence, and so to see it pervaded by a numinous glory, is to see things as they truly are, and to recognize creation as the mirror of God’s infinite beauty.

– David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.

Great moments in opera: Don Carlo

January 21, 2014

I am not sure whether this opera is properly called Don Carlo or Don Carlos. It exists in both Italian and French versions, which I think is the origin of the confusion. Verdi’s much-revised piece — there are both five- and four-act versions — is an example of the grandest of grand opera: about four hours long, and plump with international politics, ecclesiastical spectacle, and personal tragedy. As with so many of Verdi’s operas, it was unfamiliar to me until recently; I have both listened to and watched it now as a belated part of my Verdi anniversary observance.

The story is set in sixteenth-century Spain, in the troubled court of Philip II. Philip has recently married Elisabetta, a much younger woman who, unhappily for all concerned, had prior to the marriage been entangled in a romance with the king’s son, Don Carlo. Thus we have a love triangle of the most awkward sort at the heart of the royal family. Sixteenth-century Spain also means the Inquisition, of course, and there is a power-hungry and corrupt Grand Inquisitor to put a lurid face on things. Meanwhile there is political unrest in Spain’s Netherlandish provinces. These three elements — usurped love, Inquisition, and power politics — are the ingredients with which Verdi cooks his stew.

The brightest musical highlight of the opera comes early in the first Act: Don Carlo is reunited with his friend, Rodrigo, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. They sing a rousing duet, Dio, che nell’alma infondere, in which they swear enduring friendship to one another. Here are Placido Domingo and Louis Quilco, with English subtitles:

Later in the first act is a lovely aria sung by Eboli, a third-wheel who is secretly in love with Don Carlo. Her song, Nel giardin del bello (In the garden of war), tells the story of a Moorish king who tries to woo an alluring, veiled beauty who turns out, much to his surprise, to be his wife. It’s a soprano showpiece, sung in this clip by Tatiana Troyanos at the Met, with English subtitles:

This motif of mistaken identity in romance anticipates the opening scene of Act II. Don Carlo has arranged to meet Elisabetta in the palace garden at night, and upon meeting her (as he supposes) he cannot resist professing his love for her. Yet he is mistaken: he has met Eboli, and she wrongly takes his profession of love as intended for her. The mistake realized, Don Carlo rejects her, and she, calling herself “a tigress with a wounded heart”, vows to revenge herself on him. At this point Rodrigo enters the garden and intervenes. What follows is a marvellous trio, sung here by Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Luciana d’Intino (Eboli), and Paolo Coni (Rodrigo) in Milan. This clip begins with Rodrigo’s entrance; the trio really starts to gather steam about one minute in.

Later in this act we get one of Verdi’s splendid choruses: the scene depicts the preparations for an auto-da-fé, and the unruliness of the crowd is well captured in the music. Probably you’ll recognize the tune. This is a concert performance, and a pretty good one:

I’ll select just one highlight from Act III: King Philip sings Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me), in which he meditates on the inevitability of death and laments his loveless marriage. This is one of the great arias for bass voice, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov. I cannot find a version with English subtitles, but the text and translation can be seen here.

Likewise, one highlight from the fourth and final act: Don Carlo must leave Spain to avoid his father’s wrath, and Elisabetta prays for strength to be parted from him forever. As her thoughts turn to France and the early days of their romance, she sings Tu che le vanita conoscesti (You who have known the vanity). Here is a treat: rare footage of Maria Callas singing live!

This is from 1962, so quite late in her career, when she was past her prime, but what a voice! Mesmerizing. (To hear her sing the same aria in 1958, go here. This is a calibre of singing from which one never quite recovers.)

Don Carlo has a dramatic finale which, however, I shall not showcase here. Suffice to say that all the main elements I stressed at the beginning — politics, religion, and tragedy — come together for a conclusion that is ne’er to be forgotten. If you think it ends well, you’ve not seen enough operas.

Wild: The Tumbler of God

January 17, 2014

The Tumbler of God
Chesterton as Mystic
Robert Wild
(Angelico, 2013)
217 p.

In 2013 the Bishop of Northampton announced that he was appointing a priest to investigate the merits of opening a cause for the canonization of G.K. Chesterton. The announcement sent ripples of excitement, whether nervous or enthusiastic, through the ranks of Chesterton’s admirers. On the face of it, Chesterton would seem an odd candidate for sainthood: a gregarious, corpulent journalist, literary critic, controversialist, novelist, poet, and playwright who lived most of his life as a non-Catholic fits no standard template. He would seem to bear a closer resemblance to Falstaff than to St. Francis. Yet there are those who believe that Chesterton was not only an exemplary man, but a holy one, and Fr. Robert Wild’s book is a serious attempt to identify some of the reasons why.

The basic claim of the book is not that Chesterton was a saint, but that he was a mystic “in at least some of the traditional Christian meanings of the word.” In particular, Fr. Wild argues that he was, throughout his life, blessed with a special grace which gave him a heightened awareness of the dependence of the world on God for its existence. He had, in Wild’s words, a “Creator mysticism,” a steady apprehension of the “thereness-of-being-coming-forth,” in which the mystery of existence — “the wonder begotten of the contrast between something and nothing” — was habitually present to his consciousness. In his brilliant study — brilliant by reputation, for it is out of print and hard to find – Paradox in Chesterton, Hugh Kenner wrote:

“His whole habit of thought began with thankfulness, impelled him to see not lamp-posts but limited beings participating in All Being; he was accustomed to looking at grass and seeing God. And the consciousness of God introduces another dimension into consideration of grass.”

This primary awareness of Being, and of God as the ground or act of Being, is a mark of Christian mysticism. It is more than an awareness of the Presence of God in created things, and more than an affirmation of the ultimate goodness of all existing things — though it is those things too. It is, in addition, an awareness of “the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being.” For it is central to Christian metaphysics that Creation is not an act that occurred at some specific time long ago, but a continual act by which all things are sustained in being, ceaselessly pouring forth from the plenitude of God’s own being.

Evidence that Chesterton experienced this wonder at the mystery of being and awareness of its contingency and gratuitousness is abundantly present in his writing. He was continually expressing astonishment at existence, at the sheer physical thereness of things. “I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles,” he wrote. “I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door; to hit me over the head, like a giant’s club in a fairy tale.” In poems like “By the Babe Unborn” or “A Second Childhood” he provokes us with a vision of the world that brims with wide-eyed wonder at its being and beauty. Fr. Wild  draws particular attention to a profound passage from Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi in which he describes the saint’s perception of the whole of Nature being contingent and unnecessary:

“So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole of creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet [the mystic] does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity.

The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.”

Although this passage was written by Chesterton to describe a stage in the spiritual development of St. Francis, Fr. Wild takes it to be an a window into Chesterton’s own experience. That image of “the sons of God shouting for joy” at Creation was one to which Chesterton returned many times in his writings, and it seems to have been especially important to his own spiritual life.

St. Francis himself was important to Chesterton too, and the biography he wrote about the great medieval saint has long been recognized as one of his principal achievements. Fr. Wild reads it with some care for insight into Chesterton’s own views about the nature of mysticism. Chesterton uses the metaphor of “tumbling” to describe the progress of the nascent mystic, calling St. Francis “Our Lady’s Tumbler” (and it is the same metaphor, of course, which gives Fr. Wild’s book its title). Tumbling is — in Chesterton’s words — a “grotesque simile” for the profound interior conversion with a mystic undergoes. His world is upended before it comes right again, and during that period of crisis he is granted a view of “the earth hanging” — that is, contingent and dependent on something other than itself. There are some mystics who “land on their heads” (and into this group Chesterton put William Blake and Leo Tolstoy, among others) but others (like St. Francis) who “land on their feet”, seemingly unchanged but seeing all things now with “new eyes”.

It is because of this experience that the mystic voices praise for both the Creation and the Creator, and, interestingly, it is in the wake of this mystical conversion that a healthy and authentic asceticism arises, “as an attempt to pay the unpayable debt [of gratitude]; and as a means to keep God as the absolutely first love in one’s life (Wild, 105-6).” In Chesterton’s view, then, asceticism, so often associated with saintliness and mysticism, rightly arises not out of disdain for material things or pleasures, but out of gratitude for a vision of God’s glory manifest in material things.

The other saint to whom Chesterton was greatly indebted was St. Thomas Aquinas, and the similarities between the two men extended to more than just their portly frames. Observations of Chesterton’s “breathtakingly intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth” (J.J. Scarisbrick) and his “extraordinary comprehensive intuition of being” (Kenner) can startle the unsuspecting reader with their boldness. Out of context, the claim that “He never fumbles to reach a position because he never needs to reach a position. He occupies a central position all the time” might be taken as descriptive of St. Thomas rather than (as it is) of Chesterton (courtesy of Hugh Kenner again). Readers of the Summa and of Chesterton’s voluminous cultural journalism might be persuaded by the claim that there is a certain similarity between the two despite the very different audiences and contexts, for both Chesterton and St. Thomas routinely grasp the whole as they grasp the parts, arguing particular points while never losing sight of the architecture of the larger argument. Following up on this observation, Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton had a “charism of truth” in the form of the gift of knowledge, which St. Augustine distinguished from the gift of wisdom by applying the former to human affairs and the latter to divine. Certainly Chesterton was a man possessed of an unusually astute practical wisdom.

Summing up his central argument, Fr. Wild commends Chesterton to us as an exemplar of a “lay mysticism” that can thrive in the midst of an active life, aware of the fact that created realities reveal God to us:

“By remaining faithful to his grace, he gave us one of the great keys to understanding reality: how to live in the present moment, in wonder and thanksgiving, and how to see God there always “immortally active,” bringing everything forth instantaneously out of his unlimited power and beauty.”


Many books have been written about Chesterton, but this is the first that I know of to focus specifically on Chesterton’s relationship to God, and the argument it makes is both interesting and persuasive. The portrait of Chesterton which Fr. Wild draws is, at least, a faithful one, and the ways in which he connects the familiar “Chestertonian” qualities to the Christian mystical tradition are a good service. Whether these qualities are attributable to a special divine grace, as Fr. Wild contends, is harder to demonstrate and is, in any case, not my responsibility to judge. But I’d like to thank Fr. Wild for writing such a thought provoking and instructive book.


More of Kenner on Chesterton:

“Chesterton’s analogical perception of Being has led us from elementary wonder to the very heart of a paradoxical universe. It may be said without exaggeration that he ranks almost with St. Thomas himself in the comprehensiveness of that initial perception; and that very certainty and immediacy which makes it unnecessary for him to struggle at any time with any truth and so makes significant dramatic expression impossible for him, places him securely not in the hierarchy of the artists but in one not less distinguished: the long line of exegetists and theologians who have successively explored the same cosmos and the light of the same vision, seeing all things ordered and all things mirroring greater and lesser things: the Fathers, philosophers, and Doctors of the Church.” (quoted by Wild, p.7)

(I cannot imagine a nicer way of saying that Chesterton was a poor dramatist!)

Goldbergs, with commentary

January 14, 2014

In this short video Jeremy Denk talks us through one or two of the Goldberg variations. It’s an engaging little illustration of the simultaneous playfulness and formal structure of Bach’s music. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing.

Favourites of 2013: Film

January 10, 2014

I had another fairly instructive year at the movies. Last year in my annual round-up I mentioned that I had been trying, in a desultory manner, to educate myself by viewing films with some claim to classic status. That enterprise continued this year, except that I expunged all traces of the desultory from my efforts: I established a kind of system (which, for fear of ridicule, I shall not unfold in all its glorious complexity) to ensure that my film viewing would be both entertaining and improving, stretching the (mostly temporal) boundaries within which I have traditionally confined myself. Sad to say, much of that good seed fell on hard soil, or was choked by weeds, or trampled underfoot, and I feel it has borne relatively little fruit. As will be evident in a moment, most of the films I most enjoyed this year were of recent provenance, and I am just a little bit ashamed of that.

This year, for example, I went back and watched the very earliest films on record: the Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the short films of the Lumière Brothers (c.1895), and the first narrative film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). I watched a few early horror films of the German expressionist school (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922)) and some early American films about wartime (The Birth of a Nation (1915), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Gone with the Wind (1939)). I made a point of watching films by highly regarded directors, such as Hitchcock [Notorious (1946)], Wilder [Sunset Boulevard (1950)], Kurosawa [Seven Samurai (1954)], Dreyer [Ordet (1955)], Altman [M*A*S*H (1970)], Tarkovsky [Solaris (1972)], Mamet [Homicide (1991)], and Anderson [The Master (2012)]; these I appreciated to greater and lesser extents, but none of them, at least on first acquaintance, have found much of a place in my heart.

la-promesse-150x150A highlight of my year was a “Dardenne Brothers Film Festival”, in which I discovered the work of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I watched La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), L’Enfant (2005), and Le Gamin au vélo (2011), the last of which I discuss in more detail below. These are great films. The Dardennes have a distinctive aesthetic: handheld cameras, spare dialogue, long takes, shots often taken through door frames or half-blocked by corners, and so on. dardenne-rosettaThey have a particular fondness, which grows endearing, for filming the backs of their characters’ heads. There are thematic elements too that crop up again and again and make their films into something like a unified body of work. In each film they are looking at the economic underclass, people on the brink of poverty who often resort to blackmarkets or other illegalities to stay afloat. le-fils-150x150All of their films are intensely concerned with the relationships of parents and children, and especially with the role of fathers in the lives of children. But perhaps what is most characteristic of their films, and also most interesting, is their keen moral sense. Though their characters live buffeted by all kinds of pressures and act from all sorts of motives, we are never allowed to forget — and neither are they — that they are moral beings facing specifically moral decisions. enfant-150x150Not that the films are “moralizing” in a perjorative sense, but the films exist in a moral universe. In 2011 the Dardennes were awarded the Robert Bresson Prize, given to filmmakers whose work “has given a testimony, significant on account of its sincerity and intensity, of the difficult road in search of the spiritual meaning of our life.” They deserved it.


Now a few thoughts about the films I most enjoyed this year, more or less in descending order:

to_the_wonder_20244To the Wonder
(Terrence Malick, 2012)

With each new film he makes, Terrence Malick is rising steadily in my personal pantheon of filmmakers. That is not to say that each new film is better than its predecessor — To the Wonder is a lesser achievement than The Tree of Life in just about every respect — but the more experience I have of his work the more I find myself sinking into it, soaking it up. At this point, I am ready to give myself up to his films, floating along with his camera like a feather on the wind.

To the Wonder is in many respects his most challenging film yet. There is no question that it is visually and aurally gorgeous, but it makes few concessions to familiar cinematic conventions. It’s elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — Malick’s penchant for voice-over is here taken to an extreme. Where most of Malick’s films invite a contemplative viewing, To the Wonder comes close to requiring it. It divided the audience at its premiere, and is likely to go on doing so.

The story centers around an American man, played by Ben Affleck, and his relationship with a French woman, played by Olga Kurylenko. They fall in love in France — there is a glorious sequence filmed at Mont St. Michel that lifted me up to the fourth or fifth heaven — but they eventually move to Texas where, for various reasons, most of which are only hinted at, their romance falters and the hard business of loving one another begins. Where The Tree of Life was concerned with exploring the meaning of grace, To the Wonder is about love: what is it? what does it mean? what does it feel like? how is it lived? where does it come from?

Malick explores these themes by contrasting the central romantic relationship with that of another character: a priest in the town where the couple settles (played by Javier Bardem). He is a good man who spends his days visiting the poor and sick, and who preaches from the pulpit with wisdom and authority, but who, rather like Bernanos’ country priest, is inwardly dry, steadfastly longing for God but finding no consolation in Him; he feels abandoned and alone. Nonetheless, he carries on with faith and hope, day in and day out.

My reading of the film is that Malick has set before us two understandings of love: one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast. Which is the more attractive? Which is the more fruitful? Which brings the most happiness? The answers will vary from viewer to viewer, though I think I know where Malick comes down. There is, after all, little reason for the priest to appear in the film apart from his value as a provoking counterpoint.

This is not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work; it is too saturated with unfamiliar techniques that, to the uninitiated, would be alienating. It is also a film with a remarkably cool, distant tone (though I think this is intentional and is related to the film’s moral attitude toward commitment). And it is admittedly a flawed film, with an awkward structure and a certain lack of cohesion. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly beautiful film that poses big questions and is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”. It is my favourite film of the year.


4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days4months
(Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

I hesitate to mention this film, not because it is not an excellent film — it is, emphatically — but because it is a difficult film to watch. Nonetheless, here we are. The film is set in Romania in the 1980s, under the Ceauşescu regime, and it tells the story of a woman who, with the help of a friend, procures an illegal abortion.

Both the style and the content of the film deserve comment. It is stylistically very dry: there are long, wide shots in which the camera is stationary, no overdubbed music as far as I recall, and in general a studied absence of overt effects. This does not at all mean that the film is artless: there is one scene, of a dinner party, that includes a single, static, long shot that is agonizingly great; I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it before. In general the director seems determined simply to show us his story, without getting in the way. This even-handedness extends to the story itself, which, on one hand, confirms everything that a pro-choice advocate believes: yes, this woman seeks her abortion on the black market, and yes, it is far more dangerous for her than it would be in our fair land. The film is right to portray this. We understand her desperation and we sympathize with it. But the force of those arguments is blunted beyond repair by the unsparing commitment of the filmmaker to show us what is actually happening. The quiet, apparently emotionless deliberateness with which the film proceeds grows increasingly sickening, and the director grants us no easy evasions. As such, I cannot believe that anyone could watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days without profound sorrow and disgust. Normally that would not be the way to recommend a film, but this is an exception. The final scene, in which the two friends sit together after the immediate terrors have passed, is understated but devastatingly effective.


kidwithbike-150x150Le Gamin au Vélo
(The Kid with a Bike)

(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

As I mentioned above, most of the Dardenne’s films are about the relationships of fathers and sons, and the same is true here but with this difference: the father is absent. They give us a probing portrait of the devastation wrought in the heart of the son by such absence. Rejected and abandoned, young Cyril is taken in by a local woman, Samantha, who becomes a steady friend to him. (The scene of Cyril’s first chance encounter with her is wonderfully handled by the Dardennes; this is understated direction at its best.) I loved that Samantha’s brave and unselfish solicitude for him was presented without any fanfare or underlining; goodness is so attractive that it can be trusted to shine even without a spotlight.

The film is morally serious: it is about taking responsibility for one’s actions (explored in a number of mutually impacting ways), about moral failure and moral heroism, about children’s need for love and role models, about forgiveness, and about the importance of families. The characters are richly drawn, and the relationships believable. Even the title is resonant: on one level it blandly refers to Cyril and the bicycle he rides around, but in the film the bicycle serves as a kind of symbol or stand-in for his father, and the title assumes a sadly wry undertone when we realize that Cyril is finally a kid with … just a bike. Ouch. The spare use of music in the film is superb: the Dardennes normally don’t put a “soundtrack” over the sounds their microphone picks up, but here they break their rule at key points, playing the opening chords of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, and it adds another dimension to the film that works superbly well.


(Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)

Alfonso Cuaron has a reputation, I believe, as one of the more talented and serious directors of his generation — though I confess that I have not myself seen any of his other films — so I was surprised to find him at the helm of Gravity, which on paper sounds more or less like a straightforward thriller, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in quantity: astronauts cut-off from mission control by an in-orbit disaster must somehow find their way back to earth. It just goes to show that a good director makes all the difference between a paint-by-numbers thriller and a dazzling feat of cinematic virtuosity. From the acrobatic opening shot — which lasts for something between 13 and 17 minutes (depending on who you believe) — it is clear that we are in the hands of a master, and Cuaron sees his story, simple as it is, through to its white-knuckle finale with a sure hand. In the end, it is a fairly slight tale, filled out sparely but effectively with enough backstory to give the characters weight (so to speak) and some suggestive thematic elements. (I recommend Adam Hincks’ analysis of the film for insight into this deeper matter.) The principal glory of the film is its visual splendour: Cuaron works here with Emmanuel Lubezki — also Terrence Malick’s go-to cinematographer, note well — and the images he puts on screen, together with the choreography of the camera movement in the three-dimensional weightless environment, made this one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences that I have had in years.


City Lightscity lights
(Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

My first Charlie Chaplin film. From the opening scene, in which the Tramp is caught sleeping on a public monument as it is unveiled before a great crowd, I was won over. The story, about the awkward but sweet relationship between the mute Tramp and a blind woman, packs a big emotional punch at the film’s climax. I followed up by watching Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a more overtly political film, and while I thought it was delightful it didn’t displace City Lights in my affections.


a_serious_manA Serious Man
(Coen Brothers, 2009)

When A Serious Man was in theatres a few years ago I had the impression that it was a “minor Coen Brothers” film, something to file beside The Man who Wasn’t There or (*cough*) Intolerable Cruelty. I’m now fairly sure that was wrong. Certainly it is a mesmerizing film in its own quiet way. Larry Gopnik is a middle-aged physics professor (!) whose life begins, piece by piece but rapidly, to fall apart: his wife wants a divorce, a student tries to bribe him, his brother cannot be dislodged from his couch, and odd coincidences unsettle him. The film is tonally very interesting: the general feeling is one of subdued and uneasy anticipation, even dread, yet step back a bit and the comic elements jump out. Indeed, the film as a whole is structured like a Jewish joke (“There were three rabbis in a small town…”). The first ten minutes of the film, a Jewish folktale offered by way of prologue, are perhaps the best ten minutes of cinema I saw all year. Absolutely delicious. And the ending too is a knockout. I’m not yet sure if A Serious Man is a “major Coen Brothers” film, but I definitely want to see it again. This trailer plays up the comic element more than the film itself does:


Other films I enjoyed: Anna Karenina (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Great Expectations (1946), A Late Quartet (2011), Lourdes (2009), Modern Times (1936), Much Ado About Nothing (2012), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Sunset Boulevard (1950).


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