Josquin in Montréal

February 22, 2021

This year, as I’ve noted before, is a Josquin anniversary year. A few days ago I went fishing on YouTube for performances of his music, and I found this from a hometown team: Le studio de musique ancienne de Montréal singing his five-voice setting of Ave verum corpus [score]This is quiet, contemplative music, and if you’ve got seven minutes to spare I highly recommend it. It’s a sensitive and beautiful performance, gorgeously sung.


Tacitus: Annals

February 14, 2021

 

Annals
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.120]
416 p.

Much of what I have related and shall have to relate, may perhaps, I am aware, seem petty trifles to record. But no one must compare my annals with the writings of those who have described Rome in old days. They told of great wars, of the storming of cities, of the defeat and capture of kings, or whenever they turned by preference to home affairs, they related, with a free scope for digression, the strifes of consuls with tribunes, land and corn-laws, and the struggles between the commons and the aristocracy. My labours are circumscribed and inglorious; peace wholly unbroken or but slightly disturbed, dismal misery in the capital, an emperor careless about the enlargement of the empire, such is my theme. Still it will not be useless to study those at first sight trifling events out of which the movements of vast changes often take their rise.
(4.32)

Such is Tacitus’ modest appraisal of his achievement in this great history of the first-century Roman empire. The period in question, covering the years from the death of Augustus in 14 AD to the death of Nero in 68 AD, was a good deal more dramatic than he lets on here, replete with power struggles, wars, murders, and a cast of characters that has fascinated the world ever since. It was for Tacitus still relatively recent history, being no further from him than the First World War is from us, but he assures us early on that he has distance enough to be frank:

The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts about Augustus—more particularly his last acts, then the reign of Tiberius, and all which follows, without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives to which I am far removed.
(1.1)

His professed purpose in writing, which I have little reason to doubt, was, like Livy’s before him, a principally moral one:

This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.
(3.65)

Both – the worthy actions, and the evil deeds – are readily supplied by the history he unfolds for us, though rather more of the latter. Without going into too much detail, let me sketch a basic outline of the sixteen books of the Annals.

*

When Augustus died, the empire had been relatively peaceful, and free from acute succession controversies, for decades. Tiberius was nobody’s first choice – maybe not even Tiberius’ — to become emperor upon Augustus’ passing, but all of the other leading candidates had died during their grooming, and so to Tiberius it fell. The early years of his reign were complicated by rebellions in outlying provinces, but the real danger was close to home. Tacitus relates, for instance, how Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, turned his outfit, which was supposed to supply protection to the emperor, into a quiet threat, controlling not only access to the emperor, but also the emperor’s access to others. Sejanus eventually convinced Tiberius to move to the isle of Capri, where he largely, if tacitly, surrendered the power of governance to his keeper, whereupon “he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations” (6.51). Tacitus accuses Sejanus of poisoning Tiberius’ son, Drusus, and then of doing the same to others likely to succeed to the throne. But when he, a mere equestrian, proposed to marry Tiberius’ daughter-in-law, and so place himself in the line of succession, the game was up. Although the pages of Tacitus’ history narrating the fall of Sejanus are lost, we know from other sources that it was swift and brutal.

But it didn’t solve much. Sejanus’ successor, Macro, assumed a very similar role, and is actually credited by Tacitus with murdering Tiberius in 37 AD during a period of confusion about whether he was alive or not:

On the 15th of March, his breath failing, he was believed to have expired, and Caius Caesar was going forth with a numerous throng of congratulating followers to take the first possession of the empire, when suddenly news came that Tiberius was recovering his voice and sight, and calling for persons to bring him food to revive him from his faintness. Then ensued a universal panic, and while the rest fled hither and thither, every one feigning grief or ignorance, Caius Caesar, in silent stupor, passed from the highest hopes to the extremity of apprehension. Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes, and all to quit the entrance-hall.
(6.50)

*

The “Caius Caesar” mentioned in this passage is known to us by his nickname, Caligula, a man with a reasonable claim to being the worst of the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, history has drilled a large hole in Tacitus’ account at this stage, with four full Books, covering the years 37-48 AD, lost. We are told only that he was “thoroughly ignorant and bred under the vilest training” (6.48).  We know from other sources that his short reign, of just four years, was one of scandal and depravity. He is, by reputation, the model of the mad tyrant. So bad did things become that in 41 AD a conspiracy formed and Caligula, just 28 years old, was stabbed to death.

*

During Caligula’s reign there had been fierce jockeying for the succession, with numerous candidates meeting untimely ends in the process. One man survived the process, largely because nobody thought he was capable of ruling; a man who had difficulty speaking, had no evident political ambitions, and seemed content to write scholarly works in retirement from public life. That man was Claudius, and he surprised everyone by becoming, in time, the best and most capable emperor since Augustus, and, in the judgment of some, one of the best and most capable of all. He quelled revolts, held a census (there were then 6 million Roman citizens), made legal reforms, and generally upheld order in public life. His private life, however, was another matter. His first wife, Agrippina, attempted a coup by publicly marrying another man and plotting to kill Claudius; she was executed. Claudius then decided to make a strategic marriage to re-unite the Julian and Claudian sides of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which involved marrying his own niece, also called Agrippina, a decision that required “reform” of Rome’s incest laws and was extremely unpopular with the Roman people. Agrippina came to the marriage with two sons of her own, and did not conceal her wish that one of them succeed as emperor. In the year 54, she poisoned Claudius and got her wish.

*

The man who came to the throne, just 16 years old, was, sadly, Nero, a ruler not quite so bad as Caligula, but getting there. Tacitus describes him as vain, intemperate, effeminate, and, as he became older and realized the power he commanded, cruel and debauched:

It was commonly reported that snakes had been seen by his cradle, which they seemed to guard, a fabulous tale invented to match the marvels of other lands. Nero, never a disparager of himself, was wont to say that but one snake, at most, had been seen in his chamber.
(11.11)

One of his first acts as emperor was to kill his step-brother, Brittanicus, who was Claudius’ natural son and therefore a threat to Nero’s power. Not long after, he ordered the execution of his own mother, Agrippina, on trumped up charges – Tacitus speculates that he objected to her attempts to prevent an unsuitable marriage. In the course of time he would also be popularly attributed with the murder of his wife and unborn child. Meanwhile, he loved to sing – a particularly degrading pastime for Roman nobility – and embarrassed the senatorial class by his ventures onto the stage. He had, in his tutor and advisor, Seneca, one of the greatest Romans of the age, but it seemed to do him little good, and he “polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, […] not omitting a single abomination which could heighten his depravity” (15.37).

But the principal scandal of Nero’s reign centered on the Great Fire of Rome. It happened in 64 AD, and damaged or destroyed much of Rome, including a large swathe of the city centre. Tacitus tells us that Nero was away from the city at the time, and that upon his return he dispensed funds to those who had suffered damages. But rumours circulated that when he had learned that the city was aflame he had taken the opportunity to sing of the destruction of Troy, and this hardened the hearts of the Romans. Adding insult to injury, Nero seized upon Rome’s blasted centre to realize one of his grandiose architectural dreams: an immense palace for himself, the Domus Aurea, built on the ruins of the fire.

Rumours then went from bad to worse, and stories circulated that Nero had himself ordered the fire. At this point, Nero himself, says Tacitus, commissioned a counter-rumour in which he tried to pin the fire on a group widely despised in the city: the Christians.

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
(15.44)

This is one of the earliest non-Christian sources to mention Christianity, and it already tells us quite a bit: there were enough Christians in Rome for them to have been recognized as a distinct group, and they were roundly disliked. It also provides independent confirmation of details of the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion, such as it having taken place under the watch of Pontius Pilate. Both St Peter and St Paul were in Rome at the time of the fire, and both were martyred in the bloody aftermath of Nero’s slander, in which many Christians lost their lives – so many, and so brutally, Tacitus tells us, that the Roman people were moved to pity:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
(15.44)

It wasn’t enough to save Nero, either. He survived a few more years, discovered an extensive conspiracy against his life, continued to fall in the public’s estimation, and, finally, awoke one night in his Domus Aurea to find his guard had abandoned him. The game was up, and he committed suicide. He had no heir, and his death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun a little over a century earlier with Julius Caesar. It was not obvious who would next wear the laurels, and the next year of Roman life – 69 AD – is known to history as “the year of four emperors”, as a violent, high-stakes battle for power in Rome played out. But that is the story of Tacitus’ Histories, and that is a story for another time.

*

We don’t actually learn of Nero’s suicide from Tacitus, because the pages covering the final two years of his reign are lost. This problem has come up a few times above; altogether, roughly one-quarter of the work has been lost, which is a pity. It is sobering to consider that portions of The Annals that we do have survived into the present in a single manuscript! Books 11-16 were preserved in Monte Cassino Abbey, and Books 1-6 at Corvey Abbey. The work has a remarkable history.

*

Tacitus appears to be writing self-consciously in the tradition of Livy. Like Livy, his history is annalistic – hence its name, of course – covering events on a year-by-year basis. Like Livy, he has a particular interest in military affairs, but, given that his period offered relatively little on that front, he dwells mostly on the politics of the imperial court. He also takes time each year to recount local gossip: notorious crimes, scandalous affairs, important trials, ominous portents, and notable deaths. His consistency in this regard gives his work a comforting rhythm.

*

I cited above his wish, as historian, “to let no worthy action be uncommemorated”, and sadly his subject matter provided few occasions. But there was one man whose story satisfied the need: Germanicus. Born in about 15 BC, he was the nephew of Tiberius. When Tiberius came to power Germanicus was about 30 years old, and he was sent to Germany to handle the Germanic tribes who were giving trouble to the Romans. A few years previously the Romans had suffered as their hands one of the worst defeats in their history at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, in which three Roman legions had been ambushed and slaughtered by forces led by one Arminius, a Germanic prince raised in Rome, who had attained Roman citizenship and even achieved equestrian status, before betraying Rome and handing her a humiliating defeat.

Tactius describes movingly the arrival of Germanicus at Teutoberg Forest, now 5 or 6 years after the defeat, and the grisly discoveries he made:

In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
(1.61)

The Romans gathered the remains of their countrymen to give them honourable rites, and then prepared to fight the Germans again. On the night before the attack, Tacitus gives us this marvellous account of Germanicus’ doings:

At nightfall, leaving his tent of augury by a secret exit, unknown to the sentries, with one companion, his shoulders covered with a wild beast’s skin, he visited the camp streets, stood by the tents, and enjoyed the men’s talk about himself, as one extolled his noble rank, another, his handsome person, nearly all of them, his endurance, his gracious manner and the evenness of his temper, whether he was jesting or was serious, while they acknowledged that they ought to repay him with their gratitude in battle, and at the same time sacrifice to a glorious vengeance the perfidious violators of peace.
(2.13)

If that doesn’t send a thrill down your spine, I don’t know what to say. It’s Henry V at Agincourt! There can’t be any doubt about it.

Germanicus was an able general – a quality always beloved by the Roman people – and Tacitus has nothing but good to say of him, painting him as brave and eloquent and capable and good-natured: “He was indeed a young man of unaspiring temper, and of wonderful kindliness” (1.33).

Returning in triumph from Germany, he was sent to manage complicated diplomatic and military matters in the east, and then to Egypt. His popularity grew greatly – too much, in fact – and in 19 AD he died suddenly, a suspected poisoning. Tacitus blames Tiberius and his circle for ordering the murder in an attempt to ward off a challenge from a too-beloved rival to power. Disgusted by this turn of events, Tacitus gives Germanicus this final encomium, comparing him to none other than Alexander the Great:

Germanicus was gracious to his friends, temperate in his pleasures, the husband of one wife, with only legitimate children. He was too no less a warrior, though rashness he had none, and, though after having cowed Germany by his many victories, he was hindered from crushing it into subjection. Had he had the sole control of affairs, had he possessed the power and title of a king, he would have attained military glory as much more easily as he had excelled Alexander in clemency, in self-restraint, and in all other virtues.
(2.73)

He is the hero of this tale.

*

There are other aspects of this great work that I could mention – the potted history of Roman law (3.26-29), the difficulties the Romans had with the tribes in far-off Brittania (Book 14), the farcical attempt to drain the malaria-ridden Fucine Lake (12.56-57), for example. But I grow weary in my toils, and this seems a not inappropriate time to draw to a close.

After more than a year of loitering with the Roman poets of the Golden Age, it has been good to resume the historical narrative, and Tacitus has been a splendid guide. I’ll be turning next to his Histories, which cover the years immediately after the death of Nero.

***

[Laws and virtue]
Laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt. (3.27)

[Changes, for good and ill]
Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons. Nor was everything better in the past, but our own age too has produced many specimens of excellence and culture for posterity to imitate. May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honourable! (3.55)

[Can a gift be given?]
For benefits received are a delight to us as long as we think we can requite them; when that possibility is far exceeded, they are repaid with hatred instead of gratitude. (4.18)

[Point of no return]
Harmless measures were for the innocent. Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity. (11.26)


Middleton: A Mad World, My Masters

February 7, 2021

A Mad World, My Masters
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1605]
37 p.

A young man disguises himself in order to rob his grandfather. A jealous husband keeps anxious watch over his unfaithful wife. An adulterous man is tempted by a succubus. A mother pimps out her daughter. And it all wraps up with a happy marriage, or the similitude of one.

Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters is a swirling, lively comedy in which lust and greed run amok in the mad world. It’s a crazy, quasi-allegorical London on the stage, populated by characters bearing names like Penitent Brothel, Master Harebrain, Follywit, and Bounteous Progress. Trickery and subterfuge are the order of the day —

Who gets th’opinion for a virtuous name
May sin at pleasure, and ne’er think of shame
(I, i)

— right up to the last scene, in which Follywit, true to form, marries a blushing maiden (actually, a prostitute).

This is my first encounter with Middleton, a playwright who enjoyed a long and fruitful career in Jacobean London. T.S. Eliot, I am told, thought him the second playwright of London, and there are several references to Middleton’s works within Eliot’s poetry. I’m reserving my own judgment for the time being, but I enjoyed this play a great deal; it moves swiftly, and the plot, though suitably complicated, isn’t overly difficult to follow. I found the supernatural elements jarring, but entertaining too. The language of this play is seeded a-plenty with double-entendres, although I’d not have picked up on half of them without the notes.

His plays haven’t been staged very frequently in the last few hundred years — though some high profile companies have done them, to some acclaim. Middleton does interesting things with the staging that it would be fun to see realized. For instance, he makes use of [asides], as did other playwrights of his time and place, but here is a case in which, instead of holding up time for the aside to happen, he gives it the flavour of a distracted reverie, in which he loses track of what is going on around him:

HAREBRAIN: Call down your mistress to welcome these two gentlemen my friends.
RAFE: I shall, sir.
HAREBRAIN [aside]:I will observe her carriage and watch
The slippery revolutions of her eye.
I’ll lie in wait for every glance she gives
And poise her words i’th’ balance of suspect.
If she but swag she’s gone, either on this hand
Overfamiliar, or on this too neglectful.
It does behoove her carry herself even.
POSSIBILITY: But Master Harebrain —
HAREBRAIN:                    True, I hear you, sir.
Was’t you said?
POSSIBILITY:    I have not spoke it yet, sir.
HAREBRAIN:Right, so I say.
(III, i)

Well, I know what that feels like.

*

I’m going to read a few more plays by Middleton, including, I hope, some tragedies. For just $15, I find myself richly endowed with Middletoniana. You know how it goes: “I don’t have anything in my library by Thomas Middleton. I think it’s time I had everything by Thomas Middleton.” And if I should ever need to slay a burglar, or shore up the foundation of the house, I have a suitable object ready at hand.


Seneca: Dialogues and Essays

January 31, 2021

Dialogues and Essays
Seneca
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2007) [c.60]
xxxiv + 263 p.

In a previous episode we looked at Seneca’s tragedies for the stage, in which the Stoic philosophy is presented, as it were, in the negative – this is how the world looks if the wisdom of Stoicism is unheeded – but in this collection we get the positive case, as Seneca draws on his Stoic principles to give counsel to those standing in need of it.

There is a nice variety of texts. There are two “consolations”, one written to a grieving mother whose son has died, and another to his own mother on the occasion of his exile to Corsica. There are several moral reflections, on anger, on peace of mind, and on mercy. And there are several essays of a more philosophical slant in which Seneca reflects on providence, on the causes of human happiness, and on the shortness of life. The final selection, drawn from a scientific work on earthquakes, finds Seneca ruminating on the fear of death.

*

The closest point of intersection with the tragedies comes in the essay On Anger, in which he warns against the perils of giving rein to fury:

There is not a single useful quality to be found in this monstrous and dangerous passion, but on the contrary every sort of evil, fire and sword. Trampling shame underfoot, it defiles men’s hands with murder, casts wide the limbs of children, and leaves no place free from crime, disregarding fame and unafraid of disgrace, beyond remedy once it has hardened from anger to hate.

He advises the reader to avoid becoming angry – by keeping in mind the many faults of those who act from anger, by avoiding curiosity about what others think of you – and provides guidance on how to calm anger in yourself and in others. A keen moral insight is that we can be tempted to persist in anger precisely because we recognize how unreasonable it is:

We persist in our anger, so we may not give the impression of having had no reason for our initial loss of temper, and, most unjustly of all, the injustice of our anger makes us stubborn; for we hold on to it and foster it, as if the intensity of our anger were proof of its justice.

*

The basic shape of Stoicism is on good display in the first essay, On Providence. Stoics believed that we live under the dominion of fate, and that all one can profitably do in the face of adversity is to master one’s response to it:

Whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end; it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.

In a kind of echo of Socrates, he argues that external circumstances, however dire, cannot harm a good man, for the soul is sustained by virtue: “Nothing bad can happen to a good man”. In fact, he argues, providence sends particular adversities to good men in order to strengthen them in virtue, likening fate to a conscientious father training his son to succeed in the world. “A man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” Or, again, “Never is the proof of virtue mild.” By sending rain on the just and the unjust, God is also teaching us what is truly valuable and important, for when he ensures that wealth and honour are not granted mainly to the virtuous, God casts doubt on the value of those false gods:

In no way can God better cast doubt on what we desire than by awarding those things to the most disreputable men and denying them to the best.

*

This vein of moral counsel sounds better, I think, when directed at oneself than when given to others. Maybe the “stiff upper lip” attitude really is the best, but when offered to one in mourning or serious affliction, it can sound simply unfeeling, or obtuse. This is easy to parody, but there are times when Seneca himself edges up to justifying the joke:

What greater folly is there than fearing the swaying of the earth or the sudden collapse of mountains or the incursions of the sea as it is cast beyond the shore, when death is present on all sides and rushes upon us from every quarter, and nothing is too insignificant in size to have enough strength to bring destruction on the human race?  (On Earthquakes)

At other times, though, the manly poise of Stoicism is attractive. A counsel that recurs through these essays is that we ought to anticipate what evils might befall us, for by anticipation we reduce their power to harm us: “The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” (Consolation to Marcia, 9) “Takes away” is too strong, but cultivating a lively sense of the perils that might befall us is, I think, a means by which we can prepare ourselves to suffer them. Even more valuable is the counsel to pursue true happiness by cultivating personal virtue; it is the health of our soul that is of ultimate value. Of the attractions of pleasure, he warns that pursuit of pleasure will lead to the loss of both virtue and pleasure, whereas pursuit of virtue first will yield both virtue and, in a more cultivated sense, pleasure.

Seneca also frequently avers to the importance of making Nature the standard of one’s conduct. “Two most beautiful things will follow us wherever we go, universal Nature and our own virtue.” (Consolation to Helvia, 8) “Nature is the guide I choose; wisdom lies in not wandering from her path and in moulding oneself in accordance with her law and example. (On the Happy Life, 3). However, it is not clear to me from these essays just what is meant. It might be that we have here, in nascent form, the natural law tradition, in which “nature” – that is, the kind of creature that we are – teaches us what we need to truly flourish. But Seneca does not expound.

If we should pursue virtue first, then by implication we should not pursue wealth, or power, or fame first. Seneca has often been accused of hypocrisy on this account, for he, advisor to emperors, was wealthy, powerful, and famous. I recently came across amusing evidence of this bad reputation when I was reading John Marston’s seventeeth-century play The Malcontent, in which one of the characters actually talks about Seneca, saying:

Out upon him! he writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure, and died like an effeminate coward. (III.1)

The same or similar charges were laid at his feet in his own lifetime, and in his essay On the Happy Life he offers a defence. First, to a truly virtuous man these advantages are matters of indifference, so that they can be surrendered, or retained, without any fault. But, more than that, he acknowledges that his moral advice is not to be confused with his own habitual way of life:

I speak of virtue, not of myself, and my abuse is directed at vices, especially at my own. (18)

Essentially, he admits the justice of the critique, but without yielding his commitment to pursue virtue as best he can. I, for one, am satisfied.

*

The finest of these essays, in my judgment, is On the Shortness of Human Life, a thoughtful reflection on the transience of our affairs that will, I predict, bear re-reading. We believe that life is too short, he argues, because we forget that we are mortal: “You live as though you were going to live forever.” But we will not, and as we busy ourselves with this and that, our life is silently passing away:

No one will restore your years, no one will restore you once more to yourself. Your life will pursue the path it started on, and will no more check than reverse its course; it will create no uproar, give no warning of its speed: silently it will glide on its way. No further will it extend its course at the command of a king, or because of the people’s approval; just as its path was set from your first day, so will it run, nowhere deviating, nowhere delaying. What will the outcome be? You have busied yourself, life hurries on: death meanwhile will arrive, and for it you must find time, whether you wish it or not. (8)

If we cultivate awareness of the brevity of life, we will be motivated to spend our time wisely: “Life is sufficiently long, and has been granted with enough generosity for us to accomplish the greatest things, provided that in its entirety it is well invested.” Of greatest importance is that we not attempt too much, avoid merely being busy, and clear away time for interior recollection:

It is generally agreed that no activity can be properly undertaken by a man who is busy with many things — not eloquence, and not the liberal arts… An untroubled and calm mind can visit all parts of its life: the minds of those who are busy with other things, as if they are under the yoke, cannot turn around, bend, and look back. Therefore their life disappears into an abyss, and as there is no benefit in pouring in any amount of water, if a vessel has no bottom to contain it, so it makes no difference how much time is given, if there is no place for it to lodge, it passes out through the cracks and chinks of the mind. (7, 10)

I have always known this to be true in my own life – that being too busy spells the death-knell for spiritual and intellectual life – and finding it echoed here in Seneca is sobering, considering how just obligations in my life certainly do keep me appallingly busy. But perhaps we are running up, here, against the limitations of Stoicism. Christianity teaches that I find my life not by withdrawal from the press and burly of events, but by pouring myself out in love for those around me. This, I am hoping, is true, as one who is carried forward by a swift current hopes that it goes somewhere good. But, then again, even Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray…

*

I’m happy to have read these essays. Seneca must have been a remarkable man. I find much to admire in him: moral seriousness, high achievement, literary range. It is sad to think that, in the end, he committed suicide. (By the way, there is a good deal of hearty exhortation in these essays on the nobility of killing oneself. Another limitation of Stoicism.) But, somewhat to my surprise, I find that, having read this volume, my plans to follow it up by reading a selection of Seneca’s letters is not alluring. I think that I’ll take my leave of Seneca for now, and pick up instead this hefty volume marked ‘Tacitus’.

***

[Know your limits]
Whenever you attempt something, measure yourself  and at the same time what you are attempting, both the thing you intend and that for which you are intended; for if you fail in the task, the regret this causes will make you bitter. It makes a difference whether a man is of a fiery nature or a cold and docile one: defeat will drive a man of spirit to anger, but induce sadness in one whose nature is sluggish and passive. Accordingly let our activities be neither trivial nor bold and overambitious, let us keep our hopes within sensible bounds, and let us attempt nothing to make us wonder later at our success, even should we succeed. (On Anger, 7)

[Examen]
When the lamp has been removed from my sight, and my wife, no stranger now to my habit, has fallen silent, I examine the whole of my day and retrace my actions and words; I hide nothing from myself, pass over nothing. For why should I be afraid of any of my mistakes, when I can say: ‘Beware of doing that again, and this time I pardon you.’ (On Anger, 36)

[Exhortation]
If you are a man, look up with admiration at those who attempt great things, even if they fall. This is the sign of a noble heart — to aim at high things.” (On the Happy Life, 20)

[Being prepared for death]
We occupy a stage decorated with various properties that are on loan and must be restored to their owners; some of these will remain until the final curtain. And so we have no grounds for self-admiration, as though we were surrounded by our own possessions; they have been loaned to us. We may use and enjoy them, but the one who allotted his gift decides how long we are to be tenants; our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor. (Consolation to Marcia, 10)


Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

The Hundredfold
Songs for the Lord
Anthony Esolen
(Ignatius, 2019)
224 p.

“It is manna”

I am at peace under the open skies,
Gathering berries into a gallon pail,
As finches twitter, and the small gnats wail,
And if a cloudy empire lives or dies,
No news will reach me when the seagull cries;
More potent is the snuff of last year’s leaf
In the pouch of the earth where worms abound
And black ants carve their boroughs, reef to reef,
Reveling in the joy of being brief
Beneath the eye of heaven, where I have found
Blessings of God like hoarfrost on the ground.

Poetry was once more popular than it is today. We have the modernists to blame, at least in part, for that. Their abandonment of form, disdain of popularity, and retreat into something approaching private language left the reading public cold. But the problem goes deeper than that, for poetry itself — even the older, once popular, poetry of Blake, or Longfellow, or Frost — has been mostly abandoned. Modern life feels out of step with poetry. The nearest we get to it, I suppose, is in pop songs — a beggarly substitute, by and large.

Anthony Esolen has long been an advocate for our great poets, and for the reading of poetry. He sees in the decline of poetry’s fortunes a sign of cultural decay, and, likewise, in a revival of poetry a green shoot. But a revived poetry would be a poetry that once again touched the heart, and took up residence in the memory, of ordinary people.

Hence The Hundredfold, a long poem — a single poem, he is careful to insist — in one hundred parts, intended to be accessible and attractive to as many readers as will deign to pick it up. It is religious poetry, largely, as much of our greatest poetry has been. Like the Scriptures themselves, the poem follows an arc from creation to redemption, pivoting on the life of Christ, and especially on Easter.

The architecture of the poem has been carefully designed. I have said that it consists of 100 segments — which, for convenience, I shall call “poems” in their own right. Two-thirds of these (66) are short lyric poems, like the one above, each prefaced by a phrase from Scripture. Sometimes these poems are absorbed in the Scripture itself, and sometimes the verse of Scripture is the basis for a meditation on modern life:

“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiah, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom.”

I was a boy, and gazed into the dome
Flocked with the saints and angels of the Lord:
Mysterious clarity, keen as any sword,
Alien shores and faraway, but home;
Holiday language of the loving eye
Summoning worshipers to rise and come
Robed in the heraldry of God on high.
Then came the learned with their sidelong speech,
And sat about the glory like a swarm
Of weevils on the corn in ear, to preach
Only such wonders as their wit could reach,
With the vague softness of the common worm:
Flesh without bone, and structure without form.

With these lyric poems are interwoven 21 hymns, written expressly to be sung to well-known hymn melodies. Taken as a group, these are, perhaps, my favourite parts of The Hundredfold, and I would love to see them incorporated into hymnals. As poems, they are vastly better than most of the recent material that fills modern hymnals. Esolen is a student of hymnody, and understands the appeal of sturdy, poetic song for group singing. He writes in the great tradition that has given us the lion’s share of our finest hymns. As an example, consider this hymn written for the tune CVM RHONDDA:

In this far-off land of famine,
Gentle Shepherd, come to me.
I have wondered from Thy plenty;
Sands and bones are all I see.
Son most faithful, Son most faithful,
Let me ever feast with Thee,
Let me ever feast with Thee.

Leave me not upon the journey,
Halt and lame and like to fall.
Hold my arm when I shall tremble,
When the thieves and death appall.
Stand beside me, stand beside me,
At the final trumpet-call,
At the final trumpet-call.

Break the bonds of flesh and darkness,
Thrust to hell the powers of night!
Shower Thy living grace upon me,
God of God and Light of Light!
Lord and Conqueror, Lord and Conqueror,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight!

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

The third main plank in the architecture consists of a set of 12 dramatic poems — epistles, monologues, and dialogues, in iambic pentameter — expressly after the manner of the master, Robert Browning. These are marvellous, and, if I may, I’ll change my mind and claim these as my favourite parts, albeit for private rather than communal enjoyment. The first eavesdrops on the thoughts of the Blessed Virgin as she silently ponders her sleeping son; another is told, many years after the fact, by the boy who had brought the loaves and fish when he went to hear Jesus preaching; another is spoken by Blind Bartimaeus; and still another relates a conversation between the two men whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. These verses are wonderfully flexible, the characters vividly portrayed, with their own distinctive voices, and the poems themselves, like Browning’s exemplars, are deeply thoughtful and imaginative creations. By the very nature of their form, they are hard to excerpt, but let me illustrate with this passage which opens an epistolary poem written by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor:

To the Sun-Brilliant Giver of Increase,
The great Bridge-Builder spanning heaven and earth,
Chief of the Julian clan, First Citizen,
Mild Counselor to our gathering of old men,
Commander of armies fortressed from the banks
Of the Euphrates to the chilly Rhine —
Whose barbarous sots once struck from the black woods
And slaughtered a whole legion, while their whores
Poured like a swarm over the corpses, spoiling
The spoilers of their gold, so Parthian rings
Still wedged on dead men’s fingers shed their gleam
On the beer feasts of some grease-eating king
Who has to use two hands to count to ten,
Mocking with all his thanes your southern godhead
As his sheep leave their droppings in his hall —
To thee, O Claudius, from the rocks of Spain
I send obedient salutations: Hail.

The Hundredfold concludes with a tour de force: a 100 line coda written in 33 Dantean tercets. It’s a poetic form that is very difficult in English, but Esolen is equal to the task. (He has done it before, in the concluding canto of his translation of Dante.) The neat numerics of this coda are no accident; the whole of The Hundredfold is built on a strict numerical plan. The dramatic poems and hymns, together, are 33 in number — being the age of Christ at his Passion — and they total 3333 lines. The 66 lyric poems total 100 stanzas and 1000 lines. The coda, as I’ve already said, echoes the 33 and 100. I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing sets my heart racing and my palms to sweat.

It is not for me to say whether Esolen is a great poet, but I am confident in my judgement that he is a good poet. As a contribution to a revival of poetry, and of Christian culture, The Hundredfold is an admirable effort. I can recommend it unreservedly.

***

“You shall not make your children pass through fire.”

They are not half in love with easeful death,
They are not half in love with anything;
No field in summer makes them catch their breath
Where the corn ripens, and the sparrows sing;
The man wishes he had no seed to cast
In the warm spring upon the ready earth;
The woman, that her womb were bolted fast.
Death they may fear, but birth
Is perfect terror, or the sad and slow
Contraction of the little life they play,
Without a germ or root or bloom to show,
Numb to the pulse of both the night and day.
Nor do they haunt where Moloch’s flames appall,
Because they would not bear a child at all.

**

“Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

Because I lay under the weight of earth
And the dust was a pillow to my cheek —
The dust and blood that swaddled me at birth,
When I first wailed as if my heart would break —
I could but hear and speak
Faintly, and in confusion of the sound;
And all my fellow men who dwelt in tombs,
Where never a call of clarion trumpet comes,
Spoke and heard as if muffled by the ground
And by the crowds of buried men around.

Lord, let me not be deaf forevermore.
Open my clotted ear, untie my tongue,
Let me break forth in song,
The double prayer that ear and tongue are for.
Lead me to the clear air where I belong,
Where the least whisper is a call to be
One with the listening angels in their throng,
As they await the call of victory.

**

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

At the ninth height of being, eyes are bright
With what is now, what was, what is to be.
Shall we then cup our hands to sip the light?
Nay, in the river frolic and be free,
While the nine choirs like rollers of the sea
Sing of the far-flung spray of flower and star,
I have the abyss of glory here, for He
The Three and One, who thunders from afar,
Is the intimate wellspring where the blessed are.


Wodehouse: Uncle Dynamite

January 16, 2021

Uncle Dynamite
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1948]
320 p.

There can be few less auspicious beginnings for an aspiring son-in-law than to inadvertently smash not just one, but two of the precious items in your intended father-in-law’s collection of curios, but this is just what happens to the hapless Pongo Twistleton upon his arrival at Ashenden Manor. Nor can it be particularly advantageous to find oneself overrun and overruled, in one’s own home, by a bombastic uncle, but this is just the position in which the long-suffering Bill Oakshott finds himself. Likewise, to be engaged to be married to a young man whom all the world sees is unsuitable, and who is persistently in love with another, could never be a recommended course for young and eligible women, but such is the quandary of the beautiful Hermione Bostock.

The resolution of these conundrums, and several others, becomes the project of Uncle Fred, whose boundless invention and shameless deceptions make him well-suited to the task. Adopting false identities, he makes a place for himself among the Ashendenizens, and gradually, by fits and starts, works his way through to triumph. It’s an inspired performance by Wodehouse; maybe not one of his very best, but a far sight better than you or I could do.


Musical anniversaries in 2021

January 11, 2021

There is quite a raft of musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 25 years:
    • Vagn Holmboe
    • Mieczyslaw Weinberg
    • Toru Takemitsu
  • 50 years:
    • Marcel Dupré
    • Igor Stravinsky
  • 100 years:
    • Camille Saint-Saëns
    • Engelbert Humperdinck
  • 150 years:
    • Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
    • Sigismond Thalberg
  • 400 years:
    • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
    • Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years:
    • Robert Fayrfax
    • Josquin Desprez

Birthdays

  • 100 years: Malcolm Arnold
  • 150 years: Alexander von Zemlinsky
  • 450 years: Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years: Philippe de Monte
  • 800 years: Alfonso X El Sabio

It’s the year of Michael Praetorius, in a sense, who gets both a birthday and a memorial commemoration, but the big names this year, at least for me and my house, will be Stravinsky and Josquin. I’ve planned a listening project for each: for Stravinsky, I’ll be focusing on the three big ballets (The Rite, Petrouchka, and The Firebird) and his choral music, with a smattering of other things thrown in; for Josquin I hope to listen through all of his 60-odd motets, 60-odd chansons, and 18 Mass settings. It should be great!

I’m also looking forward to spending time with Takemitsu, whose beguilingly dissonant music always lures me back, and Thalberg, whose virtuoso piano works have been given an airing in a few recent records by top-shelf piano virtuosos (this and this). I did a large Weinberg listening project just a few years ago, but I intend to revisit some of the highlights.

Strange to think that Josquin and Fayrfax died in the same year. I’d have put them in adjacent centuries if asked at the bus stop.

I’m not really sure what I should listen to from Dupré or Sweelinck; I don’t have much in my collection. Suggestions welcome.


Favourites in 2020: Books

January 8, 2021

‘Twas a tough year for book reading in 2020. I had a few reading projects on the go, with middling success. One ambitious project — to read the Bible in one year — foundered somewhere in the Book of Proverbs. I had planned to read a half dozen of Thomas Hardy’s novels, but only got through two — both excellent! I’ve been exploring playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, and that went well until the autumn, when it didn’t. The one thread that I managed to maintain consistently was my ongoing exploration of Roman history and literature.

Since I’ve written, or intend to write, about these books at greater length, I’ll content myself today with brief notice of my favourites from the past year. WordPress’ formatting has gone haywire in recent months, and I don’t know how to fix the wayward image wrapping below; my apologies. In alphabetical order:

Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries

I was fascinated to read this collection of first-hand accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by friends, rivals, and musical tourists. It provides a nicely rounded portrait of the man, and was one of the highlights of my observance of Beethoven’s anniversary year.

*

Boswell & Johnson: Journeys to the Western Isles

I found great enjoyment in these two books which were the literary fruit of the journey Boswell and Johnson took together through the wilds of Scotland. Johnson’s focus is mostly on Scotland, and Boswell’s is mostly on Johnson, and the latter is the better of the two.

*

Esolen: The Hundredfold

A book-length religious poem in which Esolen reaches back to verse forms that once had a wide appeal — hymns, lyrics, and dramatic monologues — to create an insightful and involving meditation on the life of Christ. A book full of music, in more ways than one.

*

Gribbin: Six Impossible Things

A slim, non-technical introduction to issues in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I appreciated the clarity of the writing, and was left in amazement at our radical uncertainty about what this immensely successful theory actually means. One of the better popular science books I’ve read in some years.

*

Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

A wonderful novel about the complexities of love, and a meditation on what makes for a good marriage partner. Splendidly written on every page.

*

Hardy: The Return of the Native

A darker, moodier exploration of romance and love, with a variety of interesting formal elements adding to the appeal. Also splendidly written. I wish I had had more time for Hardy this year!

*

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

Written shortly after Vatican II, this is a very curious and valuable commentary on the aftermath of the Council from an author usually classed with the reformers, but here found to be a sharp critic.

*

Statius: Thebaid

An epic poem from Rome’s first century AD which re-tells an old Greek story about a fraternal rivalry for power in Thebes. It might sound unpromising, but the poem has a lot of personality and a number of things on its mind. A happy surprise.

*

Tacitus: Annals

A narrative overview of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from Augustus to Nero (14-68 AD), this is a sternly written, fiercely intelligent history. One could hardly ask for a better guide to the strange concatenation of emperors through this perennially-interesting period. One of the highlights of my Roman history project so far.

*

Wodehouse: Blandings and Uncle Fred

Not one book here, but an assortment. I polished off the Uncle Fred books, and continued my long, pleasant meander through the Blandings Castle series. When the world’s gone bonkers, and circumstances might reasonably get you down, Wodehouse stands ready to ease the heart and delight the mind.

***

Prospects for reading in 2021 are not looking particularly auspicious, but I am nonetheless looking forward with anticipation, drafting plans in hope rather than assurance. Setting aside with relief my disastrous efforts to spend a year with Yeats, I’m retreating this year to the safety and comfort of Wordsworth; Wodehouse will, I hope, continue to grace my bedside table; and my years-long Roman history project will reach a crescendo, or perhaps a long diminuendo, with a traversal of Gibbon’s gargantuan Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Such, at least, is the plan. We’ll see how it turns out!

Popular authors: Shakespeare (6), Wodehouse (5), Tacitus (3), Seneca (2), Hardy (2).


Favourites in 2020: Film

December 31, 2020

It’s been a somewhat tough year on the film-watching front. Whatever nooks and crannies I was finding for watching movies in the past few years were plugged up this year, first by life changes brought about by unhappy events like a global pandemic, and then by life changes brought about by happy events like the birth of beautiful, bouncing twins. Nonetheless, I did manage to eke out some viewing time, and some of what I saw was sufficiently praiseworthy that I’d like to share it. The “Top 10” list is divided, somewhat crudely, into a top 5 and a bottom 5.

**

To Live
Zhang Yimou (1994)

Zhang Yimou is the filmmaker whom I’ve been most grateful to have discovered this year. This film tells the story of a man who lives through the period of the Cultural Revolution in China. In the course of his life the country moves from one largely rooted in traditional Chinese ways to one wholly formed and managed by the Communist party. Although it is, in that sense, a political movie — political enough, it seems, to have been banned in China — the politics is all in the background. The film is mainly a personal portrait of an ordinary man just trying to do the normal human things under difficult circumstances: get married, have a family, earn a living, be a friend. It is extraordinarily well done, richly textured, often very funny, and finally satisfying. I loved it.

Parenthetically, I also watched several other of Zhang’s films this year, and I would recommend, in descending order of admiration: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Shadow (2018), and Hero (2002). All three stand out for their artistic design: gorgeous cinematography, lavish sets and costumes, and an appealing eye for formality in composition. In this sense, they all three differ from To Live, which is, in comparison, kind of shaggy and loose and earthy. Each was excellent in its own way.

**

The Young Girls of Rochefort
Jacques Demy (1967)

It’s a small French town. The streets are bright and clean. The sun is shining. Beautiful women are everywhere, and love is in the air. How can one keep from singing? Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a simply marvellous musical comedy. We meet an array of characters, and watch with delight as the gentle machinations of the plot bring them into romantic alignment. It is a truly enchanting film, full of life and love and happiness and joy, beautifully structured, and charming in every way. It’s the film that La La Land aspired to be, and as much as I enjoyed that film, Demy’s is better.

It isn’t perfect though. There is that little matter of an ax murderer on the loose, a subplot that seems to go nowhere and amounts to nothing, and there is, more gravely, the matter of all that jazz, but I lathered up with antihistamine cream and I was fine.

**

Nights of Cabiria
Federico Fellini (1957)

I’ve had a very mixed experience with Fellini’s films over the years. Rome, Open City was probably the one that I most enjoyed, with his The Flowers of St Francis coming a distant second. La Dolce Vita left me cold.

I returned to Fellini this year, and his cinematic portrait of a good-hearted prostitute in Le Notte di Cabiria is the high point of my experience with this filmmaker. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but in the end it won me over. It is more of a portrait — a portrait of a beautiful soul — than a story; the episodes — the “nights” — are vignettes meant to reveal something of Cabiria to us. She is tough on the outside, though not proud, and it is only when she is most forgetful of herself that she shows herself most clearly. Fellini takes her to some bleak places, but this is a film that ends well, and that last shot, that beautiful, heart-rending, unforgettable last shot redeemed all.

Thinking that perhaps this good experience might be the start of a beautiful relationship between Fellini and myself, I watched his 8-1/2 and Roma, neither of which, I’m afraid, I was able to finish. We have agreed to an amicable separation.

**

How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal
Eugene Green (2018)

Green’s films are usually hard to find — I’ve been searching for Les Signes and Correspondances for several years, without success — so it was a surprise, but a delight, to find this one on YouTube. (It has since disappeared.)

The story is about a poet, Fernando Pessoa, who gets a job writing advertising copy. It’s very funny, in that understated Green way: a parable, with ludicrous components, about the hazards of mixing poetry and commerce, or, more generally, of putting the liberal arts at the service of the servile arts, or, even more generally, of not respecting the right order of things. There’s a humorous strain about the cluelessness of censorious bureaucrats — a timely theme in 2020! The humour aimed specifically at the Church didn’t seem particularly well aimed, though he did get in at least one good joke about the Jesuits.

I loved that even in a short film of less than 30 minutes, Green still took the time for his traditional 5 or 6 minute musical introduction. These things cannot be rushed.

**

Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi (2019)

While it is certainly nobody’s idea of an adequate response to the evils of Nazi Germany, I am full of admiration for the spirit of Taika Waititi’s World War II comedy in which a young German boy’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler. Sure, let us have grim and dark stories that grapple with the malice of the time. Let us have Schindler’s List and A Hidden Life. But I see no reason we cannot also, in the mix, have a bright and winsome comedy that muses on what the war might have looked like to a bright and winsome child.

It is tempting to call this a “dark comedy” — dark on account of its backdrop and certain aspects of its content, and comedic on account of its instincts. But, if we are going to call it that, we should understand that it’s quite a different thing from the “dark comedy” of, for instance, the Coen Brothers. There is a kind of darkness in which a sardonic laugh can find a place; this film has nothing to do with that. This film is fundamentally comical, with the darkness mere pomp, almost a mere wisp. It reminded me of Chesterton, who believed in the titanic strength of comedy, who believed that it is comedy that is the fundamental heartbeat of things, and it is comedy that will finally triumph. This film makes me think that Waititi believes that too.

It’s a bold film, then, in that respect, and I understand why many people found it difficult to take. The nearest thing to it that I can think of would be Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, which also makes of the Nazis an object of satire and jest. Jojo Rabbit is tonally very complex, and I’m curious to know how it will bear up under repeated viewings, but on this first pass it worked for me.

**

Early Summer
Yasujirō Ozu (1951)

A lovely picture about a woman contemplating marriage and all of the changes that it will bring to her life. A beautiful portrait of multigenerational family life, with its complications and confusions and joys. Quiet moments of happiness. A very heartwarming and optimistic picture from Ozu. Slow, of course, but that’s Ozu too.

*

The Return
Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003)

Another marvellous, slow-burn film from Zvyagintsev. Like his later Loveless, it encourages us to dwell on what children are owed by their parents, and is unsparing in its willingness to indict failures to honour those obligations. The story — about two boys who go into the wilderness with their hitherto-absent father — is simplicity itself, and there is enough mystery and ambiguity at play to keep us on edge. The main reasons to appreciate this film are the gorgeous direction and cinematography: the slow pans, the muted colours, the deliberate pacing. It’s sumptuous, in a really bleak kind of way.

*

Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)

A touching film about friendship, community, and how our upbringing stays with us. The film is, on one level, a story about one man’s life-long love-affair with movies, but on a deeper level it’s about how we are formed as people by the places we live, what we do, and those we know and love. It’s a lovely, charming picture. A nice portrait of life in an Italian village too. For a film about movies, it doesn’t have much in the way of visual flair.

*

Knives Out
Rian Johnson (2019)

Sometimes you just want to see a good whodunit. I don’t know how it will play on repeat, but on first go-round this was a riot. Campy, fun performances, humorous direction and editing, and a cunningly contrived plot. A little talky, but hearing Daniel Craig talk in that affected way is not a chore. One of the best times I’ve had in a movie for a while. I still don’t understand why people put Jamie Lee Curtis in movies.

*

One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Zhang Jialing (2019)

A mannerly but nonetheless devastating investigation of China’s repugnant “One Child” policy, told by a young woman who grew up under it and whose family was wounded by it. The scale of forced abortions and, when the state was too slow with the knife, the farming out of children to international adoption agencies is hard to believe, and harder to stomach.  The film contains images that are, on their own, frightening portrayals of the evils of abortion — the kind of thing that will get you kicked off a university campus in the West before you can say “third trimester”. It is absurd, therefore, that in the last few minutes it belly flops by drawing a moral equivalence between China’s totalitarian state and the efforts of pro-lifers to protect babies from harm. Let me get this straight: the problem with all those babies killed and dumped in garbage heaps was that it was done without the mother’s consent? Preposterous. But the film is better than such awkward pieties would seem to allow.

***

Films by same director: Zhang (4), Hitchcock (4), Fellini (3), Green (2), Malick (2), Villeneuve (2), Bong (2).

Oldest: One Week (1920), The Crowd (1928), The Public Enemy (1931).

Newest: Tenet (September), Emma. (March), Little Women (Dec 2019).

Re-watches: Parasite (2019), A Hidden Life (2019), The Tree of Life (2011), WALL-E (2008), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Fugitive (1993), The Princess Bride (1987), Vertigo (1958).

Abandoned: Little Women (2019), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), High Life (2018), Roma (1972), 8-1/2 (1963).


Favourites in 2020: Music

December 29, 2020

The past year was deficient in many respects, but not in the quality of the music that I heard. I’d like to share a selection of the discs that most appealed to me in 2020.

**

Saints Inouis
Ensemble Scholastica
[Atma, 2020]

The marvellous Ensemble Scholastica, based in Montreal, celebrated their 10th anniversary this year with a disc entitled Saints Inouis (“Astonishing Saints”). The musical programme is rather niche: it is structured around liturgies for three specific feast days in the French region of Creuse, located a few hundred kilometres south of Paris. The music celebrates St Pardoux (7th century), St Yrieix (6th century), and the feast of the conception of the Virgin (which would later come to be called the Immaculate Conception). The music itself dates from the 10th-12th centuries, and is of extraordinary beauty. The performances are gorgeous, and this is one of the most beautiful discs of medieval music to come my way in some time.

*

Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories
Graindelavoix
[Glossa, 2020]

In their last few records the vocal ensemble Graindelavoix has experimented more and more with new ways of interpreting the music of Renaissance masters. The style they have evolved, which is about as far as one can get from the pure, cool style familiar to us from the work of English choirs, is rugged, plangent, dark-toned, and lush. This disc, in which they sing the Tenebrae music of Gesualdo, is a match made in heaven. Gesualdo’s extraordinary harmonic adventurousness emerges in all its prickly, abrasive glory in these vigorous and committed performances. I have no idea if this sounds like what Gesualdo had in mind, but I have a feeling he would have liked it. I, at any rate, like it very much. Here is a lovely short film of the ensemble singing Plange Quasi Virgo, from the service for Holy Saturday:

*

Music for Milan Cathedral
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
[Delphian, 2019]

This wonderful disc is structured around the music of Hermann Matthias Werricore, a virtually unknown composer who, I learn from the liner notes, was maestro di cappella at Milan’s Duomo Cathedral from about 1520-1550, a good long stretch. We get to hear a half dozen of his motets, including a 10 minute setting of Ave maris stella. The program is filled out by other music that would have been heard at the cathedral during his tenure, the best known of whom was Josquin Desprez. I am putting the disc on my year-end list not so much because of the music — though it is wonderful music — but because of the singing by Siglo de Oro. I think I have praised this group in the past, and so long as their singing continues to be as rich, balanced, and transparent as this I’ll continue to do so. Excellent engineering from Delphian made this one of the best sounding discs of polyphony I heard this year.

*

Handel: Acis and Galatea
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
[Chandos, 2018]

I’ve a long-standing admiration for Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Sometimes described as a “pastoral opera”, it is a relatively small scale work (~90 minutes) full of delightful melodies and charming scenes. The story is of a love triangle between the shepherd Acis, the nymph Galatea, and the cyclops Polyphemus — obviously, from the title, Polyphemus is very much a third wheel. It was Handel’s first dramatic work in English, and it is a triumph, well worth getting to know. This performance, from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company, is headlined by the wonderful soprano Lucy Crowe singing the part of Galatea. The singing is great, the choruses are great. It’s all great. Here is the second-Act trio “The flocks shall leave the mountains”:

*

This year marked the 250th birthday of Beethoven, and much of my year was devoted to listening to his music. I went through all of the symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and major choral works, often in multiple interpretations. It was a splendid project. Out of all the music I heard, certain things stand out as particularly excellent. I was very taken with George Szell’s cycle of symphonies, made in the 1960s with the Cleveland Orchestra.  I chose a small but eminent stable of pianists for the sonatas and listened through each sonata from each of them: Solomon, Arrau, Kempff, Gilels, Schiff, and Levit, with occasional forays into the playing of Perahia, Rubinstein, and Richter.

To my surprise, the pianist who consistently emerged as my favourite was Andras Schiff. I was surprised because he alone among these pianists played a “period instrument”, a relatively underpowered piano that lacks the rich sonority of a modern Steinway. But I grew to really appreciate his instrument’s clarity and lack of bombast, and hearing Schiff’s interpretations was one of the musical highlights of my year.

Another pianistic highlight was Ronald Brautigam’s three-disc survey of all Beethoven’s “theme and variations” pieces (excluding the Diabelli Variations).  The most famous among these is the Eroica Variations, but there are many more, including delightful pieces based on the tunes of “God Save the King” and “Rule Brittania”. I have a special affection for theme and variations compositions, and Beethoven was a master of the form. These were great fun. Here is a sample, an unpublished set of six small variations on a Swiss song:

*

Offenbach: Colorature
Jodie Devos, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Laurent Campellone
[Alpha, 2019]

After the austerity of medieval chant, the formality of Renaissance polyphony, the pastoral beauty of Handel, and the robust musical intelligence of Beethoven, we come across Offenbach in exactly the right frame of mind: ready for some candy. Last year (2019) was the 200th anniversary of his birth, and I had intended to listen to some of his music then. In the event, I didn’t get to it until this year, and one of the discs I most enjoyed was this corker from Jodie Devos. As suggested by the title, the disc is devoted to coloratura fireworks, and magnificent it is. Put this music on at a party — assuming we were able to have parties — and before you could say “Vive l’Escargot” your guests would be lined up, dancing a can-can. Here’s an aria from The Tales of Hoffmann:

*

Zender: Schubert’s Winterreise
Julian Prégardien, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Robert Reimer
[Alpha, 2018]

Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise I recommend to everyone. This disc of Hans Zender’s Schubert’s Winterreise is quite a different beast; I recommend it, but only to those who already know the original well. Zender’s Winterreise, which he called a “composed interpretation” of the original, was completed in 1993. It is completely bonkers. The piano has blossomed into an orchestra, and each of the 24 songs has been filtered through the musical developments of the two hundred years since Schubert first wrote them. Strange sonorities erupt, songs fracture and break apart, or take sharp turns down unexpected alleyways, and the singing sometimes reverts to speech. It’s not something to hear every day, but as a stimulating meditation on these immortal songs, it has won a place in my heart.

*

Sorabji: Sequentia Cyclica
Jonathan Powell
[Piano Classics, 2019]

Also in the bonkers category is this monster from Kaikhosru Sorabji. His Sequentia Cyclica is an 8-1/2 hour long colossus, a set of 27 variations on the “Dies Irae” theme from the Requiem Mass. It makes superhuman demands on the pianist — and also on the listener. This is the “theme and variations” form conceived on a massive scale; some of these individual “variations” run to nearly an hour. It is, again, not something I am going to listen to very often, but I am really happy to have heard it. Recommended to those with an affection for Mount Everest, the US national debt, and galactic superclusters.

Here is Powell playing the variation “in the style of Debussy”, complete with score:

*

Fading
The Gesualdo Six
[Hyperion, 2020]

My disc of the year, however, is this one from the British ensemble Gesualdo Six. The music is an eclectic mash-up of Renaissance polyphony and modern vocal music, tied together thematically by references to light and darkness. We hear Veljo Tormis’ Four Estonian Lullabies and pieces by Joanna Marsh, Sarah Rimkus, and the group’s own director, Owain Park, interwoven with music by Gombert, Byrd, and Tallis. It works wonderfully. The singing of this young group is immaculate, and I look forward to hearing much more from them in the future.

Here is Owain Park’s own setting of Phos hilaron, which, being translated, goes like this:

Hail, gladdening light, of his pure glory poured,
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
holiest of holies, Jesu Christ, our Lord.

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life alone;
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.

Fitting thoughts as we close out this year and look forward to another.

***

That’s the kind of year in music it has been for me. Wishing you all the best for 2021.