A milestone

January 18, 2017

10th-birthday

Today is the 10th birthday of this weblog! It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed.

I’ve enjoyed writing in this space, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know people by means of it. Most of all I’ve enjoyed the fame and glory that have been showered upon me as my blog’s influence has spread far and wide and covered the globe.

This is apparently the 1362nd post since the blog began. As a way of marking the milestone, let me link to the five most popular posts I’ve done. I have no idea what they are, since I haven’t looked at my stats in several years. Let’s see… Ah yes, here they are:

  1. Building in the Middle Ages (2 March 2011)
  2. Halloween costume ideas from Bob Dylan (24 October 2008)
  3. Great moments in opera: La bohème (24 October 2011)
  4. Messiaen and bird song (11 May 2008)
  5. Favourites of 2008: Books (29 December 2008)

From this I deduce that 24 October is my best day to blog, and that I know of no way to predict what blog posts will be most popular.

My sincere thanks to everyone who takes the time to read All Manner of Thing. I wish you the very best, and I hope you’ll stick around for another 10 years.


McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

January 16, 2017

cormac_mccarthy_nocountryforoldmenNo Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 2005)
309 p.

I’d seen the Coen brothers’ film, of course, and admired it, and was curious to get to know the source. Also, it had been several years since I last sat down with a Cormac McCarthy book — I won’t say that I missed him, exactly, but encountering his voice again — arid, compressed, and bereft of punctuation — was like slipping into a familiar, if thorn-lined, shirt. There’s nobody quite like him.

The set-up is superb: a man out hunting comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, with bodies and bullets everywhere and a bag of money for the taking. He takes it, and the action of the novel unfolds. It’s a violent and sometimes brutal affair, but it has its moments of humanity as well, especially in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (of whom we hear a good deal more here than in the film adaptation).

In movie circles, Anton Chigurh is sometimes named as one of the great screen villains of all time; it is a testament to Javier Bardem that he was able to bring McCarthy’s character to such chilling life. He’s chilling on the page too, but not, I think, to the same extent, and I found that I had always to call Bardem’s performance to mind to capture his full potential.

Chigurh is a character worth pondering. As usual with McCarthy we are given no insight into his private thoughts; we see his acts and we hear him speak, and that is all. Yet because he is such an unusual character — unusually cruel and inhumane — ascription of motives is more difficult than usual. As a result, Chigurh is perceived as something like a force of nature, or as fate, and he himself seems to agree with this perception, for more than once he speaks about how his actions just happen, or he determines his course of action based on the outcome of chance events — either way, he avoids personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, he adheres to a certain moral code, or, if that adjective seems abused in this context, then to a code of conduct. Witness his rendezvous with Carla Jean, simply because he had made a promise. And, deeper down, there lurks the question of what motivates him in the first place. It is not lust for wealth, for he surrenders the money without hesitation. Nor does he seem to act from loyalty, for he turns on his employer when his employer turns on him. At best, he might act from a very personal sense of duty, bound by having given his word. But it is hard to be sure.

The book is more than just a thriller or an exhibition of violence. Threaded throughout are observations and reflections, sometimes hard-bitten and always terse, on law, human relationships, and the dissolution of society and virtue. It’s a sad and dark vision, and would be intolerable but for Sheriff Bell, who hasn’t entirely given up hope.


Hawke: Rules For a Knight

January 9, 2017

hawke-knightRules for a Knight
Ethan Hawke
(Knopf, 2015)
172 p.

Stories of knights and ladies have an enduring place in children’s literature. Though they act for better and for worse, there is something intrinsically ennobling about a knight that makes him a suitable bearer of moral instruction. Knights protect the innocent, are loyal to their friends, honour God, fight bravely, and have good manners.

This same tradition of knightly conduct informs this charming little book. Framed as a letter written by one Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke, a fifteenth-century knight, to his children, it includes a sequence of short meditations on a variety of knightly virtues. There are aphorisms, parables, and brief meditations, none longer than a few pages, and many containing solid moral insight.

To give a few examples: the book opens with a short meditation on the value of solitude, which includes this thought:

“Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul.”

Or, on gratitude:

“The only intelligent response to the on-going gift of life is gratitude.”

Or, on friendship:

“The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.”

Or, on honesty:

“We are here to grow, and the truth is the water, the light, and the soil from which we rise. The armor of falsehood is subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.”

Or, on courage:

“Anything that gives light must endure burning.”

Similarly, Sir Thomas discusses patience, forgiveness, generosity, justice, discipline, love, and other virtues. Although platitudes do crop up here and there, for the most part I found the book’s advice to be sound, thoughtful, and well-expressed.

The book does fall short in one significant respect: it is a book of immanent ethics, without a transcendent dimension. Even subjects, like “faith” and “grace”, that naturally would lead in that direction are cut short, with predictably feeble results. (Of faith: “Sometimes to understand more, you need to know less.”) In general, the greater the gravity of the subject (“love”, “death”), the less adequate Sir Thomas’ treatment sounds to me. This is not surprising, for these are the most difficult subjects to treat adequately.

Still, there is much solid counsel in these pages, and the book would make, I would think, a splendid and suitable gift for a child of 10 or 12 years old.

**

At the end of the book is an acknowledgements section, and although the list of those to whom thanks is extended includes living people who are, perhaps, the author’s friends, it also includes quite a few dead people whom the author could know only through books. One gets the sense, when perusing the names, that these are, in one sense or another, the author’s spiritual sources, those through whom he has gleaned what wisdom he has. The names are worth pondering:

knight-rules_1
knight-rules_2It would be a good exercise for each of us to compile our own such list of names.

**

Physically, the book is a handsome thing: a gorgeous hardback with gilt lettering and a ribbon to mark one’s place. The paper is sturdy, and the text is graced with numerous pencil drawings of birds; these are a fine addition, for they complement the meditative tone of the book by giving the eye something lovely and delicate to rest upon between lessons. The book is small, perfectly scaled for a child’s hand. The only design flaw is that the author’s name is too prominent on both spine and gilt cover. But this, in the usual course of things, is the publisher’s doing, not the author’s.

Speaking of the author, yes, it’s that Ethan Hawke: novelist, screenwriter, and Hollywood star. There’s a caricature of movie stars as pretty-faced bubble-heads, as men without chests, and it would be contrary to evidence to claim this caricature wholly false, but this little book proves that it isn’t wholly true either. The illustrations are by Ryan Hawke, his wife.


Musical anniversaries in 2017

January 6, 2017

With the turning of the year, I like to plan a few focused listening projects that I’ll undertake during the coming year, and often I structure these projects around significant anniversaries.

After looking through a comprehensive list (Thanks, Osbert.) of such anniversaries, I’ve settled on the following as worthy of personal observance:

Birthdays

450 years

  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • Thomas Campion

Memorials

25 years

  • John Cage
  • Olivier Messiaen

50 years

  • Zoltán Kodály

250 years

  • Georg Philipp Telemann

500 years

  • Heinrich Isaac

The heavyweights for me are Messiaen’s 25th and Monteverdi’s 450th; I’ll be spending a lot of time with each of those wonderful composers. For Messiaen, I’ll be listening to the piano music, the organ music, the Quatuor, his symphony, and the large-scale orchestral works. For Monteverdi it will be his madrigals (all nine books), at least three of his operas, and his sacred music, especially the Vespers of 1610.

My collection of music by the others is more modest in scale, but I’ll make an effort to get to know it better. I have the feeling that Cage, in particular, wrote a lot of music that I don’t know at all; I also have the feeling it may not be worth my time. I have similar thoughts about Telemann. Kodály, I think, will reward attention.

Apart from these, I’m also planning to focus this year on the music of Bruckner and Elgar. Why Elgar? It’s odd, but for several months I’ve been feeling that I’d really like to immerse myself in his music. I can’t explain it. Perhaps an hour or two in his company will cure me.


Endo: Silence

January 4, 2017

endo-silenceSilence
Shūsaku Endō
(Taplinger, 1980) [1966]
294 p. Second reading.

“Now a Major Motion Picture,” as they say, and I count myself among those anticipating Martin Scorcese’s long-gestated film adaptation of this, one of the notable, but controversial, Catholic novels of the twentieth century.

I want to discuss some aspects of the novel in detail, and this will involve spoilers. If you’ve not read the novel, you might wish to stop here.

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The book is set in the early seventeenth century. We follow Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest preparing to depart for Japan, where a severe persecution has oppressed the Christians and led some, including a revered Jesuit missionary, Fr Ferreira, into apostasy, or so the rumours run. Rodrigues doesn’t believe it, and embarks for Japan full of confidence.

He discovers soon enough that the persecution is no rumour, and he and his companion priest, Fr Garrpe, spend much of the first half of the novel in hiding or on the run, ministering where they can to the beleaguered Christian faithful. In the novel’s second half Rodrigues is captured and pressured to apostatize, an act dramatized by stepping on a fumie, a bronze picture of Christ’s face. “Only a formality,” he is told, but clearly not considered such by the people, nor by Rodrigues, who has a special devotion to the face of Jesus.

Silence has been regarded with admiration and suspicion since its publication. It is admired because it is undoubtedly a fine novel: well-written, memorable, and challenging. But many readers, especially Catholics, have found it troubling, and for a variety of reasons.

Some have objected to the dispiriting arc of the story. Why write or read a novel about Catholics who apostatize under persecution? This I take to be a weak objection, for such persecutions, and the very real and human challenges they force on the faithful, are as much a part of our history as any more positive tale, and should we not hold the plights of our beset brothers and sisters close to our hearts as well, even though they fall short? Especially today, when persecution is a real and widespread reality in many parts of the world, we do well not to turn our eyes away.

A more substantive criticism concerns the way that Rodrigues finally apostatizes. He is imprisoned but treated well, while other Catholic prisoners are subjected to brutal tortures, and Rodrigues is told that the torture will stop only if he, Rodrigues, apostatizes. His motive in stepping on the fumie, then, is plausibly not to apostatize, but only to bring relief to those who suffer.

I think this doubt has some merit, and I think it plausible that Rodrigues’ sin is not really apostasy. There is some evidence in the books final pages that he retains his faith, although he lives as a Japanese and has forsaken the duties of the priesthood. But if his sin is not apostasy, it is, on this reading, certainly lying and causing scandal, for by his actions he brings the faith into disrepute and leads others to believe he has apostatized. Rodrigues is not exonerated; his desire to do good by evil means still involves him in evil. He obviously falls far short of the example of uprightness and courage set by, for example, the Roman martyrs, who refused to offer a pinch of incense to the bust of Caesar.

A second, more vexing, element of his apostasy is that in the moments before he tramples the fumie Rodrigues sees the face of Christ urging him to trample it. The passage reads:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

This flirts with sacrilege on Endō’s part, for Christ appears in the role of tempter. In the Gospels Christ comforts sinners with words of mercy and forgiveness, he does not do so prior to the sin, but only after; prior to the sin he urges them to sin no more. And it is not true that Christ came into the world in order to be trampled on by men; he came to save their souls.

Just prior to this dramatic climax, Fr Ferreira tries to convince Rodrigues to apostatize, arguing that trampling on the fumie is “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,” and that “Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men”. Trampling on the image of Christ is framed as a kind of self-denial, in which Rodrigues is urged to sacrifice that which is most dear to him — his conscience — for the good of others. This, we have to say, is deeply confused. That one should sacrifice one’s conscience as a form of self-denial, doing evil as a kind of asceticism, or even out of love for neighbour, is clean contrary to the moral teaching of the Church, which says both that there is always a strict obligation to obey one’s conscience and that love of neighbour is rightly rooted in love of God and of oneself (which we have on good authority); therefore one could never rightly show love to one’s neighbour by intentionally doing harm to one’s own soul.

These faults, most of which are packed onto just a few pages, mar a novel that otherwise has much to recommend it. I was particularly drawn, for example, to a secondary character, Kichijiro, who apostatizes early on, but who then follows Rodrigues throughout his wanderings and imprisonment, on the periphery, but intervening now and then to help Rodrigues. Kichijiro, we eventually come to learn, is truly repentant for his sin, and seeks to make amends. There were times when I wished I could read his story instead of Rodrigues’; it is a story in which I expect the imperatives of conscience, the horror of sin, and the mercy of Christ would be major themes.

An important question raised by the novel concerns the challenges of presenting the Gospel to a culture that has not heard it before. At first Rodrigues is impressed by the spread of Christianity in Japan following the initial mission of St Francis Xavier. “Our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth,” he thinks. But when he finally meets Fr Ferreira, the latter complains that the Japanese could not truly accept the faith, for when they attempted to adopt it they changed it. He says to Rodrigues:

“But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God…” Ferreira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occurred to him. “No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.”

The habits and categories of thought of the Japanese were sufficiently different from those of Christian lands that this mistranslation was seemingly inevitable. Ferreira therefore concluded that missionary work in Japan was pointless. He ought to have concluded that missionary work in Japan must be slow and careful, giving adequate respect to that country’s native culture, and that missionaries to Japan, like himself, must be patient. But the frustration is an understandable one, and the challenge is a real one that the Church must always grapple with.

Another major theme explored in the novel, from which it takes its name, is the silence of God in the face of suffering. Again and again Rodrigues has to confront the fact that he sees the Japanese Christians suffering, sometimes horribly, and yet God seems absent. There is a partial answer to this question, perhaps, in the fact that Rodrigues recapitulates the Passion of Christ in his own suffering — on numerous occasions he notes how one or another of his experiences reminds him of an episode in the Passion — and so Christ is present to Rodrigues in an intimate way, though Rodrigues himself does not see it. But what this story is lacking is an analogue of the Resurrection. Instead, Rodrigues’ commitment dwindles away, the persecution continues, and, in the long run, Japanese Christianity is very nearly exterminated. And this is what actually happened.

The novel is a haunting one. I’d be most interested to hear from others whether I’ve interpreted it sensibly or not.


Favourites in 2016: Film

December 30, 2016

Today I wrap up these year-end reflections by considering my favourites of the films I saw this year.

I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I don’t see movies until they are on DVD. For instance, I’ve seen only a couple of the films on this list of 2016’s best. Instead, I watched a lot of old movies this year, from the likes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krzysztof Kieślowski, François Truffaut, Frank Capra, and Charlie Chaplin. These are all great filmmakers, and no doubt those films were great too, but I’m still learning how to appreciate them, and the films I liked best — the 10 I’ve chosen to discuss in this post — are of recent vintage and generally less distinguished pedigree.

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By way of prelude: It will come as no surprise that the best film I saw in 2016 was, once again, The Tree of Life. In fact this year I enjoyed it even more than before, in part because I had several opportunities to think about it, both when I wrote about it at Light on Dark Water and when I read Peter Leithart’s book on the film.

treeoflifeclimb

But I propose to write today about films I saw for the first time this year.

***

brooklynA young Irish woman leaves her family to travel to New York, c.1950, in search of a better future. She slowly makes a life for herself state-side, but then events in Ireland draw her back, and she finds herself torn between two homes, and two competing visions of her future.

Yes, of the films I saw for the first time this year, and if plentiful tears are anything to go on, my favourite was Brooklyn. I am a little surprised at this, because unlike some of the films I’m going to praise below, this is pretty much by-the-book movie-making. It has no grand ambitions, no particular sense of style, and no philosophical overtones. But what it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan has a quiet but commanding presence, and that Irish lilt is irresistible. (Not since Jennifer Ehle was Elizabeth Bennett have I been so ready to fall in love with a leading lady.) It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

***

My favourite comedy of the year was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially — with a notable exception — are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to Stillman’s comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

Beckinsale dominates the film, but the supporting cast is good. The amiable fool Sir James Martin stands out as a particularly wonderful character; a cheerful idiot whose good intentions leave him ill-prepared to contend against Lady Susan’s wiles; he is played with hilarious volubility by Tom Bennett.

Love & Friendship has its laugh out loud moments, but it’s also a film that has humour in its very bones: in a sense, everything in the film is funny, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and the tone. Even the music, which has been judiciously chosen and carefully integrated into the action, has a comedic role to play. The whole package is highly enjoyable. Decidedly enjoyable. Not unenjoyable at all.

*

My runner-up comedy is 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, a war-time film about the Nazi invasion of Poland that dared to make the Nazi war machine the subject of farce. One can still sense the dangerous edge of the humour, and apparently the film did offend viewers when first released. But it is easier now to appreciate how well the film is made, to enjoy how delightfully funny it is, and to admire the chutzpah of those who made it.

***

Several films caught my eye this year partly on account of their unusual formal elements.

Dietrich Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), from 2014, follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Bruggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and that ‘almost’ is key. On one level the film is not really, per se, about this fringe sect, but about the hazards encountered by any group that finds itself positioned against a majority while trying to retain its own intrinsic nature and culture. The issue is not about whether they are right to resist the larger culture — and this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be, fraught with loneliness and isolation, and fringed with risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s a potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

Personal sacrifice also plays an important role in La Sapienza (2014), from writer/director Eugène Green, albeit in a different way and with very different results. The film introduces us to Alexandre, a successful architect who, in the midst of honours bestowed upon him, finds he regrets the principles he has followed in his art. He resolves to travel to Italy to study the works of Borromini, the idol of his younger days. His wife, from whom he is very nearly estranged, comes with him initially, but, as it falls out, it is instead a young man, a budding architecture student, who accompanies him to Rome.

Rome! Over the years I’ve tracked down quite a number of films made in the Eternal City simply for the pleasure of watching the backgrounds, but never have I encountered, or even hoped to encounter, a film that puts the city on such loving display as does La Sapienza. The camera fairly caresses the marble facades, and the viewer is invited to bask in the many beauties on display. To call it magnificent is to undersell it.

But the film is more than surfaces: Green, though the adoption of a whole battery of highly unusual conventions in perspective and acting style, asks us to contemplate the depths that surfaces conceal, and to entertain the thought that beauty might be more than just in the eye of the beholder. It is a film that slowly creates around itself a space in which mysterious currents of the spirit flow. It’s rather profound and very lovely, and is unseen, I believe, by almost everyone. (Again, I’ve written a brief essay about it for Light on Dark Water.)

***

As great as are the challenges posed by these last few films, they pale when set beside Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor that, after several viewings, has left me with the sense that I have still only dimly understood it.

The difficulties don’t lie in the basic structure of the film, which is clear enough: we follow Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, explicitly so, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

Many reviewers have said that the film is about the superficiality of Hollywood, but this commits the error of taking literally a film that, it seems to me, takes place almost entirely on an analogical or metaphorical plane. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells. Hollywood comes into it only because fairy tales work best when the contrasts are bold and consistent, and nothing says pomp and empty promises like Hollywood.

The difficulties of the film lie not in its structure, then, but in its manner. Malick’s recent stylistic hallmarks, following on from To the Wonder, are presented undiluted: almost no on-screen dialogue — and what little there is is often sunk into the mix and made unintelligible — intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, discontinuous editing, and — a saving grace — gorgeous cinematography. The images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is often difficult to discern: waves on a shoreline, a city skyline, a road, Rick and one of his (many) girlfriends circling one another, the sun, a swimming pool. It seems to follow a dream logic (and indeed we are told in the first minute of the film that, like Pilgrim’s Progress, it will be “delivered under the similitude of a dream”). This dream aspect allows Malick to mix realism and visual metaphor with gusto. When Rick, at a strip club, crawls into a gilded cage, we understand that a point is being made, and the point is clear. When he stands at a fence gazing at a line of distant palm trees the point may be less evident, until we remember that someone had earlier told him, “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.” But is this the “possible” of formless self-invention or the authentic “possible” of escaping unreality for reality? Palm trees are trees, tall and thin, which in Malick’s visual vocabulary usually makes them signs of transcendence, reaching instinctively toward the sun.

This call of the transcendent will not leave Rick alone. It seems always present, like the distant roar of the ocean, recalling him to himself especially in his moments of greatest debauchery and aggrandizement. Even when he hears it, however, and even when he heeds it, he faces a recurring question: “How do I begin?” His life’s rotating door for beautiful women testifies to his confusion, for in eros he perceives an intimation of the reality he seeks, though more often than not he mistakes the sign for the reality itself. At one point we hear in voiceover an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which feminine beauty is said to remind the soul of the wings which it has lost, evoking in it a desire for flight.

He does eventually begin to recover the thread of his quest, spurred to a significant degree, it seems, by an act of violence that disturbs his restless reverie. He begins to take an interest in meditation, he visits a priest, and, eventually, in one of the more purely metaphorical scenes, he sets foot on the lower slopes of a steep mountain. The resonances with Sinai and Purgatory are very much intended, I expect.

The texture of the film is complex, right down to the sound design. There are moments when there are 3 or even 4 layers of audible “action” occurring at once: on-screen dialogue, interwoven voices of different characters musing to themselves, a narrator, along with music or other sounds. A distinctive feature is that there is almost always a low hum present in the soundtrack; true silence is rare. And this hum is ambiguous, for sometimes it turns out to be the sound of wind or, as I have said, of waves on the shore, but at other times it becomes the sound of a passing car or airplane. It thereby co-operates in one of the film’s leading formal strategies, which is the contrast of the natural world, understood as God’s world, with the textures of modern urban life, the quintessential city of man.

My principal reservations about Knight of Cups pertain to the visual strategy, and in particular to the seemingly disconnected way in which the images sometimes succeed one another. I’ve already conceded that there may be a governing symbolic logic to these sequences, but is the viewer sufficiently tutored in that logic as to able to follow it? A truly great filmmaker should not waste a shot, and while I am convinced that Malick is certainly a great filmmaker, there were moments in Knight of Cups where I was not sure it was a great film, and precisely on these grounds. My jury is still out. The film requires thoughtful attention.

I want to link to two very good essays on the film. At Mubi, Josh Cabrita explores the Christian themes in Malick’s films generally and in Knight of Cups in particular, and at Curator magazine Trevor Logan considers the film from a specifically Kierkegaardian point of view.

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Successful filmmakers are talented people, and it stands to reason that they might have put those talents to uses other than making movies. Are movies worth committing one’s life to? This is the question explored by the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar!, an introspective but witty and appreciative look at the means and ends of movie-making. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it follows a studio executive (Josh Brolin) who has his hands full dealing with the personal foibles of his stars, the intrusive probings of the press, and the many challenges of putting a picture together, all the while pondering an offer to move out of the movie business and into a more practical and respectable line of work. It’s a paen to old-time movies — the Coens take us on set of a number of different productions, but rather than giving us a cursory look they, rather affectionately one feels, let each scene play out in its entirety before moving on — and a good-natured satire on Hollywood too, with bubble-headed big stars in one corner and coteries of Communists hatching dark conspiracies in another. Tonally it’s an odd duck, with farcical elements playing on the surface but serious questions about the value of art underneath. Nevermind, though; the Coens can handle it. Noteworthy are a number of fantastic bit parts played by Scarlet Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes (whose comic turn as drawing-room drama director Laurence Laurentz is a riot). It’s not quite the greatest story ever told, but it comes closer than you might think.

***

The best horror film I saw this year (from a small sample) was The Witch, the debut of director Robert Eggers. I’ve heard it said that the principal challenge of directing a film lies not so much in the technical aspects, nor specifically in working with the actors and the cameras, but in maintaining a tonal consistency throughout the process, so that the finished product comes to the screen feeling organically put together. Based on this criterion, Eggers is to the manner born. His film rests largely on precisely this careful calibration of tone to generate and maintain suspense. Much of the success of the movie is presumably due to his careful preparation; I understand he gestated this project for several years, doing a great deal of background work to bring the authentic textures of seventeenth-century New England life, including the distinctive cadences of their speech, to the screen.

The movie, which is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, is about a Puritan family, banished from their community, trying to establish a new farm in a hard-scrabble wilderness on the edge of a great forest. (The location, in all its glorious desolation, was filmed not all that far from where I live.) They experience a series of strange and increasingly disturbing events that hint at the activity of a malevolent supernatural force dwelling in the forest, and the movie follows them as they do their best to contend against it. It’s a slow movie, heavy on atmosphere and dread, that, at least for most of the runtime, keeps its secrets under wrap.

The film has faults. I have particular reservations about the acting of one of the characters (I shant say which), and, like many people, I have some doubts about the way Eggers chose to end the film. However when first I saw it my principal objection was this: in the world of this movie the power of evil is palpable and effective, but the power of good seems impotent. Prayers for safety and deliverance fall, for all we can tell, into the void, and all the while something definitely not imaginary is encroaching on this family’s peace. This is not only a theological problem, but a dramatic one, for there can be no contest of good and evil if goodness is absent. However when I reflected on the initial setup of the story — that this is not simply depicting a Christian family, but a family that has been cast out from the Church — then in a curious way their impotence before the evil that confronts them might be interpreted as a reaffirmation that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But this still doesn’t solve the dramatic problem.

***

George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) is a superb psychological thriller about a man whose wife goes missing while they are on holiday. Part of the tension of the film relates to what happened to her, but much of it is focused on the husband left behind. How can he carry on with his life without knowing what become of her? What would he do if she came back? Can he let her go? What would he do to find out what happened to her? At its heart it’s a love story, and a rather convincing one. It is also a study in the psychology of evil, for we spend much of the film observing a third character who is up to no good. Sluizer’s direction is unobtrusive and perhaps a bit flat, though there are a few key shots that use the camera very effectively.

The Vanishing is sometimes classified as a horror film. I knew this going in, but was puzzled as I watched, for it didn’t seem to have any horror elements at all. But no: having seen it to the end, it earns its horror film credentials, in spades.

Note that I’m praising here Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-language film (also called Spoorloos). He re-made the film in English in Hollywood in 1993, but that version I hear is dreadful (and not in a good way).

***

The Hunt is a 2012 Danish film that depicts what happens to a small, closely-knit community when one of its members is accused of a terrible crime. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) helps at his village’s kindergarten, but his life becomes a nightmare when he is (wrongly, as we the viewers know from the start) suspected of sexually assaulting one of the children. This is dark subject matter — though not so dark as if the allegations were true — but it nonetheless makes for riveting drama. Friendships rupture, fear and mistrust spread through the community, and Lucas, of course, is ostracized and personally devastated.

The film is notable not just for its exploration of personal relationships subjected to intense strain, but for its implicit criticism of well-intentioned “zero tolerance” policies. So much that goes wrong in this village goes wrong because “best practices” are allowed to replace prudential human judgment. Naturally, such policies and practices are intended to promote justice, but The Hunt illustrates how easily the opposite can result.

***

Rounding out my Top 10 is About Elly, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It was originally made in 2009 but only got an international release in 2015, and I caught up with it this year. It’s a stunner.

The story is about a group of families who go together to a beach-house for the weekend. One of the families invites their child’s teacher, Elly, to come along as a guest. The first half of the film is a loose study of how this group of people interact with one another, how certain personalities dominate, what they think of one another, and how they include or subtly exclude their guest. With deft use of foreground and background and reliance on multiple overlapping conversations it feels like a Robert Altman masterclass, while also preparing us for the film’s crucial sequence.

In that sequence, which occurs at about the mid-point, something happens (which I’ll not reveal); when it is over Elly is gone and no-one is sure where. The second half of the film is then a drama exploring how all of those relationships we learned about in the first half change under stress. We are shown the devastating power of lies, and the film finally arrives at a point where the duty to tell the truth is surpassingly clear and pressing. It’s a terrific movie.

***

Brief thoughts on other films

Apart from the few runners-up already indicated, I also enjoyed this year the CGI-animated The Jungle Book, though it’ll not replace the 1967 film in my affections, and the documentary The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing from Joshua Oppenheimer, a man with a fair claim to be the world’s bravest filmmaker. I saw Spotlight, Best Picture winner at the 2016 Oscars, and while I thought it was quite good, and appreciated its willingness to tell its story clearly and soberly, it wasn’t as good as its model, All the President’s Men (1976), which I also saw this year. Other highlights for me were the harrowing escape drama Green Room, with Patrick Stewart a superb villain, and the off-beat but delightful Bird People, about … bird people.

*

In the waning days of the year I was unexpectedly able to see Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. This film has been released in two versions: a 90-minute version for regular theatres and a 40-minute version for IMAX theatres. It was the latter that I saw, at our local science centre, with two of my kids and a crowd of holidaying families. This was a bit like going to Disneyland and finding an exhibition of Rembrandt and Titian. My guess is that few of those present were expecting this contemplative, philosophical pondering of what natural history tells us about the universe and ourselves. Malick wonders about the origin of being, about whether consciousness preexists created minds, and whether it is love that animates and unites the natural order. The film is visually stunning — imagine a longer version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life — and the music, dominated by Mahler 2, Arvo Pärt, and the Mass in B Minor, is superb.

I loved it. I must say, too, that I was proud of my kids (5yo and 7yo), who were fully engaged with it throughout. Eldest Daughter’s favourite part was a quiet moment in which the camera floated gently down a stream between high canyon walls — a lovely moment, to be sure — and Eldest Son’s favourite part was the space shuttle launch — in truth, this was part of the pre-film demonstration of the IMAX theatre’s sound system, but he did very well. Now, if only I could see the longer version…

*

Did you see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films? I suffered through the first two but dodged the third. But this year I learned that an enterprising fan had edited the trilogy to exclude anything not in the book, which cuts the run-time in half. This Tolkien Edit I did see, and while I would not quite call it good, it was decently enjoyable, and certainly far superior to the theatrical versions.

***

Miscellanea

Oldest films: Dante’s Inferno (1911); Safety Last! (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Newest films: Voyage of Time: IMAX (October); The Conjuring 2 (June); The Jungle Book (April)

Most films by the same director(s): 4 (Coen Brothers & Terrence Malick)

Longest films: The Right Stuff (1983) [3h13m]; Magnolia (1999) [3h08m]; Fanny and Alexander (1982) [3h08m]

Shortest films: World of Tomorrow (2015) [0h17m]; Night and Fog (1955) [0h32m]; Voyage of Time: IMAX (2016) [0h40m]

Started, but not finished: Dazed and Confused (1993), The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Disappointments: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Safe (1995), The Right Stuff (1983)

Films I failed to understand: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); La double vie de Véronique (1991)

Most egregious foregrounding of bad music: Sing Street (2016)

Best hagiography: Jean la Pucelle (1994)

Scariest goat: The Witch (2015)

***

And that, more or less, was my year in movies. Comments welcome!


Favourites in 2016: Classical music

December 29, 2016

If 2016’s harvest of good pop music was slim pickings, my year in classical music has yielded a bumper crop. Over the past two months or so I’ve been slowly sifting my favourites, and I’ve arrived at a list of 10 discs that I’d like to praise today.

This year I’ve decided to discuss them more or less in chronological order, so we’ll begin with medieval music and move forward. Not all of these are 2016 records, but most are of fairly recent vintage. I’ve chosen one of them as my “record of the year”, and another as a runner-up, but you’ll have to read through to find out which is which. Where possible I’ve added a link to a video or excerpt from the disc, and in some cases I’ve also added links to more detailed reviews by real music critics, like so: [Review].

***

psallentes

St Hildegard: Ursula11
Psallentes
(Le Bricoleur, 2011)
55m

I’d like to begin with a collection of music by St Hildegard of Bingen. Ursula11 is the InternetAge title of the disc, a reference to the legend of St Ursula and her 11000 companions martyred by marauding Huns. St Hildegard composed an office to celebrate the feast of these martyrs. This music has been recorded before, notably by the medieval music matriarchs Anonymous 4, but that disc has always struck me as one of their least successful, and I find this performance, by the women of Psallentes, far preferable. They sing a capella, but they’ve done some interesting things with Hildegard’s monophonic compositions, for instance by layering the ecstatic flight of Hildegard’s vocal lines over more conventional recitation tones, or even by singing Hildegard’s music in canon. They have an exceptionally clear sound, light and flexible, and they keep the music, which can sometimes become lugubrious in the wrong hands, moving along at a brisk andante. The result is lovely on all counts. The one drawback, with respect to Anonymous 4’s approach, is that the earlier disc embedded Hildegard’s music within the context of sung offices (Vigil, Lauds, Vespers), whereas Psallentes simply groups the pieces by liturgical function (antiphons, then responsories, then a sequence and a hymn). It doesn’t make as much sense, but it nonetheless sounds great.

Here is a fragment of O rubor sanguinis, with a rather nice video to accompany it:

**

Johannes Ciconia worked in Italy, mostly in Rome and Padua, around the turn of the fifteenth century, and died in 1412. His music is a rather eclectic blend of genres and styles — sacred and secular, with French and Italian influences — and it can be seen today as a kind of summing up of late medieval composition, with isorhythms, canons, hockets, poly-texting, and a variety of other delightful techniques popping up.

Johannes Ciconia: Complete Works La Morra, Diabolus in Musica (Ricercar, 2010) 2h31m

Ciconia: Complete Works
La Morra, Diabolus in Musica
(Ricercar, 2010)
2h31m

This two-disc set includes all of Ciconia’s surviving works. The first disc consists of his secular music, and is performed by La Morra; the second is reserved for his sacred music, and is performed by (ironically) Diabolus in Musica. These are both ace ensembles, among the best in the world in this complex medieval repertoire, and it almost goes without saying that they sound terrific. There’s a suppleness and grace to the performances that comes from long familiarity. Both ensembles experiment with adding instruments to the mix — instruments are not notated on surviving manuscripts, but there’s evidence that they were used in an improvisational manner. The secular music is treated with lutes, vieles, and early keyboard instruments; the sacred music is filled out by sackbuts and a cheerfully plangent chamber organ. No full Mass setting survives — through-composed Mass settings were still a relatively new idea at the time — but we do have a number of different settings of the Gloria and Credo preserved here, and they sound wonderful.

Perhaps surprisingly, this set is actually the second of Ciconia’s complete works! The previous one, by the Huelgas Ensemble (made in the early 1980s), is presently unavailable. Bits and pieces of his music have been recorded by a few dozen ensembles, and all of his motets have been sung by Mala Punica (and everything that Mala Punica touches turns to gold; that’s a great record). I thoroughly enjoyed this set, which earns that coveted trifecta: interesting music, superb performances, great sound.

Here Diabolus in Musica performs Gloria Spiritus Et Alme:

**

An intriguing development in the world of early music this year was the launch of ORA, a British ensemble consisting of a select set of eminent early music choristers. They have commissioned an extensive set of new compositions from contemporary composers, each of which is to relate in some way to a renaissance masterpiece. This is a splendid idea that comes close to fulfilling a fantasy of mine (which is that I might somehow be magically endowed with compositional talent, which talent I would apply in just this way). Apparently they plan to issue ten recordings over the next five years pairing these originals with their modern “reflections”, and 2016 saw the release of the first two.

Upheld by Stillness ORA (Harmonia Mundi, 2016) 1h18m

Upheld by Stillness
ORA
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)
1h18m

Volume 1 is entitled Upheld by Stillness and circles, broadly speaking, around the music of William Byrd. We get his setting of Psalm 137, Quomodo cantabimus? alongside the samely-psalmed motet by Philippe de Monte that inspired it (Super flumina Babylonis), and we hear his masterful Ave verum corpus, but the centerpiece is the Mass for Five Voices. The disc is then filled out with six new compositions: Roxanna Panufnik contributes a Kyrie after Byrd, Roderick Williams (the baritone) writes Ave Verum Corpus Reimagined, an extended meditation, with elaboration, on Byrd’s original, and Charlotte Bray gives us a marvellous Agnus Dei. Each of these hews fairly closely to Byrd’s model, both in text and texture, but the others on the disc are more loosely affiliated. Alexander d’Etrange’s Show Me, Dear Christe, for instance, combines parts of the Credo with excerpts from Byrd’s will and Donne’s poem. As one would expect, the quality of these modern “reflections” varies, and some of them I don’t much care for, but it’s still an excellent initiative, especially when the singing is this accomplished and the sound this pristine. [Review] [Review]

Alas! The second volume in the series, entitled Refuge from the Flames, fails in my mind to live up to the promise of the first. Subtitled “Miserere and the Savonarola Legacy”, it explores music inspired by or somehow related to the Florentine preacher, and is centered on William Byrd’s Infelix ego, which sets a text written by Savonarola on the eve of his execution. Also included are some Italian secular songs, a few short motets, and two large-scale versions of the Miserere, one the famous setting by Allegri (although in an edited version that hasn’t been recorded before) and the other by James MacMillan. The second (and only other) modern piece on this disc is another setting of Infelix ego (after Byrd), this time by the talented young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. So the music is great; it’s the singing that disappointed me. Technically it is above reproach, but there’s something missing. It sounds beautiful, yes, but somehow inert. I really wanted to like it. Alas!

Here is a promotional video for the choir:

**

Scattered Ashes Magnificat (Linn, 2016) 1h24m

Scattered Ashes
Magnificat
(Linn, 2016)
1h24m

But if we were a little disappointed by that particular foray into the Miserere and the Savonarola legacy, comfort is at hand in the form of Scattered Ashes: Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarola Legacy, a curiously similarly conceived record from Philip Cave and Magnificat. Actually, despite the near identical titles the music is mostly different. Magnificat build their program around the expansive (17 min) setting of the Miserere by Josquin Desprez, which is given a dazzling performance, and fill it out with a variety of other 16th-century masterpieces, including another Miserere from Jean Lheretier and two settings of Tristitia obsedit me by Le Jeune and Clemens non Papa (the same two as on ORA’s record). The Savonaralan aspect of the program enters in two settings of the eve-of-execution testament Infelix Ego by Byrd and Lassus. The program is filled out with pieces by Palestrina and Gombert.

I’ve praised Magnificat before for the superb quality of their singing, and I’m happy to do so again: they have a tremendously rich sound, especially in the lower voices, which give them a wonderfully dark sonority, like aural velvet, smooth and luxurious. The soaring soprano lines pierce through this texture like shafts of white light. It’s gorgeous, and they sing with an intensity that was missing from ORA. [Review]

Here the choir sings Gombert’s In te Domine speravi:

**

Jones: Missa spes nostra Blue Heron (Blue Heron, 2015) 1h5m

Jones: Missa spes nostra
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2015)
1h5m

The American ensemble Blue Heron has been engaged in a long-term project to perform music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, a set of manuscripts copied c.1540 that preserve a number of works of pre-Reformation English polyphony that were otherwise destroyed by reformers. The manuscripts have been damaged and, in some cases, lost, so these performances are supported by a behind-the-scenes scholarly effort (by Nick Sandon) to reconstruct missing parts. The disc I’m discussing here is the fourth in a projected set of five.

The centerpiece is a Mass by Robert Jones, Missa spes nostra, here given its world-premiere recording, and what a premiere! It’s a large-scale work, the four polyphonic sections of the Mass Ordinary being each about 10 minutes in duration. (English composers of this period generally did not set the Kyrie polyphonically, and Blue Heron sing an aptly chosen Sarum plainchant one.) The Mass is book-ended in front by Ludford’s Ave cujus conceptio, another rarity that, to my knowledge, has been recorded only once before, and in back by an ambitious (18 min) Stabat mater by Robert Hunt, a work that survives only in the Peterhouse manuscripts and, again, has not been recorded before. So a big part of the draw here is the repertoire, which is “new” and, what will not surprise you if you’ve any familiarity with pre-Henrician English polyphony, breathtakingly beautiful, with long, lyrical melodic lines, soaring upper voices, and judicious control of texture to provide structure to these expansively conceived compositions. It’s therefore a nice bonus to find that the performances are as good as they are. The choir, of about a dozen voices, is a good size for these pieces. The sound is not big (and some considerable part of the music is scored for fewer than four parts), but it is precise and clean. I love this music.

Here the ensemble sings the Credo from Robert Jones’ Missa spes nostra:

**

Let’s move on now to baroque music.

Bach: French Suites Murray Perahia (DG, 2016) 1h31m

Bach: French Suites
Murray Perahia
(DG, 2016)
1h31m

If you want to put me in a good mood, use the words “Bach”, “Murray”, and “Perahia” in the same sentence. Twenty years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps into the world of classical music, among the first recordings I bought were Perahia’s then-new English Suites. They delighted and dazzled me then, as they delight and dazzle me now, and those records have an enduring special place in my heart. A few years afterward he made a recording of the Goldberg Variations, which to this day is my favourite of that great work.

This year he gave us the French Suites. I’ve had a somewhat difficult relationship with these pieces; of all Bach’s keyboard works, they are probably my least favourite. I’m not sure why this is so. (It’s not because they are particularly “French”, because they’re not.) I find they don’t sing the way Bach’s music usually does, and the counterpoint often feels angular to me, as if it can’t quite generate momentum. I don’t know. I’ve never warmed to them.

Well, I’m here to report that when Murray Perahia plays them they sound pretty wonderful. I’d like very much to put into words just what it is about his playing that can transmute (comparative) lead into gold, but I don’t know that I can. There are a hundred pianists who can play this music to the highest standards of technical perfection, and Perahia is one of them, but, to my ears, few who can infuse the music with that indefinable, elusive quality that makes it sing.

This is my runner-up for favourite record of the year. [Review]

Here is a video of Perahia playing the Courante from French Suite No.5:

**

Bach: Motets St Jacobs Kammarkor, REbaroque Gary Graden (Proprius, 2015) 1h18m

Bach: Motets
St Jacobs Kammarkör, REbaroque
Gary Graden
(Proprius, 2015)
1h18m

When people think of Bach’s choral music, they tend to think of the Passion settings and the cantatas, but his motets are great, life-giving music. The technical challenges they pose are formidable, requiring a choir that is quick on its feet, well-balanced, and capable of delivering long, laughing melismas without ceasing to sound joyful. They have been recorded many times, and I have a dozen or so performances in my collection, but this year I was impressed by this disc from St Jacobs Kammarkör, a Swedish choir I’d never heard of before (but which is evidently very accomplished), with orchestral support from REbaroque. Too often Bach’s motets can sound wooly, with too much vibrato obscuring the rapid-fire counterpoint, or ragged in tone, but not here: the performance are tight, confident, and effervescent. There were one of two moments I noticed where a high staccato note had an element of squeak in it, rather than being nicely rounded, but these were rare, and overall the impression left by St Jacobs Kammarkör is one of happy excellence. The instruments add a welcome bit of colour without obscuring the choral textures. The recorded sound is clear, with little resonance but still nice space around the sound.

**

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Manfred Honeck (Reference, 2015) 1h11m

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck
(Reference, 2015)
1h11m

There are so many recordings of these symphonies that it seems folly to keep making them. This might seem especially true of the present disc, which goes toe-to-toe with Carlos Kleiber’s famous 1975 record, which has long been regarded not just as a reference recording for these two symphonies, but as one of the greatest orchestral recordings ever made. But every so often the habit of revisiting these warhorses of the repertoire turns up just the right combination of musical instincts and recorded sound, and this disc from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is one such case. The music sounds just as it should, but more so: the pacing is excellent, the playing is tight and expressive, and the sound is big and punchy. Even the final pages of No.5, which can sound laboriously comical in the wrong hands as the cadence resists resolution again and again, come across with tremendous crackle and excitement. I’m not going to claim that it unseats Kleiber, because it doesn’t, but it is an extremely good recording of these great pieces, well worth seeking out.

Here is a brief promotional video for the record, with excerpts:

**

schubert-winterreise-vickers-cover

Schubert: Winterreise
Jon Vickers, Geoffrey Parsons
(EMI, 1985?)
1h20m

I tend to avoid recordings in which opera singers descend from the stage to sing parlour-room art-songs, just as I avoid (or would avoid, if occasion arose) elephants in tutus. In Schubert’s lieder, and especially in this beloved song cycle, my preferences run to lieder specialists — Fischer-Dieskau, Bostridge, Goerne — whose voices are calibrated to an intimate scale.

Now, there is no more operatic an opera singer than Jon Vickers; he is Tristan, Otello, and Peter Grimes. In the realm of big voices there is none bigger. Therefore it was with considerable skepticism that I gave this 30-year old recording of Winterreise a spin, just to see how badly it had turned out. Greatly to my surprise, I loved it. Yes, the voice is big, but he reins it in, and yes, the nuances that other singers give us are sometimes lost, but this is a remarkably intense performance. Vickers has such a commanding presence, that even when he’s dialed his power way down he still grips my attention. Anyone who has heard his Peter Grimes knows that he can inhabit a desperate, wild-eyed man with terrifying credibility, and he brings something of that same character — much subtler, as befits the scale — to Schubert’s protagonist. It’s very much worth hearing.

Here is a thoughtful old review of the disc from the New York Times, and here is Vickers singing “Frühlingstraum”:

**

Flitting lightly over the bulk of the Romantic period, we alight on a branch of early modernism.

Each of us, I suppose, can point to particular corners of the repertoire that, though they be little frequented, have a particular personal fascination. For me one such corner is the choral music of Stravinsky. Everyone loves the Symphony of Psalms, but beyond that masterpiece I believe this music is not very well known, and that is a shame, because it is quite marvellous in its own peculiar way. It is notable that the great bulk of it — if we can speak of ‘bulk’ in this sleek and slender context — is sacred music, a reflection largely of Stravinsky’s own devotion. (Here is a good overview.) This year I made a special effort to get to know this music better, and today I’ll highlight three particularly good records that, between them, cover most of the principal sacred choral pieces that he composed.

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms Collegium Vocale Gent Royal Flemish Philharmonic Philippe Herreweghe (Pentatone, 2010) 50m

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe
(Pentatone, 2010)
50m

First up is a disc from Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. These musicians we usually associate with period-practice baroque, and especially with Bach’s choral music, of which they are exemplary interpreters. To hear them sing Stravinsky might therefore seem an odd fit, but in fact the opposite is true: their ability to produce a clear, cool sound, sans vibrato, with pin-point tuning serves Stravinsky’s music extremely well. (Stravinsky’s own recordings of this music, as well as those of his protege Robert Craft, are generally plagued by exactly the problems Herreweghe et al. avoid: wobbly tuning, ragged ensemble, and ugly tone.) The programme on the disc is a well-conceived one: we get the brief Monumentum pro Gesualdo, a late-period instrumental piece that serves as prelude; then his neo-classical Mass, written “out of personal necessity” in the 1940s; then, as something of a novelty, Stravinsky’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch (BWV 769), which is as delicious as you are imagining; and, finally, the mighty Symphony of Psalms. All of it is extremely well done, with the prime attraction probably being the Mass, which sounds splendid. Competition is fierce when it comes to the Symphony of Psalms, and this recording doesn’t displace my favourite (Pierre Boulez), but it’s nonetheless outstanding.

Stravinsky: Threni Collegium Vocale Gent Royal Flemish Philharmonic Philippe Herreweghe (Phi, 2016) 47m

Stravinsky: Threni
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2016)
47m

Next is another disc from the same forces (from 2016, whereas the one just discussed was from 2010). In this case the focus falls on Stravinsky’s thorny late masterpieces, especially Threni, an adaptation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which had been set by so many Renaissance composers, and Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky’s last completed work, and the one which was performed at his own funeral. Starting in the 1950s, his arch-nemesis Schoenberg safely six-feet under, Stravinsky began to explore the possibilities of serialism, and these two works belong to that period. They are extremely difficult to sing, and, according to taste, nearly as hard to hear. Threni, in particular, has the character of a musical hair-shirt, even though Stravinsky has taken some pains to mitigate the most extreme ill effects of the serial regimen. (For instance, the liner notes point out that in one duet section the two soloists sing simultaneous but differing versions of the tone row, but in such a way that they always form a consonance.) This piece leans heavily on vocal soloists, so heavily that the few other recordings of the piece I have heard pretty much crushed them to dust; Herreweghe has chosen a brave and able group, including the wonderful bass Florian Boesch, and they find the music in this music, which is high praise. The Requiem Canticles, setting a selection of texts from the Latin Requiem, is also serial, but more approachable, and the choir delivers a performance that bests any other that I have heard. The clean, dispassionate tone allows the strange beauty of this music to stand out clearly. The programme is bookended by two shorter pieces. At the beginning we get The Dove Descending Breaks the Air, a fearsome setting of T.S. Eliot that, I laughed to learn, was Stravinsky’s contribution to the Cambridge Hymnal and intended for singing at school assemblies. It’s a wonderful piece, but good grief. And, finally, the disc closes with Da Pacem Domine, a truly lovely little piece, very much in communion with the great stream of Russian sacred music, that falls even more gently on the ear given the terrors through which we have just passed.

Stravinsky: Sacred Choral Works Netherlands Chamber Choir Schoenberg Ensemble Reinbert de Leeuw (Philips, 1999) 1h

Stravinsky: Sacred Choral Works
Netherlands Chamber Choir
Schoenberg Ensemble
Reinbert de Leeuw
(Philips, 1999)
1h

Finally, the best of the bunch is an older recording, from 1999, featuring the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Schoenberg Ensemble, under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. It includes some of the same music already discussed (in particular, the Mass and The Dove Descending Breaks the Air), but the principal work is the Cantata, composed in the early 1950s for unusual forces: soprano and tenor soloists, female chorus, and a smattering of instruments (flute, oboe, cor anglais, and cello). It is constructed around the Middle English Lyke-Wake Dirge. Again, this is challenging music for both performers and audience, and I’ve heard it sound pretty wretched. In this performance the chorus is good, as is the soprano soloist (Rosemary Hardy), but the coup de grâce is that Ian Bostridge is the tenor. His lean, agile voice is absolutely perfect for the part, and he sings the heck out of it. It’s fantastic. The disc is rounded out by a variety of shorter works, including the Introitus (in memoriam T.S. Eliot)), the Ave Maria, and a few others. The glory of this disc, apart from Ian Bostridge’s solo turn, is the choral sound, which is lush, smooth, and vibrant, with considerably more body than we get from Collegium Vocale Gent. It’s a nice alternative, and is especially well suited to the generally more amiable music programmed on this disc.

What is missing from these discs? Chiefly the Canticum Sacrum. If you know of a good recording of that piece, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, these three give a superb overview of Stravinsky’s sacred music.

Here is a full performance of Threni, from the second disc above:

**

Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas Linus Roth (Challenge, 2016) 1h15m

Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth
(Challenge, 2016)
1h15m

For the past few years the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has appeared consistently on my list of annual favourites. He is a wonderful composer, largely unknown outside Russia until the last decade or so (largely for political reasons, for as a Polish Jew the Soviets had little motive to champion his music to the West). The “Weinberg renaissance” continues, with quite a few record companies joining the fray: violin sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, an opera, ballet scores, flute sonatas, and his cello concerto were all issued in the past year or so.

Of those that I have heard, my favourite is this set of the three sonatas for solo violin, played by Linus Roth. Roth has been something of champion for Weinberg in recent years, having previously played the violin concerto and all five violin sonatas (with piano). His are not the first recordings of these fearsomely difficult pieces — Gidon Kremer recorded the third (Op.126) a couple of years ago, and the other two have been played by Yuri Kalnits on a set of recordings for Toccata Classics — but this is the first time they’ve been pulled together on one disc.

Like the best of Weinberg’s music, these pieces are intense and intelligent. Writing for a single instrument leaves a composer nowhere to hide; he has to bring his best to it. The music spins out rapidly, with lightning quick changes in tempo, dynamics, and musical ideas. The technical challenges must be considerable; sometimes it seems incredible that all the music is coming from just one instrument. (There is lots of double-stopping, and maybe some higher-stopping too.) This is by no means music to relax to; it asks for all of the listener’s attention, and it practically sparks when it is played. But, as always with Weinberg, it is really music, through and through, top to bottom. It doesn’t sing the way Bach’s solo violin music does, but it argues, laments, harangues, and delights in no small measure.

On this recording the three sonatas, each of which runs about 20-30 minutes, are separated by transcriptions (for violin and piano) of Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances. These provide a welcome change of texture to refresh the palette, and are a nice homage to the friendship the two composers shared. In short: fantastic music, beautifully played, and thoughtfully programmed.

**

Part: The Deer's Cry Vox Clamantis (ECM New, 2016) 1h02m

Part: The Deer’s Cry
Vox Clamantis
(ECM New, 2016)
1h02m

In 2012 my favourite record of the year was Filia Sion, a collection of mostly monophonic chant sung by an Estonian ensemble called Vox Clamantis. That record impressed me with its unusually sensitive ensemble singing and the spirit of “restful poise” that seemed to permeate the performances, and, as I can now report, the bloom is not off the rose: I return to that album regularly and with great enjoyment, and I have been waiting in expectation to hear what Vox Clamantis would do next.

They returned this year with The Deer’s Cry, devoted entirely to the music of their countryman Arvo Pärt. Like chant, Pärt’s music calls for a delicacy of touch, an attentiveness, and a solemnity of manner that would seem to play to Vox Clamantis’ strengths. Suffice to say that those strengths are everywhere in evidence on this record: the singing is faultless, the interpretations are rapt, and the effect on the listener is one of a quiet and gentle intensity. This is ideal Pärt singing. I was not surprised, though I was delighted, to see that Pärt himself participated in the recording sessions, which took place in Tallinn’s Church of the Transfiguration.

The disc opens with “The Deer’s Cry”, a setting of the text more commonly known as St Patrick’s Breastplate (“Christ before me, Christ behind me, etc.”), and includes a number of Pärt’s best known compositions, including “Da Pacem Domine”, “Summa”, and the extended Gospel setting “And One of the Pharisees”. But there is unfamiliar music here too which has been recorded rarely, such as revised versions of “Virgencita” (written to honour Our Lady of Guadalupe) and “Alleluia-Tropus”. There are also two first-time recordings: “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima” (in honour of Our Lady of Fatima) and “Habitare Fratres” (a newly composed piece that was written for and premiered by Vox Clamantis). The disc closes with one of Pärt’s greatest masterpieces, the “Prayer After the Canon”, the concluding section of his mighty Kanon Pokajanen; it is a piece that I can hardly hear without my eyes brimming with tears.

In short, this is a superb overview of Part’s small- and mid-scale choral writing, focusing especially on fairly recent compositions, and sung to an exemplary standard. There are one or two cases in which there is another recording which I would prefer to this one — for instance, the Hilliard Ensemble’s treatment of “And One of the Pharisees” has yet to be surpassed — but all things considered this goes onto my shortlist of favourite Pärt recordings, and is my favourite record of 2016.

Here is a promotional video with pictures and videos from the recording sessions, and here the ensemble sings Alleluia-Tropus:

**

Part: Kanon Pokajanen Cappella Amsterdam Daniel Reuss (Harmonia Mundi, 2016) 1h

Part: Kanon Pokajanen
Cappella Amsterdam
Daniel Reuss
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)
1h

The other great Pärt recording this year is from Cappella Amsterdam, led by Daniel Reuss, who sing the entirety of Kanon Pokajanen. For almost 20 years the reference recording for this great piece has been the one by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who premiered it and recorded it in the presence of the composer. It’s a hugely ambitious composition, immensely powerful in effect, and it’s been a matter of some puzzlement to me that more choirs haven’t tackled it. Well, Cappella Amsterdam finally has, and they’ve done it very well. The singing is sensitive and expressive, delicate when it needs to be and full of roaring power when appropriate. The sound is even somewhat better than that enjoyed by the Estonians, which was always a bit recessed. It’s too early to say which of these recordings I’m ultimately going to enjoy more, but certainly this new one has earned a place at the table.

**

That was more than 10 records, but my target was 10 and I got close. A very good year!


Favourites in 2016: Popular music

December 28, 2016

Continuing with the year-end nostalgia, the theme for today is popular music.

In a year when I spent a considerable amount of time listening, it is discouraging to arrive at year’s end with so little to show for it. For whatever reason, I didn’t hear much this year that interested me.
leonard_cohen_you_want_it_darkerUntil a few weeks ago I wasn’t sure I would have any full album that I’d be comfortable calling my favourite of the year, but Leonard Cohen came to my rescue. You Want It Darker deserves the accolades it has received. It’s a dark record — I’m not sure that I, personally, would like it darker — but it has moments of real tenderness (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love”), and the haunting bleakness of the words is moderated by Cohen’s own warm humanity. Musically he retreats from the “live band” sound that I appreciated so much on Old Ideas in favour of synthesized sounds, but this, I take it, was in part because he was largely confined to his home during recording. His voice sounds great — limited, to be sure, and sometimes more speaking than singing, but still great.

Of course, we lost Leonard Cohen this year, which lends an extra poignancy to these songs. We knew it would happen one day. Each of his last three records I’d thought would be his last, and, sadly, I was finally right. He was ready, my Lord.

No other records made a strong appeal to me. I gave serious consideration to Nick Cave’s latest, but I don’t at present have the desire to spend much time with those devastatingly sad songs. I had high hopes for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, but it slid away without leaving a trace. I have a feeling that Gillian Welch’s Revival revisit will be pretty terrific, but I haven’t yet had opportunity to hear it.

**

Songs

One song I loved this year: “Gale Song”, by The Lumineers. I find it mesmerizing:

My runner-up is Audrey Assad’s “Death Be Not Proud”, from her 2014 EP of the same name. The song is, of course, a riff on Donne’s sonnet:

To round out a top 3, I rather liked the Avett Brothers’ “No Hard Feelings”:

**

Children’s Music

Last year I praised the children’s records of Justin Roberts, and I’m going to do the same this year. We’ve been listening to him all year, again, and have not grown weary. This year we acquired two old records he made under the name “Why Not Sea Monsters?”, one consisting entirely of songs “from the Hebrew Scriptures” and another of songs “from the New Testament”. Collections of songs about Bible stories are a dime a dozen, but songs of this quality are not. There are songs on well-worn stories like Daniel and the lions, Noah and the ark, Joseph and his brothers, the Good Samaritan, the miracle of the loaves and fish, and the three wise men. But there are some lesser-known subjects too: a very lovely song about Ruth’s plea to Naomi to allow them to stay together (Ruth 1:16-17), and a superb song based on God’s reply to Job, for example. These records can be ordered directly from Justin; he signed those he sent to us.

He also released a new record this year, Lemonade, and it’s pretty terrific too. I like it better than that other Lemonade. It’s an all-acoustic album, with real people playing real instruments, and he’s written songs up to his usual standard — about rolling down the hill, about a pet octopus, about having a tree house, and, my favourite, a touching song called “How Lucky We Are” that captures that quiet feeling of security that comes from being in the company of loving family and friends. Thanks, Justin, for these fine songs.

***

And that, all too briefly, was the best of my year in popular music.


Favourites in 2016: Books

December 27, 2016

The end of the year is nearly finally here, and, as is my custom, I’m devoting a few days to reflection on the best of the books, music, and films that I enjoyed this year.

Today my theme is books. Despite the ever greater difficulty of finding the conjunction of quiet time and consciousness, I had a pretty good year of reading. Where I have included links, they in most cases go to my longer notes on the books in question.

***

I noted last year that I had begun a habit of reading a Shakespeare play every month, and I continued that practice this year, with much enjoyment. Inspired by the BBC series The Hollow Crown, I read the second Henriad (the Henry VI plays and Richard III), with all but the last being new to me. Also new to me was the probably-co-authored Henry VIII, along with Timon of Athens and Cymbeline. This last was a delightful discovery, with good characters and lively situations, and I’m surprised it’s not better known. I also revisited a number of the more popular plays, such as Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear. I had a really vexing time with Lear, finding it distressingly hard to parse large sections of it, and I’ll need to try it again in 2017, or perhaps in 2027, when I’m not so tired. I also ventured off-stage to a few of Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. I recommend them, as they are quite short.

I also said last year that I was going to make a special effort to memorize some Shakespearean passages this year. This did not go well at all.

By way of compensation, perhaps, I read one of the classics of Shakespearean criticism in Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. The attraction here is not only Shakespeare, but Johnson too, who makes a number of irreverent judgments about the Bard, such as that his plots have easily remediable faults, that he writes poor speeches (!), and that he lacks moral clarity. Johnson thinks Shakespeare a more natural comedian than tragedian, a view with which I have some sympathy. The Johnsonian aspects of the essay touch especially on matters of literary judgment.

Sticking with verse for a moment, I made a brief study of Ovid’s love poetry, reading his Amores, the Ars Amatoria, and the Remedia Amoris. Though I had a good translation (in the sense of enjoyable and smart), this poetry didn’t make a strong appeal to me. The witty and debonair persona that Ovid projects has its charms, but next to nothing really sunk in. I also read, and appreciated, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s famous collection Lyrical Ballads, and, since I received a giant annotated edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry for my birthday, I spent quite a bit of time with him. I also indulged in some book-length poetry: I staggered, bloodied and bruised, through Piers Plowman, and, since what didn’t kill me made me stronger, I fairly wafted through the Nibelungenlied.

As usual, classical and medieval texts were important to me this year, and I’ve just mentioned a few of them. I re-read Plato’s Protagoras during summer vacation; this is a dialogue that I’ve admired for years, partly for the comical description Socrates gives us of the titular sophist and his acolytes, but mostly for an exchange early in the dialogue in which Socrates counsels young Hippocrates to be careful about what influences he exposes his soul to, for the soul, after all, is not a shopping basket from which items can be removed as easily as added; this good counsel I have long taken to heart in my own conduct, or at least I hope I have. Also, since it had been some years since I read Aristotle, this year I tackled the Politics, and, to my considerable surprise, found it rather tedious. There were some good bits, to be sure, especially in Book VIII, which treats education, but for the most part it went deeper into the policy weeds than I cared to go.

The only other philosophy I read this year consisted of a few books on Heidegger, and I wrote at some length about that encounter at the time. Though I do not feel that I understand him well, I do appreciate that he addressed himself to perhaps the most basic philosophical question (“what is being?”), and that he encouraged his readers to reconsider their own attitude toward the being of the world in all of its apparently gratuitous splendour. That he adopted a phenomenological approach to a deep metaphysical question lends his philosophy a “first person” quality that is attractive, but I confess I remain unconvinced that it is ultimately a fruitful strategy. His exploration of the quality of temporality in human experience, of the way the past and future collide in the lived present, is likewise quite rich and suggestive, and the way he pits the subjectivity of experience against the putative objectivity of a scientific age is audacious. But I think what I appreciated most was his advocacy of a patient, receptive attentiveness to the unveiling of being, to its appearances and surfaces, as a prelude to understanding, for this I think can be naturally integrated into a practice of contemplation and prayer (or so I imagine).

As an adjunct to this Begegnung with Heidegger, I watched a brace of Terrence Malick’s films, and as an adjunct to those I read Peter Leithart’s wonderful book on The Tree of Life, a book that I would warmly recommend to lovers of that film. Leithart brings out a number of themes, and is especially good on clarifying the overall structure, which can be elusive on first (and second, and perhaps third) viewings. He also helped me to better understand and appreciate the final section of the film, which had previously been for me the least persuasive part.

For my Lenten reading in 2016 I took up John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, an artful extended meditation on sickness, both physical and spiritual. Donne’s eloquence is splendid, and the book is justly counted a classic, but I found myself not well attuned to its mood, and it was rather hard going. In contrast, I had a roaring good time with William Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, a scathing assault on the white-washed historiography of the English Reformation that prevailed in Cobbett’s day. He wrote as a Protestant, but with withering disdain for the lies the English told themselves about their past. Surprisingly, he was more interested in the social and economic aspects of the Reformation than the religious. This was my first encounter with Cobbett, and I found him sufficiently intriguing to pick up Chesterton’s biography, from which I learned a good deal, and which has convinced me to explore his writing more in future. It seems I was rather keen on biographies this year, as I also read Margery Kempe’s fifteenth-century autobiography — the earliest in English — and, stretching the definition a little, Bernard McGunn’s bibliographic “biography” of the Summa Theologiae. Returning to Chesterton, I notice that though last year I read a whole armful of his books I was this year reduced to just two: the Cobbett biography and his travelogue What I Saw in America. The latter is one of his minor works, but still worthwhile, as Chesterton usually is. For more exotic travels I turned to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, recounting his mid-century voyage around Greece’s southernmost peninsula, an appreciative journey into a vanishing traditional society. Even apart from the intrinsic interest of its subject, this book is a treasure for the mellifluous prose. And I squeezed in Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts, a lesser book than those just noted but valuable for its stimulating ideas about the role of education in modern society and the importance of culture, especially high culture, to a healthy society and a healthy soul. Scruton is one of the conservative voices most worth heeding these days, since, given developments, his unapologetically elitist conservatism is likely to be a precious commodity over the next few years.

A new, or revived, theme this year was reading on physics and related subjects, at a more or less technical level. I thoroughly enjoyed testing my mettle against a set of oral exam questions used in Berkeley’s graduate program, and had a wonderful time exploring a book which tackled modern physics topics using standard techniques of classical mechanics. Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has been a bestseller, with some warrant, for it gives an elegant overview of the leading accomplishments and challenges in fundamental physics. Straying from my comfort zone, I tackled, with some success and no little appreciation, William Briggs’ Uncertainty, an extended plea for the application of right reason in statistical thinking.

**

On the fiction front I was mostly preoccupied with two authors: Patrick O’Brian and P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve been sailing through O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories for a few years now, and, despite a spell in the doldrums, I added a few more volumes this year; if all goes well I should complete the voyage in 2017. I’ve been enjoying these books tremendously, mostly of course on account of the characters, but also because O’Brian is a superb craftsman, with a gift for conjuring up a world that is wholly believable. Not only is the sea-faring jargon delivered with apparent fluency, but O’Brian’s ear for authentic nineteenth-century English is unerring; never does one experience the jarring anachronisms that ambush less able authors of historical fiction. As for Wodehouse, I’ve been prancing my way through the Jeeves and Wooster books, and enjoying every ridiculous minute of it. Wodehouse’s stories are froth, but effervescent froth, and his prose cannot be improved. The long-form stories (rather than the single-chapter short stories) have made the strongest appeal to me, and my favourites thus far have been The Code of the Woosters and Joy in the Morning. Wodehouse wrote about 100 books, so this reading project is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

Although I’ve noticed in myself a growing preference for short books, I did tackle one big book this year: Dombey and Son. I think it is not usually classed with the top tier of Dickens’ novels, but I had a wonderful time with it, and I’d rank young Florence Dombey with his best female characters: smart, winsome, and kind. The comedy of the book is excellent, and the characterization of Florence’s ruthless father I found really effective. Speaking of ruthlessness: I also read Cormac McCarthy’s decidedly un-Dickensian No Country for Old Men. I’m an admirer of the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation, and had been meaning to read the book for several years. To say that I was delighted with it would be inept, but I was pleased to find that the book is thematically even richer than the film, especially on account of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the good man, whose role in the book is wider and deeper than in the adaptation. This is now, I think, my favourite of McCarthy’s novels (though I am far from having read them all).

This year I focused some of my reading on “Catholic novels”, broadly understood. The Knot of Vipers was my first encounter with François Mauriac, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist whom I’ve been meaning to get to know for a long time now. The Catholic element in this story, which is about a spiteful man preparing to disinherit his wife and children, is subtle, but, on reflection, not so peripheral as I had initially thought. It’s beautifully written (insofar as this can be judged in translation) and the characterization is deep and involving. Characterization is not so central to Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, a nonetheless excellent novel that imagines a future confrontation between an ascendant temporal political power and a beleaguered Catholic faithful. Though it was written a century ago, the spiritual conflict it dramatizes remains pertinent, and the book as a whole has been very well-conceived. Alas, the same cannot be said of Benson’s follow-up novel, The Dawn of All, which imagines an alternate future in which Catholicism is triumphant and informs all aspects of world politics. It tries to grapple with the obligations that come with power, and with their potential to conflict with Catholic commitments to charity, mercy, and peace, but the net effect is weirdly off-putting, and the book seems to me a distinct failure. Rounding out my Catholic novels for the year, I enjoyed Newman’s Loss and Gain, a book that I think is not very widely read, even among those who read Newman, but which is a superb account of what conversion to Catholicism entailed for an educated Englishman in the middle of the nineteenth century, something Newman knew a thing or two about, and something which retains much of its relevance for converts today.

I read some short stories as well, including Russell Kirk’s excellent collection of ghost stories, Ancestral Shadows, which I wrote about at Halloween. Kirk was an intellectual who wrote mostly about politics and culture, but he proved himself a fine storyteller with this set of “experiments in the moral imagination” involving ghosts and other uncanny entities. And, on the recommendation of David Bentley Hart, who called it “the funniest short story in the English language”, I read Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames”, about a third-rate poet who sells his soul to the Devil not, as Faust and Leverkühn did, in exchange for greatness, but merely in exchange for the chance to learn whether he will achieve greatness. It is a good story, though I’d not praise it so highly as Hart does.

**

Children’s books

Reading with the kids is a regular part of life in our family, and this year we read quite a few good books. Our toddler was pretty happy with Goodnight Moon and books with pictures of trucks. Our five year old is very much in the picture-book stage, and his favourites this year were Peter Spier’s The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, an illustrated version of the English folksong, Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna, about a bat raised as a songbird, and Aaron Becker’s marvellous Journey trilogy (which came to a slightly underwhelming conclusion this year with the publication of Return). He has also been enthusiastic about Thornton Burgess’ animal stories; we’ve enjoyed the adventures of Peter Rabbit, Old Mr Toad, and Prickly Porky so far.

With our eldest, now seven, we spent most of the year on chapter books, and the best of them were George MacDonald’s atmospheric fantasy The Princess and the Goblin and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Indeed, the kids took to Tolkien’s legendarium like bees to honey: they can talk enthusiastically about hobbits, elves, Black Riders, wizards, and rings. We’ve actually taken the plunge into The Lord of the Rings, but in three months have only progressed halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, so I don’t know if we’re going to have the stamina to see it through to its conclusion.

I also enjoyed a few children’s books on my own. I revisited The Wind in the Willows and loved it as much as ever. I greatly enjoyed Ian Serraillier’s poetic adaptation Beowulf the Warrior, as well as his WWII road story The Silver Sword, and I relished Abbie Farwell Brown’s old collection The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, first published in 1900. I’ve been meaning to write about these books, but for the most part haven’t got around to it yet.

**

And those are the highlights of my year in books. Comments welcome! Tomorrow I’ll look back at my year in popular music, I think.


Christmas, 2016

December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas to all!