Archive for November, 2008

Sunday night Advent chorale

November 30, 2008

The Gospel reading for this, the first Sunday of Advent, is St.Mark 13:24-37, an exhortation to vigilance and expectation. It says, in part:

Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.
For the Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch.
Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning:
Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.

And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.

This text inspired one of J.S. Bach’s most famous melodies: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Sleepers, awake! The voice is calling”).  Here it is, played by Ton Koopman:

Sing, but keep going

November 29, 2008

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, which makes today the last day of the liturgical year.  It is a good day for reflection, self-examination, and thanksgiving, and also a day for looking forward: the great cycle is about to begin again.  The character of this day is expressed beautifully in this reading, taken from today’s Office of Readings.  It comes from a sermon by St. Augustine.

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith, and right living. Sing then — but keep going.

Tides of War – Steven Pressfield

November 27, 2008

Tides of War
A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War

Steven Pressfield (Bantam, 2000)
426 p.  First reading.

I bought this book at a local sidewalk sale.  Some time ago I heard a military historian praise another of Steven Pressfield’s books (Gates of Fire, about the battle of Thermopylae) for the historical authenticity of his battle scenes.  Since Tides of War is also about war in ancient Greece, it seemed reasonable to suppose that the same praise would apply, and for the same reasons.  I succumbed to temptation.

It is a very accomplished book, and Pressfield is a good, strong craftsman. He has an especially solid grasp of structure, both in individual scenes and in the book as a whole.  This command is needed in an historical narrative, for the real world seldom conforms to expectations of dramatic form, and a campaign as convoluted as the Pelopennesian War could easily have degenerated into a mess on paper.  It doesn’t, and that is all to his credit.  I also admired his compressed, taut style, which frequently resulted in unexpectedly complex imagery and turns of phrase. I could have hoped for more colour in the writing — as it is, I have the visual impression of a story told in chiaroscuro — and somewhat more life-like characterization, but on the whole those are minor complaints.

I came to the book with no knowledge of the Pelopennesian War.  It is a complex tale, involving civilizations throughout the Adriatic and Aegean seas, but at the turbulent center stands Alcibiades, the charismatic and controversial general. An Athenian by birth, he changes his allegiance repeatedly, fighting now for the Athenians, now for the Spartans, now for the Persians, all in the service of the god Necessity — or, as another character puts it, Strife.  He is the great man of his age, courageous in battle and eloquent in speech, and Pressfield provides (or replicates?) several stirring orations for him to deliver.  The best parts of the book, however, are the battles, and there are plenty of them, on sea and on land.  Narrating from a soldier’s viewpoint, Pressfield captures the chaos and brutality of the fighting, but still conveys the large-scale development of the battles.  His rendering of the Sicilian expedition (415-413 BC), which was a such a disastrous campaign for Athens, is particularly good.

Pressfield makes use of several different narrative voices.  The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Polemides, an Athenian soldier who has close access to Alcibiades, and who ultimately has a hand in his downfall. Polemides is telling the story while in prison awaiting execution, and his scribe is Jason, who interrupts the narrative occasionally to offer his own perspective on events.  This same Jason, it turns out, is a friend of Socrates, also awaiting execution in the same prison.  Thus Pressfield very neatly ties the large-scale political storyline to the familiar and intimate story of Socrates’ trial and death.  And the coincidence is more than just a curiosity for Polemides. Remember those means of escape which Socrates’ friends prepared for him?  Perhaps they were not entirely in vain after all. . .

I hope that Pressfield’s version of the Peloponnesian War is reasonably close to the truth, because it feels like I’ve learned a great deal.  My next guide will be Thucydides.

Johannes Ockeghem: Missa Cuiusvis Toni

November 25, 2008


Johannes Ockeghem : Missa cuiusvis toni
Ensemble Musica Nova
(Aeon AECD0753; 115:06)

I wish that I could understand what is going on here.  Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497), the canny old grand-daddy of medieval polyphony, outdid himself with his Missa cuiusvis toni.  It is something like a medieval analogue of Bach’s Musical Offering or Art of Fugue: a supremely virtuosic tour de force that jumps head first into the most fiendish compositional difficulties, but nonetheless triumphantly succeeds in making beautiful music.

Let me try to explain — although I’ve little confidence that I can do this properly.  Most people know that medieval music was not organized according to our modern musical “keys”; instead, they used what they called musical “modes“, of which there were eight.  According to the notes accompanying this disc, to these modes were added four “finales”, called protus, deuterus, tritus, and tetrardus.  (Perhaps these are something like cadences?) Each finale, which could presumably be combined with any of the modes (?), produced a musical scale, or “tone”.  Thus there were four tones.  I hope that is right.

The remarkable thing about the Missa cuiusvis toni is that it can be sung in any of the tones — a fact that would be obvious if our Latin was better (cuiusvis toni = “in any of the tones”).  It is notated once, but can be read in four different ways — maybe by doing the medieval equivalent of moving flats and sharps around? — to produce four different settings of the Mass. Of course, they bear certain similarities to one another: the rhythmic characteristics don’t vary between versions, so the timing and order in which the voices enter remains the same.  It is the melody and the harmonies that change: in one reading the singers have a certain set of pitches, in another reading a different set, but in both they harmonize.  It is really quite amazing.

On this recording Ensemble Musica Nova sing the Mass four times, once in each of the tones, so that we can hear Ockeghem’s achievement in all of its glory.  It’s not a small undertaking: each setting runs to about 30 minutes, so the entire project covers two discs.  They are a small ensemble of just eight voices, and they are new to me, but they have obviously been at this for a while, for they sing beautifully. They round out their program with Ockeghem’s famous motet Intemerata Dei Mater, and it is a fitting conclusion to a very enjoyable recording.


A YouTube user named dowland58 has put two versions of the Kyrie online.  For no very obvious reason he has combined the music with old footage from Venice, but no harm done:

Sunday night ultimatum

November 23, 2008

This may not be the most appropriate way to mark the Feast of Christ the King [*], but I’ve had Bob on the brain for a few weeks now and can’t escape.  It is only rock ‘n roll, but the song nonetheless makes a point: none of us are truly sovereign.  Inevitably, whether we like it or not, we serve.  Bob says, “Choose wisely.”

[*] It is at least more appropriate than what they’re doing over at the Shrine.

Basic arithmetic also corroborated

November 22, 2008

I am never surprised to see poor science journalism. As a Socratic friend likes to say, there is no craft of writing about everything, and many journalists are soon out of their depth when they wade into scientific waters.  Nonetheless, some articles are worse than others.  This is pretty bad:

PARIS (AFP) – It’s taken more than a century, but Einstein’s celebrated formula E=mc² has finally been corroborated, thanks to a heroic computational effort by French, German and Hungarian physicists.

A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France’s Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world’s mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

This is like claiming that the success of the moon-landing finally corroborated the 1/r² nature of the gravitational force. It is true in a sense: if we had been wrong about gravity the mission would have failed, and it didn’t fail.  But it’s not as though there were any doubts about gravity.

In the same way, the massive calculation carried out by these physicists takes it for granted that E=mc².  If it were false they wouldn’t get the right answer, but this is hardly the long-awaited evidence that finally allows us to put our doubts about old Einstein to rest.  Radiation therapies and atomic bombs wouldn’t exist if E=mc² were wrong. The whole history of particle physics is one long affirmation of the equivalence of mass and energy.

It’s too bad that this article so badly misses the point, because the science here is really very interesting.  Quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory that describes the strong nuclear force (and therefore the physics of atomic nuclei), is largely intractable using traditional analytic methods, and for decades physicists have thought about simulating physical systems dominated by this force, such as protons, on a computer.  This approach, called Lattice QCD (because the modeling process discretizes, or “puts on the lattice”, space-time coordinates), has been gradually improving over the years.   The basic idea goes like this: A proton can be thought of as a set of three quarks exchanging gluons.  The gluons (which also interact with one another to create a terrible mess) behave something like springs: they bind the three quarks into a ball that we call “proton”. It should be possible to start with the masses of the constituent quarks, model the dynamics of the gluons exchanged between them, and show that the energy of the whole system adds up to the measured energy (or mass) of the proton, or the neutron, or whatever particle is under consideration.  Actually, if I read the paper’s abstract correctly, they have not started directly with quark masses (which for interesting reasons are tricky to define), but have used pion masses to calibrate their calculation.  Still, if the approach is working it is certainly a triumph, but the laurel rightly goes to quantum chromodynamics, not to mass-energy equivalence.


Abstract: Ab Initio Determination of Light Hadron Masses

In concert: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

November 21, 2008

Last night my wife and I attended a concert given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under the direction of their founder Tõnu Kaljuste.  The concert was held at St. Anne’s Anglican in Toronto, a beautiful church that I had not visited before.  The concert was sold out, and the 800 or so ticket holders packed the church to capacity.

I suppose that the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir might sound like an obscure group, but to lovers of choral music they are well known.  Personally I consider them one of the best choirs in the world, and I always try to hear them when they are in the neighbourhood. (This was my third time.)  On this tour they are 24 voices strong, and technically they were as good as ever: precise tuning even in extremely difficult music, with clear, strong voices.  There were some balance problems, but I believe this was more due to the acoustics of the church than the singing of the choir.

The EPCC is primarily known for its performances of contemporary music, so it was perhaps surprising that they opened the concert with an extended work by Antonio Vivaldi.  His Beatus Vir (RV597), for two choirs and two orchestras, was a piece that I had not heard before.  Last night the two choirs were arranged at some distance from one another, with the two orchestras pooled in the middle.  As ever, Vivaldi’s music was tuneful and enjoyable, and he made good use of the two choral groups, having them toss musical lines back and forth in conversation with one another.  The acoustics of the space were such that I found that the choir more spatially distant from me was noticeably more distant aurally, almost as though they were singing “off-stage”.  For Vivaldi this was not a great problem — an echo sounds good when it is faded and thinned — but it was to cause a few problems in later parts of the program.  In any case, Vivaldi’s wit came through wonderfully in his music: at the word dispersit, for instance, the choirs repeatedly echoed one another at ever decreasing volume, as though the musicians themselves were dispersing into the night, and at the verse which reads Peccator videbit, et irascetur (The wicked man will see, and be vexed) the poor tenor soloist was sent on a series of ridiculous (and no doubt extremely vexing) runs that would have overmastered a less stalwart singer.  The whole piece was a joy.

The second item on the program made a sharp contrast with the first.  Choir and orchestra performed three sections from Paul Frehner’s The Seven Last Words of ChristFrehner (b.1970), who teaches at the University of Western Ontario, is a young Canadian composer of whom I had not heard before.  He was present at the concert, and this performance may well have been a premiere (the notes do not specify).  The work was quite remarkable, both musically and textually.

They opened with the Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani section.  This cry of Christ comes from Psalm 22, and Frehner chose to include in his piece a number of passages from the same psalm, chanted mostly monophonically by the choir over a cacophony of groaning, agonized lower strings and shrieking, dissonant high strings.  It was brutal, ugly music, but arguably entirely fitting for this excruciating moment in Christ’s Passion.  The second section performed was I thirst; Frehner had the interesting idea to combine repeated intonations of the main text with the passage from St.John’s Gospel: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.”  The interplay between these two declamations is theologically quite rich, and I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on them.  The third and most dramatic section was It is finished, in which the turbulent orchestra gave way to a moment of repose, though not an entirely untroubled one.  The tenor section gently sang the Gregorian hymn Pange, lingua, which in this context sounded almost like a lullaby, while the choir and orchestra occasionally swelled to powerful statements of Christ’s words.  I wonder, though, why Frehner repeated the first stanza of the hymn several times rather than proceeding through the other stanzas, which I think would have been more effective.  The section ended on an incredible, heart-stopping chord for which the phrase “terrible beauty” might have been coined.

It was an impressive achievement.  I am sorry that we were only able to hear three of the seven sections.  What particularly impressed me was how Frehner entered fully into the spirit of these difficult texts, making music that engaged the agony of Christ without irony or self-consciousness.  I wish that I knew more about this composer and this piece: Was it commissioned?  If so, by whom?

The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  Pärt is my favourite living composer, and Kaljuste and the EPCC have had a long and fruitful relationship with him, giving several premieres of his music and making numerous recordings.  If you could pick one choir from whom to hear Pärt’s music, they would be it.  First up was Orient & Occident, for string orchestra.  This is not one of my favourite pieces by Pärt, and this performance did not change my mind: it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and I find his use of the string orchestra quite bland.  The same cannot be said, however, of the major piece that finished the concert: Pärt’s Te Deum.  It is a glorious hymn of praise that slowly, over the course of a half-hour, creates around itself an atmosphere of serene beauty.  The choir was divided into three groups, two singing on either side of the sanctuary, and one from the loft at the rear.  (In a friendlier acoustic this would have worked very well; as it was, it sometimes resulted in balance problems between the groups.)  I have listened to the choir’s recording of this piece many times, but never before had I clearly heard the quiet conclusion of the work: after the final “Amen”, the choir chants “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” several times as the orchestra subsides, and, then, one last slow burst of luminosity in the strings, as though the eyes are lifted up to see the sunrise, brings it to a close.  It was beautifully done.

The response was enthusiastic, and we were treated to a brief encore in the form of a lovely Estonian Christmas song, arranged for choir by someone whose name I did not quite catch (Was it Veljo Tormis?).  It was a wonderful evening; we went home happy.

The concert was organized by Soundstreams Canada.  May they live long and prosper.


Another view: Concert review from the Toronto Star

Maisie Ward’s Chesterton

November 20, 2008

Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Maisie Ward (Sheed & Ward, 1943)
685 p.  First reading.

There have been a few biographies of Chesterton written since his death in 1936, but this was the first.  Maisie Ward was a friend of the Chestertons and knew personally many of those who played a central role in Chesterton’s life.  In addition to telling that story in its broad outlines, she has assembled a fascinating collection of letters that shed light on the man, and has written a frequently perceptive study of his thought.

The book is especially strong on his early life, those years before he broke bouyantly into the world of English letters.  Though he was something of a late bloomer — apparently he did not speak until the age of four nor read until the age of eight — by his late teens it was clear that he was a man of literary talent: a fine poet and a perceptive critic.  But more than that he was a man who, from the first, was great in spirit.  This quality is what remains, for me, the enduring attraction of Chesterton: he was a deeply good man who held that joy in life was the highest achievement toward which a man could strive.  Joy and wonder did not come automatically to him, any more than they come to any of us, but he kept the ideal resolutely before his eyes and pursued it with all the intelligence and imaginative strength at his disposal. His key, as he often said, was humility, bearing fruit in thanksgiving:

“You say grace before meals
\;    All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
(Juvenile Notebook)

It was interesting to read too about those first few years during which his literary star began to rise.  He was in his mid-twenties when his first work was published — a little known work called Greybeards at Play — but his first major success came several years later in his literary study Robert Browning.  Suddenly he had a name, and began to meet the great literary figures of his day, such as George Bernard Shaw, with whom he was over the years to have a series of very public and very amiable arguments about everything under the sun. It seems to me that that period of emergence from obscurity and entry into public life is a testing ground for anyone.  Do they retain their inner balance?  Do they remember who they are?  In that first blush of the footlights we learn a lot about a man’s character.

Chesterton seems to have managed the transition gracefully.  His characteristic mode of expressing his ideas — though paradox, wordplay, and open humour — was already in place and won him the admiration of many. Rather than cater to the tastes and opinions of those who praised him, he pressed forward with his own vision.  The next five years saw the publication of a string of his finest books: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Heretics, The Man who was Thursday, and Orthodoxy, among others.  The novels set forth a recognizably Chestertonian vision of the world, and the books of controversy set forth its intellectual foundations. I think it must have been clear to those paying attention that he was a man to be reckoned with, for he had something to say, and a way to say it.

He worked incredibly hard.  Maisie Ward reports this trait with some regret, for she believed he worked far too hard than was good for him.  It was typical for him to publish four or five books in a year; in one year (1926) he published seven.  They ranged all over the map: novels, poetry, literary criticism, cultural criticism, biographies, essays, religious controvery, detective stories.  Ward thought, and many have since joined her, that if he had written fewer books he could have written better books, for as fine as many of them are, they do show signs of having been put together hastily.  But in truth he was not a man to polish, and he had little patience with literary pretensions.  Nevertheless his efforts did cost him, for in 1914, as the Great War was breaking out, he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown and was gravely ill for six months or more.  It was feared that he would die, and his convalescence was long.  When he did finally recover, he promptly returned to his old ways.  Perhaps it was the only way he could work.

He was famously disorganized, and it was as true of his private life as his public.  His books were often attacked for their factual sloppiness, and it was true that he usually pulled facts and quotations from his (sometimes faulty) memory rather than checking them.  In one case he quoted four lines of poetry, three of which turned out to be his own creations!  In his business affairs too he was very disorderly, and it was a full time job for his wife Frances to track his spending and monitor his contracts.  It was all she could do to keep up: at one time he had 30 books contracted to different publishers!  And his personal life fared no better: one morning he appeared before guests at breakfast wearing two ties, and having the gaffe pointed out to him claimed that “it proved he paid too much, not too little, attention to dress”.

Witticisms such as that came naturally to him, and he was an overflowing fount of good humour.  This was sometimes mistaken for buffoonery, and his reputation suffered for it, as much in his own day as in ours.  He once said of Dickens, though it could as truly be said of him, that “he was accused of superficiality by those who cannot grasp that there is foam upon the deep seas.”  Such critics must understand that, in Chesterton, great seriousness and fooling high spirits were conjoined. The surprising combination of personal amiability and intellectual ferocity is highly characteristic of his thought.  The two elements came together beautifully when, late in life, he participated in a series of Mock Trials during a fundraising campaign for a hospital; participants dressed up in lawyers’ outfits and argued cases.  Chesterton entered fully into the festive spirit of the event, but provoked surprise by insisting on pressing real arguments with intense persuasiveness, as when he prosecuted a Headmaster for Destroying Freedom of Thought.  It was surely a nearly ideal forum for him.

I had not realized the extent to which he was engaged with the political controversies of his times.  I knew that he wrote a weekly column in The Illustrated London News, and though he was formally forbidden from discussing politics and religion in that context, it is a fact that he often did.  And many of his books, such as Eugenics and other Evils and An Outline of Sanity, deal with politics and economics.  Yet I did not know that he worked, together with his brother Cecil and friend Hilaire Belloc, on a regular newspaper (called The New Witness from 1912-23 and G.K.’s Weekly from 1925-36) that engaged on a weekly basis the political events of the time.  Little of this is widely read today, and one wonders what other books he may have written had he not poured so much energy into the project.

The actual content of Chesterton’s economic and political thought remains something of a mystery to me; I wonder if someone has written a book on the subject.  In economics he promoted a system he called distributism which, insofar as I understand it, favoured private ownership of property and business on a small, family scale.  He was as opposed to socialism as he was to big-business capitalism.  In politics, too, he favoured the common man’s liberty and dignity against the encroachment of big government.  He believed that people should work for their own benefit, and that charity toward others should be offered freely.  A social system in which people are obliged by law to labour for the benefit of others he called servile.  At the root of his social thinking was the belief that man’s nature is primary; attempts to rationalize or improve him will tend toward tyranny.

Throughout his life he had a great love of ritual, and he understood how it sustained and enlivened the sense of the mystery of life. An anecdote told by an acquaintance who visited Chesterton in his home in Beaconsfield illustrates his attitude:

“He had great satisfaction when a friend and I, driving away in the evening, knocked down a white wooden post outside the house in starting the car.  He held that he had witnessed just how many a grand old local custom must have originated, in men covering up their mistakes by saying they were fulfilling a ritual which had fallen into neglect.  You must say you did it on purpose, he said, say it was a rite too long omitted and it will soon be kept up every year and men will forget its origin, and it will be known as the Bump of Beaconsfield.”

No single image or episode could really capture the Chestertonian spirit, but, if I were forced to choose one, this would serve.  Throughout his life he was alert to the romance of everyday things, to the fact that it is good to be alive, and he taught by example that for all our blessings we should give thanks.  That was a good man.

Physics and faith

November 19, 2008

There are no shortage of best-selling authors these days who make much of an alleged conflict between science and Christian faith.  An articulate and informed opinion for the contrary thesis is given by physicist Stephen Barr in the St. Albert’s Day Lecture at St. Vincent Ferrer parish in New York City.  The entire lecture can be downloaded from the church’s blog, and it is well worth hearing.

Incidentally, Barr’s particular area of expertise is theoretical particle physics (as was mine).  This doesn’t itself make him more right, but it does make him more awesome.

Yesterday’s tomorrow today

November 18, 2008

It’s 8 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008.  I’m about to hop into my sleek, two-passenger air-cushion car and head off to my four-hour work day.  It looks cold and gloomy out there; the weather dome must be malfunctioning.  Isn’t it great to live in the future?

(HT: Light on Dark Water)