Archive for May, 2009

Feast of Pentecost, 2009

May 31, 2009

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love!

Today we celebrate one of the great feasts of the Church.  It is particularly special for our family this year because, later this afternoon, our daughter will be baptized.  There could be no more appropriate day!  Iona has, we trust, a long life ahead of her, but nothing in it can surpass the importance of this day.

Casting about for some appropriate music, I find this lovely performance of Thomas Tallis’ If ye love me.

Books in brief

May 26, 2009

Since the birth of my beautiful daughter my reading time has declined precipitously, and, in consequence, I have begun casting about for shorter, more easily digestible books.  Time for writing Book Notes has also been disappearing, so I am resorting to briefer summaries.  Here are Notes on a few books that recently crossed my path.

Do Not Read This Book
Pat Moon and Sarah Nayler (Orchard, 2001)
160 p.  First non-reading.

I wish they had titled it Do Not Buy This Book, because I would have saved a few dollars.  Imagine my dismay when I returned home and took a closer look.  After I stewed a while in a terrible quandary, into the trashcan it went.

Burn This Book
Toni Morrison, Ed. (HarperStudio, 2009)
128 p.  First burning.

This book came into my hands a short time ago, and I was thankful for it.  We had a few cool evenings, but were able to stay comfortably warm.  Highly recommended.

The Book Nobody Read
Owen Gingerich (Walker & Co., 2004)
306 p.  First shunning.

Who am I to argue with popular opinion?  If nobody’s reading this book, I’m not about to break rank.  The author’s time would have been better spent plotting epicycles.

Not For Publication
Nadine Gordimer (Viking, 1965)
First overlooking.

I have a friend in the publishing industry, and from time to time I hear stories about the incompetence of editors and publishers.  But just consider the concatenation of printing blunders and editorial mishaps that must have occurred for this book to appear.  The mind reels.  Respecting the author’s intentions, I have refused to read it.

Eat This Book
Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans, 2006)
186 p.  First digestion.

I have enjoyed one or two of Eugene Peterson’s books in the past, but my enjoyment of this one was unprecedented.

Ascension Thursday Sunday night, 2009

May 24, 2009

Once again the Catholic Church in Canada stumbles in perplexity over that misbegotten liturgical and calendrical monstrosity: Ascension Thursday Sunday.  For some background on this festival, you may wish to read this post from last year.  In the meantime, let’s mark the day with a little music.  I remember attending church on Ascension Thursday some years ago (at an Anglican parish) and hearing this piece — L’Ascension, by Olivier Messiaen — played during the recessional.  “Who let the monkey into the organ loft?” I wondered. (I was, as yet, uninitiated into the glories of Messiaen’s music.) Well, this organist is not a monkey, but rather Olivier Latry, organist at Notre Dame de Paris.  Here he is playing the organ of the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan

May 24, 2009

Today is Bob Dylan’s birthday.  He was born on this day in 1941, which makes him (if my calculations are correct) 68 years old.  That’s getting pretty old, but the great man is still going strong, and every year that he’s still with us is an occasion for thanks.  Here is his song “Red River Shore”. Written for but withheld from his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, it didn’t see the light of day until last year when it was included on Tell Tale Signs. It’s a great song.  What other jewels are you hiding up those sleeves, Mr. Dylan?  Happy Birthday.

Haydn mania

May 21, 2009

There are four major musical anniversaries in 2009.  Back in February we marked the 200th birthday of Felix Mendelssohn, a few weeks ago was the 250th anniversary of the death of Handel, and in September we shall celebrate the 350th birthday of Henry Purcell.  But the really big festival, coming up on May 31, will mark 200 years since the death of Franz Joseph Haydn.

Haydn tends to suffer neglect in comparison with his greatest contemporaries (and students), Mozart and Beethoven. The canons of Romanticism, which were foreign to Haydn but which still colour our judgments, specify that a compelling biography or personality are invaluable aids to attaining genuine artistic greatness.  Haydn suffers in this respect: he didn’t have the good fortune to die young like Mozart, nor did he have the imperious personality of Beethoven.  He lived a stable and reasonably happy life in the employ of the Hungarian princes Esterhazy, and was by all accounts an amiable and well-adjusted man.  All he did was write really good music, and lots of it.

He wrote so much music, in fact, that it is difficult to grasp the scale of it.  One cannot help noticing his 104 symphonies.  Throw in nearly 70 string quartets, a comparable number of piano sonatas, and over 40 piano trios, and the man begins to look busy.  Add a dozen operas, a dozen masses, and a handful of oratorios for good measure, not to mention hundreds of compositions in other genres.  He is one of the most prolific composers in history.

Most of his music is not very well known today.  This is partly because he lacked the gift for memorable melody that was such a secure possession of both Mozart and Beethoven, and also partly because the spirit of Haydn’s music is so consistently at odds with our own times.  For all its beauty and expressive range, his music is, generally speaking, restrained, polite, well-proportioned, genial, disciplined, and civil.  It is about as far from rock and roll and jazz as one can get.

Of course, its being at odds with the prevailing spirit is a perfectly good reason to get to know it better, and, in this anniversary year, there is no time like the present.  At the beginning of this year, therefore, I embarked on an ambitious listening project: to listen to all 104 symphonies (2 each week, conveniently enough), the entire set of piano trios and sonatas, the full cycle of string quartets, and as many other pieces as I can get my hands on.

The project is going strong, and thus far has been a steady source of delight and enjoyment.  Those with fewer or different psychological disorders might not feel compelled to cover as much musical ground as me, but it would be a shame to let this anniversary year pass without enjoying at least some of the music of this wonderful composer.


Here are several videos gleaned from the rather slim pickings on YouTube.  First is the finale of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No.33 [online score], played by Khatia Buniatishvili at the 2008 Rubinstein Piano Competition. Alas, she did not win the competition (though might have done so had there been a beauty contest folded in).

This video has Mariss Jansons leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the famous second movement of Symphony No.94, nicknamed “Surprise” [online score].  The surprise is the sudden fortissimo Haydn springs on the listener.  This movement is a theme and variations form.

Finally, here is the first movement of his String Quartet Op.77 No.1 [online score], played by the Fine Arts Quartet:

Epitaph of Alcuin

May 19, 2009

Today the Church remembers Alcuin of York (d.804), an abbot and scholar, and a major figure in the Carolingian renaissance.  Here is his epitaph, done into English by I know not whom.

Here halt, I pray you; make a little stay,
O wayfarer, to read what I have writ,
And know by my fate what thy fate shall be.
What thou art now, wayfarer, world-renowned,
I was; what I am now, so shall thou be.
The world’s delight I followed with a heart
Unsatisfied: ashes am I, and dust.

Wherefore bethink thee rather of thy soul
Than of thy flesh; — this dieth, that abides.
Dost thou make wide thy fields?  In this small house
Peace holds me now; no greater house for thee.
Wouldst have thy body clothed in royal red?
The worm is hungry for that body’s meat.
Even as the flowers die in a cruel wind,
Even so, of flesh, shall perish all thy pride.

Now in thy turn, wayfarer, for this song
That I have made for thee, I pray you, say:
“Lord Christ, have mercy on thy servant here,”
And may no hand disturb this sepulchre,
Until the trumpet rings from heaven’s height,
“O thou that liest in the dust, arise,
The Judge of the unnumbered hosts is here!”

Alcuin was my name; learning I loved.
O thou that readest this, pray for my soul.

Victoria Day

May 18, 2009

Of all the remarkable archival footage one can find on YouTube, among the most worthy must be this short film, taken on 2 February 1901, at the funeral of Queen Victoria.  Though not the earliest existing film — a short film was made as early as 1888 — it is the earliest one that I have seen.  This is really fascinating.  Notice the absence of automobiles!

Sunday night Marian requiem

May 17, 2009

May is Mary’s month, and earlier this week I heard for the first time a beautiful new song written for her.  The songwriter is Eliza Gilkyson.  I had not heard of her before, and I know nothing about the circumstances behind the composition of the song, other than that it appears to have been written in the wake of a disaster at sea.  Gilkyson has titled the song “Requiem”.

There are plenty of things to like about the song.  The association of Mary with the sea is an old one — from the medieval hymn Ave maris stella to Eliot’s O Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory / Pray for all those who are in ships. More to the point, the song conveys well the tenderness which Christians feel for Our Lady.  It is one of the most successful popular songs on a religious theme that I have heard in a long while.

I encountered the song in a choral setting on this disc, but here is Gilkyson’s own arrangement, from her 2005 album Paradise Hotel.

Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken / All our homes are gone, our loved ones taken / Taken by the sea / Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy / Drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy / Hear our mournful plea / Our world has been shaken / We wander, our homelands forsaken / In the dark night of the soul / Bring some comfort to us all / O mother Mary, come and carry us in your embrace / That our sorrows may be faced

Mary, fill our glass to overflowing / Illuminate the path where we are going / Have mercy on us all / In funeral fires burning / Each flame to your mystery returning / In the dark night of the soul / Your shattered dreamers, make them whole / O mother Mary, find us where we’ve fallen out of grace /Lead us to a higher place / In the dark night of the soul / Our broken hearts you can make whole / O mother Mary, come and carry us in your embrace / Let us see your gentle face / Mary

Angels & Demons & bombs, oh my!

May 15, 2009

Today a film based on Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons is being released.  This is the same man who brought us The Da Vinci Code, “the most lucrative novel”, as someone has said, “ever written by a borderline illiterate”.  Anyway, the new film apparently relies for its master narrative on that dusty old legend: the warfare of science and religion.  Brown, if you hadn’t guessed, is on the side of science. In Angels & Demons, we find that this ancient, implacable conflict boils up in a particularly flamboyant form: an antimatter bomb has been planted inside the Vatican, apparently as payback for the way the Church excommunicated Pascal, executed Copernicus, and condemned Galileo to lodge in a deep, dark dungeon.

From time to time Brown has been accused of a certain lackadaisical attitude toward the accuracy of his claims about religion, art, and history, but surely, considering the uniquely glorious good that is scientific truth, we should expect him to be scrupulous about presenting scientific ideas clearly and accurately.  Ladies and gentlemen, consider the following:

Antimatter is the ultimate energy source. It releases energy with 100% efficiency (nuclear fission is 1.5% efficient.) Antimatter is 100,000 times more powerful than rocket fuel. A single gram contains the energy of a 20 kiloton atomic bomb—the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In addition to being highly explosive, antimatter is extremely unstable and ignites when it comes in contact with anything … even air. It can only be stored by suspending it in an electromagnetic field inside a vacuum canister. If the field fails and the antimatter falls, the result is a “perfect” matter/antimatter conversion, which physicists aptly call “annihilation.” CERN is now regularly producing small quantities of antimatter in their research for future energy sources. Antimatter holds tremendous promise; it creates no pollution or radiation, and a single droplet could power New York City for a full day. With fossils fuels dwindling, the promise of harnessing antimatter could be an enormous leap for the future of this planet. Of course, mastering antimatter technology brings with it a chilling dilemma. Will this powerful new technology save the world, or will it be used to create the most deadly weapon ever made?

Any questions?

Statements like this raise the intriguing possibility that Brown’s fondness for systematic misrepresentation of Christianity is rooted not in an inauspicious marriage of paranoid fantasy and willful mendacity, as we had suspected, but rather in sheer invincible incompetence.  It is an encouraging thought.

The Pope in Israel: Caption contest

May 15, 2009

This delightful photograph was taken earlier this week during Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel.  Anyone care to propose a caption?

Photo copyright Stephano Spaziani

The photo is copyright Stephano Spaziani.