Archive for January, 2010

Luther on music

January 30, 2010

In a preface for a schoolbook called Symphoniae jucundae (1538), Martin Luther expounded on the value of a musical education.  Everyone has some natural musical ability, he says, but a sound education

corrects, develops, and refines the natural music, [so that] then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet still not comprehend) God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music.  Here is it most remarkable that one single voice continues to sing the tenor, while at the same time many other voices trip lustily around it, exulting and adorning it in exuberant strains and, as it were, leading it forth in a divine dance, so that those who are the least bit moved know nothing more amazing in the world.  But any who remain unaffected are clodhoppers indeed and are fit to hear only the words of dung-poets and the music of pigs.

That man never minced words.  Preach it, separated brother.

(I came upon this quote in the first volume of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music.  He provides a more thorough citation, but I haven’t time to type it out just now, and I probably won’t do it later either.  I haven’t even got time to put a closing parenthesis on these remarks.

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2010

January 28, 2010

Here are several brief thoughts from St. Thomas, culled from Josef Pieper’s The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas: A Breviary of Philosophy:

  • Since the soul is only a part of human nature, it does not possess its natural perfection except in union with the body. (Spir. creat. 2 ad 5.)
  • A devil knows the nature of human thought better than a man does. (Mal. 16, 8 ad 7.)
  • Wherever there is intellectual knowledge, there is also free will. (ST I, 59, 3.)
  • Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe, to know what he ought to desire, and to know what he ought to do. ( (princ.))
  • The nature of virtue lies in good more than in difficulty. (ST II-II, 123, 12 ad 2.)

Last year’s batch.

Great moments in opera: The Cunning Little Vixen

January 27, 2010

My operatic grand tour brought me this week to Leoš Janáček’s Príhody Lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen).  I have listened to this opera once before, but this week I watched a staged performance for the first time.

The opera doesn’t fit neatly into a genre: it is part barnyard-and-forest fable, part dark human drama, part opera, and part ballet.  The story concerns a fox which torments a forester.  We spend a good deal of time in the forest with the fox and other animals, a good deal of time with the forester and his neighbours, and the rest of the time somewhere in the middle.  It is that middle ground which gives the opera surrealist overtones.

The Cunning Little Vixen has one big problem: it has not a single memorable melody.  The orchestral music is lovely enough, often delicate and with plenty of detail and rhythmic vitality, but the vocal lines I found flat and drab.  This was disappointing.

When listening to the opera my favourite portions were the orchestral interludes.  When viewing a performance on DVD, however, even these sections were ruined by forest animals prancing about on the stage.  I am something of a curmudgeon when it comes to ballet and related forms of dance, and this dancing did little to dissuade me from my insouciance.  This, too, was disappointing.

Given all these disappointments, I am at a loss as to how to choose an excerpt which I can call a “great moment in opera”.   The scene which made me happiest (albeit for all the wrong reasons) was the very last scene of the opera.  Here it is, from the DVD performance which I viewed.  Thomas Allen sings the forester (and he does a great job with thankless material). The green thing with ball-shaped warts is supposed to be a frog.  The excerpt ends about 1 or 2 seconds too soon, cutting off the opera’s final chords.

There have also been a couple of animated versions of the opera made, including at least one in an English translation.  Here is a short excerpt (from this DVD).  I like this well enough, but once again the clipped and plain manner of singing puts me off.

Cats that look like Hitler

January 25, 2010

A new issue of First Things arrived today, and in the blog-y and sometimes whimsical “While We’re At It” section I read about cats that look like Hitler:

I think we can make it official: one can find anything on the Internet.

Caldecott: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

January 25, 2010

Beauty for Truth’s Sake
On the Re-enchantment of Education

Stratford Caldecott (Brazos, 2009)
156 p.  First reading.

Stratford Caldecott is the director of Oxford University’s Center for Faith and Culture, and also editor of Sophia Institute Press and the online journal Second Spring.  This little book, which punches above its weight, is ostensibly a proposal for the renovation of educational theory and the renewal of education, but is really a proposal for the renovation and renewal of the Western mind.

Of the many problems with contemporary education in the West, Caldecott stresses the fragmentation of academic subjects, which tends to the fragmentation of context and meaning.  This fragmentation, which has progressed to the point that some have even ceased to consider it a problem (expressing, as it does, the incommensurability of rival discourses, the conventionality and relativity of truth, and the imperative to ‘celebrate diversity’), is troubling because education forms the soul, and a fragmented education forms a fragmented soul whose orientation toward truth, beauty, and goodness is confused. Contemporary education is more effective at producing non-judgemental citizens for a pluralistic state than it is about teaching us to love that which is beautiful — which is what Socrates said was the object of education.  To the extent that “non-discrimination” and “values-free education” are pursued as objectives, education perversely sets itself at odds with both logic and virtue and thereby undermines itself, for a well-ordered soul is a prerequisite for the perception and contemplation of truth.

The dis-integration of the mind, as expressed in the balkanization of academic disciplines, is revealed most obviously in the fissure that runs between the humanities, on the one hand, and the sciences and mathematics, on the other. It is the latter disciplines that have gained the cultural ascendancy, and the form of reason cultivated by such disciplines — mathematical reason — has thereby assumed an honoured position in our culture, which dominance has tended to downgrade in prestige, and atrophy in practice, other kinds of reasoning.  By now the calculative, instrumental reason of the sciences has progressed quite far in the colonization of the humanities, which is why we see departments of English and philosophy doing “research” on the scientific model, or schools of art whose whole subject matter seems to be technique, and so on.  The narrowing of reason’s scope has also damaged the relationship between reason and faith, for instrumental reason alone, detached from moral and aesthetic reasoning, can have little to contribute to religion, and little to gain from the association.

All of this has been said often enough.  Caldecott’s interesting proposal in this book is that recovery should begin with re-enlarging our conception of reason by bringing science and mathematics back into contact with poetry and imagination, and the key to doing so, he argues, is beauty: beauty can rescue reason from ratiocination, and beauty can be the bridge that reconnects the sciences and the humanities.

Renewal, Caldecott remarks, is often ressourcement, a return to sources.  In this case he proposes that we return for inspiration to the Pythagorean tradition.  For Pythagoras the world was “number”, and though there is debate about just what this meant, it seems that it was conceptually rich enough to ground a religious, or at least quasi-religious, way of life.  In the medieval period, the Pythagorean stress on the importance of number was absorbed into the educational curriculum.  The quadrivium, which included more than half of the standard subjects of study, was devoted to mathematics: arithmetic, music (number in time), geometry (number in space), and astronomy (number in time and space), and it was understood that the study of such subjects was a preparation, and a suitable one, for the study of theology, for prayer, and for the contemplation of God.

Understanding why mathematics was thought to be a suitable preparation for such things is perplexing to moderns.  Caldecott quotes Simone Weil’s comment about prayer consisting of attentiveness to God, and mathematics as developing the soul’s capacity for such attentiveness, but personally I think this falls short of being an adequate explanation. The value of mathematics was not just in the habits of mind it cultivated, but in the subject matter itself, which provided insight into the deep structure of the world, and therefore into the mind and purposes of the Creator.  Number had an essential aesthetic quality too: the Pythagoreans famously believed that the cosmos reverberated with Musica — order — a harmony beautiful beyond words and beyond sense perception, but able to be grasped by the intellect.  Training in the quadrivium, each subject of which is a particular manifestation of Musica, educated the soul to be capable of seeing and knowing this fundamental beauty.

Clearly, the Pythagorean tradition relied on, and in turn cultivated, a lively poetic imagination. It had the potential to educate not just the mind, but also the heart, and it engaged the student at a level deeper than that to which we are accustomed.  Of course there is no question today of adopting the Pythagorean doctrines wholesale, for we know things now which they did not, but perhaps certain features of their worldview are worthy of reconsideration.  Obstacles exist.  Modernity has done its damnedest to denude beauty of any significance (about which more below), and it has also been generally hostile to the imaginative faculty.  Romanticism was a reaction against this hostility, but romanticism lapsed too frequently into mere feeling, without the rational harness that the classical and medieval models provided.  Caldecott points for guidance to Coleridge’s statement that imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”  Our capacity for imagination is a mark of the imago Dei in us, and by it we can both discern and express goodness, truth, and beauty.

Another aspect of the Pythagorean and medieval traditions that Caldecott thinks worthy of resuscitation is, for want of a better way of saying it, the practice of thinking symbolically — that is, of taking symbols and symbolism seriously.  This is a tough one.  The modern tendency is to make symbols thin: almost the first thing we think about them is that they are only conventional signs, a kind of shorthand, something culturally bounded and essentially arbitrary. It follows that no feature of the natural world can be taken seriously as a symbol.  Nothing is naturally symbolic.  Our forefathers may have thought that a circle, in addition to being a circle, was also a natural symbol of unity and order; or they may have thought that the number 3, in addition to being the number 3, was also naturally associated with the Trinity; and so on.  For them a symbol could be a real manifestation, at one level of reality, of something higher (an archetype, an Idea, or what have you).  Understood in this way, the world speaks to us with many voices at once; a thing is itself, but also something else, and not because we say so, but because the world itself is so constituted that this multi-valent meaning is actually woven into it.  Like I said, this is a tough one for us, who have been tutored to regard the world as intrinsically meaningless.  Caldecott says at one point that, in order to thrive, this practice of reading the world symbolically relies on the analogia entis, which gave me occasion, once again, to regret that I have never understood what the phrase means.  (I know what it means literally — “analogy of being” — but I do not understand what it refers to.)

I said above that Caldecott places great emphasis on the importance of beauty for recovering a more expansive understanding of reason and for cultivating a more profound interior unity.  This requires, in a way analogous to what was just said about symbolism, that beauty be taken seriously as something real and significant and capable of bearing meaning.  And, again, modernity has schooled this out of us.  “Beauty is (only) in the eye of the beholder” is the aphorism that expresses the modern view in a nutshell.  In the pre-modern period beauty was seen as deeply related to goodness and truth, and, in a sense, modernity has honoured that insight — by relativizing all three.  There is a profound logic at work in this effort to deny these transcendental goods, converting each into a mere subjective preference.  Caldecott quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.  Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.

Balthasar goes on to say that the person who sneers at beauty “can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”  It is a chilling observation, one which reveals much about the predicament of late modernity.  In my judgement this inability to render adequate homage to beauty is one of the central failures of the modern project, and one of the best reasons to be suspicious of it.  Personally, I thank God that I have never been able to shake the conviction that beauty is profoundly important, and that I have a duty to love and honour it.  It was Dostoyevsky, I believe, who predicted that “Beauty will save the world”, and he was on to something. Perhaps more than goodness and even truth, beauty’s mysterious power continues to reassert itself at a deep level that bypasses our theories and sense of progressive propriety. There are undoubtedly many obstacles to be overcome if beauty is to regain its former honour, but Caldecott is right, I think, to see it as a possible means of salvation for us.

In closing, I’d like to draw attention to some interesting comments Caldecott makes about liturgy.  Liturgy, he believes, may be a key to recovering a vision of sacred, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual order.  Plato argued that education, since it aims to bring order to the soul, should include dance, song, and poetry, for such things tutor the soul to perceive harmony, proportion, and beauty.  In a religiously attuned education, liturgy could play a similar role, for it too is a kind of dance, song, and poem.  Liturgy cultivates remembrance, manners (not just “good manners” in the Miss Manners sort, but a sense of ritualized formality and fittingness), and art, with a great potential for the expression of beauty and harmony, and it affects not only the individual person, in both body and soul, but also, as a ritual action of worship, the human community as well.  Of course, contemporary liturgy, which has fallen on the hardest of hard times, hardly seems capable of rising to this exalted task, but we must not live without hope.

In summary, this is a provocative little book.  Caldecott is better at raising questions than he is at answering them.  (There are some attempts in the book to show the beauty of the Trinity by representing it in geometrical figures, and to demonstrate symbolic perception by considering the symbolic meaning of various integers, and these efforts I found unconvincing, to say the least.)  His extensive bibliography shows that he has mined a great deal of material, but his presentation of it is accessible and instructive.  He has taken on a huge subject, and the book can do little more than gesture in the direction he thinks we should go.  He has given me much to think about.


Two other reviews / discussions of this book, both of which are better than what I have written:

Sunday night Dolly Parton

January 24, 2010

I don’t know when it was that Dolly Parton became a kind of caricature, but there was a time when she was simply a wonderfully talented country music singer.  Even now there is something endearing about her, with her big smile, squeaking laugh, and high spirits, and those charming qualities were even more evident without the overblown wigs, pasty make-up, and other distractions. She has always had a attractively bright and agile voice.

My favourite of her songs is “Coat of Many Colors”; for some reason I have been listening to it repeatedly this week, and thought I’d post it here in consequence.  This footage is evidently quite old — I’d guess late 1970s, but I can’t be sure.  Equally evidently, it was taped from a more recent television programme, and includes one of those annoying voice-overs that interferes with the beginning and the end of the song.  There is also an irritating banner at the bottom that pops up with trivia as the song progresses.  But none of that, however idiotic, can destroy a good song:

There is also a good version of the song sung by Emmylou Harris, vintage 1977, that can be seen here.  (What a voice!)  A surprisingly decent “Oprahfied” version is here, with Dolly in duet with Shania Twain.

(Incidentally, my wife saw Ms. Twain a few weeks ago at our local grocery store.  The fellows working behind the deli counter were apparently all in a tizzy.  I can’t be sure I’d have kept my head on straight either.)

Live through this

January 22, 2010

Eve Tushnet has a good essay this week at Inside Catholic.  She writes to disagree with the idea that the Church is principally there to provide answers to our questions.  Normally I haven’t much patience with those who downplay the importance of answers to life’s persistent questions — those who say that it is the journey, and not the destination, that matters, and so forth — but she is only apparently doing that.  In fact she’s making a different point: the Church is there to replace our questions with better ones.  In so doing, the Church teaches us, and transforms us, at a deeper level than we were expecting.

And the Church can also be the lock for your key, the interpretive community that opens up the world. I still remember how it felt. I knew there was some sharp cruel distance between myself and the world around me. Then I found that the Catholic Church was where I turned in the lock, where I turned upside down, and the world unlocked around me.

That’s a better description of my own experience than I have ever been able to come up with myself.

Thanks to Maclin Horton for drawing my attention to this essay.

Great moments in opera: Rigoletto

January 21, 2010

Rigoletto is another of Verdi’s operas that is new to me.  I had known the famous tenor aria “La donna è mobile” (listen), but nothing else — not even the basic story.  This week I watched a Metropolitan Opera production from 1977 starring Placido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas, and, in the title role, Cornell MacNeil.

Rigoletto is a hunch-backed jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua.  He is not a good man, his physical deformity being an effective image of his moral corruption, but his character is redeemed somewhat by his love for his daughter Gilda, who is now a young woman.  The Duke is a buoyant philanderer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Don Giovanni.  Over the course of the opera we are shown how Rigoletto’s wickedness leads to the destruction of whatever happiness has been his.

I am learning more and more that Verdi took characterization seriously, and he does an excellent job portraying these complex, and mostly unlikable, people.  (The cast is really quite dark: an evil jester, a promiscuous Duke, and a hitman are the three lead male roles.)  Rigoletto is a strong central character, and the roles of the Duke and Gilda are also rounded and interesting.  The story itself is involving, with several excellent scenes, although I thought it was let down by a weak final act.  (Rigoletto’s discovery that the body in the sack is not, in fact, the Duke’s body I thought a disappointingly weak moment, at least in the production I viewed.)

I have selected two episodes to illustrate the musical glories of Rigoletto.  The first is “E il sol dell’anima” (Love is the sun), an Act I duet between the Duke and Gilda.  The Duke’s wandering eye has alighted on Gilda, and in this duet he, disguised as a student, declares his love for her.  After a few moments they hear footsteps approaching and must part.  Here is Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland:

My second selection is a quartet from Act III, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Fairest daughter of love).  The four singers are Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena (another of the Duke’s conquests).  This is the closest I have heard any opera composer come to the high standard which Mozart set in his operas for quartets (or quintets, or sextets).  Not only is the music great, but each singer’s contribution remains in character: the Duke is (apparently) gallant, Maddalena is coy and condescending of his advances, Gilda is heart-broken, and Rigoletto is dreaming of revenge.

The best version of this quartet that I have found on YouTube, with Pavarotti singing the Duke, is unfortunately not embeddable, but it can be viewed here.  As a runner-up, here is the quartet from the Metropolitan Opera performance which I viewed.

I enjoyed Rigoletto very much, and am looking forward to hearing it again before too long.

Triple crown

January 20, 2010

Two days ago, January 18, was the third birthday of this blog.  I missed it, you missed it, and the world went on anyway.  It has been a busy year for me and my family, but I have still been able to keep up some blogging, and I have enjoyed doing so.   My thanks to everyone who takes the time to stop by and read.

“Marketing” opera

January 19, 2010

This is the best thing I’ve seen in a while.  An enterprising opera company in Valencia hit on a great way to promote their music: they seeded a local market with singers, who broke into song in the middle of a shopping day.  The smiles and tears of the customers are a delight to see.  One almost expects the fruit monger to sing opera in Italy, but not so much in Spain.  Well, the surprise is part of the pleasure.

It is one thing to hear an opera singer on a recording, and quite another to hear them live, especially in a small space.  I used to attend opera master classes at the local faculty of music just to hear the young singers in an intimate setting, and I never ceased to be amazed at just how big their voices are.  It is thrilling to hear them, and that thrill comes through well in this video.

I will give 100 pretend dollars to anyone who can identify the music they are singing.

(Hat-tip: Sound Mind)