Archive for March, 2010

Martin: Golgotha

March 31, 2010

Frank Martin
Daniel Reuss; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Cappella Amsterdam
Judith Gauthier (sop.); Marianne Beate Kielland (alto)

Adrian Thompson (ten.)
Mattijs van de Woerd (bar.); Konstantin Wolff (bass)

(Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57; 90 min.)

Each year, as Easter approaches, I try to find one new recording of music for Holy Week to add to my collection.  Last year it was James MacMillan’s St. John Passion, an ambitious and searingly intense but ultimately (in my judgment) flawed piece.  This year I was circling around Frank Martin’s Golgotha, but was unable to decide between the various second-rate recordings that seemed to be the only ones available.  I was delighted, therefore, when I saw that Harmonia Mundi had slated this superb recording for a Lenten release date; it came at just the right time.

Frank Martin was a Swiss composer, the son of a Calvinist preacher, and he wrote several important compositions on sacred themes during his life, including what is probably his most well-known piece, the Mass for Double Choir.  Like the Mass, Golgotha was written privately, without a commission, as a personal expression of faith, and Martin apparently never expected it to receive a public performance.  Throughout his life Martin lived in creative contact with the music of Bach, and in Golgotha, rather than trying to fight his predecessor’s influence, he adopted an oratorio format that is reminiscent of Bach’s Passions: passages from the Gospels are set verbatim, as dramatic dialogues, and are separated by passages of reflection and commentary on the story.  In Golgotha these passages of reflection are drawn principally from the writings of St. Augustine, with lesser contributions from the Psalms and liturgical texts.  Unlike Bach’s Passions, which end when Christ is laid in the tomb, Golgotha‘s final section is a tumult of joy in celebration of the Resurrection.

It is a large-scale composition, lasting about 90 minutes, and scored for orchestra, organ, large choir, and five vocal soloists.  The music is richly evocative, at times pared down to a bare texture of voice and unadorned strings or organ, and at times building to thunderous, swelling climaxes.  It has surprised me with its great beauty, and by the way in which it manages the difficult task of being dramatic without losing its contemplative spirit.  Inspired by Rembrandt’s sketch that adorns the cover of this CD, Martin said that he “sought to concentrate all the light on the person of Christ”.  The writing is attentive and responsive to the meaning of the texts, and the style of declamation used in the narrative sections reminded me of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, or of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites.  The choral sections — almost always the highlight for me — are beautifully written; Martin often combines a Bach-inspired contrapuntal texture with the soft, colourful orchestral palate that is so characteristic of twentieth-century French music, and the result is very effective.

The performances here are as good as could be desired.  The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir remains, under their new director Daniel Reuss, one of the best choirs in the world.  All of the vocal soloists are new to me, but they sing very well, and the soprano, Judith Gauthier, particularly impressed me.  The sound, as we have grown to expect from Harmonia Mundi, is clear and vivid, and the packaging is posh.  This is an all-around success.

Excerpts from Golgotha can be heard at eMusic.  Despite the fact that I have an eMusic subscription, I bought a physical copy of this CD in order to have the texts and translations, and I am glad that I did.

Music and morals

March 30, 2010

Some months ago I was talking with a friend about the section in the Republic in which Plato discusses the role of music in the formation of character.  Plato argues, remember, that certain kinds of music tend to promote good order in the soul and the community, while certain other kinds tend to promote the opposite, and that therefore we ought to take care to listen to the right kind of music and avoid the wrong kind.  My friend asked whether I agreed with the idea that some music is morally unhealthy, and, a little to my surprise, I answered immediately in the affirmative.  He was surprised too; he said that most people dismiss the idea.

There was a time when I too used to dismiss such concerns, or even bristle at them, mostly, I suppose, because at the time the music being criticized was music that I liked.  I am thinking of those who warned against the “evils of rock ‘n roll”, and not just against the words of the songs (which certainly often warrant a warning), but against the music itself.  As the years have passed, and I have become less attached to that style of music, I find myself more willing to entertain questions about its moral worthiness.

One of the things that raises doubts in my mind about rock ‘n roll, for instance, is consideration of the kind of words that “suit” the music.  Granted that one could, if one wanted to, fit any sort of words to any sort of music, it is nonetheless true, I think, that certain combinations will seem “unnatural”, with humorous effect, and certain combinations will seem “natural”.  For instance, when we hear AC/DC singing about fast machines with clean motors, the preening aggression of the music seems to fit with the juvenile double entendres of the words.  On the other hand, if the same music were applied to a song about summer moonlight and the beauty of daisies, the result would be comical, like something from Weird Al.  My moral concerns arise from the fact that rock ‘n roll seems very well suited to express anger, rebellion, vengeance, and aggression, and poorly suited to express repentance, joy, or tenderness.  There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general feeling of the music.

Another doubt is raised in my mind by the kind of dancing that the music encourages.  Think of the difference between a ballroom and a mosh pit.  Think of a “club”, where people crowd together on a sweaty dance floor, in the dark, and more or less dance by themselves, or at best dance at a partner.  And to describe “clubbing” as “dancing” is generous, for it is basically formless, beholden to the relentless mechanical beat that dominates the music.  That beat, so regular that it is almost devoid of rhythm, is the dominant feature of “clubbing” music, and to me it feels inhuman.  I am not at all surprised that it fosters such an uncivilized form of dance.

On reflection, then, I agree with my spontaneous self that music has a moral aspect.  Indeed, we are creatures for whom little, and nothing of significance, is without a moral aspect. Music, which engages us intellectually, emotionally, and physically, is certainly a matter of significance.  The moral evaluation of this or that song, or even this or that style of music, is not a simple matter, of course, for no style is without some merit (except rap), but those of us who care about music are, I think, obliged to think about its moral influence on our own minds and hearts.

Anyway, these thoughts were brought to mind again when I recently read an article by Roger Scruton on the relationship between music and morality.  (Scruton is one of those people about whom I do not know very much, but each time I read something from him I become more interested in him.  If anyone cares to recommend a book or two to me, I am all ears.)  He has written extensively about the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and is apparently also a minor composer in his own right.  In this article he takes a thoughtful look at the principal components of music — melody, harmony, and rhythm — and how they are treated, generally speaking, in contemporary popular music.  Like me, he also thinks that dance is an important correlate of music, able to teach us something about its moral value:

As I suggested earlier, musical movement addresses our sympathies: it asks us to move with it. External movement is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. When music organized by this kind of external movement is played at a dance, it automatically atomises the people on the dance floor. They may dance at each other, but only painfully with each other. And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended. . .

It is a fairly long article, enlivened by numerous musical clips to illustrate the argument.  Recommended.

Fair and balanced

March 30, 2010

Somebody alert Fox News: there is an upstart media voice that is determined to be even more fair and even more balanced than they are.  Richard Dawkins, writing in the Washington Post, offers up his Two Minutes Hate:

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Ah, the famous objectivity of the scientist!

(Hat-tip: WWWtW)

The Sistine Chapel, online

March 30, 2010

Last week I drew attention to an amazing site that provides a pan-and-zoom tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This week I have discovered that there is a similar site for the Sistine Chapel!  You’ll need a pretty fast connection for it to work, but it is magnificent.  The resolution is high, and the detail incredible.  You can even study the floor tiling, if you are so inclined (so to speak): the virtual Sistine Chapel.

(Hat-tip: FT)

Blogroll changes

March 29, 2010

I have added a new link to my blogroll: This Blog Will Change the World.  It is authored by Osbert Parsley, who, though long dead, continues to hold forth on many interesting topics.  The blog’s byline announces that it exists to “make the world safe for Messiaen, thuribles, and realist metaphysics”.  Amen, amen, and amen.  Check it out.

I have also deleted Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise because it is now defunct.  Ross has moved to a new blog at The New Yorker called Unquiet Thoughts, and that link has been added.

Scandal time

March 29, 2010

I have been going back and forth over whether I ought to post anything about the sex abuse allegations against the Church that have been flying in the news over the past few weeks.  On the one hand, I have nothing new to add, so there is not much point in my saying anything.  On the other hand, certain claims, especially those allegedly implicating Pope Benedict XVI as enabling or covering-up abuse, appear to have crossed the line between edgy journalism and calumny, and the more people who draw attention to that fact the better.  So I could do my small part.

But, as it turns out, Nick Milne at The Daily Kraken has beat me to it.  He has a nice round-up of links to several of the most irresponsible accusations that have appeared (courtesy the reliable Christopher Hitchens and the redoubtable New York Times), along with links to detailed rebuttals of those accusations.  If you’ve read the one, you owe it to yourself to read the other.  To their credit, the New York Times has also run at least two criticisms of the original hit piece they published.

For the record, I am not opposed to journalists exposing wrong-doing in the Church.  On the contrary, wrong-doing should be brought to light, and those responsible should face suitable punishment, and the press can have a legitimate role in that process.  But when people start making the kind of claims that have been made in recent weeks about Benedict XVI — claims contradicted by the journalist’s own documentary evidence — one begins to suspect that something other than disinterested investigation is going on.  We must remember that there are a great many people who dislike the papacy for reasons of their own, and experience shows that they are not above using the biggest stick they can find, such as a sensational falsehood, to beat the Pope of Rome on his silvery crown.  When that happens, it behooves men of good will to rise to his defence.

So thanks, Nick, for collecting those links together.

One article to which Nick does not link is an essay by George Weigel that gives some background to the present controversies.  From what one hears in the news, one is likely to think that the Catholic Church in particular has a problem with sexual abuse — that is, that abuse is more prevalent within the Church than without it. One might even believe that the particular perversion afflicting the Church is principally that monstrosity pedophilia.  Indeed, I expect these are among the most common misconceptions about this whole crisis.  In fact, there is no evidence to support the former claim, and some evidence that contradicts it; and there is good evidence that the latter claim is false.  Reading the articles to which Nick links should help to clear up such misunderstandings.

UPDATE: More developments, confirming the sloppiness of the original piece that ran in the NYT.

In the meantime, may I suggest to like-minded readers that we pray for the Holy Father during this holy season.


Incidentally, doing my work for me is not all that The Daily Kraken has been up to.  Last week Nick was on the ground at the now infamous non-appearance of Ann Coulter at the University of Ottawa, and he wrote a fascinating first-person account of the evening’s events.  It has stirred up a hornet’s nest, and is currently riding high on the WordPress hit parade.  I guess quite a few people have strong opinions about Ms. Coulter.  Before last week, I had no idea who she was, and I still don’t really know.  I gather she is one of those odious personalities who cultivate their own fame by making outrageous remarks — a kind of right-wing Howard Stern.  Well, Nick has the low down.

Calvino: Cosmicomics

March 29, 2010

Cosmicomics (1965)
Italo Calvino (Harvest, 1976; trans: W.Weaver)
153 p.  First reading.

This is my kind of science fiction.  When I read If on a winter’s night a traveler a few years ago, I could see that Calvino was a major talent, the sort of writer who can make words do whatever he wants, but I found that book too preoccupied with literary theory to really be enjoyed as a literary work.  Cosmicomics is an entirely different beast; it came bounding off the page with a joyful shout, generously took my arm, and entertained me from the first page to the last.

In a series of short stories our narrator, bearing the unpronounceable but cheeringly palindromic name Qwfwq, tells tales about various periods in the history of our universe.  Qwfwq is a good-natured supernatural being of some sort.  He existed at the Big Bang, saw the sun and the solar system form, and experienced at first-hand the evolution of life on Earth.  Calvino’s cosmos is populated with an entire race of such beings, with family relationships and romantic entanglements of their own.  Qwfwq is, perhaps, Earth’s resident angel, although not exactly.  He is an immaterial being, but he is able to take material form as well, now as an amphibious fish, now as a mollusk, now as a man. He is a very odd sort of fellow.

Through Qwfwq’s eyes we see the history of our world from an heretofore unsuspected vantage point.  For him, the formation of planets is significant principally because it makes the sun’s protoplanetary disk lumpy and uncomfortable, especially for his complaining grandmother; he welcomes the Big Bang because it was simply too crowded in the primordial singularity; the transition from sea- to land-dwelling animals is for him an occasion for inter-generational conflict; the fact that the moon has steadily moved away from the earth means that he can no longer earn a living collecting lunar cheeses.  What science regards as an impersonal cosmos, Qwfwq shows to be as lively and full of personality as a small town, complete with quarrelsome families, nosy neighbours, youthful crushes, children’s games, resident aliens, and love triangles (including the universe’s only such triangle constructed entirely from parallel lines).

I suppose I make the book sound silly.  It is not.  Calvino’s fabulism does not prevent his probing the heart, and while each of these stories has an element of romp and romance, none of them is only that.  “The Spiral”, about the life of a mollusk, is a beautiful meditation on creativity; “The Light Years”, about interstellar communication, becomes a reflection on guilt and social pressure; “The Distance of the Moon” (my favourite story of the bunch) turns into a poignant portrayal of love and estrangement.  The book manifests what Peter Leithart has called “deep comedy”; here is a universe in which, though Calvino does not say so, it is quite plausible that it is, after all, love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Waugh on Chesterton

March 26, 2010

Here’s a delicious little morsel: National Review Online has been unearthing archival material for the web, and a 1961 article by Evelyn Waugh, in which he reviewed Gary Wills’ book Chesterton: Man and Mask, has recently been restored to the sunshine.  Waugh did not think much of Wills’ book — and I dare say he would have thought even less of those that followed — but he did have some good things to say about our man Chesterton.  In praise of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, Waugh wrote:

It is a great, popular book, one of the few really great popular books of the century; the triumphant assertion that a book can be both great and popular. And it needs no elucidation. It is brilliantly clear. It met a temporary need and survives as a permanent monument.

Fifty years later The Everlasting Man continues to garner readers, including me.  Not long ago it was the subject of one of the Book Notes that I carelessly toss forth from this earthy, rock-sheltered hollow.  If you’d like, you can read it, but I’d read Waugh first.

(Hat-tip: Insight Scoop)

Great moments in opera: Die Walküre

March 26, 2010

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, following on from Das Rheingold.  Dramatically, it is a bit of a mixed bag: the three Acts feel disjoint, and the rationale behind the action is at times quite opaque, at least to me.  Musically, it is far lovelier than was Das Rheingold.  The first Act especially, in which we are introduced to the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, achieves a sense of hushed and intimate intensity that is quite beautiful.

Since the end of Das Rheingold, the god Wotan has been busy: he has fathered two mortal offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have then been separated as children and grown up separately.  At the opening of Act I, Siegmund stumbles unknowingly into the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding.  The twins, though not recognizing one another, nevertheless sense a deep connection and misinterpret it as romantic love.  This is most unfortunate, since it means that we are obliged to contemplate an incestuous love affair as part of the story — and not on the margins of the story, either, since the fruit of their union, Siegfried, will be the central hero in the subsequent parts of the Ring.

Anyway, it soon comes out that Siegmund is fresh from killing Hunding’s friends and relations, seeking to avenge Hunding’s own slaughter of Siegmund’s family many years before.  They vow to fight one another on the morrow.  Siegmund has just one problem: he has no sword.  Conveniently enough, the room in which he is being held has a great tree in the center — the World Ash Tree — with a sword embedded in its trunk.  He learns from Sieglinde that many years before a powerful man — their father, Wotan, in disguise — had put the sword there, declaring that only the one destined for it would be able to pull it out.  Siegmund tries his hand at it and, sure enough, he succeeds.

Here is the section in which Siegmund and Sieglinde declare their love for one another.  Dramatically this is pretty nasty stuff, but the music has a lyrical beauty that is rare in Wagner.  The section begin with Siegmund’s song Winterstürme wichen, in which he sings about spring, blossoms, fresh winds, birds, and other things that trip readily from the tongue of a lover.  Sieglinde answers him in kind with Du bist der Lenz.  They then exchange pleasantries about shining faces, noble halos, spring moonlight, and dreams of love.  At the end of this clip they creep up to the realization that they have the same father, and that each is therefore the other’s long-lost twin.  The singers here are Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer, in a 1976 Bayreuth production conducted by Pierre Boulez.

In Act II we meet for the first time Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie from whom this part of the Ring takes its name.  She is a goddess who rides a horse in the sky.   The plot in this Act is convoluted and not very clear to me.  By the end of it, Siegmund is dead (killed by Hunding, his sword shattered by Wotan) and Sieglinde has been taken by Brünnhilde to Valhalla.  Sieglinde is pregnant.   Meanwhile, Brünnhilde has brought the wrath of Wotan upon herself by disobeying his orders.

Act III opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries; personally I find this section laboured and bombastic.   Once it ends, Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the fragments of Siegmund’s shattered sword and bids her take refuge in the woods, awaiting the birth of her child.  Then, in the final scene, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for her disobedience.  He strips her of her divinity and puts her into a deep sleep, promising that she will remain there until awoken by a mortal man, to whom she will then belong.  She begs him to surround her with terrors as she sleeps, so that only a great hero will be able to find her, and he concedes.  She falls asleep and Wotan, summoning the god of fire, places a great ring of flame around her.  There she will remain until the end of Siegfried.

The closing moments of Die Walküre, when Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde and sets the fire around her, are among my favourites in the Ring.  The orchestral music, sometimes played separately as the Magic Fire Music, is quite extraordinary.   Here it is, in a 1990 production from the Metropolitan Opera.  Wotan is sung by James Morris and Brünnhilde by Hildegard Behrens.

Die Walküre is nearly four hours long, and I must admit that at times I found it tough going. Any hope I may have had of penetrating the philosophical or political meaning of Wagner’s drama is slipping away as I struggle to master even the literal sense.  The music is not nearly as rough and ugly as it was in Das Rheingold, but the slow action and sometimes perplexing logic driving it are trying my patience.  I am determined to see the Ring through to its conclusion, but I am beginning to have wistful dreams about a certain Wolfgangus Theophilus.

Feast of the Annuciation, 2010

March 25, 2010

The Virgin’s Salutation

Spell ‘Eva’ back and ‘Ave’ shall you find,
The first began, the last reversed our harms;
An angel’s witching words did Eva blind,
An angel’s ‘Ave’ disenchants the charms.
Death first by woman’s weakness entered in;
In woman’s virtue life doth now begin.

O Virgin’s breast, the heavens to thee incline,
In thee they joy and sovereign they agnize;
Too mean their glory is to match with thine,
Whose chaste receipt God more than heaven did prize.
Hail, fairest heaven, that heaven and earth do bless,
Where virtue’s star, God’s sun of justice, is.

With haughty mind to godhead man aspired,
And was by pride from place of pleasure chased;
With loving mind our manhood God desired,
And us by love in greater pleasure placed.
Man, labouring to ascend, procured our fall;
God, yielding to descend, cut off our thrall.

— St. Robert Southwell