Archive for April, 2010

Great moments in opera: Götterdämmerung

April 29, 2010

With Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) we come to the end of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle.  Before these last few weeks I had heard it just once before, and, as it turns out, I had forgotten most of it.

It is in some ways a difficult work to penetrate.  It introduces a raft of completely new characters, which is rarely a good idea when one is nearing the end of a story.  (I do understand that Wagner was working with pre-existing material and faced certain constraints in consequence, but he still bears responsibility for his choices of pre-existing material.)  The music, too, fits somewhat uncomfortably with the other panels of the Ring, for the leitmotif-saturated prosody of the previous works is displaced by much more conventional operaticisms: heroic duets, high Cs, massive choruses, and so on.  I read somewhere that Wagner “Lohengrinized” this opera, and I can see the truth of it.  I am not averse to operaticisms, and in fact prefer them to Wagner’s usual manner of song, but I still found the contrast jarring.  It almost feels as though Wagner had a failure of nerve or of artistic vision, just as his magnum opus was almost complete, and that is rather sad.

Part of the explanation is perhaps historical.  The text of Götterdämmerung was the first Ring text that Wagner wrote, and it was originally intended to be a stand-alone work.   I suppose he wrote in the choruses and the duets at that time.  Only later did he go back and write the other parts of the Ring to fill in the background.  Once the texts were finished he began writing the music,  but by the time he got to the music for Götterdämmerung, about twenty-five years had elapsed from the time he wrote the text, and maybe it seemed like too much work to revise it to be more congruent with the other parts of the cycle.

Two characters from the earlier parts of the Ring reappear in this opera: Siegfried and Brünnhilde.  (The Nibelung dwarf Alberich, whom we have not seen since Das Rheingold, also makes a brief appearance at the beginning of Act 2.)  At the end of Siegfried, the titular hero had clambered onto the fiery rock where Brünnhilde was sleeping and rescued her.  Here, at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, she is, for some reason, still there, twiddling her thumbs while Siegfried roams the country-side seeking adventures.  He stumbles into the company of the Gibichungs, who hatch a plot against him to steal the Ring.  The plot involves a magic love potion that makes Siegfried forget all about Brünnhilde.  In the course of time one of the Gibichungs, Hagen (the son, it turns out, of Alberich), kills Siegfried with a spear in the back.  At the very end, Brünnhilde arrives, takes the Ring and throws it back into the Rhine where it is received by the Rhine maidens from whence it came.  She then throws herself onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre.

The most famous parts of Götterdämmerung are probably the orchestral interludes — one depicting Siegfried’s journey up the Rhine, and another to accompany his funeral — and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene”, in which she throws herself into the fire as the opera comes crashing to an end.  These are indeed great moments in an opera that is, at times, not all that exciting, so we’ll sample two of the three.

First is Siegfried’s death and funeral.  As this clip begins, Siegfried has been stabbed in the back and lies dying, but he manfully rouses himself to deliver one last song, singing of the eyes and sweet breath of Brünnhilde, before he goes the way of all flesh.  When he dies the Gibichung men gather around and carry him away in a funeral procession, and the music which Wagner provides is wonderfully atmospheric.  My Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book calls it “the supreme musico-dramatic climax of all that Wagner wrought”, which is high praise indeed — especially from Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book.  The music is woven from many leitmotifs that relate to Siegfried’s life: the motives of the Wälsungs (his parents), of Heroism, of Sympathy, of Love, of the Sword, and of Siegfried himself.  Dominating them all is the ominous motive of Death.  Siegfried Jerusalem sings Siegfried and James Levine leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra:

Soon Brünnhilde appears.  She takes the Ring from Siegfried and returns it to the Rhine maidens, thereby restoring the order that was disrupted by the theft of the gold at the beginning of Das Rheingold.  She then sets Siegfried’s funeral pyre alight and, calling for her trusty steed (who does not arrive in either of the two productions that I have seen), she rides into, or runs into, the flames herself.  Hagen makes one last attempt to steal the Ring from the Rhine maidens, but he is drowned.  The music ends on a majestic, soaring melody: the motive of Redemption.

This clip shows the end of Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene”; she throws herself into the flames at about the 2 minute mark. In this production, from Bayreuth in the 1990s, the ensuing scene of Hagen and the Rhine maidens is bizarre enough to be corny, but it is at least intelligible, which is more than can be said for the staging of the very end of the opera.  Honestly, some of these modern stage directors ought to be themselves drowned in the Rhine.  Anyway, I believe that it is Waltraud Meier singing Brünnhilde, and Daniel Barenboim leads the orchestra.


Now that I have reached the end of the Ring cycle, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on it.  What on earth is going on here?  To the end of Siegfried, I though that the cycle was going to be a paean to modernity, which overthrew the gods and established in its place the putative heroism of man and the purity of love.  Siegfried himself was the poster boy for this exalted new reality.  But in Götterdämmerung Siegfried is a shadow of his former self: he spends most of the opera under the spell of a magic potion that makes him, in effect, an entirely different character, and then at the end he is suddenly and un-heroically killed.  Why is Wagner killing his poster boy? Even Brünnhilde, perhaps the noblest of Wagner’s characters, dies at the end, and by suicide.   Perhaps we are meant to celebrate her love, which leads her to sacrifice herself in order to . . . what?   I cannot see any point to her death.  So I am befuddled.

I know that some people object to Wagner, and especially to the Ring, because of his, and reportedly its, anti-Semitism.  I know that Wagner was a devout anti-Semite, but I honestly do not know where I am supposed to see anti-Semitism in the Ring.  So I am doubly befuddled.


Of the four parts of the Ring cycle, my favourite was Die Walküre, followed by Siegfried, then Das Rheingold, and finally Götterdämmerung.   Musically I found Das Rheingold the least attractive — too harsh and dark — but at least I was able, I thought, to understand roughly what was happening and why, which was not the case with Götterdämmerung.  In the course of listening, I grew to admire Wagner’s sophisticated use of leitmotifs; there is always the potential that these “musical calling cards” could become a bit trite and artificial, but in his hands I found them quite fascinating and effective at adding depth to the drama.  Viewing all four Ring operas in a row — over the course of about eight weeks — was exhausting; I cannot imagine doing all four in four nights, as Wagner intended.  I might climb onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre myself.  But in the end I enjoyed them, more or less, and I hope I live long enough to hear them again one day.

Adventures in enthymemes

April 27, 2010

In the most recent edition of First Things, David Bentley Hart sallies forth once again against the so-called New Atheists — Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of them.  He is not impressed.  His essay is a hilarious savaging  — not of atheism per se, but of the half-baked and (worse) self-satisfied atheism on display at the bookstore these days.  You really owe it to yourself to read him; as usual, he is articulate and entertaining.

There is a melancholy note struck at the essay’s center, however, and that is a kind of sorrow for the poor showing that our contemporary atheists — the most vocal ones, at least — are making.  Their project fails to impress not just because of intellectual sloppiness (though there is that too), but principally because of spiritual torpor: it seems they cannot rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their disbelief.  There is another side to the sadness too, which is that contemporary believers can rarely rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their belief.  Mediocrity afflicts us all, on both sides of the aisle, and that is a sad comment on our times.

These reflections lead Hart to pen a moving appreciation for Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the Western tradition.  He writes, in part:

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists — those who merely do not believe — to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

I’ve expressed my own appreciation of Nietzsche before, and on similar grounds, but obviously without Hart’s nimble eloquence.

Hart closes his reflections with a few brief remarks about one of the most prolific of the New Atheists, A. C. Grayling.  As it happens, Grayling’s most recent book, Ideas that Matter, has come up for a thoughtful and critical review by John Gray at The National Interest.  This is also worth reading.

Incidentally, Hart’s essay seems to have set the cat among the pigeons.  As I am posting this, it has generated nearly 300 comments.  I haven’t read any of them, and I think that is probably wise.  Avalanches can be deadly.

Gifford Lectures 2010

April 26, 2010

Roger Scruton has come up for approving comment here recently, so I was intrigued to learn that he is delivering the 2010 Gifford Lectures.  The Giffords, if you don’t know, are generally considered to be the most prestigious lectures on the general topic of the relationship of science and religion.  A list of past lecturers — William James, Karl Barth, Gabriel Marcel, Michael Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, Richard Swinburne, Freeman Dyson, Jaroslav Pelikan, Alfred North Whitehead, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christopher Dawson, Niels Bohr, Arnold Toynbee, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Polkinghorne, Charles Taylor, Carl Sagan, Werner Heisenberg, Antony Flew, Roger Penrose, and Stanley Hauerwas, just to name a few — gives a good idea of the high standards this lectureship has maintained in the past.  (Of course, the list also includes Richard Dawkins and Michael Ignatieff, so they don’t hit a home run every time.)

The topic for Scruton’s series of six lectures is “The Face of God”.  In the course of the first lecture, he puts his general purpose this way:

I will be considering some of the consequences of the atheist culture that is growing around us, and I will suggest that it is not only an intellectual phenomenon expressing disbelief in God, but also a moral phenomenon, and in its moral aspect the atheist culture involves a turning away from God. You might wonder how someone can deliberately turn away from a thing that he believes not to exist, but it is a peculiarity of God that we can do just this to him.  And we do this, I maintain, by acts of systematic aggression towards the face — not the human face only, but the face of the world.

I don’t deny that atheists can be thoroughly upright people — far better people than I am — but there is more than one motive underlying the atheist culture of our times, and the desire to escape from the eye of judgment is one of them.  You escape from the eye of judgment by blotting out the face.

That seems a worthy subject for extended discussion, and it will be interesting to hear what he does with it.

And we can hear: the lectures are being made available online.  To date only the first two have been delivered; the others will follow between now and May 6.

Sunday night Mumford & Sons

April 25, 2010

Sigh No More, the debut album from a British outfit called Mumford & Sons, is one of the best records I’ve heard in the past year.  They’ve a pleasing acoustic texture that fits me like an old and comfortable sweater, with attractively scratchy tenor vocals, and the words of the songs gesture, at least, at the deeps.

Here is a song from the record called “The Cave”.  I am not sure I think much of the “concept” in this video, as it seems more of a distraction, or at least incidental to the point of the song, but I suppose that is true of most such things.

There’s one bit in the words that I especially like.  It goes like this:

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

The obvious word to end that last line is “throat”, not “neck”, since it would be at least a rough rhyme, and “neck” doesn’t rhyme with anything.  It reminds me of something Lyle Lovett did back on The Road to Ensenada, in a song called “Her First Mistake”:

Yes, my dear, I know exactly what you mean
There’s not so much I haven’t done or seen
And may I say that your eyes
Are the loveliest shade of jade?

One expects “green” in that last line, of course; “jade” is jarring, but then it picks up the internal rhyme and ends up being witty.  Mumford & Sons aren’t witty in that sense, at least not here.  Anyway, this is a pretty insubstantial talking point, so let me bring this preamble to a close.  Here is the song:

If you like that, I recommend listening also to the record’s title track, which is terrific.  It gathers steam as it goes, so don’t give up too soon.

Camus: The Fall

April 22, 2010

The Fall
Albert Camus (Vintage, 1956; trans: J. O’Brien)
149 p.  First reading.

“A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”

That is probably the most famous line in this book, but evidently we’re not intended to take it too literally.  The speaker, Jean-Baptiste Clamance, keeps spinning out sentences, and his theme throughout, in one way or another, is modern man.  The note of world-weary resignation, cultured disdain, and epigrammatic wit struck by the saying is fairly representative of Clamance’s style.  There’s more where it came from: “Anyone who has considerably mediated on man, by profession or vocation, is led to feel nostalgia for the primates”, “Hurray then for funerals!”, “Truth, cher ami, is a colossal bore”, “In a general way, I like all islands.  It is easier to dominate them”, “Truth, like light, blinds”, and similar sentiments trip easily from his forked tongue.

Clamance lives in the tawdry core of Amsterdam, at the center of the city’s nested circular canals — at the center, as he remarks at one point, of the Inferno.  He landed there after a long fall from grace: he had been a successful lawyer in Paris, fighting on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed.  Now he plays a gadfly on the shadowy side of life, coaxing confessions from the wounded souls who wander his way.  He is a kind of modernist Socrates, who questions and provokes, but whose object is to elicit self-disclosure rather than objective truth, and whose method is calculated misdirection rather than honest argument.  He offers a therapy of resignation: acknowledge your own failings, and accept them.  One suspects that his concern for his interlocutor is not quite sincere.  “I pity without absolving, I understand without forgiveness,” he says, then adds, with a certain lack of decorum, “I feel at last that I am being adored!”

How did he come to this low estate?  Good luck piecing the story together.  The narrative, told in unordered fragments dropped here and there into his monologue (the book is one long monologue), is not easy to see clearly.  The fact that he lies, or at least claims to lie, about himself makes the effort more difficult, and perhaps pointless, but his descent seems to have been caused primarily by two things: a realization that his assiduous labour on behalf of the weak had in fact been only a selfish quest for the particular kind of recognition he craved, and a fateful and chilling encounter one night on the banks of the Seine that haunted his mind and punished his conscience ever after.

I wouldn’t want to present Clamance as a font of wisdom — like Nietzsche, many of his remarks would be best prefaced by a discreet negation — but there are occasions on which he says something worth remembering.  Consider these remarks on confession:

“. . .we rarely confide in those who are better than we.  Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society.  Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses.  Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default.  We merely wish to be pitied and encouraged in the course we have chosen.  In short, we should like, at the same time, to cease being guilty and yet not to make the effort of cleansing ourselves.  Not enough cynicism and not enough virtue.  We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good.”

This is a perceptive observation.  Confession of wrongdoing is a need of the human heart; ideally it is accompanied by contrition and a healthy resolve, but not always.  Sometimes, instead, one seeks out the company of those who also will not ask for repentance, who perhaps share the fault in question, and confession becomes merely the bond of a sad camaraderie.

There are some intriguing particulars dropped here and there in the book: Dante comes up more than once, and van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb, a favourite of mine, has a prominent place in the story as well. I have a feeling that Camus might be using such things to say something subtle.  But what that subtle something is, I am unable to ascertain.  Such is the life of a blundering literary dunderhead.  Under other circumstances I might have paged back to dig a little more deeply, but I have had quite enough of this “false prophet crying in the wilderness” for the time being.  Farewell, Monsieur Clamance.  I shall not miss you.

How to get a doctoral degree

April 21, 2010

Dr. Boli explains.

First five years

April 19, 2010

Today is the fifth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s election as Pope.  I remember very well the day he was elected; I was surprised and delighted, but not sure what to expect from him.  I remember, too, the first words he spoke from the balcony at St. Peter’s: “The cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard”.  His self-effacing manner, and his awkward gestures, were endearing then, and in the intervening years this Pope has grown more endearing still.

The good that he has done over the past five years has not received the notice that it deserves, mostly, I expect, because it principally concerns the interior life of the Church.  Whereas John Paul II was an outgoing, dramatic Pope who wanted to bring the Gospel to every corner of the world and to every heart willing to listen, Benedict has turned his attention inward, and backward, to remind the Church of her roots, her sources, and her identity.  We see this pre-eminently in what I consider to have been the most important act of his pontificate thus far: his liberalization of the liturgical rites in Summorum pontificum.  This is a gift to the Church which I believe will bear much good fruit in the long run — perhaps not in my lifetime, but eventually.  We see it also in the long series of addresses he has given to pilgrims in Piazza San Pietro on the Fathers of the Church and the great medieval saints and theologians.  And we see it too in his efforts to heal the wounds of division that have marred the nature and witness of the Church, especially in his gestures of welcome toward the Society of St. Pius X and to Anglicans.  These initiatives of his have not always unfolded smoothly, but the problems are insignificant when set beside the promise they betide for the life of the Church in the decades ahead.

There has been criticism, too, some of it just.  We all know that the media thrives on bad news, so naturally the bad news is better known, even the false bad news.  But I do not wish to be argumentative today.

Catholic World Report has put together a set of appreciative short essays exploring various aspects of Pope Benedict’s first five years.  They are well worth reading.

Happy anniversary, Holy Father.  God grant you many years.

Great moments in opera: Siegfried

April 15, 2010

Siegfried is the third part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  The title character is the central heroic figure of the Ring cycle, the offspring of the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde (in Die Walküre).  This part of the cycle follows him as he discovers his potential for heroism.  At the beginning of the drama he is living in the woods with Mime, the Nibelung dwarf, wondering why he has no mother and what Mime means by “fear”.  By the end of the drama he has re-forged his father’s sword, slain Mime, slain the dragon, recovered the Ring, broken the power of the gods, and rescued the maiden Brünnhilde from her fire-guarded sleep.  And he’s not even tired.

I believe that the main dramatic development, within the context of the Ring cycle as a whole, is the Act III confrontation between Wotan (disguised as a Wanderer) and Siegfried, in which Siegfried’s newly forged sword shatters Wotan’s spear.  Here we have the conflict between two of the central symbols of the drama.  Wotan’s spear has represented Law, and in particular Wotan’s power as Law-giver.  Siegfried’s sword represents — well, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s not Law.  Maybe Love, or Nature, or Man.  Anyway, the triumph of the sword over the spear marks the onset of the twilight of the gods and the rise of the heroic man, which will be the theme of the fourth and final part of the Ring, Götterdämmerung.

I would like to highlight two segments of Siegfried that I particularly enjoyed while I was listening this week.  The first is the scene near the end of Act I in which Siegfried joyfully re-forges the fragments of his father’s sword Nothung.  Wagner has given him a youthful and confident song to sing: “Ho ho! Ho hei!  Blow, bellows, blow!”.  The other on-stage character is the scheming dwarf Mime, who, as you’ll see, hopes to use Siegfried to help him recover the Rhine gold and the Ring guarded by the dragon.  This clip is from a Bayreuth production in the early 1990s, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.  Siegfried is sung, fittingly enough, by Siegfried Jerusalem.

At the end of Act III, Siegfried has braved the fire that encircles Brünnhilde and, having removed her helmet, he beholds a woman for the first time in his life.  He is overcome with awe and fear.  She awakes, and they bring the house down with a half-hour long love duet that closes the opera.  Here is the opening section of that duet, in which Brünnhilde awakens.  Again, Siegfried is sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, and Brünnhilde by Anne Evans.

Bibliophilia: now good for families!

April 13, 2010

When people visit our home for the first time, they sometimes comment on the number of books that we have.  Glancing around the apartment right now I see books in the living room, by the entrance, on the windowsill, on the side-table, in the office, on the filing cabinet, in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in the closet — the bedroom closet, as a matter of fact, has about 500 books in it that couldn’t find a home anywhere else.  I used to like to have stacks of books on the floor, but my wife no longer permits that extravagance.  Our daughter, with her bookish enthusiasm and nascent passion for organization, has thought once or twice to store her books in the toilet.

I like to have books all over the place.  I like the idea of being surrounded by books, and I like the idea of having my kid(s) grow up surrounded by books.  I hope that they will be encouraged to pick them up and read them, following their own fancy.  I have suspected, too, that a home library is good for the intellectual development and scholastic success of children.  It turns out that I was right:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.

It is not, of course, the books themselves that have this good effect; no doubt they stand as proxies for other factors.  But having books, and reading them, has got to be a good start.

(Hat-tip: First Things)

Goodman: The Killing of Julia Wallace

April 13, 2010

The Killing of Julia Wallace
Jonathan Goodman (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969)
323 p. First reading.

Is there something morally suspect about the “true crime” genre?  I have sometimes thought so.  Taking an interest in the details of real-life murders seems akin to taking an interest in car accidents: one gazes with fascination at a scene of horror.  On the other hand, I have no such objections to murder mysteries and detective fiction, mostly, I believe, because their focus usually falls not on the crime, but on dispensing justice to the criminal.  Perhaps the same characteristic, when present, can redeem accounts of true crime as well.

Jonathan Goodman’s book falls on the fair side of the divide.  Of necessity it dwells at considerable length on the details of a murder, but all in the service of solving the case — something that had, until this book was written, proved elusive.

I am told that the Wallace case is one of the most famous in the annals of crime and detection.  The facts are briefly as follows: On the evening of 20 January 1931, Julia Wallace was brutally murdered in the sitting room of her home in Liverpool.  Her husband, William Herbert Wallace, was charged and convicted of the crime, but his conviction was overturned on grounds of insufficient evidence.  No-one else was ever charged.  Jonathan Goodman’s purpose in this book is to carefully review all of the available evidence.  In so doing, he convincingly exonerates Wallace, and proposes a compelling alternate theory of the murderer’s identity.

The circumstances surrounding the murder are worthy of a Hollywood thriller: a mysterious phone call, doors that seem to unlock themselves, a missing murder weapon, an apparent robbery, and — at least on the theory that Wallace committed the crime — a severely restricted time-frame.  Some have said that the case is remarkable principally because each piece of evidence can point two ways, either toward Wallace or away from him.  Goodman shows that this view of the case is false. It is true that much of the evidence has this quality, but some of it does not, and the latter category consistently points to Wallace’s innocence.  It was for this reason that it was suppressed by the police and the prosecution.

Indeed, maybe the most instructive thing about the Wallace case is how it illustrates the many ways in which a miscarriage of justice can occur.  The police immediately suspected Wallace of the murder, and did not seriously pursue other theories of the crime.  They botched their forensic analysis of the crime scene.  The prosecution did not call on witnesses whose testimony would have tended to exonerate Wallace.  Jurors were drawn from the Liverpool area where sensational rumours prejudicial to Wallace had been circulating, and the jury returned a guilty verdict — and a death sentence — with minimal deliberation.  As I said, this verdict was later overturned on appeal, not because of a technicality or because new evidence was presented, but simply because the available evidence failed to support the verdict — in other words, the jury was wrong.

At the end of the book Goodman presents an alternative theory of the murderer’s identity, and he may very well be right.  Certainly the case he makes is much stronger than that made against Wallace.  The Wikipedia page gives more details.

I first heard of Julia Wallace, and of this book, in the writings of Jacques Barzun.  I thank him, wherever he is, for introducing me to this very interesting case.