Archive for June, 2010

Sunday night moving song

June 27, 2010

We’re moving this week, and I’ve been spending more or less every spare hour these past weeks packing boxes.  Boxes.  Boxes piled in the living room.  Boxes under the table.  Boxes stacked up in the closet, and beside the bed.  Boxes half-full and gaping open, ready for our wee one to drop something inappropriate inside.  Boxes, boxes, boxes.  I really do not like moving.

When I move to the sky
Up in heaven so high
What a wonderful time that will be
I’m ready to go
Washed in Calvary’s flow
That will be the last move for me

On the other hand, our new place is going to be great once we’re there.  Until then, wish us well.


June 27, 2010

This is sort of gratifying:

On the other hand, it puts me in Bad Catholic company.


I just looked at the Wikipedia page for Websense, and I noticed that their corporate motto is “Essential Information Protection”.  Let me see if I understand: they prevent people from accessing public information, and they call it “information protection”.  That’s kind of creepy.

Sacred Music on the BBC, II

June 23, 2010

About six months ago I wrote words of praise for a BBC television programme called Sacred Music, which was exploring, with the capable assistance of Harry Christophers and his crack choir The Sixteen, the history of Christian sacred music.  Those first four shows began with Gregorian chant and ended with the music of J.S. Bach.  I remarked at the time that there was plenty of later sacred music worthy of consideration, and I wished for another set of episodes.  My wish has come true.  Four new episodes have been produced, and over the past few weeks I have watched them all.  With a few reservations, I enjoyed them.

The first episode examines the music of Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms; in the latter case the focus rests on his Ein Deutsches Requiem, which is not really sacred music in the strict sense — not liturgical music — and which seems to have been written from doubt as much as from belief, but which exists within that penumbra of sacred music where the personal and eccentric rub up against the firm and enduring voices of Scripture and traditional Christian faith.

A similar comment could be made about Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, which, together with Poulenc’s sacred works, are the subjects of the second episode.  The third takes us behind the late twentieth-century’s Iron Curtain to hear the courageous sacred music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.  I have admired Pärt, in particular, for a long time, and the brief interview segments in this episode have caused my admiration to wax greater still.

The fourth and final episode returns to the United Kingdom, and brings us up to the present day.  Three composers — James MacMillan, John Rutter, and John Tavener — are interviewed.  I haven’t got much use for the latter two, but MacMillan is terrific, and I found the interviews with him fascinating.  I learned, what I did not know, that he regularly writes new music for the choir at his parish church in Glasgow, whereupon I kicked myself in an uncomfortable spot for not attending that parish when I was in Glasgow a few years ago.  Bad tourist, bad.

Here is a clip from the final episode.  The segment on James MacMillan begins at about 2:45.

Given that this batch of episodes brings the music to the present, I doubt there will be any more seasons.  Too bad.  It has been an excellent series, all things considered.

Great moments in Wagner’s operas

June 21, 2010

Since I recently finished listening to and writing about all of Wagner’s mature operas,  it occurs to me that I can make a contribution to the common good by gathering together, in one spot, links to all the constituent posts.  Here they are:

Great moments in opera: Parsifal

June 15, 2010

Parsifal was Wagner’s last music-drama, and in many ways it is the artistic culmination of his life, bringing his techniques of musical composition, his love of medieval legend, and his penchant for long, slow musical lines together into what I can only describe as a sublime musical creation.  Debussy called it a “monument of sound”, and he was right.  The music is gorgeously majestic, and, like Lohengrin but to an even greater degree, it seems to be illuminated from within by an intense and pure radiance.  It is among the most beautiful things that I have ever heard.

Most of this beauty is in the orchestra.  The singing does not partake of any of the usual operatic conventions: there are few melodies that remain in the ear, and nothing at all that resembles an “aria”.  The vocal lines are almost uniformly very slow, as though the singers were statues just come to life, and this stateliness is a good match for the on-stage “action”, of which there is not very much.   This unhurried pace, which in some of Wagner’s previous work tended, in my judgement, toward ponderousness, here achieves a kind of rapt intensity and heroic strength.

The story of Parsifal is drawn from Chretien de Troyes, Wolfgang von Eschenbach, and the Welsh Mabinogion.  The Knights of the Holy Grail are tormented by Klingsor, a sorcerer, who has stolen the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s side, and who, by means of an enchanted garden filled with beautiful maidens, seduces any knight who attempts to retrieve it.  Meanwhile, Amfortas, the leader of the knights, has been wounded by this same spear and is racked with pains.  Only another touch from the spear can heal his wound, and a prophecy says that the spear can be retrieved only by a guileless fool.    Accordingly, the knights await him.  Parsifal, of course, is the awaited one.

In Act I, we learn the back story, and we see Parsifal make his first appearance among the knights.  In Act II, he goes to Klingsor’s enchanted garden and there confronts Kundry, the chief seductress who is herself under Klingsor’s spell, and who is one of Wagner’s most complex and interesting characters.  Parsifal overcomes her temptations, finds the spear, and, making with it the sign of the cross, sees Klingsor’s castle collapse into ruin.  In Act III, he returns, after many years, to the knights, and heals Amfortas’ wound with the sacred spear. Parsifal is over four hours in performance.  (Act I alone lasts nearly two hours.)

I am not sure how to interpret this work.  It is full of Christian imagery, with much of the action centered around sacred relics and the Blessed Sacrament.  One of my opera guides says that it depicts the triumph of Christianity over paganism, and this is a plausible — indeed, the most obvious — reading.  It is possible, I think, to appreciate it simply as a particularly effective dramatization of one of the wonderful medieval tales of the knights of the Grail.  On the other hand, one hardly expects a forthright defence of Christianity from Wagner, and there may be something else afoot.  Some sources say that Parsifal is consciously influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer.  That would explain the long section in which one of the characters articulates a view of the world as will and representation.  I jest.

The orchestral prelude to Parsifal introduces many of the central leitmotifs — those of the Sacrament, of the Grail, and of Faith, most notably — and it illustrates very well what I tried to say above about the translucent purity of the music.  The prelude lasts longer than 10 minutes, so too long for a single YouTube clip, but here is the first part of it, conducted by James Levine.  (The remaining part is here.)

One of my favourite scenes is from Act I, in which Parsifal is brought, for the first time, into the great hall of the Knights of the Holy Grail.  The knights themselves then enter, singing a beautiful chorus, and gather around the Grail.  This is really beautiful.  English subtitles are included in this high-quality video of a Bayreuth production:

To illustrate the style of singing that dominates most of Parsifal, consider this lovely scene from Act III.  Parsifal has returned from his long journey, carrying the sacred spear, and he meets the old knight Gurnemanz and a repentant Kundry in a meadow.  It is Good Friday.  This clip is again from Bayreuth, and with English subtitles.  Parsifal is sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, Gurnemanz by Hans Sotin, and Kundry by Eva Randova.  (If you like this scene, it is continued here.)


I believe that I have now completed this survey of all ten of Wagner’s mature operas.  May those who think that it has gone on too long, and those who think that it has gone on too short, forgive me.  May those who think that it has gone on just long enough join me in giving thanks to God.  Amen.

The hunting stake

June 10, 2010

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, here is one of my favourite stories from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba.


Once, a layman who lived in the district of Lochaber, and who was very poor, came to St. Columba.  He had no means of providing food for his wife and children, and so St. Columba took pity on him.  He gave such alms as he was able to the poor man, who was begging, and said:

‘My poor fellow, get a stick of wood from the forest here and bring it to me quickly.’

The dejected man obeyed the saint’s command and fetched the piece of wood, which the saint took from him and sharpened to a point.  He did this with his own hands, then blessed it and gave it to the needy man, saying:

‘Keep this sharp stick carefully.  It will not harm any man, I believe, nor any cattle, but with it you may kill wild animals and fish.  As long as you have this stake, your house will never be short of game for the table.’

The poor beggar was delighted to hear this and returned home.  He set the sharp stick up in an out-of-the-way place where there were wild creatures, and after only one night he went to check his stake-trap in the early morning.  There he found a stag of amazing size had fallen on the stake.

Why say more?  It is said that no day could pass but he found a stag or a hind or some other creature had fallen on the stake where it was fixed.  Also, when the house was filled with game, he sold to neighbours the surplus that the hospitality of his house could not use.  But the devil’s hatred reached this pitiable man, as it did Adam, through his wife.  She, like a fool without any sense, spoke to her husband saying this kind of thing:

‘Take up that stake from the ground, for if any person or cattle should be killed by it, then you and I and our children will be killed or led into slavery.’

‘Nothing like that will happen,’ said her husband, ‘for St. Columba said to me when he blessed the stake that it would never harm people or cattle.’

But after exchanges of this kind, the beggar gave in to his wife and went to take up the stake, which he brought back to the house as though he loved it and kept it inside by the wall.  However, not long afterwards, a house-dog fell on it and died.  At this the wife resumed her complaint:

‘One of your children,’ she said, ‘will fall on that stake and be killed.’

So the man took the stake from the wall and carried it back to the woods, and he set it in a place where the brambles grew so thick, he thought no living creature could be hurt by it.  But the next day he went back and found that a goat had fallen on it and been killed.  He again moved the stake and set it where it was hidden underwater, though near the bank, in the river Lochy.  Again, returning to it one day, he found a salmon of amazing size stuck on the stake.  Indeed, it was so big he could hardly lift it from the river and take it home.  He took the stake away with him too and this time set it on top of his roof outside.  Here a raven flying past dropped onto it and died.  After this, the poor man, ruined by the advice of his foolish wife, took the stake down, chopped it into pieces with his axe, and threw the fragments in the fire.  From then on he returned to begging, a fate he deserved, for he had thrown away the means of no small relief from his poverty; for this relief from penury had depended on that stake which had stood him in good stead as snare or net or any other means of hunting or fishing, because it had been blessed and given by St. Columba.  But now that it was  thrown away, the wretched layman and his whole family, to whom it had brought prosperity for a time, regretted its loss too late during all that remained of his life.

Life of St. Columba

June 9, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Columba, founder of the famous monastery of Iona.  Some months back I read Adomnán of Iona’s life of Columba, with the intention of posting something about it today.  I nearly forgot, but here, in the nick of time, it is.

Life of St. Columba (c.700)
Adomnán of Iona (Penguin Classics, 1995; trans: R.Sharpe)
406 p.  First reading.

Columba was already over forty years old when he sailed from Ireland to found a new monastic community.  The remote site on which he settled, a small island off the west coast of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides, eventually became one of the most famous sites in Western Europe.  Iona was a major pilgrimage site during the medieval era, a burial-place of kings, and home to one of Europe’s great scriptoria.  Yet despite its history of glories and honours, there remains something fresh and humble about Iona that not even the cool Atlantic winds have been able to blow away.  I was aware of it when I visited the island several years ago, and I was delighted to meet it again here, rising from the pages of this account of Columba’s life.

Columba lived over thirty years on Iona before his death in 597.  By then his community of monks — or “island soldiers”, as Adomnán calls them — was well established.  It suffered setbacks over the years, the most severe due to attacks from marauding northerners. (In 806, for instance, nearly seventy monks were killed during one such raid.)  But it was animated by a healthful spirit and survived for a thousand years.  Adomnán, the author of this life, was Columba’s eighth successor as abbot of Iona, and I suspect that the monastery’s longevity owes something to his literary efforts.  These stories about St. Columba’s life circulated widely in the Middle Ages, and they make both him and the island very attractive indeed.

Those who have read other early Christian lives will have some idea of what to expect.  Adomnán was clearly aware of the conventions of the genre, and two prior examples exerted a particular influence: Evagrius Ponticus’ fourth-century Life of St. Antony of Egypt and Sulpicius Severus’ wonderful fifth-century Life of St. Martin of Tours.  We are treated to tales of miracles, prophetic visions, angelic apparitions, and many other unusual events.  Columba was evidently a man who saw more clearly through the dark glass than is typical.

There are over 120 different stories collected here, so I can do little more than gesture at a few.  In the very first miracle story Adomnán tells how, when Columba prayed, water was turned into wine for the celebration of Mass, a clear sign that the spirit of Christ animates the saint.  A connection to the Gospel is less easily discerned in many other stories, which resemble folk tales and legends more than moral or spiritual lessons.  They are always charming and frequently humorous, as in this short excerpt:

. . . St. Columba was sitting by the fire in the monastery when he saw Luigbe moccu Min not far away reading a book.
“Take care, my son,” he said, “take care.  For I think that the book you are studying is going to fall into a vessel full of water.”
Before long it happened.  The young man got up to do some chore in the monastery and forgot what the blessed man had said.  He casually tucked the book under his arm, but it slipped and fell unto a butt full of water.

In another story Columba exorcises a devil that had become trapped in a milk-pail and kept spilling the milk in its effort to escape. Several of the stories demonstrate Columba’s solicitude for animals and his expertise as a meteorologist. (The foreknowledge afforded by modern forecasting could not compete with Columba’s own.)  The final story, which relates the story of Columba’s death, is beautiful and affecting. I will perhaps post it here next year on this day.  In the meantime, let me close with Adomnán’s summation:

Every conscientious reader who has finished reading this three-part book should mark well how great and special is the merit of our reverend abbot; how great and special is his honour in God’s sight; how great and special were his experiences of angelic visits and heavenly light; how great was the grace of prophecy in him; how great and how frequent was the brilliant light of heaven which shone on him as he dwelt in mortal flesh and which, after his most gentle soul had left the tabernacle of his body, does not cease even today.  For the place where his bones rest is still visited by the light of heaven and by numbers of angels, as is known from those of the elect who have themselves seen this.

This too is no small favour conferred by God on the man of blessed memory, that one who dwelt in this little island on the edge of the ocean should have earned a reputation that is famous not only in our own Ireland and in Britain, the largest of ocean’s islands, but has also reached the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, and even Rome itself, the chief of all cities.  This great and special renown is known to have been bestowed on St. Columba along with other divine gifts by God himself, who loves them that love him and who raises to the heights of honour and glory them that magnify him with sweet praises, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

Quiet time

June 6, 2010

Things have been quiet around here for the past 10 days or so, and that is likely to continue for a few more weeks.  The reasons are various, but the principal reason is that my computer at home, while not quite dead yet, is clearly not long for this world.  It has trouble booting; when it does boot, it forgets how to connect to the internet; soon it freezes up and demands a reboot.  It is pretty much useless.  More about that later, perhaps.

The upshot is that I have no reliable means to access this blog, or my email, or much of anything.  This is actually okay, because I have no time for those things either.  Some readers will know that our family is going to be moving in a few weeks, and every spare moment is occupied with stuffing one thing or another into boxes.  Wish us luck.