Archive for September, 2010

Out of the Mouths of Babes

September 14, 2010

There is a new item on my blogroll this week.  One of my godsons, a lively 3-year old named Munchie (for our purposes here, at any rate), routinely lets drop those pearls of wisdom and striking observations that only children can think of. Out of the Mouths of Babes is a newly founded blog at which some, at least, of these sayings will be preserved in perpetuity.  It promises to be entertaining and instructive, just like children themselves.

I’m not the only one who has noticed.  Filia Artis, over at The Do-tique, is also on board.

Arvo Pärt: Recommended recordings

September 12, 2010

In response to yesterday’s post marking Arvo Pärt’s birthday, I was asked to recommend one or two recordings for someone interested in hearing his music for the first time. Rather than confine my recommendations to a follow-up comment, I thought I’d put them here, where all may see.

I was asked for one or two recommendations, but I’ll go one better, to three.  The first two focus on his music for voices, and the last on instrumental music.

My first recommendation is Arbos, a recording from 1987 on ECM Records.  ECM made a series of Pärt recordings at around that time with the Hilliard Ensemble (Arbos, Miserere, and Passio), and in my opinion they still have not been surpassed. Of the three, Arbos is the most approachable and has the most variety.  It includes several short pieces, including Pärt’s wonderful setting of De Profundis, and closes with a large-scale work, the Stabat Mater.  It is an excellent all around introduction.

My second suggestion for choral music is a disc from Theatre of Voices, released in 1997 on Harmonia Mundi.  Again it includes a nice variety of different works, and has little overlap with the previous disc. It also includes a little-recorded piece called And One of the Pharisees, which I am personally very fond of.  The singing and recording quality are top shelf.

When it comes to Pärt’s instrumental music, my first recommendation in the past has always been Tabula Rasa, also on ECM.  This recording, from 1984, has achieved something of classic status in Pärt’s discography, principally for its excellent performance of the title piece, written for two violins, prepared piano, and string orchestra.  Recently, however, another recording of that piece has edged into top spot in my estimation, and I will recommend it: Arvo Pärt: Portrait was released in 2010 on the Montreal-based label Analekta.  In addition to a very beautiful and poised performance of Tabula Rasa, this disc also includes a number of other instrumental works, including the wonderful Speigel im Spiegel, and even one choral work (Ein Wallfahrtslied) not included on either of the two previous recommendations.   It is, once again, a very fine introduction to Pärt and his music.

Happy listening!

Happy birthday, Arvo Pärt

September 11, 2010

Today is the 75th birthday of Arvo Pärt, my favourite living composer.  I fell in love with his music about ten years ago when I heard Kanon Pokajanen, his setting of the Orthodox Church’s Canon of Repentance, and I have since sought out pretty much all of his pieces that have found their way to recordings.  On this, his birthday, I’d like to share a couple of my favourites.

Pärt’s music falls into two chronologically sequential parts: the before part, when he composed in an aggressive modernist idiom, and the after part, when he composed in a remarkably simple and pure style he calls ‘tintinnabulation’.  It is the latter part that is most beloved by me.  Here is Es sang vor langen Jahren (text and translation), an early piece in his second period that nicely illustrates how he makes something beautiful from the slenderest materials.  The imagery in this video is from Tarkovski:

Pärt has composed quite a lot of choral music in English, and for this we can be grateful.  Among my favourite pieces is I Am The True Vine, a setting of John 15:1-14.  He does something lovely with the voices, having them intertwine very much like the branches of a vine:

Finally (and I am cutting this cruelly short), here is an excerpt from that piece that first caught my attention: Ode IV from Kanon Pokajanen (text and translation):

Happy birthday, Mr. Pärt.

Ward: Planet Narnia

September 7, 2010

Planet Narnia
The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis
Michael Ward (Oxford, 2008)
360 p.  First reading.

Michael Ward made a big splash in the world of Narnian scholarship a few years ago with this study of the Chronicles.  His central claim is that he has uncovered the structural plan according to which the seven books were made.  Each book, he argues, is governed by, presided over, by one of the seven planetary deities of the medieval cosmos: Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  The characteristics of each planet influence the plot, the ornamental detail, and the atmosphere and mood of each book.

At first it seems a startling idea, but after a little reflection it becomes intriguing. The books do have very different atmospheres: The Silver Chair is wet and cloudy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is sunny and bright, The Last Battle is crabbed and dark, etc.  Furthermore, Lewis was a medievalist, and anyone who has read his fascinating study The Discarded Image knows that he had a great admiration for the medieval heavens, and knew the natures of the various planetary intelligences in close detail.  He called the planetary gods “spiritual symbols of permanent value”.  Certain odd features of some of the books, which have been often criticized (such as the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), suddenly seem rather fitting when viewed in this way (for, to continue the example, that book’s presiding spirit is Jupiter, and is there a more jovial figure than Father Christmas?).

Once the idea is suggested, then, it has a certain plausibility about it.  To make the case really convincing requires looking at the Chronicles in careful detail, and Ward does so.  In fact, he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything Lewis ever wrote, and he marshals it all in support of his thesis.  The most relevant books are (of course) the Chronicles themselves, followed by the Space Trilogy (especially That Hideous Strength) and The Discarded Image, but he also brings in his letters, essays, studies of medieval literature, Christian apologetics, and other works of fiction.  If you are an admirer of Lewis, the cumulative argument is a rare feast.

At the end of the argument, Ward makes the provoking claim that his theory illuminates the books to such an extent that “the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it”, and I admit that I am persuaded to agree with him.  First of all, I like the idea of the books having a secret plan, and, based on what I know of Lewis, I find it easy to believe that he would relish the artful concealment of his guiding vision.  Second, he really did love the medieval cosmos, and he must have thought himself a lonely lover at times; that he could pay private homage to the planets in this way must have seemed appealing.  Third (and perhaps I should have said this first), the theory really does fit the literary evidence: when once the character of each planet is explained, it becomes a fairly simple matter to match the books up, one with the other.

At the close of his central argument, Ward advances, more cautiously, a theory about the occasion for Lewis’ decision to begin writing the Chronicles.  The first of them was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and he began it shortly after the famous Oxford debate with Elisabeth Anscombe — famous because it was one of the few occasions in his life when he was soundly bested in debate, and he knew it.  Anscombe had criticized an argument Lewis put forth in the first version of his book Miracles about the nature of rationality.  Some commentators, noting that after this rather humiliating defeat Lewis turned to children’s literature, have interpreted the Chronicles as a kind of retreat into immaturity.  Ward disagrees completely.  Instead, he argues that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an attempt to present in fictional form his thoughts about the nature of rationality.  Jove, the kingly god, is the source of reason and order, and the book’s characters live and move in the light he sheds upon the world.  In other words, it is an attempt to go deeper into the issues that Anscombe had brought up, not to flee from them.  This is an intriguing proposal, but I agree with Ward that it is less compelling than his principal claim.

All in all, this is probably the most fascinating book that I have read about C.S. Lewis.  I am persuaded by the arguments, and I feel that my understanding of and admiration for the Chronicles, and for Lewis himself, have increased considerably.


This interview with Michael Ward lays out the argument concisely.  It does rather spoil things, though, if you’d like to try to guess the planet-chronicle mapping yourself.

Great moments in opera: Le Nozze di Figaro

September 2, 2010

A fair number of opera lovers would name Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro as their favourite of Mozart’s operas, and even as their favourite opera of all.  I am not in either group — Cosi fan tutte takes my Mozartian palm, and I would have to think hard before naming my very favourite opera — but I agree that Le Nozze di Figaro is easy to love.  It was the first of the three marvelous operas that Mozart worked on with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, and the collaboration clearly stimulated Mozart’s muse.  These three — Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte — are celebrated for their sparkling music, magnificent ensemble pieces, and unprecedented psychological acuity.  They really are wonderful to hear.

Trying to select a “great moment” from Le Nozze di Figaro is like trying to find hay in a haystack: one is spoiled for choice.  The list of arias alone reads like an operatic hit parade: Voi che sapete, Non più andrai, Porgi amor, and Dove sono being chief among them.  But, in my opinion, the greatest section of the opera is the celebrated Act II finale.  In one of his letters (which I am unable to find online), Mozart wrote about his conception of this finale: twenty minutes of continuous music in which new characters keep coming on stage, first three, then four, then five, then six, and then seven!  With each entry, the new voice is added to the mixture, mounting up to a spectacular septet.  Nothing like this had been attempted in opera before, and Mozart pulled it off wonderfully.

At twenty minutes long, this finale hardly qualifies as a “moment”, but, nonetheless, here it is.  This is from a 2006 production at the Royal Opera House in London, conducted by Antonio Pappano.  English subtitles are included, but it might make more sense if you glance at a plot synopsis for Acts I and II before listening.