Archive for January, 2011

Benedict U.

January 31, 2011

The proprietress of the always informative The Do-Tique recently sent me an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and it was so enjoyable that I’d like to share it here. The article proposes that a renewal of higher education in our culture might result from going back — way, way back — to an educational model based on one of the most enduring institutions in our history: the monastery.

One could imagine that in the Middle Ages, choosing a monastery might have been like selecting among liberal-arts colleges, each with a different variation of mission and expression. But the major purpose, in every case, was to turn away from the vices and distractions of the world toward a higher life—often a deeply intellectual one—nurtured by the work of one’s hands.

It’s a quixotic argument, of course, but winsomely written and a pleasure to read. It is just the sort of thing to put stars in my eyes.

(Parenthetically, it occurs to me that one could write a comic novel — a warmly satiric one — based around just this idea. Naturally, the satire would be directed at our established universities, not the other way around.)

For all that a proposal like this runs slam up against every tendency of our Zeitgeist, it is worth pointing out (as a few comments on the original article do) that there are several academic institutions in North America that adopt certain of the features the article advocates. Comment #29 praises Thomas Aquinas College, for instance, in California, about which I have heard good things before.

Renaissance MTV

January 31, 2011

If you have ever gone trolling through YouTube looking for good quality video related to medieval or Renaissance music, you know that your chances of success are comparable to your chances of lottery-winning. Usually the best you can hope for is audio from a studio recording joined to still photographs. Very occasionally you’ll find concert footage.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover this video from a Flemish group called Capilla Flamenca. They have actually made an MTV-style music video for one of Alexander Agricola‘s fifteenth-century chansons, titled In myne zyn (To my delight). The quality is high, and it is hilarious to boot.

(Hat-tip: The Rest is Noise)

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2011

January 28, 2011

To mark St. Thomas’ feast, here are a few aphorisms drawn from his writings.

  • Every being naturally loves God more than itself. (ST I, 60, 5 ad 1)
  • Sin is nothing other than falling away from the good which is fitting to one’s nature. (ST I-II, 109, 2 ad 2)
  • Evil is never loved except under the aspect of good; that is to say, in so far as it is truly a good in some particular respect, but is conceived as absolutely good. (ST I-II, 27, 1 ad 1)
  • God is one in reality but multiple according to our minds; we know him in as many ways as created things represent him. (ST I, 13, 4 ad 3)
  • To know God in a created likeness is not to know the essence of God. (ST I, 12, 4 ad 1)

More from the same fount, from 2010 and 2009.

Great moments in opera: Die Zauberflöte

January 27, 2011

Happy birthday, Mozart!

Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is today his most popular stage piece, and one of the most popular “operas” in the repertoire.  The scare quotes are necessary because it is not really an opera in the proper sense, but a Singspiel, something like an eighteenth-century analogue of a stage musical today.  It is immensely popular because it is fun, lively, and full of beautiful, memorable music, including, in the Queen of the Night’s aria, one of the greatest show-stopping virtuoso vocal pieces known to man.

I am not going to try to summarize the plot, nor even to situate the highlight clips below, mostly because I am unable to state, even approximately, what happens.  The whole thing is one great dramatic mish-mash, with the exposed seams running every which way.  I’ve listened to it many times, and seen it staged once, and I don’t really know what it is about.  I am just happy that Papageno finds his Papagena in the end.

Speaking of which, here is a wonderful sequence: Papageno’s suicide cut short by the arrival of Papagena.  The “Pa- Pa- Pa- Pa-” section is what I always think of first when I think of Die Zauberflöte, and it never fails to bring a smile to my face.  This clip is taken from Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish-language film Trollflöjten, which I have seen, and which I greatly enjoyed (and which still did not help me to understand the story). Bergman is not usually noted for his comedic spirit, but this is pure delight.  I like how he takes her clothes off.

(A longer clip, including the hilarious suicide attempt that precedes the section shown above, can be seen here, although without subtitles.)

Die Zauberflöte is not all humour and light charm, although those are my favourite parts of it.  Mozart also introduced music of real dramatic weight, and a good example is “Pamina’s lament”, Ach ich fuhl’s. It is sung here by the great Lucia Popp.  (The aria begins at 0:50 in this clip.)

Since I alluded to the Queen of the Night’s aria already, I suppose that I should also include it here as a highlight.  It is so well known — in its standard version — that it hardly seems worthwhile.  But perhaps fewer have heard the highly non-standard version sung by the inimitable Florence Foster Jenkins, whose operatic career, like the proverbial meteor, was short but dazzling.  If you’re drinking something, set it down. Here we go. (Thanks to Sony’s lawyers, the video is un-embeddable.)


This occasional “Great moments in opera” series has now covered six of Mozart’s mature operas, and I do believe that that is enough for the present.  Next time I shall move on to another composer, though I know not whom.

Taruskin: History of Western Music II

January 23, 2011

The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.II
Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Richard Taruskin (Oxford, 2005)
828 p.

The first volume of Richard Taruskin’s massive Oxford History of Western Music had ended in Venice with the operas of Monteverdi. This second volume resumes the tale and carries it through to the life and work of Beethoven, which is an enormous swath of music and history. This was the period in which the idea of a musical canon took shape for the first time, and the composers who first assumed their places in that canon are, to a large extent, the ones who still dominate it today: Bach, Mozart, and especially Beethoven. All three composers are discussed in this volume, which therefore, in a meaningful sense, can be said to address itself to the heart of our musical tradition.

By the middle of this volume it was clear that Taruskin had settled into a rhythm: a running narration of the major developments in society and art that affected music, enlivened by brief biographies of the leading composers, and punctuated by focused analyses of important compositions. These last are sometimes quite technical (they should be read “with score in hand”, says Taruskin), and I, being untutored in such matters, was left in the dust. But more often than not the historical material returned after a few pages and I was welcomed aboard again. Taruskin is mostly interested in the influence of culture, politics, and even economics on the development of music.

The major developments during this period were numerous. Chief among them were the replacement of the modal system by the tonal (if I may state the matter in such a naive way); the expansion of the expressive potential, and the popularity, of purely instrumental music; the rise of opera; the creation of a musical canon; the decline of improvisation; the birth of Romanticism; and the transformation of the person of the composer from an admirable craftsman into a heroic figure.

Opera seria, represented especially by Alessandro Scarlatti and the Neapolitan composers, made a distinctive contribution to our music in the form of the da capo aria. Today these arie, with their distinctive ABA structure, are something of a Baroque cliché, and a sometimes tiring one at that, but at the time they were an innovation, for their music was constructed around principles of harmonic contrast and closure. These principles, which are almost entirely absent from polyphonic music of earlier times, were to dominate music for centuries, and certainly throughout the period covered by the present volume. It was an idea ripe with possibility.

Incidentally, it is good to remember how immensely popular opera seria was in its day. Strange as it may sound, the genre is dominated not by a composer but by a librettist: Metastasio. He was considered the opera librettist par excellence, his libretti having been set over eight hundred times by over three hundred different composers! Anyone who had that kind of popularity was bound to wield influence, of course, and opera lovers are indebted to him for formalizing the difference between recitative and aria which has dominated the art ever since, but the really astounding thing is to contemplate the fact that his immense authority, extended over hundreds of years, has now utterly vanished and, I must admit, appears profoundly perplexing. A wise man would draw a lesson from such a tale.

The rise of tonal instrumental music is one of the great achievements of our tradition. It was tonal structure and tension, harmonic departure and return, that opened the way to large scale works that could be dramatic and intelligible without the use of words. Taruskin traces the birth of tonality-driven instrumental forms to Italian concertos of the late seventeenth century, and in particular (if we need an exemplar) to Archangelo Corelli. Over the next century these techniques developed in expressive potential and structural strength until, in the music of Haydn, there were well-understood norms for thematic statement, development, and harmonic resolution. Such norms not only made music of ever greater scale and ambition intelligible to audiences (indeed, the unintelligibility of classical music to large swathes of the population today can be largely attributed, I believe, to ignorance of those norms), but it also made possible even greater dramatic statements based on violations of those norms. This purely musical logic and system of meaning — what Taruskin rather laboriously calls ‘introversive semiotics’ — was the hallmark of what we now call the ‘classical’ period, but in one form or another it was the hearty fare on which music fed right up until the modernism of the twentieth-century.

Romanticism transformed our view of art, and therefore of music, and therefore of composers, and in the process it changed the music too. The Romantics reserved a special place of honour for music, for in their judgement it was the only truly spiritual art, not mired in physicality like sculpture and painting, and therefore best fit to express the ineffable. According to E.T.A. Hoffmann, “its sole subject is the infinite”. For the same reason, Romantics expressed a distinct preference for instrumental music over vocal; words, after all, with their awkward specificity, only intruded into the pure, musical experience.

For the leading Romantics, art was supposed to replace religion. The sublime, rather than the sacred, was to be the means to transcendence. As such, romantic music began to take on qualities previously reserved to the sacred. Concert halls, for instance, began to be places where one would behave as though in church, sitting quietly and attentively. A sacred tradition, in the form of canonical and revered works, took shape. Even performance practice was affected, with emphasis shifting from improvisation and personal interpretation to faithful and precise reproduction of the score. In some cases — with Mozart’s piano concertos, for instance — this resulted in ‘authentic’ performances that actually differed from their originals, for in Mozart’s day the written cadenza was rarely played. Once Mozart entered the canon, however, what Mozart had written acquired authority and became the norm. Such are the ironies of authenticity.

The Romantic ideal found its embodiment in the person of Ludwig van Beethoven. He was everything they were looking for, and more. Even his deafness, which in earlier times might have turned a composer into a farcical figure, was turned to advantage, for the Romantic artist achieved greatness through suffering, and Beethoven suffered, and prevailed. His music, and his person, loomed long and large over the whole of the nineteenth century — which is the subject of Volume III. Onward!


Related reading: Jacques Barzun – The Use and Abuse of Art

Ab missalis novi

January 21, 2011

This post may be of interest to Catholic readers, and probably not to others.

I don’t know how many English-speaking Catholics are aware that a new translation of the Missal has been completed, and is going to be introduced into parishes beginning, I believe, in Advent 2011. The new translation will replace the one first issued after Vatican II, and it aims to provide a more faithful translation of the Latin original. The changes will affect much of what we hear and pray at Mass.

Excerpts from the new Missal have been leaking out here and there over the past few months. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen so far. The new translation are not only more accurate, but they mount a splendid assault on the drab prose that dominates the translations currently in use. The tone of the new prayers that I have seen is more elevated, and elevating, than we have been accustomed to, and the sheer proliferation of dependent clauses, making a triumphant return from exile, is surely an occasion for rejoicing.

At The Chant Café they have been making a few tête-à-tête comparisons, much to the advantage of the new translation. You can find such comparisons here, here, and here, for instance. This one is especially interesting.

The reason for this post, today, is simply to note that the entire new Missal has finally been posted online. I myself haven’t had time to look through it in much detail, but maybe someone else can do so, and report back. In any case, those with an interest in these matters can take a good, long look.


A note on the title of this post: I am not at all sure that my Latin is sound. I cannot find missale in a Latin dictionary, but based on its form I surmise that it is a third declension noun. According to this etymology, its gender is neuter.  I have then put it, and its adjective, into the genitive case. Should I have used ablative case? I am happy to be corrected on any or all of these points.

Pärt on the BBC

January 19, 2011

The BBC radio programme Music Matters went to Estonia last weekend to interview the wonderful composer Arvo Pärt. It is a fascinating discussion that touches on several topics that have come up here from time to time: music and morals, and music and the sacred, for instance. Each time I hear Arvo Pärt speak I am more impressed by him.

The programme is available for listening only until this Saturday. The segment with Pärt covers roughly minutes 8-22.

Fantastic four

January 18, 2011

Today marks four years since the inauguration of All Manner of Thing. If I were President of the United States my term would be finished and I would be campaigning for re-election, but, seeing as I am instead Dictator-in-Chief, I intend to simply carry on as usual.

To celebrate the day, allow me to distribute gifts — in the form of ‘Thank You’s — to everyone who takes the time to visit this weblog. I am well aware that there can be no obligation in such matters. You have my humble and hearty thanks. Special thanks to those who trouble themselves to add their own thoughts to my posts; I really do enjoy reading and responding to comments.

WordPress sent me a “blog health report” at the end of 2010, and All Manner of Thing has a “Wow!” rating, which is evidently intended in a good sense. We had nearly 40 000 visitors in 2010, which is a record.

Onward, then, and maybe also upward! Thanks for reading.

Ambler: A Coffin for Dimitrios

January 10, 2011

A Coffin for Dimitrios
Eric Ambler (Vintage Crime)
304 p. [1939]

This is the first of Eric Ambler’s books that I have read. Apparently he is regarded as an eminent early writer of spy novels, thrillers, and other genres that were destined to wax greatly and overwhelm airport book shops. I am told that he was an influence on later practitioners of the craft like John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum. Being, as I am, almost entirely ignorant of the work of those gentleman, that connection does not explain my interest in Ambler. In fact, my interest in Ambler has no explanation that I can identify.

A Coffin for Dimitrios (which is published in the UK under the less ominous title The Mask of Dimitrios) has an amusing premise: our fictional narrator, just like our real narrator, is a successful author of crime novels. One day, while lounging about in Constantinople, he hears about a recently murdered master criminal — Dimitrios — and becomes intrigued about the man’s past. He decides to take a break from writing in order to indulge in a bit of detection himself, trying to piece together Dimitrios’ history. The project takes him from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, and France, and with each step he becomes entangled, quite unwittingly, in the lives of those who knew the man. It is not long before he finds himself well over his head in the criminal underground, and unsure how to escape. There are some superb plot twists along the way, which I shant reveal here lest I spoil the book for others.

Ambler writes in a brisk, no-nonsense style. It’s the sort of style that doesn’t broadcast itself as a style: steady tempi and a cool emotional temperature, with clearly-drawn, interesting characters and a briskly developing story. The sequence of exotic locales obviously reminds one of a James Bond story, but the resemblances don’t go much further. Ambler writes better than Tom Clancy or John Grisham, who might also reasonably be considered his literary heirs. Because I was there myself not too long ago, it was particularly interesting for me to read about Sofia in the 1930s, before the Soviets moved in. I will admit that I was a little disappointed when our hero did not stay in the same hotel that I did. (On the other hand, if he had he might have stayed out of trouble, and that would have made for a dull read.)

Great moments in opera: La Clemenza di Tito

January 7, 2011

La Clemenza di Tito is something of a black sheep among Mozart’s late operas.  It premiered just a few months before his untimely death, and so is a mature work, but it has not won the hearts of audiences in the way that the other late works have.  This may be due, in part, to the haste with which it was written: just three weeks elapsed between Mozart’s receiving the commission and the date of the first performance.  But I think the reason is principally because Mozart returned to the opera seria genre, and, as a general rule, opera seria, with its polite formality, stock characters, and moralizing tone, has not had much appeal after the eighteenth century.  The likable characters, wit, and dramatic urgency of the other late operas are almost completely absent from La Clemenza di Tito.

Having said that, it was still written by Mozart, and there is lovely music in it.  An interesting bit of trivia is that this was the first of Mozart’s operas to be performed in London.  If you had been a Londoner with not enough money to go abroad, and just enough money to gain admittance to the city’s opera house, La Clemenza di Tito would have been your first impression of Mozartian opera.

The basic story concerns a plot against the life of the Emperor Titus, and his magnanimous clemency toward the perpetrators.  As a musical highlight, I have selected the finale of Act I, which is unique in Mozart’s oeuvre for the manner in which it brings together both a choir and a group of soloists in a finale.  The conventions of opera-plotting required that Act I end in a state of general confusion, it being the task of Act II to draw order from the disorder.  In this case, the act ends with a botched attempt on the life of Titus.

Here is a clip from a 1980 film version of the opera. There are no subtitles, and it is probably not very easy to follow what is happening, and that’s ok.  (The libretto is here, starting at “Deh conservate”, if your Italian is good.)