Archive for July, 2011

Remembering Bach

July 28, 2011

Today is the anniversary of the death of history’s greatest composer. Numerically speaking, it is not an especially notable anniversary — the 261st, unless I am mistaken — but that does not deter me from marking the day with some music.

Casting about for a piece that would be fitting for this purpose, I thought of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.2 for solo violin. Almost all music for solo violin is, of course, sounding in the shadow of Bach, but in this particular piece by Ysaÿe the connection is more explicit. The sonata’s first movement begins by quoting from the beginning of Bach’s own Partita No.3 for solo violin, and as the music develops this theme becomes interwoven with that of the Gregorian Dies Irae chant, from the Requiem Mass. What better way to mark Bach’s death?

Here is Hilary Hahn playing the first two movements of the Ysaÿe sonata; the first movement, which is of special interest today, lasts about 2-1/2 minutes. You can hear Bach’s Partita No.3 here, and the Dies Irae, if you don’t know it, can be heard here.

Scriptural statistics

July 26, 2011

A few months ago I was listening to a series of lectures on early Christianity. (Regrettably, I cannot remember where I got them from, or who was giving them.) In part, the lectures discussed the means by which biblical scholars determine the dates of composition of biblical texts, the cultural backgrounds of the authors, their theological purposes, the intended audiences, and so forth. These findings, it turns out, rest on a chain of reasoning involving the texts themselves, other historical records, archeological findings, and scholarly speculation. A problem with such reasoning is that though each link in the chain may be reasonable enough, or at least defensible, string enough of them together and, probabilities being what they are, the conclusion begins to look more and more dubious. It was apparent that, even with the best intentions, these scholarly ‘findings’ could be mistaken.

I was recently reminded of this while watching an engaging lecture exploring the historical reliability of the biblical Gospels. The lecturer, Dr. Peter Williams, describes a highly non-traditional approach to the biblical texts, an approach well-suited to our technological era, based on statistical analyses of the texts: incidence of proper names, incidence of place names, word counts, and so forth.

The outcome of this type of analysis, he argued, is a rousing, and perhaps surprising, defence of the historical reliability of the Gospels. In particular, his analysis challenges a theory which apparently has a following among contemporary biblical scholars. The theory claims that the four biblical Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, were probably written far away from the sites described, and by people who had never been there. The gist of the theory is that the Gospels are not very historically reliable, and that much of their specific content was either fabricated or based on unreliable sources.

The findings presented in the lecture directly challenge this view of things by presenting evidence that the authors of the Gospels either had detailed first-hand knowledge of the region and the culture of first-century Israel/Palestine, and of the events of the life of Jesus, or they had reliable testimony from those who had such knowledge. It is really quite a fascinating line of argumentation.

Also interesting is how certain key metrics discriminate between the biblical Gospels and the host of so-called ‘alternative Gospels’, strongly suggesting that the former are more historically reliable than the latter. (This conclusion had already been reached on other grounds, but it is nice to see it confirmed in this way.)

Toward the end of the lecture is a brief exploration of some surprising ways in which apparently incidental details woven into the narratives of the biblical Gospels can, when taken together, provide mutually reinforcing evidence that the descriptions are based on eyewitness accounts or on a strong and consistent oral tradition. This kind of argument, too, is new to me.

The lecture is nearly an hour in duration, but it is so interesting that the time flies by.

(Hat-tip: Joe Carter)

Johnson: A History of Christianity

July 25, 2011

A History of Christianity
Paul Johnson
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976)

556 p.

These notes originally written 7 November 2005.

Johnson aims to present an historical overview of Christianity from its Jewish beginnings until just a few years before the pontificate of John Paul II. It is the first of Johnson’s books that I have read, and I must say he is a fetching writer with an easy manner and a brisk style. His account dwells primarily, and not inappropriately, on the history of European Christianity, though he devotes a large chapter to the rise of the faith in South America and the United States.

All of the main events are here: the theological and missionary work of Paul, Constantine’s conversion, the Reformation and, in the closing pages, Vatican II. Several of the ‘second-tier’ topics Johnson chooses to discuss are quite fascinating: he gives a valuable overview of the contemporary setting of Jesus’ mission, a very interesting account of Jesuit missionary work in 17th century Japan (and the subsequent brutal suppression of the faith in that country), and — perhaps best of all — he stages a delightful parade of the bizarre sects of ‘Reason’ that briefly flourished in the wake of the Revolution in France. Johnson seems to have been ahead of his time in drawing attention to the potential consequences of the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa.

However it should be said that the tone throughout the book is fairly consistently negative. Johnson is himself a Catholic, and considering that most of Christian history is Catholic history, perhaps he feared that too approving an account would draw criticism for being partial and patronizing. If that was his fear, he certainly succeeded brilliantly in deflecting any such criticism, but I think the book suffers as a result. When the Church argues on theological grounds he suggests that it is slightly out of touch, but when it advances other arguments it is worldly and inauthentic; when Catholics do not condemn Nazism to Johnson’s satisfaction they are condemned, but when Lutherans do the same they are excused (after all, they didn’t have a ‘tradition of opposition to the state’); when the Pope refuses to compromise he is portrayed as domineering and antidemocratic, but when he does compromise he is a ‘weak autocrat’. Johnson reserves most of his ire for ‘Augustinianism’, ‘triumphalism’, and ‘mechanical Christianity’, whatever that is. I found the concentrated dour tone a bit much after a while. He added a diminutive epilogue in what was apparently an attempt to redress this misbalance, but it is a case of too little too late.

Overall, then, a grumpy read from a fine historian.

Hotter than blazes

July 21, 2011

I have often had occasion to reflect on the fact that living in Toronto is hell, but these past weeks — and especially today — it is truer than ever.

Apparently last night was the hottest night on record for the city, and although today’s blast from Beelzebub’s bellows is projected to fall just short of the all-time heat record, it is most unpleasant all the same. I bought some ice cream but it melted before I could eat it. This evening I intend to cook sausages by simply setting them outside.

(That ‘Feels Like:’ temperature folds in the humidity. I don’t know if places that are perpetually hot and humid do that or not. 49°C is 120°F.)

At times like this I find myself wishing that winter would come, as I generally tolerate cold weather better than hot. But then I checked the weather at the South Pole. Would I rather be there? Probably not.

The most recent post at The Hebdomadal Chesterton is on-topic.

Annan Waters

July 20, 2011

And woe betide you, Annan Waters.
By night you are a gloomy river,
And over you I’ll build a bridge
That nevermore true love can sever.

Here is an English folk song that has been spinning its enchanting web around me for a few months. I had heard it before, from various singers, but it was only upon hearing a luminous performance by Kate Rusby (on her record Hourglass) that the beauty of the song really came through to me. It is a sad song, as is so often the case in this reportoire, about a young man who, after a desperate and exhausting night-time ride to see his ‘wondrous bonnie’ lover, attempts to swim across the river, and drowns.

Oh woe betide the willow wand,
And woe betide the bush and briar,
For you broke beneath my true love’s hand
When strength did fail and limbs did tire.

Here is Kate Rusby’s beautiful version of the song, married to some unrelated but not entirely inappropriate imagery. The volume level of this clip is quite high, and I found I had to turn it down to avoid distortion. (Mind you, my speakers are about as poor as speakers can be.) The full lyrics to the song are here.

At the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds

July 18, 2011

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds
Jocelin of Brakelond
(Penguin Classics, 1989) [12th c.]
181 p.

These notes originally written 30 October 2005.

I stumbled upon this little volume in a used book store and, as I’ve an amateurish interest in medieval culture, decided to buy it. Written by a monk of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (in Suffolk, England) in the 12th century, it narrates various happenings in that monastery over a period of about 30 years.

There is no overriding narrative here. The author — Jocelin of Brakelond by name — seems to have simply jotted things down when the fancy took him. Most of what he records pertains to the politics, both internal and external, of the monastery, and with financial matters. There is one amusing section in which he records the fees paid to the monastery by knights of the district. If I was looking for spiritual exhortation or insight into monastic piety I quickly learned that I should look for it elsewhere.

Though the events of the monastery are not exactly of earth-shattering importance, the book does give one a fascinating view into medieval life at the time. Jocelin himself is a wise old bird whose observations of his fellow monks are carefully weighed and perceptive. He does not shrink from relating the drama and discord surrounding elections within the monastery. In the background of the community’s life we see the Kings of England (who on a few occasions come to visit), the life of the surrounding town, and in the distance the waging of the Third Crusade.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the account of the fire at the shrine of St. Edmund, and of the subsequent translation of the body and examination of the corpse (by then about 300 years old and still, says Jocelyn, incorrupt). I found it a real delight.

Great moments in opera: Eugene Onegin

July 17, 2011

Tchaikovsky is not among my favourite composers, and his operas, while maintaining a place at the fringe of the repertoire, are not among his most popular compositions; consequently I had felt no particular desire to hear them. This week, however, the opportunity to view a performance of Eugene Onegin presented itself, and my curiosity got the better of me. I was pleasantly surprised: it is a lovely opera, gorgeously orchestrated (as one would expect coming from this composer), with graceful, if not quite memorable, melodies, interesting characters, and a good story. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the intimate feel of the piece: it is essentially a domestic drama and, since the music is written to scale, the singers do not have to bellow to be heard, giving the whole opera a chamber music ambience and a comparative lack of artifice. I am really very glad that I heard it.

The story, based on a novel by Pushkin, centers around a young man named Eugene Onegin whose haughtiness brings tragedy and sorrow upon his friends, and eventually upon himself as well. A young woman, Tatyana, falls in love with him, but he rejects her in favour of a dalliance with her sister, who is, however, engaged to Onegin’s best friend. Inflamed by jealousy, his friend challenges him to a duel, and is killed. Years later Onegin finds that Tatyana has married well, and he is overcome with regret at the thought of the life of happiness that might have been his, had he not spurned her affections.

The most famous scene of the opera — the only scene I had heard prior to this week — is the so-called “Letter Scene”, in which Tatyana, having fallen in love with Onegin, spends a sleepless night writing a letter in which she confesses her love to him. The scene is a long monologue, running to about 20 minutes, but here is a portion of it. Mirella Freni sings the part, and English subtitles are included.

For the record, the DVD I watched was this one. Judging by the cover it doesn’t look like much, but I thought it was great.

Kahn: The Codebreakers

July 14, 2011

The Codebreakers
The Story of Secret Writing
David Kahn (Scribner, 1967)
1181 p.

These notes originally written 23 October 2005.

David Kahn’s The Codebreakers is an outstanding survey of the history of cryptography from the origins of the subject up to the Second World War. Kahn is thorough, and though the details occasionally threaten to overwhelm the narrative, for the most part the writing is clear and engaging.

Despite the fact that it attempts to cover the entire history of the subject, the center of mass of the chronology lies somewhere around 1925 — that is, a large portion of the book is devoted to WWI and WWII. This is quite appropriate, as these were the periods when cryptography blossomed in complexity and interest. But even so, Kahn casts his net into some rarely explored corners: he does not neglect to discuss medieval cryptography (lovers of medieval polyphony will not be surprised to learn that the medieval passion for intricate puzzles also animated the art of secret writing), he devotes some pages to cryptography in non-Western societies, and he gives an in-depth discussion of the U.S. intelligence services’ activities on the day of the Pearl Harbor attacks.

For me, the two best chapters of the book came after he had completed the main narrative arc. One chapter, called “The Pathology of Cryptology”, studies the pseudo-science wing of cryptology: all those efforts to discover ‘secret meanings’ in apparently non-secretive texts. The story of attempts to extract from the text of Shakespeare’s plays the confession that they were in fact written by Francis Bacon is hilarious and pitiful at once. And not only Shakespeare: the Bible (evidently Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code is only the latest in a string of ill-considered efforts to turn Sacred Scripture into a crystal ball), Dante, Homer, and even Jonathan Swift have all, at one time or another, been made marionette by would-be decoders who — let us be generous — did not quite understand what they were doing.

Second, Kahn writes a chapter on the deciphering of ancient scripts, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the famous Greek script Linear B. This is a fascinating subject, well told (though I think that Simon Singh’s The Code Book, which treats the same topic, is even better).

Anyone, however, who wishes to read this book should understand that it is incomplete as to the modern history of the subject. This is no fault of the book, for it was written in 1967. The most significant topics missed are, first, the cracking of the Enigma cipher during WWII, which was not declassified until after Kahn wrote, and, second, the very significant developments in cryptology in the age of the computer and internet, especially the new paradigm of public-key cryptography. (In fact this new edition of the book does include a short new chapter on both of these topics, but the treatment is cursory. Simon Singh, in his aforementioned book, does a much more thorough and clearer job on these topics.)

In summary, then, I think this must be the book on cryptographic history, so long as you’re content to finish up in the mid-20th century.


July 14, 2011

It seems that I’ve not much time these days for writing, but it occurs to me that perhaps there is a bit of housekeeping that I can look after. For some time I have been meaning to migrate some old writing — mostly Book Notes and a few Music Notes — into this WordPress blog. It won’t require much work on my part, and when the job is done I’ll have all of my Notes in one place. I don’t flatter myself that anybody much cares about these Notes of mine, but having them all together will at least satisfy my sense of order.

I think I’ll start on that now.

Birth announcement

July 8, 2011

We are happy to announce that our son, Michael William Campion Barthos Burrell, was born Friday, 1 July 2011, at 3:13 am. He weighed 6 lbs 13 oz, and was 20 inches long. This gives him the rough dimensions of a string bean. He is a spectacular baby boy.

Things are likely to be quiet around here for the next few weeks, or longer. Last time, we thought that having a newborn was exhausting; it turns out that having a newborn and a toddler is even more so. Not that we’d want it any other way.

Please join us in giving thanks for the birth of this fine, healthy, young man!

(We have already had a few inquiries about his middle names. ‘William’ is in honour of my father; ‘Campion’ honours St. Edmund Campion.)