Archive for November, 2011

Marion Montgomery, RIP

November 29, 2011

I have just learned that Marion Montgomery passed away last week. I actually know very little about the man; he was a poet and a literary critic, and a professor (I believe) at the University of Georgia. I take note of his death, with sadness, because years ago I read something by him that impressed me greatly, something that, in one way or another, has never been far from my mind for very long. It was a convocation address, and it convinced me, first, that I would do well to labour to become a person capable of writing such an address, and, second, that I should seek out more of his writing, for here was a man worth learning from.

Sadly, I haven’t done very well on either front in the intervening years. Nonetheless I shall miss him. Fare forward, traveller!

The address to which I refer can be read online:

Meanwhile we stand and sway, always in danger of the winds of the world, but the more endangered — because we are persons and not trees. We are tempted to presume beyond knowledge or understanding. At the most dangerous point, we presume to a comprehension absolute: a comprehension of whatever our gift of intellect rests upon at the moment. What we easily forget is that understanding accommodates us to an uncertainty, to an accepting of limits to our omniscience. By limit we are prevented — except as a self–induced and self–defeating illusion — from an absolute comprehension of any thing, including even ourselves. For comprehension is a property reserved to the nature of the Creator God, as are omnipotence and omniscience.

Read the whole thing.

New Mass translation open thread

November 27, 2011

I know that quite a few of the people who read this blog are Catholics, so I’d like to throw out a question. Today, English speaking Catholics throughout the world began using a new translation of the Mass. What are your thoughts on it? How did your parish prepare for the change? Did your priest explain the rationale for the new translation well or poorly? What do you think of the new music for the Mass being used in your parish?

I’ll start: our parish has approached things without much fuss. A notice in the bulletin ran for a few weeks, saying, more or less, “The translation we have been using for the past forty years was produced in a hurry, and it was always expected that it would be replaced with something better. Now it is.” Pew cards, courtesy the Canadian Bishops, appeared last week with the Order of Mass printed on them, the congregation’s parts in bold print. All in all, this was a minimalist approach, but I think it was done tactfully and without causing confusion.

Our parish sings the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) in a Gregorian setting (that is, in Latin), and that will not be changing. There are no plans, as far as I know, to introduce any new music for the new translation.

My own opinion is that this new translation is a change for the better. For a good discussion of its merits, I recommend Anthony Esolen’s article Restoring the Words.

(Maclin Horton gave me the idea for this post.)

Great moments in opera: H.M.S. Pinafore

November 25, 2011

Everyone, I suppose, has their favourite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Most of the time I am inclined to name The Mikado as mine, but in those moments when I crinkle my brow at the thought of ladies attending seminary, or sink wearily under the weight of faux-Japanese gibberish, it is H.M.S. Pinafore that crests the waves and comes to my rescue. From start to finish it is packed full of good humour, sharp wit, and infectious melodies, with hardly a misstep anywhere. It is really hard to imagine a more winsome combination.

This week I had the good fortune to view, for the first time, a stage performance (on DVD) of the work. As I watched, I was embarrassed to realize that, despite the fact that I could sing along to a good portion of the music, I did not actually know the story, for I had never before heard the dialogue that comes between the musical numbers. The plot is essentially a love triangle with a good bit of class consciousness thrown in, with the various difficulties being magically resolved at the last moment by a ridiculous contrivance. This story, as always with Gilbert & Sullivan, is ludicrous, but still it was enjoyable to learn how the various songs fit together in context.

One is spoiled for choice of good music in Pinafore, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the clips available online. This operetta is, it seems, a favourite of small-time musical societies the world over, each of which posts a grainy, dark, out of focus, and muffled recording of its performance online. I have had a horrendous time sifting through them to find something decent. The DVD I watched was from Opera Australia, and it was superb (recommended without reservations!), but I could find only a few clips from it.

Here is one. This is I am the Captain of the Pinafore [text], an introductory number in which we get to know the Captain and his right good crew. The Captain is sung here by Anthony Warlow.

When I was a lad [text] is probably the most famous song in the piece. In it, the First Lord of the Admiralty describes how he rose to his position of eminence. The part is sung here by Drew Forsythe:

I am fond of the finale to Act I, which is quite jaunty and has some nice contrapuntal surprises, but I cannot find a decent clip. Alas.

Alas the more: good online clips of the best numbers from Act II elude me. I am thinking in particular of Never mind the why and wherefore [text]. I shall have to make do with this audio-only clip (albeit from the best available recording):

If H.M.S. Pinafore droops anywhere, it is in the finale [text]. That’s a bad place to droop, obviously, but there you have it. Sullivan weaves a medley of tunes we’ve heard before, but prominent among them is a grand (that is, rather dull) chorus on the theme “He is an Englishman” — where “Englishman” is understood to mean something like “As Good A Chap As You’re Likely To Find”. Our hearts are supposed to swell with pride at hearing this chorus, but mine does not, and so the finale fizzles for me. Fiddlesticks.

The [text] links in this post all go to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive. My thanks to them for making the libretto available online in such a convenient and readable format.

Polygamy in the news

November 24, 2011

There is a Mormon community in British Columbia, called Bountiful, in which polygamy has been practiced for decades, despite the practice being illegal in Canada. In recent years there have been some charges laid, and some court challenges to those charges. The argument, I believe, is that the current laws consitute infringements of religious freedom.

Yesterday Chief Justice Robert Bauman, of the British Columbia Supreme Court, wrote an opinion that upheld the constitutionality of the ban on polygamy. He was asked to investigate the question by the B.C. government, and though his decision is apparently not binding on anyone, it presumably carries some weight. He argued that although the ban does infringe certain rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as freedom of religion and autonomy, those infringements he judged ‘reasonable’ in the interest of protecting women and children from exploitation. That, it seems to me, makes it a rather soft ruling, but a welcome one nonetheless.

What interests me most about this story is the response to the ruling from various quarters. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which appears to be a more or less typical far-left advocacy group (or perhaps a far-right advocacy group; the topology of the political spectrum often makes it difficult to distinguish the two), is apparently disappointed; they think the ban on polygamy should be overturned. I am a little surprised.

Meanwhile, The Slop & Pail, one of Canada’s premiere daily newspapers, has run an article on the story that contains a few more surprises. First, the headline would seem to indicate that the paper also thinks the ban on polygamy should go. Perhaps I am naive, but my eyebrows went up. The author of the article interviewed three law professors from the Toronto area. Each one of them had something interesting to say.

Bruce Ryder, of Osgoode Hall, had the mildest complaint about the ruling. Judge Bauman, he said, “placed an ideological and constitutionally dubious premise at the heart of his opinion – namely, that the state can punish other family forms for the purpose of promoting monogamous marriage.” Evidently he thinks that a ban on polygamy — which must necessarily invoke the power of the state to promote monogamous marriage — rests on “ideological and constitutionally dubious” reasoning. That already helps us understand which way he thinks the wind is blowing.

Prof. Alan Young didn’t have much to say about this particular ruling, but he made some inspiring remarks about the enduring importance of law and legal process. “Balancing societal interests versus individual interests is intrinsically a very subjective process. […] It makes anything appealable and it makes anything defensible.” I know that makes me want to be a lawyer. And he added, just to show that he’s thought hard about the relationships between moral reasoning, personal action, and political community, “There are very few core values in society, and values are changing all the time.” Although I expect that he believes his own brand of moral relativism is pretty secure.

But the best remarks came from Prof. Brenda Cossman. “The decision is built on a house of cards,” she said. “You can’t just say that marriage is better than non-marriage. What happened to swingers? What happened to people who are adulterous? His continuous assertion about the harm that polygamy does to monogamous marriage is deeply problematic.” Honestly, I don’t think I could make this stuff up.

All that simply to say this: if the comments from these law professors are really representative of the quality of the moral and legal reasoning coming out of our top law schools, it seems to me that we’re in for a bad time.

The Caecilia Project

November 23, 2011

St. Cecilia’s feast passed earlier this week without comment from me, but now I have an opportunity to make amends.

I have just learned of The Caecilia Project, which aims to make the music of the Gregorian propers for the Sundays of the Church year available on the web, for free. The plan is apparently to post the propers on a week by week basis, starting on the first Sunday of Advent. By the end of the year, the full cycle will be complete. To get an idea of what they look like, take a look at the first set.

This is a great idea. Although very few parishes currently sing this music on anything like an ordinary basis (including mine), there is a definite push in this direction coming from some Church authorities, including of course Pope Benedict XVI. Moreover, hope is a virtue. Making the music available, for free, is a good step toward promoting its use. Together with the Saint Antoine Daniel Kyriale that I mentioned a few months ago, these two sources will provide all the music a parish needs in order to sing chant throughout the year.

The Caecilia Project is the work of Andrew Hinkley. Thank you, Andrew.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this project is that the chant is being typeset with LaTeX! Apparently there exists a notation, called gabc, for representing Gregorian chant with ASCII characters, and someone has written a LaTeX package, called Gregorio, to convert gabc code into a musical score. The result is really quite beautiful.

Read more at The Chant Café.

More neutrino news

November 22, 2011

I am catching up on recent developments in the superluminal neutrino story. You will recall that in September the OPERA collaboration claimed that they had measured neutrinos travelling from CERN, near Geneva, to Gran Sasso, in Italy, at a speed in excess of the speed of light. This is forbidden by all of modern physics, and so attracted a lot of attention.

I wrote a few weeks ago about an interesting little paper that pointed out a relativistic time synchronization effect that might have produced the anomalous measurement. I thought it sounded like just the sort of thing that was needed. A little to my surprise, that paper has not attracted much attention in the scientific literature, so maybe someone knows something I don’t.

This week the OPERA collaboration announced that they had repeated the experiment, addressing some criticisms about their method, but had arrived at the same anomalous result.

In the meantime, Andrew Cohen and Sheldon Glashow published a very nice (as you would expect from these physicists) paper in which they showed that superluminal neutrinos, if they exist, should radiate electron-positron pairs at a rate sufficient to deplete the high-energy end of the neutrino spectrum. Picking up on that idea, the ICARUS experiment, also located at Gran Sasso, measured the energy spectrum of the neutrinos coming from CERN and showed that the neutrinos were not radiating their energy away. In other words, this is more evidence that the supposedly superluminal neutrinos are not actually superluminal.

This still leaves open the question of exactly what is wrong with the original experiment, but it does help me to sleep a little more peacefully at night.

(Thanks to Maclin for pointing me to the ICARUS result.)

Nicholson: God’s Secretaries

November 17, 2011

God’s Secretaries
The Making of the King James Bible

Adam Nicholson
(HarperCollins, 2003)
281 p.

To write a history of the making of the King James Bible seems an inherently interesting project, and it is easy to see both why an author would be drawn to the topic and why a major publishing house would agree to take it on. But even the best laid plans sometimes go astray. A literary history of this sort must rely heavily on surviving documentary evidence, and, much to my surprise (and, I have the feeling, much to the surprise of the author and his publishers), very little survives to document the making of this most famous of all English books: an initial commission in 1605, a few lists of translators — for many of whom we know only their names — and a couple of letters are almost all that we have to consult until 1611, when the Bible was in preparation for printing.

Under these straitened circumstances, Adam Nicholson has borne up manfully, producing an enjoyable account of the process of translation (insofar as it can be discerned) and filling out the background with historical context and biographical information about a few of the more prominent translators. Translation of the King James Version was delegated to many different men, with final editorial decisions assigned to a committee. Committees are, generally speaking, not noted for the stellar quality of the work they produce, but this particular committee was obviously a happy exception.

The KJV is based substantially on previous English translations: the Matthew, Coverdale, Whitchurch, Geneva, Douay-Rheims (against the King’s explicit instructions), and, especially, Tyndale translations. I was surprised to learn that over 80% of the King James Version’s New Testament is identical to the Tyndale translation. The changes introduced by James’ men are therefore few, but judicious, and often made with an ear to the music of the language. For example, consider this short passage from Tyndale’s version:

This is my commaundement, that ye loue togedder as I haue loued you. Gretter loue then this hath no man, then that a man bestowe his lyfe for his frendes.

The King James Version follows the basic structure, but sculpts the rhythms to produce the more memorable rendering that we know and love:

This is my Commaundement, that ye loue one another, as I haue loued you. Greater loue hath no man then this, that a man lay downe his life for his friends.

Nicholson remarks that the robust musical nature of the language of the King James Bible was something that the translators intentionally cultivated. We know, from a surviving description, that the final editorial committee sat around a table and simply listened as the text was read. Changes were often recommended on the basis of the sound of the words. It is also worth noting, in view of contemporary debates about the value of “ordinary language” in Scripture and liturgy, that the King James Version was not written in the “ordinary language” of its time: at initial publication people already commented that it sounded archaic and formal. This formality was sought as a way of heightening the majesty and magnificence of the text. Nicholson argues that our modern preference for the plain-spoken creates a problem when it begins to affect Scripture:

The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires.

I won’t belabour the point right now; friends will know that I am sympathetic to this point of view. The King James Version, whatever its problems may be, stands as a lasting reminder of the glory that results when we give our highest and best in the service of that which is highest and best.

I will close with two minor remarks. Nicholson states in passing the motto of Elizabeth I: Semper edeam. Always the same. I smiled at that; it is hard to imagine any contemporary political leader in the West adopting such a motto for themselves. Barack Obama, especially, has some claim to being the anti-Elizabeth in this respect.

Second, I was amused by Nicholson’s statement that a distinctive mark of the modern world is “a sense that the world now has fallen away from the more perfect state in which it once existed”. This, of course, was the medieval view, and is almost the opposite of the modern. It is hard to conceive why anyone would say such a thing (unless, perhaps, he simply meant to express his belief that the past, because it contained more documentary evidence about the production of the King James Bible, was, in that limited sense, more perfect than the present; if so, I am willing to concede the point.)


This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and quite a lot of ink has been spilled to mark the occasion. A couple of interesting links:

Some things ought not to be

November 13, 2011

Exhibit A.

I am so sorry.

Great moments in opera: The Fairy Queen

November 12, 2011

Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is based not, as one might expect, on Spenser, but on Shakespeare. Designated a semi-opera, it is structured around a loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Shakespearean frame being elaborated with music, song, and dance. By convention, the elements of masque belong to the world of faerie, and so Purcell’s contributions pertain, in greatest part, to the strange and mysterious world of Oberon and Titania, through which the Athenian lovers flit like fire-flies.

Some of the music of The Fairy Queen has an incidental quality to it, designed to provide accompaniment to dancers, or to play over scene changes. It is lovely in itself, and pleasant to hear, but not particularly memorable. But some of it is made of sturdier stuff. A number of the songs, for instance, have become popular as recital pieces. In this post I’ll sample a couple of those.

A few years ago, to mark the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, the whole of The Fairy Queen was staged at Glyndebourne, with William Christie in the conductor’s seat (and he did sit), a starry cast of singers, and an atmospheric production. The clips below are taken from that event. (It was a fine production, but marred by some incongruous directorial choices. It is remarkable to me that a production which, on the musical side, takes every care to cultivate the ‘historical authenticity’ of the music, the instruments, and the manner of playing, will then, on the theatrical side, inject a jarring post-modern sensibility into the stage action in order to get a cheap laugh. I won’t go into details.)

First, to illustrate how the music of Purcell is integrated into Shakespeare’s play, here is the scene in which Oberon bedews Titania’s proud eyes with the juice of that herb which maidens call love-in-idleness. It is more typical of The Fairy Queen that Shakespeare’s lines be delivered without musical accompaniment, but here the orchestra contributes some atmospheric effects to heighten the moment. The segment I have in mind lasts about 90 seconds; if you continue watching you’ll see a good example of the masque elements of the production.

A piece that has become popular with recitalists is If Love’s a Sweet Passion. Though not part of the original play, the sentiment of the song is apt enough:

If love’s a sweet passion, why does it torment?
If a bitter, oh tell me, whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain,
Or grieve at my fate, when I know ’tis in vain?

A second, and perhaps slightly more famous, excerpt is O let me weep, which is also sometimes simply called The Plaint. I first learned this song from an old Alfred Deller recording. I believe that the singer here is Lucy Crowe.

O let me weep, for ever weep,
My eyes no more shall welcome sleep;
I’ll hide me from the sight of day,
And sigh, and sigh my soul away.

Not very cheery, but, my goodness, these Elizabethans did melancholy like nobody else.

“…as hills are soaked by slow unsealing snow…”

November 9, 2011

A particularly good (even unusually good) poem at The Hebdomadal Chesterton today.