Archive for February, 2012

Congratulations to Thomas Cardinal Collins

February 18, 2012

It’s a happy day for Catholics in Canada: Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto since 2007, and previously Archbishop of Edmonton, was today made a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. Not that anybody is paying attention to me, but I’d like to extend my congratulations to Cardinal Collins. He has been an excellent Archbishop, being much admired for his leadership and pastoral care. I am sure he will continue to serve the Church as ably and faithfully in the future — though now with a dashing new red hat.

Online clock-punching

February 17, 2012

I would like to have a way to keep track of the time I spend doing certain tasks. The work will be done now and then, and here and there, but I will usually have access to a computer — though not always the same computer — so ‘punching the clock’ online would make sense for me.

Can anyone recommend, or even suggest, an online service for this sort of thing? Cheaper is better, obviously, and free is best, but I am not completely averse to paying. A service that tracks the actual hours of the day that I punch, rather than just keeping a running total, would be nice.

I am sure this sort of thing must exist. In fact, a quick search turns up quite a few options, but recommendations are always appreciated.

Hitchens on Chesterton

February 16, 2012

A posthumous essay from Christopher Hitchens appears in the March issue of The Atlantic, and his subject is G.K. Chesterton. As usual with Hitchens, it is a beautifully written piece, is obviously the fruit of a keen intellect, and is plump with interesting observations. It also seems to me to largely miss the point.

The fact that Hitchens chose to write about Chesterton at all comes as something of a surprise. In a great many respects, the two men had pervasive and irreconcilable differences, and I would not, a priori, have expected Hitchens to have much good to say about GKC. And I would have been right, starting with the article’s title and its subtitle (well, “charming” is good), and carrying on through much of the article itself:

The verdict one must pass on GKC, then, is that when he was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous (as with the pub revolution to set off the Distributist revolution); when he was apparently serious, he was really quite sinister (as in calling Nazism a form of Protestant heresy and Jews a species of conspicuous foreigner in England); and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most “dogmatic.”

Ah well. It seems that Hitchens and I (and, I do believe, many others with me) see different Chestertons. I won’t say that he is entirely wrong; Hitchens had a much sharper mind for politics than I do, and Chesterton’s political and economic ideas do not much interest me; it is possible that they are, as Hitchens contends, half-baked. Though to say that GKC was “on the wrong side of the debate about Nazism”, as Hitchens does, is plain nonsense at best; Chesterton’s fulminations against Hitler were frequent and sustained throughout the 1930s (though, naturally, only until he died). And the idea that he was “ventriloquizing” John Henry Newman is equally bizarre: even granting that there may have been an influence there (which I had not particularly suspected), to claim that a man who expressed ideas as creatively as Chesterton always did, investing them with the strength of his own robust personality, could possibly be held to be merely “ventriloquizing” strikes me as peevish.

Certain other of Hitchens’ opinions are surprising and a little perplexing: he thinks Chesterton a pretty good poet, and he thinks his reputation for paradox overrated. There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose. On the other hand, he is right that the much-vaunted Father Brown detective stories are not actually very good (“the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley”), he correctly notes that GKC often took ten times longer to say a thing than was necessary (though he fails to praise the exuberance and ceaseless invention that were the sunny side of that prolixity), he justly criticizes him for his condescending attitude toward Americans, and, happily, he exonerates him of the more hysterical charges of anti-Semitism which have been floated from time to time.

But the Chesterton that I most admire doesn’t make it into Hitchens’ essay at all; indeed, the overall portrait he draws is strangely sullied and partial, as though viewed through a blackened window. Chesterton had a big heart. He loved life, was full of joy and good humour, and lived with a sense of wonder that most of us lose in childhood. His life exemplified the beauty of the virtue of humility, which he always claimed was at the heart of any just appreciation of the goodness of the world. To Hitchens all this is apparently “frivolous”. He was not the first to think so, and Chesterton himself has answered the charge:

To sum up the whole matter very simply, if Mr. McCabe asks me why I import frivolity into a discussion of the nature of man, I answer, because frivolity is a part of the nature of man. If he asks me why I introduce what he calls paradoxes into a philosophical problem, I answer, because all philosophical problems tend to become paradoxical. If he objects to my treating of life riotously, I reply that life is a riot. And I say that the Universe as I see it, at any rate, is very much more like the fireworks at the Crystal Palace than it is like his own philosophy. About the whole cosmos there is a tense and secret festivity — like preparations for Guy Fawkes’ day. Eternity is the eve of something. I never look up at the stars without feeling that they are the fires of a schoolboy’s rocket, fixed in their everlasting fall. — Heretics (1905).

Who cannot smile at that? Anyway, despite its defects, the essay is worth reading.

Addendum: Over at Korrektiv, Matthew “Eagle-eye” Lickona spotted some details about the circumstances under which Hitchens’ essay was written. A rather poignant picture.

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

February 15, 2012

Leonard Cohen’s most recent record, Old Ideas, has been available for a few weeks now. His songs always take a while to unfold, so it is premature to make any definitive judgments about it, but my initial impression is that it’s a very fine record. Love, carnal and spiritual, has long been his special preoccupation, and that is true in these new songs as well, but the dominant theme on Old Ideas, from a man who is now 77 years old, is mortality, which he confronts with a fitting seriousness and what I imagine must be a hard-won graciousness.

He declares himself in the first lines of the lead track — or, to be precise, the Almighty Himself sets the stage: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”. But he is, it seems, also a man willing to say what must be said: “He only has permission / To do my instant bidding / Which is to say what I have told him to repeat”. Thus, with cunning good humour, Cohen opens up a space in which to address the biggest, and oldest, ideas of all.

It is a late-night record, best heard in a quiet room, in a big leather chair, with something pungent in your glass. The musical textures on Old Ideas are more organic than has been typical on Cohen’s records during the past few decades: the soft-focus synthesizers are not entirely gone, but they are countered by the snap and twang of real guitar strings, real drumsticks hitting real drumheads, and what sounds like a real violin wending its wandering way. With that welcome difference, the songs here are built on the model we have come to expect: Cohen’s sepultural voice in the foreground, speaking as much as singing, and a halo of women’s voices shining in the background.

“Come Healing” is in some respects atypical on the record; the figure and ground are reversed, with the women moving into the foreground, and as such it functions as a kind of interlude. I include it here simply because it is so lovely, and captures well the hopeful spirit that, it seems to me, is at the heart of the record.

Taruskin: History of Western Music III

February 8, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.III
Music in the Nineteenth Century
Richard Taruskin
(Oxford, 2005)
928 p.

The previous volume of Taruskin’s massive history ended on a discussion of the music of Beethoven. This third volume rolls out, to a large extent, in Beethoven’s wake, describing the many currents of musical Romanticism in the nineteenth century. In my notes to Volume II I remarked that, with heavy-weights like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven filling its pages, it covered the most influential period of Western music, but I might with equal justification say the same thing about this present volume: here we find Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, and a host of well-known others whose music collectively forms the core of the repertoire for most of today’s professional musicians. We are getting rather far from the world of Machaut and Josquin, but we must try not to be too discouraged.

Romanticism in music is a many-headed beast which it would be foolish to box in too tightly, but some general contours can be discerned. The Romantic artist assumed a stature that artists had not previously enjoyed: the notion of the ‘genius’ was in the ascendant, and artists were bestowed with a new spiritual grandeur. Self-expression became more central to the artistic task, and art, music included, began to be seen as a possible alternative to religion, providing access to a form of non-dogmatic transcendence. The archetypal case is, once again, Beethoven. (Does the music of, say, Rossini fit this model of Romanticism? Like I said, the contours are blurry.)

Musical expression turned to the particular. Sometimes this yielded very personal, even private, music, which tried to convey and evoke states of mind, trances and reveries, and a general quality of inwardness. Schubert is a great example. On a corporate level, we witnessed the founding of national schools and styles, as composers sought to celebrate and distinguish their own cultures, turning for inspiration to folk music. Many Romantic artists believed that traditional folk art had a special authenticity, unpolluted by ‘artifice’, and they thought that that authenticity could inform their own creations as well, allowing it to truly express the ‘soul of the people’. Though this stress on national purity yielded much wonderful music, it had an ugly side too, as when Wagner attacked Mendelssohn’s music as being not ‘authentically’ (that is, not racially) German.

A general trend during this period was that the audience for high-art music broadened greatly. The rise of a middle class meant that many more people had the means, and often the interest, to hear the music of the ‘literate tradition’ (which is how Taruskin likes to denominate what is sometimes called ‘classical music’). The result was a ‘democratization of taste’, and the emergence of a marked populist tendency in music: a preference for big, memorable melodies and a stress on emotional expression. Composers no longer needed to seek their fortunes at the hand of wealthy patrons, but could court the public instead. The rise of musical nationalism, mentioned above, was clearly a related development, as was the rise of the crowd-pleasing virtuoso who dazzled the audience with his dexterity and brilliance, but whose antics were distressing to the connoisseur. The great examples here are Paganini and Liszt, but the phenomenon of the virtuoso is one that remains with us to the present day. (Can anyone say ‘Van Halen’?)

Meanwhile new ideas were afoot in Europe, and their influence was felt in music as in other spheres. Of decisive importance was the doctrine of what Taruskin calls historicism, but which I think is better dubbed progressivism. We all know what this means: history is developing in a particular direction, and those who know what is good for them will not fall ‘behind the times’:

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been abroad the idea that the history of music (like the history of everything else) has a purpose, and that the primary obligation of musicians is not to their audience but to that purpose — namely, the furthering of the “evolutionary” progress of the art, for the sake of which any sacrifice is justified.

The ascendancy of this idea had far-reaching consequences for music. A duty to destiny rather than to one’s audience naturally worked against the populist tendency described above, and sure enough the musical tradition split, over the course of the nineteenth century, into two branches: a conservative guard and an avant-garde. The former established the musical conservatories which have subsequently played such a central role in the education of musicians, and they solidified both the concept of the musical canon and its contents. The very term ‘classical music’ was coined in about 1850 as a description of the conservative project. Not incidentally, this same project gave the avant-garde something concrete to reject and subvert. (As is so often the case, the ‘progressives’ were reactionaries, their program being essentially defined in defiance of the establishment. If it is true that their music was usually more innovative than was their conservative counterparts’, it is equally true that their innovations were often perceived as dull and shapeless. A private language is, amongst other things, incommunicative. Jettison enough of your inheritance and your art begins to flirt with incomprehensibility. ‘Freedom can thus come at the price of significance,’ notes Taruskin, rather dryly. It is a danger that has haunted the avant-garde down to the present.) The historicist claim that music must evolve with the times is at odds with the very notion of ‘classical music’, which honours a tradition and preserves it. Interestingly, both the conservatives and the radicals claimed Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven for themselves.

An obvious problem for the avant-garde, at any time, is that if one does not take one’s bearings from the appreciation of one’s audience, from where does one take them? The answer, often enough — and certainly in nineteenth-century music — was: theory. One of the most significant developments in this period was precisely the emergence of self-conscious theory into the making of music. Theory dictated what was and was not music of the future. Theory prescribed certain types of composition, and proscribed others, at least for those who wanted to be on the right side of history. On an individual level this manifest as a special concern about musical style. An avant-garde composer had to be doing something distinctive, something to set him apart from the tradition, and something that was recognizably his own. Taruskin finds in Wagner an apt and influential example of this development:

Wagner’s own style, as we have seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.

This bundle of factors — the burden of a ‘personal voice’, an allergy to traditional forms and techniques, and a fear of being ‘behind the times’ — obviously continued to exercise formidable influence over music in the twentieth century, and up to the present.

It is worthwhile to spend a moment or two longer on Wagner. He dominated the nineteenth-century like no-one except Beethoven, and his influence is felt throughout this volume of Taruskin’s history. In interesting ways, he straddled the divide between conservatives and radicals. He jeered at those more conservative than himself (Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots he dubbed a ‘monstrous piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-libidinous, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal, autolytico-sentimental dramatic hotchpotch’ — and I am sure it sounded even better in German) and at traditional musical forms (declaring, with a flair for the nonsensical that is common enough among radicals, that purely instrumental music was ‘obsolete’). In his music the aspirational aspect of Romanticism, striving after spiritual greatness, which had found such eloquent expression in Beethoven tipped over into exploration of the transgressive, and in this he was destined to have many imitators. Yet in Taruskin’s view he was, at a deep level, allied with conservatives like Brahms on account of his reliance on the integrity of traditional harmony. His most famous (alleged) assault on traditional harmony was no such thing:

The assumption that Tristan somehow started the process whereby functional harmony was fatally and inexorably weakened is an excellent example of historicist mythmaking. it embeds the opera in a progress narrative that justifies the radical departures of a later generation of German composers who did in fact attempt to attenuate, and finally eliminate, the role of functional harmony as a governor of musical structure. Their story, sometimes narrated as if it were about the collapse of tonality rather than about the changing techniques of a small group of composers, is a twentieth-century extrapolation.

Instead of Wagner, Taruskin sees Liszt as the headmaster of the avant-garde.

We see an interesting example of how historicist assumptions influenced music history when we look at the waning and waxing fortunes of the symphony in the nineteenth century. By the early decades of the century the symphony had become, starting from fairly humble beginnings, the prestige compositional genre. Yet by mid-century the situation had changed radically. Taruskin notes that ‘Not a single symphony composed in the 1850s or 1860s has survived in the repertoire’, and this dry spell is reflected in the structure of his book: the middle 500 pages pass without discussion of a single symphony. Why the gap? Why did the leading composers of that time not leave us any great symphonies? And what happened to bring the genre back?

I had generally assumed that composers shied away from the genre because Beethoven cast a long shadow. He, and especially the formidable triumph of his Ninth, left those who came after him an intimidating standard to meet. But this explanation does not really fit the data: Schubert wrote nine symphonies after Beethoven’s death, and Schumann wrote four, for instance. Taruskin argues that the decline in symphonic production was due to a decline in symphonic prestige, and this precisely because the preferred narrative of the progressives turned against it. Wagner touted opera and Liszt turned to programmatic music as the music of the future. In consequence, anyone who fancied themselves being ‘with the times’ knew better than to publish a symphony.

But this bifurcation between the conservative establishment on the one hand, with its network of conservatories and concert halls and its appetite for the music of dead composers, and the progressives on the other, with their guild prestige and triumphalist rhetoric, was not good for young composers. They were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t:

Composers were now really in a bind. The only way they could at once maintain self-respect in the face of historicism and at the same time have access to the newly defined ‘classical’ repertoire and its prestigious venues was to create ‘instant classics’ — compositions that in their high-minded and compelling seriousness could somehow simultaneously project both novelty and enduring value. They had at once to communicate, first, sufficient freshness and originality to stimulate interest; second, sufficient conformity to traditional values to warrant inclusion in the permanent collection; and third, sufficient intricacy of design to encourage a test of time.

This was a difficult terrain to navigate, but Brahms did it. It is Brahms who emerges as the hero of Taruskin’s tale, for he restored the symphony, and classical genres in general, to respectability. He did so by using traditional forms as vehicles to express novel and ingenious ideas. In a detailed examination of his Symphony No.1, Taruskin argues that its cunning combination of innovative harmonic and structural ideas with allusions to the forms and methods of earlier times was exactly what was needed to breathe life back into the genre. But even more importantly, Brahms changed music because he introduced another possible interpretation of music history: a conservative interpretation rather than a progressive one. This, according to Taruskin, is why the radicals raged against him as they did. He showed that tradition could be fruitful:

Tradition, in this view, is not a brake on innovation. On the contrary, tradition is the sole enabler of innovation that is meaningful rather than destructive, because it is mediated by social agreements (in this case, the recognition of a convention, permitting its intelligible transformation). That is classic ‘liberalism’, anathema to radicals and reactionaries alike.

And Brahms’ example was fruitful, for a host of brilliant symphonists followed in his wake: Bruckner, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams, just to name some of the most prominent. Of course, the progressives had their triumphs too, and I don’t want to belittle them, but would you trade a single symphony by any of those I just listed for all the tone-poems of Liszt and Strauss? Not me.

***

The basic structure of this volume follows the pattern laid down in the previous ones: biographical sketches, social context, detailed examination of particular compositions, generous excerpts from musical scores, occasional excurses into music theory, a penchant for noncommittal meta-history, and a relaxed, sometimes witty, tone. Part of the reason it took me a year to read this volume was that quite a lot of the music he discussed was music with which I was not familiar, and I took time to listen. (This was especially true of the operas of composers like Glinka, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Gounod, and even Verdi and Puccini. Taruskin takes opera to have been central to the musical developments of this period, and spends a good deal of time on it. My explorations in that direction have sometimes turned up in the Great moments in opera series of posts.) Even when I was familiar with the music under discussion, the book frequently had me scrambling to listen again. Only occasionally did the music theory leave me stranded — and it doesn’t take much.

This is a history of ‘the long nineteenth-century’: it follows the trail, not worrying whether it crosses a temporal boundary. Thus composers who did a substantial part of their work in the twentieth century but who worked within traditions rooted in the nineteenth century — composers like Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Nielsen, and Puccini — all appear in this volume. This clears the deck, as it were, for a discussion of the radical music that erupted in the early twentieth century. It is to this period, early and late, that the final two volumes of Taruskin’s project are devoted. Onward! I’ll report back in a year or so.

Great moments in opera: The Mikado

February 6, 2012

If there is a spectacle of song and stage more delightful than The Mikado, I do not know what it is. Oh sure, the premise is ridiculous, the plot is inscrutable, and the characters — bearing names like Pish-Tush, Yum-Yum, and Nanki-Poo — are, at best, caricatures. But the music is so good, and the text is so witty, and it is all served up with such warm-hearted humour that audiences have found it irresistible ever since its 1885 premiere.

The story is set in Japan, in the town of Titipu. The ruler of Titipu, The Mikado, has decreed that in his jurisdiction flirting is to be punished by death. I forget why. The people of Titipu, naturally distressed by this decree, have contrived a clever remedy. They arranged for . . . well, they thought about it, you see, and . . . just a moment. Oh yes, they . . . hmm. How about I let Pish-Tush explain? Here is Our great Mikado, virtuous man [text]:

They are right, I think you’ll say, to reason in that kind of way. So that’s clear enough.

We are soon introduced to three young ladies, Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, and Pitti-Sing, who, judging from their song, are on their way home from school. This, I must say, is one of the most memorable of all of Gilbert & Sullivan’s songs. In fact (if I may make a private disclosure), on those not infrequent occasions when I spontaneously burst into song, it often happens that this is the song I sing. In any case, it seems that few can hear it without making remarks. (i.e. “Stop singing, Daddy.”) Here is Three little maids from school [text], excerpted from the film Topsy Turvy:

Yum-Yum, it turns out, is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, but she loves the minstrel Nanki-Poo, who loves her in return. Clear? This puts Nanki-Poo in a bit of a tough spot, for not only is he tempted to flirt, he is tempted to flirt with the Executioner’s fiancée. The situation calls for tact, and Nanki-Poo hits on a brilliant tactic: flirtation under cover of the subjunctive. Here is their love duet, Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted [text]:

These happy affairs are interrupted by a directive from the Mikado: at least one person must be executed within the next month. I forget why. Talk around town turns to the question of who it ought to be. In this trio, I am so proud [text], each of Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko, and Pish-Tush argues that it ought not to be him. I am especially fond of the closing section of this excerpt:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Complications ensue. Deals are made. New, but still distressing, bylaws are discovered. Things fall out, as they will. Along the way we are treated to a few quiet moments with Yum-Yum, in which she sings The sun, whose rays are all ablaze [text]. I consider this to be among Arthur Sullivan’s greatest achievements as a melodist. It is a lovely song that would not, I think, be out of place in a grand opera.

In the end, Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo somehow obtain the blessing of the Mikado for their marriage. I will not attempt to explain how this happens; it is one of life’s little mysteries. It is enough to simply enjoy the closing chorus, For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum [text], which is as rousing and joyful a chorus as you are ever likely to hear. Here again is an excerpt from Topsy Turvy:

Feast of St. Sapphira

February 4, 2012

Today is the feast of St. Sapphira. She is a saint whom not many people know about. Are you one of them? Do you realize that you could be missing out on many blessings and good karma? Devotion to her could even help you earn big money working from home! Yes, really!

Another birthday

February 3, 2012

In light of our recent birthday celebrations, it seems fitting to note that The Hebdomadal Chesterton, that tremendous repository of Chestertonian wit and wisdom, is also celebrating its fifth birthday, today! This is something for which, I am sure, we are all truly and justly thankful.

Credit for the success of that blog is, undoubtedly, due principally and unreservedly to Chesterton himself — and let us raise a glass to toast the great man! — but let us spare a thought, too, for the unassuming hebdomadarian, who, by his ceaseless toil of selection and transcription these past years, has proven himself a modest but true benefactor of mankind. May he be encouraged in his efforts, and may he somehow find the time to keep on keeping on.

Happy birthday!

Candlemas, 2012

February 2, 2012

Today is Candlemas, the last hurrah of the Christmas season, placed way out here in February for those of us whose good cheer cannot be spent in a mere twelve days. It is time to finally take down the wreaths and the mistletoe, get some candles blessed, and sing Nunc Dimittis. A very happy festival day to one and all!

Corporate taxes

February 1, 2012

When the topic is economics I tend to keep my mouth shut; I know that I don’t know. But there is one question that has, from time to time, been a bother to me: why do corporations pay taxes?

I can understand citizens paying taxes: there are certain goods — defence, transportation infrastructure, garbage collection — that we all benefit from, and we contribute money with which those goods can be acquired. It seems to me that the fairest sort of tax is a flat tax — the same number of dollars from each citizen goes into the pot — although few people advocate that, and maybe for good reasons that I haven’t thought of.

But it is odd to me that individuals, who are already paying taxes, should pay more taxes — that is, corporate taxes — just because they have decided to work together on something. What is the rationale for that (apart from a simple cash grab by the government)?

Anyway, I air these half-baked thoughts today because I came upon an article, at Public Discourse, which advocates abolishing corporate income taxes. The author, Thomas Haine, gives a few reasons why doing so might cause problems — reasons I, naturally, had not thought about — but concludes that they are not insurmountable. Indeed, he thinks abolishing such taxes would be a bi-partisan winner, at least at a grassroots level. (Politicians, I understand, are rarely in favour of tax reductions.)

It is all very interesting, in a perplexing and foggy kind of way, and I wish I had a clue as to whether it made any sense.