Archive for October, 2012

Taruskin: History of Western Music IV

October 30, 2012

The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.IV
Music in the Early Twentieth Century
Richard Taruskin
(Oxford, 2005)

879 p.

It is not easy to know where to start with this, the penultimate volume in Richard Taruskin’s monumental survey of Western music. I have before me a dozen pages of typewritten notes that I have compiled in the course of reading it, and were I to expand them into prose, they might well run to twenty or thirty pages. No one wants that. On the other hand, a brief overview is bound to be too brief: there is too much fascinating material here to pass over lightly. My intention, then, is to pick out a few of the most interesting points for special attention, and hope that things don’t get out of control.

This volume is devoted to developments between roughly the turn of the century and roughly the Second World War. This is a period that defies easy summation, for it was the period in which the Western musical tradition, to a first approximation, shuddered and shattered. Chesterton, writing (somewhere) at a time contemporaneous with many of the figures most involved in that upheaval, observed that the central question asked of these composers, by the common man at least, was not whether the music was good or bad, but whether it was music at all. From our vantage point today, and particularly under the tutelage of one as instructive as Taruskin, we can see that it was indeed music, but that Chesterton’s question was nonetheless astute, for there was, in certain musical circles (though not by any means in all), a widening divide between the composer and the audience. It could no longer be taken for granted that the composer thought well of the audience and aimed to please. In earlier times a composer might let his arrow fly and miss or hit the target; now the target was contested and the aim was correspondingly wild.

Taruskin divides the music of this period — again, roughly speaking — into two strands: that which was in continuity with the Romantic tradition of the nineteenth-century, and that which was not. Surprisingly (at first) and helpfully (in the end) he puts the composers with the biggest, baddest reputations — I am thinking here of the so-called Second Viennese School led by Schoenberg — into the former group; into the second group, the truly modernist school, he puts Stravinsky and his progeny. Prior to reading this volume I’d have contested that general mapping of the terrain; now, as I emerge from the book’s hind end (and I apologize for this awful imagery), I am almost, more or less, convinced.

The rubric under which he is able to assimilate the twentieth-century radicals into the Romantic tradition is that of “maximalism”: if Romanticism consisted in pushing musical boundaries — boundaries of emotional expression, religious awe, sensuality — then it was possible to see quite a number of the leading twentieth-century composers as continuing the tradition, albeit often by means which the earlier Romantics did not attempt. It is fairly clear, for example, that Mahler and Strauss can be regarded in this light, and having accepted as much we can in turn see them as proximate anchors for the likes of Scriabin or Messiaen, each of whom was striving after a kind of transcendent musical experience, a sublimity that would “extinguish the petty ‘I’”, and this ambition was indeed part of the Romantic inheritance. On the face of it Messiaen seems a long way from Schubert or Berlioz, but (argues Taruskin) this distance is principally due to differences of musical technique, not differences of expressive aim.

Stravinsky’s early music — the primitivism of The Firebird and even The Rite of Spring — is also, by Taruskin’s reckoning, part of the maximalist tradition, in this case pushing the Romantic fascination with the “authenticity” of rustic folk music. He argues that Stravinsky’s radical musical ideas were paired, as if by way of compensation, with increasingly brutal “primitive” subject matter.

The basic argument, therefore, is that many composers adopted the expressive aims inherent in the Romantic tradition, and in so doing accepted, rather than rejected, that tradition. But it would be insupportable to claim that there was therefore nothing revolutionary about the music they wrote, for clearly there was. Messiaen’s “modes of limited transposition” and Schoenberg’s “motivic saturation“ may not have been entirely without precedent, but they pushed their particular innovations to lengths undreamed of by earlier generations. Taruskin attributes this mad rupture of musical technique to the influence of Hegel, who argued that history is intrinsically developmental, and innovation manifests the Zeitgeist. Western music, in this view, is characterized by stylistic and technical flux and progress, and only by continuing that “flux and progress” could one be faithful to the tradition. In musical circles this gave rise to certain aesthetic values, which Taruskin summarizes thus:

The highest of all values, in this view, is technical innovation, provided that (1) the innovation in question can be viewed as an emancipation, (2) it was “influential” (in other words, that it inspired imitation, or at least turned up in a lot of later music), and (3) it placed the innovator beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries (or beyond all but an initiated elite), so that he might learn, in the words of Milton Babbitt, “how it feels to have the history of music leave you ahead.”

From where I am sitting it is hard to see how this credo was ever attractive, but evidently it had a certain allure. Knowing the degree to which its adherents have been lionized by some historians of twentieth-century music, Taruskin’s bemused skepticism comes as welcome relief. The “techno-essentialist” view of art, he says, in which an artist’s method looms so large in our assessment of his worth, inherently relativizes, and thereby devalues, his actual, concrete accomplishments:

If the Great Emancipator were merely the Great Anticipator (as a skeptical joke of the period had it), then the basis of his reputation would stop being what his work accomplished (in the present) and become simply a matter of when it was written (in the past).

That is probably worth reading again.

We must be careful not to generalize too readily about the music of this period, and this is nowhere truer than when considering the music of Arnold Schoenberg. He passed through at least three quite radically different creative periods — a lush late Romanticism, a thorny atonalism, and a methodical dodecaphony — and what one says about one period can often not be said about the others. He abandoned his early manner after his score for Verklärte Nacht (which remains popular to this day) was rejected by a conservative musician’s club. “This experience,” notes Taruskin, “seems to have equipped Schoenberg with the resentment and the sense of alienation that a modernist giant needs.” If he could not please, he would not try to please, and Schoenberg turned away (sometimes literally) from the public, toward “the representation of inner occurrences”. To adequately express himself in all of his intensely personal specificity, Schoenberg found it necessary to abandon not just the tonal system that had structured harmony since the seventeenth century, but any tonal system at all. This music has come to be called “atonal”, though Schoenberg himself preferred “pantonal”. The music was written in no particular key, and the distinction between harmonic consonance and harmonic dissonance was erased (at least in theory; in practice we seem to go on hearing a distinction). Schoenberg’s language for describing this conflagration of harmonic theory was annoyingly disingenuous: he called dissonances “the more remote consonances”.

There was another motive at work in this “emancipation of dissonance” as well, and for me it makes the whole affair somewhat more palatable. Under the unlikely influence of Swedenborg, Schoenberg conceived a desire to raise the veil on the sublime, to show forth through his music a transcendent unity, to experience “an absolute and unitary perception” by means of “a unity of musical space”. His technical means to this “unity” was rather literal, and even literate: he undid the distinction between the “horizontal” (melodic) and “vertical” (harmonic) elements of music, so as to create an “integrated musical space” within which to move. Formerly it had been acceptable to construct a melody from any sequence of notes; now one could, if one wished, play any set of notes simultaneously and still call it a valid harmony. And into this newly symmetric musical space he deployed the method of motivic integration, in which the music was constructed from the repetition and variation of small musical fragments, or motives. This was not a new technique: Beethoven had used it frequently (witness the famous first movement of the Symphony No.5), but Schoenberg pushed it further than anyone before him, precisely because he pushed it further than the rules of harmony would have permitted. His scores could be saturated in motives precisely because he no longer needed to worry about avoiding dissonances. It sounds like cheating, yet, let it be noted, this method of motivic saturation was, in a genuine if somewhat perverse sense, well-suited to his spiritually-informed expressive aim, which was to convey the experience of “everything existing in everything else”.

[Let’s hear an example of this motivically-driven music. Here is a short piece for piano, Op.19 No.1, from 1911. The music here grows out of a special motive called the “Aschbeg motive” because the sequence of notes A — E♭ — C — B — B♭ — E — G was Schoenberg’s own musical representation of his name. (Using German names for the notes, the motive is A — Es — C — H — B♭ — E — G, for Arnold SCHoenBErG.)]

It is worth remarking on the fact that these two strands of Schoenberg’s expressivism — the focus on private, “inner” experiences, and the longing for sublimity and spirituality — were both inherited from Romanticism. Schoenberg’s claim to being a custodian of the tradition therefore had some justification, even though the music he created was mostly perceived as being radically at odds with that tradition. He was a maximalist, and in that sense he was conservative. And, notes Taruskin, “Schoenberg’s was the most complex and far-reaching maximalism of them all, and by far the most lastingly influential.” That influence has often been lamented, not least because of the stridency with which his disciples, again in doleful submission to a Hegelian view of history, attacked those who were not converted. It became common, after Schoenberg, to hear the claim (not only by composers, but also by historians of music) that tonal music had “collapsed” and was “obsolete”. Taruskin, again, will not be taken in by this sort of rhetoric: “To claim that all of this music is based on premises that have long since “collapsed” is of course to stigmatize it. That is a rhetorical, rather than a historical, allegation. One name for it is propaganda.” That is refreshingly frank.

For Taruskin, then, the decisive break of modern music with Romanticism does not come, as one might at first suspect, with the atonalists. Rather, he argues that it arrived a little later, in the 1920s, and especially in the person of Igor Stravinsky. We have already seen Stravinsky’s early scores, such as Le Sacre, as part of the “maximalist” tradition, but in the 1920s he entered a new creative period, which has come to be called neo-classicism, and it is here that Taruskin identifies the emergence of an aesthetic fundamentally distinct from, and at odds with, the Romantic legacy. Stravinsky cast an eye backward, past the nineteenth century, to figures like Pergolesi and Mozart. He began to write music in antique forms. Most significantly, he cultivated anti-Romantic expressive aims: his music was now to be cool, dry, objective, plain; it was to be pure style, with no extra-musical meaning; it was to be a kind of “geometrical” music, with clean lines, straight corners, and strict order. And for him the composer too was to retreat from his position of cultural eminence, shouldering again the humble mantle of the craftsman: “Stravinsky was only one of many artists who were reclaiming their etymological identities as artisans or artificers — skilled makers and doers, and professionals — as opposed to dreamers, reformers, philosophers, priests, politicians, or saints.”

Of course, we are talking about Stravinsky, so this business about humility has to be taken in the proper spirit — that is, an ironic spirit. It may seem paradoxical that he could maintain, and even enhance, his position of cultural eminence by proclaiming that he did not want it, but that is just what happened, and one suspects that he liked it that way, the ol’ rascal. He might have claimed to be effacing himself behind a stately minuet, but no-one who heard his music with educated ears — which included most everyone Stravinsky cared to impress — could possibly mistake it for genuine eighteenth-century fare. His trademark rhythmic complications and his impish spirit kept popping up. (Prokofiev famously referred to Stravinsky’s music in this period as “Bach with smallpox”.) His turn to neo-classicism was widely seen, therefore, as ironic, and a summons to irony. Irony is at odds with the Romantic spirit, which had valued sincerity, pathos, and immediacy. Stravinsky’s new manner was brisk, sleek, and emotionally flat.

[Let’s hear an example of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style. Here is the finale of his Octet for Winds, from 1923.]

There was a further irony at play here as well. Whereas Schoenberg had turned to radical musical means to pursue a conservative aesthetic aim, Stravinsky did more or less the opposite: he used conservative musical means to effect an aesthetic revolution.

A man does not stay on the forefront of his art for sixty years without having a keen sense of what will be successful, and Stravinsky’s conversion to neo-classicism was no exception. It was a success, and one suspects that in his mind it was not a gamble. High European culture in the 1920s was ripe for such a move. The Great War, which so recently had worked its sad and futile way to a conclusion, had changed the tenor of the times. The Romantic preoccupation with greatness, with glory, and even with beauty seemed to some tarnished and unserious. The “maximalists” were going into eclipse: Mahler, Ives, and Scriabin all lost their place in the repertoire, and it took decades for them to make a recovery. The chaos of the times made a “geometrical” music attractive: no bombast, no emotional manipulation. Composers, “all reeling together at the futility, the anarchy, the loss of faith, and the havoc wrought by the most needless and destructive of all wars, took refuge together in a consoling order they had purchased by a huge investment in irony.” (It is good to remember that it was around this time, too, that there was a change in performance practice, with “execution” of a score taking precedence over “interpretation”; the score was to be followed to the letter, without injecting personality. We see here the same aversion to pathos that Stravinsky turned so adroitly to his advantage.)

Neo-classicism was not entirely without forerunners, and it was not without followers. French composers, especially, had been consciously cultivating a music that was at odds with the mainstream of Romanticism, in the sense of being at odds with the music of Germany. Composers like Debussy, Ravel, and especially Satie had to various degrees rejected a music of drama and rhetoric, emphasizing instead “the sensual surface”. They sought to convey beauty rather than sublimity, to purge their music of will and desire, making it more impersonal and elegant, an objet d’art. At the same time, theirs was unquestionably a modernist movement, for, like Stravinsky’s neo-classicism after them, it set a high premium on self-consciousness and urbanity. Following in Stravinsky’s wake, meanwhile, were a host of others. In the music of Prokofiev or Hindemith, for instance, we can hear the continuation of the ironic tone: playful, distant, humorous, and suspicious of greatness. All of this was very interesting, and in a certain sense it was refreshing, but we cannot forget that a price was being paid for this cool detachment. The music was no longer “transparent”; it was no longer to be experienced directly, but always only mediated by an ironic distance. The problem is obvious: irony might be temporarily amusing, but it cannot be loved. A composer who insists that his music is not to be taken too seriously runs the risk of being taken at his word.

Schoenberg saw Stravinsky’s neo-classicism as a failure of an artist’s (alleged) responsibility to “move forward”. (This despite the fact that, as we have seen, moving backward under ironic cover is not precisely the same as moving backward.) Meanwhile, he was having forward-motion difficulties of his own. The expressionist ideal, which was (in Taruskin’s words) “to avoid the appearance of rationalized routine and yet achieve a coherently expressive result”, came to be a burden for Schoenberg. The avoidance of routine tended to thwart coherence. He therefore began casting about for a way to structure his music, and ultimately this quest resulted in the invention of the famous twelve-tone method, which was probably the most influential and controversial compositional technique of the century.

Twelve-tone composition, or serialism (as it is sometimes called), or dodecaphony (as it sometimes called by those with a penchant for Greek), or dodecacophony (as it sometimes called by those with something to prove) is a technique for structuring music without having recourse to tonality. Each composition is based on a “tone row”, which is a particular ordering of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. (Thus there are 12! (=479,001,600) different possible tone rows, though Wikipedia informs us that only 9,979,200 of these are truly unique — that is, “unrelated to any others through transposition, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion”.) The tone row, once chosen, limits the composer’s options, though the degree to which it limits him is somewhat unclear to me. For twelve-tone composers of the strict observance, I believe that the tone row can only be played and re-played, in its entirety, either in its original form or under one of the standard transformations (transposition, inversion, retrograde, or retrograde inversion, as above); the rhythmic shape of the tone row can (presumably) be varied from one statement to another; and the tone row can be played by different instruments so as to overlap in time. The essential feature is that no one tone in the row is allowed to dominate over the others; the tones are all placed on an equal footing; each is played as often as all the others. Thus there is no “functional differentiation of scale degrees”, and so no tonality.

The tone row, once chosen, is thus the seed from which the composition grows, giving the whole an “organic” motivic consistency — and thus achieving something akin to the “motivic saturation” method of Schoenberg’s expressivism. Yet here, instead of the music expressing the unfathomable uniqueness of the composer’s “inner occurances”, it is generated almost mechanically, according to strict rules. This innovation broke Schoenberg’s creative logjam, and founded an influential school of composition to boot, but ironically it also seemed to concede the argument to Stravinsky: if Schoenberg had presented his expressivism as a music of freedom opposed to Stravinsky’s orderly and rational classicism, his adoption of serialism committed him to an even greater degree of order and rationality. Taruskin notes that “twelve-tone composers went further than any others in ordering the content of their work according to rational structural principles, making content in effect tantamount to form.”

It is telling, however, that these “rational structural principles” were almost always far more evident to the mind than to the ear. That is, the basis of each composition was lucid to the intellect — it was just the particular tone row the composer had chosen — but it baffled the ear, and this “gnawing tension between poietic transparency and esthetic opacity would never be entirely dispelled”. This contrast is perhaps most clearly illustrated in certain compositions of Anton Webern — my personal favourite of the serialists — whose carefully chosen tone rows and minimalist manner yielded music that often sounds like very carefully constructed chaos.

[Here is an example of Webern’s serialism. His String Quartet, from 1928, is constructed from a famous tone row based on the B — A — C — H motive that has been used by many composers (including Bach himself). This is considered one of the most tightly constructed serial compositions in the repertoire.]

Yet “esthetic opacity” did not prevent twelve-tone composition from becoming the chic compositional school of, at least, the first half of the century. There was something about it that appealed. Its highly structured form gave it an aura of scientific positivism, which was attractive for many of the same reasons that neo-classicism was attractive. It also seemed to suit the Zeitgeist between the wars; says Taruskin, “No music better illustrated the debunking, materialist, objective, and antimetaphysical spirit of postwar disillusion.” A dubious honour, to be sure.


These notes thus far have been oscillating between the twin poles of Schoenberg and Stravinsky; this is justified but regrettable. It is justified because these men loom large in both the history and the historiography of music in the twentieth-century, and regrettable because there were many fine composers who resisted their influence, who carried on, in a more straightforward way, the musical traditions they had inherited, and who suffered neglect as a result. I have, it seems, repeated the injustice. (In partial recompense I can recommend Robert Reilly’s wonderful “alternate history” of the music of the twentieth-century, Surprised by Beauty.) In fairness, Taruskin had already discussed several of those composers toward the end of the previous volume in this set, and may discuss more of them in the following volume.

Even in this volume, Taruskin covers many composers whom I have not mentioned. There are several chapters about American music, starting with Charles Ives — much the most interesting American composer, in my opinion — and up through the jazz age (Copland, Gershwin) to the so-called “American symphonists” (William Schuman, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson). There is a chapter devoted to Hungarian music, especially that of Bartok and Janacek. There is quite a lot about French music, focusing especially on Satie, Les Six, and the birth of surrealism. There is a fascinating chapter devoted to the history of ballet, culminating in the tradition-busting ballets of Stravinsky’s early period, and the book closes with a look at how music fared under the three main totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth century: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Communist Soviet Union. Is it paradoxical that the most benign of the regimes, under Mussolini, produced no very great music, while the most repressive, under Stalin, produced several composers of note and, in Shostakovich, at least one of the highest rank, whose music became, in Taruskin’s words, “the secret diary of a nation”? Perhaps not.


In a general way, this fourth volume continues to mightily impress me. The strengths of Taruskin’s writing that I have noted before — the wit, the clarity, the comprehensive scope, and the accessibility — are again evident. Because of the nature of the subject matter in this volume there is quite a lot of technical discussion about harmony and the structural principles of music. I didn’t follow most of it, but that is a failure on my part. I am looking forward to the next volume, and, even 3500 pages in, I am sorry to see that the end is in sight.


A more sensible blogger would probably have split this long post into several shorter ones.

Singing sisters

October 30, 2012

A week or two ago I noted that several brothers from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert had paid a visit to The Today Show on MSNBC to sing some chant, and I remarked on the fact that the music, because it was solemn and beautiful and glorious, clashed rather strongly with the whole ambience of the television programme.

Here, on the other hand, are two clips of Benedictine sisters singing the chant in its proper context. The first is a group of sisters from Abbaye Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation, near Avignon. The delicacy and ethereal beauty of this singing is simply marvellous:

The second video is from the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in Missouri. It’s a promotional video for a CD the sisters have recorded, with short musical clips interspersed with interviews, and it successfully conveys not only the beauty of the music, but also something of the warmth and sanity of this way of life:

A professional choir is all very well, but for this music I love to hear it sung by people for whom it is their daily prayer. (Best of all, of course, is to sing it oneself!) May God bless us with many more singing sisters.

Beastly little things

October 25, 2012

I may have mentioned in this space before that I am under some pressure to get a cell phone. I have resisted for years, and certainly have no desire to have one, but the question has come up again, so I’d like to reflect briefly on my concerns, and solicit advice of those willing to offer it.

Of all the reasons that have been given me for having a cell phone, only one carries weight in my own mind: in case of emergency, it would give our children’s caregiver a reliable way to reach me while I am at work. True, I have a desk job, and amidst all the desk clutter is a telephone, but sometimes I am in the lab, and sometimes I am out and about, and at those times there is currently no way for someone to reach me, and there is no-one else whom the caregiver can call.

Yet there are a number of reasons why I am reluctant to have one.

First, I fear cell phone creep. It is one thing to say that you’re getting one only in case of emergencies, but another to confine its use to emergencies. I actually used to have a cell phone in my car when I was travelling long distances in the winter; it was in my glove box in case I went into a ditch and needed to call someone, but nobody knew the phone number (not even me), and so there was no problem with creep. Having a phone so that others can call me is another situation entirely: creep will be hard to avoid. Emergencies get defined down.

I suppose a deeper reason why I do not like cell phones is the reason many people do like them: they keep one always connected. I am a person whose well-being is fostered by doses of solitude, and I treasure those relatively rare occasions on which I can “disappear”, maybe just for half an hour, in order to be quiet and think about things, or to listen attentively to something beautiful, or to pray. That sense of being alone, well and truly, gives me space to breathe, and is unfailingly refreshing. Whether it is actually important for me to be “unreachable” at those times is, I must admit, debatable, but it feels important. I feel as though the weight of that phone in my pocket will be a burden on my mind.

On the other hand, who am I kidding? It is not as though dozens of people are clamouring to reach me; my social life is almost entirely domestic. It probably would be feasible to restrict the phone-aware social circle to my wife, our children’s caregivers, and my in-laws. Is it churlish to inconvenience them on account of my rather vague, and perhaps rather selfish, reservations?

But mention of our children raises another set of issues. There is now quite a lot of evidence about how digital media, and cell phones in particular, have a powerful, and, to my mind, powerfully deleterious, effect on the lives of teenagers. This is something that people of my age, who did not grow up with this technology, probably do not fully understand. Cell phones, particularly those with “texting” capabilities (which these days is pretty much all of them) have made it very difficult for teenagers to remove themselves from their social circles, to “turn off” the peer pressure, to leave that world outside and simply be alone or with their families. It used to be that one came home from school and, apart from a few phone calls perhaps (on a phone shared with others), one was at home with one’s family until morning. Now one’s friends are always potentially present: whether one is riding in the back seat of a car, or whether one is in bed at midnight, the “texts” keep flowing. This is bad enough at any age, but for teenagers, for whom peer social pressures are already so powerful and dominating, it is really very troubling. How will these young people have time and space for quiet reflection, or for prayer, or for simply being themselves, embodied, attentive to those around them? How much more difficult will it be for parents to guide their children through those often difficult years when there is no time or place in which the parents and children are really together, to the exclusion of others?

And there is, of course, also the issue of addiction to “texting” and other social media. They are not called Crackberries for nothing. This is a concern not only for me as a parent, but also for myself, for I know that I would not be immune to the Pavlovian lure of the beep.

The issue of social media and children is not the topic of this post, but I raise it in this context because, although our children are not teenagers, they will, God willing, be so one day, and I feel that I will be better positioned to moderate the use of these technologies if I am not myself a user of them. I will be able to show them, by my example, that one does not need them, and that in fact there are things to be gained from not having them. It can be argued, of course, that there is a middle ground between abstinence and addiction, and that it would be better to model the middle ground. This may be true. My feeling is that it’s better not to let the foot in the door. This may be true.

At the end of the day my concerns about cell phones, smartphones, and so forth circle around two related points: first, I am concerned about the way these devices can potentially alter our lives at a fairly deep level, from erasing (at least in principle) our solitude, to changing the way we relate to our friends and family, to mediating our very experience of the world; and second, I am concerned that once one crosses the Rubicon to join the cell phone culture, it is very hard to get back.


I am interested to hear, if anyone cares to offer, opinions about these matters. If you, like me, do not have a cell phone (and I am sure there must be at least four or five such people left), why not? If you do, how do you feel about it? If you are a parent, how do you manage your child’s access to technologies like this? Do you?



Parenting strategies at Mass

October 23, 2012

Be honest now: how do you keep your kids quiet during the homily?

A clash of cultures: monks on MSNBC

October 18, 2012

A few of the Benedictine monks from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert were on an MSNBC programme called The Today Show, and, appropriately enough, I believe they were on today.

I actually recognize a few of the monks from a retreat I took at their monastery several years ago. It is a wonderful place, hidden deep in the New Mexico desert, surrounded by awe-inspiring red cliffs. At night the darkness and the silence are profound. The doors of the guests’ cells open separately on the top and bottom, so that the top can be opened to permit a breeze while the bottom is closed to prevent snakes from making an unwelcome visit. The monks I met there remain close to my heart, though I’ve not spoken to any of them for years. I would love to go back someday.

They were on The Today Show to sing some chant: Alleluia, Iustus Germinabit, to be specific. I cannot figure out how to embed the clip of their singing, so you’ll have to go here.

They sing well, and I love them for it, but it is obvious that this music does not belong in this context. The contrast between the solemnity and dignity of the music and the amazing ditziness of the hosts is jarring. The music is meant to resound through a large space; here each of the voices is miked separately, and in consequence the engineers have had to apply some annoying processing to blend the voices. I hope these brothers have a good trip home, where they can once again sing this beautiful music in a place, and for a purpose, for which it is intended.

The end of the affair?

October 11, 2012

You may have heard about the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment which made waves in the news a few weeks ago. Briefly: Karen King, of Harvard Divinity School, submitted an article to the Harvard Theological Review claiming probable authenticity for a newly revealed (and privately owned) papyrus fragment which includes a phrase in which Jesus uses the phrase “my wife”. The papyrus is claimed to be of fourth-century origin, and the text is claimed to be of second-century origin. Harvard Theological Review‘s agreement to publish the findings was contingent on independent confirmation of the authenticity of the fragment.

I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the story at the time. No-one, not even Dr. King, who believes the fragment is likely authentic, claims that the fragment is evidence that Jesus actually had a wife, but only that at least one second-century author may have believed this. (As has been pointed out, the fragmentary nature of the text makes it difficult to rule out the possibility, for instance, that this literary Jesus was not using “wife” in a sense similar to that in which the New Testament Jesus speaks of himself as “bridegroom”.) It seemed a matter for specialists to sort out, without any apparent bearing on our understanding of the historical Jesus or the authenticity of the Gospels.

But the attention the fragment received in the media suggested that not everyone understood that. It is interesting, therefore, to revisit the question of the fragment’s authenticity, to see how things are shaping up.

Interestingly, the evidence is mounting that the fragment is a modern forgery. First, apparently the great majority of the phrases on the fragment occur in a known Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, a version from Nag Hammadi known as Codex II. The phrases have been pieced together, as a kind of pastiche, and in a manner which apparently introduced grammatical errors that are evident to an expert in Coptic. This strongly suggests that we are not dealing with an independent composition, and casts doubt on its claimed historical provenance. As Marc Goodacre, an expert on the Gospel of Thomas, puts it:

As I see it, there are two options here. Either the author of the Jesus fragment got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar in Nag Hammadi in the late fourth century to be buried for 1500 years, or s/he got hold of it after it came out of the jar in 1945. While we cannot rule out the possibility that s/he got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar, it is much more likely that the author got hold of it in the modern period with its multiple reproductions, in print and internet, of that one witness.

(In fairness, there is a third possibility: perhaps the author of the fragment worked from another copy of the Codex II version of the Gospel of Thomas, now lost. This could have occurred after the Nag Hammadi scrolls were buried.)

Second, just today it was revealed that the fragment reproduces a typographical error found in an online version of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. A single character is missing in both documents. Now, it is not totally beyond possibility that an ancient scribe might have omitted a character that a modern scholar, working independently, also omitted, but it is unlikely. To my mind this is fairly convincing evidence that the fragment has been forged at a date sometime in the past 15 years. (The online version went live in 1997.)

Experts are still awaiting the results of spectroscopic studies of the ink on the fragment. If the ink contains synthetic chemicals, it will show decisively that the text is modern; if not, the test is indecisive as to date.

In the meantime, this story showcases some fascinating literary detective work.

Vatican II, etc.

October 11, 2012

Today is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Much ink is being spilled to mark the occasion, but I’d like to recommend a short piece written by my friend Adam Hincks, S.J. on the theme of unity in Lumen Gentium, which was (of course) one of the principal documents promulgated by the Council. As usual with Adam, it is a model of clarity and good judgment.

Today is also the beginning of the Year of Faith initiated by the Holy Father. Janet Cupo points out that one can sign up for a year-long project to read the Catechism: you’ll get a portion emailed to you each day, starting today. I cannot think of anyone for whom this would not be a worthwhile endeavour. I have just signed up myself. Thanks, Janet.

Guide to Guides to Children’s Books

October 10, 2012

Fatherhood has provided me an attractive opportunity to indulge one of my obsessions under the guise of “responsible parenting”: I have turned my bibliophilia loose on the world of children’s literature. Because I did not have much exposure to good children’s literature during my own childhood it is a world about which I know relatively little. If I am going to stock our home library with quality books I have some learning to do.

During the past year or so I have been not only reading a great many children’s books, both to my children and to myself, but I have been reading a number of “guides” to children’s literature as well. Here are brief notes on a few of them:

100 Best Books for Children
Anita Silvey
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
192 p.

Well, an enumeration of the “best” books for any audience will have to come wrapped with qualifiers as to the inevitable element of subjectivity that enters such judgements, but Anita Silvey has made a helpful attempt to list only books with some broadly acceptable claim to classic status. The book focuses on literature for young children, from birth to age 12 or so, with special sections devoted to picture books, books for beginning readers, middle readers, and a substantial list for competent young readers (say, age 9-12). The recommendations cover nearly a century of publishing, from The Wind in the Willows in 1908 to the onset of the Harry Potter franchise in 1998. (The fact that Harry and friends made it onto the list perhaps casts some doubt on the selection criteria, especially for more recent books, but I am not familiar enough with most of the books listed to offer a fair appraisal on that point.)

Silvey devotes a page or two to each title she recommends, discussing its origins, its author, and a basic sketch of its appeal. She has spent most of her professional life working in the world of children’s literature — she claims to have read 125,000 children’s books in her lifetime! — and these “behind the scenes” stories are often quite interesting. (Did you know, for instance, that Curious George was originally going to be called “Fifi”?) As with most books of this sort written in the past few decades the long shadow of political correctness looms over all, and one wonders what otherwise fine books have been disqualified on those grounds.

With only a few exceptions, the books selected for discussion are works of fiction, and I think I found only one book of poetry. No collections of fairy tales or folklore made the top 100, though a few are listed in a supplemental “Beyond the Best 100” list included as an appendix. I appreciated the generous helping of picture books for young children.

Overall, this is a well written and well informed book, and as a result of reading it I have added a long list of new titles to my “wish list”. It would be a good book to have on hand in a family library.

Guide to Children’s Books
Michele Landsberg
(Penguin, 1985)
272 p.

I found this to be a reasonably good guide undermined by some serious faults. Landsberg appears to have sound judgment on most matters — at least insofar as she treats books with which I am already familiar (which are a distinct minority). I must say, however, that her writing fails to pique my interest in most of the titles she discusses. There is an emphasis on the relatively minor world of Canadian children’s literature, if that sort of thing warms your igloo. The book includes a number of quite extensive lists of recommended books in various categories, but regrettably the number of titles listed far exceeds the number of titles given detailed consideration in the main body of the book, which leaves the reader with essentially no information about the other titles (apart from the titles’ titles . . . as it were). There is also rather too great a concern about political correctness: books aimed specifically at boys or girls are grouped together with anti-Semitic books and other anathamatized miscellania in a chapter called “Girls’ Books, Boys’ Books, Bad Books and Bias”. Pass.

Books Children Love
Elizabeth Wilson
(Crossway, 1987 [rev.2002])
320 p.

This book, in its second edition, gives a wide overview of books for children, with a special emphasis on books consistent with “traditional values”. Unusually, about two-thirds of the book is devoted to recommendations of non-fiction for children in a wide variety of categories: science, music, art, biography, crafts, religion, humour, and so on. To my mind, non-fiction books, especially those written for children, are likely to be more ephemeral than works of imagination, and I would have preferred to see a greater focus on fiction and poetry. In all, hundreds of titles are considered, but for each the author provides little more than a brief description. As far as I can tell the quality of the recommendations is, generally speaking, fairly high, but the descriptions only rarely convey much enthusiasm. Fiction is helpfully split into three groups, for early, middle, and upper-level readers.

Written for Children
John Rowe Townsend
(Lippincott, 1965; rev. 1987)
364 p.

This is the book I was looking for: it gives a nice overview of children’s literature right from medieval times down to the present, and it is written in a calm, sometimes wryly humorous tone. The bulk of the book is devoted to nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, not least because that is the period in which the vast majority of children’s literature has been written. (No doubt children have enjoyed stories at all times, but written children’s literature prior to the nineteenth-century seems to have been mostly limited to Aesop and religiously-oriented poems of moral instruction.) The focus is on English-language fiction for children aged roughly 6-15, though the final chapter is devoted to picture books for younger children. Most of the discussion is of American and British authors, with some Australian authors included as well, and is structured largely by genre: fantasy, adventure, “school stories”, “realism”, poetry, and so on. The book was originally published in the mid-1960s, though I read an updated edition dating from the mid-1980s; still, I was pleased to find a book that had been largely written before the cultural revolution of the 1960s (which naturally has affected children’s literature along with everything else). Many authors are discussed, but it is clear which Townsend considers the greatest: Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, Mary Norton, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.A. Milne, and so on. He doesn’t seem to care much for C.S. Lewis, and, curiously, Dr. Seuss is passed over with hardly a mention. Nonetheless, this is one of the best such books that I have found thus far.

Filial encouragement

October 8, 2012

A fragment of tonight’s bedtime conversation:

Daughter: Where is Mommy?

Me: Mommy is at the hospital taking care of the sick people. Mommy is a doctor and knows how to help them.

Daughter: What do you know how to do?

Me (hesitating): Well, I can calculate quantum transition amplitudes, and I can solve Einstein’s equations in certain special geometries…

Daughter: I think you can do better things than that.

Dr. Hildegard

October 8, 2012

I don’t have much time to write today, but I couldn’t let this pass entirely without comment: yesterday in Rome Pope Benedict XVI named the third-third and thirty-fourth Doctors of the Church: St. John of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

About St. John of Avila, I am embarrassed to say, I know next to nothing, and I shall attempt to remedy that defect soon.

I would be obliged to say much the same about St. Hildegard, but for this: she was a composer of some renown, and I have been listening to her wonderful music for years. To my knowledge, Pope Benedict has not specified precisely why he has elevated her to the rank of Doctor — in this article, Leroy Huizenga speculates about what the reasons might be — but, considering the Pope’s longstanding effort to bring stability, continuity, and beauty to the Church’s liturgy, I find it difficult to believe that her special concern for sacred music is not among the factors he considered. It seems to me that lovers of sacred music within the Catholic Church would do well to look to her, with renewed affection, as their patroness, and that is an encouraging thought.

Here is St. Hildegard’s O ignis Spiritus, a song of praise to the Holy Spirit, as sung by Sequentia:

(Text and translation can be found on this page.)