Archive for August, 2013

Pieper: On Justice

August 30, 2013

On Justice
Josef Pieper
(Notre Dame, 1966) [1955]
74 p.

This small book belongs to a series which Josef Pieper wrote on each of the cardinal and theological virtues. In it, as in the others, his purpose was not to make an original contribution to the subject, but rather to summarize  central claims of the Western tradition of moral philosophy. As always, Pieper’s lodestone is St. Thomas Aquinas (himself so often a superb reference for classical and medieval sources), but he does not neglect the modern period.

Stated briefly, justice is “the notion that each man is to be given what is his due”. As such, justice is dependent on a prior determination of what is or is not due to a person, and, even more basically, on the notion that something can be due to a person, that a person can have a “right” to something which another is obligated to respect. The tradition states that a thing can be due to a person either by convention (due to legal agreements, promises, and so on) or naturally (that is, independent of any particular legal body or political system). The idea of a “natural right” underlies the contemporary discussion about human rights in international affairs.

One to whom something is due must be the sort of thing that can claim a right. It makes little sense, for instance, to speak of a moral obligation to a stone or a flower. This implies that we cannot fruitfully speak about justice without a concept of human nature. Our tradition’s principal concept of the human person Pieper summarizes as “a spiritual being, a whole unto itself, a being that exists for itself and of itself, that wills its own perfection” and it is “created a person by the act of God, that is, an act beyond all human discussion.” There is perhaps some ambiguity here as to whether personhood derives principally from our origin (as creatures) or our nature. Pieper seems to argue that our nature makes us capable of claiming rights and of thereby entering the orbit of justice, but our origin, deriving ultimately from a source outside the human community, places limits on the scope of rights derived from convention or authority and provides an opening for natural rights. He quotes Kant: “We have a divine Sovereign, and his divine gift to man is man’s right.”

If justice is to give what is due, then to be just means “to owe something and to pay the debt”. The stress on action here — pay the debt — is appropriate, for justice resides in an external act, not in an intention or disposition. In this, it differs from several other classical virtues, notably temperance and prudence. One may intend to be just, but unless one follows through with the act of justice, one cannot actually be said to be just. Justice is, in this sense, a “public virtue”. Pieper remarks that in the sphere of justice, people rightly regard one another objectively, almost as strangers. And there is a reverse side to the public character of justice: “every external act belongs to the field of justice”.

According to our moral tradition justice is a virtue of higher rank than fortitude or temperance, and this for two principal reasons: first, because it has a wider scope, ordering not only individual lives but also the life of communities, and, second, because while fortitude and temperance are virtues related to the body, having to do with mastering appetites and desires and so forth, justice is spiritual in nature. Moreover, it is quite possible to imagine being very “moral”, in the sense of being self-controlled and courageous, while nonetheless being unjust. (Such, Pieper notes, is the traditional character of the Anti-Christ.) So justice is an essential element in the conduct of a truly moral life.

Pieper identifies three basic forms of justice: reciprocal (the justice one person owes another), distributive (the justice a community owes to individual persons), and legal (the justice individual persons owe to the community). Perhaps because of the post-war context in which he was writing, with the threat of totalitarian governments a matter of constant concern, he focuses most of his discussion on distibutive justice, which is concerned with what the social whole (not specifically the government, note) owes the individual.

We might be tempted to suppose that distributive justice is more or less served in society today by a government-supported welfare system, but Pieper makes a few pointed remarks that call this identification into question. First, he anticipates some comments which Pope Benedict XVI made in Spe Salvi when he states that the nature of distributive justice is endangered when one’s relationship to the community is conceived in impersonal terms, when we think of a “welfare system” operated by bureaucrats rather than a network of personal relationships with a human face. And a second doubt is raised by consideration of the nature of the “communal goods” with which distributive justice is concerned; we are apt to think this means money and other tangible goods, and it does (“food, clothing, shelter, means of communication, care of the sick, education”), but is means more too: “the bonum commune extends far beyond the range of material goods produced by mechanical means” to include the full measure of the human good, spiritual as well as material. It includes knowledge of truth and moral guidance, for instance. If we are looking for a model of what Pieper means I believe that we might advantageously look to the Church rather than to civil society; there, at least, one sees the attempt to minister to the full dignity and capacity of the human person.

An oddity about distributive justice is that it cannot be enforced, for the obligated party is ultimately the authority itself:

Since institutional precautions and controls could entirely prevent the abuse of power only by precluding any form of effective authority, there is nothing and no one that can restrain the man of power from doing injustice — if not his own sense of justice. In the affairs of this world, everything depends on the rulers’ being just.

This provides a good reason to hold those in authority to high moral standards, and the greater the authority the higher the standard.

The closing sections of the book take up a rich theme: the limits of justice. There are, of course, some debts which are not paid, some obligations which are not met in this life. A secular account of justice must concede that the reign of justice is only partial and incomplete, for sometimes injustice carries the day. A religious account — or at least a Christian account — extends the reign of justice so that it is ultimately triumphant: those injustices which appear to triumph in this life are themselves judged by the ultimate justice of God.

Yet in addition to debts which, for one reason or another, are not paid, there are some debts which cannot be paid, some obligations which, by their very nature, cannot be met, and these mark out additional limits on the domain of justice. Such limits are especially evident in a person’s relationship to God, for each person receives his or her very being from God, and no repayment can ever be adequate to this gift.

Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereon.” This must not be taken to be merely an edifying thought. It is a very precise description of man’s condition in the face of God. Before any subsequent claim is made by men, indeed even before the mere possibility of a human claim arises, comes the fact that man has been made a gift by God (of his being) such that his nature cannot ever “make it good,” discharge it, “deserve” it, or return it again. Man can never say to God: “We are even.”

And divine justice must be understood in another way as well, for if justice means “to owe something and to pay the debt”, then God cannot, in this sense, be called just, for he owes nothing. Unfortunately Pieper does not elaborate on this question of what it means to say that God is just — only, as above, that his justice is allied to mercy.

Pieper argues that the practice of religious sacrifice is rooted in this same basic inability to give adequate thanks for the gift of being. No human effort can ever overcome the debt. When Hector pours his wine on the ground to honour the gods, or when a priest offers an unblemished lamb to the altar, or when a pilgrim sets out in a spirit of humble trust in God, the very extravagance of the act highlights its inadequacy:

Helplessness and impotency prompt this extravagance; because it is impossible to do what “properly” ought to be done, an effort beyond the bounds of reason, as it were, tries to compensate for the insufficiency.

Religious sacrifice is thus seen, from this perspective, to be rooted in justice. (I am aware of other accounts of the nature and significance of religious sacrifice, but this is one which I have not considered before.) The same is true of piety, and for much the same reason: St. Thomas says that “It is not possible to make to one’s parents an equal return of what one owes to them; and thus piety is annexed to justice.”


This is a very good book. It is potent and concentrated, as Pieper’s books usually are.

I close with a few aphorisms lifted from the text, several of which are paraphrases or quotations from St. Thomas:


Thomas, via Seneca: “A person who wants to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and an ungrateful person.” (ST, II, II, 106, 4)

Thomas: “Creation itself is not an act of justice; creation is not anyone’s due.”

“The common good requires every individual to be good.”

St. Thomas: “The purpose of power is to realize justice.”

At San Clemente

August 28, 2013


My favourite church in Rome is the basilica of San Clemente, a building that is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but full of fascinating history as well. The middle section of this essay is a photographic tour of the church, and a pretty good one.

Taruskin: History of Western Music V

August 24, 2013

Oxford History of Western Music, Vol.V
Music in the Late Twentieth Century
Richard Taruskin
(Oxford, 2005)
606 p.

And so we come at last to the final volume of this great project, in which Taruskin covers music since the Second World War. Unfortunately it has been for me much the least enjoyable volume in the series, partly because the story it tells is such a depressing one and partly because the major figures in the story — Boulez, Cage, Babbitt, Varese, Carter, Reich, to name a few — are composers for whom I have little love. There were a few lights on the horizon to brighten my way: one chapter on Benjamin Britten, for instance, and a few pages here and there devoted to a handful of composers whom I do admire, but for the most part this was a dark tread.

The book opens with a description of the atom bomb and its disturbing effect upon western society and culture. Taruskin explores a series of oppositions — “triumph vs. insecurity, responsibility vs. escape, science-as-savior vs. science-as-destroyer, esotericism vs. utility, intellect vs. barbarism, faith in progress vs. omnibus suspicion” — and then remarks that

all of the bizarre and contradictory musical events and phenomena to be recounted must be understood as counterpoints against these intractable and irresolvable dilemmas that unbalanced the world’s mind.

This way of framing the matter is actually slightly encouraging, for he too seems to realize that the art of music in this period was beset by difficulties, and while it may have been necessary (and, since the problems in many cases remain, may still be necessary) to pass through these dark valleys, they were (and are) dark valleys, and there is no merit in pretending otherwise.

One of the central threads of elite music after the war continued to be serialism. There were a few reasons why composers continued to be attracted to it. In some cases they were under the influence of the myth of historical progress; they spoke of serialism as though it were an historical necessity, as when Rene Leibowitz spoke of it as “the only genuine and inevitable expression of the musical art of our time”. All nonsense, of course. Others saw serialism as a vehicle for political resistance against totalitarian governments; it was against the Soviets because it was disliked by the common man and (therefore) frowned upon by Soviet authorities, and it was against the Nazis because Schoenberg’s music had been banned by the Nazis. (This last, however, was based on a misapprehension: the Nazis had not banned twelve-tone music in general, but only Schoenberg’s music, and that because he was Jewish, not because he was a serialist.) Other composers were attracted to serialism from motives of artistic purity: precisely because it had a narrow appeal (viz. because so few people liked it) it was mostly immune from political manipulation and from commercial pressures; it therefore allowed composers to focus on purely musical considerations. The exemplar of this approach was Webern (who, unfortunately, and in tension with the point just made, had been a Nazi sympathizer). Finally, some composers professed a simple curiosity about serial music; Boulez said that he merely wanted “to find out how far automatism in musical relationships would go”.

It would go pretty far, as it turned out, though the quality of the music that resulted might be a matter of some doubt. Boulez set out to serialize not just musical pitches, after the manner of Schoenberg, but also durations and dynamics, resulting in something called “total serialism”. Composition in this manner wasn’t a matter of making melodies or exploring harmonic tension, but of devising rules which would govern the musical structure. The rules were identified at the beginning, and, to a significant degree, the music unfolded from them of its own accord. The composer, as much as the listener, was interested to see how it would turn out.

But to speak of a “listener” might not be quite right: Boulez himself said that his music was not really meant to be heard, but to be “read” — that is, analyzed, to draw out its underlying structure. This may seem perverse, but it is an idea not at all foreign to the serialist tradition. Schoenberg himself had expressed contempt for listeners: “All I know is that he [the listener] exists, and insofar as he isn’t indispensable for acoustic reasons (since music doesn’t sound well in an empty hall), he’s only a nuisance.” One detects a note of bravado in hyperbolic statements like this, but nonetheless he is making a point. Neither did he see musicians as intrinsically important to his music; he once said:

“Music need not be performed any more than books need to be read aloud, for its logic is perfectly represented on the printed page; and the performer, for all his intolerable arrogance, is totally unnecessary except as his interpretations make the music understandable to an audience unfortunate enough not to be able to read it in print.”

Serialism perhaps reached an apex — or a terminus of some kind — in the music of the American composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt had trained both in mathematics and music, and he approached serial composition through the technical apparatus of set theory. He held for many years a faculty position at Princeton, where he established a graduate program in composition (the first of its kind) and promoted the notion that composition was “music research” analogous to the work taking place across campus in the physics laboratories. In Taruskin’s words, his career could be described as “a tireless quest of greater and greater beauty (or “elegance,” as mathematicians use the word), for its commitment to an ever increasing, all-encompassing orderly control of an ever more multifarious and detailed complex of relationships.” He argued that music composition should be sheltered by the academy and not need to answer to (or appeal to) popular tastes, or indeed to any audience at all. His music was “music that only a composer could love.”

It is on the strength of such remarks that Taruskin wonders if serialism should be seen as as especially pure expression of the literate tradition in western music: here, at last, we have a music which seems to exist principally in its written form, with the composers themselves arguing that it need not (and, in some cases, cannot) be performed or heard. Whether this is the culmination or merely the reductio ad absurdum of the tradition of notated music could be debated.

It is also possible to argue, oddly enough, that the serialists’ push to greater complexity and greater control over every aspect of music actually proved to be the undoing of the literate tradition. The acknowledged difficulty of performing the music meant that the time was ripe in the 1950s and 1960s for composers to adopt the quickly developing technology of electronic music-making: here was a means of reproducing a score in all of its intricacy, without concessions to any of the limitations of human performers. The composer, who had always relied on an intermediary — the musician — to present his work, could now present his work directly, much as a painter or a sculptor did. The irony was that even as they enthusiastically adopted electronic means for playing their fiercely difficult notated music, the same technology was opening up the possibility of composing with no notation at all. It was the advent of a post-literate tradition of music-making, one which (Taruskin argues) has been among the most important developments in music in the last half-century, and one which may ultimately prove triumphant.

This volume spends quite a few pages discussing electronic music, but as I’ve no real interest in it I am going to skip to something else.

A second thread, apart from though interacting with serialism, was the exploration of indeterminacy in music. Composers would provide room for musicians to improvise during the performance of a piece, so that it was never exactly the same twice. Christian Wolff, who experimented with this idea, argued that it “makes possible the freedom and dignity of the performer” who becomes a kind of co-creator of the music rather than simply following the instructions of the composer. One can perhaps detect a political motive at play: this collaborative music is more egalitarian than the traditional model of a composer/conductor/musician hierarchy. Morton Feldman provided only very general instructions to performers in his quest to achieve “the wholly unmotivated gesture” in music; however he discovered that musicians fell into all-too-human habits that undermined the true indeterminacy he was seeking. So that was a bust (but Feldman went on to write very beautiful and alluring music). Xenakis explored the idea of stochastic music, in which sound were treated rather like molecules in a gas, behaving randomly within limits established by probability distributions. It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, but I cannot help wondering what it has to do with music? (I’ll admit I have a long-standing loathing of the music of Xenakis.)


Although this volume is primarily devoted to “movements” or “schools”, there are a few individual composers who loom large, and I would like to devote some words to three of them: John Cage, Benjamin Britten, and Elliott Carter.

Cage is a difficult case. On one hand, some of his compositions are little more than juvenile stunts (the infamous 4’33” falls into this category); on the other, some of the things he wrote are genuinely beautiful. He was a self-taught musician who never attained any great virtuosity — he once said, rather endearingly if finally disingenuously, that “the whole pitch aspect of music eludes me” — yet he was a kind of gadfly on the music of the twentieth-century, and even of the entire Western musical tradition, poking it in uncomfortable places and calling into question its settled views. He opposed, for instance, the emphasis on musical analysis in favour of pure, in-the-moment musical experience; he questioned the criteria by which we divide music from noise; he disputed the hierarchical social structure of music in which composers and conductors dictate orders to musicians. Some of this was potentially fruitful, some not, but it was all carried out in what seems to have been a spirit of genuine curiosity, without stridency or belligerence. He seems to have been a man whom it was difficult to dislike.

Benjamin Britten, whose centenary we celebrate this year, is in my judgement one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century music. He stands apart from most other composers of the period by viewing music as essentially social and contemporary: he almost always composed with particular performers in mind, and his intention was for the music to be enjoyable for both performers and audience, without any great concern for history or posterity. “That is what we should aim at — pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself,” he said. As one can imagine, his music is accessible (especially in comparison to the music of most of his contemporaries) and remains popular. He was critical of those who saw music as abstract and historically aware “because they may make the composer, above all the young composer, self-conscious, and instead of writing his own music, music which springs naturally from his gift or personality, he may be frightened into writing pretentious nonsense or deliberate obscurity.” Britten did neither.

But talk of pretentiousness and obscurity provides a nice segue-way to the music of Elliott Carter. Carter died last year, at the age of 103, and was praised as a giant of American classical music. I’m afraid I just don’t understand. He was seen as “the chief standard bearer for the traditional modernist view of art and its autonomous history” (Taruskin) and was in many respects the anti-Britten: though not technically a serialist, his music did push the boundaries of complexity to the edge of un-playability. Critics reveled in the innovative intelligence allegedly manifest in his music, even as they conceded that the magnificent structural complexity was difficult or impossible to hear. Taruskin comments that “Carter’s masterpieces were like the noise made by a tree falling in an empty forest. They existed purely “ontologically,” by virtue of their perceived complexity, whether or not anyone actually experienced them. Musical value had received its most purely asocial definition.”


Though it has been clear from the beginning that Taruskin is writing the history of “literate music” — that is, music that is disseminated principally in written form — he devotes a full chapter of this volume to a non-literate, but still well “documented” musical tradition: the popular music of the 1960s. As we all know, popular music in this period enjoyed a massive increase in artistic ambition and cultural influence. The Beatles are at the center of the story as Taruskin sees it; he notes the numerous serious composers who admired them and their music, and who saw them as heralding a decisive shift in the relative cultural importance of popular and “classical” music. Taruskin sees the music as a branch from the same trunk that gave us the elite modernist music that has been his principal theme these past two volumes:

… unlike virtually all previous popular music, it [rock] was the opposite of family entertainment. It was socially divisive as well as uniting, and in its own way it fostered elitism. In was, in short, a kind of modernism.

The move from thinking about popular music to thinking about minimalist music is a fairly natural one. Although the roots of minimalism (usually traced to the strange musical experiments of La Monte Young) pre-date the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, the two traditions bear a fair number of similarities: American roots (Taruskin remarks that minimalism is “the first (and so far the only) literate musical style born in the New World to have exterted a decisive influence on the Old”), rhythmic regularity, and popular appeal. The leading minimalists, such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, have been something akin to “cross-over” artists, making an appeal to both sides of the popular/classical boundary. This, in fact, has been one of the oft-heard criticisms of minimalism: that it is geared to satisfy commercial interests, or even that, with its mechanical repetitions, it is an apt musical expression of commercial, industrialized society. Perhaps there is some truth in that. Taruskin notes, however, the striking fact that all of the leading minimalists have seriously practiced some sort of religion: Glass Buddhism, Reich Judaism, and Riley a kind of Yogic meditation. It might be that the roots of this music are more organic and spiritual than is often assumed. This is especially evident, I think, in the music of Arvo Pärt, to whom Taruskin devotes too few (7) pages.

The penultimate chapter of the book is surprisingly cheering; in it, Taruskin describes challenges to the dominance of modernist music which arose on a number of fronts. One development was that modernism, with its constant stress on innovation and technical complexity and originality and (consequently) obsolescence, began to give way to something less doctrinaire. A number of composers took up a pastiche or collage approach to composition, in which numerous musical styles (or even direct quotations) from earlier times were revived and presented side-by-side. This approach, which has (inevitably) been called post-modern, has been said by at least some of its practitioners to aim at the liberation of music from the “tyranny of history” and from the dominance of “progress”, to achieve a kind of “transhistorical” perspective. But the pastiche style is still not well suited to direct, unselfconscious music-making; there is about it still something of the modernist taste for irony.

This too, however, has suffered some setbacks. A principal figure here is the American composer George Rochberg, whom I had considered a fairly minor figure but to whom Taruskin devotes a good deal of attention. In his early career, Rochberg was considered a leading modernist, hitting all of the right buttons and doing it well. But he experienced a personal crisis and realized, to his dismay, that the music he had been writing was unable to express the strong feelings his experience aroused in him, and this led him to reevaluate his whole approach to music.

Rochberg began to suspect that he, like every other committed modernist composer, had cut himself off from the expressive possibilities that enabled the older music to survive. That renunciation, he feared, probably doomed his music and that of his contemporaries to oblivion.

Rochberg’s break with modernism was dramatic: in his String Quartet No.3 he composed a long movement in the style of Mozart, without any stray dissonances or odd rhythms that would betray its twentieth-century provenance: it was sweet and lovely and apparently sincere, and it caused a storm of controversy. It would be one thing to hear such a thing from a peripheral composer, but Rochberg was at the center and couldn’t be dislodged or ignored. Thereafter he returned to tonality, and in his wake a number of other leading composers, such as Ligeti and Penderecki, did the same. The stranglehold of serialism and atonal music was loosened.

There also arose a serious intellectual challenge to serial music: Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackindoff published a book entitled A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, based on the linguistic theories of Chomsky. They argued, essentially, that the mind understands music using certain assumptions about structure, a kind of expectation of musical grammar, and that music which undermines those expectations, or which cannot be interpreted according to those rules, is heard as nonsense or noise. The theory asserted that human beings have certain cognitive constraints in their interpretation of music, and that, furthermore, “the technical premises of serial composition are…not available to cognition.” If the theory of Lerdahl and Jackindoff is correct, then

Music structured nonhierarchically is implicitly reduced to a kind of nonlinguistic or prelinguistic communication — grunts, sign language, or otherwise rudimentary conveyance of primitive needs and moods, if that. Whatever the complexity of its structural organization (discoverable from the score), its level of aural communication is drastically coarsened and blunted.

This upended things nicely: rather than being at the cutting-edge of sophistication, serial music was compared to brute noise. By these lights, large swaths of twentieth-century music began to look like tragicomedy — or, since I am smiling, maybe just like comedy.

In his final chapter Taruskin steps back a little to consider three principal strands of elite music-making vying for dominance at the close of the twentieth century (and, it is fair to say, at the beginning of the twenty-first). There are, on one hand — though, since I am about to describe three things, it is a blunder to begin by counting hands — there are the traditional modernists, more or less following the channels carved out by the pioneering modernists of the early twentieth century. This group is plausibly dominated by serialists, and they are committed not only to maintaining the literate tradition of musical composition but also, in the work of composers like Farneyhough and Finnissy, to pushing that tradition to new extremes of complexity and virtuosity. In their own way, they continue the pursuit of ‘maximalism’ that has been so central to the last few hundred years of Western music. At the other end of the spectrum is a group that has grown up out of the early experiments with electronic music. The new computer technologies, which have made possible a practical, experiential approach to music-making that incorporates sampling, randomness, and experimentation with unusual (synthetic) timbres has the potential, in Taruskin’s eyes, to depart from the literate tradition altogether, and perhaps to undermine it as well. Too bad the music is so terrible. A parallel tradition of performance art, which typically never assumes a written form, also fits into this stream of “non-literate” music. Finally, there are a small elite of commercially successful composers who cater to an upper- and upper-middle-class audience. These composers have returned to the idea that pleasing an audience is a legitimate goal. The hazard here, however, is that the limitations of the audience limit the music. Taruskin recalls, for instance, that the millenium’s end was marked by high profile commissions of new Passion narratives, one for each of the four Gospels, and he notes that the results were, to a significant degree, basically multicultural mish-mashes. Why was that? He points to the need to please the “bourgeois bohemians” (and he draws explicitly on David Brooks’ theory about “Bobos”) who dominate the audience.

That isn’t an exhaustive taxonomy, but it does capture prominent features of the landscape. Each of these groups has something going for it — well, except for the second — and nobody knows how it will turn out. Or, to quote the closing sentences of the book:

The future is anybody’s guess. Our story ends, as it must, in the middle of things.

That’s nicely said.


Whenever someone finishes reading a 4000 page book, I think it is acceptable for them to recline with a glowing sense of accomplishment; I am reclining now, and I am glowing. I’ve sung the praises of individual volumes in this set before, and I won’t belabour the point here. Taruskin is one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and, it is fair to say, this is now the principal history of Western music for a general audience; it is hard to think of who could write another of comparable scope to challenge it. No doubt I have been but a middling pupil; I nonetheless know that I have learned much, and I have been greatly enriched in the process. Richard Taruskin has put music lovers in his debt, and I, for one, thank him.


A little something to celebrate:


Notes on previous volumes:

Mind and Cosmos, in brief

August 23, 2013

Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False has been creating quite a stir. I had planned, and sort of still hope, to read it, although there have been enough reviews for me to grasp the general line of argument.

Nagel has made things even easier this week by contributing a brief summary of his argument to the New York Times. He argues that the conception of matter with which the physical sciences have worked since the scientific revolution is an abstraction that does not capture all of the actual properties of matter, and that the bits left out are necessary to a scientific account of mind and consciousness:

This means that the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.

It’s an interesting line of argument, though naturally it runs up against a lot of resistance in some circles. Read the whole thing.

For a better understanding of the principal claims and arguments of the book, as well as the principal objections that have been raised against it and some possible responses to them, you might consider looking at Edward Feser’s round-up, in which he more or less defends Nagel against his critics.

Remembering the Civil War

August 21, 2013

At First Things today George Weigel recommends a set of good books on the American Civil War, the sesquicentennial of which we are currently living through. I always like book lists, and this one is particularly welcome.

For the past two years I have been reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, 20 pages each week, more or less keeping pace with the narrative as it unfolded 150 years ago. My knowledge of the war has been rudimentary, so I have had the pleasure of reading this superbly detailed history without really knowing what will happen next. I have spent the past two months reading the section on the battle of Gettysburg, and I am convinced that historical writing doesn’t get much better.

Weigel also gives top billing to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which I have on my shelves (or, rather, in a box near my shelves) and harbour a (fading) hope that I will read before the war ends in a couple of years. But he makes a number of other suggestions too, a few of which are going onto my wish list.

Alongside my reading of Foote, I’ve been trying to watch a few Civil War-related films. There was Lincoln last year, and at the moment I’m inching my way through the 1993 behemoth Gettysburg. Ken Burns’ documentary seems to be highly regarded, and I think I’ll watch it as a retrospective once I finish reading Foote. In the meantime, any other film recommendations?

I suppose the real way to mark the anniversary would be to visit some Civil War sites, but I don’t think that will be possible for me.

Incidentally, “sesquicentennial” is a word of American origin; in 2030 it will have its sesquicentennial.

Palestrina: the untold story

August 19, 2013

Some interesting background on several of Palestrina’s most famous compositions:

A favourite composition is the Missa Papae Marcelli, whose text (written by Palestrina himself) congratulates the newly-elected Pope Marcellus IV on the purchase of a new diamond-encrusted chasuble. Other works often heard are the battle hymn Sicut cervus, which prays to St Januarius to send a plague of rickets upon all loyal churchmen, and the interminable Stabat mater, which expresses the deep sorrow of the Virgin Mary at the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

So it appears, at least, to a vigilant low-church Anglican. There’s more gold where that came from.

Let’s hear that tuneless, meandering battle hymn:

(Hat-tip: The Chant Cafe)

Lunch time

August 16, 2013

In a couple of weeks I am going to have to start packing a lunch every day for our daughter — and not just a lunch, but a lunch and two snacks! Naturally I’m dreading the onset of this particular obligation, and I’m doing my best to avert my eyes from the prospect of it continuing for 15 years.

But, as the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared”: I thought to look online for ideas for simple and nutritious meals that I could consider making for her. The very first article I found, from Canadian Family magazine, is called “15 School Lunch Ideas They’ll Love”. Sounds good, right? Their first suggestion is this:

Honey Cider Ricotta Fondue

Honey Ricotta Fondue with Fruit Dippers. 

For crying out loud.

If anybody cares to share ideas for simple lunches, you’re most welcome to leave a comment.

Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, 2013

August 15, 2013
The Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini (c.1475)

The Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini (c.1475)

A very happy feast of Our Lady to everyone! Here is the Alleluia chant for today:

And here is Palestrina’s six-part elaboration of a related text, sung by Stile Antico:

A great sign appeared in heaven:
A woman clothed with the sun,
and the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 

Sing ye to the Lord a new song:
because He hath done wonderful things.

Versions of Shylock

August 13, 2013

I think I have mentioned before that I have been, from time to time, watching the old Royal Shakespeare Company television programme Playing Shakespeare. Here is a nice clip from the show in which two fine actors, David Suchet and Patrick Stewart, give us two different versions of Shylock’s famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech from Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice

It is fascinating to see how their very different conceptions of the character (outlined in this clip) play out. An interesting short discussion follows about how not to play the scene.

Great moments in opera: Simon Boccanegra

August 10, 2013

My exploration of unfamiliar Verdi operas continues this anniversary year with a viewing of Simon Boccanegra, a middle period work that premiered just a few years after La Traviata. Verdi revised it twenty years later, toward the end of his life, and the revised version is the one normally heard today. It is a dark piece, written mainly for male voices (there is just one female character of any significance), and it is imbued with an imposing sense of tragic doom. Hard to love, perhaps, but impressive while it plays.

The action is set in fourteenth-century Genoa, and concerns the fate of the title character, who is the city’s Doge. The plot is complicated, with several characters appearing at different times under different names. I’ll do my best to sketch a skeleton plot to hang these highlights on.

It opens with a prologue in which several matters of importance occur. Simon Boccanegra has fathered a child out of wedlock with Maria Fiesco yet is prevented from marrying her by her father Joseph. (The child, also named Maria, has subsequently gone missing while in the custody of her nurse.) Caught up in Genoese political turmoil and acclaimed Doge, Boccanegra accepts the position simply in order to secure the power to overrule Maria’s father’s objections to their marriage. On the night of his acclamation, however, Maria dies of an illness. The musical highlight of the prologue is her father’s lament, a bass aria called Il lacerato spirito (The tortured soul). Here is Robert Lloyd, with Spanish subtitles. (Apologies; the feeling comes through in any case.)

Twenty-five years elapse between the prologue and the opening of Act I, and these years are thick with thorns for anyone trying to follow the story. Boccanegra is still the Doge, but Fiesco, being his political opponent and fearing reprisals, has gone into hiding under the assumed name “Andrea Grimaldi”. We learn that the very night on which he fled Genoa, an infant girl was discovered on the grounds of his country retreat, and in the intervening decades he has raised her as his own daughter.

We, the audience, are not surprised to learn that this abandoned child, now grown to a young woman and called Amelia, is in fact Boccanegra’s lost child alluded to in the prologue, but none of the on-stage characters are aware of this initially. Ah, opera!

Amelia’s opening aria, Come in quest’ora bruna (How in this morning light), is a beauty worth lingering over. I suppose the same could be said of the singer: here is Marina Poplavskaya, from the Royal Opera House in London:

By a convenient coincidence, Simon Boccanegra visits the country villa where Amelia lives. In the course of their conversation, she reveals her orphan status and the circumstances which brought her to the care of Andrea Grimaldi. She shows Boccanegra a locket in which she keeps a picture of her mother. Boccanegra is astonished to see a picture of his long-lost love, Maria Fiesco: Amelia is his daughter! Contrived? Sure, but Verdi handles this recognition scene very nicely. Here are Kiri Te Kanawa and Vladimir Chernov, with English subtitles. The scene reaches its climax about 6 minutes in:

In Act II Boccanegra’s life is under threat from several angles: a courtier, Paolo, who was to marry Amelia until Boccanegra, discovering his paternity, forbade it without explanation, wants to assassinate Boccanegra. And another young man, Gabriele, also in love with Amelia, is fiercely jealous of Boccanegra’s newly close relationship with her, misinterpreting it as a romantic liaison. Gabriele, in fact, comes close to murdering Boccanegra, but is stopped at the last moment by Amelia, who explains the nature of their relationship. Together the three of them then sing a lovely trio, Perdon, Amelia… Indomito (Forgive me, Amelia… A wild, jealous love).

Meanwhile, Paolo has quietly poisoned Boccanegra’s drinking water. The final Act follows Boccanegra’s faltering final steps: he reconciles with his old rival Feisco, sees Amelia happily married to Gabriele, and names Gabriele his successor as Doge, but finally succombs. Here is the death scene; we pick it up about 6 minutes from the end:

Simon Boccanegra is not as popular as the majority of Verdi’s mature operas, and I think the principal reason is likely the complications of the plot: even with a synopsis in hand it is sometimes difficult to follow what is happening, much less to clearly understand the various motives of the principal characters as the story progresses. Mind you, an impenetrable plot hasn’t stopped Il Trovatore from being popular. It is also fair to say that the music of Boccanegra is not as winsome as might be hoped. I was, however, greatly taken with its moody, tragic ethos: watched with attention from start to finish it reveals itself as a work of considerable power, and Boccanegra himself is a character of impressive strength and dignity.