Archive for September, 2013

Arvo Pärt in Conversation

September 29, 2013

Arvo Pärt in Conversation
Enzo Restagno and others
(Dalkey, 2012)
182 p.

This book is a nice pendant to The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, about which I wrote a few months ago. Roughly half of the present volume is a transcription of a wide-ranging interview which Pärt gave to Enzo Restagno, an Italian musicologist, in 2003. The book is filled out by a technical essay on Pärt’s compositional style by Leopold Brauneiss, a brief reflection on his music by Saale Kareda, transcriptions of several of his award acceptance speeches, and a select (and well-chosen) discography of his music.

The interview was for me the most interesting section of the book; hearing Pärt speak about his music in his own words is far preferable to hearing about it from others. The interview begins with an overview of Pärt’s childhood and early career in Estonia, and the gradual means by which he abandoned modernist compositional techniques and found his own distinctive voice. He makes it clear that the quest for a musical voice was not only a musical challenge: it was deeply personal and spiritual as well. He was dismayed by the manner in which musical composition in the mid-twentieth century was politicized: the use of western-style methods was considered “capitalist” by the Soviet authorities, and that same music was often considered “anti-capitalist” by western commentators. Part grew tired of this conflict, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

“Do you want to know why I distanced myself from this music? It did it because for me by this time these conflicts had lost their power, and with it their meaning. One might say that I had come to terms with myself and with God — and in so doing, all personal demands on the world had receded into the background…

I have come to recognize that it is not my duty to struggle with the world, nor to condemn this or that, but first and foremost to know myself, since every conflict begins within ourselves. This does not mean that I am indifferent, but if someone wants to change the world then he must begin with himself. I am absolutely convinced of this. If one does not begin with oneself, every step towards the world will be nothing but a big lie and at the same time an attack, and this hidden aggressiveness tends to go on spreading. How to do this is quite a different story, but if one starts off with this idea, everything else appears in a new light.”

No doubt the position articulated here will not be agreeable to everyone, but I must say that it makes me feel that Pärt is a kindred spirit. His inner retreat, and his search for simplicity, led him eventually to the very roots of music in monophonic song, and in particular to the music of Gregorian chant. He acquired a copy of the Liber Usualis, which contains a wide selection of the liturgical chant of the Catholic Church, and he describes this encounter in memorable terms:

“When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion.”

Pärt spent years filling his private notebooks with monophonic melodies, not exactly reproducing the idiom of Gregorian chant, but taking it, and its “spirit”, as a model. For a long time he was uncertain how to add a second voice to his melodies, from fear that doing so would lead to conflict and complication when what he really sought was unity and simplicity.

Finally he found his way to a unique compositional system which he called tinntinnabulation. The essay in this volume by Leopold Brauneiss is the clearest exposition of the principles of tinntinnabulation that I have yet found. Not that I understood everything, of course. In its simplest form, a composition in this system consists of two voices, each paired with one of two basic musical elements: the scale and the triad. The two voices, though distinct, are closely related: the main voice usually moves stepwise up and down scales, and the second voice sounds notes related to the main voice by the triad. Thus the second voice is, in a sense, tethered to the main voice, and creates a kind of aural halo around it. Pärt expresses this symbiotic relationship using the aphorism “1 + 1 = 1”.

The interview proceeds to discuss Pärt’s later music, including in-depth reflections on many individual compositions. For a reader who knows and loves these pieces, this is absorbing reading; I have not found anything comparable in other sources. Most of Pärt’s compositions have been settings of sacred texts, and he makes some illuminating comments on their strength (“The texts exist independently of us and are waiting for us: each of us has a time when he will find a way to them. This meeting happens when the texts are not treated as literature or works of art but as points of reference, or as models.”). He and Restagno also discuss Pärt’s special relationship with the Hilliard Ensemble, who are still the finest interpreters of his music, and with the ECM record label, which has issued the premiere recordings of most of Pärt’s works. Taken as a whole, it is a fascinating conversation, one which has only deepened my respect for Pärt as both man and musician.

The brief essay by Saale Kareda makes a couple of interesting points about the spiritual roots of Pärt’s music. First, she sees his music, correctly I think, as seeking to restore the “vertical dimension” to human life; the music is basically religious in spirit and is oriented towards God. She thus contrasts his music with that of the “minimalist” school into which he is often put. In his interview, Pärt himself also remarks that he does not understand why people perceive an affinity between his music and that of the minimalists. (I assume he, and they, are thinking of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.) Even more interestingly, Kareda makes a connection between Pärt and Webern, arguing that “both approach the spiritual through mathematical formulae… both their lives’ work consisted of penetrating deeply into the basic musical cell…”. I don’t know if that claim would stand up to detailed scrutiny, but I will say that I, at least, feel a strong attraction to the music of both men, for what feels like similar reasons. This is the first time I have seen another person mention the two together, and that brings a smile to my face.

My suggestion to anyone whose interest in Pärt extends far enough to have read to the bottom of this post: get a copy of this book (perhaps from the library, as I did), buy all of the CDs listed in the discography at the back, listen to them over and over, and then return to this book to read the interview and supplementary material. I can almost guarantee that you’ll receive no better advice today.

On Christ without Christianity

September 27, 2013

In Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Hazel Motes famously set out to found a Church of Christ Without Christ. This, I think it is fair to say, was a little idiosyncratic. The more common distortion of Christian tradition in our own culture is to set out to found the Church of Christ Without Church — that is, to somehow claim adherence to Christ while disavowing Christianity. This week at Ibo et Non Redibo Adam Hincks, SJ takes a calm but critical look at this notion. It is well worth reading.

Rutler: A Crisis of Saints

September 11, 2013

A Crisis of Saints
The Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World
George W. Rutler
(Crossroad, 2009)
217 p.

If ever I should have opportunity to pass a few days in New York City, I want to attend Mass at St. Michael’s parish on West 34th Street, where Fr. George Rutler is pastor. Fr. Rutler is something of a national treasure, beloved (by those whom his wit does not wither) not only for his service to the Church, but for his avocation as an erudite essayist and author. He brings to his writing a sharp intellect, dry humour, and a profound love of Catholic tradition. This book collects a half-dozen long-form essays on various aspects of Catholicism, ranging from reflections on the state of the Church since Vatican II and the nature of Catholic tradition and authority to the knowledge of God and the character of Christian faith. Though the essays do not feel especially well integrated, the book’s subtitle is a fair summary of their general thrust.

For me two essays were of greatest interest. The first was an appraisal of the state of liturgy in the Church since Vatican II. Those who know something of Fr. Rutler will not be surprised to learn that he views most of what went under the banner of reform as ranging, according to the case, from merely unfortunate to downright disgusting. Not that he contests the authority of the Church to make reforms, of course, but he asks hard questions about their timing, the wisdom (or the witlessness) with which they were carried out, and the permissiveness of Church authorities as it was happening. The implementation of the reforms “marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts,” he writes. His concern is not merely (though perhaps partly) that of a cultural elitist, but of a pastor of souls:

It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action. Edification is no substitute for inspiration.

He pointedly remarks on the general defense of the reforms by Church authorities occurring alongside a stream of alarming announcements about the declining state of religious and sacramental life: “It was a bit like the town crier calling, “Six o’clock and all is well. Bring out your dead.””

The essay goes on to compare the reforms of the liturgy in the past fifty years to what occurred in England after the Reformation, when Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth promulgated a series of reforms intended to disrupt the Catholic tradition. It is not, of course, that Fr. Rutler believes that Church authorities in our own day have intentionally set out to deface or disrupt our tradition, but he does want to point out that there are certain similarities in the reform programmes in the two cases, and he wants to explore the plight of those English Catholics who were affected by the disruptions, as an aid to a better understanding of our own situation and how best to respond to it: “In ruined vaults old voices may still sigh for what saddened the houses of God in their day, and such sounds are a parable.”

The second essay is adapted from (or perhaps simply cut and pasted from) Fr. Rutler’s introduction to More Quotable Chesterton, and it is a very fine reflection on why Chesterton has a claim on our attention. Consider, for example, this assessment of Chesterton’s humour: “By cultivating humility instead of a sense of superiority, he avoided condescension in his indulgence of the human comedy. He suffered fools gladly, even deliciously, because his one target was the cant that makes the grand comedy a farce.” Clearly, Fr. Rutler knows his Chesterton. Or there is this, about Chesterton’s (oft lamented) literary style:

His diction is loud, as befits one who loved the very sight of Fleet Street and who hymned to “the great lights burning on through darkness to dawn and the roar of the printing wheels”. The Ciceronianisms of Newman were attributed to his habit of playing a violin before composition; Chesterton seems to have tuned up on a bugle. On a bugle, that is, and a set of chimes; for there is a crystalline cut in every declaration such as intimidates the modern essayist accustomed to muddy sentences flaccid with subjunctives.

(That last phrase is an apt description of most of what one finds on this web log.)

But more than his personality or his style, Fr. Rutler sees that Chesterton had an intellectual and moral depth belied by his populist manner. “He was more than a Renaissance man,” he writes, “[for] his reference is positively deep, and deep enough to dig beneath anything so occasional as a renaissance until he strikes the radical birth of order and truth.” Writing in particular about Chesterton’s columns in the Illustrated London News, which he contributed weekly for thirty years, Fr. Rutler points out how deeply Chesterton knew and understood our cultural roots:

Chesterton did not plagiarize in the despicable and low sense; his was an inspired plagiarism that forsakes incidental sources for the Source. It pillages the treasury of the saints. Such heavenly theft marks the genius from the hack. The procedure was according to high dogma, blushing through the pallor of civil events which are the incidental subjects of his journalistic essays. It makes each of his columns in The Illustrated London News, for instance, a flickering votive light to the orthodox creeds. I cannot imagine Schopenhauer getting his ideas through elegies to local cheeses, the shape of men’s noses, snails and The Mikado. But this is precisely what Chesterton did to reach the truth each week. He was a foremost example of Quintillian’s vir bonus docendi peritus: the good man who speaks from practical knowledge. And he was not content to pass on interesting bits of information as isolated items; as surely as the whole Mediterranean had once washed well within the circumference of Virgil’s fine skull, and the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the lobes of Roebling’s brain, the whole experience of Christian humanism cavorted in the head of Chesterton at his weekly dictation.

This is wonderful writing, and it could hardly be lavished on a better subject.

(Incidentally, if you’d like to read some selections from the Illustrated London News columns Fr. Rutler praises, you are invited to look here.)

The Ghost of Tom Joad

September 8, 2013

Here’s a nice little treat: Mumford & Sons with Elvis Costello singing a medley of Springsteen and Guthrie:

A couple of quick observations: first, that Springsteen song is one terrific song; second, it has been a long time since I’ve seen Elvis Costello, and it is a little shocking to see him so old; third, it is odd that in this song Costello doesn’t sound like Costello and Mumford doesn’t sound like Mumford; fourth, why do they schedule these video shoots on such short notice? Nobody has time to shave.

Great moments in opera: The Turn of the Screw

September 4, 2013

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw premiered in 1954, just one year after his ill-received Elizabethan opera Gloriana, and it is generally regarded as a return to fine form. If memory serves, it sticks closely to Henry James’ original, though the reality of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel is less doubtful in the opera than in the story.

It is a chamber opera; Britten asks for just thirteen instruments, including a piano which features prominently in the score (and, at times, in the stage action). Given this scale, the opera is suitable for light, small voices; two of the principal parts are sung by children, after all. I would imagine that it is best seen in a small hall. (I myself have not seen it live.)

From the point of view of its musical material, The Turn of the Screw is virtuosic. Britten generally resisted the allure of Schoenberg and the serialists — which is part of his attractiveness — but the music for this opera is actually based on a twelve-tone row. Britten has furthermore written the music of each scene as a variation on this row, giving the whole work a rare formal unity. Not that one — or, at least, not that I — can hear these subterranean connections.

It has been argued that a thematic thread running through many of Britten’s stage works is that of childhood innocence overcome by the evils of the world. Britten had, throughout his life, a great love for children, composing many works for them to sing and hear, and he seems to have been troubled by the fact that their gaiety and naivety should be marred by contact with the sin and disorder of the world and society. One can see this to some extent in Peter Grimes, in which Grimes’ young assistants suffer at his hands, or in Billy Budd, in which Billy — a child at heart — is entrapped by the envious malevolence of his superior officer.

In any case, the theme of corrupted innocence is certainly present — indeed, it is front and center — in The Turn of the Screw. As if to underline the point, Britten and his librettist make good use of Yeats’ lamenting line: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”. If anything could serve as a short precis of the story, that would do.


There are few clips from this opera on YouTube, and most are of dismal quality. I did find one, and here it is: after arriving at the country house, the Governess sings of how,  having now met her two young charges, her initial anxieties have been laid to rest. No sooner does she say so than she has her first fleeting encounter with an unexpected presence in the house. The aria is sung here by Sara Hershkowitz:

All that remains on YouTube are larger, unfocused chunks of the opera; I’ll link to one such here, if only to give a better idea of what it sounds like. In this segment, chosen more or less at random, the Governess has just finished sharing with the housekeeper news of her strange encounter (above), and has learned in turn the story of Peter Quint. In this clip she returns to the children, her fears much revived. Miles sings his principal aria (on the theme “Malo”) and then Flora sings her eerie aria on the banks of the manor’s lake. This taken from a 1980s film version of the opera:


As I watched and listened to the opera this week, I found myself pressed to make an unwelcome admission: I do not actually enjoy this opera as much as I would like to, nor even as much as I thought I did. The reasons, I think, are several. Though Britten was rarely a great melodist, the deficiency of memorable musical material here is quite severe; the vocal lines are often very angular and the harmonies often jarring. Arguably this is appropriate to the story Britten is telling, but I found it soured my experience. Could this be related to his effort to structure the music on the basis of a twelve-tone row? I don’t know.

Also, the chamber orchestra is a thin frame on which to hang the music of an opera. I once went to a student performance of Don Giovanni that was remarkably inexpensive, and when I arrived I learned why: it was being performed with piano accompaniment only! Needless to say, something was missing. Obviously the trouble I’m pointing to in Britten’s case is not as severe, but it does tend in that direction: I found myself missing the richer palette of sounds that an orchestra affords.

Finally, I am not convinced that Britten succeeded in conveying the drama of the story effectively. There is something strangely inert about it; the eerie, haunting quality of the original is muted. It is possible that this deficiency is performance-dependent: it bothered me while I was watching a film version of the opera this week, but it has not bothered me previously when I have only listened to the piece. It is hard to say. I would certainly like to have the opportunity to see The Turn of the Screw live on the stage.