In the experience of the beautiful, and of its pure fortuity, we are granted our most acute, most lucid, and most splendid encounter with the difference of transcendent being from the realm of finite things. The beautiful affords us our most perfect experience of that existential wonder that is the beginning of all speculative wisdom. This state of amazement, once again, lies always just below the surface of our quotidian consciousness; but beauty stirs us from our habitual forgetfulness of the wonder of being. It grants us a particularly privileged awakening from our “fallenness” into ordinary awareness, reminding us that the fullness of being, which far exceeds any given instance of its disclosure, graciously condescends to show itself, again and again, in the finitude of a transient event. In this experience, we are given a glimpse — again, with a feeling of wonder that restores us momentarily to something like the innocence of childhood — of that inexhaustible source that pours itself out in the gracious needlessness of being.
Beauty is also the startling reminder, even for persons sunk in the superstitions of materialism, that those who see reality in purely mechanistic terms do not see the real world at all, but only its shadow. Standing before a painting by Chardin or Vermeer, one might be able to describe the object in terms of purely physical elements and events but still fail to see the painting for what it is: an object whose visible aspects are charged with a surfeit of meaning and splendor, a mysterious glory that is the ultimate rationale of its existence, a radiant dimension of absolute value at once transcending and showing itself within the limits of material form. In the experience of the beautiful, one is apprised with a unique poignancy of both the ecstatic structure of consciousness and the gratuity of being. Hence the ancient conviction that the love at beauty is, by its nature, a rational yearning for the transcendent. The experience of sensible beauty provokes in the soul the need to seek supersensible beauty, says Plato: it is, in the words of Plotinus, a “delicious perturbation” that awakens an eros for the divine within us. All things are a mirror of the beauty of God, says the great Sufi poet Mahmud Shabestari (1288-1340): and to be seized with the desire for that beauty, says Gregory of Nyssa, is to long to be transformed within oneself into an ever more perspicuous mirror of its splendor. Kabir (1440-1518) says that it is divine beauty that shines out from all things, and that all delight in beauty is adoration of God. For Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674), one of the sanest men who ever lived, to see the world with the eyes of innocence, and so to see it pervaded by a numinous glory, is to see things as they truly are, and to recognize creation as the mirror of God’s infinite beauty.
— David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.
Archive for January, 2014
I am not sure whether this opera is properly called Don Carlo or Don Carlos. It exists in both Italian and French versions, which I think is the origin of the confusion. Verdi’s much-revised piece — there are both five- and four-act versions — is an example of the grandest of grand opera: about four hours long, and plump with international politics, ecclesiastical spectacle, and personal tragedy. As with so many of Verdi’s operas, it was unfamiliar to me until recently; I have both listened to and watched it now as a belated part of my Verdi anniversary observance.
The story is set in sixteenth-century Spain, in the troubled court of Philip II. Philip has recently married Elisabetta, a much younger woman who, unhappily for all concerned, had prior to the marriage been entangled in a romance with the king’s son, Don Carlo. Thus we have a love triangle of the most awkward sort at the heart of the royal family. Sixteenth-century Spain also means the Inquisition, of course, and there is a power-hungry and corrupt Grand Inquisitor to put a lurid face on things. Meanwhile there is political unrest in Spain’s Netherlandish provinces. These three elements — usurped love, Inquisition, and power politics — are the ingredients with which Verdi cooks his stew.
The brightest musical highlight of the opera comes early in the first Act: Don Carlo is reunited with his friend, Rodrigo, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. They sing a rousing duet, Dio, che nell’alma infondere, in which they swear enduring friendship to one another. Here are Placido Domingo and Louis Quilco, with English subtitles:
Later in the first act is a lovely aria sung by Eboli, a third-wheel who is secretly in love with Don Carlo. Her song, Nel giardin del bello (In the garden of war), tells the story of a Moorish king who tries to woo an alluring, veiled beauty who turns out, much to his surprise, to be his wife. It’s a soprano showpiece, sung in this clip by Tatiana Troyanos at the Met, with English subtitles:
This motif of mistaken identity in romance anticipates the opening scene of Act II. Don Carlo has arranged to meet Elisabetta in the palace garden at night, and upon meeting her (as he supposes) he cannot resist professing his love for her. Yet he is mistaken: he has met Eboli, and she wrongly takes his profession of love as intended for her. The mistake realized, Don Carlo rejects her, and she, calling herself “a tigress with a wounded heart”, vows to revenge herself on him. At this point Rodrigo enters the garden and intervenes. What follows is a marvellous trio, sung here by Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Luciana d’Intino (Eboli), and Paolo Coni (Rodrigo) in Milan. This clip begins with Rodrigo’s entrance; the trio really starts to gather steam about one minute in.
Later in this act we get one of Verdi’s splendid choruses: the scene depicts the preparations for an auto-da-fé, and the unruliness of the crowd is well captured in the music. Probably you’ll recognize the tune. This is a concert performance, and a pretty good one:
I’ll select just one highlight from Act III: King Philip sings Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me), in which he meditates on the inevitability of death and laments his loveless marriage. This is one of the great arias for bass voice, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov. I cannot find a version with English subtitles, but the text and translation can be seen here.
Likewise, one highlight from the fourth and final act: Don Carlo must leave Spain to avoid his father’s wrath, and Elisabetta prays for strength to be parted from him forever. As her thoughts turn to France and the early days of their romance, she sings Tu che le vanita conoscesti (You who have known the vanity). Here is a treat: rare footage of Maria Callas singing live!
This is from 1962, so quite late in her career, when she was past her prime, but what a voice! Mesmerizing. (To hear her sing the same aria in 1958, go here. This is a calibre of singing from which one never quite recovers.)
Don Carlo has a dramatic finale which, however, I shall not showcase here. Suffice to say that all the main elements I stressed at the beginning — politics, religion, and tragedy — come together for a conclusion that is ne’er to be forgotten. If you think it ends well, you’ve not seen enough operas.
The Tumbler of God
Chesterton as Mystic
In 2013 the Bishop of Northampton announced that he was appointing a priest to investigate the merits of opening a cause for the canonization of G.K. Chesterton. The announcement sent ripples of excitement, whether nervous or enthusiastic, through the ranks of Chesterton’s admirers. On the face of it, Chesterton would seem an odd candidate for sainthood: a gregarious, corpulent journalist, literary critic, controversialist, novelist, poet, and playwright who lived most of his life as a non-Catholic fits no standard template. He would seem to bear a closer resemblance to Falstaff than to St. Francis. Yet there are those who believe that Chesterton was not only an exemplary man, but a holy one, and Fr. Robert Wild’s book is a serious attempt to identify some of the reasons why.
The basic claim of the book is not that Chesterton was a saint, but that he was a mystic “in at least some of the traditional Christian meanings of the word.” In particular, Fr. Wild argues that he was, throughout his life, blessed with a special grace which gave him a heightened awareness of the dependence of the world on God for its existence. He had, in Wild’s words, a “Creator mysticism,” a steady apprehension of the “thereness-of-being-coming-forth,” in which the mystery of existence — “the wonder begotten of the contrast between something and nothing” — was habitually present to his consciousness. In his brilliant study — brilliant by reputation, for it is out of print and hard to find — Paradox in Chesterton, Hugh Kenner wrote:
“His whole habit of thought began with thankfulness, impelled him to see not lamp-posts but limited beings participating in All Being; he was accustomed to looking at grass and seeing God. And the consciousness of God introduces another dimension into consideration of grass.”
This primary awareness of Being, and of God as the ground or act of Being, is a mark of Christian mysticism. It is more than an awareness of the Presence of God in created things, and more than an affirmation of the ultimate goodness of all existing things — though it is those things too. It is, in addition, an awareness of “the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being.” For it is central to Christian metaphysics that Creation is not an act that occurred at some specific time long ago, but a continual act by which all things are sustained in being, ceaselessly pouring forth from the plenitude of God’s own being.
Evidence that Chesterton experienced this wonder at the mystery of being and awareness of its contingency and gratuitousness is abundantly present in his writing. He was continually expressing astonishment at existence, at the sheer physical thereness of things. “I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles,” he wrote. “I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door; to hit me over the head, like a giant’s club in a fairy tale.” In poems like “By the Babe Unborn” or “A Second Childhood” he provokes us with a vision of the world that brims with wide-eyed wonder at its being and beauty. Fr. Wild draws particular attention to a profound passage from Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi in which he describes the saint’s perception of the whole of Nature being contingent and unnecessary:
“So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole of creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet [the mystic] does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity.
The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.”
Although this passage was written by Chesterton to describe a stage in the spiritual development of St. Francis, Fr. Wild takes it to be an a window into Chesterton’s own experience. That image of “the sons of God shouting for joy” at Creation was one to which Chesterton returned many times in his writings, and it seems to have been especially important to his own spiritual life.
St. Francis himself was important to Chesterton too, and the biography he wrote about the great medieval saint has long been recognized as one of his principal achievements. Fr. Wild reads it with some care for insight into Chesterton’s own views about the nature of mysticism. Chesterton uses the metaphor of “tumbling” to describe the progress of the nascent mystic, calling St. Francis “Our Lady’s Tumbler” (and it is the same metaphor, of course, which gives Fr. Wild’s book its title). Tumbling is — in Chesterton’s words — a “grotesque simile” for the profound interior conversion with a mystic undergoes. His world is upended before it comes right again, and during that period of crisis he is granted a view of “the earth hanging” — that is, contingent and dependent on something other than itself. There are some mystics who “land on their heads” (and into this group Chesterton put William Blake and Leo Tolstoy, among others) but others (like St. Francis) who “land on their feet”, seemingly unchanged but seeing all things now with “new eyes”.
It is because of this experience that the mystic voices praise for both the Creation and the Creator, and, interestingly, it is in the wake of this mystical conversion that a healthy and authentic asceticism arises, “as an attempt to pay the unpayable debt [of gratitude]; and as a means to keep God as the absolutely first love in one’s life (Wild, 105-6).” In Chesterton’s view, then, asceticism, so often associated with saintliness and mysticism, rightly arises not out of disdain for material things or pleasures, but out of gratitude for a vision of God’s glory manifest in material things.
The other saint to whom Chesterton was greatly indebted was St. Thomas Aquinas, and the similarities between the two men extended to more than just their portly frames. Observations of Chesterton’s “breathtakingly intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth” (J.J. Scarisbrick) and his “extraordinary comprehensive intuition of being” (Kenner) can startle the unsuspecting reader with their boldness. Out of context, the claim that “He never fumbles to reach a position because he never needs to reach a position. He occupies a central position all the time” might be taken as descriptive of St. Thomas rather than (as it is) of Chesterton (courtesy of Hugh Kenner again). Readers of the Summa and of Chesterton’s voluminous cultural journalism might be persuaded by the claim that there is a certain similarity between the two despite the very different audiences and contexts, for both Chesterton and St. Thomas routinely grasp the whole as they grasp the parts, arguing particular points while never losing sight of the architecture of the larger argument. Following up on this observation, Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton had a “charism of truth” in the form of the gift of knowledge, which St. Augustine distinguished from the gift of wisdom by applying the former to human affairs and the latter to divine. Certainly Chesterton was a man possessed of an unusually astute practical wisdom.
Summing up his central argument, Fr. Wild commends Chesterton to us as an exemplar of a “lay mysticism” that can thrive in the midst of an active life, aware of the fact that created realities reveal God to us:
“By remaining faithful to his grace, he gave us one of the great keys to understanding reality: how to live in the present moment, in wonder and thanksgiving, and how to see God there always “immortally active,” bringing everything forth instantaneously out of his unlimited power and beauty.”
Many books have been written about Chesterton, but this is the first that I know of to focus specifically on Chesterton’s relationship to God, and the argument it makes is both interesting and persuasive. The portrait of Chesterton which Fr. Wild draws is, at least, a faithful one, and the ways in which he connects the familiar “Chestertonian” qualities to the Christian mystical tradition are a good service. Whether these qualities are attributable to a special divine grace, as Fr. Wild contends, is harder to demonstrate and is, in any case, not my responsibility to judge. But I’d like to thank Fr. Wild for writing such a thought provoking and instructive book.
More of Kenner on Chesterton:
“Chesterton’s analogical perception of Being has led us from elementary wonder to the very heart of a paradoxical universe. It may be said without exaggeration that he ranks almost with St. Thomas himself in the comprehensiveness of that initial perception; and that very certainty and immediacy which makes it unnecessary for him to struggle at any time with any truth and so makes significant dramatic expression impossible for him, places him securely not in the hierarchy of the artists but in one not less distinguished: the long line of exegetists and theologians who have successively explored the same cosmos and the light of the same vision, seeing all things ordered and all things mirroring greater and lesser things: the Fathers, philosophers, and Doctors of the Church.” (quoted by Wild, p.7)
(I cannot imagine a nicer way of saying that Chesterton was a poor dramatist!)
In this short video Jeremy Denk talks us through one or two of the Goldberg variations. It’s an engaging little illustration of the simultaneous playfulness and formal structure of Bach’s music. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing.
I had another fairly instructive year at the movies. Last year in my annual round-up I mentioned that I had been trying, in a desultory manner, to educate myself by viewing films with some claim to classic status. That enterprise continued this year, except that I expunged all traces of the desultory from my efforts: I established a kind of system (which, for fear of ridicule, I shall not unfold in all its glorious complexity) to ensure that my film viewing would be both entertaining and improving, stretching the (mostly temporal) boundaries within which I have traditionally confined myself. Sad to say, much of that good seed fell on hard soil, or was choked by weeds, or trampled underfoot, and I feel it has borne relatively little fruit. As will be evident in a moment, most of the films I most enjoyed this year were of recent provenance, and I am just a little bit ashamed of that.
This year, for example, I went back and watched the very earliest films on record: the Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the short films of the Lumière Brothers (c.1895), and the first narrative film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). I watched a few early horror films of the German expressionist school (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922)) and some early American films about wartime (The Birth of a Nation (1915), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Gone with the Wind (1939)). I made a point of watching films by highly regarded directors, such as Hitchcock [Notorious (1946)], Wilder [Sunset Boulevard (1950)], Kurosawa [Seven Samurai (1954)], Dreyer [Ordet (1955)], Altman [M*A*S*H (1970)], Tarkovsky [Solaris (1972)], Mamet [Homicide (1991)], and Anderson [The Master (2012)]; these I appreciated to greater and lesser extents, but none of them, at least on first acquaintance, have found much of a place in my heart.
A highlight of my year was a “Dardenne Brothers Film Festival”, in which I discovered the work of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I watched La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), L’Enfant (2005), and Le Gamin au vélo (2011), the last of which I discuss in more detail below. These are great films. The Dardennes have a distinctive aesthetic: handheld cameras, spare dialogue, long takes, shots often taken through door frames or half-blocked by corners, and so on. They have a particular fondness, which grows endearing, for filming the backs of their characters’ heads. There are thematic elements too that crop up again and again and make their films into something like a unified body of work. In each film they are looking at the economic underclass, people on the brink of poverty who often resort to blackmarkets or other illegalities to stay afloat. All of their films are intensely concerned with the relationships of parents and children, and especially with the role of fathers in the lives of children. But perhaps what is most characteristic of their films, and also most interesting, is their keen moral sense. Though their characters live buffeted by all kinds of pressures and act from all sorts of motives, we are never allowed to forget — and neither are they — that they are moral beings facing specifically moral decisions. Not that the films are “moralizing” in a perjorative sense, but the films exist in a moral universe. In 2011 the Dardennes were awarded the Robert Bresson Prize, given to filmmakers whose work “has given a testimony, significant on account of its sincerity and intensity, of the difficult road in search of the spiritual meaning of our life.” They deserved it.
Now a few thoughts about the films I most enjoyed this year, more or less in descending order:
With each new film he makes, Terrence Malick is rising steadily in my personal pantheon of filmmakers. That is not to say that each new film is better than its predecessor — To the Wonder is a lesser achievement than The Tree of Life in just about every respect — but the more experience I have of his work the more I find myself sinking into it, soaking it up. At this point, I am ready to give myself up to his films, floating along with his camera like a feather on the wind.
To the Wonder is in many respects his most challenging film yet. There is no question that it is visually and aurally gorgeous, but it makes few concessions to familiar cinematic conventions. It’s elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — Malick’s penchant for voice-over is here taken to an extreme. Where most of Malick’s films invite a contemplative viewing, To the Wonder comes close to requiring it. It divided the audience at its premiere, and is likely to go on doing so.
The story centers around an American man, played by Ben Affleck, and his relationship with a French woman, played by Olga Kurylenko. They fall in love in France — there is a glorious sequence filmed at Mont St. Michel that lifted me up to the fourth or fifth heaven — but they eventually move to Texas where, for various reasons, most of which are only hinted at, their romance falters and the hard business of loving one another begins. Where The Tree of Life was concerned with exploring the meaning of grace, To the Wonder is about love: what is it? what does it mean? what does it feel like? how is it lived? where does it come from?
Malick explores these themes by contrasting the central romantic relationship with that of another character: a priest in the town where the couple settles (played by Javier Bardem). He is a good man who spends his days visiting the poor and sick, and who preaches from the pulpit with wisdom and authority, but who, rather like Bernanos’ country priest, is inwardly dry, steadfastly longing for God but finding no consolation in Him; he feels abandoned and alone. Nonetheless, he carries on with faith and hope, day in and day out.
My reading of the film is that Malick has set before us two understandings of love: one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast. Which is the more attractive? Which is the more fruitful? Which brings the most happiness? The answers will vary from viewer to viewer, though I think I know where Malick comes down. There is, after all, little reason for the priest to appear in the film apart from his value as a provoking counterpoint.
This is not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work; it is too saturated with unfamiliar techniques that, to the uninitiated, would be alienating. It is also a film with a remarkably cool, distant tone (though I think this is intentional and is related to the film’s moral attitude toward commitment). And it is admittedly a flawed film, with an awkward structure and a certain lack of cohesion. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly beautiful film that poses big questions and is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”. It is my favourite film of the year.
I hesitate to mention this film, not because it is not an excellent film — it is, emphatically — but because it is a difficult film to watch. Nonetheless, here we are. The film is set in Romania in the 1980s, under the Ceauşescu regime, and it tells the story of a woman who, with the help of a friend, procures an illegal abortion.
Both the style and the content of the film deserve comment. It is stylistically very dry: there are long, wide shots in which the camera is stationary, no overdubbed music as far as I recall, and in general a studied absence of overt effects. This does not at all mean that the film is artless: there is one scene, of a dinner party, that includes a single, static, long shot that is agonizingly great; I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it before. In general the director seems determined simply to show us his story, without getting in the way. This even-handedness extends to the story itself, which, on one hand, confirms everything that a pro-choice advocate believes: yes, this woman seeks her abortion on the black market, and yes, it is far more dangerous for her than it would be in our fair land. The film is right to portray this. We understand her desperation and we sympathize with it. But the force of those arguments is blunted beyond repair by the unsparing commitment of the filmmaker to show us what is actually happening. The quiet, apparently emotionless deliberateness with which the film proceeds grows increasingly sickening, and the director grants us no easy evasions. As such, I cannot believe that anyone could watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days without profound sorrow and disgust. Normally that would not be the way to recommend a film, but this is an exception. The final scene, in which the two friends sit together after the immediate terrors have passed, is understated but devastatingly effective.
As I mentioned above, most of the Dardenne’s films are about the relationships of fathers and sons, and the same is true here but with this difference: the father is absent. They give us a probing portrait of the devastation wrought in the heart of the son by such absence. Rejected and abandoned, young Cyril is taken in by a local woman, Samantha, who becomes a steady friend to him. (The scene of Cyril’s first chance encounter with her is wonderfully handled by the Dardennes; this is understated direction at its best.) I loved that Samantha’s brave and unselfish solicitude for him was presented without any fanfare or underlining; goodness is so attractive that it can be trusted to shine even without a spotlight.
The film is morally serious: it is about taking responsibility for one’s actions (explored in a number of mutually impacting ways), about moral failure and moral heroism, about children’s need for love and role models, about forgiveness, and about the importance of families. The characters are richly drawn, and the relationships believable. Even the title is resonant: on one level it blandly refers to Cyril and the bicycle he rides around, but in the film the bicycle serves as a kind of symbol or stand-in for his father, and the title assumes a sadly wry undertone when we realize that Cyril is finally a kid with … just a bike. Ouch. The spare use of music in the film is superb: the Dardennes normally don’t put a “soundtrack” over the sounds their microphone picks up, but here they break their rule at key points, playing the opening chords of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, and it adds another dimension to the film that works superbly well.
Alfonso Cuaron has a reputation, I believe, as one of the more talented and serious directors of his generation — though I confess that I have not myself seen any of his other films — so I was surprised to find him at the helm of Gravity, which on paper sounds more or less like a straightforward thriller, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in quantity: astronauts cut-off from mission control by an in-orbit disaster must somehow find their way back to earth. It just goes to show that a good director makes all the difference between a paint-by-numbers thriller and a dazzling feat of cinematic virtuosity. From the acrobatic opening shot — which lasts for something between 13 and 17 minutes (depending on who you believe) — it is clear that we are in the hands of a master, and Cuaron sees his story, simple as it is, through to its white-knuckle finale with a sure hand. In the end, it is a fairly slight tale, filled out sparely but effectively with enough backstory to give the characters weight (so to speak) and some suggestive thematic elements. (I recommend Adam Hincks’ analysis of the film for insight into this deeper matter.) The principal glory of the film is its visual splendour: Cuaron works here with Emmanuel Lubezki — also Terrence Malick’s go-to cinematographer, note well — and the images he puts on screen, together with the choreography of the camera movement in the three-dimensional weightless environment, made this one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences that I have had in years.
My first Charlie Chaplin film. From the opening scene, in which the Tramp is caught sleeping on a public monument as it is unveiled before a great crowd, I was won over. The story, about the awkward but sweet relationship between the mute Tramp and a blind woman, packs a big emotional punch at the film’s climax. I followed up by watching Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a more overtly political film, and while I thought it was delightful it didn’t displace City Lights in my affections.
When A Serious Man was in theatres a few years ago I had the impression that it was a “minor Coen Brothers” film, something to file beside The Man who Wasn’t There or (*cough*) Intolerable Cruelty. I’m now fairly sure that was wrong. Certainly it is a mesmerizing film in its own quiet way. Larry Gopnik is a middle-aged physics professor (!) whose life begins, piece by piece but rapidly, to fall apart: his wife wants a divorce, a student tries to bribe him, his brother cannot be dislodged from his couch, and odd coincidences unsettle him. The film is tonally very interesting: the general feeling is one of subdued and uneasy anticipation, even dread, yet step back a bit and the comic elements jump out. Indeed, the film as a whole is structured like a Jewish joke (“There were three rabbis in a small town…”). The first ten minutes of the film, a Jewish folktale offered by way of prologue, are perhaps the best ten minutes of cinema I saw all year. Absolutely delicious. And the ending too is a knockout. I’m not yet sure if A Serious Man is a “major Coen Brothers” film, but I definitely want to see it again. This trailer plays up the comic element more than the film itself does:
Other films I enjoyed: Anna Karenina (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Great Expectations (1946), A Late Quartet (2011), Lourdes (2009), Modern Times (1936), Much Ado About Nothing (2012), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Sunset Boulevard (1950).
My music listening this year was anchored by a few large listening projects: I marked the anniversary years of Verdi, Wagner, and Britten by dedicating a good deal of time to hearing their major works again — or, in some cases, for the first time. Given the composers involved, much of this music was opera, and I tried when possible to watch performances of their operas on DVD. I’ve written about some of that music in the consistently unpopular “Great moments in opera” series that I’ve been running (and a few more anniversary-related instalments will trickle out over the next month or two).
I had planned a bunch of other focused listening projects for the year too — Beethoven’s symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, Schubert’s piano sonatas — but I didn’t get to them. They are bumped to 2014.
In the meantime, I’d like to share notes on a few of the best recordings I heard for the first time this year. In most cases these are new or new-ish recordings, but not in all. The predominance of vocal music reflects my interests. The ordering of this list is capricious.
For the last few years music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has figured in my year-end accolades, and the same is true this year. This three-disc set is the first complete recorded set of Weinberg’s music for violin and piano, and what a treasure it is! Weinberg wrote six very substantial violin sonatas that exhibit the same musical intelligence and emotional heft that I have admired in his string quartets. As I said of the quartets, this music is “music all the way down”: no pedantry, no gimmicks, no self-conscious preoccupation with the music or its manner of composition — just good, smart, heart-felt music that is full of variety and endlessly interesting. I am happy to see Weinberg’s star rising higher on the strength of recordings like this one. Move over, Prokofiev.
Here is a brief video with musical excerpts and interviews with the musicians:
This recording of Elgar’s oratorio about the life of Christ, from the calling of the apostles to the Ascension, won BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Year”; there may have been some Anglo-centric prejudice informing that decision, but this is a terrific performance of a piece that hasn’t been very well served on record (and which, I suspect, might not finally be top-shelf music). The great fear with Elgar is that amateur British choral societies are going to get their hands on him, serving up bloated and sentimental renditions of his music before the potluck. It is amazing to hear this music sung as crisply and clearly as it is here, with a cool glow and as much dramatic emphasis as the music can bear without buckling. The singing is really tremendous, especially in the choral sections, and the sound is as clear and vivid as one could hope for. This recording has made me reconsider the merits of this piece, and made the reconsideration a pleasure. [Listen to excerpts]
Jonas Kaufmann, who glowers from the front cover of this CD, is considered one of the leading tenors in the opera world today, and he really is prodigiously gifted: a magnificent voice that rings from top to bottom, great power, and keen dramatic instincts. It is this last that has most impressed me on this disc of Wagner extracts. For all that Wagner was undoubtedly a great composer, it has nevertheless often seemed to me that his genius was principally manifest in his orchestral writing, and that his vocal lines were largely meandering eddies floating atop the surging currents, lacking dramatic shape and melodic interest in themselves. I won’t say that this recording has changed my opinion about his melodic gifts, but it has certainly made me reconsider my assessment of the dramatic shape of his writing. Never before have I heard Wagner sung in a way that brought out the taut dramatic energy, the sheer poise and responsiveness of the part as much as Kaufmann does. He has helped me to hear Wagner with new appreciation, and that is enough to get this recording onto this list.
The programme on this CD is a well-conceived one, gathering together a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century choral works on the themes of oppression and liberation by English and Portuguese composers. English Catholics in this period suffered persecution by the authorities, and Portugal was under the domination of the Spanish monarchy. Composers turned to these (mostly) liturgical texts to express their prayers for deliverance with a degree of personal feeling that is rare in public ecclesiastical music. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, of course, and the singing on this recording is very distinguished. Contrapunctus is a British choir formed in 2010; this is their first recording. They are a small ensemble of about ten voices, men and women, and they sing with astounding clarity and beauty; I don’t hear any problems anywhere. The multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic complexity of these pieces comes across sounding effortless (which it certainly is not) and, what is more important for this particular programme, there is nothing impersonal about the singing: it has a plaintive, striving quality that suits these pieces very well. Top shelf. [Listen to excerpts]
It was a year or two ago that I discovered the Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis. I liked them well enough to go searching through their back catalogue, and in this recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Mi-Mi I found a real gem. This Mass is one of Ockeghem’s most frequently recorded, and I have heard it many times, but never with this degree of translucence and calm repose. I tend to bristle at the common view that the music of this period is “relaxing” or “peaceful”, as though these frequently very difficult, intricate, and rigourously structured compositions were merely a kind of soporific. Yet in this case there would be something to that rough characterization, for this ensemble finds in this music a spaciousness and gentleness that lifts the eyes and touches the heart in a quite special way. The music breathes in long, slow rhythms, unhurried, as though content, at each moment, simply to be an expression of praise and a profusion of beauty. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Ockeghem sung in this way before; I don’t know that I ever will again. The Mass is presented in a quasi-liturgical context, embedded within the Propers for the Mass of Holy Thursday, and the programme ends with Ockeghem’s magnificent motet Intemerata Dei mater.
Here is the Kyrie of the Missa Mi-Mi:
This disc is on this list not so much for its own merits — although it is exceptionally good — but for what it represents: the completion of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s twenty-years-long project to record all of Bach’s surviving cantatas. Should I be ashamed to admit that I have collected all fifty-five volumes? Maybe so, but think of all the beer I didn’t buy. Japan might not be the country we think of first when we think of Bach (quite wrongly, perhaps), but the proof is in the pudding: the performances on this disc and across the whole set have been consistently excellent. Suzuki’s approach to the music is “historically informed”, which means in practice that the choir is small and lithe, the textures light, and the rhythms sprightly. It’s Bach played and sung just the way I like it. Here is the Bach Collegium Japan performing one of the cantatas on this final disc. Bravo!
Eric Whitacre is one of the more successful young composers working today. As far as I know, he writes mostly choral music, in an accessible idiom within the reach of amateur choirs, and quite a few recordings of his music are now available. He was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars to write a piece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding, and he came up with Sainte-Chapelle, a piece which imagines the stained-glass angels in that beautiful church singing the Sanctus. The piece was premiered early in 2013 and recorded shortly thereafter. It must be said that it is a gorgeous piece, growing in energy and luminosity as it goes. I had never before heard the Tallis Scholars sing anything other than Renaissance polyphony, but Whitacre’s writing respects their area of specialization, growing out a plainchant melody just as so many Renaissance pieces do. I’ve played this recording so frequently this year that I cannot but include it on this year-end list.
Schubert: Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
Yoffe: Song of Songs
Rosamunde Quartett, Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2011)
Victoria: Officium Defunctorum
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
Mahler: Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Sarah Connolly, Miah Persson
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander
You might have learned the “divisibility trick” in grade school. It says that if you want to know whether a number is divisible by 3, there is a shortcut: if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3 then the number itself is divisible by 3. For example, is 459 divisible by 3? Well, 4 + 5 + 9 = 18, which is divisible by 3, so 459 is divisible by 3 as well.
This trick also works with the number 9. Again, you can try it with 459.
A week or two ago I was reading Anthony Esolen’s “Word of the Day” blog in which he stated a result about the divisibility trick generalized to a base-X number system; namely, in a base-X number system the divisibility trick works for X-1 and its factors. I was intrigued, and, as I had given some thought to the divisibility trick a few years ago and had some notes on it, I sat down last night and came up with what I think is a sound proof of the claim.
I am sure there is a nice way to formulate the argument — my approach leans heavily on modular arithmetic, which is closely related to the elegant theory of cyclic groups — but I went about it in the most simpleminded way imaginable. You can read my argument here:
DivisibilityTrickBaseX [pdf, Updated]
An amusing application of this result is in a binary (base-2) number system. The claim simply says that any binary number for which the sum of its digits is divisible by 1 (which is all of them, since every positive integer is divisible by 1) is itself divisible by 1 (which is all of them, for the same reason). So the claim is almost empty in that case.
The year 2013 looked good on paper: there were new records from Sam Phillips, Arcade Fire, Neko Case, and Richard Buckner. But, for me at least, most of those records fizzled, and at year’s end I find myself holding just a couple of albums that I enjoyed enough to return to again and again.
Anaïs Mitchell made a dramatic entrance a few years ago with Hadestown, a folk-opera on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice that earned a heap of critical accolades. In 2012 she followed up with Young Man in America, and the accolades continued to pile up. But she’s topped them both, to my ears, with this collection of folk ballads sung and played with Jefferson Hamer. The Child Ballads (pronounced ‘Chilled Ballads’, I believe) are all taken from a manuscript collection of English and Scottish ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century. These ballads, in manuscript, are texts only, and Mitchell and Hamer have apparently written their own melodies and made their own arrangements. The results are terrific. The songs themselves are outstanding: ballads about drowned lovers, supernatural encounters, doomed voyages, and riddling maidens have that authentic whiff of the culture of old England. Hamer is not as characterful a singer as Mitchell — or, more precisely, his voice is not as characterful as hers — but they make a nice pair. This was the record I listened to more frequently and with more delight than any other this year, and it is my album of the year.
The sound in this video is a bit thin, but the song is great.
Bill Fay was not known to me before I saw this record pop up on a number of “Best of 2012” lists. Apparently Fay had made two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums in the 1970s, and then fell silent for 40 years until he was coaxed back into the studio by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. He has made a remarkably attractive record in Life is People, which shows us the work of a songwriter of quiet confidence and tenderness. If these songs are the fruit of his life’s meditation on love, wonder, family, death, and God, then it seems that he has lived well, for the songs, despite their simplicity, are marked by an unusual depth and economy of expression about matters not often well-treated in popular music. To interpret the album’s title as a rejoinder to Sartre’s “Hell is other people” would not be inappropriate, for Fay comes to give thanks for other people, for the beauty of nature, and for existence itself. The arrangements range from simple piano accompaniment (“The Never Ending Happening”) to lushly orchestrated numbers complete with gospel choir (“Be at Peace with Yourself”). It is true that not all of the songs resonate with me, but there is enough substance on this record to have absorbed my attention over many listens, and it is not through with me yet.
Apart from those found on the records I’ve already praised, there were a few songs that stood out for me this year.
If I had a songwriting award to give, I would give it to Josh Ritter for “A Certain Light”, from his record The Beast in Its Tracks. I love a song that seems to be telling one story, and then, because of a detail let drop or a turn of phrase, coyly reveals that it’s actually about something quite different. Josh Ritter does that here, in what is a pretty sweet love song — or is it?
The title track from Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose is nothing flashy, but I don’t know that I’ve heard a better country song in a long while. It almost feels like it could have been pulled from Dolly Parton’s early records, when she could be fresh and sweet and sad all at once. It was co-written with Guy Clark, which makes sense. Too bad he didn’t help write her other songs.
First Aid Kit is a duo that was new to me this year. Their plangent voices might be an acquired taste, but I fell for “Emmylou”, which comes from their record The Lion’s Roar. Is it because of the catchy hook in the chorus? The alt-country name-dropping? The evocation of gorgeous country duets of days gone by? Yes, yes, and yes.
I’m interested to hear about other good records released this year (or any other year, for that matter).
Every year I like to survey the major composer-related anniversaries that the upcoming year has in store. There’s a fairly comprehensive list here. (Thanks again, Osbert.) The ones which I am likely to observe in one way or another are:
- Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521) [23 April]
- C.P.E. Bach (1714–1788) [8 March]
- Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–1787) [2 July]
- Richard Strauss (1864–1949) [11 June]
- Pierre de Manchicourt (1510–1564) [5 November]
- Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) [12 September]
It’s a pretty minor set of anniversaries, especially compared to last year. The biggest one is probably Strauss’, but even that is only a sesquicentennial. Still, I’m planning to make a survey of his major operas, some of which I’ve never heard. I feel like I should know the music of Gluck and Rameau better than I do, so perhaps these anniversaries will spur me on.
As the pace of my life has accelerated and my hours of sleep have dwindled in recent years, I have become a little more exacting about the books I admit to my reading queue. At the beginning of 2013 I drew up a list of about thirty titles that I intended to read over the course of the year. Looking at that list again today, I see that I only half-succeeded. Well, at least I have a good start on my list for 2014.
Part of the reason for my slow progress was that I decided, mid-year, to ease up on my explorations of that vast ocean of “Books I Have Not Read.” I paused, took a deep breath, and went back to re-read some things that I had enjoyed on first acquaintance and always meant to return to. This was a good practice, and I am planning to continue it in the new year.
Among the books I did read this year, a few stood out as being particularly good.
Let this final volume in Taruskin’s massive, and massively enjoyable, history stand in for the whole set, which I read in its entirety over the last few years. It is an amazing tour de force of historical and critical exposition, plump with enlightening remarks and (for the most part) accessible discussion of musical developments over the past thousand years of western culture. Taruskin is reputedly one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and in these volumes he has given music lovers an invaluable gift. A treasure. [Book Note]
There are many books available about Christian contemplative prayer, and I have read a few over the years. This may be the best one that has come my way, not so much for sheer profundity, but for the way it strikes a nice balance between profundity and accessibility. Laird writes with a gentle authority which seems rooted in personal experience, and with sensitivity to the impediments which the beginner can expect to encounter. I found it an instructive and edifying book. [Book Note]
I intend to write more about this book in the coming weeks, but I can make some brief comments here. Many books have been written about Chesterton, but Fr. Wild attempts something that I have not seen before: to describe the basic contours of Chesterton’s spiritual life. Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton is a kind of mystic, gifted with a special awareness of what he calls ‘the thereness-of-being-coming-forth’ — that is, an habitual apprehension of the contingency of creation and its dependence on God’s creative power for its continued existence. The argument is developed carefully and persuasively, drawing on a wide range of Chesterton’s writings. He goes on to argue not only that Chesterton lived this “Creator mysticism,” but that he had it in virtue of a special divine grace. That is harder to demonstrate, but the whole line of argument will surely be of special interest to the Bishop of Northampton. A stimulating read.
It had been about ten years since I last read this wonderful novel; I am so glad that I took the time to revisit it. It is, of course, Mann’s modernized rendering of the Faust myth. The central character, Adrian Leverkuhn, is a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a lifetime of creative genius and worldwide acclaim. I do not know why this book is not more widely read and more lavishly praised; few twentieth-century novels are its superior. Mann’s writing is superb: elegant, elaborate, and precise, with a charming loquacity that never wears out its welcome. It poses as a memoir written during the Second World War by Adrian’s childhood friend, and the events of Adrian’s life parallel Germany’s ill-starred bid for power under Hitler. But it would be crude to reduce the book to a political allegory: at its heart it is, I believe, a meditation on creativity and the sources and costs of artistic genius. The supernatural elements of the tale are handled deftly and with considerable subtlety: we are left in some doubt as to whether Adrian in fact encountered the devil or whether his genius and his eventual madness are together rooted in a physical malady, albeit one with a moral aspect. The book is a treat for music lovers too, as it contains some of the finest literary prose about music that I have ever encountered; the section on Beethoven’s last piano sonata is especially transporting. It is a great book from start to finish.
This year I devoted quite a lot of time to reading Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales, most of them in the Middle English of Caxton’s original printing. In the course of doing so, I revisited this story about the adventures of Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad, and others as they search for the Holy Grail. For me this story, of all those in the Le Morte d’Arthur cycle (that I have so far read), is the most resonant and moving. It seems to me that, simply because of the nature of the story it is telling, it can be naturally interpreted as both a rousing adventure tale and as an allegory of the Christian soul’s quest for Christ. More effectively than in The Pilgrim’s Progress (which is so dourly moralistic), this story informs the inner life of prayer and devotion with magnanimity, gallantry, and the other splendid virtues of the Arthurian moral universe. It is a truly magnificent book.
Speaking of dour — well, that’s not a fair way to begin, and “dour” is not quite the right word. Maclin Horton reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s comment about Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is”, and while I admit that I cannot help smiling with recognition at the truth of that, I will also confess that there were many points at which I was truly carried away, spell-bound, by the power of Milton’s poetry. His reputation as a stern taskmaster is not the whole story. He is perhaps hard to love, but he has my respect. And we English speakers are not so richly blessed with epic poems of genius that we can afford to be cavalier toward this one. Much has been made of the alleged attractiveness of Milton’s Satan; when I first read the poem some years ago I was willing to go along with it, but this time I was less convinced; Satan may be the most characterful figure in the story (and he is certainly far less problematic than Milton’s disastrous God character), but I did not find him remotely seductive.
As I read the poem, I leaned on two sources to help me better understand and appreciate it: Yale’s “Open Courses” lectures on Milton, and C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost. On balance, I do not recommend the former: the lecturer is so intent on discovering subtle and unexpected meanings that he routinely overlooks the obvious and evident (and sometimes opposite) meanings, and he too often exhibits what C.S. Lewis calls the “touching innocence” of critics who believe the claims of the father of lies; Satan’s absurd claim, for instance, that because he cannot remember his own creation he might — who can say? — be self-created is treated in these lectures as a kind of provoking paradox ripe with subversive wisdom. On the other hand, there was a very interesting discussion of how Milton, in his descriptions of pre-lapsarian Eden, uses words in such a way as to restore to them morally neutral meanings (for example, “error” is used to describe the wandering course of a river rather than a moral fault); that sort of thing I find fascinating. Lewis’ book, for its part, is outstanding; it’s an indispensable companion piece in my view, loaded with good sense and helpful background.
We read a lot of books with the kids; given their ages, these are mostly picture books short enough to get through at bedtime. But I have also been making an effort to “scout ahead,” reading a few popular children’s books that they might be ready for in 5 or 10 years. Thus it was that I came to Philippa Pearce’s magical little novel about a boy’s nocturnal adventures in a mysterious garden behind the London house he is visiting. The story has its secrets to disclose — I guessed the general shape of them fairly early on — but for me the attraction of the book is not so much in the story as the atmosphere: the book has a dreamy, hushed quality that has lingered long in my memory. Perhaps it would be an unusually sensitive child who would apprehend that tonal dimension, but my general rule is to give the children books that have more in them than they know. As such, Tom’s Midnight Garden is for keeps.
We like Kate DiCamillo for her “Bink and Gollie” book, so I thought it would be fun to try this novel about a valiant little mouse who saves a princess. We actually read the whole book to our four-year old, and she followed it all the way through. There were some thematic elements early on that made me wary — tiresome tropes about rejecting the traditions one inherits and embracing one’s unique inner mouse — but of course whether that is objectionable depends very much on what is being rejected and what is being embraced, and in the end I was won over. Despereaux, with his large ears and wide eyes, is a splendid little hero. DiCamillo sets him apart from his kind by making him especially attentive to beauty, and it is his love of beauty that ennobles him and opens up for him a world that his friends and relations do not perceive or understand. This seems an unusually terrific premise for a children’s book. The writing is lively and clear, with strong but not simplistic characters. I’ve heard that there’s a film version of the book, but I’ve also heard that it’s not very good. The book, by that measure, is better.
Would you believe that prior to taking up Tom Sawyer I had never read anything by Mark Twain? For some reason I had assumed that he was a hack, writing “exciting” adventure stories without much substance to them. I got a fitting comeuppance. It is true that the book is fairly episodic, but when the episodes are this entertaining I can hardly complain. I did not read a funnier book all year, but I love the book chiefly for its wide-eyed evocation of boyhood: granting that Tom is unusually adventurous and mischievous and exaggerated for comic effect (few boys of his time, I imagine, played at Robinson Crusoe long enough to make an appearance at their own funerals), the writing has the ring of truth to it: the awkwardness around girls, the failure to think through consequences, the inattention to schedules and cleanliness. Chesterton once wrote that childhood was “like a hundred windows open on all sides of the head,” and something of that experience makes it into these pages. Huck Finn is on my reading list for 2014.
And that’s the kind of year it’s been. Comments and recommendations welcome!