Archive for February, 2019

Weinberg: String Quartet No.6

February 28, 2019

For me, the string quartets of Weinberg are essential listening. They bear comparison, I think, with those of Shostakovich, even if they suffer somewhat in the comparison. They are made of intensely interesting and thoughtful music.

Here is the slow movement from the String Quartet No.6, a six-movement work written in 1946. The sinewy lines, which are hard to predict but not capriciously so, embedded in a fairly rigorous imitative structure, offer a good example of what I find so valuable about Weinberg as a composer. Background and analysis here.

Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

February 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1859]
386 p.

Somehow I managed to reach my ripe old age without having read this great novel, a defect that I am happy to have now rectified. Yes, even through these tears, I am happy.

The story is set during the final decades of the eighteenth century, the two cities are London and Paris, and the story follows a family that, with one foot on each side of the channel, gets caught in the crosshairs of the French Revolution. I suppose everyone knows this, although I did not.

It’s a wonderful book in pretty much every respect. The characters are excellent, even the rare female villain, and the amiable old banker, and the kindly old father, and the courageous young woman, and the principled young man, and, of course, the noble-hearted young lover. The writing is, even for Dickens, marvellous; there are sections — such as the passage about the storming of the Bastille, or that scene of spilled wine in the street, or that prophetic vision — that are like orchestral music. It has been ingeniously constructed, with key revelations concealed until the appropriate hour. At barely half the length of one of his typical novels, it is unusually focused and fleet of foot.

Dickens was clearly no friend of the Revolution — its rallying cry he always modifies to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!” — though of course he was no friend either to oppression and injustice. He saw the desire of the people for liberty as healthy, but the means followed to that end horrible. He is the patron novelist of the common Englishman, but was able to put a sympathetic aristocrat, and a French one at that, at the center of this book. In the end, he gave us a large-hearted story about the power of love, requited and unrequited, romantic and filial, to shine in the darkness, though the darkness does not comprehend it. I judge it one of Dickens’ best.

Weinberg: two things

February 13, 2019

This week my Weinberg listening project has been focused on music from 1946. This was a difficult time for him, as much of his family had been killed in the war. But the music, which included his clarinet sonata, second symphony, and third piano sonata, is wonderful.

Here’s something cute. In this year he published 21 Easy Pieces for piano. In this video the first, “Merry March”, is played by a talented youngster named Julia:

And here is something more elaborate: the adagio movement from his Symphony No.2:

Cicero: Murder Trials

February 11, 2019

Murder Trials
Marcus Tullius Cicero
(Penguin Classics, 1975)
[80-45 BC]

368 p.

Cicero was a statesman, an orator, an amateur philosopher — and a lawyer. This volume gathers together four of his most celebrated speeches given in the context of murder trials; in each case he was speaking for the defence. The earliest dates from 80, when Cicero was just 20 years old; the latest from 45, when he had, unbeknownst to him, of course, just two more years to live.


The first speech is in defence of one Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his father. This was a particularly heinous crime for the Romans, being an assault on the Roman virtue of filial piety, and the guilty were punished in a particularly ghastly way: by being tied into a sack with several animals (a dog, a cock, a monkey, and a snake) and thrown into a river. Cicero’s defence consisted partly in blaming the accuser for having committed the crime himself.

The second speech, in defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus, was given in 66. Cluentius was accused of murdering his stepfather. It is an especially celebrated speech; we have a letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus in which Pliny judges it Cicero’s finest oration. It is also, at 140 pages in this edition, the longest of Cicero’s surviving speeches.

In 63 Cicero was called upon to defend Gaius Rabirius for a murder alleged to have occurred 37 years earlier. The victim, Saturninus, had been a radical politician who got on the wrong side of the establishment, was shut into the Senate-house and killed there, presumably on orders from opposing Senators. When the politics of Rome swung around, however, Rabirius, a senator, was prosecuted. Technically the charge was treason, not murder, and the accused faced a crucifixion if found guilty.

The political situation had changed again in 45; Caesar had ascended, alone, to the highest position in the state. A minor eastern prince, King Deiotarus, was accused of plotting to murder Caesar himself when Caesar had been a guest in his home. Allegedly, Deiotarus had a group of men waiting for Caesar to enter a certain room, at which point they planned to stab him. (Had they succeeded, the world would presumably have been deprived, many centuries later, of either Macbeth or Julius Caesar!) Cicero spoke in Deiotarus’ defence, arguing his innocence in Caesar’s own home, with Caesar sitting as judge, a difficult assignment about which Cicero remarks:

“the task of defending a man accused of murder before the very person whom he is accused of murdering seems a formidable proposition, since few people could judge a threat to their own lives without showing greater favour to themselves than to the defendant.”

Arguing Deiotarus’ long and faithful service, the implausibility of the success of the supposed plot, and Caesar’s magnanimity, Cicero succeeded in this case of convincing Caesar to reserve judgment. But this was an exceptional outcome: if one was accused of murder in ancient Rome, one could hardly do better than hire Cicero as one’s advocate; his clients were usually acquitted.


With the exception of the last, I cannot say that I found these speeches particularly riveting. In fact, as I read, and reflected as well on my experience reading Cicero’s political speeches, I came to the reluctant conclusion that I am not at all a good judge of speeches. The most celebrated examples from modern times (such as, say, the Gettysburg Address or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) tend to be quite short, certainly by comparison with those included in this volume. High, extended oratory simply has no place in our culture today, and this lack of exposure surely at least partly accounts for the fact that I have no savour for the genre, and no great powers of discrimination.

Having said that, there were some interesting things to learn from these addresses. Perhaps the most surprising was that Cicero, as the defence lawyer, didn’t do the things we expect defence lawyers to do. He didn’t discuss testimony of witnesses; he didn’t discuss forensic evidence. In fact he dwelt almost entirely on motive, attempting to convince the audience that his client had no good reasons to commit the alleged murder. (In the speech before Caesar he added a healthy serving of flattery to his winning recipe.) This strikes us as an oddly limited way to proceed. It is also worth noting that we do not have the speeches of the prosecution in these cases, nor the records of cross-examination, so other aspects of the crime might have come out by those means.

The other peculiar feature of these speeches is how much effort Cicero devotes to constructing an alternative theory of the crime, rather than focusing narrowly on defending his client. In the long defence of Cluentius, for instance, only about one-third is actually specifically arguing his client’s innocence. These countermeasures are largely speculative in content, and no doubt contain their fair share of misdirection, the intention being not to build an air-tight case against another, but merely to raise enough doubts in the judges’ minds.

Cicero did also sometimes argue as a prosecutor. I was interested to learn that he would refuse to act as prosecutor if he thought the accused was innocent, yet he would argue for the defence regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused, “provided he is not really a depraved or wicked character”, on the grounds that

“popular sentiment requires this; it is sanctioned by custom, and conforms with human decency.”


Of the three volumes of Cicero I have read over the past few months, this was the one I enjoyed the least. It is convenient, therefore, that this is the last of Cicero that I have planned to include in my Roman reading project. Based on this limited experience, I would say that my impression of Cicero falls somewhat short of what his reputation would seem to warrant, and this is due in large part, I expect, to the fact that I am reading him in translation. I don’t know what it is like for an Italian or Frenchman to read Shakespeare in translation, but it can’t be much like reading Shakespeare in the original. I would like to read more of Cicero, but it really would be best to learn Latin first.

Weinberg: Piano Trio

February 6, 2019

Marking the centenary of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s birth this year, I’ve been devoting my evening commute to his music. The past couple of weeks have reaped an embarrassment of riches: his Symphony No.1, several string quartets, his wonderful Piano Quintet, and his first Piano Trio. All are impressive  pieces of work, and all were written while he was still in his mid-20s!

Good filmed performances of his music are not easy to come by, so I was happy to find this artful presentation of the Toccata movement of the Piano Trio, played by Trio Khnopff. This is a frenetic movement, nervous and buzzing, and not, perhaps, what I’d have first chosen, but beggars cannot be choosers:

Aucassin and Nicolette

February 3, 2019

Aucassin and Nicolette
Translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon
(Folio Society, 1947) [c.1200]
60 p.

In the annals of medieval love lore you have your Tristans and your Yseults, you have your Lancelots and Guineveres, your Romeos and your Juliets and your Dantes and your Beatrices — and you have Aucassin and Nicolette? I confess that, until I stumbled upon them recently, I’d never heard of this pair. Their love is one for which, naturally, the course does not run smooth, and the basic problem is obvious enough:

Here they sing.

Aucassin was of Beaucaire;
His was the fine castle there;
But on slender Nicolette
Past man’s moving is he set,
Whom his father doth refuse;
Menace did his mother use:

“Out upon thee, foolish boy!
Nicolette is but a toy,
Castaway from Carthagen,
Bought a slave of heathen men.
If for marrying thou be,
Take a wife of high degree!”

“Mother, I will none but her.
Hath she not the gentle air,
Grace of limb, and beauty bright?
I am snared in her delight.
If I love her ’tis but meet,
So passing sweet!”

What follows is a kind of medieval singspiel, in which verse songs alternate with prose narration. This form has been dubbed a chantefable (literally, a sing-say), and the category has been invented specifically for Aucassin and Nicolette, which is our sole surviving medieval example of what was presumably a genre.

It is a delightful creation, plump with good humour and full of energy. It is a celebration of the medieval ideal of “courteous love”, and a fresh, cleansing wind blows through it. Love has captured Aucassin’s heart, and he prefers his beloved to honour, to wealth, to glory — even to the salvation of his soul. In this sense, he is the “foolish boy” his mother decries, but his devotion is so strong that it inspires him to great deeds of another sort, and to heroic virtues of another order. His love, in fact, renders him worthy to be the hero of a medieval romance.

The story is packed with oddities. In one episode Aucassin finds himself at a castle where the king lies in child-bed and the queen rides forth to battle. Joining the fight, he discovers that they fight not with swords, but with crab-apples, cheeses, and mushrooms. In another, Nicolette stumbles in the forest upon a group of rustics enjoying a pastoral picnic, almost as though the Forest of Arden had been transplanted to France.

A number of English translations have been made. I tried out three (by Lang, Mason, and Bourdillon) before settling on the last. All were made about a century ago, and all are afflicted to some degree by maladroit archaisms. Bourdillon seemed to be the least egregious offender, but even his version contains its fair share of “honoured wight”s and “gramercy”s, such that I had liefer die than suffer another. This is a work ripe for a fresh look by an enterprising translator of Old French. But, despite these troubles, I enjoyed the book, and arrived in good spirits at the happy ending:

Towards him to her feet leapt she.
Aucassin, when he did see,
Both his arms to her he holds,
Gently to his bosom folds,
Kisses her on eyes and face.
So they left him the night’s space,
Till the morrow’s morning-tide
Aucassin took her to bride,
Made her Lady of Beaucaire.
Many days they then did fare,
And their pleasure did enjoy.
Now has Aucassin his joy,
Nicolette too the same way.
Here endeth our song-and-say;
I know no further.

The book, which is quite short, is available at the Gutenberg project.