Archive for the 'Birthday' Category

A milestone

January 18, 2017

10th-birthday

Today is the 10th birthday of this weblog! It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed.

I’ve enjoyed writing in this space, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know people by means of it. Most of all I’ve enjoyed the fame and glory that have been showered upon me as my blog’s influence has spread far and wide and covered the globe.

This is apparently the 1362nd post since the blog began. As a way of marking the milestone, let me link to the five most popular posts I’ve done. I have no idea what they are, since I haven’t looked at my stats in several years. Let’s see… Ah yes, here they are:

  1. Building in the Middle Ages (2 March 2011)
  2. Halloween costume ideas from Bob Dylan (24 October 2008)
  3. Great moments in opera: La bohème (24 October 2011)
  4. Messiaen and bird song (11 May 2008)
  5. Favourites of 2008: Books (29 December 2008)

From this I deduce that 24 October is my best day to blog, and that I know of no way to predict what blog posts will be most popular.

My sincere thanks to everyone who takes the time to read All Manner of Thing. I wish you the very best, and I hope you’ll stick around for another 10 years.

Chesterton: What I Saw in America

May 29, 2016

In celebration of Chesterton’s 142nd birthday, here are some notes on one of his lesser-known books.

What I Saw In America
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1990) [1921]
230 p.

This book was the fruit of a speaking tour of America which Chesterton undertook in 1921. He visited New York, Washington, and a few other cities, including a number of small towns, if I am not mistaken. Being a famous person on tour, his experience of America was a peculiar one, and he was the first to admit it. Yet the book contains a number of interesting observations about the differences between England and America, as he saw them, along with (of course!) interesting asides and diversions.

Two of Chesterton’s most beloved witticisms are to be found in this book. Upon being asked by a customs official (as visitors to the US are still asked) whether he intended to overthrow the government, he responded with good humour that “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.” And later, upon reaching New York and being shown the neon lights of Broadway, he wrote:

I had looked, not without joy, at that long kaleidoscope of coloured lights arranged in large letters and sprawling trade-marks, advertising everything, from pork to pianos, through the agency of the two most vivid and most mystical of the gifts of God; colour and fire. I said to them, in my simplicity, “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any one who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

Even apart from these chestnuts, there is a good deal to like about the book. Chesterton is much interested in the differences between American and English national tempers, and between American and English ways of life. He remarks on the skyscrapers of New York with evident appreciation, and professes astonishment at seeing whole towns constructed from wood. He spends some time exploring the differences between British and American English, and he takes one chapter to critically examine Dickens’ portrait of American in Martin Chuzzlewit (which, to infer from what he wrote, was a kind of cultural touchstone for the English at the time vis-à-vis America).

It is evident that, in some respects, a great deal has changed in the century since Chesterton wrote. There are still many differences between the two nations, of course, but I think there is greater familiarity on each side. It is doubtful that a modern Englishman visiting America would be astounded at wood construction. But a modern visitor to New York might well encounter attitudes just like those Chesterton encountered:

I heard some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia or Baltimore as ‘dead towns.’

You don’t say? He goes on to explain:

They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive, just as they are now astonished, and will be increasingly astonished, to find Poland or the Papacy or the French nation still alive. And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference to-morrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead…

Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive.

That last bit is a good example of Chesterton’s aphoristic powers, not quite as powerful in What I Saw In America as a decade earlier, but still pretty potent. Numerous quotations from the book will eventually make their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

Happy birthday, Mr. Pärt

September 11, 2015

Today Arvo Pärt celebrates his 80th birthday. Here is a nice little vignette about him:

He seems like such a lovely man; how I would love to meet him someday. There are very few composers in the past 100 years whose music means as much to me.

A piece I have been listening to frequently over the past few months is Cantiques des degrés, a setting of Psalm 121. It’s a very beautiful composition:

**

A few other Pärt-related posts from days gone by:

Baby boy Burrell

November 26, 2014

The purpose of this blog is not to chronicle my personal life, but every so often something sufficiently significant happens that it seems wrong to pass over it in silence. With that in mind, let me draw your attention to the set of alarms I currently have programmed into my beastly little phone:

And that is just a sampling.

Yes, that’s right: we have a new baby!

Our little boy, Joseph Arthur Owen Barthos Burrell, was born on 5 November 2014, weighing 4 lb 4 oz. Being a tad small, he spent his first few weeks in hospital, but is now home with his big sister, big brother, mom, and dad. We’re pretty delighted with the little guy.

Blogging, which has already been slow of late, is likely to remain so for some time.

Joseph is named for St. Joseph — whose name, fittingly, and, we hope, prophetically, means “He will increase”. His middle names honour his maternal grandfather and great-grandfather (Arthur) and St. Nicholas Owen, a man whom I have long admired for his discretion and courage and whose martyrdom bears some relation to the date of birth.

Musical anniversaries in 2014

January 5, 2014

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:

Birthdays

550 years

  • Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521) [23 April]

300 years

  • C.P.E. Bach (1714–1788) [8 March]
  • Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–1787) [2 July]

150 years

  • Richard Strauss (1864–1949) [11 June]

Memorials

450 years

  • Pierre de Manchicourt (1510–1564) [5 November]

250 years

  • 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.

Happy listening!

Favourite Benjamin Britten recordings

November 21, 2013

Tomorrow will be the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, and to mark the occasion I thought it would be enjoyable to highlight a few of my favourite recordings of his music. The selection criteria for this list are vague, but basically I am thinking of a combination of great music wedded to superior performances and recording technique.

It so happens that all of the recordings I have chosen are of choral or vocal music. Britten did write music for instruments alone, and some of that music — his cello suites, for instance, or his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — is excellent, but it is fair to say that music for voices is at the center of his art, so the lopsidedness of my favourites is not too misleading. I suppose I should have included some opera.

***

Britten-War-Requiem-2-Decca-setWar Requiem
Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
London Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten
[Decca] (Recorded 1963)

The War Requiem is one of Britten’s undoubted masterpieces. It was written to celebrate the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral following its reconstruction after the Second World War. The piece interleaves the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass with the wartime poetry of Wilfrid Owen, a young English poet who had been killed in the trenches of World War I. The result is a powerful work that honours the memory of those who died while also making a strong pacifist statement. (Britten was himself a conscientious objector who spent most of World War II in America.) It is interesting that the three principal solo parts, for soprano, tenor, and baritone, were written for Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German); although that trio was not actually able to give the premiere performance, they are the three soloists on this splendid recording, in which Britten himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. This recording is not perfect — the sound is sometimes a bit wooly, and the balances are sometimes inconsistent — but it has a palpable sense of occasion about it and an intensity of purpose that subsequent recordings have not been able to match. [Listen to excerpts]

The Red Cockatoo, and other songsbritten-red-cockatoo
Ian Bostridge, Graham Johnson
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1995)

Britten wrote most of his music for tenor voice specifically for his partner Peter Pears, and Pears made many recordings which, by the very nature of the case, enjoy a rare authority, and, for some listeners, put other singers at a disadvantage in this repertoire. But I am one of those who have never warmed to Pears’ distinctive timbre, and to my mind it is Ian Bostridge, the young English tenor, who is the greatest interpreter of Britten’s songs. Bostridge is that rarest of creatures: a singer with brains. Almost without exception, his way with Britten’s music is outstanding; in fact, there is a sense in which my admiration of Britten himself is bound up with my admiration of Bostridge, so ideally matched do they seem to be. His voice is light and agile, and he delivers these wonderful songs with clear articulation and attention to detail. At the center of the programme of this disc are the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which are rarely heard but rank with Britten’s finest work. They are supplemented by a variety of shorter pieces, setting poetry of Auden and Blake, among others, and it is all superbly done, with ideal accompaniment from Graham Johnson at the piano.

Britten_nicolasSt. Nicolas, and other works
Philip Langridge, Tallis Chamber Choir
English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford
[Naxos] (Recorded 1996)

Britten wrote a great deal of music for Christmas, and although his church cantata St. Nicolas is probably a fairly minor work in his canon, this recording of the piece is so wonderful that it earns a place on my list. The piece was written in 1948, and was one of many which Britten wrote for amateur performers (although the tenor part in St. Nicolas is for a professional). The St. Nicolas whose life is rehearsed over the course of the cantata is not the jolly “St. Nick” who now dominates the Christmas season, but the historical figure, Bishop of Myra, filtered through the conventions of early Christian hagiography. Nicolas springs from his mother’s womb early in the piece with a triumphant shout of “God be glorified!”, and the music continues from there, portraying his life of charity, his journey to Palestine, his appointment as bishop, his miracles, and his death (“I bless Thy name, who lived and died for me, and, dying, yield my soul to Thee.”). The piece is a rare union of substantive piety and good humour, with a score that crackles with lively energy. In this recording, which is very atmospheric and brings the listener right into the performance space, the part of the narrator is superbly sung by Philip Langridge, and Steuart Bedford, who knew and worked with Britten, leads the polished (but not too polished) forces in what makes for a treasurable recording.

Listen to ‘The Birth of Nicolas’:

A Ceremony of Carols, and other worksbritten-ceremony
Westminster Cathedral Choir, David Hill
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1993)

A Ceremony of Carols may be Britten’s most popular collection of Christmas music, and this is a great recording of it. Britten wrote it in 1942 as he was crossing the Atlantic, returning home from America. I don’t know what time of year he made the crossing, but the music gives every impression of having been written in the soft glow of candles, at the foot of a Christmas tree, beside a creche, with a wreath of mistletoe and a glass of hot cider on the table. It has that special Christmas quality: both hushed and joyous at once. The piece is written for treble choir and harp, which gives an idea of its intimate scale. It consists of ten or so short carols to Middle English texts, framed by a processional and recessional based on the Gregorian proper “Hodie, Christus natus est”. This recording, made at Westminster Cathedral with the boys’ choir, nicely captures the spatial aspect of the performance, as the choir enters at the beginning and departs at the end, but it is the singing in the meantime that really stands out. There is an excitement and enthusiasm in the sound, as though this choir of angels is bursting at the seams for sheer joyous exuberance, and there is an unusually vivid immediacy in the recorded sound. I come back to this recording every Christmas, and my admiration for it never fails. Also on the programme are a number of shorter works, including a very fine rendition of Britten’s early masterpiece A Hymn to the Virgin, which I occasionally try to sing to my children at bedtime (though I am invariably interrupted by earnest petitions that I stop).

Listen to the first few minutes:

britten-serenadeSerenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Ian Bostridge, Radek Baborak
Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle
[EMI] (Recorded 2005)

The Serenade is another of Britten’s chief masterpieces. It is a song-cycle, about 25 minutes in duration, setting a variety of  texts on nocturnal themes by the likes of Jonson, Keats, Blake, and Tennyson, though the most harrowing section is based on an anonymous medieval lyric (“Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte, And Christe receive thy saule.”) As indicated by the title, there are two soloists: a tenor and a horn, and the combination, though unusual, very effectively evokes the intimate, reflective, and somewhat forlorn quality of the poetry. I have a half-dozen recordings of the piece in my collection, and this one with Ian Bostridge (who has himself recorded it several times) as soloist and Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic is my favourite: the recorded sound is muscular and detailed, and the singing is terrific. The disc is filled out by two other of Britten’s major song-cycles in Les Illuminations and Nocturne. [Listen to excerpts]

***

Anyone else care to recommend a favourite recording of Britten’s music? Or just a favourite piece?

Happy Birthday, Glenn Gould

September 25, 2012

Glenn Gould was born this day in 1932, which means that we are marking (what would have been) his 80th birthday. Gould is one of the few truly great musicians to have come from my country. He was a fascinating man, a complex man, with a winsome, if eccentric, manner, who had the gift of playing the piano like a — well, like both an angel and a fiend. Not everyone liked his playing, of course, but no-one could ignore it.

Gould is especially associated with Toronto, the city in which I live, and for those who know where to look the place is haunted by him still. His piano sits just outside the performance hall in the CBC building downtown — the hall itself is called the “Glenn Gould Studio”, for that matter. I remember walking one day, a few years ago, in the Beaches neighbourhood and being surprised by a commemorative plaque in the front yard of one of the houses noting that it had been Gould’s house. My wife went into labour with our first child while we were eating in a diner which was a favourite of Gould’s.

As a pianist, he played almost everything, from Gibbons to Webern, but of course he is especially known for his way with Johann Sebastian Bach. I will not claim to be especially enamoured of his Bach playing; he is not the pianist I go to first when I go to Bach; yet I cannot deny that when I do hear him playing this music, it is an absorbing and fascinating experience.

And so: happy birthday, Mr. Gould. Here is a film of him, as a fairly young man, playing the Contrapunctus IV from The Art of Fugue:

(I do not know what is going on with the piano in this film. It is clearly a piano, but it has a jangly quality that is reminiscent of a harpsichord. A prepared piano?)

Another birthday

February 3, 2012

In light of our recent birthday celebrations, it seems fitting to note that The Hebdomadal Chesterton, that tremendous repository of Chestertonian wit and wisdom, is also celebrating its fifth birthday, today! This is something for which, I am sure, we are all truly and justly thankful.

Credit for the success of that blog is, undoubtedly, due principally and unreservedly to Chesterton himself — and let us raise a glass to toast the great man! — but let us spare a thought, too, for the unassuming hebdomadarian, who, by his ceaseless toil of selection and transcription these past years, has proven himself a modest but true benefactor of mankind. May he be encouraged in his efforts, and may he somehow find the time to keep on keeping on.

Happy birthday!

Five alive

January 19, 2012

Time flies when you’re having fun: yesterday was this blog’s fifth birthday! It has been a very good year, once again. Allow me to extend my sincere thanks to all who take the time to peer at the goings-on here. It wouldn’t be the same without you.

Some nerd-fodder: if I am counting correctly the blog had about 56000 hits in the past year, for an average of about 150/day. This is roughly 40% higher than in the previous year, which makes me think I’ve made a mistake in my calculations. About 9000 of those hits were for one or another of the posts that appeared during the Antarctica month blog-a-thon, which took place last February.

Not counting Antarctica-themed posts, the three most popular posts during the past year were all Book Notes: on Alain Erlande-Brandenburg’s Castles and Cathedrals: Building in the Middle Ages, on Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, and on Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. As usual, I am surprised at what is popular and what is not.

I do not know how to discover the number of comments left on the blog in the past year — but I do know how much I appreciate each one of them. I can tell you that the WordPress spam filter prevented 13996 spam comments from appearing, and I appreciate that too.

Thanks again!

Happy birthday, Leonard Cohen

September 21, 2011

At Light on Dark Water Maclin Horton points out that today is Leonard Cohen’s birthday. I had entirely forgotten — it’s almost enough to get my citizenship revoked! Here is my favourite of his many wonderful songs, in a live performance from a recent concert. He is 77 years old today.