Archive for the 'Music' Category

Way over yonder

June 16, 2017

A few interesting items I’ve stumbled upon in the last few weeks:

  • When Mother Teresa was canonized last year, I missed this superb reflection on her life by Fr George Rutler, who knew her personally. “The canonization of Teresa of Calcutta gives the kind of satisfaction that comes from having your mother declared Mother of the Year.” It’s a quite beautiful tribute to her and her significance for the rest of us.
  • Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture finally appeared, and it’s well worth a listen (or, if you must, a read). Fr Schall has interesting things to say about it, both for better and worse, although I think he underestimates the degree to which Dylan’s body of work has a transcendent dimension.
  • Speaking of Dylan, one of the best things I’ve read about him since he won the Nobel last year is this essay by Carl Eric Scott, published in Modern Age. Scott selects “To Ramona” as one of Dylan’s most underrated songs, a judgement with which I heartily agree.
  • At City Journal, John Tierney writes about something we don’t hear much about: the left-wing war on science.
  • Ben Blatt has written a book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, in which he subjects famous works of literature to statistical analyses. It prompted one of the most enjoyable scathing reviews that I’ve seen in a long while, from Matthew Walther: “Never, I think, has a purported piece of “literary criticism” been so disconnected from literature and non-suggestive of all the things that might, and very frequently do, induce people to read.” The review was so withering that I actually got the book, just to see how bad it was. It’s tremendously bad.
  • In the midst of a stew of troubles, Anthony Esolen wrote a graceful critique of illiberal habits of education. It was an elegant farewell note to Providence College.
  • And finally, from New Criterion, a very interesting biographical essay about Fr Reginald Foster, an American priest who was for many years the Vatican’s chief Latinist.

For an envoi, here is Bob Dylan singing “To Ramona”, live in Manchester in 1965:

Livre du Saint Sacrement

April 27, 2017

Today is one of the notable musical dates of 2017: the 25th anniversary of the death of Messiaen. Some might recall that I’ve ambitions to listen to all of his music this year, and today I was enjoying Livre du Saint Sacrement, one of his major compositions for organ. Here is the final section, “Offrande et Alléluia final”, played by Monica Czausz.

I adore Messiaen’s organ music; for me is the greatest composer for the instrument after Bach. Imagine, for a moment, that the throne room of Heaven were opened, and we could hear the music of the Heavenly Court. It would be terrible and majestic, like an angelic host, solemn, and so beautiful that it would overwhelm our senses, just as the sight of that Court would dazzle our eyes. It would, in other words, sound like the music of Messiaen.

Gloria in profundis Deo

April 2, 2017

In the world of early music, where manuscripts are often bereft of temporal markings, dynamic markings, and even pitch indications, a certain amount of creative interpretation is an inescapable part of any performance. But there’s interpretation and interpretation: sometimes musicians come along with a bold challenge to the received wisdom about how the music of a particular time and place should sound.

Case in point: Graindelavoix give us a version of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame that is frankly bizarre: pitches slide all over the place, the timbre is rough and unpolished, and ornamentation, inspired, it sounds, by Middle Eastern and Arabic singing, pervades all.

This embedded video contains a full performance of the Mass, with propers, but I’m queuing it up to the Gloria, which lasts for about 6 minutes. I’m mostly thrilled by the bass in this ensemble, who is some kind of monster: listen, for example, to the notes he sings at “Jesu Christe” (about 2-1/2 minutes in, and again at about 4 minutes in). Amazing.

I’m honestly not sure if I like what they’re doing — it comes close to being an early-music freak-show — but I do like that they emphasize how little we really know about how this music sounded to those who first wrote and performed it. And I definitely like that bass.

If you don’t know how this Mass usually sounds, here is a fairly typical reading of the same section.

Winter’s come and gone

March 21, 2017


Quartet for the end of time

March 17, 2017

As this year marks 25 years since the death of Olivier Messiaen, I have been listening to his music on a regular basis, with an ambition to listen to all of it, chronologically by date of composition, by year’s end. This week I came to the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which is probably his best-known work, largely on account of the conditions under which it was composed and first performed — namely, in a POW camp during the Second World War.

All of that is wonderful, but even more wonderful is the music itself, which is by turns fiery, weirdly unsettling, and miraculously serene. That serenity is heard to good effect in one of the quartet’s middle movements, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” . I love that this hymn of praise came from Messiaen’s heart in the midst of a great war. Here it is, played by Mihai Fagarasan and Rikke Sandberg:

Several books have been written about this quartet, including one for children that I can recommend highly: Music for the End of Time, by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Beth Peck.

Here and there

March 10, 2017

A few interesting, art-related things I’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • The Christian moral imagination of Cormac McCarthy.
  • Alex Ross writes, in one of his increasingly rare non-politically-inflected columns, about Bach’s religious music.
  • The wonders of digital signal processing recreate the acoustics of Hagia Sophia in a modern concert hall.
  • The cultured life is “an escape from the tyranny of the present”.
  • In a similar vein, Roger Scruton praises the virtue of irrelevance, with special attention to the art of music.
  • Finally, a group of mad animators have brought to life Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:


Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

March 6, 2017

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) is an oratorio composed by Arthur Honegger in the 1930s, to a libretto by Paul Claudel. Until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of it, but a recent recording of the piece piqued my curiosity. By a happy coincidence, my local library had not only the recent recording but also a copy of the score, so I was able to sit down last week and “read” the piece as I listened. I’m here to report that it’s pretty terrific.

The action of the oratorio takes place while Joan is tied to the stake and awaits the flames, during which interval we get flashbacks to her trial and sentencing. There is a cheekily surreal element in the libretto, with Joan’s judge depicted as a pig (“My name is Porcus / I am a porker”), her interrogators as sheep, and the court scribe as a donkey (“Loads of hay for you today!”). There is an interlude in which the witnesses against her play a peculiar game of cards (the import of which I did not understand). Joan herself hears the beautiful voices of St Catherine and St Margaret, comforting her and offering hope, and, at the work’s climax, it is the Blessed Virgin who sings to her.

This important moment, at which the flame begins to kindle beneath her feet, is worth looking at more closely. The choir, as well as the solo voices of Sts Catherine and Margaret, have been building to a crescendo of cries (“Daughter of God!”) and exhortations (“Now there is faith that is triumphant!”, “Now there is joy that is triumphant!”). Joan herself cries out, “And there is God who is triumphant!”, and, as the crescendo dies away to piano, Joan sings a little ditty that I’ll give in English translation:

A little cake carefully made
A little egg Henny Penny laid
A little tear for Joan!
A little prayer for Joan!
A little thought for Joan!
They’re not to fry or give away
But with them buy a candle sweet
To shed a ray at Mary’s feet.
‘Tis I shall be the candle sweet.

To which the Blessed Virgin responds with a beautiful vocal line: “I take this holy flame in gladness”, and then, over the space of about 10 minutes, the piece builds again toward a radiant finale. It’s a lovely sequence altogether, and was for me the heart of the piece.

Honegger is one of those composers whose work is usually said to be workmanlike and competent, but rarely inspired. He himself agreed with this assessment, I believe, and rather took pride in his ability to write to order. But personally I found the writing here quite good, with plenty of melodies and many interesting touches in the orchestration. The music is thoroughly tonal.

One caveat is that a half-dozen of the parts, including Joan’s, are spoken rather than sung. For me this would prevent my putting the piece on “just to listen to it”; I would have to sit down specifically to focus on it (which is what I should be doing anyway, but of course it’s hard to find the time).

Here are a couple of short excerpts featuring the same forces as made the recording I listened to; Marion Cotillard plays Joan. In this first clip Joan expresses her fear and distress at her approaching death; there are English subtitles:

And in this excerpt we hear the final 2 minutes of the piece:

In the end, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. I would even go so far as to say that it deserves consideration in a discussion of great Catholic art of the twentieth century. It’s not a supreme achievement on the level of (to cite another musical hagiography) Messiaen’s opera Saint-François d’Assise, but it is devout without being saccharine, theologically serious without losing its wit, and made with irreproachable competence. I recommend it warmly.

I have also discovered that a film version of this oratorio exists, made in the 1950s by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman in the role of Joan. I’d very much like to see it.

Nunc dimittis

February 2, 2017

To mark today’s Feast of the Presentation: Paweł Łukaszewski’s beautiful setting of Nunc dimittis.

Veljo Tormis, RIP

January 23, 2017

The Estonian composer Veljo Tormis passed away on January 21. Here is an obituary from the New York Times. He was one of the elder statesman of musical life in Estonia — a country that punches well above its weight in this sphere. Arvo Pärt was one of his students.

Tormis’ music is quite interesting. He was greatly indebted to folk music traditions, and many of his compositions are inspired by folk songs or are new settings of traditional texts. Although he may have written some sacred music, I am not aware of any. His music is often extremely dramatic, charged with a Dionysian energy.

As an example of his art, here is Curse Upon Iron. The choir in this video (Nederlands Kamerkoor) is led by Tonu Kaljuste, one of the leading interpreters of Tormis’ music. I once had the privilege of attending a master class with Kaljuste in which he led his choir (the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, on that occasion) in a performance of this same piece. It was in a small room, with maybe thirty or so people present, and I’ll never forget how I felt engulfed by this strange, violent, and urgent music.

But Tormis could write simple, beautiful music as well. Here is “How Can I Recognize My Home”, one of my personal favourites:

Veljo Tormis, rest in peace.

Musical anniversaries in 2017

January 6, 2017

With the turning of the year, I like to plan a few focused listening projects that I’ll undertake during the coming year, and often I structure these projects around significant anniversaries.

After looking through a comprehensive list (Thanks, Osbert.) of such anniversaries, I’ve settled on the following as worthy of personal observance:


450 years

  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • Thomas Campion


25 years

  • John Cage
  • Olivier Messiaen

50 years

  • Zoltán Kodály

250 years

  • Georg Philipp Telemann

500 years

  • Heinrich Isaac

The heavyweights for me are Messiaen’s 25th and Monteverdi’s 450th; I’ll be spending a lot of time with each of those wonderful composers. For Messiaen, I’ll be listening to the piano music, the organ music, the Quatuor, his symphony, and the large-scale orchestral works. For Monteverdi it will be his madrigals (all nine books), at least three of his operas, and his sacred music, especially the Vespers of 1610.

My collection of music by the others is more modest in scale, but I’ll make an effort to get to know it better. I have the feeling that Cage, in particular, wrote a lot of music that I don’t know at all; I also have the feeling it may not be worth my time. I have similar thoughts about Telemann. Kodály, I think, will reward attention.

Apart from these, I’m also planning to focus this year on the music of Bruckner and Elgar. Why Elgar? It’s odd, but for several months I’ve been feeling that I’d really like to immerse myself in his music. I can’t explain it. Perhaps an hour or two in his company will cure me.