Epiphany 2019

January 6, 2019

adoration-magi-giotto

Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent,
reges Arabum et Saba dona (Domino Deo) adducent.
Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae,
omnes gentes servient ei.

The kings of Tarshish and the islands will offer tribute,
the Kings of Arabia will bring gifts to the Lord God;
And all kings will adore him,
and all nations will serve Him.

 


Favourites in 2018: Music

January 3, 2019

I had another great year of listening to music, and I’ve selected, from the many that I enjoyed, ten recordings that I found particularly excellent. I’ll review them in rough chronological order, moving from medieval to modern.

***

Boethius: Songs of Consolation
Sequentia
(Glossa, 2018)

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy has for centuries been read with profit, but would it not, like most things, be even better if sung? Several dozen poems are sprinkled through the text, and there actually is manuscript evidence from the ninth to the twelfth centuries that these poems were sometimes converted into songs. A Cambridge scholar, Sam Barrett, working with the musicians of Sequentia, with their many years of experience in early medieval song, have here attempted to reconstruct those songs, or at least, as the liner notes say, “to arrive at realisations informed by both scholarly insight and practical experience,” which is an admirably modest way of putting it. There is necessarily some guesswork involved, and I am not in a position to judge the merit of the scholarly argument. All I can say is that I have greatly enjoyed listening to the results. Here is a video describing the process the scholars and musicians went through, with some performance excerpts as well; it is well worth watching, as the disc is well worth hearing, not only for the music, if I can put it that way, but also for the novelty and interest of the project. Early music is so often a blend of scholarship and musicianship, and this is early music at its best.

**

En seumeillant
Dreams and Visions of the Middle Ages
Sollazzo Ensemble
(Ambronay, 2018)

The Sollazzo Ensemble was founded in 2014, in Basel, and now has two recordings to its credit, both tremendously good. This disc, bearing a nearly unspellable title (try it!), is built around the theme of “reveries, fantasies, trances, visions, [and] nightmares”. The music is fascinating: the group reconstructs, from medieval descriptions, a “discordant litany” in which a plainchant melody is harmonized dissonantly; they sing an apocalyptic “Song of the Sibyl” that was, for centuries, sung in Catholic churches during Advent; we get a Florentine lauda, which would have been sung in procession through the streets of the city; and we hear a simply splendid performance of the oft-recorded but ne’er-tamed Fumeux fume, which, if it was not actually inspired by a hallucinogen, might serve as one. This is fantastically difficult and intricate music, often, and just as often exceptionally beautiful and alluring. The Sollazzo Ensemble seems to have absorbed the refined idiom of this music into their bones.

**

Ockeghem & La Rue: Requiems
Diabolus in Musica, Antoine Guerber
(Bayard, 2018)

About 25 years ago Ensemble Organum made a recording of Ockeghem’s Requiem that was like nothing on earth: a big, bass-heavy sound, wild dynamics, and pervasive ornamentation of the vocal lines gave the piece, which can sound polite when done in the best English choral tradition, an alien cast. It was glorious — radical, yes, but defensible, because the truth is that we don’t really know what this music sounded like at the time it was written; the notated sources only tell us so much.

This new disc of Ockeghem’s Requiem from Diabolus in Musica seems, to my ears, to have that earlier recording in mind. It is sung, as before, by an all-male choir, giving it a rich, visceral sound, and the style is craggy rather than smooth, as though great blocks of sound, like tectonic plates, are moving around. It is not as radical as Ensemble Organum’s version of the piece, but is still very much off the beaten track. I confess I love it. They give the same treatment to Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem, a piece that I do not know nearly as well, and it sounds terrific too.

**

Antoine de Févin: Masses and Motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(Hyperion, 2018)

Everyone has their short list of favourites when it comes to medieval and Renaissance polyphony; yours, like mine, probably includes Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, Ockeghem’s Requiem, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and the entire surviving corpus of Benedictus Appenzeller, but at the top of my heap sits Josquin’s gorgeous motet Ave Maria … Virgo serena. I’ve never sung it for an audience, but I’ve frequently sung it in the privacy of my car, or late at night, muffled, into a pillow, and I know it pretty well. Imagine my delight, therefore, to discover that Antoine de Févin, a little-known French composer active around 1500, wrote an entire Mass, his Missa Ave Maria, in which the music is based on Josquin’s motet. This practice, of basing a Mass setting on pre-existing music, was common at the time; Masses were written based on chant fragments (as in Josquin’s famous Missa pange lingua, for instance) or on popular songs (as in the rash of Masses based on the song “L’homme armé'”) or on pieces written by other composers, and Févin’s Mass falls into the latter category. What is special about it is simply that it is based on a piece that I particularly love. It is wonderful to hear Josquin’s original music adapted to its new setting, like seeing a familiar picture turned to a new perspective and recoloured. I have a new appreciation for the art involved in writing these homage Masses, and I think no single piece of music has given me greater pleasure this year.

**

Bach: Magnificat
Handel: Dixit Dominus
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
(Alpha, 2017)

From the Belgian group Vox Luminis come marvellous performances of two Baroque masterpieces: Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus. Vox Luminis has been going from strength to strength in recent years, making a series of excellent discs of early music, and being justly showered with praise — including having Gramophone magazine’s “Recording of the Year” honours bestowed upon them. There is a luxurious quality to their music-making; they have an unusually rich sonority, both instrumentally and vocally, that gives nice body to these two joyful works. I am especially impressed by Dixit Dominus, which I’ve never heard done better.

**

Life
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2018)

The programme on Life is one Igor Levit crafted in response to the sudden death of a friend, and consists mainly of melancholy, quiet pieces expressing, naturally enough, his sorrow. We get some old chestnuts: Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and of the solemn march from Parsifal, Brahms’ left-hand transcription of Bach’s mighty Chaconne, and Schumann’s Ghost Variations. But there are also some rarities, like Busoni’s Fantasia after Bach, and some pieces entirely new to me, such as a substantial excerpt from Frederic Rzewski’s Dreams and, most notably, a half-hour-long transcription of an organ piece by Liszt (!). The recital closes with a meditative piece by Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, and even this does not ruin it. Some of this music might not be of the very highest quality, but it works together well as a programme, and the playing is simply magnificent. Levit’s playing seems to come from a place of profound stillness and attention. He is a very wonderful pianist indeed.

There’s more!

**

Mahler: Symphony No.6
Teodor Currentzis; MusicAeterna
(Sony, 2018)

It has been a long time since a disc of orchestral music has thrilled me as has Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s recent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6. I praised Currentzis last year for his way with Mozart, and the same passion and intensity are all over this Mahler recording. The opening march rhythm, which usually puts me in mind of an army on the move, here becomes the tread of an army of ferocious beasts, snarling and snapping, and this intensity continues through essentially the entire work. What is amazing is that Currentzis has been able to amp up the music, infuse it with quivering excitement, without also flattening it out. It is as though he went over every phrase, every bar, and thought about orchestral colour and balance, and found a way to clarify the texture while simultaneously amplifying weight and presence. Certainly I have heard details on this recording, especially from the low strings, that I have never heard before. It’s magnificent.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I have begun to second-guess myself. Currentzis is an iconoclast. His orchestra goes to 11. My worry is that perhaps I am being seduced by a debased aesthetic: orchestral music for rock ‘n’ rollers, which is to the main tradition as Charles Atlas is to you and me — basically the same, but exaggerated. I am also a little wary of the unusual vividness and clarity of the sound: is this really the sound of an orchestra, or a sound collage made possible by close-micing and a sound board? I’m not sure, nor do I know what to make of my aesthetic concerns. I suppose that I will just keep listening, and trust my judgment. In fact, I think I’ll put it on again now.

**

Stravinsky: Music for violin, Vols 1-2
Ilya Gringolts, Peter Laul
(BIS; 2017, 2018)

I’m cheating a bit by grouping together two discs. The first volume narrowly missed making my year-end list last year; this year, in combination with the fine second volume, it makes the cut easily. Ilya Gringolts, accompanied by Peter Laul, tackles the music Stravinsky wrote for violin and piano. I recall that Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s amanuensis, once said that all of Stravinsky’s music is happy music, and that judgment is borne out by this collection, which is unfailingly delightful and interesting. Many of these pieces are minor, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but Stravinsky’s imagination did not run in dull channels. Some of the pieces are arrangements of his ballet music (including excerpts from The Firebird, Petrushka, and the “Suite Italienne” from Pulcinella). Gringolts plays them with poise and wit, which is exactly what they need, and he has superb sound.

The major work (appearing on Vol.2) is the Violin Concerto, surely the most amiable violin concerto of the twentieth century. Everybody and his dog have recorded it. Gringolts, supported by Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, does not, perhaps, give us a performance for the ages, but it’s a creditable, perfectly fine performance that I have enjoyed. It sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the smaller-scale chamber works that otherwise fill the discs.

**

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus
Jean-Rodolphe Kars
(Piano Classics, 2017)

I have in my collection several recordings of Messiaen’s feature-film-length piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, surely the least catchy Christmas-themed music ever written — but wonderful music all the same. I might not have heard this one but for a laudatory review from a reputable source, and then another, and another. The recording has an interesting background story: the pianist, Jean-Rodolphe Kars, calls Messiaen his spiritual father, and in fact converted to Catholicism shortly after the recording was made. He then entered the seminary, and has served as a priest in France ever since.

That interesting story would be little more were it not matched by artistry of a high order, but it is. There is a wonderful spaciousness to Kars’ playing; Messiaen’s music can be extremely complex and multifaceted, but never sounds hectic or laboured in Kars’ hands. The claim that one can hear the difference between a world-class pianist who plays with devotion and one who merely plays as if with devotion is probably false, but nonetheless over the course of this long concert Kars’ musicality does cast a contemplative spell over the listener that I, at least, have not experienced with other pianists. This recording, made live before an Amsterdam audience in 1976 and reissued in 2017, is now my first-choice for this music.

**

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance
Pärt: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putnins
(BIS, 2018)

Several years ago I highlighted a recording of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance that, to my ears, wasn’t quite up to the expressive standards set by my reference version of this work, but that had superior sound and therefore a claim to serious consideration. In 2018 we got this new recording that takes the palm in both the artistic and technical categories, and therefore becomes the obvious first choice for a recording of a work that, I would argue, belongs on a short list of the greatest choral works of the 20th century. It’s a harrowing piece in some ways, the music an often thorny and agonized stew of dissonances, but it is very beautiful in its way, without gimmickery or self-indulgence. It is music that I love, and it is given here, by one of the world’s best choirs, the performance of a lifetime. After those haunting sounds, it is sweet relief to fall into the still pool that is the music of Arvo Pärt, Schnittke’s contemporary, fellow subject of Soviet power, and fellow convert to Christianity. Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been recorded many times, including previous recordings by this choir, but he has rarely sounded better. This is my record of the year.

***

Addendum on popular music

The big box of outtakes from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sessions brought me great pleasure this year, but is not something I’m likely to listen to very many times, if only because it takes so long to get through it. My favourite new album this year was Sam Phillips’ World on Sticks; I usually find her characteristic combination of flint-dry voice, precise manner, and enigmatic lyrics beguiling, and this new record is no exception.

I have an appetite for melancholy in song, and this year I grew fat and juicy feeding on Patty Griffin’s “Rain”, from her 2002 record 1000 Kisses.

Oh Patty, where have you been all my life?


Favourites in 2018: Books

December 28, 2018

I had, by hook and by crook, a pretty good year of reading. In this post I’ll highlight what were for me the most satisfying, interesting, and entertaining books I had the pleasure to read this year.

**

My ongoing Roman reading project started this year with Appian’s history of a century of conflict (c.130-30 BC) and concluded with some of the early poetry of Virgil. In between I sallied at Lucretius and Catullus, but spent most of my time with Cicero and Julius Caesar, the latter of whose first-hand accounts of the Gallic Wars and Civil War were a highlight of my year. I read Caesar in the unsurpassed luxury of the Landmark edition, which I recommend unreservedly.

*

This was also the year in which I polished off the final few volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I’ve written about the pleasures of these books in previous years, so I’ll simply say that even apart from the wonderful characters, musical language, and adventurous stories, I loved them for their portrayal of a friendship, between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, that has few literary rivals.

*

Forlorn without Aubrey and Maturin, I turned to Jeeves and Wooster for comfort, and spent the rest of the year devouring comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I expected to like the Jeeves books, and of course I did, but I also dipped into the Psmith novels and the Blandings Castle books, and, to my unalloyed delight, found them just as good. If I have to pick just one to highlight for this list, I will choose Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings Castle books, through which I laughed with hearty cheer and admiration. P.G. Wodehouse and I will remain boon companions in 2019.

*

Another highlight has been my slow perusal of The Complete Old English Poems, a massive volume packed with Anglo-Saxon verse rendered into modern English by the indefatigable (I assume he must be indefatigable) Craig Williamson. This year I read the Vercelli Book and the Exeter Book, two of the principal surviving anthologies of Old English poetry, and I relished both. Lives of saints, clashes with cannibals, dream prayers, gnomic riddles, moral meditations — Old English poetry has it all. The thought that I still have about 500 pages to go in this colossal codex, including another encounter with Beowulf, is cheering.

*

Of the two Dickens novels I tackled this year, the best was A Tale of Two Cities, my edition of which is now stained with tears. By some unlikely series of mischances I had arrived in life on the threshold of this book having no idea what it was about, and I was thoroughly absorbed by the tale of a family caught in the cross-fire of the French Revolution. Dickens is always good, of course, but I found him particularly good here, especially in the final quarter. I now have, I believe, only one (and a half) Dickens novels left before I’ll have read the whole groaning shelf-full.

*

Perhaps the greatest surprise of my year was T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I began only in a dutiful effort to scout ahead of my children for good books to hand to them, but which quickly won my heart for its winsome combination of wit, supple language, and inventive storytelling. I’ve since been working my way through the other volumes in White’s Arthurian tetralogy, but, as I was warned, they have not been the equal of the first, which has earned a spot among the ten or fifteen greatest children’s books known to me.

*

The last novel I will praise on this list is George Mackay Brown’s Magnus, a mercurial book that is, on the surface, a life of the twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, St Magnus Erlendsson, but which turns out to also be lyrical medieval hagiography, ruminative meditation, and, in one dazzling sequence, a kind of spiritual portal into the twentieth century. Formally inventive and beautifully written in a style that drifts, as circumstances demand, between knotty toughness and languid beauty, I found it an excellent and memorable read.

*

Among the best nonfiction I read this year was Mont St Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams’ love letter to France in the high middle ages. His is a very personal encounter with the architecture and literary art of the period, with a premium on imaginative appreciation rather than objective analysis. It is a book that is willing to engage the great masterpieces of medieval art in a childlike spirit in an effort to collapse, so far as is possible, the centuries separating us from those who made and first inhabited them. I found in its pages a kindred spirit.

*

A rewarding short read was Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On the Education of Children”. Montaigne wrote about the aims, methods, and motives of education from within the broad tradition, playing on a thread that has grown frayed and strained in the centuries between his time and ours, and therefore providing a healthy, robust contrast with our own habitual ways of thinking about education today. This was my first foray into the world of Montaigne’s essays, and I look forward to going back.

*

I’ll round out this list with another book about education. Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, edited by Ryan Topping, is a treasure trove of reflections on the nature and purpose of education culled from eminent pens, starting with Plato and Aristotle, running up through Augustine, Basil, and Aquinas, through Erasmus and (yes!) Montaigne and into the 20th century. It’s a superb collection that has been put together in part to remind modern Catholics, the great majority of whom have attended schools much more influenced by Rousseau and Dewey than by Bonaventure and Newman, just what the Church through time has thought and taught about education. If my dozens of pages of notes are any indication, it’s a book with a lot of valuable things to say.

**

Record keeping:

Oldest: Plato, Phaedrus.

Newest: Ross Douthat, To Change the Church.

Longest: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Most by one author: Shakespeare (11), Wodehouse (11), Thornton Burgess (5).

**

That’s the kind of year in books it’s been for me.


Christmas music recommendations

December 27, 2018

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I’d like to recommend two wonderful discs of Christmas music that have brought me much pleasure over the past few years.

**

ros-christmas

The first is RÓS: Songs of Christmas, from the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, a group of which you’ve probably not been previously aware. The music is a blend of things you’d think wouldn’t work well together, and you’d be wrong. The disc begins with a Norwegian-language rendition of Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming (called Det hev ei rose sprunge), as lovely a version as you’re ever likely to hear. The centerpiece is a “suite for Christmas” which interweaves the ecstatic melodies of St Hildegard von Bingen with carols, sung in a manner inspired by the Norwegian folk tradition. The arrangements of St Hildegard’s music are unusually rustic, and the carol arrangements are unusually elaborate, which helps to bridge the gap between these two very different musical realms. Of course, you and I don’t speak Norwegian, but it hardly matters: the warmth and happy good cheer of this music are such that it could be nothing but Christmas music, and this disc is among the most joyful and delightful collections of Christmas music known to me. Here is a featurette about the disc:

**

rusby-sweet

Kate Rusby has made a few Christmas records, but I’m partial to Sweet Bells. She is a bright light on the English folk music scene, with a distinctive lilting voice and a wonderful way with traditional songs. On this record she sings some standard Christmas fare — carols like “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, the latter given a slow and surprisingly effective tempo — with songs, both sweet and sad, that draw more strongly on the folk tradition, like “Serving Girl’s Holiday” and “The Miner’s Dream of Home”. It’s an unconventional combination, but convincing in her hands. Here is “The Holly and the Ivy”:

Merry Christmas!


Adams: Mont St Michel and Chartres

December 20, 2018

Mont St Michel and Chartres
Henry Adams
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [1904]
xli + 398 p.

I went to Chartres on my first trip to France. It was a short train ride from Paris; I remember passing through the Versailles train station en route and caring not a whit for it; my heart was set further down that track. It was a slightly overcast day; perhaps I had hoped to see Chartres draped in an overhanging blue mantle, and so was slightly, very slightly, disappointed as I approached. I met the famous English guide, Malcolm Miller, who has been giving tours there for decades. My dominant memories are of a dimmed, vaulting interior and glory all around.

Henry Adams also saw Chartres, and loved it. He made it, along with the great Mont St Michel, the launching point for this extended imaginative engagement with the art and culture, mostly French, of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is not a book of “art history”, though there is a good deal of art and history in it; it is not a book of theology, though it cannot avoid grappling with some. It is instead something less common: a very personal encounter with great artistic achievements, in which Adams makes a serious attempt to feel his way back into the past:

One needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

Mont St Michel he values chiefly as an achievement that brought the political, artistic and religious aspirations of its time into a compelling unity:

The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony.

He emphasizes the masculine character of the Mount, presided over by the warrior St Michael and expressing rugged strength in its form. Chartres, on the other hand, expresses the feminine spirit, being the special domain of Our Lady and expressing her tastes. The Virgin of Chartres

was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith,—in this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favourite blonde doll. Unless you can go back to your dolls, you are out of place here. If you can go back to them, and get rid for one small hour of the weight of custom, you shall see Chartres in glory.

Chartres, too, by expressing the Virgin’s glory, expressed the ideals of the time, for she was at the center of that society in a manner that transcended the usual social and political divisions. All disputants, on whatever question, were united in honouring her with “good faith, depth of feeling, and intensity of conviction” as the exemplar of human perfection:

The Virgin still remained and remains the most intensely and the most widely and the most personally felt, of all characters, divine or human or imaginary, that ever existed among men.

Adams takes the time to inspect in detail the structure and decorative programme of the church, meditating upon the rose windows, the portals — west, north, and south — and of course the famous twelfth-century stained glass. (When reading these sections it helped greatly to consult a coffee-table book with pictures of the scenes under discussion; there are pictures in this Penguin edition, but of inadequate quality and too few.) It is clear that he thinks Chartres is the greatest architectural achievement of the time — in fact, he goes further and dubs the smaller of its two spires “the most perfect piece of architecture in the world”.

Although the book’s title would lead one to believe that it is focused entirely on these two great buildings, in fact they account for only half the length of the book. Adams moves on, in the same playful and inquisitive spirit, to a consideration of the literature of the time, and to its intellectual and religious life.

Among works of literature he values especially Le Roman de la Rose, Le Chanson de Roland, the songs of Adam de la Halle, and the wonderful collection of legends Les Miracles de la Vierge. Of these, I especially enjoyed his ruminations on the song of Roland, which I myself have written briefly about, but with far less success. Equally excellent is his appreciation of the religious poetry of Adam of St Victor — most of it, again, in honour of the Virgin — which he praises for its simplicity of spirit and technical excellence.

Later chapters of the book set up a contest, within medieval culture, between the intellectual engagement with faith — represented by Abelard and Aquinas — and an emotional, instinctive approach to the sacred — represented by Bernard of Clairvaux and, in a rare voyage outside France, Francis of Assisi. I didn’t find these sections entirely successful, in part because it wasn’t clear to me that Adams really knew what he was talking about. (For instance, while I would never claim to be a gatekeeper to authentic Thomism, I have read a good deal of and about St Thomas, and I could hardly recognize him in Adams’ portrait.)

Indeed, this might be a general criticism to levy against the book as a whole. It is clearly the work of an amateur (and was, in fact, originally published privately in an edition of only 100 copies, to be shared with friends). His oft-repeated, self-depreciating references to his substitution of imagination for expertise — “what we want is not dates but taste” — might be intended to defuse such criticisms. He needn’t have worried overmuch, for he was obviously a man of intelligence and sensitivity, and the lapses in judgment or errors as to fact must be relatively few.

I will, say, however, that I found his prose to have a certain lugubrious quality; the same complaint put me off his other great book some years ago.

Every so often I read a book that I feel I might, under different circumstances, or given more talent, have written, or tried to write, myself. This is such a book for me; not that I think I could have done it nearly so well, but I’d have liked to try.

***

[The evangelical power of Chartres]
Any one can feel it who will only consent to feel like a child. Sitting here any Sunday afternoon, while the voices of the children of the maitrise are chanting in the choir,—your mind held in the grasp of the strong lines and shadows of the architecture; your eyes flooded with the autumn tones of the glass; your ears drowned with the purity of the voices; one sense reacting upon another until sensation reaches the limit of its range,—you, or any other lost soul, could, if you cared to look and listen, feel a sense beyond the human ready to reveal a sense divine that would make that world once more intelligible, and would bring the Virgin to life again, in all the depths of feeling which she shows here,—in lines, vaults, chapels, colours, legends, chants,— more eloquent than the prayer-book, and more beautiful than the autumn sunlight; and any one willing to try could feel it like the child, reading new thought without end into the art he has studied a hundred times; but what is still more convincing, he could, at will, in an instant, shatter the whole art by calling into it a single motive of his own.

[The unity of medieval architecture]
The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final. Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the fleche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line.

[The synthesis of Aquinas’ thought]
An economic civilization troubles itself about the universe much as a hive of honey-bees troubles about the ocean, only as a region to be avoided. The hive of Saint Thomas sheltered God and man, mind and matter, the universe and the atom, the one and the multiple, within the walls of an harmonious home.

[The 11th century]
The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy, and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.


Lecture night: Educating freedom

December 11, 2018

It has been a while since we had a lecture night. In this talk, entitled “Educating Freedom: An Allegory of the Allegory of the Cave”, Michael Hanby speaks about liberal education, the modern understanding of freedom, the relationship between the two, and the implications of each for contemporary politics and culture, with constant reference to Plato and Puddleglum. It’s an excellent lecture.


Pellowski: Latsch Valley Farm

December 6, 2018

First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story
Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story
Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story
Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story
Anne Pellowski
(Bethlehem, 1982)
191 p. + 202 p. + 180 p. + 180 p.

These four books, about several generations of a Polish immigrant family living in Wisconsin, give an engaging portrait of farm and family life over a long century of changes. They are based on reminiscences handed down in the author’s own family. Nothing overly dramatic has been cooked up — which is not to say that nothing dramatic happens — and the stories have a homey, satisfying feel to them.

First Farm in the Valley is set in the 1870s. Latsch Valley is populated by a number of Polish families, and the fact that they live in America is almost incidental: they still speak Polish, observe Polish traditions, and farm very much as, I suppose, they would have done in Poland. Our narrator is Anna, an 8-year old who is an interested observer of the goings-on in her busy household (of eight children, if I recall correctly). This book, like the others, is episodic, with each chapter focusing on a particular day or event, and the reader left to fill in the details between. We read about a Fourth of July celebration, at which the Pellowski children taste ice cream for the first time; about a hail storm that strikes while the children are herding the sheep; about a winter wedding; about a fire at the local school. The family is basically a happy one, held together by bonds of love and their Catholic faith. There are darker rumblings beyond the borders of the home: wandering tramps who might steal goods from the farm or pose a threat, or, more ominously, a diphtheria epidemic that strikes a number of homes in the valley, leaving dead children in its wake.

This second volume is similar in many respects, but is set in the 1910s. Anna appears again, peripherally, now grown with children of her own, but the narrator of this volume is Annie, another young girl who lives down the valley. Some of the stories are quite funny, especially one in which a group of boys plot to release bees, one by one, inside their one-room schoolhouse; Sister Pelagia’s method of dealing with this rambunctiousness is a model of good disciplinary tactics. The family in this book is again a large one, with everyone pitching in to help with chores. We are given a warm picture of farm life, both in the home and throughout the valley.

The third volume, Stairstep Farm, is set in the 1930s and is based on the personal childhood recollections of the author herself. Though things have changed — the children no longer walk all the way to school, and there are cars in addition to wagons — life on the farm is still fundamentally one of a family working together: lots of chores and manual labour, lots of know-how, and a pervasive sense that all is well with the world, in spite of sorrows and setbacks. The family’s Polish traditions are still alive — Dyngus still comes on Christmas Eve, and Polish songs are part of the family’s life — but American life has also begun to make inroads — they get a visit from Santa Claus, and they have learned to speak English, at least some of the time. The narrator of this book is Anna Rose, a 5-year old who wants nothing more than to finally go to school with her big siblings. The stories are about baking, a biting gander, playing games with cousins in the yard, Grandpa being struck by lightning, kicking a pig, riding in the hay wagon, and, most dramatically, a tornado.

In the fourth volume the year is 1967. Our narrator is Betsy, a seven- or eight-year-old, the granddaughter of Annie, who narrated the second volume. Once again the structure is episodic: picking blackberries, putting on a play, going to school, making doughnuts. The texture of modern life has begun to reach the farm: they drive cars, and have a record player. But some things remain the same: this is still a large (8-child) family, close-knit, faithful, and working together to keep the family farm running. Oddly, the tone of the writing is noticeably different from the previous three volumes; it is more verbose, more on-the-nose, and somehow less childlike. I do not know the order in which the books were originally written, but this one does stick out relative to the others.

I’ve just discovered that there is a fifth book in the series, also narrated by Betsy, called Betsy’s Up and Down Year. I suppose I should read it, and perhaps I will, but the inconsistent naming convention for that book — it ought to be called Betsy’s Up and Down Year Farm, should it not? — makes it seem like an adjunct, not an essential, rightly or wrongly.

For the time being I’ve rounded off my time in Latsch Valley. I’ve enjoyed the stay. One could imagine a series of books spanning this same time period that would cross-examine the changes to family life, economic life, technology, and culture, amounting to a sustained sociological critique of how we live now and how we got here. These are not those books; go to Port William if that’s what you want. Instead, these books are heartwarming and entertaining, and could be given with confidence to a child of 8 or 10 years old. Our daughter read them rapidly, and, I’ve noticed, has been reading them again from time to time.

Farewell, Latsch Valley. I may soon pay a visit to the prairie, where I’m told there’s a little house.


Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods

November 22, 2018

On the Nature of the Gods
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 1998) [44 BC]
lv + 230 p.

When Cicero was in his 60s he embarked on an ambitious project to write a series of philosophical works. Though he, when a young man, had studied with several of the leading philosophers in Athens and Rhodes, he was by profession a lawyer and politician, not an original philosopher, which he knew quite well, but he did his contemporaries a service by translating Greek ideas into elegant Latin prose, and summarizing the views of various philosophical schools, often in a dialogue format.

Such is the case with De Natura Deorum, which explores the views of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics as to the nature of the gods. There are four characters in the dialogue, each of them, interestingly, based on a real person: Velleius presents the Epicurean view; Balbus defends the Stoic tradition; Cotta is an Academic; and Cicero himself is an interested listener. The principal school missing from the dialogue is the Aristotelian.

Though formally a dialogue, the give and take familiar from Plato’s dialogues, for instance, is mostly absent. Instead, Cicero gives us a series of set speeches in which individual characters present, at length, their views on the question, or rebut the views of others. In the seams between these monologues there is some back-and-forth, but little more.

**

The dialogue opens with Velleius presenting the Epicurean view. As we recall from reading Lucretius, the Epicureans were materialists who believed that everything is made of indivisible and eternal atoms. Lucretius himself didn’t discuss the gods, apart from a few references here and there, and the present dialogue is actually our best surviving source for what the Epicureans thought about these matters. For them, the gods were akin to material beings (they are said in this translation to have “quasi-bodies”) having human form, but living a life of idleness and bliss — which does, indeed, sound divine. They held that the gods pay no heed to human affairs.

Cotta, the Academic, then steps forward with a critique. He ridicules the anthropomorphism of the Epicurean gods, the ad hoc quasi-materialism, and wonders why we should bother to reverence these beings who care not for us. He contests Velleius’ simple argument that we know the gods exist from common consent.

In the next stage of the dialogue Balbus presents the Stoic case. The Stoics, too, defended the existence of the gods on the grounds that belief in their existence is nearly universal, but added other arguments too: from design of the world, from divine interventions, and from religious practices like divination. Balbus then proceeds to construct something like an ontological argument: God (or a god) is the greatest being, and therefore possesses every good, including reason, sensation, and even sphericity; and, since the universe as a whole is the greatest being possible, the universe itself must be this divine being. In this way, the Stoics arrived at something like a pantheist theology. Against the Epicureans, the Stoics maintained that the gods providentially ordered the world, and that therefore religious practices were right and salutary.

But this view, too, is subjected to an Academic critique by Cotta, who contests essentially every point in the Stoic case apart from the bare existence of the gods. The arguments offered for their existence he finds weak. He rebuts the ontological argument by deducing from it absurdities, such as that if the universe possesses every good then it must be adept at reading, writing, and flute-playing. In one interesting section he even challenges the premise that reason is a good thing, arguing to the contrary that reason makes men cunning in their evil-doing. “That Providence of yours is blame-worthy for bestowing reason on those who she knew would use it unreasonably and wickedly.” He catalogues inconsistencies in stories about individual gods, and concludes that, in the end, we cannot trust much of what the religious tradition has handed down about the nature of the gods. Likewise the pious belief in divine providence is misguided, for if the gods took care for the affairs of men then the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, contrary to fact.

At the conclusion of this critique the dialogue draws to a close. Cotta, who has been the principal critic, never does present his own positive case, if he has one. (He may not; the Academics were largely skeptics.) He only states that he has offered his criticisms out of simple honesty, though he “longs to be refuted”. As the interlocutors disband, Cicero remarks, rather unexpectedly, that his sympathies are with the Stoics, perhaps because this was the school that sought to preserve the rationale for the state’s religious practices, which Cicero was, as a public figure, responsible for upholding and observing.

**

It is striking that the gods in this dialogue are seen simply as “superior beings”. They are better than us, but not transcendent. They are corporeal, existing alongside us as beings in the world, akin to the “flying spaghetti monster” beloved by modern armchair atheists. Nowhere in the dialogue does the conversation turn to what it could mean to conceive of a high god (i.e. God) as the origin of the being of all else. Had Cicero seen fit to include Aristotelian natural theology in the dialogue this problem could have been partly addressed. As it is, however, the rudimentary metaphysics of these philosophers is in high contrast to what Christian and Islamic philosophers would produce in centuries to come.

**

Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this dialogue has enjoyed a long tradition of influence in the West. Parts of it (especially the critique of the stories of the Roman gods) were cited by early Christian apologists against paganism. Augustine himself references or quotes from this dialogue more than a dozen times in The City of God. It was also read by the great medieval philosophical schools, and we find citations from it in Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon. It was even more important to Renaissance thinkers, for whom Cicero was a touchstone: it was a favourite of Petrarch, and Montaigne cited it nearly 50 times in his writings. The skepticism of Cotta was especially influential in this period.

Among early modern thinkers, Locke and Hobbes both knew it, and Hume gave his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the same structure and cast of characters (though with different names). Voltaire, with a characteristic lack of temperance, saw fit to describe it as “le meilleur livre puet-être de toute l’antiquité”, but this, it seems, had the nature of a last hurrah, for in the nineteenth century its influence declined along with the prevailing appraisal of Cicero’s value as a philosopher.

Today it is not widely read, and I would argue that its value as an historical document, describing the leading arguments in theology at the time, eclipses its value as a living source of reflection on the questions it poses. But I am, nonetheless, pleased to have read it.


Another missed concert

November 17, 2018

Last weekend I did not get to see Hilary Hahn in concert. Tonight I don’t get to hear the Latvian Radio Choir in concert. But I can stay home and listen to them sing Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis. This is a quiet and slow piece, but difficult to sing well. It’s delicate, and fragile, and will break if the choir fumbles it. It’s safe in these hands:

I wonder what concert I will not attend next weekend?


Stravinsky: Poetics of Music

November 13, 2018

Poetics of Music
In the Form of Six Lessons
Igor Stravinsky
(Harvard, 1970) [1942]
xiii + 142 p.

During the academic year 1939-40 Stravinsky was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University. In them, he, then, as now, considered one of the great composers of the twentieth century, spoke about creating music, the role of musical form, the importance of tradition, and aspects of musical performance. He was a brilliant and amusing figure with strong views and a playful intelligence; the experience of reading these lectures is, I believe, greatly enhanced by imagining them spoken in his own voice (which one can hear in, for example, this interesting interview).

The title of his lectures — the “poetics” of music — might lead the unsuspecting to think that he would expostulate, in romantic terms, on the ineffable and sublime, but this was not Stravinsky’s way. The title is precise: his subject is poetics, from the Greek poieo, meaning “to do or make”. He speaks not about the pleasant fancies of music, but about the down-to-earth craft of music-making. These were the terms on which he understood his own vocation — not as a revolutionary, and not even as an “artist”, but as a craftsman. This he understood, rightly, to be a return to a pre-Romantic conception of musical composition.

(As is sometimes the case with Stravinsky, one suspects an element of misdirection at play in this self-description; it would seem to apply more aptly to the composer of Pulcinella than Le Sacre.)

If a composer is a craftsman, what are his materials, and what his tools? He defines music in objective language: “a form of speculation in terms of sound and time”. His materials are sounds, which he arranges harmonically and temporally to form structures. In the very interesting third lecture, specifically on “The Composition of Music”, he describes what this process is like for him: a combination of improvisation, accidental discovery, and positive construction in awareness of (if not always in compliance with) established musical forms. He, borrowing from medieval theologians, uses very beautiful language to describe this process of searching and finding as “a spiral of love and understanding”. This is, if you want, a phenomenology of musical composition, which he wants to present as “objective findings” of general application but which can at least be appreciated as a first-hand account of his own experience.

The importance of form to Stravinsky would be hard to overestimate. (The subtitle of these lectures is, again, carefully chosen.) It is fairly common in treatments of musical fundamentals to take tonality as one of the principal organizing features of music. This Stravinsky rejects. Instead he uses the phrase “poles of attraction” to describe what is fundamental to music. The tonal system is but one example of a “pole of attraction”, and not a necessary one. More fundamental is musical form itself, and more fundamental still is melody, which “survives every change of system”.

Form was important to him in part because it imposed limits. “If everything is permissible to me… [then] every undertaking becomes futile,” he says. Using the example of fugue to illustrate his point, he argues for the paradoxical view that “we find freedom in strict submission to the object”. By limiting our choices, we are better able to act. He contends that “strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom”, citing da Vinci, but he might have cited almost any pre-modern authority, for this view, jarring to modern ears, was a commonplace of pre-modern ethics. In applying the point here to art and aesthetics, I expect he intended exactly this jarring effect.

A principal means by which this process of limitation takes place is tradition, which hands down a set of musical forms and techniques for the composer’s use, and part of his task is to appropriate this tradition, imposing it, as he says, upon himself. He is aware that twentieth century music, especially in the person of his arch-nemesis Schoenberg, ruptured the tradition of Western music, and he describes with, it seems, barely controlled fury the plight of the man thus bereft of his inheritance:

“Individual caprice and intellectual anarchy, which tend to control the world in which we live, isolate the artist from his fellow-artists and condemn him to appear as a monster in the eyes of the public; a monster of originality, inventor of his own language, of his own vocabulary, and of the apparatus of his art. The use of already employed materials and of established forms is usually forbidden him. So he comes to the point of speaking an idiom without relation to the world that listens to him. His art becomes truly unique, in the sense that it is incommunicable and shut off on every side […].

Whether he wills it or not, the contemporary artist is caught up in this infernal machination. There are simple souls who rejoice in this state of affairs. There are criminals who approve of it. Only a few are horrified at a solitude that obliges them to turn in upon themselves […].

The universality whose benefits we are gradually losing is an entirely different thing from the cosmopolitanism that is beginning to take hold of us. Universality presupposes the fecundity of a culture that is spread and communicated everywhere, whereas cosmopolitanism […leads to…] a sterile eclecticism.”

One hears echoes of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, which Stravinsky never refers to but which almost certainly lies somewhere in the background, and the general point, here eloquently put, has wider application beyond merely musical or literary tradition.

**

Stravinsky’s love of musical order and objectivity, and his disdain for radical individualism, led him to dislike much of the music of the Romantic era, and especially to detest the music of Wagner. These lectures are laced with withering anti-Wagner invective too good to pass over in silence:

“How powerful this man must have been to have destroyed an essentially musical form [the symphony] with such energy that fifty years after his death we are still staggering under the rubbish and racket of the music drama!…

Is this what is called progress? Perhaps. Unless composers find the strength to shake off this heavy legacy by obeying Verdi’s admirable injunction: ‘Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.'”

And again:

“For the devotees of the religion of Progress, today is always and necessarily more worth while than yesterday, from which the consequence necessarily follows that in the field of music the … Wagnerian orchestra represents an advance over that of Beethoven. I leave it to you to judge what such a preference is worth.”

His aversion for this music appears to be driven in part by the Romantic reliance on extra-musical elements: tone poems that allegedly tell stories, for example, or, as with Wagner, music designed to express a stage drama. One has to take this with a grain of salt, for Stravinsky himself wrote ballets, which would be susceptible to the same criticism. I wonder, also, if he expressed the same contempt for the music of “old times” which was, so often, written to convey words, which are, in themselves, non-musical. Stravinsky, too, wrote a Mass…

**

These lectures close with a consideration of musical performance, with which Stravinsky had extensive personal experience, especially as a conductor. He stresses that the performer’s task is not only technical and aesthetic, but also ethical, for he stands under an obligation to present the work in such a way as to faithfully convey the intentions of the composer. Naturally, this is the sort of thing you would expect a composer to say! It is also in keeping with his view that musical pieces are objective productions of a skilled craftsman, like a chair. Presumably Stravinsky must have hated Glenn Gould. But a musician feels an understandable pressure to project his own personality in performance, not least as a way of distinguishing himself from the crowd of able musicians. Most of us, I expect, recognize that a performance of a piece of music reflects a combination of what the composer intended us to hear and what the performer finds in the music. I join Stravinsky in thinking that the composer’s intentions are normative, but I am inclined to give performers some indefinite and perhaps haphazard latitude in interpretation (and, in music written for the harpsichord, I am a positive revolutionary in my insistence that it be played only on a piano).

**

I very much enjoyed reading through these lectures. I always find Stravinsky stimulating; I cannot think of another person in the musical world today who is comparably articulate and eminent. Part of the problem is surely that the disintegration of our musical tradition which he lamented has been one of the factors causing it to disappear from public life. But he was also just a special person, and it is probably simple folly to expect to find another like him. He can surprise me — as when he quotes, in these lectures, both Jacques Maritain and G.K. Chesterton — and he can provoke, but spending these few hours in his company has been very much worthwhile.

**

[Sincere ignorance]
In itself ignorance is, of course, no crime. It begins to be suspect when it pleads sincerity.

[Objective music vs subjective interpretation]
It is not easy to conceive how a pianist could establish his reputation by taking Haydn as his war-horse.

[Musical over-saturation]
The time is no more when Johann Sebastian Bach travelled a long way on foot to hear Buxtehude. Today radio brings music into the home at all hours of the day and night. It relieves the listener of all effort except turning a dial. Now the musical sense cannot be acquired or developed without exercise. In music, as in everything else, inactivity leads gradually to paralysis, to the atrophying of faculties. Understood in this way way, music becomes a sort of drug which, far from stimulating the mind, paralyzes and stultifies it. So it comes about that the very undertaking which seeks to make people like music by giving it a wider and wider diffusion, very often only achieves the result of making the very people lose their appetite for music whose interest was to be aroused and whose taste was to be developed.