Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Garfield and Friends: Guess the Classical Theme


Looney Tunes probably comes first to mind when people think of classical music used in cartoons, and with good reason, but the U.S. Acres segments of Garfield and Friends probably have the widest assortment of themes I've noticed in any cartoon. The show ran Saturday mornings from 1988-1994.

Can you name the theme at 14:05?


Hint: It's from a symphony. Click through for the answer.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Things I Don't Get: Beethoven in Smurfs for the ColecoVision


Vienna, 1802. Ludwig van Beethoven takes a stroll through in country outside the city. The birds are singing as a soft, wispy cloud momentarily blots out the sun. Beethoven stops to run his hands over the heather and as filaments of light shine through the slender cloud and warm his fingers, the heart of the composer awakens full of joy in this realm of nature. His journal entry for the day reads, "Today a tune came to me straight from nature. I have begun to work it into a theme for a pastoral symphony, but in truth I just hope it makes it into Smurfs for Colecovision."

Not enough? Then mix in the Shaker theme from Copland's Appalachian Spring and loop both themes ad infinitum without development in front of trees that look like I could have drawn then in Microsoft Paint and voila! nature itself. Now throw in a little blue mushroom-dwelling socialist wearing a white Phrygian cap and dodging birds and bats and well smurfy smurf smurf you have something totally absurd.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Dvorak, Go Where I Send Thee?


The incorporation of folk forms of expression into works of higher art is an old tradition in Western music, and we find some of that tradition's most famous examples in the music of Antonin Dvorak written after his 1893 visit to America. As usual, the symphonic work is more famous than the chamber, and so String Quartet #12 is overshadowed by its big big brother, Dvorak's 9th Symphony.

Pinning down the exact influences of the folk melodies has been challenging and it seems to me not much definitive has been written on this topic, which has much revolved around the famous theme from the Largo. One influence, however, seems clear to me from the first movement. What do you think?

Dvorak's 9th Symphony: I. Adagio



Saturday, March 10, 2018

Some Choice Gilbert & Sullivan


The end of The Mikado has, for my money, the jauntiest rhythm and wittiest rhyming in Gilbert and Sullivan.

My favorite bit is the duet between Katisha and Ko-ko in which Sullivan's music has, in essence, re-punctuated the text. The unexpected pairings make you work just a bit harder to piece together the meaning and the result is that the text is splendidly vivid and lively.

If that is so,
Sing derry down derry!
It’s evident, very,
Our tastes are one!
Away we’ll go.
And merrily marry,
Nor tardily tarry
Till day is done!




The finale is such a bright, sprightly conclusion I think it would have made Mozart smile.



YUM. and NANK. The threatened cloud has passed away,
 And brightly shines the dawning day;
 What though the night may come too soon,
 We’ve years and years of afternoon!
ALL. Then let the throng
 Our joy advance,
 With laughing song
 And merry dance,
 With joyous shout and ringing cheer,
 Inaugurate our new career!
 Then let the throng, etc. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Quote: Dom Jacques Hourlier on the Fervor of Chant


from Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant.
Translated by Dom Gregory Casprini and Robert Edmonson. p. 35f

Unction is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "a fervent or sympathetic quality in words or tone, caused by or causing deep religious feeling." . . . Its principal author is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Divine Love. In the liturgy it evokes holiness, order, and peace, the opposite of dryness and sterility. . . Unction makes it easier to enter into an attitude of prayer and love. . . 
Unction, or fervor, describes the atmosphere which all authentic religious music seeks to create.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Mozart's C Minor Mass Choreographed by Scholz


I came across the late Uwe Scholz's ballet to Mozart's C minor mass on the Classic Arts Showcase a couple of years ago. (I miss the eclectic channel, but it is available online now.) The particular clip I saw was of the Cum Sancto Spiritu, which left me awestruck. I hadn't experienced the piece so strongly since I first discovered it. 

I can't find a selection of that particular part (discs of the performance seem to be getting hard to find, but it is available for digital purchase/rental), but take a look at the Kyrie here, which too demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to the subtitles of the music.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving, 2015


The art of celebration is one part tradition, one part separation from the utilitarian world of daily life, and one part gratitude. The three parts, I think, are rather equal, although gratitude is perhaps the chief component. Especially in a liberal, intellectual society infused with daily scrutiny of the status quo, where every practice is subject to speculation, revision, and reform, we need time to celebrate things as they are, blemishes and all. There is room for criticism, but not all the time. Too in a world of utility that constantly seeks to produce for use, there needs to be a time set aside to give thanks for blessing. Finally, what is thanks without love for both ancestors and posterity?

Though beloved of many, Thanksgiving seems to me the most conservative of holidays, a break from world-weariness where we expend our resources not on gain but gratitude, not on effort but affirmation. It is the hope of bridging past, present, and future, not with commerce or industry, but love.

And now our annual Thanksgiving List. This year, my top ten Classical Music in Cartoons:

10. A Corny Concerto



9. Bugs Bunny Conducts




8. Pigs in a Polka


7. Magical Maestro



6. The Band Concert



Thursday, November 5, 2015

Things I Don't Get #11: Alex Trebek as Pagliaccio


For their 2015 Halloween episode, Jeopardy featured a category of opera-inspired clues with Alex Trebek donning authentic Metropolitan Opera attire and accoutrement. Hence the unexpected: Alex Trebek in costume as Pagliaccio, the clown persona of the cuckolded Canio from Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci.



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Things I Don't Get #5: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


Toward the end of the holiday classic Meet Me in St. Louis, the Smith family is set to celebrate their last Christmas at home before moving out to New York. Young Tootie weeps from the fear that Santa Claus will never be able to find their house after they move, and to console her little sister, Esther (Judy Garland) sings the tike a comforting tune, the famous Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Garland and O'Brien are splendid here, the former showing a great versatility moving among the quite different songs of the musical-movie, and how truly sad Tootie looks! The song, however, flummoxes me.

We start off fine:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light
Next year, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.
Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.
Wistful, yes, but full of hope too. Put aside sadness, we are told, for we can choose to be happy. Now is no different from the happy days of the past because our loved ones are still here for us. Then bam! things go dark pretty quickly.
Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow, 
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
How did the Fates get involved in this? Did Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos (Κλωθώ, Λάχεσις, and Ἄτροπος), the Greek Μοῖραι, or goddesses of apportioning, who spun out, measured, and cut the thread of human life, really just show up in Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas? And this is the cheered up version?

Worse still is that this is how Esther tries to cheer up her sister? "Tootie, I know you're sad, but by the way there's no Santa Claus and ancient Greek goddesses control the world. They're coming to kill your family and they've also decided when you're going to die. Merry Christmas."


Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Review: Bachstock Marathon


Surprised the psychedelic vibe of Bachstock appealed to me? I am. The idea of naming a celebration of Bach's corpus of work–the apogee of spiritual, philosophical, and theoretical musical expression–after the deepest depths of sixties hippie-dom is not immediately attractive. The festival is more than its name, though, and there is little more rich than Bach, whose music WQXR has celebrated throughout November. Besides, and more charitably, I do like the idea of a season of Bach, of the music just filling the air for a time, and his music does in fact produce euphoria and despair, so you really could call it psychedelic.

The climax of the month-long festivities was Saturday's marathon of Bach's solo organ works at St. Peter's Church. From 7AM until midnight a troupe of organists consisting of Juilliard students and local organ directors led by organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs performed a nearly unbroken series of Bach's solo organ oeuvre. I managed to squeak into the 2:30 slot in which Benjamin Sheen, Assistant Organist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, performed on St. Peter's Klais organ. If other of the day's organists cherry-picked the famous pieces like the F Major Toccata and Fugue and the Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor, Sheen had the pleasure and Herculean task to play a lesser known masterpiece, Bach's Third Clavier Übung.

Sheen brought a vital clarity to the pieces, from the more fingery works like BWV.688 to the austere grandness of BWV.678. A projector trained on the keyboardists hands showed helpfully for the eyes what could not have escaped the ears: the blistering complexity of some of the fugues, double and triple and variously complex. The program changed Bach's ordering of the pieces for a more traditional variation among large and small scale, fast and slow, but this did not diminish the pleasure of hearing various figures come and go in different guises. The pairs, however, which Bach wrote on the same chorales, one setting with pedals and the other for manuals alone, were performed together, a contrast which shows not only the fecundity of Bach's musical mind, but the patience which sees all ideas worked out to their utmost.

The orchestration was especially pleasing and refreshing, casting new light on pieces to which we have become perhaps too accustomed by our favorite recordings. How exciting to hear a familiar piece anew, waves once deep and ruddy now bright and clear. What shone forth most though, was the variety. Influences French, Italian, and German permeate this "most-consequential compositional project for the organ from the years of [Bach's] maturity" [1] alongside the Bachian array of polyphonic artistry, themes of every shape and length, and sizes from the little duets BWV.802-805 to the Trinity of BWV.552a.

Even though I had stopped in for a mere 75 minutes of the marathon–for the absolute steal of $10 admission–I caught the fervor of what was really a one-day festival. Yes, I could have lived without the kitschier element, the "I got your Bach" t-shirts and puns on the radio, but there was a lot of merry, expert music-making. Too I found it a pleasure to see a festival with its namesake at the center, unlike that of a certain Salzburg-born composer.  It may have only been one church and one radio station, but with queuing lines, people buzzing about, web streams, and Bach's glorious music contrapunting to the ends of the eternity, it felt like Bach was everywhere, if only for a little while, and that's a dear satisfaction in itself.


[1] Horn, Victora. "French Influence in Bach's Organ Works" in J.S. Bach as Organist. ed. Stauffer George and May, Ernest

Monday, September 15, 2014

Heard at Holy Innocents


Since the Archdiocese of New York's parish consolidation initiative spurred speculation about the closing of Holy Innocents, much has been written in praise of the parish. Least numerous and most necessary among this esteem is the appreciation for the priests who come from throughout the boroughs to say mass there in the Extraordinary Form. These are not idle priests who pop in from next door to say mass, but busy clergy who make time for the Holy Innocents community. They come with good spirit, prepared and thoughtful sermons, and full voices to offer not just a beautiful, but a consistently beautiful liturgy from week-to-week. Such praise doesn't diminish the work of the resident priests at Holy Innocents, who beside the work of their visiting brothers offer the indispensable before every EF mass, confession.

I'll pass over the uncommon grace and decorum of the altar servers to mention what is for me the most extraordinary offering of the parish, its music. From the small, dedicated schola flows week-after-week of glorious polyphony and chant. It's such a mainstay that even I began to take it for granted until, perusing the mass journal which I began a few months ago, I saw just how many pieces I'd noted in the margins.

Classical settings, renaissance polyphony, plainchant, homophony, preludes, fugues, motets, the choices are both varied and complementary, consistent and prudent. This is no small feat, finding such a wide variety of excellent music, rehearsing, and then performing it at the most appropriate mass. To praise just that is even to overlook the sung propers each week, with which I'll occasionally follow with my gradual. And they are indeed sung every week, never skipped because they're particularly florid one Sunday.

Nothing is ever skimped on or supplemented with inferior efforts. There's nothing added and there's nothing taken away, there's just the mass. Its loving, lively, traditional celebration at Holy Innocents makes it feel as it should, the most important thing in the world.

I list just a small sampling of what has been sung at Holy Innocents in the past two months. Again, this is putting aside all of the chant both ordinary and proper.

1. Vorspiel in D minor. Anton Bruckner [YouTube]
2. Missa Quarti Toni. Tomas Luis de Victoria [YouTube]
3. Tantum Ergo. Tomas Luis de Victoria [YouTube]
4. Ave Verum Corpus. William Byrd [YouTube]
5. Fugue in A, BWV.536. J.S. Bach [YouTube]
6. Missa de Virgine. Christobal de Morales [YouTube]
7. Panis Angelicus. Claudio Casciolini [YouTube]
8. O Crux Benedicta. Francisco Guerrero [YouTube]
9. Messa da Capella a quattro voci. Claudio Monteverdi. [YouTube]
10. Plein Jeu. Louis Marchand. [YouTube]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Sound of Music

Directed by Robert Wise. 1965.

I had never seen The Sound of Music but I entertained a passing and unfriendly familiarity with a number of its tunes for what seems like my whole life. It seems that either in reproduction or parody one will invariably hear something of The Hills Are Alive no matter how assiduously one avoids the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. I wondered, though, what manner of musical could possibly string together such candied tunes as My Favorite Things, Maria, and Climb Every Mountain. What legitimate drama could support Sixteen Going on Seventeen? To my undiminished surprise, The Sound of Music manages to pull it all together, if only just, and pitched a little too romantic for me.

More surprising, though, is that the script pulls it off with a solid intellectual footing. I don't mean with the well known romance between Julie Andrews' pure, perky novitiate Maria and Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), the widower who runs his big Austrian family like a military brigade. That romance is all well and good, if lengthily prepared and predictably carried out in the plot, but it is the cultural context that perked my interest. It's not by itself interesting that the von Trapps live in the specter of a nascent Nazism. That political group, their era, and its crimes have been exploited on film for decades in every conceivable genre. In action movies they're acceptable automata to be remorselessly mowed down by the good guys and in dramas they're the staple spokespersons for hatred. Comedies use them as fodder for gags about mustaches and bloviating dictators. Little of this is revealing, though, but of all places who thought The Sound of Music would reveal to us something significant about evil?

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in 1941 to his son that, "You have to understand the good in things to detect the real evil."* Instead of showing us more evil, The Sound of Music shows us the good. Yes, the frolicsome scenes of song and dance are idealized, but there is a purity and authenticity to them which seems all the more beautiful and frail a flower under the threat of the Nazi boot. We've scene the physical violence of Nazism in countless films, but precious few have shown us the cultural destruction, and fewer, if any, the violence done to the Germanic traditions subsumed into the Nazi maw. How much more crass and cruel does the violence of Nazism look when it attempts to stamp out and subvert the gentle values of its little brother. The von Trapps don't suffer terribly, but their culture of convents, the peace of their hillsides, the way they made clothes for their children, all of that is shattered.

The film's chief contrast, though, is that between the forced political organization of the Nazis and the freely flowing kindness of song which Maria brings into the family and which brings them together. She teaches the children to sing of the hills and flowers, of goatherds and the simple pleasures of life as Captain von Trapp is hounded by members of the rising Nazis to fly the party flag instead of his native Austrian colors. At a fancy gala in which Captain von Trapp entertains some visiting German dignitaries, his seven children put on a charming little musical routine which Maria taught them and by which they say good night. When the Captain commends the innocent voices of his children as what is best in the nation, a guest protests in favor of German virtues, to which the Captain replies that, "some of us prefer Austrian voices raised in song to ugly German threats."

We find a pleasing symmetry too between the political and personal, for just as Nazism is a perversion of the Germanic spirit which is foisted upon the Captain, so his own stern authoritarianism with which he governs his children is a deviation from his character. While the film wisely steers clear of further explication about the obvious politics, Captain von Trapp learned his coldness after the death of his wife. To this theme of learned autocracy, both personal and political, the theme of musical love and peace forms a counterpoint, especially von Trapp's own Edelweiss. This gentle folk dance captures the Captain's love for his now fragile fatherland, and it is also the song with which he awakens from his stern slumber and warms once more to his children, and, of course, to Maria.



So well does Edelweiss captures these themes–the fall of his homeland and the rebirth of his family–that I wish the movie ended with it as a more bittersweet note. Alas the final scene of the plucky von Trapps climbing a mountain to the tune of, you guessed it, Climb Every Mountain, is a little too hammy and chipper. I can't really begrudge the movie a hopeful ending though, and the sight of the family taking their traditions together into the future, if not in their homeland, is rewarding enough.


*To his son Michael, 9 June, 1941. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Houghton Mifflin. 2000. p. 54

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Movie Review: Jersey Boys

Directed by Clint Eastwood. 2014.

Every genre has a natural shape, and it doesn't do the critic or audience any good to beat a movie over the head for conforming to the standard. From that standard you can surely end up with a paint-by-numbers movie, lazily hitting stock elements, but a competent, confident genre pic is a comforting pleasure. The genre of band origins is simply that of growth, followed by maturity and the inevitable decline, and with Jersey Boys Clint Eastwood hits the marks with spirit and just enough variation to bring off the show.

The opening act centers around the transformation of Newark, New Jersey's Francesco Castelluccio from a good-natured rascal with a fine voice into the front man of The Four Seasons. This is pretty standard stuff–escaping a life of petty crime, the first performance with a band, marriage–but Eastwood really sells an air of innocence with this opening. The boys are fresh-faced and fall for whatever plan their street-smart leader Tommy DeVito concocts. We see that Frankie has talent, but it's wasted on songs which don't play to his special sound. Eastwood is generous with the music here, and the degree to which Valli's sound exceeds his material really perks our desire to see him hit it big. The trio hustles gigs, getting bumped around as trios fall out of style and club owners find out about their criminal records. After Frankie gets some pointed advice from a local pistol whom he marries, the trio stumbles on their saving grace: a writer who can help Frankie shine. After some heated debate between Frankie and his big brother Tommy, the Bronx-born and Bergenfield-raised Bob Gaudio hands Frankie a song. With a little inspiration for their name and Frankie's insistence on pitching the group to producers in New York, The Four Seasons is born.

Act II proceeds with their struggle to get recorded, and Eastwood modulates his trick from Act I, having Frankie surpass his material, to launch the band. Here we see the boys relegated to background singing slowly overshadow the soloists until a moment of inspiration on the bus gives Gaudio the song that'll break waves: Sherry. With success after success after their American Bandstand appearance and with so little conflict, I was worried the movie would bottom out. Eastwood, however, closes out Act II with a flashback that shows Tommy borrowing mob money to finance the band's bookings. This is a tack which might have felt cheap or added-on, but instead it recasts the whole act and introduces a problem which had been present but out of sight all along, that beside the boorishness, flimflamming, and excessive sociability which we overlooked on account of his charm, Tommy's been bungling the books and swindling Frankie, Bob, and Nick.

The conclusion catalogs the band's breakup and the breakup of Frankie's marriage, and while we expect some melodrama we don't get it. Frankie takes on the band's debt and takes his personal struggles on the cuff, realizing what he owes to Tommy and his family. When Frankie comes into his own to stand up to Tommy for himself and the band, keeping his cool, loyalty, and sense of obligation, we feel it as a personal triumph for him. Shining in the background throughout is Bob Gaudio, who continues not only to produce hit after hit for Frankie, but to evolve his own musical style. It is Gaudio's music which ultimately holds both the band and Jersey Boys together, giving the boys a vehicle for success and the movie shape and punctuation.

Jersey Boys isn't just three big acts clunking together, though, and there's enriching detail. The depiction of Italian American's may be stereotypically mobbed-up, but from the accents to the framed picture of the pope to the most accurate New York-New Jersey style cursing I've heard in a movie, the scene seems about right. (There was a cheap shot of a nun in her habit burping after imbibing the sacramental wine after hours, though, because I guess we had to remember that nuns are people too during Jersey Boys.) The sets are dressed for the time but the colors and look are pretty flat. We don't get that distracting gloss and pop which screams period piece! over and over. Christopher Walken adds some restrained humor as Gyp DeCarlo, a local mafioso who looks out for Frankie and Mike Doyle brings some spice as their snippy producer Bob Crewe who sent them to the big leagues.

Of course the temptation for a biopic or any movie based on a true story is follow chronologically to the end, but Eastwood makes two changes, both prudent and clever. The first is to eschew those dreary closing captions which tell us where everyone ended up and to put those stories into the mouths of the characters as they address the audience. This closes the gap between past and present and makes us feel more intimate with the characters that we are soon to leave behind. Second, as the aged and reconciled boys finish their set at their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they spin around to reveal their younger selves. We see them years ago singing Sherry for the first time under the Newark streetlight when there was just the boys and the music. When they break out into December, 1963 and swaggering down the street they're joined by everyone they met on their musical journey, we're taken to the beginning. The perfect note on which to end, this semi-fantastical scene is a vivid memory that takes us back to a special time as we'd like to remember it: full of joy, filled with friends, and set to our favorite music.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Things I Don't Get #4: Gilligan's Island Does Hamlet and Carmen


Perhaps no television program is better remembered for silly, cheesy gags than Gilligan's Island. Yes, there's appeal in its warm characters and their plucky attempts to get off their tiny Pacific island, but for a show that only ran for  three seasons and didn't have the opportunity to grow decadent or exhaust ideas, Gilligan had some preposterous plots. With guests ranging from cosmonauts to Zsa Zsa Gabor to the Harlem Globetrotters, from giant spiders to mad scientists, anything was possible on Gilligan's Island.

Yet one of their funniest bits consisted of nothing less than a scene from Hamlet set to the Toreador song from Bizet's Carmen. I don't know how this scene came to be in this show. Maybe it was an experiment or a gag on the part of the cast or writer. Perhaps there is some measure of cleverness in its mix of the serious and silly, high art and low comedy. At the same time though, there's an internal logic to the scene. The use of Bizet's song about the excitement of the bullfights makes an ironical commentary on Polonius' advice to his son for keeping his virtue abroad in France. Does it not seem to mock, and intelligently, the ridiculous Polonius? To boot, Alan Hale Jr., with his sweet-natured face in that bushy beard, isn't even a bad casting choice as the earnest, foolish Polonius. The scene is at once absurd and intelligent,  a clever staging of a serious play, cheekily acted, which is well-received by the characters within the ridiculous TV show. And it's all set to operatic music. Incredible.

It's funny too, and I can't explain that either. Maybe it's Phil Silvers' astonished eyes peeping from beyond the plastic shrubbery, the castaways' bamboo theater, Jim Backus' face as he hams up that last word, the sing-song end rhyme, or just the incongruity of it all (Gilligan as Hamlet!), but the scene is hilarious. Toréador, en garde!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Contempt and Love


Moral philosophers are eager to suggest every which way we might become good people, but they seldom seem to get around to telling you what to do once you are a good person. Don't they expect anyone to try, let alone succeed? Perhaps they don't think that there is anything to worry about once you succeed at virtue, by which I of course mean act generally with approbation, since no one is perfect all of the time. Yet there seems a unique struggle attendant the adherence to virtue, and perhaps even to the attempt at virtue, and that is the development of disdain for those unsuccessful at becoming good people.

I haven't called them wicked because most often they are not. I'm not talking about disdaining dictators, murderers, and the like, which is very easy, but disdaining normal people who don't try or fail to practice virtues. Neither am I talking about intellectual virtue, for we can all comprehend that some people can't comprehend some things. How though should we feel about and react to people who harbor chronic character flaws and make no attempt to correct them, or fail at the attempt?

Let me give you an example and drop the pretense that I'm not speaking about myself. I work rigorously against a nature which is critical, finicky, easily-perturbed, controlling, conservative, proud, opinionated, stubborn, reclusive, anxious, indolent, petty, and derisive, among other faults. For eight years–yes, precisely eight, it's been a deliberate endeavor– I've tried to prune this thorny personality into a gentleman. I very much hope that I've at least made an improvement, but I'm at a point where I remember my old self and I'm not very sympathetic to him.

Moreover, though, I find myself unsympathetic toward those who haven't made the change. Freud wrote that we dislike people who remind us of ourselves, but for my part I find myself disliking people who remind me of my former self. Perhaps this is illogical, for it's certainly possible that such people have wrestled with other demons while I've tamed my less feral passions. Sometimes though you just can't shake the feeling that someone is congenitally–I was going to say congenitally bad, but I think the better word is weak. They lack the fortitude to improve.

There seem two ways to react to such people. The first is that to which I'm  immediately inclined: contempt. This is a word too strongly associated with hate, and it more correctly means to value little, from Latin's contemno. This is no power trip, though, because as much as the sight of such people inflicting their untutored personalities on the world fills me with disdain, that same low estimation is attended by feelings of great pity. We pity them because they don't deserve their burden–who can be said to deserve his character?–and because we feel that we've but narrowly avoided similar fate.

Yet pity is ultimately a feeling of pain, and it's no small coincidence that contemno can mean to avoid. Ultimately we wish to avoid such people. Aristotle's great-souled man is quite indifferent to inferiors. In contrast we take delight in seeing the good and it is the good which spurs us to imitation.

Of course ruling out erotic love, is there no affection these people may receive, no principle which may bind men to each other? How can we share φιλία or have an amicus without equality? Both Latin's caritas and diligo interweave the idea of esteem into the valuation. It seems there is no pure love, to use the overused word, for such people, but is there pure love for anyone? It seems always mitigated or predicated on estimation, eros, utility, similarity, equality, or some premise.

The only two remaining postures are humanism, a pure love for man qua man, and Christian agape. Yet humanism is still predicated on esteeming someone valuable as a human, to which one might rightly ask: so? What exactly might it be about the human which means we should love him? Consciousness? Our genetic similitude? Such are pretty cheap commodities and neither suggests, let alone demands, love.

Alone is agape lacking in estimation, for to love God does not imply that one finds Him in conformity with anything, but that one loves the beginning and end of everything. To love anyone in this regard then, is not strictly utilitarian or merely moral, but teleological, love as ultimate reconciliation. As such it is also love for being qua being, and thus the proper antithesis to hatred, the preference that something not exist, i.e. nihilism.

It is the father who makes men brothers, and it is the universality of this declaration which gives such profound weight to the finale to Beethoven's 9th, a work which has been rechristened in the 20th century as essentially humanist or at best deistic. Yet it is joy, man's pure loving reaction to love and an affirmation of life, that is the divine spark which makes brothers of men. In other words, Deus Caritas est. (Of course refining our understanding of caritas in the process.) In the encyclical of the same name, Benedict XVI wrote of that statement's, "Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny," saying that, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter [congressio] with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction [progressionem]." [Latin English]
1 John 4.16: Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ μένων ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐν τῷ θεῷ μένει καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει. / Deus caritas est et qui manet in caritate in Deo manet et Deus in eo. 
Love and joy, then, are not moral or principled acts, but the proper progression, or climax of life. Again fittingly, hatred and nihilism are the rejections and regressions toward nothing, from God and being.

This is a polarity we find again in the 9th Symphony from its chaotic keyless opening, itself suggesting a polarity with the hovering perfect fifth, to its ecstatic choral finale. The poem calls to song, though, not only those who partake in love by friendship or marriage, but all men who have all been given by nature a passion [Wollust] for life.

In the finale to the 9th, then, Beethoven summons all to fall in love under the lieber Vater, and combines the theme to joy with a gesture as simple as it is profound, a kiss to the world, in a fugue. The inexorable motion, rollicking rhythm, and overlapping of millionem and ganzen Welt and kuß seem to create that very joy of which it speaks. It's the fullness of this path from nothing to everything and the rightness, the properness of direction which we feel in joy which makes the 9th seem to transcend its Earthly parameters, calling us to partake in the divine spark which exclaims, Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sanctus


Holy is one of my least favorite words in our beloved English tongue. To start, the word has an undignified ring, for both wholly and holy are merely 'oly without that oft-unheard puff of air. It sounds like it should be a suffix, not a word of great philosophical and spiritual import, and listen to those sounds next to one another: oh-lee. Say it nice and quickly and it sounds like a siren! Holy is also considerably debased by its position in a variety of common curses and epithets, and for my money there's something unpleasant about a word so frequently appended to the likes of cow and mackerel.

Yet, sanctus, is word which looms large in my mind. Aside from its aesthetic superiority what a panoply of perfect meanings swirl about it: sacred, venerable, pious, ordained. How sanctus seems to contain all the other virtues. It is what we call sanctus that defines not just ourselves, but everything.

One musical setting of the liturgy's trifold sanctus bring out all of these meanings.


The Sanctus from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis emphasizes the mystical power of the word from Isaiah 6:3, its centrality and the reverence it summons from us. Beethoven achieves this in a few ways. First, his indication is mit andacht, rapt and with devotion. Second, he's returned to D, the home key for the whole mass. Third, he's eschewed bright strings for the more austere basses. Fourth, in m. 9-12 Beethoven creates a novel, solemn color palette of horns, trumpets, and trombones. Finally, the theme itself is intimate, with its own internal motion, that step and leap, that generates the whole piece.
We begin then not with confidence, but with the reverence which precedes confidence. Only gradually does that germinal theme, working its way up, graced by a trifold repetition in the brass, finally say in the four soloists, Sanctus. Beethoven repeats not just sanctus three times but the whole phrase, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

In the first repetition, the polyphony emphasizes the unexpected spreading of the word. From one to the other the delicate word spreads from voice to voice. Also, by the musician's power, the melisma, he's made san-ctus, of two syllables, now of three and thus equal to the tri-syllabic do-mi-nus, to which it naturally now seems cognate.

In the second repetition with their crescendo on the first dominus and sforzato on the second, the voices seem to realize the possibility of this momentous development, but back off with the somber, darker piano repetition of Sabaoth. Can our Lord be the Lord of Hosts?

In the third an final repetition, the syllabic pronunciation is timid declaration, as quavering ninths in the violas and cellos fade away over a drumroll. The ensuing movement comes an emphatic yes in the form of an ecstatic fugue on pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Unity of the Muses


Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I've got only the keyboard in my poor head. –F. Chopin

Most minds relish the familiar. We like familiarity, consistency, and sameness, whether it's in our television programming, house furnishings, or daily routines. Yes, some people seem to worship all things new, but that's just an attempt to relive the thrill of novelty. Smart people are not exempt either, most only holding a few stock ideas about which they ramble before attaining senility. Even the mind of a genius is usually confined to relatively tight quarters. Yet we have all-encompassing geniuses like Aristotle and DaVinci, and lesser polymaths from Cicero to Jefferson, but far-seeking minds are the most rare, and the most rare of them was Mozart. Mozart absorbed, innovated, and perfected with a speed which amazes and terrifies. The Greeks would have called him δεινός, marvelous, wondrous, and terrible.

21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets piano quartets, and the songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece. –George Szell

Absorbed, innovated, perfected. Each of those words needs a little qualifying. Mozart absorbed the work of his models with astonishing rapidity, from his father's early assignments at the harpsichord, in which little Woferl delighted, to string quartets, concerti, and fugues. One story from April 1770, when Mozart was fourteen and impressing the Italian contrapuntists in Rome, paints the picture. Herr Mozart and his son attended a performance of Gregorio Allegri's Fiftieth Psalm, a passion piece for two choirs, four- and five-part, which concludes with a finale that interweaves both choruses in nine-part counterpoint. Shortly after the performance the teenage composer proceeded to write out the piece from memory. (W. A. Mozart by H. Abert. p. 135)

From this immense facility for absorption grew Mozart's own interpretations in his early maturity. Hoary polyphony and contrapuntal exercises became the ebullient Salzburg masses. Mozart devours set after set of Haydn's string quartets and again and again throws the spear from sight. The prettified keyboard tinkering of the galant becomes an endless parade of Mozartian characters. The snoozy nocturnes and pompous end-of-semester finalmusik become the serene lightness of the Gran Partita. Endlessly rhyming, sing-songy, and audience pleasing singspiels become the the giddy love of Die Entführung and a frightening, untamed spirit is breathed into old an workhorse text in Idomeneo.

Finally, perfection unto death. The body of Mozart concerti is one of most stupendous achievements ever, without qualification. The endless variety of melody, the relentless ability to tease excitement and novelty from sonataform and even rondo, shifting keys, moods, and characters, is nothing short of astounding. Not only do we find with glee intellectual rigor and structural novelty, but even in its most tumultuous depths, the cosmos-rending D minor, the Mozart concerto is life-affirming, pleasing the heart and the mind. And what love Mozart has for his instruments: the jovial horn, the oboe here sprightly there melodious, and the chimerical clarinet.

All the while, through the counterpoint and delayed tonal areas of the quintets and the vast sonataforms of the operas, and the ever more-delicate symphonies, always we find a unity of style and affect. We're never distracted by learned or simple elements for all is reconciled by the most perfect taste and order. We don't hear a contrapuntal marvel when we see finale to Act I of Don Giovanni, we see a carnival. We don't hear a north German choral in Die Zauberflöte but see the initiate poised before his sacred trial. We don't listen for fugato in Piano Sonata No. 18, but delight in the interplay between these wildly diverse themes. There is only the music, unifying as it goes: time, place, us, everything.

Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness. - Aaron Copland

Mozart's earthy side confuses many, whether it's by his priapic joke in the Champagne Aria, his song Kiss My Ass, or his bawdy letters to his cousin. It's not a side that would have confused, say, Catullus or Rimbaud, but it befuddles those who seek a clean idol. We need a pure font because we see time as expendable. We need to get and use as much of time and Mozart as we can. Yet it is time which is sacred, not the man Mozart. Yet he doesn't have to be because he has preserved the best of us in time, and we don't nee to horde it, nor do we even need to share it. We nee to be it. We need to feel his melodies in our step and his shapes in our thoughts. We need to feel his terror and chipper love, his lonely afternoons and sumptuous galas. Mozart is not the font, but the unity of the Muses, and beyond performance and beyond listening there is living, where the perfected goes on forever, though only for a time through us.

Mozart's music is the mysterious language of a distant spiritual kingdom, whose marvelous accents echo in our inner being and arouse a higher, intensive life. –E. T. A. Hoffmann

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple


Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.





We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.



[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alton_Towers
[3] http://www.towersalmanac.com/history/index.php?id=1
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top Ten: Polyphony for the Nativity


In celebration today I humbly present a small, choice sampling of my favorite polyphonic pieces for the Nativity. I've taken a few liberties listing a few pieces not specifically part of the liturgy for today, so I hope you'll pardon me. Contemporary and frivolous pieces have their places in our hearts, for sure, and while we don't have to reject Rudolph and friends, these pieces, their texts and the music which elevates them to that realm of purest expression, dwell at the centers of hearts which they elevate to the cosmic dimensions of this holy day.

These pieces, against the traditions of our day, remind us that solemnity, reverence, and joy are not contradictory, but in fact very much one and the same.


10. Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

9. Mirabile Mysterium. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

8. Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

7. Hodie Christus Natus Est. Giovanni de Palestrina. [YouTube]

6. Videte Miraculum. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

5. Jauchzet, frohlocket! J. S. Bach [YouTube]