Showing posts with label Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poetry. Show all posts

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wanderer

The second most boring part of teaching is reviewing material, for it catches the teacher in the doldrums between summarizing and examining. Said teacher always wants to teach something new, but the students would say such is not review. True, true. So alas we must say again what was said before. And say it again and again ad infinitum. The most boring of the teacher's tasks is proctoring. Here the teacher is caught between daydreaming and that unpleasant task of policing. The other day, though, all the students had finished their tests and in the fifteen minutes before we were permitted to leave, I picked in desperation a book off the shelf to stir my stilling mind.

What I picked up was Heart of Darkness, and what I found of course and in irony was the serene stillness of Conrad's opening with its pacific water, flat sails, and seamless sky. What caught my mind, though, that is before the school bell shattered it once more, was not the quiet grandeur of the Thames or the brilliance of its description as introduction, but  Conrad's characterization of Marlow as a wanderer.

The seaman, we learn, is always at home at sea, for the sea never changes and all boats are the same. The seamen's minds are sedentary, their stories singular.  These men may move about, but on the ocean his mind is ever at home. One might say of them what the narrator says of their stories: they have a direct simplicity. They're simple, perfected, self-contained. Later, Marlow comes upon a book, reflecting again on the type:
The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
There is something authentic and revealing in such simplicity. Conrad's brilliant touch, though, is adding that someone had written notes in the margins of the book, and in cipher at that. Some greater intellect had come along and contributed incomprehensible commentary, muddling the simplicity as Marlow himself muddled the luminous Thames, describing it amidst its brightness as, "one of the dark places of the earth."

Marlow, in contrast to the simple seaman, is a wanderer, not with respect to body for he sails about like his fellow seamen, but rather Marlow is a wanderer of the mind. His stories are not about a simple moral but an unfolding, enveloping meaning.

Now one could surely discuss the theme of simplicity in Heart of Darkness, but I hadn't read the book in a while and I only had fifteen minutes. What was on my mind, then, wasn't the rest of the novel but a piece of music, Schubert's Der Wanderer an den Mond.

Schubert's song of Johann Seidl's text shares Conrad's fascination with simplicity. Here, the moon is simple and perfected, at home everywhere just like the seaman, even though it ranges far and wide. Opposed is the poet or speaker, who is a stranger wherever he goes. We sense this isolation in Marlow as he recounts the life of the Thames throughout history, always an observer, and sits "like Budha."

Marlow and Seidl's speaker sit at that mediating, meditative point between simplicity and complexity which stirs, perplexes, even torments the observer. Seidl longs to be at home although he lacks the simplicity of the moon, and Marlow admires the simplicity of the simple seaman untouched by the "detestable incomprehensible."

Thinkers perhaps too often idolize intellect, insisting it is edifying and unifying and not isolating, but seeing the boundaries of the comprehensible makes, as Waugh wrote, "a tedious journey to the truth," a journey, "confused with knowledge and speculation." The faithful also too often, perhaps, pontificate about the joyful universality of the faith without emphasizing the peregrinate nature of the worldly journey. The invariable existential question–compare Seidl's moon to Camus' omnipresent, impotent sun in The Stranger–leads he who walks the path of perception or faith, to a tortuous, wandering journey through seeing and seeking the incomprehensible in the light of the simple.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Keats' Bright Star

It's a trite saying that school is wasted on the young, but I can't otherwise explain how a precious poem, studied in one of my favorite classes, made no impression upon me whatsoever. At least, none of which I am conscious. In fact I'd utterly forgotten the miniature masterpiece, Bright Star, until a most charming girl just reminded me of Keats' swooning tour of sights and sensuality. Yet what did not, alas, appeal to my youth has captivated your present blogger, who has by now outstripped in years the poem's ill-fated author. It's less that fact, though, than the author's youthful creativity which confounds mortal readers. The work of most youthful prodigies, however meticulously laid, is largely precursor. We can understand a gifted youth writing counterpoint, painting large canvasses, and so forth, as mimetic facility. Then there's the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Bright Star, which possess if not sophistication, great expressive depth.

Keats structures the poem as a sonnet of a single sentence, apostrophizing and personifying the star at which he marvels. The apostrophe encloses a poem which might easily run away with imagery, instead creating a sense of dialogue and intimate space even though one party is silent. Because of that dialectical sense, then, it is a natural turn from discussing one party, the star, to the other, the poet. Similarly, the personification of the silent party, the star, lends to its activity a sense of agency and as such the star becomes a foil for the speaker. 




Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
___Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
___Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
___Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
___Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
___Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
___Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
___And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Line 1 Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

The aforementioned structure and sense is conveyed in the not only the opening line but its first word, the addressee, which pushes the lone image center stage without any context to shine. Keats then sets up the poem's premise: if only he were like the star. The poet follows not with similarity but difference, a series of vivid images describe how he would not imitate the star. This also sets up the contrast for the poem's volta at line 9.

Line 2 Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Lone splendour picks up the image of the star's isolated introduction in the previous line. Hung is a curious choice here, for unlike other possibilities such as floating, hovering, and the like, hung implies an agent, someone who did the hanging, and the passivity of what was hung. The image is then that of the star having been placed, with the creator hovering behind the image. It's easy to take aloft for granted, but it's the perfect word here, with its prepositional meaning of up and on and its adverbial sense of gentle loftiness.

Line 3 And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Keats now begins the personification proper, describing the star as watching, but there's more connotation and association in the line. Eternal on the one hand from hung picks up and augments the idea of passivity (the star is both far off and looking, not touching), which the poet does not want to imitate, and on the other hand introduces the idea of fixity, which the author will reveal he does envy the star. Apart serves two purposes, the first of completing the image of the star's open eyes, and the second of emphasizing the theme of the star's distance.

Line 4 Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The poet now likens via simile the star to one of mankind's secluded creatures: the hermit. Aside from its rhythmic flourish, the splash of French with Eremite calls to mind the Greek έρημία, solitude, loneliness, desert, which again picks up the theme of the star's passive solitude, but also, with its idea of desert and wilderness, sets up a visual contrast for the imagery of the next line.

Line 5 The moving waters at their priestlike task

Against the deserted image of the hermit in the previous line, we now see the first object of the star's gaze, the earth's waters. Here the participle moving gives energy and motion to the object of the star's sight and thus also emphasizes the star's stillness. Keats then personifies the waters too, describing them not simply as moving but performing a priestly task. The mention of priest here picks up the religious connotation of Eremite above and then contrasts it: one task is sacred but secluded for the purpose of personal purity and the other sacred but active toward the end of purifying others. Keats may also have had in mind the contrast of kind between the hermit's spiritual mercy as almsman and the priest's pastoral works of corporeal mercy.

Line 6 Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Now Keats describes the waters' task as one of ablution, furthering the religious overtone. With round he not only details the motion of the water but outlines and thus calls to mind the shape of the earth, emphasizing its discrete unity as separate from the star. He also characterizes the shores as human because the land is man's only home, a description which again distances the star, inhuman since it's not on the land, but also the hermit in his desert distant from the fertile shore and the chaste waves at their priestly task, all foreshadowing the poet's amorous turn of mind at line 9.

Line 7 Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Before the star was watching the waters and now he gazes on one of the poem's most beautiful images, the new soft fallen mask. Keats amplifies the tension and effect of this image by enjambing the key modifier onto the next line:

Line 8 Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

What an image is revealed here, a new soft fallen mask of snow. First, describing the snow as a mask draws together all of the potential connotations and images we might have into one single one because a mask is a singularity. The effect, then,  is that of one image: a vast white mask. Second, the idea of a mask naturally conjures images of the human face, which in this case would be looking up at the star, concealing the earth. We ought not overlook those two little adjectives from the previous line either, new and soft, which now achieve full effect with the image of the snow: the star watches the earth slowly shroud itself in white. Keats concludes the image with contrasting images of depth and height, mountains and moors, united by alliteration.

Line 9 No —yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

The poet makes his point that while he does not wish to imitate the star's distance or passivity, he does want its steadiness and permanence. He achieves ingenious and economical effect with still. On the one hand still denotes stillness, emphasizing the fixity of steadfast and unchangeable. On the other hand, adverbially it means nevertheless, suggesting contrast from the activity of the previous lines. Keats envies the star because while it sees much change, it is itself steadfast and unchangeable, words which the poet also applies to himself as he becomes the subject.

The next four lines are an overflow of sensuous imagery.

Line 10 Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

The poet is not simply laying on or with his love, but pillowed, which connotes an image of him, or his head I suppose, airily, effortlessly laying atop her breast. The participle ripening gives the line its sensual edge, though, with its present tense urgency and connotations of ruddy, full health.

In keeping with the littoral imagery above, it's tempting to place the poet atop Venus herself, coming into being on the fertile human shore.

Line 11 To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Keats continues to paint the picture of his perfection with him feeling forever the rise and fall of his lover's breast, as if she's embosoming him from below. Forever doesn't just augment feeling with some handy alliteration, though. Moreover, the poet is so enthralled with the sight that he's carried away forever in it, and forever picks up the theme of permanence and begins the climax of the poem.

Line 12 Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Awake for ever parallels to feel forever above, amplifying the repeated word and accentuating the difference, which is the catch that he'll also be awake forever. It's that combination of love and sleeplessness which makes it a sweet unrest.

Line 13 Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

Still, still here picks up the same from line 8, and completes the scene describing himself not now as feeling but as hearing, and hearing not just her breath but her delicate tender-taken breath.

Line 14 And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

The last line offers the two alternatives in equal measure. In the first half ever picks up forever above, and in the second half death contrasts the preceding end-rhyme and thought of breath.

The contrast between the poet and the star is the impossibility of his hope. The star is permanent but impotent, and the poet may love but only for a time.

This poem is a sensual delight. Its chief pleasure is a vivid and increasing intimacy as the poem moves with flawless transitions from the firmament to the earth to the lovers. Keats' mellifluous, euphonious vocabulary brings to life the physicality of the moving world, the fixed star, and the impossible perfection of the lovers' tender repose.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Odi et Amo

Some attain immortality by doing great deeds, others by getting swept up in the affairs of great men. It's unlikely we would remember a fourth-rate crook like Gaius Verres had Cicero not so ferociously denounced the fool, nor would an obscure archbishop like Hieronymous Colloredo be remembered but for getting under the skin of a certain W. A. Mozart. Lesbia, as her lover called her, we know for her affair with the greatest poet of his age, Catullus. Her reputation fared somewhat better than those of Verres and Colloredo, who were both eviscerated to rags, but we generally remember her as the woman not who loved, but who tortured Catullus. Lesbia is not the inspirational Muse that Simonetta Vespucci played to Botticelli, inspiring thoughts of a perfected beauty to be contemplated and never defiled, but the spark of Catullus' very earthy passions of love and hate.

We really do owe to the ancient lovers a great debt, though, for the poet's pains bore one great fruit: a poignant, poetical crystallization of that curiously close kinship between love and hate.

That brilliant single couplet of poem 85, odi et amo, gets the glory, but Catullus 85 is best seen as the culmination of thoughts more fully explored in poem 72.

Here, Catullus begins by retracing his affair with Lesbia.

1 Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum,
2 -----Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere Iovem.
3 dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
4 -----sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.
5 nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
6 -----multo mi tamen es uilior et levior.
7 qui potis est, inquis? quod amantem iniuria
8 -----talis cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.

The first two lines are a miniature masterpiece describing the good old days, a couplet structured around dicebas and te, which set up the two parallel, sequential indirect statements describing Lesbia's promise.

On the one hand Lesbia once promised that she loved Catullus alone (1), and on the other that she didn't prefer even Jove to him (2). It's a simple, even slight, notion which only someone head-over-heels could have taken to heart. I wonder just when and why made this "promise?" To coax her reticent, junior lover, maybe? In flagrante delicto? Or maybe, perish the thought, the poor, proud boy, as she ushered him out the back door, paused at the threshold and asked how much she loved him, to which she replied with invisible irony, More than Jove, darling.

Perhaps, though, Lesbia did make this promise a full-hearted confession to Catullus one afternoon in some sacred lovers' grove and for a time at least, truly meant it. Either way, Catullus seems to have thought the love both permanent and binding, seeing how he interweaves the thoughts. Notice how solum...Catullum (Catullus alone) surrounds te nosse (you knew), how Catullum runs into Lesbia on the next line, and how nec prae me (not before me) literally precedes velle tenere Iovem (you wanted to hold Jove.)

3 dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
4 -----sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.

The word order of the next couplet is a twofold contrast. Instead of discussing Lesbia's promise we move on to Catullus' love, and instead of interweaving the thoughts, they are simple and linear. I loved you not as a crowd [loves] someone, but as a father loves his sons and sons-in-law. The contrast within the couplet is between vulgar, public, and temporary effusion, and heartfelt, private, and perpetual love.

5 nunc te cognoui: quare etsi impensius uror,
6 -----multo mi tamen es uilior et levior.

The third couplet opens with a brutal contrast, continuing the parallelism in the hexameters of leading with the main verb giving action to te (Lesbia) but viciously subverting the meaning. We move from Dicebas...te (you were saying... that you) to Dilexi te (I loved you) to Nunc te cognovi, Now I know you. All of Catullus' love seems to shatter and we expect a torrent of vituperation, but the poet twists our expectations by returning immediately to the thought of his love, which is not diminished byt amplified in impensius uror (althought I burn more strongly.) Catullus leaves us hanging at the end of line 5 and then drives home his point:

6 -----multo mi[hi] tamen es uilior et levior.
6 -----by much to me you are cheap and meaningless. 

This is the final evolution of the second person characterization of Lesbia:

Dicebas...te - you were saying that you...
Dilexi...te - I loved you
te cognovi - I know you
es vilior et levior - you are...

Here, however, Catullus opens line 6 not with Lesbia, but with his valuation (multo) and himself (mihi.)

The structure of the closing couplet encapsulates the whole of the poem, introducing by a rhetorical question Catullus' lesson: such injury urges lovers to love more, but to regard less.

What a delicious paradox: Catullus hates her for rejecting him even as that spurning betrayal inflames his ardor. As he values her less, he wants her more. It's a sentiment which has to be felt to be believed. On the one hand the rejection spurs furious outrage at the perfidy and indignity. It means nothing to be rejected by her. How could I ever have valued her highly?

On the other hand her faithlessness implants the secret suggestion that somehow, in denying you, she's demonstrated that she has higher standards, a tantalizing and infuriating fancy. Every tricksy turn, then, inspires both hate and love, and thus the full weight behind Catullus' most famous lines.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
-----nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Music of Middle Earth: The Fall of Gil-galad

Gil-galad was an Elven-king
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea

His sword was long, his lance was keen,
his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.

But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are.

It's possible my favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is that seemingly least popular first book. You know, the slow-moving three hundred or so pages of walking, singing, and all-around hobbitry. Critics often carp about whether a story has a satisfying ending, but I love a satisfying beginning, learning names, places, and the laws of the land. A great author creates not only characters but a specific sense of time and place. The intimate opening chapters to Tolkien's romance succeed as a sumptuous introduction both to the characters and Middle Earth. One of the author's beloved poems in these pages, The Fall of Gil-galad, is a prime example of painting characters, time, and place.

Structurally, the poem is quite simple: three stanzas of two end-rhyming couplets, each line consisting of four iambs. At a slow pace, the iambs give the poem a limping, dolorous quality, appropriate to the sad tale, and apace the poem sounds a song of war.

The opening stanza sets up a character ancient and exotic to the hobbits: an elf, and a king at that. In using harpers for the more common harpists, Tolkien avoids excessive sibilance in the already alliterative line. The second couplet paints in some tantalizingly incomplete details about the tale: why was it the last realm? What's the significance of the land between the mountains and the sea? Where is 'between the mountains and the sea?'

Stanza two casts Gil-galad in a hero's relief. It's a subtle touch painting the warrior with the firmament reflecting in his glistening armor, as if Gil-galad himself emanates some pure, astral grandeur. It also foreshadows the hero's end and the metaphor of the last stanza.

Tolkien concludes by drawing Gil-galad's death in two metaphors reflecting the second stanza. The first, long ago he rode away, picks up the martial theme, and the second, into darkness fell his star, draws on the celestial imagery. The first line of this stanza throws us and Galad into ancient history and the last line, in effect, places us in the present day of the story and the dominance of Mordor.

Aside from this nice segue back to the story, the poem is effective in the narrative. First, it's a splash of  history whose gaps and mysteries give Middle Earth a lived-in quality. The fact that the poem is incomplete amplifies both the passage of time and the sense of the present as fallen era after Gil-galad's "silver age." Second, by describing the poem as translated, Tolkien suggests a multifarious Middle Earth of peoples, places, and languages. Finally, giving this little lay to Sam, a hobbit of often humble expression, paints the servant and gardener in the unexpected role of an ancient bard, and giving knowledge of the poem to Strider, whom we have already seen as far too articulate to be a mere ranger, grants him a unique, if presently unclear, claim to the past.

It's more than a narrative device, though. Whether wistful or forceful, the Fall of Gil-galad is an affecting little poem, lovingly crafted and given a happy little home in the sprawling story that completes the tale.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Autumnal Reflections, II

Bach and Vivaldi: Baroque Voices on Death and Bounty

[Updated: See below.]

I. Bach

Yesterday Mr. Northcutt thoughtfully reflected on the aesthetic and theological profundity of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. The corpus of Bach's cantatas (and chorales) astounds in its size as a whole as well as in the size and complexity of each work. Still it has been estimated that only about 200 of a potential 500 cantatas were preserved. Each has its own character and each of the sacred cantatas reflects the context of its place in the Christian liturgical year. We have mentioned here already Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, his journey through Bach's Europe to play the cantatas on their appropriate day.

The cantata for this past Sunday, the 17th Sunday after Trinity, Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114, has to me an appropriate autumnal quality and such is what brought it into this series of reflections.

Summary of Movements:
  1. Chorale Fantasia: Ach, Lieben Christen, Seid Getrost
  2. Aria: (Tenor) Wo Wird In Diesem Jammertale
  3. Recitative: (Bass) O Sünder, Trage Mit Geduld
  4. Chorale: (Soprano) Kein Frucht Das Weizenkörnlein
  5. Aria: (Alto) Du Machst, O Tod
  6. Recitative: (Tenor) Indes Bedenke Deine Seele
  7. Chorale Finale: Wir Wachen Oder Schlafen Ein

1. The opening choral fantasia expresses an admission of sin and a welcoming of punishment, senses expressed with great potency in three themes: 1) the rather despondent opening theme on the oboes and 1st violin,  2) the contrasting figure in the lower strings urging us to "keep heart," and 3) the trilled, trembling dotted quaver figure. The contrasting and appearances of these themes, in different voices, modulated, in imitation, make a richness of both musical texture and theological expression: it is not the sorrowful but the joyful theme which accompanies the final phrase, "Niemand darf sich ausschließen/Let no one be excepted" [from punishment] and with which the chorale ends.

2. The following recitative for tenor is intensely personal. Following the journey of the wandering flute theme would make for a wonderful meditation and I recoil from dissecting it. We might simply say this recitative in D minor is in two parts: a peregrinate and somber opening on "Wo wird in diesem Jammertale Vor meinen Geist die Zuflucht sein?/Where will within this vale of sorrow my spirit find its refuge now" and an almost-sprightly passage, vivace in 12/8, on "Allein zu Jesu Vaterhänden/Alone in Jesus' hands paternal."

4. The striking and transporting effect of this soprano choral is ingenious in its simplicity: the gently lilting, almost declamation of the text over the "scattering" continuo figures.

Kein Frucht das Weizenkörnlein bringt,
Es fall denn in die Erden;
So muss auch unser irdscher Leib
Zu Staub und Aschen werden,
Eh er kömmt zu der Herrlichkeit,
Die du, Herr Christ, uns hast bereit'
Durch deinen Gang zum Vater.
No fruit the grain of wheat will bear
Unless to earth it falleth;
So must as well our earthly flesh
Be changed to dust and ashes,
Before it gain that majesty
Which thou, Lord Christ, for us hast made
Through thy path to the Father.

5. Here is one of Bach's most beautiful and tender melodies and in perfect character in the voices of the oboe and alto. Sublimely intertwined as none other would be for some time, they travel together. We are protected and in death not destroyed but transformed (Verklärt) and pure (rein.)

Wir wachen oder schlafen ein,
So sind wir doch des Herren;
Auf Christum wir getaufet sein,
Der kann dem Satan wehren.
Durch Adam auf uns kömmt der Tod,
Christus hilft uns aus aller Not.
Drum loben wir den Herren.
In waking or in slumbering
We are, indeed, God's children;
In Christ baptism we receive,
And he can ward off Satan.
Through Adam to us cometh death,
But Christ frees us from all our need.
For this we praise the Master.

What strength, invention, vision, and beauty Bach poured into all of his creations. Here is an autumn-tide reflection on death and new life, on man's state and redemption. It is a meditation from a man who knew much death throughout his life, losing both his parents within a year when he was ten, his wife Maria Barbara, and seven young children. Here is a world tinged with sadness at its fallen state, but vivified and made significant through a most profound and glorifying faith.

II. Vivaldi

Where Bach's cantata relentlessly looked beyond this world Vivaldi's concerto is of a decidedly earthly nature. It is a jocular celebration of not just the autumn harvest bounty but of all the uniqueness of the season. One risks making Vivaldi and this work seem frivolous by placing it in direct comparison with the Bach cantata above, but the works are of a different nature and character. Bach was writing a musical expression of not autumnal ideas specifically but theological ideas with similar notions of seasonal motion and generation and corruption. Vivaldi was writing a programmatic concerto about the character and joys of Autumn and as such is a wonderful and contrasting companion to the Bach cantata. (Coincidentally, both pieces date from around 1724.)  A poem accompanies the concerto, perhaps also by the composer.

Op. 8, Concerto No. 3, 'Le quattro stagioni: L'autunno'

The first movement is notated, ballo, e canto de vilanelli, that is, with dancing and singing and in a rustic style, and del felice raccolto il bel piacere, i.e. the joy of a good harvest. We hear the rippling dance rhythms, piano and forte, the descending scalar figures of falling down tired, twirling triplets mixed with the dance rhythm, and racing scales. The festivities conclude with a contented sleep: piano and larghetto, cautious little figures in the first violin over repeated quavers in the others. It's like tiptoeing through a room of passed out revelers: don't wake anyone.

The slow movement is ubirachi dormienti, in a drunk sleep. Nature calls us to cease and invites rest. The atmosphere remains as the end of the fast movement, though we transition to the relative, D minor. Here the mood is dominated by the figure of a dotted half note and an either ascending or descending crotchet triplet. The bass chords are arpeggiated throughout the movement and with the timbre of the harpsichord the effect is that of a chill setting in, an icy stillness settling over a landscape.

The final movement is in the old style of the caccia, the hunt. Even in Vivaldi's time the caccia was an old Italian form (though French in origin) which commonly included rustic themes of fishing and fires, and particularly, of course, hunt. The form may be in canon, but here we have two characters introduced by the tutti one after the other. The first figure is a smooth and striding choriambic figure, i.e. its metrical quantity is long-short-short-long, following by a descending semiquaver figure in the lower voices. The second figure is a scampering little thing of semiquavers. The soloist then takes up the second theme for a few bars followed by the tutti with the first theme for a few more. Now the chase ensues, the beast flees to a flurry of triplets, dogs chase to a rush of thirty-second-notes, and with rising and falling figures they chase here and there. With a dazzling array of virtuosity we experience the frenzy of the hunt before it suddenly ends, the pursued overcome, as the first theme trots to a halt.

Whereas Bach's cantata was sobered by, even preoccupied with, the notion of death, Vivaldi's L'autunno' brims with the joys of a happy and healthy life. In Part I we read Horace stress balance and these two views of the Autumn and all of its associations neatly contrapose and make for a healthy disposition.

Update: This interview (in two parts: Part I | Part II) with Trevor Stephenson is a great introduction to the stylistic differences between German and Italian Baroque composers like Bach and Vivaldi. It nicely elucidates some of the reasons for the contrast we discussed here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Autumnal Reflections, I

Horace, Schubert, Baldung: Memento mori

The sentiment of memento mori or, remember you will die, has probably its strongest association with the Epicurean notion of ataraxia, or imperturbability. It's most beautiful expression is certainly in the third poem of Horace's second book of odes:

Aequam memento rebus in arduis
seruare mentem, non secus in bonis
  ab insolenti temperatam
    laetitia, moriture Delli,
seu maestus omni tempore uixeris,
seu te in remoto gramine per dies
  festos reclinatum bearis
    interiore nota Falerni.

Horace in particular seems to suffer terribly in translation, thus I refrain from doing so and kindly refer you to the "crib" translation in Michael Gilleland's thorough discussion here. The Roman concept was characterized by a forbearance of suffering and an admonition against hubris. Such a concept beautifully compliments and reinforces the sentiments of carpe diem and nunc est bibendum, now is [the time] for drinking, both of which also received potent expression in Horace (1.1 and 1.37, respectively.) Don't torment yourself trying to discover the future, don't trust it. Yet there are things worth celebrating. Now this is no specific philosophy, but a practical and general one of aphorisms meant to inform decisions and temper life's pangs, little and great alike. This temperate state is reflected in the structure of the opening stanzas: the separation of memento and moriture places the latter in the center of the ideas, intensifying the preceding admonition and casting a shadow over the second stanza. Horace's beautiful imagery is all tempered by the fact that we enjoy such things only at the permission of the Fates, and that ultimately it is the heir who enjoy the riches. No matter what station you enjoyed in life, everyone is equal victim to Orcus. So when the poplar and the pine make some shade for you, sit with your choice wine and enjoy it.

What culminates in a manly composure and a temperate serenity in the Roman world, though, gets quite different treatment in later eras. Two of them seem to be particularly close kin. In the hands of Hans Baldung the concept takes on a morbid character. A student of the great Albrecht Dürer, Baldung, writing during the German Renaissance captured and emphasized the sense of loss of spirit, of decay, of being doggedly pursed and drained of the life energy. Look at the horror of his, Death and the Maiden (c.1518-20.) (right) Notice the disturbing quasi-musculature of death and also his embrace, caressing a particularly tender area with his left hand and supporting her head and tresses with his right. Their faces make a horrid scene: an embrace subverted. She's pale, "white as leprosy" to borrow from Coleridge, and most curious of all, more saddened and aghast than afraid.

Left, in The Knight, the Young Girl, and Death (1505) Baldung emphasizes the pursuit. Here the arresting palette generates the shock more than any actual sense of motion. The foreground grass receives more detail than the horse, whose tail is in just one bold stroke, but draws your attention. The eye moves from the man to the woman, to the tail, to the leftmost center: the frightful contrast of the skull chomping at her hem. Here death, falling apart and leaking entrails, struggles for the woman. The flashy prince, with the help of his steed, looks as if he might succeed. . . today.

Romantic composer Franz Schubert would pick up these two themes in nearly identical terms about three hundred years later. In Death and the Maiden, Schubert sets Matthias Claudius' poem to  music which seizes us with us somberness and apparent simplicity. The theme of death, slow and soft and without large intervals, is all the more disturbing for its relaxed nature, a nature it shares with the Baldung's death-lover above. "Softly shall you sleep in my arms" he ends.

Der Tod und das Mädchen, D.531

In Die Erlkönig Schubert takes up the pursuit theme which was present but less physical in the second Baldung we looked at above. This is a triumph of characterization both for Goethe and Schubert. The "elven" king is ever calm, his attention roused from its dryadic slumber by the presence of the child. Schubert makes the flight from death, the incessant clack of horse-hooves, the focus of the piece. Our horror intensifies as the elf king appeals directly to the child, "softly promising to him" and again at the child's increasingly terrified cries.  The final cadence ends the piece with a startling sense of finality.

Die Erlkönig, D.328

Every era, every people, every person even has his own response to the urgency created by mortality. The indomitable character praised in the Roman view was most appropriate for such a sober and practical people, and Horace's cautions are not surprising for a people who, at the time, endured much political uncertainty. Baldung's audience too knew strife through plague, war, and schism. The Romantic reaction is somewhat curious and inverse: a reminder despite success. Though not over war or strife, man had conquered nature with industrialization, but not death, as the supernatural nature of Schubert's songs remind us.

Horace's odes emphasized order with each thought, each word in exquisite balance. Baldung emphasized certain a morbid curiosity at the contrasts of generation and corruption. Schubert's musical expression gave new strength to the frightful sensuous and the shock of immediacy. They all emphasized the poignancy one's ultimate end bestows on every moment.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ideas, Part II

This is Part II of our look at philosophical ideas represented in art. It comes on the heels of my stumbling upon and reading George Santayana's invigorating Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, which brought me to consider the topic again sooner than I anticipated. Since the introduction to Part I will serve to introduce this essay also, I thusly refer it to you.

You will surely notice this selection to be more focused and to contain one item, from Heraklitos, also mentioned in our last list. One might consider reflecting on all of the following pieces in the light of Herakleitos and Eliot. I have also made fewer comments, but not with the aim of being cryptic or simply not wishing to comment, but to permit the reader the opportunity to discover the nature of the work in the light of philosophy. I add, though, one heading to the collection:

Being and Time

1) Herakleitos Fragment - Diels 2 / Kahn CIII

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή
The way up and down is one and the same.

2) Four Quartets. T. S. Eliot
Burnt Norton (three selections) (whole poem: link)


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Nor the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

. . .

The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.

2) Die Kunst der Fuge - Contrapunctus XIII a 3 (Rectus). BWV.1080. J. S. Bach

Consider the subjects of the fugue, their relationship, their in the light of Eliot's above poem, and additionally the following lines:
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Four Quartets. Burnt Norton, I. T. S. Eliot

The subjects are different and yet the same, joined and yet separate, interdependent (notice the fermata and rest toward the end.) Each individual moment both of past and future, each moment of the present, joining both past and future, but do not call it fixity, where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Also, same from Glenn Gould on the piano. [YouTube]

3) De Rerum Natura. 1.264-265 - Lucretius

Since it is impossible to reiterate all of Lucretius here, let us look at one particularly relevant quotation and one most excellent summary from George Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe.

De Rerum Natura. 1.264-265 - Lucretius
 Alid ex alio reficit natura, nec ullam
Rem gigni patitur, nisi morte adiuta aliena.

Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe
[Love] destroys to create, and creates to destroy, her interest (if we may express it so) being not in particular things, nor in their continuance, but solely in the movement that underlies them, in the flux of substance beneath. Life, however, belongs to form, and not to matter; or in the language of Lucretius, life is an eventum, a redundant ideal product or incidental aspect, involved in the equilibration of matter. . .

Nothing comes out of nothing, nothing falls back into nothing, if we consider substance; but everything comes from nothing and falls back into nothing if we consider things–the objects of love and of experience. Time can make no impression on the void or on the atoms; nay, time is itself an eventum created by the motion of atoms in the void; but the triumph of time is absolute over persons, and nations, and worlds.

4) Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

5 & 6) Consider the nature of the action depicted, and the way in which the piece chains past and future, drawing you into and creating the moment.

5) Philosopher in Meditation. Rembrandt van Rijn.

6) Aphrodite of Milos. Alexandros of Antioch(?)

7) Concerto for Harpsichord in D minor, BWV.1052 - Adagio (in G minor). J. S. Bach
The slow movement is in a form which only Bach has brought to perfection. . . We may call it the modulating ground bass. [After the opening orchestral ritornello] enters the dialogue between the solo and the upper strings. The ritornello becomes a ground bass to this dialogue throughout the movement, but it differs from an ordinary ground bass in that its final cadence shifts to a different key each time, and that before each recurrence a connecting link of three bars establishes yet another key for it to start from. At last, of course, it comes round to the tonic; the final cadence is expanded, . . . and the movement closes, as it began, with the bare ground bass. [Tovey, 183]

Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume II: Symphonies II: D Minor Clavier Concerto. Oxford University Press. London. 1935.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Last week at The Hannibal Blog, Andreas Kluth put the question, "Greatest thinkers: Greeks or Germans?" Of course the challenge is a bit of a joke of the fact so many great thinkers were Greek or German. I did begin to consider though, "what do you mean by great?" Do you mean "profound" or "original?" Many great ideas were first considered by a Greek thinker of the ancient world, but found their perfect expression later. By this I mean that many artists put ideas more clearly, succinctly, and beautifully than the philosophers who first thought of them did. Surely some philosophers were great authors and stylists, namely Plato and Nietzsche. Aristotle's prose is remarkable for its clarity and succinctness, but it is still dense and technical. Some philosophers, like Kant, were abysmal prose stylists and their work is excruciating to read.  

Thus I thought, which works of art gave a philosophical idea, or even more specifically a metaphysical idea, its most clear, beautiful, and succinct expression? Of course all art is about some idea, but I was considering particularly abstract or philosophical ideas or ideas expressed in their most abstract or "pure" form. For example, I excluded expressions of a dramatic, descriptive, or pictorial nature. Likewise I considered whether the form of expression was appropriate, particularly appropriate, or most appropriate, for the idea. In the examples I selected I believe the form is ideal for the idea.

I also did consider mean statements simply well-said like, "the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others (Socrates) and "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Aristotle) Rather my thinking was to find an expression of an idea so extraordinary as to be a perfect expression of its essence, and one which invites the reader into an experience of it. Philosophers sometimes succeed here, for example, Nietzsche's statement, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" is no mere assertion but an aphorism fraught with portent.

Thus we might say what I was looking for were expressions not about an idea, but which themselves constituted the idea. For example, Nietzsche's statement draws you into the question and makes the experience it is about and draws you into it.

The following were the first to my mind, though I welcome suggestions and there will likely be a Part II at some point. Music being the most abstract of expressive forms I am sure could predominate. I'm sure Beethoven ought to figure more prominently and one might consider the Mozartian overture in general as a fine example of what I am considering. I have discussed them here.

I have refrained from commenting where possible, since these works by nature are highly condensed, expressing much with little. Where necessary I offered some explication just to get the ball of inquiry rolling. In my experience starting to think about any of these pieces takes you down many and long roads.

Part I. Being, Non-Being, and Becoming

i. Overture to Don Giovanni, KV.521 (W.A. Mozart)

". . . the work is not about guilt and retribution but simply about being and non-being, and the overwhelming tragedy of the conclusion rests on the grandeur and terror of the action as such, not on the triumph of moral laws over the world of appearances." [Abert, 1050.]

James Levine, conducting.

ii. Piano Concerto 21, KV.467. Andante. (W. A. Mozart)
. . . the form is "a becoming." In it we may be aware of phrases, of sequences which show metabolism. . . but the main principle of its form is the approach to and decline from climax. . . we imagine ourselves to be the performer; if we do not live along its line, we are not fulfilling the composer's demands of us. [Hutchings, 139.]

iii. Hamlet, Act III, Scene I. (William Shakespeare)

– "To be, or not to be. . ."

iv. Das Rheingold - Scene 1: Prelude (Richard Wagner)
. . . It symbolizes the primitive element, water, in state of repose; the water from which, according to the teaching of mythology, life springs complete with all its struggles and passions. During this long sustained note we hear the beginnings of life; but those are things which are outside the province of words, and which music alone, speaking without an intermediary to the intelligence, can hope to make us comprehend. [Lavignac, 343.]
Georg Solti conducting The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

v. Fragments (Heraclitus)
  • X: Nature loves to hide.
  • L: As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.
  • CIII: The way up and down is one and the same.

    Part II. The Problem of Knowledge

    Items i-iii cannot be adequately shared here. Their length and nature is such that to divide them is to destroy their messages. I have, though, written on 2001 and Solaris.

    i. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

    ii. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)

    iii. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

    Briefly to comment: Rashomon is a sort of hermeneutic riddle. What happened, and how do we interpret these descriptions of the events?

    iv. Claude Monet: Haystacks

    See the variations at Wikipedia.

    v. Four Quartets, II. East Coker. iii. (T. S. Eliot)

    You say I am repeating
    Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
    In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
    In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

    vi. The School of Athens (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino)

    Causarum Cognitio, but how do we get it? The full painting is a sort of galaxy of philosophy, with other philosophers as constellations around the fundamental, intertwined, and yet opposing figures of Plato and Aristotle.

    See whole image at Wikipedia.

    Part III. The Divine Mystery

    i. Mass in B minor - Gloria - Duet: Domine Deus (J. S. Bach)

    The  canon "'neither confounds the Persons nor divides the substance', for the figure that is detached in one voice is slurred in the other." [Tovey, V. 38.]

    IV. Love

    i. Prelude to Tristan und Isolde

    An unfolding of themes, ceaselessly modulating. . . "the tension growing towards, and relaxing from, a climax of passion; and the passion is the love of Tristan and Isolde." [Tovey, IV. 125.)

    Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

    Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and His Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dodd, Mead, and Company. New York. 1898. 

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume IV. Illustrative Music. "Tristan und Isolde. Prelude." Oxford University Press. 1965.

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume V. Vocal Music. "Bach. B Minor Mass." Oxford University Press. 1965.