Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Crazy Ludwig, a meme

In which we get unusually pop-culturey in order to shed a little human light on this musical Olympian (and to have a little laugh.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short Books, Long on Wisdom: II

Your esteemed blogger Mr. Northcutt recently composed a short list which only someone with his erudite catholicity could have assembled. It's theme is "short and insightful" and soon I am sure you will be spurred on by the exciting contents of his admirable collection.

In the meanwhile please settle for my imitation. My brief captions are, I hope, the essence of each, but at least what I learned (or learned to ask.) I would add but one observation, one only apparent to me after grouping these books together: they all possess an aesthetic dimension. They all suggest that to think, or write, or be so, is not just good, but beautiful, and in being so, necessary.

1. Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations/Exhortations [To Myself]
  • Work hard at who you are.
2. Moorman, George J. The Mass Explained
  • The Mass in black and white. Period.
3. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Laelius: On Friendship
  • You need a friend and you need to be one.
4. Clor, Harry. On Moderation
  • See as much as you can and find you way through. 
5. Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays
  • What is a poem? A poet?
6. Feynman, Richard. Character of Physical Law
  • The world works. 
7. Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos
  1. How a great artist handles ideas.
  2. You should expect that they do it well.
8. Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words
  • Words matter. Use with caution, knowledge, and affection.
9. Newman, John Henry. Meditations and Devotions
  • Pray!
10. Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets
  • What does your world look like?
11. Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy-Stories
  • Why tell a story?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Notable Conservatives: A Crossword

More fun! Again, I think I made it moderately difficult. All answers are last names. Click to enlarge. It's an 8.5x11 image if you want to print it out. As usual please post any questions, comments, or corrections in the comments section below. Have fun and good luck!

Calvin Coolidge on Classics

Is 1921 really so long ago? It doesn't seem so. They had motorcars and electricity, indoor plumbing and pantaloons. Alright, clearly much has changed but so much so that a speech given 90 years ago would be shocking today? Apparently.

There is little in Calvin Coolidge's 1921 speech at the Second Annual meeting of the American Classical League at the University of Pennsylvania that wouldn't create a stir today. The first surprise is undoubtedly the thought of a classicist politician in the 20th century. I must admit I am quite skeptical of, and generally concerned about the competence of, presidents without a classical education. The thought of making political judgments without having read Thucydides, moral judgments without having read Plato, and just plain thinking without having read Aristotle makes me wince. Magnify that concern by the authority vested, wisely or not, in the office of the president and you have an uneasy citizen. This is not to say a classical education is a prescription for virtue or ability. In my own life study of the classics has led primarily to gratitude, humility, conservation, and moderation, but it might just as easily lead one to hubris and grandiosity. That too might not be all for ill. The classically-trained Founding Fathers certainly took a big, liberal step. In either case though, one acts informed. Not to see the modern world in the light of the world from whence it came is quite simply not to see it. We may then safely say that a classical education is at least a prerequisite for prudence.

Returning to "Silent Cal," how surprising it is to see a politician so lovingly and earnestly speak about the classics.  More noteworthy is how forcefully he recommends.
For many centuries, in education, the classics have meant Greek and Latin literature. It does not need much argument to demonstrate that in the western world society can have little liberal culture which is not based on these. Without them there could be no interpretation of language and literature, no adequate comprehension of history, no understanding of the foundations of philosophy and law.
Coolidge is not at all at pains to speak of the necessity of the classics.
No question can be adequately comprehended without knowing its historical background. Modern civilization dates from Greece and Rome. The world was not new in their day. They were the inheritors of a civilization which-had gone before, but what they had inherited they recast, enlarged and intensified and made their own. . .
Here Coolidge is tying self-knowledge to learning and that's when we realize something unusual: he's talking about actual ideas. Not the flapping platitudes and political pablum we are used to, but actual ideas. Ideas worth exploring, I think, at least because it is hard to imagine any politician saying them today. Consider the following passage:
The present age has been marked by science and commercialism. In its primary purpose it reveals mankind undertaking to overcome their physical limitations. This is being accomplished by wonderful discoveries which have given the race dominion over new powers. The chief demand of all the world has seemed to be for new increases in these directions. There has been a great impatience with everything which did not appear to minister to this requirement.
Can you imagine any politician making such a defense of a liberal education? Defending "impractical" education? What about suggesting there is more to life than physical, material concerns? What about the following, a legitimate swipe at commercialism?
The age of science and commercialism is here. There is no sound reason for wishing it otherwise. The wise desire is not to destroy it, but to use it and direct it rather than to be used and directed by it, that it may be as it should be. not the master but the servant, that the physical forces may not prevail over the moral forces and that the rule of life may not be expediency but righteousness.
Now Coolidge doesn't deride commercialism but he does knock it down a few pegs, suggesting it is of less importance and moreover that it can be a danger, and still more that it can be a consuming danger. The phrase, "that it may be as it should be" would probably not go over well today. First, it is compact and requires one to unpack it and think on it. Second, it implies there is a natural order, that commercialism simply occupies a lower rung in the hierarchy of man's goods. "Expediency," that is, convenience, is not man's greatest need. Could George W. Bush, who told Americans after 9/11 to go out and shop, or President Obama, whose economic plan is spending for the sake of spending, have made these remarks?

Coolidge continues to make some genuinely conservative comments which would be alien and tendentious to current crop of "conservative" politicians.
It is impossible for society to break with its past. It is the product of all which has gone before. We could not cut ourselves off from all influences which existed prior to the Declaration of Independence and expect any success by undertaking to ignore all that happened before that date. The development of society is a gradual accomplishment. Culture is the product of a continuing effort. The education of the race is never accomplished. It must be gone over with each individual and it must continue from the beginning to the ending of life. Society cannot say it has attained culture and can therefore rest from its labors. All that it can say is that it has learned the method and process by which culture is secured and go on applying such method and process.
There can be no city on a hill, no new era or order or deal. Every society and every man has both an inheritance and a burden. No new plan will remedy all or forever rather it is the duty of each generation and each person to learn, do, and pass on. Culture and education are not objects to be acquired but processes. What a conservative and even elegant thought that puts to shame, to scandalous shame, the "spend more money on education" policy we endure today. How inestimably impoverished the latter! Coolidge continues on education.
Education is primarily a means of establishing ideals. Its first great duty is the formation of character, which is the result of heredity and training. This by no means excludes the desirability of an education in the utilities, but is a statement of what education must include if it meet with any success. It is not only because the classical method has been followed in our evolution of culture, but because the study of Greek and Latin is unsurpassed as a method of discipline. Their mastery requires an effort and an application which must be both intense and prolonged. They bring into action all the faculties of observation, understanding and reason. To become proficient in them is to become possessed of self control and of intelligence, which are the foundations of all character.
The first end of education is not fame and profit? No, but Coolidge does not dismiss the need of profit to support oneself. Again he simply rearranges the hierarchy: the first goal of education is to develop character. Working, then, becomes a subset of who you are, not all you are. Faculties then have two goals also, utility and self-control. Self-control, a virtue? Good heavens! Notice also how Coolidge has managed to make some significant claims here without actually waxing philosophical.

How unusual, too, for a politician ever to use the word culture. When was the last time one acknowledged the existence of culture, of looking at people through a lens not political or social per se, but for the whence and wherefore of their world.

Coolidge now asks a penetrating question, "How are we to justify the existing form of government in our Republic?" which he thusly answers, "The beginnings of modern democracy were in Athens and Sparta. That form of human relationship can neither be explained nor defended, except by reference to these examples and a restatement of the principles in which their government rested." What a far cry from the mindless endorsements of democracy without reference to any value which democracy is supposed to further. Speaking of the loss of those values,
Both of these nations speak to us eloquently of the progress they made so long as their citizens held to these ideals, and they admonish us with an eloquence even more convincing of the decay and ruin which comes to any people when it falls away from these ideals. There is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character.
With this reference to character Coolidge has linked his political philosophy to his philosophy of education and the lynch pin to both of these is classics. Only a classical education can show you the ideas which justify or condemn. Only a classical education can give you the tools of self control and intelligence to form a character, and only a character can let you weather the suffering of poverty and the temptations of prosperity.

In the most conservative section of the speech Coolidge continues to tie together classical education, the individual, society, and culture:
We do not wish to be Greek, we do not wish to be Roman. We have a great desire to be supremely American. That purpose we know we can accomplish by continuing the process which has made us Americans. We must search out and think the thoughts of those who established our institutions. The education which made them must not be divorced from the education which is to make us. In our efforts to minister to man's material welfare we must not forget to minister to his spiritual welfare. It is not enough to teach men science, the great thing is to teach them how to use science.
Being American is not simply being born in America but too a process. Being American requires you to follow American ideals, in a nice turn of phrase, to "think the thoughts of those who established our institutions." Thus being American too is a process of education, and being conservative is a process of inheriting and passing on ideas. Coolidge concludes the paragraph by reducing yet another star of the modern world often seen as an end in itself, science, to its status as a tool.

Coolidge concludes with an exceptional exhortation:
Unless Americans shall continue to live in something more than the present, to be moved by something more than material gains, they will not be able to respond to these requirements and they will go down as other peoples have gone down before some nation possessed of a greater moral force. The will to endure is not the creation of a moment, it is the result of long training. 
The speech culminates in the idea that everything is a process, and thus that the "now" is never everything. Man must have transcending goals and transcendent values.

Finally, how does Coolidge propose to further the classics? A modern speech would conclude with the promise to have the government support their study, but Coolidge lets the burden rest on the people: "If they are to be maintained they will find their support in the institutions of the liberal arts." It is up to individuals, to "those who believe in America, in her language, her arts, her literature and in her science. . . to perpetuate them by perpetuating the education which has produced them."

This speech from then Vice President Coolidge would make a much-needed splash today. It reclaims the dignity of the individual by restoring character over its replacement, the ego. It makes culture and not politics the essence of living. It restores use to education by insisting on purpose. It reduces tools like science and values like materialism to their proper status and Coolidge weaves these values together with the thread of classics, the discipline that enlightens, scolds, warns, that discipline ever challenging, ever rewarding, ever necessary.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Movie Review: Underworld: Awakening

Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. 2012.

If I admit to being a rather picky filmgoer I hope you will trust me when I tell you that I'm rather forgiving of the action genre. This past autumn's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was not fine cinema but it worked. It had some action, some gadgetry, some sex appeal, a liberal dose of humor, Tom Cruise looked like he meant business, and the plot held enough water. In short, I was entertained. Underworld: Awakening did not entertain me. I'm not sure what it did, if it did anything. In fact I barely remember anything about it and I just got back from the theater. Guns are fired. Police run. A werewolf explodes.

Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, a gun-toting, death-dealing vampire who struts. . . no, I would remember strutting and I recall no such locomotion. Actually I can't picture her doing anything from this movie other than firing those two damn guns over and over again. She shoots them up, she shoots them down, she shoots people, she shoots werewolves, a whistle blares in the distance, my tea is ready. Speaking of pictures I'm fairly certain the costume, lighting, and special effects departments conspired to keep the gun-toting heroine as hidden as possible. This is inexplicable and does not work to the advantage of the movie.

You want me to talk about the plot? Well thanks a lot. . . fine. Selene wants her daughter, a doctor wants her daughter, the werewolves want her daughter, the few remaining vampires don't care. Why do the werewolves want her? Because she's the last descendent of Corvinus and apparently she'll make them very powerful. (Although her father is apparently alive and they have him captured so who knows. . .) Anyway the sides fight over the girl. One side breaks in somewhere, another side breaks out somewhere, one side breaks in somewhere, and you put your left foot out. The action might as well be stock footage from other movies.

There is nothing interesting or funny or sexy or novel. There is certainly nothing scary except for a few early scenes which take the form of a police investigation and do indeed terrify the viewer with the threat that the rest of the movie is going to be as numbingly boring. Ah my tea has steeped.

So should you be considering taking a trip to the theater to see Underworld: Awakening, consider the equally fulfilling and less costly alternative of enlarging the movie poster above and viewing it from a variety of angles.

P.S. The 3D effects consist of dust and light debris. Dust and light debris.

Friday, January 27, 2012

So you think you know about Mozart?

A Mozart Crossword Puzzle. I think I made it moderately difficult. Click to enlarge. It's an 8.5x11 image if you want to print it out. As usual please post any questions, comments, or corrections in the comments section below. Have fun and good luck!

Mozart, Two Worlds

Through the years since his death in 1791 the image of Mozart has worn many masks: the traditionalist, the avant-garde, the idiot-savant, the eternal child, the near-autistic, the font of the muses, the bawdy giggler, and so forth. Scholarship has likewise tread many paths through his full, if short, life, with analysis of his music, his finances, his family relations, his travels, teachers, students, pets (a dog and a starling), and on and on. Most of this does in some way shed light on the music and the man. In time and with study a not-fantastical portrait comes together if we ever bear in mind Mozart's humanity, that is, his own failings and the trappings of life which concern us all.

Toward that end, this year on the anniversary of the composer's birth I would like to reflect on Mozart as composer, that is, as a working composer, and an extraordinarily busy and prolific one at that. One who was inseparable from music from his first tinkling at the keyboard to his last days dictating the Requiem. Even a cursory glance at the catalog of Mozart's works should give one the proper sense of not just the musicality, not just the creative musicality, but the continuous creative musicality of Mozart's entire life. From the heedless hours of musical play with his father and sister in their parlor, to the improvising, performing, and composing during the European tours of his youth, through his maturity in Salzburg composing for the court, to his professional solo career in Vienna which lasted until his death, Mozart wrote and performed music.  We will only in passing mention the obvious, that his music is both voluminous and ingenious.

In the last ten years of his life, his solo professional career in Vienna, Mozart was especially prolific. He wrote music in every genre for private patrons, state commissions, friends, and concerts of his own design. These concerts, as well as operas, had to be arranged by the composer himself who, putting all of his own or borrowed money up front, had to hire the musicians, rent the hall, make the schedule, sell the tickets, and, of course, write the music. Music which, of course, had to be just the right music for the tastes of the day and the audience at hand, in addition to whatever higher purpose the composer might have had for his art. For example, the aristocracy would summer outside of Vienna and the composer would have to accommodate. A composer would also likely have to support himself, to varying degrees, with pupils. Slowly we see that Mozart's life was not at all one of leisurely composition. Consider Mozart's daily schedule, which he relates in a letter to his sister back home on Salzburg in 1782:
. . . at 6 o'clock in the morning I'm already done with my hair; at 7 I'm fully dressed;–then I compose until 9 o'clock; from 9 to 1 o'clock I give lessons.––Then I Eat, unless I'm invited by someone who doesn't eat lunch until 2 or 3 o'clock as, for instance, today and tomorrow at the Countess Zizi and Countess Thun.–I cannot get back to work before 5 or 6 o'clock–and quite often I can't get back at all, because I have to be at performance; if I can, I write until 9 o'clock. After that I go and visit my dear Konstanze;–however, our pleasure of seeing each other is often ruined by the galling remarks of her mother[. . .] I get home at around half past 10 or 11 o'clock at night;– it all depends on her mother's darts and how long I can endure them.––Since I can't depend on being able to compose in the evening, because of the concerts that are taking place but also because of the uncertainty whether I might be summoned somewhere, it has become my habit to compose a little before going to bed, especially when I get home a bit earlier.––Often enough I go on writing until 10' clock–and then, of course, up again at 6 o'clock.–
That sounds like a fairly full day by any estimation, especially when we consider the aforementioned duties and the cares which pepper all lives. Need we mention again that the works are of inestimable quality? Let us remember Mozart was one of many composers working in Vienna, few of whom are known today to anyone other than scholars. How much of their, or our, or anyone's daily work would stand up to the painstaking analysis endured by Mozart's compositions? Arthur Hutchings, a loving but critical writer on Mozart, wrote:
For so prolific a man, and for a composer who died so early, Mozart left behind a proportion of second-rate work which his worst enemies could not call disgraceful. His magnificent integrity as an artist has not been duly recognized as a virtue; it has been regarded as heaven-sent. We are inclined to applaud skill, in games as in art, which shows no apparent effort. The 'effortless', the 'inborn artistry and impeccable taste', are thought to be part of Mozart's genius, reinforced by the standards of an age which had more taste than feeling[. . .] every time he expanded his materials Mozart's perfection was brought about by mental effort. –Arthur Hutchings, in his "Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos"
We of course struggle to make these observations about Mozart's human limitations because of the transcendent nature of his music. In contrast it is not so hard to see Mozart the figure of history, between two worlds. His European society consisted of a nascent middle class, of a peaking aristocracy, and popular revolutions waiting in the wings. Mozart's Vienna saw the passing of the long reign of Maria Theresa and the liberalizing reforms of  her son and successor Joseph II. Musical tastes were shifting from rococo refinement to classical balance and clarity, though here and there still bearing the stamp of baroque complexity. Mozart did not just see these trends as historical, but as life, and that life is to varying degrees and in varying ways in his music. Far harder is it for us to explain, but not harder to feel, where Mozart's music points.

We relentlessly labor asking, "How did anyone, any person down here with us in this messy world, make such perfection and such beauty?" and we are not new or alone in this inquisition. The source of beauty and our reaction to and need for it has prompted the inquiries of philosophers for thousands of years. Plato thought the poet was inspired by the muses. How else could the composer of such a sublime piece as the paean ode, Plato asked, not ever have written anything else of worth if the skill was truly his? How would Plato have reacted to the existence of Mozart and his music? Perhaps he simply would have thought Mozart very inspired. We happy moderns of course have scant recourse to Plato's argument, but we further deny ourselves understanding of Mozart and his music by neglecting to take up or develop any concept of beauty. Beauty as something necessary, as something itself a good, something revealing yet mysterious, something within creative and perceptive reach yet ever, ever pointing to some greater realm.
When we see beauty as the proper end for art, and not self-expression, self-discovery, self-identification, self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, and self-satisfaction, it might seem less impossible that the greatest composer in the world, a tireless worker and constant student, in an age that valued beauty, might make something beautiful.

Perhaps it is the 19th  century rise of the Composer and the prettification of beauty that distances us. Maybe it is Mozart's gentility that does not seize the obvious, obdurate modern. Mozart's music in its tender vigor does not seize but rather invites. Let us simply listen.

On the Meaning of Figaro

The point of Figaro is not that the Count repents, or that contrition is a virtue. The point is not that he is forgiven, nor even that forgiveness is a virtue. The point is that forgiveness is beautiful.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bach: Quia fecit mihi magna

Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est.

One of the most brilliant and  bafflingly simple moments of music and an example of Bach's oft-cited "one-part" counterpoint, this is a priceless gem. Yes it is a masculine moment for the Magnificat, but has any other piece ever so captured the personal element of the Christian faith? Has one ever felt so guided, so gently rocked, so nestled, has the world and beyond ever seemed so ordered, so prepared, has all ever seemed so firm as in these thirty four bars? And has one ever then been so grateful?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Would you sing it on a boat?

with apologies to Dr. Seuss

Would you sing it on a boat?
Would you sing it on a float?
Would you sing it in a theater?
Would you sing it in a meter?
Would you sing it with vibrato?
Would you sing it all staccato?
Is it sung with bounds and leaps?
Is it sung in mumbles and peeps?
Is the song most long and gangly?
Is it short and jingly jangly?
Do you play it on guitar?
Do you play it with scitar?
Does it make you swing and dance?
Does it make you nod and prance?

If so my friend you've found the cause
that makes me shirk and turn and pause.
These songs they make a fuss and scene
Just where all things should be serene.
Where soft and solemn all should be
These things blare and distract me.
They clash and clang and bash and bang.
They chatter and spatter and clatter and shatter.
They shatter the words they shatter the tone
They shatter the staid and somber zone.
They shatter the earth they shatter the sea
And I tell you now they're annoying me!

Yet such must needs not come to pass,
Just don't sing these things at mass.

I know now friend you surely ask
"In what music shall we bask?
If we sing not this repertory
Then what at mass will there be?"

Friend I tell you now don't frown:
The music we need has been passed down!
Passed down from ages long of old,
Passed down has been this flowing gold.
You can sing it sans piano,
You can sing it sans soprano.
Be ye alto, tenor or bass,
It matters not if ye sing with grace.
For sung by cantor or schola cantorum
You'll find none else with this decorum.
Gently rising, softly sloping,
Ever skipping, maybe troping,
It fits the words it fits the tone
It fits with others or alone.
It fits the mass, it fits the pace,
This music's called chant and the church is its place.

So grab your missal and chant with vigor,
Chant with love and chant with rigor.
Ord' and proper chant the mass
And chant the hours as they pass.
Chant alone or with a friend,
Chant the year from start to end.
Drop the rest. The chant will last:
The best for the future is the best from the past.