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September 2020

Two By Dvorak

I'm continuing my journey through the boxes of LPs which I looted from the apartment of the recently deceased Monsignor James Dorrill of the Archdiocese of Mobile. (See this post.) He had no known living relatives, or if he did they were distant and/or uninterested in taking possession of his things.

I really don't know much of Dvorak's work. In fact I can only say I know the New World Symphony, in the sense that I've heard it more than once or twice and am somewhat familiar with it  I've heard others, but not really become familiar with them.

Serenade in E Major for Strings, Op. 22

In apparent contradiction to what I just said, I recognized it instantly, and thought I had a(nother) recording of it. But I don't. So I'm puzzled about my history with this work. The LP I was thinking of is a collection of short orchestral pieces, and the Dvorak work on it is the Nocturne for Strings in B, Opus 40; a very beautiful piece if I remember correctly. And so is this one. But where have I heard it before, and heard it enough to recognize it again? I am puzzled.

But anyway, this is a very beautiful work, full of memorable tunes, of which the opening of the first movement might be the most memorable--an instant grabber--and rather more substantial than the word "serenade" suggests to me. It's in five movements, runs for roughly thirty minutes, and is symphonic in general structure. If the composer had thought to ask me I would have suggested calling it a symphony for strings. Perhaps it's on the light side for a symphony, but don't be fooled by "serenade" into thinking that it's merely pretty.

The recording is by Rafael Kubelik and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on the London label. It's monaural and I doubt it was issued any later than the mid-1950s. I can't say that the recording as such, either the performance or the sonics, strike me as exceptional, though the sound is very good for its time.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

As far as I'm aware I'd never heard this symphony before. It is a great one, immediately becoming a favorite for me. My naive remark to myself was "like Brahms but sunnier." And I like Brahms a lot. And "sunnier" does not mean "better," because I like Brahms's somberness a lot. But there does seem to me to be some kind of kinship there.

And apparently it's also a great performance. When I took the LP off the shelf I saw that it was on the Everest label and groaned. If I had noticed that when I was giving away the LPs out of this haul that I didn't really want, it would have gone, too. Or maybe not, because it's Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra. But Everest was, in my experience, back in the '60s a rather low-rent label that apparently specialized in licensing and producing foreign recordings for the American market. Generally the packaging was distinctly low-budget, and the sound not so great, though that could have been the fault of the original recordings.

After one hearing of this disk, I thought "well, Everest or not, it seems fine." After the third or fourth hearing I thought "Is it just me or is this a really excellent performance?" As I'm always pointing out, I don't have a great ear for the nuances of classical performance, especially conducting. But there seemed to be a special kind of verve and energy and crispness to this one. And the recorded sound is excellent as well, for its time (195??). So I went scouting for it on the net and learned that it is in fact a very famous recording, one that at least one critic holds to be still the best performance of the symphony. If you are a fan of Dvorak and/or this symphony, you might want to seek it out. Or maybe you already have it.

The LP also contains a Scherzo Capriccioso as the last track. I pretty much hate it when record companies add filler like that; I don't want to hear some different and unrelated work immediately after, for instance, Dvorak's 8th. Moreover, I admit to a distinct aversion to any music with a title containing the word "cappricio" or, in this case, "cappriccioso," which I take to mean "like a cappricio, but more so." I have no explanation for this...well, I guess that's not exactly true. I have a negative mental association which suggests that the music is going to be light, busy, and not really very interesting. This may be, probably is, totally unfair. Nevertheless I only allowed it to play once, and that was because I couldn't get to the turntable to lift the needle before it began. I may go back to it someday.

Addendum: I figured out why/how I know the Serenade. I have it in mp3 format: Jakob Hruska conducting the Prague Philharmonia.

(I still don't have internet access at home. I'm doing this from my wife's office.)

Remarkable Insight On My Part

A quick post from Fairhope Brewing, where they are actually encouraging people to come in and use their Wi-Fi, even opening in the mornings just for that purpose. Thank you, FBC.

I have a new computer, and have taken the occasion to go through a lot of old files and discard, organize, etc. In the process I ran across a draft of this post from ten years ago, "Firemen and the Gnostic Economy." The last few paragraphs seem, if I may say so, somewhat prescient about the conditions which could produce a phenomenon like Donald Trump.

There is a practical disdain in the upper reaches of our society for anybody so slow-witted and naïve as to make a living with the actual work of his hands, a disdain that is independent of political categories. (If anything the active disdain is stronger in the “liberal” camp, which may give more lip service to the lower-class laborer but doesn’t actually think very highly of him—but that’s a topic for another day.)

A 9/11 Note

Southerners in general are not known for their warm affection toward those they consider to be "Yankees," which for some can be anyone born or living outside of the southeast quadrant of the country. In particular they do not tend to hold residents of New York City in the greatest esteem. I admit to having a stereotype along those lines: the native New Yorker who taught (journalism, I think) at the University of Alabama when I was working in a bookstore just off campus, and fixed my impression of him by standing at one end of the counter while I was dealing with a customer at the other end, banging on the counter with the newspaper he wanted to buy and braying "Hey! ya wanna take care a this?!?" *

Even before that I had taken as my own the title of a Buck Owens song: "I Wouldn't Live In New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)".

No, not really. I mean, sort of. It's true that I would not at all like to live in New York City, but that has more to do with my general dislike of big cities than with any particular defects of New York. I wouldn't want to live in Atlanta, either. I spent a memorable week or so in New York when I was a teenager--I actually saw folk singers in Greenwich Village--and there was a time when I wanted to go back. But the only time I ever have was an overnight work-related trip sometime in the 1980s. 

And of course it is well known that many New Yorkers hold the South in great contempt, which of course only makes the Southerner more resentful. Yet when 9/11 happened, Southerners were as outraged as anybody, volunteered to go and help, volunteered to join the military to help avenge the attacks and prevent future ones (which is not to say that the wars that followed were wise or just). 

I remember thinking at the time that in spite of all the regional animosity, which was partly in jest anyway, people here in the South, and elsewhere, nevertheless viewed the city as in some sense America's city, and were as outraged by the crime as they would have been if it had happened to them or to some place much closer to them, both geographically and culturally. 

I'm not sure that it would be the same if something similar happened now. The country was bitterly divided during the '80s and '90s, but not so much that we didn't come together in the face of the 9/11 attack. Now the division is more intense, with genuine bitter hatred and contempt boiling on both sides. America's major cities now are seen as the chief source of hostility and disdain for much of the rest of the country, for what is still called Middle America, though somewhat implausibly. If a major attack or some other disaster happened to New York City now, would the rest of the country rally around as it did 19 years ago? Or would most people say "Gosh, that's awful, glad it wasn't us" and go about their business? I hope there wouldn't be many who would say "They had it coming," but there would be some. 

And of course it goes the other way, too. There are no specific major symbolic locations that define "red America," so a single huge event like 9/11 directed at it is hard to imagine. But I've seen plenty of more petty reactions to bad things happening in the South or other less enlightened parts of the country: "They voted for Trump; they deserve whatever they get." 

It's hard to imagine the return of that brief post-9/11 unity. Almost every presidential election since 1980 has aggravated our divisions, and it gets worse every time. We can be sure that it will after this next one. 

* Note added a couple of days after this post: I've been thinking about this incident and am pretty sure I've exaggerated it. He was a bit rude, and that's why it stuck in my memory. But when I replay it in my mind I feel a bit sheepish: it wasn't that bad.

Bad Writing

If you can even call it writing.... Maybe just jargon. Or guff.

I received an email on my work account with this subject:

Implement Engaging Prevention Training at [college]

I wondered what it meant. Training for the purpose of preventing something, apparently. Opened the email and saw a company logo with this text:

Proven, Engaging Student Prevention Training


So I read the first paragraph:

Did you know SafeColleges Training provides a variety of effective student prevention courses through a robust training system?

I experienced deepening confusion. Few colleges wish to prevent students.

Only by reading as far as the second paragraph did I learn that they are referring to training aimed at "encouraging healthy behaviors" on topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex. 

Long Beard: Sleepwalker

If I say this is a slight, girlish album, it may seem to be a putdown. But I don't mean it that way. Girls and girlishness may be sweet, sensitive, gentle, introspective, dreamy, whimsical, winsome, moody, and many other things which are quite charming (except maybe moody) if they don't get out of hand. And of course pretty. And most of those adjectives can be applied to this album, including pretty in the sonic rather than visual sense: it's full of very pretty tunes.

It's mainly the work of one young woman, with a bit of assistance on some tracks from a drummer and bass player. I don't have any idea why she chose that misleading name for her project. The image that the name brings immediately to my mind is of ZZ Top, than which an opposite to Long Beard more perfectly centered on 180 degrees is hard to imagine.

I call it a "project" because it's not exactly a band, as she is the vocalist and writer and plays the guitar which constitutes the main instrumental sound. Or, I should say, guitars: a lot of shimmery multi-tracked guitar, sometimes processed to the point of noise, but always a gentle, hazy noise. 

"Gentle" and "hazy" are pretty accurate descriptions of the whole thing. In addition to the guitars, there are a lot of beautiful multi-tracked and processed vocals which are either actually or effectively wordless. The lyrics are only half-intelligible at best to my old ears, but the artist has kindly put them on the Bandcamp page for the album, and they have the same slender, quiet quality as the music, simple and even prosaic, but suggesting much.

time it takes to grow old, on your porch
is it long enough
to get over you
summer rain brings your voice
to my ear
I'll stay up all night
just to hear your voice

It seems a suburban middle-class work--one song is called "Suburban Sunset"--and I mean that in a good way: a product of a fairly secure and undramatic way of life in which simple pleasures like summer twilight are deeply loved. I admit that on the first hearing or two my reaction was "Well, that's nice, but not much more." But it grew on me, and now I find it that I like it a lot. If it were a very long album with very long songs, it might not hold up. But it's only thirty-five minutes long, and the thirteen songs make their statement and stop. 

Here's the video for "Porch," which is about as close to rock-and-roll as the album gets. Tell me that's not girlish.

This embedded Bandcamp player seems to allow one to listen to the entire album. If you do, and you like it, please support the artist and click on that "buy" link. She's only asking $7.00 for the download.

I love that photograph. And I think my favorite song on the album may be the closer, "Twinkle Twinkle," which consists entirely of the phrase "How I wonder what you are" repeated in a softly varying mix of looped guitars and vocals: beautiful and oddly affecting.

Some Ominous Words

"We live in times when the very composition of man is changing."

The remark was made sometime in the 1980s by Fr. John Krestiankin, a Russian Orthodox monk, and is quoted in a long piece called "The New Martyrs and Confessors: A Personal Memoir of Russia's Orthodox Clergy & Elders Under Communism," written by Fr. Vladimir Vorbyev and appearing in the September/October issue of Touchstone.

(This link may take you to the article; I think it's subscriber-only but this link is supposed to allow me to share it.)

Many years ago--maybe in the late '70s or early '80s, maybe even earlier--I read someone's conjecture, based on some esoteric spirituality that included reincarnation, that there is only a certain amount of human spiritual "matter," and that the ever-growing population of the world, especially its growth in the past couple of centuries, means that this essence is being spread ever thinner among the living. I didn't believe it, but it was one of those eccentric theories that make you think "Well, it would explain a few things." 

I have often, over the years, going back to my acquaintance with the literature of the past when I was young, felt that the writers (and other artists) seemed to be made of...well, "sterner stuff" is the phrase that comes to mind after "made of," and that's probably part of it, but there's more to it than that. And anyway it's not only sterner; it's also in a way softer, more sensitive. In general it seems richer and stronger. I wouldn't really defend those observations as truth, but they are, as I say, something that has passed through my mind. I thought of it again a couple of years ago when I was looking through a trove of family records going back into the late 19th century. There were, for instance, poems written more or less casually in letters or published in the local paper that were remarkably well-crafted, certainly beyond what an ordinary person of ordinary education would be likely to produce today. And I guess we've all seen and heard of the McGuffey Readers of that time which were used in elementary schools but would be considered too difficult for our high school or even college students.

I don't wish I had lived in 1850. Or 1150, or any other time. I don't think we can say that people were any more virtuous before, say, 1900: those times were full of brutalities which were accepted as normal but which horrify us. And yet: doesn't it sometimes seem that we are a smaller, more trivial people than we once were? Fr. Vladimir continues:

At first I couldn't understand these words, but then I recalled the Book of Genesis, which says that God sent the Flood to the earth when he saw that men became fleshly (9:3). "The very composition of man is changing" meant that the spirit was diminishing. Alas, there are more and more people in whom it's hard to perceive their spiritual nature, because for some reason they want to behave like beasts.

It isn't the comparison to beasts that strikes me so much as "the spirit was diminishing." I don't know if that's the best way to describe it, either. But I've had the feeling for a long time that there is something bad going on in our culture that is spiritual and very deeply hidden, something more fundamental than mere skepticism, hedonism, and materialism--something that helps to give those their power.