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April 2021

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in Ab

I listened to this a couple of times back in January, and didn't quite know what to make of it. The note I made as a start to this post said "starts off with a noble, English-elegiac melody, and then a fight breaks out." The agitation of the first movement gives way to much quieter second and third movements, and then returns to a great degree in the fourth. That noble theme with which the symphony begins returns, too, and I thought it was going to be in triumph, but it seems to me a much more limited victory than that, unvanquished but perhaps weakened, not nearly as majestic as in the opening. 

I didn't dislike the symphony, but that's not to say that my reaction simply fell in the lukewarm middle: I genuinely didn't know whether I liked it or not. I put it aside for a time, then Lent came, and I didn't listen to any secular music then. Last week I finally got back to it. And now I can say that I do indeed like it, and will probably learn to love it. Those two inner movements are quite beautiful; they just needed a few hearings to sink in on me, as is often the case. Much of it is not exactly what I expect of Elgar--there's more Romantic storminess--but that says more about my limited acquaintance with his work, and maybe with some vague notion on my part that English music is supposed to be pastoral, than about the work. 

This is another LP from the Fr. Dorrell trove. It's a Seraphim recording (S-60068), but I'm pretty sure that's not the original issue, which according to Discogs was probably British and appeared in the early '60s. Seraphim, as old classical music fans may know, was the "budget" imprint of the more prestigious Angel label. I'm pretty sure my copy was produced sometime in the '60s. The cover of mine is not nearly as bright orange as this one.

ElgarFirstSymphonyBarbirolli

The performance is perfectly fine as far as I'm concerned. I have nothing to compare it to. The sound is pretty much the norm for its time, not strikingly good as some of these older recordings can be, but not bad.

This YouTube video seems to be the same performance.


The Wreath: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part One

As I approached the end of The Mill on the Floss I was, naturally, thinking about what to read next (what novel, I mean). I think I mentioned in a comment that I was trying to decide between two re-reads, Dostoevsky's Demons and Kristin Lavransdatter. (Interesting that I name the author of the former but not the latter. I think that's because Demons seems to me a not entirely distinctive title; it would not surprise me to learn that there are quite a few other books with the same title. And also because the name of the book was established in my mind long ago as The Possessed.) 

KristinLavransdatter-TheWreathThis is the cover of the edition I'm reading.

When I read Kristin back in the 1980s, the only available translation was the Archer one made in the 1920s. (Archer and Scott for the first volume; I do not know anything about either of the men.) A new one, by Tina Nunnally, appeared around 2000 (as best I can tell), and seems to be generally considered a great improvement over the old. But as a casual reader I don't find this to be obviously or entirely so.

The most significant charge against the old translation is that it is written in a deliberately archaic style which is not Undset's and which presents an obstacle to the contemporary reader. Well, the second of those is certainly true, and I will have to take the word of those who can read the original that the first is also. But one doesn't have to read Norwegian to know that Archer's English is not that of Kristin's 14th century, which was what we now call Middle English. It's closer to that of the 16th and early 17th centuries: much use of now-obsolete words and phrases--"I trow" and "I wot" and "'twere" and all that sort of thing. So it seems questionable on that ground, and I would like to know Archer's justification for his practice. And in general his prose leans strongly toward sentence construction which is at the very least old-fashioned to us. Here's one simple and straightforward sentence, chosen more or less at random from the opening pages of the book:

When the child Kristin was seven years old, it so fell out one time that she got leave to go with her father up to their mountain sæter.

One day when the child Kristin was seven years old, she was going to accompany her father up to their mountain pastures.

I don't think I need to tell you which is which. 

As in this example, Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. And "sæter" does indeed mean "mountain pasture," but with implications not present in the latter term; see this in Wikipedia. I have found myself sometimes opening the Archer translation to read his version of a paragraph, just to see if there is something I may be missing. And if it so falls out that I read the trilogy a third time it may be Archer's version again. 

The Nunnally translation is said to restore some passages that were omitted in Archer's, including some with more explicit depictions of sex. If there were any of the latter in The Wreath, I didn't notice them, and one would think, considering the events narrated, that these would appear here if anywhere in the trilogy. I think I also read somewhere that Undset's style had at least sometimes a more modernist bent, but I see no trace of that, either. 

In one respect I prefer Nunnally's translation without reservation: it is issued in three separate volumes. This makes the simple physical act of holding the book and reading it much more comfortable. It also has the psychological effect, for me at least, of making the trilogy seem less daunting: yes, I confess that I am daunted by a very long book, and tend to view it as a task to be completed rather than a pleasure to be anticipated. This is at least partly, I guess, the effect of my desire to read every worthwhile book ever written, which makes me just very faintly resentful when one book demands considerably more time than others, though all that disappears if the book is engaging enough.

The three volumes also make it convenient for me to absorb each separately, as Undset presumably intended (and to write about each in a separate blog post).

In any case, Kristin is more than worth it. Pros and cons of the translation argument aside, I am at least as impressed with the work now as I was on first reading. I had forgotten most of the details of the story; all I had left was the general outline. I recalled it as moving from one disaster to another, and my memory was accurate. The Wreath takes it up to the marriage of Kristin and Erlend. And reading it as a separate novel from the rest makes the impact of certain events, especially those happening right at the end, more concentrated and accordingly more affecting and memorable; you don't just turn a few pages and press on immediately.

There must be thousands of novels that could be broadly described like this one, apart from the medieval setting. "Sprawling family saga" is the typical blurb language; "one woman's story of love and loss." Etc. And no doubt some of them are good stories. Some stories can keep our attention almost independent of the telling: Crime and Punishment would be an unusual  and interesting story in anyone's telling, as would The Lord of the Rings, and many an adventure story of no particular literary merit. But when the story is the more or less ordinary events of more or less ordinary lives, what makes a novel great?

One huge element--the biggest, I think--is the almost magical ability of a very few writers to make their characters live. I say it's almost magical because there doesn't seem to be any particular thing that creates the effect. It isn't a matter of detailed description of scene or action, or of extensive forays into the  inner life of the character. It can be done with comparatively few strokes of that sort. If I were to examine the first few chapters of The Wreath carefully, I doubt I could say "I see--it's this, that, and this other thing" that make Kristin come alive. But she very much is by that point. And it's not only that characters created by this gift come alive; they engage us, even fascinate us, and we come to care about them.

As I mentioned, I didn't remember many details from my first reading, and had entirely forgotten a number of relatively minor characters. But I've remembered Kristin and Erlend, and Lavrans and Rangfrid, very vividly for somewhere close to forty years. 

I'm now a hundred pages or so into the next volume, The Wife. Already I can see Kristin storing up the resentments, the far from unjustified resentments, which will be the source of so much trouble. The back-and-forth of wounding and being wounded between Kristin and Erlend is, I remember now, one of the saddest aspects of a very sad story--sad, and, to resort to the language of blurbs, unforgettable. 


It's Always Time For a Dylan Argument

Not really. But it is a pastime that usually appeals to Dylan fans. Here, at The American Conservative, is a somewhat defiant, probably none-too-popular, assertion about Dylan's best work, with proper reservations about the basic silliness of the effort:

The problem with picking a favorite Dylan is that there are so many strong contenders. You could even make a case for the New Morning Dylan of the late ’60s or the born-again Christian Dylan, a totally underrated phase of his career. Obviously, no answer is final and the game itself is kind of a moronic trap. But this is what fans do. We love coming up with hypotheticals and arbitrary rankings, anything that lets the analytical parts of our minds engage with the art that throws its colors on our soul. And so, in the spirit of playful analysis, I’d like to make a controversial claim: the best Dylan was the Dylan of 1997 to 2001.

As the writer says, people are apt to pick the Dylan that they first heard as the best. That's more or less true of me. I think the very first Dylan I heard was something from his folkie period, but I was a teenager in the mid-'60s, when he did the brilliant work of those years, and that was the stuff that I listened to most. And I still think he never again matched the sheer brilliance of those years. But I'm certainly willing to go as far as saying that the albums commended by the writer, mainly Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, are extremely good.

One thing that Dylan did in the '60s, though, and has for the most part not done since then, was to write songs that had a robust life apart from him. There aren't many covers of his post-'60s work. Except maybe for a few songs from Blood on the Tracks, it wasn't possible, or at least wasn't rewarding, to separate the songs from Dylan's performance of them. 

But Dylan covers Dylan right well. "Cold Irons Bound" is one of my favorites from Time Out of Mind, but this performance is quite different from the one heard on the album.

 


Hans Küng and Mozart

An interesting piece at Catholic Word Report. Küng died a few weeks ago, which I had not heard. I'm one of those who considered him a noxious influence on the Church back thirty years and more ago when he was in the news fairly often. So knowing that he thought so highly of Mozart, and for good reasons, raises him a few notches in my estimation. He shares a love of Mozart's music with Pope Benedict XVI--and Karl Barth. 

Personally I agree with someone in the comments on that piece who prefers Bach. To my taste he is more often profound than Mozart, who, after all, only lived until his mid-30s, which makes the comparison somewhat unfair--and his last piece, the Requiem, certainly is in the same transcendental realm as Bach's great works.

But in any case Mozart was a freak. There are geniuses, there are prodigies, and there's Mozart. See this review of a Mozart biography in The New Criterion:

...a four-year-old boy sat down at the harpsichord in his parents’ house and began to play. His sister Nannerl, age nine, had been practicing a scherzo, and he was taken with its lively rhythms. When she finished, he wanted to give it a try. Their father, Leopold, a composer, violinist, and music pedagogue, was astounded by what happened next: the boy immediately caught the gist of the piece. Within half an hour, despite being unable to read music and having had no previous harpsichord instruction, he had learned it by heart.

I mentioned in a recent discussion of Allegri's Misere that one of the ways it was made known outside the Holy Week liturgies of the Vatican was by Mozart attending a performance, then going home and writing out the music. I suppose there are other instances of extreme and extremely precocious talent, but as far as I know none who not only had the innate facility but also had whatever it takes to produce great mature works.


The Mill on the Floss

I like it as much as I like Middlemarch. Which of course is a lot. 

There seems to be a critical consensus that Middlemarch is George Eliot's great achievement, and a great achievement by any standard. And I wouldn't argue with that as a matter of cool-headed judgment. The introduction (excellent, by the way) to the edition of The Mill on the Floss that I have, one of the Houghton-Mifflin Riverside editions that were common in the '60s, claims that "dissatisfaction with the...ending is almost universal." And I don't dissent. But by the straightforward criterion of enjoyment, I can't much prefer either novel over the other.

In both cases the fundamental pleasure is Eliot's prose, either in narration or in the voices of her characters. The drama in both is foremost in the nature of the characters and in their relationships rather than in external events, and those are communicated with a grace, intelligence, and wit that in my somewhat limited reading experience have no superior and few (if any) equals. As with Middlemarch, I closed the book thinking "I want to meet Mary Anne Evans." Not that I would have anything to say to her, but I think I would love to hear her talk. 

On the basis of these two novels it's impossible for me to believe that their heroines did not have something in common with Evans/Eliot herself. The central character in both is a dark-haired, brilliant, and passionate girl or woman who finds herself in--or gets herself into--various difficulties. Dorothea (Middlemarch) and Maggie Tulliver (The Mill) are not the same person, but they are certainly similar: middle-class girls in provincial towns among a fairly narrow bourgeoisie, intelligent and ambitious of noble thoughts and deeds, but with little opportunity of pursuing them. And they might be more similar if we saw them at similar periods of their lives. We meet Dorothea when she is nineteen, whereas at the end of The Mill Maggie is barely that old. 

Maggie is only nine at the opening of her story (and by the way both she and her creator were born in November 1819). She's the daughter of a miller who dotes on but is puzzled by her, a mother who despairs of her none-too-orderly appearance and behavior, and an older brother who cares for her but likes to lord it over her. The father is good-hearted, but impetuous, hot-tempered, and none too wise in the ways of the world. These traits bring him and the family to disaster. and a great deal of the story, the second half at least, is the account of their several struggles to cope with the situation.

I'm always at a bit of a loss when I discuss a great work in these short notes: what, of the many many things worth mentioning, shall I mention? A full appreciation would be the labor of many weeks and thousands of words. Yet to pick out one or two seems to slight others of equal significance. But since I don't want to put in those weeks of work, I'll have to do it.

One thing that presents itself most strongly to me in these characters, not only Maggie and Dorothea but several others, is a sense of their own personal honor and integrity that is quite foreign to our culture. (You could make that part of an argument for the benefit of reading the classics.) Their moral standards are very high, and not only is it extremely important to them that they not fall below those standards, but also that they not be seen as falling below them. I don't mean to be suggesting hypocrisy or the empty moral posturing of "whited sepulchres." There is certainly plenty of those in some of the other characters; Eliot is very much a realist. And I don't mean for "moral" to conjure up the usual picture of prudish Victorians, although sexual morality is is certainly included (and is more closely connected to integrity than our culture understands).

It's a scorn of base motives, an intention to act only from principle unaffected by self-interest. I'll try to keep this example a bit vague, so as not to give away too much. (That may seem silly with respect to a book published 150 years ago which many people reading this will have read. But when a work is new to me I can't help assuming that it will be new to at least some others.)

Maggie, towards the end of the story, finds herself in a romantic situation in which she cannot "follow her heart," as people today might urge her to, without being disloyal to others. And not only does she not even seriously consider doing so, but she regards it as imperative that she not show any sign whatsoever that the emotions which are tormenting her exist. This is not only a soft concern for the others, but a hardness toward herself, toward any least hint of self-seeking and self-indulgence. It is not only what she does not do, not only that her feelings must remain hidden from others, but that even inwardly she must not give in to them--must not wallow in them, not cherish and nurture them even in the privacy of her heart. And it is certainly not that she is cold; on the contrary, her overflowing generous love, and corresponding desire to be loved, are manifest. Her sense of duty to others is not separable from her love for them. 

I see that that brief description doesn't really convey the intensity of her determination, so here's an incident. Maggie and the young man with whom she has fallen in love, and who has fallen in love with her, have found themselves alone. The young man, seized by an impulse, takes her bare arm and "showers it with kisses." Maggie recoils as if his kiss had been a snakebite: 

All the pride of her nature was stung into activity: the hateful weakness which had dragged her within reach of this wound to her self-respect, had at least wrought its own cure. The thoughts and temptations of the last month should all be flung away into an unvisited chamber of memory: there was nothing to allure her now; duty would be easy, and all the old calm purposes would reign peacefully once more.

What I'm getting at is not just that she can and will violently suppress an illicit emotion, but that her reaction is an equally powerful, for the moment a more powerful, emotion. She is not only acting objectively, so to speak, in obedience to an external rule, but subjectively, experiencing genuine horror at her lapse, at the possibility that she could give in to the temptation. Moreover--and I'm not sure I'm correctly understanding this, but if I am: the immediate cause of the horror, the thing which makes her see her danger, is that she regards the kiss as a lack of respect for her. And this is not because, or at least not only because, it suggests that she is susceptible to sexual misconduct, but because it implies acknowledgement of the feeling between them, which honor absolutely forbids that they do, and the suggestion that she would participate even that far is an insult to her.

Perhaps a better example, a simpler one anyway, but not easily illustrated with an excerpt, is the instance in Middlemarch where a man regards the fact that the woman he loves has money, and he does not, as a prohibition of his marrying her. Even though there is no question on either's part that he would be marrying her for her money, the mere fact that it would look that way would be enough of a stain on his honor that he quite firmly refuses to consider it. 

This determined integrity is part of what is encompassed in the ideal of nobility, an ideal on which our culture no longer puts much value--or perhaps I should say no longer even recognizes.

NotTheMillOnTheFloss

Photo By Evelyn Simak, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13578112
This is not a mill on the Floss, which by the way is the name of the river on which the Tullivers' mill is located. But it was used in a 1997 BBC adaptation of the novel, and I suspect it's a more realistic image than most of those I see on covers of the novel, which are of the Ye Picturesque Olde Mill school and don't look like working commercial concerns at all.


St. Ogg's in Our Time

(This is not especially appropriate for Easter Monday--well, it's not appropriate at all, but it's not exactly inappropriate either. But I wrote it a day or two before Palm Sunday, then decided it should wait till after Holy Week. So....)

And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. 

That's part of a long description of St. Ogg's, the fictional town (named for a fictional saint) in which George Eliot sets The Mill on the Floss. It's an old town where things change slowly. That may seem the opposite of the constantly and wildly changing environment we live in. Our cultural atmosphere is full of rage, much of it associated with rapid changes that are pushed vigorously by some and resisted just as vigorously by others. Doomsayers of many persuasions are constantly telling us that the end is near. And so on.

Yet it strikes me that we are in some sense like the inhabitants of St. Ogg's. Most of our frenzy takes place against an assumed background of something like our current level of wealth and technology. I won't bother theorizing the many ways in which that could come to an end, but while many people are busy doing that, too few seem to appreciate that in the light of human history it is a very, very unusual--no, a unique--situation. Perhaps it will turn out to be a fluke, and a hundred years from now things will be back to normal, meaning that for most people most of the time the effort to get enough food to preserve life is their most important concern.

Now and then, listening to certain political views, it strikes me how thoroughly out of touch with fundamental reality they are. Self-styled revolutionaries assume that material plenty and personal freedom are the natural state of things, and all the questions are about how to rearrange them. All the material wealth and comfort are just there, as if they had just happened naturally. And the whole technological, financial, and political infrastructure of our lives has no connection to the civilization which produced it, but rather is like the land, a naturally-occurring phenomenon which will always be there and is ours to do with as suits us.

That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives. "Activists" openly preach racial division and resentment. Right and left increasingly speak of subjugating or eliminating the other as the only possible resolution of their conflict. The notion of "elimination" is at this point only political, not physical, but what happens if the political effort fails? 

Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone? That it is the product of centuries of thought and labor? That it continues to exist because millions of people do complex work in complex coordination with others?

The assumption that these things are just there is so strong that people freely sow the wind, because they don't really believe in the whirlwind. Worse, they're so far removed from reality that they no longer even see, much less understand, the connection between sowing and reaping. Or even have any real grasp of the words themselves. What do they even mean to people who have no conception of any way of life outside the modern city? Food comes from the grocery store. Obviously.


Psalm 104:1-4

Praise the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art become exceeding glorious; thou art clothed with majesty and honour.
Thou deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment 
 and spreadest out the heavens like a curtain.
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters
 and maketh the clouds his chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind.
He maketh his angels spirits
 and his ministers a flaming fire.

This is from one of the several psalms read at the Easter vigil, to which I'll be going in a few hours. A blessed and joyful Easter to all. 

Here endeth the posting of Coverdale psalms.