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March 2024

Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden

I've never ventured very far into the Bach cantatas, having heard mostly the "greatest hits," such as BWV 140, "Wachet Auf" (which my mental ear insists on hearing as "Watch Out!"). There are just so many of them, and--I hope you will excuse me if this sounds blasphemous or at least disrespectful--there seems to be a fair amount of music in them that is less than great. I mean, for instance, chorales that don't seem particularly distinctive. 

But thanks to an article by Ken Myers in the most recent issue of Touchstone (the article is not available to non-subscribers), I sought out a recording of this one: "Christ Lay In the Bonds of Death," based on a hymn by Luther. I recognized the title but am not sure I'd ever heard it before. It seems to me a standout. I'm posting it as the one acknowledgement of Holy Week that I plan to make here--I won't be online very much for the next week or so. I would say that I hope you enjoy this but I feel fairly confident in saying that you will enjoy it, if you listen to it and you don't have an aversion to classical music, or classical choral music. 

From Myers's article, here's an interesting bit of musical analysis that even I can grasp:

And the musical device Bach introduces here—a succinct motif that pervades the entire work—is the simplest of melodic gestures: a descending half step. Play an A on a keyboard, followed by a G-sharp. It’s the tightest of intervals possible in Western music, but that short descending sigh becomes, in Bach’s development of Luther’s hymn, an emblem of death.

In the melody of Luther’s hymn, the first two notes are a descending whole step, from A down to G. That’s how generations of Lutherans had heard and sung the opening notes of this hymn. It’s the interval borrowed from the chant on which the melody is based, and then heard in dozens of compositions for choir and for organ based on this tune. Bach had the musical-theological shrewdness to recognize in this slight (but radical) alteration in the melody a musical resource that would enable him to more powerfully convey both Passion and Resurrection.

As the BWV number suggests, this is thought to be an early work, written around 1707, when Bach was in his early twenties. You can read a great deal about it on the Wikipedia page. But you'd be better off listening to it first. The performance is by those baroque workhorses, Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir.

I don't as a rule especially like watching musicians up close, or for that matter at all, when they're performing, but I did enjoy watching these. 

Dickens: Bleak House

Before I started writing this, I should have gone back to the 52 Authors series and read Stu's entry on Dickens, which is quite good (click here). And I see in the comments this one from me:

Bleak House is one I really want to re-read (in addition to reading for the first time the 60% or so of the novels that I haven't read at all). I read it in my 20s and thought it was great. I have a feeling I'd like it even more now.

Well, that certainly turned out to be true. I enjoyed Bleak House even more than the other Dickens novels I've read or re-read recently: Dombey And Son, Great Expectations, and, perhaps stretching "recently" a bit, David Copperfield. Everything I said about Dickens's work in general in my post about Dombey and Son a few weeks ago applies with even more force to Bleak House. As of now, it's my favorite, and as I very much liked the others that puts it pretty much in the stratosphere of my literary rankings. Now, with a necessarily somewhat smaller number of years remaining before me than I had in my 20s, and with so many books yet unread, I still may revisit this one. That says a lot about the sheer enjoyment I had in it.

Someone, and I think it was T.S. Eliot, said that Shakespeare gives us the breadth of the medieval world, and Dante the depth. A similar thought has occurred to me while reading Bleak House and Dombey And Son: that a division, an assignment of responsibility you might say, could be made between Dickens and Dostoevsky with respect to what I think of as the early maturity of modern man in the 19th century. Dostoevsky is the great prober of the spiritual (and therefore psychological) displacement of that new man. An old friend of mine once observed that most of Dostoevsky's people seem to him to be "just barely sane," and in their extremities of thought and behavior they show us what is only implied and latent in most people. As representatives of their times, they are narrow but deep. The most important of them are intellectuals or semi-intellectuals  or very eccentric in some way connected with the modern crisis. Dostoevsky is almost as much philosopher/theologian as novelist. And he is certainly Dante-esque at least to the extent of presenting an Inferno, with glimpses of Purgatory. 

Dickens, on the other hand, is almost pure novelist, purely a creator of stories and characters, and he gives us an extraordinary range of characters who are ordinary people in the sense that they are mainly interested in going about the everyday business of their not especially reflective lives, whether that business is an aristocrat's concern with maintaining the order and prestige of his little empire or a pauper's desperate attempt to keep off starvation and other miseries. And in doing this Dickens demonstrates the great Christian truth that there are no ordinary people. 

And I don't know of anyone except Shakespeare to whom he can be compared in both those respects, i.e. stories and characters (at least not in English literature--I don't know enough of others to say). Bleak House is in fact a somewhat polemical work, but to the extent that ideas play a role in it they are pretty down-to-earth, not philosophical: an attack on the Chancery courts of the time, and to a lesser degree a sort of exposé of the conditions of the London poor. (Chancery courts were very roughly comparable to what we would call civil law, concerned with contracts of all sorts, including, as in Bleak House, inheritance.) The stakes in a high-stakes lawsuit could be entirely devoured by costs, to the ruin of the suitors and, according to Dickens, the amusement of lawyers and judges. Dickens himself had a pretty unpleasant experience with Chancery, when he attempted to get some money out of people who had printed unauthorized editions of his work. 

Suppose for a moment that those were his primary motives, that Dickens thought, "I really hate Chancery, and I'm really angry at the way lack of decent sanitation forces the poor to live in filth and disease. I think I'll write a novel making these points." It's not a plausible conjecture, because there are too many things in the work that aren't part of any such focus. But just suppose. What he actually produced is no more reducible to a social justice pamphlet than The Brothers Karamazov is reducible to a philosophical one. I don't know that he could have written mere propaganda, at least not in fiction. I think his creative energy would have prevented that; the sense of energy at work is one of the striking characteristics of his work in general, and especially in this one.

The sheer fecundity of invention in plot and character is astonishing. It seems the fecundity of nature, which (to use the conventional attribution of agency) is not content to make a single bird, or even a single type of songbird fit to thrive in the southeastern U.S., but produces millions in the first case, hundreds in the second. So it is with Dickens's characters, who have a distinct "inscape," to use the peculiar term invented by Hopkins which seems to mean an essential self-ness. As Rob G pointed out in a comment recently, Dickens somehow even manages to give every character a distinctive voice. (Surely there are scholarly papers and/or books about that.)

The comparison to Shakespeare extends to the language. Prose, obviously, is more diffuse than poetry, and does not as readily provide the brief quotation that sticks in the memory in part because of its music. But, again, the fecundity is astonishing. Stephen Gill, in his introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, cites many

passages of amazing complexity and depth, allusive, syntactically agile, multi-faceted, whose exploitation of the poetic resources of the language and the devices of rhetoric offer pleasures as rewarding as any in English fiction.

And, with due allowance for the essential difference, is often as rewarding as poetry.

The plot has distinct elements of the mystery story, including the appearance of a police detective who, though he isn't prominent until quite late in the story, is a very striking character who could easily have ranked with Sherlock Holmes, had Dickens been engaged in that sort of project. This makes me mourn the fact that he didn't live to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I have always been hesitant to read because of the inevitable disappointment.

One does have to contend with Dickens's sentimental and melodramatic streak. But even as I type that I am thinking that those terms are pretty elastic, and one person's sentimentality may be another's honest emotion. As with Florence in Dombey And Son, the central female character, Esther Summerson, is somewhat too good to be true. But she is more vivid to me than Florence because a very large part of the book is a first-person narrative by her, and so we have more knowledge of her. The narrative structure of the book is unusual in that respect--part omniscient third-person, part first-person and very limited. Moreover, the third-person narrative is entirely in the present tense, while Esther's is a sort of journal, past tense. 

As has often been remarked, by C.S. Lewis among others if my memory is correct, the characteristic virtues and vices of one historical period often balance those of another. One such virtue that is represented over and over again in Bleak House, and which is little seen and honored in our time, is nobility. Bu that I mean an iron determination to behave with honor, courage, and generosity, to say and do what is true and right and just without regard for one's own preference, ego, and interest. As far as I can tell it is rarely seen in our popular culture, and almost never among our public figures. (Try looking for it in either of our current presidential candidates.) The actual behavior of our politicians may be in practice no different from the reality of Dickens's time, but the fact that the sense of nobility was understood and admired then, while having pretty much vanished in our own time, says something bad about our culture, and good about that of Dickens. As has also often been remarked, nobility is at least as likely to be found among the lowly as among the high, something which Dickens is fond of illustrating. Also, though it is perhaps one of the more masculine virtues, as likely to be found in women as in men.

Another Night (to Remember) at the Symphony

It occurred to me after I typed that title that A Night to Remember was a book about the sinking of the Titanic. Book and film, I find on checking.

But I didn't change the title, because it is perfectly accurate. You can be assured that this night with the Mobile Symphony was not a disaster. On the contrary, it gave me, by means of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of those rare almost-ecstatic musical experiences. This was of course the E Minor concerto--I didn't know until today that it was actually his second, the first having been written when he was thirteen (!). The violinist was Simone Porter, of whom I had never heard, though that doesn't mean anything much. Here's the bio from her web site

I've heard the concerto on record several times, and may have heard a live performance twenty or more years ago, but I'm not sure. I've always liked it but have never been affected by it as I was this past Saturday night. I can't discuss the performance intelligently in the sort of detail that real music reviewers do; all I can say is that I was swept away from the very beginning, and didn't come back until the final notes had faded. I'm often critical of what seems to me the ovation-inflation in which audiences give a standing ovation to almost every performance, and am hesitant to join in if I don't feel that degree of enthusiasm. But in this case I was one of the first out of my seat.

I used to think those too-easy ovations were a reflection of the gratitude felt by our our local audiences for the infrequent opportunity of hearing live classical music and especially of hearing top-notch soloists. But according to this article in The Guardian it's a widespread phenomenon. (Note: I used the term ovation-inflation above before I read the Guardian article. Really, I did.)

The concerto was the second piece. The first was a somewhat peculiar work by Arvo Pärt, "If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper." I had never heard it before and was not especially taken with it, though I consider myself a fan of the composer. Perhaps if I listened to it again I'd like it better. The conductor gave an elaborate explanation of the title which I didn't entirely catch. And the piece also incorporates an elaborate game or puzzle or exercise based on Bach's name, but that sort of thing is over my head. Here's what the program notes say:

Borrowing an old form of musical tribute, Pärt created a cipher on the word “Bach” by spelling the Baroque composer’s name using the German musical alphabet: B (equals B-flat in the German musical alphabet) - A - C - H (B-natural in the German musical alphabet). He then created a formula based on this cipher that results in the close intervals that he desired for Tintinnabuli. The violas play “Bach” (B-flat - A - C - B-natural), while the cellos simultaneously start on A, the f irst violins on C, and the second violins on B-natural (H), each following with the same melodic intervals as the violas. The effect of these closely stacked, dissonant intervals is a harmonic ringing tone, that buzzes like a bee. To further evoke the buzzing insects, the string players perform tremolo, rapidly moving their bows up and down (literally trembling) against the string. The result is truly the sound of a swarm of bees.

I'm like, whatever. Being literal-minded, I object to that last sentence, but there is certainly some buzzing involved.

The after-intermission work was Schumann's Symphony #3, the "Rhenish." As far as I recall I had only heard this work once, and that was about two weeks ago in preparation for this concert: I put it on while I was doing something else, just to get some idea of what it's like. It didn't reach out and grab me, though I didn't dislike it, either. That was repeated in the concert: listening reasonably closely, I enjoyed it, but it didn't rouse any great enthusiasm in me. A little sunny and major-y for my taste, perhaps.

Wordsworth: The Prelude

I read The Prelude in a Norton Critical Edition collection, Wordsworth's Poetry and Prose. Like all the excellent NCEs, this volume includes a selection of criticism from Wordsworth's own time to ours, or nearly--that depends on what you're willing to encompass in "our time." I was following my usual practice of avoiding talk about the work before reading the work itself. But about halfway through the poem I had to sneak a look at the few pages of Matthew Arnold's criticism included, taken from his preface to a Wordsworth edition. I did this because I had, back in my brief days as a graduate student in English, read a certain amount of Arnold and tended to agree with his critical judgments. And I was not enjoying The Prelude, nor admiring it, as much as I expected to, and wondered whether Arnold had anything to say about it, and, if he did, whether I was going to find myself in uneasy disagreement with him, or supported and pleased by his agreement. 

It proved to be the latter, at least to this extent: 

The Excursion and the Prelude, his poems of greatest bulk, are by no means Wordsworth's best work.

I will lay out my prejudices, negative and positive. First, as far as I can recall I hadn't read any Wordsworth since I was an undergraduate more than fifty years ago. At the time, the early Romantics were not, in general, my favorites, with the major exception of Keats. I liked Wordsworth's short lyrics, but the famous and more lengthy "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality" were pretty far short of knockouts. It seemed then that Wordsworth at length was not likely to be as good as Wordsworth in brief. I suppose there were some selections from The Prelude in my sophomore English textbook, and I suppose I probably read them, but I don't remember them at all.

On the other hand, I like the premise of The Prelude: a sort of autobiography in verse. In general (again) the decline of the long poem has been part of the general decline of poetry over the past century or two. By "decline" there I mean specifically the way the word "poetry" has come to mean primarily "lyric poetry"--works of from a few lines to a few pages, and a fairly brief expression of, usually, some personal feeling or insight. The verse drama and the narrative poem of scope comparable to that of the novel are no longer an important part of literary culture, though there are the occasional, and occasionally successful, instances. The Prelude interested me as an attempt to bring something like the personal sensibility of the lyric into a work of ten thousand or so lines (thirteen "books" running between 500 and 1000 lines each). 

If you didn't major in English in college you may not recall (from your required English class(es)) that around 1800 Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge sought to revolutionize English poetry in reaction to what they viewed as the excessive artificiality of most poetry of the time--Pope, for instance. They criticized the elaborate diction and at least implicitly the critical, somewhat detached, somewhat rationalistic approach of that poetry. (See Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" for a good not-too-long example.) In a sort of manifesto, the polemical preface to their joint publication Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth stated their aim choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men....

The "common life" they had in mind was often the truly common, the life of farmers and villagers, not aristocrats, far from wealth, fashion, and London. This produced lyrics like Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems (the first line of this one is its title):

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

So much, then, for the state of play. To go straight to the outcome and summarize my reaction: I like the parts of The Prelude where Wordsworth sticks most closely to the ideals expressed in that preface. But there are long stretches where he departs from them, and those I often found dull, or worse.

Several months have passed since I finished reading the poem last fall. In preparation for writing this, I picked it up again and browsed. The opening lines are excellent. The verse is a clear stream, the appeal to the senses and experience direct and persuasive: Wordsworth is enjoying his return to the countryside after a sojourn in London, which he does not love, and the freedom he is about to enjoy for the pursuit of his poetic vocation. But pretty quickly a troublesome sign appears: a lengthy praise of his own creative ambition, which he elevates to a sacred calling: the open fields I told
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robes
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem
For holy services....

I have always disliked, and now detest, the tendency, which began or at least gained prominence with the Romantics, to cast the artist, or rather The Artist, as a quasi-religious figure, set apart from ordinary people by his genius. Eric Gill is generally and justly condemned these days for his sexual abuse of his daughters. That doesn't mean that everything he said was wrong, though, and he was never more right than when he said "The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist."

And The Prelude is full of that sort of thing, and not as general observation but as part of Wordsworth's account of himself,  contemplating the progress of his efforts not just to write but to fulfill a rather grandiose mission which is all bound up with his philosophy. I don't think I can describe the latter, and anyway I don't want to bother. He and Coleridge had lofty and somewhat abstract ideas about mind and imagination that I always found somewhat vaporous, and in conflict with their preference for concrete language and experience in poetry. His diction in those parts also tends, perhaps inevitably, toward the vague and the pompous. The long section, spanning two books, in which he describes his experiences in France at the beginning of the Revolution might have been a vivid story, but lapses often into abstraction and detachment: "I thought this, and I thought that," not necessarily memorably expressed. 

What I find worthy of being called great in The Prelude is the recounting of experiences which are distinctly of the physical world: not mental, not ideas. The relation of those experiences is more potent than his talk about them. I'm regretting now that I didn't make notes, or mark passages in the book, because I can't readily put my finger now on one particularly vivid story of his youthful wandering in the countryside where he grew up: this one involves rowing at night, and feeling something uncanny in the way the crags which, because he is rowing away from them and thus facing toward them, seem to grow taller as his distance reveals more of them. 

When I finished reading The Prelude I turned to some of the sonnets and other shorter poems that I remembered liking long ago. They are even better than I remembered, and are the solid foundation of his reputation. I doubt that I'll ever read the entirety of The Prelude again, but I'll certainly go back to those. There are many that would be new to me, and almost certainly some gems among them.

IDAGIO, and A Sweet Little Bach Piece

No pun on the word "sweet" intended, though the piece is classifiable as a suite, though not called such. 

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I've subscribed to yet another online streaming service, this one for classical music only. I already had Pandora Plus, the paid version of Pandora, which, unlike the free Pandora service, is like Spotify and all the rest, allowing you to pick what you want to hear out of an enormous range of music. But also like those others, it doesn't handle classical music very well. Cataloging classical recordings like pop songs makes finding what you want anywhere from cumbersome to really pretty frustrating. And I find it mildly annoying to see a classical composition or section of a composition--any one track from a recording--referred to as a "song," as in this Pandora listing:

Beethoven: Symphony 9 ("Choral")
Album by Fritz Reiner
4 songs - 1994

This new service (new to me anyway) is called IDAGIO (they seem to like to capitalize it that way), and it's really good. It approaches perfection as a classical music application. Just to state the most obvious advantage, recordings are organized by composer, performer, instruments, and genre. There is no separate listing of recordings by name, but the general search tool will usually find specific recordings if that's what I'm after. 

There is a standalone Windows app, but the web app seems to be pretty much identical. And there's an iPhone app. They do have a free service, which is very much worth checking out if you're at all interested. I assume it intersperses ads with the music. I hope it doesn't interrupt the music with ads, which would be intolerable. That actually happened to me the other day when I was listening to something on  YouTube, and I think I actually yelled in shock, because of course the advertisement was significantly louder than the classical piece I was trying to hear. The yell may have been a curse. (I was listening to YouTube, through the TV, because my stereo is broken!! This is pretty awful but I'm coping.)

I started this post with the intention only of discussing a Bach piece which I had just heard for the first time. But I thought I ought to mention IDAGIO because that was where I discovered the piece. Prominently displayed among the New Releases is this one from ECM New Series:


I will generally listen to anything on ECM at least once, and this was intriguing. 

An entire album of Bach keyboard pieces played on the clavichord seemed at first an odd thing, as it's a fairly limited instrument. But, well, why not? Historically it is, I assume, more correct than Bach on the piano. And Bach himself played it, though we (or at least I) think of his keyboard music (apart from organ works) as being composed for the harpsichord. All I can tell  you about the difference is that the clavichord mechanism strikes the strings, while the harpsichord plucks them, and that the clavichord is quieter and more delicate. The sound is fairly similar: if I'd heard this album without knowing what it was, and without listening  very closely, I would have assumed I was hearing a harpsichord. 

The first piece on the album is the suite I mentioned, "Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother" in B flat major, BWV 992. I thought on first hearing that it's a delightful, fairly simple, pretty piece, and that if I hadn't know it's Bach he would not have been my first guess. Rameau or Couperin, maybe. "Simple" is not usually a word brought to mind by Bach's music. This is the earliest known piece by him, written when he was nineteen, on the occasion of his brother Johann Jacob's departure to join the army, and its six sections have a program meant to portray the departure. You can read all about it here. Wikipedia says that the story attached to the piece is "questionable," but if Bach himself wrote the explanations of the movements, there must be something to the story. 

Andras Schiff's clavichord recording is not on  YouTube, but this one on piano is.