Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Concerning Paul and Brahms"

I thought I had lost two essays I wrote in the pre-blog era; they must have been on the PowerMac 7600 that I abandoned in my old office. I find that the one called Apomnemeumata (Reccollections), which was indeed the inspiration for my beginning a blog, has been substantially recapitulated in my first dozen or so postings.
I want to post the second one, very strictly verbatim, now. It goes with and in some senses validates some recent ones: it is almost exclusively questions that have occupied me for many years that I break out with here, and the language is fundamentally the same, although the earlier essays (there are only two) were carefully written and revised, and the blog posts are not.
The reference to a then new CD by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann means that it dates to Autumn 1996, at a time when I was buying her recordings as soon as issued. It is not that hers are the only Brahms that I love. At that time I had never collected a single coin and had not read Christopher Hitchens (just to name one). My mind-set on ultimate questions, however, even then was not new.
So here it is.
If Saint Paul heard the Brahms setting in the "Four Serious Songs" of I Corinthians 13, even granting him the gift of tongues for its language, he could hardly understand its spirituality or its music, and on the evidence of his epistles he would be shocked to hear a female voice proclaiming his message, let alone one so eloquent and rich as Nathalie Stutzmann's. Brahms was no traditional churchman. After a century, however, those who know the song will contend that only he, of all those who have set it, has enhanced the depth and exaltation of Paul's most memorable text, most memorable in Greek, in Latin, in Luther's German, which Brahms set, or in English. Two millennia of western musical and intellectual culture separate us from Paul, and nearly as much Brahms. Remarkably we take Paul's epistle as something of our own (we learned it as children), forgetting that there is nearly nothing truly ours that Paul could grasp or come to terms with. Leave aside technology, from motors and plumbing to telecommunications and compact disks; in one life I have lived through innovations enough to know how quickly assimilated they are. Paul could adjust to television as easily as any Papuan. Our cosmology rather than our space shuttles would undo him, our voluminous and promiscuous reading more than our semi-nudity, our aesthetics, finding profound meaning in a few dozen bars of Webern or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie, not to mention conceptual art, more than our cellular telephones. Even admitting that Hellenistic philosophers and poets (considering the literary sophistication of their contributions to the Greek Anthology) would fare better among us than Paul of Tarsus, the mental gulf between the Zeitwende and the present is enormous.

It is not that we have changed much more, except technologically, in the last century than in previous ones. Consider the gulf between the best spiritual thought of ca. 2,000 BC and that of Paul. Even in Egypt and Akkad there was no real literature but cosmogonies so early as that. Two millennia, some 60 generations, seem to amount to almost unimaginable intellectual and aesthetic change in the history of mankind in the northern hemisphere (and perhaps in the southern as well, had we comparable records). From the end of Early Bronze to Paul, from Paul to ourselves, some four millennia encompass nearly everything by which we identify ourselves, perhaps most particularly our interest in identifying and formally defining ourselves. Paul's concern to do so may be read between the lines of all his epistles; compared with what we fancy we know of the mid-set of Ur Nammu or of Mentuhotop I, he seems rather like us after all, as if civilized mentality had changed more profoundly in the generations between Abraham and him than in those between him and Ms. Stutzmann's magisterial interpretation of Brahms.

The point is, what we think of as human history (for history, as distinct from tradition in general, is verbal and hardly survives unless recorded) is a very brief episode in the tale of humankind. Still briefer, whether in China or the West, are the whole of literary writing, of music to be listened to rather than danced to, of visual objects existing in their own right rather than to adorn rulers or objects of communal worship, and of human spirituality considered as such (cultivated by ourselves), as Brahms did, rather than as a spiritus inspired by grace.

Further, however trite these reflections may seem, they are consistent with my own life-long mentality, which persists in marveling at ordinary and universal things. I do not simply despise gawking at miracles; miracles seem to me cheap simplifications of infinitely intricate commonplace existence. The marvelous commonplace naturally includes Nature, from stars of the nth magnitude to biological reproduction, but even as a child I never made nature poets my own, holding in contempt one teacher for reciting Joyce Kilmer to the class, another for proclaiming (chin out, eyes turned upward) how very small man was relative to Everything. That was in the 7th grade, when children normally start feeling contemptuous. Yet I still have no evidence of Half Dome (in Yosemite) pondering the meaning of all nature other than itself or of ancient trees in any way like Tolkien's Ents, or, for that matter, of a sentient creature other than my own species making imaginative works out of primal fears. I need not subscribe to the religion underlying Tolkien's work to hold his work in awe, regarding philological and imaginative work as one in the human mentality that I adore. When the Hobbits turn cute and sentimental enough to embarrass the Disney Studio, they still aren't so vapidly silly as pantheists ranting. All the faults real or imputed of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle are nothing compared with a man's devoting all his creative intelligence and most of his energy to bring it to completion. And condemnation for evil done in the name of such Romantic interpretations of ethnic myths or legends is misplaced. Corruptio optimi pessima covers the perversion of the best that inheres in 19th-century Romanticism; that all Romanticism is unsound, so far as soundness goes, and its worst aspects terribly attractive to unsound minds, is also arguable; that limiting emotional and intellectual expression to what is reasonably safe limits art and thought to the reasonably banal is obvious. Saint Paul, for example, remote as he is from the mental world of Romanticism, like Wagner has potently enthralled minds prone to enthrallment and could be deemed equally unsafe. His is the only many-sided, complex, tormented, fully human mind in the whole Book; once grasped his is forever with us as a real person, as surely as Dante or Hugo or Wagner or Woolf. It is the authenticity apparent in the expression of their consciousness that makes them enduringly valuable to the rest of us, at least to as many as want them, rather than the congeries of sentiments, illusions, information and misinformation, passions and repressions that, as fallible as each of us, each was subject to. An important artist or thinker, then, may be one of the rare psersons who can find the formal means to transmit to us his or her whole uniqueness, not the persona but the real actor who wears it. Paul was one such, Brahms was another, but it is the privilege of the later man to richly understand (not to fully understand, of course) the earlier. So I see why I feel that it is not being free of faults and vices that makes one worthwhile, any more than having vices enhances one's real interest, but the capability of imparting one unique humanity to other unique human consciousnesses. It may be humanity's one reliable solace, being able to know another's authenticity.

Years ago, it seemed to me certain that Henri Bremond's asserting the identity of poetry and prayer must be radically true. Bremond did not write of visual or musical poiesis in these terms, but I would. I would assert, too, that the pursuit of such authenticity is the mark of, and justifies the concept of, high culture in any civilization. Considering how recently it has emerged, and how much antagonism it has aroused, suggests that the maintenance of this pursuit is difficult, and it is as fragile as it is precious.

I cannot write winged words. I can dream of what and how I would write, but when I do my best the result is plainest prose. To hope to write anything that matters even to myself, I must simply take pains to be accurate and true, without regard to whether my thoughts are original or trite, intelligent or stupid. In writing memories, all I can do is try to write only what I think that I actually remember, with no scenario. No writer can do more. A gifted writer forges magical-seeming formal means that awaken in a reader the latter's own inchoate authenticity, just as the sculptor of Riace Warrior A (whether or not he was Pheidias) makes one understand that bodily beauty is not limited to natural pulchritude, and the Brahms setting is more than, perhaps other than, Paul's intent in addressing the church at Corinth. Because Paul was a great writer, if nothing else, his words themselves transcend the theological points they convey, awakening more in serious meditation on them than almost any of the famous commentaries on that chapter. Yet authenticity, truth to one's own inner consciousness, is not necessarily easier for the gifted writer than for me or anyone else, nor for the gifted visual artist or musical composer or interpreter. Indeed, possessing spiritual gifts, however defined, may not facilitate authentic prayer. And in writing, or in any other art, the primary value is always in genuine endeavor, as with prayer: not only Augustine or Proust or Jane Austen, but every writer must write because Bremond's insight is true.

Though tempted to change a word here and there, I promise that I have keyboarded this scrupulously as I found it this afternoon. I think I needed an extra word in the last line, but you'll have to guess what it might have been, if so.
As for who Natalie Stutzmann is, however, here is the Wikipedia address: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathalie_Stutzmann

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Half heard on FM last week: philotimia or what?

I was doing chores, but they were talking about the social psychology of crimes of 'honor' and practices such as Chinese footbinding, searching for a unifying factor.
By crimes of honor were meant such as killing the man who has dishonored your sister (and in some cases the sister, too). I might have added murdering the persons who have profaned the graves of your family or profaning their graves in return and assorted crimes of compound blackmail.
Their discussion, however, was focused more on male crimes in the cases of dishonored sisters or mothers, and somehow they wanted to bring footbinding under the same heading.
In the first place, let us regard them all as anthropological, in the sense that more technologically advanced retaliations are now available in urban societies.
In pre-modern societies, where all families knew everybody else's business and were expert in assessing how much honor they would accord to other families, and where daughters with dowries had to be intact, literally, to be married into another family of similar property, honor killing on account of one's sister's being violated was due not only to its being grievous but in terms of property. For example, a dowry could include some land, and a family's sons depended in part on family honor to, themselves, win a wife with a good dowry. It was not merely to ensure that one's heirs were one's own. A family that had philotimia, a strong sense of honor, and whose family affairs were evidence of it, could marry well and forge the ties of good marriages. But philotimia therefore included the ability to manage one's household so that its daughters could marry intact.
Yes, I know that sounds like Xenophon's Oikonomika, and for an urban and educated Greek, Xenophon was indeed among the most socially conservative of his time.
And of course girls from ill-tended homes often, then as now, "got in trouble" instead of being properly marriageable. Am I blaming them? Who is anyone to blame girls who, aged 12 to 16, say, had to go to symposia and less elegant parties just to get something to eat? Why, I remember when social workers had to nab a 13-year-old in Eugene, OR, who was being fed, and used, by two fraternities in turn. She was homeless and clueless, and her mother was an addict.
Now the link, logically, is that only daughters of propertied Chinese families had their feet bound. It proved, heaven help us, that they'd never worked or gone out without servants to guard them. I suppose that foot binding had originated in a similar concern for the status in society of a family.
Now, when I said 'anthropologically', I wasn't using the adverb in an exact or scientific sense. I was thinking of E. R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational, the wonderful Sather Classical Lectures (1951), which is still, in PB, in print and still so widely read that a large supply of used copies is available, too. This was where I made the acquaintance of the distinction between "shame" and "guilt" cultures, Homer being still largely a "shame" culture. That is the fundamental reason for Achilles' sulking in his tent. Of course, mafiosi of the 20th century are often represented as thinking similarly, but, developmentally, it still seems, shame does pre-date guilt.
Maybe that's too commonplace to bother about, but from time to time down the decades, and especially when I heard of a very nice young woman in a village who had become unmarriageable because she'd been taken advantage of, and everyone knew it, I was deeply troubled. That was itself half a century ago, but I cannot forget her.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Another debate with Christopher Hitchens

Even years and years ago when I disagreed with him, I liked Christopher Hitchens. And now he is very ill, and people keep making him argue with fools. I always have liked his friend Martin Amis, too, and I still do, and I cannot understand animus towards Martin Amis (though I'm not specially fond of his father's work and never was).
When I think of the waste and cruelty of putting him to School Debates (as today on BookTV, at a place called Fixed Point Foundation), after initial irritation I must think that perhaps he prefers such activity rather than none. And then, you can't do whole hours with Charlie Rose all the time. I would prefer debating to doing nothing but thinking of my next doctor's appointment.
Anyway, today on BookTV he had to debate with the inane platitudes against atheism (from a man who would not discuss what Hitchens means by the word) from the superficially clever and very mean-minded David Berlinski, whom I hadn't been exposed to before. I had to think of what someone on NPR had said about Pope Benedict XVI, that he speaks courteously and softly and nicely but does not relax his position. Mr. Berlinski, however, is not a pope, nor is he as sharp as the late William Buckley. Mr. Berlinski made me sick. He deliberately mixed all kinds of categories (of the Aristotelian kind) and evaded difficult questions shamelessly. Hitchens deserves better.
Well, I am a shameless admirer of Hitchens. He loves Lucretius, my favorite ancient author. I am sure that he really understands Epicurean doctrine. He said more than once that uncertainty is the only comfort. That atheism is not an -ism in the sense of being a Faith. That is just where I am, and he is a great comfort to me. I see that Hitchens does not confuse reverence with belief. At least, I think he doesn't. I think that only freedom from certainties is compatible with real reverence and true awe.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vive l'Oiseau-Lyre

My first L'Oiseau-Lyre LP, a 10-inch vinyl, a birthday gift in 1955
Whenever I see one of the Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett, I wonder whether that dubbing mixer is the same
John Whitworth.
When my friend Denise, who is an artist but works for the Atlanta Journal-Consitution, comes home here (as over the Labor Day weekend), her visit with me, apart from simple but well considered dinner, consists largely of serious music listening, unless there are new art books to consider. Even Atlanta is hardly the museum or music center of the nation. And there may be a backlog of DVDs, of opera or ballet, which I like to share with someone. Collecting recorded performances, as well as works and composers, is the habit of persons otherwise hardly in touch, and it runs in my family, among a few of us in each generation. And now we no longer can get WQXR with George Jellinek, for example, and somehow it just isn't the same to listen on line (I'm working on the crossover, though). So I have many hundreds of recordings covering a full century. It takes work just to maintain the means of playing them all properly, and right now the main CD player has died, as they have a way of doing.
Every so often, even now, one can regret an impulse purchase. Verbal data on line are not enough. Zurich is a cultivated city. Cecilia Bartoli is a wonderful singer. Handel's Semele, technically an oratorio, for performance during Lent, is dramatically and vocally an opera and a delectable one. Swiss performances do not always have familiar names for the whole cast, some of whom in 2007 might not yet have made their mark. The conductor, William Christie, not my personal favorite, still is an old hand (anyhow, it didn't matter, the miking being so poor that you had to know the score just to pretend to judge him). And, let it be admitted, a live performance is not like a thoroughly processed, even over-processed, studio recording. I admit that, but I regularly hear better recording out of the the uinversity's School of Music done for local FM broadcast, and Louisiana Public Broadcasting did the job of audio and video very well for a promotional broadcast called "Opera Louisiane".
I was appalled by Zurich's, released worldwide by Decca, too. And Bartoli seemed to be even more unhappy than I was. Of course, she sang well, so far as the recording allowed one to relish her voice. The director managed to insult her just as he did Ovid and Congreve and Handel. Worse than having Ariadne act like Zerbinetta.
I must stop to insist that I do not object to new stagings of any kind, as such. I admit, too, that I hadn't considered how important native English, and even, by choice, mostly British, singers are. The tenor, who also can sing, Charles Workman, is the only singer with an apparently English name, but unfortunately he, too, was ridiculously directed to accentuate all his liabilities: plainly stated, even in silver gilt armor, he just couldn't be Jupiter. Jupin, in Orpheus in Hades, even would be too Jovian. And it didn't help that the director seemed to think that Semele was one of those 1927 romps. Mr. Workman is an earnest singer and actor; "stand and deliver" like Carlo Bergonzi (not that he's a Bergonzi, of course, who himself probably would be a poor choice for Semele's Jupiter) would have been best for him. After all, Semele was meant to be only semi-staged.
An experimental staging need not be definitive, but it needs to be internally consistent and not pointless: an example that I think was worth doing was the Don Giovanni set in modern Spanish Harlem with those twin African-American bass-baritones. Wagner can be done in non-mythological costumes and on a set made of geometric sloping surfaces; some of these are well worth considering, even if I am fond of 19th-century Romantic sets. You don't have to have an elaborate set for one of the Gluck operas, any more than for a Greek drama itself; just don't get silly. Somehow the 1980s Orfeo for Janet Baker on the small Glyndebourne stage was blissfully perfect, but Berlin's Komische Oper production for Jochen Kowalski, mixing Gluck with an electric guitar (as a visual prop only!) also, against all expectation, worked in its own terms, memorably (their La Boheme updated to the time of Charpentier's Louise, much closer to Puccini's music, was utter perfection). I never have seen, or heard of, Semele all done as Glyndebourne's Orfeo was, all purely Poussin (those hats are so useful). Period pictures show mixed sources, but neo-Classical might be fun. Just nice costumes on a plain stage would be fine. Above all, the chorus, which serves like an ancient Greek chorus, must not be obtrusive unless called upon (as dancers) at the end, to celebrate (by allusion) the birth of Dionysos. If so, Sir Peter Hall's example, based on Renaissance and Baroque precedents, is a model. That needn't be expensive, either. If you take a Samian coin that shows their venerable Hera, for the sacrifice scene at the beginning of Semele, and make her of mixed media like some of the BVMs in California missions (I'm thinking of La Soledad), paper maché and second-hand garments from Salvation Army would be all the raw materials, except for poster paint for the face, that you'd have to buy. I once saw, in Berkeley, CA, a university Semele for which they'd made an enormously enlarged Cycladic figure: not ideal, but it worked. Among the many silly and pointless things at Zurich a balloon moon (lamp inside) that the chorus passed from hand to hand evidently to show the passage of a long night of love-making. But Handel took care of the night, musically, and Congreve left no adult in doubt as to the content of this interlude. That moon balloon reminded me of nothing so much as a beach balloon photo by Martin Munkacsi for the cover of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung for July 29, 1929. This reference is quite forgivable, because they also, whenever they thought the audience especially dense, held up prepared newspapers with headlines on the order of JUPITER ARRIVES! That was all right for the Berliner Ensemble in its heyday. I suppose that the chorus was made up of members of several choral societies, because they did seem to be enjoying wearing somewhat retro semi-formal dress, which did remind us that Zurich is a banking and insurance city.
Now, of course, none of that would matter, except that it didn't add up to anything, much less anything to do with Handel's masterpiece or the Congreve libretto that Winton Dean (I think it was) called perhaps the best of all time.
Bartoli was made to say lines as if they were unintentionally funny. Now, Ovid knows how to make passion both real and playful, and he probably didn't know that in the 20th-century H. J. Rose would allow that Semele, Dionysos's mother, was an ancient Thracian goddess, Zemelo. No matter. He and Congreve and Handel (and Peter Hall, too) all understood that the structure and staging of an opera came out of the publication of Greek drama and the excitement its understanding engendered, when publication in print became the rule. If you don't understand that, you oughtn't to try to use a chorus. Just as recitative is not usually what is spoken in 'real life', but is a musing, and an aria likewise is not what a character is saying out loud to the world but the representation of his or her state of mind, so the chorus enunciates what the community's impression and opinion are. Although antiquity, the Renaissance, the 18th century, even, were not ashamed of sex (though well aware that it could be dangerous), they make it obvious (because everyone knows that it's obvious) by the key the aria is set in, by the style it's sung in, and so on. Poor Cecilia Bartoli; give her an accompanist or an orchestra who knows what the music means, and she can handle it all by herself, but the person who directed the Zurich Semele wouldn't let her; no wonder she looked embarrassed and unhappy! Great Scott! In Mahagonny Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht (1930) in their own way still implicitly respected the genesis of staged drama and of opera.
So my friend Denise and I could bear no more. We put away the DVD and decided that the great Semele under Sir Anthony Lewis, with the St. Anthony Chorus, with continuo by the very great Thurston Dart, with Jennifer Vyvyan (whom you may know as the Governess of Britten's Turn of the Screw), William Herbert as Jupiter, John Whitworth (see caption at head of this blog) as Athamas, and Helen Watts as Ino (to name those still well known today) would soothe our musical souls. Though the LPs are half a century old, they always have been kept clean and always played with the best pickup available, so they remain perfectly enjoyable. Let me say that Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Gardiner's choice for Jupiter, is really wonderful, too. The most relevant fact, perhaps, about the coterie that did so much Purcell, Handel, and Rameau, is that they are musicologists as well as performers, though L'Oiseau-Lyre recordings came with less ample documentation than the Archiv recordings contemporary with them. What documentation there is, however, is very good. Though the 3-LP recording of Semele is edited, it is not just a selection of arias, and the continuo of Thurston Dart unifies everything. These musicians, closely linked to the Royal College of Music, are more eminent than many guess. Dart, for example, not only taught George Malcolm but as a conductor taught John Eliot Gardiner and many others. One needs only to read the relevant Wiki and put them together. It is the pre-stereo ones that are hard to get.
These performances are historically informed, and it doesn't matter what kind of bows they use. Only the recorders and Dart's Thomas Gof harpsichord are in any sense period instruments. But period instruments without informed and sensitive and joyous knowledge of the music of the period are useless. And the continuo, which is so important, needs a great keyboard artist, yes, but the pleasure in scholarship and knowledge of the composer's intentions of a Thurston Dart make all the difference.
I have looked and looked; I cannot believe that these great performances of Handel (and even that joy of our youth, Alfred Deller and John Whitworth singing "Sound the Trumpets" in "Come Ye Sons of Art") are no longer available at all. It may be that they and much else, not that newer ones aren't good, too, have been dismissed as monophonic—but even Gardiner's Semele is no longer available as originally issued by Erato. But keep an eye out; MP3 and iDisc may come to the rescue.
Denise and I went on to listen through the L'Oiseau-Lyre Acis and Galatea and L'Allegro ed il Penseroso, too. Peter Pears in his prime sings on those.
Well, I know I can't give you the music here, alas. But don't let anyone hand you a bunch of Calvinist inverse sexism for the story of Zeus and Semele. It's something far deeper and more basic and almost divine.
On the lyre bird in nature, the BBC David Attenborough are best: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/species/Superb_Lyrebird
The tribute delivered for John Whitworth on the bestowal of an honorary degree is so much more delightful than anything that I could have imagined that I have provided a link to it where, above, his name occurs!