Monday, January 30, 2017

Music on Monday: Protests, Riots, and Refugees

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music. 

On Thursday evening, May 29, 1913, a riot broke out in Paris. This riot did not take place in the streets, but in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées during the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky said this of his inspiration:
I had a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to the god of spring.
No one is sure what prompted the riot. It might have been the strikingly dissonant harmonies that were in such great contrast to the traditional, lyrical sound of music popular among the elites that frequented the ballet in Paris. It might have been the choreography which featured primitive stamping and was certainly a far cry from the style of dance the audience was accustomed to. More likely it was a result of the conflict between the two opposing types of audience member, one being the elite patron of high art, and the other being the Bohemian type who would support anything that was "new." The former group felt they were being laughed at with this "disrespectful" display of vulgarity.

But the most interesting thing about the riot was the response of the director, Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev. Stravinsky himself remembers it this way:
Diaghilev's only comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.' He certainly looked contented. No one could have been quicker to understand the publicity value, and he immediately understood the good thing that had happened in that respect. Quite probably he had already thought about the possibility of such a scandal when I first played him the score, months before, in the east corner ground room of the Grand Hotel in Venice.
We seem to live now in a world where protests happen every other day. Even when I agree at least in some degree with the sentiments of the protesters, I'm hesitant to support this as a means of dissent. I think it is often a case of playing right into the hands of the impresario behind the scenes.

I am deeply sad for the upheaval in the lives of law-abiding, innocent people who have been affected by the President's executive order on immigration. I do want tighter immigration control, but I didn't want it to be done at the deep emotional and financial expense of individual families and people who were completely innocent of any wrongdoing or wrong motives, especially when our country had entered into a good faith contract by issuing them valid visas or green cards. These people were treated like criminals when they arrived, some of them placed in handcuffs, and some who possessed green cards were deported before the court order came to prevent it. These were refugees from war-torn areas, doctors who can't return to the hospitals where they worked helping Americans, employees of American businesses, people who worked as interpreters helping our military whose lives are in danger as a result, families who just wanted to spend time together...these were not terrorists. (I'm not going to link to all the stories here. If the only news you read comes from agencies that have not reported on the human face of this immigration ban, I encourage you to investigate on your own.) I don't agree that the price these people have and are paying is just the sad but necessary cost of making our country safe. We could have implemented stricter vetting practices without hurting good people in the process. But if that upsets you, please be careful about how you handle your reaction.

It feels good to protest en masse. But, if it sparks sensationalist accusations and overblown rhetoric, then the very real truths that need to be addressed are lost as the other side castigates the protesters for the exaggerations. Sensationalism makes the accusation of "fake news" believable, and sensational rhetoric will be dismissed by the impresario rubbing his hands together and saying "Exactly what I wanted."

But, similarly, those denouncing fake news should beware, too. You might be missing the kernel of truth hidden inside a story that also contains some falsehood by rejecting the whole thing out of hand. Those truths deserve to be seen, and both the left and right need to make sure they're not being manipulated by voices encouraging them to embrace a particular ideological message at any cost.

A complete report of the President's executive order on immigration should include the reasons for it, the reasons against it, and should put a human face to the effects of it. If the stories you've read don't include all of that, question them.

So what to do instead of protest?

Contact your elected officials. It's not as flashy as a protest, but sustained effort can pay off. This is a huge privilege of American citizens. Use it.

Don't engage in facebook or twitter feuds. It's counterproductive. I'm learning.

Be very, very diligent about vetting what media you share. I've posted some things and then taken them down. I'm learning. The number one question to ask yourself is whether the story seems to be written to generate sympathy for an ideological position, or whether it is a factual representation of all the facets of the story. I reject the idea that journalists should be "thought leaders" rather than objective reporters. The 24-hour news cycle has done more harm than good. I know people who watch it all day like it's a constant soap opera.

Above all, don't lose your compassion. I feel deep compassion regarding the safety of my countrymen, but I don't think that means that I have to sacrifice compassion for innocent people who, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in this maelstrom. I'm praying for them, and I'm also praying for wisdom, discretion, compassion, and diplomacy for our elected officials and citizens. I hope you are, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Lie

The idiom "to give the lie" means to prove that something is false - to show up the liar.

The Lie

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Go, soul, the body’s guest, 
Upon a thankless errand; 
Fear not to touch the best; 
The truth shall be thy warrant. 
Go, since I needs must die, 
And give the world the lie. 

Say to the court, it glows 
And shines like rotten wood; 
Say to the church, it shows 
What’s good, and doth no good. 
If church and court reply, 
Then give them both the lie. 

Tell potentates, they live 
Acting by others’ action; 
Not loved unless they give, 
Not strong but by a faction. 
If potentates reply, 
Give potentates the lie. 

Tell men of high condition, 
That manage the estate, 
Their purpose is ambition, 
Their practice only hate. 
And if they once reply, 
Then give them all the lie. 

Tell them that brave it most, 
They beg for more by spending, 
Who, in their greatest cost, 
Seek nothing but commending. 
And if they make reply, 
Then give them all the lie. 

Tell zeal it wants devotion; 
Tell love it is but lust; 
Tell time it is but motion; 
Tell flesh it is but dust. 
And wish them not reply, 
For thou must give the lie. 

Tell age it daily wasteth; 
Tell honor how it alters; 
Tell beauty how she blasteth; 
Tell favor how it falters. 
And as they shall reply, 
Give every one the lie. 

Tell wit how much it wrangles 
In tickle points of niceness; 
Tell wisdom she entangles 
Herself in overwiseness. 
And when they do reply, 
Straight give them both the lie. 

Tell physic of her boldness; 
Tell skill it is pretension; 
Tell charity of coldness; 
Tell law it is contention. 
And as they do reply, 
So give them still the lie. 

Tell fortune of her blindness; 
Tell nature of decay; 
Tell friendship of unkindness; 
Tell justice of delay. 
And if they will reply, 
Then give them all the lie. 

Tell arts they have no soundness, 
But vary by esteeming; 
Tell schools they want profoundness, 
And stand too much on seeming. 
If arts and schools reply, 
Give arts and schools the lie. 

Tell faith it’s fled the city; 
Tell how the country erreth; 
Tell manhood shakes off pity; 
Tell virtue least preferreth. 
And if they do reply, 
Spare not to give the lie. 

So when thou hast, as I 
Commanded thee, done blabbing— 
Although to give the lie 
Deserves no less than stabbing— 
Stab at thee he that will, 
No stab the soul can kill. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Music on Monday: Tennis Edition

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

I've enjoyed watching the Australian Open over the weekend, and I'm especially excited that my favorite tennis player, Roger Federer, has made it into the quarter-finals. So, in honor of the AO, today's music is tennis-related.

Believe it or not, there are actually several pieces of classical music that are related to tennis in some way, but my favorite one to listen to is by a relatively unknown Swedish composer. Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (d. 1945) is remembered for a few symphonies, operas, and some romantic piano pieces. Included in his 1896 collection Flowers from Frösö Island is a short piano piece called "Lawn Tennis."

The piano score is available at IMSLP, and seriously, how cool is the typography on this title page? I think I'll be playing this soon!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Thursday

Photo by Mikeal Kristenson

1.  Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps 1:1) The seat of the scornful is an awfully tempting place to sit, higher than all the other seats and boasting the softest cushions. I seem to prefer it.

2. I wonder if those who work in doctor's offices realize the extent to which their friendliness is a ministry? I am thankful for my doctor's staff.

3. When the student is ready, the right spiritual formation group appears.

4. I often wonder why God chose the first century to send his Son to earth. Why not send him when 24-hour news and social media would have given him a bigger platform? Maybe sound bites and 40-character twitter blasts aren't nearly as nuanced and loving as parables and face-to-face dialogue complete with tone of voice and body language. (So asserts the one writing on the internet...)

5. The blogging world needs more age 50+ female voices that write with a positive slant on maturity. The vast majority of online material specifically for women my age exists to tell me how to exercise or eat so I can look/feel younger or how to dress to look/feel younger. What's wrong with the age I am?

6. The world of the arts needs more writers, musicians, and other artists who are honest about how prohibitive the artistic world is for anyone without a good bit of disposable income. (Here's one.) If we want more genuinely well-crafted music, literature, visual art, etc. in our faith communities, there has to be financial support for it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Words On Wednesday: What Breathes Us

What Breathes Us
 by Barry Spacks

Regards to the day, the great long day
that can't be hoarded, good or ill.
What breathes us likely means us well.
We rise up from an earthly root
to seek the blossom of the heart.
What breathes us likely means us well.
We are a voice impelled to tell
where the joining of sound and silence is.
We are the tides, and their witnesses.
What breathes us likely means us well.

Photo by Andrew Branch

Monday, January 16, 2017

Music on Monday: All Nature Sings

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

To all of my friends living in the frozen north, I'm sorry to gloat, but this is what Saturday looked like for hubby and me here in Georgia. Or better, this is what it sounded like. Paddles dipping in the water, turtles sliding off logs with a splop, and birds calling across the branch. Turn up your sound! I'll try to take my good camera and get a better video next time we're out.

I think that when the time comes for my funeral one of these days, I'd prefer for everyone to gather outside somewhere. Just take a chair outside and sit. No music, no eulogy. Just listen.

Composer Olivier Messiaen was a fascinating figure (do read more about him), and he was himself fascinated with birdsong. He composed a number of works incorporating the sounds of birds as accurately as possible. In 1958, he wrote a monumental work for solo piano called Catalogue d'Oiseaux, or Catalogue of Birds. Each of the 13 pieces depicts the song of a specific bird from a specific region of France.
My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none. ~Olivier Messiaen
Here is the short-toed lark.

Photo by Benjamin Balázs


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Words on Wednesday: Choose Something Like A Star

Choose Something Like a Star

by Robert Frost
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Here is Randall Thompson's choral setting, performed by the Harvard University Choir.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Music on Monday: The Exile Edition

Photo by Ryan McGuire
Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

My exile ended today. I enjoyed a sort of retreat when my piano students took off for Christmas holidays until my studio reopened today. I didn't have to travel this year, so I did my shopping online, stayed at home and did pretty much what I pleased. That included a lot of reading and more piano playing than I've done in a long time.

I obsessed a little over a piano arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." It was tricky enough to keep me working on it over a solid three weeks to have the satisfaction of playing it well. Because the words I know best from memory are those of the first verse and chorus, I ended up meditating through all of that repetitive practicing, lectio divina style, on this:  O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will come to thee, O Israel.

"Rejoice" was set to glass-breaking dissonance. Makes sense. How do you rejoice in exile? The piece ended with a build-up to an exquisitely painful 9-8 suspension before closing off, still in the original minor key. No hopeful Picardy third on the end. Since we lost two family members who would not be at our Christmas table this year, a minor key felt more appropriate than fa-la-la-la-la. Advent's themes of waiting for a resolution when all would be made right felt comforting. As depressing as all of this sounds, there were quite a few moments of spontaneous joy. They'd appear out of nowhere, as though they'd been airdropped in a sort of humanitarian aid program.

So, I grieved and reflected on exile and dissonance, but by the time school resumed, I was ready to rejoin the real world and in much better spirits.

To close my exile/retreat off, I watched an opera last Saturday. The Metropolitan Opera Company broadcasts live transmissions of full-length productions in HD to movie theatres all over the world. I convinced my 14-year-old daughter to go along. She allowed that she didn't hate it. The opera was Nabucco, a love story set amidst the exile of the Hebrews after being overrun by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco). At least, I finally got a Picardy third of sorts at the end. Read on.

Today's Music on Monday selection is the aria sung by Nabucco, "Dio di Guida." Having declared himself not merely king, but God, he has become mentally unstable and a prisoner of his illegitimate daughter who has assumed the throne. She is about to execute all of the Hebrews, including Nabucco's legitimate daughter who has converted to Judaism. From his own exile of sorts, he kneels and pledges his faith and loyalty to the Hebrew God. I chose this video because it has subtitles, but I wish I could post a video of Placido Domingo's performance last Saturday which was one of the more moving operatic performances I've seen. He didn't merely kneel; he sang it prostrate on the floor. His senses return, he reclaims the throne, and frees the Israelites. Exile over.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Burning Babe

The liturgical season of Christmas continues until Jan. 6, so here's another Christmas-related poem.

English poet Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest serving as a surreptitious Catholic missionary in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She had passed an act asserting that any English priest of the Catholic church was not to remain on English soil for more than 40 days. He was arrested in 1592 and spent an month enduring torture by Richard Topcliffe and the privy council before being moved to the Tower of London for another two years. In 1595, he was found guilty of treason and executed by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Southwell wrote "The Burning Babe" shortly before his death. It was part of a collection of poetry he wrote while in prison, and the volume was dedicated to his cousin, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare uses imagery that reflects the poem in Scene 7, Act 1 of Macbeth when he casts Pity as a naked, newborn babe crying out at the injustice of Macbeth's murder of Duncan.

The Burning Babe
     by Robert Southwell
AS I in hoary winter’s night
Stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat
Which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye
To view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright
Did in the air appear;
Who, scorchèd with excessive heat,
Such floods of tears did shed,
As though His floods should quench His flames,
Which with His tears were bred:
‘Alas!’ quoth He, ‘but newly born
In fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts
Or feel my fire but I!
‘My faultless breast the furnace is;
The fuel, wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke;
The ashes, shames and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on,
And Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought
Are men’s defilèd souls:
For which, as now on fire I am
To work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath,
To wash them in my blood.’
With this He vanish’d out of sight
And swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind
That it was Christmas Day.
Photo by Ian Britton

Monday, January 2, 2017

Music on Monday: Pachelbel Was NOT A One-Hit Wonder

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

My family knows that every Christmas, they're going to hear me rant about Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. They steel themselves for it the same way I steel myself against hearing or playing this infernal piece one. more. time. The only thing worse than being locked in a room with it playing on a loop would be if the loop were "Mary Did You Know." She knows, okay? She knows! Every singer in the world has told her a million times.

What really gets my goat is that the whole world now thinks the Canon in D is a Christmas piece, thanks to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Whenever it comes on Holly in the car, my daughter lunges for the station dial to avoid hearing me screech "NOT CHRISTMAS MUSIC!"

The only redeeming thing is that when my piano students ask to play it (at Christmas, of course), I get to teach them the musical term "canon," which is not to be confused with artillery. A canon is a piece that follows a rule. In this case, the rule is that the bass line, played by the cello, repeats the same 8 notes (the ones in the cartoon below) for the entire piece while the violins play variations. Thank God I'm not a cellist.

Every cellist in the world hopes this was Pachelbel's purgatory experience.

The thing that bothers me the most is that so few people know Pachelbel's other works. He only became a one-hit wonder sometime in the last 40 years. Considering that he composed over 500 pieces of music, it's not fair that we reduce him to one now.

Pachelbel lived way back in the late 17th / early 18th century and was a friend of the Bach family and a teacher to Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother, Johann Christoph. He was influenced by Italian and South German styles, and he helped develop both chorale prelude literature and the pairing of preludes with fugues. One of his sons, Charles Theodore Pachelbel, emigrated to the New World, living in Boston and Charleston, and was a significant influence on music in the colonies. One of Charles Theodore's few extant compositions is an aria called "God of sleep for whom I languish." I NEED a copy of this!

Johann composed music for the organ and harpsichord, vocal music, and a few chamber pieces which include the infamous Canon. His works are staples of an organist's repertoire, and since we organists know that he is worth so much more than his one contemporary hit, we'd love for the rest of the world to get to know him better!

Some of Pachelbel's famous pieces for organ or harpsichord are the Fugues on the Magnificat, or as I like to call them, Fugues Related Loosely To The Magnificat since their only connection to the chant is found in the title. The thematic material in the fugues is free-composed and not based on any of the Magnificat tones. He wrote 95 of these short pieces using all of the 8 church modes. Many of them do not include a pedal part, so these are useful as piano literature, too. We believe these would have been played immediately prior to the cantor's singing of the Magnificat chant, and would serve to establish the key. Ultimately, we don't know exactly how many ways Pachelbel might have used these pieces. Improvisation and flexibility were the order of the day, and music used in one context on one day might be used in another the next.

Since we are still in the 12 Days of Christmas, this is a good time to listen or play these Magnificat-related fugues, but keep in mind that the Magnificat is used year-round in choral evensong and vespers. You can play these pieces any time.

I like this group of 8 fugues based on the fourth mode.

Just for fun...