Friday, November 30, 2007

Still More Reasons to Stay Single

I actually heard a recording of this bluegrass specialty, which was required reading in a college Intro to Anthropology and Sociology class I once took. It related somehow to a unit on family relationships as seen through the eyes of different cultures. Clearly, they have a highly advanced culture in Bluegrass Country. Thanks to Homer & Jethro for recording this priceless gem on RCA Victor in 1956:

Many, many years ago when I was 23
I was married to a Wider who was purty as can be
This Wider had a grown-up daughter who had hair of red
My father fell in love with her and soon they two were wed

This made my dad my son-in-law and changed my very life
For my daughter was my mother cause she was my father's wife
To complicate the matter even though it brought me joy
I soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy

I'm my own grampa,
I'm my own grampa
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
I'm my own grampa

My little baby then became a brother-in-law to dad
And so became my uncle though it made me very sad
For if he was my uncle then that also made him brother
Of the Wider's grown up daughter who of course was my step-mother

My father's wife then had a son who kept them on the run
And he became my granchild for he was my daughters son
My wife is now my mother's mother and it makes me blue
Because although she is my wife she's my grandmother too

I'm my own grampa,
I'm my own grampa
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
I'm my own grampa

Oh if my wife is my grandmother then I'm her grandchild
And every time I think of it, it nearly drives me wild
For now I have become strangest case you ever saw
As husband of my own grandmother I'm my own grampa

I'm my own grampa,
I'm my own grampa
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
I'm my own grampa

More Reasons Why I am Single

When I was in college, I played the accompaniment for a classmate who sang this song, as set to music by Robert Schumann. The way he did it, the song was very slow and sentimental, and he sang all the "alternative readings" to avoid the highest notes. It wasn't until I heard the Fritz Wunderlich recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe that I realized what a powerful piece this was. Wunderlich sang it up-tempo, over an accompanist who zestfully pounded away at the piano part, and nailed the extremely high notes dead-on. Tragically, Wunderlich died shortly after making that record, breaking his neck in a fall down a flight of stairs.

Here are the words, first in Heinrich Heine's original German (give or take a few tweaks), then in Paul Hindemith's English translation. In my opinion, this song (which other composers besides Schumann have set to music) is one of the most bitterly ironic put-downs in the history of jilted lovers and their poetry. And maybe the fact that I get a kick out of it is a further explanation of why I am still single.

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlor'nes Lieb ! Ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.
Das weiß ich längst.

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ich sah dich ja im Traume,
Und sah die Nacht in deines Herzens Raume,
Und sah die Schlang', die dir am Herzen frißt,
Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist.
Ich grolle nicht.

I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking!
Love lost forever! I bear no grudge.
Although you shine in diamond splendor,
No beam falls into the night of your heart.
I will know that for a long time.

I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking!
I truly saw you in my dreams
And saw the night in the room of your heart,
And saw the snake that bites your heart;
I saw, my dear, how truly miserable you are.
I bear no grudge.

Puss Palaver

I have several "serious" posts cooking, but just to round my November updates up to 20, here are some more helpful responses to "Meow" that I have noted down, for those readers who feel a need for more two-way communication with their cats.

Q. Meow!
A. Make me.

Q. Meow!
A. Back at ya, kid.

Q. Meow!
A. Flattery will get you everywhere.

Q. Meow!
A. All right, but have the car back by midnight.

Q. Meow!
A. I resemble that remark.

Q. Meow!
A. Easier said than done.

Q. Meow!
A. I don't care, I love you anyway.

Q. Meow!
A. Yeah, but at least I don't talk to my cats!

Q. Meow!
A. I'm the cat's what?

Q. Meow!
A. Why? What's wrong with what I'm wearing?

Q. Meow!
A. No, no, no! For the last time, say "Fiddle-I-Fee"!

Q. Meow!
A. That's just tough!

Q. Meow!
A. True, but don't let it get you down.

Q. Meow!
A. No, you can't shred it till I'm done reading it.

Q. Meow!
A. Sure, act innocent! We both know who let that one go!

Q. Miao!
A. Correct! And that leaves foreign languages for $800...

Q. Meow!
A. Hey! What up, dawg?
Q. Meow!!!
A. Excuuuse me! It's only an expression!

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Pox on Su Casa

The next-to-last time I visited Del Taco, I was rammed from behind by another drive-through customer who was unhappy about how slowly the line was moving. That deterred me from going back for a while, but I tried a different Del Taco restaurant a little while ago because I am a forgiving soul. But only to a certain extent. My latest visit decided me that I will never eat at a Del Taco again.

One reason is enough: the bean burrito tasted like boiled pinto beans. To be sure, boiled pintos are a key ingredient in a bean burrito; but a touch of the magic of Mexican cookery transforms them into refried beans - which is quite another flavor altogether. Del Taco's kitchen lacks that magic touch. Therefore it does not deserve to have its name mentioned in the same breath as the phrase "Mexican food."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Sometime last week or weekend, I went to see the new movie Beowulf. The first thing that I need to say about it is: this is not a cartoon for kids! This is a very, very, very adult movie!

The film takes its departure from the early English epic about a Danish hero named Beowulf (natch), who comes to the rescue when King Hrothgar's meadhall is terrorized by a monster named Grendel. As far as I know, the original epic ends with Beowulf vanquishing Grendel. In the movie, however, Grendel bites it rather early on. The major burden of the film, then, has to do with "what happens next" Beowulf went to the lair of Grendel's demon mother to destroy her, and ends up bringing a curse on himself and his kingdom for the rest of his life...and how he finally ends the curse at tremendous personal cost.

As I said, this is an ADULT movie. It has a lot of sexual references, lewd behavior, and nudity, plus really scary monsters and extreme violence. It isn't even a cartoon, really. Like The Polar Express and, I think, Monster House, Beowulf was actually shot with live actors, using virtual-camera technology similar to what Peter Jackson used in Lord of the Rings (for Gollum) and King Kong (for the big ape). The entire look of the film was then added digitally, from scenery to costumes and the physical appearance of the actors - though some of the characters actually do resemble the actors who play them.

The ultimate aim of this school of filmmaking, I think, is to achieve the most realistic possible simulation of a "live action" film, while maintaining the type of control over every aspect of the visuals that has heretofore required animation. The live actors' form-hugging costumes covered in tiny sensors, provide real-time, moving models on which to hang the digitally-animated characters' faces and bodies.

Like The Polar Express, this film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, late of What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, to say nothing of Back to the Future and Death Becomes Her. Zemeckis has made a career out of pushing the limits of "special effects," to the point where now his entire movie is a special effect. The technology is not yet perfected, however. I suppose it takes experiments like this to keep the wheels of progress turning. I still find the characters' faces wooden, or at least limited in their emotive range. The eyes are especially troubling; the queen in this picture, for instance, sometimes looks crosseyed.

Apart from that, this Beowulf is very effective. Grendel is terrifying, disgusting, and pitiful at the same time; one of his appearances made the audience gasp aloud. The creature at the end of the movie (I'm not giving the surprise away) is also quite scary, and puts up a very exciting fight. And the main character has a very impressive presence. The story touches some deep chords - I think particularly of Hrothgar's parting words to Beowulf: "This curse is no longer mine."

I recognized several members of the cast by the look of their characters alone: Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, and Angelina Jolie. Some of the actors were more recognizable by voice: Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich, and Allison Lohman. The title character, however, had me stumped. The actor doesn't look like the hero he plays, but he bears a slight resemblance to Russell Crowe, and as I watched this movie I kept thinking, "This guy sounds like somebody vaguely similar to Russell Crowe." That was as close as I got to identifying Ray Winstone before the end credits. Maybe on some level I knew it all along, but it makes you wonder...

Trilogies in Progress

Happy Thanksgiving Eve. Blah. I'm sick today. Combine that with car trouble and bluetooth trouble, which I will probably describe in a later post, and you have my week.

Well, not everything has been gloomy. My cats are getting along better. And I cleared up a backlog of reviews for "The Book Trolley," though my new editor has yet to post any of the reviews I have written since late July.

I noticed a pattern in my last bunch of book reviews. There were an awful lot of sentences like: "This is Book One of the ___ Trilogy," and: "Stay tuned for Book Two, titled ____." It got me to thinking about how many trilogies, or at least series, I am in the progress of reading through right now. A quick count of series I am reading, and in which I am certain there is at least one book that I haven't yet read, is staggering. Including series in which I am waiting for the last book to come out in paperback, and series which I have complete on my shelf but haven't finished reading yet, I give you in no particular order:

The Ratbridge Chronicles by Alan Snow
The Touchstone trilogy by Steve Augarde
The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
The Pendragon series by D. J. MacHale
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
The Discworld books by Terry Pratchett
The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian
The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
The Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke
The Inheritance trilogy by Christopher Paolini
The Dragonback series by Timothy Zahn
The Alfred Kropp series by Rick Yancey
The Monster Blood Tattoo series by D. M. Cornish
The Gideon trilogy by Linda Buckley-Archer
The Leven Thumps series by Obert Skye
The Eidolon Chronicles by Jane Johnson
The Wednesday Tales by Jon Berkeley
The Lighthouse Land trilogy by Adrian McKinty
The Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde
The Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix
The Dumari Chronicles by Anne Patrice Brown
The Sally Lockhart mysteries by Philip Pullman
The Imaginarium Geographica chronicles by James A. Owen
The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
The Thrilling Tales series by M. T. Anderson
The Moomin books by Tove Jansson
The Erec Rex series by Kaza Kingsley
The Minerva Clark series by Karen Karbo
The Fire Within series by Chris D'Lacey
The Wolves chronicles by Joan Aiken
The Sea of Trolls series by Nancy Farmer
The Sylvie series by Roderick Townley
The Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage
The Pure Dead series by Debi Gliori
The Hero's Song series by Edith Pattou
The Greenwitch series by E. D. Baker
The Justin Thyme series by Panama Oxridge
The Measle series by Ian Ogilvy
The Arthur and the Invisibles books by Luc Besson
The Withern Rise trilogy by Michael Lawrence
The Children of the Lamp series by P. B. Kerr
The Kedrigern Chronicles by John Morressy
The Golden Hour series by Maiya Williams
The Faerie Wars Chronicles by Herbie Brennan
The Castle Cant series by K. P. Bath
The Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng

In addition, I think there will be further Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne Jones, Charlie Bone books by Jenny Nimmo, Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer, Further Tales by P. W. Catanese, and Young Wizards books by Diane Duane. I am supposed to start reading some Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, more of the Time books by Madeleine L'Engle, the Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier, and various "quartets" by Tamora Pierce (of whose work I have only read one book so far). And I recently rediscovered John D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain series, which I first read when I was in about 8th grade; I might give them another spin!

Plus, I started reading, but decided not to continue, the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card, the Age of Discovery trilogy by Michael Stackpole, and The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, more or less because I thought the first book of each series sucked. I never finished C. S. Lewis's Space trilogy either, because I put down That Hideous Strength and never felt like picking it up again. Or rather, I felt like never picking it up again. And I know there are more books in Brian Jacques' Redwall series, but I've found they are all pretty much the same and I don't know if I can stand to read another one.

So I have no reason ever to be bored while waiting for the next book in a series to come out...because at any given moment I will be a couple dozen books behind on series I am following, whose next book has come out!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Kitty Dialogues

Q. Meow!
A. That's easy for you to say.

Q. Meow!
A. You bet your whiskers!

Q. Meow!
A. I'll bet you say that to all the guys (gals).

Q. Meow!
A. Tell me something I don't know!

Q. Meow!
A. Sounds good. You buying?

Q. Meow!
A. Pull the other one!

Q. Meow!
A. Aargh! Don't remind me!

Q. Meow!
A. We hear and obey!

William H. Monk

William Henry Monk (1823-1889) was a music teacher and editor of the first two editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861 and 1875). This website lists 56 tunes by Monk, and includes the hymn texts, scores, and MIDI files of these tunes. 17 of Monk's tunes turn up in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals, as detailed below. Besides composing these more-or-less original tunes, W. H. Monk is also credited with adapting or arranging many other hymn tunes found in Lutheran books. This testifies to the vast influence of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

W. H. Monk should not be confused with composer Edwin George Monk (1819-1900), who also wrote several hymn tunes and edited a hymnal.

Here is an example of profundity in simplicity. In a few basic brushstrokes, this brief tune provides a memorable and moving setting for such Passion hymns as "Lord Jesus, think on me" and "He did not die in vain."

All Things Bright and Beautiful
This tune is set to the same, famous children's hymn by Cecil F. Alexander for which it is named. Filled with angular intervals and syrupy, kiddy pomp-and-circumstance, it nevertheless has the virtue of a well-planned, repetitive structure that should make it easy for kids to learn - if the more popular tune for this song, Royal Oak, doesn't get to them first. Note how the tune's harmonic structure obligates you to repeat the refrain after each verse, including the last one.

Try not to confuse this tune with Henry H. Bancroft's tune by the same name, which goes with the text "There's a voice in the wilderness crying." Monk's tune is an admirable setting of the festive processional hymn "Hail the day that sees him rise," with an Alleluia inserted after each line (unlike the tune Orientis Partibus, which is elsewhere paired with this text). Because of its 7777 metre and Alleluias, this tune could also pinch-hit for such warhorses as Llanfair and Easter Hymn.

At least three of the hymnals in this survey chose this tune for "Look, ye saints! the sight is glorious," the Ascension hymn whose verses end with phrases like "Crown Him! Crown Him! Crowns become the victor's brow." In its jubilant majesty, it is easy to forgive the tune's slight resemblance to Straf mich nicht, and its even slighter, alleged resemblance (I'm not sure I see it) to "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas." Lately, Monk's tune has been losing ground to William Owen's thrilling Bryn Calfaria; though that tune's difficulty may give Coronæ a new lease on life.

It is odd to find this tune listed among Monk's creative works, since he allegedly adapted it from a chorale by my hero, Johann Crüger. This claim is not very flattering to Crüger, though the tune does contain some Crügeresque touches. Actually, it's kind of a Frankenstein monster, made of parts of So nimm denn meine Haende and Wie soll ich dich empfangen, and who knows what else, grotesquely stitched together. As an homage it isn't entirely unsuccessful, but as a serious hymn tune it suffers from a distracting tendency to suggest other tunes to the congregation's mind. Texts paired with this tune have included "Sometimes a light surprises" and "The world is very evil." Don't be confused by the fact that Nun danket all' is sometimes also called Crüger, for better reason.

Often identified as St. Ethelwald, this tune is most often paired with the stewardship hymn "We give Thee but Thine own," which many Lutherans sing every Sunday after the collection. I myself have heard, played, and sung this hymn so many times that I doubt I can comment on it objectively. The tune lives up to its name, however, with a sweet brightness and briskness that could be adapted to many other texts. And so it has. These hymns include "A charge to keep I have"; "For all Thy saints, O Lord"; "Grace! 'tis a charming sound"; "My soul, be on thy guard"; and "Soldiers of Christ, arise."

One Lutheran hymnal pairs this bland, forgettable tune with the hymn "At the name of Jesus/Every knee shall bow." I rather prefer singing this text to King's Weston.

When the name of W.H. Monk is remembered for only one thing, it will most likely be this tune. I doubt there isn't a Protestant church anywhere in the English-speaking world that does not cherish the funeral hymn "Abide with me! fast falls the eventide," sung to this tune, as a particular favorite. With only a slight shudder of morbid sentimentality, this pairing has been transformed into an all-purpose "evening hymn," and its use as a close-of-service hymn at Lenten midweek evening services has jerked many nostalgic tears over the years. It works, dammit! Shmaltz it definitely is, but benign shmaltz, of unassailable craftmanship. In fact, I daresay most of the hymn's shmaltziness resides in the way it is typically performed.

In spite of the overwhelming success and popularity of the aforesaid text-tune marriage, some hymnals have daringly tried other texts on this tune. The texts include "Come, Lord, Thyself with Thine abounding grace"; "Not worthy, Lord, to gather up the crumbs"; and "Unchanging God, hear from eternal heaven." Many of the lines of these hymns demonstrate the tendency of Romantic poetry in very large metres to use many words to say not much.

Two hymnals have paired this bright, innocent, slightly annoying tune with the hymn "Jesus, with Thy church abide." It's a nice, simple piece that could serve well in a book or section of children's hymns, though I find its ending a bit inconclusive. In my estimate, unless there comes a huge glut of hymns in the 7776 or 7777 metre, we can afford to "pass" on this tune. Incidentally, there is another tune by the same name, also in the 7776 metre, from the St. Alban's Tune Book of 1866.

This is one of three tunes that go by the name Merton. The one that goes with the hymn "When cold our hearts and far from thee" is by James P. Jewson. The obnoxiously shmaltzy tune to "Sweet the moments, rich in blessing" and "Savior, who Thy flock art feeding" is by Charlotte Alington Barnard, and is more often identified as Brocklesbury or Brocklesby. The Monk tune, on the other hand, has been paired with the hymns "Jesus, Thou art mine forever"; "Savior, all my sins confessing"; and, most often and most happily, "Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding." This last hymn is one of those that go with a different tune each day of the week and two on Sunday, but I think Merton is one of its best pairings. I am happy to see this gradually becoming the prevailing view.

St. Ambrose
Another tune by the same name, paired with the text "Let thoughtless thousands choose the road," was allegedly adapted "from an ancient melody" by none other than William H. Monk. The tune above, however, is Monk's original work, and I think it is quite good. The opening phrase reminds me of a fugue subject. Happy, prayerful, well-structured, with a built-in crescendo effect, it has been paired with the hymn "Shepherd of tender youth" - which is (go figure) adapted from an ancient text by St. Ambrose!

St. Constantine
This hymn has a consistently innocent and childlike sound, though the first (probably original) ending, given above, strikes me as soft, inconclusive, and effeminate. (Oops! There goes my credibility with the PC Squad!) One hymnal actually provides an alternate harmonization for the last stanza of "Jesus, meek and gentle." Another text I have found set to this tune is "Holy Spirit, hear us."

St. Matthias
Rudyard Kipling's hymn "God of our fathers, known of old" (ending with the memorable refrain "Lest we forget! Lest we forget!") is an interesting prayer for an empire in decay, apropos in today's America. This is only one of a remarkable list of hymns that have been paired with this hymn, including: "Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord most dear"; "My God, I know that I must die"; "O Love, who formedst me to wear"; "O Savior, who in love didst take"; and in three hymnals, "Sweet Savior, bless us ere we go." I find this list so remarkable because I find the tune so unremarkable. There are worse tunes. But there are definitely better ones!

St. Philip
The hymn "Holy Ghost, my Comforter" went with this tune in the old Lutheran Hymnary. It's gentle, humble, a bit bland, remarkable mainly for its unusual 777 metre. Unusual, yes; unique, no. A better alternative is the chorale Heil'ger Geist, du Troester mein.

This dignified but gently sad tune is so well-put-together that it would be a shame not to use it as a teaching tool. It has already served as a vehicle for such hymns as "Hail, Thou once despised Jesus" and "Jesus, Refuge of the weary."

Unde et memores
I would like to invite my brothers in Lutheran theology to open the Service Book and Hymnal to hymn 278 and tell me what they think of the Communion hymn "And now, O Father, mindful of the love," which is there set to this tune. The tune is nothing special one way or the other; it is neither hot nor cold, neither grossly sentimental nor an artistic masterpiece. Whether I would include it in my "fantasy hymnal" would depend entirely on William Bright's text...and I'm not sure about that either. On one hand it seems a beautiful expression of reliance on Christ's passion as the only thing that makes us righteous in God's sight, and on "this food, so aweful and so sweet" to "deliver us from every touch of ill." On the other hand, its characterization of the Lord's Supper as a "sacrifice" that "we here present" comes on a bit strong; plus, like many hymns with 10-syllable lines, it takes its sweet time saying whatever it is trying to say. What do y'all think?

Please, please don't confuse this tune with Jean Baptiste Calkin's atrociously shmaltzy, musical-theatre hymn tune by the same name. No tune deserves that, even Monk's slightly theatrical bit-o'-nothin' given here. I have already whined about the hymn "Thy life was given for me," which suits Barnby's Pro me perforatus better than it does this tune. Monk's Waltham inhabits a rarefied realm of uninspiredness one of my seminary friends used to describe with the phrase "random-note generator." Other tunes in this metre (6666 66) that actually work include Old 120th and Gottes Sohn ist kommen.

Conclusion: The critical consensus seems to be that William H. Monk was a bit of a "musical square." His method of hymnal editing, characterized by smoothing out the distinctive features of favorite hymn tunes, was lampooned by Thomas Hardy:
Stripped of some of your vesture
By Monk or another. Now you wore no frill,
And at first you startled me. But I know you still,
Though I missed the minim’s waver
And the dotted quaver.
Monk's legacy of hymn tunes includes a handful of pieces that, for better or worse, are "baked into" the core of Anglophone hymnody. Tunes such as Energy, Eventide, and Merton are not going away any time soon. Others, like Aber, Ascension, and Coronæ, deserve to be better known. But I would look carefully at any other tune by Monk before introducing it into current use. Adding blandness to any body of hymnody is simply not productive. When a Monk tune was once favored for a particular hymn, but has been superceded by another tune more recently, we should check whether the reason is Monk's congenital blandness or a mere, momentary enthusiasm. The virtue of Monk's tunes is that, in many cases, they can outlast the vogues and fads that briefly place other tunes in ascendancy over them. But the same lack of ephemeral, identifying features can make one question whether it is worth reviving Monk's tunes when those vogues and fads have passed.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium opened yesterday, and I was eager to see it. So, evidently, was a whole birthday-partyful of kids and their adult chaperones. We all had a good time.

MMWE is a whimsical and touching story about a 243-year-old man who has spent most of those years running New York's most magical toystore. The store is actually alive, and it has the mind of a child filled with mischief, magic, and wonder. But the store grows sulky and temperamental when Mr. Magorium decides that it is time to hand over ownership to his assistant, a concert pianist with composer's block, and to "depart." As he explains to his accountant, he once fell in love with a pair of shoes and bought enough pairs like it to last a lifetime...and now his last pair is almost worn out.

For the accountant, the adventure of MMWE is about learning to believe in magic. For the little boy with big ears, big eyes, a big smile, and a huge collection of hats, it is about making friends. And for the pianist/apprentice toy impresario, it is about two things: (1) letting go when a loved one dies, and (2) believing in oneself. So the living toystore has a lot of work to do.

The movie is presented as a series of chapters at the end of the story of Mr. Magorium's life, written and illustrated by the mustachioed strong-man who lives in the store's basement but narrated by the hat boy. It stars Dustin Hoffman, with bushy gray hair and eyebrows, an overbite, and a lisp, in the title role. Mahoney, the pianist who unconsciously conducts air-orchestra and plays air-piano all the time, is played by Natalie Portman, late of "Queen Amidala" fame. The accountant, played by Jason Bateman (late of TV's "Arrested Development"), undergoes the most excruciating embarrassment when, finally coaxed into playing "make-believe" with Eric's (Zach Mills) hat collection, he is caught by Eric's mother who points out that it looks a little fishy for a grown man to be playing pretend with a small boy. Eurgh. The life of the movie, however, is Hoffman's character, who makes every scene he is in sparkle, and whose final speech about death cranks the tear ducts wide open.

The movie has an interesting visual style, with the brightness or drabness of the store's colors reflecting its mood. I would only quibble about minor things; for example, I'm not convinced that a pianist who can play Rachmaninov's 2nd Concerto would write something that sounds like the music you hear Mahoney trying to write. But you can easily forgive this kind of thing when there are lines like: "The law of gravity has begun to apply!"

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

More Feline Talking Points

All the way to Symphony Chorus rehearsal last night, I kept coming up with more snappy comebacks to the cat's meow:

Q. Meow!
A. I know you are, but what am I?

Q. Meow!
A. That's what they all say.

Q. Meow!
A. You took the words out of my mouth!

Q. Meow!
A. Now you're talking crazy.

Q. Meow!
A. Smile when you say that!

Q. Meow!
A. Again, with feeling!

Q. Meow!
A. Your what hurts?

Q. Meow!
A. Must you go on about that? I said I was sorry.

Q. Meow!
A. Aha! Now it finally comes out!

Q. Meow!
A. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Q. Meow!
A. Of course you don't look fat!

Q. Meow!
A. Who's this Timmy, and why do I care where he is?

By the way, as of last night the Symphony Chorus has at least started reading through all the works we will sing this season. Last night we took our first crack at Haydn's Creation. Awesome! And the week before was a stroll down memory lane as we began work on Orff's Carmina Burana, a piece I haven't sung since college. This is looking like a really cool season for the oratorio crowd in St. Louis!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Conversing with Cats

When you're a single adult living alone with pets - hey, it happens - you might find yourself conversing with your pets, for lack of anyone else to talk to. But these conversations can become pretty one-sided. Cats and dogs can be good listeners and can even show signs of sympathy, but in a healthy relationship the listening needs to go both ways. The trouble is, what do you say to "Meow"?

Well, here are some responses to "Meow" that I have found useful. Feel free to use them and/or adapt them as you see fit.

Q. Meow!
A. Oh, yeah? Who says so?

Q. Meow!
A. Really? Then what happened?

Q. Meow!
A. Gosh, you always know the right thing to say.

Q. Meow!
A. ...or words to that effect.

Q. Meow!
A. Don't take that tone of voice with me!

Q. Meow!
A. Well, now, I wouldn't take it that far.

Q. Meow!
A. Who asked you anyway?

Q. Meow!
A. Well, if you put it that way, all right.

Q. Meow!
A. I know. I'm working on it.

Q. Meow!
A. That's exactly what I always say.

Q. Meow!
A. That's the best idea I've heard all day!

Q. Meow!
A. Wait till my next payday, then we'll talk about it.

Q. Meow!
A. You shouldn't even think about that.

Q. Meow!
A. Of course you can't, silly. How would you reach the pedals?

Q. Meow!
A. Hey! Do I make personal remarks about you?

Q. Meow!
A. Sorry, kid. That's for Daddy's medicinal use only.

Q. Meow!
A. Watch your language!

Q. Meow!
A. You've really got to work on enhancing your word-power.

Q. Meow!
A. Good one! I'll have to remember that!

Reading Dvořák's 9th

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), like Beethoven, left behind nine numbered symphonies. The last one, in E minor, is subtitled "From the New World" because he wrote it in New York. Dvořák wrote several of his best-known works in America, including a quartet inspired by his stay in a Czech-American village in Iowa. A Romantic composer of the nationalistic vein (his music often hearkened to the folk music of Czech, Slovak, and similar ethnic backgrounds), Dvořák did not hesitate to express his opinion that American art-music needed to ground itself in its own indigenous folk tradition, if it would find a distinctive voice.

It was a controversial opinion, and still is; but many people, including Dvořák himself, have taken this symphony as a demonstration of what he was getting at. Though he was inconsistent on the subject of how he came up with the themes of this symphony, it is generally agreed that the music of the "New World Symphony" is at least influenced by the Negro spirituals and Native American folk music Dvořák encountered during his American travels. The fact that, at times, it sounds like main title music from a mid-20th-century Western movie may be owing to film composers' often-remarked penchant for plagiarism. But it is hard to deny that Dvořák's Ninth captures something of the quintessential spirit of America.

The first movement begins with a dramatic, slow introduction with foreshadowings of the main theme to follow. Then it is upon us, a thrilling and memorable theme with a long-short-short-long rhythm. The gentler second theme has a similar rhythm in it, and has been compared to the spiritual "Swing low, sweet chariot."

The second movement, well known to many a first-year piano student, is a deeply moving lament that some regard as a musical depiction of Hiawatha's tears, while others interpret it as an imitation Negro spiritual. There are actually lyrics to this theme, a song called "Goin' Home," but in fairness to Dvořák it should be noted that the lyrics were written after the symphony; Dvořák maintained that his themes were original, though built on the distinctive rhythms and scales of Native American music. If you give this movement a chance and hear it through, you will hear other themes, beautifully blending shadow and light; and a heart-gripping conclusion in which the Hiawatha theme hesitates as if choking on its tears.

The third movement is a scherzo in something of a rondo form, with an opening reminiscent of the scherzo of Beethoven's 9th. The main theme of the refrain could have come from the scherzo of any of Dvořák's symphonies, with its Slavonic dance-like character; the intervening episodes, however, include more of those nice pentatonic themes (i.e. you could play them on the black notes of a piano) that come out like theme music from a cowboy movie.

The finale borrows another page from Beethoven's 9th, making more or less subtle references to the earlier movements while also developing its own majestic theme. Listen for long-short-short-long phrases in the bass line, a moment of Hiawatha sobbing, and even a touch of the scherzo at different points in this movement. But don't worry; there is no big choral fantasy here. It's just a thrilling orchestral finale with some of Dvořák's most distinctive harmonies and orchestral colors. And if it conjures images of the vastness and grandeur of America, well...that may be the result of the power of suggestion rather than anything intrinsic in the music, but who knows? Maybe Dvořák had that on his mind too.

EDIT: In the video below, Herbert von Karajan conducts the first movement of this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Reading Beethoven's 9th

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, his last symphony, is widely known as the "Choral Symphony," because the final movement involves a large chorus as well as four vocal soloists. At the time this symphony first came out, the use of choir and singers in a musical genre that showcased the possibilities of pure orchestral music was unusual, if not revolutionary.

Naturally, the idea was taken up by any number of subsequent composers, most notably Gustav Mahler, whose "Symphony of a Thousand" (No. 8) owes much of its large number of performers to the chorus. Plus, Mahler's Second stands next to Beethoven's Ninth as a cornerstone of the choral-symphony repertoire. So throwing a choral fantasy (comparable to an earlier work by Beethoven called, go figure, "Choral Fantasy") into the finale of his final symphony was not a unique idea. It broke ground that others after Beethoven continued to cultivate.

A few years ago, I was enjoying a Memorial Day cookout with some friends with KFUO-FM ("Classic 99") playing in the background. At that time of year, KFUO is always wrapping up its "Top 99 Countdown" of most-requested classical hits. When Beethoven's 9th turned up in the Number One spot, no one was surprised. Someone even remarked that it usually ends up there. Nevertheless, my friends were taken aback when the famous "Beethoven's Ninth" tune didn't turn up at the beginning of the symphony, or in any of the first three expansive movements.

Just as some people's knowledge of Beethoven's Fifth extends no further than the first movement, the same people hold the misconception that Beethoven's Ninth consists entirely of a huge choral movement with an unforgettable tune. And some of those people become impatient when asked to wait over 40 minutes for that tune to appear. But that's what I challenge you to do as you get to know this awesome symphony, the crown of Beethoven's symphonic career.

Plus, to know Beethoven's Ninth is to understand better many of the symphonies of later composers, who were profoundly influenced by this key work. Allowing the human voice to break in at the end wasn't the only revolutionary gesture Beethoven made in this work. In fact, I think the word "revolutionary" goes right to the essence of Beethoven's music as a whole, and of this work especially. It is a musical world of manly courage, explosive passion, noble tenderness, and vastness of conception.

I think the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth is, next to that of his Third Symphony, the master's most perfect and most powerful symphonic allegro. Clocking it at just under fifteen minutes, it is certainly no lightweight. It has to be great, in proportions if not in grandeur, to counterweight the finale, which is as long as some symphonies all by itself. But grandeur it has.

The symphony opens in a famous passage reminiscent of an orchestra tuning up, with open fifths and fragments of a broken-triad theme. Unlike many symphonies that begin with an emphatic statement of a theme, or even a ponderous introduction, this one seems to coalesce out of a vague background, until a strong, dramatic theme is announced. This type of symphonic opening is another feature of Beethoven's Ninth frequently aped by later composers, such as Bruckner.

As dominant as this first theme is, the movement goes through a variety of moods and contrasting ideas. Sometimes it sounds a little strange, and other times downright harsh, as Beethoven strains the limits of the orchestra's powers and pushes the boundaries of classical harmony. Don't blame this on his deafness (which was pretty much complete by the time he wrote this symphony). He was a musician through and through, and knew what sound to expect. The trouble, as with many of his other symphonies, was that no one had heard those sounds before, and orchestral players had never been asked to make them. What may have seemed next-to-impossible at the time, became possible as new players rose to the challenge and developed techniques to meet the composer's revolutionary demands.

The second movement is an expansive scherzo, marked Molto vivace (very lively, or really fast). This is the type of music critics would like to call "quicksilver" but can't, beause it is so solid and massive. What begins as a flitting, racing tune develops into an all-out kicking, screaming, musical panic. Now and then this shifts abruptly into a mood of joy, and even strains of revolutionary, humanistic optimism - particularly in the trio - but the main impression this movement leaves is one of frenetic, even frantic energy unleashed at high volume and high speed. After the scherzo returns, Beethoven teases us with a feint toward repeating the trio, before bringing the movement to an abrupt end.

Movement III, Adagio molto e cantabile (really slow and songlike), is a gorgeous, double set of variations on a broad, stately, graceful first theme, first heard in B-flat, and a moderate-tempo second theme first heard in the contrasting key of D. The first theme has a tendency to echo the ends of each phrase. Perhaps the most memorable moment in the piece is an explosively emphatic, fanfarelike statement in E-flat, very near the end of the movement.

The finale opens with chaos and panic. Cellos and basses then speak up in a kind of instrumental recitative (like when a character is singing dialogue in an opera). This wordless commentary reminds me of the times when an adult character speaks in a Peanuts animated special, and the adult's voice is played by a muted trumpet. It's up to your imagination to supply the text, though Beethoven leaves some hints. The recitative is broken up by musical "thumbnails" of the preceding movements, to which the cello-bass "speaker" seems to respond with dismissive gestures. The final passage of recitative establishes a firm D-major tonality, suggesting a sense of affirmation, as if to say, "Aha! I've got it!" The orchestra then softly introduces the famous "Choral Symphony" theme, which grows through a series of variations.

Too soon, this avenue seems to reach its end, and another panic breaks out, similar to the very beginning of the movement. Finally, a solo baritone gives words to the last line of the cello-bass recitative: "O friends, not these strains, but let us strike up more pleasant and joyful ones!" Finally the chorus arrives, and Beethoven builds up a massive, 20-minute oratorio-society anthem on themes of (once again) revolutionary humanism. The words come from Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy. In true "choral fantasy" style, this piece goes through a succession of sections, beginning with variations on that ever-popular tune, but also involving other themes and tonal centers. The vocal performers get a terrific workout; never mind what I said about new performers rising to the challenge, singers to this day curse Beethoven's name for the strain he puts on them, all the way to the extremely loud, rapid, and triumphant end. But they put up with it because audiences want to hear this symphony more than any other single piece of fine-art music, and the vocal part has been the focal point of over 150 years of widespread awe and delight.

IMAGES: Beethoven; the autograph score of Beethoven's 9th; part of the opening of Movement I; a Japanese performance of Beethoven's 9th; Beethoven's manuscript of the Ode to Joy.

EDIT: Here is Herbert von Karajan performing the first three (non-choral) movements of the Choral Symphony, with maybe the Berlin Philharmonic: