Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Tackiness

Apropos "March Madness"... The neighborhood ELCA tabernacle of lighted-sign tackiness now has two messages on display. For drivers headed south it says:


And for those headed north:


Hmm. I guess that church's ex-pastor's book of tacky church signs has a contingency for everything. The only question is... What is it about these messages that is supposed to make anyone want to go to this church?

What Are Those Elves Singing?

This week we of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus are in rehearsals with the orchestra and conductor Erik Ochsner (pictured here) to perform Howard Shore's full musical score to The Fellowship of the Ring, live in front of a Powell Hall audience, accompanying a big-screen projection of the film by Peter Jackson. This is a version of the film music that restores vocal and instrumental cues that were dialed down to inaudibility or completely cut during the final round of sound-editing, but for the most part it's just a performance in which Shore's music glories in the spotlight while the film's dialogue and sound effects move into the background.

I've watched the movie many times on DVD, but until I became a part of this performance I never really paid very close attention to what the chorus was singing in the background. Now I can tell you what they're singing, in case you wondered but were afraid to ask... For the following I am indebted to Paul Hahn, the Symphony Chorus's resident hobbit and Middle-Earthian linguistic expert.

At the beginning of the movie, as a Cate Blanchett voice-over begins to set the stage for Tolkien's ring epic, a female chorus sings a couple of chant-like phrases in Sindarin, one of the major elvish languages of Middle Earth. The first phrase means, "Who brings us this token of darkness?" The second phrase, which partially slips into the Quenya dialect, is a conflation of two poetic fragments which, put together, don't mean anything as far as I can make out. Either Shore selected his fragments of text with an ear for making them sound meaningful through their musical setting, or this riff is a casualty of the swift, sure blade of the editor. Maybe a bit of both...

The ancient battle between the free forces of Middle Earth and the armies of Sauron is accompanied by a chorus singing a mixture of textual fragments, including the Black Speech ditty engraved on Frodo's ring ("One ring..."), the Quenya word for "ring," and bits of a poem in Adunaic, the human tongue of the ancient kings who became the nine ring-wraiths ("We renounce our maker..."). At different points throughout the first half of the film, the chorus repeatedly sings variations on this evil hymn, notably the words "Bari'n Katharad," or "Lords of Unending Life."

After the ring betrays Isildur and ensnares Gollum as its bearer, the women's chorus comes in with a gradually building tone cluster on the Quenya words meaning "Herald of death."

During Gandalf's visit with Bilbo, before the birthday party, after the line "some cheese here" the chorus hums for a spell, without text. While Bilbo struggles with the seduction of the ring after his escape from the party, the choir hums a bit more, from "It's here in my pocket" to "Well, no and yes." Then, once more, in a series of strained gasps, the humming accompanies Bilbo's final struggle before dropping the ring on the flagstoned floor.

After the torture of Gollum, as the black riders ride out of Mordor in search of "Baggins! Shire!" there is a brief reprise of the "We renounce our maker" hymn. Then, while Gandalf pours over ancient scrolls relating Isildur's ill-fated dalliance with the ring, you may hear a bit of Quenya poetry describing the temptation of "the strength, the weapon...go to victory!"

The women and children contribute more ominous humming as Gandalf gives Frodo and Sam their marching orders and sets them on their way. Then the men hum their own dissonant chords during Gandalf's conference with the corrupt Saruman, from "His gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh" to "You know this? How?" Then, after Gandalf poses the sardonic question, "When did Saruman the wise abandon reason for madness?" the full chorus returns to the Dark Speech and the inscription on the ring: "In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie," etc.

When Frodo has a presentiment of the black riders' approach and orders his traveling companions off the road, the chorus builds up a dissonant crescendo on a fragment (not even a whole word) of "We renounce our maker." Then, during the race for Buckleberry Ferry, the same ring-wraith hymn returns in full force, climaxing at the Adunaic words for "We cleave to the darkness." The same ring-wraith theme is sung during the black riders' attack on the inn at Bree, and again when the four young hobbits face the nine riders at Weathertop.

The beautiful melody sung by a boy soprano soloist during Gandalf's encounter with a moth atop the tower of Isengard, while the orcs below rape the landscape, is a Quenya text meaning: "The earth groans and the wind is crying." And the lovely number for female voices that accompanies Arwen's first appearance actually begins with the name "Tinuviel," a maiden from elvish folklore who is a tragic type of Arwen and whose name literally means "nightingale." The rest of the riff means, "Elven-fair, immortal maiden." During Arwen's ride against the Nine, with Frodo on board, the wraiths' "We renounce" hymn returns.

Then comes something I am amazed that I never recognized, until now, as a choral piece in the English language! As Arwen cradles the gravely ill Frodo in her hands and whispers the prayer, "What grace is given me, let it pass to him; let him be spared. Mighty Valar save him," the female voices echo her exact words, tapering across the scene change to Frodo waking up in the house of Elrond with Gandalf by his side.

During the flashback when Gandalf is visited a second time by the moth, before throwing himself off the top of the Orthanc, there is a tiny, fragmentary reprise of "The earth groans." Then, as the vista of Rivendell unfolds before Frodo's wondering eyes, the gorgeous number for women's chorus actually sings Sindarin words you can read in the main body of Tolkien's novel: "A Elbereth Gilthoniel..." Just as the reprise of "The earth groans" breaks off in mid-word, Shore's setting of "Gilthoniel" is ruthlessly insensitive to the text, placing the word across the break between two distinct phrases; but it sounds magical, and the lyrics mean: "O queen of stars, kindler of stars, there falls like shining jewels..." And after a brief reprise of the beginning of this incomplete thought, the men come in with a humming accompaniment to the Shire Theme.

The love scene on the bridge between Arwen and Aragorn is decorated with a lovely solo, titled "Aniron," for mezzo-soprano backed up by the male chorus (humming). The soloist's lyrics are Sindarin for: "From darkness I understand the night: dreams flow, a star shines. Ah! I desire Evenstar! Behold! A star rises out of the darkness. The star's song enchants my heart. Ah! I desire Evenstar!"

Near the end of the Council of Elrond, as the members of the Fellowship pledge their aid to Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, there is a bit more neutral-syllable humming by the men's chorus. And then...intermission!

On the pass of Caradhras, as Boromir picks up the ring dropped by Frodo and struggles against its pull, the ominous-sounding couple of phrases is a reprise of the seduction theme heard earlier, "The strength, the weapon," etc.

At the doors of Moria, as the starlight and moonlight light up the mithril filigree around the door, the women's chorus intones a fragment of Sindarin text: "The light of Feanor falls... desire... Feanor..." It's tragic that Shore never set in full the poem of which this, and other choral riffs, is only a tiny part--but there's no point sharing it with you, since you won't hear it in this film.

The men's chorus swings into Dwarvish as Saruman and Gandalf converse telepathically about the perils of Moria: "Durin who is deathless, eldest of all fathers, who awoke to darkness beneath the mountain, who walked alone through halls of stone," etc. Actually Shore seems to select random bits of this poem for this cue, but I quote it more or less in full because the left-out bits come in during the awe-inspiring reveal of the undergound metropolis of Dwarrowdelf.

The flight from the Balrog occasions the most extended continuous piece of chorus music, all for the men's chorus. The words, again in Dwarvish, mean approximately: "The demon comes! The earth shakes! Fear rips our heart! Fire in the deep! Flames lick our skin!" And in the frequent bark-like refrain of "Lu! Lu! Lu! Lu!" you hear the dwarf bard crying, "No! No! No! No!" The chorus repeatedly sings this text, arranged and rearranged in a dizzying multitude of combinations, for a staggering number of densely-scored pages, continuing way beyond the point where the chorus track drops out in the DVD cut of the film.

The heart-wrenching music behind the scene where the fellowship reels in shock after witnessing Gandalf's death is performed first by tenors and basses with a soprano soloist, with a boy soprano taking over later--all on a neutral syllable, as befits people speechless with grief.

The spooky women's-chorus number undergirding the fellowship's journey into the perilous forest of Lothlorien begins with a reprise of the opening fragmentary gibberish, then flows into a Quenya lament of the elves as they pass into the West: "Our love for this land is deeper than the depths of the sea. Our regret is undying..." There's something witchy about the pitch-sliding intonation of the choir and solo violin at this point. Then the revelation of the treetop city of Galadriel comes with female voices singing, "Behold the light! Nenya is this ring, unbreakable, that I possess."

The lament for Gandalf, which the elf Legolas hadn't the heart to translate for his human friends, I can at last translate for you. Sung again hy women's chorus accompanying a mezzo solo, it means: "The bonds cut, the spirit broken, the flame of Anor has left this world. Mithrandir, O gray pilgrim, no more will you wander..." And, as is typical for a film score, it cuts out in mid-phrase!

The women's chorus comes back in the Mirror of Galadriel scene with a reprise of what they sang at the opening of the Lothlorien act of the film. Then, during the fellowship's departure by boat down the river Anduin, as Galadriel announces her parting gifts, we hear yet another Quenya lament. Listen to the alto voices in particular: "Ah! Like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees." The men's chorus joins only at the word "trees," and the piece ends with the out-of-context word meaning "queenly."

The little bit of choral music at the Argonath (the tall statues of Aragorn's kingly forbears) is mostly humming, except for the sopranos, who sing Tolkien's Quenya words for Aragorn's coronation: "Out of the great sea to Middle Earth I am come. In this place I will abide, and my heirs..." Again, Shore snips off the last syllable of a word as the cue ends.

Sometime after Boromir attacks Frodo and the latter decides to strike out on his own, there is a cue for female voices, reprising the "seduction of the ring" theme. During the final climactic battle with the orcs, there is a choral phrase rising in pitch and volume but which, as near as Paul Hahn can tell, is a bunch of nonsense syllables. Maybe Shore decided to invent a bit of Orcspeak?

The scene in which Boromir is hit by a succession of arrows, and keeps trying to fight albeit with rapidly fading strength, the men's chorus sings, in a halting, gasping manner, selected syllables of the boys' choir's Quenya threnody which they accompany: "The tree is bare, the fountain still. Whither goest thou Boromir?" There are a few fragmentary words after this: "We heard...vale...where now...?" Then the voices give out. Later, as Boromir dies in Aragorn's arms, the men and boys come back in with Sindarin fragments: "I do not love... the arrow..."

The rest of the chorus's contribution is pretty much humming and neutral-syllable accompaniment through the closing credits, at times in a vocal arrangement of the Shire theme. The Enya song "May it be" comes in there too, with a massive amount of choral humming which I find to be more vocally strenuous than anything else in the piece. I won't infringe on copyright so far as to quote the mezzo soloist's lyrics, which, after all, are in English, so you can figure them out for yourself--except for a couple of Quenya phrases meaning "Darkness has come, darkness has fallen."

Later still there is a piece in which Shore sets a noble theme from the film to a song titled "In Dreams" for boys' choir and humming men's chorus: "When the cold of winter comes," etc.--which, again, you may be able to decipher for yourself, since it's in English--though most of us don't listen that far through the end titles. And finally, almost at the very end of the credits, there is a women's chorus reprise of "A Elbereth Gilthoniel," the Rivendell theme.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dreaming in Greek

My friends will forgive me if they've already heard this, but I have to repeat it because, well, it's been a long time since I've felt really impressed with myself.

A few nights ago, I had one of my favorite kind of dreams. I was the captain of a Royal Navy frigate, circa 1812, and I was giving my crew a pep talk before boarding an enemy ship. At the climax of my speech, I heard a sentence come out of my mouth that had such a terrific ring that I woke myself up, on purpose to memorize it before going back to sleep. The line was:

"Let your hearts, like your swords, be inscribed with the words ESOMAI ALÄ’THINOS!"

As I woke from the dream, I visualized the capitalized words spelled differently. I regarded them as really cool-sounding made-up words, like the elvish lyrics that I've been singing in preparation for a St. Louis Symphony performance of Howard Shore's Fellowship of the Ring film score. Likewise, I didn't think the setting at all unusual, given the number of naval novels I have read lately.

It wasn't until the following morning, when I thought back over the dream I had memorized, that I realized the words in my dream were actually Greek for "I WILL BE TRUE."

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tackily, Tackily

Tackiness trumps Lutheranism once again at the neighborhood ELCA church of the lighted sign, where this week's message reads:


Wow. That's a long list of God-blesses to add to your bedtime prayers. Why do I get the sense that this congregation is more about organizing for public works than teaching the Word of God? Why do I detect an aroma of sanctification divorced from justification?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reviews in Arrears

I've fallen a bit behind in my reviews of books, music, movies, and food. All of which I have experienced, and that abundantly, since my last post about them. I plan to catch up within the next few days. For now, consider this a "preview of coming attractions" as, time permitting, I comment on my experiences at the Symphony (with Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony and Shotakovich's 1st Violin Concerto), the movies (with Rango, The Adjustment Bureau and Paul), restaurants (Brazie's and Espinos), and books (four by Dudley Pope, three in one volume by Alexander Kent, and two by Sherwood Smith).

As for me, I am going to consider this a kicker to get this writing done, as well as my reviews of "Farscape" seasons 2 ff., which have been in "pending" mode way too long.

Don't expect all this writing to get done overnight, though. I have two symphony chorus performance weeks in a row, starting this coming Tuesday! Expect to hear about them too!

The Hallway Game

My cat Tyrone and I have a little game. Whenever I open the front or back door of the apartment, he tries to shoot past me and get out in the hallway. My job is to play defense, either with my legs or with anything I might be carrying with me, to block him.

He isn't really trying to escape. Most of the time he stops just a couple of feet past the door and looks up at me, as if to say "Gotcha!" Or he rolls on his back on the carpet, as if laughing. Now and then, either to score extra points or just to rub my nose in his victory, he runs up the stairs to the next landing and rolls on the neighbor's welcome mat. He is very docile when picked up and carried back inside the apartment, even allowing me to manhandle him down the stairs without struggling, biting, or scratching. It's kind of fun... unless I'm in a real hurry.

Last week there was a day when Tyrone played this little game and scored one point (stopping in the front hallway). While I was gathering him up to put him back in the apartment, disaster struck. My other cat Sinead, usually too nervous about strange new things (such as the whole world outside our apartment) to play Tyrone's game, chose this moment to sneak out the door--for maybe the third time ever.

This was not good. Sinead does NOT like to be chased, or grabbed, or carried. She is a past master of eluding capture and, failing that, fighting to the last tooth and/or claw to escape again. I knew that if she ran up the stairs, I was apt to have a bad day before 6:00 in the morning.

Luckily, I had a book in my hand. I nearly always do, you know. I can hardly bring myself to leave the apartment without one, for fear that boredom will overtake me while waiting for food to be served, or my car's oil to be changed, or the doctor to see me, or the movie to start, etc. So what did I do? I threw the book at Sinead.

To be more precise, I threw the book over Sinead's head. The tip of her tail brushed it before it slammed into the next stair riser above and behind where she had paused to look at whoever might have called her name just then. The impact panicked her, and she bolted--straight through the door into the apartment.

The door I had left open for just this chance.

The door through which Tyrone then spotted a second opportunity to score points in his game. And this time, he went for the extra point...

Whew. After running up the stairs and carrying my well-fed cat back down, I was a bit puffed. Plus, you have to admit that your day is off to an amazing start when three out of two cats make a run for it before you leave for work...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Slimming Tackiness

This week's message of Lenten self-denial from the neighborhood ELCA church whose former pastor, I hear (and I am not making this up), actually published a book of church sign slogans:


...But it does promote tooth decay. And it probably binds, too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

19. Heaven, Heal Our Hearts

Here's something you always wished your hymnal had in it: A hymn for the burial of a dear friend whose religious status is unknown or uncertain. I write this in memory of my friend Richard Ashburner, the indispensible, irreplaceable manager of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, whose life ended very prematurely last week and whose funeral is tomorrow.
O Heaven, heal our hearts
In such a time of grief!
The friend who now departs,
The candle all too brief,
We lay upon Your care
And groan this simple prayer:
Since you have grace to spare,
Lord, help our unbelief!

Each whom this sorrow stings
Must one day have an end.
Yet comfort softly sings,
Begins with grief to blend:
With us, You also weep;
Us in God's grace You keep;
For us remains a sleep
Where every smart shall mend.

Now, Christ, who died to save
Both good and bad as one,
And three days thence whose grave
Stood wide, Your body gone:
Whatever be our fate,
Come death betimes or late,
Raise us at last to wait
Before Your glorious throne.PICTURED L to R: Richard, Symphony Chorus director Amy Kaiser, accompanist Gail Hintz, and assistant director Leon Burke, in a recent publicity shot. It's such a shame to break up the dream team!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

18. Invocavit Hymn

The title above refers to the introit for Divine Service today, the First Sunday in Lent. The hymn below refers to the Gospel for ditto, Matthew 4:1-11. As I wrote this hymn I had no particular tunes in mind, but on searching for good tunes in the SMD (6686 D) meter I found two candidates that appealed to me. If you're interested in trying this out at your church, drop me a line and I can furnish you with fully harmonized accompaniment.
Ere Adam's seed was sown
In our first mother's womb,
In bondage all our race was thrown
To trouble, toil, and tomb.
Now Christ, the Virgin's Seed,
Like us in all but sin,
Takes up the burden of our need,
A heav'nly rest to win.

Once by a serpent's guile
In Adam all men died,
Succumbing to the devil's wile
To set God's Word aside.
Now, in the time elect,
The Chosen of God's heart
Employs the same Word to deflect
The tempter's fiery dart.

The first man was cast out
From Eden with his wife,
Condemned to come to dust without
The lively Tree of Life.
The second Adam goes
By Spirit-chosen ways
And, willing, bears starvation-throes
For forty bitter days.

Well would the tempter seek
Our Champion to mislead;
So Satan first intends to pique
His belly's urgent need.
But not by bread alone,
Says Christ, is man to live;
Thus by God's Word does He atone
For the bad faith of Eve.

The foe next urges, "Leap,
And try God's promised aid!
Prove that His holy angels keep
His people, as God said!"
Says Christ, "You shall not tempt
The Lord of heaven so"--
A two-edged answer whose contempt
Must chafe the chivvying foe.

"Look then from mountain height;
I'll give You all the world
If you but serve me." Here, with might,
His subtlest dart is hurled;
For only through the cross
Can sinful man be healed.
But here, again, the tempter's loss
By God's pure Word is sealed.

The second Adam thus
Repaired and, yes, reversed
The shame and failure all of us
Inherit from the first.
Despite this victory
His laurel He laid down,
And suffered, crowned with thorns, that we
Might wear the Victor's crown.

O God, grant us the strength,
Through feeding on Your Bread,
To fight the tempter, and at length
In Your feast-hall be fed;
And that we then might kiss
Your Son with grateful tears,
Let not our struggles go amiss,
Nor bring to pass our fears.

Where we have failed, forgive
In Jesus' blessed name;
Breathe into us that we may live
To glorify the same.
Shelter us with Your arm;
Your heavenly angels send
To stand for us against all harm
And keep us to our end.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

17. Pruning Hymn

I wrote this hymn way back in 2005. Although I posted its tune (titled "Pruning") three years ago, I just now realized that I never blogged the text. So here it is: my hymn on the Biblical imagery of Christ as the Vine and us as the branches (John 15). Be not dismayed by its length. I'm not asking anyone to sing it all the way through. Think of it as devotional poetry!
O Christ, who art the church’s Life,
The Vine on which we grow,
Grant us who feel Thy pruning knife
Abundant fruit to show.

Thy Father husbandeth the vine,
And cutteth dry and green:
Be they the enemy’s or Thine,
Afflicted they have been.

The Lord afflicteth one to save,
Another to destroy;
The fruitful, better fruit to have;
The fruitless to annoy.

Should the afflicted sinner turn
When pressed and wounded sore,
He shall not wither up, nor burn,
Nor rue Thy pruning more.

And should a branch so sprout abroad
As to unfruitful be,
Thou woundest it, Vinedresser-God,
To bind it fast in Thee.

No other Vine is Life, O Christ,
To branches such as we;
Unless a branch in Thee be spliced,
Dead, fruitless, it must be.

The blood and water from Thy side
Cleanse us and quench our thirst;
Thy flesh, that on a tree once died,
Our hungry flesh hath nursed.

In Thee, our Vine, we branches hold;
Our lifeblood flows from Thee;
In Thee we grow a hundredfold,
And yield abundantly.

Therefore Thy pruning we endure,
For Thou art wisest, best;
Thou prunest us to keep us pure
From rot and worm and pest.

Lest we put faith in aught but Thee,
Prune us, O Lord, in love;
For naught else let our striving be
But for the things above.

Lest we be puffed up in our pride,
Or love what we have done,
Prune us, that He who meekly died
May be our boast alone.

The foe would go to any length
To bring about our fall;
Prune us, that we may grow in strength
To bear and suffer all.

As we bear witness to Thy Word,
Give glory to Thy cross.
Perfect Thy strength in weakness, Lord;
We count all gain but loss.

Prune us; and though the devil may
Sow tares among the corn,
We shall with joy, on our last day,
Be to Thy garners borne.

Prune us, that we may hate our sin
And love Thy pardon more;
Prune us, that we may grasp and win
The kingdom of the poor.

O Father, Son, and Spirit, bless
The branches in Thy vine;
Let all they teach, believe, confess,
And do, be fruits of Thine.