Becket

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My boyfriend regularly tears out portions of newspapers and journals for me to read, particularly the travel section of the Sunday edition of the Times. (I admit I’ve gotten a bit behind on my reading, so having articles thrust in my face is a good way of culling the crap and seeing some of the better pieces.) After getting home from a service for Trinity Sunday, he handed a feature on Canterbury, England from last week’s edition. I’d visited before, but I chuckled at the piece which called the city a “miniature Rome.” I learned that one could get a sandwich at Pret a Manger (which I could do in NYC), go to a drop in exercise dance class (ditto), and even go see some theater (…). The article captured some of the historical sites, but didn’t really go into why Canterbury is so important.

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Whether it was under the king’s orders or a vigilante operation, Thomas Becket was beheaded in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 for not swearing fealty to Henry II. A point of pilgrimage for centuries, the stone “on which the sword fell” remains on display for touristic and penitent alike to view. Of course, there are places of pilgrimage and relics all over Europe, but it’s really hard to overstate the size of the cult that arose around Becket in the decades after his death. Probably one of most famous cases of political martyrdom in history, one can go to any major art museum in the United States and find some reliquary box, bone carving, tapestry or painting relating to Becket’s martyrdom. It’s been the topic of books and plays, and even provides dark backdrop for Peter O’Toole’s performances in Becket and The Lion in Winter.

But so immediate was the impact of Becket’s assassination that a little known Christian holiday took off not in commemoration of his death, but his ordination as a priest. Trinity Sunday is really a non-holiday in a way, as it doesn’t actually commemorate a specific biblical event or story. It’s a actually a celebration of the most convoluted and inexplicable foundation of Christian doctrine: the Holy Trinity. To this day, systematic theologians have yet to succinctly agree upon how it is that Christians are in fact monotheistic when the big guy in the sky is at once three different entities. And yet, Becket received special dispensation to celebrate this realtively obscure Christian feast on the day he was to become a priest. By all accounts, Becket’s veneration of the Trinity represented more than just an idea, but a foundational principle in his assertion that a a priest, adherence to doctrine and ecclesiastical law was more important than keeping the nobility happy. While Becket is memorialized on the day of his death on December 29th, the attempts to model and mold the English Church based after his example gave rise to celebrating the first Sunday after Pentecost, not as a simple veneration of God, but of human belief and purpose.

But in 1974, upon the excavation and refurbishment of the Elizabethan funerary shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, a curious transaction took place – one which would bring a bit of Canterbury to New York. In exchange for a rather large donation, the Rev’d John G. B. Andrew managed to obtain a piece of the very stone upon which Becket was martyred. On December 29th, it was dedicated and placed in the chancel floor at St. Thomas Church, 5th Avenue.

In questioning Comey this week, Senator Angus King (I-ME) very pointed asked about President Donald Trump’s efforts to silence the F.B.I.’s investigation of Mike Flynn and general attempts to extract “loyalty” from the former F.B.I. Chief.

King: “Do you take that as a directive?”
Comey: “Yes, yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”
King: “I was just going to quote that.”

There’s little question as to the import of Comey’s testimony we all saw on Thursday. The only irony is that a piece of Becket’s martyrdom sits only three blocks from Trump Tower.

Bassani’s Quinceañera

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On West 121st Street, just behind Columbia’s main campus, stereo beats from of a Friday night party are floating up from the parish hall at Corpus Christi Church. While generally neither problematic or untypcial for a weekend in an Upper Manhattan, a large stereo and the screams of 150 teenagers can make a continuo rehearsal a bit more of a challenge.

In baroque ensemble music, the harpsichord, along with a couple of theorbos and a viola da gamba are, for lack of a better term, the rhythm section for a group. They establish the harmony and provide a rhythmic impetus, working from bass part upwards (not too different from an electric bass and drum set in a garage band). Harpsichords and theorbos can pack a punch to make themselves more forceful: they can add lower notes, build more notes on top in between beats and physically create more sound to increase intensity. And yet, in rehearsing Giovanni Battista’s Giona, they’ve proven to be no match for a well-equipped stereo. Within a few hours, as Jonah is inside the whale’s belly, the continuo section was being swallowed by the quinceañera downstairs.

Chi mi sveglia? Dove sono? Son in mar? E che farò?   (Who wakes me up? Where am I? Am I at sea? And what am I doing?)

Where am I, indeed? I’m on the Upper West Side.

Reading Flaubert in Prague

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Prague is nuts. The old city is one of a thousand spires, sure, but also a city of a thousand hen partires and stag dos. The outlandish and garish ornamentation of the baroque churches and classical buildings is ironically matched by the alcoholic behavior of several dozen British and German grooms-to-be, staggering with their groupies from restaurant to bar, strip club to sex shop, gafawing at the resilience of their livers. It’s perhaps the trashiest, most beautiful tourist trap I’ve ever seen.

My vacation is nearly over. Sunday is Pentecost, one of the major feasts in the Church’s calendar. As such, I’m leaving early so I can head home and be present on Sunday morning. Though I only have 18 hours to be a tourist in Prague, I’ve managed to cram in the big important sites in a few hours. Like Paris or London, every location seemed to have inspired or be associated with some great work I had encountered. Walking from Wenceslas Square I remembered Milan Kundera’s reflections on 1968. As I crossed the old town center and over to the Charles Bridge, lined with the huge creepy statues, I thought of all the kitschy vampire films of the 1920s set in Central Europe. I saw the castle, which is in fact a not just a single structure, but a complex of palaces, churches and administrative buildings surrounded by a wall, much of it used for sets in Amadeus. I took a detour over to the Vyšehrad, finally seeing the inspiration for the famous harp cadenza in Smetana’s Ma Vlast. 

But as usual, I wore out after a few hours and decided just to wander until I found coffee and a place to read. I usually take books with me, and upon leaving NYC a week ago was in the mood to take something French and nihilistic about the human experience (after all, I had just finished a degree Juilliard). On the recommendation of a friend, I had picked up a copy of Flaubert’s Salammbo to take on the trip. It’s not what I signed up for in the least. Contrary to realist novels like Madame Bovary, Salammbo is an exercise in lavish ancient historical romanticism – think “sex and violence in ancient Carthage.” I made it only about 10 pages in, when the heroine appears, flanked by 12 eunuchs armed with harps. She sings a lament for Carthage, in all languages and none, conveying to the belligerent foreigners the desolation of her home, a sort of morbid Pentecostal episode. But she finishes her song and drops her harp. All falls silent. 

I admit I still haven’t touched my harp since my graduation recital a few weeks ago. It’s been almost a month, but harp-overload kind of set in towards the end of semester. I suppose I went on vacation to get away, but instead got a fresh perspective. Seeing the Vyšehrad gave a new context to my recital, having played a transcription of the Smetana’s Moldau, the culminating episode in Ma Vlast. Though supposedly about the river itself, at the end of the movement the harp’s theme returns: an apparent reminder of the greatness that lies not just with rivers, but with the cities and fortresses that line them. Smetana’s harp theme illustrating the Vyšehrad is inescapable, a constant in the work. Unlike Salammbo’s harp, it can’t be dropped or silenced. 

I’m at the train station now, waiting for my boyrfriend to join me for our last night together on vacation. I should be sad that vacation is over, but really Prague has made me want to start practicing again. The city is saturated with music, from the constant stream of concerts of Mozart to the names of the train lines in and out of the city. Richard will be arriving on the “Mozart” train from Vienna, and will be heading out on the “Brahms” train to Berlin in the morning. The train is arriving is arriving now, heralded by several bell chime arpeggios and the melody sol-do-si-sol. No, it’s not Mozart. It’s the Vyšehrad, naturally. 

Postcard from Germany: Berlin

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After seeing six operas in a week, trying to sum up the experiences at once can be somewhat of a challange. A compositional timespan of 250 years, a myriad of production schemes, totally different opera companies and sizes – there was so much variety, and yet a few things came to mind each time. 

The apparent normalcy of opera attendance has been at the front of my mind. I’m used to heading to the Met over the 65th street bridge from Juilliard, rushing in at the last minute with a host of smartly-dressed attendees many years my senior, coming in from work. Socializing is light; the sheer size of the Met can make running to see friends somewhat of a production. Drinks are expensive, and snacks even more so (not to mention, the queues are extensive). There’s a sense of seriousness about going to the Met, unsurprisingly as it attracts some of the worlds finest singers and conductors. But it’s an atmosphere not so much of enjoyment, as constant expectancy. After heading to the Berliner Staatsoper last night, I’m convinced that opera goers are of a different species in Germany. They arrive as much as 45 minutes early to enjoy a glass of wine or a pretzel as they socialize with a host of friends or familiar faces. They dress casually. They are teenagers bringing girlfriends, parents bringing young children, middle-aged married couples, clusters of students. They are mostly educated and middle class, like a large proportion of the German population. They might gaze at the essays in the programs, but don’t necessarily discuss what they are about to see with any form of expectation or severity. They act as if this isn’t a night at the opera, but a routine. 

But in looking at all the different productions, there’s an extent to which a reinterpretation of an opera isn’t feared. I saw productions in which the staging became a dramatic biography of the composers’ lives, or some where pop references were inserted rather surreptitiously – the chorus of Vampires in Der Vampyr were dressed as pop cutlure villains (Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Snape from Harry Potter, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.) and danced using moves from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Some would argue that these are distractions or gimmicks, but seeing as my boyfriend the opera nerd didn’t pick up on the pop culture references and thought that the production was cute, I’d say the job was well done.  

But more broadly, I suppose I was impressed with the way in which a series of operas brought a host of issues to the front – as if opera was indeed art, and not artifact. Seeing as I can’t ever remember seeing a single thought-provoking production at the Met in NYC (you caught me, I’ve got it out for the Met, but I’m not alone!) – going to Germany was a breath of fresh air. While each show addressed gender, identity and even class divisions, the most striking item for me was the topic of violence. In Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust (Ok, yes, it’s technically an oratorio), Faust joins the Nazi party, but falls in love with a Jewish Marguerite. The scheme fit remarkably well on to the opera, as Faust’s supposed redemption through Mephisto’s help was at the same time Marguerite’s damnation, initially. At the end of the first half, she sings about how she wishes to be different, lighting candles and trying on a blonde mädchen’s wig – her desire to be an Aryan. The show takes you from Germany’s history, from the Franco-Prussian War, to WWI and WWII, all the way to the gates of Auschwitz where Faust attempts to retrieve Marguerite. But after his damntation, there is no apotheosis of Marguerite. She is redeemed, perhaps, but noone sees her. One only sees a pile of bodies on stages, with ashes floating down upon them. 

The discomfort at the end of Gilliam’s prodution highlighted the problem of redemption – it’s not so much that there is no redemption at the end of the opera, but that redemption comes at a price. Marguerite is spotless and memorialized, and yet we do not see her. At the same time, fascism is built upon a notion of redemptive violence; the pile of bodies represents the culmination of Nazi ideology in the destruction of European Jewry. It’s uncomfortable because Marguerite’s redemption in her death at Auschwitz is the same as that of Wehrmacht. Contrary to the ways we might want to wash our hands in thinking about the Holocaust, Gilliam’s production seemingly rejects Hannah Arendt’s or Primo Levi’s idea that there is such a thing as “meaningless violence.” Just as cause and effect aren’t separable, neither are act and intent.

Postcard from Germany: Leipzig

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In making travel arrangements and changing schedules at various points throughout the week, the patient customer service workers for Deutsche Bahn assured us that there wasn’t anything to see in Leipzig. Perhaps they’re right. It’s mainly a college town, and has a fairly East German bleak feel to the city once you get outside the city center. The art museum is modest, though notable for housing few excellent paintings by Max Klinger. The other museums and sights are small and perhaps a bit niche.  

Lucky for you (and me?), niche is my thing.  

Leipzig was home to none other than Johann Sebastian Bach for the last few decades of his life. In serving as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach made perhaps his most lasting musical impression on the world. After a series of crap jobs and even a stint in prison, Leipzig is where Bach arguably landed on his feet. There he composed over 150 Cantatas, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas for Keyboard, got himself published, and raised a family of musicians who would go off on to even larger careers (though they are perhaps less well known).  

At the Thomaskirche, one can see Bach’s grave, moved to the front of the church just in front of the altar. Across the street, one can see his house, and learn about the context of his life and the instruments he composed for. One can go downstairs and consult the resident musicologists leading way in publishing Bach’s works in usable format while remaining true to his autograph scores.  

But more than that, one sees in Leipzig the sense of renewal, though not just of Bach. The Thomaskirche once was the office of Felix Mendelssohn, the man responsible for reviving Bach’s works and reintroducing them to the public consciousness. But just as Bach was restored, so was Mendelssohn. One can see the Mendelssohn window in the church, a symbol of recognition of Mendelssohn’s rightful place in the musical canon, despite the attempts of National Socialist ideology to remove him on the basis of his Jewish heritage. The orchestra in Leipzig is Europe’s first professional “orchestra” as we know it, having survived the revolutions of of the nineteenth century and the dissolution of the Weimar Republic. The Thomaskirche’s boychoir is just over 800 years old, a continuous institution that flourished under Bach and Mendelssohn, and survived the Second World War, a communist regime and the fall of GDR.  

Yes, to an extent these sights and sounds are niche, and perhaps overblown in our understanding of the history of classical music. But the city breathes music. Because of the attempts to revive and preserve music in cycles throughout Germany’s turbulent past, the musician’s Leipzig is not just a series of relics as much as a memorial to the endurance of music.  

Postcard from Germany: Kassel

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Today brought an unexpected surprise, in that I spent the afternoon with my oldest and best friend. Meeting up with us in Kassel, Freddie took us around the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, just outside the city. Though the grounds were beautiful from a distance, the park itself is in fact a large exploration of Romantic “reconstruction,” shall we say. Ascending up the long hill to a ruined temple of Hercules, one passes an “aqueduct” which was in fact built to look like a ruin. On warmer days, the ruin includes a water feature which pour water down a stream into the lake behind the estate. Other perverse curiosities include a faux pyramid covered in moss, a shack meant to be “Socrates’ hermitage,” and a devil’s bridge eventually leading to “Pluto’s Grotto” (an entrance to the underworld). Part of its charm was perhaps that fact that these intentional ruins were further ruined during WWII, and then restored to their former ruined state – perhaps the architectural equivalent of putting a poem of E.E. Cummings through a shredder, and trying to put it back together again for funsies.  

Less inspiring was Hildesheim. Passing rows of kebab shops and buildings covered in graffiti, R and I were grateful for the decision to stop and meet up with Freddie. The opera however was a another new experience for me: Busoni’s Doktor Faustus. Contemporary with Puccini’s Turandot, the content of the opera managed to explore Faust’s crisis of faith not just dramaturgically, but musically. As Faust signs his will over to Mephistopholes, the offstage chorus works their way through a setting of the Nicene Creed, the central movement of the mass. Quotes from Bach’s Matthew Passion comment on what it means to “follow” rather than heed one’s own conscience. In the final scene, as Faust’s eternal damnation is imminent, the men in the chorus sing Vater unser in Himmelreich, a metrical setting of the Lord’s Prayer.  

Tomorrow: Leipzig.  

Postcard from Germany: Heidelberg

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Opera no. 3 this week was Mieczysław Weinberg’s Mazel Tov, based on the play by Shalom Aleichem. While the original play was originally a snapshot of the life of a Jewish family in Odessa, the production managed to evoke both the spirit of all of Aleichem’s works and a peek into the composer’s own life. Projections of Chagall and Soviet propaganda provided the backdrop for much of the opera, a biographic commentary on Weinberg’s struggle to reconcile his identity with the artistic boundaries set by Stalinism. Indeed, at highly dramatic moments in the opera, a bloodied fiddler on the room would appear silently on stage, unclear as to whether he was a victim of a Russian pogrom, a Nazi camp or a Soviet purge. The ambiguity turned to dark irony at the end of the opera, when two children appeared on stage in Stalin and Hitler bobble heads, shaking hands and surveying the characters on stage.  

After the Weinberg, a small opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Ring of Polycrates. Though originally a love story about two sets of lovers overcoming their frustrations with each other, the production provided another venture into biographical dramaturgy. Set in Hollywood rather than Vienna, the story stopped dead three times to interpolate the opening of Korngold’s Concerto for Left Hand. Each time, a one-armed soldier sent to the fetch the ring appears on stage, as well as members of the Shalom Aleichem’s fictitious family in Odessa – all a reminder of the Europe that Korngold left behind upon his escape from Vienna and resettlement in Hollywood. 

Overall, both opera productions seemed to express what the composers were not able to throughout their careers. The Hollywood that Korngold worked in was long reticent to explicitly produce movies criticizing the Nazi regime (a problem noted in stories such as Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon) as the largest international market for Hollywood films was in Germany. Though Weinberg’s own operas were rarely performed in his lifetime, they still conformed to official narratives and histories as dictated by the Soviet regime. His one opera concerning the Holocaust, The Passenger, tells the story of a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, but without mention of the specific targeting of Jews in Hitler’s “Final Solution” – a remarkably ideologically determined opera, considering the loss of Weinberg’s entire family at the hand of the Germans. 

Both operas raised interesting ideas about what it means to amplify the voice of the composer, questioning the relationship between the artists’ experience and their work. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the magnanimity of the Holocaust is such that its use as a metaphor in opera is unambiguous, morally straightforward, perhaps even easy. While I could see these productions being performed in NYC, I can’t think of events on US soil so unambiguous as to render such deep meaning with polemic augmentation. At the same time I have a feeling that I’m certainly wrong in that observation, as Americans are particularly bad about criticizing the past, much less the present. Perhaps the common saying that the “sense of history” is stronger on this side of the ocean isn’t so much about longevity as it is about integrity.