Monteverdi

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The Xuhui district of Shanghai is perhaps equivalent to New York’s Upper West Side. Tall luxury apartment buildings are interspersed with art deco condos separated from their sisters over in the French Concession, a juxtaposition of old and new. Down the street in one direction, there’s a Paris Baguette and a Starbucks. In the other, a Franco-Japanese coffeehouse next to a museum. Thai and Euro-fusion restaurants abound in the neighborhood, though the food of choice before about 6pm comes either from street vendors or local canteens. It really feels like West 72nd Street.

So far, Richard and I usually head out the door at 7am or so to get coffee number one at Starbucks, followed by breakfast, followed swiftly by coffee number two at Café Lumiere, the local precious Japanese coffeehouse (selling coffee in-house roasted beans at $40 a bag, not an uncommon site in bourgeois neighborhoods here). Coffee was more pertinent than it might normally be: armed with a kitchen knife and a disposable emory board, my post-breakfast routine would entail an hour of voicing a Klop Italian harpsichord. Quite a bit of the repertoire on the menu this week is Italian, but there’s enough French repertoire to merit working on the instrument. Italian harpsichords are super “plucky,” even unsubtle, while French harpsichords tend to have bloom to them. Like regional variations in wine or cuisine, there are trends, flavors and guidelines to preparation. Evoking two at the same time can be tricky territory – combining Italian and French wines in the same glass has yet to be recommended to me. (Especially, if you’ve just had three cups of coffee at $8 a piece.)

The art of harpsichord voicing is one of those fantastic and frustrating activities where any physical exactness you see with your eyes must be totally subject to the sonic result when put to the test. As harpsichord strings are plucked (rather than hammered, as on a piano), it’s necessary to make sure that the little pieces of quill or Delrin are the right shape and density. In a way, you really want a plectrum to function like a finger: strong enough to make an impact, yet supple enough to give the illusion of dynamic subtlety. If they’re too square, they pound. If they’re too narrow, they won’t properly move the string. If they’re too thin on the top, they won’t pluck properly. If they’re too hard on the bottom, they’ll slam back into the strings every time you release a note. Combined with the fact that a plectrum is maybe 1/8 of an inch wide and ¼ centimeter thick… and that the pieces of wood they’re wedged in expand and contract with humidity… and temperature… you get the idea. It’s an exercise in patience.

Between 8 and 9, as I’d be voicing and tuning the harpsichord, the other members of the Shanghai Camerata would make errands to pick up steamed buns and wonton soup and coffee to fortify the troops. If Richard wasn’t out the door to a museum already, he’d be researching where to go. Throughout the morning, a steady stream of delivery boys would come bearing fruit, vegetables and green juices for those who wished to be homebodies for the morning, avoiding the cold smog which hovers over the city like a cloud.

By about 9:30 I’d be scratching my head still trying to work out a tuning temperament that would allow for easy transitions from Italian 17th century music to more chromatic music from France of a later period. While Italian music basks in the purity of just intervals, sitting most comfortably in D minor or close by, music from France requires a more “equal-opportunities” approach with regards to key centers. Some keys can be colorful or spunky, but none need be a total red zone. Just as with voicing the instrument, coming up with a mediating zone for the music to work on the instrument takes a bit of cultivation.

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Fast-forward: tonight was our final concert of the week. Though coinciding with festivities for the Chinese New Year, the hall at the Shanghai Conservatory was packed. The concert began with the Prologue from Orfeo, Western Music’s first “opera” by many definitions. First performed in 1607 during the Carnival season in Mantua, Orfeo speaks of the power of music to charm the senses and soothe the soul. In the end, it is music that is more powerful than Orpheus himself. In his voyage to save Eurydice from Hades, the one condition of her safe passage is that Orpheus does not look to see if she is following him. But not even music can defeat human folly: Orpheus hears a noise and turns around, breaking the deal. He loses Euryidice forever.

I remember visiting the French Concession in Shanghai in 2011, and still there are few places as inspiring as this other worldly miniature cosmopolis. Indeed, events in the French Concession seemingly attract a wide array of local cultural figures from around the city. Among the audience was a documentarian by the name of Shuibo Wang. Our concert was just on the heels of the release of his new feature Who is David Bloch?, an account of the survival of a Jewish artist survival in a Nazi concentration camp and his subsequent emigration to Shanghai.

With the opening of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in 2008, there has been increasing awareness of the place of émigrés in Shanghai. A synagogue has been restored, documents have been collected, and accounts of life in Shanghai have been drawn from former residents now planted in Israel and the United States. And yet the old world flavor of the French Concession carries the same uneasy feeling that one gets in Europe: that something has been erased. Following the visit of Nazi officers to Shanghai in 1942 (most notably Josef Meisinger, the “Butcher of Warsaw”), the Japanese established a ghetto in Hongkew, away from the French Concession, though admittedly not far by Shanghai’s current geographic standards. Though it applied to “stateless persons” having arrived after 1937, the implications of the new urban planning scheme were clear. Hongkew was emancipated, but the subsequent rise of Communism and expulsion of foreigners have left only traces of what’s left.

While Monteverdi’s life in Mantua is marked for its variety and creativity, the city in which Monteverdi arrived in 1591 was much changed by the time he departed in 1613. Once known as an isolated and wealthy cosmopolitan center for culture, the Gonzaga Duchy increasingly succumbed to the pressures associated with the counter-Reformation. By 1611, the Duchy was virtually bankrupt, necessitating both Claudio and his brother’s dismissal from court in 1613. Despite Mantua’s reputation as a hub for musicians, various restrictions necessitated the importation of musicians from Florence and Venice for the first performance of Orfeo in 1607. In 1600, some 70 years behind the rest of Italy, Mantua constructed a wall to form a ghetto.

Like Chinese New Year in Shanghai, Carnival was one of the main events in the calendar in Mantua. But in sixteenth century Mantua, carnival was not merely a Christian celebration of the passage from the season of Epiphany into Lent, but also often coincided with the Jewish festival of Purim, one of the most licentious celebrations in the Jewish calendar. Lavish plays for Purim were composed in Mantua and often performed before the court alongside sacred allegorical and secular humanist dramas during for the Carnival. Prominent in these productions were Jewish musicians in the court. Harpists and choreographers especially were prominent in these productions, as the genre of the pastoral drama grew throughout the sixteenth century.

Perhaps the most “Orphic” representation within Montevderdi’s Orfeo, is the appearance of a harp solo in Act III, the first harp solo of its kind to appear in a large scale vocal work. It’s a complex solo, filled with florid scales and overlapping harmonies, appearing at the crux of the work when Orpheus floats down the Styx to fetch Euridyce from Hades. No less striking was the performance in 1607 by a famous Neapolitan harpist, Lucrezia Urbana, who had served in the court regularly since 1606 at a salary of 20 ducats per annum (though other records report regular performances in Mantua as early as 1603-5). So pleased was the Duke of Mantua with her performance, that he made special mention of her skills in a letter of recommendation for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Based on reports of her Neapolitan training by Asciano Mayone and contemporary documents describing her instrument, it is apparent that Lucrezia Urbana performed on the relatively new Neapolitan arpa doppia, a peculiar instrument with two rows of diatonically tuned strings (hence the term “doppia”) and a middle row of chromatic strings.

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In this light, much scholarship has traced the placement of the harp in Orfeo through Neapolitan sources, marking the ritornello in Act III as a point of maturation of the harp in Italy. This is perhaps not very surprising, as musicologists Cheryl Ann Fulton and Dinko Fabris point out that the advent of the arpa doppia also marked the advent of specific compositions for the harp outside of the Iberian Peninsula, where the Spanish arpa de dos ordenes had been composed for and discussed pedagogically in treatises since the mid-sixteenth century. Similarly, contemporary figures described the new arpadoppia in great detail, while literary sources on other forms of the harp in Italy are practically non-existent. Vincenzo Galilei informs us that a new model of harp ”represented a natural progression from the former and had three rows of strings thus offering harpists more freedom of technique than the earlier version.” Agostino Agazzari echoed Galilei’s observations, noting that “the arpa doppia is an instrument of broad texture which works well both on the high notes.” Bernardo Giobarnardi described its expressive effects as “marvelous” and Marin Mersenne declared the harp to have reached its “epitome” in the form of the arpa doppia. Highest praise came from Giovanni Battista Doni, who declared the qualities of the arpa doppia “best suited to represent Antiquity.”

While literary sources describing other harps in Italy are limited and there is no extant repertoire, the harp was not an unvalued or invisible instrument in Italy prior to the advent of the arpa doppia. Throughout the sixteenth century, the harp in fact held a special place at the court in Mantua. Though the court kept a rather small number of continuously salaried musicians, a line of harpists from the Jewish community was continuously employed. In 1522, a Jewish harpist named (curiously) Giovani Maria was employed in the service of the court to perform and to tutor the children of MarcheseFrancesco. Most famously, Abramo dell’Arpa was employed in the service of Duke Gugliemo Gonzaga in 1542, famously performing the part of Pan in a pastoral spectacle before the court in the same year. Soon after accepting an invitation to serve in the court of Ferdinand I in Vienna, Abramo was replaced by his nephew Abramino, who comforted Duke Gugliemo upon his deathbed in 1584. From the 1580s into the 1590s, one Isacchino Massarano served in the court and played a key role in the production of Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido in 1591. It was only with the passing of Isacchino Massarano in 1599, coupled with the decline of the Mantuan Jewish community under pressure from the Holy See, that harpists from outside Mantua performed regularly in the court. From 1600 onwards, female harpists and singers were imported from Naples to perform in the Mantuan court, including Lucrezia Urbana in 1603. Though these women undoubtedly influenced the forms of music heard in the court, their presence in Mantua did not represent a departure, but rather a continuation of the special place of the harp in the court of Mantua.

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Woodcut, Seder Haggadah shel Pesah, Mantua, 1609.

Other sources reveal the esteem with which Jewish court musicians were held, both within the Jewish community in Mantua and in the court. Giovanni Maria was raised to the level of royalty by Pope Leo X for his performances on the flute and harp. Abramino dell’Arpa also appears to have been a particularly prominent musician, and an important figure in the political relations between the court and the Jewish community. Multiple accounts of a case of forced conversion in 1587 (a very rare occurrence in Mantua) detail the attempts to coerce three prominent members of the Jewish community: Abramino dell’Arpa, his uncle Sansone dell’Arpa, and renowned Talmudist Rabbi Judah ben Moscato. While official court records and Jewish sources diverge as to whether or not Abramino in fact converted, his place as a symbolic figure for both the court and the Jewish community perhaps bear witness to the standing of such musicians in Mantua. Employment records in 1580 also reveal that Abramino’s salary appears to have been competitive with non-Jewish musicians (Jewish musicians were generally paid less), receiving a salary of 36 scudi per annum, nearly two-thirds of the salary of maestro di capella, Giaches de Wert. Outside of Mantua, Abramino’s skills as a harpist were compared to those of Giovanni Leonardo dell’Arpa, a prominent harpist in Naples and one of the earliest performers on the newly invented arpa doppia. In 1585, poet and painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo spoke of the skills of Giovanni Leonardo as “excelling in comparison with the Jew [Abramo] of Mantua and his grandson [Abramino].”

But apart from the figure of Abramino, the harp held a special place in the theology of Rabbi Judah ben Moscato, one of the most important figures of the Italian Renaissance. Like many of his Jewish contemporaries, Moscato believed that all the languages of culture were derived from Judaism and that it was the duty of Jews to acquire these branches of knowledge, of which they had once been masters. This was particularly true of music and the mastery of ancient instruments. The first two of his 52 sermons published under the title Nefuẓot Yehudah (Venice 1588) are entitled “Sounds for Contemplation on a Lyre” and “Song of the Ascents of David.” The first sermon, written for the first day of Simchat Torah, opens with a proclamation of God’s ordering of creation in accordance with “the ratios of music,” just as “he himself… is the master of perfect music.” The initial midrash in the sermon is a consideration of David’s kinnor, an open instrument of multiple strings which was commonly translated as the “lira” or “Cithara” by Christian hebraists, but explicitly translated as the “arpa” by Jewish philosophers and linguists in Italy. For Moscato the harp was not simply a musical instrument of praise; it was the instrument designated for the house and lineage of Levi, as a manner of fulfilling Mosaic law. In his sermon on the kinnor, Moscato explicitly praises Abramino dell’Arpa, equating his skills as a harpist with those of King David. For Moscato, the combination of study of the Torah with music of the harp represented the perfection of the manifestation of law into praise, quoting to Psalm 119: “Your [God’s] Laws became songs to me.”

With these considerations in mind, historian Don Harrán astutely remarked that “questions still surround the popularity of the harp and its practitioners in the late sixteenth century. The questions are not just of relevance to Moscato’s sermons and Jewish musicians in the Renaissance but, clearly, to the history of music at large.” But what bearing do such considerations have upon Orfeo? Though the harp may have been prominent in Mantua throughout the sixteenth century, drawing an explicit link with with the Jewish community in Mantua is still contentious. That being said, some have drawn links between the involvement of Mantua’s Jewish community and theatrical productions: In 1489, a production of the biblical story of Judith in Hebrew was presented before the Duke; Leone de’ Sommi’s prominence as a stage producer from the 1550s into well into the 1590s, including performances of Gaurini’s Il Pastor Fido in Mantua and Ferrara in 1592; the appearance of Purim plays Mantuan Carnival celebrations, such as one performed at Vincenzo Gonzaga’s second wedding in 1584. However, the construction of the ghetto in Mantua in 1601 saw a severe decline in the involvement of the Jewish artists and musicians in the theatrical life of Mantua. Indeed, the records of performers in the 1607 performance of Orfeo reveal no presence of Jewish performers at all.

However, other evidence reveals that Monteverdi had explicit ties with Jewish Italian cultural life. Records of correspondence exist between Monteverdi and Salamone Rossi, who also served as a notable composer in the ducal court. The two composers even worked together in a collaborative composition, La Maddalena in 1604. It is known also that Rossi’s sister, Europa Rossi, sang the role of Dorilla in several performances of Montverdi’s Arianna. Some scholars have even speculated that the role of La Musica in Orfeo may have even been composed with Europa in mind. Further scholarly speculation has been offered in relation to Monteverdi’s clerical training in Cremona, a notable center of Hebraic studies.

But far more interesting may be consideration of the influences of Jewish liturgical music upon portions of Orfeo. Musicologist Jonathan Angress has addressed issues of modality in the ritornello for solo harp in Act III. Unusually chromatic in comparison with other portions of the opera, Angress argues that the harp evokes Jewish prayer modes, namely the Ahava Rabba, a mode named after a portion of the Jewish morning liturgy. The unorthodox rhetorical grouping of sixteenth notes highlights the dissonance between the E-flat and the F-sharp, an intervalic conflict not seen in the rest of the opera. Monteverdi was known for being unorthodox at times with his use of dissonance, as a letter between Salamone Rossi and Guilio Cesare Monteverdi (Claudio’s brother reveals). Specifically, the letter criticizes the use of “foreign” intervals, such as the incorporation of augmented seconds and tri-tones.

What’s most interesting to me though, is that while this solo has often been known as a work for a Neapolitan harp, it’s completely possible to play it – and the whole opera, in fact – on a harp with a single row of strings, a type known to Mantua throughout the 16th Century. The harp solo bears a small, but recognizable imprint of the context in which Orfeo was wrought, not just in the creation of an opera, but in the expansion of the Pastoral tradition of Purim. Even in the shadow of erasure, one can get a glimpse of something that once was.

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In walking the harpsichord from the gate through the Shanghai Conservatory campus after unloading it from the van, I could sense that I would have another hour or so of work ahead of to get the instrument in shape. Harpsichords, though large, are fragile, sensitive to the minutest changes in temperature and humidity. But I didn’t mind a great deal. The Conservatory campus alone is worth seeing, even if just for a quiet stroll. A relatively new concert hall is attached to a fantastic 1910s clubhouse, formerly the home to Jewish Club of Shanghai. Complete with palm trees and a lawn perfect for a round of croquet, there’s an incredible sense of preservation in the midst of a city and culture known for rapid and unstoppable change – an appropriate setting perhaps, for a performance of some Monteverdi by China’s first early music ensemble.

Nabokov

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After charming the border agents at Gatwick, I headed straight to the Chinese embassy’s visa centre on Old Jewry. (For reasons too boring to list here, I had to obtain a Chinese visa during my visit to the UK. Life lesson: while the prospect of international travel and performing is glamorous, the realities without fail, are less so.) The shittiness of my latest return to the UK Might be on par with the time I sat an A-level maths exam two hours after stepping off an international flight. Upon arriving at no. 7 Old Jewry, I handed over my papers only to be informed that I had to fill out all my paperwork again. There was nothing “wrong” with my forms as such. In fact, all the information was accurate and had been typed with meticulous detail. And yet, everything had to be filled out again, and all secondary documents photocopied once more. Why? Because I had printed everything on US Letter sized paper, and not on A4. The forms I had filled out could not be photocopied on to A4 either. They won’t accept copies. Or USA-sized passport photos, for that matter. Or US debit cards. English bureaucracy: rendering headaches and endless frustration since 1066.

After three and a half years, London feels the same. At one point in my life, a trip down from Cambridge would provide a rush of adrenaline. Now, it feels dozy compared to New York. I’ve been here for 5 hours maybe, and I’ve found myself naturally drawn back to Soho and Chinatown, my usual haunt after my monthly pilgrimage to see the Arnolfini Wedding at the National Gallery. They’re loud, congested, giving wandering Londoners the feeling of anonymity more commonly associated with Manhattan. Little has changed; my favorite izakaya continues to heap chicken teriyaki, salad and a mound of rice onto my plate for £4.50. The Kowloon Cake Shop supplies red bean pastries intended for immediate consumption (their shelf life is maybe three hours). Foyles bookstore still has what I’m looking for, each and every time. I’d forgotten to grab a book on my way out the door yesterday, something snappy and digestible. Nabokov it is.

Invitation to a Beheading is an easy read, and essays on its construction and meaning are clicks away on my iPad via JSTOR and Project MUSE (note: in case anyone was wondering, using Oberlin College Library access in a London coffee shop is surreal, to say the least). As with a lot of Nabokov scholarship, interpretations range from the plausible to the farcical. Some rightly point out that English translations don’t do the Russian novels justice when uncovering plays on words that may connect French novels to Russian politics or geography or poetry, etc. The problem comes when people try and “interpret” what Nabokov might be getting at. A common view is that Invitation falls into a Russian “radical” tradition, reducing Nabokov to a disgruntled émigré who sought nothing but literary retribution against the Bolshevik regime. For me, it’s a tough sell. Nabokov didn’t write about politics in any of his other books or essays at all, save Invitation. Furthermore, he wrote it in just a few days as a side project to his Russian magnum opus, The Gift. Apart from being dystopian, it bears little or no relation to Zamatyin’s We, a futuristic sci-fi novel set in the 26th century (think 1984 meets Aelita, Queen of Mars) to which Invitation is often compared. But We deals with themes of authoritarianism, a master state, a leader, etc. and the struggle of individuals to release themselves from the control it has of their sensibilities. None of these elements are present in Invitation. Cincinnatus, the protagonist, is under no pretense that the world he lives in is just. He has no “journey” or true development of character. He’s simply a citizen jailed and sentenced to death for being different. The struggle is not one of escape, physical or mental – he only begs to know on what day he will be executed – nothing more. Those who hold him captive keep changing his execution date, conversing with him in cheery tones, and behave as if his incarceration is a humorous nuisance.

The essence of Cincinnatus’s character is that his mind is always taken elsewhere (hence his imprisonment). A typical rumination may consider his death, his wife or the beauty of a bygone era, but rarely the nature of the state which holds him prisoner. Books and magazines are Cincinnatus’s retreat:

The prison library… was a remote world, where the simplest objects sparkled with youth and an inborn insolence, proceeding from the reverence that surrounded the labour devoted to their manufacture.

Books are Cincinnatus’s passion, his retreat, but it is because of the devotion that goes into preservation of something concrete, when all around him is perpetually and viciously in flux.

Like most accounts of political trials, Nabokov’s novella offers far more about the accuser than the accused. If there are lessons to be learned from history, one might be that processes of external incrimination and judgment are often far more memorable and insightful than the relatively uncomplicated plight of innocence. For French Revolution buffs, Georges Danton’s achievements have been largely forgotten. It is only in Robespierre’s betrayal that he becomes famous, foreshadowing the Reign of Terror. Likewise Trotsky is known for his expulsion from Russia, and far less for his military prowess in the Russian Civil War. He is of course most well known for his assassination by Stalin, perhaps the most visible of the purges to those outside Russia. Even now, Steve Bannon’s fall has told us far more about the ideological flexibility of the GOP. Once heralded as alt-right/nouveau-GOP ideological mastermind, he is now cut off from Breitbart and has been ousted from the Trump inner sanctum. Leaders fashion themselves as Robespierres, but many become Dantons.

Damning as Michael Wolf’s book may have been to Trump and Bannon’s public relationship, Fire and Fury failed to reveal anything new about the POTUS. But as the Russia investigation draws on, the sincerity of our search for dirt on Trump is looking more and more like a hostage situation. In the absence of hard evidence, elected officials continue down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. In the midst of government shutdowns and restarts, tensions with foreign nations and a President with an inappropriate and often offensive big mouth, our country’s elected officials are still trying to figure out if it was maybe possible that Jared Kushner might have used executive privilege to do some creative accounting. (And somehow, this relates to the manner in which Putin used Facebook to mind control America, in the latest remake of The Manchurian Candidate.)

The integrity and political tenacity of Cincinnatus’s executioners too are seemingly measured by the extent to which they can consider Cincinnatus’s fate with total and utter insincerity. Take Pierre Delalande, Cincinnatus’s legal advisor and arguably worst culprit. After visiting Cincinnatus three times for the sole purpose of tormenting him, Pierre ends up accompanying him to the scaffold, for a performance to entertain the townsfolk in Thriller Square. As Cincinnatus makes his way to the scaffold, he sees the townsfolk gathering towards him as he converses with Pierre. At one point, Pierre grows impatient with the horse driver, reprimanding him with characteristic sarcasm. But the scene continues:

“I’m sorry I flared up like that,” M’sieur Pierre was saying gently, ‘Don’t be angry with me, duckie. You understand yourself how it hurts to see others being sloppy when you put your whole soul into your work.”

They clattered across the bridge. News of the execution had only just now begun to spread through the town. Red and blue boys ran after the carriage. A man who feigned insanity, an old fellow of Jewish origin who had for many years been fishing for non-existent fish in a waterless river, was collecting his chattels, hurrying to join the very first group of townspeople heading for Thriller Square.

“ . . . but there’s no point in dwelling on that,’ M’sieur Pierre was saying. ‘Men of my temperament are volatile but also get over it quickly.”

While Nabokov does not necessarily fit neatly into any one literary genre (he composed novels in three languages in his lifetime), Invitation bears the hallmark of Russian literature in the presence of mysticism and metaphor. Pierre and the fisherman are one and the same person: the Apostle Peter. My Episcopalian friends will know that just yesterday, the Gospel reading included the famous verse from the Book of Matthew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Both of Peter’s reincarnations are warped. One is the fisherman, doing his job as entrusted to him, though with little care or sense of purpose. The other is the defender (Peter was the first Pope, after all), playing the role of advocate but to a performative, not a judicial, end.

It’s easy to miss Peter’s apparition in Invitation. Like Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky before him, Nabokov was in the business of saturating his novels with hidden references or mysticism (perhaps in compensation to the awkwardness of his prose). By the time you’ve gotten to the end of the book, the brain overloads on the diarrhetic flow of French Revolutionary references, that one scarcely has space for much more. But there’s modern blindness as well. We’re used to thinking of Dystopian societies in “totalitarian” frameworks. Though Hannah Arendt’s sociological tropes would have us believe that social responsibility can never really be laid with the individual, Invitation was written well before society started thinking about Orwell’s Eurasia, about Eichmann’s ignorance or the questions of “thoughtlessness” (some might say mass unintelligence) that are pervasive throughout society when things go really sour.

What Invitation continually gets at is the contradictory double-think that people carry around in in their minds: (1) the things which they know to be true, and (2) the things which they know will get them ahead which run in supposed opposition to those truths. After all it was Peter who was given entrusted with leading the Church, but also thrice denied Christ at the most crucial moment. Christians often cite the human condition, arguing that Peter’s imperfection shows the extent to which Christianity works on our level and leaves room for our foibles. But in typical Nabokovian fashion, there’s a dark cynicism about the benevolence human nature and the good intentions of religion. Peter, Pierre, and Cincinnatus’s oppressors are no such imperfect humans: they are merely spineless, substituting spite and self-gratification for guilt or conscience.

I fear that the current trajectory of the Russia investigation might be far more telling about my party and my generation than about the Trump administration. The President and the GOP are fundamentally altering the manner in which the country conducts itself, and yet the Russia investigation continues for the sole purpose of maintaining a fiction of political action. We’ve now gotten to a stalemate, whereby whatever Trump says, the opposite “must” be true, whatever he does the opposite “must” be correct. I personally think Trump is a lousy President, but our refusal to genuinely engage with the political moment is to take an inheritance, an opportunity, and selfishly squander it.

Russia

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So, has anyone else noticed that the Trump election/Russia story keeps going… nowhere? I’m the first to admit that Trump’s performance in office is really less than ideal. But once again the vitriol about the Presidency seems to be descending into senselessness.

For instance, the FBI, once the source of the cock-up which got Trump into office (thanks, Comey), is now supposedly the most reliable source of information that will supposedly protect our democracy. Indeed, all intelligence agencies are now apparently fountainheads of truth. Nevermind that the FBI has long been a tool for the political suppression of minority groups and labor activism, or that the CIA provided Congress and the President with lies about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Newspapers like the New York Times have been quick to latch on to the Russia trail as well, taking a speculative assessment by a select group of analysts from the intelligence community as irrefutable proof that Putin had a hand in the election. The document compiled by the 16 agencies in fact reads that their “judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation and precedents.” Really? Is this the most we have to go on? This might explain why the CIA was able to track a Chinese military hack down to a single People’s Army building, but has yet to provide concrete evidence of “where” any Russian hack may have emanated from precisely.

The double standards go on and on. We’ve rightly charged our President with nativism and insularity, while making Russia a public enemy. Up until 2008-12, détente was the general policy with regards post-Communist Russia, but now such is apparently unthinkable (though cuddling up to a regime like Iran’s is apparently OK, and distancing ourselves from it is a mistake). Putin is a monster, while other dictatorial leaders do not appear to be worthy of remark.

We seem to keep talking about things that really are besides the point. We’re still not talking about the content of the emails. While Russia’s involvement in the elections is up in the air, it has been pretty firmly established that the DNC colluded to keep Bernie out, and push Hillary to the top. Indeed, it’s been a year, and the Times is just now getting around to asking if “fake news” stories or social media really had that much of an impact. The same party that is screaming up and down that the US population was smart enough to grant Hillary 3 million more votes is also dumb enough to believe anything that pops up on a Facebook or Twitter feed.

The resulting atmosphere I see around me is intellectually nihilistic at best, unprincipled at worst. Standing up on a soapbox declaring our right to an election result of our choosing is taking a political matter and frankly depoliticizing it. We keep trying to take a matter of politics – that is, the points of intersection between citizens – and turning it into a legal battle over an ideological position. It’s taking that ballot and turning it into a pawn. Can we take a minute to remember that voting in national elections qualify as perhaps the most mundane form of political engagement imaginable? Yes they are important, but if we see them as our only way of rectifying the problem we have with our President, then we might as well kiss 2020 goodbye. There are local elections, there are school-boards, there are community organizations, there are non-profits – there are any number of ways for us to be involved and ensure that our own backyards are taken care of.

(I realize this has nothing to do with music, so here’s some Billy Budd to help you get depressed, etc.)

Space Purcell

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HarpingOn

I’m indoors, pretending the outside world doesn’t exist. Facebook seems a wash of video postings from Schubert’s Winterreise, sung by any one of a myriad of talentless English tenors with vocal nodules.

No thanks.

If you really, really want to feel some insincere winter bleak feels, have a listen to Klaus Nomi’s intergalactic rendition of Purcell’s “Cold Song” from King Arthur.

Trachis

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HarpingOn

My resolution for 2018 is “pay a bit more attention to the blog.” With any luck, I’ll be posting more frequently, and with less laborious prose.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve kind of been getting into Sciarrino. I’ve got a piece of his in the oven for an audition tape, L’addio a Trachis (1980). It’s remarkably difficult to find much out about the work itself. Even when scouring Classical sources, the city of Trachis doesn’t come up all that often. That said, Sciarrino did compose an 18-minute work for female voices based on the tragic play of Sophocles, The Trachinae. Deianeira, wife of Heracles, finds that her husband has laid siege to Oechalia for the purpose of taking another woman, Iole, as his wife. Deianeira sends Heracles a garment dipped in a potion meant to rekindle his love for her. But Deianeira has been fooled; the garb has in fact been laced with a poison which burns and tortures Heracles as he returns to Trachis. To end his suffering, he is taken to be burned alive.

Sciarrino’s solo for harp uses tremolos and harmonic effects, evocative of dying embers. While Heracles is sometimes seen as either heroic (as in the case of Sophocles) or comic (in the case of Ovid), it’s rare for the Heraclean prototype to cast a real sense of hopelessness or resignation. Heracles isn’t killed by his wife, but the by the centaur Nessus, who he killed to save Deianeira and take her as his bride. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianeira that a mixture of his own blood with the poison of the Hydra would act as a love potion. Nessus lied, helping to fulfill the prophecy that Heracles would be killed by those who were already dead.

Heracles dies full of regrets, despite a life of achievement and glory. Ezra Pound’s adaptation captures the mood rather better than some of the more literal translations, essentially devising a scene in which Hyllos assists Heracles in his own suicide.

HER:
Fine… Get me to that fire, before this pain
starts again. Hey, you there, hoist me up
for the last trouble.
The last rest.

HYL:
Nothing to stop us now. You’re the driver.

HER:
Come ere the pain awake,
O stubborn mind.

[To Hyllos]
And put some cement in your face,
reinforced concrete, make a cheerful finish
even if you don’t want to.

People tend to give Ezra Pound a hard time about his “translation” (I use the term loosely). The probability that he knew ancient Greek with any sense of fluency is very slight. But his adaptation of the Greek χάλυβος λιθοκόλλητον στόμιον (chalubos lithokolleton stomion—a bit of steel cast with stones) here is rather appropriate; he uses the term “reinforced concrete,” a simultaneous nod towards the age of American technological progress and the birth of a different strand of stoic masculinity. At the very least, it’s an interesting example of the ways in which updating ancient texts with modern imagery works almost perfectly.

A New Year?

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HarpingOn

It’s been a rough year, so here’s some Bach.

Das alte Jahr vergangen ist is usually one of the more “upbeat” of the new year carols, though it was particularly contentious around the time Bach wrote it in Weimar. Just down the road in Erfurt in 1712, a group of kids passed a Catholic home as they sang the verse “keep us, Lord, from Papal teaching and idolatry” (Vor’s Papsts Lehr’ und Abgötterei bewahr uns, Herr). With malicious intent or not, it sparked another in a long series of religious conflicts in the primarily Catholic dominion of Mainz.

Of course, there’s no proof that Bach’s melancholic setting is in any way related to the incident as mentioned above. At the very least though, it’s a good anecdote that bidding the old year goodbye may not necessarily bring any change.

 

 

Advent II

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HarpingOn

Interfaith coupledom has entered a new phase. Friday night, Richard and I headed up to B’nai Jeshurun on 88th Street a little after 6 o’clock. Having become accustomed to relatively poor church attendance rates in Manhattan, watching a room and balcony fill up with congregants was a jolt to the system. People talked enthusiastically before the service as the oud and clarinet tuned up in front of the bimah. Within ten minutes there was singing with dancing soon thereafter.

Unfamiliar with the proto-Mediterranean music, the order of service or the essence of what being there ought to be about, my only point of reference were correlating elements with the Anglican tradition. Preparation for Sabbath begins with the 95th Psalm, the same Psalm which constitutes the Venite, the first appointed canticle for the service of Matins. Much like Evensong, Psalms are essential to getting the service going. Far more was sung than said in the service. And even more was read privately than sung.

I admit I had never thought of reading as having a physical embodiment until Friday. Fellow congregants read psalms, prayers or other texts at their own pace, partaking in a middle ground of public performance and private devotion that doesn’t exist in the Anglican Eucharist. One might have near silence at points, or low level muttering and chanting of psalms, as well as occasions when the congregation is singing portions of the psalms in unison.

I realized that Anglicanism’s Catholic heritage has provided somewhat of a zero-sum game when it comes to participation in the service. Either you are watching, or you are sitting/standing/reading/singing exactly the same thing as your fellow congregants at the same time. Recited sections of text are often short, memorable, easily reproducible. The theatrical nature of Catholicism is beautiful, yes, but it’s built on the dark historical reality of illiteracy. Indeed the Eucharist has become beautiful over the centuries, but perhaps only due to necessity. After all, for hundreds of years, Christian children with intellectual promise were relegated to lives of celibacy in the church. Literacy did not pass from parent to child, but from cleric to novice.

I suppose I identified most with the very end of the Sabbath preparation and the singing of the L’cha dodi. It tells of anticipation for the arrival of God’s bride in the Sabbath, but also in awaiting Jesse’s son of Bethlehem, the foretold Messiah. In the final verse, the congregation turns to face the entrance to the synagogue, welcoming in the Sabbath as she enters as well as expecting the Messianic arrival.

Richard came to church this morning. It was a good morning for it, musically speaking. While I’d like to think every Sunday in front of the choir is a good musical occasion, Advent is special and weird. Think about it: it’s a season of waiting for something that we already know is coming. We get to be bleak, but it’s one that’s fairlt insincere. Christ isn’t not going to be born, and Episcopalians don’t really believe in hell or consequential divine intervention, anway. In this sense, there’s a dramatic element to the swathes of fire and brimstone, wailing and penitence, lying in the knowledge that there will be a release of the tension come December 24. We can’t un-remember that Christmas is coming – it’s kind of essential to the whole Christianity thing.

With little exception, I’m guilty of doing the same music every year for Advent. It’s simply not Advent without Byrd’s setting of words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, utilized in the second section of the Advent Prose.

Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta. Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.

Living under the reign of Elizabeth I, William Byrd may have been more familiar with desolation and general bleakness than many composers throughout history. The English Reformation was still not over, and the fate of English Roman Catholics was unsure. Byrd’s Canciones Sacrae of 1589 were composed and compiled in a period of relatively violent period. There are at least eight martyrs officially recognized by the Catholic Church who died in 1589 for their faith. The relatively small scale of its contents point to the extent to which Roman Catholic liturgy had been diminished. Gone were extravagant and lengthy anthems for the English Marian liturgy, the likes of which were found in the Eton Choirbook. Byrd’s works instead hearken back to the smaller anthems compiled in the 1575 Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, such as Thomas Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu.

In jejunio et fletu orabant sacerdotes: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo, et ne des hereditatem tuam in perditionem. Inter vestibulum et altare plorabant sacerdotes, dicentes: Parce populo tuo.

(In fasting and weeping the priests prayed: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine inheritance to perdition. Between the porch and the altar the priests wept, saying: Spare thy people.)

If anything from this period could be seen in a Dickensian light, it would be the Byrd’s and Tallis’s Reformation era Latin works. Like Dickens’s prose, the counterpoint speaks fluently of depressing matters.

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called ‘the Hands,’ — a race who would have found mere favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs.                                                                                  (Hard Times, Charles Dickens)

One gets enjoyment out of reading Dickens, as the landscape and environment are so equally detailed in their descriptions. The interaction between space and the lives of the characters in Hard Times keeps the reader wondering if there really is any way out of Coketown.

Like Dickens, Byrd has way of getting at a similar sort of dramatic claustrophobia. Byrd’s situation of Civitas Sancti in a major key is deceptive. If one listens to the harmonies alone, without text, one might hear tones of comfort or sentimentality. But the middle section, Sion deserta facta est, is in pure homophony, total stagnation.

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And yet the counterpoint tells a different story. Throughout the course of the anthem, the thematic material takes a interesting journey.

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Each of the themes contain elements of each other. “Jerusalem” and “Civitas Sancti” use the same melodic descending third. The first “desolata est” and “facta est deserta” share the same rhythm.

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They both come together however, in the final thematic iteration of “desolata est,” containing the same melody of the opening theme with the rhythmic impetus of the second.

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The piece has travelled and at the same time the music has not. Though time passes, the listener is in the same place as when the piece began. Desolation may entail some vague expectation of improvement, but it’s also a confrontation of that which is in front of you. Otherwise, it will just remain the same. There is no hope without the preceding hopelessness.

The Jerusalem declaration did not go unnoticed at either B’nai Jeshurun or Christ & Saint Stephen’s. How could it not? The historical importance of the city draws the eyes of the world week after week, year after year, though solutions seem far away. But both congregations were told that while Jerusalem is important, it’s but a preparation for that Jerusalem which is to come.

But that doesn’t negate certain realities. Whether you like it or not, the State of Israel has made Jerusalem its political capital, irrespective of Donald Trump’s symbolic act of recognition. The status quo remains the same. The silver lining of Trump’s actions is perhaps the fact that we are asking ourselves about what the alternatives really are to the last 50 years of American policy in the Middle East. What are we anticipating? Is Advent – or indeed, are our lives – spent in confrontation or expectation?