Russia

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HarpingOn

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?

Strauss

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HarpingOn

My boyfriend and my dog are long suffering and patient. They recently spent four days in the car with me. Rather than fly, I had to drive to Tennessee and back so I could pick up a new instrument. We returned via Oberlin (because Richard hadn’t seen the campus yet) and State College (to visit a friend of Richard’s) – it was an easier trip than the ride down, for me at least. Having made the drive a few times before, the familiarity of the terrain seemingly shortens the trip. Kentucky’ rolling hills morph seamlessly into the bleak austerity of Ohio’s cornfields. A few miles north of Akron, the mountains begin as you head into Pennsylvania. They end suddenly as you’re dumped into the suburban terrain of northern New Jersey.

But not even the scenery could save us from cabin fever. Podcasts from Serial and This American Life were interspersed with opera recordings on Richard’s iPhone. Driving long distances with music in this way foster bonding and conversation, a makeshift living room in an SUV. In taking turns to drive, the passenger was tacitly assigned the task of periodically checking facebook keeping the dog in their lap. Every day, the expanding list of public figures brought down from on high was gradually read off. While Harvey Weinstein is a recurrent figure, others seem to have gotten lost in the litany. Since new of Kevin Spacey’s indiscretions, there’s been a certain silence about the manner in which he addressed the charges. In making a meaningless apology, he also said he was gay, seemingly equating his impulse to molest kids with his sexual attraction to members of the same sex. It’s gross, it’s unacceptable. But it’s not unheard of.

An Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s recording of Richard Strauss’ Morgen came on the radio. I admit that I recognized it, but only when words began.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen…

It’s ironic that Morgen is most often sung by a woman. Knowing John Henry Mackay’s proclivities, he’s more than likely addressing a member of the same sex.

But I’m unconvinced when I hear a man performing the work – there’s a certain delicacy that’s lost. We tend to like the similitude between the soprano and the violin – as if it’s a duet between two equal lovers. With a tenor, all that is missing

I wonder if that’s the point. In reality, it’s the violin that has the melody: blissful, unaware, even naïve to the triplets or syncopations of the harp. The violin has long notes on the big beats of the bar, while the singer moves more quickly, pauses on offbeats, evokes are more complicated sensibility. The singer surreptitiously enters in the middle of a phrase with the first line of the poem, evoking timelessness or stagnation. The violin’s line isn’t allowed to finish, grow, mature. The violin is being sung to, even occluded. The violin is the object of the poet’s desire.

But even listening to Strauss’s own recording of Morgen with a tenor, the differential between the singer and the melody seems strange, even unsettling.

These days, John Henry Mackay is only seldom cited in the mainstream of pre-Stonewall gay rights history. Some German thinkers on gender and sexuality such as Magnus Hirschfield or Karl Heinrich Uhlrichs were brought back from the dead after the Third Reich, but in looking back it would seem that Mackay’s works were a welcome casualty. Mackay’s career was largely spent not defending homosexuality, or at least, not as we would think about it. John Henry Mackay’s career was spent promoting pederasty.

Under the pseudonym Sagitta, Mackay used pen and paper to compose erotic literature, but also to espouse theories of education which mandated sexual relations between adult men and boys. His identity was no secret, and his Books of Nameless Love were essential reading for those on the front lines in the study of sexual variation and sexuality.

Upon meeting Mackay in 1892, Strauss was taken with Mackay’s personality. Strauss had a flair for the controversial and took a liking to Mackay’s early work Die Anarchisten, an anarchist work promoting the freedom of society from conventional economic and sexual mores. They met again at the premiere of Guntram in May, 1894 and within two weeks Strauss had composed Morgen. The poem was originally published in 1890 in Das Starke JahrMorgen was immediately hailed as the pinnacle of poetry. Paul Friedrich would go on to write that the poem represented the “apex of lyric poetry.” Ernst Kreowski thought it the most beautiful poem in the entire collection.

By all accounts, the relationship between Strauss and Mackay grew closer. In 1897, Mackay acted as mediator for Strauss, arranging for his first performance at the Berlin Volksbühne. Within a year of performing a concert there with his wife, Strauss was called to be the principal conductor of the Royal Court Opera at the Volksbühne, a position that would go on to determine the scale of his career. As a token of gratitude, Strauss and his wife devoted an entire evening concert at the Volksbühne to the poetry of Mackay in 1899. One witness wrote that “The poet himself kept back shyly, although the affair, with 2000 attending, was an enthusiastic manifestation for the poet, the musician, and the speaker.”

Morgen‘s perfection perhaps comes in the fact that the poem ambiguous as to the sex of the subject and object. It’s not an uncommon device, and certainly not unfamiliar to Mackay. Much like Tadzio in Death in Venice, Mackay’s early epic poem Helene was modelled on a boy he knew. It’s worth noting that not all of Mackay’s poems were only addressed to men. Strauss’ setting of Verführung (Op. 33, no. 1) clearly identifies a female as the object of male seduction. But at the first performance in 1896, the singer was accused of immodesty, while Morgen was went on to enjoy a reputation as one of the most beloved love arias in the repertoire. Indeed, just as Mackay helped Strauss’ career, Strauss’s song ensured Mackay’s place among the timeless in poetry.

Like many histories, the history of sexual liberation is problematic. All too often, Hellenistic models of pederasty display of sexual attraction activity between uncomfortably young men and older men. I admit not being so shocked the first time I picked up Nabokov’s Lolita, as for every book which goes into gratuitous detail about the preying of older men on small girls, there are two on men and boys. Max Klinger, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, Franz Schubert – all have works which explicitly use the pederastic trope to illustrate a transcendental form of love. In some senses, it’s hard to isolate these works or the men who wrote them.

The expression of people’s shock about James Levine is worrisome, considering the long-standing joke that inviting James to dinner would necessitate the presence of a high-chair for his accompanying paramour. The Met may have been complicit. The stories are no longer just stories. What I’m shocked more by is as prevalent as the defense of pedophilia has been, that people can be truly surprised that it can still happen, that people don’t ask questions when the rumors arise and accusations are made. It’s in our books, it’s in our operas, it’s in our favorite song by Strauss.

Strauss knew about Mackay. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know. While the publishers of Mackay’s works were prosecuted for obscenity in the 1910’s and 1920’s, Straus recorded Morgen twice, and both times with a man singing. We have no way of knowing how many boys were victimized by Mackay, but the silence around his books and around Morgen remains to this day. It’s important because Strauss used his position as a musician to promote Mackay, despite the opinions of many then and now that he was nothing more than a rich pedophile who could afford a cheap publisher. Whether you like it or not, Morgen is about pederasty, and we’ve done our damndest to sanitize it. To forget. To “unknow.”

A great musician’s influence can be powerful, as we’ve found out in recent days. Levine used his position as a musician, conductor and would-be mentor to prey upon children and rob them of their innocence. But it was his stature in the profession prevented further scrutiny. Peter Gelb, Beverly Sills, and a host of other beneficiaries of Levine’s conducting prowess have steadfastly ignored what has been openly known for 40 years or more.

Our anger will likely pass in the next year or so. We’ll learn to tune it out again, and allow ourselves to enjoy Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Britten and hosts of other historical composer-pederasts. We’ll start thinking of Lolita as a “challenging read” again. We’ll probably listen to Levine recordings before long, claiming that we’re listening to it because of the singers, not the conductor. But without fail, the rapture of Strauss’ Morgen will certainly remain in perpetuity.