Three Murders and Some Thoughts on the Authorial Voice on Screen

by Glenn on April 11, 2018

The first book I finished reading this year was Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

I have seen three adaptations of the film for the screen. Read the rest of this entry »

Erle Stanley Gardner and an Author’s Point of View

by Glenn on April 7, 2018

The latest Perry Mason novel I read (Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Buried Clock. New York: Ballantine Books, 1943) has more overt references to World War II than the previous one (The Case of the Careless Kitten).

There was a war metaphor:

“The door was pushed open. Two men came barging over toward the group, moving with grim purpose like warships plowing through sea toward a convoy.” [p. 46]

One of the characters was back from the war, recuperating from injuries:

“Vincent Blane had asked him if it would make him nervous staying alone in a cabin where a murder had been committed. . . . Harley smiled every time he thought of that; he who had been trained to carry on while comrades were shot down all around him; he who had become so familiar with death that it had ceased to inspire him even with healthy respect, let alone fear …” [p. 59]

There was a reference to rationing:

[Perry Mason:] “Perhaps in your position, Doctor, you haven’t as yet appreciated the seriousness of tire rationing, and therefore dismissed it from your mind.” [p. 92]

War time” was referenced, where clocks were pushed forward an hour ahead to save electricity.

I assume all of the characters in the story were white. Race wasn’t an issue as it was in the previous book. However, one of the characters makes a comment that reminds you that race was an issue:

[Lola Strague]: “And I do wish, Burt, you’d either snap out of it or go home! After all, I’m free, white and twenty-one.” [p. 139]

I don’t recall ever hearing a line like this and had no idea it was a catch-phrase:

There was another expression I’d never heard:

 [Harley:] “… if he was going to jail he’d as soon be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and he was going to make it worth his while.” [p. 15]

An explanation of the expression is found here.

As always, there are interesting (which does necessarily mean good) metaphors/similes:

“Hamilton Burger moved with the slow dignity of a steam roller …” [p. 210]

“Mason lit a cigarette [it would be interesting to count how many times that gets written in one of these books]. ‘Trying a lawsuit is like changing a flat tire. Sometimes the jack works perfectly, the rim comes off, the new tire goes on, and you’re on your way so smoothly that you hardly know you’ve had a flat. Sometimes everything goes wrong. The jack won’t work, and when you finally get the car up, it rolls off the jack, the old tire sticks, the new rim won’t go on. . . . And this is a case just like that, where everything has gone wrong to date.’” [p. 148]

Astrology makes an appearance in the story. A short chapter in the book consists of a newspaper article, including this paragraph:

The Bugle has commissioned one of the leading astrologers to cast the horoscope of Jack Hardistry [the murder victim]. Jack Hardistry was born on July 3rd, which according to astrologists, makes him a ‘Cancer,’ and astrologists point out that persons born under the sign of Cancer are divided into two classes—the active and the passive. They are thin-skinned, hypersensitive, and suffer deeply from wrongs, real or fancied. They are at times irrational in their emotions, and subject to ill health.” [p. 144-145]

I’ve never understood astrology and don’t understand how a reporter would include it in a news article, though I do have very smart friends who think it explains all sorts of things. Mason’s private detective, Paul Drake, had some things to say about astrology:

“She’s [Mrs. Payson] interested in astrology, but she’s interested in a lot of other things. Astrology, it seems, doesn’t have so much to do with astronomy, and like lots of women who talk about the signs of the zodiac, she doesn’t know a damn thing about the stars themselves.” [pp. 216–217]

Astronomy is the place where Mason gets stuck for a good portion of the book and Paul’s comment helps him solve the case.

These Perry Mason novels continue to be interesting because of the times in which they are set. (I think the same thing is true of the television series.)

*  *  *

This book got me thinking about the authorial voice.

Early on I noticed that Gardner had certain sentence structures that he used again and again. I’ve never been so aware of an author’s writing style, especially sentence structure. There were a few formulations in this book that leapt out at me as I read.

1. The first I’ll call the “that … which/that” structure.

“Harley propped his head back against a pine-needle cushion, half closed his eyes, experiencing that sudden fatigue which comes to men whose reserve strength had been sapped by wounds.” [p. 4]

“Adele Blane, sitting on the rock beside him, smiled down at him with that tenderness which women have for men who are recuperating from wounds received in combat.” [p. 4]

“There was still the same charm of manner—that courteous interest in others which was neither effusive on the one hand, nor patronizing on the other, but had the graciousness of dignity about it.” [p. 12]

“Yet there was in the man’s face that grayish look of fatigue which comes to those who are near the point of physical exhaustion from the strain of overwork.” [p. 90]

“For a moment the pair were gripped in that rigid immobility that comes with discovery.” [p. 7]

2. The second I’ll call the “with that” structure.

“The evening had turned chill, with that peculiar penetrating cold which comes at night in the high places, which gets into the blood and settles around the marrow of the bones.” [p. 16]

“The air was cold and still with that breathless chill which polishes stars into glittering brilliance.” [p. 123]

“Hamilton Burger said with that ponderous manner which was so characteristic of him.” [p. 210]

3. Ina number of these examples, a “which/that comes” formulation is used often (underlined above).

None of this is meant as a complaint or critique so much as an observation. I’m just beginning to become aware of certain phrases that I use again and again. It’s hard to get around them and if you obsess on them, you might get stuck and never write another sentence.

*  *  *

Novels and stories are told from either a first or third person perspective, which means we experience the story as “I woke up, dressed, and went out,” or “Bobby woke up, dressed, and went out.”

With first person, someone “in the story” describes the action as we experience everything through that person.

Third person is different. Someone outside the world of the story tells the story. The Perry Mason mysteries are told in the third person.

This gets a little tricky. In a first person story, the author may or may not be the narrator. If the story isn’t true, the person telling the story is likely not the author sharing their experience, but a person from the author’s imagination (allowing for unavoidable autobiographical elements).

A story told in the third person doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is that storyteller either. Some years ago I read James Michener’s Hawaii. It’s a phenomenal book. If I recall correctly, it is written in third person from the beginning, but then at some point the authorial voice shifts for a moment. I don’t want to give anything way, but in a key moment the third-person telling gives way to a first-person comment. And so the rest of the book has two layers. There is the story that Michener is telling—and we wonder, as with all good stories, what will happen next and how will it end—and then there is this mystery of who is doing the telling. It doesn’t seem like Michener is the one telling the story (though, obviously, he wrote the book). Who does this voice belong to? It’s a great thing.

I just finished listening to a book, The Noticer: Sometimes, all a person needs is a little perspective, by Andy Andrews (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

I enjoy Mr. Andrews, so this isn’t meant as a critique of what he is teaching (this is an engaging and worthwhile narrative about, as the title says, the importance of perspective), but I found it a little odd that his book began in the first person and then shifted to the third person and by the end was back to the first person. I don’t recall noticing the abrupt shift in point of view when I read the book some months ago, but as I listened to it this past week, that shift in voice didn’t work that well, perhaps because the entire book was read by the author. What if the first person elements were read aloud by Mr. Andrews and then the third person were read by someone else? Probably would have been even more distracting.

In the Perry Mason novels, the third person voice normally describes what can be perceived by an observer. The third person voice does have an omniscience about it. It knows everything that is going on in the story, including what is going on in the hearts and minds of each of the characters. But it limits what it tells us. As readers we accept this. In the case of the Perry Mason novels, we don’t get to see into the hearts and minds of characters. But once in a while, though, something slips:

“Milicent Hardistry dropped into her chair, almost immediately propped an elbow on the arm of the chair, and rested her head against the upraised hand. Her attitude was that of tired dejection. She only wanted to get it over as soon as possible.” [pp. 207–208]

Suddenly, with the last two lines, it appears we are going beyond observation. “Her attitude …” could be a description of how her affect might be perceived. But the last line, “She only wanted to get it over as soon as possible,” seems to be telling us what’s going on inside the character. This is something I will pay attention to in future novels. Are there limits for the omniscient third person narrator? Do those limits change?

*  *  *

I do like the authorial voice to be consistent. When I’m thinking too much about that voice, whether it’s because of a repetitive sentence structure or a major shift in storytelling perspective, it’s a little distracting.

I want that voice to be trustworthy. I want to know that I may rely on that voice to be telling me the truth, at least the truth as they see it. I’m sure there are some novels that play with this, where the narrative voice (either first or third person) has some issues with reliability, which becomes part of the experience of reading the novel. That gets confusing for me. I have enough trouble tracking characters and timelines and details, particularly with mysteries, without wondering if I need to be focused on the narrator as well.

I enjoy it when the authorial voice is interesting. I am remembering the first line of E. M. Forster’s Howards End:

“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.”

Delightful.

Less delightful though fantastically compelling is the authorial voice in Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Here is that opening line:

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.”

Not delightful. Pained, really. The genius of this novel is that Ishiguro has, unforgettably, captured the voice of a butler.

Note: I suppose there is such a thing as second person writing. It seems to me that falls more in the realm of advertising and self-help:
You can have whiter teeth and fresher breath.
You can take control of your life if you will follow these nine steps.
My experience with stories, though, has them in first or third person.

 

Considering Mr. Trump—Part One

by Glenn on March 25, 2018

A month or so ago, I worked at a conference where a speaker said, essentially, “I don’t care what Donald Trump thinks or says. I care about what he does.”

The speaker was Jewish and he referenced Harry Truman who the speaker said referred to Jews in private correspondence as “kikes,” but then was the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel. He didn’t care that Mr. Truman may have had private prejudices about Jewish people, because his public decisions supported them.

Similarly, he was happy with President Trump’s job performance so far, citing first on his list of reasons for his satisfaction with the President the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of “I don’t care about private thoughts; I care about public actions.”

One the one hand, I think it makes sense. When all is said and done with this presidency (which may be sooner than later), what becomes law is what the President signs into law. What he says doesn’t constitute law.

But you can’t say that what President Trump, or any person, says doesn’t matter. You can argue that what the President says matters more than a “regular person,” because so many people pay attention to it.

There is a connection between the private and the the public. Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood comments about an attractive soap star were, we assume, meant to be kept “private”—

[Donald Trump:] “Yeah, that’s her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

—except they never were private. They weren’t public, until a month before the election, but they weren’t private. What he is describing is not right either as “locker room talk” (which, if I recall correctly was how he explained or justified himself—I think at some point he began denying that he had said this) or, especially, as actual statements of his behavior.

Further, speech may influence my actions or be a form of action itself.

If I had some reprehensible opinion of a certain ethnicity, it’s likely (at least for me) that that opinion would influence my actions toward a person of that ethnicity. And that’s not right.

And, God forbid, if I should utter that opinion to another human being, particularly someone of that ethnicity, that would be wrong and hurtful. “Sticks and stones” are bad, but it’s a lie to say that names do not hurt. (Whether those words should be punished, i.e. with hate speech laws, I don’t know.)

The President has been over-the-top in his speech, who’s to say that he won’t be over-the-top in his behavior.

As a Christian, it’s tough to reconcile Mr. Trump to your faith. The teachings of Jesus on marital fidelity go beyond behavior and beyond speech into the heart—the world of thought and desire:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28)

The election of 2016 was a nightmare. On the one hand you had Mr. Trump, who didn’t seem “presidential” in any sort of way we had previously understood the word. (Someone pointed out, unhelpfully, that now, by definition, everything he does is presidential, which renders the term pretty much useless to describe future potential presidents.)

On the other hand you had Mrs. Clinton, who had already been in the White House for eight years with her husband. It’s an impression, but it felt like we were to vote for her because she was entitled—it was her turn. She had been rejected previously by her party. I had questions about her health. The Clinton Foundation appeared to be an organization for political friends to work in while they awaited the campaign and election. (Donations to this organization felt like political graft or opportunities to curry favor with a high-powered government official who was running to become its most powerful government official.) I was bothered by the arrogance and carelessness (if not outright illegality) she demonstrated with her email server. And then there was my memory of previous scandals, which I took as an indication of things to come—with the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future results, with people the past feels more predictive. These scandals were neatly summarized this week by David French at National Review:

“You truly have to have lived through the Nineties to understand the sheer number and magnitude of the scandals. Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, cattle futures, bimbo eruptions, the Lincoln Bedroom for sale, perjury, obstruction of justice, allegations of rape, groping, and — yes — an affair with an intern in the actual Oval Office. If you want to talk about foreign influence on elections, the funneling of Chinese money into the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign is still stunning, even these many years later.

“Liberals still mock conservatives for their alleged “obsession” with Clinton scandals, but the scandals were real, they were significant, and they never stopped. The Clintons remained the Clintons, after all, and Emailgate was greeted with such fury in part because it was all happening again. Could anything finally rid us of this troublesome family?”

The bottom line is you had a choice between two people neither of whom I thought should be anywhere near the White House.

The Evangelical Christians I know tended to vote for Mr. Trump for any or all of the following reasons:
–He wasn’t Mrs. Clinton.
–He appeared to be tough.
–He seemed to have enough energy for the job.
–Court appointees are an important legacy for an administration and the best chance for conservatives would come with Mr. Trump.
–He took a hard (and graphic) stand against abortion.

When I questioned friends about why they were voting for Mr. Trump and expressing concerns about his character, temperament, judgment, etc., their answers included:
–“As though Mrs. Clinton was any better.”
–“I’m voting for a president, not a pastor.”
–“We need someone who will get things done.”

Fourteen months in, I don’t know what to think. It’s not that I wish Mrs. Clinton had won. I do resonate with those who like some things that he has done. But whatever hopes I may have had about how Mr. Trump might comport himself in office have proven to be unfounded. I’ve read a number of books about Mr. Trump since the election and will reflect on them soon.

I remember my sadness thinking about this poster in countless classrooms around the country:

It’s hard to picture Mr. Trump’s image on a poster like this.

* * *

This will be an interesting day for Mr. Trump with the 60 Minutes interview of Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels) scheduled to play this evening. Jonah Goldberg this weekend somehow managed to catch the significance of the moment and lighten the mood without too much “See I told you so” tone.

A couple of observations:

1. The President has been quiet on the subject of the alleged affair with Ms. Clifford. That’s unusual for him. When someone attacks him, he tends to push back rather hard and is unafraid of doubling-down on things he says.

2. When a person says objectionable (and horrifying and disgraceful and disrespectful and inappropriate and misogynistic) things, for example the before-referenced Access Hollywood conversation with Billy Bush, it makes denials of that sort of behavior harder to believe.

Ultimately, are we going to learn anything we didn’t know or should have known? Is there anything to do with that knowledge?

Perry Mason and the Case of the Careless Kitten

by Glenn on March 6, 2018

One of my goals is to read the complete Perry Mason mysteries. There are 85 of them. My connection to them goes back to my grandmother. As a child at her house, I remember her watching the show on her little black & white TV, although it wasn’t a show I could appreciate or follow as a child. Watching it today is nostalgic.

Books, of course, are different from television and movies. And, reliably, the books are better, or at least much different.

It’s especially true with this series.

I haven’t read one of the Perry Mason mysteries for a while but just finished The Case of the Careless Kitten. (Erle Stanley Gardner | New York: William Morrow & Company, 1942.)

Although the publishing date is early in World War 2, there isn’t much direct mention of the war except for the fact that one of the characters has come out of basic training. He is in love with a girl whose aunt (and protector—no mention of what happened to her parents) disapproves. As he and she talk one evening, a crime is committed in the house and he is seriously wounded by a gunshot. While he is in surgery, the girl observes,

“I guess we used to think we were entitled to happiness as a matter of right. Now, people are dying all over the world and . . . well, I’ve got to learn how to take it—and so has everyone else.”

While the war isn’t mentioned overtly, the attitudes, more specifically, the prejudices of the era, are quite explicit. Uncomfortably so.

A servant who self-identifies as Korean is referred to as “Jap” by a police officer.

His name is Komo, which does sound like a Japanese name. One would understand why he wouldn’t want to be identified as such. In response, he says “with dignity,”

“Excussse please . . . I am not Japanese. I am Korean. My sentiments for Japanese are not friendly.”

A co-worker of the servant says to Perry, “I can’t stand having a darned Oriental snooping around.” He goes on to call him “that damned Jap.”

When that co-worker makes claims about that servant, Perry Mason uses the same sort of kind of language: “Those Japs certainly are clever. The Orientals know a lot about drugs that we don’t know.” This is surprising. Is this language Perry would use, or is he simply using the language to get into the confidence of this co-worker?

I can’t imagine the Perry Mason of television saying anything like this. I have another five novels to go that were published during World War 2. It will be interesting to see if and how the language changes.

In an earlier novel, I remember Paul Drake and Perry wanting to interview some witnesses. Perry tells Paul to talk to someone, Perry says, “I’ll talk to the Chink.” It makes you cringe.

In 2018, the words feel entirely inappropriate and disrespectful. I can separate the attitudes of a character from his author, but it’s weird to consider a world where that was okay.

Part of my attraction to the books (and the television show as well) is the anachronisms—cars, police methods, the unceasing and abundant smoking, which is startling to consider. Clearly, though, propriety in language has changed. For the better.

One quote I really enjoyed. A lawyer, Gerald Shore, who Perry Mason has taken on as a client tells Perry, “I see that I’ve got to be frank with you.”

He adds,

“I think you’ll realize that no one ever knows how honest he is. He goes through life thinking he’s honest, because he’s never been confronted with a sufficient temptation; then suddenly he’s confronted with some crucial situation where he finds himself facing ruination on the one hand and with a chance to turn defeat into victory by doing something which seems very simple but which is—well, not dishonest but not strictly legal.”

Perry is not interested in “excuses.” But it does feel honest. Perhaps an affirmation of 1 Corinthians 10:12:

“[I]f you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

There are funny expressions in the Perry Mason books. Della Street wakes up, pushes away the kitten she is taking care of, and says, “Not now, Amber Eyes. The strident clang of the alarm calls me to industry.” Not sure who talks like that. Apparently Della does.

There are funny similes, too. In another book, Gardner writes something to the effect of “Della Street looking as crisp as a chilled lettuce leaf …”

It’s hard not to think of the television personalities as you read the books. The one that doesn’t fit the description is Lt. Tragg, who is younger in the books than on television. While not explicit, Perry and Della’s relationship in the book clearly goes beyond the professional.

BBC Radio 4

by Glenn on January 16, 2018

Since listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, I’ve been turning to BBC Radio 4 from time to time, usually on weekends. The news that you hear isn’t any more hopeful than what you hear on NPR, but I find the remove from American politics and the dry humor refreshing. This past weekend one of the announcers introduced a program with words along the lines of, “As we get over our disappointment that the American president won’t be visiting us next month, we turn to …”

It’s other programs and voices that I find refreshing.

I’ve discovered that the BBC has its own news quiz, in a somewhat different format though along the lines of NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” the one NPR show I listen to with any regularity. I’ve only heard two editions of this news quiz, but it’s interesting to hear the British talk about their single-payer health plan and to listen to them discuss so many different politicians. Here, we tend to focus almost exclusively on Mr. Trump (or whichever president is in power). I suspect that power in their government is more diffuse, therefore there are more players.

This weekend on BBC Radio 4, I heard a lovely program about Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.” I don’t remember my first exposure to the song, but I remember a particularly heartbreaking moment on The West Wing (Season 3 Finale, “Posse Comitatus”) where the song was featured.

But the piece that I’ve been thinking about the most, though,  was a commentary by Howard Jacobson titled, “The Frozen Wastes of Emojiland.” This is a meditation by Jacobson on dramatic speech and social media.

Jacobson begins his commentary quoting one Julia Holmes who didn’t like what was written on the new £10 note. It was a quote “by” Jane Austen,

“I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Ms. Holmes thought it “a strange choice.” The problem is that while Jane Austen wrote that, she didn’t really “say” it. The words belong to Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice, who is, according to Jacobson, “a woman of surpassing shallowness.” She is “saying only what she thinks Mr. Darcy would like to hear her say.”

And so Jacobson riffs on the nature of dramatic speech, the words of which “are as true or false as the person speaking them in the context of who they are spoken to and why.” Literature is different from a sermon or tract. Art is different from ideology.

Jane Austen didn’t say, “I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading.” The same think happens with Shakespeare, Jacobson continues. He was “a dramatist not a philosopher.” The aphorisms that we quote actually belong to his characters. One of the most famous is:

“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Sounds like great advice. And it might be. Except that Jacobson points out, rightly, that “authenticity” is only a virtue “if the self in question is worth being true to.” In this case, Shakespeare’s Polonius, from Hamlet, is a gas bag. What does Gertrude in exasperation say to him at one point? “More matter, with less art.”

Jacobson makes two points. One is that we need to recognize dramatic speech.

In my car these days, I am listening to the collected speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” a speech from 18 September 1963, King concluded with,

“Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet. And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare:  Good night, sweet princesses. Good night … And may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”

Probably among the least significant things to appreciate about Dr. King is the fact that he recognizes dramatic speech and uses it appropriately. But I do appreciate it.

Years ago I remember struggling with a book by a Christian author. It was one of those “You’ve got to read this” books that people tell you about. The book was saying we need to tell more stories and use less propositional truth. And for a conclusion they turned to the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which the author described as “the most beautiful explanation for the gospel of Jesus ever presented.” The author continues, “In this scene, Juliet may be considered the Bard’s Christ figure, and Romeo the embodiment of the church, thus presenting Shakespeare’s opinion of a Christian conversion experience.”

That, it seems to me, is not the way to recognize dramatic speech. I don’t have a problem with using the love of Romeo and Juliet as an analogy to describe the love between Jesus and the church, but it seems a stretch to say that this was “Shakespeare’s opinion of a Christian conversion experience.” I wish they had left Shakespeare out of it.

The second point Jacobson makes is critical of social media, which “has reduced all discourse to a shout.” He calls this a “thumb up or thumb down culture.” There are some great lines near the end of this commentary, which is worth listening to again (which I have done a couple of times, now):
“Before we attack,” make sure “it’s views that are being expressed.”
“Thought is not an act of war.”
“A joke is not a manifesto.”
“Insults are not conversation.”
“Differences in opinion come in shades.”

I am grateful for radio/listening that forces me to think.

 

A Happy Viennese New Year

by Glenn on January 9, 2018

If the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols makes me wish I were English, the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert makes me ready to learn German and move to Austria.

I had to watch this year’s Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert in bits and pieces. I couldn’t find a complete stream that wasn’t blocked in The United States. And the ones I watched appear to have disappeared or are no longer available. About all that’s left is one of the encore pieces, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

The opening of this concert was one of the most gentle and graceful that I remember. No overture to create drama, but a march, “Entrance March from the Operetta The Gypsy Baron,” which was more celebrative than militant, more elegant than triumphant. If it hasn’t been blocked, a low-rez version can be seen here.

There is an “always the same, never the same” feeling to this annual New Year’s Concert. Obviously, the waltz is the focal point, but sometimes there are some other things included to grab our attention.

For example, there may be a focus on a certain composer outside the Strauss family—for example, Tchaikovsky back in 2012.

That same year, kids were featured.

In 1987 (and at least one other year that I can’t recall), the Lipizzaner Stallions were included.

And there is ballet to accompany the dance music. In 2014, it seemed like the costumes for the ballet dancers were louder than the music.

This year it felt like the focus was on purity and simplicity. It was all about the music. When there were cut-aways to views of Vienna/Austria or to dancers, they accented but never overpowered the music.

The Vienna Philharmonic chooses who will be their conductor for these New Year’s concerts. Riccardo Muti made his fifth appearance this year after previously conducting in 1993, 1997, 2000, and 2004.

It would be great to watch a rehearsal to see how the conductor interacts with the music and the orchestra. How much has to be rehearsed? vs. How do you stay out of the way? How much does a conductor try to put a stamp on this music? It would also be interesting to hear musicians talk openly but respectfully about what it’s like to play for various conductors. Presumably, the conductors they choose are because they want to play for them. What is it about them that is so appealing as a performer?

With Mr. Muti, my sense is that he wants to shape the line and let the musicians take care of the rhythm. He is leading, but (wisely) allows the orchestra to play its way (because it will anyway?).

In an interview back in Chicago this past fall, Mr. Muti (who conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) spoke about his preparation for these concerts. I love what he had to say about the waltz:

“I can conduct a waltz, but I cannot dance a waltz. Sometime many years ago, my wife tried to convince me to, but then I was dancing on her feet, so she said, ‘That’s enough,’ and we stopped. But I find it very natural to conduct the waltz, but as pure music. The waltz is always in three: one, two, three; one, two, three. But the Viennese joke that the Viennese waltz is: one, two and maybe three; one, two and maybe three! There is a sort of hesitation or rubato that is not easy. You can try to imitate, but then it becomes a caricature of what for the Viennese is so, so natural. I’m sure I don’t have any Viennese blood, but on the other hand, as the Viennese used to say, ‘Who is a Viennese?’ A Viennese is a combination of Italian, Austrian, German, Czech, Hungarian, the former Yugoslavia, it is the combination, a melting pot of central Europe.

“What is important when you do the Viennese waltz is that you must feel that it is a combination of life and death. We must not forget that this music has a nostalgia, a melancholy, that comes from the period, that we are near the end of an empire. Not only do you feel this in the music of Bruckner, but the music of Mahler, and before that, in the music of the Strauss family: that something is about to disappear. And so it’s a combination of life and death, of smiles and tears together. That is the most difficult part of this kind of waltz. They are not full of joy. Maybe this is one of the reasons why on the first of January, this music enters into the homes of every county in the world and fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the New Year because there is a hope for the future that is coming, and yet a nostalgia for the past that is gone.”

I’ve always had a melancholy feeling about the waltzes, but I had never put words to it and certainly didn’t have that understanding.

The program is as much a Viennese travel brochure as it is a concert. Josef Strauss’ Wiener Fresken (Viennese Frescos), Waltz, op. 249 served as an occasion to show off the magnificent Austrian National Library in Hofburg. (Video no longer available.)

The video shown during the intermission is pure genius—this year it was a romantic story serving as an excuse for an architectural tour of Vienna, especially the creations of Otto Wagner, which provided an opportunity for underscoring by phenomenal instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic. The whole thing is magnificent—beautiful and serene.

It’s sad that this part of the program is not part of the Great Performances presentation on PBS. For that matter, there is only a portion of the concert included with what we see here. I noticed the whole concert is on the BBC, but that, too, is not available here in the States.

The highlight for me this year was the playing of two instrumentalists. First, the harpist who got to shine in Myrthenblüten (Myrtle Blossoms), Waltz, op. 395.

Second was the zither player (is that zitherist?), who the program indicates was Barbara Laister-Ebner, who was featured in the waltz, Tales from the Vienna Woods, op. 325. She can be seen here, but I’m pretty sure this is someone with a video camera recording what is on television, without a tripod.

The only time I’ve heard the Vienna Philharmonic live was at the Hollywood Bowl more than thirty years ago (14 September 1987). I’m not sure that’s the place to actually “hear” them since there is the interpolation of sound reinforcement between their playing and our ears. Plus I’m not sure I knew anything then (based on how little I seem to know today), other than it was visually stunning to watch the violins move as a unit as they played.

 

A Great Tradition: A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

by Glenn on December 28, 2017

One of the traditions I’ve observed consistently over the years is listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. The 3:00 pm start time in England translates to 7:00 am Pacific time, which may be the reason I’ve been able to be so consistent with it over the years.

One of the perks of owning a print shop is you can make your own program.

 

Among the reasons I tune in each year is that it’s done so well. So much of the music of the Church around Christmas time is sad. It’s un-singable because the keys are not amenable to congregational singing or it’s so poorly put together that it’s hard to sing or it’s so loud you don’t feel any sort of need to sing (or may not want to be in the room to protect your hearing).

And so the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a respite. It’s an acoustic phenomenon and I look forward to it each year. Coming on the eve of Christmas, it’s a chance finally to engage musically with Christmas with nothing in the way.

So many things are remarkable:

1. I am not familiar enough with choral music utilizing boy sopranos, but I am impressed with the way Dr. Stephen Cleobury can get children to sing so excellently.

2. I’m stunned every year by the outright religious nature of this program. The Christian faith is intertwined with the government of England and there doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Our local classical radio station advertised that they would carry it live, but I listened to it on BBC 4 radio. After the opening song, “Once in Royal David’s City,” the Dean read a prayer and then invited the millions (?) of people listening around the world to pray “the words which Christ himself hath taught us.”

Here in the U.S. I know many people for whom separation of church and state serves to protect people from the church and not the other way around. For them the Church is the institution people need protection from. I can’t imagine NPR carrying a service like this. The closest thing I can remember was the memorial service in Washington National Cathedral following 9/11.

3. While the nine Biblical texts are the same each year and while the program always opens with “Once in Royal David’s City” and concludes with “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” the genius of this service is how different it feels each year. My knowledge of choral music in the Church of England, especially music utilizing boy sopranos, is quite limited, but it seems to me that subtle emphases can make each year feel very different. This year there appeared to be a theme of honoring previous directors of music by including their arrangements.

As usual, for the most part I enjoyed the remarkable diction of the various speakers. Why is it that people with an accent always sound so much more intelligent?

As far as the spoken word, this year wasn’t perfect. As the Dean led us through the “Our Father,” he forgot to stop and added a “For thine is the kingdom,” before he caught himself. And one of the speakers, “a representative of the City of Cambridge,” stumbled a bit. But he read in highly accented English, leading me to believe English was not his first language (Spanish?). These momentary glitches were completely human and didn’t take anything away from anything.

The Invitatory Carol was “In the Bleak Midwinter” (words by Christina Rosetti) using the tune of Harold Darke. I was really looking forward to this and it didn’t disappoint. I know that this carol is also set to music by Gustav Holst, but I prefer the Darke:

First verse: treble voices.
Second verse: four parts.
Third verse: a baritone soloist.
Fourth verse: four parts.

The tune is magical and the variation between verses is lovely counterpoint.

Of course, this song introduces the problem with Christmas traditions, which is that they aren’t always quite true to the actual event of Christmas, the incarnation of God into our world as a baby.

1. While this version of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is among my favorite carols, the problem is that snow really doesn’t fit into the Christmas narrative. Jesus most likely wasn’t born on December 25 or anytime in the winter. (For my part, I say that December 25 is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus not that Jesus was born on December 25.) We have a Northern-European view of Christmas, but even if Jesus was born on December 25, in Palestine it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll find “snow upon snow, snow upon snow.” And if we did, would shepherds be out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night? While we may be “dreaming of a White Christmas,” the first one wasn’t.

2. And then there’s the idea that angels have wings. I don’t think it’s a Biblical notion, but two of the songs talked about Gabriel’s wings:

—“The angel Gabriel from heaven came, / his wings as drifted snow …”
—“Great Gabriel, God’s angel bright, / from high above came winging …”

3. As far as three kings, we don’t know that there were three, it’s just that they brought three gifts so it’s assumed each brought one. And for whatever reason the three kings, like nativity sets, are placed in Bethlehem on Christmas night with the shepherds.

4. Finally, I don’t understand “I Saw Three Ships.” Don’t know what’s going on in that song, though it has a wonderful lilt to it.

For whatever reason, I’m able to set all this aside and simply enjoy the readings and the music. It’s an especially metaphor-rich environment. There’s usually a reference to Christ as an apple tree, which I didn’t hear this year. Instead it was “A Spotless Rose,” which followed the reading from Isaiah 11. I guess it’s assumed that the the branch that grows out from the stem of Jesse is a rose bush.

“Little Lamb, who made thee?” with music by J. Tavener I didn’t like the first time I heard it. But I’ve heard it a number of times over the years and it has grown on me. The poetry by William Blake was one of my favorites from my British Literature class in college.

In spite of the tension I feel between the actual event Christmas intends to celebrate and the extra-Biblical ideas which cloud that event, I remain grateful for traditions like this.

An on demand rebroadcast appears to be available here.

SS No. 65 | Haydn No. 93

by Glenn on December 23, 2017

Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 93 in D Major

Adagio—Allegro assai
Largo cantabile
Menuetto: Allegro
Finale: Presto ma non troppo

first performance: 17 February 1792
The Hanover-Square Concert Rooms, London

Ádám Fischer
Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra

Sir Colin Davis
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Before there were “rock stars,” there was Franz Joseph Haydn who, late in life, after his golden age of artistic accomplishment ended in the palace of Esterházy with the death of Prince Nicholas Esterházy, was brought to England by Johann Peter Salomon to present his music to Londoners. The twelve symphonies beginning with No. 93 are known as the “London” symphonies, created for his trips to England. Haydn and this batch of symphonies were very popular. Concerning these symphonies, Michael Steinberg indicates,

“they are bigger, more grandly orchestrated, more brillinatly composed, deeper, and funnier than anything Haydn had done in the genre before. After London, Haydn wrote no more symphonies, and the London twelve were sufficient to keep his Viennese audiences entertained for a while.”

i.

Long notes up front build suspense. We know the first movement will have some forward momentum, but this slow opening takes us on a journey through keys near and far. Big cadences add intensity. When the movement begins, the opening melody is absolute charm. The second tune feels like it has origins in dance.

ii.

The string quartet opening is beautiful and contrasting. It doesn’t repeat, so you have to enjoy it while it lasts. It’s gorgeous. The woodwinds are allowed to shine with the restatement. An oboe obligato near the end of the movement is both surprising and delightful. And the bassoon’s “moment” is hysterical. So much humor and wit or, perhaps, mild impertinence.

iii.

Steinberg describes this movement as “vigorous, very physical,” which is just right. Where the dance music in the opening movement is light, in the trio staccato eruptions from trumpets and drums provide a different sort of dialogue.

iv.

Again, a contrast, which is an operating principle for the symphony at this point in history. In the middle section, the woodwinds are allowed to shine soloistically. Steinberg declares the ending of the symphony “must have been the most brilliant and energetic London had ever heard.” Further, the end of this symphony was studied by Beethoven who applied lessons learned to his D Major Symphony No. 2.

*  *  *

It’s been a while since my last formal listening—Shostakovich Symphony No. 5—but it’s interesting how this idea of and overall design for a musical work consisting of four contrasting movements will be largely the same over the course of 140 years or so while what composers do within the mold wil change dramatically over the years. I used to think, “Poor Haydn, if only he knew what Beethoven, Dvořák, et al would do with his music, maybe he would have done something different.” But the more I listen to Haydn in juxtaposition to what more modern composers have done, the more enjoyable I find his whole enterprise and I can understand why so many are included on Steinberg’s list. It’s a bit like the homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, which are unique from other homes but are thoroughly individual when compared to each other.

The two performances I listened to were terrific. I may try to find a performance by an orchestra with period instruments, but I have no complaints about what I heard. Phenomenal playing.

 

SS 64 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in d minor

by Glenn on October 22, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47

Moderato
Allegretto
Largo
Allegro non troppo

first performance: 20 July 1937
Leningrad Philharmonic | Yevgeny Mravinsky

It’s challenging enough to be an artist. You need to get paid. And, ideally, you get paid from the act of creating the art itself. I suppose you could be independently wealthy or happy with your day job, so who cares if your art makes any money but, normally, as an artist you have an idea for this thing you want to create and your central challenge is to get someone to pay for it or, at the very least, pay attention to it. Which means you don’t exist in a vacuum. You live with this tension of “I want my art to be true to myself” and “I need to people to like ‘my’ art”. Your art must please someone. Or, as Bob Dylan said it so profoundly, “You’ve got to serve someone.” That’s the realm where the artist who is paid for his work largely functions. Read the rest of this entry »

SS No. 63 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4

by Glenn on October 17, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 4 in c minor, Op. 43

i. Allegretto poco moderato—Presto
ii. Moderato con moto
iii. Largo—Allegro

I listened to a recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Recorded: Walthamstow Assembly Hall | January 1989
Label: London | D-125172

Cover artwork for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning to Enjoy “Ristening” Again

by Glenn on October 10, 2017

At 54, I feel a certain anxiety about, among many things, the short list of books I read each year and, cumulatively, looking at the limits of age and time will never read this side of eternity. On the one hand, I do read some books every year which puts me, according to this study, in the 70th percentile, above those people who have not  touched even one book this year.

The same study referenced above says that Americans read an average of 12 books a year. This number is skewed, though, because the median number of books read is four, indicating that at least some people who read books read lots of books. The number that was important to me was the 17 books per year read by college graduates. I’d like to be better than average.

Over the Christmas holiday in 2015 Read the rest of this entry »

Sabrina: In the World and of the World

by Glenn on September 17, 2017

I like to think of old movies as a kind of refuge for the Christian. When they were produced, there were standards of decency which, in comparison to what is commonplace today, are not overtly inconsistent with the life of faith.

Overtly.

Still, it’s remarkable how you cannot always accept the tenets even of older films. Though they may not indulge in the coarse language, nudity, and overt sexuality that have been culturally normalized in my lifetime, they are not presentations of the gospel and in subtle ways are not consistent with a Christian life.

A few weeks ago, we watched Sabrina, the original, classic one with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden. I’ve watched this a number of times over the years.

Read the rest of this entry »