Thursday, January 31, 2008

Franz Schubert

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Franz Schubert in 1797. His short life was filled with music and his legacy to us is a wealth of melody and exceptional music spanning most of the forms of classical music. While his symphonies, piano and chamber music are appealing, the form he made his greatest contribution was the song. Within his hundreds of lieder are some of the best ever written. In the last year of his life, 1828, he wrote the fourteen lieder subsequently known as the Schwanengesang in addition to five others. Listening to these songs one wonders what was lost in Schubert's passing, but we can take joy in the songs and all the other fine music he bequeathed to us.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What is Poetry?

Joseph Brodsky

What is poetry? Joseph Brodsky, who died on this day in 1996, aged fifty-five, insisted that poetry's job was to explore the capacity of language to travel farther and faster. Poetry, he said, is accelerated thinking. When thinking of poetry it is worthwhile, and enjoyable, to consider and reflect on the poetry of those who, like Joseph Brodsky, have created superlative examples of verse and who have thought well and often about the subject.

I enjoy reading his poetry to experience his way of exploring "the capacity of language" to deal with ideas and move our hearts. Given the extreme circumstances of his life and the rewards he received for his poetic art this is an inspirational experience. In anticipation of his death he penned the poem Taps which opens with the following lines:

I've been reproached for everything save the weather
and in turn my own neck was seeking a scimitar.
But soon, I'm told, I'll lose my epaulets altogether
and dwindle into a little star.

Perhaps "a little star"; but he remains, for those of us who appreciate his poetry, a Supernova of twentieth century literature.

Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (2000)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

La Pastorella

The rebirth of humanism in fourteenth century Italy brought the authors of ancient Greece and Rome back into the intellectual mainstream. Among other classical authors, Theocritus (fl. 270B.C.) and Virgil (70-19B.C.), through their poetry, created an interest in Arcadia and the pastoral traditions of the Peloponnese. Antonio Vivaldi
(1678-1741) was inspired by the possibilities suggested by these ideas to create some of his finest work. The sonnets he wrote for Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) display this pastoral imagery.

He also created the enchanting La Pastorella RV 95 (The Shepherdess), an Arcadian work that, sans sonnets, paints a vivid pastoral tableau. The work is a baroque concerto for 3 violins, cello & continuo in D. In La Pastorella Vivaldi delivers a powerful message over the three movements of the concerto. The use of ornaments highlights the poetic idea in the first movement while the final movement includes a section in d minor and chromaticism suggesting madness, fear and terror, before the resolution and conclusion in the major key. A charming and original concerto, La Pastorella contributes to Vivaldi's legacy as a composer of immense breadth and vision.

Vivaldi in Arcadia: Concertos and Arias performed by La Serenissima. Avie CD AV0031

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stand Before Your God

Opening as a very young boy suddenly is seemingly abandoned by his father in a house with a group of other boys and a housemaster, this memoir of growing up in English boys' schools is both sincere and heartwarming. The author, Paul Watkins, shares his experiences as a young American among the, mostly, young British boys in two schools, The Dragon School and, later, Eton. The memoir is filled with memories of friendships and fun. There are typical schoolboy activities, sometimes punctuated by the harsh reality of being an outsider in a system with very old, slowly changing, traditions; some of which were painful, reminding the reader that learning was more than Greek recitations. The schools became, for Paul, places where "You had to stand before your God and commit." Throughout the memoir Paul's relationship with his father is a motif that develops to a climax in his father's death; an event that leads to an epiphany for Paul that helps define his life and career as a writer. Written in a lucid prose with an easygoing style this is an excellent read; ultimately uplifting in its message.
Stand Before Your God: An American Schoolboy in England by Paul Watkins. Vintage Books, New York. 1995 (1993).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lytton Strachey

Today is the anniversary of the death of Lytton Strachey in Hungerford, Berkshire. I first encountered Lytton Strachey and his fascinating life almost forty years ago when I read Michael Holroyd's masterful two volume biography of his life. This was the first biography by Michael Holroyd that I read and it was a great introduction to both Strachey and the biographer. I remember how easily I digested the long (two volumes in the original edition) biography because the life was both intensely interesting and the biography well-written. Holroyd set a new standard for biography incorporating the cultural milieu of the subject and exhibiting high standards of research. This along with his readable writing style made the work a triumph for Holroyd who went on to write of other artists including Augustus John. Holroyd's original work on Strachey was updated in the nineteen nineties and remains the standard.

Lytton Strachey; a critical biography by Michael Holroyd. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston [1968, c1967] 2 v. illus. [1st ed.]

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Last night as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concert ended the energy of the conductor, Antonio Pappano, almost took him off the side of the podium as the final gesture of his baton drew Sergei Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in e, Op. 27, to a close. It was a marvelous ending to a delightful concert that also included The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 by Anatoly Liadov and Dimitri Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto, Op. 26.

Rachmaninov composed his second symphony while resting in Dresden at the end of an adulatory decade that began with his famous Second Piano Concerto. The Symphony is full of beautiful romantic melodies that are his hallmark. After a somewhat melancholy but agitated opening movement there follows a brilliant scherzo full of energy that provides a contrast to the opening. The heart of the symphony is the adagio with a profoundly moving melody that is introduced by the clarinet before being reworked with harmonic variations throughout the orchestra. The Symphony concludes with an energetic finale that draws on the earlier movements to complete his musical statement. This work joins the Second and Third Piano Concertos as the pinnacle of Rachmaninov's symphonic accomplishment. The performance last night was near perfect and the audience responded with appropriate praise for the conductor and orchestra.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Strindberg at The Chopin Theater

August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) , the Swedish writer, playwright, and painter, was one of the most important of all Scandinavian authors rivalling Ibsen on the stage. He is known as one of the fathers of modern theatre, with dramas of both naturalism and expressionism over the course of his career. Last night I saw a production by The Hypocrites Theater Company at The Chopin Theater of his best-known play from his early naturalist period, Miss Julie (1888).

The rise and fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 became a political awakening for the young Strindberg, and he started to see politics as a conflict between the upper and lower classes. This conflict is paramount in Miss Julie along with the intense psycho- logical portraits of the characters and the battle of the sexes with the interaction among them. On a midsummer night of 1894 in a small town in Sweden, the young woman of the title, attempting to escape an existence cramped by social mores and have a little fun, dances at the servants' annual midsummer party, where she is drawn to a senior servant, a footman named Jean, who is particularly well-traveled, well-mannered and well- read. As played by the Hypocrites in "promenade" style the play emphasized the raw tension between the three characters on the stage with the overwhelming power of the Father, who is never seen, always in the background. The role of Kristin, was most convincingly played by Samantha Gleisten while I found the roles of Jean and Miss Julie were somewhat uneven no matter how powerful at times. Overall the production (an adaptation by Sean Graney) suffered from an attempt to do too much in the small space and the promenade was shaky at times. Underneath it all, however, was the power of Strindberg's play which, even if somewhat faded, is still very disturbing. This production is certainly worth viewing for the opportunity to experience this dramatic power.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Telescopic Eye

Running, Cranes and the Skyhook

One advantage of living near Belmont Harbor is the proximity of Lincoln Park. That is where I, occasionally, run early in the morning as I did this past Sunday. It seems that the park is under permanent constant renovation and on my run I was confronted, fortunately not on the running path, by a huge construction crane blocking the vista of the lake just south of the harbor. Along with a backhoe it was just another reminder of the man-made change occurring in the park. I often meditate while running and my thoughts are usually focused on far different things.

All of this is by way of indirect introduction to one of my poems written more than ten years ago. I am planning to include my poetry in this blog on a more regular basis, perhaps new, but more likely those few that I have created and I am willing to let loose into the world. The following is not about the park or cranes, but rather the source of the ideas behind cranes and other machines.


A telescopic eye peers down at the earth
From a satellite hovering far above in the sky.
The eye mechanically gleams in the sunlight,
Reflecting the motion of those on earth below.

Does this machine lift them toward the stars --
Those below who wander in a dream of illusion?
Does their wonder create their heavens
With colors from their imaginations as shading?

The eye continues to peer from beyond
Their reach -- the furthest reach of nature’s sky.

The reach of our mind is found on earth,
Below the telescopic eye, in the books
Created by the minds of the men and women
Who built the satellite in the sky.

We represent the dream and we share
it by devouring the fruit of their spirit.
The books of our minds and our lives represent
The elements of motion in harmony with our selves.

From Preludes of the Mind, 1995, James Henderson

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Good Boys and True

Near the end of the second act of this new play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the mother of the teenage boy at the center of the play comments that her life did not turn out as expected when she first met her husband. The upsetting of expectations of both the characters and the audience is at the heart of this excellent drama. Brandon Hardy (played by Stephen Louis Grush) is the "teenage boy"; described thus because, as Aristotle said, he had not yet developed the habits of right action stemming from the moral center of an adult. Lacking this moral center and relying on a distant mother and father whose advice turns out to be wrong, Brandon makes some bad decisions and only (possibly) begins to realize the consequences of these decisions as the play comes to its end. It is left to the audience to decide if he and all the others whose lives are changed over the course of the play will move on with their lives, creating them anew, or not.

Good Boys and True is a suspenseful drama well-acted by the ensemble at the Steppenwolf Theater. Martha Lavey, the Artistic Director for the Theater, is particularly good portraying Brandon's mother. While the Stephen Louis Grush and Tim Rock excel in the key roles of Brandon and his "good" friend, Justin. Perhaps the most mysterious character is Brandon's father, who does not appear on stage. We come to know him through the picture painted by his family and the coach of the boys' school and find a character that, in his absence, is no less a powerful player on the stage. The play's ability to defy our expectations, the way the characters change and develop, and the many-faceted themes that are deftly explored all combine to make this an excellent drama.

Overall the evening was satisfying with the addition of an informative talk back following the play. The play continues in performance through the middle of February.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Cairo Trilogy

In my continuing traversal of this massive novel I find the pace of events quickening. The narrative, which started slowly as the author introduced Ahmad and his family, gradually picks up speed as the eldest son and daughters are married. The change seems to be a form of familial evolution as the members of the family interact. Just as slowly the world beyond the family's Cairo neighborhood begins to intrude into their lives with the growth of Egyptian nationalist fervor in response to the English protectorate. In addition, Mahfouz's philosophical background can be seen in both the descriptions ("a Platonic world. . ." in chapter five) and the narrative perspective. All of this impresses me as Mahfouz masterfully blends the psychological portraits of the individuals with the society that they encounter in their daily lives. The result is a type of suspense encountered only in the work of the best authors I have read. Mahfouz joins them.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Canterbury Tales

Reading The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer from beginning to end is an exhilarating experience. The humor and variety that abound in these stories particularly impresses this reader. That aside, the game established by Chaucer at the Tabard the night before the journey is a competition for the tale "of best sentence and moost solaas," the prize being "a soper at oure aller cost." He leaves no doubt that some of his pilgrims would rate the prospect of a free meal more highly than the feast promised at the Cathedral: a view of not only the St. Thomas a Becket relics, but the whole arms of eleven saints, the bed of the Blessed Virgin, fragments of the rock at Calvary and of rock from the Holy Sepulchre, Aaron's Rod, a piece of the clay from which Adam was made, and more. Since Chaucer does not complete his tale-telling, nor get his pilgrims to their destination, neither earthly nor spiritual nourishment is realized.

One enterprising 15th century writer commented that the incompleteness of Chaucer's journey presented the opportunity for a sequel. "The Tale of Beryn" purports to be told by the Merchant as Chaucer's pilgrims make their way back to the Tabard. In the Prologue to this tale we learn that while the others were busy with their own amusements during the one night layover in Canterbury -- Knight and Squire to see the battlements, Prioress and Wife of Bath a tour of the gardens, etc. -- the Pardoner attempted to romance and rob a barmaid. Perhaps appropriately for a dealer in sham relics, he not only fails but is beaten up, and spends the night in a dog's kennel. The reader, however, is not in the kennel but in heaven of the sort only readers can realize when regaled with tales like these. I am enjoying the journey reading an excellent modern verse translation by Nevill Coghill.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Nevill Coghill, trans. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Always Outnumbered

Socrates Fortlow has been out of prison for eight years after having spent the previous twenty seven incarcerated for the murder of two people and rape of one of them. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley chronicles some of the experiences of Socrates in Los Angeles, mainly Watts, effectively portraying the culture and the character of Socrates and his interlocutors. I was impressed with the humanity evident in the protagonist's (dare I say hero?) actions and thoughts, particularly his rationality. He has developed an understanding of himself leading to a control that he did not have in his youth. The episodic nature of the novel provides for the introduction of a variety of characters and leads to several memorable scenes. They range from Socrates interaction with a young man whom he leads away from the life of crime to a touching scene at the end of the book where Socrates helps a dying man maintain some dignity as his life ebbs away. Mosley's spare writing style is very effective in this impressive read. Highly recommended.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley. W. W. Norton & Co. New York, 1998.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Challenging Ideas

Albert Camus

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."  - Albert Camus 

It has been 48 years since the day that Albert Camus died in a car crash outside of Paris. He was 47 years old and had been in the final stages of completing a novel entitled The First Man. While this novel is considered by some critics to be his masterpiece, I do not regard it as highly as his earlier novel, The Plague. This is the story of Dr. Rieux and several other people in the town of Oran who must deal with an outbreak of the Bubonic plague. As with many great books it can be read on many levels, however I find the actions of Dr. Rieux, in spite of his apparent world weariness early in the novel, to exemplify the possibility of creating meaning in one's life. The journalist Rambert who assists Dr. Rieux, while also ambivalent, can be seen in a similar light. The questions raised by the novel, including its attitude toward traditional religion, bear repeated readings and thoughtful contemplation. I would highly recommend this as a good book to begin to explore the challenging ideas of Albert Camus.