Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life...

The poems in Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours (Stundenbuch) were inspired by the "simple spirituality" he experienced on a student pilgrimage to Russia at the end of the 19th century. The 12th poem in the central section of the triptych opens with these resonant lines:

And yet, although we strain against
the inner prison that holds us back--
I sense a great wonder in the world:
Life wants to live.

Who then is living it? Is it the things themselves,
like an unplayed melody
of a harp at eventide?

(my translation)

Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy have a new translation (Riverhead, 2005) that captures Rilke's sense (at the expense of literalism). Their opening verse reads:

And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip
of daily necessity;
I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Iain McGilchrist has written "a landmark new book" called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (Yale, 2010). His premise is that the rational, analytical left hemisphere of the brain has assumed primacy over the integrative, metaphor-connecting right hemisphere. According to the ever-reliable book cover, "he traces how the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us."

The book has won awards from the scientific and medical fields, though I encountered it in the current issue of Poetry magazine. McGilchrist demonstrates how music predates language and poetry comes before prose. We need more neuroimaging physicians like Dr McGilchrist offering diagnoses like this one:

"the importance of metaphor is that it underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever, science and philosophy no less than poetry and art...metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world" (author's emphasis).

As the first William James Lecturer at Harvard in 1932, John Dewey's talks on aesthetics are equally relevant today (and resonant as ever). Just ahead of the Chorale's season opening concert I wrote about poetry and art and music via Jung's "transcendent function." I often quote E.M. Forster's aphorism "only connect" as motivation (&/or justification) for these discursions. Dewey's aim is to connect types of experience:

"This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience" (Art as Experience. Perigree Edition, 2005).

I am only one-third of the way through McGilchrist's and Dewey's books. Rilke is an old friend to whom I've turned at nearly every season of my adult life. I referenced James Hollis' Finding Meaning book in that last post and wish I had not been put off by its "self-help" title (and thus read it sooner). Hollis is a Jungian psychiatrist and his prescriptions for what ails us are timely:

"A culture without living mythological access to the mysterious is a culture in trouble."

As I reread that quote this morning I thought of one of the current "culture wars;" not between "family values" and "progressive" ones but between atheism and faith. The Rilke poem above emerges from the poet's mystical Christianity (which evolved into an increasingly universalist vision). An almost exact contemporary of Jung, Rilke's "love poems to God" resonate across the spectrum of experience described by (another contemporary) Dewey with the immediacy of metaphor McGilchrist might have used as proof.

Another book that is a recent/current addition to my "in progress" reading list is Arthur C. Danto's Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art & Life (Columbia, 2005). Holding a position at Columbia today similar to Dewey's at Harvard 80 years ago, Danto (b.1924) writes compellingly about art in our post-modern world. He quotes Dewey in his introductory essay:

"Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men" [sic].

One of the "problems" lost in the cacophony from the culture wars is our collective failure to embrace mystery. Drawing on Keats' and Shakespeare's paradigm of the aesthetic ideal in nature itself, Dewey incisively states:

"Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities-to imagination and art."

Before last Saturday night's concert, I read the second half of the following quote from Hollis' book. The first half is a clear argument against fundamentalism and the dangers of any worldview that is fixed (or hardened or stuck):

"Certainties lead to dogma; dogma leads to rigidity; rigidity leads to idolatry; idolatry always banishes the mystery and thus leads to [spiritual] narrowing."

Learning to live with our anxieties and doubts-conquering fear not by force (an oxymoronic impossibility) nor by repression (in any of its guises, namely denial and escape)-is a lifelong task. Hollis is at his most relevant and inspiring with observations like this:

"To bear the anxiety of doubt is to be led to openness; openness leads to revelation; revelation leads to discovery; discovery leads to enlargement."

And though I am only 1/3 of the way through Dewey's series of lectures, it seems enlarging our collective sense of what constitutes meaningful experience is his modus operandus. And bridging the proverbial "gap between art & life" is the path he takes. I have written below about the enlarging experience of appreciating sacred texts as poetry and literature. As I reflect on the following I am reminded of Christ's injunctions to "consider the lilies...consider the birds of the air..." While intended as lessons in anxiety management, it is equally valid to attend to the inherent aesthetic quality in such proverbs (consider a cliché like "stop and smell the roses").

Collapsing the distance between "everyday" experience and "artistic" experience should be the work of all of us. Among other things, it would render obsolete the notion of "art for art's sake" and would nullify arguments from "I know what I like" (read "I like what I know") to "I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles" (President Eisenhower to Leonard Bernstein).

"Experience in the degree in which it is experience is heightened signifies active and alert commerce with the world...experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievement in a world of things, it is art in contains the promise of that delightful perception which is esthetic experience" (Dewey, 18-19).

McGilchrist laments that "we have lost the sense of the central position that music once occupied in communal life." Really?!? Dewey notes the ancient connection in civic life between not only the (now-distant) "fine arts"-music, painting and drama-but between art and sport (the "funeral games" in Homer are classic examples of this unity and continuity between ritual, art and sport in communal life. See Hollis' warning above about our loss of "mythological access" and the connection to mystery. When I wrote a series of essays on Greek mythology and modern-day versions of it earlier this year, Hollis was not on my radar. Ah, sweet mysteries of life).

My latest opera blog is a preview of the Met's new production of Boris Godunov (which will be broadcast in Roanoke October 30). Knowing it would inspire an episode of Russophilia, I moved Tarkovsky's epic masterpiece of Russian cinema, Andrei Rublev to the top of our netflix cue and rewatched it. Like Mussorgsky's great opera, it is a series of tableaus and chronicles both a central episode in the life of its protagonist while offering a panorama of the life of the suffering Russian people. The final tableau of the casting of the great bell is worth the preceding 3 hours of film alone. If you watch it, be sure to view the extras included in the Criterion edition (which is the version Netflix uses, to its credit).

Tarkovsky's description of his great film (it is as long as Boris Godunov) is a fitting way to wind down today's sermon.

"The artist exists because the world is not perfect...[All art is about] the search for harmonic relationships between men, between art and life, between time and history."

That description parallels another made by Dewey in his introductory lecture:

"Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is."

That could apply to the icon painter Andrei Rublev, Homer's "funeral games," Jung's "collective unconscious" and "transcendent function." It is what Rilke means when he talks about "learning to see" and it helps bridge the span between the competing hemispheres of the brain. It might even chink the wall between the screaming sides of the culture wars. It "minds the gap" between art and life.

Mussorgsky said "art is a medium of conversing with people." Could it be as simple as that? The aesthetic is our primary means of making sense of the world and every system humankind has developed to aid in that aim-from sport to science to religion-depends on it. Through the work, words and images of everyone quoted above, this is another view through the looking glass, celebrating the sweet mysteries of life.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Transcendent Function

Carl Jung termed "the transcendent function" the attempt to bridge the span between the conscious and unconscious realms. The Jungian analyst and author James Hollis describes this function as "the meeting point of inner and outer worlds."

Hollis is persuasive in his advocacy for the psychologically fertile life of the soul and decries the loss of "essential mystery" in the modern age. He says "being psychological means that one will need to find the new, the personal myth from within."

I couldn't agree more and am ever so grateful to have a vocation (a literal "calling") that is primarily concerned with the "transcendent function" of music as a medium through which meaning is created and experienced.

My notes in the post below discuss the program of music of the Baroque era and the subsequent three centuries with which the Chorale opens its 27th season tonight.

With every season, my passion for music and my desire to communicate its transcendent function(s) deepens. My teachers who predicted I'd outgrow my idealism are mistaken. That idealism has been challenged and remains in tension with the realities of life in our materialist, consumerist, escapist and sensationalist age. That tension underscores my sense of vocation in presenting programs of music that transcend mere "entertainment."

If the life of the soul was given more primacy in our culture, such statements would be rendered obsolete. It would be unnecessary to differentiate between sensory appealing "entertainment" and soul-stirring "art" if the latter was as much a staple in the collective life of the present age.

Instead we have put "art" up on a pedestal and appeal with moral arguments about its value while simultaneously apologizing for elevating it in the first place ("Beethoven for Dummies" anyone?).

William Blake opens his aphoristic poem, Auguries of Innocence with this quatrain:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Hollis calls this chain of images a vision "to glimpse the movement of deeper currents."

Music is full of entire worlds glimpsed from within a single grain. Near the close of the first half of tonight's concert we will juxtapose a Gabrieli Sanctus for 16 voices (3 four-part choirs and brass quartet) with a radiant 4-voice setting of the Sanctus by the contemporary Swedish composer, Jan Sandström.

Today's Virginian-Pilot featured a front page article about the Chrysler Museum and the imminent opening of its new glass studio. The story featured a photo of a beautiful vase by the Italian glass sculptor Lino Tagliapietra, just one treasure in a collection which is one of the finest in the world.

The Gabrieli Sanctus is a musical gem from the "Star of the Sea," AKA Venice, a city as beloved for its glass work as its splendid music. Sandström's Sanctus is like a a piece of finely wrought crystal, shimmering with brilliance, its simplicity an inseparable aspect of its elegance.

The text of the Sanctus (from the Communion rite in the Christian tradition) consists of one line of poetry from one of the prophet Isaiah's dreams. The fantastic vision described by the prophet featured the six-winged celestial creatures known as seraphim who call to one another with one of the most famous doxologies in the western world:

"Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and Earth are full of his glory."

One of the functions of so much of the music the Chorale sings (which may or may not be transcendent) is a mediating one. Choral music is one of the best ways humankind has found to mediate between the sacred and secular realms. And through this music, those two opposed worlds are not mutually exclusive.

Through Jung, Hollis demonstrates how symbol and metaphor are primary means of engendering meaning. They carry the energy that enlivens the image or representation; in them lies the power behind our myths, stories and religious traditions.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the power of words themselves when considered on their own as symbols. The "word as Idea" thus demonstrates how language itself is a medium for meaning (beyond the aspects of communication which convey our surface meanings in daily conversation).

Benjamin cites Adam as the first harbinger of the transcendent function of language by the power invested in the first human being in naming his fellow creatures.

This is a discursive way of suggesting the aesthetic qualities inherent in sacred traditions often go unnoticed. Appreciating these qualities for their intrinsic value is essential--from the philosophical & artistic position of Adam as creative being to the imaginative visions of the prophets to the poetry contained in the sacred books of the great traditions.

Put another way, religions' tendencies to absolutize their traditions are impediments to appreciating their concordant aesthetic virtues. It is not irreverent to read the Psalms as literature and appreciate them as poetry; it is essential. And it is this approach (intimated above via the references from Glass art to dreams) that offers points of entry for those outside a tradition.

While the Sanctus settings cited above will resonate with a practicing Catholic in concrete ways, membership in that church is not required for access to the felicities of both (widely differentiated) settings of Isaiah's vision.

And if I may be so bold to say, felicities abound in this program. The Gabrieli and Sandström form the heart of the concert's first half. The program is bookended by entertaining "bon-bons" in the form of new arrangements for voices and brass of some of Handel's most famous instrumental tunes. Benjamin described the Baroque as "an age possessed of an unremitting artistic will." That "unremitting will" is focused on the sheer joy of production in our Handel arrangements.

Speaking of "artistic will," one of J. S. Bach's great motets opens the second half. Its polyphonic texture is an exercise in musical dialogue and offers the audience the opportunity to improve their listening skills. Daniel Barenboim has drawn an apt analogy between the process of listening to music--hearing, discerning and following more than one voice at a time--and creating the conditions for fostering productive dialogue between diverse people(s) and nations.

The music of James MacMillan is rich with the influence of divergent voices, and the two motets we sing span the gamut from the mystical and contemplative to the ecstatic and visionary. The Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque traditions meet Scottish bagpipes and Islamic muezzin in an evocative sound world resonant with meanings.

Benjamin describes the "feeling of dizziness induced by the spectacle of the [spiritual] contradictions" inherent in any attempt at analysis or criticism. His lyrical and philosophical prose is engaging as it is challenging and he argues against deductive reasoning that eschews divergent extremes and smooths out variations. Our tendency to overgeneralize and oversimplify risks missing the vertiginous thrills towards which the numinous beckons.

Kile Smith's 16-voice version of a 16th century Lutheran Hymn gets my--and the Chorale's--vote for the dizzying thrill of live encounters with the numinous. Hearing a four-voice hymn open into a splendid blossom of 16 individual, interconnected parts is an experience unto itself, a metaphor perfumed with resonances, vibrating with meaning.

Hollis challenges his readers to "risk attending to this liberating principle of resonance." I think this music is one of the best means we have to do just that.

And if any of my examples above fail to strike the proverbial chord within, just listen to the music. It knows more than I ever will.

[quotations from: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, James Hollis. Gotham, 2006. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin. Verso, 1998).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If it ain't Baroque...Notes on the Program

[Tonight the Chorale kicks off the Washington & Lee University Concert Guild season with a reprise of the Pizzetti and Daley a cappella Requiem settings we shared this past spring (we're also performing works by Giselle Wyers and James MacMillan). This past weekend the Chorale joined the Roanoke Symphony Chorus to open Opera Roanoke's season with a gala concert of music inspired by the Faust legend. This coming weekend we open our own season with the program annotated below!]

If it ain't Baroque...Notes on the Program

In astrology, “on the cusp” refers to being born under two signs—one receding and one emerging (I was born a day before the cusp of Leo & Virgo, a friend born two days later is on a similar cusp, the signs' directions reversed). We could describe as “on the cusp” many a composer, straddling the worlds of two eras: one transitioning into history while a new, “modern” period is emerging. Beethoven, Verdi, Mahler, Debussy & Stravinsky represent but a few of these “cusp” relationships between 1800 and 1900. Three of the composers who played major roles on the cusp between the end of the Renaissance period and the beginning of the Baroque era in the early 17th century were Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz.

In this program, the two great composers of the Baroque period, Bach and Handel, are exceptional for reasons other than their much-lauded musical genius. Bach and Handel represent the paradigm of the Baroque era. They are the epitome of the 18th century Baroque; they are not on the cusp, looking at the period from the perspective of another. In this program, Bach and Handel are exceptional for not being Janus-faced composers. Janus was the Roman god of gates & doors, the month January (at the turning of the year) is named for him, and Janus-faced describes a two-faced being looking in opposite directions (seeing the past and glimpsing the future). Composers like Gabrieli, Monteverdi & Schütz, Mendelssohn & Brahms (who looked back to 18th century models), and MacMillan & Distler (who looked past the Baroque & Renaissance) are all nephews of Janus.

The two versions of the famous chorale, Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake) that close each half of the program collapse some of the distance between the Baroque and Romantic periods. Mendelssohn harmonizes the chorale in Baroque style (one of many tributes to Bach throughout the Jewish-Lutheran convert’s brief career) and adds distinctive brass fanfares, an emergent feature of Romantic symphonies and operas from Schuman to Wagner.

Heinrich Schütz helped bridge the span between the Italian Renaissance and the German Baroque. In settings like the “Echo Psalm” (the 100th, Jubilate Deo in Latin), Schütz signals back to the jaunty madrigal-isms of the Renaissance while helping shift the focus to one of the defining features of 18th century music, the Affekt (affect—an expressive musical gesture that stands for an emotional response like a cry or sigh).

Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 100 dates from 1844. Depending upon the scholar one consults, it was written for the 25th anniversary of the New Israelite Temple or the Berlin Cathedral. Regardless, the directness of its appeal is characteristic of a composer “dear to every German Israelite” who continued the rich tradition of Lutheran church music epitomized by Bach.

The oldest composer represented on this program is Giovanni Gabrieli, on the cusp between the height of the Italian Renaissance and the dawn of the Venetian Baroque. Beloved of choirs and brass ensembles for four centuries and counting, Gabrieli’s balance of craft and inspiration made him an ideal candidate to usher in a new era of musical opulence with the Venetian polychoral tradition culminating in Monteverdi and Schütz. The “classic” sound of the Italian Baroque, embodied by Vivaldi (and an early influence upon the style of Bach and Handel), begins with Gabrieli. As one of the world’s trading centers, Venice was also on the cusp between the west and east. And the influences on Venetian music were as varied as the spice trade, from Jewish chant to the ornamental calls of Islamic muezzin. One of the best—and most colorful—descriptions of 17th music we have comes from the English writer, Thomas Coryat, after a 1608 visit to Venice and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where Gabrieli was master of one of the greatest programs in the history of church music.

This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumentall, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like…Sometimes there sang sixeteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keep them in order…Sometimes sixteene played together upon their instruments…
(Coryats Crudities, London, 1611).

A modern musical Renaissance has been underway since the middle of the 20th century in the Scandinavian, Nordic and Baltic states. Jan Sändström is among the younger, post-WWII generation of primarily choral composers returning to the purity of the Renaissance. His Sanctus is colored by the atmosphere of a timeless impressionist style that evokes a meditative calm.

Defining the word “motet” is a trick question when it comes to music history. From its origins in the medieval period (from the Latin movere—“to move” and the French mot—“word”) it has generally referred to a work for voices with words. In the Renaissance, the main distinction between a “madrigal” and a “motet” was the secular and sacred texts, respectively, of each. Space does not permit further elaboration, but since the Renaissance, the motet has almost exclusively been a sacred choral work, and since the Baroque, the paradigms of the genre have been the six motets of J. S. Bach. Bach’s motets were written as funeral works with a pedagogical purpose. He used the concentrated form of the motet as musical etudes (study pieces) for his young choristers. The longest of the six is 20 minutes, and Lobet den Herrn is the shortest (c. 7’). Musical phrases tend to group themselves into neat subdivisions of two, three or four bars. Bach’s opening soprano line doesn’t break until bar 12. The next time the sopranos get more than a “catch breath” is in measure 39. That Lobet den Herrn is the most “accessible” of the 6 Bach motets should deepen the audience’s appreciation for the talents of our singers!

Like Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms had a deep respect for the music of the recent past. His studio contained three portraits: Bach, Beethoven and Luigi Cherubini (who turns 250 in 2010). While his older contemporary, Anton Bruckner looked back to the Renaissance for the inspiration of his a cappella motets, Brahms looked to Bach. Of the seven Brahms motets, Schaffe in mir, Gott is the most popular. Its opening movement, with Mendelssohn-like clarity and simplicity, can stand on its own (like Bach, Brahms subdivides his motets into multiple sections).

Hugo Distler was one of the countless victims of Germany’s Third Reich. An anti-fascist Lutheran church musician, Distler took his own life to avoid conscription in the SS. The tragedy of his death is doubly bitter for the fact close friends had procured a draft waiver for the composer that failed to reach him in time. His output is concentrated in sacred motets, many based on popular hymn tunes like Lobet den Herren (Praise to the Lord). While clearly joining the procession of great Lutheran composers that includes Bach and Mendelssohn, Distler was also enthralled with the music of the medieval period. In motets like the one offered tonight, his fascination with the improvisatory-sounding rhythms of that era jumps, skips, and leaps to the foreground.

A composer who has leapt to the foreground of today’s musical landscape is James MacMillan. MacMillan’s music was featured in our 2010 Young Singer Project concert and in our season finale in May. He is a new favorite of our singers, and is one of the most acclaimed artists in Britain. The Scottish composer is writing an ongoing series of communion motets for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir in Glasgow. MacMillan’s music merges the past and the present with an engaging and original voice that is as indebted to the music of the Scottish Highlands as it is to the long tradition of European sacred music. In Splendoribus Sanctorum juxtaposes chant-inspired choral harmonies with an improvisatory trumpet solo redolent of a spacious Venetian basilica. Factus Est Repente features turns and trills closer to the Scottish countryside that infuse MacMillan’s music with a timeless and otherworldly atmosphere that can be as haunting as it is beautiful. In the context of this motet, it is both celebratory and ethereal. We hope you enjoy hearing this music as much as we love performing it.

Another composer (who will be with us in Virginia Beach, October 22) whose distinctive voice is just emerging is that of Kile Smith. The Philadelphia-based composer has written a concert-length Vespers, influenced by Monteverdi and equally indebted to the Lutheran tradition. The Hymn, Herr Christ begins with a four-part chorale that opens like a splendid blossom into 8, 12, and ultimately 16 parts, before folding in on itself, ending in the hymn-like simplicity with which it began.

The only thing simple about Monteverdi’s 10-part setting of Psalm 127 is the sheer joy it inspires. Exploiting the separateness of the choirs in the Basilica of St Mark’s in Venice (for which it was written 400 years ago), Nisi Dominus pits the two choirs against one another at a distance of as little as half a beat. That disjointedness is relieved by an antiphonal middle section featuring a more “traditional” double-choir texture (which does not yield one ounce of rhythmic vitality). Monteverdi rounds off the Psalm with the liturgically proper Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father…”). He turns this into a musical pun by setting the closing Sicut erat in principio (“As it was in the beginning…”) with the disjunct music of the opening. By so doing, he gives holy irreverence a proper place.

With apologies to the purists, the Handel arrangements that bookend the program are also meant to be irreverent. And like so much of the music we champion, serious fun.

Please join us October 22-24. For more information, visit or call 757-627-8375.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Modes of Intention" in the Last Songs of Strauss

You don't have to speak the language or know much about German aesthetics, culture, history, philosophy and/or politics to appreciate how stunningly beautiful the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss are.

Having an appreciation for German romantic poetry from Goethe and Schiller to Novalis and Eichendorff does help. As does understanding the connections of 20th century "modernists" like Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Strauss himself to the great strand of the 19th-century German Romantik.

Without turning this exposition into a dissertation or a Bavarian woods of aesthetic references, the layers of this German onion stretch back to ancient Greece, and to Greek drama and mythology in particular. The more one knows of the 25 centuries of culture since Sophocles the deeper one appreciates the flavors of this distinctly complex cuisine.

The life and art of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) are not something that can be neatly dispatched, even with a dissertation. His early fame rests on a series of dazzling orchestral works that defined a genre he almost single-handedly shaped in the so-called "tone poem." His first two operatic hits, Salome and Elektra were shockingly violent and as boldly dramatic as they were musically daring. Yet from his 1911 opera, Der Rosenkavalier through his productive autumnal years Strauss wrote music of rarefied, classical refinement. He was as indebted to the 18th and early 19th century Viennese tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert as he was to the revolutionary, romantic trajectory from Beethoven to Wagner.

Robert Schumann invented Jeckyll and Hyde "Doppelgänger" personalities for his romantic sensibilities: the heroic, revolutionary Florestan and the sensitive, introverted Eusebius. Strauss doesn't try to wear Schumann's shoes, but the twin spirits of his musical personality, the "classic" and "romantic" are always present.

His biography is equally befuddling, and it would be both disingenuous to the life and a disservice to the music to ignore the unpleasant facts. From 1933 to 1935 Strauss was head of the Nazi's Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) which made him an employee of Goebbels and Hitler, to put not too fine a point on it. He was relieved of that post after the Gestapo intercepted a letter to his (Jewish) librettist and collaborator, Stefan Zweig. Strauss was neither a card-carrying Nazi nor an apolitical naif. As Michael P. Steinberg writes in his thoughtful essay, "Richard Strauss and the Question" (in Richard Strauss And His World, ed. Bryan Gilliam. Princeton, 1992):

"Which of these milestones is the more significant--the service [in the Reich] or the removal and its circumstances--has continued to generate judgments of the composer's politics, unproductively."

I appreciate the fact that Steinberg doesn't pass judgments. He makes a telling observation about Strauss's musical choices, however, that resonates with the idea of twin spirits at work within the composer. Steinberg describes the romantic Strauss (of the tone poems and early operas; that is, pre-1933) as creating out of "the assertion of the spirit, indistinguishable from the will." This Promethean (or Nietzschean/Wagnerian) spirit is the diametric opposite of "an ascetic withdrawal from the world" represented in some of the later, post-1935 stage works and songs.

Along with his last orchestral masterpiece, Metamorphosen (a haunting work for 24 strings), the Four Last Songs belong to this latter category. Or at least half of it. Though these valedictory works display a world-weary nostalgia and aching beauty, they are anything but ascetic.

Steinberg refers to the work of the critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin's seminal work on Baroque theater and the varying forms of tragedy represented on the stage and in print connects back to my opening observation and caveat. I will get to the heart of my thoughts on the poetry Strauss selected for these extraordinary songs by way of Benjamin's "modes of intention," brought to my attention on an airplane last night whilst reading Charles Rosen's engaging essay "The Ruins of Walter Benjamin" (in Romantic Poets, Critics, And Other Madmen. Harvard, 1998).

Benjamin wrote penetratingly insightful criticism on everything from Shakespeare to Proust to Fascism. His vision was wider, his insight deeper and his grasp surer than any of his contemporaries. In the 70 years since this Jewish genius took his life, his equal has not appeared.

Where many of his contemporaries interpreted language--the "text" and the words that comprise it--as signs and symbols signifying meaning, Benjamin elevated the word itself to the status of Idea (Rosen points out his indebtedness to Novalis and Schlegel--see "Fragments and Hedgehogs," from an earlier post below).

Benjamin's "modes of intention" illustrate why "the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman." And why neither word is equivalent to the English "translation," bread. The "mode of intention" depends upon every category I cite at the top, namely aesthetics and culture, philosophy, history and politics.

This is neither trivial nor arcane. It is germane to our understanding of German romantic poetry in general, the significance of the poems Strauss set in his last songs in particular, and how we connect those strands to better appreciate the final flowering of one of the most remarkable careers in western music.

In another essay from Richard Strauss And His World, Timothy L. Jackson, without naming Benjamin and the "modes of intention" names one in the German word, Not.

"Not is cognate to the English word 'need,' Not is stronger and has untranslatable religious and philosophical connotations. The English words 'anxiety,' 'fear,' 'vulnerability' and even 'dire need' do not adequately circumscribe all the German connotations."

The thrust of Jackson's thesis is that the early Strauss song, Ruhe, meine Seele should be included in the Four Last Songs (which should then be called not 5 Last Songs but Letzte Orchesterlieder). He identifies a motive the early song shares with the first of the four last songs Strauss composed, Im Abendrot. Linked by this pivotal German word, Not he goes into fascinating detail about his so-called Notmotiv and why Ruhe, meine Seele works as a set-up for Im Abendrot, which is traditionally the last of the four songs performed.

After listening to the songs in Jackson's suggested order, I'm not convinced. His observations about Not and its poetic manifestations across the last songs are trenchant.

Im Abendrot opens with Not in the first phrase:

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Gegangen Hand in Hand;

(Through want and joy we have
Gone hand in hand;)

Eichendorff occupies a place in German romantic poetry as Wordsworth or Keats does in English. His verse lives and breathes outside in nature, his settings resonate with nocturnal images and chart the progression of seasons and cycles of life.

The title of this elegaic hymn literally means "Evening Red" and refers to sunset. The final quatrain is justification enough for placing it at the close of the set of songs Strauss did not live to hear:

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
ist dies etwa der Tod?

(O wide, still peace!
So deep at sunset.
How tired of wandering we are--
Is this perhaps death?)

Note that the word for death, Tod rhymes with both Not and Abendrot. Each of the four last songs was dedicated by the composer to friends who were particularly important to him in his final ailing and depression-laden years. The dedicatee of Im Abendrot is another rhyming cognate, Dr. Roth (pronounced with a long "o;" the final phoneme "th" in German, like a final "d" is pronounced like a "t." Therefore "Roth" and "Tod" in German sound like "rote" and tote" in English).

Strauss' wife, Pauline was a soprano and the dedicatee of many of his early songs. The second of the Four Last Songs is Hermann Hesse's September. The Strauss' wedding anniversary was September 10. September is the beginning of Autumn and a signal change in the seasons.

A contemporary of Strauss who also chose exile in Switzerland in the aftermath of WWII, Hermann Hesse could be mistaken for a 19th century romantic given his lyric verse. Strauss set three of Hesse's poems after the Eichendorff song, and though the composer neither grouped nor ordered them together, they complement one another perfectly.

In addition to the surface features of rhyme and diction noted above, the songs resonate with romantic tropes and speak to the contemporary world devastated by genocide and atomic warfare. Strauss dedicated a 1933 song, Das Bächlein (The Little Brook) to Goebbels as an homage to his Reich appointment. It ends with an image as eery as it is tragically ironic:

Der mich gerufen aus dem Stein,
der, denk' ich, wird mein Führer sein!

(He who calls to me out of the stone
He, I think, will be my leader!)

In 1933, Strauss could not have foreseen how horrible that "mode of intention" of a word would become. Though he did not write or speak much on the subject of his works, his final songs and Metamorphosen are tinged with resignation, full of longing and searching for release.

The Hesse poems that preface Im Abendrot do not contain the word-as-Idea Not, but vibrate sympathetically with it. The "dual metaphor" for death is present in both the cycle of day-to-night and the cycle of the seasons of the year.

In the opening song, Frühling the first image is one of nocturnal shadows:

Im dämmrigen Grüften
Träumte ich lang

(In dusky grottoes
I dreamt long)

The initial adjective is kin to Wagner's title Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the end of his epic operatic cycle that depicts the end of an epoch.

When experienced day-to-day "twilight" unfolds in the present. We watch the sunset happen. Yet as metaphor, image and/or mode "twilight" is viewed from the past. Shifting perspective is central to all four of the poems Strauss set. Frühling ends with these lines:

Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!

(You know me again,
you invite me sweetly,
through all my limbs trembles
your blessed presence!)

The meaning of the final word, Gegenwart is a poignant example of our "mode of intention" shifting perspective. Gegenwart refers to both the "presence" of the poem's subject (which could be the beloved, the divine, and/or death) and is the word for "present." Given Germany's recent past, the sublime beauty Strauss evoked in these songs is all the more striking.

September is seen through the lens of summer, foreshadowing the end of the year and the release of death in the cycle's close. The imagery reinforces the inexorable motion of the cyclical process from the opening:

Der Garten trauert,
Der Sommer schauert
Still seinem Ende entgegen.
In den sterbenden Gartentraum

(The garden mourns...
Summer trembles
Quietly faced with its end...
Into the dying dream of the garden...)

Images of world-weariness seep into the imagery and perfume the poems for the remainder of the cycle. How can one not infer autobiography in the 83-year-old composer's "swan songs?" The music underscores this fact as Strauss assigns the first of two principal instrumental solos to the "voice" that first captured his imagination as a child. His father was the principal horn player in the Court Opera orchestra of Munich. His first orchestral concerto was for the solo horn of his father, and it is to the horn that he turns in September to echo the fatigued lines that close the poem:

Langsam tut er
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.

(Slowly he closes
his tired eyes).

The instrument that most closely echoes the human voice, however, is the violin. If not in timbre, then in intention and 19th-20th century practice, from Beethoven and Brahms to Sibelius and Strauss and beyond. Though Im Abendrot is the best "closer" on this Straussian team of songs, Beim Schlafengehen is both MVP and "people's choice" for the greatest song of the set, if not its composer's entire output.

Throughout his storied career, Strauss could write a gravity-defying line and place it in the most exquisite context imaginable. Such moments embody transcendence by enacting musical transformation. Simply put, whether carried by the voice or violin or both, his melodies soar!

Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) opens with an image of fatigue that mirrors the close of September: "Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht" (Now the day has made me tired).

Following another image of sinking into slumber (another metaphor for the release of death), Hesse's most evocative verse inspires the most sublime music Strauss ever wrote:

Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um in Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.

(And the soul unfettered
wants to soar in free flight,
In the magic circle of night
deep and a thousand-fold to live).

The last time Strauss had attempted to write such soaring transcendence was in the "Transformation Scene" that closes his 1938 opera, Daphne. Ironically, that scene features a regressive transformation from human to tree, and is accomplished by the orchestra (led by none other than the violins), as Steinberg puts it "in order to emanate as absolute truth." The "dehumanization" of Daphne is reversed (if not redeemed) by the progression of the last songs that begins when September starts to close her eyes.

September, and the two Hesse settings around it shift perspective between the poet and subject. Between "me" and "you." Or "I" and "Thou." Only in the final song, Im Abendrot, is companionship made explicit. As the poem moves to its final word, so does the composer resolve the cadence of his ultimate "mode of intention."

At the end of his essay on Strauss, Steinberg asks the question of "whether a musical subject can engage in dialogue with the world legitimately." He implies that Strauss avoids the question.

The question at the end of Im Abendrot, "Ist dies etwa der Tod?" (Is this perhaps death?) is neither answered nor left hanging. The strings mirror the slowly setting sun before settling on the rich-hued key of E-flat (a central key in German music from Bach to Beethoven to Wagner). The "two larks" of the poem "rise" to continue the cycle of life the composer finishes by assigning their ethereal birdsong to trilling flutes.

Again, one needn't speak German or have paid attention to any of the above to hear the sublime made proximate in these songs. It's all in this incredible music.

But if you have made it this far, you deserve to hear the real thing itself. You can, Oct 17 at 2:30 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Soprano Amy Cofield Williamson joins Symphonicity, the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach, under the baton of David Kunkel.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Profile interview for City Magazine (Roanoke)

Below is the unedited version of a profile interview City Magazine just published in their fall arts issue.

Nice photo on the look young...How many years have you been involved with opera?

I joined the music faculty of Washington & Lee University in the fall of 1996, having just finished a Master’s degree in conducting from Westminster Choir College. I became involved with Opera Roanoke in 1998. I assisted the director, Craig Fields in preparing the chorus, and sang the smallest of roles (Parpignol) in La Bohéme. I was then promoted to Chorus Master and Associate Conductor, and began working more actively behind the scenes. I assisted Steven White on his first Opera Roanoke assignment (Lucia di Lammermoor) in 1999, the year I left the W&L faculty. I taught at Shepherd University (then College) and earned my Doctorate from the University of Maryland, and then moved up to New York City to further pursue a singing career. All the while, I was a frequent guest of Opera Roanoke, assisting Steven behind the scenes, conducting or singing in productions, as the need arose.

You are quite a vocalist (a tenor) -- do you plan to perform with Opera Roanoke as well as conduct?

Why thank you! I am grateful to be in a place where there is support for music directors doubling as performers. I look up to Maestro David Wiley in that regard. This season I have the privilege of conducting the Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly in March, and then singing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings on our season finale program in May. That concert features Elizabeth Futral in a work written expressly for her, so I’m very flattered to be her “opening act” May 8!

What unique or special quality do you feel you bring to Opera Roanoke?

I am equally passionate about every aspect of my job as general and artistic director. Purgatory for me would be choosing between conducting, performing, and advocating. The years I spent as both a teacher and a student continue to inform who I am—I’ve studied in Weimar and Bayreuth, Germany; I’ve been an apprentice at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Aldeburgh and at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. I believe one of my roles, to paraphrase the great American conductor, Robert Shaw, is to be a preacher of “the Gospel of the Arts.” As the moniker implies, it is a “calling” and for me it is inseparable from my roles as a musician and my position as an artistic director.

Who are your musical influences?

Who isn’t?!? Starting with my high school choral director in Chesapeake, VA, Dennis Price, I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors, teachers & colleagues. My teachers at JMU gave me much more than the fundamentals an undergraduate program should provide. One of the most significant influences on my development was working with Joseph Flummerfelt (dubbed by Leonard Bernstein the “greatest choral conductor in the world”) at Westminster Choir College. I’ve been fortunate to sing under great conductors from Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel to Esa-Pekka Salonen and James Levine. Working with Tim Carroll, the “Master of the Play” at Shakespeare’s Globe continues to shape my work as a performer and teacher. Closer to home, Steven White has been not only a great colleague and dear friend; he is an inspiring mentor. Watching him lead the Roanoke Symphony in rehearsal—observing their growth from a great Symphony orchestra into an exceptional Opera orchestra—has been revelatory. Roanoke is doubly blessed to have Steven White and Elizabeth Futral—two world-class artists—in our midst.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music and which artist or composer most inspires you? Why?

That’s a tough one! I do enjoy a wide variety of music, from all kinds of jazz to American songbook “standards;” from Portuguese Fado to Ali Farka Toure (the Malian guitarist). But I never get tired of classical music, and love all genres of it. It is not cliché to say that this music is my life. In addition to opera, I love choral music (I conduct the Norfolk-based Virginia Chorale, our Commonwealth’s premiere professional chorus). I have an abiding love for the symphonic repertoire and am passionate about 20th and 21st century music. My single favorite composer is Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies are like great stories or epic poems. They are worlds unto themselves, and like all great works of art, offer something new with every visit. My favorite opera composer is Giuseppe Verdi. Of the many reasons to love Verdi, the central one is his grande anima. That’s Italian for “great soul” and it describes the subjects of his operas AND the characters that inhabit them (it applies to Verdi himself). I’ve been listening to the African-American soprano Leontyne Price, whose distinguished career paralleled the advent of the Civil Rights Era in the U.S. Her classic recording of Verdi’s grand opera, Aida is superb. Not only does Aida have all the grandeur and larger-than-life “stuff” of opera—great choruses, the famous triumphal march, and if you’re lucky, live elephants! But it has the stuff of real life itself. From the range of personal, social and political relationships to the tension and conflict of a great drama, Aida conveys the depth of human emotions in what is ultimately a love story.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

Define “typical?” It is as eclectic as my duties and interests! I usually have a meeting or two with colleagues, patrons, board members &/or community leaders. I try to balance my time in a manner that is consistent with my varying roles, so I try to carve out time each day to read, study &/or practice. More time than I’d like is spent sifting through email, and I’m on the phone quite a bit, whether I’m in the office or on the go. There are always administrative tasks at hand. Yesterday it was editing the monthly e-newsletter; today it’s getting the fall program book together. Yesterday I put together a CD of excerpts from our season to be included in our advertising “spots” on Blue Ridge PBS, and today I’ll go to WDBJ to record voice-overs for our spots on Channel 7. Our board of directors has a phone-a-thon tonight to sell subscriptions and tickets for this, our 35th anniversary season, which opens October 16. Much of my time between now and then will be promoting this barn-burner of a concert, called Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil! I write a blog for the Opera ( and next on that to-do list is an article about the upcoming MET HD broadcasts (live, high-def “movie theatre” broadcasts from the MET stage) that are coming to Roanoke through a partnership with the Opera and Virginia Western Community College. That exciting season opens October 10 with the premiere of a brand new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

What do you feel will be one of your greatest challenges in your new role with Opera Roanoke?

Roanoke is incredibly fortunate to have a great artistic soul itself. Cities as small as ours (in the US) typically don’t have an Orchestra, Opera company, major museum, and the range of arts organizations we have, all making invaluable contributions to the quality of life here. Take the arts out of the picture, and Roanoke as we know it would shrivel and die. That is to take nothing away from the businesses and corporations that have made Roanoke their home base. They are equally vital. And equally dependent on the contributions—aesthetic AND economic—the arts make. My point is simply the artistic pulse of a city is the best indicator of its desirability and the most significant determinant of its quality. I see my biggest challenge as convincing a greater percentage of the citizens in the region that they should support Opera in Roanoke—not for our budget’s sake, but for the sake of the quality of life here. Opera has long been misperceived as an elitist and specialized form. Anyone who has an interest in the quality of life in Roanoke should go to the Opera, attend RSO concerts, and visit the museums. Engaging in the arts is as vital as patronizing local businesses. We go to the grocery store and dine out to satisfy our taste buds, and we go to the arts to feed the rest of our senses. This is the classic “preachin’ to the choir” when I’m addressing our core audience. The challenge is to get more people to come out and support the fine arts right here at home.

Where do you see Opera Roanoke in five years?
I envision turning Opera Roanoke into a festival company where, instead of spreading out concerts and productions across a season, we would concentrate our offerings into a short festival season. We would offer several full productions in repertory under a festival umbrella whose theme would vary. I’m picturing a “Viva España” season where we’d offer Carmen, The Barber of Seville and/or Don Giovanni. We would collaborate with not only our current partners Center in the Square, the RSO & the Jefferson Center, but with museums and galleries, dance companies and theatres. I envision exhibitions, plays, films, non-classical concerts & more all coming under the festival’s banner for a week or two each spring. We would partner with local businesses and create package deals that serve a variety of interests and account for an equal variety of budgets. This Opera Festival would help turn Roanoke into the tourist destination it could be, and build on the vibrant cultural center it already is. Leonard Bernstein’s description of what makes opera great also applies to cities like ours:

Any great work of art is great because it creates a special world of its own. It revises and readapts time and space. And the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world; the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air…when we come out it, we are enriched and ennobled.

I’d like to see Opera Roanoke continue to “enrich and ennoble,” and reach more and more people from southwest Virginia and beyond in the fantastic process of bringing these great musical dramas to life.

Thanks for giving me the chance to do one of the things I most enjoy: talking about what I love!