Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's Frank's World (We Just Live in It)

I'm grading my Music 101 class's first exam. In the last question, I asked them to name the piece heard so far this semester that they most enjoyed. For about eighty percent, it was Frank Sinatra's 1955 recording of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (some of the music they've heard so far includes Gregorian chant, flamenco, Yiddish ballads, chain-gang songs recorded in Georgia in the 1920's, Benny Goodman playing "Body and Soul," songs from Elizabeth Mitchell's album You Are My Little Bird, and excerpts from Die Zauberflöte). One student, a young man from Ghana, preferred the Kurt Elling version of "In the Wee Small Hours," writing (quite movingly) that Elling's "take on the song is filled with verisimilitude as he uses elements of silence, rubato, and deep emotion to portray the realism that I believe the song calls for . . . . For a moment, I felt as if I were the singer, and that I too was longing for my beloved to come back in the wee small hours." Another student's preferred class selection was "Sylvie" by Leadbelly, because, as he put it, "the blues is the backbone of rock, which is my favorite type of music." He closed his essay with what I took to be instructions to myself: "Rock on."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"'Tis visible silence"

Amazingly, and seemingly quite by chance, I just discoverd this video of Ian Bostridge singing Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Silent Noon" (quite wonderfully) on a blog I'd never read before; I browsed to the blog out of curiousity after reading a comment the blogger had left on still another blog (ah, the strange provenance of information discovered online). And, even more amazingly, the blog to which this video had been posted is called "All Manner of Thing" (, a quote from Blessed Julian of Norwich which my friend John Allitt used often to say to me: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Silent Noon (John Stewart Allitt in memoriam)

After five and a half years, I am finally nearing the end of my doctoral studies. I expect to defend my dissertation next fall, and I have my dissertation recital scheduled for the end of April, which is giving me serious pause, since it’s been a long time since I’ve sung an entire evening-length concert; motherhood has eaten its way into both my chops and my ability (and desire) to maintain them. Nonetheless, it must be done, so I am hoping and praying that I’ll be able to do a passing job, and trying to practice in short increments whenever I get them.

The recital program is going to be heavy on twentieth-century British art song. I’m singing a song cycle by the young Scottish composer James MacMillan (a Catholic, incidentally, who’s written a lot of interesting sacred music), and also a group of early twentieth-century songs in the English pastoral vein, including the ravishing “Silent Noon” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a setting of a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Yesterday I was sitting at the kitchen table listening to a wonderfully-sung and straightforwardly-interpreted recording of English art song by Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau , and when “Silent Noon” started, I found myself in tears. My two-year-old son exhorted me to be “happy, happy!” But the tranquil opening chords brought back powerful memories of my dear friend John Allitt, who died almost exactly a year ago, and whose last published work was a book on the English composers written in Italian for his Italian publisher.

John’s obituary tells who he was far better than I ever could. We first corresponded in 2000, when, in the course of researching esoteric influences on nineteenth-century Italian music (a project that, probably quite rightly, ended up falling by the wayside), I came across an allegorical/Arcadian poem that the early nineteenth-century composer Giovanni Simone Mayr had copied into one of his notebooks. The author of the anthology in which I found the poem put me in touch with John, a prominent scholar of Mayr and his circle. However, this was not the first time I’d come across John’s work. Several years earlier, while still a soprano, I had been double-cast as Lucia di Lammermoor in a production of Donizetti’s opera, and one day the other Lucia brought some fascinating pages to rehearsal, an analysis of the opera from the perspective of Christian mysticism, which turned out to have been photocopied from John Allitt’s book on Donizetti.

In 2001 I made my first recital appearance in England, and it was then that I met John for the first time. He and his lovely wife Eleanor came to the performance, and a few days later I traveled to their home in the Midlands, where I was a guest for a week. Over the course of that and two other visits, intermittent telephone calls, and many, many dozens of letters (the real, hand-written kind), John and I became great friends. A scholar of art history, Dante, and Thomas Traherne in addition to nineteenth-century music, in many ways John was responsible for my going to graduate school and taking up academic music studies, although he never suggested I do so. And, though a fervent convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church, he was also in many ways responsible for my returning to the Roman Catholic Church. My first published article was dedicated to him, and my dissertation will be as well. Not long before he died, I found out, amazingly, that the two-hundred-year-old cottage where he lived had been a building on the grounds of the estate where the Princess Belgioioso, an important patron of Fr. Hermann Cohen, stayed while in England, and from which she sent several letters to Liszt discussing Hermann. My last correspondence with John was on this matter.

When his wife sent me the news of his death, I was shocked, but not surprised. It had been almost three years since I’d last seen him, and, though I kept hoping to be able to return to England after my son’s birth, there was never the chance. There wasn’t the money for me to fly to England for his funeral, and a few days later, I lost the baby I was carrying, along with one of my ovaries, when the pregnancy turned out to be ectopic and ruptured through the tube, requiring me to have emergency surgery. I prayed and prayed to John to save the child, but it was not to be.

Now when I think of him, I feel a desolate sinking in the pit of my stomach, the way I feel at take-off when I have to take a trip by plane: the sense of being impossibly far from home and unable to return there of my own will. I don’t know how one ever reconciles the losses and leave-takings of this life with St. Paul’s injunction to “rejoice always.” I miss John terribly and long for his friendship and guidance.

To listen to "Silent Noon," go here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Music City

When I was an aspiring opera diva, I could never have predicted the following experiences I have recently had while teaching in the music department of a large public university.

• Excusing my Hasidic student’s many latenesses because I know his young wife has just had a baby (the first of many, one hopes)
• Having the same student (who respectfully removes his black hat when he enters the classroom each day, revealing an embroidered kipa) explain to the rest of the class how in funk music (such as that of Parliament-Funkadelic, pictured above), every instrument functions as a rhythm (rather than a melodic or harmonic) instrument, and then witnessing him demonstrate said funk beat for the class in an extremely, well, funky way
• Excusing another student’s absence because he is taking the Fire Department test (“I plan on doing music on the side,” he explained to me)
• Rooting (and praying to St. Scholastica) for an extremely brilliant student (perhaps, I confess, a little more than I would do otherwise, because he is from my ethnic group, one that has traditionally been underrepresented in academia) who is in danger of failing my class because of his many absences and undone assignments, the result of a nervous breakdown and subsequent bad reactions to psychotropic meds
• Having one older student explain that his fledgling career as a doo-wop singer was interrupted due to his years of incarceration, and having to gently refuse his request to show me his poetry (not to be cynical, but I’m just too dang busy during office hours, not to mention the rest of my life, to read ex-con poetry these days)

I’ve been told that teaching is casting artificial pearls before real swine, and some days it really feels like it’s true. But most other days, I realize that I have come to love and admire my students, as well as the capricious, strange, and often cruel city from which they come, and from which, it seems to me, they are somehow inseparable, just like this university.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Love Train

On Valentine’s Day I had to pass briefly through Grand Central Station, where I picked up a glossy brochure from a pile that I thought was a guide to cultural events aimed at commuters. At closer inspection, it turned out to be a how-to manual on “making the most of your Valentine’s night,” produced by the K-Y Company and featuring photos of a handsome young African-American hipster couple (he with sideburns, both with modified natural hairdos) canoodling. As I looked through it, I marveled at the energy required for the suggested feats of seduction, especially with Valentine’s Day coming on a school night this year.

Most eye-rolling for me, though, was the section entitled (rather archly, I thought) “Feel the Music.” “Music of the great composers,” K-Y assures us, “can be instrumental for reigniting passion." The targeted reader, a woman trying to seduce her man, is advised to "embrace the full orchestral crescendo from between the sheets.” Hmmmmm. Unfortunately, no pieces were specified, which left me wondering vaguely what the aphrodisiac properties of the famous Mannheim and Rossini crescendos of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries might be. Perhaps the K-Y guide really was a guide to cultural events for commuters, or at least for tourists, after all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Soul Music

My students always surprise me. Not one of them turns out to be the person I thought he or she was at the beginning of the semester. This is one of the thrilling and fascinating things about teaching.

I gave my Music 101 students the assignment to write a brief “musical autobiography” explaining the role music has played in their lives. Most of these were boilerplate; five or six (all by young women) were practically interchangeable. Some were semi-literate. A few stood out, though: a young Haitian-American from East Flatbush wrote about the hip-hop music in his neighborhood, distinguishable from block to block; a black student from South Africa wrote about how reggae helped bring about the demise of apartheid; a Sikh young man wrote about music as a means of becoming closer to God, and noted that devotional songs had often kept him “from derailing my path in Sikhism.”

But the best paper of all was a heartfelt, beautifully-written essay by a student who was raised in but no longer practices the tradition of ultra-orthodox Judaism. In his paper, written with a kind of luminous modesty (if there can be said to be such a thing), my student details the proscriptions against secular music for the ultra-orthodox.

The community reacts with particular revulsion towards secular music,
he writes, partly due to its sometimes licentious nature, partly due to its subversive potential, partly due to the religious prohibition [against men listening] to a woman singing [he explains that this law of kol isha, meaning “voice of a woman,” stems from the notion that because of the inherent sensuality of the female voice, hearing a woman sing “can provoke a man to improper thoughts”].

Nonetheless, secular music crept into his life almost against his will. Away at religious boarding school, he was introduced by classmates from more permissive upbringings to the instrumental music of John Tesh and Yanni. This was the slippery slope. One day a friend put a song with lyrics onto the CD player. Horrified, my student leapt up and turned it off. His friend assured him, however, that what he was about to hear contained “no sex or immorality or any of that horrible stuff,” and that, moreover, it was not sung by a woman, so it would pose no moral threat.

I knew that this was a line I must not cross, my student writes. It was bad enough that I had rationalized my listening to non-Jewish music with no vocals; my conscience would never allow me to get away with this sort of thing.

But curiosity won out.

When it was over . . . I realized that I had just heard a most wondrous and beautiful thing. And at that very moment, unbeknownst to me, a foundation of my faith began to crumble inside of me.

The song my student heard for the first time, the one that opened the floodgates, was Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.” I was deeply moved by his account of a life-changing epiphany brought about by a song that many would consider trite. I love the way that what is mundane, even banal, to one man can be the cause of another’s metanoia, or complete change of heart. I feel lucky to have this young man in my class.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lost in the Supermarket, Part 2

I had the good fortune growing up to have a mother who was an enthusiastic gourmet cook. Every year, she gives my three siblings (all of whom are excellent cooks) and me (a merely decent one) a subscription to Bon Appétit magazine. I’ve asked her not to renew my subscription (to no avail), because I’m simply too busy to read my issues and not ambitious enough to cook from them, but I found a little time the other day to leaf through the latest while eating my breakfast, and I noticed an apparently regular column called “Playlist,” which suggests songs to put on one’s iPod (I don’t have an iPod, but that’s another story) that are food- and drink-related. This month’s playlist is called “Music to Shop By,” and is recommended for listening to while navigating “the long lines and crowded aisles at the market.” One of the songs is The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket,” about which Bon Appétit says:

From their masterwork album London Calling [1979], punk rockers The Clash recount the rigors of childhood and that all-too-familiar lost-in-a-supermarket feeling.

This made me do a double-take. First of all, “that all-too-familiar lost-in-a-supermarket feeling” is not really what the song’s about. And then there is the signally odd feeling of reading about The Clash in a gourmet cooking-and-lifestyle magazine. I remember my shock as a young soprano-slash-office-temp when I realized that the corporate lawyers whose documents I typed by night listened to The Clash. One right-libertarian-leaning lawyer whom I later dated even loved Woody Guthrie. This just didn’t make sense to me: I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the marriage of corporate law and music that can be described to varying degrees as dissident. I later decided that for many of the people I worked for, being a lawyer was a sort of day job like my temping was for me, but on a higher and much more lucrative level. They may have been the capitalist establishment, but they had rock-and-roll hearts. I still can’t get over the incongruity of The Clash and Bon Appétit, though.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Wee Small Hours" Part 2

Those of you who've been following my Music 101 class's exploration of this song will be interested in this version. My brother The Gtra1n turned me on to the wonderful young jazz singer Kurt Elling. I would argue that his version of this iconic song is even more moving than Sinatra's.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Of Red-Hot Reds and Redemption

My grandmother's FBI file is keeping me up nights. In 1941, I read, she was elected to the gas-rationing committee in her large Midwestern city. "I wonder what they will do," she remarked to an informant, "when they find out that I am a red-hot red." (In 1942, sadly, the national higher-ups asked the agents in charge of surveilling my grandmother to stop including so much detail, so the next few years report only on her activities, not on her bons mots.)

I remember when the first conservative I dated -- not that long ago, relatively speaking -- told me that he was raised "to fear the red menace." My heart sank when I realized that my family was the red menace. According to what I've learned from both my family and from her dossier, Grandma really believed in the promise -- false, as the world would learn -- of communism to create a sort of heaven on earth. Communism was her religion. According to her FBI informants, she believed that young people in the Soviet Union were paid to attend school. She believed they all excelled at sports. She believed that their army was powerful because it conscripted eighteen-year-olds, and she therefore agitated for the U.S. draft age to be lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. She attempted to organize all the different Slavic cultural groups in her multiethnic city to support Russian war relief (prior to the US's entrance into World War II). When Stalin and Hitler signed the Anti-Aggression pact, she was an isolationist; but when the Nazis reneged and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, she was for total, all-out war. Sometimes I suspect that my husband, also a conservative, would never have married me if he had known these things about my family. Where does this leave me? What does this mean for me as a Catholic, and as an American? What does it mean for me as this remarkable woman's granddaughter?

Tertium Quid writes, in response to my earlier post, "If we were Manicheans, we would have to hate ourselves. We are not. We are the children of Adam and Eve. We are the children of an Incarnate God. We are the spiritual children of the Blessed Virgin Mother, Ss. Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mary & Martha, Thomas, Simon of Cyrene, Augustine, and many others. Venerate your grandmother. Thank God for her, what she taught you, and what she taught you not to do."

Reading her FBI file has had me really rooting for my grandmother at times. There weren't many like her. Was she tragically misguided, and did she thus allow herself to be led into error, and possibly even evil? Yes, and yes. But I can certainly say the same for myself when I review my own history. I do thank God for Grandma, and I don't fear the red menace.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Music 101 Smackdown

Today my students got into a heated discussion of who was the greater artist, Frank Sinatra or Michael Jackson. I have to say it’s debatable. I hastily decided to add an impromptu assignment for next class: to listen to the Jackson 5’s first hit, the 1969 “I Want You Back,” paying special attention to the astonishing emotional maturity with which the young Jackson sings the song. That kind of emotional/musical verisimilitude is the true hallmark of musical prodigy.

I Married a Communist

Readers of this blog will know that I don’t usually address politics, preferring to focus on topics that are more interesting to me, like music and faith. Insofar, however (as the feminists used to say) as the personal is the political, I will be writing occasionally about a political issue that has had a direct impact on my life. The reason that I knew how to pronounce “HUAC” correctly, even as a young soprano, is that my grandmother had been subpoenaed before that body (she went underground rather than testify); she was a member of the American Communist Party. According to family history, she had joined because of her distress over the plight of blacks in the 1930s (it’s true that she later left the CP and devoted her energies to the civil rights movement).

Shortly before my son was born two years ago, at the recommendation of a priest who was giving me spiritual direction, I started reading Witness by Whittaker Chambers. Not more than a few pages into the book, my heart sank when I recognized the name of a man whom I knew to have been a close friend of my grandmother’s and a frequent guest at her home in a large Midwestern city; Chambers named him as the Comintern’s representative to the United States. I decided to request my grandmother’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act to try to find out who she really had been.

The first 500 pages (roughly a third of the file) arrived yesterday. The packet starts off with a 1941 letter from J. Edgar Hoover advising that, in case of a national emergency, Grandma be detained. A very cursory glance at a few of the documents shows that she was spied upon by informants, neighbors, and probably also agents provocateurs. I read things about Grandma, her activities, and her beliefs that I never knew, and that run counter to family lore. But it is almost impossible for me to determine at this point what in all of it -- family legend and FBI dossier both -- is true. It will take me a while to go through the documents. In the meantime, I have the uncanny sense of someone walking over my own grave.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Music 101 in the Wee Small Hours

Thank you, Maclin Horton and Tertium Quid, for your excellent suggestions for approaching Music Appreciation (Music 101). I decided to lay aside our textbook yesterday and try to get my students to discuss what music is and what it does. I had brought in some of my own CDs to play for them: an Alan Lomax recording from 1952 of an improvised flamenco song, performed by two impoverished olive workers in Andalusia in a late-night tavern session, the only accompaniment their hands slapping the table in a complex polyrythm (Lomax notes that no one in the town could afford to purchase a guitar); a stirring Yiddish ballad from the turn of the twentieth century by the sweatshop worker/poet Morris Rosenfeld, called “The Exiles’ March”; and the song “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” from the legendary album of the same name by Frank Sinatra. What I was trying to suggest to my class was the notion that music’s job, in essence, is to convey to the listener emotional meaning whose impact is immediate, and that yet almost all music does so by using forms and formulas -- that music is art and not life, and that its imitation of life is based on certain formal structures. Even the passionate fandango improvised in the tavern in southern Spain used certain standard folk poetic verse forms and flamenco singing devices. I was gratified that my students really liked the Spanish number, and that the Yiddish song, which would seem to have a narrow appeal, touched them deeply, especially the black students who make up the majority of the class, some of whom compared it to African-American slave songs. I was disappointed, however, that the great, great Sinatra song seemed at first to offer them no way into its special world. To me the song is perfection itself. The slickness of the production and the lushness of the Nelson Riddle orchestra notwithstanding, the economy of the tune, the tragic irony of the lyrics (with their terse and brilliant use of the second person), and the subtlety of Sinatra’s singing make this number far more heartbreaking – in other words, far more effective – than it would seem to be.

In the wee small hours of the morning,
While the whole wide world is fast asleep,
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep.

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson --
You’d be hers if only she would call --
In the wee small hours of the morning,
That’s the time you miss her most of all.

I suppose that the Sinatra/Riddle aesthetic is far removed from what we listen to today, and young people only encounter it when it’s offered with postmodern self-consciousness, so it's not suprising that the class didn't immediately grasp the art of “In the Wee Small Hours.” But I played it a second time, asking my students to listen actively and try to determine what Sinatra did that made the song work. Finally one young man offered this analysis: Sinatra, he ventured, started each phrase with a crescendo, and ended each phrase with a descrescendo, which suggested initial hope emptying out into resignation. I was impressed and delighted. Those of you who know the song, isn’t that exactly what he does? Those of you who don’t know it, you're missing one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. find it on iTunes – you’ll love it.