Sunday, May 31, 2009

"I am with you,/and know how it is."

This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make
appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp'd slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

Happy birthday, Walt Whitman.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Beautiful city, we must part"

This post's title is taken from Heinrich Heine's poem "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden."

I returned to New York this week in order to receive my doctorate. I wept copiously on the train the day before commencement, as I headed down to the university to pick up my cap (the poofy, medieval, doctoral kind), gown, and hood. My tears on the train, shed at the very end of my doctoral studies, were a sort of inverse mirror of the tears I shed at the very beginnimg, when I sat for entrance exams, seven years ago. I had passed the voice audition, and the next requirement for admission was a written exam in music history, theory, and analysis. The test was extremely difficult; I knew more than one excellent singer who, unable to pass it, had been denied admission. I nevertheless believed I was doing a competent job until it came time to write a harmonic analyis of one of Schumann's Klavierstücke, chock-full of his typical deceptive cadences and briefly-tonicized key areas. At that point, I put down my pencil (word to the wise: always use a pencil, not a pen, for harmonic analysis), put my head in my hands, and wept. I had a non-near-death moment of seeing my whole life pass before me -- all the folly, pettiness, and misjudgements, as well as all the discipline, dedication, and hard work -- leading up to the present moment. In the end, I did not know why I was sitting there, taking the test that would, if I passed, admit me to the doctoral program in music. Was it the wrong choice, just another in a long chain of them? Was it random, or was it arbitrary? In that moment, it seemed as though my life entered a narrow tunnel, on a track upon which it had been guided without my noticing it by an unseen hand or by fate. I saw the smallness and futility of everything I had done, and it seemed to me that there was nothing else I could do but carry out the probably futile task at hand and attempt to complete the exam. In the midst of this existential crisis, the exam proctor came into the room to tell me I was out of time. I hadn't finished with the Schumann, but evidently I'd done enough well enough, for I was admitted.

I started out in my doctoral program as a student with a lot of promise. I had already garnered a small reputation as a performer of and researcher in some specialized musical repertoires, and in my first two years of doctoral study I read papers and gave recitals at some important international conferences, and published an excerpt from what would become my dissertation in a prominent scholarly journal. In the next two years, however, I got married and had a baby. I had to stop going to international conferences. I was asked to chair a panel at a scholarly conference when my son was seven months old, and, in spite of having made it clear that I would need to bring him with me, I was shocked by the open scorn with which we were received by some of the women attendees (this was not, interestingly, the case with the men, who were quite welcoming of me and my baby). I couldn't maintain my singing at a high level because I could no longer practice every day (still can't). For the first year of my baby's life I mostly just held him, and then, when he was one, I started teaching as an adjunct professor at my university (I had previously taught as a graduate teaching assistant), and picked up my dissertation again.

My life would probably have gone on as it was indefinitely even after I finished the dissertation during this academic year, but we left New York when a job opportunity came up for my husband. Being back, and witnessing the happy years of my doctoral work officially come to an end, was exquisitely painful for me. I miss my beautiful city terribly. I miss feeling deeply connected to and engaged with my work, my confrères, my surroundings. I miss my family and friends, especially Really Rosie, with whom I spent the day yesterday with our children; I pushed my stroller through Harlem crying when we had to part. I was reminded of the Elvis Costello song "New Amsterdam," in which he notes:

Back in London they'll take you to heart after a little while
Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile . . .

Here in New Amsterdam, I feel the same.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Great Poem About the Sixties

My friend Bob once remarked that all poetry is about how things used to be better in the past than they are now. I read a wonderful poem by Robert Bly today on The Writer's Almanac which fits Bob's formulation: "Driving West in 1970" (it's really, I think, about the 1960s; perhaps, like the "long nineteenth century," that decade was the "long" 1960s).


My dear children, do you remember the morning
When we climbed into the old Plymouth
And drove west straight toward the Pacific?

We were all the people there were.
We followed Dylan's songs all the way west.
It was Seventy; the war was over, almost;

And we were driving to the sea.
We had closed the farm, tucked in
The flap, and we were eating the honey

Of distance and the word "there."
Oh whee, we're gonna fly
Down into the easy chair.
We sang that

Over and over. That's what the early
Seventies were like. We weren't afraid.
And a hole had opened in the world.

We laughed at Las Vegas.
There was enough gaiety
For all of us, and ahead of us was

The ocean. Tomorrow's
The day my bride's gonna come.

And the war was over, almost.


I love the way that Bly begins the poem with innocence and hope, and ends it, masterfully, as a quasi-elegy with the repetition of the line "the war was over, almost." The crux of the poem is carried in that one line at the end, and it has, to me, almost the tragic weight of Homer in miniature.

Some of my commenters lived through the 1960s. If you are reading this, Maclin, I'd love to know if that sense of elegy was really in the air as the sixties turned to the seventies.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hearing the Past

Some clever soul has written a Facebook program called "Musicology is Awesome," which allows musicologically-inclined Facebook users to send gifts like "Challenging Austro-Germanic Musical Hegemony," "That Dreaded Cultural Theory Reading Assignment," and "Illegible Cantata Manuscript" to their friends, who will only find these gifts funny if they're also musicologists.

Up until about thirty years ago, musicology was Austro-Germanic Musical Hegemony and Illegible Cantata Manuscripts, but, since the advent of the "new musicology," its focus has widened to embrace many musics (the new-musicological noun of choice), and it has become largely driven by Dreaded Cultural Theory. There are both good and bad aspects to this gradual transformation of a formerly stuffy discipline: among the bad are an overreliance on unconvincing post-structuralist theory and jargon, and tediously long articles in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, but among the good are the expansion of the canon of musical repertoire for serious scholarly study to include some wonderfully worthy genres that would have been laughed at thirty years ago. Also among the good (depending on how you look at it) is the fact that not everyone has to deal with Illegible Cantata Manuscripts anymore. Virtually all of the lost medieval and Renaissance manuscripts have been found (and their finding has been the basis of many a music scholar's career), which means that musicologists have to find other things to do, and there are lots of other things.

The bulk of my musical work as both performer and scholar has been in nineteenth-century music. It's great fun, if you're so inclined, to do research in the era known as "the long nineteenth century" (considered roughly to span the years between 1789 and 1914): documentary sources are numerous and well-preserved, and it's fascinating to peer into an era that, with the exception of advances in technology, was so strikingly similar to our own. In terms of performance practice, there is ample documentation in sound from the early days of recording, as well as notebooks, diaries, and musical sketches by composers and performers, as well as letters and reviews, that enable us to construct a reasonable notion of how nineteeth-century music sounded in its own day (this is not the case with, say, early music, whose performances, many of which strive for historical verisimillitude, are largely based on unverifiable conjecture about the performance practices of the day). We know, for instance, that Rossini hated it when singers interpolated notes above high C into his arias: he called this practice "singing in hair voice" (voce di capelli). And we can guess at the ornamentation style of the bel canto era from the earliest extant recordings, including this one by soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, which most modern connoisseurs would find tacky, if not cheeky. And we can wonder at the tempo and technique employed by the great Josef Joachim, friend and colleague of Johannes Brahms.

Unlike her interpretive style, Luisa Tetrazzini's vocal technique is not appreciably different from that used by singers today. But Joachim's extraordinarily pure tone and eschewing of vibrato are a different story. People just don't play the violin like that today, which indicates that not only music, and but also culture itself, were perceived differently a hundred years ago.

But analyze as we might, the one thing that we can never really know is what the world sounded like in the nineteenth century. What was it like to live at a time when the sounds of the countryside were gradually and then definitively supplanted by the cacophonous din of the city? What was it like when the first inventions for the amplification and transmission of sound -- the microphone, telegraph, gramophone -- were introduced? How did people hear the world before and after these new technologies? And how does our own hearing differ from that of our near ancestors?

In Brahms's day, the contralto was a common female voice type. He wrote his Alto Rhapsody for the great contralto Pauline Viardot, the younger sister of the great contralto Maria Malibran, and he wrote many of his most beautiful songs for the contralto Amalie Joachim, wife of the violinist, including the two op. 91 songs for alto, piano, and viola. But the contralto voice is virtually unknown now. Is the reason for its disappearance to be found in the way we hear the world?

To be sure, there are a few exceptional contraltos singing today, but they can be counted on one hand, and our age has a marked preference for higher, lighter voices in both women and men: witness the enduring popularity of soubrette-type sopranos like Kathleen Battle, Barbara Bonney, Anna Netrebko, and Dawn Upshaw (though, admittedly, Upshaw has expanded her repertoire far beyond what is typically sung by others in her vocal category), and the dubious rise of the countertenor over the past fifteen or so years. Is the shift away from darker to lighter voices a sign of progress or of a deficiency in our culture?

I'm inclined to think the latter. The virtual disappearance of the contralto voice -- deep, dark, womanly -- is, I think, like the disappearance of the blackbird from mid-nineteenth-century London, one of many small but sad outcomes of the stepped-up mechanization of modern life.

Here's a stirring example of what we've lost. Marian Anderson is like a vocal version of Joachim's violin: pure and radiant.

(Above: Brahms taking a walk, Vienna, c. 1880s.)

Monday, May 18, 2009


I just got the June Magnificat, and was astonished by the painting on the cover, Jan Davidsz. de Heem's Chalice and Host surrounded by garlands of flowers, above. De Heem (c. 1606 - c. 1683) was one of the greatest Dutch still-life painters,; this was my first encounter with a still life painting whose subject was the Eucharist, with the Host apparently already changed into the Body and Blood, or perhaps in the process of changing. The fruit, vines, and sheaves of wheat surrounding the niche housing the chalice are all standard pictorial elements of the genre, but de Heem's Host, suspended above the cup and glowing with brilliant light, dominates the scene, reminding me in a strange way of Wallace Stevens's poem "Anecdote of the Jar":

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere. . .

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Prayer Request

My goddaughter's mother, N., is an undocumented immigrant who's been away from her home country, Brazil, for fifteen years, and has virtually no hope of going back. She just won full custody of her daughter after a two-and-a-half-year court battle, which was precipitated by the child's American father kidnapping her across state lines. He has now had himself legally declared impoverished in order to have his child support payments reduced to $25 a month. Meanwhile, his daugther and her mother live in a shelter.

N. has just found out that her mother in Rio de Janeiro has cancer. The little bit of money that we send N. each month is now going to pay for medication for her mother, who is desperately poor. N. cannot go to Brazil, because she will be forbidden reentry into the United States, and her daughter, an American citizen, has been mandated by the court to have once-monthly weekend visits with her father in New Jersey.

Please pray for N.'s mother, Mariaelena, and also for N. and her daughter.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Round About Midnight

Kathleen Ferrier singing #3 of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, "Um Mitternacht." The great Bruno Walter conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

Here is a translation of Rückert's poem:

At midnight
I awoke
and gazed up to heaven;
No star in the entire mass
did smile down at me
at midnight.

At midnight
I projected my thoughts
out past the dark barriers.
No thought of light
brought me comfort
at midnight.

At midnight
I paid close attention
to the beating of my heart;
One single pulse of agony
flared up
at midnight.

At midnight
I fought the battle,
o Mankind, of your suffering;
I could not decide it
with my strength
at midnight.

At midnight
I surrendered my strength
into your hands!
Lord! over death and life
You keep watch
at midnight!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A More Excellent Way

I used to think that I was an expert at love. I don't mean in a Kama Sutra sense, but in the sense that I took "love" to mean "suffering for love." It's a shame that, at a time when the tears I shed for those I loved were so very abundant, I did not know that I could have offered them to God for the assuagement of the sufferings of others. And I blamed my tears not only on my own great willingness to suffer, but also on a concomitant unwillingness to suffer on the parts of the callow young men whom I loved. The dynamic reminds me of a bit of comedy routine I chanced upon once on television: the comic noted that his father was Jewish and his mother was Italian, explaining, "He taught her about guilt, and she taught him about sorrow." This sort of dynamic, whether I understood it or not, was my aim in love.

But at this point in my life, I see that I'm barely on the first rung of the ladder of love. What does it mean to love? Not much of anything that's portrayed in the culture as coming under that rubric. Not much of anything consistently fun or happy-making. Love is such hard, hard work, even when it's directed toward those we're terribly fond of, which must be why Christ had to order his disciples to love one another, and why he said that the second greatest commandment was to love one's neighbor as oneself. It is rare indeed, however, to find a professed Christian, or anyone else for that matter, acting on these orders.

Which is why I see it as an act of grace that my friend Otepoti directed me toward Sister Mary Martha's blog. In browsing the archives, I found this post, which I felt was the answer to something that has been troubling me since I moved out of New York City and into Appalachia last fall -- that is, my ongoing struggles with love.

When you live in a big place, it's easy to find people who are, or who seem to be, exactly like you, and it's therefore relatively easy to form close friendships that lighten the burden of your existential loneliness. In New York, there was even someone just like me (or so I imagined) living in the apartment just below.

But in my new town in Appalachia, not so much. As I haven't gotten my driver's license yet, I continue to walk around town with my toddler in his stroller, which is a practice (apart from me) embraced only by indigent, often obese, often teenaged mothers of many children obviously, as evidenced by the children's differing skin colors, fathered by more than one man. On my walks, I encounter these mothers buying cases of Enfamil with WIC vouchers in the grocery line, or sitting on the sidewalk with their children, or yelling at their children and their feckless-looking, sparsely-toothed male friends at the playground. Sometimes they have greasy hair and many tattoos.

Well, back in New York, if you had many tattoos, as long as they weren't on your neck or face, you weren't scary; on the contrary, you were a nice, self-conscious hipster. And if you were in an interracial relationship, you were most likely highly educated, often highly paid, and/or working in a creative field, since de facto segregation is, with few exceptions, the way of all neighborhoods in New York, and there hasn't been a white underclass there for nearly a hundred years.

I never met anyone who was openly racist or anti-Semitic until I was an adult. My mother told me which neighborhood children's parents had signed a petition asking a moving family not to sell their home to a black family; I didn't play with those children. So it had never occurred to me how prejudiced I actually was. I did catch glimpses of my own intolerance occasionally, usually on the subway: in the South Bronx, when I was pregnant, I witnessed two mothers get into a fight in front of their children before a cop stepped in, and was horrified; another time, also in the Bronx, when I was coming home from my teaching job and reading a dissertation source in Italian, and was annoyed by the loud revelry of a drunken Puerto Rican man sitting across from me, I decided that the people with whom I rode the train did not share my values.

It's easy to assume, though, that those of your own group do share them. But here, I've come to see that my "group" is not defined by my race or ethnicity. And I'm saddened by the repulsion and fear I reflexively feel towards those who seem not to be like me in ways that are vaguely menacing. Sadly, I have much in common with Sister Mary Martha's interlocutor, who says of people much like my fellow citizens:

. . . a life-style built around fatherlessness (or child-abandonment from either parents), drunkenness, drug use, unrelenting foul language from the cradle to grave, avoiding a job and sleeping with your half-sister, well, that's sin. And if we're to really be charitable to those who commit such atrocities, it just might be saving some people if you give them a clue that their behavior is white-trash-like and is damaging to their souls.

Sister provides the remedy:

I'm sure there are reasons Jesus so loved sinners. Maybe He identifies with people you so need to call white trash. His earthly father didn't sleep with His mother at all. Clearly a case of neglect or some sexual dysfunction. Jesus never had a job and just lived off of other people who put Him up in their houses and fed Him AND all his friends. He actually told His friends to STOP WORKING and hang out with Him. His final words to them was a commandment to never even try to earn money and have any money or nice clothes or even shoes. Lazy slobs. No wonder they were all killed.

Jesus loved sinners. Remember? We never have to condone sin to love a sinner. God does it every single minute. It makes me extremely sad to think that we can not let go of calling people some kind of name and that we insist it is just fine and dandy to do so.

Can you imagine if Father stood in the pulpit said "white trash" and meant it? Why is it not okay for Father to say that, but okay for you?

Maybe it's time to bring back the ruler.

So now I offer all those shed tears in retrospect with the prayer that God will soften my hard heart and give me humility and true love for my neighbor.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Happy Mother's Day

To My Mother
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.

-- Wendell Berry, from Entries, © Pantheon Books, 1994.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Happy Birthday

To the great Johannes Brahms.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Toward a Theology of Time Travel and Forgiveness

A while back, I wrote about praying for the dead as if they were still alive. I recently heard a priest mention this practice as one that Saint Padre Pio undertook for a beloved uncle of his; he prayed, for many years after the man's death, that his uncle would receive every grace he needed at the hour of his death.

Because God exists in eternity as well as in time, and because therefore, insofar as we are made in His image and have immortal souls, we do too, I wonder if it's wise to pray not only for the dead in this fashion, but also for the living. Can we pray for those who are still alive and have suffered difficulties, that they might receive the help they need in their difficulties, even if the difficulties are long since passed and over? Can we go so far as to pray for different outcomes from the ones that apparently were reached as a result of these difficulties? Or is this the stuff of the original Star Trek series and a Batman comic I once read, in which the possibility of going back in time to kill Hitler before he can unleash his destruction upon the world is treated seriously? (In the end, for various reaons, it never works.)

It may be at worst delusional, and at best a waste of time, to pray that the things that happened, happened differently. But perhaps it's effective in ways that we can't see or understand. A prayer is not the same thing as a wish, and to wish that things had gone otherwise is not the same as praying that those who suffered were blessed in the midst of, or were given unseen graces to withstand, the suffering. I suppose that my prayer for those who suffered is not that it was different (though my wish is that it was), but that it was salutary. I pray for the assurance that their suffering was part of God's will, and that it will bring them holiness, even if that holiness is an unknown, unfelt motion in their souls.

Sometimes I'm tormented by the suffering I caused others through my selfishness, hunger, and need. Some of those others, I'm sure, would be happy to forget me completely. I know that God has forgiven me for my sins, but I do not know that the people whom I've hurt have, and it is a sad thing to recognize that I will probably go to my grave not knowing, and without ever being able to attempt to put right what I have made wrong. The psalmist says "Against you only have I sinned," but really it's not against God only; all of our sins have social consequences.

God's forgiveness is a mystery. David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer, had a notorious prison conversion, so we are encouraged to assume that God has forgiven him for his heinous crimes; after all, nothing is impossible with God. But does that mean that Berkowitz will make it to heaven, while his victims, who may not have repented of their own sins before their unjust deaths, may not? This is a continuum that I cannot understand, and I wonder if some conversions are better left between the convert and God.

On a far less dramatic scale, though, I wonder about those I've hurt. I pray that they have everything good in their lives, and especially that they know and love God. I am conscious that I have many good things that I don't deserve, and that this might appear unjust to them. In fact, I deserve nothing that I have, but I pray that I will be a sign to others, especially those I've wronged, not of injustice, but of God's unfathomable mercy.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Debussy in Love

I didn't start learning German until I went to college, when I applied myself wholeheartedly to studying it in the hope of understanding German musical style as deeply as possible. But I'd fallen in love with French first, in high school. I had won some prizes in it, and the first music I studied seriously was Debussy's mélodies (the composer is pictured above). My love of the language was inextricably linked with my love of the repertoire, and, as later with German, I believed that the better I understood the nation's language and literature, the better I would be able to sing its music.

I read the poets set by Debussy, chiefly Baudelaire and Verlaine, whom I especially loved, as well as the later poets set with such wistfulness and charm by Francis Poulenc, the great mélodie composer of the twentieth century (and also a Catholic revert) -- Guillaume Apollinaire, Louise de Vilmorin, Paul Éluard. When I was a sophomore in high school, I won admission to the prestigious New York All-State Chorus (which remains the best concert choir I've ever sung with) with my performance of a song by Debussy, "Mandoline," and I got in trouble at sixteen for sneaking out of the house when I was already grounded to attend a French art song recital. In my first year at college, I listened incessantly to the complete recorded edition of Debussy's songs at the music library (I only recently bought a copy for myself with last year's tax return). But soon I was swept up in the very different style and sensibility of German music (and I would eventually spend most of my professional career singing Italian music, but that's a different story).

My soprano friend Mary L. was a superlative interpreter of Debussy's songs. Our vocal coach used to wonder at her unusual sensitivity in this highly subtle repertoire, for Mary was as Irish as the grass by way of New York, and somehow this did not equate in our coach's staunchly WASP mind. But then the coach would muse aloud that, after all, the mists covering Ireland were the same mists that blanketed Scotland, and Debussy's greatest interpreter, Mary Garden, for whom he wrote the role of Mélisande, was Scottish; somehow the Debussyan nuages must have rained down even upon this singing descendant of New York's shanty Irish.

A few years later, French mélodie acquired a new meaning for me. Its delicacy, its indeterminateness, its tonal vagueness, and the way its great poets and composers limned an emotion with whispers and suggestions without ever actually naming it -- so unlike the direct, even at times devastating, emotional appeal of their German counterparts -- became a fitting backdrop for my life. I was in love with a man who, it seemed, was not in love with me, and late-nineteenth-century French music -- the music of the nuance, of the sigh, of ambiguity and equivocation -- was the perfect aural symbol of a love that was not really a love. Not long after, ill-advisedly no doubt, I married him.

I wonder now if a life lived in pursuit of an elusive aesthetic ideal -- especially one that wavers between varying aesthetic sensibilities -- is one that is destined for the ashes. While consumed with my quest for a high level of artistry, I turned a deaf ear to mundane responsibilities, and even to warnings of danger. And it wasn't just striving for professional excellence that preoccupied me: it was also my need to find beauty everywhere, including where it was not. The lure of what is beautiful in creation still stymies me, and I do not know whether it is salutary or a stumbling block as I try to live my life in accord with God's will (trying first to understand what on earth that could possibly mean for me).

Oddly, French repertoire has fallen from favor in my musical pantheon. I almost never listen to it now, and sing it so rarely that the last time I performed French songs in public, a year ago, a close associate who knows my singing very well told me that they were the weakest part of my program. When we moved a few months ago, I got rid of virtually all my French poetry books. But one book that I kept, though I have no idea if I'll ever read it again, was The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck. It's a wonderful book.