That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Month: May, 2012

Musical neglect

Paul Hindemith, 1895-1963

After a longish break, I’ve taken up the clarinet again, and to celebrate got myself a couple of new pieces to work on. One of them is Hindemith’s 1939 Clarinet Sonata, and it’s a gem: tuneful, interesting, and challenging without being hopelessly beyond the reach of an amateur.

Hindemith is, I think, an unjustly neglected figure in 20th-century music. He developed a modernist style that still left room for melody and for movement between dissonance and consonance. His style is sometimes called ‘neo-classical’, though his love of counterpoint might make ‘neo-baroque’ a better description. Though he was well-known in the concert-music world in the 1940s, his popularity declined even in his own lifetime. I suspect that musical politics played a role: Hindemith was publicly hostile to the serialism of Schoenberg and his circle, at a time when serialism was thought to be the future of music — rather than the unpopular dead end that it turned out to be. Thus Hindemith was shunted aside as a reactionary by those who might otherwise have been his natural allies.

Fortunately, Hindemith continues to be played, often by amateurs like me. He was a believer in ‘music for use,’ and much of his large output of chamber music was written with the serious amateur in mind. He wrote chamber pieces for a very wide range of instruments — even a tuba sonata, for which tuba players must be endlessly grateful. But while the amateurs keep his chamber pieces in circulation, much of his choral and symphonic music is little performed (or recorded, as I found when I looked for recordings on Amazon).

How does a fine composer (or novelist, or poet) come to be neglected? The ups and downs of fashion always play a role: at one time Ben Jonson (who?) was generally considered a greater playwright than Shakespeare. Fifty years ago, T. S. Eliot was much more popular than he is now. Sometimes a forgotten artist will find a champion, a critic or fellow-artist who knows and publicizes his work. A stroke of luck may come along: Anthony Trollope was nearly forgotten until a very popular television adaptation of his Barchester Towers sent him zooming back into the canon of English literature.

This nice summary of Hindemith’s work suggests that he is still waiting for an advocate to restore his musical reputation to its proper place:

Since his death, no one has taken up advocacy of Hindemith’s work, in the same way that Craft has done for Stravinsky or Boulez for Schoenberg and his followers. Still, much of Hindemith’s work remains in instrumentalists’ repertoires. Even more important, adventurous amateurs tackle him, which seems to me the key to most composers’ survival. A mountain of noble, witty, and powerful scores awaits rediscovery.(emphasis added)

We’re still close enough to the 20th century that it’s difficult to put its artists’ work in perspective. Within the narrow, innovation-obsessed world of modernist music, Hindemith, though not at all a traditionalist, eventually suffered the fate of those not considered sufficiently cutting-edge, and has yet to recover. (Remember that in the classical era Bach was considered a relic of the past.) Sometimes only the passage of time will rectify these trendy opinions.

I wonder how many great writers and composers, perhaps some of the greatest, remain obscure through the accidents of history?

You ascended in glory…

Coptic Icon of the Ascension

Not separated from the bosom of the Father,
O most sweet Jesus,
and having lived on earth as a man,
You were taken up in glory today from the Mount of Olives.
And having raised our fallen nature by Your compassion,
You seated it together with the Father.
Wherefore, the heavenly ranks of the Bodiless were amazed at the wonder
and stood in astonishment.
They were seized with trembling
and magnified Your love for mankind.
With them, we on earth also glorify Your condescension toward us,
and Your Ascension from us, entreating and saying:
O You Who by Your Ascension filled with infinite joy
the disciples and the Theotokos who bore You,
by their prayers deem us also worthy
of the joy of Your chosen ones, for Your great mercy’s sake.
— Sticheron, Great Vespers for Ascension

As You ascend to the Heavens, from which you also descended,
do not leave us orphaned, O Lord;
Let Your Spirit come, bringing peace to the world;
Show to the sons of men the works of Your might,
O man-befriending Lord.
— Litia verse, Great Vespers for Ascension

A Bukowski threnody

Bukowski himself

to Jane Cooney Baker, died 1-22-62

I will not find you on the street
nor will the phone ring, and each moment will not
let me be in peace.
it is not enough that there are many deaths
and that this is not the first;
it is not enough that I may live many more days,
even perhaps, more years.
it is not enough.
the phone is like a dead animal that will
not speak. and when it speaks again it will
always be the wrong voice now.
I have waited before and you have always walked in through
the door. now you must wait for me.

— Charles Bukowski, in Open All Night

This is the first (I think) of a series of poems that Bukowski wrote to Jane Baker, beginning not long after she died (from complications of chronic heavy drinking) and continuing for decades afterward. Their painful, inebriated relationship is the (fictionalized) subject of the movie Barfly.
This poem seems to me like a near-perfect expression of the most primal experience of separation when a loved one is lost to death: “I can’t reach you.” As Bukowski says, when the phone rings “it will always be the wrong voice now.”

Holy deceit?

I’m told that there are moral philosophers who say that lying is unconditionally wrong, always and everywhere. Strange. What might they say about this moving story of Elder Sabbas, a renowned confessor on the Holy Mountain early in the 20th century? The story is quoted from Archimandrite Cherubim’s Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos.

In a Kalyve of St. Anne’s Skete lived another hieromonk who was also a confessor, but who did not have the experience and discernment of Fr. Sabbas. One time a man who had committed terrible sins came to confess to him. The priest had never met anyone like this man before. A true “bruised reed,” he began to confess. Hearing him, the confessor was horrified and sickened. “My God, what atrocities! What am I hearing! What kind of devil is he?”
Before the unfortunate man could finish, the confessor interrupted him, full of agitation: “Stop! I am horrified! I will lose my mind! These are not human sins, they are satanic. Get out, you have no absolution! I won’t hear any more! Go away!”

The only thing in the world he had left to him had been the mercy of God. When even this door was closed, nothing remained. Looking down at the sea, he thought his only solution was to drown himself, to put an end to the tragedy of his life.

But God is great. At this moment, an acquaintance of his who lived in St. Anne’s Skete happened to see him.
“How are you? What’s going on? What’s the matter?”
He did not speak.
“Eh, what’s the matter? Why won’t you speak?”
With great difficulty he succeeded in learning the details. His soul was distressed and grieved. How could he help him? He could think of only one solution: to bring him by any means to Fr. Sabbas. To this end he quite exhausted himself, and he finally succeeded.
As soon as Fr. Sabbas saw him, all was clear to him. “My brother is in an abyss. In order to bring him out, I must climb down to him.”
“Father, is there salvation for me?”
“For you, my brother? There is salvation for everyone. The mercy of God is wider than heaven and deeper than the abyss.”
“No, not for me! A sinner like me can’t be saved. It’s impossible!”
“You can’t be saved? What a joke; you seem to think that I can!”
“What sins can you have committed?”
“Great sins, very great sins.”
“What ‘great sins?’ Who can be as guilty before God as I, the wretched one?”
“Nevertheless — you see, once I wasn’t careful. I was carried away, and fell into the following sins.”
Here Fr. Sabbas related a certain serious sin. The other one seemed to come to life.
“Oh, Father, that’s exactly what I did!”
“You too? Don’t worry, God will forgive you. It is enough that you have confessed it.”

Fr. Sabbas continued in this same way. The artifice had complete success. The unfortunate man took courage and brought forward with all sincerity the whole grievous list of his sins. The thought that even the confessor was like him gave him courage.
“I repented and wept bitterly, ” Fr. Sabbas said to him in the end. “It’s been two years since I changed my life. They gave me an obedience to hear confessions. I did this. I also gave alms and fasted, and became another man.”
“I also repent with all my soul, my Father. I will fast, and do anything else you tell me.”
“Since you have resolved to change your life, bow down, and I will read the prayer of absolution. God will blot out all your sins.”

When he left him, the man was almost flying from joy, for he was relieved of an insupportable burden. Meeting his friend in St. Anne’s Skete, he said to him:
“You saved me. I am a new man!”
“Give God the glory.”
“He is a good father confessor; good, tender-hearted. The poor man is the only one who has done worse things in his life than I.”
The other one understood immediately.
“Worse things than you? I must laugh a little! Christian, my friend, he has lived on the Holy Mountain from childhood and is completely an angel. That is why he was counted worthy to be mode a priest.”
The man was dumbfounded — what had happened? His friend, however, explained everything to him, and he understood the artifice of love. Great was his astonishment. Indeed, after the blow that the previous confessor had given him, there had been no other way to save him from the edge of the abyss. From this moment he was filled with an infinite wonder and love for this excellent physician and healer of souls.

We should note here that some of the fathers of the Holy Mountain did not approve of these “tricks.” They were not in the right, however, for Fr. Sabbas was discerning enough to know exactly how and when to use them, so that there never occurred the slightest harm or scandal.

Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos, v. 2, pp 410–413

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

Party Platform

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word — what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

Epistle to Diognetus, 2nd century AD. Emphases added.

The image is an icon-like painting of the legendary lost Russian city of Kitezh. Besieged by the Mongol horde, the city’s inhabitants prayed for deliverance; their prayers were miraculously answered when the entire city sank beneath the water. It is said that the pure of heart can still hear the ringing of church bells and the people’s chanting beneath the waters of Lake Svetloyar. Note the red political banners in the modern city in the background of the painting.

We just do everything the best we can.

Sesshu, Autumn Landscape

When a Western visitor to the East once complimented his host country’s arts, a priest replied, “We don’t have any arts. We just do everything the best we can.”
— Jan Swafford, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music

I love pondering this quote. I don’t think it’s really about east versus west, but about whole societies and broken societies. The Christian societies of Orthodoxy and the west might as easily have said “We don’t have any arts” until the shattering of western society’s wholeness in the renaissance and “enlightenment.”

Orthodox music, hymnography, iconography, architecture — all strive not to serve “the arts,” whatever those are anymore, but to be aspects of worship.