Saturday, October 31, 2009

Two Book Reviews

The Naming
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 12+

Maerad has few memories of her life before she became a slave. She knows that her mother was a bard of the School of Pellinor - one of those people with an innate knowledge of the Speech that holds the true name of all things, people who can perform magic as easily as music. Her mother gave her a harp before she died, and Maerad knows how to play it, thanks to another enslaved bard who shared music but not magic with her. And she has survived almost to adulthood in the brutal conditions of a warlord's compound, not even knowing about the great power that sleeps within her.

But Maerad hardly even dreams of being free from harsh servitude. It would be hard enough to get past the compound's walls, guards, and dogs. No one traveling alone, unarmed, and on foot could hope to escape the shadow of the evil mountain, the vast wastes beyond, and the dangerous beasts that prowl in them. For Maerad, there seems to be no chance of escape.

And then Cadvan appears, wounded, exhausted, covered by a magic only she can see through. She saves him, and he returns the favor. Recognizing something in her that could spell the end of the Dark that presses against the land, Cadvan leads Maerad to freedom through a long, perilous journey. He brings her to one of the Bard schools that still hold out the Light against the encroaching Dark. He arranges to be her teacher, responsible for her training in letters, arms, and magic. And he becomes her guide and guardian on an even longer journey, fraught with even greater dangers, as they seek the advice of the leading school of bards.

As evil creatures, dark sorcerers, and a murky fate harass them on all sides, Maerad opens up. Her womanhood awakens. Her power, tremendous yet untrained, begins to show. Her background and heritage become increasingly strange and mysterious. Her feelings toward Cadvan begin to grow. And, by what surely cannot be mere luck, she discovers a brother she never knew was alive. So she lives to hear these words, from a lady whose similarity to Galadriel of Lorien is far from the only way this book resonates with The Lord of the Rings:
"Your future is uncertain, and I can tell you nothing that can help you. You are singular and dangerous, and so it is that you are sought by both the Dark and the Light. Perhaps you will find that your Fate has nothing to do with either of them. It may be that you will find that your greatest peril exists already within you. Only this is clear: you have a great heart, but will only find it to be so through great pain. This is the wisdom of love, and its doubtful gift. Yet I have endured much suffering and still remain unbitter and unclosed."
To open this book is to enter a fresh fantasy world on the order of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. It is to become caught up in another bout between good and evil, this time with everything pivoting on a girl instead of a handful of little men. It is to begin a quartet of robust dimensions, inspired when an award-winning Australian poet noticed that her son had begun to read fantasy. We can't all get such gifts from our mothers, but we can horn in on Joshua Croggon's bounty. Once you start to read this book, you will be carried along by its beautiful language and its compelling realization of a world of pure imagination. You may (or may not) enjoy the highly documented appendices, with their weird conceit that the book is translated from ancient texts surviving an Atlantis-like culture. (Personally, I sniffed at the author's apparent bias in favor of "one of the most genuinely secular societies ever known.") But I am quite sure the end of the book will leave you hungry for more. Be not dismayed. For this is only the First Book of Pellinor, a quartet that continues in The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing.

House of Many Ways
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The cover of this book says it is "The Sequel to Howl's Moving Castle." It would be an understatement to say this claim intrigued me. Rather, it shocked me. Here I had been thinking, all these years, that Castle in the Air was the sequel. But now that I check the covers of the latest editions of all three books (which have been redesigned along a common theme), I find that Castle in the Air is merely "A Companion to" HMC. Even after reading all three books, I can't tell you what makes one a companion and the other a sequel. I guess that shows how little I know. But I know this much: fans of Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer are in for a treat. Even if you don't know those characters, but enjoy a story with wit, surprises, a touch of horror, a dollop of mystery, and a whimsical blend of fairy-tale magic and dimension-bending weirdness, you will love this book.

Charmain Baker (I kept catching myself thinking "Chairman" and having to go back and re-read her name) has been brought up by strictly respectable parents who don't want her to have anything to do with socially lowering activities, such as cooking, cleaning, or magic. So far they have been quite successful, allowing the girl to spend all her time with her nose buried in a book. But their hopes are dashed when a bossy, dowager aunt fast-talks Charmain into housesitting for an ailing wizard named William Norland, who has been taken away by the elves to have some illness treated. You're supposed to think it's cancer, but it turns out to be something far more horrid and, not coincidentally, connected to the mystery of where all the king's gold has gone to.

The King of High Norland is in deep financial trouble. Charmain learns this when, driven by her love of books, she moonlights as His Majesty's library assistant. She isn't too worried about Wizard Norland's house, which has doorways magically leading to many different places - far too many to fit under its modest little roof. After all, the house is looked after by lots of tiny, blue-skinned kobolds and a magically hopeless apprentice named Peter. Besides, Charmain has more magic in her little finger than Peter has in his whole body. She also has the devotion of an enchanting dog named Waif. But now the murky history of a good thing called the Elfgift is tangled up in the dire plots of a couple of purple-eyed Lubbockin. The arrival of a wizardly family, including Sophie, her toddler son, and an angel-faced little devil with a flamboyant lisp, add just the right spark to touch off an explosion of palace intrigue, magical chaos, and mildly romantic hilarity.

If D.W.J. isn't careful, she may find herself forced by demand from her fans to turn the Howl trilogy into a quartet... at least! I have always had my eye out for Wynne Jones titles that I haven't read before. I have even enjoyed reading some of them more than once. Her work is an ongoing gift to the inner child of readers at any age who enjoy such authors as E. Nesbit, J. K. Rowling, Eva Ibbotson, and Joan Aiken. And this book shows that she still has the knack. I am looking forward to reading her next book, Enchanted Glass.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reason and Revelation

Is reason a beautiful gift that God has given us so that we can understand His Word? Or is it a tool of Satan to deceive us? The answer, from a Lutheran perspective, is "Yes."

Yes, when God created human reason, it was good. But also, yes, when mankind fell into sin, reason (like everything else in human nature) became diseased, polluted. In and of our sinful nature, we are unable to reason in accord with the mind of God. Only the reborn man, brought to faith by the Holy Spirit, has recovered the ability to comprehend the things of God. Yet all people, including Christians, at least sometimes reason according to the flesh.

Perhaps some who profess the Christian faith only think that their thoughts have been taken captive by the Word of God. It may become evident, when they reason about the spiritual truths revealed in Scripture, how much their thinking is formed by God's Word, compared to how much they are "reckoning without their Host." How can one tell this? One cautious yardstick might be how quickly they come up with a rationalization to answer anything in God's revelation that conflicts with their feelings or opinions. Or, perhaps - in view of the weakness that afflicts even the most faithful - it would be fairer to measure according to how often they finally choose to believe that rationalization instead of the Word.

Enough offensive generalities. Let's look at some scandalously specific examples. There are plenty of evangelical Christians, for instance, who adamantly profess the "inerrancy of Scripture," even going so far as the "sola scriptura" principle that the Bible must be the only "source and norm" of Christian faith and life. But many and many such evangelicals will say, or agree with the saying, that Baptism by water does not bring regeneration, forgiveness, faith, or salvation - especially to infants or to those who are not immersed.

Yet such believers must say this in the teeth of Scripture, which says that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21; Mark 16:16); that it brings rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5); that it washes away sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16); that it incoporates us into Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-5; Colossians 2:11-12); that it is welded to faith (Mark 16:16; Col. 2:12; Ephesians 4:5) as well as to sanctification and justification (1 Corinthians 6:11); and, moreover, that its validity depends neither on age (Acts 2:38-39) nor on immersion (Mark 7:4, where the original Greek speaks of large pieces of furniture being "baptized"). It is indeed not just a human rite of passage or sign of submission, but a miraculous act of God, who in Christ cleanses His church "with the washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:26; see also Hebrews 10:22).

In light of this unanimous testimony of Scripture to the power of Baptism, the quibbles of evangelical Christians are exposed as a rationalization based on their own thoughts and opinions. When push (from the thoughts of their hearts) comes to shove (from the mind of God), which one overthrows the other? Reason or revelation? Doubt or belief? By this you may judge whether their reason is held captive by God's Word, or by another. By this you may see whether they are being led toward, or away from, the precious and loving gifts of God. And by this you may also perceive why I, and plenty of other Bible-believing Lutherans, choose not to let the evangelicals instruct us on what sola scriptura means.

In past posts, I have already answered a multitude of objections to what the Lutheran church, and Scripture itself, teach about Baptism. The biggest and most explosive objection has to do with another sola - sola fide. We are saved "through faith alone," proclaims the whole Protestant Reformation. Luther requires Baptism. That's something in addition to faith. Therefore Lutheranism fights against the very heart of Protestantism. Right?

That's a pretty cynical line to take against the man who famously scrawled the word sola in the margin next to Romans 3:26, arguing that man is justified by faith alone. In effect, Luther coined the phrase sola fide. And does he deny it by asserting that Baptism is necessary? If he does, he is in good company. What Peter and Paul write to the churches, as shown in the citations above, they write to the baptized. And when they preach in the Book of Acts, baptism is the very first thing that happens to those converted by their message. Above all, it is Christ who says that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5), and that "he who believes and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). And lest you point out that he mentions faith before baptism, consider Matthew 28:19, where he prescribes first baptism, then teaching in the church's key brief for making disciples. If baptism being necessary conflicts with your first article of faith, don't blame Luther. Take it up with Peter, Paul, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

But does the necessity of baptism conflict with sola fide? Not if baptism is the act of God that establishes faith! What does Colossians 2:9 ff. say about this? In Him - Christ, the man in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily - in Him, Paul says, you are complete, whole, perfect (verse 10). That is to say, in Him you have been circumcised with the circumcision made without hands (v. 11). That is to say, in Him you have put off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ (still v. 11). That is to say, in baptism, by which you were buried and raised with Him through faith (v. 12). All this is the working of God, from Jesus' bodily resurrection to your spiritual resurrection by baptism. It was done without hands, by the working of God. It has everything going for it that Old Testament circumcision had, except that the only one who actually bleeds is Christ; He has been circumcised on behalf of all. And it has additional benefits beyond what came packaged with circumcision. Baptism exchanges our old, dead flesh for new life (v. 13), forgives our sins (vv. 13-14), delivers us from the power of the devil and his angels (v. 15), and sets us beyond obligation to the shadows and forms of Old Testament ritual (vv. 16-17). The key is baptism, "in which" (Paul's words), in which you were buried, raised, and all these other things.

Or look again at pretty much every other verse I have already cited. Jesus says one makes disciples by baptizing and teaching. Couldn't this be because baptism is a means of disciple-making? Jesus said one who believes and is baptized shall be saved (and that one who does not believe shall be condemned). Doesn't this suggest that, even if some who are baptized do not believe, all who believe are certainly baptized? In Titus 3 Paul says we are saved by the baptism of rebirth and refreshment in the Holy Ghost, yet at the same time He says this is "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy," overflowing onto us through Christ. Isn't it possible that Baptism, insofar as it saves us, is an example of "God's mercy" rather than "works of righteousness that we have done"?

Few Bible verses expose the divorce between evangelical Christianity and the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) more clearly than 1 Peter 3:21. A leader of the "Young Earth Creationist" movement once wrote in his newsletter that 1 Peter 3:21 correlates Noah's ark with our salvation. Ken Ham's contention was that, in Peter's analogy, eight people were rescued from a worldwide flood by the door of the ark, which gave them access to safety; in the same way, faith is the door to salvation for us. One can hardly skim over Peter's words, let alone read them with care, without concluding that Ken Ham has let his "faith alone"-based reasoning trample roughshod over the clear sense of Holy Writ. Peter does not say that the eight souls were delivered by the door of the ark, or even by the ark itself; he says they were delivered by the waters of the flood. And corresponding to that, it is now baptism -- not faith -- that, according to Peter, saves you.

Isn't that shocking? To a mind formed by the flesh, driven by fallen human reason to overthrow the Word of God, Peter's statement simply makes no sense. It wasn't the ark that saved Noah and his family. It was the water that saved them. Reason tells us the flood is what they needed to be saved from. Revelation tells us the flood is what they were saved by. The next question is obvious: From what did it save them? Answer: From the very thing that its waters destroyed! That is, from the sin that had polluted and perverted the whole world until it seemed impossible that faith in God could survive (Genesis 6:5-13).

In the same way, says Peter, baptism now saves you. How? By putting to death the "body of sin" (Romans 6:6; Col. 2:11), and floating a newborn child of God to safety. By killing and burying the old man and causing the new man to be born and/or rise from the grave (Rom. 6:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus, in Christ's words, we are "born again" (John 3:3); that is, "born by water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). Having refreshed us with living water (John 4:10-11), the water of life (Revelation 22:17), God in Christ "has begotten us again" (1 Peter 1:3).

All that I have done here is use the hermeneutical prinicples I brought forward in earlier posts on this thread - especially the analogy of faith. I have argued from what the Bible teaches about Baptism, in response to objections raised by other sources of revelation.

And now we reach the point where one may see the peril of placing "the Inerrancy of Scripture" at the forefront of one's thinking about the Bible. To put it crassly, lots of folks have claimed to believe in the Bible's inerrancy. And yet, behold! what fruity conclusions they can reach, all while claiming to follow "Scripture alone." To make the words of John 10:35 ("The Scripture cannot be broken") a proof-text for this inerrancy doctrine does violence to the text, in my opinion. The intent of that verse is clearly to teach the unity of Scripture, not specifically its infallible accuracy. But on a deeper, hermeneutical level, I think it is dangerous to make a meal out of inerrancy, as opposed to the unity of Scripture.

Briefly, here's why. If you start your hermeneutics with inerrancy, your use of Scripture will most likely be focused on apologetics, on using reason to convince people of the accuracy of Scripture, and to lead them from there to its authority. Your argumentation will rely increasingly on data outside the Bible, will accent reason rather than revelation, and will ultimately cast Christianity in a moralistic form. The promises of the Gospel will be reduced to terms in an argument attempting to turn unbelief into belief by sheer force of logic and weight of evidence. But what if your opponent is not convinced? What if they see through your logic, or refuse to acknowledge the validity of your evidence?

On the other hand, suppose that your hermeneutics start with the unity of Scripture, the analogy of faith, the principle of sedes doctrinae, the whole ball of yarn that I have previously paid out and that all really spins out of John 10:35. Instead of arguing on the basis of valid inference and a "preponderence of evidence" in order to persuade doubters, now you are proclaiming a message made compelling by force of conviction. Moreover, you are proclaiming a message that has in it the creative, living, life-giving, sin-forgiving power of God at work within it.

Instead of engaging in apologetics, based on evidence outside Scripture, you are doing exegesis within Scripture, bringing the text out for others to view, setting it loose to drill down through their ears and into their heart and soul. Instead of appealing to the authority of Scripture, with (most likely) moralizing consequences, you are transforming people through the efficacy of God's Word in all its spoken, written, and sacramental forms. Finally, you are not issuing the kind of challenge that apologetics does, a challenge that invites a skeptical counter-argument. Rather, you are calling people to "be not unbelieving, but believing" (John 20:27), to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2), and to join us in "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Far be it from me to entertain doubts about the accuracy of the Bible. I would not proclaim it if I wasn't convinced that it is God's pure Word, true in every detail. I will even grant that apologetics have their place - chiefly, to encourage Christians who feel worn down by unbelievers' attacks on their faith. But John 10:35, the analogy of faith, is much more helpful to Christian preaching and Biblical interpretation than the classic points of dogma on the Bible (i.e., "inerrancy, authority, clarity, and sufficiency" - by which one means that it contains all the information you need to know).

For no matter how the Bible stands in relation to external evidence at any given time, it always means the same thing within itself. It never contradicts itself. It is not a matter of private interpretation, but a message delivered to mankind according to God's single purpose (1 Peter 1:20-21). In it, God speaks with a single voice, albeit through the diverse voices of several human writers. Through it, God breathes on us (2 Tim 3:16) and preaches faith into us (Romans 10:17). And what He says, He means, though it may be "to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23), though it fly in the face of hallowed tradition or even our sanctified reason.

We may never be able to tell, with great accuracy, whether we are reasoning according to the flesh or the Spirit. It is easier to recognize that Scripture proclaims such-and-such a teaching, even though we may think, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" (John 6:60). If the analogy of faith is working on our side, it will force us to set aside our rationalizations and to wrestle with what the Holy Ghost is telling us. And until we know every possible construction of every word in the Bible, we will never be free to set aside the clear meaning of the text in favor of our own thoughts or feelings. Such is the wonderful bondage the analogy of faith places on our minds as we explore that Scripture which cannot be broken. But it is a liberating kind of bondage. For Christ says, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Highlander Pub & Grill

Yesterday, I burned one of my Restaurant-dot-com gift certificates at the Highlander Pub & Grill, hard by the St. Louis Science Museum, at 5656 Oakland Ave. It's a very attractive place, with walls tastefully decorated in humongous flat-screen TVs, all (at that hour) showing football games, except for one or two showcasing the gruelling sport of poker.

The wall near the men's room sports a poster showing Abbott and Costello doing the "Who's on First?" routine, with a full script at the bottom of the poster. Because I stopped to read it on my way out, I can say that I left the restaurant in tears without it reflecting badly on the joint. The skit really is that funny. I'm glad I read it after I peed.

But before that, I had to spend at least $20 on food so I could get my $10 off. I started with a couple of Scotch Eggs. No, they aren't eggs marinated in Scotch. They are hardboiled eggs, covered in a mitten of ground sausage, then broiled to a crisp. These particular ones were also sliced in half and finished on a grill, so that they had gridiron marks across the whites and yolks. They came with a dish of honey mustard sauce on which I can base no complaints. Most interestingly, the sausage was spiced up Italian-style. On the Hill, even Scots-themed restaurants cater to Italian tastes.

Scotch Eggs are a traditional British pick-me-up to be taken with beer. So, very prudently, I ordered a Black & Tan, knowing in advance that the Highlander served both Guiness and Bass on tap. There was no mistaking the Gaelicness of the drink, at least.

For my main course, I enjoyed a 6-oz. ribeye steak, "grilled to perfection" (according to the menu), and served on a French roll with onions, lettuce, and tomato. The waitress asked me how I wanted it cooked. I told her "perfectly." When she looked a bit flummoxed at this, I said, "Tell whoever is in charge of the grill to follow his or her best judgment." In other words, cook it any way they see fit. I thought such instructions might flatter the chef into giving me the best grilled steak he knew how. I wasn't disappointed. Thin but juicy, the steak needed no sauce to fill my mouth with rich flavor. The steak fries tasted unusually good, too. I even thought the pickle was tastier than strictly necessary. But maybe that was just my second Black & Tan talking.

My $20 minimum required me (alas!) to buy a dessert. I sprang for a key lime pie. Either the Highlander does all things well, or I just know how to pick 'em. It was a scrumptious key lime pie, not at all like the banquet hall/buffet restaurant type of key lime pie that always, everywhere, tastes like it came out of the same cardboard box.

The drinks menu was entertaining reading. My Dad, a Scotch aficionado, must go to the Highlander with me the next time he is in town. If you're into single malt, Guinness, artery-hardening food, or football, you must go to the Highlander, with or without me. When you do, drop me a comment and tell me how big-time you owe me for this toothsome tip!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Vampire's Assistant

Last night I found myself faced with a heartbreaking choice. I could see only one of three new movies based on kids' books! There was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, loosely adapted from a picture-book I loved as a child. Then there was Where the Wild Things Are, from Maurice Sendak's Caldecott-Medal book in which the pictures told more story than the words. And finally, there was Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Asssitant, based on the first two or three books of "The Saga of Darren Shan." Plus, as a surprise dark-horse candidate, there was something called Astroboy, about which I knew nada.

I was tempted to ditch the three that I knew something about - ditch dealing with my own indecisiveness and the inevitable conflict between expectations and outcome - and go for the unknown. But I decided I wasn't up to the risk just then. So I went for the Darren Shan. I figured it stood the best chance of being recognizable to fans of the book. After all, the very act of turning the other two short-and-sweet stories into full-length movies must necessarily involve a HUGE helping of creative license.

I knew from the trailer that Cloudy has a plot surrounding a foolhardy inventor's attempt to solve world hunger; the book, however, lives in my memory as a tall tale told by an old man to his grandkids, about a magical country where edible precipitation was an unexplained fact of life. As for Wild Things, I loved the trailer but realized that it was, by itself, longer than the whole book. How much more detail did the film version need to put in?

Cirque, on the other hand, was based on a whole trilogy of which I had only read the first book. So I figured there were still some surprises in store for me, and not just on the order of "This book is now ruined forever." I mean, if Cloudy and Wild Things become big successes, who will ever read them to their kids again? When the movie is bigger and better than the book, and when every parent has it on DVD, where will that leave the book? At least Cirque du Freak offered the pleasant prospect of an interpretation that could never, even conceivably, cover everything that fans of the books wanted to see.

As I found, it was a very creative adaptation. If it erred, it wasn't on the side of slavishly following its source material. It seamlessly synthesized several connected stories. Even having read only the first book, I could tell that much by the way bits that (I gather) came from the later books were woven into the parts of the story I recognized. It compressed the material, tightening the pace and using grim foreshadowings to create expectation of things to come.

I liked John C. Reilly as the vampire Larten Crepsley. There was a feeling of reality about his great age and weariness with life. You could sense his intelligence and his dry sense of humor. You could sense that he was, at the same time, a dangerous customer and, as vampires go, relatively decent and peaceful. I also thought rising heartthrob Josh Hutcherson hit the right notes as Darren's best friend Steve, who has the makings of a really nasty villain. He simmered with passion, now and then exploding into violence. If his handlers do their job well, he may grow up to be a fairly good actor.

I wish I could say the same thing for Chris Massoglia, who plays the main character of Darren Shan. He looks like a really sweet kid. And he seems fairly articulate, too. But he just doesn't have the presence to pull off the lead role in a movie, particularly one set in a dark, gritty, fantasy world like this. The one thing I'll say for him is that your insides will quail a little for him as the bright, innocent, nice boy gets drawn deeper into a world of evil and danger. The more the bad guys have him in their crosshairs, the more powerless and vulnerable he seems. But will anyone buy him as a hero? Hardly. If he wasn't so good at playing a tortured jerk, I would have cast Hutcherson in the lead and given the bad-boy/best-friend role to someone like, say, Nick Lane.

I thought the rest of the film was quite good. I enjoyed seeing Orlando Jones, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Jane Krakowski, Frankie Faison, Patrick Breen, and an unusually unusual Willem Dafoe. Perhaps the most memorable character, however, was created by a less-known actor who, whether you know him or not, will be hard to recognize under the prosthetics: Michael Cerveris as "Mr. Tiny," the first person you see after the credits.

I also thought the opening titles were particularly interesting, with animation and music that reminded me of A Series of Unfortuante Events. In a way, this series is a more grown-up and serious story of the same type: one that invites you into its house of horrors precisely by warning you that you'd be better off not seeing what is inside. Actually it's about the mildest vampire movie ever made. I would recommend it especially to teen and pre-teen boys who like spooky adventures and dark fantasies with a hero kid - but who aren't into all the lovey-dovey stuff like in the Twilight series.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tunnel of Tackiness

Today's message from the ELCA church lighted sign in my neighborhood:


Who, Springsteen? We're not on speaking terms, exactly. I do seem to recall that he was born in the U.S.A., but I think his glory days are behind him. You probably have more in common with him than I do. Aren't you the folks who like to say things like "I'm on fire (to save souls for Jesus)" and "Everybody's got a hungry heart (to know God)"? Maybe I'm just dancing in the dark here - or maybe it's just a brilliant disguise - but I think his theology would be right up your alley!

Tippett Week 3

It begins with a stab of sorrow: an accented, e-minor chord played by three trumpets, leading off a diminishing phrase whose latter end is covered up by the entrance of a hesitant violin theme. By some strange alchemy, the seemingly arbitrary motion of the harmonic parts leads to a B-Major chord in bar 16. Deep breath. The e-minor chord returns, trumpets muted this time, and the harmony takes a different turn, leading to the chorus's staggered entry on the text "The world turns on its dark side." The stabbing chords, each at the peak of a slow crescendo-diminuendo, always coincide with the word "dark." Then, in an emphatically repeated gesture of falling minor-sixths, the chorus informs us that "It is winter."

One senses that we're not just talking about the passage of seasons, the world inexorably revolving around the sun so that its hither axis gets pointed thither. From an astronomically distant remove, where one can judge what is happening but change it not, we will struggle to view what is about to happen with emotional poise. How this can be done without judging the actors is a mystery only Michael Tippett can answer. For the music of the spheres described above comes from the first number of his 1939 oratorio A Child of Our Time, performed last night by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and In Unison Singers at Powell Hall.

No. 2 is an alto solo titled "The Argument." With cellos and violas fighting against the beat, mezzo Kate Lindsey announces: "Man has measured the heavens with a telescope, driven the Gods from their thrones. But the soul watching the chaotic mirror, knows that the Gods return. Truly the living God consumes within, and turns the flesh into cancer!" There is a hint of triumphalism in the music at the words "knows that the Gods return," and a moment of tender pathos at "and turns the flesh." It's as if the "soul of the world" is warning us that when God returns, He may be welcomed coldly by a world unprepared to face judgment.

Two solo flutes and a solo viola, over a pedal B in the bass, play a gentle but exquisitely melancholic "Interludium" that after only 20 bars accelerates to the "Scena" of No. 3, in which the chorus hysterically asks: "Is evil then good? Is reason untrue?" The alto soloist assures us that "Reason is true to itself. But pity breaks open the heart." The interlude comes back, only to accelerate in the same manner to a chorus of "We are lost, we are lost, lost, lost." Ironically, this is one of the parts where it's easy for the chorus to become really lost. The rhythm of the "lost, lost" bit paints the text as it changes from a 3/4 pulse to 6/8 for two measures. Then a fiendish instrumental bridge introduces a choral fugato on the words "We are as seed before the wind," where the word "wind" dissolves into tiny, scattered, staccato notes. "We are carried to a great slaughter," the chorus sings, first a voice at a time, then in a great unison melisma that cuts across the meter of the conductor's gesture and ends with a vicious statement by the full orchestra in octaves.

From the midst of the war he described, Tippett penned the words of No. 4, "The Narrator," sung by the bass soloist. Here the orchestra and Jubilant Sykes imiated the sound of a recitative from Handel's Messiah.

Which reminds me of what I never got to tell the SLSO "virgin" parked next to me in Row 6 of 8 of the chorus, who just before the final tuning of the orchestra had made some remark about how we could make Messiah go quicker (when we sing it December 11-13) by giving short shrift to the recitatives. Had there been time to gab, I would have told him that such an error would be like cutting all the dialogue out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and playing only a "highlights reel" of the special effects.

Some people do listen to opera, oratorio, and stage musical "highlights" albums, and endure the whole shows primarily to enjoy the big musical numbers. But other people, like me for example, enjoy the dramatics and the story even more than the pretty songs. I have even known one man, a musician and music lover himself, who expressed disgust at the musical film Chicago because he hadn't expected there to be so many songs in it. Such people get impatient when too many musical diversions slow down the progress of the story or dissipate its dramatic energy.

I realized I was such a person when I listened to a reconstruction of Bach's St. Mark Passion some years ago. The libretto was extant, but the score was not. Nothing daunted, musical scholars reasoned that since Bach had cannibalized his own cantatas for the arias and choruses in St. Mark, they could do the same and arrive at a reasonable facsimile of Bach's original, within a certain margin for error. The only trouble was the recitative, the parts taken directly from Mark's Gospel, text whose musical setting would have represented Bach's unique dramatization of the story and formed the context in which each interpretive aria and hymn-based chorus made sense as parts of a structural whole. The makers of the recording had no choice but to combine some original music of their own with fragments of St. Mark Passions by inferior composers contemporary to Bach.

As a result, the main text of the Passion was incarnated in flat, pale, harmless music. The work degenerated into a loose collection of pretty musical numbers that shared a general theme, but were not knit together as parts of a living body. The drama was lost. The story, plopped matter-of-factly into the spaces between the larger numbers, was a necessary evil to be endured until the next vocal spectacular. It sounded like a "Best of Bach's Cantatas" highlights album. It bored the hell out of me. And that's when the penny dropped: the key to a work of musical drama is the setting of its story. Everything else is just ditties. Without rich, emotionally gripping recitative, an opera or oratorio is so much hot air and vanity. We may like to listen to a handful of numbers, but don't make us sit through the whole thing unless the story brings it alive. And, ironically, it's the "in-between" music of the recitatives that does this.

So, as I was saying, the Narrator (No. 4) tells us, "Now in each nation there were some cast out by authority and tormented, made to suffer for the gen'ral wrong. Pogroms in the east, lynching in the west: Europe brooding on a war of starvation. And a great cry went up from the people." Notice what Tippett very pointedly isn't saying here. He isn't saying that the villains wore swastikas. Some of them, quite clearly, wore white hoods. Europe as a whole, brooding on its war of starvation, bears blame. The evil Tippett exposes is not merely the evils of Nazi Germany, but an evil that pervades humanity: the evil of hatred, violence, the destruction of innocents, the oppression of any people-group. The moral equivalency of "pogroms in the east" and "lynching in the west" foreshadows the use of five African-American spirituals within a narrative context inspired by (but not explicitly about) the anguish of European Jews, which led to and exponentially increased after the Grynszpan-vom Rath incident in Paris, 1938.

No. 5, "Chorus of the Oppressed," is a choral fugue asking a superficially biblical-sounding question: "When shall the usurer's city cease and famine depart from the fruitful land?" One thing I got out of David Robertson's pre-concert chat on Thursday night was the insight that, among other things, Tippett was a utopian socialist who left the British Communist Party because his idealistic conscience did not approve of Stalin. It doesn't really matter if the "usurer's city" is Berlin, St. Petersburg, or London in 1939. It isn't about Nazi brutality, or Communist brutality for that matter. It's about the "war of starvation" mentioned in the previous number. It's one of those "O Lord, how long?" cries for justice in an economic world where the privileged elite lived in cities and dined on the produce of what was basically slave labor, while the people who grew their food starved in the midst of a fruitful land. Or, where the engines of war crushed beneath its wheels the men who built them, kept them running, and served leaders who remained out of harm's way.

Grynszpan himself speaks in No. 6, "Tenor solo," which begins and ends in almost chaotic agitation. The heart of it, however, is a slow tango over which Paul Groves laments: "I have no money for my bread, I have no gift for my love." Well, if it's true that Grynszpan was never tried because the Nazis feared the embarrassment of his defense - namely, that he and vom Rath had been lovers - well, maybe the gift for his love turned out to be a bullet. "I am caught between my desires and their frustration," he cries, "as betwen the hammer and the anvil. How can I grow to a man's stature?"

If you heard a little Brahms creeping into No. 5, you won't be surprised to hear a touch of Dvořák in No. 7's "Soprano Solo." Measha Brueggergosman complains: "How shall I cherish my man in such days, or become a mother in a world of destruction? How shall I feed my children on so small a wage? How can I comfort them when I am dead? Ah!" This is Grynszpan's mother speaking, but I suppose a lot of women could say the same thing even today. Is it responsible to bring children into such a despicable world? Who will help them survive, when you can't even help yourself?

Momma Grynszpan's lament dovetails into the first spiritual, "Steal away, steal away to Jesus, steal away home, I ain't got long to stay here." This piece concludes the first of three main parts of the oratorio, inviting comparisons both to Handel's Messiah (which also has three parts serving a similar narrative pattern) and Bach's Passions (in which Lutheran chorales serve the same purpose as these spirituals). Tippett had heard a spiritual for the very first time in 1938, the year before he wrote this piece, sung by a wretched radio choir that, for all its unmusicality, could not prevent the irreducible power of the spiritual from shining through. "My Lord, He calls me, He calls me by the thunder," sings the tenor soloist. The choir joins in with: "The trumpet sounds within-a my soul." Then there's another refrain, another verse different from the first only by one line ("Green trees a-bending, poor sinner stands a-trembling"). The women of the chorus split into five parts, imitating the trumpet described by the men. The soprano soloist gets into the act during the refrains. The solution to the problems laid out in Part I seems to be: "Life isn't all that long, after all. When you die, you can rest from your troubles."

Interestingly, because this chorus mentions the name "Jesus," A Child of Our Time was not performed in Israel until the middle 1980s, when our conductor of the week (David Robertson) heard it under the baton of Tippett himself. Which, I suppose, just goes to show that the door of unreasoning and self-defeating hatred slams both ways.

Part II begins with another chorus (No. 9) commenting on the weather: "A star rises in midwinter." Then, in what must have been a conscious reference to Handel's "Behold the Lamb of God," and perhaps also to Pontius Pilate's futile appeal on behalf of Christ, Tippett adds: "Behold the man! The scapegoat! The child of our time."

No. 10 is a very brief recitative by the bass soloist: "And a time came when in the continual persecution one race stood for all." This is also very significant, I think. In biblical terms, such a statement would imply that the suffering of the Jews under Nazism had an aspect of substitutionary atonement. They were, heh, the sacrificial lambs of a modern state that had brought medieval savagery to a pitch of Darwinian perfection. Or maybe all Tippett means is that it could happen to anybody, it could be about anything that has happened in history up to the present day. Amazingly, Tippett is daring to place what were then "current events" into an historical and even biblical perspective.

While the baritone's voice is still ringing in the hall, strings begin a demonic buzzing, like a swarm of africanized killer bees approaching with murder on their mind. It's the beginning of No. 11, "Double Chorus of Persecutors and Persecuted," and bar none the hardest entrance for the chorus. Unlike his contemporary countryman Britten, Tippett evidently had no interest in keeping things simple for the chorus, such as musical cues to help them find their rhythm and pitch. Nevertheless, we did our best to count the down beats and develop perfect pitch on short notice, so that Chorus I could sing "Away with them!" and Chorus II answer "Where, where?" And (pace Schickele) Chorus I answered them not, saying: "Curse them! Kill them!" to which Chorus II cry, "Why?" This time they get an answer that isn't an answer: "They infect the state."–"How?" No answer at all this time. The persecuted (really the whole chorus) then twice complains, first in heartbreaking appeal, then in the utter numbness of a broken spirit: "We have no refuge."

Without a break, the bass narrator comes in with another line of recitative (No. 12): "Where they could, they fled from the terror. And among them a boy escaped secretly, and was kept in hiding in a great city." If we're talking about Herschel Grynszpan, of course, that city is Paris. Nevertheless it is with an air of stuck-up Britishness that the chorus (No. 13) sings: "We cannot have them in our Empire." Then, more angrily: "They shall not work, nor draw a dole." And finally, with purple-faced, staring-eyed rage: "Let them starve in No-Man's Land!" The historical background of this was the situation where Grynszpan's family found itself, first deported from Country A to Country B, then denied entry to Country B because they weren't its nationals, then denied re-entry into Country A, and finally consigned to a refugee camp surrounded by razor-wire-topped fences and provided just enough food to make their starvation especially slow and painful. "And the boy's mother," the Narrator tells us (No. 14), "wrote a letter, saying:..."

Cue No. 15, a "Scena" in which the entire Solo Quartet takes part. "O my son!" cries the Mother, "In the dread terror, they have brought me near to death." The Boy screams: "Mother! Ah Mother! Though men hunt me like an animal, I will defy the world to reach you." The Aunt (who housed Grynszpan in Paris) tranquilly urges: "Have patience. Throw not your life away in futile sacrifice." The Uncle adds: "You are as one against all. Accept the impotence of your humanity." But the Boy shrieks: "No! I must save her."

Three chords of transition then introduce No. 16, the second spiritual: "Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord." It's not the tune most of us think of when this text comes to mind. It's whispery-soft but light and fleet-footed, with perky accents on the word "Lord" giving it an extra dose of rhythmic vitality. "Nobody knows like Jesus," it says, damning it further in the eyes of the Orthodox Jews who refused to let it play in Israel until 1985; some people just have no sense of irony. The tenor comes in on the verses, echoed on off-beats by the soprano soloist and the chorus: "O brothers, " (or, on the repeat, "O mothers"), "pray for me and help me to drive old Satan away." What does this spiritual mean in the context of A Child of Our Time? I think it may be Tippett's way of depicting Grynszpan's predicament as a parallel to Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The crisis is reached in No. 17, another "Scena" featuring the bass and alto soloists. "The boy becomes desperate in his agony. A curse is born. The dark forces threaten him. He goes to authority. He is met with hositlity." So far it could be compared to the arrest and trial of Christ. But then history takes a different turn: "His other self rises in him, demonic and destructive. He shoots the official. But he shoots only his dark brother. And see... he is dead." The result, according to an extremely brief recitative by the narrator (bass) in No. 18: "They took a terrible vengeance." It is left to the chorus in No. 19, titled "The Terror," to suggest what happened next: "Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!" It's a challenging fugue full of hateful energy and, at the end of the subject, an almost hysterical loss of control over its own rhythm. This flows directly into No. 20, where the narrator explains: "Men were ashamed of what was done. There was bitterness and horror." And with No. 21, "A Spiritual of Anger," the oratorio reaches the high point of its dramatic arch.

The spiritual in question is the one you'll have been waiting for, if you had any idea what was coming: "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land; tell old Pharaoh to let my people go." For much of this refrain the chorus is in unison (or rather, octaves), executing some of the most powerfully drawn-out crescendos and diminuendos in their repertoire. The bass soloist sings the stanzas overagainst a persistent choral response of "Let my people go:" "When Israel was in Egypt land, oppressed so hard they could not stand, 'Thus spake the Lord,' bold Moses said [Let my people go], 'If not, I'll smite your firstborn dead.'" Under the chorus, the orchestra surges and writhes with passion. It's a devastating piece.

No. 22, "The Boy Sings in his Prison," begins with dense, dissonant four-way dialogue between violins and flutes, floating like birds high in the air - perhaps all that the Boy has to see from his cell window. "My dreams," the tenor sobs, "are all shattered in a ghastly reality. The wild beating of my heart is stilled; day by day, day by day. Earth and sky are not for those in prison." Then, after more tweeting, he sighs: "Mother!"

No. 23, "The Mother," is an aria with some interesting counterpoint between the strings, oboe, and horn - the kind of music, I thought as I listened to it last night, that I would probably write if I had the chance. "What have I done to you, my son?" the soprano soloist grieves. "What will become of us now? The springs of hope are dried up. My heart aches in unending pain."

No. 24 is a short alto solo, "The dark forces rise like a flood. Men's hearts are heavy; they cry for peace." This introduces the spiritual that concludes Part II (No. 25): "By and by, I'm gonna lay down my heavy load." Quick, whisper-soft, deceptively dissonant, and gilded by a soprano solo, the chorus keeps this refrain spinning while the soloist declares: "I know my robe's gonna fit me well, I've tried it on at the gates of hell. Hell is deep and a dark despair, O stop, poor sinner, and don't go there!" Which, apparently, Grynszpan did. Let him be a cautionary example.

Part III, like its opposite number in Messiah, looks ahead to a hoped-for future. "The cold deepens," says the chorus in No. 26. "The world descends into the icy waters, where lies the jewel of great price." The "where lies the jewel" passage and its repeat are the only major a capella passage in the oratorio. It ends with an orchestral meditation that seems to entertain a fragile hope. A hope, evidently, that when things are at their blackest, a miracle of deliverance will come. Is this a realistic hope? What is it based on?

No. 27, an alto solo, loses me even further. "The soul of man," she sings, "is impassioned like a woman." Huh? "She is old as the earth, beyond good and evil, the sensual garments." Excuse me? "Her face will be illumined like the sun. Then is the time of his deliverance." I reckon this is Tippett's best shot at saying that something good in human nature will rise up and save our race from what, in 1939 at least, looked like a headlong rush toward annihilation. I find this "beyond good and evil" bit very disturbing. The rest of it, in my opinion, is simply insupportable. How could someone say this who had witnessed the "War to End All Wars," followed by the agonizing and inevitable build up to yet another war, each of which by itself disabused most rational observers of any notion that there is anything good in human nature? I think we can learn a lot from Tippett from this passage. Excuse me: I meant to say, we can learn a lot about Tippett from this passage. For example, that he was full of it - in a kind, lovable way.

No. 28 is another "Scena," with bass solo and chorus. Here dwell the lines that I consider Tippett's gravest atrocities against common sense. I would even venture to call them false prophecy: "The words of wisdom are these [sings the bass]: Winter cold means inner warmth, the secret nursery of the seed." Chorus: "How shall we have patience for the consummation of the mystery? Who will comfort us in the going through?" Bass: "Patience is born in the tension of loneliness. The garden lies beyond the desert." Chorus: "Is the man of destiny [Hitler?] master of us all? Shall those cast out be unavenged?" Bass: "The man of destiny is cut off from fellowship. Healing springs from the womb of time [cough, choke]. The simple-hearted shall be exulted in the end [puke!]." Chorus: "What of the boy then? What of him?" Bass: "He, too, is outcast, his manhood broken in the clash of powers. God overpowered him, the child of our time."

Whoa. Wait a minute. In the midst of fatuity, something profound: "God overpowered him." This reminds me of something Franz Delitzsch said about the Servant of God in Isaiah 53:4-6, something about how (at least in the eyes of those who mistook what they saw), the Redeeming Christ was viewed as "smitten by God" in the sense of one who is beaten in combat. Is there something redemptive even about a historical loser like Herschel Grynszpan? Is there a sense in which the wrongs inflicted on him by human evil are also an act of God for the benefit of mankind? Could it be that something as horrible as Reichskristallnacht could also be a gift from the heavens, awakening pity, vigilance, and above all action by the free peoples of the world? "God overpowered him"... So what will man now do?

No. 29 is a "General Ensemble" for all four soloists and the chorus. First there is a "Preludium" in which the instruments give us a hint of the world warming up, buds opening, the sun beginning to shine, etc. Then solo quartet, echoed by the chorus, sing: "I would know my shadow and my light. So shall I at last be whole. Then courage, brother, dare the grave passage. Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope. The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring." I'm not at all sure why this stuff doesn't sound like, well, stuff when set to Tippett's music. Note how "It is spring" literally turns the earlier melody of "It is winter" upside-down. Musically, it's a very moving and compelling statement. Textually, there is something dubious about it. Will confronting the evil in ourselves heal us? From whence comes this hope that is said to exist beyond death? The fact that, in spite of a war that was then in the process of reducing western civilization to rubble, Tippett could derive such hope from the world's axis coming around to face the sun again, is really kind of sad to think about. It's the next-to-last-thing one might say before concluding that the world would be better off if we extinguished ourselves.

After a long buildup in which the solo quartet sings without text, we come to No. 30, the final spiritual: "Deep river, my home is over Jordan. Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Oh, chillun! Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast, that promised land, that land where all is peace? Walk into heaven, and take my seat, and cast my crown at Jesus' feet. Lord, I want to cross over into campground." This piece was challenging mostly because of the infinitely flexible tempo, decelerating to a close that could be interpreted either as desolate or as restful, with a slow, soft, unison slur from E to C-sharp on the word "Lord." You can't take Tippett's references to Jesus literally. He was no Christian. But he uses this spiritual, like the others, to comment on what has gone before. And this one seems to say, "Death doesn't look so bad from here."

Let us all pause to reflect, with sorrow, that there are such times when one can honestly say, even from an atheistic point of view, that death would be preferable to the way things are going in the world. I think this is a sign that the forces of death have broken the spirit of the living. But in the absence of a real hope of eternal life, what can you do? This is the tragedy that makes A Child of Our Time inexpressibly sad for me. In living memory (for a holocaust survivor was in our audience on Thursday night), mankind's spirit has been thus broken. It could happen again. And a conflict between spiritual forces is heating up right now. What if God overpowers a child of our time? How will we respond then?

IMAGES: All of Herschel Grynszpan, except the color one (Paul Groves, the tenor who portrayed Grynszpan last night) and the last photo (Ernst vom Rath, the consular official Grynszpan shot dead in 1938).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tippett Week 2

Well, a few days with David Robertson can make a convert of many people. I, for one, didn't expect to enjoy A Child of Our Time after hearing a recording of it that I found painfully dull. Amy Kaiser says it was the best of a pretty dismal crop, and after tonight's "dress rehearsal" performance she thought our group should record it. I'm in agreement. Other than the libretto's as-yet-unfulfilled prophecy that "the simple-hearted shall exult in the end," I've been brought around by David Robertson's compelling leadership and the beautiful sound of the orchestra and soloists.

We have the physically expressive Measha Brueggergosman (soprano), the easy-on-eyes-and-ears Kate Lindsey (mezzo), the familiar Paul Groves (tenor), and the uniquely resonant Jubilant Sykes (baritone), each contributing beautiful tone and musicality, and of course Robertson pulling deep emotion and powerful drama out of the overall texture. We also have a first half of the program featuring new work by local native Rollo Dillworth, as well as a connected pair of 20th-century classics: Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. I couldn't believe the richness of the sound and depth of pathos Robertson wrung from those strings!

It's too bad his pre-concert lecture probably went over the heads of its audience. Besides being a "dress rehearsal," it was also a "student concert" and so brought together a goodly number of high school kids who had never been to the symphony before. I overheard a couple of kids speculating about what they were about to experience: "It's some kind of band, isn't it?" Robertson discussed the Tippett piece with his usual discursive enthusiasm which, I fear, left out a great deal of context that might have been essential to the teens' understanding. I don't think you can assume they know as much as we knew at their age. I'm sorry, but I've been in teaching situations and I know that education ain't wut it use ter be.

On the other hand, I think they "got" the music. In spite of it being a very small audience - only a few VIPs were seated above the parquet level - they gave us a long and highly vocal standing ovation at the end. These kids may be back.

IMAGES: Brueggergosman; Sykes; Lindsey

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tippett Week 1

We of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus are in "Tippett Week" now. Tonight was our "conductor piano" rehearsal with David Robertson and the In Unison Singers, preparing for tomorrow's first joint rehearsal with the orchestra itself, for Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time.

Robertson has evidently been dying to conduct this piece for some time. He worked with the composer for a week in Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, as one was preparing an orchestra for the other to conduct, and he spoke with Tippett about his intentions for the piece. He also heard it performed at a concert attended by the father of Herschel Grynszpan, the boy depicted in the work. So he brings some unique insight and experience to the work.

Spiritually - and you know me, I can't leave spirituality alone - I find the piece not quite satisfying. Tippett brings to it the sensibility of an unbeliever desperately searching for meaning, aping religious forms and language (textually and musically) but backing them up with a vaguely psychoanalytical ideas that, at times, show through like a threadbare fabric. I suppose that's something that deserves to be expressed, and the pain of hearing it is part of appreciating the piece.

Now that Robertson reveals what Tippett said, for example, about the "Chorus of the Self Righteous" being about the British doing nothing to help the people being oppressed by the Nazis, I recognize more of the passionate conviction behind the piece, which one may not expect of a man whom I might be pardoned for calling a "militant pacifist." But I have yet to hear how he is going to put all the pieces together, instruments and voices, the whole continuous sweeping structure of it.

Maybe it's one of those pieces that, under the right baton, can really cut you to the quick. I hope so. The isolated parts I have heard so far seems like only so much striving for a dramatic effect, only sometimes successfully. The one recording I have heard straight-through degenerated into a buzz of tedious sameness enlivened mainly by the five spirituals that support it as pillars a portico. My prayer for this week's performance is that we will improve on that record, and achieve a synthesis of public horror and private hope that may move all who hear it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prince Winter

I started my third blog today. I'm going to see if I can write a serial novel in the form of a blog. It's a process that has interested me since I went through my Dickens kick in the early years of this decade. I have started many novels before, and even finished several of them -- though I can never bury them deeply enough. I've even tried writing a novel serially before (sending chapters as emails to my friends, for example). In fact, I am currently 160+ chapters into an ongoing fiction serial, though it's not entirely my work; as an interactive fanfic, it's based on J. K. Rowling's "Potterverse" and it incorporates story ideas sent in by readers. This one, however, is meant to be wholly original, albeit in a fairy-tale/fantasy/alternate history kind of world that has landmarks some readers will recognize.

Anyway, if you like my writing, take a look at "Prince Winter" from time to time. If it's any good, feel free to encourage me by joining the blog as a follower, subscribing to a feed, or leaving positive comments. If you can offer any practical advice on improving it, feel free to leave constructively critical comments. If you think it totally sucks, consider yourself released from any obligation whatsoever. Tell others what you think about it, too. The more the merrier!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Serious Trailer

The video below is a trailer for the new Coen brothers' movie A Serious Man. I think it's a brilliant trailer. It's almost musical, the way it layers successive samples of Larry having his face slammed into a wall, a car accident, a woman hawking and spitting, a rabbi saying "Meh," another man saying, "We're going to be fine," and of course the main character (Larry) repeatedly saying, "I need help." After building up to a contrapuntal climax, the fugue stops for the exquisite punchline in which the mannish secretary tells Larry that the rabbi is too busy (sitting there and thinking) to talk to him.I've come to like a lot of the Coen brothers' work, including some of their less successful films. I think, for example, that The Hudsucker Proxy and The Ladykillers are beautiful films. I have seen almost every movie they've made, and loved nearly all of them. But I wonder how this movie can possibly improve on its excellent trailer!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rare & Well-Done Whimsy

Yesterday, at a church barbecue, I overheard some colorful expressions to describe how well-cooked a steak was.

INCREDIBLY RARE: "I've seen cows hurt worse than this get up and walk away."

OVERDONE & TOUGH: "What place did this animal take at the last Belmont Stakes?"

Feel free to drop these into your dinner conversation. No attribution is necessary.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Indifferent SLSO

Last night I had an indifferent night at the Symphony. The positives, up front: It was, as always, a pleasure to see principal guest conductor Nic McGegan showcasing his specialties (including Handel and Mendelssohn) with his usual verve and vim. Newly-minted principal French horn player Roger Kaza played a lovely solo during the Nocturne from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Local actor Gary Wayne Baker put in a hit performance as the "narrator" (actually providing textual cues from Shakespeare's comedy, in a variety of characters). The women of the Symphony Chorus sounded fine in their couple of numbers. And the English horn concerto by Czech composer Josef Fiala, a contemporary of Mozart, was a pleasing-to-the-ear novelty.

But... the featured soloists were "just OK." One of them (soprano Kate Reimann) was actually somewhat less than OK: I couldn't hear her. The SLSO's own cor anglais artist, Carolyn Banham, showed some good stuff but, at the same time, looked so nervous that I felt bad for her - which always puts a strain on one's musical enjoyment. And the overture from Handel's Occasional Oratorio sounded like a lot of meaningless hoopla to me.

I partly blame the seat I was in. Unlike my last visit to the symphony, when I had awesome seats in the Center Parquet, I was parked over in the right front corner, where my view of the near half of the stage was dominated by the backs of the cello players. I couldn't see much of what was going on, and I have a misgiving that the orchestral sound that I heard was impacted, at least in balance and blend, by where I was situated. I didn't hear as much of the strings, especially the low strings, as I would have liked. Imperfections in the players' articulation, that might ordinarily have been covered up by the overall blend, stood out. And I just couldn't hear Fairy No. 1.

So, maybe it was my seat. The price was right; the SLSO comped it. But experiences like this have taught me, when I am paying for my own ticket, to go for the seats in the nosebleed gallery. They're slightly less cheap, but with a pair of opera glasses (which I possess) and a more advantageous acoustic (which come with the seats) I tend to come away much more satisfied with what I have seen and heard - whether the soloists were perfect or not!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reading Schubert's 6th

Franz Schubert's Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the "Little C Major Symphony" by way of distinguishing it from his "Great" C Major Symphony (No. 9), was completed in 1818 when its composer was just 21 years old. It wasn't performed until 1828, the year of Schubert's death. Though it isn't among his mature masterpieces, sounding (like all of Schubert's early symphonies) somewhat like "Haydn Plus," it is still a lovely piece straddling the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras.

To be more specific: it has less contrapuntal rigor, developmental intricacy, and structural tautness than the great symphonies of Haydn; but it is marked by daring harmonic and dramatic touches that Haydn would have considered uncouth. That's how you can spot an early Schubert symphony when it plays on public radio. If you're thinking, "This could almost be by Haydn, but he would never have done that," consider Schubert a suspect. (If it's for strings only, however, it's probably one of Mendelssohn's youthful string symphonies.) After Symphony Six, it only remained for Schubert to move out of Haydn's shadow and integrate his novel style into an entirely original art form, as he did in his last two extant symphonies. For the nonce, the Sixth offers a fascinating glimpse of the brash, youthful Schubert still operating at an intermediate stage of discovery. And whatever its place in music history, it is a fine piece of music, worth listening to.

Movement I begins with an Adagio introduction that establishes a gentle, pastoral atmosphere. When the Allegro begins, its playful first theme is introduced by flutes. After a somewhat odd-sounding transition to the dominant key of G, the second theme is also introduced over woodwinds over a rhythmic string accompaniment figure. Schubert gives considerable breathing room to this theme (and playtime to the winds, for that matter), before building a clever bridge, first to a repeat of the Allegro so far, then to the brief development section. The retransition, bringing us back to C Major for the recap, is a bit less convincing. The second theme comes back, most properly, in the key of C, though the transitional passage linking the two groups is just as remarkable as the one in the expo section.

The movement ends with queer little coda that toys with the first theme, then accelerates to a series of extroverted chord progressions that would make for a really out-of-character ending, then finally settles on an extended cadence based again on the first theme. It's one of those movements that make you pray, "Please, don't let it end that way!...Oh, thank God!"

Movement II, Andante, moves to the key of F and a world of bucolic innocence. There is a hint of slow dance in it, too - the chaste kind of slow dance, where his hand never ventures below the small of her back. One may think of a young couple stepping slowly yet lightly through the Austrian countryside. A contrasting middle section picks up the energy level, injecting a tint of playful adventure to the outing. Again, notice the extensive and imaginative way Schubert employs the wind instruments. Eventually, the theme from the opening returns, overlapping with the middle part's energetic rhythm. It's such fun that the 8-odd minutes of the movement seem to pass very quickly.

C Major returns as the key of Movement III, a Scherzo in a Presto tempo. It skips along, laughing merrily, until the second part of the scherzo, which momentarily adopts a slightly more serious mien. One can't help but be impressed by the fluency and sophistication of young Schubert, who never seemed at a loss for a bold stroke of color. The rather slower Trio (in E major) features an oddly-proportioned melody for the woodwinds, complete with an echo at the end of each phrase, a string accompaniment moving with a heavy tread, and a silly contrasting idea that seems to run around aimlessly. The sum of it all is an effect of time arrested, of one impatiently waiting to get back to the fun of the main Scherzo - like when you run out of the theater in the middle of an enjoyable movie, only to end up hopping up and down in a long line for the toilet. Happily, the good part is still in progress when you get back to the Scherzo.

The finale, Allegro moderato, opens without preface upon a charming theme that begins with two separated, repeated notes, followed by a decorative turn around the same note. Schubert messes around with it in a relaxed, cheerful mood for about a minute and a half. Then a fanfare intrudes, introducing some rather empty, transitional material. Nothing quite like a second theme appears until about 2'10", when the winds introduce a vaguely teasing melody in A major. Another fanfarelike gesture introduces a sort of codetta, telescoped into the type of development section that consists of a harmonic transition passage nearly devoid of thematic interest - though one may spot a resemblance, now and then, to material Schubert developed at great length in his Ninth Symphony.

After a bizarrely extended cadence in which the flutes remind one either of a lot of birds singing or like the cogs and flywheels of a cuckoo clock, the recapitulation ensues. The teasing, second theme arrives in D major this time. The textural and textual thinness of the long codetta/development combo challenges you to read it carefully (with your ears, of course), to winkle out of it every morsel of Schubert's genius, here applied with uncharacteristic spareness. This brings the movement within about 1'20" of its end, the rest being a muscular coda whose rhetoric will already be familiar to those who have enjoyed Schubert's 4th and 5th symphonies.

I saved this symphony for the last "Reading Schubert" post because it is, frankly, the least satisfying of his nearly-great symphonies. When it comes to his first three symphonies, you're on your own. You will probably find, as I have found, that they're very clever pieces for a boy between the ages of 16 and 18. They show a lot of potential, and they also share recognizable features with his later symphonies, but you have to be a Schubert nut to go to the trouble of finding them and listening to them. I'm a Schubert nut. I got that way, however, not by listening to his symphonies, but by singing, playing the accompaniment of, and listening to his songs. He also left behind a spectacular body of music for piano and for various chamber ensembles, such as string quartet and quintet; and some lovely choral music, including slightly heterodox Masses that deserve mention for their sheer lyrical gorgeousness. His really good symphonies are just the icing on the cake!

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Interview with Sarah Beth Durst

The author of Into the Wild and Out of the Wild recently contacted me to let me know about her latest book, Ice. As a result, I was able to get a free copy of the book and publish a review of it before it was released on October 6. Another exciting result is that Sarah agreed to give me an interview, albeit in the emailed-back-and-forth format that passes for an interview in the Blogosphere. So here are my Q's and her A's. Thanks, Sarah!

RF: What attracted you to writing a book based on "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"? Did a particular version of this grandmother tale inspire you?

SBD: I love this fairy tale. It has everything one could ask for: a fearless heroine, true love, an impossible quest, and a talking polar bear. The version of the tale that I fell in love with was collected by the Norwegian folklorists Asbjornsen and Moe, translated to English by George Webbe Dasent and illustrated by the amazing artist P. J. Lynch.

I veer rather far from the original tale in my novel ICE -- it's set in present-day Arctic and incorporates a lot of elements not in the traditional story -- but at its heart, it is still a tale of a fearless girl, true love, and an impossible quest across the frozen North.

RF: Besides your study of folklore, what research did you do to prepare for writing ICE?

SBD: I did a TON of research on the Arctic. I read every nature book, survival guide, polar bear book, explorer memoir, etc. that I could get my hands on. My favorite was A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic by E. C. Pielou.

RF: How closely do you identify with Cassie, your main character in ICE?

SBD: Not at all. She dives into freezing oceans, jumps off mountains, and walks through blizzards. I, on the other hand, am a total coward and not very fond of the outdoors. (Too many bugs!) I loved writing about her, though, and living vicariously.

RF: Tell us a little about the path that led you to write novels based on folklore.

SBD: Folklore and fairy tales are everywhere. The images have such a grip on our imagination and on our way of seeing the world. To me as a writer, they're irresistible. So many reader expectations and so much cultural baggage to play with!

RF: Do you have other folklore-based novels planned? What can you tell us about them?

SBD: My next novel is called TIGERLILY, and it's coming from Simon & Schuster in fall 2010. It's about magic at Princeton. It isn’t folklore-based, but it does have were-tigers, talking-gargoyles, dragons, and hot college boys. I've very excited about it!

RF: What values or message do you want to get across to your readers? Or, do your books have a purpose besides to entertain?

SBD: Story comes first. Always. That said, I'm sure my worldview seeps into all my work. ICE, for example, is about true love -- the kind of love you work at, not simply fall into. Real love.

RF: In order of priority, who is the "target audience" you intend to write for?

SBD: I write for me -- or people like me, who want magic, adventure, and love in their books. I don't write for a particular age. In fact, I think it's a mistake to alter your style or tone or themes to fit a particular age reader. Just be true to the story and the characters and your own heart, and the rest will take care of itself.

RF: What writers and books do you consider most influential on your work and outlook?

SBD: I love fantasy. These days, I read YA fantasy almost exclusively. Some of my favorites are Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, and Patricia C. Wrede.

I love the optimistic worldview that you find in so much of YA fantasy, the little-guy-can-triumph and true-love-conquers-all kind of attitude. That attitude matches my outlook and informs my work. I’m definitely a glass-half-full, don’t-give-up kind of person.

RF: What do you think of your contemporaries, such as Michael Buckley and Delia Sherman, who are writing books based on similar material?

SBD: I love their work! Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm books are wonderful, clever and fun, and Delia Sherman's Changeling is a must-read for anyone who has ever set foot in NYC. I'd also recommend Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing and Elizabeth C. Bunce's A Curse Dark as Gold.

There are a ton of wonderful YA books out these days. It's a very exciting field to be a part of!

Thanks so much for interviewing me!