30 January 2015

27 January 2015

Happy, Happy, Happy We: American Bach Soloists goes pastoral

Last Saturday there was a basketball game at Cal, which made it tricky to get over to First Congregational Church to hear the American Bach Soloists. As a non-driver I am fortunately spared parking (as well as driving), but even walking through the crowds was a challenge, particularly since large portions of Sproul Plaza are torn up with construction. So it seemed like a refuge to arrive in First Congregational's spare yet warm space, for a rich and full program, led by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. Things opened with a stately and elegant performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G, which highlights the spirited swirling and tootling (like a running brook) of violin and recorder, featuring Elizabeth Blumenstock on the former and Judith Linsenberg and Debra Nagy on the latter. The main event, though, was Handel's pastoral, Acis and Galatea. Not to diminish the contributions of the orchestra or the crisp chorus (particularly notable in the rousing ear-worm finale of the first half, Happy We), but the quartet of soloists was the outstanding attraction of the performance. Tenor Kyle Stegall and soprano Nola Richardson were the sweetest Acis and Galatea I have ever heard, both tall and beautiful and radiant of voice. Stegall had an endearing way of stretching his arms out in moments of enthusiasm. Tenor Zachary Wilder was the warm voice of reason as the shepherd Damon, so full of good advice for all. As with most pastorals, initially nothing happens except idyllic feelings of love, until an outside force shows up – in this case, the threatening giant Polyphemus, sung by the imposing baritone Mischa Bouvier. Smitten (as we probably all were) by the charms of Galatea, he disposes of Acis. He still doesn't get the girl. She preserves her Acis by turning him into a "gentle murmuring stream," – "thus I exert my power divine; be thou immortal: though thou art not mine" – and so the evening ends as it began, with music flowing like a purling stream, only now shadowed with loss. Terrific performance!

Next up for ABS is the St Matthew Passion, on 27 - 28 February and 1 - 2 March. You can check out the different venues and get more information here. ABS also has an annual festival/academy, which is one of the musical highlights of the local summer; this year it will be 7 - 16 August, on the enticing theme of Versailles and the Parisian Baroque. In conjunction with that, ABS is running a Kickstarter campaign to help the students of the larger instruments pay for their air transportation: you can check that out, and the various benefits offered, here.

26 January 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/4

Upon Her Play Being Returned to Her, Stained with Claret

Welcome, dear wanderer, once more!
     Thrice welcome to thy native cell!
Within this peaceful humble door
     Let thou and I contented dwell!

But say, O whither hast thou ranged?
     Why dost thou blush a crimson hue?
Thy fair complexion's greatly changed;
     Why, I can scare believe 'tis you.

Then tell, my son, O tell me, where
     Didst thou contract this sottish dye?
You kept ill company, I fear,
     When distant from your parent's eye.

Was it for this, O graceless child!
     Was it for this you learned to spell?
Thy face and credit both are spoiled;
     Go drown thyself in yonder well.

I wonder how thy time was spent:
     No news, alas, hast thou to bring?
Hast thou not climbed the Monument?
     Nor seen the lions, nor the King?

But now I'll keep you here secure:
     No more you view the smoky sky;
The Court was never made, I'm sure,
     For idiots like thee and I.

Mary Leapor

Here is a witty and poignant poem from the eighteenth-century on a theme still relevant: an author's reaction to a rejected submission. Leapor was born in a lower class (her father was a gardener) and she worked as a serving maid before her death from measles at the age of 24. Some of her employers encouraged her writing and others did not; there are stories (perhaps meant to be comic but to me touching) of her being dismissed from jobs because dinner would scorch while she was busy writing (similar stories bedevil the biographies of any writer who isn't independently wealthy). She wrote poetry and also, no doubt with the hope of improving her financial lot, a blank-verse tragedy, which was rejected by theaters in London, though her poems were eventually published.

The claret staining the returned pages is a red wine made in Bordeaux; the implication is that it's a fancy import, the sort of thing you would casually or perhaps ostentatiously drink (and maybe not even care about spilling) if you lived in a sophisticated and heedless metropolis like London. It's not the honest ale you'd get in the simple countryside. Leapor addresses her manuscript as if it were a son who has ventured forth from his small village in his young manhood and now returns, probably sadder and one hopes wiser, after his encounter with the wider world. She welcomes the "dear wanderer" back to his native place, which is peaceful and humble, and where they may dwell in contentment.

Then, after the mother's first burst of joy at her manuscript's/child's return, she takes a closer, more suspicious look at the reddened pages: why is he blushing? Where has he been, and what (or whom) has he done? She fears that once out of her overseeing, he has kept bad company, acquiring permanent damage from alcohol: a sottish dye. She angrily rebukes him, mentioning the difficulty in raising him: "Was it for this you learned to spell?" – a clever reminder that her "son" is actually a written manuscript. In her disappointment and anger, she suggests tossing it down the well (I wonder if there's a suggestion here of using the manuscript as toilet paper? though if they use water from that well I hope they're not throwing the soiled papers down there).

Outburst over, she starts to wonder about the marvels, far beyond her experience, this errant child might have seen: how odd to think that your writing may have traveled much further than you ever will, and been understood in ways foreign to your understanding. But a manuscript, unlike a child, cannot speak: "No news, alas, hast thou to bring?" The Monument referred to is the large Doric column commemorating the 1666 Great Fire of London; it was designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and opened in 1677, about seventy years before this poem was written. You could (and still can) walk up its interior staircase, though the panoramic elevated view would have been much more of a startling and beautiful novelty then than it is in our cities, which were transformed by the twentieth-century invention of the elevator. Lions would also have been a striking novelty; though familiar images, actual lions would obviously not be wandering the English countryside, and public zoos had not been conceived of yet (the London zoo, one of the earliest, did not open until 1828). The lions belonged to the royal menagerie, and were kept in the Tower of London. Perhaps the thought of the "king of beasts" and the royal menagerie leads to the question about seeing the King: because of course if you're in the same city, you could run into him, just the way you would in a small country village.

Having passed through joy, anger, and curiosity, the speaker is content to avoid the heady and dangerous atmosphere (the smoky sky) of the City; with some asperity she notes that the Court was no doubt not intended for "idiots" like them: who knows why this venture did not turn out? She returns to regular village life with the rejected child of her imagination.

I took this from Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale.

23 January 2015

20 January 2015

Cal Performances Winter Sale

Cal Performances has a winter sale going on through 26 January. Basically it's a steeply discounted mini-subscription: you have to buy a minimum of four tickets (that can be four singles, two pairs, or one set of four) and when you do each ticket is only $25. The sale doesn't apply to every performance, but to enough to make it very worthwhile – I bought tickets in last year's sale and was very happy with the seats and concerts I was able to get. Check here for more information and seriously do follow their advice to read the instructions first (last year I didn't and tripped myself up a bit).

19 January 2015

the Berkeley Symphony plays Ades & Tchaikovsky

Last Thursday I was at the Berkeley Symphony for their second concert of the season, a double bill featuring Asyla by Thomas Adès on the first half and the Tchaikovsky Pathétique on the second. Music Director Joana Carneiro conducted. Cavernous Zellerbach Hall was looking quite filled up; it's great to see a symphony drawing big crowds by featuring contemporary music, as the Berkeley Symphony regularly does. The concert opened with a couple of people speaking, which I mostly tuned out, because if they're not going to listen to me on the inadvisability of stage speechifying when your work-night concert doesn't even begin until the ridiculous hour of 8:00, then I'm not going to listen to them talk about . . . whatever it was they talked about. Acknowledgements, I think, and some stuff about the music, all of which was already in the program book.

I had braced myself for the chatting, because that just seems to be a thing they do over there, but once past that the concert was quite enjoyable. Asyla is a big piece, roughly half an hour of concentrated, forceful sounds. Adès wrote it in 1997, when he was moving from surprising prodigy to steady presence in the British new-music scene. The title is the plural of asylum and, we are told, can refer to an asylum as a place of refuge or to an insane asylum (which is another sort of refuge, if not for the inhabitants, then for the society that no longer has to deal with them). The title is significantly plural; there can be multiple refuges, multiple madhouses. This is part of the dramatic tension of the piece; you never are quite in a final refuge. It opens with fantastic percussion, sounding like a gamelan made out of pots and pans, and proceeds from there. The third of the four movements in particular is intense; it is the only one with a name as well as a number: Ecstasio. There's the emotional ecstasy, but also the drug – this movement is supposed to reflect an uneasy night in a nightclub. It's clear that something is going on here, but I wonder how many people would have figured "drugs in a night club" without the key provided by the program. And I wonder if I would have had the same reaction, which is that I was reminded of why I avoided all drugs after some obligatory and very very mild experimentation in my late teen years: the music portrayed the feeling of being trapped in your body, not in the way we're usually trapped in (or by) our bodies, but as if your body has been taken over by some sort of chemical or virus and you just have to curl up and wait it out (the pounding drums, the insistent high-pitched strings) until it passes. That may make the music sound unpleasant, which is not at all the case – the music is very powerfully capturing what (to me at least) is an unpleasant experience, surrendering control of your own body to something that's taken it over. It's quite stunning, and the players were exceptional.

Listening to the Pathétique in the light of Asyla brought out new elements in the familiar piece. It too oscillates wildly between emotional extremes, sighing out in exhaustion at the end. There was an interesting point in Thomas May's program article, which is that if the order of the final two movements had been switched, the symphony would have moved from the sense of exhaustion and anguish towards a triumphant, idealistic finale. This kind of technical change – switching the normal positions of the two types of movement – may seem like a fairly dry thing, but that's how artists produce discomfiting emotional realities.

The Berkeley Symphony's next performance will be 26 February. Carneiro will conduct Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, the Brahms 4, and the world premiere of the orchestral version of Jake Heggie's Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. The latter will feature the superb mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. You can find more information or buy tickets here.

Poem of the Week 2015/3

The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till

                                      after the murder,
                                        after the burial

Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
                         the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
                          drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
                           And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
                            through a red prairie.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old black youth from Chicago who went down to Mississippi, to a small town on the delta called Money, to visit some of his mother's relatives. This was in 1955. He went into a corner store, where he was accused of flirting with the twenty-one-year-old white woman at the counter. That night her husband and his half-brother hunted him down. They ended up killing him and throwing his body in the Tallahatchie River, but only after beating him so savagely that there were problems identifying the corpse when it was found several days later. It was sent back up to Chicago for burial. His mother had warned him to be careful down south; she was familiar with Mississippi manners, having been born there (her family had moved north in the 1920s as part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities), She had raised him mostly on her own, and when it came time to bury him, she insisted on a public service and an open casket so that the world could see what had been done to her son (and, by extension, to thousands of other young black men in the South). Photographs of the brutalized corpse ran first in the black press and then in other American and international newspapers and magazines. The public outcry forced local authorities in Missippi to charge the two men with murder. They were clearly guilty, and were acquitted. The incident had far-reaching repercussions and became a key incident in the Civil Rights movement.

Brooks clarifies where we are in two brief introductory lines: this is after the murder / after the burial. She can pare this complicated case down to a few lines, foregoing detailed scene-setting and explication in favor of vivid and suggestive images, because her readers would have already known the notorious details; at the very least, they would have seen the horrifying image of the mutilated boy in the open casket. That's why the title of the poem calls it the last quatrain: the preceding "quatrains" are made up of the knowledge the reader brings to the poem, and since this is the last quatrain, we're looking here at the aftermath. She also refers to Till's story as a ballad, thereby associating it with a long English-language poetic tradition that frequently deals with unjust murder, guilt, and retribution. Most older ballads are anonymous, so referring to this poem as the end of a ballad suggests that the story preceding it is in a way a folk creation, arising from the collective unconscious of the nation, formed from the associations, assumptions, and conclusions that each reader brings to it. (Check here for another poem that uses the ballad form to protest injustice against African-Americans.)

The first line draws us into a view both intimate and distanced. The murdered boy is referred to only by his first name, as if we knew him. But we are not given the mother's name; we are shown her only in the context of her murdered son. For us she is not Mamie Carthan Till; she is Emmett's mother. She is a pretty-faced thing, which is the sort of affectionate phrase a kindly older person might use. But the mention of face will also bring to mind the horrifyingly battered face of this woman's son. The second part of this first line (it will be Brooks's procedure throughout this poem to break the line into two parts) tells us her pretty face is the tint of pulled taffy: in a society that denigrated darker skin, Brooks compares it to taffy, a sweet, appealing candy we perhaps associate with childhood (another implicit reminder of the murdered child). Taffy is made by being boiled and then pulled, which may hint at the suffering that has created the strength of this pretty-faced woman. (Brooks uses alliteration with a delicate musical touch; we have tint and taffy, and red room, and kisses and killed.)

In the second line, we are told this woman is sitting in a red room, drinking black coffee. Just an attractive young mother, having a cup of coffee – it all seems so everyday. But she's in a red room: surrounded, in fact enclosed, by red: the color of blood, of anger, of passion, of danger. She's drinking black coffee; perhaps black is there to remind us that all of this happened because black is also the color of her skin, and her son's as well. Or perhaps that's just how she drank it.

In the third line, she kisses her killed boy: we've already been told this is after the burial, but the verb is not past tense, and we're told specifically that she's kissing her killed boy: she's not remembering kissing him when he lived, she's kissing him (her murdered, mutilated son) mentally, spiritually. First we see her, a pretty-faced brown woman, then we see she's sitting there drinking coffee, and now we discover that even this simple, ordinary action is accompanied, internally and inescapably, by grief and loss and love. The second part of this third line tells us that she is sorry, an understated, even ambiguous, description (what or whom is she sorry for?) given endless ramifications by what we know of her circumstances. Sorry also implies (in line with the idea of the last quatrain) that she has moved past stronger and more immediate emotions, and into a constant level of sadness that she will never escape.

We leave her, trapped in the aftermath of her son's murder. In the fourth line we are given an encapsulating image: Chaos in windy grays through a red prairie. So much of what we've seen in the first three lines has been strong and clear: reds, blacks, a woman drinking coffee. It's seemed quite definite. But it's as if the mention of her emotional state (she is sorry) unleashes a storm of troubling ambiguity in the final line: chaos, and wind (that invisible, powerful, evanescent force), and gray (that obscure and doubtful mixture of black and white, lacking in clear-cut definition: it's a gray area, we say, it's not black and white). And this confusion is sweeping through a red prairie. This would literally refer to the Great Plains that sweep down from Chicago towards Mississippi, but metaphorically it's the whole country. And we have red again, linking the prairie with the room mentioned in the second line, and by extension with the associations of that color (blood, anger, passion, danger). The individual situation of the murdered boy's mother and the turmoil shaking the country are captured and connected in the final line's unsettling, apocalyptic image.

I took this from Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks.

12 January 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/2


Such, then, the final state o' the story. So
Did the Star Wormwood in a blazing fall
Frighten awhile the waters and lie lost:
So did this old woe fade from memory,
Till after, in the fullness of the days,
I needs must find an ember yet unquenched,
And, breathing, blow the spark to flame. It lives,
If precious be the soul of man to man.
So, British Public, who may like me yet,
(Marry and amen!) learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least.
How look a brother in the face and say
"Thy right is wrong, eyes hast thou yet art blind,
Thine ears are stuffed and stopped, despite their length,
And, oh, the foolishness thou countest faith!"
Say this as silverly as tongue can troll –
The anger of the man may be endured,
The shrug, the disappointed eyes of him
Are not so bad to bear – but here's the plague
That all this trouble comes of telling truth,
Which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false,
Seems to be just the thing it would supplant,
Nor recognizable by whom it left –
While falsehood would have done the work of truth.
But Art, – wherein man nowise speaks to men,
Only to mankind – Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word,
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall, –
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever the Andante dived, –
So write a book shall mean, beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.

Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, Book XII, lines 823 - 863

This excerpt starts with "the final state o' the story" so I will now give you the beginning. In 1860, when the forty-eight-year-old Browning was still living in Florence with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he was browsing through an open-air market when he came across a book (generally referred to as the Old Yellow Book) containing records of a sensational murder trial held in Rome in 1698. In that time and place, court cases were conducted through written arguments rather than through in-person cross-examination, as in England. In addition to the legal briefs, there were some pamphlets and letters about the case, which was spicy enough to be the talk of the Eternal City: an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, nearing fifty, unprepossessing and unsuccessful, had married Pompilia, thirteen at the time of the marriage (although the age difference might be snickered at, it was not culturally out of line – remember that Shakespeare's Juliet is fourteen, and that raises no eyebrows in Verona). She had, after three unhappy years, run off with the help of Giuseppe Caponsacchi, a young priest. The count had pursued and caught them as they fled to her parents in Rome; the courts had sent the priest into temporary and local exile, and sent her first to a convent that took in wayward women and then back to her parents, where she gave birth to a son. It sounds so far as if it might be a ribald medieval tale about old cuckolds, beautiful and wily young wives, and lusty priests. But then the count gathered four of his peasants, went to Rome, and stabbed to death both Pompilia and her parents. The older couple died immediately, but she lingered for four days, during which time she was deposed for the court case. The count was convicted and then revealed that he belonged to some minor order of clergy (one without a vow of celibacy, obviously) and that therefore he could appeal to the Pope for a final verdict. To the general astonishment, the Pope sided not with the aristocrat but the runaway wife, and he sent the count and his confederates to a public execution.

Browning was immediately gripped by this forgotten scandal but wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning died the next year, and the year after that Browning moved back to London. Somewhere along the way he clearly figured out what to do with this fascinating lump of facts, because from this lurid true-crime story he produced an epic-length poem in blank verse (that is, unrhymed five-beat lines), published in four installments from November 1868 to February 1869, that is one of the most astonishing of Victorian novels.

I've given the basic plot in some detail (omitting a few key twists, but even those are revealed fairly early) because this is a case in which spoiler alerts are beside the point: it is actually essential that you know the whole story from the beginning, because what we have here is a series of dramatic monologues in which various participants state their case, giving their views, Rashomon-like, of what happened. The power of the poem comes from comparing what gets said (or left unsaid) by each person and understanding the limits of each person's perception. It's not so much that the Truth (or even just small-t truth) is unknowable as that some lack the openness and comprehensive understanding to see beyond either the commedia dell'arte or the sentimental-rescue-romance aspects of the story. For example, the reader comes away pretty certain that the wife and the priest were not having an affair, at least physically – but, in one of the many ironies of this epic, there is definitely real love between them; a profound, instantaneous, and chivalrous love, as of a knight for his lady.

Caponsacchi the priest is young, handsome, well-born, and skilled at versifying; he is sent by his superiors to insinuate himself with wealthy ladies, so that the Church may exert its influence over them. He is discontented with this socially elevated but spiritually lacking life when he sees Pompilia (it's a sign that he feels elevated devotion rather than merely physical longing that he compares the first sight of her to a first sight of a Madonna by Raphael – the art of painting, so associated with Italy at this time, makes frequent appearances and keeps us aware of the theme of Art as a repository of deeper truths). They have an immediate emotional and spiritual connection. He ends his emotionally restless monologue a deeply torn man, recognizing that he has lost an ideal and is back in "the old solitary nothingness." She ends her death-bed deposition saying she will be reunited with him: "Through such souls alone / God stooping shows sufficient of His light / For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise." And I rise are her last words: words of calmly defiant assurance. Yet some (such as her husband, or her own defense attorney) are incapable of grasping a relationship as idealistic as this. The Pope does grasp it, which is one reason he condemns the husband: he sees who is moving humanity forward spiritually, and who is incapable of comprehending that. (And yet, and yet . . . some insist that he's a feeble old man hanging on to the Church's power, insulating the clergy from the just anger of a wronged – and aristocratic! – husband.)

The poem is divided into twelve books as follows:

Book I, The Ring and the Book: The Narrator speaks, telling us how he discovered the Old Yellow Book, what the story is as revealed in the documents, and the combination of factual research and imaginative insight that produced the poem. The symbol of this combination is a ring, one that belonged to his late wife (this reference to her, occurring at the very beginning of the poem, functions as the traditional invocation to the Muse that opens an epic; she hovers over what follows and re-appears explicitly at the very end). Forged by art and skill from natural ore, the ring combines elements of art and natural existence. He then previews, book by book, what we are about to read. There's a novel by Trollope in which he tells you the outcome on the first page because, he says, the outcome is not the point; it's how the characters get there. That's true here too – what's important is not the surprises of the story, but noticing what each speaker does with it. The revelations are not of plot but of psychology and insight.

Book II, Half-Rome: Gives the buzz and gossip and speculation on the streets, generally on the pro-husband side. He's seen as defending orderly family life from his disorderly victims – it's an honor killing.

Book III, The Other Half-Rome: More buzz and gossip and speculation, but generally pro-wife. Her beauty (mostly unnoticed while she was alive), her youth, and her sweet gravity of spirit – along with the attractions of taking sides in a juicy scandal, and the romance of her story – lead some to call her a saint, and definitely a woman justified in fleeing a brutal husband.

Book IV, Tertium Quid: Tertium Quid is "an undefined or indefinite thing distinct from, but somehow related to, two other entities which are known and distinct." So in this book an influential and gossipy courtier fills in a cardinal on what the gossip is, with some twists of his own.

Book V, Count Guido Franceschini: The husband/murderer speaks. He is rich in family pride but little else. He's been treated rather unfairly by the world (but there also doesn't seem much reason he should have received better treatment). He feels sorry for himself; he keeps bringing up ways the world has let him down, but he's pointed and sometimes satirical on the subject, which is rather appealing; failure has given him a clearer eye and brisker tongue than might be risked by those who have more worldly success to lose. He is also menacing; underlying his tale is a sardonic and even sadistic cruelty exercised in particular on his wife (yet to him, that's just how married life is; the man, particularly one of an ancient name who marries a commoner, is in charge, and if he needs to get a little rough with his wife to prove this, well, so be it! – that's his stated view, but we, knowing what we do, can also see a bully's need to treat someone defenseless the way he feels the world has treated him). And he's also a bit ridiculous (which is the traditional role of ugly old men who marry beautiful young wives: the story keeps sliding from what the participants experienced to how it looks to the outside world: after all, all these monologues are spoken as part of a legal case, attempting justification of their behavior and condemnation of their enemies). He is not the one who brings up his sexual relations with his wife, she is. For months after the marriage he pleads and scolds and blusters, and then eventually he forces himself on her: he looks both ineffectual, almost silly, and brutal.

Book VI, Giuseppe Caponsacchi: The young priest speaks. Though he seems smooth and conventional and headed for worldly success (like the priest in a bawdy tale), he is discontented and hungers for more. Guido can't see and probably wouldn't understand this spiritual hunger, but he does see the outside: how much of his anger is that of an ugly, failed, aging man towards an attractive, promising, and young one? And Caponsacchi is more of a match for Guido than the count expected: when he catches up with the fleeing couple outside of Rome, he thinks contemptuously of both priest and woman. Instead he finds the priest is a strapping young man dressed in the mufti of a nobleman, with a sword he knows how to use: and once his henchmen subdue the priest, he is stunned that his wife, hitherto so seemingly passive, grabs a sword and would have run him through if she hadn't been stopped by his companions just in time. (Is it love that motivates her? Or has she just found the opportunity to off him that she's been longing for?) At this point he takes them to law: is this prudence, and respect for social mores, as he claims? or is this cowardice, as the priest (among others) thinks?

Book VII, Pompilia: Here, at the central hinge of the work, the wife speaks from her death-bed. The effect is somewhat similar to listening to the Brahms German Requiem and hearing, near the middle of the performance, the only movement with soprano solo, a profound, searching statement of consolation after grief. Since she is dying as she speaks, she is the only speaker freed from earthly concerns, able to move (to some extent) beyond positioning her argument to win her case and towards a more comprehensive view of her life. It's an interesting indication of Browning's skill that, as you might expect from an illiterate young woman whose wisdom comes from a life of suffering, Pompilia's speech requires less editorial annotation than those of the flashier, more educated speakers. It occupies a central place, structurally and emotionally, in the work. Yet even here there are ambiguities, questions, omissions: she does not mention that she drugged her husband and took jewels and money to make her escape. Does she simply feel that these were obviously necessary things to do, almost a mechanical part of the escape like hiring the carriage? Yet to several other participants, these things are further demonstration of her guilt.

Book VIII, Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis: He is the court-appointed speaker for the defense. He has little personal involvement in the case, but wants to impress the judges and show up his rival on the prosecution. He talks us through his brief, which is studded with legal Latin and classical allusions to dazzle the court. But he keeps thinking about his beloved young son (an interesting contrast to all the bad parents we see in the poem) and the boy's birthday dinner that night (for he also loves his food, prepared just so).

Book IX, Juris Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius: The prosecutor speaks. Though he maintains Pompilia's innocence of adultery, he doesn't really believe it, and thinks Guido would have been wiser to let the young filly run a bit before he bridles her.

Book X, The Pope: This is Pope Innocent XII, arbiter of the final appeal. He is near the end of his life himself. His speech contains profound and searching evaluations of the participants as well as of the clergy who turned a deaf ear to Pompilia's early pleas for help against her cruel husband, which leads him to wonder what Christianity has accomplished on earth. Caponsacchi stepped up to help the weak, but his motivation was almost certainly not his Christian beliefs but an atavistic and even instinctive male need to protect the defenseless (particularly a defenseless woman he's attracted to). What then has been accomplished by the Church the Pope has spent his life serving? Has it served to move humanity forward, or has it just created another false, worldly, and cowardly social structure that protects the powerful and ignores the weak?

Book XI, Guido: Once again we hear from Count Guido; this time, it's the night before his execution. He ranges widely over life and philosophy, often in a way that sounds skeptical and appealing to modern readers. He renounces and denounces Christianity to the high-ranking clergy who have come to prepare him for death; he is rooted instead in ancestral lands and family honor – to him the classical gods make some sense, since they are linked to the natural forces that control the earth, but what have Jesus and his followers done? (His thoughts here provide an interesting accompaniment to the Pope's musings on the same subject.) But as we read these lines we should also keep in mind his failed attempts to rise in the world by serving Church officers, and his malicious urge to needle people. Perhaps these are his true thoughts, though we are told later, at second-hand, that at the end he repented and confessed like a good Catholic – did he? Or is this reported because it suited the needs of those reporting it? In the last lines we hear in his own voice, he cries out in agony to have his life saved; he calls on the Pope, on the clergymen attending on him, on Christ, Mary, God – and finally on Pompilia, whose ultimate victory over him he has (apparently, despite his constant sneers at her) been forced, in a final humiliation, to realize.

Book XII, The Book and the Ring: The narrator returns, reporting on the aftermath of the case, until the what is known gives way to uncertainty, speculation, and finally obscurity. He wonders whether Pompilia's son was as proud as the rest of the impoverished Franceschini, or whether he honored the memory of his mother – assuming he lived, that is; he finds no evidence one way or the other on the fate of the infant. And that leads into the somewhat arbitrarily chosen passage above – as I hope you've gathered by now, excerpting this poem is difficult, because everything gains meaning from comparison with the rest of the poem; even this passage affirming the ultimate power of Art should be read in conjunction with Guido's remarks when he talks about why a little hitch in his plot derailed him and his confederates:

Ask that particular devil whose task it is
To trip the all-but-at perfection – slur
The line o' the painter just where paint leaves off
And life begins, – puts ice into the ode
O' the poet while he cries, "Next stanza – fire!"
Inscribes all human effort with one word,
Artistry's haunting curse, the Incomplete!

The Ring and the Book, Book XI, lines 1553 - 1559

The passage begins with a reference to the Star Wormwood and its "blazing fall" (after the opening of the seventh seal, destruction is unleashed on the earth in various ways; see the Book of Revelation, chapter 8, verses 10 - 11 for the Star Wormwood, which falls flaming into the waters, making them bitter enough to kill many people). It's an image of cataclysmic (literally apocalyptic) destruction, yet Browning immediately qualifies and undercuts it: it frightens the waters "a while" and then it is "lost": so this massive, absorbing scandal, which hit Rome with such force, and which has revealed its deep significance to us, gradually faded from memory and was lost to time. His wife's great novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, which I discuss here, ends with a series of references to the Book of Revelation; I wonder if he deliberately worked in a reference from the same Biblical book here as an indirect tribute to her. As I mentioned earlier, a reference to her at the opening of the poem functions as the traditional epic appeal to the Muse, and the actual last lines of this very long poem, which appear after the passage excerpted above, are a tribute to her – his "Lyric Love" – and her poetry.

So the story is forgotten until "after, in the fullness of the days, / I needs must find an ember . . ." Fullness of the days continues the Biblical tone, and combined with needs must makes it seem predestined that he should find and revive this material. He breathes upon this ember – perhaps in this breath there is an echo of the "divine afflatus," the classical idea of inspiration as a heavenly wind suddenly striking you – and inspiration can also mean to inhale. Also, there may be an echo of Genesis chapter 2 verse 7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Fire can also be a symbol of inspiration, creating light and warmth, and even a symbol of divine inspiration – recollect the combination of wind and flame that visited the followers of the crucified Jesus on Pentecost: "And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. . . " (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 verses 2 - 4). So what seems like the simple image of blowing on an ember to revive a fire has deep implications of divine inspiration and of creating a new life (or revivifying the old one). Browning claims for the artist the powers of the gods, even of God.

He continues with a direct address to the "British Public, who may like me yet / (Marry and amen!)" – this echoes a reference in the opening to the "British Public, ye who like me not / (God love you!)" (Book I, lines 410 - 411). (Marry in the first example is an archaic exclamation of emphasis; it's frequent in Shakespeare.) Indeed Browning was never as popular and beloved as other Victorian poets, like his passionate wife or the gleaming Tennyson. He was considered a thorny and rather difficult author; there were Browning Societies for the same reason there were Wagner Societies: to discuss and propagate the works of a demanding but obviously important modern artist. His difficulties may have stood him in good stead with posterity: although The Ring and the Book was his biggest success with the public, possibly because of its sensational true-crime tale, he was never broadly popular – it was his complexity that continued to engage committed readers into the modern era. (Charles Rosen has a similar theory about composers: that it is not the widely popular and immediately appealing ones that end up lasting, but the ones seen in their own time as complicated, difficult, and demanding of attention – the Bachs, Mozarts, and Beethovens.)

Browning then moves on to one of the dueling lessons he is setting up as the meaning of the story: that all is vanity: "words and wind"; notice the re-appearance of blown air, this time as wind rather than breath, and as a symbol of oblivion, of being swept away, rather than of inspiration and new life. It's suitable that ambiguity and the double-edge of existence should continue into what seems like the moral of the poem. For his point is that our speech is always inexact and incomplete, and even if we do achieve some measure of accuracy, that, too, will sink unnoticed as time passes. This is a fairly obvious and ancient truth, though discouraging; why then write such a long poem proving something that "whatever lives should teach" us? ("Why take the artistic way to prove so much?") Because – here is the balancing and challenging alternate lesson – it is the triumph and moral purpose ("the glory and the good") of Art – always capitalized into significance in this passage, unlike "truth," which, as he has shown us, is malleable and ultimately unknowable – that it is the closest approach we can make to speaking truth to one another (yet he immediately draws back a bit from this grand statement: "to mouths like mine, at least"; even our one way of speaking truly is qualified, provisional, personal).

How can we look even our closest relations in the face (he offers "a brother," and uses the intimate thy, thou, and thine in this speech – those words seem formal to us because they are archaic, but they were originally the English equivalent of the intimate French tu). He tells his brother that he (the brother) has eyes but is blind and ears but is deaf: the language here is again Biblical, perhaps as part of the poem's continued questioning of the influence of organized religion. (The reference to the length of the ears is presumably a reference to the long ears of a donkey – in other words, your beliefs are those of an ass). He advises that "say this as silverly as tongue can troll" it will still be met with anger or indifference, and this comes of trying to speak truth – indeed, as the words leave your mouth, they not only seem false to the recipient, but to the speaker. (Troll means to sing in a happy or carefree way, as in "troll the ancient Yuletide carol" – it does not have its current implication of a deliberate and usually mean-spirited anonymous provocateur. He's saying that you can speak unpleasant truths as eloquently (silverly) and as open-heartedly as possible, but the speech will still seem limited and false.)

So if the truth seems false once spoken, then paradoxically "falsehood would have done the work of truth" – here is an excellent example of the ambiguity of trying to speak truth. Does this mean "speaking falsehood would have been just the same as – would have met with as big a failure as –speaking truth" or does it mean "an apparent falsehood – that is, Art, which is the lie that tells the truth – can do the work that truth fails at"? Browning doesn't make explicit the connection between "falsehood" and "Art," but it does seem to lie implicit in the segue to the next line, which begins the explanation of how Art can speak truth by creating an intermediary pseudo-reality. Art is impersonal, speaking not to men (not to the brother berated in the lines above), but to humanity in general: in Biblical terms, "who hath ears to hear, let him hear." As with Dickinson advising us "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," Browning tells us that Art can work obliquely by presenting a picture, a series of sounds, or a series of words that will "do the thing shall breed the thought" – that is, create an image/emotion/understanding that will, in the mind of the attentive recipient, give rise to the same truth the artist is trying to convey. There is again an impersonal quality here; not only is the artist speaking to humanity in general rather than to an individual (thereby removing the work of art, at least to some extent, and protecting it, at least to some extent, from the complex and entangling webs of personal relations and circumstances), but it is also removed from the clumsiness and limitations of spontaneous speech and action – the inevitable failure to include the "mediate word" (that is, the reconciling, connecting, perfectly used and positioned words) as we stumble towards expressing what we see as the truth (think of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: " 'That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.' " – poets are of course especially conscious of the gap between what we intend to say and what we end up saying). The labor of the artist is to create the object that will re-create the artist's truth in the mind of the beholder.

He then offers some specific examples: a painter is producing something more than an image on a wall; he or she is showing forth truth twice: first on the canvas, then in the viewer's mind. Composers bring music from their mind that can dive ever more deeply in the minds of the listeners. The writer can produce a book that has meaning beyond a bare recital of facts, that will not only please the reader ("suffice the eye") but – a tall order – save the soul, though it is left open whether the soul is the writer's, the reader's, or both.

I've barely scratched the surface of everything that's going on in this profound and elusive epic-novel-poem, which has as many interconnections and ironies and insights and beauties as Ulysses (in fact I first read it in a class at Berkeley on Victorian literature taught by John Bishop, best known for his studies of Finnegans Wake). I hope I've encouraged at least a few readers to pick up a copy of The Ring and the Book, and here's where I would normally link to a source, but – and I know these are days of easy outrage, but this really is outrageous – it appears to be out of print in a reasonably priced and annotated edition. (Given the sometimes obscure vocabulary, the wide range of historical, classical, and Biblical references, and the frequent Latin quotations, annotation seems called for.) The version I have, which was apparently the first fully annotated version, was edited by Richard Altick and published by Yale University Press, though I think Penguin published the same edition at some point. You may be able to find it used; Abe Books has some, in prices ranging from minimal to ridiculous.

Any quotations I used from the Bible are from the King James version, which is the one Browning would have known.

09 January 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: January 2015

The Berkeley Symphony continues its impressive and invaluable commitment to major orchestral works by living composers by featuring Asyla by Thomas Adès along with the Tchaikovsky 6 (the Pathètique) on 15 January in Zellerbach Hall; more information here.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony, led by Michael Morgan, performs Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major with soloist Richard Glazier and the Shostakovich 8 on 23 January at the Paramount; more information here.

The San Francisco Symphony serves up some twentieth-century treats on 16 - 18 January: the Grand Pianola Music by John Adams – conducted by Adams himself! – along with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting The Soldier's Tale by Stravinsky, with Elvis Costello and Malcolm McDowell as speakers and Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin on piano. More information here. And then on 21 - 23 January, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the orchestra in the west coast premiere of Cynthia Lee Wong's Carnival Fever, along with Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra and pianist Yefin Bronfman in the Brahms Piano Concerto No 2; more information here.

Baroque Music
American Bach Soloists presents Handel's wonderful pastoral Acis and Galatea, along with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4, on 23 - 26 January. It's a different venue each day, so check here for that and other information.

The Lamplighters present Bernstein's Candide (the only thing by him that I would pay to hear). The San Francisco performances are at the Yerba Buena Center on 30 and 31 January and 1 February; later in February there are performances in Walnut Creek and Mountain View. Check here for more information.

In conjunction with its performances next month of Heggie's Dead Man Walking, Opera Parallèle presents a panel discussion on 21 January at Temple Emanu-El (on Lake Street; the #1 California runs a block or two away) featuring selections from the opera and a discussion of art and social justice, featuring temple cantor Roslyn Barak, composer Jake Heggie, singers Frederica von Stade, Catherine Cook, and Nicolle Foland, and Sister Helen Prejean herself. Tickets and more information are available here.

San Francisco Performances presents jazz pianist Marcus Roberts at the Jazz Center on 17 January, playing a program ranging from W C Handy and Sigmund Romberg to Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and himself; details here.

As part of Michael Tilson Thomas's 70th birthday extravaganza on 15 January at the San Francisco Symphony, he will be joined by Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang in Liszt's Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra. That part of the concert will be conducted by Teddy Abrams (Tilson Thomas takes over the conducting for the rest of the evening). You can get tickets here on the Symphony's website, which oddly only lists the Liszt, so for further details on the program I refer you to this entry on Lisa Hirsch's blog Iron Tongue of Midnight.

New/Contemporary Music
San Francisco Performances presents composer-pianist Lera Auerbach in a program of her own works; she will be joined by violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Joshua Roman in her transcription for trio of Prokofiev's flute sonata. It's always very special to hear composers performing their own music. This concert will be 20 January at the Jazz Center; details here.

Cal Performances presents the Kronos Quartet, joined by Wu Man on pipa, in works by Riley, Volans, and Little, on 18 January; details here.

Cal Performances and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present the second Project TenFourteen concert on 25 January with pianist Nicholas Hodges, featuring works by Zubel, Birtwistle, and Du Yun; details here.

As usual the Center for New Music has an abundance of enticements; a few things that jump out at me from their schedule are Jen Shyu's Solo Rites: Seven Breaths on 23 January, the New Year Koto concert on 25 January, and the Del Sol String Quartet on 29 January. Check out the full schedule here.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosts the first annual New Music Gathering, a three-day conference/music festival on 15 - 17 January. The schedule is here though for more information on the evening performances you might want to check the Conservatory's performance calendar. The first evening features flutist Claire Chase as well as David Coll, Eve Beglarian, Rachel Beetz and Jennifer Bewerse, and Blarvuster; the second evening features pianist Sarah Cahill along with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Volti, and Wild Rumpus; the third evening features Till by Turning, Incendiary Cycle, and Transient Canvas. UPDATE: See the comment below from Sarah Cahill for some further information on the Friday night performance.

Instrumentalists/Chamber Music
Cal Performances presents violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Daniil Trifonov performing Mozart, Weinberg, and Schubert on 13 January; details here.

Cal Performances presents tenor Matthew Polenzani and pianist Julius Drake in a program of Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Satie, and Barber, on 31 January; details here.

ACT presents Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, directed by Carey Perloff, from 14 January to 8 February; more information here.

Custom Made Theatre presents Sarah Ruhl's Late: A Cowboy Song, directed by Ariel Craft, from 10 January to 1 February; details here.

Shotgun Players has extended its excellent production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, directed by Susannah Martin, to 25 January.

The San Francisco Ballet opens its (non-Nutcracker) season with Program 1 featuring Balanchine's Serenade, Possokhov's RAkU, and Caniparoli's Lambarena, 27 January - 7 February and Giselle, 29 January - 10 February.

Friday photo 2015/2

abandoned house, Castro Valley California, Christmas Day 2014

05 January 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/1

Several Voices out of a Cloud

Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved!
Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom
       and wherever deserved.

Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
       And it isn't for you.

Louise Bogan

We'll start this year with Louise Bogan's vehement annunciation to what she feels are the true poets. The wonderful title implies a heavenly (specifically, divine) voice, glory hidden behind a cloud. Yet this isn't simply the voice of God (announcing: "This is my beloved poet, in whom I am well pleased!") because she has "several voices" out of that cloud: multiple deities? voices in a vision, or a hallucination? the voices of on-coming posterity? Whoever they are, their kingdom is not of this world, as they demonstrate with their topsy-turvy pronouncement, in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last (although Bogan's language is not Biblical, this brief poem for me consistently conjures up Biblical, specifically New Testament, links and echoes – and like the Bible, it is judgmental, separating without hesitation the sheep from the goats, even as it tells us that the sheep and goats aren't necessarily who we think they are).

She calls up for reward not just the marginal but the desperate and disorderly: drunks, druggies, perverts. It's easy enough to think of poets who fit each of those categories (bearing in mind that for a mid-century American like Bogan, "perverts" may just have been an alternate term for homosexuals, who may indeed have been "unnerved" – that is, with courage and confidence lost – given the social condemnation of them; though I suspect what she was really after in perverts unnerved is the repeated erv sound, and the rhyme with deserved). The laurel is associated with Apollo, the classical god of music and poetry (among other things), because of his unreciprocated love for Daphne. So for the drunks, drug-takers, and perverts to receive the laurel (that sign of poetic rapture and thwarted love) means their social failings are swept aside so that they may be exalted as poets, a title earned only by merit: this crowd may look like worthless riffraff to orderly minds, but not to the ecstatic voices from above.

The first stanza announces who is blessed, and the second who is damned (Bogan says get the hell out of the way of the laurel, which pretty clearly implies go to hell; she further announces that it is not for them since it is deathless (the laurel is in fact an evergreen), implying that death is the fate suitable to them). And who are the damned? Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue. Punks might seem to fit in better with the first stanza's group, but this poem predates punk rock and its associated attitudes; here, punk would mean a low-level creep, bully, or brat. (The word also referred to prostitutes, and to young men who bottomed in same-sex relationships (usually as prostitutes or in prison), but given the first stanza we can dismiss those meanings here, I think.) These are, in particular, parochial punks, and once again I think she was drawn to the sound (those contemptuous repeated puh sounds) but the adjective implies not just a low-level creep but a small-minded one. A trimmer would be a person who adapts his or her views to prevailing political trends for personal advancement but perhaps there's also the sense of someone who trims or decorates something, with the implication that there's merely trivial ornamentation going on there. Perhaps there's also the sense of someone who trims a ship's sails, that is, someone who adjusts them to maintain the vessel's equilibrium. A trimmer can also be a person who cuts a hedge back, making it neat and orderly. What all of these uses of trim have in common is that they involve cutting back the unruly, following prevailing winds or pre-established designs. As with parochial punks, the words imply something small-minded and mingy, something that values what is conventional, only because it is conventional. I think that's where the nice people come in; in this context, nice doesn't mean kind-hearted or thoughtful, but a sort of complacent petit-bourgeois smugness (probably linked to the earlier use of nice to mean fastidious or scrupulous): we are the decent folk; those who are different are therefore not decent. So by now you can see the implications of joiners true-blue: organization men, the "clubbable" ones (as in suitable for membership in a club, though from the poet's perspective, suitable for getting clubbed), those for groups and opposed to individualism, for whom true-blue indicates not so much steadfast loyalty as unthinking orthodoxy. She's very precise about whom she is excluding: not so much the sober and straight (as we might expect, as a contrast to those listed in the first stanza) as the small-minded and conventional.

Bogan seems to be talking mostly about writers of poetry, though you could read the poem (in particular, the second stanza) as applying to readers of poetry. But (to continue the gospel language) there are many mansions in my Father's house – that is, there are many types of poetry, and many ways of writing and reading it. I like this poem – in addition to the vivid and fruitful phrasing, it says something deeply reassuring, as religion also sometimes does, to people who feel they don't fit in with conventional social notions of success. Yet I'm not quite convinced by it, and there's something a bit smug about its easy division of the worthy from the damned. For every poet we can name who was a drunk or drug-taker or "pervert," we can name others who led, to outward eyes, quiet and dull lives – their explosions were interior. And of course a colorfully depraved life is no guarantee or indicator of artistic talent: we can name great poets who were addicts and drunks, but for each such poet there are hundreds of people who ruined their lives, and their loved ones' lives, with booze and drugs. And in many cases the various addictions interfered with the actual production of poetry. Think of Oscar Wilde's warning words about putting his genius into his life rather than his work, or the advice of Flaubert, that ur-god of Modernism, that you should be regular and orderly in your life ("like a bourgeois") in order to be violent and original in your work.

I took this from The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923 - 1968 by Louise Bogan.

02 January 2015