Thursday 5 April 2018

Bach and Dante over Easter

The Bach cantata pilgrimage with Rilling and company came to a halt over Lent, for obvious reasons. And since the only Palm Sunday cantata, BWV 182, was among the last I reached in my 2013 attempt to make a whole year of cantatas, Easter weekend marked the pick-up point. First, though, an essential Passion for Good Friday, since this year I didn't get to hear one live (the nearest I came was the unforgettable Lucerne staging of Schumann's Scenes from Faust). I have the Britten set of the St John on LP, unheard until now, with its bold reproduction of Graham Sutherland's Northampton Crucifixion on the cover, and it proved a very moving listening experience.

Having started with another boxed set I picked up recently in a quest to try and take unfashionable large-scale Bach seriously, Karajan's St Matthew Passion, and given up when faced with the sludge and the dim sound - back that goes to another charity shop - Britten's is a whole new world of biting passion and inscaped sadness. It's sung in English, with Peter Pears having worked on the recitatives and Imogen Holst collaborating on the rest; Colin Matthews writes briefly but eloquently on the changes in an essential booklet note. And I've been reading Imogen H on Britten and Byrd recently; what a superb clarifier she was (pictured below with Britten and Pears in the Red House garden).

Pears's burning delivery - the famous setting of Peter's weeping is as searing as any - makes it work. And there's plenty of thrust in the meaning from the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir - really, no extra voices? - and the superb soloists. John Shirley-Quirk helps realise Britten's special spirituality in the last bass aria with chorale, and Alfreda Hodgson is peerless in both Parts, much abetted by the English Chamber Orchestra oboes in No. 11. A great mezzo, easily the equal of Janet Baker and yet so overlooked by comparison.

Later I turned to another LP box I picked up recently, Britten's 'new concert version' of Purcell's music for The Fairy Queen, in which Hodgson sings Mopsa to Pears's Corydon (no all-male bad camp here, then, but plenty of esprit). Again, the stylishness and engagement leap out over a distance of 45 years, and I like what Britten does with the messy hybrid better than any other version. I've now ordered up his Schumann Faust-Szenen with Fischer-Dieskau as a third LP set to make a handsome trilogy.

Easter Day, Monday and Tuesday brought with them new cantatas to hear, so finally it was back to Rilling. 'Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret,' BWV 31, was composed by the 30-year old Bach for Weimar - the size of it suggests the original venue as not the court chapel but the main parish church known as the Herderkirche where we were lucky to attend an Easter Sunday service back in 2015, looking on the splendid Cranach altarpiece -

and probably reused in Leipzig. Gardiner suggests a parallel between the five-part chorus and the Gloria of the B minor Mass, down to the slowing of tempo and rest for the brass in the middle. It's exactly what one would expect for a 'Christ is risen' Cantata, though the ensuing recits are perhaps more striking in their word-painting than the bravura arias. There's a sublime trumpet descant to the final chorale.

Our Easter Sunday anthem this year, by the way, was Hadley's 'My beloved spake,' which we all used to love in the choir of All Saints Banstead - I realise it also enable me to recite this bit of the Song of Solomon - and which was sung on Sunday by the choir of St Paul's Cathedral. So we went there through the drear and heard the music only from a great distance, among masses of tourists. Still, Hadley's juicy harmonic shifts and two big blazes made their mark. I'm hoping close friends Juliette and Rory will choose it for their wedding this summer.

Most fascinating on the Bach front is the extreme contrast between the Easter Day jubilation and the inwardness of 'Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden,' BWV 6, composed for 1725's Easter Monday in Leipzig. The comparison here in the opening chorus is even more marked, with the bittersweet genius of 'Ruht wohl' at the end of the St John Passion, C minor key and sarabande movement included.

How wonderful the harmonies of the two oboes and oboe da caccia and the power of the chorus in Rilling's superlative performance; likewise the oboe da caccia's solo in counterpoint with mezzo Carolyn Watkinson, a singer I always liked and who appears in the Rilling Bach cantatas for the first time, and the piccolo cello against Edith Wiens (another unexpected name in the set) singing the central chorale. Profound music throughout in a great performance.

Gardiner is a thoughtful commentator again; he compares the contrast between the absence of Christ in a light-diminished world and a holding on to Word and sacrament, a contrast between dark and bright, with Caravaggio's first representation of the Supper at Emmaus, pictured above; it made me look up the second, where Christ has a beard.

Still, although it's less pertinent here (daylight is preferred to the night setting), Titian's representation, often overlooked in the Louvre because it hangs opposite Leonardo's Mona Lisa and currently in the stunning Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy, is the one closest to my heart. Such gorgeous coloured silks, such an amazing composition.

Easter Tuesday's cantata is a little satyr-play by comparison with the Big Ones; it seems that a Telemann opening chorus was added, probably in performances after Bach's death. 'Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzen,' BWV 145, putatively reworks secular numbers lost to us. It dances its nine-minute way in a delicious opening duet with solo violin and a tenor aria with trumpet solo. A concert of all three cantatas would be as good a demonstration as any of Bach's phenomenal emotional range.

Dante's encyclopaedic frame of reference, in the meantime, continues to stun. Frail follower that I am, I missed the climactic Warburg class on Purgatorio, in which I'm told Dr Alessandro Scafi read Dante's meeting with Beatrice in the Garden of Eden with special tenderness; I'd only just back from Lucerne last Monday, and the extra half hour I'd promised the Opera in Depth students so that we could see the second and third acts of From the House of the Dead in Chéreau's production ran over; a furious pedal from Paddington to Bloomsbury would still have made me miss at least ten minutes of the class.

Anyway I shall reach the top of Purgatory Mountain under my own steam, and meanwhile I've had time to reflect on what my dual-language Dante edition calls 'the great expositions of doctrine at the centre of the Purgatorio'. That therefore means at the centre of the entire Divina Commedia. They appear in Cantos 15-18, and in our first class on the second instalment of the mighty work, Dr. Scafi and Professor Took chose three key passges from two of these Cantos. I'm going to gloze superficially in order, starting most skimmingly with the sharing of heavenly goods, which Dante adapts from Gregory the Great. Earthly ones, according to Dante's Virgil, cannot be shared without a lessening for each sharer; our democratic societies with their libraries, museums and hospitals, albeit under threat, would deny that, as translator Robert Durling points out.

Nevertheless the sharing in Purgatory which began in Canto 2 with the communal hymn in the boat bearing Dante's beloved composer Casella and others is one of the loveliest things about this second book after the total solipsism of the characters in hell. The language strikes me as especially beautiful in these central Cantos, so I'm going to quote at well with Durling's literal translation to follow.

     ...per quanti si dice più li 'nostro',
tanto possiede più di ben ciascuno,
e più di caritate arde in quel chiostro.

For the more say 'our' up there, the more good each one possesses, and the more charity burns in that cloister (15,  55-7).

    Quello infinito e ineffabil Bene
che la su è, così corre ad amore
com' a lucido corpo raggio vène.

That infinite and ineffable Good which is up there runs to love just as a ray comes to a shining body. (15, 67-9).

     E quanta gente più s'intende.
piu v'è da bene amare, e piu si v'ama,
e come specchio l'uno a l'altra rende. 

And the more people bend toward each other up there, the more there is to love well and the more love there is, and, like a mirror, each reflects it to the other. (15, 73-5)

Well, we can at least aspire to that down here, can't we? 'We must love one another and die'.

By the way, I'm typing out the Italian in the hope that I can memorise more here, as I have of three-line segments of the Inferno. I don't really know where to start or end in Marco Lombardo's explanation of the relationship between fate/the stars and free will in Canto 16 (the soul trying to cleanse himself in the murk is illustrated by Doré above). But I'll try to keep it down. This is the beginning of Marco's exposition to Dante.

     Alto sospir, che duolo strinse in 'uhi!'
mise fuor prima; e poi cominciò: 'Frate,
lo mondo è cieco, e tu vien ben da lui.
     Voi che vivete ogne cagion recate
pur suso al cielo, pur come se tutto
movesse seco di necessitate.
     Se così fosse, in voi fura distutto
libero arbitrio, e non fora giustizia
per ben letizia, e per male aver lutto.

A deep sigh, which sorrow dragged out into 'uhi!', he uttered first, and then began: 'Brother, the world is blind, and you surely come from there. You who are alive still refer every cause up to the heavens, just as if they moved everything with them by necessity. If that were so, free choice would be destroyed in you, and it would not be just to have joy for good and mourning for evil. (16, 64-72)

'Lume v'è dato a bene e a malizia,' 'a light is given you to know good and evil,' Marco continues, tracing the origins with a lovely image which follows the feminine gender of 'anima',

     Esce di mano a lui che la vagheggia
prima che sia, a guisa di fanciulla
che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia,
     l'anima semplicetta, che sa nulla,
salvo che, mosso da lieto fattore,
volontier torna a ciò che la trastulla.
     Di picciol bene in pria sente sapore;
quivi s'inganna, e dietro ad esso corre
se guida o fren non torce suo amore.

From the hand of him who desires it before it exists, like a little girl who weeps and laughs childishly, the simple little soul comes forth, knowing nothing except that, set in motion by a happy Maker, it gladly turns to what amuses it. Of some lesser good it first tastes the flavour; there it is deceived and runs after it, if a guide or rein does not turn away its love. (16, 85-93)

This is a fine amendment of Augustine's concept of original sin: Dante is telling us that human nature as such is not corrupt, but simply makes bad choices (by the way, God, please send me a Virgil who looks like Hippolyte Flandrin's above). No wonder Dante wanted to reinforce and expand on Marco's words with Virgil's in Cantos 17 and 18. Although the language is drier, more theoretical, I love these lines:

     'Né creator né creatura mai,'
comincio el, 'figliuol, fu sanza amore,
o naturale o d'animo, e tu 'l sai. 
     Lo natural è sempre sanza errore,
ma l'altro puote errar per male obietto
o per troppo o per poco di vigore.

'Neither Creator nor creature ever,' he began, 'son, has been without love, whether natural or of the mind, and this you know. Natural love is always unerring, but the other can err with an evil object or with too much or too little vigour.  (17, 91-6).

More on love natural and elective, with further subdivisions, is to be found in the continuation of Virgil's observations in Canto 19, but this is probably more than enough to try and digest for now. Mighty Dante - intellect and poetry perfectly conjoined to make independent thought that is anything but simplistically moralising.


David Damant said...

It is splendid that you elevate Dante. Although recognised in this country at arm's length as a great author, I do not think that many people have really grasped much about the Divine Comedy and its insights ( c'est moi qui parle). And this is not a matter of his being from abroad - I would think that the Greek tragedies are better known and better understood than Dante. Even Goethe in Faust? You provoke me to do better

One of Graham Sutherland's characteristics is the brilliant shine of the surfaces of many of his paintings. Thus I am not too impressed with his tapestry in Coventry Cathedral - too soft in texture, which is a point irrespective of the drawing itself. Imagine if it had shone out

David said...

True - where has Dante been all my life, apart from the gifts he gave to Tchaikovsky in Francesca da Rimini and Puccini in Gianni Schicchi, and select lines ('nessun maggior dolore' etc)? Shakespeare is surely his only equal in literature, Bach and Mozart in music, Rembrandt and Titian in art.

And I can see why the entertainingly devilish characterisations of Inferno so appeal, but it's Purgatorio that is moving me so much. As our class Dante and Virgil observed, it speaks more to our imperfect and, hopefully, striving life in the here and now.

I have yet to visit Coventry Cathedral..

David Damant said...

I would add the Russian authors and the Greek tragedies. And I can never see Titian in the very top rank. His pictures are beautiful and magnificent, but do not seem to me ( here it comes) to open a window on the human predicament

David said...

Yes, agreed (I was thinking closer to his time, but then I guess it's not such a leap from Mozart to Tolstoy). Titian - the early and middle paintings may be mostly just magnificent, but the late ones open a window on the human predicament IMO.

Susan said...

It was only recently I "discovered" St. John Passion and realized, once again, how much great music I've yet to hear. I will not catch up, and so will simply treasure what I'm able to take in. This Wednesday, I will hear what looks to be a quite interesting pairing: Leonard Bernstein's The Age of Anxiety and Shostakovich's Symphony #4. Coincidentally, while waiting for the window washer today, I was reading poems by Auden and came upon this (not his best, but still of interest, somehow, today):

A Shock
W.H. Auden (1972)

Housman was perfectly right:
our world rapidly worsens.
Nothing now is so horrid
or silly it can't occur;
still, I'm stumped by what happened
to upper-middle-class me,
born in '07, that is,
the same time as "Elektra,"
gun-shy, myopic grandchild
of Anglican clergymen,
suspicious of all passion,
including passionate love,
daydreaming of leafy dells
that shelter carefree shepherds,
averse to violent weather,
pained by the predator beasts,
shocked by boxing and blood sports,
when I, I, I, if you please,
at Schwechat Flughafen was
frisked by a cop for weapons.

David said...

Yes, that does rather look like WHA thinking aloud (reminds me of being wrestled to the ground at Frankfurt - Franz Kafka - Airport - in a debacle about an onward boarding pass - let's not go there). Actually if you were born at the same time as 'Elektra', that's tantamount to saying your twin sister was an extremely violent character...

Age of Anxiety with Fourth Symphony sounds like too much of a sombre thing, though the piano-bar music always sounds good in Bernstein. DDS will 'win'. Having said that I heard MASS again on Saturday and was moved to bits. Another of Marin Alsop's youth assemblages. The 'Street People', needless to say, instantly reminded one of the anti-NRA movement, and there were plenty of other causes for tears.

David Damant said...

Don't you mean Prague Airport? Kafka was from what became Czechoslovakia. and Jean-Guy with whom you stayed is related. Or do you mean that the airport at Frankfurt was Kafka-esque? It was for women for years, since there were not enough ladies loos.

David said...

The latter - I mean Frankfurt Airport is a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Susan said...

Well, indeed, DDS S4 would win any such contest—and many others—though actually I found the juxtaposition of the two pieces quite interesting, particularly when one thinks of the common thread of Mahler. More importantly, this was my “intro” to Andris Nelsons, and what an introduction it was! I recall you writing here and there about him and went poking around to see if you’d had an opportunity to review him conducting the Shos 4. I din’t find any on that, though I DID find other interesting commentary from you, re, e.g., his recording of the Shos 8. I would certainly love to hear him conduct that work live! Anyway, the performance (with the BSO) was thrilling, and Josie, who also enjoyed the entire concert, insists I advise you that she particularly loved, in the Shos 4, the “top bangy bits.”

Susan said...

And now to Bach and Dante: I am listening to BWV 6 just now, and how lovely it is, for all the reasons you describe. The Dante passages are striking—his thinking seems so thoroughly modern (in the sense, for example, of containing a rich appreciation of ambiguity—no simple truths, let alone answers, here; instead, one must think, and subtly). As an aside, having recently listened to MLK’s “I have reached the mountaintop” speech, I can’t help but think of it when reading that you “shall reach the top of Purgatory Mountain” on your own.

Your observation that “Dante is telling us that human nature as such is not corrupt, but simply makes bad choices” is an interesting one. In present times, it’s hard to think it’s so, but then again, it might depend on how we define human nature. Perhaps my greatest quandary is that I believe this, too, on some level, else why be constantly shocked at the amoral perfidy of so many in power at home in the US and around the world? I’m reminded of Anne Frank’s observation “It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them!”

David said...

Ah, so it was 'our' Andris, whose stupendous time in Birmingham is now being mirrored by Mirga's fabulous work there. Did I review his Shostakovich 4? I think I did, but I'd have to check. Which 'top bangy bits' did Josie like best? There are quite a few...

Meanwhile, I'm feeling very warmly indeed towards Lenny - MASS continues to reverberate. Review is here if you're interested:

Susan said...

This will be no help, but in answer to your question, she liked ALL the top bangy bits. The review of the Mass makes the thrill of it palpable. Thanks for noting it. And I realized I have heard Paulo Szot, whom you mention, as he performed the title role in The Nose at the Met! (I hope, by the way, you’ll see you have another comment from me, this time on the actual subjects of your post!)

David said...

I can't thank you enough for all the wisdom and perception you bring in that second comment, Sue, which must have arrived while I was responding to the first. I guess Dante's idea that we are all born with love can be quickly warped in a loveless environment - we know how abuse makes abusers, a long chain going back who knows when? As for MLK, only connect: Dante resonates so often, not least with everything I've seen and heard recently (MASS, From the House of the Dead, the Brahms German Requiem in Bremen, various films). On the Anne Frank front, I remember my eldest goddaughter saying very earnestly when she was six, 'but good always triumphs over evil, doesn't it?' I was a bit stumped for an answer on that one, but thinking of how, say, Germany turned itself around after World War Two, I said I thought it probably did, but not necessarily in the lifetimes of those who suffered and died from it.

Would Szot have played Kovalyov, the bureaucrat who loses his nose? The nose itself is a 'tenor altino' which howls in the Kazan Cathedral scene. Still reeling from the Royal Opera revival of Richard Jones' production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. So much brilliant, bleak and haunting invention, all rigorously tied together.

David Damant said...

George Orwell argued that the idea that all peoples are alike is false. Those produced in deeply different environments and cultures will differ from one another. Robert Conquest goes on from this to describe the post-communist Russians as the result of centuries of absolutism and 70 years under the corrupt and vicious religion of communism. Thus contrary to Anne Frank, people are not all truly good at heart ( as we would define good). And Dante is not correct to say that human nature is not corrupt but merely makes bad choices - if ( to take the Russian example again) we think Putin is like us but makes bad choices we are wrong. He sees the moral and therefore the practical world from a different viewpoint. One does not have to look very far around the world to see further examples, based on religion or on a lust for power ( and why should I care for other people if my own good is fulfilled?). One can say that Dante was embedded in a very clear and wholly pervasive moral environment. He was heir of the Greeks and a forerunner of the Enlightenment. This is not true of many cultures in the world today which he could not even imagine. He thought in the frame of the world as it was in Christian Europe. On the other hand, despite all the problems in the Eastern countries, perhaps the wisdom of their sages will make itself felt.

Anne Frank was clearly exceptionally intelligent, and extraordinarily wise for her age and background. She could easily have survived after her arrest, as military space was running out for Hitler, and in fact she died of typhoid, not execution

David said...

You miss the point, David, debated in the comments as well as richly stated by Dante in those beautiful passages - we all start from the same point of love, but are shaped by our environments. Dante was a remarkably independent thinker, however embedded in a certain culture. The pure essence of his starting point always did and always will apply to human nature. But have you actually read the Divine Comedy? It amazes me at every turn, even though it sometimes veers off (as in the end of Purgatorio, which I've just finished) into the fundamentals of Augustinian religious thinking.

David Damant said...

Your comment states " we all start from the same point of love". I do not agree. As a result of evolution we may have some inbred characteristics to preserve the race ( antipathy towards people not like us, but also a desire to support each other in our own group, support for our children etc) but in general we are a tabular rasa. And what is written on the tabula rasa is often not love in any general sense.There are for the human race ( apart from the instincts for the preservation of the race already mentioned) no moral rules, no rights, no wrongs, except what our environment dictates, or we choose - and the great thing about the Greeks and the Enlightenment is that they showed us the rational way of choosing. I greatly admire Dante, and had not considered the matter we are now discussing, since I suppose that I have always seen his wonderful analysis of ( sorry) the human predicament in the light of the fact that he writes and thinks completely in the context of the Christian view of the world, which, as the early fathers of the church hoped to demonstrate, emerged from the Greeks ( "In the beginning was the Word [Logos] - Gospel of John). I would repeat what I think to be a practical point in my analysis - we should not think of all people who take actions we disagree with as people like us who have taken the wrong decisions. They are different, of course to varying degrees

David said...

You can't prove that; no-one can. Dante's premise may be poetic but it is no less plausible, in fact more so in my view. And the wonder of it is how far outside his given context he moved. Like all great artists, he saw beyond. You and I are not, and do not, but we can choose to be enlightened by those who do. But answer the question: have you read the whole of the Divine Comedy? I still haven't (we move on to Paradiso next term).

David Damant said...

I argue that an assumption that " we all start from the same point of love" is not based on any evidence. Starting by looking at the human race, it seems unlikely, unless we speak only of the instincts for the preservation of the race. I agree with George Orwell. I suppose, also, that to try to believe that it is true is not a good starting point. I was taken through parts of the Divine comedy by an Italian speaker, and read some of it myself, but some time ago. That it is a great work - of the first rank - cannot be denied. All I am saying is that there are those who do not see the world in the same way. I strikes me that I should add that a thorough study and understanding of Dante is a wonderful path to take for us ourselves in our culture, and perhaps as a set of values to promote world wide.

David said...

No other viewpoint on the subject is based on any evidence either. Take your pick. There's more to our existence than natural selection - Darwin would be the first to agree with that. Why do you think so many of the great scientists turned to philosophy?

David Damant said...

As someone with a degree in philosophy I agree with the widest enquiries. It would be wonderful if the views expressed by Dante, the Greeks, the Enlightenment, were true - and they are true - for our cultural worlds. All I am saying is that we should not assume that everyone in the world has minds and personalities structured in the same way. Some take their pick in a way we find terrible. What is added to natural selection can vary.

David said...

I think we're now running along parallel lines, if not at crossed purposes, so I bow out now.

Susan said...

To your question, yes, Szot played Kovalyov. (I see I said “title role,” when I should have said lead—though perhaps in the case of The Nose, that too is ambiguous!)

David said...

Not quite 'led by the Nose,' then..but you're right, it's still Kovalyov's nose, however highly it thinks of itself. I was reminded of the work by the Gogolian references in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Richard Jones' superlative production of which made a comeback at the Royal Opera last night.