Saturday, January 7, 2017

Going Their Way. Attention Must Be Paid.


A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. . . . His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. James Joyce, The Dead


James Joyce captioning a photo of Bing Crosby in Road to Zanzibar may seem an odd juxtaposition, but old echoes have been swirling about me these past two weeks, as 2016 gave way to 2017. Neither quite Marley's 3 Ghosts nor Carmel's mimosa scent, but equally haunting and demanding attention be paid. Herein I try to do that.

It started with attending the experience of James Joyce's The Dead, 1904, the Irish Rep's spirited idea to bring the short story to life in the appropriately Beaux Arts building of the Irish Historical Society. From Lily greeting the guests in the foyer, to the Irish whiskey and wines that flowed, it was an imaginative way into the world of Joyce. (My one criticism was the lighting: much too bright, much too modern.)

The Dead has deeply touched the heart of generations of readers, as it did mine. So much so that writing about it was one of the very first pieces I wrote for my little space on the blogosphere. And it is the post that Tom Watson found that brought me into the company of so many writers I have enjoyed for these past 10 years, so I have layers of deep attachment to it.

Rich Conaty

Three days later came the shocking news that Rich Conaty had died, on December 30. Rich was a singular soul. He fell in love with the music of the 1920s and 1930s, and made a career out of that love, primarily with a show called The Big Broadcast on WFUV.

I met Rich because of Bing Crosby, the life-long idol of my father. I was weaned on Bing Crosby because of it, watching every film and listening to as much of the enormous repertoire as was possible throughout my young years.

That lead me to be a fan of WNEW AM, and In 1983 Rich had a weekend show, Crooners Corner. That's where I first heard him. He played almost all Crosby, I couldn't believe it. A few years later, 1987, my father had died, and I wrote an essay called "October Song" about the 10th anniversary of Crosby's death (October 14, 1977) and my dad's death (sadly from colon cancer). I sent the essay to Rich. We met, and he read my essay on the air. I used to have a cassette tape of that show, but it got lost along the way. If anyone happens to have heard it, or knows which show it was, I would so appreciate getting a copy.

Shortly after that I starting working at the then Museum of Television & Radio as the senior editor of the publications department. The radio curator shortly after left, and I called Rich and encouraged him to apply. He did and that's how he became the radio curator there. We worked closely with the television curator Ron Simon to produce a book celebrating Jack Benny. It was enormous fun. Rich of course did an amazing job bringing the radio shows to life. The book is still available on Amazon. And there are many wonderful tributes to Rich from his fans on the WFUV site.



In thinking about Rich I tried to find a copy of my essay "October Song" that he read on air, since I no longer have the recording, but could not. It was from the Dark Ages,  pre-digital; if you don't have a hard copy, you don't have it.

The Road to Zanzibar
But I stumbled upon another essay I wrote 30 years ago that I had entirely forgotten about: "Going His Way." And it's not about that Academy Award-winning film, but Road to Zanzibar.

Allow me to be Robert Benchley, breaking into the narrative a bit to help move the story along:

Back in the day my father was diagnosed in January, he died in April. By March he was very ill, but he was home, and we were all living as normally as possible. I saw that Road to Zanzibar was on Channel 13 at 10:30pm that night, and announced it at the dinner table.

Essay--
"Ordinarily it would have been a given that we would watch it together, but Dad was suffering and went to sleep early. Tacitly, we all knew that for him to miss this movie would be a strong, frightening sign that he would soon be leaving us.

"But then he didn't go up to bed. Instead, somehow, his love for us and his desire not to worry us gave him the strength to stay up, and he settled into his usual recliner chair."

"Benchley": I had never seen this Road picture at that time, and was not familiar with the music. And for some crazy reason I thought my Dad also did not know this flick or the music either. Back to the story:

"Every Road picture has a ballad. For Zanzibar, it's the Van Heusen and Burke, "It's Aways You" with Bing in a canoe with Dorothy Lamour, crooning in that lovely baritone range of his voice. This was new music for me. And to my left, my father leaned back a bit in his recliner, gently resting his head as he clearly sang

Whenever it's early twilight
I watch 'til a star breaks through
Funny, it's not a star I see
It's always you

He didn't falter for a word or a note

Whenever I roam through roses
And lately I often do
Funny, it's not a rose I touch
It's always you

"The years and the pain fell away, even if it was just for the beats of the ballad. And beyond all the resonance of the dying man connecting with his childhood idol was the fact that 5 years earlier my father planted a significant rose garden and become a serious rose gardener. It seemed out of the blue. Well, maybe not . . ."

Essay end.

I had not thought about that moment for decades. And I only revisited because of Rich Conaty.  And in my search for my mementos of Rich, I found my father's Decca 75 of "It's Always You." I didn't even know I had it. It's been sitting in a small part of my bookcase  among other 75's that I took from the house after my mom moved, but honest to God I never looked through them.

And on this first snowy, snowy day, where the snow truly is falling beautifully on the living and the dead, I learn from a tweet from James Wolcott that Road to Zanzibar is on TCM tonight. I have not seen it in 30 years.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"LA LA Land" Meets My Thomas Hardy's "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic"

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in the film LA LA Land.

Well, that was surprising.  I went to see Damien Chazelle's LA LA Land, knowing nothing about it beyond "it's a musical."

Well. It's not just a musical. It revolves around a jazz pianist, and an aspiring actress, but the pianist is the important part. OMG.

I was once involved with a jazz pianist. Not just jazz, he was an extremely talented piano artist of all modes, but particularly improvising. It didn't end well, which lead me to write a post some years ago about Thomas Hardy's poem "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic" because of its vivid depiction of the iceberg hitting the ship. It's the perfect metaphor for a devastating relationship. Read below.

I haven't thought about the post, or of him--whom I dubbed "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which will give you some idea of who he turned out to be-- in years, but then there I am watching LA LA Land, and Ryan Gosling being a talent jazz pianist.

My entire life I have loved the piano to the very core of my soul. I never learned to play as a child, I tried as an adult, which lead to the devastation. Mr. Ripley came with me to test out various pianos before I purchased one. He would sit down and start playing big, lush, improvisations on whatever was in his head, and inevitably, the jaded store salespeople would come over and listen, mouth agape.

For my birthday one year he wrote an a cappella arrangement of "Blackbird" that we sang at my party in a quartet. (We recorded it live, but the beginning with the snapping didn't come through that well.)



My shattered heart over Mr. Ripley never diminished my love for that extraordinary instrument and those who command it with such artistry. Still, I was numb for a bit of the movie, in a little emotional shell shock.

But all is well. And I offer the original post for all those romantics out there who had to come to terms with a cold reality.

• • • • • •

I don’t remember when I first read Thomas Hardy’s poem “Convergence of the Twain---Lines on the loss the Titanic,” but it is a haunting piece whose theme, unexpectedly, offers a comforting way to look at heartache.

It has one particular phrase—"and consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres"—that strikes all who hear it. I know, because of the literally thousands of people from around the world who have Googled the phrase and landed here. Hardy is in the unique echelon of "world literature."

The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic
Thomas Hardy

            I
      In a solitude of the sea
      Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
             
                  II
      Steel chambers, late the pyres
      Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
                  III
      Over the mirrors meant
      To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
                  IV
      Jewels in joy designed
      To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
                  V
      Dim moon-eyed fishes near
      Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...
                  VI
      Well: while was fashioning
      This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
                  VII
      Prepared a sinister mate
      For her -- so gaily great --
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
                  VIII
      And as the smart ship grew
      In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
                  IX
      Alien they seemed to be:
      No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
                  X
      Or sign that they were bent
      By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
                  XI
      Till the Spinner of the Years
      Said 'Now!' And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.


Rudyard Kipling put the word twain (from Old English twegen, meaning two) on the poetic map with one of his Barrack-room Ballads in 1892, declaring, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  In 1912 the sinking of the Titanic was so overwhelming that Hardy needed to use the language of the Empire—perversely inverted to be the convergence of the twain—to start to make sense of the tragedy.

He begins the poem with a harrowing description of the Titanic on the bottom of the ocean, where sea-worms crawl over the “mirrors meant to glass the opulent.”

“Jewels in joy designed to ravish the sensuous mind lie lightless.” And moon-eyed fishes query “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

Hardy explains that “The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything prepared a sinister mate" for the ship: “a Shape of Ice.”

"And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too."

How chilling, to think of the ship being built as the iceberg is simultaneously growing larger. In Hardy’s worldview, the twain meet in time and space when

 “the Spinner of Years said ‘Now!’ 
And each one hears, and consummation comes, 
and jars two hemispheres.”

Those Jazz Pianists--They Are Trouble with a Capital "T"

It is the definitive poem on the tragic fate of Titanic. It also had a very personal meaning for me several years ago. After a failed romance, it popped into my head as an amazing metaphor for when two people collide, and one sinks.

Most of us have experienced a catastrophic meeting of the twain: who hasn’t been sunk by another person, particularly a love? And from the black stillness of the ocean floor, as you lay stunned, trying to rally your senses, you start to think, how could this have happened?

Well, it happened much like Hardy imagined the epic sinking: you were growing “in stature, grace, and hue” and somewhere, so was he.

Then “the Immanent Will” or fate or chance or Match.com said “Now!” and you hit. It turns out that this, too, is a sinister mate. The extent of the injury from the impact is not immediately known (surely, there are 16 watertight compartments). But slowly you realize things are amiss, and then rapidly you are going down.

The comfort in Hardy’s poem, for me, is the sense of inevitability. The ship was built and the iceberg grew, and fate deemed they were going to hit. From that macro-view, it’s a no fault disaster.

On a personal level, I can accept that a catastrophic impact was going to be a part of my history, just as the Titanic sinking is part of world history.

IF he had never moved from Tennessee . . .

IF I hadn’t learned to play the piano . . .

IF IF IF . . .

IF things had been different, we twain would not have met. I would have been safer in Kipling’s world than in Hardy’s-—but I didn’t get to make that choice.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Woody's 1979 Manhattan Fantasy Meets 2016 Manhattan Reality


When I saw the schedule for New York Philharmonic 2016-2917 Art of the Score series my heart jumped: GERSHWIN!  I mean, the Woody Allen 1979 film, Manhattan.

And that was the rub. The brilliance of George Gershwin played live by the NYPhil set to the awe-inspiring cinematography of Gordon Willis was wrapped around the Woody Allen film with the story line involving a 42-year-old man and a 17 year-old girl.

My love of Gershwin won out over my disappointment in Allen, and I bought tickets for the Saturday, September 17 8:00pm performance.

The NYPhil did not disappoint. That opening sequence to Rhapsody in Blue was spine-tingling, the full power of a live symphony crashing below the stunning montage of Gordon Willis's cinematography. The audience broke out in wild applause after that opening, unable to retain the "we don't clap before the whole piece is over" protocol.

What I did not know was that while I was safely in my seat at Lincoln Center with my nephew, a bomb was exploding in Chelsea, and another was set. As of this writing, still unclaimed. Who set them? Why? What do they hate so much?

So chance had it that it was a night of two Manhattans: The romantic fantasy of 1979 Manhattan, which already had sad undertones of the reveals of Allen's personal life in the ensuing years,  colliding with the reality of violence 2016. My head and heart are spinning.


Back in the Day
I saw Manhattan in 1979 at the same age that Mariel Hemingway is in the film, the spring before I went off to college.

I was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, but I already had a relationship with Manhattan since I commuted to an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a high school junior. It gave me that strong, life-long emotional attachment that "this is my city."

And so the film in 1979 was pure catnip for me: YES, the vistas, the music, the lightning fast lines of the character Isaac, and Diane Keaton's pseudo intellectual Mary. I think I recognized the pseudo part, but as I was off to college I still connected with the celebration of the cerebral. The film made me feel connected to the literary life I hoped lay beyond that Manhattan skyline for me.

The script is filled with memorable, funny lines, from when Allen "was still funny." I have known and quoted and loved these lines my whole adult life:

Isaac Davis: 

I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics.

[They're] like the cast of a Fellini movie.

Really? Because I always feel very few people survive one mother.

. . . the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald emotional maturity award.

Mary Wilke: Hey, listen, I don't even wanna have this conversation. I'm just from Philadelphia, you know. I mean, we believe in God.

The situation with Allen's personal life can't take that away from me (cue Gershwin, yet again).

The most chilling dialogue in the script is when Isaac goes to confront Yale that Yale and Mary have reconnected. He plays the moral card. The 42-year old man dating a 17 year old, plays the moral card:

Yale: You are so self righteous, you know. We're just people! We're just human beings, you know. You think you're God!
Isaac Davis: I gotta model myself after someone!

Ouch. It might have seen self-aggrandizing to me in 1979, it's pathetic seen from 2016, given his voiced


"I’ll be hanging in a classroom one day and I wanna make sure when I've thinned out that I’m . . . well thought of” has become the polar opposite for many.

Current Context
I found some of the literary life in my Manhattan like I imagined before college. Professionally I had some direct connection to the film through the designer Burt Kleeger, who began designing Allen's poster with Interiors and with whom I worked for five years. He designed the iconic Manhattan film logo, and told me that when he brought it for review, the team of people with Allen said it was great, "but . . . " and offered all sorts of suggestions, as groups are want to do. Then Allen said "We'll use it as is." Sweeter words were never said to a designer.

I unknowingly moved to the block (directly across the street in fact) where Humphrey Bogart was born at #245 in 1899 and lived until 1925, the very year George Gershwin bought a townhouse at #316. Depending on the months of those moves, the two geniuses could have been the closest of neighbors without knowing it, since both were not yet famous.

I moved to the city in 1983, and experienced the last part of its recovery from the bankruptcy of the 1970s, to revert to a gritty, unsafe city in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to a fuller recovery through the Guiliani years. Then the horror of 9/11.

For me, Citibikes embodies the spirit of the romance of NYC that Allen captured. I've enjoyed commuting along the Hudson on the Greenway immensely. I sometimes hear Rhapsody in Blue in my head when I cycle north, the George Washington Bridge gleaming afore me.

And all of this connection, context, perspective, love, and spirit, takes shrapnel every time someone brings violence into the lives of my neighbors (and by my neighbors, I do mean the global community).  Surely then we must keep the arts alive even more passionately and fervently insist on creation and beauty for all in the face of destruction, as imperfect and flawed as that art is going to be.






NY Times photo of Chelsea explosion

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 and the New York Times Crossword Puzzle: 15 Years, Day by Day



The week leading up to a 9/11 anniversary in New York City is very distinct: all flavor of law enforcement is highly visible, from troopers in full riot gear and high-powered firearms greeting the morning rush hour crush at 96th street to groups of 3 officers dotting various other commuter platforms and the midtown beats.

It sends my mind wandering, how to absorb this fifteenth year since the mass murders down the block. I have written about many, many aspects of my 9/11 experiences since I started this blog in 2006.

This year my mind wandered to the New York Times crossword puzzle. They have done a great job putting up an archive of past puzzles, all the way back now to 1993.

I have been a crossword solver my entire life, starting with watching my parents do the Sunday crossword in the Magazine Section, and then in college I discovered daily puzzles in the physical paper. That evolved to the beauty and agile finger-dance of doing it online.

So this week I was drawn to doing the Tuesday, September 11, 2001 puzzle, which I'm sure I did not get to do on that day. Of course it would have been set weeks before.

I continued with the daily for the week, then started doing the Sunday puzzles, starting with September 16, 2001. I vividly remember the flag that the New York Times printed on its back page on that Sunday, I had it on my door for years.  I do not remember any note on the puzzle.

The 2006 documentary Wordplay explored the reasons people do the NYTimes crossword every day, talking with high-profile solvers including Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, and Bill Clinton.  We all share many of the same reasons: family  history, many solvers are continuing a parent's habit; a tiny space of order amid chaos; the 'aha" moments when clues set delicious twists in how we "hear" a word.

It's a cerebral communion with what can feel like all of civilization in microcosm. Margaret Farrar, the founding puzzle editor of the New York Times who mentored Will Weng and Eugene Maleska, started the "no disease, no wars" convention, and believed the puzzle should be "a commercial-free zone that leaves readers in a joyful mood." Bless her.

This year I found some grounding in redoing the 2001 puzzles, in walking in those very same footsteps I did 15 years ago. The puzzle was there, amid the chaos. Civilization was in tact, in the face of a people trying to kill it off.

Prufrock measured out his life with coffee-spoons: in this century, day by day, puzzle by puzzle, the city and I moved on.

I was curious about today's Sunday puzzle, falling on the 15th anniversary. There is no overt mention, as is appropriate.  But the theme resolves around the goodness of rest and sleeping in our own beds. You can even see the bed in the center of puzzle. Along with the idea--that we have all felt-- that there are monsters under the bed . . .

A  9/11 puzzle after all.



Friday, July 1, 2016

Somme Centenary Meets Brexit: Oh, What a Lovely, 4-Star War


Friday,  July 1, 2016.  100 years to the day that United Kingdom and the Commonwealth troops went over the top into certain death after 5 days of relentless shelling of the Germain line to make the assault easy.

 Thursday, June 23, 2016.  Great Britain votes to leave the European Union.


In the first instance, boys left their homes in the millions (wiki) to help defeat the Kaiser. and his allies.  Unlike WW11 and the Blitz of London, the enemy had not stepped on English soil. And yet an entire generation left their loved ones to defend the idea of national sovereignty: that the Kaiser was not allowed to simply invade Belgium, France et al. and take their lands.

Fast forward 100 years: as it's been somewhat determined--old age pensioners decide they "need their country back" and vote to leave the stabilizing influence of the European Union.

That Brexit would usher in the Somme Centenary is a cruel twist of fate.

That ISIS would assert itself, again, by bombing an airport  in Turkey is a cruel dose of reality.  If the West continues to come apart at the seams, it gives ISIS a huge opening to destroy the whatever and wherever they want.

Oh, what a difference a 100 years make. Can these different generations of Anglo Saxons really share the same DNA? Has the current day forgotten Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" ?

IF I should die, think only this of me;
  That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
  In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,         5
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
  
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less  10
    Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
  And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
    In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Here's just one of many tweets of Brits sharing about their granddads, uncles, etc. who went to defend France, not leave it. As on outsider to both England and France, this is all very confusing.




Oh, What a Lovely War: World War One Through the Lens of the 1960s



Oh, What a Lovely War (1969) is the first film Richard Attenborough directed, bringing the 1963 stage revue of the same name (except for dropping the musical's exclamation mark) produced by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop to the screen. I saw it last year for the first time on the invaluable TCM.

The film is a fantastical re-imagining of the stage revue, kicking out the confines of the stage into cinema's fullest power. I found it completely riveting. It is the visualization of a nation adjusting its cultural memory, its national identity, fifty years after the horror.  Much of the action takes place on the pier and pavilion at quintessentially English Brighton, which starts as a fanfare for the Edwardian visitors and slowly gets darker and more sardonic in tone.  The film visualizes many ideas that were in transition for England in the 1960s, including the appearance of a cricket board tallying the deaths on the Somme, with the ground (rarely) gained.

The TCM showing lead me to stumble upon Roger Ebert's original 1969 review of the film when it popped up in a general Google search for the film. He gave it fours stars.

 It's a mistake to review "Oh! What a Lovely War" as a movie. It isn't one, but it is an elaborately staged tableau, a dazzling use of the camera to achieve essentially theatrical effects. And judged on that basis, Richard Attenborough has given us a breathtaking evening.

As a student of WW1, I found it very moving to hear Ebert's own connection to the history:

"Like most people, I know World War I at second or third hand, through such sources as Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." The most dramatic point Graves makes is that the war almost literally exterminated the generation that would have ruled Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Something like 90 per cent of the field officers were killed on some fronts.

And so this tragic event sank into the bones of the British memory. America, which came into the war rather late and sustained much lighter casualties, could afford the luxury of a "lost generation" in the 1920s. England literally lost her generation; it was dead and buried, and we seem to see it beneath the countless crosses stretching out behind John Mills in the last, stunning graveyard shot in "Oh! What a Lovely War."


As always, his whole review is worth reading.



The stage revue was based on a radio program by Charles Chilton, from 1961. He never knew his father, who died in the Great War, and he wrote a musical documentary in his memory that layered facts and figures about the war within a scripted story,  surrounded by songs of the period. The statistics of the deaths are staggering, and in this form, they were so clear and easy to understand, perhaps for the first time for the nation.

The visuals of Littlewood's film made the juxtaposition of the slaughter with jaunty songs even more powerful than on radio. And so the film is often credited with contributing to the shift in the British cultural memory in the 1960s from a general support for WW1 (though never reaching the "popular" stasis of WW2) to seeing it as an enormous, generation-destroying, soul-crushing catastrophe.

The film is a who's who of British actors: Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Paul Shelley, Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert, and Maurice Roëves.

Pauline Kael did not very much like Oh, What a Lovely War, calling it a "big, heavy anti-war musical in the pukka-sahib tradition of English moviemaking," along with a swipe at Attenborough, who "has a stately, measured approach--just what the 50 musical numbers don't need."




I don't agree. I found it an engrossing tribute to the British nation coming to terms--50 years after the slaughter--with the slaughter and how it plays into their national identity.

The final scene is a helicopter shot of thousands of crosses on a green field. Oddly, they did not go to one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries in Europe for it.  Wiki tells us instead that they put the crosses up on hills around Brighton. It's an extraordinary shot,  done "for real" with no CGI.

Something like this cultural reckoning will need to happen for Brexit, ISIS, 9/11, Syria civil war. and too, too many other events, in the next 50 to 100 years to come. I hope the artists are up to the task.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Allegri's Miserere: Turning Up All Over

There is so much sublime music for Easter, I can barely talk about it. The Renaissance composers saved their most brilliant writing to word paint the holy mystery of the Triduum-—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

One piece is famous beyond the small circle of church music: the Allegri Miserere. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that goes between the simple chant melody of Psalm 51 (50) and cascading quartets, with the soprano going up to a high C, one of the highest notes a human voice can produce.

Its popularity is augmented by its intriguing, something-out-of-Indiana Jones like history. It was written by the Sistine Chapel composer Allegri around 1630 for matins during Holy Week on Wednesday and Friday. On penalty of excommunication the score was never to be seen or shown outside of the Chapel choir. The ornamentation was never written down at all, but passed along from singer to singer.

Audiences were allowed to attend matins even back then, and it became known as a “must-hear” for the elite, particularly those on the original Grand Tour of the 18th century.

Enter the 14-year-old Mozart, in Rome in 1770, during Holy Week. When he hears the Miserere, he decides to write it down, note for note, from memory. He goes back on Good Friday to double-check his work. (It's comforting that even geniuses need to double-check things.)

He shortly after encounters Dr. Charles Burney, the British church musician and musicologist. Somehow the piece passes into his hands, and he publishes it in 1771 (it seems excommunication was now off the table). The piece that is performed today was permutated over the centuries—-sometimes by design, sometimes by out-and-out mistakes of transcription—-so it is not very close at all to what Mozart heard. But what Allegri’s Miserere has become is still an exceptional musical experience that captures the imagination of most who hear it.

In the Movies and Onstage
I have sung the alto part numerous times, so I am privileged to know it very well. I heard it recently in two very surprising places.

One was me finally watching the John Woo movie Face/Off, with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. At the end, at the funeral for the director whom Travolta has killed, we see the funeral procession, and the music is the Miserere. (While it is so closely associated with Good Friday, Psalm 51 itself is used for Catholic burial.) Suprisingly, it is not listed in the Wikipedia write-up for the film, which does list other classical music that is used. How could they miss it?

The other instance was in the play The Seafarer, the Irish play by Conor McPherson (more about it here). The play is set on CHRISTMAS Eve. They turn the radio on at one point, and there we hear the Allegri Miserere. Very strange. With so much great Christmas music available, why would Conor (who is also the director) choose that? If anyone knows how to reach him, I would love to get an explanation for this.

Here is the performance by the exquisite English group The Sixteen, with the words below. (The high C comes around 1:45 minutes in and is repeated every other verse.)





Miserere Mei Deus
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

14 Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

(Reposted and updated from 2008.)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Grand Marshalls of the St. Patrick's Day Parade In a Yeatsian Gyre: From Violence to Peace

W.B. Yeats had a complicated/poetic view of the forces of history. Forces being the important word.  Not surprising, since he was born in 1865 into the tail end of the Protestant Ascendancy, which began in the 17th century with "the political, economic and social domination of Ireland by a minority of landowners, Protestant clergy and  all members of the Established Church (the Church of Ireland and Church of England) wiki."

Yeats experienced the shift in the declining power of his Protestant heritage as Parnell and Home Rule grew stronger in 1880s, at the same time Yeats discovered and fell in love with Irish Fenian Mythology, going back to ancient, pre-Christian mystical Ireland. That love became the basis of his earliest poems in a career that evolved and matured brilliantly and gave us some of the most distinct, bracing, extraordinary English sentences of the 20th century, including

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer"

History goes in cycles for Yeats. And that popped into my head as I experienced a small piece of history come full circle surrounding the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.

I've been catching up with some of the details of the 255th edition of Parade. There will be less protesting, as our LGBT sisters and brothers are allowed in the line of march. Very Christian move, I say. And Pontifex just tweeted "No one can be excluded from the mercy of God. The Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected," so that clinches it.

And I learned that the Grand Marshall is Senator George Mitchell, one of the architects of what's known as the Good Friday Peace Agreement signed in 1998. (Like all things having to do with Irish/United Kingdom politics, it's complicated. You can read more about it on wiki.)  It hasn't been perfect, but it restored sanity to the cycle of violence that had overshadowed 20th century Irish lives for the decades known as The Troubles (in an even more active way than the centuries of British rule had done).

During this same time, it popped into my head to look back through the letters my Dad wrote to me when I was away at University in Southampton to see what he might have said about St. Patrick's Day 1983.

And lo and behold, he wrote all about the Grand Marshall that year.

From my Dad's letter to me dated March 19, 1983: 

"I was glad that you called St. Patrick's Day. We went to Mass but nothing else for festivities. We had a nice piece of corned beef and Grandma O' came down to join us. 

The Parade went well evidently, in spite of the controversy surrounding the Grand Marshall. I did not write about it because it bothered me, but a lot of dignitaries, organizations, and school bands boycotted the parade because the committee elected an IRA supporter as GM. 

His name is Michael Flannery--he is 81. He is the founder of the Noraid Society, which professes the help of families (widows, etc.) in Northern Ireland but which has been accused of supplying arms to the IRA. Flannery and several other Irish-Americans were acquitted last summer of such charges, brought by the US. Govt.

The worst part was Flannery made a comment to the effect that the Parade this year would show the Irish-American support for the IRA, which offended a lot of people, myself included.

I really feel if the Parade is going to be an expression or rallying point for political violence (last year Bobby Sands was the Honorary GM) then it should be done away with.

It is supposed to be, after all, an expression of love and honor for a man of peace--a Saint and a reflection of the Prince of Peace, Christ. 

Oh how we mortals can debase and denigrate the things that should be so dear to us."

I really never knew my father's political opinions. I had no idea he was so anti-IRA. He didn't share much when I was younger, and he died just when I was getting to be old enough to ask him about his views.

And by chance, I re-read his letter, after many years, on the year that someone he would have been proud of--a peace broker, a man who helped to heal all the destruction that the likes of Michael Flannery wrought in the name of loving Ireland--would be leading the line of march.  The gyre had turned far enough to spiral from violence, to peace.

What are the odds? Happy St. Patrick's Day to one and all (even the Irish curmudgeons who call it Amateur Irishman Day).

This video on YouTube is a real time capsule from 1983: a news report from some station, and then various functions during the week. 

Those who boycotted the parade in 1983 included Sen. Ted Kennedy, Former NY Governor Hugh Carey, Sen. Daniel Moynihan, and Congressman Tip O Neill, as well as John Cardinal O'Connor not reviewing the beginning of the parade, and various catholic school bands pulling out.