Mesocosm

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Archive for February 2012

New on Mesocosm: Links Roundup and Poetry Fridays

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Cupid and Psyche, Roman, c. 2nd Century CE
Altes Museum, Berlin

Hello, Mesocosm readers! I’m going to be trying out two new regular features – a periodic links roundup, and poetry Fridays.

Link Roundup

Some exciting news in paleobotany this week! First, a report that Russian scientists successfully grew flowers from 30,000-year-old fruit. A few days later, I read of a joint expedition in northern China excavating a Pompeii-like buried forest that is a staggering 300 million years old.

An international archaeological expedition is working in the Sumerian city of Ur, I am excited to report, and they have discovered a new temple dating back to around 2500 BCE.

The great songster Leonard Cohen has a new album out, and Cohen-biographer Liel Leibovitz has a story for the ages in this Tablet article.

From Bruce Schneier, I learned of this interesting post about a letter the famed game theorist John Nash wrote to the NSA in 1955. His musings appear to anticipate much of mainstream cryptography by decades.

National Geographic has an excellent article in their February issue about a beautiful charcoal and ink drawing that may well be a previously-unknown Leonardo da Vinci. The article is online here.

Finally, I was deeply saddened to learn that Arikamedu, an important historical site in India, has been recently devastated by a cyclone. First excavated by the great British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in the 1940s, Arikamedu was a Roman trading post in Tamil Nadu in southern India, established in the first century CE. The site had recently been ravaged by the 2004 tsunami.
 

Poetry Friday

On Poetry Friday I’m going to refer readers to poems that I enjoy on my Twitter Account – you can click the Follow button on the right of this page if you like.

We started two weeks ago with an snippet from the great Indian poet Kalidasa, and last week I referred readers to a lesser-known poem by E. E. Cummings, enter no (silence is the blood whose flesh.

(Yes, I said “E. E. Cummings,” which is how he more frequently signed his own name).

This week I would like call attention to the magnificent poem The Book of Thell, a (relatively) short work by William Blake. In this excerpt, the young maid Thell contemplates transience:

“O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow, and like a parting cloud,
Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant’s face,
Like the dove’s voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.”

The Lily of the valley, breathing in the humble grass
Answer’d the lovely maid and said: “I am a watry weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head;
Yet I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand,
Saying: ‘Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lily flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer’s heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales.’ Then why should Thel complain?”

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Written by Mesocosm

February 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

Posted in Links, Poetry

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Dies Irae: Mozart’s Requiem

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Did I not tell you that I was composing this ‘Requiem’ for myself?
  – Mozart, reportedly on the day of his death
 

Final page of Mozart's Requiem, in his own hand

Commissioned anonymously by Count Franz von Walsegg and left unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death, the Requiem mass in D minor has been the stuff of legend for centuries. Its mythology has been amplified for recent generations by the Miloš Forman film Amadeus – a film that shows about as much concern for historical fact as The Da Vinci Code. But at the center of this myth-making lies an extraordinary achievement by one of the greatest musical minds in history.

I am rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with an amateur choir and have undertaken a study of the piece, and like so many before me, I have been stunned by its richness. As my inimitable choirmaster pointed out, Mozart seized every opportunity for musical development, with countless variations and extensions pushing the development constantly forward.

A simple melody may return for a second visit, having grown three measures longer and trailing filigree ornament like a lace train behind it. On its third appearance, it may have doubled in length and taken flight as one voice in a four-part fugue.

I’d like to point out a few highlights of the Requiem‘s structure, and then tie in some broader reflections on Mozart’s style and biography. I’ve posted some YouTube clips from a lovely performance, with John Eliot Gardiner leading the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, so you can follow along if you like.

The first clip begins the mass with two closely-related movements, the Introitus and the Kyrie (the latter begins around 4:41). For our first analysis, why don’t you have a listen, and give a little attention to how the piece is organized, and how its structure changes as it moves along. I’ll wait here till you’re done.

Okay, then. Nice, isn’t it?

The tension and development in the Introitus derive largely from its movement back and forth between its homophonic organization in chords, as you would often find in the music of Beethoven, and its polyphonic arrangement in different voices, as you often find in the music of Bach. Notice how the voices begin polyphonically with the “Requiem aeternam” at around 0:47, with each of the four vocal sections starting at a different time, and pursuing their own independent melodic course.

The Introitus generally uses chords for emphasis, as when the four vocal divisions come together emphatically for the “… dona eis, Domine….” around 1:20, and continue in lock step for several measures. Then, following the lovely solo, the voices drift apart again into independent melodic lines.

Notice how, at 3:16, the alto section suddenly branches off into an independent melody with its lovely “Dona eis,” floating above the bass.

Once you’ve got a sense of this glorious little line, skip back to 1:52, and you’ll hear the melody first being introduced by the strings, preparing us for the breakaway appearance in the vocals. It comes again through the strings at 2:14, ornamenting the solo.

By the time the Kyrie erupts at 4:40, in the glorious Baroque style of Bach and Handel, each of the four vocal sections present a fugue based in part on that melody, and we are ready for it.

We’ve moved between two completely different methods of organizing musical ideas, and the effect is achieved so gracefully that one might not even notice that anything happened. Mozart prepared the listener for what is to come, and the transition feels as natural as the arrival of spring.

The Domine Jesu contains so many good musical ideas, I hardly know where to begin. Notice what happens at 1:20, when the principle theme is restated by different soloists in different modes.

For a technical account of what is occurring in this movement, let’s consult musicologist Christoph Wolff:

In the “Domine Jesu” Mozart works with the triadic head motive in a way that allows the melodic element (which is the prominent factor in the movement) to become the peg on which the harmonic developments are hung. … The rising series of statements of the head motive, in alternately minor and major keys, is given to the soprano alone, but it prepares the imitative development (bars 32ff.) carried out by all four voices in descending canons at the fifth. The imitative working exploits the motive’s ambivalent major/minor third … and thus extracts the quintessence of the separate major and minor versions of it. (1)

I was not surprised by the technical brilliance of the mass’s construction, which I have come to expect, given the scope of Mozart’s genius. What sets this work apart for me is its tone – its uncharacteristic gravity, which is quite distinct from the relentless whimsy that typifies most of his music.

This account by his Austrian contemporary agrees with his popular persona:

One day when I was sitting at the pianoforte playing the ‘Non più andrai’ from Figaro, Mozart, who was paying a visit to us, came up behind me … sat down, told me to carry on playing the base, and began to improvise such wonderfully beautiful variations that everyone listened … But then he suddenly tired of it, jumped up, and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, he began to leap over tables and chairs, miaow like a cat, and turn somersaults like an unruly boy. (2)

That anarchic sense permeates nearly every piece he wrote. Take, for example, Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Unlike the Requiem, the C minor Mass cannot suppress its playful spirit for long. The opening Kyrie begins in an introspective mood before flipping to B flat major for the Christe at 2:20. This aria, I submit, could be inserted into a comic opera about star-crossed young lovers with the music unchanged.

Glenn Gould, in an interview with Bruno Monsaingeon, describes the problem thus:

GG: I think that when generations of listeners – laymen particularly, because their views usually have an intuitive edge over musicians’ – have found it appropriate to attribute terms like “lightness,” “ease,” “frivolity,” “gallantry,” “spontaneity” to Mozart, it behooves us to at least think about the reason for these attributions – which are not necessarily borne of a lack of appreciation or charity. I think that to a lot of people – and I include myself among them – the words imply not a criticism of what Mozart offers us but a hint of he doesn’t offer. I always think of an extraordinary concept in an essay on Mozart by the theologian Jean Le Moyne, who also happens to be a most perceptive musical layman. In the essay Le Moyne tries to come to grips with just what it was that alienated him from Mozart. And he discovered that in his youth he had mistrusted any art that had, as he put it, “pretensions to self-sufficiency,” but that later, having come to realize that genius is somehow related to an ability to understand the world, he nevertheless continued to require of every artist what he called “the polarization, the haste, and the progress” that he observed in the lives of the mystics.

BM: I presume he didn’t find that in Mozart.

GG: No. As a matter of fact, he likened Mozart to Don Giovanni, who he claimed was really Cherubino returned form military service. He said that … “despite his easy grace and virtuosity, Don Giovanni doesn’t possess himself sufficiently to belong definitely to the absolute and to march unwaveringly towards the silence of being.” (3)

It is funny to see Gould invoke the “silence of being,” as he himself clearly prefers the lyricism of Bach to the profundity of Beethoven. But I quite agree with his general point. Mozart’s outlook was essentially comic, and I’m unable to find profundity or depth in most of his oeuvre, even in the Jupiter symphony or Don Giovanni.

But I do find it in the Requiem.

It seems that the subject of this mass and the encroaching immediacy of his own death displaced his manic impulses. As he worked frantically on the Requiem in his final days, he increasingly became convinced that his own death was drawing near.

Years earlier, Mozart had written to his father: “Young as I am, I never go to bed without thinking that possibly I may not be alive on the morrow; yet not one of the many persons who know me can say that I am morose or melancholy. For this happy disposition I thank my Creator daily, and wish with all my heart that it were shared by all my fellows.” (4)

The terror of mortality could not have been far from his mind when he scored Dies Irae, setting these frightful words to music:

The day of wrath, that day of grief shall change the world to glowing ash, as David and the Sibyl tell. How great a quaking day the judge shall there be, when on that day the judge shall come, to weigh men’s deeds in each detail.

In this clip of Dies Irae, notice how the music itself begins to shake, just as the text evokes the quaking of dread (“Quantus tremor est futurus…”) at 1:01:

The bass trembles, first in a half-step tremolo, then in increasingly-remote intervals as the piece threatens to fly apart at 1:21. It is difficult to listen to the Dies Irae without believing that Mozart felt the full force of the Day of Judgement at hand.

 
References

(1) Wolff C. trans. by Mary Whittall. Mozart’s Requiem. University of California Press. 1994. p. 101.
    My full review can be found here.
(2) Melograni P. trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography. University of Chicago Press. 2008. p. 184
(3) Gould G. ed. Tim Page. “Of Mozart and Related Matters: Glenn Gould in Conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon.” from The Glenn Gould Reader. Vintage Books. 1984. pp. 42-3
(4) Kerst F, trans. Henry Edward Krehbiel. Mozart: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in his own Words. Public Domain. Accessed via Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4042/pg4042.html

Written by Mesocosm

February 17, 2012 at 8:52 am

Posted in Articles, Music

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World’s Oldest Lovers

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Lovers

Natufian calcite figurine, c 9000 BCE
British Museum

In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s have a quick look at what the British Museum describes as the earliest-known depiction of lovers.

This calcite figurine comes to us from the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem in the Judean desert. It was made by members of the Natufian culture complex around 9,000 BCE.

The Natufians were probably the world’s first culture to domesticate cereal grains, and perhaps to practice animal husbandry as well. The added stability afforded by a relatively-abundant food supply may have allowed the Natufians to congregate in large settlements and devote more time to the arts.

The sculpture was found in a cave with several artifacts indicating habitation, not a grave (1). It therefore appears to have been a figurine of domestic significance, perhaps not unlike the “goddess” figurines commonly found in later Neolithic farming sites.

 
References

1. MacGregor N. A History of the World in 100 Objects. Viking Penguin. 2011. p. 40.

Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Written by Mesocosm

February 14, 2012 at 9:42 am

Posted in Articles, History

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Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava

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Apsara, Madhya Pradesh, 10th Century
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Still sat Umā though scorched by various flame
    Of solar fire and fires of kindled birth,
Until at summer’s end the waters came.
    Steam rose from her body as it rose from earth.

With momentary pause the first drops rest
    Upon her lash then strike her nether lip,
Fracture upon the highland of her breast,
    Across the ladder of her waist then trip
And slowly at her navel come to rest.

5.23–24, trans. D. Ingalls

Update: I’ve written reviews of two superb translations of Kālidāsa’s work, The Origin of the Young God: Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava by Hank Heifetz, and Chandra Rajan’s The Loom of Time, which includes a wonderful translation of his masterpiece “The Recognition of Shakuntala.” Barbara Stoller Miller’s Theater of Memory also includes a translation of that play, and translations of his other dramatic work as well. All three are terrific.

Written by Mesocosm

February 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Poetry

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Lettuce is My Hair

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Inanna's Descent, Sumerian Clay Tablet
Library of Ashurbanipal
British Museum

This charming Sumerian song was composed for a priestess to sing in the guise of the goddess Inanna, celebrating her mystical marriage to her lord Dumuzi, here incarnate as Shu-sin, the king of Ur at the dawn of the second millennium BCE.

The identification of the king with a god and the high priestess with the goddess, usually Inanna or Isthar, was the centerpiece of Sumerian and Babylonian religious culture for many centuries. During the New Year’s festival, the king would ascend the colossal pyramid-like ziggurat in the center of the city, and consummate his love for the goddess in a chamber at its apex. In this way, the Sumerian creation myth was ritually reenacted, setting the cycle of the seasons in motion for another round.

We’ve looked several times at the bull/moon god and his consort/mother on Mesocosm, such as in this post. Inanna and Dumuzi are the earliest such pair to figure in written material.

Though it is riddled with lacunae, the song is lovely, not least for its titular image of lettuce hair, which is beguiling for reasons known only to the vanished Sumerians, I think.
 

Lettuce is My Hair

My hair is lettuce, [planted] by the water,
It is gukkal-lettuce, [planted] by the water….
My attendant arranges it,
The attendant arranges my hair which is lettuce, the most-favored of plants.
The brother brought me into his life-giving gaze,
Shu-Sin has called me to (his) refreshing …. without [end].
[…]
You are our lord, you are our lord,
Silver (and) lapis lazuli – you are our lord,
Farmer who makes the grain stand high, – you are our lord,
For him who is the honey of my eye, who is the lettuce of my heart,
May the days of life come forth…..
It is a balbale of Inanna.

 
Translated by S. N. Kramer, from the indispensable volume:
Pritchard JB (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press. 1969.

Written by Mesocosm

February 9, 2012 at 11:03 am

Posted in Ephemera, Poetry

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I am, unquiet one.

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I’m preparing a translation of Rilke’s Das Buch vom Mönchischen Leben – here is “Ich bin, du Ängstlicher. Hörst du mich nicht”.

I am, unquiet one. Do you not hear me,
with all my senses hurtling toward you?
My feelings, which found wings,
whitely orbit your countenance.
Do you not see how near to you
my soul stands cloaked in silence?
Does my Maytime prayer not ripen
before your eyes, like a tree?

If you are the dreamer, then I am your dream.
But when you wish to keep watch, yes,
I am your will, and make all holiness great,
and ring myself around with a star’s silence
above the wondrous city of time.

 
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme.

Written by Mesocosm

February 8, 2012 at 9:09 am

Alessandro Striggio’s “Missa sopra ‘Ecco si beato giorno'”

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Melozzo da Forli, 15th Century, Vatican Museum
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

The motet Spem in Alium by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis is one of the great musical discoveries of my life. I have an ear for choral harmony, and Tallis’ magnificent motet represents one of the pinnacles of harmonic part-writing in western music. The sprawling song is written in forty separate parts, divided into eight five-voice choirs. Many excellent recordings of this piece exist, my favorite being the recording made by Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars.

I was thrilled to learn, then, that Berkeley musicologist Davitt Moroney had discovered and reconstructed several additional Renaissance compositions written for forty and sixty voices by other composers of the Renaissance, when I had long thought Tallis’ work to be unique. Most notably, he discovered a large motet and a parody mass based upon the same, entitled Ecco si beato giorno and written by the Florentine composer Alessandro Striggio.

For those of you who aren’t classical music fans, I should perhaps clarify that a piece written for forty voices is not the same as a piece written for a choir of forty singers – rather, it has forty individual and distinct vocal parts, meant to be sung at the same time. The Renaissance and to some extent the Baroque represent the apex of writing for many voices in western music.

After many long years of searching, Moroney discovered a badly-mislabeled copy of the mass in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2005, where it had languished in obscurity for centuries. (1) Moroney prepared a critical edition of the score and led its first modern performance in 2007.

Last night I had the privilege of hearing Moroney lead a choir of sixty in performing Striggio’s mass. The choir’s roster was drawn from area early music ensembles including Magnificat, the Philharmonia Chorale, the American Bach Soloists, Perfect Fifth, and the Schola Cantorum San Francisco, accompanied by a period orchestra consisting of the Chalice Consort and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts. An eyebrow-raising feature of the evening was the colossal bass sackbutt, a Renaissance bass trombone of prodigious exclamatory power.

The natural point of comparison for anyone encountering Ecco si beato giorno is Spem in Alium, and to my ears the piece suffers by comparison. While Tallis’ motet is characterized by its beguiling use of bold thematic material, Streggio’s mass is characterized by rigid structure and lack of movement, producing an effect rather like a droning cloud of bright major chords rooted firmly in the tonic.

Perhaps in an effort to control and unify so many voices, Striggio’s mass employs a structure that is at all times dominated harmonically by its tendency toward strong consonance (unisons, octaves, and fifths abound), and melodically by a fixed line that never strays far from the tonic. The principle elements of variation consist in internal ornamentation, at times with striking effect, but always overshadowed by the looming diatonic major.

Despite what I find to be significant aesthetic limitations, it was glorious to hear both mass and motet. Striggio unquestionably produced a work that is the acme of its idiom, expressing a preposterously-gargantuan account of Renaissance polyphony. The piece may be painted with a narrow palette, but then, so was the Sistine Chapel.

Also included on the program were instrumental interludes, a Christmas motet in 50 voices by Stefano Rossetto that was inexplicably performed twice, and Unum cole deum, an anonymous setting of the Ten Commandments in a forty-part canon. The introspective and haunting Unum, also found and restored by Moroney, was the evening standout for me.

An encore re-presented Striggio’s Agnus Dei, which I found mildly disappointing – I was hoping for a surprise performance of Spem in Alium. After all, how often do you find a Renaissance choir of 60 assembled?

The performance of February 4, 2012 was produced by CalPerformances at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, a mediocre venue with flat acoustics, most notable for its inadequate supply of bathrooms and drinking water.

References

Moroney D. “‘Never Heard Before For So Many Years’: Renaissance Masterpieces Rediscovered.” Program Notes. 2011-2012 Season. CalPerformances. Jan 2012. p 32. Available online (PDF) here.

A performance of Striggio’s Ecco si beato giorno, performed by I Fagiolini and conducted by Robert Hollingworth, is available from Decca Records.

Written by Mesocosm

February 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm