In Defense of the Wind Ensemble

When “classical music” or “serious music” is mentioned, one might think of the symphony orchestra, a string quartet, an English choir, or maybe even the opera, however debatable that may be. I’d be willing to bet that very few would think of wind ensemble music, and that is unfortunate. The wind ensemble gets lost, perhaps because when most people think of bands, they think of marching bands. They are not the same thing. The one is entertainment; the other, art—at least when there is a competent conductor to choose good repertoire. Confusion is magnified by the many town bands throughout the country who play Sousa marches out on the grass, while the war veterans say, “Thank God we killed all those Germans back in 1945; otherwise they would have taken over the world, and we’d have to listen to a bunch of stuff written by Hindemith.”

I once asked a high school band mother how good their director was. I was looking for musical things. She responded by praising his excellence at picking the right color guard moves and flags—and probably getting high scores at competitions, for all I remember. This is what serious band directors—the ones who care about music—are up against. I decided that, given some of my frank comments in the past about marching bands, it would probably be a good gesture on my part to help undue some of this ignorance, so I have come up with a list of some of my favorite wind band pieces.

I have to confess that I couldn’t take this little trip down Amnesia Lane with a dry eye. I miss a lot of this repertoire, and I miss playing the trumpet, which was one of my happier youthful follies. I can’t listen to the suites of Gustav Holst without feeling sixteen again, and I’m happy to have rediscovered this pleasure. It’s all thanks to my iPod, which has done much to break my musical listening habits—or ruts, if you prefer. In order to complete this list, I also had to rely on some rather amazing feats that Google could perform. Sometimes I could only remember some aspect of the program of a piece of music, and even that would get me the title of the piece and the name of the composer.

The wind band, as far as I can tell, had its genesis in the State, but I’m willing to overlook this since much progress has been made in its artistic development over the years. In fact, much music written more recently has focused on the evils rather than the glories of the government. Ironically, however, even the military pieces are better played by college and other non-military groups. Musicianship seems to be prohibited by the Department of Defense, with a few exceptions such as the U.S. Marine Band. Why am I politicizing this music? Well, I’m not. This music has always been politicized, and I’m just acknowledging that.

Some of those military pieces were written by England’s finest composers. Holst’s First and Second Military Band Suites are classics. The first suite actually went a long way in the early 20th century to convince other composers that serious music could in fact be written for the concert band. After this, it seems as if the floodgates opened.

Another English composer was called upon in 1937 to write a march for the coronation of King Edward VII. William Walton derived his title “Crown Imperial” from a phrase in William Dunbar’s poem “In Honour of the City of London.” It’s all English imperialist nonsense, of course, but it’s an inspiring form of nonsense that neither Ronald Reagan nor William Jennings Bryan could ever compete with. But I digress. As it turns out, Edward abdicated, and so this march was instead premiered as King George VI (the main character in “The King’s Speech”) was crowned. One waits with bated breath for a graduate student in musicology to outline stuttering in Walton’s compositional technique.

One of the virtues of the English march composers is their sense of melody. These pieces are not all just flag-waving; the trio section often features a theme worthy of an art song. Perhaps this is at least in part due to the influence that Johannes Brahms had on late 19th and early 20th century composers of that nation. Walton’s Crown Imperial arguably has one of the most beautiful trio sections of any of these marches, and its triumphant return at the end of the piece is enough to wet the pants even of the descendants of John Calvin.

I like these aforementioned pieces very much, but enough with Statism. The most special place in my heart is for wind band pieces that reflect what the government is really like rather than what it wants us to think. Yasuhide Ito’s symphonic poem, “Gloriosa” is a good place to start. Written in honor of Christians persecuted in Japan, it begins with a chant, which when I played it was one of my first exposures to Gregorian melody. I went to Catholic Mass every Sunday as a child, but I learned the Church’s music from Jewish musicologists and Southern Baptist band directors.

One of the really likable things about Ito’s composition is how the whole first movement grows out of the chant, even with such a violent story to tell. This reveals the fallacy in the belief that all music based on chant has to sound like a distant mooing sound. I’m curious about the particular melody that Ito uses. It’s most likely mode I, and it appears in none of my own chant books, which make use of a completely different mode II melody. Furthermore, Ito uses the older version (pre-1632) of the text of this hymn—O Gloriosa Domina, instead of O Gloriosa Virginum. I’m curious as to why all this is, and if it has anything to do with the particular story of these persecuted Japanese Christians. Granted, during the persecution in the Edo period, the melodies and texts (“Gloriosa” became “Gururiyoza”) of Christian song were being distorted, but this is actually a different problem. Slight melodic variation in chant is actually to be expected. If any chant scholars can chime in, please do.

The second movement of Ito’s piece, which springs from a flute solo, is also based on chant, with references to Dies Irae that are hard to miss. The percussion in particular add elements of the Far East into the mix. The third movement is based on a folk melody but doesn’t fail to embrace material from earlier in the composition. This work is an example of what good “inculturation” is all about. It is a natural comixture of disparate elements with an artistic impulse. Ito has given us a gift here.

In 1968 the Soviet Union and other members of the Communist Bloc invaded Czechoslovakia to put a halt to the liberalizing reforms taking place in that country that was stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Karel Husa, a native of the country in exile for failing to sufficiently suck up to the government, listened from America as the events were broadcast over the radio, and he was inspired to write “Music for Prague, 1968” to commemorate the oppression. This piece, having originally been written for concert band, has also been transcribed for orchestra. (How often does it happen in that sequence?) As Husa asks his forward to the piece to be included in all concert programs when it is performed, it might be best to let his own words suffice:

Three main ideas bind the composition together. The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, ‘Ye Warriors of God and His Law,’ a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in My Country. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by timpani and concludes in a strong unison Chorale. The song is never used in its entirety. The second idea is the sound of bells throughout; Prague, named also the City of Hundreds of Towers, has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory. The last idea is a motif of three chords first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in flutes, clarinets, and horns. Later it appears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle of the Aria movement. Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement (Fanfares), the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy (Aria), there is also a bird call at the beginning (piccolo solo), symbol of the liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence.

Husa’s music makes use of ultramodern techniques, and if the story it tells were about anything else, it likely wouldn’t enjoy the popular acceptance that it has. Much as it reminds us of the evils of certain regimes, it’s also very easy to slide into that “Soviet Union bad, Western Democracy good” pigeonhole.

That is decidedly not the case with Daniel Bukvich’s Symphony No. 1 (“In Memoriam, Dresden 1945”).  I first got to know this piece from a college roommate, whose high school had performed it a few years before. Written as a master’s thesis, Bukvich uses, of all things, a favorite chord of Duke Ellington’s—C, D-flat, E, and G. While there is no revolutionary intent in his program, the music depicts the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by Allied forces which killed tens of thousands of German civilians, a consequence of the commodification of entire nation-states into war machines. My roommate told me that emotions ran in every which direction the night his band performed it.

Not to be lost in any conversation about this piece is Bukvich’s gift for melody. Listen to the French Horns about halfway through. The composer also does an excellent job of harmonizing modern compositional techniques with stuff that a lot of people would, I suppose, call “regular music.” The human voice is used in addition to the instruments, percussion recalls the bombs falling, and there are even aleatoric techniques in this piece that transcend gimmickry. After the devastation, a flute completes the piece, sighing onomatopoeically.

Much band music that is not written about the State is written about God. Two pieces come to my mind, Charles Ives’s band setting for From Greenland’s Icy Mountains. I think that’s the title, anyway; I can’t find it anywhere. Ives wrote some good music when he wasn’t distracted by surface impressions.

The other composition is Fisher Tull’s “Introit,” which is based on the famous hymn tune Rendez a Dieu. A straightforward beginning takes a surprising turn into some rather advanced techniques until the fun, if predictable, conclusion. An Introit has a flexible definition I suppose. It is the opening chant of the Catholic Mass; it could also be understood as a call to worship. So Tull’s inclusion of bells, even a reference to the Westminster chimes, is fitting. I’m a sucker for pieces like this. One of my conductors used to call me “Chorale Boy.” It’s no wonder I ended up where I did.

One more piece about God, this one by Alfred Reed. I only have one recording of this work, Russian Christmas Music. It’s a terrible CD, but I can’t stop listening to it because the music itself is so inspiring. Fueled by folksong and the Russian Orthodox Liturgy, Reed composed this work at the last minute for a concert in Denver, CO in 1944 which aimed at improving American-Russian relations. By concert band standards, it’s a humongous work and is perhaps most demanding in what it asks of the ensemble’s musicianship rather than in what it requires as far as virtuosity goes. This is a hallmark of much substantial music.

The poet Dylan Thomas is possibly most famous for his “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I wonder how many know that Elliot del Borgo has composed a piece based on this poem. As I recall, it was commissioned by a high school in Pennsylvania in memory of a deceased student. Fleeting references to Ein Feste Burg punctuate an indignantly petulant texture that conjures up an unwillingness to surrender to death. Del Borgo uses too much percussion, perhaps, but it is best to keep them occupied lest they be a distraction with their paper airplanes in rehearsal.

I have discussed God and death (which encompasses the State) entirely too much in this entry. Maybe it’s time for a little fun. Everyone loves the Lord of the Rings, and as it turns out Johan de Mei has written a wind symphony on that theme. This is not his only work for band; he also wrote a “Big Apple” Symphony. Use this piece to cleanse your palette from all that heavy stuff that I subjected you to. Unlike “Flight of the Bumblebee,” this music does not suffer artistic damage from its levity. One can indulge with a clear conscience.

There is so much music in the world, and it’s impossible to get to know it all. That’s a mixed blessing, with alternating feelings of discouragement at the largeness of the task, and then delight at the little surprises that are inevitable. There are all kinds of unharvested corners of the music world for all of us. Discovering them is one of the capital joys of my life. I hope you have found  something edifying in this little exploration of wind ensemble music. And best wishes to all the directors out there who have to deal with the color guard moms.

Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea

Arnold Schoenberg was a hated man. This is the consequence of being a pioneer, an original thinker, his big mouth notwithstanding. I’m not trying to crown him with infallibility, but only to give credit where it’s due. Our culture loves the yellow journalism technique of painting with broad strokes of sycophancy or character assassination, depending upon the frenzy of the moment. There is little room for careful discussion.

We live by a kind of cult of personality that obsesses on surface details, and I’m not sure it’s anything new. Human history is a monument to the permanence of stupidity, and that’s largely a fact that has to be accepted. With this backdrop, the prophets and the geniuses can look like dreadful fools. I prefer to see them as heroes. It takes great dedication to turn one’s head into the wind in the hopes that a massive effort will yield the tiniest result, the slightest movement of mankind away from absolute buffoonery. Alas, most of us would rather admire a fireman that climbs a tree to rescue the neighbor’s cat.

Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on a wide range of musical and other topics. The title is well-chosen: His central thought revolves around the essence of the idea. He shuns superficial appearances in fanatical fashion, to the point of overstating his case at times. This is forgivable. After all, what philosopher hasn’t overstated his case? Schoenberg is concerned with what the composer has to say: What is his thematic material? How does he apply it? How does he develop it? To Schoenberg, style grows naturally out of an idea. It is backwards, in his mind, to sit down and say, “I want to write a piece in the style of early 20th century France, or in the style of Anton Heiller.” This leads to hollow music making. I’m reminded of Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” or the churchy ear candy of Dom Lorenzo Perosi.

Schoenberg’s obsession with the musical idea itself is refreshing in the age of music that the author himself describes as having limited psychological appeal; music that “goes right to the feet.” There is nothing wrong with vapid music if it is played in the dance club or the gym; the problem is that too much music is vapid. The head of the Second Viennese School, however, runs a bit off course at places, in my opinion, because of this admirable core belief in the idea. For instance, he writes about the “primitive ears” who prefer to relish tone colors over other musical matter. I guess we know what he thought of the music of Olivier Messiaen! Related to this is his strange idea about instrumentation and orchestration. While he doesn’t argue for anything coming close to a total absence of colorful variety, he calls for a slimmed-down orchestra, one that gets rid of “useless” instruments that have a limited scalar, dynamic, or artistic compass. He asks whether the bassoon, for example, has ever been anything but comical. I’m more inclined to agree with Ernest M. Skinner that the bassoon can assume any character. The Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird comes to mind as an instance in which it is something other than funny.

All the same, Schoenberg claims that the orchestra’s power comes from its variety of tone color, and he cites the pipe organ as an example to prove this. Baroque organs, which were built on largely homogenous choruses, were not powerful, but Romantic organs, which were conceived with solo voices in mind, can knock the walls down. (Organ aficionados will relish the ironical choice of Schoenberg’s words that “loudness is achieved through mixture.”)  This is completely on Cloud Kookooland, and it’s pretty safe to say that Schoenberg was not acquainted with the research of Skinner, who discusses this subject in his book The Composition of the Organ. It was progress in the ability to develop higher wind pressures in organs, and therefore more largely-scaled pipes, that have allowed more modern instruments to blow off the archbishop’s mitre with a middle C. None of this is to say that I find Schoenberg’s streamlined orchestra to be an attractive idea; he simply chose the wrong example in arguing for what he sees as a moderate approach to this reform.

Schoenberg also has a strange approach when it comes to modality. He sees the efforts of late 19th and early 20th century composers to write in modes to be useless, an adoption of an outdated musical technique. To his credit, though, this might be the only point in the book when he caves in to the temptation to Whiggism. Schoenberg thinks this attitude is based on progress, but it really seems like it’s actually based upon a misapprehension of the modes. Implying that the half-step relationships of a scale are the only ones capable of establishing a tonal center in certain stereotypical ways, he says that all the ancient modes can be reduced to two: major and minor. And yet, he forfeits his argument when, in a later essay, he rightly states that the establishment of a key can be a difficult thing that is often only achieved by restating the tonic until it can be perceived as home base. Can’t the same repetition be used in modal constructions? Is E not the final of Pange lingua? Is it really just a melody in C Major that ends on the third? I don’t think so.

Naturally, Schoenberg spills a great deal of ink on the concept of “atonality,” a term which he disliked. He takes issue with those who claim he was a revolutionary; he saw his music, rather, as an outgrowth of everything that came before it. It might seem preposterous to those obsessed with initial impressions, but it makes perfect sense. Think of Hans von Bulow’s reaction to the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If that is music, it makes Tristan sound like Haydn.” The assertion that a new piece of music is aural nonsense has been a favorite game of the stodgy for a least five centuries, and it is useless. Moreover, if by “atonality” we mean music that lacks a key, we are describing a lot of music that existed long before Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality, like metrical music, might well prove to be a passing fad in music history, in the long run. Schoenberg cites some examples of dissonance in history—Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” and Beethoven’s Great Fugue. I would add certain measures of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali to that list, and one could make some very powerful arguments that in Bach’s music tonality was not always front and center. So much for revolution.

Schoenberg takes the time to discuss formal considerations viz. “atonality.” In older music, sections were often demarcated by modulations; in the absence of key centers, other methods of formal articulation are needed. This seems to him to be the primary problem to be solved with the new style of music, and not any notion that dissonance is against the “laws of nature.” Gravity pulls us downward, Schoenberg reminds us, but airplanes carry us upward. Planes are contrary to nature, yet they use the laws of nature. This is in addition to the fact that even the most remote dissonance is somewhere on the overtone series, which is the “law of nature” of harmony. Moreover, in Schoenberg’s music, dissonance is not a thing in itself, not necessarily a manner of poetic expression, but rather a result of the musical ideas. It’s a far cry from Charles Ives going back to his scores and adding crunchy chords in order to make his music sound “modern.”

Schoenberg’s writing comes from the fire in his belly. He might be a logician, but he is not the cold logician that many cartoon writers claim he is. The proof of this is in his rejection of the many efforts of Hauer and other theorists to codify the musical language of the Second Viennese School. Most music majors have had to make at least one matrix in their careers, writing a tone row and sticking to it slavishly. It feels more like calculus than music. This is not Schoenberg, who was more comparable to Palestrina, who never hesitated to change a note to make a passage work. These men are music-makers, not pipe-layers. This truth is not convenient for those who brandish their historicist clubs in the dungeons of what passes for music criticism these days, and many listeners, hungry for an excuse to dislike Schoenberg’s music, are all too quick to latch on to these careless ideas rather than to listen to the music from the inside out, focusing on the ideas rather than the surface impressions.

It is enough to be an innovator in musical language, but as it turns out Schoenberg was even more, as he invented a new system of musical notation which, as far as I know, has not really been adopted. With three broadly-spaced lines, it’s reminiscent of the early efforts at diastematic notation. Exact pitches are notated by placing noteheads directly adjacent to or away from the lines, with the additional help of slashes that further clarify a note’s position. Using this technique allows the composer to notate a much wider range in an equal vertical space, and in many ways it might be superior to the standard five-line staff. But I can’t see it ever being adopted. As it is, string players don’t like to play in flat keys; how will we ever convince everyone to completely learn a new notation system, even just for modern music? Nonetheless, these efforts show the fertility of Schoenberg’s mind; if he were just a rabble-rouser he wouldn’t have bothered with a project such as this.

There are other things to admire about Schoenberg, too. He was certainly an astute observer. His thinking on vibrato reminds me of Lilli Lehmann and Joseph Joachim, both of whom used vibrato as an ornament and did not indulge in the “goat-like bleating” that Schoenberg rails against. He has interesting thoughts on the relationship of the music to the text as well: While one might (might…) be able to accuse Handel of word-painting at a superficial level, Schoenberg is more concerned with more hidden relationships between the music and the text, aspects that might not be apparent at first blush. I’m reminded of the work of certain chant scholars in this regard, who find definite relationships between the text and the music that are missed by those who go at the problem with the Baroque model in mind. Then there is the question of the downbeat. From Bach, Schoenberg says, he learned disregard for the strong beat of the measure. How many performances have been ruined by a continuous assault on the downbeat? Schoenberg offers a remedy for this tendency: aiming for the “center of gravity” of a phrase. There are debates about whether the melody or the rhythm is primary in music; Messiaen, for instance, says that any melody will always have rhythm and therefore that rhythm is primary, but does this mean we should forget the line? Rhythm is a method of organization or articulation and not in all cases the primary thing. Schoenberg asks us to remember the melodic line, and I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. It’s a pretty reasonable response to an argument that is more or less myopic.

As one would expect, Schoenberg takes some time at the end of the book to comment on several composers. He loved Mahler and thought him a saint; hated Stravinsky and regarded him a panderer; offers well-measured praise for George Gershwin. He sees in Brahms not the pure classicist but the progressive who was a master of the irregular phrase. The book wraps up with some comments on social and political matters. At the end of it all, Schoenberg, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Austria, seems to have been in a very healthy, a-political place. Politics, after all, is for lesser men.

On many of the subjects that Schoenberg takes on, one can quibble, or even boldly object, and I in fact don’t find myself in complete agreement with him. In one thing, however, I hope there will be unanimity: Arnold Schoenberg was a true artist. By this I’m not necessarily referring to the way his work turned out, but rather the spirit in which it was created. He was a man who had the need, the urge to create. There was the desire, as he put it, to let off the “internal pressure” of a gestating work. More than that—fundamentally, even—he wanted to say something, to create a thing of beauty: Not just to pander to stylistic expectations, not to sell records, not to get in tight with a conductor or an orchestra manager with an agenda, but to make music. That is, after all, the vocation of the musical artist. We could do far worse in finding a role model.

Fritz Wunderlich

I just had my first voice lesson in about six years.  It was long overdue:  In the haste of doing my job it can be easy to forget how to use the voice properly.

Amidst the after-lesson chat, I was offered a CD of Fritz Wunderlich singing an assortment of solo works.  He has a thrilling instrument.  I had heard his name, but I’m not sure I’d ever heard his work.  It’s worth a listen.


Must-read books from 2009

Every year I keep track of what I read.  It’s a bit nerdy, for sure, but it helps to keep me motivated.  This year’s reading was so interesting that I decided to put off writing this post until the year was, for all intents and purposes, over.  Last year I managed to get the list out in time for Christmas shopping.  This time you’ll have to refer to this compilation for birthdays or something.

In the past twelve months, I’ve managed to start and finish thirty three books, which I actually consider to be modest.  I’d far rather be averaging one per week.  Of these, I’ve chosen ten to discuss, which is a rather high proportion; nevertheless there was no difficulty in coming up with books that were deserving of singular mention.  There is no rhyme or reason to the order of this list, and most of them should appeal to a broad range of people.

Henry Hazlitt:  Economics in One Lesson

How I found it: This book is constantly referenced in literature put out by the Mises Institute.

In a relatively short volume, using concise, easy-to-understand language, Hazlitt discusses some of the most basic concepts of economics.  The backdrop for this book is the wave of Keynesianism and Socialism that swept the West in the early-mid 20th century.  One of Hazlitt’s most beautiful insights concerns the unseen effects of policy decisions.  One example would be artificially high wage rates as demanded by labor unions.  On the surface this appears to benefit the workers, but the effects of this man-made price floor ripple through the economy, until they come to damage the interests even of the labor unions themselves.  This is an excellent beginner’s book on economics; no prior reading is necessary.

Oliver Sacks:  Musicophilia

How I found it: Stumbled upon it while Christmas shopping in 2008

Expectans, expectavi Domine…..This book makes me think of a piece of Gregorian chant, an offertory melody whose text is, “I have waited, waited on the Lord…..and he put a New Song into my mouth.”  Sacks fills this book with heaps of fascinating information and incredible stories.  If you can read it with a dry eye, you’re a better man than I am.  One account early in the book relates the story of a man who had never been involved in any way with music in his entire life; then one day he was struck by lightning, and began composing and playing the piano.  A surgeon friend of mine tells me that neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks tend to have more of an appreciation for the spiritual, and one does indeed get this impression from Sacks, who seems to be steeped in just as much wonder and amazement at these things as his readers.  Moreover, musicians will find the reading of this book to be an experience of renewal, a re-awakening to the truth that music is indeed a gift to be cherished.

Naomi Klein:  The Shock Doctrine

How I found it: After a lively lunchtime discussion about politics with a musician friend, he escorted me to the bookstore and bought it for me.

“But this isn’t capitalism!”  I found myself saying this over and over again as I read through this incredibly revealing book. Klein passionately and thoroughly exposes the work of the merchants of death in the U.S. government, from CIA operatives and psychologists (who perfected torture techniques already in the 1950’s) to the infamous economist Milton Friedman.  Under the name of capitalism, the United States effected coups, killed people, and established fascistic economic systems (I’m using this term literally, not pejoratively) in faraway lands, like wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  The book is hardly sympathetic to the free market, but proponents of capitalism need to read this book and reckon with what some jackasses have done over the years while falsely claiming to be friends of the free market.  For me, it lead to a more precise definition of capitalism:  The system of voluntary exchange which results from the ethic of non-aggression and private property rights.  As one will find out from this book, the U.S. government respects neither the principle of non-aggression nor private property rights.

Ludwig von Mises:  Human Action

How I found it: You can’t get through two articles from an Austrian economist without seeing this book cited.

At nearly 900 pages, Human Action is Mises’ grand discourse.  The profound and most basic difference that Mises’ approach has with others is that it bases the study of economics on—well, human action.  It is the gentle and humble opposite of the arrogance of Rand’s Objectivism and Friedman’s mathematical equations.  Most refreshing is Mises’ allowance of subjectivity in the field of economics.  If I were to recommend one tiny section of this book over all others, though, it would be Mises’ criticism of the holistic view of society, a section that soundly rejects the sanctimony of many do-gooders, while at the same time showing that Austrian economics, rather than being atomistic, actually considers the good of the culture at large and posits that voluntary exchange on the free market is the way to achieve it.

J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

How I found it: A friend lent it to me.

I am absolutely horrible about reading enough fiction, so I rely largely on friends to bring such things my way—actually, one friend in particular, who’s taste has proven to be quite sturdy.  One of the strengths of fiction is that general principles can be taught without tempting readers to quibble over minutiae the way certain kinds of non-fiction do.  Carr is British, and this is a short story about an artist that leaves London to spend a month in the countryside restoring the apse painting of a church.  While he’s there he sleeps in the bell tower and kibitzes with a lunatic archaeologist who’s charged with finding someone’s remains in the church yard.  A delightful little read that can be done in one afternoon on your front porch with a cold glass of iced tea.  (Perhaps save this one for Spring, then…)

Haruki Murakami:  What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

How I found it: Browsing the book store looking for ways to throw money away

This title jumped right out at me, given that I’m a runner.  This is not a systematic “how-to” book or anything; it’s just a flow of conscious account of one man’s affair with the greatest sport in the world.  Murakami, a jazz bar owner-turned novelist, relates his journal entries to the reader.  This includes an account of his run along the original route that ends in Marathon, Greece, from which we get the name and distance for running events.  The title, he tells us, is based on someone else’s work which is called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Love,” and this is apposite.  The runner will find this book to be a source of new energy; non-runners will finish it perhaps a bit more curious about what it is that they’re missing.

John Robinson:  Dungeon, Fire and Sword

How I found it: Borrowed from a friend

This is the story of the Knights Templar during the Crusades.  In it you will find all manner of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and hiding behind religion for the sake of a political agenda.  The original mission of the Knights Templar was to guard the Temple Mount in Jerusalem when it was under Christian control.  Job creep set in, and, among other things, they came to guard the road to Compostella, a popular pilgrimage site, and to be some of the world’s first bankers.  They participated fervently in the mindless orgies that were the Crusades, proving that Islam is not the only religion to commit barbaric acts of war under the guise obedience to God and faith.  Ultimately, the success of the Templars was their undoing.  King Philip IV of France, who owed them enormous sums of money, manipulated an unholy alliance with the papacy to have the Knights tortured, tried, and killed on trumped up charges.  In a dramatic conclusion, Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of this order, was marched into the cathedral square in Paris to confess the “official version of events,” and in one last moment of courage, told the crowd the truth of what had been done to this order.  For this, he was rewarded with summary execution, but one cannot escape the impression that he was ultimately victorious over the lust for power which gripped the monarchs and the papacy at that time.

Murray N. Rothbard:  The Anatomy of the State

How I found it: On

At only fifty-plus pages, this book makes for good introductory reading to the anarcho-capitalist political philosophy.  In the short chapters contained in this volume, Rothbard contends with the superstitions that make people believe that the State is necessary.  The reading is not difficult; yet, the writer leaves out nothing of importance.  This would be a good companion alongside Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, with the added blessing that Rothbard does not suffer from Nock’s sometimes tiresome fatalism.

Louis Cheslock, ed.:  H.L. Mencken on Music

How I found it: Roaming around Bookhaven, a used book store in Philadelphia.

I have already reviewed this book here.

Richard M. Weaver:  The Ethics of Rhetoric

How I found it: Brought to my attention by Br. Stephen, of course

What would a year be without at least one Weaver book?  Like most of his work, I’m not sure how much of this volume I’ve absorbed; it may be worth a re-reading sooner rather than later.  Unlike the other volumes I’ve discussed here, I’ve actually had to pull this one off the shelf and thumb through it to jog my memory about what the writer discusses.  Among other things, some of which went over my head completely, Weaver discusses Edmund Burke’s use of the Argument from Circumstance and Lincoln’s use of the Argument from Definition.  The writer seems to have a surprising amount of admiration for Lincoln, given his dyed-in-the-wool Southern ways of thinking.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this book is Weaver’s exploration of grammar as it relates to rhetoric:  avoid the adjective, he says; it only begs the question.  Good advice which I have yet to follow.  Another chapter worth a great deal of study deals with the use of what Weaver calls ultimate terms:  “God words” and “devil words.”  This discussion is still timely.  Think of how people try to shut one another up by hurling accusations of “intolerance” or “Godlessness.”  (Well, maybe I remembered some of this book, after all.)  If you haven’t read any Weaver yet, I’d start with Ideas Have Consequences, or maybe Language is Sermonic.  The Ethics of Rhetoric is a bit heady, and the reader will benefit from some built-up familiarity with the writer’s ways of thinking.


The great football coach Lou Holtz, the last one to win a national championship at Notre Dame, once said that the difference between where you are now and where you’ll be five years from now comes from the people you meet and the books you read.  In my experience, this is an understatement.  Books are among my favorite things; I would take them first, God forbid, in the event of a fire.  Many of the works I’ve discussed above were given, lent, or recommended to me by friends, and I would like to thank them.  They know who they are.  From personal experience I can say that few things feel as rewarding as having given a book to someone who not only gets it but also appreciates it.  The ideas in books can be so exciting, along with taking them apart and putting them back together again.  I’m not even sure that Belgian beer can compare to this.

“But I’m not a reader.  I just don’t get into books,” you might say.  To that I can only reply that you haven’t found the right books.  Reading is a tool, not an object in itself.  Find something that piques your curiosity, fires your imagination, or soothes the deepest longings of your soul.  I guarantee you that a book has been written about it.  Tolle, lese.

Happy New Year.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

Sometime in the early 1940’s, Bela Bartok emigrated to the United States.  He was broke, and, what is worse, sick.  Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned him to write  a piece, which he composed while lying sick.  The result was his concerto for orchestra, a magnificent piece human ingenuity.  In it is all the angst and hope that one would think a suffering man might have.  Sometimes the worst circumstances in life produce the most amazing and surprising things.  That’s comforting when times are tough.  When times are good, it’s a frightening thought.

Here’s the first movement:

H.L. Mencken on Music

H.L. Mencken on Music

Louis Cheslock, ed.

New York:  Schirmer

A few days ago, as a belated birthday treat to myself and in celebration of the end of a long work cycle, I visited Bookhaven, Philadelphia’s finest vault of used books.  This is one of those places in which there is always something to be found, even if it isn’t what was originally sought.  On this particular day I had it in my mind to see if they had a copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern, one of three hymnals, all of which are Anglican, which are worth having.  No dice there, but in one last desperate attempt to find what I sought, I visited the music section.  There was Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart, the Grove Dictionary, H.L. Mencken on Music, something about Wagner…..

Hold on a minute.  H.L. Mencken on Music?  Indeed, and as it turns out it was edited by Louis Cheslock, professor of theory at my alma mater, the Peabody in Baltimore.  This was a no-brainer, and it was quickly added to the pile of books I had already amassed that afternoon, books that I did not seek but which nevertheless sought me.  

Mencken’s writing is incisive and vivacious, graced with a wit that, while sardonic, never descends into bitterness.  He could, at the same time, be fiercely logical, particularly when exploding the various quackeries put forth by congressmen, the Temperance Union, or the Kiwanis Club.   All things considered, he seemed to me to be the last person that would be so profoundly absorbed in music.  I was wrong, and in my error I found great delight, for Mencken approaches the subject of music with such deep devotion that many of us paid minstrels, who face the same job hazards of frustration and burnout that everyone else does, ought to be put to shame for approaching our art sometimes in routine rather than inspired fashion.  At moments, Mencken wrote with such enthusiasm that he had me running for my iPod, and sometimes even my old-fashioned CD rack, to find something that I hadn’t listened to perhaps in years.  

To be sure, there is some outdated information in this collection of essays, but that is to be expected from a book that was last edited in 1960.  All the same, Mencken speaks with an informed authority on a wide-range of music that makes Albert Schweitzer look like the mountebank that he was.  From chant and Palestrina to Bach to Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven to Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms, to Igor Stavinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and jazz (all three of which he detested), Mencken covers all the most important composers of the Western canon that existed at the time he was writing, and he does it with erudition and love.

Mencken himself was a musician of amateur persuasion.  He insisted that he played badly, but he also implied at times that he wrote badly.  If this is any means by which to measure the situation, he was probably adequate, to say the least.  He was a member of the now famous “Saturday Night Club,” a group of music enthusiasts which met weekly in Baltimore.  Editor Cheslock was a member as well and does a good job of providing the reader with background information on this band of Renaissance men who clung to a tradition which modern distraction has largely obliterated.

It is tempting to try to say too much about this book.  Maybe it’s best, then to stick to a couple of things, the first of which might come as a surprise, given the seeming iconoclastic tendencies of the writer.  Today, for instance, people in the main laugh at the ancient Greek notions that music can be dangerous, that its mystical tones can woo us to do good or ill, or just downright tawdry things.  Mencken takes up the Hellenic cause, saying that the music a man creates is revelatory of character.  “When a trashy man writes, it is trashy music,” he says.  In the same vein, while extolling the artistic genius of Franz Schubert, Mencken says that his operas all came to nothing, and that this is because a successful opera composer is half musician and half clown.  Schubert, being a man of good taste, was incapable of such nonsense.

More interesting gems are contained in Mencken’s writing about church music.  “New Wedding March Needed,” trumpets a headline to one of these essays, written years before it was popular for pastors to ban the now infamous Wagner and Mendelssohn pieces.  The author goes on to suggest that these works remain entrenched because of the laziness of organists, for whom each wedding is about as interesting as a new chin to a busy barber.  On the very next page one finds “Enter the Church Organist,” a far from inaccurate spoof on a typical character in this profession.  (Cheslock explains that, as part of Mencken’s job for the local paper, he was often sent to third rate organ recitals as a reviewer, for which Mencken has my deep sympathies.)  Perhaps the most surprising essay in the whole collection is the one on Catholic Church music, in which Mencken lauds the efforts of Pope Pius X to resurrect chant and polyphony and shelve the operatic caterwauling that had been fashionable at that time. It’s not the kind of story one would expect to come from an agnostic, but this could perhaps be the result of the writer’s occasional friendly gatherings with clergymen, including the local archbishop.

Buy this book and read it to find out even more, to discover what Mencken had to say about private music lessons, “Music and Sin” (which is the chapter on jazz), singers (especially tenors), the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and much more.  Amateurs, and even people who yet know nothing about classical music, can enjoy and benefit from this book, and musicians can find great inspiration in the joie de vivre which gallops from every page.  If you can read parts of these essays with a dry eye, you’re a better man than I.  It is quite clear that to this man of words, one of the most prolific and colorful writers in the American language tradition, music is the ultimate language, a kind of logos.  He writes:

“My lack of sound musical instruction was really the great depravation of my life. When I think of anything properly describable as a beautiful idea, it is always in the form of music. I have written and printed probably 10,000,000 words in English, and continue to this day to pour out more and more. But all the same I shall die an inarticulate man, for my best ideas beset me in a language I know only vaguely and speak only like a child.”

Jean Langlais’s Pasticcio

I was just practicing, finding some repertoire for a last minute gig this week, and in the process, I stumbled upon an old gem:  Jean Langlais’s (1997-1991) Pasticcio, which is the tenth and last movement from his organ book.  It’s quite a cool little thing.  I’ve actually settled on two other pieces of Langlais for later this week.  I’ll need to work this one up for future engagements.