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May 29, 2012

Bach Cantatas (30): Pentecost Tuesday

Pentecost Tuesday is also called Whit Tuesday. As other major feasts of the Lutheran Church in Bach's time (Easter and Christmas), Pentecost was celebrated over three days. There are two cantatas for this day. The gospel reading for this day proclaims Jesus as the good shepherd and the rightful owner of his flock.

Acts 8:14–17, "The Holy Spirit in Samaria"
John 10:1–10, "The Good Shepherd"


  • Erwünschtes Freudenlicht, BWV 184, 30 May 1724

    Rezitativ T: Erwünschtes Freudenlicht
    Arie (Duett) S A: Gesegnete Christen, glückselige Herde
    Rezitativ T: So freuet euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen!
    Arie T: Glück und Segen sind bereit
    Choral: Herr, ich hoff je, du werdest die in keiner Not verlassen
    Chor: Guter Hirte, Trost der Deinen

    ("Desired light of joy") Based on a secular cantata for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen’s birthday in 1721. Courtly in tone, the duet, aria and final chorus are in the form of minuet, polonaise and gavotte. After a long recitative follows a dancing pastoral duet between soprano and alto, with a great tune in the flutes, the musical heart of the cantata. After the pleasant tenor aria which sings of Jesus as bringer of a Golden Age, we hear a pleasant chorale. And as surprise, this is followed by a second chorus, a bucolic gavotte. The whole work is permeated by a suitable pastoral atmosphere. (***)

  • Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen, BWV 175, 22 May 1725

    Recitativo (tenor): Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen
    Aria (alto): Komm, leite mich
    Recitativo (tenor): Gott will, o ihr Menschenkinder
    Aria (tenor): Es dünket mich, ich seh dich kommen
    Recitativo (alto, bass): Sie vernahmen aber nicht
    Aria (bass): Öffnet euch, ihr beiden Ohren
    Chorale: Nun, werter Geist, ich folg dir

    ("He calls His sheep by name") The cantata is thematically divided in two parts, the first one dealing with Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the sheep who hear his voice, and the second one (starting from the bass recitative in movement five) with those who don't hear this voice. The opening recitative by tenor is interestingly accompanied by three recorders over a pedal bass, a musical structure continued in the next pastoral alto aria. The tenor aria was borrowed from a secular cantata, BWV 173a, and is usually considered a rather awkward fit for the new text. The next bass aria is accompanied by a rousing pair of trumpets and changes the character of the cantata from pastoral to martial. The cantata concludes with a great and lustrous chorale harmonization. (***)

May 28, 2012

Bach Cantatas (29): Pentecost Monday (Whit Monday)

Whit Monday or Pentecost Monday is the holiday celebrated the day after Pentecost. Whit Monday gets its English name for following "Whitsun", the day that became one of the three baptismal seasons, when those baptized would wear white garments. There are three cantatas for this day. They texts are based on the phrase "God loved the world so much," and are therefore general praise for God's goodness (which allowed Bach to reuse several secular cantatas praising the ruler of the land).

Acts 10:42–48, "Sermon of St. Peter for Cornelius"
John 3:16–21, "God loved the world so much"


  • Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173, 29 May 1724

    Recitativo (tenor): Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut
    Aria (tenor): Ein geheiligtes Gemüte
    Aria (alto): Gott will, o ihr Menschenkinder
    Aria (soprano, bass): So hat Gott die Welt geliebt
    Aria (soprano, tenor): Unendlichster, den man doch Vater nennt
    Coro: Rühre, Höchster, unsern Geist

     ("Exalted flesh and blood") Based movement for movement on a secular cantata (a tribute to Bach's employer Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, Durchlauchtster Leopold BWV 173a) that has been lost. Follows the readings for this day: "God loved the world so much," and is a general praise for God's goodness towards men. Starts with introductory recitative for tenor, followed by an elegant aria for the same. After a rather harsh alto aria follows the most interesting part of the cantata, a duet for soprano and bass with sweet strings and ethereal flutes. Three stanzas are treated in ever richer variations and the praise of the noble employer is effortlessly changed into praise of God. The music concludes with an uplifting chorus. (***)

  • Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68, 21 May 1725

    Chor: Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt
    Arie S: Mein gläubiges Herze
    Rezitativ B: Ich bin mit Petro nicht vermessen
    Arie B: Du bist geboren mir zugute
    Chor: Wer an ihn gläubet, der wird nicht gerichtet

    ("Thus has God loved the world") Short cantata framed by two austere choral movements. In contrast, the two arias are in a casual style - they are borrowed from the secular Hunt Cantata BWV 208 (another "praise of the ruler" piece). The first chorus is a stately siciliano. The soprano aria has an almost jolly cello accompaniment, and forms a great contrast to the previous chorus. The bass aria with three oboes is a rocking jig. The final chorus consists of a double fugue. (***)

  • Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174, 6 June 1729

    Arie A: Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte
    Rezitativ T: O Liebe, welcher keine gleich!
    Arie B: Greifet zu, Faßt das Heil, ihr Glaubenshände!
    Choral: Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr

    ("I love the Highest with my entire being") Starts with an instrumental movement, an adaptation of the opening movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto. For the rest, this, too, is a short cantata with only two arias and a final chorus. The long alto aria is an attractively lilting piece of music with a pastoral atmosphere, while the bass aria is accompanied by a beautiful string tune. (***)

May 27, 2012

Bach Cantatas (28): Pentecost Sunday (Whit Sunday)

Pentecost Sunday is also called "Whit Sunday." Pentecost is an important feast in the Christian liturgical year commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Pentecost is sometimes described as the "Birthday of the Church."

The name "Whit Sunday" is thought to originate in the custom that those formerly baptized on this feast would wear white garments.

Pentecost is celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after Easter Sunday, hence its name. It falls on the tenth day after Ascension Thursday.

Bach wrote four cantatas for this Sunday.

Acts 2:1–13 "The Holy Spirit"
John 14:23–31, "Farewell discourse, announcement of the Spirit who will teach"


  • Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172, 20 May 1714

    Coro: Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten
    Recitativo (bass): Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten
    Aria (bass, trumpets & timpani): Heiligste Dreieinigkeit
    Aria (tenor, strings): O Seelenparadies
    Aria (soprano – Soul, alto – Spirit, oboe, cello): Komm, laß mich nicht länger warten
    Chorale (violin): Von Gott kömmt mir ein Freudenschein
    optional: repeat of the opening chorus

    ("Ring out, ye Songs") Grand and festive cantata suitable for this important Church feast. Based on the reading "Whoever loves Me will keep My Word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our dwelling with him." Opening chorus in da-capo form with grand fanfare-like scoring to underline the day's festive character. The recitative broadens into an arioso and is followed by a bass aria accompanied by three trumpets representing the "Holiest Trinity" in the text. The tenor aria is in minor mode as an expression of the desire for the text's "spiritual paradise" (which has not been attained yet). It is accompanied by a flowing ritornello theme in the violin, the "heavenly wind" of the Spirit. The ensuing duet between soprano and alto is a dialogue between the Holy Spirit and a believing Soul, and is combined with an instrumental choral cantus firmus. A remarkably multi-layered movement. A five part choral closes the cantata, after which the opening chorus can be optionally repeated. (***)

  • Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 59, 28 May 1724

    Duetto (soprano, bass): Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten
    Recitativo (soprano): O was sind das vor Ehren
    Chorale: Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott
    Aria (bass): Die Welt mit allen Königreichen

    ("Whoever loves me, will keep My word") Very short cantata (parts of which were in fact reused for BWV 74 to better effect). The opening duet is quite charming, almost like an Italian chamber concerto. Trumpets are also present, but the fine string accompaniment dominates. The text and music both stress the "whoever loves me." The accompanied soprano recitative moves into an arioso and is followed by a straightforward chorale ("Come, Holy Spirit"). The song-like bass aria is accompanied by solo violin and expresses the anticipation of heavenly bliss. The final choral is missing, although a note by Bach in the autograph indicates that he intended to end the work with one. Usually, the third verse of "Come Holy Spirit" is played here. (**)

  • Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 74, 20 May 1725

    Chor: Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten
    Arie S: Komm, komm, mein Herze steht dir offen
    Rezitativ A: Die Wohnung ist bereit
    Arie B: Ich gehe hin und komme wieder zu euch
    Arie T: Kommt, eilet, stimmet Sait und Lieder
    Rezitativ B: Es ist nichts Verdammliches an denen, die in Christo Jesu sind
    Arie A: Nichts kann mich erretten
    Choral: Kein Menschenkind hier auf der Erd

    ("Whoever loves me, will keep My word") This cantata has the same title as the previous one, but Bach used a different author for the text. It presents a more personal treatment of the Bible text, although Bach reuses music from BWV 59 in the first two movements. The message of Pentecost is reflected in the joyful opening chorus with colorful instrumentation. The first aria is for soprano with oboe da caccia. After an alto recitative follows the second aria, for bass as Vox Christi ("I go away and come again unto you..."). The tenor aria again proclaims the joy of the Whitsun story, in a dance-like and declamatory movement. The quickly rising and descending character of the catchy string melody illustrates the "going away and coming again." A bass recitative accompanied by oboes proclaims the central message "There is nothing damnable in those who are of Christ Jesus." The final vigorous alto aria is accompanied by concertante violin and engages in some virtuoso word painting to illustrate the empty rattling of hell's chains by Satan. A quiet but attractive choral ends the cantata. (***)

  • O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe, BWV 34, c 1746–1747

    Coro: "O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe" Recitativo: "Herr, unsre Herzen halten dir"
    Aria (Alto): "Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen"
    Recitativo: "Erwählt sich Gott die heilgen Hütten"
    Coro: "Friede über Israel"

    ("O Eternal flame, o fount of love") Derived from a now lost wedding cantata, as is still clear from the ardent text of the opening chorus - the fiery love between man is wife is transformed into the heavenly flames of the Holy Spirit. This is in fact one of Bach's great and elaborate choruses, with perfectly integrated trumpets. The "heavenly flames" of Pentecost are represented musically by crackling semiquaver figurations in the first violins. The chorus concludes with a great fugue. Also the most beautiful alto aria "Happy are ye, ye chosen souls" still retains something of the wedding cantata, for example in the reticent accompaniment by flutes and muted strings, or in the tender affection it exudes. The gentle, rocking melody now is supposed to evoke the "floating spirits." A bass recitative next leads into the final joyous choral exhortation for peace, a rousing close to a great cantata. (****)

May 22, 2012

Neo-Noir Films (Movie reviews)

It was already difficult to define the noir style, so what about neo-noir?

Neo-noir - which is generally thought to start somewhere in the 1970s and continue all the way to today - of course shares the characteristics of noir crime films (the sexual motivation of the crime plus presence of a femme fatale, and the general atmosphere of doom), although the precise visual style of classical film noir is more difficult to emulate, as these newer films are in color, but the shadows are often replaced by garishness, such as neon lights and their sleazy colors.

The main difference is that where noir was a period style, in which craftsmen-like directors churned out one B-film after another (although there were of course also individualistic directors as Welles), neo noir is a conscious style selected by an authorist director. He often plays around with noir elements in a postmodern way and often pays homage to classical noir films. For example, Femme Fatale by De Palma starts with footage from Double Indemnity and then places the face of its protagonist, who is watching TV, over that of Barbara Stanwyck to identify them with each other.

Although there are also excellent neo-noirs in other genres than the crime genre - most of all science-fiction films as the very noir Blade Runner or Alien, but also historical costume dramas as From Hell - I limit my discussion to the crime film, as I did for the classical noir film.

Some of the best neo-noir crime films are:
  • Basic Instinct (1992) by Paul Verhoeven and with Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas. A police detective investigating the brutal murder of a former rock star, becomes involved in a torrid and intense relationship with the beautiful and mysterious prime suspect. Sharon Stone is the perfect femme fatale, both in the mind games and in the sexual games she plays with her interrogators. There is also a strong sense of doom, for we see Michael Douglas mentally falling apart and slowly coming closer and closer to the flame of the dangerous seductress. One of the greatest films made in the 1990s, with an unbelievable low rating on IMDB. I give it (10).
  • MulHolland Drive (2001) by David Lynch and with Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. A car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesic. She lifts a new name from a Gilda poster where Rita Hayworth is advertised and hides in a house where she meets a perky aspiring actress who has newly arrived in Los Angeles. Their quest for answers will take them beyond reality into the tricky world of dreams. A game with alternate realities, and, like Sunset Boulevard, about broken dreams in Hollywood. Laura Harring is a classic femme fatale, but here with a twist, for her charms work on another woman. Nightmarish, threatening atmosphere. (10)
  • Femme Fatale (2002) by Brian de Palma and with Rebecca Romijn and Antonio Banderas. A woman thief takes part in a heist at the Cannes Film Festival to steal a golden snake encrusted with diamonds, an object worn by a model on her naked body. She double-crosses her partners, but is by sheer luck able to easily assume another identity and flee to the U.S. Seven years later she returns to France as the wife of the new American Ambassador, but then her past comes to haunt her. Again a film in which a dream plays an important role. De Palma is playing around with genre expectations in a most inventive way and Rebecca Romijn is the classical femme fatale who only looks after her own interests. This film is sheer fun. (9)
  • Body Heat (1981) by Lawrence Kasdan and with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. While a blistering heat wave rages in Florida, a somewhat sleazy lawyer begins an affair with the wife of a wealthy businessman that is soon blazing away even hotter than the weather. But the husband seems to stand in the way of perfect happiness so they hatch a plot to kill him. There is a nice twist at the end, showing you should never trust a femme fatale. Inspired by Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Started up the careers of both Turner and Hurt. (9)
  • The Last Seduction (1994) by John Dahl and with Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg and Bill Pullman. A beautiful but amoral woman who is married to a doctor persuades him to sell medicinal cocaine to drugs dealers. Next she steals the money and goes undercover in a mid-American small town, where she meets a naive young guy who is blinded by her charms and brazen outspokenness. As her husband is still after her, she devises a diabolical plan to get rid of him and the boyfriend in one swoop and start enjoying her millions. Linda Fiorentino is a steely and deadly femme fatale, who turns the men around her into whimpering fools. Again a film which is sheer fun. (9)
  • Klute (1971) by Alan J. Pakula and with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. A square suburban cop comes to New York to find a missing man. The only clue is the connection with a cynical call girl. When the woman is uncooperative, the detective taps her phone intending to blackmail her into helping him. Then it appears that the call girl has a stalker after her, which finally brings them closer. The detective is not the only one listening to tapes. Fonda won an Oscar for her role in this tense erotic thriller and she fully deserves it. (9)
  • Jackie Brown (1997) by Quentin Tarantino and with Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster. Again a film about a woman with nerves of steel who takes it all. A flight attendant who gets caught smuggling money for a weapons dealer makes a deal with the cops to help them arrest the wanted man. Her bail bondsman - a burnt-out man in his fifties - helps her, but gets into more than he wanted when she hatches a plot to play off the cops against the criminals and cash the money herself. Great acting by all: Pam Grier, who was mainly famous for sleazy blaxploitation films from the 1970s, Samuel Jackson as the brutal weapons dealer, Robert De Niro as a brainless hood just out of prison, Bridget Fonda as a big-mouthed chick and Robert Forster as the kind bondsman who falls in love with Jackie Brown but in the end lets her go as she is too strong for him. (9)
  • Bound (1996) by Andy and Lana Wachowski, and with Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon and Joe Pantoliano. A young woman longs to escape from her mafioso boyfriend and enters into an affair with an alluring ex-con. The two women hatch a scheme to steal mafia money and put the blame on the former boyfriend. But that is easier said than done. A breezy and highly enjoyable film. (8.5)
  • Blood Simple (1984) by Joel and Ethan Coen and with John Getz, Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya. The Coen Brothers have made many fine films that deserve the designation "neo-noir." This was their first one and it has the most authentic noir style. A bar owner thinks his wife is deceiving him with one of his bar keepers and has her watched by a sleazy detective. This sets off a complicated round of violence with many funny but fatal misunderstandings. Only the strong survive.  (8.5)
  • Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan and with Guy Pierce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. An ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories attempts to find the murderer of his wife - the last thing he thinks he remembers. He helps his failing memory with Polaroid pictures, notes and tattoos. Ingenious storytelling with two story lines, one normally moving forward in time, the other moving backward in blocks, so that viewers are in the same position as the protagonist: they have no memories of what has happened and feel displaced. The ending is open and suggests that the memory-less avenger may be endlessly repeating himself. There is also a wry sort of humor in how he is repeatedly cheated by those around him. (8.5) 

    May 20, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (27): Sunday after Ascension

    The Sunday after Ascension is called Exaudi ("Listen"). It is the sixth Sunday after Easter. There are two Bach cantatas for this day, both with the same title but different music.

    1 Peter 4:8–11, "Serve each other"
    John 15:26–16:4, "Farewell discourse, announcement of the Spirit of Truth and persecution"


    • Sie werden euch in den Bann tun, BWV 44, 21 May 1724

      Aria (tenor, bass): Sie werden euch in den Bann tun
      Coro: Es kömmt aber die Zeit, daß, wer euch tötet, wird meinen, er tue Gott einen Dienst daran
      Aria (alto): Christen müssen auf der Erden Christi wahre Jünger sein
      Chorale (tenor): Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid
      Recitativo (bass): Es sucht der Antichrist
      Aria (soprano): Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost
      Chorale: So sei nun, Seele, deine

      ("They will put you out of the synagogues") Textually this compact cantata is about Jesus' warning to his disciples that their task will not be easy after he has left them. The dark-colored piece starts with a duet for tenor and bass, setting the theme, followed by an agitated chorus expressing fear of persecution. The alto aria paints the path full of suffering of the Christian on earth. This is taken up in the strangely chromatic chorale for tenor. In the bass recitative Christians are compared to the branches of palm trees which grow higher and straighter when they are weighted down. The lively soprano aria with full orchestral accompaniment finally brings consolation, which is reaffirmed in the last chorale. Musically, the cantata is based on the contrast between pain and consolation. (***)

    • Sie werden euch in den Bann tun, BWV 183, 13 May 1725

      Recitativo (bass): Sie werden euch in den Bann tun
      Aria (tenor): Ich fürchte nicht des Todes Schrecken
      Recitativo (alto): Ich bin bereit, mein Blut und armes Leben
      Aria (soprano): Höchster Tröster, Heilger Geist
      Chorale: Du bist ein Geist, der lehret

      ("They will put you out of the synagogues") This cantata has an unusual instrumentation, such as three types of oboes (oboe, oboe da caccia and oboe d'amore) and a violincello piccolo; it also lacks a chorus. Although carrying the same title as the previous cantata, it is somewhat more optimistic, stressing that fear of persecution will be allayed by the Holy Spirit. After the stark opening recitative by the bass as Vox Christi singing in a sepulchral tone, follows a long and fine tenor aria in an elegiac mood ("I do not fear the horror of death"). Although the voice sings he is not afraid, the tortured melody in fact expresses fear! After an alto recitative ("I am ready"), accompanied by four oboes, the soprano aria follows with a beautiful oboe da caccia line. It is the most exuberant part of the cantata, in a "striding rhythm," although not free from shadows. The conclusion is a simple choral. In this cantata Bach shows his most experimental side. (***)

    May 18, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (26): Ascension Day

    Ascension Day celebrates Jesus' ascension to heaven (Ascensio Iesu). It is the 40th day after Easter (or 39 days after Easter Sunday) and one of most important feasts of the Christian year, dating back to the late fourth century.

    According to the Christian teaching found in the New Testament, 40 days after the resurrection Jesus was taken up to heaven in his resurrected body, in the presence of eleven of his apostles.

    There are three cantatas and an oratorio for this day.

    Acts 1:1–11, "Farewell and Ascension"
    Mark 16:14–20, "Ascension"


    • Wer da gläubet und getauft wird, BWV 37, 18 May 1724

      (Coro): "Wer da gläubet und getauft wird"
       Aria: "Der Glaube ist das Pfand der Liebe"
       Chorale (Duetto): "Herr Gott Vater, mein starker Held!"
       Recitativo: "Ihr Sterblichen, verlanget ihr"
       Aria: "Der Glaube schafft der Seele Flügel"
       Chorale: "Den Glauben mir verleihe"

      ("He that believeth and is baptized") Rather than a musical representation of the Ascension story, this cantata is a dogmatic treatise on the power of the Christian faith. Starts with a dancing chorus, followed by a genial tenor aria singing that belief is a sort of guarantee of Jesus' love. Next soprano and alto sing the chorale "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," reviving the dancing character of the beginning. The bass recitative and aria are more dark in tone. They remind us that even although one should do good works, justification and salvation result from faith alone. The work ends with an austere choral harmonization. (***)

    • Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein, BWV 128, 10 May 1725

      Coro (horns, oboes, strings): Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein
       Recitativo (tenor): Ich bin bereit, komm, hole mich
       Aria e recitativo (bass, trumpet): Auf, auf, mit hellem Schall
       Aria (alto, tenor, oboe d'amore): Sein Allmacht zu ergründen
       Chorale: Alsdenn so wirst du mich

      ("On Christ"s Ascencion Alone!") Choral cantata with full orchestra, including horns and trumpet. Textually it is based on the opening words "On Christ's ascension into heaven alone I base my own ensuing journey," outlining the theological significance of the Ascension and expressing confidence that the righteous will join Christ in Heaven. Starts with an attractive and lively choral fantasia with prominent horns. The bass aria "Up, up, with clarion ring proclaim everywhere: my Jesus sits at the right hand!" is in heroic style and accompanied by a virtuoso trumpet. It is a vision of the disciples seeing Jesus in Heaven. A duet for alto and tenor in da capo aria form has a characteristic rhetorical drop on the "Ergrunden," "Fathom." The final four-part harmonized choral again uses the horns to great effect. (***)

    • Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen, BWV 43, 30 May 1726

      (Coro): Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen
       Recitativo: Es will der Höchste sich ein Siegsgepräng bereiten
       Aria: Ja tausend mal tausend begleiten den Wagen
       Recitativo: Und der Herr, nachdem er mit ihnen geredet hatte
       Aria: Mein Jesus hat nunmehr
       Recitativo: Es kommt der Helden Held
       Aria: Er ists, der ganz allein
       Recitativo: Der Vater hat ihm ja
       Aria: Ich sehe schon im Geist
       Recitativo: Er will mir neben sich
       Chorale: Du Lebensfürst, Herr Jesu Christ

      ("God is gone up with a merry noise") Magnificent opening chorus with trumpet and drums, expression the joy about the Ascension, but it passes all too quickly, and the same is true of the other eleven short and condensed movements of this cantata. Among the ensuing arias the most beautiful is the one for tenor with string accompaniment, with the emphasis on "thousands upon thousands." The soprano aria has the necessary sweetness to fit its childlike text. Like in the previous cantata, the bass aria again boasts a solo trumpet. The alto aria is a melancholy meditation on the sad side of the Ascension story. The cantata closes with two choral verses instead of one. (***)

    • Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11, 19 May 1735 - Ascension Oratorio

       Chorus Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen
       Evangelist (tenor) Der Herr Jesus hub seine Hände auf
       Recitative (bass) Ach, Jesu, ist dein Abschied schon so nah?
       Aria (alto) Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben
       Evangelist Und ward aufgehoben zusehends
       Chorale Nun lieget alles unter dir
       Evangelists (tenor and bass) Und da sie ihm nachsahen gen Himmel fahren
       Recitative (soprano) Ach ja! so komme bald zurück
       Evangelist Sie aber beteten ihn an
       Aria (soprano) Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke
       Chorale Wenn soll es doch geschehen

      ("Praise God in His Riches") The baffling thing about this beautiful work is that it is relatively unknown - perhaps its neglect is due to the fact that its major parts are all based on (now lost) secular cantata movements? The text of the cantata is a dramatization of the Ascension story, with the tenor as Evangelist. The cantata starts with a brilliant chorus, propelled along by the virtuoso trumpets. Simple and artless in appearance, it is very effective. After that, the atmosphere of the oratorio is mainly melancholic. The alto aria "Ich bleibe doch" is a good example, with its almost begging violins. The middle of the work is a choral setting, “Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist,” with a low-pitched melody, symbolizing how those who remain behind are literally at Jesus feet. The soprano aria "Jesu deine Gnadenblicke" has a mysterious character that closely matches the text - Jesus' bodily departure from earth is suggested by the absence of a continuo part, while the hovering spirit is reflected in the accompaniment for upper strings. The final choral again is accompanied by the whole orchestra blazing away, an amazing tour de force. (***)

    May 13, 2012

    Bach cantatas (25): Fifth Sunday after Easter

    The fifth Sunday after Easter is called Rogate ("Pray"). Often prayers for a good harvest are said on this Sunday. It is the last Sunday before Ascension Day. There are two cantatas for this Sunday. The text continues Jesus' farewell to his disciples of the previous week. Crucial passages are: “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you,” and “The time cometh when I shall no more speak unto you in parables.”

    James 1:22–27, "Doers of the word, not only listeners"
    John 16:23–30, "Farewell discourse, prayers will be fulfilled"


    • Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch, BWV 86, 14 May 1724

      Arioso (bass): Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch
      Aria (alto): Ich will doch wohl Rosen brechen
      Chorale (soprano): Und was der ewig gütig Gott
      Recitativo (tenor): Gott macht es nicht gleichwie die Welt
      Aria (tenor): Gott hilft gewiß
      Chorale: Die Hoffnung wart' der rechten Zeit

      ("Verily, verily, I say unto you") The text of this cantata considers how the promise "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give you," can be understood in the reality of life - the promise will be kept but only God knows the right time. A triple fugue introduces a melodious bass aria (Vox Christi singing the above lines from the Gospel of John). This is followed by an alto aria "I will yet indeed pluck roses, even if they prick me with thorns," in which the frenetic figurations on the violin perhaps symbolize the thorns. After a choral verse sung by tenor and bass comes a tenor aria "God will surely help." It is rather sparse musically, as is the concluding choral - more declamatory than tuneful, as if preaching. (***)

    • Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten, BWV 87, 6 May 1725

      Arioso B: Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen
      Rezitativ A: O Wort, das Geist und Seel erschreckt!
      Arie A: Vergib, o Vater, unsre Schuld
      Rezitativ T: Wenn unsre Schuld bis an den Himmel steigt
      Arioso B: In der Welt habt ihr Angst
      Arie T: Ich will leiden, ich will schweigen
      Choral: Muß ich sein betrübet

      ("Hitherto have you asked nothing in My Name") This cantata concentrates on darker aspects, namely the guilt and fear of mankind. The opening is an imitative arioso for bass, strings and oboe, as if to emphasize the duality of God and Son. The text " Hitherto have you asked nothing in My Name" sets off a warning to pray for forgiveness in the recitative and aria by alto. The strangely chromatic alto aria is accompanied by two oboes da caccia; the word "Vergib," "Forgive," is repeated countless times. Relief comes in the tenor recitative and basso arioso (again Vox Christi), and most of all in the beautiful siciliano aria for the tenor, which is the musical high-point of the cantata. The concluding choral is a harmonization of "Jesu meine Freude." (***)

    May 8, 2012

    Classical Film Noir (1941-1958)

    Film Noir is a style of Hollywood crime dramas that were made in the 1940s and 1950s, and that share a number of important characteristics:
    • Inevitable doom and a nightmare-like atmosphere - crime films where the main character is usually a small man who commits murder and then is sucked up by the maelstrom he has set off
    • Sexual motivation & femme fatale - the films often center on a vamp-like woman who catches the male protagonist in her spider web
    • Expressionist cinematography - black-and-white visual style with low-key lighting, chiaroscuro, and unbalanced compositions originating in German Expressionism of the 1920s, that greatly influenced Hollywood as many of the key directors such as Fritz Lang moved to the U.S.
    Here is the quintessential Noir dialogue: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" (from Double Indemnity)

    Stories were often taken from hard boiled crime fiction that came up during the Great Depression (Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler). There is a lot of cynicism - a pessimistic world view was characteristic for the postwar years when people felt disillusioned (although the Hays Code demanded that the crime be punished). On top of that, the witch hunts of McCartyism in the U.S. brought about a tense atmosphere and we had the new threat of the Bomb...

    [Lauren Bacall]

    The Noir canon was defined in retrospect - in their own time the films were called melodramas - and the term "Film Noir," "Black Film," was coined in 1946 by a French critic, who was thinking of American hard-boiled novels which had been published in France in a series of books with black covers ("Series Noire"). The first study of Film Noir was also written in France in 1955. Film Noir was in that study defined as "oneiric" (having dream-like states), "strange," "erotic," "ambivalent" and "cruel."

    [Rita Hayworth]

    Many Noirs were often helmed by unknown B-masters, but we have also excellent ones by famous directors, such as John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and so on. Actresses known for their roles as femmes fatales were Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney and Lauren Bacall. Humphrey Bogart was of course the archetypal Noir sleuth.

    [Lana Turner]

    Noirs were also made outside the United States, for example in the U.K. (The Third Man), France and Japan. In the 1960s and 70s ( and in fact, until today) there was a second wave of films in this style in Hollywood which has been called Neo-Noir. In the same period the style of "Noir SF" films came up.

    Whether to include particular films in the canon depends on the exact definition (about which opinions are divided), but generally speaking about 300 Noirs were made between 1941 and 1958, the so-called "Classical Period."

    Here are the best films from Hollywood in the Noir style that fit my definition (inevitable doom, femme fatale / sexual motivation, Expressionist style):
    • Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder and with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. Gothic tale of greed, sex and betrayal. An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme by the seductive wife of one of his clients. The investigator for the insurance company has his doubts. Not only a great Noir, but a flawless film in every respect. Great chemistry between "femme fatale" Stanwyck and MacMurray. (10)
    • Gilda (1946) by King Vidor and with Rita Hayworth and John Ford. A twisted Noir film with the most famous femme fatale of all time. Hayworth wears a Jean Louis strapless black satin dress for a song and dance number, one of the most famous dresses in all film. A gambler is employed by a sinister Buenos Aires' casino boss with a dagger in his walking stick. The German also appears the be the head of a Nazi cartel. Trouble starts when the boss brings home a sensuous new wife who his right-hand man already knows and learned to hate. The wife runs wild with other men as her husband seems incompetent, but she also challenges her old buddy who has to watch her. Hate and love splash off the screen in equal measure. (10)
    • Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles and with Orson Welles himself, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich. Dark, atmospheric story of murder and corruption in a Mexican border town. A study in moral dissipation - on the American side, with a corrupt police officer who plants evidence to solve his cases - his Mexican counterpart is a hapless do-gooder. The last classical film noir. Starts with great 3-minute tracking shot of a car with a time bomb hidden in its trunk cruising down a busy street, crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at a control post and finally blowing up. Full of visual and dramatic flamboyance, and too big for the Hollywood studio system. (10)
    • The Big Sleep (1946) by Howard Hawks and with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. After the novel by Raymond Chandler. A cynical private sleuth is asked to delve into the blackmailing of the daughter of a wealthy family. His quest takes him through Los Angeles' dark streets and lonely houses, and through its underworld, but also across the path of a vamp who finally concedes there is nothing wrong with that her that he can't fix. (9)
    • Criss Cross (1949) by Robert Siodmak and with Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea. A man returns to Los Angeles to find his ex-wife with whom he is still in love, but she marries a mobster. The man and the mobster set up an armored-truck robbery, but end up criss crossing each other with fatal consequences. Great noir with vampish woman and an atmosphere of doom that is thrilling from the start. The sexual tension jumps off the screen. (9)
    • Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder and with Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim. Unsuccessful screen writer is drawn into the dangerous fantasy world of a faded silent movie star when he becomes her kept man. Cynical and hard Noir, literally told from beyond the grave. (8)
    • The Lady from Shanghai (1948) by Orson Welles and with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.  A seaman is hired by a beautiful woman for a yachting cruise with her crippled husband and his business partner. The poor guy has only eyes for the curvaceous vamp and doesn't notice that he is taken for a ride in a triple-cross murder plot. After the cruise with sunny beach scenes and bathing suits, we get some real noir when the story moves to San Francisco, with a great finale in a hall of mirrors. (8)
    • I Wake Up Screaming (1941) by Bruce Humberstone and with Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Laird Cregar and Carole Landis. Why is a police inspector trying to frame a sports promoter for the murder of a beautiful model he discovered? True Noir, that deserves to be better known, with great expressionist "shadowy" cinematography, sexual  motivation and perversity (the sister of the murdered woman immediately becoming close with the suspected murderer, the sicko detective). (8)
    • Scarlet Street (1945) by Fritz Lang and with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Middle-aged man with harpish wife falls in love with young woman and is cheated by her and her boyfriend. They make him steal money from his company and sell his paintings for their own profit. Although the boyfriend pays with his life for the murder of the young woman, the main character loses everything and ends up a tramp. Remake of La Chienne by Renoir. The quality of the print is terrible, but the film is free from copyright.  (8)
    • D.O.A. (1950) by Rudolph Mate and with Edmund O'Brien and Pamela Britton. A doomed man frantically tries to find out who has poisoned him and why. The style of filming is just as frantic as the dying man's quest. Doom is certain: he will be D.O.A. or "Dead On Arrival" at the police station. A low-budget noir that packs lots of punch. Also freely available. (8)
    • Detour (1945) by Edgar Ulmer and with Tom Neal and Ann Savage. A NY nightclub pianist who hitchhikes to Los Angeles to join his girlfriend, gets involved in trouble and is blackmailed by a rather wild vamp. The small man can't evade his doom. Made with the smallest budget possible and shot in only six days, this is a spare Noir that has over the years become a veritable cult film. Watch it here.(7)
    Here are some films which are usually considered as important parts of the Noir canon, but which in my view lack crucial Noir elements (which does prevent them from being fine films in their own right, of course):
    • Ace in the Hole (1951) by Billy Wilder and with Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. Biting satire of the sensation press. Down-on-his-luck journalist stops at nothing to fabricate news even when he has to make victims, just to get back his job at a major newspaper. Interesting film, but without any real noir elements. (9)
    • Sweet Smell of Success (1957) by Alexander Mackendrick and with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Susan Harrison. Small-time, unscrupulous  press-agent working for unethical Broadway columnist is forced to break up the romance of the columnist's sister by foul means. Interesting dialogues and great acting in another satire of the press (and power people have over each other), but I can't see any real Noir elements except in the depiction of nightly Manhattan. (8.5)
    • Laura (1944) by Otto Preminger, and with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. A police inspector falls in love with the woman whose death he is investigating, even spending the night in her apartment, going through her intimate stuff. Except for this one, perverse element, the film is more a normal whodunit than a Film Noir - the female protagonist is a business woman rather than femme fatale, there is no mood of doom, and little noirish photography. (8.5)
    • The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston and with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. A cynical private detective gets involved with a beautiful liar, three ruthless criminals, and their quest for the statue of the Maltese Falcon. After the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Often called the first film noir, although I find all my key elements missing - no doom, no sexual motivation, no Noir photography - but it is a fun sleuthing film in its own right, as cartoonish as the novel. (8)
    • Out of the Past (1947) by Jacques Tourneur and with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. Small-town gas pumper knows his doom is impending when his mysterious past - including a femme fatale - catches up with him. After a good start with a taut Noir flashback sequence the film gets lost in plot complexities and tedious  melodrama. (7)
    • Asphalt Jungle (1950) by John Huston and with Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern and Jean Hagen (and a small role for starter Marilyn Monroe). A heist film, about a well-planned jewel robbery that does not go off as planned after which the criminals start double-crossing each other. The fact that they are all killed off in the end looks more like a strict application of the Hays Code than any Noir-like doom. In fact, I can find no real Noir elements in this flick. (6)

    May 6, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (24): Fourth Sunday after Easter

    The fourth Sunday after Easter is called "Cantate," after the Introit "Cantate Domino novum canticum,"  "Sing ye to the Lord a new song." There are two cantatas for this day. The central idea for this Sunday is based on Jesus' speech to his disciples about his going away and second coming (parousia): "But now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?"


    James 1:17–21
    John 16:5–15, Farewell discourse, announcement of Comforter

    • Wo gehest du hin? BWV 166, 7 May 1724

      Arioso (bass): Wo gehest du hin
      Aria (tenor): Ich will an den Himmel denken
      Chorale (soprano): Ich bitte dich, Herr Jesu Christ
      Recitativo (bass): Gleichwie die Regenwasser bald verfließen
      Aria (alto): Man nehme sich in acht
      Chorale: Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende

      ("Whither goest thou?") This short cantata starts with an arioso for bass - the "Vox Christi" as usual - asking the disciples (and listener): "Where do you go?"  A sort of contemplation on the fate of man. The very short arioso is followed by a profound tenor aria that meditates on the same theme. It is in the form of a sonata a 4, with plaintive oboe (the g-minor organ trio BWV 584 was later transcribed from this aria). Against an orchestral accompaniment in the strings, the soprano sings a melancholy chorale asking Jesus to remember us until our soul arrives in heaven. The bass recitative - a voice of wisdom - warns that joy in this world is like rainwater, soon running off, and speaks of the bell of the last hour. The alto aria takes up the same idea in a wistful way: "For so easily on earth things can change before evening, which in the morning was never considered." At the same time, the music pictures the "laughing of fortune" by oscillating figures in the strings and melismas in the voice. The whole is like a giggling minuet. The final choral is a moving harmonization of “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten.” (***)
    • Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe, BWV 108, 29 April 1725

      Arie B: Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe
      Arie T: Mich kann kein Zweifel stören
      Rezitativ T: Dein Geist wird mich also regieren
      Chor: Wenn aber jener, der Geist der Wahrheit
      Arie A: Was mein Herz von dir begehrt
      Choral: Dein Geist, den Gott vom Himmel gibt

      ("It is expedient for you that I go away") Another short cantata that sets off with an elaborate aria for bass - again Vox Christi -, oboe d’amore and strings. Jesus tells the disciples that it is good that he is leaving them, for only in his absence can the Holy Spirit be there. The warm oboe melody gradually takes on a more mysterious character symbolizing the Holy Spirit, as a reflection of those who perceive it. The following tenor aria, with athletic violin accompaniment, portrays doubt, only to eliminate it in the process - hear the emphasis on "glaube," trust. After a didactic recitative follows the center piece of the cantata, a chorus consisting of three fugues in a row, singing about the coming of the spirit of truth to mankind. The mysterious character is only resolved in the alto aria, a calling for blessings which consolidates the gospel message for this Sunday. The cantata concludes with a harmonization of "Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn." (***)

    May 4, 2012

    Best short stories by Arthur Schnitzler

    The writer and dramatist Artur Schnitzler (1862-1931) lived in fin-de-siècle Vienna, in the waning days of the glory and power of the Habsburg Empire. It was the city of Mahler, Freud and Klimt, a culture that has been named "a nervous splendor" (just listen to a Mahler symphony and you will understand what that means!). The city was consumed by intricate social ritual, by great art, but also lowly gossip - for example about the tragic murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Mary Vetsera, at Mayerling.

    Schnitzler was especially interested in the psychology of the relationship between men and women - its complexity, its ambivalence, and its perversity - and no one understands it better than he did, with a keen, instinctive insight. A second obsession was death - the fear of dying, the contemplation of the state of death and cemeteries. All his writings are basically about these two subjects - love and death.

    The following points are characteristic too:
    • Schnitzler was the first to use stream of consciousness techniques in his writings.
    • Schnitzler was the first to apply Freud's ideas about dreams and the subconscious to literature - although Schnitzler preferred to talk about the "middle" or "half conscious" rather than the "subconscious." A medical doctor himself, Schnitzler was keenly interested in psychoanalysis.
    • Schnitzler not only delves into the inner lives of his characters, but through them, also casts a sharp eye at society. The Viennese "local color" gives his stories and plays added interest. 
    • Thanks to the fact that Schnitzler was in the first place a playwright, his language - especially his dialogue - is very supple.
    • The story usually starts in medias res, after which - as the story is progressing -  we learn more about the characters via flashbacks and interior monologue.
    Schnitzler's period of greatest fame, both as a story writer and playwright, was in the two decades before WWI. His many plays dominated the Viennese stage in those years. After the war and the fall of the monarchy, the situation changed. In the early 1920s, Schnitzler became embroiled in the lawsuit about his play Reigen, and also had to cope with family (he lost his daughter to suicide) and personal troubles.

    This year it is 150 years ago that Schnitzler was born - a fitting time to commemorate this great author, who is still unjustly suffering from neglect brought about by Antisemitism, Nazism and his subject matter which was often too advanced for his contemporaries. I already wrote a post about the extended novella Traumnovelle ("Dream Story," which formed the basis for Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut) - here we look at the other stories Schnitzler wrote.

    The best stories are:

    Sterben (Dying, 1892). Early novella about a young man who has been told by his doctor that he will die within a year. This causes a neurosis: he feels jealous that life will go on without him and especially that his wife can start a wholly new life. Gradually, this jealousy changes into the wish to take his wife with him and die together... (English translation in Desire and Delusion)

    Blumen (Flowers, 1894). A man has been left by his young wife for a lover, but she keeps sending him flowers every month. Then the wife dies - but the monthly flowers keep coming in an almost ghostly way, causing a dissociation process in the mind of the husband. He is saved by a young woman, who throws out the faded flowers and brings in a fresh bouquet. (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

    Der Witwer (The Widower). Richard's wife suddenly dies and he is devastated. But was she really the saint he imagined her to be? What about his best friend Hugo? (English translation in Night Games)

    Ein Abschied (A Farewell, 1896). A man has a relationship with a married woman who visits him regularly in his rooms. Then she suddenly stops coming - as it appears, she has died of an acute illness. He blames himself that he who loves her so truly could not be at her deathbed. Clandestinely, he enters the house where she lies on the bed - and sees a mocking smile on her dead lips. (English translation in Night Games) (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

    Die Toten schweigen (The Dead are Silent, 1897). A married woman has an affair with a young man. On one of their secret meetings they go for a night ride to the outskirts of Vienna. But the driver is drunk and causes an accident. The young man dies. Will the woman be able to get home before her husband? Will the dead keep silent about her adultery? (English translation at Gutenberg) (English translation in Night Games) (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

    Die Frau des Weisen (The Wife of the Sage, 1897). The wife of a wise man fell in love with a student lodging with her and her husband. She never realized her husband knew about this love. The wise man saw it and endured it silently and magnanimously. When the lover finally realizes this, he is impressed by so much self-control and goodness. He does not want to cheat any longer and flees from his beloved. (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

    Die Nächste (The Next One, 1899). A young widower comes across a young woman who looks like his dead wife. She even carries the same name. But things take a fatal turn when he tries to mold the somewhat vulgar woman exactly in the image of his wife.

    Leutnant Gustl (Lieutenant Gustl, 1900). First continuous stream-of-consciousness narrative, antedating Joyce and Woolf. A pompous young officer is put in his place by a baker who takes his sword in a strong grip that almost breaks it. Honor demands that the officer commits suicide - a duel is not possible with the lower orders of society (until 1911, officers in the Habsburg Monarchy were obliged by their code to fight duels). He wavers and is afraid, but also worries the baker will boast about the incident and spread his "shame." Then he hears the news that the baker has died that same night from a stroke and he decides suicide is not necessary anymore as nobody knows about his shame. Satire of the duplicity of the honor code of the army (and Habsburg monarchy) that led to Schnitzler being deprived of his own officer status. (English translation in Bachelors)

    Frau Berta Garlan (Mrs Berta Garlan, 1900). The whole story is told in free indirect speech from the perspective of Frau Berta Garlan, a young widow living with relatives in a small town near Vienna. Berta has given up music at her parents' request and also her love for a young violinist, and instead made a prudent marriage. Bored in the small town after her husband's death and feeling unfulfilled, she arranges to meet her former lover again, who is now a famous solo violinist. She spends the night with him, but after that, he refuses to see her again. She has been too naive... (English at Gutenberg)

    Der blinde Geronimo und sein Bruder ( Blind Geronimo and his Brother, 1900). Geronimo and his brother Carlo are beggars: Geronimo plays the guitar and sings, while Carlo collects the offerings. When they were children, an accident caused by Carlo resulted in his brother's blindness and since then Carlo has cared for Geronimo. But when Geronimo starts distrusting him about money matters and a girl, things fall apart. (English translation in Night Games) (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

    Andreas Thameyers letzter Brief (Andreas Thameyer's Last Letter, 1902). Before committing suicide, Andreas Thameyer writes a letter to explain his deed. He has lost his social status as his wife has given birth to a negroid baby, leading to rumors that she has been unfaithful to him. In the letter, Thameyer tries to prove that there are more instances in history of strange births after pregnant women received a shock on seeing a fierce animal... (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

    Die griechische Tänzerin (The Greek Dancer, 1902). The narrator, an elderly man, has been in love with the much younger Mathilde, but to his regret she has married a sculptor, Samodeski. Now she has died of a stroke and his prejudice makes him think that she has in fact loved him and not the artist who was only after her money, he thinks... A very ambiguous tale with an unreliable narrator, who is cheating himself.

    Das Schicksal des Freiherrn von Leisenbohg (Baron von Leisenbogh's Destiny, 1903). The baron is deeply in love with Clara Hell, a singer. For ten years he follows her throughout Europe, without coming close to his goal, as she takes one lover after another. Will he finally be rewarded for his devotion? (English translation in Night Games)

    Die Fremde (The Stranger, 1903). Government official Albert von Webeling has married the beautiful but mentally unstable Katharina. Also after the marriage, she remains a stranger to him. Still, he can't help loving her so much that he knows he cannot live any longer when she ever leaves him.

    Die Weissagung (The Prophecy, 1904). An interesting case of predestination: the prophecy of the death of Baron von Schottenegg comes true, even though the Baron tries to evade it in a most ingenious way.

    Das neue Lied (The new Song, 1905). Karl fails the proof of his love for the singer Marie, with whom he has spent one happy summer: he stops visiting her when an illness has made her blind. The outcome is tragic.

    Der Tod des Junggesellen (Death of a Bachelor, 1907). A bachelor has died and left written confessions for his three married friends. Each friend has to examine his relation to his wife. (English translation in Night Games).

    Der tote Gabriel (Dead Gabriel, 1908). Gabriel has committed suicide because he has been discarded by his lover, the famous actress Wilhelmine (a character based on Adele Sandrock). Gabriel's girlfriend Irene meets their common friend Ferdinand at a ball, but she doesn't know that Ferdinand was the new lover of the actress and thus the cause of Gabriel's death. She wants to meet Wilhelmine and Ferdinand offers to take her to the actress, without realizing what this will bring about.

    Das Tagebuch der Redegonda (The Diary of Redegonda, 1909). At night, on a bench in the park, a mysterious person sits down next to the narrator, and tells about his love for the married Redegonda, how the husband found out about the affair via her diary, and how they fought a duel where the man now telling the story was killed.

    Der Mörder (The Murderer, 1910). Cleverly told story about a Viennese lawyer who is in love with two women. He drives the one to her death in order to be free for the other and thinks he can get away with murder, but a surprise is waiting for him. (English translation in Bachelors)

    Die Hirtenflöte (The Shepherd's Flute, 1911). Fairy tale about an elderly man who marries a young maiden, only to set her free into the world with the order not to return until after she has been unfaithful to him. In this way, she should get to know her unconscious wishes, but she also realizes he doesn't love her.

    Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt (Doctor Graesler, 1917). An elderly and unmarried doctor is too weak and hesitant to decide to marry the young Sabine, although she can help him set up his own sanatorium. When she is too pressing, the egoistical doctor flees. He meets another young woman, but infects her with scarlet fever and she dies. Now he has to face Sabine again...  (English translation in Bachelors)

    Casanova's Heimfahrt (Casanova's Homecoming, 1917). Tale about the famous lover, who is now 53 years old, attempting desperately to engineer his final, bittersweet conquest. He needs some trickery to make this possible and when his young partner sees him in the morning, she calls him "an old man."(English translation in Bachelors) (English at Gutenberg)

    Fräulein Else (Fräulein Else, 1924). Like Leutnant Gustl a full-fledged example of stream-of-consciousness, the inner life of the 19-year-old Else. The inner monologue is entirely convincing and manages to be charming, amusing and shocking at the same time. Else has been asked by her financially broken father to help him borrow money from an art dealer but is facing a dilemma when the dealer demands that she shows herself naked to him. (English translation in Desire and Delusion)

    Die Frau des Richters (The Wife of the Judge, 1925). Eighteenth century (Enlightenment) tale in which Schnitzler grapples with the taboo on female sexuality and attacks the double standard. Agnes leaves her weak and cowardly husband and finds happiness - both mentally and physically - as concubine of her king.

    Spiel im Morgengrauen (Night Games, 1926/27). To help a friend, Lieutenant Willi Kasda joins a card game, but the end is disastrous for him. The description of the all-night game alone is an unforgettable piece of literature. (English translation in Night Games)

    Der Sekundant (The Second). A man who is a "professional" second in  duels, cannot find words to bring the message of the death of a friend to his wife and ends up making love to her. (English translation in Night Games)

    Flucht in die Finsternis (Flight into Darkness, 1931). Robert thinks his overworked brother Otto is insane and decides to kill him. In reality, Robert himself suffers from persecution mania. (English translation in Desire and Delusion)

    Studies on Schnitzler:

    Schnitzler at Zeno (in German); Austrian Literature Online (in German); at German Gutenberg; and at Gutenberg (partly German, partly English translations).

    May 2, 2012

    Forbidden Pre-Code films (1929-1934)

    "Pre-code" is the designation for a period in the history of Hollywood between 1929 (from the start of the Great Depression; technically, also the time that all major studios had embraced sound) and July 1934, when the Hays Code with its censorship rules was finally enforced. It were wild years in which everything seemed possible - especially when it was sufficiently sleazy and lurid. Many of these films were forbidden in 1934 and languished for decades in the vaults of the film companies.

    [Joan Blondell]

    Although "Pre-Code" is a period rather than a genre, the following common style characteristics can be discerned:
    • Cynicism - brought on by the Depression
    • Sparse storytelling, short running time - usually just over one hour (meant for a double-bill) - and inexpensive production
    • Open treatment of prostitution (often shown to be caused by economic necessity), adultery, and pre-marital sex, combined with lots of sexual innuendo. 
    • Many steamy "vice" films with scantily dressed actresses - the studios and theaters had heavily invested in expensive sound equipment and despite the Depression wanted desperately to attract viewers. Take Jane performing a naked underwater ballet in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), inconceivable in what during the Hays Code in fact became a children's film.
    • Violence - gangs are treated with sympathy, as in Scarface (1931) and horror films also get their start with FrankensteinDracula and Freaks.
    • Strong women, often with a "gold diggers" theme, or women literally "sleeping" their way from poverty to the top, as in Baby Face or The Red-Haired Woman. "This is the twentieth century. Go out into the world and get what happiness you can."
    [Barbara Stanwyck]

    In all, with their cynicism and lack of a moral stance, as well as their "grown-up" way of treating love and life's problems, these films at their best are surprisingly modern.

    [Jean Harlow]

    As is clear from the above, "Pre-Code" is not a genre, but a period style. There were comedies, adventure films, horror films, crime films and so on. But the horror and crime films of this period are already famous enough in their own right, and as the religious zealots behind the Hays Code in the first place pointed their arrows at "vice," we will pick our best films from those with a liberal admixture of that juicy element - in other words the "Pre-Code films in the narrow sense of the word," those that were forbidden and could not be shown in public in the years that the Hays Code was enforced between 1934 and 1968:
    • Trouble in Paradise (1932) by Ernst Lubitsch, and with Mariam Hopkins, Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall. A gentleman pickpocket and a lady thief join forces to rob the beautiful owner of a perfume company. More sophisticated than the usual Pre-code film and foreshadowing the Screwball genre in its witty dialogues, but all the same forbidden by the Hays Code and not publicly shown in the U.S. between 1934 and 1968. (10)
    • Design for a Living (1933) by Ernst Lubitsch, and with Miriam Hopkins, Frederic March and Gary Cooper. A poet and a painter both fall in love with the same woman and the trio agrees to try living together in a menage-a-trois. A sophisticated and gracious film, but the unresolved love triangle crashed against the Code's sensibilities. Compare this to the Code-film Hands Across the Table (1935), where a similar love triangle can't be resolved anymore in the same grown-up way. (9)
    • The Red-Headed Woman (1932) with Jean Harlow. A sexpot secretary resolved to get higher up breaks up the marriage of her rich boss. After she marries him, she has an affair with his even richer business relation but also seeks consolation with the French chauffeur. Outrageous film about a stone-hard social climber who succeeds. Great is the scene where she bares her leg to show that her garter has a portrait of her boss affixed to it. By the way, the script was written by Anita Loos with F. Scott Fitzgerald. This film offended so many moral zealots with its adultery, promiscuous sex (such as a steamy scene in a telephone booth) and Harlow in garters that it was instrumental in bringing about the strict Hays Code enforcement of 1934. (9)
    • Blonde Crazy (1931) by Roy del Ruth and with Joan Blondell and James Cagney. In this grifters flick, a wisecracking bellhop and feisty chambermaid join forces to fleece other lawbreakers, but themselves become the victim of a double deal. Amoral movie with slick dialogue, frequent face-slapping and racy scenes. (8.5)
    • Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck. Lurid and fast-paced. A penniless young woman literally sleeps her way to the top in a corporate skyscraper. Fascinating amoral tale about a woman who uses sex remorsefully for advancement and considers the men in her path only as so many dumb stepping stones to success, negating all romantic notions about "love." Barbara Stanwyck's sexual energy splashes off the screen in this audacious flick that almost single-handed brought about the strict censorship of the Code. (8.5)
    • Night Nurse (1931) by William Wellman and with Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and Ben Lyon. A lurid and fast-paced mix of hospital film, gangster film and comedy that strangely enough works very well, also thanks to Stanwyck's scene-stealing performance. A night nurse discovers a plot to murder two children for their inheritance and enlists the help of her bootlegger buddy to save them. The Code must have objected especially to the frequent scenes where Stanwyck and Blondell appear in their underwear, but the whole film is pulpy, violent and sexy. (8.5)
    • Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) by Frank Capra and with Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther. An American missionary is captured by a Chinese warlord and finds herself falling in love with the cultivated gentleman. Caused an uproar (especially among women from the religious right) because sexual relations between different races were forbidden at the time. (7)
    • Forbidden (1932) by Frank Capra and with Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou. On a cruise, a librarian falls for a mysterious married man who later appears to be a district attorney an his way to political greatness. She bears his child, but he refuses to divorce his crippled wife, and adopts the daughter as his own. The censored elements of adultery and the unmarried mother are not relevant anymore today, and all that remains is a rather soapy melodrama, despite the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. (7)
    • The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer. Often called "the first Pre-Code film." When a wife discovers her husband is cheating on her, she pays him back in kind - exposing the double standard, for while her hubby thought his own peccadillo "didn't mean anything," her faux-pas is too much for him to stomach. The ending is conventionally gender-conforming. (6.5)
    • A Free Soul (1931) by Clarence Brown and with Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and Lionel Barrymore. An alcoholic lawyer who successfully defended a notorious gambler on a murder charge objects when his free-spirited daughter becomes romantically involved with him. Sexually charged melodrama.
    • Skyscraper Souls (1932) with Maureen O'Sullivan and Warren William. A ruthless empire builder wants to erect a skyscraper to his own ego. Pulpy film about capitalistic greed and women who do everything necessary to get what they want. But what goes up, must go down, too. 
    • Midnight Mary (1933) by William Wellman and with Loretta Young. A young women an trial for murder reviews her past life of crime. Contains some suggestive scenes but is not really risqué.
    • Wild Boys of the Road (1933) by William Wellman. In the depths of the Depression, two teenage boys take to the road to help their struggling parents, but things are tougher than expected. Energetic and vivid time capsule, realism mixed with social commentary. Peppered with some strong stuff.
    • Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins and Jack La Rue. A wild Southern belle falls into the hands of a gang of bootleggers and is made into a sex-slave by the gang leader. Based on Sanctuary by William Faulkner. Another "scandalous" movie that helped the acceptation of the Hays Code.
    • [She Done Him Wrong (1933) with Mae West and Gary Cooper. New York singer and nightclub owner Lady Lou has lots of male friends but unfortunately one of them is am escaped criminal. Based on a racy 1928 play, this is an example of a film that was heavily toned down to get by the Code and that went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Still, there are some innuendos and double-entendres left. Fast-paced and atmospheric, although also rather cartoonish. Just added here for comparison.]

    May 1, 2012

    Screwball comedies (1934-1942)

    Screwball is a style of Hollywood comedy popular during the Great Depression. Its heyday lasted from 1934 to 1942. Screwball comedy is characterized by:
    • fast-paced repartee - the wittiest dialogues ever
    • farce - mistaken identities, misunderstandings, even slapstick
    • escapism - "Gold-digger" themes: young people striking it rich by catching a millionaire partner
    • romance - courtship makes the world go round
    • critique of the pampered wealthy class - this is a recession, after all, so a cultural escape valve was useful
    • strong (even stubborn) women, weak "emasculated" men - the first "feminist" films. A good example is Barbara Stanwyck raining humiliations on her doltish lover/husband Henry Fonda. 
    Furthermore, screwball comedy should be non-sentimental, fast-paced fun with no political or other messages.

    [Claudette Colbert]

    Indirectly, screwball comedy was brought about by the introduction of censorship in the form of the Hays Code that forced studios to evade subjects as pre-marital sex, adultery and prostitution. But when they were sufficiently madcap, risqué elements could still be introduced. When in It Happened One Night Clark Gable has to spend a night in the same hotel room with Claudette Colbert, a woman he is not married to, he makes fun of the Hays Code by hanging a blanket between their beds and call it the "walls of Jericho." Screwball was a rebellion against the harsh rule of the Code that even husband and wife had to sleep on screen in separate beds.

    [Myrna Loy]

    Although screwball comedy had predecessors in pre-code films as Lubitsch' Trouble in Paradise (1932), the style only really starts in 1934 after the enforcement of the Hays Code, and lasted until 1942 when the U.S. participation in the WWII made light, romantic comedy impossible. Films as The Miracle of Morgan's Creek by Preston Sturges from 1944 are no real screwball comedies anymore, as several important elements are missing (setting in rich milieu, gold-diggers theme).

    By the way, the name "screwball" comes from baseball, where it is a curve ball with a reverse wrist action that gives it a spin designed to confuse the batter.

    [Cary Grant]

    Several actresses made name by playing in screwball comedy: arch and mischievous Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night, She Married Her Boss, Bluebeard's Eight Wife, The Palm Beach Story); chic, witty Myrna Loy (The Thin Man series, Wife vs. Secretary, Libeled Lady, Too Hot to Handle); beautiful but daffy Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey, Twentieth Century, Hands Across the Table, Nothing Sacred); and feisty Katharine Hepburn (Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story).

    [Carole Lombard]

    Two popular actors were the gentleman-like William Powell (The Thin Man, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady, Love Crazy) and the dashing, debonair Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, etc.).

    [Katherine Hepburn]

    The best screwball comedies are:
    • It happened one Night (1934) by Frank Capra, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. A spolied heiress ruining away from her family is helped by a man who is in fact a reporter looking for a good story. (9)
    • Midnight (1939) by Mitchell Leisen and with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore. An American showgirl is stranded in Paris and "set up" by a millionaire to break-up the affair between his wife and another man. (9)
    • The Thin Man (1934) by W.S. Van Dyke and with William Powell and Myrna Loy. A former detective banters and boozes with his wife, and playfully solves a difficult case. (9)
    • The Philadelphia Story (1941) by George Cukor and with Katharine Hepburn, James Steward and Cary Grant. The re-marriage plans of a wealthy socialite are upset by the arrival of her former husband and a tabloid magazine journalist. (9)
    • Bringing Up Baby (1938) by Howard Hawks and with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. A mild-mannered paleontologist is pursued by a flighty heiress with a pet-leopard ("Baby"). (8.5)
    • My Man Godfrey (1936) by Gregory La Cava with William Powell and Carole Lombard. A scatter-brained rich young socialite picks up a tramp from a garbage dump and turns him into her butler, with unexpected results. (8)
    • The Lady Eve (1941) by Preston Sturges and with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. A naive, rich young man falls into the hands of a con artist aboard a luxury liner. (8)
    • Easy Living (1937) by Mitchell Leisen and with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold. A rich banker throws his wife's fur coat out of the window, angry at her free spending ways. It lands on a poor working girl, with unexpected consequences... (8)
    • Ball of Fire (1941) by Howard Hawks and with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. A group of professors writing an encyclopedia learn from a nightclub singer how real people talk and then help her to escape from the Mob. (8)
    • Holiday (1938) by George Cukor and with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A young man is engaged to a wealthy socialite, but the only one who understands his free-thinking life-style is the eccentric sister of his fiancée. (7)
    • Bluebeard's Eight Wife (1938) by Ernst Lubitsch and with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper. The daughter of a penniless French marquis marries a millionaire banker, but as she is his eight wife, plays "difficult to get" after the marriage to teach him a salutary lesson. (7)
    • Hands Across the Table (1935) by Mitchell Leisen and with Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray and Ralph Bellamy. A manicurist and a poor playboy are both looking to marry money and form an uneasy alliance. A wealthy but handicapped ex-pilot is interested in the manicurist... (7)
    • The Palm Beach Story (1942) by Preston Sturges and with Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. The wife of an inventor tries to raise cash for him by having a divorce and marrying a millionaire. (7)
    • The Awful Truth (1937) by Leo McCarey and with  Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. As a rich couple starts divorce proceedings, both partners try to undermine the other's chances of finding new romance. Are they still in love? (6.5)
    • Nothing Sacred (1937) by William Wellman and with Carole Lombard and Frederic March. A young woman supposedly dying from radium poisoning is invited to New York by a major newspaper. (6.5)
    • His Girl Friday (1940) by Howard Hawks and with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. A newspaper editor tries to prevent his ex-wife and star reporter to settle down to a quiet married life with a bland husband. (6.5)
    • My Favorite Wife (1940) by Garson Kanin and with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. A woman who has been missing for seven years and is presumed dead, returns on the day her husband is marrying again. Due to some sentimentality, this is not pure screwball. (6.5)
    • Rings on her Fingers (1942) by Rouben Mamoulian and with Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney. A beautiful department store girl is "used" by two con artists to swindle millionaires out of their money, but they pick the wrong guy... (6.5)