"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 28, 2012

"A Month in the Country" (1980) by J.L. Carr (The Art of the Novella 5)

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr (1912-1994) is a wonderful pastoral novella, which in the compass of just a hundred pages does as much as other books that are five times as thick. Although the novel also deals with "romantic regret," and despite the elegiac undertone, the overall impression is one of happiness, a rare commodity in literature.

The story takes place in the gorgeous summer of 1920 when art historian Tom Birkin comes to the sleepy village of Oxgodby to restore a medieval church mural that is hidden under a coat of plaster. Birkin himself is just as much in need of restoration, for he has crawled shellshocked out of the trenches of the First World War, and also his marriage is in shambles. He has come to the countryside, in this wonderful summer, to be healed.

Coincidentally, another war veteran, John Moon, is doing an archaeological survey in the field next to the church. He has been hired to find and dig up the remains of a church forebear. The two men become acquaintances in a very British way, a quiet fellowship of tea and smokes. In the end, their jobs are shown to be closely connected: on the Last Judgement painting Birkin is restoring to the light of day, there is a man falling down into Hell, and Moon discovers the forebears' grave in the field outside the church walls, the place where infidels were buried. The slow revelation of this mystery at the crossroads of art and archaeology deepens the interest of the novel.

Birkin also meets people from the village. Curious to see the stranger who has come from London to this out of the way place, Kathie Ellerbeck, the 15-year-old daughter of the stationmaster comes time and again bouncing into the church and forces Birkin to join the Sunday dinners at her home, and also various community activities such as haymaking and church picnics. In this way, Birkin is gradually pulled out of himself. He looses his facial twitch, makes friends, returns to society.

But the largest role here has Alice Keath, the wife of the unsympathetic vicar, a sensitive woman who seems buried in an incompatible marriage. She often comes to talk to Birkin and watch him work. Their discussions develop more and more layers of affinity and implication. In the end, both are in love with the other but unable to confess it. It is only shown in the blushes flaming Alice’s cheeks. Towards the end of the story, before Birkin’s departure, there is a moving scene up in the church tower where Birkin has been lodging, in which they nearly kiss. “Then everything would have been different. My life, hers.” But nothing happens. The next day Birkin returns to London and they never meet again.

The beautiful summer is over. Birkin leaves with resignation but also with happy memories. Memories that are insignificant to others, but doubly precious to the person who experienced the events that gave rise to them. Memories that are just as fleeting as life, because they die with us. But until then, they can be  a valuable source of contentment - that is what J.L. Carr seems to want to tell us in this delicate novella.

Incredible that this wonderful book is so little known (just like its author, Carr - I haven't been able to find another of his eight novels yet). 
Filmed in 1987 by Pat O'Connor, with Colin Firth as Birkin and Natasha Richardson as Alice. The excellent (but also almost unknown) film follows the book closely and deftly brings out the inner landscapes.

February 26, 2012

Bach Cantatas (12): The consecration of a new organ (Feb 26)

In 2012, February 26 falls in the quiet period in which no music was played in the Leipzig churches, so there are no specific cantatas written for this Sunday. On Sundays such as this one, from now on we will look at religious Bach cantatas for which no fixed date exists, or which were not part of the normal Church year.

Today we will listen to the long cantata Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest, BWV 194, written for the consecration of a new organ, held on November 2, 1723, in the Störmthal church. By exception among the non-Church Year Cantatas, this cantata is linked to Readings: Revelation 21:2–8, the New Jerusalem, and Luke 19:1–10, the Conversion of Zacchaeus. As the text fitted, this cantata could also be performed on Trinity Sunday. The long cantata is in two parts, and consists of 12 items.


  • Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest, BWV 194, 2 November 1723

    Chor: Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest
    Rezitativ Bass: Unendlich großer Gott
    Arie Bass: Was des Höchsten Glanz erfüllt
    Rezitativ Soprano: Wie könnte dir, du höchstes Angesicht
    Arie Soprano: Hilf, Gott, daß es uns gelingt
    Choral: Heilger Geist ins Himmels Throne

    Rezitativ Tenor: Ihr Heiligen, erfreuet euch
    Arie Tenor: Des Höchsten Gegenwart allein
    Rezitativ (Dialog - Duett) Bass, Soprano: Kann wohl ein Mensch zu Gott im Himmel steigen?
    Arie (Duett) Soprano & Bass: O wie wohl ist uns geschehn
    Rezitativ Bass: Wohlan demnach, du heilige Gemeine
    Choral: Sprich Ja zu meinen Taten

    A very attractive cantata that lasts a full 40 minutes and somewhat reminds one of an orchestral suite. The opening chorus (in three parts) is in the style of a French overture and all the arias have dance rhythms. The reason is that this cantata was based on an earlier, secular one written when Bach served at the court in Köthen (which is now lost). The bass aria ("the radiance of the Highest") is a pastoral and sings in a softly rocking rhythm about the light of God. It is the most beautiful aria of the cantata, sung in a high register with strings and oboe. The soprano next warns for vanity in her recitative. Also the soprano aria, a gavotte, is very attractive. It sings about the movement of the fire ("imbue Your Fire in us"). The first part is next closed with a straightforward choral - with a rare, independent oboe.

    The second part (which would have followed after the sermon, post concionem) starts with an recitative and aria (in the form of a gigue) for tenor, a song which describes joy ("Only the presence of the Highest can be the source of our joy"). The recitative for soprano and bass is a dialogue between Doubt (bass) and Conviction (soprano). Of course Conviction wins and in their duet (a minuet) soprano and bass together sing the praise of God. This duet again features a very attractive melody, accompanied by two oboes and spun out for a long time. The final choral has a dance-like character, in tune with the overall joyfulness of this cantata.

February 25, 2012

Classic Film: "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) by Lubitsch

Trouble in Paradise (1932) by Ernst Lubitsch is such a wonderful, charming film that it is difficult to do it justice in this short review. The film starts in Venice, with a shot of the famous canals, although we don't see tourists gliding through the city, but a boat collecting garbage. Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), a suave gentleman thief, and Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins), a lady pickpocket, happen to meet here in a luxury hotel and steal each other's heart (plus some other stuff - Gaston has managed to remove Lily's garter from her thigh, which he doesn't return).

They decide to join hearts and techniques and a year later can be  found in Paris. Gaston has stolen the bejeweled bag of a beautiful  perfume company owner, Mme. Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), but when he sees an advertisement promising a finder's fee higher than the value of the bag, he returns it as the "honest finder." Already at the first meeting with the dark Mme. Colet, sparks are flying between them. Take the following conversation:
"If I were your father, which fortunately I am not,'' Gaston says, "and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking - in a business way, of course.''
"What would you do if you were my secretary?''
"The same thing.''
"You're hired.''
In this way, Gaston is hired as Mme Colet's confidential secretary (under the alias of "Monsieur Laval") and he brings in Lily as his assistant. They are planning to rob the safe of Mme Colet and Gaston takes care that it is well stocked. But there is one hitch: Gaston and Mme. Colet have fallen in love. This is of course not to the taste of Gaston's soul mate in crime, Lily. Neither is it to the taste of popular Mme Colet's band of other suitors. Jealous, they start various rumors about "M. Laval" and of them now even remembers having met him in Venice, when he posed as a doctor. While his false identity is in danger, Gaston must choose between marriage with Mme. Colet and a getaway with the loot and Lily - although he rather would like to have it both ways...

The film is beautifully shot, the art-deco sets and costumes are incredible, the script is full of witty and racy dialogues, and everybody gives a wonderful performance. Unbelievable that this gracious movie was withdrawn from circulation between 1935 to 1968 because of Hollywood censorship (the infamous Hays code, which turned the U.S. film world into a sort of Kindergarten). It is not possible to come closer to perfection than in this intoxicating comedy...

My evaluation: 10 points out of 10 for Mme. Colet letting Gaston go with a sigh of "It would have been divine."
Ebert; Schwartz; Mythical Monkey; Filmsite

February 22, 2012

Classic Fiction: "Torrents of Spring" (1872) by Turgenev

Torrents of Spring (or "Spring Torrents;" 1872) was written by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). Turgenev was born into a wealthy landowning family. He was the most cosmopolitan among Russian literati, studied in Germany and from the mid-fifties on, lived mainly in Europe. He was a pure artist who did not approve of moral or religious propaganda in literature and he was closer to Flaubert than to his countrymen Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Torrents of Spring is a novella on the theme of "romantic regret." Turgenev wrote it in his fifties and that is also the age of his protagonist, Dimitry Sanin, at the beginning of the story, when he finds a little cross in a drawer and is reminded of the great love of his youth. The story is then told in retrospect.

Sanin, a wealthy landowner in his early twenties, is returning to Russia from a tour in Italy. When he breaks his journey in the German city of Frankfurt, he has a chance encounter with the beautiful Gemma Roselli, who works in her family's patisserie. Dimitry falls hopelessly and deliriously in love with the pure, young woman.
Her nose was rather large, but handsome, aquiline-shaped; her upper lip was shaded by a light down; but then the colour of her face, smooth, uniform, like ivory or very pale milky amber, the wavering shimmer of her hair, like that of the Judith of Allorio in the Palazzo-Pitti; and above all, her eyes, dark-grey, with a black ring round the pupils, splendid, triumphant eyes. [...] Even in Italy he had never met anything like her!
He is warmly accepted into the small family (mother, daughter, son and an elderly manservant) because he has saved the life of Gemma's brother Emilio. In fact, Gemma is already engaged to Herr Kluber, a very stiff and strict young German with good prospects, but she is not averse to the attention Dimitry pays her. Dimitry wins the day when he defends Gemma's honor in a duel with a German soldier who has insulted her - the fiance is too cowardly to react, so exit Mr Kluber. Only the mother, Signora Roselli is not immediately convinced, as she worries about the financial future of her daughter. But she is won over when Dimitry promises to begin a new life in Frankfurt, and sell his Russian estates to get the necessary money. Having received assurances of Gemma's love, Dimitry feels himself at the highest pinnacle of human happiness. But here ends the fairy-tale.

Dimitry has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, the weird Polozov, who is somewhat famous for the marriage he has made, with a rich and gorgeous woman who seems ill-matched to the pig-like husband. After Dimitry tells him about his circumstances, including his marriage plans, Polozov hints that his wife might be interested in Sannin's estates and invites him for a few days to Wiesbaden to clinch the deal. Maria Nikolaevna Polozov is vamp-like and intriguing personality, with an overwhelming femininity, a total contrast to the pure and almost childish Gemma (with whom Dimitry has never shared more than a simple kiss). What Dimitry doesn't know is that she has an understanding with her husband that she is free to take lovers. Husband and wife even bet on the success of the wife to seduce the naive Dimitry - the point of interest is the great love for Gemma of which Dimitry has been bragging: will Polozova be able to destroy that?

As it turns out, Dimitry is a relatively easy prey for the experienced seductress. She keeps putting off the final business talk to keep him longer in Wiesbaden - he has to attend on her at dinner, the theater, etc. - and then, during a ride in the forest (as in Madame Bovary), he falls for her, and becomes prey to a dark and destructive infatuation. He feels too ashamed to contact Gemma and tell her what has happened, so he silently sneaks out of her life. He even forgets her, for now he is the slave of Polozova:
'I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away,' he answered with despair and pressed close to him the hands of his sovereign. She freed her hands, laid them on his head, and clutched at his hair with her fingers. She slowly turned over and twisted the unresisting hair, drew herself up, her lips curled with triumph, while her eyes, wide and clear, almost white, expressed nothing but the ruthlessness and glutted joy of conquest. The hawk, as it clutches a captured bird, has eyes like that.
And then, thirty years later, Dimitry who has wasted his whole life running after Maria Nikolaevna Polozov, following her to various European cities, until he is freed by her death, finds the small cross Gemma gave him at their parting. He is consumed by remorse and regret...

P.S. There is an interesting parallel between the story and Turgenev's own life. Turgenev had a lifelong affair with the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot. He followed her throughout Europe and never married.

Available as a Penguin and also free at Gutenberg

February 19, 2012

Bach Cantates (11): Quinquagesima (Feb. 19)

Quinquagesima is the name of the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. It was also called Estomihi, or Shrove Sunday. The name Quinquagesima originates from Latin "quinquagesimus"  (fiftieth), referring to the fifty days before Easter Day using inclusive counting which counts both Sundays. The name "Estomihi" is derived from the beginning of the Introit for this Sunday, "Esto mihi in Deum protectorem" (Psalm 31:3).

The earliest Quinquagesima Sunday can occur is February 1 and the latest is March 7. In 2012 it falls on Feb. 19.

The reading for this Sunday concentrates on Luke 18:31-34, "Jesus took the twelve aside and said, 'Lo, we go to Jerusalem, and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man shall be fulfilled.' The disciples, however, understood none of this." This passage presages the themes of Lent and Holy Week.

1 Corinthians 13:1–13, Praise of love
Luke 18:31–43, Healing the blind near Jericho


  • Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22, 7 February 1723

    (Arioso) e (Coro): "Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe" for choir, tenor and bass soloists, and orchestral tutti.
    Aria: "Mein Jesu, ziehe mich nach dir" for altus, oboe, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Mein Jesu, ziehe mich, so werd ich laufen" for bass, strings, and continuo.
    Aria: "Mein alles in allem, mein ewiges Gut" for tenor, strings, and continuo.
    Choral: "Ertöt uns durch dein Güte" for choir, oboe, strings, and continuo.

    One of two cantatas written for the audition for the Cantorate of St. Thomas in Leipzig. In other words, music with which Bach wanted to impress, but as he didn't know the abilities of the local musicians yet, he keeps on the safe side with only strings and oboe, also leaving out the soprano solo. The text of the cantata closely follows the Gospel story of Jesus and the disciples about to enter Jerusalem. There are five movements: two arias followed by a recitative, an aria and a closing chorale. The central part of the first section is the bass arioso as the Vox Christi "Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, und es wird alles vollendet werden" - accompanied by a plaintive oboe figure, the voice moves up at "hinauf gehn." The halting chorus describes the disciples' lack of understanding. The lilting alto aria "My Jesus, draw me after You" is a personalization of the voyage to Jerusalem, spoken in the voice of the congregation of Bach's time. In the bass recitative the rush to Golgotha is referred to, followed by a tenor aria illustrating joy in salvation - the failings of humanity that allowed the disciples to miss the meaning of Jesus' words have made place for joyful optimism. The aria has been set in a typical "walking rhythm" (a dansante minuet). The beautiful chorale with oboe and string festoons reminds one of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." (****)

  • Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23, 7 February 1723

    Aria (Duetto): "Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn" for soprano & altus, oboes, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Ach! gehe nicht vorüber" for tenor, oboes, violins, and continuo.
    (Coro): "Aller Augen warten, Herr" for choir, oboes, strings and continuo.
    Chorale: "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" for choir, cornetto col Soprano, trombone I coll'Alto, trombone II col Tenore, trombone III col Basso, oboes, strings, and continuo.

    This is the second half of Bach's St. Thomas audition, a cantata based around the parable of the blind man from Luke 18.42. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus is accosted by a blind beggar. Jesus restores his sight with the words: "your faith has been your salvation." In other words, this cantata is about faith and its rewards. In the opening duet the duality of Christ's human and divine identity is symbolized by two oboes d'amore (playing an addictive motive) and the two high voices. The text itself is a plea for mercy, full of sadness. After a tenor recitative with the instrumental chorale tune  "Christe du Lamm Gottes" laid on top (to broaden the plea "Ach! gehe nicht vorüber" of the two blind men to the whole world), we have a wonderful chorus "Aller Augen warten," alternating with a tenor and bass duet. The dance-like music also seems to lift up its eyes to heaven. The cantata ends with a profound choral fantasy, a setting of the German Agnus Dei. (****)

  • Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, BWV 127, 11 February 1725

    Choral: Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
    Rezitativ Tenor: Wenn alles sich zur letzten Zeit entsetzet
    Arie Soprano: Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen
    Rezitativ und Arie Bass: Wenn einstens die Posaunen schallen
    Choral: Ach, Herr, vergib all unsre Schuld

    Chorale cantata, i.e. a chorale forms the melodic and textual basis of this cantata. That is "Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott," and this is accompanied in the orchestra by two other choral melodies, "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" and "O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden." The reading for this day of the saving of the blind persons, is extended to Jesus' acting as savior at the moment of death, and assisting the faithful at the Heavenly judgement. The secco tenor recitative sings about "cold death sweat," "stiff limbs" and the heart which finally breaks, but Bach keeps his music cool. The deeply tragic soprano aria has an expressive oboe melody and sings about the soul resting securely in Jesus' hands, with some word painting on "death-knell." Bass recitative and aria next vividly describe the Day of Judgement and its trumpets. Typically, the singer remains steadfast amid the orchestral chaos. This is followed by a final chorale, a simple prayer. (***)

  • Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159, 27 February 1729

    1. Arioso e recitativo (bass, alto): Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem – Komm, schaue doch, mein Sinn
    2. Aria e chorale (alto, soprano, oboe): Ich folge dir nach – Ich will hier bei dir stehen
    3. Recitativo (tenor): Nun will ich mich, mein Jesu
    4. Aria (bass, oboe): Es ist vollbracht
    5. Chorale: Jesu, deine Passion ist mir lauter Freude

    The story of the way of the cross told from the point of view of the soul, a cantata written at the same time as the St. Matthew Passion. The text puts the announcement of Jesus' suffering in central position, and this is regarded as terrible (1), as an example to follow (2), as a reason to say farewell to earthly pleasures (3), and finally as a reason to give thanks (4, 5). In the first arioso/recitative, the alto is the hesitant soul, while the bass represents the steadfast Jesus. "Wir gehn hinauf" here again inspires a familiar walking rhythm. Next follows an aria/chorale in which the alto sings long lines around the chorale "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden." The bass aria "Es ist vollbracht" is gently plaintive with oboe accompaniment, about the crucifixion that is to come, after which the cantate ends with a calm chorale setting. (***)

February 14, 2012

Classic Fiction: "The Sea, the Sea" (1978) by Iris Murdoch

Booker Prize winning The Sea, The Sea is a story of obsession. It is also a story about the unattainability of perfection in the human world.

Charles Arrowby has had a successful career in the London theater, as actor, playwright and director, but suddenly, at middle age, he decides to retire and become a recluse. He buys a remote house "Shruff End" on the rocks by the sea, a somewhat creepy place without electricity and other amenities, outside a small village. Seeking for peace and starting to write his reminiscences, fate has a new drama in store for him when he unexpectedly bumps into his childhood sweetheart, Hartley. She is now a plain housewife with a worn-out face, but the spark of love is rekindled in him. Not in her, by the way, as she was the one who left him in the past.

Hartley is married but seems not entirely happy with her simple husband Ben and Charles begins stalking her and sets his heart on destroying her marriage. His obsession grows to such ludicrous heights that he even kidnaps her and keeps her for several days prisoner in a small, windowless room in his rickety house. Hartley, however, makes perfectly clear that she is not interested, she has her own life, and her marriage may not be perfect, but it is her choice. At the heart of the novel lies Charles's inability to recognize the selfishness and egotism that propel him to these romantic shenanigans - also in the real world  he behaves like a theater director who thinks he can "stage" the lives of the people around him. He projects his own thoughts on others and does not realize that they may have a will of their own.

In the meantime, Charles' eccentric London friends have also started arriving, one after the other, to keep him company. He has never married, but there are a few ex-lovers who make their appearance again. Two such women are the actresses Lizzie and Rosina, who are still obsessed with Charles. In the past, Charles has broken up the marriage between Rosina and another actor, Peregrine, and then cruelly dropped her - showing how destructively the one-sided love of Charles works out on his relations. Peregrine also appears (and happens to find an opportunity for revenge), and another friend, Gilbert, who for a while acts as Charles' "house slave."

Washing up in Charles house is also the adopted son of Hartley, Titus, whom Charles tries to use as a tool to get closer to the woman of the dreams of his youth. But Titus proves to be a person with a strong mind of his own. Finally, there is Charles nephew James, with whom he has always felt some kind of competition. James is a sort of guru (we are in the 1970s after all) with vague Eastern / Buddhist leanings. But he is a crucial figure as he not only literally saves Charles' life, but also sets him on the path to realizing his follies.

Charles is not a wholly pleasant person. He is obstinate (we already see this in the way he writes about his ridiculous recipes in the beginning of the book), egoistic and dictatorial. A mitigating factor is that he has romantic ideals, but unfortunately these are directed in the wrong way. Charles tells the story, but the reader has to be careful for he is - as all narrators in modern literature in fact are - not very reliable. With the character traits outlined above, he is constantly whitewashing his actions and his own thoughts and preferences seem to constitute the whole universe.

Happily there is also a more pleasant protagonist in the book: the sea of the title. It is always present with its various moods, mysterious (Charles once imagines he sees a dragon) but also a practical place for exercise, and in the end both life-taking and life-giving.  The Sea, the Sea is a rich tapestry with interesting characters and deep philosophical connotations. Some reviewers have called the central story of Charles' obsession difficult to believe, but love is obsession, isn't it?

February 12, 2012

Bach Cantatas (10): Sexagesima Sunday (February 12)

Sexagesima is the name for the 2nd Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9, God's power is mighty in the week,
Luke 8:4–15, Parable of the Sower


  1. BWV 18 Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Weimar, 1714)

    Recitativo (Bass): Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt
    Recitativo & Chorale (Litany) (Soprano, Tenor, Bass, Chorus): Mein Gott, hier wird mein Herze sein
    Aria (Soprano): Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort
    Chorale: Ich bitt, o Herr, aus Herzens Grund

    The cantata opens with a sinfonia in Italian concerto form played only by violas and continuo (like in the 6th Brandenburg Concerto). The jumping melody shows the falling rain and snow, nourishing the earth and the seeds sown there. The dark color of the instruments also symbolizes the stormy weather. The short bass recitative is characterized by word painting on the same theme. The following recitative with interpolated litany by a rather fierce soprano forms the spiritual heart of the cantata and is a very intense movement. The text is a paraphrase from the parable of the sower; the four parts stand for the four different types of soil in the Biblical story. Bach is quite experimental here, take for example the convoluted melisma on the word "Verfolgung." The pretty Italianate soprano aria is again only accompanied by violas, and is a personal reflection; the undulating soundscape imitates the "webs woven by the world and Satan." As conclusion follows the usual chorale. (****)

  2. BWV 181 Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (Leipzig, 1724)

    Arie Bass: Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister
    Rezitativ Alto: O unglückselger Stand verkehrter Seelen
    Arie Tenor: Der schädlichen Dornen unendliche Zahl
    Rezitativ Soprano: Von diesen wird die Kraft erstickt
    Chor: Laß, Höchster, uns zu allen Zeiten

    A short cantata on the parable of the sower. In the bass aria the "light-minded, frivolous spirits" are symbolized by a bouncy vocal line that seems to go nowhere, and is a good illustration of empty self-satisfaction. In the alto recitative, a theological explanation is given. The music for the obligato instrument of the central tenor aria has unfortunately been lost. The music imitates the "harmful thorns" and "fire of hellish torment" by fast repetitions. In the soprano recitative the seed finally finds good earth. The most beautiful movement comes at the end: a joyful chorus (not a chorale!) that is probably borrowed from a festival cantata, as we also hear a trumpet. Embedded in the chorus is a duet for soprano and alto. (***)

  3. BWV 126 Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (Leipzig, 1725)

    1. Coro: Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort
    2. Aria (tenor): Sende deine Macht von oben
    3. Recitativo e chorale (alto, tenor): Der Menschen Gunst und Macht wird wenig nützen – Gott Heiliger Geist, du Tröster wert
    4. Aria (bass): Stürze zu Boden, schwülstige Stolze!
    5. Recitativo (tenor): So wird dein Wort und Wahrheit offenbar
    6. Chorale: Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich

    A rather aggressive and militant cantata, calling for protection from the then-enemies, Papists and Turks (rivalry with the Ottoman Empire culminated just before Bach's birth, in 1683, in the Battle of Vienna). The music has pandemonium-like qualities. The cantata starts with a tempestuous chorus with martial trumpets ("Thwart the murderous rage of the Pope and the Turk"). The tenor aria is a prayer to arms, full of warlike fervor. The third part is again a chorale, interspersed with tormented recitatives by the alto and tenor. The bloodthirsty bass aria is accompanied by roaring arpeggios on the strings ("Hurl to the ground the pompous proud"). The final chorale is a plea for peace. (***)

February 9, 2012

"Madame Bovary" (1857) by Flaubert (Book Review)

Madame Bovary probably is the most beautifully written novel ever. Gustave Flaubert weighed his words on a gold scale, as if writing poetry and not prose. He sought the best words for the situation, wanting them to be unchangeable, and made so many revisions that he only advanced one or two pages a week. That style is the opposite of romantic - it is clinically realistic. Flaubert offers a painstaking description of bourgeois life in mid-19th c. France and along the way he transforms his sordid materials about adultery and suicide into something poetic.

The story is simple. Charles Bovary is a plodding, dull country doctor, practicing medicine in the environs of Rouen in Normandy (coincidentally, the city where Jeanne d'Arc was held captive and burned at the stake in 1431). He marries a farmer's daughter, the beautiful and very young Emma, who has been brought up in a convent and has received all her knowledge of the world from romantic tales.

But Charles is no prince on a white horse but a simple and practical man and after the birth of a little daughter, out of necessity Emma settles down to a life of boredom. Flaubert makes us acutely feel the meaninglessness and emptiness of her existence. Madame Bovary is in fact the greatest study in alienation and boredom in world literature. It is often thought of as an immoral novel about adultery like Lady Chatterley's Lover, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There was a process after the magazine publication, but Flaubert won and the novel has never been forbidden in its country of origin.

The bourgeois types that surround Emma Bovary in the village are not encouraging. They are all selfish and self-serving. Flaubert demonstrates how hypocritical moral standards are, concocted to support the status quo. The merchant and moneylender Lheureux purposefully lends Emma so much money and allows her to buy so many luxury goods on credit, that in the end he can claim Dr. Bovary's assets. Homais, the pompous apothecary, thinks he is a great scientist and pushes Dr. Bovary to operate on the clubfoot of the servant of a local inn, with disastrous results. And the notary tries to take sexual advantage of Emma's problems.

But Emma keeps dreaming and seeking a life of ecstasy, ignoring her adoring husband who leaves her unsatisfied. She becomes attached to a young clerk, Leon, who shares her romantic ideals, but Leon leaves the village before their relationship can develop. Then she meets Rodolphe, a wealthy bachelor who owns a nearby estate. He is a cynical womanizer, and Emma falls in his traps - they go horseback riding and make love in the forest. After that, they have frequent trysts, often in the garden of the Bovary house while the dear husband is already asleep. Emma even dreams of running away with Rodolphe - but by now, he has enough of her and sends her a cold note that the affair is over.

Emma almost dies from the shock, but she recovers and then boredom sets in again. She has bought expensive presents for Rodolphe and now is heavily in debt, a matter which she keeps hidden from her husband. Shopping, after all, is a way to find relief from boredom, consumption is an outlet for anxiety. Emma has fallen in the clutches of the merchant Lheureux, who cynically destroys the finances of the Bovary family.

By chance, she meets Leon again, in Rouen. She is now ready for him and the first consummation of their love takes place in a hired, closed carriage - they ask the coachman to they keep driving aimlessly through the city for hours one end. This is the erotic climax of the novel, but it is presented as a hiatus, for we are not allowed to see inside the carriage. After that, the pair has frequent trysts in a hotel in Rouen - Emma tells her husband the lie that she has to go into town once a week for a music lesson.

But in the end also Leon tires of his mistress - he has to think of his career - and just when their relation is breaking down, Emma is served with a bill for 8,000 francs from Lheureux, to be paid immediately. She panics, nobody will help her, she pleads in vain with both Rodolphe and Leon, and finally, at her wit's end, she eats a fistful of arsenic, stolen from Homais.

She dies a terrible death, described with clinical precision by Flaubert, whose father had been a medical doctor in Rouen. It is only after her death that Charles finds her love letters and learns about her adultery. He looses all interest in life and dies of a broken heart. The affairs of Homais, in the meantime, are  flourishing, he even manages to keep out a new doctor and claim the whole medical business in the area for himself.

Emma Bovary is of course a rather vain and silly woman, she is caught in the web of her own actions without the possibility of being saved. Still, we do care for her, because she is the only character in the novel who dreams of higher things and tries to flee from the sordidness around her. Emma is not an immoral woman - what her case demonstrates is that the culture around her itself has no values.

Texts: original French (Gutenberg); English (Gutenberg - the first English translation made by Eleanor Marx Aveling in 1898).
Madame Bovary has been filmed many times over. I am particularly fond of the 1991 version by Claude Chabrol, with Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary. Chabrol faithfully follows the novel, accelerating and braking where necessary. Huppert gives an excellent performance, with suitable detachment. That stance has been criticized in some reviews as "cold," but this is not a romantic tale a la Hollywood and I felt the film truthfully reflected the realistic (and therefore also detached) stance of the novel itself. The period atmosphere is also excellent.

February 5, 2012

Bach Cantatas (9): Septuagesima Sunday (Feb. 5)

Septuagesima is the name given to the third Sunday before Lent in the Lutheran Church. The next two Sundays are labelled Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, the latter sometimes also called Shrove Sunday. The earliest date on which Septuagesima Sunday can occur is January 18 (Easter falling on March 22 in a nonleap year) and the latest is February 22 (Easter falling on April 25 in a leap year). In 2012 it falls on February 5 - first Easter Day will be April 8.

1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5, race for victory
Matthew 20:1–16, the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: be content with your lot - the first will be the last.


  1. Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin, BWV 144, 6 February 1724

    Coro: Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin
    Aria (alto): Murre nicht, lieber Christ
    Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
    Recitativo (tenor): Wo die Genügsamkeit regiert
    Aria (soprano, oboe d'amore): Genügsamkeit ist ein Schatz in diesem Leben
    Chorale: Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit

    One of the shortest of Bach's cantatas, and one which was particularly well known after his death. The theme is contentment. The archaic opening chorus in strict fugal style (“take what is yours and depart”) is based on the reading for this Sunday - we should accept what we have and be satisfied, as in the famous Zen saying carved on a stone basin at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto: "Ware tada taru wo shiru," or "I am content with what I have." The alto aria "grumble not when things do not go your way" is an expressive minuet, rather dark in tone. The grumbling is in fact heard in the accompaniment. In the soprano aria, the word "Genügsamkeit" (contentedness) is repeated in an almost obsessive way. The final chorale restates the theme of the cantata: What God does is well done. (****)

  2. Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn, BWV 92, 28 January 1725

    Choral: Ich habe in Gottes Herz und Sinn
    Chor und Rezitativ Bass: Es kann mir fehlen nimmermehr!
    Arie Tenor: Seht, seht! wie reißt, wie bricht, wie fällt
    Choral Alto: Zudem ist Weisheit und Verstand
    Rezitativ Tenor: Wir wollen uns nicht länger zagen
    Arie Bass: Das Brausen von den rauhen Winden
    Choral und Rezitativ: Ei nun, mein Gott, so fall ich dir
    Arie Soprano: Meinem Hirten bleib ich treu
    Choral: Soll ich den auch des Todes Weg

    This cantata is only loosely related to the readings for this Sunday, as it in general exhorts the congregation to put their trust in God through good and ill. There are 9 parts of which 5 are chorals. The extensive first choral exudes a feeling of joyful trust. It is accompanied by a pair of oboes. The second part is a bass recitative interpolated by a chorale and lots of word-painting in the accompaniment. In the fast tenor aria aggressive ascending lines of the strings suggest the breaking and toppling of waves, and the raging and thundering of Satan of which the text sings. The next chorale calmly proclaims God's wisdom. After a recitative follows a bass aria which is also quite agitated ("The roaring of rough winds") and only accompanied by the continuo group. Next follows another recitative with interpolated chorale, now as an alto cantus firmus. The soprano aria "I remain faithful to my Shepherd" is based on a delightful dance-like melody and accompanied by oboe d'amore and pizzicato strings. The work concludes with a chorale in plain four-part harmonization. (****)

  3. Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, BWV 84, 9 February 1727

    Arie Soprano: Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke
    Rezitativ Soprano: Gott ist mir ja nichts schuldig
    Arie Soprano: Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot
    Rezitativ Soprano: Im Schweiße meines Angesichts
    Choral: Ich leb indes in dir vergnüget

    Cantata for solo soprano (one of three Bach wrote). The theme is again contentment. It starts with a soprano aria "I am content with the fortune that my dear God bestows on me", accompanied by an oboe playing delightful trills. The aria is full of delicacy and elegance, a magical world beyond human greed. The second aria "I eat my little bit of bread with joy" continues in this vein and is also very playful, with a nice accompaniment by the violin and oboe, almost like a trio sonata. It all speaks of a childish faith (especially when you hear this in the Harnoncourt version, where the soprano voice is sung by a boy soprano). (***)

February 2, 2012

Bach Cantatas (8): Feast of Purification of Mary (Feb. 2)

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus, and falls always on 2 February. It is also known as the Feast of Purification of Mary (Mariae Reinigung). A woman who had born a child was regarded as unclean for 40 days; after that, she had to go to the temple for a purification rite and also to introduce her first-born son to the priests. According to the Gospel story, at that occasion an old man, Simeon, recognizes the little Jesus as the Christ. In fact, Simeon had been promised by God that he would not die before he had seen Christ. He now expresses his joy of meeting with Christ in a hymn (Canticum Simeonis, "Nunc Dimittis"), which has often been scored for music - and then he dies. The Lutheran Mariae Reinigung festival is therefore always set in the sign of the acceptance of death.

Forty days after Christmas was also the date that in Northwestern Europe the days gradually become lighter and candles (lighted 40 days before Christmas) could be extinguished (Candlemass).

Epistle:  Malachi 3:1–4, the Lord will come to his temple
Gospel: Luke 2:22–32, the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple, followed by Simeon's prophesy of Christ


  1. Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde, BWV 83, 2 February 1724

    Aria (alto): Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde
    Aria (Chorale e recitativo, bass): Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren, wie du gesaget hast - Was uns als Menschen schrecklich scheint
    Aria (tenor): Eile, Herz, voll Freudigkeit
    Recitativo (alto): Ja, merkt dein Glaube noch viel Finsternis
    Chorale: Es ist das Heil und selig Licht

    The brilliant and energetic opening aria ("Joyful time in the new covenant") somewhat resembles the First Brandenburg Concerto with its prominent horn parts. This is an expression of joy at the purification of Mary. The recitative and plainsong intonation turns towards Simeon ("Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, as You have spoken"), reflecting on his situation. The tenor aria ("Hurry, heart, full of joy to step before the throne of grace") with solo violin is interesting because of the rhythmical stepping gait, indeed, "hurrying full of joy." A harmonization of the traditional Luther chorale "Mit Fried und Freud" ends the work. (****)

  2. Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, BWV 125, 2 February 1725

    Chor: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
    Arie (Alto): Ich will auch mit gebrochnen Augen
    Recitativ und Choral (Bass): O Wunder, daß ein Herz
    Arie - Duett (tenor, Bass): Ein unbegreiflich Licht erfüllt den ganzen Kreis der Erden
    Rezitativ (Alto): O unerschöpfter Schatz der Güte
    Choral: Er ist das Heil und selig Licht

    Chorale cantata. The impressive opening chorus starts with an introduction in 12/8 time, like pastoral siciliano music, and is based on Luther's rendering of the Nunc Dimittis. The long and slow alto aria is accompanied by a flute and an oboe d'amore (without strings). This is rather dissonant music. Note the broken melody caused by the words "broken eyes" and the full stop on the word "sterben" - Bach was a great rhetoric! A recitative with interpolation of quiet phrases of the Luther chorale follows. The duet between tenor and bass is lively and tuneful, as the light in the darkness of which it sings. A recitative leads into the final chorale setting. (****)

  3. Ich habe genug, BWV 82, 2 February 1727

    Aria: "Ich habe genug"
    Recitative: "Ich habe genug"
    Aria: "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" ("Fall asleep, you weary eyes")
    Recitative: "Mein Gott! wenn kömmt das schöne: Nun!" ("My God, when will the lovely word come: 'Now!'")
    Aria: "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod" ("I look forward to my death")

    One of the most beautiful solo-voice cantatas Bach wrote and one of his most popular. There is no chorus or chorale, the cantata only consists of three arias and two recitatives, all for bass voice. Meant for performance at Candlemass, it is about the story of Simeon. The first aria ("I have enough, I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous, into my eager arms") is a poignantly beautiful movement that treats the end of Simeon's long life with a mixture of melancholy and resignation. The second aria ("Fall asleep, you weary eyes, close softly and pleasantly") is the emotional highlight of the cantata: a lullaby both for the death of Simeon and for the sleeping Christ child. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. The final aria is joyful and even life affirming, although the text is about something quite different: "I delight in my death, ah, if it were only present already..." (*****)

  4. Ich lasse du nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV 157 (Leipzig, 1727)

    Arie (Duett Tenor & Bass): Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn!
    Arie (Tenor): Ich halte meinen Jesum feste
    Rezitativ (Tenor): Mein lieber Jesu du
    Arie, Rezitativ und Arioso (Bass): Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste
    Choral: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

    This cantata is a reworking of the first part of a funeral cantata for Johann von Ponickau, a privy councillor and chamberlain at the Saxon court. Although small in scale - it calls for only six instruments - the work is of great density. It opens with a fine duet ("I will not let You go, therefore bless me"), a canon for tenor and bass with flute, oboe, and violin. The tenor aria ("I hold my Jesus tightly") has a beautiful oboe d'amore accompaniment. The "holding" of Jesus is illustrated with typical long notes. The bass aria has an integrated recitative and a lovely part for flute. An intimate  harmonization of the chorale "Meinem Jesum lass ich nicht" ends the cantata. (***)

  5. Der Friede Sei mit Dir, BWV 158 (Weimar years 1713-1717)

    Rezitativ (Bass): Der Friede sei mit dir
    Arie (Bass und Choral Soprano): Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde
    Rezitativ und Arioso (Bass): Nun, Herr, regiere meinen Sinn
    Choral: Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm

    This seems a mixture of fragmentary movements from two originally different cantatas: the most substantial parts, 2 and 3, are clearly for the Purification of Mary as they point at the story of Simeon. But the first and last movements refer to Easter, so this cantata may also have been used at the third day of Easter. But the individual movements are all excellent, especially the bass aria ("World, farewell, I am tired of you") which is woven around a chorale sung by the soprano and accompanied by a solo violin in the high register. The work finishes with the fifth part of Luther's hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden. (***)