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From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

There’s a great story behind this piece, of how a young intelligence officer in the U.S. Army inspired Strauss to write the concerto in the months after World War II:

As the war came to an end, despite living in a state of severe privation, lacking food, fuel and soap, Strauss now received regular visits from U.S. military personnel who posed with him for photographs, got his autograph and listened to him play the piano. Among them was a 24-year old intelligence officer John de Lancie who, in civilian life was principal oboist with the Pittsburgh Orchestra. During numerous visits, the composer and the soldier had long conversations in French about music and culture. Familiar with Strauss’s exquisite writing for the oboe in his orchestral works, de Lancie asked the composer if he had ever considered writing an oboe concerto. The blunt response was “No”. Yet the thought evidently remained in the composer’s head.

A few weeks later Strauss began to sketch some ideas, and a short score was written out by 14 September. By the end of the following month, the composer had completed the work, the finest concerto for oboe written in the 20th century.

Back home in the United States, de Lancie was astonished to discover that Strauss was publishing an oboe concerto and recalled his question that had been so roundly dismissed barely a few months previously. But Strauss had not forgotten de Lancie. The autograph of the score bore the inscription, “Oboe Concerto – 1945 – suggested by an American soldier.”

Read more here.

from The Apologizer by Milan Kundera

There’s just loads of French out there to read these days. Not just a new Houellebecq novel, but another Kundera book as well. The Festival of Insignificance will be his first novel in more than a decade. I’m in the midst of the French version, but the translation comes out next month and I seriously doubt I’ll finish it before then. Here is a selection of a selection in The New Yorker a few weeks back:

It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street. He observed the young girls: every one of them showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short. He was captivated, captivated and even disturbed: it was as if their seductive power resided no longer in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts but in that small round hole at the center of the body.

This provoked him to reflect: if a man (or an era) sees the thighs as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation? He improvised an answer: the length of the thighs is the metaphoric image of the long, fascinating road (which is why the thighs must be long) that leads to erotic achievement. Indeed, Alain said to himself, even in mid-coitus the length of the thighs endows woman with the romantic magic of the inaccessible.

If a man (or an era) sees the buttocks as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation? He improvised an answer: brutality, high spirits, the shortest road to the goal, a goal that is all the more exciting for being double.

If a man (or an era) sees the breasts as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation? He improvised an answer: sanctification of woman, the Virgin Mary suckling Jesus, the male sex on its knees before the noble mission of the female sex.

But how does one define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel?

How? indeed! Read more here.

“Slouching toward Mecca”

Mark Lilla has written a great article on Michel Houellebecq’s new novel in last month’s New York Review of Books.

The bestselling novel in Europe today, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission, is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities., is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities.

… Houellebecq had gotten into trouble a decade ago for telling an interviewer that whoever created monotheistic religion was a “cretin” and that of all the faiths Islam was “the dumbest.” The normally measured editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, declared five days before Soumission appeared that Houellebecq was “keeping a place warm for Marine Le Pen at the Café de Flore.” The reliably dogmatic Edwy Plenel, a former Trotskyist who runs the news site Mediapart, went on television to call on his colleagues, in the name of democracy, to stop writing news articles on Houellebecq—France’s most important contemporary novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt—effectively erasing him from the picture, Soviet style. Ordinary readers could not get their hands on the book until January 7, the official publication date. I was probably not the only one who bought it that morning and was reading it when the news broke that two French-born Muslim terrorists had just killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Soumission will be published in English this fall, so maybe we can start a group reading after the Percy conference.

Two Short Poems about the Pacific Ocean

Nagoya, Japan, 1987
After college I was hard struck
with a severe bout of wanderlust.
I went East (directionally, west)
and there, with a kind of luck,
found that truth is yonder, rust
eternal, but the present blessed.

Bellevue, Washington, 1988
At dusk, I’d sit on the back porch watching bats flit
through the trees, which they never seemed to hit.

from Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

I’ve been rereading this 1899 novel by Machado de Assis, and came across this passage, which seems somewhat related to the conversation JOB and I have been having over the last month or so.

God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young and very promising composer, who was trained in the heavenly conservatory. A rival of Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, he resented the preference they enjoyed in the distribution of the prizes. It could also be that the over-sweet and mystical style of these other pupils was abhorrent to his essentially tragic genius. He plotted a rebellion which was discovered in time, and he was expelled from the conservatory. And that would have been that, if God had not written an opera libretto, which he had given up, being of the opinion that this type of recreation was inappropriate to His eternity. Satan took the manuscript with him to hell. With the aim of showing that he was better than the others—and perhaps of seeking a reconciliation with heaven—he composed the score, and as soon as he had finished it, took it to the Heavenly Father.

“Lord, I have not forgotten the lessons I have learned,” he said. “Here is the score, listen to it, have it played, and if you think it worthy of the heavenly heights, admit me with it to sit at your feet …”

“No,” replied the Lord, “I don’t want to hear a thing.”

“But, Lord …”

“Not a thing, not a thing!”

Satan went on pleading, with no greater success, until God, tired and full of mercy, gave His consent for the opera to be performed, but outside heaven. He created a special theater, this planet, and invented a whole company, with all the principal and minor roles, the choruses and the dancers.

“Come and listen to some of the rehearsals!”

“No, I don’t want to know about it. I’ve done enough, composing the libretto …”

If we imagine that the score is by Schoenberg, maybe the passage will make even more sense!

Tagged: Death

A fun little jaunt through the last 700 1,400 years of death.

Franz Wright: RIP

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A loss to the world – and the world of Catholic letters…

Parting Word

As for me
I have no mind
to lose anymore, I am through
with all that–
the sky is my mind
today. (And

it always is
and always was
today.) Blue,
                 her color
sorrowing over us…

Does it flow out of or into us, seeing?

Unseen rays of perception the face beams
at things, or
face on which things shine!

I am so glad
that I no longer know,
no longer
care.

And one more thing:

the future?
Never

been there.

             -Franz Wright

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Last night I went to Seattle Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos for the fourth time in the last few weeks. That’s a whole lot of Ariadne. Obviously, I liked it. It was a pretty amazing production—well staged, great voices, great costumes … well done all the way around, I thought. Ariadne features three great soprano roles, and here Marcy Stonikas, a dramatic (or spinto?) soprano played Ariadne, Rachele Gilmore was fantastic in the coloratura role of Zerbinetta, and the mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen was terrific as the talented yet naive composer of an opera about a bereft lover stuck on a deserted island.

For those unfamiliar with the work, Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera in two parts. The first part is a Prologue that takes place backstage at the home of a wealthy patron of the arts, who has scheduled three events for an evening’s entertainment. The first is a dramatic opera by a talented young composer, the second is a comedy skit called Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers, and to finish it all off, a display of fireworks is scheduled to begin promptly at 9:00. Towards the end of the prologue it becomes apparent that there isn’t enough time for both productions, and all the performers are informed that the two plays will be performed simultaneously.

The second part is the performance of both the opera and the comedy skit at the same time, as demanded by the patron. It turns out to be wonderful mess, as the high pathos of Ariadne is constantly upstaged by the antics of Zerbinetta and her screwball clowns, and then the whole wacky crew and even the composer is laid low by the sublime pathos of an opera prodcution that had seemed mangled beyond repair. Low comedy, high poetry, and the drama of love found through mistaken identities are all held together by great, great music.

The video above is a legendary production conducted by Karl Böhm, with Gundula Janowitz, Edita Gruberova, Trudelise Schmidt (legendary for me, anyway, Janowitz and Gruberova being two personal favorites). Take a look at the staging, which is a good example of adequate staging in suitable costumes of the era in which the action takes place. Take a look, because I want to emphasize by way of comparison that the Seattle production is an amazing revelation of what great stagecraft can reveal in an opera. Here is a very short clip:

Here also is a video on Collaboration, Comedy, and Chaos, narrated by Patrick Carfizzi (who was fantastic in the bass-baritone part of the Music Teacher.

Last of all, here is a repeat of a clip I shared a few years ago, the aria by the Harlequin, which is what drew me into the opera in the first place.

This is why I don’t blog much anymore.

This morning, I’ve been giggling over the notion of this:

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Slogan: “Oil Oil. The only oil oily enough to be called Oil Oil.” Say it out loud two or three times, and you’ll shake your head at my stupidity, promise.

Adventures in Photoshop

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Point of possible interest: if you follow this Facebook link to the article in question…

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…you get nuthin':

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Ditto if you check the Blackbook site’s “Pope Francis” tag. BUT…if you happen to know that Catholic writer-type James Carroll wrote the article in question, and do your search that way, you can still find it. Weird.