Paulus Torchus

Month: October, 2013

The History of the Reformation- Week 2: Reformation Day

ImageThis week’s class was about the events of October 31st, 1517, and the trials of Martin Luther. Audio of the class is available below. Of course, you miss out on the slide show by not being there in person.

Let’s All Write a Ghazal!

The ghazal is a Persian form which hit its peak of popularity around 1000 C.E. The name is derived from an Arabic word for “the talk of boys and girls.” Traditional ghazals were rhymed couplets, around 5 to 12 of them, about wine or love. Another feature was that the poet often worked their own name into the last line.

As is so often the case, our textbook then muddies the waters. Ron Padgett tells us that modern ghazals need not be about love or wine or include the poet’s name. In fact, the only similarity I can discern to the early form is that there are two long lines paired together (not even necessarily rhymed.)

For my ghazal, I decided to try and find a middle path (love, wine, and so forth, unrhymed, and firmly in the world of middle-age, straddling the worlds of the sacred and profane). Essentially, this is about my day today.

(And sorry for the line breaks. WordPress’ formatting doesn’t like long lines.)

A Ghazal

by Paul Mathers

Out in the streets the paraplegic prostitute sensually hugs a junky,

within our walls we talk of Maritain, hear late Beethoven aspire to work the universe like a woodwind.

Rhinoviral is the condition of my true love’s nose as we languor away a Saturday

imbibing cabernet to quench sore throat sting like faith upon anxiety.

We make decisions on our mortgages, a house in a declining town we can hardly afford.

The stew bums belligerent out of dark alleys alarming our dogs named after composers.

A God who loves beauty and order: essential to my structure. A well matched tie

or formed line, a harmony for Werckmeister, a distant but palpable echo of the music of the spheres.

My love rescues me from the peril of my ill, fevered, middle-aged humour of anxiety

with the evidence of sola fide and the sovereign clockmaker under curtains.

As the neighboring loving neighborhood of merchants employs armed guards to run off the vagrants,

Paul Mathers rests in a dotted outline, pacific in heart, soul, mind, strength, love, and a full glass of wine.

Healthy Fear

The door to her temple was barred to the likes of me,

we who sing for our supper.

I, like her grandson taking a dash too much mercury,

I stand before the door and am told

if I look upon the milkfed serpent within I will be healed.

Before I entered this room, I was in another room

where they told me that the gatekeepers might pay my fare

from the treasury of past sojourner’s surplus or

they might take from me what they think I can do without.

And at the entrance to the temple they told me if I came in I would be saved,

but if I didn’t they would come to my house and take what they pleased.

These stories you hear of caste-fellows told they can afford

what they cannot afford and the chamber has no window,

the door silent as the tomb,

so we must be gentle as doves and wise as an ounce of prevention

lest they wring the life from us like so many necessary sacrifices you hear tell of.

Those who seek to save their life will love it, those without savings mostly.

I don’t know anyone who has done this nor anyone who has refused to,

but I hear the serpent is immense, insatiable, inverted,

and feeds on what is wholesome.

What if they don’t really hunt me down?

What if I’m already clean?

What if the snake devours me?

Anyway, none of it feels healthy.

In this waiting room, we are no better off that we were at any point before.

Within we suspect the beast bites her own tail and

the door to her temple was barred to the likes of me.

The History of the Reformation- Week 1

For the next several weeks (8 I think) I will be teaching a class on The History of the Reformation at Chico Grace Brethren. This class is intended for general audiences who need have no prior knowledge of the Reformation. This week I started with some groundwork (indulgences, medieval economy, the Holy Roman Empire, etc.), the Proto-Reformers (Savonarola, Wycliffe, Hus), and the early life of Martin Luther (specifically his entrance into monastic life).

And I recorded it.

Christmas Wish List 2013

Every year my mother asks me to make a Christmas wish list (because one can only buy so much Teavana Earl Grey Cremé I suppose. Although the correct answer is “that never gets old”). Every year I oblige the wish of she who brought me into this world by posting it on my blog. 

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1. The English Bible by Norton Critical Editions– I will own a copy of this one way or another. The Norton Critical Editions are of excellent scholarly quality, yet highly readable. They have now tackled the Bible. It seems like every year there is a book out tailored to me specifically and I think this may be the one for this year.

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2. Shakespeare and plenty of it- Laurie and I were commenting the other day on how for a Shakespeare guy, I own very few filmed productions of Shakespeare’s works. Here is my wishlist: Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth probably tops my life. I’ve heard nothing but good about the recent Much Ado About Nothing (indeed, I have heard much ado about it). Dr. Who’s Hamlet is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on film. I am very keen to see the recent film version of The Tempest. There’s the Globe Hank IV:1.0. They also have 2.0. And, of course, there are all of the Shakespeare DVD collections. The old BBC ones are excellent.

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3. All of Glenn Gould’s television shows. Let me explain a little something about me and Glenn Gould. Earlier this year, I wrote an epic poem about him.

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4. All of Wagner’s operas in one boxed set limited edition for his 200th birthday year is a thing that exists. I will sit and listen to them all. In one sitting.

5. Socks are always welcome. My two biggest needs are dress socks and winter socks. My ideal would be ones that serve as both, but I suppose that’s taxing reality to suggest. The choice seems to be to freeze on my bike ride or to look like an Alaskan Gold Prospector anytime my slacks ride up slightly.

7800176. Believe it or not, in spite of Stephen Fry being one of my favorite living human beings, I don’t own a single one of his books. I suppose the poetry one would be the natural starting point, but really any of them would be welcome. As would his television series about America for that matter.

7. You can pretty much go to the Oxford World’s Classics catalog and throw a dart at it to find a perfect gift for me. Their selection is right up my alley and their notes are excellent. If I could subscribe to their book catalog, I would.

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas class notes- week 5

ImageIt’s been two weeks since I finished this course. Now let’s see if I can still make sense of the chicken-scratch I call notes.

In many ways, this was my favorite week. Late Beethoven is one of those examples of greatness beyond what descriptors is the Queen’s English can capture. It is an example of some of the highest and most successful aspirations of humankind. Martin Luther said, “Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by her are all emotions swayed.”

Late Beethoven is, to me, second only to the realm of the divine. I will go even further and say that I can think of no other figure than Beethoven who, for me, better communicates the modern perception of the sublime.

Having dispensed with the gooey superlatives, let’s get to the class notes!

Beethoven wrote a staggering number of piano sonatas. One of the greatest values of these (aside from the obvious quality of the works) is that they give us a sort of road map of Beethoven’s development.

You could not write a piano sonata after Beethoven without reckoning with him. His influence on the form was that extreme and enduring. Any serious musician must come to terms with late Beethoven (although some schools of moderns would deny this and claim that we’ve moved to territory entirely alien to that milieu, they are talking through their hats).

Opus 109 (Piano Sonata No. 30) was the first of the final three. It was composed in 1822. It was composed almost as a unit. It is a summation of Beethoven. There is a note here about the sonority of hands at two ends of the piano, which I’m assuming I wrote meaning to refer to Beethoven’s wildly inventive taxing of the newly expanded instrument. I think listening to the piece will back me up on that assumption. Unfortunately, I have no idea what 2 weeks ago Paul meant in writing that in the notes. But it is as if the piano is still too limited for Beethoven. We are at the time in which it seems like Beethoven would play the Universe like a woodwind instrument and still find it lacking.

Op. 109 is a bit of a structural magic trick. It is actually perfect in the sonata form, a sort of distillation of it. It contains the shortest first movement that Beethoven ever wrote. It follows with an even shorter movement which, when it arrives, provides massive contrast. Opposed ideas which offer a study in the concept of contrast itself. The first and second movements provide an elegy to the form. The last movement is spaciousness itself. It is twice as long as the first two movements.

Beethoven is after something deeper than the old school of sonatas attention to display and embellishment. He is interested in psychology (in the 1820s no less!)In the final movement, he is floating us in the Jungian miasma of dreams. He finds his way out with a fugue. The last variation is full of wonder. The need for tonal resolution is spotlighted in the final moments, fixated on the search for classical resolution.

Beethoven died in 1827. Franz Schubert died one year later (in the header photograph, you see their graves side by side, bisected with a monument to Mozart in an attempt at manufacturing a musical Mecca rivaled only by Wagner). Our professor said that this was possibly the year of greatest musical output in the history of humankind. Audacious, but, I think, a defensible position to take. The last music that Schubert ever heard was Beethoven’s Op. 101. Schubert sought to be inspired by Beethoven’s sonatas and not intimidated, which was a display of Herculean bravery unparalleled in the history of music (save, I think, perhaps for the moment when Brahms finally sat down to write his first symphony). Schubert copies Beethoven’s model, but still sounds like Schubert. Schubert was exactly one generation younger than Beethoven. 15 years later, an astounding amount of great composers walked the Earth at the same time. Beethoven had stretched the Classical to the breaking point. The next generation abandoned piano sonatas as too old for them. Beethoven’s influence was a destructive one, but necessary to keep music vital. Sometimes destruction is the most creative force available.

Thank you for reading.

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas- Weeks 3 & 4

ImageFirst, a little housekeeping: Next weekend I am going on vacation. This means that, while I will complete week 5 this week, it is questionable whether or not I will have time to post my notes on it until after I return. And if the notes this week seem a little obscure, I apologize in advance. I am trying to get my thoughts down and preserve them, but am also vaguely aware that my focus is irreconcilably split this week.

Beethoven remarked, “From now on, I will take a new path.” From then on, he rejected old forms. This certainly seems to be the case in Opus 26, 27, and 28.

In Opus 26, Beethoven eschews the sonata form in the first movement (and in all the rest for that matter) for the first time. He makes no effort to unify the movements. It almost seems more like two pairs of movements, slow-fast and slow-fast. Otherwise the movements have nothing in common. Cohesion is not found by mechanics, but in emotional sense.

We leave home for the dominant and then find our way back. Once we’re back, the drama is to stay there, even though we revisit what took us away in the first place. With the interest in harmony paused, we can focus on details. This is very experimental ground (as was highlighted in our homework this week, which was to listen to a Haydn piano sonata from the same period. Haydn’s sounded like a throwback by comparison). The narrative relies on embroidery!

Beethoven’s theme is utility over beauty. Opus 26 does not fit with this theme.

The Scherzo second movement is unprecedented in 1801. It snaps us out of the dreamy first movement and pulls the rug out from underneath us. It also serves as a buffer between the slow 1st movement and the funeral march of a 3rd movement. This is a precursor to the Eroica symphony. One of the greatest strengths of the piece is the disjointedness of the movements. Which seems to very modern to me.

Mozart wrote one off the wall sonata, but then went back to normal. Beethoven just kept pushing the boundaries. Opus 27 is chaos making way for order. And welcome to one of the most famous pieces of music in existence:

A fantasy sonata seems like a contradiction in terms. Schumann loved the concept and, in fact, wrote his fantasy to raise money for a statue of Beethoven. Opus 26, 27, and 28 are like nothing else and not in any way like one another. Opus 27 has no breaks between moments. This was unheard of, to blur boundaries in this way. The 3rd movement does not resolve. However, 27 feels more unified than 26. Its movements answer each other.

Professor Biss hates the title “Moonlight.” As you might know, these titles were not given by the composer, but usually were nicknames put to the piece by someone else, sometimes even long after the composer was dead. Biss thinks the title robs the piece of its daring and terror. I am inclined to concede that he makes a point worth considering. The last movement is the id of the piece. This piece is far more primal than most of what was being written in this period. In every beat, the triplicate remains, hyponotic. The sustain pedal is used throughout which turns it into a menacing haze of sound. The second movement is the ego to the last movement’s id. This is like nothing else in the Classical period.

And now to Opus 28 (and, by the way, I have been listening to the Schnabel recordings of each of these pieces, followed by the Gould recordings where they exist, in order to note the differences. The Schnabel are, of course, sort of the gold standard of traditional performances of Beethoven’s sonatas. Having said that, I doubt it will surprise anyone to know that I infinitely prefer the Gould recordings)

Peace and reserve throughout. We are tethered in the tonic for a long spell. The ambiguity is, of course, deliberate. He is giving the illusion of eternal melody. While this is the “Pastorale”, there are moments in it as unnerving as anything in the “Moonlight.” He almost trivializes the return to the tonic. His capacity to manipulate time is highly on display in this piece. The moment we are waiting for passes almost without notice.

And now to week 4. By 1809, we are past the mid-point of his career (as we note passing the mid-point of this class). Beethoven begins searching for a new way.

Opus 31 eliminates the dominant as the main foil of the piece and replaces it with the mediant. Here’s Gould performing:

Beethoven has taken a critical relationship and replaced it with an incidental one. This is the first baby-step in serious music composition towards undermining the tonal system, a step which would be followed, literally, for the next 200+ years. Once Beethoven tries this, he ends up using it again and again. Professor Biss made this methphor:

Tonic= the present

Dominant= the future

sub-dominant= the past

mediant= uncharted territory

That latter is what Beethoven is most interested in.

Beethoven’s pace slows significantly in his later years. In 1806, he pens no less than 7 behemoth works. In 1809, he pens less than half of that. In 1813, he pens only one work and it’s arguably his worst work (Wellington’s Victory).  This has a lot to do with his deteriorating family life. Beethoven’s custody battle and triumph of his nephew Karl is a very sad story. Beethoven fell in love with aristocratic women who may have enjoyed the affair but, as Truman Capote said, “money sticks with money.” Beethoven had no proper employment or family. And, of course, he was going deaf. If you’ve never read it, the Heiligenstadt Testament is Beethoven’s letter to his brothers about his deafness and it is heartbreaking.

By 1810, heroism is gone from his works.

Opus 78 was one of Beethoven’s favorite of his works.

Beethoven won improv competitions in his performance years. 78 might be the closest we have to knowing what Beethoven’s improv sounded like. 78 is as conflict free as anything Beethoven ever wrote. It is a perfect response to the accusation that “Beethoven is not a melodist.”

Opus 81A is a highly experimental piece, and thought to be a companion piece to 78.

This is Beethoven’s most serious flirtation with programmatic music.

The sonata form began to bore Beethoven, so he blew up the dominant/tonic relationship. 81A is compact, flanked by a long introduction and coda, which are at least as long as the rest of the piece. It is a masterpiece of structure. Contrast with 78, in which lyricism trumps all. Each piece has its own shape and reason for being. Beethoven is building his pathway to an otherworldly future.