Today I listened through Arvo Part’s musical setting of the passion of Christ according to John. It’s a good way to walk slowly and meditatively through the text, and random thoughts occurred to me:
- In John’s Gospel, Christ is strongly portrayed as Wisdom itself. So when he said, “I have always preached openly,” it reminded me of the description of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, who preaches at every street corner and cries out as people go by.
- In the same scene, it suddenly occurred to me that it’s not just a clever rhetorical defense for Jesus to say, “Ask those who heard me.” In fact, that is the approach he has favored in the end: he wants us to learn what he said by asking those who heard him.
- When the soldiers take Jesus’ garments and cast lots for them, I suddenly wondered: what are the garments of wisdom? In my imagination, wisdom is the object of theology, while the garments of wisdom are all the other disciplines: mathematics, philosophy, and so on. These have indeed been divided among the conquerors as theology was removed from the schools. For some reason, in my imagination literature is the seamless garment.
- Why is it that everyone says tenors have the most pleasing voices, the famous soloists are all tenors, the tenors make block-buster recordings, and so on and so forth—and yet every musical setting of the passion casts Jesus as a baritone? I think the world may have a guilty conscience about us baritones.
While all this passed through my mind, I couldn’t help comparing Arvo Part’s passion rendering with Bach’s famous passion settings. Part’s approach has ups and downs. The pros:
- You can actually listen to it in one sitting before the baby wakes up. Bach’s versions are all massive.
- It stays close to the text—there is no text but John’s text.
- It has a restrained, minimalist feel that evokes the mood of the passion story perhaps better than a moody soprano chirping about how her heart bleeds.
- It establishes a consistent characterization for each voice: Jesus, the crowds, the enemies, and so on.
- It’s cooler: if you’re a Bach fan—well, who’s not? But if you’re all into Arvo Part, you’re hip, you know?
- No melody or rhythm, nothing that will stick in your mind. You will not read a line from John’s Gospel later and have a bit of Part’s passion suddenly replay in your head.
- No musical value apart from the text. That is, you can listen to Bach not knowing what the German says and it’s still really beautiful, but Part is just boring if you don’t know what the Latin text is saying at that point. (I understand the Latin text when I hear it, so I have not had and could not actually have the experience of following along with an English rendering—not sure what that would be like.)
- The music does not interpret particular sentences or phrases; melody and mood are disconnected from the details of the text.
- Pontius Pilate comes across as languishing and effeminate. It’s as though he can’t attend to Jesus because he’s still letting his nail polish dry.
My thanks to Peter Kwasniewski for putting me onto Part’s piece, which I have enjoyed for a couple of years now. I hope he will put his mind to writing a passion setting some year, because I think he can do Part’s project better than Part did.
Sometime in the fall, I used birthday money to buy Well Fed, a paleo cookbook. Even before I’d made any recipes from it, I found it massively helpful in terms of ideas and inspiration, and so I mentioned that I would love to eventually get the sequel to it, Well Fed 2. Since that mention fell during the time that people were thinking about Christmas gifts, eventually came sooner rather than later.
I cooked a few recipes over the Christmas break, but mostly pulled ideas from the books: they both have sections devoted to ideas for quick and simple meals, that aren’t exactly recipes, but merely outlines and suggestions. Now that we are back into Ordinary time, and I need to work on eating really well to completely “recover” from the Christmas season, I’ve decided to take inspiration by cooking my way through the books. Since the books themselves emphasize the importance of making most of your food prep simple, I’m not going for anything ambitious like something new every day. I think I will start out with a goal of trying at least two new things per week, and see how that works.
I had some fresh basil this week that needed to be used, so a few days ago I made Basil-Walnut Pesto. I considered adding back in Parmesan cheese to make it more like “normal” pesto, but it didn’t taste like anything was missing, so I didn’t.
Later I made Scotch Eggs for dinner. The book has quite a few variations on the recipe, using different seasonings, and different ground meat (lamb or beef instead of pork), but to start with I just followed the original recipe. They were definitely a hit! We also had spaghetti squash for dinner, with the pesto sauce spooned over it. I was hoping for left-overs of that, but it was a hit, too, and vanished very quickly.
It’s May 1st, and it’s 45 degrees outside, so I maintain:
“That’s not snow, it’s FLUFFY RAIN.”
Jacinta looked out the window when she woke up and asked me, “Is it May 1st or April 1st? ‘Cause that looks like a practical joke out there!”
Yesterday I had breakfast with Raymond Plank, a 91-year-old man who has seen about everything. He went to the White House and saw Roosevelt enter the building to declare America’s entry into World War II. On the other end, he was stationed near Japan when he and a buddy realized that the Americans would likely drop the second A-bomb, so they “borrowed” an airplane and went out and actually saw the mushroom cloud go up. Crazy stuff.
Today I spoke with Fr. Reginald Foster, who has been the official Latinist to every Pope since Paul VI. And boy does he have stories….
Some colleagues and I recently traveled to Chicago for the annual Higher Learning Commission conference on accreditation. It was a huge event, with over 4,100 participants from more than 800 institutions. Coming from the tiny town of Lander, where I register and recognize many of the faces on Main Street, I soon experienced “face overload”: my brain could not process that many faces walking by day after day, with never a face repeated in the mix, and I experienced the urge to walk through crowds with my eyes shut.
Not an urge I indulged, mind you.
So we found ourselves on the first day of the conference at an orientation event in an auditorium with some 400 or so first-time conference participants. The speaker stood at the front with a microphone and cracked jokes and made points and generally oriented everyone, but what grabbed my attention was his comment about teachers and institutions that don’t want to face the new standards. “If you are at an institution where they still have big lecture halls with one guy at a microphone talking to hundreds of students, that institution doesn’t know what it’s doing!” he proclaimed.
Hmm. What are we doing?, I thought to my self, as I looked around.
“They’re behind the times: the lecture is not the best way to teach!” he continued. I sympathize with that claim, I really do, but it kept replaying in my head over the next three days as I and my colleagues did nothing at the conference but attend lectures.
I’m not sure it struck anyone else as funny, but I kept smiling.
Following up on my previous post about Arvo Part, I should report that I have listened through his “Passio” a couple of times now. It is a setting of the passion story from John’s Gospel. So here’s where I am as of this moment (no doubt it will be different next week):
1. The music hangs around the words very much like Gregorian chant with a kind of organic incorporation of instruments, which strikes me as an attractive thing.
2. The general tone of the whole thing is brooding and sad, but yields to a brilliant major chord at the end, which emphasizes the joy of the resurrection. That’s a nice effect.
3. The entire piece avoids the tonic until the end. While other voices go various places, the voice of Jesus almost always begins and ends on the same note, namely the fifth above the tonic. This keeps up until the very end, when the the voice of Jesus descends to the tonic at the words “It is finished.” Very, very nice effect.
4. It is a monotonous piece. I think it would take a long time to be able to hear a snatch and know instantly from the music (as opposed to the words) what part was playing. Put another way, Part’s setting does not make it so that when I read a certain part of the passion a particular musical memory comes to mind. The tone and melody and so on do not change from scene to scene; there are occasional variations in motif, but they are very occasional and I have not been able to tell that they are related to the meaning of the text.
A couple of weeks ago a friend told me that Arvo’s setting of the passion just didn’t “stick” for him. “No, it sticks,” I responded, “that is, in my throat.” And that’s no longer true. I don’t find it offensive; it is nice in many ways. I am not yet at the point of thinking it brilliant. But I can keep listening to it for Holy Week without reluctance.
When the new Pope was announced, I was watching the live feed in a room of interested spectators, including the bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne. I caught the Cardinal’s voice saying, something about Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum (“who has given himself the name of Francis”).
Over the next minute or two, I found myself explaining to others what had been said. It was neat at that moment to have the habit of understanding spoken Latin: I heard the very words and grasped them.
Introducing an all-new category, the Cool Thing of Today. I don’t promise to have one every day, but cool things come almost as fast as funny things around here.
Today’s CTT was this: While in the front yard after dusk I heard an owl hoot. Glancing up, I spotted what could be the owl in the top of a tree across the street, so I grabbed the birding binoculars Jacinta gave me for Christmas. Sure enough, it was the owl. He turned to look right at me and hooted again, right into the binocs!
It was–well, cool.
I am sooo ready to hit the switch!