Monday, March 26, 2018

Go to the cast-off book sales

I'm reading a biography of Jacqueline du Pre (Elizabeth Wilson, Jacqueline du Pre: Her Life, Her Music, Her Legend, Arcade, 1999). It stood out, dark, sleek, serious, from the other castoffs on the library's used book sale shelves. The name stirred a vague memory of something tragic, something a long time ago.

I like reading about musicians and music even though I can't play or sing. In truth I can't understand whole paragraphs, nay pages, of this biography. The author, a musician herself, delves enthusiastically into artistic and emotional assessments of technical work. She goes on about fingering, slides, portamenti and coda, but also discusses concerts as if they were painting or cooking. We have the "brushstrokes" of "that tragic, noble resignation on the glissando" or the "warm, nutty tone" of a Stradivarius cello made in 1680. "...by placing the thumb on the harmonic D and disguising the shift with a bow change, she could articulate the top note with immense clarity and power." One accepts it all kneeling, mystified.

What intrigues also in a biography of a musician is to meet artists who have an intellectual and a creative vocation, who can't pursue it in solitude like a painter, a writer, or I suppose a scientist doing research. Like an actor or a ballerina, the musician can rehearse alone -- but he cannot begin to bring both intellectual and physical work together without the company of other musicians. And yet unlike the actor or dancer, he doesn't require an audience as such. One fellow will do. Jacqueline du Pre, "Jackie," is described often playing happily late into the night with one friend or teacher, or perhaps in a hostess' home for a beloved audience of two. These intimates went away savoring "a never-to-be-forgotten evening listening to the D major Cello Sonatas by Bach and Beethoven." Perfect art, in perfect privacy, with perfect professionalism and perfect companionship -- it is all beautiful and solid and perfect. I like the photo of New Year's Eve in an apartment in New York, 1970. Itzhak Perlman, Artur Rubinstein, and Jacqueline du Pre play trios. Daniel Barenboim turns over [the pages of music as needed]. Champagne coupes sit on nearby little tables.

Another intriguing, and a related thing, that emerges from the biography of a musician is this: musicians deal with great art, but they re-make it as no other artist does. It's like a priesthood, maintaining a supernatural truth. Actors act lines and dancers dance steps, but no painter is permitted to work on a Raphael, or playwright to change a line of Shakespeare. (If those great men had left "scores"" to be re-painted, or rewritten, again and again for centuries, that might be something like music.) Even you or I could badly declaim or clumsily dance. But when musicians bring alive what was in the mind of Bach or Beethoven, they are themselves the necessary partner, operating from another language. We observe. Like the photographer in the New York apartment, we stand outside the priestly circle.

I like this biography in particular because it is so well written and because Jacqueline du Pre herself seems to have been such a joyous and delightful person. Occasionally the author mentions a bit of depression or frustration in her life, and I have not yet reached the tragedy, which was multiple sclerosis at the age of 28. The joy in the book seems to come from three factors which are a pleasure to immerse in. These are, "Jackie" herself, the artist fully happy in her work; the circumstances of her early success, which allowed her to fly busily about, from London to Paris to Berlin to London to Sermoneta -- where are the famed gardens of Ninfa -- and back to London again, making music, studying with masters, playing in the plazas of little Italian towns during summer teaching festivals; and last there is the early 1960s classical music scene in London. Naturally l know absolutely nothing about this, but it enchants. One has an impression of talented, eager young things rushing to and fro in the great city at all hours carrying their cellos, staying for months with friends who live near recording studios, and going into great concert halls to play and be starchily but sympathetically critiqued by very knowledgeable men and women in great newspapers the next day.

One wonders what comes first, talent, a joyous personality, or music? If I buy an inexpensive electronic keyboard and sheet scores simple enough for children, will I too eventually be able to get inside the mind of Mozart? Will I then know what musicians know? (Because I must say I don't care for the sound of the cello. It seems harsh and ugly.) For Jackie the love and knowledge was immediate. She heard a cello on the radio at the age of four and exclaimed "Mommy I want to make that sound." Luckily her mother was a professional pianist, and in time could even pull strings with a fairy godmother able to afford a Stradivarius. Again the almost supernatural, the priestly, shades to music.

Because I came across the name "Shuttleworth" early in the book -- that is Anna Shuttleworth, another cellist, now in her 90s -- I mistakenly thought here was a name from Jaqueline du Pre's parents' generation, maybe a name from the 1920s which my great favorite E.F. Benson, London gadabout, might have picked up and given to his character Olga Bracely. She is the prima donna of the Mapp and Lucia novels, who marries Mr. Shuttleworth and then sighs that she really should start using his name.

It turned out to be coincidence only. One grasps at straws. But Jacqueline du Pre's life and music- making in the 1960s jibe somewhat with the fictional lives and music-making in Benson's books of the 1930s. In both worlds people still entertain themselves. Everybody owns a piano. He too summons his characters for musical evenings, where the hosts play or, on grand occasions, hire famed string quartets down from London. The running joke of the series is that Lucia can always be persuaded to favor her friends with the Moonlight Sonata. Later, when she inherits a townhouse and becomes avant garde, it's "a morsel of Stravinski." She is at once a great snob and an ignoramus; if Benson had been writing in the '60s he would have had her angling to meet the exciting young cellist, only to cluck kindly at the tiny, tiny flaws in her playing.

Finally we consider the miracle of the internet, even as it touches this discarded biography of a great and lovely artist. Elizabeth Wilson is careful to catalogue where she listened to  recordings of Jacqueline du Pre's music, or watched old films of her happy in London (she was famous enough to have documentaries made about her when she was only twenty-two). In 1999 this research amounted to a pilgrimage route that the average reader would not be able to follow. Already "some of her performances were being re-issued on CDs," yes, but for the bulk of it Wilson went to the sources. She visited studios in London or at Danish Radio, or at the New York Philharmonic. A reader at that time would have had to do what we used to do: carefully jot down which album of which concert he hoped to look for in a local music store, then grab his wallet, walk out of his house, and hope for the best. Today we go to YouTube and type in "Jacqueline du Pre" and see a riot of information. We can watch films of her performing the Elgar concerto, conducted by Barenboim. We can watch bits of the very BBC television program broadcast for the first time in 1967. "We did not know what lay ahead," the narrator now says, "but we knew one thing -- Jacqueline du Pre would never be twenty-two again."

If it all sounds a bit sad, well yes it can't help being. But memorial funds, music buildings, and  concerts exist in her name. And as the biographer says, none of it can ever replace the voice which lives on in her audio and video recordings.



Tuesday, March 20, 2018

I met a gnostic

I have met a gnostic, and now at last I understand better what gnosticism is. Years ago in one of Paul Johnson's books, perhaps his History of the Jews, he wrote that "gnosticism is like a vine that winds itself around the trunk of a healthy religion" -- in other words it is something that approximates a religion but in fact chokes it. That still didn't tell me much, nor even does the definition of the word, which is simply "knowledge." Of course it means a knowledge carrying connotations of secret, wide-ranging amalgamations known only to an elect. Whether there ever was a religion which its own devotees called Gnosticism, and whether or not it had buildings and liturgies, I don't know.

I suspect it did not, because my gnostic friend would not need them and wouldn't attend to them. I suspect his counterparts thousands of years ago would have been the same. What he has, is a special attitude that keeps him above and outside all people's religions, and even above and outside their whole lives, interior or exterior, ordinary or powerful. He's very cheerful about it. To him this perfect private attitude doesn't have a name, it's just the state of being true to himself and (bemusedly), to the human project thus far, across all time and space. In one breath he can mention the Ein Sof, gematria (both aspects of Jewish mysticism), Tao, corrupt government inflation statistics, how "Lucifer" seems like just a whistleblower against a bad boss, in short he can garrulously marvel at anything at all taking place or having taken place, lending mystery or having lent it, anywhere anytime, to today's "dark, interesting world." He is always safe above it.

From meeting him I would judge it's not so much that Gnosticism winds itself around the trunk of a healthy religion. That is academic talk. Rather Gnosticism winds itself around the human personality. It renders it, I suppose, a sort of self-appointed sponge of all wisdom, happy in its cool absorptions but unable to distinguish between bogus inflation numbers and anything at all of real importance. The Four Last Things, let us say. Nor can it allot to bad inflation numbers their real importance. They do have some.

He is very nice, too. Is this what people mean when they say the opulent West is the Church's prime mission field?




Monday, March 12, 2018

Comfort zones

Go outside your comfort zone, and where does it get you? I went outside mine a few weeks ago, to borrow from the library a novel written in the 21st century. Normally I have a theory and rules about that, i.e., they're not that good so don't bother.

I am sure this particular novelist is a lovely person but her novel confirmed my theory and rules. I abandoned it after thirty pages. It was familiar: written as if by someone who had attended too many writers' workshops, and been mentored and edited by people who had done too much the same. I believe -- another theory -- that they are all taught to fill pages by minutely describing action. She crosses her legs, the slick polyester lining of her knock-off wool pants catching at her unshaved legs. Lord, had it been that long? Since Matt left? That's me, not her. But you see how it goes.

When you borrow a clutch of novels from the library and the rest are Georgette Heyer and Norah Lofts and Barbara Pym, and yes I do read men novelists sometimes and yes I can see why Barbara Pym's seventh was rejected by her publishers since it does very much resemble the previous six, lots of middle aged scholarly women fluttering about the vicar, still, -- when you borrow books at least fifty years old and then this new one, you spot a change. I think you spot a depletion in educational background, in a depth of material to write about. More importantly, you spot a change in what I might call the effort of tone. "Attack" perhaps, as musicians are said to attack their instruments as they begin to play. You miss the sense of a writer merely transparently struggling to describe, in beautiful language, what has never been seen just this way before. What you get instead is the trained, workshop voice: a consensus having assured the novelist "just describe anything, once you get going it's all interesting and true." Meanwhile, because she has not dug into her own ideas, her soul if you like, we meet no people in her first thirty pages whom we can really see, and see no houses we can really enter.

Norah Lofts, to take a random example of fifty years ago, is different. She effaces herself from the story in Which Way to Bethlehem? (1965), sketching natural scenes of generations of people building a road by dropping stones in a muddy path each time they go to the well to fetch water; or of an old slave woman in ancient Korea trying to earn a little money telling fortunes, and unwittingly telling such accurate ones that her angry clients pay her almost nothing but lie awake all night aghast. Georgette Heyer, well, she is just Georgette Heyer. In the past I have abandoned her, when her downmarket characters' dialogue becomes too annoyingly well-researched to be borne. But one forgives her for her titles -- Regency Buck! -- and her ability to have a lofty lady on page one respond to deadly insult by lifting a lorgnette and exclaiming " 'This is indeed the language of the theatre!' " Things like that. I promise I will still try the occasional modern novel, but for a long time they have seemed so predictable. They just don't go well.

Part of the reading for the day happened to be -- the day's reading. Have you ever looked at the "Readings for the Week" in your parish bulletin (of course you have) and wondered, mercy, what holy rollers read the Bible just any old day? The readings are very specific and relate to each other, having been chosen for the purpose by whatever group of scholars assembles the Lectionary. On Monday, March 5, you might have read from the Gospel of Luke about that time the ex-neighbors tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

No kidding. We pick up the thread at Luke 4:27. He is in Nazareth, talking about no prophet meeting faithfulness in his own country.
"Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian [we had just read that story, from the Second Book of the Kings]." When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away. 
This is the sort of thing you encounter when you are either a convert or a returned prodigal. You dig, perhaps partly to distract yourself from the awareness of being outside a comfort zone. And this brings me to the topic of the newest Catholic internet sensation, Lizzie. Have you met her? She's a delight really, all of 23 years old, having been on YouTube "since I was sixteen, in 2011," and now having converted to Catholicism and, in tears of happy anguish, told all her hundreds of thousands of subscribers so. She's on the cover of Catholic Herald, which is a bit like being on the cover of Rolling Stone I suppose. She pulls nervously at her long bicolored hair while marveling to the camera how amazing Eusebius is. She is also planning to produce a video all about her upcoming first confession, which I hope someone will dissuade her from doing. Surely that would mean breaking the seal of the confessional. The recompense for this new obedience, however, could be that she may add it to the sparkling list of new sacrifices and obediences which she has shouldered already. I don't smirk, I think truly if the Holy Spirit is working astonishingly in anyone in this internet age, it is working in her.

Now at my end of the Catholic involvement spectrum, life is a bit more humdrum. On a clear late-winter night with the constellation Orion still reigning high overhead, I drive out to a local parish and find my way (with help) through cavernous dark "multipurpose rooms" and big stairwells to an upper conference room, where two women wait to give a talk on the characteristics of a vibrant church. How do we reach the non-churchgoers, the people who are content to be "spiritual but not religious," especially the young who tick the Religious Affiliation box "none"? They are kind and good but they explain the empty churches. And (one lifts one's lorgnette perhaps), can they be really happy?

Three more women enter. And that is all. We congratulate ourselves on the advantages of a small, intimate group, and get underway. As the hour or so moves on, I probably make a bit of a nuisance of myself by remarking the confident, counter-cultural "truth claims" of Islam, and by noting what we all look like to the kind, good "nones." We look sweet and out-of-touch. Why are we attracted to this meeting but no one else is? And never mind reaching the spiritual but not religious, what about the happily non-spiritual? I remember reading very recently that "it is always Satan's desire to persuade us that life with God is half a life." Is that persuasion easier now than ever?

Perhaps not necessarily. One of the women told us how many ex-Catholics are to be found at the rock-and-roll megachurch down the street. How do we get those people? They have found a vital comfort zone. So have our Muslim neighbors who, one of the women testified, begin training their children to memorize the Koran at age four, and whose mosques are filled. A silence. "Serve coffee," the nun joked. For that night, under the cold glittering spread of Orion, that was the best we could do. 
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