Britain is in the grip of some of the worst winter weather in years. In fact, maybe 100 years—that’s what meteorologists are calling the winter rains and storms we’ve been experiencing. Here in London it hasn’t been particularly bad—a warmer winter than usual, not a drop of snow in sight, but plenty of wind and rain, and occasionally a tree goes down. Down southwest way, however, it’s another story. Somerset is experiencing horrific flooding—as are Devon and Cornwall. Entire towns are now being evacuated following a series of storms that show no signs of ending.
John Elway and Peyton Manning are Republicans. The Football Gods are Democrats.
As a Patriots fan, I initially had no real reason to root for either Seattle or Denver in yesterday’s Super Bowl. Seattle has never won one, so I was slightly inclined to root for them, but I have friends (and fellow bloggers) who live in Denver and root for the Broncos, so what the heck, why not root for the Broncos? I expected a close and exciting game, and if that’s what it was going to be, I’m fine with that. In fact, since the game doesn’t usually start until nearly midnight here in London, the prospect of staying up to three or four in the morning isn’t all that tempting, unless the Pats are involved, and, of course, they’re not this year. So I was going to watch a bit of the first quarter, and then hit the sack.
If I had been anywhere near the northeast past of the US last week, snow or no snow, I would have been heading for New York, or Baltimore, or Washington, or Philadelphia, on one of the nights that the Gene Clark No Other Tour hit town. So, what is this? It’s a tour put together by members of Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and The Walkmen—and even Iain Matthews, from the early days of Fairport Convention. I even know one or two of these groups. And it’s in honor of an album by the late Gene Clark, songwriter extraordinaire, called No Other, issued in 1974. I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves this album. Here’s the description of the tour in Pitchfork; here’s the generous write-up in The New York Times; here’s a review of the Washington show. Sounds like a great show. Too bad they’re not coming to London. Continue reading
I first became aware of Ellen MacArthur in 2001, along with everyone else, when she launched her first solo round-the-world sailing adventure. She was a sailor, all right, so I could empathize. Actually, she had been a terrific sailor for a number of years before that, but who pays attention but other sailors? She came in second that year in the Vendee Globe round the world sailing race, a pretty remarkable achievement for a 25-year old woman. She kept racing, picking up an MBE along the way. Along with having an asteroid named after her. In 2004, she nearly broke the record for a transatlantic crossing, falling short by an hour and a quarter. More to the point, at age 29, and still only 5’2” tall, she established the world record for the fastest circumnavigation in 2005. Continue reading
News that hackers have used a “smart refrigerator” to send a bunch of virus emails and generally cause mischief shouldn’t come as a surprise. People have been talking about “smart” appliances for years now—“smart” houses, too. Everything is going to be “smart,” apparently. Personally, I can’t wait until we get “smart” cars—you know, the ones that don’t need drivers. (As opposed to Smart cars.) I remember this as a 1950s advertising campaign that never quite got off the ground—like jetpacks. Which reminds me, where the hell is my jetpack? Anyway, I bet the amount of interesting damage you can do with “smart” cars will be a lot more fun than what you can do with “smart” refrigerators.
Amazon loves Mrs. W, because she’s a sucker for those Kindle Deals of the Day, where you can pick up good stuff for 99p. And among her recent purchases has been Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch. I’ve haven’t read either of Tartt’s previous novels, although people have been gushing about The Secret History for years, but I thought I might read this one. And the reason for that is that The Goldfinch in question is a painting, in fact one of my favorite paintings. It’s that one right there. It’s a perfect painting—you couldn’t possibly improve on it.
It’s by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch painter who, like Masaccio, Girtin and Schiele, who all all died in their 20s or early 30s, left us tragically early. In Fabritius’s case, it was an explosion in a nearby building in the city of Delft in 1654 that did the trick. Continue reading
I suppose that, as a former elected public official of the great State of New Jersey, I should have something enlightening to say about the Chris Christie/George Washington Bridge scandal. And, yes, it has hit the point of being a scandal. The facts are now unassailable—several of Christie’s aides and political appointees essentially conspired to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge and bring massive inconvenience (and worse) to the city of Fort Lee, New Jersey, as political payback against the mayor of the city. The mayor is a Democrat who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. There may be more to come, of course—sometimes these things go nowhere, but sometimes they take on a life of their own and keep rolling along. Political scandals are hard to predict, and even harder to control.
Booman, essential blogger, grew up in New Jersey, and has some useful insights, as usual. Booman has not been unsympathetic to Christie in the past—especially over Christie’s reaction to Hurricane Sandy. Continue reading
And we end with Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” as how could we not? Surely one of the most exuberant statements of faith ever composed. Here’s the opening chorus presented by the Dresdner Kreuzchor.
Well, the only real mystery is why these pieces, each a sheer delight, aren’t better known. Both works concern the mysteries surrounding the birth of Christ and his divinity, and both are astonishing works of compostion. The first, “Mirablile Mysterium,” was composed by the Slovenian composer Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591, also known as Jacobus Handl) as a five voice motet. Here’s the text and translation:
Mirabile mysterium declaratur hodie,
innovantur naturae; Deus homo factus est;
id quod fuit, permansit,
et quod non erat, assumpsit,
non commixtionem passus neque divisionem.
A wondrous mystery is declared today,
natures are renewed; God has become man;
that which he was, he remains,
and that which he was not, he has assumed,
suffering neither mixture nor division.
And here is a version from Vocaal Ensemble PANiek, Nijmegen:
John Fahey was one of the two or three most influential guitarists of the past sixty years or so (Les Paul was the other one.) He revolutionized how we play and hear guitar music. He would end every record and concert with a hymn. And he put out several Christmas albums. Here’s a fairly representative piece, his take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”:
An old song, one of the few surviving songs with lyrics in Middle English, and one which seems appropriate for today, the shortest day of the year. The modern translation would be “Merry it is.” So this should be a joyful song, with a joyful treatment. The text probably dates from around 1225, and goes like this:
Mirie it is while sumer y-last
With fugheles son
Oc nu neheth windes blast
And weder strong.
What this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong
Soregh and murne and fast.
Medieval and Renaissance Spain and Portugal have given us music a bit different from the rest of Europe, even when written in European styles. This is the result of the unique blend of cultures that inhabited the Iberian peninsula for a number of centuries, up to the expulsion of the Moors and Jews by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an important year for a number of reasons, as it turns out.) Christmas music from this region, then, often reflects this unique blend. In some cases, we also have compositions from the Spanish colonies in the New World, which reflect some of the indigenous musical traditions as well. What this has left us with is a lively group of Christmas songs, of which “Riu, Riu Chiu” is probably the best known. It’s a long song, with lots of lyrics (see here for a reasonably full set). Originally a Spanish Villancico, a vernacular song usually based on medieval dance forms, this early 16th century song (ascribed to Mateo Flecha, but probably not actually composed by him) is that rare thing—a song about the Immaculate Conception that you can dance to. Even rarer is the fact that it was performed on US television in 1967 by The Monkees, making it the only Renaissance song holding this distinction. Here’s a version from The Boston Camerata:
This is such a lovely song that it comes in versions by multiple composers, two in particular. The first and better known comes to us from Gustav Holst, the German-English composer; the second from English composer Harold Darke (1888-1976). It’s the second version that was voted best Christmas carol of all time in a poll of English choirmasters in 2008. They have a point. The lyrics are from a poem by Christina Rosetti, written for Scribner’s Magazine in 1872. You can find the full lyrics here. Here’s the Holst version, courtesy of Jim Booth:
Debates about the best rock and roll Christmas song, kind of like any debate about the best rock and roll anything, tend to become tedious. For my own part, Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” takes the prize. Released in 1973, every year it comes back, as it should. Slade was one of the great touring bands, and came out of the same British music hall tradition as The Kinks and Family.
Not only do songs change their feel over time, but this can also change in the hands of an interesting arranger. Consider “Deck the Halls,” that old warhorse. Here’s a pretty strait-up version from The Sixteen. And here’s a lovely, almost sprightly version from the Elizabethan Singers (you’ll need to turn the volume up). Then here’s an older (and not very well recorded) but quite lively version from the Gregg Smith Singers.
Time for a change of pace. The Roches’ We Three Kings—great album title—is one of the canonical Christmas albums—no collection of Christmas music should be without it. Here are the Roches doing Terre Roche’s Star of Wonder—small, but perfectly formed, as the saying goes.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFbE9ZStums Continue reading
Some songs travel through the centuries, evolving and reshaping themselves in the hands of different composers. In dulci jubilo is one of our greatest carols, and has come down from a simple chant with words penned by a German mystic, Henirich Seuse, in 1328. The tune likely predates this, first appearing in Codex 1305 (published in 1400). Many of us grew up with this as Good Christian Men, Rejoice, a carol with largely forgettable lyrics. But it has deep roots, appearing in a number of early song books, including the Finnish Piae Cantiones in 1582.
Early forms were adapted to performance by a range of voices—two, three, four, eight and sixteen. Here’s one of the earliest, for four voices, by Michael Praetorius—
And on to medieval Germany, where so much great Christmas music comes from. In this case, we’ll start out with Michael Praetorius, Germany’s first great composer, who brought us, among other things, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, which we grew up learning as Lo, how a Rose E’er blooming. Here’s John Eliot Gardner’s Monteverdi Choir doing a lovely version—Praetorius regularly reworked pieces in order to produce versions that could be sung by groups of different sizes.
And while we’re considering 20th century British composers and the thousands of great Christmas choral songs they’ve produced, here’s John Gardner’s updated 1960s version of TSBMDD, which first appeared in a choral collection in 1833. We’re doing this in our Christmas concert tomorrow evening–I hope we sound as good as this. A wonderful song–this is actually an early 19th century carol (with 16th century Cornish roots) that retells the story of Jesus in his own voice, where his life takes the form of a dance. Gardner’s version is probably the best known version, for good reason. Continue reading
British composers had good run this past century composing Christmas songs. One of my favorites Is William Walton’s “What Cheer?” Walton composed some great choral pieces, but was better known for his orchestral pieces, including some amazing film scores (especially Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V). And some lovely guitar pieces. Anyway, here are the Cambridge Singers: