Thursday, October 31, 2019

Samhain 2019

Today is Samhain! The modern celebration of Halloween gets most of its traditions from the old Celtic New Year celebration of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), including costumes, Jack O'Lanterns, trick or treating, and the like. The original holiday was all about honoring those passed on, celebrating the ancestors. There were other celebrations with the theme of honoring the dead (the Roman Feralia being one of them) at this time of year throughout Europe, so in the seventh century Pope Boniface IV declared a two-day festival honoring the dead to replace the pre-Christian celebrations - All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on the 2nd. In England All Saints was known as All Hallows, and the celebrations starting on the night before became known as All Hallows Eve, which through the years became Halloween. The pre-Christian traditions survived the transition and we still follow them today. 

Some of those traditions include wandering the streets to beg for soul cakes, special little cakes baked for this holiday; this tradition was called souling and eventually became the modern day trick or treating. Our ancestors would also carve out turnips and place a candle within, making "turnip lanterns" to light the way for those souls coming to visit at this time when the veil between this life and the afterlife was believed to be at its thinnest; when pumpkins were discovered here in the Americas they were deemed to make much better lanterns than turnips! And of course those who wandered the streets a-souling wore costumes, supposedly to scare away the evil spirits who would also take advantage of the thinner veil between the worlds, although I suspect the costumes may go even further back into time and were originally meant to represent the spirit totems of this time of year - Raven, the Horned God Cerunnos, Owl, and other spirits of the dark half of the year. Nowadays those costumes are more likely to be humorous and light-hearted rather than serious.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a time will know that I always include music in my Samhain posts. There's quite a bit of music over the years that I've used to represent this time of year, both for Samhain and the modern Halloween, and last year I put together a playlist on YouTube to collect my favorites in one place, which you can visit here - these include the 1980s PBS animation of Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, Loreena McKennitt's All Souls Night, one of my favorite versions of the A-Souling song by New Zealand ensemble Lothlorien, some old British folksongs dealing with some of the more unpleasant characters who might be wandering about, and some assorted modern tunes associated with Halloween these days. Definitely give it a visit.

This year I'm also posting a slideshow here that I put together of my best gravestone photos, set to a breathtakingly beautiful musical setting by Natalie Merchant of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem Spring and Fall: to a young child, written for a young girl facing mortality for the first time. This piece, more than anything else I've posted here, exemplifies the spirit of Samhain - honoring the departed, and placing death in its necessary place in the cycle of life. Have a blessed Samhain!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Seasonal Touches in Shippensburg

Walking through town today in search of good subjects for tomorrow's annual Samhain post, I caught these seasonal scenes.

Episcopal Square on North Prince Street
A scarecrow family on Orange Street
Richwalter Street in Hollar Heights
Ivy overruns a sign in one of Shippensburg's back alleys
A seasonally decorated planter along King Street
Branch Creek from the King Street bridge
A front stoop display along King Street
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sunday Bach - Trinity 19

Bach wrote several cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, and I chose one of his more beautiful solo cantatas this week - BWV 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I will gladly bear the cross, Leipzig 1726). This is a solo cantata for the bass voice, which emphasizes the austerity of the readings for the day; indeed, the music in this work follows the mood of the text quite closely, making for one of Bach's most moving cantatas. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this work:
In his third year in Leipzig, Bach used single solo voices more frequently than in his earlier years.  Many of the most well-known of the solo cantatas including three of the great alto cantatas BWV 35,169 and 170 as well as the extraordinary bass cantata “Ich habe genug” BWV 82 are from this season.  Whether the task of training a chorus for the big opening movements became onerous for Bach, or the inclination to encompass a whole spiritual journey with one voice was responsible for this, is not known.  What resulted are some of the greatest and most intense pieces for solo voice in the literature.

Today’s cantata BWV 56 has always been a bit in the shadow of the more famous BWV 82.  This is undeserved, for in this work we have Bach working at his profoundest level.  The reading for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity is an unusual and serious one.  

For all of its austerity, the opening movement is remarkably and vividly descriptive of the text. The stumbling bass line is a remarkably realistic depiction of one dragging a heavy cross. The opening awkward line has an almost pictorial authenticity of a cross. The orchestration with strings doubled by three oboes is of unparalleled density and seriousness. The ungiving and oppressive atmosphere is broken by the vocal triplets that dominate the last two lines of text.  The da capo strangely only includes the opening tutti with no vocal line, giving the movement an incomplete and unfinished quality.

The first recitative makes clear that this first movement is meant to be a prelude to the reading from Matthew, which begins with the voyage across the lake. The seascape is vividly drawn with the simplest of gestures, a series of arpeggios in the continuo. The moment when Jesus steps onto dry land is one of the great magical moments in all of Bach’s recitatives. The lengthy aria with oboe obbligato that follows can seem repetitive if the extraordinary detail of overlapping phrases is missed. The palpable sense of relief from the weightiness of the first movement is essential to the message that Jesus gives to the scribes, that their charge of blasphemy is hypocritical. For the final recitative Bach makes a gesture unique in his cantatas:  he brings back the last two lines of the first aria in an expanded and more finished form.  The inconclusiveness of the first aria was necessary to complete the message of this cantata. The unusually poetic harmonization of the chorale, “Du, o schönes Weltgebäude,” brings the cantata to a personal and striking close.
© Craig Smith
This week's performance is a live recording by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Fabio Bonizzoni and featuring bass soloist Matthias Winckhler. Enjoy!

Photo © 2016 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Autumn Leaves

I did my weekly walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning, mainly because it's supposed to be pouring rain tomorrow morning and I have a doctor's appointment Monday (my post-op follow-up). And today's walk was absolutely gorgeous! The Fall color is definitely in full swing here, and it was overcast, so the color really popped. Come for a walk with me and see.

One of the Ginkgo trees along King St. near the post office is in full color
Lots of color along the creek as it runs between the baseball fields
The forest's edge along the Dykeman Walking Trail
The best place to view this patch of color is from the other side of the north duck pond
Along the shore of the north duck pond
Walking along the trail as it follows the creek toward the red bridge
Another angle on the creek as it runs between the ball fields, this time on the way back out
And now for some appropriate music! I had already decided to include Eva Cassidy's cover of the popular standard Autumn Leaves, specifically the live version from the 1996 gig at Blues Alley. What I didn't expect to find was this magnificent film produced by Passepartout Films mixing that Blues Alley clip with an orchestral background by the London Symphony Orchestra and some really spectacular photography. Ahhhhhhhh! The perfect cap on a lovely walk. Enjoy!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, October 21, 2019

It's Getting To Look Like Autumn

Today I took my first walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park since being released from the hospital after my stent procedure. It felt great to be walking in nature again. Of course, the first thing I noticed is that everything is starting to look a lot more Autumnal now. Here are some scenes from the walk.

Entering the park by the "back door" on the Dykeman Walking Trail
Along the trail in the wetland
On the other side of the north duck pond, looking at the wetland and woods
A view of the north duck pond
Leaving the park - the creek as it travels through the baseball fields
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday Bach - Trinity 18

Bach composed two cantatas for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, and today we'll listen to the first one, BWV 96, Herr Christ, der einige Gottessohn (Lord Christ, the only son of God, Leipzig 1724). The feature that caught my attention most in this piece is the melodic flute accompaniment that flows throughout the piece, starting with the piccolo (or sopranino recorder) in the opening movement; it adds a cheerful, almost whimsical air to the piece. Here's the late Craig Smith's essay on this most pleasant cantata:
The readings for the 18th Sunday after Trinity are both concerned with the dual birthright of Jesus as the son of David and of God. The Epistle, the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians sets up the tenets of belief for new Christians. The Gospel, from the 22 nd Chapter of Matthew, is even more central. The trick question from the Saducee brings forth the announcement of the great commandment; later in the reading the question of Christ’s dual birth is raised and not really resolved.

In the previous Leipzig cycle Bach had set definitively the great commandment in the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 77. Here that issue does not really appear. He is much more interested in the idea of Jesus as the son of God and of David. The opening chorus of the cantata BWV 96 deals with this in a most subtle way. The orchestral color is dominated by the use of sopranino recorder. Its patterns clearly are generated from the image that dominates the whole second half of the tune of the morning star. The pastoral element suggested both by the use of the recorder and the use of 9/8 meter refers to the lineage of David. Structurally Bach points the listener in the direction of the beginning of the second half of the tune. The phrase about the morning star contains the rather startling modulation to the dominant that is achieved by a chromatic alteration to the melody, something that Bach seldom does, particularly with these well-known chorale melodies. Clearly he wants us to hear this as the climax of the movement and the most important idea in the piece. The chorale tune is in the alto, doubled by a high trombone, thus allowing the recorder to be heard clearly through the texture.

After an alto recitative comes a tenor aria with flute obbligato. The bonds of affection are clearly characterized by the curious way in which the bass relates to the flute. The “bonding” is even more clearly characterized at the entrance of the voice. This large-scale da capo aria is so congenial in its A section that it keeps its interest not through contrast but intricacy of the motivic relationships. The B section becomes surprisingly intense mainly by the extraordinary ways that Bach keeps tightening the harmonic screws.

After the expansiveness of the tenor aria, the brevity of the bass aria is surprising. It is, however, a marvel. The right, then left motion in the text is simply yet effectively characterized by the oboe choir alternation with the strings. The middle section, which digs even deeper, retains the oboe – string choir alternation in the most subtle way. The B section advances so far in its penetration of the text that a da capo would be regressive. A simple tutti ends the aria. The final harmonization of the chorale is so simple and sturdy that it disguises its extraordinary artfulness, particularly the active and resourceful bass line.

© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a recording by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Trying to Beat the Rain

I was supposed to be at the Chambersburg Hospital today undergoing a stent procedure. Unfortunately I ended up being bumped to Friday due to a clerical error; apparently somebody in the scheduling department read 16 as 18. So I have two days extra before I lay flat on my back on a gurney while they shove a catheter up my femoral artery again. Not being one to waste extra time, I decided to get some errands done today and tomorrow, and ended up walking through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park on my way to the grocery store to get the fixings for a nice big pot of chicken soup so I'll have suppers waiting for me when I get home from the hospital.

I had to get something of a hurry on, though, because there was some serious rain coming, so this was less a casual photo shoot and more of a brisk walk with a purpose. Although of course the camera was with me, and I got some shots that caught my eye. And one shot I missed; there was an adult Bald Eagle hanging out by the Hatch House, but by the time I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and saw that white head and black wings it was disappearing into the trees. Oh well... In any case, here are the shots I did get.

One of the resident feral cats hanging out by the bog pool in the wetland
A view of the wetland
The farther hills disappear into the mist in a view from the meadow
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Other Way Around

Yesterday I needed to pick up some lunch things from the grocery store, but rather than take my usual route through the Dykeman Spring Nature Park first I went the opposite way - grocery store first, then through the park starting up on the meadow and then down to the wetland. I didn't get my usual amount of photos because nothing much has changed since my last walk in the park, but I did get a few I was pleased with. Come take a look.

The view north from the top of the meadow
Intersecting levels up on the meadow
Reflections on the north duck pond
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sunday Bach - Trinity 17

Bach wrote three cantatas for the 17th Sunday after Trinity, and this week we'll be listening to the middle one, BWV 148, Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens (Bring to the Lord the honor due his name, Leipzig 1725). I chose this one of the three because it's joyously uplifting, which is how I feel this morning because it's the perfect crisp Fall day and for me that's bliss! Of historical interest, this is the first time Bach used Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander, as his librettist; thereafter he was Bach's principal librettist. In Weimar he'd used the poet Salomo Franck, and both Franck and Picander were responsible for the texts of some of Bach's greatest work. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this joyous work:
BWV 148, Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, was composed for the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity. The readings for that Sunday in Bach’s 18th century Lutheran lectionary included the beautiful exhortation of Paul to the Ephesians 4: 1-6 for generosity and selflessness combined with the parable from Luke 14:1-11 of the man invited to the rich man’s dinner. Both readings emphasize humility and modesty. The resultant text is unusually sunny, without any of the dark shadows that permeate most of Bach’s cantata texts.

The communal nature of many Psalms of praise often inspire Bach to compose large-scale fugues; the opening movement of this cantata is an excellent example of Bach’s choral fugue style.  Bach sets a quote from Psalm 29; the appointed psalm of the day our Revised Common Lectionary, as a brilliant and densely fugal work for trumpet, oboe, and strings. The opening statement in the orchestra is basically a canon between trumpet and 1st violin; this is followed by a homophonic presentation of the same material in the chorus, followed by an initial presentation of the first fugal phrase with countersubjects already sounding. Not until the second large phrase, beginning “Betet an den Herrn,” does Bach let the texture thin out to present each fugal voice sequentially against a thematically related continuo line. With each presentation of the fugue Bach adds a fifth voice in the instruments, but this fifth entrance is not always the final one! The final return of the choir once reprises the ‘head’ theme, taken up four bars later by the trumpet. From this point to the end the trumpet repeats exactly its original ritornello but now it rings out above choir and orchestra alike.  The vibrant, dense energy of this movement is reminiscent of the celebratory movements in the B-minor Mass and the later secular cantatas. Clearly Bach wants to give the effect of an enormous crowd singing these ringing words. 

The tenor aria is a virtuoso affair both for the solo violin as well as for the high-flying tenor part. Taking off from the key word ‘eilet’, Bach composes a slippery, flowing line in 6/8 meter, with perpetual motion in the virtuoso violin obbligato and urgency provided by the figuration in the continuo. The range of the tenor solo is unusually high, touching a written B natural at one spot. The elegant trill figure becomes justified later in the text where the beautiful sound calling the devout to worship is referenced.

The full strings accompany the alto recitative, which continues the Old Testament theme with a striking reference to Psalm 42. Despite the profound sentiments in this movement, it not only begins and ends in the same key, G, but also introduces an aria that is also in G. This harmonic stability is in itself unusual for Bach. This sense of groundedness is enhanced by the choir of reeds that accompanies the aria, in which the main theme elegantly and symmetrically rises and descends to depict the receptiveness of the soul to God’s presence. The balance continues in the B section, where pedal tones express the peacefulness of the “Ruhebette” (bed of rest). The penultimate movement, a secco recitative for tenor, is an unsophisticated and simple declaration of trust. 

No text survives for the final chorale movement, although the melody is generally associated with the chorale “Auf meinen lieben Gott.” The message is that of an hourly ‘Amen’ offered honestly with a prayer for Christ to lead us at all times. Our cantata, which began with such extrovert communal rejoicing, concludes with a sincere and genuine, private and personal prayer. This cantata is a wonderful example of Bach’s ability to take ideas that don’t seem to have much contrast and build a convincing and moving structure of faith. 

© Craig Smith and Pamela Dellal, and Ryan Turner 
 Today's performance is from a recording by the Bach Choir and Orchestra of Munich under the direction of Karl Richter. Enjoy!

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Today is the birthday of Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams, 1872 - 1958, a British composer best known as the central figure in what is informally known as the Pastoral Movement in British music, which also included such composers as George Butterworth and Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams often hiked through the English countryside gathering folk songs of the region, usually accompanied by Butterworth, which he then adapted and used in his symphonic works. He's one of my all-time favorite composers, and I figured I'd celebrate by going for a walk through some nearby farm country to take photos in the spirit of his music, and then post one of his compositions, in this case the Romance movement of his Serenade in A minor. So lets take a serene walk in the country with Mr. Vaughan Williams and celebrate his birthday!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Friday, October 11, 2019

Another Meditative Walk

Another meditative walk in the park today as I wait for the next step in my cardiac care. It's starting to look a little more Autumnal in the woods and the wetland - the colors are slowly changing, and the Fall flowers are in full bloom. Here are some things that caught my eye today.

Looking across the wetland
A young Muskrat swimming in the north duck pond
A flotilla of Mallards on the pond
The Calico Asters are taking over the park
Autumn leaves floating on the pond
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Hidden Away

The Dykeman Walking Trail leads from the ball fields at the end of Earl St. to the Dykeman Spring Nature Park along Gum Run for a while before taking a 90º turn left and running under the railroad tracks to the main wetland section of the park. But the trail also goes straight at that turn and leads out to South Fayette St., and if you cross the road there's a continuation of the path, running alongside Gum Run for about an eighth of a mile until the creek emerges from under the railroad tracks as it comes down from South Mountain and Mainsville. There's a little pond that feeds into the creek at that point, way back in the woods, apparently a dammed up side stream. I found this several years ago while trying to find a shortcut to the Proctor & Gamble packaging facility when I worked there briefly. It's a quiet, calm little retreat that I visit from time to time, and I thought I'd go back there this morning, it being a flat, easy walk that wouldn't stress my rickety heart while I await its repair. I was going to go sit by the north duck pond in the park on my way back, but it started raining and I decided to head straight home. In any case, here's my hidden retreat.

The spillway from the pond into Gum Run
A section of the rocky, overgrown shore of the little pond
Looking down Gum Run toward the park from the spillway
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday Bach - Trinity 16

Bach wrote four cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, and today we'll be listening to BWV 8, Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when will I die?, Leipzig 1724). The Gospel reading for this occasion is Luke 7:11-17, the story of the raising from the dead of the son of the widow of Nain. For a cantata based on the subject of death, this one probably sounds inappropriately cheerful; but in 18th century Europe death was often seen as a welcome rest after a hard life, and this cantata reflects that joyousness. Here's musicologist Simon Crouch's commentary on this cantata:
A word from Philipp Spitta about the opening movement of this chorale cantata: "..the sound of tolling bells, the fragrance of blossoms pervades it - the sentiment of a churchyard in springtime". The continuo tolls the bell low in the harmony, the upper strings repeat a pizzicato bell-like figure and the flute alternates between arpeggios and repeated staccato high notes. All the while the oboes d'amore intertwine their sinuously attractive melody with the choir's chorale. This is a very lovely movement!

The theme is a common one in the cantatas: When shall we take leave of the sufferings of mortal life and achieve eternal life in Heaven? The bells continue tolling in the tenor aria and the (solo) oboe d'amore has another beautiful line. After a recitative, Heaven is achieved in the tour-de-force that is the bass aria. It is really difficult to avoid the feeling that here we have a movement, a gigue, from a lost flute concerto. It is a wonderful, optimistic, virtuoso piece and if you have any love for the flute as a solo instrument, do try to hear this. The cantata closes, after a recitative, with a lovely chorale setting with orchestral accompaniment. Especially effective is the low bass note that precedes the voices. The chorale melody itself, by Daniel Vetter, is especially attractive.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.
Today's performance is from a recording by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!

Photo © 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Around Town

I walked around town this morning, ostensibly to pick up a loaf of bread, but also just to get some exercise, breathe some fresh air, and see what wanted its picture taken. Here are the results.

God's Acre cemetery on North Prince St.
There are berries on the big Holly next to Widow Piper's Tavern. There weren't any last year.
A little seasonal decoration on a South Queen St. lawn
Some friends of mine on South Queen St. have a little picket fence garden in front of their house
This house decorates for Halloween every year with a tableau of skeletons. This year they chose a clown theme.
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Friday, October 04, 2019

Walking On the Path

Ritualized, patterned walking is probably as old as the human race; walking a prescribed path, sometimes with pauses for specific sites or actions, until one reaches the intended goal - a sacred site, a spring, a grove of trees, the center of the labyrinth. They can be large, as in the world's celebrated pilgrimages - the walk to Canterbury, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the Via Santiago across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. They can also be smaller, such as the stations of the Cross in a Catholic cathedral, or a labyrinth. In fact, those beautiful labyrinths in the cathedrals of Europe are said to be mini substitutes for the grand pilgrimages. Whether large or small, they are a way to focus the thoughts, to slow the pace, to enable meditation. At the end of these walks one always feels the command from God to Moses on Mount Sinai: "Take off your shoes, you stand on holy ground!"

I've been practicing patterned walking for years now. In Newport it was my habit to walk the trails in Ballard Park, stopping at various overlooks, grand old trees, and boulders, and ending up at the Aspen grove on the floor of the quarry. Here in Shippensburg that walk has been replaced with my walks in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park, walking the trails through the woods and the wetland, and ending up on my favorite bench under the Kentucky Coffee Tree by the north duck pond, where I watch the ducks and contemplate the reflection of the trees and the sky on the surface of the water.

I walked that labyrinth today, a gentle walk ending at the bench and then walking back out the way I came in. Come along with me!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger