Thursday, February 14, 2019

Getting Sentimental

I took part in an interesting conversation on Facebook the other day. A friend was complaining that her significant other was objecting to doing something special for Valentine's Day, saying that the holiday was invented by commercial concerns looking to make money, and my friend was asking everyone else's opinions on the holiday. My own contribution was that considering that the celebration of the saint's day as a holiday dedicated to love was a fairly recent development, one has to wonder, and repeated the widespread opinion that it's a "Hallmark holiday". After considering that for a while and reading others' responses to her query, I decided to take a closer look at all this.

It appears that I was partially right. One of the two Valentines celebrated on February 14 was an early bishop who performed Christian weddings at a time when the powers that be in the Roman Empire objected to such a thing, and he was executed for it, thus making him a "hero for love". But the holiday was never really celebrated as such until medieval times, and then really only among the aristocracy as part of the cult of chivalry. Among the peasantry and the developing middle class it was pretty much ignored. Until the Victorian era in the 19th century. And therein lies a tale.

In 1861 Victoria's consort Prince Albert died, leaving the queen heartbroken. And in 1860 in the US the Civil War broke out, ending up decimating a large part of a whole generation of young men in the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil. The reaction to these events was the rise of a cult of sentimentality on both sides of the Atlantic.

I've written about this before on this blog, in reference to the change in cemeteries that took place at this time. In the US especially, graveyards were crowded, unpleasant places where the dead were basically dumped; they weren't called boneyards for nothing! But after the Civil War cemeteries became park-like, with shade trees and monumental sculpture, and benches for the mourners to rest on. They became restful places for the living to come and spend time with the beloved departed, and families even began having picnics there.

But this sentimentality wasn't restricted to cemeteries. Christmas benefitted from this; Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Clement C. Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" were reflections of this mood as well, creating a sentimental, nostalgic, family-oriented holiday. Christmas wasn't the only holiday; holidays like Valentine's Day and Mothers' Day, holidays built on sentiment, also popped up. And the rise of spiritualism, the belief in communicating with the dead, also started during this time. If the Victorian era had a watchword, it was "sentiment".

I have a theory about why this happened, one that is based on an already widespread theory about the modern celebration of Christmas in cultural history studies. In Great Britain and consequently its colonies in North America, radical Calvinist Protestantism came to dominance, toppling the Catholic royalty and enforcing their own rather dour version of Christianity on the land, even going so far as banning Christmas and Halloween, calling it "papist heresy" and "pagan frivolity". Catholicism and the Church of England, which retained much of the Catholic liturgy and church calendar, were seen as the realm of the royalty and aristocracy, while the dour Calvinism of the Puritans and their heirs was considered the realm of the working classes.

Then in the mid 19th century the middle class became tired of the joyless attitudes of the Calvinist dominance, and the Oxford Movement arose, a "nostalgic" movement to reintroduce more liturgy and celebration to the Church of England. This movement inspired many, including those involved in the Arts and Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, and poets like Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And while the working class remained in their chapels and didn't accept the theology of the Oxford Movement, they did pick up the sentiment of the movement, and thus Christmas and Valentine's Day came back into fashion. And of course Americans, especially those on the East Coat, Anglophiles that we are, picked up on this and exported it to the US in the wake of the Civil War. People were done with trudging through a joyless life; it was time to love and celebrate!

Of course, it's not all as simple as that. There are a lot of other factors involved. But the main thing was that by the 19th century life had become a dull drudgery to a majority of the population, and the natural movement of the pendulum started to swing back to a more joyful, lighter approach to life. Nowadays those celebrations have been taken over by mercantile interests and have made the holidays more commercialized than a lot of people are comfortable with, but the original sentiment still hangs in there. We still need love, and family, and cozy fires, and roses, and chocolate, and we still look for ways to celebrate them. Maybe we'll get so tired of the commercialism that the people will once again take control and celebrate in the "good old-fashioned way"!

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger  

Sunday, February 10, 2019


While on my weekly Sunday walk-in-the-park in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park, my attention was drawn to the texture created by the frost on the grass on the trail. So I decided that today's focus would be the textures in nature seen up close (except for that last shot).

Rock, moss, and lichen
Hommage à Rothko - Winter Reflection
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 5

Bach wrote no cantatas for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, because that particular Sunday almost never happens. This year Easter is just about the latest it can occur, and apparently no such thing happened during Bach's career. Yes, it's that rare! So what to do? Well, the easy answer is to use the other cantata Bach wrote for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Problem solved! BWV 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (Were God not with us at this time, Leipzig 1735) is the latest known Bach liturgical cantata. It's a chorale cantata based on the hymn of the same name by Martin Luther, and it's quite a magnificent piece. Here's Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music on this late Bach work:
Today’s cantata, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14 is Bach’s latest extant work in the cantata genre, dating from January, 1735. The outer movements employ Martin Luther’s texts based on Psalm 124 (a hymn of deliverance and communal thanksgiving) while the inner movements are concerned mainly with heavy-handed metaphors for sin: war and natural disaster from which God’s protection is required. Bach responded to this somewhat exasperating text with a work both learned and quirky. 
The apparent academic severity of the opening chorus belies a dense and fascinating compositional interior. The entrance of each theme (an embellished choral phrase) is followed almost immediately by its inversion - with the eventual appearance of the augmented chorale tune in the oboes and trumpet. This is merely the starting point for an almost exhaustive exploration of contrapuntal possibilities. Extraordinary concentration is required of both listener and performer - as well as an acceptance that much will be missed on first hearing.

The virtuoso soprano aria comes as a startling contrast and clears the air with its delightful orchestration (trumpet fanfares and busy string figuration) and an almost humorous setting of the text. Bach consistently sets the word Schwach [weak] in the lowest (weakest?) part of the soprano’s range. The writing seems a nod to the pre-classical style in its harmonic simplicity and rhythmic playfulness. This seems appropriate given that the battle imagery (so prevalent in the orchestration) suggests an ‘enemy’ blustery and impressive, if somewhat shallow.

With the tenor recitative, we turn to water imagery to describe the snapping jaws of sin. The singer’s line is fantastically disjunct while the bass line roars like a Nor’easter.

The bass aria is a showpiece for the singer, two oboes and a very active bass line. The three note motive heard in the oboes mirrors the first three notes of the chorale tune and (like the opening chorus) is often inverted.  The bass enters with ferocious confidence. Careful listeners will discern the oboe’s material in the second part of the phrase: ‘...sind wir vor den Feinden frei’  [...we are safe from our enemies].  The ubiquitous water imagery is found in the second part of the text, perhaps explaining florid instrumental writing. 
The chorale is remarkable mainly for its interesting suspensions and syncopations in the inner voices.

© Michael Beattie
This week's performance is from a recording by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 4

Bach wrote two cantatas for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and I've chosen his first one - BWV 81, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (Jesus sleeps, what can I hope for?, Leipzig 1724). Based on the episode of Jesus stilling the storm in Matthew 8, this cantata is very thrilling, with lots of excitement and movement. When he was hired for the job in Leipzig Bach was advised by the powers that be that musical drama was frowned upon. Thank goodness he ignored that advice! Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
The familiar story of Jesus stilling the waves is placed in between two of the most mysterious stories in Matthew. First is the peculiar exhortation by Jesus to the man who wants to bury his dead father. Jesus says to him: "Let the dead bury their dead." After our story Jesus and the disciples run into two men infested with devils. They induce a herd of pigs to jump over a cliff and destroy themselves. Some of the oddness of these two tales informs Bach's setting of the stilling of the waves. Instead of opening with the tempest, Bach's first aria for alto invokes a kind of otherworldly calm with gently swaying recorders doubling the muted strings. The cantata then moves on to one of the most ferocious of all of Bach's storm scenes. Here the rolling waves of the strings are punctuated by the hysterical coloratura of the tenor. The austere bass aria scolding the disciples for their lack of faith is followed by the controlled fury of the two oboes d'amore and strings while the bass stills the waves. Only a short perfunctory recitative follows leading into a magical harmonization of the great chorale, "Jesu meine Freude." 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is by the early music ensemble Le Petite Bande under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Surprise Snow!

We got a little snow yesterday, maybe 2 or 3 inches. But for such a little bit of snow it turned out to be surprisingly scenic. It's also very crystalline; it was in the upper teens to low twenties when it fell, so it's very light and fluffy, but it's also very tenaciously clingy. All in all, it's very scenic. I went walking in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park this morning (while the temperature was still very cold) and got some nice shots of this thoroughly enjoyable snow. It was especially enjoyable because apparently I beat everybody else; the only tracks in the snow were my own and the resident wildlife - I saw rabbit and squirrel tracks as well as the track of at least one of the resident feral cats. I love it when I'm the first to disturb the snow! But enjoy it now, because we're supposed to get into the 40s and 50s in the next few days, and all that pretty snow will be gone.

Along the Dykeman Walking Trail
Along the trail in the wetland, following the track of a feral cat
A  view of the creek from the red bridge
A close-up of this sharply crystalline snow
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Dreary Day

Today's Sunday walk in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park was a dreary one. Now that the latest snow has melted everything looks messy and disheveled, and the colors are drab and muted. Still, there were objects of interest, including a shelf fungus and a Great Blue Heron. The Heron flew by me by the north duck pond and set up by the creek at the outflow from the other duck pond across the street, a great fishing spot any other time of the year; I doubt there are many fish moving around in these icy waters!

The Dykeman wetland is looking a tad dreary these days
So is the creek
A shelf fungus on a tree along the nature trail
Great Blue Heron fishing
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 3

Bach wrote four cantatas for the third Sunday after Epiphany. This year I've chosen a beautiful and moving work - BWV 73, Herr, wie du willt, so schick's mit mir (Lord, as you will, so let it be done with me, Leipzig 1724). This cantata addresses the early controversy in the church, whether the message of Jesus is just for the Jews or for Jew and Gentile alike, with the Gospel reading for the day, the story of the faith of the Roman centurion. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music (edited by Ryan Turner) on this interesting and beautiful cantata:
The cantata BWV 73, composed in 1724 in Leipzig, begins as an unsolvable knot, which in the course of the piece unravels to produce music of the greatest peace and comfort. The Gospel reading – Matthew 8:1-13, for which our cantata was conceived, speaks of the faith of the Centurion. The reading emphasizes the lessons that can be learned from the faith of a Gentile. The issue of undying faith becomes the issue that is repeatedly hammered home in this text. 
The work begins with a chorus that is as single-minded and thunderous as the famous opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The oft-repeated motif in both the horn and the chorus actually resembles the “fate” motif in the symphony and functions in exactly the same way. The hard-hitting chorale theme is troped by some of the most emotional and over-the-top recitatives in all of Bach. The chorus ends without musical or emotional resolution. The gently descending oboe line that begins the tenor aria acts like the dove descending and bringing a balm to mankind. It is one of the most striking releases of tension in all of Bach. The middle section of the aria is like a memory of the despair of the opening chorus. The bass recitative and aria go even deeper. The recitative sets up education and submission to God’s will as the only hope of salvation. The aria is, unusually, a set of three quatrains, a form rare in the Bach cantatas. Our opening chorus motif, “Herr wie du willt” has been transformed into something malleable and plastic, one can almost see the soul descending into submission. The magical funeral bells – string  pizzicati- in the third verse are unbearably poignant. A direct and affirming verse of the chorale, “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” ends the cantata.

© Craig Smith, with Ryan Turner
Today's performance is a magnificent one by the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

More Visitors

Papa and Mama Red have returned to the feeder station. Yesterday Papa hopped around on the snow, but today he went right to the source, the Sunflower seeds in the tray feeder. Meanwhile, Mama decided to check out the leftovers below.

© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Another Storm

We had another Winter storm move through last night and this morning. It was a bit more intense than the last two. We got probably four or so inches before it turned to rain, and we woke up this morning to two or three inches of very soggy snow. While I was out walking in the Dykeman Spring Nature Park later in the morning the following cold front started moving through; the wind picked up and the temperature started to plummet, and all that soggy snow started to harden. This is going to be a royal pain until it gets warm enough to melt again. Meanwhile, it's very scenic, as you can see from the following photos.

The storm moving off
A streamlet in the wetland in the snow
The wetland in the snow
The cold front moving in over the mountains
© 2019 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 2

Bach wrote three cantatas for the second Sunday after Epiphany, and all three are a tad gloomy despite being based around the story of Christ's first public miracle, changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana. The point of the message for the day is less the festive occasion and more about Mary's doubt at what her son is planning to do and Jesus' chastising her for her lack of faith. For this year I've chosen the first of Bach's cantatas for this Sunday - BWV 155, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? (My God, how long, oh how long?, Weimar 1716). This is a small, intimate little solo cantata, lasting only 15 minutes and consisting only of the four vocalists, two violins, a viola, a bassoon, and continuo (in this case double bass, cello, and organ). Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music gives some insight on this lovely little cantata:
Today’s Gospel on the miracle of the Wedding at Cana is about transformation - water into wine, doubt into trust. It is the exact reading that Bach’s congregation would have heard just before the first performance of today’s cantata. Bach’s wonderful Weimar librettist Salomo Franck weaves in the general theme of the reading while making full poetic use of the images of water, wine and tears. An arresting recitative opens the cantata - we hear Bach the hypothetical opera composer at work as the soprano (the Soul) expounds her troubles over an anxious throbbing bass line with dissonant interjections from the upper strings. The word ‘Freude’ [joy] is ironically colored by a dazzling upward melisma from the soprano, accompanied by downward string arpeggios - more descriptive of the abundant tears than the absent ‘wine of joy’.  In the second movement, the bassoon takes on the role of the troubled (perhaps weeping) soul in an extraordinary solo obbligato, with the alto and tenor - standing off to the side of the drama - offering encouraging words in parallel thirds and sixths. The extended bass recitative provides words of solace to the Soul from the voice of Christ - the wine of comfort and joy nicely mirrored in the continuo line. The lively triplets prevalent in the soprano aria suggest the energetic shrugging off of care and worry as the Soul casts herself into the arms of God. A verse from the chorale ‘Es is das Heil’ concludes the cantata, providing further thematic clarification.

© Michael Beattie
Today's performance is another gem from the J.S. Bach Foundation of Trogen, Switzerland, under the direction of Rudolf Lutz. Enjoy!

Photo © 2018 by A. Roy Hilbinger