Archive for November, 2018

American Christianity I

November 14, 2018

I have just read an article by Amanda Marcotte in Salon, titled “White evangelicals will never dump Trump — but those who leave the churches will”.

It brought me back to the mid-1950s, when I was an undergraduate at Caltech. At the time the campus had a facility for listening to classical music, called the Musicale, copmprising a small room with up-to-date (I don’t think “state-of-the-art” was in use yet) hi-fi equipment for playing LP records in stereo (both innovations at the time). There were very few of us who used the facility — typically for eating our bag lunches — and those few became friends.

One member of our group, with whom I became close, was a graduate student in chemistry, who turned out to be an evangelical Christian, affiliated with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He believed in a personal god and a personal devil — beliefs that did not diminish his dedication to science. (He has, I have discovered, remained faithful to both — in his fashion — having written a book criticizing “intelligent design“.)

When the 1956 presidential election came upon us, he surprised me by saying that he would vote for Stevenson. The reason, he said, was that “to vote for Eisenhower is to vote for Nixon, and Nixon is evil.” This was a decade and a half before Watergate.

In don’t know how my friend’s politics have evolved since our student days (he long ago moved to Canada), but it was only a few years later that the “evil” Nixon got the wholehearted support of Billy Graham. And the political evolution of evangelical Christianity in America has followed a straight line from that to its present-day embrace of Donald Trump.

 

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Enemy of the people

November 12, 2018

Illiterate as he is, Donald Trump almost certainly has no idea that the phrase “enemy of the people” which which he likes to label the media strikes most literate people as ironic, since it evokes Ibsen’s play, in which the title character is actually the hero. (This resembles the common pejorative use of “ugly American” which ignores the fact that the title character of the novel so titled is the good guy.)

But, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so Donald Trump may accidentally hit on the truth. And in at least one respect the American mainstream media really have been inimical to the interests of the people: by creating the media phenomenon of “Donald Trump” (which is all that he is). The disgraced (for other reasons) former head of CBS, Leslie Moonves, said so explicitly, referring to Trump’s presidential candidacy: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

“The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” Moonves went on. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”1

Other media executives may not have been quite so explicit, but they were all complicit.

Good Night

November 12, 2018

Theodore Baker (1851–1934) was a noted American musicologist who, among other things, was the first to write about the music of indigenous Americans, and was for many years the in-house translator for G. Schirmer, Inc.

Baker’s translations are what appears above the German text of the Schubert volume I mentioned in my last post. His style is what passed as “poetic” in the Victorian era: the first lines of Gute Nacht, “Fremd bin ich eingekommen, fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus” — quite ordinary colloquial German — are rendered as “A stranger I came hither, a stranger hence I go”. I can’t imagine anyone nowadays being caught dead singing lines like these.

Around the turn of the millennium I developed another hobby, that of translating songs. By this I mean translating them into modern English, keeping the meaning as close as possible to the original but also keeping its rhythm and rhyme.

My first effort dealt with a set of three Catalan art songs by the 20th-century composer Federico Mompou. Since then, however, I have avoided art songs and focused primarily on popular songs and secondarily on opera numbers. But I’ve always kept Gute Nacht in the back of my mind. But, because I love the song so much, I wanted it to be just right.

Since I’ve resumed singing I have taken another stab at it. Here is my latest attempt. It definitely isn’t final.

Gute Nacht

November 5, 2018

I recently underwent a course of speech therapy, consisting of various vocal exercises, because of some hoarseness that had crept into my speaking voice over the past year. In the course of doing the exercises I realized that I hadn’t done any singing in a long time.

Singing was one of my chief hobbies for many years, beginning in my thirties. In public it meant being in a chorus, at various times the University Chorus at UC Berkeley and the Berkeley Community Chorus. In private I sang classical lieder and opera arias while banging on the piano and Spanish-language songs of various kinds while plucking on the guitar.

But over the last five or ten years this activity somehow petered out of my life, leading to a certain atrophy of my vocal cords (helped along by aging). Hence the hoarseness and the need for speech therapy, prescribed by my ear-nose-throat specialist.

The treatment seems to have been effective, and once I felt vocally strong enough I looked at my music bookshelf and, almost unconsciously, homed in the Schirmer volume of Schubert songs for low voice, which I took out, put on the piano and opened to the page featuring Schubert’s Gute Nacht, the first song in the cycle Die Winterreise (set to poems by Wilhelm Müller).

For most of my life I have felt that this is the most beautiful song ever composed, from the age of ten to the  present.

in the winter of 1945–46 — the first winter after the war — my mother and I spent a few days in the resort town of Bad Harzburg, at the foot of the Harz Mountains in north central Germany (a place where later I lived and went to high school). Bad Harzburg does not have the aristocratic cachet of spas like Baden-Baden with its luxurious Kurhaus, including its famous casino (Kur, meaning ‘cure’, is often prefixed to various institutions in German spa resorts), but it appeals to the bourgeoisie of Northern Germany and is therefore also a middlebrow cultural center. (It is also where, in 1931, the Nazi party conspired with other right-wing groups to put an end to the Weimar Republic.) When I was there, a full-time chamber orchestra (strictly speaking a “salon orchestra” called Kurorchester) played afternoon concerts of light classical music almost daily in the Kurpark, and weekly evening concerts of standard classics in the Kursaal.

On occasion, some touring musicians gave concerts or recitals. During that winter stay, on a cold day, it happened to be the baritone Heinrich Schlusnus, performing Die Winterreise in the unheated Kursaal. At the time I was rather new to classical music,both as a listener and a piano student. The effect of that short piano introduction and then the magnificent intotation of Fremd bin ich eingezogen… was magical. I forgot the cold air around me and felt enveloped in the music. The memory of that sensation has never gone away.