December 1, 2014


A language fact that I learned today: in English, where we usually have so many words for the same thing (which is why our dictionaries are so much thicker than those of any other European language), we use the same word, leg, for that department of a person, animal, table, chair, piano, etc. In Catalan, a person’s leg is a cama (which, confusingly enough around here, is the Spanish word for bed, whereas Catalans call a bed a llit). But an animal or piece of furniture doesn’t have a cama, but a pota. Unless it’s a chicken, in which case it trots around on a cuixa.

But that’s a minor problem for a learner like me (who came upon all this today only because I wanted to know how to refer to a dog’s hind leg, or pota posterior). I am constantly reminded of the barriers that English puts up for non-native speakers. I’m just taking at random a word like joke. Jest, jibe, crack, drollery, funny, gag, jape, josh, pleasantry, wisecrack, witticism. Oh, my. How lucky I am to have absorbed such things in infancy without effort!


The Delphic advice to “know thyself” should have a modern footnote saying that one way of doing that is to see oneself on television. I was on a talk show on Thursday and had the modified rapture of seeing myself as others see me. It’s always a surprise. For example, I had no idea that I ever would start a sentence with “Mind you . . .”

Bach the Show-Off

November 23, 2014


Lest we forget: during his lifetime, J.S. Bach was mostly known as a great organist. Since the solo keyboard performances were normally improvised, we may have only the faintest idea of what his virtuosity was like. That it dazzled, we know. How it dazzled, we can only guess from contemporary descriptions and from the written-down compositions that survive. The Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, for example, are said to have been first improvised and then written down. This hardly seems possible to mere mortals, but then Bach regularly seems to transcend that category, doesn’t he? Most often, naturally, to us he does so via his compositions that manage to be models/marvels of erudition and expressivity at the same time. Relatively few of them give evidence of the crowd-pleasing virtuoso.

So it is that, on a beautiful Sunday morning, I find myself spending some highly enjoyable time with one of the surviving compositions that I imagine give us a glimpse of the composer as dazzling virtuoso, “showing off,” if that’s not too one-dimensional a judgment for a work that also stands up on every level as a profound exercise in compositional structure and originality.

I followed three performances on YouTube, separated only by trips to the kitchen to fill the coffee cup. It has been a rewarding experience, and I recommend something like it.

The first is a fine performance by the venerable French virtuoso Michel Chapuis. He evidences complete understanding of the improvisatory nature of the piece (helped in his perceptions, no doubt, by the fact that he is himself a renowned improviser), though not going as far in that direction as he might:

The second performance I listened to (and viewed, since in this instance we get to see the very soignée performer) is by the young Maria-Magdalena Kaczor, playing a modern French instrument. This is a comparatively self-effacing affair—which in itself is not, I’d contend, a good idea for this work—but the virtuosity still shines through, and I particularly like the transparent registration for the dancing fugue:

The biggest surprise for me, however, came from the sometimes tiresomely, self-consciously iconoclastic Virgil Fox. The late virtuoso, for whom no technical limitations ever seemed to exist, was well-known for sometimes sacrificing the composition in favor of the performer. (I say this as one who, contrary to many, insistently maintains that the performance takes priority always. The pious idea that the performer is only the servant of the composer would have made performer-composers from Bach to Chopin to Saint-Saëns stare in incomprehension.) But, in my view, he achieves in this performance, through somewhat different means, the most important effects that historically informed performances aim at, or at least should aim at. The rthymic vitality, the unambiguous accentuation (always the most tricky thing on an instrument in which every note is exactly the same volume as its neighbor but, by auditory illusion can seem otherwise) are masterly. Even though the plentiful registration changes would probably have been unlikely (and a few impossible) on Bach’s instruments, he was himself renowned for the unconventional effects that he confected. So I surprise myself a little by saying: if you’re going to listen to only one of these three interpretations, I recommend that of the old Fox. I am very far from being one of those people who like to say of certain performers—Wanda Landowska, for frequent example—”He/she may do things wrong, but he/she captures the right spirit.” It happens that I’d be hard put to call anything Virgil Fox does here as “wrong.” The spirit of the piece does take over:

Note: All three of these videos were recommended to me this morning in a post by Kenneth Sybesma on the e-mail list “Pipe Organs and Related Topics” ( His cited them in his enlightening discussion of the performers’ registrational choices in this piece, which is often considered problematic in that regard—a fact that may also be evidence of its provision for somewhat unconventional virtuosic display by its original performer, the great Bach. This led to my own thoughts, in which other aspects predominate.)


I have always had to be very careful about spelling because it never came easily to me. I therefore probably don’t commit as many spelling errors as I would if I were more confident. When I started to learn foreign languages, Latin helped with much of English by making it clearer why we had certain spellings. French wasn’t much of a problem, because, in the places where the words were cognate with English, the differences from English tended to follow a predictable pattern. But one of my biggest problems has always been double consonants and where to use them and where not to. So comes along Spanish, which is one of the two languages dominant in my current environment, where instances of double consonants in English (and Latin and French) are mostly replaced by singles. Take a word like assembly, for example (not an English word that I have trouble with, but an example that comes to mind). It follows the easy pattern in the assemblée of the French but becomes a different-looking animal in the Castilian asamblea. This of course does nothing to make me confident of the double-S in Catalan assemblea, which nevertheless follows nicely from the French but does nothing to help with the Spanish, which also throws in a rogue vowel in asamblea — which now looks funnier to me the more I contemplate it.

Another vexed issue for me is when to use -cion and when -tion in English. The slightest exposure to either Catalan and Castilian makes this malady terminal.

This short orthographical effusion comes about because, a few minutes ago, I tried to type the work pharmacy in an English-language e-mail, but spell-check kept coughing it up. Why? Because I was beginning it with an F — which meant that I wouldn’t even have been able to find it in a dictionary. It took a few seconds for me to remember our old Greek-immigrant friend PH. I had been completely brainwashed by Catalan farmàcia and Castilian farmacia (and don’t get me started on the difference that accent/lack-of-accent makes in those two neighboring tongues); and a couple of years of studying German in college (in which PH is replaced by F) didn’t help there, either.

Also, don’t think, when typing the previous paragraph in this context, that the spelling of the word coughing, with its GH for the F-sound, came to mind with ideal speed!


Every day in Catalonia brings new chills and thrills in linguistic politics. This article, with its headline on the page pictured above, appears in the most liberal paper of the Madrid constellation. It tells us that the President of Catalonia has requested membership for his country in the international francophone conference. (So far as I know this story appeared in Catalan media, by contrast, only to quote El País.) The report goes on to say many things without making the points that actually seem to be in play. President Mas (whose own education was in French at Barcelona’s Lycée Français — a fact that you might think would come up in this article) drives them crazy in Madrid because of his use of languages — and not just his native language, Catalan, the very sound of which evokes from many Spaniards words like “uncultured,” “ill-mannered,” and even to charges of refusing to “speak Christian.” Of course Artur Mas speaks a refined Catalan, but consistently switches to a courtly Castilian in any situation where that could be seen as the discreet thing to do. But what really makes many Spanish nationalists foam at the mouth is that he speaks French like a native, as well as an absolutely correct English. This means that, in international gatherings, the foreign officials naturally talk directly with him in one of the languages in which he’s comfortable, while proudly monolingual Madrid politicians are sealed off with their translators glorying in what they keep calling “the language of the empire.”

This simple application for association with a peripheral international body is really a brilliant move on Mas’s part to take a minor, perfectly legal act of little importance that exposes very relevant cultural differences between Catalonia and Spain — differences that are alternately denied and reviled in the current polemic from the Madrid government.

One wonders if it is a coincidence that this small development comes, and makes a first-page Madrid headline, during the shock waves that must have been set off on delicate seismographs when Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister of France, came to Barcelona last week and spoke publicly in his own first language, Catalan.

Artur Mas, speaking Catalan:

Speaking Spanish:

Speaking French:

Speaking English:


It is an exceedingly rare thing for Google to let me down — or, put another way, for my skill in wielding Google to let me down. But yesterday I typed the words, “vintner and producer of olive oil,” and I have ever since wondered what you call a person who makes that ancient elixir from the olive. Living in Catalonia, where olives are such a fact of life, words derived from the fruit’s name abound, as I’m sure is the case in all other Mediterranean languages. (Joan Plowright’s married name, after all, means “Lady Olive Tree” in French.*)

In Catalan, an olive tree can be masculine (oliver) or feminine (olivera), but the olive itself is always feminine (oliva). A true indication of the penetration of olives in daily life is the fact that there are no fewer than three adjectives for things pertaining to olives: olivinc, olivós, and olivaci. (Spell check is struggling mightily against me in this post.) The drab green color sometimes known as khaki in English is verd d’oliva on army uniforms in Catalan. You don’t need two words to designate an olive grove; either olivar, oliverar will do.

But I still haven’t found a word for the man or woman who turns the olivers into olives (the plural of oliva in Catalan looking identical to the English plural), and then into the treasured oli d’oliva. Thanks to one of my favorite dictionaries, I know how to hold out the olive branch to someone (either ram or branca d’oliver). But I’m convinced that one of you will tell me a one-word occupational name. I have always assumed that the cognom of one of the most important Catalans in history, Abbot Oliba, might be a clue, but as a I think about it now, the instability and interchangeability of Bs and Vs in Iberian languages probably just makes his name mean olive.

So come on, readers: do for me what Google didn’t do this time!

* Typing that made me curious enough to check, and (thanks, Google) Lord Olivier was indeed of French ancestry.

Artistic Patrimony

April 28, 2014

“James A. Flaherty” (1903) by Thomas Eakins

“James A. Flaherty” (1903) by Thomas Eakins

It is a commonplace, almost a reflex, in criticizing institutions like the Vatican, to ask why they don’t sell their artistic treasures and give the money to the poor. That would certainly seem to answer a direct suggestion of the church’s founder to “go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). On the other hand, I once read an economist’s calculation of how many seconds of relief the world’s poor would gain from selling off all the art in the Vatican museums. It wasn’t much. Without devaluing even the smallest respite to such suffering, an enlightened view of human nature might recognize other kinds of hunger apart of the merely nutritional — hunger that art has its own way of satisfying with a nurture beyond the physical. Besides which, an institution like the Vatican Museums (and other great ones) deliver value to great sections of humanity that the sale of the works to a few billionaires would hardly effect.

It may surprise those well-meaning critics that these issues are at least as controversial in the church as they are among the church’s detractors. A recent article on a significant blog, frequented largely by Catholics of a reflective, culturally-aware kind, has taken up a concrete instance in which an American archdiocese found itself in possession of minor works by a historically significant American artist at the same time that they wanted money to renovate some buildings. The works, by a young Thomas Eakins, documented relationships that he formed as a non-Catholic seeking solace in conversations with clerics at the Philadelphia seminary. He gave the portraits of these men as gifts reflecting his gratitude. While these are not works of art recognized as having significance for the whole of humanity, they instance a stage in a significant painter’s journey through grief, consolation, faith, and doubt. The comments to the article (whose contents will surprise many — among whom I include myself — in the extent to which the hierarchical church has thought through the issues occasioned by artistic possessions) show a vast panorama of thoughtful responses to the problem.

Eakins was not just any local painter. His most famous painting is important in the history of the popular understanding of surgery. And one of his paintings,

Eakins’ only religious work, a “Crucifixion” painted in 1880, could not attract a buyer because it was deemed “too graphic.” It was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the Eakins family in 1929.

And, as an illustration of how many considerations may come into such a discussion, a British commenter even enters charges of homoeroticism in Eakins’s art as a consideration.

While, in the reaches of eternity, we may well feel that all the great art in the history of what used to be called Christendom is of less value than the peace of mind of a single abused child; and while we should not over-value what “moth and dust doth corrode and thieves break in and steal,” art is not just a piece of merchandise. It records and contains pieces of the human spirit, which is also a legitimate concern of the church.

To Music

March 19, 2014

Hearing Kaufmann sing about the “Lindenbaum” in that video, I’m carried back to childhood, where I learned an English-language version of the song. So, for better or worse, as he sings “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore/ Da steht ein Lindenbaum,” my mind provides the counterpoint of “Beside the well and doorway/ There stands a linden tree.” That might be considered a little impure as a listening experience, but it brings up for me long personal association with this music and the approximate atmosphere of its text. When the musical climax comes, I’m recalling:

And on its many branches
I carved the name I love.
In sorrow or in sadness,
They call me from above.

At least those are the rather soupy words that I remember (and the German original is hardly restrained). The subject of translations of sung texts into a local language is a hoary, complex, and irresolvable one, but I can’t regret having trudged through the decades with English words bearing the music of “Der Lindenbaum” in my head any more than I regret that, when I hear “An die Musik,” there is a ghostly “Thou lovely art, my joy and consolation” going on in the background. I can’t even remember what school or what music teacher taught us to sing those songs of Schubert, but all my schooling was in public institutions. How many children are receiving such lifelong-lasting gifts now in the schools?

If I had not had such teaching — given, remember, to all my classmates as well — how different might my life have been? I don’t know what these Lieder meant to the rest of them, but they couldn’t have hurt. As for me, I could hardly have known that the climactic words to which I sang “An die Musik” (To Music) were fairly prophetic:

Thou lovely art!
I give my live to thee!


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