A few minutes ago, I was swimming in the sea and the head of another person who was, like me, swimming on his back, collided with my own head. We both laughed, and he apologized profusely in perfect English. He then immediately asked me where I was from, and I said that I live here. I thought it only polite to ask him where he was from, and he said that he was a Cuban living in Moscow. He said he was a doctor and he lived there partly because the education for women was so good (supposedly pointing as he said it to two people whom he identified as his wife and daughter but whom I couldn’t see without lenses). I mumbled something about how we always hear about the excellence of Cuban medicine. “Oh, I wasn’t trained in Cuba but in the States.” He then said that he no longer practices medicine because he is so busy with business affairs. I said, laughing, “And because you’re so busy going around bumping heads with people,” and headed for dry land, all smiles.

I thought of a line of Fanny Brice’s mother in Funny Girl: “Strangers should be strange.” I don’t entirely agree with that, but there’s something to it. I couldn’t help feeling that this guy was up to something. Then, as I walked home, it occurred to me that I might be influenced by current news about Russians being up to something and Americans who get caught up with them. I like to think that I’m as free of nationalistic prejudices as a person can be, but this brief episode made me wonder.

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 00.06.28

Why does nearly everyone still talk as though this represents a “failure” of Trump & Co.? His senior advisor, Stephen Bannon has said, as clearly as language can say it, that the object is to destroy absolutely everything and to rebuild it from its ashes as Lenin did. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” What is more representative of the establishment of international democracy than the alliance between the United States and Great Britain—destruction of which could only be confirmed by destroying the relationship with the European continent’s leading democracy, Germany?

At every stage, people have refused to believe the plain words of the Trump circle about their evil intentions and assumed that they are failing because they continue to do what they said they’d do. The distinguished British diplomat says that Trump’s actions are “gratuitously damaging.” What part of the promise to “bring everything crashing down” does he not understand? We must not continue to console outselves that Trump is just a floundering failure.

The full article from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/19/white-house-trump-wiretap-uk-ambassador-peter-westmacott?CMP=share_btn_fb

1000

In 1749,  in the great Catalan cathedral city of Girona forty-three miles from the French border, Baldiri Reixac i Carbó (1703–1781) published an influential book that has gone into twenty editions. It was a visionary guide to the education of children and youths that displayed the influence of the Enlightenment, a French-led movement that largely bypassed the normal educational process in Spanish-ruled territories. Among many other things, the text deals with the right motives and means for studying languages. Reixac stressed that, at home and at school (where he urged instruction by “persuasion rather than fear”), pupils should be learning five languages. He gave a different reason for each:

  1. Their own language, because Catalan brings “a great ability to learn and understand other languages”—this despite the outlawing of official use of Catalan by the Bourbon monarchy’s decrees earlier in the century.
  2. Latin, because “it is used at all the universities and academies.”
  3. “Within the Kingdom of Spain,” Castilian is effective equipment for a salesman there.
  4. French,”because it is obvious that France now rules all the sciences and arts to perfection”—which showed his adherence to the ideas then being formlated for the Encyclopedie.
  5. And, finally, Italian, in order to “go to Rome” and “to recreate the spirit, when you are tired of other occupations.”

Thus a man of international vision and broad culture saw each language as bestowing its own characteristic gifts and having its own distinctive uses. And nowadays people who are doggedly monolingual are often deemed “educated” and commonly rule the fate of nations.

Good Vibrations

October 30, 2015

1000
Sometime in my mid-twenties, Gustave Reese, whose research assistant I then was, asked me if I would like to go to a private concert that evening at the Morgan Library. His wife had probably begged off at the last moment. The event is well-remembered by me for three reasons. As I left for home at the end of our work day, Professor Reese casually said, “Of course it’s black-tie.” I’m sure that I pretended indifference, but I as surely racked my brain to remember how clean or pressed my tux shirt was and remembered that I had recently lost my nice mother-of-pearl studs and cuff links in one of youth’s follies. I somehow managed, I think, to get it all together in time not to look as poor-graduate-student as I felt—or of course actually was.

The second memory took place in the elevator up to the concert hall. I heard Professor Reese say, “Miss Tully, do you know Mr. Evans?” and found myself face face-to-face with America’s leading patroness of chamber music. I thought of, but of course did not refer to, the many stories that I’d heard about her from Albert Fuller, who was later to be her biographer.

But the third recollection is the reason for this short post. The performers were the Quartetto Italiano, then at the height of their fame but near the end of their career. All I remember of the program is that they played Webern and Haydn. It was in the Haydn quartet that I had an unpleasant experience that I have never forgotten. It had to do with vibrato—not as an effect that should or should not happen in some blanket or doctrinaire way, but as something more complex and which, all during the work, had for me an enormously disorienting effect: namely with all short notes necessarily played without vibrato but all long notes heavily larded with it, a highly unpleasant dialogue emerged between the two kinds of tone production, both of which were arbitrarily decided by mere duration of the notes rather than any considered, rational expressive intention. I have rarely reacted so negatively to a performance, and the matter has interested me ever since.

Of course issues of vibrato emerged regularly in my many years of choral-conducting but never in an unpleasant or controversial way, so far as I can recall. And I have never written about the question except, in a recent book, a brief mention of “. . . the pitch ‘wobble’ that is routinely accepted in opera singers, wherein exact frequency definition is a very low priority. It is sometimes all but left to the harmonies of the orchestra to communicate to us what pitches the singer has in mind.” But, fortunately, someone else has now written on the subject in a way that I would like to have done. The wonderful singer Judith Malafronte here explains it all for you.

This photo has had an honored place on my wall for many years.

This photo has had an honored place on my wall for many years.


A famous musician whom I met only once said to me over lunch, “You have a great gift for admiration.” That proceeded from a discussion that we were having about some important figures that we had both worked with and whom he probably thought as highly of as I did. But I don’t think that I bestow my admiration promiscuously.

There are three men who have been key to whatever education I can lay claim to. One of them died yesterday and, inevitably, he is the one who lives in my daily life even more than the other two, because he was the one who taught me to play music. I know that not every teacher gets through to every pupil (and that is not necessarily the fault of pupil or teacher, but just of a misfit between the one who imparts and the learner). But Paul Jenkins could have been born to teach me. I think I must sometimes have driven him crazy with my earnest questions based on concepts that he had introduced me to. (I’ve always been the type to be partial to systems.) I remember once on a drive, in his signature Mercedes, to a neighboring city for a concert when it became evident even to naîve me that I might be driving the driver a little too hard with my pressing questions about accents in Baroque music. And there were those nights when I’d be working away in a practice room and the door would suddenly be flung open with a demand that I join him and others for a sail. How wonderfully confusing to have the person who is, in some sense, driving you to be practicing late at night, appearing to urge your doing something else entirely! But if he thought that he was going to escape from teaching mode even then, he hadn’t realized the persistence of my questioning mode. I think I must have been a true pest.

But it’s his doing that I never—literally never—play at any length without consciously invoking interpretive or, especially, technical insights that he injected me with. Some of my colleagues may not have needed what he gave me, especially in the technical realm. But he literally taught me how to use my hands. What is more intimate to us instrumentalists than our hands? That’s where he will always reside for me, and with lasting veneration.

I had arrived in his studio as a pretty blank slate. What musical knowledge I had had come from experience with top-flight choral repertory and by basically learning my way around the keyboard via a succession of piano teachers of indifferent quality. He taught me that there was no technical challenge that I couldn’t overcome, because he taught me to turn every technical issue into a musical one. And, as it happens, he was right: a doctrine that I have tested over a long career.

As I have already said on Facebook, I’m not yet ready to face a world that doesn’t have my teacher in it. How little he could have known, even as I sometimes tried to tell him, what he meant to me—and, for that matter, to anybody that I have taught.

olives

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.

Catalonia Addresses the World

September 21, 2013

sagrada

The three hundredth anniversary of the horrible end of the Siege of Barcelona approaches. It brings with it vivid recollection of an almost unbelievably bloody genocide against a people who, suddenly abandoned by the English allies who had encouraged Catalonia to resist the imposition of a monolithic Bourbon government, fought off the combined armies of France and Spain for over a year. The genocide was pointedly cultural as well as corporal, and the inhabitants of Catalonia are keenly conscious of their ancient proto-democratic institutions that were then destroyed and have never been fully restored. Even worse, the rights that they have achieved since the death of the last dictator that Spain imposed on them are every day being whittled away more. A Web site called “El món ho ha de saber” (The world has to know it), has this admirable short summary of the challenge to let the world know Catalonia’s intentions, which are being carefully distorted by powerful interests. I thought it worth translating for the English-reading sector of that greater world:

Catalonia is getting ready to commemorate the tercentenary of a defeat. It was a huge defeat that led to the loss of the nation’s liberties, the extinction of the country’s institutions, and an enormous crackdown on all levels aimed at destroying us as a people.

Three hundred years later, however, this defeat, which has caused so much suffering to so many generations of Catalans, can only be seen as a great victory. This is because, three centuries after the disaster of 1714, not only has Catalonia not lost its national consciousness, but, on the contrary, that consciousness is more alive than ever, since our country is now close to deciding, freely and democratically, our future.

At the very gates of this decisive process, it is essential to let the world know that the desire of Catalans to be masters of our own fate is not just a bolt out of the blue caused by a brutal economic crisis. The greater world must be aware that our nation has a thousand of years of history, and that the desire for the freedom has endured ever since the defeat of that fateful September 11, 1714.

The world must know that the future of Catalonia is not against anything or anyone, and that Catalonia’s liberty will help to make the world a little more free.