Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cy Avery, "Father of Route 66"

Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.

Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66," also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.

Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.

He was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.

In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.

The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.

Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.

Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"The Doors Unhinged"

A few weeks ago, drummer John Densmore visited Euclid Records in Webster Groves, MO, to autograph copies of his 2013 book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial. I couldn't stand to wait in a line of well over a hundred people, a line (down the street and around a corner) which didn't move an inch during the fifteen or so minutes that I was at the shop. I did purchase a copy of the book and got a glimpse of Densmore's gray hair in the back of the store, where he sat and greeted fans. What a thrill even to be that close!

This book is about Densmore's suit against his fellow Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, filed in 2003. Manzarek and Krieger had begun a band called The Doors of the 21st Century, and Densmore sued for breach of contract and trademark infringement. They countersued Densmore for vetoing the use of "Break On Through" for a Cadillac advertisement. Morrison's family joined the suit on Densmore's side. His concern was that Jim Morrison had insisted on a unity of all four band members, including songwriting credits and the use of the band's music. Famously, Morrison (the door "hinge" of the title) became furious when the band considered allowing Buick to use "Light My Fire" in an ad.

The book contains accounts of the grueling proceedings, as well as Densmore's memories of the group and of Morrison. It is a sad story, clearly written both as a healing process for Densmore and (especially the last chapter) as a healing offer to his former bandmates. (Sadly, Manzarek died a few weeks after this book's publication.) Densmore is as fearful of failure and financial devastation as anyone would be in a high-stakes lawsuit. But you do get the sense that he was standing up for what he considered Morrison's wishes for the band, and he expresses sorrow about what he calls "the greed gene." An image by Shepard Fairey provides a striking cover.

SPOILER ALERT:
Densmore prevailed in his suit, the countersuit was dismissed, and a later judge upheld the original ruling.   

Friday, October 17, 2014

God Alone Shall Have My Heart: Bach's Cantatas for the 18th Sunday after Trinity

I’ve been feeling blue about “human nature” lately: people’s rudeness, thoughtlessness, sometimes outright meanness. I'm too sensitive about such things. A minor example among several: navigating a narrow street with cars parked along the curb, I had to stop and back up because the UPS truck was coming toward me fast, with no indication that he was going to slow down. You know how it is to feel "pecked to death by ducks" sometimes.

But I felt a strange peace when I read conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s notes for this week’s cantatas: the haughty and thoughtless treatment he and his musicians were accorded when they visited Bach’s own church, Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It wasn’t that I wanted Gardiner and his outstanding musicians to be treated poorly. But sometimes it jolts you into amused acceptance of human nature when you’re reminded that people are the same everywhere. (In other notes of this set, Gardiner describes the poor treatment to which Bach himself was sometimes subjected.) You might as well “roll with it” than be unhappy. Fortunately, Gardiner writes that the audience was visibly moved and grateful at the conclusion of the concert.

Two cantatas for this, the 18th Sunday after Trinity, are “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn” (BWV 96, “Lord Christ, the only Son of God”), and “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” (BWV 169, “God alone shall have my heart”). The CD photo is of a young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Gardiner comments that the first cantata, which makes beautiful use of the recorder, is based on the Matthew 22 text concerning the epithet “Son of David,” but Bach and the text also make a connection to Epiphany by praising Christ as the “morning star,” the guiding light for the Magi. As we’ve seen so often in these cantatas, the believer is depicted as one who longs for Christ but is weighed down by cares, griefs, and imperfection. But the love and acceptance of God for the struggling sinner keeps the believer hopeful and strong. The message of the second cantata is similar, with the reminder (which pertains to us who become discouraged at human nature) that love of neighbor is as key as love of God. I love the cheerful, opening sinfonia, and tried to remember where I'd heard it before. The music is also part of Bach's Harpsichord Concerto II in E major, BWV 1053.

In 2000, when nearly all these cantatas were performed and recorded, there were 23 Sundays after Trinity, out of a possible 27 (depending on how early Easter falls in a particular year). So included with the two cantatas for the 18th Sunday is a choral cantata for the 25th Sunday, “Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 116, “Thou Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ”). Interestingly, the text depicts Christ as helping us not only with the threats of Satan but the fearfulness of God the Judge. The Prince of Peace saves us because of his great love.

The final selection on this disc is BWV 668, the chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (“I herewith step before the Throne”). This is legendarily considered to be Bach’s last piece and it was performed here (as Gardiner tells us in the notes) with the musicians gathered around Bach’s resting place at the church. A beautiful, a cappella piece!

I herewith step before Thy throne,
O God, and humbly beg Thee:

turn not Thy gracious countenance
from me, an anaemic sinner.

Grant me a blessèd end,

and wake me, Lord,
at the Day of Judgement,
that I might behold Thee forever more.

Amen, Amen, hear my prayer.

Only five more Sundays (and one commemorative day) remain in the liturgical year. As I've said in these posts several times, I started last December with CD 52, which are cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the liturgical year. Thus, I listened to the last five CDs of this 56-CD set first then went back to CD 1 (Christmas Day). Today I looked ahead, and I'm pleased that the last cantata that I'll listen to on this "journey" (the last one on CD 51) is an old favorite for many of us: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," BWV 140.

I think nostalgically to my first acquaintance with Bach's cantatas: a 6-LP set (which I still have) conducted by Carl Richter, which I purchased from a used LP place during my student days. I also think of a 16-LP set of Bach's complete organ works, which were cheaply-purchased in the 1970s from a mail-order house. Struggling away in Leipzig at his special calling, Bach couldn't know the reach and influence of his music, across the centuries.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Give Glory unto the Lord: Bach's Cantatas for the 17th Sunday after Trinity

The liturgical year nears its end as autumn moves toward colder months.
This Sunday is the 17th after Trinity. Bach’s cantatas for the day are “Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens” (BWV 148, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His Name”), “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost” (BWV 114, “Ah, dear Christians, be comforted”), “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden” (BWV 47, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be humbled”), and also the motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (BWV 226, “The Spirit helpeth our infirmities”). The CD photo is from Kandze, Tibet. After this weekend, there are only six more Sundays in the post-Pentecost season.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that the gospel text for 148 is the story of Jesus' Sabbath healing and the subsequent controversy. The text and Bach’s music focuses on the sanctity of Sabbath worship and the goodness of a day of rest. There was (and is) little rest for church musicians and preachers on Sunday. Bach's Sundays were hectic. So the cantata looks to the Lord for help from our struggles, and notably calls us to enjoy a Sabbath repose in God’s goodness.

Continuing the theme of God’s help, number 114 also returns to a theme that has been so common among the cantatas of this season: God’s consolation for the downcast soul, anxious about the prospect of death, lost and discouraged in life’s bitterness. But just as the seed must die for the wheat to grow, so we must return to the earth and be transformed. God is strong enough to address our sorrows and will not fail to save us when death comes for us.

Meanwhile, number 47 returns to another theme from recent cantatas: the awfulness of the human condition and our vast need for grace. How could God take the form of such a vile creature as man? It’s a realization that shame us from our arrogance and jolt us to be humble and grateful for God’s salvation.

Jesus, humble my heart
beneath Thy mighty hand,
that I may not forfeit my salvation like Lucifer.
Let me seek Thy humility
and abominate all pride;
give me a humble heart
that I may be pleasing to Thee!

Not only does God save us, but God also intercedes for us through the Spirit when we can’t pray as we ought. The motet BWV 226 quotes from the Roman 8 text then turns to praise:

O heavenly ardour, sweet comfort,
help us now with joy and confidence
to remain steadfast in thy service,
and not to be deflected by affliction.
O Lord, prepare us by Thy might
and strengthen the feeble flesh
that we may strive valiantly here

to attain to Thee through death and life.
Alleluja, Alleluja!

A couple years ago I took some notes on the interrelated themes of holiness and God's glory. Glory can mean honor/renown, or beauty/magnificence, or heaven/eternity itself. St. Ignatius’s famous motto was Ad maiorum Dei gloriam, “to the greater glory of God,” which I always took this to mean, “to increase God’s renown (through our devotion and service).” But the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner notes that we also share in God’s own life as we serve God.

The wonder is that God's glory---a powerful and potentially lethal force as depicted in some of the biblical narratives---is also the power which guides, consoles, and rescues us. God is our place of Sabbath repose. In these days approaching Advent, imagine yourself as safe within the "place" of God. These weeks of post-Pentecost cantatas have been heavy on penitence and introspection, but the flip side is the tender, assuring care of God.


(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Duality of the Accordion

My wife Beth tells the story that, when she was young, her family couldn't afford a piano, so in order to give her music lessons they bought her an accordion. She was so small the accordion had to be set on her lap when she performed at recitals. Although she no longer plays, her accordion is kept safe in our house in its case.

Ksenija Sidorova
from classicfm.com
I subscribe to the quarterly magazine "LISTEN: Life with Classical Music", published by arkivmusic.com. This last issue (Summer 2014) has an article by Amanda MacBlaine about the growing visibility of the accordion in the classical world, with musicians like the Lithuanian artist Martynas Levickis, the French player Richard Galliano, the Latvian Ksenija Sidorova, the Americans Richard Schimmel and Peter Soave, and the Danish duo Bjarke Mogensen and Rasmus Kjøller recording CDs and performing popular concerts.

MacBlaine quotes Schimmel that the accordion has an "ironic duality." "It was always both hip and square.. elegant and vulgar." "There is no music that can't be played on it. You can go from Bach to Bizet to Blondie" (page 18). I'll keep this issue on hand and, among other presents, I'll order one of the featured CDs for Beth for Christmas.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Ruler over Death and Life: Bach's Cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity

Bach’s cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity are: “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” (BWV 161, “Come, O sweet hour of death”), “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” (BWV 27, “Who knows how near is my end?”), “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” (BWV 8, “Dearest God, when shall I die?”), and “Christus, der ist mein Leben” (BWV 95, “Christ is my life”). The cover photo is from Ladakh, India.

I’ve felt sad this week because of the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I’ve been aware of friends on social media who are also struggling with the loss of parents (in some cases several years ago, but the hurt is still keen). One of my friends is dealing with the loss of her adult son.

So I looked at the titles to these cantatas, prior to listening to them, and I thought, “It’s depressing music this week." Some of Bach's post-Pentecost cantatas have been somber, but I anticipate returning to this week's cantatas again, as I'll return to those for Michaelmas earlier this week. These pieces are  meditative and pastoral without necessarily being downbeat. In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, “All four – BWV 161, 27, 8 and 95 – articulate the Lutheran yearning for death, and all but one feature the tolling of ‘Leichenglocken’, funerary bells. Yet for all their unity of theme, there is immense diversity of texture, structure and mood, and together they make a satisfying and deeply moving quartet – music that is both healing and uplifting.”

He writes that the use of triple time dominate in BWV 161, seeming to indicate the passage of time but also offers consolation. As we’ve seen and heard in other cantatas, the misery of the world causes the believer to welcome the redemption of Christ when physical death does come.

My desire

is to embrace the Saviour
and soon to be with Christ.
Though death crushes me

as mortal earth and ashes,

the pure gleam of my soul

will shine like the angels’ glory.

The cantata ends with the tune familiar from the hymn, "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," also prominent in Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

In BWV 27, Bach uses “the slow pendulum strokes in the bass of the orchestra” to suggest time’s passage, “against this the downward falling figure in the upper strings and a poignant broken theme in the oboes provide the backcloth for the haunting chorale melody, interlaced with contemplative recitative.” Gardiner notes that Bach’s daughter Christiane Sophia (1723-1726) died shortly before the composition of this piece.

World, farewell! I am weary of you,
I wish to enter heaven,

where there is true peace

and eternal, stately rest.
World, you know but war and strife,
naught but merest vanity;

in Heaven there always reigns
peace, happiness and bliss.

While BWV 27 is deeply moving, the mood is a little brighter in BWV 8. We have the suggestion of funeral bells, but also a bass aria that affirms “Jesus’ summons to a better life” (as Gardiner puts it), and also a 12/8 gigue that Gardiner calls “unabashed dance music... with some of the swagger and ebullience of the finale from the sixth Brandenburg concerto.”

Ruler over death and life,

let at the last my end be good,
teach me to give up the ghost
with courage firm and sure.
Help me earn an honest grave
next to godly Christian folk,
and finally covered by earth
never more be confounded!

BWV 95 uses cornetto and oboes to introduce Luther’s version of the Nunc Dimittis. The hour of death will come eventually; and the sooner the better, for we will be with Christ. In the second to last number, the words "schlage doch bald" ("strike then soon") repeat several times, expressing a longing to join the Lord in Heaven. ("Ach, schlage doch bald, sel’ge Stunde, den allerletzten Glockenschlag!" "Ah, strike then soon, blessèd hour, your last and final stroke!"). The cantata bids the believer to trust Christ that our destination--the next life---will be one of peace and joy after life’s struggles.

Christ is my life,

to die is my reward…
And if today I were told:
You must! I would be willing and prepared

to return my wretched body,

my wasted limbs,

mortality’s cloak,

into earth’s bosom.

I become weary of dealing with certain kinds of challenges, but I can't say I ever get weary of living. The longing for Christ expressed in these cantatas is quite understandable but (for me) it's something I feel most keenly when life is weighed down with trouble or sickness. A spiritual challenge, perhaps undertaken during the upcoming Advent season, is to let that longing "sink in," emotionally and spiritually, during times of happiness, so that we're happy in both the blessings of this life and the blessings of the life to come. Then, if life enters one of those awful periods of distress, we can address the situation while also having a strong faith in Christ.

To affirm "Christ is my life" isn't just to affirm that Christ means a great deal to me. We participate in the reality of Christ's death and resurrection---a realm of reality, so to speak, which is forceful and real for us today, even though the historical events happened long ago----so that now, our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God.  Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ” (Col. 3:3).

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

O Prince of the Cherubim: Bach's Cantatas for Michaelmas

from pinterest.com
Michaelmas, or (as titled here) the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, is a Western festival on September 29, near the fall equinox. (In the Eastern church, the archangels are honored on November 8.) Michael was the Archangel who defeated Lucifer and is one of the greatest angelic protectors. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that Michael figures in both testaments, the Apocrypha, and the Qur’an as well. In Christian tradition he is “venerated both as the guardian angel of Christ’s earthly kingdom and as patron saint of knights in medieval lore, and, significantly, as the being responsible for ensuring a safe passage into heaven for souls due to be presented before God.”

In the CD notes, Gardiner points out that Bach took seriously the Book of Revelation, the concept of angelic armies, and “a cosmos charged with an invisible presence made of pure spirit, just beyond the reach of our normal faculties. ...The concept of a heavenly choir of angels was implanted in Bach as a schoolboy in Eisenach, when even the hymn books and psalters of the day gave graphic emblematic portrayal of this idea; the role of angels, he was instructed, was to praise God in song and dance, to act as messengers to human beings, to come to their aid, and to fight on God’s side in the cosmic battle against evil.”

Not surprisingly, then, we have four pieces for this day: “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50, “Now is come strength and salvation”), “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” (BWV 130, “Lord God, we all praise Thee”), “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19, “There arose a war”), and “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg” (BWV 149, “The voice of rejoicing and salvation”).

BWV 50 is just over three minutes but is nevertheless (in Gardiner's words) “breath-taking” and majestic. Not specifically for Michaelmas, the piece dovetails with the cantatas because the text is based on a portion of Revelation 12, where we read the defeat of the dragon by Michael and the angels.

Now is come salvation and strength,
and the kingdom of our God,
and the power of His Christ:
for the accuser of our brethren is cast down,
which accused them before our God day and night.

BWV 130 depicts the archangels in procession and in battle. The battle against the forces that vex us is not only in the past, but is ongoing. Gardiner writes, “Though there is brilliance aplenty in the steely glint of Michael’s sword (fifty-eight consecutive semiquavers for the principal trumpet to negotiate – twice!), this is not an episode in a Blitzkrieg. Bach is more concerned to evoke two superpowers squaring up to one another, the one vigilant and poised to protect the ‘kleine Häuflein’ against assault (cue the tremulant throbbing of all three trumpets in linked quavers), the other wily and deceitful (one wonders whether the kettledrums and continuo are perhaps intended to be on the dragon’s side?).”

The ancient dragon burns with envy
and constantly devises new pain

to break up that little flock....

Grant, O Prince of the Cherubim,
that this high host of heroes

may evermore
 tend Thy believers;
grant that the angels on Elijah’s chariot
may bear them up to Thee in Heaven.

As in 130, Bach uses trumpets to dramatic effect in BWV 19, along with intense writing for both the orchestra and the singers, to depict angelic protection of the faithful against the fury of Satan (the serpent, the dragon).

Praise God! The dragon is laid low.
The uncreated Michael

and his angelic host

have conquered him.
There he lies in the darkness,
fettered with chains,

and he shall no longer
dwell in heaven’s realm...

Let us love the countenance

of righteous angels,

and with our sins

not banish or even sadden them,

that they may be,
when the Lord commands us
to bid the world farewell,
to our great light,
our chariots to heaven.

BWV 149, meanwhile, is “festive rather than combative,” while using the same orchestral forces.

Ah Lord, let Thy dear angel

bear this soul of mine, when I die,

into Abraham’s lap,

and let my body sleep in its resting-place
most gently, free of torment and pain,
until the Day of Judgement!

And then awaken me from death,

that my eyes may behold Thee

in sheer joy, O Son of God,

my Saviour and my throne of grace!

Lord Jesus Christ, hear me, O hear me,

I will praise Thee eternally!

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my mother's death. I admit that angels are less a part of my spirituality than for Bach. As I work and rest, I think of the Holy Spirit as the closeness of God to me. But I love the image of the "safe passage into heaven for souls," as well as the image of Heaven being filled with music and dance. A lovely quotation that I found online suggests that angels reassure us when our loved ones die, that they are safe now. I like that a lot. Perhaps I need to be more open to the idea of God's presence expressed via divine advocates who, importantly, are also beautiful singers.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)