Friday, October 24, 2014

Whither Shall I Flee: Bach's Cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The 19th Sunday after Trinity is coming up! Next is Bach’s Reformation Day cantatas, and then the 20th through 23rd Sundays of Trinity in November. Advent is fast approaching. My family brought home some Christmas cards from the Papyrus store yesterday; soon I'll be starting on that late-November job. The CD for this Sunday features a girl from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the themes of this time (the last few weeks of the post-Trinity season) include “the thorny and intractable issues of belief and doubt, “the rejection of the world by the faithful and the prospect of eventual union with God – or the horror of exclusion.” But “Bach both softens and humanises the severity of the words while in no way diminishing their impact: he has an unfailing knack of being able to vivify the doctrinal message and, when appropriate, of delivering it with a hard dramatic kick, yet balancing this with music of an emollient tenderness.”

Right on cue, the title of BWV 48 is “Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom” (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me [from the body of this death]”, which is from Romans 7:24). The first part of the cantata depicts the healing miracle of Matthew 9:1-8, with all the misery both of illness and of sin-sickness. But the second part, as we’ve seen so often before in Bach’s works, turns to the praise of Christ, who (in answer to the misery of Romans 7:24) alone can save and heal us. Similarly, the second cantata focuses upon the healing of Christ for the misery of infirmity and sin. But here, the theme is the blood of Christ. This cantata is called “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” (BWV 5, “Whither shall I flee”). Gardiner writes that the viola obbligato reminds us of “the gushing, curative effect of the divine spring” of blood.” His likening of the power of Christ’s blood to agricultural preparations for crops makes me remember something I read quite a while ago: that Gardiner maintains a farm in addition to all his musical work.

The third cantata is “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (BWV 56, “Gladly shall I bear the cross”). The piece is for orchestra, chorus, and solo bass. As Jesus occasionally crossed the sea of Galilee, all of human life is like a voyage across seas. The music carries us through waves and calm to affirm God’s ultimate salvation once we reach journey’s end.

Like last week, the cantatas for this Sunday are joined with cantatas for post-Trinity Sundays that could not fit on the 2000 liturgical calendar. A cantat for the 25th Sunday after Trinity is called “Es Reisset such ein schrecklich Ende” (BWV 90, “A terrible end shall sweep you away”). Not so calming as BWV 58, this cantata gives us the horrors of damnation, sung in arias for the men’s voices. What a relief when we cross the terrible threats and hopelessness faced by the unredeemed and affirm God’s rescue of those who believe.

When I hear the phrase "blood of Christ," particularly as a stream that washes us, I often think of that old camp meeting song that I learned in childhood.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

A very different kind of music than Bach's, but a similar expression of hope that Christ's power is sufficient for this life and that to come.

But the image of life as a sea voyage is another appealing theme from this week's music. Bach's music carries the text by Johann Frank for a lovely assurance for our faith.

My life on earth
is like a voyage at sea:
sorrow, affliction and distress
engulf me like waves
and daily frighten me to death;
my anchor, though, which sustains me, is God’s mercy,
with which He often gladdens my heart.
He calls out to me: I am with you,
I shall never leave you nor forsake you!
And when at length the raging foam is calmed,
I shall step from my ship into my own city,
which is the kingdom of Heaven,
where I with all the righteous
shall enter out of so great tribulation.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Norman Rockwell, "American Mirror"

In the early 1960s, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. Dad’s shed was my “club house,” and sitting out there on summer days, I’d look through copies of the weekly magazine, stacked up in the corner. I was a decent sketcher and wondered if art might be a good career. The magazine’s covers and articles were illustrated by artists. I looked at the magazine’s website just now and found the names of illustrators of that era: not only Norman Rockwell, but also Richard Sergent, John Clymer, Robert G. Harris, Gilbert Bundy, and others. I still have a few of those old copies as childhood keepsakes. 

Browsing the Webster Groves Bookshop a few weeks ago, I purchased the new biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). An art critic and journalist, she had the weekly column “Questions For” in the New York Times Magazine for several years.

Rockwell (1894-1978) won Americans' devotion with his art. Saying Grace---a painting of an older woman and a boy praying over their food in a restaurant, with curious patrons looking on---topped a poll among people's favorite Post cover. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series is also popular, as well as works like Breaking Home Ties, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, The Gossips, Tattoo Artist, Girl at Mirror, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Jockey Weighing In, Triple Self-Portrait, Stockbridge--Main Street at Christmas, and others. He painted several portraits, including Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. LBJ preferred Rockwell’s painting of him to the official portrait. Rockwell even did a rock album cover for Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and David Bowie approached him for a portrait (but he needed it sooner than Rockwell could provide). He produced over 4000 works: magazine covers, book illustrations, posters, murals, illustrations for advertisements, and others. He never aspired to sell his paintings to collectors or to display in fine-art galleries. His meticulous technique (realistic but not photo-realistic), his ability to tell a story in a single picture, and the care with which he set up the situations in his paintings, add to his works’ appeal.

Rockwell was born in New York, attended Chase Art School and the National Academy of Design, and sold his first illustration when he was eighteen. The same year (1912), he became staff artist for Boys’ Life. He was 21 when he sold his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. Until 1963, he painted 323 covers for that magazine. He continued to provide paintings for Boys’ Life in addition to other magazines. His later paintings for Look dealt with topics on poverty, civil rights, and space exploration.

Rockwell married three times. His first marriage to Irene O’Connor was from 1916 till 1930 and ended in divorce. Living in California, he met Mary Barstow. They married and had three sons. They lived in New Rochelle, NY and then Arlington, VT, and later Stockbridge, MA. It was in Vermont and Massachusetts that Rockwell painted some of his popular depictions of small town themes. The family moved to Stockbridge so that Mary could have her alcoholism addressed at the psychiatric hospital there, but Rockwell himself also benefited at the hospital; he received treatment from psychologist Erik Erikson. After Mary died in 1959, he married “Mollie” Punderson in 1961. She survived him.

Solomon writes about the dismissal Rockwell suffered from art critics. “Rockwellesque” became a pejorative term for sentimental depictions of life. His painting The Connoisseur, depicting a man gazing at a Jackson Pollock-like painting, is for Solomon a masterpiece, and contrasts Rockwell with the abstract expressionists with whom critics compared him so unfavorably. But in recent times his work has been more honored. Solomon writes that the Guggenheim and other museums have had an exhibitions of his work, Rosie the Riveter sold at auction for nearly $5 million, and Breaking Home Ties was auctioned for over $15 million. After this biography was published, Saying Grace sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $46 million.

"Election Day," 1948.
Solomon considers Rockwell’s complicated psychology. Especially when he was a young painter, he
was known for painting boys much more often than girls, and some of his behavior would cause accusations today, such as hanging around grade schools, looking for kids who might be models for his illustrations. But there is no evidence that Rockwell acted inappropriately with any boy. He was, however, cold to one boy whom he no longer needed for modeling, which had ill effects on the boy’s psyche. The boy's tragic death seems to have weighed on the artist.

Rockwell was compulsive about cleanliness and his food preferences. He was also extremely modest, refusing even to consider himself an artist. Women made him insecure. Throughout his life he searched for brotherly, masculine companionship; yet he was not close to his own older brother. His wives were discouraged that he preferred spending time in his studio than with his family. Rockwell never mentions his wife Mary's death (or much about his family) in his 1960 autobiography. The artist emerges from Solomon’s account as a person of considerable self-caused loneliness, who found more personal happiness in depicting family life, in the emotional safety of his studio, than he ever did in his own life. Interestingly, he was not particularly nostalgic about his own childhood.

Solomon considers him a postmodern artist who “shares with the current generation a historically self-conscious approach to picture making” (p. 11). The book’s title refers to Rockwell himself, “his work mirrors his own temperament---his sense of humor, his fear of depths---and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves...” (p. 10). He wasn't all positivity. In the jarring work The Problem We All Live With, a little black girl is escorted to school accompanied by faceless law enforcement figures, with tossed fruit and racial slurs prominent against the wall by which she walks. Even in Election Day, Rockwell depicts a humorous yet sad situation: a young couple is angry at each other, divided by the Dewey-Truman presidential campaign, as the child sits, crying and ignored. But good spirits and a tenderhearted view of life prevail across his oeuvre. She writes:

"Where, in his work, are disease and death? Where is his sense of existential dread? I would argue that angst is probably overrepresented in modern art. Surely we can make room for an artist who was more interested in running toward the light. Unlike his fellow realist Edward Hopper, whose work abounds with the long shadows of late afternoon, Rockwell prefers the light of morning; his work can put you in mind of that sunny, hopeful moment right before lunch" (pp. 10-11).

Although aspects of Rockwell's personality leave us sad, Solomon interprets his art with a civic vision---a sense of the common good---that I find admirable.

“The great subject of his work was American life... a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the eighteenth century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter. Doctors spend time with patients whether or not they have health insurance. Students appreciate their teachers and remember their birthdays. Citizens at town hall meetings stand up and speak their mind without getting booed or shouted down by gun-toting ragaholics. This is America... before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity” (pp. 4-5).

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.

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
I subscribe to the quarterly magazine "LISTEN: Life with Classical Music", published by 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.