Tag Archives: music

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

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“Bohemian Rhapsody” by 20th Century Fox et al

Bohemian Rhapsody poster.png

I don’t go to the movies very often, so I find our family tradition of a movie after Thanksgiving dinner exciting! Ten years ago, a dozen of us would troop out to the latest Harry Potter movie or Lord of the Rings extravaganza. Now, tastes are more sophisticated and wider ranging. Luckily, a multiplex theater offers something for everyone. This year, five of us decided to see “Bohemian Rhapsody” while others went to “Fantastic Beasts”.

I hadn’t paid much attention to what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about. Music, right? Well, I’ve managed to miss a good deal of popular music and popular culture over the past few decades, but it turned out I did recognize more than a few of the band Queen’s iconic, blockbuster songs.

I had totally missed out on Freddy Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), the lead singer of Queen. What talent and creativity! Mercury is played by Rami Malek, who rose to great challenges in portraying the complex, conflicted genius.

I can’t pass critical judgment on this movie… I have no idea what a “biopic” should be like.  (Wikipedia provides links to dozens of reviews and related commentary.) But I enjoyed it very much, and plan to look back into the music of Queen and the Live Aid concert (which I DO remember!) that serves as the climax of the movie.

“Temperament – How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” by Stuart Isacoff.

Vintage Books, 2003. 233 pages, with illustrations, bibliography and index.

There’s a piano on the front of this book, but it’s funny looking. There’s a black key in the middle, with three white keys on each side, then alternating black and white keys, uninterrupted. Some of the black keys bear distinguishing marks. Who could play this mutant instrument?! What would it sound like?

I play piano, read music competently and occasionally sing in a chorus. I knew a little about the issues involved in piano tuning, but I had NO IDEA how long, convoluted and contentious was the historical path that led to our modern tunings and the pair of scales we commonly hear and employ (major and minor).

I would rate my understanding of this book at about 50%. Isacoff plunges into mathematics (including geometry), Egyptian, Greek and European history (including astrology and alchemy), psychology and philosophy as he discusses how we got to where we are today.

European music was initially greatly influenced by “the ancients”, the Greek philosophers. These were wise men, but some of their ideas about music were out of touch with physical reality, and it took a long time to sort things out. Music inherently requires selectivity. You can’t use every tone, every interval. Why do some tones or intervals sound good, others “dissonant”? Why does music have so much emotional impact? What kind of music is “natural”? Is there a link between music and morality?

Of course I want to hear some of the music referenced in this book, especially the intervals and the infamous “wolf” tones that emerge from certain tunings. Another reason to dig in to U-Tube.

A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this book “a whirlwind tour of Western culture’s big ideas…” That sums it up very well.

“Celestial Bodies – How to Look at Ballet” by Laura Jacob

Basic Books, 2018, 223 pages, with notes, bibliography and index.

When I was eight, I wanted ballet lessons, but my parents decided I should learn piano. I wasn’t very cooperative, but I kept at it for five years. Piano was supplemented by ten years in church and school choirs. I can’t imagine my life without that musical training!

Years later, I signed up for the beginning ballet class in an Adult Education program. Our teacher did us the wonderful favor of taking us seriously, teaching us carefully, and EXPLAINING ballet. Over time, our creaky stiffness gave way to increased strength, flexibility and body awareness. And we began to learn how to look at dance and dancers!

Celestial Bodies is a wonderful book! I found it quite by accident on the Library’s “recent arrivals” shelf, and I couldn’t put it down. Laura Jacobs is a dance critic who is in love with ballet at every level – musical, visual, historical… Early in the book, she discusses one of my fascinations, “pointe”, or dancing on the tips of the toes.  Pointe is just for women. How do they DO it?? Why is it so interesting and pleasing?

Laura Jacobs approaches ballet from many angles, even discussing yoga as she details how a dancer uses the foot and positions the body. She specifically mentions the yoga posture called Warrior III and its relationship to “arabesque”.

Jacobs many references to specific ballets make me glad to live in the age of U-Tube. I will be able to look at the works and artists she lovingly describes.

This book is highly accessible despite the use of French terminology and dance jargon. Read and enjoy!

“Beethoven for a Later Age – Living with the String Quartets” by Edward Dusinberre

This book is for the serious lover of classical music. Does that include me? Not quite, though I enjoy music and generally lean towards the classical. I wasn’t able to listen to the quartets as they were discussed in the book, nor was I close enough to a piano to pick out the measures included for illustrative purposes.

Why did I keep reading? Because this is one musician’s story, and I love autobiography. Edward Dusinberre joined the Takacs Quartet as a young man in 1993. The group originated in Hungary and now has its home base in Boulder, Colorado. They travel all over the world for many months of each year.

What’s is like to work with the same group of four people over years and years? How do they decide what to play? What to record, which is quite a different experience? How do they evaluate their performances? How often do they play something totally unfamiliar? In addition to discussing these interesting subjects, Dusinberre provides a great deal of information about Beethoven. Why did he write quartets? What else was he writing, and for whom? What happened as Beethoven suffered the loss of his hearing?

The title of the book reflects a comment by Beethoven, in response to criticism of his Opus 59 quartets. “They are not for you, but for a later age!” What on earth did he mean? Do we hear and understand music differently now?

I reflected a great deal on the difference modern recording technology has made for performers and audiences. At the time of Beethoven, very few people had any control over what they heard. The very richest citizens had musicians among their servants, and could arrange a concert at will. Most people would be lucky to attend a performance now and then. Perhaps they heard most of their music in church.

I can listen to whatever I want, almost anywhere. Sometimes I have chosen to listen to a piece over and over, to learn it for a choir performance or “just because”. Hayden’s “Creation” got me through a difficult time in my life. I put it on the car stereo and just let it cycle. There is beauty in it that wasn’t apparent on the first few hearings.

So who knows what I might hear if I did the same with the Beethoven quartets? I would try it, but my car stereo died…

If I ever face enforced immobility, I’ll return to this book and lose myself in the music.

Celebrating the Season

I set a personal record over the Christmas holiday – I participated in “religious” events at six different locations during a two week period! (I didn’t plan this.)

The Saturday before Christmas was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. A friend organized an event based on the labyrinth, a tool for walking prayer/meditation from the Christian traditions of Europe. Our labyrinth was outlined with CANDLES. This was a first time, seat of the pants, open-to-the-public event. I helped with the set up, in a field next to the local volunteer fire hall. The organizer picked a spot and started to lay out the labyrinth pattern with cord. We helpers opened white paper bags, put in sand and tea lights (votive candles). The afternoon was breezy, and we worried that a strong gust of wind could disrupt the whole project. By 5 pm we had done what we could (assembled over 500 luminaria!) and scattered for dinner. When we returned, the wind had dropped, it was still warm for December, and the candles were being lighted. I was the first to step into the labyrinth, and I wondered what would happen if I made a mistake and led the whole line astray… But the candlelight was bright enough for me to see the cord on the ground. When I reached the center and started back out, I relaxed. Friends and neighbors were walking quietly, happily… We had been encouraged to concentrate on renewal and transformation. Celtic music added to the atmosphere. Emerging, I stood and absorbed the sheer beauty of what had been created. The candles flickered warmly. The labyrinth was a circle of light in a dark, quiet night. I was reminded of campfires I have enjoyed, but the candles cast a much gentler light. I could look up and enjoy the stars. For an event that only been very casually advertised, a good number of people came, maybe 75. And many more said they wished they had known about it, or that it had fit their schedules.

The next day, the Sunday before Christmas, I was in my usual place, at the small Quaker meeting I have attended for many years. Our worship is unprogrammed and based on silence. Nobody has to create an Order of Service or write a sermon. I always enter feeling expectant, because I don’t know who may speak or what subject may arise. We have our “customs”…

  • allow silence before and after each spoken message,
  • speak only once (unless you really MUST),
  • listen carefully (because you may hear the word of God).

Yes, people did speak. No, I’m not going to tell you what they said. After worship, we shared a potluck brunch. That’s as close as we came to a Christmas party this year. Simplicity.

Then I hit the road, fetching up in Boston in the company of family. On Christmas Eve, I wanted music, and the rest of my family was ready for food and TV or games. They walked me to Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church near Boston’s Public Garden, then left on the T (subway). The Church wasn’t open yet, so I strolled the upscale neighborhood, encountering the homeless as well as well as the wealthy.

Half an hour later, I settled into a box pew at the Arlington Street church, holding an unlighted candle. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist. Arlington Street, like the church of my childhood, is a relatively formal place. The service I attended was listed as a “family” event, and the families were there. So was a live lamb! The children were delighted. The service consisted of familiar readings and familiar music. The candles were lighted starting from the front of the church, and the lights were dimmed as the candlelight spread. We sang Silent Night in the darkened sanctuary. It was as magical as the evening services I remember from my childhood. As I left, the grandmother who had sat behind me apologized for her grandchildren’s “noisiness”, but I assured her I enjoyed their presence. They were much too cute to be a nuisance.

Next I went to an even bigger, cathedral sized church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, two blocks away. Again I was pleasantly greeted and provided with an Order of Service, which looked really long and included Communion, open to all. We sang and read our way through the Christmas story. There were a few unfamiliar hymns – which surprised me, since I sang in choirs for years and know the Protestant hymnology well! We stood for every single hymn. The program said “stand as you are able” and I thinking about staying seated as my knees accelerated their protests. The officiants sometimes chanted, and there was a “gospeller” who sang and chanted from the Bible. Then came the special event that caused me to pick this church over other options – Bach! This church has a resident instrumental ensemble and a professional choir. The music, performed in setting not significantly different from the churches Bach wrote for, was ethereal, glorious, sweet beyond words. I closed my eyes and thought about angels. 

When I left the Episcopal church, I considered returning to Arlington Street, which offered TWO more services featuring the Boston Gay Men’s Choir, a group with an excellent musical reputation. However, my family was keeping dinner warm for me, so I jumped on the T and headed for Allston. I had enough music in my head to satisfy my Christmas cravings.

Another Sunday came around… I was in Connecticut with my sister and her husband. They have two church affiliations, and we settled on “his”, a small Lutheran church in Hartford. Attendance seemed light, but the Pastor smiled and assured us that the turnout was excellent, as the preceding year’s Sunday-after-Christmas service had been attended by only eleven people! I looked around. There were at least 22 of us there, maybe even 33. I felt welcome and important. Our singing sounded strong for our numbers. The lay readers were teenagers. Usually coffee follows the service, but someone forgot. No coffee. As a member of a tiny congregation, I feel sympathy with this kind of screw up. Besides, Grace Lutheran has an astonishing record for feeding people. They serve dinner every Friday night to ANYONE WHO WALKS IN THE DOOR. The neighborhood is mixed. Some people are hungry. Some are lonely. Church members join in. When I visited a year ago, 25 or 30 people turned up. Many were “regulars”. The food was great.

And my sixth experience? This morning (as on most Saturdays) I went to yoga class at my local Hindu Temple. Because of the severe cold, we practiced, not upstairs in the usual drafty space, but downstairs in the sanctuary. This room, which might be 10% of the Temple, houses the gods. There are about 15 of them, of varying sizes, dressed in glorious colorful fabrics. Since my last visit to the sanctuary, the names of the gods have been posted. I practiced in front of Mma Sarasvatri. I used to think of the gods as “images”, but I’ve gradually learned they mean something more to the worshippers. Each god is a channel. When you look at a god, he or she LOOKS AT YOU. It’s a relationship. The sanctuary (in addition to being well heated) is a lovely place to practice yoga. A mantra runs on a continuous tape. Listening carefully, I think I was hearing 10 syllables, but I don’t know what it means. The room smells faintly of incense. Temple members come and go, performing their devotions. I relax, and leave feeling as if I have been on a vacation. I go to a distant country without buying an airline ticket. Thank you, Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, for making us welcome!

So,,, tomorrow I will be back at Quaker meeting, with music and ceremonies in my head. I will think about the people I visited, and wish them well.