Archives for 2013

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Morgenstern

At Eastertide or thereabouts, I posted a short piece on ‘Easter’ and related names, in which I mentioned (among other fussy and pedantic things) that the morning star is used in Old English poetry as a symbol of John the Baptist, heralding the sun (and Son) to come.

Of course (and this is a thing that some students of mythology can never get through their heads) every metaphor arises by the conscious decision of a human mind, and every decision could have gone some other way – and frequently does. Men change their minds all the time; it is the saving grace of our species, or rather, the principal element we contribute to our ability to be saved by grace. Those who seem to know most about it assure us that angels do not have the power to change their minds. Not having physical bodies, it would seem, they also lack the emotions, the changes of sensation, the circumstances that lead us to favour sometimes one, sometimes another of the alternatives available to us.

Whether there are any angels or not, this is an elegant bit of reasoning: as good a thought-experiment as anything about aliens in the hardest science fiction. In fact there was a good deal of science in some of the best mediaeval fiction. Peter Nicholls, in the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia, looks upon The Divine Comedy and calls a spade a spade: ‘it is sf in the strict sense, albeit the science is medieval.’ But I digress—

We humans, mortal and therefore changeable as we are, have a childlike fantasy and freedom that the angels can never know: we can not only invent metaphors, we can change them if we choose, as often as our clothes. If angels have metaphors, they grow them like limbs or noses and keep them thereafter, I suppose. So the morning star, which in one poetic tradition ‘was’ John the Baptist, in a closely related tradition ‘was’ Our Lord himself: as his earthly life and career was the bright forerunner of a far brighter dawn, the daybreak of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This delightful idea finds expression in the poetry of the early Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai, when he announces the birth of the Christ child in astronomical terms: ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ – How lovely shines the morning star. The composers of the day ran with the idea (and the verses), and are running still; the principal Bach did great things with it. But I find myself drawn to the musical setting by Michael Praetorius, which seems to me to express the sentiment of Nicolai’s metaphor with a simple and unencumbered joy. I hope you like it.

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Gaudete!

A lively Latin carol from the 16th century, performed by the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir from my own birthplace, Vancouver, B.C.

The Fifth Day of Christmas: Fum

Today’s carol is brought to you by the magic of the Internet, and I am using the word magic in something very close to its technical sense. As we have seen so far, by providing performers of mediaeval and Renaissance music with a worldwide audience, the Net amply fulfils the old expression, more hopeful than realistic till recently: ‘Everything old is new again.’ But it is equally true to say that everything new is newer than it has ever been.

This performance is a fine example of both trends. ‘Fum fum fum’ is a fine old Catalan Christmas carol; which is to say that it is the fruit of a tradition so old and ramifying that the very myths and legends of Catalonia are bound up with its Catholicism, and even the landscape has been, so to speak, baptized. The outstanding natural landmark of Barcelona is the mountain called Tibidabo – ‘I will give thee’ in Latin – in honour of the belief that it was from this very mountain that Satan tempted Christ by offering him all the kingdoms of the earth. Every patch and corner of Europe has its local saints and its miracle stories, but sp far as I know, only the Catalonians have the cheerful effrontery to make their oldest saint Our Lord himself. It is not good history, perhaps, but it is good art, and it is the very perfection of myth.

In any case, ‘Fum fum fum’ was composed about four hundred years ago, and I am assured, has remained popular in Catalonia and elsewhere ever since. The words have been translated into many tongues, including Spanish, the language of the version below. A little while ago, the choir of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Marbella recorded this lively performance; and the video was posted to YouTube, as I write this, just seven days ago. The video has not ‘gone viral’: it is utterly devoid of the kind of shocking or prurient interest that helps so many YouTube videos do that. But in one little week, it has leapt across the Atlantic to delight an obscure Canadian writer and blogger, and now I am passing it on to you.

Nothing like this could have happened in the days when the distribution of recorded music was in the hands of the record companies. Therefore I find myself giving thanks for the spirit of faith and human ingenuity that makes it possible for people to reach one another so quickly and effortlessly. It is good to remember (as George Orwell said in the 1930s, and someone else will be saying a thousand years hence) that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.

Here is ‘Fum fum fum’, as performed at the church of Our Lady of the Incarnation.

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Wexford

A bit late today, since I’m under the weather with what I am assured is this year’s strain of flu. In my present condition, I find myself in unwilling agreement with an infamous Holy Roman Emperor: I don’t want ‘too many notes’. Fortunately, Philip Stopford has written (and conducted) this lovely arrangement of the Wexford Carol, which I find has exactly as many notes as it needs.

The Third Day of Christmas: Wassail

As we go singing from door to door, or rather from IP address to IP address, we ask that you fill up the wassail bowl from time to time, in the spirit of the occasion.

‘The Gloucester Wassail’ by the Waverly Consort. Drink hail!

The Second Day of Christmas: Personent hodie

I have a particular liking for some of the very old Christmas carols, the ones that can trace their pedigree back to the Middle Ages and are still commonly sung in Latin. ‘Personent hodie’ is a hardy perennial in this line. First sung as a monophonic chant about 1360 in Bavaria, it was published in 1582 in the Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, and the Germans and Finns have been arguing about it ever since. In recent years, however, it has been a staple of choirs the world over: YouTube alone has versions recorded everywhere from Trois-Rivières to Singapore. It is often performed in Gustav Holst’s arrangement for organ, or Lara Hoggard’s arrangement for brass, but the melody lends itself to a seemingly inexhaustible range of interpretations.

Here, for instance, is a version that starts out faithfully in the Middle Ages, but breaks loose into a fusion of traditional and modern arrangements; for a brief spell it becomes terribly Irish, but pulls itself back together in time for what, to me, is a strikingly satisfying conclusion. I hope you’ll like it.

This is ‘Personent hodie’, as performed by Serpentyne:

The First Day of Christmas: Leopold!

Joseph Ebbecke, one of my 3.6 Loyal Readers, asked me a few days ago:

Gonna do a 12 days of Christmas this year? I really enjoyed all the you tubes you posted a year or two ago.

I greatly enjoyed doing that in 2011 (though in fact I did only eleven days, missing Christmas Day itself). People nowadays are altogether too liable to confuse the commercial hurly-burly of the weeks before Christmas with Christmas itself, and to suppose that the holiday is over as soon as the hugely excessive dinner gets cold on December 25. But by long and still living tradition, Christmas Day is in fact the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas; and for that reason among others, my own celebration of the holyday is just getting into full swing when other people are putting it behind them and getting on with the grim business of slogging through the winter.

This year I should like to start with one of the most famous conductors who ever lived, Leopold Stokowski; one of the greatest composers, Johann Sebastian Bach; and one of the best pieces of music ever written, which in English is known as ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.

Merry Christmas to all.

C. S. L. on reading old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

—C. S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

Why I write

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

—George Orwell, ‘Why I Write

I was not as precocious as Orwell; I did not definitely conceive the idea of becoming a writer until I was twelve, though it was among the many occupations I had played at in earlier childhood. I should have liked to be an urban planner, but I discovered, before I had any opportunity to set out on such a path, that the profession had already become what it has since remained: not a branch of engineering in which one does the interesting creative work of coming up with feasible ways of giving people the kind of towns they want to live in, but a branch of politics in which one plans the kind of towns demanded by the ideology of one’s superiors, and then crams them down the people’s throats. I thought of being a cartographer – the maps in National Geographic, of all things, were nearly my first purely aesthetic experience – but I could not discover any path that would lead me appreciably in the direction of such a career. In any case my formal education was forcibly terminated before I could make any meaningful progress towards those ends.

But writing was something that I could (and can) do, and that nobody could stop me from doing so long as I lived in a relatively free country. In an age of galloping credentialism, when even security guards are examined and licensed by the State, there is to this day no formal credential for becoming a writer – no storyteller’s certificate, not even a blogger’s licence. It is true that the creative writing programs in the universities turn out more graduates than formerly, but so far the only people that have been thereby prevented from becoming creative writers are those very same graduates. Perhaps some of the reasons for this will eventually occur to them, or even to their professors. But I digress—

In Calgary, when I was still a fairly small boy, there was a sort of minor mania for local history that lasted several years. Southern Alberta was one of the last places in North America to be definitely settled. It was only in 1875 that the first permanent building was erected on the future site of the city. That was Fort Calgary, the North-West Mounted Police post, one of several built to shut down the illicit whisky trade out of the United States. The last survivors of the pioneer period, or rather the youngest of their children, were busily dying in the 1970s, and their stories being written up by local historians like Jack Peach and Grant MacEwan, themselves old men. I myself had a second or third cousin who was so old that he had come west by covered wagon, and lived to the age of 105; and my own grandfather took up a homestead on virgin land in the Peace River country about the time my father was born, not long before the arable land ran out and the homestead system was abolished.

It should come as no surprise that my first large creative endeavour sprang out of that environment and those vicarious experiences. Where the young C. S. Lewis (and his brother) had an imaginary country, Boxen, whose history and legends came to be written up in considerable detail, I had an imaginary frontier town. I drew many maps of the place at different periods, but also wrote portions of a connected history of the place and its leading citizens, leading down from the first settlers to the imaginary characters that I and one or two of my friends played at being in the present day. All that stuff was lost long ago, thank God; some of it I destroyed myself, but most was thrown away by my mother, who never saw a piece of paper that she did not detest on sight. The fact that my father was an avid reader and liked to fill up the house with books was, I believe, a constant anguish to her.

I had left that phase behind and was writing ‘future history’ and pastiches of bad science fiction when, at the age of twelve, I abruptly discovered that writing was something one could do as a profession. I have had no measurable success at it since then, but I still persist in trying: partly because one can earn money by it, even (nowadays, through the medium of ebooks) with very small sales, and it is one of the few kinds of work that I can do in my present state of health without expensive academic credentials; but chiefly for another reason. Since that reason has not, in my experience, been much talked about, I propose to say something about it here. [Read more…]

‘How to read Tolkien’

Michael Drout’s superb lecture, ‘How to Read Tolkien’, is now available on YouTube, and by the magic of the Intertubes, it’s available on this tube too: