Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sandhills Are Soaring

It's been a warm winter in Atlanta and that translates to February afternoons on the patio. Several times, we expect the reading, sky-watching or quiet sunning to be pleasantly interrupted by the distant croaking of the early waves of Sandhill cranes pushing northwest to their summer habitats. Sandhills are enjoyable to watch with their shapely "v" or wide arced formations as well as their "kettling" or staging in uplifts as they prepare to break out into formations.

File:Lesser Sandhill.jpg

In our woodland setting they're almost always heard - "ka-rooo, ka-rooo, ka-rooo" - before seen, a situation that leaves us hoping they will fly over our clearing. Most of the time they do because they fly high, very high, sometimes a thousand feet or more. At those altitudes it's hard to imagine that you're watching a bird that may stand over four feet tall and soar on a near-seven foot wing span.

Lately, the resident populations of Sandhills have been growing in the Southeast. Their permanent numbers in Georgia are estimated to be in the thousands. Those that do migrate over Georgia this time of year are headed to their breeding grounds from the Great Lakes to the southern shore of Hudson Bay. Coming or going, they always bring a smile and leave us looking up for more.

A pair of Sandhill cranes, photographed in Florida, courtesy of Ken Thomas


Photos and Illustrations:
Top photo,
Bottom photo,

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Presidential Birthday At Sinking Spring Farm

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, was born on this day 208 years ago near Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Abraham Lincoln Photo Portrait, early 1865                                          Alexander Gardner

As visitors climb the marble steps, pass marble columns, and enter the chamber of the Lincoln Memorial, they are awestruck by Daniel Chester French’s enormous marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. To what part of the Georgia marble figure is the eye drawn first? Possibly, the serious look on Lincoln’s face will remind the visitor of the critical time of Civil War through which the president guided our nation. Maybe the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair will prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.

If you want to settle into an evening with Lincoln and his age, your choice of titles will number in the thousands and in a variety of media. I am inclined to recommend Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. It is available as a one-volume abridgement or you may choose to tackle the original six-volume version. Not always accurate, not always "organized" as a traditional biography, Sandburg's work is really the story of Lincoln as American experience. It's romantic, rich, warm, organic, meandering, sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. I think the approach works well because the Lincoln story is in so many respects the American story. Also keep in mind that although well-known as a poet Sandburg soon was revered in the U.S. as a poet/writer for the people once the first volumes appeared . With that in mind, I believe Old Abe would have been proud to select a writer of popular history and culture as his official biographer.

As you can see from the photo above, Lincoln and I go way back. That picture was taken during the spring of 1952 during my first visit to Washington. It began a long association with Old Abe and his time that peaked during the last fifteen years of my career. What an honor it was to know him well and work to preserve his story for future generations visiting our national parks. For more about Abe Lincoln's early years at Sinking Spring and Knob Creek farms visit the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park website.


Photos and Illustrations:
Lincoln photograph, Gardner collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 
Abraham Lincoln statue,
Lincoln Memorial personal photo 1952, author's archive

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemas 2017: A Festival Of Light Entering The World

Around our house on February 2 the words of Robert Herrick's (1591-1674) poem, Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve, have special meaning. 

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.

The words remind that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit. As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - comes to an end.

Readers undoubtedly will hear something about groundhogs today. They are less likely to learn that February 2 marks a Christian festival day. It is known in the western Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas, and more often in the Protestant world simply as The Presentation of Our Lord.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple            Hans Holbein, German, 1500

The festival marks the fortieth day following the birth of Jesus. Under Mosaic law, it was a day for temple rites completing the purification of a woman following childbirth. It was also the day to present the firstborn son for redemption in the rite of pidyon haben.

The Candlemas tradition emerges from Luke 2:22-39 where Simeon prays over Jesus with words that would become known as the Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis:

In peace, Lord, you let your servant now depart 
according to your word. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared for every people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles 
and the glory of your people Israel.

Here is Gustav Holst's 1915 setting of the song in Latin for eight voices:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, 
secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. 

Beginning around the third century following the birth of Jesus, the blessing of candles and their procession about the church on this feast day became a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world. The practice did not emerge in the western church for at least another seven hundred years.

This day has other interesting attributes in addition to the end of Christmastide. It is also the mid-point of Winter, a cross-quarter day filled with pagan traditions symbolizing fire and the "return of the light"

I should note that earlier today on a nearby farm in metro Atlanta, General Beauregard Lee came out of his groundhog house and did not see his shadow. We look forward to the embrace of the warmth of an early spring. It seems Beau also forecast an Atlanta Falcons win in the upcoming Super Bowl.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Composer Philip Glass Turns Eighty

Philip Glass is quite probably the most well-known minimalist composer of our time. He was born in Baltimore and studied music at a very early age at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. At fifteen, he continued his musical training and studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Listeners cannot help but "count" in one way or another throughout all of his compositions. And his work is surely a Calculus in our own time, retaining its minimalist core wrapped in a stylistic evolution.

Listening to Glass is often more an experience where one can get "into" the music as a participant rather than merely observe. Even at its simplest, his work has complexities in tone, harmony, tempo and orchestration. For one thing, Glass counts. He plays by the numbers, practicing his musical arithmetic adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and even solving some algebraic formulas here and there. In the end, music to Glass seems like mathematics he studied. Fortunately for our culture, popular as well as haute, he became an extraordinary, prolific composer and a significant international influence in the music world.

Here is an excerpt from his score for Koyaaniqatsi (1982), a mesmerizing audiovisual feast by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke examining the interface of people, technology, and nature. Glass's score for this film has become a signature piece, one that he and his ensemble have performed around the world for three decades. 

Glass has also composed for popular films including Candyman (1992),  The Hours (2002), and the memorable satire, The Truman Show (1998).

We close with "Knee Play 5" from Glass's 1975 opera, Einstein on the Beach, a work that has been called the composer's watershed piece as well as a defining experience in 20th century classical music.  Readers will find the lyric here. After the first listen, you may want to repeat the piece with lyrics at hand.

Philip Glass was born on this day in Baltimore in 1937.


Photos and Illustrations:


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Frederick Delius And His Unbound Landscapes From The Soul

The composer, Frederick Delius, was born on this day in Yorkshire, England, in 1862. At 24, he lived the classic story of breaking away from the family business - woolen textiles - to pursue a love for the arts, in this case, music. The break first took him to Solano Grove and an citrus plantation on the banks of the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Florida. Later, he would teach music in Danville, Virginia, before returning to Europe for formal education in Germany. He took the sounds of American culture with him. In 1888, he settled in Paris, later married the painter, Jelka Rosen, and devoted his life to composition.

Delius is an interesting character in western music. He patterned much of his style after that of his friend and fellow composer, Edvard Grieg, but tempered it with English impressionism, his love of naturalism, and folk themes he heard among African American working on the Florida plantation.  The result was a vivid soundscape so unique that this quote appeared in the New York Times in 1929:

Delius belongs to no school, follows no tradition and is like no other composer in the form, content, or style of his music.

Almost a century later I think that quote remains intact. The impressionistic style may align him with the English school but he has a significant place in American music history having been the first classical composer to use musical themes of black Americans in the South. Those themes appear in several of his composition more than forty years before George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess. All of his work is rich, melodic, and complex. It is demanding music for the conductor, performer and listener alike, and music that demands an acquired appreciation. Today, his appreciation and popularity continue to grow but I believe he remains a relatively obscure figure in 20th century music outside of Great Britain.

In his last sixteen years he was tortured by the pain of a slow death from syphilis contracted during his early years in Paris. In the four years before his death in 1934, he was blind and essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He composed and completed some of his most significant work during this period, all of it reaching paper through the notations of his loyal amanuensis, Eric Fenby. Here is Song of Summer, a piece from his late period. 

The occasion of the 150th birthday of the composer in 2012 gave rise to several special programs, concerts, and documentaries. The best of the lot in my opinion is filmmaker John Bridcut's BBC documentary, Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma. Granted it is ninety minutes long but it is first-rate work in every respect and a far better way to explore Delius than to read about him. I hope you will take the time to watch even if you have to do it in two or three segments. If you enjoy the classics and American music history you will not be disappointed.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit alone on a dock watching the evening move over the St. Johns River landscape not far from Solano Grove. Delius's music was in my head and all the beauty of "Old Florida" was in my heart. He had likely walked the river's edge at that very place, watched the same sun glistening on the water, heard the worker's songs blending with those of insects and the wind rustling the reeds and nearby palmettos. It was an immersive experience for me. Events like that become fixed in memory. They emerge as compelling memories meant to be shared. I'm more than happy to share this one and encourage readers to continuing exploring its subject.

Happy listening!

Music is a cry of the soul. It is addressed and should appeal instantly to the soul of the listener. It is a revelation, a thing to be reverenced.
                                                                                                   Frederick Delius


Photos and Illustrations:
Delius portrait, by his wife, Jelka Rosen, painted in Grez-sur-Loing, France, 1912. Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, Australia

The Delius Society, website and Facebook page
Before the Champions: Frederick Delius' Florida Suite for Orchestra, Mary E. Greene., M.A. Thesis, University of Miami, 2011
Radio Swiss Classic, Frederick Delius,, Frederick Delius

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Stephane Grappelli: Jazz Meets The Violin

Earlier this week we commemorated the birth of the renowned gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt. Today we remember the birthday of the jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli who with Reinhardt formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France in the early 1930's. Like his friend, Django, 

Quintette du Hot Club de France                                                                              Paris, 1937

Grappelli was a self taught musician who developed a unique playing style that would have broad influence in the worlds of jazz and popular music. Fortunately, much of that influence was direct as he outlived Reinhardt by nearly fifty years and performed with perfection almost to the end of his life on December 1, 1997. He loved people almost as much as he loved music and brought his jovial, upbeat personality and style to audiences young and old, large and small, performing both solo and with many of the jazz greats of the twentieth century.

File:Stephane Grappelli Allan Warren.jpg
Portrait of Stephane Grappelli London                                 Allan Warren 1976

One would think that a jazz virtuoso would be well known in the country that birthed the genre but he was little known in the United States even after thirty years of success in Europe. His American debut in 1969 brought him wide publicity and the international "rediscovery" that followed kept him on tour before adoring audiences for almost three decades. 


Photos and Illustration:

Text:, Nigel Kennedy article, December 19, 2007, Stephane Grappelli obituary, December 2, 1997

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Hot Swinging Gypsy Jazz Of Django Reinhardt

The 20th century produced a number of fine guitarists in the fields of classical and popular music. And then there was Django Reinhardt. He was a poor Belgian gypsy who by the age of twelve could earn his way playing the guitar in the streets and small clubs around Paris. At seventeen a trailer fire left him with a severely injured hand but he soon developed a new fingering style and with it a unique sound. By 1930 Reinhardt developed an appreciation of American jazz and began incorporating its elements in his playing. In a few years he would go on to meet the violinist, Stephane Grappelli, an equally free musical spirit and innovator. They soon formed a new group, the "Quintette du Hot Club de France", and a "hot swing" sound that would make music as well as music history for the next twenty years.  At its core was the Reinhardt style that has influenced guitarists for more than eight decades.

And here is the Reinhardt sound as part of the group he co-founded with Grappelli [readers will here more about Grappelli in a few days]:

Reinhardt died in 1953 at the age of 43, but his impact has lived on for decades. Even today, almost every celebrity guitarist in the world of popular music, jazz, blues and rock and roll would acknowledge Reinhardt as an influence in their music. Here is an entertaining musical link to an NPR Jazz Live blog expanding on Reinhardt's legacy. We commemorate his birthday today (in 1910) with this documentary excerpt:


Photos and Illustrations:
William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress