Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reformation Day 2013

Luther as an Augustinian Monk                       Lucas Cranach the Elder, 16th century

On this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany. He could no longer tolerate the Catholic practice of collecting indulgences from sinners seeking salvation. Today, Protestants commemorate this event every October 31 as Reformation Day.

Johann Sebastian Bach, the musical voice of the Reformation in the Baroque period, wrote the following cantata for Reformation Day 1725:

1. Chorus

God the Lord is sun and shield. The Lord gives grace and honor, He will allow no good to be lacking from the righteous.

2. Aria A

God is our sun and shield!
Therefore this goodness
shall be praised by our grateful heart,
which He protects like His little flock.
For He will protect us from now on,
although the enemy sharpens his arrows
and a vicious hound already barks.
3. Chorale

Now let everyone thank God
with hearts, mouths, and hands,
Who does great things
for us and to all ends,
Who has done for us from our mother's wombs
and childhood on
many uncountable good things
and does so still today.

4. Recitative B

Praise God, we know
the right way to blessedness;
for, Jesus, You have revealed it to us through Your word,
therefore Your name shall be praised for all time.
Since, however, many yet
at this time
must labor under a foreign yoke
out of blindness,
ah! then have mercy
also on them graciously,
so that they recognize the right way
and simply call You their Intercessor.

 5. Aria (Duet) S B

God, ah God, abandon Your own ones
never again!
Let Your word shine brightly for us;
although harshly
against us the enemy rages,
yet our mouths shall praise You.

 6. Chorale

Uphold us in the truth,
grant eternal freedom,
to praise Your name
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thanks be to God!

We can only imagine the apprehension Luther had on posting his objections. At the same time, we can imagine his relief at having this huge burden lifted from him personally and moved into a larger realm. I think this piece by Charles Marie Widor captures not only the joy of such a liberation but also the power that may be unleashed when just one man takes a stand.


All Hallows Eve 2013

Sending you best wishes for a safe and happy Halloween! 

 This unused 1909 postcard features the work of Ellen Clapsaddle, the most popular postcard illustrator of the time.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

William Kapell: America Still Waits For His Equal

Sixty years ago today, October 29, 1953, William Kapell's skyrocketing career as a concert pianist ended. He and ten other passengers and eight crew members died in a fiery crash when their aircraft clipped the summit of Kings Mountain while on descent to San Francisco. Born in New York, Kapell was only thirty-one, but he had already reached such maturity that many in the classical music family declared he would soon be the nation's "pianist of the century."

William Kapell in 1948
In 1958, the accolades reserved for Kapell were soon directed toward Vann Cliburn on his winning of the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. By 1960, Kapell's recordings were no longer available and he likely would have fallen into total obscurity without his extraordinary skill and the efforts of his wife to keep his music alive.

In the 1980's there was a renewed interest in this remarkable pianist. The University of Maryland became the home of the quadrennial Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival.  Over the next fifteen years, old recordings returned, his complete authorized catalog appeared, and newly discovered recordings of his concerts in Australia made days before his death were issued.

If you want to hear Kapell, there are a few recordings available on You Tube. Even if you know little about the classical piano, I have a feeling you'll come away with the understanding that you just heard a very special genius. For a tantalizing sense of his abilities, here is a legendary recording made in 1945 when he was twenty-two years old:

Even Vladimir Horowitz said there was nothing he could teach Kapell. Indeed, we are still waiting to hear his American equal in our time.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Dylan Thomas: Echoes Of The Never-Ending Songs Of A Welsh Soul

Yesterday we recalled the birthday of South Carolina's Lowcountry author, Pat Conroy. By coincidence, today marks the birthday of another writer immersed in the themes and images of coastal living. His name is Dylan Thomas, the Welsh writer whose poetry and unforgettable voice brought him great fame in the United States in the decade prior to his early death in New York in 1953.

Dylan Thomas

Thomas and his native land have special meaning to me. My grandmother's parents  immigrated from Cardiff, Wales, to the United States in the 1870s.   Though I never knew her - she died before my second birthday - my father often recalled how she took pride in her Celtic roots and the Welsh love for song and singing.

Many critics and authorities write that Thomas's recitations are spoken words that approach song. You can form your own opinion listening to the poet reading Poem in October, his recollections of his thirtieth birthday. Audio quality isn't the best. I suggest earphones and closed eyes for this sound journey if you choose not to read along.

What an unforgettable voice. I was in elementary school when I first heard a recording of Thomas reading his work. There's a good chance few students in any grade have that opportunity today. That is unfortunate because we often  think education has come a long way over the last five decades. Perhaps it has, but somewhere on that journey we have undoubtedly lost some very precious cultural experiences that have made us who we are as a people.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Pat Conroy: Lowcountry Lyricist

I could not let the  sun set on this beautiful Sea Island day without a word or two about the American novelist, Pat Conroy,  who was born in Atlanta on this day in 1945. Even in his fiction, Pat Conroy has a way of writing about himself -  who doesn't -  and all of us as we face the challenges and adversities - mental and physical - of growing into young adulthood and beyond. Stated another way, Conroy has extraordinary skill in probing the long childhoods many of us face as we grow old. For him, it's an arduous journey, carried out with the same reality that comes with recognizing nature as a cruel mother. Yes, there is beauty and light along the way, but the mountains can't stand without the valleys, and Conroy's reality has its share of darkness. Some may not enjoy that journey, but it is a good dose of reality and millions of readers hold Conroy in high esteem for painting life in its full spectrum. 

In 1977, Conroy's book, The River is Wide, was hardly five years old when I arrived at the edge of the ocean east of Savannah and a mere five miles across the sound from the book's setting on Daufuskie Island. In a matter of months,  I succumbed to Lowcountry living and, as the Rachel Field poem says, was never quite the same. Conroy's affair with the Sea Islands began around 1960.  Over the next forty years he would blend his experience with the Lowcountry setting and produce many books. His latest, The Death of Santini (2013), is a memoir of growing up in a complex, loving, yet often dysfunctional family headed by his strong-willed fighter pilot father. 

Almost thirty years have passed since those late evenings when I sat reading in the den feeling and hearing the low frequency vibrations from ship screws in the Savannah River channel a few thousand feet away. That may seem like an odd recollection out of the complex catalog of island experiences, but it approaches the unique and remains one of many fond memories. For the most part - small flashes of creativity being the exception - I simply enjoy those memories. Pat Conroy, on the other hand, took the everyday and unique events in his life journey and turned them into some of the most lyrical writing of our time. I'm so glad he did.

Charleston has a landscape that encourages intimacy and partisanship. I have heard it said that an inoculation to the sights and smells of the Carolina lowcountry is an almost irreversible antidote to the charms of other landscapes, other alien geographies. You can be moved profoundly by other vistas, by other oceans, by soaring mountain ranges, but you can never be seduced. You can even forsake the lowcountry, renounce it for other climates, but you can never completely escape the sensuous, semitropical pull of Charleston and her marshes.
The Prince of Tides

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Remembering Johnny Carson

NBC's The Tonight Show is sixty years old. For half of those years, 1962-1992, Johnny Carson hosted the program. There's no question he was the king of late night television and an entertainment icon whose influence is very much alive. Unfortunately, his impact may not be well understood or appreciated in part because Carson carefully guarded his private life. When he left the studio, he left the world of celebrity.

Carson in 1970

There is a new "tell all" book about Carson written by one of his former associates. I suspect it confirms many of the less savory aspects of the star's life that have arisen in the eight years since his death. Such words will reconfirm that human nature's strengths and weaknesses extend even to our icons. With that in mind, here is a glimpse of the king at his best:

Johnny Carson was born on this day, October 23, in 1925.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Art Tatum's Piano Magic

October 13 marks the birth of the extraordinary American jazz pianist, Art Tatum (1909-1956). He was virtually blind from birth, but had perfect pitch and lived in a musical household where he was picking out hymns on the piano by the time he was three.

Tatum's piano technique was all his own. As a child he learned compositions by ear listening to recordings, piano rolls and radio broadcasts. He often had no idea that he was copying in two hands a musical performance by four hands. Indeed, he was a magician at the keyboard.

If you enjoy the Great American Songbook and remarkably innovative play on all 88 keys, you need to listen to Tatum. And the opportunity to listen to him is easily at hand as he left us a large performance archive in his forty-seven years among us. When you do listen as one who has enjoyed jazz over the last fifty years, you'll hear Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Costa and many others as Tatum dances effortlessly across the keyboard. He was so good, his legacy in music may be timeless. In fact, the great stride pianist, Fats Waller, once said upon seeing Tatum enter the club where Waller was performing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house."

And here is the almighty Tatum at work, performing his magic on a George Gershwin favorite:

Here he is playing a Richard Whiting tune with a title that describes the Tatum style perfectly:

For more information on Tatum, check out his Wikipedia entry here, and this National Public Radio Jazz Profiles page that includes eight audio clips.

Personal rant: My friends, jazz is genuine American music. It's insulting to think that many jazz musicians find a better reception for their music in Europe or Asia rather than in their native country. If you like jazz, contemporary or classic, spread the word. It is a far more creative and positive art than what passes for most "popular music" in the U.S. today.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Essence Of English Music

Today we remember the magnificent English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, born on this day in 1872. He was a prolific composer of a full spectrum of classical music and especially revered for his research of English folk tunes and their preservation in his works.  

Vaughan Williams Portrait by William Rothenstein, 1919

Most baby boomers were probably introduced to Vaughan Williams in middle school music appreciation classes. The composition very likely was his 1934 orchestral piece, Fantasia on "Greensleeves."  Here is another work closely associated with his legacy to music:

If you enjoyed the traditional side of Vaughan Williams, here is something a bit different composed in his twilight years and clearly marked with his lyrical signature:

Mid-October Memories

It's that time of year again. Time to remember fondly my summer vacations and countless weekend experiences in the village of Burlington, West Virginia, from the late 1940's to 1974. For most of those years I stayed in a very comfortable three-season cottage on property maintained by my father's fraternal lodge. We called it "the camp."  In addition to providing recreation for its membership, the property also served as a regional park, complete with a playground, ball field, and large two-story pavilion for entertainment and picnicking.  It was often rented for the day or weekend for family reunions, company picnics, church functions, and other gatherings.

The place was paradise for a young boy. A creek bordering the property offered hours of fun. You could explore the woods and fields forever. The frequent social events made the playground a great place to meet new friends. But "camping" at Burlington was by no means a wilderness experience. Next door was a drive-in theater where I enjoyed the snack bar as much as the movies. Across the road was a small airfield with several Taylorcrafts and Piper Cubs, and a hangar that gave birth to many "homebuilts" over the years as well as my interest in airplanes and flying. When I was a boy, some pilots there strapped into a fuselage on a lathe and spun me nearly senseless. Loved every second. I can say with confidence that Burlington was never boring.

Over the years, membership in clubs and lodges declined across the country.  It was no different at Burlington. The lodge members grew older and passed away. By 1974, the few survivors could no longer maintain the property and elected to sell it and dissolve the organization. It was not only the end of a wonderful experience but also the end of two activities that had become rituals of opening and closing the cottage.

Opening it and the grounds for the summer was exciting but not especially memorable. Freezing temperatures lingered into May so the campground usually opened on Memorial Day weekend. On the other hand, winterizing the place was like saying "Goodbye" to an old friend. Thoughts of family, friends, the big fish, fireworks, that scary movie, the old biplane, all those memories accumulated over the past six months filled my mind. Amid the blazing gold sycamores, brilliant fire oaks and maples, the smell of wood smoke, and a harvest of black walnuts, we went through the years-old closing procedure until the last item - pouring anti-freeze into sink traps - was checked. At that point it was time to load the car, proceed with all those repetitive tasks one does "just to be sure," then close and lock the big red door until Spring.

For me, there was no Spring at Burlington in 1975, and after thirty-five years the place is a foreign country. There is a new generation there these days, all strangers. The cultural imprint I knew continues to fade away. The gleaming white post and rail fence surrounding the grounds is all but gone. The pavilion where I played for hours on end, observed the Westvaco picnickers enjoying their Labor Days, and listened to local old time music and fire and brimstone preachers is near ruin. All the shining blue, yellow, and red playground equipment - massive and unsafe by today’s standards - is gone.  The Baker's Drive-In theater, Sonny's Place - great pizza - and Thrasher's Restaurant - unsurpassed desserts - are memories.  And what was Baker's Air Park is now a massive regional office for the West Virginia Department of Highways. 

Only the nature endures.

Today, the sycamores along the river may be a bit taller but they still explode in yellow this time of year along with my favorite walnut trees. And the young maple I climbed every year until long after I matured has itself matured into a massive Fall fire tree. Sixty years ago, I watched when the men brought in their bulldozers to reshape the creek bank and channel. The stone beach they graded was much safer for the generation of bathers who enjoyed it, but the creek remembered this affront. Over time, its flow restored the original course and bank into a scene my grandfather enjoyed in the 1930s.

I haven't locked that big red door for 34 years now, but I still have a remarkably vivid mental picture of the cottage, the people, and landscape that I loved.  The impact has been so profound that I have asked my children to do their best to provide the same opportunity for their own families.  May I suggest my readers do the same: Find a nearby paradise and escape to it often while your children are young. There will be no sorrow there.

Bits and pieces of this post have appeared over the past five years.