Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reformation Day 2015

Today, Protestants around the world celebrate Reformation Day, a holy day commemorating the beginning of a great revelation - some would say revolution - in the Christian church.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk                         Lucas Cranach the Elder, 18th 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, a practice that supported the buying salvation. 

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.


Text:, cantata translation

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pat Conroy: Interpreting Life Through A Coastal Lens

If I could immerse myself in one landscape it would be the Lowcountry, that region of coastal South Carolina and Georgia dominated by vast marshes and barrier islands. The landscape speaks a language I have heard nowhere else and remains a subject for artists and writers as it has been for centuries. Yesterday marked the seventieth birthday of Pat Conroy, arguably the finest living interpreter of that coastal magic and its vivid use in fiction.

Pat Conroy at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2014
As usual  there was nothing to find in the media other than the obligatory and brief single liner; therefore, I am left to bring readers more than a name and a date about the writer I consider to be a treasure for his rich descriptive writing and intense webs of characters forged out of family and place.  To begin, he has extraordinary skill in probing the long childhoods many of us faced as we grew and changed. For him personally, the earlier years were an arduous journey, carried out with the same reality that comes with recognizing nature as a cruel mother. There was beauty and light along the way, but the mountains didn't stand without the valleys, and Conroy's reality had its share of both. Some may not enjoy reading of such journeys and the fiction they inspire but his interpretation of the dance of life touched millions by the time he was 35. Now in the twilight of career, Conroy has immersed himself in the Lowcountry setting of Beaufort, South Carolina. a few miles from the setting of his memoir, The River is Wide (1972). Readers may recall that the book was the basis for the 1974 film, Conrack

As it has been with virtually all of his fiction - and not likely to change - the author finds himself where much of his intellectual life as a writer began.  For this reader, it's been a memorable journey with an author who has taken the everyday and unique events in a life's journey and turned them into some of the most lyrical writing of our time.

Moon River view from the Diamond Causeway, Savannah, Georgia

N.B. The image of Conroy at Chapel Hill comes from a screen capture of a UNCTV interview conducted in February 2014. Interested readers may view this 27 minute program here. Well worth your time.



Moon River photo credit: Emily E. Beck

Dylan Thomas: I Rose In The Rainy Autumn And Walked Abroad In Shower Of All My Days

Dylan Thomas in a London Park

Today marks the birthday of a writer immersed in nature and more specifically 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.

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

It is interesting that he should remember the talk of song and singing. Many critics and authorities write that Thomas's recitations are spoken words that approach song. Readers can reach their own conclusion by 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 first heard Thomas reading his work during an elementary school English class. I doubt few students in any grade have that opportunity today. How unfortunate that education has come a long way since then but so much beauty in language has been lost along the way.

Undoubtedly we have lost some very precious cultural experiences. If we could hear Thomas's truth singing every year we would know so much better who we are as individuals and as a people.


Photo: Getty Images

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pablo Picasso: "Everything You Can Imagine Is Real"

Picasso in 1908

On this day in 1881 Pablo Picasso was born in the city of Malaga, Spain. When he died 91 years later in 1973, Alden Whitman said this about him in the opening paragraphs of a New York Times obituary:

There was Picasso the neoclassicist; Picasso the cubist; Picasso the surrealist; Picasso the modernist; Picasso the ceramist; Picasso the lithographer; Picasso the sculptor; Picasso the superb draftsman; Picasso the effervescent and exuberant; Picasso the saturnine and surly; Picasso the faithful and faithless lover; Picasso the cunning financial man; Picasso the publicity seeker; Picasso the smoldering Spaniard; Picasso the joker and performer of charades; Picasso the generous; Picasso the Scrooge; even Picasso the playwright.

A genius for the ages, a man who played wonderful yet sometimes outrageous changes with art, Pablo Picasso remains without doubt the most original, the most protean and the most forceful personality in the visual arts in the first three-quarters of this century. He took a prodigious gift and with it transformed the universe of art.
To learn more about Picasso read his biography here. The New York Times obituary continues here.

It's impossible to select a representative display of his work in this small post; therefore, I recommend readers visit the extensive website of the Musee Picasso Paris where over 300 Picasso works can be viewed. Wikipedia's Picasso page has several external links that may be of interest.



Musee Picasso Paris


A Picasso quote appears in the title.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Closure That Never Ends

It was freezing this morning in Burlington, West Virginia, a little village near property that was my home away from home in the summers and weekends of the first third of my life. Winter came quickly to those ridges and valleys after the first freeze and the weekend closest to October 15 always marked the seasonal closure for the cottage.

Today, the sycamores along the river are much 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-five years ago I watched the men in their bulldozers reshape the creek bank and channel into a stony beach. It was much safer for the generation of bathers who enjoyed it but the creek remembered this affront and each year restored a small portion of its original character. Today the landscape appears very much as it did when I, my father, and perhaps my grandfather first saw it.

Patterson Creek ca. 1935

I called that landscape "Camp." It was paradise for a young boy. The creek bordered a property with woods, open fields, and a playground. Many social events were held there every summer and the opportunity to make new friends was just about endless. A stay at the grounds was far from a wilderness experience. The cottage had every comfort of home and the neighboring properties were not what most people would expect. A treeline separated us from 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 Aeroncas and a hangar that gave birth to many "homebuilts" over the years. I can say with confidence that a stay at "camp" was never boring.

Burlington campground, 1959

During my first 28 years - through the summer of 1974 - I spent many weeks at "camp" every year, including several weekends of "cold camping" in the off-season. It 's an annual cycle I remember well. Freezing temperatures lingered into May so the campground usually opened on Memorial Day weekend. Although the prospect of returning to the cottage for another season was exciting it wasn't especially memorable. In the next six months the experiences accumulated: the family visits, friends old and new, the big fish, fireworks, hail storms, watching scary movies on a blanket under the stars, seeing a new airplane take shape. plane talking in general, and many more. Before long, October was on the calendar and it was time to winterizing the place. Declutter the cottage, clean house top to bottom, empty the refrigerator, empty the trash, drain the water heater and blow out the pipes, open all faucets, anti-freeze in all the sink traps, winterize the water pump, load the car with luggage and the season's walnut harvest that dried on the picnic table over the past week.

Hulling black walnuts at Burlington campground, 1967
Leaving it was like saying "Goodbye" to an old friend. 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 items before our departure. After a final security check on all windows and the big front door it was time to pull the main breaker on the electric panel and leave through the kitchen door giving it an extra tug or two to make sure it was locked. From there it was down the driveway to the big gate at the main road, a bushel or two of fresh apples from the nearby orchards and and a two hour drive to Washington. 

I haven't closed that big red door on the cottage or visited the little village nearby for over forty years now. There is a new generation there these days, all strangers. The score of people who taught me to love the place are gone and their cultural imprint on it continues to fade. The gleaming white post and rail fence is in decay. The cedar pavilion where I played for hours on end, observed picnickers enjoying their Labor Days, and listened to local old time music and fire and brimstone preachers lies in ruin. All the playground equipment - every piece massive, unsafe by today’s standards and shining in its blue, yellow and red paint - has disappeared. The drive-in theater next door closed a generation ago along with the little air field across the highway. Indeed the place is a foreign country. Only nature and memory endure.

A version of this post first appeared in 2008.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Chuck Yeager: "I Was A Hero This Day"

October 14, 1947:

... Bob Cardenas, the B-29 driver, asked if I was ready.
"Hell, yes," I said. "Let's get it over with."
He dropped the X-1 at 20,000 feet, but his dive speed was once again too slow and the X-1 started to stall. I fought it with the control wheel for about five hundred feet, and finally got her nose down. The moment we picked up speed I fired all four rocket chambers in rapid sequence. We climbed at .88 Mach and began to buffet, so I flipped the stabilizer switch and changed the setting two degrees. We smoothed right out, and at 36,000 feet, I turned off two rocket chambers. At 40,000 feet, we were still climbing at a speed of .92 Mach. Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel, so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. I noticed the faster I got, the smoother the ride.
Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach - then tipped right off the scale. I thought I was seeing things! We were flying supersonic! And it was as smooth as a baby's bottom: Grandma could be sitting up there sipping lemonade. I kept the speed off the scale for about twenty seconds, and raised the nose to slow down.
I was thunderstruck. After all the anxiety, breaking the sound barrier turned out to be a perfectly paved speedway. I radioed Jack in the B-29, "Hey, Ridley, that Machmeter is acting screwy. It just went off the scale on me."
"Fluctuated off?"
"Yeah, at point nine-six-five."
"Son, you is imagining things."
"Must be. I'm still wearing my ears and nothing else fell off, neither."
.  .  .

And so I was a hero this day. As usual, the fire trucks raced out to where the ship had rolled to a stop on the lakebed. As usual, I hitched a ride back to the hangar with the fire chief. That warm desert sun really felt wonderful. My ribs ached. 
The flight didn't hurt his ribs. He cracked two of them in a horseback riding accident a day and a half earlier.

Capt. Chuck Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, "Glamorous Glennis," 1947

Aerospace pioneer, General Chuck Yeager, is 92 years old. He lives in Penn Valley, California, and continues to lead a very active life flying, fishing, and managing the General Chuck Yeager Foundation. 

N.B. The book, Yeager: An Autobiography, is an outstanding read for anyone interested in the early years of the nation's aviation and aerospace history. The cover photo by Anthony Loew opens this post. 



Yeager with Bell X-1, U.S. Air Force,


quotation, Yeager: An Autobiography, General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janus, Bantam, 1985.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Art Tatum: Jazz Piano At Its Finest

He had perfect pitch and came from a musical family. He was virtually blind but that did not stop him from reaching the pinnacle of piano jazz. Art Tatum's piano technique was all his own. As a child he learned compositions by ear listening to recordings, piano rolls or the radio. He often had no idea that he was copying in two hands a musical performance by four hands. In time his skills made him a magician at the keyboard. Here is Tatum's famous 1933 rendition of Tea For Two:

And a bit more up-tempo, here is the master of improvisation with the tune, Tiger Rag, also recorded in 1933:

When you have enjoyed jazz for fifty years and listen to Art Tatum 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."

Tatum at the Vogue Room, New York, 1948 
Tatum was born on this day in Toledo, Ohio, in 1909 and died in Los Angeles in 1956. He was 47.


Photo:, William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress


Monday, October 12, 2015

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Music With Power, Nobility, And Expressiveness

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:

In his twilight years Vaughan Williams returned to his traditional lyricism after composing music influenced by violence and loss during the war decades, 1914 - 1945. Here is Symphony No. 8 completed in 1955 just three years before his passing.

[He] is arguably the greatest composer Britain has seen since the days of Henry Purcell. In a long and extensive career, he composed music notable for its power, nobility and expressiveness, representing, perhaps, the essence of ‘Englishness’.
                                                                                      Ralph Vaughan Williams Society