Friday, April 28, 2006

What I do all day

Elianna and Ralene; group class; Leanne's bow hold

Ein Deutsches Requiem

Blessed are they that mourn:
for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth,
bearing precious seed,
shall doubtless come again with rejoicing
bringing his sheaves with him.
Psalm 126:

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity, for the first time, to play in a perfomance of Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. Brahms is probably my favorite composer, and if I were asked the question, "What do you think is the greatest piece of music ever written?" it would be difficult to answer, but I suppose this would be near the top of the list. A requiem is a mass service for the dead which almost always uses the same traditional Latin text. Brahms wanted his Requiem to be a reflection of the German Lutheran tradition instead of the Catholic; a German Requiem, so he collected his own text from the German translation of the Bible. The skill with which Brahms collected and juxtaposed these incomprehensibly beautiful texts and set them to music which breathes life into them seems almost as inspired as the texts themselves. And the most amazing thing is that Brahms was pretty much an athiest. God can work through people who do not even believe or follow Him as vessels for His glory!

The first movement, as I have quoted above, is a masterful combination of Old and New Testament verses with a similar idea of comfort. The second movement is a very solemn funeral march, complete with the obligatory dotted rhythms (think of the funeral marches of Chopin, and Beethoven's Third Symphony), and obsessively repeating triplets in the tympani; the text is from 1 Peter 1:24, "For all flesh is as grass..." Then it turns to a beautiful, simple melody in a major key, quoting a very beautiful passage from James 5: "Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord...." The third movement, for baritone and chorus, also emphasizes ephemeral nature of life on earth (Psalm 39, "Lord, make me know that my days must have a measure..."). The next movement turns to joy in the anticipation of Heavenly places ("How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord." Psalm 84). The fifth movement, for soprano solo and chorus, returns to the theme of comfort, quoting John 16:22, Isaiah 66:13. The powerful sixth movement is a picture of the Second Coming, with texts that include 1 Corinthians 15, and also a grand fugue, somewhat in the style of Handel, on the same passage in Revelation 4 that is used in the "Worthy Is the Lamb" movement of Messiah. The work is a loosely cyclical form, as the final movement ends with similar music to the first, but this time, "Blessed are they dead who die in the Lord from henceforth." (Revelation 14)

Since I was going through an especially difficult week personally when I was in rehearsal for this performance, I made the text of the first movement my personal object of study. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed--this implies that there is something particularly sanctified, especially esteemed, for those who mourn, something that those who do not mourn cannot share. That something is the experience of being comforted by God, "as one whom his mother comforteth" (Isaiah 66:13). This is something that the angels and all the other created beings cannot truly experience. Otherwise, Jesus might have said, "It's OK if you mourn; you'll be comforted." That would have been wonderful enough. But he said blessed are they.

Another interesting observation I had about the second part of the text of this movement, from Psalm 126, was the part about "bearing precious seed." I looked in several other translations, but the King James is the only one that uses the word "precious." The others say things like "bearing seed for sowing." Even in the original Hebrew words, from the lexicon, I couldn't find a word that was translated "precious." But I love the idea of that; it goes along with the "Blessed are they--" there is something precious, something blessed, about the seed sown in sorrow, that isn't found without it. Sorrow is not just a burden to bear, it's a precious seed. I'm curious why the translators of the King James version chose that word.

It's amazing how God can bring a beautiful thing into your life at just the right time, to help explain the pain of a difficult situation.

Also Sprach Zarathustra

April has been an exciting month for me, musically. I had the privilege of performing both Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem and Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Redlands Symphony performance of Zarathustra took place last weekend. What an exciting piece! It starts with four long measures of nothing but a low C (probably at least three, or even four octaves below middle C) in the string basses, contrabassoon, and organ (pedal). The fanfare that follows has been famously quoted in 2001: A Space Odessey, as well as Sesame Street (in which it scared me as a child). There are parts where the divisi strings (up to 10 different parts in the violin section alone) gradually increase to fill the hall with an incredible richness, and several spectacular climactic moments, with the help of the extra-large brass section. Strauss really shows off his gift for orchestration.

My fascination with this piece is filled with mixed feelings, though. Musically, it is an amazing piece, if you don't know the ideologies is it based on. Zarathustra (which is completely orchestral, no text) is loosely based on Freidrich Nietzsche's philosophical treatise of the same name. The book is a colletion of reflections of a character named Zarathustra, a kind of sage-hermit who Nietzsche calls the "Superman," the epitomy of self-mastery and fulfilling of all human achievement.

There has been a lot of debate over exactly how Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings have been interpreted or misinterpreted, but definitely Nietzsche (born, conveniently, in 1844) contributed to a large part of modern antireligious and anti-Christian thought, and was admired by Hitler. I have not studied his philosophies in depth, nor do I care to; neither have I been able to find much reference material about his philosophies which are not tainted by apologies from the prevalent moral thought. Nietzsche has been at least somewhat connected with "Social Darwinism," the idea that tries to connect moral issues, social behavior, and religion with evolution. Seems to me, whatever the debate may be, what you get if you combine "science" (i.e., the prevalent view that anything not observable by nature is unreal, and that whatever is seen through a microscope at an Important University, published in an Important Scientific Journal, and funded by large grants is true) with attempts to answer philosophical questions that will never escape us (what is the meaning of life, what happens next, where did it all come from, etc.), something akin to Nazism, the Holocaust, and WWII can pretty easily emerge. Obviously, all life evolved from a single cell that just happened, and some species adapted better and evolved into other species, and some parts of a species (in humans, read "races") are better adapted to evolutionary progress (Germanic, of course) than others (Jews, blacks--well, everybody else), until a single person, the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement, finally emerges to dominate all others (Hitler, or at least that’s what he thought of himself). Morality is nonexistent; the "Superman" is well above the pettiness of "good" and "evil." Primordial, amoral forces (Diyonesian) drive all true creative force; forces of logical order and society (Apollonian) are unhealthy. Christianity was invented to subvert culture; it has caused much more harm than good. God is dead.

These are some of the challenges Christians have had to live with in society since the last half of the 19th century. Many of these philosophies are new since then, or at least have been amalgamated and spread recently, and with the help of the media and global communication, have influenced more people and politics than most previous philosophies, at least in its effects. To me this is yet another proof of 1844 as a watershed year, when society and culture turned into the beast it has grown to today.

Gotta show off my fiddlers

Last week my fourth grade students performed "Bile 'Em Cabbage Down," in full western country costume, for their music program.

On sea otters

I had a rare opportunity to watch a very friendly sea otter, one of my favorite animals, at play at a wildlife preserve near Monterey a few weeks ago.
He was catching crabs and putting on a show for tourists right by the shore of the estuary.

Global warming

Right now I'm not sure I understand the environmentalists who complain about global warming. I live in Southern California, it's almost May, and it's been in the 50s in the day. Over in Ohio where my parents live, and where there apparently is global warming, the weather has been nicer and more Spring-like than here. When my poor parents came to visit this frigid place in March, my mom and I went to Pasadena and forgot our jackets. As we were shivering in our boots, someone with a clipboard standing on the street corner asked us to sign a petition about global warming. We could have used some of that this winter.

Lessons from a pencil sharpener

I fired a student today. I don't like to do that very often, but sometimes circumstances make it impossible to do otherwise. Once in a while it's a schedule issue, but usually the reason involves working with the parent. I've never fired a student because of his or her playing ability or even motivation if the parent is willing to work together with her child and with me to make practicing work. But when I have a parent who shows no respect for me, or for the process of learning the violin (i.e. "Why do we have to practice this piece again? Why do we have to work on bow holds over and over? Can't Bobby just go ON TO THE NEXT PIECE?!"), then each lesson is a drudgery and a chore for me.

This mother just yelled. Just yelled. Literally--increased decibel levels. I've never had a parent yell at me before. My method of teaching is wrong, I won't listen to her ideas, and why can't her son just go on to the next piece? And she starts her yelling fits at the time the lesson is over, when it's time for another student. I won't take that, and I have plenty of other students to take his time slot. So she got the phone call.

"The phone call" is a difficult task for me. I'm a softie, I admit. I always want to give people, especially children, the benefit of the doubt, and one more chance. Should I have given her a warning--the next time you yell at me, I'll discontinue lessons for your son? But with encouragement from Karen, my colleague, I just did it. But I felt bad for her son, who will likely have to deal with his mother's relationships with other teachers in the future, and likely learn that in life you yell and yell until there is nobody left to yell at.

My next chore after I hung up with this mother was to sharpen my pencils. I have two very similar battery operated pencil sharpeners, Foray brand, that I bought at Office Depot for $4. Actually, I've had three. The first one quit working the first time I opened the shavings compartment to empty it. The second one I bought was the same; since I had liked the pencil sharpener before it stopped working, I thought it was just defective and I'd give another one a try. After all, it was only $4. It ate my pencils. The third was a slightly different model of the same brand, still $4. It does not sharpen pencils. If you stick a pencil in the hole, nothing happens. Both pencil sharpeners have been sitting on my desk for about six months. I brush the California desert dust off of them and keep trying them periodically. No avail. I tried both of them again today. They broke two pencils.

Today I decided to throw away both pencil sharpeners. I realized that with the best of intentions, there are some things that you can't fix, no matter how much you wish you could. The basis for the Suzuki method is, as the title of the Suzuki "bible" says, Nurtured by Love. It's an opportunity for a parent and a child to deepen their relationship by working together on a project, one that requires time and patience to gradually work toward excellence in artistic achievement. The role of the teacher is to guide the parent along in the process. If that's not the object of violin lessons, it's as hopeless as a pencil sharpener that doesn't sharpen pencils, or eats them to a stub (a dull stub, nonetheless). And if you don't get it, you don't get it.

Soon I will go back to Office Depot and invest a little more in a better pencil sharpener. Not a Foray brand.