Category Archives: Music


Fireworks. Flashes. Fizzes. Screams. Whistles. Explosions. Lighting up the night sky. Delicate, large, timed to music. And us, the crowd standing below, thousands in the street, symphonically serenaded, delighted by the display of lights in the night sky above the castle.

A throng of us. Here are we two beforehand, waiting in the darkness. Our first ‘selfie’ on my new phone (my first phone with a camera designed for narcissism).

IMG_20160829_210336186Edinburgh’s Fireworks Concert is not the biggest display of fireworks you’ll meet. I was once told by an American that his hometown did a ‘better’ display. I arrogantly assume he confused the concepts of ‘bigger’ and ‘better’, for the Fireworks Concert that closes out the Edinburgh International Festival on the final Monday of each August is not about size.

It is about glory. About art. Finesse.

No fireworks in the shapes of eagles, flags, happy faces, here.

The fireworks — fizz, pop, bang — are instead timed to a live performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra down in Princes Street Gardens. A delightful, clever ploy to draw crowds to listen to classical music in the vapid age of Bieber, et al.

This year joined the international commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. First, then, came Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, opening with the ‘Dance of the Knights’ or ‘Montagues and Capulets.’ Music that is itself an explosion and display.

If you don’t know this bit of Prokofiev, here’s someone’s video from Monday, a full thirty minutes and thirty-two seconds. The sound is poor — very tinny. But some idea of this beginning of things:

The recording I was raised on can be found on Spotify, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, track 11.

Music has power. Although my world has shifted me onward into words, words, words, I am a clasically-trained clarinettist (not just a classically-trained philologist) who sang in youth choirs way back when. There is wordless power in music that my world of words, words, words appreciates.

This particular piece holds sway over me. Something stirs inside whenever I hear it. It is rousing. I don’t really have words for it, though. It is some sort of powerful, emotive res — thing. Feelings are difficult to describe, even when normal ones such as ‘anger’ or ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ — as Geordie Laforge discovered trying to explain anger to Data once, and as my friend who studies ‘joy’ in Augustine confronts every day.

But whatever this stirring, rousing thing in my chest is, it was certainly enhanced by fireworks.

The celebration of Shakespeare continued on to Bernstein’s Westside Story. (And so — more of a celebration of Romeo and Juliet, which is not my favourite Shakespeare play!) Different coloured fireworks had a rumble in the night sky above Edinburgh Castle, Jets and Sharks.

And, again, the power of music, visible in the in-one-place, happy, delighted dancing of my wife standing in front of me. Music lifting us out of ourselves, out of self-consciousness, out of inhibitions. Freedom from beauty. The power of (good) art.

And then a non-Shakespearean finale, Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. (I’d hoped for some Mendelssohn.)

Some finale fireworks photos (because a picture paints a thousand words, as they say):

The Nibelungenlied: Variations

Siegfried and Kriemhilde

In April I was walking through the Universitätsbibliothek here in Tübingen and saw that there was a little display about the Nibelungs there, including some really fake-looking treasure to represent the hoard of the Nibelungs. I looked through it, at copies of editions and translations of the Prose Edda (blogged about here) and the Poetic Edda and the Nibelungenlied as well as a discussion of Richard Wagner and silent film director Fritz Lang.

This made me think, ‘Aha! I should re-read the Nibelungenlied!’ You see, I have a habit of reading literature of the country I am visiting. Plato in Athens, Maupassant in Paris, Ambrose in Milan, Dante in Florence, Burns in Edinburgh. So – why not the Nibelungenlied in Tübingen? To my delight, the uni library has a copy of this mediaeval epic in English, so I took it out (the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Cyril Edwards)!* And I recently finished it.

This is by no means my first contact with this familiar tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde, Etzel and Kriemhilde, Hagen and Gunther. Like oh-so-many people, it was through Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (to which I am listening as I write), the glorious music and plot synopses, followed by watching Die Walküre live in Toronto with my uncle and a friend as well as, much later, Siegfried on DVD (my post on that here). At some stage, after having read the Nibelungenlied, I read Roy Thomas’ graphic novel of the Ring Cycle as well. I was a bit disappointed with the stylised vision of the Aesir, whom I would have made more early mediaeval, ‘Nordic’, as in Gareth Hinds’ excellent Beowulf. Wagner’s vision is most people’s primary, first, and very often sole encounter with this tale.

However, because of Wagner, many people like me exist! I thought to myself, ‘Hmph. I should read this Nibelungenlied someday, fan of Wagner that I am.’ In my fourth year of uni, I found a copy of the Penguin Classics translation at this fabulous used book store in Ottawa called ‘All Books’ but resisted. My then-girlfriend (now wife!) bought it for me! So I read it.

The Nibelungenlied is not Wagner. I like it, though. It is a High Mediaeval tale of Deception, Betrayal, and Vengeance. There are no Aesir. Fafnir is a mere reference in describing Siegfried’s background. There are jousts and large amounts of single-handed combat. And a cloak of invisibility. And full-scale slaughter. But it is not actually, despite the name of Wagner’s operatic cycle – Der Ring des Nibelungen – the main source of inspiration for those four famousest of operas.

Like all great tales, especially ones transmitted orally, as the heroic epic of the Nibelungenlied was, there are variations, equally aged, each a bit different, each worth investigating. And Wagner’s main inspiration came not from the continental, ‘German’ epic but the Icelandic/Old Norse versions of the story, encapsulated in The Saga of the Volsungs, various poems of The Poetic Edda, and The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. These were all written down after or around the time that the Nibelungenlied was but sometimes contains strata of story that go back much farther.

These I have read since moving to Scotland, first The Poetic Edda, much of which I have to admit I forgot because it’s so dense a read, and then The Saga of the Volsungs, and in April upon arrival in Germany, The Prose Edda. This version is the one with Otter’s Ransom, with cursed gold, with Fafnir, with Sigurd (Siegfried) and Brynhilt and that burning ring of fire (into which Sigurd fell; actually, he jumped with a horse – sorry Johnny Cash). Of the three, if you’re really into things Nibelung, I recommend The Saga of the Volsungs. It is a fairly easy read, and has much adventure, and is self-contained; it’s also shorter than the Nibelungenlied. The others contain a lot of other material from Norse myth, which is itself interesting and well worth a read. But if you’re looking just for the story of Siegfried, that saga is the place to go.

Between reading the Nibelungenlied and the mediaeval Norse versions, I read J R R Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (about which I’ve blogged here). This is a fabulous attempt at weaving a coherent narrative of the competing versions in modern English following Old English versification. It can get heavy at times, but I like it. This book was where I first actually encountered the Norse version un-Wagnerised, and with the Norse names Sigurd and Gudrun, rather than Siegfried and Kriemhilde.

I hope to soon see Fritz Lang’s silent films about Siegfried. Then, all that will remain will be seeing, rather than listening to over and over and over again, Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung.

Each telling, whether ancient or modern, brings a different angle and flavour to this tale, and I like that. Sometimes what is omitted by one is fully stated in another, and so they make sense together. Sometimes I prefer the motivations of one plot over another. That sort of thing. This is the fun of the competing tellings of these old stories, whether of Troy or Arthur or Siegfried.

My Nibelungenlist – Editions/Translations of Variations

The Nibelungenlied. I’ve read both A T Hatto’s translation for Penguin as well as Cyril Edwards’ for Oxford. I don’t recall how the Penguin holds up to the Oxford, but I remember liking it!

The Saga of the Volsungs. Translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. As noted above, this is a volume devoted to nothing but a Norse version of this story. It is heroic and big and wonderful. And a quick read.

The Prose Edda. By Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. This is our major source for Viking myths and worth reading for that alone; along the way, the tale of Sigurd (Siegfried) is told. Like Byock’s translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, this is readable.

The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington for Oxford World’s Classics. Our other major source for Viking myths, this is a dense volume of shorter poems covering the full range of the tales, including – again – Sigurd.

The Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) by Richard Wagner. Numerous recordings of this exist. I am listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s from 1989(?). For DVDs, my opera-loving uncle with whom I saw Die Walküre recommends the Toronto production and last year’s production from the Met.

  • As a subsection of the above, do not forget the graphic novel by Roy Thomas for DC. There is another, multivolume graphic novel by P. Craig Russell, but I haven’t read it. If Eric Shanower ever finishes Age of Bronze, I’d like to see him do something similar for the scattered hoard of the Nibelungs.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J R R Tolkien. I cannot say it better than I already have.

*Sadly, they lack Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in English.

From Munich to Leipzig

For those of you concerned about my survival or at least ability to travel successfully between German cities, I have made it to Leipzig intact. Since my hotel charges the cost of a grande Early Grey for 1 h of internet, I am in Starbucks right now, enjoying their internet.

If it weren’t for the internet, I’d probably be in Coffe Baum, the second-oldest coffee shop in Europe, frequented in the past by Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. Having already seen Bach’s church, the location of Wagner’s birthplace, and the opera house, I am shortly going to see Mendelssohn’s house and Schumann’s house before finding the Hauptbibliothek of Leipzig Uni to ensure that I can safely arrive tomorrow for work.

I do actually work whilst in these cities, worry not.

For example, yesterday I examined an entire manuscript in Munich. I’d have looked at it on Monday after I was finished with the other manuscript of which yesterday’s was the last part, but the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek doesn’t retrieve manuscripts in the afternoon. And, since Munich is allegedly the most northerly Italian city, I couldn’t even spend the rest of Monday afternoon in Museums — Italian museums being closed on Mondays.

Nonetheless, yesterday I read the whole manuscript.

All 1 page of it.

Then I visited the two open rooms of the Bavarian Museum of Egyptian Art — it is in the process of moving to Konigsplatz, where the museums of classical art are. So then I went there, and enjoyed the statuary in the Glyptothek and smaller items in the museum across the road whose name escapes me.

By and large I prefer sculptures to pottery, and the Glyptothek has some very fine examples, including a larger-than-life, drunken-stupor satyr the likes of which I’ve never seen and a statue of Domitian. No, wait, Nero. No, wait, Domitian. Oh, yes. Nero with his face changed into Domitian’s post-Damnatio Memoriae when every image and trace of that emperor was ordered destroyed.

The other one has some very fine objects, including a vessel with Dionysios going for a boat ride with dolphins surrounding him, and in the basement some fantastic, mindblowing Scythian gold.

Then, after sitting in Munich’s train station and reading the Saga of Hrafnkel the Priest of Frey, I took the train to Nürnberg (more easily pronounced in English: Nuremberg), then to Naumburg then to Leipzig, then a 20-min tram ride to my hotel.

And here I am. Tomorrow, work. Today, composers.

I timed this journey well, Leipzig being Wagner’s hometown and this being Wagner’s 200th birthday. Given my poverty, it’s probably best that I leave Saturday afternoon before the opening of Das Rheingold, right? No temptation to buy a ticket …

Peace and Quiet

Right now I am enjoying peace and quiet. For one of the first times in Tübingen indoors. I am at Kengo and Aya’s. and it is quiet. They have graciously allowed me to stay with them last night and tonight. I went to bed last night, and it was quiet. There were no spontaneous 3 AM parties.

Right now, outside, it is quiet. Sometimes a car goes by, but I can’t see them.  They are quite quiet. I can see trees. Earlier I saw a squirrel. I am not playing music right now, just to enjoy the quiet.

It’s like the wise prophetess Joni Mitchell said, ‘You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.’

I never knew how enraptured I am with peace and quiet — with not having other people’s music, other people’s TV shows, other people’s conversations invade my space. With being able to go into a room other than my bedroom and know whom and what to expect. To be alone outside of my bedroom. To do whatever I want. Like read a book or something. Without having to retreat to my bedroom.

It is a quite remarkable thing, peace and quiet.

Philosophers and spiritual masters have recommended it to us for a long time. Silence and solitude are important. We can now fill our lives with noise in our society so that we don’t have to deal with silence and the emptiness that may accompany it. But if you can move through any emptiness to calm and rest on the other side — then silence is a boon.

And so what of us who have tried cultivating peace and quiet but are unable to enjoy it at home?

This is my new question. How often do I stay with friends? Do I spend all day in parks, cafés, and libraries to have some level of quiet? Cafés are not quiet, but it is a different sort of noise than the aural assault that attacks me at my flat (see my last post on that).

But this is not the sort of real relaxation you can have at home, alone, in your own space, with a nice cup of tea and a book. This I cherish above many other things, to sit quietly and read or write whilst drinking a warm cup of tea. But where I live, the quiet never comes. My flatmates fill the emptiness with meaningless noise.

Not only may I be old, I may also be a music snob

Shortly after I posted yesterday’s piece about being a nearly-thirty-year-old living with undergrads, my fifth roommate appeared. Within fifteen minutes of arrival, he had hooked up his laptop to the speakers in the common area and cranked the music uber-loud. Then he disappeared.

This is the sort of thing of which I highly disapprove, regardless of the music. You could be cranking the Beatles or Tallis or Gordon Lightfoot or Puccini — if you’re absent, don’t make others listen to your music choice. It’s bad form.

But … well …

I’d be okay listening to the Beatles or Tallis or Gordon Lightfoot or Puccini.

But the monstrosity that Konrad unleashed.

I would never gladly listen to this.

And when my oppressor is not even present. So much worse.

And what is it that so offends my old, fuddy-duddy ears?

It’s electronic of some sort.

I mean, electronic music need not be bad. It’s come a long way since 1980s synth music. Some of it is not only tolerable but even pleasant.

But this.

It is repetitive with heavy bass. The same three bars are repeated over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over. And then a new three or maybe five bars are chosen.

And all of them have the exact same bass line, which is primarily what I hear. The tempo is always the same. The volume never varies. There is hardly anything worthy of the name ‘melody’, and what melody there is just repeats itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself.

I, on the other hand, after a while, when I washed my mug for the night and realised new flatmate’s lack of presence, shut the common room door and my bedroom door and retreated to my room.

Wagner — Parsifal mit Placido Domingo.

Well worth hearing.

Again and yet again then even, if I wish, again.

Note the variation in the repetition of the above.

Repetition with variation helps created meaning, helps keep the mind from numbing, dulling, screaming in agony, ‘Good Lord, will this hellish pseudo-music ever stop?!’

And Wagner — he’s the master of creative repetition, the king of the leitmotiv that runs through an entire opera, yet never gets stale. He even wrote an opera that never resolves until the very end. And when you consider how long Wagnerian operas are, that is impressive.

But beyond the leitmotivs, beyond the meaningful repetitions, are the many different voices, different tempos, different musical instruments, different volumes, different harmonies, different melodies that populate an opera, the richness of human voices combined with the vast variety of a symphonic orchestra.

It is magnificent without being what some people consider the aural assault of my friend Alessandro Striggio. It is exquisite like a diamond.

And even simpler music, such as Gregorian Chant, has more variety and beauty than that audible poo streaming from the stereo.

My hatred for this music was only increased, of course, at 3:00 AM when it awoke me. If this were Purgatory, I’d know it. Would that I were not stuck in the Inferno …

My name is Matthew. And I am an ageing music snob.

Your art and its value (sanity and immortality for all)

Bosch found immortality if not sanity through his art.

I close every e-mail I send with the following quotation:

It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. -GK Chesterton, Heretics

I believe Chesterton here. I believe that each of us should produce his’er own art — be it the art of music, of dance, of gardening, of poetry, of blogging, of painting, of sculpting, of musical theatre, of cooking…

So many of us wish to be involved with or to produce something of lasting value in this world, do we not? In Letter 1.3, Pliny the Younger writes to Caninius Rufus:

Why don’t you — for it’s time — commit lowly and paltry cares to others, and plant your very self with your studies on that high and fertile retreat? This business ought to be your leisure; this work your quiet; in these your vigils, in this even your sleep should repose. Fashion and compose something that would be yours forever. For the rest of your affairs will come by lot after you to one and another master, but this will never cease to be yours if once you begin it. I know what spirit, what natural cleverness I encourage — you just shine forth so that you may be for yourself as great as you will seem to others if you are to yourself. (My trans.)

Pliny is here encouraging Caninius Rufus to engage in the leisure of scholarship, of writing books or analysing books or philosophising and all those things that are part of the leisure of a Roman aristocrat. This, says Pliny, is what will be a true legacy; all that other business, of home and commerce and government, will come into the hands of others.

As a PhD student and blogger, this is encouraging. What is it that lasts, what is a great endeavour? A business empire? A well-laid garden? The purchase, like Jay Gatsby, of an enormous house? All these can crumble and fall; all will be passed on to one and another when I die. But not my writing; not my art that keeps me sane.

Indeed, has not Pliny himself become immortal through his self-published, highly-stylised letters? Is not the temporal immortality of G K Chesterton found in his multitudinous writings — the essays, the poems, the novels, the books? Wagner, whose Das Rheingold I am listening to right now, is immortal through his music; Rodin through his sculpture; Michelangelo through the agony and the ecstasy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And Thucydides was not wrong when he wrote, ‘My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten’ (History 1.22.4, trans. Jowett) — for people still read him today, and not just Classicists (we being a breed who do read some obscure texts).

When I think on this, on the quest to make art to keep sanity, to gain immortality, to survive in a dark world, I am pleased and encouraged by my friends who are doing just that. I have two friends, Ryan (plays with Doublechief) and Liam (solo awesomeness), who are taking the rock star route to immortality; my friend Mae makes glass jewellery (you can buy it here); my friends Andrée and Jennq are the artistic directors of Caithream Celtic Dance Fusion; Pip keeps up age-old traditions of art and beauty (visible here).

There are many other friends in the arts — my blogging siblings, one of whom used to write for Marvel Comics, another of whom writes young adult novels; friends involved in music at their local churches; friends who play in amateur orchestras; my piano-teaching, church-choir-leading mother; and no doubt loads of others who escape memory right now — if left out not, not really forgotten!

So I hope that you will not simply consume the art around you — music, books, sculptures, paintings, gardens, films — but make a little art yourself. Find sanity, immortality, light in a dark world.

Ginger Beer and Re-trying Stuff

Bundaberg: My ginger beer of choice

Today I was out with a friend, and I happened to have a ginger beer. It reminded me of the first and second times I had ginger beer. The first time was as a child visiting Fort Edmonton, a fantastic historical park that takes you through the whole history of Edmonton. I thought I’d try something new at the store where they sold old-fashioned pop, so I had a ginger beer. After all, I liked ginger ale.

But I didn’t like ginger beer. Not at all. Indeed, I don’t believe I even finished that bottle of ginger beer.

About a year and a half ago, I was walking along, and my stomach was feeling a bit upset. I slipped into a corner store to see if I could buy a ginger ale. But, of course, Scotland doesn’t really carry ginger ale. Out of spite to North Americans, no doubt.

However, knowing that the medicinal properties of ginger ale come from the ginger, I bought a ginger beer. And, you know what? About halfway through, I started to like it. Now I like ginger beer, whereas for many years I avoided it because I didn’t like it.

This story has a moral to it. Of course.

The moral is — try stuff again! When I was a kid I disliked peanuts and mushrooms. Today I do not. How did I come to this knowledge? I tried them again. The world of food that stretches before me has expanded. I can enjoy more things. Therefore, I can enjoy myself more.

So if you as a child disliked, say, apples, or peanut butter, or all fruit, or bananas, or chicken, or the Beatles — try again. Your taste may have changed. We human beings are not static, and that’s a good thing.

And if you think you dislike certain genres — say, murder mysteries or science fiction or fantasy or ancient literature or nineteenth-century novels or poetry in general — try it again. If you disliked Star Wars, try Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Minority Report or something else to see if, perhaps, you like some science fiction, if not all.

If you dislike ‘classical’ music, try Beethoven’s 4th symphony or one of those ‘best of Wagner’ CDs or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.

Expand your horizons, be they culinary or cultural! With more to enjoy, the more you’ll enjoy life. I promise.