"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 31, 2012

Classic Film: "The 400 Blows" (1959) by Truffaut

French New Wave director François Truffaut (1932-1984) has often sought his inspiration in his own autobiography, like literary authors do. His first feature-length film, The 400 Blows, released in 1959, was based on his own troubled childhood and adolescence.

In the 1950s, Truffaut had already established himself as a vitriolic critic for the magazine Les Cahiers du cinéma and with the young colleagues at that magazine (Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer) he would play a pivotal role in the French New Wave. Truffaut and his collaborators advocated that the director of a film should stand artistically speaking over and above any other person involved in the production - like the author of a novel. It was not a movement with a structured ideology, and in the 60s differences between the various proponents widened - for example between the politically engaged movies of Godard and Truffaut's autobiographical "comedies of manners." But there were also similarities, such as the lack of plot and use of non-professional actors and natural dialogues, not to speak of the low-budget productions.

Truffaut's most representative series of autobiographical films is the so-called Antoine Doinel series, that consists of four feature-length films and one short, and was made between 1959 and 1979. I will discuss the first film The 400 Blows (made when there was no idea yet about a series), but will also give notes on the other four films.

First the title, because "400 blows" calls up a rather violent image, as of a British boarding school. Nothing could be farther from the truth, it is a wrong translation of the French title which is an idiom. "Faire les quatre cent coups," means "to live without respect for morals or conventions," "to lead a disorderly life." This refers ironically to the hero of the film, Antoine - it is how society wrongly sees him - , and a better title would have been something like "The Wild One," or "Wild Oats."(I will continue using "The 400 Blows" in order not to cause confusion).

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 13-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a small apartment in Paris. It is so small they are always in each other's way. His tight-sweater wearing mother (Claire Maurier) neglects him as she is too busy with her lover, his uncultured step-father (Albert Rémy) misunderstands the sensitive and artistic boy. Because his creativity is not acknowledged, Antoine starts to rebel against authority and gets into trouble at school, where the teachers are insensitive bores just droning up their lessons. Finally, Antoine runs away from home and goes into hiding at the place of his best friend, René.

The boys need money and steal a typewriter from the office where Antoine’s father works. But they can't sell the heavy machine (it is too obviously stolen and has a serial number) and not knowing what to do with this heap of iron, Antoine tries to smuggle it back into the office. There he is caught by the night watchman. The police is called, and the parents, anyway not very much interested in educating the boy, place him in an institution for delinquent teenagers. At the end of the film, Antoine manages to escape during a game of soccer, and runs and runs, until he comes near the sea, which he sees for the first time in his life, and which gives him a feeling of liberation.

Despite its serious theme, The 400 Blows is great fun. It is full of humor, very different from the suffocating atmosphere in Godard's first film made around the same time, A Bout de Souffle. But that film was about real delinquents, Truffaut rather tells the story of a boy who is misunderstood. The film was made on location in Paris, and fun is the shot where the class following the physical education teacher on a jog through the city gradually diminishes as more and more pupils peel off. Also the last long shot is fantastic: Truffaut's camera follows Antoine for several minutes without any cuts when he runs away, until he reaches the beach, does a few steps in the water and then comes running towards the camera. Only then follows a cut, after a zoom-in to freeze-frame of the boy, and this is the end of the film. This shot is famous for its ambiguity.

This charming film proved popular with both critics and the public at large. It won Truffaut Best Director Award at Cannes in 1959 and brought in enough money for Truffaut's own production company, Carosse d'Or (named after a Renoir film) to continue making films and even invest in films by other New Wave directors. It is dedicated to the man who became his spiritual father, André Bazin, who died just as the film was about to be shot. It was highly praised by filmmakers as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Cocteau and Dreyer.
[10 points out of 10 for Antoine who, when burning a candle to the spirit of Balzac, sets fire to the house]. 
Criterion essayEbertSenses of Cinema.

Antoine and Colette (1962). A short film that was part of a collection of four pieces by different directors called Love at Twenty. Antoine Doinel (again (Jean-Pierre Léaud, who acts as Truffaut's cinematic alter ego in the whole series) works in a factory which makes records. He has lost his wildness and loves music and books. At a classical concert, he sees a nice girl, Colette (Marie-France Pisier), and falls in love with her. But Colette sees him more as a "brother" with whom she can exchange books and records. Antoine in fact gets closer to her parents - surrogate for the real parents he never meets anymore after what happened in The 400 Blows - than to her and at the bittersweet end of the film she goes out with a real boyfriend while Antoine watches TV with her parents.
[8.5 points out of 10] 
Criterion essay

Stolen Kisses (1968; Baisers volés).
This film shows two love affairs of Antoine that are more successful than the one in Antoine and Colette. But above all it is about Antoine's efforts to find a job that fits him. At the start of the film he is discharged from the army - he joined the military as a volunteer, presumably to forget the failed love affair with Colette, but everyone who has seen the previous films in the series will realize that Antoine and the army are not meant for each other.

Back in civilian life, the 20-year old Antoine first gets a job as night watchman in a hotel, but when he allows a private detective to upset a couple of lovers and catch a philandering husband, he obviously gets the sack. The detective agency kindly hires him, but he is not much better at this work, either. He bungles the case of trailing a magician with a secret love life. Next, he is assigned to the shoe-shop of the paranoid Mr Tabard, who believes everyone is hating him and wants the truth of that feeling thoroughly researched. Antoine again bungles his job when he falls in love with the beautiful Madame Tabard (Delphine Seyrig from Last Year at Marienbad) - his secret meetings with her in a hotel are logged by a colleague from his own detective agency, so that is the end of another job.

While all this is going on, Antoine is also making love to Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) - he even steals a kiss from her when fetching wine in the cellar of her parents - parents, by the way, with whom he is again on very good terms. Will Antoine and Christine marry?
[9 points out of 10] 
Criterion essay
P.S. I have seen this film criticized because, made in 1968, it ignores the student protests then going on in Paris (the film does, however, refer to the inconvenience caused by all the strikes). But that is nonsense, we don't demand that all films made in the U.S. between, say, 1968 and 1975 address the Vietnam War, do we? Films can engage with what happens in society, but they don't have to. We are not living under a social-realist regime. Truffaut was very much politically engaged, but he preferred to express this in other ways than film. And in a way, that is more true to how we all live: whatever goes on in politics or society, as long as it does not touch us directly, we go on with our daily lives, as these for us are the most important thing in the world. Finding a job, finding a partner, getting your life settled, has more relevance than marching against the government.

Bed and Board  (1970; Domicile Conjugale).
First the title: "Domicile Conjugale" means the "marital home," and is especially a legal term used in case of separation. In other words, in this film Antoine Doinel is 26 and married to Christine, but he bungles it again....

The couples finances are not very stable: Christine gives violin lessons, Antoine works for a florist, dyeing flowers. After the flowers die during an experiment, he goes for an interview with an American construction company. He gets the burlesque job: operating radio-controlled boats in a pond. Here, in the entourage of a customer, he sees Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer), a Japanese woman to whom he feels attracted. His wife has just given birth to their first child, but that seems no objection to start an affair with Kyoko. Christine learns what is happening behind her back and is so angry that she kicks Antoine out of the marital bed, and next makes him leave the marital home. Is the marriage already over?

The best elements in this film are where we see the married life of Antoine and Christine, in their daily details. The job situation is also funny, like in the previous film. But the description of other cultures is hopelessly stereotyped: not only the boisterous American boss, but most of all the Japanese girlfriend, who is unrealistically quiet and non-verbal, and to make it worse, harbors thoughts of suicide. She also sits on the floor... in a Western apartment (in 1970, Japanese were already used to Western-style rooms and in a Western room would always use chairs; Kyoko fails, however, to tell Antoine that he should take off his shoes when sitting on the floor). In other words, this part of the film is so wrongly stereotyped that it is almost unwatchable.
[7.5 points out of 10]

Love on the Run (1979; L'Amour en fuite).
Antoine Doinel is in his thirties. He has become an author and published an autobiographical novel; at the same time, he works as a proofreader. The events in the previous film have indeed led to a divorce between him and Christine - this film starts with the legal proceedings. But he still sees her regularly and is fond of his son, Alphonse. He has an affair with a record shop girl, Sabine (Dorothée), but this is not developing very well. By chance he then meets his first love,  Colette (Marie-France Pisier), who is now a successful lawyer, in the station and jumps on the train to talk to her. In this way, by meeting various persons from his past, Antoine comes face to face with his chaotic life, but he keeps running around and falling in love. He can't help himself... In the end, Christine and Colette will join forces to bring Antoine back to Sabine...

This last installment is surprisingly lightweight and at least one third of the film is made up of material recycled from the previous four films. That is a questionable practice, and wholly unnecessary in our day of DVD boxes. Of course, in the 60s and 70s, earlier films like the short Antoine and Colette would have been sadly unavailable to the general public, so there is some reason behind all these flashbacks... but it does not make a very good film, although the "new" parts are just as full of humor as ever.
[7 points out of 10] 
Criterion essay.

January 30, 2012

Classic Novel: "He Knew He Was Right" (1869) by Trollope

He Knew He Was Right is the ironic title of one of Trollope's greatest novels, the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Strangely enough, there is no earthly reason why the marriage between Louis Trevelyan, a well-heeled English gentleman, and Emily Rowley, the eldest daughter of a British colonial governor, would not be successful. They love each other and the fruit of that love soon makes its presence felt in the form of a baby boy. Emily's sister Nora lives with the young couple in their London mansion and there only seem blue skies ahead.

But then a small thing happens, something which normally would not even be a bump in the road. Emily receives regular visits from Colonel Osborne, a friend of her father, with a reputation of a lady's man despite his advanced years. There are some rumors, the husband starts paying attention, he gets jealous. Though nothing improper ever occurs, Trevelyan overreacts by ordering his wife to avoid Colonel Osborne in the future. Emily strongly resents her husband's lack of trust and is angry that he dare doubt her innocence.

Normally, such a small matter would be cleared up in the evening, forgiven at night and forgotten the next day. But the chance for reconciliation passes, another small matter occurs which feeds Trevelyan's jealousy, and Emily is again strengthened in her stubbornness. And so the unreasonable (and totally unfounded) jealousy of Trevelyan, and the stubbornness of the willful Emily gradually escalate. Pride and vanity on both sides cut off the way back to happiness. Husband and wife start living apart; Trevelyan travels abroad to forget his shame; in his absence, Trevelyan has his wife watched by a detective. Colonel Osborne does not make things easier by paying some more visits to Emily, just to spite the husband and feed his own vanity. This gives Trevelyan reason for his jealousy and by and by he starts wallowing in his unhappiness, and slowly descends into insanity.

A butterfly moving its wings can lead to disaster.

This main story-line has been keenly observed by Trollope, who is the author of human behavior, especially of conflict and collision. Trollope is at his best when he describes people who try to manipulate each other, his dialogues are always wonderfully sharp. Usually the weaker party, like Emily, doesn't let herself be ordered around and stands up for her rights. This leads to delicious conflicts.

The subplots are also full of it. The whole world wants Nora, Emily's sister, to marry Lord Glascock (although of course a suitor with such a name can't be allowed to be successful), but she stubbornly perseveres in her love for the penniless Hugh Stanbury, a friend of Trevelyan. Hugh's sister Dorothy lives in Exeter with their aunt, the formidable Jemima Stanbury. The aunt wants her to marry a clergyman, the sly Mr Gibson. She refuses, for she loves Brooke Burgess, the heir to the Stanbury fortune and the last person in the world her aunt wants her to marry. And so on. Exquisite is also the predicament of Mr Gibson, who after being jilted, proposes to the vain Camilla French, who even before being sure of her prey reveals she is a harridan of the first order. Poor Mr Gibson escapes from the marriage, but has to pay for his sins by being coupled for life with Camilla's elder sister, Arabella.

Conflicts of course not only arise in lovemaking. Aunt Stanbury has quarreled with Hugh because he writes for a penny newspaper and has liberal views. When Emily and Nora are staying with Hugh Stanbury's relatives, vicious letters are exchanged between Aunt Stanbury and Dorothy's sister Priscilla about a perceived "immoral" visit of Mr Osborne, which first didn't take place but later does. Emily and Nora stay for a few months with an uncle, Mr Outhouse, a clergyman who has to receive them in his house, but does not really want them to come. Sir Marmaduke, the father of Emily and Nora, briefly returns to the U.K. and is grilled by a parliamentary committee. He also gives Trevelyan a dressing down. The old and the new worlds collide in the house of Mr Spalding, the American Ambassador to Florence, where several characters have traveled to, including Mr Glascock, who is caught by Caroline Spalding and educated in democratic principles.

My evaluation: He Knew He Was Right is 950 pages thick, but remains interesting to the last page. Despite some instances of 19th century redundancy, this is Trollope at his best. Read it as an Oxford Classic as I did, a Penguin Classic, or at Gutenberg.

Also see the Anthony Trollope website, the Trollope Society or the Victorian Web.

January 29, 2012

Bach Cantatas (7): 4th Sunday after Epiphany (Jan 29)

The cantatas for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in 2012 Jan. 29. This fourth (and last) Sunday after Epiphany does not occur every year, so there are only two cantatas for it.

Romans 13:8–10, love completes the law
Matthew 8:23–27, Jesus calming the storm


  1. Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? BWV 81, 30 January 1724

    Aria (Alt, Blockflöten): Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
    Recitativo (Tenor): Herr! warum trittest du so ferne?
    Aria (Tenor): Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen
    Arioso (Bass): Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?
    Aria (Bass, Oboe d'amore): Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer!
    Recitativo (Alt): Wohl mir, mein Jesus spricht ein Wort
    Choral: Unter deinen Schirmen

    The familiar story of Jesus stilling the waves. Life is compared to a sea voyage. The cantata plays with the contrast of Jesus being hidden (sleeping) and appearing (acting). This a very operatic and dramatic cantata, concentrating on solo vocal movements. After an alto aria, which speaks of the "sleeping" (illustrated by the recorders, low registers of the strings and long notes in the voice) - at the same time, a contemplation on the terror of death - we get a ferocious storm scene in the tenor aria, full of bravura passage work. The arioso is devoted to the bass as the Vox Christi reciting a quote from the Gospel: "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" This is followed by a powerful bass aria where the storm (unison runs of the strings) is silenced by Jesus (calmer motion in the oboes). The cantata concludes with a four part choral. (****)

  2. Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, 30 January 1735

    (Coro): "Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit" for choral and instrumental tutti.
    Aria: "Unsre Stärke heißt zu schwach" for soprano, corno da caccia, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Ja, hätt es Gott nur zugegeben" for tenor and continuo.
    Aria: "Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen" for bass, oboes, and continuo.
    Chorale: "Gott Lob und Dank, der nicht zugab" for choral and instrumental tutti colle parti.

    This is the last cantata written by Bach, dating from January, 1735. The initial chorus and final chorale are based on Luther’s Psalm 124, a hymn of communal thanksgiving. The inner movements are concerned with the results of sin: war and natural disaster, from which God’s protection is required (reflecting the protection given against the storm in the reading for this day). The somewhat academic opening chorus explores complex contrapuntal possibilities. The brilliant soprano aria with its delightful orchestration (corno da caccia) comes as a fresh breeze. It reflects the wrathful enemy. Also the bass aria with two obbligato oboes is a nice show piece, singing about God's intervention and the taming of the forces of evil. (***)

January 28, 2012

Classic Fiction: "The Death of the Heart" (1938) by Bowen

"The Death of the Heart" (1938), by Elizabeth Bowen, is an extraordinary novel, written in dense Jamesian prose and excellently observed. It is also an almost plot-less book, everything in this psychological novel takes place between the ears. The theme is "innocence" - not only how innocence can be lost to experience, but even more so the effect of true innocence on experience and sophistication.

The story is simple. A sixteen year old orphan, Portia Quayne, has come to live with her prosperous half-brother Thomas and his reluctant wife Anna, who is also the embodiment of urbane cynicism. Raised by her mother in a series of hotels on the Continent, Portia is possessed of a sort of devastating innocence: she literally can not understand unkindness or false motives.

In the polite but cruelly sophisticated world that is the house of Thomas and Anna, Portia encounters the attractive, carefree Eddie, who just lives by the moment. While Eddie indulges himself in playing with the child-woman, to Portia he seems the only real person in the cold atmosphere enveloping her.

Contemporary readers might expect some sexual denouement (innocence lost), but nothing of the sort happens. Portia's childish love comes to grief in a much more subtle way, when she is vacationing in the windswept cottage of Anna's former governess at the seaside. Eddie has followed her for the weekend - of which Portia is proud -, they visit the cinema with a group of acquaintances  and there, during the chance flash of a cigarette lighter, she sees him holding hands with another girl. That is all. But it is enough to end her state of innocence.

At the same time, Portia's real adversary is not the faithless Eddie, but Anna - worldly sophistication and childlike innocence don't go very well together. Anna will see herself reflected in the mirror of Portia's innocence and what she sees there is not very nice. In the end, we could well ask: whose heart has died?

January 26, 2012

Classic Film: "Caught" (1949) by Ophuls

Caught (1949) is one of the two noir films Ophuls made in the U.S. and it is a concise, tense and mean little film, a criticism of  capitalism run wild.

Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes in her best performance), a poor model, dreams of romance, pouring over fashion magazines with mink coats and waiting for her Prince Charming. She even gets a feminine social education at charm school ("college and finishing school combined"). Then she happens to meet cynical control-freak millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) - based on Howard Hughes, it is rumored - who marries her as a kind of joke, just to spite his psychoanalyst and to show her he controls her destiny. As a result, Leonora finds herself another piece of opulence stuffed in Ryan's Long Island mansion. On top of that, her husband has a psychotic streak and his manservant, Curt (Franzi Kartos) is almost menacing in his obsequiousness to his master.

To get away, Leonora trades richess for New York's East Side and lands a grind-house job as receptionist for struggling slum pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason). Although briefly returning to Ryan by his promises of change, Leonora is determined to stay in charge of her own destiny. During a dance in a chock-full cafe where they keep stepping on each other's toes, Larry proposes to her. But she is pregnant with Ohlrig's child and once more returns to her husband who proves more abusive than ever. He wants his “possession” back, even calling her his "employee." Extreme capitalism cheapens human feelings. The very rich think their money buys everything, but although it goes far, Ophuls shows there is a limit to what money can do. Even pimp lackey Curt walks out in disgust. Leonora is saved from her Long Island prison by Larry, as she has a miscarriage brought on by Ohlig's violence. In the back of the ambulance they reaffirm their love.

The film's title "Caught" not only refers to the marriage trap Leonora walked into, but more broadly to the wrong ideas that entrapped her: the materialistic view that money would be the root of all happiness. Unfortunately, as the world is, too many people are "caught..."

P.S. Ophuls' second noir, The Reckless Moment, seemed to be more pedestrian to me, although it features a steely Joan Bennet and again James Mason, and like Caught, plays with viewer expectations.

My evaluation: 8 points out of 10 for Leonora's mink coat.
Other reviews: Schwartz; Cinepassion.

January 24, 2012

Classic Film: "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948) by Ophuls

Max Ophuls was the director of romantic regret. His flowing, generous style of filming is like a Viennese waltz. His whole life on the move because of persecution (he was Jewish), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) was the second (and only major) film made by this German born, French citizen in Hollywood. The film already exudes the grace, beauty and sensitivity characteristic of the masterworks he would make in the 1950s in Europe.

The story is set in a nostalgic Vienna around 1900, and is loosely based on a story by Stefan Zweig. At night, a hurried man arrives at his apartment, telling his manservant that he will depart before the morning. This is Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a failed concert pianist, planning to leave Vienna to avoid a duel. His servant hands him a letter, from one of the many women in his life - dissipation was the main reason for his stranded career -, a woman he cannot remember and who is therefore the "unknown woman."

Brand sits down to read the letter and in a long flashback we see the love Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) felt for him: "By the time you read this letter, I may be dead…. If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t know who I was or even that I existed." In other words, Lisa dies, because her existence has been unacknowledged. The film is her posthumous plea for recognition.

There are three major episodes: as a girl, she was Brand's  neighbor and dreamed secretly about the famous piano lion; as a young woman, she has a short affair with him and secretly bears his child; as a mature, married woman of high status she finally meets him again and abandons her husband Johann (Marcel Journet) for her youthful memories - only to discover that her philandering hero doesn't remember at all who she is. He has been completely blind to her lifelong love. She has written the letter in the hospital where she is dying of typhus. Brand spends the night reading her letter, instead of fleeing to save his life and in the morning, her husband who as a military man is an excellent marksman, arrives to get satisfaction in a duel.

This film is more straightforwardly melodramatic than Ophuls' later French films, and misses the irony of those works. That may have been due to the climate in the U.S. with its infamous Hays Code - the cynical La Ronde could never have been filmed in Hollywood. After this, Ophuls only made two minor noir films in Hollywood (Caught and The Reckless Moment) before returning to Europe.

That being said, even in Letter from an Unknown Woman Ophuls keeps enough distance from his characters to make a more critical reading of their actions possible, and laugh at the sardonic joke of Lisa taking revenge on Brand from the grave, as it were, for it is her long letter that keeps him from running away from a duel where he will surely be killed!

As Lisa herself says in the film: "The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by, each intent on his own problems. So many faces that one might easily have been lost. I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted."

My evaluation: 8.5 points out of 10 for the stationary "train ride" at the fairground, where backgrounds are rotated by a bicycle. 
Senses of Cinema essay "Ophuls Conducting: Music and Musicality in Letter from an Unknown Woman". Senses of Cinema review of Letter from an Unknown Woman. Filmsite Movie Review. New Yorker article about Ophuls.

January 23, 2012

Classic fiction: "Le Père Goriot" (1835) by Balzac

Le Père Goriot (1835; "Old Goriot" or "Father Goriot") is a fierce criticism of the money-and-greed dominated society that France had become in the 19th century. The hero is a social climber, the student Rastignac. The novel is set in the Paris of 1819, in the Maison Vauquer, a poor boarding house in Paris' rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève. Eugène de Rastignac lives here together with several other characters, of whom the most important are the elderly Goriot, a retired businessman who dotes on his two daughters who have married status and money and don't want to see him anymore; and Vautrin, a mysterious criminal in hiding.

The novel is filled with descriptions of corruption and greed. Balzac quotes the price for everything, from the room rents on different floors of the boarding house to the cost of a meal or a horse-drawn carriage. Money rules the world after the success of capitalism through the Industrial Revolution, and has also infiltrated aristocratic society.

Rather than studying his law books, Rastignac tries a shortcut to wealth by having himself introduced in high society by his cousin, Madame de Beauséant. There he meets Goriot's daughters, Anastasie (married to rank, a count) and Delphine (married to money, a banker) and falls in love with the second one. Vautrin, at the same time, pushes him to court a young woman in the boarding house, Victorine, whose family fortune is blocked only by her brother - of course, he offers to clear the way for Rastignac. The student balks at the idea of murder, but listens attentively to the lessons about the harsh realities of modern society that Vautrin teaches him.

Old Goriot is supportive of Rastignac's courtship of his daughter, but dies after suffering a stroke. Neither of his daughters visits him at his deathbed (ashamed as ;they are of their pauper of a father) and only Rastignac attends the funeral - before heading off to the apartment of Delphine for another rendez-vous. He sure is climbing the social ladder, and shouts out at the city of Paris: "It's between you and me now!"

Le Père Goriot is a "bildungsroman:" the initially naive Rastignac is tutored by Vautrin, Madame de Beauséant and others in the truth of society and the ruthless strategies required for success. First repulsed by these unpleasant realities, Rastignac eventually embraces them. The novel gave rise to the French expression "Rastignac" for a social climber willing to use any means to better his situation.

January 22, 2012

Bach Cantatas (6): 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Jan 22)

Here are the cantatas for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, which in 2012 fell on Jan. 22.

Romans 12:17–21, overcome evil with good
Matthew 8:1–13, the healing of the leper

The Gospel reading for this day consists of two stories, the healing of the leper and the faith of the Centurion. The emphasis is on blind faith. Romans, in contrast, extols the virtue of charity towards one's enemy.


  1. Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir, BWV 73, 23 January 1724

    Chorale e recitativo (Tenor, Bass, Soprano): Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir
    Aria (Tenor, Oboe): Ach senke doch den Geist der Freuden
    Recitativo (Bass): Ach, unser Wille bleibt verkehrt,
    Aria (Bass): Herr, so du willt
    Choral: Das ist des Vaters Wille

    A short, but very original cantata. It takes its cue from the leper story which contrasts human frailty with God's will, and the leper's plea "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean." The oboe motif of the chorus morphs into the recurring "Lord, if Thou Wilt," a sort of leitmotiv for the whole cantata. The chorus is interspersed with recitatives from each of the soloists. The emotional center of the cantata is the tenor aria (again with oboe accompaniment) "Oh enter thou spirit of joy into my heart." The ensuing bass aria describes the soul's readiness for death. In the final stanza, pizzicato strings suggest funeral bells. The cantata is concluded with the usual quiet choral. (****)

  2. Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit, BWV 111, 21 January 1725

    1. Coro: Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit
    2. Aria (bass): Entsetze dich, mein Herze, nicht
    3. Recitativo (alto): O Törichter! der sich von Gott entzieht
    4. Aria (alto, tenor): So geh ich mit geherzten Schritten
    5. Recitativo (soprano): Drum wenn der Tod zuletzt den Geist
    6. Chorale: Noch eins, Herr, will ich bitten dich

    Choral cantata. The story of the Centurion who has faith that Jesus will cure his servant leads to a meditation on steadfast faith. The very elaborate opening chorus with soprano cantus firmus is very intense and dynamic. It is introduced by a 16 bar instrumental statement. The bass aria is more like a resolute admonition. In their radiant duet, alto and tenor sing in canon to bring out the meaning off the text "following God with courageous footsteps." So we get a walking rhythm - full of profound joy, as the main theme is the salvation of the soul through death. But this duet is a dazzling jewel. (****)

  3. Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, BWV 72, 27 January 1726

    Coro: Alles nur nach Gottes Willen
    Recitativo und Arioso (Alt, Violinen): O selger Christ, der allzeit seinen Willen
    Aria (Alt, Violinen): Mit allem, was ich hab und bin
    Recitativo (Bass): So glaube nun
    Aria (Sopran, Oboe, Streicher): Mein Jesus will es tun, er will dein Kreuz versüßen
    Choral: Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit

    The cantata takes the readings as a testimony to the blind faith that the believer, in good times and in bad times, should place in the Lord. Bravura work opening with a brilliant chorus in concertante style - the word "alles" is repeated almost obsessively. This is followed by a complex recitative-arioso-aria for alto. The sweet soprano aria brings a balmy peace, as does the short final choral. (***)

  4. Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156, ?23 January 1729

    Aria (Tenor) and Chorale (Soprano): Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe
    Recitative (Bass): Mein Angst und Not
    Aria (Alto): Herr, was du willt, soll mir gefallen
    Recitative (Bass): Und willst du, dass ich nicht soll kranken
    Chorale: Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir

    Solo cantata showing Bach's late cantata style at its most subtle. The theme is Jesus healing the sick, based on the reading about the healing of the leper. Starts with a deeply felt sinfonia for oboe and strings. The second movement is a combination of a tenor aria with a chorale cantus firmus. A bass recitative and arioso express anguish at "the longer here on earth, the later in Heaven." This is followed by an airy alto aria with lively contrapuntal accompaniment. The whole cantata is suffused with a longing for death. (****)

January 21, 2012

Classic Film: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) by Wilder

In Witness for the Prosecution (1957) a man, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a former RAF sergeant and now inventor of kitchen appliances down on his luck, is accused of murder. There is only circumstantial evidence and that all points in his direction (DNA tests were not possible yet in 1957, otherwise this case would have soon be settled). Vole is accused of murdering Miss French, a rich, older woman who had become fond of him, even making him the beneficiary of her will. So he needs a good lawyer to get him off the hook: he does an appeal on master barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton).

The massively obese Robarts takes on the case although he has just left hospital after recovering from a heart attack and is engaged in various battles with his bossy private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), for the desire for cigars, cognac and the adrenaline offered by a criminal case prove stronger than prudence. I like that mountain of a man - he is massively human. In real life, Laughton and Lanchester were married, which gives her mothering and his grumpiness some marital reality.

Another intriguing element that pulls Robarts into the case is Vole's German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a very cold and self-possessed woman who has a nice surprise up her sleeve - when the case is heared, she appears for the prosecution and busts the alibi she had originally provided for Vole! True to her character in previous movies, she is a former cabaret dancer picked up by Vole in a bombed out German city.

Well, Sir Robarts has something to put his teeth into! I won't go into details for this is really a film where the plot and its final twists (and surprise ending) are important. But I would like to draw your attention to the atmosphere and the characters, which are well drawn and superbly acted. Marlene Dietrich gives one of the best performances of her career, even entertaining us with a cockney accent. Charles Laughton is, well, himself. He anchors the whole movie, childlike in his transgressions (substituting brandy for cocoa in his thermos bottle), garrulous, mischievous but also utterly charming. The dialogues, too, are smart and witty, as is to be expected of Billy Wilder. The courtroom dueling is fun, as is the beautiful recreation of the Old Bailey. The original story, by the way, is a play by Agatha Christie.

My evaluation: 8.5 points out of 10 for Laughton racing up and down with his staircase lift.

January 20, 2012

Classic Film: "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) by Lubitsch

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) rests on a wonderful premise, that has been borrowed by several other films and musicals (such as the inferior You've Got Mail): a man and a woman have come in contact via a newspaper ad and are exchanging letters which turn increasingly amorous, without having met yet; but when in real life they become co-workers, they are always quibbling and quarreling. Their personalities as letter writers seem totally different from their real life egos.

The story, written by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, is set in interwar Budapest, and stresses the insecurity of people's lives because of the 1930s crisis - today, we can feel again their fear of unemployment. Almost the whole film takes place in and around the upscale leather goods shop of Matuschek and Co. Here work eight people among whom the most important are: the owner, Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan); chief salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart); Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), a family man, who keeps as much as possible in the background but who is also the moral centre; Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), an aging dandy (the original of Mr. Humphreys in Are You Being Served, a TV series that also borrowed from this film); an errand boy, Pepi (William Tracey); and the newest member, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who when the film starts comes in begging for a job. She is Alfred Kralik's romantic pen pal.

This one of Ernst Lubitsch' best films (much better than Ninotchka), a combination of his famous wry humor and delicate sentiment. Himself from Germany and living since the 1920s in Hollywood, Lubitsch looks with nostalgia and idealism at the "Old Europe." The story is also very well written, with many important events (and even a whole person, the redoubtable Mrs Matuschek, whose infidelity is a major plot element) entirely kept off-screen.

The acting is faultless, and there is real chemistry between the two protagonists, Stewart and Sullavan. Yes, they get each other, but only after a bumpy ride during which Kralik is temporarily fired due to a festering disagreement about musical cigarette boxes, Matuschek has a detective spy on his wife and after receiving proof of her infidelity ("she doesn't want to grow old with me") tries to commit suicide, and Kralik and Novak continue verbally pestering each other. She tells him at one point: "I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find: instead of a heart, a handbag; instead of a soul, a suitcase; and instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter that doesn't work." They even set up a date as letter writers, but when she sees him, Novak never believes Kralik can be her romantic pen pal.

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the errand boy who manages to get a promotion. 
Three interesting articles: Acting Ordinary in Shop Around the Corner (PDF), a review at the Wellington Film Society & Senses of Cinema.

January 19, 2012

Bach Cantatas (5): 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Jan 15)

Today we listen to the cantatas for the second Sunday after Epiphany, the 15th of January in 2012, which will bring us up to date.

The cantatas for the second Sunday after Epiphany again stress the pain of separation of the soul from Jesus. They are among the saddest music Bach has written.

Romans 12:6–16, we have several gifts
John 2:1–11, the Marriage at Cana

  1. Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? BWV 155, 19 January 1716 (BCW, CN, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Recitativo (Sopran, Streicher): Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?
    Aria (Alt, Tenor, Fagott): Du mußt glauben, du mußt hoffen
    Recitativo (Bass): So sei, o Seele, sei zufrieden
    Aria (Sopran): Wirf, mein Herze, wirf dich noch
    Choral: Ob sich's anließ, als wollt er nicht

    Solo cantata in chamber style. The wedding at Cana, the gospel reading for this day, symbolically represents the marriage of Christ and the soul. It is also about transformation: water into wine, doubt into trust. The theme of the cantata therefore is grief about the separation from God, gradually transformed into the joy of coming together.  Images are all about water, wine and tears. The cantata opens with an operatic soprano aria, followed by a very original duet that exhorts to trust and hope. It is accompanied by a weeping bassoon that takes the part of the troubled soul. The bass recitative speaks in the voice of God about the wine of comfort. The sonata is concluded by a joyous soprano aria in a dancing rhythm and a chorale. (***)

  2. Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 3, 14 January 1725 (BCW, CN, EVHJN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Chorus: Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid
    Recitative and Choral: Wie schwerlich lässt sich Fleisch und Blut
    Aria for Bass: Empfind ich Höllenangst und Pein
    Recitative for Tenor: Es mag mir Leib und Geist verschmachten
    Duet for Soprano and Alto: Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen
    Choral: Erhalt mein Herz im Glauben rein

    All three cantatas for this day are concerned with Jesus answering his mother's plea for help. They also associate this day with the beginning of Christ's difficult journey, and therefore with the journey of the soul. This elaborate choral cantata opens - after a beautiful orchestral ritornello -  with a very chromatic and complex-sounding chorus. The choral tune is given to the basses doubled by a trombone. The stepwise fall through four notes (descending tetrachord) is a Baroque symbol for "grief." The following very effective recitative is sung by the chorus. Then comes a bass aria full of writhing chromatism with the violoncello expressing the "fear of Hell." The second aria is a fine and joyful duet for soprano and alto, a celebration of how Jesus carries our cross. The cantata again concludes with a plainly harmonized chorale. (****)

  3. Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13, 20 January 1726 (BCW, CN, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Aria (Tenor): Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen
    Recitative (Alt): Mein liebster Gott läßt mich annoch
    Chorale (Alt): Der Gott, der mir hat versprochen
    Recitative (Sopran): Mein Kummer nimmet zu
    Aria (Bass): Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen
    Choral: So sei nun, Seele, deine

    Intimate chamber cantata without chorus that opens with a lament by the tenor, as a vivid picture of the struggle of the sinner. Beautiful is the accompaniment by two recorders and the dark tones of the oboe da caccia. On the words "way to death" the music sinks lower and lower. The chorale is interestingly not sung by a small chorus, but by the alto. Mercy is not yet in sight ("My dear God lets me call in vain"). In the ensuing bass aria "Moaning and most piteous weeping" accompaniment is by the first violin in unison with the recorder playing one octave higher, leading to a very particular sounds-cape. The music also sighs and weeps. Only the chorale ("O Welt Ich muss dich lassen") brings some consolation, but that is short indeed compared to what went before. This is perhaps the most desolate cantata Bach ever wrote. (***)

January 18, 2012

Bach Cantatas (4): 1st Sunday after Epiphany (Jan 8)

Depending on the date of Easter, a variable number of (up to four) Sundays occurred between Epiphany and Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. In 2012, the first of those Sundays fell on Jan. 8.

Romans 12:1–6, the duties of a Christian
Luke 2:41–52, the finding in the Temple

(Bach's Lutheran church prescribed the same readings every year. They consisted always of a pair, a section from a gospel and a corresponding section from an epistle. A connection between the cantata text and the readings was necessary.)

  1. Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren, BWV 154, 9 January 1724
    (BCW, CN, EVH, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Aria (tenor, strings): Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren Recitativo (tenor): Wo treff ich meinen Jesum an
    Chorale: Jesu, mein Hort und Erretter
    Aria (alto, oboi d'amore, strings, no continuo): Jesu, laß dich finden
    Arioso (bass): Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß
    Recitativo (tenor): Dies ist die Stimme meines Freundes
    Aria (alto, tenor, oboi d'amore, strings): Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden
    Chorale: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

    A cantata without chorus (although there are two chorales), but it compensates for this by having three beautiful arias. The cantata takes the parents' search for the lost boy Jesus as symbolic for the general situation of the soul who has lost Jesus. The first movement laments this loss, not in a chorus, but in an impassioned tenor aria full of despair and only accompanied by sparse strings. This is followed by a chorale asking Jesus to return. Next, the same request is done in a gentle alto aria, the gem of the cantata: "Jesus, let me find Thee." The bass, the voice of Christ, then answers "Do you not know that I must be in that which is my Father's?". An aria by alto and tenor then expresses the joy of the finding, after which follows the concluding chorale. (****)

  2. Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht, BWV 124, 7 January 1725
    (BCW, CN, EVH, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Coro: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht
    Recitativo (tenor): Solange sich ein Tropfen Blut
    Aria (tenor): Und wenn der harte Todesschlag
    Recitativo (bass): Doch ach! welch schweres Ungemach
    Aria (soprano, alto): Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, der Welt
    Chorale: Jesum laß ich nicht von mir

    Chorale cantata with beautiful parts for the oboe d'amore. The readings are the same, of course, as in the cantata above, but here the wish not to loose Jesus is taken to the point of wanting to be reunited with Him after death. The opening chorus is a gentle minuet. The dramatic tenor aria, "And when the dreaded stroke of death," has a violent staccato accompaniment and delicious oboe melody. Soprano and alto next sing a joyful dance-like duet (with sparse accompaniment as its sings about withdrawal from the world). The cantata concludes with the usual harmonizing chorale. (***)

  3. Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32, 13 January 1726
    (BCW, CN, EVH, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Aria: "Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen" for soprano, oboe, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Was ists, dass du mich gesuchet?" for bass and continuo.
    Aria: "Hier, in meines Vaters Stätte" for bass, solo violin, and continuo.
    Recitativo (dialogue): "Ach! heiliger und großer Gott" for soloists, strings, and continuo.
    Duetto: "Nun verschwinden alle Plagen" for soloists, oboe, strings, and continuo.
    Chorale: "Mein Gott, öffne mir die Pforten" for choir, oboes, strings, and continuo.

    This is a solo cantata in dialogue form for soprano and bass representing the soul (Anima) and Jesus. It starts with a fine aria (with prominent oboe solo) in which the soul expresses longing for the absent Jesus. Next the bass, as Jesus, has a long aria with virtuoso violin accompaniment. Then follows an interesting duet, signifying the union of Christ and soul, and the usual chorale ending. (***)

January 17, 2012

Bach Cantatas (3): Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6)

The 6th of January is the Feast of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Kings, the biblical Magi, visited the infant Jesus, i.e. the day of his first manifestation to the Gentiles.

Isaiah 60:1–6, the heathen will convert
Matthew 2:1–12, the Wise Men From the East

Cantatas for this day:
  1. Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, 6 January 1724 (BCW, CN, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Coro: Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen
    Chorale: Die Kön'ge aus Saba kamen dar
    Recitativo (bass): Was dort Jesaias vorhergesehn
    Aria (bass, oboes da caccia): Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht
    Recitativo (tenor): Verschmähe nicht, du, meiner Seele Licht
    Aria (tenor, all instruments): Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin
    Chorale: Ei nun, mein Gott, so fall ich dir

    This is an impressive, festive cantata, with a dance-like rhythm throughout. The opening chorus features a pair of dramatic horns and interesting fugal writing. "All they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense." The first recitative proclaims that it is the Christian's duty to bring his heart as a gift to Jesus and this idea is also the subject of the following bass aria with 2 oboe da cacia. The second recitative equals the gold given by the Magi to Faith, their incense to Prayer and myrrh to Patience, and this is again commented upon in the highly charged tenor aria that follows. The whole orchestra accompanies this aria. The cantata ends as usual with a chorale. (****)

  2. Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen, BWV 123, 6 January 1725 (BCW, CN, EVH, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Coro: Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen
    Recitativo (alto): Die Himmelssüßigkeit, der Auserwählten Lust
    Aria (tenor): Auch die harte Kreuzesreise
    Recitativo (bass): Kein Höllenfeind kann mich verschlingen
    Aria (bass): Laß, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung
    Chorale: Drum fahrt nur immer hin, ihr Eitelkeiten

    The opening movement of this cantata is one of the most beautiful pieces Bach ever wrote, a gracious melody in pastoral 9/8 rhythm that keeps turning in your head. There is an extended orchestral ritornello before the chorus enters. Beautiful, too, is the slow but expressive tenor aria, with oboe d'amore accompaniment. From the following aria for bass speaks a great loneliness. This is accompanied by flute. The last lines of the final choral are sung piano. (****)

  3. Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben 6 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio Part VI) (BCW, CN, EVH, LSG, WP, Text)
    Chorus: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor; Herod, bass): Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich / Ziehet hin und forschet fleißig
    Recitative (soprano): Du Falscher, suchet nur den Herrn zu fällen
    Aria (soprano): Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Als sie nun den König gehöret hatten
    Chorale: Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und Gott befahl ihnen im Traum'
    Recitative (tenor): So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nicht von hier
    Aria (tenor): Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken
    Recitative (soprano, alto, tenor, bass): Was will der Höllen Schrecken nun
    Chorale: Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen

    This 6th part of the Christmas Oratorio starts with a glorious,  almost martial chorus, trumpets and drums blazing away. The story is based on Herodes trying to get the Three Kings to reveal the whereabouts of Jesus. It also describes the worship of the Three Wise Kings at the crib-side (in the choral in the middle of the cantata). The tenor aria celebrates the strength of faith. The final chorus is again outstanding. (***)

January 16, 2012

Bach Cantates (2): Sunday between New year and Epiphany

We continue with cantatas written for the Sunday between New Year's Day and Epiphany (January 6). In 2012, by the way, there was no such Sunday as New year itself fell on Sunday and Epiphany on the following Friday. As is shown below in the readings, the New Year celebrations have already ended and instead we are talking about the suffering of Christians - based on the story of the Flight into Egypt.

Prescribed readings for this day:

1 Peter 4:12–19, Suffering of Christians
Matthew 2:12–23, the Flight into Egypt

Cantatas written for this day:
  1. Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind, BWV 153, 2 January 1724 (BCW, CN, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

     Chorale: Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind
    Recitativo (alto): Mein liebster Gott, ach laß dichs doch erbarmen
    Arioso (bass): Fürchte dich nicht
    Recitativo (tenor): Du sprichst zwar, lieber Gott
    Chorale: Und ob gleich alle Teufel
    Aria (tenor): Stürmt nur, stürmt, ihr Trübsalswetter
    Recitativo (bass): Getrost! Mein Herz
    Aria (alto): Soll ich meinen Lebenslauf
    Chorale: Drum will ich, weil ich lebe noch

    The cantata draws a contrast between life on earth, made miserable by the attacks of our enemies, and the peace of heaven, and prays for God’s protection and guidance. It is structured around 3 chorales, but contains no virtuoso choruses. There are 9 movements, but all are very short. The cantata contains 2 arias, no 6 (illustrating the "enemies" in fast violin passages and dotted rhythms played in unison) and 8 (a minuet, depicting eternal joy). (**)

  2. Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 58, 5 January 1727 (BCW, CN, JN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Duetto: "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" for soprano & bass soloists, oboes, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Verfolgt dich gleich die arge Welt" for bass and continuo.
    Aria: "Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Leiden" for soprano, violino solo, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Kann es die Welt nicht lassen" for soprano and continuo.
    Chorale: "Ich hab für mir ein schwere Reis" for soprano & bass soloists, oboes, strings, and continuo.

    The cantata's text traces the soul's journey through a life "full of sorrow" to the salvation of heaven. The cantata is in dialogue form, starting with an opening duet. One voice symbolizes the sadness of this world, the other brings a message of consolation, which throughout the cantata gradually wins the day. The recitative narrates the story of the flight into Egypt, the reading for this Sunday. The soprano aria is a statement of acceptance of suffering under the hand of God ("I am cheerful in my sorrow"). The final chorale is interestingly melded with another soprano solo, so it again forms a duet, but now the atmosphere is ebullient. (***)

  3. Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen 2 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio Part V) (BCW, CN, LSG, WP, Text)

    Chorus: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Da Jesus geboren war zu Bethlehem
    Chorus / Recitative (alto) / Chorus: Wo ist der neugeborne König der Juden / Sucht ihn in meiner Brust / Wir haben seinen Stern gesehen
    Chorale: Dein Glanz all' Finsternis verzehrt
    Aria (bass): Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Da das der König Herodes hörte
    Recitative (alto): Warum wollt ihr erschrecken
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und ließ versammeln alle Hohenpriester
    Trio (sopr., alto, ten.): Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?
    Recitative (alto): Mein Liebster herrschet schon
    Chorale: Zwar ist solche Herzensstube

    Part 5 of the Christmas Oratorio. A lively opening chorus is followed by a recitative and chorus about the Three Wise Men searching Jesus. After a simple choral, a bass aria with oboe d'amore accompaniment asks for divine light as a shield against sin. This - and the following trio - is the moral heart of the cantata. It is concluded by a simple choral. (***)

January 15, 2012

Bach Cantatas (1): New Year Cantatas

A new year, a new project: listening to the complete cantatas by Bach.

Bach and his cantatas need no introduction, but here are a few useful urls:
And about Bach himself:
As I am living in Japan, where everything is seasonally oriented, I will listen to Bach's cantatas in a seasonal way, that is, by following the Lutheran Church Year.

Today, the New Year cantatas (January 1).

On 1 January, the New Year was celebrated as well as the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

Prescribed readings for this day:
Galatians 3:23–29, By faith we inherit  
Luke 2:21, Circumcision and naming of Jesus

The existing cantatas written for the service on January 1 are:
  1. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 190, 1 January 1724  (BCW, BDECN, EVH, JNLSGWP, Text)

    Coro: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
    Chorale e recitativo (alto, tenor, bass): Herr Gott, dich loben wir
    Aria (alto, strings): Lobe, Zion, deinen Gott
    Recitativo (bass): Es wünsche sich die Welt
    Aria (tenor, bass, oboe d'amore): Jesus soll mein alles sein
    Recitativo (tenor, strings): Nun, Jesus gebe
    Chorale: Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen

    Did not survive intact, but lost music has been reconstructed. Festive cantata, starting with grand trumpets and drums. The text stresses praise and thanks for the gifts of the past and prayer for further blessings. Upbeat and vigorous, although the arias are more relaxed than the magnificent chorus.

  2. Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, BWV 41, 1 January 1725 (BCW, BDECN, JNLSGWP, Text)

    (Coro): "Jesu, nun sei gepreiset" for choir, trombe, oboes, tamburi, strings, and continuo.
    Aria: "Laß uns, o höchster Gott" for soprano, oboes, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Ach! deine Hand, dein Segen muss allein" for altus and continuo.
    Aria: "Woferne du den edlen Frieden" for tenor, violoncello piccolo da spalla, and continuo.
    Recitativo & Coro: "Doch weil der Feind bei Tag und Nacht" for bass, choir, and continuo.
    Chorale: "Dein ist allein die Ehre" for choir, trombe, oboes, tamburi, strings, and continuo.

    Large-scale work, full of splendor and majesty. The opening chorus, starting off with a ritornello fanfare, is a joyful and mighty hymn of praise, one of Bach's best choruses, clocking in at more than 8 minutes. This is followed (without recitative) by a beautiful pastoral soprano aria, a prayer for blessings in the new year. The tenor aria, accompanied by a beseeching violoncello piccolo, is a very personal plea for divine blessings and the expressive heart of the cantata. The bass recitative, with one dramatic insertion by the chorus, is a request to crush evil. The final chorus is again a celebratory choral, quoting the opening fanfare and so bringing the cantata full circle.

  3. Herr Gott, dich loben wir, BWV 16, 1 January 1726 (BCW, BDECN, JNLSG, LVHWPText)

    Coro: Herr Gott, dich loben wir
    Recitativo (bass): So stimmen wir bei dieser frohen Zeit
    Aria (bass, tutti): Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen
    Recitativo (alto): Ach treuer Hort
    Aria (tenor): Geliebter Jesu, du allein
    Chorale: All solch dein Güt wir preisen

    Another cantata that centers on thanksgiving (the first 3 movements) and a prayer for blessings (the last 3 movements). The opening chorus is a festive "archaic" choral melody, but shorter than in the previous New Year cantatas and more modestly scored. After the basso recitativo asks everyone to "sing a new song," the chorus immediately reacts with "Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen." The basso also joins in the chorus, making for a quite experimental form, almost a basso aria accompanied by the chorus. Like in BWV 41, the tenor aria is again a tranquil and tenderly moving plea for divine blessings in the new year. It is the longest movement (about half of the whole cantata!) and is accompanied by an oboe do caccia. The cantata closes with a simple and direct chorus.

  4. Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, BWV 171, 1 January ?1729  (BCW, CN, JNLSGWP)

    Coro: Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm
    Aria (tenor): Herr, so weit die Wolken gehn
    Recitativo (alto): Du süßer Jesus-Name du
    Aria (soprano): Jesus soll mein erstes Wort
    Recitativo (bass): Und da du, Herr, gesagt
    Chorale: Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen

    The lively, fugal opening chorus with an independent trumpet is both succinct and ebullient. This is followed by a tenor aria, with two obbligato violins, singing about Gods renown spreading as far as the clouds - and fast moving, Northern-European clouds they are! The alto recitative forms a reflection on the name of Jesus, close to the prescribed readings for this day. Then comes a joyous, pastoral soprano aria with virtuoso violin solo, about the sweetness of the Saviour's name. The final chorus was lifted from BWV 41.

  5. Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben, 1 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio Part IV)  (BCW, CN, LSGLVHWP, Text)

    Chorus: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und da acht Tage um waren
    Recitative (bass), Arioso (sopr./bass): Immanuel, o süßes Wort / Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben
    Aria (soprano & 'Echo' soprano): Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen
    Recitative (bass), Arioso (soprano): Wohlan! dein Name soll allein / Jesu, meine Freud' und Wonne
    Aria (tenor): Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben
    Chorale: Jesus richte mein Beginnen

    This is Part Four of the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. It skips the usual thanksgiving and prayers for blessings, and instead focuses on the name of the Savior. The opening chorus is fine, but rather modest, with rustic horns but no trumpets. The tenor recitative introduces the theme of Jesus' circumcision, the following bass recitative about the transient nature of death is interestingly interspersed with a choral sung by the sopranos. This is followed by the beautiful echo aria for soprano "Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen." The echo stands for the voice of God, and would be sung by someone standing in an other part of the church, symbolizing the division between Heaven and Earth. The tenor pledges to lead a life to the glory of God, after which follows a fine choral finale.
In Japan, people try not to use negative words or expressions on New Year's Day, as they believe that might have a bad impact on the following year. They believe in the power of words and say as much as possible good things. Bach did the same in his New Year cantatas, which are invariably of a celebratory nature.

P.S. The Wikipedia article about the circumcision, linked to above, reveals that this used to be a feast celebrated in the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and other churches. It figured in Western art from the Renaissance on (as in the above painting by Durer, where, as was common in the synagogue, the high priest holds the baby, as he or a mohel performs the operation). The representation always focuses on the penis of Jesus to show that he had become human and sometimes looks quite cruel! The circumcision was also versified, as here by Milton. And, of course, at various times in history, relics of Jesus' foreskin, the holy prepuce, surfaced in precious reliquaries to entertain the gullible. Just as in the case of the Buddha's teeth in East Asia (which surfaced in incredibly huge quantities as far as Japan and which when put together would constitute a truly monstrous denture), there seems to have been an amount of foreskin around to challenge the (baser) imagination... Most of these relics now have disappeared, perhaps not by chance...

January 6, 2012

Classic Film: "And the Ship Sails On" (1983) by Fellini

Opera is the most unnatural and unrealistic of all art forms. It is also an art form from the past, and although operas are still being composed, its heyday has clearly gone by. How can you sing instead of talk, how can you sing your thoughts? How can a dying person - many opera's end in the decease of the hero or heroine - find the strength so sing?  Where - if this were a real world - does the music come from? When I burst out in sudden song in my bath, there is usually no orchestra available to accompany me. And I don't even want to talk about the hideous cardboard gods of Wagner, or the terrible acting...

Still, without being an outright fan, there are many opera's I love, for example those by Puccini and Mozart. In any case, I am enough of an opera lover to be able to enjoy Fellini's And the Ship Sails On (1983, Et la nave va) - I stress this, because I don't think opera haters will like the film. It is after all a film about opera, with opera, and using opera as a symbol for our society.

And the Ship Sails On is about a group of opera singers, their patrons and aristocratic admirers, and other hangers on such as a documentary journalist with film camera (played by Freddie Jones), who are making a trip in a luxury liner from Italy to Erimo island in order to scatter the ashes of deceased opera diva Edmea at her place of birth. The passengers and the vessel are also a symbol of bourgeois society, sailing in the ship of Western civilization. Just like opera, Western bourgeois society is past its prime and falling apart from decadence. It even stinks, but that is a joke by Fellini: it is the stench of a rhinoceros with stomach problems who is also on board.

There are many funny episodes playing out among the weird passengers on the liner. One opera fan has his cabin transformed into a shrine dedicated to the diva's memory. Rival singers try to fathom the secret of the diva's success and line up to compete for the now open position. A Russian basso tries to hypnotize a chicken in the ship's kitchen with only his voice. There is a concert on a glass harmonica. An actor is bent on seducing sailors, a voyeuristic English aristocrat spies on his nymphomaniac wife and an obese Prussian Grand Duke with a blind sister is engaged in various palace intrigues.

The ship's captain saves a group of Serbian refugees, who are like the hungry third world gazing through the windows of bourgeois society (they stand on the lower deck like a prisoner chorus in opera). Their presence on the ship gives rise to fierce discussions, but the captain is adamant. He even does not give up the refugees when an Austro-Hungarian warship appears and demands that the Serbians are handed over - it is 1914, and the First World War has just begun. With the help of the Prussian grand-duke, permission is obtained to first go to Erimo and scatter the ashes of the diva. But when that has been done in proper style, mayhem breaks out when a Serbian hurls a bomb at the Austrian warship. Its cannons burst out in fire and soon sink the defenseless "opera ship"... just like European society with its bourgeois values was sunk in the wars of the 20th century.

The unnatural character of opera is on purpose maintained in the film, which was made inside the studio. There are painted sunsets and seascapes, the Austrian warship is a clear (but rather impressive) mock-up, and at the end we even get to see the studio and its technicians with the deck of the ship mounted on hydraulic pipes to move it up and down.

1914 was also the period that film started - in Italy the great epic Cabiria was made around this time - the journalist, who guides us through the film, has a cameraman with him and often stands straight in front of the camera as if he was making a documentary and delivering his comments from the scene - is he breaking the fourth wall by speaking into Fellini's camera, or is he addressing his own camera inside the story? We also have to forget that sound didn't exist yet for another 13 years, but perhaps that is also part of the unnaturalness of opera that infuses the whole film.

My evaluation: 8.5 points out of 10 for the aria contest in the boiler room.
Criterion essay; Criterion Collection Database; Criterion Contraption.  

January 5, 2012

The best fiction I read in 2011

Like in the film category, I read about thrice as many novels as those I blogged about, but here I will keep to the blogged ones. And also like in the case of film, I used a guidebook (one that is fun to read for its own sake!), The Rough Guide to Classic Novels, to structure my reading. Besides that, but partly overlapping, I read some Victorian fiction (mainly Trollope and Collins) and I concentrated on a few contemporary authors I like because of their concise style in English: McEwan, Ishiguro and Coetzee. I gave no points to the books in my posts, but will do that now, retroactively.

10 points
Emma by Jane Austen
Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

9 points
Candide by Voltaire
French Lieutenants Woman by John Fowles
Handful of Dust by Waugh
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

8 points
Basil by Wilkie Collins
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Solar by Ian McEwan
Summertime by Coetzee
Way We Live Now by Trollope

The three greatest discoveries were The Good Soldier, The French Lieutenants Woman (I mistakenly thought this would be a simple historical romance) and A Handful of Dust.

The greatest Victorian discovery on the list is - despite its flaws -  Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Classic Film: "My Night at Maud's" (1969) by Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) has made films about realistic people, people like us, in daily situations. There is usually no plot (happily, for plot is unrealistic and false, our lives also do not have "plots") and only a slight story. Instead, the characters in Rohmer's films talk a lot - in real-time conversations, they discuss literature, philosophy, religion. This resembles Bergman and is very different from the unsubtle shouts of action films. It is also a cultural trait of the French, love for discussion. Donald Richie has rightly remarked: American films are based on action and plot, Japanese films on atmosphere and European films on character. Rohmer uses a mix of seasoned actors and new faces, the acting is as natural as possible. The settings are naturalistic. All films have extensive voice-overs. This is all typical of the Nouvelle Vague. Rohmer only uses diegetic sound and no film music, as he regarded this as unrealistic, as if breaking through the "fourth wall."

Besides documentaries, Rohmer made about 25 feature films, among which the series of "Six Moral Tales" is best known. For Rohmer, a "moral tale" is not a "moralistic" tale but a story that describes what goes through people’s minds while they do certain things. The basic situation in these films is the same. The narrator falls in love with a woman (sometimes he has already met her, at other times he has not yet even spoken to her), then meets another one, who tempts him ("to bed or not to bed") and the protagonist has to discover his moral code to find his way back to his first love. The main character has to realize what he really wants and then remain true to that.

By far the strongest film of the Six Tales is My Night at Maud's (1969, Ma nuit chez Maud). Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Catholic engineer working in Pascal's hometown of Clermont-Ferrand (where the head-quarters of Michelin is), is in love with a young woman, Françoise, he has seen at church (Marie-Christine Barrault). After meeting an old fiend, he is introduced to Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful and free-thinking divorcee. When Jean-Louis can't return home because of  heavy snowfall, Maud invites him to spend the night with her.

My Night at Maud's was filmed in lush BW by cinematographer Nestor Almendros because black and white better fitted the winter scenery - snow is cleaner in BW than in color. The church bells of Clermont are used several times for very effective "diegetic sound."

Rohmer introduces Pascal's famous wager (you should bet on the outcome that promises the greatest reward, even if the likelihood is minuscule), which Jean-Louis applies to his own situation, gambling on the love of a woman he has not yet even spoken to and its expected, greater return, while repulsing the intelligent and attractive Maud. But he is not straightforward and rather prey to moral confusion and the many discussions in the film - about religion, philosophy, morality - often turn into self-justifications for Jean-Louis. Sometimes they are also covert lovemaking - in the Rohmerian world, talk is eros. At the same time, there is much humor in his situation, with Maud invitingly naked under the sheets, while the determined Jean-Paul wraps himself tightly in a blanket as if that would ward off seduction. This is both the most erotic and the funniest scene in any Rohmer film. In the end, he gets his Catholic bourgeois girl, and perhaps she best fits his own mediocrity, but Rohmer makes quite clear that Maud is the superior woman.

Let's have a look at the other five films in the Six Moral tales.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963; La Boulangère de Monceau): A law student (producer Barbet Shroeder) roams the streets looking for a beautiful young woman he sees occasionally passing by, and to pass the time, begins a flirtation with the girl in a bakery shop. This is a 23 min short, made in 16 mm as Rohmer didn't have enough financial resources. Necessity has proved beneficial, as the film has been shot completely on the streets of Paris, giving a lively slice of life in the City of Light in the early sixties (as did Varda's Cleo from Five to Eight). (Criterion essay).

Suzanne's Career (1963; La Carrière de Suzanne): A shy student is the third wheel on the wagon of the relationship his more outgoing friend has with a young woman he seems to take advantage of. This is a 50 min featurette, again in 16 mm, filmed in the student quarter of Paris. The title hints at the fact that at the end when the young woman has "caught" a rich man, it becomes clear what her "career" was. (Criterion essay).

La Collectionneuse (1967; The Collector): An art dealer takes a vacation at an absent friend's summer house at the Côte d’Azur, where besides a painter friend he also finds a mysterious, promiscuous young woman (the title hints at her rather indiscriminately collecting boyfriends). He keeps vacillating in his attitude towards her. A good example of one of Rohmer's themes: "tepid attraction." Rohmer's first color film, with beautiful seascapes. (Criterion essay).

Claire's Knee (1970, Le genou de Claire): While vacationing at Lake Annecy, a diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) meets Aurora, a Romanian writer and old flame of him. Although he's engaged to be married, she talks him into a verbose flirtation with the precocious 16-year-old daughter of her landlady, Laura (Beatrice Romand). But Jerome falls for Laura's beautiful half-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and harbors an unquenchable desire to caress her perfectly shaped knee... But that is not what the movie really is about: most important are character, thought, how people approach and repulse each other, with small but meaningful  attitudes and gestures. Jerome has an interesting, purely conversation-based Platonic relation with Laura and although he is physically attracted to the more stunning-looking Claire, we know that Laura is the more interesting person. And although Jerome gets to touch Claire's knee, with a shrewd trick, in the end, of course, he remains faithful to his absent fiancee. (Criterion essay).

Love in the Afternoon (1972, also called Chloé in the Afternoon; L’Amour l’après-midi): Frédéric (Bernard Verley) is a lawyer in a partnership, so he is master of his own time. He commutes daily from his home in the suburbs to his office in central Paris. He is married to English teacher Hélène (Françoise Verley), with one baby and another on the way. But on his commutes and during the long lunch breaks, he enjoys fantasizing about the beautiful women he sees in the City of Light. Then the impulsive and domineering Chloé (Zouzou) comes into his life, the friend of a friend who has been away from France and now needs help to get on her feet again. She increasingly involves Jerome in her hunts for jobs and an apartment, dropping in at his office at her whim. Jerome is at first irritated by her, but a dangerous friendship begins to build when they start meeting more and more. Jerome feels comfortable talking to her, but when she finally offers herself to him, he finds he is unable to cheat on his wife - and hurries home - the incident has brought him closer to Hélène. This could have been Fatal Attraction, but it is much better - it is the second best film in the series. (Criterion essay).

True to the spirit of the sixties and early seventies, sex is the trigger that challenges the protagonists, but in Rohmer's films it compels them to face moral dilemmas and delve deeply into their own minds and hearts. Rohmer's films are for people who like to read good novels that set them thinking.
My evaluation of My Night at Maud's: 10 points out of 10 for the lessons about Pascal. 
Criterion essay.