Viva Vivaldi!

composing music

A few years ago I read a book by Barbara Quick called “Vivaldi’s Virgins” a historical novel set in 18h century Venice and more specifically at the Ospedale della Pieta with its music director Antonio Vivaldi. The Ospedale was more than a hospital, convent and orphanage. It was a charitable institution that took in abandoned children, especially girls and educated them. Illegitimate or unwanted babies were deposited in a sort of revolving drawer and the mother would ring a bell to insure their quick acceptance. Secrecy was observed. The children were schooled and at age 10 apprenticed and taught a trade that suited their abilities. Girls who showed unusual musical talent were trained either as instrumentalists or singers. Vivaldi, a priest, was their music master. The chorus and orchestra were renowned around the world and the Ospedale della Pieta was the highest ranking school of music in the 18th century. What an enlightened treatment of the poor and disadvantaged that was!

When I was growing up, in the intermission between the two World Wars, playing the piano was one of a girl’s accomplishments. I performed the usual staples of classical music: Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, and Schuman. We also listened to classical music on the radio and were familiar with the baroque masters: Bach, Handel, Corelli and Telemann. But we had never heard of Vivaldi. Nobody knew Vivaldi. He had not been discovered yet. Although Vivaldi was famous and very influential in his day, a great many of his compositions were lost subsequently and he slid into obscurity. It was not until 1926 that many manuscripts and volumes of compositions were discovered in another religious institution.
It took many years to appraise and gather all the works and they ended up in the Turin library. A sponsor was found to finance the reissue of Vivaldi’s works but by then the war had started.

It was not until the Festival of Britain in 1951 that the public rediscovered this Baroque master and Vivaldi was elevated to his present status. The Baroque era without Vivaldi would look like a temple without one of its pillars. What a fortuitous accident that discovery was.

Everybody knows the Four Seasons, that exuberant and ebullient work. I have heard it many times, but until recently had trouble telling which season was which except for Autumn with its recognizable beginning. Then one day I saw a presentation on PBS that made me realize that although this music was so familiar I had never really listened to it properly. The Four Seasons is programmatic music as opposed to Bach’s abstract music. It is onomatopoetic (a fancy word for imitative).
In Spring you can hear finches, cuckoos and turtledoves as well as rain and thunder. Summer suggests languorous heat, cattle peacefully grazing, as well as a summer storm. Winter provides, shivering, feet stamping, slipping on the ice and contentment by the fire. Autumn features a hunt with the violins imitating a horn. This is one thing I wish I had not known because I have a strong aversion to hounding animals to their death. It is a barbaric custom.

Vivaldi was not only an exceptional composer and teacher. He was also a virtuoso, a brilliant bravura violinist. Viva Vivaldi!

Arab Winter

snowstorm in the steppe

Much has been written on the current Jihadist menace but that does not mean that I cannot also reflect on it. How quickly the Arab Spring has been succeeded by an Arab Winter without ever going through Summer and Autumn!

In Egypt a 360 degree revolution has occurred which came to rest on Abdul Fatah al Sisi. So what was the point of overthrowing Hosni Mubarak? Even he only outlawed the Muslim Brothers and did not condemn them to death. Al Jazeera journalists who were reporting on events objectively have been jailed. Democracy never emerged. Destroying is easy but without rebuilding different edifices it is pointless.

The aftermath of the Libyan uprising created chaos and is destabilizing many parts of Africa which is now awash with arms and military equipment. Syria is being destroyed by civil war. Only in Tunisia where the turmoil started with a self-immolation is there a slight glimmer of hope. Tunisia’s Islamist Government has built alliances, forged consensus with other groups and drafted a constitution.

And now a new threat has appeared on the horizon and is marching steadily across Iraq. It calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL although also known as ISIS). It is partially an offshoot of Al Qaeda and its objective is to create a new Caliphate on the model of the original Islamic state of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century. It consists
of disenfranchised and rebellious Sunnis who were marginalized by the Shia government of Nuri al Maliki. After Sadam Hussein’s fall, his Bath Party was banned from political participation and is now taking its revenge. According to Thomas Friedman, in the 21st Century, the Shia and Sunnis are still fighting over who is the rightful heir to Muhammad. This new movement was battle-tested in Syria and is now spilling over the entire Middle East. The Levant is the ancient name for the whole eastern Mediterranean world and includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel and part of Turkey.

ISIL/ISIS is a Western hating group and is dedicated to our destruction. We are facing a direct threat of epidemic proportions. This new virulent outbreak of Islamism is like a virus which has become immune to simple antibiotics and needs to be countered by new methods.
What President Obama is doing with drones is killing a few mosquitoes at a time but leaving whole swarms intact.

In the short run we perhaps need to reexamine our opposition to Iran and Syria and forge temporary new alliances. Sometimes one is forced to sup with the devil. There are no good guys in this fight so which bad guys do we choose?

In the long run, what is needed is to uproot the teachings of the Madrassas to which ignorant and alienated youths are flocking. It is not for nothing that Boko Haram is calling itself “Western teaching is a Sin” . They know that it threatens them directly.

We must become missionaries again and provide people with other solutions to their misery.

Artist at work

A Laughing Matter?

Plastic surgeon to patient: Why would you want a new face? You look just fine.

Patient: I am the guy who drew the Muhammad cartoons.

In 2005, a Danish paper published 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad which were quickly reproduced around the globe. Violent protests erupted; cartoonists received death threats; offices of newspapers were attacked. The Great Mosque of Paris sued but did not prevail.

If you are a cartoonist for the New Yorker, your greatest fear might be that of rejection. In other parts of the world, the fear of losing your job, your freedom or even your life is very real. There is no liberty of expression in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia or even Tunisia where Islam cannot be attacked with impunity. Still cartoonists continue to take risks every time their irreverent pens put them in direct conflict with the objects of their defiant wit.

The Association “Reporters without Borders” was created to promote freedom of the press and has often taken aim at such retribution. Continue reading

Catherine II of Russia

Enlightened Despots

 

This was the name given to the monarchs who in mid-18th century Europe took inspiration from the French Enlightenment and decided to loosen the reins of absolutism and improve the lot of their subjects. Enlightened Despot sounds like a contradiction in terms but that is because we are looking at it through a rearview mirror and with today’s eye.

In their day, this was quite a novel idea. They sincerely wanted to institute reforms without in any way undermining their absolute power. They were familiar with the writers of the day and their ideas about religious tolerance, improved education and a measure of uncensored expression. This was political change from above, benevolent paternalism, which could be undone at their whim. They were also acting selfishly because they wanted to lessen the power of the landed aristocracy and that of the Church. Continue reading

History

Facing The Past

In April, Israel commemorated “Yom ha Shoah (the Holocaust Remembrance Day). On this occasion, the Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas called the Holocaust

“the most heinous crime in modern history.” At the same time, Abbas has allied himself with Hamas, the terrorist organization responsible for rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas vehemently denies the Holocaust. Abbas himself had previously held the same position. Why the change now?

Turkish President Recep Erdogan also offered unprecedented apologies to the grandchildren of Armenians massacred in 1915 by Ottoman soldiers and referred to “our shared pain.” He had previously refused to admit these murders had happened. He acknowledged that 1,500,000 Armenians were killed but stopped short of calling it a genocide. A cartoon shows Erdogan shaking the hand of the Armenian Orthodox Pope and offering condolences. The Pope looks him in the eye and says “The funeral was 99 years ago.” Again, better than nothing I suppose. Continue reading