Sunday, July 19, 2015

Lives in Letters

Lives in Letters

Over the past three years I have made some extraordinary acquaintances, most notably Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Now I am starting to make the acquaintances of Robert and Clara Schumann, and as I do so, I am confirmed in my opinion that the best way--perhaps the only way--to learn about an artist is through reading his (or her) letters.
Biographies are for the most part defamatory and slanderous, but even when they are written without slander, they do little more than present a series of facts about the artist. If they are not written to “deconstruct” and slander the artist, then they are written objectively, to examine him under a microscope. But objective writing cannot introduce you to a person.

I first ventured into this world by way of Felix Mendelssohn's Reisebriefe. One of the first was a letter in which Mendelssohn described to his family his visit with Goethe at Goethe's home in Weimar. It is the closest we can come to actually being in Goethe's parlour with Mendelssohn playing the piano. After playing the old poet many pieces pieces by Bach (Goethe loved the music of Bach) and Mozart, Felix (it is almost impossible to read his letters without coming to be on a first name basis with him) said to his elderly friend, "Now I will play you some Beethoven," but Goethe said that he did not wish to hear any Beethoven. "I'm sorry," replied the young composer, "but I can't help it!" and then he launched into a piano reduction of Beethoven's fifth symphony. Goethe listened to the music, and then said, "That was splendid, but if all the musicians were here playing it together, wouldn't the house fall in?"

Throughout the course of Felix's letters, his recipients become as interesting as himself. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, who did not know the strength of his own personality, and who constantly underestimated his own intellectual abilities; his mother Lea Mendelssohn, the great lover of literature and languages, whose favorite play was Der Sturm, that is Shakespeare's The Tempest, and who had been the primary teacher of Felix and his siblings; his younger, fun-loving, Greek reading sister Rebecka; his shy, cello-playing younger brother Paul; and most of all, his beloved sister Fanny, the queen of German chamber music.

I then moved further back in time, and approached the letters of Beethoven with great trepidation, trepidation which would not have been there had it not been for slanderous rumors, not expecting to find a perfect person, but hoping to find an honorable man, but fearing lest one of my favorite composers should turn out to have been a horrible person. I found a flawed, but honorable man, possessed of characteristics which I should have anticipated, having listened to his music over and over, namely a sense of humor (he was fond of very silly puns), an inability to lie (a trait which he shares with my own brother), a genuine esteem for all good women (his letters are filled with excellent women who took compassion on him), a love of nature, and, despite very poor catechises, a love of nature's God.-

One of the most moving accounts of Beethoven I first encountered through Mendelssohn's Reisebriefe. When Felix was in Milan, he met an elderly Austrian noble couple, a general and his wife, who had known Beethoven. When they found out that Felix was a young composer, they invited him to their lodgings, and the wife, Baroness Dorothea von Erntemann, began to play for him on the piano. He asked her if she would play him one of Beethoven's pieces, and she took out a sonata and began to play for him. Felix glanced over at the old general, and saw tears in his eyes. "It has been ten years," explained the old general, "since anyone has asked my wife to play any of Beethoven's music." Then the wife told him about a time when she and her husband had a child who died. When Beethoven heard about the death of their child, he came to offer his condolences, and when he entered the house, he said, "I will speak to you in music," and he asked her to sit beside him at the piano, and he began to play, and then she began to play, and they played back and forth to one another. Later I read that the Baroness von Erntemann had not been able to express her grief prior to Beethoven's visit.

Continuing in the time of the Mendelssohns, I went on to read the second half of Die Familie Mendelssohn, which is a two volume collection of letters and diary entries of the various Mendelssohns, beginning with Felix and Fanny's grandfather Moses Mendelssohn (during his lifetime he was Germany's most beloved and revered philosopher) and ending with the last, and very painful (so painful that I have great difficulty reading them), letters of Felix, in the six months between Fanny's sudden death and his own, and a brief account of what happened to the loved ones that the two siblings left behind. The collection was put together by Fanny's son Sebastian Hensel, and includes many of her letters. Once again there is a sense of being there, of having been in the concert hall when Felix conducted his complete Mitsommarnachtstraum for the first time, or when he lead religious music, including his magnificent setting of Psalm 114 (the Exodus Psalm), at the Cathedral, and Fanny, who had gotten all the relatives, Christians and Orthodox Jews, to come, was embarrassed by a very bad homily from the rector. Or present in Fanny's garden at one of her "private" concerts, or in her house with her family, Felix and his wife Cecile and all the "Felicianer" ("Felicians), Fanny's name for Felix and his family.

I was afraid to approach the Schumanns at first, just as I had been with Beethoven, for there are altogether too many nasty rumors about both Robert and Clara Schumann. I found two loving, and very upright people. I found that, in spite of Robert's terrible mental illness, they were both people of great faith in God. They were also, to my delight, lovers of the Mendelssohns, whom they knew personally. Who knew that Schumann threw Lizst out of his house once, for insulting Felix Mendelssohn? And then there was their family. Who knew that Clara had to put her musical skills to use on her children, particularly their first born, Marie (or Mariechen), who would only go to sleep if she played them adagios?

I found a great deal of sorrow in their letters and diaries, because of Robert's illness, but also joyful moments.Imagine being in the room when the great Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff first heard Schumann's settings of his poems. Imagine the poet there, with his wife and children, listening to his poems set to music for the first time, with Clara Schumann at the piano, and her dear friend Jenny Lind singing, and the composer standing near at hand.

The pain that came in the final days before Robert had to be committed (voluntarily) to an asylum is almost unbearable. It was as though I was with Clara in those last hours. 

I saw with Robert Schumann a kind of man, genuinely sensitive and thoroughly a man, who is not permitted to exist in our world. Perhaps that is something I saw with all of these friends. Perhaps this is why they are so often misunderstood.

I have been privileged to make the acquaintance of many of my favorite artists--Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Hensel, and now Robert and Clara Schumann--through their own letters and writings. Their faults, which, being members of our fallen race, they had, pale in comparison to their great capacity for love, their loyalty, their generosity, their nobility, and their great personal faith in the God who redeems us and washes away our iniquities and leaves what is good and true. It is impossible to come to know these people without coming to love them. I am honored to have made their acquaintance in the only manner possible on this side of eternity: through their own words, their diaries, their letters.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Beyond Tokens

Beyond Tokens

When I left academia, a tremendous burden was lifted from my shoulders. I was able to see things, and more importantly to see people, as themselves. I was never able to understand the beauty of oriental art, until I was allowed to look at it freely, as art, not as a token picture placed in an art history textbook so that the author could claim to be “diverse.” In academia, if you say, “oriental art is beautiful,” the response is, “How enlightened you are for disliking Rembrandt!” And so, if you like Rembrandt, you are not allowed to like plum blossoms and nuthatches. But outside of academia, you can say, “Western art has died, but in Asia art still flourishes.”

But most important was the discovery of great women artists and intellectuals. Emily Dickinson was no longer just somebody tossed into the poetry anthology so that the compilers could have a token woman. She was--is--one of America’s finest poets. For the first time I saw her, with her peculiarities, as a woman and a person, and I saw her poetry, with all its idiosyncrasies, as of a fine and beautiful caliber.

To my delight, I found that one of my most beloved composers had a most beloved sister, the very Queen of German Lieder. I found the Jewish women of 19th Century Berlin, who preserved the music of Bach, ran the literary and musical circles, and fostered the rise of the Romantic era. I found the most breathtaking of poets, a reclusive Westfalian noblewoman. You will hear more about them later.

But once again, I am finding myself surrounded by academic false respect. I am told that I am not allowed to call Fanny Hensel “Fanny,” nor Clara Schumann “Clara.” I dislike artificial familiarity, but these women are not objects of study, they are persons--how can I call them anything else? I know them far to well. They are my friends.

Furthermore, the only people who have the authority to tell me whether to use their first names or their last names are Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann themselves, and they have gone to be with the Lord. If the Lord sends me an apparition of Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, or both, and they say "Call me Frau Hensel!" or "Call me Frau Schumann!" then I will change my ways, but since the Lord has not done this, I will call them what seems appropriate. But I digress.

Doodling Canadians

Now there is an uproar over putting a woman on the American $20 dollar bill. Our Canadian friends, meanwhile, have progressed much farther than we have, by putting prominent Vulcans on their currency.

“Now, don’t be silly, Clärchen,” you are saying, “Vulcans are not real, and this doesn’t come from the Royal Canadian Mint.”

These things I know. But the doodling Canadian Star Trek fans are wiser than American ideologues. Vulcans may not exist in real life, but the character Mr. Spock represents an aspect of the human person which is very real, and consequently Mr. Spock’s character resonates deeply with many people. The doodling Canadians do not put Mr. Spock on their $5 dollar bills because “Now is the time to put a Vulcan on the $5 dollar bill.” He is not there to be a token Vulcan, to satisfy ideologues. He is there because he is Mr. Spock, and, regardless of whether or not he would consider it "logical," people love him.

Wouldn't it be loverly?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say, “This woman was so great that she should be on the $20 bill!” Instead, we are saying, “We need a woman on the $20 bill. Who the heck can we scrape up?”

This way we can be assured that, no matter how honorable or beloved the woman on the $20 bill may be, she was not put there out of admiration or love. She was put there to placate ideologues.

Last summer I found my mother and father engrossed in an old black and white movie about Madame Curie, her husband Pierre Curie, their marriage and family, and their great contribution to science, the discovery of Radium (Uranium). My father, who knows much more about the Curies and about science than I do, was taken with the accurate representation of the characters, of their dignity and nobility.

I was taken with a particular scene, which came after the hard labor that the Curies had to go through in order to separate the elements, and during a time in which they thought that their work had been in vain. In the movie, their daughter asked her father to tell her a story before bed. His story becomes a little allegory of his love for his wife. There is a princess in the story, but no prince, just an ordinary man, and the princess came to the man and told him about a treasure trapped in an enchanted stone, but the man and the princess were not able to free the treasure from the stone.

Shortly after this scene, Pierre and Marie Curie go out to their laboratory and find that the stain left in the dish in fact was their Radium.

I don't think I ever knew, for no science textbook with the Token Madame Curie had ever really told me, how significant Pierre and Marie Curie's discoveries were, until I saw the portrait of them in this film, which was made from thought and esteem. While at its end, Madame Curie urges scientists to look forward, with Divine wonder, the film, for those of us who must look backwards, those of us who study people, art, music, literature, and culture, provides an example of how we should look at great people--men and women--of the past, as persons, in the case of great women as women, not as objects of study, not as ideological statements (which are also objects), and of how to respond to them as persons.

The film-makers did not reduce Madame Curie to a token or an ideological statement. They were making a film about Madame Curie, the person, the woman. Do we have the ability to respond to Madame Curie, or any woman, or for that matter any man, as a person? As a person created in the image and likeness of God? As a society, no. We have reached a point at which we can only respond to women as tokens, statements, and political objects. I think we also lack the power to respond to men as persons as well.

I say, perhaps there was a time for a woman on the $20 dollar bill, but that time is no more. If it will ever come again, I cannot say.

Wouldn't it be lovely if that time were to come again? It will only come when we set ideologies aside and learn to love and admire men and women.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Nähe des Geliebten

Nähe des Geliebten

        Most of Fanny Hensel’s songs are not directly connected to events in her own life, but this one perhaps is. When Fanny (at that time Fanny Mendelssohn) was fifteen years old, she and Felix went to see an art exhibit of paintings by a promising young painter, Wilhelm Hensel. During the following year, Wilhelm Hensel became very close to the Mendelssohn family, and particularly close to Fanny. Probably not realizing how young she was, because she was very well educated and mature for her age, he asked for her hand in marriage when she was only sixteen. Her terrified parents sent him away to Italy, where he had a several year painting scholarship, with the understanding that if he came back after his studies were complete and still loved Fanny, and if Fanny still loved him, then they could be married. Wilhelm Hensel was at ease in society, and could have married any number of young ladies, but he loved only Fanny, and when he returned to Berlin, the Mendelssohns adopted him into their family, he and Fanny were married, and her parents gave them the Gartenhaus, a small house on their property, for them to live in, and they had a very strong and happy marriage.

      The Tempest was Fanny's mother's favorite Shakespeare play, and in a way Fanny seems to have been Lea and Abraham Mendelssohn's Miranda. They taught her everything she wished to learn, just because they thought she should learn, and they tested her suitor to make sure he was worthy of her, and when he proved that he was, they took him lovingly into their family. But during the years of Fanny and Wilhelm's separation prior to their marriage, they only communicated with one another by letters, which were overseen by Fanny’s mother, Lea Mendelssohn. That may seem harsh, but it helped the entire Mendelssohn family to come to trust the young man who was going to be Fanny's husband.

      It is not surprising that Fanny should have been drawn to a poem about a woman whose beloved is far away. Nähe des Geliebten is a work of juvenalia for Fanny, but it points towards the greatness which her future Lieder would attain, and the more you sing it, the more you come to love the melody.

        During this time both Fanny and Felix were continuing to study composition under the Bach scholar and friend of the family, Carl Friedrich Zelter. The Mendelssohns had also become friends with Goethe, who was a frequent guest at their home. Fanny may be the only great Lieder composer who was actually good friends with the great poet. I cannot be certain of this, but it is within the realm of the possible that Fanny might have performed this Lied for Goethe, probably with her sister Rebecka as the vocalist.

        Goethe had a peculiarity, which was that, for whatever reason, he always wanted his poems to be put to music in strophic form. He wanted the melody line to be exactly the same in each verse. Fanny preferred to compose modified strophic songs, in which the melody line is altered in each verse to fit the meaning of the text, or durchkomponeirt (“through-composed”) Lieder, in which there is one melody which continues from the beginning of the piece to the end. Out of respect for the poet, however, Fanny limited herself to a strict strophic form for Nähe des Geliebten. This posed a great challenge for her. She had to find a way to bring out the meaning of the words in each verse, while keeping the melody exactly the same for all four verses.

Nähe des Geliebten

Ich denke dein, wenn mir der Sonne Schimmer 
Vom Meere strahlt;
Ich denke dein, wenn sich des Mondes Flimmer
Im Quellen malt.

Ich sehe dich, wenn auf dem fernen Wege 
Der Staub sich hebt;
In tiefer Nacht, wenn auf dem schmalen Stege 
Der Wandrer hebt.

Ich höre dich, wenn auf dem dumpfen Raushen 
Die Welle steigt;
Im stillen Haine geh’ ich oft zu lauschen, 
Wenn alles schweigt.

Ich bin bei dir, du seist auch noch so ferne, 
Du bist mir nah!
Die Sonne sinkt, bald leuchten mir die Sterne. 
O, wärst du da!

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

        The ich of this poem is not Goethe himself. The speaker of the poem is a woman, longing for the presence of her beloved (des Geliebten is a male form). Nähe is a difficult word to translate. It means not only presence, which could be abstract, but also near-ness. The woman does not say, I think of him, but rather Ich denke dein (I think of you). She is addressing him, perhaps in a letter, or perhaps only in her own thoughts. Throughout the poem she tells him that she thinks of him in all the sights and sounds of Creation. She also tells him that she thinks of him when she sees dust on a pathway, or when she sees a wanderer on a narrow bridge at night. This suggests that he is on a journey, one that seems to be causing her to worry about him.

        In the last verse, she tells him that she is with him. This suggests that he is also longing for her. It is as though she is consoling him, as well as telling him how much she longs for him. The structure of the German language allowed Goethe to put the modifying phrase, du seist auch noch so ferne (even though you are also so far away), between the two statements, Ich bin bei dir (I am with you) and du bist mir nah! (you are near to me). Their love is reciprocal.

        Only in the last line are we given the time of the poem. The sun is setting, and the stars begin to twinkle, and the woman says, “If only you were there!” It is the end of the day, and she is finishing her letter, or her thoughts, to her husband perhaps, or perhaps to a man she is engaged to, we are not given an explanation of who her beloved is, or why he is separated from her.

        Fanny composed a highly chromatic and yet very delicate melody for this Lied. The chords in the accompaniment are also chromatic yet delicate. The accompaniment is simple (for Fanny), like that of her much later Lied Kommen und Scheiden. Her melody gives the woman’s words a contemplative tone.

         Fanny’s melody begins simply, Ich denke dein (I think of you), Ich sehe dich (I see you), Ich höre dich (I hear you), Ich bin bei dir (I am with you), and something about the simplicity of the first melodic phrase unites the four ideas of thinking of the beloved, seeing him, hearing him, and being near to him.

        A long phrase of eighth and sixteenth notes follows, with, in the first verse, a melodic arch over Sonne and a little run of descending sixteenth notes over Schimmer, depicting the bright sunlight shimmering on the lake. A rest follows, as though the singer is thinking, but the piano accompaniment does not stop. The next phrase, in verse one on Ich denke dein, is simple, but very short. A long, chromatic phrase follows, with a wavering series of notes, F natural, E, C#, D, bB, over Mondes, and another wavering series, A, G#, A, F#, G natural, over Flimmer, depicting the flickering of the moonlight in the spring, and then there is a long, simpler phrase which takes the melody back up to the tonic D.

         Fanny placed an intricate chromatic procession in the piano accompaniment under the end and beginning of each verse, thus making it so that, although there is a clear beginning and end of each verse in the vocal line, there is no beginning or end of each verse in the piano part.

        In the second verse, in which the singer depicts her beloved as traveling, the melodic arch is above ferne, the little run of descending eighth notes is above Wege, and, very ingeniously, the wavering chromatic lines are tied to the image of the traveler shivering on a narrow bridge. Fanny’s melodic lines that so beautifully depicted the play of light on the water in the first verse, now hauntingly depict a traveler in the distance, and the entire song seems to meander, reminiscing to my ear of a Hebrew melody, as if the entire Lied is become a journey, or is mirroring the journey of the beloved.

        Then Fanny’s accompaniment moves us to the third verse, in which the same melodic phrases depict equally well the sound of rushing waves and the stillness of the meadow, where the singer goes to think.

         When Fanny takes us into the final verse, the simplicity of the first phrase gives a consoling tone to the words Ich bin bei dir, then the little run of eighth notes is on the word ferne, which seems shortened, rather than emphasized, as though the distance between the singer and her beloved is not quite so important, and the melodic phrase somehow instead emphasizes the end of the line, du bist mir nah! Then, with the setting sun, the meandering or journeying image is recalled, not with the text, but with the beautiful chromatic line, which also now depicts the twinkling stars appearing to the woman, as she sings O Wärst du da!

I do not know of any recording of this Lied, but the sheet music appears in Sixteen Songs by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, compiled by John Glenn Patton.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pied Beauty and its Purpose

I am only Clara Schwartz. I am not great. I am not powerful. I cannot change the present. I cannot undo the evils of the past. My influence for the future will be very small, touching perhaps only a few people, unpowerful people, like myself.

I have been told to accept the things I cannot change. But there have been, and still are, great evils in the world which I cannot accept--nor do I have the power to change them. How many of us really have the power to change anything?

Today an aunt of mine, if you will, wrote this response to something I said:

Clärchen, I think that's a great insight--rather than despairing that you can't change the past or pretending that the present is better than it is, you take something from the past and make it present--like music--perfect--because it doesn't "expire" when the age in which it was composed was over. I like that a lot.

According to my same aunt, there is a line in the Talmud which reads something like this: And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. I have never saved a person. I have never saved a world. But I can save something, perhaps a piece of someone's world.

I cannot undo the evil of the Second World War. I wish that I could--if only I could! I cannot pretend that my present era is better than it is. But I can go back before those times, and I can find things which were good and true, and I can make them present again. If I can bring back one Lied, one poem, one idea, one little piece of music, one glimpse of a life--of one eccentric German Jewish Christian Hausfrau at her pianoforte writing music with too many notes, or of her brother the great Felix Mendelssohn playing Bach and Beethoven for Goethe at the poet's home in Weimar--then I have accomplished my goal.

Pied Beauty is not about living in the present, as everyone tells me I must do. Pied Beauty is not about living in the past, as everyone chides me for doing. Pied Beauty is about taking something good, and making it present once more.

In the world that is to come, we know that God will make all good things new. All that was ever good and true will be present once more, and all that was evil shall be no more.

But in this world? In this dark, broken time? I can only cling to a little piece of goodness and make it present for a few people, once more.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time, Memory, and Eternity in "How Green was my Valley"

Time, Memory, and Eternity in “How Green was my Valley”

I cannot remember the first time that I saw “How Green was my Valley.” The story of the Morgan family seems to have always been present in my life.

I remember watching it with my Grandfather who, although German and not Welsh, remembers fondly the time when Germans and Welshmen lived peacefully together in his own valley in Pennsylvania, speaking their languages and singing their hymns, when now there is little left besides last names to indicate that these two great cultures once thrived there. My Grandfather would put anything Welsh on television to remind him of people he had known as a child.

And it is appropriate that my Grandfather should love this movie for this reason, for this is at the very heart of the story.

"I am packing my belongings in the shawl my mother used to wear when she went to the market. And I'm going from my valley. And this time I shall never return. I am leaving behind me 50 years of memory. Memory. Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago -- of men and women long since dead. Yet who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind.”

~Huw Morgan, from “How Green was my Valley”

At first this might seem to be naught but sentimentality, but in truth there is naught of sentimentality in it. Things that were are as real as the things that are, and that the goodness of the past is still real, even if it is no longer present to us. We live within time, but for God, who is eternal, all times are now. Why then should we ever presume to think that our now is more real than the now of a Welsh boy a hundred years before our time?

More than Nostalgia

When Huw Morgan closes his eyes on his valley “as it is now” and sees it again as it was when he was a child, he is looking from one reality to another reality. The now of this part of his childhood was a better time for the valley of Cwm Rhondda, and it is only by returning to this previous reality that he can show us, who were not part of it, how good it was, and it is only by knowing how good it was that we can truly understand how much was lost. 

I submit the unpopular idea that sometimes it is only through “escaping” into the past that we can truly see the present for what it is. Sometimes “escaping” into the past is not choosing the easy way. It is hard to look at a devastated valley. It is even harder to look at a devastated valley when you know how green it was before.

The Green Valley

Huw Morgan paints for us a picture of goodness: his beautiful valley; his father Gwilym Morgan, his mother Beth Morgan, and their good and happy marriage; his sister Anghared; his five grown brothers Ianto, Owen, Davy, young Gwilym, and Ivor; his sister-in-law Bronwyn; his new pastor Mr. Gruffydd; his chapel; and his home. The first major event of the story is the goodness of Ivor and Bronwyn’s wedding, presided over by Mr. Gruffydd, and with the congregation singing “Calon Lan” (“Pure of Heart”) for the wedding march.

Nostalgia, looking back on something fondly, is not a bad thing, but what we have here is something much deeper. Huw makes the story of his family present to us. Anyone from the Judeo-Christian tradition should know that we do not simply believe in things past, but that we believe in the presence of things “past,” such as the Passover and the death and resurrection of Christ. Why else would we have readings of the scriptures? As my pastor has often said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Christ, there is the upper room, there is Calvary, there is the Resurrection.” In the telling of all stories, something is made present to us.

As Huw tells the story of his family, many events are made present to us, and they are not all good. Many of them are bad--senselessly bad in some cases. There is a great deal of suffering in this story, but the goodness of the characters endures.

Goodness is in the Foreground

Most stories in our fallen world contain some degree of struggle between good and evil. This film won the Oscar for best picture, triumphing over Orson Wells’ movie “Citizen Cane,” which many people regard as the greatest movie ever made--in technical terms, that is. Yet “How Green was my Valley” surpasses “Citizen Cane” in its great humanity and in its transcendence. “Citizen Cane” is about an empty, dark life. There is no emptiness in the characters of “How Green was my Valley.” There is Gwilym Morgan, who is wise, and yet suspects no evil, because his main blindness is that he believes in the goodness of other men, and is willing to trust the mine owners. There is Beth Morgan, the kindhearted woman who goes through the snow and ice to the meeting of the miners to threaten any man who harms her husband, there are the same miners who rescue her
and little Huw and come and sing for her in the springtime when she is recovered. There is the noble, clear-minded pastor Mr. Gruffydd, who worked in a coal mine himself while being educated at Cardiff. Even the comic retired, half blind boxer Dai Bando becomes a hero at the end. The evil of the heartless mine owners, which through various ways destroys the lives of all these characters, is kept at the background of the story, and the goodness of the characters is at the foreground.

The Film

The movie was based on a very well-written novel of the same name by the Welsh author Richard Llewellyn.
The film moves very quickly to the heart of Richard Llewellyn’s book, often capturing in the medium of film the author’s ideas better than the author himself was able to do in the medium of literature, which is quite impressive, given that Richard Llewellyn was a master of making people and scenes come to life through the written word. The  medium of film makes use of narration, dialogue, images, and music, particularly the songs and hymns of the Welsh people, which are used throughout. In the wedding scene of Huw’s older brother Ivor and Bronwyn you can hear the congregation burst into song (in full harmony) as soon as the bride enters. Because the story follows the narration of Huw, it seems episodic at first, but actually each scene in the film builds toward the climax. Donald Crisp, the actor who plays Huw’s father Gwilym Morgan, and Sarah Allgood, the actress who plays his mother Beth Morgan, were very plain, ordinary looking people, cast for their great acting ability. The direction of the movie (done by John Ford) is flawless, but also completely unpretentious.

If you have never seen “How Green was my Valley,” I urge you to do so before you continue reading, because from this point on, I will be discussing the ending, which is one of the most unusual in film.

Who is for Gwilym Morgan?

I have already said that this is not a nostalgic or sentimental movie. By the end of the movie, Ivor Morgan has died in the mines, leaving Bronwyn a widow, the other four sons have been forced to leave the country in search of work, Anghared is caught in an unhappy marriage to the son of the mine owner, and Mr. Gruffydd must leave the valley, because of an untrue rumor that he and Anghared were going to run away together. As Mr. Gruffydd is preparing to leave, he gives Huw a pocket watch that his own father had given him when he became a minister. He tell Huw to keep it, because it marked time that they had spent together.

And then the siren from the mine sounds. All the villagers rush to the mine. Beth Morgan, Bronwyn, and Anghared ask for Gwilym Morgan, but he is not there. He is trapped in one of the lower levels.

“Who is for Gwilym Morgan?” asks Mr. Gruffydd. “I, for one,” replies Dai Bando, the half-blind retired boxer who was a half comic character until this point. It is Mr. Gruffydd, Dai Bando, and Huw who go deep down into the mine. Then you hear Huw call “Dada! Dada!” through the empty, partly filled with water tunnels. Huw finds his father barely alive, crushed under a rock, and after recognizing his son, Gwilym Morgan dies.


After Gwilym Morgan dies, he appears to his wife in the presence of God. Before she even sees her husband’s dead body, Beth says, “He came to me just now, him and Ivor with him, and he spoke to me of the glory that he saw there.” It is not only in Huw’s memory that his father lives, but also in the presence of God.

The Beginning and the End

When the mine elevator is drawn up, we see Huw with his father’s body lying in his lap.

And then something happens which never happens in film. The story returns to the beginning, and we see Beth Morgan serving dinner to her family, Bronwyn entering the valley for the first time, Mr. Gruffydd with Huw, Anghared when she was a happy young girl, all five of Huw’s brothers, Ianto, Davy, Owen, young Gwilym, and Ivor, together, and finally Huw and his father coming over the ridge as they did in the beginning.

What does this mean? It means that goodness has triumphed, for the goodness of these people can never be undone. Its reality cannot be taken away by anything, not even by death.

Some day we know that there will be a new Heaven and a new earth, and that we shall live even more real in flesh as Huw’s father did to him in memory. Goodness will endure, all times shall be made now, and all things shall be made new.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Wistful Lied, Kommen und Scheiden

The Wistful Lied

“Kommen und Scheiden” is a short poem by the under-rated German Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau, friend of Wilhelm Hensel, and thus of Fanny Hensel and the Mendelssohn family. Lenau, like his contemporary Heinrich Heine, had suffered from an unhappy love affair, and often wrote poems of unrequited love. As Fanny Hensel grew older, she moved away from the bitter poetry of her long time acquaintance Heinrich Heine, and began instead to set the poems of her friend Nikolaus Lenau.

“Kommen und Scheiden” is only six lines long, but in six lines Lenau expresses the goodness of the presence of the speaker’s beloved, the meaningfulness of her speech, and his deep sense of loss at her departure.

Kommen und Scheiden

So oft sie kamm, erschien mir die Gestalt
So lieblich wie der erste Grün im Wald,

Und was sie sprach drang mir zum Herzen ein,
So lieblich wie der Frühlings erstes Lied ins Hein,

Und, als Lebwoll, sie winkte mit der Hand
War’s ob der letzte Jugendtraum mir Schwand.

Gestalt is a word which has no true equivalent in contemporary English. It means presence, not body and soul, but perhaps body-soul. It is the woman’s entire presence (not simply her outward appearance) which is as lovely as the first green in the wood. This suggests that the woman was a particularly lovely person. The second couplet furthers this idea by saying that whatever she spoke struck the speaker’s heart as being as lovely as the first song of spring in the meadow. This calls to mind a woman of great heart and intellect. It is only in the third couplet that the speaker tells us what went wrong. The woman waved Lebwoll (the German greeting given to a person whom you wish well, but whom you will probably never see again) with her hand. She did not betray him. The wave of the hand (as the Lied compiler John Glenn Patton noted) suggests that she was unaware of how much her presence had meant to the speaker. The speaker does not blame her, nor is he disillusioned by her, but with her departs, or rather disappears, his last dream of youth disappears as well.

When Fanny set this poem to music, she did so in a manner as subtle and unassuming and yet as poignant as the poem itself. The first couplet is set in a bright, sweet major key, and the melody, which is then echoed in the piano line, sways like the trees in a spring woodland. It brings to mind the joy that the woman’s presence gave to the singer.

The second couplet is still in the major key, but there are changes in the harmony and the melody (better explained by a music theorist, rather than by me) which make it poignant, like the words of the woman, and sweet, like the song in the meadow.

In the third couplet, Fanny changes the Lied to a minor key that expresses the extreme sense of loss which the singer undergoes at the departure of this remarkable woman. Lebwoll is flatted to underscore the singer’s sadness.

Fanny’s Lied paints a world filled with goodness, breaths life into the character of the woman filled with goodness, and mourns with the singer when he has lost the woman filled with goodness. Fanny, like her brother Felix and all of the Mendelssohn family, believed in the goodness of God’s creation and in the presence of God in His creation. Perhaps it was her belief in goodness that enabled her to grieve with the singer of this poem when he lost someone who was good.

At this point, Fanny is technically finished with Lenau’s poem, and a piano postlude is what the listener would expect, but instead of a piano postlude, Fanny repeats the last phrase of the poem, not in the sad sounding minor key, but in the original, bright happy major key, with the addition of a poignant sounding chord which Fanny imported from a different key.

The result is a wistful memory of the first, joyful part of the Lied. Fanny thus shed light upon something which was probably present in Lenau’s poem, but which could only be brought out by her subtle, sweet music: the fact that the joyful time was still good, even though it was past. Its goodness could not be undone by the passage of time.

Then in the very last measure, on the word schwand the piano line and the vocal line end at the exact same moment. On one last wistful note the entire Lied vanishes.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thoughts on Prayer

Thoughts on Prayer

One balmy summer Saturday evening, when my parents and I were standing outside church after mass in conversation with our Canadian pastor, we overheard my brother, who was still inside the church packing up his organ music books, talking.

“Is he talking to himself or talking to God?” asked our pastor, with his characteristic smile and quirky sense of humor.

“No,” replied my father, “I think he’s just talking to Liz.” Liz is the lady who locks up the church after the priest and parishioners leave.

Our pastor laughed, and said that he hoped that none of us were offended by this question, and we all assured him that we weren’t.

“Of course, with Davey you never know,” said my mother.

Conversing with God

The minister, Mr. Griffith, in How Green was my Valley tells young Huw Morgan that another word for prayer is “Good, clean, direct thinking.”

Many liturgical Christians may rebel at this, but let us ask ourselves, isn’t there good clean thinking in our liturgical prayers? One of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the 20th Century, J.R.R. Tolkien, also said that in many cases prayer was a matter of thinking.

From the Jews and from the German Christians whom they taught, I learned that man is, or should be, in a state of dialogue with the thous around him: with the Great Thou (God) and with his brethren, and even with other parts of creation, for, as the Jews also taught the German Christians, God is both transcendent Creation and is immanent within Creation.

We as Christians know that God is present in other people. It was through the teachings of the Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber that I came to understand how it is that by loving our neighbor, we love God. Our Lord said that the second commandment was like unto the first, and I believed it, but it was only through the teachings of the Jewish philosopher that I began to understand this teaching of Christ.

We live in constant dialogue with God, with neighbor, with creation. Perhaps this is what it means to pray without ceasing. If so, then one of the greatest practitioners of this prayer was a man who had received such little theological instruction that he was too embarrassed to make any theological statements, but who, when asked why he was the greatest composer of his time, answered, without bragging, “because I talk to God the most,” and that poorly catechized man was Ludwig van Beethoven.

Perhaps it is this awareness of God’s great presence is what prayer consists of. Perhaps, if we know that God is present always, then whether we are with fellow human beings or alone, whether we are doing dishes, at the piano, raising our voices in song, conversing, watching a silly (wholesome) TV show with our loved ones, reading, learning, teaching our children, working in the garden, doing laundry, mowing the lawn, listening to Beethoven, changing a tire, playing with the dog, walking through the woods, smelling the roses, or thinking in our own rooms, we can be, we should be, we are in dialogue with God. Yes, perhaps this is prayer without ceasing.

This state of dialogue with God and neighbor also brings more meaning to those times when we are called to formal prayer. Beethoven, in the picture above, was working on a mass setting, his Missa Solemnis, which he spent four entire years of his life writing. And yet the act of creation was also a prayer. Tolkien would have said so.

And it was the same Mr. Griffith who said to the newly recovered Huw, "and it will be the first duty of those new legs of yours to bring you to chapel next Sunday." And in taking Huw onto the flower-covered hill top in the spring, helping him to learn to walk again, and teaching him about prayer, Mr. Griffith was himself praying.