Capella Romana: Ancient Light

Some of you will be familiar with Capella Romana, an astonishingly good vocal chamber ensemble, about which you may read more here. One of my fellow seminarians here at school, John Boyer, who is a fine friend and chanter, is a member of Capella Romana, which was a pleasant surprise when I first learned it. I’d enjoyed and admired their recordings for some time. In terms of quality of performance and production, I rate them highest, in a league with Chanticleer.

So it is a pleasure to share the news that Capella Romana has a new offering available: Angelic Light: Music from Eastern Cathedrals, a mix of ancient and modern settings of liturgical and paraliturgical chant. Samples of each of the tracks are available there, and one may order the digital edition for immediate download, or the CD, or both, I suppose!

There is even a video available for one of the tracks from the Ancient Light recording.

If you enjoy Byzantine Chant, you’ll enjoy Capella Romana. If you’re new to Byzantine Chant and would like to familiarize yourself with the sound of it, this is also a good reason to listen to Capella Romana. Their performances are accessible in a way that old recordings of classic masters of chant are not, as well as being readily available, which the latter are not.


Some wisdomly advice

Do not saddle yourself with fools: he is one who does not know them, and a greater, he who knowing them, does not shake them off, for they are dangerous in the daily round, and deadly as confidants, even if at times their cowardice restrains them; or the watchful eye of another; in the end they commit some foolishness, or speak it, which if they tarry over it, is only to make it worse: slight aid to another’s reputation, he who has none himself; they are full of woes, the welts of their follies, and they trade in the one for the other; but this about them is not so bad, that even though the wise are of no service to them, they are of much service to the wise, either as example, or as warning.

Gracian’s Manual § 197.

Steve Reich: Tehillim

Back in 1984, when I was just out of high school, and two years before I came up to Berkeley to learn Hebrew, I bought Steve Reich’s then-new Tehillim in vinyl, and just today received the CD. The ECM recording, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians, conducted George Manahan, is superior to the Cantaloupe Music recording performed by Alarm Will Sound and Ossia, conducted by Alan Pierson (available in a paired CD with Reich’s Desert Music). One immediately perceptible reason is the vocalists’ vibrato in the latter, which is simply out of place in the stripped-down and intentionally archaizing composition of Reich, which is better reflected in his own performance. The ECM recording is striking; “the other,” as a distinguished friend of mine from Brooklyn would say, “not so much.” As Reich says in the notes:

The non-vibrato, non-operatic vocal production will also remind listeners of Western music prior to 1750. However, the overall sound of Tehillim and in particular the intricately interlocking percussion writing which, together with the text, forms the basis of the entire work, marks this music as unique by introducing a basic musical element that one does not find in earlier Western practice including the music of this century. Tehillim may thus be heard as traditional and new at the same time.

Other listeners will no doubt concur that, ancient as the sung texts are, and as oddly archaic as the instrumentation and performance is, there is something undeniably fresh and vibrantly contemporary in this lively recording.

Reich based the rhythm directly upon the rhythm of the Hebrew words. As the Western Jewish tradition of chanting the cantillation marks in the Psalms has been lost (there is a tradtion preserved among Yemeni Jews), Reich chose the Psalms for his project, feeling free to compose melodies, as he says, “without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore.”

This performance is scored for all women’s voices: one high soprano, two lyric sopranos, and one alto. The instrumentation is piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, two clarinets, six percussion (small tuned tambourines with no jingles, clapping, maracas, marimba, vibraphone, and crotales), two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello, and bass.

The texts included are the following:

Psalm 19.2-5
השׁמים מספרים כבוד־אל ומעשׂה ידיו מגיד הרקיע
יום ליום יביע אמר ולילה ללילה יחוה־דעת
אין־אמר ואין דברים בלי נשׁמע קולם
בכל־הארץ יצא קום ובקצה תבל מליהם

Psalm 34.13-15
מי־האישׁ החפץ חיים אהב ימים לראות טוב
נצר לשׁונך מרע ושׂפתיך מדבר מרמה
סור מרע ועשׂה־טוב בקשׁ שׁלום ורדפהו

Psalm 18.26-27
עם־חסיד תתחסד עם־גבר תמים תתמם
עם־נבר תתברר ועם־עקשׁ תתפתל

Psalm 150.4-6
הללוהו בתף ומחול הללוהו במנים ועוגב
הללוהו בצלצלי־שׁמע הללוהו בצלצלי תרועה
כל הנשׁמה תהלל יה הללו־יה

I guarantee, O gentle reader, that once you have listened to this recording of Reich’s performance, you will always read these texts with his melodies in mind. They are inescapably catchy.

Kevin’s listening list

Well, I was all set to get to reading, and then I went to turn on the CD player (one of those 300 CD players) and realized what a mess the CDs were all in, and that I’d planned on straightening that up this weekend. And it’s now the weekend. So I spent a couple of hours doing that.

These are a subset of the CDs I own, the ones that I feel like I might listen to. The ones that I actually do listen to regularly are not that many out of this list, of course. I’ve got a bunch of vinyl that I bust out every once in a while, but most of it I’ve got on CD. And I don’t care what anyone says, vinyl sounds better. I’m no audiophile, but that’s pretty clear, if you’ve got a recording in both formats, the CDs sound truncated, without the vibrancy that you have in vinyl. Ah, well. And now that I’m so annoyed at the local classical station for having an absolutely unbearable amount of advertising these days, I’m going to have to be beefing up my own classical collection. That’s next on the list.

Anyhow, here’s my newly rearranged and weeded list of CDs in my player. I am currently, at this very moment, at the beginning of the Galaxie 500 set, listening to their On Fire. I recommend them without reservation, and with enthusiasm. They’re old favorites of mine.

Continue reading “Kevin’s listening list”

Recommended listening

This recording of Handel’s Chandos Anthems, the complete set, is a delight. The players are The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Harry Christophers. The delight is partly found in the historically accurate stripped down choir and orchestra, reflecting the original historical setting at Cannons, the ancestral home of the Duke of Chandos for whom the anthems were composed. The orchestra is strings without viola, one oboe, one bassoon, and two recorders. The choir includes Lynne Dawson (soprano), Patrizia Kwella (soprano), James Bowman (alto), Ian Partridge (tenor), and Michael George (bass). The orchestra includes Julie Miller (violin), David Woodcock (violin), William Thorp (violin), Valerie Darke (oboe), Sophia McKenna (oboe). Unfortunately the notes do not include a full listing of the players.

This performance is superb. It is not flashy, not tampered with, not “jazzed up.” It is noble, stately, and simply beautiful, as Handel simply is. The anthem texts were chosen by Handel from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition. The notes mention the reuses and reworkings of various themes in Handel’s earlier compositions, but I’m not famiiar enough with these to comment upon them. They’re simply a wonderful and wondrous set of beautiful and soothing music to listen to, or, to have running along in the background while doing dukely or lesser things.

Listening to this recording makes me want to reach for some wig powder. Highly recommended.

Pre-Raphaelite Art

I have only just become aware that The Delaware Art Musem has placed online a site which very nearly renders me speechless (or typingless, to be sure): The Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art. The collection houses the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside of England, but art in its widest sense, including jewelry, pottery, and other ephemera, in addition to the paintings and drawings and poetry that most who are familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood might think of. Enjoy the implications of that for a moment, let your imagination take wing, and then, look at the beautiful pictures of the collection.

I do not believe that a person is truly civilized who does not appreciate the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Only beasts and demons could despise such beauty, and barbarians who ride the former and are ridden by the latter. Let your eyes take their rest from the ugliness of the world around you, and enjoy these intimations of another, lost, world. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attempted, in the face of a creeping secularism, to foment a return to a world in which the best of Christian symbolism permeated all, from wallpaper to earrings. Now their works are glittering reminders that touch . . . something . . . in us and remind us of a modern world that just might have been. There is a gentle melancholy to most of the art which I don’t think I imagine, but which may reflect the very Christian (one must specify “high church Anglican” if not “Anglo-Catholic”) disappointment with the late Victorian and early Edwardian ages: the latter the continuation of the former’s spiritual failures, the concretization of the capitulation of that spiritual war being found in the beginning of the Great War, the “war to end all wars.”

In any case, I’ve often showcased the poems and some prose of Christian Georgina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most well-known of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s artists. She’s one of the greatest of English poets, yet seldom gets the attention she deserves. Why? Because the vast majority of her work is explicitly Christian, and the modern litterati (mere barbarians, mind you) cannot abide it.

And whether you, dear reader, agree with all or any of the above or not, the images of the collection show us some beautiful creations sprung from the vastly inventive imagination and the skillful hand of humanity, and surely are to be admired. Enjoy.

On Reserve

In all matters keep something in reserve. It is to insure your position ; not all your wit must be spent nor all your energies sapped every time ; even of what you know keep a rear guard, for it is to double your advantage, always to have in reserve something to call upon when danger threatens bad issue ; the support may mean more than the attack, because it exhibits faith and fortitude. An intelligent man always plays safe, wherefore even here that sharp paradox holds : more is the half, than the whole.

Gracian’s Manual, § 170

O frabjous day!

There is now a blog collecting links to the work of the eminently readable modern essayist extraordinaire Dr Anthony Daniels, The Skeptical Doctor, whose nom de plume, or rather nom du clavier, is Theodore Dalrymple.

This site should make for a convenient entry point to the various publications in which his essays appear, at least as far as they’ll have his essays online.


Allegory, in some sense, belongs not to medieval man but to man, or even to mind, in general. It is of the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms. What is good or happy has always been high like the heavens and bright like the sun. Evil and misery were deep and dark from the first. Pain is black in Homer, and goodness is a middle point for Alfred no less than for Aristotle. To ask how these married pairs of sensibles and insensibles first came together would be great folly; the real question is how they ever came apart, and to answer that question is beyond the province of the mere historian.

C. S. Lewis The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, 44.