Friday, July 31, 2009


There are many ways to enjoy birds and birding. Some people travel all over the world to log as many species as possible on their life lists. Some keep several lists, tracking the bird species they’ve seen in their yards, towns, counties, states…. Some track birds by date, noting the species they’ve seen on each date, in each month, in each year…

Me? I bird listlessly.

When I was a girl, I kept a life list, noting in my field guide the place and date when I’d first spotted each species. Whenever we traveled, I’d keep lists of birds I’d seen in various locales. Sometime during my twenties, though, I discontinued listing. An ornithology course taken during my undergraduate years opened my eyes to the endlessly fascinating subjects of bird morphology (structure) and behavior, which quickly displaced species-counts as the focus of my interest. I had always loved the beauty and songs of birds, and now, with better understanding of their anatomy and behavior, I found even more to love.

Yesterday in walks at two of our favorite places, three encounters filled me with joy and almost entirely satisfied my birding interest for the day. Listing birders would have counted my paltry “list” as embarrassing, but we found much to see and appreciate.

As we walked to the shore of a small lake, one of two Common Loons floated very near the shore, preening and resting. Though loons are usually quite shy, this one seemed habituated to passers-by and kept at its work, cleaning and arranging its glossy plumage, dipping under the water and sending sparkling droplets flying in the sunshine. Birds, especially water birds, must preen frequently, since only when their feathers are in good condition can they hunt, forage, and fly efficiently. Loons dive for their food, “flying” underwater with half-opened wings and propeller-like feet. If their feathers are not in top condition, they will become waterlogged. A Common Loon is among the most elegant of our birds; its shining black feathers are touched with a green iridescence that sets off its pristine white markings. On its back, the black and white form a checkered pattern that is really quite lovely and unusual among birds.

Later, by a different pond, K pointed out a Great Blue Heron foraging silently at the marshy shore edge. This species, the tallest in our region, is a fierce but elegant hunter, wading soundlessly through the shallows in its search for frogs, fish, and anything else that moves, including small mammals. With its heavy spear-like beak, enormous wings, and long powerful legs, this bird is formidable! In flight, its six-foot wingspan and slow wing beats recall some prehistoric bird; this is especially true when one sees the bird in silhouette at dawn or dusk. As we watched the heron yesterday, it caught and swallowed two fish, turning each one carefully (with several skillful toss-and-turn motions) so that it headed down the long throat head first, slippery-wise. It’s always interesting, though somewhat nauseating, to see the fishy lump, sometimes still wriggling a bit, slide down, down, down…

Just before we reached our car, a spot of gold against the blue caught my eye: It was a male American Goldfinch, perched on the very end of a long, up-pointing evergreen bough. Now goldfinches are quite common, and in fact we see them every day at home. But how beautiful was this picture: the brilliant yellow bird with its black, black cap and eye, contrasting with dark green needles and the brilliantly blue July sky! As I stopped to look, a few of its flock-fellows flew into nearby branches, so that the tree seemed lit up with bright gold flames or little suns. The first bird sat quite still, and I was able to bring it even closer with my binoculars, taking time to study the strength of that little seed-cracking bill, the pink feet and legs, and the pattern of feathers in his black crown and around his face and head.

Of course, we saw many other birds during the day (and I could even make a list!), but these three individuals are the ones I’ll remember. Why is this enough? Well, of course, my memory of these birds will forever be entwined with my memories of being with D and K on that day… And perhaps it’s the poet in me, the part of me that pauses to describe, to remember in words…I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. The beauty of birds, their functional elegance, and their aerial and ethereal lives – that’s list enough for me.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ha! Told You So!

A few weeks ago I performed, with another soprano, the duet “The Lord is My Strength and my Song,” from Handel’s Israel in Egypt.

During our rehearsal work, she and I agreed in our dislike of the unattractive second vowel in the word “salvation,” which in this duet Handel frequently set on a long running melisma of sixteenth notes: “He is become my salvaaaaayyyyyytion.” Ugh. Though one sings here on an “eh” vowel, resisting as much as possible the slide toward the diphthong “ay,” the “eh” sound is just not a pleasant vowel. Singers – and audiences! – would much rather hear a nice open “ah” or “oh” sound, especially on a long melisma.

Because of this passage and a few others in the duet that seemed unsympathetic to the voice, I speculated that Handel might have written this music for instruments and later “recycled” it for use in Israel in Egypt. During Handel’s time, the reuse of one’s own music, a practice called “parody,” was common practice and wholly accepted, and made sense for commercial composers like Handel. (Read my essay on parody HERE). I wondered if the duet had been composed for two oboes, Handel’s favorite instrument.

A little research revealed that this movement – in fact, about a half dozen movements from Israel in Egypt! – were indeed composed for another work, but not by Handel! He pushed the “parody” concept a bit far, perhaps, when he lifted this and several other movements from a Magnificat by Italian composer Don Dionigi Erba (fl. 1694, Milan).

Though I was wrong about the possible instrumental origins, I was right about the vowel. In Erba’s Magnificat, the duet was a setting of “Et Exultavit,” and the long melismas in question were indeed on the nice “ah” vowel of “exultavit.”

Ha! I just knew it. I didn’t think that Handel would have composed that awful “salvaaaayyyytion;” perhaps the almost-ugly result was the price he paid for the theft of Erba’s music

You can read about Handel’s cribbing, and see a really neat comparison of the two scores, at

I found this information in other sources, too; some of these sources are old (as in the one cited above), but I also found newer discussions that seem to verify it all.

Later this summer, I’ll perform this duet with my dear friend and colleague Jane Scott, at her church, Storrs Congregational. When Lisa and I sang together, I sang the first soprano part and she the second; with Jane, I’ll sing second while she sings first. So this week I’ll be getting to know this duet from a different perspective, and that’s always fun.

POSTSCRIPT. Just a week before Jane and I were scheduled to sing this duet at her church, she emailed me to say that she was having some troublesome soreness in her mouth, and singing was uncomfortable, and she might need to delay our duet date. The following week, she sent this message: "I just got back from the doctor's office. Diagnosis is the biopsy showed malignant cells. ... I'm afraid there's no way I'll be able to the sing the duet this week. I've tried going through it a couple of times and it is too painful. So let's see if we can re-schedule for next summer, OK?" Jane's cancer advanced rapidly and we never did sing that duet, or any other duet, together.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Winging It

Ever since I was a little girl, one of my greatest pleasures has been to watch gulls, terns, and other seaside birds wheeling and soaring above the surf. Sometimes I think there must not be any purer white than the white breast of a gull or tern. The grey, black, and white plumage of most of the gulls and terns in our region (Northeast North America) are so right against the greys, greens, and whites of the surf as it breaks on our rocky coast.

Yesterday as we watched the sea from one of our two sacred spots, I gave up reading my very good novel (more on that another time), and gave in to watching the birds. In the sky, these were mostly Herring Gulls, of course, with a few Greater Black-Backed Gulls once in a while, and the occasional Ring-Billed and Laughing Gull. (If we get offshore this week, we’ll see Common and Arctic Terns and perhaps a few alcids and tubenoses.) Small groups of Common Eiders flew by close above the water (where air resistance is least), and Cormorants (Great and Double-Crested) passed too, mostly one at a time. A few peeps flitted on the rocks below, but I was too sun-drowsed to stir enough to try to identify them.

What I noticed again about these birds that spend their lives almost entirely on and in the air and water was that their wings are almost always long, narrow, and pointed. Many other water birds, especially those with swift flight, such as ducks and sandpipers, also have slender pointed wings. This is not news, of course, and any field guide points out this characteristic.

I was about to write that the gracefully pointed white wings of gulls are very much like the gracefully pointed white sails of the many pretty sailing vessels that dotted the blue waters here yesterday…but it’s the other way around, of course: the sails are like the wings. An evolutionary biologist, or a physicist, or an ornithologist could explain why and how these shapes evolved as they did, but even I understand innately that the shapes are molded to the flows and pressures of air and water, lift and surf…Still, there seems to me a poetry of form at play here…there is a lovely lyricism in those pointed snow-white wings against the surf and sky.

There’s a sonnet in there, somewhere.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Confident In Beauty, Reassuring In Gentleness

.It’s been three days since I stood in still silence with the 130 other singers of [a choral ensemble] at the conclusion of our performance of Duruflé’s Requiem… The last reverberations of that final, astonishing unresolved chord floated up to the domed ceiling of [venue], taking with them the prayers, thoughts, or reveries of the assembled listeners… For a long, long moment, time seemed to stop, as [the director] held his hands still and open before him; it was as if he held our sound, and held us all, and even held, for all to see, this great work of Maurice Duruflé. In that moment, I experienced the spiritual equivalent of a flash of light, as if I had had a sudden glimpse into Duruflé’s own understanding of his Requiem. Perhaps I was internalizing what I saw reflected in [the director]'s face – some sort of humility, and love, and respect for this composer’s quiet brilliance; it doesn't matter. The connection was unmistakably present.

That final hummed M of “requiem” was the last sound that we would make together after a week of work and rehearsal. It was an amazing week of discovery for me, new as I am to Duruflé’s music.

Of course, the most thrilling moments were the ecstatic Sanctus of the Requiem (brought to an explosive climax with that inspired crescendo beyond fff! Beyond beyond!) and Larry Allen’s brilliantly virtuosic organ performance in Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’ALAIN.

But this morning, far away in time and place, I find the quiet arabesques of the Agnus Dei entwining in my aural awareness and overriding all my other memories of the week and the performance… How heartbreakingly beautiful it is… I will always remember the supple melodies of voice and organ finding each other in that resonant space, confident in beauty and reassuring in gentleness.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Defense of Duruflé

Much has been written about the complex character of French organist, composer, and teacher Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), who is typically described as brooding, retiring, filled with doubt, and often unhappy. Yet much of Duruflé’s music, particularly his choral writing, shimmers with light and optimism, and moves us utterly with its transcendent piety.

What must we know about this man in order to reconcile these contradictory images? How are we to reconcile what most program annotators tell us about Duruflé with what we hear in his music?

Of course, we must be informed about many aspects of Duruflé’s life: his education and training; his teachers and their influences; the music of his contemporaries and colleagues; the remarkable innovations in pipe organ technology; his spirituality and his career as a church musician; his personal life and relationships; and even the fantastic Gothic architecture of the ecclesiastical buildings where his musical self developed and took flight.

Though all these influences, colors, and styles come together in Duruflé’s music, his creations are wholly original, never derivative or contrived. Program annotators typically refer to his music as conservative, restrained, or refined, but these imply limitations and diminutions which simply do not exist. Perhaps rarified or distilled might be better words to describe the ethereal transparency of Duruflé’s music. This is not to imply that it is “light” (as in “lite”) or insubstantial; on the contrary, these are superbly modeled works which display complete mastery of the composer’s craft. The “restraint” commonly cited might rather be understood to mean Duruflé’s conscious choice to use smaller forms over post-Romantic excesses (e.g., Richard Strauss or pre-serial Schönberg) and a deliberate decision to eschew the atonalities and newer structural methods of the serialists and other avant-garde composers. Duruflé was certainly not alone in his instinct toward the ancient; Stravinsky, Respighi, and other contemporaries also felt the call, and responded with masterpieces of their own.

Duruflé was an intensely private man, and even at the height of his career, when he might have easily attained even more fame, he was apparently content to teach and compose in Paris, and to serve the music ministry at St. Étienne-du-Mont. In our present day, when “celebrities” seem ever-present and ever-seeking of more “celebrity,” the idea that a “celebrity” like Duruflé (for such he was) would choose to live a private, quiet life is almost impossible to grasp. Thus it is that program annotators and others perpetuate their assessment that he was reclusive, cold, aloof, and even gloomy. But his friends, students, and close associates recall him warmly as a funny, generous, witty man who enjoyed a good joke and who cared deeply for those close to him. He was, by all accounts, a truly humble man who for all his self-criticism, recognized his accomplishments fully but felt no need to trumpet them publicly.

In any case, Duruflé’s music – graceful, uplifted and uplifting, and achingly beautiful – speaks for itself, and for him, and that’s all we need to know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flight School


This is a typical mid-July sound in our neighborhood.


Where is it coming from? Overhead.


What is it? A hawk – a Red-Tailed Hawk – a young one, out on one of its first flights.


As it dips and soars, it calls and calls and calls and calls….

Hey Mom! Hey Dad! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!

I train my binoculars on the young bird in its spiffy new plumage – grey-brown back and wings, pale under parts with dark throat, and a plain grey tail that will not gain the adult’s brilliant rusty-red for many months.

Look at me! I’m flying! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!

The young hawk spreads its wings and tail, broadening them so that its whole body takes on a sort of shield or kite shape…it wheels and soars.

Look at me! I’m kiting! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Wow!

So pristine that it almost shines in the summer sun, the young bird tucks in its wings, narrows its tail, tips its head toward earth, and dives…

Hey Mom! Hey Dad! Look at me! I’m stooping! Look at me! Look at me! Whoo-hoo!

When it next appears above the tree tops, it zooms upward, still in its streamlined tuck, until it reaches soaring level… then the huge wings spread out again and it starts to circle toward the clouds.

Look at me! I’m going up! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Hey!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Guilmant Rises from the Dead

In recent essays, I wrote about the sloppy “research” and recycled errors that characterize so many of the program notes that seem to be spreading online like some sort of plague (read it HERE). I also wrote about the blatant plagiarism, made possible by the Internet, by which some people who call themselves “program annotators” disseminate the dross and present it as legitimate (read it HERE).

But really, what I found recently really should win some sort of prize.

In the past few months, I’ve been deeply engaged in study of the life and music of Maurice Duruflé, the French organist and composer. I found this “fact” in a biographical note posted at

“At age 17 [i.e., in 1919], upon moving to Paris, he [Duruflé ] took private organ lessons with Charles Tournemire (whom he assisted at Ste-Clotilde until 1927), Guilmant and Vierne.”

[sad stuff redacted]

Wait a minute.

Duruflé studied with Guilmant? That’s very interesting, considering that GUILMANT DIED IN 1911, eight years before Duruflé moved to Paris in 1919!

In an effort to understand how an error like this could happen, I did a little more research. Duruflé’s second teacher in Paris, Louis Vierne (1870-1937), had studied with Guilmant and was strongly influenced by him, passing on to his students, particularly Duruflé, Guilmant’s artistry in organ registration. Perhaps the person who originated the error misunderstood the relationships between Guilmant, Vierne, and Duruflé.

OK, we can forgive that (sort of). But we cannot forgive those who perpetuate the errors by copying and pasting without verifying the “facts” that they “research” and “write” about. To see how an error can quickly become a “fact.” try searching in Google this exact phrase from the erroneous note (without enclosing it in quotes):

At age 17, upon moving to Paris, he took private organ lessons with Charles Tournemire
A little diligent searching will reveal at least three “program notes” that incorporate the error about Guilmant’s purportedly being a teacher of Duruflé. Though the wordings vary slightly, they are all clearly cribbed from the same source.

Not to mention the fact that these program note “writers” (copyists might be a better word) are all stealing from each other!

But wait, there’s more!

The “fact” is actually published in what purports to be a reputable book, A Conductor's Guide to Choral-orchestral Works: Twentieth century, part II, by Jonathan D. Green, who is the author of several books of this sort. View the excerpt here:

It does make one question the veracity of the rest of the information in the book, and of the author’s other books, and of the publisher’s other titles….

Well, come and hear the concert, which will be lovely. Guilmant would have loved it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Making History with Ritz and Hot Chocolate

As we mark the fortieth anniversary of humans’ first trip to the moon, we’ve heard plenty of reminiscences of that incredible event. I was ten years old, old enough to understand what was happening, but not really old enough to have any idea of how important it was in our collective history. My memory of the event reflects that childish perspective.

The moon walk was televised, of course, and it was on very late at night, as I remember. For this special event, my parents allowed two huge exceptions to their usual rules.

First, we kids were allowed to stay up late to watch TV! This was really exciting for us, as television was generally restricted during the evenings; we rarely watched on school nights, except for Disney on Sunday nights!

Second, and perhaps even more exciting, we were allowed to have a snack in the living room. We were never allowed to eat in the living room, and to have a snack in that adult space and watch TV at the same time and stay up late to do it all was just too exciting.

For the record, my mother gave us Ritz crackers (with peanut butter?) and hot chocolate. on a tray. (It was probably the same black tin tray that's in my cupboard now; I use it pretty often, always thinking of her.)

These special allowances made such an impression on me that I can vividly recall their details forty years later. I even remember the texture of the wool carpet and my footie pajamas and my old pink blanket that was nearly worn to shreds.

Ironically, I guess I wasn't as excited about the moon walk itself. I fell asleep on that scratchy carpet and must have missed it altogether, because I don’t remember it at all!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Taking Notes

One of the principles to which I adhere in my work as a program annotator is to resist drawing from the tired, recycled information about composers and their works that seems to have burgeoned uncontrollably since the advent of the Internet. Too many annotators seem almost reflexive in their gathering and regurgitation of any available information, without bothering to do any independent research to verify or refute the program essays from which they're cribbing.

When I’m doing background research for program annotations, I naturally research and read as much material I can: books, reference works, articles, CD liner notes, interviews, and yes, the many program essays that are available online. When I’m reading and studying many sources on a few related subjects within the space of a few days, I can’t help but notice that some people who prepare program notes (I hesitate to call them legitimate annotators) copy freely from each other, usually without attribution.

Here’s a typical example. A few days ago, I finished preparing the program essay for a choral concert with music of Maurice Duruflé. During my research, I found some remarkably similar passages in different program notes about Duruflé’s Requiem. I’ve highlighted the passage which initially drew my attention (though much longer passages were stolen, in some cases) and included links to the full texts as well as any indication of authorship.

“The Requiem of 1947 is Duruflé’s largest and most important composition. It exists in three versions: for large orchestra, for a smaller orchestra …and the more frequently performed small-scale version, accompanied only by organ. The work is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father and owes its origin to a commission from Duruflé’s publishers, Durand, which arrived whilst he was working on a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong themes from the Mass for the Dead. The organ sketches lent themselves admirably to expansion and transformation into a Requiem, and plainsong became the basis of the work, unifying it and inspiring it with a timelessness and contemplative spirituality that forms its essence.” UNSIGNED

“Duruflé was working on a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong from the Mass for the Dead when the commission for the Requiem arrived from his publishers, Durand. The sketches already on his desk proved themselves an ideal starting point, the plainsong becoming the basis of the whole work, unifying it and breathing into it the timelessness and meditative spirituality that are its essence.” Credited to “Andrew Senn”

“Durufle [sic] was working on a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong from the Mass for the Dead when the commission for the Requiem arrived from his publishers, Durand. The sketches already on his desk proved themselves an ideal starting point, the plainsong becoming the basis of the whole work. unifying it and breathing into it the timelessness and meditative spirituality that are its essence.” Credited as “Extract from the CD booklets of Durfle [sic] – Requiem (Hyperion CDA66757)”

“In 1947, while composing an organ suite based on Gregorian themes from the “Missa de profunctis,” Duruflé received a commission from the French publishing company Durand to write a choral-orchestral Requiem Mass. The sketches already on his desk proved to be an ideal starting point, and the plainsong melodies from the “Mass of the dead” became the basis for the entire work, unifying it and breathing into it the timelessness and meditative spirituality that are its essence.” Credited to “Douglas Mears”

“The plainsong in the Duruflé Requiem unifies the work and breathes into it the timelessness and meditative spirituality that are its essence.” [In this program, this single sentence was offered as the entire note for the Requiem.]

Coincidence? I don’t think so. And I’m still left wondering… who was it who first wrote these words about Duruflé’s Requiem? Maybe one of the people named above – maybe not. Is the original author receiving royalties for these many re-uses of his or her work? Probably not.

In this case, the copied-and-recopied passage is a pretty good one, but in some cases (as I wrote about HERE) the recycled material perpetuates errors or lazy analyses.

I discovered an even worse case of plagiarism last year while doing background research for an all-Bach program essay. On the website of one of America’s most prominent choral ensembles, I found a program note about one of the works I was studying. As I read the essay, it seemed so very familiar… finally I recalled that I had read the identical words in a book by a prominent Bach scholar that I had just read the week before. The “program annotator” had inserted, verbatim and without attribution, several paragraphs from the scholar’s book right into her essay. And she had the cheek to sign the essay as her own work and to attach a copyright statement warning others not to copy “her” work! I wrote to the executive director of the ensemble to explain the situation…the offending program note was removed from the website a few weeks later.

I find plagiarized program notes every time I do background research for my program essays. It’s theft. It’s lazy, unprofessional, and just plain wrong.

Do they think that no one will notice?

Flights of Fancy

A few weeks ago, I stopped by a favorite birding spot to see what was going on at the old elm tree by the lake, where I’ve seen so many good birds (read about it HERE). Things were pretty quiet, but before I left, I stopped to watch the swallows winging over the athletic fields, catching insects on the fly. Their graceful, agile flight is so lovely!

One bird – a young tree swallow – caught my eye. There seemed to be something odd on its head, something large and white. The bird flew high and low, swooping and twisting in the air. Was it trying to get rid of the white thing? What was it?

Through my binoculars, I finally was able to discern that the white thing was…a feather. A large, white fluffy feather, probably from one of the dozens of Canada Geese that graze these fields every day.

A goose feather?? On a swallow’s head? How?

Ah, there it went…it finally fell off and began drifting down, first this way, then that way, zigzagging slowly to the clipped grass below.

What? There was the swallow, flying ‘round and ‘round the feather in circles, following it down, down, down, then snatching it out of the air just before it touched the grass.

The swallow flew around the field two or three times with the feather in its bill, swooping and swerving, and swishing that feather as it went. Up, up, up…then down came the feather again, with the swallow chasing it as before, catching it just at the last moment.

This whole routine was repeated a half dozen times before the bird dropped the feather and didn’t retrieve it, then flew off and out of sight.

There is no doubt in my mind that the swallow was playing. What else could it possibly be? I had heard about swallows playing drop-the-feather, but this was the first time I had seen it, and I will never forget the enchanting sight.

Babes in the Woods, Part 3 – Sibling Rivalry

This morning my route took me past one of my favorite birding spots, a pleasant cemetery on the banks of the large river that runs through my town. (OK, it wasn’t on my route. I went there after I got fuel for the car. But I just happened to have my binoculars in the car.) I wasn’t in search of anything in particular, just curious to see what was going on there, ornithologically speaking. During the spring and early summer, I had stopped there two or three times each week and had become familiar with the “regulars” on and around the river, and now, in mid-July, I was wondering what birds were still about and what young ones I might see.

Today, I stopped in a shady spot in the upper level, turned off the car, and sat to listen. Soon the birds got used to the presence of the car (a useful blind) and started moving all around me. Nothing unusual was in the area, though an appearance by a beautiful Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher was a special treat, as I haven’t seen one for quite some time. I had a nice long look as it fluttered about catching tiny insects.

A family of phoebes put on the biggest show – two adults and three or four youngsters –flitting about between ground, headstones, and overhanging branches. The youngsters called almost constantly (Feed me! Feed me!). Young birds grow so quickly that they eat as much as the parents can stuff into those gaping beaks. (Feed me! Feed me!) Whenever an adult caught an insect, the young ones would crowd around, jostling for the best position to receive the squashy or crunchy treat (Feed me! Feed me!). The young ones, though as large as their parents, had duller coloring and softer, still-downy, plumage. It was amazing to see how many insects these two birds fed to their young in just 10 minutes. If it were not for birds and other insectivores, we’d be overrun by bugs.

We see the same sibling rivalry at our backyard feeders, where fledglings from many species visit daily. The woodpeckers in particular are very pugilistic, posturing and calling loudly in their efforts to control access to the suet feeders.

Our feeders are busier now than they were in the winter. At the suet feeders, 3 or 4 families of downy woodpeckers, 2 families of hairy woodpeckers, and 2 families of red-bellied woodpeckers visit daily.

Other species that have brought their young to the suet include Grey Catbirds, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Black-Capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, American Crows (yes, crows!), Purple Grackles, Northern Cardinals, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, and others.

It’s fascinating to watch the young birds figure out what to eat and how to eat it. Once the fledglings are old enough to feed themselves, their parents bring them to the food, feed them a bit, demonstrate how to open a seed or climb onto the suet cage, then fly off and leave the youngsters to learn as they go.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

“Mystical Radiance” – Duruflé and Gregorian Chant

Much has been written about the complex character of French organist, composer, and teacher Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), who is typically described as dark, brooding, retiring, filled with self-doubt, and even unhappy. Yet much of Duruflé’s music, particularly his choral writing, shimmers with light and optimism, and moves us utterly with its transcendent piety. Duruflé, though outwardly reticent and often reclusive, was a man of buoyant Christian faith, a belief that supported and infused all his creative works.

Duruflé showed early musical talent, and at the age of ten (1912) entered the Choir School of nearby Rouen Cathedral (left, in the 1890s) where, as a member of the Cathedral choir, he participated in the daily chanted liturgies, absorbing the contours, modes, and atmosphere of Gregorian chant. “A great page opened before me,” Duruflé said years later, reflecting on the revelations and inspirations of his experiences in Rouen, particularly the Gregorian chants sung in the Solesmes style, which he described as “…this marvelous Gregorian chant with all its suppleness, its flight, its mystical radiance.”
Most of Duruflé’s compositions are connected to the church, being settings of sacred texts or organ works based on Gregorian chants, always his most important musical and spiritual inspiration. During Duruflé’s formative years, Gregorian chant and the choir school tradition were enjoying a resurrection in the French church, after having been cast aside, along with other elements of Catholic ecclesiastical tradition, during the secularization of French society that followed the French Revolution more than a century earlier. By the middle of the 19th century, interest in sacred music, particularly in the lost art of liturgical chants, had quickened. At the center of this revival were the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Solesmes, whose scholarly works on the history and performance of Gregorian chant inspired the re-establishment of choir schools across France. It was the monks of Solesmes who compiled the Liber Usualis, the 1900-page chant collection that was first published in 1896 and is still used by most monasteries, and many churches, to this day. The first page of the Requiem chant is shown here:
Duruflé’s use of chant in his compositions is original, distinctive, and inspired; he retains the grace, suppleness, and melodies of the original chants even as he draws from their tunes and contours the material from which he builds intricate polyphony and colorful, though subtle, modal harmonies. The best example of Duruflé’s chant-based choral music is his remarkable Requiem.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stealth Bomber


That was the sound that registered in my ear after I saw a large, streamlined, gray-brown blur speed past the kitchen window, twist in mid-air, then disappear through the small opening in the wisteria arbor.

The small birds in and around the feeder scattered, but small movements in the thickly-foliaged wisteria bush gave away their hiding place.

A young squirrel froze in place on the deck rail.


After a few minutes, the birds emerged cautiously from the wisteria, the chipmunks came back from under the deck, and the squirrels resumed their efforts to get into the feeder (they can’t).

What was it?

A young Cooper’s Hawk had come for dinner, but didn’t stay long – it ordered take-out.

We’ll have one less House Sparrow tomorrow. That’s OK; they are an invasive species anyway, we have far too many of them, and they are perfect hawk nibbles.

By the way, if you think that a Robin is "nicer" than a Hawk because you think it doesn't hunt and kill prey, watch closely next time a Robin is hunting earthworms on your lawn. Robins are stealth hunters, too, listening carefully for the worms and snatching them from their underground tunnels. Any bird that eats any living thing is a hunter. Hawks just do it more noticeably and with considerably more panache (naturally) than many other birds.

Hawk Haiku *

Silent gray-brown blur–
Birds at the feeder scatter:
Cooper’s Hawk took one.

* Hawku?

Poetic License?

Several weeks ago, a participant in an online discussion group for choral enthusiasts, who reported that he was setting a poem by Emily Dickinson (#1083), expressed puzzlement over this phrase in the opening lines:

We learn in the retreating
How vast an one
Was recently among us.

He was puzzled by what he called the “very strange” sound of “an one" and wanted to know if he could “get away with” changing it to “a one” in a choral setting that he was composing.

I would leave Dickinson’s poem as it is, for three reasons.

First, the use of "an" before words that start with "W" or "H" ("an one," "an historical event") was not unusual in Dickinson's time. The suggested change (“a one”) might be more in line with our modern practice, but it dilutes the color of her language, the formality of her approach, and the sense of her time and place.

Second, to use the poem at all, and to make any changes to it, one would need to obtain permission from the party or parties that hold copyright to Dickinson's works.

Third – and I am speaking as a poet here – it never seems a good idea to change a poet’s words unless there is a truly compelling reason to do so. She is dead and cannot defend herself, but if she could, she might point out the alliteration between "one" and "was," as well as the fact that the use of "an" instead of "a" requires the speaker or singer to distinguish the word "one." That is, the natural elision in "a one" renders the word "one" less distinctive to the ear. She's putting forth a big idea – "how vast an one" – and she uses the more formal, more distinctive sound of "an" to bring our ear to "one." Try speaking the lines aloud, first with "a one" and then with "an one." She knows what she's doing.

Consider the whole poem – its structure, its feel in the mouth, its sound to the ear, and of course its messages – not just this one spot that might confound our modern ideas.

A better choice for this composer might be to set Dickinson's words as she wrote them, then be sure that all the texts are printed in the concert program. Program notes can address any textual questions, including clarifying any now-archaic usages that might be unfamiliar to the audience. But I'm sure that if an audience reads "how vast an one" in the printed program, they'll understand it. (I am always in favor of printing all texts in vocal programs, even for English-language selections.)

Last summer I sang some new choral settings of several Dickinson poems. The composer had, in two or three instances (albeit with permission), changed Dickinson's texts. In one case, a different title was given to a poem (confounding both director and program annotator!); in another, an old word that sounds offensive but isn't ("niggardly," which means "miserly" and has nothing to do with race) was replaced with a different, softer-sounding word that just didn't mean the same thing at all. This last-named change destroyed a really wonderful internal rhyme and removed much of the consonant-generated forcefulness of the phrase. These changes did not improve the poems, and to be honest, it made me wonder about the composer's sympathies and understanding.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Should Health Insurance Cover Willful Idiocy?

News item: A 45-year-old man in Marlborough, Connecticut knowingly picked up a five-foot timber rattlesnake which he later admitted was “stronger than he expected.” Quelle surprise! The snake bit his hand.

Onlookers called 911, and the man was taken to the hospital by ambulance. How much will that cost? Who pays? We all do, in higher insurance costs.

The man had to be hospitalized for several days. How much will that cost? Who pays? We all do, in higher insurance costs.

But wait, there’s more.

Did the man have to miss work? His employer bears the cost of the lost productivity. Who pays? We do, in the form of higher prices for goods and services from whatever business it is.

A family member decapitated the snake with a shovel. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection had to come to take the snake’s mangled body away. How much did that cost? Who pays? We all do, in the form of higher taxes.

Timber rattlesnakes are an endangered species in Connecticut. Is there a fine for killing an endangered animal, especially when it was defending itself from human interference? Snakes are shy, reclusive animals and do not generally bite unless they are cornered or threatened. He could have chased it away, called the DEP, or just left it alone, and it would probably have gone away. This man should be made to pay the maximum fine.

Even the man’s wife said, “He's stuck on stupid." (Darwin Award honorable mention?)

Read it for yourself at,0,1106331.story