Sunday, April 4, 2021

Dickens and the Wheel of Fortune

Among the hundreds of program notes that I’ve written over the years, perhaps the most elaborate and most detailed is that for Orff’s dramatic cantata Carmina Burana, the German composer’s setting of twenty-four poems from the famous Carmina Burana codex prepared at the Benediktbeuern in the fourteenth century. Many are familiar with the illustration that graces the first page of the manuscript, which I described as follows:

After the Christian philosopher Boethius (480–524) offered the randomness of Fate as answer to life’s vicissitudes, Fortune and her wheel became a common motif in medieval art and thought, appearing in literature, art, and architecture, including famous stained-glass windows in Amiens and Basel. Emphasizing Fortune’s dominance, the opening page of the Carmina Burana manuscript bears an appropriate illustration. In place of the expected portrait of Christ, or a sacred scene such as the Nativity, a disturbing depiction of Fortuna and her spiked wheel is superimposed on an upside-down cross. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Fortune’s wheel is almost indistinguishable from that most infamous medieval instrument of torture, the cruel Catherine wheel.) A king, representing human experience and destiny, is caught on the spikes, where he must rise and fall, finding both good and bad fortune, as the goddess turns the wheel.

This passage is fresh in my mind; I revised and updated that program essay only a few days ago, adding more illustrations and some details that have emerged in newer research.

This afternoon, as I was listening to a fine reading of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, this passage caught my attention:

Thursday, April 1, 2021

“The fruit a thinker bears”

“The fruit a thinker bears is sentences, — statements or opinions. He seeks to affirm something as true. I am surprised that my affirmations or utterances come to me ready-made, — not fore-thought, — so that I occasionally awake in the night simply to let fall ripe a statement which I had never consciously considered before, and as surprising and novel and agreeable to me as anything can be. As if we only thought by sympathy with the universal mind, which thought while we were asleep. There is such a necessity [to] make a definite statement that our minds at length do it without our consciousness, just as we carry our food to our mouths. This occurred to me last night, but I was so surprised by the fact which I have just endeavored to report that I have entirely forgotten what the particular observation was.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), April 1, 1860.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

“This was no new spring”

“It is a marvel how the birds contrive to survive in this world. These tender sparrows that flit from bush to bush this evening, though it is so late, do not seem improvident, [but appear] to have found a roost for the night. They must succeed by weakness and reliance, for they are not bold and enterprising, as their mode of life would seem to require, but very weak and tender creatures. I have seen a little chipping sparrow, come too early in the spring, shivering on an apple twig, drawing in its head and striving to warm it in its muffled feathers; and it had no voice to intercede with nature, but peeped as helpless as an infant, and was ready to yield up its spirit and die without any effort. And yet this was no new spring in the revolution of the seasons.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 30, 1844.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

“How many books I might not read”

“I have thought, when walking in the woods through a certain retired dell, bordered with shrub oaks and pines, far from the village and affording a glimpse only through an opening of the mountains in the horizon, how my life might pass there, simple and true and natural, and how many things would be impossible to be done there. How many books I might not read!”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 29, 1837.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

“Into the air and light of spring”

“It is remarkable how modest and unobtrusive [the] early flowers are. The musquash and duck hunter or the farmer might and do commonly pass by them with[out] perceiving them. They steal into the air and light of spring without being noticed for the most part. The sportsman seems to see a mass of weather-stained dead twigs showing their wood and partly covered with gray lichens and moss, and the flowers of the alder, now partly in bloom, maybe half, make the impression at a little distance of a collection of the brown twigs of winter — also are of the same color with many withered leaves.

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 27, 1859.

Friday, March 26, 2021

“The indistinct honking of geese”

“Saw about 10 AM a gaggle of geese, forty-three in number, in a very perfect harrow flying northeasterly. One side [of] the harrow was a little longer than the other. They appeared to be four or five feet apart. At first I heard faintly, as I stood by Minott’s gate, borne to me from the southwest through the confused sounds of the village, the indistinct honking of geese. I was somewhat surprised to find that Mr. Loring at his house should have heard and seen the same flock. I should think that the same flock was commonly seen and heard from the distance of a mile east and west. It is remarkable that we commonly see geese go over in the spring about 10 o’clock in the morning, as if they were accustomed to stop for the night at some place southward whence they reached us at that time. Goodwin saw six geese in Walden about the same time.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 26, 1853.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

“A genius for mystery”

“Yesterday I skated after a fox over the ice. Occasionally he sat on his haunches and barked at me like a young wolf. It made me think of the bear and her cubs mentioned by Captain Parry, I think. All brutes seem to have a genius for mystery, an Oriental aptitude for symbols and the language of signs; and this is the origin of Pilpay and Aesop. The fox manifested an almost human suspicion of mystery in my actions. While I skated directly after him, he cantered at the top of his speed; but when I stood still, though his fear was not abated, some strange but inflexible law of nature caused him to stop also, and sit again on his haunches. While I still stood motionless, he would go slowly a rod to one side, then sit and bark, then a rod to the other side, and sit and bark again, but did not retreat, as if spellbound. When, however, I commenced the pursuit again, he found himself released from his durance. Plainly the fox belongs to a different order of things from that which reigns in the village. Our courts, though they off[er] a bounty for his hide, and our pulpits, though they draw many a moral from his cunning, are in few senses contemporary with his free forest life.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 25, 1843.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

“All parts of nature”

“All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!”


—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 24, 1847.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

“A very pleasing experiment to try”

“The cat-tail down puffs and swells in your hand like a mist, or the conjurer’s trick of filling a hat with feathers, for when you have rubbed off a but a thimbleful, and can close and conceal the wound completely, the expanded down fills your hand to overflowing. Apparently there is a spring to the fine elastic threads which compose the down, which, after having been so long closely packed, on being the least relieved at the base, spring open apace into the form of parachutes to convey the seed afar. Where birds or the winds or ice have assaulted them, this has spread like an eruption. Again, when I rub off the down of its spike with my thumb, I am surprised at the sensation of warmth it imparts to my hand, as it flushes over it magically, at the same time revealing a faint purplish-crimson tinge at the base of the down, as it rolls off and expands. It is a very pleasing experiment to try.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 23, 1853.

Monday, March 22, 2021

“We awake with emphasis”

“As soon as the damp gardens are bared of snow and a really warm spring day arrives, the chickweed blossoms fairly.

“As soon as those spring mornings arrive in which the birds sing, I am sure to be an early riser. I am waked by my genius. I wake to inaudible melodies and am surprised to find myself expecting the dawn in so serene and joyful and expectant a mood. I have an appointment with spring. She comes to the window to wake me, and I go forth an hour or two earlier than usual. It is by especial favor that I am waked, - not rudely but gently, as infants should be waked. Though as yet the trill of the chip-bird is not heard, - added, - like the sparkling bead which bursts on bottled cider or ale. When we wake indeed, with a double awakening, - not only from our ordinary nocturnal slumbers, but from our diurnal, - we burst through the thallus of our ordinary life with a proper exciple, we awake with emphasis.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 22, 1853.