Sunday, March 31, 2013

Best Classical Music for Easter

"Easter music" varies from large Passions, either in the form of oratorios or cantatas, to the more intimate but equally fertile “Stabat Mater” tradition, and smaller genres as "The Seven Words" and the "Lamentations." Finally, we have works from the Russian Orthodox tradition, as well as some interesting orchestral and operatic works related to Easter.

[El Greco]

What are the 15 best pieces of classical music for Easter?
  1. The St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. I don't like blockbusters, but this is one dominant piece of Easter music par excellence we can't get around. It is more “Easter” than Easter eggs, chocolate or Easter bunnies. And it goes back to a long tradition of musical settings of the Passion story. Looking back through this history, we see that the text was originally chanted by the celebrant alone, while later drama was introduced by having interventions from a chorus. The old style of chanted Bible texts with choral comments can still be heard in the oratorios by Heinrich Schütz. In the time of Bach the text had freed itself from the Gospel by adding hymns, arias and reflections, and the music was split over several singers with orchestral accompaniment, while recitative rather than plainsong was used for the Evangelist. Although the oldest Passion music was written by Italian composers as Guerrero and Di Lasso, in the 17th century the genre had become firmly protestant, being anchored in Lutheran northern-Germany. Lutheranism emphasized suffering and death, seeing the end of the body as the gate to the wished-for eternal life. There was a strong death longing in the culture (“Come sweet death...,” as Bach composed), not out of morbidity, but purely ideological – although when you see portraits of the well-fed good burghers of Bach's time, you get the impression they secretly enjoyed life as well. But this way of thinking fit well with the story of Christ's suffering and crucifixion. The oratorio sets two chapters of St Matthew’s gospel in a dramatic sequence of recitative, arias, choruses and chorales. It was probably first performed on Good Friday, 1727 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach was the Kantor. There are two distinctive features to Bach's setting: the use of a double-choir, stemming from his own double-choir motets, and the extensive use of chorales in various forms. Bach wrote also other oratorios (a St John Passion has come down intact to us), but more than that, he composed many cantatas on the subject, from a full-fledged Easter Oratorio (which is a cantata in disguise, with an exuberantly thoughtful final alto aria) to meditative cantatas like Christ Lag in Todesbanden (see my posts on the Bach Cantatas).
    Recommended recording:
    Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv.

  2. La Resurezzione by Georg Friedrich Handel. I really wanted to bring up The Messiah here, but one blockbuster is enough and, what's more, although originally meant as Easter music, today The Messiah is unilaterally associated with Christmas (for the first movement that is correct; the second movement, however, is Easter music). So we turn to a lesser known work by Handel, a product of the composer's early Italian sojourn, the period during which he acquired the arsenal of expressive and dramatic techniques that he would go on to employ in his operas and English oratorios. La Resurezzione is a close cousin of opera, with lots of dramatic vividness and bright and evocative music. It was first performed on Easter Sunday 1708 in Rome, with the backing of the Marchese Francesco Ruspoli, Handel's patron. The characters of this liturgical drama set between Good Friday and Easter Sunday are Lucifer (bass), Mary Magdalene (soprano), an Angel (soprano), St John the Evangelist (tenor), and St Mary Cleophas (alto). The staging and scenery were lavishly produced, and though Roman censorship forbade opera, La Resurrezione was certainly produced in an operatic manner. It was performed in the main hall of Ruspoli's Palazzo. At the opening performance, the role of Mary Magdalene was sung by the soprano Margherita Durastanti, but the Pope immediately admonished the Marchese as the participation of female singers was prohibited by Papal edict. As a consolation, Durastanti later was given the title role in Handel's Agrippina - the aria "Ho un non so che" where as Maria Magdalene she anticipates the Resurrection, was without any adaptation copied to the new work! Interestingly, the violins at the first performance were led by the famous composer Arcangelo Corelli, who also conducted the work.
    Recommended recording:
    Contrasto Armonico directed by Marco Vitale on Brillant Classics.

  3. Brockes' Passion by Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann's cantatas and oratorios are only now being rediscovered, which promises still a lot of interesting music to come as Telemann was even more fertile as a composer than Bach. The Passion continued to be very popular in Protestant Germany in the 18th century, and a new form arose which was completely free from the Gospel text. The best example is Barthold Heinrich Brockes' text Der für die Sünden dieser Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus, which was set to music by Telemann (1719) and also Handel (1716). Different from the Gospels, here we have an author who goes all-out for suffering, the rather graphic focus lies firmly on the pain and death of Jesus. The text plays up the agonies of whipping, crowning with thorns, beating, stabbing and strangling, not to forget the horror of the crucifixion itself. “My entrails screech out on hot coals,” is a typical complaint. Despite all the blood and crushed bones, Telemann's music is noble and often reaches the sublime.
    Recommended recording:
    RIAS Kammerchor & Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi.

  4. Der Tod Jesu by Carl Heinrich Graun. This is an oratorio on another free, literary text, written by Karl Wilhelm Ramler in 1755, as part of the Empfindsamkeit movement. Telemann also composed an oratorio on this text, but Graun's – lighter and full of operatic rococo elements – became the more popular version. Graun was a court Kapelmeister in the Berlin school - centered on the court of Frederick the Great - who was famous for his religious music. The present oratorio was also influenced by the meditative oratorio (without dialogues) which had developed in Italy in the hands of Caldara and Paisiello. The soloists alternate to tell the story in recitatives, and reflect on the events in the poetic arias, with regular answers by the chorus and finally a crowning chorale that could be sung by the whole congregation  The expressive and lyrical music, full of spontaneous melodies and beautiful choruses, even managed to rank as the No. 1 Passion music in the 18th century, surpassing Bach and Handel, something now difficult to imagine - until 1884 it was annually performed on Good Friday at the Berlin court. And after that, when Bach's share rose in the 20th c., it was completely forgotten, only to be dug up again in the 21st century! It is ultimately cheerful and festive music, breathing the lyrical mode of Italian opera, and deserves to be rediscovered.
    Recommended recording:
    La Petite Bande directed by Sigiswald Kuijken on Hyperion.

  5. The Crucifixion by John Stainer. Subtitled “A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer,” and composed in 1887, this work was first performed in St. Marylebone Parish Church in London. In the 19th century, the Passion tradition waned, except for a revival in late Victorian times, when choral societies were hyper-active in England. As amateurs, they wanted melodious music that was not too difficult, and that could be performed without much cost. So this oratorio is only accompanied by organ, and the music is rather of the sing-along type. It is also very sentimental, not to say mawkish – I suggest that you imbibe a certain quantity of fortifying spirits to help you face it, but be careful, because inebriation may make you so reckless as the sing along loudly with the Sunday school tunes as “Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow...” The text is irredeemably Victorian in its predilection for suffering and gore and almost masochistic self-abnegation. Typical music also for Good Friday, when even skeptics set time aside to think about suffering and death. In the 20th century it became one of the most vilified works in the history of music, perhaps because of its previous popularity and easy sentimentality, but today we don't have to fight the Victorians anymore so we can listen without prejudice and just enjoy the tunefulness.
    Recommended recording:
    BBC Singers and soloists, conducted by Brian Kay on Chandos.

  6. Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Whereas oratorios were more a protestant affair, the Catholic South hit back with a vengeance in this typically Italian genre which has sprung from the medieval church's cult of suffering – and which spawned more than 400 pieces, all on a 13th c. text by Jacopone da Todi, describing the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin mourning at the foot of the cross. The best by general opinion among these often painfully beautiful works is Pergolesi's music from 1736, a setting about which the German poet Tieck said: "I had to turn away to hide my tears." It may have been composed for members of the secular nobility, the Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori, a group that met in Naples and commissioned a setting of the Stabat Mater every year. A few years earlier, Alessandro Scarlatti set this text for members of the same group. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater was an immediate hit, and was copied, imitated, arranged and reprinted many times throughout Europe. Bach made a paraphrase of the work (perhaps on popular demand?) in his BWV 1083, where he used the text of Psalm 51 (the Miserere) and as a good Protestant, hid the Virgin beyond recognition.
    Recommended recording:
    Andreas Scholl, Barbara Bonney and Les Talens Lyriques directed by Christophe Rousset on Decca. P.S. There is even a whole website dedicated to this genre.

  7. Stabat Mater by Antonio Vivaldi. Another magical version of this dolorous text, especially when sung by a good countertenor. It was written as a hymn to be performed at the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin on March 18, 1712, at the Church of the Oration Order in Brescia, a city under Venetian rule that Vivaldi had visited the year before. The composer maintains a gloomy, even claustrophobic atmosphere in this short, but powerful work, entirely in keeping with the sorrowful spirit of the text. Only the final, major chord of “Amen” affords a consolatory glimpse of paradise.
    Recommended recording: Michael Chance and The English Concert, conducted by Trevor Pinnock on Archiv.

  8. Stabat Mater by Giacomo Rossini. And now it is time for some musical theater – the antics beginning even before the piece has been fully composed. In 1831 Rossini was traveling in Spain when Fernández Varela, a state councilor, commissioned a setting of the Stabat Mater from him. Rossini was in ill-health and only managed to complete half of the piece; in order to fulfill the commission he asked his friend Giovanni Tadolini to finish the work for him. Rossini then presented the completed work to Varela as his own and it was premiered in 1833 in Madrid. But when Varela next dies, the antics start. His heirs sell the manuscript to a Paris publisher, but Rossini wants the publishing rights for himself and disowns the work as half of it has been written by his stand-in. Rossini sells the rights to another publisher in Paris, lawsuits ensue, and the last publisher is victorious. Rossini now finishes the work himself and the final version of the score is sold for performance to the Théâtre-Italien – the price has by now increased from 2,000 francs to 20,000 francs. Religious music is not bad business, something Rossini was criticized for by the young Richard Wagner. “Action! Action! Once more, Action! And money is fetched out, to pay the best of lawyers, to get documents produced, to enter caveats. O ye foolish people, have ye lost your hiking for your gold?” (Quotation from Wikipedia). The first performance was an enormous triumph for Rossini, but cooler critics as Heinrich Heine blasted the piece as “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for the religious subject.” Be that as it may, Rossini's version fits the Stabat Mater tradition like a glove. The most popular movement of the ten is the second one, “Cuius animam,” characterized by a rollicking and memorable tune, and a good demonstration of the singer's bravura technique.
    Recommended recording: The Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists conducted by Carlo Maria Guilini.

  9. Stabat Mater by Antonin Dvorak. A big-boned and large-scale work, the longest Stabat Mater ever written (a performance takes between 80 and 90 minutes). In contrast to the Rossini (and similar to the Stabat Mater in Verdi's Quattro Pezzi Sacri) a work of a serious and deeply personal inspiration: it is in fact linked to the death of the composer's daughter, Josefa. Nonetheless this Stabat Mater ends in a major key, as if expressing hope. The style is a mixture of symphonic poem and German oratorio and the work was written in several settings, with the final version completed at the end of 1877 – at a time when two more of Dvorak's young children died. The first movement is an extended symphonic sonata-form; the final movement recalls the opening themes of the work, but then turns into the major key for a triumphant Amen fugue. The first performance took place on December 23, 1880, at the Jednota umělců hudebních (Association of Musical Artists) in Prague. The composition is traditionally performed in the Czech Republic during Easter time.
    Recommended recording:
    Staatskapelle Dresden and soloists conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli on Deutsche Gramophon.

  10. Stabat Mater by Francis Poulenc. Poulenc composed this work in 1950 in response to the death of his friend, the artist Christian Bérard; he considered writing a Requiem for Bérard, but, after visiting the shrine of Rocamadour, he selected the medieval Stabat Mater text. The work is therefore explicitly associated with the mysterious Black Virgin of Rocamadour. Poulenc's setting, scored for soprano solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra, premiered in 1951 at the Strasbourg Festival. The music is written in a mystical, almost experimental language and is certainly no easy-listening. There is also an explicit baroque side, such as the use of a Sarabande in the tenth movement. In the first movement the composer gives the opening phrase to the basses, imbuing a dark color to the work, alleviated by the almost voluptuous solo for the soprano. All twelve movements are relatively short. Poulenc himself saw the Stabat Mater as the most noble of his works and I think we can fully agree with that assessment.
    Recommended recording: BBC Singers and BBC Philharmonic, directed by Yan Pascal Tortelier on Chandos.

  11. The Seven Last Words of our Savior on the Cross (“Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze”) by Joseph Haydn. “The Seven Last Words” refers to the seven short phrases uttered by Jesus on the cross, as gathered from the four Christian Gospels. At least 16 composers have written musical settings of the Seven Last Words, for various combinations of voice and/or instruments. By far the best known of these settings is that by Joseph Haydn, who produced three different arrangements of his own work. In 1786 Haydn had been invited by a canon of Cádiz Cathedral in Spain to provide music for a Lenten devotion. As Haydn himself explained: “It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.” (Quotation from Wikipedia) The original version of Haydn's set of remarkably varied slow movements was scored for orchestra. The work had wide currency throughout Europe and was instrumental in establishing Haydn's international reputation. Haydn made the version for string quartet three days after completing the fuller orchestral version in February 1787. In 1796 he devised a choral version, having overheard a similar arrangement which he did not find entirely satisfactory. The seven main meditative sections — labeled "sonatas" and all slow — are framed by an Introduction and a short "Earthquake" conclusion, for a total of nine movements; most of the music is consolatory in nature.
    Recommended recording: (orchestral version) Le Concert des nations, directed by Jordi Savall on Alia Vox; (string quartet version) Quatuor Mosaïques on Naive.

  12. Threni by Igor Stravinsky. The special Catholic services on the last three days of Holy Week are known as “Tenebrae,” and there have been many famous musical settings of the readings from these services, especially those from the “Lamentations” of the Prophet Jeremiah. Classical settings in the French chamber music tradition were written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Francois Couperin, while Jan Dismas Zelenka composed his version in the high baroque Central European style. But we turn to something more modern: Stravinsky's setting for the Venice Biennale from 1958 for solo singers, chorus and orchestra. It is Stravinsky's first and longest completely dodecaphonic work, austere and structurally the most complex of all his religious compositions. As Threni was intended for concert rather than liturgical use, Stravinsky chose the text freely from the Book of Lamentations. There are three movements, a large central movement surrounded by two much shorter ones. An influence on Stravisnky may have been Ernst Krenek who composed a setting of the Lamentations in 1957, but other conscious predecessors include Renaissance composers as Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina.
    Recommended recording: The Simon Joly Chorale and the Philharmonia conducted by Robert Craft.

  13. Vespers ("All-night Vigil") by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Called the most profound liturgical music ever composed, Rachmaninoff wrote his All-night Vigil in 1915, just before leaving Russia. The Russian term “vsjenoshchnoe bdeniye” refers to a vigil that lasts through the night, a historical practice that survives to this day. In Chekhov's short story “Easter Night” a beautiful description of such a vigil is given. Such nightly prayer services were particularly associated with Easter and have their model in the New Testament, where Christ himself is described as praying through the night. There is documentation from the end of the second century onwards of solitary ascetics saying prayers at night. In later times, the monks valued nightly services for ascetic reasons but also because the night was more conducive to prayer than the distraction-filled daytime. The Saturday All-night vigil became popular in Russia. It prepared for the liturgy and Eucharist of the following day. The vigil as celebrated in Russian cathedrals in the twentieth century had two forms: the Resurrection Vigil and the Festal Vigil. Rachmaninov's setting follows the order of the Resurrection Vigil. The content of the vigil is extremely profound. The narrative in the evening service begins with the creation of the world, the Fall of Man and the expectation of the Savior. The morning service on Sunday focuses on Christ's Resurrection.
    Recommended recording:
    Finnish National Opera Chorus and soloists conducted by Eric-Olof Söderström on Naxos.

  14. My opera suggestions boil down to two short pieces so I'll smuggle a bit and list them both: the Good Friday Spell (Karfreitagszauber) from Parsifal by Richard Wagner (1882) and the Easter Hymn from Cavelleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (1890). I am no great fan of Wagner's cardboard gods constantly hollering at each other, but his final opera based on the quest for the Holy Grail, makes much good. Act 3 takes place in a forest on a Good Friday and the Good Friday Music occurs as Parsifal looks around him and comments on the beauty of the meadow. Gurnemanz explains that the day is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed, and Parsifal baptizes the weeping Kundry. The music is often extracted as a purely instrumental concert item of about ten minutes, but that version seems to have been more popular with conductors from the past than the present.
    Mascagni's early verismo opera features two numbers, the Intermezzo and the Easter Hymn, that soon took on an extra-operatic life in the concert hall. The hymn comes at a point in the action where the village choir inside the church is heard singing the Regina Coeli. Outside, the villagers sing an Easter Hymn, joined by the opera’s heroine Santuzza. The villagers enter the church with the exception of Santuzza and Mamma Lucia. Santuzza cannot enter the church because she is considered by the villagers as excommunicated because of a recent "sexual fall from grace." Santuzza begs Mamma Lucia to go inside and pray for her, joining the choir in the hymn from her place outside.
    Recommended recordings: (1) Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and  Chorus directed by Hans Knappertsbusch on Naxos Historical; (2) Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, directed by Tullio Serafin on EMI.

  15. Russian Easter Festival Overture by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Also called “Overture on Liturgical Themes.” The work received its premiere in St. Petersburg in late December 1888. The overture's themes are based on a collection of old Russian Orthodox liturgical chants called “The Obikhod.” Rimsky-Korsakov (who was incidentally a non-believer) says in his autobiography that he is aiming to reproduce “the legendary and heathen aspect of the holiday, and the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning.” In that respect, I would like to make one last suggestion for Easter music: the primitive  heathen dances of Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky!
    Recommended recording: L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
Classical Music Index

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"The Childhood of Jesus" by J.M. Coetzee (Book review)

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coetzee's latest novel is one of his best: a multi-layered philosophical novel, on the one hand an allegory about a mysterious, indeterminate land where "desires" do not exist and where everyone is an immigrant, and on the other hand a tale about a boy with special faculties who does not fit in - he has some "Jesus-like" traits, and the Biblical Jesus floats as a constant allegory above the (secular) story, but with a healthy dose of Kafka added.

First the land (Novilla) where a man (Simon) and a boy (David) arrive. They are not related, the man has met the boy who had become separated from his mother during the trip on a ship and only wants to help him find his mother again. In fact, the man keeps insisting that he is not the boy's father. The ship in which they came may have sunk. After a six-week stay in a center where all new arrivals have to go, where their memories of a previous existence are erased and where they have to learn the language of the land, which is Spanish, the man is helped by a bureaucracy with some Kafkaesque traits to work (as a stevedore on a wharf unloading grain) and an apartment. Life in the new country is very sober: the only food is bread ("the staff of life"), there is no meat - except rats. There are almost no shops. Work is done by hand: the sacks of grain are carried out of the ships on the backs of the stevedores, cranes have not been installed, and the grain is brought to the warehouse by horse-drawn carts. Sexual desire is also absent, it is a strangely bloodless world - when the man, who still has some memories of the past, approaches a young woman, she is disgusted. People are hard-working, kind and friendly, they spend their evenings going to free courses, in philosophy, Spanish and drawing. Or they watch sports matches, which are of course also free, for it are games, and "you don't pay to watch a game." This sober world looks very much like Coetzee, for hasn't his alter ego Elizabeth Costello been pleading for vegetarianism? It is the opposite of the contemporary consumption society, where people have too many "desires," and it has a certain Buddhist Utopian character - I was reminded of the saying "I am content with what I have" carved in a stone wash basin in the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. The Buddhist ideal of non-attachment is frequently evoked in the book. The question is: is this a real land or are we in a sort of limbo or afterlife - remember the ship which seems to have sunk.

The man doesn't know the mother of the boy but he believes intuition will tell him when he meets her. And so he matches up the boy with a thirty-ish woman he sees playing tennis with her brothers in a resort (Ines). She is a virgin (of course, considering the title). The man gives her his apartment and lives himself in a shed at the wharf. Unfortunately, although he had become good comrades with the boy, the new mother is extremely possessive and first completely shuts him out. Later (after having fixed her toilet) he is allowed into a closer relationship with her and the boy, as a sort of "uncle" or "godfather." Here, the novel changes to the education of the boy who has several unique and idiosyncratic traits and doesn't fit into the school system. When asked to write "I must tell the truth" on the blackboard, he writes instead: "I am the truth."

When the boy is forcibly put into an institution, the man and the woman flee with him into the desert, heading for a new life. The "Jesus" allusions get stronger here, the boy even acquires his first "disciple."

This "gospel according to Coetzee" - putting self denial above sensuality, written in his usual austere style - has a haunting quality and after finishing keeps turning around in your mind.

"Why are we here?" asks the boy. "I don't know what to say," Simon replies. "We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live."

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Monday, March 25, 2013


Japanese beef. 和牛。

Refers specifically to juicy red meat with a soft marbled texture and rich flavor. Wagyu is known for its exquisite flavor, with a creamy, tender texture that dissolves in the mouth.

Where does wagyu cattle come from, considering that until the start of the modernizing Meiji-period in 1868, Japan had no meat or dairy industry and Japanese normally did not eat meat? Cattle did of course exist in Japan but the animals were used as pack animals, or to pull carts or plows. Those beasts of burden were not automatically the best sources of juicy meat - in the late 1880s, British and European continental breeds as Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Ayrshire, Holstein and Angus were imported and crossbred with the Japanese indigenous cattle, a situation which lasted until 1910 when the price of crossbreeds collapsed. During these two decades, selective breeding methods were used to achieve specific traits that were favored by Japanese consumers, leading to the present-day wagyu.

Depending on regional differences and crossbreeding, there are four breeds:
  • Japanese Black. From work cattle in the Kinki and Chugoku regions. 90% of all wagyu is of this breed. Known for its marbling, the fine strips of fat which have an exquisite flavor. The finest-grade and most typical wagyu on the market. Dominant strains are Tajima (Kobe beef), Tottori, Shimane and Okayama. Tajima cattle was originally bred for its heavy forequarters because the primary use was to pull carts. They tend to be smaller and less heavily muscled than the Tottori breed, used as pack animals, and selected for their size.
  • Japanese Brown (also called "Red," Akaushi). In Kumamoto and Kochi, from breeding work cattle with Simmental. Low fat content, pleasantly firm, lean meat. Mild taste. 
  • Japanese Shorthorn. Tohoku region. By crossbreeding indigenous Nanbu cattle with the Shorthorn. Lean meat with low fat content, savory flavor.
  • Japanese Polled. By crossbreeding the Japanese Black with Aberdeen Angus imported from Scotland around 1920. Very lean meat, with a chewy, meaty flavor. 
Nowadays, each piece of wagyu cattle in Japan must be registered to ensure its lineage. 

Several "strong" stories exist about wagyu, such as beer feeding and massaging. It seems both are true: beer is indeed sometimes fed to fattening cattle when appetite sags in the greatest heat of summer, and the animals are massaged with oil for 20 minutes from May to October to keep the meat soft - this also makes sense as Japanese pens are small and the animals have little exercise (there are no big herds grazing in wide nature in Japan!). And it is made possible by the fact that Japanese cattle farmers usually only fatten a few head of cattle at a time, so they can give them full attention. And the diet is of course very important - feed costs can be as much as 500,000 yen for three years of fattening per cow. But when the process goes well, the animals will fetch several millions of yen (sometimes tens of millions) at the auction.

Wagyu is used in many typically Japanese meat dishes, as Shabu-shabu, Sukiyaki, Miso-zuke, and of course... the "ordinary" steak!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Best Stories by Chekhov (2): The Years of High Production (1886-87)

The years 1886 and 1887 were the period of the highest short story production for Anton Chekhov (1960-1904). We have more than 180 stories from these two fruitful years. In 1885, none other than the dean of Russian letters, D.V. Grogorovich, had been so impressed with Chekhov's early story "The Huntsman," that he wrote him with encouragement and the advice to write less, but spend more time on each story. Chekhov wanted to act on this advice, but was not immediately able to do so: he still needed the money from the humorous magazines (he constantly had to pay off the debts his two brothers were making).

So in the years 1886-1887 we see Chekhov on the one hand keeping up his high production of comical situation stories, and on the other hand also write more serious work, in which he gradually did away with plot. My selection below reflects this mix. And although there is a certain amount of pathos in some stories, generally speaking Chekhov maintained a strict detachment, viewing the situation through the minds of his characters and telling the story through the registration of significant details, while strictly evading authorial preaching or moralizing. Chekhov was also criticized for this, especially in the case of stories as "Mire" ("rummaging in a dung heap", it was called), but he answered that literature has to depict life as it actually is - a writer has to be as objective as a chemist. In other words, it is the duty of the artist to pose the question correctly, not to solve the problem.

A major theme in this period is formed by the various complications of love - often his characters are desperately trying to find a partner or desperately trying to be unfaithful to one.

[Chekhov. Photo from Wikipedia]

Here are my favorite stories from this fruitful period, the years 1886 and 1887:
  1. "The Witch" (1886). An elderly sexton living in a lonely spot believes his young wife is a "witch." Always when there is a snowstorm, the postman loses his way and miraculously ends up at the sexton's house to warm his cold bones before continuing on his journey. That postman is a young man and of course the only magic the young wife possesses is erotic attraction: the postman furtively strokes her neck and shoulders... and then has to hasten on, in the snow again. “Your witchery was all in vain: he’s gone off,” says the sexton malignantly to his wife, finally made aware of her attractiveness. But she rebuffs him when they are back in bed: "Yet, waiting till she was quiet and began breathing evenly, he touched her head with his finger . . . held her thick plait in his hand for a minute. She did not feel it. Then he grew bolder and stroked her neck."Leave off!” she shouted, and prodded him on the nose with her elbow with such violence that he saw stars before his eyes. The pain in his nose was soon over, but the torture in his heart remained."
  2. "Easter Night (1886) A mystical story with a grandiose description of an Orthodox Russian Easter service. On Easter Eve a traveler is ferried across a river to a monastery. The ferryman is a lay brother, who reveals his sadness over the death of a fellow monk who wrote beautiful prayers for saints’ days. In contrast to his loud and vulgar colleagues, the deceased was kind and tender. At the monastery the traveler participates all night in the services and experiences a sense of oneness with all creation. When he returns to the ferry on Easter morning. the lay brother is still hard at work, nobody has seen fit to relieve him. "At once there was the sound of a cannon shot. It rolled away in the darkness and ended somewhere in the far distance behind me. The peasant took off his hat and crossed himself. "Christ is risen,” he said. Before the vibrations of the first peal of the bell had time to die away in the air a second sounded, after it at once a third, and the darkness was filled with an unbroken quivering clamour. Near the red lights fresh lights flashed, and all began moving together and twinkling restlessly."
  3. "The Chorus Girl" (1886) A chorus girl called Pasha is staying with her lover in his summer villa, when suddenly the wife arrives. The husband is in another room at that time. The wife claims that her husband has made debts due to his extra-marital affair and asks the chorus girl to return all presents she has received from him. Although she never received anything, the chorus girl is intimidated in handing over her jewels. After the wife leaves, the husband comes into the room. He is angry with his mistress and treats her with contempt because his "proud wife" has had to go down on her knees before such a low creature... “No, I shall never forgive myself for this! I shall never forgive myself! Get away from me . . . you low creature!” he cried with repulsion, backing away from Pasha, and thrusting her off with trembling hands. “She would have gone down on her knees, and . . . and to you! Oh, my God!” He rapidly dressed, and pushing Pasha aside contemptuously, made for the door and went out." P.S. It is possible that husband and wife have together played a trick on the chorus girl to get her jewels.
  4. "Mire" (1886) "Scandalous" story that led to criticism of Chekhov's "amorality." A rich and unmarried heiress, Susanna, the owner of a distillery, tears up the IOUs her deceased father wrote when borrowing money, but pays back the lender with her charms... In fact, all the men in the area have fallen for her, and some even have difficulty tearing themselves away from her... "In silence, breathing heavily, stumbling against the furniture, they moved about the room. Susanna was carried away by the struggle. She flushed, closed her eyes, and forgetting herself, once even pressed her face against the face of the lieutenant, so that there was a sweetish taste left on his lips. At last he caught hold of her clenched hand. . . . With flushed faces and disheveled hair, they looked at one another, breathing hard." P.S. The passage I quote here should be studied by all contemporary authors as a lesson in how to write an erotic scene - not by explicitness, but by suggestion.
  5. "A Work of Art" (1886) A doctor receives an antique bronze candelabra from a grateful patient. As it is a rather vulgar piece featuring "two female figures in the costume of Eve and in attitudes for the description of which I have neither the courage nor the fitting temperament," the doctor soon gives the candelabra to a lawyer to whom he is indebted. The lawyer gives it away in his turn, and finally the chunk of heavy bronze ends up in an antique shop... where the patient from the start of the story buys it to make the doctor happy with the completion of the set! What goes around, comes around - a clever story.
  6. "On the Road" (1886) Set in the southern Russia of Chekhov's childhood. Holed up in an inn during a nighttime blizzard on Christmas Eve, an older ruined landowner tells his life story to a young woman. As the storm rages, he talks about his beliefs and past failures, having spent his time in thrall to one passion or another to the detriment of his livelihood and personal life. This story took Chekhov, who so far had written his stories in a day or so, three weeks to complete, but it was worth the effort, for the story created quite a stir. Rachmaninoff based his orchestral fantasia The Rock on it. At the end, the young woman is moved by the story of the older man but neither of them speaks out, and she leaves... "Whether his finely intuitive soul were really able to read that look, or whether his imagination deceived him, it suddenly began to seem to him that with another touch or two that girl would have forgiven him his failures, his age, his desolate position, and would have followed him without question or reasonings. He stood a long while as though rooted to the spot, gazing at the tracks left by the sledge runners. The snowflakes greedily settled on his hair, his beard, his shoulders. . . ."
  7. "Volodya" (1887) Seventeen year old Volodya, a shy young man, and his mother visit the home of wealthy acquaintances. Volodya falls in love with his cousin, a rather plump woman of thirty, who is already married. The awkward boy even confesses his love to her, but she only laughs and teases him, as do the others when they hear about it. Later, at home, the infatuated adolescent kills himself impulsively by putting the muzzle of a pistol in his mouth. The acute experience of his own awkwardness and lack of self-worth were too much for the boy. "Volodya put the muzzle in his mouth again, pressed it with his teeth, and pressed something with his fingers. There was a sound of a shot.... Something hit Volodya in the back of his head with terrible violence, and he fell on the table with his face downwards among the bottles and glasses. Then he saw his father, in a top-hat with a wide black band on it, wearing mourning for some lady, suddenly seize him by both hands, and they fell headlong into a very deep, dark pit."
  8. "Typhus" (1887) An army lieutenant, Klimov, returns home to his sister and aunt in Moscow, but falls ill on the train. Delirious with fever, he is in bed for several weeks and then suddenly feels better. He has survived a case of spotted typhus and feels extremely happy - but he has brought death into the house and his sister has died during his fever and has already been buried. “She caught typhus from you, and is dead. She was buried the day before yesterday.” This terrible, unexpected news was fully grasped by Klimov’s consciousness; but terrible and startling as it was, it could not overcome the animal joy that filled the convalescent. He cried and laughed, and soon began scolding because they would not let him eat. Only a week later when, leaning on Pavel, he went in his dressing-gown to the window, looked at the overcast spring sky and listened to the unpleasant clang of the old iron rails which were being carted by, his heart ached, he burst into tears, and leaned his forehead against the window-frame. “How miserable I am!” he muttered. “My God, how miserable!” And joy gave way to the boredom of everyday life and the feeling of his irrevocable loss."
  9. "The Kiss" (1887) When a brigade is passing through a certain town, the officers are invited to a local ball. One of them is a shy, bespectacled young officer Ryabovitch, who has however an interesting experience: when wandering through the mansion, he stumbles into a dark room where an unknown woman suddenly embraces and kisses him - before running away as she notices her mistake. The kiss fires Ryabovitch' passion and he becomes obsessed with finding the woman when the brigade later returns to the same town. But no new invitation to a ball seems to be forthcoming and Ryabovitch, standing on the riverbank, undergoes a sort of enlightenment. The previous experience can never be repeated. He realizes that life is "an unintelligible, aimless jest" from which one should not expect anything - a detached attitude is best. So when the invitation finally arrives, he neglects it. "At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered “At last!” And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door . . . Something strange was happening to him . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his mustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger . . . He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud . . . "
  10. "Verochka" (1887) A young man in the countryside for research, has received important assistance from the father of a young woman, Vera, who has fallen in love with him. On the eve of his departure, Vera declares her love, but he has no such feelings for her and gives her the cold shoulder. "His conscience tormented him, and when Vera disappeared he felt as though he had lost something very precious, something very near and dear which he could never find again. He felt that with Vera a part of his youth had slipped away from him, and that the moments which he had passed through so fruitlessly would never be repeated. When he reached the bridge he stopped and sank into thought. He wanted to discover the reason of his strange coldness. That it was due to something within him and not outside himself was clear to him. He frankly acknowledged to himself that it was not the intellectual coldness of which clever people so often boast, not the coldness of a conceited fool, but simply impotence of soul, incapacity for being moved by beauty, premature old age brought on by education, his casual existence, struggling for a livelihood, his homeless life in lodgings."
  11. "The Letter" (1887). Story about the clergy. A degenerate priest, Anastasy, gives more humane advice to a deacon whose son is living with a married woman, than the clerical supervisor of the district, advising him not to send the chastising letter composed with the help of that supervisor. Although Chekhov had early lost his faith, he depicts religious figures with sympathy. This tale made a deep impression on the composer Tchaikovsky, who wrote to Chekhov initiating a friendship between the two artists. “Do you know, deacon, don’t send it!” said Anastasy, pouring himself out a second glass of vodka as though unconsciously. “Forgive him, let him alone! I am telling you . . . what I really think. If his own father can’t forgive him, who will forgive him? And so he’ll live without forgiveness. Think, deacon: there will be plenty to chastise him without you, but you should look out for some who will show mercy to your son! Just sit down and write straight off to him, ‘I forgive you Pyotr!’ He will under-sta-and! He will fe-el it!  I understand it from myself, you see old man . . . deacon, I mean. When I lived like other people, I hadn't much to trouble about, but now since I lost the image and semblance, there is only one thing I care about, that good people should forgive me. And remember, too, it’s not the righteous but sinners we must forgive. Why should you forgive your old woman if she is not sinful? No, you must forgive a man when he is a sad sight to look at . . . yes!”
  12. "Happiness" (1887) A summer night on the steppe, with magical descriptions. Two shepherds chat with a horsemen about an old man from the neighborhood who has just died and who had sold his soul to the Evil One (one sign was that his "melons whistled"). The old man also knew the places where treasures were buried in the local hills - but as the treasures are bewitched, nobody can retrieve them. The shepherds live in a world of superstition and fear, where happiness, symbolized by the buried treasures, is beyond their grasp, for when the horseman asks what they would do with the treasure when they found it, they are unable to answer. They don't realize that the real treasure is within them all along. "And the old man could not answer what he would do with the treasure if he found it. That question had presented itself to him that morning probably for the first time in his life, and judging from the expression of his face, indifferent and uncritical, it did not seem to him important and deserving of consideration."
  13. Stories about animals and children. In these years, Chekhov also wrote various stories about very young children or animals, told from their point of view for comic effect. A good example of an animal story is "Kashtanka" about the dog of a drunken carpenter, who one day loses her way home, spends a frightening night on the street, and then is rescued by a man running an animal show. Kashtanka is trained to perform in his act, together with a goose and cat. The new master is kind and there is plenty of food. But when during a performance the old master is among the public and calls her name, she jumps down from the stage and follows him home - although the conditions under her new master were much better. Do old family values win from new materialism? Or is the dog like the Russian serfs, who gladly would return to their dependent position? In "Misery" the horse of an old cabman, who is mourning for the loss of his son, is the only creature who has an ear for his sorrows - when he pours out his heart, the mare "listen and breathes on her master's hands." "Vanka" is a typical children's story; a boy working for a cobbler where he is mistreated writes a letter to his grandfather in the country, full of fond memories and the request to be taken back, but he posts it without address to "Grandfather in the village."
  14. Funny stories about lovers. There are many of these and here are some pointers: "From the Diary of a Violent-Tempered Man" shows how a rather naive scholastic young man, with a high opinion of his own power, is helplessly caught in the marriage net by a manipulative young woman; "Love" demonstrates that love, indeed, makes us blind to the negative character points of the beloved one, even if it concerns matters that would normally have driven us mad; "Ladies" is about the power of "women behind the throne." In "Strong Impressions" a young man is talked out of his love for his fiancee by a glib lawyer, just as an experiment; and in "A Blunder" husband and wife wait anxiously next door to the room where their daughter, who is getting a bit on in years, has a conversation with a young man - they stand ready to rush in as soon as anything like love is spoken by the unfortunate male to bless the pair with the ikon on the wall, but in their haste they pick an ordinary painting and the victim gets away.
  15. Another category are "dacha stories," about life in the summer cottage - something essentially Russian. In "Bad Weather" a wife stays with her mother in the dacha, while the husband works in town, When due to a long spell of bad weather he can't come over and she instead goes to meet him in their city house, he appears not to be living at home - although guilty, he has a glib answer to explain the situation; in "Not Wanted" a husband who has remained in the city because of his busy job, visits the dacha where his family is staying, only to discover that there is no place for him, his wife and children have their own lives in the countryside. Love affairs were apparently easy in the dacha parks; in "In a Summer Villa" a man receives an ardent love letter with the proposal for a tryst - it disturbs him, there even seems to be a younger rival... but later it appears the work of his wife, to test him. In "A Misfortune" the wife of a notary, staying in their dacha out of town, has love declarations whispered into her ears by the solicitor living next door. She feels she is getting weak - she likes him - and tries to save her marriage, but her workaholic husband is so little interested in her that she is literally driven into the arms of the solicitor.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Visiting Ako (Ako City Museum of History)

Ako is a municipality in the western part of Hyogo Prefecture, bordering the Bizen area of Okayama. It has a certain tourist fame thanks to the fact that Ako was the castle town of Lord Asano Naganori, also called Takumi no Kami, who only being a third-generation daimyo in 1701 lost his life and castle by impulsively assaulting one of his superiors inside the shogun's palace in Edo - a historical incident that gave rise to the famous story of the Forty-Seven Ronin or Chushingura, and the ensuing boom in Joruri, Kabuki and much later, also film and novels. In fiction, however, the character of Lord Asano was changed and from what really was a sort of villain - who attacked a colleague from behind with a sword - he was made into a tragic hero.

Ako was a small but rich fief thanks to salt production on the coast. The castle was built in 1645 by Asano Naganao on the alluvial plain of the Chikusa River. It used to have 12 gates and 10 yagura towers and as it stood immediately at the seaside, one could set sail from docks located in the castle. Salt making took place in salt pans at the seaside and the salt from Ako was sold in the capital Edo and all over Japan.

Tourism in Ako has been built around the Forty-seven Ronin memories, but the problem is that there is not really much to be seen. The castle was dismantled in the early Meiji-period, and although a wall and one gate and one tower have been rebuilt, it doesn't add up to much, especially as - in contrast to for example nearby Tatsuno Castle - the castle grounds have only partly been restored. They just peter out in fields and a large parking lot and have not been made as a whole into a park. There is no unity.

[Restored yagura tower of Ako Castle]

The largest space inside the castle grounds is taken up by the Oishi Shrine  dedicated to the leader of the Forty-Seven Ronin, but this was only built in 1900 and is a very commercial-looking affair, not more than a tourist trap. It is second-hand Shinto, and the Forty-seven Ronin statues outside are very ugly - there are more of these in the Treasure Hall if you can stomach the steep fee.

That leaves two things. One is the gate to the house of Oishi Yoshio (Kuranosuke), the Ako chamberlain who led the secret vendetta of the forty-seven. The gate is said to be the original one on which the messenger from Edo knocked, bringing the news of Lord Asano's forced seppuku.

[Gate to Oishi Yoshio's mansion]

The other structure of interested in the castle grounds - and for me the largest point of interest in all of Ako - is the Ako City Museum of History, built in traditional style at the site of the former rice storehouses of the castle. Its displays are mainly about salt production (tools, models) and the Forty-seven Ronin (ukiyoe). There is also a model of the type of ship that carried the salt, packed in straw, to Edo. Although there is nothing in English, two nice videos about both these subjects are shown as well.

[Ako City Museum of History]

Besides the castle and its attractions, Ako also boasts Kagakuji Temple, founded in 1645 as the family temple of the Asano clan - it features grave monuments (the main grave of Lord Asano is however in Sengakuji in Tokyo)  and more Forty-seven Ronin replicas.

Don't forget to taste the local product - salt -, which is best done in the shape of the Shiomi Manju cakes sold in the town - as usual, the inside consists of azuki bean paste, but to the shell some Ako salt has been added.
Ako is easily accessible from the Kansai area. Its station, Banshu Ako, is on a branch line from the main Sanyo line, called Ako line, but there are through trains to Banshu Ako from Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe - otherwise, change trains in Himeji. The Ako castle grounds are 20 min on foot from the station. The Ako City History Museum is open from 9:00-17:00, but closed on Wednesdays and at year end/New Year. Entrance fee is 200 yen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bach Cantatas (48): Trinity XV

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity introduces the theme to avoid worldly cares, but seek God's kingdom first, from the Sermon on the Mount. It deals with how birds and flowers don't work, but God takes care of them anyway: "Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
    There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

    Galatians 5:25–6:10, Admonition to "walk in the Spirit"
    Matthew 6:23–34, Sermon on the Mount: "Don't worry about material needs, but seek God's kingdom first."

    Cantata Studies:
    Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

    • Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz, BWV 138, 5 September 1723

      Chorale and recitativo (alto): Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz
      Recitativo (bass): Ich bin veracht''
      chorale + recitativo (soprano, alto): Er kann und will dich lassen nicht
      Recitativo (tenor): Ach süßer Trost
      Aria (bass): Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht
      Recitativo (alto): Ei nun! So will ich auch recht sanfte ruhn
      Chorale: Weil du mein Gott und Vater bist

      ("Why do you trouble yourself, my heart") Experimental work in chorale cantata style, that precedes the weekly chorale cantata series. The overall theme concerns moving beyond temporal, earthly worries to trust in God. The hymn upon which this chorale cantata is based is conjectured to have been composed by Hans Sachs (of Meistersinger fame) and set to an anonymous melody. Stanzas 1 and 2 of the hymn are broken by the insertion of recitatives. Especially for an opening number this procedure is quite unusual. From the ritornello with oboes and then the entry of the chorus, this is very melancholy music, full of anxious questioning, oscillating between faith and fear. The highlight of the cantata is the splendid bass aria "Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht," the only traditional aria in the cantata, where in the form of a joyful minuet sorrows are blown away - the turning point on the sorrow-joy axis of the cantata. Finally the chorale from the beginning returns, but now dressed for a dance and with spectacular accompaniment. (***)

    • Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, BWV 99, 17 September 1724

      Coro: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
      Recitativo (bass): Sein Wort der Wahrheit stehet fest
      Aria (tenor): Erschüttre dich nur nicht, verzagte Seele
      Recitativo (alto): Nun, der von Ewigkeit geschloß'ne Bund.
      Aria (soprano, alto): Wenn des Kreuzes Bitterkeiten
      Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan

      ("What God does is well done") This whole cantata is set in a warm and positive vein. It starts with a most beautiful concerto movement: flute, oboe d'amore and violin, joined by an overlay of the chorus with the soprano as cantus firmus. The deliciously lilting melody is based on the original chorale tune by Samuel Rodigast. The flute again plays an important role in the tenor aria. Virtuoso configurations and daring harmonies depict the shaking and torment of the soul from the text. Even better is the duet for soprano and alto, accompanied by (again) flute and oboe d'amore, a haunting theme with a light touch expressing the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. A warmly accompanied chorale wraps up the cantata. (***)

    • Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51, 17 September 1730

      Aria: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen
      Recitativo: Wir beten zu dem Tempel an
      Aria: Höchster, mache deine Güte
      Chorale: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren
      Finale: Alleluja

      ("Exult in God in all lands") A brilliant and joyous exultation, starting with an aria in the form of an Italian concerto, accompanied by the trumpet. This is a rare and very virtuoso cantata for solo soprano. As in conservative Leipzig only boy soprano's were used in the church, and this music seems far above the abilities of any such performer, it may have originally been meant for another occasion - something also suggested by the fact that the cantata has no connection to the readings for this Sunday. The combination of soprano and trumpet leads to spectacular fireworks in the opening movement, making this one of Bach's most popular cantatas. The second aria is gentler, a gorgeous cantilena with expressive coloraturas. Next the soprano sings the wonderful chorale melody "Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren" with florid orchestral accompaniment, and the cantata closes with a festive Alleluia. An exceptionally flamboyant and technically demanding cantata. (****)

    Bach Cantata Index

    Sunday, March 10, 2013

    The Twenty Best Silent Films from Europe and the U.S. (Movie Reviews)

    After a desultory experience with silent film via the silly slapstick fragments on TV when I was a kid, it took decades before I felt any inclination to watch silent films again. Thanks to my interest in the great Japanese director Ozu I started watching his silents (he made them until deep in the 1930s), and thanks to Ozu's silents films I fell in love with this form of movie making. The best silent film for me is still Ozu's I was born, but.... Ozu made other beautiful silent films as well, and so did other Japanese directors as Naruse, Shimizu and Gosho, to name a few.

    Inspired by these Japanese films, a few years ago I also started watching European and American silent films and I made several interesting discoveries. My favorite films are not always the ones that traditionally make it to the top of lists, and vice versa - after all, this is a personal selection and as stated, my childhood experience gave me a healthy dislike of most forms of slapstick - although I love real comedy. Another thing I want to demonstrate is that German (9 films on my list) and French films (6 films on my list) from this period were artistically superior to most movies made in Hollywood (4 films on my list), which - despite (or perhaps because of) its far greater resources - had already started churning out its characteristic brainless blockbusters.

    Here is my list of the 20 best silent films from Europe and the U.S. (in chronological order):
    1. Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari ("The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari"; 1919) by Robert Wiene (Germany). The first film in the German expressionist style, a style which originated in painting and theater set design and gave birth to a new style of cinema, which cast its lengthy shadows all the way into the film noir of 1940s America. Typical are the angular sets (jagged edges, misshapen windows, diagonal staircases), the stylized performances (especially by Werner Kraus and Konrad Veidt as the sideshow operator Caligari and his somnambulist) and the exaggerated use of light and shade. This creates a sense of disorientation which fits the themes of the film: terror and mental instability. In the wake of the disaster of WWI, the film was also meant as an attack on authority (notice the ludicrously high stools on which the municipal officials sit) and although this was turned on its head by the conservative studio by inserting a framing device, the subversive message is still recognizable. A complex and disturbing film, and a psychological fantasy containing unbelievable horror. Link to Internet Archive.
    2. Die Puppe ("The Doll"; 1919) by Ernst Lubitsch (Germany). Probably the best film the maestro of Trouble in Paradise fame made in his German period, full of fairy-tale like unreality, which has been emphasized for further effect. Uses cardboard sets like Caligari, only here they are bright and colorful. A delightful and even kinky burlesque, with Lubitsch's famous light, witty, and graceful touch. The frothy story is about a young prince who wants to avoid marriage and therefore to satisfy his environment decides to marry a life-like, mechanical doll (somewhat like a blow-up sex doll avant-la-date)  - but of course, the doll is more "real" than he thinks... There are also some funny story boards, as when the prince leaves with his "doll" for the wedding night and his uncle asks if he knows what to do. "Of course, I have the manual," is the answer.
    3. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens ("Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror"; 1922) by F.W. Murnau (Germany). The one and only original vampire film, loosely based on Bram Stoker's Dracula that works in a subtle, subliminal way on the mind of the viewer. The film demonstrates the inability of human beings to reconcile civilized behavior with unconscious, bestial desires. The helpless, ineffective protagonist, real estate agent Henri Hutter, is symbolic for the helplessness of ordinary Germans after the failure of the terrible war from 1914-18. In a Freudian sense, Hutter and the vampire, Count Orlok, are complimentary beings. Both Hutter and his fiancee, Ellen, crave for the strong Orlok who seems to promise fulfillment to the weak, albeit of an evil kind, a desire that is all the more perverse because of Orlok's exaggerated hideousness (admirably played by Max Schreck). He is tall and meager, his long hands end in terrible claws, his ears are distended from his head. That "bestial desire" would get full play when the Nazis came to power and the "weak" would get more than they ever dreamed of. The film was made on location in various German Baltic towns. My favorite shot is the one of a long line of people who, during an epidemic, walk through the streets of the old town carrying all of them coffins on their shoulders. Link to Internet Archive.
    4. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ("Dr Mabuse, the Gambler"; 1922) by Fritz Lang (Germany). An exciting thriller, one of the best ever made - with a nightly car chase and climactic shoot-out - , but also an incisive social commentary. Although harking back to Fantomas by Feuillade, with its set up of a fight against a master criminal, the figure of Dr. Mabuse is much more dangerous: he can control people's minds by hypnosis and is the embodiment of the Nietzschean Superman. In a way, he is the proto-Hitler. He is also able to change his identity like a snake shedding its skin. In that sense, the title "Der Spieler" is ambiguous: it points at the gambling which plays an important role in the first part of the film, but it also means "actor" or "puppeteer" hinting at the disguises and mind control of Dr Mabuse. Lang shows a country on the edge of chaos and self-destruction, with the weak authorities as powerless, making the slide into Fascism seem almost inevitable, a realistically brilliant portrayal of its time. The lead performance by Rudolf Klein-Rogge is very memorable. Link to Internet Archive (only part 1 of the film).
    5. Two short films by Germaine Dulac (La Souriante Madame Beudet / The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) & La Coquille et le Clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) (France). Germaine Dulac was a well-known feminist, but these two movies are not at all preachy. The Smiling Madame Beudet is about the boredom of a marriage where the partners have nothing in common: the husband is a domineering, loud figure, the wife quiet - she prefers to read - and silently suffering when her husband makes one of his endless silly jokes. A fixed joke he performs everyday is pretending to shoot himself with a pistol in his desk that contains no bullets. At a certain moment, the wife secretly puts in a bullet, but then the husband points the gun at her - as a joke! The Seashell and the Clergyman is a surrealistic fantasy not unlike Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel, only less shocking - Dulac is more lyrical. The film is about the sexual fantasies of a priest (the "seashell" is an obvious symbol that recurs throughout the film), who lusts after the wife of a military officer - or something like that. Forget about plot, just ride along with the delicious images! Famous is the dictum of one censor, who forbade the film because he didn't understand the meaning, and films of which the meaning is obscure of course are intrinsically subversive! Link to Internet Archive (Madame Beudet only).
    6. Flesh and the Devil (1927) by Clarence Brown and with John Gilbert & Greta Garbo (U.S.). Leo and Ulrich are life long friends. Then Leo falls in love with the beautiful Felicitas and kills her husband in a duel. Sent in exile by the military authorities, he entrusts Felicitas to his friend Ulrich - who then marries her! When Leo comes back from Africa, Ulrich has some explaining to do... but the friendship between the two men will prove stronger than "mere" love for a woman... A very strange film, with Greta Garbo at her most sexy in her widow's veil. 
    7. Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang (Germany). Iconic, astonishing SF film by the great German director. Metropolis is a Utopian world where people lead a life of carefree leisure. But is appears this wealthy society is supported by an "underclass," living in an underground world, who keep the machinery working that makes Utopia possible. When Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the Master of Metropolis (Alfred Abel) discovers this, and on top of that, falls in love with a beautiful but rebellious woman from the underworld, Maria (Brigitte Helm), drama kicks in. Maria wants to join the head (upper world of leisure) to the hands (the underworld of workers) via the mediation of "the heart." To derail the rebellion, the Master has a mad scientist build a robot looking exactly like Maria, which then entices (by a lascivious dance) the workers to a riot that will destroy them. Lavish production, visually exhilarating and even hallucinatory, the largest budget film of the 1920s in Germany that almost wrecked the Ufa studios. Not only a powerful allegory of totalitarianism, but also of wealth inequality in general, a worthy predecessor of films like Alphaville and Blade Runner (while the mad scientist was mirrored in Bride of Frankenstein). Link to Internet Archive (but try to watch the 2010 restored version - Metropolis was heavily mutilated after its release).
    8. Sunrise (1927) by F.W. Murnau (U.S.). A poetic and symbolic drama. A married farmer is mesmerized by the allures of a dark haired city woman. Things have gotten so far that he seeks a way to get rid of his wife. He takes her over the lake to the city, pretending to make a trip with her, but in reality planning to drown her, However, he hasn't got the nerve for such a cruel act and they both end up spending an unscheduled but marvelous day in town, something which brings them closer to each other. On the way back over the lake, the farmer has lost all thought of killing his wife, but then a sudden storm upsets his boat... and yes, there is still a happy ending. It is a journey from corruption to redemption, a process that leads to true love. The beginning and end of the film are full of dramatic intensity; in contrast, the long middle section about the capers in the city is often outright farce - such as the chase of an errant pig. Production standards are extremely high, the camera work is fabulous. Murnau made this film in Hollywood, but it is a far cry from the sodden tearjerkers the studios would churn out by the truckload. It is, as the subtitle says, "a song of humanity," full of expression, a feast both for the heart and the intellect. Link to Internet Archive.
    9. It (1927) by Clarence G. Badger and with Clara Bow (U.S.). One of the funniest silent films ever made, in which Clara Bow demonstrates clearly that she has got "IT." She plays a shop girl who catches the millionaire owner of the emporium in her nets, but there are some hindrances on the way to the wedding boat... Clara Bow is sparkling and energetic - she became America's first sex symbol until the advent of the talky forced her to retire. 
    10. Underworld (1927) by Josef von Sternberg (U.S.). Film that became for decades the template of urban gangster films, an "experiment in violence and montage" as the director called it himself. Delivers the goods in broad, archetypal scenes, from an abortive prison break via hearse to an attempted rape in a confetti-strewn ballroom bacchanal. Over-sized, larger than life gangster boss Bull Weed (George Bancroft) saves a drunken ex-lawyer from the gutter and employs him as his adviser (under the nickname of "Rolls Royce," played by Clive Brook), with the all-American boast: "Nobody helps me - I help them!" But most of the time the lawyer has to take care of the Bull's plumage-swathed, flapper girlfriend (aptly named "Feathers McCoy", alluringly played by Evelyn Brent) and things go wrong when the boss starts suspecting they have an affair together. His only weak spot will be his undoing. A Pre-Code film with deliciously salacious come-ons and visual entendres, and exquisitely well photographed. Two other excellent Von Sternberg silents are the war drama The Last Command and the melodramatic The Docks of New York, but I prefer the "gangster chic" of Underworld. Criterion edition.
    11. The Lodger, a Story of the London Fog (1927) by Alfred Hitchcock (U.K.). The best early Hitchcock, made after a sojourn in Germany where the crime master had imbued Expressionism. A serial killer of the Jack the Ripper type is on the loose in London, murdering blond women. A landlady with a blond daughter (who is seeing one of the policemen on the case) suspects her mysterious new lodger may be the murderous madman but even in this early Hitchcock there are several twists and turns. The director has strewn many red herrings along the path of the film and diverts us with tense sequences that suddenly deflate. An excellent character piece, but above all, Hitchcock aptly demonstrates how when nerves are on edge, "gut feelings" usually get it wrong, leading to suspicion of every somewhat odd individual with "queer" habits. Exceptional good atmosphere, and brilliant visual touches, with a fast tempo. The lead role was played by British star actor Ivor Novello. Link to Internet Archive.
    12. La passion de Jeanne d'Arc ("The Passion of Joan of Arc," 1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer and with Maria Falconetti (France). An impressive account of Joan of Arc's trial and subsequent execution. The judges and wardens with their grotesque faces are all hypocrites, but Joan manages to hold on to her dignity and humility. She has a most beautiful, beatific countenance. Maria Falconetti gives a breathtaking performance in what is the best film of the great Danish director Carl Dreyser. Link to Internet Archive. Criterion edition.
    13. Abwege ("The Devious Path," also called "Crisis"; 1928) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst (Germany).  One of the most erotic silent films ever made, a provocative study of the sexual frustration of an upper-class woman. Neglected by her workaholic husband Thomas, who is a respected lawyer, Irene Beck (Brigitte Helm) plans to run away with her secret admirer, the artist Walter Frank. When Thomas thwarts this scheme, Irene falls in with a fast crowd of debauched Berlin nightclub denizens (the "devious path" of the title). Influenced by drugs and drink, she toys with the affections of a young boxer. Irene is on the fast road to divorce, but that isn't the solution either, for she basically loves her husband and only wants him to pay more attention to her, also physically. Expertly filmed almost without text boards, everything is expressed by gestures and framing. The film uses a voyeuristic style of camera work which was new at the time, and which expertly manages to bring out the contrast between the inner world with thoughts of lust and the outer world where social conventions rule. Helm's character is visibly tortured by a strong but suppressed sexual urge, she literally twists and turns like a wound-up spring throughout the film, but also creates a credible and realistic psychological portrait. The long nightclub scene is a great set-piece, take for example the comedy around the erotic impact of a backless dress. Why is this great film almost unknown? Isn't this much better than the childish stuff that in the same period dribbled out of Hollywood? (One reason is a practical one: one reel was lost for a long time, the film has only recently been restored).
    14. L’Argent ("Money," 1928) by Marcel L’Herbier (France). Ambitious, big budget film about money, "the dung on which life thrives," and its power to corrupt and morally destruct people. Story updated from a 1891 novel by Emile Zola, almost prophetically, considering the stock crash of the year after the film was made, 1929. Two bankers are slugging it out for control. the sinister Gunderman and the sensual, obese Saccard (the central character, admirably played by Pierre Alcover). Saccard is temporarily down and uses a young woman (Line, played by Mary Glory) ambitious for money to convince her famous pilot husband (Henry Victor) to work for the unscrupulous financier in a stock fraud scheme. As a publicity stunt he has to fly over the Atlantic to French Guyana and "discover" new oil wells. Saccard is romantically interested in the pilot's wife, which prompts his former lover, the aristocratic femme fatale Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm) to join forces with Gunderman to bring him down. Great mass scenes filmed with thousands of extras on location in the Paris Stock Exchange. Opulent Art Deco sets and inventive use of a mobile camera make this riveting film into a great visual spectacle. Its message, unfortunately, in the aftermath of 2008 is still current...
    15. Un chapeau de paille d’Italie ("An Italian Strawhat"; 1928) by René Clair (France).  Comedy film based on a 19th c. play by Eugène Labiche, a satire on bourgeois attitudes. When a man is on his way to his wedding, riding through the park, his horse happens to pick up a straw hat and take a bite out of it. The hat belongs to a married lady who at that very moment lies in the bushes and in the arms of someone not her husband, a military officer, who now follows the bridegroom in order to demand a new hat, as the lady can not return home to her lawful husband without one. So while guests arrive and wedding proceedings are under way, the bridegroom has to run nervously around trying to buy exactly the same straw hat, as the irate martial man threatens to wreck his new apartment. But when he finally manages to find the elusive hat, things become even more complicated... A satire of the bourgeois (or general human) obsession with surface decorum, while below that surface anything goes. A comic masterpiece.
    16. La petite marchande d'allumettes ("The Little Match Girl"; 1928) by Jean Renoir (France). Short film based on the well-known Hans-Christian Andersen tale, but also owing a debt to Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. The match seller is played by Catherine Hessling, who started her career as a model of the famous Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, and then became the wife of the son Jean – after which she played in several of his films during the 1920s, most notably Nana. With her heavy lipstick she has something vulgar of the Nana-type even in her present role, which leads to an interesting contrast, for she is obviously not the child from Andersen's story. The film has been expertly made, not only in the long dream sequence with its array of special effects such as double exposure and rear projection, but also in various small touches, as when Karen has dropped her matchboxes due to an attack with snowballs, and the police man who arrives at the scene looks right through her and instead addresses an upper class shop owner. The poor do not exist. In the dream sequence she flies through the sky on horseback with a young officer, chased by a black figure representing death, who snatches her away and brings her to a lonely grave; the cross on the grave then turns into a blossoming tree, and finally the falling petals change into the snowflakes slowly descending on her lifeless body... Link to Internet Archive.
    17. Die Büchse der Pandora ("Pandora's Box"; 1929) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and with Louise Brooks (Germany). The film that brought cult status to the American actress Louise Brooks in the role of the brash showgirl Lulu (based on two plays by Austrian author Frank Wedekind), a playful young woman whose carefree eroticism works as a powerful magnet on all men who meet her. But she is not innocent for she knows her power and uses it consciously. Never has the face of evil looked so beautiful as in Brooks with her famous razor-sharp bobbed hairstyle and anthracite eyes. Pabst shows us a society nosediving into a carnal abyss - Lulu's sexual vivacity creates mayhem among males wherever she goes, and also among women in a for 1929 daring Lesbian subtext. But all who come too close to her are destroyed, until she herself meets her Thanatos in the shape of a meekly smiling Jack the Ripper at the end of the last reel. One of the best scenes is the seduction of a newspaper magnate who used to be her lover but tries to shed her for a high-society fiancee - she tricks him into an embrace under the eyes of the fiancee, looking over his shoulder, and I have never seen a face where the word "gloating" was more apt. The second half of the film, after she has inadvertently killed her husband and flies for justice, is darker, but Brooks is perhaps at her most beautiful wearing a dark veil in the courtroom  Pabst also made the scarcely less racy Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) with Louise Brooks. Criterion release.
    18. Asphalt (1929) by Joe May (Germany). A delicious film about the subject of the "cop seduced by sexy crook" plot that became the template for many future noir films. The opening scenes highlighting the "asphalt city" are justly famous for their camera work. A strict Teutonic police officer (played by Metropolis star Gustav Frohlich) arrests a glamorous, jewel thieving flapper (Betty Amann), but ends up being twisted around her little finger. A highlight is the seduction scene in her apartment - she just jumps on him as if climbing a tree and locks him in her legs - her naked feet stroking his shiny police boots! This is pure lust versus the coolness of even a Lulu. A film that is highly entertaining and ends on a surprisingly moving note. It is the best work of the director, who, like most of his German colleagues appearing above, was later active in Hollywood - where their artistry was destroyed under the wheels of commerce.
    19. Movyy Vavilon ("The New Babylon"; 1929) by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg (Russia). Besides Germany, France and the U.S., the Soviet Union was the fourth country where important films were made in the 1920s. Unfortunately, these films are so ideologically inspired as to become veritable propaganda films, making them unwatchable for me (even Eisenstein's Potemkin). Somewhat of an exception is The New Babylon, although this film finds its subject in what is regarded as the first example of "proletarian class struggle," the Commune of Paris of 1871. A salesgirl, Louise, takes the side of the revolution, but her soldier-friend Jean is on the side of the oppressors who use the army to cruelly subdue the revolt. But above all, the films is a fun satire of the bourgeoisie, which is shown enjoying itself in hallucinatory orgies, as well as an ironic look at "class struggle." The caricatural faces in the film are great, they reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec. The original film music was by Shostakovitch. The cutting by the two young directors is fast, fierce and rhythmical as in Eisenstein's films.
    20. Menschen am Sonntag ("People on Sunday"; 1930) by Curt and Robert Siodmak (Germany). A short romantic comedy on which also Billy Wilder cooperated as a writer. For modern viewers the main interest is in the extensive, on location natural shots of the city of Berlin and its inhabitants under the Weimar Republic (soon to be defunct) - the film is in fact a semi-documentary. It is remarkable how little these people seem to differ from us today, despite the 80 year gap. The five young actors were non-professionals. Wolfgang, a wine seller, has a date with Christl, an extra in films, planning to visit a popular lake near Berlin called Nikolassee. He has brought along a friend, Erwin, a taxi driver who lives together with Annie, a model, but their relation is not very good so Annie is staying at home. Christl also has brought a friend, Brigitte, a record seller. The film follows their day out with boating, swimming and petting - but sooner than expected, the nice day is over and they have to return to their daily drudgery. A small consolation is that there will be another Sunday in week's time... Link to Internet Archive. Criterion edition.

    Bonus: Although I dislike the intrinsic mawkishness of Chaplin's tramp, I find the comedies of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd quite watchable, despite the inevitable slapstick. Keaton with his inexpressive, white face was the greater comedian, but Lloyd was an expert in daredevil acrobatic stunts, which he executed himself. Buster Keaton made several excellent comedies in the 1920s as Seven Chances, Sherlock Jr, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., but despite the political incorrectness of its "cannibal" scenes, I keep returning to The Navigator (1924). It is perhaps because of the characters of Rollo and his prospective fiancee Betsy: two of the very idle rich with each two left hands, who when adrift on an empty passenger ship, gradually learn how to be more practical and normally human. I have written already about Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy, but another great film is Safety Last! (1923). Lloyd as usual plays the ordinary guy (although decked out with iconic horn-rimmed spectacles), who sets out to make his fortune in the big city, but ends up as a low paid clerk in a department store, something he conceals from his girlfriend. This leads to problems when she arrives on the scene... In order to earn a quick buck Harold is willing to do anything - and that is when we get the famous scene of him dangling from the clock on top of a skyscraper in down-town Los Angeles.
    Note: Many of the films presented here are in the public domain and available on, for example, the Internet Archive. For more viewing pleasure, it is of course best to look for a restored and cleaned-up version on DVD, easy to find via Amazon.

    Saturday, March 9, 2013

    Plum Blossoms in Suma Rikyu Park

    Suma Rikyu Park lies in the western part of Kobe, not far from the Suma Temple. The 58 hectare large park, situated on the side of Mt. Tsukimiyama, finds it origin in a villa of Count Otani Kozui (1876-1948), who was the 22nd abbot of the Nishi-Honganji Temple in Kyoto and also sponsored three archaeological expeditions to Central Asia (the findings formed the important Otani Collection, parts of which can still be seen in the National Museum of Tokyo and elsewhere). In 1907, the site was bought by the Imperial Household Agency, and the Suma Rikyu (Suma Detached Palace) was finished in 1914 - the official name, by the way, was Muko Rikyu. Old photos show a big structure like the halls of the Gosho Palace in Kyoto. The garden was designed by Fukuba Itsusen.
    [Plum blossoms in Suma Rikyu]

    However, this all perished during the heavy bombings of 1945. The buildings were gone, but the garden was as much as possible restored to the original state, and in 1967 was donated by the Imperial House to the City of Kobe, in commemoration of the marriage of the present Emperor (then Crown Prince).

    [Plum blossoms in Suma Rikyu]

    There is also an eastern part of 24 hectares, connected by a footbridge, that originally formed a residence and garden belonging to the Okazaki Zaibatsu (a local industrial group - mainly shipping and banking). It was in 1973 acquired by the City of Kobe and added to the park, but the residence was destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.
    [Early sakura in Suma Rikyu]

    The Rikyu Garden consists mainly of a Western-style garden of the Versailles type, with cascades, a canal and rows of fountains, as well as a square with a large fountain. The park also features a large rose garden, an iris garden and a camellia garden. An old stone lantern still stands as a lonely reminder of the former imperial gardens. A lookout-point provides a view over Suma and the nearby sea. A drive lined with maple trees is gorgeous in autumn.
    [The main view - canals and fountains - in Suma Rikyu Park]

    The botanical garden built on the former Okazaki premises features a greenhouse, a plum garden, a hydrangea garden, an English garden and a Japanese garden with a tearoom. There are also a few cherry trees. The plum trees come in many varieties and have all been neatly labeled (in Japanese). I found two statues in the garden: one of the god Poseidon, throwing a spear, in front of the restaurant and donated by Greece and a modern statue of Don Quixote on a stumbling and panting Rosinante.

    [Fountain in Suma Rikyu Park]

    Hours: 9:00-17:00 (enter by 16:30): in spring and autumn, there are sometimes longer opening times in the evening. Closed on Thursdays and from Dec. 29-Jan 3. 
    Fee: 400 yen (a year card, also valid for the Shinrin Botanical Garden and Sorakuen Garden is 900 yen) 
    Access: 10 min walk from Suma Station on either the JR or Sanyo Dentetsu lines (note that coming from Kobe Sannomiya or Motomachi, the JR ticket is 170 yen, but the combined Hanshin/Hankyu/Sanyo Dentetsu ticket is 320 yen because of the change of operator along the way - one of the rare cases that the JR is cheaper!). After exiting the station  proceed in an eastern direction along Kokudo 2 for about 5 min, then take the Rikyu Road (lined with small pine trees) north all the way to the Main Entrance of the park. There is also an eastern entrance to the a park, about 7 min from Tsukimiyama Station on the Sanyo Dentetsu Line, but this can not be recommended, as the environment with a highway ramp is rather vulgar.