Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Romantics are not for sissies (or young people)

Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786)
by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.
For those of you who were not subjected to the tortures of German romantic literature in your youth, as I was, this may not speak to you.  But if you will stick with me through this reminiscence, there’s a reward at the end for music lovers.   

I was in love with the French language in high school and fully intended to major in it in college.  When I got there, however, I soon discovered that because my German was better than my French, having learned it to a degree as a child, it would be less effort.  I still took a lot of French courses, but figured in the end I’d have less difficulty with the hurdles of a major in German.   I was wrong, but that’s another story.

I took my junior year in Munich over the protests of the head of the German department, who felt, with some justification, that I would not get the great education there I would get with him.  He was right.  I barely studied that whole year.  I lived life to the fullest, however, and left much of the small town shy 20-year old behind, creating a relationship with Germany, Europe, art, music and opera, that I now cannot imagine my life without.   

One thing I had to do if I were to go, Professor Neuse insisted, was take the courses I would be missing at Middlebury.  I would get the classic courses in Goethe and Schiller my senior year, but my junior year was supposed to be dedicated to the Romantic period in German literature.

I signed up for a course in Romantic Literature in Munich taught by a graduate student who spent one entire semester on a book called Herzenssergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings of the heart by an art-loving monk).  The entire time was spent trying to figure out which lines were written by Tieck and which ones by Wackenroder.

If only somebody had told me that Wackenroder was in love with Tieck and that he never married, I might have paid more attention, but that, alas, was not in the Zeitgeist.

Some time ago, I realized that I could get hold of this book, which I threw against the wall more than once fifty years ago, for free now, with so much available on line, and with the copyright long since expired.  I started reading it and was delighted.  It’s like a visit, now, to an exotic country, moving around among such fragile and sensitive characters.  Watching young people gush with passion now almost endears them to me.  Such an antidote to present-day cynicism.

Hmm, I said to myself.  Wonder if there is any possibility I might get into Goethe’s Werther.

For those of you who didn’t ever take an exam which contained the question: “List every year of Goethe’s life from the time of his Italian journey to his death and give one major event, literary or otherwise, for each year,” you may be unfamiliar with young Werther, so allow a brief  digression:

When Goethe was only 24, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about a man named Werther, who fell in love with a woman named Charlotte.  Charlotte had just become engaged to another, and was torn between duty to her family (the marriage would save her father and motherless siblings from financial ruin) and the love she comes to return for Werther.  In the end, of course (Sturm und Drang – see below) duty wins out.  Werther cannot survive the pain and shoots himself with her husband’s gun.

Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) made him a best seller all over Europe in 1774 and started him on his path to becoming Germany’s greatest, and one of the world’s greatest ever literary figures.  The book started a new literary movement called Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), the Romantic period, with themes centered around individual emotion and passion.  Many young men would read the book and commit suicide, so powerful was the impact at the time.

I got hold of Werther and, like the “heart outpourings” of Messieurs Tieck and Wackenroder, I found it delightful.  Up to a point.  I’m only half-way through because I got distracted.

First by a not-very-good German film called, in English, Goethe in Love.  It’s actually an adaptation of Goethe's semi-autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther, and if you don’t mind the messing about with the facts of Goethe's life, it’s an entertaining escape film.

But then, purely by coincidence, I learned that Jonas Kaufmann was doing Massenet’s Werther at
Jonas Kaufmann
the MET next month and that the opera will be simulcast, so it will show in movie theaters around the country.

Now here’s the treat.  You don’t have to take to German literature at all to take to Jonas Kaufmann or to Massenet's treatment of Werther  First off, the opera’s in French, and Kaufmann is often described as the best tenor around these days.

Have a listen.  I’d suggest, to get a fix on the man, if you don’t already know him and his work, that you listen to him doing some Schubert Lieder. 

Then move on to the opera Werther.  There’s a YouTube video of Kaufmann singing what I think is the highlight aria.  (I’m biased – there are actually five well-known arias, and this is only one of them.)  It’s from the third act when he comes to see Charlotte in total despair, knowing his love for her will never be requited.  Don’t be put off, by the way, by the fact that he’s reading something.  It’s actually a popular poem of the day by Ossian, which Werther has just translated. In the original story it's this poem that makes Charlotte fall in love with him.  How could you not adore a man who translates Ossian!   The poem runs along the lines of “Why should I get up in the morning and go on living.”   The aria actually goes like this:

Original French:

Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps,
Sur mon front je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps des orages et des tristesses.
Demain, dans le vallon, viendra le voyageur
Se souvenant de ma gloire première
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendeur
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.

Poetic translation used in English version of opera:

“Why dost thou waken me
O tender breath of spring
Why must I wake again?
On my brow I feel thy caresses
Yet I know that soon
Heavy storms will be raging
And sore distresses!
Why must I wake again,
O tender breath of spring?
And when the trav’ler comes
Into this lonely vale,
Rememb’ring me in my first glory
He will search for my splendor of yore
But will fail,
For he will only find despair
And hopeless mourning!
Alas!  Why must I wake again
O tender breath of Spring?”

You’ve got to wait for the fourth act for him to off himself and for Charlotte to sob over him dying there on the stage.  Hold back the tears till then, if you can.

Or sob all the way through.  It's all right.  

Great stuff. 

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Now keep your fingers crossed I get to see the opera in March.  (You can too, of course!)

P.S.  My love for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as some of you know, knows no bounds.

Imagine what happens when he and Jonas Kaufmann get together.

Here they are in the Pearl Fishers duet.

 photo credits:



Sunday, February 9, 2014


I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year in 1976 and 1977.  While I was there it rained once.  School shut down and people went outside and danced in it.  Some men I stopped to talk to in what amounted to no more than a light sprinkle clearly found it erotic and said it reminded them of women and alcohol.   Fortunately, it stopped before I had to call the religious police on them.

When I got back to California in 1977 it was if Mother Nature had decided I hadn’t learned some lesson I was supposed to learn and gave us a no doubt about it drought.  We had to wash dishes by hand out of a basin in the kitchen sink and carry the water to the bathroom to flush the toilet with.

I thought of that the other day when the rain started.  For weeks now the dry spell we were in promised to bring back those days with a vengeance.  When the skies opened up at long last, there was a huge sigh of relief.  I had to deal with our dogs, who will go to any extent to keep their delicate paws off wet pavement, but I just harnessed them up and out we went into the elements for our usual walk.   Followed by a little lecture, of course, on how spoiled they were to be California dogs who didn’t have to do that all that often.  Think of all those poor doggies living in the Northwest.

And then the rain continued.  And continued.  And it’s still raining.  We walked up to the Congregational Church last night to a concert and found walking home a serious challenge because of the torrents of water in the streets.  From drought we went straight to flooding, and it still hasn’t stopped.

The rain has a name.  It’s called the Pineapple Express.  Cute.  Who comes up with these things?   Chinook.  El Niño.  Can’t say meteorologists don’t have a poetic nature.   Nine inches, they say, probably before it’s over.  Four feet of snow in the Sierras.  A dream come true.  13.5 billion gallons of water added to Lake Tahoe.   What’s wrong with that!  So we have a few mud and rock slides.   Cost of doing business.

The problem is in the 1970s we had a population of 20 million.  Today our population is 38 million.  For every shower taken then we need water for two showers today.  Two toilet flushes.  Two restaurant customers wanting water with their meal.  The snowpack in Southern Oregon I just read somewhere is the lowest is has been since the 1940s.  Farther north, my friend Linda in Portland reports the rain has frozen, downed power lines and kept people imprisoned in their homes.  She’s dependent on a fire in the fireplace to keep warm.

Who says we’re all removed from nature? 

There are a lot worse things than lying in bed listening to the raindrops falling on the roof over my head.  And knowing, in addition to the musical effect there is a practical effect as well.  As long as I keep them short, I can go on for another while taking showers without guilt.

At least until spring turns to summer, when we go dry all over again.

picture credits:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hunted in Russia

Dispatches, Britain’s Channel 4's investigative journalism program, has just aired a documentary titled Hunted.  

I don’t like recommending things to watch that are likely to leave you sobbing at the end, but I trust if you can get some distance between yourself and this depiction of LGBT bullying to the point of torture in Russia, you can handle it.

Steel yourself to be objective.  Ask yourself questions like, “How the hell did the camera crew get in there to film that?”  Ask even more cynical questions like, “Can anything like this ever be seen objectively?  How am I to know this isn’t being done to cater to the lowest denominator, the kind of people who stop to gawk at accidents?”  But find a way to get yourself to watch it.  It’s just short of an hour long.

You’ll find yourself glad you don’t live in Moscow.  Don’t have to deal with the slush of winter in the grey streets and the endless rows of concrete block houses.  Don’t have to live in cramped kitchens and with the ugliest furniture in creation.  Besides being a film about beating up gays and terrifying lesbians, it’s also a depiction of how the middle (and lower) classes live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  And it makes you wonder what it’s like for the rural poor.

Mostly it’s a full in the face look at Russia’s neo-fascism and what happens when the state sanctions violence.

We sit here in the West and celebrate one victory over homophobia after another, almost everywhere you turn.  Five of the six New England states approve same-sex marriage, and then Rhode Island makes it unanimous.  Mexico and Argentina and then Uruguay bring these rights home to Latin America.  England and Wales will start marrying gay couples in March and Scotland joins in, leaving everybody asking, “Well, Northern Ireland, what the hell are you waiting for?”  The mood is up, up, up, and straight people now way outnumber gay people in supporting gay rights.  Google puts a rainbow pattern of Olympic skiiers on its search engine.   The German team wears rainbow uniforms.  The U.S. President sends openly gay people to represent the American team.  The homophobic authoritarian churches have less clout by the day and some of my friends tell me to stop beating a dead horse.  Homophobia is all but dead, they say.

Think again.  What’s going on in Russia is absolutely terrifying.  Because the anti-gay law forbids anything that might be construed as pro-gay messaging, even protesting against the anti-gay law can get you into trouble.   Cultural attitudes in Russia are like what they were here in the 1950s and 1960s, when people declared openly that homosexuality and pedophilia were synonymous.  Just ask Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.  He'll tell you that's the case in Russia today.  In those exact words.

You can find people here who still think gays should be stoned to death, that blacks should not be allowed to go to college because they don't have the mental capacity, that doing business with a Jew means you will get cheated.  But they live on the perifery of society, with those who believe Obama was born in Kenya and you can get pregnant from a toilet seat.  People you just laugh at, or at least don't take seriously.  People who have not kept up with the advance of knowledge.  For some reason, Russia has yet to get the word that their attitudes on sexuality are of that ilk, that research and experience in the world outside of Russia has revealed homophobia to be of a piece with racism, anti-Semitism and sexism.  They consider themselves Europeans, but despite their racial makeup, they might as well be from Mars.  They have more in common with Uganda, and other places in Africa where homophobia is being whipped up by American evangelicals, than they do with London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid or Rome.  Just consider that two of those cities, Paris and Berlin even had a gay mayor (Berlin still has).  And contrast that with Moscow, where saying that’s a good thing in front of a neighbor might result in a call to the cops.

What to do?  How to do it?

Hard questions.

The answers will come.

And ultimately attitudes will change from within.  Russia is not a nation of thugs.  It's also important to remember in looking at this video that we're focusing on a particularly vile section of the populace, and not on the larger Russian community, which has developed a moral consciousness as any good as any other modern nations.  Consider, when looking at the Russian Orthodox leader, at the kind of messages you're likely to get from some Catholic bishops in America.  Greatly toned down, because they have to function in the larger American context and such blatant hateful ugliness no longer flies here.  But cut, most assuredly, from the same cloth. 

Russia, from all I've seen, seems to have a hard time with free expression or any serious embrace of diversity.  And it is currently under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, who appears to be channeling police state leaders from the czars to Stalin and others before him to deflect attention from economic problems. Machiavelli would be proud.

We in the United States are not doing all that well with democracy, either, these days, so we are not in a good position to lecture Russia on how to straighten up and fly right as it makes its way in that direction.

But as people with high expectations for democracy and equality and human rights,
we can still speak up as individuals.

It is my profound hope that the maximum number of people of good will will let their voices be heard.

If the link above to the Advocate gets taken down, try going directly to YouTube here.

photo credit

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Scotland is Number 17!

Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, designed by Enric Miralles
Scotland voted on Tuesday night to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians by a better than five-to-one margin, 105 in favor to 18 against, with no abstentions.   It was a tremendous victory for the world's seventeenth nation to do so.

I’m not ready to paint my face blue and race across the heath shouting “Alba gu bràth!” exactly, but I’m feeling very proud of my Scottish roots indeed these days and wondering why the whole world isn’t eating haggis, pulling their kilts out of mothballs and playing “Somewhere over the rainbow” on the bagpipes.

I’m a child of immigrants.  My father was born to a Scottish-born father and an English/Irish/Scottish Canadian mother.  My mother was born in Germany.  I leaned a little closer to the German side, but spent the summers in Nova Scotia growing up where I acquired a powerful sense of Scottish identity.  At sixteen I ended up in the hospital in Antigonish for a month and since I had no family with me – they all had to go back to the States – I was sort of   
Scottish Parliament, debating chamber
taken in by Gaelic-speaking priests from the local Catholic university.  There was one radio station I could listen to.  It had bagpipe music every afternoon.

Because I was fascinated with foreign languages as a kid, being among Gaelic speakers naturally led me to an interest in the language (my grandfather was a lowlander and like most Scots didn’t speak Gaelic) and I actually went to Scotland at one point looking (naively) to study it.  In the 1960s, though, the people I asked about possibilities all suggested I’d be better off in Ireland, and that was the end of that. 

But I’m getting distracted.  I just wanted to explain why I have more than a passing interest in this marvelous evolution of Scottish consciousness.  

The Pàrlamaid na h-Alba, as the Scottish Parliament is known in Gaelic, or the Scots Pairlament, if you want to say it in the Scottish version of modern English, or “Holyrood” as it’s known to locals, after the neighborhood in Edinburgh where it is located, made their debates available on line for a time.  And because they did, I was glued to my computer screen for most of Tuesday and much of Wednesday watching Motion #8915, the “Marriage and Civil Partnerships Scotland” Bill, go through its final stages.  Most of the debates, including a very informative one on proposed amendments, have since been taken down, but as of this writing you can watch the final debate on a BBC site.  I don’t know how long they will keep it up, but for now it’s available here.

It was my first contact with the Scottish Parliament and I have no idea how typical the mood and the manners of that unicameral body were that I watched in this debate, but I am left with a powerful impression of a well-oiled machine and some amazingly capable and articulate people running a country.  The civility of it all impressed me no end.

To be fair, this debate may not be typical of what normally goes on there.  It was the final step of what was by now a foregone conclusion.  They knew the bill was going to pass overwhelmingly.  Pretty much all they were doing at this last stage was debating a last-ditch attempt on the part of
reaction to the announcement that the bill had passed
conservatives, almost all making religious references, to impose amendments that would weaken the bill and cast the whole attempt to extend marriage eligibility to same-sex couples in a very dark light indeed.  Holdouts attempted to argue, without convincing anybody on the other side, evidently, that the bill would
discriminate against those who don't agree with the changes.  Proposed amendments included one which would have required a review of the law in five year’s time, “in the event of unintended circumstances.”  Proponents recognized this as a stealth amendment, which would have suggested the law was feebly conceived and up against some serious opposition, and it would have put same-sex marriages in limbo.  In fact, the opposition, by now, was utterly minimal.  The final vote vindicates their refusal to add that or any other hat-in-hand amendments, and the victory was sweet indeed.

I have been following the progress of same-sex rights all my life and what strikes me most about this event is how utterly ho-hum gay liberation has become.  Applause for a day, maybe, but if you look to Scotland for the news these days, it’s yesterday’s news.  You're more likely to come up with things like 
England have named an unchanged starting XV and bench for Saturday's Six Nations meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield.
And, of course, the ongoing talk about the fact that the Scottish National Party now has a majority in Parliament and could for the first time seriously entertain the idea of secession from the U.K.  I’m not unaware that sports outweighs most things and that the possibility of secession is an issue which affects far more people far more seriously than gay rights, but I’m also amused – and not displeased – that gay rights advances no longer make the splash they once did and can be moved to the back burner in less than twenty-four hours.

Same sex marriage in Scotland was an idea whose time had come.  First off, Scotland began the debate even before England and Wales, which legalized same-sex marriage last year.  It has had a very good hearing.   Moreover, as Jackie Baillie, Labour representative for Dumbarton, pointed out  (at minute 12:10), popular support for marriage rose an “astonishing 20%” in the space of eight short years between 2002 and 2010, from 41% to 61%, and there is no reason to think this trend has not continued.   Even among those in “opposition groups,” Scottish Presbyterians are 50% in favor and only 25% against, and Scots Catholics are 55% in favor and only 21% against, making the point that when church hierarchs claim to be speaking for the church they are not speaking the truth.  Furthermore, support crosses economic classes, as well: 67% of those living in poorer areas support it; 63% of those in more affluent areas do as well.  

A telling indicator of the progress of gay rights in Scotland was/is the presence in the Scottish chamber of gay members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).   Jim Eadie, Scottish National Party member (Edinburgh Southern) fantasized aloud in a speech to his colleagues.  The time will come, he said, tongue fully planted in cheek, when he could imagine…

…Perhaps a personal ad in The Scotsman, ‘Slim, athletic professional 45-year-old male seeks husband to share his life and passions.  Must like a good debate but not take themselves too seriously.  All applications will be carefully considered.

A later speaker turned to him and said, with obvious affection, “I’ll be at your wedding, and so will most of those present here.”  Another gay member, Patrick Harvie, representing the Green Party from Glasgow, pointed out that most weddings in Scotland are now secular, and to the argument that there might be negative consequences to gay marriage, Marco Biagi, a third gay MSP announced, “the only consequence of this law will be that gays and lesbians will now be able to marry and hopefully live happily ever after.”    He made additional comments about an aunt being able to buy a new hat, but unfortunately, that site has since been taken down and I can’t quote him exactly.  I believe there is a fourth out gay member currently in Joe FitzPatrick, if I am not mistaken.

You can read a blow-by-blow of the debate here

I’m still trying to get all these changes to settle in that framework I have in my head on what is Scotland.  Homophobia was the order of the day among the Scots in my family as a child, and I
was squeezed so tightly into my closet that I was well into my 20s before coming out.   My direct contact with Scotland didn’t give me much hope of finding open-minded folk, initally.  On my first trip to Scotland, I went to stay with the family of a friend in Perth.  She had failed to warn me her mother and father were local members of the Moral Rearmament movement.  There was a German au pair girl staying with them and she was desperately homesick and delighted to discover I spoke German.   We were washing the dishes after a meal one night and the mother came in and asked us to stop laughing.  It was suggesting to the boys, she said, that we were up to no good.  After dinner at one point we put on a record of My Fair Lady, which was just out, and
Not everyone agrees
got scolded again for laughing at that song sung by Eliza Doolittle’s father, “With a little bit of luck”.  One shouldn’t laugh at such an immoral view of life, they told us.   By the time I reached Glasgow and its black sooted brick buildings, I had formed a view of Scotland as dour indeed.

On another trip to Scotland, many years later, I attended a wedding in a small town – Aberfoyle, possibly, but my memory fails me  – where the minister quoted from Ephesians:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.    
That was only about fifteen years ago.

I’ve been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but that didn’t persuade me Scotland is no longer the backwater I once pegged it as, unfortunately.  I simply shifted misconceptions around and made fringe the exception to a very staid norm.  

But watching these men and women in Holyrood do their thing the last couple of days, I realized that my view of Scotland is in desperate need of updating.

What a wonderful thing is progress.

Addendum: Motion #8915


Key measures in the Scottish government's bill include:
  • Religious and belief bodies opt in to perform same-sex marriage.
  • Civil marriage ceremonies can take place anywhere agreed by the registrar and the couple, other than religious premises.
  • Celebrants who are part of an organisation which has not opted in would not be allowed to conduct same-sex marriages.
  • Individual celebrants who felt it would go against their faith to carry out same-sex weddings would be protected.
  • Establishing belief ceremonies, such as humanist ceremonies as a "third form of marriage", alongside religious and civil events.
  • Authorising Church of Scotland deacons to solemnise opposite sex marriage.
  • Possible tests for religious and belief bodies to meet when solemnising marriages or registering civil partnerships, in light of increasing concerns over sham and forced marriages.
  • Introducing religious and belief ceremonies to register civil partnerships.
  • Allowing transgender people to stay married, rather than having to get divorced, when obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate.
  • Provision making it clear that the introduction of same-sex marriage has no impact on existing rights to freedom of speech and that it is possible to oppose same-sex marriage "without being homophobic".
  • Amended guidance on the teaching of the issue in schools.
  • And an intention to recognise same-sex marriages registered elsewhere in the UK and overseas.

Full details on the marriage bill here.  

Photo credits:

Scottish Parliament, external view
Scottish Parliament main debating chamber
dancing kilts
not everyone agrees
reaction in the balcony