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Vintage Books: Part II

Big Table 4, the Chicago based little magazine, featured the work of America’s avant-garde poets in the sixties: the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and the Black Mountain School.

For every mark of ownership is depressing. I imagine something awful must have occurred for someone to sell their books, books that were expressly dedicated to them. What if I’m holding in my hands the article of a person who just died last week? Or what if that person, or perhaps their children, sold that book, with its loving dedication, to pay the rent? And then I get home and realize that that this book is something that will never belong to me, because I was not born into this culture of preserving and collecting and handing down books. This is how V.S. Naipaul must have felt before writing “A House for Mr. Biswas.” After living all his life in the homes of relatives and reading so many used books about this wonderful place called London, Mr. Biswas, who will never have the chance to see London, is so desperate to own his own home that he uses his life savings to build a home he doesn’t have enough money finish. The irony of the novel is that a tar paper home that you can call your own is a small victory nonetheless, though it be in poorer shape than his books.

My online search for older editions of the classics, has produced mixed results.
You never know what your getting when you order something without seeing it first. No matter how promising the description sounds, very good means “average” and “good” means as clean as the walls of a toilet stall and as usable as the paper in it. The longer and more detailed the quality assurance, the better your chances of success, but you really need to read carefully. Library copies are okay, but not desirable. In any case, the excitement of ripping open a book package is untainted by the uncertainty that the book you just bought is a dud. To be continued…

February 15th, 2009

“I have not made my opera unnatural throughout”: The Beggar Skewers Italian Opera

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

In the introduction to The Beggar’s Opera, a beggar steps forward to say “he has not made my opera throughout unnatural like those in vogue; for I have no recitative.” What does he mean by this?

He’s poking fun at the Italian opera convention of recitative, a form of declamation which is halfway between speaking and singing and is characterized by bare-bones accompaniment. Italian opera composers would use recitative when they wanted to advance the plot, usually by setting dialogue. They would use arias (airs in English) to freeze the action and expand on what the actors were feeling (love, heartbreak, joy, anger), very often through the Petrarchan “similes” mentioned by the beggar: “the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower, etc.”

Below is an excerpt from one of the more extreme examples of accompanied recitative, which is half way between recitative and aria, and accompanied by orchestra. It’s taken from Gay’s earlier libretto for Handel, Acis and Galatea.

Download Handel/Gay: “I rage—I melt—I burn!” (0:25)

And here’s a straighter example of recitative used to set dialogue between two characters, also taken from Acis and Galatea:

Download Handel/Gay: “Whither fairest, art thou running” (0:20)

How does Handel convey each of the three verbs in the first example? What do you think English audiences might have found “unnatural” about recitative? Feel free to leave a comment.

February 8th, 2009

Music for Thieves: The Beggar’s Opera and its Sources

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

***for your listening pleasure***

What is the musical equivalent of thieving? Contrafactum, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a good example of it. Contrafactum is just a fancy word for taking a preexisting song on the public radar and supplying it with new lyrics (Weird Al does it too). By taking highbrow songs (or religious ones) and giving them lowbrow lyrics (and vice versa), librettists like Gay could create ironic relationships between the original and its echo.

Below are some excerpts from The Beggar’s Opera and the sources from which Gay and his arranger, Johann Christoph Pepusch, cribbed. What do you think people found so funny? Feel free to share your response in the comments below.

From Act I of the B.O.

Source: “What shall I do to show how much I love her?”, from Purcell’s opera, Dioclesian (0:30)


In fair Aurelia’s arms leave me expiring,
To be embalm’d by the sweets of her breath;
To the last moment I’ll still be desiring;
Never had hero so glorious a death.

B.O. (A1.S7, Air 6): “Virgins are like the fair flower in its luster” (0:30)


But, when once plucked, ’tis no longer alluring,
To Covent Garden, ’tis sent (as yet sweet),
There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all enduring,
Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under feet.


February 8th, 2009

The Gulliver Suite (1728)

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

Two years after Gulliver’s Travels was published, it was set to music in Germany. Georg Philipp Telemann’s Gulliver Suite is one of twenty five “lessons” serialized in The Steadfast Music Teacher for the enjoyment of music makers at home. The suite, written for two violins, became an instant sensation. After all, who wouldn’t want to follow Gulliver on his exciting journey?

Like Swift, Telemann was interested in the body human, and in particular, the body in movement. Swift’s satire gave Telemann the idea for a programmatic dance suite, each of whose movements imagines Swift’s characters in terms of musical gestures. Some short excerpts follow.

More bold than stately, the opening procession sees Gulliver off on his voyage.

Download Intrada (0:10)

The chaconne has music as sprightly as the little people it depicts.

Download Lilliputian Chaconne (0:17)

By contrast, the gigue imitates the clumsy steps of giants. Gigues are typically fast-moving dances. This one, not so much.

Download Brobdingnagian Gigue (0:20)

The music of the Laputans is precious to the point of sleep-inducing, hence the title, reverie.

Reverie of the Laputans and their attendant flappers (0:10)

The fifth and final dance, a loure, sets the civilized against the barbaric.” Can you guess which violin is which?

Download Loure of the Well-Mannered Houyhnhnms and Wild Dance of the Untamed Yahoo (0:25)

Lastly, here is what score for the Lilliputian Chaconne and Brobdingnagian Gigue looks like. You don’t need to know how to read music to understand the visual joke being played here.

February 4th, 2009

Untapped Poets: The Dodd Center at U.Conn

Storrs is what you call a college town. Not much goes on around here, so the University of Connecticut must make up the difference: beautiful spaces, high tech facilities, campus pubs, and good football. Two skateable lakes provide some majesty and diversion in the winter. But in the event of a snowstorm, the college, which sits on a sloping hill, closes down for the day. A student once got buried alive, a story that causes considerable alarm. (more…)

January 30th, 2009

Romancing Languages

A month has passed since my last post. I’ve been learning how to tinker with the blogger template but need to hone my Illustrator and Javascript skills before attempting any significant design upgrades.

I love learning foreign languages. In high school, I took four years of Spanish; in college, three semesters of German. When I got to grad school, I wanted to learn French but only had time to take a reading course. This summer, I’m attempting to teach myself Latin so I can fulfill my classical language degree requirement. Though I can speak, read, and write in Spanish, my German and French have suffered from underuse. Latin is more fresh in my mind. For whatever reason, I have an easier time learning and conjugating the verbs than I do declining the nouns, whose genders and cases always trip me up. All this, I hope, will change.

In my quest for language learning aids for the twenty-first century, I discovered a number of online resources entirely free of charge. I recommend them to anyone who wishes to learn a foreign language on his own time but doesn’t want to pay the big bucks for programs like Berlitz or Rosetta Stone. Here are some of my favorites finds for learning romance languages.

Modern European Languages

  • Annenberg Media: In the 80s and 90s, Annenberg used to air a number of educational series for public television. Though I used to mock many of these shows for their out-of-date production values, I’ve changed my tune since reacquainting myself with their foreign language series, which you can watch in full on their website via videostream: French in Action (52 half-hour videos), Fokus Deutsch (48 quarter-hour videos), Destinos (52 half-hour videos), and Connect with English (ESL) (50 half-hour videos). At the moment, I’m watching French in Action, a production of Yale and Wellesley Colleges. Narrated entirely in French, the series follows the story of Mireille and Robert as collectively imagined by an enthusiastic French professor and his bright yet bored class of students. Comic notes of resistance are provided by the smart-mouthed Michael who, for instance, fights the professor to rename the heroine Ethel instead of Mireille.
  • BBC Languages: More up-to-date than Annenberg is the BBC’s interactive video programs. In addition to the languages listed above, the BBC also caters to viewers interested in learning Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese. The site includes useful features such as diagnostic tests, video captioning, and interactive assignments, but the programs are far less immersive and ambitious than Annenberg’s.
  • Online Dictionaries: While there are a number of foreign language dictionaries available online, not all of them have user forums where members, both newbies and experienced speakers, can discuss the living language. For students of German, there’s LEO, whose interface lets you look up words in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese for their German equivalents and vice versa. For non-Germanic romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese), there is

Classical Languages

  • Textkit: Greek and Latin Learning Tools: With seven cases, five species of declensions, and as many conjugation paradigms to memorize, it’s no wonder Latin has fallen out of favor. Despite the fact that you only need to learn a mere fourteen hundred words to become proficient, learning Latin, or any other languages with its case system in tact, can be an arduous process. Sites like Textkit, however, will help you earn your coveted laurels. On Textkit, you’ll find a number of downloadable resources including Latin and Greek grammars in the public domain as well as an answer key to the much touted Latin textbook, Wheelock’s Latin. I visit their discussion forum to ask questions regarding translation and get my homework checked by the friendly Latin aficionados.
  • Perseus Digital Library: For advanced students, my friend Anne recommends Perseus, which hosts a wide selection of Latin and Greek texts. Clicking on any word in the etext will bring up a popup window displaying its grammatical profile (part of speech, number, gender, case, voice, etc.) as well as a link to a dictionary entry.
  • Nuntii Latini: In its efforts to keep the language alive, the Finnish radio station YLE streams a five-minute news podcast in Latin every week.

All Languages (Building Vocabulary)

  • The best way to absorb vocabulary is to put it to use, but for those with difficulty finding a language buddy, there’s Wordchamp. With Wordchamp, you can create flashcards and synchronize them to any text you happen to be studying. The site has support for a remarkable number of world languages including Basque, Chinese, Uzbek, Yoruba, even Klingon. Whatever flashcards you make (or borrow from someone else’s stockpile) form the basis of a set of drills which test everything from definitions to comprehensive verb conjugation. Many of the words in Wordchamp’s database are accompanied by audio mp3s which means you can also practice pronunciation. The site even lets you download these files to upload to your Ipod. Complete conjugation charts are available for common verbs in many, but not all, languages. You can hook up with other members or tutors to form study groups (though the latter will cost you money). The most awesome feature of the site is the Webreader, which lets you to dock to a foreign language website (e.g. try a German or French newspaper), whereupon you can make instant flashcards from any unfamiliar words as well as access definitions if those words happen to be in Wordchamp’s database.

If you know of any other language learning sites, drop me a line.

2 comments June 26th, 2008


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