Claudio Monteverdi: Laetatus Sum

In the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia and most of the Mideast had become fantastically wealthy after OPEC came into power and the oil boom, well, exploded.  Suddenly, all the countries wanted to “modernize,” and they figured they needed a western education to do so. With oil revenues, they gave scholarships to their young men to study in the United States. To get into US universities, they had to pass an English proficiency test.  A person I’d met had told me with a master’s degree in ESL you could get a job in Riyad making $60,000 a year and live in a rent free apartment.

After working 10 hours a day in a factory making $4.00 and hour with my useless degree in French literature, 60 grand sounded pretty grand to me.  My alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, had a one-year master’s program.   I applied and visited the department, where I met the head of the department, a friendly mustachioed linguistics professor named Harry Gradman.  It turned out Harry had just set up a deal with the Saudi government to bring students to IU to learn English here. Harry offered me full tuition and gave me my first teaching assignment on the spot.  So in the summer, 1978, I returned to Bloomington to begin working on my first master’s.

My students were amazing.  Many of them were middle aged, already had college degrees and some were married.  They were full of life and I immediately took a liking to them.  It must have been reciprocal, for they soon started inviting me to dinners at various students’ apartments. These were great, men-only events, and followed a similar format.  You’d arrived and the first thing you noticed was the smell–the air was thick with the smoke of Marlboros which was mercilessly cut by the exquisite aroma coming from the kitchen made by a pot of  chicken and rice, seasoned with dried lemons, sumac and cinnamon, stewing on the stove.

I don’t remember drinking any alcohol, but a few of the students, sometimes had pot.  I remember once sitting on the couch with a student in a colleague’s class–a long-haired philosophy professor, probably ten years older than me.  We got in a discussion about existentialism, and then moved onto classical music.  He said he loved to get stoned and listen to symphonies because “It feels like the notes are coming out of the speakers and flowing over me like water.  It’s wonderful.”

Eventually, the host would announce that the food was ready.  Everyone would jump to to help spread out newspapers on the floor.  Then someone would bring out a roll of aluminum foil, tear off a few sheet, and then pleat them together and make a large serving platter to put on the paper.  The host would come in carrying the pot of chicken and rice and pour it out onto the aluminum foil.  Shoes off, we’d sit in a circle around the stew and they taught me how to eat with my right hand.  The food was superb (I wish I had some right now).

The youngest of my students, Badr, was thin with clear skin, looking about 18. When I first saw him in class I was a bit surprised because he was so slight.  He did not resemble the Saudis at all.  His accent was so heavy and he was such a novice speaker I sometimes could not understand him.

I didn’t really know squat about english Language pedagogy (or andragogy since they were grown ups).  My method of teaching english was to bring in newspaper articles and have them read them out loud and I’d ask them questions about the content.

One day, I brought in an article about philosophy.  I asked if anyone had heard of existentialism.  The discussion was pretty painful as the article was above their level of English.  Afterwards, Badr came up and said, “You know Sart?” “Who”” I asked. “Sart, John Bol Sart.” I suddenly realized he was saying Jean-Paul Sartre.  “You know who Jean-Paul Sartre is?” “Yes, I read much philosophy.  I want to get my phd in philosophy.”

Badre told me that he was originally from Yemen of Somali origin.  His father was a successful businessman who’d moved to Abu Dhabi in the Emirates, which were seven small Arab states that had formed a country that was even richer than Saudi Arabia.

Badr had a beautiful soul–he was as enamored of learning as I was and we became fast friends. He went on to get his phd in Political Science, moved back to Abu Dhabi, where he is a policy analyst who often writes insightful articles for a major newspaper there.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with today’s piece by Monteverdi, Laetatus Sum, which means “I was glad.”  It come from Psalm 122  and according to Wikipedia, this is the text:

 

  1. I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
  2. Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
  3. Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
  4. For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
  5. For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
  6. O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
  7. Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
  8. For my brethren and companions’ sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
  9. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

 

I discovered it sometime in graduate school at IU in a boxed collection of Monteverdi’s masses called, Selva morale e spirituale.

It is one of the most knee-weakeningly beautiful pieces of music I know. It makes me extremely happy where I hear it, as it did when I first did some 38 years ago.

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Claudio Monteverdi. Toccata from Orfeo

For today’s piece to accompany my memoir (see article below), I have chosen the overture to Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo. Monteverdi is usually given credit for having invented the dramatical musical work we now call opera, and Orfeo has the distinction of being the first.

The subject comes from the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. Orpheus, the son of Apollo and Calliope, had a beautiful voice, wrote touching lyrics and could accompany himself on the lyre. He fell in love with Euridyce, a damsel so beautiful that she caught the attention of Pluto, god of the underworld. In some versions, she is bitten by a snake and dies. In others, the god kidnaps Euridyce. In any case, Orpheus descends into the underworld to get her back. He pleaded his case by singing a song so moving that the gods allowed him to take Euridyce back to the surface. They made one proviso, however: he must not look back as she follows him to the surface. He forgets, however, and lose her forever.

The Toccata from Orfeo serves as its “overture.” It seemed familiar to me the first time I heard it. And then I realized that Monteverdi had stolen it from the opening of his own Vespro della Beata Virgine. It is a rousing introduction, and here is a version played on trumpets accompanied by drums which sounds a little bit martial.

You can  just imagine it being played at the court of Versailles or in a courtyard of the Louvre before heads of state before the heads rolled.

Monteverdi Biography

A Stately Return to Paris

After about three weeks in the south of France, at the end of February 1977, I stood waiting on the platform of the train station in Nice, France to catch the train to take me back to Paris. The time away had done me good–I felt more self-assured and ready to tackle life the big city. A new plan had hatched in my noggin–live at Shakespeare and Company and lead the life of a bohemian writer. The owner had invited me to stay before I had left. In turn for working around the place and reading a book a night, I would get a bed, he had told me. To live in Paris free suited me just find and meant I could stay longer than my finances originally would have allowed me.

Looking back through the telescope of my memory through the ether of 38 years, I shudder at my naivete and ignorance. Here’s a little story that illustrates my state of mind. At the tabacco shop in the train station, I bought a pack of Gauloise blonde cigarettes. It was a cold, moist morning and I hunched up the collar of my coat while lighting my cigarette. I took a deep drag and as I blew out, I watched the smoke come out in a long stream. But it didn’t stop! I took a breath of fresh air and inhaled. Smoke continued to come out when I inhaled. I started to freak out, and then I realized, it was just water vapor as my warm breath came in contact with the cold air. “What a jerk,” I thought to myself. But it still spooked me.

Back in Paris, I went directly to Shakespeare and Company where George Whitman took me in. One of the first jobs George gave me was putting plastic covers over his rarer first edition books which he kept locked behind an iron grating in the back of the store. I soon fell into the rhythm of the place. We opened the store late, straightened the place up, unpacked boxes in the afternoon, and prepared for the evening, when the onslaught of tourists would arrive. We stayed open until about midnight and after closing, the residents would stay up drinking, smoking, eating and discussing our travels, books we’d read, our philosophy, and from time to time, trying to squeeze in a little writing (as well as a few body parts of others).

Because I was an early riser, George gave me the honor of opening the store in the morning. I usually slept in the front room on the second floor that looked out over Notre Dame. Often, I awoke early in the morning to the sound of horse hooves. The first time it happened, I sprang to the window and saw a troupe of horsemen ride by. They wore Second Empire uniforms topped with shiny chrome helmets that sprouted crimson plumes. Roused, I would dress and make my way down the narrow winding staircase and open the front door with the huge key that George kept under the till. Locking it behind me, I would hurry down Rue de la Huchette to a boulangerie and buy either a petit pain au chocolat or a baguette and a slab of chocolate. Back at the store, I’d open the shutters in front of the great picture window, unlock the outside display shelves and set out boxes of National Geographic Magazines, which George used to get from expatriot Americans (who were grateful to be rid of them) and sell them for a buck a piece. The French always snapped them up.

I loved living in Shakespeare and Company. For a wannabe writer it was paradise. Living with an international lot of artists, writers, travelers, students and hangers on excited me. And I was surrounded by over 30,000 book. They lined the crooked walls in bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. There were books on every window sill, along the stairs, under the beds, under the stairs, in the kitchen-everywhere. And what books! Most of his volumes came from Britain and he had more Penguins than I’ve ever seen before or after.

On Monday nights, George hosted an open-mike poetry reading, and so an entire room was given over to every poet who ever lived. Upstairs was the private library, and the books were arranged by subject. In the great front room where I slept, he had scores of history, politics, and philosophy. But across the hall, his private room housed the real prizes. He had a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses published by Sylvia Beach at the press that she ran out of her bookstore, the first Shakespeare and Company. He also had the first French edition of it as well. One day he showed me his copies of the original review of poetry started by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Yes, I was in heaven. I wish I was 22 again and was still living there. It’s the closest I ever came to bliss during my youth.

Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Virgine (1610)

During the spring semester of 1974, I read voraciously. In English class we studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Windhover,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Inspired by my history of western civilization class, I read Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” My friend Paul Mankowski wrote and told me that he had loved Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” so I read that, too. He also mentioned a writer whose name was new to me, James Joyce. One day I picked up a copy of “The Dubliners” and was smitten, especially by the story called “A Painful Case.” But when I read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” my life changed.

That book made me want to become a writer. It captured so well the internal struggles of an intellectual trying to balance his love of knowledge with his faith. I remember one part where Joyce describes a boy listening to a priest’s sermon about eternity. The priest said that God would punish those who sin with eternal damnation. He then told a story to help people imagine how long eternity was. The priest told them to imagine a mountain of sand on a beach. A bird flies down, picks up one grain of sand, and takes it away. Imagine how it would take the bird to remove that mountain of sand. Then imagine if the bird had to move as many mountains of sand as there were grains of sand in that mountain. The story gave the boy nightmares, the point of which is what kind of religion is it that gets you to be good  by using threats of punishment? Especially for little children who are supposed to be innocent.

My relationship with my parents at this time became somewhat strained. I often argued with my father. He was a bit like the argument clinic in that Monty Python sketch. No matter what point of view you took, he seemed to contradict it. And yet, if you contradicted him, you certainly didn’t win any brownie points. I have already said that he was worried that my reading Dostoyevsky would turn me into a communist. If I threw out an idea that contradicted his, moreover, he would blame it on “those atheistic college psychology professors.” I think my mother sympathized with me, although she once told me “You think too much, and about the wrong things.” Maybe she was just worried that I was spending too much time by myself, listening to music and reading.

Sometimes I escaped to the house of my brother Bob and his wife, Cindi, who lived over the state line in Niles, Michigan (birthplace of Ring Lardner.) Cindi was working on finishing her bachelor’s degree, and sometimes read me poems that she had written. From time to time they would go on a date and I would baby sit for my brother Bob’s daughter, Karen, who was about three or four. She was a cute baby and had taught herself to read about that time. To show how out of touch I was with reality, I once asked her if she would like to me to read her a story. When she said yes, I pulled out my copy of “A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man,” and started reading it to her. After a few paragraphs, she slipped off my lap and went off to bed. She eventually did grow up to be smart as a whip, graduating cum laude from Indiana University, and is a gifted writer.

One day at the over-priced record store at the local mega-mall, I found today’s piece. I’m not sure why I bought it, except that it was a double album on a very expensive export label and someone had accidentally priced it as a single record. It has turned out to be one of my all time favorite works of music.

Written in 1610, it stands as one of the pivotal bridges between sacred and secular choral music, out of which modern opera arose. It contains five sung psalms, interspersed with eight other pieces that are hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure of the origins of some of these texts, but some are quite sensual:

“As long as the king is at his table, my spikenard gives forth sweet perfume.”

and

“Thou art fair, my love, beautiful and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem.”

And even

“My beloved is radiant white and ruddy: the hair of his head is like the crimson of the king, bound in little plaits.”

But what even today sends chills down my spine is the singing. Some of the melodies are based on traditional Gregorian chants. Monteverdi alternates passages given to the choir, with solos, duos and trios sung by sopranos or tenors. These voices sing in a pure, unaffected pre-operatic style, which is so simple yet beautiful. I also loved a technique that he employs several times throughout the work. He often starts out a section with a little musical interlude played on the high-pitched and difficult to play medieval cornetto, the valve-less precursor to the trumpet. When the soloists being singing, eventually one or more of the voices will echo the melodies that were played by the cornetto earlier.

Another effective technique is how he uses the soloists. Sometimes one leads and sings the melody. When the one finishes, the other will sing the last phrase again, which give a hauntingly beautiful echo effect. I saw the Vespers sung several year ago in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. During some of these duos, they actually moved the second soloist to a different part of the church. In one of the most beautiful, “Audi caelum” the lead voice sings a prayer to God in heaven, asking “who is she who rises bright as the dawn?” The echo voice is supposed to represent God answering back to the supplicant. As the singer continues the prayer, he eventually ends each phrase on a higher and higher note, until at the end, he resolves back to the beginning key.

The recording that I bought was by The Concentus Musicus under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg. It was issued on the Telefunken label in 1972, and I think it was one of the first recordings of its time to use all original period instruments. The liner booklet was quite a piece in itself, some 24 pages in length describing the characteristics of the instruments, the research to find the first edition of the score, and the structure of the work itself. Of a number of recordings I’ve heard over the years, this is clearly my favorite. Without hesitating I would choose it as one of my desert island disks.

Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon here

Harnoncourt only available on CD of Vespro Della Beata Vergine from Amazon

Claudio Monteverdi. Toccata from Orfeo

For today’s piece to accompany my memoir (see article below), I have chosen the overture to Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo. Monteverdi is usually given credit for having invented the dramatical musical work we now call opera, and Orfeo has the distinction of being the first.

The subject comes from the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. Orpheus, the son of Apollo and Calliope, had a beautiful voice, wrote touching lyrics and could accompany himself on the lyre. He fell in love with Euridyce, a damsel so beautiful that she caught the attention of Pluto, god of the underworld. In some versions, she is bitten by a snake and dies. In others, the god kidnaps Euridyce. In any case, Orpheus descends into the underworld to get her back. He pleaded his case by singing a song so moving that the gods allowed him to take Euridyce back to the surface. They made one proviso, however: he must not look back as she follows him to the surface. He forgets, however, and lose her forever.

The Toccata from Orfeo serves as its “overture.” It seemed familiar to me the first time I heard it. And then I realized that Monteverdi had stolen it from the opening of his own Vespro della Beata Virgine. It is a rousing introduction, and here is a version played on trumpets accompanied by drums which sounds a little bit martial.

You can  just imagine it being played at the court of Versailles or in a courtyard of the Louvre before heads of state before the heads rolled.

Monteverdi Biography

A Stately Return to Paris

After about three weeks in the south of France, at the end of February 1977, I stood waiting on the platform of the train station in Nice, France to catch the train to take me back to Paris. The time away had done me good–I felt more self-assured and ready to tackle life the big city. A new plan had hatched in my noggin–live at Shakespeare and Company and lead the life of a bohemian writer. The owner had invited me to stay before I had left. In turn for working around the place and reading a book a night, I would get a bed, he had told me. To live in Paris free suited me just find and meant I could stay longer than my finances originally would have allowed me.

Looking back through the telescope of my memory through the ether of 36 years, I shudder at my naivete and ignorance. Here’s a little story that illustrates my state of mind. At the tabacco shop in the train station, I bought a pack of Gauloise blonde cigarettes. It was a cold, moist morning and I hunched up the collar of my coat while lighting my cigarette. I took a deep drag and as I blew out, I watched the smoke come out in a long stream. But it didn’t stop! I took a breath of fresh air and inhaled. Smoke continued to come out when I inhaled. I started to freak out, and then I realized, it was just water vapor as my warm breath came in contact with the cold air. “What a jerk,” I thought to myself. But it still spooked me.

Back in Paris, I went directly to Shakespeare and Company where George Whitman took me in. One of the first jobs George gave me was putting plastic covers over his rarer first edition books which he kept locked behind an iron grating in the back of the store. I soon fell into the rhythm of the place. We opened the store late, straightened the place up, unpacked boxes in the afternoon, and prepared for the evening, when the onslaught of tourists would arrive. We stayed open until about midnight and after closing, the residents would stay up drinking, smoking, eating and discussing our travels, books we’d read, our philosophy, and from time to time, trying to squeeze in a little writing.

Because I was an early riser, George gave me the honor of opening the store in the morning. I usually slept in the front room on the second floor that looked out over Notre Dame. Usually, I awoke early in the morning to the sound of horse hooves. The first time it happened, I sprang to the window and saw a troupe of horsemen ride by. They wore Second Empire uniforms topped with shiny chrome helmets that sprouted crimson plumes. I would make my way down the narrow winding staircase and open the front door with the huge key that George kept under the till. Locking it behind me, I would hurry down Rue de la Huchette to a boulangerie and buy either a petit pain au chocolat or a baguette and a slab of chocolate. Back at the store, I’d open the shutters in front of the great picture window, unlock the outside display shelves and set out boxes of National Geographic Magazines, which George used to get from expatriot Americans (who were grateful to be rid of them) and sell them for a buck a piece. The French always snapped them up.

I loved living in Shakespeare and Company. For a wannabe writer it was paradise. Living with an international lot of artists, writers, travelers, students and hangers on excited me. And I was surrounded by over 30,000 book. They lined the crooked walls in bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. There were books on every window sill, along the stairs, under the beds, under the stairs, in the kitchen-everywhere. And what books! Most of his volumes came from Britain and he had more Penguins than I’ve ever seen before or after.

On Monday nights, George hosted an open-mike poetry reading, and so an entire room was given over to every poet who ever lived. Upstairs was the private library, and the books were arranged by subject. In the great front room where I slept, he had scores of history, politics, and philosophy. But across the hall, his private room housed the real prizes. He had a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses published by Sylvia Beach at the press that she ran out of her bookstore, the first Shakespeare and Company. He also had the first French edition of it as well. One day he showed me his copies of the original review of poetry started by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Yes, I was in heaven. I wish I was 22 again and was still living there. It’s the closest I ever came to bliss.

Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Virgine (1610)

During the spring semester of 1974, I read voraciously. In English class we studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Windhover,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Inspired by my history of western civilization class, I read Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” My friend Paul Mankowski wrote and told me that he had loved Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” so I read that, too. He also mentioned a writer whose name was new to me, James Joyce. One day I picked up a copy of “The Dubliners” and was smitten, especially by the story called “A Painful Case.” But when I read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” my life changed.

That book made me want to become a writer. It captured so well the internal struggles of an intellectual trying to balance his love of knowledge with his faith. I remember one part where Joyce describes a boy listening to a priest’s sermon about eternity. The priest said that God would punish those who sin with eternal damnation. He then told a story to help people imagine how long eternity was. The priest told them to imagine a mountain of sand on a beach. A bird flies down, picks up one grain of sand, and takes it away. Imagine how it would take the bird to remove that mountain of sand. Then imagine if the bird had to move as many mountains of sand as there were grains of sand in that mountain. The story gave the boy nightmares, the point of which is what kind of religion is it that gets you to be good  by using threats of punishment? Especially for little children who are supposed to be innocent.

My relationship with my parents at this time became somewhat strained. I often argued with my father. He was a bit like the argument clinic in that Monty Python sketch. No matter what point of view you took, he seemed to contradict it. And yet, if you contradicted him, you certainly didn’t win any brownie points. I have already said that he was worried that my reading Dostoyevsky would turn me into a communist. If I threw out an idea that contradicted his, moreover, he would blame it on those atheistic college psychology professors. I think my mother sympathized with me, although she once told me “You think too much, and about the wrong things.” Maybe she was just worried that I was spending too much time by myself, listening to music and reading.

Sometimes I escaped to the house of my brother Bob and his wife, Cindi, who lived over the state line in Niles, Michigan (birthplace of Ring Lardner.) Cindi was working on finishing her bachelor’s degree, and sometimes read me poems that she had written. From time to time they would go on a date and I would baby sit for my brother Bob’s daughter, Karen, who was about three or four. She was a cute baby and had taught herself to read about that time. To show how out of touch I was with reality, I once asked her if she would like to me to read her a story. When she said yes, I pulled out my copy of “A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man,” and started reading it to her. After a few paragraphs, she slipped off my lap and went off to bed. She eventually did grow up to be smart as a whip, graduating cum laude from Indiana University, and is a gifted writer.

One day at the over-priced record store at the local mega-mall, I found today’s piece. I’m not sure why I bought it, except that it was a double album on a very expensive export label and someone had accidentally priced it as a single record. It has turned out to be one of my all time favorite works of music.

Written in 1610, it stands as one of the pivotal bridges between sacred and secular choral music, out of which modern opera arose. It contains five sung psalms, interspersed with eight other pieces that are hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure of the origins of some of these texts, but some are quite sensual:

“As long as the king is at his table, my spikenard gives forth sweet perfume.”

and

“Thou art fair, my love, beautiful and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem.”

And even

“My beloved is radiant white and ruddy: the hair of his head is like the crimson of the king, bound in little plaits.”

But what even today sends chills down my spine is the singing. Some of the melodies are based on traditional Gregorian chants. Monteverdi alternates passages given to the choir, with solos, duos and trios sung by sopranos or tenors. These voices sing in a pure, unaffected pre-operatic style, which is so simple yet beautiful. I also loved a technique that he employs several times throughout the work. He often starts out a section with a little musical interlude played on the high-pitched and difficult to play medieval cornetto, the valve-less precursor to the trumpet. When the soloists being singing, eventually one or more of the voices will echo the melodies that were played by the cornetto earlier.

Another effective technique is how he uses the soloists. Sometimes one leads and sings the melody. When the one finishes, the other will sing the last phrase again, which give a hauntingly beautiful echo effect. I saw the Vespers sung several year ago in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. During some of these duos, they actually moved the second soloist to a different part of the church. In one of the most beautiful, “Audi caelum” the lead voice sings a prayer to God in heaven, asking “who is she who rises bright as the dawn?” The echo voice is supposed to represent God answering back to the supplicant. As the singer continues the prayer, he eventually ends each phrase on a higher and higher note, until at the end, he resolves back to the beginning key.

The recording that I bought was by The Concentus Musicus under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg. It was issued on the Telefunken label in 1972, and I think it was one of the first recordings of its time to use all original period instruments. The liner booklet was quite a piece in itself, some 24 pages in length describing the characteristics of the instruments, the research to find the first edition of the score, and the structure of the work itself. Of a number of recordings I’ve heard over the years, this is clearly my favorite. Without hesitating I would choose it as one of my desert island disks.

Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon here

Harnoncourt only available on CD of Vespro Della Beata Vergine from Amazon

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