"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Poetry: “Water” by Robert Lowell [UPDATED]

I’ve fallen down on my poetry read of Robert Lowell (this year’s annual poetry read), as I’ve fallen down on my overall reading.  I’ll get to that when I get to my 2015 summary which I’ll post in a few days.  Nonetheless I want to end the year with this really pretty poem from Lowell.  It’s rather straight forward, without any obscure, unexplained biographical detail that usually typifies Lowell’s great confessional poems.  The only thing you need to know is that the poem is addressed to the poet Elizabeth Bishop.  Lowell and Bishop formed one of the great friendships of American Letters, and from what I know it was purely Platonic.  Actually if I remember correctly, Bishop was lesbian, though she did not publicly reveal it.  Their correspondence is on Amazon and it amounts to some 469 letters between them.  You can read the NY Times review of the correspondence if you wish here  and you can sample some of Lowell’s letters to Bishop at this New Yorker article if you wish. 

by Robert Lowell

It was a Maine lobster town—
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,

and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,

and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,

but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.

The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.

One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.

Yes, the ending signals his unfulfilled longing.  It’s very sweet and has the perfect Lowell touches.  I really admire Lowell’s poetry.  Here is a picture of the two of them on a beach.

Happy New Year.

UPDATE (6 Jan 2016)
I posted a complementary poem to Lowell's "Water," a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in memorial of her friend passing, Bishop's "North Haven."

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Music Tuesday: Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, 4th Movement, Conducted by Kurt Masur

I was saddened to learn last week that Kurt Masur had passed, though at a fine old age of 88, on December 19thFromthe New York Times

Kurt Masur, the music director emeritus of the New York Philharmonic, who was credited with transforming the orchestra from a sullen, lackluster ensemble into one of luminous renown, died on Saturday in Greenwich, Conn. He was 88.

The death, from complications of Parkinson’s disease, was announced by the Philharmonic, which said it would dedicate its Saturday night performance of Handel’s “Messiah” to Mr. Masur’s memory.

Mr. Masur (pronounced mah-ZOOR) was the Philharmonic’s music director from 1991 to 2002. When he took its helm, the orchestra was roundly considered to be a world-class ensemble in name only, its playing grown slipshod, its players fractious and discontented, its recording contracts unrenewed.

Until I became a father—actually the year prior when I anticipated a child—I would attend about three or four concerts at the New York Philharmonic every year, and for a number of those years Kurt Masur was the music director and conductor.  I got to see him conduct often.  I had not known he had been so significant in bringing back the NY Philharmonic back to world class status.  From what I remember Masur had not been thought highly, and he was not the first choice.  The Times obituary confirms that.

The selection of Mr. Masur to lead the Philharmonic astounded nearly everyone in classical music circles. A specialist in the music of Central European composers — notably Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Bruckner — he had built a respectable if not scintillating career amid the musical and political repressions of East Germany.

The longtime Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mr. Masur was known as a faithful — some would say stolid — interpreter who seemed to have neither immense musical charisma nor intense interest in works outside the canonical repertory. (Kapellmeister, literally meaning “master of the chapel,” designates a post that in German-speaking countries is roughly equivalent to that of music director. But among musicians elsewhere, the term can be used derisively.)

Apparently before Masur, the orchestra had fallen in prestige.  We New Yorkers tend to think we’re the world class at everything.  Whoever ran the Orchestra back in 1991 could not hire some of the leading conductors.  Though Masur had been a fallback selection, he transformed the orchestra back to its leading status.

Enter Mr. Masur, the darkest of dark horses. A shambolic, bearded giant who stood 6-foot-3 and favored bolo ties offstage, he may have lacked the dynamism of Bernstein and the avant-gardism of Mr. Boulez. But what he could bring to the Philharmonic, the search committee believed, were attributes that were even more urgently needed: the respect of its players, before whom he had appeared as a guest conductor; a deep knowledge of the Germanic repertory that is the foundation stone of the Western symphonic canon; and a tasteful, unswerving fealty to the intent of composers.

He could also bring a meticulous if somewhat dictatorial approach to rehearsal discipline, something that New York’s unruly orchestra was widely thought to need.

“I remember when I asked one of the orchestra committee after my appointment here, ‘Why me?’ ” Mr. Masur, who spoke fluent if somewhat impeachable English, told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday in 1999. “He said, ‘Because you do not fear orchestras.’ ”

I had not known any of that.  But Masur was its prime conductor for some twelve years, which is significant amount of time as conductors go.  I enjoyed his work and selection, though, to be honest, I don’t have a fine enough musical ear to distinguish one conductor from another.  My classical musical ear had been built on recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies conducted by the great Leonard Bernstein, and when I sat at a Beethoven symphony conducted by Masur, it sounded similar enough. 

Here’s a little interview clip of Masur on music.

And here is Masur in action on the wonderful fourth movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic.  You can see many of Masur’s mannerisms as he conducts.  I guess each conductor has his own particular mannerisms.  The camera, since it can look from various angles, especially facing him, can pick up more than someone sitting in the audience.  At around the 6:34 mark with the camera facing the conductor and with a wide camera shot showing the whole audience, you can see the three levels of the upper seating.  I usually sat in that top level when I attended, the cheapest seats in the house.  ;)

What a magnificent symphony.  That opening theme from the final movement is  so memorable.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Matthew Monday: A Very Star Wars Christmas

Matthew had a very Stars Wars oriented Christmas.  Many of his presents were Star Wars themed: Star Wars toys, Star Wars shirt, Star Wars Watch, Star Wars change bank.  I don’t know how children learn of the upcoming movie blockbusters, but Matthew was already speaking about Star Wars even before the movie came out.  Of course they—the movie conspiracy people—timed the movie for Christmas.  And so it followed that Matthew was primed for a Star Wars Christmas.  Matthew knew some of the characters from the previous movies.  I promised early this month to take him to the movie, and he was so excited. 

Yesterday afternoon was the day of the movie.  Before this he’d been to two other movies in movie theaters before.  He saw the Minion movie over the summer as a Summer Camp trip and around Thanksgiving my wife took him to the recent Peanuts movie.  My wife bought him popcorn and M&Ms, and I think he got the feel of being in a movie theater.  Not bad for a six year old.  I don’t think I saw my first movie in a movie house until I was a teenager.  They do everything younger these days. 

At two hours and fifteen minutes the Star Wars movie (The Force Awakens) was a bit longer than the other movies.  I was worried he wouldn’t last through it.  Before I get to the Star Wars movie here are a couple of pictures from Christmas.  I didn’t snap him with any of his Star Wars gifts, but I did capture him jumping up in excitement after he opened something here.

And here he’s giving my mother a framed picture of himself as his gift to her.

As an aside since several of you ask about my mother, she’s been doing fairly well with her health except for her feet.  She got some sort of infection which went bad and turned black on one of her side calluses that never seem to go away, and it had to be cut off in an in office mini operation.  Luckily it didn’t get into the bone.  The podiatrist had to take a good quarter inch deep, one inch length piece of flesh off.  It was disgusting to watch, and I ultimately had to leave the room.  She’s been in pain and she’s hobbling—she just refuses to stay off her feet—but it’s healing nicely.

So yesterday we saw the movie.  We got there early enough to get prime seats and we bought popcorn and a strawberry smoothie.  I wished I had a camera.  I’ve been reluctant to get a phone with a camera but I can see how advantageous they could be.  Matthew sat deep in his seat.  His legs extended out because his knees couldn’t reach the edge for his legs to bend over, a bag of popcorn in his lap that almost reached his eyes, and his smoothie in the cup holder beside him with a straw twice the size of his cup standing like an antenna.  Extending his right arm over the bag, his right hand would go into the popcorn bag and pick out a single piece of popcorn and then lower it into his mouth.  Priceless picture lost, but I hope by writing that I have burned it into my memory.

As to the movie, Matthew loved it.  (I’ll give you my review at the bottom.)  He wasn’t bored once in those 135 minutes, and he even whispered at one point to me that it was “exciting.”  He was disappointed to learn that the storm troopers are actually bad guys.  He had received a storm trooper toy and had thought he was a “good guy.”  I wonder why the storm troopers are in white.  We knew the Darth Vader-like character was a bad guy.  Matthew was also struck by the movie theater audience applauding when all the old characters made an appearance.  Han Solo, Chewie, Princess Lei, Luke Skywalker, C3PO, R2D2. 

Well if you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer.

As to my review, here’s the bottom line: if you’re a Star Wars fan (and who isn’t?) or if you’re a kid you’ll love it.  If you’re a discerning moviegoer, the movie is wonderfully made, but lacks a fresh story.  It had all the clichés, and the plot—other than the lead hero being a woman—was nearly identical to the original Star Wars.  I guess it’s tough coming up with a new story that would still be true to the subgenre that has been built up from the Star Wars movies.  There was one scene, however, that did transcend.  I won’t spoil it, but it was the scene where Han Solo meets his son face to face and tries to bring him back to the good side.  The movie was well done, but the story is old.  Two stars out of five.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Music Tuesday: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Frank Sinatra

Despite what some of the my readers said about Frank Sinatra in my Commemoration post, I'm going to provide some more Sinatra and this time couple it with a Christmas carol.  He is so fine in his version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."  Just listen to the nuanced touches of his articulation.  It's so longing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Literature in the News: New Movie Version of Macbeth

Wow, I came across this review in Aleteia of an upcoming filming of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  The reviewer, Matthew Becklo, tackles the nature of many new film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, the question of  original setting or modernizing it.

When it comes to Shakespeare’s plays, some people remain convinced that the only way to make that great archivist of the human condition come alive for modern audiences is to transplant his stories in a modern setting or rewrite his language in modern style. But Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays chooses the wiser path: letting the genius of Shakespeare stand on its own two feet.

I agree completely.  I have never understood why changing the play to a contemporary setting makes it any better.  At best it gives it some additional interest, but at worst it distorts the play’s themes.  Well, this new movie of Macbeth will stay true to its setting, so true that the whole dark, Scottish medieval world is recreated.

Kurzel does leave his creative mark on Macbeth, opting for a sparser script (with a few memorable lines, like “Double, double toil and trouble” not making the cut) and adding new elements around Macbeth and Banquo’s sons at the bookends of the film. The cinematography is also more daring, especially the opening war scene split between elegant, slow-motion frames evocative of a still-life painting and total bone-crushing chaos.

But the gritty, foggy, bloody world of Macbeth takes its place among the great Shakespeare adaptations by never losing sight of the soul of the story.

I don’t understand why a director would take out lines out of Macbeth, especially great and famous lines—I believe it’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays—but the sparseness is definitely congruent with the play’s identity.  It really is a sparse play in the sense that there are absolutely no digressions or even much amplification in Shakespeare’s work.  Shakespeare certainly intended it to be sparse.  As to the grittiness, well get a look at the trailer.

Wow, I want to see that!  I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare not wanting to see it.  Read the rest of Becklo’s review.  He’s got a solid understanding of the play. 

According to IMDb, the play was released to the public on December 11th and it has received a 7.4 out of ten review.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Frank Sinatra Commemoration

In case you missed it, December 12th was the one hundredth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth.  There are a number of commemorative posts out on the blogosphere and news world.  And rightly so.  Frank Sinatra is I think is generally considered the greatest American singer of all time and I concur with that.  I’ve wanted to honor Sinatra for the longest time, ever since I posted a Dean Martin appreciation way back when I started my blog in 2013.  What’s held me back is that I could never decide what five or six songs would highlight his career.  He’s got so many, and it’s a real dilemma to choose.  But, this is the critical moment to honor Francis Albert Sinatra, and so whatever choices I make will have to be for better or worse.

Not only is it tough to decide which songs to select, but how do I arrange the selection?  Do I try to pick one from each section of his storied career?  I hate to be handcuffed that way.  Some of my favorites would slip through.  Do I try to pick a song from each of the various types of songs he sings?  Do I try to pick songs where I can highlight different singing skills he displays?  I could never make up my mind.  So, I’m just going to pick what I like but are not all of the same type and go from there.  If you want to read the various phases of his career, and the noted songs in that phase, read the Sinatra Wikipedia entry.  It seems comprehensive.

What makes Frank Sinatra the greatest?  In a one word answer, everything.  His persona, his presence, his song selection, his arrangement, his sensitivity to the lyrics, his emotional inflections, his articulation, his understanding of the history of the genre he sings, and of course his vocal ability.  One of his nicknames was “the Voice,” and he really does have a great tenor voice.  But it’s not just his voice.  When Sinatra puts it all together, there is an honesty that gets communicated.  Whatever he is singing, the listener believes has happened, and that is a tribute to his artistic skill.

Let me try to point out a few of those elements.  Wikipedia quotes Sinatra biographer, Tom Santopietro:

For Santopietro, Sinatra was the personification of America in the 1950s: "cocky, eye on the main chance, optimistic, and full of the sense of possibility".

Not only was Sinatra a personification of America during his peak era, I would say that his persona came from his “New Yorkness.”  New York City in the 1950’s was at its height, the pinnacle of the cities in the United States (it still is, but the others have caught up) and being in post WWII America, New York City was the pinnacle of cities around the world.  “The capital of the world” as some called it.  Americans, but especially New Yorkers, were after the second world war brassy, sure of themselves, dashing, and sophisticated, the very things that make Sinatra’s persona stand out.  There’s no better example of that then “I’ve Got the World on a String.” 

Now that song wasn’t written for Sinatra.  In fact it had been around for over twenty years when Sinatra recorded it, but Sinatra transforms it.  It becomes his.

Notice the sensitivity to the words to “The Way You Look Tonight” and how it leads to the sense of honesty when he says, “cause I love you.” 

Listen to the articulation: the emphasis on the “k” in “look tonight;” the “v” in “lovely;” the “wr” in “wrinkles your nose;” and the “f” in “foolish heart.”  Usually it’s the vowels that allow the singer to express emotion, and Sinatra does that here too, but here he uses the consonants as well.  And it all leads to a sense of conviction.  Normally a cliché such as “cause I love you” in a song generates a sense of phony artifice or over sentimentalizing, but Sinatra makes it true. You believe him. 

“The Way You Look Tonight” is a song from what is called the Great American Song Book,  a loosely defined collection of songs from the great American composers of the early part of the 20th century.  Sinatra’s renditions of the Great American Song Book songs almost all have become the standard rendition.  No other version of “The Way You Look Tonight” stacks up to Frank’s. 

Part of what made Sinatra the greatest of the American singers is his conscious song selection from American music, either from the blues and jazz of black musicians to the popular big band that appealed to the white audiences.  Here in “Mood Indigo,” a Duke Ellington jazz classic, he captures the subtleties of American diction.  

What particularly catches my attention as I hear that are the nuances in – not sure if this is the right word – sonority, the resonances in his sound.  Sinatra uses every means available to create different resonances.  Obviously he resonates in his vocal box, but listen how in various places he shifts the sonority to his chest, then to deeper in his chest, to his sinuses, to his lips, to his jowls.  There is a different nuanced emotion to every shifting resonance.  It’s amazing.

Of all the elements to Sinatra’s singing that make him standout, I would say that it’s his articulation of the words—that subtle accent he speaks with.  He has a sort of ethnic accent, Italian-American yes, but a Northeastern city accent.  Some say New Jersey (Sinatra was from Hoboken, NJ), some say New York, but I would say it’s a general ethnic, second generation accent.  He combines the great American song book, which in ways traces to both black and white culture, with the 20th century immigrant experience.  He captures it all, through song selection, arrangement, and most important I think his articulation.  His articulation of the English language is not what I would call classic.  He brings over Italian crooner sensibility, especially that resonating tenor pitch, which gives a different texture than some of the other American singers of his day.  Listen to the subtle nuances of his articulation in “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

Hear the pronunciation of “came” in “came blowin’ in;”  “lingered” in “lingered there;” “sand” in “golden sand;” “new” in “the world was new,” and especially “autumn” in “the autumn wind.”  That makes it so personal and individual and distinct.  I love that song.  It just might be my favorite Sinatra song.  It simultaneously spans the emotional range of a new romantic relationship and then the loss.  Again, Frank’s singing makes it true.

I ought to have a clip of Sinatra live where you can get a sense of his stage presence.  Here is his great Count Basie song, sung I think with the actual Basie orchestra, “The Best is Yet to Come” where his voice, presence, and mannerisms generate a sense of marvelous possibility. 

I’m not a woman, but geez, I’d go on an adventure with him.  By the way, the words “The Best is Yet to Come” are on his tombstone. 

Another song that is just so Frank Sinatra is “My Way.”  One of Frank’s nicknames was “The Chairman of the Board,” which I think is a variation from all the Duke and Count and King nicknames from the jazz era.  I think of Frank, planning his career, strategizing his arrangements, conceiving his tonal pitches, as Chairman of the Board when I hear “My Way.”  In this song he looks backward rather than in the future.

I find that to be such a manly song.

For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

Frank again convinces with his voice dynamics and his resonances.  Quick story on that song.  Many years ago, as a lead engineer I was in a competition for an effort where “the powers at be” had to pick one of two designs, and I led one of them.  It was a couple of years work of designing, building, and testing.  Going into the final competition the rumor was they were going to pick the other design.  I braced myself for the loss by memorizing the words to “My Way” and I kept singing it to myself all the way through the final tests.  I had no regrets and took the blows going through with the peace of mind I did it my way.  But as it turned out, we won.

I know I said six songs, but to hell with it.  I’m going to give you two more.  Mark Styen, the Conservative columnist who started out as a music and cultural columnist, ranks to my surprise Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” as the number one song of the 20th century.

"It Was A Very Good Year" captures his audacity. Half-a-century after its recording, it seems entirely natural, made for Frank. But it wasn't, and it took a happy accident and a transformative arrangement to match the song to the singer.

That’s another song of looking backward, a song with lots of subtle emotions, and Sinatra projects them all.  How about a forward looking one to end this post.  Is there a more optimistic, swaggering song than “New York, New York?” 

That song has all of what makes Frank Sinatra great.  Yes, he is, Frank Sinatra is “king of the hill.”

Gosh, I’ve left out so many of his other great songs: “Come Fly With me,” Old Devil Moon,” Fly Me to the Moon,” “I get a Kick Out of You.” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Luck Be Lady,” “All or Nothing at All,” “Night and Day,” “Witchcraft,” “Nancy (with the Laughing Face),” “Love is the Tender Trap,” “That’s Life,” “One for My Baby (and One for the Road),” “In the Wee Small Hours,” “The Birth of the Blues.”  I can go on and on. 

Tell me, what are your favorite Sinatra songs?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Matthew Monday: Two Quick Christmas Takes With Carols

1. Matthew is getting quite the verbal wit.  He’s into altering song lyrics for parody.  He came up with this one after I yelled at him for something.

Have a holly, jolly daddy.
He’s the worst daddy of the year.
I don’t know if there’ll be snow
But he doesn’t have any cheer.

Have a holly, jolly Christmas
And in case you didn’t hear
Daddy is the worst daddy
of the year!

Here’s the actual song for your enjoyment.

2. Matthew is questioning whether Santa Claus is real.  I’ve been telling him he’s real, but I’m not sure he believes me. 

“Is Santa Claus just a character daddy?”  When he uses the word “character” he means it like a super hero, like Batman.

“Yes, why do you think not?”

“Because he can’t fit down a chimney.  He’s too fat.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s not real.  He comes down by magic.”

I don’t think that satisfied.  At what age do you break the news that Santa isn’t real?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Lines I Wished I’D Written: From “Tobermory” by Saki

I’ve been reading a bunch of Saki’s short stories, which is easy to do since his short stories are excellent, fun, and very short, so short that at seven pages in my edition, “Tobermory” is one of Saki’s longer stories.  Saki, the pen name of H. H. Munro, wrote satiric short stories at the turn of the 20th century England, up to 1916, when unfortunately he was killed in World War One.  Last year I highlighted his story, “Sredni Vishtar” and said how talented one needed to be to write stories under a half dozen pages. 

“Tobermory” had me laughing out loud.  The situation is outrageously fantastic—a talking cat—and yet Saki convinces us immediately.  I wonder if Saki was inspired by H. G. Wells, the science fiction writer, who a few years earlier had written The Island of Doctor Moreau, where a mad scientist invents a machine to make animals speak.  While Wells’ novel is rather somber and serious, Saki’s short story satiric and hilarious. 

The story is set at Lady Blemely’s house-party, what I imagine is an upscale Victorian tea party of a near dozen guests.  One of the guests is a “homely” chap, a scientist named Mr. Cornelius Apin, who makes the astonishing claim that he has invented a process where he can make animals talk human language.  Here’s the opening paragraph;

It was a chill, rain-washed afternoon of a late August day, that indefinite season when partridges are still in security or cold storage, and there is nothing to hunt - unless one is bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, in which case one may lawfully gallop after fat red stags. Lady Blemley's house- party was not bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, hence there was a full gathering of her guests round the tea-table on this particular afternoon. And, in spite of the blankness of the season and the triteness of the occasion, there was no trace in the company of that fatigued restlessness which means a dread of the pianola and a subdued hankering for auction bridge. The undisguised open-mouthed attention of the entire party was fixed on the homely negative personality of Mr. Cornelius Appin. Of all her guests, he was the one who had come to Lady Blemley with the vaguest reputation. Some one had said he was "clever," and he had got his invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would be contributed to the general entertainment. Until tea-time that day she had been unable to discover in what direction, if any, his cleverness lay. He was neither a wit nor a croquet champion, a hypnotic force nor a begetter of amateur theatricals. Neither did his exterior suggest the sort of man in whom women are willing to pardon a generous measure of mental deficiency. He had subsided into mere Mr. Appin, and the Cornelius seemed a piece of transparent baptismal bluff. And now he was claiming to have launched on the world a discovery beside which the invention of gunpowder, of the printing-press, and of steam locomotion were inconsiderable trifles. Science had made bewildering strides in many directions during recent decades, but this thing seemed to belong to the domain of miracle rather than to scientific achievement.

I’m taking the quotes from The Literature Network’s electronic copy, where you can read the entire thing.  Please do, you’ll find it enjoyable.  Let me continue on a little more.  The guests must have been told of this outrageous invention by the scientist himself, and of course everyone is in disbelief.  I imagine the guests looking at this sort of geeky scientist and thinking he’s just trying to be pretentious to cover his lack of people skills by telling them he’s made their cat, Tobermory, speak English.  It’s Lady Blemely’s husband who challenges him.

"And do you really ask us to believe," Sir Wilfrid was saying, "that you have discovered a means for instructing animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?"

"It is a problem at which I have worked for the last seventeen years," said Mr. Appin, "but only during the last eight or nine months have I been rewarded with glimmerings of success. Of course I have experimented with thousands of animals, but latterly only with cats, those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts. Here and there among cats one comes across an outstanding superior intellect, just as one does among the ruck of human beings, and when I made the acquaintance of Tobermory a week ago I saw at once that I was in contact with a `Beyond-cat' of extraordinary intelligence. I had gone far along the road to success in recent experiments; with Tobermory, as you call him, I have reached the goal."

Mr. Appin concluded his remarkable statement in a voice which he strove to divest of a triumphant inflection. No one said "Rats," though Clovis's lips moved in a monosyllabic contortion which probably invoked those rodents of disbelief.

If the guests seem rather stuck up, they are.  The story turns on intelligence—who has it and who doesn’t—with the cat being the superior to the humans, who are mostly lame.  The other guests start to chime in.

"And do you mean to say," asked Miss Resker, after a slight pause, "that you have taught Tobermory to say and understand easy sentences of one syllable?"

"My dear Miss Resker," said the wonder-worker patiently, "one teaches little children and savages and backward adults in that piecemeal fashion; when one has once solved the problem of making a beginning with an animal of highly developed intelligence one has no need for those halting methods. Tobermory can speak our language with perfect correctness."

This time Clovis very distinctly said, "Beyond-rats!" Sir Wilfrid was more polite, but equally sceptical.

"Hadn't we better have the cat in and judge for ourselves?" suggested Lady Blemley.

Sir Wilfrid went in search of the animal, and the company settled themselves down to the languid expectation of witnessing some more or less adroit drawing- room ventriloquism.

In a minute Sir Wilfrid was back in the room, his face white beneath its tan and his eyes dilated with excitement. "By Gad, it's true!"

His agitation was unmistakably genuine, and his hearers started forward in a thrill of awakened interest.

I found that so laugh-out-loud funny.  Sir Wilfred, a rather stiff man, comes in shocked and disconcerted.  Notice how Saki has built up the anticipation.  The outrageous claim is made while sitting around a living room where no one believes it; so one goes off stage to witness it and comes back to confirm it.  And suddenly the cat wonders into the room himself to prove it to the reader.  Not only is it funny but the drama itself makes “real” in the fiction what is actually impossible.

Collapsing into an armchair he continued breathlessly: "I found him dozing in the smoking-room and called out to him to come for his tea. He blinked at me in his usual way, and I said, 'Come on, Toby; don't keep us waiting'; and, by Gad! he drawled out in a most horribly natural voice that he'd come when he dashed well pleased! I nearly jumped out of my skin!"

Appin had preached to absolutely incredulous hearers; Sir Wilfred's statement carried instant conviction. A Babel-like chorus of startled exclamation arose, amid which the scientist sat mutely enjoying the first fruit of his stupendous discovery.

In the midst of the clamour Tobermory entered the room and made his way with velvet tread and studied unconcern across to the group seated round the tea- table.

Saki picked the perfect pet to do this with.  I don’t think a dog would have worked as well.  The cat is even more supercilious than the guests.  Now Saki has set this up perfectly. 

A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the company. Somehow there seemed an element of embarrassment in addressing on equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged mental ability.

"Will you have some milk, Tobermory?" asked Lady Blemley in a rather strained voice.

"I don't mind if I do," was the response, couched in a tone of even indifference. A shiver of suppressed excitement went through the listeners, and Lady Blemley might be excused for pouring out the saucerful of milk rather unsteadily.

And the story goes on to where Tobey starts telling things about the guests he has overheard that people would not want to have said in public.  It is a perfect situation from which to develop satire.  The guests ultimately decide they must have Tobey killed so their secrets won’t come out.  I will say that the very extreme shortness of the story made the ending a bit dissatisfying.  It was too much of a happenstance to bring it to a close.  I imagine Saki was word limited and couldn’t develop a proper conclusion.  But I might be wrong, you tell me.  Was the conclusion satisfying? 

If you wish, you can hear along with the story with this audio recording.  It’s always fun to hear a story.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Music Tuesday: The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came

Yes, I am still alive.  Between being busy, a son that stays up later, my new computer going down again (lucky I still have the old), a dog that requires her energy burned off with constant walks, and world and national events that have glued me to the television, both my reading and my blogging have suffered.  All I can say is our country needs prayers fast.  And leadership, but we haven’t had leadership for quite a while now. 

Since today is the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin and in the midst of Advent, the perfect song which honors both is this wonderful old hymn, “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came” or sometimes just called “Gabriel’s Message.”  

Sting, the ex lead singer of the Police has a wonderful version which I think brought back the popularity of the song to modern audiences recorded from some 30 years ago, but I want to present another version.  I love the arrangement by this band I had not heard of, the Good Shepherd Band.

Here are the wonderful lyrics:

  1. The angel Gabriel from heaven came
    His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
    "All hail" said he "thou lowly maiden Mary,
    Most highly favored lady," Gloria!
  2. "For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
    All generations laud and honor thee,
    Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
    Most highly favored lady," Gloria!
  3. Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
    "To me be as it pleaseth God," she said,
    "My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name."
    Most highly favored lady. Gloria!
  4. Of her, Emanuel, the Christ was born
    In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
    And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
    "Most highly favored lady," Gloria!

I love everything about this song.