Friday, January 31, 2014

Gung Ha Fat Choy - Gong Xi Fa Cai

The Year of the Horse

Tonight is the start of the Chinese (Asian) New Year and the festivities surrounding it throughout Asiatic communities everywhere.  2014 is the Year of the Horse - the seventh of the twelve signs of the Chinese Zodiac.

Born Under the Sign of the Horse

People born in the years of the Horse years (2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918) are cheerful, fun loving, bright and popular. They attract many friends with their child-like innocence, happy nature and their natural charm.  They love parties and find being surrounded by people and crowds exciting.  Like the horse of their sign they are highly intuitive and follow their hunches.  Often that keen judgment and intuition help them make the right decisions in life. Normally they don’t need to struggle in order to succeed and eagerly grasp the things life has to offer.

Horses are of a carefree nature and need room to give voice to their self expression. When hemmed in by rules a proud Horse rebels against being corralled or tamed.  Horses  are frank and will say exactly what they think.  Last year, the year of the Snake, was the time for secrecy was, now is the time to be open and above board especially with family.

The most auspicious years for the the Horse are in those of their own sign and Tiger, Sheep, and Dog years. The Year of the Rat year is the least fortunate for Horse.

When the Horse Arrives May Good Luck Come Also

 Fú Lù Shòu 

Amongst the many customs of New Year's - hui chun, dragon dances, fireworks, family reunions and special food - special attention is paid to the Three Deities of Fortune during this time of year.

Fú Lù Shòu is the Taoist concept of Good Fortune, Prosperity and Longevity.  These three stars were considered the personification of the deities of these attributes of a good life.  By tradition they are arrange with Fu to the right, Lu in the middle and Shou on the left.  Statues of the three gods are found in nearly every Chinese home and many Chinese-owned shops.  They are given place on small altars with a glass of water, an orange or other offerings, especially during Chinese New Year.

Their placement in a house or shop often depends on what is being sought by the person.  They are always placed higher up in a room - a lower position is thought of as disrespectful.

  • Placing the Three Wise Men in the Southwest helps you to bear a child.
  • Placing them in the Western area will help to bring  wealth and guard  wealth from diminishing).  The Fu Lu Shou placement here also brings joy and celebration to the home.
  • Putting them in Northwest part of a room helps to bring the three good fortunes to the husband or father of the family.
  • A place in the North of the house or room helps to bring creativity luck and wisdom. 

Fu Star - God of Happiness and Good Luck

It is derived from the planet Jupiter - a star that the ancient Chinese thought was in charge of agriculture.  The Chinese astrology says that where there is the planet Jupiter shining, the people will have good luck and fortune.  Another story links the Fu Star with Yang Cheng, a governor of Daozhou who wrote a missive to the Emperor ask that his people be exempt from a onerous special tribute.  He request was granted and  in thanks for this act a temple was built to him as the personification of good fortune.

Fu is often depicted in a scholar's robe,  carrying a baby boy and holding a scroll. The scroll is 家谱 jia pu, a record of a clan's history and lineage. This symbolizes harmony in the family. A fortunate man. In Chinese culture, you are also considered lucky if you have a male offspring (to continue the family surname). A happy man indeed.

Lu Star - God of Prosperity

This is Ursa Majoris or the Great Bear, the sixth star in the Wenchang of traditional Chinese astronomy. The Lu star is believed to be Zhang Xian a court official who lived during the Later Shu dynasty. For this reason the statue is always dressed in the expensive robes of a mandarin.   He also holds a ceremonial scepter known as 如意 ru yi symbolizing power and good fortune.  As a mandarin he is considered wealthy (lu specifically refers to the salary of a government official). As such, the Lu star is the star of prosperity, rank, and influence.

The Lu star was also worshipped separately from the other two as the deity dictating one's success in the Imperial Examinations, and therefore success in the imperial bureaucracy.  Once that position had been attained prosperity was almost certain.


Shou Star - God of Longevity

This is the Antartic Canopus star, or the South Pole star.  In Chinese astronomy it is known as the Old Man Star. According to legend Shou was carried in his mother's womb for ten years and was already an old man when born.  He is always pictured as smiling and friendly, has a long white flowing beard and a high, domed forehead.  He leans on his staff for support in his old age and always carries with him the Peach of Immortality.

Longevity is wise, knowledgeable and if called up could rule the world.  At major festivals he is worshipped in thanks for granting the elders in the family a long life. The  Shou star brings a 'long and fruitful life.

So as we approach the Year of the Horse may the Three Wise Men give you Happiness, Good Luck, Prosperity and Longevity.

Gung Ha Fat Choy - Gong Xi Fa Cai

January 31 - 1929: The Soviet Union exiles Leon Trotsky.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

In 1948 the 84 year old Richard Strauss read the poem Im Abendrot (At Sunset) by Joseph von Eichendorff and in May of that year set it to music.  Shortly after he was given the complete poems of Hermann Hesse and set three of the poet's works: Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). With the exception of Frühling the poems deal with death perhaps something the composer was giving much thought to as his own life was drawing to a close.  But his settings were not those of the past: this was no heroic or romantic death but a philosophical sense of calm and acceptance - death as a natural end.

There is no indication that Strauss ever intended these songs to be cycle and he did not hear them performed in his lifetime - he was to die in September 1949.   Ernst Roth, his chief editor at Boosey & Hawkes who compiled them as a song cycle, gave them their title Vier Letzte Lider (The Four Last Songs) and arranged for their premiere in May 1950.  The great Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler sang them at the Royal Albert Hall.

There have been many performances and recordings of them since - probably as many as there are sopranos - and each has its champions.  My own favourite has always been a live 1951 recording from Stockholm of Sena Jurinac with Fritz Busch conducting the Stockholm Symphony - one of the first recordings ever made of the cycle.  It has its faults - the Stockholm musicians are not in the same league as many of the other orchestras that have recorded it.

Though the entire group has always touched me emotionally Im Abendrot has the ability - along with the remarkable violin passage in Frühling - to move me to tears.  I believe the late Margaret Price only made one commercial recording but fortunately her 1981 performance with the late Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony was recorded.  The combination of these two remarkable and much loved artists with an orchestra at the top of its form make the tears flow. 

Im Abendrot
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
At Sunset
We have through sorrow and joy
gone hand in hand;
From our wanderings, let's now rest
in this quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow
as the sun goes down.
Two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the light air.

Come close, and let them fly.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let's not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the evening's glow!
How weary we are of wandering---
Is this perhaps death?
Joseph vonEichendorff (1788-1857)

January 29 -1886: Karl Benz patents the first successful gasoline-driven automobile.
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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Gondola on Sherbrooke Street

 They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

Francesco Sansovino
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare - 1581
I have a confession to make: in the many times I've been to Venice I have never taken a ride in a gondola. Nope, not even the traghetti that Venetians use (at €1 a ride) to cross from one side of the Canale Grande to the other.  Oh I've watched the gondolas a million times and even taken the odd picture of a Gondolieri or two - just as a cultural observer of course.  But to actually fork out the money - the last price I heard was €80 for a 40 minute ride* - for a tour through the canals: not going to occur during the lifetime of the reigning monarch. But then I said that about going to Venice during Carnivale and look what happened!

One of the scenographic features of the recent exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts was a long wall cut by irregularly placed windows.  Through the windows you could see a gondola - not a priceless antique ceremonial gondola but an ordinary 20th century Venetian gondola.  Not that there is really anything ordinary about a gondola:  they are still handmade of 8 different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime) and are composed of 280 pieces. 

 The etymology of its name gondola is uncertain; it may be a portmanteau word -  the verb dondolare (to rock gently) and the Middle Age Greek kondura or short-tailed boat - older gondolas had a less soaring stern than today´s ones.  Or it may come from the Latin cunula or rocking crib.

The design has evolved greatly over the centuries and to govern further changes was codified by the city of Venice in the mid-20th century.   The gondola is still evolving: its sesto, the scalar ratio between the frames in its shape, is frequently updated.  This allows for changes to be made as gondolas fight the rise of the waves caused by motor boats and cruise liners.  Unlike older gondolas a modern gondola is asymmetrical to account for the position of the gondolier at the right on the stern (yes gondolas are right hand drive!). 

The elaborate stern decoration is called a risso or ringlet (that lovely brass decoration in the picture above) and is said to resemble the swirl of water in the wake of the vessel.  The prow decoration (and somehow I didn't get a proper photograph of this one - how the hell did that happen?) is called a dolfin (dolphin) because of the resemblance to a dolphin's muzzle.  The shape of both decorations has changed over the centuries.  The risso has become smaller and the dolfin has become redolent with symbols of Venice: the upper part recalls the Corno del Dose/Capello del doge (Crown of the Doge); the shank the meandering of the Grand Canal;  the arch signifies il ponte di Rialto and il bacino di San Marco; the comb the city´s Sestieri (six districts); the opposite tooth is Giudecca; while the decorated points between the teeth represent the three main Islands of the Lagoon (Torcello, Burano, Murano).  It should be noted that the cemetery island of San Michelle is missing from this symbolic icon - no point in tempting fate.

Though in the 17th and 18th centuries there were between eight to ten thousand gondolas in the Republic an earlier map from the 1500's by Jacopo de'Barbari suggests that batellas, carolinas and galleys were the major modes of transportation.   Many gondolas where privately owned though there were also gondolas for hire.   Today there are approximate 400 gondolas, all of which are used in the tourist trade or for sporting events.

Gondolas were brightly, at time garishly, painted and laden with gold or silver ornaments and silk draperies and trappings.  In reaction to the extravagant nature of many of the private gondolas the Senate issued a sumptuary law in 1609 that all gondolas were to be painted black.  This did not stop people from adding elaborate  parecio or removable metal ornaments that served no real purpose other than decoration.  Elaborate metal-work (gold, silver, iron or brass), draperies and carvings often graced the felze or cabins that were a feature on gondolas up until the late 1940s.  However these enclosures that served as a source of protection from the sun, rain or prying eyes were removed after complaints from tourists that it blocked their view. 

The rèmo, or oar, is specially made by the rèmer (oarmaker), who exclusively builds oars and fórcola or oarlocks. The wood used for the rèmo is split beech, well-matured and without knots. It is carefully crafted to have a tapered blade at the end; the thickness of the oar gradually diminishes, which allows the oarsmen to row more with greater ease and agility.   A gondola is rowed not punted and the design of the boat and the oar mean that the effort required to paddle one with two people on board is equivalent to what a person would expend walking at the same speed.

The fórcola or oar lock is a highly personalized feature of any gondola.  It is a basic form that is adapted to the height of the gondolier, his arm length and rowing technique.  Its complex design allows for eight rowing positions the chief being a slow forward row, a powerful forward row, turning, slowing down, a backward row and stopping.  The process of creating this deceptively simply looking piece of wood takes several years and the knowledge of a craft and tools that are centuries old. While searching for information about this unique oar lock I came across an interesting site created for Saverio Pastor a master rèmer of Venice who creates oars and oarlocks.   A click through the various pages of Maitre Pastor's site give visual life to the creation of the fórcola, its use, history and construction.

In the 17th century there were several thousand gondoliers and often they were run as a small private collective - three gondoliers and one dispatcher.  History suggests that they were the "secret holders" of the city:  conversations, assignations, plots and family (monkey) business were all overheard by the "family" or "taxi" driver.   Today the profession is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses (425 regular - 175 fill-in) after 400 hours of training, a period of apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam of knowledge of Venetian history and geography, foreign languages and, of course, safe and efficient navigation of the gondola.  Few secrets or intrigues are overheard today other than mutterings about the price of a Bellini at Harry's.  Prior to the Second World War the standard uniform for gondolieri was a black outfit however in modern times the more colourful blue and white or red and white stripped blouse has become the norm. 

It was not until 2010 that male dominance on the profession was challenged by Giorgia Boscolo who became a licensed gondolier (I'm not sure there is a feminine ending for the title) in August of 2010.   She was one of three female students that year - unfortunately the other two did not pass.  Her father, a retired gondolier, had some reservations and was quoted as saying:  I still think being a gondolier is a man’s job, but I am sure that with experience Giorgia will be able to do it easily.  Giorgia's response was a typical Venetian shrug and the observation that "Childbirth is much more difficult." 

Back to the exhibition that started me on the Veniza nostalgia trip:  so how do you get a slender (1.4m/4ft 6in) but long (11m/36ft) boat up to the third floor exhibition rooms of the Desmarais Pavilion?  Why the way you get anything into an upper story in most cities in Italy:  through an upstairs window!

While going through the many posts, articles and webpages available about gondolas and gondolieri I came across this rather fun quiz:  How Stuff Works - Gondola Quiz.   The first time I've ever put a "check for understanding" on a post.

*To be fair that is per gondola not per person and is the tariff set by the city of Venice. A gondola holds up to six people so the cost per person depends on the number in the group.  The routes are set and agreed upon prior to leaving the statzione.  And the gondolier does not - repeat - does not sing!

January 28 -1958: The last episode of the British radio comedy programme The Goon Show is broadcast.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

 Yesterday Jeff posted a marvelous aerial photo (see below) of the studio set up from the first years of the old I Love Lucy television show. It was the first in a series of TV series that starred first Lucille Ball and her then husband Desi Arnaz and eventually just the comedienne herself. That first series turned the once showgirl (at left: Lucy in The Ziegfeld Follies - 1946)  and Queen of the "B" Movies  into one of the most recognized performers of her time.

In those early days at least, Lucy knew how to share the spotlight with her co-stars: the perennials Vivian Vance, William FrawleyGale GordonMary Jane Croft and of course Desi.  But she also featured some of the great "second bananas" of theatre and television in her shows including, in this episode, the inimitable Mary Wickes.   This 1952 episode was the first of many appearances that she was to make on the various TV incarnations of Lucy.  A quick tally shows that she appeared over 18 times with Lucy and indications are there were very few TV shows that she did appear on from the early days of the medium until her death in 1996.  Her last movie appearances were as the irrepressible Sister Mary Lazarus in the two Sisters Act's and as the voice of a gargoyle in the Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dezi Arnaz and his cameraman Karl Freund developed and sold the studios on the idea of performing before a live audience.  They pioneered the use of the multiple set, flat lighting and three-camera set-up that is still used in most sit-com production today.  Always a savvy business man Arnaz convinced the studio to allow filming of the episodes rather than the kinescope recording that was standard at the time.  However Desilu had to assume the cost of the process - which gave them the rights to redistributing the show in reruns and syndication, an innovation.  They made their money back on that little investment big time and put in place a system that is in use 60 years later.

This set, from the early years, comprises: Little Ricky's nursery; the studio decreed double-singles bedroom (makes you wonder how they got that nursery?); the Riccardo's living room; the kitchen; and the Tropicana Club (later the Club Babilou) where Ricky and his orchestra played.  The Riccardos and Mertz's lived at 623 East 68th St on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Given that the numbers on East 68th only go up to the 500s it appears that their brownstone was somewhere in the East River.

January 27 - 1731: Bartolomeo Cristofori, (b. 1655) who invented the piano dies in Firenze, Italy.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

Claudio Abbado: 1933-2014

It was August of 1969 and I was on my second trip across the Atlantic in three months and my first visit to Salzburg and the summer festival. I was there for a week - a very full week of operas and concerts. There was opera every night and lieder concerts most afternoons. It was meant to be a feast of music and I wasn't going to miss a morsel. The cast lists were a roll call of many of the big names of the time: Adam, Alva, Zylis-Gara, King, Berry, Bjoner, Evans, Freni, Ludwig, Kraus, Ghiaurov, Stratas, Prey, Janowitz, Gedda et al. And on the podium: Karajan conducting Don Giovanni, Böhm conducting Fidelio, Ozawa, in his operatic debut, murdering Cosi and Claudio Abbado showing us how Il Barbiere di Siviglia was meant to sound.

He had debuted as an operatic conductor at Salzburg the year before with the same production and between him and director/designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle they had created a Barbiere that was, for its time, revolutionary.  It was to be the first Rossini opera in a collaboration that shed new light on La Cenerentola and L'Italiana in Algeri.  His work on the operas of Rossini culminated in the brilliant revival of  Il Viaggio a Rheims at Pesaro in 1984.  Previously I had posted that encore to end all encores, a moment of musical joy: Viaggo, Pesaro 1992.

Since his death on Monday much has been written in tribute to Claudio Abbado and many clips have been posted featuring his Mahler, Verdi, Schubert, Stravinsky and Mozart.  I thought I would remember him with the first piece of music I ever heard him conduct:  the Overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia.   And from the looks of it this video may have been made around the same time I first saw him.

Unfortunately I missed the chance to see the legendary Boris Godunov at Covent Garden in 1983. I stood out on Bow St one April evening my five pound note discretely held but visible - a sign that you wanted a ticket. Sadly no one was in the mood or seemed to have the need to sell that evening. It was one of the few times I had been disappointed in my attempts to get a last minute seat at the Royal Opera. Though I had many of his recordings and had listen to many of his performances on radio I was not to see him conduct in person until April of 2008. After a period of illness and absence from the opera house he returned to the Teatro Valli in Reggio-Emilia, where his son Daniele was artistic director, to conduct Beethoven's Fidelio. As I wrote at the time it was one of the most exciting evenings I have spent at the opera in many years - I was simply overwhelmed.

He appeared with his Orchestra Mozart during the concert season March 2010 at the Academia Santa Cecilia.  The programme was Mendelssohn and Mozart with a Mozart encore.  It was a glorious evening - perhaps not as emotional as his Mahler, Beethoven or Verdi  but he gave us the "Italian", Violin Concerto K216 and the "Jupiter" as I had never heard them before.

After his bout of cancer and other health problems he seemed to have returned to a full and active schedule with his Mahler Youth Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Orchestra Mozart.  My dear friend David records so much of it in his blog post and in the wonderful obituary he wrote for the Guardian.

The man was loved, respected and revered but most of all loved.  And I'll let David have the final words: Though we'll hugely miss him, there's nothing to regret: no-one lived a fuller life, one so much longer than illness would have led anyone to expect.

 REQUIEM aeternam dona ei, et lux perpetua luceat ei. 
Requiescat in pace.

January 22 - 1506: The first contingent of 150 Swiss Guards arrives at the Vatican.

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

 A recent post on FaceBook by my friend Simonetta and a BBC iPlayer programme on medieval manuscripts reminded me of a small book that has been in my library for over 40 years now.  I seem to recall coming across it in Britnell's which was a wonderful old style bookstore on Yonge and Bloor before it became a trendoid neighbourhood of highrise condos, food porn bistros and bling shops. 

I will quote from the forward to this slim volume by eminent scholar, writer and thespian Luis D'Antin Van Rooten:
To detail the exact manner by which "The d'Antin Mss. Mots d'Heures:1 Gousses, Rames"2 came to my hand would be too tedious and of but little moment here.  Suffice it to say these curious verses were part of the meagre possessions of one François Charles Fernand d'Antin, retired school teacher, who died at the age of ninety-three in January of the Year of our Lord 1950, while marking papers.3  Some three years later, as the only surviving relative of the deceased, I received his personal effects through the kind offices of Maître Théophile Gustave Pol Plôn, Notaire of Aix-en-Province, Bouches-du-Rhônes, France.

1 "Words of the Hours." A more poetic title than the more familiar "Book of Hours." A religious or philosophic background is tacityly indicated by this title.
2 "Gousses, Rames."   A "gousse" is a clove or section, as in the bulb of the garlic plant.  We cant therefore assume that this implies "Root and Branch," or a complete unity.  Alas, would only that the poems had come down to us so.
3 The vestigial remnant of an occupation, become the escape mechanism of an academician's senility.
Mots d'Heures:
Gousses, Rames
Luis d'Antin Van Rooten
Grossman Publishers
New York 1967

M. d'Antin Van Rooten goes on to explain the difficulty he had in piecing together the fragments of verse and the arduous task of correctly annotating them for the modern reader.  He also suggests that they are best read aloud in "the sonorous, measured classic style made famous by the Comédie Française at the turn of the century.... "  And indeed once they are treated to that delivery they make perfect sense to all and sundry.

Rather than try and copy the rich and melodic verse and M. d'Antin Van Rooten's scholarly notations I have scanned two pages of this small but fascinating book for your delectation. 

Many of the verses in the manuscript are of an uplifting and highly moral tone such as this small fragment:

And the book ends with a rather sad little piece that could also serve as a cautionary tale:

I thank Simonetta for reminding me of this truly remarkable tome and Laurent for not forcing me to discard it from my library in one of our many moves.  (We will not even go into that touchy subject unless a few glasses of wine have been consumed!)

Sadly both this lovely book and M d'Antin Van Rooten's Book of Improbable Saints as well as several others of his learned works have long been out of print - though copies have been seen at interesting prices on Amazon and eBay.

And why the various little snippets from the illuminated manuscripts?  I  thought they fit perfectly with M d'Antin Van Rooten's sense of scholarship!  And frankly this last one of Renard the Fox being hung is just plain lunacy - Medieval lunacy but lunacy none the less.

 January 20 - 1885: L.A. Thompson patents the roller coaster.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Splendours of Venice

They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!
Francesco Sansovino
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare - 1581
Just before Christmas I received an e-mail via a French arts website from my friend Sybil in Geneva.  The link provided was for an exhibition at Musée des Beaux Arts de MontréalSplendore a Venezia.  I had to admit ignorance of the event but it contained that magic word: Venezia! I am sure I've made it apparent on at the least one occasion here that Venice is a city I adore and the offer of a multidisciplinary exhibition so close to home that combined the art and the music of Venice from the Renaissance to the Baroque - well what more could a Venitiaphile (is that a word?) ask for?

The rich silk, linen and lead robes and stole of a Procurator and a Corno Ducale (Doge's crown) were the first, but far from the last,  splendours that greeted the viewer.  Not visible in this photo but behind the ducal finery was Titan's portrait of a sickly Doge Francesco Venier weighed down by the elaborate robes of state.

On Boxing Day we celebrated Linda and Yves' recent marriage with a celebratory champagne lunch at the Sofitel.  Afterwards it was a short walk over to the Beaux-Arts to take in the Venetian splendors - and splendors there were.  Even though it was late afternoon the crowds were still fairly heavy but we were able to take in a goodly portion of this marvelous show.  Paintings, clothing, musical instruments, incunabula, manuscripts, bronzes and artifacts trace 300 years of the musical and cultural history of the great Republic  Sixty-one collections from nine countries were combed for remarkable - and in many cases seldom seen - examples of the magnificence that was La Serenissima until its dissolution by that evil little Corsican Napoleon in 1797.   The exhibition was the work of Dr Hilliard Goldfarb, Associate Chief Curator and Curator of Old Masters at the Musée and reflected both his passion for and deep knowledge of the music and art of the period.

Splendore a Venezia:  Exhibition curator Dr Hillaird T. Goldfarb with a few of the wonderful treasures tracing the connections between music and art from the Renaissance to the Baroque in La Serenissima.  A right click on each of the paintings will give you a closer look at each one.
The Dogeressa Leaving the Palace - Giacomo FrancoSan Marco - Interior - CanalettoSan Marco - North Transept and Choir Tribune - CanalettoDoge Francesco Morosini is invested at San Marco - Alessandro PiazzaImage Map
A few days later I wrote him to both congratulate him and his team on a magnificent show and to ask a few questions.  In return I received two very kind e-mails answering my questions and mentioning how it had taken five years to bring this exhibition together - something you don't think about as you wander through a gallery.  He also gave me information about several of the caricatures by Anton Maria Zanetti that were on display including the existence of a catalogue from an show at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in 1969.  (I found a copy at AbeBooks and have it in hand now!)  As part of the preparation for exhibiting the Zanetti caricatures the conservators at the Musée did much needed restoration and preservation work as well as remounting.  They are the sort of tiny glories that I always find fascinating amongst the great works.

Anton Maria Zanetti's caricature of Antonio Maria Bernacchi
captures the good and the bad of the great male soprano. 
His voice had incredible power and beauty but Mary Grenville
observed: his person not so good, for he is as big as a Spanish friar.

Like Bernacchi Giustina Turcotti was known for her incredible vocal power and her ample girth. 
It is recorded that La Turcotti had trouble moving on stage and Zanetti's nude female figure
appears to be a less that flattering portrait of the Florentine diva.

In this caricature Zanetti suggests that the great mezzo Caffarelli (Gaetano
Majorano) single-handedly carried the fortunes of Teatro San Grisotomomo
on his shoulders.  The vain, pugnacious and arrogant singer probably
would not have challenged him to a duel on that view.

Dr Goldfarb also suggested that if I visited the show again that  he would be pleased to say hello.  So visit it again I did.  My neighbour Cathy and I headed down to Montreal on the morning train last Thursday.  Having forgotten how icy that wind can be as it comes cutting down from the mountain I decided to walk over to the Museum from Central Station.  You'd think five years of living at Peel and Sherbrooke would have taught me better!  I arrived at the Musée frozen but the appearance of my dear Christine, who I hadn't seen since we left Roma, soon warmed me up.  That and a glass of pinot grigio at our reunion celebration lunch - are we seeing a theme here?   The food at the Café des Beaux Arts is remarkably good, varied - I haven't seen, not that I would order it, Blood Pudding on any other menu - and the service very friendly.

Dale Chihuly's The Sun was part of a larger exhibition
earlier this year but is now in the Musée's permanent
collection. It was purchased through public donations.
I thought that on a day mid-week there would be less people but the exhibit proved to be as popular as it had been on December 26th.  Dr Goldfarb greeted us and apologized that the two large gilt galley lanterns were missing as they were being photographed before being shipped to the Portland Art Gallery.  Strangely it is the only other venue for the exhibition.  I would have thought other museums would have jumped at the opportunity of sharing this remarkable collection; however given the budget cuts that have affected most museums these days it is not all that surprising.

As a sidebar it was interesting to see that through individual donations and public subscription the Musée has acquired Dale Chihuly's The Sun, which had been featured in a major exhibition of his work earlier this year.

Fortunately I was able to spend a bit more time than previously taking in the whole exhibition and particularly the collection of instruments on display:  an archlute in kingwood, ivory and ebony made in 1654; a beautiful theorbo in ivory and ebony from the late 1600s; a military drum bearing St Mark's lion along with Turkish instruments captured a war booty but put into ceremonial use; and a sinuous, strange-looking bass cornetto or serpent that certainly lived up to its name.  The craftsmanship in the stringed instruments was remarkable - elaborately carved sound holes, detailed scrimshaw and delicate inlay. 

This theorbo was crafted in Venice somewhere between
1630-1640.  The ivory scrimshaw and intricately carved
sound hole make it as beautiful to look at as it is to hear. 

This bass cornett or serpent is curved so the finger
holes were within reach of the player.  It dates
from the 16th c. and is leather covered wood.

This archlute is a stunning mixture of kingwood,
ivory, spruce, willow and ebony.  Created by
Christoph Koch in 1654, the extended pegboard gives
it a wider bass range than the regular lute.
The spruce and animal skin drum on the left was used in the 1600s to rally the brave fighting men of the Most Serene Republic in their military endeavours.  The Naqqarah (kettle drum) and Zil (finger cymbals) were trophies of their victories over their Ottoman foes but were often used in the parades and processions that were part of the rituals of state.
And of course no exhibition on the glory that was Venice would be complete without the works of Giovanni Antonio Canal ditto Canaletto.  He is well represented in both paintings and drawings.  Particularly delightful is the pen and ink drawing that is annotated:  I Gian Antonio Canal made this drawing of musicians singing at the ducal church of San Marco in Venice at the age of sixty-eight without eyeglasses, in the year 1766.

The Feast of San Rocco: once again Canaletto captures a Venice filled with life.  August 16 was a major holiday in Venice and the Doge paid a state visit to hear mass at the Church and venerated the Saint's relics.  He was entertained at the Scuolo and viewed the only fixed art exhibition in the city.  And like today's visitors he marvelled at the Tintoretto murals and ceiling.
Even with a second viewing when I look over the beautifully illustrated catalogue I realize that there were things that, like the city itself, deserved a third, fourth even a fifth viewing.  And of course looking at all those splendours only made me long even more to experience them in my beloved Serenissima once more.

January 17:  1893: The Citizen's Committee of Public Safety, led by Lorrin A. Thurston, overthrows the government of Queen Liliuokalani of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Just Plan Odd!

I wasn't sure if this qualifies as a Lunedi Lunacy or a Mercoledi Musicale entry.  Its borderline!  So I've scheduled it for today as ...   Martedi Madness?  Tuesday Tosh?  Jeudi Jocularity?  Just Plan Odd!

Back in the early days of cinema it wasn't unusual to include a sing-along short with the cartoon, newsreel, travelogue, comedy short and "appearing soon on this screen"  to fill out the evenings entertainment.    In this rather odd little short the sing-along and cartoon are combined to rather bizarre effect.

Betty Boop had been introduced to the world as a canine character back in 1930 but by 1932 had morphed into a 1920s flapper par excellence.  However in this cartoon she still seemed to have this thing for strays which frankly I find just a touch creepy.  The irritating smart-alack baby seemed to be a favourite 30s cartoon conceit but after all it was the Great Depression so maybe "anything for a laugh" literally meant "anything for a laugh".

In 1930 Betty Boop started life as ...  a humanized  French poodle (above) but by 1932 had morphed into the quintessential 20s flapper.  Though she did seem to continue to have a rather strange attraction to mutts and strays.

The insertion of the sing-along with Ethel Merman between the two unrelated cartoons, and the choice of song,  is totally unexpected.  But it does give a chance to hear the great Merm in her early days and in ballad mood.   I think this must have been one of her first movie appearances (1932?) and she does seem a bit stiff in front of a camera - something she never was with a live audience.

Old romantic ballads are not something I've ever associated with her but Merman does a lovely job of  Let Me Call You Sweetheart.  Listening to her made me aware of what a lovely song it is - good lyrics and a very pleasant melody.  And the reprise at the end does give us a bit of that Merman jazz belt that we came to associate with her. 

A rather odd piece of cinema and Broadway history ...  it really is a touch of melodic lunacy!

January 14 - 1724:   King Philip V of Spain abdicates only to resume the throne nine months later.
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Monday, January 13, 2014

God Spede the Plow

God spede the plow
And send us ale corne enow
Our purpose for to mak
At crow of cok
Of the plwlete of Sygate
Be mery and glade
Wat good ale this work mad.*
14th Century Poem
In rural England the first Monday after Twelfth Day (Epiphany) was celebrated as "Plough Monday".  This was the day on which all work resumed after the feasting of the 12 days of Christmas and was seen as the start of the agricultural year in many regions.  The first reports of the traditional celebrations of the day appear in the late 14th century.  

The previous day (Plough Sunday) farmers and ploughmen would have their ploughshares blessed for the coming planting season.  On the Monday a decorated plough was hauled in procession from door to door by stout young ploughmen wearing beribboned hats and clothing with white linen or wool smocks worn over their vests and pants   Often they were accompanied by bullock horn players and dancers.  Amongst the company would be a man (or boy) dressed as a grotesque old woman or "Bessy" and another dressed as a Fool with a donkey's tail hanging from his behind.  A member of the troupe would rattle a box and collect money from the spectators.  Originally the money was to provide candles before certain shrines to pray for a good harvest.  However with the English Reformation such Popish practices were banned and the money collected served a less holy purpose:  it was used to buy ale and refreshments in the local.  On the rare occasion when some small token was not given the "stingy" home owner could find their front yard had been ploughed up. 

A Straw Bear and his Keeper in Whittlesey, 1906
Customs varied from region to region - and often from village to village: in some towns Morris dancers would join the procession, in others it would be sword dancers doing a round-dance with origins in Scandinavia.  In  Cornwall everyone in the procession cross-dressed and there was "guise dancing".

In the Fenlands, a small area on the border region between Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, the strange custom of the "Straw Bear" was central to the celebration but on the Tuesday.  A man (sometimes a boy, often both) was dressed from head to toe in straw and lead from house to house by his keeper.  Once again monies were collected, though to what end other than another trip to the pub, I'm not sure.  It appears that in former times the tradition was so highly regarded that farmers would save their best straw for the costume.  At the end of festivities the costume was burnt in a solemn ceremony.   The Straw Bear appears no where else in England but is often seen on Shrove Tuesday festivities in parts of Germany, Austria and Poland.  

The Straw Bear tradition has been revived in Whittlesey and turned into a four day event, attracting 
performers and tourists from all over.  Here's a video of the 2011 celebrations.

With the coming of industrialization and modernization in the late 19th-early 20th centuries there was no need for the plough and the labours of the ploughman were done by machines.  Though they remained in a handful of small communities the customs of Plough Monday slowly died off.  However the last few years have seen a revival of interest in the old customs and it is not unusual to see forms of Plough Monday celebrations in Cornwall, Essex and the eastern Shires. In many places the "festival" has become a major tourist attraction.

Though most people have returned to their jobs long before the end of Epiphany I wish that in your labours "God spede your plow".

*This is taken from a carving on a wall plaque in the Church of St Agnes in Cawston just north of Norwich.  The livelihood of the parishioners and the well-being of the church depended on a good crop of ale-corn or barley which leads to the pun in the last line:  what good ale this work (the Plough Monday processions) makes.  The reference probably refers to the use of the money donated to buy candles to be lit at the various shrines in the town in hope of a good harvest.  The "plwlete" was the Ploughman's Guild which according to this rhyme were meeting just outside of town at Sygate to begin their procession.  

13 January - 1698:  Matestasio (Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi), poet and librettist was born in the Rome, the Papal States.

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