Sunday, September 18, 2011

Do Catholics (and Christians generally) know anything about their history? Help us, maestro Verdi


Here again is the performance of Beethoven's Egmont Overture we saw and heard in last night's music preview, by the New York Philharmonic under then-music director Lorin Maazel, at the Seoul Arts Center, Feb. 28, 2008.

by Ken

In case you're just coming in at this point, this is sort of a postscript to a pair of posts I wrote Friday night and last night.

In last night's music preview ("Wait for it . . ."), in presenting Beethoven's Egmont Overture, which has a climax of a thrill content unlike anything else I know in music, I happily recycled the historical background and musical description provided in a San Francisco Symphony program note by the late Michael Steinberg, starting with the political background:
On the morning of June 5, 1568, the counts Egmont and Horn were beheaded in the marketplace in Brussels; their heads were displayed on poles until three in the afternoon. They had been arrested the previous September on orders from the Duke of Alba, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, and condemned to death for lèse majesté and for joining with “rebels against the holy, apostolic, and Roman church as well as for favoring the intolerable conspiracies of the Prince of Orange and other gentlemen.” . . .

Serious unrest began early in the 1560s . . . . Count Lamoral van Egmont, a popular military leader, was one of Alba’s first victims. What Egmont fought for and came uniquely to symbolize was beyond the reach of Spanish executioners. The process was slow and bloody, but in 1648, as part of the Treaty of Westphalia that concluded the Thirty Years’ War, the United States of the Netherlands were recognized by Philipp IV of Spain as an independent political entity.

Michael explains then that between 1775 and 1787 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a play on the subject, and in the early years of the 19th century Beethoven provided incidental music for a production. Michael writes, "With Napoleon, his French troops, and his puppet kings spread all over Europe, the drama of the rebellious disaffection of the Netherlands took on a new and vivid relevance." The whole point is that I wanted readers to understand the stakes musicalized by Beethoven in that amazing final episode of the Egmont Overture, and so I then quoted Michael's concise musical précis:
The Overture begins with a grave introduction, which moves into an impassioned allegro. In the striking contrast of musical characters, commentators have seen the portrayal of oppression and of pleading. The brilliant closing music is that of the drama’s Victory Symphony, played as Egmont goes proudly to his death, confident in the rightness and the coming triumph of his cause.

It's always neat to get feedback showing that a reader has "gotten" it, and our friend me chimed in with a comment:
More Catholic crimes against humanity. That figures.

How christians can think their religion is any better than islam is beyond me.

This referred back to a comment added to my Friday night post, "'Republicans are not anti-science entirely,' says Tina Dupuy, 'they're anti . . . sometimes'," on the basis of which I was diagnosed a highly articulate if misguided, emphatically Catholic commenter as anti-Christian. The commenter was clearly unfamiliar with my previous rants on the subject of Crap Christians, made what I thought was a fascinating leap to the assumption that I had somehow equated "Crap Christians" with "all Christians," and proceeded to defend the wholesomeness and integrity of Christianity (meaning, really Catholicism) against my bigoted ravings. Of course the defense was built on a string of well-meant but historical and factual gibberish.

I had my say, and then to my great delight me offered some well-pointed points of refutation. What I would have found embarrassing, if I had been the commenter, was the blanket ignorance he displayed of how his religion has dealt both with its worshippers and its nonworshippers both in the present and in its long and troubled history. Of which a hardly atypical but notably monstrous example was the long and brutal repression of Protestant Flanders by the greatest Catholic power of the 15th through 17th centuries, Hapsburg Spain, in close collaboration with Rome. This was, after all, the era of the Spanish Inquisition. And I don't think it's at all beside the point that the present pope is a child of the Inquisition. It has been clear throughout Pope Cardinal Ratguts's sorry career that there's no time or place, and certainly no theological mindset, to which he's more attuned than that of the Inquisition.

From a musical standpoint, the great document of the bloodbath inflicted on the Flemish by Spain is Verdi's monumental opera Don Carlos, in which the background issue is the brutality of the repression inflicted by King Phillip II -- at the time the most powerful man on the planet, and indeed the very ruler who sent the Duke of Alba to Flanders to "pacify" the place, by whatever means necessary. It's occured to me that, while we've dipped into Don Carlos a number of times, we've never addressed the dramatization of this issue, in particular in the form of three scenes: the one in which the Marquis of Posa, newly returned to Spain from Flanders, takes advantage of his access to the king and lays out the death being inflicted by Spanish military might, hoping to sway his thinking; then the grand auto-da-fé scene in which, amid great pomp and celebration, a group of heretics is burned (yippee!); and then the confrontation between King Phillip and the blind old Grand Inquisitor, who makes clear who's in charge.

I think we really need to take a closer look at these scenes, and in particular that first scene, in which Phillip makes clear that as far as he's concerned it's only with massive shedding of blood that he can bring "peace" to Flanders. It's a scene that for many of us was practically an anthem during the Vietnam conflict, when it seemed that President Johnson was trying to bring just such a "peace" to that tormented country.

For tonight I though we would listen just to this tiny chunk: the king's smug defense of his policy of mayhem and death for the obstreperous Flemish Protestants, and Posa's horrified response. Then maybe next weekend we can listen in greater length and breadth.

VERDI: Don Carlos: Act II, Scene 2, from the Phillip-Posa scene, King Phillip, "Volgi un guardo alle Spagne" ("Cast a glance at Spain")
KING PHILLIP: Cast a glance at Spain.
The artisan in the city,
the peasant in the countryside,
faithful to God and to the king
has no complaint.
This same peace I am giving
to my Flanders.
MARQUIS OF POSA: Horrendous, horrendous peace!
It's the peace of the sepulcher!
O King, don't ever let history say of you:
He was Nero!
Jerome Hines (bs), King Phillip II; Robert Merrill (b), Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. Live performance, Apr. 4, 1959

NOSTALGIC POSTSCRIPT: In the scramble to get this post ready, it didn't occur to me to mention that Jerome Hines was the Phillip and Robert Merrill the Posa of my first Don Carlos, a few years later than this.

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At 7:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as we're talking about opera and Catholicism in the same post, I have to wonder how many Catholics know that their church's medieval policy of banning women from the stage, a policy that lasted well beyond the renaissance, led not only to the use of castrati on the opera stage -- a practice that outlasted the ban on females on stage -- but that the use of castrati also was widespread in church music at one time?

Talk about child abuse!

At 10:07 PM, Anonymous me said...

I'm glad at least one person liked my post.

It's funny though - I can see a potential future in which religion might possibly become our only defense against a corporatized, computerized, profit-driven society.

For that matter, 1000+ years ago, religion might have been the only means of tempering the blood lust of tyrants, some of whom make Hitler look like a choir boy in comparison.

If we want a decent society to live in, we have to say that individuals have an intrinsic worth, and it's hard to do that with only balance-sheet calculations. Religion just might be the only thing that claims some sort of importance for the individual person, especially when a large fraction of the population is, uh, unsophisticated.

At the same time, it is abundantly clear that in our own time, religious kooks are causing tremendous damage. And it seems to get worse all the time. Those people scare me.

So overall, it's not a simple problem. "Banishing" religion, even if it could be done, is likely to cause more problems than it solves. (It has been tried more than once, and the results have been less than satisfactory.)

I think that once civilization really takes hold in human society - a development that is far in the future - religion will disappear on its own.

Like I said, I'm a reasonable person, or at least I try to be. I postulate that intelligent life has value, that order is better than chaos, that pleasure is better than pain, that life is better than death. Does that make me religious?

I'll end with a quote from another well-respected American, Abe Lincoln: "When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion."


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