Monday, April 26, 2010

Did I miss anything?

First off, apologies for my recent silence. As I'm sure some readers have already inferred, I have not been able to attend to this weblog over the past couple of weeks because I've been busy with teaching, writing, grading, and all the other aspects of my work at Saint Joseph's University. This happens to be the last week of the spring semester at SJU, so I expect to get even busier in the coming days: as readers who have taught probably know from their own experience, the end of the semester and the period of final exams can provide faculty with an intense mental and physical workout. Despite the work that awaits in coming days, I hope to post an occasional word here between now and the time that I submit my spring grades to the registrar.

With a grateful nod to Garrison Keillor's practice of reciting a poem each day on The Writer's Almanac, here is a poem for the end of the semester by Tom Wayman, entitled "Did I Miss Anything?":
Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren't here
I hope that you'll forgive my inability to indent "Did I Miss Anything?" as its author intended - you'll be able to see what I tried and failed to do in this regard if you click here. More importantly, though, I hope that you'll agree that the sarcasm of Wayman's poem belies its positive message. I have never been tempted to offer absent students any of the caustic replies presented by Wayman, but I believe that there is something profound about his conclusion about the classroom serving as "a microcosm of human existence / assembled for you to query and examine and ponder."

As another academic year comes to an end, those of us who are involved in education - as teachers and as students - would do well to think about how we approach the academic enterprise. Do we regard teaching and scholarship simply as a way to make a living, or is a vocation that offers a sense of joy and fulfillment? Is learning an end in itself, or is it simply a means to other ends - economic success, prestige, or power? Does the time we spend in the classroom raise questions that remain with us long after we've moved on to other things?

My prayers for all readers who are busy with end-of-semester business, whichever side of the desk you find yourself on. Please spare a prayer for me, too, as things wrap up on Hawk Hill. AMDG.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Shosty's son speaks.

Some regular readers may know that Dmitri Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers. (For more about Shostakovich and me, click here, here and here.) Thanks to Laura Brown, I had the opportunity yesterday to read an illuminating interview with the composer's son Maxim Shostakovich published in Tuesday's edition of the Times of London. Any Shostakovich fans who happen to read this blog would do well to read the interview, which provides an intimate and often surprising view of one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century.

More than simply the son of a famous father, Maxim Shostakovich is a distinguished figure in his own right. Indeed, the contrasting life choices of Shostakovich père and Shostakovich fils may be said to complement one another in striking ways. The son of a profilic composer who never took to conducting, Maxim made his career as a conductor and "never composed a note." Unfairly derided by some as a lackey of the Soviet regime, the elder Shostakovich remained in his native Russia despite a complex and difficult relationship with its rulers; mindful of his father's inner struggles and increasingly wary of Soviet oppression, Maxim would eventually opt for exile and settle in the United States.

In his comments to the Times' Richard Morrison, the younger Shostakovich has some notable and perhaps surprising things to say about the meaning of his father's music. Addressing the enduring controversy surrounding the disputed Shostakovich memoir Testimony, which author Solomon Volkov claimed to have based on extensive interviews with the composer, Maxim Shostakovich criticizes the now-widespread view that many of his father's compositions were meant to offer coded commentary on the repression of the Soviet regime. In truth, Maxim suggests, his father's concerns were much more universal:
"Take the Leningrad Symphony," [Maxim Shostakovich] says, "Though it was written during that terrible siege, I don't think it is about Hitler or Stalin. It looks at the bigger philosophical picture. Like most of my father's 15 symphonies, it is about the endless battle between good and evil."

Similarly, Maxim believes that the Eighth Symphony, portrayed by Volkov as a vicious portrait of Stalin and a lamentation for all the people he killed, had a much more personal meaning. "When my mother died, I remember my father playing a recording of the Eighth Symphony over and over," Maxim says. "People think his music is all about politics. It isn't. It's more about human life in all its shadows, all its problems. War and peace, love and hate. He looked as a human being at the world around him."

And found only bleakness? "I wouldn't say that," Maxim says. "He certainly became sadder as he got older and saw what the world, and his country, had become. But I think his music shows that, ultimately, happiness comes. You know, although he didn't go to church, he believed in God."
To read the rest, click here. For my part, I was heartened by Maxim Shostakovich's rejection of overly reductionistic political readings of his father's music. Though I've been prone to endorse such readings at times, I also readily affirm that Shostakovich's music embraces all of human life. I never would have pegged the famously gloomy Shosty as an optimist, but I suppose that it's possible. I also never pegged him as a theist, so Maxim's statement that his father believed in God came as a real surprise to me. It remains to be seen whether this revelation will impact my approach to Shostakovich's music, but it at least offers food for further thought and reflection. Perhaps the other Shostakovich fans out there will agree. AMDG.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Christos Voskrese!

As has become the custom of this blog, I would like to mark this Feast of the Resurrection by sharing with you the great Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom:

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.