Thursday, May 31, 2012

War Requiem.

A post on Gavin Plumley's blog Entartete Musik and a CD review posted recently on the NPR website both reminded me that yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. A truly monumental work, the War Requiem was written for the consecration of Coventry's new Anglican cathedral, which was built to replace a medieval structure destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz. In an attempt to convey the horror and pointlessness of armed conflict, Britten creatively blended the traditional Latin requiem texts with verses from the English war poet Wilfred Owen; while a large chorus and soprano soloist give voice to the universal expression of mourning contained in the propers of the Requiem Mass, a tenor and a baritone representing soldiers on opposing sides use Owen's words to personalize the experience of combat. Some may doubt how well the whole thing hangs together, but the best passages of the War Requiem carry an emotional weight that can move even the most critical of listeners (with notable exceptions, of course, including Igor Stravinsky).

The War Requiem was written for a very particular time and place, making it - in Britten's own words - "a work for an occasion." Fifty years after its first performance, the War Requiem very much remains an 'occasional' piece, one that is hard to really appreciate without considering the context in which it was written - a context that is not limited to the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, but also embraces the larger cultural legacy of the First and Second World Wars as well as the concerns and fears of the Cold War. On another level, contemporary performances of the War Requiem can take on an 'occasional' aura for the simple reason that the choral and orchestral demands of the piece keep it from being performed often enough to become really familiar to audiences.

Having attended two performances of the War Requiem, I've found that the work elicits a stronger personal reaction when experienced as a live event than it does when heard in recorded form. The first time I heard the War Requiem live was in December 2010 at Carnegie Hall, with Seiji Ozawa conducting his own Saito Kinen Orchestra and three Japanese choirs with two Americans (Christine Goerke and Anthony Dean Griffey) and one German (Matthias Goerne) as soloists. The concert marked Ozawa's return to the podium after a year-long battle with cancer, during which the frail maestro apparently sought to conserve his diminished energies for this particular event: in an interview at the time, Ozawa said that he spent his convalescence studying the score of the War Requiem to prepare for the Carnegie Hall concert. On that winter night, Ozawa and the musicians before him turned in a deeply felt and unforgettable performance, offering a reverential reading of the War Requiem that honored Britten's intention of warning audiences about "the pity of War."

My second live experience of the War Requiem didn't move me as much as the first, but it still stands out in my concert-going memory. The performers at this October 2011 concert at Avery Fisher Hall were top-notch: the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the American Boychoir handled the orchestral and choral elements of the piece, with Sabina Cvilak, Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside as vocal soloists and Gianandrea Noseda on the podium. While Ozawa seemed to emphasize the ritual solemnity of the War Requiem, Noseda and his forces brought out the dramatic contrasts in the score and Britten's chosen texts; this was an edge-of-the-seat performance that might have seemed out of place in the sacred setting where the work was first performed. If there was anything really 'occasional' about this performance, I suppose it was the fact that the London Symphony Orchestra had chosen to program the War Requiem in a season that ends fifty years after its participation in the first studio recording of the work. As it happens, the LSO has just released a new recording of the War Requiem featuring most of the performers that I heard in New York in October; I just ordered a copy of this recording, and I look forward to hearing it when I return to Philly in a few weeks.

The Manresa program mentioned in my last post continues apace, so readers who have been praying for or reflecting mindfully on those of us here are asked to keep it up. This won't be my last post before I move to the next stop on my summer itinerary, so stay tuned. AMDG.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Special greetings to readers who celebrate Pentecost today - and anticipatory good wishes to those who will celebrate the same feast a week from today. Last year, I marked Pentecost with a post featuring Gustav Mahler's setting of the festal hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. In a similar vein, this year I'm pleased to share the Pentecost sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus. Many settings of this sequence exist, but I've decided to go with the Gregorian version sung here by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, because - as I also wrote once regarding the Dies Irae - there are some days when only Gregorian chant will do. For the Latin text, an English translation, and some notes on this great piece of liturgical poetry, consult Wikipedia.

Though the academic year has ended, the last few days have been active ones for me: since Thursday, I've been at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House near Detroit for a two-week practicum meant to help me and several other young Jesuits hone our skills as directors of the Spiritual Exercises. If you're so inclined, please pray for me, the other scholastics taking part in the practicum, and the retreatants we will be directing as part of the program. May the same Holy Spirit whose descent we celebrate today guide us all in the days to come. AMDG.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A future novice in the news.

Over the weekend, the Boston Globe ran a glowing profile of Dan Kennedy, a newly-minted graduate of Boston College who intends to enter the Jesuit novitiate this August. Here's the lede:
Dan Kennedy will graduate from Boston College on Monday, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and the recipient of the school’s most prestigious prize, the Edward H. Finnegan Award.

Winners of the Finnegan, given to the student who best exemplifies the BC motto, "ever to excel," tend to go big - top grad schools, Wall Street, overseas fellowships. Kennedy is planning to give away his computer, recycle his Blackberry, and move to a modest communal house in St. Paul, Minn.

He will get $75 a month for incidentals. He will have no romantic relationships. He will go where his superiors ask him to go, and do what they ask him to do. If all goes well, Kennedy - "Dan-o" to his friends - can hope to be ordained a Jesuit priest in 2023.

Entering a religious order straight out of college is rare these days, particularly for a standout student at an elite school. One or two graduating BC seniors enter seminary each year, but never in recent memory has a Finnegan winner done so.
To read the rest, click here. While positive and upbeat, the Globe article still betrays some typical journalistic prejudices: for example, I cringed at reporter Lisa Wangsness' statement that Kennedy's choice is rare "particularly for a standout student at an elite school," which seems to imply that smart and successful people are somehow less likely to enter religious life. The article also relies on some trite and not entirely accurate assumptions about Jesuits, stating that we "eschew monastic life, dress in street clothes, and work in the world, especially in higher education." No, we aren't monks, but we don't "eschew monastic life" - we simply follow a different charism. We don't always wear street clothes - in fact, what we wear varies a lot. We are perhaps best known in this country for our educational tradition, but it's not quite accurate to say that we work "especially" in higher education: we work in many different areas, and no one apostolate really dominates.

Perhaps I'm being too critical of a well-intentioned article, but there are times when I feel the need to question and even correct popular (mis)perceptions of the Society of Jesus. To take on just one more such (mis)perception, I'll note that many other religious orders "work in the world" - including monastic orders like the Benedictines, who run many parishes and schools and have done so for centuries. Over time I've become increasingly skeptical of the assertion that "work[ing] in the world" is a distinctive Jesuit trait - but perhaps that's an argument for another post.

In any event, it is heartening to see the Globe offer a positive article on religious vocations, and I am happy that the article focuses on a future Jesuit novice. I'm also happy to note that Kennedy, a Toledo native, will be joining my own province:
[Kennedy] established contact while in high school with the Jesuits in the Chicago-Detroit Province, which covers five Midwestern states, including Ohio. He kept in regular touch with the Rev. Patrick A. Fairbanks, the provincial assistant [for] vocations, during his junior year of college. By the time Fairbanks invited him to apply in his senior year, he had developed "a collecting consciousness within myself that this is it."

Last month, after an extensive application process, Fairbanks called with good news. Kennedy, ecstatic, sent out a text to several dozen friends: "N S J," the letters he can now [sic! - not now, but come August], as a novice in the Society of Jesus, put after his name.
My prayers and good wishes today are for Dan Kennedy and all others who are preparing to enter the novitiates of the Society of Jesus this year. If you are so inclined, I hope you will join me in praying for the novices-to-be, for their intentions, and for vocations to the Society and to religious life in all its forms. AMDG.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wandrer, du müder, du bist zu Haus.

Widely recognized as one of the greatest singers of the last century, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died today at the age of 86. I regret that I never got to hear Fischer-Dieskau perform live - he stopped giving public concerts in 1992, when I was twelve - but over the years I've come to respect and appreciate his artistry by listening to some of his many recordings. Fischer-Dieskau's voice has been heard on this blog once before, singing Gustav Mahler's setting of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" in a late-career performance in Berlin. To honor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the day of his passing, here he is singing "Des Baches Wiegenlied" from Franz Schubert's song cycle Die schöne Müllerin in a 1951 performance also featuring pianist Gerald Moore. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau may be gone, but he will not be soon forgotten. Requiescat in pace. AMDG.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Auden on liturgy.

This is not the post that I planned for today's Feast of the Ascension, but I couldn't help but share this letter by the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, which I read for the first time this afternoon thanks to a friend who posted it on Facebook. Born into a staunchly Anglo-Catholic family, Auden drifted into youthful agnosticism before firmly recommitting himself to Christianity in his mid-thirties. Though Auden remained a faithful member of the Episcopal Church for the final three decades of his life, this letter to the priest-in-charge of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery makes it clear that the poet was less than thrilled with moves to replace the Cranmerian cadences of the Book of Common Prayer with a more 'modern' liturgy:
77 St Mark's Place

New York City 3

Nov. 26th [year not given]

Dear Father Allen:

Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new 'liturgy' is appalling.

Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what 'the quick and the dead' means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with 'the undemocratic' is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.

And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.

With best wishes


W.H. Auden
I have admired Auden's gift for language for a long time - his "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" happens to be my favorite poem - but I didn't know that the poet was such a brilliant polemicist until I read this letter. Marvelous invective aside - "I implore you by the bowels of Christ" - Auden really does make some excellent and still salient points. The strange tendency to "identify the ceremonious with 'the undemocratic'" sadly remains in some quarters, as does the bias in favor of linguistic simplification which Auden so archly rebuts by reminding us that "any child of six can be told what 'the quick and the dead' means" (as I've noted before, the same goes for words like 'consubstantial'). On this, one of the Church's great feast days, it is also good to be reminded that "one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead." AMDG.

Monday, May 14, 2012


This past Saturday, Saint Joseph's University held its annual commencement exercises, the 161st in the University's history and the last that I will attend as a Jesuit regent. Commencement is one of the very few events in the year that offer me the opportunity to wear the academic robes that I received when I was awarded the degree of Juris Doctor at the University of Notre Dame. Here I am modeling said robes in my office, just before reporting for the start of the day's ceremonies.

Having formed the two lines of the academic procession, SJU faculty wait to begin the march to the graduation tent. From left to right in the center of this photo, one can see longtime Professor of English Father Joseph Feeney, S.J. and my Philosophy Department colleagues Sister Elizabeth Linehan, R.S.M. and Father Joseph Godfrey, S.J.

Before entering the tent, the two lines of faculty pause to allow the graduates to process in first, thereby gaining the opportunity to greet and congratulate former students as thy pass by. Here, the faculty wait as the AFROTC Color Guard approaches bearing the flags of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Here are four of my former students, all looking very happy to graduate and become Saint Joseph's University alumni.

Members of the Class of 2012 process by, mortarboard tassels still set to the right and academic hoods yet to be donned.

The "Golden Hawks," members of the Class of 1962 who are being honored on the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation from what was then still known as Saint Joseph's College.

Our featured commencement speaker, Father James Martin, S.J., author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and numerous other books, chaplain to The Colbert Report, and now an honorary alumnus of Saint Joseph's University.

Graduates of the Haub School of Business process to the dais.

Graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences process across the dais, shaking hands with the President and the Dean as their names are read and then receiving rolled-up scrolls bearing an English translation of the Latin text printed on their diplomas. (Graduates receive their actual diplomas with absolutely no pomp or ceremony, picking them up after Commencement at the Student Service Center on campus.)

Finally, here is a note left on the Jesuit community bulletin board by our most recent honorary degree recipient, who hopefully doesn't mind my posting of it on this blog.

For me, Commencement Day is always bittersweet. The joy of celebrating the graduates' achievements is always mixed with the sad recognition that this particular community - the unique group of students and teachers and others present on a university campus at a given point of time - is being scattered, never to be united in exactly the same way again. As I noted here recently, universities are necessarily transient communities; there is nothing that can or should be done about this - that's just the way life goes.

My prayers and good wishes are with all who are completing university degrees this month, especially here on Hawk Hill. Congratulations, graduates! AMDG.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

For the week of final exams...

As I wade through bluebooks and papers and go about the painstaking task of calculating final grades for all of my students, I'd like to take a moment to again share some old (?) classics offering what passes for 'seasonal cheer' during exam week. First, I invite you to take a look at Tom Wayman's great poem Did I Miss Anything?, which I first shared in this space a couple of years ago. Second, here is something that I first shared around this time last year, the five stages of grading. Third and finally, here is something that I have not shared before, but which often appears in academic mailboxes at this time of year: a classic study by Mike Adams entitled "The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall of American Society." Aided by various mathematical calculations and graphs, Adams puckishly argues that "a student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of the year." Best wishes to all - especially college students and their grandmothers! - during this time of final exams. AMDG.