Monthly Archives: June 2018

immigration policy, Walt Whitman, and Donald Trump’s wall; or, the Berlin Wall redux

 

 

 

“Immigrants are some of the most courageous and industrious people humanity has to offer.”

— Chardo Richardson, House of Representatives candidate in Florida

 

“[W]hen New York was being abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s, a flood tide of immigrants reached the city. They helped to save it, to expand it by more than 1.5 million people, and to make it into one of the country’s most powerful economic engines. …

More than 3.2 million people born in other countries live in New York, and nearly half the labor force is immigrants. … Immigrants are no more an existential threat to New York than bicycle paths.”

— “Immigrants Are Not the Enemy, They Are Us,” by Jim Dwyer, The New York Times, November 2, 2017

 

“ICE operates through the tactics of fear, violence and intimidation, with questionable legality, and tears families apart. We applaud the growing number of progressives who are calling for an end to this terror.”

— Stephanie Taylor, founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee

 

 

And once again the scene was changed,
New earth there seemed to be.
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea.
The light of God was on its streets,
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter,
And no one was denied.

 

— “The Holy City,” music by Stephen Adams; words by Frederick E. Weatherly

 

 

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For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives. …

Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country. We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.

The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as President of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities. … My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too. …

Here are the four pillars of our plan: … The second pillar fully secures the border. That means building a wall on the Southern border, and it means hiring more heroes … to keep our communities safe. Crucially, our plan closes the terrible loopholes exploited by criminals and terrorists to enter our country — and it finally ends the dangerous practice of “catch and release.”

— Donald Trump, State of the Union Address, January 30, 2018

 

 

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In response to:

“Supreme Court Tie Blocks Obama Immigration Plan,” The New York Times, June 23, 2016

 

 

I offer the following brief comments of my own as well as pertinent quotations from Walt Whitman and about him.

The controversy over immigration has been going on for a long time.

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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In response to great waves of immigration that occurred between 1880 and 1920, the so-called Brahmins had become ever more insistent about a particular perspective on American culture, asserting that the real, pure, or true Americans were Anglo-Saxons. The great migrations coincided with the founding of such groups as the Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. The migrations also coincided with the efforts of publishers who commissioned numerous professors (almost all from New England) to write literary histories for high school and college use with the hope of unifying the heterogeneous American people under the “aegis of New England” by fashioning a national history anchored in that region. Nina Baym has noted that “conservative New England leaders knew all too well that the nation was an artifice and that no single national character undergirded it. And they insisted passionately . . . [on] instilling in all citizens those traits that they thought necessary for the future: self-reliance, self-control, and acceptance of hierarchy.

[Walt] Whitman, less radical in the 1850s in the face of the slavery crisis than many Boston intellectuals, had become by the 1880s increasingly associated with the teeming masses, the immigrants, the downtrodden of all types. Meanwhile some of the same Boston intellectuals who had led the charge for the emancipation of blacks had come to be associated with propriety, exclusiveness, and backsliding on racial issues. [It seems my New England ancestors had such prejudices.]

 

— Kenneth M. Price, To Walt Whitman, America

 

 

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It is a shame that what I consider to be enlightened attitudes do not prevail today. We do not seem to have reached, or advanced beyond, the point reached by Whitman in the evolution of his views.

Whitman, who got his start as a journalist, editorialized against all immigration restriction, insisting that America must embrace immigrants of all backgrounds.

 

Roger W. Smith, June 2016

 

 

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The following are excerpts from Whitman’s poems and from remarks of Whitman that were recorded by his “Boswell,” Horace Traubel.

 

 

the perpetual coming of immigrants … the free commerce … the fluid movement of the population

— Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

 

 

‘’See, in my poems immigrants continually coming and landing,

— Walt Whitman, “Starting From Paumanok”; Leaves of Grass

 

 

The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred;
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants
just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off–just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

— Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”; Leaves of Grass

 

 

[Thomas B.] Harned broached the subject of the restriction of immigration, and happening to say, “most people believe in it—it’s very unpopular now-a-days not to believe in it,” W[hitman]. exclaimed contemptuously: “All, did you say, Tom—or almost all? Well, here’s one who spits it all out, contract labor, pauper labor, or anything else, notwithstanding.” Harned said: “I did not say I believe in restriction—I said most people do.” W. went on vehemently: “Well for you, Tom, that you do not say it. I have no fears of America—not the slightest. America is for one thing only–and if not for that for what? America must welcome all—Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not—all, all, without exceptions: become an asylum for all who choose to come. We may have drifted away from this principle temporarily but time will bring us back. The tide may rise and rise again and still again and again after that, but at last there is an ebb–the low water comes at last. Think of it—think of it: how little of the land of the United States is cultivated–how much of it is still utterly untilled. When you go West you sometimes travel whole days at lightning speed across vast spaces where not an acre is plowed, not a tree is touched, not a sign of a house is anywhere detected. America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people–the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers. Dare we deny them a home—close the doors in their face–take possession of all and fence it in and then sit down satisfied with our system—convinced that we have solved our problem? I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure—such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be.” W. spoke with the greatest energy. It is a subject that always warms him up. “You see,” he said finally, “that the immigrant, too, like the writer, comes up against the canons, and has to last them out.”

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. II, pg. 34 (entry for Tuesday, July 24, 1888)

 

 

[Whitman] said: “I believe in the higher patriotism—not, my country whether or no, God bless it and damn the rest!—no, not that—but my country, to be kept big, to grow bigger, to lead the procession, not in conquest, however, but in inspiration. If the procession, not in conquest, however, but in inspiration.

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. II, pg. 94 (entry for Sunday, August 5, 1888)

 

 

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For what it’s worth, I am thoroughly in agreement with Whitman.

We Americans, all of us, are the descendants of immigrants. They have brought so much in terms of cultural richness, ingenuity, initiative, and plain hard work to this nation. THEY are who and what make this country great.

I am completely opposed to Donald Trump’s Know Nothing stance. He wants to set us back a century in terms of attitudes towards immigrants. He wants to build a wall at the Mexican border! It’s the Berlin Wall redux.

Note — it’s ironic, is it not? — what Walt Whitman said emphatically (as quoted above) 128 years ago, when similar sentiments were being propagated: “Dare we … close the doors in their [immigrants’] face –take possession of all and fence it in [italics added]?”

In Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made the famous speech in which he said: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The demolition of the wall began three years later.

Now Trump wants to build one of his own.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2016; updated June 2018

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I recently came across a brief but very persuasive — and I feel important — article in The Wall Street Journal:

 

“Immigration Is Practically a Free Lunch for America; Tax cuts are well and good, but the surest way to spur economic growth is to let in more people.”

By Neel Kashkari

The Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2018

As Congress and the Trump administration debate immigration reforms with important legal and social implications, they must not lose sight of an overarching truth: Robust immigration levels are vital to growing the American economy.

Legislators of both parties, policy makers and families all want faster economic growth because it produces more resources to fund national priorities and raise living standards. But growth since the end of the Great Recession has been frustratingly slow, averaging only 2.2% net of inflation, down from 3.6% on average from 1960 to 2000.

Republicans hope the new tax cuts will lead the economy to grow faster. But while stimulus plans can indeed produce growth at least temporarily, they usually do so by increasing the deficit. Can’t policy makers achieve faster growth without further ballooning our national debt? Yes–and increasing immigration levels is the most reliable way to do so.

Long-term economic growth comes from two sources: productivity growth and population growth. Productivity growth means the same number of workers are able to produce more goods and services. Increased productivity comes from better education (equipping workers with better skills) and technology development (giving workers more sophisticated tools). Productivity growth has been very low during this recovery, averaging only 1.1% per year, down from 2.1% from 1960 to 2000.

We can’t predict whether productivity growth is going to return to prior levels on its own. Congress could decide to spend more on education or basic research to boost productivity, but it takes years for such investments to translate into a more productive economy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth making, but the payoffs are highly uncertain.

Population growth drives economic growth because a larger population means more workers to produce things and more consumers to buy things. But as is true in most other advanced economies, Americans are having fewer children. The U.S. working-age population has stagnated over the past decade.

Using public policy to increase the nation’s fertility rate is not easy. Congress could try to create economic incentives for families to have more children by offering tax credits and free child care, but both would be expensive and take years to move the needle on population growth. The surest way to increase the working-age population is through immigration.

 

The article demonstrates conclusively — in a few words — what I have always felt intuitively: that immigration is not only good policy from a social/cultural, sociological, and humanitarian point of view — or what have you — but that it also makes sense economically. It is desirable both morally, so to speak and practically. I can feel this in my own bustling city.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

 

 

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See also:

 

“President Trump, How Is This Man a Danger?”

Op-Ed

By Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times

February 10, 2018

 

 

 

“Up Against the Wall” (editorial)

The New York Times

April 8, 2017

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/08/opinion/up-against-the-wall.html

A very penetrating analysis of what’s wrong with Trump’s proposal to build a wall at our Southern border.

 

 

“Queens man, a father of two, facing deportation to China after arrest at immigration interview”

By Erin Durkin

New York Daily News

June 15, 2018

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/ny-pol-deport-immigrant-ice-20180614-story.html

 

 

 

Plus:

 

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/scotus-immigration-ruling-puts-millions-deportation-limbo-article-1.2685908

 

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/06/24/us/immigration-obama-supreme-court.html

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/06/24/how-the-supreme-courts-deadlock-will-change-immigration-politics/

the head versus the heart

 

 

Here’s a simple post. And a simple thought.

A friend left me a voice mail yesterday. He asked me if I would like to go to the Bronx Zoo with him sometime in the near future and said to ask my wife if she would like to go too.

I mulled it over last night, mentioned it to my wife. She said she had no interest in going.

I thought to myself, I don’t want to go either. I went to the Bronx Zoo once with my wife and sons a long time ago. Nothing special, didn’t do it for me.

I got up this morning and thought about it again. My friend was reaching out to me. The invitation is something he thought we would enjoy doing together. He is looking for company.

What harm could it do for me to go? I thought. It would be an outing for me and a diversion. I would make HIM happy.

I called him up and said I would be glad to.

My head told me not to go: that I had no interest in it, and, besides, I’m busy. (But, am I really too busy? What am I doing that’s so important anyway?)

My heart, my human instincts, told me: say yes to the invitation.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 29, 2018

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

 

I received an email from a relative last week. It was, on the surface at least, well meaning, but it could also be construed as condescending.

Re your email expressing outrage with Trump and incarcerated kids, at least he caved (although harm already done can’t be undone).

Without crawling under a rock, I try to avoid at least some of this aggravation. …

No doubt your frequent visits to Carnegie Hall and related forays into classical music (not to mention long walks) are therapeutic. You, like me, might try to avoid or at least minimize all the stuff that aggravates.

 

 

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I replied to my relative as follows.

I am mostly apolitical and have tried over the past couple of years not to be consumed with hatred of Trump.

The news about the incarceration of immigrant kids has really gotten to me, however. I can’t bear to contemplate it.

Also, immigration has long been an issue I have cared about and blogged about.

I won’t change.

You are right that “harm already done can’t be undone.” I read that the administration has said nothing about the children who have already been separated from their parents and that no steps are underway to reunite them.

I feel that this is an egregious violation of human rights that will not be forgotten and can’t be remedied, it seems. I mean the whole anti-immigrant policy, the characterization and treatment of immigrants as vermin, and worst of all, the separation of parents and children.

 

 

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Some people profess hatred and scorn for Donald Trump and his supporters, the “deplorables.” They are in the liberal vanguard and can be counted upon to support left of center politicians. When those politicians support policies merely for political expediency — such as Hillary Clinton (one of their favorites, arch enemy of the “deplorables”) voting for the Iraq War — they look the other way. Doctrinaire liberalism and political orthodoxy trump independent thinking, which might, they fear, make them appear ideologically “incorrect” and cause them to lose friends or to be looked down upon by them.

These people want nothing to do with the “deplorables” and isolate themselves in mostly white, upper middle class neighborhoods where they won’t have to rub elbows with the proletariat (George Orwell’s proles).

 

 

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When an outrage is seen such as the Trump administration’s hard line policies towards immigrants — PEOPLE like you and I (and we are descended, like all Americans, from immigrants) — Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson (a conservative) calls it, with dead on accuracy, “state-sponsored cruelty” — my relatives and their liberal friends are strangely silent.

They hate Donald Trump and Trump apologists such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway. They march in parades where placards with a crude caricature of Trump reading “The only asshole is in the White House” are held aloft.

Trump to them represents the antithesis of their enlightened beliefs and values. They are eager to make the distinction manifest — that they are exemplars of values that distinguish the “best people” from ignorant and unrefined people.

But concern for actual people, especially sweaty aliens from the impoverished lower classes arriving in rafts and/or on foot at the Texas border, does not engage their sympathies or excite their imagination. And, while religion may be given lip service, an impassioned appeal to fundamental Christian tenets such as charity also does not move them; it may more often than not be an embarrassment to them and perhaps remind my auditors (heaven forbid) of the religious right.

Hence the advice to me from a relative to not get too worked up over the separation of immigrant children from their parents.

What such people care about is being on the “correct” side of political debates. They are essentially cold-blooded conformists to liberal ideology. Card carrying liberals who can be counted upon for support of ordained policies and positions.

They don’t care all that much about living, breathing, suffering people. The plight of lower class immigrants does not engage them emotionally. Of course, they do care about the welfare of their own families (and the maintenance of their own public institutions and communities), but that’s another matter. As long as they are safe in their suburban enclaves, they are not going to lose that much sleep over a few thousand “losers” and their children locked up in cages.

Caring deeply about man’s inhumanity to certain groups and persons can actually embarrass them. They would prefer that their relatives don’t call attention to themselves by expressing moral outrage, without checking with them first.

A historical parallel comes to mind. Many people felt at the time that abolitionists in their strident denunciations of slavery and insistence on immediate abolition were fanatics who should have restrained themselves. The parallel may not be exact in the present instance, but why am I being advised to “get a grip” on myself and exercise “restraint” when it comes to my distress and anger, indeed horror, over the consequences of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies? This from Trump haters. Haters, but I question the depth and sincerity of their compassion.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  June 2018

Carl Nielsen, “Der er et yndigt land” (A fair and lovely land)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted here are two versions of the anthem “Der er et yndigt land” (A fair and lovely land) by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. The text is by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger.

As noted in a Wikipedia entry:

“Der er et yndigt land,” commonly translated into English as “There is a lovely country,” is one of the national anthems of Denmark.

The lyrics were written in 1819 by Adam Oehlenschläger and bore the motto in Latin: Ille terrarum mihi praeter omnes angulus ridet (Horace: “This corner of the earth smiles for me more than any other”). The music was composed in 1835 by Hans Ernst Krøyer. Later, Thomas Laub and Carl Nielsen each composed alternative melodies, but neither of them has gained widespread adoption, and today they are mostly unknown to the general population.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_er_et_yndigt_land

The first version posted above is for soloist (baritone) and piano. The second version is for a mixed choir.

 

 

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Der er et yndigt land

 

Der er et yndigt land,
det står med brede bøge
nær salten østerstrand
Det bugter sig i bakke, dal,
det hedder gamle Danmark
og det var Frejas sal.

Der sad i fordums tid
de harniskklædte kæmper,
udhvilede fra strid
Så drog de frem til fjenders mén,
nu hvile deres bene
bag højens bautasten.

Det land endnu er skønt,
ti blå sig søen bælter,
og løvet står så grønt
Og ædle kvinder, skønne mø’r
og mænd og raske svende
bebo de danskes øer

Hil drot og fædreland!
Hil hver en danneborger,
som virker, hvad han kan!
Vort gamle Danmark skal bestå,
så længe bøgen spejler
sin top i bølgen blå

 

There is a lovely land

There is a lovely land
With staunch and tow’ring beechwood
Beside the Baltic strand;
The rolling hill and dale enthrall,
Is known as good old Denmark,
And this is Freya’s hall.

‘Twas here in days of yore,

The armoured heroes gathered
To rest from mortal war;
Then onward marched to strike the foe, They linger on in peace now,
The barrow mounds below.

This land is beauteous still,
By azure sea encircled,
So green the wood and hill;
And noble women, pretty maids
And fearless men inhabit
These isles and verdant glades.

Hail king and fatherland!
Hail every Danish burgher
Who works with eager hand!
So long the azure waters pure
Reflect the tow’ring beechwood
Old Denmark shall endure.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

parental love

 

 

Re the horrendous crime of separating the children of immigrants from their parents. (And it is a crime for which there are no moral or legal reasons, no justification, and no excuses. As the Archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, put it: “To steal children from their parents is a grave sin, immoral and evil.”)

I can’t help thinking about what parents must feel.

Becoming a parent is one of those human experiences that is the most important in a lifetime. That’s a clumsy way to put it, and it’s an understatement. But what else ranks with it? Birth? Death?

Shortly before my first child was born, my therapist asked me, “Do you feel ready to become a parent?”

I answered that I thought I was. “I’m as ready as I ever will be,” I said.

A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, and his wife, a clinical psychologist, had just had their first child. “Your life and your marriage will never be the same,” they told me. “Everything is different. You will never again have as much time for yourself or your spouse.”

A few days before our first child was born, my therapist said to me, in an admonitory fashion, “Do you realize that this new child will be a totally helpless creature? Totally dependent upon you for everything.”

I hadn’t really thought about it.

 

 

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When our son was born, I was a new person. The love was overwhelming and instantaneous. I was not the same person I had been the day before. I was a father. I was thrilled and terribly proud. But the outpouring of love I felt for our son was overwhelming. It was an emotion I had never experienced before. How could I have?

 

 

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A little while later, I had a conversation with a coworker of mine at The Wyatt Company. She was an attractive, personable woman.

She had just had her first child, a daughter. We were comparing notes about how it felt to be a first-time parent.

“You know,” I told her, “I never realized how powerful the emotion was and how immediate and total the feeling of parental love is. I thought that it was something that would develop or grow over time. Not that one wouldn’t be thrilled and proud to become a parent, but as you got to know the child your love would grow. I would sometimes hear stories about people losing a child in infancy or read about infant deaths in literature. I would always think it must have been hard, but at least the child was just an infant, so perhaps the parents didn’t know the child that well — perhaps it would make it easier to bear that.”

We both could see — and agree — that that was not at all the case. One’s love for a child is as strong and intense at the movement of birth as later, meaning at any stage of the child’s life. And, losing a child is the worst thing of all types of tragedies a parent can contemplate.

Not just losing, but having a child torn away from them without being told or knowing where they have been taken. Not being able to find them, or knowing if or when they will see their child again.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

Alan Hovhaness, “Ave Maria”; governmental cruelty (including state sanctioned child abuse) beyond belief

 

 

 

 

 

I am reposting here a cantata, “Ave Maria” (1955), by the composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000).

This short piece combines beauty with pathos. I felt this morning that the music would console me. I wanted to listen to something, but knew I would find most music jarring.

 

 

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I know I am not alone in my feelings about the treatment of migrant families and migrant children. I almost can’t bear it.

Even though, of course, I am not a victim.

A couple of things from my own personal experience help to give me some understanding of how traumatic it must be for those children:

I recall once at a young age (but it could not have been too young), I spent a night at my paternal grandparents’ house. They lived in the next town. I had been left to stay over for the night. I missed my parents, got very upset, and began to cry. My grandmother couldn’t console me. She tried very hard; she was a very nice woman. And, yet, I couldn’t accept or deal with being separated from my parents.

My wife and I dropped our first-born son off at his aunt and uncle’s house on a Saturday evening when he was about six months old. It was the first time he had ever been left in someone else’s care. They lived about an hour away from us. It was not an overnight. It was just for a few hours while we attended some event. He had a frozen look on his face and looked not only emotionally distraught, but like he could not comprehend what was occurring and was so traumatized he was unable to express any emotion. He was mute and his facial muscles were constricted. He had already met his aunt and uncle, fairly often, in pleasant circumstances.

 

 

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The trauma associated with these instances is nothing compared to what the children taken away from their parents by Border Patrol agents are undergoing.

Read:

“ ‘No One Is Going to Separate Us Again’: Guatemalan Mother Reunites With Son,” The New York Times, June 23, 2018

 

 

This mother got her child back. But can you imagine the emotional harm he has experienced? If I remember vividly being emotionally distraught when I was left for one evening with my kindly grandmother (when I was around same age as the Guatemalan boy whose separation is the subject of this story), can you imagine the psychological harm done (as I have already said) and how he will never be able to overcome, forget, or bury it?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 23, 2018

 

 

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See also my post:

 

“Alan Hovhaness, choral works (Ave Maria, Christmas Ode, Easter Cantata)”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/24/alan-hovhaness-choral-works-ave-maria-christmas-ode-easter-cantata/

Beethoven; nature

 

I was listening to the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale) conducted by Simon Rattle:

 

 

“Hirtengesänge – Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm).

Great rendition.

It made me think of music celebrating the countryside. Earlier writers and composers knew it, knew nature, in a way we no longer do.

Springtime.

 

 

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Beethoven was a student of Haydn’s and was influenced by him. Below is a movement from the first part (Spring) of Haydn’s oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).

 

 

 

Nr. 2 – Chor des Landvolks

 

LANDVOLK

Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe, komm!
Aus ihrem Todesschlaf
Erwecke die Natur!

WEIBER UND MÄDCHEN

Er nahet sich, der holde Lenz;
Schon fühlen wir den linden Hauch, Bald lebet alles wieder auf.

MÄNNER

Frohlocket ja nicht allzufrüh!
Oft schleicht, in Nebel eingehüllt,
Der Winter wohl zurück und streut Auf Blüt’ und Keim sein starres Gift.

ALLE

Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe komm!
Auf unsere Fluren senke dich, Komm, holder Lenz, o komm!
Und weile länger nicht!

 

2. Chorus

Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
Out of her wintry grave bid drowsy nature rise.
At last the pleasing Spring is near; the softening air is full of balm.
A boundless song bursts from the groves.
As yet the year is unconfirmed, and Winter oft at eve resumes the breeze,
and bids his driving sleets deform the day and chill the morn.
Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
and smiling on our plains descend, while music wakes around.

 

On January 24 of this year, I saw a performance of Die Jahreszeiten by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Wesler-Möst, at Carnegie Hall. It was an incredible experience for me and a revelation to see the work performed live, with me holding the libretto in my hands and following the words.

 

 

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book cover - Thomson, 'The Seasons'.jpg

 

 

The libretto is based on a long poem by the English poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748): The Seasons. With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution. Haydn captured this brilliantly. The libretto of Haydn’s oratorio was written by Gottfried van Swieten, who adapted Thomson’s poem for the oratorio. (van Swieten was closely associated with Mozart. He introduced both Mozart and Haydn to Handel.)

 

COME, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness, come;
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veiled in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend. …

And see where surly Winter passes off
Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts:
His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill,
The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale;
While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch,
Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost,
The mountains lift their green heads to the sky. …

White through the neighbouring fields the sower stalks
With measured step, and liberal throws the grain
Into the faithful bosom of the ground:
The harrow follows harsh, and shuts the scene.

— James Thomson, The Seasons, “Spring”

 

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A few days after the concert, I wrote in an email to a relative of mine:

In “The Creation,” you feel you are experiencing nature and the countryside as people did in 1800. You’re right there: a farmer plowing a field, dawn, a loaded cart with produce from the harvest, lovers under a tree (and the male throwing a chestnut when climbing it at the unsuspecting girl he admires as a joke), a thunderstorm, a hunt for hares, etc. Haydn is totally unpretentious, he can be funny, and the music perfectly fits the text.

Haydn is the consummate composer. He never overreaches. The music is unpretentious, yet he is a master of form.

The program notes for the performance note: “fresh feeling of innovation” … “[we] are never overpowered by the orchestrations” … “balances expression with refinement.” All of this is very true.

 

 

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page from score of Haydn's 'The Seasons'.jpg

 

 

Here is a page from Haydn’s score for the appropriate part of Die Jahreszeiten. The score, which I purchased in book form after the concert, is 309 pages long. It kind of shows graphically — for the uninitiated such as myself — what effort must be involved in composing a musical work of this magnitude.

 

 

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And, while we are talking about nature (as experienced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the following is a favorite Keats poem of mine. It came alive for me when I heard it out loud. I wish I could find a good recording to share.

 

 

To Autumn

By John Keats

 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum:

 

 

 

 

I found a great recorded reading of Keats’s poem “To Autumn.” The reading is by Frederick Davidson. I know of no better audiobook reader.

The reading is on a CD and I can’t post it individually. The CD track is about ten minutes long. The poem “To Autumn” starts at a point 3:42 minutes into the track.