“Europe divided into its kingdoms” was perhaps the first jigsaw puzzle. Certainly jigsaw puzzles began as a tool for teaching geography.
Does anyone arrange music for voices more beautifully than Ralph Vaughan Williams? If you doubt his mastery, take 90 seconds — 90 seconds, that’s all it takes — and listen to “O Taste and See,” the glorious motet RVW wrote to be sung at Holy Communion during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, 2 June 1953. Just that minute-and-a-half is a complete education in vocal arrangement.
RVW has an amazing knack for balancing three musical forces: the lead voice alone; the lead voice supported by a choir; the full power of the choir. Notice how beautifully he weaves together those forces in his utterly simple but also utterly perfect arrangement of “Loch Lomond.” It’s just a faux folk song, but one of the loveliest melodies in the world, and RVW knows better than to over-elaborate his arrangement. I especially admire the way he changes the pattern in the third verse: the first two had been solo-and-then-choir, the third is choir-and-then-solo. The lead tenor at the end does so much to emphasize the grief and longing of the song.
Is it a piece of Victorian sentimentality? Maybe. But Victorian sentimentality doesn’t always go astray. Nothing could be more sentimentally clichéd than the notion of giving my heart to God, and yet when I get to the last stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” —
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
— the tears come. Every time.
Now that I’ve put my blog on hiatus, this newsletter — along, I guess, with my Pinboard page — is my primary way of communicating on a regular basis with the world. However, neither this newsletter nor my Pinboard is about sharing my opinions — which, at least for now, I feel okay about. At the moment I have fewer opinions that I have ever had in my life. When I see all the people online and in print giving advice and instructions and guidance, I think, Do these people really know all the stuff they think they know? By contrast, I seem to be moving asymptotically to the point of not believing that I can give anyone advice about anything at all. But of course, I might experience a sudden reversal any day now and become full of opinions once more. After all, when you write nonfiction you kinda have to have opinions, and be willing to share them. So stay tuned.
What’s that? I obviously have opinions about music? Oh, shut up.