Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.




Malcolm D B Munro
Wednesday 19 October, 2016

Filed under: Culture

Giovanni Felice Sances – Stabat Mater, Philippe Jaroussky; L’Arpeggiata

Motet for voice and basso continuo

Text: possibly Jacopone da Todi (1230/6-1306)
Music: Giovanni Felice Sances (c.1600-1679)

Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor
L’Arpeggiata, conducted by Christina Pluhar

Alessandro Tampieri, violin
Doron Sherwin, cornett
Eero Palviainen, archlute, Baroque guitar
Charles-Édouard Fantin, lute, theorbo
Margit Übellacker, psaltery
Haru Kitamika, organ, harpsichord
Richard Myron, violone
Michèle Claude, percussions
Christina Pluhar, theorboro

Fascinating contrast of interpretation, this with the previous of the same composer’s work. At first blush you would be hard pressed to say that both performances are of the same work. About all that the two interpretations have in common is the use in each of a counter tenor. At no point does Pluhar treat the work as a Baroque composition but takes the performance style back to Rennaince. To choose a well know composer, Claudio Monteverdi, his dates are  1567 1643

Sances’ dates of c1600 – 1679 place him well before the two masters of the setting, Alessandro Scarlatti, 1724 and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, 1736 composed theirs. Phillippe Pierlot choses to follow firmly the later Baroque tradition with some nodding to the previous era with the word painting. Notable is having  Carlos Mena switch registers. The instrumentation and pace are pure Baroque. These are all choices that Pierlot has made in his interpretation of how the work should be performed. The lush, smooth sound is pure modern.

These two recordings are a fascinating contrast of interpretation, this with the previous of the same composer’s work. At first blush you would be hard pressed to say that both performances are of the same work. About all that the two interpretations have in common is the use in each of a counter tenor. At no point does Pluhar treat the work as a Baroque composition but takes the performance style back to Rennaince. To choose a well know composer, Claudio Monteverdi, his dates are  1567 – 1643. This puts Sance’s musical style closer to that of Monteverdi than Pergolesi or Sacarlatti Senior. Pluhar has made a career of placing the music she and her performers play in the period prior to the Baroque complete with not simply authentic instruments but the correct ones, in her use of the theoboro for example.

On first meeting Sance’s work the inclination is it accept Pierlot’s interpretation as the correct one. In fact, we simply don’t know enough about performance styles before the baroque period. However, Pluhar’s approach is the historically correct one, however startling it at first seems.

My preference is for Pierlot’s interpretation is based purely on my familiarity and discovery of the Stabat Mater itself based on compositions written in the Baroque era.That Pluhar’s approach is closer to what we might have heard at the time is borne out by

Filed under: Arts, Media, poetry, songs, stories

Thoughts on Horodotus

Thoughts on Herodotus

For around eighteen months I have been reading on the Barbarians of Europe. This was prompted by an Exhibition. Germany, Memories of a Nation,  held at the British Museum, October 2014 through January 2015 and curated by the Museum’s Director Neil MacGregor. Not by the Exhibition but the book that he wrote and published based on that Exhibition.

For me the book was deeply impactive. I had never previously been very sympathetic to the Germans. Through his book I came to adopt an entirely different view. One of sympathy and, to  a certain extent, understanding. What engaged by sympathy was the question posed directly or indirectly, in the book, “What is it to be German?” What is it to be German. This struck home to me. I understood perfectly what was meant by this and how it feels. But I wanted to know why it is that present day Germans feel this way. I was intrigued.

This led me to read all I could lay my hands on about the Early Germans, both from off my shelves and from the local bookshops. What had happened in Germany’s earlier years? Germans I knew never were conquered by the Romans. Religion was late to the region. The Renaissance and the formation of universities also. The Reformation began in Northern Germany suggesting that Catholicism was not as embedded to the extent that it was in other areas to its South which had much earlier adopted this form of Christianity. This seems borne out by the fact that none of the southernly neibours, many within German itself, divested themselves of their existing faith as territories in the North did. The 1848 revolutions which swept across Europe did not unify Germany into a single, contiguous nation state as it did so many of its neighbours.

Finding out about the early Germans was difficult. There are no recent books on the topic. Much archeological evidence has emerged over recent decades and and books published just 20 years ago will not and do not obviously carry these findings. I am sure they, the archeological findings, shed a lot of light on the lives and customs of those peoples whom the Greeks and Romans referred to as living in Germania. Germania, I discovered, is a territory that few know about and what is written is sparse on detail. A sketch rather than a full picture.

Since the early inhabitants of Europe up to and after the Roman Conquest were illiterate, or largely so, we have little knowledge of who they were or how they were. All that we have is seen through contemporary Greek or Roman eyes. And much that was written at the time by these and other Romans and Greeks has been lost in the course of time. And as writer after writer pointed out, the point of view from which Romans and Greeks were writing was a prejudiced one. How great Greece or Rome was, how awful and primitive these people are. They do not live like us and, worse, they do not speak our language.

So, when reading of the Barbarians of Europe, so called by their Greek and Roman informers, one relies time and time again on the same few authors, often from fragments of their original work. The same stories told by these early writers is repeated across book after book that I read. Paucity of material I guess. Then there were writers whom I read who simply repeated one chapter after another what had been said in an earlier chapter, or a writer so held in thrall by the author whose book he was revising, commissioned by the publisher no less, that he could not bring himself to change or add a word and settled for an introduction and a sort of addition at the end of the book, or the writer who could not give his own view but had to repeat and repeat those of his dissenting fellow historians who disagreed with his. Or the writer who fretted paragraph after paragraph on what the size of the Roman Army was in this skirmish or that battle. Why on earth does it matter? Then there is the writer who started the book by saying that we know almost nothing about the people he was writing of, and spent the rest of the book saying how little we know of these people. Somehow he maintained this pose for the whole book. Quite a feat. And he too was commissioned by the publisher. Really.

You can imagine that the reading of the thirty or forty books I read was truly a test of patience. I suppose you have to be pretty committed to your topic to do so.

Having come full circle in this exercise, I realized that a better course to learn about these so called  Barbarians is to read of the Roman Empire itself. Not in the broadest sense of that phrase, but the Fall of the Roman Empire as so many authors have termed what was a transition rather than a sudden falling off a cliff,  in which the Barbarians would play such a significant part. By now these same Barbarians were no long people who Greeks and Romans traveled amongst to report on as they did earlier but were in their midst, both the Greek speaking Eastern half of the  Empire and the Latin speaking Western half.

This exercise proved futile too. And repetitive. Author after author said and stated the same idiocies. Not one of them could say why the Roman Empire did fall though the blurb at the beginning of the book claimed that they could. When one is reading books by men, and they are mostly men, who have spent their entire lives in the study of what they are writing about and one sees substantial flaws in what they are saying or claiming, time to go dig in the garden or walk the dog.

And so I turned to an original. To one of those Greek and Roman reporters, one of those on the ground who wrote as witness to what he heard, saw and knew. And who better to turn to than Herodotus. Said to be the Father of History. Well he is much more than that as we will discover in a moment.

Well, a curious thing happened. I pulled my copy of Herodotus’s Histories from my shelf and found that pages were missing. Of the thousand or so books or more that I own or have have owned over the course of my life, I have never picked up a new book which was incomplete. Instead of Book One of the Histories beginning at page 1 it began at page 47. Talk about plot spoiler.

So I turned deep into the book. To somewhere around Book Four or Five where an emissary has been sent by the Persians to Athens and here is Herodotus recounting the events and conversations. I was astonished. Here was, is, a man born around 2000 years ago sitting beside me talking in plain English, a language I understand and grew up with, in a way that was conversational and immediate.

Now, a great deal may be said, one way or another, about translations and about translators in particular. But, reduced to its simplicity, a bad translator will blemish any reading of an author whether that author is good or bad. And you won’t know if it is the writer or the translator that is at fault. However, in any language, there are gold standard translators, those who have a reputation for being felicitous to their author. .. of the edition I have is such a translator. But, better than that. In our time translators have moved a long way from feeling that they had to translate the geniuses of Greece and Rome using the language of the King James Bible. That language is not the language of the original which is usually Attic Greek or Latin and, furthermore, that language is not the language that the translator uses on a day to day basis.

In our time, thank God, translators see it as their job to render the original language into the kind of speech that you and I employ on a daily basis. And so it is with this particular translation of Herodotus. I have the utmost confidence, that in …, I am in the hands of one of the best translators of Attic Greek anywhere within the English speaking world. I am in good hands. I can relax.

But I am astonished. This man writes brilliantly. The man, writing from so long ago, has an immediacy of conversational style so that, despite the fact that among my friends and acquaintances there is no one like him, he is familiar and talks as I listen as if we were old friends. But it doesn’t stop there. By any means.

I gave the artificially shortened version of the Histories away as a gift. I figured that the recipient would purchase a new, complete copy as I was going to do, if that person was really interested in the work. Besides I warned him of the state of the text, of the missing pages.

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a new copy of the same edition from the only national book chain surviving in this country, Heaven help us when they go out of business, and three days ago the new copy arrived.

I settled down last night in bed and read a few pages.  And from those few pages I have a great deal to say. Whether I will successfully capture even a fraction of those thoughts I can’t say. But I will try.

This particular edition puts all others into the shade, quite apart from the clear merit of the translator. The book contains a full set of what are called scholarly apparatus. Through this one is handed a telescope with which one can view the whole academic world of the studies on this man, this ancient Attic speaking Greek, who wasn’t actually Greek, and who much of his life was in exile, a fact that is import as we will find out in a minute. This man, Herodotus is taken seriously. Very seriously indeed by some of the brightest minds since his work came back into educated circles. For example, one of the citations give a scholar who spent eleven years writing eleven volumes on Book Two of the Histories alone. And the translator of this text does not cite anything of greater antiquity than 1945. Scholarship on Herodotus is likely to go back to a least the 1500s. Looking through the few citations what the translator lists one gets a sense of the vast amount of reading that the scholars he is citing have done and are doing to be anything like an authority on Herodotus.

But, despite all that, they are still missing some obvious things about Herodotus that my reading of a few pages of the Introduction and a few pages of Book One revealed.

The first of these is the most obvious. Herodotus is not just the Father of History, he is the finest writer of history that has ever lived. No writer on history since comes anywhere to matching his abilities and capabilities. No one. Just as with Tolstoy. With War and Peace, Tolstoy created a work of which there is no match in any other language nor within Russian culture despite the fact that that culture embraces some very talented authors and Tolstoy comes close to outdoing himself with Ana Karenina. Almost but not quite.

It is possible, I can’t in all honest be sure but … reports in her introduction that Herodotus has a vast store of information, of events he had heard of, those he witnessed and the recounting of events to him by those who were there. Not only this sort of material but the details of where he was, what he observed around him and the peoples behaviours and mannerisms. He records them. But better still, he was able to organize this vast storehouse in his mind so that when he came to write what he put onto paper or papyrus or whatever medium he used, the whole story flowed out ready made. That this is true is spelt out by him in the first paragraph of Book One as he tells you where you as a reader he will take and what he will tell you along the way. For all the reading of the scholars writing since him, all the historians, none match the scope and depth of the form this world of his unfolds upon the page.

A bold claim. Not the one on Tolstoy. That is open  to challenge. But where Herodotus is concerned I challenge anyone knowledgeable on History to come up with a single writer who remotely comes close to the stature of Herodotus as a writer. But, in my ignorance, I know of no other writer, scholar or otherwise, who has made this claim.

But the simplicity with which one can approach a text like the Histories and make profound observations is borne out by the observation that the author of the Introduction makes when she say that until … pointed it out.. the Histories were thought to have no overarching plan. One wonders at how the most obvious can be missed by those who spend their entire lives reading and writing on a particular subject. Our brightest minds. But never mind.

The second thing that comes across very, very clearly is that Herodotus may be speaking and writing in Attic Greek but he is not Greek. He does not write as if he were Greek. He may live and move amongst them but he is not one of them. He is an outsider. And our culture and that of a number of other European cultures is replete with outsider writers who could report on what they saw in the country that they lived in or were visiting. One thinks of Coustine with Russia and de Tocqueville in America, or Voltaire with Letters to an English Speaking Nation. Such outside observers are able write of things that the natives simply take for granted and therefore cannot see.

And so Herodotus is just such an outsider, just such an observer. But there is something else as well, he has a wry sense of humor, an almost continual put down of the Greeks. As if to prick the self importance with which they see themselves.

So a few, very few pages into this ancient text brought surprises galore. For example, the Histories is not a history about the Greeks at all. It is a history of the Persians, their contemporaries, the later same courage of the Roman world. Were my claim that he, Herodotus, is not Greek in any doubt, let’s simply say that were he Greek he could not have written on the Persians in the first place nor, were he Greek, to be so sympathetic to them, the enemies of Greece.

But the discoveries keep tumbling out. From a few pages of reading. After 18 months of devour author after boring author of history most of whom had little to say and spent a great of time repeating that little over and over again. The Greeks did not call the Persians Barbarians. Nor did the Romans. Why? Because the Persians had Power and could wild that power that threatened the very existence of  Greece and Rome. Whereas a bunch of savages running around in skins on horses rushing at displayed professional armies posed no threat at all and could be contemptuously dismissed. And were. We retain the term still with all its derogatoriness.

What makes this writer, this writer whom I have vowed, despite other calls on my time, one whom I am going to spend the next few weeks in close contact with, the greatest history writer that there has ever been? It is very simple. It is quite clear, a few pages into Book One that Herodotus knows where he is going and he knows where he is going to take you. And by Book Nine he will have taken you there.

Hence the analogy with Tolstoy. Few of us, the fingers on one hand are too many with which to count, have or have had the scope, the sweep of mind, that could capture in that mind what it is what they wanted to write about before even pen was put to paper and took you there by the end of the book. Only one other writer has this same sweep and that is Homer.

And we know nothing about him.

Malcolm D B Munro
Wednesday 19 October, 2016
… under revision

Filed under: Arts, history, Media, Memoir, poetry, politics, songs, stories




Malcolm D B Munro
Wednesday 19 October, 2016

Filed under: Arts, Media, poetry, songs, stories

Knowledge lost

We are in the greatest danger in losing more than we gain by transferring our knowledge base and our current way of life from the written and printed word into the electronic world.

Few, if any, are aware of the extent of the danger. No, libraries will not disappear. Yes, they are. Throughout the Western world the libraries that the likes of Carnegie created and municipipalities sought to maintain are closing or turning into Internet Bars with no book in sight. The great libraries will continue to exist, true. But they will serve only specialists. The greater part of humanity will not read books in the form that they once took. Is it possible to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace on your iPhone or Blackberry?

This impovershipment is not restricted to the written and printed word but to almost every area that we presently take for granted. Take music. On the one hand we are putting up onto the likes of YouTube priceless sounds and music but without attribution or any source knowledge. A recording, any recording, placed on the internet loses all of the information associated with the recording. Take one example:

Claudio Saracini – Stabat Mater

Typically of the vast number, probably running close to the billions of studio or concert recordings placed on the internet, have no information about the piece or even the performers. YouTube and others are unlikely to call for a stricter posting standard since the cat is already out of the bag. But a moment’s thought will reveal just what is happening.

The composer is little known, there is no indication of who the singer is, though a music aficionado might recognize the voice. All I can say is the voice is of some vintage giventhe singing style. Were any of us to have come across this composer in the pre internet era we would have the record cover or CD sleeve notes with some information; who the performers were, when the recording or performance took place, etc.

This only points to the gap that is emerging between a terrestrially based knowledge base and an electronically based one. Note that this composer’s piece has been viewed as of this writing 188 times. Maybe the record or CD sold more. We don’t even know which country it was recorded in though the posting information suggests Italy. This implies no disrespect to the poster. I discovered quite by accident a composer I did not know and one, Wikiepia, another menace of the internet universe, handy yet lethal, tells us that he was admired by Monteverdi in his time.

The example given above is only for the posting of music on the internet. Thinking through the enormity of what we are doing in moving wholesalely overnight from traditional knowledge and cultural media to a vast void which anonymously swallows of this up will suggest a number of things, most of which are very serious indeed. At a point not too far into the future, those who follow us, including those alive today since life expectancies now extend into the nineties, will have no connection back to the cultural artifices and life that most of us grew up with.

The result at that point will be akin to where we are with regard to the works of ancient Greece. Only a tiny fraction of what was written has survived. And their music we don’t have much information on. We don’t even know how they built their ships or how they sailed them, though the suggestion is that the ships were large, very large, and that the navigating techniques were sophisticated. We didn’t have anything to anything matching them until Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

We are watching ourselves burying, or perhaps evaporating, our entire civilization. The implications of this lie beyond first acknowledging just what we are doing and the sheer extent to which we are doing it.

The prospects are dire. The town of Pompeii was buried by a volcano on 5 February 62 AD and not rediscovered until 1599 AD. What we are witnessing is not one Pompeii but all of them. All of our towns and cities. Not the physicality of cities but the knowledge they contain and we contain.

At some point the Vesuvius effect will take place. Those growing up then will not have the knowledge we have and will not be able to reclaim it.

Malcolm D B Munro
Tuesday 18 October, 2018



Filed under: Culture

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