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My Wagner Habit

Posted by acdtest on December 26, 2003

My Wagner Habit

egular readers of this weblog know how devoted I am to the mature operas (music-dramas) of Richard Wagner, and frequently post articles here concerning them. Over the past months I’ve received a number of eMails asking how and when I became so addicted to these works, and as I expect more such eMails in future, I here make public answer for the benefit of those who’ve already asked and received from me but the briefest of replies, as well as for those who haven’t yet asked, but will.

First, it’s well to keep in mind when reading the following that the person relating it grew up within a musical milieu peopled by serious-minded musicians, instrumentalists all, who though familiar with Wagner’s music were, for the most part, familiar with it only in its excerpted orchestral embodiments, and tended to regard it as irredeemably vulgar, and in addition considered the whole domain of opera (Mozart’s operas excepted, of course) to be fodder fit only for intellectual groundlings and uncharitable jokes. Bach and Mozart were the musical heroes of this group (with the Beethoven of the late quartets included), as they were (and remain today) mine as well.

Fast-forward to 1970. I’ve been laid up for the better part of a year, courtesy of a near-death-dealing motorcycle accident. Bad business that, but it’s not all terrible. I’ve plenty of time on my hands, and I’m taking full advantage of it by reading like mad (my first introduction to the Holmes-Watson canon was during this period as I related on this weblog in a prior article), and listening to dozens of LPs I’d bought one fevered afternoon of record buying at a Sam Goody 50%-off sale some few years previous but still haven’t gotten around to auditioning. (Not as ridiculous as it sounds. I bought over 250 LPs that wild afternoon.)

One of the albums I’d plucked from Sam Goody’s shelves was the then-new Decca release of the first Ring opera (or more correctly, music-drama), Das Rheingold, an opera of which I never before heard so much as a note, and a recording which I bought not because I had any intention of listening to the opera itself (what an idea!), but because that then-new recording had quickly gained the reputation among audio freaks, of which I was one, as being a kick-ass test of one’s speaker system.

So, one summer afternoon of my enforced confinement I pull the still un-played Rheingold album from its place of storage, think to myself, “Forgot about this. Time I gave it a whirl,” remove its still-intact shrink-wrap, and start the first LP going on the turntable.

With hobbling gait, I almost make it back to my comfy armchair when the soles of my feet more than my ears become aware of that lone, deep-bass, opening E-flat pedal, and my first thought is that something’s gone badly awry with my stereo system. I mean, no opera can possibly begin like that. After assuring myself, however, that my stereo system is operating just fine, I start the LP going again, this time no longer intending to test my speakers, but intending instead to listen to the music.

One-hundred-and-thirty-six measures later (i.e., the full length of the Rheingold prelude proper) such is my utter astonishment that I’m struck virtually dumb. I simply can’t believe what I’ve just heard. No composer — not the divine Wolfgang, nor even great Bach himself — should be able to do that much in so few measures with such a paucity of harmonic and melodic material; essentially little more than a single arpeggiated triad repeated over and over.

Hobbling back to the turntable as quickly as I’m able, I start the LP going again at the beginning, and again listen. And again, and again, and again. I replay those opening 136 measures some dozen times before I let the first of the three Rheintöchter begin her opening phrase. And when I finally permit her to do so, more astonishment. She and her two sisters are bantering among themselves in dramatic real time, their banter sounding as natural as the dialogue of a spoken stage play, but they’re all… singing! And the singing is lovely. Not bel canto lovely, but a different kind of sung lovely I’ve no name for because I’ve never heard anything like it before. Then a nasty-sounding baritone comes on the scene and joins in the sung banter, and his singing, like the singing of the Rheintöchter, is as natural as spoken dialogue, and positively gripping. Inseparably intertwined with all this is the sound of a huge orchestra making rich continuous comment on everything happening onstage in the manner of the chorus in a classical Greek drama, thereby enriching and deepening immeasurably both drama and meaning, and the gestalt effect is riveting.

At this point it’s abundantly clear to me that, in terms of opera, I’m not in Kansas anymore, but hopelessly adrift in strange waters considerably over my head. This is a new, electrifying, and astonishing musico-dramatic experience; one which bears but the most superficial resemblance to opera as I understand it. As I continue listening, almost each succeeding new measure brings with it something else to astonish, and I’m utterly hooked by the magnetic magic of it all.

To shorten the tale, the deeper I immersed myself in the Rheingold, and over the ensuing weeks, months, and years in the entire Ring tetralogy, and then deeper still in Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, that which initially astonished the Wagner-naïve musical snob continued, as it continues still, to astonish the seasoned and informed devotee I became. While in strictly musical terms Bach and Mozart are still my musical heroes, nonpareil, transcendent geniuses that they unquestionably were, in musico-dramatic terms I now know for certain there has never been, nor is there ever again likely to be, a genius as all-encompassing prodigious as that of Richard Wagner, who today still bestrides the domain of opera like a colossus, and whose operas have since shaped the course not only of opera, but of all Western music.

And that, now and future questioners, is the story of the genesis of my Wagner addiction. And as the saying goes, it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Posted in Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on My Wagner Habit

Bach — Mixed Or Straight-up

Posted by acdtest on December 22, 2003

Bach — Mixed Or Straight-up

eblogger Greg Hlatky of A Dog’s Life writes referring to this piece of mine:

Speaking about Bach and transcriptions of his music, A. C. Douglas refers to, “… the grotesquely bloated ones for full orchestra done by Leopold Stokowski.”

*Ahem*. This may get me tarred, feathered and ridden out of Taste Town on a rail, but I actually like grotesquely bloated orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s keyboard works. One of the glories of Bach is the almost infinite plasticity of his music. When the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 can be performed by tap-dancers and still be instantly recognizable, we’re talking about some remarkably versatile music.

No tar and feathering from me on this count. As I wrote in my above referenced piece:

First, Bach’s keyboard works (including those for organ) seem to survive, even thrive, under all manner of transcription. So superb are their construction that their fundamental musical aesthetic is not diminished one iota even when subjected to transcriptions as outré as those done for Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer, and Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers. Or when subjected to the somewhat less outré but nevertheless Romantically excessive transcriptions for piano by Ferruccio Busoni, and even the grotesquely bloated ones for full orchestra done by Leopold Stokowski. In all these, Bach emerges unsullied and triumphant — always. [emphasis added]

Bach, mixed or straight-up, is Bach — always and forever.

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Christmas Then And Now

Posted by acdtest on December 21, 2003

Christmas Then And Now

often wonder this time of year whether my perception of the Christmas season over the last three decades or so is peculiar to me, or is in fact a perception in accord with the reality of the thing. The Christmas season has forever been my most favorite time of year, and the one (and only) time I wished I were a Christian rather than a Jew. Sounds strange, even disingenuous, I know, coming as it does from a deep-in-the-marrow Jew and atheist such as myself, but it’s true nevertheless. Until age thirty or thereabouts most of my Christmas seasons were spent — strictly voluntarily and non-professionally — singing in, and at times helping prepare, various church choirs for concert engagements in churches around the city as well as for special Christmas services in their home venues. The season has always been for me a time of music, both in fact and as manifest spirit, and so it seemed for most of the rest of America, Christian and non-Christian alike. For the better part of the last thirty years, however, the season’s manifest spirit, as expressed not only in music-making but in all manner of public celebration, has, as a national affair, gone largely AWOL.

That lamentable disappearing act occurred by degrees over the years; quietly, insidiously, almost surreptitiously. In searching for an instigating or animating culprit for that slow dissolution one might, for instance, imagine pointing an accusatory finger at the season’s increasingly crass commercialization. But Christmas has always been commercialized to greater or lesser extent. The season’s tradition of gift-giving fairly guarantees it. And while it’s true that the season’s commercialization has never been so openly, shamelessly, and ferociously pursued as during the post-1960 decades, it seems to me that commercialization is not the culprit. Indeed, commercialization was largely responsible for making the season the national celebration it used to be.

Another suspected culprit at which one might imagine pointing an accusatory finger is that poisonous excrescence known as PC. As always, whatever it lays hands on — even if only fleetingly and peripherally, to either admonish or caress — is to some degree destroyed by its touch, and the public expression of the Christmas season — the outward manifestation of its spirit — was certainly no exception. But that outward manifestation could, I think, have survived whole even PC’s malignant touch were it not for another, contemporaneous postmodern development.

Over the past three decades there has taken place worldwide what might be called The Great Wising Up; a phenomenon almost wholly attributable to the inexorable forward march of technology, especially as it has impacted communications, and the easy and light-speed-fast dissemination of information and knowledge. Hardly a bad thing, you might argue, and I’d certainly have to agree. Nevertheless, for the nonce at least, there’s something quite bad about that phenomenon; the same sort of bad that typically obtains when a life-long pauper, through a windfall not of his own making, suddenly finds himself filthy rich. Through lack of experience, and therefore understanding, he simply has no idea how to manage or even deal with the windfall beyond the knee-jerk response of squandering all or the bulk of his newfound wealth freely and wantonly, with little serious thought given to how it might best be used for his own long-term benefit.

All by itself that would be bad sufficient, but with The Great Wising Up came also a dangerous species of hubris; one that glories in debunking and devaluing the immaterial — all that’s impalpable and unkickable; a relentless demythologizing of all mythologies. And the manifest expression of the spirit of the Christmas season was among that hubris’s very first casualties. Over the past thirty years that manifest expression has been in the process of dying a slow and drawn-out death. Although its lingering shadow may still be generally discerned for the week or so prior to the 25th of each December, it’s but its shadow only, growing more pale and ever more faint with each succeeding year except within the circles of those devout Christians for whom nothing would be capable of dissuading the full and public manifest expression of the season’s spirit for the season’s full term. For we nonbelievers and non-Christians, however, who for an entire month each year (beginning just after Thanksgiving) used to be able to bask in the reflected glory of that manifest spirit courtesy of its ubiquitous and inescapable pervasive public expression, it’s gone missing; passed on perhaps forever.

I for one mourn that passing, and wish things had worked out differently, but know that such wishing is but a futile exercise. So the best I can do now is to try each December to make that spirit manifest in full for myself alone for the entire month through music alone. It’s not quite the same as experiencing that spirit communally nationwide through music and public celebration as in times past, but there’s nothing for it, and so it will have to suffice.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted in Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Christmas Then And Now

Simple Pleasures

Posted by acdtest on December 20, 2003

Simple Pleasures That Make Life Worth Living

irst French Toast of the Winter

Two thick (3/4″) slices of challah (that’s a “sweet” Jewish egg bread for all you ignorant goyim out there), dipped both sides in a batter made of heavy cream and whole egg, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and a good pinch of salt, then fried in butter until both sides are a beautiful mottled golden-brown, and served drenched with Vermont Grade A Dark maple syrup and a side dish of bacon slices, and cuppa French-roast coffee.

Fifteen minutes of heaven on earth.

(And, yes, I know it’s one day before the official start of winter, but I just couldn’t hold off any longer.)

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Teachout On Legge

Posted by acdtest on December 20, 2003

Teachout On Legge

t last! A break from chatty, New York insider fluff, and personal and pop cultural musings, on print journalist and weblogger Terry Teachout’s weblog, About Last Night. Terry has posted today a genuine Terry Teachout piece, the sort for which he’s justifiably famous in high-culture circles, on Walter Legge, the legendary former head of EMI’s classical music division who, during his tenure there, was one of the most powerful forces in the classical music business world-wide.

Good (and informative) reading for your weekend.

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I Saw The World End

Posted by acdtest on December 19, 2003

I Saw The World End

or the past couple weeks I’ve been immersed in Deryck Cooke’s I Saw The World End, an unfinished study (Cooke’s untimely death in 1976 prevented its completion) of Wagner’s great tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. (The title of the book is taken from the closing line of an ultimately rejected closing scene of Götterdämmerung.) The book was first published in 1979, and my coming to it so late is the consequence of my ordinary practice of never reading any analysis of an artwork until I’ve worked things out for myself to the fullest I’m able. Only then can I be certain that my ideas were formed by a study of the artwork itself, and not by sources after the fact and external to it.

And a good thing I followed my ordinary procedure in this case as Cooke, an incisive and perceptive Wagner scholar and first-rate musicologist, is almost irresistibly persuasive. In this volume — which volume deals only with the texts of the first two music-dramas of the Ring (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), Cooke’s death preventing analysis of the texts of the remaining two, the planned but not-started second volume to have dealt with the music — Cooke examines the sources consulted by Wagner in his construction of the drama of the tetralogy, and demonstrates through informed conjecture, and truly encyclopedic scholarly research, how Wagner condensed, altered, conflated, and shaped the wealth of mostly mythological material at his disposal into the cosmic drama that is the Ring, and in the process created a new mythology of his own invention (that last contention mine, not Cooke’s). What is to me astonishing, however, is Cooke’s absolutely categorical conclusion from his researches that

The central reality [Das Rheingold] is concerned with…is the social and political history of mankind.

and that Das Rheingold,

…was intended as, and stands as, an allegory of the social and political world we live in…; and is nothing else.

That idea, of course, is nothing new. Wagner himself, in his first prose sketches for Das Rheingold, was much of the same mind (his thinking was altered radically by the time he came to write the first music for the Ring). And George Bernard Shaw, in his tendentious, witty, but ultimately silly reading of the Ring — the thinly veiled socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite — came to pretty much the same conclusion.

Can Das Rheingold be interpreted at that level? It can indeed. As Cooke himself says, “[O]ne can in fact interpret [Das Rheingold] as symbolizing practically anything one likes….” But an interpretation at that level is a relatively trivial and earthbound one, and the music — in Wagnerian music-drama, that in which resides the essential core of the drama — argues against such an interpretation being anything more than trivial; little more than an interesting aside, if you will.

Anyone proposing seriously to put forward such an interpretation of Das Rheingold‘s “central reality” has to contend with two extraordinary episodes in the music-drama that give substantive lie to such an interpretation: the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold, and the “tremendous, breathtaking surprise,” of the “most unexpected of all the unexpected events in the Ring,” as Cooke put it: the mystical and foreboding rising in Scene 4 of Das Rheingold of she who “know[s] whatever was, whatever is, whatever shall be”; the primordial earth-goddess, Erda.

Erda rises to warn Wotan, in ominous words and to compellingly ominous music to match, to give up Alberich’s ring (which Wotan has just stolen from the hapless Nibelung), and flee the curse placed upon it (by Alberich).

Why would Erda, the very incarnation of Nature itself — in the Ring, the controlling power of the world — rise to involve herself in the affairs of gods and men if what was concerned was merely their social and political machinations and development, both of which are exclusively the quotidian concerns of gods and men? The clear answer is: she wouldn’t. The very idea is thoroughly absurd. It’s something far more dire that provokes Erda into making her extraordinary and (presumably) never before made appearance to the gods. Alberich, as a condition for being empowered to forge the rheingold into the ring of unlimited power, was required to transgress Nature’s most sacred and fundamental law by foreswearing and cursing love forever. That cursing and foreswearing is the Ring‘s Original Sin, and that primal sin is reified and made palpable in the ring Alberich has forged. Were the corrupt and evil power entailed by its forging permitted to pass into the world, the world’s end would be the ineluctable consequence, and it’s this that has provoked Erda to make her extraordinary appearance.

Hear me! Hear me! Hear me!
All that is shall come to an end.
A dark day dawns for the gods.
I charge you: Shun the ring!

And then there’s the extraordinary prelude to Das Rheingold, with its clear intimations of First Creation, and its establishing of the vast, cosmic time scale not only of Das Rheingold, but of the entire tetralogy. Why a prelude so cosmically portentous to a drama whose “central reality” is concerned merely with the essentially quotidian and earthbound “social and political history of mankind”? Again, the very idea is thoroughly and patently absurd as Wagner himself discovered before setting pen to paper to write the prelude to Das Rheingold, the first music written for the Ring.

One cannot help but conclude that Cooke, by his extensive researches into the biographical background of, and sources for, the Ring, has been led astray by that which is extrinsic to the artwork itself. I’ve here and elsewhere more than once declared that all authentic works of art, and most particularly those works of art which are the products of authentic genius, are totally self-contained entities, and require nothing extrinsic to themselves to be understood fully, all that’s required for such understanding being contained within the artworks themselves. Cooke, it would seem — even Cooke, who I know knew better — was overcome by the intoxication of his own formidable researches and scholarly bent, and so permitted the merely extrinsic to distort his vision of the one, the only, thing that matters: the completed artwork itself.

Posted in Books, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on I Saw The World End

The Devil’s Way

Posted by acdtest on December 16, 2003

The Devil’s Way

ell, well, well. Seems the anti-“modernist”-architecture cult is out in proselytizing force these past few days, spewing the tendentious, cleverly deceitful dogma for which it’s (in)famous. Weblogger and True Believer Michael Blowhard of 2Blowhards invited his favorite fellow True Believer and credentialed backer-upper — university professor, mathematician, and self-styled architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros — to air on 2Blowhards his less formal views on architecture, and Dr. Salingaros complied by writing an informal essay on the work of the great 20th-century architect Louis Kahn which can be read here.

Before examining this charming bit of anti-“modernist” propaganda, we should first try to make clear just what it is this cult’s acolytes mean by the term “modernist” when referring to the domain of architecture as they don’t use the term historically, but descriptively. Best we can make out, what the term refers to when used by these True Believers is 20th- or 21st-century architecture that eschews literal or recognizable use of “traditional” (i.e., pre-20th-century) architectural forms and ornament, or when applied to architects, those who eschew the same in their buildings’ design.

Get it?


So, to proceed…

Dr. Salingaros begins his essay on Kahn with a splendid rhetorical flourish.

1. Which Kahn?

First let’s get the architect’s identity straight. There are three Kahns in American architecture: Albert Kahn; Ely Jacques Kahn; and Louis Isadore Kahn.

Uh-huh. A bit like saying:

1. Which Jesus?

First, let’s get this redeemer’s identity straight. There are three Jesuses in redeemer history: Jesus Jones; Jesus Aloysius Smith; and Jesus The Christ.

In point of fact, in American architecture, the name Kahn without qualification means Louis Isadore Kahn and no other. Always. Albert Kahn, in the first half of the 20th century, specialized, and was influential, in the design of American industrial buildings (and very good he was at it, too), but is known for nothing beyond that; and Ely Jacques Kahn is merely (and justifiably) an historical footnote in American architectural history, if that. Louis Isadore Kahn, on the other hand, is numbered among the architectural giants not merely of American architecture, and not merely of the 20th century, but of world architecture, and of all time.

But let’s not berate Dr. Salingaros for his opening flourish too severely. His essay is, after all, intended to gather new True Believers into the fold by vilifying his cult’s archenemy, modernism (as it’s defined by this cult), and vilifying as well modernism’s followers, admirers, and fellow travelers.

Dr. Salingaros then continues,

The third Kahn [i.e., Louis Kahn] was the champion of modernism that we know so well — the Kahn of “what does a brick want to become?”

Well, that goes beyond mere rhetorical flourish, and straightaway into the willfully deceitful.

Kahn was no “champion of modernism”; either the cult’s definition, or the historical one. Kahn was a one-off, and if he championed anything it was his own unique and profound aesthetic vision. No follower he, and no ideologue or promoter of ideologies, modernist (in its historical sense) or other.

Dr. Salingaros then compounds that willfully deceitful statement by another.

The “official” histories of architecture are written so as to imply that genuinely homegrown American innovation in architecture really took off with Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson.

That statement is so rife with error it boggles the mind. Accurate “histories of architecture,” official or otherwise, would most probably assert that genuinely homegrown American innovation in architecture really took off with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright; certainly none so late as Kahn and Johnson.

But that last willfully deceitful straw man is there for a purpose beyond the merely misleading, and that is to act as the setup for what immediately follows; viz.,

To think this way is ridiculous, but it represents modernist dogma and is not meant to be supported by either reality or facts. To criticize Kahn’s work amounts to criticizing the spirit of American Architecture.

See? Dr. Salingaros now, in one fell swoop, gets to label modernists as ridiculous dogmatists and willful deceivers (in Freudian terms, Dr. Salingaros’s labeling modernists in that way is known as “projection”), and characterize preemptively those who would criticize his following criticisms of Kahn’s work as little more than lackeys of modernism.

Pretty slick, huh?

Then, to lend greater weight to all that follows, Dr. Salingaros invokes the cult’s Magic Name — the name of the cult’s undisputed Guru — in tandem with his own.

Christopher Alexander and I were talking about famous modernist architects, and Louis Kahn’s name came up.

And what did Guru Alexander have to say about Kahn?

I cannot bring it in my heart to criticize the guy, since he always went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a young man. He really liked me, and amazingly, he sounded just like I do when he talked. Very philosophical; emotional; conceptual; overwhelming; inspiring. Pity his buildings don’t do the same thing.

Do we really need to comment on anything about that, both in itself and in its context in Dr. Salingaros’s essay, or would such comment be a mere superfluity, the thing speaking loud and clear for itself?

What’s that? We don’t?

Excellent! And thank you for saving us the onerous task of having to explicate the obvious.

The rest of Dr. Salingaros’s essay consists, for the most part, of his personal impressions of several of Kahn’s buildings (we resist, as an act of charity, making comment on Dr. Salingaros’s interjection of his “index of architectural ‘life’ of famous buildings according to a mathematical model”), and personal impressions ought not be gainsaid so we’ll not even make the attempt. We here would simply call to your attention that Dr. Salingaros’s personal impressions are just that: merely personal impressions, and therefore of no importance, weight, or consequence beyond what they mean for Dr. Salingaros, and speak more loudly of his aesthetic sensibilities than they do of anything having to do with Kahn’s work.

We also feel it incumbent upon us to further call your attention to the fact that Dr. Salingaros uses the terms modernist and modernism some 17 times in his mere 2800-word essay. As we’ve previously pointed out, those terms have an idiosyncratic meaning when used by Dr. Salingaros and his fellow True Believers. To better understand what’s really behind that idiosyncratic meaning, we suggest that when you read Dr. Salingaros’s essay, you replace the term “modernist” by the term “Devil worshipper”, and the term “modernism” by the term “the Devil’s way”.

The essay reads more clearly that way in terms of what’s intended to be conveyed.

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Tolkien v. Wagner

Posted by acdtest on December 16, 2003

Tolkien v. Wagner

ew Yorker music critic Alex Ross does a comparison of Wagner’s and Tolkien’s Rings. Despite a confused parenthetical quasi-disquisition on major and minor harmonies wherein Ross (who I know knows better) seems to suggest that the prelude to Das Rheingold is in C major (it’s in E-flat major), it’s an article worth reading, most particularly for Tolkien freaks, among whom I do not count myself.

UPDATE (22 December at 1:10 AM Eastern): Alex Ross replies (via eMail):

When I wrote, “From one deep note, wave upon wave of majestic harmony flows,” I decided not to specify E-flat as the note in question in order to avoid throwing too many particulars at the non-musical reader. Admittedly, my compromise formulation could be read as saying that the Ring begins in C. A classic dilemma: on the one hand, I run the risk of expert readers saying, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about”; and on the other, I run the risk of non-expert readers saying, “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” To my way of thinking, the latter risk is more serious.

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Art’s Place In The World

Posted by acdtest on December 16, 2003

Art’s Place In The World

eblogger George Hunka of Superfluities expounds on art’s place in the world, and concludes,

So what of the world, and art’s place in it? I can only go by the evidence of my own experience, small and insignificant in the larger scheme as that is. But it is this: that art, so far from engaging the world, should provide the means by which we are encouraged to transcend it.

Bypassing my quibble with George’s inappropriately utilitarian phrased “provide the means by which we are encouraged to transcend it” (I would state the case — and previously have — in terms of what all authentic art, and nothing else, actually does, which is provide us a glimpse, no matter how fleeting, of the transcendent, or of what we ordinarily call the Divine), I can only say Amen! to his thoughts.

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A Modest Proposal

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2003

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Opera, Theater, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on A Modest Proposal