CORRECTION: JOHN BARTLETT of Hopland is not responsible for the controversial Christmas display we incorrectly attributed to him. We deeply regret the error. Apologies to Chief Bartlett.
THE KALEIDOSCOPIC TONES OF CHRISTMAS
Heinrich Schütz’s "Christmas Story"
by David Yearsley
Amidst the avalanche of Amazon boxes and the mountains of plastic junk made in China, it might seem irrelevant to point out that the most lasting symbols of the Christmas season are of German origins—from St. Nicholas’s long white flowing beard to the evergreen tree hung with ornaments and hymned with O Tannenbaum.
Although the Christmas tree continues to expand its dominion over the globe, it is music that marks the German tradition’s greatest contributions to the holiday. In the realm of art music there is the unavoidable Messiah, like Handel himself to be thought of as a German export: dislodged from its original Springtime calendar setting, the mighty oratorio is a Christmas interloper now overshadowing all other classical yuletide offerings, even J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Marooned in the snowy wastes of Upstate New York, my thoughts drift inevitably this time of year towards the warmth of desert islands, preferably one kitted out with excellent speakers so as to give a point to the party game of picking the discs you’ll rescue when your holiday cruise ships hits a reef and you’ve got to swim for shore. CDs will survive the water; iPods will not.
However uplifting Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio may be, even after all the recordings and annual performances, I’d grab for Heinrich Schütz’s Christmas Story (Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi) even if it meant consigning to the deep the cherished masterpieces of Bach and Handel, both born just thirteen years after Schütz’s death.
Whereas these oratorios by Bach and Handel both last a good two hours, Schütz’s Christmas Story comes in under forty minutes. That duration speaks to the invigorating economy with which Schütz’s music delivers the text. This temporal frame is packed with vibrant vocal and instrumental sonorities and dynamic, literally star-studded, scenes—like a Christmas canvas by the greatest of German colorists, Matthias Grünewald. Himself a painter in tones, Schütz’s kaleidoscopic oratorio depicts a hovering angel in three of the eight movements the composer interleaves between the narrative delivered by a tenor in recitatives. This lighter-than-air soprano voice is joined by a pair of jubilantly ethereal violins—also favorite instruments of the heavens, as Grünewald, among many others, well knew. The soprano and strings swirl and echo around one another in expectant ecstasy: “I bring you good tidings of great joy”—the word joy (Freude) resounding repeatedly from above, as if it is a feeling too intoxicating to renounce and let fade into silence. A fourth angelic movement introduces the entire choir of angels undergirded by the buzzy snarl of that dulcian, that girthsome ancestor of the bassoon. Singing the German Gloria—Glory be to God on High—Schütz’s angels rejoice with a music that seems to spiral through itself, with individual voices emerging from the joint rapture: these incorporeal beings not only fly but, still more exuberantly, dance.
Schütz delineates this group and the story’s other characters through his ingenious use of range and instrumental accompaniment. The Shepherds are three high tenors heartened by pastoral recorders and the bleat of the dulcian. Schütz sets the three Wise Men a notch deeper as low tenors. They hurry to the manger in a succession of vocal entries that suggests a single file progress; but at the close of the number, a unified, grandly ceremonial cadence marks their awed, simultaneous arrival at the natal stall. Most striking of all is the murky stentorian pronouncements of the High Priests and Scribes, portrayed by four basses darkly cloaked in the sound of two portentous sackbuts. Introduced by regal cornettos, nefarious King Herod’s upward slashing lines dispatch his security service to track down the newborn child. Schütz’s instrumental and vocal groupings, melodic gestures, harmonic pacing, and contrapuntal inventions make each scene and character come alive with tremendous energy: this is music so full of ideas, so well-formed and developed that it constantly sparks the listener’s visual and aural imagination, whether that listener be a believer or not.
These characters are depicted in the eight Intermedia that continually enliven the narrator’s tale. Before the Christmas Story this narration had always been chanted in rather somber, static manner; Schütz’s innovation was to set the Evangelist’s text in the lively, modern Italian recitative style with continuo underpinning—blocks of text delivered in melodically expressive sentences accompanied by chords played by the organ, harpsichord, and plucked string instruments like the theorbo. Always fluent and clear, the narrator’s music is also capable of profound expression, as in the shattering foreshortened lament that evokes Rachel’s grief at the murder of the innocents. Schütz frames his Christmas Story with two magisterial choral movements drawing on the entire ensemble of voices and instruments; these choruses stand like two elaborate pilasters to either side of an imposing, yet animated altarpiece.
Like the story itself, this music is buoyed by new life, as if born again. Yet it is the work of an old man of more than sixty chafing against the conditions of his employment by the Saxon electoral house, the dissensions of court life and the inbuilt rivalries of the musical establishment in opulent Dresden riven by animosity between indigenous Germans and expatriate Italian egos. Years before, in his twenties, Schütz had studied in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli, organist at San Marco; in his early forties Schütz returned to La Serenissima to work with the basilica’s director of music, Claudio Monteverdi, the leading European musical figure of his time. Given these southern sojourns, Schütz’s music is itself a kind of Italian import. In later years, however, the composer showed an increasing predilection for his Germanic contrapuntal roots. He is therefore often portrayed in his old age as a curmudgeonly conservative unwilling to accommodate himself to musical modernity. On the contrary, the Christmas Story proves that the great man could effect a moving synthesis of old and new, neither averse to risk nor scornful of history.
Fittingly, there are many recordings that pay homage to Schütz’s Christmas masterpiece. The most imaginative, ambitious, and compelling of these was made in 1999.
By conductor Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and comes in the form of a partial reconstruction of a Vespers service, as it would have been heard in the Dresden court chapel on Christmas Day of 1664, the year the Evangelist’s part of the Christmas Story was published. Beginning a quarter century ago, McCreesh has presided over a series of projects intent on putting individual works back in their broader musical and cultural contexts, undertakings akin to removing altarpieces from museums and restoring them to the churches from which they were extracted. McCreesh’s initiatives range from the 1595 coronation of the Doge in Venice to an Epiphany Mass from Bach’s Leipzig, among many others. (McCreesh re-recorded that classic 1990 Doge disc originally from Archiv last year and issued the new version using his own label on both CD and LP, the latter medium showing that early music can on occasion tap into a hipster vibe; as the Chinese general said, “It is later than you think,” especially when early music begins reenacting its own reenactments.)
In their re-creation of the Dresden Christmas Vespers McCreesh dispenses with a few incidental musical numbers, not to mention the sermon: such epic orations were of an age before the seventy-five minute CD. (You can indulge your interest in Lutheran homiletics with a severely truncated ten-minute pulpit address made up of Martin Luther’s words on the just-mentioned two-CD set dedicated to a Leipzig Epiphany service.) Shed of these time-consuming exercises in authenticity, McCreesh frees up enough CD minutes in which to assemble the organ prelude and postlude, congregational hymns, and sacred concertos that together provide the sumptuous context for Schütz’s luminous musical pageant. The re-enactment takes place in the magnificent cathedral of Roskilde in Denmark with its stunning seventeenth-century organ that lends brilliance and fire to the hymns and to Schütz’s concerted music, from the radiant concertos to the spare recitatives. The church itself—its architecture, organ and people—plays an indispensible role in this sonic re-imagining.
The long, high, and relatively narrow Roskilde Cathedral is thick with balconies tucked beneath its ceiling; these allow for the dramatic spatial separations Schütz had learned from Gabrieli in the many far-flung choir lofts of San Marco. Even in this cavernous physical setting of Roskilde the singing, both choral and solo, and the instrumental playing full of improvised flourishes awes with its expansiveness even as it enchants with its striking intimacy. The effect is as vivid and uplifting now as it was 350 years ago in a Dresden chapel free of loudspeakers, Christmas trees, and iPhones in the pockets. Even that room’s lavish interior was less crucial to the joy of Schütz’s fabulous Christmas Story than the shared belief that filled it with sound—the notion that the best music was not only gloriously of its time, but also miraculously capable of escaping it.
DRIVER IN UKIAH SHOOTING-AT-DEPUTY CASE HIRES NEW ATTORNEY
By Tiffany Revelle
The driver accused in a high-speed chase during which his passenger shot at the pursuing deputy's car was in Mendocino County Superior Court Thursday, and replaced Public Defender Linda Thompson as his attorney.
Christopher Skaggs, 30, of Redwood Valley, is accused of attempted murder and a "vicarious arming charge" of assaulting a peace officer with a firearm because his passenger, Walter K. Miller, leaned out the window and shot five or six rounds from a semi-automatic pistol at Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Deputy Darren Brewster's patrol car, according to Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster.
Skaggs allegedly sped away from Brewster, who stopped the 1995 Thunderbird he drove on the night of Feb. 25. Miller fired on Brewster's patrol car about two miles after turning onto Highway 253 south of Ukiah.
Miller was convicted of those and other felony charges in the chase and shooting after a jury deliberated for about two hours Monday.
Skaggs is accused as an accessory in those charges, and also faces charges of recklessly evading a peace officer, reckless evasion while driving in the wrong lane and first-degree burglary for his alleged role in the burglary of a Potter Valley home where he and Miller took the semi-automatic pistol and other guns, according to Eyster.
Skaggs also faces charges of battery and committing a felony while released on bail in another felony matter.
His prior felony charge stemmed from a November 2012 chase where he allegedly evaded police officers. The chase left a California Highway Patrol officer seriously injured.
Skaggs on Thursday replaced his defense attorney, Mendocino County Public Defender Linda Thompson, with private attorney Patrick Pekin of Fort Bragg.
Eyster said he made a written offer to Pekin, who has until New Year's Eve to accept or reject it. Skaggs is due back in court that day for a pretrial conference.
(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal.)
STATISTIC OF THE DAY: 10,281 of San Francisco 28,000 (approximate number) employees earned at least $100,000 in total compensation in the last fiscal year. Eighty-four pulled in at least $250,000 each in total compensation. The big earners were mostly cops and firemen. The mayor makes $270,000 a year. A lot of city employees make more than he does.
ADVENTURES IN SALAMANCA
by Louis Bedrock
1977 and 1978 were good years to be living in Spain. El Caudillo, Francisco Franco, had died in November of 1975, and the country was intoxicated with its newly acquired freedoms. A new newspaper, El País, had been born in Madrid, and intrepid young writers like Rosa Montero were scandalizing the country. Montero, criticizing the absence of vitality in Spanish letters, asked in one of her columns whether a country was ignorant because it was Catholic or Catholic because it was ignorant. Two decades before the cloying foolishness of Almodovar, serious filmmakers like Juan Luis Berlanga and Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón were making seriously good movies about the Spanish Civil War, class struggle, the schisms between the old and new Spain, the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church, and the repression of sexuality.
Madrid wasn’t bad, but Salamanca was better. It was the home of one of Europe’s oldest universities--The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218; it had a Plaza Mayor that was said to be only equaled by Plaza San Marcos in Venice; it was cosmopolitan because of the University, and the excellent reputation of the Spanish that was spoken there; and it was a very young city. I felt at home in Salamanca before I had even gotten off the train.
In a short time, I had my own coterie of friends from all part of the earth. I avoided most Americans because I had not come to live in Spain to practice English, but had several American friends who were as serious about learning Spanish as I was, and with whom I spoke only Spanish. I had a lot of Spanish friends and lived with two students from the university: Jose Antonio who was studying literature, and Luis who was studying psychiatry. In my family of friends, there were a lot of Luises--and two of us lived in the same apartment. When Jose Antonio, Luis, or I--also a Luis, answered the phone, if someone asked to speak to Luis, we would respond by asking, “Luis el Americano o Luis el Español? Eventually, I became Luisón, not because I was bigger, but because I was older. Luis el Español became Luisito. Because we were mischievous and vindictive, Luisito and I began asking callers who wanted to speak to Jose Antonio, “Jose Antonio el Americano o Jose Antonio el Español?” even though there was only one, el Español.
The two other Luises in our group were Luis el Hablador, so named because he loved to talk; and Luis con barbas, our bearded Luis. Luis con barbas and Ricardo--who was American, were both medical students, and because Ricardo, along with Jose Antonio, were my best friends, we spent a lot of time together.
Luis con barbas and Ricardo spent about 8 hours a day studying: no hyperbole here. Both were “Table Captains” or leaders of their groups of aspiring doctors. Xana, the beautiful, charismatic, sixteen year old girl from Portugal, was also in medical school as was Luisito. Jose Antonio studied at the school of arts and letters enclosed within a low wall upon which someone had written, “Si hubiera sido el aborto, no habría nacido Franco” or, “If abortion had existed, Franco never would have been born.” Salamanca wasn’t like Madrid where roving bands of fascist youth would erase or paint over left wing graffiti and sometimes oblige people to raise their right arms in the fascist salute and sing the fascist anthem, “Cara al Sol”.
All of the males in our group were madly in love with Xana who was almost a mythical figure. As mentioned before, she was sixteen years old, charismatic, ridiculously beautiful, and very self-possessed. Her mother had died when Xana was very young. Her father, a high ranking minister in the Portuguese government, often obliged Xana to fill the role of his co-host for meetings and parties at their home. Xana spoke English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. She had spent the first few years of her life in France, and hadn’t learned Portuguese until she was five years old.
It was Ricardo who eventually won the competition for Xana, but Luis con barbas and I quickly found consolation. Luis, the brightest, best looking, most athletic, and most genial wound up with a girlfriend who resembled the Spanish actress Angela Molina. And I wound up with one Veronique, poly-lingual, athletic French student of dance. Athletic was good. I was running 10 kilometers everyday as well as doing fifty push-ups, 50 sit-ups, and walking everywhere. Veronique easily kept up me, and in our daily races up the twenty flights of stairs to her apartment, I barely won. Perhaps Veronique let me barely win. There was nothing embarrassing about walking down the street arm in arm with Veronique. She was beautiful. I wasn’t bad looking, so we were a good match. Veronique liked to invent little games while we were walking, like speeding up so I had to hustle to keep up, or slowing down so I too had to slow down. Once she did this in on one of the main streets in Madrid, where we were spending the weekend. I grew weary of the game, and when she slowed down, I didn’t, with the result that she was soon ten meters or so behind me. As she waited to cross the street, a group of young men who were standing on the corner began tossing her “piropos”, or suggestive compliments. Veronique didn’t like this at all, and rapidly accelerated until she had caught up with me and as she caught me she threw her arm around my waist and almost lifted me off the ground. The guys on the corner were impressed and gave us a loud ovation.
I don’t know how Ricardo, Luisito, and Luis con barbas found the energy to go out late at night after eight hours of studying and several hours of classes, but they did. One summer night, Ricardo, Luis con barbas, and I found ourselves women-less and unbridled. We were in the Meson Cervantes in The Plaza Mayor talking and downing iced sangrias that Cervantes’ owners Paco and Juan refilled as quickly as we drank them. We decided it was a great night to practice one of our favorite sports, frisbee, in front of Salamanca’s cathedrals. Salamanca has two cathedrals, the old Romanesque cathedral which was begun in the 12th century, and the newer Gothic/Baroque cathedral which was started in sixteenth century and finished in the eighteenth. Somehow we found the plaza of the cathedrals. It was quite late--maybe past midnight and we seemed to be the only living beings in the plaza. Even the thieving squirrels had gone to bed. It was warm, so we left our jackets on a bench. We began to throw around the frisbee, albeit somewhat erratically. Three figures emerged from the surrounding shadows and approached us. They were three young gypsy men and they were carrying knives. They grabbed my jacket off the bench. It was a leather jacket worth several hundred dollars. Ricardo and I dared not move or say anything, but Luis con barbas confronted them and attempted to grab my jacket from the biggest one of the group who was holding it. He slashed at Luis, who with the grace of a bullfighter, evaded the blade.
“¡Coño, Luis, déjalo!” I shouted, “¡No merece la pena!” Essentially, “For fuck’s sake, Luis, let it go! It’s not worth it!”
He stepped aside. The three men ran past him and off into the night. Apparently they were not eager for a fight with Luis.
We walked slowly back to the Plaza Mayor, less cheerful and less inebriated. We never told anyone what had happened, especially our girlfriends. We didn’t want them to find out what kind of “pendejos” they were going out with.