Thursday, September 24, 2009


This is a post about Wagner.

No, not that Wagner, this Wagner:

I like opera (enough to spend time and money on it). I usually listen to the pretty stuff, the accessible stuff: Verdi, Puccini, Bizet's Carmen, Cav & Pag, that lot.

I like classical music (enough to spend time and money on it). I usually listen to the likes of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Tchaiko, R. Strauss, sacred music, 20th century Brits.

I don't spend much time or money on Wagner. I agree with Mark Twain that Wagner's music is better than it sounds: as Twain said, having attended Parsifal, "The first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing." And afterward: "Seven hours at $5 a ticket is almost too much for the money."

And yet after decades of marinating in, reflecting on, being transported, enlightened, educated & ennobled by classical music in general, and opera in particular, I return again and again to eight minutes of Richard Wagner, the final aria of Tristan und Isolde: Der Liebestod. I'm old enough now (or stupid enough) to propose that this eight-minute song is the greatest work of art ever created by a human being. Higher than not just every other piece of music, but all architecture; all literature; all drama; all painting & sculpture. The best. The one.

Please note: I'm not saying Liebestod is the greatest thing man has ever done; it's the greatest work of art.

I tell you now, I will drop dead if anyone would draw this conclusion having listened to Liebestod once. A more likely reaction would be one had endured it, outlasted it, survived it. The music wanders, shapeshifts, restless, weird....unmusical? The voice & orchestra meander around one another. The lyrics, detached. Yet taken as a whole it's also intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, alluring, immense, pointing to something unclear. If music were seen and not heard, St. Paul would say, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood."

Through repeated listenings spread out over decades, Liebestod has become less dim; clearer, but not fully so. As Paul says, full understanding will come.

To give the reader some background, Tristan und Isolde is a tragedy not unlike Romeo & Juliet. In the final Liebestod scene, Isolde mourns over the body of the beloved Tristan, then dies from sorrow. Yeah, yeah, been there, seen that. But Liebestod (love-death) is about much more than Isolde's grief on so many levels at the same time, bears a range of ideas and emotions through mutually-supporting elements of the music, the voice, the plot, the lyrics. The appeal is very, very intellectual; but also powerfully emotional at a primal level. Liebestod grabs onto some ancient, pre-language, pre-culture, time out of mind part of humanity we can't fully understand, the dirt that God breathed life into; and stirs it. From desolate despair to eternal serenity in eight minutes.

And the scale. It veers from the Isolde's miniscule focus on Tristan's eyelids (are they opening? is he alive?) to a vast, horizonless expression of joy, a release from life's grinding, sorrow-wracked struggle, to transcendence. All the passions of love, life, God, death & eternity explode, detonate at a galactic scale, then fade, leaving a gentle residue of God's infinite love. No kidding. I'm still moved to tears, looking at a computer screen.

But don't take my word for it, listen again to the curmudgeon Mark Twain:
This opera of "Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.
But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.
I know what he means. There's no substitute for repeated exposure to the work.

And I'll quote 1Corinthians again, because Liebestod always reminds me of Paul at his most eloquent:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away......So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Rather than link to one of the online videos of the actual opera, I offer this performance, depicted on the album cover at the beginning of the post:

YouTube - Karajan - Ultimo Concerto - Wagner Liebestod

It features the conductor Herbert von Karajan in what I understand is his last performance. He chose to spend the final eight minutes of a 60-year career in music conducting Liebestod (von Karajan died about a year later). The heroically beautiful Jessye Norman sings Isolde's death, and von Karajan expresses the winding-down of his own life through Isolde's: eight minutes, two minutes, two seconds....done. I believe this is the greatest artistic moment in human history. All the elements combine: singer, conductor, orchestra, composer, audience, building, culture, to show what human beings can achieve. How Man still cooperates with God to create beauty that must exceed our own limitations, even at the close of a century that endured the Godless scourges of Communism, Nazism, and worse. This is the wonder of the West. The centuries of accumulated knowledge; lifetimes of rigorous training; the sacrifice of time & money; the systematizing of music; the exactitude of the instrument makers; the preposterous invention of a symphony orchestra; building a concert hall; all this tremendously expensive resource-devouring effort, all this, this fabulous waste just to crack open an eight-minute window into the Mind of God. But it is worth it.

But don't watch it yet! Wagner takes getting used to....sometimes a lot of getting used to. You may decide to first watch this more accessible piece:

Here is the Prelude to Das Rheingold. In the opera it expresses the flowing water of the Rhine river. In the video it accompanies the exquisite, wordless opening scene of The New World, directed by the auteur Terence Malick (I will not digress about Malick), possibly to a greater effect than in the opera:

YouTube - The New World - Vorspiel

A last note: I haven't said much about Liebestod's lyrics. They absolutely contribute to the complete experience, but at least to start, there's no way to deal with either the German or the English while also trying to take in the rest of the work. The words are at the bottom of this page:

Richard Wagner - Libretti - Tristan und Isolde

BTW, feel free to post your own choice for the #1 work of art if you have one. It doesn't have to be music.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Betrothed at Birth

I have an arranged marriage. As long I can remember, Janet was my betrothed actually, but that was just a detail. We didn't take vows until the appropriate time, but regardless, the decision had been made for us by our parents when we were only a few weeks old. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't already know who my wife would be; it was just a part of everyday life. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and came to know each other as well as.... married people, more or less. But when I became a young adult I rebelled against my parents' plans: went out with other women, paid no attention to my betrothed, wanted to make up my own mind, shop around. As it turned out, I chose to marry Janet, and that was the right decision. In retrospect, I never really doubted the betrothal, but isn't it important to decide on your own? On one hand I envy people who chose to marry whomever they wanted without the nudging of their parents' preconceived presumptions; but on the other hand, my parents chose wisely. If I had exercised my own autonomous judgment, would I have done so well? I don't know. But I think of the thrill other people must have had, picking freely from a sea of potential mates. But then again, because we were betrothed, we had a much earlier start on our marriage's foundations. We'd been part of each others' lives, imaginations, visions of the future since were were tots. How could you compensate for that in a marriage between two people who'd first met only a couple of years before the wedding?

I am kidding marriage was not arranged.

Our church has a lot of converts, including my wife. I, on the other hand, am a Cradle Catholic. I didn't experience the great sea change of conversion, the drama, the turmoil, the Sturm und Drang....the awful autonomous choice. At best you might say I'm a revert, returning with an adult's commitment to the faith chosen for me as a baby by my parents. Sometimes, like today, I was talking to a couple who came into the Church this past Easter. How exciting: they're like people in the New Testament, hearing the Good News, making the leap of I'm like the kids who were baptized as part of their households: whoop-de-doo.

And yet...I grew up in the Church. I'm soaked in the culture, have a Catholic imagination. The Church is in my bones, like marrow. How wonderful is that? The Pope, saints, Body & Blood, holydays, Confession, Latin, incense, Sacraments, Calvary with a crucifix, Bible stories learned from statues & stained glass windows, Easter and Holy Week bigger than Christmas, Good Friday veneration of the cross, getting whacked by nuns, Jesus in his little house, Hail Marys, praying to my dead (sorry, sleeping in Christ) relatives, apostolic succession, celibacy, all as normal and familiar as breathing. Based on my experience with languages, it's like the difference between one's mother tongue and an acquired one.

I am not going to digress on language.

So I was trying to explain to these adult converts today about why a Cradle Cat'lic might envy them their journey, and used the marriage analogy above; which also reminded me of why I shouldn't be so envious of their journey, but rather be thankful for my own.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Letter to Parents

For any catechists out there, this is the letter I send home with each student after the first class. If you have anything similar, I'd like you post it in the comments.

September 9, 2009

Dear Parents of 6th Grade Religious Ed Students,

My name is Christian LeBlanc. Mrs. Jones and I will be teaching your children this year.

Here is some basic information for the class:

1. You are invited to come to class anytime. Parents who do come tend to enjoy it, and every additional adult in the room improves the learning environment.

2. Most of classtime is spent discussing that week's chapter in the textbook. Since we don't read from the book during class or refer to it directly very often, please have your child read the appropriate chapter each week before class. They'll be told each week what next week's chapter will be. More important is that students be prepared, pay attention, participate, and do not interfere with other students' learning.

3. We take attendance; please have your child come to class regularly and on time.

4. Encourage your child to contribute to discussions, and to ask questions fearlessly. At the start of each class students can ask any question about God/ religion/ Christianity/ Catholicism/ current events/ encounters with non-Catholics/ you name it. We want the kids to get answers to their faith questions (last year we had over 100), and if they don't ask 'em we can't answer 'em!

5. No sitting in the back row! Our class isn't so big that anyone has to sit in the back. Encourage your child to sit in the front row; it's the easiest place to learn, and harder to be bored there.

6. You can contact me at 230-5473 or with any questions or comments.

Thanks for your support,

Christian LeBlanc

Monday, September 14, 2009

To Book or Not To Book

A recent post at Joe Paprocki's catechist blog prompted me to think about my use of the textbook & workbook in my 6th grade class. As I mentioned in an earlier post, 30-Step Program, our texbook is designed for a 180-day schoolyear, not a 30-night schedule. So there's way more stuff in the book than we can deal with.

The first year I had the kids take the book home to read the next chapter and also bring it to class. That didn't work: not enough kids brought the book to class. Plus, those that did used the book as a toy when I wanted them listening and participating in discussion. And there were times I'd ask a question, and the kids would go to the book instead of their brains: no looking in the book! Shut those books! I already know what the book thinks, I read the chapter. I want to know what you think! And of course, anyone seeing the chapter for the first time in class is confronted by a week's worth of information, not an evening's worth. 11-year-olds weren't managing that well, regardless.

Likewise with the workbook: doodling, looking at pictures, flipping pages, whatever. And the time spent distributing and recovering pencils and workbooks cut into classtime. The workbook questions were good though, but the friction costs of using the actual workbook itself were high.

So in the second year, I kept the same deal on the textbook (home & class), but the kids never saw the workbooks. Instead, I blended some workbook questions into the lesson plan. That worked, but the textbook problems remained. More learning was lost through the book's misuse as a distraction and a crutch than was gained through its use as a resource. Plus, the kids that had read the chapter were peeved that other kids would just scan the book quickly for a correct answer without really trying to learn anything.

In year three then, this was the deal:

1. The textbook & workbook stay home.

2. Read the chapter before you come to class, it won't take 5 minutes, and then you'll like class better.

3. If I find out you didn't read the chapter, you don't get to ask any questions (which can be a big part of the discussion), and only get to answer my questions after kids who did read it have a chance to answer. Generally the kids who have the most to say are least likely to read the chapter. They chafe in class if their participation is truncated, and will typically announce the next week that they indeed read the chapter this time.

This will be my sixth year of teaching 6th graders; I don't expect to change the book policy. I imagine that for older kids, using the books in class might work out fine; or even for younger kids, I just have no experience with either group.
PS See that? That's my class!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

plus de Tempus Fugit

Time does fly. Check out these photos of two of my kids.

This is Christian and Francesca, aged 4 and 2 or so. Taken at my parents' house, Janet & I call this picture "Barflies" because it reminds us of an old married couple having yet another round at the pub. We have laughed about this pic for more than 15 years.

The next picture I stole from my daughter's Facebook today. It's France and Christian down at the College of Charleston celebrating her 18th birthday. Or studying. Or something.

In some ways time flies; in other ways, things don't change all that much, do they?