Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore


The Unicorn is back! I mean the original recording of The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore by Gian Carlo Menotti, of Spoleto Festival fame. Released in 1957 on monaural vinyl and never reissued in digital form, this historic recording has been virtually unavailable for a quarter of a century. See details of its new availability at the end of this posting.

Menotti called The Unicorn a madrigal fable, and a fable it is: a short story with animals as characters conveying a moral. The story is told with irresistible charm and wit. The animals named in the title are imaginative creations of a Poet known by his townspeople as the strange Man in the Castle.

The fable's moral is that artistic creations are vulnerable to unfair panning by self-interested critics and to superficial imitation by a faddish public, neither of these audiences appreciating, far less sharing, the Poet's imperishable devotion to "the pain-wrought creatures" of his fancy.

The work is subtitled Three Sundays of a Poet. A Madrigal Fable for Chorus, Ten Dancers and Nine Instruments. Text by the Composer. Let's consider the phrases of this subtitle in reverse order.

Menotti wrote his own libretto, in crafty English. I find this a wonder. Menotti came to the U.S. in 1928, age 16, not knowing the language. No problem. Consider the alliteration and rhyming of Menotti's lines describing the Poet and his critics:

       He does not pause to acknowledge the racket of the critical cricket,
       Nor to confute the know-how of the sententious cow.

Or Menotti's internal rhyming as the townspeople huff over the Poet's manifold eccentricities:

       We, the few, the elect, must take things in our hands.
       We must judge those who live
           and condemn those who love.
       All passion is uncivil. All candor is suspect.
       We detest all, except, what by fashion is blest.
       And forever and ever, whether evil or good,
           we shall respect what seems clever.

Menotti's music for nine instruments is as saucy as any by Stravinsky or Poulenc, and the recording's players were among New York's most sterling. The 1957 performance by ten dancers of the New York City Ballet we shall, alas, never be able to see.

The chorus of twenty-four sings with sparkling diction. Menotti calls his piece A Madrigal Fable, and his choral writing echoes the vivacious "madrigal comedies" composed by his predecessors in 16th-century Modena.

As the subtitle Three Sundays of a Poet anticipates, the three mythical beasts represent the three stages of the poet's life—youth, mid-life, and old age—each embraced by the Poet for its peculiar and inestimable worth.

The 1957 recording was overseen by Menotti and conducted by Thomas Schippers, age 27 (who at 47 was to die of lung cancer). In recent years several groups have issued CDs of their performances of The Unicorn, but to my ears the immediacy and sprightliness of Schippers' original rendition remain unequaled.

Now the Naxos website is listing a digital reissue of the 1957 recording:

Unfortunately, since I first posted this blog page I have had to revise these final paragraphs. Naxos has informed me that the Unicorn reissue "is exclusively available for streaming and download" and is "not available on CD." Worse than that, the notification continues: "Kindly take note that this [reissue] is not available in the United States, Australia and Singapore due to possible copyright restrictions."

However, a good clear recording of the Schippers performance is currently available on YouTube, and it would seem smart to act quickly:

The complete libretto together with useful notes is available, thanks to the New Mexico Tech Chamber Choir, in a PDF posting:

For U.S. listeners, then, the 1957 Unicorn is only barely back. Still I feel that obtaining this forty-minute masterpiece is worth the effort. The Unicorn has many times conveyed me to an oasis of refreshment for my spirit.

[Note added November 21, 2013: I have succeeded in obtaining the Naxos CD reissue of The Unicorn, paired with Menotti's The Saint of Bleecker Street, from in Toronto:]

[Note added January 29, 2015: Ken Wilson has kindly notified me that a black-and-white television broadcast of The Unicorn in its original casting is now available on a DVD titled "Balanchine: New  York City Ballet in Montreal, Vol.3." It may be ordered from Video Artists International:]


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why the Title "Modalities"?

For me the word modalities first suggests musical modes—Lydian, flamenco, blues, and countless others. Modes add zest to our music, so often served up in plain major or minor. I feel the need for more zest especially in church music. Thank goodness for jazz. I wish that music across our culture would more generously embrace tonal modalities.

For psychologists modalities sometimes refers to the pathways of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching that provide our perceptions. William Wordsworth lamented his society's "outrageous thirst after degrading stimulation." I wish that we might scale back our society's entertainments to levels of stimulation less outrageous, by wholehearted support of entertainment more commensurate with our miraculous pathways of perception.

For philosophers modalities sometimes means the logical alternatives of possibility and impossibility, necessity and contingency. I wish that I could follow their arguments.

Yet on the shelf I reserve for books that have fundamentally shaped my life, one philosopher has a privileged place. Baruch Spinoza in his Ethics speaks of all things in the universe as modalities of God. All individual things, including persons, are "modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite infinite number of things in infinite ways." For Spinoza, God is all and God is infinite.

Spinoza echoes portions of the book that stands at the head of my special shelf, the Bible:

      We could say more [about God] but could never say enough;
          let the final word be: He is the all. (Ecclesiasticus 43:27)

      How weighty to me are your thoughts O God!
          How vast is the sum of them!
      I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
          I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:18)

Shelved next to my copy of Spinoza is The Nature of True Virtue by Jonathan Edwards. I remember the moment of astonishment during my graduate-school years when I first came across Edwards' kaleidoscopic imagery of God as all and infinite:
God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other being, but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day.
With Edwards, in my own less rapturous way, I also sense God as all and infinite. With Spinoza I believe that all things are modalities of God in infinite variety, and all united, profoundly and ineluctably.

All this opens a pretty wide range of possible topics for this Modalities blog: everything. We'll focus on subjects in the spectrum from favorite music to sacred cosmos. Thanks for looking in.