Friday, 28 November 2008

more interesting blogs

D'oh. A bit too much time spent reading blogs tonight after a fabulous and engaging day at NTI arguing about paedobaptism and trying to revitalize our celebrations of the Lord's Supper. Tim Chester was number one, of course.

Just been reading from this one, though I have no idea how he has the time to write so much interesting stuff and respond to people's comments while also being a NT scholar and author.

Ben Witherington

And then while looking at Witherington's reviews of Pagan Christianity, I saw this critique of the critique. It was very powerful.

John Zens.

And back to Witherington, I am clearly going to have to look at this post and the video in more depth, in case I ever finish my writing of an expanded piece on humour and comedy in the Bible and the Christian life. I am a total amateur, but maybe will make a contribution that some will find useful.

That sounded rather mournful and self-pitying, didn't it? I guess I'm suffering from blog envy right now. As I have indigestion and am exhausted, I think it would be best to go to bed now.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Music for children

Today at Emmanuel URC in Cambridge and tomorrow in Ely Cathedral I play(ed) a collection of such music. At the recital today I wore jeans, big muddy trainers, a baseball cap and a hoodie. Trying to be like a child of today, or something. Probably the only classical recital where the soloist looked quite so silly in quite that way...


Erik Satie, Gymnopédie No. 2 is one that never gets taught to kids, who always have to put up with no. 1, but it was written for Conrad Satie, who I hope was Erik’s little son. I haven’t done the research on that one, though!

Yvonne Adair, The Golden Isle. There is a lot of delightful music out there that is not too hard, such as this suite from 1928 that my teacher gave me when I was nine. It begins with a Prelude (The Gulls) that sets the scene from on high. The musical highlight is The Cave, richly evocative and mysterious. The Little Donkeys with Red Saddles are immediately recognisable before we dip into the limpid Venus Pool. With the Wind in the South West comes some scary stuff before calm descends on The Cradle Rock at Dusk with more than just hints of ‘Away in Manger’.

Robert Schumann, Scenes from Childhood, Op.15. This is the classic work about children and for children. Imagine a typical day spent observing or looking after some kids in the holidays… In Von fremden Ländern und Menchen and Curiose Geschichte the parent tells unusual stories to the children before rushing around the house in a game of ‘catch’ (Hasche-mann). One child puts on a pathetic voice to ask for something that is probably out of the question in Bittendes Kind – but, surprise, surprise, whatever it was is forthcoming and they are all quite happy (Glükes genug). A generous and rather grand aunt comes to visit in Wichtige Begenheit, but adult conversation proves too much and the child eventually starts daydreaming (Träumerei). My favourite is Ritter von Steckenpferd – presumably having been released from needing to entertain the aunt, you can now hear the kid rocking furiously backward and forwards in heroic adventures in the playroom, but, being on a rocking horse he gets nowhere fast! As the day wears on some stories and games prove almost too serious (Fast zu ernst) and even a bit scary (Fürchtenmachen) and the childrens’ energy levels drop. So, off to bed for Kind in einschlummern, and the composer has the last word (Der Dichter spricht).

Dimitri Kabalevsky, Sonatina No. 1, Op.13. Much of Kabelevsky’s music sounds as if it was written for children – it has a wonderful circus-like quality and is always entertaining. This mini sonata is almost easy enough for small hands. It has a punchy opening movement, Allegro assai e lusingando, a dark slow movement, Andantino, and a brisk and slightly skinny finale, Presto.

Debussy, Children’s Corner. The children of Debussy’s acquaintance, including the ‘petite Chouchou’ he wrote it for, must have been pretty good pianists. Also quite generous in their musical tastes, in my opinion. I have ommitted the boring, wierd ones from the set (a couple of which are also really hard to play!) and will leave you with the advice that doing your exercises at the keyboard will enable you to reach truly great things (Dr Gradus ad parnassum). Should you get lost when out in the fields, The little Shepherd will give you assistance, and then you can round off the day with a show featuring the inevitable Golliwogg’s cake-walk.

early national consciousness

A phrase which, of course, brings to mind the Armenians.

In a fascinating study of early medieval historical writing, chronicles and antiquarian collections (‘The concept of “history” in medieval Armenian historians’, in Antony Eastmond, ed., Eastern Approaches to Byzantium [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001], pp.89-99) Robert W. Thompson describes a balancing act undertaken by historians before the coming of Islam. Armenia was a Christian nation, but politically it was aligned with the Shah of Persia, whose invasion and persecution of the Armenians had not shaken their devotion en masse to their faith and their church, despite many individuals who abandoned Christianity. One such writer, recording the revolt against the Shah in 450,

describes in detail the heroic feats of the leaders in battle and the martyrdom of important prisoners taken to Iran. But for Elishe virtuous conduct is not seen in terms of an early Christian martyrdom, where the salvation of an individual soul is at stake. Armenian moral virtue is linked to the survival of the nation. The Armenians are not fighting for Christendom, but for the survival of specifically Armenian traditions. They had an intense awareness of the dangers of apostasy – which was indeed frequent and often politically motivated, as in Georgia. (p.91)

Interestingly, at the point when Mongols from the east and crusaders from the West had damaged both the Muslim rulers of the Middle East and the weakened Byzantines (now largely restricted to the West of Asia Minor), Armenian royal iconography of the court at Cilicia demonstrates some pretty sizeable ambitions.

While Cilicia was in the end overcome by the Islamic powers on her eastern borders, the richly decorated manuscripts of the second half of the thirteenth century were an exuberant claim to be a new Byzantium. The treaties and marriage alliances between Cilicia and both the west and the Mongols must have made it seem possible, if not probable to the Armenians of Cilicia thatthey would balance east and west, link the Mongl dragon and the French fleur-de-lis and finally replace the Byzantine court as the great power in the east. Like Sargis Pidsak, we know that the end was very different but that does not negate the moment of the dream. (Helen C. Evans, ‘Imperial aspirations: Armenian Cilicia and Byzantium in the thirteenth century’, in Eastmond, ed. Eastern Approaches, pp.243-53 [p.253]).

Nationality et al

It’s a messy sort of thing, working this out, especially in post-imperial contexts like the Balkans…

In a fascinating survey of travel writing and proto-nationalist writing in 19th-century Bulgaria Stoyan Raichevsky buils a case that the Pomaks, the name given to the roughly 300,000 Muslims living in Bulgaria, descendants of converts to Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries, were truly Bulgarian and knew it. They often lived side-by-side with Christian Bulgarians, repudiated the learning of Turkish, sang anti-Turkish songs, desperately tried to avoid serving in the Turkish army (p.75), sometimes supported resistance fighters, and, perhaps less importantly for the question of nationality, practised a local, syncretistic form of Islam.

‘The Muslims of the plains do not belong to the Turkish people. They are Christians who adopted Islam during the period of the oppression. It is true that they go to the mosque but in mixed areas they share with the Christians the same superstitions, almost the same azimas, and use the same amulets. Most of them speak Bulgarian and would return to their original religion with the same ease with which they deserted it. They don’t understand much of both the Koran and the Holy Scriptures’ (Albert Dumont in 1873, quoted on p.54).

Many ethnographers of the time called them Bulgarians, and it was the question of language that was most weighty in their mind: ‘Nationality is a community of people who are related by language, by origin, by tradition, by some common moral qualities, common sympathy, common aspirations… no matter whether they have political independence or not.’ (Petko Slaveikov writing in Mecedonia newspaper in 1867, quoted by Raichevsky on p.50)

But why were the Bulgarian Muslims treated so badly by the newly-independent Bulgarian state before the communist takeover? (It is perhaps easier to explain the brutalities of the communists – after all, they were communists!) Perhaps because these Bulgarian Muslims did not convert to Orthodoxy in great numbers after independence as many commentators had predicted.

For example, Austrian ethnographer and historian Felix Kanitz: ‘All religious hatred is alien to the Mohammedan Bulgarians, everywhere these Muslim Pomaks live in perfect harmony with their brothers by blood, the Christians. In the regions where they live together I never heard any complaint of animosity on both parts… [When the more numerous Christians establish their own rule over these regions] these crypto-Muslim Bulgarians will again return to the religion of their ancestors, the religion which they still practise secretly.’ (comment from 1877, quoted on pp.57-8)

Of course, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 had a massive negative impact on the population and sparked off mass migrations of the Pomaks to Turkey. This was compounded by Christians’ greed for their property, Turkish imams propaganda at religious schools, fear of anti-Muslim recrimination (even though they were personally innocent of siding with the Turks – even the pro-Turkish British military leader St Clair couldn’t get Muslim Bulgarians to oppose the Russian occupation, pp.78-79) and bad administration by the new rulers (pp.65-72). Furthermore, when some Pomaks wanted to return, having not been treated well in Turkey and without the language, the new Bulgarian administration was not especially helpful (1909 order of the ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion offered no special help to Bulgarian Muslims wanting to return home, p.86, a real missed opportunity).

Amusingly, Polish political intrigue of the time sought to convince the Pomaks that they were of Polish origin, and, presumably, should therefore be loyal to Poland rather than to their present Ottoman masters or to the nascent Bulgarian state or the Russian Imperial patron (p.52).

Monday, 3 November 2008

commas in quotation

Why do they do it? I mean you, why do you do it? Put terminal commas and other pieces of punctuation inside the quotation marks? Like this, for example...

As Williams points out, Albania has 'a very odd-looking language to a Western European,' not to mention a large number of concrete pill boxes dotted about its countryside.

Or (less offensively) like this...

World Chess Champion, V. Anand, who just defeated V. Kramnik for the coveted title, told us what it was like playing the gruelling match in Bonn: 'It took a lot of effort and energy.'

This practice is very widespread - even in academic writing. But it looks ugly, and it robs the framing sentence of its own opportunity to send signals. In fact, when it comes to full stops, the frame sentence then doesn’t HAVE a full stop to bring it to a close. It it left hanging into the abyss of nothingness. Aaaaaargh!

(un)Seasonal sonatas

At the superb concert venue that is Emmanuel URC, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, Jane and I recently offered up this tasty morsel...

Sonata in F major, Op.24
1. Allegro
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Scherzo & Trio (Allegro molto)
4. Rondo (Allegro ma non troppo)

It is easy to see (hear) why this sonata is known as the “Spring Sonata”. Birdsong and gentle breezes fill the first movement’s opening theme and the whole work is full of energy and surprises. There are stormy passages and passionate outbursts throughout the first movement but the mood is almost relentlessly optimistic. The slow movement is lean and simple and sounds far away, yet is strangely beautiful. The scherzo is a true joke, with a clumsy trio that rushes hot on its heels. It leads straight into the finale, a rondo (the first tune returns again and again, ABACADA…) on an almost childish theme. All sorts of sliding around and inventiveness in the presentation of the themes leads to the uproarious conclusion. This is definitely the work of a young(ish) man. It comes from 1801 and is the fifth of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, nine of which he wrote by his mid-thirties.

Sonata No.2 in A major, Op. 100
1. Allegro amabile
2. Andante tranquillo – Vivace
3. Allegro molto moderato

Why did Brahms wait so long before composing any violin sonatas? The shadow of Beethoven stretched a long way into 19th century Germany and Brahms was a very cautious person, always feeling the pressure of coming after such a ground-breaking composer. He was 40 when he wrote his first published sonata for the instrument and fifty when a lakeside holiday in Switzerland inspired this – his sunniest and “summeriest” work. The bonus for us of Brahms’ tremendous caution is that all of his published works display an incredible craftsmanship. This sonata is no exception; its lyrical and flowing mood is held together by ingenious counterpoint and reworking of material (see if you can hear the first movement’s main theme as it tries to accompany the finale’s first theme). The central movement is both a slow movement and a scherzo, getting progressively faster and more manic each time it appears, making full use of pizzicato (plucking) as the violin imitates a banjo. The serene finale, like the first movement, quotes from songs by Brahms, songs about gardens, flowers and lovers. Not even the mysterious piano flourishes and dark arpeggios can dispel the summer and its radiant coda.


I lost, I lost!

Last weekend there was something of a Downing College reunion in Huddersfield – a surprisingly attractive place. A large number of games were played at the home of a certain small businessman and “UK writer”. These games were played by said writer, his former room-mate and my best man, me and in some cases by firstwriter’s long-suffering wife. I came out loser in almost every scenario…

Aka “Bridge for Idiots”. A great game. Poor firstwriter was dealt duff hands in every round but still managed to win, in conjunction with our card sharp (NJB). We stayed up rather late on the first evening playing this.

Never having played proper world domination Risk before I approached this (on the second night) with a certain amount of excess adrenalin. Even being the only player to be eliminated from the game after 5 hours of play could not dampen my enthusiasm. This was partly because I saw the writing on the wall a few turns before the end and decided to do a Mao, concentrating my forces in a single province in Asia (initially China) and then marching around to victory. Or so I hoped… I was actually cornered in Siam and wiped out in a pincer attack from Indonesia and India (imagine if that had happened in 1949!) Still, it cost my attacker considerably more armies than I lost. Something of a pyrrhic victory for him, as the other two players were then poised to carve him up, but an honourable three-way draw was then (propsed and brokered by me) and agreed. I awarded myself the carnage prize for the most enemy armies destroyed, a decent consolation. Interestingly the decisive province in the game turned out to be Yakutsk - no battles were fought on or from it, but after a few turns its owner kept reinforcing it heavily preventing anyone (especially me) from expanding throughout Asia until it was too late.

Wii Sports (tennis)
Wrist strain and collision were the hallmarks, along with constant defeat. The married team were too coordinated for N and I.

Wii Mariokart
I managed not to be 12th in every race I played, but that’s about the extent of my achievement. A 5-year-old could have beat me – and, in fact, did on several occasions.

Triple Crown
Mancala, Abalone and Reversi (Othello). One of the triumvirate played two games at once, the simultaneous handicap passing to the next player as soon as someone was defeated. The games swapped in and out after two matches had been played of each one. There were three games of Reversi (no wins for me), five games of Mancala (one win for me) and three games of Abalone (a shock double victory and no defeats for me!), which revealed that I was generally the loser – the other two won four matches each.

Never before have I lost so many games and enjoyed myself quite so much!

Heywood (Lancs) was the next stop on the grand northern tour for a long-overdue reunion with a chemical engineer who is also a Scrabble King. We tried Banangrams, which is like Take Two, a game played with Scrabble tiles which need to be arranged and rearranged at top speed into a little crossword formation. I managed to distinguish myself here, too. I blame it on lack of sleep through 500 and Risk earlier in the weekend!