Spitzweg’s Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday)

spitzweg-ashermittwochUsing a lone figure illuminated by dusty rays of light, the painter Karl Spitzweg juxtaposes the tumult of human consequences against Mercy’s irrevocable dawn.

Here we see a man who, only hours before, was cavorting in full-blown pleasure as Carnaval’s excesses wound to a roaring end. He may have been a costumed reveler, swirling with friends amidst a cascade of Bratwurst, schnapps, and ancient rowdy tunes. Or he may have been a hired performer, a jester exhausted from working the long days of celebration, who somehow got on the wrong side of things.

Now, though, he sits in a dungeon (Kerker), according to the official interpretations of this painting. The light that streams onto him expresses the harsh reality of morning or, as a popular Carnaval song states, “Alles ist vorbei” (“the unrestrained festivity is over”). His hope now lies in the faint light that proclaims the morning known as Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Lent is the longest liturgical season, a 40-day period characterized by prayer, fasting, and penance in preparation of Easter’s miracle. And while Spitzweg’s painting may well be set in a dungeon, I saw it differently upon first glance.

The figure, to me, was seated not in dungeon, but in a reclusive spot along a city wall, or in a courtyard, perhaps near a cathedral wall. Imprisoned he might well be, but imprisoned by his failings, his sin, rather than by stone cold walls. And while we don’t know how this story will end for our fellow, we each know the feelings he expresses: a rueful recognition of having crossed from what the German’s call Narrfreiheit (Fool’s Freedom) to a point where penance is one’s only hope of rescue.

People often encounter Spitzweg through his tender iconic masterwork The Poor Poet (1839). I certainly did, and initially viewed his artistry solely as an expression of the graceful, intimate style of the Biedermeier Era in early 19th-century Europe.

But later I came to see his depictions of social and individual predicaments as more realistic and psychologically nuanced. Insofar as this painting, Spitzweg invites us to enter and sit quietly on an adjacent ledge. We might be tempted to ask this sad fellow “What happened?” But more likely we would be lost in our own thoughts, bringing our own spiritual weariness and human errors into the same light that illuminates his contemplation.

Art conveys what words cannot. And when we view paintings like Aschermittwoch, we easily can imagine ourselves sharing the canvas with the figures painted within.

May Spitzweg’s depiction of Ash Wednesday speak its own strong message to you during this Lenten season.

The Library of the Mind


The purge is on. It was triggered in this case by a leak from the garage ceiling that began to soak several stacks of boxes. Inside were files from my university career representing three decades of research and teaching materials.

For me, it’s excruciatingly difficult to throw stuff out. I lament the empty paper towel roll, standing alone, destined for the trash. “Oh you poor little brown roll, you served us so well dispensing all those towels, and now, look! Whatever will become of you?”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. So imagine my pain at pawing through boxes of wet, largely no-longer needed folders containing “my life.”

Remember, not so long ago one’s filing cabinet was the equivalent of Mary Poppins’ magic satchel: whatever you were able to pull out determined how much magic you could bring into your classroom.

Yet much in these folders is obsolete. Take the long lists of slides, complete with call numbers, used to illustrate my lectures. Internet access theoretically has eliminated the very need to sit for hours pulling slides from heavy, compartmentalized drawers and or arranging those pesky slide carousels.

Yet how can I describe the learning that took place during the hours I bent over those very drawers! The fiercest cascade of Google search terms cannot begin to teach what was gained by that process.

I struggle the most over purging boxes labeled Introduction to Graduate Studies. An innocuous-sounding class, this required course was a traditional, trial-by-fire introduction to scholarly work. It poured the rigor of research methodology into the head of young adults who would rather be practicing the violin or conducting symphonies.

The text and model for this course came from an esteemed member of that “greatest generation” of World-War II era scholars, Vincent Duckles (1913-1985). His primary publication—a copiously annotated compendium of research materials—struck fear into everyone required to buy it. We called it simply “Duckles” and it grew fatter and scarier with every edition as the author captured the burgeoning waves of bibliographic research bursting out across the globe after the second World War.

But despite the impossibility of learning everything in Duckles, grappling with it was an absolute key to learning research skills for a new graduate student. It changed one’s understanding of music.

Duckles wrote other things, too. My favorite of his articles is entitled “The Library of the Mind” (1976). Here he set forth the rationale and prescription for establishing a mental picture of the materials in a music library. In a sense, he was encouraging us plant the seeds of scholarship mentally before employing them physically.

As beautiful as his title is, though, I called the process the “shooting hoops” principle. A professional basketball player doesn’t look with his eyes to find the basket. The basket is “there” in the mind and muscles, no matter what his position on the court. Hundreds, even thousands, of baskets shot per day guarantee this result.

Well, research materials can go into a person’s mind that same way. So we began our course with internalizing the systemic design of the library. We did this many ways, including memorizing the Library of Congress call numbers for significant types of materials: scores (the written music), biographies, facsimiles, collected sets and series, music iconography, theoretical writings, and more.

Some of it was easy: M100 for solo instrumental music, M200s for duos, M300s for trios, M400s for quartets, M500s for quintets, all the way to M900s for nonets and M1000 for symphonies.

But it wasn’t all so obvious. Students first had to discover, then explore, and finally internalize materials such as the ML134’s, the Thematic Catalogues. Weighty compendia detailing the works of composers like Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, and Brahms, thematic catalogues provide detailed information about individual pieces of music available nowhere else.

We also did a lot of old-fashioned legwork, spending hours physically perusing the books, and sometimes even conducting class while standing before the shelves. It was like googling with the hands and feet.

It sounds very old-fashioned now, but it worked. If done even halfway diligently, the student’s mind gradually became a card catalogue of resources. After all, it’s amazing how much information we really can store in our minds. The best analogy I can offer is grocery shopping. “Why do I need this store?” “Where is the catsup?” “Which brand and size should I buy?” “How many avocados do I need?” And even the tiniest questions: “How many grams of sugar are in this yogurt?” In short, “the grocery store of the mind?”

Some of the traditional methodology of music research in the “Library of the Mind” would appear to be replaced by the internet. But I’d be willing to put the old-fashioned skills of students trained in the older methods against those who learn them through today’s lens of digital access.

If I were teaching the course today, I would naturally include the digital resources. But we’d still walk the shelves, pausing, holding, even smelling the books (yes, 18th-century theory volumes smell very different from 19th-century volumes).

And the rigor would remain. Rigor cannot be demoted to an option in research. A quest does not become an easy path to navigate simply by clicking.

Clicking is marvelous, of course, and I do it countless times a day. But as I click, I’m actually envisioning the individual resources in the Library of my Mind, holding them in my hand, searching through them. The rigor that teaches a young person to approach a topic with the right questions must be fueled by frustrating labor, indeed a bit of drudgery. It is hard because, well, it is hard.

None of my musings, though, make it easy to toss out my wet files. But most of them do need to go. The leak was a kind of blessing in that respect. It’s okay, because those professors who trained me did achieve their goal: they planted a library of the mind impervious to mildew, upon which I still build.

World Premieres and Snow Cream

We followed a wintry storm last week across Texas and Louisiana and up into North Carolina. When we pulled up to our forested Bed & Breakfast near the coast, it looked like a scene from White Christmas. The effect was dazzling.

Two images stand out from our week-long trip: snow cream and mud. If a person is from Texas, it’s entirely possible not to have seen much snow. Our little granddaughter hadn’t. But she knew about snow cream from stories.

All it took was a styrofoam cup, a scoop of snow carefully honed out of a drift still intact behind a friend’s office, a measure of coffee cream, and a packet of sugar. Voila! Snow cream . . . or a reasonable facsimile thereof. It tasted pretty good. Wild to share it, Patti proclaimed its glory across the whole office, but she found no takers (other than me).

Snow Cream is a rite of passage. We forget how important such “small rites” are for a child, particularly when the activity is something ephemeral. Snow cream, snow angels, a snowman—each of these will melt; but, for a brief time, they are there, icy and real in our hands.

On this same trip we visited a house where a well-meaning person had thrown down shovels of dirt to make the sidewalks less slippery. The ice had melted, so the dirt transformed into a hard-to-see layer of caulk on the pavement. The minute we stepped out of the car, we were sole-deep in clay. Too late, I recalled from my graduate-school days that Carolina mud is different from our Texas mud. Each step we took to extricate ourselves added to the dilemma. Within moments, everyone in our party was taller from layers of mud accumulating under our shoes.

If you’re going to get stuck in the mud, do so grandly, I sang out. Not everyone was equally amused (although the granddaughter laughed hilariously). Still, think how many stories feature someone, or something, stuck in the mud. For our granddaughter, a literary image was now a squishy, yucky reality requiring at least twenty minutes of shoe-scraping and subsequent baths for our shoes.

As adults we carry tens of thousands of these experiences inside us. Yet, at one point each was new for us. Dr. David Milnes, the dynamic conductor at my university who now directs the orchestra at UC-Berkeley, voiced it in a way that has never left me. One morning, after he had directed our orchestra in a fabulous performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a colleague asked him, “It was great, David, but how do you keep that energy level going? After all, you’ve conducted that work hundreds of times.” “Yes,” said Milnes. “But for these kids, last night was a World Premiere.”

A world premiere. The first time something important happens for a child really is a world premiere. It doesn’t have to be an artistic work. Maybe it’s something like a child first riding a bike down the driveway. Or the moment the mystery of turning a door knob reveals itself to a tiny hand. Or the first taste of snow cream.

Such little premieres are also cultural anchors. They bind us together just as much as any serious academic study or complex undertaking, particularly if we can stop long enough to value them.

A moment of firsts awaits us every day, big and small, mildly interesting and exhilarating. The moment we spot the tentative heads of winter pansies planted around the church. The first time a child replies effortlessly to a multiplication question or connects “Norway” with that spot pointed out on the globe. Or the first “I-made-it-myself” cheese sandwich.

If we don’t think we have time to notice these “firsts,” perhaps we’ve forgotten their power to energize and focus us. To exhilarate, console, or reassure us.

Today is new day of world premieres. It’s almost unnerving to go out the door, so many await us. Grab them while they are there, because they melt into mundanity if we’re not insistent that they stay vivid and crisp in our hands.

Painting:Géza Peske, Snowballing

The Family Storyteller


Every family has a storyteller. Or else, a story about a storyteller who touched their lives. Growing up, it was my father who told the stories. My mother told almost none, even though both of my parents clawed their way through the same Depression with similar challenges.

But, in my mother’s case, she came from a family where you didn’t air your dirty laundry. In fact, you didn’t air any laundry. Daughter of impoverished Jewish (Russian-Polish) immigrant parents whose fortunes in the U.S. did not fulfill the dreams held back in the Old Country, her goal as an adult seemed to be to forget everything that happened when she was young. 

When asked about her childhood, she would say “Go read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I have read it, of course—many times. And it helped. But, oh the stories I wish she would have told me. All too late now.

On the other hand, my father, born in the coal camps of West Virginia, could not speak without telling a story. It’s a good thing I had only a child’s understanding because some were pretty wild. For example, the one about his distant aunt who, despite success in Vaudeville, drowned herself in a rain barrel when she was discovered to be in the family way. To be honest, I thought he was making that one up, but after he died, I found a fragile newspaper clipping that confirmed the story. 

Of course, most of his stories were less drastic, like the time a cousin ate a whole pot of beans. (It isn’t just the Tide-Pod generation that does stupid things, although today’s stupidities seem far more lethal.) Or, the time he sat up all night with older musicians in Bluefield, honing his ability to sing Jimmie Rogers’ tunes. Later, in New York at the height of the Depression, he would play at “holes in the wall” and make 8 dollars a night (!), which eclipsed his 8-dollar-a-week job at New York Scientific, embalming animals for science labs. That job, of course, netted a bunch of crazy stories, but I’ll spare you those.  

Then there were stories from the Second World War, where he served as a photographer. One of my favorite is quite benign: the time my mom took a train to see him in Louisiana where he was stationed. They went into New Orleans and found a restaurant, but didn’t much like the food. It was Antoines! My mom kept the menu, and others back home filled her in on what she’d not understood about the cuisine. She delivered this story rather haughtily, I might add—all to emphasize that “fame,” in and of itself, means little. (Personally, we love Antoine’s—its food and its fascinating history.)

So much of the Arts is basically storytelling. Tuesday night brought another pre-concert talk at our gorgeous Meyerson Symphony Hall for one of my favorite ensembles: The Dallas Winds. On the program was a piece called Picture Studies (2012), a modern-day version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition composed by Adam Schoenberg (no relation to the 20th-century avant-guardist, and can you imagine how often he has to explain that!). 

A highly successful American composer, Schoenberg’s lyrical, yet riveting music lights up with optimism and energy. And in this case, he turned his creativity to express his delight at the rich collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

People who don’t know this museum are astonished to learn of its holdings. Schoenberg, then a composer-in-residence at the Kansas City Symphony, soaked up that collection and then decided to illuminate a selection of works and their artists in vivid, often lush, musical vignettes.

I wish you could have been seated with me behind the percussion section for this work (my favorite place to sit). No fewer than seven percussionists play the full gamut of percussion instruments, from the traditional ones you’d expect (gongs, triangles, timpani, drums, bells) to tables full of special effect instruments, as well as crystal water classes (creating serene, eerily beautiful harmonies). At one point, there were four players using violin bows to coax extraordinary sounds from instruments ordinarily played by mallets.

Well, that piece definitely tells as visual story. Then there was Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful Capriccio Espagnole—more proof that Russians, along with the French, have a special key to understanding the Spanish musical soul.

Finally, a trumpet concerto by Alexander Arutunian (1920-2012) that was knocked out of the park by virtuoso Ryan Anderson. That work manages to tell a different type of story. Emanating from a gifted Armenian composer whose life reflected the harsh realities of being a “Soviet” composer during the worst of Communism’s excesses, it reminds us how much joy could be expressed at a time (1950) when every composer in the Soviet fold had to buy into the myth of Soviet identity and a crippling style known as Socialist Realism.

Truth be told, it’s hard to find any piece of art—ballet, sculpture, song, poem—that isn’t telling a story or at least hinting at one. People who love the arts rejoice in experiencing stories, whether overtly expressed or quietly underlying what is heard or seen.

Stepping back from the Arts, remember that we are all creatures of stories. We come from stories and we create them. Never undervalue your stories, even if they merely involve the day you forgot to put plates and cutlery in the picnic basket when trying to impress your future in-laws. In the hands of a good storyteller, that flub makes just as good a story as the time a car skidded off the road in the midst of a midnight blizzard and you and your friend rescued the occupants. 

Best of all, tell the stories to your children and grandchildren. You may think they won’t receive them. True, you may have to accustom them to hearing your stories, if it hasn’t been part of your pattern. But once you open up the legacy of your life, and your ancestors’ lives, and place it gently in their hands, they have something that matters. And something only you can give them.

All of the classic children’s books in the world, no matter how wonderful, cannot convey what your own stories do. Stop and think back to hearing the real stories that beguiled and astonished you in childhood. Close your eyes. See the faces and hear the voices. Yours is now one of them.

Uses for Golden Books

golden-book-gownI was astonished to stumble across this picture. A Golden Book Gown! Apparently it uses 22,000 square inches of the shiny material that binds the “Little Golden Books.” You can read more here.

Imagine what the publishers of the original dozen titles in 1942 (including The Poky Little Puppy) would say if they saw this dress. More importantly, think what they would say if they saw their sparkly bindings still beloved on children’s shelves!

Just yesterday my daughter and I were scouring the book racks at a second-hand kids’ store. We found several of the classic “Little Golden Books” titles to add to the ones already passed down to her kids. And at 50 cents each!

Quite a few “Little Golden Books” survived my childhood intact (probably due to that gorgeous binding). These books meant everything to me as a child. Growing up in the 1950s, the emphasis was on kids learning to read for themselves. And “Little Golden Books” handed us the key to the adult world of reading: they were our size, they held our stories, and they glittered. 

My mother was hands-on in every aspect of my education: she’d have made a fabulous homeschool mom if such a thing had existed. But, oddly enough, I don’t recall her reading aloud to me. I’m sure she did, but I am guessing it stopped when I began to read for myself. Maybe reading aloud wasn’t a key admonition during the Doctor Spock age. 

But she herself read books and magazines constantly, and my dad read every newspaper in existence. So we all read—but quietly, to ourselves.

With my own kids, adopted at older ages from the forests of Russia, we had different items at the top of our agenda, including cultural transition, and acclimation to the “modern world.” I didn’t read aloud enough to them. 

Grandchildren have given me a chance to put many things right. I make reading aloud a top priority, and, of course, a great joy. It has allowed me to revisit the stories and poems of my childhood, for starters. I see far better how reading aloud builds a multifaceted relationship between child and the book, child and the reader, child and the imagination. If I had any doubts, they were erased through a close friendship with a mom I deeply admire. Across 20+ years of raising her kids, she has made a daily period of reading aloud a keystone of her family’s life. Her children, looking back, will recall those thousands of hours as among their dearest memories of childhood.

I even read aloud sometimes now to my grown daughter (my son lives too far away). She says she enjoys it, and I know I do. Such a simple thing, isn’t it? What else, so accessible and pleasant, bears more fruit?

Meanwhile, be careful showing this picture to your little ones. They might decide to experiment with the bindings on their Little Golden Books. My four-year old granddaughter immediately hatched the idea to make a similar gown for her doll. (I think I successfully squashed it.) Consider yourself forewarned.

Image: Ryan Jude Novelline (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Merry Christmas 2017


Recently we’ve become fond of a British vocal group called VOCES8. So today, Christmas Day 2017, we’d like to share their rendition of Lo How a Rose e’re Blooming (Es ist ein Ros entsprungen). A German tune first appearing in […] Read more.

Advent IV – St Joseph


It  seems so far in the distance, but then it arrives. And this year, the fourth Sunday in Advent arrives with a bang! As we close the shortest possible Advent season this morning, we are preparing to move into Christmas […] Read more.

Toy Soldiers


Do you remember Wally—the loosely hinged, battered soldier who stands sentry at our home at Christmastime? Well, today I wanted to return to the topic of the toy soldier. Toy soldiers go as far as back as little boys’ imagination. […] Read more.

Advent III – Gaudete


Gaudete! Rejoice! “Rejoice in the Lord always!” That’s the watchword for this Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday. The festive name comes directly from a passage of Phillipians 4:4. Gaudete in Domino semper iterum dico gaudete. Rejoice in […] Read more.



It’s a perfect weekend for baking. So let’s go to Germany and learn more about their favorite traditional holiday treat: Lebkuchen. Mmm, mmm. Smells good, doesn’t it? Cloves, ginger, cinnamon: the seasonal spices are in the air. And that takes […] Read more.