Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Introduction to Gilbert & Sullivan

The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert And SullivanThe Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Richard Egilski, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009

Arthur Sullivan wanted to write serious music, but his friend W.S. Gilbert kept writing the same silly opera plot over and over again. It looked like their friendship and opera-writing partnership were finished until Mr. Gilbert came up with something entirely new--“The Mikado”, and it was a huge hit.

Gilbert & Sullivan - The Pirates of Penzance / Kline, Ronstadt, Smith, Routledge, Delacorte Theater (Broadway Theatre Archive)It’s my understanding that these two had more than one feud of this sort, but this was a great introduction to who these men were and what their relationship and their music were like. I discovered this book at our local library a few weeks ago, and it inspired me to dig a little deeper. So we borrowed The Pirates of Penzance from the library and had a middle-of-the-week movie night. Definitely time for something light around here. It was lots of fun. Kevin Kline makes a great pirate king—I’ve been watching this number over and over all week.

I’m not aware of many other children’s books that deal with Gilbert & Sullivan operas, but I did find these vintage goodies:

These Curtain-Raiser Books (Franlin Watts, Inc.) are from 1965 and 1966, and are retellings of six G & S operas. The illustrations are by Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone.  A great follow-up to Jonah Winter’s book to see just how similar some of Gilbert's plots are.

I just had to throw this in, too: Anna Russell on “How to Write Your Own Gilbert & Sullivan Opera”


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

As Iron Sharpens Iron

Talk about a rich environment. Shinichi Suzuki got the opportunity to live in Berlin as a young man in the 1920s. He was there to study violin, and because of high inflation in Germany at the time (at first the exchange rate was 600 marks for 10 yen, but towards the end of his time there the rate had soared to 100,000,000 marks for 10 yen) he was also able to take in an enormous amount of culture. He studied composition and orchestration. He spent time in the homes of prominent Berliners.He went to concerts almost every night; he saw Richard Strauss, Glazunov and Furtwangler conduct, and heard performances by Fritz Kreisler and Artur Schnabel, among others.

He also had some remarkable friends. One man, a doctor and friend of the Suzuki family, left Berlin early on in Shinichi’s stay to become Dean at Johns Hopkins University. So he asked another friend to take Suzuki under his wing in his place. Do you know who that friend of a friend turned out to be? Albert Einstein. Evelyn Hermann wrote in Shinichi Suzuki: The Man and His Philosophy:

Shinichi Suzuki: The Man and His Philosophy
        Einstein’s circle of friends included many people of prominence in their particular fields of endeavor, but they all shared a love of art, and all were extremely modest and kind. Here Suzuki learned that in order to achieve harmony, one must be able to compromise gracefully. He also learned that it is nobler to be the one who yields than the one who forces the other to compromise. Harmony cannot be achieved in any other way. This, then, was the great attribute of character that Suzuki learned from Einstein and his friends. It would later become the basis of Talent Education. Suzuki’s aim is to develop young Japanese children, who will grow to be fine adults, who can enjoy their music together, and who will develop as high an intellect and sensitivity as possible. The purpose of Talent Education is not to train professional musicians, but to train fine musicians, and then through music, the student will show a high ability in whatever field he might choose.
        Einstein was only 16 when the idea of relativity first occurred to him. Einstein said that he discovered it by intuition, and that music was a driving force behind intuition. Einstein’s parents began his study of the violin when he was six years old, and Einstein himself has said, “My new discovery is the result of musical perception.” It was an exhilarating experience for Suzuki to associate with people of such high intellect, sensitivity, and good will.”
That distinction of Suzuki’s goal, “not to train professional musicians, but to train fine musicians” who would then show “a high ability in whatever field” they chose, is huge. The Suzuki Method has produced many fine professional musicians. But the whole point of it is so much more than job training. The thing that impressed Suzuki most about Einstein was neither his scientific prowess nor his skill as a violinist. It was his character. I think sometimes we think of character as a separate quality from skills and accomplishments, or as an accomplishment in itself. But if we rearrange our thinking to envision skills and accomplishments as a stepping stone to who we are as people—doesn’t that change things radically?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Call

The Wind in the WillowsYou know how things just come together sometimes? I’ve been reading The Wind in the Willows to the kids for a while now, and we’ve been enjoying it thoroughly. This is my first time through it, and I’ve been surprised by the depth—I knew it was a classic, but somehow all I expected was cozy stories about animals. Good stories, but just nice and cozy. Silly me—I should have known it was a classic for a better reason than that.

We hit the following passage on a Friday afternoon a week and half ago. We were at the end of a get-through-it sort of a week, and I figured the best Language Arts lesson we could have at the end of a week like that was a good long read-aloud. So I read, and read, and read. And we got to “Wayfarers All”, the chapter about the Water Rat’s restlessness as other creatures were heading south for the winter and he was left behind, and it struck me deeply:

Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further southwards—his simple horizon hitherto, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know. To-day, to him gazing south with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping, and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!
He rose and descended river-wards once more; then changed his mind and sought the side of the dusty lane. There, lying half-buried in the thick, cool under-hedge tangle that bordered it, he could muse on the metalled road and all the wondrous world that it led to; on all the wayfarers, too, that might have trodden it, and the fortunes and adventures they had gone to seek or found unseeking—out there, beyond—beyond!

I started a post later that afternoon, but before I could finish our computer was accidentally pulled off the table and the screen shattered, and I’ve been unable to access it until yesterday. Here’s what I was thinking that day:

Our family is getting a glimpse of two worlds right now. I don’t know how else to put it. We are going through our daily lives, busy with end-of-school-year activities, thinking about summer, doing dishes and laundry, fighting colds. At the same time, a loved one is dying. Each day this week our day-to-day, regular life has been interspersed with calls from my mom with updates on Gram’s physical and spiritual state. She is at peace. She smiles even in her sleep. She is in a physical state of decline. We are at peace; we rest in the faith that she is on her way to heaven, and that this is not a final goodbye but a long separation.

My grandma died that night. We miss her terribly, and are thankful for many good years and the chance to say goodbye before she passed. That time between worlds—well, it feels like a door has closed for now. And it may be a small thing, but I find I have a new friend in Kenneth Grahame, who wrote a book in 1908 that spoke into my life in 102 years later in a way that he probably never intended, but that I will probably never forget.

“To-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

If You've Seen One Peacock...

We went to the zoo one afternoon while we were visiting my grandma, giving her a chance to rest and giving my kids a chance to blow off steam. And while there were many wonderful things to see, I enjoyed the peacocks most of all. I’ve seen a few peacocks in my life, but have rarely seen them displaying their tail feathers. On this particular day, however, both the peacocks I saw were on full display, fans open wide, and turning slowly so everybody could see. The first peacock was the kind I usually think of, brilliant shades of blue, green and gold. The second peacock, which we found near the concession area, was pure white. I thought he was beautiful, stunning in the way that things are when your emotions are on overdrive. His lack of color stood out against everything else, and he struck me as other-worldly, forever tied to what was probably my last visit with my grandma.

I decided to take a few pictures to show her, and the peacock was kind enough to oblige me. But during our little photo shoot, I overheard the conversation of a family walking past, and now it, too, is forever joined with that extraordinary weekend:

“Hey, Mom, can we take a picture of that peacock?”

Mom: “No.”

“Why not?”

Dad: “Because if you’ve seen one peacock, you’ve seen them all.”

Now, I’ve given my kids plenty of short, ridiculous answers like that, so I don’t hold it against the dad. There’s no telling what preceded that conversation. But at the same time it struck me as an amazingly sad thing to say. Hopefully it was just a momentary, thoughtless answer. Because I can’t imagine going through life with that attitude, shut off from the wonder.

Earlier in the day, Gram and I had been talking about books, among other things. She has spent much of the last year reading. “You know,” she said, “you go out onto the street and there are all these people, and they all have stories. It’s amazing.”

You can be ready to leave this world and still see the wonder in it. I hope I don’t rush past too many peacocks.