Category Archives: Poetry

Podcast: The Return of the King

Our three-part series on The Lord of the Rings comes, sadly, to an end. A huge thanks to John J. Miller for bringing me onto his excellent show and allowing me to talk and talk and talk about some of the things I love most in this crazy whirligig of a world. A true and meaningful honor.

Here is part III:

https://www.nationalreview.com/podcasts/the-great-books/episode-163-the-return-of-the-king-by-j-r-r-tolkien/

Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, and Modernity

“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”–J.R.R. Tolkien

[Originally delivered at an ISI Conference, “Modernists and Mist Dwellers,” on Friday, August 3, 2001.]

     When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled.  Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation.  Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them.  His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition.  The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien’s ring to Wagner’s ring.  “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Niebelungen Ring,’” Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”  The translator’s commentary was simply “rubbish,” according to Tolkien.[i]

     Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison.  A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude “any direct Wagnerian influence.”[ii]  By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common.  In his last interview before his death, Tolkien’s closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner’s Ring Opera.  Lewis feared, though, that “at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’”[iii]  Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner’s Ring against Tolkien.  One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as “A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”[iv]

[Scroll down a bit to go to page 2 of this lecture]

THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL GOES DIGITAL

From Broadway World:

The Stratford Festival is following up on the success of its recent Shakespeare Film Festival with a $10-a-month digital content subscription, Stratfest@Home, offering more Shakespeare and more films, along with new commissions, music, conversation, cooking and comedy. A free film festival, with a theme of Hope Without Hope, will once again be offered on Thursday evenings.

“At this particular moment of pandemic, with social isolation once more upon us, nights growing longer and winter approaching, we need the consolation of community like never before. With these viewing parties and the many related artistic programs in Stratfest@Home, we invite you to enter the warmth of the Festival bubble,” says Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino.

The subscription cost will include:

  • access to the 12 Shakespeare films streamed on YouTube this past spring;
  • a growing library of Festival-related legacy films, interviews & discussions;
  • new content like the filmed-in-Stratford mini-soap opera Leer Estates, holiday specials for Halloween and U.S. Thanksgiving, and video introductions to the young actors currently studying at the Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory;
  • coming in 2021, the game show Undiscovered Sonnets and the concert series Up Close and Musical.

The free film festival begins this Thursday on YouTube. Already on the schedule are:

  • October 22: The 2011 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night featuring the late Brian Dennehy (a great version that my wife & I saw in person – it includes cool songs by then-artistic director Des McAnuff, who worked with Pete Townshend on the Broadway version of Tommy);
  • October 29: The Stratford Festival Ghost Tours Halloween binge.
  • November 5: The 1994 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This one’s a legendary part of Festival history.
  • November 12: The 1992 production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, with a young Antoni Cimolino as Romeo and Anne of Green Gables’ star Megan Follows as Juliet.
  • November 19: The 2000 production of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, a Festival commission. Playwright Findley was in the acting company with Sir Alec Guinness for the Festival’s inaugural season in 1953.
  • November 26: The Early Modern Cooking Show U.S. Thanksgiving binge.
  • December 3: The 2010 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer. (Another great version that we saw live — and also got Plummer’s autograph on his memoirs!)
  • December 10: The 2008 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer.
  • December 17: All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, a lecture with readings.

You can learn more about Stratfest@Home and subscribe at https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AtHome

— Rick Krueger

Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

Beauty like that is strength. One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.

Doestoevsky, The Idiot

Over the past three decades, Minnesota-born composer Maria Schneider has staked out her own unique territory, based in jazz but expanding beyond category. From classical training and an apprenticeship with master arranger Gil Evans, Schneider parleyed her vivid sense of musical color, vibrant compositions and power-packed conducting skills into the leadership of a 20-piece Jazz Orchestra. At the height of the 1990s jazz boom, Schneider’s ensemble maintained a weekly residence at the New York club Visiones and recorded three fine, critically acclaimed albums (Evanescence, Coming About and Allegresse) for the German label Enja.

Reacting nimbly to the Internet’s disruption of music’s value, Schneider pivoted to crowdfunding for her 21st-century recordings. Concert in the Garden, Sky Blue and The Thompson Fields (along with Winter Morning Walks, a classical song cycle composed for soprano Dawn Upshaw) inhabit a rareified sweet spot where composition and improvisation feed each other, fusing the potent swing of classic big bands and the lush warmth of orchestral tone poems to evoke a deep-rooted, constantly unfolding delight in the world of nature.

But in 2014, David Bowie recruited Schneider and her orchestra for the jolting noir single “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).” The collaboration didn’t just boost Schneider’s profile (and result in sax player Donny McCaslin and guitarist Ben Monder backing Bowie on his swan song Blackstar); it unlocked a grainier, more shaded musical vocabulary, evident in her most recent commissions. This expansion also mirrored Schneider’s dedicated activism on behalf of copyright owners, pushing back against Big Data’s predation on both creative content and personal information.

The new Maria Schneider Orchestra double album Data Lords is the magnificent result, their most complete statement to date. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning musical structures that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody.

Continue reading Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

John Garth, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

Serious fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien need little introduction to John Garth.  His Tolkien and the Great War (2003) is among the best books of this century on the creator of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  With urgency and clarity, Garth laid bare the biographical and historical roots of Tolkien’s legendarium, along with the unique gifts and vision of the man who gave it life.

In the acknowledgments for The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth promises that another major book on Tolkien’s creative process is in the works.  Until then, what an delectable hors d’oeuvre we have to sate our appetites!   Focusing on “the places that inspired Middle-Earth,” Worlds is gorgeously illustrated with snapshots, paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s life, along with many more maps, illustrations and stunning photographs (sampled below).   

But it’s Garth’s commentary — always accessible, always deeply empathetic  — that leaves us richer for the reading.  He probes much farther than any mechanical equation, i.e. “Tolkien saw this [location/building/natural feature] and this place from the legendarium was obviously the result.”  In fact, knocking down some of the wilder theories in play is part of his brief — the family names in the Shire don’t all come from two villages in Kentucky; the “two towers” aren’t a dystopian refraction of Birmingham’s dark satanic mills.  Instead, Garth strives to see Tolkien’s art as the holistic fruit of his life — the circumstances, people, environment, culture and education that shaped him, working together organically with his mind and heart, loves and hates, interests, friendships, education, vocations and travels.

The result can seem unsystematic, yet it’s satisfyingly thorough, surveying how Tolkien drew on the creation he knew to realize his sub-created imaginary world over six decades.  The chapter “The Land of Luthien: from Faerie to Britain” is perhaps Garth’s most delightful achievement here, tracing the evolving picture of Middle-Earth and its correspondences with this world from 1918’s The Book of Lost Tales through to The Lord of the Rings.  But there’s a great deal more on display, as Garth muses on the impressions that seas, mountains, rivers and lakes, forests, centers of learning and towers of guard made on Tolkien — not just in his early life, but throughout his years as a scholar, soldier, husband, father, linguist, storyteller, colleague and friend.  The penultimate chapter, “Places of War” focuses once again on the crucible of the Western Front; Garth is in his element here, digging ever deeper into how the Battle of the Somme and its aftermath refined Tolkien the man, ultimately unleashing Tolkien the legend-maker.

For all this, John Garth and the design team at Quarto Publishing deserve heartfelt thanks.  Words and images work in concert throughout The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, convincingly showing how the bardic depths of Middle-Earth are firmly founded on Tolkien’s experience in — and meditations about — the wonder and beauty of the fields we know.

To order The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien direct from the publisher at 50% off (ending June 28 at 11:59 pm EDT), click here.

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

 

An Ontario Tempest

The next Shakespeare@Stratford film to hit YouTube is the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest, premiering on Thursday, May 14 and running for three weeks.  Here’s my review from when my wife and I saw the play live in October of that year.

This is the third production of The Tempest we’ve seen at Stratford, Ontario; since we started attending in 2004, the Festival has usually marketed the play as a chance to catch an actor of high skill and reputation (and often getting on in years) in the role of Prospero. 2005’s Tempest served as a grand farewell for William Hutt, the most accomplished classical actor in Canada’s theatrical history; the 2010 production was built on Christopher Plummer returning to the scene of his earliest triumphs. This time around, the hook was seeing Martha Henry (since Hutt’s passing, the current Greatest Living Canadian Actor) playing the exiled magician — part of a season with multiple productions (a gender-swapped Julius Caesar and a gender-fluid Comedy of Errors, along with the drag-rock musical The Rocky Horror Show) trendily exploring postmodern conceptions of freedom.

But any dreams or fears of a transgressive Tempest faded quickly; Henry forthrightly played Prospero as female — duchess of Milan, mother of Miranda, wizard ruler of an uncharted, enchanted island — with a few modest tweaks of the script not even scuffing the verse rhythms, and that was that. (After all, it’s a fairy tale; if you’re worried about the lines of descent for Renaissance Italian nobility being messed up, you’ve come to the wrong play.) Even better, this was an ensemble Tempest, with Henry clearly featured, but also clearly first among equals. Rather than chewing scenery a la Plummer or waxing grandiloquent like Hutt, she drove the plot without swallowing the stage, working to provide for her daughter, bring those who exiled her to book, reward virtue and punish wrong with formidable focus, aplomb and dry humor. And all the while, she genuinely wrestled with conflicting impulses: would she take vengeance on her adversaries, or show them mercy? It’s a tribute to Henry’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s conception that, even if you knew the play, the answer wasn’t telegraphed.

The strong cast also elevated this production, consistently playing off Henry’s indispensable work while fruitfully developing their own characters. Andre Morin’s Ariel did Prospero’s bidding with delight, while holding her to the promise of eventual freedom; Michael Blake’s Caliban chafed convincingly under her authoritarian rule. For once, the shipwrecked mariners were three-dimensional characters, not plot tokens — the King of Naples Alonso (David Collins) ripely autocratic, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Graham Abbey) convincingly sociopathic, counselor Gonzalo (Rod Beattie) more of a sage and less of a fool than usual. Tom McCamus as butler Stephano and Stephen Ouimette as jester Trinculo clowned to perfection, nailing every laugh possible whether on their own, with Caliban or with the ensemble. The young lovers were the most pleasant surprise; Ferdinand and Miranda can feel like weak sauce in the wrong hands, but Sebastien Heins & Mamie Zwettler were spunky, passionate, intelligent, fully cognizant of their developing affections — strong & spot-on.

And yes, the special effects and pageantry (serious creature puppetry by the ensemble of Spirits & Monsters at key moments, Festival stalwarts Chick Reid and Lucy Peacock regally presiding over Act Four’s celebratory wedding masque) were impressive as always. But Stratford productions go deepest when they cut to the heart — and this Tempest showed us, beyond its numerous charms and delights, the depth of Prospero’s sacrifice. To become truly great as well as truly free, the exiled ruler must serve her enemies as well as her friends — forgiving wrongs, securing Naples and Milan’s future through Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, releasing the spirits of the island, and abjuring her “rough magic.” Martha Henry’s reading of Shakespeare’s Epilogue – bereft but relieved, slyly humorous in its appeal to the audience for final release through prayer and applause – communicated both the cost of Prospero’s renunciations, and their true worth. It was a lovely end to the best, most bracing production of The Tempest we’ve seen at the Festival.

Watch the premiere of The Tempest on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel tomorrow at 7 pm EDT; a pre-show chat with Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler and Antoni Cimilono starts at 6:30 pm.

— Rick Krueger

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

I have never before heard anything quite like this album.  And since I first listened to it at a friend’s urging this past weekend, I find myself returning to it again and again.  It resists description, yet compels a response; it’s utterly fresh but feels like it’s been around forever.

Working as a loose creative collective since the mid-1980s, Liverpool’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have consistently pursued what they describe as “echoes of the sacred” in their work, striving to access a sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   On their fourth album Songs of Yearning, they’ve discovered new room for rumors of glory to run, and the result is uniquely powerful, its resonance strikingly amplified by the shadows of doubt that now openly stalk our lives.

RAIJ’s music calls to mind much that I’ve heard and loved over the years — abstract soundscapes by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; the “holy minimalism” of composers Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki; the sparse, charged post-rock Talk Talk found with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, to name a few.   But comparisons to other artists fall short of describing Songs of Yearning’s rich mix of reticent modesty and bold experiment. Dissecting the music into its component parts — a breathtaking gamut of sound sourced from liturgy, folksong, chamber music, pop & rock of all stripes, ambience, industrial noise, found dialogue and much more — won’t do the trick either.  The only way to catch the breadth and depth of what’s here is to dive in:

Short and relatively direct as it is, “Celestine” unfolds the Revs’ approach with inviting clarity.  The simple acoustic guitar pattern and the female vocal in French doubled by bells — they’re straightforward enough.  But that flute — is it slightly out of tune, or carving out its own tonality?  The acoustic bass and harmony vocals — how is it they sound now consonant, now dissonant, flickering in and out of sync by the second?  And in the end, each layer goes its own way, ever so gently drifting apart harmonically and rhythmically, but still bound up in an organic, contemplative whole.

Continue reading Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

Shakespeare @ Stratford on YouTube

Since 1953, the little Ontario town of Stratford has hosted what is arguably North America’s premier repertory theater.  Down the decades, every summer the Stratford Festival has presented world-class productions of plays by William Shakespeare, along with other classics of the world stage and new, cutting-edge efforts.  (Not to mention musicals ranging from vintage Broadway to The Who’s Tommy.)

As with so many other performing arts institutions, Stratford’s 2020 season is currently on hold.  To fill the gap, the Festival’s YouTube channel kicked off free screenings of its Stratford on Film series last night — Shakespeare’s birthday — with an intense, gripping 2014 production of King Lear:

 

Each film of the series (an effort to film all of Shakespeare’s plays in ten years) will be available to view for 3 weeks, scheduled as below:

  • King Lear (2014): April 23 to May 14
  • Coriolanus (2018): April 30 to May 21
  • Macbeth (2016): May 7 to 28
  • The Tempest (2018): May 14 to June 4
  • Timon of Athens (2017): May 21 to June 11
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (2015): May 28 to June 18
  • Hamlet (2015): June 4 to 25
  • King John (2014): June 11 to July 2
  • Pericles (2015): June 18 to July 9
  • Antony and Cleopatra (2014): June 25 to July 16
  • Romeo and Juliet (2017): July 2 to 23
  • The Taming of the Shrew (2015): July 9 to 30

My wife and I have been regular attenders at the Stratford Festival for over 15 years.  We return again and again because of the Festival’s consistently high quality  — an acting company of impressive craft, dedication and emotional heft, working together on the unique thrust stage of the Festival Theatre and other more intimate venues, creating utterly immersive artistic experiences.  (And all in a welcoming, delightful small town environment.)   We hope to return later this summer to see Richard III, Wolf Hall and Spamalot (!)  but in the meantime we agree: the Stratford on Film series is the next best thing to being there, and a first-class way to drink in Shakespeare’s luminous genius.

— Rick Krueger

A TIME FOR WHISKY

By Richard K. Munro

Thomas Munro, Srto his left “AMERICAN JOHNNY Robertson to his right the young boy is his nephew Jimmy Quigley 16 at the tjme.

Like most Highland natives, Auld Pop had a vague knowledge of a thing called barbecue, but had never actually eaten any. He was, however, intimately familiar with whisky. In fact from 1914-1933 he often made his own. I do not know and have no knowledge if he ever sold any of his poteen. I do know he used to say, “Prohibition? What’s that? No excise officer ever kept a Highland man from his dram.” “Does love make the world go around? Well aye, mon. “Strrruth! . But whisky maks it go around twice as fast. Aye! An’ gies a mon a sonsie gizz, aye! ThAAt’s a sonsie face – a jolly, smiling face!.

Thomas Munro, Sir AUGUST 1914

It’s Five O’Clock. “Whisky is liquid sunshine.” said Robertson.


“I hae always felt that distant train whistles heard in the dead of night are God’s way of letting us know the best days are fast runnin’ awa! .Time’s chariot is running by.An’ the broken hairt it kens nae second spring again, though the weary warld dinna cease frae its greeting. Aye, we are a’ togither tonicht for a wee while. But the parting day is comin’. The whiskey, and romance eventually runs out and the night will soon turn to day. Aye. Ye are a leal n’ true mon, Johnny. You stood by me and Jimmy here in a very dark moment. You and the lads and the Dins- were willing to brave the shadows ‘ death. Medal o no’ yer the bravest mon o’ the Regiment. If Auld Port were here today, he wad understand.”
“Aye”, said Johnny.
“Aye,” said Jimmy
Auld Pop said, “here’s a toast to the Ants and to Auld Port!
TO AULD PORT! TO THE ANTS! they said.
It was dark that night in in the distance they could hear the thud of the German guns round Wipers (Ypres).
Auld Port, Captain Dick MacDonald Porteous had led them in many a trench raid but would never do so again.
That morning, as dawn broke Auld Port was killed. They told his parents it was a stray bullet.
Auld Pop, who was there, said, “it was a Jairmen sniper for sure. Aye. “

He used to have conservations with his Argyll Squaddies, Jimmy Quigley and American Johnny Robertson. Hae ye a smoke?” he asked. “Aye!” said Johnny,
““Matches?” he asked.
“Enough to burn Rome,” said Johnny.
“Whiskey?” he said
“Enough whiskey for the a river of pain, loss and sorrow For the Abhainn nam Manach itself -that’s the River Beauly for a Lallan laddie like ye, Johnny! “
“Are ye fou, Johnny lad?
” “No’ yet, Tommie!”
“An’ ye, young Jimmy?
“Chan eil fos tamuill beag Brathair mathair!”
Johnny, and what’s That? I ken it’s yer mither-leed (language).
Auld Pop: “He says, not for a little while yet, uncle!”“
Said Johnny To be or not to be, drunk on whisky, that is the question in the rright-true Saxon tongue.
( a distant train sounds its horn)
Auld Pop grew thoughtful

May 10. 1915 Lang Syne.

Lochaber No More (funerals for an Argyll. “LOCHABER NO MORE” that was known to be played during WW1 Military funerals with Gun Volley at specific parts of this tune.

Lyrics for “Lochaber No More” :

FAREWELL to Lochaber, farewell to the glen,

⁠No more will he wander Lochaber again.

Lochaber no more! Lochaber no more! ⁠

The lad will return to Lochaber no more!

The trout will come back from the deeps of the sea,

⁠The bird from the wilderness back to the tree,

Flowers to the mountain and tides to the shore, ⁠But he will return to Lochaber no more!

O why should the hills last, that never were young,

⁠Unperishing stars in the heavens be hung;

Be constant the seasons, undrying the stream, ⁠

And he that was gallant be gone like a dream?

Brave songs will be singing in isles of the West,

⁠But he will be silent who sang them the best; T

he dance will be waiting, the pipes will implore,

⁠But he will return to Lochaber no more!

Child of the forest! profound is thy sleep, ⁠

The valley that loved thee awakes but to weep;

When our fires are rekindled at dawn of the morn, ⁠

Our griefs burn afresh, and our prayers are forlorn;

The night falls disconsolate, bringing no peace, ⁠

No hope for our dreams, for our sighs no release;

In vain come the true hearts and look from the door,

⁠For thou wilt return to Lochaber no more!

Neil Munro

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I can never forget the stories of Captain Dick MacDonald Porteous ASH a hero of 2nd Ypres (KIA May 10, 1915). He spoke fluent Spanish and French (he had been raised partially in Argentina and born in Dublin). “Port” the men called him. My grandfather said he was one of the finest men and bravest soldier he ever knew.