Friday, December 27, 2019

A new tradition is born

After the joyous reunion this year of all of the members of the creche, one of whom had been separated from the rest for a very long time, our seasonal mouse got a bright idea: why not go caroling at the gingerbread house across the way? And there was much rejoicing, and of course much off-key singing. In fact, the carolers enjoyed it so much they asked our humble mouse to organize a caroling tour to various creches in the neighborhood. Our house boasts several. Some are made of felt, some glass, some are ornaments on our tree. The mouse, an ambitious fellow, thought he'd try them all, but that was before they thought of the cat that patrols the house, and before they realized just what sort of treacherous terrain they would have to overcome.

The first stop was a creche made of glass, on the mantle in the front room.

The small wooden cat on the far right, who lives on the mantle, enjoyed the singing very much, and said they could come back anytime. He refrained from licking his lips as he said this; besides, the mouse is just as big as he is, and he is not an idiot.

The next stop was a creche made of felt. This one came from Israel, when Dear Wife's grandmother was there a few years ago. I am pretty certain the glass one came from my side of the family, though I am not sure if it has an exciting provenance. Again the singers enjoyed themselves, and would have been invited in for figgy pudding if Mary wasn't a little busy with her baby. The young lad seems to have forgotten his gift, and had to go back for it whilst the rest of the crew waited patiently.

Then it was on to the upper story. There is in particular a ceramic creche atop the television, and its neighbors include a lazy reindeer and a Christmas tree in miniature. There was no figgy pudding to be had there, either. The carols seem to have confused Mary and Joseph with people who like to cook.

Then it was on to the most difficult stop of all, a creche that was in the midst of the Christmas tree. The original creche's Mary and Joseph had saved themselves a lot of trouble by not coming on this journey. They thought that if they went to visit their counterparts it might mess with the space-time continuum.

The three wisepersons and the shepherd tried to hang on to various branches while singing (which was not easy and produced the weakest tones of the afternoon); our young man could not hold on and fell flat on his back far below (he was not hurt because it's Christmas). Momma and her child managed to sing at a funny angle, and the mice-tro did his best to conduct but is was hard to tell what meter he was in. One of the kings sang lying down in a branch above.

After this they all agreed they'd had enough caroling, even the wiseguy they had left behind because after the first stop he couldn't resist saying "well, we can creche that off our list." He got to spend the rest of the outing on cat-lookout. It turns out that while the cat was very interested in the proceedings, she did not get directly involved.

It's the final weekly Christmas edition at

Friday, December 20, 2019

Mouse Musik

I don't normally brag about my compositional accomplishments, but my music was recently featured in a rather unique fashion. While some of my colleagues were out hitting the big time, I took the opposite tack. After all, a lot of us think bigger is better, but what about smaller?

The ladies of our church make a Christmas ornament each year. It is a mouse, about two inches high. Each year's model has a different occupation or participates in a different activity. There is a mouse from one year that is a hair dresser. It holds a leetle tiny hair dryer in one paw and a leeetle tiny comb in the other. It is one of my favorites. There is a mouse who is a baker, and one on skis. Quite a large number of these festoon the church office this time of year. I should have taken a picture of all the mice. Maybe I'll edit this later so you can see the village of mice. The lady who founded this tradition recently passed at the age of 102!

In July I was informed about this year's model. This is rare, because nobody outside the inner circle gets to know what this year's mouse is going to be before the great unveil at the holiday bazaar in mid-November. But I was cleared for secret because this year's mouse is musical and they wanted me to help with it.

It's called the "mice-tro." Get it? Get it? That thing in its left paw is a conducting baton, and in its right paw is a book of music. That's where I made my contribution. The music it is reading is a piece of mine, shrunk down to mouse size. It is five pages long and the entire piece is there, minus the bass line on the last page--at least on my copy--which is about par for the course when soloists are copying things for their accompanists!

The piece I chose for the occasion is a setting of the Advent hymn "Now Come, Savior of the Nations" in a festive Renaissance dance. I played it as offertory last week for the church, using an "enlarged" edition. You can listen to it right here in a recording I made back when the piece was new four or five years ago.


After we brought our mouse home we put it on the media center with the creche and the Christmas decorations. Our mouse, it should be said, continues to be in demand and has an active schedule as a performer. After the joyous reunion of the other creche-members the other week,
the member who had gotten misplaced decided they should all go caroling at the gingerbread house next door. Mice-tro led the singing.

The Christmas festivities continue at

Friday, December 13, 2019

Parker's Pastorale

One of my Christmas obsessions for the past several years has been a musical genre known as the Pastorale. Five years ago I wrote a ten part series about these pieces which are connected to shepherds and the countryside and can therefore seem to have a connection to Christmas as well. It is an idyllic picture these composers paint in sound, of a countryside with which many of these city dwellers are none too familiar. But the reason I wrote about them in the first place is that I noticed a few that were not textbook examples--that is, they might have displayed some of the characteristics of the pastoral proper (drone bass, dotted rhythm, triple time, slow and/or quiet), but in other respects they hardly resembled what I would have though was a pastorale at all. Since then I've added a few more specimens to the catalog, some in four/four time, some which sound more like polkas, some which have no drone bass at all, and then there is this one...

This one is loud and fast. But it is in triple time, with a rocking bass, and a rollicking tune. It comes to us from one Horatio Parker. I wasn't looking for a pastorale when I found it, in fact...what WAS I looking for, anyway?

Well, that's the internet. Whatever I was looking for, I happened to notice that Horatio Parker died on December 18, 1919, which means that this coming Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of his death. Composers often get celebrated on the occasions of their major year birthdays, or, failing that, on the major anniversaries of their death. Musicologists must be a macabre bunch.

Parker may not be a familiar name to you: he was a professor at Yale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a pretty celebrated composer in his time. Now he is mostly remembered for a cantankerous student he had once named Charles Ives. (His "Hora Novissima" gets occasionally performed, too).

So due to a "vortex of combined circumstances" (which is a phrase I stole from Dostoyevsky, who has nothing at all to do with the present entry) this year's pastorale comes to us from Horatio Parker. As I mentioned, it is loud, and brisk. It is marked "con brio" and it is possible I played it with a bit too much "brio" but I rather like it that way.

One thing that I would prefer to complain about, however, is the key relationship between the first and second sections. This is the place where, at 1:11 of the present recording, the first part ends in F major, and suddenly we start up in Db,  which does not sound like it has any present business in the piece at all. Now technically there is a fancy name for this: it is called a common tone modulation, and it was done throughout the 19th century by some very reputable composers. I can even hear some of my former conservatory colleagues in my head bringing this up loudly, and with an air of "you are an idiot for supposing that this was a bad idea on Parker's part. It is a perfectly pedigreed key relationship, therefore it is by definition a good thing to have done."

But no. Just because a textbook, or custom, or tradition, or an illustrious example, says so, that it has worked in the past when it was done by great composers of the past, does not mean it will work here. And the reason it does not work here is that the composer has not, at any point, so much as introduced a Db major chord or an Ab major chord, or any harmony that had even remotely anything to do with the tonal world of Db major before he suddenly sprung it on us, full bore, at the start of the second section. Having a single note, F, in common between both key areas simply isn't enough to establish a strong enough connection, or any sense that the narrative went where it wanted to go, rather than merely where the rules said it could, if handled properly.

Let's talk about football. You get the idea?

(by the way, Bach does a brilliant job in his pastorale of getting us from the third movement's c minor back to F Major. That shouldn't really work (given the Eb), but he gives us enough strategic Dbs (leading up to the final C major chord) that the narrative flows brilliantly. But he's Bach.)

Enough weeds. Those who were lost can now sigh with relief and listen to this nice little piece. It is clear to me that this piece was written by a professor, rather than a creative genius, and it is a nice example according to a nice textbook rather than an inspired piece, but it will still be worth your five minutes.

(also, the re-transition works out just fine).

Listen to Pastorale by Horatio Parker

Friday, December 6, 2019

What happened to Christmas?

For several years now, I have been watching with interest the doings of the little people atop our entertainment center as each December they enact a series of strange variations upon the traditional Christmas creche. No sooner had I adjusted to their peculiar games of sheep tossing or thrilled to the dramatic attempt of the wise men to arrive on the proper shelf in time for Christmas than I got sued for letting our cable box too near the stable. That was last year. By then, I had already gotten to talk to Mary and Joseph by email--a delightful couple. I am not the grudge holding type, and fences were mended with a very large Christmas cookie. I was already looking forward to next year's adventure when a very regrettable thing happened.

One of the cast members did not make it back into the box for storage last year. We noticed him some time in February, peering timidly out from behind a plant. It was too late to retrieve the box, packed snugly into its regular storage position. Instead, we tried to make him comfortable until he could join his fellows. He kept a diary, and has allowed me to publish excerpts from it. First I had to copy it to several times its original size. The entries are enlightening. Alas, they do not cast us humans in the best light always. But even--perhaps, especially--at Christmas, it is worth reflecting on the views of a small person on the society in which he involuntarily found himself, fish out of water, a figure without a tableaux, creche-person without a creche, in the long year between Christmases:

I don't remember the box very well. It seems to me now that it had the singular smell of warm wooden shavings, the odor of wise men, the curly shavings of the sheep, and old drops of glue. It was a comfortable box. I enjoyed being in it, but it must have also contained large quantities of ether, because nearly as soon as I entered it I was fast asleep. How pleasant to awaken from a long slumber every December in order to stand gloriously with my cast-mates in our long accustomed positions. It is far above my power to understand fully what we are doing, but the situation fills me with a deep abiding peace and the sense that everything is as it should be, as it was long ago, and as it shall be again. Mine is but a small part in it, but it is important, because everything is important, and sacred, and necessary. Time passes, even though it is a door to eternity: there is still the anticipation and then the great moment, which is every moment, and yet not come soon enough, if you get my drift. It is a joyful season. Below me I can see large creatures scurrying about and hear pleasant sounds emanating through the room. Candles are lit, food is prepared, hearts rejoice, and it is all a pleasant, slowly unfolding dream. Why do you hurry, ye mortals? Join us in the creche, and pause, and ponder and---

OH GOD, what happened?

I just realized the dream has evaporated. Was it a dream? I thought it was reality! What happened to the creche? Where are the wise-persons? Where have Mary and Joseph gone? Who am I supposed to adore now? I even tried calling desperately for the sheep. There is no sign of them. I am alone. I have no idea what to do now. Before I didn't need to do anything. I stood, and adored. It was enough. Now it is just stupid. Where is everybody? I am alone.

It has taken some time to piece together the catastrophe. One of the large creatures has noticed me and lamented my condition. I was horrified. Once I realized I was cast from Eden I sensed the danger I was in. I was afraid, and I hid. But I was spotted. And a strange thing happened. I heard him speak. Where once we of the creche experienced time more slowly than the mortals down below, and only had a general sense of them hurrying about, in a Christmas that might have lasted mere seconds if experienced it in linear time, but was as full and rich as could have left nobody wanting more, now the passage of time seems drawn out, and endless, and empty. I could hear him say "oh my, we seem to have left you behind when we packed up from Christmas." Then he sighed. "Well, there is no point in dragged the box out again. I guess you will have to stay with us for a while." I was filled with an ominous foreboding. 

One observation I have made in the past month: there is a good deal of time to think. Since my job has always been to stand and ponder I may be better equipped for this than some, but it is still taxing to the faculties to have to live within a new reality and to try to understand what has happened and what will happen. I have been living what you might call a regular schedule. Now it is unknown. I have always known there was an occasion called Christmas, and I have always been dimly aware that there was also a time of no-Christmas. This alternation of light and dark, order and chaos, while it seemed perfectly natural, was only of background importance to me. No-Christmas happened, but I was unaware of it. And if I had thought of it at all I might have been horrified. It seems sterile, and pointless, and frankly frightening. Though before I seldom would have worried about how to spend my time, now I am anxious. I no longer know my role. It seems silly to stand here day after day all by myself. There is also a concern that a cat I have seen creeping around will take it into its head that I might be a good proxy for a mouse. Or perhaps there will be an earthquake. Or a famine. Or flood. I used to think on such disasters, which I read about in Holy Scripture, as things that would happen in a dream, and from whose effects I would be spared. After all, I am an Adorer, a special class, like one of the Seraphim. But now I don't know. Are the end times at hand?

There is worse to come, I fear. I have heard lately of something the large creatures are calling the coming of Spring. I have never experienced this, but it fills me with dread to hear them speak of it so often. Apparently their atmosphere is quite changeable. They say it will "get warm" and that the "leaves will come back" and they will be able to "do things outside." I keep my ears peeled and listen to the voices. Some of them are telling of their government and its strange doings. It is fascinating. Almost from the beginning I began to preserve my ponderings, and they have taken the form of words which have affixed themselves to paper as they fermented in my mind. It is natural to be able to do this, though I notice that the large creatures require physical labor to accomplish similar results. Now, looking back on what has been written, I see I must prepare for a great calamity. My mind has been full of nothing else. All the voices are saying the same thing. It shall come soon.

I had forgotten about Easter! What an epic discovery! I must tell everyone when I find them again. There is another sacred time much like ours! I must say I found it was a little thin on the celebratory music, and when I heard about it I prepared myself for another tableaux to form itself in my proximity filled with creatures like myself. What if I were to meet them? Is it forbidden? But alas, they have no such parallel manifestation. Still, there is food, and happiness, and all of the large creatures are taken out of themselves and feel enlarged as if the kingdom of Heaven had again come near. So the sacred orbit has a double perigee! It has taken me a month to process my adoration and to set it down here--may it uphold me in the remainder of my struggles, though I hope they are of short duration.

The earth grows ever warmer. In every respect now Christmas feels a million miles away. Our days are flooded with light. Yet somehow it doesn't feel as potent as the celestial light that filled us when our days were dark. I will ponder on this. 

From time to time the room is filled with voices which do not emanate from the large creatures themselves. At first I thought it must be celestial beings. But they do not spend their existence in the presence of such beings, it seems. At least, they are not revealed to them. Then I heard one of them refer to a mysterious thing called "radio." I do not like the things I hear from "radio." The voices therein bring sad tidings bereft of joy. I am reminded of Herod. So far from the glowing orb that bathed our stable in light I am left defenseless against the aggressive onslaught of the distracted globe and its people. It wears on my spirit. Every day their situation seems to grow worse. And yet the people bringing the news seem quite cheerful about it. What is wrong with them? Are their spirits diseased?

I have not heard O Little Town of Bethlehem in many a moon. Nor Jingle Bells. I am quite upsot. Not even Sleigh Ride, which always seemed a bit odd to me. It seems even the music has no joy in it. I miss the creche, but I also miss the smell of pine, the glowing lights, the steam from without the window, the darkness, the gift wrapping paper, the smell of cider, and punch, and good cheer.

Just now my rhapsody was interrupted by the approach of a giant cat. I have seen her many times and been afraid. Sore afraid. But mostly she has left me alone. But just then she got rather close. I don't like it. If she gets any closer I may not last until next Christmas.

Will there be a next Christmas? This year is interminable! Are we being punished? Is it like the drought in Elijah's time, that the heavens are being shut up and no yuletide cheer shall pour forth whilst we are such a sinful people? Daily the tidings that pour forth from radio and from creature's lips suggest that we are a deservedly abandoned people. And I think I know how we shall end. We shall all be boiled. It is fiendishly hot in here. I do not remember the box being this hot. My shavings are all alight.

A strange thing is happening. It is getting colder. And darker. You might imagine the people would welcome this state of affairs, yet they have a strange way of showing it. There are decorations again, but this time they all smack of death. The discarded inner shells of large creatures are on display, and the fiends of hell. It gives them a strange delight to speak of their mortality in this manner. This cannot be the gateway toward Christmas. I must have made a wrong turn in September. But how can I have known?

I recall now, with more than a bit of embarrassment, how I always felt as though I had missed something, that my time in the box was overlong, and that Christmas had been going on for quite some time and that I had overslept. But now I see what I was missing. It began when one of the large creatures began to complain, in early October, about how the store across the street was already decorated for Christmas, and how he had heard Christmas music already. Apparently the world at large is filled with the trappings of the holiday several months early. Their intention is not of the season, however, but to entice the large creatures to buy material goods in order that they may enlarge themselves. I call this Imposter Christmas. What struck me then was the wisdom of my large creatures in waiting to unseal us all until the time for preparation was at hand, and not the time merely to acquire power. Ego Christmas unfolds all around us as the earth cools, and those funny coverings on all of the trees at last are shed and the world begins to look normal again. It is the final test.

I have been for a long time suppressing my memories of the creche. There have been times when it felt so far away that I could not even recall the names of my chreche-mates. But of late their memories have returned to me. I believe the time is getting close when we will be re-united.

It occurs to me that I may have mis-remembered some of my time on set. There was, after all, the sheep who regaled us with jokes about the funny behavior of the large creatures. It was probably rather wicked of him to do that, and of us to laugh and encourage him. And the king whose beard kept falling off. Such obviously fakery seems unfitting for such an august occasion. And Mary kept forgetting her lines: at one point she said something about "baby whatsisname" and we all laughed uncontrollably for a good hour.

Perhaps we are not such a special or dignified people after all. But they are still my people. I still long to be in their company. I wonder how they will feel about being in mine. After all, I have changed. I have seen much that cannot be effaced from my memory. The other day one of the large creatures, taking notice of me again, remarked that my gaze had changed, and that I looked as if I had seen much of the world. I remember the pageant. It is Mary who is to do the pondering, not I. My role is merely to adore, comfortably, happily, undisturbedly, As if I were still in Eden, and had not known the ways of the world, and the darkness into which the little child has come, and the endless battles that will be fought over nothing but status and wealth. All of the dangers and snares, and strange customs, and anxious citizens.

Tomorrow, I just heard, will be the day. I shall not be able to sleep until then. I will greet my fellows as they come out of their box, groggy--perhaps they will not notice that I have not been among them? And if so, shall I persist in the lie? It would be easiest. And then, after the rush of joy that accompanies the start of the season, to take one's accustomed place in the scene. To simply look on in stupefied adoration.

However, I may not convince.

----- is all decorated for Christmas! Share the season with me.