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Preview: Matthew Alexander

Matthew Alexander



Musings on culture, the arts, history & religion



Updated: 2012-04-15T18:31:57.517-04:00

 




2003-04-21T11:14:37.000-04:00

Gioachino Rossini
The composer who linked Beethoven's age with Wagner's, and who made Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi possible.




2002-09-28T20:26:15.000-04:00

Boola Boola
Alma mater won her Ivy opener today decisively over Cornell, 50-23.


Incidentally, watching the Oklahoma game tonight, I am reminded that the Sooners stole one of our fight songs.




2002-09-22T23:52:47.000-04:00

Saint Matthew's Day
Yesterday was the feast of my patron saint, Saint Matthew the Evangelist, and to mark the occasion I commend to you Caravaggio's sublime Saint Matthew Cycle. The trilogy -- consisting of the Calling, Inspiration, and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew -- adorns a side chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the French national church in Rome. Of the three, the Calling of Saint Matthew is the most dramatic and theologically insightful, but the Inspiration, which is the altarpiece, has the most interesting story surrounding its creation. The painting now above the altar is actually Caravaggio's second effort, his first having been rejected by his patron who thought it insufficiently reverential towards the apostle. That original piece, a remarkable effort despite its rejection, found its way to a museum in Berlin where it was sadly destroyed during the Second World War.


I have linked to good web reproductions, but none can replicate the effect of seeing the paintings in situ. But if you go, be sure to bring small change to plunk into the old coin boxes that operate the chapel lights. (The machines are probably still denominated in lire.)


I intend this post to be the first in an occasional series devoted to various stops on the Caravaggio Tour in Rome. The next will feature the Galleria Borghese, home to my favorite of the artist's works.




2002-09-21T21:25:19.326-04:00

Wake Up the Echoes
On the strength of an amazing touchdown in the last two minutes, Notre Dame came back to beat Michigan State this afternoon, breaking its five year losing streak to the Spartans. With today's victory the Irish remain undefeated, moving to 4-0.


Notre Dame 21
Michigan State 17




2002-09-21T17:42:25.330-04:00

Down the Field
The Yale Eleven opened its season today with a convincing non-conference victory. The countdown to November 23rd has begun.


San Diego 14
Yale 49




2002-09-18T09:36:23.000-04:00

Sobran on the Iliad and the Odyssey
Here we have an excellent short essay on the foundational epics of the Western literary tradition by a political columnist with a graduate education in English. Interestingly, Sobran (who has made something of a name for himself arguing that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford) believes that a single poet called Homer did indeed write both of the great poems the Greeks attributed to him. His admiration of the thoughtful Robert Fagles is also well placed; the translator and Princeton professor is every inch a classical scholar in the traditional mold.


We would be well advised never to doubt that the Greeks -- from Homer and Sophocles to Herodotus and Thucydides -- have important lessons to teach us, in the present cultural and geopolitical climate more than ever.




2002-09-17T21:45:53.000-04:00

Thomas Eakins and The Simpsons
Tonight the local Fox affiliate here in D.C. re-ran an episode of The Simpsons titled "The Mansion Family". Regular viewers of the show will recognize this as the one in which the Simpson family house-sits for the billionaire miser Mr Burns while he is away at the Mayo Clinic for a physical. I have seen this episode several times, but I only first noticed this evening a delightful detail so fleeting I had to rewind the tape (I record the shows for viewing with my restorative cup of tea after work) to make sure I saw correctly. I did. Towards the end of the episode, as Burns is leaving the doctor's office, if one looks carefully, one will notice in the background, hanging on the office wall, none other than "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins.


This is just one example of how The Simpsons is quite possibly the most subtly intelligent program on network television.




2002-09-15T09:39:32.000-04:00

Shake Down the Thunder
Michigan 23
Notre Dame 25




2002-09-11T14:02:24.000-04:00

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
--John 15:13


"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
--Matthew 16:18


Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.


In memoriam September 11th, anno Domini 2001.




2002-09-10T10:36:55.000-04:00

Empress Sisi
Today is the anniversary of a sad event in Austrian history. On 10 September 1898, Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist while on holiday at Lake Geneva. The beautiful but unhappy empress (better known by her affectionate nickname "Sisi") was dear to the Austrian people and remains so today, more than a century after her assassination.


For Emperor Franz Josef, who loved his wife deeply, this was the third violent death in his immediate family during his reign. First his charismatic younger brother, Archduke Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico, had been shot by rebels under Benito Juarez in 1867. Then, most painful of all for the imperial family, there was the incident at Mayerling. In the winter of 1889, Archduke Rudolf -- the only son of Franz Josef and Elisabeth and heir to the throne -- died under mysterious circumstances alongside his young mistress at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Although it was officially declared a suicide, some -- including the last empress, Zita of Bourbon-Parma -- believed it to have been the fruit of a conspiracy against the Hapsburg family. Whatever the truth of the matter, Elisabeth never recovered from her son's death, and, like Queen Victoria after the death of her consort, Albert, wore mourning clothes and largely secluded herself for the rest of her life. (The emperor, for his part, demolished the hunting lodge and built a Carmelite convent on its site.)


Although Franz Josef and his Austrian subjects could not know it at the time, their beloved empress would not be the last member of the imperial family to meet a violent end. The most fateful assassination of them of all, of course, was yet to come.




2002-08-25T23:03:02.000-04:00

Some personal news
Tomorrow morning I move to Alexandria, Virginia to take up my new position as an assistant editor at The American Conservative, a start-up magazine of politics and culture. I am afraid, therefore, that while I settle into my new rooms and await the connection of my telephone line and the delivery of my new Dell computer, I shan't be able to post as frequently as I have become accustomed to. I shall try to drop in from time to time from friends' machines, and I invite you to continue checking this page regularly, as I intend to resume blogging regularly just as soon as I can.


If any Washington-area readers have any suggestions, recommendations, warnings, or other tips for a new neighbor, I should be thankful if you would communicate them to me by e-mail. My memories of living in Northern Virginia are those of a child in the '80s, and I am confident that at least a few things have changed since then. I know my priorities and living requirements certainly have.




2002-08-23T17:05:54.000-04:00

Italy mortgages her heritage to finance a government program
No kidding. Shares in archeological and historic sites, including the Emperor Tiberius' villa on Capri, will become collateral for loans to pay for an enormous public-works project. Should the state-owned company involved not repay the money (this is Italy), the properties could be sold. According to The Telegraph, "The move is part of a scheme which critics see as threatening Italy's entire artistic heritage."




2002-08-23T16:13:52.000-04:00

Catholic soccer captain retires after death threats
Neil Lennon, the Catholic captain of Northern Ireland's national soccer team, announced his retirement yesterday after receiving a second death threat from Loyalist terrorists. He has a 10-year-old daughter.




2002-08-22T23:32:38.000-04:00

Not the 100 Greatest Britons
The BBC, by the highly dubious method of a viewer poll, has compiled a list of what it calls the 100 Greatest Britons. This is truly a bizarre creature, in which, for example, Queen Victoria shares space with the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. Several on the list unquestionably deserve the accolade, and there are some pleasant surprises along the way (e.g., Elgar), which give one hope that consciousness of history and high culture has not yet been completely extinguished in the Isles. Still, the list includes all too many trivial pop icons -- whom few will remember in five years, let alone 500 -- and excludes all too many of the genuinely great for it to be taken seriously. The bias in favor of the present day is pronounced.


In an excellent commentary on the list in The Daily Telegraph, Daniel Johnson inquires into the dearth of saints, composers, poets, painters, and statesmen; in short, the ones who really define British greatness. "Part of the trouble," he suggests, "is that the contemporary notion of 'celebrity' seems to have left people genuinely confused about what greatness is. Many perhaps suppose that to be great is the same as to be famous." The list of omitted names he adduces in passing, indeed, makes the BBC's look childish.


My old college debating society has been known to debate the motion "Resolved, Democracy fosters mediocrity." I believe I see here a speech in the affirmative. Even so, such a list, perhaps, can be a salutary reminder of the transience of the things of this world.




2002-08-22T11:04:33.000-04:00

A Time for Kings?
NR's David Pryce-Jones suggests restoring the Hashemite dynasty to the thrones of Iraq and "Saudi" Arabia.




2002-08-21T13:58:32.000-04:00

Bronze Age brain surgery
A skull fragment found on a Thames riverbank apparently belonged to a rare survivor of trepanning, a primitive form of brain surgery once thought to cure headaches and epilepsy.


Supplementing its report of this news, The Times has two interesting articles: one on the London of 4,000 years ago (in which the patient might have lived) and another on the history of the procedure itself.




2002-08-21T21:14:01.000-04:00

"Look what they pray to! May Allah bring it all down. It will all come down."
Today's Telegraph publishes quotes from bugged conversations involving the men arrested for plotting to destroy Bologna's San Petronio Basilica. Charming.




2002-08-21T12:18:30.030-04:00

Mrs O'Neill has posted a breathtaking photograph of the Tall Ships parade at Portsmouth this past Sunday.




2002-08-21T21:15:34.000-04:00

Catholic campaigners save church treasures
Catholics in Liverpool scored a victory yesterday when the city council denied the archdiocese permission to remove and redistribute antique decorations from the historic Church of St Mary of the Angels, which was recently closed. Built in 1907 by Amy Imrie, a Poor Clare sister and the heiress to the White Star shipping fortune, St Mary's, with its Italian Renaissance interior, was designed to give English congregants a “glimpse of Rome". Indeed, St Mary's took the Franciscan church of Santa Maria d’Ara Coeli in Rome as its model.


The campaigners hope ultimately to prevail upon the archdiocese to reopen the church.




2002-08-20T19:52:42.000-04:00

Italy arrests five men over church bomb plotWe have here a heartening update to this story, which broke in late June. At that time, I wrote a draft of the following commentary: This is chilling. The AP is reporting that the Carabinieri have uncovered and disrupted (thank God!) a planned attack by Islamic terrorists on the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna. For you see, that church contains a Renaissance fresco depicting Muhammad in Hell. While the plot and the plotters will be roundly denounced, what will perhaps go unremarked is the arrogance of the supposedly mainstream Italian Moslems who dared to petition the Vatican to have the fresco effaced. That Italy has been Catholic for 1700 years (longer by centuries than Islam has even existed) apparently matters nothing to them. Preserving an irreplaceable product of the greatest age of Western art, if it be at the expense of their dogmatic sensibilities, apparently matters even less. In the case of the would-be terrorists we see yet another example of fundamentalist Islam's frightening impulse (so strikingly realized in Afghanistan, the Indian Subcontinent, & elsewhere) to destroy, rather than incorporate, the previous cultures of the lands to which it succeeds. This is the cultural equivalent of what Mark Steyn, when describing political revolutions, has called the "Year Zero approach." And if present demographic trends continue, we can expect to hear of more such plots, not just in Italy, but in France, Spain, & England as well. The approach of the soi-disant moderates, if slower, is nonetheless dangerous, especially when it plays upon contemporary Western multiculturalism. For the multiculturalists, of course, all religions are equal, being "offensive" is the only mortal sin, and minority victims are the noblest of men. The newly controversial fresco is a figurative depiction (Do these Moslems have no understanding of the nature of art? Being iconoclasts, perhaps some do not.) of an article of Catholic belief: that Muhammad was a false prophet, whose followers, with a few notable medieval exceptions, have been a menace to Christendom from the beginning. Naturally, this is offensive to those Moslems, and, while the Vatican may always refuse them permission to whitewash it, in a future Bologna composed of aging Italian multiculturalists and more Moslem immigrants, Stalin's mocking question -- "How many divisions has the Pope?" -- might again become relevant. (Not that I should want to give them any ideas, but the next logical step for the Union of Muslims in Italy would be to petition for the removal of Dante from Italian schools. Surely it was offensive of him to consign the Prophet to the Inferno's circle of the schismatics.) All this ought to confirm the common-sense proposition that it is impossible to integrate into an existing culture more than a small number of persons (legitimate refugees, for example) whose basic values and beliefs are at variance with it. Such is the case between Islam and the historic cultures of Europe. Today's Islamic immigrants do not want to be assimilated into Europe; on the contrary, they want to assimilate Europe. To say so, and vigorously to oppose the process, is not xenophobia but self-preservation.* The people, and now at last some of their leaders, understand what is at stake. Let us hope they take appropriate action. *On this point, see the second and following articles here.[...]




2002-08-20T15:43:02.000-04:00

Sacred music threatened in England
Without question, England's greatest contribution to the history of music has been her fine tradition of sacred music. It is ancient one and ranges widely from the chant of Old Sarum to the sublime polyphony of the Renaissance to the quintessentially English homophony of the collegiate boys choirs to the nonpareil collection of hymns now embraced by nearly all anglophone Christians. The leading names in English composition, from 16C Catholic masters like Taverner, Byrd, and Tallis to the post-Reformation roster of Purcell, Handel, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Elgar (a Catholic), Stanford, Britten, Walton, & Howells, have all distinguished themselves as composers or performers (and, in many cases, both) of church music. Indeed, it may justly be said that Anglicanism's greatest contribution to Christendom -- aside from furnishing converts like Cardinal Newman -- has been aesthetic, in particular its upkeep and development of this English musical tradition.


This is why it is so disturbing that English cathedrals are mulling ruinous funding cuts for their music programs. Lincoln Cathedral, for example, has proposed to merge the position of organist and choirmaster into a new post that would also oversee music at Lincoln Minster School. Sir David Willcocks, former director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, has suggested that such a combination of responsibilities would be untenable, and other eminent church musicians have called the plan "monstrous" and "devious". It is apparently part of a wider confrontation between deans and organists that has flared up at Westminster Abbey and elsewhere. According to the article, while standards remain high at present, many believe the cutbacks -- accompanied by predictable calls for more music "outside the Western tradition" -- can only erode that quality.


This matter is of concern not only to Anglicans but indeed to all who cherish art rendered to God's service or even merely appreciate the cultural value of England's musical heritage. In 1971, dozens of Britons prominent in the arts, culture, scholarship, and religion -- many non-Catholic, including the Anglican archbishops of Exeter and Ripon -- signed a letter imploring Pope Paul VI to preserve the Traditional Latin Mass for its immeasurable cultural significance. Due in large part to this letter, the Pope granted the English Indult. While in no way equating in importance the state of English cathedral music with the immemorial Roman Mass, we might still consider returning the favor by marshaling equivalent signatories for a letter on the question to the appropriate Anglican authorities.


As Dr David Hill, the former organist at Winchester Cathedral and soon to hold the same office at St John's College, Cambridge, has rightly said, "When it comes to being squeezed it is the music departments which get looked at first every time. But what is the point of a cathedral if it is not the daily worship and music?"




2002-08-19T22:31:04.000-04:00

Creating jobs, and Tall Ships
The region of Devonport, England, home to the largest naval base in Western Europe, will attempt to recover some of the ship building jobs it lost in cutbacks earlier this year by building replicas of famous 19C vessels. The first will be HMS Beagle, which is best known for taking Charles Darwin to the Galapagos.


Speaking of Tall Ships, a parade of 58 of them left Portsmouth yesterday to conclude The Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race. The festival had begun last Thursday with a 600 mile race to Portsmouth from Santander, Spain. Among the crews of the ships were young people, some disabled, from around the world.


It is always encouraging to read of such constructive, character-building activities for children today.




2002-08-19T14:59:09.000-04:00

Town at war over historic battle
Was there really a Battle of Aylesbury in 1642, during the English Civil War? The Aylesbury Vale district council says there wasn't and is proposing to build a housing development and shopping center on its supposed site. Residents opposed to the project, however, accuse the council of revising history. As readers of this blog know, I yield to no man where historical preservation is concerned and find the idea of spoiling the English countryside by sprawl distasteful, but it would seem that scholarly consensus is on the council's side, with most historians now believing that the recorded victory was little more than Roundhead propaganda. Besides, my Cavalier sensibilities bristle at the thought of such an humiliation going unrefuted. I do, however, wish the development's opponents well in assembling a stronger argument.




2002-08-18T22:28:12.000-04:00

Guédelon
This is one of the neatest stories I've read in a while: a French group is building a medieval castle in the Burgundian woods using only 13C tools and techniques. Guédelon will take 25 years to complete, but its builders hope it will stand for 1000.




2002-08-18T13:32:10.000-04:00

Roman villas found beneath school soccer fields
In one of England's most significant archeological finds since the 1960s, the ruins of two fourth century AD Roman aristocratic villas have been discovered under the soccer fields of a school in Wiltshire. Within the complex is an exquisitely preserved mosaic floor probably designed by the leading workshop of the period.