Recent links of note:

“Where Do Eels Come From?”
Brooke Jarvis, The New Yorker

Readers of Stephen Schmalhofer’s reflection on the life of the American expatriate writer Francis Marion Crawford, featured in Dispatch earlier this month, may recall that at his Italian villa, Crawford “built reservoirs containing a twelve-month supply of freshwater and sweetened the water with a swarm of live eels, an ancient Italian trick.” A stomach-turning image, perhaps, but it still piqued my curiosity. 

In The Book of Eels, reviewed by Brooke Jarvis in the The New Yorker, Patrik Svensson delves into the long, slippery history of this elusive fish’s relationship with humankind. It turns out that the mystery of the eel’s nature—where does it come from, where does it breed, and how?—remained unsolved for millenia, puzzling scientists and thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Sigmund Freud. Read further for the story of the biologist Johannes Schmidt’s decades-long search by boat for the fabled breeding-grounds of the European eel, taking him all the way to the Sargasso Sea off the coast of North America.

“Mozart’s infinite riches”
Jonathan Gaisman, Standpoint

Jonathan Gaisman’s listener’s guide to Mozart’s twenty-three mature piano concertos makes a very compelling argument for the concertos as the highest statement of Mozart’s genius as a composer within a single genre. I am at times inclined to agree, although should the proverbial house ever catch on fire, I would have a very hard time leaving behind La Nozze di Figaro and its like. 

Gaisman’s piece set me to thinking about motifs of death in classical music. Gaisman touches upon an old debate as to whether Mozart’s last piano concerto, the B flat, K. 595, written shortly before his death, evinces some foreknowledge of the composer’s impending demise. It is indeed tempting to search for such symbolism in its thinner orchestration or flirtation with minor modality, but in the end, this is a fruitless undertaking. Gaisman brings up a good point, however: we have a tendency to obsess over such last works of composers and tear them apart for biographical echoes. I am certainly all the more moved by the very end of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9—about six minutes of the slow, stuttering breath of violins literally instructed to “die away” by the composer—when viewing it through the popular lens that it was his “death” symphony, even if it appears now that this may in fact be ungrounded. Why do we fetishize such pieces? Is it a morbid impulse, or is it our hope to gain some kind of knowledge of how to approach death, something ineffable, sublimated within the composer’s art? It is rather ironic that the traces at which we grasp are often, as with Mozart and Mahler, much more mundane in origin.

“The Vitality of Orthodoxy”
Diarmaid MacCulloch, New York Review of Books

Whenever I visit an Orthodox church during a service, I am always surprised by the flurry of activity I see within. Here, a woman sells votive candles; here, a flock of toddlers runs in and out between the legs of worshippers; here, an off-duty monk covertly steps aside to take a phone call; here, a group of old women perform devotions to an icon; here, a group of men pop out to take a smoke break during a lull in the liturgy. Everyone mills about slowly on foot, except for the very elderly. There are no pews, almost no kneeling, no central focal point for the congregation. And yet all of this is presided over by about as formal and ritualistic a liturgy as you will find this side of Hinduism, much of it taking place hidden beyond the view of the congregation. To this Westerner, the Orthodox liturgy is a beautiful and puzzling paradox to behold, with a simultaneous focus on a seemingly decentralized style of worship and absolute, impersonal subjugation before God.

For readers eager to understand more, John Anthony McGuckin’s The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History will be a welcome addition to the library. Diarmaid MacCulloch provides an excellent review of McGuckin’s work in the pages of the New York Review of Books. MacCulloch is himself the author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, a herculean attempt at a comprehensive history of the Christian church. Unsurprisingly, MacCulloch’s review is itself a tour-de-force exercise in ecclesiastical history in brief, as he traces his way backward along the tangled branches of the Christian family tree.

Podcasts:

“Music for a While #28: Poems, songs, and shouts”
Jay Nordlinger, music critic of The New Criterion, talks music—but, more important, plays music.

Dispatch:

“Sounds of music, again” by Timothy Jacobson. On reopening classical music.