Recent links of note:
Keith Thomas, London Review of Books
Scent is perhaps the most neglected of our senses. We appreciate a pleasant smell and recoil from an unpleasant one, but we spend far more of our time thinking about the sights, sounds, and tastes that surround us. This is true today more than ever; we inhabit a relatively sanitized environment, to the benefit of our health but to the detriment, perhaps, of our sensory palette. This was hardly the case in eras gone by. Early modern Europe was, of course, a putrid place, and scents in the air were blamed for the spread of sickness. The origin of the word “malaria,” meaning simply “bad air,” stems directly from this belief. In everyday life, the discernment between good and bad smells was hardly a matter of comfort; it was an existential consideration. Squeamish beware, but for those interested in learning more, Keith Thomas unfolds an exhaustive history of mankind’s relationship with olfactory matters high and low.
“The problem of Shostakovich”
Jonathan Gaisman, Standpoint
In a previous “Week in review” featuring Jonathan Gaisman’s article on Mozart’s piano concertos, I wondered about the preconceptions we often carry to a performance of classical music. Many modern listeners are, I am sure, reluctant to tackle a piece of classical music on its own terms as absolute music; it is much easier to justify sitting through an hour-long performance if there is a “reason” for doing so. At its best, however, a conceptual or historical context can add an extra dimension to the listening experience, and is often inseparable from the work itself. I doubt, for example, that anyone would want to or could succeed at attempting to sever Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” from its origin in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Likewise with Shostakovich, the epitomic composer who struggled under the strictures of an oppressive regime. In an eloquent essay, Gaisman puts Shostakovich’s complicated legacy as a “political” composer into focus, asking the question of whether his best-loved music, much of it explicitly or “secretly” programmatic, can or should be appreciated in its abstract form.
“Hagia Sophia: Past and Future”
Thomas F. Madden, First Things
With the American media currently distracted by concerns more immediate to our own country, Turkey’s recent decision to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque has flown somewhat under the radar. Built first as a Christian church in the sixth century A.D., it was converted into a mosque in 1453, then, most recently, a museum. The contest over which group now “deserves” the Hagia Sophia is as contentious a piece of moral calculus as any. President Kemal Atatürk’s decision to make it a secular museum in 1935, although a compromise bound to satisfy neither side fully, was at least capable of accommodating all parties concerned to some extent. Whatever side one takes, as Thomas Madden writes in his defense of the museum, the Hagia Sophia does not deserve to be a pawn in a political game. The main concerns should now be for the continued freedom of access for people of all faiths and the preservation of the Hagia Sophia’s priceless cultural heritage. This especially applies to the fragile examples of Byzantine mosaic work, uncovered in the last century, now apparently to be covered again during times of prayer.
“Music for a While #29: America: plenty good room”
Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion’s music critic, talks music—but, more important, plays music.
“When Sokolov was lit” by Jay Nordlinger. On the virtue of virtuosity.