2017: The Renaissance Man Challenge

blog-picsThe New Year is almost upon us. Many (including myself) are going to start diets or go the gym as a resolution. That’s great, of course. Always good to be fit. But what about getting the Brain to hit the gym too?  Well, I have spent some time putting together a list of semi-resolutions for 2017. I call it the Renaissance Man Challenge.

blog-pics

Hildegard von Bingen and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous polymaths in history

Also known as a polymath, a Renaissance Man is a person who excels in the study and appreciation of many different subjects. They have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. For example, Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German nun. She was well educated in and pioneered music, philosophy, writing, medicine and several sciences. There is also Leonardo da Vinci, who is famous for his work in subjects such as art, science, invention, astronomy, architecture and many others. Seriously, many others. Of course, we can’t all be Hildegards and Leonardos. But then again, why not? We may not be able to pioneer subjects, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn them and love them.

So, just for fun, I have composed a list of twenty five activities specifically designed to either find or develop new interests in diverse subjects. Some are quick and easy. Some will last a few months. Some take all year. I suggest picking at least three. Time to become a polymath!

Renaissance Man Challenge 2017

1.) Read one classic novel longer than 500 pages or three shorter classics. The only rule? Make sure they are all books you have never read before! Some great authors of long books are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas and Tolstoy.

2.) Become familiar with one of the main historical eras of music. For Western music, those are the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. With YouTube and the rest of the internet, it is easy to listen and learn about these eras!

ma-31816931

Japanese art is very beautiful and interesting to study

3.) Become familiar with the works and artists of one art period from any part of the world. You can choose a Western movement like Rococo or Renaissance or an Eastern movement, like the Tang Dynasty or Heian Period. There are so many books, websites and documentaries out there waiting for you.

4.) Take up a handcraft, such as knitting, wood-burning, sculpting, leather-work or jewelry making. There is nothing like being able to make something with your own hands. And if you work hard enough at it, you can even end up selling your work and making a few extra dollars!

5.) Read a book in a new language. Any difficulty or length, as long as you learn enough of the language to understand it.

6.) Read a book of the folk takes or mythology of a different culture. Preferably of another continent, so that you get to learn about a history and culture that is different than your own. Practically every culture has unique stories you can read. Some suggestions: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American, Celtic, or Norse.

7.) Write a short story, at least 20-30k words. Write it about something you dreamed or always wanted to do. Write characters based on your friends, family or coworkers. Tip: You can kill off the characters based on people who drive you crazy!

blog-pics

La bohème is an excellent place to start in the world of opera

8.) Watch five operas and/or ballets. Get in touch with the entertainments of history!

9.) Write an essay about the images, themes or characters of one of your favorite movies. This is a really cool exercise, as it helps you to understand exactly what it is you love in a story.

10.) Pick one Shakespeare play and hyper focus on it. Read the play, analyze the themes, characters and messages. Watch every filmed version of it you can find and discover in what ways you like the interpretations and what ways you don’t. It’s much better to do this with a tragedy than a comedy, and preferably one of his Big Four: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello. These plays are exceptionally rich and you can practically feel your brain expanding as you study them.

11.) Learn about something new using only books, no internet. A period of History is especially good for this entry.

12.) Try a different country’s cuisine for one week. The more different from your usual, the better!

44ff5169bbecfd049ec93efd4fb18224

Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet is very elegant and is surprisingly easy to learn

13.) Learn to write one calligraphic script. Or learn to write with a new alphabet like Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese or even Elvish!

14.) Read an epic poem or a ballad. Ballads and epics can be some of the most exciting and moving forms of literature. A few of my favorites are the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

15.) Watch at least one historical or scientific documentary every month.

16.) Read three Greek Dramas, tragic or comedic. They are some of the finest and oldest dramas that the world possesses, and are really worth a read.

17.) Learn about the history of the city or town in which you live. Sometimes it’s more interesting than you think it is!

18.) Once a month, try making a food that you have never had before. If you have to go to a special store for the ingredients, that’s a good sign! And maybe invite friends over to try it with you. If you can get them in on it, you can have a multi-cultural potluck!

19.) Learn to read Music. This is an incredible thing to do. When you can read music, it’s like knowing another language.

20.) Read or watch three things geared towards a demographic to which you do not belong. For instance, read a Jane Austen novel if you’re a dude. Watch an old John Wayne Western if you’re a girly girl. Read a children’s’ book series. And always look for the artistic value. You might find you have interests you never thought you had!

a3251-2-150dpi

La donna è mobile is a fun and catchy aria to sing with

21.) Teach yourself to sing a classical aria or an art song. Switch up your commute sing-a-longs from Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift to Verdi and Mozart. And YouTube has orchestral backing tracks for countless operatic hits, so Classy Karaoke is possible!

22.) Memorize a poem at least a page long. It can be a whole poem, or part of one. Just push your memory to the maximum!

23.) Pick a science that interests you. Animal, astronomy, anatomy, physics, anything. Study it. Don’t just read about it a little. Dive into it, teaching yourself as best as you can. Be that cool person who knows those random facts!

24.) Find a type of math you were always really bad at and learn it all over again. Go, see, and conquer! Make Geometry and Calculus fear your name!

25.) Study the architecture of certain era or culture, historical or modern. It’s astounding how much artistry can be put into buildings.

You’ll have to forgive me that a lot of these are pretty Western-centric. I know unfortunately little about Eastern Culture. But that’s one of the things I’m planning to change this year! I’m picking Numbers 6 and 13 on my list, and reading about Japanese folklore and how to write some Japanese calligraphy. I’m also planning on 18! I want to try some of the tasty dishes that the world has to offer. And I’ve been meaning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I’ll be doing Number 1 as well.

Any other Hildegards and Leonardos out there to give this a try?

Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

800px-skourta

The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

blog-pics

Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

blog-pics

Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

blog-pics

Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

blog-pics

Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Poetry Snippet: Pearl of Delight

blog-pics

Page of the Pearl manuscript from the Cotton Library in Great Britain

Time for a Poetry Snippet! This is where I simply recommend a classic poem by sharing a bit of it and some of its background with you. My first Snippet comes all the way from the 14th Century. It was written by man who, despite his great talent and works, we do not even know the name of. As a result he is usually referred to as “The Gawain Poet”. Behind Chaucer, he is considered among the finest of the Medieval English Poets. He is named after his most famous work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem I am sharing with you today is not as famous, but in my opinion is one of the most beautiful things ever written: Pearl.

blog-pics

Through grass to the ground from me it shot…

Pearl of delight that a prince doth please
To grace in gold enclosed so clear,
I vow that from over orient seas
Never proved I any in price her peer.
So round, so radiant ranged by these,
So fine, so smooth did her sides appear
That ever in judging gems that please
Her only alone I deemed as dear.
Alas! I lost her in garden near:
Through grass to the ground from me it shot;
I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear
For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.

The language in this poem can only be described as exquisite. I, unfortunately, do not speak Middle English (learning it and Anglo-Saxon is on my bucket list) but this version, translated by the wonderful J.R.R. Tolkien, captures such rich imagery with its choice of words and skillful alliterations that I am sure the original author would give it his stamp of approval.

blog-pics

14th century illumination of the Jeweler and the Pearl Maiden

The story is more than it seems in the first stanza. For the main character, a jeweler, is not in fact mourning the loss of an actual pearl, but something far more dear: his daughter, a sweet baby girl who sadly died. The story begins with the Jeweler’s anguish and loss of faith. In his grief, he lays down by his ‘pearl’s’ garden grave and falls asleep. But in his sleep, he has a vision: His daughter, resplendent and beautiful in the joy of Heaven. Comforting him with wise and kindly words, she heals her father’s broken spirit and helps him regain his faith.

There seems to be little that could make the poem more touching, but there is. Rather than merely being a fiction, it is believed that the Gawain Poet may have actually lost his baby daughter and wrote this ballad in her honor. Indeed, the heart-rending language seems to hold a type of grief that only a lost child could bring. Some scholars disclaim the story, however, insisting that the allegorical poem cannot possibly have only one, simple interpretation. But whether the story of the lost daughter is true or not, the poem is a masterpiece.

Although the work is definitely a Christian one, with heavy Christian themes and Biblical allegory, I believe at least its aesthetic beauty can be appreciated by all. I’m also very fond of reading the poem aloud in its original language, even though I don’t actually understand it. There is something very pleasing to the ear in the rustic and yet delicate sound Old and Middle English. To hear and speak it is truly a delight. “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere/Of that pryvy perle wythouten spot…”. It is a very beautiful tongue from which our modern English springs.

You can read the entire poem translated by Tolkien at this Link. If, like me, you love Middle English or are interested in how it sounds, you can go here and feel your mind transported back about 700 years. But no matter how you read or interpret it, the poem is a treasure; a precious pearl, indeed.

blog-pics

Incarnate Art: Garden of the Gods

In my first Incarnate Art piece, I showed you a beautiful fairy tale castle on an island in France. In this installment I’m going to take you to a place carved by the hand of Nature instead of Man: The Garden of the Gods.

maxresdefault

Almost in the very middle of the United States, nestled on the edge of the Colorado Rocky Mountains is a place which looks as though it were frozen in time from Prehistory. With its massive scarlet rock formations, sharply carved out against a cerulean sky, the Garden of the Gods well deserves its ostentatious name.

gardenotgodsThe story of its name is quite amusing and, in my opinion, very American. In 1859, Messieurs M.S. Beach and Rufus Cable set out from the nearby city of Denver to explore the area. While about, they came upon a majestic and awe-inspiring landscape, with mountainous russet rocks and lush, verdant trees. Mr. Beach, in a most hilariously American train of thought, immediately put in what “A capital place for a beer garden!” the place would be. But Mr. Cable indignantly and heartily disagreed. With equally American enthusiasm and extravagance, he replied “Beer Garden! Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.” And so it was.

petroglyphs2

Indian petroglyphs at the park, believed to represent (left to right) the Sun, a deer, a buffalo head, and a tool, or perhaps even the thunderbird

This is one of the few locations you will see on this segment which I have actually had the honor of visiting. I was not joking when I said that it feels prehistoric. I recall my seven year old self walking through the park with my family and easily envisioning a Tyrannosaur or Velociraptor popping out to chase us at any moment (I was rather a fan of Jurassic Park). Indeed, geological study of the area revealed that the formations must have come about in the Pleistocene Ice Age. The area has also been admired for far longer than the times European American settlers discovered it. Many Native American tribes, including the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee and more have stories passed through generations of the beautiful place and the Ute Tribe was still camping there until the 1870’s. Archaeologists still discover petroglyphs and the remains of Indian pottery and tools, evidence of the Native Americans’ ancient connection with the park.

The Garden of the Gods is not an often remembered site when people talk of American tourism, lost in the sea of more famous places like the Grand Canyon or the Redwood Forest. However this place, with its ancient and rustic beauty, is truly worth a visit. It is perfect for walks, hikes, and climbs for just you or the entire family. Perhaps it’s my memories talking, but I can think of almost no place in my homeland where I would rather go to appreciate the majesty of Nature.

garden-of-the-gods-photos85

Catharsis, the Medicine of the Mind

blog-picsIf I were forced to choose a favorite kind of literature- my “desert island” genre, if you will- I’m fairly sure it would be the Tragedy. No other genre inspires me or makes me happier to be alive than a good Tragedy. No doubt, this sounds a bit weird. Tragedies are sad. They are supposed to make you cry and feel miserable. Let me confuse you further by saying: Yes, exactly. That’s why I like them!

“So, you’re a masochist?” you might be saying now. No. I mean, not exactly… But in a way, perhaps. I look at sadness as a sort of bath for the soul. Through Tragedy, I am able to experience the most important human emotions which, in the comfortable life I have been blessed with, I would not otherwise encounter. I actively seek out literature that rends the heart and touches the soul. I seem to have a bit of an addiction to… Catharsis.

a4a5fdc7031171401c3c5eb3f105542e

Aristotle (detail from Raphael’s School of Athens)

But what is Catharsis? From the Greek κάθαρσις, meaning ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’, Catharsis is the idea that the experience of strong emotions through a vicarious source (such as art) cleanses and strengthens the mind and soul. This idea was first named by the great Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who compared it to the medical processes wherein the filth accumulated in the body is washed out. The philosopher wrote of this after having attended the performance of a Tragedy, during which, he had experienced this sensation of emotional purgation. He felt Catharsis’ benefit and thereafter, Aristotle and many after him believed that, just as an ailing body must sometimes be cleansed of impurities, so the mind can be cleansed of emotions.

I myself am a strong believer in this idea, having experienced the soothing effect of vicarious emotion many times through some of my favorite books and operas. Being the possessor of an artistic temperament and very passionate emotions, I easily experience the pain of the characters, sometimes on a very deep level. And yet, rather than leave me depressed and unhappy, my mind feels refreshed.

But how does that work? Why would experiencing terrible feelings make a person feel good? It probably sounds like some sort of mystic mumbo-jumbo, but not so: There is science to this, believe it or not.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced what’s known as “a good cry”. Where you’re miserable and you just break down for a while and let the tears flow freely. Perhaps you’ve heard people tell you “Crying never helped anyone.” Unfortunately for them, however, they are actually incorrect. Crying has been scientifically proven to help with mental anguish, as tears caused by emotion have been found to contain stress hormones, which the body is attempting to flush out with water.

If that is so, then it stands to reason that crying emotionally for the troubles of others is even more beneficial to us. We expel those stress hormones without even having the stress caused to us that it usually requires. Almost seems like cheating.

But science isn’t all, in my opinion. More philosophically, I believe that tears shed for others are always nobler than tears shed for oneself. I also believe that empathizing with the suffering of others helps us to find meaning in our own and it conditions our fragile emotions like a sort of mental exercise, making us more able to face hardship when it comes.

premier_deuil-large

The First Mourning, by William Adolphe-Bouguereau

But not all sad works are created equal. There is a bothersome tendency in this age to call absolutely anything “Tragic”. This is because the real meaning of “Tragedy” is a bit lost in our more cushy modern era. Of course, the word “tragic” has changed over time, and can be used to describe anything which makes us sad. But the proper definition of a Tragedy, comes again from our wise old friend Aristotle. According to the philosopher, a tragedy must be the story of a great and/or good person who, through their own Tragic Flaw or through an inexorable power, is destroyed. The destruction can be physical, especially in the form of death, or it can be spiritual, in the form of turning to evil. The meaning of Tragedy has expanded over time, but basically all of the great tragedies have one important theme in common: the annihilation or loss of something good and pure. This is the ultimate pain of mankind. Everything we consider the worst, such as the death of a child or the destruction of a culture, is related to this idea. The very thought of it can make people weep.

karajan_redo-20b430397d48ba8428db24b0ef131c23e8eaaf7c-s900-c85

Herbert von Karajan, conducting

Tragedy is not the only way to reach Catharsis, however. Not everyone reacts to a tragic story the same way. It can make some people sad in a destructive rather than constructive way. For many, it is better to reach the cleansing of the soul by witnessing the best side of humanity. Love, beauty, truth and goodness. This is the way that beautiful things such as Art or especially Music can make someone weep. There is nothing sad about them, but witnessing the composer or artist’s glimpse and attempt at perfection is enough to make us truly grateful to be alive.

Ironic, is it not, that often the emotions that feel the best are expressed through tears? And weeping can be done for countless, often opposing feelings. There are tears for death and for life, tears for hate or for love and gratitude. And not always physical tears are present; sometimes, they are from the heart and are therefore invisible to all. And yet they rain down nonetheless, letting the Catharsis wash and purge our whole being, leaving us refreshed and more human than before.

blog-pics

 

Incarnate Art: Mont Saint-Michel

Have you ever seen a place so beautiful that it seems more like a painting than physical place? As though it leaped off of its canvas to become reality? Well, welcome to Incarnate Art! In this serial on Mind Vitamins, I will show you and give a brief summary of the World’s most breathtaking places, natural and man-made, which might make you doubt whether this is real life or just fantasy…

blog-picsFirst, we are going to go to a region of France in the North. Conquered and settled by the vikings or ‘Northmen’, it became known as Normandy. It was from here that William the Conqueror and his Norman armies set off for England, to conquer the Saxons in the 11th century. In more recent history, Normandy is mostly agricultural, with cattle, horses, dairy, flax and cider being some examples of industries in the area.  It sounds very simple and rural, but by the coast is a place which could trick you into thinking you had stumbled into a fairy tale; Mont Saint-Michel.
blog-picsFinding its beginnings all the way back in the 8th century AD, Mont Saint-Michel really is like a peek into the past. According to pious legends, it was built on the orders of St.

blog-pics

Cloister of the Abbey

Michael the Archangel himself, after whom the island is named. The structures you see are primarily a church and monastery, built for Benedictine monks. But lower on the hill is a charming little village which used to host the many pilgrims to the spot in centuries gone by. It is completely surrounded by water, and was built in such a way so that the bridge which led to the island was only usable at low tide, the waters covering the passage at all other times. The Mount, built up over the centuries, has a rich history and has been used for more than just a monastery. It was a fortress in the Hundred Years War and foiled all attempts to conquer it with its strategic placement, use of the natural tides and its newer, clever fortifications. It was also used as a prison from around the time of the Revolution which remained in use all the way to 1863. After literally a millennium of use, it was finally decided that the Mount was a historical and artistic treasure, and protection of the site began officially in 1874. Millions of people now visit and enjoy this beautiful place every year.

Any European readers may no doubt be yawning at this article, as this particular place is already very famous on the east side of the Atlantic Pond. But I and my fellow castle-less Americans can’t help but see such a place as tremendously exciting and borderline magical. Those of us who can’t go can at least enjoy the beautiful pictures and  maybe put a little pin on our maps of places to visit. I know I want to…

blog-pics

You can read more about Mont Saint-Michel at these great websites!
http://frenchmoments.eu/mont-saint-michel/
http://about-france.com/monuments/mont-saint-michel.htm

Thanksgiving Music: Beethoven’s Pastorale

blog-pics

Happy Thanksgiving! Hosting the holiday at your home this year? The stress can be a bit much. Perhaps you’re not ready for Christmas music yet, but wouldn’t you rather be able to listen to background music than listen to Aunt Mabel’s background gossip about how your sister isn’t married yet? Or how your stage actor cousin doesn’t have a real job? Well, allow me to present a piece for your dinner, and not only because it is so beautiful, but also because it is about Thankfulness: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major (Pastorale). Here is a link to a lovely recording to play:

“Beethoven’s Symphony Number Six in F Major” may sound pretty fancy and get a few raised eyebrows from less musically knowledgeable acquaintances,  but it’s really not as impressive as they think. Just follow up its proper name and say “It’s the one that plays in Fantasia with the Cherubs and Pegasuses (Pegasi?)”. Ah yes, they know which one you’re talking about, and wasn’t that movie just the best thing. Grandpa remembers when it came out, back in his day when movies were quality, not like today…

blog-picsPerhaps now, your family will speak a little more quietly and try to hear the mellifluous sound of Beethoven. But wait! Your irritating Music Hipster Cousin, Eddie, isn’t impressed. Why would you bother playing such a dull, ‘mainstream’ symphony? He prefers Symphony No. 7, if he listens to Beethoven at all. He likes Rachmaninov and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Well, enjoy the pleasure of one-upping Hipster Cousin Eddie by giving out interesting facts about the symphony. Inform him that this piece was specifically chosen by you to convey proper feelings for Thanksgiving. It was inspired by Beethoven’s own visits to the idyllic Black Forest of Southern Germany, and each movement is meant to represent a part of going there that he loved most.

blog-pics

Peter Paul Rubens, Peasant Dance

The First Movement, energetic and hopeful, represents the joy of arriving in the country. The Second conveys the calm serenity of sitting by a babbling brook and listening to the bird songs in the forest. The Third Movement is a jolly country dance. Fourth Movement, a frightening thunder storm! The Fifth and final Movement meanwhile, is a moving and jubilant song of thanks meant to be played by shepherds.

But that’s not all! There is other interesting information. For instance, that the symphony was composed just as Beethoven’s hearing loss was really setting in, and that some speculate that its serene beauty was meant to symbolize his final acceptance of this terrible burden. You can also inform them that this version is being conducted by Herbert von Karajan, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. If you really want to lay it on thick, you can say something like “The tempo of the first movement is a little quick for my taste, but Karajan’s direction of Beethoven is too lush and rich to sacrifice for such a quibble.”

Of course, this is all a pleasant little fiction: As though the family is going to take a single breath from the moment someone mentions the Presidential Election to the time when they leave, possibly dragged away with new permanent rifts in the family. But, never mind that. You can still listen to Beethoven’s grand musical painting of his love for the countryside. And maybe, even if everyone else is getting bothered by political opinion, you can just sit on the couch, daydreaming about the Black Forest and all of the simple things that make life beautiful. So, forget about the politics and gossip. Instead, you can listen to the Shepherd’s Song and surely remember the real reason everyone is there today: Thanksgiving.

blog-pics

Der schöne Schwarzwald (The beautiful Black Forest)