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The ongoing pledge drive at the local classickal station, and specifically the tactics employed this afternoon for beating up donations, reminds me of one of my more ironclad rules of musickal taste: I detest the work of Giacomo Puccini.  Reaaaally, I do.

I recall being invited once to a “Gala Puccini Night” at the Barbican in London by a young lady whose name long ago escaped me.  It consisted of all the very sappiest moments from Madame Butterfly, Turandot, La Boheme and the rest of them.  As badly as I wanted to show said young lady what a pleasant time I was having, by the end of the evening I was practically eating my program in an effort to bring some relief to the guts-ache that the musick had brought on.

Needless to say, nothing ever came of the date.  I believe the young lady was somewhat insulted by my evident distaste for the program, which she quite enjoyed.

My mother, of all people, defends Puccini on the grounds that he was a good melodist.  (I say ‘of all people’ because she is one of the least Romantic  individuals – either in the 19th Century art sense or in the lovey-dovey-kissy-kiss sense – that you are ever likely to encounter.)  P’raps, but in my humble opinion it sure isn’t worth all the schlock just to get to that particular cherry.

It’s the final trio from Bach’s Coffee Cantata:

The libretto for the full cantata, which tells the story of a young lady’s very proper priorities in life, is pretty amusing:

Recitative Narrator
Be quiet, stop chattering,
and pay attention to what's taking place:
here comes Herr Schlendrian
with his daughter Lieschen;
he's growling like a honey bear.
Hear for yourselves, what she has done to him!

Aria Schlendrian
Don't one's children cause one
endless trials & tribulations!
What I say each day
to my daughter Lieschen
falls on stony ground.

Schlendrian You wicked child, you disobedient girl,
            oh! when will I get my way;
            give up coffee!
Lieschen    Father, don't be so severe!
            If I can't drink
            my bowl of coffee three times daily,
            then in my torment I will shrivel up
            like a piece of roast goat.

Aria Lieschen
Mm! how sweet the coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
mellower than muscatel wine.
Coffee, coffee I must have,
and if someone wishes to give me a treat,
ah, then pour me out some coffee!

Schlendrian If you don't give up drinking coffee
            then you shan't go to any wedding feast,
            nor go out walking.
            oh! when will I get my way;
            give up coffee!
Lieschen    Oh well!
            Just leave me my coffee!
Schlendrian Now I've got the little minx!
            I won't get you a whalebone skirt
            in the latest fashion.
Lieschen    I can easily live with that.
Schlendrian You're not to stand at the window
            and watch people pass by!
Lieschen    That as well, only I beg of you,
            leave me my coffee!
Schlendrian Furthermore, you shan't be getting
            any silver or gold ribbon
            for your bonnet from me!
Lieschen    Yes, yes! only leave me to my pleasure!
Schlendrian You disobedient Lieschen you,
            so you go along with it all!

Aria Schlendrian
Hard-hearted girls
are not so easily won over.
Yet if one finds their weak spot,
ah! then one comes away successful.

Schlendrian Now take heed what your father says!
Lieschen    In everything but the coffee.
Schlendrian Well then, you'll have to resign yourself
            to never taking a husband.
Lieschen    Oh yes! Father, a husband!
Schlendrian I swear it won't happen.
Lieschen    Until I can forgo coffee?
            From now on, coffee, remain forever untouched!
            Father, listen, I won't drink any
Schlendrian Then you shall have a husband at last!

Aria Lieschen
Today even
dear father, see to it!
Oh, a husband!
Really, that suits me splendidly!
If it could only happen soon
that at last, before I go to bed,
instead of coffee
I were to get a proper lover!

Recitative Narrator
Old Schlendrian goes off
to see if he can find a husband forthwith
for his daughter Lieschen;
but Leischen secretly lets it be known:
no suitor is to come to my house
unless he promises me,
and it is also written into the marriage contract,
that I will be permitted
to make myself coffee whenever I want.

A cat won't stop from catching mice,
and maidens remain faithful to their coffee.
The mother holds her coffee dear,
the grandmother drank it also,
who can thus rebuke the daughters!

Who indeed?

A glass of wine, er, cup of coffee with Gail at Scribal Terror.

UPDATE: A storm (in a coffee cup, ha ha ha) of protest about the size of the script in the libretto.  If it’s hurting your eyes, here’s the link to the site from which I swiped it to begin with.

The NY Times runs a surprisingly unsympathetic** article on the role of Henry Cisneros – my boyhood (and disgraced) mayor in San Antonio and Clintonista HUD Secretary – in the current housing mess debacle:

As the Clinton administration’s top housing official in the mid-1990s, Mr. Cisneros loosened mortgage restrictions so first-time buyers could qualify for loans they could never get before.

Then, capitalizing on a housing expansion he helped unleash, he joined the boards of a major builder, KB Home, and the largest mortgage lender in the nation, Countrywide Financial — two companies that rode the housing boom, drawing criticism along the way for abusive business practices.

And Mr. Cisneros became a developer himself. The Lago Vista development here in his hometown once stood as a testament to his life’s work.

Joining with KB, he built 428 homes for low-income buyers in what was a neglected, industrial neighborhood. He often made the trip from downtown to ask residents if they were happy.

“People bought here because of Cisneros,” says Celia Morales, a Lago Vista resident. “There was a feeling of, ‘He’s got our back.’ ”

But Mr. Cisneros rarely comes around anymore. Lago Vista, like many communities born in the housing boom, is now under stress. Scores of homes have been foreclosed, including one in five over the last six years on the community’s longest street, Sunbend Falls, according to property records.

While Mr. Cisneros says he remains proud of his work, he has misgivings over what his passion has wrought. He insists that the worst problems developed only after “bad actors” hijacked his good intentions but acknowledges that “people came to homeownership who should not have been homeowners.”

They were lured by “unscrupulous participants — bankers, brokers, secondary market people,” he says. “The country is paying for that, and families are hurt because we as a society did not draw a line.”

Read the rest.  What was it Peej O’Rourke once said?  Communists worship Satan.  Socialists believe Perdition is a good system run by bad people.  Liberals think we should all go to hell because it’s warm there in the winters.

A glass of wine with the Rev. Canon Dr. Harmon.

**I say surprisingly unsympathetic because I though the meme was that it was all Dubya’s fault.  Or didn’t the Gray Lady get the memo?

This may be of absolutely no interest to anyone else but me, but I was struck by a little chart attached by Francis Parkman to a footnote contained in the chapter of his The Jesuits In North America devoted to a discussion of the history of the Iroquois Nations. It sets out the original native names of the five nations that comprised the Iroquois confederacy, plus their French and English equivalents. Here you go:

1. Ganeagaono – Fr: Agnier, Eng: Mohawk.

2. Onayotekaono – Fr: Onneyut, Eng: Oneida.

3. Onundagaono – Fr: Onnontagué, Eng: Onondaga.

4. Gweugwehono – Fr: Goyogouin, Eng: Cayuga.

5. Nundawaono – Fr: Tsonnontouans, Eng: Seneca.

What I find interesting about this is the extent to which the French and English names seek to replicate their Iroquois counterparts, as well as the extent to which they may or may not be said to succeed. Some of them are pretty close. Others (and here I believe “Mohawk” is the outstanding example) seem right off the chart.

When I was a boy, by the way, it used to trouble me that an Upstate New York Indian tribe – the Senecas – somehow shared a name with what I knew to be a pair of 1st Century A.D. Roman philosophers.  (As you might imagine, I didn’t date much in high school.)

Today is the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, one of the greatest naval engagements in history, in which Admiral Viscount Lord Nelson smashed a combined French and Spanish fleet under Admiral Villenueve, utterly dashing whatever hope Napoleon had ever had for invading England. While the battle was one of the signal victories in the annals of the Royal Navy, the success was marred by the death of Nelson himself, cut down on the deck of HMS Victory by a sniper in the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable.

Nelson in full regalia

The battle opened with the Royal Navy divided into a double column of attack aimed at piercing and overwhelming the Franco-Spanish line at two points, and at the same time cutting off the van of the Allied fleet, which would take some considerable time to turn around and sail back into the fight:


This is actually the reverse of a maneuver sometimes called “crossing the enemy’s T” and is extremely risky: the majority of a sailing ship’s cannons were ranged along her sides and the line of ships broadside on to the attack was able to bring a tremendous amount of gunnery to bear, while only the foremost ships of the attacking column could at first fire. Furthermore, on the day of the battle the winds were quite light and the progress of Nelson’s attacking squadrons very slow. Had Admiral Villeneuve been looking for a genuine knock-down, drag-out fight, he was in a perfect position to start one. However, the truth of the matter is that all the Franco-Spanish fleet wanted was to get away from Nelson and escape to the French ports on the English Channel, there to guard the invasion flotilla.

As the Royal Navy smashed into the line, a series of fierce close-quarters battles took place, during which superior British gunnery and seamanship took apart the enemy. By the end of the battle, 22 French and Spanish ships had been sunk or captured while, although many suffered damage, not a single British ship was lost.

Now, Villeneuve certainly had his orders, and Napoleon’s first, last and only interest in his navy was its ability to keep the British off his invasion flotilla, but I also think this battle says something both about the relative qualities of the two fleets and about Nelson himself. First, it is important to understand that the French Navy at this period suffered under an enormous psychological as well as skills disadvantage. It had been every bit as competent as the Royal Navy prior to the French Revolution (see A.T. Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 on this subject), but a great part of the seasoned, experienced officer class had been wiped out during that time, to be replaced by Jacobin toadies who, whatever their political zeal, had no real understanding of naval warfare. When Revolutionary France declared war against England in the mid-1790’s, its navy promptly and repeatedly got thrashed, despite on many occasions outgunning and outmanning its Royal Navy adversaries. This largely shaped the outlook of both fleets that lasted right on into the Napoleonic era – the British became used to winning almost as a matter of course, no matter what the odds. The French, on the other hand, tended to be timid and hesitant, what is nowadays called “risk averse”.

Then there was the skills issue: At the outbreak of the Napoleonic War, the British promptly blockaded the major French ports, bottling up large parts of the French fleet. Thus, while the Royal Navy had to keep to the seas in all seasons and weathers, constantly honing its skills, most French ships sat idling in port, their crews gaining very little experience beyond the occasional tour around the harbor.

Then there was Nelson himself, who was both a product and a cause of these circumstances. While we have become hard-bitten and cynical about dashing, flamboyant heroes in our day, Nelson was about as close to the real thing as one could imagine – supremely confident in the skills of himself and his men, daring to the point of near-recklessness, and utterly convinced of the right of what he was doing. Furthermore, he sought to instill these ideas in those around him – his reference to the captains of the Royal Navy as a “Band of Brothers” encouraged such levels of professionalism, confidence and aggression in his fellow commanders that, really, the Royal Navy was virtually unstoppable until the rise of the German challenge in the early part of the 20th Century. And when Nelson flew his famous signal just before the battle, it was as much an exhortation, an appeal to the Fleet’s pride, as it was a command. The results speak for themselves.

UPDATE: By the way,  Nelson met the Duke of Wellington just once – in the summer of 1805 in London.  Here’s what the Iron Dook has to say about him:

“He (Nelson) entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself and, in reality, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me.”

Nelson then stepped out of the room, seemingly discovering in his absence just who Wellington actually was. Upon his return, Wellington continues:

“[H]is charlatan style had quite vanished…and certainly for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more…I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden or complete metamorphosis I never saw.”


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October 2008