Saturday, December 15, 2007

Part II--The Third Sunday of Advent--Night Visitors

Dear Gustav Dore, T.S. Eliot, and Gian Carlo Mennotti,

Our imaginations are set in our child's hood by this and that. Christmas, the premier Christian holiday holds much in my mind that is set already by what Dicken's would call Christmas Past. For me that "set" includes a Swedish Lodge, a house and Christmas Eve on 13th St., Rye Bread and Egg Salad. . .

It also includes my grandmother playing an old upright piano and singing carols, including one of my personal favorites, "We Three Kings." I liked that one, maybe because it was more like a ditty than a hymn, transferable in a moment to a ridiculous picture of men with crowns smoking rubber cigars. But it includes more serious settings too.

Gustav, your image is magical, depicting not a lonely troop of three, but a traveling carnival with not three camels, but a cavalry of them. This magic is part of my memory too.

Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Eliot, your Magi are more like the ones I remember from my first experience of opera. I watched Gian Carlo's classic presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors on television. I must have seen it around 1955 on a black and white tv with a screen not bigger than a small computer monitor. The enchantment of the story, the singing, and the three kings set my musical ear for a love of opera. Though the clip pictured below (click here) doesn't include the kings, but only Amahl and his mother, it does demonstrate some of the magic of that performance and what for me is a precious and early Christmas remembrance.

Thanks for all these memories.


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