Nov 102018

Today is the birthday (1668) of François Couperin, a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. who was known as Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from other members of the musically able Couperin family.

Couperin was born into one of the best-known musical families of Europe. His father Charles was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’s brother Louis Couperin, a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer whose career was cut short by an early death. As a boy, François must have received his first music lessons from his father. Unfortunately, Charles died in 1679. The church council at Saint-Gervais hired Michel Richard Delalande to serve as new organist, on the condition that François would replace him at age 18. Meanwhile, the boy was taken care of and taught by organist Jacques-Denis Thomelin, who served both at the court and at the famous church of St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie.

In 1689 Couperin married Marie-Anne Ansault,  and the next year he published  Pieces d’orgue, a collection of organ masses that was praised by Delalande (who may have assisted with both composition and publication). In three more years Couperin succeeded his former teacher Thomelin at the court. The new appointment was extremely prestigious and brought Couperin in contact with some of the finest composers of his time, as well as numerous members of the aristocracy. His earliest chamber music dates from around that time. The numerous duties Couperin carried out at the court were accompanied by duties as organist at Saint Gervais, and also by the composition and publication of new music. He obtained a 20-year royal privilege to publish in 1713 and used it immediately to issue the first volume (out of four) of his harpsichord works, Pieces de clavecin. A harpsichord playing manual followed in 1716, as well as other collections of keyboard and chamber music. In 1717 Couperin succeeded one of his most eminent colleagues, Jean-Baptiste-Henry d’Anglebert, as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, one of the highest possible appointments for a court musician. However, his involvement in the musical activities at the court may have diminished after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.

Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. The services of a cousin were required by 1723 at Saint Gervais, and in 1730 Couperin’s position as court harpsichordist was taken up by his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). He died in 1733. The building where Couperin and his family lived from 1724 still stands and is located at the corner of the rue Radziwill and the rue des Petits Champs. The composer was survived by at least three of his children: Marguerite-Antoinette, who continued working as court harpsichordist until 1741, Marie-Madeleine (Marie-Cécile), who became a nun and may have worked as organist at the Maubuisson Abbey, and François-Laurent, who according to contemporary sources left the family after François died.

Couperin acknowledged his debt to the Italian composer Corelli. He introduced Corelli’s trio sonata form to France, for example. Couperin’s grand trio sonata was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli (“Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli”). In it he blended the Italian and French styles of music in a set of pieces which he called Les goûts réunis (“Styles Reunited”).

His most famous book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”, published in 1716), contains suggestions for fingerings, touch, ornamentation and other features of keyboard technique. This link has dozens of Couperin’s pieces on it:

Couperin’s four volumes of harpsichord music, published in Paris in 1713, 1717, 1722, and 1730, contain over 230 individual pieces, and he also published a book of Concerts Royaux which can be played as solo harpsichord pieces or as small chamber works. The four collections for harpsichord alone are grouped into ordres, a synonym of suites, containing traditional dances as well as pieces with descriptive titles. They are notable for Couperin’s detailed indication of ornaments, which in most harpsichord music of the period was left to the discretion of the player. The first and last pieces in an ordre were of the same tonality, but the middle pieces could be in other closely related tonalities. These volumes were admired by Johann Sebastian Bach, who exchanged letters with Couperin, and later by Brahms and by Ravel, who memorialized their composer in Le tombeau de Couperin (Couperin’s Memorial).

Many of Couperin’s keyboard pieces have evocative, picturesque titles (such as “The little windmills” and “The mysterious barricades”) and express a mood through key choices, adventurous harmonies and (resolved) discords. They have been likened to miniature tone poems. These features attracted Richard Strauss, who orchestrated some of them.

I have taken a recipe for a venison stew with beetroots from the 1674 classic, The English and French Cook, to commemorate Couperin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a great many recipes shared by English and French cooks before the cordon bleu school put its stamp on French cooking. The recipe is straightforward except noting that “sweet spices” could be thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, etc., and Saunders is red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) that was used in Medieval cooking to give a red color to dishes.

Potage of Venison

Take a Haunch of Venison, and cut it into six pieces, and place them in the bottom of a Pan or Pot, then put in no more Water than will cover it, let it boil, then scum it, after that add to it a good quantity of whole Pepper; when it is half boiled, put in four whole Onions, Cloves, and large Mace, some sliced Ginger, Nutmeg, three or four faggots of sweet Herbs, let it boil till the Venison be very tender, and a good part of the broth be wasted; after this pour out the broth from the meat into a Pipkin, keep your Venison hot in the same Pot by adding other hot broth unto it; then take a couple of red-Beet roots, having very well parboil’d them before, cut them into square pieces as big as a shilling, and put them into the broth which is in your Pipkin, and let them boil till they are very tender, add unto the boiling four Anchovies minced, then dish up your Venison on Sippets of French-bread, then pour on your broth, so much as will near-upon fill the Dish, then take your roots by themselves, and toss them in a little drawn Butter, and lay them all over the Venison; if the Beets be good, it will make the broth red enough, which you must have visible round about the Dish sides, but if it prove pale, put to it some Saunders: This is a very savory Potage.

Apr 302017

Today is marked as Jubilate Sunday in the ecclesiastical calendar of many Christian traditions. I get a little miffed that on many sites – including Wikipedia – it is called the 3rd Sunday AFTER Easter. Can’t these people count? It is the 3rd Sunday OF Easter (or the 2nd Sunday after Easter). The full Easter season stretches from the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday to Pentecost – a pretty long haul that usually starts in February and ends in late May or early June. The Christmas and Easter seasons flow into one another with a short break between them of a couple of weeks (longer if Easter is late). By comparison, the time from Pentecost to Advent (beginning the Christmas season again), is very long, usually around 6 months. Technically, the time between major seasons is known as ordinary time, and because the liturgical color for ordinary time is green the period from Pentecost to Advent is colloquially known (mostly by clergy), as the meadow period – when all the lessons of Christmas and Easter are put into practice (you know: grow a meadow and make hay). But now we are in the period of Easter that in many traditions is a time for rejoicing; but not all, as we shall see.

The third Sunday of Easter is called Jubilate Sunday because in the liturgy of the Catholic Church the first line of the introit for that day’s mass is “Jubilate Deo omnis terra” (“Shout with joy to God, all the earth”) from Psalm 66:65.

The liturgy for this day in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, and for the next two Sundays, continues to celebrate the Easter resurrection.

The Germanic Lutheran tradition was at one time rather more dour. Johann Sebastian Bach composed three church cantatas for the occasion, based on the prescribed readings: the epistle reading, 1 Peter 2:11–20, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man”, and the gospel reading, John 16:16–23, the announcement of the Second Coming from the Farewell discourse:

20 Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. 21 A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.

Bach’s three cantatas for this day are:

Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, 22 April 1714

Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103, 22 April 1725

Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal, BWV 146, 12 May 1726 or 18 April 1728

I’ll focus on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing). Bach composed the cantata in Weimar when he was Konzertmeister at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. He led the first performance in the Schlosskirche, the court chapel of the Schloss in Weimar. His job called for the performance of a new church cantata each month. He composed Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen as the second cantata in the series, on a text probably written by court poet Salomon Franck. The work is structured in seven movements, an instrumental Sinfonia, a choral passacaglia, a recitative on a Bible quotation, three arias and, as the closing chorale, the last stanza from Samuel Rodigast’s hymn “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (“What God does is well done”) (1674). The cantata is scored for three vocal soloists, a four-part choir, trumpet, oboe, bassoon, two violins, two violas, and basso continuo.

Bach reworked the first section of the first chorus to form the Crucifixus movement of the Credo in his Mass in B minor. Franz Liszt based extended keyboard compositions on the same material. Here is the cantata on Baroque instruments and with vocalists adopting a Baroque style:

Because of the Lutheran tradition there’s not a lot of “Jubilate” here. The music is wonderful, of course, but as a pastor I find the sentiments misplaced. I understand the point. After the resurrection, Jesus remains with the disciples a little while and then ascends to heaven, leaving them bereft. But not long after, Pentecost comes, giving them the Holy Spirit to comfort them until his triumphant return. So obviously the period after the resurrection contains mixed messages. Christians should be thinking around this time: “Now what?” But for me the heavy lifting comes after Pentecost in the meadow period. Between Easter and Pentecost is mostly for rejoicing in my book.  So let’s talk about pork neck.

Pork neck is not a cut that you see in the UK or the US, unless your butcher deals in whole carcasses and you specially ask for it. In Germany it is a normal cut. It consists of the front part of the pig’s back behind the head. It is both meaty and fatty, but not as fatty as belly meat. It is a good choice for grilling or roasting. In Weimar it is the custom to marinate the meat overnight and then grill it. Some people bone the neck meat, roll it, and roast it. Schwarzbier is a dark lager made in Thuringia. You can substitute any German-style dark, bitter beer.

Thüringer Mutzbraten


2 lb/ 1kg pork neck, cut into thick cutlets


2 tsp marjoram
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 cups Schwarzbier


Combine all the marinade ingredients in a bowl. Place the cutlets on a zip top bag. They must be able to lie flat in one layer, so divide them between 2 bags if necessary. Pour the marinade in the bag(s). Squeeze out as much air as possible, then seal the zip top. Lay the cutlets flat so that they are surrounded by marinade. Refrigerate overnight.

Next day, take the cutlets from the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature before grilling.

It is traditional to use birch in the grill, but you can use any wood or charcoal. I use a barbecue with a lid so that the pork can smoke a little as it cooks.  For pork I used to cook using apple wood. If you don’t have an outdoor grill you can use your broiler.

Mar 312016


Today is the supposed birthday of P. D. Q. Bach (1742), a fictitious composer invented by “professor” Peter Schickele. Schickele developed a five-decade-long career, performing the “discovered” works of the “only forgotten son” of the Bach family. Schickele’s music combines parodies of musicological scholarship, the conventions of Baroque and classical music, and some slapstick comedy. The name “P. D. Q.” is a parody of the three-part names given to some members of the Bach family that are commonly reduced to initials, such as C. P. E., for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. PDQ is, of course, an initialism for “pretty damned quick.”


According to Schikele, P. D. Q. Bach was born in Leipzig on March 31 (J.S. Bach’s actual birth date), the son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach; the twenty-first of Johann’s twenty children. He died May 5, 1807, though his birth and death years are often listed on album literature in reverse, as “(1807–1742)”. According to Schickele, P. D. Q. “possessed the originality of Johann Christian, the arrogance of Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the obscurity of Johann Christoph Friedrich.”


Schickele began working on the character while studying at the Aspen Music Festival and School and at Juilliard, and has performed a variety of P. D. Q. Bach shows over the years. The Village Voice mentions the juxtaposition of collage, bitonality, musical satire, and orchestral surrealism in a ” “bizarre melodic stream of consciousness.” “In P.D.Q. Bach he has single-handedly mapped a musical universe that everyone knew was there and no one else had the guts (not simply the bad taste) to explore.” In fact, it is clear the Shickele is an accomplished musician, theorist, and composer to people with a decent background in music.


Schickele’s works attributed to P. D. Q. Bach often incorporate comical rearrangements of well-known works of other composers. The works use instruments not normally used in orchestras, such as the bagpipes, slide whistle, kazoo, and fictional or experimental instruments such as the pastaphone (made of uncooked manicotti), tromboon, hardart, lasso d’amore, and left-handed sewer flute.


There is often a startling juxtaposition of styles within a single P. D. Q. Bach piece. The Prelude to Einstein on the Fritz, which alludes to Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach, provides an example. The underlying music is J.S. Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, but at double the normal speed, with each phrase repeated interminably in a minimalist manner that parodies Glass’s. On top of this structure is added everything from jazz phrases to snoring to heavily-harmonized versions of Three Blind Mice to the chanting of a meaningless phrase (“Koy Hotsy-Totsy,” alluding to the art film Koyaanisqatsi for which Glass wrote the score). Through all these mutilations, the piece never deviates from Bach’s original harmonic structure.

The humor in P. D. Q. Bach music often derives from violation of audience expectations, such as repeating a tune more than the usual number of times, resolving a musical chord later than usual or not at all, unusual key changes, excessive dissonance, or sudden switches from high art to low art. Further humor is obtained by replacing parts of certain classical pieces with similar common songs, such as the opening of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 with “Beautiful Dreamer”, or rewriting Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as the 1712 Overture, with Yankee Doodle replacing Tchaikovsky’s melody, and Pop Goes the Weasel replacing La Marsellaise.


Schickele divides P. D. Q. Bach’s fictional musical output into three periods: the Initial Plunge, the Soused Period, and Contrition. During the Initial Plunge, P. D. Q. Bach wrote the Traumerei for solo piano, an Echo Sonata for “two unfriendly groups of instruments”, and a Gross Concerto for Divers Flutes, two Trumpets, and Strings. During the Soused (or Brown-Bag) Period, P. D. Q. Bach wrote a Concerto for Horn & Hardart, a Sinfonia Concertante, a Pervertimento for Bicycle, Bagpipes, and Balloons, a Serenude, a Perückenstück (literally German for “Hairpiece”), a Suite from The Civilian Barber (spoofing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville), a Schleptet in E-flat major, the half-act opera The Stoned Guest (the character of “The Stone Guest” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), a Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra, Erotica Variations (Beethoven’s Eroica Variations), Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice, an opera in one unnatural act (Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), The Art of the Ground Round (Bach’s The Art of Fugue), a Concerto for Bassoon vs. Orchestra, and a Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion.

During the Contrition Period, P. D. Q. Bach wrote the cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn (Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis, etc.), the oratorio The Seasonings (Haydn’s The Seasons), Diverse Ayres on Sundrie Notions, a Sonata for Viola Four Hands, the chorale prelude Should, a Notebook for Betty Sue Bach (Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”), the Toot Suite, the Grossest Fugue (Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge), a Fanfare for the Common Cold (Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man) and the canine cantata Wachet Arf! (Bach’s Wachet auf).


A final work is the mock religious work Missa Hilarious (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) (Schickele no. N2O – the chemical formula of nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”).

P.D.Q sometimes uses the tromboon, a musical instrument made up of the reed and bocal of a bassoon, attached to the body of a trombone in place of the trombone’s leadpipe. It combines the sound of double reeds and the slide for a distinctive and unusual instrument (mostly unplayable). The name of the instrument is a portmanteau of “trombone” and “bassoon”. The sound quality of the instrument is best described as comical and loud. The tromboon was developed by Peter Schickele, a skilled bassoonist himself, and featured in some of his live concert and recorded performances. Schickele called it “a hybrid – that’s the nicer word – constructed from the parts of a bassoon and a trombone; it has all the disadvantages of both” (the difficulties of playing a slide instrument and a double reed). This instrument is called for in the scores of P. D. Q. Bach’s oratorio The Seasonings, as well as the Serenude (for devious instruments) and Shepherd on the Rocks, With a Twist. The tromboon (although it was not called such) was independently conceived of by the French composer Gérard Grisey, who used it as a sound effect in his 1975 work Partiels. It is unclear whether either Schickele or Grisey were aware of each other’s untraditional use of the trombone. It’s not surprising that the “instruments” was independently invented twice given that the bocal of a bassoon fits neatly into a trombone mouthpiece aperture.


Here’s Shickele playing the part of announcer for a comic rendition of Beethoven’s 5th.

For PDQ Bach’s birthday here’s Quarkkeulchen – a specialty fried dumpling from Saxony (PDQ’s birthplace), made with potatoes and quark (curds), sprinkled with cinnamon and served with apple sauce. The combination of ingredients has the “flavor” of PDQ’s music of strange combinations.

Quark is also known as  Speisequark, Topfkäse, Weisskäse, Matz, Bibeleskäse, Lukeleskäs, Topfen, Klatschkäse, and Sibbkäs. The word quark means “curd” or “cheese curd.” It is a cheese made from pasteurized cow’s milk. The milk is curdled through the addition of a bacteria. The curdled milk is stored at 70°F (22°C) for 24 hours to allow the milk protein to thicken. Then the liquid (whey) is drained through the use of a mechanical separator. The remaining solid is quark. Depending on the desired fat content and consistency of the final quark, producers then mix cream back in.

Quark is basically concentrated milk. It is high in protein, calcium, and phosphate. It is also used extensively in both cooking and baking throughout Germany. It accounts for half of the total cheese consumption in Germany.




1 lb (500g) potatoes, peeled and boiled
1 lb (500g) quark
1¼  cup flour
1 egg
oil or butter
apple sauce


Mash the potatoes. Add the quark, egg, and flour and mix to form a moist dough. If the dough is too wet to hold together, add a little bit more flour.

With floured hands, form flat, thick pancakes.

In a frying pan, heat the oil or butter. Fry the Quarkkeulchen until golden brown. Before serving, sprinkle each Quarkkeulchen with sugar and cinnamon. Serve with apple sauce.

Mar 112016


Today is the birthday (1921) of Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla, Argentine tango composer, bandoneón player and band leader whose work revolutionized the traditional tango by incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. I can’t say that I am a fan because I have a deep purist streak in me, but I recognize his skills. Here’s a sample:

Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1921, the only child of Italian immigrant parents, Vicente “Nonino” Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti. His paternal grandfather, a sailor and fisherman named Pantaleo (later Pantaleón) Piazzolla, had immigrated to Mar del Plata from Trani, a seaport in the southeastern Italian region of Apulia, at the end of the 19th century. His mother was the daughter of two Italian immigrants from Lucca in Tuscany. In 1925 Astor Piazzolla moved with his family to Greenwich Village in New York City, which in those days was a violent neighborhood inhabited by a volatile mixture of gangsters and hard-working immigrants. His parents worked long hours and Piazzolla soon learned to take care of himself on the streets despite having a limp. At home he would listen to his father’s records of the tango orchestras of Carlos Gardel and Julio de Caro, and was also exposed to jazz and classical music, including Bach, from an early age. He began to play the bandoneón after his father spotted one in a New York pawn shop in 1929.


After their return to New York City from a brief visit to Mar del Plata in 1930, the family went to live in Little Italy in lower Manhattan, and in 1932 Piazzolla composed his first tango La catinga. The following year Piazzolla took music lessons with the Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninoff, who taught him to play Bach on his bandoneón. In 1934 he met Carlos Gardel, ( ), and played a cameo role as a young paper boy in his movie El día que me quieras. Gardel invited Piazzolla to join him on his current tour. Much to Piazzolla’s dismay, his father decided that he was not old enough to go along. This early disappointment of not being allowed to join the tour proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it was on this tour that Gardel and his entire orchestra died in a plane crash in 1935. In 1936, he returned with his family to Mar del Plata, where he began to play in a variety of tango orchestras and around this time he discovered the music of Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio. Vardaro’s novel interpretation of tango made a great impression on Piazzolla and years later he would become Piazzolla’s violinist in his Orquesta de Cuerdas and his First Quintet.


Inspired by Vardaro’s style of tango, and still only 17 years old, Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires in 1938 where, the following year, he realized a dream when he joined the orchestra of the bandoneónist Anibal Troilo, which would become one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time. Piazzolla was employed as a temporary replacement for Toto Rodríguez who was ill, but when Rodríguez returned to work Troilo decided to retain Piazzolla as a fourth bandoneónist. Apart from playing the bandoneón, Piazzolla also became Troilo’s arranger and would occasionally play the piano for him. By 1941 he was earning a good wage, enough to pay for music lessons with Alberto Ginastera, an eminent Argentine composer of classical music. It was the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who had advised him to study with Ginastera and delving into scores of Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, and others, Piazzolla rose early each morning to hear the Teatro Colón orchestra rehearse while continuing a grueling performance schedule in the tango clubs at night. During his five years of study with Ginastera he mastered orchestration, which he later considered to be one of his strong points. In 1943 he started piano lessons with the Argentine classical pianist Raúl Spivak, which continued for the next five years, and wrote his first classical works Preludio No. 1 for Violin and Piano and Suite for Strings and Harps. That same year he married his first wife, Dedé Wolff, an artist, with whom he had two children, Diana and Daniel.

As time went by Troilo began to fear that Piazzolla’s advanced musical ideas might undermine the style of his orchestra and make it less appealing to tango dancers. Tensions mounted between the two until, in 1944, Piazzolla announced his intention to leave Troilo and join Francisco Fiorentino’s orchestra. Piazzolla led Fiorentino’s orchestra until 1946 and made many recordings with him, including his first two instrumental tangos, La chiflada and Color de rosa.


In 1946 Piazzolla formed his Orquesta Típica, which, although having a similar formation to other tango orchestras of the day, gave him his first opportunity to experiment with his own approach to the orchestration and musical content of tango. That same year he composed, El Desbande, which he considered to be his first formal tango, and then began to compose musical scores for films, starting with Con los mismos colores in 1949 and Bólidos de acero in 1950, both films directed by Carlos Torres Ríos.

Having disbanded his first orchestra in 1950 he almost abandoned tango altogether as he continued to study Bartok and Stravinsky and orchestra direction with Hermann Scherchen. He spent a lot of time listening to jazz and searching for a musical style of his own beyond the realms of tango. He decided to drop the bandoneon and to dedicate himself to writing and to studying music. Between 1950 and 1954 he composed a series of works that began to develop his unique style: Para lucirse, Tanguango, Prepárense, Contrabajeando, Triunfal and Lo que vendrá.

At Ginastera’s urging, Piazzolla entered his classical composition Buenos Aires Symphony, in three movements, for the Fabian Sevitzky Award on August 16, 1953. The performance took place at the Law School in Buenos Aires with the symphony orchestra of Radio del Estado under the direction of Sevitzky himself. At the end of the concert a fight broke out among some members of the audience who were offended by the inclusion of two bandoneóns in a traditional symphony orchestra. In spite of this Piazzolla’s composition won a grant from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau conservatory.

In 1954 he and his wife left their two children (Diana aged 11 and Daniel aged 10) behind with Piazzolla’s parents and traveled to Paris. At this stage in his life Piazzolla was tired of tango and at first, he tried to hide his tanguero past and his bandoneón compositions from Boulanger, thinking that his destiny lay in classical music. By way of introduction to his work, Piazzolla played her a number of his classically-inspired compositions but it was not until he finally played his tango Triunfal that she immediately congratulated him and encouraged him to pursue his career in tango, recognizing that this was where his true musical talent lay. This was to prove an historic encounter and a crossroad in Piazzolla’s career.

During his time with Boulanger he studied classical composition including counterpoint which was to play a key role in his later tango compositions. Before leaving Paris he heard, and was deeply impressed by, the octet of the American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which was to give him the idea of forming his own octet on his return to Buenos Aires. At this time he composed and recorded a series of tangos with the String Orchestra of the Paris Opera and began to play the bandoneón while standing up, putting his right foot on a chair and the bellows of the instrument across his right thigh. Until that time bandoneónists played sitting down.

Back in Argentina, Piazzolla formed his Orquesta de Cuerdas (String Orchestra), which performed with the singer Jorge Sobral, and his Octeto Buenos Aires in 1955. With two bandoneóns (Piazzolla and Leopoldo Federico), two violins (Enrique Mario Francini and Hugo Baralis), double bass (Juan Vasallo), cello (José Bragato), piano (Atilio Stampone), and an electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino), his Octeto effectively broke the mould of the traditional orquesta típica and created a new sound akin to chamber music, without a singer and with jazz-like improvisations. This was to be a turning point in his career and a watershed in the history of tango. Piazzolla’s new approach to the tango, nuevo tango, made him a controversial figure in his native land both musically and politically. However, his music gained acceptance in Europe and North America, and his reworking of the tango was embraced by some liberal segments of Argentine society, who were pushing for political changes in parallel with his musical revolution.


In 1958 he disbanded both the Octeto and the String Orchestra and returned to New York City with his family where he struggled to make a living as a musician and arranger. Briefly forming his own group, the Jazz Tango Quintet with whom he made just two recordings, his attempts to blend jazz and tango were not successful. He received the news of the death of his father in October 1959 while performing with Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves in Puerto Rico and on his return to New York City a few days later, he asked to be left alone in his apartment and in less than an hour wrote his famous tango Adiós Nonino, in homage to his father.

Copes and Nieves packed out Club Flamboyan in San Juan, Puerto Rico with “Compañia Argentina Tangolandia”. Piazzolla was serving as the musical director. The tour continued in New York, Chicago and then Washington. The last show that the three of them did together was an appearance on CBS the only color TV channel in the USA on the Arthur Murray Show in April 1960.

Back in Buenos Aires later that year he put together the first, and perhaps most famous, of his quintets, the first Quinteto, initially made up of bandoneón (Piazzolla), piano (Jaime Gosis), violin (Simón Bajour), electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino ) and double bass (Kicho Díaz). Of the many ensembles that Piazzolla set up during his career it was the quintet formation which best expressed his approach to tango. In 1965 he released El Tango, an album for which he collaborated with the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. The recording featured his Quinteto together with an orchestra, the singer Edmundo Rivero and Luis Medina Castro reciting texts.

In 1967 he signed a five-year contract with the poet Horacio Ferrer with whom he composed the operetta María de Buenos Aires, with lyrics by Ferrer. The work was premiered in May 1968 with the singer Amelita Baltar in the title role and introduced a new style of tango, Tango Canción ( Song Tango). Soon after this he began a relationship with Baltar. The following year he wrote Balada para un loco with lyrics by Ferrer which was premiered at the First Iberoamerican Music Festival with Amelita Baltar and Piazzolla himself conducting the orchestra. Piazzolla was awarded second prize and the composition would prove to be his first popular success.

In 1970 Piazzolla returned to Paris where with Ferrer he wrote the oratorio El pueblo joven later premiered in Saarbrücken, Germany in 1971. On May 19, 1970 he gave a concert with his Quinteto at the Teatro Regina in Buenos Aires in which he premiered his composition Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas.

Back in Buenos Aires he founded his Conjunto 9 (aka Nonet), a chamber music formation, which was a realization of a dream for Piazzolla and for which he composed some of his most sophisticated music. He now put aside his first Quinteto and made several recordings with his new ensemble in Italy. Within a year the Conjunto 9 had run into financial problems and was dissolved and in 1972 he participated in his first concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, sharing the bill with other Tango orchestras.


After a period of great productivity as a composer, he suffered a heart attack in 1973 and that same year he moved to Italy where he began a series of recordings which would span a period of five years. The music publisher Aldo Pagani, a partner in Curci-Pagani Music, had offered Piazzolla a 15-year contract in Rome to record anything he could write. His famous album Libertango was recorded in Milan in May 1974 and later that year he separated from Amelita Baltar and in September recorded the album Summit (Reunión Cumbre) with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and an Italian orchestra, including jazz musicians such as bassist Pino Presti and drummer Tullio De Piscopo, in Milan. The album includes the composition Aire de Buenos Aires by Mulligan.

In 1975 he set up his Electronic Octet an octet made up of bandoneón, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar, electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later replaced by a flute or saxophone. Later that year Aníbal Troilo died and Piazzolla composed the Suite Troileana in his memory, a work in four parts, which he recorded with the Conjunto Electronico. At this time Piazzolla started a collaboration with the singer Jose A. Trelles with whom he made a number of recordings.

In 1978 he formed his second Quintet, with which he would tour the world for 11 years, and would make him world-renowned. He also returned to writing chamber music and symphonic works.

During the period of Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, Piazzolla lived in Italy, but returned many times to Argentina, recorded there, and on at least one occasion had lunch with the dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. However, his relationship with the dictator might have been less than friendly, as recounted in Astor Piazzolla, A manera de memorias (a comprehensive collection of interviews, constituting a memoir).

In 1982 he recorded the album Oblivion with an orchestra in Italy for the film Enrico IV, directed by Marco Bellocchio, and in May 1982, in the middle of the Falklands War, he played in a concert at the Teatro Regina, Buenos Aires with the second Quinteto and the singer Roberto Goyeneche. That same year he wrote Le Grand Tango for cello and piano, dedicated to Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich which would be premiered by him in 1990 in New Orleans.


On 11 June 1983 he put on one of the best concerts of his life when he played a program of his music at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. For the occasion he regrouped the Conjunto 9 and played solo with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, directed by Pedro Ignacio Calderón. The program included his three-movement Concierto para bandoneón y orquesta and his 3 movement Concierto de Nacar.

On 4 July 1984 Piazzolla appeared with his Quinteto at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the world’s largest jazz festival, and on 29 September that same year they appeared with the Italian singer Milva at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris. His concert on 15 October 1984 at the Teatro Nazionale in Milan was recorded and released as the album Suite Punte del Este. At the end of that same year he performed in West-Berlin, and in theater Vredenburg in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, where VPRO-TV-director Theo Uittenbogaard recorded his Quinteto Tango Nuevo, playing, among other pieces, a very moving Adios Nonino, with as a backdrop – to Piazzolla’s great pleasure – the extremely zoomed-in “live”‘ projection of his bandoneon playing.

In 1988 he wrote music for the film Sur, and married the singer and television personality Laura Escalada on April 11. In May that year he recorded his album La Camorra in New York, a suite of three pieces, the last time he would record with the second Quinteto. During a tour of Japan with Milva he played at a concert at the Nakano Sun Plaza Hall in Tokyo on June 26, 1988 and that same year underwent a quadruple by-pass operation.

Early in 1989 he formed his Sexteto Nuevo Tango, his last ensemble, with two bandoneóns, piano, electric guitar, bass and cello. Together they gave a concert at the Club Italiano in Buenos Aires in April, a recording of which was issued under the title of Tres minutos con la realidad. Later he appeared with them at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires in the presence of the newly elected Argentine President Carlos Menem on Friday, June 9. This would be Piazzolla’s last concert in Argentina.

He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris on August 4, 1990, which left him in a coma, and died in Buenos Aires, just under two years later on July 4, 1992, without regaining consciousness.


Here’s a photo of a pizza I had for lunch in Buenos Aires some years ago (on this date, as it happens). It’s as eclectic as Piazzolla’s music – born also of the immense immigration of Italians to Buenos Aires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can make something similar. From the photo you will notice three things: the crust is thick and doughy, there is no tomato sauce, just mounds of cheese, and assorted ingredients are baked into the cheese. Styles vary considerably in Buenos Aires, but this is the norm. Sometimes you can find a thinner crust, but tomato sauce is very rare. If tomatoes are used at all they are sliced as a topping. But . . . absolutely anything goes as a topping. In famous pizzerias, such as Los Inmortales, they have set combinations (with fancy names), but usually customers just order what they want. Unlike U.S. pizzerias, they don’t have lists of available toppings; you ask for what you want and chances are they have them – artichoke hearts, langoustines, prosciutto . . . whatever. As in Italy, the discussion with the waiter can get long and involved if you are not careful. Best to keep questions to a minimum.

My wife used to make pizza dough, but I’m not much of a baker. I do make pizzas from time to time, but I buy the dough ready made. Here in Italy it’s available in a number of places. In the U.S. it’s easy enough to buy from your local pizzeria. Then it’s a question of the right equipment. Commercial pizza ovens are hotter than home ovens. Crank yours up to the highest temperature possible. I used to have a pizza stone which I kept in the oven all the time. This also simulates the evenly heated stone surface of a commercial oven. Have your oven well preheated with the stone in place if you have one. Otherwise use a greased baking sheet. Knead the dough a little and then stretch it out to form a circle (don’t roll it), on a wooden paddle, as thick or thin as you wish. Sprinkle lavishly with grated mozzarella, then add whatever toppings you want. Slide it into the oven on the paddle and bake. After 10 minutes, turn the pizza so that it cooks evenly. It’s finished when the bottom is golden when you lift it a little to peek.

Mar 082016


Today is the birthday (1714) of Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, also formerly spelled Karl Philipp Emmanuel, an 18th century musician and composer, the fifth child and second (surviving) son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach. His second name was given in honor of his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend of Johann Sebastian. He’s part of the alphabet soup of Bachs, famously parodied by Peter Schickele via his alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach. It was, indeed, a prodigiously productive family, musically, but outside of J.S., C.P.E. is arguably the most notable. C.P.E. was extremely popular in his day, outstripping his father, but then his star waned until the later 20th century, when it brightened again. C.P.E. is commonly called a “transitional” composer between his father’s baroque style and the classical and romantic styles that followed it. I’d like to use his own words to counter the judgment:

According to my principles, every master has his true and certain value. Praise and criticism cannot change any of that. Only the work itself praises and criticizes the master, and therefore I leave to everyone his own value.

As much as we can, therefore, let’s forget his famous father and focus on what C.P.E. did in his own right. Not being a musical scholar, I can’t spend a lot of time on technical matters. But I know one or two things. Perhaps paramount is that I don’t like labels. To start, all the Bachs are called German musicians, and their music, German. This is an anachronism (that I have fallen victim too before, myself). Germany did not exist as a nation in the 18th century. There is as much difference between a Prussian and a Bavarian as between a Sicilian and a Venetian. And . . . instead of lumping him under a label of “transitional,” thinking of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods as high points with undoubted master exponents, let’s just look at what he accomplished.


When it comes to labels he was listed as part of the empfindsamer Stil of the 18th century. “Empfindsamer” is normally translated as “sensitive,” but this does not quite get at the nuances which might include “true,” “natural,” “sentimental,” and “moody.” The emphasis is on dramatic fluidity with surprising changes of mood somewhat contrasting with the slightly later showier and stormier phase called Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), that emerged around 1770. Both emphasized extreme expressive contrasts with disruptive incursions, instability of key, sudden changes of register, dynamic contrast, and exciting orchestral effects, all of which are atypical of musical classicism as practiced in the second half of the eighteenth century.

C. P. E. Bach was born in Weimar to Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara. Georg Philipp Telemann was his godfather. When he was ten years old, he entered the St. Thomas School at Leipzig, where his father had become cantor in 1723. He was one of four Bach children to become professional musicians; all four were trained in music almost entirely by their father. In an age of royal patronage, father and son alike knew that a university education helped prevent a professional musician from being treated as a servant. Carl, like his brothers, pursued advanced studies in jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig in 1731 and at Frankfurt-on-the-Oder in 1735. In 1738, at the age of 24, he obtained his degree but never practiced law, instead turning his attention immediately to music.

A few months after graduation C.P.E. obtained an appointment at Berlin in the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future Frederick the Great. Upon Frederick’s accession in 1740, Bach became a member of the royal orchestra. He was by this time one of the foremost clavier players in Europe, and his compositions, which date from 1731, include about thirty sonatas and concert pieces for harpsichord and clavichord. During his time there, Berlin was a rich artistic environment.


In Berlin, C.P.E. wrote numerous pieces for solo keyboard, including a series of character pieces, the so-called “Berlin Portraits”, including “La Caroline”. His reputation was established by the two sets of sonatas which he published with dedications to Frederick the Great (1742) and to Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg (1744). In 1746, he was promoted to the post of chamber musician (Kammermusikus) and served the king alongside colleagues like Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Franz Benda.

The composer who most influenced Bach’s maturing style was unquestionably his father. He drew creative inspiration from his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, then working in Hamburg, and from contemporaries like George Frideric Handel, Carl Heinrich Graun and Joseph Haydn. Bach’s interest in all types of art led to influence from poets, playwrights and philosophers such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In turn, C.P.E. ‘s work influenced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn, and others, all of whom wrote of him with high praise.


During his residence in Berlin, Bach composed a setting of the Magnificat (1749), in which he shows more traces than usual of his father’s influence; an Easter cantata (1756); several symphonies and concert works; at least three volumes of songs, including the celebrated Gellert Songs; and a few secular cantatas and other occasional pieces. But his main work was concentrated on the clavier, for which he composed, at this time, nearly two hundred sonatas and other solos, including the set Mit veränderten Reprisen (With Changed Reprises, 1760–1768).

While in Berlin, C.P.E. placed himself in the forefront of European music with a treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), immediately recognized as a definitive work on keyboard technique. By 1780, the book was in its third edition and laid the foundation for the keyboard methods of Clementi and Cramer. In it, C.P.E. broke with tradition in allowing and even encouraging the use of the thumbs. Since his time this has been a standard technique for keyboard instruments. The essay lays out the fingering for each chord and some chord sequences. The first part of the Essay contains a chapter explaining the various embellishments in work of the period, e.g., trills, turns, mordents, etc. – vital for music historians. The second part presents C.P.E.’s ideas on the art of figured bass and counterpoint, where he gives preference to the contrapuntal approach to harmonization over the newer ideas of Rameau’s theory of harmony and root progressions.


In 1768, after protracted negotiations, C.P.E. was permitted to relinquish his position in order to succeed his godfather Telemann as director of music (Kapellmeister) in Hamburg. Upon his release from service at the court he was named court composer for Frederick’s sister, Princess Anna Amalia. The title was honorary, but her patronage and interest in the oratorio genre may have played a role in nurturing the ambitious choral works that followed.

Bach married Johanna Maria Dannemann in 1744. Only three of their children lived to adulthood: Johann Adam (1745–89), Anna Carolina Philippina (1747–1804), and Johann Sebastian “the Younger” (1748–78). None became musicians and Johann Sebastian, a promising painter, died in his late twenties during a 1778 trip to Italy. C.P.E. died in Hamburg on 14 December 1788. He was buried in the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg.

Letter from CPE Bach to JH Voss

C.P.E.’s name fell into disregard during the 19th century; Robert Schumann notoriously wrote that “as a creative musician he remained very far behind his father,” with many others following suit. This is quite laughable given that a generation earlier J.S. Bach was also ignored because of shifting tastes. Don’t believe the critics, believe your ears. Johannes Brahms held C.P.E. in high regard and edited some of his music. By the early 20th century, he was better regarded but the revival of his works has been chiefly underway since Helmuth Koch’s recordings of his symphonies and Hugo Ruf’s recordings of his keyboard sonatas in the 1960s.

It may be a trivial accolade on my part, but I am intrigued by his compositions for mechanical instruments such as the music box and musical clock, popular at the Prussian court in Frederick’s day. Music boxes, in particular, are plagued with horrible tinklings. C. P. E. wrote thirty original compositions for these instruments, grouped together as Wq. 193. Frederick was intrigued by mechanically reproduced music and had mechanical organ clocks built for the City Castle of Potsdam and for the New Palais. Here’s one such piece recreated on the organ:

In honor of C.P.E.’s birthplace, here is a famous soup from Weimar. The apples make the difference !! This not the darker soup that is common in France, although the beer adds a bite.


Weimar Onion Soup.


1 lb yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
4 cups beef stock
½ cup German beer
½ tsp dried marjoram
salt, pepper
1 bunch fresh chives, chopped
5 tbsp Emmenthal cheese, grated
2 tablespoons croutons


Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the onions and sauté until they are soft. Add the apple slices and sauté for a few minutes longer. Gradually add the flour, then the beef stock and beer. Season to taste with marjoram, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes.

Serve very hot in individual crocks with croutons and cheese, and a chive garnish.

May 312014


Today is the feast of the Visitation of Mary which celebrates a passage in Luke’s gospel (1:39-56). Chapter 1 of Luke opens with a foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth by the angel Gabriel, and then, when she is six months pregnant, Gabriel appears to Mary, a relative of Elizabeth, and foretells the birth of Jesus. Then there follows this passage:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

After this Mary sings a song sometimes known as the canticle of Mary, sometimes the Magnificat, which I will get to in a bit.


The feast of the Visitation is not a big deal in the church, mostly because the incident is rather minor in the whole gospel narrative. In fact the Eastern church did not celebrate it at all until the 19th century. It’s also moved around a bit. It was traditionally held in the Western church on 2 July but in 1969 Pope Paul VI moved it to 31 May, “between the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (25 March) and that of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June), so that it would harmonize better with the Gospel story.” The Eastern church celebrates it on 30 March (which longstanding readers will know is my birthday). Because the feast is relatively minor I won’t dwell on it, but instead look at the underlying story, and in the process reveal a little something about the ways I approach the Bible.


I’ve probably failed to mention before that along with being an anthropologist with primary interest in religion and ritual, I am an ordained Presbyterian minister and spent 15 years as a part-time church pastor. “Aha!” some will say. “So that’s why we get all these holy feasts.” Wrong. Presbyterians don’t venerate saints or keep their feasts. Furthermore, I find all the Medieval miracle stories quaint and a bit silly for the modern era. I include them, sometimes, purely for interest. So here’s my thing. There is a saying, “when you fall in love, follow your heart but take your brain with you.” Well, I am in love with the Bible, but when I read it I take my brain with me. That’s kinda what Presbyterians are known for. Because of that we are sometimes called “the frozen chosen.”

Back to Luke. Chapters 1 and 2 contain what are conventionally called the “infancy narratives,” with chapter 2 being lodged in popular consciousness because it contains the Christmas story – found nowhere else in the gospels. There are a few extra frills in Matthew, such as the visit of the Magi, but all the stuff we see plastered all over stores in the season of peace – going to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the manger, the angels, etc. etc. – all come from Luke and nowhere else. I’m just going to be blunt and say that I think Luke made all this stuff up. But he had good reason. Hebrew prophecy asserts that the Messiah would be of the lineage of David and would be born in Bethlehem in Judah – way down in the south. So how can Jesus be the Messiah if, as all evidence suggests, he came from Nazareth which is way up north at the opposite end of Israel?

Luke found a solution to this puzzle. Yes, Jesus and his family lived up north all their lives, but Mary and Joseph had to journey south to Bethlehem for a grand census that the emperor Augustus had commanded be conducted throughout the entire empire. And, wonder of wonders, Jesus got born there. Then they all traipsed back to Nazareth to live out their lives. Problem solved. Well . . . not quite. First off, there is no record in Roman histories of such a census taking place. You’d think at least one historian would have noticed such a monumentally important event. If that is not enough for you, though, ask yourself this: what emperor in his right mind would command everyone in the empire to return to their ancestral homes to be counted? It would be chaos on an unimaginable scale, and would be economically ruinous. Who was minding the shop whilst Joseph was away for a week or so? Who milked the cows and ploughed the fields? You get the point. It’s just inconceivable.

So what’s the Visitation all about? This answer’s a little more speculative, but is the consensus among scholars. In the early 1st century there were a number of holy men in the Middle East who attracted large followings. John the Baptist was one of the most well known of these. His followers were still loyal to him long after his death. Jesus also had a large following, also united as a fellowship after his death. Having divided camps like this was not good given that these were troubled times, and so it would be better for all concerned if they united. Luke’s solution was to suggest that they were really all one big happy family to begin with. The mothers of John and Jesus were relatives (convention now calls them cousins, but Luke says only that they were related), and they got along famously. John leaps in his mother’s womb at the arrival of Mary, and Elizabeth acknowledges that it is Mary’s child that will be the Messiah, not hers. Thus the followers of John should all come over to the Jesus camp, because they were really all related.

Having said all that, I do not mean to imply that there is not great spiritual power in Luke’s tales even though he made them up for theological and political reasons. There is incredible power in the Christmas story despite the fact that underlying it is a convenient fiction. This bit is where the head has to depart and the heart take over. The Visitation is a tale of the immense power of sisterhood in pregnancy. It is a deeply moving story. For this little moment the men are pushed aside; they are not important. The women take center stage and reveal that it is their bond that is the glue that holds society together. It becomes a tale of universal importance.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Oj?da

After the tale there follows this:

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

This is called the canticle of Mary, or the Magnificat, and forms a central place in the liturgies of Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. In monastic communities and within high churches it is recited or sung daily. It is one of a group of eight pieces that are considered the oldest sacred songs within the Christian tradition. Although it can be recited, it is designated as a song in Luke and so has frequently been set to music. These settings vary from simple tunes to major choral works. Many composers, starting in the Renaissance, worked grand pieces around the words, and the tradition continues to this day. Claudio Monteverdi used it in his “Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610.” Vivaldi composed a setting of the Latin text for soloists, choir and orchestra. One of the best known is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in D major. Anton Bruckner composed a “Magnificat” for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ. Rachmaninoff, and more recently John Rutter also produced settings, inserting additions into the text. Arvo Pärt composed a setting for choir a cappella. I don’t want to wear you out with a musical analysis of them all because this is not a musical post. Instead, here is Bach:

One of the lines of the canticle is, “He has filled the hungry with good things.” That certainly gives me plenty of scope for a recipe.

In antiquity, the basic daily cooking of vast swathes of the Middle East was the same from culture to culture, and remained that way for centuries. So it’s not possible to pin down the dishes of 1st century Israel as in any sense unique or distinguishable from those of neighboring cultures. The dietary staples were bread, wine, and olive oil, but also included, in varying degrees, legumes, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fish, and meat. Admittedly the people of Israel did not eat pork, which set them apart from some, but not all, cultures, but meat eating was a rarity. The day to day meals of all cultures in the region looked more or less the same.

vis7 vis8

The absolute bedrock of daily eating was bread made with barley flour. Barley was much better suited for the climate and soils of Israel than wheat, although wheat was grown. Bread was served at every meal and was a substantial component, not just a side affair. All flour was ground by hand using a stone quern (left image), and this task took up a big chunk of the (woman’s) work day. Anthropologists estimate that it took 3 hours per day to grind enough flour for a family of 5. Except at Passover the barley bread was leavened using the sourdough process, that is, pinching a piece off of the dough before baking and using it as a starter to leaven the dough the following day.


After grain, legumes such as lentils, broad beans, chickpeas and peas were the main element in the diet and were the main source of protein, since meat was rarely eaten.


Vegetables that were most commonly eaten were leeks, garlic and onions. Other vegetables played a minor role in the diet. Field greens and root plants were generally not cultivated, but were gathered seasonally when they grew in the wild. Leafy plants included dandelion greens and the young leaves of the saltbush plant. Leeks, onions and garlic were eaten both cooked in stews, and uncooked with bread. I imagine they were not as strong as modern varieties.

They usually ate meat from domesticated goats and sheep. Goat’s meat was the most common. Fat-tailed sheep were the predominant variety of sheep in ancient Israel but as sheep were valued more than goats, they were eaten less often – explaining the Biblical, now proverbial, saying concerning “separating the sheep (more valued) from the goats (less valued).” Most people ate meat only a few times a year when animals were slaughtered for the major festivals, or at tribal meetings, celebrations such as weddings, and for the visits of important guests – such as Mary’s visit to Elizabeth! Typically when meat was eaten it was stewed rather than roasted.

Meat stewed with onions, garlic and leeks and flavored with cumin and coriander is described on ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, and it is quite likely that it was prepared similarly in ancient Israel. Taking off from this idea I propose a dish of braised lamb shanks accompanied by all the other ingredients. Braising is not an ancient method of cooking, but it adds a little variety. Anybody with any cooking experience at all can take that list of ingredients, stuff them in a pot with water, and simmer for several hours. Let’s be a little adventurous.

For me there is just one snag in preparing this dish and photographing it for you. I can more easily get iguana or guinea pig in Buenos Aires than lamb shanks. First of all, lamb is not popular at all in the city where beef is king. Second, Argentine butchers don’t butcher lamb that way. You get the whole leg or nothing. So I’m going to have to give you the recipe as I conceive it and maybe you can try it and send me a photo? The basics are simple. I used to braise lamb shanks all the time, and swapping a few ingredients around is no big deal. My name here evokes the idea that this lamb dish might be something Elizabeth could serve Mary on her arrival.

©Visitation Braised Lamb Shanks


4 lamb shanks
1 large onion, diced
1 leek, white part only cut in rings
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps cumin
2 tsps coriander
1 cup red wine
3 cups light stock
olive oil
salt and pepper


Pre-heat the oven to 325°F (165°C).

Pour enough olive oil in the bottom of a dutch oven and heat it over high heat. Ad the lamb shanks and brown them on all sides. When they are evenly browned removed them.

Add ½ cup of wine to the pot and scrape off all the bits on the bottom. Add the onion, leek, and garlic to the pot and cook until the onion is slightly translucent.

Return the lamb shanks to the pot and add the stock, the rest of the wine, cumin, coriander, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Heat on the stovetop until the liquid comes to a boil, then cover with a tight-fitting lid and transfer to the oven.

Cook for about 3 hours. When the lamb is tender and the meat is pulling away from the bone, it is ready.

Take the pot from the oven, remove the lamb shanks and set them aside on a heated plate covered with a tent of foil.

If there is fat on the top of the sauce skim as much off as you can, then reduce the sauce over high heat until it is thick. (This step may not be necessary if the sauce has already reduced in the oven.) Turn the heat to low and return the shanks briefly to be sure they are hot.

Serve with barley bread or whole wheat rolls.

Serves 4

Mar 312014

Bach1  bach2

There is actually nothing specifically trumpet-ish about today.  It’s just my way of solving a slight dilemma.  Today are the birthdays of both Johann Sebastian Bach (1685) and Franz Joseph Haydn (1732), so I am in a bit of a pickle.  Which do I choose to celebrate? Both were peerless giants in their day, and their influence on music has reverberated down through the centuries.  So, I decided to take the craven way out and celebrate both.  I chose the trumpet as a way to link them together.  One small footnote before I proceed, though.  Bach’s birthday is sometimes given as 21 March.  This is the date in the Julian calendar which was in use when he was born.  The date in the Gregorian calendar, which is the one we now use, is 31 March.

It would be impossible, and pointless, for me to give an overview of one of these men’s accomplishments, let alone the two of them.  Instead, I want to focus on one series of works by Bach, the Brandenburg concertos, and that will lead us to Haydn via the trumpet.

The Brandenburg concertos  (BWV 1046–1051, original title: Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments) are a collection of six instrumental works presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721 (though probably composed earlier). They are widely regarded as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era.

Bach’s dedication to the Margrave was dated 24 March 1721. Most likely, Bach composed the concertos over several years while Kapellmeister at Köthen, and possibly extending back to his employment at Weimar (1708–17). The dedication page Bach wrote for the collection indicates they are “Concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (Concertos with several instruments). Bach used a wide spectrum of  instruments in unusual combinations. Every one of the six concertos broke new musical ground. Heinrich Besseler has noted that the overall forces required (leaving aside the first concerto, which was rewritten for a special occasion) tallies exactly with the 17 players Bach had at his disposal in Köthen, so they were probably written there.

Because King Frederick William I of Prussia was not a significant patron of the arts, Christian Ludwig seems to have lacked the musicians in his Berlin ensemble to perform the concertos. The full score was left unused in the Margrave’s library until his death in 1734, when it was sold for 24 groschen (as of 2008, about US$22.00) in silver. The autograph manuscript of the concertos was rediscovered in the archives of Brandenburg by Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn in 1849; the concertos were first published in the following year.

In the modern era these works have been performed by orchestras with the string parts each played by a number of players. They have also been performed as chamber music, with one instrument per part, especially by (but not limited to) groups using baroque instruments and (sometimes more, sometimes less) historically informed techniques and practice.

I want to focus on the 2nd concerto because of the trumpet part which is justifiably famous and still one of the most difficult parts in the repertoire.  The autograph score indicates the following:

Concerto 2do à 1 Tromba, 1 Flauto, 1 Hautbois, 1 Violino, concertati, è 2 Violini, 1 Viola è Violone in Ripieno col Violoncello è Basso per il Cembalo.

[no tempo indication] (usually performed at Allegro or Allegro moderato)


Allegro assai

Concertino [soloists]: natural trumpet in F, recorder, oboe, violin

Ripieno: two violins, viola, violone, and basso continuo (including harpsichord).

The trumpet part was originally written for a clarino specialist, almost certainly the court trumpeter in Köthen, Johann Ludwig Schreiber.  The clarino (or clarion) has no valves or keys and so cannot play chromatically, and therefore cannot play in minor keys.  Hence, the trumpet plays in the first and third movements which are in major, but not in the second which is in minor.

After clarino skills were lost in the eighteenth century and before the rise of the “historically informed” performance movement of the late twentieth century, the part was usually played on the valved trumpet.  “Historically informed” performances try to recreate Bach’s works as he would have heard them – as best as possible – by using replicas of the original instruments, using ensembles of the size employed by Bach (in these concertos, around 17 musicians), and following best estimates of performance practices of the day.  Here is one such performance of the 2nd:

By Haydn’s time, a generation later, the problem of the limitations of the natural trumpet had been solved with the invention, by Anton Weidinger, of the keyed trumpet which allowed for playing fully chromatic pieces in all registers.  The clarino was limited to harmonic notes clustered in the higher registers. Haydn’s concerto includes melodies in the middle and lower register, exploiting the capabilities of the new instrument.

There were attempts all over Europe around the mid-classical era to expand the range of the trumpet using valves. Weidinger’s idea of drilling holes and covering them with flute-like keys (to allow access to the holes from one hand position) was not a success as it had very poor sound quality. Thus the natural trumpet still had continual use in the classical orchestra while the keyed trumpet had barely any repertoire. The valved trumpets used today were first constructed and used in the 1830s.

Haydn’s trumpet concerto is composed in three movements marked as follows:

Allegro (sonata)

Andante (sonata)

Allegro (rondo)

In addition to the solo trumpet, the concerto is scored for an orchestra consisting of strings, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 (presumably natural) trumpets (which generally play in support of the horns or timpani rather than the solo trumpet), and timpani.

Here is the piece for keyed trumpet.

After hearing the concerto on a valve trumpet you may find this rendition on the keyed trumpet a little awkward.  But imagine how delighted an audience in Haydn’s day would have been at the range and complexity of the trumpet score.

Since Bach was German and Haydn Austrian it’s a bit tough to tie them together with a recipe.  But I think spätzle will do the trick given that they are, and have been for centuries, popular in German speaking regions and beyond.  Spätzle dough typically consists of few ingredients, principally eggs, flour, and salt. Often, water is added to produce a thinner dough but care needs to be taken not to make it too thin. The flour traditionally used for spätzle is a coarse type known as Dunstmehl, similar to US “first clear” or Czech hrubá type, which gives a chewier texture but can produce a dough too crumbly for scraping if no water is added. If fine (“all-purpose”) flour and the full complement of eggs are used, all fat and moisture in the dough is derived from these, and water is rarely necessary.

Traditionally, Spätzle are made by scraping long, thin strips of dough off a wooden (sometimes wet) chopping board (Spätzlebrett) into boiling salted water where they cook until they rise to the surface. Thus, the dough should thus be soft enough to slowly flow apart if cut into strips with a knife, yet hold the initial shape for some seconds when dropped into boiling water. They will congeal quickly and after they have become firm and float, they should be skimmed off and set aside.




9 oz (250g) flour (coarse, if possible)
5 eggs + 1 egg yolk
2 tbsp butter
5 – 7 ozs (150-200g) melting cheese, grated
3 ozs (75g) butter for frying
2 medium onions cut in rings


Combine the flour and eggs and a good-sized pinch of salt. Blend well with your hands.  If necessary add water a little at a time.  Be very careful because you want the dough to be soft and pliable so that it will flow when cut for the pot, but not runny (much like egg pasta dough only softer).

Set aside and allow the dough to rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

While the dough is resting sauté the onions in the butter over medium heat until golden brown.  Drain and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and then reduce the heat. You want to get the water on a gentle simmer during the cooking process. You can either cut and shape the spaetzle by hand or use a spätzle maker. I just tear off pieces of dough and shape them roughly. Cook the spätzle for about 2-3 minutes until they float to the surface, then remove them. Do not cook too many at a time so that the water remains simmering.

When all the spätzle are cooked, drain the water from the pot, melt 1-2 tbsp of butter in at and return the spätzle. Shake the pot a few times to evenly distribute the butter, then add the grated cheese and mix well.

Turn the spätzle out on to a serving plate and add the onions on top.  You may also add chives as a garnish if you wish.

Feb 022014


February 2nd is most generally known as Candlemas, a day that has both sacred and secular meanings.  In the secular world in Britain it marked a turning point in the agricultural year, and was a quarter day in Scotland and northern England when rents were due and spring farm hiring began.  In the church it can be celebrated either as Candlemas, when the candles to be used in the church for the coming year are blessed, or as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple/the Purification of Mary celebrating an episode in the infancy of Jesus.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches, it is one of the twelve Great Feasts, and is sometimes called Hypapante (lit., ‘Meeting’ in Greek). In the Roman Catholic Church the “Feast of the Presentation of the Lord” is a major feast day, between the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle on 25 January and the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle on 22 February. In some Western liturgical churches, Vespers (or Compline) on the Feast of the Presentation marks the end of the Epiphany season. In the Church of England, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a Principal Feast celebrated either on 2 February or on the Sunday between 28 January and 3 February.

In the Latin Church of the Roman Catholic Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. It was also reflected in the practice of the churching of new mothers, forty days after the birth of a child.

The event is described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:22–40). According to the gospel, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days (inclusive) after his birth to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the redemption of the firstborn with an animal sacrifice, in obedience to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15, etc.). Luke explicitly says that Joseph and Mary took the option provided for poor people (those who could not afford a lamb) (Leviticus 12:8), sacrificing “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Leviticus 12:1-4 indicates that this event should take place forty days (inclusive) after birth for a male child, hence the Presentation is celebrated forty days after Christmas.


Upon bringing Jesus into the temple, they encountered Simeon. The Gospel records that Simeon had been promised that “he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Simeon prayed the prayer that would become known as the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon, which prophesied the redemption of the world by Jesus:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

There are numerous settings of the Nunc Dimittis. Here’s Holst.  (There is quite a bit of Candlemas music which I am embedding just in case you are interested.  No need to view if not!)

Simeon then prophesied to Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35).

The elderly prophetess Anna was also in the Temple, and offered prayers and praise to God for Jesus, and spoke to everyone there about Jesus and his role in the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:36-38).


The event forms a common component of artistic representations of the Life of Christ and also of the Life of the Virgin from the late Middle Ages on. Early images concentrated on the moment of meeting with Simeon, typically shown at the entrance to the Temple, and this is continued in Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox icons to the present day. In the West, beginning in the 8th or 9th century, a different depiction at an altar emerged, where Simeon eventually by the Late Middle Ages came to be shown wearing the elaborate vestments attributed to a Jewish high priest, and conducting a liturgical ceremony surrounded by the family and Anna. In the West Simeon is more often already holding the infant, or the moment of handover is shown; in Eastern images the Virgin is more likely still to hold Jesus.

Many motets and anthems have been composed to celebrate this feast and are performed as part of the liturgy, among them an anthem by 16th century German composer Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), Maria wallt zum Heiligtum, often translated in English as “When Mary to the Temple went”.

The Lutheran church of the Baroque observed the feast as “Mariae Reinigung” (Purification of Mary). Johann Sebastian Bach composed several cantatas to be performed in the church service of the day, related to Simeon’s canticle Nunc dimittis as part of the prescribed readings:

Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde, BWV 83, (1724)

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, BWV 125, (1725)

Ich habe genug, BWV 82, (1727)

Candlemas is the last feast day in the Christian year dated by reference to Christmas. Subsequent feasts are calculated with reference to Easter. Traditionally the Western term “Candlemas” (or Candle Mass) referred to the practice whereby a priest on 2 February blessed beeswax candles for use throughout the year, some of which were distributed to the faithful for use in the home. In Poland the feast is called Matki Boskiej Gromnicznej (Feast of Our Lady of Thunder candles). This name refers to the candles that are blessed on this day, called gromnice, since these candles are lit during (thunder) storms and placed in windows to ward off storms.


Within the Roman Catholic Church, since the liturgical revisions of the Second Vatican Council, this feast has been referred to as the Feast of Presentation of the Lord, with references to candles and the purification of Mary de-emphasized in favor of the Prophecy of Simeon the Righteous. This feast never falls in Lent (the earliest Ash Wednesday can fall is 4 February, for the case of Easter on 22 March in a non-leap year). According to over eight centuries of tradition, the swaddling clothes that baby Jesus wore during the presentation at the Temple are kept in Dubrovnik Cathedral, Croatia.


In the Byzantine tradition (Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic), the Meeting of the Lord is unique among the Great Feasts in that it combines elements of both a Great Feast of the Lord and a Great Feast of the Theotokos (Mother of God). It has a forefeast of one day, and an afterfeast of seven days.  The holy day is celebrated with an all-night vigil on the eve of the feast, and a celebration of the Divine Liturgy the next morning, at which beeswax candles are blessed. This blessing traditionally takes place after the Little Hours and before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy (though in some places it is done after). The priest reads four prayers, and then a fifth one during which all present bow their heads before God. He then censes the candles and blesses them with holy water. The candles are then distributed to the people and the Liturgy begins.

It is because of the biblical events recounted in the second chapter of Luke that the Churching of Women came to be practiced in both Eastern and Western Christianity. This was a blessing of women after childbirth akin to the Jewish purification. Though the usage has mostly died out in the West, except among traditionalist Catholics, the ritual is still practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The date of Candlemas is established by the date set for the Nativity of Jesus; it comes forty days afterwards. Under Mosaic law as found in the Torah, a mother who had given birth to a male child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover she was to remain for three and thirty days “in the blood of her purification.” Candlemas therefore corresponds to the day on which Mary, according to Jewish law, should have attended a ceremony of ritual purification (Leviticus 12:2-8). The Gospel of Luke 2:22–39 relates that Mary was purified according to the religious law, followed by Jesus’ presentation in the Jerusalem temple, and this explains the formal names given to the festival, as well as its falling 40 days after the Nativity.


The Feast of the Presentation is among the most ancient feasts of the Church. There are sermons on the feast by 4th century bishops and theologians. The earliest reference to specific liturgical rites surrounding the feast are by the intrepid nun Egeria, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land (381–384). She reported that 14 February was a day solemnly kept in Jerusalem with a procession to Constantine I’s Basilica of the Resurrection, with a homily preached on Luke 2:22 (which makes the occasion perfectly clear), and a Divine Liturgy. This so-called Itinerarium Peregrinatio (“Pilgrimage Itinerary”) of Egeria does not, however, offer a specific name for the Feast. The date of 14 February indicates that in Jerusalem at that time, Christ’s birth was celebrated on 6 January. Egeria writes for her beloved fellow nuns at home:

XXVI. The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.

Originally, the feast was a minor celebration. But in 541 a terrible plague broke out in Constantinople, killing thousands. The Emperor Justinian I, in consultation with the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered a period of fasting and prayer throughout the entire Empire. And, on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, arranged great processions throughout the towns and villages and a solemn prayer service to ask for deliverance from evils, and the plague ceased. In thanksgiving, in 542 the feast was elevated to a more solemn celebration and established throughout the Eastern Empire by the emperor.


Candlemas initially was not an important feast in the Middle Ages in Europe; in fact it spread slowly in the West. It is not found in the Lectionary of Silos (650) nor in the Calendar (731–741) of Sainte-Geneviève of Paris. The tenth-century Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, has a formula used for blessing the candles. Candlemas did become important enough to find its way into the secular calendar, though. It was the traditional day to remove the cattle from the hay meadows, and from the field that was to be ploughed and sown that spring. References to it are common in later medieval and early Modern literature; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is recorded as having its first performance on Candlemas Day 1602. It remains one of the Scottish quarter days, at which debts are paid and farm workers hired.


In Armenia, celebrations at the Presentation may have been influenced by pre-Christian customs, such as the spreading of ashes by farmers in their fields each year to ensure a better harvest, keeping ashes on the roof of a house to keep evil spirits away, and the belief that newlywed women needed to jump over fire to purify themselves before getting pregnant. Young men will also leap over a bonfire. But there is no general evidence that Candlemas was a Christianized version of a pagan festival.

As the poem by Robert Herrick records, the eve of Candlemas was the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were traditionally removed from people’s homes because traces of berries, holly and so forth were believed to bring death among the congregation before another year was out.  Herrick’s full poem takes you through the decorations of the whole year, so you do not lament the loss of Christmas holly and mistletoe. The old gives way to the new.

“Down with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall”

—Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

Herrick’s poem was set to music for west gallery choirs in England, but I cannot find a decent performance.  This version is wretched but gives an idea.

Another tradition holds that anyone who hears funeral bells tolling on Candlemas will soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative; each toll of the bell represents a day that will pass before the unfortunate news is learned. In Scotland, until a change in the law in 1991, and in much of northern England until the 18th century, Candlemas was one of the traditional quarter days when quarterly rents were due for payment, as well as the day or term for various other business transactions, including the hiring of servants.

In the United Kingdom, good weather at Candlemas is taken to indicate severe winter weather later:

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,

Winter will have another bite.

If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,

Winter is gone and will not come again.”

February 2nd is also alleged to be the date that northern European bears emerge from hibernation to inspect the weather – as well as badgers – who if they choose to return to their lairs on this day is interpreted as a sign that severe weather will continue for another forty days at least. The same is true in Italy, where it is called Candelora.


In the United States, Candlemas coincides with Groundhog Day, the earliest American reference to which can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

—4 February 1841 — from Morgantown, Berks County (Pennsylvania) storekeeper James Morris’ diary.

This custom is undoubtedly a New World evolution of German customs watching to see if hibernating bears and badgers come out of hibernation or not.

In France, Candlemas (French: La Chandeleur) is celebrated with crêpes, which must be eaten only after eight p.m. If the cook can flip a crêpe while holding a coin in the other hand, the family is assured of prosperity throughout the coming year. The French though have a completely reversed view of the weather prospects. They say: “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere; Chandeleur couverte quarante jours de perte,” a rhyme that means, more or less: “If Candlemas is clear, no more winter to fear; if the Chandeleur is overcast, forty days winter to last.” But then again they also say: “Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur” which is “A sunny Candlemas will bring winter and misfortune”. Other traditions include “Si point ne veut de blé charbonneux mange des crêpes à la Chandeleur” which is “if you do not at all wish the wheat to blacken eat crêpes at Candlemas,” and “Celui qui la rapporte chez lui allumée. Pour sûr ne mourra pas dans l’année” which is “whoever arrives home (from church) with it (the candle) lit for sure will not die that year.”


The Virgin of Candelaria is the patron saint of the Canary Islands. The Virgin of Candelaria or Our Lady of Candelaria (Virgen de Candelaria, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria), popularly called La Morenita, appeared on the island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. According to a legend recorded by Alonso de Espinosa in 1594, a statue of the Virgin Mary, bearing a child in one hand and a green candle in the other (hence “Candelaria”), was discovered on the beach of Chimisay (Güímar) by two Guanche goatherds in 1392. This occurred before the Castilian conquest of the island. At first, indigenous islanders identified the statue with their goddess Chaxiraxi (the mother of the gods), but later the Christian conquerors saw the image as the Virgin Mary. The first mass was celebrated at Achbinico on February 2, 1497. The center of worship is located in the city of Candelaria in Tenerife. She is depicted as a Black Madonna. Its main temple and Royal Basilica Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Candelaria (Basilica of Candelaria), which is the main church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Canary Islands

In Southern and Central Mexico, and Guatemala City, Candlemas (Día de La Candelaria) is celebrated with tamales. Tradition indicates that on 5 January, the night before Three Kings Day (the Epiphany), whoever gets one or more of the few plastic or metal dolls (originally coins) buried within the Rosca de Reyes (King Cake) must pay for the tamales and throw a party on Candlemas. In certain regions of Mexico, this is the day in which the baby Jesus of each household is taken up from the nativity scene and dressed up in various colorful, whimsical outfits.


Snowdrops (Galanthas nivalis) are sometimes known as Candlemas Bells because they often bloom early in the year, even before Candlemas. Some varieties bloom all winter (in the northern hemisphere).  The superstitious used to believe that these flowers should not be brought into the house prior to Candlemas.  However, it is also believed in more recent times that these flowers purify a home.

I’ll save a recipe for French crêpes for another time although I am going to make them for myself today (with mashed pear and cardamom filling).  Instead here is a classic recipe for Mexican tamales. Masa harina is the dried and powdered form of masa de maiz (corn dough), made from yellow hominy, used to make corn tortillas. Choose the chiles with the level of heat you desire.


Mexican Tamales

Tamale Filling:

1¼ lbs pork loin
1 large onion, halved
1 clove garlic
4 dried hot chile pods
2 cups water
1½ tsps salt

Tamale Dough:

2 cups masa harina
1¼ cups beef broth (approximately)
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
? cup lard


1 (8 oz) package dried corn husks
1 cup sour cream


Place the pork in a Dutch oven with the onion and garlic, and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is cooked through, about 2 hours.

Remove stems and seeds from the chile pods. Place chiles in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, then remove from the heat to cool. Transfer the chiles and water to a blender and blend until smooth. Strain the mixture, stir in salt, and set aside. Shred the cooked meat and mix in one cup of the chile sauce.

Soak the corn husks in a bowl of warm water.

In a large bowl, beat the lard with a tablespoon of the pork broth until fluffy. Combine the masa harina, baking powder and salt; stir into the lard mixture, adding broth as necessary to form a spongy dough.

Spread the dough out over the corn husks to between ¼ to ½ inch thickness. Place one tablespoon of the meat filling into the center.

Fold the sides of the husks in toward the center and tie the package up. Place in a steamer vertically as pictured.

Steam for 1 hour.

Remove tamales from the husks and drizzle remaining chile sauce over. Top with sour cream. For a creamy sauce, mix the sour cream into the chile sauce.

Yield: 16