The Albertan Tarsands and the Covenant with Life

“In the Lobby,” from the “Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden” section of Part 3 of Covenant, “The Covenant of the Golden Shadows,” on the oil sands, is now available in the University of British Columbia’s Canadian Literature 222. This work originated when I was in Fort McMurray for a conference sponsored by the oil and gas industry for elected and appointed municipal officials, in May, 2011, which my municipal council of the day required me to attend.

Syncrude Plant, Fort McMurray 13 May 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Syncrude Plant, Fort McMurray 13 May 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

It was staggering to come face to face with the massive size of the extraction, the obvious despoliation of the environment, and the extensive disregard of politicians in the name of money, generally disguised and excused euphemistically as economic development and prosperity. This disregard and despoliation applied not only to the work sites in Wood Buffalo but also to the Athabasca River and the atmosphere.

Syncrude Mines, Fort McMurray, 13 May 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Syncrude Mines, Fort McMurray, 13 May 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

I once lived on a quarter section along that river, and the setting was immaculate. But, the covenant having been destroyed, now I would worry.

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The Liberation of the Netherlands and Canada’s Anti-terrorist Bill C-51

On the afternoon of March 14th, when I still lived in Edmonton, I attended a political rally against my federal government’s intent, through its so-called anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, to turn my country into a police state by essentially eradicating freedom of speech and assembly, civil rights, habeas corpus, and legal presumption of innocence produced one of the most depressing days of my life. It is the first time in the over six decades that I have lived in Canada that I found myself compelled to participate in a rally of protest against the destruction of freedom and movement in Canada. This is the country wherein my wife and I have had the opportunity to work wherever we wished, from coast to coast, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, a span of distance of 4,500 kilometres, and not one person or agency of the state ever forbade, or had the authority to forbid, either of us to do so.

Rally to protest Bill C-51. Edmonton, 14 March 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Rally to protest Bill C-51. Edmonton, 14 March 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

My wife worked as a volunteer in the Town of Mount Royal constituency office of Pierre Trudeau when he first ran for Parliament, and I supported Brian Mulroney’s NAFTA initiative. But I also saw the value of my Calgary house plummet when Trudeau brought in the National Energy Program, and was disgusted by Brian Mulroney sitting in a hotel room taking cash in a brown paper bag. Since these events I have heard Jack Layton speak a number of times; the last, in Halifax, only a few months before his death. I have been impressed.

So it is now I find I have reached the political point where I am left only with the option of the NDP, now, when the current situation is much worse, and dangerous. Every single Conservative and Liberal member of Parliament who voted in favour of Bill -51 should be ashamed to the core at their participation in this destruction of one of the world’s great democracies.

There is no semblance whatsoever of right action.

I returned to live in Vancouver in April. And on Sunday afternoon, on the 3rd of May, I went to the by-invitation 70th commemoration, at HMCS Discovery in Stanley Park, of the Liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazi occupation, on the 5th May 1945. It was organized by the Dutch consulate in Vancouver. The lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, Judith Guichon, presided with great elegance and presence. About twelve veterans, in their 90s, were in attendance.

The drill hall, HMCS Discovery, Stanley Park, Vancouver, at the commencement of the commemoration ceremony.

The drill hall, HMCS Discovery, Stanley Park, Vancouver, at the commencement of the commemoration ceremony. 3 May 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The ceremony was well considered, well executed, musically right, and moving. On the way there, walking along the Seawall, I, overcome with joy, realized how fortunate I am to be in this exceptional city of Vancouver. At the ceremony, overcome with gratitude, I remembered again how fortunate I am to be in this country of Canada.

My father, Hendrik Slegtenhorst, 1941

My father, Hendrik Slegtenhorst, 1941

Both my parents were liberated by the Canadians. My father, who died in 2001, was 15 when the war began, and 20 when it ended. He was interned in a labour camp in Hamburg for two years when he was 17, and escaped when the Allies firebombed Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah in July of 1943. He hid in the countryside till the end of the war, when, things no longer being what they were, his aspirations to become an artist could not be pursued. My mother, who died during last Christmastide, was 12 when the war began and 18 when it concluded. She lost her teenage years working by edict as piece work seamstress in a textile factory, and hid her younger brother in the attic for the last years of the conflict.

My parents emigrated to Canada in 1952. Without the Canadians, neither they, nor I, would be here. However thankful one is, it is odd to look upon veterans who served over 70 years ago, and realize that those you never have known may have been those who made your existence possible.

My mother, Gerrit Rijsbergen Slegtenhorst, in the garden of the house on Kanaalstraat, Leiden, summer 1951

My mother, Gerrit Rijsbergen Slegtenhorst, and I, in the garden of the house on Kanaalstraat, Leiden, summer 1951

The Nazis put together a police state of intense depravity under the guise of law. So, it is disheartening in the extreme to see our federal government moving in the same direction.

When I last lived in Vancouver, one of my neighbours and her daughter had been prisoners in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia during the Second World War. The daughter has passed away, but I have met the mother, now in her 90s, again several times in the neighbourhood. Another of my neighbours was a lifelong member of the Council of Canadians. She was originally from Saskatchewan, and went home every autumn for the harvest. She passed away several years ago, aged 90. She was a very dear friend. Above her lived another neighbour and her daughter, tattooed survivors of Auschwitz. The mother and I met frequently while walking freely on the Seawall on early mornings. It is right and necessary that we see the demise of the malignant litany of political and social malice that has atrophied our democracy.

Alberta Legislature, Edmonton, 14 September 2012 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Alberta Legislature, Edmonton, 14 September 2012 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

At least we still have elections that might be meaningful. I was elated, for I considered it also a harbinger of change at the federal level, at the decisive victory of Rachel Notley’s NDP in the Alberta election of May 5th. And I was pleased and gratified, but not surprised, by Jim Prentice’s immediate and graceless exit “for family reasons.” He is, after all, the politician who facilitated the rise of Stephen Harper, who became Harper’s virtual second in command, who began the evisceration of environmental law, who eroded copyright, and who killed off the Kelowna Accord. This NDP success is greater than it may immediately appear; I would cite, amongst others, for example, the political demise of Frank Oberle in northern Alberta. Such changes have been a long time coming, and they are needed. I do, though, regret the departure of my former Edmonton Centre MLA, Laurie Blakeman.

Parliament of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Parliament of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Not that I care for nor trust politicians, all of whom are prone to the blandishments of power, but despotism is to be despised and its manifestation immediately and effectively extirpated. Perhaps we will now see that there’s a chance for Tom Mulcair and the federal NDP to win the next federal election, and enable this country to return to values that are true, and that matter to our society. And repeal Bill C-51, which becomes law upon Senate approval, which, as 51 of the 85 appointed Senators are Conservatives, is inevitable, and turns this nation into a police state.

The betrayal of Canada by those democratically elected to govern her is unforgivable.

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Shostakovich, Poetry, and the Borodin Quartet

Peace River, 99th Street, 16 December 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Peace River, 99th Street, 16 December 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

My poem with images on the fifteen string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich has now appeared in the final issue, the 167th, of Toronto’s Descant, an issue likely to become a collector’s item. There may be a few left on bookstore shelves.

The poem, titled “Shostakovich in Peace River,” concludes “The Underside of Time,” which is the middle section of Golden Shadows, the third part of my book Covenant.

I was 27 when Shostakovich died in 1975, so he was a living composer to me, the last, I often think, of the great symphonists in the classical tradition. Stravinsky had died in 1971, Prokofiev, on the same day as Stalin, in 1953. The last six symphonies and twelve of the fifteen string quartets were written during my lifetime. Symphony 14, written in 1969, I heard performed as a major work in Toronto as early as 1988.

Dmitri Shostakobich, in later life (Courtesy: www.finagrave.com

Dmitri Shostakobich, in later life (Courtesy: http://www.findagrave.com

Art is of its time, and of its place. Though music may be termed absolute, that is largely because it speaks with sounds that are not words. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, though in that sense absolute, is nonetheless a treatise on how even temperament expands music into a greater range of keys, and thus changes the nature of music conclusively. Without Bach, there is not the Beethoven we know. And without Beethoven, there is no Wagner.

Like Beethoven, Shostakovich in his later years moved not entirely away from symphonic and other orchestral composing, but wrote increasingly more frequently for the string quartet, that performance group that provides the clearest, most compelling medium for the delivery and enunciation of musical ideas. It has intimacy without unnecessary grandeur; breadth and depth without percussive storm. It has the ability to transmit clarity without needing the hearer to fully understand; it permits the working out of ideas with a transparency that can fill itself with longing and fulfilment; and so place before the hearer the possibility of transfiguration, and the limitations of life within death.

As an example. The 8th string quartet revolves around the allegro molto of its second movement, which is a duality of violence unconstrained, and uncontainable despair. It destroys the equilibrium of the listener, and so prepares him for the review that continues in the balance of the quartet. But the theme of this allegro is from the second piano trio, also a great work, but where the theme is more introspective, more restrained, not uncontrolled. And the sound, with its piano component, is more bartered than bare. With the four string players, it is now the wailing hurt of emotions caught in the vortex of confinement.

As I have written elsewhere, the impetus for the Golden Shadows section of Covenant was clearly precipitated by an April, 2011 trip to San Francisco, which re-awakened the stimulus of the city and its connection with artistic undertaking and its dense collection of the varieties in life.

Near Carmel, Saskatchewan, July 2012 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Near Carmel, Saskatchewan, July 2012 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

I found part of an answer regarding content and structure in Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, the first Deryck Cooke performing version of which, recorded by Eugene Ormandy, I purchased as long ago as October, 1966, in Ottawa; and the score to the adagio of which I purchased several years later in Montréal. How the book came to be overlain with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is due to finding, in San Francisco’s City Lights, Norman Lebrecht’s excellent book on the composer, Why Mahler?

The propulsive motivation from the Lebrecht book was flautist Gareth Davies’s observation, upon having returned to performance after recovering from cancer, on the flute solo that comes in the opening section of the finale of the symphony:

Two bars before the flute solo, where the horns almost pre-echo the opening phrase, I felt completely isolated, almost as if on a thin mountain ridge with a drop either side—perhaps even with life on one side and death on the other. The music searches for peace and finally as it drops down, for me I felt a sense of acceptance of what will be. — Gareth Davies, in Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler?, p. 246.

Under the Glimmer of the Urban Night, Gustav Mahler, Symphony 10

Mahler’s short score for the Einleitungssatz of the fifth movement of his Tenth Symphony.

Intertwined with these, and specifically with an “acceptance of what will be,” was my own background in Leiden, where I was born. During the composition of the contents of my book, the Dickens of Bleak House and, to a lesser extent, of Little Dorrit was a supplementary influence, and my mind also returned to Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus—and, as it came about, to a re-examination of the symphonies of Shostakovich, which had made such an impression on me, on long winter walks in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where I served for several years as a municipal chief administrative officer, and later, when in a similar capacity, this was coupled with a study, on long winter walks in Peace River, Alberta, of his extraordinary 15 string quartets.

As I have also written elsewhere, it was revelatory studying these string quartets on winter walks along the river. The warmer waters of the Smoky River empty into the Peace, and at sunrise raise fog, through which the morning sun shines with great brilliance. Some days the trees are beautiful with frost, the ravens ink black against the snow, the waxwings an elegiac grey against the shrubbery at riverside.

Music for Silenced Voices

Wendy Lesser: Music for Silenced Voices

Around the same time I also re-read Wendy Lesser‘s book on the string quartets of Shostakovich, Music for Silenced Voices, which I had also found at City Lights in San Francisco.

I have returned to Vancouver in the spring of this year, and, as good fortune would have it, the fabled Borodin Quartet, with its profound relationship to Shostakovich, was to perform the entire cycle of quartets.

On May 5th, at the Vancouver Playhouse, the Quartet played the first three string quartets. I learned that the request to repeat the playing of the cycle given here in 1969 came from the Quartet, not from the sponsoring Friends of Chamber Music. This will be the only venue the Quartet will play the cycle in this, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the original Quartet. They are musicians of the highest order, and lock themselves inside the music during their performance of it. The first concert concluded with the 3rd quartet, with its two concluding movements filled with profound retrospection. The hall was about two-thirds full, largely aged, and intensely attentive and appreciative. A standing ovation was given. I was able to sit in the first row, and hear everything I knew how to hear.

The series resumed on May 7th with the 4th quartet and a transfigurative playing of the 5th; and, during the DSCH cadences on the ‘cello at the conclusion of each movement of the 6th, one could swear the ghost of the composer arose, standing between the violist and the ‘cellist. All this music has mysteries, and it will take a great deal more to better understand it.

The Borodin Quartet (Courtesy: borodinquartet.com)

The Borodin Quartet (Courtesy: borodinquartet.com)

On May 9th, the works were the 7th, 8th, and 9th quartets, all excellently interpreted. These are all works of astonishing invention and technical demand, and require the most intense and assured musicianship and emotional sensitivity. The Quartet did not fail them. Not the savage recollection in the allegro molto of the 8th quartet, nor the sustained concentration of the 9th, nor the compression of love and loss in the 7th.

The concert of May 11th was inspired, the performers impassioned by their interlocution between the composer and his audience. The 10th quartet was a complete musical world infused with a wholeness of intellectual and emotional communication; the 11th unrelentingly compelling; and, the 12th, darkness and light the 12th, darkness and light made audible and touchingly momentous. In my mind, the best concert so far in the series, and the playing of the 10th quartet unequalled.

Post-concert reception at the Vancouver Playhouse. Mr. Lomovsky at far left, Mr. Arahonian at distant centre, Mr. Naidin in middle centre, Mr. Balshin (his back, anyway) at the buffet. 9 May 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Post-concert reception at the Vancouver Playhouse. Mr. Lomovsky at far left, Mr. Arahonian at distant centre, Mr. Naidin in middle centre, Mr. Balshin (his back, anyway) at the buffet. 9 May 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

At the reception after the concert of May 9th I had the opportunity to meet each of the performers—Ruben Aharonian, the superb and astonishing first violin; Sergei Lomovsky, the incredibly fine second violin; Igor Naidin, the impeccable violist; and, ‘cellist Vladimir Balshin, who draws incomparable beauty, subtlety, and expressivity from his instrument and from the music through his playing. Mr. Aharonian met Shostakovich in 1973, and I asked of this, and Mr. Aharonian was gracious to retell the vignette. It is, in its way, telling of our humanity to shake the hand of one who has spoken to the composer, and to bring one, however minutely, closer to him. But I Ieft the theatre elated, by this, by the performers, and by the music. And so I remain.

The Borodin Quartet played the fifth and last concert of the Shostakovich cycle on May 13th. The last and 15th quartet was played in candlelight, as if it were, and may well be, a self-composed requiem written by the composer in his final months, terminally ill. The snuffing of the candles after the last notes had sounded, and a request by the players for no applause at the work’s conclusion, left only the smoke from the extinguished candles rising to the ceiling of the theatre.

When the Quartet did return to the stage, it was to a thunderous standing ovation, and the Quartet gave as an encore the first movement of the 1st quartet. It was very fitting, and set the essence, I would even say the truth, of the cycle in motion once again.

That night I could not sleep. All that I heard was music.

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Morning Light, Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC – 11 May 2015

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Occasional Notes on the String Quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich

String Quartet 1 in C, Op. 49 (1938). – The CulturalRites article is here.

Shostakovich and son Maxim (Courtesy: www.shostakovichquartets.com)

Shostakovich and son Maxim (Courtesy: http://www.shostakovichquartets.com)

Shostakovich, Dmitri: String Quartet 2 in A, Op. 68 (1944). – Written the year after the incredible Eighth Symphony of 1943, and around the same time as the Trio in E minor, Op. 67, which is dedicated to Sollertinsky, who died in February, 1944.

String Quartet 3 in F, Op. 73 (1946).  An incisive work, metrically complex, and plentiful in its awareness of disaster, with its gripping, baleful, mournful passacaglia, funereal in aspect and referential to the passacaglia in the Eighth Symphony, in the fourth movement. The quintuplet turn is always centred on the same note: A. This movement is at the centre of my poem, “Snow,” from the “Torn by Victory” segment of part three of my book Covenant.

String Quartet 4 in D, Op. 83 (1949). The quartet’s final movement, with its use of Jewish inflection, is completely remarkable.

String Quartet 5 in B♭, Op. 92 (1952).

String Quartet 6 in G, Op. 101 (1956).

String Quartet 7 in f♯, Op. 108 (1960).

String Quartet 8 in c, Op. 110 (1960). – Music of spiritual resistance.

String Quartet 9 in E♭, Op. 117 (1964).

String Quartet 10 in A♭, Op. 118 (1964). 

String Quartet 11 in f, Op. 122 (1966).

String Quartet 12 in D♭, Op. 133 (1968).

String Quartet 13 in b♭, Op. 138 (1970).

String Quartet 14 in F♯, Op. 142 (1973).

String Quartet 15 in e♭, Op. 144 (1974).

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