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Rewarded: a new book

Rewarded: a new book

I love to write. Ever since I was a young boy, I have been passionate about writing. Give me a 2,000 word essay on a school exam any day over three math problems. My love of writing was birthed from my love of reading, something imparted to me by my parents. My father was Chairman of our local public library while I was going up, and every week, my brothers and I trekked to the the library to take out another stack of books to read. I was fortunate to attend schools that emphasized reading, whether contemporary literature (a little), the classics (a lot), and the ancients (Edith Hamilton’s Mythology remains a favorite).

I’m at work writing several books at the moment. In the introduction to The Trombone Book, a planned 500 page book I’m writing for Oxford University Press that will cover the history, use, performance, teaching, and care of the instrument (for trombone players who are reading this, think of this book as the successor to the long out of print Trombone Technique by Denis Wick), I’ve written these words:

In a sense, I have been writing this book since I first picked up the trombone in 1964. My parents, Alan and Jeannine Yeo, now gone from this world to the next, taught me to pay attention. From them I received the gift of a disciplined work ethic and the understanding that it was required to succeed in anything. They instilled in me a love of books and reading, and from that it was not a far walk to a love of writing. I grew to appreciate words and how they were put together, and I particularly thank Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Enoch Arden), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Evangeline), Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Thomas Hardy (Under the Greenwood Tree and The Choirmaster’s Burial), J. D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), William Buckley (The Right Word) and Jacques Barzun (many books, but especially Berlioz and the Romantic Century, From Dawn to Decadence, The Use and Abuse of Art, The Culture We Deserve, and Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage) for their exceptional modeling of the possibilities of the English language. An exasperated Abigail Adams was known to say to her husband, John, whose predilection for long narrative introductions before getting to the main point used to annoy her to no end, “John! Do you always have to start at Genesis?” Like our Second President, I confess to being guilty as charged, and also to finding solace in the writing of the Apostle Paul, whose first sentence of his letter to the Romans contains 132 words before the insertion of the punctuation mark we call the period. Stopping a thought is sometimes hard to do.

I love well crafted sentences, the putting together of words, how they flow past the eye and off the lips.

As much as I like writing, I also like what happens before writing: research. I don’t write fiction; I write about music and music making, musical instruments and real people and history. I love the chase, the tracking down of facts both obscure and well known, the hunt for needles in haystacks. It is intense, patient, time-consuming, frustrating, and rewarding work. And I never tire of it.

So, today is a particularly happy day for me, as my mailman brought me a most welcome package: several copies of my newest book, Serpents, Bass Horns and Ophicleides at the Bate Collection, just published by the University of Oxford in Oxford, England.

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The Bate Collection in Oxford has a superb collection of musical instruments. I visited there in 2009 and had the opportunity to play several instruments under the watchful eye of my friend, curator Andrew Lamb.

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The Collection is a veritable “Ali Baba’s cave” of musical instruments, as you can see from this snapshot of one of the many display cases:

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In 2011, Andrew Lamb asked if I would be interested in writing a book about The Bate’s collection of serpents and related instruments. It took me all of one second to agree, although the project was delayed for many reasons. It was not as simple as sitting down and getting to work; a great deal of groundwork needed to be laid. And I also needed time to research and write. In 2012, I retired from the Boston Symphony and promptly flunked retirement and took the full time position of Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University. That job, as wonderful as it was, was all-consuming, and with many other writing projects going at the same time, the Bate book had to wait. But there was much to do as well, including collecting detailed information about all of The Bate’s instruments, arranging for high quality photos to be taken of each instrument, as well as research into the instruments themselves. I devised a plan for the structure of the book and last year, I began discussions with Bryn Walls, a superb designer who had been engaged to lay out and put the book together.

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As you can see from the first page of table of contents above, the book is divided into two primary sections. After a Foreward by Craig Kridel (not a Forward – remember that this book is published in England and England and the USA are two countries separated by a common language – my text needed to undergo “Anglicization” so its spelling and punctuation conformed to British publishing style), five chapters of Historical Context appear. In this section, I wrote a brief history of the instruments as seen through those at The Bate.

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The second section of the book is a detailed discussion of the instruments at The Bate. My commentary is greatly enhanced by superb photos of the instruments by Gary Ombler. Following the discussion of the instruments is a brief section of back matter, including a checklist of the instruments, a bibliography so readers and learn more, a bio and photo of moi, and a page with the index and acknowledgements.

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Each instrument is afforded its own two page spread, with at least two full views of the instrument (sometimes there are three or four – front, back, and sides), many photographs of detailed elements of the instruments, as well as my commentary.

With this book, serpents, bass horns, and ophicleides at The Bate come alive in a new way. Visitors to the Collection can walk through the gallery with the book in hand as they look at the instruments and learn more than the identifying label next to the instrument itself can tell them. Those who can’t get to The Bate can enjoy the instruments while sitting at home in their favorite (whoops – favourite) chair. 80 pages of photos and commentary about some of the most interesting musical instruments ever conceived and manufactured.

The book is now available through the Bate Collection’s online publications store; click HERE to go there in a new browser window. Or, of course, you can stop by the Bate Collection yourself and pick one up there. I am delighted that this book, the subject a long period of research, writing, layout, and proofreading, is now available. Holding copies in my hand today is a great reward at the end of a long process. I will enjoy this moment, but tomorrow I’ll be happily back to my other writing projects. More on them soon!

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An Easter reflection

An Easter reflection

Today is Easter. It is a day that remembers an event of monumental importance: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story has been told countless times, and Christians around the world celebrated Easter with song, sermons, and the reading of Scripture. Today, my wife and I sang in the choir at our church, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, where we brought the Credothe Nicene Creed — to our congregation in the monumental setting by Johann Sebastian Bach as found in his Mass in B-minor.

There are four accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel accounts in the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each highlights particular moments in those world-changing days nearly 2000 years ago. In 2016, my wife and I traveled to Israel with a tour group sponsored by our undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton College. The trip was life changing, as we visited many of the traditional sites where pivotal events in the Bible took place. One such site was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the traditional sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The photo at the top of this blog entry on The Last Trombone is one I took of the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Do we know for sure that he was actually buried there? No, but since at least around 400 AD, Christian pilgrims have venerated this particular place as being the site. I do not engage in debates over whether this or that site is THE site. It enough that I was in the neighborhood.

Artists over the centuries have depicted the resurrection of Jesus as a cataclysmic event, replete with angels and earthquakes, and the moving away of the stone that covered the entrance of the tomb. The Bible tells of this (Matthew 28:1-4):

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

Typical of such artistic representations is the one below that I saw a few days ago at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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The painting is by Cecco del Caravaggio, whose real name was Francesco Buoneri, and it was painted in 1619-1620. Christ appears on top of his tomb, and an angel is dispatching Roman soldiers who were guarding the tomb. Cecco’s use of light and dark is exceptional, and I spent a long time sitting in the museum’s gallery and contemplating the event that it depicts.

But in 2017, when my wife and I traveled to Italy on another Wheaton College alumni tour — a tour that took us to Florence and Rome — I saw another painting of the resurrection that has stuck in my mind ever since. This painting was in the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence, in the same museum that houses Michelangelo’s iconic statue of David. The painting, by Andrea del Sarto, was painted in the early sixteenth century and presents a very different view of the resurrection of Christ.

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Here is a moment before the the earthquake; we see no guards, no angel. It shows Jesus in His tomb at the moment of his resurrection. The wounds from his crucifixion are visible, as are some of his burial cloths. The image is one of quiet contemplation. I am sure I was not alone, when standing before this painting, in asking the question: What was Jesus thinking at this moment?

What I find interesting in all of this is that the Bible is silent about what actually happened inside the tomb at the moment when Christ was raised from the dead. He was dead, buried in the tomb. Then at some point over the next two days, Christ was resurrected, and somehow, in some way, he left the tomb. Two days after his agonizing death on the cross, the tomb was empty. Mary Magdeline was shocked to see the tomb empty when she came to visit it two days after the crucifixion of Jesus, but an angel spoke to her with these earth-shattering words (Matthew 28:6):

He is not here, for he has risen.

I like to meditate on both of these paintings which depict two moments surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. Both speak to the same thing: Jesus was dead, buried, and was raised from the dead. In the days and weeks that followed, He appeared in physical form — not as some kind of ghost or apparition — before hundreds of people. This is documented not only by the Bible, but by other, independent writers. The resurrection of Jesus happened. It was and is true, and it changed the world and the life of every person in it. As the Apostle Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 15:17-20):

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.

C. S. Lewis spoke to this fact in his book, Mere Christianity. I have previously quoted him in my article on The Last Trombone about Christmas, but his words are worth repeating here:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”

That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The death of Jesus Christ. His burial. His resurrection. It happened. And it matters. Happy Easter.

 

Symphony Hall: Boston’s proud temple of music since 1900

Symphony Hall: Boston’s proud temple of music since 1900

From 1985-2012, I was bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra’s home is Symphony Hall, on the corner of Huntington and Massachusetts Avenues in Boston’s Back Bay section (301 Massachusetts Avenue). Opened in 1900 after the orchestra left the Boston Music Hall where it had played concerts since it was founded in 1881, Symphony Hall is considered to be one of the three finest concert halls in the world, with its acclaimed acoustics putting it in the company of the Musikvereinsaal (Vienna) and Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). Before it was destroyed in World War II, the old (alte) Gewandhaus in Leipzig was also similarly acclaimed. Having played concerts in the halls in Vienna and Amsterdam, I can say that in my view, Symphony Hall is simply the finest concert hall in which I have ever performed.

When I joined the Boston Symphony, I was aware of the rich history of both the orchestra itself and its storied home. I’ve read everything I could find about the BSO and Symphony Hall, spent countless hours in the orchestra’s archives (with which I had a hand in formally establishing in 1987), and have been fascinated at all I have found and learned.

Two important books have informed my quest for information about Symphony Hall.

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Published in 1950 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Symphony Hall, H. Earle Johnson’s Symphony Hall, Boston (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1950)  surveys the orchestra’s first 50 years, discusses programming and personnel, and features commentary on the building and opening of Symphony Hall. Now out of print (but copies can be found on through used book outlets such a abebooks.com), it unfortunately has no illustrations. 

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Richard Poate Stebbins’ book, The Making of Symphony Hall: A History with Documents (Boston: Boston Symphony Orchestra, 2000) is a superb volume that documents, in fascinating detail, the planning, construction, and opening of Symphony Hall. It was published on Symphony Hall’s centennial, a year I remember with great fondness for the many historical exhibits in the Hall’s corridors and the many celebrations of the Hall throughout the year. The cover of the book features an early, color rendering of the original design of the hall, with many statues, inscriptions, and decorative cornices. Ultimately, none of these items were incorporated in hall when it was finished. Money ran out, and to this day, even there is no external decoration to the hall. Even the Hall’s  name is not found on its exterior. Yet it is this austerity that is part of Symphony Hall’s charm; somehow it fits in with the Boston way.

Symphony Hall was designed by  the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White and an early photo of the completed Hall appeared in A Monograph of the Work of McKim, Mead & White, 1879-1915 (New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co, 1915), below. The publication was a massive four volume set with nearly 400 photographs; each had a simple caption without commentary. It details the breadth of the buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White and it includes three plates that feature Symphony Hall, plates 141, 142, and 143. Several years ago, I was able to obtain original copies of these plates, which are also contained in a modern reproduction of the original four volume set that is still readily and affordably available (McKim, Mead & White, The Architecture of McKim, Mead & White in Photographs, Plans and Elevations (New York: Dover Publications, 1990).  While McKim, Mead & White’s portfolio was published in 1915, the caption reflects the original name for Symphony Hall, The Boston Symphony Music Hall, which was changed to Symphony Hall just before its opening in October, 1900.

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The other two plates feature some interior and exterior cross sections of Symphony Hall (the aisles on the main floor were changed to a different configuration in the final design), plate 142:

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And plate 143, that features details of exterior design for the Hall:

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Over the years, I have collected many postcards of Symphony Hall; I usually paid only one or two dollars apiece for a piece of Boston Symphony history. I was fascinated at how many different images of the facade of the Hall had been made over nearly 100 years. In all, I found dozens of different postcards with nearly 30 images of the exterior of the hall. Many were crisp and clean, but the ones that were most interesting were the ones that had been used, with writing, stamps, and postmarks. It is these postcards that helped to document the approximate time when the photo or image of Symphony Hall was made. Early postcards were black and white; later ones were hand tinted before reproduction, and later ones are faithful photographic reproductions. Most postcards do not have copyright dates; I am not an expert at automobile models which could help further pinpoint years photos were taken. Still, these cards tell the story of Symphony Hall in a unique way. I’m presenting them here in rough chronological order with only light commentary; captions appear beneath each card. The images speak for themselves and are a reminder of a very important part of my life and the lives of thousands upon thousands of lovers of music who have walked through the doors of Symphony Hall, Boston’s proud Temple of Music. 

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01. Music Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1900. Card produced by National Art Views Co., N. Y. City. One of the earliest photos of the exterior of Symphony Hall, the view is of the original front entrance of Symphony Hall on Huntington Avenue; the Huntington Avenue trolly line power lines have been removed from this image. The Hall’s original name, Music Hall, which was changed to Symphony Hall before the first Boston Symphony concert was performed there on October 15, 1900, is featured in the caption.

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02. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1900. Card produced by The Metropolitan News Co., Boston. This is the identical photo seen in the previous card except the trolley power lines have not been removed. Note the name of the Hall has now been changed from Music Hall to Symphony Hall.

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03. Symphony Hall. c. 1902. This collage of buildings are from Boston’s Back Bay area, including the Horticultural Hall, which is across the street from Symphony Hall on Massachusetts Avenue. The Art Museum on the card is the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which moved from its original location in Copley Square (shown on the card) to its present location on Huntington Avenue in 1907.

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03a. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1904. Card produced by Detroit Photographic Co. The card is used and is postmarked October 7, 1908, addressed to Miss Mary Merkins, Winsted, Connecticut. The copyright date of the image is given as 1904. Note the woman in the bottom right corner who is holding on to her hat in the gusting wind.

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04. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1905. Produced by F. von Bardelben, New York & Germany. Made in Germany. Note the presence of a single horse-drawn carriage.

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05. Symphony Hall, c. 1905. Card produced by Chisholm Bros., Portland, Maine. The card is used and is postmarked September 4, 1905, addressed to Miss Myrtle Kiefer, Homer, Michigan. The view is similar to the card above but several pedestrians are seen standing against the building.

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06. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1905. Card produced by The New England News Company, Boston, Mass. – Leipzig — Berlin. The card is used and is postmarked June 29, 1905, addressed to Mrs. K. B. Keene of Washington, D.C. In this view, one can see one of the rising-sun  shaped windows in the clerestory; these were boarded up during World War II (a blackout precaution) and were only reopened in the early 2000s at which time natural light once again could shine into the Hall.

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07. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1905. Card produced by Souvenir Post Card Co., New York. The card is used and is postmarked November 11, 1906, addressed to Mrs. A. L. Turner of Atlantic, Massachusetts. The photo is identical to the one in the card above although it is cropped differently and you can see many people along the Massachusetts Avenue side of Symphony Hall who had been removed in the previous card. I own a second copy of this card that was also used, postmarked March 7, 1907, addressed to Mr. George A. Ohlmsted, Barre, Vermont (c/o Ladd’s Grocery).

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07a. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1907. Card produced by Reichner Bros., Boston, München, Prag., Leipzig. Made in Austria. This curious card appears in version with no text on the image side and also as shown here, with the imprint of an event – Welcome to Boston, Old Home Week, July 28-Aug. 3, 1907 – that was probably held in Symphony Hall that had nothing to do with the Boston Symphony. Organizations sometimes issued commemorative cards with their own imprint to celebrate their events. Note the Boston bean pots in the four corners. The photo of Symphony Hall is centered in an artist’s palate. 

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08. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1908. Card produced by Robbins Bros., Boston, Mass. Made in Germany. The card is used and is postmarked April 6, 1908, addressed to Mrs. Robert Skillings, Danville, Quebec. This card is the earliest I have seen that shows an automobile – on Huntington Avenue around the corner from a horse drawn carriage on Massachusetts Avenue.

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09. Boston, Mass., Symphony Hall. c. 1911. Card produced by  The Hugh C. Leighton Co., Portland, ME, USA. Made in Germany. The card is used and is postmarked November 10, 1911, addressed to Mr. Georgie Worren, Wilton, New Hampshire. Two things are notable: The card was sold by Poole Piano Company (established in Boston in 1893) which inserted its company name and the hot air balloon with a piano hovering above the hall. This was a common advertising tool in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also, note the sign that says “POPS” above the right pair of columns. This sign indicates that the photo was taken during the Boston Pops season. Pops concerts – originally “Promenade concerts” – began in 1885 and continue to this day. Today, this lighted sign is installed each year over the Massachusetts Avenue side of Symphony Hall (see card 24, below).

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10. Symphony Hall and Horticultural Society Building, Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass. c. 1912. The card is used and is postmarked  December 10, 1912, addressed to Mrs. C. E. Palmer, Bath, Maine. This card looks down Huntington Avenue and shows the proximity of Symphony Hall and the Horticultural Hall (built in 1901); note, too, the three modes of transportation: horse-drawn carriage, automobile, and trolley.

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11. Boston, Mass., Symphony Hall. c. 1913. Card produced by Raphael Tuck & Sons, Art Publishers to Their Majesties the King & Queen. Printed in Holland.  The card’s caption on the back reads, “SYMPHONY HALL, successor of the old Music Hall, is the home of the Symphony Orchestra, and here the oratorios of Handel and Hayden Society are even. The Hall has a seating capacity of 2,500, and the interior decorations, lighting, etc., are up-to-date as it was erected recently.”

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12. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1914. Card produced by The Leighton & Valentine Co., N. Y. City. Printed in United States. The card is used, postmarked 1914, addressed to Mrs. C. H. Gateo, Petersham, Massachusetts. The lighted POPS sign is seen again in this card, as are two trollies and a horse-drawn carriage. Notice, too, the large three-sheet advertisements for Boston Pops concerts in the niches on the corners of the building as well as one standing against the Huntington Avenue columns.

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13. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1914. Published by Tichnor Bros., Inc., Cambridge, Mass. Huntington Avenue is bustling with activity; many signs lean up against the Huntington Avenue columns to advertise upcoming concerts and events. Two styles of automobiles are seen as well as the wheel of a horse-drawn carriage on the far left. Crossing Massachusetts Avenue on the right side of the card is someone with a long case or parcel. Could it be a member of the Boston Symphony heading to a rehearsal?

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14. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1915. Card produced by  E. H. & F. A. Rugg, Medford, Mass. Visible in this card is one of the shutters — standing open — that could be raised to cover   the rising-sun clerestory windows. 

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14a. Symphony Hall and Horticultural Hall, Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, Mass. c. 1927. Card produced by  Tichnor Bros., Inc., at Cambridge, Mass, USA. The postcard is used and is postmarked 1927, addressed to Mrs. Wilber Tasker, Etna, Maine. This view shows Symphony Hall and the Horticultural Hall, with the dome of the mother church of First Church, Christ Scientist (built in 1906) rising in the background. The caption on the back of the postcard refers to Symphony Hall as “Boston’s Temple of Music.”

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15. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1930s? Card produced by C. T. American Art. 

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16. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1930s? Card produced by The New England News Company, Boston, Mass. 

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17. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1930s? Card produced by The Process Photo Studios, Troy at 21st St., Chicago, Ill. The presence of a kiosk in the intersection of Huntington and Massachusetts Avenues with an traffic officer from the Boston Police Department adds a certain kind of frightening charm to this image. I would not have wanted to be in his position.

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18. Huntington Avenue Showing Y.M.C.A. and Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. Before 1941. Card produced by M. Abrams, Roxbury, Massachusetts. This view is down Huntington Avenue and shows Symphony Hall on the right (with the POPS lighted sign in place), and the Boston Y.M.C.A. building in the center. To the left of the Y.M.C.A. is New England Conservatory of Music where I taught from 1985-2012; many Boston Symphony musicians teach at NEC owing to its close proximity to Symphony Hall.

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19. Symphony Hall, Y.M.C.A. and Junction, Mass. Ave. and Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass. Before 1941. Card produced by The New England News Company, Boston, Mass. Similar to the view above, this postcard features later style automobiles, the absence of the POPS advertising, and large American flags on top of the Y.M.C.A.

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20. Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass. c. 1941. Card produced by United Art Co., Boston, Mass. I do not know if the large American flag on the roof of Symphony Hall was actually a feature of the hall for a time or if it is an artistic addition from around the time of World War II. I have been on the roof of Symphony Hall and do not recall seeing a stand for a flag of that size although it’s quite possible it was there at one time.

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21. Huntington Avenue at Massachusetts Avenue Showing Symphony Hall, Horticultural Hall and Dome of Christian Science Church. Boston, Mass. c. 1949. Card produced by “COLOURPICTURE” Publications, Cambridge, Mass. USA. The card is used and is postmarked September 7, 1949, addressed to Mrs. Harry Monroe, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. In 1941, the Tremont Street Subway (now the Green Line E spur) was moved from surface level to underground to avoid traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. This made using the original Huntington Avenue entrance of Symphony Hall more difficult since the road was necessarily more narrow. The main entrance of the Hall was switched to the Massachusetts Avenue side. This was a practical decision but it has disrupted the original flow of concert goers into the Hall; they now enter the auditorium from the side rather than from the rear.

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22. Symphony Hall, Massachusetts and Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. c. 1954. Card Produced by United Art Co., 89 Bedford St., Boston, Mass. The postcard is used and is postmarked July 21, 1954, addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Harry Davidson, Lakewood, Ohio. This interesting view shows a long building to the left of Symphony Hall (a sign for a bowling alley is visible). This building, which stretches for the whole block, is now owned by the Boston Symphony which has plans to redevelop the block with a new building. Currently it houses the Orchestra’s Cohen Wing which includes the Symphony Hall gift shop, BSO archives, management offices, the Casadesus Collection of Musical Instruments, and various other businesses that rent space from the Boston Symphony.

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23. Symphony Hall. c. 1990. Card photo by Lincoln Russell, Stockbridge, MA. Symphony Hall at dusk, in a time-lapse photograph. 

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24. Symphony Hall. c. 1995. Card photo by Helen Eddy, Cambridge, Massachusetts. This view is of the canopy over the Massachusetts avenue entrance to Symphony Hall, shopping decorative bunting and the lighted POPS sign celebrating the spring season of the Boston Pops Orchestra.

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25. Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall. c. 2000. Card photo by Christian Steiner, New York, New York. This photo shows a view of the stage of Symphony Hall near the end of the tenure of Music Director Seiji Ozawa (music director 1973-2002). The trumpets and trombones are seated in the back row of the orchestra in front of librarians and personnel mangers and stage managers who are standing in the center: Thomas Rolfs, Peter Chapman and Charles Schlueter, trumpets; Ronald Barron, Norman Bolter, Douglas Yeo, trombones; Chester Schmitz, tuba. The story of the interior of Symphony Hall is one for another time!

 

 

 

André Previn (and J. J. Johnson)

André Previn (and J. J. Johnson)

Last week, André Previn died at the age of 89. He was known for many things: he was a conductor, composer, and pianist, and his private life was very public (among his five wives were actress Mia Farrow and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter). During my long career with the Boston Symphony, I played many concerts under Previn’s direction, beginning with the Elgar Symphony No. 1 in August 1985; the last time I worked with him was when he conducted Ravel’s La Valse in August 2009. In all, I played 81 concerts under his baton, including concerts in February 1997 when he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a tour to the Canary Islands and Florida.

Previn was born in Berlin in 1929; his name was Andreas Ludwig Prewin. His father was Jewish and in 1938, the family fled the Nazis and moved to Paris and then Los Angeles. He became an American citizen in 1943 and was, to my mind, a thoroughly American musical personality. Previn had a dry wit, a “matter-of-factness” when he addressed the orchestra in rehearsal. His ear was always finely attuned to balance and when, during a rehearsal of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony 8 he said to an over-enthusiastic brass player, “We don’t need the zenith, apocalyptic fortissimo,” his point was succinctly made. And he had coined a phrase that I and many others have used from time to time.

During that 1997 tour of the Canary Islands, Previn hosted a party for the orchestra. This was a long tradition on Boston Symphony tours, and a generous gesture on the part of the tour’s conductor. Of course, sending the Boston Symphony to the Canary Islands during the teeth of a Boston winter was like letting children loose in a candy story. Many of my colleagues took every opportunity to frolic on the famous beaches and more than a few players came to a concert with severe sunburn. At the party, Previn rose to toast the orchestra. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said as he lifted his glass, “if the concerts are interfering with the tour.” And he sat down. That was Previn. He didn’t need many words to make a point and when he used them, sometimes you just had to smile and muffle a hearty chuckle.

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But I first got acquainted with André Previn long before I joined the Boston Symphony and began playing concerts with him. In 1971, I visited our local public library and noticed a jazz trombone recording by J. J. Johnson. At that time, I had heard few recordings of great trombone players. This one got my attention. Recorded in 1962, it was titled, André Previn and J. J. Johnson play Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife & Bilbao-Song and Other Music from The Threepenny Opera. That’s a mouthful. But here’s what got my attention: Previn got top billing. Who was he? I quickly found out.

The eight tracks – the combo was rounded out with Red Mitchell, bass, and Frank Capp, drums – were stunning in their creativity. Johnson I knew; he did not disappoint. But Previn was someone new to me, and his piano playing was stellar. Recorded in 1962, the recording had a freshness and vibrancy that spoke to me. And as the record turned, I was particularly interested to hear what these two performers would do with Mack the Knife, one of the most frequently recorded songs. What could they do and say that hadn’t been done and said.

They did and said something new. As you can hear in the link above (or click HERE to listen to the track on YouTube), Previn started Mack the Knife with an innocuous introduction in G-flat. No surprise there. But then Johnson came in. In the key of C. The bitonality was shocking. Truly shocking. Then, on the second verse, Johnson played in G-flat and Previn played in C. My young ears had never heard anything like it before. It remains as shocking and wonderful today as it did when I first heard it nearly 50 years ago.

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Years later, during a break at a Boston Symphony rehearsal, I asked Previn about that recording session. I wanted to know how they came up with that incredibly creative idea. Previn looked at me and shook his head. “It just happened,” he said. “I vamped an intro and J. J. just started playing in a different key. It all flowed from there. We didn’t talk it through, we didn’t work it out. It just happened.”

Amazing.

Incredibly, this album has been long out of print. It appeared on two CD releases (one was released only in Japan) but they disappeared from the catalog quickly. But used copies can still be found on Discogs and other used record/CD outlets. It’s worth tracking down.

André Previn is remembered by many people for many different things. I’m grateful that I got to play so many concerts with him on the podium. But most of all I’m grateful that I can still be inspired by a jazz album he made with one of the greatest trombonists of all time, and that the creativity exhibited on that disc is still with us.

[Photos of J. J. Johnson and Andre Previn from the back cover of the original issue of André Previn and J. J. Johnson play Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife & Bilbao-Song and Other Music from The Threepenny Opera, Columbia LP SICP 2384.]

 

 

Tubby the Tuba

Tubby the Tuba

Among my many projects that are happily occupying my time is my work on several book projects. One of them is An Illustrated Dictionary for the Modern Trombone, Euphonium, and Tuba Player, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield. This is a very interesting project for me: to come up with about 600 terms (instruments, instrument parts, accessories, composers, companies, players, etc.) that low brass players might want to know more about. It is a dictionary, not an encyclopedia, so my entries are necessarily brief, but an extensive bibliography will help readers know where to go to get more information.

The book will be illustrated by my friend, Lennie Peterson, a trombonist and artist living in Boston but who works around the world. Many readers of The Last Trombone already know Lennie even if they don’t know him: I’d venture to say that any readers who are trombone players have seen Lennie’s most famous cartoon from the many years when his syndicated daily cartoon, “The Big Picture,” was part of newspapers around the country.

Lennie_Peterson_trombone_Kaplin

But Lennie is also a superb fine artist, and his illustrations for my new book will add measurably to help readers understand my words even better.

Over the last few days, I’ve been researching an entry for my book, about the piece,  Tubby the Tuba. Many readers probably know about this charming work for orchestra, narrator, and tuba. But it wasn’t until I actually sat down to research it that I found some very interesting things that I’d like to share with readers.

Tubby the Tuba was written by George Kleinsinger (music) and Paul Tripp (story). Tubist Herbert Jenkel asked Kleinsinger to write him a concerto for tuba and Tubby was the result. Kleinsinger and Tripp began their collaboration for Tubby in 1941 but World War II interrupted their work. They finally finished it in 1945 and it was premiered the following year in a concert by the American Youth Orchestra conducted by Dean Dixon with tubist Herbert Wekselblatt (who went on to be tubist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for many years). The first performance of Tubby by a professional orchestra was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Alexander Hilsberg. The concert, on October 19, 1946, was part of the Worcester (Massachusetts) Festival and featured the orchestra’s tubist, Philip A. Donatelli, as soloist. Tubby the Tuba became the first major piece for tuba solo with orchestra, predating Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto by 10 years.

Tubby_Barzin

Tubby was first recorded in 1945 (The recording, on Cosmo Records, was released in December of that year) with Herbert Jenkel, tuba. This recording, with an orchestra conducted by Leo Barzin and Victor Jory narrating, may be heard HERE. Unfortunately, Jenkel was not credited on the album.

Tubby_Kaye

Tubby was then recorded in 1946 by Victor Young and his Concert Orchestra; Danny Kaye was the narrator with an uncredited tuba soloist. That recording may be heard HERE.

That same year, 1946, Tubby the Tuba made it to the big screen, as an animated short. It’s a charming film which received an Oscar nomination for best animated short. The film, a stop-action creation of George Pal and released as one of his Puppetoons productions, is absolutely delightful; unfortunately the tuba soloist is uncredited. If you cannot view the video embedded in this article, you can view it on YouTube by clicking HERE.

In 1963, Disney released another recording of Tubby the Tuba, with Annette Funicello (she of Mickey Mouse Musketeer fame) narrating with, yet again, an uncredited tuba soloist. That recording may be heard HERE.

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Tubby the Tuba found its way to the big screen again in 1975 (not 1977, as the video below indicates), as a full length motion picture starring Dick van Dyke as the voice of Tubby. It was a commercial failure; turning a ten minute piece into a  one hour, twenty minute film simply resulted in a bloated production that lost a lot of its original charm. Here is the familiar refrain: the tuba soloist is uncredited. If you cannot view the video embedded in this article, you may view it on YouTube by clicking HERE.

Tubby_Child_Schmitz

But of all of the versions of Tubby the Tuba, my favorite dates from 1971. Julia Child recorded the piece with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler. Not only was this performance issued on LP, but it was recorded live for television broadcast on the PBS show, “Evening at Pops.” The tuba soloist was my Boston Symphony tuba colleague, Chester Schmitz (Chester played in the Boston Symphony from 1966-2001; we sat next to each other from 1985-2001). I have sung Chester’s praises many times before but I never tire of singing them again: he was, to my mind, the finest player of ANY wind instrument that I have ever heard. Chester had a remarkably natural ease to his playing, and his performance of Tubby, recorded in his fifth year with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is absolutely superb. His playing, combined with Julia Child’s wit, make this a performance for the ages. If you cannot view the video embedded in this article, you can see it on YouTube by clicking HERE. Enjoy!

For more information about Tubby the Tuba, read Cary O’Dell’s fine essay that was created for the Library of Congress when Tubby the Tuba was added to the National Registry in 2006. Tubby the Tuba: a delightful, unpretentious little piece with a very big history.

 

 

Surprises

Surprises

Life is full of surprises, unexpected things that intersect our lives. Sometimes a surprise is shocking, such as a car accident, or the sudden death of a friend or loved one. Sometimes surprises are joyful, like getting accepted to a college you thought was out of reach. No matter how they come, surprises always get our attention. A recent surprise got me thinking of how interesting this theme of surprises (good ones!) has been in my life recently.

Among my many ongoing projects, I have been doing a study of the Stephanovsky 20 Etudes for Bass Trombone. As my friend, Peter Ellefson (Professor of Trombone at Indiana University) pointed out to me a few weeks ago, Keith Brown’s 1964 edition of the Stephanovsky 20 Etudes contains a great deal of common material with Brown’s edition of Fritz Werner’s 38 Studies for Trombone. What? Two composers whose books contain much music that is identical? Keith Brown died last year so he isn’t here to explain what happened. So I’ve been trying to figure out this little puzzle.

In my research, I learned that the 20 Etudes were first published under Stephanovsky’s name in the Soviet Union, first around 1950 and then again in 1961 (Werner’s book was first published in 1927). I hunted around for copies of Stephanovsky’s Russian editions to obtain via Inter Library Loan and finally located a copy of the 1961 edition (I did locate a copy of the c. 1950 edition but the library that owns it is in Europe and does not participate in ILL) in the library at University of Texas, Austin. In a few days, it was heading to me for examination.

SURPRISE! When I opened it, the title page revealed that this copy had been previously owned by Donald S. Knaub, former professor of trombone at Eastman School of Music and University of Texas. Knaub is one of the most respected trombone teachers of the twentieth century; I was very privileged to meet him a few years ago when I gave a masterclass at University of Houston. A book from his personal library? Nice.

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SURPRISE! Someone (it was probably Knaub since the handwriting looks like his) made some assumptions about the name of the composer of this music. No, it was not Kruschev, nor Ivan. Stephanovsky’s first name was Karl. The University of Texas librarians got the name right when they entered the music into their catalog.

Whenever I hold music that was owned by someone else, I have great anticipation when I open it up since there are often hand-written markings that prove to be as interesting to me as the music itself. Knaub’s music didn’t disappoint.

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SURPRISE! When I turned to Etude 14 I saw Knaub’s handwriting that marked out several bracketed staves where he had written “ONE BREATH” next to them, after having changed the dynamic of mezzoforte to pianissimo. I had to smile. I have made the same indications in many copies of this book when I have assigned that same etude to students over my many decades of teaching. Pushing ourselves to play long phrases is an essential part of learning good breath control. It was nice to see that Knaub asked the same thing of himself – and he probably asked it of his students as well.

stephanovsky_20_detail_knaub_copy

SURPRISE! When I turned to the final page of the book, Knaub had written “SNIFF BREATHING” at the top of Etude 20. Another big smile from me. I have been extolling the virtues of sniff breathing – that is, taking quick breaths through the nose rather than breathing through the mouth while playing – as a way to deal with playing music like this where there just isn’t a good place to take a breath. I was taught this technique by my former Boston Symphony tuba colleague, Chester Schmitz, and it has served me (and my students) well ever since then. To see that Knaub suggested using sniff breathing on this etude was a great verification to me, since this is the very kind of etude I assign to my students to practice this useful breathing technique.

In 2010, I was in Rouen, France, doing some teaching and performing en route to a conference in Paris that was devoted to the musical instrument called the serpent. Whenever I go to Europe, I always seek out cathedrals and large churches. I have a great interest in Gothic-era church architecture. Rouen, of course, has one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, made all the more famous by the more than thirty paintings of its west front by Claude Monet (below).

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My oldest daughter, Linda (who was accompanying me on the trip), and I spent some time inside and outside this magnificent church, but my host and friend, Volny Hostiou, told us of another interesting church in Rouen that is much less known. And it had a surprise.

SURPRISE! Actually, when Volny told me about the Abbey Church of St. Ouen, he was surprised it was not the first time I had heard of it. I’ve been aware of its architecture ever since a set of twelve aquatints by the English artist, Charles Wild, came into my possession many years ago. Wild’s “Twelve Selected Examples of the Ecclesiastical Architecture of the Middle Ages, Chiefly in France.” In 2001, I wrote an article about one of these prints, “The Choir of the Cathedral of Amiens,” where I discussed the serpent players depicted in the print (you can view and download my article about this in the Historic Brass Society Journal by clicking this link). Among the prints in Wild’s set are two of the Abbey Church of St. Ouen in Rouen. One is of the outside of the church:

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And the other is of the church’s transept:

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These are beautiful images, ones that have taught me a great deal about Gothic architecture and cathedral/church life. But now Volny had a surprise for me. “When you go inside,” he said, “look up. You will find a serpent player.” Linda and I made a trip to the Abbey Church to find out what Volny was talking about.

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SURPRISE! We looked all through the church for the serpent player and finally we found him. High up on the ceiling in a side chapel, there it was, a remarkable painting of an angel playing the serpent. Nothing there about harps in heaven!

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The serpent, which had been invented sometime in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and then evolved to be an instrument to accompany the singing of chant in the Church in France, would have been well known to every person who had worshipped in St. Ouen in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The painting is heavily damaged but it is still remarkable nonetheless. Who painted it? When? Questions. . .

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SURPRISE! But there was more. As we looked more carefully at the painting, we realized that the serpent player was not alone. Look at the image, above. Just to the right of the serpent-playing angel’s left wing you see another face. It’s very faint and hard to find. (Maybe this will help: look at the chin of the serpent-playing angel, then move your eyes to the right until the stonework of the ceiling appears. The second angel’s face is there, just to the side of the larger angel’s wing.) You can clearly make out the face of another angel who is looking at the serpent-playing angel. An unexpected surprise on top of a surprise. Did this other angel originally have an instrument in hand? What did the rest of the ceiling look like when the paint was all intact? Questions. . .

Some of my biggest surprises come in books. Because of the nature of the research I do, I purchase a lot of used books, and mostly books that are out of print. I get all of my used books through abebooks.com, a website that serves as a massive catalog of the holdings of thousands of bookstores around the world. I can usually find any book I want there, and usually for only a few dollars. And sometimes when I open up a used book, I find a surprise.

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SURPRISE! My wife and I enjoy football and one of the first things we did when we moved to the Chicago area last fall was to become season ticket holders for the Chicago Bears. We’re all in with the Bears and since we want get to know the team better, I’ve been acquiring several books and DVDs about its history. Last week, I ordered a used copy of Halas by Halas (New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1979), the autobiography of George S. Halas who was not only the first coach, then player, then owner of the Chicago Bears, but was the driving force behind the creation of the National Football League in 1919.

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You can imagine my surprise when I opened this book – which I purchased for under $20 – and I found several autographs inside the front cover. There is Doug Atkins, defensive end for the Chicago Bears from 1955-1966 and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Mike Pyle, center for the Bears from 1961-1969. And George Connor, another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played linebacker/tackle for the Bears from 1948-1955. There is also the signature of Jeanne Morris, a pioneering female television sports broadcaster, and two members of the short-lived Chicago Bears cheerleading squad, the Honey Bears. Also of interest is the book plate that celebrates the event where books were distributed and the autographs were probably inscribed. I wonder who else was there at that Chicago Bears Reunion Dinner? Who was “Charlie,” to whom some of the autographs are signed? Questions. . .

rodeheaver_20_years_billy_sunday_cover

Among the several books I am writing at the moment is a biography of Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist William Ashley “Billy” Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. Rodeheaver is a fascinating character who was a driving force in the promotion of gospel music in the twentieth century through his publishing company, record company, and evangelistic work. With my friend and co-author, Kevin Mungons, we are moving along in the process of bringing this book to publication with University of Illinois Press.

In the course of our research, both Kevin and I have acquired many (hundreds, for sure, maybe thousands?) of books that inform our understanding of Rodeheaver, his life, times, and work. Among them is Rodeheaver’s own book, 20 Years With Billy Sunday (Winona Lake, Indiana: Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co., 1936), the story of his years as songleader for evangelist Billy Sunday. While long out of print, copies of the book are not especially rare. But. . .

rodeheaver_20_years_billy_sunday_autograph

SURPRISE! When I opened my used copy of Rodeheaver’s book, I found his inscription inside the front cover, with a reference from the Bible, Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” I’m not an autograph collector, but to hold and own a copy of Rodeheaver’s book in my hands that he had held in his own hands was a very nice surprise. As to Watts Franklin (or Franklin Watts?) of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a previous owner of this book – his (her?) return address label appears on the page with Rodeheaver’s signature – I have not been able to learn anything. Did Watts meet Rodeheaver and ask him to sign the book? Was it a gift to him/her? Questions. . .

Unlike Homer Rodeheaver whose life has never been chronicled in a biography, Billy Sunday is the subject of many books. Some were written during his lifetime (he died in 1935) and others are more contemporary. Books about Sunday – whether authorized by the evangelist or not – provide a fascinating window into his life and ministry as seen through the lens of the time in which he lived.

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One of these books is by Elijah P. Brown, The Real Billy Sunday (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1914). My used copy has a stamp in the back that says it was owned by Sarah A. Kemmerer of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Who she was I do not know. More questions. . .

lehigh_christian_endeavor_pamphlet_1916

SURPRISE! When I opened my used copy of Brown’s book, a small, six page pamphlet fluttered to the floor. It was a program for the 1916 convention of the Lehigh (Pennsylvania) County Christian Endeavor Union, November 1916. Held at the Moravian church in Emaus, Pennsylvania (this spelling was used for the borough from 1830-1938; before and after that time it was/is spelled Emmaus), the convention featured sermons, singing, devotionals, and other activities for youth and adults. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the schedule of one of these meetings which were common occurrences at the time.

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SURPRISE! Another among my many biographies of Billy Sunday is “Billy Sunday” The Man and His Message by William T. Ellis (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1914). This used copy contained a remarkable surprise: an original copy of the brochure that Billy Sunday put into the hands of tens of thousands of people who attended his tabernacle meetings and “walked the sawdust trail” up the aisle to shake hands with the evangelist as they made a public profession to trust Jesus Christ as Savior. The fact that this tract was kept in the book made me wonder if a previous owner bought the book at one of Sunday’s meetings and then put the pamphlet inside that very night for safekeeping. Names of two previous owners of the book are inscribed inside the front cover: a signature of Arthur S. Beale, and a label with the name L. Wilkins of Watertown, Massachusetts. Who were they? When and how did they come to own this book? Questions. . .

The pamphlet is a remarkable historical document and one that is as fresh today as when it was first used by Sunday in the early twentieth century. There are many things I find interesting about this pamphlet, including the fact that it bears the imprint of a union publishing house, Allied Printing of Paterson, New Jersey. Could this brochure have been printed for the 1917 Billy Sunday meetings in New York City? Questions. . .

Sunday asks some important questions and gives some important advice. Have a look.

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Life is full of surprises. Sometimes they cause you to ask questions. Sometimes they can change your life.

 

 

 

Christmas 2018

Christmas 2018

Tomorrow is Christmas. Like many families, we will be attending Christmas Eve services tonight. At our church, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, we will enjoy the family service with our oldest daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. Later this evening my wife and I will sing in the College Church choir at two candlelight services.

We believe the story of Christmas is true. Santa Claus, reindeer, candy canes, packages and bows are all very nice and great fun. But the reason we celebrate Christmas —CHRISTmas — is because it recognizes the historical event that changed the course of human history. And the eternal future of every human being.

In 2016, my wife and I went to Israel on a tour sponsored by the Wheaton College Alumni Association. The trip was tremendous, emotional, exhilarating; I run out of adjectives to describe the impact it made on us. Yes, I understand that we cannot be certain that this or that holy site is exactly the place where this or that particular event in history took place. It is enough for me to know that this or that site has been considered to be an important place to commemorate significant events in the Bible, that pilgrims have worshipped there for centuries, and I am in the neighborhood where the events took place. Taking in the sights and sounds (and tastes!) of the land of the Bible changed us. I now view Christmas through the new lens of having been in the land “where Jesus walked.” Here is that story, taken from the Gospel of Luke (English Standard Version), with photos from our trip. This is a true story.

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Entrance to the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation and Mary’s Well, Nazareth

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

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Fresco depicting the Angel Gabriel and Mary,                                 Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth [the mother of John the Baptist] in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.

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Mary’s well, the traditional site of the Annunciation,                 Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

And Mary said “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

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Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, the “Humility door,” so named because one must bow down to crawl through the opening.

In these days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

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The traditional site of the birth of Jesus. The silver star has a hole in the middle through which  pilgrims can reach down to touch the bedrock. Grotto, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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The traditional site of the manger where Jesus was laid after his birth. Grotto, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

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Sign to the traditional site of the Shepherds Fields. The sign is in Arabic; Bethlehem is located on the West Bank where many Arab Christians live.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

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Entrance to a shepherd’s cave, Bethlehem.

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Altar inside the shepherd’s cave, Bethlehem. Note the star mosaic inlaid on the floor in front of the altar.

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Bronze door to the shepherd’s cave, Bethlehem.

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.

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Bronze statue of an angel, above the entrance to the Franciscan Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem.

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A painting of the greeting of the angel to shepherds, Franciscan Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising god and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

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A painting of the shepherds worshiping Jesus at his birth, Franciscan Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem.

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

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Sign at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. I have seen similar signs that quote verses from the Bible in many languages around the world.

There is much more to this story. This child, Jesus, changed the world. Our calendar revolves around his birth. He, the Son of God, begotten, not made, came to redeem sinful and fallen men and women. Like you and me. Christmas is about this: life, death, redemption, repentance, forgiveness. And Light. Are there any greater themes in history? I think not. It is my prayer that you know this Jesus, this one whom we celebrate in this season.

But who was this Jesus? C. S. Lewis, in his superb book Mere Christianity, starkly laid out the options, what we may think of Jesus Christ:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”

That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I will have more to say about this, the next great climax of this story, around Easter. To be continued.