Three Days in April

Happy Easter! As I write these words it is gloomy weather outside but the times are glad in Christendom – Our Lord has risen; He has risen indeed.
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As for me, I spent the Holy Triduum at the London Oratory. I didn’t mean to; insofar as I planned anything it was to go to the Oratory for one or more of the three Tenebrae services on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday and perhaps attend the Maundy Thursday Mass, Good Friday Liturgy, and Easter Vigil last night in my parish.
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When men plan, God laughs. Well, maybe. That statement probably says more about how we see God than about how He is. It doesn’t matter; the fact is, I ended up not going to any of the Tenebrae services but all three Triduum ones.
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And I am very glad I did. On Thursday, I heard the provost of the Oratory, Fr. Julian Large give a homily that was both dry in its humour and holy in its content. The former came out when he discussed Questions That A Catholic Might Be Asked And The Correct Answers That They Might Give.
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q. What is the Mass?
a. It is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice.
r. That answer, while it would be good for a Lutheran, would only be a beginning for a Catholic.
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If you aren’t smiling at the above exchange, I shan’t blame you – I have only very badly paraphrased what he said, but what he did say made me smile.
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The holiness of the talk came in the simple love for God and Man that shone through his  words. It also came out in a very literal way. Catholics, you see, will – or should – refer to it as Holy Mass.
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During his homily, Fr. Large referred to the Penny Catechism and the teachings contained therein. This sentence is my reminder to myself to see if I can find it online. This good priest’s words made me want to find it.
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On Good Friday, I learned patience from a fellow parishioner who, as the congregation surged forward as only a congregation can for holy communion, was very generous in the number of people she let enter the queue in front of her.
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One thing I noticed on Friday, though, which surprised me, was that the servers (and priests? I can’t remember) genuflected to the altar and/or empty tabernacle. I thought one only bowed to the latter as the Blessed Sacrament was no longer there. It’s not quite rampant heterodoxy but I am still wondering if it was correct.
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Last night’s Vigil Mass was very interesting. A truly Catholic family – mum, dad, five children – sat in the pew in front of me. At various times two of the children fell asleep. One fell asleep on the pew before opting to disappear under it. At communion I found him laid out beside the pew.
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Next to me, a woman sat by herself until she was joined by a male friend, or, perhaps her partner. When he came, she slid off the pew and sat in the well, leaning against him. .
As the church lights were switched off and we descended into the darkness before the dawn, I heard the woman sigh and whimper. The man replied with words of comfort. What was wrong with her? I cannot say. They left while the church was still dark. Please pray for them.
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The Exultet was beautifully sung by – a priest? He was not one I recognised, if so. Speaking of singing, I must – before I forget again – mention the Oratory choir. If the Oratory was deficient in its liturgy, which it isn’t, the choir would justify it all the same. They were especially good as the crowd and sundry individual voices during the Passion reading on Good Friday.
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I do have one criticism of the way things were done on Good Friday. I am thinking of the way that, instead of passing the collection bag around as per normal, the collectors (do they have a proper name?) simply stood at the head of the queue to venerate the cross. This made it seem like we were paying a fee to do so. I know that was not the intention but I liked the action no more for this knowledge.
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If I had been in charge I would have had the collection done before the cross was brought out to be venerated. If you said, ‘but that would have caused the Liturgy to go on for even longer than the two and a half hours that it did’, I would reply, ‘well, then, sir (I am very polite like that, or just influenced by old fashioned modes of rhetorical discourse), have more than one cross available for veneration’. Much to my surprise, the Oratory insisted on one. If you then said, ‘but that would damage the integrity of the symbol – Our Lord died on one cross’, In truth, I’m not sure what I would say to that.
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Gripes over collections aside, I regard myself was being very fortunate indeed to have been able to spent the Triduum at the Oratory. The Catholic Church can feel a hard place to be, sometimes; some of her beliefs are incredibly challenging but being at the Oratory made me feel very profoundly at home; I am most grateful for that.

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John Keats’ House

A few weeks ago my father and I visited John Keats’ House in Hampstead. It was never really his house, just where he stayed for about a year and a half before moving to Rome.

That notwithstanding, it was a real pleasure to be able to walk in the rooms and through the halls that Keats did nearly 200 ago.

Unfortunately, the house does not contain much if any of Keats’ furniture or furnishings but when you are dealing with a poet I don’t think that really matters.

For Keats’ is not to be found in the seats he sat on or the tables at which he ate but in his words, and fortunately we have many of those!

By the way, it occurs to me to ask ‘Who would be found in their furniture or furnishings?’. Actually, someone like William Morris would. Last year, my sister and I visited his home in Bexleyheath, Red House, and were delighted to see his designs on the wall and surviving furniture. I thoroughly recommend a visit there.

The same goes for John Keats’ House (or Wentworth Place to give it its proper name). True, there is little or no furniture dating to his time but there are letters, books and paintings. Plus a nifty little gift shop. But none of this is why you should visit. If you like John Keats then you should certainly go so that you can say ‘I stood where he stood’.

After leaving the house, my father turned left and I turned right. No, it wasn’t a mistake – we were simply heading to different places. For me, it was to the pub. I stopped at the Holly Bush for a glass of wine, some lunch and yes, a few of Keats’ poems.

Afterwards, I meant to go to the underground stop but felt a compelling urge to divert to Daunt Books in Belsize Park. To be sure, the urge was not to visit the shop, as such, but to see if it had a biography of Keats that I could purchase. And yes! It did. I am now the proud owner of Nicholas Roe’s biography of the great man.

Keats House is now owned by the City of London Corporation. When you visit, your admission ticket is valid not only for that visit but also a second one as long as it is undertaken within the year. I shall definitely be going back again to get more of Keats’ air and read more of his poetry.

 

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Magnitude

Yesterday, I visited the London Oratory to go to confession or, as it is more usually called these days, ‘the Sacrament of Reconciliation’. Notwithstanding its unwieldiness, there is nothing wrong with this name but I prefer the older one. It is more concise and richer in meaning.

To go to confession refers not only to the act of confessing one’s sins but even before that to one’s faith in the ability of Our Lord to forgive our sins. I think it is worthwhile highlighting this double meaning as it shows that confession is not an arcane and oblique act – which, I suspect, is what no few Catholics as well as non-Catholics regard it as being – but rather a fundamentally evangelical one.

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The Fathers of the London Oratory sit in the traditional boxes, which are dotted around the church. The priest to whom I made my confession sat in his with a book laid out on a cushion in front of him. Although I have seen priests with books in front of them before the one that I saw yesterday. I think I realised the reason as I walked home afterwards.

Normally, after going to confession, I walk very slowly. This is deliberate. Rushing loses its point. Why do it? It can cause accidents and near misses, annoyance and mistakes. Walking slowly, however, allows one to move with consideration for others and amidst others rather than apart from them.

Yesterday, however, I walked down Knightsbridge Road at a speed that, while by no means my fastest – and being tall I can walk quite quickly – was still faster than I should have liked. As I walked, my head was full of thoughts for a new story.

There is a good reason why I was walking at speed – I wanted to get home for my evening meal. However, it also occurred to me even before I reached Harrods that there was another reason for my pace, and it lay in the confessional I had just visited.

Christianity is the religion of the book but books are not all about Christianity. Thus, when I saw the book on the priest’s lap it spoke to me of a priest who has brought together the sacred and profane, someone who has – in a sense – become able to challenge even if not conquer the magnitude of life, for that is what books are: vessels of the magnitude that sometimes threatens to overwhelm us and sadly sometimes does.

By contrast, by walking quickly and losing myself in story-thoughts I had retreated into my own little part of that magnitude rather than take time to consider how can I emulate that priest?

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Before finishing, I should like to add that I don’t think there is anything wrong in losing oneself in thoughts of stories or whatever. I do think, however, it is good to take the opportunities that God offers to ask myself ‘how can I bring together the sacred and profane of my life? How can I integrate them so that the magnitude, which can be so threatening instead becomes a means by which I may advance in the spiritual life?’

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An Extraordinary Mass in Maiden Lane

Yesterday, I visited Corpus Christi church near London’s popular Covent Garden to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form. It wasn’t for a special occasion, so there were no singers and only one priest and his server. There were relatively few people there as well, just a sprinkling across the pews. Corpus Christi is a very small church so that did not detract from the service. As for the Mass itself, the priest celebrated it with great dignity with the aid of his server.

One reason why I love the EF Mass is that it is the form of Mass that connects us today with our Catholic forebears going back, firstly, to the sixteenth century and then back into antiquity. The reason why there are two checkpoints, as it were, is because – unlike the Novus Ordo Mass (which is the one that is celebrated in every Catholic Church every Sunday if not every day of the week) – the Extraordinary Form was not written into being at a single point in time but allowed to organically develop from late antiquity through to the sixteenth century when, during the Counter Reformation, it was finally codified. To know that I am attending, essentially, the very same Mass as Catholics of the past – including Saints such as Teresa of Avilla and John of the Cross and martyrs such as Edmund Campion – is a great joy and even greater privilege.

Another reason I love the EF Mass is that it is also the Mass that some of my greatest literary heroes of the twentieth century went to, and which – by God’s grace, I pray – they are enjoying the perfection of in heaven now. I am thinking here of people like J R R Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton. This sense of continuity and community is as real to me as my own family is and friends are. I don’t always feel it strongly but the reality of the matter almost makes that a side issue. Almost. I would never turn down the chance to have a strong sense of any saint praying with and for me. That, though, is a matter of prayer, patience and trust, which – by-the-bye – are all things that the Extraordinary Form teaches one. I am already looking forward to the next lesson.

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Petrarch, John Dryden and Coventry Patmore

#ThreePoemsFromThreeCenturies

The above hashtag represents my New Year attempt to read more poetry. As often as I can read ‘three from three’ I will record it here. If I can keep the reading up I will, I hope, cover a broad range of poets and poems. One thing I won’t be doing is asking myself to read three different poets each time. I will allow one name to reappear in each post. Also, these posts won’t be about analysing the poem, just a few words on who I’ve read, which poems I liked, and short quotations.

First up is Petrarch (1304-1374). He wrote a series of poems – The Canzoniere – to a lady called Laura whom he loved deeply. Appropriately enough, I read the first poem in that series today. It is not a happy one. Not only is love a trial for our poet, but people are talking about him.

… I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself…

I will be returning to Petrarch so hopefully things will improve for him.

John Dryden (1631-1700) lived through the Restoration and the return of joy to England after the years of Oliver Cromwell’s morose Republican government. One would expect, therefore, a certain joie de vivre in Dryden’s verse. Alexander’s Feast; Or, the Power of Music is a jolly enough poem but also a dark one. You can read the full work here.

In 330 BC, Alexander held a party in the Royal Palace at Persepolis, which he had lately taken control of. As the Macedonians got progressively more drunk an Athenian courtesan named Thaïs incited Alexander to burn the palace down in revenge for the Persian destruction of Athens the previous century. What really happened that night is debatable. I wonder if that is why Dryden makes the a musician called Timotheus the prime mover. Timotheus first sings of Alexander’s conception (as the story went, his mother Olympias was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a snake), then of Bacchus and Darius III. Finally, he soothes Alexander by denying the value of war (I bet that went down well) and commending the pleasure of women – or rather, one in particular – to him.

War, he sung, is toil and trouble,
Honour but an empty bubble;
Never ending, still beginning,
Fighting still, and still destroying;
If the world be worth thy winning,
Think, O think, it worth enjoying:
Lovely Thais sits beside thee,
Take the good the gods provide thee!

Alexander sinks upon Thaïs’ breast. But Timotheus can’t help himself. He strikes his lyre hard and rouses the king to vengeance against the Persians. According to Dryden,

Thais led the way
To light him to his prey,
And like another Helen, fired another Troy!

But it is Timotheus who got them going. The poem ends rather incongruously with a comparison of Timotheus and St Cecilia, the patron of music. She broadened and deepened music’s range but to his credit Dryden does not make her Timotheus’ conquerer.

… Let old Timotheus yield the prize
Or both divide the crown;
He raised a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down!

John Dryden – the proto-ecumenist?

My last poet is the Victorian Coventry Patmore (1823-1895). He wrote a short narrative poem about a walk with his beau – Amelia. The poem can be found here. Like Alexander’s Feast, the poem is not without its dark side – Patmore takes Amelia to the grave of his previous beloved, Millicent. Now, I must be honest, that is not something that I would consider wise or desirable to do. To her credit, though, Amelia takes the visit in her stride. What I would like to focus on here, though, is the little bit of Victorian fruitiness at the end of the poem. As well as being in its own way erotic it is also very tender and sweet.

She seated on the black yew’s tortured root,
I on the carpet of sere shreds below,
And nigh the little mound where lay that other,
I kiss’d her lips three times without dispute,
And, with bold worship suddenly aglow,
I lifted to my lips a sandall’d foot,
And kiss’d it three times thrice without dispute.
Upon my head her fingers fell like snow,
Her lamb-like hands about my neck she wreathed.
Her arms like slumber o’er my shoulders crept,
And with her bosom, whence the azalea breathed,
She did my face full favourably smother,
To hide the heaving secret that she wept!

Ahhh! Or, as we say nowadays <3 <3 <3

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Tolkien’s Akallabêth

J.R.R. Tolkien (Photo: Billett Potter)

J.R.R. Tolkien (Photo: Billett Potter)

Today is the one hundred and twenty second anniversary of J R R Tolkien’s birth, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. This morning, I marked the occasion by reading the Akallabêth from The Silmarillion.

I will always regret that Tolkien was not able to flesh out the legends in this book. Sometimes, despite the many years he worked on them, they seem so brief as to be mere synopses. The Akallabêth avoids that fate but only just. The story’s problem is that it even though it focuses on the events that led to the rise and fall of the Númenóreans, because they happen over several thousand years, one still gets the impression of the work being – in Wikipedia parlance – a ‘stub’.

Despite that, the Akallabêth is still a very powerful work. This is because it discusses one of the most urgent questions of human existence: death. Why does it happen? Why must it happen? Can it be slowed or prevented? Should it be slowed or prevented? About the only thing that the story doesn’t look at is what happens after death. In respect of Men, Tolkien always left that question open.

As for the story, Tolkien doesn’t pull any punches. Every Númenórean who desires immortality is eventually killed. Númenor itself is also destroyed. Although we don’t hear much about them, I imagine no few innocent Númenóreans – those whose worst crime would have been to be loyal to their king – also died. The only ones to survive, in fact, are those Edain who accept the limits placed on their lives by Ilúvatar.

The fate of Númenor makes the Akallabêth an intensely moral story the message of which is a warning: respect the limits placed on you by God or suffer the consequences. This reading makes me fear for our society. Take the example of euthanasia. We are now on a course to master death. Not through immortality (not yet, but I’m sure an attempt on that will come one day) but by making it legal to chose the date and time of our ending. But of course, my interlocutor will say, euthanasia will only permit those who wish to die to end their lives. What could possibly be wrong with that? As the Akallabêth shows us, however, supposedly just causes can sometimes turn out to be anything but.

The politics of the Akallabêth are also fascinating. The Númenóreans live in what appears to be an autocracy with the king being advised in his government by his counsellors. The lack of checks and balances that this form of kingship produces, however, makes it easy for Sauron to weasel his way into Ar-Pharazôn’s confidence.

Then there is the ‘Nazification’ of Númenor – the way Ar-Pharazôn arms Númenor for his great battle against the Valar reminds me strongly of Germany’s rearmament under the Nazis.

I’ve only (and barely) scratched the surface of the Akallabêth. I greatly enjoyed reading it today. It’s true that, for various reasons, it is not a wholly easy read but is most certainly a rich and rewarding one.

J R R Tolkien – Requiescant in Pace

 

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Keeping up with the Strausses

Yesterday I watched my favourite New Year’s Day programme – the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year concert in Vienna. As I watched, I tried to write a ‘live blog’. I didn’t publish it straight away and that’s probably just as well as it turns out that live blogging is quite difficult. Especially with a recalcitrant iPad (see below). I have tidied the text up but what you see below is pretty much what I wrote yesterday. I hope you enjoy reading it and have mercy on he whose first drafts are not very good!

11:21
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual New Year’s Day concert has just started. It is a sugary confection of Strauss compositions and I love it. Every year, the VPO perform with a guest conductor. This year it is Daniel Barenboim.

As the VPO launch into their first piece – Johann Strauss, Jr’s overture to his Operetta “Waldmeister” – for the TV cameras (the concert proper began an hour ago) we get a lovely new camera position – right in front of Barenboim. Not only do we get to see the maestro up close but the camera affords us a lovely view of the golden hall where the orchestra is playing.

11:29
The overture ended in rousing fashion. This lively ending was continued in the next piece – Johann Jr’s gallop opus 466 Klipp-Klapp.

11:31
The gallop ends as quickly as it began. We come to Johann Jr’s opus 325 – Tales from the Vienna Woods. The camera cuts to lush shots of Austrian woods.

As I watch and write I am experiencing very contrary emotions. I love the Viennese concerts for their beauty. This is augmented by the ballet dancing and fairy tale scenes of castles and woods that the cameras break to. I can’t tell you how annoying my iPad is being at the moment, though. I am writing these words in Pages. Ever since I downloaded the iOS7 upgrade, Pages has opened unacceptably slowly. I can’t wait for MS office to come out for the iPad. Or indeed, for Apple to repair the hash they have made of their upgrade which, as well as messing up the apps, is also ugly.

Anyway, back to the concert. Delightful money shots of baroque churches under bright blue skies, golden caryatids and rich green leaves.

We leave the outdoors to explore someone’s rather grand house. There is even a crown lying about!

Close up of a female member of the orchestra. Once upon a time the VPO didn’t have any (didn’t permit any?) so it’s always interesting to see how many there are on the stage. If it is a half dozen we are doing well.

Sweet use of the citha. The outdoor shots, apparently were of a monastery near the city.

11:43
The next composition is by someone called Josef Hellmesberger, Jr who, the announcer says, is on the programme every year. I must pay more attention. Hellmesberger gives us our first polka of the morning – française (op. 1).

As the camera moves a round the hall we get to see that it is decked with pink and red flowers. A lovely compliment. The orchestra, by the way, is formally attired. The audience is by no means scruffy itself, though I am told it once dressed more formally than it is today. Having said that, I just caught a sight of a woman in a beautiful evening gown.

11:47
I mentioned the flowers just in time. Hellmesberger gives way to Josef Strauss’ (opus 188) Bouquet Polka. Close ups of the flowers reveal yellow and purple colours as well. Sumptuous. Every year, they are gifted to the VPO. This year, however, the VPO gifted them to itself. That’s quite meta.

11:49
We now come to Richard Strauss and his Moonlight Music, which is part of his opera Capriccio. The camera closes up on a bronze bust of RS and for a second he seems to look a bit like David Niven.

I spot another female musician. Like the first, she is wearing trousers. I wonder if that’s the fashion or the rule? The latter wouldn’t surprise me. Outside, thunder rolls. That’s outside my house.

11:53
Hello to Joseph Lanner and his opus 167 – The romantics, a waltz. And here are our first two ballet dancers. Man in black tails and white tights, woman in a big white dress that would pass as a wedding dress. She has a fixed smile which, if she was not so beautiful, would look a bit creepy.

Speaking of creepy, the male dancer appears to have white face paint on. I immediately thought of Bono when he was doing his Mephistopheles act.

Our second pair of dancers have white tails and an aqua blue dress. Suddenly, we dart to the third pair. The chap is in all black and the woman an ill looking yellow. I think the man has that white face paint on, it isn’t complimentary. The gilded chamber they are dancing in is, though.

My ballet cup is now overflowing as a fourth pair appear. The man is once more in black. His partner, though has a a dark red dress. I like that one.

Ahh the couples join up with another and the. All together under a magnificent golden chandelier.

12:02
Two more polkas now. Both by Josef Strauss. The first is called Teasing (op 262). A good and solid piece of music. No more for me, though. We now have a poka called Shenanigans (op 98). It is appropriately fast and is over very quickly.

How much Strauss family music has the New Year’s Day concert in the 74 years of its existence? Less than 50% we are told. They were busy people!

12:08
For this piece we go to Leo Delibes and a dance from the Ballet “Sylvia”. The ballet dancers are, frankly, very oddly dressed. Short skirts and kilts. I’ll be honest, they look rather chavvy.

Apparently, the outfits were designed by Vivienne Westwood, which explains everything.

12:12
Back to Josef Strauss. The Dynamiden waltz. Opus 173.

Daniel Barenboim has loosened his collar. Nary sign of a tie, anywhere.

I suddenly realise that there was background noise as the Xbox turns itself off.

Actually, I’m not sure if I really like the new camera angle on Barenboim. He sticks out to much from the audience. It makes me feel like they are a green screen background.

12:23
Josef Strauss once again – fast polka called Without a Care (Opus 271). Did I hear correctly? He wrote it just before his death? It is certainly a carefree tune and, rather excitingly, features the orchestra shouting Ha! Ha! Ha! At strategic moments.

12:24
And that’s the official end of the concert!

Except…

Barenboim is given a bouquet and smoothly starts handing them out to the female members. The announcer says there are nine women in the VPO now.

12:26
First encore. Josef Strauss. A fast polka based on horse riding. It’s a very jolly tune with added tambourine. It debuted after Vienna lost a battle in the Franco-Prussian war. Oops.

12:30
We now come to the heart of the concert – the Blue Danube. A hashtag appears on the screen – #prosit2014. What can it mean?

I wonder how many members of the VPO know what a hashtag is?

We leave the orchestra to a couple of dancers in tuxedo and lovely white dress with black flower prints on it.hey look very happy to be dancing on top of the landing of their house.

The male dancer picks his partner up and swings her round at speed between two pillars. Tense moment as I start to worry he’ll hit one of the poles!

Ahh. Now they enter the hall where the concert is taking place. This trick has bee. Done before but it is no worse for it, very sweet.

12:41
Second encore. Josef Strauss’ Radestzky March. Before it kicks off, though, the announcer tells us that the concert is sponsored by Rolex. Well, it was never going to be the Poundshop.

Drums and claps set the March off.

Barenboim goes around the orchestra shaking hands! He’ll never make it as a pro if he continues to be so unprofessional.

12:44
He’s still making his way round the orchestra

After being hushed the audience starts clapping again, some more enthusiastically than others. Perhaps they are jealous not to be getting greeting and / or kissed

12:45
And there it is. The real end of the show. Super!

There is such a high demand for tickets that they are sold by lot. I’d love to attend. Or even just to be in Vienna at this time of year. For now, though, I’ll settle for TV.

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