On a concert poster from 1931 is a photograph of a young girl. She calmly smiles while holding a cat, a picture of domestic innocence. Below her run the words ‘CHILD PIANIST AND COMPOSER-AGE 10’. This musical prodigy will perform a Haydn concerto, alongside some of her own compositions.
Yet go in search of Ruth Gipps today, and you mostly find a legacy of absence. CD racks run seamlessly from Gershwin to Glass. Most of her compositions are not available on commercial recordings. Halstead’s excellent study, the outcome of scholarly research and her own correspondence with the composer, is seldom seen on bookshelves.
I first discovered Ruth Gipps (pronounced with a ‘hard’ G) while browsing a YouTube channel that features uploads of old broadcast recordings. Though the sound quality was far from perfect, the music immediately stood out: emotionally direct, memorably melodic, expertly crafted. I was amazed that I had not heard her name before.
From the very beginning gender forms a pattern of difference in Gipps’ story. Struggle for recognition in a man’s world is a main theme, but as Halstead’s book shows, the role that womanhood played in her life was also more nuanced and complicated.
Beside talent, one advantage that the young Gipps enjoyed was an ideal musical environment. Born into a family of musicians, her mother Hélène, a larger-than-life Swiss pianist, ran Bexhill School Of Music from their home. Perhaps equally important, she was also an unusually powerful female role model, the ‘undisputed head of the Gipps family’, and main financial provider.
By the age of two, Ruth insisted on being called ‘Widdy’ – later simply ‘Wid’ – a name that stuck for life. It was an early omen of a determined personality.
The young Gipps’ talents proved exceptional when she began piano lessons. Performing from the age of five, she astonished audiences. Music for her simply seemed to be a way of being:
I had known all along of course that playing piano was my job; the first concert merely confirmed it. But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt, although I had not yet written anything, that I was a composer. Not that I wanted to be a composer – that I was one.
And so it came to pass. At age eight, her piano piece The Fairy Shoemaker won competitions, and was even published. By ten she had a regular performing schedule in the south east of England, by fourteen she was composing a piano concerto.
Gipps’ journey into adulthood is littered with stellar achievements. Entering the Royal College of Music at sixteen, she took up the oboe as a second instrument, progressing from complete beginner to professional standard in only a few years. In composition, she won various College prizes, including for her first symphony. Her symphonic poem Knight In Armour was chosen by Sir Henry Wood for the last night of the Proms in 1942.
But the smile of the girl on the poster masked a less happy story. Hélène brought up her children with an unusual degree of independence, treating them as equals, which – alongside her extraordinary talents – meant the young Gipps had difficulties fitting in at school. Initially she was one of a handful of girls in a school of mostly boys, but found no solidarity there. ‘They made my life a misery’ she said, ‘in all the small ways known to little girls with an odd one among them’.
With the boys, however, she was much happier. Consequently, a later move to a girl’s school proved disastrous. The physical and emotional bullying – from staff as well as pupils – was so horrific that Gipps was eventually given permission to leave at age twelve. Such early isolation from her peers, Halstead writes, would go on to breed ‘a particular kind of self-sufficiency’ but with a high emotional cost, creating ‘a deep rooted sense of alienation and defensiveness’. Gipps’ self-defined outsider status would develop into a mentality that attack was the best form of defence.
Her arrival at the Royal College of Music was a chance for a fresh start. But while she was a provincial Wunderkind, Gipps discovered that her piano playing was no longer so exceptional here. Her self-esteem tied up in childhood adulation, this was a blow to confidence which, combined with a long-term hand injury, gradually drew her away from the path of a concert pianist.
However the relationships she formed at this time were crucial. Gipps became engaged to the clarinettist Robert Baker at age 19, marrying him in 1942. As he was called up to the RAF for the war effort, they spent much of the first years of marriage apart. At the same time, a friendship with a young conductor called George Weldon proved pivotal. When he was appointed to the City of Birmingham Orchestra (later the CBSO), he secured her a full-time oboe position.
Furthermore, this friendship enabled Gipps to have the orchestra showcase her other talents, a chance she seized on with unapologetic enthusiasm. In one 1945 concert, she was both the soloist in Glazunov’s piano concerto and played the oboe in her own first symphony. This led to a perception of favouritism which began to ruffle feathers in the orchestra; their closeness aroused suspicion, with rumours that they were having an affair. While there is no indication that this was true, such was the growing hostility that Gipps was eventually forced out.
In 1947, while seven months pregnant with her son Lance, Gipps passed an exam for a doctorate in music, completing the degree with a cantata, The Cat, the following year. Around this time, Weldon recommended her for the job of chorus master to the City of Birmingham Choir. This involved rehearsing the choir for concerts, and she took to it with characteristic flair, discovering a love for conducting that would go on to define her career.
Seeing her clear abilities in this new role, and sensing her growing ambition, even the supportive Weldon began to feel uneasy, complaining that ‘one day you will want to conduct symphonies’. He seems to have summed up the conflicted attitudes to women conductors at the time, and Halstead’s analysis of the gender politics in this period, drawing on the work of the scholar Lucy Green, is particularly fascinating. ‘When conducting work stood within the parameters of ‘enabling’ it could be encouraged, as it seemed a natural extension of woman’s role as nurturer’. As a chorus master, or conductor of a youth orchestra, women could ‘enable’ some later musical goal, but a woman conducting professional concerts – embodying the ultimate authority on stage – was another matter.
Gipps was characteristically undeterred. But securing work would prove difficult. In 1955 she applied for an assistant role at BBC Midland, only to be told that a woman could not command the respect of the orchestra. ‘Any woman taking to the podium has to confront all these negative notions of feminine distractiveness’, Halstead writes, ‘while also negotiating a traditionally male space’. When conducting opportunities did come Gipps’ way, her approach in the early years could be provocative – where other women might have played down their femininity, she deliberately cultivated a stage persona with eye-catching dresses.
Gipps’ eventual solution was simple: she would set up her own ensemble. Having now moved back to London, the One Rehearsal Orchestra – later named the London Repertoire Orchestra – was designed to help musicians at the start of their careers to improve their sight-reading, addressing the common challenge of performing unfamiliar works at short notice. A very practical initiative, it was both an enabling role for musicians, but also for her – now she could finally conduct regularly. She led the orchestra for 31 years.
Further to this, when her husband came into an inheritance, Gipps was able to found the London Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961 – a professional body that later received Arts Council funding and performed with up-and-coming soloists, including a young Julian Lloyd Webber.
But running her own orchestras would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse. While it allowed her complete control, it also increasingly isolated her from mainstream musical life. Gipps’ concerts received relatively little attention from the press. A sad and damning illustration of this came in the 1980s, when the music critic Keith Potter mused on the fact he had never seen a review of her work as conductor or composer:
A full examination of the implications of this would very likely lead to a survey of the whole way our cultural scheme of things operates in this country […] whatever one’s conclusions about all this, it did seem time […] that one of us actually went to one of Gipps’ concerts.
Gipps’ work in conducting, teaching and music administration meant that her rate of composition slowed down, but her musical outlook remained resolute. She saw her art as a continuation of an English tradition of Vaughan Williams, Bliss and Walton, and she fiercely opposed all forms of musical modernism, which she considered a ‘conning of the public’. Like many composers at this time, she fell the wrong side of the more progressive focus of William Glock, the influential Head of Music at the BBC from 1959, and her music suffered as a result. Her tirades against the BBC’s position and their enormous centralised power can hardly have helped. But through her own orchestras she performed a wide range of overlooked repertoire, including music by fellow women Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams.
Today, a stark injustice is simply that so little of her music is able to be heard. What has been recorded shows that, while the ingredients are familiar, there is a powerful imagination and distinctive personality at work. Listening to the magnificent and moving fourth symphony, it is hard not to conclude that a man who had written this score would have had a complete box-set of symphonies released by now. Currently, only the single-movement no.2 has a modern commercial recording – a woeful state of affairs. I will make a rare prediction: awards are waiting to be won for whichever label is shrewd enough to give this piece a new start in life.
Despite her often brash personality, Gipps was known to be enormously generous and helpful to other musicians, and was admired for her courage, energy and integrity. Yet as a figure forced to be defined by her gender, her views on the position of women can seem contradictory. She campaigned against the ‘sex bar’ that prevented married women from playing in many orchestras into the 1960s. She refused to let motherhood hold back her career – a stance admittedly aided by the class privileges of nannies and boarding school. And yet she held very conservative views on sex and marriage, and emphatically distanced herself from feminism. It is particularly interesting that she composed a cantata setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market – an erotically suggestive fairytale of two sisters and their temptation by fruit-selling goblins. ‘Well into old age’, Halstead recalls, ‘her need to discuss sexuality was palpable, leaving the impression that it remained an unceasing source of fascination and anxiety.’
A consistent theme is that music, a steadfast force in her life, would always come first. Even so, one particularly startling fact stands out. Gipps freely admitted that she had only ever kissed her son once, and then by mistake. It occurred when he was a baby, and she momentarily thought that, like the little girl on the poster, she was holding her cat.
The thorny thickets of Gipps’ character seem to stand in contrast to the clarity, emotional appeal, and tenderness in her music. After her death in 1999, a poem was found among her belongings, typed on a scrap of paper. It speaks of a world-weariness, and a wish to be ‘Reincarnated in the sea / So deep that steamers passing by / Are fathoms over where I lie.’
The poems ends with an image of retreat unfamiliar to her gung-ho public persona: ‘A shell my homely habitation / A hermit crab my designation.’ Go in search of Ruth Gipps, and even when you find her, something hides away. Inevitably you are drawn back to that smiling prodigy, both applauded and bullied, gradually fencing herself in.
At age seven, Gipps would say, she learnt how to win respect from the boys at school. One day a boy pushed her to the floor, expecting her to cry. But she got back up, fists raised, ready to fight back. What sounds like a trivial account of a childhood horseplay has, Halstead notes, a kind of romantic symbolism of how she saw her life. Of how an extraordinary but isolated girl would compete in a world of men, aggressively navigating her own kind of Goblin Market.
‘I learnt that I, who was always the odd one out with girls, got on fine with boys’, Gipps said. ‘They very, very nearly accepted me as one of themselves’.
How’s your day? Not your social media whoo-hoo day, but your real, emotional, volatile, unpredictable, roller-coaster day? The one that causes you to take long, hard breaths when something doesn’t quite work out, the one that requires you to dig deep and find a bit more resilience. There cannot be many of us – musicians, writers, actors, artists – who have not lived through (or are still to experience) a patch of our artistic life where rejection features quite significantly. To survive as an artist, a young Sinead O’Connor once said, you need to have the delicacy of a feather and a core of steel. Too right.
‘No’ of course, comes in many forms. The unanswered email. The phone that doesn’t ring back. The stomach-lurching grant refusal letter. The face-to-face verbal feedback in an audition. The score returned to the composer. The harsh review. The scathing look in response to a passionate project pitch. When I was trying to get a place at a music conservatoire some 20 years ago, one college posted up names of those who had made it through to the final round. Around 200 hopeful 17 year olds (and their parents) crowded round that piece of A4 paper that revealed our fate. It would have made great reality TV.
The ‘brace-yourself’ clues are often there if you know what to look for. A grant rejection letter is thin and has a second class stamp. Its fat, first-class counterpart is the one you want. A cursory skim usually confirms the presence of the words ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unsuccessful’ in close proximity. But hang on…it says there was ‘an unprecedented number of applications and competition was very high’. I wait for the feelings of warmth and optimism to kick back in…except they don’t.
Is there any other way of saying ‘no’? Is there anything that the over-stretched administrator could have written that prevents our psyche from interpreting these well-mannered words as, ‘Dear applicant, your project sucks, love from The Funding People’. Feedback on the application might be constructive – a welcome spot of logic to ease injured feelings. But no funding body has the man-power to provide this level of individual response. The best rejection I ever had came from Sound & Music a few years ago. My project didn’t make it on to the scheme, but my ‘no’ email came with an offer of some free publicity and promotion of my event. That simple consolation gesture not only saved me a few quid on my marketing, but it also said ‘hey, your project doesn’t completely suck…and to prove it, we’ll get behind it and help promote it for you’.
But what does ‘no’ really mean? Is ‘no’ always an end-point or is it an obstacle to be overcome and a creative force?
Perhaps those of us who head up small organisations or are self-employed are at an advantage when faced with barriers; we can often scurry around these obstacles (financial, logistic, geographic, structural…) in our path like ants on the forest floor and we sometimes find a better route in the process. Temporarily scattered, we re-group, we-rejoin, the circles close up again. Most projects and organisations feature some ‘well, I didn’t quite see THAT coming…’ moments. Maybe, in fact, we need the injection of these surprises, these sudden turning points to keep our minds, our art, and our processes lively. In a culture that expects us have well-formed ‘right or wrong’ opinions, an obstacle can offer up the luxury to rethink, to understand better, to learn. And almost certainly provides an extra boost of adrenaline too.
Can obstacles themselves be creative forces? Certainly. In the 2003 film The Five Obstructions, Danish director Lars von Trier makes a deal with his mentor and idol, filmmaker Jørgen Leth. Trier asks Leth to remake one of his own films five times with a series of ever-more difficult obstructions (rules) that Leth must adhere to. Trier describes the Leth film as ‘a little gem we are now going to ruin’. His premise is a belief that ‘the greatest gift an actor can offer a director is to screw up’. Trier’s intention is for the obstructions to trip Leth up in order that Leth might unlock more of his own creative potential. The Five Obstructions is like watching Jørgen Leth’s own personal Room 101 unfold; each set of obstructions is more elaborate and challenging than the last, from ‘no set, no shot lasting longer than twelve frames’ through to filming in the ‘worst place in the world’ and finally (Leth’s personal horror) re-making the film as a cartoon. It’s a fascinating documentary-essay-film on the nature of artistic thought processes and encapsulates Leth’s can-do ability to find a new creative stride in this world of ‘no’s’. In an interview about the film, Leth stresses the importance of being receptive to accept obstacles: ‘There must be room for them and humility to receive them – the key word is open-ness’.
History is full of stories about artists who worked within severe restrictions, who persevered in the face of astonishing adversity, who proved their critics wrong (or at least stopped giving a hoot about what they thought). Of course, our knowledge and hence our culture is built upon the successes, upon what did happen. But I’m curious about what didn’t happen; all that was considered untenable, unfundable, undesirable at a particular moment in time. What might be done with these rejected ideas? It seems rather a missed opportunity to let them fall beside the wayside and slip away unnoticed and unheard.
To put the scope and scale of unrealised ideas into a mind-boggling context, look to the British Library where the UK’s national patent database is housed. Established in the mid 19th century, this is a collection of some fifty million patent specifications with another million added annually. For anyone with geek-ish Rowland Emmett tendencies (such as me) this database is a Wunderkammer of inspiration, a treasure trove of humanity’s response to historical concerns, delightful, shocking and poignant. With help, you could locate the patent for the ATM, the hovercraft, the cat’s-eye, the thermos flask. But most striking of all are the countless bright ideas in the collection that never got off the ground – quite literally in the case of British Rail who applied for a flying saucer patent in 1970 as an unrealised attempt to move into other methods of transport.
Rejected, unrealised ideas sit dormant in databanks, in notepads, in creative minds. In 2012, art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist devised the Agency of Unrealized Projects. The premise was to draw attention to unrealised artworks which were unnoticed or little-known. It was also a chance to explore ideas of partial expression, of incompleteness in art, the whisper of unfulfilled intention. The Agency of Unrealized Projects also highlighted a working practice common to many creative thinkers: that not all projects are intended to be completed and that there is great value in experiments and interesting ‘failures’. Some of the projects featured were rendered impossible due to the utopian or conceptual contexts needed to realise them. In the musical world, I think immediately of Varèse and his well-documented 1930s prophecies for electronic sound-projection and a future time when one could compose ‘symphonies in space’.
For Varèse, for thousands of ideas in the patent-bank and the Agency exhibition, that lack of a supportive context was often the crucial missing ingredient for success. What might commuter life be like today if British Rail had indeed pursued urban space travel in the 1970s? What if funding had not been withdrawn from Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower plans? Had they come to fruition, ‘magnifying transmitter’ towers could have provided free electricity and wireless communication as early as the 1920s. What would contemporary art have been like if New York had not embraced John Cage and Marcel Duchamp? What would 20th century music have been like if the spirit of the 1940s been less receptive to the fiery young Boulez and his revolt against his forefathers? Ideas blossom when they are presented at the right place and in the right time. They need a nurturing infrastructure to thrive.
Who drives the criteria for this infrastructure? We do. What society values in inventiveness will directly influence the kinds of innovation that it produces. As a direct extension of our work, I would strongly suggest that we – the creators – play a role in establishing that criteria for acceptance. If you like it, if you value it then support it and get excited about it. Want more funding for opera? Go to the opera and keep going to the opera. Want more support for new music? Programme it, talk about it, write about it. In one of my producer notebooks is a quietly unrealised ambition to curate a project all about quietly unrealised musical projects of the past. And now I’m interested in building an infrastructure for it to flourish in…replete with obstacles, obstructions, rejections and all.
Noted as ‘one of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now creates ‘Adventures in Sound’ with her own production company and chamber music ensemble. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.
Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is never enough for music. Sergei Rachmaninov
You might think that, because I have a music degree and I edit a classical music website, I would have an extensive knowledge of classical music.
In fact, there is a lot of repertoire – even by the most famous composers – that I have not heard. While I will improve on this over time, in truth not even a professional musician playing music every day can ever fully know such a vast tradition, one which spans centuries and to which new scores are constantly being added. To tweak the quotation by Rachmaninov above, a lifetime is not enough even for classical music.
Then consider the music I do know – what is meant by ‘knowing’? Take for example Beethoven’s eighth symphony. I have heard this piece at least twice in concert, and probably many times on CD or radio over the years. But at this very second, I could not hum you any of its themes. This is not the fault of Beethoven so much as my imperfect memory. I have a rough idea of its character and length, and through other works by Beethoven, I know what his music tends to sound like.
So in what sense do I really know Beethoven’s eighth? If I heard a performance, I would certainly recognise parts of it – the themes are lurking my head somewhere. Though if you mischievously told me that this music was from another plausible piece from the same period, I might believe you.
Music I have closely studied, or performed, may result in a different story. As anyone learning a foreign language knows, instant recall requires a lot more work than recognition. They are both forms of knowledge, but they are not the same.
But here’s the thing. If asked, I would say I know Beethoven’s eighth. Socially, this is simpler and it benefits me too – it projects authority. Admitting ignorance in an area you are invested in does not always come easily. From the knowledge-proud we hear the reluctant admission: ‘I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know this’, signifying that an oversight is not for want of trying.
There is something rather sad and futile about a shame of imperfect knowledge. Since a degree of ignorance is inevitable, should we not learn to make peace with this fact? Even while we cultivate knowledge, perhaps by embracing ignorance, and leaving shame behind, we can better understand what we know.
I know that I know nothing. The ‘Socratic Paradox’
The fear of beingignorant seems bound up in the ugliness of the word itself. The phrase ‘pig-ignorant’doubles the harshness – and is rather unfair, I think, on those charming and highly intelligent animals. And yet, as the pig contentedly wallows in the mud, there is the expression ‘ignorance is bliss’. We recognise that knowledge, even as it empowers, tends to complicate things.
In The Black Swan, Nassem Nicholas Taleb described the ‘antilibrary’ of the writer and scholar Umberto Eco. At over 30,000 books, Taleb argued that this collection was not a means of Eco putting his erudition on display, because for the dedicated pursuer of knowledge, the value is in having as many books that you haven’t read as possible.
Many people, myself included, have criticised classical concert programming for an over-reliance of a limited pool of familiar music. But would we want a concert series like the ‘antilibrary’, a constant stream of new discoveries and world premieres? You could argue that a narrow repertoire is a sensible response to an overwhelming avalanche of potential scores – that at least it allows audiences to develop a deep relationship with a certain set of pieces.
Part of understanding our knowledge is its multi-dimensional shape. With limited time available, how much do we pursue a broad scope, and how much a deep understanding of a particular field? This will have consequences on the patterns of our ignorance. But with the case of a musical canon, another question arises: what forces have constructed it, and what forms of power are involved in the processes of selection?
An example of such power can be found in a blog by Liz Garnett, which shows how through the 20th century, the Grove music dictionary – a standard scholarly reference text for classical music – ‘forgot’ women composers. By researching subsequent editions, she discovered how many women composers listed during their lifetimes would later disappear. ‘This was when I grasped, emotionally, that history isn’t a neutral collection of facts about the past’, Garnett writes, ‘but a collection of facts that people have actively selected. Or, in this case, deselected.’
The widespread ignorance of women composers is not only the fault of Grove; though it seems crazy now, I cannot recall being taught about any examples during my music degree. A few years ago I realised my ignorance on this topic and vowed to educate myself. It turned out there were many fantastic women composers I had never heard of, from all parts of history. Their forgetting is a particularly stark example of how cultural ignorance is developed, through all of the ways – many of them no doubt unconscious – that patriarchy operates within systems of authority.
Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit. J.S. Bach
From today’s standpoint, we might associate classical music with the values of The Enlightenment – reason, liberty, the cultivation of knowledge through science and exploration. But travel far back enough in history, and we find the origins of western music notation in the chants of the Medieval church.
It is ironic that one of the earliest composers still regularly performed is also one of the women least marginalised by classical music history: the 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a mystic who claimed to receive holy visions (less inspiringly, some have speculated that these may have been migraines). She was also a polymath: besides composing music, she was a writer on the human body and herbal remedies, she even invented her own mysterious ‘unknown language’, the Lingua Ignota.
The range of worldly and spiritual knowledge that Hildegard cultivated exemplifies the fallacy of the idea that there has been some eternal battle between science and religion, fact and faith. And through the expressive concentration of her music, and we can sense something of the worldview of her distant Abbey, where study and spirituality complemented each other in understanding God’s creation.
Mysticism derives from the Greek for ‘conceal’ – it is concerned with what can only be known by means outside normal perception. In contrast to the harshness of ‘pig-ignorant’, compare the gentle poetry of The Cloud Of Unknowing – a 14th-Century Christian mystical text of anonymous English source. The author contemplates the unknowable nature of God: ‘beat evermore’, one passage reads, ‘on this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and thy God with a sharp dart of longing love’.
It is a phrase that has provoked several musical responses, including a large-scale orchestral work by American composer John Luther Adams: Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing.
In a fascinating essay about his piece, Adams explains how the English text ‘has much in common with the teachings of contemplative traditions throughout the world’, whose essence he describes as ‘voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence far larger than ourselves.’ The aims of his response – to ‘consecrate a small time and space for extraordinary listening’ – are manifested in musical textures in which he ‘purposely tried to lose perspective’.
The relationship between ignorance and perspective can also be found in L’Infinto (‘The Infinite’) by the Italian poet Leopardi. The poem begins:
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
It isn’t hard to see a hedged-in hill as a metaphor for the limits of human experience. These lines were quoted by Edmund Rubbra above the score of the slow movement of his sixth symphony, whose music opens with a very musical ignorance – the elemental sound of bare ‘parallel fifths’, the crude mistake every student of classical harmony is taught to avoid. But with bold use of orchestral colours he, like Adams, takes us deep into the moment.
L’Infinito zooms in and out of perspective; from his lonely hill, Leopardi goes on to imagine ‘unending spaces /and superhuman silences / and depthless calm’. Rubbra’s music alternates between this mystical simplicity and a more learned style, with passages of flowering counterpoint. While Adams tried to lose perspective, Leopardi and Rubbra, in contemplating their smallness in a vast unknown, both seem to gain it.
A more ambivalent approach to mystery comes in Charles Ives’ short orchestral work The Unanswered Question. In an intriguing guide to the piece, Ives explained that slow string chords set out ‘The silence of the Druids -who know, see and hear nothing’. Beside this an atonal trumpet figure recurs throughout, ‘the perennial question of existence’, in response to which woodwind solos represent ‘fighting answerers’, who play at a different tempo, increasingly agitated, before giving in to futility.
The strings persist from beginning to end, indifferent to everything happening around them. Their quiet consonance is seductively soothing, but such unreal detachment is disconcerting, like the unchanging smile of a statue. The cares of foolish humans seem to simply pass as clouds in the sky. Nothing is resolved. In this short but radical work, the idea of knowing anything at all starts to feel worryingly absurd.
The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite. Felix Mendelssohn
Even as the culture of classical music values learning, literacy, and mastery through hard work, the intangible nature of music makes it highly effective at expressing the unknowable. But classical music has its own unanswered questions. What is a ‘masterpiece’, for instance? Through its elevation and frequent invocation, this word has its own kind of mystical ring to it.
Even as they abound in classical music culture, I find terms like ‘great’ and ‘masterpiece’ a little boastful, if not hopelessly vague. What are such assertions if not claims to authority and denial of doubt? They allow us to bypass the messy business of articulating precisely what it is about music we value, and why. Yet the wish to do so is understandable. Music is a slippery medium whose effect is hard to understand, but our deep feelings for it demand some kind of articulation.
Perhaps no amount of formal analysis, or scientific brain-imaging, will ever fully explain our felt response to music. Or, as Mendelssohn suggests, could it be that words, as a means of communicating understanding, are simply inadequate for the job? Perhaps an understanding beyond words is precisely the communication that music enables, perhaps it is that which makes it so special. From this viewpoint, we could see a score as a repository of unspoken knowledge, interacting with the physical understanding the musician has cultivated through years of practice; the many subtle instincts of manipulating sound, the unconscious recall of ‘muscle memory’.
One radical challenge to the cult of the scored-out masterpiece arrived with experiments in ‘indeterminate’ music, by composers such as John Cage. By using elements of chance to define musical events, this music made a shocking embrace with ignorance – the composer becoming the designer of a process, while abdicating total mastery over the result. It was an idea which foreshadowed that which computers have more recently facilitated: the creation of music by algorithms and so-called artificial intelligence.
The paradox here is that such systems are still the products of human design. If we choose to create music where we are ignorant of the outcome, then that may deliver interesting surprises. But in removing ourselves so far from the process of creation, it makes more explicit the question of what exactly we want music to be.
Of course, it is important to remember that western classical music is unusual for the degree it transmits musical knowledge through notation, and for the relatively marginal place it gives improvisation in its traditions – something many other musics of the world involve to a greater extent.
It would be easy to create a mystique around improvisation; the quip often attributed to Louis Armstrong – ‘if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know’ – has the pithy formulation of a Zen saying. But any competent improviser draws on a deep knowledge of musical modes, harmonic progressions, and expressive gestures as they play. It is a place where intellect and intuition meet.
Nonetheless, by definition the improviser cannot fully know what is about to unfold. While we might cherish scores for their clarity, improvisation makes no pretence about the ephemeral uniqueness of a performance. It is an honest reckoning with the state of music itself, as it existed for millennia before recordings – ever-changing, unrepeatable, quick to evaporate. Its own cloud of unknowing.
I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. Igor Stravinsky
Like me, you may have had the experience of taking a friend to hear a concert performance of music you adore, only to sense that – no matter how polite their comments afterwards – your response was clearly not shared.
On an intellectual level, the fact that music can affect people so differently ought to be one of the most fascinating things about it. But on a social and emotional level, it can be confounding and disappointing, particularly when the gap falls between a close relationship. We want people to share in our love for music, but if it is hard to sense precisely how it moves us, what hope is there to fathom its workings in others? So often the great communicator and unifier, music can also symbolise a troubling doubt – the thought that, alone in our heads, we might never fully connect with those around us.
Even so, it is surely how we respond to such confrontations with our limits that is more important than the fact itself. As we cultivate knowledge, it is important to remember that we inevitably sow the seeds of our own ignorance. Like Leopardi’s hedgerow, a dense body of detail will obscure a far horizon even as it fascinates us.
But by thinking about the ways that we learn, and the systems and powers bound up in this, we can contemplate what we might exclude, and what we may never be able to know. In doing so, we might arrive at a different place of understanding, one perhaps of a more cultivated ignorance. An ignorance not of shame or denial, but of better self-awareness.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
‘Pilgrymes are we alle’ (William Langland, Piers Plowman)
Most of the computers in our offices sport screensavers portraying distant lands and exotic destinations. Although it is hardly surprising that we yearn to escape our humdrum, everyday lives, I often wonder whether this reveals a more deep-seated and atavistic urge to travel; a suppressed legacy, perhaps, from our nomadic ancestors.
The world’s great religions certainly seem to have recognised Man’s wanderlust and given it a spiritual dimension. Indeed, the practice of ‘pilgrimage’ – what we may call a ‘holy journey’ – is encouraged in the major faiths. A pilgrimage is first of all an act of homage, having as its final destination a sacred place or shrine held dear by adherents to a particular religion. But the journey itself is deemed a prayer, a form of cleansing, a penance from sin. It is also metaphor for life itself, for the journey of our existence – il cammin della nostra vita – to paraphrase Dante.
In An Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin suggests that ‘travel began as pilgrimage’, singling out Islam as the religion which codifies this practice most systematically. In this article however, I will focus on pilgrimage in the Christian tradition and the influence it has had on Western music. As we shall see, in the Medieval period, well before the advent of mass tourism, holy journeys provided an impetus for far-flung travel, leading to cross-fertilization between different cultures. During their travels, pilgrims entertained themselves by telling stories and making music and, their journey completed, they sang hyms and sacred songs which expressed their simple yet profound faith. This led to the composition of new works and the compiling of some of the earliest surviving musical codices. Even when the practice of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation and the rise of the secular society, the concept of the ‘spiritual journey’ remained a potent metaphor and a source of inspiration to artists and composers.
Urbs beata Jerusalem – Journey to the Holy City
Christian Pilgrimage was encouraged by early Church Fathers such as Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Jerome (347-420) who, in his own extensive travels, visited Jerusalem and Galilee, eventually settling down and dying in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The places connected with the life and ministry of Jesus were the earliest pilgrim destinations – the first Christian ‘travelogue’, the Bordeaux Itinerary (named after the anonymous ‘Pilgrim of Bordeaux’ who penned it) describes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the years 333 and 334. Journeying to the Holy Land received a boost with the support of Constantine who, as the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, had imposing edifices constructed on sites which were already popular with early pilgrims. Thus, in Jerusalem, Constantine built a basilica on the site of the Crucifixion and a rotunda around the Holy Sepulchre and, in Bethlehem, he built another church over the cave reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
It is no coincidence that Jerusalem is dubbed the ‘Holy City’. Within its ancient walls, the claims of the three Abrahamic religions jostle, and pilgrims of these faiths congregate to see and touch the sites special to their respective traditions. Medieval maps show Jerusalem as the navel of the world, with Europe, Asia and Africa – the continents then known – pictured surrounding it. To this day, it is a city which holds its visitors in thrall. Just as ‘Stendhal’s syndrome’ explains people’s psychotic reaction to a surfeit of artistic beauty, so does the term ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ refer to the temporary religious mania which grips some otherwise level-headed individuals when visiting the city.
Jerusalem must have exercised a strong pull on believers for them to set out on the gruelling journey leading to its gates. If in the age of the global village, a trip to the Holy Land still presents challenges, just imagine what it must have meant in the Middle Ages. When the Roman Empire was still unifying the Mediterranean states, pilgrims were at least assured a common political rule throughout the countries they travelled through, but the road and sea journeys still involved daily dangers caused by weather, bandits and disease. Following the Christianisation of Hungary around 1000 CE a new land route became possible through the Balkans, Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria and then on to Palestine. Again, the trek was arduous, sometimes taking over a year and passing through countries with wildly different cultures.
In a joint recording for the Naxos label, early music outfits Ensemble Unicorn and Ensemble Oni Wytars, under their respective directors Marco Ambrosini and Michael Posch, recreate such a journey through an imaginative programme combining European art-song, Sufi music and traditional dances from the Balkans and Near East. The Holy City is evoked by a setting of the 8th century hymn Urbs Beata Jerusalem by Guillaime Dufay, where Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for the heavenly city glimpsed by St. John in the Book of Revelation.
The recording features Near and Middle Eastern instruments such as the oud and the chalumeau. In the Middle Ages, some of these instruments, which are still used in the traditional music of the area, were brought back to Europe from pilgrimages and Crusades, subsequently influencing the development of Western instruments.
Lonely Planet, Field of Stars
Those who could not make the journey to the Holy Land or were not in a position to pay somebody else to complete the trip on their behalf, could make do with a visit to a destination closer to home. In the Medieval period, faith was often given a very physical and ‘place-based’ expression. Thus, an area where a holy person lived and worked, or where a saint’s relics or remains were venerated, was considered as particularly holy. This led to a proliferation of shrines around Europe – some more famous than others. In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) famously uses a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury as a narrative frame device, implicitly highlighting the communal aspect of pilgrimages which brought together people from different classes and walks of life. Other ‘local’ shrines whose fame spread throughout Europe were the ‘Holy House’ at Walsingham in Norfolk, which became a major centre of pilgrimage in the 11th Century, and the shrine of the Three Magi at Cologne Cathedral (which Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ claims to have visited).
In the first half of the 9th Century, another European pilgrimage site emerged in Spain where Bishop Theodomar of Iria (d. 847) claimed to have found the remains of Saint James the Greater, one of the Apostles of Jesus. The discovery is shrouded in mystery and coloured by legend. It is said that on a clear night in the year 813, a magnificent shower of stars and the sound of an angelic choir drew the hermit Pelayo to a forgotten tomb in a field in Galicia. Amazed, Pelayo reported the matter to Theodomar who decided to investigate further. The field was dug, and a sarcophagus was found, together with an inscription identifying it as the resting place of ‘Jacobus, son of Zebedee and Salome’. Theodoric and Alfonso ‘The Chaste’, King of Asturias, had St. James declared patron of Spain. By 865, the area was already known as a site of peregrination, with early visitors reporting astounding miracles.
It often happened that initial enthusiasm about a miracle-working shrine waned after a few years or decades. However, the cult of Santiago de Compostela (or ‘Saint James of Campus Stellae – Field of Stars’) grew from strength to strength. A number of walking routes to the shrine (collectively known as El Camino or, the ‘Way to Santiago’) were developed, winding their way between monasteries and frugal inns and hostels. In La Vita Nova, Dante claimed that ‘none can be called a pilgrim save he who is journeying toward the sanctuary of St. James’ and in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia sings of a pilgrim’s ‘cockle hat and staff/and his sandal shoon’, a reference to the scallop shell often found on the shores of Galicia and adopted as a symbol for pilgrims to the shrine.
The growing importance of the cult of St. James is evidenced by the so-called Codex Calixtinus, or Compostellus, a collation of five volumes and two appendices kept at the Cathedral of Santiago which appear to have been compiled into one manuscript between 1138 and 1145. Purportedly prepared at the behest of Pope Callixtus II, its compiler is probably the French scholar Aymeric Picaud. The Codex presents a melange of legends, liturgical texts and a biography of Charlemagne but its strangest part is the fifth book, a sort of Medieval ‘Lonely Planet’ or ‘Rough Guide’ for pilgrims which shares with its modern counterparts the same impish sense of humour: ‘in this country there are evil toll keepers […] may they be utterly damned […] these people dress repulsively […] and eat with their hands’.
Of particular interest to musicologists however are Book I and the appendices. These include several musical works associated with the local liturgy of St. James, comprising music for the Mass (Missa Sancti Jacobi) and Office of the Saint, in which the pilgrims would have participated on their arrival. Whereas Book I presents the liturgy in monodic form, the appendices present around two dozen polyphonic settings, in which the original chant is decorated with a florid counterpount above it. One of the most famous and controversial of the pieces is the conductus (an early form of non-liturgical, sacred motet) Congaudeant Catholici. The manuscript provides two contrapuntal lines to the chant, leading some musicologists to claim that this is the earliest known example of three-part polyphony. Other scholars, such as Richard Taruskin, dismiss this, arguing that the contrapuntal lines are alternative and have been added at different times.
Incidentally, Congaudeant Catholici is also the first known musical piece whose source credits the composer – one ‘Magister Albertus Parisiensis’, cantor at Notre Dame. This is, in itself, an indication of the strong French influence on the Codex, also confirmed by the notation used, which is typical of central France. Clearly, it was not just the pilgrims who travelled – musical styles travelled with them. It is a journey which is musically reconstructed in The Pilgrimage to Santiago, a double album recorded by Philip Pickett with the New London Consort.
Pickett varies the programme with early music taken from other Medieval collections with strong cultural links to the Camino, including the Cantigas de Santa Maria (songs of praise to the Virgin compiled by Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’) and the Codex de las Huelgas found at a Cistercian convent in Burgos, on the way to Santiago:
Another codex from the same cultural period and milieu is the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat or ‘Red Book of Montserrat’, so named after the red cover in which it was bound in the 19th Century and the mountaintop monastery of the Virgin of Montserrat in Catalonia, where it is found to this day. Montserrat was itself a major pilgrimage site. The Llibre Vermell contains a Canconiero Musical with ten pieces of music which provide an interesting contrast with the Codex Calixtinus. Indeed, whereas the works in the St. James codex were meant for performance in a liturgical context, the Montserrat pieces were composed as a sort of sacred entertainment, giving the music an earthier traditional feel, as helpfully explained by the manuscript compiler:
Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.
The music of the Llibre Vermell has been widely recorded, including by Catalan early music superstar Jordi Savall, who intersperses the pieces with colourful improvisations aptly tinged by folk music:
I have also enjoyed a recent album issued on Brilliant Classics, in which the Llibre Vermell songs are presented in the context of a programme depicting ‘an imaginary coming together of pilgrims from various places, who meet en route and head to Montserrat to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve’.
All Roads Lead to Rome
After the Holy Land, Rome was the main destination for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Sites popular with pilgrims included the Scala Santa (or ‘Holy Stairs’), reputedly the steps leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ stood trial, and which, according to legend, were brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th century. The Roman-era catacombs were also a strong crowd-puller, a reminder of an age when Christianity was still an underground, persecuted faith. Traditionally, Medieval pilgrims to Rome also paid visits to Le Sette Chiese – or ‘seven pilgrim churches’. These were the four major Roman basilicas (St. Peter, San Paolo Fuori le Mura, St. John in Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore), San Lorenzo fuori le mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (with its relics of the Holy Cross) and San Sebastiano fuori le mura. The custom was subsequently revived and codified by St. Philip Neri in the 16th Century.
The popularity of Rome as a pilgrim destination meant that a number of routes leading to the city were developed. One of the most ancient and best-known ones was the Via Francigena, a route which led from Canterbury through France and Switzerland on to Italy. This route is first described in the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi of 725, a travel-diary of sorts kept by one Willibald, bishop in Bavaria and is first named as the Via Francigena in a parchment of 876 known as the Actum Clusio.
In 1299, thousands of believers converged on Rome at a time when Europe was being ravaged by famine and disease. This led Pope Boniface VIII to issue a bull declaring ‘the most full pardon of all their sins’, to those pilgrims who fulfilled certain conditions. 1300 was, in effect, the first Christian ‘Jubilee’, a periodical festival which would further entrench Rome as a leading pilgrimage destination. Among those who are recorded as pilgrims of that first Jubilee are Dante, Cimabue and Giotto. In later centuries it became customary for Jubilees to be marked by, amongst other events, celebratory concerts featuring premieres of major musical works. Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo by Emilio de’ Cavalieri (c. 1550-1602), often cited as the first oratorio, was performed in the Jubilee year of 1600 in the presence of over forty cardinals. The ‘Holy Year’ of 1700 witnessed new works by several composers then active in Rome – Mario Bianchelli, Pietro Paolo Bencini, Severo De Luco, Francesco Mancini, Carlo Cesarini and Francesco Grassi.
The Roman pilgrimage also inspired later composers. In Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser, the eponymous protagonist joins a band of pilgrims to Rome, to cleanse himself of the lustful excesses of the Venusberg. The Pilgrim’s Chorus – balm to the soul of Tannhäuser – is also a default choice in any self-respecting ‘best of … opera’ compilation.
The Jubilee pilgrims also make an appearance in Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem Feste Romane, where their steady march towards the Holy City is evoked through a reworking of the 12th Century German Easter hymn Christ is erstanden.
The Grand Tour – A Secular Pilgrimage
From the earliest times, ‘place pilgrimage’, that is, actual travel to a holy destination, was generally seen also as a symbol of ‘moral pilgrimage’ (the Christian’s journey to salvation) and ‘interior pilgrimage’ (inner spiritual growth). In the late Middle Ages, some writers started to be critical of the practice of place pilgrimage, questioning whether this was really conducive to moral and interior pilgrimage. The narrative poem Piers Plowman by William Langland (c. 1322 – c. 1386), considered one of the highlights of Medieval English literature, attacks pilgrims to Rome and Compostela as ‘liars and hypocrites’ and presents as the authentic pilgrim the Christian who lives a life of daily obedience and service to the community. The Reformation was in the air. In the 16th and 17th Century, following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and with Reformist zeal at its height, pilgrimage was one of the practices banned in Protestant states as ‘superstitious Popery’. As a result, pilgrimage sites in England and the Northern countries were suppressed or at the very least discouraged. This meant that whereas pilgrimage remained an important practice within the Catholic tradition, it more or less died out in Northern Europe. Apart from this, travel became more widespread and the centrality of ‘pilgrimage’ as a spur to cultural exchanged waned.
This notwithstanding, ‘pilgrimage’ remained a potent literary and cultural metaphor. Indeed, there are clear parallels between the concept of ‘pilgrimage’ and the ‘Grand Tour’ which became popular with upper class English and Northern European young men from the 17th Century onwards. The final destination of the Tour was generally Northern and Central Italy, particularly the cities of Venice, Rome and Naples, although more intrepid travellers went on to Southern Italy, Malta and even Greece. Significantly, the Roman leg of the tour, besides taking in the sites of Classical remains, generally included a visit to the Pilgrim Churches. The main element which the Grand Tour shared with the Christian notion of pilgrimage was the idea that travelling could be an edifying ‘rite of passage’, leading not only to knowledge but also, more importantly, to self-discovery.
This concept was particularly dear to Romantic authors. It is no coincidence that Lord Byron’s epic narrative (and autobiographical) poem about a melancholic young man who seeks distraction in foreign lands is named Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This work inspired Hector Berlioz’s Harold en Italie Op. 16, a four-movement symphony with viola obbligato which draws loosely on Byron’s poem and the memories of Berlioz’s own peregrinations in Abruzzo. Quite appropriately, in the second movement, Berlioz has his protagonist join a band of pilgrims on their march:
Another quintessentially Romantic figure, Franz Liszt wrote his piano cycles Années de pèlerinage as a diary of his travels. The title refers to Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman – or Pilgrimage – Years), but a number of the pieces in Book I (Premiere annee: Suisse) are prefaced by extracts from (again!) Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
One of the pieces in Liszt’s collection – Le mal du pays (Homesickness)– is an important plot element in a recent bestselling novel by Haruki Murakami whose title also references Liszt. Unsurprisingly, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimagedescribes a protagonist who sets out on a journey to come to terms with his past. Tsukuru is introduced to Liszt’s work through a recording by Lazar Berman (which actually exists and sold out soon after the novel was published):
Ralph Vaughan William’s lifelong quest
One of the major literary works inspired by the concept of a spiritual journey is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, sometimes referred to as the first English novel. It is the tale of a traveller called Christian, who sets off on an incident-laden journey from the City of Destuction to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion. This work fired the imagination of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who, time and time again, turned to Bunyan’s Christian allegory for inspiration.
Indeed, Vaughan Williams’s involvement with Bunyan’s text can itself be seen as a lifelong pilgrimage, one that would reach its culmination in the 1951 premiere of his opera ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ at Covent Garden. In a prologue, four acts and an epilogue, The Pilgrim’s Progress was in many ways the summation of the composer’s oeuvre, combining the folk-inspired simplicity of his Pastoral Symphony, the ecstatic mysticism of the Tallis Fantasia and the more angular and dissonant world of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies. Vaughan Williams preferred to call his work a ‘morality’ rather than an opera but was equally adamant that it should be performed in an opera house and not in a church setting, possibly to distance it from established religion. Similarly, he renamed Christian ‘Pilgrim’, universalising the work’s message. Unfortunately, The Pilgrim’sProgress has not managed to enter standard operatic repertoire. Hubert Foss, who contributed an enthusiastic essay-length review about the ‘morality’ in Music 1952 (an annual then published by Penguin), describes the audience’s perplexed reaction to the work:
At the end curtain […] the audience hardly dared to applaud – a bewildered but deeply moved audience. Vaughan Williams had (it was palpable over three hours of presence) transformed the Covent Garden theatre into a place of worship; the audience knew it, and was blushfully ashamed about what should be their new behaviour. A lady told me, after a later performance, that she thought at the closing curtain that she had been at a Church service. Listeners who have talked to me have recounted their enthralment – some a little shame-facedly, as if it were not respectable thing to be absorbed in one’s one home by a new and unconventional operatic production.
It seems that modern audiences are no less confounded by the ‘morality’s’ strange mix of the sacred and profane, as was evidenced in reviews to ENO’s recent revival. This is a pity, as it is a work which meant much to the composer and contained some of the his best music.
The journey which led to the 1951 premiere had a number of stations along the way. In 1906, for his edition of the English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams had set the Bunyan text To be a Pilgrim or He who would Valiant be to the Sussex folk melody known as Monk’s Gate. He would turn to Bunyan again for the motet Valiant for Truth.
More substantial Bunyan-themed works were the incidental music Vaughan Williams wrote in 1909 for a dramatic performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress at Reigate Priory (later expanded for a 1942 BBC production) and the ‘pastoral episode’ The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, for six soloists, chorus and small orchestra, which would be incorporated largely unchanged as Act IV, Scene 2 of the opera. However, the work which is possibly closest to The Pilgrim’s Progress in spirit and inspiration is Vaughan Williams’s fifth symphony. Written between 1938 and 1943, it draws heavily on music which the composer had already written for his operatic project. The third-movement Romanza, which strikes me as the emotional core of the work, uses themes which eventually resurface in Act 1, Scene 2. The score was originally headed by a line which is sung by Pilgrim in the opera: ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death’. The moving gravitas of the music seems worlds away from the self-declared ‘cheerful agnosticism’ of its composer.
The journey continues
Within the Catholic tradition, pilgrimage has never died out, with Marian destinations such as Lourdes and Fatima remaining particularly popular. However, past decades have seen a surprising resurgence of interest in the practice of pilgrimage in other quarters, and not just ‘religious’ ones. In an unexpected cultural shift, many young people – and not-so-young travellers as well – are rediscovering the Medieval routes and retracing them, in a bid to experience the spiritual fulfilment sought by early pilgrims. El Camino de Santiago was declared a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 1987 – the first in the Council’s history. From around a few thousand yearly visitors in the 1970s, the Camino now attracts a staggering quarter of a million pilgrims annually. In 1994, the Via Francigena was also designated a ‘Cultural Route’, with its status upped to ‘Major Cultural Route’ in 2004. In November 2009, on the initiative of the Region of Tuscany and with the cooperation of the Vatican’s Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the Italian Government announced a project to revive the Italian leg of the via ‘not only in spiritual and religious terms but also in terms of the environment, architecture, culture, history, wine and cuisine and sport’.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the British Pilgrimage Trust seeks to promote ancient pilgrims’ routes such as St. Hilda’s Way. Its website takes pains to distance itself from any particular religion, advocating a vaguely new-agey ‘bring-your-own-faith’ attitude. Yet, the advantages of spiritual travel which it lists on its website, including ‘rediscovering your relationship with self and nature’, the blessing of ‘companionship […] kindness, friendship and hospitality’ and ‘experiencing birth to death in a walk’ are goals which would have sounded familiar to the earliest pilgrims. It doesn’t stop here. Last month the UK National Lottery announced a funding of £399,000 to develop the Fife Pilgrims Way, a 70-mile route that will travel from Culross and South Queensferry to St. Andrews. On Easter Sunday, the 900th Anniversary of death of St. Magnus (known to many music-lovers through the works of Peter Maxwell Davies), a new pilgrimage route in his honour was launched in Orkney amid calls to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to recognise the role of pilgrimage in spiritual life, thus reversing centuries of hostility towards the practice.
Given this refound enthusiasm for the practice of pilgrimage, it is hardly surprising to find Arvo Pärt – possibly the best-known living composer of sacred music – writing a ‘Pilgrim’s Prayer’. What might be more unexpected (especially to those who consider Pärt a mere purveyor of meditative pieces) are the dark, dense textures of his Ein Wallfahrtslied. A setting of Psalm 121, it suggests the world-weary tread of the People of the Way, as much as the solace they seek.
A different sort of journey is provided by Andrew Norman’s virtuosic work for string trio The Companion Guide to Rome, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is inspired by the year spent by Norman in the Italian capital as a recipient of the Prix de Rome and it consists of an idiosyncratic itinerary of his nine favourite Roman churches. Admittedly, the work is closer in spirit to the secular Grand Tour than to a spiritual journey in the conventional sense. However, its arresting gestures and use of unconventional techniques effectively convey the sense of wide-eyed wonder evoked by the sacred spaces portrayed.
For me, the work which best represents the reawakening of interest in pilgrimage is Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. Talbot composed this choral a cappella work in 2005 for the vocal ensemble Tenebrae Choir. Their critically acclaimed recording has just been reissued, coupled with Footsteps, a companion piece by the young choral composer Owain Park, newly commissioned as part of the ensemble’s fifteenth anniversary celebrations.
Path of Miracles is a representation of the journey to Compostela, each movement portraying a major ‘stop’ on the route from Roncesvalles to Santiago, via Burgos and Léon. Talbot resorts to a panoply of influences and vocal effects, from techniques borrowed from the Taiwanese Bunun people to Medieval chant, from dense clusters to haunting ostinatos mirroring the onward trudge of the pilgrims. The libretto by Robert Dickinson is similarly wide-ranging, using texts from the Psalms, Roman Catholic liturgy and the Codex Calixtinus sung in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German. Its intriguing combination of the familiar and the innovative, and the way it expresses the rich vein of Medieval tradition through a 21st century language, will certainly strike a chord with contemporary pilgrims who set off on ancient paths, seeking answers handed down from a common, half-remembered past.
Joseph Camilleri is an amateur organist and occasional chorister. He regularly writes articles and programme notes to accompany concerts, opera productions and CD recordings. He has presented radio programmes on classical music and for a number of years served on the Board of Directors of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. When not musically occupied, he can often be found reading books, generally of the ghostly type. He tweets at @joecam79.
The word piobaireachd is literally the Gaelic for ‘pipe playing’ or ‘pipe music’. The term (often anglicised as ‘pibroch’) is now normally restricted, however, to the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is Ceòl Mòr, meaning the Big Music (that is, ‘art music’), which distinguishes piobaireachd from other forms of pipe music (marches, reels, jigs etc.) which are referred to as Ceòl Beag – the Little Music (‘light music’).
Bagpipes have been known in countries throughout the world, and are still used in folk music in many rural areas. We know of early bagpipes from depictions both in unsophisticated woodcuts and from classical paintings by the likes of Dürer and Breughel. But the origin of the emergence of the pipes is obscure, and old instruments in museums are difficult to date. At least one Scottish family (the Menzies Clan) claims to be in possession of instruments dating back to the fourteenth century – in this case the remnants of a pipe carried in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – but the claim is extremely unlikely to be true.
The traditional view is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was developed about 1600, but recent scholarship, particularly by Hugo Cheape, has called this into question, and has demonstrated the complexity of the historiography of the instrument. What is certain is that as early as 1760 Joseph Macdonald published his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, the first treatise/tutorial on the topic. The particular musical form piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr is highly stylised, often slow in tempo, and tends to celebrate famous figures or events in lament form. It is normally performed while the piper processes slowly, often in a circle in the open air, especially in piping competitions. The playing of piobaireachd is now followed with enthusiasm other parts of the world, especially in areas with close Scottish connections such as Glengarry and Guelph in Canada; British Columbia and other places in the USA; and in Australia and New Zealand.
Construction and sounds of the Great Highland Bagpipe
A set of Great Highland Bagpipes is constructed of four main parts: the blowstick, the bag, the chanter and three drones. The piper blows through the blowstick into the bag, filling it with a constant air supply. The bag is first filled by the piper before playing starts and is continuously refilled as it continues, thus allowing the piper to create continuous sound. The drones are tuneable, and each contains one reed. The chanter, also provided with a reed, produces the tune by the piper covering and releasing finger holes, rather as in a recorder. Owing to its construction, a bagpipe generates an unusual scale.
Technicalities, notation and structure of piobaireachd
There are a number of technical problems in the notation of piobaireachd, partly due to the characteristics of the instrument, but also because even a fairly strict interpretation of a tune almost always displays significant individual variations between pipers, particularly in the often highly complex ornamentation.
Tonality and notation
This deceptively simple basic bagpipe scale hides a number of difficulties. First, although the pitches of the drones and the tonic note on the chanter are referred to as ‘A’, they are actually much sharper than this on the modern Great Highland Bagpipe (indeed, higher than B♭). Measurements have shown that modern chanters tend to tune between 470 and 480Hz instead of the standard 440Hz. For this reason, tunes are sometimes written with a D or even an A key-signature containing the accidentals for the benefit of non-pipers trying to reconcile bagpipe tuning with conventional classical notations. Second, the pipe scale is far from equal temperament: the nine notes available on the chanter are fixed, but not in the same relationship as in classical, Western instruments, and there is even still some debate as to precisely what they should be.
The Campbell Canntaireachd
In the early 1800s the Highland Society of Scotland staged a competition to encourage the writing of piobaireachd on the stave. A number of pipers submitted proposals, but one competitor – Colin Campbell – came up with a radically different approach now known as the Campbell Canntaireachd [Gaelic for ‘chanting’]. His document, containing 168 tunes, was written in about 1797; instead of representing the music in staff notation, a form rather reminiscent of the sol-fa system was adopted – as if the tunes were being sung. Images of the tunes in the manuscript can be found on the Ceol Sean website. The story goes that Colin Campbell was taught (sung to) by his father Donald, who himself was a pupil of the piping dynasty the MacCrimmons. The distinguished piper and musicologist Barnaby Brown has reported his own experience with the canntaireachd technique in aninteresting projectsupported by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The following example is paraphrased from the Campbell Search website. The beginning of the tune called Lament for the Viscount of Dundee appears in handwritten manuscript canntaireachd form as below.
This is more easily read in the transcribed version:
Anyone learning this today from a teacher of piobaireachd, is likely to have the music written on the stave:
Note there are gracenotes which appear small, and some of these are meant to be longer than one might assume. For example the tiny E which is a gracenote at the very beginning of the line, might last up to half a second long, depending on the performer. A teacher of piobaireachd would sing the music to his/her pupil, using the canntaireachd syllables, to demonstrate how long these little notes should be.
The following figure shows three common types of such gracenotes.
From 1959 onwards a series of highly influential piobaireachd books was published by Roddy Ross called Binneas is Borereig [loosely translated as ‘Sweetness of the Pipes’], using a different notation format, probably closer to the real expression of the music. Bar lines and time signatures were omitted, to render the phrases more easily seen, and the long E notes at the beginning of tunes (such as in The Viscount of Dundee) were expressed as normal notes:
A classical piobaireachd tune starts with the ground/urlar, which usually follows a regular pattern – for example with three lines of music, the first two being six bars long, and the last line having only four. In the so-called ‘primary’ pattern, the ground is composed of two two-bar phrases, A and B, played in the following order:
There are, however, several other forms the ground can take.
Some modern musicologists have criticised the traditional, rather simplistic, urlar structure given above. Their approaches are too complex to be discussed further here, however, and require a good familiarity with piobaireachd; indeed, typically, hundreds of tunes were analysed in order to come up with the more elaborate schemes.
The initial urlar is followed by a number of formal variations, some of the most important are the taorluath (related to the Gaelic for ‘noble’ or ‘free’), and the crunluath (probably meaning ‘crowning movement’) which follows the taorluath in a piobaireachd tune. To complicate matters even further, each can be doubled, or exist in a number of sub-forms! Dublachadh, ‘doubling’, is a quicker version of a variation, played in strict tempo (comparable to the use of the term in a Baroque dance suite).
The ‘classical’ repertoire
The majority of the piobaireachd repertoire to this day consists of the ‘classical’ corpus of tunes, largely collected and printed in the 19th Century. The most important of these was Angus MacKay’s 1838 Collection Of Ancient Piobaireachd (illustrated below) although more recently some have questioned its historical and musicological accuracy. The National Library of Scotland holds many relevant manuscripts, easily found by searching for piobaireachd in the National Library of Scotland Manuscript Collections.
A useful fourfold classification of titles / themes is:
Salutes, laments, marches and gatherings
Names reflecting musical characteristics of the piece
Quotations from song lyrics, usually the opening words
In addition to MacKay’s book, a slightly earlier publication by Donald MacDonald (1820/1826) is the other major source; for reasons that remain obscure, serious collecting appears to have ceased soon afterwards.
One of the characteristic features of the piobaireachd repertoire is that, like many other musical traditions, great pride is shown by players in their ‘piping genealogy’ as a series of master-pupil relationships. Indeed, many, if not most, of the distinguished players of recent times trace their piping ancestry to the great piping families the Camerons, the MacPhersons and the MacCrimmons. (Again, however, Hugo Cheape has criticised this ‘tradition’.)
As is the case in many genres of highly-skilled traditional music,competitions play a large part in the social life, the maintenance of identity, and the education and training of piobaireachd players. The most prestigious of the piobaireachd competitions is probably the Northern Meeting, held in Inverness, but there are also many local competitions and performances at local and national Highland Games, as well as another celebrated national annual event in Oban and the North American Winter Storm gathering.
Competition rules have become stricter over the years, and are now characterised by (usually mandatory) repertoires, expert adjudication, and long preparation by the contestants.
Listening to piobaireachd
To the beginner, approaching piobaireachd as an art form is often problematic; it is certainly truer of piobaireachd than of many other genres that some knowledge of form and structure is vital.
The embedded video is a full performance of Donald Duaghal Mackay’s Lament played by the distinguished piper Roddy MacLeod at the Glenfiddich Championship of 2016 (the recording is introduced by some interesting remarks given by the Master of Ceremonies).
Experienced musicians may find the full score of interest. Such musicians will find this extract straightforward to follow initially (apart from a very different approach to the ornaments in the performance), but as the piece goes on it is easy to get lost even for those skilled in reading a score. There is no very obvious distinction between the various structural elements and melody, and ornaments are often difficult to disentangle (often modified by the performer); if one’s attention wanders it can thus be difficult to pick up the reading. For this reason, it is better for a novice interested in piobaireachd to be introduced to the art by attending an event, preferably with a knowledgeable companion, in order to experience the social context of piping performances as a whole. As with many other musical genres, listening to piobaireachd requires active engagement, rather than simply passive exposure.
By the beginning of the twentieth century piobaireachd was in decline: difficult, unfashionable, and often backward looking. The establishment of various specialist and interest-groups, however, such as the Piobaireachd Society (formed in 1903), and The College of Piping (founded a few decades later in 1944, and devoted to pipe bands as well as piobaireachd) played a vital role in putting the form on a sound musicological basis, thus ensuring the future of the genre. The original aims of the Piobaireachd Society were – and remain – clear and simple: ‘to encourage the study and playing of piobaireachd’. To this end, the Society has collected and published many important available piobaireachd manuscripts, and has a well-designed and comprehensive website including audio files, texts, images, and much else. While many documents and recordings are restricted to members, a significant proportion is freely available to users. Nevertheless, the Society is largely conservative, concerned above all with the preservation and editing of the classical piobaireachd tradition. Even the so-called piobaireachd ‘revisionist’ movement is concerned with re-interpreting such tunes in the light of rigorous modern research and scholarship.
Many younger pipers, however, have experimented with highly novel approaches, such as composing and playing music with a ‘fusion’ ethos or in unusual ensembles. For the latter, the tuning issues of the bagpipe must be addressed. If all the instruments can be appropriately re-tuned (predominantly strings) there is no problem. Barnaby Brown, Allan MacDonald and Matthew Welch are some names to watch, incorporating other genres such as jazz, eastern music, and so on.
Using a bagpipe with a whole range of orchestral instruments, however, is always problematic. Peter Maxwell Davies’s entertaining An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise is a case in point: the drones and chanter have to be tuned to a standard A of 440 Hz – that is, the pitch must be lowered by about a semitone, an enormous modification for a bagpipe. It is possible to buy a special chanter (expensive if used only for rare performances) or modify an old one (difficult except for music technicians). The resulting, modified, instrument feels and sounds very different, and depending on the auditorium and the position of the piper, it might be necessary to ‘lead’ the orchestra by a significant amount.
The more avant-garde and revisionist modern attempts, on the other hand, have not been universally well received in the piping community. Barnaby Brown has noted in a blogpost the absence of a review of the newly released and (in some quarters) widely admired Dastirum in Piping Times; when he queried this, the editor is said to have explained, ‘I don’t have a good word to say about it. It would lead people astray’ – in other words, it’s not ‘real piobaireachd’.
The bagpipe is one of the great cultural symbols of Scotland, known the world over and popularised by drum and pipe bands, the military connection, and the romanticised image of the ‘solitary piper’. In spite of such romanticisation, and the many myths surrounding the bagpipe, the classical music of piobaireachd is a complex and highly-developed art form, understood, performed, listened to, and appreciated by a small minority of Scots. Nevertheless, its circle of enthusiasts is probably greater than ever before, with societies large and small, and activities ranging from the most modest local events to the great piping meetings in Scotland, North America and the Antipodes.
Chris Bissell is about to retire from nearly four decades as an academic at the Open University, where he has taught mathematics and technology, and researched the sociology and history of these areas. He has also had a long-standing interest in music, and is currently a student of the Open University MA in Music. This essay derives from his Master’s studies; thanks are due to his tutor, Lucy Cradduck, for her perceptive comments.
For those of us who have learnt an instrument in the classical way, certain books of music often have a way of finding a special place in our affections. Those which contain a wealth of music we enjoy are revisited again and again, and left worn out with repetition.
If like me you studied piano, it might be Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, a two-volume set of the Beethoven sonatas, or a collection of Chopin’s waltzes. I have all of these and have enjoyed them in their turn. But there is another book, one I first encountered as a falling-apart old edition in my mother’s collection, that always fascinated me too.
The first version of The English Hymnal appeared in 1906. As an object it is something of a hefty brick, hard-backed and crammed with over 1000 thin pages. Held within is a collection of hymns spanning hundreds of years from many different choral traditions, even going as far back as plainchant.
To flick through these pages is to enter a rich world, one structured around the rhythms of the liturgical year. Each tune is given a name, often mysterious or evocative – Kingsfold, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Forest Green. In the older editions, the note engraving has its own archaic charm – with short stems, and wide voids on its semibreves looking almost handwritten, overlapping like little venn diagrams when two parts land on the same note.
The musical editor of The English Hymnal was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This task came at an early stage in his career, and he told the story of how it began with an unexpected visit:
It must have been in 1904 that I was sitting in my study in Barton Street, Westminster, when a cab drove up to the door and ‘Mr. Dearmer’ was announced. I just knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing room; but he had not come to me about tramps. He went straight to the point and asked me to edit the music of a hymn book. I protested that I knew very little about hymns but he explained that Cecil Sharp had suggested my name […] and the final clench was given when I understood that if I did not do the job it would be offered to a well-known Church musician with whose musical ideas I was much out of sympathy.
Percy Dearmer was a priest in Primrose Hill, and an avowed socialist with a passion for social justice. As the head of the committee overseeing the new hymn book, he told Vaughan Williams that his work would take about two months. In fact it would last two years:
The truth is that I determined to do the work thoroughly, and that, besides being a compendium of all the tunes of worth that were already in use, the book should, in addition, be a thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world – at all event all such as were compatible with the metres of the words for which I had to find tunes.
Inevitably, some tunes would need new words – Dearmer himself penned Holy God We Show Forth Here to fit a chorale from Wagner’s opera DerMeistersinger. In other cases, fine words required new tunes. Vaughan Williams composed his beautiful Down Ampney, his friend Gustav Holst contributed his much-loved arrangement of Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter,alongside music from other contemporary composers.
Altogether the hymnal contained melodies from across Europe and America. ‘No particular country, period, or school has been exclusively drawn upon to supply material’, Vaughan Williams wrote in the hymnal preface, ‘but an attempt has been made to include the best specimens of every style’.
However, at around this time Vaughan Williams was a leading figure in the British folk-song revival. His work involved traipsing through villages, cajoling older locals to sing him the country ballads that were fading from collective memory. ‘They will require a little persuasion’ he wrote of this delicate fieldwork, ‘and to be assured that they are not being laughed at’. The immersion in these songs went on to profoundly influence his own music.
Consequently, many of these folk melodies found their way into the hymnal, wherever appropriate words could be fitted to them. These became some of its now most familiar numbers: the christmas carol O Little Town Of Bethlehem was a pegged to a tune sung to him by a man in Surrey, while the rousing melody of He Who Would Valiant Be was provided by a woman in Sussex (its new words, from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, were bowdlerised by Dearmer to remove references to lions and hobgoblins).
The hymnal would therefore cross England’s deeply entrenched class divides, combining the songs of manual labourers with melodies blotted down by prestigious composers of the past like Thomas Tallis and J.S. Bach.
This diversity of material is one reason why the hymnal is so rewarding to delve into, though the sheer quantity also produces its biggest irritation – the thick spine is reluctant to stay open on a music stand without something to pin it down. To play these hymns offers tiny lessons in simple forms of musical construction: how a set of phrases can be put together, how harmony builds and releases tension, how different voices in the part writing provide movement. And with some at an endearingly humble eight bars long, there is a satisfaction gained from their simple completeness.
It is worth remembering how easily this book could have been different. A less committed stewardship of the project would have produced something that was functional but dull – after all, hymnody is particularly susceptible to the perils of the plodding dirge. It is a testament to the efforts Dearmer and Vaughan Williams expended that, whether obscure or familiar, these hymns are more often than not interesting.
One important factor was Vaughan Williams’ insistence, unlike earlier hymn arrangers, of not ironing out musical quirks:
The original rhythms of many of the old psalter tunes have also been restored, especially the long initial on the first syllable, which gives such a broad and dignified effect to these tunes. Attempts to adapt them to the procrustean bed of the nineteenth century hymn tune have merely taken away their character and made them appear dull. For the same reason no attempt has been made to square the irregular times of some tunes. These irregularities are always easy to sing by ear–and this is the way in which a hymn melody should be learnt.
Out of necessity, many of the hymns keep their arrangements simple. Chromatic harmonies are, for the most part, used sparingly and judiciously, making the lines more easily singable for amateur church choirs. A good example is It Is A Thing Most Wonderful, which allows the natural eloquence of the the beautiful folk tune Herongate shine through.
For the 17th-century German tune in Deck Myself, My Soul With Gladness, Vaughan Williams uses a few suspended notes in the lower parts to poignant effect.
At other times, the choir is instructed to sing in unison with the congregation, and Vaughan Williams provides greater intricacy to the hands of the organist. Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, another old German tune, is given a flowing accompaniment that unfurls mellifluously like a peal of bells.
A similar technique was used for Vaughan Williams’ own melody in his processional hymn For All The Saints, its verses alternating between unison singing over a marching organ part, and softer four-part choral writing.In both cases the loving craftsmanship casts the melody as the backbone of a more ornately beautiful texture – the unison passages from the choir adding extra force to the majesty of the melody.
The long process of poring over these hymns left a lasting impression on Vaughan Williams, echoed in subsequent works like his famous Tallis Fantasia, and his beautiful organ prelude on the Welsh hymn Rhosymedre. Nor would his collaboration with Dearmer end there. He was involved with the 1925 book Songs Of Praise, which drew heavily on The English Hymnal with the added intention of being more suitable for schools. An updated edition of the original book appeared in 1933.
‘The music is intended to be essentially congregational in character’, Vaughan Williams began his 1906 preface, ‘and this end has been kept in view both in the choice of tunes and in the manner of setting them out’. It is a book written for mass participation, not just for those who can read the notes. In putting the needs of church choirs and organists second, he offers a pre-emptive and amusingly forthright reproach to any dissenting voices:
The choir have their opportunity elsewhere, but in the hymn they must give way to the congregation, and it is a great mistake to suppose that the result will be inartistic. A large body of voices singing together makes a distinctly artistic effect, though that of each individual voice might be the opposite. And it may be added that a desire to parade a trained choir often accompanies a debased musical taste.
Today England is a more secular country than it was in 1906. For those like myself who are not church-goers, the relevance of hymns is different. They may not play a regular role in our lives, but like our parish churches they point to a beautiful and meaningful part of our history, one we wouldn’t want to lose altogether either.
What music today might we think of as being ‘essentially congregational in character’? It is one of those peculiarities of modern life that an audience is more likely to sing at a football match than at a classical concert. At pop and rock gigs, audience participation is often compulsive and unstoppable. Classical music is different: there is a distinctive value of collective stillness in listening to high-calibre musicians, and the concentration and attentiveness that involves.
Nonetheless, it is surely inarguable that singing together is one of the most instantly powerful bonding experiences that music can provide. Is it a coincidence that the most famous classical tradition in Britain, the last night of the Proms, culminates in a singalong? Yet it is precisely this that makes it eccentric and exceptional. I am not nostalgic for some golden age of church-going, if such a thing ever existed. But playing through The English Hymnal does make me ponder why there are not more opportunities for audiences to sing together, in our rather restrained art form. Vaughan Williams himself was not a man of faith. It was not belief that made his work a success, but understanding the human value of collective song, something which ultimately transcends religion.
It is easy to take books like The English Hymnal for granted. It can seem too mundane and commonplace to feel valuable – hymns are an unsexy topic, and the idea of creativity by committee doubly so. And yet through Vaughan Williams’ whole career, has anything else he did seeped into as many ordinary lives through a century of church services and school assemblies? To put aside the romantic idea of art as individual expression – and consider it as a civic act – his musical editorship of The English Hymnal, and its subsequent iterations,is arguably his most important achievement of all.
Importantly, it is also a model of inclusive, progressive Englishness, one which nurtures native heritage while casting its gaze wide abroad. It is not a window into the past but into many different pasts, brought together in an attempt to create a better future. ‘Is it not worth while making a vigorous effort to-day for the sake of establishing a good tradition?’, Vaughan Williams wrote. The book is bound with this simple idealism – that common worship can be more enriching, beautiful and dignified.
‘We have endeavoured to produce a book that shall suit the needs of learned and simple alike’, Dearmer says in his introduction, ‘and shall at the same time exhibit the characteristic virtue of hymnody – its witness, namely, to the act that in the worship of God Christians are drawn the closer together as they are drawn more closely to the one Lord.’
Whether singing these wonderful hymns, or fumbling through them at a piano, the lesson of this book is not just about how to craft music in a highly distilled form. It’s also in intent. To absorb the meaning of The English Hymnal is to ask the question of for what – and for whom – we compose at all.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
In 1965, a letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph from the concert pianist Harriet Cohen. She was writing about the programming of the BBC Proms, and recalling how one composer had been neglected at the festival in recent decades.
I, in company with dozens of people all over the country, consider it a grave wrong […] to have omitted ever since Sir Henry Wood’s death (so far as I remember) the yearly performances of the Third Symphony – played to packed houses and to scenes of incredible enthusiasm – that took place under the masterly and loving baton of Sir Henry, who told me, as did Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, that the work was one of his favourite modern symphonies.
Cohen was born in 1895, the same year that the Proms were founded. The composer of this symphony was a man she had met when she was a bright teenage talent at the Royal Academy of Music, way back in the 1910s. A married man twelve years her senior, their friendship would develop into a passionate love affair, and a fertile artistic partnership lasting for forty years. His name was Arnold Bax.
Bax’s third symphony was premiered by Henry Wood in March 1930, and under him it went on to be an enormous success. By 1942 he had conducted it at the Proms no fewer than eight times, and taken it abroad to Zurich, Rome, and Los Angeles. Its second movement was heard at the 1937 coronation of King George VI.
The story of Bax’s third symphony is one of music’s ephemeral power. How it can light up a moment in time, and linger long the memory of those it captivates. How its fire, if left untended, turns to embers and ash.
The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to the Scottish port of Mallaig. It is widely considered one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. This is just as well, as even today a train takes five hours to complete the route. The penultimate stop is the tiny village of Morar, near a beach of silver sand and views of the islands of Rhum and Eigg.
Here in December 1928, Bax came to orchestrate a new symphony in the quietness of the Highland winter. As his train wound its way along the so-called ‘Iron Road To The Isles’, the short score he carried with him was inscribed with a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
My wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; upon barren stones she brought forth her young.
Bax had an intense affinity for dramatic, ancient landscapes. As a young man, he had fallen in love with the poetry of W.B. Yeats, which sparked an infatuation with Ireland, particularly its rugged west coast. It would lead him to spend ‘more and more time alone in places lorded by the Atlantic and the dream-light of old tradition’.
The early poems of Yeats also fired Bax’s fascination with legend and mythology. ‘The sagas and dark winters of the north’, he later conceded, might have subconsciously influenced this symphony. There is always a sense that a hidden story runs through his music, and this is often reflected in his titles. The work he composed immediately after the third symphony would be called Winter Legends.
The narrative of the symphony is a complex, twisting one. Like the journey to Morar, Bax’s music is not just about reaching a destination, but also the variety of fleeting vistas along the way, the glimpses we are offered, however briefly, into other worlds.
Four notes – A, B flat, C sharp, D – are the puzzle that this symphony repeatedly tries to solve. We first hear a solo bassoon, rocking back and forth along this angular shape. Other woodwinds join in with harp, weaving a dense counterpoint in which key and pulse are both ambiguous. If the music evokes an ancient saga, this could be its untamed setting, a primordial woodland in sound.
The minor-third interval at the centre of this motif is a key driver in the music’s shifting moods – by turns it is mournful, mischievous, and mocking. What follows quickly escalates into a thrillingly vivid dance – savage repeated rhythms, lunging figures in the bass, and our four notes now a manic mantra in the violins.
And yet at the heart of this movement lies a wide pool of slow music. Bax introduces a romantic string melody, richly harmonised, but in a revealing detail asks that it is played con sordini: with mutes. As if shrouded in mist, we cannot fully fathom this place. It must remain half-unknown.
‘BAX’S MASTERPIECE’, proclaimed the Daily Mail. ‘An impressive outpouring of wild and melancholy music, sustained in a world of legend that is all his own […] the composer’s triumph is to keep us so engrossed in the strange, mysterious scenery that we hardly ask where he is or whither going.’
At the time of its writing, Bax was in his mid forties. He was at the height of his fame as a composer, admired at home and abroad. Cohen, who had been his lover for over ten years, was becoming one of the most celebrated pianists of her day, performing Bax’s music all over Europe.
Their relationship was passionate and turbulent, dogged by periods of insecurity. It was also an open secret in musical circles – Vaughan Williams, who was a friend to them both, was once greatly amused to find Cohen listed in a musical dictionary as ‘See under Bax’.
Bax’s family wealth meant that he had a private income. It afforded him a life of enviable freedom, in which he could travel and compose whatever he wanted, without seeking paid employment. It also enabled him to support various love interests throughout his life. These included Harriet Cohen, and but also his wife, Elsa.
It was Elsa whom Bax forsook for Cohen in 1918, financially supported with their two children, but emotionally abandoned. As Lewis Foreman puts it in his book Bax: A Composer And His Times, ‘Bax was not a married man by nature, but a nomad, and the encumbrances of married life stifled his free spirit’.
It would be easy to pass by Elsa. She is a mostly hidden figure, as Cohen insisted that Bax destroy her letters to him. But one letter does survive, in which she pours out her anguish and bewilderment to a friend, shortly after the separation. It gives us a poignant insight into the emotional wreckage of Bax’s affair, and her self-deluding optimism that he might come back:
To me, marriage always was the most sacred thing on earth, so much so, that once married nothing would justify a breaking of the word & promise given, and if one’s life partner turned out the most terrible bargain on earth, it is still up to one to be faithful and helpful in every way – that alone makes me act as I do – waiting until the return.
For Bax, the arrival of Cohen inspired an intense burst of creativity. In 1917, his passion for her shone with ecstatic splendour in his tone poem Tintagel, while the inner conflict he felt with his domestic commitments is thrashed out to exhaustion in the stormy November Woods.
‘She came at a most difficult period when all ideals seemed slipping,’ Bax wrote that year, ‘and now this that has happened has set them like fixed stars in the sky to burn for ever through what ever dangers and troubles may come’.
But with Bax’s nomadic lifestyle and Cohen’s performance schedule, their relationship would have to be played out through snatched periods together. Letters filled the gaps, and these now give us a precious insight into their romance. They are often passionate, sometimes erotic, and show they were both jealously possessive of the other. This is in spite of the fact that they both pursued other lovers – or maybe, precisely because of it.
In the mid 1920s, Cohen contracted a particularly virulent strain of tuberculosis. Bax paid for her to have a pioneering new treatment, which involved long stays in Geneva. This was a testing time, in which he fretted over the many admirers she was collecting.
‘Every man I meet seems to have fallen in love with me here,’ she wrote, teasing him. ‘I assure you I have had a very difficult time – they won’t believe in my mythical ‘fiancé’ in London. Is it true that I have got a marvellous figure? It’s all yours by the way.’
But it was also around the time of this long absence that Bax began an affair with a young woman called Mary Gleaves. It would be a relationship that had untold consequences for him and Cohen more than twenty years later.
A short walk inland from Morar village lies the western edge of Loch Morar. Dotted with forested islands near its shore, it stretches like a thin finger along a secluded valley for eleven miles. It is the deepest body of freshwater in Britain.
In February 1929 Bax wrote to Cohen:
This place is most enchanting when it is fine as it was this afternoon. I went down to the loch, and the silence and peace simply flooded me all through. It is impossible to feel disturbed about anything in such a place.
The second movement of the symphony seems to drink deep from this stillness. Here Bax achieved one of his most beguilingly gorgeous pieces of orchestration. A dim opening leads us through to an enchanted paradise, with glowing woodwind and brass, tinkling celesta, and lush divided strings. In the words of Colin Scott-Sutherland, it is like ‘a pristine world gradually illuminated by the first fingering beams of the morning’.
And yet, a bitter-sweet regret soon cuts across the landscape like a cold wind.
On the very same day that Bax visited the loch, Cohen was wowing Berlin on a European tour. There, she had the honour of an invitation to meet Albert Einstein and his wife at their apartment.
‘You are incandescent,’ the physicist told her, ‘you have a light within.’
Few days better illustrate the divergence of their lives, and the contrast of their personalities. Bax was a respected artist, but Cohen was a star. Not only a brilliant musician, she was a socialite with a seemingly magnetic attraction, one that drew in some of the most illustrious men of her day. As Helen Fry reveals in her biography, towards the end of the 1920sCohen embarked on ‘a series of sexual liaisons’, though quite how many is impossible to say. She certainly kept close relationships with many men, including the author H.G. Wells, Daily Express proprietor Max Beaverbrook, and even Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
It is some testament to Cohen’s allure that she inspired several novels by those she knew. D.H. Lawrence had been an early admirer, and the character Harriet in Kangaroo may have been partly based on her. Around the time of the third symphony, Harriet Hume by Rebecca West told the story of a young pianist and a corrupt politician. The writer William Gerhardie, who definitely did have an affair with Cohen, used extracts from real letters between them in his novel Pending Heaven.
None of this glamour, of course, should distract from her musicianship. Major composers of the day composed for Cohen. Her repertoire encompassed music from Russia to Spain, and she was one of the first pianists to promote early English keyboard pieces. Her Bach was, for many, considered peerless. More impressive still is that she achieved this with a small hand span of barely an octave.
But her public role did not end at the applause. In the 1930s, she used her profile to lobby on behalf of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. In 1934, this cause would lead to a reunion with Einstein. Having since fled to America, it was he who played the violin with her on stage in New York, as they took part in a fundraising concert.
‘It is the best thing that Mr. Bax has given us so far’, announced the Daily Telegraph, ‘and, surely, one of the best things our contemporaries have produced’.
‘I was very delighted that the Symphony was so much appreciated,’ Bax wrote to his brother Clifford, ‘and somewhat taken aback at its strangely uproarious reception’.
‘We are very proud of him’, Henry Wood later said. ‘His brilliancy and even his complexity are alluring, and his output is staggering’.
Bax’s third symphony would go on to be admired by Rachmaninov and Sibelius. According to Cohen, the Finn once described him as ‘my son in music’, though it was a son he would outlive.
However, not everyone was completely won over. ‘I enjoyed the Bax’, noted the 16-year-old Benjamin Britten in his diary, ‘but didn’t understand it’.
The peace of Loch Morar is dispelled with a smash of a gong and a series of strident string chords. The third and final movement returns us to frenetic action, and a marching theme takes up the mischievous minor thirds. But there is a sense of optimism, even touches of sardonic humour in the story now.
With a triumphant brass climax, we sense an arc towards a blazing major-key close. But we are hoodwinked. It immediately starts to fade away, and a violin line slowly rises, as if vanishing up to heaven. We will not get to see the heroic endpoint of this saga, rather what Bax reveals to us requires another literary term, one that puts everything we have heard so far into sudden perspective.
There was a precedent for having an ‘epilogue’ in music. Vaughan Williams had drawn on that description for his London Symphony. Bax had been at its premiere in 1914, and the older composer even asked for his advice on a passage that had disappointed him. Bax persuaded him to add an oboe counter melody. The favour was returned at the time of the third symphony, with Vaughan Williams’ suggestion that Bax extend the abrupt ending of the first movement.
On paper, Bax’s epilogue looks simplistic, crude even. Low chords of C, D minor, and E minor repeat, each with a C and E over the top. A long high G emerges, cascading down the scale as a gentle melody.
But notation can never describe the magic of music, it merely offers us dark words with which to cast its spell. In Bax’s hands, these disarmingly simple gestures become something confoundingly beautiful.
As Foreman puts it, the chords in the strings and harp arrive ‘as if they have been going on for ever, but have only just come into our hearing’. The blend of unison woodwinds in the melody beckons us, like some far-off instrument not quite of our time. Meanwhile, the consoling loveliness of these shapes is gently disturbed by a low rumble, murmured half-thoughts in the music’s sleepy rhythm.
Vaughan Williams’ connection to this symphony has its own after-story. He so admired the epilogue that when he completed his piano concerto in 1931, he tucked away a brief quotation from it near the very end of his score. Naturally, Cohen was to perform this work. Vaughan Williams told her to play this passage ‘quite slow and very far off like a dream’.
But he later had a change of heart. This quotation was ‘a mistake for public performance’. The significance of this music was clearly personal for him. Quite what it meant is unclear. But an intriguing note lies beside these bars in the original score. It reads: ‘according to my promise’.
It was in 1944 that the symphony’s fortunes turned. That year, Bax’s music was wrapped up a Proms season that seemed to be strangely cursed.
It was wartime, and London was facing the new threat of ‘doodlebugs’ – V1 flying bombs. During a performance of Bax’s violin concerto, a doodlebug approach gradually became audible in the Albert Hall. By one account, the audience heard its engine cut out. The soloist, Eda Kersey, continued playing, ‘apparently oblivious to the fact that one ton of explosive was somewhat overhead. No one in the audience moved. It was a long wait. Then, at last, there came the muffled roar of the explosion’.
The next day, the BBC closed the venue for the rest of the season. It was a sad turn of events in the Proms’ 50th Jubilee year, and it thwarted a scheduled performance of the third symphony. But that summer would become sadder still. Eda Kersey died of cancer just two weeks after her performance, aged only 40. Then a month later came the passing of Sir Henry Wood himself. He had co-founded the Proms, and conducted its every season for nearly half a century.
With Wood’s death, this symphony’s great champion was vanquished. To this day, over 70 years on, Bax’s third has not been heard at the festival since.
It is therefore fitting that, in the very same year, the first recording of the symphony was released, conducted by John Barbirolli. 1944 marks the turning point towards this music’s modern fate: a creature beautifully preserved in amber, but never glimpsed in the wild. A collector’s curiosity, starved of the breath of life.
For now, this symphony remains the music that time forgot. Music which, through its own inspiration, chooses to forget time.
Elsa died in 1947. And in death, Bax’s wife would strike a final blow against his betrayal. Throughout their separation, her refusal to divorce had become convenient, effectively excusing him from any future commitments. He did not dare tell Cohen that he was a now a widower.
But such matters cannot be withheld forever. The following year, Cohen was recording Bax’s score for the David Lean film Oliver Twist, and over this period she discovered that Elsa’s will had been published.
‘All she wanted was to be Lady Bax’, Cohen’s sister would later say. But Bax was in no mind to remarry. Under pressure from Cohen, and possibly in the heat of an argument, he finally revealed his continuing affair with Mary Gleaves.
In the long saga of their love, they had both been unfaithful. But his rejection of marriage, combined with the revelation of a twenty-year mistress, must have been devastating. At some point in the following two weeks, Cohen severed an artery and damaged tendons in her right hand. She spent several days in hospital, and received nine stitches to her wrist. It was a terrible injury for a pianist, one her career would never fully recover from.
The cause was reported to be an accident while carrying a tray of glasses. In her biography, Fry pours some scepticism over this claim. We may never know if this injury was an act of self-harm – a cry for help, or even a suicide attempt. But you would expect that any accident so brutally damaging to Cohen’s craft would be mentioned in her memoir, A Bundle Of Time. Instead, there is silence.
It is unlikely that Bax wanted to hurt either women – from his letters, it seems, he loved them both. But a lifetime of duplicity and evasion had led to this juncture. Cohen’s injury would eventually heal, though her best playing days were now over. In the mean time, with one hand incapacitated, Bax composed her a Left-Hand Concertante for piano and orchestra.
A few months after her injury, Cohen wrote to Bax. She was still angry, and like all his betrayals, would never let him forget. But now she laid her cards on the table. She was nearly fifty three, and had loved him for over thirty years.
I’ve come to the conclusion that only complete happiness will make me well. It is all in your hands – all of me is in your hands – my life, and my future […] And you? Are you going to make an honest woman of me at last my precious? […] Perhaps everything had to happen to show you just how much you love me – & how awful a blank should you lose me. You never will, my love. I just won’t let go. Never will I go.
On some level, she must have known her plea for marriage would be futile. But she never did let go. And neither did he.
It was in keeping with Bax’s wishes that, in 1953, he died while visiting his beloved Ireland. In Dublin, he heardthe music professor Aloys Fleischmann conduct a concert of his music. Unknowingly, it became a final tribute to two great forces in his creative life. The orchestra performed the early tone poem The Garden of Fand, perhaps the most passionate flowering of his youthful love affair with that country. And Cohen was there too, playing his Left-hand Concertante, a testament to the strangely unshakable bond they had forged across four decades.
That weekend, Bax was staying with Fleischmann in Cork. He was driven out to a local beauty spot on the coast, the Old Head of Kinsale. By the account of Fleischmann’s mother Tilly, he witnessed the most glorious sunset over the Atlantic – Fand’s garden itself. ‘The whole sky was ablaze with colour of every possible hue; red, deep orange, yellow and far away on the horizon, there was a pale blue mist. Arnold was lost gazing at it.’
In the evening, Bax fell ill. A doctor was called, but by 10pm he had suffered coronary thrombosis and pulmonary edema. He was gone.
‘I can’t grow up and long for home and children and settled things,’ Bax once wrote. Throughout his life, he retained a streak of restless, wide-eyed adolescence. It formed a wellspring of his art, one he channelled into music of incredible richness and beauty of expression. But it is also there, swirling in those currents, that we can sense a source of his personal shortcomings.
Cohen died two years after her letter to the Daily Telegraph, in 1967. In many ways she had led the more extraordinary life – a woman of brilliance, determination and enormous accomplishment. It was never quite clear how this extrovert force of nature became so inextricably entangled with Bax, the introspective dreamer. Perhaps it is something they never fully understood themselves.
‘I received two tremendous moral lessons from great men in those months,’ Cohen recalled in her memoir, about the period of the third symphony. The cellist Pablo Casals left her speechless when he described how he practiced as if he would live to be five hundred. ‘Those few words affected my whole life: the wavering flame in me was rekindled and I never doubted or flagged again’.
The other was from Einstein, on that February day when Bax was walking beside Loch Morar, the place where the waters lie deepest. As she left the great scientist’s apartment and stepped into the cold Berlin air, he shared with her a favourite saying by Lessing. ‘The search for truth is more precious than its possession’.
Some puzzles in this story must remain unsolved. Who knows when Bax came across the Nietzsche quotation, buried near the end of a chapter in his mysterious screed? Who knows on what level it spoke to him, or why he left it out of the full score of the symphony. In that part of the book, Zarathustratells us of his Wild Wisdom, his lioness. It continues:
Now she runs foolishly through the harsh desert and seeks gentle turf – my old wild wisdom. Upon your hearts’ gentle turf, my friends, upon your love she would bed her most dearly beloved.
In the middle of Bax’s epilogue, our four-note motif returns. An eerie haze of tremolo strings and muted brass, it sounds like a distant memory, one whose meaning we can no longer quite remember.
But in the very last bars of the symphony, it builds to a deep brass rumble. Only now, with a twist of harmony, this figure melts into a radiant C major triad. In the music’s dying breath, its tortured shape has, at last, found its resolution.
The final C chord is lit up by woodwinds and harp, recalling that wild forest where our journey began. It hangs there, gently glowing. An island of perfect peace, forever beyond our reach.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
With special thanks to Graham Parlett for his help with this article.
‘DO, a deer, a female deer, RE, a drop of golden sun’, sings Maria in a well-known song from The Sound Of Music. In doing so she teaches the von Trapp children about the notes of the major scale, through puns on the Solfège system. This proceeds well enough until LA, which lacks a suitable wordplay partner and merely becomes ‘a note to follow SO’. But there is a more subtle pun hiding at the end, one only recently pointed out to me. After ‘TI, a drink with jam and bread’, we have ‘that will bring us back to DO’ (dough).
Puns or no puns, to learn about distinct notes is normally one of our first encounters with music theory. The idea that the frequency of a sound wave can be segmented into pitches, and into pitch classes which recur in different octaves, is a fundamental starting point. In the film, Julie Andrews’ Maria has the von Trapp offspring scampering up a set of steps as they sing the scale.
This is an appropriate metaphor, as ‘scale’ derives from the the Latin scala, a ladder or staircase. The rungs of this ladder let us navigate any number of musical journeys. They are plainly visible in the lines of a musical stave, and in the bodywork of our instruments – the keys on a piano, the frets on a guitar, the holes in a recorder.
When Orsino in Twelfth Night recalls ‘that strain again, it had a dying fall’ he alludes to the remarkable fact – one easy to forget – that we can hear a series of these discrete pitches and ‘join the dots’ in our head. We can perceive a melodic contour, and grasp the story within it, out of a stream of entirely separate musical moments.
But the human voice has no in-built divisions of pitch, and some instruments also defy these segmentations. The trombone has its famously sardonic slide. The violin family (including violas, cellos and basses) allow the player’s finger border-free travel. To slide between notes is called a glissando, from the French glisser, to slip or glide. Some instruments, like the piano, can only approximate this effect with an extravagant sweep. The harp is well known for creating a mesmerising sound this way, but it is merely a flurry of notes in rapid succession.
Despite all these capabilities, the role of glissandi has for a long time been rather limited in western classical music. Opera singers might use portamento, a short expressive slide between two notes, though too much could be considered vulgar. When a real glissando happens, it is most often an ear-catching flourish, a special effect that briefly subverts (but is subservient to) the arrangement of fixed pitches. And because it defies our expectations, it can – like the cartoony swoop of the swanee-whistle – even sound comical.
Perhaps the most famous glissando in the orchestral repertoire is the clarinet solo that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This is notated as a scale figure, but – so the story goes – the virtuoso clarinettist Ross Gorman improvised an upward slide during the rehearsal for the premiere. Gershwin loved it and told him to keep it in. It’s not something the clarinet was designed to do, but a skilful player can pull it off, and it has become standard performance practice ever since. But then pitch-bending – the ‘blue’ note of the title – is a part of the jazz traditions Gershwin was drawing upon.
However, we cannot forget that Maria’s explainer is an introduction to tonal music. The arrival of atonality in the twentieth century freed notes from key hierarchies, while Serialism reorganised them into tone rows. Some composers have explored the subtler shades in between the twelve notes of the standard chromatic scale, such as ‘quartertones’, and other ‘microintervals’.
Quite what Maria’s song to explain these techniques might have sounded like, we can only imagine. But much like the puns in Do-Re-Mi, our word scale echoes with other meanings. If tonality gives us ladders of fixed points, microtones are more like the smooth scales of snakes – from the Old French escale, or shell – which, as in the children’s game Snakes And Ladders, we can slide along.
One composer who has explored the regions between our notes in a serious way is the American Gloria Coates. Coates was born in Wisconsin but moved to Munich in 1969, and has lived in Germany ever since. She has become known for the fact that many of her works feature extensive use of microtones, and in particular long string glissandi. In an interview with New Music Box, Coates cites their origin as an ‘Ur Schrei (primitive cry) which comes from a deeper part of me in singing’.
The experience of working with electronic music sharpened her perception of pitch – ‘there was much more space’ she recalls, ‘in between the quartertones’. At the same time, Coates points out how our technology-saturated lives also means we encounter more microtonal sounds, and mechanical glissandi, as ambient noise:
The sound of a car slowing down or speeding up, planes, machines of all sorts, even computer noises […] microtones are present in our speech, and they are present in nature […]
Quite unlike the archetypal flourish, perhaps Coates’ most distinctive use of glissandi are slow and creeping. Usually these are scored for string instruments, so it is unsurprising that she has explored the technique in a number of works for string quartet.
Here we hit on another aspect of music that Maria’s song left out: rhythm. Rhythm is an equally fundamental entry point, one that springs from the very motions of being alive – our heartbeat, our footsteps, our breath. But a long glissando cannot articulate rhythm as a series of notes can – at least, not on its own. If these glissandi sound strangely inhuman then, it is because they literally have no pulse. They might suggest an elemental force of nature, like a rising tide, as much as an accelerating engine. Or it could be our musical world sliding out of focus, a warping of reality. Either way, it is disorientating.
For me, this is part of their strange appeal. But Coates tells the story of presenting her composition teacher with an early glissando string quartet, and leaving him completely baffled. If you’re new to her work, you might react similarly. Coates is confronting us with something musically quite unfamiliar: sound always travelling, but rarely arriving.
My reference to Snakes And Ladders offers a little bit more than a laboured metaphor. You might remember it from childhood as a simple game of chance, but as Doug Bierend has shown, it has a long and fascinating history originating in ancient India. There exist many beautifully ornate interpretations of the familiar grid, some of which link the snakes and ladders with Hindu and Jain moral and spiritual concepts, such as karma and Moksha (salvation).
When the British took the idea to Europe in the late nineteenth century, mass-market versions soon appeared, some of which transposed western virtues and vices onto the board. In one hilariously pompous edition, cartoon scenes illustrate ‘kindness’ and ‘self-denial’ jumbled among such perilous pitfalls as ‘unpunctuality’ and ‘frivolity’.
Far from being just a way of helping young children learn to count, the very simplicity of the Snakes And Ladders concept, Bierend writes, served ‘as a durable chassis for any culture that took it up, containing and transmitting their moral and spiritual beliefs’.
The bigger lesson here is that the systems we teach children, no matter how innocent they seem, are always embedded with our values. And as for the lesson in the Do-Re-Mi song,it arrives with all the subtlety of an Alphorn. When the children sing along with Maria, we see them cooperating and bonding; their carefree frolicking around Salzburg shows us that learning is fun. Arguably, the principal theme of the film is the power of music to strengthen relationships. And from the opening shots, Austria is a glistening ideal of European culture, a place where the hills are alive ‘with songs they have sung for a thousand years’. In a story which climaxes with an escape from the Nazis, we come to understand music as the essence of a loving, joyful life – everything good which is under threat from Fascism.
For a contemporary composer, trying to find a voice in a post-atonal world, things may not be so simple. But whether you reject tonality and construct your own system, whether you re-adopt tonality, or adapt it to your own uses, your response will resonate with your own values. What particularly interests me about Gloria Coates is the relationship to tonal music in her work.
Despite the outlandishness of her musical gestures, Coates draws on that fustiest of musical techniques – the canon. If her music sometimes seems simple in construction, this can be deceptive: often the counterpoint, she hints, is ‘like a mathematics problem with only the solution given.’
Several compositions take much older pieces of music and re-cast them with a microtonal glaze. Her symphony no. 15 uses a ‘puzzle canon’, in which a section of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus is heard both forwards and backwards. Symphony no.14 makes dissonant play with the works of two obscure New England hymn composers (William Billings, and the fabulously named Supply Belcher). These resurrections seem to emphasise a distance, the uneasy coexistence of past and present, as much as any continuity of tradition. But her curiosity extents outside of the classical repertoire too. Symphony No.8, Indian Sounds, mixes microtones with Native American music to compellingly mysterious effect.
My favourite of all these invocations, however, is the first movement of her symphony no. 4, Chiaroscuro. Here we are introduced to a haze of microtonality, through which gradually emerges the outline of Dido’s Lament, the exquisitely poignant aria by Purcell.But it is fragmentary and unnaturally slow,a shadowy apparition which grows louder and louder as it lumbers towards us. The title of the movement is Illumination, and its light is decidedly gothic. The result is genuinely sinister.
Dido’s Lament is composed on a ground bass that descends semitone by semitone, a feature which, as Alex Ross described, has been used for centuries to express lamentation. In its own way it is also an approximated glissando, with the poetry of Orsino’s ‘dying fall’ in chromatically tonal terms. For Coates, this had a personal relevance. Symphony no. 4 is an orchestral expansion of the earlier chamber work Transitions, one she described as ‘the translation of metaphysical experiences I had after the death of my father’.
The mention of metaphysics recalls that Ur Schrei, the ‘deeper part of me in singing’, the sense that there is an aspect of Coates’ art which is forever unknown. And this is an important point to remember. However many ladders we climb in the pursuit of knowledge, there is nobody alive who has truly fathomed how music works, not in the way that matters most: the unique spaces of consciousness it opens within us. If Coates’ music often sounds simple, then it recalls our ancient board game, where an idea can unexpectedly lead us in all sorts of directions, even into ourselves.
There is another meaning of the world ‘scale’ – from the Old Norse skál, or bowl – which is the instrument we use to make precise measurements of weight. Perhaps we could say that Coates’ music is a kind of ‘precise imprecision’ – it is highly calculated, and yet it takes us through a continuum of pitch that by its nature can never be settled. It peers in between the lines of the stave, into that mysterious malleability that people have tried for so long to set into something beautiful and ordered. If her work speaks to us, it is by reminding us – quite literally – of the very sound of music.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
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There’s a very engaging film yet to be made about the Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik. It might begin with his experiences of the Anschluss, and then move on to his time in Nazi-occupied Poland. It could then tell the story of the loss of all of his early work in the Warsaw Uprising, the post-war restrictions on his art by the ruling Communist Party, culminating in an edge-of-the-seat depiction of his dramatic defection to Britain. And that would only cover his life to the age of 40.
Panufnik was born in interesting times, just two months after the outbreak of World War One, when his native Poland was a territory divided between the warring factions. By the time the conflict had ended, Poland had become a re-created independent state, albeit a fragile one. It was in this environment of burgeoning nationalism that Panufnik cut his teeth.
His musical talent was evident from an early age, and he attended the Warsaw Conservatoire to study first percussion, and then conducting and composition. Upon graduation, Panufnik planned to take up a place at the Vienna State Academy to study with the great Felix Weingartner. His plans were put on hold when he was called up for National Service, but thanks to the intervention of a Major Śledziński – himself a musician – Panufnik was discharged on dubious medical grounds. On the morning of his medical examination, Panufnik heard a radio broadcast of an old Polish hymn – the Bogurodzica– which had an immediate and profound effect upon the impressionable composer. It was a melody that would stay with him throughout his career.
Panufnik eventually went to Vienna, and enjoyed his time as a pupil of Weingartner. Circumstances were to change dramatically, however, in March 1938 when Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany in the Anschluss. Towards the end of the academic year, Weingartner was replaced at the Academy by a ‘good loyal Nazi’, and Panufnik promptly decided to leave Vienna without staying to take the final examination. In his view, he ‘did not care to have a piece of paper stamped with a Nazi swastika’.
Panufnik returned to Poland, but within months it too was under Nazi occupation. He remained in Warsaw despite a ban on organised gatherings meaning that musical performances became impossible. During the occupation, Panufnik formed a piano duo with his friend from the Warsaw Conservatoire, the composer Witold Lutosławski. They performed together in cafés to circumnavigate the Nazi-imposed performing restrictions.
In 1944, Panufnik took his sick mother to be cared for in the rural outskirts of Warsaw. While he was away, however, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army, the Polish resistance) attempted to liberate the city in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising – the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during the Second World War. Without the hoped-for backing from the advancing Russian army, it was crushed and Warsaw was demolished.
When Panufnik returned to his former home he discovered, to his horror, that all of the music that he had written up to that point in his life had been destroyed – ironically not by the actions of the Nazis, but by a well-meaning compatriot. A woman who had taken over Panufnik’s rooms had simply cleared out the discarded papers and, oblivious to their worth, made a bonfire of them.
After the war, Panufnik moved to Kraków, where he began again as a composer. He tried to reconstruct those of his destroyed pieces that he could recall – notably the Tragic Overture, Five Polish Peasant Songs, and the Piano Trio. After attempting to re-compose his Symphony No. 1, he had to admit that his memory faltered and found the resulting work disappointing. He destroyed the score, and abandoned any further attempts to reconstruct his lost works. Instead, he set about composing a new symphony.
Written in 1948, Sinfonia Rustica was ostensibly a quite harmless and uncontroversial work, in strictly musical terms, yet its history was so troubled that Panufnik devoted an entire chapter of his excellent autobiography – Composing Myself – to its misfortunes.
In February 1948, Andrei Zhdanov, director of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy, had issued a decree on music, which stated that Russian composers should eliminate Western ‘bourgeois’ tendencies and embrace Socialist Realism. This was in turn adopted by the Soviet Composers’ Union, headed by Tikhon Khrenninov, and it soon became apparent that its guidelines would extend across the border into Poland.
It was against this backdrop that Panufnik wrote Sinfonia Rustica, based on northern Polish themes and an expression of his love for the country’s peasant music – and no doubt with one eye on its likely reception in Warsaw and Moscow. It appeared to have had the desired effect, being well received at its first performance and subsequently winning the Chopin Competition the following year.
Almost immediately afterwards, however, the ‘Russification’ of all aspects of Polish artistic life began to take hold. At a conference on the future direction of music in Łagow, Panufnik’s Nocturne was programmed and savagely criticised as ‘unsuitable for the broad masses’.
In 1950, at a meeting of the Polish Composers’ Union, attended by Khrenninov, the award-winning Sinfonia Rustica had its fate sealed in a matter of minutes. An attack on the work by a music critic and Communist Party member began a chain reaction of condemnation, which culminated in Polish Cultural Minister Włodzimierz Sokorski declaring, ‘Sinfonia Rustica has ceased to exist!’
The irony is that, with its rustic themes and use of folk melodies, it was a celebration of peasant life – the complete antithesis of bourgeois. It should, on the face of it, have fulfilled the brief of being ‘simple and understandable to the broad masses’. The vagueness of the Socialist Realism concept, however, meant that it was impossible to know whether a work would fall foul of the authorities.
During a tour to the Soviet Union soon afterwards, Panufnik made a throwaway remark about starting work on a Symphony of Peace. He hadn’t written a note of it, but the comment was immediately seized upon by the powers-that-be, whose enthusiasm for the project far exceeded his own. Panufnik was even moved into a Government Rest House, formerly owned by an aristocratic family, to ensure he was allowed to work on the symphony undisturbed.
While the concept of a three-movement choral symphony came fairly quickly, when it came to actually committing notes to paper Panufnik was bound up by anxiety. Mindful of the fate of his Sinfonia Rustica, and the requirement to conform to the elusive guidelines of Socialist Realism, progress was slow. And then a young girl of Irish parentage by the name of Marie Elizabeth O’Mahoney turned up at the Rest House and worked stopped altogether.
Everyone knew her as Scarlett, due to her resemblance to the lead character in Gone with the Wind, and despite her being there on honeymoon, she and Panufnik embarked upon a passionate affair. They were married the following July.
Panufnik did eventually deliver the score of his Symphony of Peace in time for its scheduled first performance in Spring 1951. Working to this deadline, and under the watchful gaze of the Ministry of Culture, it seems that Panufnik was less than totally happy with the finished piece. Nevertheless, at its première, he said that the ‘audience applauded with tremendous warmth’.
The authorities were less taken with it. It was awarded a State Prize, second class, which was roughly equivalent to damning it with faint praise. The minutes of the State Prize Committee stated that Panufnik’s artistic background, ‘has its roots in the formalist school’, and that by using medieval motifs, considered religious, the symphony ‘is not ideologically pure’. The Symphony of Peace had, indeed, met the same fate as the Rustica.
It seemed to Panufnik that, as his country’s leading composer, he was effectively being torn to shreds by the party zealots as an example to the younger generation. After his Heroic Overture was heavily criticised at an audition by a panel of judges in a seemingly premeditated attack, Panufnik stopped composing new music. And with Scarlett now expecting their first child – Oonagh, born in September 1952 – Panufnik had other priorities.
Matters eventually came to a head on a gruelling Chinese tour in Spring of 1953. Panufnik was reluctant to leave his young daughter, but was left under no illusion that it was his patriotic duty to go. Shortly before a gala concert in Beijing, attended by Mao Zedong himself, Panufnik received a short telegram wishing him ‘deepest sympathy’ – with no further explanation. Over a distorted phone line, he heard the devastating news that Scarlett, while bathing their daughter, had suffered an epileptic fit, and on regaining consciousness, she discovered that eight-month-old Oonagh had drowned. The distraught Panufnik begged to return home immediately, and although permission was granted, he was told he had to conduct the concert first.
Panufnik was a broken man, both emotionally and creatively, and he spent another year in Poland as, to use his own term, ‘a stuffed dummy of a composer’. In 1954, Panufnik was ordered to write letters to Western musicians to establish whether they would give their support to the Polish ‘Peace Movement’. Seeing this as a request to indirectly spy for Moscow, he decided there and then to leave Poland.
England was the obvious choice of destination. Scarlett’s family lived there, and as her father was seriously ill at the time, she could legitimately return on compassionate grounds. For Andrzej, however, a plan had to be hatched. First, a conducting engagement in Zurich was contrived. Then, with the help of Polish émigré friends in London, a flight from there to London was arranged through the British Foreign Office. While Panufnik was in Zurich, the authorities got wind of his plans, and ordered him to return to the Polish Legation. Instead, Panufnik gave the Secret Police the slip and, paying a taxi driver double to drive as fast as possible to lose his pursuers, he headed straight for the airport.
The Panufniks struggled financially during their early months in London after their defection. Andrzej set out to find work as a conductor, and tried to arrange performances of his works. The Symphony of Peace was given a revival in a performance in the Masonic Temple, Detroit under the baton of Stokowski. It once again received an enthusiastic reception, although Panufnik remained unhappy with the work and promptly withdrew it. The Sinfonia Rustica, in a slightly revised version, was conducted by the composer at the Proms in July 1955 and it too was extremely well-received.
Rejuvenated by these triumphs, Panufnik set about dismantling his withdrawn Symphony of Peace, and rebuilding it as his second catalogued symphony, the Sinfonia Elegiaca. Panufnik had considered the original work too long, although the surviving Polish radio broadcast lasts only 29 minutes – hardly Mahlerian. The musical language was of more concern to Panufnik, and the resulting Elegiaca is sparser and more direct.
The new work retained the symmetrical three-movement structure. The choral sections were, however, removed entirely and the original first movement provided the material for two new outer movements. Panufnik described these outer movement as laments for the dead, while the largely unchanged central movement – entitled Dramatico in the Symphony of Peace – was a dramatic protest against the inhumanity of war. He dedicated Sinfonia Elegiaca to the victims of the Second World War.
The drastic revision of the Symphony of Peace was not driven by a commission or promise of a performance, but appears to have been a purely cathartic exercise as Panufnik attempted to rescue the work from the painful association with the regime it was originally written to please. It apparently came as a complete surprise to Panufnik that the work was given its first performance in 1957 in Houston, by Stokowski.
Panufnik continued to find his early years in the UK something of a struggle. Occasional commissions came his way, but insufficient to provide a living. Life in the suburbs of London – where he lived next door to the Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. – did not provide him with the peace he craved to compose. Worst of all, his marriage to Scarlett was breaking down.
His financial situation improved after securing a two-year stint as principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), but that precluded any hope of composing. When he returned to London, he began work on his first new piece for three years, Autumn Music. By this time, he had been divorced from Scarlett, and had made the acquaintance of an ‘English rose’ by the name of Winsome Ward. Panufnik hoped that after the failure of his marriage to the socialite Scarlett he had found a woman with whom he could be truly happy.
It was not to be, however. Panufnik suspended work on Autumn Music to fulfil a lucrative conducting appointment in Buenos Aires, and when he returned, it was to the news that Winsome had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Panufnik now poured his heart into Autumn Music, saying in his autobiography:
… its theme of seasonal decline now cruelly apt alongside my heartbroken consciousness of a most precious human life in a different sort of decline – which would not be renewed by the coming of another spring.
It is a work of almost unbearable melancholy. Its second movement in particular, in which some of the most impassioned music Panufnik ever wrote soars above a tolling low B from the piano, tears at the heartstrings.
Against a backdrop of Winsome’s long and agonising decline, Panufnik began work on his third symphony to a commission from the Kościuszko Foundation to celebrate Poland’s Millennium Year – the Sinfonia Sacra. For this, Panufnik appropriately returned to his Polish roots and the Bogurodzica – the medieval hymn that had captivated him as an adolescent.
Part One of the symphony comprises three contrasting Visions: the first a fanfare for four trumpets; the second a calm and contemplative passage for strings in which the influence of Autumn Music can clearly be heard; the third a violent, percussion-driven depiction of war. Part Two is given over to a setting of the Bogurodzica. Beginning with barely audible violin harmonics, it swells through a ten-minute long crescendo to a powerful finale in which the opening fanfares return as shrill, out-of-key shrieks from the four corners of the auditorium.
Although Poland’s Millennium Year was actually 1966, the work was completed in 1963 and the financially compromised Panufnik decided to enter Sinfonia Sacra into that year’s Prince Rainier III Competition in Monaco. It won first prize out of 133 entries from 38 countries, and Panufnik, as well as welcoming the financial reward, saw this as a vindication of his artistic merit. The judging was anonymous, so there was no question of a politically motivated decision, and as Panufnik put it, ‘professionally at my lowest ebb, I needed the approval of that eminent international jury’.
The Sinfonia Sacra represents something of a turning point in Panufnik’s life. Apart from the international recognition it brought him, and the fillip it provided him with personally, it corresponds with a passage from his darkest period into possibly his happiest. Winsome Ward died from her illness during the early months of its composition, but by the time it was completed Panufnik had begun a relationship with the love of his life – Camilla Jessel. Camilla had been acting as Panufnik’s PA, having been introduced to him by the Foreign Office employee responsible for his defection, Neil Marten. Andrzej and Camilla were married in November 1963, a few months after his success in the Monaco competition. Sinfonia Sacra remains Panufnik’s most enduring and popular work, and is certainly the most frequently performed.
Meanwhile, back in his native Poland, Panufnik’s defection had come as a body blow to the communist regime. The inevitable steps were taken to denounce him as a traitor, declare him a ‘non-person’, and ban performances of his works. Neither his name nor his achievements could be published.
The Polish authorities had clearly been stung by the defection though, and, in a complete about-face, all restrictions on Polish composers had been lifted within a year. It was therefore quite ironic that, having left Poland in order to free himself from the restrictions of Socialist Realism, he now watched from afar as his former contemporaries, and up-and-coming composers such as Górecki and Kilar, started producing works at the very forefront of the avant garde.
The mid-Sixties were clearly a happy time for the newly-remarried Panufnik. Life in Twickenham was idyllic and he settled into domestic bliss. His output in the immediate aftermath of the success of Sinfonia Sacra was hardly prolific though, with his only significant new work being the Katyń Epitaph – dedicated to the 20,000 Polish officers murdered in Katyń Forest by the Russians during the Second World War.
The arrival of two children – a daughter, the composer Roxanna Panufnik, and a son, Jeremy – distracted him further from the business of composing. It was also clear that Panufnik was in something of a dilemma over his musical language, which he felt was stuck in the past, and relied too heavily on Polish themes. Panufnik resolved to develop a new way of expressing himself, and this manifested itself as an organic process in which an entire large-scale work could evolve from a tiny three-note cell. One of the earliest examples of this was in Triangles, a piece commissioned by BBC Television and broadcast in April 1972. The commission itself was an indication of Panufnik’s rising stock – he even went on to make a couple of appearances on the BBC TV panel show Face The Music!
The first use of this three-note cell approach in symphonic form came in Panufnik’s fourth symphony, the Sinfonia Concertante, for flute, harp and strings. It differs from its predecessor the Sacra, in almost every respect. The forces used are much reduced, and the sparser, almost minimalist thematic material makes for a far more austere sound world. It was a tenth wedding anniversary gift to his wife Camilla, and makes constant reference to her initial, the note C. The three-note cell is a C-D-A triad, in all inversions, reflected horizontally to form a melodic line. Secondary triads, as Panufnik refers to them, comprising the notes F-B-E are reflected vertically to form the accompaniment. The entire work evolves from this scant material, with the first molto cantabile movement treating it symmetrically and melodically, while the contrasting second molto ritmico movement is deliberately asymmetrical and dance-like.
Sinfonia Concertante was the first of four symphonies composed in just five years from the now-revitalised Panufnik. In his autobiography, the chapter covering this period in his life is entitled ‘Music Pouring From My Pen’, which accurately describes the most productive era in his creative life.
His fifth symphony, Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony of Spheres) is a quite direct reference to his fascination with geometric patterns and how they might permeate a large-scale musical structure. Although it is a single-movement work, there are six sections in which the ‘Sphere of Tempo’ is explored from poco andante at the outset to molto allegro at the conclusion. There are five other ‘Spheres’ – Harmony, Rhythm, Melody, Dynamics, Structure – that are worked through as the symphony progresses. The circle influences every minute detail of Sinfonia di Sfere, even the percussionists are arranged around the platform in performance so that their sound constantly orbits the orchestra. Panufnik also records:
When the work was televised from the (circular) Royal Albert Hall in the 1978 Promenade season, the Television Director, Peter Butler, made brilliant use of every circular or spherical symbol he could find within the auditorium.
Panufnik returned to the theme of circles in his next symphony, the Sinfonia Mistica, written two years later. Being his sixth symphony, the music is infused by his fascination with the mathematical properties of the number six. Again, it has six sections, is in the metre of six. The thematic material is based on six triads, six melodic patterns and six melodic combinations.
Attempting to organise the chaos of dissonance was an issue that had exercised composers since the 1910s, and Panufnik’s choice to relate his music to geometric symbols was an attempt to provide a ‘spiritual, not a cerebral experience’, according to Antony Hopkins. While aesthetically pleasing, it has to be said that Sinfonia di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica do rather lack the emotional power of Panufnik’s earlier works. This fact was not lost on the composer, who confessed that, as he sat in Middlesbrough Town Hall listening to the Northern Sinfonia giving Sinfonia Mistica its first performance, he felt he had gone too far in ‘allowing intellect to outstrip intuition’. Nevertheless, they are key works – studies of sorts – that enabled him to find his own voice as a composer.
The fourth in Panufnik’s cluster of mid-Seventies symphonies was his Metasinfonia of 1978. It was written for the unusual combination of organ, timpani and strings, and in it Panufnik made a conscious effort to redress the balance between ‘feeling and intellect, heart and brain, impulse and design’. The Nietzschian dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian in art has exercised most great artists at one time or another and the Metasinfonia represents the point at which Panufnik most consciously wrestled with the problem. Having written at great length about the schematic approach he took to its predecessors, even to the extent of providing diagrams in the score, Panufnik’s programme notes for Metasinfonia were far more concise, accepting that the technicalities of his compositional methods might be of little interest to the listener.
Panufnik admitted that Metasinfonia was more of an organ concerto than a symphony, and the dialogue between the soloist and the strings could, superficially, be seen as an embodiment of the Nietzschian argument at the work’s heart. Insofar as he would elaborate on the work’s geometric form, he described it as a double helix, with ‘the first half of the symphony spiralling towards the centre, the second concentrically and symmetrically working its way outward again’. With Metasinfonia, Panufnik felt he had found his feet again as a composer, and while it is by no means his most well-known work – quite probably the least-performed – it is a very strong piece that deserves greater familiarity.
While Panufnik was completely absorbed in his family and refining his compositional craft, he was oblivious to that fact that, back in his homeland, there had been a relaxation of the ban on him. He, along with other ‘non-persons’, could have his name published, but only in specialist publications and with the caveat that it was prohibited to ‘overpraise the creativity of these persons or to represent them in too favourable a light’. A typical example of this literature can be found in the book Twelve Polish Composers by B.M. Maciejewski, dating from 1976:
When Panufnik arrived in England he was 39 years of age. Today he is 60 and during that time he wrote one major work only – The Universal Prayer.
By that time, he had in fact produced five symphonies, a piano concerto, a violin concerto and numerous other orchestral works. There is reference to Sinfonia Sacra winning the Prince Rainier III Competition, but this is qualified with ‘two Polish composers from Warsaw also won prizes’, namely Rudziński and Bloch. Panufnik’s oeuvre was dismissed with the less than complimentary term ‘film music’.
As mentioned earlier, Panufnik had made a conscious decision to turn away from Polish themes for musical impetus. Whether it was the realisation that his works were now being performed in Poland again – most notably the Universal Prayer at the 1977 Warsaw Autumn Festival – that turned his mind back towards his country of birth is unknown. But when Panufnik was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a work for their centenary, developments in his homeland were at the forefront of his mind.
In August 1980, 17,000 shipbuilders at Gdańsk Shipyard defied a ban on industrial action and went on strike. The Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union was formed, led by shipyard electrician Lech Wałęsa, to become the first non-communist union in the Eastern Bloc. It was an act of great bravery that the Polish government eventually tried to crush by imposing martial law.
Panufnik noted that the striking workers wore on their lapels the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – a sacred symbol of independent Poland – and he decided that his next symphony would be his own votive offering to the Black Madonna, hence its title: Sinfonia Votiva.
In many ways, the symphony is modelled on his Sinfonia Sacra. There are echoes of the Bogurodzica – the medieval hymn that dominated the Sacra – in the thematic material. The work is also in two sections: the first, marked Con devozione, is a slow and impassioned prayer of devotion reminiscent of Vision II from the Sacra, while the second, Con passione, is turbulent and aggressive, ending with what Panufnik described as ‘a shout of sheer protest’ against the lack of full independence in Poland. The fact that he chose metal percussion instruments for the tumultuous climax of the work was taken by many to be a direct depiction of the clanging of metal in the shipyard. Panufnik insists, however, that the idea had simply not occurred to him.
Framing these contrasting movements is another of Panufnik’s trademark geometric forms. In this case, as it was his eighth symphony, a figure of eight comprising two large circles representing the two sections of the symphony, with four smaller circles within each large circle to create eight in total. Again though, Panufnik sought not to let the form outweigh the impact of the piece, saying that ‘the structure … should for the listener remain an invisible skeleton holding in unity the musical material’.
By now, Panufnik was firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost composers. His seventieth birthday in 1984 was marked by many performances of his works. The CBSO invited their former conductor back for a performance of his Sinfonia Sacra, and Panufnik spent the evening of his birthday conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in performances of his Piano Concerto and Sinfonia Votiva.
The following year, Panufnik received his most prestigious commission to date when The Royal Philharmonic Society requested he write a ninth symphony for their 175th anniversary. He initially found this prospect daunting. The ninth has, of course, mythical connotations for a symphonist, and this was exacerbated in Panufnik’s mind when it was pointed out that the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s ninth.
Panufnik rose to the challenge, however, and produced his most ambitious work – the epic Sinfonia della Speranza (Symphony of Hope). He set himself the ‘formidable task of composing a continuous melodic line of about forty minutes’ duration’. It is comfortably the longest of his symphonies. However, its arching, rainbow structure and continuous melodic thread, give the piece a greater formal unity than any of his other large-scale works. Again, a three-note cell is the starting point. This time the cell acts as a prism creating, in Panufnik’s words, ‘a spectrum of colours … and shaping the melodic line’. This melody passes through a palindromic sequence of keys, starting and ending in E. In keeping with the recurring structural theme of arcs rather than spheres, the melodic line moves from high notes through the low register and symmetrically back to high.
Remarkably, the 74-year-old composer almost immediately set about working on his tenth Symphony, this time commissioned by his old friend Sir Georg Solti, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. Having initially formed the idea of writing something akin to a concerto for orchestra, Panufnik decided instead to showcase their supreme sound quality, through different instrument combinations. He was drawn back to familiar themes: three-note cells and geometric forms. In contrast to the Sinfonia della Speranza, however, Symphony No. 10 is a tightly argued single-movement work of about 17 minutes’ duration. The invisible skeleton of the symphony is the so-called ‘golden ellipse’, which Panufnik ‘orbits’ one-and-a-half times, until ‘suddenly it straightens out into a new trajectory leading to the conclusion of the symphony’. The three-note cell is a familiar one: E-B-F, which he used in his first symphonic exploration of such organic development, his Sinfonia Concertante. In a glowing review, the Chicago Tribune wrote:
…it is not necessary to know geometry to be deeply affected by this music, by the typically ingenious manner in which it flowers from tiny thematic cells, by the hard, bright scoring and richness of incident. And it is this organic unity of idea and structure that allows Panufnik’s gestures to resonate with such urgency and power.
Having said at the outset that Panufnik’s story would make a very good film, there was something cinematic about how, in the final years of his life, a series of episodes reached a satisfactory conclusion. With glasnost and the collapse of the oppressive communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc, Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarność union in Gdańsk, was elected President of Poland in the first free democratic elections there since the war. With the communist regime consigned to history, Panufnik felt able to end his voluntary exile, and he made a triumphant return at the 1990 Warsaw Autumn Festival, which featured 11 of his works, including the tenth Symphony.
In 1991, he received the ultimate accolade from his adoptive country when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to British music. By that time though, Panufnik had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He died in October 1991, just weeks after receiving his knighthood.
In the 25 years since his death, Panufnik’s music has suffered from a degree of neglect, with numbers of performances seemingly declining. True, his centenary year of 2014 was marked with a series of high-profile concerts, and the panufnik.comwebsite notes that there were over 420 performances worldwide to mark his centenary. Tellingly, however, the BBC Proms that year featured none of his works. In fact, the only Panufnik featured across the whole season was his daughter Roxanna, whose Three Paths to Peace was given its European première. This was an extraordinary oversight in a concert series that often features significant anniversaries. According to statistics provided by his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, there have been just four performances of his symphonies in the UK since 2014, and three of those were given as part of a two-concert celebration by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in June 2015.
Britain has a long tradition of neglecting its own composers, and Panufnik is not alone in needing a champion to bring his music to the fore again. His story is, I’m sure you’ll agree, an extraordinary one, and few composers can have overcome so many obstacles to achieve success. His is a truly unique voice; in order to convey what he wanted to say he evolved his own language, and as a consequence his music is almost instantly recognisable. As one of a select group of knighted composers, his work should be more familiar to the classical music audience. Perhaps if there were a film of his life after all, he might gain a new generation of followers.
John Paul Hardy graduated in Music and Law from Keele University, where he studied composition with George Nicholson and Mike Vaughan. He now sings tenor with Durham Choral Society and Newcastle Bach Choir. His blog A Symphony A Day documents his challenge to listen to 365 different symphonies in 2017.
Saint-Saëns’s 1877 opera, Samson et Dalila, is widely considered to be one of the jewels of the French operatic repertoire. Its Biblical story is well known: Samson, leader of the Israelites and blessed with superhuman strength by God, is led astray by Delilah – the stereotypical exotic and dangerous femme fatale. Upon Delilah’s discovery that Samson’s strength lies in his hair, he is shorn, captured and blinded. At the end of the opera, as he is goaded by his Philistine captors, Samson’s strength returns as a blessing from God and he destroys the Temple of Dagon along with everyone inside.
Delilah has long been compared unsympathetically with other Biblical fallen women; she is even further still from the Bible’s virginal ideal. Yet despite, or rather because of, this she is also a fascinating character; even Saint-Saëns could not resist her charms – the opera was originally entitled with her name alone, Dalila. This dangerous allure is rooted in the French fascination with the Orient at the time the opera was composed.
The growth of the Second French Empire, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, prompted an increase in French public interest in her colonies. These faraway lands provided an artistic opportunity to explore repressed feelings on socio-political topics which were otherwise avoided in polite society. Among these was the sexual liberation of women, a topic presented onstage through stereotypes such as the femme fatale. As an incarnation of social taboos, operatic femme fatales at this time were intended to be thrilling and shocking. To contemporary audiences, they conveyed an implicit message: that sexualised female behaviour may be exciting, but ultimately it was not only reprehensible, but downright dangerous. The Orient provided the geographical distance required to explore this idea, and the temporal distance of Saint-Saëns’s Biblical setting allowed for even further detachment.
Delilah, along with the likes of Carmen, is one of the most pertinent examples of the use of the exotic to explore empowered female sexuality through the femme fatale. The basis for this interpretation lies in Delilah’s voluptuous arias, the most famous of which, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) is at the crux of her portrayal. While many productions use this aria to reinforce unthinkingly the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype, others explore a more conflicted, remorseful Delilah. This musical moment is key to re-reading her character for twenty-first century audiences, who might wish to avoid outdated and misogynistic interpretations of strong women. By examining this aria through a lens that highlights sexual agency and female empowerment, it is possible to see how Delilah uses sexuality as a functional tool to achieve her goal. Once we understand this moment through such a lens, we can move away from an unthinking and outdated interpretation of women’s autonomy.
When adapting the story of Samson and Delilah for the operatic medium, it was in depicting Delilah’s motivations that Saint-Saëns and his librettist, Henri Lemaire, took their greatest liberties with the Biblical source material. While in the Bible, Delilah is paid for her part in Samson’s capture, her motivation for accepting the Philistines’ payment is never made clear. In contrast, the operatic Delilah does not accept the High Priest’s offer, instead citing her religious beliefs as motivation enough for her actions. In her recitative of Act II, Scene 2, Delilah makes clear that she has long tried to discern the secret of Samson’s strength, admitting ‘three times I have tried to discover the spell’. She has foreseen the necessity of deposing Samson, and by refusing payment, shows that she needs neither encouragement nor financial incentive.
Delilah executes her plan perfectly, exploiting her prey’s infatuation. In Samson’s eyes, she appears to surrender to him completely, suggesting that she is there for the taking. But this is, of course, a trap. She is determined to avenge her people and destroy Samson. Once we recognise that Delilah is actively using her sexuality to achieve her goal, this scene becomes very interesting.
And yet, if we begin by examining the aria’s text, it might at first seem that Delilah is entirely at Samson’s disposal. Even the first line, ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) implies that Delilah’s heart is the object as opposed to the subject. She implores him to respond ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!’ (Ah! Respond to my tenderness!) and to fill her with joy and happiness ‘Verse-moi, verse-moi l’ivresse!’ (Fill me with ecstasy!). Samson, it would seem, is entirely in control and Delilah is powerless to resist.
But what we are witnessing here is not female submission, but merely the illusion of it. Delilah uses her sexuality as a functional tool and expertly manipulates Samson’s desire for her. Her carefully chosen words expressed through consciously exotic music lure him into a false sense of security. And it is through an analysis of her musical language, that we can begin to fully understand Delilah’s sexual power and autonomy.
Delilah expresses her compelling sexuality musically through various exotic tropes, such as chromaticism, freer rhythms and wordless vocalise. Saint-Saëns used these devices liberally here as this scene was written while he was still considering the work as an oratorio: without the benefit of a set or costumes, the music had to set the scene.
In the aria’s second verse, the orchestral accompaniment becomes more chromatic – a trope commonly deployed to depict the exotic in the nineteenth century. These additional accidentals distance Delilah and her musical language from what is recognisably ‘Western’. Sextuplets create freer rhythms here, suggesting an improvisatory quality, and again liberating the music from ‘Western’ strictures. The figure below demonstrates both of these tropes at play (from 3:03 in the above recording):
In addition, Delilah’s wordless vocalisation ‘aah’, another exotic musical device, is exploited by Saint-Saëns later in the aria. Vocalisations were crucial in portraying the East as emotional and passionate, and thus distinct from the rational and coherent West. In other words, it is a rather crude device to demonstrate that the exotic is unable to express itself in recognisably Western terms. Unlike the orchestral accompaniment of the previous example, her singing plays a more ‘diegetic’ role in Delilah’s seduction. That is to say, that what we hear is not just a composer’s imposition of music on the narrative presented onstage; Samson too, can hear her singing, thus suggesting that that her use of exotic musical techniques is entirely conscious. (Figure 2 starts at 2:22 in the recording).
Ultimately, this active choiceto sexualise herself through the use of music – and her awarenessof the impact of her actions – empowers Delilah. She takes control of her own sexuality: she is no longer just a female subject of male actions. However unsavoury, her actions achieve her own ends. While it might appear otherwise to Samson, Delilah’s sexualisation is a choice for her own personal gain – she is in control of her sexual agency and how she is perceived, both by those in her operatic context and by audiences.
Delilah is irresistible: first to Samson, and then subsequently to Saint-Saëns and audiences. Such an obvious display of female sexuality would have been shocking to nineteenth-century audiences; and indeed, it was intended to be so. But in the twenty-first century it is surely time to move beyond the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype and address this scene in a different light. Instead of seeing Delilah as a shameful harlot, I would argue that Delilah can – and should – be viewed as an empowered woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants.
This re-reading by no means argues that Delilah should be likeable: far from it. Indeed her cunning and ruthless disdain for Samson should disturb us; but we should not be shocked by her sexual wiles. To continue reading Delilah as a femme fatale merely reinforces nineteenth-century patriarchal views of women and sex. Rather than passively receiving the outdated interpretation that Saint-Saëns’s opera encouraged, we should grudgingly admire (or at least acknowledge) a more empowered woman getting exactly what she wants, no matter the means.
Emma Kavanagh graduated with a BA in Music from Jesus College, Cambridge in 2016. She is hoping to pursue postgraduate study, with a focus on gender, race and identity in nineteenth-century opera. She tweets at @kavaemma.
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