By personal associations of an untraceable nature, the music of Rachmaninov has a quality of winter for me. It is by no accident then that around the time of year that Christmas decorations are slowly appearing, I find myself listening to a work by this Russian composer.
A recent choice is the so-called ‘fifth piano concerto’, performed by pianist Julius-Jeongwon Kim and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis. As Rachmaninov has four piano concertos to his name, one may be surprised to come across this disc. There is little evidence that the composer ever conceived of a fifth work in the genre. In fact, this concerto is a remoulding of Rachmaninov’s second symphony.
Yet this ‘fifth’ concerto is no mere transcription. Beyond the added texture of a solo piano, the symphony’s four-movement structure is cast into a three-movement form by amalgamating the Scherzo and Adagio of the original work. There are also some noticeable personal stamps of Alexander Warenberg, who arranged the work in 2001 by commission of Pieter Van Winkel and Alexandre Rachmaninov (the composer’s grandson). With such reshaping of the second symphony, and the degree of re-composition considered, a newly numbered concerto status assigned to the work is somewhat justifiable.
Most certainly, this is no occasion for purists. Warenburg’s creation obviously goes against the composer’s intention of the symphony as a complete work, and the balance of the original architecture is questioned. Whether this concerto, so extensively reworked, can be called a Rachmaninov piece is debatable. Still, interpretational diversity and rearrangements are common in the performing arts, and classical music is no exception.
Otto Klemperer’s lugubrious 1965 recording of Handel’s Messiah will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among Baroque specialists, because its approach is thought to be much against the way music was played in the 18th century. The uniqueness of this recording is especially pronounced when compared to ‘period’ performances, such as those by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Beyond the issues of slow tempo and use of modern playing techniques (e.g. vibrato), Klemperer’s decision to diminish the role of the harpsichord, use modern instruments, and ignore da capos, (i.e. repeats), give an altogether new feel to the Baroque masterpiece.
Incidentally, it is the same conductor who cut around 220 bars from his studio recording of Bruckner’s 8th symphony, citing that ‘the composer was so full of musical invention that he went too far.’ Still, it was no rare occasion for conductors of past generations to manipulate what is written on the score. Furtwängler and Mengelberg produced exhilarating performances at the expense of strictly adhering to tempo markings. The symphonies of Robert Schumann have been particular targets of re-orchestration, given the widespread belief of the German composer’s inexperience in this regard. To cite the Hungarian conductor George Szell, Schumann’s ‘inability to establish proper balances … can and must be helped with all means known to any professional conductor who professes to be a cultured and style-conscious musician.’ Gustav Mahler, who documented his own edited versions of symphonies by Schumann and Beethoven by altering the form as well as the orchestration, was convinced such rearrangements would benefit the music as these changes would fit modern ears.
Still, pure objectivity is foreign to these reworkings, as they often reflect the arranger’s own personal style, perhaps inevitably so. Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements of J.S. Bach often have a lyrical ardour, reflecting the string sound the conductor nurtured in the Philadelphia Orchestra. The pointillistic colour of Arnold Schoenberg’s adaptation of Bach’s prelude and fugue in E flat major, on the other hand, may owe to the composer’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie, where a musical melody is broken down between various instruments.
If anything, given the contour unique to each instrument, rearrangements themselves often produce unique emotional effects. Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On The Cross proves a good example of how a single work can exist in no fewer than four different combinations, (orchestral, string quartet, choral, piano), all written/approved by the composer himself. Unquestionably, the intimacy of the piano version can never match the thunderous sublimity present in the choral version of the work.
Often, the reworking of certain works require much more than the transfer between mediums. Notable examples include the completion of unfinished symphonies, left by composers such as Enescu, Elgar, Mahler and Bruckner. These are the efforts of scholars and musicians, who reconstruct a work based on their research of existing manuscripts, correspondences and sketches. The recent completion of Schubert’s ‘unfinished’ symphony in B minorby Venzago and the Kammerorchester Basel is especially enlightening in the creative direction it took. In addition to the two movements usually performed, Venzago includes two further movements, based on existing sketches and excerpts of the incidental music to Rosamunde. The arrangement is informed by the record of the composer supposedly having used the finished finale of the symphony as a substitute for sections of the Rosamunde score.
Unfortunately, not all re-workings are clear in the delineation between the composer’s own input and the works of colleagues. One case is Mozart’s Requiem, a work left unfinished at the composer’s death, and believed to have been finished by a contemporary Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Borodin’s opera Prince Igor was a work left in such fragmented manuscripts that the joint effort of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov was necessary for its posthumous performance. In both cases, the question of the extent of the input of the original composer is a perennial itch among scholars and performers alike.
Then there is Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s flair for adopting and re-composing existing melodies is reflected in his words that ‘lesser artists borrow, great artists steal’. The wide range of his practice ranges from the numerous remodellings of his own works – Pulcinella, which is based on music from 18th century Italy, exists in three different versions – to compositions based on melodies outside classical music. The Fairy’s Kiss, composed as a ballet work commemorating the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, is rooted on the late composer’s early piano works. The unmistakable presence of Stravinsky’s clarity and rhythmic alertness combines with Tchaikovsky’s melodic sensibility to wondrous effect. Much like Venzago’s attempt at completing Schubert’s symphony, this is a case of how rearrangements are not bounded by specific genres.
Purists will exist in any field of the performing arts, in the form of voices pointing to adherence to the intentions of the creator, or in the will to refrain from disrupting an order set by standards of the past.
But an important consideration is the validity of the so-called original intentions. There is no way of determining exactly how Handel wanted his oratorios to be played, nor how Borodin wanted his opera to be shaped. Clearly, Schubert did not expect his B minor symphony to be performed as an unfinished two-movement work, nor did Tchaikovsky expect his youthful piano works to form the basis of a ballet with 20th century musical idioms. Yet these works still get performed in their various ways, and they are as appreciated and as moving as ever.
As the conductor Herbert von Karajan noted, music-making is like the touching of fresh snow; once touched by the warmth of human hands, snow ceases to be the pure thing it was – yet without touching the snow, it is impossible to feel it. To put it differently, interpretation is inevitable in musical performance. If this is true, the notions of composers being presented objectively or truthfully soon acquire layers of vanity if not absurdity. As such, re-creation is intrinsic to the very nature of music-making, to which the act of rearranging works is merely an extension.
If anything, what is relevant to life never will cease to be questioned and reinvented. Thus it is the music lover’s responsibility to recognize the diversity of creation and the unique surprises they provide, and that music is never a settled matter when written down. Like language, music does not live off predestined absolutes, but exists as an organism of ever-evolving nature. So, let the music speak for itself in all its vast possibilities.
As I listen to Rachmaninov’s fifth piano concerto, I glimpse the inner world of the composer from a new light. The sensitive and clear-eyed playing of Julius Kim combines with the LSO’s clarity and warmth. While the second movement – based on the symphony’s two middle movements – works surprisingly well, the biggest surprise waits in the Allegro vivace. Here, Julius Kim’s composed poise generates a chamber music-like intimacy with the orchestra and conductor, even in the most virtuosic of moments. I am convinced. The music has spoken.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). He contributes regularly to Bachtrack, Seen and Heard and MusicWeb International. His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.
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The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
Shakespeare, The Merchant Of Venice
In 1597, the composer Thomas Morley wrote in A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick that ‘the most principal and chiefest’ kind of instrumental music was the ‘fantasy’. This he defined as follows:
When a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit.
It might seem strange that so seemingly casual a description could be something ‘most principal and chiefest’. Yet the fantasy – or ‘fancy’ as it was also known – was a key force in an enormously fertile period for the cultivation of chamber music in England. It flourished into the second half of the 17th century, through one of the most troubled periods of English history – the Civil War.
Morley was a contemporary of Shakespeare who set his words to music. And it is through the Bard that we can shed light on the free aesthetic of the fantasy. As Erin Minear has noted, Morley’s definition resembles the titles of As You Like It and What You Will. She suggests that the Elizabethan notion of ‘fancy’ shares a Shakespearean ideal of ‘inventive and imaginative play’.
This was a golden age for English composition, and it is striking how often the worlds of words and music intertwined. Alongside the fantasy, a popular instrumental form was the In Nomine. This set the challenge of weaving counterpoint around a cantus firmus – aspecificfragment from a choral mass setting by John Taverner from the 1520s.
Madrigals, with their expressive word-painting, were often played on viols too. The Italian repertoire was particularly influential in England – in his guide, Morley found space to complain of ‘our countrymen who will highly esteem whatsoever cometh from beyond the seas (and specially from Italy) be it never so simple, condemning that which is done at home though it be never so excellent’.
Such was the vogue for all things Italian, the composer John Cooper changed his name to the affectation ‘Coprario’. In the 1620s, it was he who began a tradition of putting a fantasy at the head of suites, followed by two dance movements. Other composers soon followed his lead.
Although the viol was a popular instrument with the Elizabethans, the violin gradually started to replace it in the 17th century, and the two would often coexist in ensembles. The organ and theorbo were frequently included too.
Christopher D. S. Field has argued that the gestures and structures of fantasia-suites can be compared to contemporary ideas about rhetoric. ‘As part of the trivium’, he writes, ‘rhetoric was a staple ingredient of education, and the habits it inculcated permeated intellectual thought’. He also suggests that Coprario’s three-movement suite structure may have been intended to imitate the formula of Exordium – Medium – Finis, described by German theorists of oration and music as musica poetica.
But while the music of Shakespeare’s day is rightly celebrated, the decades between leading up the arrival of Purcell under Charles II are a shadowy, less familiar terrain in English music history. The story of the music in these turbulent times is a complex and intriguing one, in which consort music would play an important role.
In the 1640s, the outbreak of war and increasing Puritan influence in parliament took its toll on the arts. Theatres – including the ‘great Globe itself’ – were shut down. Meanwhile the new policy for church services was the simple ‘singing of psalms together in the congregation’. The choral tradition which had blossomed so gloriously in cathedrals through the preceding century was ordered to fall silent. Organs were broken up.
And inevitably, the human cost of war was enormous. William Lawes was a musician for Charles I, and during his reign he became a leading composer of consort music. Among his works are set of suites with the striking addition of a harp. Lawes fought with the Royalist forces, and during the siege of Chester in 1645, he was fatally shot.
Dead at age 43, Lawes was mourned as a tragic loss to English music – although his brother Henry, also a composer, would go on to live into the Restoration. But wherever music died, poetry paid its respects. Thomas Jordan composed an ‘urn epitaph’, making wordplay on the politics of the time.
Concord is conquer’d: In this Urne there lies The Master of great Musick’s mysteries, And in it is a riddle like the cause: Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws.
With the Parliamentarians victorious, on 30th January 1649 came one of the most extraordinary moments in English history. King Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall, and England became a Commonwealth. Shortly after, a 76 year old composer called Thomas Tomkins sat down and composed a Sad Pavan For These Distracted Times.
Tomkins had worked in music since the days of Elizabeth I, both in the Chapel Royal and at Worcester Cathedral – a city which had suffered two punishing sieges. His pavan is a poignant example of the consolation of chamber music in what must have seemed a time of great uncertainty and senseless destruction. Tomkins died in 1656 at the grand old age of 84, though it was sadly too soon to see the Restoration, nor to hear choral polyphony echoing through the cloisters once again.
Victorious sounds! yet here your Homage do Unto a gentler Conqueror than you; Who though He flies the Musick of his praise, Would with you Heavens Hallelujahs raise.
Andrew Marvell, Musicks Empire
The Cromwellian period has an austere reputation. But Andrew Marvell’s poem Musicks Empireillustrates something of the prestige music still carried, and its continuing intermingling with literature. Cromwell himself employed musicians who would entertain for visiting dignitaries, including John Hingeston, who composed fantasies for an unusual combination of cornett, sackbut and organ.
In private spheres, music making still flourished. John Jenkins was one composer who made a prolific contribution during in this period. Much of his work tends towards a kind of flowing serenity, as if a sanctuary from the tumult of politics and war – though he composed a notable pavan and galliard depicting the siege of Newark.
The younger Matthew Locke was also writing for consorts. His music has delightful expressive and dramatic flair, with arresting rhythms and bold harmonic movement, that would go on to influence the young Purcell.
In some ways, the upheavals of the period proved an unexpected catalyst to music. The removal of royal monopolies enabled entrepreneurial spirit to emerge in the industry of publishing. John Playford’s English Dancing Master, a collection of tunes with instructions for each dance, first appeared in 1651 and was enormously successful.
Furthermore, the censorship of playhouses gave impetus to any dramatic form with a pretext of musical performance. And so in this period came productions generally regarded as the first English operas. TheSiege of Rhodes, ‘sung in Recitative Musick’, was put on by William Davenant in a room in his own house, a remarkable fact given he was a staunch Royalist who had fled the country and been imprisoned. The score has not survived, but it was a collaborative effort whose composers included Henry Lawes.
Clearly, England remained a considerably musical place. But Musicks Empire, with its ‘harmonious colonies’, alludes to another continuing thread – imperial expansion. Cromwell remains infamous for his brutal campaign in Ireland. Under his rule England gained control of Jamaica, whose sugar plantations would become a key part of the transatlantic slave trade. Music was not immune to imperialist propaganda either – a subsequent Davenant production from this period was called, with little subtlety, The Cruelty Of The Spaniards In Peru. Locke composed the score.
The Cromwellian period fascinates us partly because it is an aberration in a history we measure in monarchs. But it is also because revolutions open possibilities of what might be – and in doing so, suggest what still could be. Some of the movements that emerged around this time, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, envisioned a society built on radically more egalitarian lines, and have continued to inspire progressive thinkers.
History teases us with ‘what-ifs’. Had Cromwell lived longer, or had the future Charles II not made his near-miraculous escape after the Battle of Worcester, might Britain be a republic today? Of course, we will never know.
And yet on a musical note, one obscure document gives pause for thought. In 1657 a petition was put to the Council of State for a ‘Corporacion or Colledge of Musicians’ to be built in London, with Hingeston one of the signatories. Nothing came of the request. Given that the Royal Academy of Music would not be founded until 1822, it is tantalising to think how differently English music history might have turned out, had it been approved.
Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses, A box where sweets compacted lie; My musick shows ye have your closes, And all must die.
George Herbert, Vertue
Having fled to the continent, Charles II had developed a taste for French music when he returned to England at the Restoration. In November 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded a scene in which the new King ‘bade the French musique play, which, my Lord says, do much outdo all ours’.
Fashions were changing, and while the fantasy persisted for a while, its Shakespearean salad days had passed. As soon as 1667, Christopher Simpson would write that the form was now ‘much neglected by reason of the scarcity of auditors that understand it, their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy music’.
For this reason, it is something of a mystery as to why the young Henry Purcell composed a number of fantasies and In Nomines around 1680. Unpublished in his lifetime, they lay in the obscurity of manuscripts until the 20th century.
What is certain is that, through contrapuntal ingenuity and intensely concentrated expression, Purcell showed how much these forms could still do. He evidently relished the challenge of restriction – besides two In Nomines, he took the extraordinary step of composing a fantasy ‘Upon One Note’, in which one part plays a single C throughout.
And yet in his radiant seven-part In Nomine, there is a modal darkness that seems consciously antiquated. Its strikingly ghostly ending leaves us without the harmonious third of the triad. Even as Purcell was mastering this tradition – a direct link to the pre-Reformation England of Henry VIII – he seemed to be etching it into an intricate death mask.
Perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, Purcell instead opted to publish a set of trio sonatas. In these, he proclaimed, he had ‘faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters’. Morley would wresteth and turneth in his grave.
But the spirit of the fantasy would have a far-flung afterlife. In the early 20th century, a wealthy philanthropist called Walter Willson Cobbett instituted competitions for British composers to write in a modern version of the form. His aspiration was to foster a culture of domestic music making through the creation of shorter chamber works – the kind of culture that had thrived among the educated classes of the 17th century.
And in the late 1980s, over three centuries after their composition, Purcell’s fantasias were a revelation for the young composer George Benjamin. ‘The combination of concentrated counterpoint with a harmonic, beguiling sensitivity immediately captivated me,’ he said. ‘The discovery of these pieces quite simply changed the way I perceived – and wrote – music.’
One reason that the fantasy form continues to intrigue and inspire is surely its openness. Morley wrote that ‘in this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing’. It makes explicit the inherent puzzle of instrumental composition – what, and how, do you make sense out of pure sound?
The fantasy throws down a gauntlet: it invites us to conquer ‘great Musick’s mysteries’. No wonder, then, that the worlds of song, drama, and rhetoric beg to be let in to play along with this little game. It is the very riddle in the composer’s cause.
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The tune known as Londonderry Air long preceded the song Danny Boy, which was published in 1913. Yet today listeners recognize the music as Danny Boy, and not of the numerous other songs and hymns set to the same melody. Why were the lyrics of Danny Boy able to withstand the test of time and its competitors for this tune? Various books, studies, and TV documentaries help to paint a holistic picture of the song’s history and evolution.
The story of Danny Boy spans three distinct periods in music making and dissemination: the oral tradition of Irish folk musicians, the proliferation of sheet music for domestic piano playing, and artist recordings and broadcasts.
In the 19th and earlier centuries, Irish musicians travelled from town to town playing the music of their ancestors or creating their own tunes. None of this was recorded or notated until concerted efforts were made by music scholars to actively collect and publish for preservation.
The tune we know today as Danny Boy first appeared in the 1855 publication The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, arranged for piano.The melody had been contributed by Jane Ross, a collector of Irish melodies from County Londonderry, as an anonymous air. That she did not reveal the source has added to the tune’s mystique, though descendants of a blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry have claimed that he was the musician who played it to her. Whatever the truth of this, Ross’ tune acquired the name Londonderry Air when the Irish poet Katharine Tynan Hinkson composed the words of Irish Love Song to the melody in 1894.
In his 1979 article New Dates for Old Songs 1766–1803, Hugh Shields points to similarities to an older tune called A Young Man’s Dream, published in Bunting’s The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1796. This used a 3/4 time signature more common to Irish airs, rather than the 4/4 of Ross’ melody. In a major study The Provenance of the Londonderry Air, Brian Audley analysed these tunes to show resemblance and an attribution of lineage. He also notes that that by the year 1923, more than 80 lyrics had been set to the melody.
Writing in The Musical Quarterly in 1920, Annie Patterson attributed the growing interest in this tune to several factors. The composer Sir Hubert Parry had praised themelody in his 1896 book The Evolution Of The Art Of Music, saying that ‘as a simple emotional type’ it was ‘one of the most perfect in existence’. Around the same time, Gaelic culture festivals in Ireland were encouraging composers to put traditional melodies into four-part arrangements and classical forms. Percy Grainger made several piano and orchestral arrangements of Londonderry Air, which charmed the public.
Given the song’s Irish origins and associations, it is ironic that the words to Danny Boy were composed by an Englishman. Frederic E. Weatherly was a barrister and King’s Counsel, but he also wrote over 3000 lyrics, half of which were published as songs. A well-known character who mixed in fashionable circles, he was often invited to pen words for special occasions. Late in life, his regular broadcasts on BBC radio about his life and songs led to his nickname ‘the grand old man of song’.
In a 2013 book, Weatherly’s great-grandson Anthony Mann described how the words of Danny Boy had originally been set to a different tune, without success. Though accounts differ as to the precise circumstances, Weatherly had encountered the Londonderry Air via his sister-in-law, who lived in America. He recalled that:
I had never heard the melody or even heard of it […] It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called Danny Boy and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody.
The song was published by Boosey & Co. in 1913. When war broke out the following year, English opera singer Elsie Griffin popularised Weatherly’s song with the British troops in France. The German-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink became the first to record it in 1915. In Stories Behind The World’s Best Loved Songs, Max Cryer argues that Schumann-Heink’s version ‘influenced nearly 200 artists to make recordings of the song, long before recordings became electrical.’
The spread of the gramophone and wireless radio enabled Danny Boy to move swiftly overseas and gain worldwide appreciation. The song acquired particular resonance through the convergence of the rise of Irish nationalism, mass Irish emigration, and the world wars.
In the 1940s, Hollywood embraced Danny Boy in film. In the 1946 romantic comedy Because Of Him it is sung in a crucial scene. The same year, a film about a retired war service dog called Danny Boy featured the melody in the soundtrack.
In the following decades many different artists have brought Danny Boy into the charts, including the Glenn Miller Band, Bing Crosby, and Andy Williams. A 1996 TV documentary on the song featured a host of musicians including Shane McGowan, Eric Clapton, Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison. Johnny Cash made his performance personal by prefacing it with a story of a Danny in his own life. Elvis Presley lauded it as ‘written by angels’, and it was among the selection of music played at his funeral. For the mourning of personal loss this tune has proven particularly powerful – hymn versions of the Londonderry Air were sung at services for the untimely deaths of both Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy. And as a 2013 BBC documentary about the song showed, Danny Boy gave solace to New York firefighters as they grieved their colleagues who were killed in the September 11th attacks, many of whom were Irish-American.
It may be that Weatherly’s fame through his BBC broadcasts encouraged the widespread adoption of his lyrics to this tune. But a crucial factor in its success is surely how the relationship between Danny Boy and the singer remains tantalisingly unspecified. Danny might be a lover, brother, friend, or son. This flexibility makes the song applicable to a wide range of human sentiments and situations.
The universal themes in Weatherley’s words have also enabled Danny Boy to transcend Ireland’s political and sectarian divisions. Although Weatherly had never visited Ireland, in his autobiography he acknowledged that Danny Boy ‘is sung all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike’. Over a century later, Danny Boy has become an unofficial anthem for the Irish, a symbol of Irish diaspora, and an enduring song of love and loss.
Anne Ku was born in Brunei and raised in Okinawa, Japan. She began taking piano lessons at age eight, and obtained a degree in composition and teaching diploma in piano from Utrecht Conservatory. Thereafter she taught music at University of Hawaii Maui College for a number of years. Her official website has links to her blogs about cultural economics, behind-the-scenes stories of her piano guitar duo, and her latest passion – the ukulele.
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In the early 1980s—when the world seemed to be on the brink of a nuclear war—feminist authors on both sides of the Berlin Wall turned to matriarchal studies as a way of criticizing the militaristic and destructive nature of patriarchal societies. In East Germany, where there was no independent women’s movement and feminism was forbidden by the state, authors such as Christa Wolf and Irmtraud Morgner based their understanding of matriarchy on the anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen and the Marxist texts of Friedrich Engels and August Bebel.
Bachofen’s 1861 book Mother Right describes the course of human history as a transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, where the matriarchal stage is one in which kinship is matrilineal and human relations are peaceful and egalitarian. Also influenced by Bachofen, West German feminists—in particular Heide Göttner-Abendroth—had a more critical interpretation of the matriarchal theories of the past. In her 1982 book The Dancing Goddess, Göttner-Abendroth rejects the essentialism of Bachofen and his depiction of matriarchal societies as being more primitive. Instead, she views matriarchy as a ‘societal form’ with many different cultural manifestations, and it is her aim to investigate the specific socio-historical changes leading to its demise.
Although these matriarchal texts were very much a product of their time (the early 1980s), I argue that they are helpful for considering the current political and cultural climate, which is threatened by a similar sort of destructive patriarchal thinking. Even though the composers and artists discussed below did not explicitly draw on matriarchal theory—with perhaps the exception of Tania León—the matriarchal concept is nevertheless an effective tool for highlighting particular aspects of the music that are often disregarded as a result of the values underlying existing musical canons.
A matriarchal aesthetic of music de-emphasizes the composer’s role in favor of collaboration. It also interrogates different kinds of musical hierarchies (formal, genre, institutional), drawing attention to the gender inequality that is bound up with them. Such an aesthetic does not assume a timeless essence or group of style features that all female composers share in common. The matriarchal aesthetic is a historical approach that takes into account the specific cultural context. Finally, it is an approach that emphasizes the agency of female composers and artists in the creation and negotiation of social reality.
My argument is that matriarchal studies provides a new perspective for feminist music scholarship, one that explores spirituality and ways of thinking about difference that are in keeping with the difference models outlined by Ruth Solie and Olivia Bloechl and Melanie Lowe. More specifically, a matriarchal aesthetic critically interrogates those values underlying the Western art music tradition that are often falsely assumed to be universal and naturally given.
Meredith Monk’s Atlas
Inspired by Alexandra David-Néel’s book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Meredith Monk’sAtlas (1991) is an opera about the spiritual quest of Alexandra Daniels—a woman who is presented at three stages in her life, each performed by a different singer. In place of a conventional libretto, the text consists of mainly non-verbal vocalizations.
Drawing on Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, Renée Cox Lorraine investigates the possibility of a musical kind of écriture féminine (‘feminine writing’) —a mode of composing that refers back to the ‘rhythmic, presymbolic play of mother-infant communication in the infant’s preoedipal stage of fusion with the mother.’ In 1976 Monk discussed her treatment of the voice in similar terms: ‘a tool for discovering, activating, remembering, uncovering, demonstrating primordial/prelogical consciousness.’ One could argue that Monk’s use of non-verbal vocalizations captures what Lorraine describes as jouissance (‘pleasure’)—a mode uninhibited by the patriarchal constraints of symbolic language.
There is a second way in which Monk’s Atlas reflects matriarchal thinking. At various points in the opera, Monk juxtaposes matriarchal and patriarchal societies. The scene Agricultural Community depicts a society in harmony with the earth, as conveyed by the music’s dance-like asymmetrical meters and the harmonious layering of ostinatos. In contrast, Possibility of Destruction is an apocalyptic scene of soldiers and heavy industry. The music here is highly dissonant and disorienting, with its juxtaposition of asynchronized layers of contrasting rhythmic and melodic material.
In Earth Seen from Above, Monk presents us with a vision of a matriarchal order that exists in us all as listeners. She writes in her 1989 process notes: ‘This music has the radiance and resonance that implies the existence of an invisible world that underlies what we think reality is but that we rarely notice or connect with.’ The text of this scene consists of only two syllables (‘nn’ and ‘doh’), and the music conveys the impression of bells ringing at different points in space. Composed for seven parts (SSAATTB), the piece begins with altos and sopranos alone, gradually filling in the notes of a first-inversion major triad. Variations of a simple dotted rhythm appear in each of the parts, resulting in an echo effect between the voices. The steady pulse and slowly moving harmonies give the piece a feeling of timelessness.
Finally, Monk’s collaborative process demonstrates what I take to be her matriarchal mode of production. In addition to being the composer of Atlas, Monk is a performer and contributes to the choreography and the stage and costume design. In contrast to the traditional hierarchal structure of the opera house, the members of Monk’s vocal ensemble are both soloists and ensemble singers. Moreover, Monk’s compositional process leaves room for the performers to improvise. It wasn’t until later in the collaborative process that she notated her music. Overall, her working process distributes creative responsibilities in a more egalitarian fashion.
Tania León’s Scourge of Hyacinths
Based on a radio play by the Nobel-Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Tania León’s 1994 opera Scourge of Hyacinths tells the story of Miguel Domingo, a man unjustly sentenced to death by a military regime in Nigeria. Miguel’s mother pleads with him not to escape prison, invoking the protection of the Yoruba goddess Yemanja. The water hyacinths, a potent symbol of how the military regime violates the civil rights of its people, prevent Miguel from reaching Yemanja’s sacred island. Soyinka’s play captures the tragic confrontation of a matriarchal society with a patriarchal one.
León, who was born in Cuba and is partly of West African ancestry, describes how her own mother would pray to Yemanja in the form of the Virgin Mary, since African religions were forbidden in Cuba. León recalls how she composed Oh Yemanja (‘Mother’s Prayer’) after asking her mother to sing the traditional Yemanja melody from her childhood.
Freely adapted from Soyinka’s play, Oh Yemanja is a prayer sung by Miguel’s mother to the goddess Yemanja, asking the latter for protection of her son. The prayer juxtaposes imagery of clear water, associated with the goddess’s wisdom and guidance, with that of the muddied water obstructed by the ‘fulsome hyacinths’. The clarity of Yemanja’s vision is conveyed by the diatonicism of the piano’s introductory music, which is then interrupted by a chromatic cello line—a sonic image of the muddied waters. The voice begins with a tritone motif that returns throughout the song whenever the mother sings the words Oh Yemanja. Apart from this motivic continuity, the song is through-composed, and the cello line is gradually integrated into Yemanja’s tonal world. The voice remains unresolved at the end, foreshadowing the opera’s tragic outcome. Through the mixture of declamation and lyricism in the vocal writing, we as listeners are meant to sympathize and identify with the mother’s character.
Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda
Guthrie Ramsey refers to a tradition within Afro-modernism that moves beyond the latter’s male-oriented discourse of freedom. The era of Afro-modernism (1940s through the 1970s) saw unprecedented changes for blacks across the globe, including decolonization of Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Consciousness Movement. Women played a key role in this era, and this is particularly evident in the music of the time. Be that as it may, women are often excluded from historical accounts of this era, as a result of the preoccupation with the freedom of the male body and identity. Alluding to the music of Alice Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams, Ramsey points to ‘alternative epistemologies’ within Afro-modernism that go beyond the freedom discourse to address such important values as spiritual growth and community building.
After her husband John Coltrane passed away in 1967, Alice Coltrane (née McLeod) recorded a number of highly original albums that—continuing along the lines of John Coltrane—explored the possibility of using music as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. As Tammy Kernodle points out, although women were frequently barred from participating in free jazz and avant-garde experimentation, Alice Coltrane pushed the genre in new directions that made her one of the most innovative musicians and composers of the time period.
Alice Coltrane’s outstanding creativity and spirituality are especially evident in her fourth album, Journey in Satchidananda (1971). She recorded the album after meeting Swami Satchidananda, a profound spiritual mentor who guided her study of Hinduism. Alice was particularly moved by the swami’s teachings on self-realization and universal love, themes that would frequently appear in her subsequent albums. As discussed by Franya Berkman, this was the first of Alice’s albums to explore non-Western instruments and ideas. In its title track, we hear Alice perform harp alongside Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, Cecil McBee on bass, Tulsi on tamboura, Rashied Ali on drums, and Majid Shabazz on bells and tambourine. An unusual solo instrument in jazz, the harp enabled Alice to explore new sonorities and textures. On this track, Sanders and Alice take turns soloing above the Satchidananda melody, which occurs in the bass as an ostinato figure. This melody later became a hymn when Alice founded her own spiritual center, the Sai Anantam Ashram, in California in 1983. Alice Coltrane’s music effectively breaks down the barrier between performance and ritual spaces.
A list of further reading appears at the bottom of the page.
Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University. His research interests are opera staging, Regieoper, Wagner Studies, and new music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany. Visit his website for more information.
Berkman, Franya J. 2010. Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Bloechl, Olivia and Melanie Lowe. 2015. ‘Introduction: Rethinking Difference.’ In Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship, edited by Olivia Bloechl, Melanie Lowe, and Jeffrey Kallberg, 1-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Göttner-Abendroth, Heide. 1991. The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic. Translated by Maureen T. Krause. Boston: Beacon Press. (See also the original: Die tanzende Göttin: Prinzipien einer matriarchalen Ästhetik. Munich: Verlag Frauenoffensive, 1982.)
Jowitt, Deborah, ed. 1997. Meredith Monk. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Kernodle, Tammy L. 2010. ‘Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Alice Coltrane and the Redefining of the Jazz Avant-Garde.’ In John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music, edited by Leonard L. Brown, 73-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lorraine, Renée Cox. 1991. ‘Recovering Jouissance: Feminist Aesthetics and Music.’ In Women and Music: A History, edited by Karin Pendle, 3-20. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Ramsey, Guthrie P. 2017. ‘Afro-modernism and Music: On Science, Community, and Magic in the Black Avant-Garde.’ In The Transformation of Black Music: The Rhythms, the Songs, and the Ships That Make the African Diaspora, edited by Samuel A. Floyd Jr., Melanie L. Zeck, and Guthrie P. Ramsey, 155-172. New York: Oxford University Press.
Solie, Ruth A. 1995. ‘Introduction: On ‘Difference.’ In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie, 1-22. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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At some point while I was studying for music A Level, we had a class in which we were each performing for constructive criticism. One of the students sat at the piano and sang a song she had written. The accompaniment was simple – a few repeating chords, giving prominence to her expressive voice.
At the end, the teacher remarked that it had been very effective, but it would not be a good submission as composition coursework. This kind of minimal style, he explained, did not exhibit the variety of techniques that examiners would be looking to see that students were aware of.
In other words: the song was lovely, but it did not tick the right boxes for varied harmonic structure that, say, an Elton John song might do. Deeply felt self-expression, an idea which makes studying music attractive, was not what we were there for.
And yet the simplicity of my classmate’s song was certainly of its time. Wayne Marshall has noted how the four-chord sequence used in the 2017 hit single Despacito has become remarkably widespread in recent years. Another article by Dean Olivet identifies a decline of traditional ‘functional’ harmony in modern pop music. Instead, Olivet suggests, much of it meanders or cycles around, ‘like a lost monk chanting in the woods’.
Perhaps this is just a matter of changing fashions. It could be that a more rootless approach to tonality resonates with the zeitgeist in some way. Perhaps harmonic structure, with the potential to ‘modulate’ between keys, has simply become a less important musical parameter. Hip-hop – by one measure the world’s most popular music genre – puts more emphasis on lyrical content, rhythm, and the sonic possibilities of sampling.
Whatever the explanation, the priorities of our A Level were made clear when we learnt to compose perfect cadences in the style of chorales from 18th-century Leipzig.
At around this same time, I became aware of the pianist-composer Ludovico Einaudi. His albums Le Onde (The Waves) and I Giorni (The Days) had been taken up by Classic FM, and he blended the kind of chord sequences that saturate pop music with minimalist piano textures.
I came to admire Einaudi’s piano music as much for its gentle poetry as its audacious simplicity. The remarkable fan base it has gained, including a large cohort of young listeners, is something that should give pause for thought. To some, Einaudi is understood as part of a ‘dumbed down’ wave of classical crossover music. ‘The Land Modulation Forgot’ was the mocking sticker I once noticed attached to his drawer in the music section of a London book shop. Words my A Level teacher might have used to my fellow student, had he been less kind.
But to notice only a lack of modulation in Einaudi’s music reveals a curiously insular view. Besides songs like Despactio, how many musical traditions around the world do not use modulation to a great extent? It must surely be many, especially when – like European music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance – the capabilities of instruments do not easily facilitate it.
After a gap of several years, I recently revisited I Giorni, whosetitle track tinkles away in the background to BBC TV trailers. By chance it was straight after listening to Mali In Oak by Tunde Jegede, a kora player I have written about here. Suddenly, with this serendipity of juxtaposition, Einaudi’s music started to make sense in a different kind of way.
This should have been no surprise. I had completely forgotten that I Giorni was itself inspired by a trip to Mali. The sleeve notes describe a car journey near Bamako with another kora player, Toumani Diabate, where he explained the story behind an ancient Mande song playing on the radio.
I Giorni is not African pastiche, but it is interesting how Einaudi uses the piano much like the 21-string kora, with its far more limited harmonic range. He mostly keeps within one key centre, and manipulates textural figurations in ways that bring out the sound colour of the instrument.
Now our bookshop joker may or may not be culturally insensitive enough to dismiss Mande musical traditions as A Land Modulation Forgot. But either way, a careful listen to I Giorni reveals that there is a subtle musical intelligence at play. Einaudi understands the power of creating space, and making the listener wait. Often simply through pausing, but also by holding back harmonic movement, textural weight, or melodic prominence, and then variously releasing it to shape the music.
It sounds easy, of course. But as with composing text, the ease of simple communication can be deceptive.
With all this in mind, we can see how the idea of Einaudi representing the ‘Relaxing Classics’ touted by Classic FM is misleading. He is tapping into an aesthetic of graceful simplicity, of ‘less is more’, that can be found within all sorts of musical traditions, from Mande song to Gregorian Chant to the wildly successful recording of Gorecki’s third symphony. Einaudi studied under composers like Berio and Stockhausen, but has also said that ‘all my life, my heart has felt closer to Rock’n’Roll’. Many of his melodies would sound, in another arrangement, just like folk music.
Einaudi has never ‘forgotten’ modulation. But he does have an understanding of the broader and older ways that music speaks to people, and the role it can play in busy lives, which renders modulation a moot point.
The scope of his musical sympathies are exemplified most vividly in the 2015 collaborative album Taranta Project, which features African and Turkish musicians. Complete with upbeat percussion and electric guitar, it explores a colourful sound world that is a far cry from the marbled piano tones of I Giorni.
Nonetheless, it is true that much of Einaudi’s music is gentle, and avoids a sense of conflict. His solo piano works tend to move in phases, often separated by pauses, without any sudden extremes of dynamics. As I argued in relation to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, this kind of approach creates a built-in versatility: the music can work as a background to other activities as well as the focal point of a concert experience.
But if listeners find Einaudi ‘relaxing’ – as a lifelong fan of relaxing, I take no issue here – we might also say that, like Olivet’s monk roaming the woods, it is transcendent or meditative. ‘The landscape is always the sand, the sky, the clouds, the sea,’ he writes about his breakthrough album Le Onde. ‘Only the waves change, always the same and always different’.
This peaceful scene painting also points to a humane perception behind his music. Its simplicity expresses a common yearning for a truer existence, the kind of impulse that fires idealistic dreams of quitting the city job and going to live off the land somewhere. The same sort of sentiment expressed in the oft-tweeted lines of Langston Hughes:
I am so tired of waiting, Aren’t you, For the world to become good And beautiful and kind?
In essence, Einaudi’s repeating arpeggios and gentle melodies suggest a form of contented self-limitation. And perhaps that is the one thing our bookshop vandal can never forgive. Such an outlook cannot be computed by the intellectual and aspirational value set that classical music is bound up in, the same values that my fellow A Level student encountered when her sincerely heartfelt song was deemed to be ultimately unworthy.
Like the omnipresent chord sequence of Despacito, his extraordinary popularity probably arises from a multitude of factors. But my hunch is that Einaudi’s quiet music embodies an idea which, for many, carries a quiet appeal. It is an idea that is considered dangerous to any overarching culture – musical, political or otherwise – that conditions us to strive, compete, demand more, and achieve the exceptional. The idea of simply saying ‘this is enough’. That most radical notion: choosing humility.
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In 1795, the 23-year-old Mungo Park set sail from Portsmouth. The young Scottish physician had offered his services to the African Association – a British society set up to fund expeditions into Africa, with a view to opening opportunities for trade.
Park joined the brig Endeavour, whichset out to trade in beeswax and ivoryat the Gambia, the great river flowing out of Africa into the Atlantic. An established meeting point between African and European merchants, the Gambia not only enabled the transport of goods, but also enslaved Africans, to be sold and shipped to the Americas.
Of particular interest to the Association were two features of West African geography which held a near-legendary status: the river Niger, whose precise course was unknown, and the ancient city of Timbuktu, rumoured for its wealth.
Landing at the Gambia and heading upstream to a British trading station, Park stayed for several months to learn the local Mandinka language, before setting out with guides on his journey inland.
It was two years before Park arrived back in Britain. He brought news that he had found the Niger, but had been yet unable to reach Timbuktu. In 1799 his published account of his adventures, Travels In The Interior Districts Of Africa, thrilled the public andbecame a bestseller.
The book’s success is easy to understand – it is an often breathless narrative of a genuinely exciting story. Park being an educated man with an eye for detail, his keenly observed descriptions of unfamiliar cultures and landscapes stimulated the public’s imagination.
In one passage he summarises the African musical instruments he had seen, and he mentions a korro, ‘a large harp with eighteen strings’.
This seems to be the first ever written description of what is today called a kora, a West African lute-harp with twenty-one strings. The kora is a traditional instrument of the Mandinka people, one ethnic group within the larger group of Mande people.
In the 1980s, the American ethnomusicologist Eric Charry made his own trip to West Africa. Here he spent several years studying the wide variety of music of the Mande. Charry’s book Mande Music is a deep, authoritative analysis of a rich musical culture.
The Mande are descendants of the Mali Empire, which at its height in the fourteenth century commanded a vast swathe of land from the Atlantic coast into the centre of West Africa. Today, populations of Mandinka people are found with particularly high concentrations in the former western Mande territories, such as The Gambia, Mali, and Guinea.
Constructed from local materials,the kora is distinctive for its large round resonating chamber made from a calabash gourd. It is one of several instruments performed by Mandinka artisan musicians known as Jalis.
Jalis have equivalents across the Mande peoples, and are referred to more generally as Griots. But music is only part of their role – Jalis are also oral historians, story-tellers, and public speakers. The essence of their art, in Charry’s words, is ‘instilling in the listeners pride and strength derived from the example of the deeds of their ancestors’. Lineage is key – Jalis are born Jalis, and through a limited number of families they trace their ancestry for this role as far back as the thirteenth century.
The kora is not the only instrument belonging to their tradition, but with its striking look and beautiful sound, it has become perhaps the most well known outside Africa. Kora technique is based around polyrhythms, with the two thumbs and forefingers creating a pattern of interweaving parts. Players also specialise in dazzlingly fast improvised solo runs, a technique with the wonderfully onomatopoeic name birimintingo, or ‘rolling’.
When Mungo Park finally set eyes upon the Niger, he had been travelling from the Gambia for seven months. He had survived sickness, thirst, robbery, and even imprisonment to get this far.
One of them called out, geo ajffilli (see the water); and looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission; the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and, having drank of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer, to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success.
While Park observed that the river flowed east, he did not know that its course is in fact a colossal boomerang. Rising in the Guinea Highlands, the impetuous young river charges directly inland, where it forms a wide delta. It then continues almost as far north as the Sahara, before turning to sweep down in an immense arc to the Gulf of Guinea.
Geologists now believe that this bizarre shape resulted from what were once two separate rivers, with the original upper Niger emptying into a large long-lost lake. This would mean that the river Mungo Park found was a descendent of something even more elusive: an ancient river entirely trapped by a continent. Never trading its waters with the world, but spreading out wide to vanish in the hot African sun.
The height of the Mali Empire coincided with the reign of Mansa Musa. He is thought be one of the richest people to have ever lived, and news of his wealth spread far enough for him to be depicted holding a gold coin in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324; one chronicler recorded that his lavish gifts of gold along the way single-handedly deflated the metal’s price in Cairo.
During Musa’s reign the Mali Empire annexed Timbuktu. Situated between the Niger and the southern edge of the Sahara, this was an important destination for the trading caravans coming across the desert. In the following centuries control of Timbuktu changed hands several times, while the city went through a golden age as a centre of learning, with several Madrasas (Islamic universities) and a bustling trade in Arabic manuscripts. When the Andalusi diplomat Leo Africanus visited in the sixteenth century, he was struck to discover that the city had ‘more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise’.
Reports of Timbuktu’s wealth intrigued Europeans, and its remote location beyond the vast Sahara lent it a mystique – even today, its name is a byword for a near-mythical place. By Park’s time, the city’s fortunes were in decline, but its heritage of Islamic scholarship remains a powerful symbol of the propagation of the religion across the African continent.
Political power comes and goes, but ideas can cling on with much greater tenacity. Today the Mandinka people are predominantly Muslim. While the role of Jalis is not religious, quotations from the Quran are common in their songs and speeches. Charry also suggests that their tradition of monophonic singing (without harmony) and the melodic ornamentation of birimintingo may have some connection with this spiritual drift – ‘the musical aesthetics carried in the recitation of the Koran that is bound up in Islam wherever it travels’.
‘They say that when a Griot dies, it’s like a library burning down’, explains the kora player Tunde Jegede, in the 1995 BBC film Africa I Remember.
Born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Jegede was not descended from Mande lineage. But as a child he heard a kora player at the Keskidee Centre, an arts hub for London’s black community. He was so taken by the kora that his mother took him to The Gambia to learn the instrument with a Griot.
Jegede also studied cello in London, and his training in both the European and West African classical traditions has given him a diverse career, in which he has collaborated widely as instrumentalist and composer. He describes an affinity between the Baroque music of Bach and Scarlatti to the polyphonic textures of the kora.
Jegede’s Kora Concerto was commissioned by the Psappha Ensemble. Here the delicate, silvery sound of the instrument integrates into a chamber orchestra of just thirteen players. Far from any awkward incongruity, the intimacy of this musical fusion seems to speak of an intimacy of understanding – a deep appreciation of two traditions that Jegede has been in the unusual position to acquire from a young age.
In 1805 Mungo Park embarked on a second journey to the Gambia, sponsored by the British Government. He would return to the river Niger with a simple intent: to ‘set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination […] or perish in the attempt’.
Park was never to return. The only report of his fate comes via Amadi Fatouma, an African guide who accompanied him nearly to his end. Though much depleted by deaths through sickness, the party had navigated the river past Timbuktu, and far into its southbound section. But they had been repeatedly troubled by hostile local forces. When passing through the rapids at Bussa, in modern-day Nigeria, they were ambushed. Facing volleys of arrows and stones, they fled their boat in a desperate attempt to swim to safety. But Park and the remaining British men drowned.
The mighty Niger, whose glittering waters Park had drunk from ten years previously, was the end of him. He was just 34.
Park may have failed in his mission. But through his writings he revealed a continent rich in natural wonder and human life. He is notable for his self-effacing approach – he does not cast himself as a swashbuckling hero, and he recorded the invaluable kindness shown to him by Africans on his journey, commenting that ‘whatever difference there is between the Negro and European […] there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature’.
Nonetheless, some uncomfortable facts remain. On the first expedition, his route back to the Gambia was secured with the help of a slave trader, and his return to Britain came via a slave ship to Antigua. He wrote with unflinching frankness, and sometimes sorrow, at seeing both the types of servitude practiced among Africans, and the transatlantic trade. On board the slave ship he gave medical assistance, and was able to converse with some slaves in Mandinka. ‘They had in truth need of every consolation in my power to bestow’, he remarked grimly.
A year after his death, Britain passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which abolished the trade of slaves (but not yet slavery itself). Over the following decades, the mouth of the Gambia was bolstered with a gun battery and a fort to enforce the law. But these buildings, like the work of the African Association, fit into a larger pattern of increasing European involvement in Africa, one that would lead to the near-total colonisation of the continent in the early twentieth century.
Today The Gambia, once the western edge of the Empire that brought immense wealth to Mansa Musa, is Africa’s smallest nation state. Its borders, negotiated between Britain and France in the late nineteenth century, track only a few miles each side of its precious river, slipping like a dagger into surrounding Senegal.
Precisely 200 years after Park first landed at the Gambia, the BBC broadcast Africa I Remember. In the film, Jegede returns to visit the Griot who taught him as a child, only now with his sister Maya, who, breaking the tradition of the kora as a male domain, was learning to play it herself.
As the Griot goes into a recitative about Mandinka ancestry, Jegede notes that ‘this is what makes the history a living history. It’s not used in the past tense’. Today, Jegede is just one of many musicians who have brought this Griot tradition to international attention, while finding fresh streams for the sound of the kora in jazz, classical and folk music.
‘I think my quest for African classical music really stems back to the first journey I that made to The Gambia’, he says, ‘because it was there that I got an understanding of my inner self, or my inner voice. And it’s that voice I’ve followed which has led me to this idiom, and redefining it, and the need to redefine it. It’s almost like that’s my way of paying back what I’ve received’.
He tells of how the slave trade was made more real for him when he visited James Island, once the last stop for slaves before their departure from the Gambia. It has since been renamed Kunta Kinteh Island, after the protagonist of Roots, Alex Haley’s hugely popular novel centred on the Gambian slave trade. Park’s travelogue would not be the last bestselling story to emerge from this river.
Walking along the island beach, Jegede described how beads worn by enslaved Africans are still washed ashore to this day. On his first visit, he found one of these beads. Tourists would often take them home – artefacts of a cultural identity left behind, a humanity stripped away.
But Jegede could not. ‘I felt that since that was the last piece of them, if you like, to remain in Africa, the bead that I found I had to pass back into the sea’.
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.
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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.
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‘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 Ist 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.
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