All posts by Corymbus

Alphonse Mucha: Art, Music And Spirituality.

Spring from The Seasons, 1896. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

     By Peter Davison

When the name of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) is mentioned, many claim to know nothing about him. Yet point to a piece of his work, and almost everyone quickly recognises its iconic features.

Mucha was one of the fathers of Art Nouveau and the creator of a poster-style that is still imitated today. There are of course many other reasons to value the work of this formidable creative personality. While Mucha first made his name in Paris in the 1890s, he remains to this day the national artist of the Czech Republic. The range and depth of his work extends well beyond ornament, advertising and nationalism. He was a symbolist and a mystic, who absorbed many of the radical new ideas of his day.

Mucha’s path to prominence in the visual arts was far from straightforward, and he could easily have become a musician. As a child he was, for several years, a chorister at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno, the capital of Moravia. It was here that he first met the composer Leos Janáček, then a choral conductor and teacher working in the city. Young Alphonse was also at this time profoundly impressed by the atmosphere generated by the vaulted Baroque architecture and stained glass of the cathedral, as well as the plainchant and incense associated with the Catholic liturgy that filled his daily routine.

For me the notions of painting, going to church and music are so closely knit that often I cannot decide whether I like church for its music or music for its place in the mystery which it accompanies.

Mucha would later attempt to recreate this potent fusion of music, art, aroma and architecture in his Paris studio. It was arranged like a chapel with an array of screens and drapes, the smell of incense hanging in the air and a harmonium near to hand which Mucha knew how to play. He often appeared like a priestly figure engaged in a mystical rite as he painted.

Alphonse Mucha in his studio, rue du Val-de-Grâce, Paris, c.1900. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

If this seems rather theatrical, we should not be surprised, because Mucha had worked for two years in Vienna for a company making stage-sets. Among the company’s many clients were Vienna’s famous Ringtheater and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Mucha admired the power of theatre to weave a magical influence upon its audience, bringing together many creative elements in the manner of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

Alphonse Mucha had moved to Paris in 1887 to pursue his studies. It was then a melting-pot of innovative thinking about art, spirituality and the destiny of humanity. Many believed that mankind was on the verge of a spiritual revolution and the arts would play a crucial role in this transformation. This creative fervour had been largely stirred up by Wagner’s powerful music-dramas and the Symbolist poetry of Baudelaire. Among Mucha’s close circle were the composer Frederick Delius, the painter Paul Gaugin and the experimental Swedish dramatist August Strindberg.

All were strongly influenced by the Symbolist creed which proclaimed that art should be atmospheric not realistic, symbolic rather than literal in meaning. Theosophy had also taken root in France through the arcane writings of Madame Blavatsky, encouraging Mucha to experiment with Spiritualism and other esoteric practices. Mucha also became a Freemason in 1891 which, in those days, was a closed religious brotherhood characterised by its use of archaic symbols and rituals. From these varied sources, Mucha developed a unique spiritual outlook, grafting unorthodox beliefs onto his Catholic background.

Alphonse Mucha self-portrait, Prague, 1930s. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

From Theosophy Mucha learned that the world was the creation of Universal Mind, often described as the ‘world soul’. He believed this divine presence to be feminine, and it is represented in his many delightful images of young women embodying health, beauty and pure Nature. Their curvilinear forms express ideal beauty which has the power able to raise humanity to higher spiritual planes. Mucha observed:

Visible nature, seen through our eyes, surrounds us with rich and harmonious forms. The marvellous poem of the human body, those of animals, and the music of lines and colours emanating from flowers, leaves and fruits are the most obvious teachers of our eyes and taste.

Mucha’s most profound expression of his ‘new age’ spirituality is Le Pater (1899); a book of elaborately illuminated pages depicting The Lord’s Prayer including his own unique interpretation of the text. In Le Pater, God is not a moral force but nourishes the human soul; a more maternal role than is customarily found in Christian belief. Many of Le Pater’s ornate symbols are derived from Freemasonry and Mucha’s own compendium of Art Nouveau motifs based on leaves, flowers and abstract forms. The pictorial element is full of shadowy images of humanity’s struggle to reach the divine, as well as the invisible forces that control human existence.

Le Pater (1899), Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

In Symbolist art and Theosophy Mucha also found confirmation that the human imagination responds well to multiple sensory stimulus, as he had witnessed in Brno Cathedral and the theatres of Vienna in his younger days. Theosophists argued that human emotions could be expressed as sound or light, because they originated from the same vibrational source. Here Mucha found a direct link between music and the visual arts. In his aesthetics, sensuality and spirituality are one. Music, theatre and the visual arts can represent the ultimate transcendent unity of all things through symbols that directly address the unconscious mind.

My own fascination with Mucha and his circle owes a lot to serendipity. In the Summer of 2017, I found myself at an exhibition of his work in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. There was the full range of his oeuvres, from his commercial posters to the magnificent dramatic scenes of his Slav Epic. Towards the end of the exhibition, some recorded music for flute and piano was playing discretely in the background. I tried to place it. Something by Ravel perhaps, or was it more Eastern European? It had a lilting, lyrical quality. The only clue to its origin was a small plaque stating that the music was by Geraldine Mucha. Was this Mucha’s daughter, wife or some other relative?

Further research revealed that Geraldine Mucha (1917-2012) was Alphonse’s daughter-in-law, the second wife of his son Jiří. Her maiden name was Thomson and, although born in London, her ancestry was Scottish. She had studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, taking lessons from Sir Arnold Bax and the flute-playing William Alwyn among others.

Geraldine Mucha. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

At this point in the story, I contacted a flautist friend, Emily Beynon, and asked her if she knew the piece, which was called Naše Cesta – ‘Our Journey’. Emily was eager to find out more about a possible new addition to the flute repertoire, so she contacted the Mucha Foundation, acquiring a copy of the work’s hand-written original. The piece had been completed in 2008, but never formally published, although it had been performed by its dedicatee, the principal piccolo of the Czech Philharmonic, Jan Machat.

The question then was how to present this little-known music to the public? We came up with a programme exploring cultural connections between Paris and Prague; a sequence which would be performed against a backdrop sequencing the full range of Alphonse Mucha’s artwork. The project was called The Colour of Music, and it aimed to illustrate the relationship between music and the visual arts, including the phenomenon of synaesthesia – the ability to see colour while composing or listening to music. The concert was introduced by Mucha’s grandson John, who runs the Mucha Foundation and lives in the UK.

So it was that his mother Geraldine’s Naše Cesta received its UK premiere in Manchester on 6 October 2018, alongside works by Fauré, Debussy, Janáček and Martinů. Emily went on to edit the manuscript assisted by her accompanist Andrew West, and the work was eventually published in the summer of 2019 by Edizioni Riverberi Sonori. Our journey, to coin a phrase, had been from a haunting snippet of music heard in Liverpool to something that could be held in the hand and which was available to a wide public.

Geraldine‘s husband Jiří was neither a painter nor a musician, but he did spend time in Paris where he was a close friend of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Jiří provided the libretto for his Field Mass, which was a tribute to Czechs fighting for France during the Second World War. Jiří’s first wife was Vítězslava Kaprálová, also a prodigiously talented composer who had been Martinů’s pupil and lover. She died in 1940 of a mysterious illness just two months into her marriage. To bring this story full circle, during the war, Jiří Mucha was compelled to live in Britain and this is how he met Geraldine Thomson. The ageing Alphonse meanwhile had remained in Prague, where his status as national artist posed a threat to the Nazis. They did not imprison him, but he died in July 1939 after an intense interrogation by the Gestapo.

Since those awful times, subsequent generations of the Mucha family have gradually restored what was lost. Jiří and Geraldine returned to Prague in 1945, where Jiří eventually became a successful novelist and a champion of his father’s work. Geraldine was a loyal wife, who struggled to obtain Jiří’s release from jail in 1954, after he was accused by the Communist regime of spying. But she also kept composing, even after Jiří’s death in 1991.

Several of her pieces have now been recorded, and her work is waiting to be discovered by a wider public who will be beguiled by her hybrid musical style. Her Scottish and Czech backgrounds blend seamlessly in folk-like rhythms and attractive melodies, while her harmony encompasses Ravelian sensuality and occasional spiky Bartokian dissonance. What her music lacks in grand ambition is more than compensated by her amiability and natural lyricism.

I feel a special gratitude to Alphonse and the wider Mucha clan, because of a chance occurrence in a Liverpool Art Gallery in 2017. One thing led to another, unlocking a fascinating world of historical and creative significance. Some elements of the concert programme which Emily Beynon and Andrew West performed in Manchester in 2018, including Naše Cesta, will be played again in a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 2 February 2020. John Mucha will be there once more to say a few words about his illustrious forbears. Unsurprisingly, the concert is sold out, but please do explore the rich heritage of the Mucha family via the Foundation’s excellent website and, if you are a flautist, why not add Geraldine Mucha’s charming piece to your repertoire?

Peter Davison is a cultural commentator, concert programmer and musicologist who was Artistic Consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall from 1996 to 2018.

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Gaia Theory

The Earth photographed by Apollo 8, 1968. Wikimedia Commons.

In 2008, the composer Jonathan Dove was invited to take part in Cape Farewell – a trip to the Arctic with the aim of allowing various creative types to witness the rapid effects of global warming. As he explained in an interview with Kate Molleson, it was organised in the hope that artists might be able to communicate something to the public that climate scientists, increasingly alarmed but habitually ignored, could not.

The experience informed a number of his subsequent works. In 2014, Dove turned his creative attention to the scientist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Hypothesis’. First developed in the 1970s with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Gaia posits that our planet operates like an enormous self-regulating organism, which maintains near-optimal conditions for life. Named after an ancient Greek deity of the Earth, the hippyish flavour of this influential idea has brought it attention from environmentalists outside the scientific community, and attracted criticism within it too.

James Lovelock in 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

In responding to what he saw on Cape Farewell, Dove wanted to avoid ‘finger-wagging’ – which can spell doom for any artist. In particular he was attracted to Lovelock’s remarks that the Earth’s living systems are a kind of dance, and his Gaia Theory for symphony orchestra treats this optimistic hypothesis with bright colour and rhythmic vitality. Rather than warn us directly about the degradation of the world, this work seems to encourage a child-like excitement and wonder at the magnificence of our planet, the only one in the solar system blessed with the dazzlingly complex phenomenon of life.

We begin, perhaps inevitably, with evolution. From the germ of a chirping woodwind idea, Dove builds up layers which very quickly grow into a pulsing complex of sound. But it is not complicated to listen to – this music falls easily on the ear, with a Technicolor splendour that brings to mind a very different planet: Holst’s Jupiter. Its slabs of interacting parts don’t develop so much as suddenly crack and shift, like geological eras.

In the second movement this energy evaporates, revealing an angelic paradise – all sustained strings, hovering woodwinds and twinkling tuned percussion. It is a wonderland in which we gaze around and marvel, but nothing comes to the foreground strongly enough to dominate our attention. We are left only with quiet attentiveness. Everything matters.

The third movement brings back the intensity of the first, but introduces surprising elements. Low piano riffs and a hi-hat groove move us into jazz territory. Gaia has become a kind of cosmic jam session – unpredictable, whimsical, even fun. Only at the very end do we encounter an alarming note, when the culmination of a full orchestral climax accelerates ominously, before dramatically breaking off.

In the few years since it was composed, Gaia Theory has already been recorded twice. But in the same period, the direness of the planetary crisis has established itself more clearly in the public consciousness.

In choosing to focus on the Gaia Hypothesis, Dove has created a disarmingly direct celebration of the living systems which we are damaging at such alarming speed. Some may find this choice a worthwhile reminder of the awesomeness of nature, something that can keep us mindful of the need for radical change. Others might feel that – the risk of ‘finger-wagging’ notwithstanding – it’s no longer artistically tenable to tackle this kind of topic in a way that side-steps the inherent sadness, anger and dread of our planetary crisis.

Either way, Lovelock’s idea is much grander in sweep than the timescales of human civilisations, which are to the history of life on Earth an almost infinitesimally recent development. Even if global warming accelerates humanity towards a mass extinction event – which has happened to this planet before – in the comparative blink of its ancient eye, life on Earth will have reinvented itself. Small comfort it may be, but one way or another the dance will go on.

Listen to Gaia Theory recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Josep Pons or the BBC Philharmonic with Timothy Redmond.

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George Lloyd: Myths And Misconceptions

George Lloyd at the Lyceum Theatre in 1935, conducting his opera Iernin with The New English Opera Company. Picture shared with kind permission of William Lloyd.

     By Peter Davison

About a year ago, I was asked by William Lloyd, nephew of the Cornish composer George Lloyd (1913-98) to write an extended essay re-evaluating his uncle’s music. William and his wife Alison have run the George Lloyd Society, its extensive library and archive for many years. At times, it has been a thankless task, because interest in George Lloyd has waned since his death in 1998, although it revived briefly in 2013 for his centenary. That year, Lloyd’s music featured at the last night of the Proms, which included a performance of his HMS Trinidad March, but this moment of international prominence proved little more than a flash in the pan. Such opportunities only serve to amplify frustration; so close and yet so far!

Perhaps this feeling of mild desperation persuaded William to engage me. He knew I would be sympathetic, even if I was largely ignorant of George Lloyd’s considerable body of work. I knew there were symphonies but was surprised to learn that there were twelve of them. There were also concertos – four for piano, two for violin and one for cello. In addition, there were three operas, several grand choral works, music for brass band, a clutch of tone poems and various chamber and solo piano works. I left the archive one day, burdened with a weighty box of scores and over twenty CDs, and began working my way through George Lloyd’s seven decades of output.

What I noticed, as I set about this Herculean task, was that it was hard to listen to this music without its historical baggage. I found that, as someone with two music degrees and thirty-five years of experience programming public concerts, listening to Lloyd’s music was, at times, an assault on all my assumptions about how twentieth century music should sound.

My impression of Lloyd, prior to this immersive exploration of his work, was of a fluent but predictable tunesmith in the mould of Eric Coates. Like every half-baked notion, it was easy to find support for it. In the 1980s, when a BBC producer approached the then Director of Radio 3, John Drummond, about performing George Lloyd’s music at the Proms, the alleged response was ‘over my dead body’. In his eyes, Lloyd represented everything modernism was meant to oppose; populism, heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality and romantic clichés.

The story of George Lloyd’s life equally threw spanners in the works. He was no ordinary talent, but an acclaimed prodigy and war hero. Born in Cornwall in 1913, Lloyd wrote and conducted his first opera Iernin aged 21, establishing himself as a national figure hailed by Vaughan Williams, Thomas Beecham and John Ireland. But Lloyd sacrificed his promising career to join the Royal Marines during the Second World War, serving on the Arctic convoys, until a terrible accident in 1942 left him seriously injured. It was thought he would never recover, but his wife Nancy had other ideas. She took charge, using unorthodox healing techniques such as hypnotherapy, so that Lloyd recovered sufficiently to write two mighty symphonies; the Fourth and Fifth.

Just after the War, Lloyd found the BBC less receptive to his work. This and his fragile health persuaded him to retreat from musical life. He moved to Dorset to grow mushrooms and carnations for over twenty years. Among his supporters in those fallow times was the pianist, John Ogdon, who in 1962 persuaded Charles Groves and the Liverpool Philharmonic to perform Lloyd’s First Piano Concerto; a taut one-movement work of tormented dissonance which was in many respects untypical of him.

In the early 1980s, Sir Edward Downes persuaded the BBC to drop their scepticism towards Lloyd, and he began performing the symphonies (and recording some of them) with the BBC Northern in Manchester. Then, in 1984, an American Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, scooped Lloyd up as Principal Conductor, commissioning two symphonies from him (the Eleventh and Twelfth). Now in his seventies, Lloyd, assisted by his nephew William, went on to record almost all his music on CD, using major professional orchestras and performers to ensure the highest standards. In this last phase of his life, Lloyd completed a sequence of ambitious works including his Symphonic Mass (1992) and a final touching Requiem (1998) for choir and organ.

But what of those myths and misconceptions? I had realised at an early stage what a good job my academic education had done to skew my judgement. I struggled to listen with a genuinely open mind. The intellect acted as a carping critic, but the heart responded on a more human level. If this music was so awful, why was I so moved by it? It had many of the characteristics attributed by its hostile critics, but could their premises be suspect? Perhaps the naïve, heartfelt lyricism of this music was not a curse after all. We live in an age of irony, obscuring complexity and scarcely concealed cynicism, and this music was not capable of any of these things. It was sincere and good-humoured, in general terms optimistic and generous, yet never facile or evasive of darker emotions.

It is true that some of Lloyd’s early symphonies are too close to their models which are found in Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. We hear a young composer searching for his authentic voice, but this seems hardly cause to condemn it. His first opera Iernin (1934) astonishes with its dramatic and musical fluency. Here was a composer with a wonderful ear for orchestral colour, who owed much to Berlioz, Verdi and Tchaikovsky. While he clearly belonged to the symphonic tradition of Elgar, his provenance was more European than English, with little trace of the pastoralism associated with Vaughan Williams. Lloyd evidently defied categorisation. He was his own man, composing in his own way.

That fashion and musical politics left Lloyd behind after 1945 was a terrible misfortune. Some of the mud from that debacle still sticks, even if there is now a greater openness to music that is straightforwardly lyrical. For example, Lloyd’s Fourth Symphony (1946) received a critical mauling at the hands of the BBC’s assessors, yet it is always popular with audiences, providing an eloquent testimony of Lloyd’s wartime experiences. His symphonic slow movements are always masterful and memorable; sustained lyricism and formal balance combined to perfection, and the Lento Tranquillo of the Fourth is one of his best.

I discovered that Lloyd’s mature musical language is not regressive, but highly sophisticated and supple, encompassing complex modal harmonies, fluid chromaticism and even tone-rows. He had absorbed the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok, while his piano works, many of them written for John Ogdon, are far from exercises in picturesque Romanticism. An African Shrine (1966) is a tour de force of virtuosity and harmonic invention, marked by pounding rhythms and complex textures.

Photo shared with kind permission of William Lloyd. Copyright The George Lloyd Society.

In his later years, Lloyd continued to show great ambition and a willingness to explore the big questions of human existence, something most contemporary composers are reluctant to do. The Twelfth Symphony (1989) is a profound statement of an old man’s spiritual serenity and is filled by many hauntingly beautiful passages. The late choral works are also masterpieces. The Vigil of Venus (1980) has pagan vitality and exultant lyricism, while his exuberant Symphonic Mass (1992) was conceived to offer thanks for a good life, despite its traumas and frustrations. Lloyd was by his own confession an optimistic believer, although not a conventionally religious man. A Litany (1995) is another substantial choral work which sets a poem by John Donne, concluding with the plea:

That music of Thy promises,
Not threats in thunder may
Awaken us to our just offices;

Lloyd responds with a joyful chorus, reminding us that we should never underestimate the power of music to awaken in us ideals and new possibilities. In an age of fake news, social polarisation and terrorism, we surely need more of such music and the hope that it can provide.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator, who was formerly Artistic Consultant to The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. He was editor of ‘Reviving the Muse; Essays on Music after Modernism’ (Claridge Press 2001), and he is currently artistic adviser to the George Lloyd Society.

To read Peter’s full essay on George Lloyd, The Swing of the Pendulum – George Lloyd and the Crisis of Romanticism.

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Elgar, Chausson, Marie-Nicole Lemieux

Edward Elgar, Wikimedia Commons.

The composers Edward Elgar and Ernest Chausson were born just two years apart in the 1850s. Their fates, however, would turn out to be very different. Elgar lived until 1934, whereas Chausson met a tragically early end in 1899 when he crashed his bicycle into a wall. The Frenchman left some beautifully lush scores and a sad sense of what might have been, while his English counterpart spent the 1900s composing many of his most famous works.

On disc, these composers are often heard alongside their compatriots. But a new release from French-Canadian contralto Mari-Nicole Lemieux unites them, drawing on the theme of the very thing that separates their homelands: the sea.

Ernest Chausson.

Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Chausson’s Poem Of Love And The Sea were both completed in the 1890s, and both are about half an hour long – but there the similarities end. On Mer(s), accompanied by the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine and conductor Paul Daniel, we hear two seas: one a picturesque backdrop to multifarious human life, the other an overwhelming barrier and symbol of helplessness.

While Elgar chose to set five poets for five songs, Chausson drew solely on the words of Maurice Bouchor, in two long movements with a short interlude. The narrator seems to be at the coast, pining for a love who is, or is about to be, separated from him across the waters. He sets the scene in sensual detail, with fragrant lilacs and sun-kissed waves (see this translation by Christopher Goldsack).

To be frank, Bouchor’s verse soon becomes tiresomely monotone in its despondency, so it’s fortunate that Chausson was able to bring it to life with music of gorgeous, swooning romanticism, and attentive word-painting. Much of the score is languid and softly textured, but the end of the first movement builds into a magnificent sea vista, with rapid woodwind flourishes adding bright flecks of foam to the cresting waves:

the sea is singing, and the mocking wind
jeers at the anguish of my heart.

With its drawn-out operatic swells, Chausson’s ocean of sound is a capacious one, fit for wallowing in. Elgar, on the other hand, has no time for such indulgence. You can imagine his moustache bristling as he briskly tells Chausson’s work to pull itself together. His sea is something to be sailed on, swum in, charted and navigated.

Sea Pictures is classic Elgar of the Enigma Variations era – its beautiful lyricism controlled by the firm hand of late-Victorian reasonableness. There are impressionistic touches, such as the deep bass notes in Sea Slumber Song which lend a powerful sense of ocean pull. Contrastingly, In Haven (Capri), which sets words by his wife Alice, has a wonderful silky lightness. When Lemieux sings

Closely let me hold thy hand,
Storms are sweeping sea and land

the music is so dainty that it practically winks in conspiracy against the words. Unlike the anguished interiority of Chausson’s ‘poem’, these pictures can be framed, and viewed at a knowing distance.

The quiet piety of Browning’s Sabbath Morning At Sea is worked up into a swell of noble yearning, while the wistful Where Corals Lie teases us with allargando bars that flirt with music-hall sentimentality. In the final song, The Swimmer, we find ourselves among choppy waves, with the kind of striding harmonic sequences familiar from the Pomp And Circumstance marches.

So while Chausson’s narrator is doomed to languish on the sand, like a King Canute of lost love, Elgar’s cycle affirms the confident aspiration to match Neptune’s forces, with the rousing close:

I would ride as never man has ridden
In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden,
I would ride as never man has ridden
To gulfs foreshadowed through straits forbidden,
Where no light wearies and no love wanes.

These works make for a fascinating pairing, one which demonstrates the distinct musical personalities of these two composers, divided as they were by much more than the English Channel. The album also features La Mer, a rare choral ‘Ode symphonique’ by Victorin de Joncières. Explore your listening options here.

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Schnittke, Danish String Quartet

Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray. Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Schnittke’s third string quartet, composed in 1983, starts with an unusual premise. We hear quotations from three different composers, spanning the Renaissance to the twentieth century: Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.

First, mysteriously, are two short fragments from Lassus’s Stabat Mater. Concordant and serene, these are recognisably from another age entirely. But the subsequent quotations – from Beethoven’s ‘Great Fugue’ for string quartet, and Shostakovich’s ‘DSCH’ monogram – follow on with jarringly opaque dissonance.

Out of these diverse elements, Schnittke constructs three movements in his particular brand of ‘polystylism’. And a new recording by the Danish String Quartet – the second in their ‘Prism’ series – brings this arresting work to rigorous, vigorous life.

There’s certainly a great deal of cleverness in how Schnittke combines and transforms this material (for an in-depth analysis, see this Master’s Thesis). But as a listener, what matters most is how the quartet continually twists and turns through a range of colours, textures, and stylistic allusions, like a kind of warped dream.

Nothing stays in focus for long. The second movement opens with a tugging scherzo theme that could have been written by Schubert, but almost instantly it’s upended in a violent car-crash. Schnittke is dementedly determined to reinvent his material, and keep us constantly guessing where we’re headed.

This is splintered, knotty, potentially confounding music – but the Danish Quartet inject ice and fire into its veins, with a performance of tremendous energy and panache that I find utterly convincing.

And for all the music’s harsh rhetoric, as the serene fragment of Lassus keeps floating back in its various guises, it seems to be a reminder of possibilities lying beyond all this furious invention – perhaps something purer than Beethoven’s struggle for greatness and the clever self-awareness of Shostakovich.

How does a composer say something new, under the crushing weight of music already written? The unusual premise of this quartet is to pointedly shrug off that burden, and the result feels egalitarian and curiously liberating. Nothing here, from the anachronistic opening to its quietly ambiguous ending, seems to be an answer to anything. And it doesn’t need to be. Schnittke shows that continual questioning – with the steeliest commitment from composer and performers alike – is fascinating enough.

Hear Prism II by the Danish String Quartet on Apple Music or Spotify.

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Tree Lines

London Plane trees in Victoria Park, east London.

If you’ve been following the news recently, you may have heard more about trees than usual. In Ethiopia, a reported 350 million of them were planted in a single day. At the same time, horrific fires have been devastating forests from Siberia to the Amazon.

We now know that protecting the world’s forests is crucial to combatting climate change, but so too is increasing the number of trees on the planet. In Britain – where most ancient woodland was long ago cleared – fields, hedgerows, and barren uplands may look ‘natural’, but this island would be almost entirely forested were it not for human intervention.

There is debate about how reforestation should be achieved; whether through artificial planting or natural regeneration. But either way, it is clear that trees are now political – perhaps more so than they have ever been.

Tree of life motif on a screen at Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, Gujurat, India. Vrajesh jani, Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, trees have always been an important resource for wood and fruits. They’ve also taken root in our imaginations – in their still grandeur, they invite contemplation of that which is bigger and older than us. The Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under a fig tree. Isaac Newton contemplated an apple tree in theorising gravity. Various mythologies have drawn on the idea of sacred trees, or the ‘tree of life’. As Yeats wrote:

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night […]

Consider too the eighteenth-century poem Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, which was set for choir in hauntingly simple music by Elisabeth Poston.

The tree of life, my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green,
The trees of nature, fruitless be,
Compar’d with Christ the apple tree.

Poston’s opening line rises in an arpeggio, a delicate sketch of upward growth. The harmonies in this short work are completely diatonic, with a purity that fits the devotional simplicity of words.

Of course, the world of music owes a more fundamental debt to trees: many instruments are made from wood. Often the type of tree is an important part of their traditional construction – whether it’s the perfect spruce specimens prized by luthiers, or the soft apricot wood from which the Armenian duduk is carved.

Alan Hovhaness’ Spirit Of The Trees is scored for harp and guitar. These two similar but distinct timbres are intertwined in a series of movements which unfold without any hurry, nor do they seem structured toward a particular destination. Altogether, this subtle sound-world seems to suggest we slow down and pay attention to these organisms, which we so easily pass by.

More arresting is Caroline Shaw’s The Beech Tree, from her string quartet album Orange. Mature beeches grow to a magnificent size, and this track is based around a chord progression rising in thirds, which builds in texture to create a feeling of resonant joy spreading out to the sky. (In a nice coincidence, the ‘root’ notes of this progression, C-E-G-B, are the same pitches as at the start of Poston’s work).

Trees are not just a rural phenomenon of course – their shade and decoration makes them an important part of city life. Respighi’s colourful symphonic poem Pines Of Rome uses trees to explore different aspects of the Italian capital – from the quiet of Janiculum Hill, with its recording of a nightingale, to the triumph of a marching army on the Appian Way. But these pines, though magnificent, are not much more than a picturesque symbol of the city.

Contrastingly, in the music and writings of Toru Takemitsu, we find a composer who thought deeply about nature. According to Noriko Ohtake, writing before the composer’s death, ‘Takemitsu’s view of contemporary music is that it does not conform with Nature, but that it has developed while excluding Nature. Unless music achieves equivalence with Nature, it can never be considered the foremost language of humanity’.

A set of beech trees with exposed roots at Avebury stone circle, Wiltshire. Visitors to the prehistoric site have tied the branches with ribbons and messages to lost loved ones.

Takemitsu’s fascinating personal essay Mirror of Tree, Mirror of Grass went so far as to describe Western music history as having grown through individual geniuses like trees, while non-Western musics he compared to grass – covering the ground and attached to the contours of its home.

In the percussion trio Rain Tree, we can hear how Takemitsu’s music doesn’t tend to impose itself firmly, but fluctuates like wind in the leaves with finesse and spontaneity. It was inspired by passage in a novel by Kenzaburō Ōe:

It has been named the ‘rain tree,’ for its abundant foliage continues to let fall rain drops collected from last night’s shower until well after the following midday. Its hundreds of thousands of tiny leaves – finger-like – store up moisture while other trees dry up at once. What an ingenious tree, isn’t it?

Here, wooden and metallic tones suggests a complex interplay of water drops in the canopy. And similarly specific in inspiration is the brooding, mysterious Tree Line for chamber orchestra. This was intended as an homage to a row of acacia trees growing near the composer’s mountain workshop, which he described as ‘graceful, and yet daunting’.

Perhaps this description sums up something of our complicated attitude to trees. We might admire their form, but they also make us feel small. By extension, forests are both beautiful and daunting – unwelcoming places that do not exist to serve us, and which deny us more profitable uses of land. Dark woods, we may recall, loom as places of danger in our oldest fairytales.

A grove of trees by Gustav Klimt, Wikimedia Commons

But with the crucial need to increase tree cover, how we imagine forests, and portray them in art, becomes more important. We can see them positively – as places bristling with life. Arnold Bax’s tone poem The Happy Forest sets out as a jolly, scampering scherzo full of contrast and colour, while a translucently beautiful slow theme at its heart suggests that this sylvan paradise is fragile.

Sibelius’s Tapiola, on the other hand, is much more unsettling. It is named after Tapio, the wood God of Finnish myth from The Kalevala. As the composer introduced it:

Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

The music of this austere, icy work seems to emerge organically out of its terse opening statement. With pregnant silences and near-silent whispers, much of it suggests an eerie stillness; at other times its forces coalesce into a kind of horrible majesty. In one remarkable passage, string tremolos run up and down furiously and all sense of tonality dissolves. We are briefly lost in a nightmare panic.

Bax and Sibelius both responded imaginatively to the idea of forests. But composer Judith Weir describes how, in one of her projects, the theme seemed to choose her:

I started to write this piece with nothing but the opening melody in mind. As I arranged this apparently simple material for an initial ensemble of four solo violas and cello, the intertwining lines seemed to be sprouting musical leaves; or, in other words, interesting melodic and harmonic fragments were being generated almost as if in a process of nature.

She called the resulting work Forest, and its self-perpetuating counterpoint suggests a benign place, blossoming with colour and geometric fascination. It is less an object on which to project human feelings as a form which is growing and interacting with itself, and which we could imagine developing indefinitely after the final bars have ended.

It seems to me that this understanding of forest as a dynamic process is the most crucial to our current moment. We know that trees are more than shading street decoration, and forests are more than places to admire on a hike through a national park. They are a part of the planetary system in which live and on which we will depend.

What’s more, trees are not nearly so still as they appear. As a recent New Yorker piece explained, they respond to their environment all the time – through the stimuli of night and day, sunlight and rain – with changes imperceptible to the naked eye.

Ginkgo leaves photographed by Lynn Greyling, public domain license. The ginkgo tree is a ‘living fossil’ – the last surviving species of a wider family of trees which were widespread in the age of the dinosaurs.

It’s awful to watch in despair as vast tracts of the world burn. But there is much we can do, through political pressure and consumer choices, to resist the forces that drive deforestation around the world (cutting back on beef is a good place to start). And as the debate continues about where and how to increase tree cover, perhaps one part of our response should be to pay more attention to these gentle giants, which have so much to tell us about the interconnected world we live in, if we learn how to read them.

Here in Britain at least there is one small piece of good news: this month the Forestry Commission is celebrating its 100th birthday. To mark the occasion, and to recognise the importance of forests in arts and culture, they have commissioned a new work by the poet Tiffany Francis-Baker.

Reading about the centenary, it surprised me to learn that since the organisation’s founding, England’s forest cover has doubled. A moment, then, to recognise that progress can be made. But not for forgetting how far there still is to go.

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Sussex By The Sea

The old windmill on Beacon Hill, Rottingdean.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

All villages have stories to tell. Many are mere provincial tales; some might contain a passing connection to a figure of wider renown.

But there are a few villages which are blessed with unusual distinction. One of these is nestled in a dry valley running down to the Sussex coast, in the Downs to the east of Brighton.

While the buildings of its seafront are unremarkable, to walk to the centre of Rottingdean is almost like stepping into a children’s picture-book of rural England. There’s a pond, a green, an old church, a variety of characterful houses and beach-pebble walls, all overlooked by black windmill on a nearby hill.

I recently spent some time cat-sitting for a relative here, and learned a little of its history. There are a few stories of smuggling, hardly uncommon on this coastline. In 1377, the village was even attacked by French raiders.

But most surprising to learn was how, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, a series of extraordinary cultural figures passed through this place – spanning politics, visual art, literature and music.

North End House, now knocked together from separate properties.

On the west side of the green is a house with a plaque honouring the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Today he is best known for his paintings in a Pre-Raphaelite style and the stained glass designs he made for the firm of William Morris.

In the early 1880s Burne-Jones was living in London with his family when this house became their country retreat. His wife Georgiana described encountering Rottingdean one ‘perfect autumn afternoon’:

The little place lay peacefully within its grey garden walls, the sails of the windmill were turning slowly in the sun […] The road I followed led me straight to the door of a house that stood empty on the village green and we bought it at once.

The idealised aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelites drew on Medieval art and literature, and for an artist with these sensibilities it is easy to see how a pretty rural village would have appealed as a getaway from Victorian London.

St Margaret’s Church and its walled gardens.

Across the green from their house, several Burne-Jones windows can be seen in St. Margaret’s church, including a depiction of St. Margaret to mark the marriage of his daughter of the same name. Among other projects he worked on in Rottingdean was a private ‘flower book’, with roundel illustrations based on the common names of flowers.

But Rottingdean turned out not to be quite the perfect pastoral idyll. As Derek Heater has described in his village history, Burne-Jones complained about noise, and opposed the introduction of electricity. The village also became the terminus for an extraordinary seashore electric railway running from Brighton through the shallow waters, and when this enterprising leisure venture was damaged in a storm, he admitted to ‘rather spiteful rejoicing’.

The Seashore Electric Railway, or ‘Daddy Long-Legs’, Wikimedia Commons.

Metropolitan types securing a second home in the country, only to find it doesn’t exist to serve their fantasy of rural life? Some things never change.

In 1889 the Burne-Joneses bought the neighbouring Aubrey Cottage, knocked it through into one property and renamed it North End House. It’s a rather grand sight, but further down the high street stands a building that’s become considerably more neglected.

The former St. Aubyn’s School.

Closed since 2013, this used to be St. Aubyn’s School. Back in the 1880s it was known as Field House, and it was here, while the Burne-Joneses were staying a minute’s walk away, that a young Ralph Vaughan Williams was educated from the age of 11 to 14.

His widow Ursula’s biography paints a picture of a happy time here, and Vaughan Williams benefitted from excellent music tuition. He learned some of Bach’s easier piano pieces, and performed the violin in school concerts. On a trip to Brighton he was wowed to hear Hans Richter conduct Wagner’s prelude from Lohengrin and The Ride Of The Valkyries.

These were formative years for his musical awakening, but Field House also gave Vaughan Williams a fondness of the Sussex landscape. ‘The great bare hills impressed me by their grandeur’, he said. ‘I have loved the Downs ever since’.

If some villages attract people of unusual distinction, in Rottingdean’s case that is partly because some families do the same. Georgiana Burne-Jones was born a MacDonald, and was one of several sisters who made remarkable marriages that would leave their mark here.

Georgiana, painted by Edward, with their children Philip and Margaret in the background. Wikimedia Commons.

Agnes MacDonald married the architect Ambrose Poynter; their son Edward was a respected painter. Louisa MacDonald wed businessman Alfred Baldwin, and their son Stanley Baldwin would go on to be Prime Minister three times. As a young man visiting Rottingdean, Stanley met Lucy Ridsdale, whose family owned the large house The Dene, and in 1892 they were married in St. Margaret’s. 

Meanwhile, Alice MacDonald had married the artist John Lockwood Kipling, and moved with him to India. Their son, Rudyard Kipling, stayed in Rottingdean as a teenager. In 1897, the now thirty-one-year-old had made a name for himself as a writer when he decided to rent a house here called The Elms, with wife Carrie and two daughters in tow.

The village pond.

It must have seemed auspicious that soon after their arrival in Rottingdean, their son John was born. Sadly however, Edward Burne-Jones died the following year, but there were still happy times with extended family staying around the village.

‘One could throw a cricket ball between any one house to the other’, Kipling wrote of their various dwellings, and the young Baldwin and Kipling offspring would be bundled into farm-carts and taken by horse up into the Downs for ‘jam-smeared picnics.’

Such was the magic of the place that Kipling was inspired to write the poem Sussex. It concludes:

God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea! 

But Kipling tended to spend the winters abroad, and as a writer of Empire, his works of the Rottingdean years have a considerably less cute side. For Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee he composed Recessional, which seemed to foretell the British Empire’s decline. Soon after, The White Man’s Burden became one of his most controversial poems, revealing the racism that underpinned Western conquests with the lines ‘Your new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child’.

America was the new rising power, and Kipling sent The White Man’s Burden to Theodore Roosevelt with a message encouraging the American invasion of the Philippines. During the Boer War, he wrote The Absent Minded-Beggar to help raise funds for troops, which was set to music by Arthur Sullivan.

Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.

His imperialism put him at loggerheads with the widowed Georgiana, who was an idealistic socialist. She busied herself on Rottingdean’s parish council, trying to improve the lot of ordinary village folk, though it seems her good intentions sometimes struggled to bridge the social gap between them. After the Boer War, she hung a banner proclaiming ‘We have killed and also taken possession’, which brought about an angry crowd, requiring Kipling to play the unlikely peace-maker.

Life became immensely more difficult for the Kiplings after the tragic death of their daughter Josephine in 1899. And with Rudyard’s reputation growing quickly in this period, he resented being gawped at by day-trippers as a local celebrity. In 1902, the family left the village.

By this time, Vaughan Williams was a young man on his way to becoming a leading proponent of the English folk-song revival, both as a song collector and composer. And yet amazingly, he is not even Rottingdean’s most famous connection to this cultural movement, which gathered pace as the new century dawned.

Challoners Cottages.

On a row of cottages towards the north end of the village is another plaque, commemorating the former residence of the Copper family. Their connection to Rottingdean goes back to the sixteenth century, and they were known locally for their songs, sung in harmony.

And so it was that in November 1898 – the same month that Kipling was writing to Roosevelt – the musician and folk-song collector Kate Lee came down to notate songs from James ‘Brasser’ Copper and Tom Copper, a farm foreman and pub landlord respectively.

They met at the house of another local big-wig, Edward Carson QC, who had worked on the scandalous Oscar Wilde trials three years earlier. If Georgiana’s civic activism had struggled to cross Rottingdean’s class divisions, this musical meeting seems to have been more successful. As Lee later described it, ‘I shall never forget the delight of hearing the two Mr. Coppers’:

They were so proud of their Sussex songs, and sang them with an enthusiasm grand to hear […] You only had to start either of them on the subject of the song and they commenced at once. ‘Oh, Mr. Copper, can you sing me a love song, a sea song, or a plough song?’ It did not matter what it was, they looked at each other significantly, and with perfectly grave faces off they would go.

It would be her most important collection. Not long after, Lee became founding member of the Folk-Song Society, which was later merged into the English Folk Dance And Song Society. In the 1950s, the BBC re-discovered the Copper family and broadcast their songs to a wide audience. The descendants of ‘Brasser’ and Tom still sing today, and have toured internationally.

Rottingdean has had a fair few other distinguished residents – I won’t even try to provide and exhaustive list, but North End House was later the home of Reuters chairman Sir Roderick Jones and writer Enid Bagnold. 

The Undercliff Walk.

Sadly, the bizarre seashore railway only lasted a few years, but in the 1930s an ‘Undercliff Walk’ was constructed along the coast which is still in use today, and makes for a spectacular trip. During my stay, I enjoyed daily bicycle rides into Brighton along here, alternatively aided and hindered at the whim of the sea breeze. 

There’s no doubt that Rottingdean is almost sickeningly pretty. Its desirability as a place to live is only increased by the kind of independent shops and cafes that could make many large towns green with envy. It even has its own museum! How lucky a village can be, through the strange alignment of geography and history.

Nonetheless, posters around the community speak of normal mundane pressures: court decisions about controversial developments, the need to reduce traffic congestion. Edward Burne-Jones surely would have balked to see the busses barely scraping along its narrow old high street.

The Kipling Gardens.

But today, in the heart of the village, you can find one of its top attractions. The former grounds next to The Elms were bought by the Rottingdean Preservation Society, and are now open to the public as the Kipling Gardens.

Walking through its walls on a summer’s day, with its flowers in bloom and the windmill gazing down, you can see the old imperialist was right about one thing. There is something very special about this ‘lot of fair ground’ in Sussex by the sea.

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Susanna Fair

Susanna And The Elders by Jusepe de Ribera, Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is up late drinking with Sir Andrew Aguecheek. With drunken merriment, he sings a short strain: ‘There dwelt a man in Babylon, lady lady!

These words refer to a popular ballad of the time, which tells the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. Originating in the Apocrypha of the Book of Daniel, its theme of the sexual coercion of a young woman by older men remains all too resonant today.

The song’s Babylonian is the wealthy Joachim, but his beautiful young wife Susanna is at the heart of the story. Two elders find her bathing alone in her husband’s garden. They threaten her that if she will not lie with them, they will accuse her of adultery, and – their word naturally trumping hers – she will be put to death.

Susanna is dismayed, but out of respect for God she refuses to acquiesce. And so she is accused. But by divine intervention, the young prophet Daniel exposes the false witness of the two men, and they are executed instead, while Susanna is saved.

The full ballad tells this story with a pleasingly grave, stately tune – I like the following arrangement in particular.

Various other composers have been drawn to this tale. Handel – being Handel – made it into a three-hour oratorio, but the music that first introduced me to the story lasts a mere three minutes.

William Byrd’s Susanna Fair is a consort song for voice and viols. Its two verses present a simple moral binary, contrasting the threat of the elders and Susanna’s refusal. The first verse begins:

Susanna fair some time assaulted was
by two old men, desiring their delight,
which lewd intent they thought to bring to pass,
if not by tender love, by force and might

Byrd squeezes a huge amount of craft into this small song, with intricate counterpoint shifting ever restlessly. It starts with a short, furtive motif, passed around the viols like a malicious rumour. When the voice joins in, the words ‘two old men’ are underlined by a change to stark chords, before melting into a syncopated major-key cadence for ‘desiring their delight’.

This sudden sunny turn is perhaps the song’s loveliest moment, so there is poetic irony that the words here refer to the men’s malicious motive. Byrd’s music side-steps from minor to major, much as the text’s euphemism of ‘their delight’ tiptoes around the brutality of the act.

But this dramatic shift also emphasises the opposing intentions of the characters. In the second verse it coincides with Susanna’s response of steadfast piety: ‘my chastity shall then deflowered be’. While the elders prize the fulfilment of their lust, she only thinks of preserving her virtue.

Musically speaking, Susanna Fair is an exquisite little gem. But the tale’s morality remains thoroughly patriarchal. It is not to her own bodily autonomy that Susanna defers, but the authority of the ultimate Father – God. At the end she explains that she would rather ‘die of mine accord / ten thousand times, than once offend our Lord’.

You could say that Western art history has not exactly shown reticence towards female nudity, so it’s no surprise that the scene of Susanna bathing has been painted countless times. It can even be found engraved on a Carolingian crystal.

For many artists, the drama of the attempted coercion proved irresistible. Susanna is often shown hurriedly covering up – rarely with total success, it seems – while the elders deliver their ultimatum. In other depictions, they physically grapple with her.

But a very different example hangs in London’s National Gallery. Francesco Hayez’s 1850 painting shows Susanna alone, glancing over her shoulder at the viewer. Now we have become the voyeurs. Having seen it ‘in the flesh’, I’ve always interpreted this coy figure – her posture relatively relaxed, a leg crossed towards us – as deliberately alluring.

Francesco Hayez, Susanna Bathing, Wikimedia Commons.

Is Hayez sympathising with the lust of the elders here? Or is it that, by positioning us in this way, he is making a point about the art world’s obsession with female nudity? 

For all the great male artists who have painted Susanna, surely no one has brought as much personal experience to this story as Artemisia Gentileschi. While still a teenager in 17th-century Rome, she was raped by fellow artist Agostino Tassi – incredibly, during the resulting trial she was tortured to test her allegation, while he eventually walked free.

Several paintings of Susanna are attributed to Gentileschi. One, seemingly made when she was just seventeen, shows Susanna shrinking away in anger and disgust while the conspiring elders encroach on her from above.

Susanna And The Elders by Gentileschi, Wikimedia Commons.

Other pictures, such as her remarkably violent Judith Slaying Holofernes, have drawn interpretations of personal revenge fantasies for the traumas she endured – though how much the lurid tastes of patrons played a role here is still debated.

The Old Testament is hardly the first place you’d look for enlightened sexual politics. But Gentileschi’s harrowing life story – and her amazing art – is a powerful testament to the grim reality of sexual violence, in a world without justice through divine intervention.

Not for nothing does the old English ballad introduce Joachim and his reputation first. For all the beauty and drama of artworks inspired by Susanna, they still speak powerfully of a world that would rather see a woman die ‘ten thousand times’ than let her once have control of her own body and destiny.

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Notes On A Fantasy

An illustration from ‘Elfin Song’ by Florence Susan Harrison, shared by Plum Leaves on Flickr, Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

Fantasy sells. Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter are testament enough to that. But while wizards and dragons are familiar in fiction, fantasy has a long history in instrumental music too.

There’s the ‘fantasia’ form, whose lack of constraints begs the composer to indulge their imagination. Works like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique have used the orchestra to tell a specific fantastical story.

We might expect the music of fantasy to be dazzling, exciting, dramatic. Otherwise, what would be the point? This impulse could manifest itself in a number of ways, but here I want to share one of my favourite examples: the Fantastic Scherzo by the Czech composer Josef Suk.

Josef Suk, Wikimedia Commons.

Scherzo means ‘joke’ – and is commonly used for fast, boisterous movements of a larger work, usually relatively short in length. But Suk’s free-standing movement, running at about 15 minutes, is effectively a full-blown tone poem. Smetana’s Vltava or Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre are perhaps good comparison pieces – and like these, this has an unforgettable, sweeping melody at its heart.

Suk begins in a suitably rambunctious fashion, with a tussle of insistent melodic fragments and stabbing interruptions. The bright timbres of woodwind, brass and triangle feature prominently.

But an unexpected sleight of hand soon sends us tumbling down a rabbit hole. The lower strings and bassoons make a snaking descent, and suddenly we find ourselves in another world entirely. A waltz begins on the cellos, smoothly gliding and gracefully shaped, with an irresistible sway.

And what a joyful melody it is. See how it twice sets itself a problem – a long drop of a seventh – and climbs its way back up the scale. At the second instance it ecstatically spills over, and flourishes into a dancing rhythm as it descends.

Suk’s cello melody.

Illuminated by woodwind figures, shining violin harmonies and tambourine rhythms, it’s pure magic. But the spell is soon broken, and the music picks up the muscular battle once more.

These two musical worlds alternate throughout the outer sections of the piece. But while the fragmentary elements are constantly developed and churned about, this melodic episode is always preserved pristine. It seems incorruptible – it could be a dance of eternal youth in a fairy kingdom.

Suk understood that fantasy is about transporting us. And alongside the ‘hidden portal’ trope of the rabbit hole or Narnia wardrobe, authors such as Tolkien have also imagined arduous journeys to distant lands.

The transition to the central section of this work creates a similar feeling of remoteness. A bridging passage with a series of unpredictable harmonic shifts, dramatised with cymbal strokes, takes us over the hills and far away.

We arrive at a picturesque scene: trilling woodwinds overlap like forest bird calls, and gentle harp chords echo with mythic suggestions. A mournful song emerges on the cellos. Suk is combining his fragmentary and melodic approaches now, to tell a new story. And this languid river of sound soon builds in strength to reveal a mountainous grandeur.

After an equally strange transition on quiet, divided cellos, the thrilling energy of the scherzo erupts anew – and while the alluring dance melody is given its due, it’s this blistering spirit that claims victory in the end.

Fantasy sells – but it relies on us being able to suspend our disbelief. Without that, the genre can seem twee, ridiculous and far-fetched – just as a musical fantasia might sound wayward and unconvincing in the wrong hands. But on this count, I think Suk’s scherzo – jesting and joyful, wild and winsome as it is – succeeds magnificently.

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Overspill Overtures

A concert at the Basingstoke Anvil, copyright Anvil Arts, shared here with their permission.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

On the 3rd May 1994, Richard Hickox conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the opening night of a brand new concert hall. Elgar led the bill, with his Enigma Variations and cello concerto, and the celebration of new beginnings was marked with a world premiere – John Tavener’s Theophany.

Top classical venues – designed to optimise orchestral sound – are usually found in big cities, but this 1400-seat hall was built in the centre of Basingstoke. The Hampshire market town had been used as a byword for provincial irrelevance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. Expanded into a ‘London Overspill’ town in the 1960s, its name is still often evoked as an example of soulless modern living – a suburban pointlessness.

The new hall was named ‘the Anvil’. While that sort-of described its bulky exterior, it also promised to put fiery creativity into the heart of this community – and a lot of noise. On that first night, the town’s Choral Society gave a rendition of Verdi’s Anvil Chorus.

This unlikely venue has since gained remarkable accolades from the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, who dubbed it ‘one of the finest concert halls in the country’. And this week, the Philharmonia will celebrate its 25th birthday, reprising the Elgar concerto with star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and a new commission by Samantha Fernando.

As someone who grew up in the area, concerts at the Anvil were part of my musical education, and its anniversary has made me reflect on how lucky Basingstoke is to have it. Could the Anvil, I thought, be a useful example of what first-rate classical music can – or cannot – do for a town with a low cultural profile?

Basingstoke towers seen from the train station.

In the 1940s, George Orwell wrote that ‘the place to look for the germs of the future England is in the light-industry areas and along the arterial roads’. And if you haven’t lived somewhere like Basingstoke, you may not appreciate the weirdness of this existence.

While pleasant enough and with decent employment, its massive 60s expansion left it with little sense of identity. The post-war influx means many families have no ancestral ties to the area – mine included. There’s an unquestioned sense that, circumstances permitting, you could just as easily live elsewhere.

The overspill development also bulldozed much of its historic centre and rural character. It feels surreal to think of Basingstoke with a cattle market and stables – but it existed within living memory, where now there’s a heaving mall, multi-story car park, and office buildings.

A headline from 1962 hailed Basingstoke as the south’s ‘first town of the motor-car age’. And with its immense ‘Ringway’ road dotted with roundabouts, housing estates and retail parks, driving lessons are an essential rite of passage around here.

I remember practicing in the quiet suburbs. I was amused to find that, lacking any local history to draw on, the estate roads had been named with themes. I had fun spotting authors, painters, and composers. It’s a fascinating idea – that you can just knit the arts into the fabric of a blank community. Somehow, Gershwin Road and Ravel Close just seemed to emphasise the artificiality of it all.

In a piece for Prospect last year, Owen Hatherley said a visit to Basingstoke had once disturbed him – there was ‘no there there’. But half a century on from its transformation, he looked at its bizarre mix of office architecture and asked if overspill towns now have ‘their own story to tell’.

Similarly, I was intrigued to find out how the Anvil, as a 90s civic project, fitted into the bigger story of Basingstoke’s modernity.

Vue cinema and the Dallas-esque Churchill Plaza.

In the town library, I trawled the microfilm archive of the Basingstoke Gazette. The idea of a ‘civic hall’ to replace the old town hall (now a museum) had been brewing for some time, but the big question with such projects is funding.

The Anvil’s case is peculiar, emerging from complex details of local authority finance. The Gazette cited the borough council’s early repayment of a loan, ‘reinvestment interest’ and ‘future capital financing resources’ as bringing a windfall to cover over half the £12m cost. Another source has since claimed that this arrangement exploited a loophole with the Public Works Loan Board – one the government closed soon afterwards.

However it worked out, the council decided to build a hall to reflect the modern town, and which could boast world-class acoustics. The design they eventually revealed was a combined effort of RHWL Architects and Arup – the acousticians for Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

When announcing the plans, council leader Stephen Reid declared the building would foster a much-needed sense of pride:

For some time we have been the butt of jokes from people saying there is nothing to do in Basingstoke. People must never be allowed to say that again. The hall will be in use by day and evening and will be a magnet to draw people into the borough, promoting businesses and trade. 

In 1992, a scale model was put on display. But then, audaciously, the Gazette published a drawing by a local architect the council had turned down. His alternative sketch outlined an elegant neo-classical front, and a square with a statue of Winston Churchill. Depicted beside the council’s angular design, the aesthetic contrast couldn’t have been greater, and readers were asked to write in and say which they preferred.

Across the letters page, all hell broke loose.

‘Please go with the ancient design and spare us any more monstrosities’, pleaded one reader. ‘Another eyesore for the town’ raged another. The council’s plan was ‘visual torture bordering on the inhumane’. It was a ‘gun-boat’, a ‘battleship’, ‘something out of a space film’. Perhaps inevitably, one sought help from the carbuncle crusader himself: Prince Charles.

Part of the sketch published by the Gazette.

When it came to being the butt of jokes, it seems many felt a barrage of insensitive architecture was precisely the problem. One reader compared the hall to a recently-installed ‘triumphal gateway’: ‘what are the decision makers of this town up to? As a long-standing ‘native’ of this area I resent our town being ridiculed in this way’.

Others worried about parking, or whether Basingstoke even needed such a venue – ‘it is unlikely we shall get the Berlin Phil (or Jason Donovan) more than once a year!’

But the objections came to nothing. The council robustly defended their plan. A Labour councillor sent the Gazette a withering response: ‘there is no comparison between the two schemes; one is properly thought through […] the other is a cartoon. It is like comparing The Laughing Cavalier and Captain Pugwash’.

Having nailed its colours to the mast of modernity, Basingstoke was not going back. But it seems the furore of the neo-classical sketch had shown residents a glimmer of something longed for. Perhaps the more traditional town they had lost; perhaps a more respected town that might have been.

The plant tower ‘beak’ at the rear of the Anvil, one of its most criticised features.

There will always be people who loathe modern buildings. But what’s it like to run concerts in a place like Basingstoke? I met up with Matthew Cleaver, who manages the Anvil’s classical series. He’s worked there from the very beginning.

‘It was a really bold decision to build an international-standard concert hall’, he told me over coffee. ‘And at that time Basingstoke was even smaller, so from that point of view it was a massive leap of faith, and full marks to them for doing it.’

There was personal enthusiasm for classical music in the council, but they also saw a gap in the market. ‘There were various preliminary studies…which pointed out that actually, between London and Poole or Bristol or Brighton, there is nothing, there’s no large-scale classical music’.

In that case, I asked him, what percentage of the classical audience actually live in the borough? He estimated just under half. ‘The majority is from outside…but not by much. We know, for instance, that we get people who will buy the entire concert series from Bristol, from Oxford, from Kingston, from Southampton’. These most loyal fans snap the dates up as soon as details are released. ‘They will arrange their holidays around when the brochure is coming out’.

But if the Anvil caters to an appetite for orchestral music in the affluent wider region, Basingstoke still benefits from their additional spending. A 2010 economic assessment calculated that the borough gains a net benefit of £5m from the Anvil – the report has even been translated into Chinese, for that booming market in concert halls.

‘We used to have regular visits from delegations from other towns like Norwich…from all over the place people used to come down to see what we were doing, how it could operate in a town of that size’. This ended after the 2008 financial crash, which caused a dip in classical ticket sales across the country, though since then ‘things have been slowly building back up’.

Now that government austerity has slashed many council budgets, the Anvil’s success would be harder than ever for equivalent towns to duplicate, although the geographic impacts are notoriously unequal. While the Anvil continues to be funded by a combination of borough, county and Arts Council money, just a few miles away in Newbury an arts centre is asking for donations of £150,000 a year, after West Berkshire withdrew funding.

Clearly Basingstoke is fortunate to have this standard of venue. And yet I realised that, for all the anger about the design, the hall is surprisingly easy to overlook. Step out of the train station and you’re confronted with the gaping maw of The Malls, writ large in hideous nightclub lettering. But the Anvil, built years afterwards, is shoe-horned off to the side with nothing like the same visual impact.

Its south side reveals the bar and a concert billboard, but here there’s a whizzing underpass, beyond which the shopping centre looms like a fortress, funnelling its enclosed visitors through the town. Consumerism came first in Basingstoke – a concert hall was an afterthought. And it shows.

The Anvil seen from the south.

Similarly underwhelming is how the Gazette covered the opening night in 1994. Perhaps naively, I was expecting a front-page spread, or at least a big-picture feature to celebrate this new £12m amenity. But no. The concert only got a modest write-up a few pages in. Controversy sells, but classical music? Not so much.

My chat with Matthew moved on to my frustrations with Basingstoke’s civic limitations. I described how the town felt atomised – you go from your little house, get into your car, and drive to town. He agreed. ‘This fragmentation is really endemic I think…between the different estates and the people who’ve been here all the time, and then the commuters and the people who work in Basingstoke…the Anvil is one of the few places in the town where people from all the different areas come together as a single unified public’.

The Malls.

It’s important not to become too jaded – Basingstoke is still a relatively prosperous and comfortable place to live. But like the Anvil’s visual presence, the town seems to be held back by big decisions taken decades ago.

Historian Rupert Willoughby has described promised footbridges across the Ringway that were never built. A popular Edwardian lido found itself cut off by the new road, and fell into disuse. As a keen cyclist, I know it’s like a giant moat you have to work out how to cross. Having failed to move on from its utopian vision of the motor age, Basingstoke seems disastrously ill-equipped for a low-carbon future, unless big changes happen soon.

But when it comes to the overhaul of the town’s historic centre, Willoughby positively seethes. ‘Basingstoke had all the charm and individuality of a Farnham or a Wallingford’, he writes. ‘It needed investment, and a certain amount of sympathetic development. It did not need to have its heart cut out.’

The shopping centre on Church Street. A Wesleyan chapel was demolished for its construction.

In 2002, a shiny new mall was built – its Newspeak name of ‘Festival Place’ demanding an excitement it doesn’t justify. Willoughby calls it ‘an unabashed shrine to consumerism, tending only to reinforce the view that Basingstoke is rampantly philistine’. And yet, amazingly, his book doesn’t even mention the Anvil at all. You can build a first-rate concert hall, it seems, but you can’t make people care.

Orwell’s prophecy went on to describe ‘a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine’. And it’s certainly no surprise that lots of young people leave Basingstoke for more exciting prospects.

Like many graduates, for me that meant London. When you arrive there, you discover streets dense with overlapping histories. You find walkable communities, exotic markets, frequent public transport, a bewildering arts scene, and neck-craning infrastructure that speaks of possibilities.

Public art under a bridge beside Festival Place.

And yet for all this, the Anvil shows that high-quality classical music can thrive anywhere, if there is an opportunity and a will. But it also needs institutional support.

For decades, an organisation called Basingstoke Concert Club brought brilliant chamber musicians to the town – thanks to them, I was able to hear artists like the Takács Quartet and Chloë Hanslip in a local church. But in 2012 they announced they were folding, after 57 years. Their sad demise was explained by ‘a slow decline in audience numbers, rising costs and the inability to recruit more help on the committee’.

The Waitrose/John Lewis.

Thankfully, the Anvil continues to be a valued community asset – showcasing touring comedians, bands, pantomime, youth orchestras and local choirs. It may be easy to overlook, but Matthew praises it as a neutral space – ‘almost anything can fit in there, and almost any audience can feel comfortable in there.’

Nonetheless, as it was designed to be a concert hall, I’m pleased to see that the anniversary night is sold out. And I’m also grateful that, before I left to study music at university, I had the privilege of being able to hear top-level orchestras here – something that most other towns of this size can’t offer.

It’s the small details I remember most. Long, drawn-out horn chords in Mahler’s sixth. Ghostly muted trumpets in The Rite of Spring. Off-beat pizzicato strings in Brahms. The gleaming sound of Crispian Steele-Perkins. A continuo player who should have practiced more, a pianist performing Mendelssohn with his leg in a cast. Sitting with my first girlfriend in the front row and hearing Richard Goode singing to himself as he played a Beethoven concerto. The Wagnerian opening of Christopher Rouse’s Der Gerettete Alberich. Esa-Pekka Salonen winding up the final crescendo of Turangalîla like a man possessed.

At the Basingstoke Anvil, I was taught classical music as a live – and lived – experience. With all its thrills, contingencies and imperfections. As a respected art-form, and as a social occasion. As simply a thing you do – even in a joke town.

With special thanks to Matthew Cleaver, and Anvil Arts. Details of the Anvil’s current concert series can be found here.

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