All posts by Corymbus

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.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

Blest Pair Of Sirens

Hubert Parry. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

At a concert in 1887, London’s Bach Choir amassed in St. James’ Hall to perform Berlioz’s immense Te Deum. But sharing the bill was a much shorter work. It was the choir’s first commission: a setting of John Milton’s poem At A Solemn Musick, by Hubert Parry.

‘Solemn’ did not have the downbeat implication in Milton’s day it does now, and his poem was fit for a grand occasion. It celebrates singing, and its power to elevate us towards God. Although it dates from the poet’s youth in the early 1630s, Milton used the same language of divine music-making, both lofty and loud, that he later developed in Paradise Lost. 

Perhaps wisely, Parry replaced the poem’s rather pedestrian title for the verbal trumpet-blast of its opening line: Blest Pair Of Sirens. The ‘blest pair’ here are words and music, and this new work showed the ability of one to ignite the other, even across the centuries.

Sadly, Parry’s instrumental works – including five symphonies – are now mostly overlooked. But Blest Pair Of Sirens has remained popular, and his flair for setting poetry of an exalted spirit would later culminate in his widely-loved hymn Jerusalem.

Blest Pair is also sometimes cited as a landmark work in the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ – a period of renewed creativity from the latter decades of the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth, in which Parry was influential as both composer and teacher.

It’s easy to identify a Renaissance in hindsight, of course. But whether consciously or not, Parry was setting a text that represented a former golden age of both English literature and music – a time in the country when, as Diane Kelsey McColley puts it, ‘music was most consciously linked to words’. 

John Milton, c. 1629. Wikimedia Commons.

After all, Milton was born into the England of Shakespeare, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons. Music was in the intellectual water; not only was Milton musically educated, his father was a composer. And so in Blest Pair we hear theoretical concepts such as ‘diapason’ (the octave), ‘phantasy’ (an instrumental genre), and ‘concent’ (to be in tune and in harmony).  

But music’s brasher side not overlooked. ‘Saintly shout’, ‘angel-trumpets blow’, and ‘thousand quires’ provided Parry with the perfect excuse to raise the roof for the music of heaven. Crucially, Milton contrasts this ‘melodious noise’ with fallen mankind, whose ‘disproportioned sin’:

Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made 

However, the poem’s hopeful conclusion is that we may ‘soon again renew that song / and keep in tune with Heav’n’. By Parry’s time, England’s musical reputation had lagged behind its literary one, so the narrative of music charting a rise from a fallen state might also have resonated for artistic reasons.

Straight away in Blest Pair’s orchestral introduction, we hear a dual sense of joy and yearning. Compare it to Handel’s Zadok The Priest, which patiently builds its way to a magnificent choral entry: in contrast, Parry seems to have so much to get off his chest he doesn’t know where to start. There are fanfare ascents and sighing plunges while chromatic harmonies tug us along, as if this energy has to run itself out before the choir can join in with something more settled. It’s the very sound of pent-up creativity needing to be satisfied. Or, perhaps, needing a guide.

And so we come to Milton’s opening lines, which could inspire any composer. The first verbs are the imperatives ‘wed’ and ‘employ’ in the third line. The poem is not just about the music as Milton knew it, but a motivational document for creating music anew:

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’n’s joy,
Sphere-born harmonious Sisters, Voice and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixed pow’r employ,
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce 

Parry’s sensitivity to these words drives the music forward. At ‘pierce’ he makes a striking modulation onto a loud D major chord. This leads to the fugal entries of ‘phantasy present’ – imitating that polyphonic instrumental form. At ‘saintly shout’ the choir thunders together like an opera chorus, while ‘singing everlastingly’ is stretched into an extensive eight-part contrapuntal climax, much as Bach or Byrd might have set it.

But when this heavenly singing passes, jubilation becomes reflection. There is a repeat of the orchestral introduction in a new key, only now the choir join in – at first in unison, then simple harmony – as Milton considers mankind, flawed but ever-hopeful:

That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise

Parry’s tentative expansiveness at these crucial lines, so soon after the dazzling music of heaven, is exquisitely poignant. It sinks to a quiet nadir at ‘disproportioned sin’, but lovely too is how he plots our way back to the triumphant ending. After an orchestral interlude, a soprano line sings:

O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite

This sounds like a charming melody in its own right. But as it climbs to an expressive high G at ‘God’, it’s joined by the tenors in canonic imitation. Parry has lulled us back to divine counterpoint, and before we know it there are four choral parts gathering momentum. The tempo ramps up a notch for Milton’s final line, with new overlapping fugal entries in eight parts: ‘To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.’ 

What follows is a gloriously spun-out conclusion, with a broad and magnificent climax. In the final bars, the opening of the orchestral introduction returns once more, now disrobed of its chromatic harmonies. In the purity of an endless morn of light, the choir unites with it for a blazing diatonic close.

In Parry’s words, Blest Pair Of Sirens was received ‘quite uproariously’ at that first performance. It won him new commissions, and helped to establish his name as a composer. His love of Brahms, Wagner, and knotty Baroque counterpoint are all here, but it is Milton’s electrifying words that fuse these influences into something with a confident English voice. That alchemical moment, when diverse sources of learning suddenly combine to illuminate a path ahead, shows what we could call a ‘Renaissance’ spirit.

But artistic renewal does not just arrive with big events on stage. It takes place in the dull committee meetings of institutions, many of which were being established at this time. Parry was a contributor to the early Grove Dictionary, first published in 1879. He later taught at the Royal College of Music, which was founded in 1882. The Bach Choir was first formed in 1876.

And if it’s easy to identify a Renaissance in retrospect, it’s also easy to make backwards miscalculations about Parry. Blest Pair received a worldwide audience at the UK’s royal wedding of 2011. Parry’s closeness to such pageantry – including the fixture of Jerusalem at every last night of the Proms – can give a misleading impression that he represents adherence to tradition above all else. In Milton’s case a royal wedding is especially ironic, as he supported the overthrow of the monarchy in the English Revolution, but for Parry we can simply defer to his daughter Dorothea, who described him as ‘the most naturally unconventional man I have known. He was a Radical, with a very strong bias against Conservatism’.

We should also not forget the sheer strangeness of Blake’s stirring words that we hear in Jerusalem, which come from the preface of an epic poem about none other than Milton himself, who was one of his literary heroes. Here Blake combines his own esoteric Biblical mythology and colourful illustrations in a typically idiosyncratic way.

One of Blake’s illustration for his epic poem ‘Milton’, William Blake Archive.

Such free-thinking idiosyncrasy can also be seen in Parry’s unique series of ‘ethical cantatas’, which draw on secular poetry instead of religious texts. Likewise, he withdrew his support from the wartime ‘Fight For Right’ campaign that Jerusalem had originally been composed for, and was happy when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies took it up as their own anthem.

So while Parry’s musical language was not in itself ground-breaking, in Blest Pair and Jerusalem we can see him as part of a network of English free-thinkers who defy simplistic readings, and who were willing to construct their own visions of a better world.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Wikimedia Commons.

One of Parry’s pupils at the Royal College was a young Vaughan Williams, who would play a leading role in the English Musical Renaissance, adding to its ‘mixed power’ the fruits of the folksong revival. He fondly remembered his teacher’s ‘broad-minded sympathy’, and later quoted his advice to compose choral music, ‘as befits an Englishman and a democrat’.

Even after the Second World War, a much older Vaughan Williams was still able to say: ‘I fully believe – and keeping the achievements of Byrd, Purcell and Elgar firmly before my eyes – Blest Pair Of Sirens is the finest musical work that has come out of these islands’. Perhaps more than anyone, he was able to understand what the legacy of his former teacher really meant.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

All Shall Be Well

A statue of Julian of Norwich, cropped from photograph by Matt Brown, Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In the early fifteenth century, a woman called Margery Kempe visited a church in Norwich. She had come to seek spiritual advice from an ‘anchoress’ – a holy woman who had committed her life to prayer and contemplation, enclosed in a cell attached to the church building.

We know of this conversation because it is recorded in The Book Of Margery Kempe, a document of this Norfolk woman’s life and religious experiences. But the anchoress she met that day, who was around seventy years old, also left an important written legacy. In fact, she is the earliest identifiable woman who wrote a book in English, and is now one of our best-known medieval mystics.

Julian of Norwich was born in 1342, making her an almost exact contemporary of Chaucer. There is evidence she lived as an anchoress from at least 1393 to 1416, but we don’t know when she began that life, nor when she died. What we do have are two texts – one short, one long – both of which recount and interpret a series of religious visions she experienced during a sickness in May 1373, at age thirty.

Julian is celebrated today for her message of divine consolation, summed up in her most quotable line ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ But there is a stranger, darker side to her writing. Here we encounter the distant outlook of medieval Christianity, but with an individual voice; a woman pronouncing striking theological ideas.

It may be difficult to cross the imaginative gap into Julian’s world. But in the introduction to Barry Windeatt’s translation of her Revelations Of Divine Love, he describes the enclosure ceremony for an anchoress, based on a twelfth-century guide. It makes for disturbing reading:

The life of an anchoress was regarded as the living death of one who was as if dead to the world. Parts of the rite of enclosure were excerpted from the office for the burial of the dead, and the anchoress entered her cell singing the antiphon from the burial service, ‘Here shall be my rest forever.’ The anchoress was then prayed for as if over a corpse, dust was sprinkled as at a burial, and the door to the cell was shut and sealed up from the outside.

Basic provisions had to be provided for of course, so there would have been access to a servant, via some kind of portal. Julian may have had a window into the church to observe services, and Kempe’s account suggests some allowance for communication.

St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, built on the site of Julian’s medieval one. Photograph by Charles Hutchens, Creative Commons.

But nonetheless, this ‘living death’ was a self-imposed imprisonment. Secular eyes might view such a notion with horror, or pity. But to Julian, the walls of the anchorhold would have been as nothing to the promise of eternity with God.

Her otherworldly fixation also gave rise to a kind of worldly masochism. At the start of her short text, Julian describes the events that precipitated her visions. She had asked God that she might ‘relive Christ’s Passion in my mind’, and also receive a ‘bodily sickness’:  

I wanted this sickness to be severe enough as to seem mortal […] for I wanted to have no hopes of any fleshly or earthly life […] I wanted to have every kind of suffering in body and spirit that I would have if I were to die, with all the terrors and tumults caused by devils, and every other kind of pain, short of the soul’s leaving the body.

Troubling though it may be, her wish was granted. Julian fell seriously ill, and was seemingly on the verge of death. As was customary for the dying, she was brought a crucifix to contemplate. Then, soon after, she saw blood beginning to run from under its crown of thorns – ‘hot and fresh, plentiful and lifelike’. And so her visions began, both in this ‘bodily’ way, but also ‘spiritually’, through inner insight.

Despite this morbid beginning, Julian’s Revelations develop into an optimistic account of divine benevolence. Particularly notable are her descriptions of God as both a father and a mother figure. She states that God has loved us ‘from without beginning’, and – perhaps surprisingly – he never angers at our sins. The existence of sin is ‘befitting’; it serves a purpose we cannot yet understand. More surprising still, she reveals that in heaven ‘sin shall be no shame to man, but his glory […] God’s goodness never allows any soul to sin which is to come there, unless the sin is rewarded’.

Various composers have been drawn to Julian’s message of hope and consolation, and often her most famous line itself. An obvious response to these words would be music of serene assurance; the challenge that then arises is how to create interest and contrast.

The Canadian composer Stephanie Martin set a passage for choir that describes ‘the glorious city of the Soul […] in which the Trinity rejoices everlastingly’. The opening bars seem to recall the grand Dresden Amen figure, and the first section maintains a lovely ease with flowing diatonic lines. But when the central section turns to a 7/8 time signature, it breaks into bustling joyfulness.

On a similar scale is Philip Wilby’s choral anthem Vox Dei – ‘Voice Of God’ – in which Julian relates a divine message.

It is I who am the strength and goodness of Fatherhood,
It is I who am the wisdom of Motherhood,
It is I who am the Light and grace and blessed Love […]

Unlike Martin, Wilby focusses on visionary immediacy. Long-held notes combine with moving inner parts to create a mesmerising texture and rich sonority. At the end, this sonic cloud is pierced by a high soprano solo, repeating ‘It is I’. But there is no resolution as such – the music simply stops, vanishing as mysteriously as the epiphany it describes.

William Mathias’s anthem As Truly As God Is The Father also explores the paternal-maternal duality, but puts the choir in dialogue with an organ. The latter starts the piece alone – an ethereal, probing harmonic sequence sets a mood of quiet contemplation. There is a lovely unhurried pacing to this piece, and the music slowly blossoms in its fervour to very beautiful effect, as if embodying Julian’s devout patience.

Various other composers – Libby Larsen, Nigel Butterley, Stephen Hough and Joel Matthys – have set Julian alongside other writers, both sacred and secular. When Roxanna Panufnik was commissioned to compose a choral piece for a concert marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she decided to combine Julian’s ‘All shall be well’ passage with words from eastern Europe – the Polish battle hymn Bogurodzica

Panufnik’s choir is also split in two, separated by a solo cello. In her words, these two fourteenth-century texts are put into conversation: ‘the knights’ plea for safety in victory’ is answered by Julian’s ‘comforting assurance’. Meanwhile the highly expressive cello part wanders freely, suggesting a universal spirit between them, one beyond any language.

There is plenty of darkness here, with the Polish hymn set with some plangent, even bluesy harmonies. After a rhapsodic cello solo, Julian is first heard in her original Middle English – ‘All Shal be wel’ is repeated like a mantra. But later on, both texts are finally heard in modern English, uniting ecstatically at Julian’s words:

Have faith, and have trust, and at the last day you shall see it all transformed into great joy.

Amidst the destruction of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot quoted Julian’s famous line several times in his mystical poem Little Gidding – with its soothing rhythm and lulling ‘-ll’ sounds, it’s not hard to see why. Eliot’s poem is named after the site of a small seventeenth-century religious community, hidden away in the English countryside. A place where:

[…] while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

The chapel at Little Gidding, photograph by Nick MacNeill. Creative Commons.

Eliot’s quotations also inspired the title of Thomas Adès’s early orchestral work …but all shall be well. It was composed in his early twenties, but doesn’t really suggest youthful energy – as Matías Tarnopolsky describes, this work unfolds to a plan based on a scale system:

[…] it does not have any massive dramatic gestures but develops the line of a melody at a steady pace, and when the climax occurs (about two-thirds of the way through) it is the result of the musical processes running their natural course and, effectively, starting over again.

Beginnings and endings permeate Little Gidding too, in which we ‘arrive where we started /And know the place for the first time’. F.C. Happold has described two common urges in mystical thought: the escape from a sense of separation’, and the will to grasp the universe ‘not in parts but in its wholeness’. And so we often find the unification of opposites  – whether they are beginnings and endings, history and now, fatherhood and motherhood, or sin and glory.

As Windeatt describes in his introduction, the lack of censure in Julian’s writings means she has found favour with some of Christianity’s less traditional believers, even if her anchorhold is ‘hard to reconcile with social concern as they understand it’. But to others, she simply remains too distant. When Sam Jordison visited Julian’s church, now heavily restored after wartime bombing, he found it ‘unsettling’. Likewise, her Revelations left him alienated. ‘Sometimes writers […] push us away: reminding us just how foreign a country the past is’.

Julian may not be for everyone, but I am always fascinated by those who are motivated by extreme devotion to a belief. My personal aversion to the idea of the anchorhold does not detract from my appreciation of her notions of infinite consolation – in their own ways they are both indicative of another time, yet both also spring from recognisably human impulses.

Mystics will always appeal to those who are interested in alternative ways of perceiving the world. In one memorable passage, Julian is shown a small ball in the palm of her hand, ‘the size of a hazelnut’. She wonders what it could mean, and is answered: it is ‘all that is made’. The largest idea can be contained in the smallest space – perhaps there lies a leap to better comprehend Julian of Norwich. A woman who could enter the confines of a cell, and find that which T.S. Eliot alluded to, just before he quoted her for the final time:

A condition of complete simplicity
(costing not less than everything).

Barry Windeatt’s translation of Julian of Norwich is available from Oxford World Classics.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

The Dance Of Death

A reproduction of the Lübeck ‘Totentanz’. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In London Waterloo station, I saw a sobering sign in a bookshop window:

It’s much, much worse than you think.

This was a promotional display for David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story Of The Future. That same day, people were eating lunch in T-shirts on the nearby South Bank, during February temperatures so warm they broke British winter records.

I haven’t read The Uninhabitable Earth (you can find a review of it here), but the poster speaks of a wider escalating alarm about our climate crisis. This is a strange time. A time when winter becomes summer; a time when scientists debate cataclysmic scenarios that sound like the ramblings of religious zealots.

I’ve written about how arts organisations might respond to climate breakdown. But here I want to explore its more personal, interior aspect. Like the passengers at Waterloo, most of us must bear some cognitive dissonance – between knowing the need for radical change, and having to go about our business in the world as it currently is.

It all puts me in mind of a disturbing historical story. In July 1518, a ‘dancing epidemic’ occurred in Strasbourg. People began dancing involuntarily in the streets for days on end – some reportedly dropped dead of exhaustion. It’s an episode that has prompted various explanations: from stress-induced mass hysteria, to hallucinogenic ergot poisoning.

The idea of a sickly, unstoppable dance feels horribly relevant, as the rhythms of lives based on fossil fuels propel us toward climate chaos. It’s often said that ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. Are we heading, as some fear, towards the Earth’s sixth mass extinction? Is our civilisation – our Bach, Shakespeare, Da Vinci – merely a dance of death?

The fact that this question is even on the table is obviously acutely worrying. But in one sense, prophesies of fire and brimstone are nothing new. On a visit to Salisbury last year I came across the medieval St. Thomas’ church. In the shadow of the more famous cathedral, it boasts a Doom painting that has survived from the late fifteenth century: a vision of the Last Judgement.

Perhaps the worldview of that distant time has something to offer us now. Perhaps we need more chastening reminders of the limits of our existence. And to the poor of pre-modern Salisbury, God’s retribution wasn’t only to be found in the Book of Revelation – it would have manifested itself in real events like plague and famine, the same hardships which may have pushed the dancers of Strasbourg into their summer madness. Untimely death would have been a common part of life for these people, in a way that those of us in modern wealthy societies have been fortunate to marginalise.

Part of the St. Thomas Doom, cropped from a photo by Nessino. Wikimedia Commons.

I’d like to get a little morbid here, if you’ll allow it. Perhaps death can help us to think about our planetary crisis. Both topics feel impolite to discuss, overly gloomy. We’re generally happier when we don’t have to contemplate them. We cannot square being alive with Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country’. You might enjoy a murder mystery, that rare form of death wrapped up as a puzzle. But you wouldn’t go to a dinner party and turn the talk towards the cold embrace of the tomb.

Such morbidity was no problem in the Renaissance genre of Vanitas paintings. These combined worldly objects – often musical instruments and manuscripts – with a skull. As a symbol of mortality it’s a little on-the-nose, you might say (if it had one). But London’s National Gallery displays one spectacularly strange example from 1533. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors combines two figures and a table of objects, full of references to the religious discord of the time. Across its lower section stretches the familiar memento mori, but distorted completely out of proportion. Only if you stand to the far right of the frame does the foreshortened view magically condense it into shape.

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein. Wikimedia Commons.

This Vanitas aesthetic went beyond visual art. Consider the words of the consort verse anthem Behold, Thou Hast Made My Days by Orlando Gibbons:

For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.

The bitter-sweet, minor-major turns of the music suits the melancholy text, which calls on God to ‘spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more seen’. As the solo voice stops and starts, hesitantly repeating itself, it is borne ceaselessly on a river of counterpoint from the viols – through all our mental turmoil, time marches on regardless. The sunny Picardy thirds of its cadences could be a resigned smile through the sadness.

In visual art, the transience of life was taken to absurdist lengths in the Danse Macabre genre. A church in Lübeck, Germany once housed a long cloth hanging called the Totentanz (Dance Of Death’), in which skeletons piped and cavorted among figures from every level of society, from the Pope right down to a baby. The accompanying text described each scene with black humour (in an extra deathly twist, the whole piece was destroyed in a bombing during the Second World War).

Fortunately pictures of the Totentanz design survive, and Thomas Adès set its text for baritone, soprano and orchestra. He wisely kept this untranslated – no language suits the sound of the grave better than German.

Totentanz forms a compellingly grotesque pageant, a relentless conveyor-belt of dispatches. ‘The thing that makes it funny’, Adès said in a BBC interview – ‘is the total powerlessness of everybody, no matter who they are’. And there’s plenty of schadenfreude thrown in when the proud and powerful are laid low. The Pope is mortified (quite literally) to be told his hat must come off, as it’s too big for his coffin. Only towards the end, when the lowly and hard-done-by meet their demise, does a sense of sympathy creep into the music. Like our planetary crisis, death touches all – but not all equitably. The score extinguishes itself in a series of deep thuds.

You can laugh, you can smile, you can cry: in the shadow of the scythe, it makes no difference. Neither does faith in salvation, for all the comfort it offers. John Tavener’s choral work Funeral Ikos sets a passage from a Greek Orthodox Order for the burial of dead priests. It’s a hauntingly simple piece – alternating between unison chant, a few contrary-motion harmonies, and a chordal refrain in a loosely repeating pattern. Tavener is well known for pared-down simplicity, but here it almost feels like an admonishment: what use is your complex artistry, in the face of death? Or as the text puts it: ‘Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where then is the glory of this world?’

None of this takes away from the beauty of Funeral Ikos, and its borderline-disturbing directness. One part of the text meditates on the degradation of the dying body in unflinching detail, and Tavener sets these morbid observations to music of serene acceptance:

Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death, and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed. The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered, the shapeliness of the neck destroyed […]

When each Alleluia refrain swells to full harmony, for a heartbreakingly brief moment we hear the full flower of life in song. But it resolves neither to major nor minor – only a long, bare open fifth. Every time, the flesh withers from the bone.

Music generally finds its death in resolution. Dissonance leads to consonance, and even the most screeching atonal music relents to the balm of silence. We are not accustomed to the idea of a continuous crescendo. Endlessly growing intensity is an alien narrative, a terrifying one.

Perhaps that is part of the problem of mentally accommodating the planetary crisis. Because within the timescales of generations, a continuous crescendo of climate chaos is a significant possibility for how life on earth will play out, if it’s fed by self-escalating natural feedback loops. As the sustainability writer Alex Steffen puts it, there may be no ‘new normal’ to adjust to.

In another review of Wallace-Wells’ book, John Gibbons referred to our ‘mind-numbing, sanity-bending’ truth. If this sounds like the language of bereavement, that’s because we are in a position to grieve. The cruelty of our current moment is that it threatens a secular consolation for mortality – the notion that there will be a worthwhile legacy left, that the world might become a better place after we’re gone.

So what do you do, when you realise that your civilisation is a dance of death? The only sane answer is you begin to learn the dance of life. You start moving against the rhythms of destruction, however pulsing and insistent they may be.

Gramsci famously said that in the interregnum between the old world and the new, morbid symptoms appear. Perhaps this blog post counts among them. But there is cause for hope, in that once momentum starts, it can build surprisingly quickly.

In the last year, the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has taken strikes from school to demand radical action from world leaders, an idea which has spread across the world. Thunberg speaks with a burning clarity that shames the tepid equivocation of politicians. She is also diagnosed autistic, something she partly credits for her focus on climate justice. ‘I see the world a bit different, from another perspective’, she said in a New Yorker profile. Sometimes it takes a divergent viewpoint to stand aside, and remind us of the skull hidden in plain sight.

During the recent February heatwave, I wandered in to the National Gallery. It had been a while since I’d seen The Ambassadors, and when I arrived a group of Chinese tourists crowded in front of the canvas, listening to their tour guide. As I walked to the right-hand wall beside the frame, I’d forgotten what a tight angle you need to appreciate Holbein’s amazing trick. The rest of the picture became skewed beyond recognition, but there it was. Death.

As I stood and marvelled, the streets outside the gallery resounded to the noise of city traffic. Across the Thames, passengers in Waterloo station hurried past the bookshop window. Along the busy South Bank, ice creams melted like glaciers in the February sun. And in parks and gardens across London, magnolia trees were silently coming into bloom. The colour of their flowers fade from the base to the tip: from pink to white.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

The Heaventree Of Stars

The Starry Night by Van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I’ve recently been exploring the orchestral music of the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott. It’s no short task: at his death in 2008 at the age of 78, he left a large body of work in a wide range of forms, including six operas, ten symphonies, and twenty concertos.

If you’re not familiar with Hoddinott, a good introduction to his sound-world is The Heaventree Of Stars, a short ‘poem’ for violin and orchestra. Commissioned by the BBC, it was first performed in 1980 by Christopher Warren-Green and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes.

Much of what I’ve heard of Hoddinott’s music uses modern harmonic language, but it doesn’t revel in the brutality of dissonance. He has an affinity for sensual textures and quietly brooding ambiguity. His scores often create an atmosphere of dense mystery, with wells of rich colour and moments of eerie calm.

Hoddinott had a busy career as a composer and Professor of Music at Cardiff University, but he took a keen interest in the wider arts. His homes were filled with paintings and sculptures, and he had a large personal library. The Heaventree of Stars takes its inspiration from a line in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. A famous exemplar of modernist prose, with its highly inventive language and wide-ranging allusions, it’s a book that rewards close and imaginative readings.

The two characters at this point in the novel, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, step outside into the latter’s garden and contemplate the night sky. Joyce describes the sight that meets them:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

We might spot how ‘midnight’ is hidden within the words here. And John Simpson has noted that the idea of a ‘heaventree’ links to Polynesian and Malay beliefs. But simply on a poetic level, this sentence is both atmospheric and musical. Say it aloud: the consonant obstacle-course and cluster of ‘u’ sounds makes ‘hung with humid nightblue fruit’ feel like eating a peach.

We cannot discount an erotic resonance in this steamy air and dangling fruit either, especially given the sexual episodes of the novel. After seeing the stars, Bloom returns home to his wife Molly and, in another oft-quoted line, the curves of her body are compared obsessively to melons. However you read it, this night seems charged with possibility.

Three Cliffs Bay on the Gower Peninsula, where Hoddinott lived in his later years. Photo by Allan Hopkins, Creative Commons, cropped.

‘Humid’ could be a good description of Hoddinott’s orchestral style too. Quite often a draught of Welsh damp seems to waft in; I particularly like his habit of combining long chords on woodwind and brass with sustained translucent string lines, like misty tendrils over dark hills.

I wanted to understand more about his orchestration, so I tracked down the score to The Heaventree Of Stars. What I found was a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript rather than a neat engraving. But this provides the advantage of a more personal impression of the composer.

As you’d expect from its nocturnal theme, much of the piece is relatively quiet. But it calls for three percussionists, with a much larger range of instruments than I imagined. Hoddinott uses this constellation of timbres in a way that suggests the heightened aural awareness of standing outdoors at night, hearing faint sounds of indistinct origin. Among these, a kind of gentle bending moan comes from a strange little contraption called the ‘flexatone’.

But the effect of this night sky is dramatically offset by an opening crescendo. This crashing wave of sound is like the crossing of a liminal space. It could be the ‘big bang’ that brings these stars into being, or – given the instruments include a wind machine and a thunder sheet – perhaps a passing storm.

When it subsides, our starry sky appears with high string lines. Particularly magical are softly fluttering arabesque figures that Hoddinott scores for woodwinds. He notates these with a series of pitch values, beamed but open-voided, and then a simple wiggly line to show continuation. This impressionistic device is used for various other instruments throughout the piece.

When it enters the scene, the solo violin part is rhapsodic, and unsurprisingly treads a lot of high-pitched ground. We could think of its climbing trills and undulating arpeggios as a modern chromatic equivalent to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, with the jostling playfulness of Joyce’s prose replacing the lyrical ease of George Meredith’s poem. There are numerous differences in approach of course, but both scores excel in distilling a moment of enraptured stillness – of stopping to look up.

Towards the end of the work, the orchestra builds to a climax with Hoddinott’s typical slow-burning intensity. Languid chords from the bassoon and horns underpin a roaming melody on the violins and string figurations. But it passes, and nocturnal stillness returns. The solo violin finally ascends with a series of simple harmonics, met by a soft, ambiguous cadence on the strings. The sound is darkened by wind machine and tam-tam as it evaporates into the warm night air.

In a 2008 Guardian obituary, Geraint Lewis described Hoddinott as ‘the genial father-figure of Welsh music: he, more than anyone, directed its postwar path to full professionalism and creative renewal’. In the 1970s, with this internationally-recognised figure at Cardiff University’s new music department, he writes that ‘it felt as if musical life in Wales had suddenly been catapulted into a different dimension’. After the composer’s death, the concert hall at the Wales Millennium Centre was named BBC Hoddinott Hall in his honour.

Doors to BBC Hoddinott Hall. Wikimedia Commons.

If you’d like to venture on to something with bigger symphonic bones than The Heaventree Of Stars, I recommend Hoddinott’s vibrantly colourful Landscapes. You might also try his final orchestral piece, Taliesin, which shows that he composed with undimmed imagination right to the end. Its subject is an ancient poet, shrouded in the mists of legend, whose supposed works feature in a Middle Welsh manuscript. A fitting valedictory theme, for a man who gave so much to Welsh cultural life.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

Littlecote Villa: An Orphic Mystery

An apse of the Littlecote Park mosaic.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In the south of England, in a field beside the river Kennet, a man holds a lyre. A dog sits by his side, while around him pace four women in a circle, each with a larger animal – a goat, a deer, a panther, and a bull.

This strange scene forms a mosaic a floor in what was once a Roman villa complex, now part of the grounds of Littlecote House. It’s a grand Elizabethan manor lying just outside of Hungerford in Wiltshire, and has plenty of its own history – it’s widely claimed to be the third most haunted house in Britain.

When I recently drove to Littlecote, it was a bitterly cold January morning. A flock of sheep grazed nearby as I stood shivering, looking down at a mosaic floor first laid over 1600 years ago. Having been restored to its former glory from the ravages of time, it’s now protected from the elements by a wooden roof structure.

Littlecote Park.

And here he was: Orpheus. First described by the ancient Greeks, and adopted by the Romans – one of the most enduring poets and musicians in western culture. From the earliest days of opera, composers and librettists have been drawn to him, particularly the story of his descent into the underworld in a doomed attempt to rescue his love, Eurydice. From Monteverdi to Birtwistle, Orpheus has sung for us again and again.

In Christian iconography, we’re accustomed to musicians playing a supporting role – choirs of angels, silver trumpets. But for Orpheus, music and poetry are his fundamental godly powers. I wanted to know what it meant that he was here, in this English field, clearly the focal point of this design?

The western section of the Littlecote mosaic.

At first glance, you might think that this mosaic tells us something about the esteem in which music was held in Roman society. But after my visit, I took a trip to the British Library, which allowed me to dig into the scholarship of Littlecote Park. It turns out that this mosaic, and its symbolism, is much more contested than I imagined. It demonstrates the fascinating ambiguity of ancient images, and our ability to read them in multiple different ways – even at the same time.

‘The finest pavement that the sun ever shone upon in England’ were the words of antiquarian Roger Gale after the mosaic was unearthed in 1727 by the steward of the park estate, William George. We know that George made a coloured drawing of the design, which was later engraved, and his wife embroidered a large needlework copy as a memorial after his death, which now hangs in Littlecote House.

Littlecote House.

These detailed records, as it turns out, would be invaluable. Because as crazy as it seems today, the site of the villa was somehow lost. Poor Orpheus descended into the underworld once more, where he lay reburied for over two centuries.

Some presumed the mosaic destroyed. Then, in the summer of 1977, the site was unexpectedly found for a second time. Bryn Walters, who led the new excavation, explains that Littlecote tradition assumed the villa to be somewhere on the nearby hillside. But it turned up on the banks of the Kennet instead, in ‘a small oak copse choked with weeds where moles and rabbits had brought fine mosaic tesserae to the surface’.

Sadly, the animals and roots had badly damaged the floor – only forty percent of it was preserved in situ. But since the full layout was already recorded, ‘it was decided to take an unprecedented step and fully restore one of the most significant mosaics yet found in Britain’.

After the floor was fully excavated, the surviving panels were cleaned and re-set, while the most damaged parts were relaid with modern tiles. Luckily, Orpheus himself was pretty much intact. But if the story of its discovery is surprisingly complex, the debate around the mosaic’s purpose and meaning is even more so.

Littlecote Roman villa ruins.

Orpheus was the son of the muse Calliope. Some cite his father as Apollo, who gave him his lyre, others a Thracian king. He was said to be able to charm animals with his music, and mosaics from across the Roman empire show him surrounded by beasts of various kinds. But there is a cluster of Orphic mosaics in the villas of the south and west of England, many with the distinctive feature of animals parading in a circle. The most spectacular of these is at Woodchester in Gloucestershire, a square floor of nearly 15 metres across, made up of 1.6 million pieces.

Today, the idea of music as a means to control nature might seem a strange one. But in a conference paper, Sarah Scott offers a rationale for the appeal of Orpheus to wealthy British Romans of the fourth century – a time of an increasing concentration of land ownership, in which rural residences were becoming ‘the primary centres for status display’:

Orpheus was able to control nature in its strongest and wildest forms without the use of physical force, and would therefore have been an appropriate choice for a room in which the owner would have conducted business, and entertained friends and/or strangers, and generally aimed to impress. The villa owner was associating himself with godly powers. […] The animals traditionally found on the Orpheus scene are those which exhibit types of behaviour which make them difficult to handle or capture.

The number of such mosaics in Britain, she suggests, may be down to a copycat behaviour – a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s among the large landowners, perhaps with Woodchester’s magnificent floor as the original inspiration.

The Littlecote ‘Orpheus’.

But even within this Roman mosaic tradition, Littlecote offers some puzzling features. It’s in a separate building from the main domestic house, without the hypocaust to provide underfloor heating. And Orpheus himself looks unusual too, to the extent that scholars such as Jocelyn Toynbee have even questioned his precise identity:

The central figure has, indeed, Orpheus’s characteristic lyre and Phrygian cap; and the animal beside him could be (as it has now been restored) the fox or dog that so often accompanies him […] But he has not got the short cloak, short tunic, and trousers and boots in which Orpheus generally appears in works of art in every medium; nor is he seated or crouching and charming with his music a spell-bound audience of often numerous animals and birds […]

An Orpheus mosaic from Palermo, Italy. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikimedia Commons.

The lyre and long robe of the Littlecote figure are, however, appropriate for Apollo, who Toynbee suggests this could be, albeit displaying two ‘Orphic traits’ of cap and dog. Apollo is associated with the sun, which would make sense of what appear to be radiating sunbeams in the three apses attached to the room.

But there are yet stranger details to consider. The ‘sun’ in these apses seems to have the face of a cat. Meanwhile, two panels in the eastern section depict large cats (or perhaps dogs) either side of a cantharus – a wine cup. In one of these panels, the cats have fish tails instead of hind legs, while either side of them are two marine animals, possibly dolphins.

Littlecote mosaic, eastern end.

Walters’ excavation report provides a reading of the design which pulls these cryptic elements together. He thinks the common theme of Orpheus controlling nature through music doesn’t apply, but rather, ‘on this floor Orpheus acts as a catalyst, by which all the powers and identities of the classical pantheon are absorbed into a single god-head’.

He sees the ‘unorthodox’ rendering of Orpheus as representing ‘the prophet-priest of Apollo-Helios’, while the feline elements and wine cups draw on Bacchus – also known as Dionysus – the God of wine for whom large cats were a common symbol.

The double meanings don’t end there. The four circling women he interprets as the seasons, but characterised as Goddesses – which, running from spring to winter, are Aphrodite (rebirth), Nemesis (youth, holding a swan to represent Zeus), Demeter (maturity), and Persephone (death). This means that as you entered the room from the eastern end, you would be faced by Demeter and Persephone – ‘the chief deities of Elysium’. In front of them, a rectangle of zig-zag lines is comparable to stylised illustrations of water seen elsewhere in the Roman world. Walters suggests this might be the legendary ‘Pool Of Memory’, of whose waters pure souls could drink from to escape the ‘Wheel Of Birth’ and enter Elysium.

Littlecote mosaic, central section.

The circling animals with the seasons he sees as representing the myth of ‘the flight of Zagreus-Dionysus from the Titans’, in which a series of animal transformations aided his escape. And of the curious ‘sea-cats’ and their wine cup, he cites the ‘Tyrrhenian pirate myth’:

In revenge for his sacrilegious abduction, Dionysus transformed himself into a fearsome lion-like monster, cast his wine cup into the sea and changed the sea into wine; the pirates in terror leaped from their vessel and were changed by Dionysus into dolphins as they attempted to swim away.

This scheme comes together in the apses, the feline faces of Bacchus/Dionysus ‘now unified, through the intercession of Orpheus, with Apollo-Helios’. But as Martin Henig has noted, these sunbeams also have a potential double meaning as pecten shells, a resonance with the other marine imagery, which perhaps recalls ‘the voyage of the soul over sea to the Blessed Isles’.

Taking all this into consideration, Walters sees this hall as a temple of some kind, and ‘probable evidence for a neoplatonic religious guild among the elite in late Roman Britain’. Some scholars agree – Henig calls Littlecote ‘the best contender for a pagan cult-room attached to a Roman villa in Britain’.

Orpheus and Eurydice, by Edward Poynter. Wikimedia Commons.

There is certainly evidence for Orphic cults in the Classical world, and Walters’ excavation report lends some historical context to this claim. In over 350 years of Roman activity at Littlecote, the mosaic room was constructed as part of a late redesign of the building it was attached to, which included a large courtyard and a bath suite. Coinage found in the building, minted at Trier in Germany, suggests a date for the hall’s construction as c. 360 AD. This, as Walters tells us, is ‘most intriguing’:

Julian, kinsman of Constantine I, became emperor of Gaul in A.D. 360. As Julian II he is best known as ‘The Apostate’ owing to his attempt to supplant Christianity with a revival of Classical paganism. Julian bestowed great favours on those who readily observed his directives for the restoration of pagan worship. […] It may perhaps be reasonable to suggest that this remarkable building was constructed to celebrate the accession of the new emperor […]

The ‘Great Plate Of Bacchus’ from the Mildenhall Treasure, discovered in Suffolk and thought to date from the fourth century. Photo by JMiall, Wikimedia Commons.

This rather grand hypothesis of an Orphic temple is both plausible and thoroughly fascinating – perhaps, suspiciously so. A scheme so rich in esoteric meaning is surely the most interesting answer we would want to believe. Is Walters guilty of reading too much into these images? Could a more banal explanation for this room be just as likely?

Other scholars seem to think so. Scott suggests that the room may have been an elaborate reception hall, in a way that reinforced the ‘rigidly ordered’ society of the time:

It may have been here that the owner met his clients, perhaps appearing in the apse at the far end. The villa owner kept his public and private life separate, and perhaps only a privileged few would have been admitted to the main building. The mosaic itself, with its complex religious images, would have emphasised the formality of the architecture and the superiority of the villa owner. Those visitors who lacked the necessary education would have been excluded from the significance of the design, and their social distance from the villa owner would have been further emphasised.

Toynbee, meanwhile, suggests that the ‘Orphic’ Apollo could be entertaining diners in ‘a summer triclinium [dining room] separate from the villa and built for coolness’ sake near the river’, perhaps with ritual banquets held in his honour. She is unconvinced by the Bacchic significance of the panels, and merely sees ‘a common decorative motif for filling horizontal spaces’, which ‘need not have any special religious connotation here other than as symbols of prosperity, fruitfulness, and teaming life in general’.

Of course this is only a floor, in a room that may have had numerous other objects and forms of decoration. The absence of further evidence makes any certain explanation of its function impossible. But a few finds from the vicinity of the site nonetheless offer tantalising glimpses of Roman life here.

A beautiful red Carnelian intaglio was found in the villa’s surrounding fields. It seems to show Victory crowning Fortuna, and likely fell out of someone’s ring as they were walking. Then in 1985, two hollow-cast bronze busts were discovered nearby. These were buried back-to-back, concreted together by corrosion, and Walters determines that they were deliberately concealed in antiquity, though ‘whether they formed part of booty taken from the villa, or loot from a sepulchral deposit cannot, for the time being, be answered’.

Henig interprets one of the busts as a likely Bacchus/Dionysus, while the other, sporting a remarkably full head of hair, resembles Antinous, the real-life ‘beautiful favourite’ of the emperor Hadrian (some say also his homosexual lover) who was later venerated as a God. Strikingly, he emerges chest-deep from a calyx – the budding petals of a flower.

Henig writes that ‘Dionysus and specifically Dionysus-Zagreus seems to have an important place in these mysteries which may generally be described as Orphic. The new bronzes must surely be associated with this cult’. With their date possibly a century earlier than the mosaic hall, he suggests they may have been fittings for a piece of furniture which was already an antique in the villa’s later stages.

Whether the mosaic was part of a cult room, reception area, or dining hall, it cannot tell us what role music might have played in the villa. But in its hierarchical ordering, with the lyre-player surrounded by women and animals, we have a compelling view of music as a metaphor for power.

Of course, with modern eyes, there are other ways to read this particular arrangement. With its man at the centre, we could see a picture of patriarchy. We could see a mentality of entitlement to control and exploit nature – the legacy of which, over 1600 years later, is rapidly propelling us to an ecological crisis.

Topiary yew trees at Littlecote House.

The debate around the mosaic raises a duality which is common to both religion and classical music: both can be the subject of a genuine deep engagement, but both can also be appropriated, in a shallow way, as a signifier of class and respectability. So yes, this room might well have been a site for pagan revivalists to engage in solemn mystery rites beside the river Kennet. But equally, it might just have been a fancy floor decoration for a wealthy landlord, who was drawing on ideas of music, nature, and religion in order to bolster his status in a highly unequal society.

But whatever the reason for this beautiful mosaic, its place in the villa’s life was surprisingly short. Walters’ excavation determined that the Orphic phase lasted ‘no more than twenty years’, after which the villa house was demolished, and the mosaic building became ‘a lowly dwelling’.

The chapel at Littlecote House.

Littlecote Park is free to visit, though it’s fairly inaccessible without a car. If you make the trip, I certainly recommend looking around the manor too. Aside from its haunted rooms and large gardens, its dourly Puritanical chapel from the Civil War era provides a wonderful aesthetic counterpoint to the opulence of the Roman floor, and is claimed to be the only one of its kind. 

The only complaint I could make of the current state of the mosaic is an ironic one: that Orpheus might be better protected from nature. The beams of the roof structure have attracted roosting birds to leave their particular unmistakable marks all over the walkways, and even some parts of the mosaic itself.

When I visited, I found Orpheus garlanded by a couple of stray twigs too, presumably from the same source. Perhaps a bird of Wiltshire was honouring him, much like Victory honours Fortuna in the ring stone found nearby. Even in his terracotta silence, it seems that nature cannot resist this musician’s charms.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine! If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

The Way Of The Water

Zhao Mengfu, Herding Horses In The Countryside, Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The horse has hooves to tread the frost and snow, a coat to chase away wind and cold. It champs the grass and drinks the stream, it lifts the knee and prances. Such is the nature of the horse; it needs no lofty halls, and no palaces.

These are the opening lines of Judith Weir’s 1998 song cycle Natural History. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was composed for the voice of the soprano Dawn Upshaw. It’s also one of the most fascinating and beautiful pieces of modern classical music that I’ve recently come across.

At first glance, the title Natural History might suggest science. But in her programme note, Weir tells how she became interested in Chinese philosophy as a teenager, through the writings of John Cage. For this commission, she chose to set passages from a collection of Taoist writings thought to have been written by a man called Zhuang-Zi, in the fourth to third century BC.

Her selected extracts, ‘considerably compressed’ from a translation by A.C. Graham, are described as ‘short parables about natural life as lived by different species, human and animal; a Taoist Carnival of the Animals, in fact’. This intermingling of animal and human concerns also offers a way in to the Taoist world of Zhuang-Zi, as A.C. Graham explains:

In the landscape which he shows us, things somehow do not have the relative importance which we are accustomed to assign to them. It is as though he finds in animals and trees as much significance as in people; within the human sphere, beggars, cripples and freaks are seen quite without pity and with as much interest and respect as princes and sages, and death with the same equanimity as life.

Beside this all-embracing worldview, Weir reveals that she values Taoist literature for its ‘concision, clarity, lightness and (hidden) wisdom’. Fittingly, the beauty of her score is in the breezy directness of the word-setting, and the imaginative restraint with which she deploys the large orchestra around the vocal line – not drowning it in dollops of paint, but shading with colourful pastels. There is a remarkable delicacy in the string writing, and the bright timbres of woodwinds and brass combine with a sparkling percussion section to create a sense of wonder, at times exotic and otherworldly, but never descending to Orientalist pastiche.

Taoism, as A.C. Graham admits, isn’t easy to define. Tao (or Dao) is usually translated as ‘The Way’, and he sums up this school of thought as expressing ‘the side of Chinese civilisation which is spontaneous, intuitive, private, unconventional, the rival of Confucianism, which represents the moralistic, the official, the respectable’.

This idea of intuitiveness can be seen in the opening lines of Horse. We are shown a creature effortlessly responding to its environment, unburdened by rational thought. In the orchestral introduction to this song, Weir focusses our attention on three solo cellos, which play alternating chords with a loose and unforced rhythm, their tone rich and lyrical. When the vocal line comes in, it shares this expressive suppleness.

After a derisive downward turn on ‘palaces’, our soprano goes on to describe the cruelty of a horse tamer. We hear a list of techniques he uses to break them in – whips, branding, starvation – and the music now adopts an ‘exacting rhythmic patterning’, his cold calculation underscored by the mean pinching of pizzicato violins.

But the horses that thrived on this treatment, we’re told, are only ‘two or three out of ten’. And so comes our first lesson:

Is it the nature of wood to long for the carpenter’s plane? Does clay yearn for the touch of the potter’s hand? This is the error of order. 

That final sentence is repeated, interspersed with big, sonorous chords of woodwind and brass. They have the rich bloom of a bell toll, like a moment of insight, a beckoning to immediacy.

This formula – a short story followed by a repeated conclusion – becomes a pattern in this work. The second song tells of a singer who lives in grinding poverty. But as Weir’s notes explain, he ‘possessed a magnificent voice, and was therefore, in Taoist reality, richer and greater than anyone else’. After a suitably austere opening, the song turns on the line ‘but when he sang the Hymns of Zhang…! The Son of the Heavens could not touch him; the Lord of the States could not make him his friend; the sound filled sky and earth, as if from bells and chimes of stone’. 

Suddenly, blended woodwind figures bound upwards, with the fiery vigour of inner life. And the soprano’s line reaches ecstatic heights as the singer in the story delivers our second lesson:

“Forget body, forget profit”, he sang. “To find perfection, forget the calculations of the heart”. 

Then with a strange mixture of bamboo chimes, violin harmonics, and ‘key slaps’ on the woodwinds, the song leaves us in a cloud of dust.

The idea of ‘forgetting calculations’ chimes with Zhaung-Zi’s belief in following ‘The Way’ unimpeded by cautious thought. Graham explains this as the ‘one basic insight’ of Taoist thinkers, that:

While all other things move spontaneously on the course proper to them, man has stunted and maimed his spontaneous aptitude by the habit of distinguishing alternatives, the right and the wrong, benefit and harm, self and others, and reasoning in order to judge between them.

At this point you might be wondering: how exactly should we be ‘spontaneous’? Wouldn’t that lead to societal chaos, something like the farcical ‘Do What You Feel’ festival in The Simpsons? Zhuang-Zi’s ideal of spontaneity, Graham argues, is bound up in ideas of ancient Chinese physiology and cosmology, but it’s analogous to the know-how of the experienced craftsman, whose sureness of hand cannot be imparted through words, but nonetheless finds the right path. This learned ‘knack’, as he puts it, is about spreading our attention over a situation with ‘the unclouded clarity of a mirror’, which will then respond with ‘the immediacy of an echo to a sound or shadow to a shape’. If we teach ourselves this knack, he writes:

One hits in any particular situation on that single course which fits no rules but is the inevitable one […] this course, which meanders, shifting direction with various conditions like water finding its own channel, is the Tao, the ‘Way’.

The analogy to the unerring path of water is a naturally compelling one, and it runs through the third song, Swimmer. An impressive orchestral panorama is our introduction – deep brass chords and high tremolo violins. Once it subsides, the soprano tells of a turbulent stretch of water where even fish and turtles cannot swim. A man is seen in the water and seems to be in trouble – our observer, we learn, is none other than Confucius himself. When the swimmer safely emerges onto the bank, to the dripping of pizzicato violins, the great Chinese moralist hears him start to sing:

“I was born in dry land, I grew up in the waves, I go out with the flow, I follow the Way of the water. That is how I stay afloat.”

As the orchestra regains the swelling power of the introduction, the torrent seems to be part of this swimmer’s very being, and the sinuous irregularity of his song, in 7/8 time signature, makes for a surprisingly catchy ear-worm. His lesson is pressed home several times more before a dramatically abrupt ending.

But the final song features the strangest text of all, with words of dreamlike ambiguity set to music that is unexpectedly moving. As Weir puts it, this extract ‘seems to me to describe our uncomprehending perceptions of the infinite’. It begins:

In the Northern Ocean, there is a fish, its name is the K’un; it is a fish a thousand miles broad, no-one knows how long. It changes into a bird, its wings are like clouds that hang from the sky.

There is a rapt wonder to Weir’s rendering of this remarkable scene, as supremely understated scoring combines with a shapely vocal line and a new-found tonal purity. Breaking with the previous pattern, our final parable concludes not with a statement, but a question:

Is it true that the sky is azure? Or is it the infinite distance? Is it true?

Natural History ends with a delicate cross-hatching of violins and trumpets, gently glowing with flutes, glockenspiel and cymbal – much like the opening bars, Weir focusses our attention on a narrow band of sound. The music simply ebbs away, perhaps with that same equanimity that Zhuang-Zi showed towards life and death.

Zhuang-Zi Dreaming of a Butterfly, Ming dynasty, mid-16th century, ink on silk. Wikimedia Commons.

Weir acknowledges that her interpretations of Taoism may spring from an ‘avowedly Western sensibility’, but she also states that she has found it ‘the most helpful of established philosophies in the conduct of modern life’. The qualities of concision, clarity and lightness certainly shine through in this wonderful score. As for hidden wisdom, I can only say that the more I listen to Natural History, the more I marvel at how much it achieves so fleetingly.

While the composer compares her texts to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival Of The Animals, I feel that this piece could also be a modern Taoist cousin to the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. There is a kinship in their luminous colouring, their spirit of contemplation, and ultimately, their serenity.

It would probably be contrary to the palace-spurning philosophy of Zhuang-Zi to don this work with the laurels of a ‘masterpiece’ – that lofty hall only echoes with the sound of its own bluster. Natural History is actually something far more interesting than that. Now that the twentieth anniversary of its premiere on the 14th January is almost upon us, there’s no better time to get to know it. Dive in.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

Find out more:

‘The Inner Chapters’ by A.C. Graham is available from Hackett Publishing.
Read Judith Weir’s programme note, and preview / purchase the score at Music Sales.
Read more about Judith Weir on her website.
Listen to a broadcast of the 1999 premiere of Natural History on Youtube.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

Tippett’s Forgotten Letters

1937 letter from Michael Tippett To Ruth Pennyman and enclosed newspaper cutting (Teeside Archives).

       By Danyel Gilgan

For much of the last five years, I have been writing a book about the life of my late grandfather, Wilf Franks. Wilf was an artist and sculptor who had trained for a period at the Bauhaus art school in Weimar Germany. While there, he came face to face with the Nazis when they closed down the school for producing what they considered to be racially un-pure, degenerate art. Under the tutelage of artists such as Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, my grandfather embraced utopian dreams of designing for a new socialist society, dreams that would soon influence a young Michael Tippett’s view of the world.

Through my research, I discovered how Tippett’s romance with Grandad unfolded, the beautiful music which flowed forth, and the heart-break that ensued. My grandfather’s love affair with Tippett was both beautifully collaborative and bitterly divisive, and it played out at a time when gay relationships were morally scorned and forbidden in law. The homosexual composer’s relationship with my bi-sexual grandfather inspired the emotionally charged and achingly beautiful String Quartet No. 1. Tippett famously wrote: ‘Meeting with Wilf was the deepest most shattering experience of falling in love […] all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my First String Quartet.’

Forgotten Letters.

My search to expand the story beyond Tippett’s familiar letters and writings went all over the globe – from Middlesbrough in the north east of England to Sydney in Australia and to Austin, Texas in the United States. At the Teesside archives in Middlesbrough, I found a series of letters that Tippett wrote to Ruth Pennyman, who was a communist sympathiser, a supporter of local unemployed miners, and a rescuer of Basque refugee children.

Ruth Pennyman’s 1947 passport photo -© National Trust / F. Mesham, C. Spencer, R. Skipsey & M. Johnson

She was the wife of a local aristocratic land owner and became a trusted confidant of the two young men who met her while working with a Depression-era mining community in East Cleveland. As I opened these old handwritten letters, I wondered if anyone had read them since Ruth first opened them in the 1930s. In one letter, Tippett wrote about the early stages of his relationship with Wilf in some detail:

I feel I’m a little to blame in Wilf’s not going to Cleveland at once – he decided to, and I said a fond farewell to him – but something changed him while I was away – he wasn’t himself at all – but it may be that vague hopes of seeing a new sort of life possible for him may have contributed.

Wilf was an artist and a free spirit, with an alternative view of the world, but he had no money at all. One letter, written in early summer 1934, shows Tippett’s generous spirit, evidenced in a scheme he was establishing to provide funds for Wilf:

I started a plan to get him £1 a week from five of us giving £10 a year […] You will be amused by all of this but I can’t see it as anything more than an acknowledgment of what we do all the time and in a much more civilised and decent way […] There is to be no moral stipulation attached to it whatsoever.

But there was a more possessive side of the relationship, which was also in evidence:

We had a bad row (trying my hardest not to let him know how much I thought his London lot were worthless!) […] I sound like a mamma looking after her child’s future and it strikes myself as laughable.

It seems Ruth was not impressed with Michael’s plan to provide Wilf with financial assistance and he was forced to defend his scheme in the next letter:

The charge that I am encouraging ‘tramp & child’ behaviour by him I don’t think holds […] I really am a socialist at heart and I see things from an odd angle, if I were older than Wilf in every sense I might feel turned to take your stand – as it is I can only see him as a level with me […] I can tell how sanguine I am of his painting […] no limits to art, therefore even perhaps Wilf – my gesture at this moment might make this clearer.

The earliest letters, of 1933-4, were ostensibly written to discuss plans for Tippett’s Robin Hood Folk Opera – a socialist interpretation of the Robin Hood story to be performed by the ironstone mining community of Boosbeck, near Middlesbrough. During his first visit to the village Wilf stayed with one of the miners, Tom Batterbee, in his little terraced house, along with his wife Selina and their twelve children. Tom received great praise from Tippett in a 1989 interview:

He had a natural tenor voice and sang Danny Boy in the pubs […] Tom Batterbee, he was a lovely figure.

Batterbee was earmarked for the lead role of Robin Hood, but he was a self-taught singer who learned John McCormack songs by singing along to the gramophone. According to the letters Tom had trouble reading music for the performance:

If Tom is going to be a great difficulty as Robin it may be necessary to change him – but I’ve made a very easy part purposely. I leave all the casting to you unconditionally […] though I’d love to have Tom.

Tippet’s score of a folk song for the miners of Boosbeck.

While working with the miners in Boosbeck, Wilf and Tippett’s relationship blossomed. Having worked together on the Robin Hood Folk Opera, the two men subsequently collaborated on numerous other socialist-inspired productions. These included Tippett’s 1935 agitprop play War Ramp in which Wilf acted the part of the lead soldier and a 1937 setting of William Blake’s A Song of Liberty, which is a call to revolution. (Tippett renounced Marxist politics at the end of the 1930s, while Wilf’s political passions burned brightly throughout his long life.)  

In another of the Middlesbrough letters, dated July 1937, Tippett pours out his heart about the Civil War raging in Spain. He appeals to Ruth for funds to help Trotskyist ‘comrades in distress’:

I’ve had an urgent appeal about Spain from Anarchist-Bol[shevik]-Leninist sources, which I feel duty bound to hand on personally to you on the off chance you might see eye to eye with us over this & help in a small way financially […] The repression against the left elements is very bitter – the Bol-Leninists proper, a handful, are in the worst plight, because they are hunted down by the Russian secret police agents that are now rife in Spain […] The appeal is for purists to feed these people in hiding – very grim affair. What do you feel about it? I want to pass some money on from England through channels of our own, to these comrades in distress.

Forgotten Ballets.

From 1935, Tippett and Wilf were campaigning together under the slogan ‘international working-class solidarity means peace.’ At this time they came into contact with Margaret Barr who had recently brought her Dance Drama Group to London. Barr was a pioneer of British modern dance and a protégé of the great Martha Graham, who she trained under in New York. Barr established herself as a leading figure in British modern dance choreography during her residency at Dartington Hall in the early 1930s. In 1935 she moved to London where the Dance Drama Group performed regularly at venues such as the Unity Theatre and the Embassy Theatre.

One of Margaret Barr’s dancers at Dartington Hall.

Tippett and Wilf were part of London’s left-wing arts community, and it was through groups such as Alan Bush’s Workers Music Association that they met Barr, who became a major influence on Wilf. Her Dance Dramas were radical in style and were built around social and political narratives. She trained Wilf to become one of her small group of dancers, and by 1936 he was performing regularly with the group. Barr left Britain at the outbreak of WW2 and eventually became a prominent choreographer in Australia, her adopted country. A collection of Margaret Barr’s papers, held in the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, revealed additional fascinating details of this story.

Programe found in the Margaret Barr collection in the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

For example, Tippett was named as the ‘musical advisor’ to Margaret Barr’s group in a series of programmes found in Sydney, which also show that Tippett wrote music for two of Barr’s Dance Dramas – compositions that had been completely lost to the record. Discovering that Tippett had written this forgotten music for his great love Wilf to dance to was quite a revelation.

Anyone who has studied Tippett’s autobiography will know that his recollection of dates and events from the 1930s can be rather sketchy, but even so, the omission of this whole episode is most curious. Did Tippett intentionally omit these compositions from his list of works due to the pain of the doomed relationship? Or did he simply consider these two works – The Miners (Colliery) (1936) and Dance of Two with Chorus (Epithalamium) (1937) – to be of minor significance? Sadly, the scores were not found in the archive, but I found two references to them in a 1951 book on modern ballet. The first highlights Tippett’s innovative scoring:

Michael Tippett contributed an interesting experimental score: his music for Dance for Two with chorus was arranged for a very odd collection of wood blocks, tin cans, etc.

The second description mirrors the conflicted nature of Wilf and Tippett’s relationship and the sexual tensions which were never fully resolved:

The theme was the conflict of two different attitudes to love: It showed the misery caused by a narrow puritanical attitude, and the happiness and fulfilment achieved when man is able to integrate the physical and the spiritual sides of his nature in a many-sided relationship.

Wilf’s bi-sexual nature and his ultimate rejection of Tippett’s desire for a more permanent relationship dominated this period in the composer’s life. He would write the following in his 1991 autobiography: ‘I clung to this feeling that Wilf really would accept […] Wilf certainly wanted it but there were blockages caused by the age-old problem of to what extent gender, sex and love corresponded’.

Despite the absence of these two ‘ballets’ from the composer’s official catalogue of work, it is very interesting that the discovery also links Tippett to his contemporary Edmund Rubbra, who had composed the music for most of Barr’s Dance Dramas during her Dartington Hall period. In fact, Rubbra wrote the music for the original Dartington Hall versions of these two productions (1933-4) and Tippett wrote new music for the updated London versions. It is also a feather in Tippett’s cap that he was composing for this type of modern dance many years before his American contemporary, Aaron Copland, collaborated with Barr’s mentor Martha Graham to create his 1944 masterpiece Appalachian Spring.

Perhaps the real significance of the discovery though, is how it impacts our understanding of Tippett’s personal life, for it reveals another creative collaboration with his lover, Wilfred Franks – and a pivotal moment in their love story. Wilf’s dance partner in Barr’s group was a young woman called Meg Masters, a talented artist of mixed Indian/British heritage, who Wilf later described as ‘a beautiful Indian dancer’. A programme, found at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, revealed that Meg, whose stage name was Margarita Medina, choreographed Tippett’s 1939 Symphony of Youth at Brockwell Park in south London – shortly after Wilf broke Tippett’s heart by announcing that he intended to marry Meg. The irony for Tippett must have been bitter: these experimental compositions were created for his lover to perform, yet it was while dancing to these very same works that Wilf fell in love with Meg.

Meg Masters, photo shared by her daughter Karen.

Margaret Barr is virtually forgotten in Tippett’s autobiography – in fact she only appears in his dreams. Wilf, Meg and Margaret make a strange, but rather haunting, appearance in a 1939 dream which Tippett recounts in the book:

A performance of a show is going on downstairs somewhere – one of Margaret Barr’s group. I am included. I go downstairs to find a costume […] I am told that it is Meg Masters who has charge of these particular costumes […] I decide I shall have to go up and find out from her, though it worries me  very much as I had firmly decided not to go to her so soon etc. since Wilf taking up with her and my retirement into myself.

A Late Reunion. 

The Tippett/Franks love story is forever marked in time by Tippett’s musical compositions, some lost forever, and others discarded as juvenilia by the composer. But the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 and the slow movement of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra were directly linked to the story by Tippett himself and both are regarded as being amongst his finest and most beautifully moving works.

Tippett’s music of the 1930s has sometimes been overshadowed by his later work, but during this youthful time when he fell in love and embraced radical left-wing politics, his compositions often demonstrated the exuberance and verve of an artist who had recently found his musical voice. Describing one early piece in a letter to Ruth Pennyman, the composer wrote ‘I think you’ll like it very much for its vigour and gaiety’.

Wilf Franks photographed by Danyel Gilgan at the Linthorpe pub in Middlesbrough, 1994.

During the interval of the recent London Symphony Orchestra performance of Tippett’s final major work, The Rose Lake, BBC Radio Three played his Piano Sonata No. 1, dedicated to his dear friend Francesca Allinson. This 1938 composition provided a lovely counter-balance to the late 1995 piece and highlighted the extraordinary creative longevity of Tippett’s career.

The Rose Lake also has a significance to the story of Wilf and Tippett’s relationship, for it was at a 1995 performance of the recently premiered piece that the two old men last saw each other. Grandad was 87 years old when my parents took him up to Newcastle City Hall to hear Tippett’s new work. At the end of the performance, after receiving applause, the 90-year-old composer came out into the audience and embraced his old love for the very last time.

The author wishes to thank Charmaine Foley for searching through the archive in Sydney and to Meirion Bowen and Karen Archer for their support with the project. Thanks also to the Will Trustees of the Tippett Estate for permission to quote from the letters and writings of Michael Tippett. Tippett’s letters to Ruth Pennyman were found in 2015 by the curatorial team from Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

Danyel Gilgan studied Furniture design at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design before gaining a post graduate teaching qualification at Middlesex University. However most of his career has been spent working in sports broadcasting, and he currently travels the world with the ATP Tennis tour. He has spent the last five years researching the life of his late grandfather, Wilf Franks, whose alternative view of life had a profound effect on Michael Tippett. His book, based on the life of his grandfather, will be published in late 2019. 

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

Shake!

The score of ‘Shaker Loops’ by John Adams.

         By Jason Hazeley

One Wednesday forty winters ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an audience first heard a piece that has become a fingerpost on the musical map: the string septet Shaker Loops by John Adams.

Adams, now one of world’s most performed living composers, had several starts. As director of the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble in the 1970s, he tried and abandoned pieces for tape (Heavy Metal, Studebaker Love Music, Onyx) and for electronics (Ktaadn, Grounding, Schedules of Discharging Capacitors). Meanwhile, his works for more conventional instrumentation kneaded and plaited the American vernacular into something not altogether concise, such as the piano rag Ragamarole (1973-5), and the Cornelius Cardew-inspired American Standard (1973) – a triptych of reimagined musical tropes comprising a Sousa march, a hymn, and a Duke Ellington ballad.

None of it has survived the composer’s erase head except the middle panel of American Standard, ‘Christian Zeal And Activity.’ It’s an ultra slo-mo version of Onward, Christian Soldiers for chamber orchestra and ‘pre-recorded tape, with some thematic connection to the music,’ which suspends animation in a way that suggests nothing of the urgency in either title.

In 1978 these three approaches finally negotiated their way to common ground when the composer completed Shaker Loops. The piece, now an unquestionable part of the repertoire, was the third iteration of the same idea. The first, Wavemaker (1976) for three violins, contained the grain of something worth pursuing; the second, also called Wavemaker (1978) for string quartet, ‘crashed and burned at its premiere,’ in the composer’s own recollection.

The piece takes its title, as Adams’s compositions often do, from a collision of notions. The Shakers, or the ‘United Society of Believers’, were a religious sect known for their expressions of physical religious ecstasy, a colony of which once lived up the road from the composer’s childhood home in New Hampshire. (In a deliciously trivial non-sequitur, they are now better known for their pleasingly unfussy furniture).

But a ‘shake’, in American musical terminology, is a trill the ornamentation of a note by alternating it rapidly with a neighbouring note – while ‘loops’ are a staple of tape composition: found sounds on a recorded medium repeating themselves, as in Steve Reich’s Come Out (1966), The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, or any number of hip-hop records.

These three substrates – fervour of belief, a musical flourish and a compositional technique – inform Shaker Loops. It is, loosely, minimalistic: driven by pulse, repeated patterns and slow rates of harmonic and textural change. But it is also dramatic, lyrical and, in its climactic passage, visceral in a way that bawls with human agency, as the musicians drive faster and faster through enormous, repeated chords.

The late 1970s was, broadly speaking, a time of consolidation in American classical music. Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest (1977), for instance, took thirteen texts and, in one sitting, dished up ballad, chorale, serialism, jazz, opera – and bags of national pride.

But Shaker Loops sounds as though it emerges more from the same vapour as Brian Eno’s albums of the time. The connection may be more than coincidence: Adams’s first music to be commercially recorded was American Standard, released on Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 along with pieces by Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs.

‘[Shaker Loops] has probably been my most painstakingly revised piece,’ Adams told Charles Amirkhanian in 1987. ‘I’ve changed it over and over again. Among the changes, I’ve made it about ten minutes shorter, and I’ve also made a version of it […] which can be played by a full string orchestra of 50 or 60 players, instead of seven.’

The work is divided into four sections, played without a break. In its original version, each contains highly structured elements alongside aleatory, or chance, music. Passages – even micro-passages – are subject to whim. Modules consist of smaller (repeated, or looped) submodules, varying in length, which are assigned to the instruments by indication from the conductor.

The first part, ‘Shaking And Trembling’, establishes the pulse motif in its opening moments. Two violins play double-stopped fourths in unison semiquavers: a consonant, open, familiar sound. These violins have submodules four beats long; a third violin joins them with an eleven-beat submodule, before moving to one of six beats, while the viola adds a nine-beat loop, the first cello a fifteen-beat loop, and the second cello a twenty-four-beat loop.

Such chance elements need some sort of restriction, but the score’s rubric says nothing more than ‘the overall length of the piece should not exceed 30 minutes’. A typical performance comes in at around 26 minutes.

The vivid, pulsing opening of Shaker Loops is a statement of intent that persists in much of Adams’s work. These first bars owe much to Terry Riley, whose In C made an enormous impact on the young composer. But the landscape of ‘Shaking And Trembling’ is a shifting one – and other elements gradually join the frantic party: long glissandi and high, ethereal artificial harmonics that sound like wine glasses (a relatively modern technique in which the player reaches beyond the usual upper register of the instrument by tricking its strings into behaving as if they were shorter).

At the climactic point of the first part, Adams adds to the score the unconventional direction ‘Shake!’ – a reminder, more to the reader than the player, that this is a physically exhausting piece for seven musicians to perform. ‘Orchestral string players,’ he said, ‘tend to play in a very relaxed half-drive, never really giving their all. They couldn’t: they would have tendonitis within a month.’

The second part, ‘Hymning Slews,’ is conventionally notated in 7/4 – though this is close to impossible to discern, because the music seems to float, free of pulse, in a bright ozone layer. It is exceptional string writing, as original as Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima or the ‘Murder’ cue from Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho. Even four decades later, there is little in the composer’s considerable output anything like this: the strings shimmer, pipe, slither and shudder their way into their very highest registers. The occasional bubble of light even bursts on the surface of the double bass. It may be the high watermark of Adams’s early output.

The third part, ‘Loops and Verses,’ comprises a sustained build-up of energy that releases itself in a series of gigantic, relentlessly accelerating push-pull chords. And the fourth, ‘A Final Shaking’, is the passive twin to the active first part – a gradual wind-down, the bows dancing across strings with the same intensity as at the piece’s opening, but with toes in place of heels. A lacy, delicate icing around the hefty fruitcake announced on the opening pages.

After Shaker Loops ballooned in popularity, the composer re-notated it conventionally – starting on the first page and finishing on the last, with everything between formally laid out. He has since withdrawn the earlier version, putting chance behind him. Such is success.

Though John Adams has abandoned much of the grammar of the early Shaker Loops, the piece is a template for much of what was to follow. There is ‘musical inspiration in earnest, unquestioning beliefs – not organized religious doctrine, but simple, pure, emotional faith,’ as Pierre Ruhe has observed – just as with the PLF terrorists of Adams’s controversial opera The Death Of Klinghoffer (1991), or the Pulitzer Prize-winning On The Transmigration Of Souls (2002). There is unarguable statement of intent. There is pulse; there is consonance; there is centrifugal drive.

Shaker Loops was the piece that established Adams, not only in the public eye, but in his own. It codified his voice and his technique. After so many tentative starts, the composer had arrived at himself. He would go on to compose Common Tones In Simple Time (1979), the ravishing, spangling, orgiastic Harmonium (1981) for the San Francisco Symphony and, that same year, the still contested cartoon-with-a-pastorale Grand Pianola Music. 

2017 was Adams’s 70th birthday year, celebrated by orchestras and opera houses the world over. Tributes were paid to him in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Lyon, Stockholm and San Francisco. That March, I went to Berlin for a performance of his oratorio The Gospel According To The Other Mary (2012).

On the flight back to London, sitting six rows ahead of me, was Adams. I wish I’d thought to tell him he was the reason I was on that plane at all.

Jason Hazeley is a writer and musician. He is the co-author of the Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups series and anything with the word Cunk in the title, and is an occasional member of Portishead. He divides his time between London and the pub. Byline picture is copyright Idil Sukan.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list:

Sun Song

A solar prominence captured by STEREO spacecraft, NASA.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Imagine you’re holding a tennis ball. Some 780 metres away from you – about a five-to-ten minute walk – is another much bigger ball. In fact, at over seven metres high, it’s the size of a two-storey house. These two objects, in their respective scale, are the earth and the sun.

The sun is utterly fundamental to our lives, and yet we can’t even look at it directly. We exist in the balance of its awesome power and vast distance, which even light takes eight minutes to traverse. Too close and we would bake; too far and we would freeze.

But as we orbit, our planet spins at an angle, creating dramatically different effects of light across its surface. The composer Karin Rehnqvist was born over 59 degrees north of the equator, in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Her Solsången – ‘Sun Song’ – sets various texts about the sun from the northern fringes of Europe, with an ensemble of female singer, speakers and chamber orchestra. Introducing the piece on her website, she explains how latitude affects our experience of the sun:

For people who live to the north, the sun represents greenery, warmth, and growth. We turn our faces toward the sun as soon as its rays begin to warm us again in spring, after the long, dark winter. […] People who live closer to the equator celebrate rain instead. Without rain the sun is ruthless, leads to draught, starvation.

Sunset in Oslo, Norway. Copyright Simon Brackenborough.

That mention of the Scandinavian winter is telling – Solsången is far from ‘sunny’ in the optimistic, joyful sense. Its textures and colours are sparse, austere, and often cold. It’s a work of long shadows as much as dazzling light. But Rehnqvist composed this piece for Lena Willemark, a Swedish folk singer with a particularly expressive Scandinavian vocal style. As she explains:

She uses no vibrato, and a technique known as herding calls (Swedish kulning), traditionally used for outdoor communication over long distances and to call the cattle home. It is a highly physical, dramatic technique with a high, straightforward voice quality and strength comparable to that of a trumpet.

This vibrato-free line acts as a pure focal point – as direct and piercing as sunlight itself. And like the wide swings of the northern seasons, Rehnqvist utilises extreme contrasts in the singer’s range – from dusky lows to stratospheric highs.

Her first chosen text takes us to Iceland. Sólarljóð – ‘Song Of The Sun’ – is an anonymous medieval Icelandic poem which combines Christian and Pagan elements. At its heart are a series of stanzas repeating the line ‘I saw the sun’, which describe a sunset of apocalyptic dread, as the narrator is drawn into death. Here’s a sample, from this translation.

I saw the sun,
The true day-star,
Bow down in the noisy world;
And in the other direction I heard
The gate of Hell roaring weightily.

I saw the sun
Set with bloody staves
I was then forcefully tilting out of this world
It appeared mighty in many ways
Compared with how it was before.

The crossing of vast distance is a key theme – between sun and earth, life and death, heaven and hell. And like the cow-herd’s far-carrying kulning, the ‘bloody staves’ of sunset are those frequencies that can penetrate furthest through atmospheric scattering. Rehnqvist sets lines from Sólarljóð in a suitably bleak beckoning: sung in a slow, low monotone, and buffeted by dissonant string chords. Later on, two speakers recite lines from another passage which describes visions of men suffering damnation, their voices overlapping in a stream of confused impressions.

Similarly spooky is when, at various points, words are whispered by the speakers and orchestral musicians. But these are taken from modern scientific texts. They describe those mysterious features of the sun which we might only perceive in extraordinary natural events – the ‘prominences’ made briefly visible in a total eclipse, or the ‘solar wind’ which dances across the northern night skies as the Aurora Borealis.

The Northern Lights by Moyan Brenn, cropped. Wikimedia Commons.

So far, so much Nordic Noir, you might say. But the doom-and-gloom of Sólarljóð soon gives way to a depiction of a summer day flooded with light. Even here the music is reticent and understated, and the soprano’s gently lyrical line could be a lullaby, as she sings words from a Swedish Hymnal:

How lovely to see the fingers of the sun
Deep in the flora of the glades sewing
A lovely frock for the bed
We name summer meadow.

The second movement picks up more energy and motion, with words by Emil Hagström. Inexorably rising chromatic lines suggest the sun’s steady ascent into the sky, set to the airy textures of tremolo violins and tuned percussion, while the soprano sings:

Sun and run and rose and vine
Rose and vine, yours and mine
Hitch and ditch and skirt and bind
Run and sun and high the sky.

But Rehnqvist’s sun is a source ‘of life and of destruction’, and Solsången never fully shakes off the apocalyptic fragility of its Icelandic opening. Thunderous rumbles intrude ominously at key points, fragmenting it with a recurring sense of desolation. We hear the striking of a gong – perhaps a symbol of the sun itself. And at the end of the second movement, the energy is dissipated with a dramatic shout of ‘TURN OUT THE SUN!’.

As night falls, the final movement sets another passage from the Swedish Hymnal – ‘and so one day passes away / never to return again / and once more night of the Lord’s peace / our earth is given to gain’. The singer’s voice hangs in a low chant, shadowed by solo instruments, while others quietly snake underneath. Within the gathering darkness, the music comes to rest in the gentle arms of sleep.

Karin Rehnqvist speaking at the Stockholm Kulturhuset, 2015. By Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons.

Rehnqvist has said: ‘in my music, I seek to express something primordial. Beyond time and trends. The eternal condition of human life of which, in the end, there will be nothing but extinction.’ That rather morbid final point resonates with another aspect of the sun that defies our everyday perception – like us, it has a finite life-span. It is over four billion years old, but in another five billion years it is predicted to enter its death phase.

The video above is a performance with soprano Berit Norbakken Solset and the Arctic Philharmonic, an orchestra based across two towns in the far north of Norway. In February this year, they travelled to perform Solsången on the remote archipelago of Svalbard. Part of the Arctic Chamber Music Festival, this was timed to coincide with the sun’s return after four months of polar night.

It must have been a breathtaking place in which to hear this work, so evocative of the slanting rays and frosty air of the north. Even in this most unlikely location, human life is ‘intimately intertwined’ with the sun, as Rehnqvist puts it. But in the time since Solsången was composed in the 1990s, the polar regions have spoken with an increasingly stark warning of a dangerous unbalancing in this relationship. In recent years, Arctic temperatures have been found to be rising at a rate twice the global average, while atmospheric carbon is at a level never before seen in human history. Meanwhile, recent figures suggest that CO2 emissions are in fact still rising in 2018.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, by Christopher Michel. Cropped. Shared under Creative Commons.

Rehnqvist’s work captures a sense of our vulnerability on this planet, and how dependence on the sun can spell life or death for human cultures. Now we have entered an era of potentially catastrophic man-made climate change, it is worth remembering the analogy of the tennis ball and the house, to better comprehend the scale of the force we are meddling with.

Simply put, the sun is a sphere of nuclear-powered plasma over a million kilometres wide. We cannot turn it out. But we are trapping more and more of its energy in our only home, by choice, and with ample warnings of the consequences. It is strange to think that we owe our existence to a force so powerful that we cannot even look at directly. Stranger still is how easily we blind ourselves from understanding what this really means.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

Find out more:
All English translations are from Karin Rehnqvist’s website.
Listen to Solsången performed by Lena Willemark on Spotify.
Watch more videos by the Arctic Philharmonic on YouTube.

Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.

Sign up to the mailing list: