All posts by Corymbus

Sussex By The Sea

The old windmill on Beacon Hill, Rottingdean.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

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

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

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

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

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

North End House, now knocked together from separate properties.

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

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

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

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

St Margaret’s Church and its walled gardens.

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

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

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

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

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

The former St. Aubyn’s School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The village pond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.

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

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

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

Challoners Cottages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undercliff Walk.

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

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

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

The Kipling Gardens.

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

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

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Susanna Fair

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

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesco Hayez, Susanna Bathing, Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

Susanna And The Elders by Gentileschi, Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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Notes On A Fantasy

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

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

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

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

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

Josef Suk, Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

Suk’s cello melody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overspill Overtures

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

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

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

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

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

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

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

Basingstoke towers seen from the train station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vue cinema and the Dallas-esque Churchill Plaza.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the letters page, all hell broke loose.

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

Part of the sketch published by the Gazette.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anvil seen from the south.

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

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

The Malls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public art under a bridge beside Festival Place.

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

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

The Waitrose/John Lewis.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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