The Alchemists

This small but fascinating volume on the history of Alchemy by F. Sherwood Taylor was part of my recent second-hand haul from the wonderfully warrenous Regent Books in Wantage. I got through it in a couple of days. A few passages stood out, and one had resonance with last week’s blog post about Keith Thomas’s The Ends Of Life, a book which describes the increasing moral acceptance of material acquisition during the early modern period.

Covering a similar timescale, Sherwood takes a general overview on what changed when the alchemical worldview was surpassed by that of the ‘new science’, to which it had contributed lessons in laboratory technique, but with which it otherwise shared little:

The medieval philosopher could visualize the whole cosmos with the vast empyrean heaven enclosing the concentric spheres of the planets which, in their turn, governed all the changes of the world. He saw these changes as operated by God’s will, doing God’s purpose. He saw the world as begun by God and by Him to be ended. The new science left out all this, and consequently it seemed to the philosophical and religious thinkers to be lacking in interest or at least to be insufficient. It revealed a number of instances of law and order, no doubt. But was a man to renounce this wonderful vision of a world impelled by God for God’s purpose in order to trifle with the measuring of pendulums and the weighing of air?

Needless to say, I’m very much pro-science and don’t ‘believe’ in Alchemy in any literal sense. But I’m also interested in the notion of connectedness, and how these older ideas can prompt us to think about the world differently. I find some of our older knowledge systems fascinating precisely because of their easy links between what we’d call the arts, sciences and spirituality, and the willingness – audacity even – to build them into a big beautiful picture.

Sherwood’s book was first published in 1952, and is in itself an interesting period piece. Alchemists claimed their secrecy around the supposed ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ was to prevent it falling into the wrong hands and being used for evil. Sherwood compares this ironically to the very real ‘transmutation’ of metals achieved through the nuclear fission of Uranium in atomic weapons.

But atomic anxiety aside, at the very end of the book he strikes a strangely upbeat note: ‘we shall not return to the alchemists, but doubtless the pendulum, which has swung from the spiritual view of things to the material one, will swing back’. He could not have imagined the extent of our current environmental crises, in which a better understanding of our materials and how they fit in the scheme of a finite planet would be so direly needed.

For a fictional exploration of alchemical ideas that was also set during the Cold War, I heartily recommend Lindsay Clarke’s novel The Chymical Wedding.

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Venus and Adonis

I’ve recently been listening to John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, which occupies a curious place in English music history, teetering between the old court masque and the emerging operatic traditions. It contains a lot of beautiful music, but has been eclipsed in fame by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which likely used Blow’s piece as its model.

The evidence points to Venus and Adonis being first performed as a masque at the court of Charles II in the early 1680s. The similarities to Purcell’s Dido of the same decade are in its short length and subject matter – both draw on Classical myths of love that end in tragedy.

A concert performance by Dunedin Consort in the video above shows the quality of Blow’s score. But the history of the work also gives some fascinating insights into life in Restoration England.

The legend behind the opera has a simple outline: Venus is struck by Cupid’s arrow and falls in love with Adonis. But when Adonis joins a hunt to slay a giant boar, he is mortally wounded by it. Cue tragedy, and curtains.

To pad this out, Blow’s opera spends quite a bit of time musing on the nature of love, including an endearing scene where a series of little Cupids are taught to spell. But the word they spell out is ‘mercenary’, and the opera’s portrayal of love is bound up in a worldly cynicism that winks knowingly to Charles’s pleasure-loving court, and the notoriously promiscuous King. Take for example this exchange in the Prologue:

[Cupid] Courtiers, there is no faith in you,
You change as often as you can:
Your women they continue true
But till they see another man.

[…] At court I find constant and true
Only an aged Lord or two

[Shepherd] who do their Empires [of love] longest hold?

[Cupid] the foolish, ugly and the old

This theme takes on an extra dimension because, as the earliest surviving score shows, Venus was originally played by the actress Mary Davis, a former mistress of the King, while Cupid was sung by Lady Mary Tudor, their illegitimate child – she would have been around ten years old at the time.

The libretto is anonymous, but here is where things get even more interesting. The scholar James Winn has put forward the case of it being written by Anne Kingsmill, a Maid of Honour to Mary of Modena, who was the wife of the King’s brother, James Duke of York. Kingsmill composed many poems, some of which bear similarities to the opera, but Winn argues that ‘a Maid of Honour would have reasons to conceal her authorship of this delicately erotic libretto’. As Venus sings: ‘I give him freely all delights, with pleasant days and easy nights’.

Adding to this case, Andrew Pinnock has argued that some level of input may have come from another of Mary’s Maids of Honour, Anne Killigrew. She also wrote poetry, but more unusually was a skilled painter too, and she made two pictures based on the Venus and Adonis story. You can view them here and here.

That a woman (or women) may have written the libretto makes all the more interesting a novel twist in its telling of the myth. Instead of warning Adonis off the hunt, as Venus does in Shakespeare’s version, she encourages him to go, singing that ‘absence kindles new desire’. She seems to have gained a degree of sexual agency. And in the spelling scene, when Venus asks Cupid how to make Adonis ‘constant still’ (i.e. true to her), Cupid replies ‘use him very ill’. As the coarse old expression goes: treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen.

Besides being elegant and charming, Blow’s music also gets in on the fun. The score makes prominent use of the recorder, which had erotic connotations at the time due to its shape – a painting owned by Charles makes this connection explicit. Pinnock argues it was deliberately included as a bawdy joke, and possibly used visually on stage, to appeal to the King’s sense of humour.

But while there’s much in Venus and Adonis that points back to these sorts of in-jokes and cavortings of the court masque tradition, at the tragic end of the story, the innuendo and whimsy give way. The final chorus on the death of Adonis is sung to music with an unexpected emotional gravity – it’s genuinely poignant and touching. Pinnock writes that ‘never before had an English court entertainment ended so bleakly’. Here, with the benefit of hindsight, we see Blow looking forward, and foreshadowing the dramatic impact of ‘Dido’s Lament’.

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Playford Goes North

It’s a common historical stereotype that the Puritan years of the English Republic were a grim, joyless time. I recently saw some text advertising a concert of Restoration chamber music whose preamble asserted, quite startlingly, that music ‘fell silent’ during Cromwell’s rule. To which my immediate thought was: John Playford and William Davenant might have something to say about that.

Such sweeping statements are misleading. Because yes, while theatres were closed during the Protectorate, private music making did not stop, as the appearance of the first edition of John Playford’s The English Dancing Master in 1651 amply shows. And today, I’m pleased to discover that Playford has wandered off to the far north. A new video from The Arctic Philharmonic shows the orchestra having a lot of fun with two tunes from his collections – Muy Linda and Wallom Green, arranged by their leader Bjart Eike.

This playing has such verve and energy that you might think the musicians have all had a strong cup of coffee – which, as it happens, is something else that was first introduced to the British public during those bleak Puritan years.

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The End(s) Of Life

The COP26 conference generated a predictable slew of media attention on the climate crisis, and what it means for the future, both medium and long term. Meanwhile, in the LRB, James Butler reviews Andreas Malm on the strange impasse of this time, the forces of inertia and irrationality in which national leaders pledge the urgency of radical action while simultaneously fighting to dilute it.

The future is scary. During a period of self-isolation a few weeks ago, I started reading a history book. The Ends Of Life by Keith Thomas examines attitudes on how to live well in early modern England. Chapter 4 traces the arguments made across English society regarding wealth and possessions from the 1500s onwards. In light of the present moment, the journey is somewhat depressing: Thomas lays out the gradual decline of spiritual scepticism about worldly possessions, and the increasing acceptance of arguments in favour of man’s natural inclination towards wealth accumulation.

His period runs into the 18th century, when England, through imperialism and its early iterations of capitalism, was exporting such ideas around the world, backed up with violence. And it’s not to pin the blame solely on England to say that here are laid out some of the ideological seeds of our climate crisis – the moral assertion that wealth accumulation through resource exploitation is inherently noble and good.

Today, these deeply embedded assumptions about how we should exploit the natural world rub up against the increasingly alarming signs of the precarious state of our planet’s living systems. As Butler outlines in his piece, such tensions breed cognitive dissonance and carefully cultivated denial, not to mention madness: climate hoax conspiracy theories are less common than ten years ago, but Muskian fantasies of colonising Mars – a planet missing a biosphere and less habitable than the bleakest climate scenario on earth – are just as barmy.

But looking backwards like this does at least remind us that none of our paradigms are eternal. How societies will respond to climate breakdown is a source of grave worry, and Butler concludes his long piece by suggesting that we now depend on politics which are normally considered Utopian. In which case, perhaps we should travel back to England of the early 1500s for a bit of perspective – and start reading Thomas More.

The Ends Of Life by Keith Thomas is available from Oxford University Press.

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Behnoosh Behnamnia, Keivan Taheri

Back in May I wrote about the santur player Faramarz Payvar, and since then I’ve been listening to Persian traditional music quite a lot. As with the related Arabic tradition, I love the rhythmic fluidity of this music, with its melodic ornamentation as endless in its possibilities as the eddies in a river current. The santur has a distinctly beautiful sound, but Persian music features instruments more familiar to European ears too. The above performance by violinist Behnoosh Behnamnia and tombak player Keivan Taheri has become a video I’ve returned to again and again. Behnamnia’s playing is unhurried, highly expressive, and closely mic’d for a rich full timbre, while Taheri accompanies her with great subtlety. Much like the music of the Renaissance and Baroque, I find I increasingly value anything that sits within a comfortable range of pitch and dynamics, and which doesn’t demand total domination of the ear – something which has seemingly become an accepted right in Western classical composition. I wrote more thoughts on this here.

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The Music Of The Moon

By Peter Davison

When mankind first landed on the Moon in the summer of 1969, any lingering mystique about the satellite, which has orbited our planet for almost 5 billion years, came to an end. Prior to NASA’s Apollo missions, the Moon was observed from Earth as a magical silver orb. Now it was mere lifeless rock. Its former symbolic or astrological meaning was swiftly replaced by images of men in airtight suits executing mundane tasks – planting flags, digging up stones and even playing golf.

For those of a more poetical bent, who had found beauty and inspiration in the age-old mythical Moon, it was another painful loss of enchantment as science once more recast the Universe to suit the modern mind.

Astrologically the Moon is often linked with serenity, sleep and harmonious forms of romantic love; the mood so beautifully captured by Shakespeare’s words and Vaughan Williams’ glorious tone-painting at the opening of his Serenade to Music (1938).

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Yet archetypal symbols customarily encompass their opposites, so we should not be surprised to find the Moon also associated with deception, chaos and madness. The enchantment of love can all too easily degenerate into lunacy, driving men and women to distraction and even suicide. The Moon marks the gateway to the unconscious, where opposites not only meet but where feelings and ideas are not yet coalesced into anything definite.

This is the tantalising realm of intuition, where many things are possible, but nothing is sure. The entangling of opposites may leave matters fraught with ambiguity, but the combination of the Moon’s light and dark side can also lead to wholeness, where the spiritual and earthly become one.

The Moon is thus associated with Christ as the incarnation of the divine, and we hardly need reminding that Easter Day each year coincides with a new Moon. In this context, the Moon is a symbol of renewal, expressing Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, imagery used to powerful effect in the central episode of William Byrd’s anthem Sing Joyfully (1519).

The Moon derives its light from the Sun, so that in a patriarchal culture, it can represent a weaker feminine counterpart, able to function only as a mirror to masculine authority and as a servant of the rational mind. The lunar presence thus signifies not power, justice and knowledge, which are the Sun’s domain, but the ever-shifting realm of emotion and the ceaseless change manifest in Nature’s repeated patterns of life, death and rebirth.

But to consider these elements as inferior is to underestimate the Moon’s potent and necessary influence. The waxing and waning of the Moon arguably make all life possible by creating the ebb and flow of the tides. Its phases have long been associated with female fertility, the passage of the months and seasons. Now and again, the Moon even eclipses the Sun, bringing unexpected darkness, irrational fear and portents of disaster.

A good example of the Moon’s fateful presence can be found in Dvořák’s opera Rusalka (1900). The work’s most famous aria occurs at the moment in Act 1 when the eponymous water-sprite addresses the Moon. She sings poignantly of her love for a human prince, invoking the celestial body as an all-seeing, all-knowing presence, the key witness of our human existence.

Moon, deep in the sky,
I see your light from afar.
You wander around the wide world,
looking into people’s homes.

But the Moon offers more than a watchful eye. Rusalka wants its secret knowledge to seep into the dreams of her beloved to influence his desires and actions. The Moon expresses Rusalka’s seductive character and her wish to meddle in human affairs. She may long to experience the transient joys of mortal love, but she is nonetheless willing to invoke fairy magic to be certain of it.

Shine on him distantly,
to tell who awaits him!
If his soul dreams of me,
awake in him that memory!

The prince’s spell-induced infatuation awakens him to unimaginable ecstasy, but such intense and supernatural emotions cannot be endured by ordinary mortals. Love transports the young man metaphorically to the Moon which, devoid of its spiritual light, becomes a deadly place with no prospect of embodied human existence.

Gustav Mahler also found himself attracted to the magical powers of moonlight. In Ken Russell’s sensationalist biopic Mahler (1974), the film director, with uncanny insight, connected the climactic central episode of the Seventh Symphony’s first movement with the emergence of the Moon from behind a cloud.

In the music, the sounds of mysterious birdsong and bubbling springs tell us that we have come to the dark womb of the creative impulse, where the artist must humble himself before the mysteries of Nature. What follows is a glimpse of the goddess, the Eternal Feminine, illuminated by the light of the Moon. It is the symbol that would dominate Mahler’s next and most ambitious symphony.

This visionary passage is reminiscent of Das Marmorbild (The Marble Statue), a short story by the German poet and novelist, Josef von Eichendorff, which Mahler must surely have known. By night, the story’s protagonist Florio seeks a mysterious woman whom he has glimpsed in the forest:

… Florio walked on for a long time, until he unexpectedly arrived at a large lake, encircled by lofty trees. The Moon, having just appeared over the tree-tops, clearly illuminated a marble statue of Venus that stood on a stone, close to the water’s edge…The longer he looked, the more strongly did he feel that…life was blooming like a delightful song, bringing warmth as it rose up the lovely limbs.

The two Nachtmusiken (Nocturnes) that follow this opening movement capture the erotically charged atmosphere of the moonlit forest, where nothing is quite what it seems and where the mind is easily enchanted by dreams of romantic love.

The poet risks all for his art, and none more so than Li Bai who penned the original ancient Chinese text of the first song in Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. One story relates that Li Bai drowned in a state of intoxication as he leapt from his boat, hoping to seize the Moon which was reflected on the surface of the lake’s dark waters. In Mahler’s setting of The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, the Moon is a significant feature. The poet is a drunk, seeking to escape life’s suffering. At the song’s climax, the moonlight shockingly illuminates an ape in the graveyard, a fearful image of death.

Look down upon the moonlit graves,
there squats a wild ghostly figure.
It’s an ape! Hear him, how his howls
scream out amidst life’s sweet scent!

However, by the time we reach the work’s final song, The Farewell, this existential agitation has been transformed. The Moon becomes a ship with a numinous cargo sailing serenely across the night sky.

O see, like a silver boat, the Moon
floats upward in heaven’s blue lake.

The Moon now represents the journey of the soul from terror towards transcendence. In response, the music swells with feeling and, as the movement unfolds, we realise that the emotional landscape has been utterly changed. The wild ape of the first song has become the human friend with whom the cup of wine is now shared. Intoxication no longer means lunacy, but an ecstatic celebration of Nature’s beauty. Boundlessness is no longer chaos, but the freedom of the soul to merge with the renewing energies of Spring and to soar beyond the horizon’s eternal blue.

During the early 20C, as the First World War approached, the Moon as a symbol grew increasingly negative. One artist attuned to this decay was Arnold Schönberg whose ensemble piece Pierrot Lunaire (1912) depicts the Moon’s sickness as evidence of the soul’s corruption and the loss of love. In Albert Giraud’s surreal poetry, Pierrot gradually descends into madness as he enacts a sequence of bizarrely cruel and morbid scenes.

Or does he? Pierrot is after all a clown and a trickster, so that blasphemy and mockery are true to his nature. His melancholy utterances verge on self-parody, exaggerated by Schönberg’s ‘crazy’ vocalisation technique of Sprechgesang, where the words are half-sung, half-declaimed. Schönberg presents himself as Pierrot the artist; an ambivalent figure caught between wild fantasy and unadorned reality, an outsider who laughs at his own seriousness, who is drunk on misery and driven mad by introspection. The Moon, which has the potential to be both spiritual and deadly, is the source of this volatility, symptomatic of a soul in need of a cure.

But this placing of the wounded inner self at the heart of a work of art has its dangers. The lunar madness leads Pierrot to celebrate a grotesque Mass, in which the body and blood of Christ are replaced by his own bleeding heart. The Moon then becomes a scimitar that will decapitate the hapless fool. The head represents the assertive ego which must accept sacrifice and abandon its victim stance, if it is to restore an innocent relationship with Nature.

Moon-sickness, it transpires, is Nature’s revenge upon a man for living through his head, not his heart. Cut off from the light-giving Sun and fruitful Earth, the Moon inspires fantasies to avoid the full depth of human suffering. Relief comes by reawakening to the beauty of earthly existence and by rediscovering the possibility of love under the warm illumination of the Sun.

O ancient fragrance of fairy-tale times
Arouse me again.
I gave away all my ill humour,
And from my Sun-encircled window
I freely view the love-filled world…

The text hints at Schönberg’s regret for abandoning traditional tonal harmony. His sense of loss is experienced as nostalgia for the bliss of an E major chord; a key associated with Schubert’s most pure and heavenly music. The fragrance of fairy-tale times suggests a lingering memory of lost childhood innocence that hangs in the air, which may show how the crisis can be resolved. The denouement of Pierrot Lunaire signals that earthly experience must be embraced with child-like wonder, if joy is to return.

Leoš Janáček may have had Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in mind when he wrote his satirical opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek to the Moon (1918). Wishing to flee his alienation from earthly life, a combination of daydreaming and intoxication transports Mr. Broucek to the lunar surface. Surely, he believes, people on the Moon must be happier than on Earth. He is disappointed to learn that the Moon is populated by rarefied aesthetes who are offended by his primitive manners and tastes. The Moon is once again a place where reality is denied or falsely idealised, where art is used not to educate and enlighten, but to escape and avoid.

One of the most striking musical evocations of moonlight can be found in Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes (1945). At the opening of Act 3, the fishing village sleeps serenely at night, as we hear a slow-breathed sequence of chords in the lower strings. Shafts of moonlight shimmer on the cottage roofs. Yet there is a subdued sense of menace at the dawn of another day. Grimes is a scapegoat for the community, identified with the inhuman forces of the Universe, particularly the sea, which feeds and devours its dependents indiscriminately. The Moon could easily be considered complicit in this destructive potential but, at this moment, it sits above the fray, a haven of clarity and stillness. It offers a perspective that is not analytical and objective, but felt through the senses, intuiting what lies beneath the visible surface.

In our own times, the Moon has continued to be more planetary object than meaningful symbol. Paradoxically, landing on the Moon in 1969 may have shattered many romantic illusions, but the Earth viewed from the Moon could now be fully appreciated as a beautiful living organism. It was revealed as the ‘blue planet’, a fragile and fertile eco-system, amidst a vast and impersonal Universe.

When the feminine aspect was projected upon the Moon in the sky, its value seemed remote, obscure and fantastical. Yet the increasing evidence of serious physical damage done to our own world makes all the more urgent the need to relate to these forces as earthly and immanent. The music of the Moon has much to teach us about how the feminine force of Nature shapes the human world but, if we are not to succumb to madness or destructive fantasy, we must listen with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

Peter Davison is a concert programmer and cultural commentator who was formerly artistic consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.


London’s Composer Statues: A Cycle Tour

Statues have been in the news quite a bit over the last year or so. In Bristol, the figure of slave-trader Edward Colston was toppled and plunged into a nearby dock. A memorial to the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled in a London park, and attracted widespread criticism for using a nude female form. Meanwhile in the Guardian, Gary Younge made an excellent and very thought-provoking case for getting rid of statues altogether.

I found many of Younge’s arguments convincing. But I can’t quite give up my fascination with statues – for what they tell us about civic priorities, the way they can date so terribly, and how often they are simply ignored. That said, I don’t believe all statues are worth preserving. Colston taking a long-overdue swim was a powerful act of remembrance for his wretched trade, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching the footage of it.

Since I’m staying in London for a few weeks and getting around by bike, I thought it would be interesting to do a cycle tour of statues in the capital dedicated to composers. By this I mean statues in open public spaces, standalone works dedicated to a composer’s memory – rather than the composers in the frieze on the Albert Memorial, for example, who are subsumed into a larger scheme.

If you wanted to guess which composers would have their own statue in London, you might think of someone like Elgar. But the statues I’ve been able to find – and there may be some that I’ve missed – are often more unexpected characters. They show various approaches to problem of how to depict creators of an essentially invisible art, and one for which the typical composing instrument – the piano – is inconveniently bulky.

I started on the South Bank, at the Festival Hall – an obvious place for a composer statue, you’d think. Locking my bike, I made my way down its quiet eastern side, untrodden by most of the people heading to the river. Goods were being unloaded here from vans for a street food market.

By an unassuming side entrance, in between two potted olive trees, is a statue to Chopin. A vaguely human form is merged into what might be leaves of paper, one of which bears some notation of his music – impressively realised, on close inspection. An inscription tells us that this statue, by Bronislaw Kubica, was a gift from the Polish nation in 1975 to thank Britain for its role in defeating Nazi Germany. Having been put into storage for several decades, it was unveiled again in 2011.

Chopin’s face looks like a death mask. If this were music, it would be marked Grave, and from a purely visual point of view, I think it makes an intriguing impression. But for several reasons its context feels odd.

For a start, Chopin is hardly the first composer you associate with an orchestral hall, and his placement out of the way down here suggests that nobody quite knows what to do with him. In this regard it compares poorly to the statue of Laurence Olivier that stands proud in front of the nearby National Theatre, firmly connected to its setting.

And honestly, I’m also not sure how I feel about Chopin being dragged into a conflict that happened a century after his death. While I appreciate the underlying sentiment of gratitude, it doesn’t seem to do much for his musical legacy. Altogether, it seems a bit muddled.

After a quick Pret coffee, and a pain au raisin shoved in my face, I got back on my bike to head across Waterloo Bridge. On the other side of the the Thames is Victoria Embankment Gardens, and after carrying my bike down a long flight of steps, I arrived almost immediately at my next statue.

This park is a strange shape, tapering away from the busy Embankment tube station. Very much at its fag-end is a memorial to Arthur Sullivan, made by William Goscombe John in 1903.

This spot is behind the Savoy Theatre, synonymous with Gilbert and Sullivan’s shows. A bust of Sullivan sits atop a tall plinth, gazing towards it – though like Chopin, he’s shunted away from its busy side.

But the most extraordinary part of this is not Sullivan at all. Beneath his bust, a life-sized woman flings herself against his pedestal, apparently inconsolable at his death. Such is her grief that her own bust has carelessly flopped out of her garment. So here we have Sullivan immortalised, classical and imperious, while this semi-naked woman wilts emotionally beneath him. It’s quite something.

A dramatic mask, sheet music and mandolin lie beside the plinth, a tribute to Sullivan’s sphere of fame, but looking like an afterthought. On one side of the pedestal are words from his collaborator Gilbert:

Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That death, whene’er he call,
Must call too soon.

This statue is a bit sentimental and ridiculous, and for that reason I…kind of love it? Its pretensions are popped beautifully by the addition of a children’s playground beside it. Meanwhile Sullivan gazes unperturbed, stiff upper lip intact. As a relic of overwrought Edwardiana, it’s fabulous.

I got on the Embankment cycle lane and made my way around Parliament Square, then on to Victoria Street. A short way down here is Christchurch Gardens, one of those obscure patches of green space in central London mostly untroubled by tourists, and used by office workers as a spot to eat lunch.

Here is the first statue on my tour with real dramatic positioning. A large face guards the entrance to the gardens, with flowery emanations billowing out from its hair. A plaque in the ground reveals this is The Flowering Of The English Baroque, a tribute to Purcell by Glynn Williams.

I quite like the boldness of this – it gives a surreal jolt as you enter the space. The extension of the period wig motif into floral variations makes Purcell look a bit like a catwalk model of an outlandish fashion show. Cool and self-possessed, he stares over to the branch of Itsu across the road – perhaps after several centuries of death, he’s feeling peckish.

But if you didn’t know who Purcell was, or why he matters, you would not glean much from this. An information panel in the far corner reminds us he was organist at nearby Westminster Abbey, which is a bit tenuous. It’s a fun and whimsical piece, but the floral metaphor does not make up for a lack of strong musical storytelling, and it feels like a missed opportunity.From here I made my way around the busy road system encircling Victoria station – never a pleasant experience by bike – and managed to get myself onto the quieter Ebury Street, and to its far end, Orange Square.

Here, surrounded by a few benches, is the first full-body composer of my tour. He’s in period dress, and holds a violin to his chin – unmistakably a musician. But he’s only a young boy.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London while touring Europe as a child prodigy, and for several weeks he lodged with his family near this spot. He commands the space over this little paved square – you can imagine an audience assembled below, ready to listen. On the day I visited, an impolite spider had spun a web between his face and the violin. But little Wolfgang nonetheless looks down confidently, ready to impress.

A panel tells us that Mozart is thought to have composed his first two symphonies while in London, but I like the fact that this statue, by Philip Jackson, doesn’t make any claim on his more celebrated later works. It tells us a specific story of this back-street location, and of Mozart’s extraordinary childhood. Definitely the Ronseal sculpture of the tour – I found it refreshing.

I was now in Kensington and Chelsea, a borough not exactly known for cycle-friendly infrastructure, but I found my way through a maze of small streets to King’s Road, and from there to South Kensington tube station.

A little way outside the station stands a tall, thin man. His hands are in his long coat pockets, a wide-brimmed hat on his head. He could be straight out of film noir, and he seems to have disembarked from the tube on some mysterious private business. But he is standing on metal leaves, with a small bird attached. His plinth tells us that this is Béla Bartók, made by Imre Varga. Peter Warlock first brought Bartók to London, and the Hungarian stayed at a nearby house whenever he visited.

Truth be told, I’ve never really warmed to Bartók’s music, but as with Purcell, there is little in this statue to tell you about it anyway. Still, I like the strangeness of this figure, caught in a moment of making his way to his lodgings. I noticed that his plinth was garnished by a slice of red onion and olives, spilled from someone’s recent takeaway. Welcome to London, Béla.

From here it’s easy to head up Exhibition Road to see the facade of the Royal College of Organists, which includes busts of several composers, and the frieze on the Albert Memorial. But there was one last statue I wanted to visit near here, and in a departure from my own rules, it was in the V&A Museum.

It’s by far the oldest statue of the lot, and it originally stood across the Thames in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. This was a fashionable destination in 18th-century London, a place for festivities on summer evenings, with a reputation for less wholesome goings-on in its gloomy corners.

In 1738, the Garden’s proprietor Jonathan Tyers installed a life-size statue of Handel, made by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac. And it was extraordinary for several reasons. Firstly, Handel was very much alive at the time – to get some sense of it, imagine a marble Andrew Lloyd-Webber being erected in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.

Secondly, he is depicted with remarkable informality – unwigged, crossed-legged, in slippers. He plays an Apollonian lyre, symbol of Orpheus, which provides an elegant symbolic solution to the keyboard problem. A little putto sits at his feet among instruments and scores.

Thus hewn, Handel squatted for some time near the Gardens’ orchestra stand, underneath an ornate arch representing Harmony. The statue caused something of a sensation. An alarming number of poetic odes were composed in tribute.

Seeing this sculpture in the more sober surroundings of the V&A, I got the eerie feeling of really being in the presence of Handel from the 1730s. There’s undoubtedly a classiness to carved marble too, that shames the duller metals on my tour.

As Werner Busch notes in a fascinating article on the statue, Handel’s music was seen as a civilising, harmonising force in his own lifetime, and this monument may have been intended as a way to counter the Gardens’ reputation for vice. But recent research into Handel’s investment in the slave trade has cast a more uncomfortable cloud over our understanding of him. Beautiful marble cannot hide the fact that his civilising sheen has dimmed now.

So what do London’s composer statues tell us? Those who had short stays in the capital feature alongside those who were active here for decades. Home-grown composers are better served by their links to provincial England: Elgar stands in Worcester, Holst in Cheltenham, Britten has his sea-shell on Aldeburgh beach. A new Ethel Smyth statue has been made for Woking – and unlike Wollstonecraft, she is fully clothed. But London tells a more global story, of its ability to attract talent from overseas, which seems to chime with how the city still sees itself today.

As Younge notes in his piece, statues tend to emphasise the problematic ‘great man’ lens of history, and minimise collective efforts. That is undoubtedly true. But I nonetheless get some enjoyment from their hubris; their vain attempts to maintain dignity and relevance in the face of their changing environments, widespread public indifference, and the accumulated excretions of pigeons. Quite often, I like their sheer oddness too. Perhaps one day they will all be torn down, or put in museums. But for now, they have a lot of tales to tell.

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Last Things

By Sarah Lister

Funeral organists are interlopers, strangers in the heart of family grief. We are privileged to celebrate in music the life of a loved person we have usually not met (though commonly on hearing a eulogy we wish it were otherwise). Sometimes it’s different – a man once approached me at the organ console after Evensong and handed over a list comprising three hymns, J S Bach’s St Anne fugue, and Percy Whitlock’s Fidelis. That’s what I want, he said. I’m ninety-three. You have to think about these things.

Whitlock (1903-1946) is a composer who deserves to be better known. Fidelis is one of his Four Extemporizations for organ, written in 1932 when he was Director of Music at St Stephen’s Church, Bournemouth and dedicated to his faithful (fidelis) head chorister Charles Keel. It was gratifying to hear Salix from The Plymouth Suite at the recent service for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh (of whom more later). A good introduction to Whitlock is his Complete Shorter Organ Music (OUP), the many delights of which include a hymn prelude on Darwall’s 148th and the resplendent Exultemus on Psalm 81:1-3.

Certain pieces of music endure as funeral favourites. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze (despite the latter being secular), Fauré’s Pie Jesu, and Vaughan Williams’ Rhosymedre are examples; all major key, tranquil, and consolatory. Pachelbel’s oft-requested Canon in D is one to be wary of – some of the arrangements in anthologies are over-simplified and congregations don’t hear what they are expecting. More faithful renderings are available on IMSLP (but are not easy).

The Marche funèbre is decidedly out of fashion these days, and perhaps it is too sombre a beast in an age of celebration funerals. Music lovers will think of the third movement of Chopin’s Sonata op.35 in this context, which, even if chosen, would need a very good pianist indeed to pull off (unthinkable to transfer it to organ). Alexandre Guilmant’s op. 17 Marche funèbre et chant séraphique, sparkling triumph though it is, does not capture the right tone in an era where Sinatra’s My Way was recently voted the most popular funeral song. But equally we no longer have female mourners wailing and rending their hair as they did in Ancient Greece.

When choosing processional voluntaries length is critical; in some smaller churches the aisle is so short that even Liebster Jesu must be cut. The nature of the recessional offers more flexibility, and Handel’s Dead March from Saul, if I may mention a funeral march, works well in organ arrangement and is major key and uplifting.

Perhaps more of a shame is that Purcell’s Funeral Sentences Z.860, composed for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695, are likelier to be heard in a concert setting than at local funeral services. These settings of the Burial Service from the Book of Common Prayer 1662 are some of the finest funeral music ever written. The unaccompanied, largely homophonic anthem Thou Knowest, Lord is simple and approachable by even small amateur choirs.

One of the challenges facing the itinerant organist is the variety of instruments found in parishes, cemetery chapels, crematoria, college chapels, and tiny village churches in the depths of the countryside. Adapting pieces to suit different instruments is part of the joy of being an organist; one comes across one-manual Frescobaldi organs, big Romantic monsters, Clavinovas, Hammond organs (on very bad days), well-loved instruments and some in terrible states of disrepair. Recently I was asked for an arrangement (no singer) of Bach’s aria Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen to be played on an organ whose entire pedal division was broken. And transferring The Lark Ascending to an instrument with no string stops was interesting – another time I will bring a violinist and split the fee.

Turning to funeral hymns, the choice is understandably difficult for families if no instructions have been left, particularly if they are not regular churchgoers. Decisions relayed between minister, undertaker, and organist can result in painful crossed wires, so funeral directors’ websites offer lists of traditional hymns that combine appropriate words and dignified melodies. Settings of psalm 23 such as The Lord’s my Shepherd and The King of Love my Shepherd is come up repeatedly, as do Abide with me and The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended.

Hymns familiar from school days are regularly requested, like Morning has broken, Make me a channel of your peace (the prayer of St Francis of Assisi), or All things bright and beautiful. This last highlights another challenge for organists: which tune to use when the words are regularly sung to more than one? Not everyone is aware (again understandably) that hymn tunes themselves have names, and one hardly wants to ask a grieving family member to sing something down the phone. I remember once bringing Thornbury, Wolvercote, and Hatherop Castle to a service because no-one had been able to establish which setting of O Jesus, I have promised the family preferred. All things bright and beautiful is a case in point: its two melodies tend to generate strong feelings, and it doesn’t help that one of them is itself called All things bright and beautiful (the other being Royal Oak).

With certain hymns there is also a question of harmony. The tune New Britain (William Walker) is invariably used for Amazing Grace, but standard harmonisations are a mixed bag. It is not in NEH at all, and Robert Gower’s version in Common Praise is too fanciful for use at funeral services (indeed I have never heard it used anywhere). John Bell’s simple effort from The Church Hymnal is probably best, distracting least from the stirring tune. But the melody works just as well unharmonised, as recently demonstrated by Barack Obama at the funeral of Senator Clementa Pinckney.

Music chosen thematically can be particularly meaningful. I have been asked to play harvest hymns for a farmer’s funeral and campanological hymns for a bellringer – both beautiful services. Families of sports fans regularly ask for Jerusalem or You’ll never walk alone. The most stylistically eclectic service of my experience was for a sailor, whose family chose My heart will go on (from Titanic), Rod Stewart’s Sailing – both on piano, thankfully – and the hymn Eternal Father, strong to save to John Bacchus Dykes’ tune Melita. This last is a great funeral favourite. The Duke of Edinburgh, a former commander in the Royal Navy, chose this for his service, and it was sung at the funerals of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, John F Kennedy, and George H W Bush, all of whom had naval connections.

Congregational singing has been one of many sad losses due to the COVID pandemic. Singing hymns at funerals brings the congregation together and gives comfort to those who mourn. There is nothing like the thrill of a 150-strong Welsh congregation belting out Cwm Rhondda (Guide me, O thou great redeemer) or Blaenwern (Love divine, all loves excelling). Joining in with hymns is also a chance to sing some cracking lyrics: when else, apart from at a rugby match, do you get to sing Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! (Jerusalem)? Who doesn’t enjoy the crystal fountain and the fiery cloudy pillar in Cwm Rhondda, the verdant pastures and food celestial of The King of love, and the still, small voice of calm of Repton? Not to mention And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase, and her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths of peace (I vow to thee my country).

Over recent years the role of the organ in funeral services has become increasingly marginalised. It is not unusual to find that all that is required is one hymn, usually Crimond, and that the rest of the music is on CD or mp3 – unfortunate for those of us markedly better at playing the organ than working the CD player. In certain situations – cemetery chapels where the Clavinova’s organ sound is not loud enough to support hymn singing – it is perhaps understandable that My Way or Time To Say Goodbye are preferred.

Despite this we cling to a small clutch of twenty or so hymns that, whether through television or through singing at funerals and weddings, almost everybody knows. How Great Thou Art, Lord of all hopefulness, Dear Lord and Father of mankind and others continue to provide us with a nationally unifying body of song. It would be a great shame to lose it.

Sarah Lister is an organist living and working in Oxford. As Harriet Lister she moonlights as a writer on subjects as diverse as music, miracles, poetry, and paper clips.


Sounds of St. Martin’s

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was driving my car behind a slow tractor which took up the entire width of a very narrow country track. It’s not an uncommon experience in the North Hampshire Downs. This is Finzi country: I was just a few miles from the village of Ashmansworth where that composer lived for many years. But it wasn’t for Finzi that I was here today. I was headed to St. Martin’s church, in the village of East Woodhay.

The church sits among fields, with only a few houses dotted around. Rebuilt on the site of an older church in 1823, it has a red brick and flint exterior, and is pleasingly nestled in the landscape – framed by mature trees, while further behind rises the imposing flank of Pilot Hill, one of the highest points in Hampshire.

I had been inside the church once before: in 2016 I heard a Newbury Spring Festival concert here given by the choir Stile Antico. Back then, it seemed a magical spot to come to listen to madrigals, among the budding greenery in the lingering twilight of a May evening.

But St. Martin’s also has a reputation for excellent acoustics, and with this asset it has developed a remarkable musical double life – one which goes beyond hosting concerts, as happens in churches up and down the land.

While most people have never set foot in East Woodhay, if you regularly listen to classical records there’s a good chance your ears have spent time in this church. Having grown up locally, I first noticed its name on the back of my Naxos CD of the Purcell viol fantasias. The website Discogs shows well over a hundred albums linked to the place.

I arranged to meet with Hugh and Kate Cobbe, who kindly agreed to show me around. Hugh has been organist here for about thirty years, and Kate recently took over managing its artist bookings. But I wasn’t expecting the rest of Hugh’s impressive CV: a former head of music at the British Library and president of the Royal Musical Association, and now chairman of the RVW Trust.

We entered the interior, which is open and airy – white walls, wooden beams on the ceiling, stained glass windows. In the chancel at the far end, the organ loomed in front of the altar.

As Hugh told me, the decision to hire out the church for music recording was initially made to help fund a rebuild of this instrument, which was in very bad shape. His musical connections were useful to find artists to record here in the late 1980s. And by the time the organ was repaired in 1991 – at a cost of about £25,000 – the extra income proved so useful for the church that it was decided to continue the recordings as a sideline.

It’s not only the acoustics that gives the church an advantage as a recording space. There’s also its quiet setting, far removed from anything resembling a main road. This makes it particularly favourable for capturing the nuances of intimate music making. St. Martin’s has been called ‘ideal for chamber music’, and looking through the albums recorded here, you find pianos, solo voice and string quartets are well represented: one of the earlier recordings was part of the excellent Elizabeth Maconchy quartet cycle released by Regis records.

Still, as Kate explained, neighbourly co-operation is important. ‘There are people living around here […] one relies on their good will not to do major building works. In winter it’s a bit tricky as there’s a lot of shooting that goes on on Saturdays, but on the whole recordings happen Monday to Friday.’

Sadly, the same remoteness among narrow lanes also prevents St. Martin’s from having a bigger concert schedule. The annual Newbury Spring Festival date is a popular social event – ‘they’re always absolutely sold out’, Kate said – but an adjacent field has to be used for overflow parking. What works for one night in May would become hopelessly churned up in winters months. ‘We’d be sued for broken ankles’.

The reverberation in the space was much in evidence as we spoke. But I know very little about acoustics, and the way experts talk about it seems a bit like the flowery language of wine connoisseurs to me. I wanted to know: what made this church particularly good?

‘It’s much larger than most churches in a single space,’ Hugh ventured. ‘We’re not all pillars up and down.’ It’s certainly true that the nave is very open, and likewise, there are no transepts for sound to escape into (the areas going off to the side which make a church cruciform). Meanwhile, the room under its tower is separated by doors, and can serve as a sound control centre.

I suppose this rectangular space is not so dissimilar to the classic ‘shoebox’ shape of concert hall design, albeit on a smaller scale. When the church was rebuilt, it must have emphasised the effect of preaching – one can imagine whiskery Victorian sermons  bouncing resoundingly off these walls.

In a spot where it’s easy to imagine the industrial revolution never happened, it’s perhaps no surprise that early music makes a strong showing among the recordings. Kate Macoboy and Robert Meunier are a lute-song duo who recorded their album Michelangelo’s Madrigal here, and a piece on their website praises its ‘relatively short reverberation time, similar to the rooms where our music was performed historically’. This, they argue, provides ‘a more natural evocation of the historical experience than would have been possible to recreate in the deliberately neutral acoustics of today’s recording studio’.

In an email to me, the pianist James Lisney kindly shared his experiences of recording in the church. He described the acoustics as ‘beautifully natural and unobtrusive […] the piano textures were revealed in great clarity but also with warmth’. There are of course practical considerations to getting a recording team, gear and instruments as large as a grand piano to a church in a small rural village. But as Lisney told me, silent heating units make the space comfortable, and ‘the only issue in recording was finding a flat area of stone for the piano stool to sit without wobbling’. He certainly finds that the tranquil location makes for pleasant working:

One morning I rose early to get to the church to enjoy some time at the piano. It was a classic ‘first day of spring’, with a pronounced weather change inspiring a huge range of animals to greet the day in front of me as I made my way through the country lanes. A majestic owl, rabbits, deer, a badger – the morning was truly wonderful and a unique way to prepare for the day to come.

As it happens, St. Martin’s is not even the only building in East Woodhay with a history of recording music. Just down the road is the grand 19th-century Baronial chateau Stargove House, which was once owned by Mick Jagger and became the location of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. This was apparently used by Bob Marley and Deep Purple, among others. (Later on, Stargrove House was also briefly owned by Rod Stewart).

Perhaps there is something musical in the air up here in the North Hampshire Downs. Hugh and Kate told me bookings have slightly tapered off in recent years – even before the disruption of the pandemic. And ironically, Hugh said, the one instrument that recording musicians don’t seem interested in using is the one that started it all off: the organ. But St. Martin’s continues to be a valued recording venue, lending its secluded Hampshire sound-world to the homes of listeners near and far.

Visit the St. Martin’s Church website here

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Maconchy: Concertino For Clarinet And Strings

Elizabeth Maconchy is probably best known today for her remarkable set of thirteen string quartets. But another work of hers has recently appeared on an album of British clarinet concertos, and it very much shares the terse drama of her chamber music.

Rediscovered is a fascinating release from clarinetist Peter Cigleris, with the BBC NOW and conductor Ben Palmer. It brings together four clarinet rarities from the first half of the 20th century, including works by Susan Spain-Dunk, Rudolph Dolmetsch, and Peter Wishart. But Maconchy’s Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, from 1945, is in many ways a stylistic outlier on this disc.

This pithy, punchy drama is built from small motivic cells. Its three short movements are full of compelling intelligence, but there’s a hunched guardedness to this tightly-packed music too. It’s as if it’s afraid of stretching out too comfortably, and revealing a vulnerability.

The string writing here emphasises the darker low registers, and it’s not exactly full of sweet harmony. More often the orchestra stabs in furious unison, brow firmly furrowed. Her lines love the austere shapes of flattened intervals, the morbid tug of a minor second. But against all this, the piercing warmth of the clarinet makes for a fascinating foil – like a bright chalk highlight on a charcoal sketch. It’s particularly effective when she allows it to unfurl indulgently across its wide register.

At the beginning, the clarinet seems like a fly that the orchestra are trying to swat: it darts around on high above their short, pinching phrases. This soon gives way to one of Maconchy’s most characteristic passages. Few composers make their string writing creep so compellingly. Quiet, sinuous lines overlap with the suspense of a slowly emerging horror, like an ant’s nest waking up.

The second movement brings no light relief either. The strings start off in a sulk – short jerking phrases over a funeral beat. A desolate clarinet solo seems to toy indecisively between major and minor thirds. But when the strings gather strength in a tense climax, it flies into a series of high trills, a hunted animal turned frantic. Only when the music dies down does it finally come to rest on the bleaker minor thirds, panting soft and low.

The third movement is given a lift with a sprightlier triplet feel, and there are even folky touches in some leaping string figurations – perhaps a nod to Maconchy’s Irish roots. But the rhythms of jollity are soon hammered out of it, and the strings find a new source of unstable energy in a series of swelling chords.

For a while we veer between agitation and despondent slumps, but eventually, crunch time comes. Over a laser-focussed tremolo string note, the clarinet leaps up with several dramatic pleas, a last-ditch defendant in the dock.

The strings deliberate their response in a furiously condensed reprise of the movement’s themes. But the verdict, as it turns out, is one of surprise reprieve. In the final flourish, the clarinet reaches up high and finds that bright major third.

Rediscovered is available from Signum Records. Visit Peter Cigleris’s website here.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.  Subscribe to my Patreon for £1/$1 a month and get access to more blog posts there.