All posts by Corymbus

Turbulent Landscapes

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, by J.M.W Turner. Wikimedia Commons.

The composer Thea Musgrave was born in Edinburgh in 1928. Her prolific output spans over half a century, and as the list of works on her website shows, she continues to compose into her nineties.

I’ve recently been exploring some of Musgrave’s recorded instrumental music. Her online catalogue is headed by a quotation from a critic who praised the ‘Straussian depth and complexity’ of her orchestration. But the first piece that grabbed me was something much leaner.

Green, composed for strings in 2014, begins with what sounds almost like Baroque counterpoint, which then becomes progressively more beset by disruptive dissonance. 

In interviews and published comments, it’s interesting how Musgrave talks about her music in dramatic terms. She made a name for herself in her early career with a number of so-called ‘dramatic-abstract’ works. These use instrumental set-ups in novel ways: for instance, in her 1968 clarinet concerto, the soloist becomes like an actor, wandering between small instrument groups who are set against the orchestra.

Even without such theatrics, Musgrave sometimes gives instrumentalists specific ‘characters’ to play. In Loch Ness (2012), the orchestra’s tuba becomes the eponymous monster. This kind of conception can even apply to chamber works. See how she describes the 2008 piece Cantilena which shares much of the finely-drawn elegance of Green:

An outsider [the oboe] joins the group [a string trio] and adds to their dialogue. At first the newcomer is treated with a mixture of suspicion and agitation, but eventually is made welcome.

In Green, the presence of a deep, rogue tremolo F creeps into the E-major music of the first section, and unleashes the work’s subsequent drama. In an interview about the piece, Musgrave recalled her student composer days, and the lasting importance for her of Donald Tovey’s ideas about structural harmonic planning.

This fact might not always leap out at you while listening to her music, particularly the more dissonant works. Much more apparent, however, is the craft with which she constructs textures, no doubt honed in her lessons with the famously exacting Nadia Boulanger. 

I was intrigued to notice that quite a few of Musgrave’s compositions suggest visual images and colours. Alongside Green, there is a similarly lithe piece for strings, Aurora (1999), its title taken from a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream about the coming of dawn. More specific is 2003’s Turbulent Landscapes, which is programmed around a series of paintings by Turner. Her visual stimulants are not always so highbrow: the tone poem Phoenix Rising only took flight after Musgrave saw a coffee shop sign in Virginia.

I think ‘turbulent landscapes’ could serve as a decent description of Musgrave’s overall approach to the orchestra – both in terms of its energy and complexity, and how she creates washes of sound, from the pale and ethereal to the downright murky. Among her impressionistic palette, a impulse for rapid upward flourishes sticks out – it runs through the more delicate textures of Green and Cantilena too.

For her 1990 tone poem Rainbow, Musgrave enriched the orchestral colour spectrum with the addition of a synthesiser. But the cutesy title is misleading. ‘In nature, of course, a rainbow heralds the end of a storm’, she casually tells us – and after a briefly shimmering opening, a savage tempest breaks across the orchestra.

When the promised respite arrives, the glowing arc mysteriously reveals itself as a quiet melody on synthesiser, flute and solo violin, backed by ethereal string chords. Rainbow then culminates in a blaze of sunlight, with rippling waves of tuned percussion as the brass section bellows out a ‘chorale of thanksgiving’.

It’s worth remembering that to see a rainbow, you have to stand with your back to the sun. Look towards the retreating gloom. Those bright colours are only refracted back at you from the Straussian depths, the Turnerian turbulence. 

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Hiding In Plain Sight

Part of the manuscript of The Wreck of the Hesperus  by Hamish MacCunn.

By Richard Laing

Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear. – Thomas Gray

Every so often a fanfare in the press announces the discovery of a long-lost or hitherto unknown fragment of music by a famous composer. Libraries, attics and floorboards occasionally give up their treasures and for a brief time there is general rejoicing in the upper echelons of the classical music world. Yet these discoveries, exciting as they may be, are insignificant next to the plethora of incredible music hiding in plain sight.

Regular readers of these pages will have enjoyed Kate Romano’s article On Neglected Music, noting the injustice of so many wonderful composers failing to find performances or audiences for their work, and the imperative to ‘keep an impossibly huge expanse of music alive and vibrant.’ As Romano makes clear, performers and promoters have a responsibility here, as do audiences.

Indeed, to my mind, the preservation and expansion of the repertoire requires a collaboration between performer and audience. Performers lucky enough to work together regularly can, over the course of several seasons, introduce unfamiliar, ‘neglected’ or new music to an audience in such a way that a level of trust is established, and eventually many concert-goers look forward to such programming rather than fearing it. Sadly, the temptation to focus on ticket sales makes this kind of adventurous, long-term programming rare.

Not only do musicians have a responsibility to search out new music, commissioning and championing contemporary composers, but we must also stay curious about music of the past, and actively fight against the whims of fashion. A couple of years ago I was browsing the shelves of music in my father’s music room in Yorkshire, looking for music suitable to use as sight-reading for choral singers. Scores of orchestral and vocal music, mostly collected in the 1960s, have lain relatively undisturbed in this study for twenty years, due to their owner’s poor health.

Here were the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the ubiquitous Italian Songs and Arias, the entire oeuvre of Wagner, and a healthy selection of Cole Porter, but also a pile of ancient Novello vocal scores of cantatas and oratorios that I had never heard of. One jumped out at me, almost literally: The Wreck of the Hesperus by Hamish MacCunn.

Like just about everyone else, I knew one piece by MacCunn and one piece only, for The Land of the Mountain and the Flood is a frequent visitor to the concert hall, a TV theme tune from my parents’ generation, and can be heard on a certain Classical music radio station pretty much daily, or so it seems. Playing through MacCunn’s cantata at the piano I was hooked from the first bars; the sweep of the music was perfectly suited to the melodrama of Longfellow’s poem, and the sensitivity of MacCunn’s word-setting moved me to tears. This was clearly a work which deserved, or even demanded, performance.

And yet, as I soon discovered, none of my colleagues had ever heard of it either, and the score had been out of print for years. I conducted a couple of performances with piano, which served to confirm my belief that singers and audiences would enjoy it immensely, though of course there were a couple of dissenters (like Dwight Macdonald, I distrust any work which is universally liked).

Subsequently I learned from Dr Jane Mallinson, an expert on MacCunn, that The Wreck had only been performed by two other groups since 1930, and then, apparently, only with organ, rather than with the large orchestra for which the piece was written. I was able to obtain a copy of the manuscript full score, held at the Royal College of Music, and set about reconstructing the orchestral parts. This week, the 180 singers of the Nottingham Harmonic Choir, with the Orchestra da Camera, will be mounting a performance of The Wreck of the Hesperus in Nottingham’s Albert Hall.

Persuading people to come to hear this wonderful work, however, is more difficult. Nottingham Harmonic is a choir which sells 1,000 tickets for its annual Messiah performances, and around 2,500 tickets for its carol concerts every December, but ticket sales for this nautically-themed concert are barely into three figures.

I know that The Wreck of the Hesperus is a piece people will love once they hear it, but getting them into the building to experience something new is a challenge. Of course, we utilise the usual tricks – adding popular works into the programme, advertising on radio and in print, writing blog posts, and promoting the concert on social media, but ticket sales remain stubbornly low.

Perhaps the mistake is to include two unknown works rather than just one – for this concert also features Herbert Howells’s extraordinary Sir Patrick Spens, which vanished from concert halls in 1930, the same year as The Wreck of the Hesperus, before being unearthed by Paul Spicer (again, in the library of the Royal College of Music) in 2006. Or we could just blame Coronavirus.

Yet, pace my choir’s treasurer, a largely empty concert hall is not a complete disaster, as long as it does not become a regular occurrence. An amateur choir (or orchestra) exists not only for the audience, but for its members; indeed, one could argue that it exists primarily for those that come to make music every week. The members are a major source of the group’s income. Much of the purpose and pleasure of amateur music-making is the rehearsal process; the concert is the proverbial icing on the cake. Thus amateur groups are more able than professional groups (who have less need to cater for the desires of the performers) to programme new and unfamiliar music, and given this ability perhaps have a responsibility to do so.

As each year goes by, the pieces guaranteed to fill a concert hall seem to become fewer (and, it could be argued, their quality diminishes, but that is perhaps an argument for another blog discussion). If we do not strive constantly to expand it, concert repertoire will shrink until it consists solely of works which are on a certain list determined by a popular vote.

As performers we have a duty to be curious. Had I not stumbled on the tatty old score of The Wreck of the Hesperus that afternoon in Yorkshire, the music would surely still be languishing like Thomas Gray’s gem, unexperienced and unappreciated. How many other wonders are sitting on shelves, out of print and out fashion, but hiding in plain sight, waiting for rediscovery?

Nottingham Harmonic Choir and the Orchestra da Camera and bass-baritone James Oldfield will be performing Hamish MacCunn’s The Wreck of the Hesperus and Herbert Howells’s Sir Patrick Spens, together with music by Mendelssohn, Stanford and Britten, at Nottingham’s Albert Hall on Saturday 21st March at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from the Royal Concert Hall Box Office.

Richard Laing is a conductor, violinist and writer. His directs choirs in Nottingham, Leicester and Somerset, and is Principal Guest Conductor of Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, Associate Conductor of Chandos Symphony Orchestra, and a guest Principal player with the English Symphony Orchestra. His articles and reviews are regularly published in The Wagner Journal and Wagner News.

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The Second Teacher

Scholars at an Abbasid Library. Wikimedia Commons.

It was while reading Karen Armstrong’s History Of God that I first came upon the name Abu Nasr al-Farabi. A Middle-Eastern polymath from the medieval ‘golden age’ of Islamic scholarship, al-Farabi held a striking view of God that had as much to do with Aristotle and Plato as it did the Quran. When Armstrong mentioned he was also a musician, I was intrigued to find out more.

As it turns out, al-Farabi wrote on a vast array of subjects – from logic, to metaphysics, politics, and astrology. But he has also been described as ‘probably the greatest writer on the theory of music during the Middle Ages’. Alongside several smaller treatises, this reputation principally rests on a magnum opus: the Great Book Of Music.

In al-Farabi’s story, translation is a key theme. His intellectual world was that of the Abbasid Caliphate – a time when Baghdad was home to ‘The House Of Wisdom’, a great centre of learning where scholarly texts were collected and translated into Arabic from Sanskrit, Persian and Greek. This revival of ancient knowledge goes some way to explain the fact that al-Farabi was often referred to as the ‘second teacher’ – the ‘first’ being Aristotle.

Aristotle teaching, illustrated c. 1220. Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, as Ian Richard Netton writes in Al-Farabi And His School, it’s practically impossible to construct a reliable biography of the man. Sources about him are suspect and often tend towards the legendary. Netton describes ‘a paradigm of an antinomian scholar-gypsy’ in some early portrayals: al-Farabi appears as an otherworldly figure, a nomadic teacher who speaks over seventy languages, and who wears ascetic Sufi clothing as if to illustrate his commitment to a life of the mind.

Such caveats notwithstanding, it’s thought that al-Farabi was born around 870. There is debate about whether he was Turkic or Persian, but either way he seems to have travelled well. We learn that he came to Baghdad, where he studied logic. He may have visited Egypt, and a period allegedly spent as a gardener in Damascus only helps to cultivate the image of a quiet sage.

But perhaps al-Farabi’s most celebrated association was the generous patronage he received from the ruler of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla. He was known as a great patron of poets and scholars, and al-Farabi would have been a valuable addition to a crucial part of the elite culture at this time: the majlis.

The court of Sayf Al-Dawla, from a history by John Skylitzes. Wikimedia Commons.

Meaning ‘council’ or ‘gathering’, a majlis was an occasion which could include banquets of food and wine, alongside debates and music. And one intriguing story about a majlis at al-Dawla’s court, written several centuries after al-Farabi’s death, shows the scholar’s enduring reputation for musicianship. Here he appears almost as a magician:

[Al-Farabi] then drew from his waist a leather bag, opened it and drew from it some reeds, which he put together. Then he played on them, whereupon all who were at the majlis laughed. Then he took them to pieces and put them together another way, and when he played on them, everyone in the majlis cried. Then he took them to pieces again, put them together differently, played on them and everyone in the majlis, even the doorkeeper, fell asleep. And al-Farabi went out.

While we can certainly take this tale with a pinch of salt, it does tell us something genuine about music theory in his time: instruments were seen as a tool for demonstration, and they revealed systematically different results.

In fact, Majid Fakhry has described al-Farabi as ‘the first system-builder in Arab-Islamic thought’. His Great Book of Music is particularly valuable for its immensely detailed categorisations. George Sawa has taken the deep dive and transcribed al-Farabi’s rhythmic modes, his tone system, and the large number of ornamental techniques laid out in this massive volume.

These categorisations could be quite poetic. A melody, he tells us, contains two types of notes: the ‘warp and woof in a cloth’, and its ‘decorative dyes and fringes’. Rhythmic ornamentations are compared to forms of Arabic grammar, while an intriguing series of timbral ornamentations for the voice are grouped by their likeness to human passions and tactile sensations.

The oud – with which the European lute shares a common ancestor – was al-Farabi’s examplar instrument for theory, and in the Great Book he uses its fret positions as the basis for tonal discussion. But in musical practice, he was clear that instruments should take a subservient role. A melody could only be ‘complete’, in his view, when sung words were attached. Only then could music spur the listener to virtuous thoughts and actions.

An oud illustration from al-Farabi’s Great Book Of Music. Source.

This idea may reflect the importance of poetry and song in Abbasid culture. But as Yaron Klein has described in a doctoral thesis, translation takes on a new guise here too.

Al-Farabi believed that some sounds could evoke their own ideas or ‘imaginings’. When these sounds are combined with the correct words in a song, he argued, they convey meaning more effectively than the words alone – what’s more, they can even clarify instances where a poet uses deliberate ambiguity. Fascinatingly, Klein notes that Arab musicians today still use the term tarjama translation’ to refer to short instrumental filler passages which imitate a vocal phrase.

In another, later translation movement, intellectuals like al-Farabi helped to pave the way for the European Renaissance. In the twelfth century, scholars flocked to Toledo in Spain, where a previously long period of Muslim rule had bequeathed libraries of Arabic texts which now lay ripe for discovery. A school of Latin translation grew here, through which the achievements of the Islamic golden age would percolate into Europe. Crucially, this also enabled the discovery of many works translated from Greek sources that were previously unknown in the west, among them writings by the so-called ‘first teacher’: Aristotle.

It seems al-Farabi’s Great Book Of Music was never translated into Latin, but as Don M. Randel has written, we know his Classification Of The Sciences was, and furthermore, it had an important influence on European music theory.

A illustration of al-Farabi, Latinised as Alpharabius, in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Wikimedia Commons.

In this work, al-Farabi divided the ‘science’ of music into ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ categories. While this may seem obvious today, it challenged the prevailing Pythagorean scheme, inherited from Boethius, in which musica mundana (music of the heavenly spheres) and musica humana (music of the body) sat alongside the audible music created by people. As Randel puts it:

His classifications of music as either theoretical or practical […] provided a striking model for Latin writers, and his insistence on demonstrations and on the conformity of theory and practice directly and indirectly prepared the way for a flowering of a new kind of music theory.

As Klein reminds us, there were profound implications to this. Music might no longer be ‘an audible way of representing the mathematical order of the cosmos’, but instead ‘a phenomenon worthy of studying in and of itself’. This is just one of the ways in which al-Farabi seems relatably modern. In the Great Book, he also outlines a theory of the evolution of music – from the invention of basic chants to the development of instruments – which still reads as highly plausible.

A measure of al-Farabi’s continued fame: he has a pharmacy named after him on London’s Edgware Road.

But al-Farabi was also, of course, a man of his time. With his seemingly insatiable zest for categorisation, Netton argues that his life represents ‘a striving for order against a background of instability and change’. The Abbasid Caliphate had passed the peak of its power, and cracks were appearing as various regions assumed greater autonomy.

Above all else, al-Farabi prized reasoning. His idea of God was a ‘First Cause’ from which emanated ten ‘intellects’. The last of these – the ‘active intellect’ – gave the soul its rational faculties, and this alone could survive the body after death. Furthermore, Armstrong explains in her History of God that while al-Farabi saw religion as a pragmatic path for society, it was nonetheless inferior to pure reasoning. Philosophy was ‘a superior way of understanding truths which the prophets had expressed in a poetic, metaphorical way, in order to appeal to the people’.

This polymath’s great achievements remind us of the importance of translation. But there is one more yet to come. I was surprised to find out that a complete English edition of The Great Book Of Music does not yet exist. However, I am pleased to read that Professor Alison Laywine of McGill University is preparing one. So while his life may remain the stuff of legend, a thousand years on from his death, I hope more people will soon be able to step into al-Farabi’s musical world – in all its fascinating detail.

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Alphonse Mucha: Art, Music And Spirituality.

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

     By Peter Davison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gaia Theory

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

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

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

James Lovelock in 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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George Lloyd: Myths And Misconceptions

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

     By Peter Davison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elgar, Chausson, Marie-Nicole Lemieux

Edward Elgar, Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

Ernest Chausson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schnittke, Danish String Quartet

Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray. Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tree Lines

London Plane trees in Victoria Park, east London.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A grove of trees by Gustav Klimt, Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sussex By The Sea

The old windmill on Beacon Hill, Rottingdean.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

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

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

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

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

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

North End House, now knocked together from separate properties.

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

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

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

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

St Margaret’s Church and its walled gardens.

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

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

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

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

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

The former St. Aubyn’s School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The village pond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.

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

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

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

Challoners Cottages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Undercliff Walk.

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

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

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

The Kipling Gardens.

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

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

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