All posts by Corymbus

Tippett’s Forgotten Letters

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

       By Danyel Gilgan

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

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

Forgotten Letters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgotten Ballets.

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

One of Margaret Barr’s dancers at Dartington Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meg Masters, photo shared by her daughter Karen.

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

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

A Late Reunion. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign up to the mailing list:


The score of ‘Shaker Loops’ by John Adams.

         By Jason Hazeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Sun Song

A solar prominence captured by STEREO spacecraft, NASA.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

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

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

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

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

Sunset in Oslo, Norway. Copyright Simon Brackenborough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Grim Fascination

‘Nazar’ amulets. Creative Commons photograph – source here.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

As anyone who uses London’s bus network will know, it carries all sorts of characters. I was recently sat on the lower deck of the 68 to West Norwood, when I noticed a man stood in front of me seemed to be growing agitated. I couldn’t figure out the reason, but it soon became clear. He suddenly moved, and started to aggressively address a man sat in a row behind me.

‘Have we got a problem?’

I turned round. The man seated behind was taking out an earphone to hear what this person was saying.

He continued, clearly intent on intimidation. ‘You’ve been staring at me this whole time. Now I don’t know where you come from, but where I come from, that’s a problem, yeah?’

The atmosphere soured. But the man behind made clear there was no problem, and the aggrieved passenger eventually walked back, muttering angrily. I don’t know whether there had been purposeful staring or not. Perhaps the accused was simply zoning out to his music, and the other was paranoid.

Just another unpleasant instance of toxic masculinity in public, you might say. But it got me thinking about the fact that simply looking at someone – or even the perception of this – can cause so much trouble.

There’s no doubt that being stared at can feel uncomfortable. We are hard-wired to notice faces – we can even see them in inanimate objects – and are acutely attuned to signals of hostility. Pictures of watching eyes have been found to deter thieves. One TV analysis of the 2016 US Presidential Election race contrasted Donald Trump’s expressions of narrow-eyed resolve with Hilary Clinton’s tendency to appeal with non-threatening wide-open eyes (our brains associate those with babies).

Given our sensitivity in this regard, it’s of no surprise that there’s an ancient superstition about being looked at malignly. A belief exists across a remarkable number of cultures that a person’s gaze can bring bad luck and misfortune. In English it’s most well known as the ‘evil eye’.

A Roman mosaic in Antioch shows multiple attacks on the evil eye. Wikimedia Commons.

Like all folk beliefs, its details vary from place to place, but there are common themes. One, as documented by the ancient Greek author Plutarch, was that the evil eye was caused by envy: he wrote that envious eyes could emanate harmful rays of energy. The Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon elaborated on this idea:

The scripture calleth envy an evil eye […] some have been so curious as to note, that the times, when the stroke or percussion of an envious eye doth most hurt, are, when the party envied is beheld in glory or triumph; for that sets an edge upon envy: and besides, at such times, the spirits of the person envied do come forth most into the outward parts, and so meet the blow.

Here Bacon seems to allude to hubris on the part of the afflicted, and some believe you can bring the evil eye upon yourself simply through immodesty or narcissism. From her own childhood, Leila Ettachfini recalls how her mother deflected compliments with the expression ‘mashallah’ (‘God has willed it’) to avoid the evil eye. Others believe that unlucky people are cursed to give the evil eye through no fault or ill will of their own.

In his 1895 book The Evil Eye: The Classic Account Of An Ancient Superstition, Francis Thomas Elworthy noted the beliefs in his native Somerset, where sudden sickness or death in livestock would be blamed on being ‘overlooked’ by someone in the community – this might have once resulted in accusations of witchcraft.

He also explains that the verb to ‘fascinate’, while having a positive meaning in modern English, has more sinister roots in the Latin fascinatio – to bewitch. In the Roman empire, fascinum were phallic symbols used to ward off evil – their obscenity perhaps acting as a distraction. Similarly, in more modern times the ‘cuckold’ horns-gesture has been deployed against those suspected of carrying the evil eye.

Gallo-Roman bronze Phallic amulets, Wikimedia Commons.

Belief in the evil eye has a particularly rich tradition in cultures around the Mediterranean and Middle East, and Elworthy attests to the persistence of the superstition in nineteenth-century Italy through an incident with a bookseller:

At Venice I entered a large second-hand establishment, and was met by the padrone all smiles and obsequiousness, until he heard the last words of the title of the book wanted, sul Fascino. Instantly there was a regular stampede; the man actually turned and bolted into his inner room, leaving his customer in full possession of his entire stock. Nor did he venture to look out from his den, so long as I waited to see what would happen.

Other objects suggest the evil eye’s considerable age. In Syria, eye-shaped amulets have been found from as far back as 3,300 BCPerhaps the most familiar talismans today are blue eye beads known as nazar, and the hamsa/khamsa, which shows a hand, often with an eye in its palm – these are commonly found across North Africa and the Middle East.

Khamsa or ‘Hands of Fatima’ amulets from the Topenmuseum, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

John Psathas is a New Zealand composer with Greek heritage. But strangely, in his own words, almost all his trips to Greece have involved ‘some unpleasant and often bizarre’ experiences. These misfortunes included motorbike accidents, a lengthy salmonella infection, and even a donkey bite to the groin (don’t laugh – it could happen to you).

After ‘an unprecedented onslaught of bad luck’ during a trip in 1998, his concerned sister consulted someone with expertise in such matters. He recalls:

The soothsayer, when checking my aura by long distance (these days such matters can of course, be conducted over the phone via free-call numbers), gasped, went silent, and declared I was so heavily and completely hexed that my halo was utterly opaque.

In 1999 Psathas composed a short, virtuosic piano piece named after a word for the evil eye – Jettatura. Like the blue-eye amulets found in his ancestral homeland, this piece is ‘my talisman, my good eye’.

Jettatura is ‘an uncomplicated moto perpetuo […] shot through with defiance and aggression’. The music seems to emerge from a wellspring of chaotic energy, opening with spiky accented motifs that leaves us without any clear sense of pulse. A series of fast figurations down in the bass register intensifies its demonic feel.

A more sparse section follows, a left-hand ostinato with rapid right-hand phrases shooting right up into the eerie stratosphere of the piano – their improvisatory jaggedness perhaps reflecting Psathas’ interest in jazz.

Rhythmic energy seems to be a feature in much of Psathas’ music, as is the prominence of percussion – his marimba concerto Djinn showcases legendary Greek themes, while Planet Damnation is a work for solo timpani with orchestra.

In his musical career at least, he seems to have had good fortune. He has collaborated with famous names from Dame Evelyn Glennie to Salman Rushdie, and composed music for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Jettatura showcases the pianist’s dazzling skill much as the talisman dazzles the evil eye. And while it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at superstitions, the persistence of this belief across so many cultures suggests it is tapping into some deep human needs. Perhaps it is a way to rationalise the arbitrary cruelties of the life, a warning to keep hubris in check, and an awareness of potential hostility from those around us – as was so vividly exhibited by the man on the 68 bus.

As Elworthy put it, over 100 years ago:

We in these latter days of science, when scoffing at superstition is both a fashion and a passion, nevertheless show by actions and words that in our innermost soul there lurks a something, a feeling, a superstition if you will, which all our culture, all our boasted superiority to vulgar beliefs, cannot stifle.

Whether you put much store in the evil eye not, the enormous variety and artistry of the talismans made to protect us from its gaze have their own perennial fascination – that is, in the modern sense of the word.

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

Find out more:
Jettatura is published by Promethean Editions.
Elworthy’s book previewed on Google Books.
John Psathas’ website.
Quinn Hargitai on the evil eye for BBC Culture.
More videos of Konstantinos Destounis on YouTube.

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Body Mandala

Mandala of Amitayus, 19th C Tibetan School. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

How do you feel about your body?

If that sounds like an intrusive question, then let me explain. I don’t mean whether you’d like to lose some weight, or which of your features you like the best.

I mean how do you feel about being a body – a body that breathes, moves, touches and perceives? How does it feel to be a body right now, a unique entity that has never before existed in the history of the universe?

You probably don’t dwell on this question much in everyday life. But if you stop and think about it, being a body begins to seem strange, remarkable – even miraculous.

No doubt you’ve seen the iconic Vitruvian Man, splayed out geometrically in a circle. But imagine for a moment that your body is more than flesh and bone in various proportions. Imagine it as a place of energy and vibration.

Now hold that thought, and listen to this:

The deep, pulsating opening of Body Mandala takes us to Northern India, where the composer Jonathan Harvey visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. A note on the score reads:

…reside in the mandala, the celestial mansion, which is the nature of the purified gross body.

A ‘mandala’ is a design that represents the cosmos, sometimes used as a tool for meditation. It’s a visual tradition of enormous beauty and variety. But it can also be understood metaphorically. As Rae Erin Dachille explains:

Within tantric Buddhism, the body mandala is a ritual process of imagining parts of the human body as parts of the mandala, a cosmic palace inhabited by Buddhas and attendant deities.

Mahavairocana Mandala – Tibet, 19th Century. Photo by cea +, shared under Creative Commons.

At the monastery Harvey witnessed purification ceremonies, in which music and bodily actions were both fundamental. As he recalled:

The famous low horns, tungchens, the magnificently raucous 4-note oboes, gelings, the distinctive rolmo cymbals – all these and more were played by the monks in deeply moving ceremonies full of lama dances, chanting and ritual actions. There is a fierce wildness about some of the purifications, as if great energy is needed to purge the bad ego-tendencies. But also great exhilaration is present. And calm. The body, when moved with chanting, begins to vibrate and warm at different chakra points and ‘sing’ internally.

The pulsating opening gives way to wildly exuberant passages  – if you knew nothing of this music, you might think it was describing a heady narcotic experience rather than a religious ceremony. Its visceral nature seems a world away from the stereotype of Buddhism as quiet meditation – but the same can only be said of Harvey’s account of the rituals.

Harvey is not exactly duplicating the ceremonial music. But as Michael Downes notes in a recent book, he asks for performance techniques which expand the orchestra’s sonic range, bringing instruments ‘closer to their Eastern counterparts’:

Brass instruments are required to use ‘lip vibrato’, producing a pulsating effect on a single note; woodwind players are directed to use alternate different fingerings of the same note […] string instruments, as in Quartet no.4, are required to use circular bowing.’

In its mesmerising drones and extravagant outbursts, Body Mandala confronts us with an array of arresting vibrations, battering and coaxing us in a vigorous sonic massage. It might feel a bit silly to imagine yourself as a ‘cosmic palace’ with deities inside you, but nonetheless this music is describing an intense experience of bodily habitation. It asks us to feel sound to our core.

Tibetan monks playing horns in Nepal, photograph by Wonderlane. Shared under Creative Commons.

Harvey died in 2012, aged 73. Body Mandala is one of many works concerned with Buddhism he composed in later life, and it forms the first piece of a triptych written during his association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Respectively, these works explore the purification of body, speech, and mind – a Buddhist concept reflected in the ‘Three Vajras’.

On the Overgrown Path blog, a wide-ranging interview from 2010 offers a detailed portrait of this ‘true Renaissance man’. Harvey’s immersion in eastern philosophies was complemented by an advanced knowledge of modern composition techniques. He experimented with developments in electronic music in the 60s and 70s, and was as an early adopter of ‘spectralism’ – an approach concerned with physical make-up of sounds, through their partials in the harmonic series.

His mastery of sonic manipulation in shown particularly well in the second work, Speakings – the longest and most ambitious of the three. Building on research conducted at IRCAM in Paris, Harvey analysed recordings of speech and developed a way to utilise electronics to combine the sound of speech with music. ‘A process of ‘shape vocoding’, taking advantage of speech’s fascinating complexities, is the main idea of this work’, he wrote.

Using microphones and loud speakers, the orchestra is delicately balanced with computer manipulations, which process the sounds to create speech-like effects. There are no audible words as such, but at times it sounds uncannily like the orchestra is saying something to us.

The work begins with fragments, focussing on a series of isolated timbres, and we hear a recording of a baby crying, then cooing. From this state of innocence the orchestra ‘learns’ to speak, and the music develops into more complex chattering in the second movement.

What purifies this increasing chaos is a two-note ostinato, based on a recording of the Buddhist mantra ‘Om Ah Hum’ – considered to be ‘the womb of all speech’. This ‘celebration of ritual language’, as Harvey puts it, builds to an overwhelming climax. 

In the final movement, the music is much more quiet and peaceful. Fast chatter has given way to a focussed melody, somewhat like plainchant, and ‘the paradise of the sounding temple is imagined’. As the music slowly dissolves into silence, the baby is heard once more – perhaps suggesting the Buddhist idea of Rebirth.

Speakings is the most demanding listen of the triptych, resisting typically ‘orchestral’ textures for much of its duration. But there is a compellingly creepy quality in its subtle blend of instruments and electronics, which taps into our easily confused auditory perception, and its ability to trick our minds about what we’re hearing. The fact that electronic speech infiltrates so many aspects of our daily environment also gives it a very contemporary resonance, and the overall effect is quite extraordinary.

The process of purifying speech reflects the purifying of the chatter of the mind in meditation, and the tranquility that ends Speakings leads on to the final piece,  …Towards A Pure Land. That title pause seems significant, suggesting that what we hear must come after a period of reflection. Harvey reveals that ‘a Pure Land is a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping’:

It has been described in Buddhist literature as a landscape – a model of the world to which we can aspire. Those who live there do not experience ageing, sickness or any other suffering […] The environment is completely pure, clean, and very beautiful, with mountains, lakes, trees and delightful birds revealing the meaning of Dharma. There are also gardens filled with heavenly flowers, bathing pools and exquisite jewels covering the ground which make it completely pure and smooth.

This work contains the most transparently transcendental music of the triptych. String players from the back desks of each group form an ‘Ensemble of Eternal Sound’, and throughout the work sustaining strings create sensuous and radiant effects.

Even in its climaxes, this music feels lighter and more collected than the previous two pieces. But its sonic range still enthrals – a large percussion section adds splashes of evocative colour, and performers are asked to whisper consonants. 

This work is broadly symmetrical – ‘an arch with developments’ – and once again Harvey suggests purification as continuous ritual process. At its centre is a chasm of Buddhist emptiness, ‘sound but only insubstantial pitch’. 

This final piece of the triptych is a truly magical creation, and at its close we are left at the gates of this Pure Land with vaulted string chords, punctuated by the tinkling of bells.

Jonathan Harvey, photographed by Maurice Foxall. Shared with the kind permission of Faber Music.

At the 2011 Edinburgh Festival, the BBC SSO triptych was performed complete for the first time – it garnered rave reviews. Then in January the following year, Tom Service interviewed Harvey for the Guardian at his home in Sussex, shortly before a ‘Total Immersion’ weekend of his music at London’s Barbican. ‘I wasn’t played for decades in this country’, the composer told him, ‘but it seems as if that is changing now’.

Diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease, an uptick in performances may have given Harvey some satisfaction, but he knew he didn’t have long to live. And yet as Service wrote, ‘there is no trace of bitterness or fear in the way he tells me, just a simple and moving acceptance of what is happening to him’.  

Harvey died in December that year. All religious and philosophical traditions must deal with the reality of death, and as he said in his 2010 interview, Buddhism teaches us that ‘everything is impermanent […] nothing is fixed and solid’. 

There is one particularly beautiful mandala tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, which uses coloured grains of sand. These designs can be enormously intricate, and are painstakingly assembled into complex patterns by monks. One writer describes the process:

When the mandala is finally finished, however long it takes for the monks to deal in this divine geometry of the heavens, they pray over it — and then they destroy it. They sweep it up, every last grain of sand and give handfuls of it away to those who participate in the closing ceremony as a final memory of sublime possibility. Then they throw the rest of the sand into the nearest living stream to be swept into the ocean to bless the whole world.

Our secular culture prizes the rewards of labour, and resists the decay of all that is solid, including our own ageing. But this creative destruction invites us to understand the cosmos as forever in flux, our achievements only fleeting.

Harvey wrote of the flow of elusive ideas in …Towards A Pure Land that ‘to grasp them and fix them would be to distort them falsely’. In a similar way, his triptych prompts us to reimagine ourselves with sublime possibility. To consider that our bodies might be a heavenly palace, our speech a kind of music, our minds a beautiful landscape.

A sand mandala at the Days of Tibet event in Moscow 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

We all know that religious ideas of purity – Puritanism in its various guises – can lead to dark and punitive places. But reading Harvey’s description of the monastery rituals, it seems there is a purity of purpose here, a collective endeavour of becoming less focussed on the self. It’s not the ‘Pure Land’ of the Garden of Eden – forever lost – or a pure Heaven, promised only in death. It is a ritual progression towards a better way of living.

Whatever your feelings about Buddhism, it is not hard to fathom the appeal of its outlook on life, particularly in western societies long burdened by the ceaseless striving of industrial capitalism. More importantly, at a time when scientists are calling for ‘a fundamental reorientation of human values’ to mitigate a planetary crisis, the ideal of a world ‘without grasping’ resonates deeply with the imperative for this kind of radical transformation.

Jonathan Harvey’s music is no mere spiritual tourism. It is art with a primal power to jolt us awake from the stupor of the mundane and routine. These three dazzling works remind us of something that is so easy to forget – the sheer miracle and mystery of existing, in the here and now.

How does it feel, to be a body in the great mandala of life?

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

Find out more:

Jonathan Harvey in interview on the Overgrown Path blog.
Jonathan Harvey: Song Offerings and White As Jasmine by Michael Downes is published by Routledge – preview on Google Books.
Explore Jonathan Harvey’s works published by Faber Music.
Tom Service interviews Jonathan Harvey in The Guardian.
Watch more videos from Ensemble Intercontemporain and Codarts Symphony Orchestra.

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Urbane Hymns

A Village Choir, by John Webster. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve long been fascinated by hymns. A big part of that fascination is their community role as songs for common worship. But I’m also really interested in how hymn tunes are taken out of the church pews, and put into different contexts – sometimes even made into symbols.

The necessary simplicity of hymns for untrained voices also makes them an easy subject for instrumental elaboration. A good example are Bach’s chorale preludes for the organ. Bach is the towering figure for hymnody in the German Lutheran tradition, composing and arranging many tunes in four-part harmony, which are still used as models for teaching today. But his organ preludes spin these chorales out into a more polyphonic texture.

Luther himself composed hymns, including the famous Ein’ Feste Burg. For the 300th anniversary of the 1530 Augsberg Confession – a declaration of Lutheran faith – Mendelssohn composed his Symphony no. 5, known as ‘The Reformation’. It culminates in a finale with Ein’ Feste Burg for full orchestra, glorifying God’s ‘mighty fortress’. Its first movement also includes a references to the ‘Dresden Amen’ figure – a grand hymn cadence that was later used as a Leitmotif by Wagner in his religious-themed opera Parsifal.

On a more intimate scale, an obscure hymn tune unearthed in The English Hymnal was made into a Passacaglia for viola and piano by Rebecca Clarke. This ‘old English tune’, with its austere opening and expressive descending phrase, was attributed to Thomas Tallis. Clarke’s piece is a short masterclass in contrapuntal elaboration, with a powerful punch. It reaches an impressive climax as it turns to the hymn’s final rising line.

Sometimes hymns appear in instrumental works with a personal significance. Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra was commissioned to mark the Millennium of Poland’s Christianisation in 1966. Panufnik – who had already defected to England from what was then part of the Eastern Bloc – used the Medieval Polish hymn the Bogurodzica to powerful effect. Its emotional resonance for the exiled composer is not difficult to imagine.

Similarly heartfelt is Alban Berg’s violin concerto, a work dedicated to ‘the memory of an angel’ – the recently deceased young girl Manon Gropius. In its second movement, Bach’s harmonisation of Es Ist Genug emerges out of Berg’s expressive serialism, set for quiet clarinets. The words of this chorale deal with the preparation for death. The homogenous, ghostly sound of the clarinets could be a remembered choir, or an organ.

Hymns are a source of comfort, and are often sung at funerals and memorials. But when Cheryl Frances-Hoad was commissioned to compose a piece to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, she chose a title that subverted this idea. The composer – then only 20 –  borrowed A Refusal To Mourn from a poem by Dylan Thomas which had made a deep impression in her school English lessons.

Thomas’ arresting anti-elegy invokes religious imagery in the face of a wartime tragedy, even as he seemingly refutes its usefulness. In her piece for oboe and strings, Frances-Hoad makes a similarly bold plundering of two Bach chorales, reorganising pitches to construct chord sequences, motivic cells and retrograde versions.

The delicacy of the string writing and the bright piercing tone of the oboe lends much of the piece an ethereal aura, whose lyrical nimbleness mostly avoids the steady tread of hymnody. But in its final, serene ‘Chorale’ section, the gentle outline of Christus, Der Ist Mein Leben becomes clearer in the oboe’s part. This fascinating and beautiful piece ends on a quietly ambiguous chord. 

The small scale of A Refusal To Mourn seems suited to its material. Lutheran chorales are given a much more expansive canvas in Psalmos, a ‘concerto for orchestra’ by Theirry Escaich. In a video introduction to the piece, Escaich cites the influence of Stravinsky’s hard-edged Symphony Of Psalms, and – perhaps surprising given his source material – the overriding importance of rhythm.

Psalmos is prone to outbursts of vitality and violence, and the chorales, when they make themselves clear, seem to be part of a disturbed dreamscape. Escaich clearly delights in the range of timbres available, including marimba and vibraphone. This composer, steeped in the French organ improvisation tradition, takes us through all the metaphorical stops.

If hymns can help mark important anniversaries, they can also be more nebulous symbols of the past. Vaughan Williams gave a Tallis hymn a famously mysterious treatment for double string orchestra, replete in dying echoes. His friend Holst borrowed an old Genevan Psalm tune for a choral setting with a similarly Gothic aesthetic. In both cases the hymns appear first as ruinous fragments – they give us a magic window into the past. But it soon becomes clear that these musical artefacts are actually expressing timeless human frailties.

A very different example from the other end of Vaughan Williams’ career is his Fantasia On The Old 104th Psalm Tune for orchestra, choir and piano. This gloriously eccentric piece takes a somewhat dour melody through ruminative piano cadenzas to bombastic, neo-Baroque choral counterpoint. It is a marvellous and surprising work from his remarkably experimental old age, and it reaches a thrilling conclusion.

A similarly comprehensive treatment of a short hymn – though on a much smaller scale – comes in the Variations On Love Divine by Ailsa Dixon. This series of nineteen short movements for string quartet uses John Stainer’s melody to the oft-set text Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. But the variations are titled with parts of the Gospel, ‘exploring the meanings of divine love in a series of scenes from the incarnation to the ascension and a final vision of heavenly joy’. In the recording below, the title of each movement is narrated.

Stainer’s eight-bar tune is the model of humility, but it seems to have a symbolic role – it is only after the ‘incarnation’ movement that it is clearly heard, as the now-pregnant Mary makes her way to Bethlehem, with a clip-clop imitation of a donkey. From then on, this hymn is continually varied as we’re taken through the story of Jesus’ life.

There is something quietly thought-provoking about Dixon’s insistence on using this modest, contented-sounding tune to cover such large theological ground. Funny as it sounds, I can’t help but think of the parish church Nativity diorama – the message of this work seems to be that a whole world of religious meaning can be revealed through even the smallest means. In that sense it is closer to the civic role of hymnody than any grander setting.

Of course, hymns have been used for religious story-telling before. Chorales form part of Bach’s Passion settings. Likewise, in Britten’s operatic update of the Mystery Play Noye’s Fludde, he sets three familiar English hymns to mark important points of the story. This fits with the community aesthetic of the work, which includes roles for children, and is designed for performance in churches or other small-scale venues. At the conclusion of this most familiar Biblical tale, with the full audience coming together in song, the sense of ritual through mass participation is truly moving.

As it happens, Britten had used church music to portray a much darker aspect of community in his earlier opera Peter Grimes. In Act 2, we hear off-stage singing of the church’s Sunday morning liturgy – a sinister reminder of the Borough’s collective moral presence, which will be quick to pass judgement on the suspected Grimes. Britten, as a homosexual and Conscientious Objector in wartime Britain, would have been all too aware of dangers of parochial groupthink and religious dogma that church communities could represent.

But however much real life may fail to live up to their sentiments, hymns remain a tempting symbol of an idealised, united society – of Heaven on earth. This unattainable ideal is a poignant subject of Adelaide Anne Procter’s poem A Lost Chord, which was set to music by Arthur Sullivan. Its narrator sits idling at an organ, while feeling ‘weary and ill at ease’, when they chance upon ‘one chord of music / Like the sound of a great Amen’:

It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

This moment of musical glory is fleeting. At the poem’s conclusion, we find ‘It may be that only in Heav’n / I shall hear that grand Amen’. Sullivan’s song setting – The Lost Chord – was a huge hit, and though it may sound starchily Victorian today, it is not hard to see why. It is magnificently constructed, with direct emotional appeal and clever word-painting – its introduction even recalls the style of an organ prelude.

Quite aside from specific references, the homophonic, melodically limited style of hymnody is a recognisable musical trope in itself. Some fascinating allusions to the ‘chorale style’ occur in Chopin’s solo piano pieces. In the central section of his Nocturne op. 37 no.1, we hear a series of block chords which sound remarkably like hymnody. For a master of idiomatic piano writing like Chopin to resort to such simplistic means is surely no accident. Perhaps he was expressing a personal religious sentiment, perhaps he was toying with the idea of what piano music could could be. Nocturnes are night-time pieces after all. In darkness thoughts wander, and forms take on uncanny new appearances.

Meanwhile, some passages of music are so irresistibly hymn-like that they simply demand words be set to them. The ‘trio’ from Elgar’s first Pomp And Circumstance March is now virtually inseparable from its later guise as Land Of Hope And Glory. The grand theme that concludes Sibelius’ Finlandia has been set as several songs and hymns – most bizarrely, it even became the national anthem for the briefly secessionist African state of Biafra. Equally counter-intuitive is that the majestic chorale-like theme from the finale of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony was turned into a hit 1978 song with a reggae beat, appropriately titled If I Had Words. The song’s video was even set in a church.

As any parish organist will know, hymn tunes are naturally promiscuous – they frequently find themselves with several lyrical partners. But in adding words to instrumental music, we put it to a new purpose altogether. Whether it is secular, religious, or political, we lose some of the inherent flexibility in the music’s meaning.

For this reason, I have always much preferred the great hymn-like theme that emerges in the middle of ‘Jupiter’ in Holst’s The Planets to either of its settings as I Vow To Thee, My Country or World In Union.

There’s also an obvious problem here: Holst’s tune in Jupiter covers a range of an octave and a sixth – and it rises which each repetition, totalling three octaves. To be sung easily, its second part has to be transposed down an octave. So in pinning this tune to lyrics, it not only loses ambiguity, but also much of its ascendant, transportive power.

While Holst’s melody is not a hymn, it does seem to be a kind of hymn-essence. It arrives without warning in resonant unison strings, and rises gloriously, unconstrained by the human vocal range, and all the messy baggage of its words.

In my mind, that is what makes this music so much more moving than any attempt to put it into verse, however well-meaning. Jupiter – the ‘bringer of jollity’ – is a planet of astrological pondering, a source of marvel beyond our grasp. This is a hymn of impossibility; a song of pure love, free of our earthly liturgies and flawed human communities. Perhaps that is why, just before its final climax, it vanishes back into thin air. It leaves us with its own lost chord. It may be that only in a heaven, of one kind or another, that we can hear such a grand ‘Amen’.

This article was powered by dedication…and a lot of caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Different Strings

Detail of a harpsichord, by Sguastevi. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

As a young boy, long before I started learning piano, I used to clunk around on my family’s Yamaha Clavinova. I remember composing something like a dirge and playing it down in the bass of this electronic keyboard. As I switched my crude melody between its different synthesised voices, I heard how its character changed.

These voices were just pale imitations of acoustic instruments, of course. But among them was a distinctive and crisp sound. It was something I’d never encountered in real life – a harpsichord.

From my CD collection – lamentably forsaken in recent years for the convenience of internet streaming – I recently pulled out Glen Wilson’s album of harpsichord music by the English Renaissance composer Giles Farnaby, on the Naxos label. Farnaby is not the most celebrated name of his era, but his music for this instrument is full of verve and character. 

Meanwhile, on YouTube – where much of my listening takes place these days – I’ve been exploring some different strings. The Mandé Variations is an acclaimed 2008 album by Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. World Circuit Records have generously uploaded the whole thing, and it’s perhaps my favourite recording of kora music I’ve found since I started investigating its repertoire last year.

Both recordings are worth their own in-depth exploration. But taken together, they showcase the fascinating differences and resonances in music for solo sets of strings.

The harpsichord is most often found away from the limelight, plinking away in a Baroque continuo group. While a piano hammers its strings, the harpsichord plucks them, with a penetrating sound and even dynamics – its volume cannot be shaped by the player’s touch on the keys.

As a solo instrument, the close-up metallic twang might at first seem a little pungent. And the flourishes of ornamentation in its early repertoire can initially sound mannered and fussy.

But the ear quickly adjusts to this sonic profile, and the harpsichord brings a graceful precision to contrapuntal music. At slower tempos, it lets in light and air between the lines. The bright percussive tone makes virtuoso passages all the more exuberant.

And since vitality abounds in Farnaby’s music, any fears of plodding fuguery can be quickly laid aside. Wilson’s recording includes his fantasias, and several idiomatically transcribed part-songs. As Wilson writes in the liner notes, the learned style of imitative entries that begin the fantasias tend to break into ‘playful anarchy’:

The virginalists […] add to their contrapuntal working a final toccata, a closing section of idiomatic keyboard pyrotechnics and polyrhythms […]

The opening theme is often deceptively simple and broad. In the example below, there’s even a disconcerting premonition of Richard Strauss. But from here the contrapuntal texture quickly grows, florid lines unexpectedly shoot from nowhere, and Farnaby starts to play metrical games with us. The music sounds highly improvisatory, its progress constantly swerving and unpredictable.

This may be ‘early music’, but anyone partial to the guitar solos of heavy metal shredders will find a kindred spirit in the freewheeling virtuosity of its toccata. And as the jazz musician Ethan Iverson recently wrote, keyboard music of the English Renaissance has ‘a familiar kind of atmosphere’ for him too:

The sources are incomplete, supported and thwarted by oral tradition, kept together out of love and duty. The titles are remarkably inconsistent, let alone the notes. When you get to ornamentation, all bets are off. Play it how you want to play it.

Compared to the harpsichord, the music of the West African kora is much softer in timbre. But it bears some noteworthy similarities. The polyrhythms of Farnaby’s showboating are very much a staple of its technique, while melodic ornamentation and fast improvised runs – known by the lovely onomatopoeia birimintingo – are a key feature too.

But the kora is a harp – with a large calabash gourd resonator – which means the player’s fingers have direct expressive access to the strings. Traditionally these were made of twisted leather strips, but modern koras now commonly use nylon. Their silvery sound caresses the ear, and the polyrhythms create an effect rather like dappled sunlight.

The whispering gorgeousness of Diabaté’s playing certainly makes for a seductive listen, and I was hooked in by the album straight away. The YouTube video is festooned with enthusing comments, one of which sums it up concisely: ‘this is like chocolate cake for the soul’.

I couldn’t agree more. And this being so immediately pleasurable and fit for savouring, it seems Diabaté might ask why Farnaby’s music is in such a rush to cover so much ground so quickly.

In the opening track, Si Naani, he sets up a ostinato, and the interplay of notes creates a kind of stasis, cultivating a gentle groove. Expressive improvisatory figures appear and disappear, little details suddenly emphasised before returning to the underlying pattern. It teases the ear with wonderful sensitivity.

In the second track, Elyne Road, it is not hard to hear Diabaté’s influence on the soothing piano minimalism of Ludovico Einaudi. As I wrote last year, Einaudi’s popular album I Giorni makes specific reference to a time he spent with Diabaté in Mali.

Within the kora’s 20-odd strings, Diabaté finds room for plenty of variety. Kaouding Cissoko conjures dazzling sonic clouds that sound startlingly ambient and modern. In Djourou Kara Nany, he stops the strings to create a brisk staccato effect on the offbeat, with a sharp syncopated rhythm.

The album’s title is also worth noting. Mandé music is an oral tradition, and within the patterns of its repertoire exists a realm of limitless potential variation. So while Wilson’s disc proudly states it contains the complete Farnaby fantasias, the very idea of completion would be missing the point of Diabaté’s record entirely.

Of course, such oral traditions can also produce frustrating ambiguity. The kora has become emblematic of the West African hereditary tradition of ‘Griots’, who trace their origins to the 13th century. But as an excellent article by Lucy Durán explains, its exact age is much disputed. It is most likely younger than other Griot instruments – and possibly younger than the harpsichord too.

A kora. by Steve Evans. Wikimedia Commons.

Much clearer, however, is the fact that the kora’s modern spread across the international music scene has changed it considerably:

The original, older and rougher sound of the kora, produced by leather strings (in use until the 1960s), the buzzing of the metal rattle attached to the end of the bridge, and the non-western intervals and scales, have now been largely abandoned for a cleaner, more resonant, and western aesthetic.

In fact Diabaté uses two koras on this album, with different tuning mechanisms – traditional leather strips, and modern pegs. Its cosmopolitan journey is summed up on the final track, named Cantelowes after the London road Diabaté lived on in the 1980s. Unexpectedly, it begins with an  quotation from Morricone’s famous theme to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

Like its music, the kora itself seems to be undergoing continuous variation. Its modern developments certainly sit in contrast to the efforts Wilson goes to for a historically-informed performance. His liner notes tell us he spent two days with a modern copy of a surviving English harpsichord in preparation for this recording.  On the vexed question of temperament, he assesses Farnaby’s clues and ends up with ‘an irregular tuning […] which gives better fifths to G and its neighbours at some unavoidable cost to the thirds and leaves a half-comma wolf in the usual place’.

As someone who struggles to tune even the six strings of my guitar by ear, I can only say I am supremely grateful not to need to worry about wolves at all.

Though still languishing somewhat in the piano’s long black shadow, the harpsichord remains a remarkable piece of engineering, and the various innovations created for it  – transposing manuals, different choirs of strings, ‘lute stops’ – are a fascinating testament to this.

In the 20th century, the instrument became newly attractive to composers. Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre is one charming example of this, exploiting its archaic associations for a kind of camp neo-classicism. Since then it has steadily built a modern repertoire to complement its old one. Now younger harpsichordists like Mahan Esfahani and Jean Rondeau are pushing forward its solo profile, and both explore far beyond the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Wilson’s album ends, appropriately enough, with a piece called Loth To Depart. It’s a great example of English Renaissance melancholia, fit to sit and weep beside Dowland’s Flow, My Tears. Its theme embodies the idea of a reluctance to move, tarrying within the small range of a perfect fifth, while the harmony makes bitter-sweet turns between major and minor.

Farnaby elaborates this disconsolate tune through several variations, eventually galloping it out through the open air with surging scales. But there is no virtuoso send-off. In the last variation, it returns to a more restrained style.

The harpsichord may not have the sensitivity of the kora or lute, nor the sustaining power of voices or viols. But in Farnaby’s exquisite final bars, Wilson draws out something you might not expect from the decaying notes of these plucked strings. It’s certainly nothing I could have imagined while fumbling through my childish composition on the Clavinova’s keys. There’s a lingering sense of real poignancy.

This article was powered by dedication…and a lot of caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

John Powell’s Heart Of Darkness

John Powell, 1916. Wikimedia Commons.

           By Aaron Keebaugh

On December 29, 1922, John Powell walked on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall with conductor Pierre Monteux to offer the local premiere of his Rhapsodie Nègre with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By that time, the composer and pianist had established a reputation as one of America’s leading musicians, and the Rhapsodie, an eighteen-minute work for piano and orchestra, stood as his most successful composition.

Composed in March 1918 for the Russian Symphony Orchestra, the Rhapsodie had gone on to receive performances from by orchestras across America, all with its composer as soloist. Historian John Tasker Howard recorded that it received more than fifty performances in New York City alone by the end of the 1920s.

Attractive for its blazing difficulty, the Rhapsodie Nègre also struck a nerve with audiences and fellow composers for its mix of European classical and African-American vernacular elements. An advertisement in the New York Herald prior to its world premiere in 1918 treated the Rhapsodie as part musical experience and part social project – in bluntly racial terms:

In the work, Mr. Powell has attempted to show the development of the negro since the days when he was first brought to this country from his native home—Africa. The composer has made a study of the colored people, especially their emotional and musical side, and it is his purpose to give full vent to the negro’s feelings and characteristics through music.

Powell’s contemporaries praised him for what he had achieved. After the Rhapsodie was performed at the Norfolk Festival, Henry F. Gilbert, a composer who strove throughout his career to thread African-American elements in his music, found himself ‘profoundly moved’ and commented that Powell ‘was realizing a mission that he himself had been unable to realize’.

But for audiences inside of Symphony Hall that December night in Boston, Powell offered a political message. His program note – written under his pen name, Richard Brockwell – provided a disturbing depiction of the African-American as an individual:

In the case of negro music, there is, over and above such qualities as those mentioned, an additional spirit which leads a peculiar and heightened interest. This interest comes from the fact that the negro not merely occupies a subordinate position in the political and social organization of America, but is, au fond, in spite of his surface polish and restraints imposed by close contact with Caucasian civilization, a genuine primitive […] In addition, to this there is still another stronger characteristic of negro music: The negro is the child among the peoples, and his music shows the unconscious unbound gaiety of the child, as well as the child’s humor; sometimes Aesopian, often, unfortunately too often, Rabelaisian.

To close this pointed and shocking description in the program booklet for that Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, Powell listed himself, unabashedly, as the founder of the Society for the Preservation of Racial Integrity at the University of Virginia – his alma mater – in 1916.

His point wasn’t lost on critics. Donald Francis Tovey even remarked, apologetically, that ‘Mr. Powell has the profoundest sympathy for the negro as an artist and as a human being. But profound sympathy is very different from the facile dangers that threaten two races of widely different stages of evolution that try to live together’.


For much of his adult life, John Powell held to the then prominent view that the United States was a de facto white nation. In an interview published in the Musical Courier, the composer remarked: ‘To write about the negro […] one must know about the negro; to paint him in pictures one must paint him as he is, or, rather, not as he is but as he was, as he racially was, and as he might be if he were free to develop upon his own roots, free from white cultural influence.’ He went on to say: ‘The pessimistic view of my Negro Rhapsody is no more than recognition of the gloomy outlook for the negro’s racial development in a white country.’

Yet in spite of the success of Rhapsodie Nègre, Powell broke with the thinking of Antonin Dvorák, who argued that American music could break free from European models if composers drew upon African-American and Native American folk sources. ‘Do I think that negro music will serve as a basis for an American school of composition?,’ Powell asked in the same interview. ‘No. I do not think so, for the same reasons that I think Indian music cannot be used. Why? Because neither is American. The whole civilization of the United States is European.’

The issue of race so occupied Powell’s thoughts that it became a leitmotif of his life’s work. In 1924, Powell was invited to present two lectures and a piano recital as part of the Rice Institute, where he articulated his vision of American music – one based upon Anglo-Saxon folk melodies – and what the United States could do about immigration and African-American ‘problems’.

Race so occupied the composer’s thoughts that his friend and fellow composer Daniel Gregory Mason recorded that:

[John] will gladly sit up all night with you, if you let him, discussing music, or just gossiping—for he has an unappeasable appetite for personalia, especially when spiced with a little friendly malice—or declaiming some of his pet fanaticisms such as the horrible dangers of intermarriage between Negroes and whites, or the supreme virtues of Anglo-Saxon folk songs.


John Powell was born on September 6, 1882 in Richmond, Virginia. His father was headmaster of a private girls school, his mother a staff member there. While young, Powell showed a keen interest in music. He studied piano with his elder sister, and later with former Liszt pupil Frederick Charles Hahr. After graduating from the University of Virginia, he ventured to Vienna to study piano and composition. An interest in wrestling he developed as a student in Virginia carried over to his Viennese circles, where he joined the ‘Turnverein’ – an athletic club for young men whose purpose was to exercise the body as well as the mind.

Music, though, remained his focus, and he made his recital debut in Berlin in 1907. He lived for a time in London, and developed friendships with Lord and Lady Plymouth, Arthur Balfour, the Virginia-born Lady Astor, and the writer Joseph Conrad.

Here Powell co-founded the Fresh Air Society in 1913. Like the Turnverein, this promoted the development of a sound body as well as a sound mind. Members viewed art and life as progressing along an evolutionary path for the betterment of both. They eschewed impressionism, atonality, and other current avant-garde developments in the arts. Writing about the Society, Powell said that ‘it is necessary for the welfare of art that the artist, before deciding to flood the world with strange forms and original confections, to be very sure that the substance of his creation be genuine, sanitary, and worthy’.

Powell’s compositions up to this time reveal a conservative, post-Romantic style. His Sonate Psychologique of 1905 bears the impressions of Liszt and Richard Strauss, while the hour-long Sonata Teutonica encapsulates the Society’s themes of progress and oneness in sound.

Less cumbersome is the Sonata Noble, a work that takes Sidney Lanier’s poem The Symphony as its inspiration. And though Powell would later state that his use of African-American music was mere ‘character music’, he incorporated black folk songs in his In the South Suite and Sonata Virginianesque for violin and piano.

Powell’s views on race emanated from his experiences growing up in the American South, and like many of the white elite there, he believed that the United States was based first and foremost upon Anglo-Saxon heritage. The U.S. government observed and passed laws that fit well within that ideology. ‘Plessy v. Ferguson’ legalized segregation of public venues on the basis of race in 1896. In 1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which restricted immigration of Irish, Italians, Slavs, and other ‘non-white’ Europeans.

Powell was also a proponent of eugenics, the early-twentieth century science of human breeding that was widely discussed by progressive intellectuals. The composer had read and absorbed Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which couched the history of world peoples as a clash between races.

A racial map of Europe from Madison Grant’s The Passing Of The Great Race. Wikimedia Commons.

The State of Virginia, where Powell settled after his European ventures, set the stage for eugenicists in 1902 when the General Assembly passed a new constitution that left control to a small white elite. A series of Jim Crow Laws passed between 1900 and 1918 segregated railroads, streetcars, residential areas, and prisons, and thereby eliminated African-Americans as a political force.

But what elite whites like Powell feared most was racial amalgamation. Using census records collected between 1890 and 1910, eugenicists determined that some one hundred thousand people of mixed white and black race were passing as white, a problem Powell had claimed in his lecture Music and the Nation in 1924.

To counter this perceived threat, activists led by Powell and his newly formed Anglo Saxon Clubs drafted legislation for the Virginia Assembly that redefined what it meant to be white by classifying in the most meticulous way what it meant to be a ‘colored person’. A race code from 1866 in Virginia stated that ‘every persons having one-fourth or more negro blood shall be deemed a colored person’. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which Powell had a hand in drafting, imposed the so-called ‘one-drop rule’ – persons with one-sixteenth African heritage were then to be classified as ‘colored’.


To the audiences seated in Boston’s Symphony Hall that December night in 1922, Powell’s Rhapsodie Nègre offered a problem – now incredibly uncomfortable – on which to ponder.

Powell dedicated his Rhapsodie Nègre to the writer Joseph Conrad, whose novella The Heart of Darkness inspired its composition. Conrad’s story took aim at British imperialism and the cruel, even deadly treatment of indigenous Africans by one Mr. Kurtz. But Powell’s reading, as suggested by the Rhapsodie, seemed merely to depict the Africans as savage. Throughout his program note, the composer describes his character music with phrases such as ‘Voodoo orgy’ and ‘wild plaintive cry’. Powell also quotes two African-American spirituals: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and I Want to Be Ready, which tie the composition to a unpublished play that Powell wrote with his wife Louise Burleigh.

In Beatrice: A Tragedy in One Act, race is a constant theme. The eponymous character is a children’s nurse to the Nortons, a wealthy Richmond family. Beatrice is white in appearance and raised by a well-to-do white family, but Mrs. Norton clarifies to a friend that she is ‘only fifteen-sixteenths white’. Echoing the words of Madison Grant, she reminds her friend that ‘one drop, you know, makes the Negro.’ Powell further noted in his manuscript that the tune I Want to Be Ready is the device that ‘awakens’ Beatrice’s blackness.

And blackness, for Powell, was something to fear, for the Rhapsodie Négre depicts the African as forever untameable and wild. His choice of genre was telling. Rhapsodies involve loose form, exuberant expression and aspects of improvisation – suggesting that Africans are unable to control their impulses. In contrast, J. Lester Feder has noted that Powell’s only Symphony, written in 1947, is based entirely on Anglo-Saxon folk materials. There, frameworks such as sonata form control the content, suggesting that whites, possessing sound minds, are able to rise above their natural instincts.

Even in music, Powell was unable to ignore what he saw as the chief moral danger of his day. When discussing such innocuous subjects such as the combination of works with piano and orchestra, much like his Rhapsodie Négre, Powell cast his language in racial terms. ‘To my mind,’ he wrote to Daniel Gregory Mason, ‘and I speak too from practical experience, the piano concerto is a hybrid, and, like the Eurasian and Eurafrican, possesses few – and these suppressed – of the virtues, and all – and these emphasized – of the weaknesses of the two parents.’ His Rhapsodie Négre, then, was intended as a dire warning about racial mixture in American culture.


Seeking to understand the racist, however, doesn’t diminish the damage that the racist commits. Though heralded in his lifetime, Powell has been relegated into the proverbial dustbin of history. Virginia’s Radford University removed Powell’s name from its music building in 2010 after University officials learned of his white supremacist legacy. And save for recordings by Roy Hamlin Johnson and Nicholas Ross, the composer’s music is rarely performed in concerts, perhaps for good reason.

But, in the wake of resurgent ethno-nationalism as a reaction to globalism in the past decade, Powell is finding a new audience. In fall of 2017, Counter-Currents Publishing, a platform for the North American New Right, which like the ‘Alt-Right’ envisions a white ethno-state, posted an apologetic article about Powell. While mentioning his activities as a eugenicist, the author A. Graham equivocates, saying that ‘it is unlikely that [Powell] harbored prejudice’ against Europeans of Italian decent or even Africans, citing his friendship with the black separatist Marcus Garvey as evidence.

Graham goes on to embrace a vision of the arts’ place in society that may, on the surface, seem welcome to arts advocates who know little about Powell or his legacy:

Our quandary is that most of us as modern Americans are entirely deracinated and rootless. Powell at least grew up around folk music and could draw upon the culture of his home state, but folk songs are alien to most young white Americans and therefore their use in modern compositions is likely to be characterized by artificiality and insincerity. This can be counteracted first by activating a sensibility characteristic of our racial soul through perpetually immersing ourselves in great music and art; the challenge then is to create a musical language that gives authentic expression to this. Political change must necessarily be preceded by a revolution of a spiritual and cultural kind. Thus a future revitalization of American music could contribute to the awakening of our people.

John Powell, it seems, remains a man of his own time. But he is also a man of our potentially dangerous present.

Aaron Keebaugh teaches courses in Music History, World History, and American History at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. A musicologist and critic, he has published articles on music in British Post-Graduate Musicology, the Musical Times, and the Classical Review. 

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Butterfly Effects

‘Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary’ by Rafael Saldaña. (CC BY 2.0)

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

It’s a cliché that arts organisations are forever keen to attract more young people into their audiences. Within the ranks of today’s youth are the core supporters of tomorrow.

We’d also like the think that the arts can help young people to navigate life’s biggest challenges. But what should arts organisations do when today’s youth has a future that, in some key respects, looks to be considerably worse than now?

During a summer of heatwaves and widespread wildfires, a new climate change report has made headlines by outlining the scenario of a ‘Hothouse Earth’. It’s the latest in a long series of scientific warnings to bring sobering clarity to what is surely the defining issue of our time.

But it may not seem so defining in our day-to-day lives. Like most people, I tend to focus on more manageable and tangible worries. I might feel guilty about taking the occasional flight, or tell myself that being vegetarian means I’m helping the planet. But I also know that meaningful action on climate can only come with large-scale forces too – international agreements, legislation, technological innovation.

The implications of the issue can leave us feeling overwhelmed. But what I’m interested in is how the arts can best prepare for, and respond to, the radical changes that are already happening to our planet. These will increasingly affect the lifetime of today’s young adult.

I encourage you to read the report. It’s not overly long, and is mostly comprehensible to a layperson. And what it forecasts is an increasingly dynamic, disruptive and dangerous phase of human history.

Furthermore, the changes the report calls for are dizzying in scale – all the more so coming from the measured arena of science. What is required is ‘a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies’.

In other words, combatting climate change is not just about switching from fossil fuels to solar and wind. It’s about storytelling, and how we perceive our place in the world:

Human societies and our activities need to be recast as an integral, interacting component of a complex, adaptive Earth System.

And perhaps this is where the arts have a role to play. I don’t think the arts can be instrumentalised to solve problems, but – to steal a line from Tom Stoppard – they can nudge the world a little. They can help to shape to our sense of collective self.

Back in 2015 I wrote about John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a modern orchestral work partly inspired by climate change, which has achieved remarkable popularity.

From Mendelssohn to Frank Bridge, a lot of music about the sea has reflected our inner human drama, through contrasting its stillness and storms. But in Become Ocean we hear nature instead as a huge, gradual process. The music slowly rises and falls across 40 minutes – a vast formula playing out. It immerses us in a mesmerising logic, one terrifyingly indifferent to our daily obsessions.

The implicit warning, as this vision fades away, is that we’ve unleashed new energy into this system. From Miami to the Maldives, rising seas now imperil millions. We really have become ocean.

Admittedly, I’ve always been fascinated by natural processes, big and small. I named this website after a botanical term for an arrangement of berries or flowers, which was used by Edmund Rubbra to title the first movement of his piano concerto. That beautiful work starts with the branching of startlingly spare arpeggios, before blossoming into a series of bright and elaborate episodes.

But what’s clear from the report is that complex natural processes should be everyone’s concern. The composer Arlene Sierra has returned to such themes repeatedly. Her recent Nature Symphony reworked ideas from a previous composition for piano trio called Butterflies Remember A Mountain. This was inspired by the annual migration of the Monarch butterfly, some populations of which overwinter in central Mexico from as far north as Canada. Remarkably, this feat is achieved over several generations – the butterflies lay eggs along the way.

‘I took very fragmentary, tiny fluttering ideas and put them in a big cyclical, migratory form’, Sierra said in an interview with Rheingold. But she is clear that her artistic fascination with nature also carries a warning:

I don’t see how anyone living today can fail to realise the urgency of what is going on with the natural world and what we human beings are doing to change things. I have a little boy now […] and I’m so conscious of how different the environment is from when I was a child.

The meteorologist Edward Lorenz once noticed that tiny changes to his weather modelling resulted in remarkable differences in results. He famously commented that a butterfly wing might well lead to a tornado, and this popular notion of a ‘Butterfly Effect’ went on to be a key principle in chaos theory. It’s something that appeals on a human level, allowing us to marvel at the mysterious interconnectedness of the world.

But the hard science behind such complex cause-and-effect, when it comes to our own activities, does not so readily appeal. The stern warning of the recent climate report is that global warming may soon lock us into a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway – by triggering natural feedback loops that release further greenhouse gases as the planet warms, escalating climate change beyond our control. Such feedback factors include thawing permafrost and increased bacterial respiration. In the minutiae of field measurements and datasets, the future habitability of our planet lies.

All this considered, I feel it’s important that artistic preoccupations with nature are not seen as a mere subject, genre, or area of personal interest. A nature symphony is a human symphony. The failure to build our lives around the sustainability of the ‘complex, adaptive Earth System’ and our willingness to sacrifice it for short-term gains has brought us to this crisis. As the report forlornly notes:

The present dominant socioeconomic system […] is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use.

None of this is to say that art works based on purely human relations are any less important. On the contrary, the arts will be needed more than ever in this century to offer hopeful visions of the future under increasingly testing climate conditions.

‘Ruggedisation’ is a word that’s used to describe societies adapting to withstand more extreme environments. Perhaps we could think of the arts as providing a kind of ‘cultural ruggedisation’ – which might be applicable in all sorts of ways.

One likely prospect of climate breakdown is the large-scale migration of peoples from the worst affected areas. As this happens, there will be an ever-greater need for the arts to humanise unfamiliar cultures, to build connections and empathy through exploring difference. Given Europe’s current political situation in this regard, it seem this work can never be finished.

By the same token, arts organisations will need to think about whether they unwittingly contribute to a narrative of historic identity which can be weaponised by those who want to build walls and sow division. As Donald Trump recently boasted: ‘we write symphonies’. For a much more enlightened and forward-thinking exemplar in classical music, we could look to the endlessly collaborative Kronos Quartet. Their recent album saw them pair up with the Malian Trio Da Kali.

Art will need to help us come to term with loss, and imagine what new ways of living might be. It can also act as a humane balancing force to the excesses of tech-utopian thinking, as revolutions in information technology are already shaping our public life in profound and sometimes disturbing ways.

Nonetheless, there is some irony in the fact that this very modern crisis echoes some of our earliest religious stories. The hubris of man meets with retribution from the heavens. But in the earth sciences, looking to the past can help us to understand the potential future. Some processes play out over mind-boggling periods of time.

The title of Butterflies Remember A Mountain is inspired by a hypothesis about a strange diversion in the Monarch migration route, a swerve which occurs as they fly over the Great Lakes. One theory is that an impassable land-mass may have once stood in their way, and that this kink in their journey still remains long after it has eroded.

Has ancient geography left an imprint in the behaviour of an insect? It’s another charming idea. But when it comes to contemplating our own long-term legacy, the outlook is considerably gloomier. What’s more, the climate report makes the case that our collective moment contains a depth of jeopardy that is truly chilling:

[…] we argue that social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several millions of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.

Of course, the science has its caveats and margins for error. And the report notes recent forward steps, such as the Paris Accord. But the imperative is clear: radical changes are needed at an unprecedented rate, while a degree of painful disruption is promised either way. Notions of gradual progress – the stuff of conventional politics and common sense – have become existentially dangerous.

It may be that an arts organisation’s much-coveted young person is better attuned to this reality than a senior arts administrator. After all, an 18-year-old today was a baby when President Bush pulled the USA out of the Kyoto Treaty, and a changing climate is all they know. For their entire life, ominous phrases like ‘warmest ever on record’ and ‘even faster than previously thought’ have periodically surfaced in an ocean of news, while politicians have repeatedly failed to rise to their challenge. 

We are all butterflies in the proverbial tornado, putting new energy into the system. Our world of tomorrow is quickly looking less and less like the one of yesterday, and now is the time for bold visions of a different future.

Tackling and adapting to climate change is undoubtedly a problem of vast magnitude that leads to unwelcome challenges in how we live. But it demands profound thought, care and attention in all aspects of our lives. We need the combined forces of both insects and oceans. No effort can be too big, nor can it be too small.

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

Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene can be read here

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

Sign up to the mailing list:

Relics And Ruins

A fragment of ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’, from Harley 978. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Forbury Gardens is a public park in the centre of Reading, a green oasis near the town’s busy shopping centre. Aside from the usual flower beds and benches, visitors are greeted by a striking memorial to the Second Anglo-Afghan War – a fearsome sculpture of a lion, all rippling muscle and Victorian pride. 

But carry on past the bandstand, and at the far corner you’ll notice something much older. Ruined flint-stone walls loom, crowned with tufts of colonising grass. Here, tucked away out of sight of shoppers, is what remains of a medieval abbey which once dominated the town.

Reading abbey ruins seen from the corner of Forbury Gardens.

Reading has no reputation for religious significance today. But for four hundred years it boasted one of the largest monasteries in England, and this park was part of its grounds. From where the lion now roars, you once would have gawped up at a magnificent church, on the scale of a cathedral. This place attracted pilgrims from across the region.

Having been closed due to safety concerns, the restored abbey ruins reopened to the public this year. Only a small part of the church remains – most of the ruins comprise the adjacent buildings of the chapter house and monks’ quarters. But they nonetheless convey a sense of the scale of the place. 

The abbey ruins with ‘The Blade’ in the background.

The abbey’s core of flint has lost its richly decorated ashlar covering, but there is a more enduring legacy attached to these walls. In the chapter house, a heritage panel illustrates a page from a 13th-century manuscript associated with the abbey – the music notation of the round Sumer Is Icumen In.

The song is catchy, has a jolly compound metre, and slots together nicely in its successive entries. Its lyrics tell of springtime changes – woods greening, a cuckoo singing – with a rustic simplicity that could come straight from a children’s picture book.

While the abbey’s existence is mostly forgotten outside Reading, Sumer has become widely sung around the world. It’s been performed by all manner of ensembles, and even heard at an Olympic opening ceremony. It’s been parodied by Ezra Pound and the children’s TV show Bagpuss. Its apparent innocence was set for boys’ voices in Britten’s Spring Symphony, and subverted to horrific effect in the cult film The Wicker Man. 

But look closer, and you’ll see the Latin words Perspice Christicola underneath the famous Middle English lines. There are two songs here using the same tune – one secular, one sacred – in contrastingly coloured inks. 

What’s more, this page is just one of a much larger manuscript – a fascinating miscellany known as Harley 978. It’s now owned by the British Library, but is thought to have belonged to a Reading monk. And like the abbey itself, it can offer us a colourful window into medieval English life.

King Henry I (left), holding a model of Reading abbey, and King Stephen (right) with Faversham abbey. Historia Anglorum by Matthew Paris.

Reading abbey was founded by King Henry I, a son of William the Conqueror. And despite the parochial imagery of Sumer Is Icumen In, there are cross-channel connections running throughout the abbey’s history.

In the evening of 25th November 1120, a vessel known as The White Ship struck a rock and sank off the coast of Normandy. On board were numerous Anglo-Norman nobility, including William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I. The heir to the English throne was drowned, throwing the country into a succession crisis.

The sinking of The White Ship, in a 14th-century manuscript.

The following year, Henry I ordered the foundation of a new abbey. Its charter proclaimed it would be for the salvation of his soul, and for those of his dead relatives, including his lost son.

It would be a destination for pilgrims, and extend its charity to the poor and sick. Reading’s location on trade routes, and at the confluence of the river Kennet with the Thames, was ideal for catching passing visitors. 

The abbey was founded on the monastic model of the great Benedictine abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, and Cluniac monks came to help in its early stages. It was privileged with a generous endowment of lands across the country. Henry’s succession may have been in doubt, but Reading would be his great religious legacy – and his final resting place.

The remaining walls of the abbey church. In the background is Reading Gaol, whose most famous inmate was Oscar Wilde.

To draw in pilgrims – and their associated revenue – Reading amassed a collection of over 200 holy relics. The most important of these came to England via Henry I’s daughter, Mathilda. She had married Emperor Henry V in Germany, and after his death she returned with a treasure from his Imperial collection – a hand said to be that of the Apostle St. James the Great. 

This supposedly thousand-year-old hand was later installed as a star attraction at Reading. The cult of St. James was hugely popular in the 12th century, centred on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia – as Joseph Camilleri has described, ‘The Way of St. James’ even had its own music. Since Reading now quite literally had a hand in this business, it could become a more accessible alternative to Compostela for English pilgrims. 

Building work on the abbey took many years. In 1164 its church was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in the presence of Henry II. But when Becket’s murder a few years later made him a martyr, Canterbury became a pilgrimage site that overshadowed Reading, in turn inspiring the world-famous tales of Chaucer.

The murder of Thomas Becket illustrated in the Book of Sarum.

A surviving document from around 1200 gives some insight into Reading pilgrimage. It lists various miracle stories – mostly cures, received by sick pilgrims from all levels of society. Few were able to gain access to the saintly hand itself, kept at mysterious distance in a reliquary, but water it had been dipped in was used for healing.

Amusingly, the stories even take a swipe at Reading’s rivals. Ysembela, a fisherman’s daughter who suffered ‘deformed and paralysed limbs’, toured saints’ shrines – including Becket’s – to no avail. But at Canterbury, she was visited in a dream by St. James, who told her to go to Reading. There she lit a candle for him and was finally cured.

The ‘Sumer Canon’ display panel on the chapter house wall.

Of course, Reading abbey would have been a place to hear plenty of sacred music too. But while the public literature around the abbey ruins proudly claims that Sumer Is Icumen In was copied down here, the evidence is somewhat less certain.

Harley 978 is its only source, and it does not include anything so vulgar as a composer name or place of composition. Andrew Taylor describes it as ‘a portable miscellany, elegant but not luxurious […] that reflects the eclectic interests of its first owner’. Assessing the clues, he suggests this was likely William of Winchester, a Reading monk.

The abbey ruins from the south.

Harley 978 may have been compiled over a number of years, but the bulk of it seems to date from the 1260s. From what’s known of the 13th-century book trade, it’s possible that some of this collection may be the work of professional scriveners in Oxford.

Besides Sumer, the collection includes Latin songs, and three two-part estampies. But more revealing is the amount of secular literature here. It includes the Lais of Marie de France – poems which focus on courtly love and fantastical themes. There is part of a guide to falconry, and the The Song Of Lewes, a partisan political poem which extols a recent victory of Simon de Montforte in the Second Baron’s War.

It also contains several ‘Goliardic’ verses – Latin poetry which satirised the church, and often lauded a life of carnal pleasure. One of these verses, Omnibus In Gallia, Taylor summarises as follows:

[…] a mock letter of introduction that calls on the Goliards in France to ply the bearer with wine until he staggers and inquires whether these French brothers still enjoy playing in secret with beautiful women like Rose and Agnes. 

This may seem surprising, but as Taylor writes, ‘the contents of Harley 978 would probably not have scandalised the average Benedictine community’.

More scandalous is the fact that William may have ‘played in secret’ with his very own Agnes. While serving as subprior at Leominster (a Reading dependency), accusations of the monk’s ‘incontinence’ with a nun, Agnes of Avenbury, and several other women were recorded by the bishop of Hereford. Whatever the truth of the allegations, William was nonetheless able to continue monastic life – he was subsequently brought to Reading and appointed as proctor.

Harley 978 gives us a rich insight into the world of its owner, whether it was William of Winchester or not. And while we may not know who composed Sumer, it is easy to see where its popularity as a song lies. With plenty of musical charm, it has been able to break free of its monastic context, and provide a timeless Arcadian vision of rural life in tune with the seasons. As Taylor puts it:

These earthy lyrics and the social harmony of the sing-along evoke the organic unity of Merry England, […] “Sumer Is Icumen In” is all we would expect the first English lyric to be.

Scallop shells on a crest in Forbury Gardens, the symbol of St. James pilgrims.

For four centuries, Reading abbey was a site of pilgrimage, but also a convenient meeting place. Here Henry II met Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who requested help in fighting Saladin’s forces. In 1359, John of Gaunt celebrated his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster here. Parliament was convened at the abbey several times.

The downfall of Reading, like so many monasteries across the country, came with the Dissolution during the reign of Henry VIII, overseen by Thomas Cromwell. In this pivotal period, the superstitious veneration of relics came under attack.

Thomas Cromwell, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Less than a year after Cook’s execution, Cromwell himself was executed for treason and heresy.

Reading’s abbot at the time, Hugh Cook of Faringdon, had once been on good terms with Henry VIII, but his apparent unwillingness to recognise the king’s supremacy over the Pope would seal his fate. He was tried for treason, and a chilling line in Cromwell’s notes – ‘the abbot Redyng to be sent down to be tried and executed’ – suggests he didn’t stand a chance.

Along with two associates, Cook was dragged through the town and hanged, drawn and quartered near the abbey gatehouse.

In the following years, the church suffered similar brutality, as materials were stripped off and repurposed elsewhere. It’s believed that abbey stones can be found in historic buildings around the town, including Reading Minster. A century later, the abbey site was further damaged during the English Civil War.

Reading Minster, which is thought to contain materials from Reading abbey.

Standing in the small part of the abbey church that’s left, it’s sad to think of how much has been lost. Here a plaque indicates the likely area where Henry I was buried. He died in France – one chronicler famously attributed his demise to eating ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. Whatever the cause, his body made the long journey back to his royal foundation.

The site being so disturbed, and now partly built over, it’s no longer clear if Henry’s remains still lie here. But this was his intended resting place, so the prospect of a Richard III-style excavation is not on the cards. When I visited, the air was bright with the sound of children playing in the nursery behind the plaque’s wall. It’s strangely pleasing to think that Reading’s youngsters might be running care-free over the body of a medieval king.

King Henry’s burial plaque.

While the abbey’s relics were seized at the Dissolution, their subsequent fate is unknown. However, the ground has given up one tantalising artefact. In the late 18th century, workmen digging foundations for Reading Gaol discovered a left hand buried in the abbey wall. After being passed among various owners, it now resides at St. Peter’s catholic church in the nearby town of Marlow.

Is this shrivelled and sinister-looking object the same hand once revered by medieval pilgrims? It’s tempting to think so. If it is the hand brought to England by the Empress Mathilda, then – its dubious saintly origins notwithstanding – it is certainly a remarkable survival.

Forbury Gardens.

Sat on the Thames in the middle of the south of England, the blessings of geography have enabled Reading to attract visitors, and made it a prosperous modern town. A succession of transport projects over the centuries – the Kennet and Avon Canal, the Great Western Railway, the M4 – have continued this trend long after its magnificent abbey has gone. 

So if you find yourself passing through Reading, remember that you are following in footsteps trodden by pilgrims for four hundred years. If you have time, I hope you consider stopping by these wonderful ruins, which are free to visit every day. You can also see stonework from the abbey, including an early carving of the coronation of the Virgin Mary, in the nearby Reading Museum.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Reading’s monastery was founded and enriched through centuries of boats braving the waters of the English channel. They brought the king who was buried here, the relics of its miracle stories, and much of the varied cultural and intellectual life that fills the pages of Harley 978. Sumer Is Icumen In may be all we expect the first English lyric to be. But the cuckoo is a migratory bird, after all.

This article was powered by dedication…and a lot of caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and Their Readers by Andrew Taylor is available from University of Pennsylvania Press.

Saints and their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-Century England by Simon Yarrow is available from OUP.

The Royal Abbey Of Reading by Ron Baxter is available from Boydell & Brewer.

This article was partly inspired by a talk on Reading abbey pilgrimage given by John and Lindsay Mullaney. You can learn more at their website Reading Abbey History.

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

Sign up to the mailing list: