All posts by Corymbus

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.

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Music History Minus Beethoven?

Portrait of Beethoven by Karl Joseph Karl Stieler, Wikimedia Commons.

         By Leah Broad

I recently Googled ‘music history without Beethoven’, and the results are hilariously depressing. Of 38,800,000 hits, my top three were: ‘Why Beethoven?’, an academic article stating that ‘there will be no end to our fascination with Beethoven’; and articles entitled ‘How Beethoven’s Symphonies Changed The World’, and ‘Beethoven: How the World’s First Rock Star Changed Music Forever’. The same search in quotation marks yielded a grand total of 0 results. 

The results for ‘composers not influenced by Beethoven’ is no less promising. The top hit is an article by Classic FM called ‘Beethoven’s Influence On Other Composers’, asking the allegedly important question: ‘Had Ludvig van Beethoven never existed, could he have been invented?’

Sure, Beethoven is important in European music history. But is music history without him really inconceivable? Beethoven’s impressive posthumous Google domination is a symptom of a much wider problem with the way music history is written.

‘For nearly two centuries’, musicologist Scott Burnham writes in his book Beethoven Hero, ‘a single composer has epitomized musical vitality, becoming the paradigm of Western compositional logic’. Beethoven’s values ‘have become the values of music.’ All roads lead to, from, and are compared to, Beethoven.

This is problematic for a whole host of reasons. That our tools of analysis, ways of listening, and historical priorities have been so focused on Beethoven means that other composers have been read in comparison, rather than on their own merits. To quote Burnham again, ‘we may read the history of tonal theory in the nineteenth century as a form of Beethoven reception’, and by reading music in this way, ‘we implicitly claim that Beethoven’s music most closely resembles the way music ought to go.’ 

This has produced surprising results; for example, Beethoven’s music has historically been gendered ‘masculine’, leading the music of his contemporary, Schubert, to be gendered ‘feminine’ in response. Robert Schumann wrote of Schubert that he ‘is a feminine character, much more voluble, softer and broader […] in relationship to Beethoven!’ 

This gendered comparison has sometimes led to Schubert receiving short shrift in nineteenth and twentieth century writing; for example in 1883 the music critic H. Heathcote Statham commented that Schubert’s songs leave the listener ‘with a consciousness of having been overdosed with sentiment; of having gone through a great deal of repetition and mannerism, beautiful at first but cloying after a time; with a longing for something more bracing and manly in style and feeling.’ 

Besides ignoring many of the similarities between Beethoven and Schubert, this perpetuates the idea that not only are certain musical gestures associated with gendered characteristics, but that ‘masculine’ features are superior.

Focusing on Beethoven also pushes to one side multiple sources of influence that were nothing to do with Beethoven, giving us a skewed perspective of musical history. It focuses inordinate attention on Austria and Germany, hiding the geographical complexity of many composers’ lives and influences. Particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, composers outside Austria and Germany were in dialogue with music from these countries but were hardly defined by it. They turned to the work of others in their native and neighbouring countries for their primary sources of inspiration, and often expressed ambivalence about Beethoven’s work.

Janáček, for example, wrote that Beethoven ‘illuminates every single cloud and dispels every shadow. But what is the good of that? I want to capture the clouds themselves, I want to sink my eyes into the blue of the sky, I want to bundle the very sunrays into my fist, I want to plunge into the shadow. I want to cry myself into the core of yearning: all this in full intensity.’ Beethoven was one in a plethora of inspirations from elsewhere — Dvořák, Slavic folk music, and Russian composers including Tchaikovsky. 

Sibelius also had a distant view of Beethoven. He wrote in 1894 that ‘I am really a tone painter and poet. Liszt’s views about music are most closely related to my own.’ He admired Beethoven, but wrote in his diary that Beethoven’s technique ‘is often antiquated and not brilliant enough.’ More important for Sibelius were modern composers like Scriabin and Debussy, and authors like August Strindberg, whose writing he greatly admired. Of course, statements like these shouldn’t always be taken at face value, but the wealth of music that these individuals produced that bears little resemblance to Beethovenian models suggest that we do them a disservice by shoe-horning them into a Beethoven-centric view.

But more than this, Beethoven-as-music-history provides blinkers when it comes to deciding what is or can be the subject of music history. We – musicologists, performers, publishers, and programmers – are now paying more attention to composers who do not fit the heroic-white-male-composing-masterpieces-in-isolation model. Composers like Clara Schumann and Julius Eastman are making their way into concert programmes and historical studies more regularly. But to pick just one example, what of Elfrida Andrée, composer, conductor and Sweden’s first female cathedral organist?

Despite a litany of setbacks (including being refused an organist appointment in her twenties because ‘the sight of a woman on the organ stool [would be] indecorous and disruptive of devotion’), Andrée persevered to become the organist at Gothenburg Cathedral in 1867. In a time when it was only considered acceptable for women to write small songs and piano pieces, Andrée composed two symphonies, several chamber works and an opera, writing to her father that ‘It would be easier to tear a piece from a rock than to tear away from me my ideal: the elevation of womankind!’ There’s a wealth of musical figures whose lives and works weave narratives that do not feature Beethoven.

Photograph of Elfrida Andrée, Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, emphasising Beethoven dictates our expectations of what music history can do or should include. What is the point of music history? In his Oxford History Of Western Music, Richard Taruskin writes that the point of a history is ‘to explain why and how things happened as they did’, and that to do so he included music ‘based not on my preferences but on my estimation of what needed to be included in order to satisfy the dual requirement of causal explanation and technical explication.’

It’s easy to poke holes in Taruskin’s History without acknowledging what an extraordinary feat of scholarship this single-author, five-volume series is. But as musicologist Gary Tomlinson puts it, Taruskin’s ‘preferences, he seems to think, are not preferences at all […] History happened thus.’ Beethoven, of course, gets two and a half chapters all to himself, to say nothing of his repeated appearances throughout volumes three to five as an influence on later music. 

But in this ‘catholic’ and ‘near exhaustive’ history of Music And Why It Happened, jazz, collaborative composition, incidental music, and sound art have little or no place, to name but a few. Nor are technologies or economic forces major players in this version of history. And this is perhaps the main problem with considering Beethoven indispensable to what Taruskin labels a ‘true history’. A history that prioritises Beethoven prioritises central Europe, concert halls, notated genres, and composers’ lives and works. And while Beethoven is indispensable to histories with these priorities, there are other narratives to be told in which Beethoven’s name is not so important. 

Our historical standpoints – what we choose as subjects and importantly what we choose to omit – these are preferences. We can seek truths within frameworks, but we choose which frames to look through. In some of music history’s frames, Beethoven is indispensable. But in many more, he’s not. When we stop thinking of Beethoven as the irreplaceable figure of music history, we discover that music history is much, much bigger than Beethoven.

Leah is a Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Oxford, researching incidental music and music from Scandinavia. She is the founder and editor of The Oxford Culture Review, a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, and winner of the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism 2015. You can find out more about her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @LeahBroad.

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A Picture Of A Purpose

Frederick Hart’s sculpture ‘Ex Nihilo’, photographed by Paul Chenoweth. Shared under Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The discovery of natural evolution has been a revelatory development in human intellectual history. It is an idea that has given us a whole new perspective on our place in the world, and changed the story of who we are.

The language associated with evolution is often applied to other aspects of our lives too – including music. We can hear ‘survival of the fittest’ rhetoric in the way a canon is upheld and defended. We can see how certain musical innovations explosively multiply, like an advantageous genetic mutation. And a sudden change to a cultural ecosystem – war, political revolution, technology – can dramatically alter the various fortunes of its musical species.

Back in 2015 I wrote about the eleventh symphony of Edmund Rubbra, the last he composed. Rubbra’s life and music demonstrates the challenges of artistic evolution – of swimming against cultural currents, and ending up marooned far from the mainland of public consciousness. Here I want to explore another of his symphonies, one which sits at an intersection of different evolutions – natural, spiritual, and musical. It is his eighth, composed between 1966-68.

A clue to understanding this symphony is found in its subtitle: Hommage à Teilhard de Chardin. The story of this extraordinary man is worth telling, as it sheds light on ideas that shaped Rubbra’s worldview – ideas of a vision to unify Christianity and the theories of evolution.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and mystic, but also a leading geologist and paleontologist of his time. He was born in 1881 into a wealthy Catholic family in the French region of Auvergne – a landscape of mountains and dormant volcanos. His father was an amateur naturalist who collected all sorts of specimens, and through him the young Teilhard developed a fascination with rocks and stones. 

Auvergne landscape, by Julien Chabal. Wikimedia Commons.

The twin devotions of Teilhard’s life – Christianity and science – were nurtured at a Jesuit-run boarding school. Sensing a religious calling in his late teens, he then entered a Jesuit novitiate. Life here gave him much to study, and he also received his first taste of foreign travel, with successive periods spent abroad. Wherever he went, he never wasted opportunities to go on trips to collect local rocks and fossils.

Teilhard was ordained as a priest in 1911. But a formative moment came from reading the book Creative Evolution by the philosopher Henri Bergson. It was ‘fuel at just the right moment’ he later recalled, ‘for a fire that was already consuming my heart and mind’. The word ‘evolution’ haunted him ‘like a tune’, it was ‘a summons to be answered’.

Teilhard moved to Paris to study geology and paleontology, where he would eventually complete a doctorate and gain a professorship. But his ideas about evolution found an unexpected catalyst in the violent upheaval of the First World War.

Teilhard served as a stretcher-bearer for an ambulance unit. Despite being present at many major battles, he somehow survived completely unscathed, and was even made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Meanwhile, in the down-time between fighting he was putting into words a mystical vision – perhaps with the enhanced clarity of a man staring death in the face. As Ursula King describes in her excellent biography, evolution was informing Teilhard’s perception of a universal consciousness, a ‘Christ in the cosmos’. Shortly after the war, he wrote in his essay The Priest:

Let creation repeat to itself again today, and tomorrow, and until the end of time, so long as the transformation has not run its full course, the divine saying: “This is my body”.

His language could be strange but beautiful. For all his expertise of the physical earth, Teilhard wrote of the desire ‘to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena’, and find its hidden spiritual potential. In the 1920s he coined the term ‘noosphere’: a ‘thinking layer’ above the biosphere, consisting of human thought, feeling and love. Teilhard saw this as means of humanity evolving further, and becoming ‘Planetised’.

The thinking envelope of the earth […] is multiplying its internal fibres and tightening its network […] its internal temperature is rising, and with this its psychic potential. 

When in 1923 Teilhard took a ship to join a French paleontology mission in China, it would be the first of many years working there throughout the 1920s and 30s, including some difficult and dangerous expeditions to remote inland regions. Most famously, he was involved in excavations that unearthed remains of early hominids known as ‘Peking Man’.

But throughout a stellar career in science, Teilhard continued to write on his spiritual ideas. His magnum opus was the book The Human Phenomenon, pulling together themes from a lifetime of thought. It describes how the increase in complexity of life leads to a greater ‘within’ of organisms, or consciousness. Drawing on the concept of the ‘noosphere’, he extrapolates this process forward to see humanity attain a supreme conscious state – the ‘Omega point’, the point of God himself.

And yet sadly, although many of his writings were circulated among friends, most were barred from publication during his lifetime. Teilhard’s ideas were too unorthodox for the comfort of his Jesuit superiors – something that caused him considerable distress and disappointment.

Teilhard de Chardin, unknown photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, after Teilhard died in 1955 his works were soon published, and the fact that Rubbra was familiar with them by the late 1960s shows the speed of dissemination, even in translation. Rubbra’s son Adrian Yardley recalls that he had ‘pretty much all of his writings’ available in Britain. In an article about the symphony, the composer described how Teilhard ‘exercised an enormous influence on me’.

His cosmic view of evolution gives, if one responds to it, a picture of a purpose, a oneness, that makes nonsense of any fundamental antagonism or real separation between the world-view of science and of Christianity.

Rubbra shared Teilhard’s Catholic faith and unusually spiritual inclination. But he made it clear that his musical homage could only go so far.

It was no part of my intention, even if possible, to translate these ideas into music: but they meet, I hope, in a like optimism.

The symphony was composed some ten years after its predecessor, and this long gap coincided with an important development in Rubbra’s approach. His music always had its own kind of internal evolution, an organic flow of ideas. But he described how ‘my thoughts had gradually crystallised into a knowledge of the dramatic value of intervals’. 

The deployment of certain interval units, embedded in harmony and threading through melody, became a key unifying force. Furthermore, the chosen intervals contract through the symphony’s three movements – from fourths, to thirds, and seconds – something that Rubbra alluded to with a scientific analogy.

There is an odd parallel, in the intensity generated by the progressive contraction of intervals, to the energy engendered by the astronomical phenomenon of star contraction. 

A night sky might well be where this symphony begins. A quiet, widely-spaced string chord creates a sound of vaulted wonder. Two clarinets and divided violas, a fourth apart, introduce a mysterious undulating figure. 

There follows a succession of probing ideas, restless with creative potential. Out of this emerges a noble theme, first heard on strings. It is partly ‘mirrored’ by its own inverted shape below, an unfolding contrary motion which suggests some cosmic significance – each action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Leo Black has compared this movement to the ‘Representation Of Chaos’ from Haydn’s Creation, and its primordial turbulence gives way to riotous fertility in the second movement. Starting from a set of motifs based around thirds, Rubbra rejoices in twisting and turning his material through ever-new combinations, colours, and metrical games. It shines with a love of endless transformation that Teilhard would have recognised – this could be a flight through unspoilt forest glades, each bursting with abundant forms of life.

If the blazing major-key conclusion feels like a moment of arrival, then the slow finale ushers us into a very different world. Adrian Yardley has remarked that this symphony is ‘in many ways a pilgrimage’, and the hovering horn chords at the opening suggest the stillness of a consecrated space. A violin theme slowly unfurls, built from intervals of seconds with added sixths, and its shape is immediately inverted halfway through.

A few years previously, Rubbra had set to music an ancient Chinese poem about a priest’s journey. The song begins with the line ‘you were foreordained to find the source’, and there is a parallel here to the enclosed arcs of this theme, each returning to its starting note. The sense of beginning with the sureness of finality is masterfully spun out through the deep breaths of the following music.

Later on, a shape from this theme is extended into a long, meditative line. Its disarming eloquence caused the critic Hugh Ottaway to remark it had ‘the magic of a new discovery’. And when a graceful decorative figure appears towards the end – first on violins, then flute – it is this new theme in retrograde and at double speed.

Replete with suggestions of sacred geometry, the symphony reaches its conclusion in a state of transcendent calm. At the last chord, a strange flourish on the celesta adds a lingering glimmer of mystery.

Rubbra’s new approach is compelling, and demonstrates a highly original mind. But at its premiere, critical reaction to his intervallic structure was mostly unfavourable. It was still effectively a tonal symphony with conventional scoring, and in the more radical cultural climate of the time, this piece must have seemed like the work of yesterday’s man. It was all too quickly forgotten. 

Edmund Rubbra. Shared with permission of Adrian Yardley.

The dominant narrative of music history selects a few innovators and influencers. Today, while we are fortunate to have much of Rubbra’s music recorded, it elicits relatively little discussion or performances. But with time and perspective, perhaps the picture of his singular purpose can be seen more clearly. 

Any revival of interest in Rubbra will bring an important question into focus: what value does our culture place on this kind of optimism? Listening to his eighth symphony is to behold the work of a benign creator – with all its joy, fascination, surprise, and mystery. But while there is certainly deep feeling in Rubbra’s music, there is relatively little that reflects aspects of our psyche such as despair, irony, anger, or violence.

Instead, the optimism that Rubbra hoped to share with Teilhard seems to be a kind of attitude to life. It has roots in religious faith, but it also stems from patient dedication, careful thought and contemplation, and trusting yourself to find the path to your own truth. Asked in an interview if criticism affected him, Rubbra said ‘not fundamentally. At the moment perhaps, but I realise what I’m doing and what I have to do’.

Teilhard de Chardin carried on working and travelling into his seventies. He was elected to a chair at the Academy Of Sciences, but Church authorities, suspicious of his ideas and influence, refused to let him reside in Paris. Instead he spent his final years exiled in New York, where he found funding for a research position. It was at a friend’s apartment there on April 10th 1955 that he suddenly collapsed from a severe heart attack and died. That day was Easter Sunday.

Teilhard de Chardin’s grave in Hyde Park, New York State. Photograph by ‘Ɱ’, shared under Creative Commons.

Teilhard’s body was buried upstate from the city, in a cemetery at the Jesuit novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson. A small gravestone only lists his name and dates, and the site has since been taken over by the Culinary Institute Of America. ‘It seems a forlorn place’, King writes, ‘for someone who travelled the world and is said to have influenced the thinking of both the United Nations and the Second Vatican Council’.

Nonetheless, Teilhard’s works have gone on to develop a considerable following. While ideas like the ‘noosphere’ may seem far-fetched, they demonstrate a mind that thought deeply about humanity’s future, and which correctly foresaw a more connected and globalised world.

Teilhard lamented a Church complacent in its ‘abstract theology’, ‘artificial ritualism’ and ‘over-refined piety’, calling on it to reflect the forces that gave people a zest for a life. For him that force was the music of the earth – his fascination with the patterns of its composition since his childhood, and a perception of spiritual truth within it. As he wrote in the introduction to The Heart Of Matter:

The Diaphony of the Divine at the heart of a glowing Universe, as I have experienced it through contact with the earth – the Divine radiating from the depths of blazing Matter: this it is that I shall try to disclose and communicate […]

And while Teilhard’s body now lies in a humble resting place, his ideas have been granted much greater honours. Recently, his name was heard by millions of TV viewers during a sermon by Reverend Michael Curry at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Bishop drew on words Teilhard wrote with a typical fusion of spirituality and science. 

After harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, human beings will have discovered fire.

Judging by social media commentary, many people watching the wedding seemed to be surprised and moved by the Bishop’s positivity and passion. Perhaps, even in our cynical and fearful age, there is a bigger receptiveness to the power of optimism than I often suppose. 

If Rubbra’s music were given just a small fraction of that audience, who knows how many might become willing followers on his musical pilgrimage? For now, his symphony can only lie in wait, a glittering crystal of rare musical thought. Those who chance upon it will find all the magic of a new discovery.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

You can listen to Rubbra’s eighth symphony on Spotify. ‘Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin’ by Ursula King is available from Orbis Books. ‘Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist’ by Leo Black is available from Boydell and Brewer.

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In Every Corner Sing

A stained glass window of George Herbert at St. Andrew’s church, Bemerton.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In my experience, music is a great route to poetry. I’m fairly sure it was through the Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams that I first discovered the works of George Herbert – the poet and rector of Bemerton, on the outskirts of Salisbury. Since his death in 1633 at the age of 39, Herbert has become known as one of Britain’s most loved and respected writers of religious verse.

Herbert’s words have been put to music by many composers. But in reading these poems, I’ve found the Vaughan Williams settings especially hard to shift from my mind. They contain some of his loveliest melodies, with a natural ease that perfectly marries Herbert’s deceptive simplicity. Take for example The Call, set in the Five Mystical Songs. Vaughan Williams takes up the skipping rhythm inherent in its first line, and makes it a defining feature.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

John Drury’s Music At Midnight is a fascinating biography of Herbert, full of literary insight that has helped me to better understand his poetry on its own terms. He also adds some clarifying light to the rather saintly reputation that has been cultivated around Herbert, particularly by Izaak Walton, who wrote the first biography a few decades after the poet’s death.

Herbert may have become a parish clergyman, but he was born into a wealthy family – lords of Montgomery Castle on the Welsh borders, and part of the same branch of Herberts as the Earls of Pembroke.

His father died when he was young, and he moved with his mother to Oxford and then London. Bright and studious, he went on to Trinity College Cambridge, becoming a fellow there and rising to the prestigious role of ‘Orator’, which involved making official addresses and correspondence on behalf of the University.

Herbert’s journey to the priesthood was far from inevitable. A great career in public office might have come to pass, and when he finally became rector of Bemerton, just three years before he died of suspected tuberculosis, he had agonised over his calling for some time.

Ironically, he was never publicly known for poetry – in English at least. His Latin poetry was published, but the verse so widely loved today was kept to himself: revised and reflected on in private, refined to his particular style of lean precision.

Nonetheless, when Herbert’s poems were published soon after his death in a collection called The Temple, they became a huge success. He influenced a whole new generation of poets, and his words were soon being put to music by composers such as John Jenkins and Henry Lawes. Some made expressive solo songs, such as Purcell’s version of Longing, or John Wilson’s Content. More substantial is a choral verse anthem by George Jeffreys which sets Easter, the same poem that opens the Five Mystical Songs.

What is interesting is that these early settings don’t seem nearly as concerned with Herbert’s most celebrated poems today. Among these is Love (III), better known by its first line ‘Love bade me welcome’. It exemplifies Herbert’s habit of finding religious metaphors in aspects of everyday domestic life – in this case, the hospitality culture he was raised in. Here’s the first stanza, and a beautifully simple choral setting by the New York composer David Hurd.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

Enthused by Drury’s marvellous book, I decided to take a drive to Bemerton and see St. Andrew’s church, where Herbert ministered. It’s a small and modest building. Across the road stands the rectory where he lived – a much grander structure with grounds along the river Nadder, a tranquil chalk stream that glides east towards Salisbury like a quiet prayer. 

St. Andrew’s Church and rectory, Bemerton.

Entering the church, I was pleased to find a stone carving of ‘Love bade me welcome’ at the door. There is also a nice stained-glass window of Herbert, memorialised beside his friend Nicholas Ferrar, who has earned the eternal gratitude of Herbert fans by ensuring The Temple’s posthumous publication.

It’s a pleasant place, but beyond these features there isn’t much to see. So I quickly went on to Salisbury cathedral, walking the half-hour route that Herbert must have known so well. As the well-kept front gardens of Bemerton gave way to a drab industrial estate, the great spire came into view – the tallest in the country. I soon arrived at the idyllic water meadows where the Nadder joins the Avon, a vantage point immortalised by John Constable. Today the same west front of the cathedral bears a statue of Herbert, dedicated in 2003.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, by John Constable. Wikimedia Commons.

Salisbury is a lovely city, and on such a beautiful May morning – young leaves glowing in spring sunlight, bluebells and cowslips crowding the verges – it was hard not to think of Herbert’s poem Vertue.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die. 

Like The Call, the rhythmic pulse of that first line was set to a beautiful melody by Vaughan Williams. But Hubert Parry also composed a choral setting of Vertue with its own mellifluous charm.

There’s an interesting connection here too. As it happens, Parry married Elizabeth Maude Herbert, whose brother (another George) was the Earl of Pembroke. So Parry joined the same family tree as our poet, two centuries after he died.

The St. Andrew’s window depicts Herbert holding a violin, and without doubt music was hugely important in his life. He played lute and viols, and it’s said he sang his own settings of his verse, though no notation of them has survived. His was a golden age for music in England as well as literature, and he would have known it – during his childhood in London, the composers John Bull and William Byrd visited his home, and John Donne was a family friend.

What’s more, musical metaphors ring through his poems with remarkable abundance. One of the most striking occurs in Easter, which alludes to the ‘three parts vied and multiplied’ of the harmonic triad, and compares the sinews of the crucified Christ to lute strings.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

But poetry, of course, has its own inner music. Diane Kelsey McColley has described the way that Herbert’s apparently simple arrangements of words are precisely ‘tuned’ to create multiple resonances:

Linear arrangements of words form vertical consonances whose overtones, as well as fundamental meanings, are in tune […] not only do thematically related concepts and images form vertical chords, but also the partials or secondary meanings – puns, etymologies, allusions, and the like – are in tune as the partials of natural tuning are.

Most clearly of all, Herbert’s poetry celebrates the essential goodness of music. His Antiphon (I) joyfully exclaims ‘Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing’, which rounds off the Five Mystical Songs in rousing fashion. It has been set to several hymn tunes, and George Dyson gave it an appropriately sunny treatment in his Three Songs Of Praise. 

Much more contrasting to the Five Mystical Songs is Roxanna Panufnik’s imaginative setting of The Call. Whereas Vaughan Williams makes these words noble and affirming, Panufnik creates an atmosphere of sensual mystery, with harp arpeggios wafting up like clouds of incense.

The composer Judith Weir seems particularly drawn to Herbert – her several settings include a beautiful version of Vertue. But when Weir was commissioned to compose the opening piece for the 2011 BBC Proms, she chose three particular lines from the poem Man. 

The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head.

With the formidable musical forces of Janáček’s Glagolithic Mass at her disposal for the concert, Weir turned these quietly nocturnal lines into a grand public statement, with organ and brass blazing bright. Stars, Night, Music And Light anoints the world’s largest classical music festival, announcing a long summer of dazzling nights under the stars.

A very different kind of selective quotation appears in the sonorous choral piece Contrition by Ola Gjeilo. He sets the final line of Perseverance in his central section: ‘Thou art my rock, thou art my rest’, and repeats it meditatively, a deeply felt mantra.

Herbert’s short life was marked by frequent poor health, and there is something moving in the fact that the late John Tavener turned to this poet after a period of illness in his final years. The Three Hymns Of George Herbert incorporates his earlier choral setting of Love (III), but he expands the forces, calling for a ‘large, resonant acoustic’, with a choir and string orchestra offset by an ‘echo choir’ and string quartet at a distance. Bells and gongs sound from a gallery above.

The use of this spatial arrangement becomes apparent in the first choice of hymn: Herbert’s ‘echo poem’ Heaven, which cleverly repeats the last syllable of each line as a new answering word to its preceding question.

A commercial recording of the Three Hymns is yet to be made, but the 2013 world premiere can be heard below. Herbert’s words traverse the far spaces of Washington Cathedral, with all the time-stopping stasis that Tavener does so well. The temple becomes an instrument. Its every corner sings. How wonderful it would be to hear this work under the great vaulted ceiling of Salisbury, while Herbert’s statue gazes west, out across the water meadows to his tiny church in Bemerton.

The antiphonal effects of the music reverberate just as Herbert’s poetry, locked away during his lifetime, has echoed down the centuries since his death. These words, rich in their musicality, remain fertile ground for inspiration.

Salisbury Cathedral seen from the west.

Talks and concerts related to Herbert’s life and work continue to be held in the Salisbury area. But the story of Bemerton has one especially pleasing literary and musical epilogue.

The novelist Vikram Seth, author of An Equal Music among other works, has been an admirer of Herbert since his youth. When he heard that the old rectory was going up for sale, he made a visit, and was so taken by the place that he decided to buy it in 2003. 

After the purchase Seth wrote Shared Ground: a series of poems in homage to Herbert, formally modelled on his favourite examples. These were set for voices by the composer Alec Roth. In his note to the Hyperion recording of the piece, Seth wrote about his experience of inhabiting Herbert’s physical space, much as he had inhabited his poetic forms:

At the beginning I felt his presence hourly, both within the house and outside. As time passed, I began to think of it as being somewhat more my own, but still, indefinably, shared.

A small picture of Herbert inside St. Andrew’s church.

Of these poems, Host is a response to Love (III). Here Seth creates a dialogue between himself and the location in which he felt so strangely welcomed. Roth sets it to alternating tenor solo and chorus. Both poems can be read here, but Seth’s opening stanza is below.

I heard it was for sale and thought I’d go
To see the old house where
He lived three years, and died. How could I know
Its stones, its trees, its air,
The stream, the small church, the dark rain would say:
“You’ve come; you’ve seen; now stay”.

But Roth adds something else to Host. At its close, the choir sing a few more lines which, according to Walton, were once inscribed in the hall of the rectory, marking the completion of repairs during Herbert’s tenure. The little poem no longer remains, but it was titled To My Successor.

If thou chance for to find
A new House to thy mind,
And built without thy Cost:
Be good to the Poor,
As God gives thee store,
And then my Labour’s not lost.

These words was also set for choir by James MacMillan, to be sung at the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Several years later, Williams visited St. Andrew’s for a festival about Bemerton’s famous priest. A poet himself and a long-standing admirer of Herbert, he blessed the welcoming stone at the church door.

It seems that Herbert has many successors, of different sorts. And it’s surely no bad thing that I discovered the works of this fascinating man through the music of Vaughan Williams, however hard it may be to disrobe his verse from that melodic clothing.

For Herbert, music ran not only through his poetry, but his whole life. So it is deeply fitting that this particular entrance bade me welcome to his private world. What is clear is that Herbert’s legacy resounds in singing notes as much as it lives on in printed words. ‘Such a Way, as gives us breath’.   

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

‘Music At Midnight: The Life And Poetry Of George Herbert’ is available from Penguin. ‘Poetry And Music In Seventeenth-Century England’ is available from Cambridge University Press.

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The Magus

Prospero Commanding Ariel, by John White Abbott. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

John Fowles’s novel The Magus tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young graduate who takes up a post teaching English on a small Greek island. There he falls under the influence of an older man, Maurice Conchis, who seems to be a figure of considerable wealth, learning and charm. This mysterious character slowly draws Urfe into a game of escalating trickery, in which the boundaries of reality and illusion are increasingly tested.

Locked inside Urfe’s first-person narrative, we never fully understand what is happening to him, and the puzzles of Conchis grow more elaborate and sinister. As he digs down to discover the answers, the mysteries only deepen. 

I was left reeling by The Magus – it is a riveting and dazzling piece of storytelling. Its title refers to a Tarot card figure, also known as ‘The Magician’. And like the sibling words of ‘wizard’ or ‘sorcerer’, any figure who is able to bypass the laws of nature always has an appeal. Just look at the the Harry Potter series, which is arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of my lifetime.

In a sense music is inherently ‘magical’ – it is invisible, and its powers over us defy easy explanation. It has magical associations in some of our oldest stories: Orpheus with his lyre could charm even the rocks and trees with his song. The Pied Piper of Hamelin put music to the use of service, then vengeance. 

The Pied Piper Mural by Maxfield Parrish. Picture by Plum Leaves, shared under Creative Commons license. Cropped.

In the same vein, a story from Finnish myth inspired Thea Musgrave’s orchestral work Song Of The Enchanter. It refers to an episode from The Kalevala, where ‘Väinämöinen, the hero-God, has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people’.

Musgrave’s piece was commissioned to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius. And among its bubbling woodwind textures, there emerges unmistakeable fragments of the ‘swan’ theme from his fifth symphony. It is clear that Musgrave’s ‘enchanter’ here is not only the one of myth. 

For a long time, magic has drawn on ancient and esoteric themes. In the Greek-speaking Classical world, the ‘Magi’ were known as priests of Zoroastrianism, a very old religion which originated in Iran with its founding figure Zoroaster. And it is through Greek writings about the Magi that our word ‘magic’ derives. So the concept itself comes not only with a dusty coating of old age, but also the musky scent of Orientalism – the projection of mysterious qualities onto an exotic ‘Other’. 

Etymology aside, the fanciful occult associations of Zoroaster and the Magi had a remarkably long life in the European imagination. And this is particularly apparent in an art form that loves exotic settings and mysterious antiquity as much as any other – Opera.

In Handel’s Orlando, the wizard ‘Zoroastro’ makes predictions from the stars, and uses magic to save the warrior hero from his own madness. Meanwhile, Rameau’s Zoroastre puts him in the title role, and he undergoes a magic initiation ritual to defeat an evil sorcerer. 

During a carnival in Vienna, the young Mozart once dressed up as an Oriental philosopher and handed out riddles titled ‘Excerpts From The Fragments of Zoroaster’. His opera The Magic Flute features a High Priest with the suspiciously familiar name ‘Sarastro’, who puts the Prince Tamino through initiation rites at his temple.

A century later, this tradition continued in Massenet’s Le Mage. His ‘Zarastre’ is a Persian General who goes to a sacred mountain to become a Magus. Laurent Campellone has argued that Le Mage was part of a renewed ‘vogue’ for Zoroaster sparked by Friedrich Nietzsche. His work Thus Spake Zarathustra reimagined the ancient figure not as a magician, but as a ‘new’ prophet who could propound his philosophy, one of mankind moving away from its old religious morality and towards the ‘Superman’. (In doing so, he prompted one of the most famous openings in all of orchestral music).

Zoroaster’s operatic roles may be Orientalist escapism, but even Nietzsche’s reinvention of him shows how ideas of the ancient, obscure and exotic can be a signpost to another realm of possibility. A recurring theme in stories of magic is the sudden discovery of a new depth to reality. And anything that is old, shadowy, or mysterious holds potential for things which have long lain hidden, if only you know where to look, which magic words to utter.

A Harry Potter fan at the Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station, London. Photograph by Nelo Hotsuma, Wikimedia Commons.

Harry Potter fans may be interested to know that before composing The Magic Flute, Mozart worked on a collaborative opera called The Philosopher’s Stone. Fantasy stories often draw on ideas that were once realms for serious study – in this case, Alchemy. And ‘Natural Magic’ was a term once used for demonstrating the marvellous behaviours of nature, of which music could form a part, with its intriguing phenomena such as sympathetic vibration.

In the late 16th century, a chapbook circulated with stories of one extraordinary Renaissance magician. Johann Faustus had allegedly practiced the ‘black’ magic of Necromancy – communication with the dead. It seems this was loosely based on a real figure, but in any case, the legend of ‘Faust’ was born. Two centuries later, Goethe sparked a huge revival of interest in Faust with his epic version of the tale, which went on to be enormously influential across arts and culture. It elicited a horde of musical responses. 

Unlike the reimagined ‘Zoroaster’, Faust is home-grown. His legend warns us of the lust for knowledge and power and its potential to corrupt – the ‘Faustian Pact’ with the demonic Mephistopheles shows us there’s a catch.

A woodcut illustrating Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, a dramatisation of the Faust legend.

Musgrave’s composer-enchanter also has a sinister cousin here, in the Faustian virtuoso. The violinist Paganini was renowned for his seemingly diabolical skills, an idea later echoed in the ‘Crossroads’ legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. And that great nineteenth-century wizard of the piano, Franz Liszt, was certainly taken with the demonic aspects of Faust – he composed four macabre dances, the Mephisto Waltzes, alongside a huge symphonic setting of the story.

As long as music has magical qualities, those who excel at making it will take on the appearance of magicians. Not only is musical talent inherently intangible, but the necessary years of hard work are also hidden from the stage. 

‘The Modern Orpheus’ – an 1831 bulletin advertising a performance by Paganini. Wikimedia Commons.

But there is also that other magic; one immediately spotted, immensely powerful, but very hard to explain. It’s the x-factor of presence, charisma – something that can apply to any field of performance.

The Canadian composer Vincent Ho speaks in such terms of the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. ‘She has the uncanny ability to draw the audience into a magical world and take us on wondrous journeys that are beyond material existence’. Using ideas of those charismatic figures who claim to access the world of spirits, his percussion concerto The Shaman was composed for her.

The Faust legend conjured up a huge amount of music, but another work by Goethe also led to a famous piece on magical themes. In a similar way, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gives a warning about over-stretching our desire for power. In his master’s absence, the apprentice sorcerer casts spells which quickly spiral out of control. The orchestral scherzo on this tale by Paul Dukas was brought to life for countless children by Mickey Mouse, when it was animated for Disney’s film Fantasia. 

It’s sometimes said that ‘three is a magic number’, and much like the Mephisto Waltzes, Dukas uses a metre grouped in threes. This gives his bassoon theme a playfully bouncing quality, its magic characterised as dancing mischief (in fact, Dukas uses a 9/8 time signature, so three lots of three).

The use of a ‘compound’ metre is shared in the penultimate movement of Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, titled Uranus, The Magician. But the figure that Holst creates here is no apprentice – this music is full of dashing verve and swaggering confidence. At its thrilling climax, an organ glissando rushes upwards like a firework. 

Raymond Head has described how Holst moved in an artistic milieu with esoteric interests. He suggests that The Planets was likely influenced by a 1912 book called The Art Of Synthesis by astrologer Alan Leo. To Leo, the planet Uranus was ‘the awakener […] it shows people that there is more to living than what can just be seen or touched’, just as a magician ‘invokes and manipulates unseen elemental forces’.

Head also notes that the ominous brass notes that open the movement spell out G, S, A, H in German notation, which can help us to form ‘GuStAv Holst’. Whether this was an intentional cipher or not, Holst certainly revels in his powers with this score. And the angular prominence of the motif gives it a character of mysterious significance – a musical ‘Abracadabra’.

You could say there is something of a shared ‘magic formula’ among these works by Dukas and Holst, along with the similarly supernatural music in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath. It seems to be varying mixtures of a few features: a dancing metre grouped in threes, bright orchestral colours, quite often a minor key, and sinuous and/or angular melodic shapes. 

Much like fantasy literature, these are the sorts of pieces that form an enchanting gateway for young people discovering a larger art form, yet they remain popular with adults too. It seems only appropriate that many of the same features can be found in Hedwig’s Theme from John Williams’s superb score for the Harry Potter films.

The Magus very cleverly explores different means of creating illusion and suspending disbelief. Throughout the book, Conchis takes on various guises which play on this idea – hypnotist, psychiatrist, theatre director, film producer.

At first Urfe is intrigued by this wealthy eccentric, but he soon becomes obsessed with unravelling his mysteries. It is a dilemma familiar even from a simple card trick – do we want to understand the mechanics, or just enjoy the magic? Do we want the fearsome Wizard of Oz, or the small man revealed?

Perhaps more than any other composer, Wagner went to unusual lengths in the pursuit of grand illusion. His operas transport us with their huge scale, legendary themes, and intoxicating music. But in overseeing the construction of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, Wagner created a performance space dedicated to his ideal of the deep artistic experience. Particularly ingenious is its pit that completely conceals the orchestra from the audience. In the words of Tom Service, ‘the music seeps like sonorous perfume from the invisible depths’. 

Such innovations notwithstanding, the hidden power lying in Wagner’s scores had enormous influence on later composers. Debussy marvelled at passages in Parsifal which sounded as if they were ‘lit from within’. And in fact, it seems that wherever there is magic, there is also a source of mesmerising light. It is reflected in the tendency to use bright and silvery musical sounds for magical themes – Hedwig’s celesta, Mozart’s flute and bells.

Projection from a Laterna Magica, sourced from Breve Storia del Cinema.

Lighting is an essential craft in theatre, and so too in film. The ‘Magic Lantern’ was an early projection device, some versions of which could produce the illusion of moving images. The master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman gave his autobiography the same title, and his descriptions of different kinds of light in the book were a source of fascination for the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her Laterna Magica is a spookily atmospheric score, in which Bergman’s names for light are recited in softly sinister tones by members of the orchestra.

The craft of storytelling can certainly be enhanced by technology. But the perennial popularity of the novel shows that words alone can cast their own spell. In The Magus, the greatest power Conchis seems to have is telling stories – stories whose truth is difficult to ascertain, but which he weaves at length seductively, improvising and adapting as he goes.

This extra layer of storytelling within the book takes us deeper into its world. At the same time, it gives us an embedded model of the novel itself, hinting at its artifice. Just as with Holst’s apparent cipher, Fowles knows that he is the real Magus. The tricks Conchis pulls on Urfe are his own tricks on us. 

Perhaps it is no surprise that this idea of embedded storytelling has led to one of the most enchanting scores in the orchestral repertoire. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is based on the Arabian Nights, a legend which tells us of the power of stories to bewitch and sway human hearts. And his much-loved music matches that power triumphantly.

Illustration from ‘Stories From The Arabian Nights’ (1911). Source here.

The use of such narrative games also appealed to Shakespeare, as can be seen in his play-within-a-play device. The Magus makes knowing allusions to Prospero in The Tempest, the marooned wizard who, aside from other magical acts, calls up spirits to perform a masque for the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand.

Sibelius composed incidental music for The Tempest, and according to musicologist Erik Tawaststjerna, Prospero likely held significance for the Finnish enchanter, as ‘a symbol of the creative man’. His musical interlude for the magician features a glowing centre of woodwind and brass timbres, dramatically offset by a grave hymn for monochrome strings.

But it seems probable that it was not only Sibelius who saw himself in Prospero. Once his masque is over, our magician makes a celebrated speech, one which is commonly interpreted as touching on Shakespeare’s own retirement from theatre – his ‘globe’.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

In these immortal lines, Shakespeare extends the metaphor of Prospero’s illusion a step further. Life itself is a dream, the world its stage. In doing so, he alludes to a bigger truth: that stories are how we deal with the biggest, most fundamental questions of existence. Whether it is through the arts, religion, or science, we all weave tales which help secure our understanding of the world, and our tiny place within it. Anyone who can suspend our disbelief is a Magus, of one kind or another.

Detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, showing ‘Zoroaster’.

At the same time, these stories also reflect back on ourselves and our culture. We can note how many wizards and magicians have historically been male embodiments of authority and power. The history of witches, on the other hand, reveals how the prospect of women having hidden knowledge is often treated as far less welcome.

But times change. The fact that the more gender-inclusive halls of Hogwarts have now inspired a generation suggests that our ideas of magic will continue to adapt, as we do. And all the while, the phantom figures of Faustus and Zoroaster can remind us that stories are, in any case, a slippery form of sorcery. Much like the poor apprentice’s spell, they quickly take on a life of their own.

Part of Prospero’s speech was set to music by Vaughan Williams in his Three Shakespeare Songs for choir. Written towards the end of his career, he sets out in notes ‘the baseless fabric’ of Shakespeare’s late vision, and does so with chords of fragile magnificence. This is music that captures all the transient beauty of the magician’s power, in two minutes of pure magic.

At the very last chord, there is an inspired final trick. Halfway through the word ‘sleep’, the harmony unexpectedly slips from major to minor. It’s just a small touch – a parting glance. But it speaks of something that lies beyond our understanding. 

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’. However far down we go, the mystery only deepens. The Magus is always one step ahead.

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.

John Fowles’s novel The Magus is available from Penguin.

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Dreams Of Mahler

Gustav Mahler photographed by Moritz Nähr, cropped from source.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In 2010, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall featured a series of concerts performing all ten symphonies by Gustav Mahler, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth. Each concert also featured a new work commissioned to sit alongside the symphonies, plus another for Das Lied Von Der Erde, from eleven composers.

The results included a wide variety of approaches – from a short choral piece, to an orchestral arrangement of a Schubert song, to the seventh symphony of David Matthews, accompanying Mahler’s of the same number.

Edward Gregson is a composer and (now retired) academic, born in Sunderland in 1945. He took on the task to introduce Mahler’s sixth symphony, an immense and turbulent work of some 80-plus minutes. His tone poem Dream Song is one of the more substantial Manchester commissions, and is perhaps the one which most directly confronts its Mahlerian pairing. As he explains:

My approach in tackling this commission was to ‘invade’ Mahler’s world of musical ideas […] to portray a half-remembered landscape of some of the themes and motives from his Sixth Symphony, fragmented (or deconstructed) as if in a dream […] 

Mahler’s sixth is a vast emotional canvas, but it has a reputation as a ‘tragic’ symphony, made clear from the ominous march of its opening, through to the violent ‘hammer blows’ of its finale.

Gregson’s decision to reconfigure ideas from this particular work is appropriate, because the story of Mahler’s sixth is marked by questions of orderings, timings – even claims of premonition. It is a symphony that has never fully settled its version of events. Mahler made revisions after an unsatisfactory premiere, and consequently there is a lasting dispute over the correct sequence of the two inner movements.

A further mystery lies in its tragic character, as it was composed during the seemingly happy early years of Mahler’s marriage to his wife Alma, when their second daughter Anna was born. Mahler fostered intrigue himself, writing that his sixth presented ‘riddles’, the solution to which ‘only a generation will dare to apply itself which has previously absorbed and digested my first five symphonies’.

Alma went on to claim that this work anticipated later personal crises, most tragically the death of their first daughter Maria in 1907. It was Alma too who identified a passionately leaping violin theme, introduced as a second subject of the first movement, as representing herself.

The musicologist Hans F. Redlich went so far as to speculate that this music expressed ‘instinctive forebodings’ of the turmoil that would rock Europe through the new century, beginning shortly after Mahler’s death with the First World War.

If suggestions of prophecy seem fanciful, less contentious is that the symphony evokes the past. The trio section of the scherzo movement is marked Altväterisch – ‘old-fashioned’. At other points off-stage cowbells are heard, as if the intrusion of a bucolic memory. This all aligns with the popular idea of Mahler’s famous attributed comment – that a symphony should be ‘like the world, it must embrace everything’.

It may sound like an ambitious task to compress such a vast work into a tone poem, but Gregson avoids trying to encapsulate it all in his 20-minute span. His ‘parallel musical world’ selects various elements, and flips the tragic narrative to culminate in a Liebeslied – or ‘love song’ – which is his own variation on the ‘Alma’ theme.

The closest thing to a hammer blow is the very first chord, a nightmarish dissonance loud enough to wake anyone with a start. But what quickly emerges is a more probing and mysterious scene. Mahler’s so-called ‘fate’ motif – a major triad darkening to the minor – is heard in reverse. Minor becomes major, but it is a sonic stretching that seems to lead us nowhere.

The unfolding narrative gives us various signposts from the symphony – Mahler geeks can peruse Gregson’s guide – but this is no rehashing. His term ‘half-remembered’ is key: in the confusion of this dream, ideas are altered, updated, and personalised.

As a concert opener, Dream Song foregrounds Mahler’s sixth in the strangely transfigured light of its own remembering. The first four notes of the ‘Alma’ theme, an upward-sweeping gesture, become a leitmotif that gives coherence to the work, while portending the tragedy to follow.

Part of what makes the music so compelling is the imaginative orchestration, particularly in its translucent and ghostly passages. The central section is a menacing scherzo, but with some serenely pastoral music at its heart – Gregson’s own take on the Altväterisch trio. Then in a witty touch, we hear a glimmer of steel drums: cowbells translated from Alpine pastures to the streets of multicultural Britain.

When we finally reach the Liebeslied, it is a singing string melody complete with authentic late-romantic harmony. We could be fully in Mahler’s world, but the theme then transfers to a brass choir, reminiscent of Gregson’s northern origins and his large body of work for brass band. Bitonal scales start to distort the harmony, the dream-vision warps.

In the composer’s words, the work ends ‘peacefully, albeit bittersweet’. It comes to rest on a quiet E major chord, but the ‘Alma’ motif snakes over it on muted violins, diminished to a final questioning B-flat. Dream Song ends as it starts – with a strange ambivalence.


The Manchester Mahler commissions were arranged for an anniversary year, but Mahler’s symphonies require no such occasion. Last year for example, the BBC Proms included no fewer than five of them, in what was just a regular season.

I’ve long wondered when the trend for endless Mahler will subside, his music start to become too familiar. But as the LSO live-streamed a recent performance of his second symphony, my Twitter timeline filled up with rapturous responses of the kind that few composers, living or dead, seem able to generate.

Mahler’s second is known as ‘The Resurrection’ – but it seems that he himself has been resurrected. I would venture to say that reports of his death in 1911 have been greatly exaggerated. He is, in effect, a leading orchestral composer of our time. While he has his detractors, he is also given the frequent performances, along with the buzz and gushing plaudits that you would expect – in an ideal world at least – to be conferred on a composer writing the music of our moment.

In 2016, I heard Bernard Haitink conduct his third symphony at the Proms. It is a gargantuan piece. But standing in the packed Albert Hall arena, the audience’s collective faith was palpable. The extreme demands of this music – including a boy’s choir sitting in silence for most of its 100-minute duration – was completely normalised.

The evening’s triumph was a foregone conclusion. And I certainly enjoyed the experience – if nothing else, Mahler understood that if you give people a sublime ending they will go home on a high, no matter how long you take to get there.

But there is something more than just beautiful music going on here. There is an aesthetic of monumentality, something the Manchester Mahler brochure gives away in its first sentence:

Mahler’s symphonies are considered the greatest pinnacle of the symphonic repertoire, an unparalleled challenge for even the greatest symphony orchestras of today.

It is without doubt that Mahler serves as a kind of showcase composer for orchestral music – and by extension, classical composition itself. He exemplifies the lengths to which it can be put, the range it can cover, its ability to ‘embrace everything’. To a sometimes hypochondriac classical music culture, Mahler reassures with an emotionally powerful form of monumentality.

The metaphor of a ‘greatest pinnacle’ is also telling, because it uncritically replicates the masculine rhetoric – size, strength, challenge – that is bound up in the format of the symphony orchestra itself, as a large ensemble commanded by a traditionally male authority figure.

In the years since the 2010 Manchester season, conversations around representing women and non-white voices in concert repertoire have advanced significantly. It seems as if the classical music world is finally waking from its own long dream of complacency. Concert programming is slow to catch up, but it is promising that festivals such as the Proms have now pledged to bring their commissioning of new works to a 50:50 gender ratio by 2022.

By comparison, consider that only one of the eleven Manchester works was composed by a woman – the short, broodingly dissonant Mosaic by Bushra El-Turk. There were more members of the Matthews family represented that year, through brothers Colin and David.

And if Alma Mahler lies at the heart of Mahler’s sixth symphony, it is important to remember that she was also a composer herself, as well as a very complex character. But a key fact of their relationship, less prominent in concert marketing material, is that Gustav insisted Alma give up composing as a condition of their marriage, in order to support him.

Alma Mahler c. 1905-6, with daughters Maria (left), who died in 1907, and Anna, right. Unknown photographer. Cropped from source.

It is a jarring fact, and one that should inform our approach to Mahler’s all-embracing ideal. Can we completely separate his desire to express himself at such vast scale from his selfish suppression of his wife’s creativity? I don’t think we can. They share a cultural connection of that time, a male entitlement that underpins his monumental aesthetic – that the man’s genius, ascending his pinnacle, must be the hero.

So here is the real tragedy of the sixth symphony, whatever its supposed riddles might be. In the seemingly happy early years of their marriage, Alma would find herself as a theme in her husband’s music, when she might have been composing her own.

Now, I don’t underestimate the difficulty of programming unfamiliar works, while having to negotiate the commercial reality of box office receipts. But if we can at least aspire towards more diverse concert programming, we can see that some composers would necessarily have to be heard less often than at present to achieve that.

Our modern Mahler addiction would be a prime candidate for curtailment, firstly because a concert culture truly engaged with diverse perspectives simply wouldn’t be able to consign so many hours to these enormous symphonies. There would be too many other voices needing some of that space. But secondly, we might become more critically aware of what this monumentality represents.

We live in a time when Mahler’s works are being ‘absorbed and digested’ to an extent he might never have imagined. But to a generation that demands a menu more representative of the 21st century, his music – heard less frequently in a more varied context – might start to have some of its strangeness rightfully restored.

It would be no less powerful of course; no less beautiful, no less moving. But in a truly diverse repertoire, his idea to ‘embrace everything’ might seem a little presumptuous. His means and demands might appear somewhat inflated. In the passion of the ‘Alma’ theme we might hear the silent music of the numberless women who were historically pressured away from their artistic potential.

Much like the final chord of Dream Song, this music might leave us with a quiet note, one that lingers dissonantly. A 21st-century sense of complicated truth. For all his wonderful qualities, Mahler would simply be revealed more clearly for what he is – a man not quite of our time.

You could say, a little Altväterisch.

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Tippett: A Composer For Our Time?

Antarctic Ice, by Tanya Patrick of CSIRO. Shared under Creative Commons, source here.

           By Will Frampton

There is a telling scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys in which ‘the boys’ are being prepared for their Oxbridge interviews. On the subject of music one boy offers his love of Mozart, but is urged to reference someone ‘more off the beaten track. Tippett or Bruckner.’  Tippett may be considered off the beaten track, but the ideas and problems that stimulated his music are perhaps more than ever relevant for a contemporary audience.

During his lifetime Sir Michael Tippett was considered one of Britain’s leading composers, however since his death in 1998 his vast output, despite a cult following, has largely been overlooked for concert programs and radio playlists. Tippett was a composer of ideas about the world, he himself stated that his central preoccupation was ‘the question of what sort of world we live in and how we may behave in it’.

Tippett’s music is brimming with energy and ebullience, seemingly celebrating the challenge of humanity to bring together darkness and light. It engages with questions of war, sexuality, race, and class in ways that are highly relevant in today’s world of heightened political and social tensions.


Michael Tippett was born on January 2nd 1905 to middle class but socially progressive parents. His extended family had a history of involvement in music, culture, and politics. Soon after leaving the Royal College of Music Tippett began to see the social benefits of music making. He worked in summer camps near mining villages, conducted an orchestra for unemployed musicians, and taught at London’s Morley College, which has long been associated with educating the underprivileged.

While Tippett was directly associated with a handful of left-wing political groups for a brief period in the 1930s, he gradually came to view political beliefs as ‘manifestations of deeper human impulses’.  He thus began to prioritise the attainment of psychological balance over political activism – and believed this balance could best be achieved through music making.

It was perhaps his faith in the social benefits of music more than any other factor that led Tippett to serve a prison sentence for his pacifist beliefs during World War Two. Upon registering as a conscientious objector, the composer was instructed to undertake manual labour work. He refused this ‘because of his conviction that music was the field in which he could best serve the community’.

Therefore in 1943 he was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. Years later when Tippett was being awarded a CBE his mother, who as a Suffragette had also undergone a brief period of incarceration, is reported to have said that her son’s imprisonment was the proudest she had ever been of him.

Around this time Tippett was completing his first mature works as a composer. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra of 1939 is the work of a man assuredly speaking in his own musical voice. Showing off a romantic and melodic style, the work features Tippett’s distinctive quirky rhythms and dashing string writing. But before serving his sentence Tippett finished what is considered to be his first major work. Started just two days after the outbreak of the Second World War, the oratorio A Child of Our Time was written at great speed in fear that the war would prevent its completion.

Inspiration for the oratorio’s subject matter was found in the Kristallnacht (‘Night of the Broken Glass’) pogrom against Jews throughout Germany. Tippett created a dramatic and narrative structure informed by Baroque models. The composer was especially fascinated by the tripartite structure of Handel’s Messiah in which the first part is preparation and prophecy, the second presents the substance of the story, and the third is a meditation on the events previously depicted.

He wanted to combine this with the more unifying form of Bach’s Lutheran Passions which are structured around narrational recitatives, descriptive choruses, contemplative arias, and congregational hymns. However, wishing to express the turmoil of the mid-20th century, Tippett struggled to find a unifying music that could be used in place of the congregational hymn.

A moment of inspiration was found when listening to a performance of black American spirituals on the radio. He realised that in Europe, and perhaps beyond, these would hold no ‘expressional barriers’. A Child of Our Time uses five spirituals which subvert the Lutheran form by transforming these moments of congregation into moments of climax.

Tippett’s use of these spirituals have led some to argue that Tippett was as a cultural appropriator; a white man making use of songs composed out of black suffering. But his interest in race relations, expressed particularly in later operas The Knot Garden and The Ice Break, suggests he was choosing music which he felt expressed a deep humanity and exposed the troubles of the age beyond the war in Europe.

A Child of Our Time opens with the declamation ‘The world turns on its dark side. It is winter,’ sung by the choir over chromatically shifting harmonies which forge the uneasy landscape upon which the drama will unfold. The disquiet of this opening gives way to a terrifying depiction of the violence of war and is best illustrated by the chorus ‘The Terror’. The words ‘Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!’ are stabbed out across the choir over frantically rushing string lines.

Despite the darkness of the subject, Tippett insists upon humanity’s ability to find light. Before the final chorus a series of soloists sing:

I would know my shadow and my light,
So shall I at last be whole.
Then courage, brother, dare the grave passage.
Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope.
The moving waters renew the earth.
It is spring.

One by one each of the four-part choir joins in, before a final hope-filled spiritual ends the work. A Child of our Time uses musical form from ‘high’ art, and an element that would typically be considered ‘low’ art to articulate the struggles of uniting divided selves and divided communities. Beyond this, the work has a strong message that it is everyone’s responsibility to engage with and highlight the oppression or degradation of peoples, even when it is the suffering of people of a different race, gender or creed to our own.

Much of Tippett’s concern with the uniting of divided elements came from an interest in psychology which had been deepening since his student days. In particular Tippett was an admirer of Carl Jung and underwent analysis and self-analysis in the late 1930s. In Jungian psychology there is a theory called ‘the opposites’ which Frieda Fordham explains:

The greater tension between the pairs of opposites the greater the energy; without opposition there is no manifest energy […] The opposites have a regulating function […] and when one extreme is reached libido passes over into its opposite.

In essence Jung’s theory is that we all consist of opposites but it is only when these opposites interact and unite that energy and positivity is created. It is in this theory that we find the root of Tippett’s desire to unite divided elements. If fear of the unknown ‘other’ or ‘opposite’ generates divisions in society then it is only by interacting and ultimately uniting with the other that this fear, and the divisions it creates, can be overcome.

In the late 2010s, where political developments have thrown into sharp relief the divisions in society, and in particular the scepticism over the progress of globalisation, Tippett’s message would be to embrace the extraordinary outcomes that can only be achieved when people are united. A Child of our Time set in motion themes and techniques that, in different combinations and guises, would provide the bedrock for all of Tippett’s work as a composer.


Tippett wrote his own libretto for each of his operas, at times using source material as diverse as myth, literature, and soap opera. For The Knot Garden and The Ice Break he worked in entirely fictionalised worlds. Not only are these operas deeply engaged in their own time but viewed by a contemporary audience they are often disturbingly prescient for the twenty-first century.

The principle idea of The Knot Garden was to present a series of characters each with equal importance. The seven characters shift between established relationships into new pairings of twos or threes. If this opera were written today it would almost certainly be criticised for excessive political correctness – Tippett gave equal voice to all of contemporary society and the libretto is explicit that the cast includes straight, gay (or seemingly bi-sexual), white, black, latino, and disabled and disfigured characters.

In the mid-1960s Tippett was highlighting issues of diversity which are still in the process of becoming part of mainstream thought. He took the ideas of The Knot Garden further in 1977’s The Ice Break which is about ‘contemporary difficulties of communication at various levels’ and in particular deals with reconciling the individual from the stereotype.

During the short introduction, brass chords – which encapsulate the sense of ice breaking – dramatically crescendo out of a texture of low strings line. The drama commences in an airport lounge, and after a white character attacks a black Olympian, a race riot takes place. The stage is flooded with a mass chorus. The characters, even those once friends, merge into their respective mobs of black and white.

The music is always cold with the crescendoing brass chords a constant reminder of the fragility of the drama’s landscape. The opera raises many issues, but while its ending hints at Tippett’s theme of uniting opposites, it remains distinctly ‘answerless’. The libretto finishes with a quote from Goethe:

Yet you will always be brought forth again […] and likewise be maimed, wounded afresh, from within or without.   

While Tippett’s usual dark/light dialectic exists it is for the first time not from the point of view of hope. Like the image of the ice breaking, all human relations are rebuilt only to be destroyed again.

Of all the ideas and problems Tippett’s music deals with, those raised in The Ice Break are sadly still most relevant, as events such as the far-right rally in Charlottesville show. For that reason, not to mention its guaranteed casting for black singers, it is dispiriting that it took 38 years for its one-off 2015 revival in Birmingham.


Tippett died on January 8th 1998 at the age of 93. Through his career flowered four symphonies, five string quartets, five operas, and numerous other chamber, orchestral, and vocal pieces. And yet his music never had an entirely comfortable place in British culture. He once said that when he made a dramatic change his style with his second opera King Priam it was met with pleas by critics for him to return to his previous melodic style, which they had then chastised for being old fashioned.

His music raises many troublesome questions but the answer is almost certainly that unity is always the only way forward. The constant message throughout his work is that darkness and opposition can only be conquered by uniting them with brightness and progression. To recall a refrain from A Child of our Time, ‘I shall know my shadow from my light, so shall I at last be whole’.

In the world of radical and reactionary politics and a time when globalisation is met with nationalism Tippett’s message, humble as it may be, is more important than ever. In the words of the composer himself, ‘music is a performance and needs an audience’. But are we prepared to listen?

Will Frampton is a composer, conductor, and writer on music. They are currently undertaking a PhD in composition at the University of Manchester. Will’s works, often noted for their expressive and lyrical quality, are performed regularly including by ensembles such as the orchestra of Opera North, Allegri Quartet, Ligeti Quartet, and Berkeley Ensemble. For more info please visit

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In Present Time

Russian icon of the Holy Wisdom of God, 17th century. Source from Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Time is the canvas on which music is written. A composer must decide how to use its space, and how to shape its perception – how to make it rush forward, slow it down, or suspend it completely.

A composer might also be interested in a larger sense of time. The age in which they live, the baggage of its past, its hopes and fears for the future.

And some composers are concerned with the nature of time itself. It seemed an appropriate coincidence that I discovered Sofia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto In Tempus Praesens (‘In The Present Time’) around the recent New Year, when this topic is given extra symbolic significance.

I was drawn in by the compelling mysteriousness of the music. But its title also intrigued me. If this work is about the present time, why is it written in Latin, a language of antiquity?

In her programme note, Gubaidulina offers some clues to her thinking.

In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future. And only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience lasting present time.

We can understand that the ‘present’ here is not simply chronological, but a special kind of consciousness – of being present. Gubaidulina is well known for her works on religious and spiritual themes. Born in 1931 in the Soviet Tartar Republic, she developed an interest in religion at a very young age, at a time when Soviet Union policy was officially atheist.

Though a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Gubaidulina is also the granddaughter of a Muslim Mullah, and Ivana Medić has noted an ‘idiosyncratic pantheistic synthesis’ of diverse religious influences in her output.

Her first violin concerto, Offertorium, helped to establish her name in the West in the 1980s. It took as its starting point the theme from Bach’s Musical Offering. And it is Bach too that underpins In Tempus Praesens, completed in 2007.

A documentary film about the composition, Sofia – Biography Of A Violin Concerto, gives insight into her craft, and her personality. Filmed in her mid-seventies, Gubaidulina has a certain grandmotherly kindliness, but her conviction in her methods is undisguised. She explains the importance of using both intellect and intuition. We see a plan for the piece’s structure, annotated with numbers taken from an analysis of Bach’s final chorale, combined with the Lucas sequence – a version of the Fibonacci sequence that is found in various guises throughout nature.

That there is mathematics underpinning the structure of In Tempus Praesens is not something a listener would notice – it is more the foundation to its architecture. But for a composer of such avowed spirituality, this esoteric method comes across as an act of faith in itself, like a divination tool. And the choice of Bach’s final chorale, written shortly before his death, is surely charged with an extra symbolism too – as a memento mori. 

We can also see a concern with the passing of time by looking at her orchestra. There are three Wagner tubas – a rare relic of the nineteenth century – and a harpsichord, emblematic of the Baroque. Then in the large percussion section looms an ancient presence: an immense gong, which marks out key points in the work with an earth-shattering roar.

But perhaps the masterstroke of her scoring is in a surprising absence. The violins – normally the orchestra’s largest cohort – have vanished completely. Both literally and sonically, the soloist stands apart.

The clues to this peculiar arrangement can be found in another coincidence, one with particular significance for the composer. Gubaidulina was commissioned to compose the concerto for the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and she was struck by the shared root in their first names – Sophia, the Greek for ‘wisdom’.

The concept of Sophia as ‘Holy Wisdom’ has a long and complex history in Eastern Orthodox traditions, running right back through early Gnosticism to the Old Testament. In Russian iconography, Sophia is sometimes shown as an angel with wings, while other depictions illustrate a passage in the book of Proverbs: ‘wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars’.

Statue of Sophia, in Sofia, Bulgaria. The owl on her arm represents wisdom. Cropped from source by Mont-Joli, shared under Creative Commons License.

Drawing on this shared heritage embedded in their names, Gubaidulina decided to represent divine wisdom through the violin, its silvery and often mournful voice set against a larger ensemble – a society, perhaps – in which she is notably absent.

Part of my fascination with this score is how the orchestra is used in small pockets of colour, casting the solo line in strange shadows, and moments of visionary intensity. But then in the central section of the piece, this changes with frighteningly violent effect. The orchestra comes together and relentlessly pounds out a savage rhythmic figure, while the violin writhes and struggles against it.

In the documentary, an interviewer asks Gubaidulina about this passage. She explains that Sophia ‘appears in our reality with risks’, and that this episode is inspired by the fact that some philosophers have understood her as a whore, and someone who must be punished. In her programme note, she calls it a ‘ritual sacrifice’.

Besides a whore, Sophia has also been interpreted at various times as a bride, or a consort. If she carries a sexual aspect, then Gubaidulina seems to be revealing the danger attached to that in any culture that is built upon structures of male power – even a spiritual culture. This brutality can be heard both as an assault on divine wisdom by a savage society, but also as a reflection of male hostility to female sexual freedom.

Sophia’s sexual potential stands in obvious contrast to the more familiar embodiment of divine womanhood in Christianity – the Virgin Mary. But it is interesting how Sophia now flourishes in obscure corners of the internet, a perhaps more relatable icon who appeals to many with spiritual or even New Age interests. Among the more thoughtful blogs on the topic, Cynthia Avens makes the case that Sophia offers a better model of the Christian divine feminine, by expressing ‘the full range of her creative energies’, including sexual passion.

Sofia Gubaidulina in 1981, by Dmitri N. Smirnov. Cropped, shared under Creative Commons.

Gubaidulina appears in the West with a slightly exotic aura, a figure who not only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, but from a seemingly more spiritual world too. In an interview for her 80th birthday in 2011, she expressed dismay at the secularity of modern life: ‘people are becoming one-dimensional, since we are losing religion. This lost spirituality is dangerous for art.’

It’s fair to say these sorts of sentiments are not to everyone’s taste. But in the case of In Tempus Praesens, there is perhaps a more timely relevance that is worth exploring, one that lies in another chance connection. In 2007, the same year that this work was premiered, Apple launched the first model of the iPhone.

In the decade since, smartphone technology and social media have transformed our consciousness in ways we are still struggling to come to terms with. The addictive stimulation of constant connectivity has led many – even tech leaders themselves – to express unease about diminished concentration spans, feelings of anxiety, and disrupted sleeping patterns.

As something of a Twitter addict, I often find my attention divided between laptop, phone, and the TV or radio. The stream of updates and notifications can give a colour and pace to the experience of time, but leaves it with a shallower depth too. It is hard to know where to draw a line over the opportunities this technology gives us, and how best to maintain some mental perspective.

So when Gubaidulina said that in art we can experience a ‘lasting present time’, she was perhaps being unintentionally prophetic. In a world of connectivity exhaustion, it may be that the most valuable currency a composer can trade in is the experience of time itself.

To that end, I’ve recently been challenging myself to take time out to listen more deeply to music, without distractions. For a rich and complex work like In Tempus Praesens, the rewards are inarguable.

In the documentary, Guabidulina notes an important passage in the transition to the final episode of the piece. Having cruelly assaulted the violin in ritual sacrifice, the orchestra now unites with it, and all instruments come together to meet at a single pitch.

This unity, she explains, is a metaphor for Sophia herself. And perhaps in that brief moment of oneness there is a model for a better kind of listening too. As the score moves towards its triumphant close, the orchestra descends to a low growl while the violin soars to a transcendent high, fading to silence among an ethereal tinkling of chimes.

This strange and fascinating work seems to be reminding us of something important – that our attention is a powerful force.  If we dedicate it to music’s singular purpose, we can find our consciousness widened to new heights and depths. We can leave the experience of ordinary life, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of lasting present time.

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Tippett: A Composer In Love

Michael Tippett (right) with Wilf Franks in Spain in 1933. Reproduced here by kind permission of Caroline Ayerst.

       By Danyel Gilgan

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is to revive a Michael Tippett work which has not been performed for over 70 years. His Symphony in B-flat of 1933-4 will provide classical music lovers with a valuable insight into a rich but largely overlooked period of Tippett’s output. At this time in the composer’s life, his work was deeply influenced by an intense experience of falling in love.

Tippett’s two following compositions, the Robin Hood folk opera (1934) and String Quartet No.1 (1935), are characteristically diverse in nature but, in their own way, both give us great insight into the mind of this fascinating composer.

The former was written for, and performed by, a Yorkshire mining community that Tippett and other volunteers came to help as they struggled to survive during the Great Depression. The very nature of this work is a testament to the composer’s humanitarian instincts and to the compassionate outlook of a man who believed that music could make a positive contribution to our wider social consciousness.

The String Quartet No.1 is of an altogether different nature. Credited with being the piece in which the composer finally found his own unique musical idiom, the work is dedicated to Wilfred Franks, who Tippett worked alongside in Yorkshire. In his 1991 autobiography Tippett wrote the following:

Meeting with Wilf was the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love: and I am quite convinced it was a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical voice [….] all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my first string quartet, an unbroken span of lyrical music in which all four instruments sing ardently from start to finish.

This extraordinary statement begs the inevitable question: who was Wilf Franks? And what was it that the composer found so inspiring about a man who has up until now remained an enigma to the many music scholars and academics who have written about Sir Michael?

At this point, I must declare an interest. Wilf was my maternal grandfather. I have spent much of the last four years writing a biography about this dear relative, whose young life was something of a mystery even to his close family.

In a recent email, Meirion Bowen (Tippett’s biographer and partner in later life) explained to me something of the attraction.

Wilf certainly made a deep impact on Michael, for he seemed to represent a ‘free’ individual, unencumbered by social convention, standard politics and religion. Michael thought this quite wonderful. It was the exact opposite of what Michael himself had experienced as a child of middle class parents.

The notion of class is interesting in the context of Wilf and Michael’s friendship, but it has often been misrepresented. One writer recently failed to fully understand the relationship, in saying that ‘part of Franks’ attraction […] was his working-class ordinariness’.

It is true that Wilf came from a family of twelve who lived in a small terraced house in North London. But despite having little money, they were certainly a cultured family – Wilf’s older brother studied at the Royal College of Music and his father was an orchestral violinist. More misleading, though, is the suggestion that Wilf was somehow ‘ordinary’.

The truth is that my grandfather would be far better described as wildly eccentric. His alternative view of life was in part informed by his inter-war association with an interesting collective of outdoor experimentalists called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. The Kindred were a camping and hiking group who had broken away from the Scout movement. Influenced by Native American spirituality, they promoted healthy living and craft skills, and sought to build a society free from war or poverty. Many years later, Tippett referred to them as ‘a most extraordinary movement’.

It was through the Kindred that Wilf met a well-connected English eccentric called Rolf Gardiner. He was a pioneer of organic farming, a passionate advocate of traditional folk dance and a leader of Anglo-German youth gatherings. In his late teens, Wilf went to live and work at Gardiner’s Gore Farm Estate in Dorset, where, along with planting trees and constructing barns, the two men would go for naked early morning runs across Cranborne Chase.

Having worked for eighteen months at Gore Farm, Wilf’s life took an extraordinary turn. Gardiner’s close friend Carl Heinrich Becker was minister for culture and education in the Prussian Government, and he arranged for Wilf to study at the Weimar Bauhochschule, an offshoot of the famous Bauhaus design school. My grandfather, who had previously earned a living as a London street artist, suddenly found himself mixing with members of the avant-garde in Weimar Germany. It was here that he first discovered the Marxist politics that he and Tippett would later espouse.

On his return to England, Wilf became involved with the Yorkshire miners who had lost their jobs when the local iron-stone mines closed. Wilf became part of the close-knit mining community, staying in the village of Boosbeck for extended periods as he started a furniture making scheme with a group of locals.

Tippett came to Yorkshire with Francesca Allinson, a dear friend and the only woman with whom he contemplated marriage. He produced musical productions with the miners, including a socialist interpretation of the Robin Hood story. It was here, amongst the hardship and poverty of depression-era Yorkshire that Wilf’s relationship with Michael Tippett blossomed.

A wood carving made by Wilf in 1932, the year he met Tippett. Image reproduced by kind permission of Jessica Anderson.

In 1933, Tippett and his great friend David Ayerst went travelling with Wilf around France and Spain, and it was surely Wilf’s liberating influence which nearly got the young men arrested by a French Gendarme during an impromptu episode of skinny-dipping near the Spanish border.

Tippett’s contemporary letters reveal a collaborative, creative relationship, but one which Wilf was reluctant to commit to. As Tippett wrote in 1937:

It is what he has asked for all the time – for me to turn my eyes elsewhere that he may be able to come closer himself [… ] This time he spends an hour or so with me here on the Blake I am going to set, and with a surer instinct for poetry than mine tells me where to get off. 

At times, Michael’s frustration at Wilf’s hesitancy boiled over into bitter arguments. No doubt, in these dark moments of frustration, Tippett found solace by escaping into an alternative world of musical composition:

I’ve retired into my musical shell again for the moment – also Wilf has become a pivot point for me and it’s got its touch of heartbreak [… ] I don’t like him being away, because I torture myself with difficulties and moralities [… ] the Wilf mood is only in spasms – I’m at work again at music and the season’s concerts – BBC don’t want the Symphony [in B-flat]. 

The two men campaigned for peace through international socialism and worked together on numerous creative projects including a ‘Symphony of Youth’ at Brockwell Park in South London. In 1936, it was Tippett who bailed Wilf out after he was arrested while helping to block Oswald Moseley’s fascist Blackshirts from marching through Jewish East London during the so-called ‘Battle Of Cable Street’. Both men would later be imprisoned as conscientious objectors during the Second World War.

A mural depicting The Battle Of Cable Street in Shadwell, East London. Picture by astonishme, shared under Creative Commons.

The intense and tempestuous six-year relationship between the two men ended in complete heart-break for the composer when Wilf fell in love with Meg Masters, a young female dance partner. Tippett wrote the following:

One evening in 1938, I reached the café ahead of him and sat brooding on the section I had reached in the slow movement of my double concerto. When Wilf arrived he said, “I have decided to marry this girl”. I went completely cold […] I returned to Oxted and had such violent dreams, it was as if a whole dam had opened.

The slow movement of the Concerto For Double String Orchestra was perhaps the last direct musical link to the story. It is difficult to read Tippett’s description of the split without feeling something of his pain, especially as he endured further heartbreak when his dear friend Francesca Allinson committed suicide in 1945. But Wilf’s relationship with Meg also ended sadly, though this time it seems that Wilf was left nursing a broken heart.

Tippett sought Wilf out in the mid-1980s, and the two men were reunited 46 years after the split. ‘Wilf Franks had walked out of Michael’s life in 1938, but not out of his dreams’, Tippett’s lifelong friend David Ayerst said. ‘The old magic was still there but no longer assertive or possessive’.

The friendship was rekindled and the two men met up on numerous occasions in old age. The youthful troubles, though, were never far away, and the relationship remained volatile.

We became deeply embroiled in a political argument: Marxism had remained for Wilf a vivid reality. Seeing him again after forty years or so, I went emotionally into a flat spin, but Bill [Meirion Bowen] helped me out of it.

One reason why this profound love affair has not featured more prominently in the Tippett story is a lack of surviving letters between the two men. None were thought to exist, but I recently found a hand-written note the composer sent to my grandparents in his final years. Tippett’s handwriting was now frail and his eyesight fading. This moving letter is likely one of the last he wrote and it reveals that the emotional confusion from the youthful days was still alive.

Dear Wilf and Daphne, to ring you both, then talk only to Wilf, seems to me now, like a confused attempt, by me anyhow, to hold something from the past. Never works. So now, love to you both & good luck to your next generation. For my part, however, I peer into the future. Michael.

Letter shared with the kind permission of Wilf’s daughter, Helen Busby.

As we gather to hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra illuminate the beginning of this period in Sir Michael’s work, it is worth remembering the curious love story which dominated this part of the composer’s life, a time that Tippett himself referred to as ‘the Wilf period.’

With thanks Caroline Ayerst for sharing material relating to her father, Malcolm Chase for his research into the East Cleveland Work Camps, and Meirion Bowen for reviewing this article prior to publication. The author also thanks the Will Trustees of the Tippett Estate for permission to quote from the letters and writings of Michael Tippett.

• The Symphony in B-flat will be performed in Glasgow by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on 1st February 2018 (tickets here). 

• Tippett’s String Quartet No1. will be performed in Robin Hood’s Bay, as part of the North Yorkshire Moors Chamber Music Festival, on 20th August 2018 (tickets here).

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 four years researching the life of his late grandfather, Wilf Franks, whose alternative view of life had a profound effect on Michael Tippett. His research informs a recently-completed book which is a work of biographical fiction entitled ‘Wilfred Franks – The Life Before’ for which he is now seeking a publisher.

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The Bee’s Madrigal

Illustration to The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

It’s fair to say that the role of the music theorist is not one overly celebrated in history. It was deep in a book that I first came across the name of Charles Butler, author of The Principles Of Musik, a well regarded treatise in 17th-century England. My curiosity about him was piqued by two factors: his array of interests outside music, most unusually in bee-keeping, and the fact that he spent the largest part of his life in and around the town where I was born – Basingstoke.

Butler was a clergyman and sometime school-master by profession, and the places where he worked can still be seen today. But besides his religious duties, he was also a writer of immense erudition. As a young man he spent several years studying in Oxford, where he gained a Master of Arts degree. University records show he came from Buckinghamshire, and his listed age suggests he was born around 1560.

Whatever drew him south to Hampshire, in 1593 Butler became the rector at Nately Scures, a parish to the east of Basingstoke. Its tiny Norman church of St. Swithun is a real gem that is delightfully well preserved, and was already four centuries old when Butler arrived.

St. Swithun’s church in Nately Scures.

That Butler was interested in more than his parish role is shown by the publication of his first book around this time – a Latin translation of a work on the teachings of Petrus Ramus. Ramus was a French humanist and Protestant convert who had been killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, but his scholastic ideas on rhetoric and logic became very influential after his death.

It must have been encouraging that, after a slow start, Butler’s book seems to have sold very well. Two years after his appointment to Nately, he also took on a position teaching local boys at the Holy Ghost School in Basingstoke. You can find the ruins of the Holy Ghost Chapel in a cemetery behind the railway station, now incongruously framed by the office blocks and apartment buildings of the town centre to the south.

The ruins of the 13th-century Holy Ghost Chapel, to which Butler’s school was attached, are on the left. On the right is what remains of the 16th-century Chapel Of The Holy Trinity.

But in 1600 Butler resigned both roles to become vicar at Wootton St. Lawrence, a small village up in the downs to the west of town. It was here, tucked far away from any major centre of learning, that he lived and worked for the remaining 47 years of his life, and wrote both his music treatise and his bee-keeping study, The Feminine Monarchie.

Although we principally think of music as an art form today, Penelope Gouk has shown that in the intellectual life of 17th-century England, music could mediate between the understanding of mathematics, the sciences and arts, and what is loosely termed ‘natural magic’ – the demonstration of marvellous natural effects.

So at this time, it would have been entirely natural for an educated man like Butler to discourse on music alongside rhetoric, logic, classical texts and theology. What makes him stand out is that he used patient observation to codify the highly practical craft of bee-keeping. And The Feminine Monarchie is what he is chiefly remembered for today.

But it is through Butler’s role as a clergyman that we can perhaps best understand his fascination with bees and music. His writing on both topics is grounded in a strong sense of religious morality. It is not hard to see how a bee colony and a musical composition can both serve as models for a good society – each are made of parts that work together in harmony. Furthermore, in the hierarchy of the hive, the geometry of the honey-comb, and the mathematical ratios of consonant intervals, bees and music can reveal a divine order in nature.

The church in Wootton St. Lawrence.

Butler was certainly not shy about his admiration for these insects. A frontispiece illustration to The Feminine Monarchie shows a honeycomb with the motto Solertia et Labore (skill and industry). In the preface, he writes:

The worke and fruit of the little Bee is so great and wonderfull, so comely for order and beauty, so excellent for Art and wisdome, & so full of pleasure and profit; that the contemplation thereof may well beseeme an ingenious nature.

The book also bears a dedicatory poem by George Wither. Wither was a prolific writer and satirist who led a colourful life, including imprisonment for libel. He also belonged to the same Wither family who owned the Manydown estate in Butler’s parish of Wootton. As it happens, the ancient Manydown Manor would later be frequented by Hampshire’s much more famous literary figure, Jane Austen.

Manydown Manor in 1833, by George Frederick Prosser. Shared under Creative Commons.

However, The Feminine Monarchie does contain one explicit connection to music. Leafing through the pages of a bee-keeping manual today, you would probably not expect to come across four-part choral notation. But this is exactly what Butler gives us. Melissomelos, or The Bee’s Madrigal, is an endearingly eccentric composition, and not only because its lyrics extoll the virtues of bees, in characteristically erudite terms – it also includes a musical imitation of a real sound that a queen bee makes, known as ‘piping’. I suppose you might call it ento-musicology.

The opening verse proceeds as follows:

As of all states the Monarchie is best,
So of all Monarchies that Feminine,
Of famous Amazons excels the rest,
That on this earthie Sphaere haue euer bin,
Whose little hearts in weaker sex (so great a field)
No powers of the mightest Males can make to yield:
They liuing aye, most sober and most chaste,
Their paine-got goods in pleasure scorne to waste.

Besides The Feminine Monarchie, Butler also authored a book on the arguments relating to marriage between cousins – seemingly prompted by his own son William marrying a cousin in 1624. An English Grammar followed in 1633, and here Butler used a new system of orthography, of his own devising. He developed this idea further in the Principles Of Musik, published when he was an impressive 76 years old.

To modern eyes, this new orthography takes some adjustment. But that Butler should even take this step is a testament to his extraordinarily energetic mind. It is also an insight into a world of 17th-century publishing where the written language itself was still being contested, and in which the printer’s craft had become remarkably sophisticated. The Principles features reams of italicised Latin, occasional Greek and even Hebrew lettering, not to mention the many musical examples and a number of diagrams, such as the ‘dial-song’ below.

A ‘dial-song’ illustration from The Principles Of Musik. Butler’s orthography can be seen in features such as the struck-through ‘d’ for ‘th’.

This treatise covers a variety of topics such as the modes, notation, harmony and counterpoint, all the while drawing on a vast range of sources – classical, biblical, and contemporary. But the final part of the book takes a surprising step further than instruction. It makes a defence of music itself.

It is likely that Butler was moved to do this as a reaction to the rising tide of English Puritanism at the time, and its growing sentiment against any church music other than simple Psalm tunes sung by the congregation. That Butler also takes to defending ‘civil’ (secular) music suggests he may have feared that music itself was potentially under threat.

In a vicar’s eyes the primary use of music was, of course, to be in praise of God. But this man who so admired the industry of the bee still understood that a life of toil needed its comforts, and secular music was one of them:

Nature seemeth to bestow Musik upon us as a favour, for the easier enduring of our labours. This use did that Husbandman make of his Singing, at his woork abroad in the field […] and the Goodwife at home about hir huswifri. 

Butler notes the objection that civil music is a vanity, but counters that in any case, all human endeavours are vanities – and it is up to us to raise our children in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord’. Ever the classicist, he argues that to wholly prohibit music would be like ‘the angri Lacedaemonian who commanded the Vines of his Countri to bee grubbed up, becaus soom woolde be drunk with the fruit thereof’.

In his epilogue, Butler concludes that ‘all things rightly weighed, there is no sufficient cause, that Wee shoulde deprive our selvs of these permitted Comforts’, so long as we conduct ourselves ‘Soberly, Righteously, and Holily’. In essence, he adopted a position that Christian virtues can ensure that music does not lead us into sin.

The interior of St. Lawrence’s church.

In a 1972 Master’s thesis, John Derek Shute groups Butler alongside other literary clergyman of the 17th century, such as George Herbert and Robert Herrick. But in his careful observation of bees, Butler was also arguably an example of a parson-naturalist: those who saw the study of nature as a means of being closer to God. As George Wither put it in his poem for The Feminine Monarchie:

And Praise deserves this Author; who hath chose
So well his Times of Leisure to dispose;
And in that Recreation to delight,
Which honour God, and us advantage might […]
What Recreation better can befit
Our grave Divines; than (when the Holy writ
Is laid aside) in Gods great booke of Creatures
To reade his Wisdome, and their usefull Natures?

What’s more, Butler was in fact a direct ancestor of a celebrated parson-naturalist. Gilbert White, author of The Natural History And Antiquities Of Selborne, was the great-grandson of Butler’s daughter Elizabeth, and in his youth he attended the Holy Ghost School.

The third edition of The Feminine Monarchie was dedicated to the Queen Consort Henrietta, wife of Charles I. But as Charles’ troubled reign descended into Civil War, battles raged uncomfortably close to home, at Alresford and Basing House. At one point Parliamentarian troops were even stationed at Manydown.

The Basingstoke area as shown in a 1646 map of Hampshire by Joan Blaeu.

Butler died a very old man in 1647, and in those war-torn final years he might have thought fondly of the feminine monarch who reigned more peacefully through his Oxford days and the first four decades of his life: Elizabeth I.

Manydown Manor was sadly pulled down in the 1960s, but Butler’s church at Wootton St. Lawrence still stands, and I would recommend that anyone in the area takes the time to visit. Unlike Nately Scures, which suffers from the roar of a main road, Wootton has retained the serenity of the downs, and this beautiful building has an atmosphere of wonderful stillness as soon as you step through the doorway. A lovely stained glass window was put in place in honour of Butler after the coronation of Elizabeth II. At the dedication service in 1954, an Oxford choir came to sing The Bee’s Madrigal.

Charles Butler’s stained glass window, St. Lawrence’s church.

Butler is a mere footnote in music history. He is an inspirational figure for his curiosity and intellect, but I think we can also be inspired by his defence of music’s value against religious fundamentalism. Because in Britain today, music education is vulnerable to an economic fundamentalism – a political culture that places the highest esteem around the creation of profit. Its sham morality is ‘competitiveness’, through which the value of the arts and the natural world are often relegated to secondary importance.

This same search for endless economic growth has helped to create the most dangerous problem of our age – the unfolding climate crisis – and has even contributed to a worrying decline in populations of Butler’s beloved bees, a key pollinating species. So in a sense, we should all be amateur naturalists. We should all concern ourselves with how our lives interact with the natural systems upon which we depend.

Furthermore, any vision for a better future will also find an important place for music. Because to learn music – whether through the Western notated system or any other tradition – enriches our lives immeasurably. Its performance gives comfort, strengthens relationships, and allows us to communicate deep human feeling. And like a kind of ‘natural magic’, it can be summoned from the very air itself.

So while you won’t find many statues to music theorists, in a church window in the tiny village of Wootton, you can see the image of an obscure scholar who is worth remembering. You don’t need to share Charles Butler’s religious convictions, nor his fascination with bees, to appreciate the value of many parts working together in harmony.

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