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A ‘Peculiar Spiritual Make-Up’

Literature on the life and music of Edmund Rubbra is not vast. Spiritual Dimensions in the Music of Edmund Rubbra, a new book by Lucinda Cradduck, offers an analysis of the composer’s life and works through the lens of his various spiritual interests. At 250 pages plus references, it’s considerably more approachable than Ralph Scott Grover’s exhaustive 1993 survey of his output, and offers a suitable companion to Leo Black’s 2008 study of his eleven symphonies.

The Wilfrid Mellers remark that Rubbra was a man endowed with a ‘peculiar spiritual make-up’ often serves as an introduction to his music. But spirituality is a dangerously nebulous concept, liable to become a fuzzy stand-in, a catch-all for the ineffable. It’s to Cradduck’s credit that she foregrounds it here, and unpicks the various strands of spiritual influence in Rubbra’s life with care and erudition. It becomes clear that Rubbra was a widely-read and curious man who took spiritual ideas seriously, and as listeners of his music, so should we. 

She draws out a nuanced picture of Rubbra’s place in 20th-century British musical life, beginning with the early, Theosophy-infused influence of Cyril Scott and Holst and his work with progressive dance and theatre groups. His creative responses to Asian musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan and the dancer Madame Menaka complemented an intellectual engagement with Eastern spiritual traditions.

She identifies aspects of nature mysticism too – Rubbra lived for decades in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and associated with artists and thinkers whose worldviews were shaped by Medievalism and the Arts and Crafts movement. The analysis of the bewitching Canto from the sixth symphony is particularly compelling here, as is her nuanced answer to the question of Rubbra’s place in the English ‘Pastoral’ tradition, something often lazily equated with nostalgia in the wake of industrialisation and war, but which, in Rubbra’s case, arguably manifests itself more as a progressive ideal for a humane and spiritually fulfilling existence.

What emerges is that Rubbra was as likely to be influenced by what he read and saw as the music he heard. He fed his mind on poetry and novels, and it was a library book that first introduced him to the esoteric Theosophy movement as a teenager. The colours and moods of Italian religious art inspired him, as did the idiosyncratic evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin. He adored the tranquility of Abbeys, and despite his somewhat chaotic love life, considered joining a lay order. While he was eventually received into the Catholic Church, he retained a lifelong interest in Buddhism – and even had to defend himself for it, when it was made known to a church music society who had commissioned him. 

Cradduck’s use of musical analysis is extensive, with plenty of scored examples. I found it most enlightening when drawing on the organic qualities of his music – how it expresses the ideas of divine interconnectedness, the fusing of opposites, and the innate expressive powers of certain intervals. Her identification of ‘golden sections’ and numerical sequences, on the other hand, I found more speculative than convincing, and arithmetic always makes for heavy reading. But overall, this book is an admirably serious attempt at grappling with the manifestation of spiritual ideas as dots on the page, something which is no easy task. That it includes some of his unpublished, unrecorded and unfinished works is particularly valuable context for the Rubbra fan.

Cradduck avoids the temptation to bang the drum for Rubbra as an unjustly neglected composer – her approach throughout is to illuminate the specifics of his life and works, something which I feel actually makes the case for his music more powerfully than direct pleading ever could. Nonetheless, her final summary draws comparisons to the popular, spiritually-influenced composers James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener, and so the question of why Rubbra’s music gets comparatively few performances still hangs unsaid in the air.

Also implicit in this book is another absence – that of a true biography of Rubbra aimed at the average reader. Oliver Soden’s recent book on Tippett and Leah Broad’s brand new Quartet have shown publishers turning to 20th-century British composers as ripe material for the mass-market biography, in both cases to critical acclaim. Could Rubbra one day receive similar treatment? While Cradduck’s valuable study succeeds on its own terms, it also suggests a life eventful enough, and connected to enough colourful personalities and intellectual movements, to make a worthy addition to this genre.

Spiritual Dimensions in the Music of Edmund Rubbra is available from Routledge.

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Songs on Diagon Alley: The Story of Travis & Emery

It’s a short but steep set of stairs down to the basement. I cling to the handrail as I descend, turning a tight angle to duck under the low doorway. The space inside is as narrow as the shop floor above, but extends considerably further. It’s as equally stacked high with stock, and space is tight.

It’s a condition acutely familiar to used book buyers like myself: cramped abundance. I’m told we will have to perch on stools. So I find a nearby shelf space for my laptop to record us, above a pile of Purcell scores.

I can’t remember when I first chanced upon Travis & Emery, a business specialising in old music books and sheet music in the heart of London’s West End. It’s a short walk from some of the capital’s prime cultural and tourist assets. The Coliseum – home (for now at least) to English National Opera – is literally around the corner.

But even for the seasoned Londoner, Travis & Emery is easy to miss. It’s part of Cecil Court, which runs between the busy Charing Cross Road and St. Martin’s Lane. One day I must have made a detour down here while killing time. After all, it’s often on the side-streets where you find the most interesting things. 

This was a fact understood by J.K. Rowling, who set the secret Wizard retail destination of Diagon Alley just off the Charing Cross Road. Today, tour guides will stand at the mouth of Cecil Court and claim this street was its inspiration. The presence of occult bookshop Watkins certainly lends credence to the theory, but its other stores showcase antique specialisms with their own kinds of magic – from old maps to editions of Alice in Wonderland. 

A blue plaque notes that the Mozarts lodged in Cecil Court in 1764. An auspicious sign, perhaps.

Your first sight of Travis & Emery might be the crates of discounted scores placed outside, but a smartly arranged window display promises greater goods within. Inside, various categories of sheet music run high up the right wall, and books about music populate the left, while an island unit is replete with further offerings. Room to manoeuvre is not ample.

Joining me in the subterranean gathering is Giles, whose aunt founded Travis & Emery in 1960, and from whom he inherited it after her death in the 1990s. Alongside him sits Charlie, a young choral conductor who’s also the shop manager.

The shop’s wooden, cupboardly charm is the sort of retail experience that’s not supposed to exist in central London anymore – tales of beloved independent businesses closing have become axiomatic in recent years. So I wanted to know how a business like this can still operate in the belly of the capitalist beast. I ask, is Cecil Court protected somehow?

Giles recalls his lease conditions. ‘I’m not allowed to sell food, run a betting shop…or run an immoral house’, he laughs. ‘It tends towards being bookshops, but because bookshops are not particularly profitable, it doesn’t always end up being bookshops’.

There’s more to Travis and Emery than immediately meets the eye. Their trade spans a wide gamut. At one end, a cheap score is picked up by a cash-strapped music student, a passing operagoer buys a biography. But at the other are the serious collectables: antiquarian music books, scores and ephemera, the rarest of which can sell for hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

‘Someone came in on Valentine’s Day looking for something for his wife, and he says she likes Benjamin Britten’, Charlie tells me. ‘I thought to myself: we have a book signed by Britten and Peter Pears. That was an instant sale of something that was two or three hundred pounds. So that’s a nice feeling.’

I ask Giles to explain how the shop came about, and he begins in an unexpected place. His grandfather, Sir Edward Travis, was the director of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, the famous Wartime codebreaking centre, and then at GCHQ. His daughter and Giles’s aunt, Valérie Travis, worked at Bletchley too before going into the book trade. 

She worked in Cecil Court for Alec Clunes – father of television actor Martin Clunes – but when she married the organist and Bach scholar Walter Emery, the name for her own business was born. ‘She had managed to get a typewriter from a U-Boat, which her husband then used to type up his musicology notes’, Giles adds.

After Valérie’s death, he inherited a business in bad shape. ‘We’d got about three years left on the fag-end of a 100-year lease. There had been water coming down…’, he gestures at the wall. The shop still had an archaic rotary telephone, and a forbiddingly inscrutable computer. It also had debt. That problem was solved by the discovery of a rare manuscript, under an old box of tissues.

Today, Travis & Emery does a lot of business online, although a print catalogue of recent acquisitions still goes out by mail. Im handed the latest edition, with Saint Cecilia on the cover. Mail orders make up about half of the trade, and during lockdown it naturally became a lifeline. But about half of these orders are international, and Britain’s exit from the EU Customs Union has added a bureaucratic burden. ‘We’ve probably lost a couple of customers that way, people who just don’t want to deal with the hassle’, Charlie says.

Giles’s own musical education didn’t extend beyond playing horn at school and college, but now most of the shop staff have music degrees. Its regular shifts are useful for those working in an all-too-precarious music industry, and a couple of jobbing actors sometimes fill in too.

Downsizing institutions are one way they acquire stock. Auctions are another, and sometimes the estate of a deceased musician will get in touch directly. If they’re well known, it can be a selling point – a note goes on the door about their scores. ‘We catalogue every interesting book that passes through the front desk, telling you about its condition, Charlie adds.

But one thing becomes clear: what you see in the shop is only the tip of the iceberg. Giles’s home is often the first port of call for acquisitions – a sort of home-counties Ellis Island for the huddled masses of music publishing, yearning to breathe free.

The personal collections that the shop acquires may also come with unexpected items. A photograph might need returning to relatives, or an embarrassing letter kept under wraps. Giles recalls a volume covered in brown newspaper with ‘Beethoven’ written down the spine. Inside was a compilation of soft pornography. To each their own Immortal Beloved, I suppose.

But for me at least, that lingering sense of history is precisely what makes second-hand books so appealing – a personal inscription, a curiously dated style. So often they seem lived in, loved, and have a story to tell.

I ask Giles and Charlie what they think about the recent news that Hal Leonard have closed seven MusicRoom outlets, leaving only the flagship store on Denmark Street. Is the state of the music market a concern for them? Might they even benefit from less competition? 

‘We thrive together as music shops’, Charlie says. But he notes a crucial difference: the bread-and-butter of those stores, such as the latest ABRSM syllabus, is the same whether you buy it in-store or online. ‘It’s not the same experience as coming here and having complete serendipity of what you might find – hundreds of years worth of sheet music’. Giles adds that theres a lot of mutual goodwill among dealers in their musical niche.

The rise of tablet scores is something they both see as a potential challenge for the 63-year-old business. I point out that while e-readers have been around for a while, the paper novel still seems to be going strong. 

‘The differentiation is the beauty and physicality’, Charlie says. ‘I think that maybe sheet music will go the way of books. Since Kindles came out, books are generally more attractive, have more interesting designs, they’ll make more of a point of what paper they’re using, there’s more collectable editions…the desire for physical objects is very much still strong.

And in his own life as a conductor, does he stay loyal to paper? ‘I only use sheet music’, he says, and smiles. ‘At this point I feel like I have to’.

You can find Travis & Emery at 17 Cecil Court, London, and visit their website.

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Of Byrd And Bard

This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd. Many musicians are celebrating this leading composer of the English Renaissance in concerts, church services, and recordings. 

Byrd’s life entirely overlapped with that of another Renaissance William – Shakespeare. Yet there is a great chasm between their posthumous reputations. Both are recognised as masters of their respective fields, and leading lights of a wider school, but only Shakespeare has become a world-famous cultural export, an ageless titan of western civilisation. Byrd, while celebrated and respected, remains more contained – a figure of his time and place.

I won’t try to argue that Byrd deserves the huge cultural profile bestowed on Shakespeare. But it is nonetheless interesting to consider what factors are at play in this discrepancy.

Principal, I think, is the fact that Shakespeare’s works are overwhelmingly secular – he is returned to again and again for his insights into our common humanity. Whereas for Byrd, it seems, sacred music is front and centre of his legacy. 

His choral works are still sung as a living part of the Cathedral tradition, and in concerts. His life story is bound up in the dangerous politics of the Reformation, within which his recusancy, and intrigues of possible Catholic messages in the music, add clandestine spice to the tale. A ‘Secret Byrd’ concert series is taking place this year, aiming to recreate some of this illicit atmosphere. The shadowy historical storytelling is both an engaging selling point for public interest, but at the same time distances him – places him as someone looking backwards to the middle ages, even while it celebrates his forward-looking music.

How can such a figure compare to Shakespeare? Music certainly formed a part of Elizabethan theatre – Byrd himself composed variations on the song ‘O Mistress Mine’ from Twelfth Night. But it took another couple of centuries of musical development before we get to the composer who is most commonly mentioned in the same breath.

Immediately after the death of Beethoven, an obituarist was making comparisons between his legacy and Shakespeare’s. Beethoven owned translations of the plays, and the Bard’s influence on him is well documented. In the two centuries since the composer’s death, this equivalence seems to have stuck. Only recently I was reading Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which includes the character of a music teacher for whom the two artists were ‘a twin constellation outshining all else’.

You might argue that the musical practices and technologies of Byrd’s time were simply not yet sufficiently developed, in range of articulation and form, to merit the comparison to a dramatist who at least had the head-start of using the stuff of everyday life: words. Music needed time to catch up, and poor Byrd was born two hundred years too early to be on a level playing field.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in this 400th anniversary year I would love for more attention to be paid to Byrd’s secular side: his glorious instrumental music and songs. In 2021 the pianist Kit Armstrong’s released a double album of early keyboard music, contrasting Byrd with his contemporary John Bull. It’s easy to dismiss this repertoire as a kind of proto-Bach – a precursor to more elegant, finely wrought counterpoint that’s better suited to a modern piano. Interesting, but ultimately worth passing over. But Armstrong’s recording makes a different case for this music. It shows how much experimentation, cleverness and joy it holds.

Take the fantasia Ut, Mi, Re. Its childish Solmization title is deceptive. Byrd is working from a simple starting principle, but out of humble beginnings he creates a fantastically unpredictable and virtuosic piece. There are moments that seem to leap forward in time, where – dare I say it – his exuberance is not a million miles from the ebullient moods and eccentricities of Beethoven himself. 

It’s well worth reading Armstrong’s own detailed notes on how he approached this recording. We are long accustomed to modern updates and experimentations with the timeless plays of Shakespeare. My wish for 2023 is that more musicians outside of the early music specialists would explore the playful side of the other William.

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Locke for Quartet

I’ve long been a fan of the consort music of Matthew Locke – composer and graffiti artist of the 17th century. Sitting chronologically between Gibbons and Purcell, his music is fascinatingly caught between two eras, and takes harmonic twists and turns in surprising and elegant ways.

So I was delighted to find that a fantasia of his was included on a new album by Ruisi Quartet, alongside music by Haydn and Oliver Leith.

I’m accustomed to hearing this music on viols and continuo, which of course has its own grainy appeal (see a recent record by Fretwork). But the greater brightness of the string quartet works beautifully here too. Perhaps more ensembles might pick up this fresh and charming music? My only complaint is that Ruisi haven’t given us more.

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Wycinanki

Wycinanki is the Polish art of paper cutting. In the words of composer Andrzej Panufnik, it’s a rustic art, consisting of ‘symmetrical designs of magical abstract beauty and naive charm’. A Google image search will provide countless examples that shows what he meant.

Panufnik titled his third string quartet Wycinanki, and it was composed for the London International String Quartet Competition and premiered in 1991, a few months before his death.

In his programme note, Panufnik wrote that this work is made up of five contrasted short studies, as a sonic equivalent to these small craft designs. But the conceptual link to Wycinanki was balanced by the needs of the competition, in which different aspects of string playing were tested, from dynamic control to rhythmic precision. And as his daughter Roxanna wrote in the notes to a recording, each quartet only had 24 hours to prepare their performance.

The resulting piece is compact – a short parade of highly contrasted movements, each operating by its own incisive logic. The final and longest of these studies is especially memorable, an Adagio sostenuto written as a continuous arch encompassing the fullest range of dynamics from pp to ff and back again. Its rich textures, clashing dissonances and yawning glissandos make it impressively poignant.

I’ve been listening on Apple Music (Brodksy Quartet) and YouTube (Tippett Quartet).

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Killing time before last night’s LSO concert (Coleridge-Taylor, Liszt, Strauss – a grand night out, very well attended and received) I found myself browsing the Barbican’s two-storey gift shop.

While the shop contained plenty of the expected – art exhibition tie-ins etc – one thing that’s impossible to miss is that the Barbican is giving us the hard sell on Brutalism. The very hard sell.

For as long as I can remember (and I was born only two years after the Barbican was officially opened in the 1980s) Brutalism has been the butt of jokes, if not head-shaking exasperation at a previous age’s folly. The ugliness, the inappropriateness of such buildings – it was axiomatic.

Not any more. We have come full circle – Brutalism is not just in again, it has proliferated a small consumer economy of its own. The estate’s distinctive concrete design adorns a host of soft wearables – tote bags, socks, even a face-mask.

Another series of items – pencils, t-shirts, water bottles – showcase the disjointed word BRUTAL in stark black and white. A table groans under glossy tomes for the aspiring connoisseur of the architectural movement, with titles like Brutal Beauty and Concretopia, some as hard-edged and hefty as the building itself.

Most impressive of all are the gifts made from the Barbican’s own raw material – its grey gold. For less than a fiver you can buy a letter from a concrete alphabet. And if you have a spare £200, you can treat your Valentine to a miniature cast concrete model of the soaring Shakespeare Tower, or its equally iconic comrade on the other side of town, the Trellick.

But as I surveyed this accumulated rubble in amazement, I noticed a somewhat sad looking display in a dimly lit corner (the Barbican, half arts centre and half nuclear bunker, is generally somewhat dim, but the main body of its gift shop is a brightly lit lure).

It was the LSO merchandise.

I write this not to draw any big conclusions, or make familiar huffs about the side-lining or under-appreciation of classical music. The Barbican is a mixed-use arts centre, besides a residential estate; it is also a place to have coffee, to work remotely, to get lost in (all too easily done) or simply to hang out. And the attendance of last night’s concert suggests it has no trouble drawing people in to hear the LSO.

But it was nonetheless striking – the over-flowing surfeit of souvenirs trading on architectural chic, while its resident orchestra gets shunted into the shadows.

Because above all else – if we take the gift shop’s word for it – the Barbican is a Brutalist icon.

Who needs function when you have form?

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Venus The Musician

When I’m in the British Library, I often visit their ‘Treasures’ room – a free exhibition of magnificent manuscripts and books, which is regularly refreshed.

Earlier this week I wandered in to look at the music section, which has a selection of manuscript scores from famous composers and other related items. The illuminated book above caught my eye. It appears to show a musician queen in two stages – playing music contentedly, and then dropping her instruments in a cartoonish fashion.

The pictures below the figure offer some clues as to what’s going on here. These are astrological signs, and the crowned woman is actually a representation of the planet Venus.

This book is a 14th-century copy of a 12th-century Libre Astrologiae by Georgius Fendulus, which is itself an abridged translation of an astrological work by a 9th-century Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar, thought to be active at the Abbasid court in Baghdad.

From Classical times, Venus had associations with music, as did Mercury. In this book, Venus is dropping her instruments in the second picture because she is in her ‘dejection’, when her influence is in decline, as opposed to her ‘exaltation’, where her influence is strengthening.

Interestingly, the Western iconography of Venus as a musician began around the time of Fendulus, and seems to owe much to middle-eastern sources, in which Venus was often represented playing an oud.

A good selection of the subsequent Western iconography of Venus the musician can be found in this blog.

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War and Peace: Coventry Cathedral with Libor Pešek

Libor Pešek (1933-2022)
Photo courtesy of IMG Artists

By Peter Davison

I was very sorry to hear that the great Czech conductor Libor Pešek had died at the end of October. He was eighty-nine, and his career had been long and illustrious. My grief has been felt more deeply because I had the privilege of working with him at the Liverpool Philharmonic not long after his appointment there as Music Director in 1988. By the time I was in post, he was already having an impact on the musicians’ confidence, beginning to develop the distinctive Czech repertoire for which he and the orchestra would later become rightly renowned. 

My early impressions of Libor were of a rounded personality, good-humoured and approachable, someone who was fascinated by life and interested in all kinds of people. I could at this point relate countless anecdotes about him or describe many of his thrilling and moving performances. However, one occasion stands out in my memory, when I had the task of driving Libor back to Liverpool after staying overnight for a concert in Reading. I suggested that we stop on route for lunch in Coventry to view the famous cathedral which had been built as a symbol of Britain’s post-war renewal. He eagerly agreed, so we diverted from the motorway to visit this architectural marvel which had served as a showcase for a clutch of the country’s leading artists, including John Piper and Elizabeth Frink.

As we entered the building, which abuts the bombed-out ruin of Coventry’s former medieval cathedral, Libor pulled out a small portable dictating machine into which he spoke from time to time. He looked up at the vivid colours of the stained glass and the vast tapestry of Christ the King by Graham Sutherland which hangs as an impressive backdrop to the high altar. He was clearly absorbing the anima loci with great delight, all the more for knowing this had been the venue of the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem which had taken place to mark the cathedral’s consecration in May 1962. 

It was then that Libor turned to me and said with sharp conviction, ‘it is impossible to build a cathedral in the modern age.’ He offered no explanation for this remark. It was a gut-reaction, not intended to condemn the architect, Sir Basil Spence, or the artists involved, only that their magnificent efforts were sadly in vain. They could not recreate in the language of modern art and architecture what had been destroyed by the bombs of the Luftwaffe.

On reflection, I suspect he was right. For all that the new Coventry Cathedral seeks to express a contemporary spirituality and the rebirth of a broken civic culture, it falls short. Its deliberate gesture of newness means that it must, to a degree, repudiate the traditional values it is trying to emulate. Besides, what is self-consciously new is soon not new. It cannot retain for long the frissance of the unexpected or the heroism of bold transgression. The result is something that slowly reveals its lack of roots in the deeper layers of human culture and experience. 

These were not concerns for medieval church-builders. For them, a cathedral expressed faith in the divine order. The old Coventry Cathedral had seemed to grow out of the rocks of the Earth and was intended to last for eternity. It was constructed as a bridge between the earthly and the heavenly realms. Now, its shattered shell reminds us of the psychic ruptures and violence of war, like a scar that will never heal. The past acts as a nagging conscience.

A similar juxtaposition exists in Liverpool itself, as the City’s two enormous cathedrals stare back at one another along the length of Hope Street. Oddly enough, the Philharmonic Hall sits between them like a reluctant mediator. The massive concrete edifice of the Catholic Cathedral (nicknamed ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’), consecrated in 1967, presents a modern inclusive and international vision of Catholicism. Opposite is the soaring neo-Gothic tower of the Anglican Cathedral, which stubbornly defies gravity and the City’s historical decline. Not far away, Liverpool even has its own bombed out church, St. Luke’s, which stands at the bottom of Leece Street. Libor Pešek knew all these buildings, although I do not know what he thought of them. I can imagine that he would have drawn similar conclusions about attempts to build modern cathedrals, whether they look forward or back.

Juxtapositions of old and new are inherently problematic, and the same challenge exists when ‘modern’ music is programmed alongside the classics in the concert hall. If, for instance, Messiaen is placed next to Dvořák, there is an immediate cognitive dissonance. Such works are obviously related as structures crafted from pitched tones, but they are certainly not the same. There is a clash of values, of aesthetics and historical perspective that cannot be denied by sleight of hand. 

Throughout his life, Benjamin Britten was caught in the crossfire of such tensions. His War Requiem harks back to the choral masterpieces of Verdi, Mozart and Bach but, by setting Wilfred Owen’s war poems alongside these pillars of tradition, he transformed the meaning of the well-worn sacred text. We are compelled to consider what the epic scale of suffering that accompanies mechanised warfare means for faith in a compassionate God and to acknowledge humanity’s capacity for moral catastrophe. Britten responded with a humane vision of conciliatory pacifism, bathed in the soothing balm of eternal sleep. Yet the Wilfred Owen poems undermine the grand religious gestures, exposing instead a sense of grim futility.

Looking back now, that hour spent in Coventry Cathedral thirty years ago with Libor Pešek encapsulated so many of the significant issues of our times. Have we truly begun to recognise the consequences of the psychic and social uprooting caused by two brutal world wars? Was it simply naïve to believe that we could create a radically different ‘modern’ culture? Libor Pešek himself knew the dangers of Utopian delusions and empty ideology. He lived for many years in a country under Soviet domination. I remember his genuine joy when his country was liberated after the bloodless Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was a brief period of hope when we all felt able to believe in the dawn of a new age.

Today, the Russian menace threatens Europe once again. Hope has been turned into defiance, as hi-tech warfare threatens unprecedented upheaval and destruction. In this context, Coventry’s Cathedrals reveal with brutal honesty the existence of a fracture in the collective psyche that has never really been healed. They continue to pose questions as yet unanswered, not even by the formidable Libor Pešek.

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The Legends Of Jubal

Where did music come from? Who first discovered how to sing a note, or beat a rhythm? If you’ve ever pondered these questions, you probably wouldn’t expect to find a firm answer. Music has been around for as long as we know, across all civilisations – so we must assume it arose somewhere in deep evolutionary history, possibly even before our ancient ancestors developed language.

At least, that’s a modern way of looking at the question. But in times past, music had its own creation myths. One of them can be found in Musicks Empire by the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell, which imagines the emergence of music from primordial origins:

First was the World as one great Cymbal made,
Where Jarring Windes to infant Nature plaid.
All Musick was a solitary sound,
To hollow Rocks and murm’ring Fountains bound.

 Jubal first made the wilder Notes agree;
And Jubal tun’d Musicks Jubilee:
He call’d the Ecchoes from their sullen Cell,
And built the Organs City where they dwell […]

These lines were my first encounter with the name Jubal. He’s a character in the Bible, but an extremely minor one – he’s mentioned only once as a descendant of Cain, where he’s described as ‘the father of all such as handle the harp and organ’ (King James Version).

So Jubal, we’re told, was the world’s first instrumentalist. But Marvell’s poem interprets him as more than this, someone who discovered musical principles – he ‘made the wilder notes agree’, found harmony among the ‘jarring Windes’.

Of course, the idea of one man inventing music has fallen out of favour in the modern era. But Jubal’s stamp of Biblical approval once carried a lot of weight. For centuries he turned up in art, literature, and theoretical texts relating to music – despite him being little more than an Old Testament footnote.

Nonetheless, the thinness of his personal story poses a challenge. How or why he fathered music is left unsaid. But Musicks Empire shows that ambiguity is not always a disadvantage – it makes Jubal something of a blank canvas on which to project imagined musical origins.

So what about his connection to Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who famously murdered his brother Abel? This context is worth considering. The story is covered in Chapter 4 of Genesis, just after the expulsion of Cain’s parents from the Garden of Eden.

Cain slays Abel, out of envy that God has favoured his offering. Discovering this, God declares that he is ‘cursed from the earth’. Cain moves to the land of Nod, saying ‘from thy face I will be hid’. There he fathers his descendants.

Several generations down we get to Lamech, father of Jubal. But Jubal also has a brother Jabal, who was the first cattle farmer, and a half brother Tubal-cain, who was the first blacksmith.

Much remains mysterious. What significance is there to the three professions of musician, cowherd, blacksmith? And what should we make of their ancestral connection to a murderer? A further detail at the end of the chapter is even more elusive. Lamech also confesses to a killing – ‘I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt’. The victim is not named.

One early interpretation of this chapter was made by Philo of Alexandria. He argued that Cain was an allegory of how the soul can willingly move away from God, which in his view leads to instability. He writes that the names of his descendants reflect this – Jubal means one who ‘inclines’ in different directions, just as music has varying articulations.

But for writers on music, Jubal had rivals for his crown, who came with their own stories. From Greek mythology we have Hermes, who used a tortoise shell to fashion the first lyre. And from ancient science there’s Pythagoras, credited with discovering the numerical proportions of harmony. His own life was shrouded in legend too.

Authors such as Boethius spread a tale of how the philosopher heard blacksmiths hammering one day. He noticed the hammers made different notes as they struck the anvil, so Pythagoras went and weighed them. He found the pitches were in proportion to their weight. This is in fact bad science – pitch does not relate to hammer weight like the lengths of a vibrating string. But an enduring story was forged, and for many music theorists it proved irresistible.

What’s more, a door was left open here for Jubal too. His own connection to a blacksmith – his half-brother Tubal-cain – meant that he could join this anvil chorus through a degree of conflation. Thanks to Pythagoras, the two crafts were connected.

An illustration from a 1492 edition of Franchino Gaffurio’s Theorica musice shows Jubal overseeing six blacksmiths, while Pythagoras and Philolaus consort with a variety of instruments. Meanwhile, a fine engraving from another treatise offers an intriguing new detail to the smithy scene. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, a man stands next to two columns, as if from a ruined temple. He has a chisel in his hand, and appears to be carving musical notes into them.

An explanation lies in a Medieval volume known as The Chronicles of Jerahmeel. It gives a version of the Jubal story in which our hero hears about prophecies of flood and fire, and takes action to ensure the secrets of music can survive those perils. So he inscribes his knowledge onto a column made of marble, and another made of brick, so that in the case of either disaster one would remain unharmed.

But the double-act of Jubal and Tubal-cain would take on a whole new significance in the world of Medieval theology. It came through a tradition known as ‘typology’ – the comparison of events in the Old and New Testaments, in which details from the Old were seen to ‘prefigure’ those in the New. 

One of the most popular typological works of the Middle Ages was the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, or ‘Mirror of Human Salvation’. In this text, our brothers are given the prestigious honour of prefiguring the Crucifixion itself. Tubal-cain is shown foreshadowing the nails hammered into Jesus’s body, while Christ’s prayer for his enemies – ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’ – is compared to a beautiful melody, hence Jubal. 

To modern eyes, these connections may seem tenuous, but to the Medieval believer they must have helped to put old (and sometimes ambiguous) Jewish scripture into a more comfortably Christian context. And through the wide dissemination of this work came a host of different illustrations. Most commonly, Jubal is shown clutching a stringed instrument in the smithy – it’s worth remembering here that taut musical strings have sometimes been compared to the tortured body of Christ too.

Eventually, for music theorists and historians, the idea of a legendary founder of music lost its appeal. In the early 18th century we can see Roger North giving it short shrift:

[…] we have poetick relations of dryed nerves in tortoise shells, smith’s hammers, and practioners, […] But I am perswaded that, notwithstanding all these pretensions, Musick had an higher originall, and that is the use of voices, and language among men.

But for those of a more literary bent, the story still resonated. Rudyard Kipling’s short poem about Jubal and Tubal-cain cast the brothers as two archetypes: those of artistic dreams and those of rugged action, who hold each other in antipathy:

Jubal sang of the Wrath of God
And the curse of thistle and thorn—
But Tubal got him a pointed rod,
And scrabbled the earth for corn.
Old—old as that early mould,
Young as the sprouting grain—
Yearly green is the strife between
Jubal and Tubal Cain […]

This short, punchy poem stands in stark contrast to a much longer one by George Eliot. The Legend of Jubal is an extraordinary and beautiful expansion of this slim character onto an epic scale, filled with sparkling scenic detail. Eliot makes Jubal a questing artist, who after inventing music sets off to roam the world in inspiration for new songs, spreading melody as he goes. He returns home after many years to find his name is now sung in worship, but his aged face is no longer recognised. Taken as a sacrilegious imposter by those who consider him a god, he is beaten to death.

It’s a tragic twist for our hero. But The Legend of Jubal was composed in the shadow of death – as Eliot wrote it, the son of her long-term partner was dying of tuberculosis. And it’s easy to forget that Genesis 4 is really about death too. Abel is not only the world’s first murder victim, he’s the first ever person to die. His demise continues the loss of innocence that came with the expulsion from Eden. 

And while Cain’s descendants were all born after the murder of Abel, another death plays a pivotal role in this poem. Eliot cleverly draws upon the mysterious verse of Lamech’s confession.

At the beginning, Cain’s tribe live an idyllic life with the legendary longevities described in Genesis – their father walks among them, a ‘sinewy man embrowned by centuries’. But when Lamech accidentally kills a boy of his own with a hurled stone, everything changes:

Death was now lord of Life, and at his word
Time, vague as air before, new terrors stirred,
With measured wing now audibly arose
Throbbing through all things to some unknown close.
Now glad Content by clutching Haste was torn,
And Work grew eager, and Device was born.

After this second discovery of mortality, Eliot describes the founding of the three professions, as Lamech’s sons, newly aware of time, hurl themselves into industry. And music, after all, is a way of measuring time – its rise and fall it prefigures our own ‘unknown close’. But, like Kipling, Eliot characterises Jubal differently from his more physical siblings:

[…] Jubal had a frame
Fashioned to finer senses, which became
A yearning for some hidden soul of things,
Some outward touch complete on inner springs
That vaguely moving bred a lonely pain […]

Some biographers have interpreted Jubal as reflecting Eliot’s anxieties about the writer’s life. The poem certainly shows that the artist’s lot is fraught with the risk of rejection. But with it too is the hope that you may create something lasting. As Jubal dies, he sees the face of an angel, who consoles him ‘This was thy lot, to feel, create, bestow / And that immeasurable life to know’.

Over the centuries, Jubal has shifted into many shapes, and adopted many forms. He has been a usefully vague placeholder for the dim origins of music which are forever lost in the mists of time. Eliot’s tragic hero is perhaps the most keenly felt manifestation of this long tradition, who speaks like a prophet in verse that has its own music:

The song shall spread and swell as rivers do,
And I will teach our youth with skill to woo
This living lyre, to know its secret will;
Its fine division of the good and ill.
So shall men call me sire of harmony,
And where great Song is, there my life shall be.

 

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Pachelbel’s Hexachord

The name of Johann Pachelbel is forever associated with one piece: his indefatigable Canon in D. A mainstay of both the wedding and call centre circuits, its relentlessly sunny disposition as it cycles through its famous ground bass becomes either charming or grating, depending on who you ask, and how often they’ve had to listen to it.

Despite the Canon’s overwhelming presence in Pachelbel’s reputation, I’ve recently been exploring a much more intriguing work: his 1699 keyboard music publication Hexachordum Apollinis. The title refers to the strings of Apollo’s lyre, and the book features variations on original ‘arias’ in keys which run in a hexachord. These are pleasant and elegant pieces, and all but one are in minor modes, creating more pensive shades than the shiny surfaces of his most famous work.

There is, however, an irregularity in Pachelbel’s scheme. The keys of the first five pieces are D minor, E minor, F major, G minor, A minor. To complete the hexachord the final aria should be in B flat, but here he takes a swerve: he uses the B flat key signature, but the music is written out in F minor. It’s also the only piece with a subtitle – Sebaldina – presumably a reference to St. Sebaldus church in Nuremburg, where Pachelbel was employed.

The reasons for such departures are unclear. And the strangeness does not end there, either. The Hexachordum includes a ‘Kabbala’ page, illustrating a numerological scheme that links Pachelbel’s name to the year of publication 1699, by adding together numbers associated with the following letters:

JOHANNES PACHELBELIVS ORGANISTA NORIBERGHENSIVM.

See the full ‘Kabbala’ page here.

Even in Pachelbel’s day, the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbala had long been of esoteric interest among certain Western Christian intellectuals. Whatever the reason for its inclusion here, it hints at Pachelbel being a far more interesting figure than his reputation as a Baroque one-hit wonder would suggest.

There are plenty of recordings of the Hexachordum to chose from, whether on stringed keyboard instruments or the organ. In the video below, Wim Winters performs the fourth aria on a clavichord.

Or, if you want something a bit different, you can listen to a synthesised version of the same aria by Muscle Pony.

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