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Dat Dere

I’ve become a bit obsessed with this track, Dat Dere, by jazz pianist Hank Jones, featuring George Duvivier on bass and Oliver Jackson on drums. I didn’t know this tune before, which uses a classic chromatic-descending bass formula, but in their hands it has a wonderful understated swagger.

Jones bursts in with a low punch and a crisp solo as introduction, before articulating the main tune with an irresistible rhythmic intelligence. The stylish nonchalance of the whole thing seems summed up in its Dorian-plagal cadences (F – C minor), which are something of a hook, tossed away like the sonic equivalent of a shrug. I love it.

Investigating further, it turns out that Dat Dere was composed by Bobby Timmons, and his original version is more brash and muscular. Words were later added by Oscar Brown Jr., styling it as the incessant questions of an inquisitive child, and it was also sung by Sheila Jordan.

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Holsts At Wigmore Hall

It’s pretty rare for a whole concert to be dedicated to music by Holst – even rarer is one given over to Holsts, plural. On Monday, Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake performed songs by Gustav and his daughter Imogen at Wigmore Hall. Of Gustav’s songs, I was already a fan of the ethereal ‘Dawn’ from his Hymns from the Rig Veda, and the downright creepy Betelgeuse from his Humbert Wolfe settings, both of which feature here. But my surprise discovery was three of Imogen’s arrangements of Appalachian folk songs collected by Cecil Sharp. They begin at 26:40, and are beautifully sung by Watts, with superbly clear diction and engaging presence. Amazingly, this was their world première performance – they were arranged in 1938.

The recital offers an intriguing insight into the personalities of these two related composers, more on which can be found in Joanna Wyld’s elegant programme note. The whole concert is well worth watching, and is available to view for 30 days.

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The Anatomy Of Melancholy

Last weekend I went to an exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford. It marks the 400th anniversary of the first edition of Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Burton’s work is a huge collection of ideas about melancholy – its causes, effects and remedies, which he expanded over subsequent editions. This exhibition brings together material relating to melancholy through the ages, and is a feast for lovers of early modern print culture in particular. There is also a small section dedicated to music, which Burton writes about at length.

I’ve been looking through a Project Gutenberg edition of Burton’s text. It’s peppered with historical citations of music’s positive effect on the spirits, often listed in tandem with strong drink and good company. He writes that music is ‘a roaring-meg against melancholy’ (a roaring meg was apparently a type of cannon), ‘to rear and revive the languishing soul’.

He lists labourers who sing at work, soldiers animated by drums, and infants lulled by lullabies as those who can attest to music’s power.

Corporal tunes pacify our incorporeal soul […] and carries it beyond itself, helps, elevates, extends it.

Nonetheless, he recognised that the relationship between music and melancholy can be a subtle and peculiar one:

Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy: it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and easeth in an instant.

However, he also offers a note of caution. Music is agreeable to most melancholy people, he writes, but ‘provided always’ that

his disease proceed not originally from it, that he not be some light inamorato, some idle fantastic, who capers in conceit all the day long, and thinks of nothing else, but how to make jigs, sonnets, madrigals, in commendation of his mistress. In such cases music is most pernicious.

Inamorato means a male lover. This archetypal figure is important enough that Burton includes him in the engraved frontispiece to the book, with a lute and sheet music at his feet. As was common in the 17th century, Burton composed a poem to explain the scheme:

I’th’ under column there doth stand
Inamorato with folded hand;
Down hangs his head, terse and polite,
Some ditty sure he doth indite.
His lute and books about him lie,
As symptoms of his vanity.
If this do not enough disclose,
To paint him, take thyself by th’ nose.

The inamorato pops up elsewhere in the book as a warning. ‘A lascivious inamorato plots all the day long to please his mistress, acts and struts, and carries himself as if she were in presence’. He might also also be they who ‘read nothing but play-books, idle poems, jests. […] Such many times prove in the end as mad as Don Quixote.’

So in Burton’s mind, music can be a cure for melancholy, and even a cause of an enjoyable melancholy – but it can also from part of a vain and shallow lifestyle which might lead to a worse melancholy state.

Of particular note among the musical materials of the exhibition is the title page from a 1661 book of verse, An Antidote Against Melancholy: Made up in Pills, Compounded of Witty Ballads, Jovial Songs, and Merry Catches. Some of these comical and bawdy poems were later set to music by Purcell and John Blow. You can see the engraved page here – I particularly like the couplet underneath which apologises for the quality of the verse!

The Anatomy of Melancholy exhibition is free to visit and lasts until 20th March 2022. I highly recommend it, and while you’re there don’t miss the Anglo-Dutch exhibition in the room next door.

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The Alchemists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Venus and Adonis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cupid] the foolish, ugly and the old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playford Goes North

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

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

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

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The End(s) Of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behnoosh Behnamnia, Keivan Taheri

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

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The Music Of The Moon

By Peter Davison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London’s Composer Statues: A Cycle Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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