Enter Spring

It’s possibly my favourite time of year. The trees are in leaf, the hedgerows in flower, the air is filled with birdsong, the days are stretching out. It’s warm but not too hot. Summer is still to come.

On top of all that, Newbury Spring Festival has started. I’m tempted by various events on their programme this year. Most of the concerts take place in Newbury itself, though St. Martin’s East Woodhay – a lovely rural church I wrote about last year – is hosting Voces8. Sadly for me, it’s already sold out.

So instead I’ve looked at attending some of the shorter lunchtime recitals. I noticed these are being held in the Corn Exchange – the main theatre in the town. Which makes sense, but…I have a problem here. This is a general point, not aimed at Newbury Spring Festival in particular, who put on a fabulous programme and may have any number of constraints on the timing and venues for their concerts. But still, I’d be interested to know if anybody else feels the same way.

The thing is, I adore natural light. I just love it. The surge in its levels during the spring – even on a cloudy day – is a major lift to my mood. I always like to be near windows for ambient light. So the thought of spending an hour of a spring lunchtime – prime solar real estate! – in a windowless, artificially lit hall is genuinely off-putting for me. I’d much rather hear it in a church. On one extreme occasion, when I heard a recital in a very dark hall during the day, the sudden drop in light levels made me incredibly drowsy. In winter, when it’s always darker, I probably wouldn’t mind as much, though I’d still opt for music in a space with windows if I had the choice.

For an evening concert, of course, it’s not an issue. Though that’s not to say that the gloriously drawn-out twilights of this time of year can’t add something special. When I heard a concert at St. Martin’s a few years ago, the fading May light behind the freshly-green Hampshire Downs added real magic to the experience. In the same way, the gradually darkening sky above Shakespeare’s Globe creates a wonderful atmosphere for drama during the summer season.

Of course, the ideal of the hermetically sealed concert hall has its logic – if you let in light, external noise may follow. This is true of London’s beautiful old churches, where I’ve enjoyed many lunchtime recitals that featured the occasional cameo from a nearby police car. In the Globe, aeroplanes are a common interruption, and the actors sometimes ad-lib at their passing over for comic effect.

Nonetheless the fact remains: at the time of year when I’m stocking up on Vitamin D, I don’t want to miss an hour of daylight. Maybe this makes me unusual. But I’d love to let the spring back into spring music.


Finding The Raga

When I first picked up Finding the Raga by Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri, I flicked through the 250 pages, set in a fairly large typeface, and thought it would be a light read.

Such hubris.

Having now finished, I feel I need to immediately re-read it to fully absorb the intricate observations held within Chaudhuri’s seemingly simple prose. Finding the Raga is one of the most interesting books on music I’ve ever read – and that’s because it’s only partly about music. It’s a free-flowing memoir about a life spent in India and Britain, but also an exploration of Hindustani classical music from a man who is a committed practitioner of the Raga tradition – he sings one every morning. Along the way, Chaudhuri considers philosophy, literature, history,  cinema, his teenage love of Western singer-songwriters, and his parents’ Beethoven records.

I started this book with some interest in Indian music, mostly explored through the Darbar Festival YouTube channel, but very little technical knowledge. Perhaps inevitably, the unfamiliar musical terminology here doesn’t all ‘go in’ on a single reading, but it leaves a strong impression of the sophistication of Indian music and its diverse strands.

Chaudhuri is refreshingly frank about how strange classical music can be to the uninitiated – both the Indian and European varieties, which are equally minority pursuits. He thinks perceptively about what music is and how it is culturally determined. And some of his most interesting passages take into account the meaning of silence, noise, and listening in British and Indian culture.

For these last reasons especially, I would urge anyone who has been brought up with a Western musical education to read Finding the Raga. It’s a brilliant read in its own right, but it’s also a useful corrective to the world-flattening ‘Great Composer’ narratives which are still so prevalent in our musical discourse. This book will expand your understanding of what music can be. I bought my copy on Hive.

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Garlic Mustard

There are some things in the natural world that seem to pass you by for years, until, by some unknown shift in awareness, you begin to notice them. Alliaria petiolata is a very common spring wild plant in roadside verges around here, and must have been present in my childhood, but I only began to notice it a few years ago. It’s common name is garlic mustard, after the taste and smell of its leaves, which are edible.

Wild garlic (Allium Ursinum) is normally the thing that gets foragers most excited, and sends them skipping into the woods each spring in derangement for pesto. But garlic mustard might also be a workable substitute. I tried a leaf yesterday morning, plucked a safe distance from the polluted road. It was, undeniably, garlicky.

The plant is native to Europe and Asia, but in the USA it has caused consternation as an invasive species. Such is its colonial spread that the New York Times dubbed it ‘evil, invasive, delicious’, and encouraged good eco-citizens not just to eat it, but pull it up, roots and all.

I feel the purely culinary name is unfair to the elegance of this plant. It’s in its element right now, shooting up from shady verges into the lengthening, strengthening spring sunlight. As Matthew Arnold put it, ‘soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on’ – the verges stuffed with a fluffy riot of cow parsley. But for now garlic mustard steals the roadshow in the dappled verge-light, sometimes guarding an inner sea of woodland bluebells. It’s joyful verticality and empty space, an impossibly thin catwalk model turned plate-spinning waitress. The leaves are arranged around the stem to avoid shade from the one above, spiralling down and broadening, each something like a serrated heart, or the outline of an elephant’s head – and just as wrinkled.

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The Thomas Browne Affair

Last year I wrote about Kenneth Leighton’s Symphony No. 3, Laudes Musicae. As the Latin title suggests, it’s a work which sets words in praise of music, and in the first movement the tenor soloist sings a section of prose by the 17th-century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne. This passage is a defence of music launched against the music-sceptical Puritans of Browne’s time, in which he draws on Pythagorean ideas of cosmic order and harmony. But he also suggests that more mysterious forces are at work:

there is something in it of Divinity more than the eare discovers. It is an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world […] 

I recently finished reading Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ 2015 book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century. It’s an engaging trip through the life and ideas of a man of huge learning and boundless curiosity. As a fellow writer and Norwich resident – where Browne spent most of his life – Aldersey-Williams evidently feels a strong affinity for his subject, and offers reflections on Browne’s legacy for modern times.

Browne was a physician by trade, but he wrote on a startling variety of topics. The passage above is a short section from his essay Religion Medici (‘Religion of a physician’) which wrestles with questions of science and faith. But he also compiled an encylcopedia of popular errors (Psuedodoxia Epidemica), catalogued the natural history of Norfolk, meditated on death and burial rites (Urn Burial), and speculated to esoteric length on the mystical significance of the quincunx pattern (The Garden of Cyrus).

Aldersey-Williams’s book is somewhat idiosyncratic, mirroring Browne’s eclectic interests. ‘He is in many ways gloriously irrelevant’, he writes, an emblem of an intellectual age before the emergence of the ‘two cultures’ views of arts and sciences, a bifurcation which has ‘bedevilled British education and academia’. Browne moved effortlessly between these worlds, sometimes in the same sentence. ‘The civility of Browne’s day that allowed natural philosophers to engage in dialogue with other scholars of all kinds has been superseded by a grammar largely private to science,’ he notes with regret. He showed humility in the face of mystery, which the author contrasts to the often shrill and self-righteous rationalism emanating from some modern celebrity atheists and science communicators.

Though Browne has not accrued the modern fame of a Newton, he has a disparate but loyal following that sees him pop up in surprising places – I recently found a reference to him while reading the short stories of Borges, for example. As a scientist with mystical tendencies and the ability to turn a memorable phrase, his broad fan-base is understandable, because you can discover him from so many angles. He also seems a likeable character, and a beacon of tolerance for his time, even if he sometimes got things wrong. Most troublingly, Browne’s willingness to consider the possibility of demonic possession when he was called as an expert to a Suffolk witchcraft trial may have helped – or at least not prevented – two accused women being hanged. This period is fascinating, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

A while ago, I picked up Basil Willey’s 1934 book The Seventeenth-Century Background in a charity shop. It has a superb chapter on Browne, and his ‘marvelling temper’. He likens him to a ‘Janus’:

Perhaps no writer is more truly representative of the double-faced age in which he lived, an age half scientific and half magical, half sceptical and half credulous […]

Willey identifies Browne as a ‘metaphysical’: one who moved freely between spheres of thought and feeling, never ‘finally committed’ to one place. The description of music as ‘an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world’ is typical of his fondness for the ‘reduplicated phrase’ – an generous linguistic habit in which a classical or hifalutin word (Hieroglyphicall) is balanced against a more familiar one (shadowed).

Willey muses that ‘it is more than likely that Browne was sensitive to the Janus-like quality of the English language itself, half Latin and half Saxon’. His ear for language was no doubt a factor in perhaps his most tangible and impressive legacy: the coinage of a large number of words that we use every day. Among them are ‘hallucination’, ‘medical’, ‘electricity’, ‘deductive’, and ‘ferocious’. Aldersey-Williams sprinkles informative asides about these words along the way of his book, in sometimes lengthy footnotes.

The composer William Alwyn (1905-85) was a lifelong reader of Browne. He named his Symphony no. 5 Hydriotaphia, after his Urn-Burial. This single movement piece is marked with four quotations from that meditation on death, a work that contains some of Browne’s most enduring prose, and which occasionally earns him spots on ‘famous sayings’ internet pages.

‘Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us’ inspires the opening section of the symphony. But at the music’s end, ‘man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave’.

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne In The 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams is published by Granta. I bought it on Hive, which supports booksellers rather than sending billionaires into space, and comes with free UK delivery too. 

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Frank in Frankfurt

It’s rare enough to hear a performance of Frank Bridge’s orchestral music in the UK, never mind abroad. So I was surprised and delighted this week to find a beautiful new filmed performance of his suite The Sea made by Frankfurt Radio Symphony, conducted by Alain Altinoglu. This piece made a big impression on the young Benjamin Britten when he heard it in 1924, and its gorgeous swells and glittering scoring certainly makes an enjoyable alternative to the latter’s oft-performed Four Sea Interludes. It’s only a shame a live audience wasn’t in the hall for this Konzert ohne Publikum.

In other Frank Bridge news: Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective will be performing his wonderful Phantasy Piano Quartet at Wigmore Hall on Monday, alongside music by William Grant Still and Dvorák. I’ve written the programme notes – find more info here.


Robinson Crusoe

I’ve just finished reading Robinson Crusoe for the first time. It’s a book I’ve always vaguely conflated in my mind with Treasure Island – I knew it was about a castaway, that probably there were pirates, and parrots, but not much more.

I didn’t know that Daniel Defoe’s tale is considered by some to be the first English novel. But I must say, for a book first published in 1719, it’s surprisingly readable. It’s much less of a verbose slog than some later 19th-century novels I’ve read. It’s also more than just an adventure story.

David Blewitt’s essay ‘The Island and the World’ is included at the end of the edition I borrowed from the library, and he elucidates  the themes of redemption and deliverance running through the novel. These are part of what make it a compelling read. But it turns out there is also a more troubling aspect to Crusoe, one which mostly lies under the surface of the action, but which is hugely important. The story arc of the title character is, essentially, an advert for the profitability of slaver colonialism.

Crusoe is marooned on his island because he has established a plantation in ‘the Brasils’, and he boards a vessel with the intent of buying slaves to expand his operation. When a storm drives the ship onto the mysterious island, Crusoe is the sole survivor.

But Crusoe only arrives in South America after he is himself enslaved in North Africa. When he manages to escape by boat, he is fortunately picked up by a Portuguese ship heading across the Atlantic. Tellingly, the misery of his slavery experience, and a brief episode in which he’s helped by Africans as he sails along the coast, has no discernible impact on his attitude to the use of African slaves when he starts his plantation.

During the 28-year island stay, his plantation is looked after for him by caretakers, and he is presumed dead. When he eventually manages to escape the island and reveal he’s alive, he is able to effectively cash in on a much-expanded estate, worked by slave labour. As a location the plantation features only briefly in the book, and none of its slaves are given any presence. Instead the focus is on Crusoe’s island, where his moral journey plays out: learning that hard work, resourcefulness and trust in God will enable him to survive his ordeal and eventually obtain deliverance. But his reward, when he at last escapes, is not just freedom: it’s the wealth earned by slaves.

In 2019, for the book’s 300th anniversary, Charles Boyle wrote a revealing piece in the Guardian that examined the links between Crusoe and British imperialism, arguing it was time to ‘let him go’. It’s certainly very interesting to learn that two months before the book’s publication, Defoe had argued for the founding a British colony near the mouth of the Orinoco (the setting for Crusoe’s fictional island), to be overseen by the South Sea Company (whose bubble famously burst a year later).

I disagree with Boyle about the quality of Defoe’s writing – on the whole I found Crusoe engrossing and very interesting. That is surely a reason for its enduring, if problematic, appeal. Crusoe the myth certainly needs picking apart, as Boyle does very well. But if read critically, and as a product of its time, Crusoe the novel helps to demonstrate the moral double-think that allowed a system as horrific as slavery to be rationalised for so long, as simply sensible economics.

Relatedly, I read in the news yesterday that a ground-breaking study of Britain’s slave economy by the first Prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, is finally being published in Britain, some 80 years after it was written.

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Coleridge-Taylor, Impromptu No. 2

Of the renaissance of British music that occurred in the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, solo piano repertoire does not tend to stand proudest. The sustained expressiveness of voices and strings often seems more characteristic of these composers, much like the viol consorts and madrigals had flourished in our previous golden age – a parallel they sometimes invoked quite consciously. But as to what Debussy and Ravel were composing for piano across the channel – or indeed, compared to the keyboard music that remains a glory of Byrd’s era – there seems to be little comparison.

However, one composer from this period whose solo piano music has particularly impressed me is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It started when I bought a second-hand score of his Three-Fours suite a few years ago, and a track I heard on Radio 3 this week also caught my attention. Isata Kanneh-Mason included four of his works on her album Summertime, and the Impromptu No. 2 is a gorgeous little piece, with echoes of Schubert. It has a magical sense of stillness, with an easy melodic grace that seems totally idiomatic for the instrument. Kanneh-Mason plays it beautifully, but I’ll have to track down the score so I can have my own (considerably less finessed) go at playing it too.


Tallis And The Mystery Of The Primes

I was recently sight-reading at the keyboard through the opening section of Tallis’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah – the second of his two settings. Together they are among his most enduring works: mysterious, sonorous, richly expressive. Both are full of marvels, and one, I think, is this opening section. It’s based on simple rising minor scale figures, but I’ve always found it so compelling. I was curious to get a sense of how he does it.

Then I noticed something. My old OUP edition puts the music into bars of 4/2. But the staggered imitative entries in this piece keep arriving a beat later in each bar. Of course, I had never bothered to count it before, but the point of imitation comes after five beats every time. The rising minor scale figure is heard ten times in this way, before the end of the section.

Effectively then, is this music in 5/2? It seems counter-intuitive for old music to use such an irregular metre. For a quick comparison I flicked through a book of Bach fugues, and all the entries came in the same points in the bars, with a throughly reasonable regularity. But of course Bach’s world was a later one, with its own Baroque aesthetic.

I can see why 4/2 makes a certain amount of sense here – the shape of the rising scale figure is four beats long, which the ear immediately understands. And this, I think, is part of the magic of this passage, why something apparently so simple becomes so compelling. The contour of the theme invokes our learned bias towards the powers of two, with their neat sub-divisions. But the underlying structure is ticking over on an unusual prime number – five – with all its irreducibility and various mystical connotations.

This puts me in mind of a fact I recently learned. Regular pentagons don’t tessellate – although there are some clever and beautiful ways to make irregular ones lie together. The strictly regular irregularity of this passage has something of the same quality. It fits together neatly, but not in the way we’d expect.

I’ve written before about how Lamentations settings of the Renaissance used alienation effects that put this ancient text at a step of distance. They often retained the old Hebrew letter names from its original alphabet acrostic form, setting them as effectively instrumental passages on an opaque symbol. Likewise this opening section of Tallis is actually a title – the words are announcing what the following text is. So a certain degree of strangeness seems to be part of the point.

I’ll certainly keep sight-reading through this wonderful music, and see what other intrigues it has to offer.

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Reverence and Devotion

I was amused to see this sign next to the door of a church today, almost as if it were a code for entry. It was the lovely Norman church of St. Mary Magdalene in the Oxfordshire village of Crowmarsh Gifford. I chanced upon it just after a service had finished, and the vicar kindly showed me a few of its features. Google doesn’t seem to have any record about this poster of principles and when it was published, but the Royal School Of Church Music was founded in 1945.

Inside, there’s a small brass commemorating the local Tudor recusant William Hildesley which now has its head missing, perhaps damaged by Parliamentarian troops who were stationed in the village during the Civil War. Crowmarsh Gifford is just over the Thames from the ancient town of Wallingford, whose large castle, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged in 1646. Interestingly, a 1645 poetic epitaph which bravely mentions Popes and Saints remains undamaged.

The vicar advised me to stop by its sister church, a short way along the Thames water meadows. So following a muddy footpath, I came to the adorably tiny St. Mary’s Newnham Murren. Here, another Tudor brass – of one Letitia Barnarde – bears damage from what’s thought to be Parliamentarian musket shot.

Across the bridge, Wallingford is also well worth a visit for its plentiful history. The castle was previously besieged during ‘The Anarchy’ of the 12th century, when it was held by the forces of the Empress Mathilda – a conflict which ended with the Treaty of Wallingford. Very little of its masonry survives now. In 1652, after Parliament’s victory, it was slighted to ensure it had no further military use. But its considerable earthworks remain, and they make for a very pleasant walk in the drier months, with a view of the youthful Thames.

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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.