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.


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.


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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