Thursday, 31 December 2009
A few cherries - from tree centre left - from the year that's gone. It wasn't all dire, by any means.
A certain wedding in Cornwall in March. Happy times, even though blustery showery weather put paid to a wedding breakfast of Cornish pasties on the beach.
Performance of my Sounds and Sweet Airs (setting of 12 Shakespeare songs for small choir) in June. Splendid occasion, full house, very proud composer.
First of several terraces completed in a beautiful local stone called Dalle de Madale. (G clef not grown from seed.)
Septic tank emptied.
Blue Kitten visits, checks tuning of piano.
Happy days to everyone who comes here!
Tuesday, 29 December 2009
Last night's episode was set in Buckie, a drab fishing port halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen, so unexceptional that 'I'll go to Buckie!' is sometimes heard as a substitute for other Scottish exclamations like 'Jings!' and 'Help ma boab!'. I particularly wanted to watch the Buckie episode not only because it was very funny but because a friend of my daughter claimed she was in it as an extra.
There might have been a fleeting glimpse of someone resembling her standing about gawping as Vince the bass guitarist was stretchered out of the Marine Hotel with multiple stab wounds, but I honestly didn't recognise her. Spotting extras you know can be pretty dodgy, especially if they're with you when you're watching the finished article. 'Look, there I am,' they cry, 'you can just see my elbow' and by the time you've located it the scene has moved on and you've missed a vital part of the action.
When I was a student I had a great friend, an amiable fantasist, who claimed to have been an extra in Lawrence of Arabia. He'd happened to have been in Damascus, he said, when they'd been filming some military parade, and he'd been roped in, given Arab dress and furnished with a Union Jack to wave while shouting 'Allenby el akbar' or some such thing. Well, I've seen Lawrence of Arabia at least half a dozen times and there's not the slightest glimpse of him.
While most of that student intake went on to become respectable teachers and monuments to convention, this chap, a son of Scunthorpe, was last heard of many years ago with his wife Ike (her father was an admirer of General Eisenhower) sailing yachts with dodgy cargoes about the Mediterranean. I've often tried to find him, but never more seriously than vainly invoking the 6 degrees of separation. I bet he's still telling tall stories about his glory days in the film industry.
Monday, 28 December 2009
On the French news this morning, the second item - the first was about airport security - reported the roaring trade on e-bay in unwanted Christmas presents. This seemed to me to be so sad, a terrible indictment of overblown giving and receiving. It occurred to me at that moment that the very same thing was happening in Brueghel's Adoration of the Magi: the man standing to the right of Joseph in Brueghel's painting was whispering to him that the proffered gold/incense/myrrh might fetch a tidy sum, and in fact he's brought his friend (extreme right, with glasses) along, whose racial origins would have been clear to Brueghel's public, if Joseph was interested in doing a little business. Nor does Joseph object...
I had to look through what seemed like hundreds of much more conventional Adorations of the Magi on Google before I found what I was looking for. I wondered why it was hidden so deeply. Maybe because the truths in it have such sharp edges? Wherever you look there is greed, envy, avarice, vanity, stupidity, underlined by suggestions of violence and death. Mary holds a hand up in an expression of weary resignation, maybe thinking to herself Oh, why couldn't they have brought nappies or baby wipes? (Is this terribly irreverent? It's not meant to be.) The baby Jesus shrinks away, as far as he can, and who can blame him? The 'gift' being offered is myrrh, of which the nearest present-day equivalent is embalming fluid.
Oh dear. And yet I love presents, as long as they're unconditional.
*Title inspired by Rog. Thanks.
Thursday, 24 December 2009
Some years later a Dr Ash, a rival and lesser lexicographer, discovered this while plundering Johnson's dictionary for good things to put into his own. Reluctant to allow Johnson any credit, however, he announced that 'curmudgeon' was derived from coeur, 'unknown', and méchant, 'correspondent'.*
I only put this in to slake my own Christmas curmudgeonliness. It's not a case of Scroogeism, of bah, humbug. Enjoy what you can while you can, I say. Carpe diem. I just wish, I just wish, I just wish I could share it without pretending. I hated Christmas as a child. Z's (over there on the right) beautifully written Christmas memoirs reveal worlds unknown to me: I feel like a tousled orphan furtively staring in through a gap in the curtains, ashamed of my beggarly status.
It's not that people were ungenerous, quite the reverse. There were presents galore. I really didn't care for opening them very much: so many presents connoted an obligation to the giver, an intrusion into my independence. I hated the food, which was perfectly good, well cooked and imaginatively presented Christmas fare. My earliest memories of being sick stem from Christmas time. Lifelong dislikes mostly originating in Christmas won't go away, however hard I try: dates, brazil nuts, stuffing, bread sauce, potatoes, dark chocolate, especially the sort you got in gold foil-wrapped 'coins'.
I carried this uncomfortable burden with me into adulthood. I was afraid of passing it on to my children. However hard you try to mask them, certain hereditary phobias always get through. Working in schools didn't help: the end of the Christmas term was always so frantically active, especially in Scotland where it wasn't unknown to break up on Christmas Eve, that there was no energy left for Christmas at home.
Twenty years or so ago I tried to get this out of my system by writing what I decided was to become the definitive novel about Christmas. It was never finished and I don't expect it ever will be, now. In an early chapter the hero attends a watchnight service. While waiting for proceedings to start he tells his pew-neighbour Mrs Woods, who has brought her cat to the service in a basket, about St Francis of Assisi and the origin of Christmas cribs. St Francis, a very great saint indeed, once created a life-size stable, manger and all the rest of it. Into it he drove cattle, donkeys, poultry and maybe - who knows? - cats as well. His Mary was about 13. He wanted to show the dirt, darkness, stink, squalor, poverty and unwantedness that Jesus was born into, and to invite his parishioners to draw their own conclusions.
I don't know where this story came from. An unknown correspondent, probably. As for me, please don't worry. I'm a happy little soul really, and I do try hard not to be a skeleton at the feast. But I shan't be sorry when it's all over. Happy days, everyone!
* Mustn't fall into the same trap: I got this story from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, ed. James Sutherland, OUP London 1975
...to cheer everyone up after this lead-weight of dismalness here's an extraordinary piece of truly seasonal music.
Monday, 21 December 2009
A random selection from Longman's Chronicle of the 20th Century gives a flavour of 1910:
*Girl Guides, a youth movement which encourages girls to be obedient, clean-living and resourceful, is formed by Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes
*Socialists are shot and sabred in Berlin during a suffrage demonstration
*Kissing is banned on French railways because of delays caused to trains thereby
*Diaghilev's Ballets Russes open their Paris season with première of Stravinsky's The Firebird
*Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker set up a tool company in Baltimore
*A London doctor claims that if lunacy increases at the current rate, the insane will outnumber the sane 40 years hence
*In Leipzig British officers Lt. Trench and Capt. Brandon are found guilty of espionage.
1910 was a busy year for the Ferryman:
*Edward VII died and was succeeded by his second son, George V
*Dr Crippen was hanged
*No amount of intercession by Dave could save Florence Nightingale
*The last surviving Pre-Raphaelite Brother, William Holman Hunt, died
*Charles Rolls, pioneer aviator, crashed fatally in Bournemouth, severing the Rolls-Royce partnership
*Reports of the death Mark Twain were no longer exaggerated.
My mother came from Colne, in Lancashire. The Burgh of Colne motto is, very aptly, 'We long endure'. She has been variously a teacher of home economics, a hotelière, a fashion retailer and a private caterer. She had to resign from her first post, in the West Riding, when she married. Married women were not then allowed in the teaching profession.
Several quotes have passed into family legend.
*When asked how she is: "A little better, thank you." Than what? We're never told.
*When tackling a bowl of raspberries, having emptied at least a quarter-pint of double cream into the dish:
"Do you eat much cream, dear?"
"No, I don't, really."
"Neither do I."
*Of her two marriages: "I never had any luck with my husbands."
Here she is with her great-grand-daughter, AKA the Blue Kitten. Almost 100 years separate them. When the Blue Kitten reaches a similar age, I wonder what her children will find remarkable about 2008, the year she was born?
Saturday, 19 December 2009
I allow one 75cl bottle of red wine for every three people. It has to be a good red, obviously not a top vintage, but a quality red costing maybe £6-7. There's no point in mulling mediocre wine; it just comes out hot, but thin and so acid that it takes the lining off your throat. I used a heftyish local red called Mas Roueyre Terradou 2005, but I doubt if you'll find this on supermarket shelves elsewhere in the world. Any good red Vin de Pays d'Oc, Faugères, Minervois or St Chinian would do as well. The price is the pointer.
I was catering for nine people, so three bottles of Terradou went into a wide saucepan on a low heat. One of the secrets of a successful mulled wine is not to let it boil. If it boils, you might as well throw it out and start again. While the wine is warming, I prepare and add the other ingredients:
The juice of 6 navel oranges, freshly squeezed. Just the juice, no pulp or peel.
A muslin bag with goodly pinches of this and that: cloves, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, whatever you fancy. Sometimes you can buy these in ready-made sachets, like tea-bags.
6 level tablespoons of brown sugar. Muscovado is best, otherwise Cassonade or Demerara
Add all these in turn, stirring gently. If you have time, bring it up slowly to just below the boil, turn off the heat and leave it to stew for an hour or so. Just before serving, heat it up again, and as soon as the first beaded bubbles start to wink at the brim, i.e. boiling point is not far off, reduce the heat and add my SECRET INGREDIENT: sprinkle the mix with a little pepper. It makes all the difference.
Remove the muslin bag, and it's ready to serve. For your guests' convenience, ladle it into pre-warmed mugs with handles.
A few don'ts:
Don't add brandy or other spirits. It doesn't improve the taste or the texture, and it really isn't fair to turn your guests surreptitiously into hostages to fortune if they're driving.
Don't call it glühwein. It isn't. The French call it vin chaud, hot wine.
Don't use fancy methods to heat the wine. I learnt my lesson twice over: a) Don't use a tea-urn for large quantities. It stains the inside, flavours the wine with canteen tea and vice versa. b) Don't use a red-hot poker, as I did once, anxious to impress with a display of sizzling artistry. It works with ale, but not wine.
Here are the troops, or some of them, at the top of this post. They had to sing for their supper. They are a choir, after all. One, M., brought a wonderfully gooey birthday cake, all fruit, cream and chocolate vermicelli. Otherwise the ever-stunning J. made mince pies, a winner every time with the French. And we had crackers, but that's another story.
Happy days, Sarah.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
I was once involved in a pit band at panto time, in Basingstoke Corn Exchange, or Guildhall, or whatever they have there. The pantomime was Mother Goose, the pit was tiny, the weather outside was foul and the single servo-driven windscreen wiper on my 1954 Ford Popular didn't work, so that I had to drive back to Southampton, where I worked at the time, with my head out of the window for most of the journey. Not something I call to mind with deep nostalgia.
There was one redeeming feature in an otherwise forgettable gig. Pit musicians are sometimes privileged to enjoy glimpses on stage that no audience ever gets to see in such close-up, and it's not always just a vulgar case of looking up can-can dancers' skirts. Mother Goose of Basingstoke was massive, a feather-and-fibreglass creation on a scale to accommodate the actor/actress inside it.
Seen from below the full inventive genius of this rigout became apparent. There was more behind to it than the before, which was taken up with yellow-clad legs. The overhanging, cantilevered behind was taken up with a mechanical ovary for the laying of golden eggs. Indeed, there was a rack for unlaid eggs, like a bomb-bay on a WW2 Lancaster. I can't give any details of the release gear, but each laying was accompanied by monstrous clucking, puffing and blowing and was followed by deserved applause and cheers from the audience.
This is the only association I have in my mind with Basingstoke.
Mother Goose surfaced again many years later in a book by somebody with the splendid name of Luis d'Antin van Rooten called Mots d'heures: Gousses, Rames*, a title which translates from the French as 'Words of Hours: Cloves (of garlic), Trains'. Bizarre.
You read on, noting with curiosity that among the acknowledgements 'Miss Beauty Love Johnson, laundress', isn't forgotten, and you discover that the book is a collection of 'poems'. Among them you find:
Et Arabe yeux bine?
- and even with good French you scratch your head : not only is the title meaningless, the poems make very little sense: 'Push there spoil, push there spoil, And Arab eyes hoe?' But, ask someone French, especially someone with a rich speaking voice, to read this aloud, sonorously, with full regard to the rhythm, and you get, near enough:
Where have you been?
Yes, well. And there are 40 of the wretched things.
*Pretend to be Inspector Clouseau. Make sure nobody else is about. Close the door. Draw the curtains. Read this aloud. Go on, I dare you: Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames = Mo - der - goose - rahm = Mother Goose Rhyme(s).
Monday, 14 December 2009
At the end everything becomes very animated with can-can dancers. Experience of this in the pit can be varied. If you're playing horn or trombone, they've probably put you right underneath the stage apron, and all you're conscious of is elephantine thumpings above your head, with each thump accompanied by showers of dust.
If you're playing violin, well to the front of the pit, the choice between appreciating the view immediately above you and keeping your eye on your music must be agonising. As it happens, the 2nd bassoon can-can part is so simple that it can be played effectively from memory, allowing the player to look about him/her and take in the whole frenetic ambience. I was lucky enough to be placed well forward.
On the last night of the run the famous can-can finished with the dancers ripping off their frilly garters and throwing them into the audience. Girls sometimes have problems throwing things any distance, and one short-trajectoried garter ended up on the end of my 'cello bow. I have to say at this point that it brought no privileges or benefits whatever, and I never discovered whose garter it was. But such an unusual trophy had to be kept, so it went into my special drawer and stayed there for many years.
There was also a pack of some pills called Wind-Eze, which I bought once simply for the name and the diverting possibility of passing the pack round, straight-faced, towards the end of any formal dinner parties we might be invited to.
It was a great mistake to put these treasures into a bin-liner. They were never seen again. As regards the Wind-Eze and the Jolly Jumping Pecker, probably just as well.
Sunday, 13 December 2009
Besides being a bass in my choir he's a market gardener. He has various fruit and vegetable plots around his village, a little place hidden in the mountains a mile or two to the north of us. Occasionally he takes an after-lunch pot of tea outside on to his terrace and he likes to keep it warm for as long as possible. A tea cosy would provide the solution.
You wouldn't have thought there was any problem with keeping things warm outside in the south of France, but then the French have never cottoned on to using boiling water to make tea. They rarely have kettles and instead use an open saucepan to warm water, which is often deemed to be hot enough as soon as the first tiny bubbles wink on the base of the pan. It's useless to remonstrate.
We promised to do our best. We found a very nice knitted one, which we gave him when we came back. He was delighted.
He is his own man, a person of great charm and individual appearance, and I think he may be of Phoenician descent.
Somebody defined curiosity - or was it eccentricity? - as that force which compels a man confronted with an otherwise unused tea cosy to try it on his head.
Friday, 11 December 2009
1. Rog (a spider, natural enough on the www), and
2. Z (an ant, a Portuguese paradigm for pulling our weight but not overdoing it, a very comfortable philosophy)
- and if you want chapter and verse for these you'll have to click on the Followers thumbnails just over there on the right, because in my immeasurable computer thickness I've never learned how to insert a hyperlink, if that's what it's called.
Anyway, here's my offering. Actually it's not a cricket at all, it's a grasshopper. It's had its fill of English Literature (Part 1) and is hopping off to where the grass is greener. Grasshoppers are much more likely than crickets to leap off into the unknown, not having the slightest idea where they may end up. In summer I can hardly complete a length of the pool without having to stop to rescue some venturesome soul who's launched himself into the wide blue yonder, only to discover that the w.b.y. is indeed blue but is also very wet. Once in the water they kick wildly and unavailingly, sometimes for so long that their legs come off. Mostly I take them in the palm of my hand, make for the edge in a sort of treading-water-cum-doggy-paddle, and then shake them or blow them on to dry land, making certain that they face away from the pool, otherwise they jump back in again. Swimming here can become one long intervention on behalf of the RSPCI. As for the ladybirds...
...but my theme was crickets and grasshoppers. At this time of year they think about finding somewhere warm to spend the winter. How they get indoors is a mystery, but we find them, vine crickets especially, all through the house. Not in any great quantity, but here and there, beside the extractor fan, inside the piano, behind the paintings that seem to feature inordinately in this blog and so on. Some crickets lurk in the bookshelves. This I can understand. Clearly they're looking to spend an agreeable winter in the pages of Wisden.
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Please don't imagine there's any seasonal connection with Ebenezer Scrooge. In the 1870s, when my grandfather was born, Ebenezer was an acceptable name in the strict Methodist family from which he came. Apparently it means 'hitherto the Lord has helped us'.
Anyway, never mind all that. Here he is on the right, with his pals Dave (extreme left) and Vicus (centre, nodding off), who call him 'Eb', 'Ebby' or even 'Uncle Eb'. What I'd really like to draw attention to is the painting above the mantelpiece. This was given to him and my grandmother Sarah as a wedding present in 1909 by a friend called Walter Hey, who bought it from a Leeds art gallery with which the late Victorian artist Atkinson Grimshaw was associated.
Like so many late Victorian artists Grimshaw was obsessed with evening, as though he and his colleagues knew their era was coming to a close. It's the same with this picture, Highland Sunset, painted by an artist called Clarence Roe. It probably dates from about 1880.
Eventually this painting came to me. For a long time I wondered where this scene was. The mountain appears to be Slioch in Wester Ross. The configuration of the church or castle (you can't really tell which) and the surrounding cottages with chimney smoke rising straight - there'll be a sharp frost as night falls - suggest Kilchurn in Argyll. In fact it isn't anywhere definite. It's a composite. An illusion, again.
It had never been cleaned, although it never suffered the smoke damage suffered by several of the paintings I've blogged about. I took it for cleaning a couple of months ago to Aude Ficini, a wonderfully gifted picture-restorer in Montpellier, whose magic touch has brightened it up so much, but not so far as to mask the deeper sense of the onset of night and the end of a glorious day. I collected it yesterday. Here she is with Highland Sunset in her studio.
Decorative arts on the left, wouldn't you agree?
Monday, 7 December 2009
One of the world's great comedies. Briefly, a very badly-run provincial town in tsarist Russia is expecting a visit from a government inspector. A penniless aristocratic rake, Hlestakov, has lost his last farthing at cards. On his way to his father's estate he stops in the town and puts up in the inn, although he has no money to pay the bill. He is mistaken for the promised inspector. The Mayor and other town officials fête him, lionise him, bribe him outrageously while denouncing each other to him. Hlestakov revels in all this, flirts with the Mayor's wife and daughter (on the settee in the photo), and has a high old time until he judges he can't push his luck any further. He leaves. Shortly afterwards the postmaster Shpyokin intercepts a letter from Hlestakov to a friend in St Petersburg in which he reveals all. The town officials round on each other. At the height of their angry recriminations the real Government Inspector is announced.
It was an all boys' school, meaning that female parts had to be played by boys. This may have been in the best Shakespearean tradition, but for us teenage actors it presented certain problems. Least of these was the inescapable rustling of bosoms stuffed with tissue paper. Tissue paper bosoms don't return to their original shape after being rudely squeezed by impious hands; more fluffed-up tissue paper has to be stuffed down the bodice. A greater problem was that of falling in love. Gogol's script may have required Hlestakov to pretend to fall in love with Marya Antonovna, the mayor's daughter, in order to draw the maximum advantage out of the situation, but little did our Hlestakov know he had other real-time rivals actually on stage or in the wings. I'm in this photo, but I neither played Marya Antonovna nor fell in love with 'her'.
Off-stage, 'she' was the first person I ever went to into a pub with. Not in costume, of course. In my naïveté I ordered a glass of Liebfraumilch. It's not easy, growing up.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
This chap is playing Romanian folk-dances in a Montpellier tram. No one is listening. No feet are tapping. No one reacts, except me: I give him 2 euros for allowing me to take his photo.
Copenhagen starts tomorrow. No one will listen. Feet will only tap in frustration. No one will react.
"Ye're all damned!" as Amos Starkadder bawled in Cold Comfort Farm.
"Ye're all doomed!" as Pte Fraser said repeatedly in Dad's Army.
Here's the Place Côme in Montpellier. Look carefully. It's a trompe l'oeil, a beautifully crafted illusion. In reality the entire façade is a blank wall.
I feel very down about the whole wretched business. I can't see any solution other than a mass cull of humanity. Persuade me otherwise, somebody. Cheer me up.
Friday, 4 December 2009
It was taken from the gateway into the The Walled Garden. The photographer, another 12-year-old, wouldn't cross the line, and aimed his Box Brownie at me inside. The Walled Garden was out of bounds. I shouldn't have been in there. For those with a subversive streak putting somewhere off limits just fires curiosity. What forbidden fruit was in there? What was to be hidden from pre-teen, pre-pubertal eyes?
Often and often had I wondered what secrets the Walled Garden held. In fact there wasn't anything very interesting. Some bales of straw, greenhouses, cold frames, manure heaps, just the usual impedimenta of a large kitchen garden. As so often happens, it was better to travel in the mind's eye than to arrive.
In due course the photo was developed and printed in the school dark-room. Nothing happened. My trespass was forgiven.
It's in the same vein that I wonder, often and often, what the regular visitors here are really like. It's clear that you're all very charming, personable, intelligent, articulate and friendly people, and there's no set of people I'd rather have in my mind's eye when putting posts together. But all I have to go on, apart from Dave, whom I've actually met, is the trade-mark image (I won't use the Av-word, I'm afraid) and what you reveal of yourselves in your writings. Nevertheless I'm drawn - very humbly indeed - to certain conclusions...
Geoff I see as strongly resembling George Clooney, but with glasses. He spends a lot of his time, at home and at work, looking out of the window, but he sees much more than what's in sight. If he has a middle name it's possibly Regret. He has a winning smile, unchanged since he was very small. He takes a lot of care with his dress , which owes more to Next than M&S. An affectionate, patient and witty man, very loyal to his friends. You wouldn't easily find a better neighbour.
Sarah allows us glimpses of her true appearance from time to time, but beyond that I see her as beautifully spoken and much given to wild laughter. She is excellent company. She dresses in a very individual and attractive way, and her sense of colour indicates great depths of artistic feeling. She lives more for the moment than for eternity, prefers outdoors to indoors and loves the wind in her hair and sea-scents in her nostrils.
Vicus is tall and ascetic, slightly resembling George Bernard Shaw. Dress is important to him. He would never dream of going out without cleaning his shoes. He has beautiful handwriting. The disappointments he may have known have only served to magnify the greatness of his heart. He is a very careful and considerate driver, a great family man with wide interests. He has thought of going into local government, but is glad to have resisted the temptation. I could never beat him at chess. I don't expect he goes in for darts or arm-wrestling much.
Rog, you stand alone. There is none like you.
Z is a marvellous compendium of good things above the price of rubies. There is steel and determination woven into her otherwise affectionate and outgoing nature, although once she may have been at some pains to overcome a basic shyness. A certain attractive insouciance masks the depth both of her reading and of her willingness to organise competently. Her smile will light a whole room, her pearly laugh is infectious. She rarely speaks ill of anyone, although often ready to tease gently. Very good company, with an enviable gift for keeping friendship green.
I,LTV's capacious brain is perpetually buzzing with original ideas clamouring for attention. The endless jigsaw of highly-coloured objects and bright and lively people in her life will never be completed. As she quivers with energy others sometimes find it hard to keep up. She always looks for the best in people. I feel I should like to read her poetry, but I suspect this may be a very private activity.
Then there's Dave. A sovereign bloke, if ever there was one. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be writing this blog. So you can blame him if I've trespassed, again.
Anonymous has a beguiling smile which he bestows on everyone. Apart from the wholly merited reputation for an easy-going bonhomie which this gives him, it allows the smilee to note that he has no fillings. Our friend is an orthodontist, and good wine needs no bush. Like us all, he sometimes allows himself to dwell in the past, especially late at night. A public-spirited man, he has toyed with the idea of becoming a freemason, a prison visitor, bedesman, but was so disappointed at being refused membership of the Soroptimists that he has developed a tendency to turn in upon himself rather than deploy himself more extrovertly. He once won - and subsequently ate - the Mrs Joyful Prize for raffia work.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
My introduction to Verdi came during a Medway Towns Soroptimist 'Victorian' evening. I was required to accompany on the piano a gentleman with mustachios and a central parting, who towered over a very small lady with a squeaky voice. They sang a duet from the world's most disorganised opera, Il Trovatore. I was 14 and wished I was somewhere else.
The duet was Ai nostri monti ritornaremo, we will return to our mountains. Today's photo, of the first dusting of winter snow on the mountains we see from our front door, is dedicated to all those rugged mountain folk of eastern England and elsewhere, mustachio'd or very small, Verdi fans or otherwise.
Sunday, 29 November 2009
After they'd hatched it was pleasant enough in a sentimental kind of way, especially - we supposed - for the children, to see the mother hen surrounded by a cheeping following of yellow fluffs, but in due course they grew up into pullets. We kept the hens gratefully, but as we already had a cockerel called Boycott (Yorks. C.C.C. and England) and as cockerels fight dreadfully we had to get rid of them. We were far too tender-hearted to wring their necks, pluck, draw (always with a scoop of salt handy for a better grip on the entrails), truss and roast our own poultry, so another solution had to be found.
I took the coward's way out. After all, simple abandonment was sanctioned in Greek legend: wasn't the infant Oedipus just left out on a hillside? (Having consulted Wikipedia to confirm this, I notice that the fourth entry is The story of OEDIPUS, in 8 minutes, performed by vegetables. H'm.) So late one night I collected all the redundant cockerels off their perch, put them in a sack, where they lay very still and quiet, and drove them several miles away to a little farm I knew where they kept poultry. Lurking in some nearby roadside trees I let them out, knowing that in the morning they would find their own kind, and maybe the kindly hand of the farmer's wife scattering grain, or maybe not . . .
. . . to this day, whenever I'm in that part of Scotland, I can't pass that farm without a sense of guilt that maybe Oedipus knew.
Later we moved elsewhere and took with us the remnant of hens - and Boycott - that had survived the collapse of their hen-house. In time the same problem arose. My heart was no less tender than before. Fearful of my exalted position as a pillar of the community being compromised through being discovered wishing immature cockerels on to innocent and hard-working hill-farmers, I sought other means.
I'd made the acquaintance of a RAF Wing Commander, a local wildfowler, someone who presumably had the twist-and-pull-and snap technique of giving birds their quietus honed to perfection. I submitted my problem to him. Only too happy to help, he turned up one evening shortly after roost, ready to pitch in. I suggested that if I went into the hen-house - a new one that I'd built, incidentally - and handed the victims out to him, he could do the deed in such an experienced and immediate way as to minimize the troubling of soft hearts. No feathers flew on Death Row: the condemned cockerels were perched peaceably, some with heads tucked underneath their wings, as though to avert the eye of the Grim Reaper. I passed the first victim out to the Wing Commander, and returned for the second.
Outside there was a whirring sound I couldn't place, a combination of wind in the trees and a distant helicopter. I came back out with the second, and discovered the Horrid Truth: far from a simple and humane quick twist and sharp pull of the bird's neck, the Wing Commander had grasped the bird by the head and had whirled it round like a football rattle until it came off.
I expect he's Marshal of the Royal Air Force by now.
Friday, 27 November 2009
I don't know why palindromes - sentences that read the same backwards as forwards: Gk. 'palin' = 'again': 'dromos' = 'running' - I don't know why palindromes should come to mind today, when a major focus of my attention is tonight's pud. The ever-stunning J. promises treacle sponge and custard. I can't say that this is a common dessert in France. It would be nearer the truth to say that 99.9% of French people are born, live their lives and die without benefit of that gorgeous, warm, womb-retro stodge, clarted with succulent golden syrup, nobly robed in steaming, smiling custard from which I will already have relished the skin from the jug.
Maybe it's the admission of a woeful sponge pud gluttony that leads me to a famous palindrome which you sometimes find carved into church fonts:
Nipson anomemata me monan opsin
It's Greek, meaning 'cleanse not only the face but sins also'. (To make it work you have to remember that 'ps' is a single letter in Greek.)
So often do palindromes disappoint through being over-contrived and not really meaning very much, ones like
Too bad I hid a boot
Anne I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna
- that it comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that W.H.Auden, consummate master of English in all its forms, should be credited with several quite outstandingly original palindromes:
I can imagine him sitting back at his desk, out of breath - it does happen - with his struggles to pin down some masterpiece like Musée des Beaux Arts ('About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters...') and suddenly realising that 'Are we not' reads 'to new era' backwards. A little thought, a welcome break from Breughel's Fall of Icarus that he's writing about, and suddenly it falls into place; he reaches for his palindrome book and writes it in. Another day, another palindrome. Yesterday's was:
Where Auden stood on sponge pudding isn't recorded, as far as I know, but I don't think he can have got through several years of boarding school without frequent exposure to this classic of English cuisine. As for me, I'm really looking forward to tonight's treat, although I may have to dose myself with Nocsivag: I occasionally suffer from reflux, and I wouldn't want my treacle sponge, palindrome-like, coming back on me.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
We kept hens for a while, back in the last century, when we lived in Scotland. (The poultry above weren't ours; they merely serve as a pictorial introduction.) The impetus to keep hens came as a result of my daughter receiving as a 5th birthday present from her grandmother an old hen-house.
(Memo to self: I must try not to do this to my grand-daughter.)
It was a desperately rickety thing, held together only by gravity and encrusted layers of long-dried chicken manure. At night unappealing little red things came out and jumped about on it.
We got three bantams, the result of a frantic night-time chase by torchlight in a barn belonging to a colleague. "They're just stupid when they're roosting," she'd said. "They're practically comatose. All you have to do is lift them off their perch and stuff them in a sack."
They weren't enough to keep us in eggs, so we got four hens from a nearby battery egg farm. Two died within the week, probably from agoraphobia*. Another, Mrs Collapsed Comb, laid splendid eggs at a terrific rate and justified the whole venture on her own.
Infant innocence about gender led these hens to be named after prominent cricketers of the time. Randall (Notts. C.C.C. 1972-93) would come indoors if ever she found a door left open. Here she is nesting in the laundry sink.
Gower, Boycott, Kapil Dev and others perished when their hen-house, unsurprisingly, blew down one night in a storm.
Monday, 23 November 2009
'O Fortune, like the moon, ever changing' - these are the opening words of the mighty chorus which starts (and finishes) Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. 'Ever changing' expresses the meaning but is maybe a bit loose. Strictly the Latin statu variabilis means 'variable as to state', where variabilis refers back to luna, the moon, and statu is what those who ever suffered Kennedy's Latin Primer at school will recognise instantly as a Dative of Advantage. At least, all those who didn't spend their time defacing the cover of possibly the most hated book since William Caxton so that it read 'Kennedy's Eating Primer'.
(Holmes' Comprehensive Arithmetic, a Scottish instrument of torture banned at much the same time as the tawse, would run it a close second. Decimalisation in 1969 dealt HCA a kindly mortal blow: no more compound interest in halfpennies and farthings or long division of furlongs and chains to instil character into the Scottish soul.)
At the moment I'm on a composition jag, setting as choral music some poems of a little-known French poet called Jules Laforgue. (I've written music on and off all my life, and this is the last bracketed observation in this post.) Laforgue is a sort of late Romantic symbolist, a beat poet of his day. A snappy dresser, as you can see from the portrait below. He died very young after an extraordinary but short career partly as Reader to the Empress of Germany, Kaiser Bill's paternal grandmother. He married a girl called Lea Lee in Kensington. If she was Chinese it's not recorded. Both Jules and Lea died within a year of their marriage.
The line I'm struggling to make singable just now comes from a work called L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune, The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon. It reads:
O Diane, à la chlamyde très dorique
'O Diane' is no problem, an address to Diana or Artemis, the goddess associated with hunting and the moon. But à la chlamyde? It has to mean 'with chlamydia', a really nasty sexually transmitted condition where the p - but I won't go into details. How can the goddess of the moon possibly be saddled with this? And très dorique, very Doric?
Neither Wikipedia nor Davepedia are much help. Dorique probably means plain, unadorned, artlessly simple, but I'm not certain. This makes even greater nonsense of chlamyde. How can people sing about artlessly simple Olympian venereal conditions with smirk-free conviction?
It turns out, after consulting several works including Abbott and Mansfield, the classical Greek equivalent of Kennedy, that chlamyde is the French version of the Greek chlamys. Chlamys means a short cloak or mantle, of the sort you see Artemis wearing, and not much else, in statues or her. The chlamys is heavily pleated and closely gathered or ruched, not to say puckered, at the collar. I begin to see a connection . . . but how to express it in music is beyond me. I wonder what Lea Lee thought about it all.
Saturday, 21 November 2009
For many years, in fact from about 1945, this painting hung at home, neglected, smoke-stained and finally slightly damaged by fire. Through the layers of dirt and blackened varnish it appeared to be very old, maybe 17th century. The style and the Classical subject suggested Poussin or Claude Lorraine. My mother couldn't remember where she had got it from. It showed Europa, she said, being carried across the Hellespont from Asia Minor on the back of a bull. There were maidens on the shore welcoming her. This was how the European people were founded.
Recently I took it in hand and brought it from Scotland to France to have it cleaned by Aude Ficini, the demure, beautiful and very professional picture restorer in Montpellier.
Before entrusting it to her I took it out of its frame and was mortified to find that it appeared to have been painted on hardboard. H'm. I looked closely with a magnifying glass and found traces of frayed canvas overlapping the backing. Apparently it had been originally painted on canvas, and at some time someone had cut it away from a frame and had glued it on to a sheet of hardboard. Big relief, even though this suggested that at some time it might have been stolen.
Mademoiselle Ficini was very interested. She raised an eyebrow over the hardboard, but she proved the painting's antiquity in an interesting way: she closed the shutters and put all the lights out and passed an ultra-violet light over the painting, saying that anything that appeared black was relatively recent, say post-1850. Only the garland woven between the bull's horns came out black; some later hand had added it. She suggested 1630 as a possible date, and I was enormously gratified. 1630! Why, Shakespeare was hardly cold in his grave, Charles I was on a collision course with Parliament, Europe was in the grip of the Thirty Years' War...
It took Mlle Ficini two months to transform it into a scene of light and clarity. What had appeared to be a big black smudge on the right turned out to be a capacious cave. Far from making gestures of welcome, the shore maidens were frantically urging the bull and Europa to turn back. One of them points to the cave, showing where the bull will deposit Europa, reveal himself transformed into Zeus or Jupiter and slake his wicked troglodytic lust on her.
But that bull looks all wrong, as though the artist couldn't do bulls. He's so placid, so playful, even. He has a suggestion of Moomin about him. You can't imagine Moomin being done for rape, even if the result is the founder of a great continental race. I wondered if the original painter had taken his information from the commonest contemporary account of the legend, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and there it was, on p.73 of my Penguin edition: 'There was no menace in the set of his head or in his eyes; he looked completely placid. Agenor's daughter [i.e. Europa] was filled with admiration for one so handsome and so friendly...'
So there you are, Vicus and Dave. I suppose that makes you cousins.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
When I was about 15 someone gave me a cravat, a thing of great loveliness, rich in swirled Paisley arabesques in custard yellow and strawberry jam red. I adored it and wore it on every possible occasion, at one time getting into trouble for attempting to subvert the school uniform. School uniform - it pains me to type this ghastly admission - included a straw boater and a dashing green waistcoat with brass buttons, if you were a member of a select society called the Zetountes, which is Greek for 'seekers'. To my mind all that it needed to proclaim the ultra-fashionable Zetounte*-about-town was a brilliant yellow cravat. Others thought differently.
In any case not long afterwards the cravat became associated with those of a certain sexual orientation and my cravat never left its drawer. "Why don't you wear your cravat any more?" my mother asked once. "It suits you so well. I rely on you to wear it on Sunday, please. Denby Williamson is coming. He is just the man to appreciate it."
Denby Williamson, a man of perfumed middle age, was gay. His father had been curator or keeper of the last Tsar's Fabergé collection. Denby Williamson had inherited several Fabergé pieces, on which my mother had cast envious eyes. But my cravat stayed in its drawer.
Living in France many years later I rediscovered it. Other significances, never current in France, had long since died out, I imagined. I dared it once more, and found my earlier fashion fire rekindled. Passing a tailors and outfitters in Essex during a recent visit to the UK I went in, on the offchance that they might have some dusty tissue-wrapped relics in some distant stock-room. I was surprised to find several in prominent display. Could it be that they're now back in fashion? Could they still have those old connotations?
Well, who would care in France? I came out the richer by three gorgeous silken beauties, and the poorer by - but I'm ashamed to tell you. I'm now obsessed with wearing cravats, especially in winter, tucked confortably into open-necked polo shirts.
Denby Williamson died twenty years and more ago. No Fabergé came our way.
* I KNOW the singular of 'Zetountes' should be 'Zetous'. And the word 'cravat' comes from Hrvatska, which is what the Croats call their country.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Better to walk alongside the great English bloggers, Vicus Scurra, Dave, ur-Patroclus, Z, Rog, Belle de Jour etc. than creep about in the shadow of their comment threads. So Lydian Airs breathes again.
(I expect I subconsciously kept my options open with the photo I doctored slightly when I packed up last July. It wasn't a symbolic sunset at all. It was a winter dawn over the western Mediterranean, taken from a bedroom balcony somewhere that wouldn't be a secret any more if I said where it was.)
Speaking of bedrooms, while heading for Scotland a few days ago with the ever-stunning J. we pitched up at nightfall at The Collingwood Arms in Cornhill on Tweed, right on the Border. We'd known this hotel from years back, when it was comfortably scruffy but none too warm in winter. It's had a terrific makeover since, taking much of its inspiration from Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson's vice-admiral at Trafalgar, who had family connections in north Northumberland.
The bedrooms are named after the men-of-war in Collingwood's Trafalgar division. You may well wonder what goes on in bedrooms with REVENGE or COLOSSUS painted on the door. As for us, they put us in POLYPHEMUS, the supposedly one-eyed giant out of Homer's Odyssey. The Greek name means 'chatterbox'. Very suitable for a returning blogger
Saturday, 11 July 2009
Having now returned from foreign parts, I have much pleasure in dedicating this post to my friend Dave, in the hope that the link below will give him some innocent, seemly and much-deserved enjoyment.
(Full screen, volume up.)
Oh, all right, you too, Rog.
And Mr T-S.
And everyone else.
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Rich and heady times, here in this little corner of the Languedoc. My 8-strong multi-national chamber choir, called Les Jeudistes because we rehearse on Thursday evenings, is building up for performance of its major project this year. We're lucky enough to have an extraordinary venue for singing: Le Prieuré de St Julien, shown above in its setting of vineyards and cypress trees. This is - or was - a jewel of Romanesque architecture, perfectly proportioned, finely built in dressed ashlar with dark red sandstone trimmings, dating from c.880 AD, roughly the time of King Alfred in England. It must have cost the earth, then. Ecclesiastical vandals arrived in about 1680, adding the stone tower and belfry in coarse masonry and widening the nave, throwing the original apse and altar off centre and ruining the proportions. But they carved into the new masonry a cockleshell, signifying a halt on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella, and they left an acoustic perfect for small choirs.
It's a big moment for me, not only as Les Jeudistes' conductor but as a composer as well. We're performing a work I've called Sounds and Sweet Airs, a suite of twelve settings of Shakespeare songs for choir and piano. Shakespeare buffs may recognise the title as something Caliban says in The Tempest. Where we would say première for a first performance, the French say création, and, as these songs haven't been performed anywhere else in their entirety, the posters advertising the concert announce création mondiale, world première. H'm. I hope it's not world dernière as well. Here we are in a photo taken 2 years ago, performing Vivaldi's Gloria with a small orchestra.
1. Orpheus with his lute (Henry VIII)
2. Fie on lustful fantasy! (Merry Wives of Windsor)
3. Tell me, where is fancy bred? (The Merchant of Venice)
4. Sigh no more, ladies (Much Ado About Nothing)
5. O mistress mine, where are you roaming? (Twelfth Night)
6. Blow, blow, thou winter wind (As You Like It)
7. Come away, come away, death (Twelfth Night)
8. Full fathom five thy father lies (The Tempest)
9. Jog on, jog on the footpath way (The Winter's Tale)
10. Fear no more the heat o' the sun (Cymbeline)
11. When that I was and a little tiny boy (Twelfth Night)
12. You spotted snakes with double tongue (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
Any reader finding him/herself near Le Prieuré de St Julien on Friday 19th June at 8.45pm is naturally more than welcome to drop in. It's free. When I've worked out how to do it I'll put these songs on line.
Here's the first page, Orpheus with his lute. I do have software which produces beautifully printed music, but those opening sextuplet arpeggio sweeps, like opening curtains, are so complicated on the computer keyboard that I find it's easier and quicker to write them by hand.
Monday, 15 June 2009
Having left our bodily imprints in the furrows between rows of turnips, we picked our way as the sun was rising through the pink-flowered wood and rejoined the slip road. We glanced up and down: there seemed to be no fewer hitch-hikers than the evening before. Had they been there all night, vainly waving thumbs at headlights?
Where we emerged from the wood there two lumpish girls of about our age, tousled and grimy, wearing baggy khaki shorts and what looked like army boots with bobby-socks that would have been white a few days before. That I can only remember what encased their lower halves tells its own story. One had an Irish tricolour on her rucksack. We tried them in English, but they were so uncommunicative that it was hardly worth the effort of speaking to them in any language:
- Hi. Where are you heading for?
- How long have you been here?
- Since Sunday.
- What, day and night?
- Aye. Bugger off, the pair of you. The queue starts up there.
She may have said 'the pair of yez', but I don't remember. Nor can I remember any witty, acerb, telling response to this. As the long day passed, and as by midday we'd only moved two places down the queue, the desperation of the Karlsruhe trap began to bite with all its savage force. The Irish girls had probably been afraid that their chances of a lift, already slender, would be reduced even further if they were apparently accompanied by two boys. Nobody ever stopped for groups of four. Besides, girls always had an advantage, although those girls (still there, about a dozen places down) hadn't done much to promote their femininity. It wouldn't have been easy for them, of course, to present a roadside vision of loveliness and more if they were sleeping rough like us.
The traffic rolled past, mostly accelerating hard, largely ignoring the roadside ripple of waving thumbs. The queue system didn't really work. There might have been a slight advantage in being first in the queue, but the few drivers who stopped did so quite arbitrarily. Down at the start of the slip road a car deposited a kilted hitch-hiker, who swung his rucksack on to his back, strode across the road and waved his thumb at the first car to pass, which stopped for him. A bolt of monstrous anger, like an electric shock, flashed up the queue. Fists were waved, one- or two-fingered gestures made, imprecations shouted in many languages, and I daresay lifelong anti-Scots prejudices formed.
The afternoon passed, under a sweltering August sun. There was nothing there, just a sun-bleached grass verge, litter-strewn, a pervading hopelessness mingled with petrol and diesel fumes, dust and hot tarmac. No mirages of little roadside cafés with bright awnings and ice-cold beer shimmered in the distance. The romance of this very road and no other, of this very point outside Karlsruhe being the gateway to the fabled east, to Vienna, to Budapest, to Istanbul and beyond to Persian lands afar, to Shangri-La and distant Cathay soon vanished, chased headlong by thirst and dirt, noisome fumes and the sensed hostility of fellow hitch-hikers. Newcomers appeared and took sullen station beyond us. Some said 'Servus!' as they trudged past, a greeting I hadn't known before. Each approaching vehicle spawned an embryo of hope, aborted despair as it sped past. Our water was done, in part squandered trying to rinse slug-slime off my brow in the night. We exchanged some plums with some French neighbours for a half-fill of what they called George's gourd, his water bottle.
George and I spoke less and less. We had now been in this desolate spot for 24 hours. Gefängnisvogel was a false prophet, his religion of transcendental motation a snare for the simple-minded.
Evil, frustration-fuelled thoughts began to swirl up from the depths. Should we pack up and go home? Would I be better off on my own?
Thursday, 11 June 2009
In our cheap hotel in Limburg an den Lahr George and I enjoyed the best night's sleep that we'd had for about a week, deep, dreamless and untroubled by any of those disturbances we'd experienced so far. In chronological order they'd been:
1. Being urinated on in a rhododendron thicket in Brussels
2. An evangelist fighting with his wife in the next room
3. Vain searching in Aachen for an address in Stuttgart
4. Dirt and a Moh-scale concrete floor in predatory homosexual-haunted Cologne station
- and others were to follow, in due course: one night there was a sudden irruption of Pearly Kings and Queens; on another a dawn demolition gang moved in; and among the many uncomfortable conclusions to be drawn from this odyssey a priority has to be given to the inadvisability of unwittingly using an anthill as an alfresco pillow. As novice travellers the light of a holy innocence shone dimly about us: were these the nocturnal hallmarks of foreign travel? Could we expect things to improve, or were these disturbances the norm?
They didn't improve the following night, a Monday. We set off from Limburg an den Lahr, having changed into Deutschmarks the Belgian francs we'd earned by George pretending to be miraculously cured of a twisted ankle and by me singing Beethoven's Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, Nature's Praise of God, in Liège. We'd breakfasted well on coffee, fruit and fresh bread rolls with very white butter and blackcurrant jam. We were clean, shaven, and in an access of domesticity we'd even washed some of our clothes: no doubt very inefficiently with hotel bathbrush and a pumice-stone we found, but the wearing of a clean shirt and knickers was a rare luxury, even if they were still a bit stiff with unrinsed hard yellow soap.
An Amiable Dutchman and his wife, as placid and smiling as Prophet Gefängnisvogel had been maniacally devoured by speed, picked us up early. The following conversation took place:
Amiable Dutchman: Wo fahren Sie hin? [Where are you going?]
Me: Nach Wien. [To Vienna]
AD: Nach Wien! Wie lang unterwegs? [To Vienna! How long have you been travelling?]
Me, counting the days on my fingers: Sechs... [six]
... and now there was a problem: was the plural of Tag, day, Tage (pronounced 'taa-ge') or Täge (pronounced 'tay-ge')? A million panic-impelled brain-cells flashed, flitting at the speed of light through the cerebral maze for the connection that would lead to linguistic credibility: Tage or Täge? No tag from Schubert song or 'Battler' Britton war comic came to the rescue. In desperation I opted, as it happened correctly, for Tage.
Me: Sechs Tage.
AD, incredulously, wondering what kind of cretin he'd picked up if it took him that long to identify as basic a concept as the day: Sind Sie Deutsche? [Are you German?]
Me: Nein, wir sind Ëngländer. [No, we're English.]
AD: Then we can speak English!
The Amiable Dutchman and his wife (who produced a pack of marshmallows which we finished at her urging) eventually dropped us outside Karlsruhe, where the main thrust of the autobahn divides, eastwards for Stuttgart and Munich and southwards towards Strasbourg and Basel, which was where they were heading. There seemed to be a vast and incomprehensible tangle of motorways and slip roads. No roadsigns were designed for the benefit of English pedestrians, and it took much earnest rucksack-laden plodding under the August sun to find the eastern approach road.
When we finally reached it, we discovered a phenomenon that associates Karlsruhe in my mind as strongly with boredom and ill-tempered frustration as Cologne is with dirt and petty criminality. The approach road was dotted with about thirty sets of hitch-hikers, singletons or pairs, spaced regularly along the grass verge. Clearly this was a Great European Interchange for hitch-hikers. Ignorant of the conventions we set up a roadside thumb at the beginning of the approach road. Two Norwegian scouts a little beyond us, clearly far gone in boredom and frustration, shouted at us angrily to to clear off, this was their patch; we had to take our place in the queue. We asked where the end of the queue was: they waved up the slope to where the approach grafted itself into the autobahn.
By nightfall the queue had barely moved. As darkness fell we slipped away, not troubling to ask ourselves what would happen to our place in the queue if we abandoned it overnight. We climbed over a wooden fence and picked our way through a strip of woodland unappealingly littered with clumps of pink toilet paper. Beyond was a field of an unidentified root crop. We settled here for the night, brewing up yet more chicken noodle soup and regretting that we'd eaten all Mrs Amiable Dutchman's marshmallows. We talked of what we were going to do once this adventure was over. George was going to work in his father's insurance agency. I said I was going to write music. What else?
In the night I was woken by something tugging at my forehead and eyebrows. In horror I put my hand to my head to discover what it might be: it was a monstrous slug, crossing from one row of turnips to the next. I could not rid myself of its slime. Was there to be no end to nocturnal disturbances?
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
The question remains: why did Beethoven keep the Immortal Beloved letter among his private papers from 1812 until his death some fifteen years later?
In his days as a virtuoso pianist and while his hearing was still reasonably good Beethoven was famous for his extraordinary mastery of existing works, including his own, but also for his powers of improvisation, for inventing music as he sat at the keyboard. Almost a forgotten art nowadays, limited to jazz musicians and church organists, in Beethoven's day the ability of keyboard players to improvise was taken for granted. Many reports exist of listeners' reactions to Beethoven's improvisation, and mostly they speak of the sublime emotional power of his free extemporisation at the keyboard and of the utter captivation of his listeners. I suspect that some of the conquests which Franz Wegeler quotes above originated in Beethoven's improvisations, and that this Adonis of the piano's ability to charm women off the trees was no less developed than Liszt's or Chopin's, two other virtuoso improvisers. The 'conquests' Wegeler refers to were probably more innocent than the wider morality of a later age might encourage us to believe, and in any case girls who swoon over sweeping arpeggios and melting andante cantabiles don't usually become immediate life partners and surrogate mothers.
I suspect also, probably deeply unfashionably, that until his deafness became virtually total, the mainspring of his musical invention lay in improvisation. This isn't the place to explore the correlation between improvisation, his deafness and his finished, published work in depth and detail, but it does strike me that up until about 1805 Beethoven was reluctant to relinquish control over his more passionately intimate and emotional music by writing it in media that would require a group of musicians rather than a soloist to realise it. The great majority of what could crudely and crassly be called his love music is written for piano, hence primarily for Beethoven himself to play, and possibly - although this is the merest conjecture - for a piano-playing immortal beloved to feel the depth of his passion for her. As one might expect, given his genius for improvisation, such music is often cast in the slow movements of his piano sonatas. One has only to think of the famous slow movement of the Pathétique sonata of c.1798 or that of the Appassionata sonata of c.1806 to canvas the possibility that this music was so private, so expressive of intimate feeling, such a communion between composer and immortal beloved, that no one but a soloist could be expected to get inside it. No hidden ciphers, no coy messages of love such as Schumann encoded for his girlies in his piano suite Carnaval, none of the melting moments there are in the vast corpus of Schubert piano duets, where the composer might touch fingers or overlay hands with the beautiful pupil beside him: Beethoven's music is on a quite different, indeed elemental, level.
I think the slow movement of the Appassionata (his publisher Cranz's subtitle, not Beethoven's) is in some senses a parallel text to the Immortal Beloved letter. I expect there are many other similar movements, but I would like to analyse this one in what I admit are enjoyably unconventional terms, and I can only hope sincerely that my analysis won't be thought so erotic, indeed salacious, that the piece is withdrawn immediately as a set work by any Mrs Grundys lurking round the premises of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.
This movement is cast in theme-and-variation form, alone of the recognised classical forms which allows for cumulative, uninterrupted dramatic build-up. Written in the greatest dignity with two slow beats in each bar, set plumb in the baritone register, the tune is possibly the simplest Beethoven ever wrote: in the first eight bars only four different notes are used. It mostly consists of simple chords, soft and low, slowly melding from one to the next with the velvet regularity of day turning into night, of ebb succeeding flow - and of the seamless rise and fall of a serene, timeless coition. This is the coitus that knows no lust, and there is nothing more beautiful between loving couples on this earth, nor anything more susceptible to ignoble degradation. The intensity grows while the twofold pulse remains stable, until after about three minutes of this sublime music the direction comes poco più mosso, a little faster. The web of delectably intense, tingling sound spun out of the initial chords leads towards climax; but then there comes, as it has to, knowing Beethoven's circumstances, the direction dimin[uendo] e rit[ardando], growing softer and slower. The original tune is broken into an exchange between the baritone and the soprano registers, as though between man and woman, and finally there is a soft, heart-breaking chord of despair. This leads us straight into the last movement of the sonata, a swirling, stuttering passion of disappointment and rage. There has been no climax. The expectation has led to nothing. Beethoven's love has been despised and rejected.
Was Beethoven conscious or unconscious of all this? I've no idea, but I feel perfectly at ease with a glorious agnosticism.
There are several conclusions to the Immortal Beloved saga. Firstly, her identity is unimportant, and musicological deerstalker and magnifying-glass work merely distracts from Beethoven's music. What matters is the depth of feeling the various women in his life engendered in him, feeling expressed firstly mainly in his piano music and later, as his deafness worsened and approached totality, in his symphonic work as well.
And then I think he kept the letter because it marked an important turning point in his life. Just as the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament, which he also kept with this letter, marked his agonised coming to terms with his health and deafness, so after the Immortal Beloved episode he would renounce the idea of marriage. Whoever she was, she and her sisterhood live on in so much of Beethoven's music. Thank you, ladies. We owe you a great deal.