12 January, 2018

Caring too much?

Figures have been published this week that suggest (show?) an increasing number of UK teachers are suffering various kinds of ill health and mental  stress related to their work. (Follow the link:
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/11/epidemic-of-stress-blamed-for-3750-teachers-on-longterm-sick-leave?CMP=share_btn_fbI ). As I read the article I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the points made and it was interesting that no mention was made anywhere of any direct link with issues like teacher pay - rather, this was about work load and the huge pressures of the job; both things that I could relate to. I, however, have a belief that there are other factors in the situation.

I retired from teaching in primary schools over 10 years ago having spent over 40 years as teacher, school leader and latterly as a trainer and assessor for graduate entrants to the profession. In all those years (and Facebook trolls may not wish to know this!) I can say with absolute conviction and honesty I never met, worked with or managed a single teacher who did not want to do the best job that they could and do their best for their pupils. Some of those with whom I had the privilege of working were outstanding, others industrious in the extreme, others maybe not so successful - but still overwhelmingly committed, aware of their deficiencies and desperate to improve. I didn't always agree with some of my colleagues or trainees and often they needed advice, support or clear guidance but without exception, young and old they were keen to do the best job they could - each and every day - for each and every one of their charges.

It does not surprise me that so many are struggling to keep going. Yes, there is huge pressure to succeed, yes, the government continues to move the goalposts every five minutes, yes, many teachers do fight a daily battle in the classroom ........but there is another, more telling, issue.

Teachers spend their whole life encouraging young people to "do the right thing" - to work hard, to act responsibly, to be kind and considerate.....etc........beliefs and aspirations such as these are hard wired into every teacher. They are what underpin every lesson they teach and every expectation that they have for their pupils and indeed themselves. From the day a teacher starts his or her training he or she is required to undertake self criticism and lesson evaluations after each and every lesson - and those training exercises become part of the everyday life of the classroom teacher - asking themselves the question how did I do, what could I have done better, what went wrong and why? The result is that there is a huge element of self castigation present in the mind set of teachers; they are supremely aware of their perceived failings and linked in with that is the fact that they have entered a caring profession - whose professional requirement is to care about the people they work with and the job that they do.  And following from this every teacher with whom I have ever worked has ALWAYS, as a result, tried to do the right thing as they saw it for their pupils - sometimes they failed and when that happened my experience was that they went home and worried about it; they blamed themselves. They knew that they had not only "failed" their pupils but failed themselves too. When a lesson didn't go well, they criticised themselves, when a child didn't succeed they looked for faults within their own lesson planning or class management. In short they were, and are, hugely self critical.

Governments since the time of Thatcher and sadly, often wider society, has realised this – and "naming an shaming" has become the language of favour for beating our public servants who fail to meet up to the latest crack pot idea from Whitehall or Downing Street and people like teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers are easy meat – simply because they care. When a parent comes in to complain about another child "bullying", or about some new school rule, or the teacher's relationship with their child or their child's progress then in my experience teachers listen and (often through gritted teeth) "understand" - they might profoundly disagree but they take it on board and try to solve the problem. And they do this because they care - but in doing so they too often also accept that they themselves might have failed to do the best job they could. Perversely then the teacher blames themselves for the problem rather than the parent, the child or other circumstances that might be completely outside of their control. In reality, they care too much. Downing Street and Whitehall rarely if ever "name and shame " bankers, lawyers, politicians, or "entrepreneurs" like the despicable Sir Philp Green (ex-owner of BHS) and their ilk because there is no point. People like these don't give a toss - they simply don't "care" - and wouldn't know the meaning of terms like commitment, professionalism, endeavour, doing the right thing, self criticism, kindness, accepting personal responsibility for their actions......and all the rest. For these and others in high power “professions” (I use the term loosely) criticism and failure runs off their back - unless there are large dollops of money involved of course – like water from a duck. For people like these it’s always somebody else’s fault and only when cornered or legally charged is it theirs. If one wants evidence think how easily the 2008 financial crisis was skipped over by the financial establishment – they had caused it but no-one got out their hair shirt and admitted fully to their failings, nor was anyone named and shamed. Think of the owners of the rail franchises in this country - people like Richard Branson - who continually put up fares and give a declining service - but it is never their fault, there is never an apology just a bland comment that "this is the way it is".. Or, think of Theresa May and her cronies – the NHS in meltdown, the Grenfell Tower disaster , the Brexit debacle, the homelessness on our streets, the growth in food banks and all the rest .......but no-one, and certainly not St Theresa, ever stands up and says "Sorry this is down to me" – it’s always someone else. And the reason? - they don't care enough so naming and shaming is never going to work with them. They have no shame!

Not so teachers and other public servants – they assume responsibility (often wrongly) each and every day; and they take the criticisms to heart - for it is what they expect of their charges each and every day - that children will "work hard", "do the right thing", "act well", “do their best” whatever the circumstances. And, as professionals these people, in my 40 years of school experience, impose the same imperatives – to always do their best, to assume responsibility for their actions, to worry when things go wrong - upon themselves. They do this day in day out. It is the ultimate quality and definer of a true professional, to care and to go the extra mile. and in contemporary Britain we have the worrying situation that those who show the greatest capacity to care and to display the very qualities that we might all subscribe and aspire to are, too often now vilified, named and shamed when they do not quite meet society’s ever increasing expectations and demands - no matter how ill considered or unreasonable - and, the criticism is most vociferous, it seems to me, from those very people who care least. It's all too easy to take pop at others simply to cover up your own failings - the politician who doesn't fund our schools or hospitals sufficiently or the parent who is unwilling to ensure that their child is well prepared and well behaved in school. For people like these - the teacher in school or the busy A&E doctor or the poorly paid but hard working nurse/social worker/policeman /paramedic/carer etc. - is an easy target. And, sadly, teachers and others in these caring professions, both individually and collectively, take it all on board and more often than not blaming themselves for what in reality are society's inadequacies and failings. We should be very worried about what sort of a society, we are becoming when we increasingly seek to put the blame and the responsibility for our own shortcomings upon those, who every day, strive on our behalf to make our lives and , in the case of teachers, the lives of our children better.

Half a century ago President John F Kennedy sadly reflected "Modern cynics and sceptics see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds and well being of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those whom they entrust their plumbing. Until America understands this fundamental wrong then our education system, the life chances of our children, and indeed, the overall well being of our society will be forever blighted." While this present concern about the health and welfare of our teachers is not directly about remuneration I think Kennedy's point shows an abundant understanding of the relative value that we place upon our teachers. In short, as a society we no longer hold them in high regard or give them the respect and courtesy they so much deserve; instead from government minister to Mr & Mrs Joe Public teachers are, it seems to me, increasingly fair game for criticism  - to be pilloried at will when, despite their best efforts they fail to meet society's ever changing and often quite impossible expectations. Sadly, it is no surprise to me that so many wonderfully talented and committed (and yes, excellent teachers) are suffering. If we began treating our public servants in general, and our teachers in particular, with more grace and praise rather than constantly reminding them of their inadequacies (which, I can assure OFSTED, St Theresa and Mr & Mrs Joe Public, every teacher that I have ever worked with is already quite well aware of and is trying desperately to remedy) then maybe we would have a happier teaching force and perhaps even more successful schools. 

18 December, 2017

In The Bleak Midwinter - St John's, a Warm Place on a Cold Manchester Night

As we crept onto the dark and already crowded car park of St John’s Church in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester on Saturday night the temperature gauge on the car showed -1, the drizzle spattered our windscreen, and already it looked as if freezing fog would surround the church by the time we left later that evening. Mid December, the clock for Christmas already ticking down, the streets around the church busy with late Christmas shoppers and early evening revellers, a Manchester mid winter’s night – bleak indeed!

We had had made our way across Manchester from Hale Barns with our two teenage grand-daughters to enjoy a Christmas Concert at the church. Our daughter Kate, Sophie & Ellie’s mother,  was playing cello as part of the string ensemble in the concert. At last, we found a parking spot and, wrapping our coats around us, walked through the drizzle and already thickening mist towards the lighted windows of the church. We squeezed through the mass of people who stood chatting outside the door – the Saturday evening Mass had just ended – and stepped into the warmth and light of the already half full church (many worshippers had stayed on after the Mass to enjoy the concert). Immediately my glasses misted up as the warmth of the church hit them and through the misted lenses I took in this bright and gloriously decorated church – what a sight to lift, and indeed, warm, the spirits on such a night as this! The rich colours of the walls, the soaring arch and ceiling above the altar, the wall paintings, - and yes, the brightly lit Christmas trees and coloured decorations all combined to remind us that this was a church to celebrate the Christian message but also to celebrate the message and traditions of Christmastide. I sat in the pew looking around, all thoughts gone of the misty drizzle and cold that lurked just a few metres away on the other side of the richly decorated walls, and watched as the pews slowly filled and the choir and orchestra assembled and made themselves ready for the concert.

The concert was advertised as a “Christmas Carol Concert with Carols and Christmas music old and new.....to sing in the Christmas season” – well, it certainly was that! But that only tells a small part of the evening – it misses the warmth, welcome and celebration of the whole occasion. A thoughtfully constructed programme with some of the great Christmas carols – Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark the Herald Angels Sing - gave the audience plenty of scope to join in and keep the Christmas tradition alive by giving voice (and give voice we all did!) to their mighty words, and at the other end of the Christmas spectrum the choir - the gentlemen of the choir bedecked in tinsel, bauble decorated beards and occasional flashing lights! - entertained us with much loved  Christmas favourites: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, White Christmas and Sleigh Ride. And in between, beautifully sung and played Christmas music ranging from the great Glory to God  chorus from Handel’s Messiah, to Ding Dong Merrily on High and In the Bleak Midwinter  not only reminded everyone of the Christmas season but told us, too, of the great message of Christmas. And throughout all, the bright singing of the choir, the skilful and warm playing of the string ensemble, trumpeter and pianist gave a sense of warmth and togetherness that is surely also part of the Christmas message.
In full voice!

The choir, under the enthusiastic baton of Katharine Longworth were a joy not only to listen to but to watch – their eager smiling faces, total involvement and musicality self evident. The rapport with their conductor was a pleasure to see; they were at one with every sweep of her arm and beat of her hand – it was one of the things that I will remember most about the concert. The string orchestra and pianist, too, not only hit all the right notes but hit the right sound to ensure that the choir were showed off to their best and the music became not just a few notes played correctly but a vibrant sound to enhance and enrich. No-one in the church could have missed the glory that is Christmas when in the final verses of the audience carols the trumpeter and choir gave voice to the descants – it seemed as if the  very angels depicted on the church walls were themselves singing along with us! And there was fun and sparkle too! – the delightful rendition by the choir of the Carol of the Bells and then at the end of Sleigh Ride Geoff Baines, the trumpeter, gave us a wonderful horse’s neigh which made everyone smile and applaud! But from start to finish the haunting and exquisite voice of solo soprano Kerry Firth was an absolute joy – perfectly in sympathy with and complementing the choir and musicians. When her voice rang out across the silent, expectant church with the opening words of the concert: “Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed.....”  she not only set the scene for what was to follow but created an atmosphere and tone for the whole evening. When she sang, everyone in the church sat, like me, captivated, transfixed.

For all its modern day crassness and hype – Santa, reindeer, snowmen, pantomime, office parties, frenetic shopping malls, gluttony and credit card excess - the basic message of the Christmas story is simple and it is upon this simple message that the whole Christmas “baggage” rests: an ordinary couple of two millennia ago who find themselves homeless in a strange town and can find no refuge except a rough stable - but into that stable come people carrying gifts and goodwill to both the couple and their new born child. This simple  two thousand years old tale might be condemned as twee sentimentalism; it isn't. It is a powerful message and a warning; a modern day parable for our worrying and austere times where global super companies increasingly dictate the ethics of the day and put simple, decent  values and basic humanity under threat as never before. We live today in a world where personal  greed and corporate pillaging  increasingly (and here I use the word carefully) [T]rumps the values of kindness, care for others or concern for the weak. In America the most powerful man on the planet, the despicable Donald Trump, has reduced health care provision to a level unthinkable in any civilised nation and at the same time has rewarded and increased the wealth of the rich (and himself) via obscene tax breaks to levels which by any standard of judgement - economic, social, ethical, political can only be paid for by massively robbing from the nation's poor; he is Robin Hood in reverse - robbing the  poor to reward the rich - and in doing so has made America the most unequal society in the western world and where absolute and relative poverty is rife and living standards declining at a rate unthinkable only a few years ago. And no-one, it seems is willing or able to stop him. Only this week in our own fair land, Jeff Fairburn, the CEO of housing company Persimmon, was awarded a bonus of £110 million. This bonus was not earned by Fairburn's massive industry, intellect, worthiness or even his astounding commercial skills on behalf of his employers but quite simply leached (that is the correct word) from government grants and house buying incentives, and squandered from the small pockets of individual house owners desperate to get onto the housing ladder. Appallingly and unforgivably it was defended by Fairnburn himself who, we learned, laughed when it was suggested that he might like to donate some of it to charity. This, in a country where homelessness, economic/social division and destitution are reaching levels unseen for generations. Against this backdrop the simple story of goodwill, care and gifts for those in need - which is the backbone of the Christmas story - is needed as never before and on Saturday night at St John's, it needed no embellishment or “jazzing up” to get its timeless message across. Just the great carols of Christmas and the reading of the mighty words in St Luke's Gospel were sufficient to pass on its profound yet humbling message of Christmas to all who had ears to hear, minds to understand and hearts to take in its meaning:

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them”.

A simple, but profound story: the kindness of the innkeeper, the poverty of the couple, the circumstances of the Child’s birth and the faith, reverence and goodwill of the shepherds; it reminds us and prods our consciences. It is the season of goodwill to all, even to the poor and (as the carol says) the “mean and lowly”.  It is  a reminder of that implicit but weighty imperative contained in the Christmas story to do good to others - for we, too, might so easily find ourselves in dire circumstances, in need, and reliant upon others and upon the kindness of strangers. “There but for the Grace of God go I” might well be the hidden sub-message of the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph are not disconnected, mythical, comic cut figures from a long gone fictional  age, they are, too, today’s tragedy – almost a metaphor for today’s world where in our modern society dire poverty rubs shoulders with obscene wealth, where homeless sleepers bed down in the dark corners at the back of five star hotels, where thousands know the insecurity that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they wandered the streets of Bethlehem looking for shelter and a kind word, where those seeking sanctuary or a new life in our wealthy country are too often viewed with suspicion or worse, where an increasing proportion of the population rely upon food banks, charity organisations and like for essential sustenance and comfort, and where increasingly those who are in need of aid or support are too often perceived by the tabloid press and right wing media as scroungers, cheats and victims of their own feckless nature. Had Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees Mogg been on the Bethlehem Town Council two millennia ago then no doubt Mary and Joseph would have been vilified in the Council Chamber and on the Bethlehem Council Website for their rashness  in making such a journey at that time in Mary's pregnancy; they would have been told that they were victims of their own feckless way of life and since, by leaving  the home in Nazareth, they had made themselves "intentionally homeless"  they would have been advised by the Bethlehem Department for Work and Pensions that they were undeserving of any housing benefit or temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. "Imagine the stupidity", Duncan Smith would say when interviewed by the Bethlehem Daily Telegraph as he sat in the delightful living room of his country house on his estate in the Bethlehem stock broker belt "of going on a trip like that when they knew Bethlehem would be crowded. Why didn't they think to text or email ahead to book a room and reserve a table at the local Premier Inn, or to get Mary on the local GP's list or better still book her in to the local Bethlehem BUPA hospital. It's all so easy - these people can't be bothered, so they get what they deserve!" The Bethlehem Daily Mail, too, would have ramped up the venom by advising their readers that this was yet another example of migrants turning up  and demanding shelter from the good, hard working folk of Bethlehem - taking all the housing stock that should be first and foremost for locals - and, "Just like all the other migrants" the Mail would cry, "these two itinerants have brought another mouth to feed with the birth of another immigrant baby - another call on the rates and hard pressed local services like health and schools". No, the story of Mary and Joseph and the bleak reality of life are not new phenomena, nor are they just facets of a long gone age; they are today’s reality and sadly, perhaps, tomorrow’s future in our incredibly wealthy but tragically unequal and often uncaring society. Sadly, in our modern dog eat dog corporate age, where big business, a right wing media, and increasingly populist politicians seek to make society even more unequal and where a capitalist inspired consumerist society rules the hearts, minds, ethics and pockets of almost all of us we have, I believe, largely lost the capacity to feel and to do the right thing. In an age where we only ask "What does it cost?", "Does it work?", "Is it cheap or good value for money?" or "What's in it for me?" but  rarely, if ever, ask questions such as "Is this fair?", "Is it decent?", "Is it just?", "Is it worthy?" then perhaps more than ever before our world needs the kindness of strangers and the lessons and hope that the Christmas story brings.

And  so with  the last chords of “Hark the Herald Angels” ringing in our ears we pulled our coats around us to make our way out of St John’s and out into Manchester’s bleak midwinter night. The warm temperatures of the Church’s central heating had been welcome but even more important and memorable to me was the inner warmth provided by the joy and sincerity of the gathering,  the welcome we received and the simple kindness of this occasion. We had come to St John’s as strangers – travellers from far distant Nottingham – but the occasion and the smiling faces made us feel welcome and a part, albeit for a short time, of this little community and little celebration.

Outside the freezing, drizzling mists had descended and looking back through the dark and the fog, the lighted windows of the church looked to me like welcoming beacons in the cold night air – perhaps as the dimly lit stable must have looked to Mary and Joseph – a place of sanctuary and security on such a night as this. And as I started the car  engine, hoping for some warmth to clear the misted windows I thought of how we had come to be here on such an uncharitable night when it would have been so much easier to stay indoors by the warmth of the fire. As we made ready to leave, buckled our seat belts, checked our mobiles and all the other minutia of everyday modern life  I punched into the sat-nav the postal code for my daughter's home in  Hale Barns. And as I did so and the wipers began to clear the mist and drizzle from the windscreen, a few words from a much loved poem flashed across my mind: “wicked weather for walking.......the storm beat on the windows.... the gale blew off the marshes.....”  Those words from one of the great Christmas poems (and a personal favourite)Rudyard Kipling’s “Eddi's Service AD 687” seem to me to capture the very essence of the Christmas story and indeed of the evening that we had just enjoyed where the simple but wonderful tale of Christmas and had been retold in words and music:

Eddi’s Service AD 687

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.

"'Wicked weather for walking,"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
"But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend."

The altar-lamps were lighted, --
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.

"How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father's business,"
Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest.

"But -- three are gathered together --
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The World,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
"I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend."

The early  17th century depiction of the stable scene
and the adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni
Fog lamps blazing, we nudged our way into the Chorlton traffic, mist swirling  about us, the sat-nav guiding us through unknown streets. I clenched the steering wheel, a little anxious to be out on such a night in a part of the world that I did not know - but at the same time, as the car’s heater began to warm our bodies, quietly pleased that I had made the effort and braved the bleak Manchester midwinter and, to quote Eddi in Kipling's poem, “cared to attend”.  For had I not, I would have missed a wonderful, gentle but at the same time powerful retelling of the Christmas message - and my 2017 Christmas would have been all the poorer for it, a little less enjoyable, a little less rewarding. And as we picked up a little speed and the sat-nav guided us into the non-stop stream of glowing red rear lights and oncoming brilliant headlights of Manchester's high speed motoring night life as it thundered past and towards us in the fast lanes  of the Princess Parkway I turned up the car heater one more notch and thought of the great words from Paul's Epistle to the Philippians: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  This little concert - its words, its music, its warmth and kindness - captured the essence of these words and of the Christmas story to perfection - real people singing of and retelling the real message of Christmas - the message of kindness, care, worthy thought and virtuous action, goodwill to all and man's potential for humanity towards his fellow man - even the "mean and lowly". In a world where we too often witness injustice, impure thoughts, dishonest action and above all man's inhumanity to his fellow man it is a powerful and important message, a thing of "good report" of which to be reminded.

Thank you to all at St John’s, Chorlton-cum Hardy, for a lovely and memorable evening.




11 December, 2017

"All Life is Here"

The sub heading to the now mercifully defunct and rightly shamed British newspaper the
News of the World  was, for its entire existence of over 150 years, “All human life is here” and I suppose the newspaper was true to its motto – all human life was indeed present in its pages – sadly, in all its unpleasant, voyeuristic, gory detail. Nothing was too scandalous, sordid or shaming to be printed to titillate the fantasies and lowest aspirations of its readers. Fortunately, the newspaper was brought to its knees in 2011 because of its shameful behaviour and operating procedures in relation to phone hacking; it was shown to all the world that not only did the paper and its owner – Rupert Murdoch - print unpleasant items it was in itself, and Murdoch himself was, sordid, unpleasant and thoroughly shameless.   

It might seem monumentally perverse but I thought of that News of the World motto, “All human life is here”  on Saturday night as I stood at the back of St Peter’s Church here in Ruddington enjoying Ruddington & District Choral Society perform JS Bach’s Magnificat and his cantata Sleepers, Wake,  plus other wonderful musical items performed by the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble: the  much loved and well known Pastoral from Handel’s Messiah, the sublime Sinfonia from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the achingly beautiful Pastorale from Correlli’s Concerto Grosso often called the Christmas Concerto. This was an Advent night to remember and there was absolutely no doubt at the end of the concert that every member of the large audience filling St Peter’s went away knowing that they had not only got value for money but enjoyed something very, very special.

As my last blog ( http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/all-right-notesbut-in-right-order.html ) suggested the choir, orchestra and soloists had to be on top of their game if they were to pull off two of Bach’s most well known and complex works  – and on top of their game they were. As I stood listening to Bach’s glorious music – so well and richly mastered by the players and singers – I thought, as I often think when listening to Bach, that to hear a few bars of his glorious music is to hear and be made privy to all the joy, pathos, exuberance, weaknesses, glory, baseness, humanity and spirituality that makes up man and womankind; to coin the News of the World, all life – human and spiritual - is indeed here. The opening movement of his monumental St Matthew Passion  - "Come, you daughters help me lament"  - has a dreadful bleakness that could easily drive you to the edge of despair as it prefaces the terrible tale of the Crucifixion and at the other end of this massive work the final chorus, "We sit down in tears" has an awful sorrowfulness and sense of abandon that it seems to take onto its shoulders all the grief and distress of the whole of mankind; in between those two desolate but perversely beautiful movements is some of the most intimate and soul searching music ever made by man. But, equally, listen to the Agnus dei and the Donna Nobis Pacem from his B Minor Mass and your spirits  will be raised to the edge of heaven so charged are they both with the essence of mankind’s ability to glorify and celebrate. On Saturday night the Ruddington singers and players captured this essence to perfection and in doing so, as Bach intended, the music reflected and reminded us of our human frailty whilst at the same time encouraged our spiritual aspirations and showed us what we are and what we might be.  All the hard work on fugue and counterpoint that I mentioned in my last blog had paid off and these hugely difficult pieces had been mastered - and the result was a glorious and uplifting performance. The young soloists, Grace Bale, Rebecca Sarginson and James Farmer, all students at Nottingham University, wove their solos perfectly into the complex web of Bach’s orchestral and choral accompaniment whilst Musical Director Paul Hayward brought the whole together skilfully and sympathetically ensuring that the finished result was not only memorable but a true and sincere rendering of Bach’s great works. In our modern world we are so used to hearing perfection when we listen to apiece of music - be it classical, pop or any other kind; our CDs have been tweaked by sound engineers and their state of the art equipment to ensure that what we hear is close to perfection and only in rare cases what one would hear in a live performance. Our radios and CD players have infinite adjustment possibilities  to make sure that the sound that comes out of  them matches the sound that we want to hear. And the voices and music that are digitally inscribed on our CDs are those of the musical superstars - Callas, Rattle, Von Karajan and the rest all performing in the technically acoustic perfection of the recording studio or some other perfect setting - all a very far cry from what the composer intended or had available at the time. So when we go to live concert what we should be looking for is not the perfection that we hear on our CD but something of greater integrity, more real - the essence of what the composer intended - and that is exactly what we got on Saturday night: the essence and glory of Bach. It may not have been as perfect as my CD recordings of these works, it might not have been the exact sound that Bach's Thomaskirche choir produced  three centuries ago but it was a faithful and celebratory capturing of what the music of Bach is about - and all the better for it.

From what we know of Bach it might be argued that he was a bit of a curmudgeon – certainly he was diligent and hard working and expected others to be so. He was not a freewheeling musical impresario like  Handel who courted Kings and made the London opera stage his home. Nor was Bach a musical genius of the Mozartian mould – a man who could churn out some of the world’s greatest and most divine melodies at the drop of a hat. No, Bach was a Lutheran, a stoical Saxon, perhaps somewhat dour, a man for whom the term "Protestant work ethic" might have been invented. In 1705 Bach, as a young man and anxious to learn his trade walked almost three hundred miles from his home in Arnstadt to Lubeck in northern Germany to visit Dietetrich Buxtehude then regarded as one of the premier church organists of his time. Almost four months later he walked back again and when one considers that this journey was taken over the winter of 1705/06 when weather and roads would have been at their worst this was no mean feat, even for a stern, hard working and committed Lutheran! - it suggests a man who was hugely driven and prepared to put up with any hardship to further his skills and improve himself. He was too, it seems, similarly driven when it came to others: there are many records of his chastisement of the pupils at the Thomaskirche for their musical failings or lack of commitment  and endeavour, and of his disagreements with his employers about his terms and conditions of work. Bach famously said of himself:  “I have been obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well “ and of his music “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”. Wonderful quotes and anyone who has enjoyed Bach’s work will recognise the truth of the latter comment in whatever he composed – music for "the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul". But, I fear Bach undersells himself! - one needs to be a little more than simply “industrious” to produce the sort of stunning work that he composed. It was once said the "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"  and whilst Bach may agree with that I fear that most of us would believe that maybe talent too has some part in the equation! As a confessed Bach addict I would go along with the great Bach interpreter and pianist, the late Glenn Gould who said of Bach's work: “I were required to spend the rest of my life alone on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of only one composer during all that time, that composer would be Bach. I  can think of no other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, has a value beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that – its humanity”. When I sit in a quiet room and listen to Gould play the Goldberg Variations – a work that has been called “a high point of western civilisation” - or I sit spellbound as Gould plays the 48 Preludes and Fugues -  a work that perhaps more than any other has influenced the development of western music - or I sit quietly in awe listening to and admiring the complexities of the Two and Three Part Inventions or the Art of the Fugue, or I am humbled as the B Minor Mass or the Christmas Oratorio or the Matthew Passion fill my office or lounge, then it is at these times that deep down I know that I am not just listening to great music, rather, I am listening to and peering into the  very soul of mankind and into his most intense human and spiritual dimensions. As I said at the top of this blog “All human [and spiritual] life is here".
Paul Hayward

So, as I stood and listened on Saturday night, wondering to myself how could it be that this self confessed, hard working, driven but self disciplined and industrious curmudgeon – in his later years, a confirmed “grumpy old man” – could produce work of such uplifting brilliance? Bach had a large family, a busy family life, and a work schedule which forced him to work the longest of hours just to keep on top of the basic demands of his job; he was also a man who largely cut himself off from unnecessary social interaction and was obsessive about his work and the spiritual nature of his labours - how could this man find it within himself to produce music that has spoken to and inspired the very hearts, minds and souls of men and women for three centuries?  The answer, of course, is beyond knowing but as I stood in St Peter’s listening to the performers it occurred to me that Bach’s profound commitment to the human and spiritual aspects of music – the ability of a work to speak to the inner mind and heart - is something that all good music must have. Put simply, whether it is a religious work like the Magnificat or Sleepers, Wake  or a secular work such as the Brandenburg Concertos or the Goldberg Variations Bach was composing music with the clear intent to speak to people as individuals and to lift their very souls.  He did not simply write good tunes - he wrote musical conversations that addressed the  innermost mind, emotions, spirituality and soul of both performers and the listeners. We see this, occasionally, in works by other composers: when I listen to Beethoven’s gloriously mighty 9th Symphony, Mahler’s gut wrenching 1st Symphony, Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, Mozart’s Piano Concert No 23 or Kathleen Ferrier singing  Blow the Wind Southerly or a thousand more I can be similarly uplifted and made to feel humble in the great scheme of things. And it isn’t just classical music – any music can have this capacity to reach our innermost feelings and make us examine who and what we are: when I listen to Dire Straits perform Telegraph Road or Romeo and Juliet, or the Everley Brothers (remember them!?) sing Cryin’ in the Rain, or Eric Clapton sing “My father’s eyes”, or Kirsty MacCall & Shane MacGowan perform Fairytale of New York  these might not be great artistic works in the way that Mahler or Mozart might be but they are works that poke at the very essence of the human condition, they are about what makes us “tick” and in a small way encourage us to think about our humanity, and by association, our mortality and spirituality. The difference is that most composers or artists do this, if they are lucky, only a few times in their lives; Bach does it each and every time – all of his music, be it spiritual or secular, has the capacity to make us examine ourselves and our condition – and more importantly addresses our humanity and asks us to be better. 
Glenn Gould

And as I listened on Saturday I saw and heard the singers, soloists and players bring out this essential message and quality. In every note and in every bar what shone through was the disciplined Lutheran that wrote the work; each note important in the great scheme of things, measured, calculated to inspire and magnify mankind and to glorify God. There was no flippancy, no concession to trivialise, this was "strictly Bach"; as Glenn Gould said: “all-encompassing music..... valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful ”.  What we saw and heard was a rich tapestry of contrasts – haunting spirituality interspersed with glorious humanity. The threads of fugue and counterpoint were woven into a multilayered tapestry by choir, orchestra and soloists; the great choruses beautifully counterbalanced the quieter solo sections whilst the sublime serenity and joy of the sopranos and altos contrasted with and complemented the power and strength of the tenors and basses. And through it all, the lyrical and disciplined playing by the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble wove a sensitive but at the same time glorious musical framework underpinning, supporting and enhancing while the gentle musicality of the three soloists was both precise and evocative, producing a sincere and heartfelt sound that prodded the very soul.
Michael Overbury

At  the end of the performance, as Director Paul Hayward turned to receive the applause of the audience he had every right to smile – he, and his associate Michael Overbury (Organ Continuo), have moved this Choir and Ensemble once again significantly further up the musical ladder. In May when I blogged on the last concert by the Choir (http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/music-to-hear-indeed-it-was.html ) I commented that these two leaders had significantly widened the choir’s (and audience) repertoire when they performed George Shearing’s beautifully lyrical but difficult Music to Hear with its jazz undertones and sophisticated syncopations followed by the daunting but hauntingly  atmospheric Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams; the concert on Saturday was further evidence of that widening and deepening  repertoire. The programmes sung by the Choir this past year have been amongst the most taxing of the choral repertoire and the response of the members of  the Choir has been first class; they have raised their game and it was both understandable and absolutely right when on Saturday night, as the last notes died away and the applause rang round the church, that the smiling, relieved faces of the singers showed their elation and pride in their performance.  Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury clearly have the knack and the musicality to get the best out of their charges and to ensure that everyone responds to the demands and joys of the music. But there is more; making and listening to music is not a passive activity, it is, at its best and most profound, an activity of engagement and involvement where performer and listener are moved by what the music conveys – be it in the disco or the concert hall. And as I watched and listened on Saturday the engagement, involvement and yes, joy, of those taking part was self evident and that in its turn gave the sound that emanated from the front of the church a joyousness, a depth, an integrity and an enthusiasm – and I wondered if, perhaps, these are the qualities of which Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury should be most proud to have instilled. Such joy, enthusiasm and willingness to improve are precious commodities, they are the building blocks of improvement and success - Hayward and Overbury should be delighted to have ensured these qualities in their charges.  Perhaps it is the aspect of the night that the old curmudgeon Bach, had he sat in the St Peter's roof beams, would have approved of most of all: to see and hear his music being performed with such industry, enthusiasm and joy for the greater glorification of God.  

And if Bach was sitting under the eaves of the Church on Saturday night I have absolutely no doubt that he would have nodded his head in approval at what he saw and heard, for like me he would have known that both performers and listeners left the Church feeling a little more human, a little more humble in the great scheme of things, a little more understanding of our fellow man and a little more aware of the glory and the magnitude of God’s universe.  In a modern world torn by strife, dissent and discord, where rampant consumerism - especially at this Christmastide – stalks our streets and the wider world, where obscene wealth rubs shoulders with abject poverty and need, where it seems man's inhumanity to man increasingly seems to know no bounds and where the strident and false voices of leaders like Donald Trump seek to marginalise and pervert our very humanity and our ideals it is perhaps the music of Bach and the message that it brings that can sustain and inspire us to do better and to be better.
Paul Tortlellier

The great French cellist and Bach lover Paul Tortellier once said "Bach is my great hope for the future of mankind ..... a fugue by Bach is the perfect image of how the human society should be; it is the most beautiful thing you can hear". He was not wrong  and whenever I listen to Bach and as I stood entranced in St Peter’s on Saturday night I reflected that perhaps the world and our society  has never needed this message and this image so much - for within Bach there is indeed all human and spiritual life to uplift and remind us of higher thoughts, better things and more worthy actions - music, as Bach said "for the refreshment of the soul". 

Thank you to all for a wonderful and uplifting performance.




30 November, 2017

All the right notes......but in the right order?: The brilliance of Bach & the complexities of counterpoint!

My love of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach dates back to my early teens and maybe even before that. I can certainly vividly remember as a ten or eleven year old sitting at the old piano that we had in our front room and playing Bach – well, maybe playing is a bit of an exaggeration, but I was trying to play his great work Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Rather like Eric Morecambe in the famous TV comedy sketch with Andre Previn, I was “playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!” In those far off days of the mid 1950’s I had often heard on the radio, in programmes like Housewife's Choice and Two Way family Favourites, the famous wartime recording made by Dame Myra Hess of her playing the work and I had fallen in love with it. I had a weekly piano lesson  - which I hated - and was, to my shame, a reluctant practiser  but inside the piano stool that had come with our second hand piano there was a pile of old sheet music and amongst that pile was the music for Bach’s beautiful work. So, rather than work on the pieces supplied by my piano teacher, I was far more interested in perfecting my rendering of Jesu Joy. I rarely touch a piano these days but whenever I do it is always Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring  that trips off my fingers and on to the keys. The old sheet music of the work is long lost but this is unimportant. Deep in my brain the notes are etched from sixty years ago and to my amazement each time I play my fingers, without any thought from me, dance, of their own accord, to the correct places on the keyboard! How powerful is the brain......and, indeed, how powerful is music and how essential to the human condition?  Sadly,  however, and despite my dancing fingers, my  performance  is not the perfect rendering of Myra Hess or, indeed, the work that Bach wrote (I'm back to Eric Morecambe again - my fingers play all the right notes but, sadly, they are occasionally in the wrong order!). I’m sure that if either Hess or Bach is on high and listens to my stumbling efforts they must cover their ears and shake their heads in despair – but, I believe, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.........and, anyway, I enjoy it!

I mention this by way of introduction because at the moment our house is filled with the music of Bach. There isn’t anything particularly unusual about that, I have by far more CDs of Bach’s music than any other composer, but for the past few weeks and increasingly so in recent days Bach’s glorious sound has drifted through our lounge, kitchen, dining room and office at every opportunity. Indeed, each time I climb into the car and turn  the ignition key the CD player automatically leaps into life and there is Johann Sebastian yet again! 

The reason for this  Bachfest is, for once, nothing to do with me – but rather with my wife, Pat. The clock is ticking and the next concert for the Ruddington Choral Society is looming; and for the past few months Pat and the choir have been getting to grips with the works they are singing: Bach’s  famous and much loved Sleepers, Wake and the glorious Magnificat – two of the greatest works of Bach and of all choral music. Each time Pat goes out for a walk her i-pod is on and her ear plugs in as she learns her second soprano part; each time she goes out in the car the pieces  accompany her as she drives; as she cooks dinner or bakes a cake it’s the same story; and as I sit writing this in my office I can hear her practising in the dining room as the great man’s music comes from her lap top!
Dame Myra Hess - one of the people who 
inspired my love of Bach

The major reason for this mighty endeavour is that, of course, the choir want to perform well  but that hides the real thing. You see, Bach’s music is not easy to play or sing; it is music to test any musician and because of that it is glorious to perform and equally glorious to listen to – the sheer complexities and detail in the work give so much to challenge and so much to enjoy. And as the concert date (Saturday, December 9th) has crept closer so the need to achieve perfection, to overcome the complexities and details inherent in these great works has become increasingly fraught! Bach will challenge any choir – especially an amateur choir with perhaps less time to practice – and it is not unusual for choirs to prefer other, perhaps “easier” composers. So for the Ruddington choir to elect to sing two of Bach’s choral works is both brave and worthy of praise.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not only a great composer but a master of particular musical techniques  and styles. Much of his music – both instrumental and vocal – is composed using both counterpoint and fugue. Counterpoint is ubiquitous in Bach, so much so that on the rare occasions when he isn't writing multiple voices, he's implying them.  It is at the heart of Bach's music, and his mastery of it is unparalleled.

Without going into too much detail, what this means is that each instrument or each voice can, at any one time, be playing or singing in a different note, tune or rhythm  but magically they all work together so that the whole makes not a noisy discordant cacophony but a gloriously rich and complex  sound. These simultaneous melodies aren't just different in character, but seem (though only seem) to go about their business without the slightest regard for one another, so counterpoint is a sophisticated business; it is abstruse, complex, and mathematical. It has been said that Bach himself could hold several melodies in his head at the same time and these melodies are not just arrived at indiscriminately – they have strict “rules” or patterns – indeed it is through Bach’s exploration of counterpoint that most of the “rules” have come about. Because the melodies are not indiscriminate but follow patterns and “rules” then listening to (or singing/playing)  the music can be not only pleasurable but an exercise in mathematics as well as an appreciation of an art form. There is much research to strongly suggest that listening to Bach can significantly improve the mathematical awareness – and hence ability – of the brain since our brains all the time subconsciously and continuously  look for “patterns” in order to make sense of the world that we inhabit. So, listening to or performing a Bach work rich in counterpoint is an admirable training exercise for our brain matter as it  “soaks up”, assimilates, interprets and processes  all these patterns that Bach presents to us.

Counterpoint in the hands of JS Bach ensures a glorious sound, some have called it the music of the spheres, the music of heaven and I would not argue with that. The whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts, but, as I say, it does present huge problems for singers and players. This fact caused the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham to once famously confessthat he didn’t much care for Bach, and in his usual caustic manner, dismissed the great composer as “too much counterpoint  - and especially Protestant counterpoint at that!”
Eric Morecambe (centre) his partner Ernie Wise (left) and conductor 
Andre Previn (right) in the classic comedy sketch. It still makes me
laugh after all these years and is perfectly applicable to my piano
rendering of the complexities of Bach
On Saturday Dec 9th at St Peter’s Church in Ruddington you can test Beecham’s wry comment for yourself and enjoy the glory of Bach’s music when The Ruddington & District Choral Society, together with the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble, see if all their hard work has paid off and they perform two of the greatest and best loved works by JS Bach: the cantata Sleepers, Wake (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme: BWV 140) and secondly, his gloriously joyous and inspired Magnificat (BWV 243). These two famous works are just right for Advent and starting the Christmas season; and are amongst the greatest choral works ever written.

When, in 1723 Bach took up the position of Kantor (Musical Director) at the Thomaskirche, he became responsible for the provision of music in the principal churches of Leipzig until his death twenty-seven years later. A cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and on additional church holidays during the year, and during his time in the town Bach probably composed some 275 church cantatas and 30 secular ones, although a number of these have not survived.

The cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, or Sleepers, Wake! as it is better known in English was first performed in the Nikolaikirche on the 27th Sunday after Trinity - the 25th November 1731 and was based on the three stanzas of the Lutheran hymn Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme  by the pastor, poet, and composer Philipp Nicolai in 1599.The cantata reworked the parable of the ten virgins from St Matthew’s Gospel which was one of the prescribed readings for the day. Records suggest that Bach performed the cantata only once, since the 27th Sunday after Trinity, for which it was written, occurs only in years when Easter falls very early, between 22nd and 26th March, and that happened only twice between 1723 and Bach’s death in 1750.
The famous few words between Previn
and Morecambe as Morecambe 
"played" Grieg's Piano Concerto.

The Parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids was told by Jesus and relates the story of the bridesmaids who were chosen to participate, by being torch bearers, in a wedding. Each carries a lamp and they await the coming of the bridegroom (who represents Christ) and who they expect at some time during the night. Five of the virgins are wise and have brought oil for their lamps. Five are foolish and have only brought their lamps. At midnight, the bridesmaids hear the call to come out to greet the bridegroom. Realising their lamps have gone out, the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise ones for oil, but they refuse. While the foolish bridesmaids are away trying to get more oil, the bridegroom arrives. The wise bridesmaids then accompany him to the wedding celebration. The others arrive too late and are excluded.

Since the date of the 27th Sunday after Trinity falls close to the beginning of Advent both this and the underlying message of the parable ensured that Sleepers, Wake became intertwined with both Advent and Christmas. Advent is regarded as not only a time of waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus but as a time when Christians acknowledge and prepare for the second coming. The parable was one of the most popular and powerful in the Middle Ages, with enormous influence on art, sculpture and the architecture of mediaeval cathedrals. Bach, and the congregations in Leipzig, would have known the parable and understood its message well: be prepared to be judged at the second coming, make sure that you have the oil of righteousness in your lamp to light the way out of the darkness or you will be excluded from Heaven. It was a reminder to the congregation in Leipzig – and all congregations – of the final events of history, the ultimate destiny of humanity, the end of the world and the last judgement – be like the wise virgins it reminds worshippers, be prepared, be penitent and ensure that you have stored up enough righteousness to give you access to Heaven.
The Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach's great choral works were
first heard 

Bach scored the work for soloists (soprano, tenor, bass), a four-part choir and a Baroque  ensemble including horn, oboes, taille, violino piccolo, strings and  bassoon. The cantata represents counterpoint at its best and highest form and is a stern test of musical ability for singers and players. It remains one of the best known and most loved of Bach’s works and musicologist William Whittaker said of it: "It’s a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, technically, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order." It was published in English under the title Sleepers, Wake  by Georgina Troutbeck in 1901. Georgina was the daughter of John Troutbeck, a canon of Westminster Abbey and Chaplain to Queen Victoria. He translated many sacred and secular works, including those by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Wagner. Georgina continued his work and made a modest name for herself in London and dying there a wealthy spinster in 1947.

The other work that the choir will perform on December 9th is the glorious Magnificat , a musical setting of the biblical canticle Magnificat and is scored for vocal parts (choir, two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass), and a Baroque orchestra. It is the first major composition on a Latin text composed by Bach and was written only months after he assumed his post as Kantor in Leipzig. When Bach arrived in Leipzig with his five children and his second wife Anna Magdalena, to take up his new post at the Thomaskirche he came to a city in its prime as Germany’s intellectual capital. Its prosperity and appreciation of art earned it the nickname “Little Paris.” The post of Kantor there was undoubtedly one of the premier musical posts of Germany and Bach knew that had been hired to make changes. He was determined to do this, to write music that would not only assure his future in this much sought after position but completely reshape Leipzig’s church music. The Magnificat  to be sung on Christmas Day 1723 gave him the perfect opportunity to show off his talents and to set out his “musical stall” for the approval of all; this was his first real  opportunity to impress and he wasn’t going to miss it!  
In the Thomaskirche – and throughout Germany - the Magnificat was traditionally sung at every Sunday Vespers service as plainchant, but on major feast days such as Christmas or Easter it was sung in Latin and took the polyphonic form. Since Bach’s Magnificat was to be sung on Christmas Day it used the Latin text, was polyphonic and, for good measure, Bach inserted four Christmas anthems which made a total of sixteen movements in the complete work. Later, for the Feast of Visitation in 1733, Bach produced a new version but this time without the Christmas anthems and he changed some of the instrumentation in the movements as well as the key (from E flat to D Major). The D major version is given the catalogue number BWV 243 and is the version that the choir will perform on December 9th.

The Vespers service at the Thomaskirche would have lasted several hours and whatever music was included had to fit into an already full service so this major work had to be written with that in mind. Apart from the Mass it was Vespers above all that allowed baroque composers the opportunity to write large scale sacred works and it was not unknown for entrance fees being charged to the congregation to enjoy these musical “concerts”. Since his installation as Kantor, Bach had written one new piece every week until the middle of November so he had only a few weeks to write and bring to fruition this major work – Magnificat - in time for Christmas. Despite this constraint the Magnificat, that he produced is twice as long as most of his cantatas and he took every opportunity  to write in the most inventive  style, to use the largest orchestration that he had so far used and to include far more elaborate choruses than his usual weekly cantatas. The result, according to one musicologist is, “a work that is an exhilarating and innovative ride through swift contrasts, alive with freshness and vitality”.

The Magnificat , also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary,  is one of the  most ancient Christian hymns. The text is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke where it is spoken by Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, the latter moves within Elizabeth's womb. Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith (using words partially reflected in the Hail Mary), and Mary responds with what is now known as the Magnificat.
The man himself - JS Bach, the "sublime genius" as he appears
in the picture that hangs above my desk as I write this blog

Bach’s Magnificat  is intimate, immediate, dense with musical imagery, achingly tender, startlingly powerful - and unique among his many works. He never wrote another work quite like it. Bach wanted to introduce himself to the city with a work that showed off all his brilliant potential and grab the attention of his audience and his employers with something that was short, sharp and stunning. The result is a work not only displaying majestic, brilliant and complex counterpoint but one that is packed with intensity, in a way that his larger choral works are not. Each part is short, each verse is set as a separate musical movement, but there are no great da capo  arias (where the singer demonstrates their virtuosity by improvising and ornamenting their aria - the da capo aria fell out of fashion at the end of the baroque era as the focus shifted from the virtuosity of the performer to the beauty of the music), no recitatives, and no "big" choruses of the sort that Bach would later use to open a cantata or to include in his great Passions such as the St Matthew. Each of the twelve short movements is a musical gem whose only purpose is to exhibit, with the utmost conviction, clarity, and vividness, the text. Bach knew that he had to pack a lot into the space available and he was desperate to impress his new employers; the result was a dazzling work; a cheerful, bright, rich and brilliant sound, reminding the Leipzig congregation on that far off Christmas day of the Bible story that they knew so well and with every note designed to embellish the words of that tale. It was a show-off piece in which all – the players and singers - are challenged (and as the Ruddington Choir members know) to dazzle the audience with their technical mastery of Bach’s composing, and in particular his complex  but brilliant use of counterpoint.

It has been  famously said that  “[Bach’s] sublime genius . . . dwarfs all others from the height of his superiority” – now if that isn’t a good enough reason for a visit to St Peter’s in Ruddington at 7.30 pm on December 9th,  to begin the Christmas season and to enjoy, celebrate and admire the music of this “sublime genius” – I don’t know what is!  And, one further thing, I know that by then all the right notes will, indeed, be in the right order, just as the sublime genius intended so if you come along you will enjoy a real feast of Christmas music and the glorious sound of Bach.

23 September, 2017

"Choice is the privilege of power....."

“Choice is the privilege of power – and moderation is its obligation. Donald Trump understands neither”. So wrote journalist Simon Jenkins in the Guardian (Sept 21st 2017). Jenkins was writing about the latest crazed outburst from the American president threatening to “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” From where I sit Jenkins is exactly right in his commentary on Trump and his offensive shambles of an administration. I fear that I can add little useful to the debate on Trump’s mindset or motives; Trump is what he is and it seems we are stuck with him. There are, however, a few thoughts on Trump's use of the phrase “no choice” that have been running through my mind and, in any case, since this is the most powerful man in the world it maybe behoves all of us to look closely at what he says - no matter how crazed or concerning  - for it impacts upon all of us whether we like it or not. Trump is undoubtedly "unfit for purpose" as President of the USA and it is for precisely that reason that everything that he utters must be picked apart, dissected, analysed and, if necessary, shown up for what it is. Not to do this is not only dangerous for mankind but demeaning democracy in the same way that Trump is, each and every day, demeaning his position, his nation and the whole notion of democracy across the world.

Many years ago when my daughter was about 10 years old I went one day to get a couple of new tyres fitted on the family car and she asked if she could come with me. As we stood in the tyre fitting bay watching the guys take off the old tyres and replace them with new Kate (she was at that time a bit of a tom-boy) turned to me and said “That looks a great job, I’d like to be a tyre fitter when I grow up”. Ever the teacher (and, I suppose, keen to show my parental wisdom) my reply went something along the lines of “Well,  that’s great, but if you pass all your exams on your way through school you will be able to choose if you want to be a tyre fitter. Pass the exams and you can choose whatever job you want. If you don’t pass your exams you’ll have no choice, you may have to take any job that you can get”.  At the time I can remember feeling a little proud of what I saw as a bit of positive parenting and a few months ago I was quite pleased to hear from Kate that she still remembered that conversation; I suspect that she will be repeating it to her own teenage girls in the not too distant future! Of course, and on reflection,  my words were not very prophetic – today with the economic uncertainties of the world even passing all one’s exams and more guarantees nothing; we don’t always get the choices that we want in life.

We hear the word “choice” frequently from government ministers and politicians of all persuasions but especially those of the Tory party and other right wing groups. It seems in the modern world to be the ultimate justification for  any action: “Privatisation of the railway network will bring greater competition and choice” we read years ago; “Turning schools into self governing academies will allow parents greater choice” has been hammered home in recent years. It’s been the same story with our energy – competition was introduced to give consumers greater “choice” and thus make it easier and cheaper for the man in the street. Or, “Deregulating financial institutions such as banks will ensure that people have greater choice in their financial dealings” we were told by Margaret Thatcher’s administration. Well, we all know where that got us – the financial crash of 2007/2008 from which we are still suffering and leading to many in our 2017 UK society still being crushed from the fall-out from that misguided and immoral policy. The results of that ill conceived policy of financial deregulation has been years of austerity, government cut backs on welfare, health and education, and a struggling economy. It  has thrown thousands or even millions into the poverty trap. No, “choice” sounds a worthy cause and a good battle cry but it is not quite all that it seems.

This obsession with “choice” as a necessarily good thing is based largely upon libertarian philosophical beliefs – the right of the individual to make his or her own choices unencumbered by what are seen as the dictats of the state. It is the philosophy that allowed Margaret Thatcher to famously comment: “You will always spend the pound in your pocket better than the state will.” It was the same philosophy and same line of thought that encouraged Thatcher’s awful Chancellor of the Exchequer (perhaps partner in crime would be a better title) Nigel Lawson to argue: “High taxes rob people of the opportunity to make the moral choice to assist them.” This last quote is, in my view, one of the most outrageous and unforgivable ever uttered by an English politician of any persuasion. In Lawson’s view, governments should  discourage high taxes in order that those with money can keep more of it and thus decide if they should act morally and exercise their moral choice of whether or not to offer those less fortunate than themselves benevolent support. Charles Dickens would have recognised this philosophy well as would many of Dickens’ characters who were at the sharp end of the wealthy proffering (or not!) benevolent support via the workhouse. Could there be a more facile and at the same time outrageous justification for low taxes – that it gives those with money the opportunity to decide whether or not they should act morally?

 “Choice”  is one of those words that have a positive ring about it – everybody should be in favour of choice.......shouldn’t they? To say that one is not in favour of choice is, in today’s world, like admitting you are only half human; it increasingly justifies all action and belief in today’s pluralistic, consumerist and market driven society.  But we should beware. Even Thatcher admitted very late in life that giving people the choice on how they spent their money hadn’t quite worked out how she had hoped or planned: saying that “we hoped allowing people to keep more of their earnings would allow wealth to trickle down to those less fortunate but it didn’t, they simply kept the money”. Well, bang goes Nigel Lawson’s warped reasoning.

Choice, as I suggested to my daughter as we stood in the tyre fitting bay, and as Simon Jenkins in his Guardian article argues is very much related to power. If I have the right qualifications then I am in a powerful position to exercise various choices in relation to the job I might desire; if I am, like Donald Trump the leader of a powerful nation I have more weight to throw round to back up my choices. On the other hand if I have no qualifications or am at the bottom of society’s heap then my choices are severely limited. I am fortunate, I have savings and money in my pocket, a house of some value and these things give me enormous power to choose – what shall I eat tonight, where shall I eat, should I buy this item or that one, where shall I choose to go on my holiday.....and so the list goes on. But if I did not have the power that money and security gives me few of these choices would  be available to me; instead, we read more and more today of an increasing number of people in contemporary Britain are having to make very different and much harder choices such as shall I heat my house or buy food, shall I pay the rent or buy a new pair of shoes for my child? 

Jenkins is also correct in the second half of his comment – if people in power have the benefit of being able to make choices then it is incumbent upon them to use that power wisely – or as Jenkins says with “moderation”. When powerful people who make choices that impact upon the rest of us do not act or choose wisely or with moderation then we have the situation that we have today in many western societies – not least our own - great inequality. The powerful are imposing their will upon the weak, and a consequent rise in extremism is the usual outcome. At its most glaring and worrying we have the rise of despots and tyrants - Nazi Germany was a case in point; Hitler did not use his power with “moderation”. As I look at the USA today and at our own UK society I see two societies almost at that tipping point as their leaders – most obviously Donald Trump, but we in the UK are not far behind - consistently make inappropriate and immoderate policy choices.

Choice is, in real terms, relative to the position in which one finds oneself. To take the simplistic view that choice is by definition a good thing is to ignore that fact – it only becomes universally desirable when everyone has the same opportunity in their choices; in the hugely unequal societies of the UK and the USA or between the vastly wealthy western societies and poorer third world societies it is a meaningless quality. That we in the west desire to be able to choose a vast range of foodstuffs from around the world, or to be able to buy clothes cheaply on our High Street, or to be able to buy items from Amazon and other on-line retailers at ridiculously cheap prices means that millions in far off countries or in great internet warehouses labour on zero hours contracts or in sweat shops for little remuneration which in turn gives them little choice in their lives.  In this morning’s Guardian (September 22nd  2017) journalist Anne Perkins writes when discussing the budget airline Ryanair: “We moan about stagnant pay and then go online to buy cheap flights to the sun subsidised by other people’s stagnant pay. We are eagerly complicit in conduct we deplore. We sustain a system that only works to our benefit in the immediate present. We have sold our soul, or at least other people’s secure jobs and decent wages, for serial holidays abroad........This is the monstrous offspring in the marriage between deregulation and consumerism....... It has become a perfect reflection of our greedy refusal to look an implausibly cheap horse in the mouth, let alone examine its back teeth. It is a parable of our times”. She is not wrong. My desire to be able to choose any of the things that we take for granted in today’s society often means that I am actively discouraging the choice that others, either in my own society or further afield, have. 

American poet Archibald MacLeish famously said that “Freedom is the right to choose” – well yes, maybe it is. Certainly that belief might figure highly in the mindset of many Americans whose belief in “freedom” (whatever it means) is part of their very being – they treat it with almost evangelical reverence. It is the American dream, it is at the core of their constitution, it is the belief that drives the philosophy of the libertarian and the extreme right.

But it is not the whole story; it is also the philosophy that underpins the hateful doctrine of Ayn Rand.When I read that freedom and choice go together I am reminded of poet John Milton’s cautionary comment  "None can love freedom heartily but good men. The rest love not freedom but licence". So, when Trump tells us that America will have no choice but to “totally destroy North Korea” I am of the view that just as Tony Blair and George W Bush did almost two decades ago what he is really saying is that “I am big and powerful and so I can refute other options or choices and have the licence to do as I please”. It is the exact philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand in her dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged – a book beloved of many right wing politicians, believers and, worryingly, many like Sajid Javid, a senior minister in our own Tory Government who, it is said, keeps a copy of the book in his office desk.  Blair and Bush chose that same path giving them licence to carry out their campaign against Sadam Hussein’s Iraq.  It ultimately reduced much of the middle east and further afield to both rubble and a powder keg  from  we are still suffering, and will continue to suffer,  as terrorist seek to destroy our society and streets.

When Donald Trump tells us that he has “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” he illustrates precisely why he is unfit to hold the position that he does. Read any basic text on government or politics and one of the first lessons that will be taught is that government in a democracy is all about making choices. Trump, it would seem, does not understand this – either because he is intellectually incapable of understanding the logical and linguistic stupidity of his statement or because he has no grasp of the nature of government. I suspect it is a combination of both of these failings. There is, of course, a third option in the case of Donald Trump – namely that he is very aware of the seeds that he is sowing when he makes pronouncements like this – and that is a truly horrifying prospect. If it is the case, and it may well be, then he is indeed a very dangerous man. For the sake of argument, therefore, I will restrict my verdict to his ineptitude and simple fitness for office – that third option is too worrying to contemplate.

In any decisions about government or political policy those responsible have to make choices and thence decisions – which policy should they adopt, which approach will make it work, how best can we deal with its implications........and a thousand more such questions of choice. There are, for a government, always choices – indeed, that is what any government of any persuasion is for – to make choices on behalf of the electorate. One of my favourite comments on this was put forward by the Labour politician Tony Benn – in fact it was the prime reason for him coming into politics. Benn said: If we can find the money to kill people in war then we can find the money to help people in peace.”  Quite – as Benn implies, it is the role of governments to choose what to spend money on and what to promote as policy; there are always choices. The secret of good government is making the right choices and using the power given by the electorate with, as Simon Jenkins says, “moderation”. I might not like the choices that my government makes – for example the choices that Margaret Thatcher made on my behalf – but it is against those criteria that people then vote at the next election – namely, did the government make the choices that I approved of? So, for Trump to tell the world that there is “no choice” is simply and manifestly not the case; in short he has chosen this route out of the many on offer. Equally, when a government tells the electorate that there are no choices and that a particular course of action must be followed come what may then the electorate is being denied the basic premise of democracy – namely choice.

In doing this Trump, and others who claim “there is no other choice” as a motive for a particular course of action, by doing so gain a clever advantage. It is a kind of get out clause which justifies their action by claiming that it absolves them of all responsibility for its results. If I claim that there is no other  possible course of action than that which I propose  then I am saying “I have no control over this, I am forced into carrying out this action” – I am simply a victim of circumstance. It is the defence made by many throughout history – serial killers who allegedly “heard voices” telling them to carry out their awful deeds, dictators and rogue military leaders who claimed that the atrocities committed in their name were the result of the situation in which they found themselves. Nazi war criminals claimed this defence when put on trial in Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War. It is a powerful get out card and one that we should beware of – especially when the person claiming it as a motive for their action is armed with the most powerful weapons known to mankind.
All nuance removed - if you are not with us then you are against us.

But Trump’s stance has another, and even more worrying, dimension. When someone justifies their actions by saying “there is no other choice”, that there is no alternative to the course of action that they are proposing, then something else kicks in. It is something that we have seen most glaringly in our own Brexit debacle – namely that all nuance and difference of opinion is lost. There are now no shades of grey we are told by those proposing and supporting the action. It is the only thing to be done and if you are not supportive of it then you are, by definition, against it; this is the language and mindset of the tyrant or the mob. If one doesn’t support this, the only option, then one is unpatriotic, a trouble maker, weak, in need of re-education; it is the theme of dystopian novels like 1984 or The Handmaids Tale. It is what we increasingly see screaming from the headlines of our Brexit supporting  tabloid press  in the UK – most notably the Daily Mail . It is the doctrine that sweeps dictators and extreme regimes to power. All discussion and debate become irrelevant, for there can be no debate – it gives a pretext to the mob or those in power to incarcerate dissenters without trial or hang them  from lamp-posts or to put them on trains bound for concentration camps.  Truth and facts becomes confused and hard to distinguish as propaganda and fake news become the only currency. It is, in short, what we increasingly see on the other side of the Atlantic in Trump’s USA.


We should be very afraid; the most powerful man on earth claims to have “no choice” in what he might do and at the same time appears unable to comprehend the logic and the implications of what he is saying. We live in very dangerous times.