20 May, 2018

Why Grass Roots Music Matters

"As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is  of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry” – so said Henry Purcell when talking about music three centuries ago. And last night, here in Ruddington that is exactly what we got – the wonderful harmony of notes and the exquisite exultation of poetry! And all from the composing pen of Purcell.

Purcell – often regarded as the father of English music (see blog: An Evening With Henry Purcell)  is in many ways a shadowy character – in reality we know little about him.  But there are a few clues. The story that Purcell died because he’d been locked out in the cold by his enraged wife after a pub crawl may be apocryphal, but the fact that it seems plausible shows he must have liked a drink. He could be testy, even in front of his beloved Queen Mary, who annoyed him at a soirée by preferring a rough-hewn Scottish folk-song to one of his artful creations. He didn’t think much of his public either, saying the pieces they liked least were always his best.  In short, he knew his worth, and, rather like Mozart, didn’t suffer fools gladly. His technical facility was astounding; like Mozart he found composing easy.. In a guide to practical music published in 1697, Purcell described composing a set of variations over a repeating bass as “a very easie thing to do, and requires but little judgment”. In saying this he restated what his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach said at about the same time:  “It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.....I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” Well, I suppose the late and wonderful Stephen Hawking thought that of his physics but it still leaves me a gibbering wreck!

Whatever the facts of Purcell’s life and work what cannot be denied is that his music captures perfectly the times and feelings of the age in which he lived and at the same time it is of such breadth that it also captures, now as then, all humanity’s glorious aspirations, joys, hopes, fears and sorrows.  This world was captured to perfection last night by the Ruddington & District Choral Society, the six soloists and the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble as they performed their well named concert: An Evening with Henry Purcell. For a few hours St Peter’s Church was taken back to the world of Henry Purcell: a wonderful selection of his works played and sung beautifully allowed us to experience joy, celebration, desolation, fun, magnificent pomp and ceremony, dance and theatre of seventeenth century England.

The pomp and majesty of his Trumpet Tune  - a fitting start on a Royal Wedding day - was played with both flourish and brilliance by the Ensemble and made everyone, I’m sure,  want to stand to attention, to stand tall in honour of the nation. But then we moved to the awe and mystery inherent in his work I Was Glad – written by Purcell for the Coronation of James II. The Coronation of a King or Queen is not just a great state occasion it is much more – it has an almost mystical, religious element involved with the handing over of power and the new monarch accepting the trust and worship of the people. As such the music has to be not just glorious but awe inspiring and able to invoke the innermost passions of the people. It was; the Choir caught to perfection the sense of occasion – a haunting serenity mixed with a measured stateliness. It was easy to picture in one’s mind the royal procession moving down the aisle; stately, grand, awe inspiring, the personification of the nation with all its hope and fears. But then, from the awe, wonder and majestic ceremony of a Coronation we were taken into another equally emotionally charged atmosphere: the Funeral Music for Queen Mary. This was a high spot of many high spots during the evening; wonderful music played with such solemnity and grace and sung with such reverence and quiet devotion that the audience sat, like me, transfixed, overpowered by the sense of occasion. The Choir and Ensemble’s rendering of the March and theThou Knowest Lord sections of this great work captured exactly the desolation that Purcell felt at the death of his beloved Queen whilst at the same time the warmth of the feelings that he had for her were captured beautifully by the Ensemble’s wistful and gently lyrical playing of the Canzona .

And then, once again, the mood changed with the gloriously celebratory Rejoice in the Lord Alway,  with its long introduction replicating the pealing of church bells. Ensemble and Choir were at one here – a reworking of the words from Phillipians this was a joyous celebration; the Ensemble producing a warm and almost sprightly sound as the Choir, their faces clearly showing how much they enjoyed singing this much loved work,  gave voice and made real the work’s title “Rejoice in Lord Alway”. Then, once the applause had died down, we moved again. From a celebration of  Biblical words we were transported to the seventeenth  century London theatre. No longer were we celebrating stately power or rejoicing in the word of the Lord; this was Purcell the theatre composer, the man who enjoyed his glass of ale and his nights frequenting London inns. The Ensemble’s playing of the Suite from Abdelazer  was a real high spot -  and the applause at the end confirmed this. We were treated to a rich textured mix of courtly dance rhythms, jaunty melodies and stately tunes.

The sound created by the Ensemble proved beyond any doubt that no matter how good one’s CDs and stereo systems and no matter how many times one has listened to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra - which grew from Purcell's Abdelazer Suite - there is nothing quite like live music for creating the real atmosphere. I closed my eyes as I listened to this work that I know so well, but had never heard performed live before. And as each of the ten short movements played I was not in St Peter’s Church in Ruddington but in a smoke filled, candle lit Restoration London theatre enjoying a bawdy plot, witnessing courtly dancers, marvelling with seventeenth century eyes, at the magical stage craft and stage machinery – transported to another age, another world. That is the power of music, but especially live music, to take us to another place and hear what people of another age experienced - and the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble’s rendering of this sumptuous work last night took the audience and me to that other time and other place via Purcell’s  splendidly evocative composition.

And so to the passionate but tragic tale of Dido & Aeneas. What a treat! It cannot be easy to successfully produce a concert version of a work that is intended to be acted – but that didn’t deter the performers last night. From the opening Overture we enjoyed a feast of exquisite music that I am sure, had Purcell been watching from the rafters of St Peter’s he would have commended, pleased that his great work was still very much alive and well in twenty first century England. The tale of Dido & Aeneas is rich in magic, symbolism, huge pathos, extremes of emotion, and simple humanity that everyone can relate to and the six soloists together with the Choir an Ensemble tapped into this with huge success. The purity of sound from the soloists was complemented and given a richness of tonal texture and colour by the Choir and the Ensemble as conductor Paul Hayward pulled out all the musical stops to get the very best and more out of his performers. Central to it all was the superb Michael Overbury playing his harpsichord adding depth, detail and sheer musicality to the whole evening. Again, we had the full range of music – dance rhythms, serene solos from Dido (Rebecca Sarginson), mysterious and magical melodies from the Sorcerer and the Witches (Alicia Hill, Zoe Nendick & Naomi Armstrong), wonderful sympathetic and impassioned singing from Katherine Choonara  as Dido’s Lady in Waiting, and throughout, Geoffrey Hickling as Aeneas, a perfect foil to all the mystery, witchcraft, and passion of the love affair with Dido – here was a man torn between his destiny, his desire to please the Gods and his great love for the Queen of Carthage.

The whole built to a sublime climax and I suspect even those members of the audience who did not know the story of the two ill fated lovers were on the edges of their seats as I was as  Dido sang her final aria - one of the great works of all opera and music, the awe inspiring and renowned Lament – When I am laid to rest in earth, my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. This was high drama, one of the high points of all music, and  Rebecca Sarginson carried it off superbly. As the final notes died away from Dido, the Choir and the Ensemble  there was  a very tangible sense of desolation in the Church before the audience erupted into a huge round of applause. It really was worthy of a standing ovation and when David Russell stepped forward to thank the audience for coming he was not wrong in beginning his remarks by saying that what we had just heard was “very real treat”. Indeed it was – and the response from the audience was clear – they agreed with him.

The night had been one of contrasts. From the rousing opening of the Trumpet Tune to the deep sorrow and desolation of the final moments of Didi and Aeneas we experienced  the full spectrum of human existence in all its joys, sorrows, ambitions, defeats and twists. We listened to music that came from Purcell’s professional life as a court composer interwoven with tunes that he might have first heard sung in the inns and taverns of London. From bright Restoration London theatre music we slipped into music of huge reverence and religious intensity. From joyous, celebratory music we plumbed the depths of human sorrow. From tunes and rhythms that might best be described as rustic or “of the people” we soon found ourselves in the world of  grand and stately court and dance music.  And throughout, and underpinning it all was Purcell’s consummate skills as a composer  and as a master of the English language proving his own words true:  “As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is  of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry” . Under Paul Hayward’s baton and Michael Overbury’s skilled musicianship this was a crisp, enthusiastic fresh and sympathetic rendering of some of Purcell’s greatest and best loved works. So many times the performers brought a lump to the throat so intense was the emotion that was generated in works like the Funeral Sentences or Dido’s Lament or I Was Glad  but then in a trice we were exhilarated by the grandness of the occasion in works like the Trumpet Tune or The Suite from Abdelazer or the magnificent pealing of orchestral bells accompanying the Choir’s wonderful rendering of Rejoice in the Lord Always - in short an emotional roller coaster of wonderful sounds.

We live in a world that has come to expect and demand perfection. Whether it be the health of our children or ourselves we expect only the best – and largely, the wonders of modern science, give us just that. We expect our motor cars to run perfectly and are surprised and distressed when they do not. At the drop of a hat we complain to the supermarket or shopkeeper when things do not quite measure up to what we expect of them. Increasingly when we talk of sport what we are really talking about are the elite (yes, we even call it that!) footballers and athletes from the elite teams. Perfection is the name of the game in modern day life. In music it is no different; when we switch on our i-pods or stereo systems we are used to hearing the world’s elite musicians giving us musical perfection from their hi-tech recording studios where all imperfections are simply air brushed out. But there is – and, as last night proved, thank goodness  – another narrative.

I can listen to every single piece of music that I heard last night on my stereo system – and have done so for many years. My various Purcell CDs bring me the world’s greatest Purcell performers and interpreters – and I marvel at them. But last night, courtesy of the Ruddington & District Choral Society, the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble, the six wonderful young soloists, the conductor Paul Hayward and the musical talents of organ and harpsichord player Michael Overbury, gave me something else..........it brought me real, live music with its unique and glorious sound and played not by elite professionals but by enthusiastic, highly talented, hard working, amateur musicians and music lovers. Just as in Purcell’s day when every time any work was performed it was by its very nature unique since the magic of recording studios were not available and the players were often journeymen players earning  their crust, not musical  super stars so it was last night, this was music in the “raw” – with all its highs and lows. The musical puritan might have picked out small imperfections – and I’m sure that every performer and Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury, too, will also be aware of them – but that is not the point, it was “live”, well rehearsed and yet unique, not air brushed of all errors. It was the unique and personal musical skills and efforts of every man and woman who performed it, with no "added technological extras" to iron out imperfections and boost performance; and that was its strength for it had a vibrancy and freshness that can never be reproduced in the sterile recording studio.   Until the last note had been played no-one knew how successful it was going to be; would the difficult bits be mastered, would those high notes be attained, would that tricky bit of counterpoint be overcome or the interchange between orchestra, choir and soloists come off? This is what gives live performance an edge – and especially so when it is not being performed by the musical elite who we all know can do this sort of stuff. After all, that is why they are “elite”.

Given this, it was no surprise that as the last notes of Dido and Aeneas died away and there was a very brief silence before the audience erupted in applause as Conductor Paul Hayward’s hands fell to his sides and he smiled at this performers and mouthed “Well done, thank you”. It was not relief but recognition of a wonderfully well done job that Henry Purcell, had he been sitting in the rafters of St Peter’s, would have recognised for, I am sure, he would have felt the same on many occasions in  his own musical life when his live music met all his expectations.

In any walk of life it is the grass roots that matter. We do not (or should not)  measure the “health” or success of a nation by what a tiny minority at the pinnacle are achieving. The elite should, rather reflect the success of the grass roots – get it right at the bottom and the rest will follow and that is why concerts like last night’s are so important. Not only do they give an opportunity for amateur performers to perform and enjoy their interests; not only do they provide a local venue for ordinary people to go along an enjoy a performance; but they are also vital ingredients in the structure of the whole – be it music, football, dance, or any other pursuit one can think of. They provide those at the start of their interest in the activity - be it singing, playing, developing sporting talents etc. - to rehearse and practise their skills and so widen their experience of the activity as they climb the ladder to greater success.  They are, therefore, the bedrock of future success. The Ruddington & District Choral Society have over many years provided opportunities for aspiring young soloists to join them in their concerts and some of these same young soloists are now established “stars” in their own right – there, to a small degree, because of the experiences they gained at the grass roots with amateur groups like those who performed at St Peter’s last night.

Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury at Ruddington are continuing this important work. They are widening the choir and orchestra’s repertoire, undeniably improving the quality of the performance and without any doubt bringing a joy to each performance. This was clearly visible on the faces of the singers and players; in their concentration; in their attention to their conductors leadership. They were giving it their all – and the result was a glorious evening from start to finish.

A few minutes after the concert began I was sitting at the desk in the church entrance way waiting to catch any late comers to take their entrance fee when a young lady, looking rather anxious and complete with back pack and shopping bag, crept in. I asked if she wanted a ticket and a programme but she said no – she had been standing at the bus stop outside the church and had heard the music (Purcell’s Trumpet Tune). As she stood listening she had seen the advert for the concert pinned to the church gate so had come up the church drive to take a peep. She had half an hour to wait for her bus she explained to me in whispers, “Could I stand and listen for a few minutes”. I gave her a programme and she stood almost open mouthed looking and listening through the glass of the entrance way. As the next piece came to an end (I was Glad) she whispered “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about classical music but this is wonderful. Is there another concert soon?” I pointed out the next concert in the programme and she smiled saying “If I’m around I’ll try to get to that one, I didn’t know that classical music was like this”. She sat for another few minutes listening and glancing at the programme and then whispered, “My bus is due” – and she disappeared into the evening air and down the church path clutching her shopping bag and programme.

I don't know if that lady will return but just maybe the concert opened a little window for her - and that is not to be dismissed. We live in times when mobile phones, tablets, hi-tech computer games, an all pervading media intent of grabbing our attention and every waking minute, plus a busy life style  all combine to attract our attention away from books, music (of any kind), the theatre or the art gallery. This is not about high or low culture but about how we respond to what I will loosely call the arts - be it Henry Purcell or the Rolling Stones, Michelangelo or Tracey Emin, Harry Potter or Charles Dickens. And if those few minutes opened a little window for that lady then both she, and the rest of us, will be all the better for it. The poet William Blake writer of the Jerusalem (And did those feet in ancient time.....) famously commented  “Nations are destroy’d or flourish, in proportion as their Poetry, Painting, and Music are destroy’d or flourish." He was not wrong and that is what grass roots music in the community is for  - to sustain, celebrate and enhance a nation and a  culture and it is why it is so very important. To enable everyone to access, understand, enjoy and perhaps be moved to perform music in all its forms. Unless we get it right at the grass roots then we will not have the great orchestras, the wonderful tenors, altos, basses and sopranos, the elite choirs in our great musical venues. And nor will we have those local groups and opportunities to enjoy our musical heritage. It is why last night’s performers and the hard, enthusiastic and inspiring work that Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury do at Ruddington is so important. It’s not just about Ruddington Choir and Ensemble, it’s also about the future and the musical life of the nation. Henry Purcell would have understood that very well.

Thank you to all at St Peter’s for a rich and rewarding night of some of the very greatest English music.

12 May, 2018

An Evening With Mr Henry Purcell

A contemporary painting of Purcell
What are you doing next Saturday (May 19th)? Perhaps you're looking forward to a street party to celebrate the Royal Wedding? Or maybe if football is your thing then you’ll be tuning in to enjoy the Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United? How about another idea, and one that in a way fits both of these bills – come to St. Peter’s Church here in Ruddington to enjoy the Ruddington & District Choral Society and the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble perform the glorious music of arguably the greatest English composer, Henry Purcell!

What’s that got to do with Royal Weddings and Cup Finals you might well ask? Well, you see, Purcell wrote music for the big occasion and especially big national occasions – Royal Weddings, Coronations, celebrations of great victories – you name it, Purcell wrote music for it. There’s absolutely no doubt if Purcell were alive today then Harry and Meghan would have asked him to write the music for their wedding day and the Football Association would have chased him to compose something suitable to be played as Manchester United and Chelsea walked out onto the Wembley pitch for their big game. Purcell wrote music to reflect the nation’s joy, hopes, fears, aspirations and sorrows as the great national events of England unfolded; he was the man for the big occasion and in being so he wrote a some of the most glorious, evocative, achingly beautiful, seductive and long lasting of all English music. In short, the music of Henry Purcell was written as a tribute to England, its great names, its common people, its proud history, its traditions, its great events and most of all as an acknowledgement of what it is to be English.

Purcell could not only write a good tune and rise to the occasion; his music – both in his day and still today – acknowledges and celebrates the feelings and aspirations of England as a people. To hear the music of Purcell, even today three centuries after his death, is to stand tall and puff out one's chest with pride - not because of great battles or victories won - but simply because what he composed spoke of the very best in mankind and England. And he did it with what one musicologist called “an unrivalled and exquisite sensitivity to the English language”. English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as an introduction to his sonnet "Henry Purcell" wrote: "The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man's mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in English men and in all men generally”. Many would agree with Hopkins. Purcell’s opera, theatre, sacred and state music put him amongst the greats of western music in general and English music in particular. But there is more. His music is an integral and important part of the rich fabric of English history and, as such, is closely bound up with the nation’s sense of “Englishness”. Just as the music of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov is part of the national psyche of Russia, or Debussy and Fauré unapologetically “French” or Gershwin and Copland so clearly American so, too, with Purcell; his works are bound up with the feelings, the aspirations, the culture and, indeed, the history of England. To hear the music of Purcell is to hear England and all its glorious history, tradition, sorrows and dreams.
St Peter's Ruddington

So, why not come along to St Peter’s on Saturday evening (7.30 pm start) to enjoy "An Evening in the Company of Mr Henry Purcell".

Purcell was born in 1659 at a propitious time. The restoration of the monarchy with the return of Charles II to the throne heralded a period in which music and arts flourished again after the austere period of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. But, if the age in which he lived was in Purcell’s favour so, too, were his personal circumstances. Purcell’s father and uncle were both Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and Purcell, with his father’s help, joined as a boy chorister in 1667. In 1673 Purcell’s voice broke and he received a bursary to continue his musical education with John Blow and in 1679 succeeded Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey. So impressed had Blow been with the prodigious talents of his nineteen year old pupil, he resigned his post in favour of Purcell.
All you need to know! Come and join us!

From that point Purcell was hugely prolific writing with equal skill and imagination for the church, the court, the theatre and for his royal patrons. He produced over a hundred anthems, services and devotional songs, twenty four odes and Welcome songs, an opera and four semi operas, incidental music to over forty plays, over a hundred secular songs and more than forty pieces of brilliantly inventive instrumental music. This output is even more staggering when one realises that he was dead by his thirty seventh year. It is not difficult to draw parallels with Mozart!

For the whole of his musical life Purcell walked with kings. He served at the colourful court of Charles II and looked on as the less likeable King James dug his own political grave. He was present as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ heralded the arrival of William and Mary. Throughout his life he composed for these monarchs and for state occasions, and at the same time, composed for the rapidly growing, but still infant, London theatre. He was London’s busiest and most sought after composer, adored and revered by both his contemporaries and by the ordinary people.

The variety, originality and craftsmanship of Purcell’s work is astonishing. He was the consummate setter of words. Under Purcell, it was said “.....even the most hackneyed piece of English doggerel springs to life. His settings of often mediocre poetry far transcend in emotional depth the words given to him.” Purcell’s music is breath taking – rich, daring and innovative. His complete mastery of Baroque counterpoint, as well as his absorption of Italian influences ensured that he wrote fluently and with huge originality in all instrumental and vocal genres.
Michael Overbury accompanies a rehearsal
& composes along the way! 

Little is known about Purcell’s private life. He married at the age of twenty and his wife Frances bore him seven children. Unfortunately, but not uncommon in his day, only two survived. We know that he worked closely with other writers of the day, collaborating on several occasions, most notably with the great poet John Dryden. This led to two of his greatest successes – The Fairy Queen and King Arthur – both works with a strong sense of nationhood and of England and the English implicit in them: King Arthur retelling of the battle for supremacy between the Britons and the Saxons and The Fairy Queen a reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Purcell’s last royal duty was to provide music for Queen Mary’s funeral in 1695. The music that he composed for this event is amongst the most stirring, solemn and moving in all English music. He did not realise that in a few months he too would pass away and that the music that he had composed for the death of his Queen would be played again at his own funeral. Following his death King William honoured Purcell by agreeing that he be buried with no expense in Westminster Abbey. So great was the reverence in which he was held that thousands lined the London streets as his cortege made its way, accompanied by the sound of his own music, to the Abbey where he is buried adjacent to the organ. Purcell was universally mourned as "a very great master of music." His epitaph reads: "Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only His harmony can be exceeded.”
Musical Director Paul Hayward and the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble

So, what will you hear if you come along to St. Peter's next Saturday? You're in for a treat for sure . Read below for a flavour of what's in store.

In recognition of Saturday’s Royal Wedding the concert opens with the well known and popular Trumpet Tune in D Major. Often used for weddings the work has long been the subject of debate – was it written by Purcell or by Jeremiah Clarke? The confusion is easy to understand. The two were closely linked: Purcell and Clarke were the two premier English composers of the time, both pupils of John Blow, both choristers at the Chapel Royal, both organists (Purcell at Westminster Abbey and Clarke at Winchester Cathedral and St Paul’s), both composed for the monarchy and the state, and to complicate things even more they often collaborated! It is from such a collaboration - the semi opera The Island Princess - that the Trumpet Tune originated. Semi operas were popular in the late 17th century, combining spoken words with masque-like episodes using singing, dancing characters and machines for spectacular effect. Trumpet tunes like this are often called “voluntaries”. In music a voluntary is a piece of music, usually for an organ, played as part of a church service. The title "voluntary" was often used by English composers during the Baroque period for organ music that was free in style, and was meant to sound improvised. The word “voluntary” means "proceeding from the will or from one's own choice or consent" – and the term grew out of the practice of church organists improvising before, after and during a service.

Composed in 1685 the anthem I was Glad was written for the lavish Coronation of James II on April 23rd 1685. It is a setting of Psalm 122. The opening section accompanied James’ procession up the nave of Westminster Abbey; then a break as he entered the quire, filled with the acclamations of Vivat! from the boys of Westminster School; and then the anthem resumed with a meditative section on the words "O pray for the peace of Jerusalem" as James took his seat on the throne. The anthem then concludes with the Gloria. Purcell’s work was sung at the Coronation by the choirs of Westminster and the Chapel Royal as they entered the Abbey ahead of the King and Queen. With its many changes of metre, it cannot have been the easiest of pieces to sing in procession and bears witness not only to the talents of the choristers but to Purcell’s consummate musicality and innovation – and his undoubted sense of occasion.
Queen Mary

The music for the funeral of Queen Mary in 1695 is unquestionably amongst the greatest, most beautiful and solemn funeral music ever written anywhere and by anyone. From the famous and emotionally overpowering opening muffled drum beats to the achingly beautiful choral sections Purcell’s affection for the young Queen is obvious. The music had its origins in 1677 and was originally written for the funeral of Purcell's teacher Matthew Locke.  Queen Mary II's funeral music, which grew from that composed for Locke, had added a March and a Canzona, both employing brass and drums. The texts reflect upon the transitory nature of earthly life, fear of divine judgment, and hope for divine mercy, and are taken from the Book of Common Prayer of 1660 and from Job 14: 1-2.

The simple, stately, perfectly proportioned March has been popular with musicians across the years and across the world when sombre state occasions require it. The muffled drum beat sets the scene and it is easy to imagine the sombre state funeral procession threading its way through the silent crowds paying homage to the dead Queen on the seventeenth century London streets. Thou know'st, Lord, one of the Funeral Sentences, is one of the burial texts from the Book of Common Prayer and is hushed and resigned and a fitting send-off to the departing spirit. The simplicity and brevity of the anthem expresses Purcell’s restrained grief perfectly and one musicologist has said of the Anthem. “...the seriousness and darkness of mood can seem depressing but the work creates an almost palpable sense of occasion and sadness...... the music is of such high order that the listener is exalted by having experienced it....”  Amen to that.
Part of Purcell's handwritten score
for the funeral music

The Queen had died of smallpox in late December 1694 at the age of 32. She had been Queen for only five years. William, the King, was stern, with little real interest in music, but Mary was outgoing and loved music and the theatre. As William was frequently away on military campaigns or visiting his own country, the Netherlands, it fell to Mary to rule England in his absence so Purcell had a close working relationship with her. He had served four monarchs but without doubt had the closest relationship with Mary and held her in the highest esteem. The quiet emotion of the funeral pieces reflects his deep personal sorrow at her passing and his acute sensitivity to the importance, the gravity, and the spiritual, political and national symbolism of the occasion. Mary lay in state until March 5th 1695 so Purcell had sufficient time to compose his music. Both the Court Mourning and the lying in state were sumptuous occasions costing over £100,000. In London black cloths were hung from the houses in even the poorest districts and black handrails were set up throughout the thickly lined and silent streets. During the procession the March was played and the Sentences sung by a following choir. The Sentences were sung again as part of the funeral service. These eloquent compositions for Mary’s funeral are some of Purcell’s most powerful masterpieces. One of the funeral choristers, Thomas Tudway, later recalled the extraordinary effect of Purcell’s music on that day; “I appeal to all that were present .... whither they ever heard anything so rapturously fine, & solemn, & so heavenly .... which drew tears from all; & yet a plain, Naturall Composition; which shows the pow’r of music, when ‘tis rightly fitted, & Adapted to devotional purposes.” Little did Purcell, Tudway and the watching thousands know that just eight months later the streets and the populace would again witness a procession and hear the same music as Purcell’s own body travelled to Westminster Abbey.

A contemporary print of the funeral
Purcell was required each year to compose birthday music – Odes - for the Queen Mary. It was a task he relished and which the Queen much appreciated. During her short reign he composed six such Odes and they are amongst the most popular of all his music. Sound the Trumpet is from the Ode Come, Ye Sons Of Art, the work for Queen’s birthday in April 1694 – only a few months before her death. In Sound the Trumpet the singers embody the trumpets and oboes described in the text; musically it is a work of genius. The text, by Nahum Tate who was Poet Laureate at the time, is flowery and, as was to be expected, highly complimentary of the Queen. The instrumental soloists and the singers enjoin a succession of musical instruments to celebrate the Queen's many virtues. Tate’s words may be rather florid, as was the custom of the time, but they are also clever: one line in particular deserving comment; “You make the listening shores rebound” is a play on the word “shore” and the name of the Sergeant Trumpeter to the King Willliam, Matthias Shore, whose abilities on the trumpet sparked a number of virtuoso compositions for that instrument!
Paul Hayward leads another successful concert

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to a brilliant revival of the arts in England. During his exile, Charles II had acquired a taste for the elaborate music of the French court and quickly re-established the Chapel Royal where Purcell became a chorister in 1667. During the years until the King’s death in 1685, Purcell revived and expanded the uniquely Anglican verse anthems developed by Gibbons, Tomkins and others earlier in the century. His most famous is Rejoice in the Lord Alway, often called the Bell Anthem because of its repetitive descending bass line and brilliant high strings, The text of Rejoice in the Lord Alway is a reworking of the words in Philippians 4:4. With these works and church anthems for unaccompanied choir, Purcell demonstrated an unequalled skill in the setting of English texts to powerfully expressive music. In the glorious opening to Rejoice in the Lord Alway the pealing of bells is everywhere leading to a jaunty introduction of the text by the singers. What follows is a work that ranges from the lyrical to the wistful giving the anthem a haunting, bittersweet – yet joyous - quality set against a rich and elaborate background. This is Purcell at his finest and its many qualities have made it one of Purcell’s most enduringly popular anthems; a true masterpiece.
Some of the ladies of the choir

Abdelazer is a 1676 play by the English dramatist Aphra Behn, and an adaptation of the 1600 tragedy Lust's Dominion. Purcell wrote music for the play for a revival in the summer of 1695. The suite has ten movements one of which, the Rondeau, has gained a lasting place in the musical life of England and the wider world since, in 1946, Benjamin Britten used it in his set of variations The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Since then generations of schoolchildren have listened to and enjoyed the work as they learned of the instruments of the orchestra - without, perhaps, knowing its musical and historical roots!

Although opera made slow progress in seventeenth century England, music played an important part in the theatre. Plays invariably included not only songs, but short orchestral pieces to call the audience’s attention to the start of the entertainment, to mark the change of scene between acts, and the end of the play. The ten movements of Abdelazer show the variety expected of incidental music at the time. In the London theatres productions (and audience expectations) became more vibrant and secular and Abdelazer reflects this. For the first time women were allowed to act on the stage and there were several prominent women playwrights who contributed to the frequently bawdy theatrical world of Restoration London. One such was Aphra Behn the writer of Abdelazer. Behn was frequently accused of lewdness but despite this her works were very popular.

And finally, to what is regarded by many as one of - if not the the very greatest English musical works, the three act opera Dido and Aeneas. It was written by Purcell with a libretto by Nahum Tate probably in July 1688 and first performed at Josias Priest's School For Young Ladies in London at the end of 1689. The story is based on Virgil's Aeneid and recounts the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her despair when he leaves her. It is an understatement to say that it is a defining and monumental work for both Purcell and for all English music. Dido and Aeneas is not only Purcell's foremost theatrical work, and his only true opera, but its nobility of style, and the grandeur and pathos with which it is inspired entitles the work to be regarded as the first musical work worthy of the name “opera” to be produced in England. It compares favourably with any other great musical work from any time or place
Some of the gentlemen of the choir rehearse

Approximately one hour in duration, Dido and Aeneas has been described as “an example of perfection in miniature”. Purcell conveys the story through a variety of musical means including aria, recitative, chorus and dance; his text setting is ingenious, matching the peculiarities of the English language to the rhythms and needs of his glorious music and his development of character through musical means is unmatched anywhere in the Baroque era.

Although tightly constructed – all the action takes place in the space of twenty-four hours – Nahum Tate’s libretto can be confusing for audiences unfamiliar with classical mythology (the story would have been well known to upper class Restoration audiences). The libretto tells of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and her ill-fated love of the Trojan Prince Aeneas, destined to leave her to found the city of Rome. After storms, quarrels between the Gods, winged messengers and lovers’ trysts and quarrels Aeneas leaves on his ill fated journey and Dido finds herself distraught at her loss. Inconsolable she proclaims that she must die now that Aeneas has gone and the Chorus ask Cupids to scatter rose petals on her tomb.

Dido & Aeneas say farewell
It is over 300 years since the premiere of Purcell’s great work and despite its ancient classical roots and the rather unbelievable operatic nature of its plot it still, even in today’s cynical world, speaks poignantly and eloquently of great love and  great loss. Virgil’s tragic tale is retold in music of raw emotional power interlaced with exquisite songs and graceful dances. Dido and Aeneas, with its rich mixture of comic and tragic elements so characteristic of 17th century English theatre, perfectly illustrates Purcell's extraordinary dramatic sense and commanding ability to use both the English language and music to exquisite and stunning effect. When, in the final moments of the opera, Dido sings Dido’s Lament, an aria regarded as one of the finest in all opera – "When I am laid in earth, my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast "- she can still, no matter how many times one has heard this piece, send shivers down any spine and reduce an audience to tears – it is Purcell and English music at its very greatest

It is perhaps fitting that this aria in this opera, one of the pinnacles of both Purcell’s and all opera’s achievement, has become such an important work and one of the great anthems for the nation that Purcell so loved. At great national events such as Remembrance Day, or to mark the passing of some great leader or national figure, Dido’s Lament will inevitably feature; like other great works by Purcell it has become part of the cultural fabric and national psyche. It is a work, like many by Purcell, that is important not just because of its wonderful music or words but also
because it is a work to brings people and nations together in times of need, and even now, three centuries after the composer’s death, it still defines part of what it is to be English. Purcell, the great patriot, the man with the great musical gift and the ability to use in his works the English language so majestically, exquisitely and elegantly would, no doubt, be both humbled and quietly pleased about that.

So, Royal Wedding? Cup Final? Or maybe St Peter’s Church Ruddington. I know where I'll be!  Don't miss it!

06 May, 2018

Restoring One's Faith

Yesterday, in a small way, restored a little of my faith in England. Over the past almost 40 years I have watched increasingly horrified at what we as a nation have become since the time when Margaret Thatcher  first put her venomous stamp on the politics, culture and society of what Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt called “this sceptered isle”.  

Britain 2018 is, it seems to me, a desperately divided land where each week we wake up to another crisis, another sad commentary on our national and daily life, another low in the country’s expectations of public and national life: Brexit, Grenfell Tower, the Windrush scandal, the various crises in our basic public services, scandals of every hue, inequality at its highest and on a more widespread level than  at any time in the past,  cynical distrust in our leaders, a race to the bottom media, and an increasingly widespread  distrust - even hatred - of our fellow humans – especially if they have the misfortune to be of a different language, colour or belief.............. all this, and more, dents my national pride and tries any faith that I might have in my place of birth. Increasingly obsessed with our own “brave and good little Englander” mentality, we still want to display our inherent aggressive nature by espousing at every opportunity our “victories” over “Johnny Foreigner” with endless replays of war movies.  The despicable Daily Mail plumbed new depths on that by this weekend by running a “celebratory” edition of the  famed World War II Dambuster Raid. The only possible reason for the Mail's action can be to reinforce the notion of we doughty Brits overcoming the evil foreigner - or to put it another way to reinforce our prejudices of our own inherent "rightness" and "strength" and the "weakness" and inherent "evil" of those not fortunate enough to be born white English (and I use that last word carefully - I did not use "British", for to the Mail an dits readers anyone who is not English is by definition of lesser worth be they Welsh, Scottish, French, German, or any other nation or creed on God's planet).

We, have become an increasingly embattled little island at odds with ourselves and with much of the rest of the world; a nation that knows the cost of everything, but in reality, the value of nothing. French novelist Victor Hugo once commented that “You can resist an invading army but you cannot resist an idea whose time has come”  As a nation we increasingly try to disprove Hugo’s commentary believing that on our little island, and behind our metaphorical  castle wall, we can bury our heads in the past and deny all awareness of the rest of mankind and at the same time vilify his ideas, his aspirations, his hopes, his fears. If one wants any proof of that look no further than the last 40 years and the Tory party view of Europe and the Europeans; think of the awful Nigel Farage of UKIP or the equally unpleasant Jacob Rees Mogg - a possible contender for the leadership of his party. Since Margaret Thatcher smashed her jackboot into a better England and told us that “there is no such thing as society” we have fast become a “sceptic and septic isle” increasingly unloved by our neighbours and, I believe, unwelcome in the world with little to bring to mankind other than our own bigoted views, espoused mainly through the Tory party and its media organs - the Daily mail and the Daily Telegraph. We are no longer John of Gaunt's "sceptered isle".

It was not always thus and yesterday, in a very small way, my faith was just a little restored.
Sophie with Hamlet

We sat, my daughter Kate, her husband Andrew, Pat my wife and our two teenage granddaughters Sophie & Ellie with hundreds (maybe  thousands ) enjoying the summer sunshine on the glorious expanse of grass outside the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. We were there to watch Shakespeare’s great and terrible tragedy Macbeth. A picnic in the sun followed by an afternoon spent in what to me is one of the hallowed places of “this sceptered isle” – the RSC theatre. Sophie is studying Macbeth as part of her exam syllabus and so we thought it a good opportunity for her to see the play at the home of Shakespeare – and we were not disappointed. I am no Shakespeare aficionado, I do not have the words or knowledge to proclaim what is a “good” or “bad” rendering of a Shakespeare’s play but as I sat there listening to the glorious and terrible words, watching the wonderful acting by all the characters I thought, as I always do when I sit in that wonderful and humbling place, how fortunate I am to be able to be there and to be a tiny part of a country that gave the world this magnificent language.

Each time I visit continental Europe I am always delighted to see how our neighbours celebrate their various cultural histories: the magnificence of ancient and Renaissance Italy, the wonderful music of Germany and Austria, the pride of the French in their political and cultural past. Even the smallest French town, it seems, has a Rue Victor Hugo or a Boulevard Pasteur; the Germans talk of Goethe or Schiller in almost reverential terms; the Dutch flock to their galleries to see their Rembrandts and Vermeers; or the Austrians take every opportunity to celebrate Mozart, Hayden or Mahler.
Ellie and dad with prince Hal

These nations erect statues to their great and good, they name roads after them, they celebrate them through festivals and stand tall when their names are mentioned. Rarely so the English. When we erect statues they tend to be of leaders mostly of questionable status  but with a common link  -  that of the bulldog spirit: Nelson or the Duke of Wellington who won great battles, Thatcher the vicious woman who trampled on all in her way but seemed to hold talismanic status for much of the population keen to impose their will on those less fortunate, Churchill, his cigar aggressively stuck in his mouth was portrayed as  the epitome of the British bulldog,  Bomber Harris who inflicted death and destruction on thousands in the raids on Germany in the second world war....and so the list goes on. When we  celebrate our musical culture via the season of Promenade Concerts we sadly ensure that the last night is a celebration  of pomp and jingoism where we sing Rule Britannia  and wave flags to show our national "spirit".  We in England define leadership all too often in military or political terms  - rarely in cultural, literary or artistic measure. And yet, in the end these are the aspects of any society that define it and for which men and women through the ages have been prepared to die – for their “culture” however one describes it.

Each time I walk into the RSC I am humbled, I get a lump in my throat, a rush of expectation; in short it makes me proud to be English. It does not, however, make me proud to be English when I read of us gloatingly celebrating victories in a long past war by continually rerunning old war films or continually disparaging and demeaning our nearest neighbours; it does not make me “stand a tip toe” (to quote Shakespeare) to learn how we humiliate those who are most vulnerable in our society or of a different colour or culture; it does not make me want to sing the national anthem and loudly proclaim “God Save the Queen” when I know that that Queen, whose life and position we plead to “save”, rules over one of the richest nations ever known to mankind and yet allows to exist the most unequal society this nation has ever experienced and where many visit food banks,  work on zero hours contracts or are classed as “key workers” such as nurses and yet  cannot afford their own home; and it does not make me want to wave the Union flag when I know that England 2018 is in many ways a sham democracy where although the right to vote is generally won there is no reality of the equality implicit in the word democracy where one person’s vote counts as much as  the next.

Ready for Macbeth
In 1939 Sir Cyril Norwood, ex-head teacher of Harrow Public school and  charged with drawing up plans for a reformed English educational system at the end of the war said “It is impossible to resist the argument that a State which draws its leaders in overwhelming proportions from a class so limited [from public schools] as this is not a democracy, but is a pluto-democracy and it is impossible  to hope that the classes of this country will ever be united in spirit unless their members cease to be educated in two separate systems of school one of which is  counted as definitely superior to the other”. At the same time as Norwood was publishing his research Thomas Cuthbert Worsley was writing  his book  Flannelled Fool recounting his experiences as a master at one of the great public schools, Wellington College. Worsley was himself the product of the public school system and wrote bitterly  of the  role of the public school in the life of the nation and especially of the various “disasters” that overtook Britain in the early part of the 20th century  from the leadership of the First World War, to the aftermath and resulting in the ravages of economic and social chaos of the Great Depression, to the desperate times and rise of fascism visited on much of the population  in the 1930s and finally the slide by the British government into war in 1939. Worsley was unstinting in his criticism saying:  We are where we are owing largely to the privileged education which the ruling class have received.... If the public schools are national assets because of their leadership training  qualities, what are we to think of those qualities  when we survey the mess into which their leadership has brought us.”  Norwood and Worsley  would, I am sure, turn in their  graves to know that now, some 80 years after they wrote their words, that the British government of Theresa May has a higher proportion of public school educated members than that of their  time; in 1945 Clement Attlee’s cabinet had 25% of its members from the great public schools, in 2017 Theresa May’s cabinet had 34%. Currently only about 7% of the population attend public schools and yet they comprise over a third of the most powerful political positions in the nation. That makes a  mockery of the notion of democracy – as Norwood commented 80 years ago – it is a pluto-democarcy and if one thinks about it at all seriously there is little to be proud of in that.
Interval ice creams!

But yesterday there was much to enjoy and be proud of – to see so many people enjoying picnics in the sun at one of the world’s great cultural icons – the birthplace of William Shakespeare.  And then to take our granddaughters (it was their first visit to Stratford) to stand before Shakespeare’s statue  surrounded by figures from his many great plays. The girls, and we, sat mesmerised as the actors – so close on occasions we could touch them - played their parts and recited their lines.  I (and I think to the girls) sat in awe as the play progressed through its terrible tale and as I sat there I remembered, as I always do on such occasions, the first time that I saw Shakespeare.

I was almost 20 before I saw a Shakespeare play. I was at Blackpool Technical College studying for A Levels  and hoping to become a teacher. The College’s dramatic society each year performed a Shakespeare work and in 1964 they performed Othello,  in the round, at the Blackpool Tower Circus ring. When I went, alone, to that performance I had absolutely no idea what I would see or indeed what it was all about.  I had never read any Shakespeare or been exposed to it at school. After my college lessons had finished for the day I bought some fish and chips for my tea and sat on a bench eating them on a windy and dark Blackpool  sea front. I was the Tower Circus when the doors first opened – not through great keenness  since I didn’t know what I was going to see - but rather to get inside from the cold. But when the play started I was transfixed. I didn’t understand a word in all honesty but I knew with absolute certainty, as I sat there,  that what I was watching something a very special. It was the start of my love of Shakespeare. Little did I think that winter's night in Blackpool in 1964 that I would one day sit, as I have now done many times, in the RSC in Shakespeare’s birthplace or see his great words spoken in a variety of other places.  

So, when I walk across that lovely grass approach to the theatre, when I see Shakespeare’s statue and the figures from his plays surrounding him, when I see the engraved names of great actors or photographs of the giants who have trod the stage at the RSC and who have declaimed  the Bard's words in their wonderful spoken English – John Gielgud, Judie Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, Lawrence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Vanessa  Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Simon Russell Beale.......and a thousand others who came before and thousands who are still to come I am proud to be English. And when I hear the words written by Shakespeare and watch how each actor  and character interprets them I never cease to be both amazed and humbled. How could anyone write such stuff as this? How could anyone learn and speak such stuff as this without becoming a crumbling wreck on the stage? When the three witches hauntingly began Macbeth yesterday, when Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth slowly but horrifyingly descended into their respective demented murderous states, when the Porter slowly but oh! so deliberately tallied the death toll on the wall behind him and the rest of the cast played their wonderful but terrible parts in ramping up the fear I sat both in  both awe and in terror. I’m no expert but this was a production to remember and to reflect upon – maybe, I thought as I left the theatre, a reminder to us all of how easily mankind can slip into a world of hate and revenge, where evil becomes easy and in the minds of some the norm - perhaps, I thought, a metaphor for Tory, Daily Mail, Brexit England.
Those spooky witches!

But as the actors took their final bows, we all looked at each other and said “Wow” – and we threaded our way out into the bright late afternoon sunshine knowing that we had been lucky indeed to be a small part of  the afternoon’s events – to be  a small part of the story of Shakespeare and have something to take with us into our futures. These are good things of which to be rightly proud – not bombing people, or waving a patriotic flag and declaring my country right or wrong. Not preaching democracy but in the same breath denying it by ensuring  that only a small proportion of the populace effectively have any say in how the country is run. Not demeaning or belittling  people who are different from us. Not pursuing economic, social and political policies that manifestly and intentionally work against the majority in order that a few increasingly profit. I could go on – I will not.

So yesterday, was a good day. I felt pride in that little part of England and especially so on this occasion. We had taken our granddaughters to this place hoping that it might just help in the passing of exams but infinitely  more important to me was and is that just maybe, just possibly, in many years time when the girls  are both  themselves grandparents, they might look back and remember and say to their grandchildren “I remember the first time I went to Stratford upon Avon and saw a Shakespeare play.....it was Macbeth and I went with my Granny and Grampy ....and I’ve loved all Shakespeare ever since.

30 April, 2018

What Money Can't Buy

One of the books on my office bookshelf is by the American philosopher Michael Sandel - a philosopher who has become almost a legend in his own life time and who many term the "rock star philosopher" so popular is he, even with people who thought philosophy a rather dry and boring subject.  (For information about Sandel and to follow his hugely successful philosophy course on Justice from Harvard and which deals with much of the content of this book - click Michael Sandel Justice ). The book is called “What money can’t buy” and discusses the various aspects of our modern society that have increasingly become things for which many are prepared to pay – for example paying for the services of a surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy,  paying someone to stand in a queue on our behalf so that we don’t have to be bothered with the time wasting burden of queuing for tickets for our favourite concert, or perhaps paying for our children to go to a private school in order that they might get a “better” education than that provided by the state. Sandel discusses the various moral issues associated with these and many other examples and asks the question what are the moral limits of the market – are there any things that should not be “up for sale”?

I thought of Sandel’s book last night as I sat in the magnificent surroundings of the 18th century Tabley House near Knutsford in Cheshire. My thoughts were not of what we should or should not pay for but rather are there things whose intrinsic worth to humanity is not related to their monetary value  - if indeed they have any monetary value? In short are there aspects of life that money really can't buy no matter how rich or poor one is? As the concert progressed I realised that indeed there are! We were enjoying a concert in which our daughter’s chamber orchestra, The Vivaldi Ensemble, were playing together with the Knott Singers. It was a lovely evening: magnificent surroundings, wonderful playing, exquisite singing, a warm and uplifting atmosphere and all in a good cause - to raise money and awareness of a very worthwhile and important organisation “AUD-M-ED”, a charity devoted to raising money and awareness of the plight of deaf people in the developing world (https://www.audmed.org.uk/) .
On more than one occasion as I sat there listening to the wonderful music and looking around at the glorious room  in which we all sat I thought to myself  “It doesn’t get much better than this”. It wasn't about lovely music played by some great musicians - although the music was lovely and the musicians were great (though not famous!). But it was about the pleasure,  the personal satisfaction and the basic instinct inherent in every human to recognise what is good and worthy. As the music flowed a few words from the past came into my mind; words that when I was in the classroom and children came at the end of their time at my school to ask if I would write something in their autograph book for them to keep and remember as they moved on to their next school. I always wrote the same thing - the wonderful words from St Paul's letter to the Philippians Chapter 4: Verse 8: ".....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, then think on these things.”  As I sat in Tabley House last night I had absolutely no doubt that what I was seeing and hearing was manifestly of good report, pure, virtuous, honest, worth thinking about and all the other fitting descriptions - and that these are all qualities quite unrelated to monetary value, worth or price. Like standing on the clifftop overlooking the sunset on the sea's distant  horizon it was an evening to make one feel good about the world and about humanity - and that must be the most priceless thing imaginable and yet it has no cost; money cannot buy it, it can be experienced by the richest and the poorest of humanity just as the qualities listed by St Paul can be adhered to by everyone no matter what their standing or wealth. So it was with the concert: all the participants were “amateurs” giving their time freely and the cost of our tickets wasn’t driven by the market value of the musicians or the richness of the venue – it was simply a means to give some money to this most worthy cause. In her opening welcome comments to the audience Dr Dolores Umapathy reminded us all that were going to enjoy listening to some wonderful music - an opportunity that would be denied, because of their deafness, to the many people in the developing  world and who the charity sought to help. We were not paying for the opportunity to hear lovely music but giving to help ensure that others, in far off places and who we would probably never meet, might have the opportunity to do what we so often take for granted - namely to hear.

Surrounded by beautiful paintings and rich furnishings we were treated to music that ranged from the glories of Vivaldi’s Venice and St Marks Square, to English folk songs; from the barges on the Thames carrying King George 1st as he listened, in 1717, to Handel’s much loved Water Music to the mesmerising and haunting choral work by Charles Villiers Stanford The Blue Bird  - apposite, I thought, for out of the window and in the far distance, one could see Tabley House’s mere – the words of Stanford’s work “The lake lay blue below the hill, O'er it, as I looked, there flew, Across the waters, cold and still, A bird whose wings were palest blue.....” seemingly made real. Then, in a trice, we were taken back to the very birth of choral polyphony as we listened to the Knott Singers performing a work by the Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina; a real show stopper this, ethereal, soul searching, awe inspiring, music, quite simply to please the gods! But again, in a breath, we were in the 20th century captivated by the Vivaldi Ensemble’s rendering of the quintessential English Brook Green Suite by Holst – cream teas, English country church yards, cricket balls hitting the willow and men in boaters escorting gowned ladies - the very essence of  Edwardian England interwoven into Holst's lovely and evocative composition.   
And so it went on: the Sinfonia from Bach’s light, but at the same time wistful, Non sa che sia dolore from his Cantata BWV 209, and then from Bach’s 18th century Leipzig we flitted just a few miles across Saxony to enjoy the captivating Viola Concerto by Telemann. Written at about the same time as Bach’s Cantata, Telemann’s Viola Concerto is the first known viola concerto and an absolute joy. It was probably written in Frankfurt at about the same time that Bach was composing his Cantata – and we all sat hanging on every note as Nigel Jay led the Vivaldi Ensemble and at the same time played his viola to provide a superb rendering of this delightful work; it was a real high spot of the evening. My wife, Pat, read my thoughts as she leaned across during the applause and said "We haven't got a CD of that have we?" I shook my headed and mentally noted that Amazon would soon be getting an order!
The concert began with the Vivaldi Ensemble playing one of Vivaldi’s much loved works (the Concerto C Major) and the second half, too, began with Vivaldi, this time the Concerto in G Minor. The Ensemble  captured beautifully the sound, the feel and the magic of Vivaldi’s Venice: the lapping waters of the Grand Canal, the glorious architecture, world of Casanova, dark narrow streets and shady piazzas, the everyday life and at the same time the high culture of La Serenissimo – the Serene Republic. The Vivialdi Ensemble, under BBC Philharmonic player Jay's subtle, skilled and gently enthusiastic leadership produced a rich textured sound absolutely right for the music, the occasion, and the venue. It was easy to imagine, I thought, that this must have been very  much like the sound that Venetians heard as they listened to these works in the salons of Vivaldi's Venice, or that George 1st heard as he cruised down the Thames listening to Handel’s great Water Music in 1717. Nigel Jay has both musical depth and a gentle winning manner, plus an obvious love of music combined with an ability to encourage and get the best from his players – and it showed to the full last night.

What we heard was music played from the very heart and where every instrument – violins, violas and cellos - and every player in this little string group beautifully complemented each other to provide a kaleidoscope of interwoven sounds to please the ear and catch every detail and nuance of the works. The Vivaldi Ensemble has been a major part of the south Manchester amateur musical scene for many years and has established a fine reputation for both the range and quality of their repertoire. As last night’s concert showed they are equally happy with High Baroque as they are with 20th century music and under Nigel Jay’s baton they are going from strength to strength.
From the glories of 17th century Venice we ended the concert with the Knott Singers sending us on our way with two English folk songs arranged by Holst – the lyrical and at the same time plaintive and haunting I Love My Love and, in complete contrast, the lively Swansea Town. In her introduction, conductor Katharine Longworth reminded us of the debt owed to Gustav Holst who, like his contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams, did so much to ensure that the ancient folk songs of the British Isles were preserved for posterity. Katharine Longworth’s love of music is obvious for all to see and hear; the passion with which she talks of music, the enthusiastic and animated conducting, the rapport with her singers (and her audience) and the all too obvious joy that is apparent with every  note sung ensures that the sound created is both infectious and long lasting. Her singers were not only a joy to hear but a pleasure to watch – smiling faces, totally concentrated on their conductor, completely and ease with what they were doing even though they were singing some technically difficult music – and totally unaccompanied.  

This was top order stuff from the group; beautiful diction and clarity, a purity of sound, never a note or a beat missed, never a note off key. The choir’s voices wove complex and sumptuous patterns that filled the high ceilinged room to the very rafters complementing exactly the  richness of the decor, the furnishings and the great oil paintings that surrounded us. Katharine Longworth had explained that they were “just a group of friends who loved to sing” – well, maybe, but that tells only half of the story. They are in truth a highly accomplished set of musicians who have the knack of passing on their joyous love of music to the audience – a gift not always given, even to the greatest.

We had sat for about two hours enjoying this wonderful musical evening and those hours had passed as if in what seemed a matter of seconds. And as I sat, time and again I thought to myself this is something that money really can’t buy! True, we had all paid for our tickets – but that tells only a tiny part of the story. For our few pounds we had enjoyed so much more: we had made a donation to a worthy cause, listened to some wonderful music, been reminded that, unlike many in the world, we all had the sense of hearing enabling us to enjoy the glory of these performers, composers and the music, but above all (for me at least) I had been part of something special – and something which is always given freely by music of any kind.  As if by magic I had been transported back to Vivaldi’s Venice and heard what the citizens of Venice heard 300 years ago; I had listened to ancient music that had filled the towns and villages of the British Isles of yesteryear and which had perhaps been sung by my ancestors in the fields, the factories, the houses and the inns of years gone by. For a few minutes I sat on that barge on the River Thames with George 1st and watched George Frederick Handel conduct his orchestra; or, jumping a couple of centuries, I was in the Edwardian England of Charles Villiers Stanford or standing on Brook Green, outside St Paul’s Girls' School in London where Gustav Holst taught music. As the Knott Singers  sang I was at once in 16th century England listening to the madrigals of Thomas Morley and then in a trice reliving the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 as I enjoyed the The Hills  written for that great day by English composer John Ireland to celebrate the hills and the heaths and uplands of the British Isles -  part of the collection of musical works by British composers forming A Garland for the Queen.
These are all things that money cannot buy; the music that we had all enjoyed as we sat in this wonderful ancient stately home had given me a free ticket to the past, and an opportunity to almost touch that past. I wasn’t just listening to a few bits of rather nice music performed by some quite good musicians – instantly heard and quickly forgotten. No, the music and the musicians, the place and the occasion allowed my mind to wander back through time and just for a few minutes hear exactly what those people of far of times and places had heard and enjoyed. In a small way I could be a part of something very much bigger, something that crosses the generations and continents – from Venice to London, from 16th century Rome to the port of Swansea, from Bach’s 18th century Leipzig to Holst’s Edwardian Brook Green. As humans we do not just live in the present – we have inherited a world built in  the past and created by the industry and wisdom of the those who have gone before us. And in our turn we must bequeath a future to those who come after us. As historian and philosopher Tony Judt said “We have responsibilities for others, not just across space but across time. We have responsibilities to people who came before us. They left us a world of institutions, ideas or possibilities for which we, in turn, owe them something. One of the things we owe them is not to squander them but to build on them to pass on something worthy and good to those who come after us”.

Music is part of that lexicon and last night’s concert so wonderfully performed let me for a couple of hours have access to it and, from my 21st century viewpoint, see the world through the musical eyes of previous centuries and places. It brought home to me this heritage from the past and the unwritten but implicit promise that we all must make to the future. It was an opportunity to reconnect with the past and in turn to have the memories of a wonderful evening and glorious music to keep and take into my own future. Just as money cannot buy the wonderful feelings of seeing a glorious sunset that becomes part of one's memory or money cannot buy the joy that one feels at the birth of one's son or daughter or the feelings of the day when one marries, so too, money could not buy the opportunities, feelings and pleasure that last night's concert gave. And as we left the concert and carefully trod our way along the garden paths through the gathering darkness and so back to the car park, in front of us were two or three of the choir members – they were still singing what they had been performing only minutes earlier - carrying these musical gems from the past into the April 2018 evening Cheshire dusk! What a lovely way to end such a splendid night and to have in our minds as we took the motorway south from the outskirts of Manchester to our home in far off Nottingham.