12 June, 2018

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment...."

Philip Lee I may not share his politics 
but I respect his integrity. A nan who stood up
today for what he thought was right -
despite the consequences.
From the day that David Cameron announced that there would be a referendum on whether the UK remained in the EU those who advocated leaving used as one of their main rallying calls that Parliament should “take back control” from the European Union. Once the referendum had occurred and the decision for Brexit became a reality this call for Parliament to “take back control”  then morphed into Parliament “carrying out the will of the people” – i.e. ensuring that the vote on June 16 2016 to leave the EU is carried out;  no ifs no buts. In recent months as the Brexit momentum has stumbled and stuttered we have seen huge pressure being exerted upon the government to force Theresa May to be ruthless in forcing Brexit through – almost no matter what the cost. The “will of the people must be obeyed”  is the call to arms; living in 2018 England feels much as it must have felt in 1790’s Paris when the “will of the people”  had to be obeyed and Madame la Guillotine ensured that all who disagreed with that maxim met a bloody end as the blade fell on their necks and Paris streets ran with blood in the French Revolution’s “reign of terror”.

More words and newspaper and blog and column inches have been devoted to this in the two years since the Brexit vote – much of it by me! – that further debate  and rehearsal of the arguments for and against Brexit seem pretty superfluous; minds are made up, positions taken for good or ill.

However, in this week when Theresa May is facing a number or serious votes about Brexit there is a worrying and associated issue has come to the fore this morning. (Tuesday June 12th 2018). It is one that encapsulates the very delicate and potentially frightening point that democracy and the political process has reached in 2018 Britain and is something that goes to the very heart of the debate about “Parliament taking back control” – the rallying cry so beloved by those favouring Brexit. This morning the tabloid press in the form of the Daily Express and the Sun carried stark and worrying headlines aimed at Members of Parliament – and intended to bully, intimidate and threaten those whom we elect to Westminster to make decisions on our behalf. And following hard on the heels of the tabloid threats a relatively junior government minister, Philip Lee, resigned his position as a justice minister in protest at what he says is “how Brexit is being delivered”. He  says that he is “incredibly sad to announce his resignation as a minister.......so that I can better speak up for my constituents and country....” . Lee is not a trouble maker by nature – in his parliamentary career he has voted with the government and for his party on virtually all issues. In his long statement  Lee emphasises a number of Brexit related points but at the heart is his concern that he wants to do “the right thing” as he sees it:

“......Resigning as a minister from the Government is a very difficult decision because it goes against every grain in my soul. The very word resign conveys a sense of giving up, but that is the last thing I will do. I take public service seriously and responsibly. That is the spirit that has always guided me as a doctor and continues to guide me as a politician.

For me, resigning is a last resort – not something that I want to do but something I feel I must do because, for me, such a serious principle is being breached that I would find it hard to live with myself afterwards if I let it pass. I come to this decision after a great deal of personal reflection and discussion with family, friends and trusted colleagues.......If, in the future, I am to look my children in the eye and honestly say that I did my best for them I cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s exit from the EU looks set to be delivered........”.
Edmund Burke - one of the undoubted "fathers" of
democracy - a man who knew all about "doing the right thing".
Whatever one's politics the ideas of Burke are fundamental

Whatever one’s views on Brexit or indeed on any issue that is part of the democratic process Lee’s words  are at this crucial point in the UK's parliamentary history incredibly important; they go to the heart of that process and of how parliamentary democracy works in the UK – and indeed elsewhere in the world. The Brexit decisions that Parliament is currently making are, without doubt, the most important for generations and will effect the nation's well being for generations to come; whatever one's views or whatever the eventual outcome of the Brexit debate it is critical that they are undertaken both correctly and democratically. In this context Philp Lee's words and thoughts hearken back to the famous and compelling words and ideas about the relationship between parliament and the electorate formulated in the mid-seventeenth century by the great Anglo-Irish parliamentarian, statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

Burke is regarded as one of the great “minds” underpinning all political philosophy. He was, amongst other things, an MP and is usually thought of as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism (both with a small “c” and a capital “C”). Whatever one’s political or philosophical beliefs Burke is a figure that can’t be avoided, his ideas have become very much part of our thinking in this country and abroad too; they are at the core of how our Parliament works.

Amongst his many pronouncements are:

      ·         The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

·         Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.

·         Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

·         We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.

·         When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

·         The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

But perhaps his most famous and compelling in terms of parliamentary democracy is:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

This is at the heart of what Philip Lee is saying; he says  “...I would find it hard to live with myself afterwards if I let it pass. I come to this decision after a great deal of personal reflection and discussion with family, friends and trusted colleagues.......If, in the future, I am to look my children in the eye and honestly say that I did my best for them I cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s exit from the EU looks set to be delivered........”.  As I read Lee’s resignation letter the 16th century words of Martin Luther the German priest and founder of the Protestant Reformation flashed across my mind: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”  Quite – Philip Lee’s integrity is in good company. It’s easy to do what the mob want and hard to stand up for one’s principles.
My own MP Ken Clarke.  I've never voted for him but
deep down know that like Philip Lee & Edmund Burke
he will use his wisdom,  expertise and conscience  to act in
my best interests. He won't just follow the mob. I might not
like what he does or says but I know it is done with integrity
and for the overall good.

Lee’s resignation comments  are Burke in a nutshell; that an elected representative is required, indeed bound, to act in the best interests of others – no matter what. He is not a slave to his constituents doing just what they demand but a representative of them – working for them but, more importantly, using his judgement, his expertise, his deeper knowledge of the issues to  ensure his constituents best interests.

What Burke is saying and what is implicit in Lee’s statement is that those who we elect as our representatives are not only there to mindlessly do what we want or expect, or to just do what we say. We have chosen or elected them as our representative over someone else because, we believe, that they are best suited to represent us and as such we expect them to use their wisdom, views or knowledge to their best effect on our behalf. Clearly, no one in their right mind would choose or elect someone who they believed was unable or incapable or unqualified of representing them; nor would they elect someone who they thought was incapable of exercising their judgement and using their wisdom or information to best effect. For example, if I hire a lawyer to represent me in court or I visit the doctor because I am concerned about my health I not only expect him or her to do what I say, but I expect them to use their wisdom and judgement to advise me what is best to do – even when this might go against what I first thought or perhaps really want.

In the case of Brexit, for example, if an MP was elected from, say, a strongly Brexit area of the country (i.e. where  everyone wanted to get out of the EU) but when that MP looked at all the information about Brexit, listened to all the debates etc. he judged that Brexit was a bad idea and not in the interests of those who elected him then, Burke would argue, he must use that wisdom and knowledge to best effect by using his judgement to advise his constituents and, if necessary, vote appropriately. As Burke says in his quote, “he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.  In other words, if he still votes for Brexit, despite knowing that Brexit is a bad idea and not in the interests of his constituents – whatever their views and because that is what they desire - then he is betraying them and his own position. Put simply he is not being honest with them and his integrity has to be questioned.
Marin Luther -  a man who suffered for his beliefs but in doing 
so changed the world: "...To go against conscience is neither 
right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other…"

Now one might disagree with this, it is certainly contentious, but it is one of the pillars on which our representative democracy is built. It is the argument that my own MP Ken Clarke used some months ago in his passionate  speech about Brexit in the Commons. As Conservatives  Ken Clarke’s politics like Philip Lee’s are not mine but I can have nothing but  huge respect for them as MPs  because of what I consider are their sound political philosophy. Too often today – and especially in the case of Brexit – politicians (indeed whole parties) have become tied, in thrall, to the views of the electorate and do not use their qualifications or wisdom or privileged information to make the best decisions on behalf of their constituents. The result is that we are seeing the rise of populism across the world. I suspect Edmund Burke if he were alive today would have absolutely no doubts in saying, for example, that the rise of Donald Trump in America or Brexit in the UK has only been made possible because the elected representatives have not exercised their wisdom, information  and judgement properly to ensure the best outcomes for their electors; they have simply done what they were told by the electorate rather than thinking for themselves and acting on that thought and wisdom.

The Brexit debate in the UK has divided the country as no other in living memory. We have the situation now where many of our MPs of despite the fact that they admit to knowing  that Brexit is a bad idea – indeed even our Prime Minister before the Referendum was in favour of remaining in Europe - are going along with it to save their jobs and cling to power. To its eternal shame the Labour Party is offering no alternative reality to the Brexit argument – terrified that should it suggest that Brexit would be reversed or would not happen under them that they would be howled down by mob. This is the reality of where we are at – and we sit and watch, the living embodiment of Burke’s comment: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Two of today's intimidating headlines.

When politicians merely reflect public opinion then there is a very great danger of totalitarian states developing. Mindlessly doing the bidding of the electorate, pandering to its every whim, or following the lead of an extremist media becomes self fulfilling. It is why we have representative democracy rather than mob rule;  we expect that our MPs will make wise and good decisions on our behalf because, we believe, they have that knowledge and wisdom that we ordinary folk may not have. We do not expect them to not merely reflect the latest rallying cry or the loudest voice in the mob.

When MPs and others who hold positions of power do not exercise sound judgement and merely follow like sheep they are just the pawns of public opinion and in that case some of Burke’s other comments become equally valid:

·         Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

·         When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

·        The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

Philip Lee may be right or wrong about Brexit. I’m pretty sure that I would disagree with him on many political issues and on many of his political views. But he is right on this. He is exercising his judgement, wisdom and experience, striving to do the best for those he represents, standing up for what he believes is right rather than doing nothing, and taking a principled stand in the face of what I think Edmund Burke would see as the Brexit extremist’s dangerous abuse of parliamentary democracy. In the end democracy only works if people act with integrity – if they do the right thing – and that is what Philip Lee has done today.  It might, as Burke says, be “only a little” in the face of the clamour and extremist views coming out of Brexit fuelled Westminster – but it is important and necessary that “good men”  are seen not to “do nothing”  to prevent “the triumph of evil”.  When MPs such as Lee bow to the pressure of the mob and the threatening headlines of the tabloid press then we are in real danger as a society.

04 June, 2018

You can't be what you can't see

Simone de Beauvoir - the high priestess
of feminism - one of the very few people
who changed the  world in her own lifetime
Some weeks ago I came home from an afternoon spent with the philosophy group that I lead at our local U3A (University of the Third Age) feeling a little at odds with the world. For several sessions we had been trying to get to grips with existentialist philosophy.  As a group we had found this challenging to say the least and a lot of passionately held views had been voiced. On the afternoon in question, however, we had been looking at the ideas of one of the great existentialist thinkers, Simone de Beauvoir. This blog is not the place to delve into existentialist philosophy sufficient to say that Simone de Beauvoir’s views, expressed in the middle years of the 20th century, really have changed the face of the world. There are few, if any, philosophers who could claim to have had such an impact so quickly on the way that society thinks. Briefly, her views form the back bone of much of today's feminist thought and although this great French activisit and intellectual was a prolific writer it is for her works The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity in particular that she gained world fame, acclaim and a lasting place in philosophical, social, and above all feminist history. De Beauvoir’s relationship with the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, their avant-garde life style in mid-20th century Paris and the power and authority with which she wrote and spoke all combined to make her a powerful advocate of and for women. The central premise of her thought turns the existentialist mantra that "Existence precedes essence" into a feminist one: “One is not born but becomes a woman”. With this famous phrase, Beauvoir articulated the idea that (and I paraphrase here!) women are “made” by the world into which they grow and their “role” is largely dictated by social constructs and because of their relationship with men.

I am very well aware that in writing the last sentence I run the risk of falling foul of many justifiable criticisms by women in general and feminists in particular – indeed that was why I returned from the philosophy meeting feeling rather at odds with the world: I felt as if I had been “mugged” by several feminist members of the group who took exception to what they perceived as my “oversimplification” and “stereotypical” male comments and prejudices. If there was any solace for me it was the fact that I was not alone – indeed, some of the women members of the group were also similarly chastised for expressing views such as “Well, I enjoy being as woman and don’t feel dictated to by men at all”. Don’t get me wrong – the group as a whole and each of us as individuals were in total agreement with de Beauvour’s analysis – it was just that some very passionate views came to the fore and suddenly, from my perspective, rational and thoughtful inquiry was sidelined in favour of emotive comment and sometimes angry personalised criticism.

Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas gave the intellectual underpinning and undoubted “weight” to the feminist movement dating from the 1960s and is today perhaps even more relevant than ever in this ever changing world. At their base, these ideas identify how women can understand themselves, their relationships, their place in society, and the wider social construction of gender. Further, de Beauvoir suggested three strategies to aid and guide women in their quest, namely: women must go to work, women must pursue and participate in intellectual activity (leading to change for women) and, finally, women must strive to transform society into a society – de Beauvoir says a socialist society – which seeks economic justice as the key factor in women’s liberation. Looking from our 21st century perspective I would think that few in modern western societies would have reason to disagree with those goals but at the time that de Beauvoir made her views public this was revolutionary talk.
Chelsea Clinton - an astute young woman. 
Born with many advantages but who has,
I think, made her own mark.

In these early years of the 21st century hardly day or a week goes by without some report of the shifting nature of our modern world. Our increasingly diverse societies, changed expectations of individuals and groups, the decline in the old order – the Church, the class system, the "establishment" – mass migration, globalisation, the step change in the economic life of nations which mean that old family certainties are breaking down as women wish to have, or need to have, earning capacity and careers outside the home, the impact of social media and the internet mean that society is changing at an ever increasing pace. Suddenly, it often seems to me, and as someone in their eighth decade, that the old certainties are no longer there; as Bob Dylan reminded us “The Times They Are a Changin’ – how much more true is that today than when he penned those immortal words over half a century ago! Now, we have great quasi-politico/social movements often finding their voice through the internet and social media: the #metoo movement, the Occupy, the Black Lives Matter campaign, various forms of the LGBT  movements, BME  ideas.......and a thousand other campaigns, movements, ideologies, and political belief systems that would have been quite unthinkable only  a few years ago. They all demand their rightful place in the sun where their needs and rights are established and sustained and the feminist movement in general and Simone de Beauvoir in particular are at the heart of this.

It is exactly a hundred years since the suffragette movement won their first big victory by forcing the political establishment of the UK to allow some women of property to vote in an election and as a result the first woman, Constance Markievicz, was elected an MP. She didn’t take her seat, however, since she was elected as a  Sinn Féin politician. Like her fellow Irish Republicans she did not go to Westminster  but was also the first woman in the world to hold a cabinet position (Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic, 1919–1922). We have come a very long way since then but for women and for many other underrepresented, disenfranchised or minority groups, I would suggest, not nearly far enough. It came as a surprise – a shock even - to me a week or two ago when I read, as I did some preparatory reading for my philosophy group, to learn that it was only in my life time when women were allowed for the first time to sit in our House of Lords.  In this context the story of Margaret Haig Mackworth – known as Lady Rhondda - is illuminating. After her father's death, Lady Rhondda inherited his title and  tried to take his seat in the House of Lords, citing the Sex Disqualification  Act 1919 which allowed women to exercise "any public office". The Committee of Privileges, however, voted strongly against her plea. Lady Rhondda had earned a reputation as a suffragette and had become notorious in her south Wales home area for blowing up post office boxes to highlight the suffragette cause. She was supported for many years by Lord Astor, whose wife Nancy had been the first woman to actually take her seat in the House of Commons, but Lady Rhondda never entered the Lords. She was, however, nothing if not a fighter; despite failing to take her seat in the Lords, in 1926 she was elected as the Institute of Directors' first female president in and in 2015, the annual Mackworth Lecture was launched by the Institute of Directors in her honour. It was 1958, less than a month after Lady Rhondda died aged 75 that women were at last allowed to take their seat in the Lords and an unbelievable 1963 (I was by then in my late teens, so this is not ancient history!) before hereditary peeresses were also allowed to enter the Lords. To mark her role and long campaign for this simple and just recognition of what now we might call basic "human rights" her portrait now hangs in the Members’ Dining Room of the House of Lords. But to me it is a just, if sad, recognition of something that should never have happened in the first place. For, me just to think about it makes me cringe, at how society can so easily posture and hold beliefs that are so obviously contrary to basic humanity and justice. And the worrying thing is that we cannot assume that in our modern world our contemporary society would never act so - of course we could and do. Just like our forefathers we make assumptions about people, we dislike change and fairness and justice quickly go out of the window when privilege, greed and power raise their heads. Society doesn't like its cage to be rattled - especially if that means sharing what we have with someone else! Everyone is "for" minorities or the disadvantaged until it means that we have to give something up; to give one example, we all want affordable housing for our children, our key workers, the disadvantaged and the like.............but please can it be built somewhere other than at the end of my garden!
Lady Rhondda - she never saw her dream realised
but has left an indelible mark on her country.

Today we might look back on Lady Rhondda’s story with unbelieving eyes that something so grossly unfair and unjust was once considered acceptable but it serves as a reminder, perhaps, that the things that we take for granted today might well be tomorrow’s unacceptable practices and beliefs. Sadly, it also underlines the fact that all societies, to some degree or other, display a tendency to be unwilling to share with others what those in power already have. And their inability to cope with proposed change consistently institutionalizes the static and rejects of progress. Finally, it underlines the fact that although much progress has been made – there is certainly a long way to go. Change is slow, and although we live in a rapidly changing world I suspect that the dreams and demands that women might have for (say) equality of pay with men or a removal of what is seen as the “glass ceiling” preventing women rising up the career ladder of their chosen profession will sadly not be easily won or quickly obtained. The ideas of Simone de Beauvoir set the ball rolling and fundamentally changed the mind set – but sadly, I am of the view that women still have an uphill fight and that there is still a very long way to go to achieve what they seek.

I thought back to that existentialist philosophy afternoon when I read this weekend a comment which, like the best, is both simple and perceptive pointing out in a few words what might take a philosopher several volumes to say.  The quote was used by Chelsea Clinton the daughter of two of the world’s great “shakers and movers” – ex-US President Bill Clinton and his wife the powerful US politician Hilary Clinton. I’ve often thought it that it must be very difficult for a child growing up as the offspring of famous and powerful people – after all if you succeed then people argue that you had all the advantages and if you don’t succeed then you might be condemned as someone who failed to make the best of the wonderful opportunities that you were born with. Chelsea Clinton, a bright young woman, I understand, has carved out her own career far removed from that of her parents and in her thoughtful article she referred to a quote from the late US physicist and astronaut Sally Ride who commented that “You can’t be what you can’t see” .
Sally Ride -  a trailblazer who opened the path
for others to follow

As I read this I was struck with what a simple but so profound comment it was. I don’t have the context in which Sally Ride said this but I don’t think that matters. I suspect she may have said it in relation to her role in the US space programme as a female physicist and astronaut – she became the first American woman in space in 1983. Maybe (I believe) she was saying that if girls and young women don’t have women scientists and astronauts like her to look up to – to “see”- then how can they themselves easily imagine or aspire themselves to be one. To have a goal you have to have something to aim for and if that goal is not obvious, visible, realistic then it is likely that your ambition or desire may remain just an unfulfilled day dream, a step too far, something unheard of in society as a whole. To return for a moment to de Beauvoir she argued that what girls and young women are presented with from their earliest times is a perception of woman via motherhood, homemaking, caring and so on and this largely defines their future goals and roles – in short, and as de Beauvoir said, “One is not born but becomes a woman” one learns it by the experiences that you have and the opportunities that you perceive.

I don’t believe that this is peculiar to women – it applies in much the same way with men or with any other member of society – we learn to be and become what we are – we “become what we see” to paraphrase Sally Ride’s comment. This lunch time and in today’s Guardian I learned that the University of Cambridge is under scrutiny and some criticism because, allegedly, it takes very few entrants from black minority backgrounds. Now, there might be many reasons for this – the University might argue that insufficient people from that background get the very high academic qualifications required for entry or it might be (as I think has been suggested by the University) that it depends on the courses one is considering. But, as my wife pointed out as we ate our lunchtime sandwich while watching the TV news it might also be a factor that if you are black and considering university you might not wish or feel confident enough to attend a university where everyone else appears to be white. So the whole thing becomes self perpetuating – and spawns the belief that black youngsters are not good enough for or “don’t do” Cambridge. I have no way of knowing if that is a valid point but just maybe it’s another perspective on “You can’t be what you can’t see”  ....... “Cambridge University isn’t for people like me” a young black student might say rather than “I want to be like him/her.....they are my black role model......they’ve done it and got to Cambridge so I can be part of that too.” Trailblazers in any walk of life are crucial – they are heroes and show new opportunities but, more importantly  perhaps, they mark the path for others to follow.

I have a personal view that an important element in all this is how opportunities and goals can be presented to young people – be they girls or boys. We live in a world where the media is all powerful – 24 hour news, global advertising, social media – an endless list of entities all striving to grab the attention and the mind set of people – especially the young and vulnerable. I never cease to be horrified at how advertising of all kind seeks to manipulate the minds of those that it is aimed at: the fashion industry striving to manipulate the minds (and often bodies) of women, the way that in the UK the betting industry seeks to promote itself and insert itself into the mindset of young men, the way, as Christmas approaches young children’s minds are considered fair game by toy manufacturers as they seek to sell the latest must have toy. The list is endless and the common factor is that all these companies and organisations know that it is very easy to influence the mind given the right opportunities; it’s an inversion of Sally Ride’s comment – it is “You can be what you can see” – buy this perfume, dress, car, toy, hairstyle, mobile phone...... – and you will be the successful, good looking , envy of all your friends, the person that you see in our advert! When the advertisers try to sell us an item they are in fact trying to sell us a life style, holding up a kind of perverse mirror image of what we can be if only we will buy into their product. And the worrying thing is that they know it works.
Constance Markievicz - the first
elected woman MP

So, given that I wonder why in our TV programmes, our adverts, our magazines, our Hollywood blockbusters and so on we are not further exposed to these life style “opportunities” – girls becoming spacewomen, black boys being seen as High Court Judges, maybe a Muslim Prime Minister in our Parliament. I know that we are already a long way along this path – we’ve had a black man as the President of the most powerful nation on earth, and goodness gracious me, I think many would like him back rather than the present incumbent – but it seems to me there is still a very long way to go. I do  not believe, however, that this is an option that we can consider and then reject. If we don’t grasp this idea and go along this path of what I will call the "positive promotion" (of, say women in previously unheard of professional  roles) then, not only are we denying people (young women) the opportunity to attain their dreams or fulfil their ambitions simply because the court of public opinion deems otherwise, but we are wasting so much talent and human resources that in these fast moving and shifting times we ill afford. In denying or restricting  the talents and dreams of a significant portion of the population – whoever they - we are also in the longer term likely to deny our own futures - economically, politically, socially and ethically society will stagnate and turn in on itself. A society that fails to change is a society doomed to die - it's as simple as that. And in our society the role of women is one of the important issues that demands addressing - it is not an "optional extra" - it is a moral imperative and essential for society's and every individual's economic, social, cultural, welfare and sake.
Nancy Astor - the first woman
elected and to take her seat in the
House of Commons

I want my two teenage granddaughters to grow up knowing that they have realistic options and goals to aim for, that they can see what they might want to be and know that anything and everything is possible, that in existentialist terms they have the freedom to choose, the ball is in their court. I want them to have a fair and just "crack of the whip". I don’t want them to get an easy ride just because they are girls but nor do I want them to feel that because they are girls this is not for them. I want them to earn society's praise and financial and social rewards fairly and equally with everyone else - and these not to hindered limited just because they happened to be born with certain physical characteristics. I don't want them to be judged worthy or unworthy because of those same physical characteristics or for society to make judgements as to their wider ability or worth with physical characteristics as a deciding factor.   They might not achieve their goals but I want them to feel that it is reasonable that they work towards them and not be put off by simple gender prejudice or societal constraints. I want them to be able to read great novels like Pride and Prejudice which through fiction and imagination give one view of womanhood and society but I also want them to read others that set out a different and other equally attainable and desirable paths to a different set of goals, values and outcomes. In short, I want them to know what the options are and not to feel, what I suspect many young women have felt over millennia, that they can’t be what they want to be because they can’t see, or even imagine someone like them achieving such a dream or ambition. As Sally Ride said "You can't be what you can't see".

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!