Tag Archives: music

Art and soul – do they matter?

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On Sunday I discovered that I am a member of a tiny minority. I belong to a group of around three million people world- wide who watch the live performances of opera filmed from the New York Metropolitan Opera House! And when I watched film of the Met audience, I decided that I must also belong to an even more select group, a blogger who watches opera.  I don’t know what a blogger actually looks like, but to my mind, this collection of elegant, groomed rich people didn’t look like bloggers- would they have the time to sit over a computer? Not did my home audience of mostly elderly people look like bloggers either!

It was a Mozart opera, ‘La Clemenza di Tito‘. Then on Tuesday I spent ages poring over Clanmother’s beautiful blog with Renoir’s pictures. On Wednesday I went back to see the opera again, unable to resist it, and on Friday I rushed in to see the film ‘Anna Karenina’  before it went off. A week you could say, of culture and art. The theme of the opera was goodness and mercy, though it took even worse liberties with history than Hollywood does. This didn’t matter.

The music was sublime, the costumes and scenery a feast for the eyes, and the voices were among the best in the world. Two of the parts were what are known in opera as trouser roles – that is they were written for women’s voices, but the characters were men. Anyone who saw singer Susan Graham all in white as the long legged elegant Rosenkavalier will know just how ravishing women dressed up as men are, and these two were delectable.

Opera singers are born, not made, but to achieve the mastery needed to sing opera well takes years of voice training, learning music theory and music history, if possible mastering an instrument, learning French, German and Italian since most operas are written in these languages, learning drama, acting skills, and sometimes ballet, and for men, sword fighting  skills. For the rest of their lives, opera singers have to continue to practise and train their voices to sing different sorts of opera. Mozart’s music is the most testing and the finest training according to singers. And many have to work at day jobs to make a living.

This opera was written in the last three months of Mozart’s life, when he was travelling around the music capitals of Europe looking for a post to support his family in 1791. It appeared in the first week in September; a week later he produced another great opera,’ The Magic Flute‘, and then some cantatas, a clarinet concerto, a piano concerto, and finally his great Requiem before dying on the 6 December. What inspired creativity in the last three months of his life, and typical of his lifelong astonishing output, having begun composing when he was five .

The pictures of Renoir throb with joie de vivre and utter beauty. Each exquisite picture, whether flowers, dancers, portraits or landscape are radiant with life and light. To see one is exciting, to see a collection of them is breath-taking … In spite of acute arthritis in his hands, Renoir went on painting into extreme old age, and the joyousness and celebration of beauty are always there.

‘Anna Karenina’ is considered to be one of the greatest novels in western literature… though some beg to differ, myself among them. At the end of this sumptuous production, with jewels and dresses to die for, I felt a distaste at having watched a collection of worldly people with no self awareness make a hash of their lives! This novel, along with ‘War and Peace’ are Tolstoy’s masterpieces, for he spent most of his later adult life trying unsuccessfully to reform his errant ways, and then trying to reform the world, gaining a controversial reputation as a reformer. He preached peace and inspired both Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

So in one week I had had a feast of some of the world’s great artists. Beverley Sills, the American soprano once said that: “arts are the signature of civilisation”, and it worries me sometimes that this signature is getting more and more illegible. In a film on Beethoven a couple of years ago, I heard a magnificent German bass agonising over what he called the dumbing down of our culture – referring amongst other things to cheap music, Facebook communication,  and the shallow snippets of sensational news on radio and TV – he was comparing them with the profundity of Beethoven .

I would also have added to his list new Bible translations which are no longer literature, but banal religious tracts, and the sort of art that wins prizes these days – someone’s unmade bed adorned with stubbed out fag-ends and grubby sheets, or a skull covered in diamonds. Both the perpetrators of these masterpieces are now rich and famous on the strength of them…

Taoist philosophy suggests that art awakens a response in the mind and soul and it is important that it should evoke the higher not the lower nature. And that is what the art that I revelled in this week did for me. It lifted me above the daily round and common task, the disappointments and frustrations of a rather difficult week, and reminded me of actress Stella Adler’s words: ‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Yes, I think art matters…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Frangipane is the delicious almond base in many fruit tarts. It’s easy as…you just need four oz of butter and four oz of sugar, two eggs, one oz flour, 5 oz ground almonds, one teasp vanilla essence, and half a teasp of almond essence. Just beat them all together, and spread on top of the pastry. Then press down in it the fruit of your choice. This is only one of many recipes, some use more eggs, others use more almonds. I keep my ground almonds in the deep freeze so that they are fresh and don’t go rancid.

 

Food for Thought

Oh great Creator, grant us one more hour to perform our art and perfect our lives.     Jim Morrison 194 – 1971  Poet and songwriter who died unexpectedly in Paris at 27

 

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Imagine if We Did

John Lennon seems to be around at the moment. I watched him singing’ Imagine’ on George-B’s blog EuCaSia and read about him quoting his mother on happiness at onthehomefrontandbeyond.

He was never my favourite back then in Beatle-mad times. My teenage cousin who used to come and stay with me in the holidays from her boarding school, introduced  them to me.

I was bogged down with two tinies under two, no washing machine, boiling and rinsing the nappies by hand, drying them one by one in front of the fire, since they froze solid if I hung them out in the bitter cold, and was an exhausted slave to housework in the very large rented 15th  century manor house that we lived in.  My brilliantly intelligent and flighty young cousin produced Norwegian Wood, which as someone who lived and breathed Vivaldi and Bach, Beethoven and the rest, I looked on with some suspicion.

I let her use my gramophone, and bingo – their energy and zest for life kick-started me. ‘ Michelle, ma belle’ … ‘I wanna hold your haaaand’ … I could hardly bear to let her go back to school taking the record with her. I loved their exuberance, their cheekiness, their vitality – and their music. Eventually I could afford my own records, and acquired the rest as they came out. I waited longingly for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, by then an increasingly depressed housewife in Hongkong. The Beatles and Bob Dylan brightened my life…

I could never see what people saw in Paul, apart from a cheeky charm, and amazing talent. Ringo, of course was not a heart throb – was he? John Lennon… I found him rather brash and tough, but George – now we’re talking. Tall, handsome, withdrawn and interesting, and very nice waistcoats. Above all it was his interest in the spiritual life that drew me to him.

Then along came Ono. Perhaps if none of them had married, they’d still be together, but being the men they were, both Paul and John married powerful, talented interesting women, who changed the whole dynamic of the group.

Like Linda McCartney, Ono was an artist in her own right, though I’ve never understood her art. She’s won countless prizes over the years since John’s death, the last one this year, being the Oscar Kokoschka Prize, Austria’s highest award for contemporary art. Her achievements are too numerous to name, and her awards are for her genius in merging pop art with avant garde. That may make sense to some people, but it’s double dutch to me. The one thing I do understand was her concept of the wishing tree, a beautiful idea which has now spread.

When Ono met John, she was seven years older than him, born in 1933. She had already been married twice, and had had a daughter who’d been kidnapped by her American father and who Ono never found until the daughter was grownup. Ono came from an aristocratic Japanese family, descended on her father’s side from the Emperors of Japan.  During the war when her father was separated from the family, her mother and her siblings became destitute. They survived the fire – bombing of Tokyo, and fled to the mountains where they bartered their remaining possessions for food.

After the war, when the family were re-united, Ono went to the exclusive peers school in Tokyo, and shared a classroom with Prince Akahito, now the Emperor of Japan. When the family moved to the US she attended Sarah Lawrence College. She’d already had exhibitions and performed when she and John got together.

Before their marriage and their famous lie-ins for peace, they had had a turbulent on-off relationship, and they both underwent primal therapy, which is usually a life-changing process. Ono was never going to be a star-struck wife. When she became pregnant she agreed to have the baby if John became a house husband so that she could get on with her career. He did. He gave up his music and spent five years looking after his baby son.

When I watch him singing ‘Imagine,” it’s like watching a different person to the brash young Beatle who repelled me. His face is lean and calm, chiselled by profound inner experience. Five years away from the screaming crowds, the insane  celebrity, the constant performing; five years devoted to being at home with a baby who needed him; five years in which he had lived an inner life, had given his face the purity of an early Christian ascetic.

Watching him sing’ Imagine’, with deep conviction and a commitment to the peace of the world,  is like watching someone singing a sacred song. Which it was, and is. His haunting plangent tones and inspired words go straight to the hearts of all who are open to that longing for peace on earth.

Seeing him sing, and seeing that inner light emanating from him, makes me feel that his death was not untimely, or a cutting off of his talents. In hindsight, he seemed to have reached a point where he had done what he had come to do – used his talents for mankind, and discovered inner peace for himself.

The ones who perhaps suffered the most were his children. Ono took up with an antiques dealer four months after John’s death, in a stable relationship that lasted until 2001, and has continued on her stellar path. Her commitment to peace has never wavered.  And for us –  ‘Imagine,’ is still the prayer of so many of us too.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Still thinking broccoli, it’s so cheap and plentiful at the moment. I use it for a light lunch, and this dish is a lovely easy one to serve to a few girls with hot rolls and a glass of wine… followed by good coffee and a nice pudding or piece of cake.

Break the broccoli into sprigs and steam. At the same time put two cups of cream into a saucepan, and break into it pieces from two of those segments of sharp blue cheese – Danish or similar. Stir all the time until the cheese is melted and amalgamated.  It’s quite nice with a few small lumps of cheese left in it. Just pour this over the fresh steamed broccoli. This is plenty for two, double the quantities for four. It’s good to have the rolls to mop up any sauce left over. It can also be re-heated. I’ve even dropped a left- over dollop into broccoli soup.

Food for Thought

This thought is dedicated to Maggie at somethingfathappened.wordpress.com and her devoted readers will know why:                                  Long ago when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks it was called witchcraft. Today it’s called golf.                                                             Cherokee Indian, cowboy, entertainer, newspaper columnist, film star. Died when his plane crashed in 1935

 

 

 

 

 

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Acorns Oaks and Art

Spring, and the oak tree we planted in the gully beyond the sitting room window has suddenly shimmered into leaf.

I treasure these first days when the young fretted edge of the bright leaves are still frilly, and brilliant green and translucent. They’ll weather into darker green,  leathery- looking foliage as the summer months go by, but this is spring, and the word is verdant. This particular oak belongs to a group known as marcescent , which means they keep their brown leaves until spring, so it’s gone from brown to green in the space of a few weeks.

One of my toddler grandsons and I grew it from an acorn which had rooted itself in one of my pots. Every time we moved house I carefully lugged it along, and every time the grandson came to stay, or visit, he inspected ‘his’ tree. Once I planted it, and it flourished for three years in a corner where it would bug no-one else by taking their light or stealing their space. But then after another heart scare for my husband, we left that three level house to squeeze ourselves into this little cottage by the sea next door to my daughter’s holiday home.

I couldn’t leave the oak behind. It was like one of my grand-children and had enjoyed nearly as much feeding and nurturing as them. So we dug it up, and re-instated it here. It’s not even on our land, but on a paper road, which legend has it was mapped out by a surveyor in England in the nineteenth century, and thus he didn’t realise he’d planned it to run straight down into the sea. So the road will never be activated, and this is a safe space for my tree.

It doesn’t spoil anyone else’s view, and there’s plenty of room for it to spread its branches. It’s grown so much in the six years we’ve been here, that it now hides the neighbouring house across the reserve, and gives me shade in summer, and lets the sun into the sitting room in winter.,

All in all, an ideal tree! I was reading the wonderful American writer Annie Dillard the other day, and she describes communing with a sycamore. She goes on to describe Xerxes, King of Persia – who on one of his marches through Asia Minor with his huge army – came upon a single exquisite plane tree, the same family as a sycamore. He was so ravished by its beauty that he halted his army and stayed there for several days in contemplation of this work of nature. She imagines his army halted, puzzled, thirsty and weary, waiting on the hot and treeless plain. And after a few days, still rapt with the glory of creation, Xerxes, warlord, invader, builder of monstrous palaces which are now lost demesnes, orders a goldsmith to be rooted out of the tents, to come and forge a medal to preserve that moment forever.

But though the Xerxes and his goldsmith couldn’t really manage to embalm that moment in time, the great composer Handel did. Written over two thousand years after Xerxes died, Handel’s opera Serse, opens with the king singing “Tender and beautiful fronds of my beloved plane tree”, from the famous largo: ’Ombre mai fu’, one of the best known pieces of classical music

However, loving beauty didn’t make Xerxes a nice person – it doesn’t, it seems… murderous Nazis like Hermann Goering collected beauty, but it didn’t rub off on them! Xerxes was the man who had the Hellespont whipped with three hundred strokes and chains dumped in it when a storm destroyed his fleet!  We won’t go into what Goering did.

But my oak, unlike Xerxes’ plane tree, is a stranger in a strange land – what is known as an exotic tree in New Zealand, where it is not a native. In its native land – England – it’s host to 284 plants, insects, birds and animals, compared with five in a chestnut, and one in a plane tree. Like my oak here, they are both alien species in England.

So in England, my oak would be hosting birds, plants, insects and creatures, from the oak bush crickets which browse in its crown, to the roe and fallow deer which seek its shade. There are bugs that feed on oak flowers, beetles that eat the bark, and caterpillars that eat the young leaves. The insects attract birds – nuthatch, tree creeper, pied flycatcher, wood warbler, (wonderful names) while the great spotted woodpecker nests in holes drilled in rotten branches.

Acorns feed jays and squirrels,  and all the wild life attracts predators like weasels and sparrowhawks.  Indigenous wildflowers grow at its roots, bluebells, primroses and wood anemones. Lichens and fungus grow on it, and mistletoe, of course, famously grows on the oak for the use of both Druids and Christmas revellers. Though the acorns are poisonous to other domestic animals, pigs thrive on them.

Yet here in New Zealand, I look out on an empty oak, which actually makes me sad. No bugs or beetles, or birds. I have to treasure it for its changing beauty alone, in a country where nearly all the trees are evergreen, and which never change with the seasons. Neither will it last for an age like ancient English oaks planted in the time of Elizabeth the First. My tree has catapulted skywards, and like the other oaks here, will reach its prime in a hundred years, and then slowly decay for the next fifty years.

So like Xerxes and his goldsmith, I just have an impression of an oak. I don’t have the essence of an oak, supporting dozens and dozens of tiny lives and plant growth, but just have to make the most of what the tree and I share – mutual love and memories of all the places we’ve lived in together. Xerxes had his tree immortalised  by Handel’s genius, so perhaps I can lay claim on Handel too, and celebrate my oak tree with  his lovely song from another opera, Semele: ‘Where e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the breeze, trees where you sit shall cast into a shade’.

 

PS  You can listen to both Handel’s songs on Youtube, both food for the soul. Enjoy beautiful Kathleen Battle or exquisite Andreas Scholl singing ‘Ombre mai fu’, and the matchless Kathleen Ferrier or legendary Leontyne Price singing ‘Where’er you walk’. I hope you love them too.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Morning tea with friends in their airy house overlooking the harbour, all the windows open in the sunshine on the first day after we put the clocks forward for summer. Amongst other goodies we had coffee and gingerbread, and my friend gave me the recipe.

Melt 250 gm butter with a firmly packed cup of molasses or dark cane sugar, stirring to mix. Take off the heat, and add half a cup of dark rum, three quarters of a cup of full cream milk, half a cup of ginger marmalade, two large eggs and the grated rind of three oranges. Meanwhile, in a large bowl sift three cups of SR flour, two teasp baking soda, two tablesp of ground ginger, two teasp of cinnamon, one teasp each of ground nutmeg and cardamom, half a teasp of ground cloves and make a well in the centre.

Pour in the melted mixture stirring to form a smooth batter. Beat in about 120 gm of chopped crystallised ginger. Pour into a greased lined tin 23 cm square according to this recipe. Bake at 180 degrees for an hour and a half until well risen and firm to the touch. Cool in the tin. It’s better kept for two days wrapped in an air tight container before eating, and butter when you cut into slices. The recipe used marmalade instead of ginger marmalade, but I don’t like orange marmalade, and it also suggested the grated rind of two limes and lemons as well as the oranges. I wouldn’t. But I can’t wait to try my bowdlerised version, and I think I’d sprinkle some sugar on the top before baking.

 

Food for Thought.

Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.

Stella Adler  1901 – 1992 Actress, and founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in NY, and Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. Her students included Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen, Robert de Niro, Melanie Griffiths, Harvey Keitel and others.

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Rambling through Youtube

I had the haunting Irish tune of ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ on my mind and turned to lovely Youtube. I did the rounds, Kathleen Ferrier- sublime, Orla Fallon – beautiful,  Marianne Faithful – shallow, and Clannad, performing authentically in an Irish pub – haunting, wistful, and satisfying. And as I flitted from one version to the next, I stumbled on William Butler Yeats himself, reading his poem (though it was based on an old Irish folk song).

It was magic listening to the real voice of the poet, and reminded me what a gift recording is. I never had much time for Yeats in his monocle and black cloak, who left Wilfred Owen out of the Oxford Book of English Verse because he suspected Owen of pacifist sympathies. Yeats, in his fifties, didn’t fight in the war, but Owen was in the trenches for the whole four years, writing the finest war poetry, and dying in an attack across a canal in the last week of the war. So Yeats, born in 1865, doesn’t do it for me, but to hear his voice, echoing across historic centuries was still a thrill.

On the sidebar, there was Virginia Woolf reading on the BBC in 1939, a year before she walked into the river, and never came back. It’s the only recording we have of her. I clicked – of course – and listened to this wonderful voice reading her thoughts on words, entranced as her imagination soared and she opened new worlds of ideas. Her beautiful diction and resonant tones gave an idea of the layers of meaning and perception that she applied to life and art.

Then Alan Rickman showed up at the side, reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. Hearing  that mellifluous voice, reading the cadences of Shakespeare’s phrases and innermost thoughts was so moving. But since Harry Potter is never far from us these days, there was Rickman also in his role as Severus Snape. And once hooked into the world of Harry Potter, I couldn’t go past Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawny in a scene which has never been shown, as it was cut. Shame. I laughed till the tears ran down my face as she tried to eat her meal in a state of total panic and confusion – doesn’t sound funny, I know, but you haven’t seen it.

I was watching, of course, a master, as were Rickman, Woolf and Yeats. Watching or hearing a master is an experience which stirs the soul. Sitting at a concert of Joan Sutherland , every time she came on stage and that glorious sound rang out, the tears just rolled down my cheeks. Listening to Yehudi Menuhin was like entering a mysterious world of spirit, and sitting motionless, holding my breath, as Kathleen Battle, in black with a cyclamen pink stole about fifteen feet long, sang to a packed hall of spellbound concertgoers is one of my treasured memories.

Masters reveal a world of universal connections, and seeing a Leonardo or a Michelangelo takes us into that same world of universal values of beauty and truth. But one of the favourite books on my shelf is a collection of sonnets to the woman he loved, by Michelangelo, and I love them precisely because he was n’t a great poet, as he was a great artist. In his poetry he shows the side of him that struggles with the same ordinariness – or perhaps I mean common humanity – as the rest of us. As an amateur poet, he is exposed in these poems, while in the mastery of his art, it’s his greatness that we see.

So while I am awed by, and grateful for mastery, there is something very beautiful about amateurishness. Many years ago, on New Year’s Eve at a party in Somerset, I had struggled all evening to look as though I was having fun with a group of people I didn’t know, and had nothing in common with. I was staying with friends, who had taken me with them. As midnight approached, we all gathered in the main hall of the castle, and a man asked if there was anyone who could accompany him on the piano. With no takers, he said he’d sing anyway. I cringed, wondering if he would embarass himself.

And so began one of the loveliest moments of my life. He sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’. Not professionally, but honestly and lovingly. All our egos which had jostled and struggled to keep their ends up all evening stood transfixed. A long silence followed the ending of the song, and there was a softness in the room and on the faces of everyone. The evening changed. His courage in exposing himself to us all had somehow broken the barriers that separated us. Warmth and kindness showed in every face.

I’ve heard another song sung like that in a voice that had no training, and nothing to recommend it except sweetness of tone, and sweetness of character. And it was just as moving. So while mastery is a sublime experience, the love and honesty that we lesser mortals have to offer, is just as precious in its own way.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

If we’re having something ordinary to eat, and I need to give it a bit of a lift, I make our family favourite, culled years ago, from the pages of Elizabeth David. I only used to make it at Christmas, for the adults, but one memorable year, the grandchildren discovered it, and gobbled it up under the affronted and greedy gaze of all the grownups. So now I make about three dishes of it, and there is a great big potato peeling bee on Christmas Eve, and some of the children eschew the turkey, plumping for the potatoes, and only moving on to the rest of the feast later. If there’s any left over, they eat them for breakfast! So I always make it now when the family come, and often for dressy meals with friends.

All you need are potatoes, garlic and lashings of cream. I use Agria potatoes, which mash well, and also in this dish, absorb the cream. Slice the potatoes thinly into rounds, and pat them dry. Butter a shallowish baking dish, and layer the potatoes in, every now and then anointing the layers with salt and pepper, chopped garlic and a few knobs of butter. When the dish is nearly filled, dot the top with butter and pour in as much cream as you need to nearly cover the potatoes. Bake for an hour or more in a moderate oven. If the cream has dried up by the end, I pour more into the crevices, and put back in the oven for a few minutes. It can be cooked the day before and re-heated, but give it plenty of time. It’s delicious with any meal, and with a few vegetables is also a lovely vegetarian meal.

 

Food for Thought

Ad on Trademe: One toothpick with a FREE son included ( I’m sure there is some law which forbids me trafficking in humans, hence the toothpick)…being a teenager he requires large amounts of food (meat and candy mostly, despite the fridge being full of fruit and veg.) Uses power enough to run a small town ( computer, TV, PlayStation and assorted electrical gadgets as well as always leaving the fridge door open) Unfortunately he is short-sighted and unable to see unwashed dishes, grime, towels on the floor or skid marks. Requires 14 hours of sleep per day. Needs a soundproof room as he either slaughters pigs in there or plays heavy metal (sounds the same to me)

Don’t suppose he managed to get rid of him… there’s a glut of teenage boys like this, I suspect.

 

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