We are just back from Bavaria where we were inspired by King Ludwig II’s castles,
delighted by glorious mountain views, enjoyed delicious apple strudels
and slipped into Austria where we had a lot of fun on the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.
But the most outstanding feature of our holiday was our discovery of a truly intriguing character: King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a dreamer and visionary whose image is now ever-present in Bavaria.
Whilst visiting his three castles – the castle on an island in a lake, Herrenchiemzee, the fairy-tale like apparition high on a mountain crag, Neuschwanstein, and the exquisite vision in a valley, Linderhof, I was fascinated by his romantic idealism, his passionate devotion to the idea of being “an absolute king” dwelling in Castle Perilous, his love of immensely rich and precious interior decoration, his total disregard of the practical implications of his various passions, and his intense relationship with the great composer Richard Wagner. His story was often tragic, and his end terribly sad – he was declared mad and killed – yet Bavaria thrives on his legacy today.
There were several aspects of Ludwig which inspired me for a major character in my WIP. So this visit to Bavaria came at just the right time as I’m about to embark on the second draft. With such a complex character, I cannot be entirely sure whether his passion, intensity and commitment to a world of the imagination will infuse my villain, hero or anti-hero. That is yet to be determined…
The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live. I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.
Joan has special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.
The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.
To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.
Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real. The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.
When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:
Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis – she definitely had profound religious experiences.
She acted upon these experiences.
She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.
Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.
What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?
Even lovers of Sherlock Holmes may have learned something new about the great man on Sunday 16 August at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Matthew Sweet, BBC Radio 3 presenter, and Mark Gatiss, actor, and co-creator of the Sherlock TV drama series, together presented a fantastic programme of music related to Sherlock Holmes. Mark Gatiss read several passages from the original Conan Doyle stories alongside the music. I learned that the original Holmes was a lover of the opera and especially Wagner; and that Irene Adler, “the Woman” (the one person who outwitted Holmes) was an operatic contralto who had performed at La Scala Milan. In addition to this, although Conan Doyle himself was not much of a musical buff, nevertheless his creation Holmes had a very abstruse taste in and knowledge of music; he was an expert on the “polyphonic motets of Lassus.”
Additionally, Holmes’ gift for playing the violin was one aspect of the great detective which Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt chose to adhere to firmly when they re-created him as Sherlock for the twenty-first century. The deerstalker cap came much later; but the violin was a necessity from the very beginning.
Once again I wondered at and rejoiced in the fact that when we create fictional characters we may give them skills and abilities and awareness far beyond our own; and when they come to take on their own life in the minds of our readers, then who would ever guess the limitations of their creator? An uplifting thought indeed for novelists!
Writing a weekly blog post is an excellent writing discipline, and a wonderful creative outlet, as I write about anything which has inspired or intrigued me during the week. I began the blog shortly after my debut novel Mystical Circles was published, with the idea of appealing to those who might enjoy reading my fiction. I especially like writing on spiritual subjects, as well as history, the arts, films, books, people and places of inspiration. I hope that my blog readers will be keen to buy my next novel (provisional title: A Passionate Spirit) when it comes out (hopefully this year). Meanwhile I love writing my blog for its own sake, and have also found several other engaging and talented blog writers on the internet.
I hope you enjoy exploring my blog and that you will give me plenty of feedback.
I am very happy to accept this award. Thank you Lance!
Finally, to fulfill the conditions of my award, and these are the conditions that all recipients must follow, so please do so if you have been nominated by me, I must state the rules of the award and list seven things about myself that you may not know.
The Seven things about myself that you may not know
1. I did a parachute jump over Bickmarsh Airfield near Stratford-upon-Avon in 1976, with the BBC Parachute Club.
2. I flew over the Outback of Australia in a hot air balloon in 1990.
3. I was in Rhodes on holiday with my sister and her friend when war broke out over Cyprus, between Greece and Turkey. We were unable to leave the island for a while, and discovered that all the male staff of the pension we were staying in had gone off to join the war, so we had to make our own meals.
4. I wrote a play about my time there, and all the characters I met, called Fortnight of the Cockroach which I sent to the BBC. It was turned down. Since then I’ve lost the original ms. I’m hoping it’s somewhere around the house and that I might uncover it again one day!
5. I lived and worked in Brisbane, Australia, for four and a half years.
6. During my childhood and early teenage years I sang with a girls choir in Orpington, Kent. We were ‘the chorus of younger angels’ in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I’ve also sung under the baton of Andre Previn and Simon Rattle.
7. My most outstanding holiday experience was in a town in the Himalayas called Badrinath, (close to India’s border with Tibet) where I saw Neel Kanth, ‘mountain of light’.
The Award Rules
Thank the person who gave you this award.
Include a link to their blog.
Next, select several blogs/bloggers that you follow.
Nominate those bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
Finally, tell 7 things about yourself.
Full details of the award can be found on the VBA website through this link.
Those were the words one soprano had written after bar 8 of the Lacrymosa in her score of Mozart’s Requiem: just so she could be sure which bits were from the hand of the master, and which from his much-less gifted composer friend Franz Sussmayr. We were singing with the choir Spires Philharmonic Chorus, who are currently rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem for a performance at Holy Trinity Church Coventry on Saturday 11 April 2015 (those readers local to Coventry please note in your diaries!)
I was tempted along to these rehearsals by Mozart himself. The lure of singing his requiem once more was too much to resist.
Mozart’s Requiem is justifiably renowned for its sublime beauty; but it also gains fame for the quirky and curious stories which surround its composition. Most of this confusion, I understand, derives from different interviews given by Mozart’s wife Constanza who made considerable efforts to mask the truth about the Requiem, in the months and years following Mozart’s death in Vienna in 1791. On 18 January 2015, I saw a BBC TV programme The Joy of Mozart in which the presenter Tom Service was lamenting the false image of Mozart pedalled by the commercial Mozart industry in Salzburg. One of these popular ideas is that after Mozart died, his body was callously thrown into a mass grave in the St Marx Cemetery in Vienna, and he had a “pauper’s funeral” utterly disregarding his status as one of the world’s greatest composers. Yet these facts are probably totally misinterpreted by those who misunderstand normal burial arrangements in his society at that time.
Additionally a popular idea about Mozart is that he composed his Requiem in the knowledge that he was about to die, believing it to be his own requiem. Yet it has recently been pointed out at the time Mozart would have expected to recover from his illness, finish the requiem, and write much more music besides.
At the end of The Joy of Mozart, Tom Service observed that the final word has to be with those who love his music.
As I sing this requiem I respond to it not as a musicologist – although our chorus founder and conductor ColinTouchin provided as much of that as we could have wished for – I respond to to it on a profound emotional level. The very first chord of this requiem has such a powerful effect upon me; I cannot begin to analyse it. Although as Colin Touchin told us it is thought that Mozart was the very first composer to use the key of E Flat Minor, and I do sometimes think it must be good to analyse the reasons why this music effects us so deeply, I also think the rest of us just have to accept the profound emotional impact Mozart’s music makes, and leave it at that. We are left with this, beyond all the musicology and the analysis.
We know that Mozart managed to complete only parts of the requiem before he died, and the rest was completed by Franz Sussmayr, selected for the job by Mozart’s widow Constanza, who was worried she wouldn’t get paid for the requiem if she didn’t find someone to finish it; and she chose Sussmayr only after she’d considered other candidates and rejected them. It seems a game we cannot resist, to convince ourselves that certain bits cannot possibly have been written by Sussmayr, they must have been written by Mozart. Yet the fact remains that Sussmayr, not considered by musicologists to have been a particularly outstanding composer, did indeed complete the requiem and did it so creditably that the requiem remains one of the most loved and revered pieces of choral music ever written. What a task that must have been for Sussmayr; and perhaps my best insight into his situation lies in this idea: if I imagine how I would feel if I were asked to complete an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.
This production was originally commissioned by Sydney Opera House for its Graphic Festival and we saw the first of two nights at the Barbican to be followed by one night at Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Having read and loved Neil Gaiman’s novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book I was looking forward to seeing this with my two teenage children. From his books and his tweets, I expected Neil Gaiman to be more zappy and over-the-top in person; but he isn’t; he’s gentle and laidback and low-key in his manner, with a self-deprecating humour.
Surely this is the best persona for him to adopt as he tells his tales. Anyone who knows his work expects a playfully dark twist. And this was fully realized in his novelette The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. In this he has chosen to create a Scottish tale, a grim and sombre story of revenge, written with a poetic quality appropriate for a tale from the Outer Hebrides set at the time of the Jacobite rebellion.
It was accompanied by big-screen projections of the illustrations by Eddie Campbell which were astonishingly vivid and real, by turns haunting, harsh and beautiful, conveying the atmosphere of the terrain and the ever-darker direction of the story. We were held captivated throughout Neil Gaiman’s narration; the musicians accompanied the tale with such emotional intelligence and imagination, it was an outstanding display of creative genius.
The story of the dwarf who goes searching for the cave of gold, accompanied by the mysterious tall “border reaver”, has played on my mind ever since, as I considered the rhythm and poetry of it, the elements of darkness and horror, and the moral lesson that lay behind it.
An evening which will stay in my mind for a long time.
I was there on Saturday, with my daughter Abigail, watching a performance of Swan Lake in the round, by the English National Ballet. Sixty swans danced in the arena below us, transformed into a lake by skilful lighting effects; and the audience delighted in the performances of Dmitri Gruzdyev as Prince Siegfried and Fernanda Oliveira as Odette and Odile.
The earliest memory I have of the Royal Albert Hall is when, as a child, I sang in the Chorus of Younger Angels in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
I stood close to the organ; and I’ve never forgotten that tremendous experience as trumpets, drums and organ, under Leonard Bernstein’s flambuoyant direction, brought Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ to its thunderous conclusion.
During my sixth form days in Orpington, Kent, I often took the train to London with my schoolfriends so we could sit on the pavement outside the Royal Albert Hall in a queue for promenaders tickets for the BBC Proms; and then, once inside the door, sprint to the arena, to find the best place at the front, near the conductor’s rostrum.
One summer, I spent several hours walking up and down the queue with spare tickets to sell, having bought Gallery tickets for a half season.
Later, when I lived in Bayswater, London W2, the Royal Albert Hall was just a stroll across Kensington Gardens, to go to the rehearsals and concerts of another choir I sang in – the London Choral Society.
Whenever I now enter the Royal Albert Hall, I feel a deep sense of affection and euphoria.
This great circular space is to me, and to many even without such memories, both grand and intimate.
It’s also wonderfully flexible,with its central arena, for many great occasions.
The Hall was originally supposed to have been called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed by Queen Victoria to Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when laying the foundation stone, as a dedication to her deceased husband and consortPrince Albert. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the road Kensington Gore.
Thank you to Queen Victoria for deciding to commemorate Albert in this, among many other ways!
Singing is a gift of God, and a channel for empowerment.
This weekend has been an amazing time of singing.
And I’ve learned a few things about this life too.
On Saturday night, the choir I sing with, the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society, gave a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that truly honoured the composer’s purpose. This was against all expectations – our own, and those of the conductor.
And yet, despite weeks of agony and doubt and struggle in rehearsal (plus the temptation, I suspect, for several singers, to give up) we succeeded.
“There will be some stunning moments,” said the conductor at the final afternoon rehearsal, “and some very hairy moments. Just find the next cue when you can come in.”
Not for a single rehearsal had the first sopranos ever sung it without getting lost.
And yet, on the evening itself – we sang it all the way through, even the most difficult bits, and didn’t get lost.
At the end,the conductor (probably rather bemused), said, with a beaming smile: “Well done. That was superb!”
This experience has taught me, that whatever we dare to believe, sometimes God’s grace snatches success out of the most unpromising places.
Here, a gathering of different community choirs from around England, all came together to learn some new songs, under the guidance of four Natural Voice Practitioners – dynamic, fun, energetic and inspirational.
The whole day was a totally uplifting, empowering experience.
Through a mixture of harmony songs – slave songs from the American south, songs from the Eastern orthodox church, or songs arising from Australian aboriginal or North American Indian spirituality, to “Price Tag” by Jessie J – the different choirs delighted with their singing.
I was enthralled to watch the varied styles of the conductors. Some conducted in a tradiitonal manner, others danced and bopped around in from of their choir.
And at the end the four teachers treated us to a hilarious and top-rate performance of the Beachboys’ song God Only Knows What I’d Do Without You.
In a “community choir”, the singers stand in a circle, without having to follow printed music, and the leader is at the centre, teaching the lines of music by singing them, and the choir members pick up the music from this. The lines of music seem very easy to sing, you master them quickly, then the fun comes when the leader directs you to sing it, perhaps, as a round, accompanied by movement. He may divide the choir into 4-8 groups and get each group to stagger their entries.
The sound of the voices blending is magical. And this – with the right direction – is really very easily achieved.
The Guardian article above refers to “wellbeing, mental or physical”. To that I want to add “spiritual wellbeing”.
Many different spiritual traditions have recognised this, and make full use of it.
Bliss through sound, using the human voice, is part of the Buddhist and the Yoga traditions. Years ago I went to the Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, East London. There I joined weekly sessions of Buddhist chanting: an experience of joy and deep peace.
The Yoga tradition, too, has fully understood the healing power of sound, incorporating yogic humming and chanting into their practice.
Taize prayer , in the Christian tradition, also uses beautiful harmony singing, to achieve a similar sense of upliftment, and connection with God. I do this, too, every month, at St Peter’s Catholic Church Centre in Leamington Spa.
Of course few experiences of body, mind and spirit can equal that of singing with a large choral society in Bach’s B Minor Mass – and, indeed, any other major choral work. Being part of this grand swell of sound can lift you right out of this world.
So I celebrate Gareth Malone for spreading wide the love of choral singing and the knowledge that we can all sing – whether or not we currently believe so.
What about you? Do you believe you “can’t sing?” Has Gareth Malone encouraged you to believe otherwise – or perhaps to join a singing group yourself? Or maybe you’ve already experienced joy through singing in a group, large or small? Have you been inspired by the work of Gareth Malone? Let me know your experiences – I’d love to hear them!
You may enjoy these other posts by SC Skillman Blog on the subject of singing:
The most profound emotions, the deepest experiences of the human spirit may be evoked by the sound of a heavenly choir.
There has often been debate about which is the greatest musical instrument. And of course each of us will have different favourites. It has been said, for instance, that the grand pipe organ is “the King of Instruments”.
But I believe the greatest musical instrument is the human voice.
The other day I listened to a heavenly choir – the Armonico Consort – sing some of the most sublime choral music ever composed in St Mark’s Church, New Milverton, Leamington Spa.
As I listened to Barber’s Agnus Dei, and Allegri’s Miserere Mei float through the church, I heard with new ears, and saw with new eyes. I’ve been going to this church for 14 years and had not previously realised quite how beautiful it is. The power of the music had opened up not only the sense of hearing.
Why do we respond so instinctively to the sound of those voices? Because, I suggest, they give us a glimpse of eternity.
Whenever a film director wishes to evoke in the audience pity, grief and sorrow, or joy, bliss, peace and gladness, the best choice of background music is that provided by a heavenly choir.
In the first part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, we find this used to good effect on several occasions.
When the Fellowship of the Ring meet Haldir of Lorien, we hear the first long sustained notes of those ethereal voices. The Lady of the Wood is waiting. The Lady Galadriel appears, and the voices of the heavenly choir crescendo.
In Lothlorien, again the massed voices are heard in the background, an aural tapestry evoking mystical power, visions, prophecy, wisdom, insight.
And at the end of the film, they are heard once more, immediately after Frodo has turned to his faithful companion and said, “Sam, I’m glad you’re with me.”
Here, the heavenly choir evokes values like love, loyalty, courage, determination, self-sacrifice.
In the bible we find these words: “God has written eternity on our hearts”.
I can affirm this by personal experience, again and again throughout my life.
Please share your thoughts on this. Have you too experienced the sublime through music? And do you too have a strong sense that God has written eternity on your heart?