Once in a Blue Moon …


… comes the privilege of witnessing, live, two men of genius performing at the same event. Two days on, I’m still glowing from the reflected glory and deep inner joy, all enhanced by the memorable timing of this experience on the eve of the Super Blue Blood Moon.

What event am I mooning about? I have already mentioned my old friend Norman Perryman in two previous blogposts (here and here – please read them again, and have a look at his websites). Naturally I’ve seen some of his impressive static paintings, and videos of his kinetic art, but this was my very first opportunity to see his unique genius in action, live, right before my eyes.

When he told me that he was coming to perform with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra on the evening of 30 January, of course I knew I had to go to the concert. So near, yet so far: Zurich is only an hour and a half away by train, so I’ve always considered it easily accessible. However, as I get older and feel more vulnerable, I have become ever more reluctant to take the train late in the evening because there are “some weird folk” abroad at that time, hanging around stations as well as on the train. There is probably little risk, I know, but I feel that my fear is palpable and that, like animals, these people can sense fear and are attracted by it. So call me cowardy-custard, but I prefer not to take the train after 9 pm if I can avoid it.

My Darling Daughter came to my rescue once again. She lives close enough to Zurich that the train journey is not so fraught, and anyway she looks after me so well, I don’t have to worry about anything. Plus, she offered me a bed for two nights. She was so keen to go, she actually bought the tickets, so another treat for me. In fact, I don’t think I would have found the concert venue on my own, though once you know its location it’s actually very easy, practically next door to the railway station.

The programme was an interesting and lively mix: Stravinsky’s “Basel” concerto for strings in D with Norman’s kinetic watercolours, followed by Mozart’s piano concerto no 21 (with the famous Elvira Madigan Andante 2nd movement) featuring the extraordinary Radu Lupu, and culminating in a rollicking rendering of Beethoven’s second symphony.

Stravinsky, I freely admit, is not among my favourite composers although in the past I have enjoyed watching ballets to his music. It is, I’ve always felt, more a vehicle to move to than music to listen to, and have disparagingly referred to the opening movement of this concerto as “Music for grasshoppers”. It had struck me as suitable for the soundtrack of some film noir, but with Norman’s synaesthesia supplying the colours and the paintbrush providing the choreography, I suddenly found this work palatable. Kinetic art is the perfect partner for this piece. To my surprise, it touched feelings and emotions in me that were buried very deep, arousing a sense of a profound connection to universal truths and meanings that flashed in and out too swiftly for me to catch them. Almost cathartic. Certainly beautiful.

We had seats in the middle of the front row so that we would get a good view of the screen where the art is projected. This also gave us a new perspective on the Steinway during the piano concerto, a true worm’s eye view of the mirrored inside lid. It didn’t matter. I’m one of those people who close their eyes while listening to classical music, preferring not to see the writhing and grimacing of many gifted musicians as they perform. All I could see of the soloist Radu Lupu, once he had sat down, was his left foot barely pressing the pedal. But my daughter, who was slightly better placed in the aisle seat, was struck by his stolid impassivity as he played, in such contrast to the delicacy of his touch and the power of his performance. No writhing or grimacing here. Yes, unmistakably a genius, able to coalesce with the music and the instrument, proving how much greater is the whole than the parts. Mozart must have been very pleased by this interpretation.

Then, after the interval, the Chamber Orchestra came into its own with an exuberant rendering of Beethoven’s Symphony No 2 that must also have had the composer wanting to jump up from his grave and join in. This, surely, is how it is meant to be performed, the conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste truly channelling the composer, and the musicians wallowing in the stirring spirit of the piece. Hard to imagine that Beethoven was anything but happy when he wrote this symphony, but in fact its composition coincided with his despair when he realised he was now permanently deaf.

This performance was joyful, jolly, jubilant. I couldn’t see the conductor’s face, but the musicians were all beaming and exhilarated, as was the audience. “Beethoven rocks!” laughed my daughter, as we watched the Leader of the orchestra rolling around on his seat, feet in the air much of the time as he put lots of gusto and brio into his bowing and his Stradivarius responded full-heartedly. The cellist was also sawing away so energetically that the strings of his bow were visibly disintegrating and by the end of the last movement there was a pile of fluff all round the feet of his chair. It was a rousing end to the programme.

How its first audiences must have been blown away by this fresh, exciting music that came with the new eighteenth century; no wonder the ladies were fainting and swooning, their corsets tight beneath their Empire dresses!

Happily, we were also able to catch Norman on the way out, and have him to ourselves for a few minutes before he had to go and mingle with the throng sipping their champagne in the foyer. We saw no point in lingering longer, so instead of champagne we went home for a cup of tea, and to tell my Dear Son-in-Law what a delight he had missed.

This will never be repeated and I may never see either of these geniuses again. Radu Lupu is more or less a recluse and his public performances are now extremely rare. Norman is due to perform at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham in the autumn, but it’s unlikely that I can make it there since I no longer have a permanent base in England. So I bask gratefully in the beautiful memory of an exceptional event on the blessed eve of the Super Blue Blood Moon.




High time we had a blog about CATS again, I think, and what could be better that the Duetto Buffo di Due Gatti by Rossini? My favourite performer of this is actually Montserrat Caballé – she is a true pussy cat!

soulgifts - Telling Tales

 ‘Miaou’ means ‘woof’ in cat.
George Carlin

If your cat falls out of a tree, go indoors to laugh.
Patricia Hitchcock

Cats have let us humans into their lives for about 4000 years. They had the Ancient Egyptians twisted around their tales. Seriously – they were worshipped as gods and goddesses. Some of them were even mummified.

From there they moved on to conquer the rest of the world. Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Napoleon were mere amateurs in comparison. By 500 BC cats had become the most popular pet in China, continuing on to take dominion in India and Japan. From there they moved on to take over the Roman Empire and Britain where they were declared to be sacred and valuable animals by the King of Wales. Killing a cat was an offence punishable by death.

Something horrid happened to cats in the Middle Ages…

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Colchiques dans les prés …

Temperatures during the day are still in the high twenties here, and sometimes I’m sure it’s been over 30”C, too hot for me to do anything demanding energy. A late afternoon stroll with some old friends to Heidi’s village, just across the river from here, gave me a poignant reminder however that autumn is nigh: the autumn crocus, or meadow saffron, is blooming in profusion on the slopes.


Goat in Heid’s village, above Maienfeld, view towards Bad Ragaz

I startled my friends by bursting into song – not too loud, I didn’t want to scare the droves of oriental tourists that flock to the scene of the 1950’s Heidi films – because for me this little flower is inextricably linked with my first September in Switzerland, in the mountain meadows near Geneva, where I first came across the colchicum autumnale and the children were all singing this melancholy little melody.


Colchiques dans les prés fleurissent …

As autumn songs go, it actually isn’t so sad: yes, the summer is over but the colchique is blooming, the colourful leaves are swirling, clouds wing their way across the sky, chestnuts are bursting in the forests and the song that lingers in the heart – despite the plaintive tune – is one of happiness.

Not an anonymous folk song, as I discovered from Wikipedia, but a ritournelle written for the scout movement in 1942 or 43, the words by Jacqueline Debatte and the melody by a lady with the marvellous name of Francine Cookenpot. What better name for a composer of campfire songs!

For anyone interested, here are links to YouTube versions of the song, one in a traditional children’s arrangement, the other by the romantic chansonnier Francis Cabrel  (one of my favourite French singers, who doesn’t sound like a bleating sheep). There’s also a version of the melody with English words that bear no relation to the original by a long-forgotten French progressive rock band called Sandrose.

I listened to the first few bars of this batlike singer and understand why the band sank into oblivion.

This pretty little flower is deadly poisonous, with no known antidote, but has medicinal uses. Interesting that once upon a time, nobody was bothered that little children sang so blithely about it. I do know that when I first heard it, sung by first-graders, they all knew it was not to be picked or nibbled. “If you touch it, you’ll DIE!” they told me. I hope that, despite modern over-protective parents, first-graders are still singing about it, aware of the dangers and with enough childish common sense not to eat it.

Finally, if you also want to sing along to this haunting little song, here are the words:

Automne (Colchiques Dans Les Près)

Colchiques dans les près
Fleurissent, fleurissent
Colchiques dans les près
C’est la fin de l’été

La feuille d’automne
Emportée par le vent
En rondes monotones
Tombe en tourbillonnant

Nuage dans le ciel
S’étire, s’étire
Nuage dans le ciel
S’étire comme une aile

Châtaignes dans les bois
Se fendent, se fendent
Châtaignes dans les bois
Se fendent sous nos pas

Et ce chant dans mon cœur
Murmure, murmure
Et ce chant dans mon cœur
Murmure le bonheur.

On This Day

Today – 9 September 2013 – is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden 500 years ago.  Coincidentally, it’s also the anniversary of the day I started Grammar School in 1952 and the day I left England to start a new life in Germany in 1963, though at the time I didn’t know that, blissfully believing I was going for just one year. I prefer not to reflect on how many years ago that was, as it means I have to admit to being over 45.

Both days seem like yesterday but a torrent of water has passed under the bridge since then, and if I dip my toe in it is most decidedly not the same river I was paddling in at that time. Not the same toe, either – I’ve forgotten how often cells regenerate in the human body, but I doubt even the oldest of mine were around in 1963, let alone 1952.

Today archaeologists digging on Flodden Field for remains of the men who slaughtered one another that day paused in their labours to allow a special service to take place honouring the fallen. It was attended by a large congregation, including descendants of those killed in the battle.

If you are the scion of a noble family, it’s easy to find out if your ancestor was there or not. But how can you tell if you are descended from a simple, illiterate pike- or cudgel-bearing foot soldier?  Some of the people there claiming to be relatives looked very ordinary to me, hence my question.

By digging around myself – metaphorically, not with the archaeologists – I have traced some of our family tree back to the sixteenth century, though not as far back as 1513. It is very difficult to ascertain who was who among hoi polloi in those days, unless they came to acquire some kind of fame or notoriety. The average law-abiding serf or villein was regarded as scarcely more than the animals he tended, just another pair of hands that the feudal lord could call upon when needed and pack off as cannon fodder when the King wanted to raise an army.

I suppose, once they have found a few bones, there may be a possibility of identifying more present-day descendants by means of DNA. However, unlike with Richard III, we won’t see the unearthing of the bones of James IV of Scotland, who bravely led his men into battle and achieved the dubious distinction of being the last king killed in battle on British soil, because his body was carted off to London and presented as a trophy to the crown. Henry VIII was off fighting the French (and leading from behind to ensure he survived), so it landed with Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had it dumped. By the time his grandson became King of England 90 years later, it had rotted away in a woodshed and there was nothing left to disinter. Thus even if he had wanted to rehabilitate his grandfather, he couldn’t.

There is one beautiful thing to come out of that horrific battle at Flodden field: the lament “Flowers of the Forest” which is played regularly when the Scots are remembering their fallen comrades, especially in the two world wars.  

When Words Fail

I have recently read a book by a young woman afflicted with a rare form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma, recording her journey through this harrowing illness: From Cancer to Coma” by Ciara O’Neill.  Cancer to Coma

Her courage and love of life are what shine through on every page of this book, and although she lost her battle, it is a very inspiring story and one I would recommend to anyone who is feeling a bit sorry for themselves. It brings home the old cliché that there’s always someone worse off than you, although there is never a hint of self-pity in this book. Ciara worked on her manuscript right up to the eve of her death, and it is a beautiful legacy.

Just a few days after I had finished reading it, I received a phone call from an old friend whom I have known since my primary school days, to say she has been diagnosed with this same form of cancer.  She sounded remarkably calm as she told me how she has been putting all her affairs in order and preparing for the end, but admitted that she was actually a swan, paddling like mad underneath. Today I have received news that another old friend who has been bravely fighting another aggressive form of cancer for the last two years or so is now very near to departure.

Words are meaningless in these situations. I struggle to express my love and support, and feel helpless. I can pray but I’m too far away from either of these friends to be able to visit, to give them a hug, do something practical and useful, or just sit quietly with them. What I have found – thanks to the Internet – are two beautiful YouTube videos of beautiful scenery and powerful music that flows over you like a gentle massage in warm, sweet-scented almond oil. Thanks to e-mail I have been able to pass these on. So much better than stammering out my sympathy on the phone. A drop in the ocean, I know – but music and natural beauty speak so much more eloquently than words.

1812 And All That

I’ve always enjoyed listening to music that tells a story. Sometimes the composer bases his music on an actual tale, but in other cases the music just seems to evoke scenes and events. For instance, Sibelius composed tone poems that would make wonderful soundtracks to a film, and I have spent many dreamy hours imagining the tales they tell.

On the other hand, overtures to operas and plays usually foreshadow the events, and so take you through the story. One of the earliest I stumbled upon as a child was Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I would listen for the jackass braying.  Another old favourite was The William Tell Overture, which tells its tale from the prelude through to the triumphant galloping finale with its much-abused  “Lone Ranger” motif.

(And just to throw in some trivia, did you know that the horn of the Swiss Postal Buses that is sounded every time the bus approaches a blind bend on a mountain road echoes those opening bars of the Prelude? Ta-taaa-toooo – exactly as Rossini wrote it, in the key of E.)

English: Tchaikovsky's famous 1812 Overture, w...

Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture, was played complete with cannons and pyrotechnics at the 2005 Classical Spectacular, in the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Photo taken at ISO 1600 with no tripod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I was pleased and interested when this post about Programme Music landed in my inbox this morning, with the story of the 1812 Overture. What I didn’t know until I read this post was that Americans often associated this piece of music with the Fourth of July and gaining their Independence in the War of 1812.  My first reaction to this was surprise that the stupid ignorant Americans hadn’t picked up on the French and Russian themes in the piece. Then I was surprised at myself for not having heard of the War of 1812. What was that? The War of 1812?  Who’s the stupid ignorant one now?

Well, a long time ago I took history at school and passed GCE O-level, focussing on British and European history from 1789 to 1914, so that certainly included 1812 and Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (I was very good on Napoleon) but I had never heard of this war before.  How remiss of my History teacher who used to drill us to a very high standard.

Then it dawned on me that we were studying for an exam that concentrated on European and domestic British history, and an American war didn’t come under that heading even if Britain had been involved (one of the pitfalls of studying for exams!).  As far as I knew, the USA had gained its independence in 1774 and that was that.  Of course I’d heard of the Battle of New Orleans, but I hadn’t known when it took place. Nor did I know of the precise circumstances described in The Star-spangled Banner. How lucky that nowadays we can turn to Google and Wikipedia to fill the gaps in our knowledge!

Cover of sheet music for "The Star-Spangl...

Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of British troops involved in the War of 1812 was relatively small, because most of our fighting men were deployed in the Napoleonic wars, in which far more was at stake. This conflict in a distant former colony was just a minor matter in British foreign affairs, and is scarcely mentioned in our textbooks.  It was, of course, a defeat for the British hence something of an embarrassment, but since it resulted in a status quo ante bellum with no changes in borders etc, we could afford to sweep it under the carpet and forget about it. For the Americans and Canadians, however, it settled their status as independent nations with clearly drawn borders. In fact, last year while Britain was once again looking inward and self-absorbed with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, over the Pond there were all kinds of bicentenary celebrations going on in the USA and Canada.

English: Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812...

Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) by Douglas Coupland in Toronto/Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wonder if the War of 1812 figures in modern British history books?

I must find a British teenager studying history …

Join The Fan Club!

Seeing the pleasure my mother was deriving from listening to the old cassette recordings of her well-played, scratchy old 78’s, I decided to give her a surprise and ordered a double CD of Monte Rey’s recordings from 1926 to 1950. These are re-mastered, so to my ears they sound much better, though she has said she prefers the quality of her 78’s and would like to listen to them again. Sadly, we no longer have a record player here capable of playing 78’s.Image0981

However, that is not to say she isn’t delighted with the CD. Her great favourite – So deep is the night – is missing, but most of the other songs she loves are on these two CDs including Donkey Serenade. There are also some recordings under his own name of Montgomery Fyfe (or Fyffe) when he was into opera and operettas in his early career.

The sleeve notes are very informative. It seems he was “discovered” by Sir Thomas Beecham who gave him a letter of introduction to Lillian Bayliss, the person in charge of the Old Vic, then the home of English opera. Before he could make use of this, however, he casually auditioned with Geraldo and was hired as Geraldo’s Spanish Tenor under the name of Monte Rey, a name made up on the spur of the moment by a friend, and launched into a highly successful radio career.

A couple of years later, walking down Bond Street, he bumped into Sir Thomas who enquired how he was getting on, since he had shown such promise but appeared to have sunk without trace. “Well,” replied our hero, “I’m that bloke they call Monte Rey.” Sir Thomas’s reply is a gem of wisdom:

“Now listen, my boy, you’re singing well …as Monte Rey many, many thousands will get to hear your beautiful voice who never would even have attempted to listen to you if you had remained Montgomery Fyfe, classic tenor … always remember … sing to the best of your ability and with sincerity, no matter what you sing.”

After reading the sleeve notes on the CD, Mom looked up with a big smile. “I’m so pleased,” she said, “he sounds like a nice man, and seems to have had a long happy life and a happy marriage. That’s good to know.”

Our house is ringing with the sound of Monte Rey for the first time in many years, and I have to confess that I, too, have fallen under his spell!. Move over, Alfie Boe!

This song is not on the CD, and this recording is very scratchy, but it is pretty typical of his “Spanish Tenor” period.