From the Cape to Cairo by keyboard

Olatunji Akin Euba (1935 – 2020), founder of African pianism

I still remember when I first heard the unusual rhythms and bell-like tones of the Ethiopian pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou.  The smell of burnt toast brought me out of a musical reverie.  I could hear the patterns of African percussion in her playing even though I had no clue as to whom I was listening to.  Emahoy was a reclusive nun who rarely gave performances.  She died last year, prompting a reissuing of her sparse recordings.

She remained my main introduction to piano composition in Africa until the arrival of a new CD – African Pianism by Rebeca Omordia – where the work of seven contemporary African composers are featured, as well Chicago-born Florence Price who was the first black female composer to have a symphony premiered in that city in 1933.

There is much to enjoy, from the Arabic timbres of Algerian composer Salim Dada and Morocco’s Nabil Benabdeljalil to the polyrhythms of Soweto-born Mokale Koapeng, who explains that in his Prelude in D he “infuses the dance elements I grew up listening to and witnessing in various townships.” 

South Africa’s Grant McLachlan composed his Sonatina for Double Bass and Piano in 2016 and the third movement, Senzeni Na? (‘What have we done?’) remains hugely popular across the country. He says, “It is a recreation for piano of an anti-apartheid protest song often sung at funerals and demonstrations…inextricably linked to the struggle for freedom and democracy.”  The piece is slow and gentle, but with a quiet rage; it is easy to imagine it being played at sombre funerals.

In contrast, Fela Sowande’s Two Preludes on Yoruba Sacred Folk Melodies is a joyful, original and, as the excellent accompanying sleeve notes by Robert Matthew-Walker reveal, “a profoundly African print with a descending quasi-scalic theme in which seconds and thirds unfurl as leaves of a flowering plant.”

Akin Euba, who died in 2020 was regarded as the most distinguished Nigerian composer, musicologist and pianist of his generation.  He was the originator of “African Pianism” which he described as a style of composition aiming to join the inherent musical syntax of Nigerian Yoruba music to the European keyboard with connotations of fundamental harmony.   Euba was a siren voice for interculturalism in composition, pointing out the similarities between the piano as a Western instrument and several Nigerian traditional instruments. Wakar Duru is Euba’s arrangement of three of Nigeria’s most popular Yoruba songs. One can imagine the piece being played in a concert hall or in a rural village church with feet tapping or bodies swaying depending on location.

This recording is volume 2 of Rebeca Omordia’s exploration of the rich diversity of African piano compositions on the innovative Somm Recordings label.  It is a constantly surprising feast of sounds, moods and emotions. Born in Romania to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, she is hailed as an African classical music pioneer and is the artistic director of the world’s first ever African Concert Series at the Wigmore Hall in London. This is a perfect starting point for intercultural musical exploration, east, west and all points north and south. 

African Pianism Vol. 2 by Rebeca Omordia.  Somm Recordings.  SOMMCD 0688

All eyes on Opera Rara…

At this year’s prestigious OPUS KLASSIK Awards, the Opera Rara recording label took centre-stage. Its success in winning the plaudits of the judges with a handsome CD set of a little-known opera by Offenbach, La Princesse de Trebizonde, has very much put the spotlight on a discerning recording initiative. Their latest release, Donizetti’s equally rare (1828) L’esule di Roma – ‘the exile from Rome’ – brings the work of opera conductor, Carlo Rizzi, to the fore, once again, as well as reminding us that 225 years have passed since Donizetti’s birth.

Rizzi, for many years associated with Welsh National Opera, has a rich and varied repertoire and endeared himself very much to audiences at the New Theatre, Cardiff, home of WNO, during the heyday of his tenure. The maestro’s Italianate ‘light touch’ – as opposed to the Teutonic heft of mid- to late-19th century opera – is put to great use in the bel canto genre of Donizetti. Yet this particular piece has many of the hallmarks of ‘heroic opera’, set as it is in the reign of Tiberius – whose opponents have been vanquished by General Publius, an outcome hailed by all it seems, except the Senator Murena, father of the beautiful Argelia, who has mysteriously disappeared… The reason: the ardent Septimus (the son of a man exiled by Murena) has returned to win Argelia’s heart – freely given – a situation which leads to his imprisonment. There is the unnerving unravelling of a political conspiracy, and the mental breakdown of Murena, who has condemned Septimus to death – but then, the eventual pardon and reuniting with Argelia – a typically joyful end for an opera of this era. 

Bass-baritone Nicola Alaimo, bel canto soprano Albina Shagimuratova, and tenor Sergey Romanovsky in the title role, lead the cast – supported by that orchestral precision-instrument, Britten Sinfonia, whose ensemble size as a chamber orchestra make it perfect for those intense moments for the romantic duo at the heart of this Roman epic – and yet also capable of the grand moment (a prelude, perhaps, to the age of Verdi). And what a combination the leading stars make: each scene and aria outshining the previous, giving the opera a sense of unrelenting drama, with no feeling of drift or dullness, just an immersion into the fate of the exile, and the pain of internal exile, in the stifling atmosphere of Tiberius’s citadel.

With an excellent CD booklet (synopsis, artist profiles etc.) the new discs are a firm recommendation for those who relish front-rank operatic performance, the intrigue and passion of Ancient Rome, and recordings capable of evoking the radiant, searing sounds of the opera house.

CD details: Donizetti, L’esule di Roma, Opera Rara, (ORC64)

Looming Labour pains

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Staring into the political abyss, in this, the last fortnight of the General Election campaign, the British Conservative Party is probably asking itself: how has it come to this? The impressive majority won by Boris Johnson in the 2019 Brexit election across large areas of the midlands and northern England where Labour once reigned unchallenged, has dissolved into nothingness. The allegiance of those former Labour voters (the result of Labour abandoning the real workers in favour of a ‘smarter’ internationalism forged in the salons of central London) has boomeranged back to the party of prices-and-incomes policies and trades unionism. 

Reinventing Labour as an electable, reassuringly mainstream force for common-sense, whose delegates sing God Save The King at their conference and vote for increased defence spending, Sir Keir Starmer’s determination to pull his members away from the Corbyn years of grievance-Socialism (and from the Blairite legacy of free migration and easy credit) has pulled the rug from under his Tory opponents.

Combined with the catastrophic mistakes made by the Conservatives – shindigs in Downing Street during lockdown, a Liz Truss economic gamble that succeeded in doubling everybody’s mortgage payments, the present scandal about election-date gambling by senior Conservatives – Starmer has emerged to raise again the tattered and tarnished banner of trust – in politicians, and in the reliability of government. Curiously enough for an Opposition leader who mocked Truss’s ideology of growth-at-all-costs, Starmer has placed at the top of his agenda the very idea of those denounced free-marketeers – that the only possibility of clambering out of the United Kingdom’s slurry pit of debt and billion-of-pounds social spending is to shore up the real, productive economy. 

Yet can he ever achieve his growth-to-fuel-the-welfare-state objective? With the industries that Labour so relied upon from 1945 to 1979 now either pruned to their thinnest-possible capacity, or completely non-existent, can a Starmer Government ever hope to re-seed industry? After the 5th July, will the new ministers subsidise, nationalise Port Talbot steelworks, protect British jobs, rescue us from privatised price-rises in the (Tory-created) deregulated energy market by establishing a new Great British energy company? Economic experts such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies fear that no new government will have much chance to address Britain’s ever-growing state borrowing. 

There seems little doubt that Starmer will partially ramp up Britain’s defences, say the right things that will appeal to Middle England and the old Red Wall/Brexit seats of the North, and within the precincts of government will pay little attention to ‘woke’ – one of our few remaining growth industries. He will see planning regulations as being against growth – a curious similarity with Truss – yet will make the mistake of viewing housing development and wind farms as generators of wealth. He will pay little attention to countryside matters or rural voters’ concerns: he is, after all (like Jeremy Corbyn) a London politician, through and through.

Sir Keir also promises a new Border Command, to tackle the mass-migrant arrivals on the Kent coast – but just what does that mean? Just a renaming of the existing messy, ineffectual Border Force? His undoubted successes in Scotland will relegate the SNP, and that alone is a good thing for the Union of the Kingdom – so his victory will be a mixed bag. It will usher in, however, a long period of further detachment from politics: he and his team look technocratic and too-serious, even when they remove their ties at those irritating ‘let-me-level-with-you’ moments. And a year from now, everyone who voted for the Labour landslide is likely to be complaining about electricity prices, too-high mortgages, ‘Labour dictatorship’….

Starmer is in the real world – a world away from Corbyn and the recent Labour past – and he and his inner circle know that they will have to deal with Meloni and Le Pen, Russia and China. So his government – tested by world events – may reflect a new managerialism, not an old ideology. We drift into new waters, new times…

A Hispanic and Germanic journey

STUART MILLSON travels from Moorish Spain to Beethoven’s more-ish Mass

Newly minted by the imaginative Meridian CD label comes a recording which is best played, late in the evening – on a warm night – with a glass of Rioja to hand and candlelight flickering in the corner of your room. In the absence of real Iberian surroundings, the disc – From Al Andalus to the Americas – takes the listener from the times of the Moorish domination of Spain from the eighth century, to the fall of Granada in 1492 to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and eventually the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the era of composers Granados, Turina and the Argentinian, Ginastera. 

The motivating force for and on the recording is the acclaimed American soprano, Christine Moore Vassallo, whose mother, of Arab-Levantine ancestry, inspired the singer to delve into the richly-textured, heady, overlapping mix of Muslim, Spanish, folk, religious, pastoral music and lamentations – fanned, like seeds in the air, to the New World, but rooted in the hills and gardens of Al-Andalus (the name for Spain during Umayyad rule). For this Meridian recording, Christine’s collaborators are Philip Arditti – an expert in Sephardi culture and an exponent of Darbuka, Riqq and Frame drums, Rachel Beckles Wilson, a writer and composer who is one of the West’s foremost authorities on the music of the oud, the guitar virtuoso, Pablo Gimenez, flautist Anthony Robb, and the Spanish pianist, Jorge Robaina. Each musician contributes to this fascinating hour-long time-travel through the history of the Iberian peninsula.

An anonymous pre-15th century piece begins the journey – Lamma bada yatathanna – from a poetic genre of the Arab language which appeared in the tenth century. The song, though, is ageless, describing a gentleman’s interest in the ‘swaying hips’ of a woman, and bemoaning his malady of love. Sephardic songs then follow (arranged in 1975 by Manuel Valls), leading on to three anonymous 15th to 17th century items, collected by the poet, Lorca (1898-1936) Canciones antiguas espanoles; the first ballad, Las morillas de Jaen, telling the tale of three Moorish girls, converts to Christianity, gathering olives and apples on dusty terraces, but earning, too, admiring glances from a nearby farmer. The Iberian climate clearly inspires ‘youth, mirth and warm desire’…

In Canciones del Jardin Secreto, a composer of modern times, Anton Garcia Abril (1933-2021) sets old Arab texts, including the lament of Boabdil (or Abdullah, the last Moorish king) for his lost fortress of Alhambra:

‘Longed-for Alhambra, your castles are weeping

About what happened to me, Lord Abu-Abdullah

Give me my stallion and white blade

And let us go and take back the Alhambra…’

The collection ends with the colours and magic of Ginastera’s Five popular Argentinian songs; taking us to the New World; to the frontiers of the Latin civilisation founded by trade, exploration, conquest, yet tinged and underpinned by the cadences of a culture – that of Islam and the Moors – which itself formed one of the world’s mighty empires.

Gustav Blaeser’s 1840 model for a never-made monument to Beethoven

Finally, by way of complete contrast, we travel to a mediaeval church in the ancient kingdom of Kent (the land now criss-crossed by motorways, the pilgrims in shorter supply) to a performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C major, given by the powerful forces of the 70-strong East Malling Singers – Kent’s large-in-scale, large-in-ambition ‘amateur’ choral society. Able to attract exceptionally fine instrumental accompanists and accomplished soloists, the Singers (conducted by Ciara Considine, with organist, Nick Bland) patiently rehearse their repertoire for many gruelling weeks – a repertoire that typically includes Masses by Haydn, the occasional Handel oratorio, uplifting anthems and hymns by Parry and Vaughan Williams. 

At first, the regular concertgoer and buyer of CDs might pause before considering a non-professional performance of a Beethoven Mass. But such reticence would be a mistake, because here – like an amateur orchestra tackling Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony – we enjoy the pleasure of hearing the rush of adrenaline of aspiring artists, our fellow human beings, activating every sinew in the cause of doing their very best. And in the wide acoustic of the Church of St. James the Great, the rising swell of sound in Beethoven’s opening Kyrie is just as satisfying for any true music-lover, as if you had just ventured into a Deutsche Grammophon recording studio. With a reverential Bruckner motet as an extra item on the CD, how could you resist?

CD details: From Al-Andalus to the Americas, Meridian, CDE 84647

Beethoven, Mass in C Major. A private recording, but for further details contact Mrs. Elaine Gordon of East Malling Singers,www.eastmallingsingers.co.uk

Questing verse

The Living Law

Jesse Keith Butler, Darkly Bright Press, 2024, 106 pp., £16.08

Jesse Keith Butler’s debut volume The Living Law exhibits an extraordinary mastery and inventiveness of form, comprising poems in traditional metres (with an unusual predominance of the anapaestic), as well as free verse, not to mention prose poetry. The matter spans country and city life, family, travel, work and leisure. Some poems address their themes directly, even polemically.

Religious themes predominate, with poems on a range of subjects depicting and evaluating experiences from the somewhat aloof persona of a man whose faith grants him access to a truth beyond this world. For example, ‘The Boatwright’ contemplates the postmortem fate of the speaker’s unbelieving brother, and cleverly as well as touchingly finds the same wiggle room as many a liberal theologian, granting the minimum and the maximum an orthodox believer may, that “if there’s open water beyond this life […] I know you’ll find your way.”

The overall sensibility is conservative, however. Witness ‘Whatever is Born of Fire’ with its generalised anti-modern nostalgia that evokes Eliot’s ‘Choruses from The Rock.’ Developing out of a vignette of returning to the family home, the aspiration bursts forth:

We can try to turn back—

     We could maybe turn back—

          And seek a strange new trajectory—

But here as elsewhere one is aware of a problem that Butler has not dealt with. Just as a descriptive passage featuring “heavy clouds” filled with “life-giving rain” in a scene that “tears the veil of time” is built upon cliché, so the notion that we might in some sense return to a pre-modern, religiously-based culture lacks authenticity, with what might be ‘strange’ and ‘new’ about this proposed trajectory left unexplored.

At his most glib, Butler is capable of promulgating intellectual clichés like:

Rock on, rock on Voltaire, Rousseau

‘Cause Revolution’s all we know

We’ll line them all up in a row

To build the Kingdom here below

(‘Rock on, Rock on Voltaire, Rousseau’)

Many poems in the volume depict a moment in nature in which a moment of afflatus supervenes in the manner typical of much nature poetry, in which a vision is beheld and, as Wordsworth put it, “we see into the life of things.” This lyric mode is so entrenched that it is hard to practise with any convincing originality. It is, of course, a heritage of the Romantic movement whose poets sought to imbue mundane subjects with the ‘visionary gleam’ of a religious ardour that even then had largely ceased to be evoked by Christian subjects. Thinking over the progress of English verse, it is interesting to note the peculiarity of Butler’s proffered contribution, since the latter often consists of injecting explicitly religious and Biblical imagery into a naturalistic setting, as in the prose poem that begins ‘“Look, he says, the friggin’ Rocky Mountains!”’ and culminates in a vision out of Genesis where

my eyes stream with tears and […] I wish I had a voice big and inhuman enough to sing along. […] It’s the creatures on the ladder that are singing, I know that now, and they’re both ascending and descending on a ladder whose end vanishes between the stars (‘The Ladder’).

There may be antecedents for Butler’s technique here. One thinks of his fellow Catholic Robert Lowell, who in his early work might juxtapose a vision of a Mary who “twists the warlock with her flowers […] her whole body an ecstatic womb” against the narrative of a drowned ancestor. Explicitly religious imagery has never died out, of course. But in Lowell’s case the depiction of Mary dramatises the repressed sexual content of Catholic iconography in a way that renders it uncanny. In Butler’s poem the narrative is delivered with the simplicity of a child reporting a Marian vision.

Butler’s use of form is virtuosic in a way that disdains to hide itself. Although The Living Law contains prose and free verse as well as iambics, the metrical refrain throughout is anapaestic: a metre not to be handled by those afraid of formal obtrusiveness. The cantering rhythm advances past the syntax, so that artifice is foregrounded to a surprising extent. The effect is often strident, as for example in the title poem, in which:

something cuts through the dull resonance

and draws us to join a reciprocal dance

and love the

                          living

                                       law.

The situation is a bus trip on which an old lady loses her glasses and the other passengers pitch in to help find them. But the subject is infused with a numinous light and music that give the weary speaker a sense of his place in the divine order of things – though the notion of him and his fellow passengers ‘dancing’ on a Greyhound is perhaps unintentionally funny.

I have hinted that the religiosity of these poems is sometimes their downfall. I say this not out of any dogmatic hostility to Butler’s religion and in full awareness of the importance of Christian belief to some of the greatest poetry in existence. But successful poetry must offer something new – not necessarily drastically new, but at least individual or peculiar to the speaker, the author, or the context of writing. If it does not, it merely restates, likely in hackneyed language, conventional sentiments derived from an outside source.

In the longish poem ‘The Lawgiver’ Butler re-narrates in truncated form the main incidents of Moses’ career in Exodus. We learn for instance that, “I stayed forty days as your fire filled my mind,” and “I cast your bronze serpent and lifted it up” after “the destroyer turned back at the doorway’s blood-smear.” It is a retelling with little embellishment. One thinks, in contrast, of Pound’s famous poem ‘The Goodly Feere’ with its surprising depiction of Jesus as the tragic hero of a border ballad. Whether one likes the depiction or not, at least Pound adds a fresh dimension to his subject. ‘The Lawgiver’ rather timidly imitates the form of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, suggesting an analogous attempt at resituation. Is Moses to be understood as a Hebrew Beowulf? But the formal exercise seems to have been carried out gratuitously, without significance. And this blandness extends beyond the narrative recapitulation to the equally derivative notions Moses enunciates, which might come from a prayer book of any denomination:

Your grace has brought me to the sabbath of your year

Ground me in sound judgment and knowledge of your law

[…]

Without your correction I’d be wandering still

And so on. The linguistic possibilities of imagery and symbol are foreclosed at the same time as discursive ones. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to say what the author of the Psalms, for instance, has already said without using either the same or inferior language. It is as if someone out of utter devotion to The Bard were to rewrite Hamlet, more or less in the style of Shakespeare, changing nothing essential in regard to plot or characterisation.

Now, take ‘The Lawgiver’ and place it beside Vigny’s romantic depiction of the same subject in his great poem ‘Moïse.’ Hardly blasphemous or wildly revisionist, Vigny has a clear contribution to make to Moses as a human archetype. We imagine that we learn something new and previously un-adumbrated about God’s representative. Not how faithful and pious and prophetic he is, which we already know, but, for the first time, of his divided nature, half earthly, half heavenly, and the pain and weariness of such eminence, analogous to that of a romantic poet. Vigny’s Moses is an imaginative reinterpretation; Butler’s is merely an homage.

‘The Lawgiver’ is followed by the interesting ‘Villanelle of the Elect.’ If Butler’s use of anapaestic metre, internal rhyme and alliteration are a marching rhythm calling Christian soldiers to spiritual warfare, the repetitious form of the villanelle is serviceable to his ends in an analogous way. Surely that of election is the most puzzling and disturbing of doctrines, and one that requires circumspect treatment by anyone who would sympathetically present it in any of its denominational forms. Yet in what should be his most intellectually and spiritually rigorous exercise, Butler opts for a form highly ill-adapted to discursive development:

If Esau had hope, it was quickly deflated.

The subtle supplanter had him by the heel.

But Jacob was loved, and Esau was hated.

Nothing about the scenario, so puzzling and upsetting to the moral sense, is explained or even explored. Again, we have a simple retelling without augmentation or exegesis. It is cleverly done, but constitutes an overly deferential, and therefore superficial, approach to the material.

At his most accessible (at least, to the reader who lacks his convictions), Butler seems almost to entertain an aporia with regard to the certainties that elsewhere drive his poetry. In the sonnet ‘The Return,’ for example, the speaker addresses the city of Vancouver with the words:

The Hip on FM sing escape’s at hand

For me, the travelling man. Let this last mile

Stretch out to fill a year. Anchor my grand

Illusions to your stubborn facts awhile.

Those ‘grand illusions’ are probably the usual worldly ones: a failed relationship, dreams of wealth and career success or other appurtenances of this world that, 2,000 years later, is still doggedly imagined by some to be ‘passing away,’ as the Apostle Paul assured his followers—but interpretation must have some latitude.

Although I have expressed some reservations about his approach, it is bracing to discover an emerging poet whose sensibility stands provocatively outside the mainstream. Formal poetry is increasingly associated with curmudgeonliness, and Butler does nothing to challenge this perception; on the other hand, he writes with conviction and an evident desire to say something true and permanent. At the same time, there is something quite contemporary about The Living Law. It speaks to a certain subculture for which a necessarily selective rejection of modernity is expressed in a return to traditional forms and subjects, a defiance of writing seminar orthodoxy in favour of a certain literary populism – if it makes sense to speak, as A M Juster does in his blurb, of ‘a broader audience of poetry lovers’ in this day and age.

Realms of imagination

Cincinnati Subway, by Jonathan Warren. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners

Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield, London: Aurum Press, 2021, 208pps. Hb, £24.99

Some years ago, I was on holiday in Iceland. We had hired a very inadequate car (limited budget) for a road trip from Reykjavik to the spectacular Vatnajökull glacier on the southern coast. Whilst driving through the wonderfully bleak, black volcanic landscape we spotted an orange tailfin of what looked like a fighter plane. We stopped to investigate and after a short walk came across a full size replica of a MiG-31; a balsa wood testament to Russian aeronautical ingenuity. No signs, no explanation. It was only later that we learnt that it was a left behind prop for a Clint Eastwood film, Firefox.

This spurred my interest in historical and geographical anomalies, such as the suburban bungalow in Essex that disguised the UK’s Cold War HQ beneath. When The Atlas of Improbable Places arrived on my desk, I devoured it in one sitting. It is a labour of curiosity and love by Travis Elborough and cartographer Alan Horsfield.

Lithuania’s Hill of 100,000 Crosses, by Diego Delso. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It details dream creations, deserted destinations, architectural oddities, floating worlds, otherworldly spaces and subterranean realms. I learnt about the Hill of 100,000 crosses in Lithuania. The crosses were planted to commemorate people who had died combatting their Russian overlords.  Often dissidents would just go missing, so in the absence of a body, a cross was erected on a small hill near the city of Siauliai. The first crosses appeared in 1831. The Russians ordered that the crosses be bulldozed but within a few days more had been erected. So they spread sewage over the hill but still the crosses appeared in defiance of cordons and KGB guards. Pope John Paul II planted his own cross on the Hill in 1993. It is now a site of political and spiritual pilgrimage.

Portmeirion gets a welcome mention as does the extraordinary underground postal railway in London, now a tourist attraction. Beijing’s abandoned Disney-land-style theme offers a rather different view of China, as does Teufelsberg, the abandoned US spy station in Berlin, a far from subtle eavesdropping nerve centre in the Cold War. You can also learn about Cincinnati’s still abandoned subway system and the illicit tunnels constructed by Chinese immigrants in Moose Jaw, Canada. When racism and economic decline hit the city, the Chinese were targeted. They went underground, reappearing to run a laundry in the daytime or such like, and bamboozle their oppressors.

For creepiness, you cannot beat the Ibaloi Mummy Caves at Benguet in the Philippines. The tribe favoured an embalming method of smoking and drying out bodies, leaving a sort of desiccated husk. When mummification was complete, they were laid to rest in wooden coffins and stacked in cave tombs. They await your visit.

A Ninth Century Winter Poem – from Old Irish

A. Z. FOREMAN is a literary translator, poet and language teacher currently working on a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages at the Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago, and his M.A. in Arabic Language from the University of Maryland. His translations from Arabic, Chinese, OldIrish, Italian, Russian, Old English, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Welsh have appeared in sundry anthologies, journals and a BBC radio broadcast. He divides his time between the bedroom, the bathroom and the kitchen. If you have a dog, he would very much like to pet it.

A Ninth Century Winter Poem

From Old Irish

Here’s my song.   Sad stags moan.

Winter blows,   summer’s gone.


High winds lash.    Low, the sun.

Short, its course.   Seas roar on.


Fall-red fern   loses form.

Wildgeese wail   as the norm.


Cold now holds   each bird’s wing.

Icy times.   So I sing.

Dice From There: A Pair for Mahmoud Darwish

A Z FOREMAN is a literary translator, poet and language teacher currently working on a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages at the Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago, and his M.A. in Arabic Language from the University of Maryland. His translations from Arabic, Chinese, Old Irish, Italian, Russian, Old English, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Welsh have appeared in sundry anthologies, journals and a BBC radio broadcast. He divides his time between the bedroom, the bathroom and the kitchen. If you have a dog, he would very much like to pet it.

Dice From There: A Pair for Mahmoud Darwish

            From There

It was Mahmoud, of all who sing and die,

Born in a nation’s catastrophic dawn,

Who made a country look him in the eye.

He made me listen to him in Silwan

That day. I stank of grief and sweat and fear

Watching the men break down an old man’s door

And son. I vomited. He tugged my ear

To tell me he had lived through this but more.

Through gas-grenades and prison and despair,

A people clutched at heart, to a death of one,

Under the sign of sacred dignity

He knew his Exodus. He came from there

To forge himself to song between the gun

And Rita. Anguish and humanity.

            Who am I to say

Could he have been my friend, whose flowers weighed

Down on the gunsight’s scales? I think. We both

Learned home in strangeness. Both our girlfriends made

Love in a language we refused to loathe.

Seeing him weary of the slow gun-play

Of sloganing, outgrow the lollipop

Of rhetoric and learn that where words stop

Could carry more than what we have to say,

I think how his verse plays in later years

At dice with histories he cannot master,

The struggle for a thing he vaguely fears,

Chased by the angry twilight of disaster

Across the longitudes from Galilee

To Texas. Anguish and humanity.

Masters of the English musical renascence

Image: Stuart Millson

STUART MILLSON reports from the 17th English Music Festival

Ever since 2006, except for the shortest of absences due to the Covid crisis, the Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames has been hosting the English Music Festival, the EMF – the artistic creation of one dedicated Englishwoman, Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck. The first-ever concert was held on an October evening, given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by (the late) David Lloyd Jones – a conductor noted for his love of opera and Russian music, but also for the music of the English musical renascence: the era often seen as dominated by Elgar, but actually the time when Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss, Ireland and many others shaped a national musical style (or styles) with their expansive symphonies and folk-infused song-cycles.

For an initially small Festival with great ambitions, but – inevitably – with limited funds, the participation of the BBC’s most versatile orchestra was a masterstroke of strategy by the Festival founder – ensuring a prestigious beginning to her concert series and an all-important broadcast on BBC Radio 3. At once the Festival was put on the map and thanks to many others being inspired by Em’s great enthusiasm, has grown in scale and scope through the years, with the BBC’s orchestra still the mainstay of the opening concert.

Today, the Festival takes place over the May Bank Holiday, a time when the countryside surrounding Dorchester comes into its own: willow cotton drifting on the air; the footpaths to the Thames laced with white cow parsley; meadows of buttercups leading to Iron Age embankments; and nearby, under the full canopy of churchyard trees, the welcome shade and cool recesses of places such as St. Peter, Little Wittenham. 

Here, among the tomb chests and brasses, the Oxfordshire of quiet parsons and fussy parochial church councils can be found – but also the dreamy, immemorial Thames-scape of William Morris and Kenneth Grahame, the immemorial England of T.S. Eliot, Sir John Betjeman, or Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. High above the hamlet, like a sentinel in the downland, stand the trees of the Wittenham Clumps: inspiration for Paul Nash – and welcome shade for grazing cows and OS-guided walkers who find themselves a little too warm after wandering to the ridge on a hot day. As was the case with Richard Adams’s rabbits of Berkshire-set Watership Down, the view here seems to take in ‘the whole world!’ – or at least, the Chilterns to the east, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford to the north, and beyond, an outline of the beginnings of the English Midlands.

Dorchester Abbey is the largest building visible in the landscape (save for a lurking, distant 1930s-looking factory-type structure to the northwest). The Abbey has been a seat of Christianity since the seventh century and a survivor of the reign of Henry Vlll – its great window and towering arches a worthy rival to more famous landmarks, such as Gloucester Cathedral. As the Wittenham Clumps were to Paul Nash, so the Abbey became an inspiration to fellow artist, John Piper – and in our own time, for the orchestral musicians of the EMF, the great church offering a near-perfect acoustic and a truly inspiring setting for their concerts. 

And for the musical offering of Friday 24th May, Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite opened the BBC Concert Orchestra’s programme, the work based upon romantic and folk-reminiscent melodies originally penned for a short 1950s transport film, entitled East Anglian Holiday. A superior piece of public information-film scoring, the suite begins with a stirring ‘spirit of England’ theme, which gives the impression that you are back on the Wittenham Clumps, surveying the majesty of ‘this other Eden.’ However, East Anglia has no downland, so listeners find themselves rubbing shoulders with morris-dancers at a Suffolk festivity, or being lulled into an afternoon slumber by the waters of Orford Ness. A stirring, martial portrait of Framlingham Castle ends the sequence, but not before a brief reappearance of the moving opening tune – a pleasing farewell to the East of England on Carwithen’s bus or rail trip to the county.

Holst’s imposing and early (1899-1900) Symphony in F major, subtitled The Cotswolds, was the main work in the concert – its last movement, like the Carwithen, conjuring scenes of bucolic, open-air celebration and the atmosphere of a countryside where people still whistled folk-tunes. Yet the work’s other movements sometimes seemed to bypass the village green, with an altogether less scene-painting feel – although it has to be said that the brooding and dark slow movement is a memorial in music to the Arts and Crafts luminary, William Morris. Conductor Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra played with deeply-felt intensity, with brass and the darker hues of the orchestra summoning the spirits of the Cotswold hills and combes.

Brass instruments were very much in evidence in the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Richard II – A Concert Fantasy, woven together from fragments of music and ‘cues’ written by the composer for a planned wartime radio play. The arranger and bringer-to-life of this Shakespeare scenario is Nathaniel Lew, Professor of Music at St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont, who – like conductor, Martin Yates (the arranger of RVW’s Falstaff suite, ‘Fat Knight’, also once premiered at this Festival) – has a fascination with the rescuing and revival of works once thought to be lost, or not to have existed at all. The performance fully honoured the EMF’s guiding philosophy of what can almost be seen as musical archaeology, or restoration.

Saturday morning’s chamber recital featured Rupert Marshall-Luck, violin, and Peter Cartwright, piano, doing their brilliant bit in bringing obscure works into the limelight, including Ernest Farrar’s Celtic Suite, Bliss’s Theme and Cadenza, and sonatas by Herbert Howells and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (whose Clarinet Concerto, played by Michael Collins, featured in the first-night concert). Known for his authoritative performances of Elgar’s famous Violin Sonata, Rupert Marshall-Luck, brought gravitas to the Howells and Stanford, aided by the concerto-like strength of Peter Cartwright’s piano playing. Both artists channelled huge energy and concentration into what was a lengthy, often heavyweight chamber programme, which allowed us to see the overlooked greatness of England’s heritage of smaller-scale works.

Hilary Davan Wetton, with the Godwine Choir. Image: Stuart Millson

My journey to Dorchester ended this year with the Saturday evening concert by the Godwine Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, an effervescent, ever-youthful 80-year-old veteran of the concert podium. Addressing the audience on the desperate need for arts funding in Britain, and contrasting how Parisian politicians would authorise the pouring of money into any festival of French music, the Maestro went on to conduct choral masterpieces such as Vaughan Williams, O Clap Your Hands; Elgar’s 1914 Give Unto The Lord, but with time, too, for the enchanting Blake-inspired part-song by Havergal Brian, The Dream – with a folkish, fairy atmosphere of glades and glow worms. Dreamscapes were also created by the wonderful Godwine voices in the form of Holst’s Sanskrit-inspired Hymns from the Rig Veda, pieces that had the Abbey audience spellbound, especially one of my concert companions, a youngish (still under-40) relative newcomer to music. Proof indeed, should the Arts Council require it, that you stimulate an interest in classical music by playing to people… classical music.

With its Suffolk and Sanskrit music, its Cotswolds and choral contributions, the 2024 EMF may well go down as a vintage ‘season’ – but we say that every year.

Incidence

IAN C SMITH’s work has been published in BBC Radio 4 Sounds,Cable Street,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Honest Ulsterman, Offcourse,& Stand. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.

Incidence

She says something about money.  Wary as a sidestepping crow, I know I should pay attention after cowering from her furious silences.  Nightfall, wind creaking in the cracks, scenes from our fenestrated past blind turn around my brain, tantalising.  She bares a stark truth about us, here, in this house as cold as boring sex.  Words elude me.  No-one witnesses this tension but us, ageing dramatis personae, the slow unzipping of a tight black dress as obsolete as fantasies of swooning in love forever.

Turning pages I pause at an odd noun, my mind a vespiary because she just uttered it.  I read an absurd name she then mentions at dinner with no a priori knowledge.  Recollecting distant events I come across references to them shortly afterwards, repeatedly, saw her glass shattered before she dropped it, knew she would reverse her car into our closed gates, ominous, but nary a glimpse of a consoling angel.

If a preview of what lies ahead promised wall-to-wall contentment I might relax, but creeping discord’s heavy cloak drags through the dark Byzantium of our history.  Thoughts de rigueur for the socially isolated, I flinch from further signs; rain drumming on the deck, the ghostly rattle of her wind chimes, any measured tread approaching my door.  I am not practical like her.

My mind’s attic now her regret, I should kiss her hand, seek the emollient of the girl she was in that old scarred bar near the bombed bridge where we danced when young.  Death’s plateau looming closer than that distant maelstrom of lost innocence, I am compelled to chronicle harsh details, those tenuous days unmagicked, gone.  This is serious.