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.

How The Napoleon of Notting Hill can educate us

In an 1874 letter to members of the Augustinians of the Assumption, Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, who founded the congregation in 19th century France, spoke about the “radical denial of the rights of God” in the post-revolutionary period. Society then – as now – did not understand the order of things and did “not want the truth to serve as its bedrock.” And he observed that “ever since society ceased to rest on this doctrinal foundation, we can see…the resulting turmoil.”

Like other thinkers and figures of the time, d’Alzon recognized that the disenchantment of the world caused profound disorder. His solution to this was to “proclaim everywhere in the world the rights of God, of Jesus Christ and of his Church.” To do this, the Assumptionists had to focus on education in all its forms. Elsewhere, d’Alzon had written that “humanity needs to be taught, but first we need to give humanity a heart of flesh, as Scripture says, to replace the one becoming like stone in its chest.”

I open with d’Alzon for two reasons. First, I am indebted to the Assumptionists and d’Alzonian thinking; I was educated by the Assumptionists at Assumption College in Massachusetts, now Assumption University, and briefly considered a vocation to the congregation. Secondly, I believe his observations on the turmoil of the modern period have much to teach both intellectuals and artists.

D’Alzon can help us approach art because art, good and bad, has an educative dimension to it, particularly a moral one. To demonstrate this, I’d like to take a moment to compare him to T.S. Eliot. In Religion and Literature, Eliot observes that modern literature seems to express “no higher ideal to set before us than [absolute liberty].” It has been “corrupted by…Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” If we are exposed to this and do not think seriously about what we are reading, then, Eliot says, we will receive an improper formation, one that puts us at odds with the Truth. Emmanuel d’Alzon would likely agree with Eliot and has, in fact, used artistic language to talk about the seriousness of human formation. He has noted that the soul is “like a block of marble” that like the sculptor’s block can be chipped away meticulously until it becomes a work of art.

A good example of a novel that can shape the reader and demonstrate where we moderns have become unmoored is G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. In the aforementioned essay, Eliot identifies Chesterton as a propagandist, used in its original sense to mean propagation of the faith. But despite its rather overt sensibility, the novel works quite well for my purposes.

It’s apt to describe The Napoleon of Notting Hill as a story about education and ideas – in particular, the Christian idea.

Before the novel – which is set 80 years after its publication date – begins in earnest, Chesterton’s introductory note runs through a litany of modern “prophets,” each of whom has offered a particular vision of what the future might look like – from H.G. Wells saying “science would take charge of the future” to Edward Carpenter’s assertion that “we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do.” These are all attempts at what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the Eschaton.”  [Editor’s Note: From A New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin, 1952: “The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” The term “immanentizing the Eschaton” would become a satirical way of describing utopian thinking.]  

That so many people would strive for utopian solutions makes sense, because, like d’Alzon, Chesterton would have encountered similar disordered thinking. Ideas take root and spread. All these “prophets,” having jettisoned God, still needed to find ultimate meaning, in the form of capital-s Science or something else. But the order of things cannot be separated from God, and human life cannot be reduced to a series of predictions and numbers. Reality is deeper than ideological fads, and life is not a series of “cold mechanic happenings,” to quote from Chesterton’s poem he includes as an epigraph. Instead, it’s all bound by joy.

The novel opens in a London “almost exactly like what it is now.” Chesterton’s third-person narrator tells us that the people of this time have “absolutely lost faith in revolutions” and instead have accepted “Evolution,” in the sense that any changes must be done “slowly and safely,” as in nature. This flattening of the human spirit had resulted in the death of democracy, because “no one minded the governing class governing.” England, seemingly a world-bestriding colossus, because it seems to have conquered Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicaragua, was “now practically a despotism, but not a hereditary one.” The narrator tells us that “someone in the official class was made king.” The passive voice there suggests the passivity of the population, and indeed, in the next sentence, the narrator says that “no one cared how; no one cared who.” We then learn that, unsurprisingly, “everything…had become mechanical.”

Into this comes Auberon Quin, a comic figure whom the narrator describes as godson of “the King of the Fairies.” Apparatchiks of the regime arrive at Quin’s house and, to the shock of the people present, announce that he has been named king. Later that day, King Auberon makes a humorous speech in which he announces his desire to save “from extinction a few old English customs.” He suggests a form of local patriotism, in which each borough of London “shall immediately build a city wall with gates to be closed at sunset.” These places will be “armed to the teeth” and will “have a banner, a coat of arms, and, if convenient, a gathering cry.” Intellectuals turn “purple with laughter,” while others are “purple with indignation.” Most have their “minds a blank.” But not one Adam Wayne, who is there watching with “burning blue eyes.” He takes Quin very seriously.

It makes sense that Wayne would take Quin seriously. A mechanized, flat world is an inhuman world. People float through it like seaweed in the deep, because they have been given nothing to believe in. This is a world that isn’t foreign to us, but nor was it foreign to Chesterton or d’Alzon. The latter, in discussing his vocation to the priesthood – he founded the Assumptionists and became a religious later – observed that France had become a “decrepit machine.” Because it was “dangerous to try to repair,” he reasoned that the best approach would be to become a priest and press on the culture “with all the weight of the rights it had no authority to give.”

For d’Alzon, humanity is “deeply wounded” by “indifference and ignorance,” both of which “imply a total lack of faith.” His solution to this, as was mentioned, was to provide a serious education, one that would “penetrate” the world with “the Christian idea.” It would otherwise be in danger of collapsing. D’Alzon’s description of France and of his vocation should remind us of what Chesterton says about England in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are striking similarities of language: machine, indifference, a loss of faith.

Another point of comparison: the reactions to d’Alzon’s decision to become a priest mirrored the reactions to Quin’s speech. He was from an aristocratic family. People were shocked that, as they saw it, he would renounce his inheritance to become a priest. In an 1830 letter, D’Alzon had chided a friend for not wanting “at all to be reasonable,” going as far to say, “I scare you in a priest’s robe.” In the same letter, he offers his thoughts on the state of France. In addition to describing France as a “decrepit machine,” he observed that “sovereignty did not exist any more in the Palais Bourbon than at the Tuileries.” This was a “society that was so sick, one could have influence only in separating oneself completely.”

The England of the novel is also a sick society and one that truly lacks sovereignty. In effect,  Quin is providing a kind of education. The fact that he views things as a joke fits his character as a “Fairy.” But fairy tales themselves – and Chesterton wants to link The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the fairy tale tradition – discuss very serious things. In his essay “Fairy Tales,” [Editor’s Note: Included in his 1908 book, All Things Considered], Chesterton points out that “if you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.” He closes the essay by observing that fairy tales find “the great mystical basis for all Commandments.”

Quin’s speech, then, awoke something in Adam Wayne. To use d’Alzonian and scriptural language, you could say that Quin replaced Wayne’s heart of stone with one of flesh. And because his kingship sets off the events of The Napoleon of Notting Hill –Wayne decides to lead a rebellion, and this inspires others – we might say that Quin has effectively brought about a re-enchantment of the world. Indeed, Wayne says as much, both at the beginning of the novel and at its end. He says Quin has given him a desire to “fight for something greater,” noting that “this leadership and liberty of Notting Hill is a gift from your Majesty.” Wayne has been reminded that the purpose of human life is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict has noted,” is one of “greatness.” And he thus sees that there is a “mystical basis for all Commandments.” Now fully awakened, he believes these things are worth fighting for.

For Emmanuel d’Alzon, this was the exact purpose of an education, which he called a “great and magnificent work.” Through this, “we refashion the being of our students.” D’Alzon hoped the world would “receive [the Christian idea] by individuals who will be taken up with it.”

Adam Wayne was taken up by this idea of Quin’s, and it reshaped the world as it is. He brings it from a mechanized, empty flatness to “fairyland” and “elfland.” It leads to a re-enchantment and, à la d’Alzon, reorders the being of the world.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that both Wayne and Quin function as a dual symbol of “fairyland,” which, as Chesterton observes in “Fairy Tales,” is “a world at once of wonder and of war.” Wayne remarks that he and Quin “are not two men but one man.” He continues, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

It is not merely that you, the humorist, have been in these dark days stripped of the joy of gravity. It is not merely that I, the fanatic, have had to grope without humour. It is that though we seem to be opposite in everything, we have been opposite like man and woman aiming at the same moment at the same practical thing. We are the father and mother of the Charter of the Cities.

In effect, he is saying that the complete picture of the created order is a place “of wonder and war.” This is the full picture of human life. Quin and Wayne broke the mechanized imposter that, demiurge-like, was posing as the created order and made things real again.

How, then, does The Napoleon of Notting Hill educate the reader, both then and in the present? Chesterton deliberately sets the novel in a London not far removed from the one of 1904 and peppers it with real places, in addition to references to real people. The reader from 1904 would then be able to recognize his world in the text. Then, if he is attentive, he would start to ask questions: are things detached and mechanized? Where do we find meaning today? What is the cause and purpose of my life? Am I ordering my life toward good and appropriate things? And so on. We do have a real-life example of this. According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, was inspired by the novel to seek Irish independence.

But despite its references to early 20th century things, this is not a novel that is time-locked. We can read it and still be edified; the problems discussed by d’Alzon, Eliot, and Chesterton have persisted.

Consider Quin’s reflection during Adam Wayne’s initial audience with him at the beginning of the novel. He says that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” This madness consists of being obsessive about politics, caring for money, and thinking yourself right. These of course are perennial human concerns, but then Quin gets specific. He accuses people of trying to “spoil my joke, and bully me out of it, by becoming more and more modern, more and more practical, more and more bustling and rational.” This joke-spoiling and bullying has of course accelerated greatly since Chesterton’s time – leading to confusion and unhappiness, and eventually maybe even destruction.

As the American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once observed in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose, “in the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.” She continues: “It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

We can objectively call this true. The 20th century was one of theories, each of which, like Chesterton’s prophets, attempted to bring about utopia, but instead led to millions and millions of deaths. But this confusion has persisted. As Walker Percy observed inhis posthumously-published Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, ours is a “deranged age…because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

In 2017, in an essay for Crux on both d’Alzon and education, I pointed out that the Department of Education lists its purpose as “foster[ing] student achievement” and “preparation for global competitiveness.” I observed that we tend to see education as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Seven years on, the US Department of Education still lists its purpose as “preparation for global competitiveness.” Then, as now, these are buzzwords, but they also tell us something about how we view education:  a mere means to an end, a way to place people into a culture with only the basest of aspirations. When we are taught that there are no higher things, we will be led to believe that life is a mechanized existence, as described by both Chesterton and d’Alzon.

In a way, it’s all more of the same. Various techno-utopians have proposed that the solution to the human condition is to place us in a “metaverse,” where we’d live our lives in virtual reality. In City Journal, Jacob Howland has detailed the “destruction” of the University of Tulsa, where he holds emeritus status. Entire programs were eliminated or consolidated into minors: Greek, Latin, philosophy, religion. This, he pointed out, will result in students who are “credentialed, but…not…educated.” Sadly, his university is not unique.

But what are the results of this? A profound sense of malaise, particularly among the young.

Perhaps reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill – and having a good teacher discuss the novel with students – might provide a way forward for students who are feeling stifled by our deranged age. It would show them that the ideas that undergird our modern culture are ones that flatten the human spirit. They would not have to become revolutionaries or leaders of statelet neighborhoods, like Michael Collins or Adam Wayne, but perhaps they could be awakened to the idea that there is something profound about human existence. This is the purpose of good art and literature–to show people that there is a higher ideal than Eliot’s “absolute liberty” – because absolute liberty is  little more than nihilism.

I can speak to this. I felt a sense of aimlessness when I’d finished high school, with vague ideas about becoming a doctor or a politician, but then, while at Assumption, I received two gifts, which cannot be separated:  the Catholic faith, which I reverted to as a student, and liberal education. My professors – although not trickers or jokesters! – were my Quins. They awakened something in me and gave my life a telos. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberal education is often deemed a kind of lunacy. Quin and Wayne were seen as lunatics, but Auberon Quin notes that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” I am thankful that I pursued this “madness,” and was given access to the truth.

An education that featured books like The Napoleon of Notting Hill would send readers and students on a search, resulting in a deeper engagement with tradition, and helping settle the turmoil of our age. It might help sweep away the sadness and hopelessness that plague so many people today, by reminding us that the world is enchanted, and guiding us along “the starry streets that point to God.”

Keystone State – Pennsylvania’s place in old and new America

Image: Derek Turner

The widely-travelled American author Bayard Taylor wrote in 1866 about his native region:

The country life of our part of Pennsylvania retains more elements of its English origin than that of New England or Virginia. Until within a few years, the conservative influence of the Quakers was so powerful that it continued to shape the habits even of communities whose religious sentiment it failed to reach. [i]

In my boyhood years of the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent a lot of time in a rural section of Taylor’s Chester County, where my Quaker ancestors settled over 300 years ago, and where some close family members were still living. The farms there seemed well-ordered and prosperous, life moved at a slower pace, and there was a quiet, gentle, modest quality in many of the people whom I encountered. The rolling fields, haunted woods, and centuries-old homes always drew my attention. These landscapes were sometimes lush, and at other times they showed a stark beauty. Andrew Wyeth piercingly portrayed that latter quality in the adjoining Chadd’s Ford region, in “Pennsylvania Landscape, 1941,” and depictions of the Kuerner Farm.

During my teen years, I noticed that the east-coast Megalopolis was encroaching on this area. New housing developments, shopping strips, and busier roads presented glaring, distracting contrasts, but didn’t completely break the spell yet. I learned that utopia means “no place,” and is not a reasonable expectation where any humans go to and fro, but still there had been something special here, independent of but intertwined with my own nostalgia.

One day, around the year 2000, I was driving along an old, sunken Chester County road, a canopy of overarching trees above. I slowed to a stop when I saw a few horses walking across the way ahead. The riders, proceeding to or from a fox hunt, were dressed immaculately in scarlet coats, and they all politely doffed their caps at me as I waited for them to cross. Not a sight that one expects in most of today’s America.

Living a few hours away, in a congested, grimy, industrial city, I still had to remind myself that this rural spot wasn’t a utopia. Sorrow, conflict, poverty – these things, of course, are to be expected everywhere. But there was that pleasing blend of qualities that kept drawing me back to Chester County as an adult, long after my close relatives there had died. Along with the beautiful landscapes and the pleasant old architecture, there was an embattled, intangible something which had lingered on here and there. Compared with other places I had lived, there had been a balance and proportion – order along with freedom, well-preserved nature amid agriculture, and some communities that stayed within a smaller, more humane scale. Was it the same quality that Bayard Taylor had described?

William Penn in 1666

Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn probably wouldn’t have approved of fox-hunting, but he revered the fundamental liberties and rule of law—sometimes violated, sometimes renewed—which Englishmen had inherited since the days of Magna Carta and before. Penn had been a studious, reflective boy, and he acquired an appreciation for history and the classics. He was convinced that substantial elements of liberty, and law based upon consent, stretched back to the Anglo-Saxons, and then further back to some of the Britons who met Julius Caesar. He praised the English who had been “as resolute to keep, as their Ancestors had been careful to make those excellent Laws.”[ii] While urging the protection of that English constitution, along with his concept of “liberty of conscience,” Penn insisted that limits must also be established to preserve peace, civil order, and virtue. According to Penn biographer Andrew Murphy,

Penn’s radical argument for liberty of conscience always sat alongside a conventional, even austere, notion of personal morality. Denunciations of sin and vice went hand in hand with calls for the toleration of conscientious dissent, and the two campaigns mutually reinforced each other.[iii]

Penn’s liberty of conscience meant that English citizens should be allowed to freely seek, worship and meet their own obligations to God, as long as they were not acting treasonably. He worked tenaciously for many years on behalf of his ideals, getting arrested several times in the process. In an England with an established church, following decades of severe religious conflict, liberty of conscience seemed radical and threatening to some, but Penn was no revolutionary. He believed that while all were equal before God, society was naturally hierarchical due to human variation. Along with other Quakers of his day, he valued private property, family, and of course those English liberties. Although Whiggish, and hoping for a more meritocratic society rather than ranks based upon birth, he was loyal to Charles II, and developed a close, friendly, working relationship with Charles’ brother and successor James.

The young Penn had been groomed by his father to rise in the lofty circles of Charles’ court, but he disappointed his parents when he converted to Quakerism as a young man. Quakers were looked upon with suspicion by many Anglicans, and were among the religious dissenters in England who continued to be severely persecuted by Parliament, Anglican authorities, and some magistrates after the Restoration, although Charles and James favored toleration.

Along with that persecution, Penn was troubled by the licentiousness which came out in the open, after moral standards had loosened following Charles’s Restoration. During the social and political unrest which erupted against Catholics and other dissenters in 1678, he wrote to fellow Quakers in England that he feared God would punish the nation for rampant immorality. He also hoped that the virtues of his comrades and other “conscientious and well-inclined people” would “shine unto others, in these uneven and rough times that are come, and coming,” and that God would therefore show mercy. Like the Puritan John Winthrop, who had earlier led the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Penn believed that he and his fellow Friends “must show ourselves to be that Little City and Hill of God.” He urged them to resist worldly temptations, and act as good examples:

Let us be careful not to mingle with the crowd, lest their spirit enter us instead of our spirit entering them…. Yet can we not be unsensible of their infirmities, as well as we shall not be free from some of their sufferings; we must make their case as our own, and travel alike in spirit for them as for ourselves.[iv]

Within a few years, Penn had an opportunity to try to make those dreams a reality on a large scale, by forming the new colony of Pennsylvania.

In 1681, as Penn was devising Pennsylvania’s initial constitution and laws, he wrote to settlers already in the colony that, “whatever sober and free men can reasonably desire for the security and improvement of their own happiness I shall heartily comply with.”[v] “Reasonably” was key, and his government would have a significant role to play in buttressing morality. In his Preface to the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, Penn stated, “Liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery.” His first set of laws for Pennsylvania stated that “offenses against God…, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and unreligion, shall be respectively discouraged and severely punished.” Such offenses included foul language, drunkenness, fornication, gambling and other activities, as well as crimes such as assault, murder and treason. Clearly, government was to have a punitive role, as well as positively encouraging virtue, yet everything hinged on the nature of the people. Penn also wrote in his Preface, “Let men be good and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill they will change it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it.” This was echoed years later by the American founder John Adams, who wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[vi]

Penn elaborated on why government should circumscribe human behavior: “There can be no pretense of conscience to be drunk, to whore, to be voluptuous, to game, to swear, curse, blaspheme, and profane,” since such behaviors “lay the ax to the root of humane society, and are the common enemies of mankind.”[vii] Not all of us with a traditional bent will agree that all forms of gaming contribute to the undermining of a society, but many of us would agree that Penn’s general principle is sound.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, there were “comparatively few crimes against morality or order” in Pennsylvania and Quaker New Jersey before 1755:

At the same time that the laws of the Quaker colonies were comparatively mild as regards capital punishment, they punished very harshly acts of disorder in which one citizen intruded upon the peace of another In Pennsylvania, penalties for crimes of sexual violence against women were exceptionally severe. The lash was used abundantly… Something of this Quaker testimony of peace and order entered permanently into the cultural fabric of the Delaware Valley…. Rates of violent crime remained comparatively low. [viii]

English Quakers were not the only inhabitants of early Pennsylvania. Before Penn’s proprietorship, along with Indians, there were Dutch, Finns, Swedes and English Anglicans present. Germans, Welsh and Irish soon arrived. Penn was beleaguered by political discord that arose in his new colony, even within the Quaker communities. His own sometimes combative and disorganized nature didn’t always help matters, nor did his need to spend much time away in England, defending his proprietorship and handling other concerns. Factions formed, ethnic and religious strife occurred, and conflict with neighboring colonies flared and continued for several years.

Is it a stretch to say that Penn’s principles, along with those of his fellow Quakers, helped encourage and maintain that “arcadian” quality that I witnessed? The ethnic and religious troubles in early Pennsylvania subsided eventually, as the English and Protestant culture took root and maintained its predominance for a long while, with that special Quaker influence that Taylor emphasized. In the American colonies, cultural variations among discrete groups of English colonists such as Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Borderers clearly resulted in regional differences, which continued long after the American Revolution.[ix] The distinctive cultural aspects of the Society of Friends shaped, and were shaped by, Penn’s thought and actions. An important element of the liberty which Quakers offered, and with which they differed from others such as the Puritans, was what Fischer called “reciprocal liberty,” meaning that “every liberty demanded for oneself should also be extended to others.”[x] Penn’s liberty of conscience was one example of this general principle. And along with Quaker political and religious tenets, so many of their social characteristics continued, from their early years in England on into the 20th century. Penn’s appreciation for independent farmers, and a Quaker concern for the responsible use of one’s property, had an impact on the landscape of rural southeastern Pennsylvania. As I studied the Quakers of the 16th and 17th centuries, I was struck by how profoundly they had influenced my parents’ and grandparents’ ways and manners, as well as my own beliefs and preferences ranging from taste in dress to thoughts on social rank to yearnings for quiet, for social peace, and for order.

Historian Bruce Catton remarked that America has long had a significant “rowdy strain” in its population.[xi] This seems true, but from America’s early years onwards there were also those many quieter colonists, who made their own long-lasting cultural impact.

Today, in the counties first established under Penn’s proprietorship, other, rowdier cultural influences sometimes shout down the quiet, modest ideals of the Society of Friends, and the ordered liberty inherited from England. Yet not all the land is covered by concrete. And not all the words of William Penn have been thrown down the memory hole, at least not yet. In 2023, government bureaucrats tried to get rid of a statue of William Penn in a Philadelphia park. A public outcry ensued, which pressured politicians to stop this cultural vandalism for the time being. And although Bayard Taylor’s hometown of Kennett Square has changed substantially, his beautiful home, Cedarcroft, still stands.

Until a few years ago, I sometimes visited a grand, old oak tree on the grounds of the London Grove Meeting House, where Quakers had gathered since 1714. The tree was standing when William Penn was in North America, and I was saddened when I learned that it toppled in 2023. It was partly the loss of a beautiful, stately, historic, and gracious old tree that tugged at me. But was this also an omen, to be considered along with the rampant cultural destruction of recent decades? Then I learned that over the years, many people had collected acorns which that old oak had sired. And after its fall, more people traveled to the meeting-house grounds to collect more acorns, from this tree which had already nourished so many spirits.


i Taylor, Bayard, The Story of Kennett, 1866, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8680/pg8680-images.html#link2HCH0024

[ii] Penn, William, England’s Present Interest Considered, with Honour to the Prince, and Safety to the People, 1675, The Political Writings of William Penn, introduction and annotations by Andrew R. Murphy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/murphy-the-political-writings-of-william-penn

ii Murphy, Andrew, William Penn: A Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018: p. 133

[iv] Penn, William, To the children of light in this generation, called of God to be partakers of eternal life in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, and Light of the World, 1678, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11856.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[v] Penn, William, “To the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania,” April 8, 1681, The Papers of William Penn, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, Vol. 2, p. 84

[vi] Adams, John, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” Oct. 11, 1798, https://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/john-adams-religion-constitution

[vii] Penn, William, An address to protestants upon the present conjuncture in II parts, London, 1679, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A54098.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext

[viii] Fischer, David Hackett, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 586, 589

[ix] See Fischer for a very interesting, thorough examination of this

[x] Fischer, p. 603

[xi] Catton, Bruce, This Hallowed Ground, New York: Vintage Books, 2012

On Dante’s politics

Reconstruction of Dante’s face, at the Anfiteatro de Villa in Costa Rica. Wikimedia Commons

Many Catholics have come to reject liberalism. They see the ruins of postmodern culture – its atomization, its rejection of the transcendent, its radical individualism – and identify liberalism as its cause. They argue our cultural decay is too great, and it requires radical solutions, and so they say we will be unable to reverse secularization unless we overthrow liberalism. Their solution to this is to put the Church in charge of the temporal order, a solution often referred to as “integralist.”

Dante Aligheri, author of The Divine Comedy, would likely take issue with this, because he was able to see first-hand how bad the Church was at governing. Dante was not just a great poet, but also a statesman and political philosopher, notably having written Monarchia, a text in which he discussed the nature of religious and political authority. Dante was also deeply involved in the affairs of the Republic of Florence, particularly with the clash between the White Guelphs, who favored less papal involvement and tended to welcome the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Black Guelphs, who favored the opposite. Dante allied with the White Guelphs, which ultimately led to his exile.

In short, Dante was unlike a lot of twenty-first century writers and poets who tend to have beautiful prose and lines but quixotic politics. Instead, Dante was a nimble and interesting political thinker who, through his belief that the medieval Church was too involved in temporal affairs and that the political and spiritual should inform each other, seemed to anticipate such twentieth century Catholic political thinkers as the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

Dante, by Adolfo de Carolis, 1920s

We can get a sense of Dante’s view of politics by doing a close reading of The Divine Comedy, a poem he intended to be viewed as a work of political philosophy. We’ll examine three sections of the poem: Dante’s colloquy with Boniface – Dante the poet (I’m phrasing it this way to distinguish the author from the character) and his presentation of the lowest circle of hell – and Dante’s argument in the Purgatorio that men behave badly when they are governed badly.

But before I begin in earnest, I’d like to turn to Ernest Fortin, A.A.’s seminal study of Dante’s politics, Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors, in which he presents readers with not only Dante’s thought but also a history of medieval political and religious thinking. Fortin argues that Dante’s chief political project was to understand how both Church and state relate to one another. He says:

Dante has no more pressing concern than to show that the emperor receives his authority directly from God and that consequently he exercises it by his own sovereign right and not in the name of the Church. His argument begins from the principle that man has two ends: one natural and the other supernatural. The knowledge required for him to attain them comes to him through two bodies endowed for this purpose by divine wisdom: the imperial authority and the Church. The first leads to happiness in this world through philosophical instruction, the second to eternal happiness through spiritual teaching.

Fortin, p82

In the Middle Ages, though, there was no clear-cut definition of Church and state, the Church claimed a significant amount of power for itself. Consider, for instance, the Papal States. And Dante’s contemporary, Pope Boniface VII, in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, argued instead “for the total submission of princes to the sovereign pontiff.” Fortin says the question of the “two powers” of authority “absorbed Dante’s attention in great part.” (p81) And because Boniface VII, through his papal bull, essentially merged these authorities, Dante viewed him with scorn. He referred to him as “the prince of the new Pharisees” and a “usurper.” (p89)

Fortin suggests Dante believed that the Church, essentially, was too focused on the temporal. But there is also clear historical evidence of this. Fortin reminds us that Rome had “a habit of forging political alliances for its own aggrandizement” which had “the double effect of giving a bad example to its own followers and of neutralizing any effort which the temporal power could make to moderate its subjects’ worldly ambitions.” (p88) In fact, according to Fortin, Dante sought to depict the medieval Church, particularly the papacy, as “Geryon, the fabulous beast on whose shoulders Dante and Virgil pass from the seventh to the eighth circle of hell.” Fortin says:

The monster is invested with the most extraordinary features: he crosses mountains, pierces the thickest walls, destroys powerful armies, and afflicts the whole world. What does he represent? Fraud perhaps, as the text suggests in speaking of him as a “filthy effigy of fraud.” Sins of fraud are in fact punished in the infamous Malebolge the two travelers are about to enter. But the author seems to have something else in mind. If there is any institution in the Middle Ages whose power penetrates everywhere, shatters weapons and fortresses, and makes itself felt beyond mountains, it is the Church. Could it be that in the monster’s features Dante sought to depict the abomination that the medieval papacy had become for him?

Fortin, p89

The answer, of course, is yes. Fortin writes that, in Dante’s description of Geryon, “there is no mistaking the description of the animal’s body, which recalls very nicely the papal vestments of the time, the sleeves of which were covered with ermine and the sides decorated with knotted strips and medallions.” (p90)

Dante’s view of both Boniface and the medieval institutional Church—and, consequently, what happens when the Church becomes too interested in temporal affairs—becomes clear in Canto XIX of the Inferno, where we meet the aforementioned pope. Boniface is in one of the lowest circles of hell, in a space reserved for the simoniacal. The character of Dante denounces him, saying that his “avarice afflicts the world” and that it “tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” (p140) This is essentially an inversion of what we would normally read in the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” What Dante is saying here is that a Church that has become too focused on the here and now, a Church that has made itself “a god of gold and silver” (p140), is a Church that has diluted and even perverted its mission and so has become too interested in power qua power. 

Perhaps this is why Dante places Brutus, Cassius, and Judas at the lowest circle of hell, chewed by Satan. Brutus and Cassius, of course, betrayed Julius Caesar, leading to his assassination. And Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities, leading to his arrest and crucifixion. We might posit that this is Dante’s ultimate warning to the medieval Church—it has become like what it once stood against. Becoming too focused on political intrigue and power for the sake of power leads you to betray friends and confidants. It can even lead you to betray God himself. Ultimately, it all leads to damnation.

But this is something Dante too had to learn, since his involvement in the clash between the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs eventually led to his exile. Dante likely spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of things, and perhaps he authored The Divine Comedy as a means of sharing his reflections and to correct certain errors he had perceived. In Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Fortin says that Dante intended The Divine Comedy to be a work of political philosophy, his “aim” being

…none other than to teach men how they are to live or how they might leave the state of misery in which they languish for a better and happier state, or, as the Comedy states, how one goes from slavery to freedom, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity. Moreover, Dante was convinced that of all the senses to be found in his work, none was more useful than its moral sense.

Fortin, pps59-60

Dante, then, seems to have come to believe that the various disorders of the period were due to bad governance, which had handicapped human flourishing. And therein lies the paradox of the medieval Church, against which Dante had directed so much ire, in an attempt to get it to do better: the institution that should lead to human flourishing, since it was created by God Himself, in the form of Christ, was preventing it, because it had developed a horizontal gaze. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, Marco Lombardo says as much, telling Dante:

Misrule, you see, has caused the world to be malevolent; your nature is not corrupt, not prey to any fatal astral force. For Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns; and they made visible two paths – the world’s path and the pathway that is God’s. One has eclipsed the other; now the sword has joined the shepherd’s crook; the two together must of necessity result in evil

Purgatorio, XV1, lines 103-111

So Dante the author is saying that the various pathologies we can see in public life are not due to fate or to ‘the gods,’ but instead due to the misrule of the Church. It had “confounded two powers in itself,” which “must of necessity [have resulted] in evil.” (Fortin, p291)

Dante’s solution to this is to ask the Church, clerics and lay, to do better and to forget about its entanglements in political and worldly affairs. (Again, we can imagine that this is also self-directed, since Dante’s political projects brought him to his exile.) In the Paradiso, we observe that Beatrice counsels Christians to “proceed with greater gravity: do not be like a feather at each wind, nor think that all immersions wash you clean. You have both Testaments, the Old and New, you have the shepherd of the Church to guide you; you need no more than this for your salvation.” (p400) She warns Christians to not heed the summons of “evil greed” and to not be “like sheep gone mad.” (p400) And later in the Paradiso, in Canto IX, Cunizza da Romano says that “the pope and cardinals are intent. Their thoughts are never bent on Nazareth.” (p422) But she suggests things will change, noting that “the hill of Vatican as well…will soon be freed from priests’ adultery.” (p422)

Ultimately, it seems Dante wants the Church to be the Church and leave the governing to the nations – they can work together, but the Church had absorbed too much authority, becoming, as Fortin observed in his reading of Dante, a monstrous distortion of what it was and is supposed to be. In this way, Dante is not unlike John Courtney Murray, who had argued that the religious liberty of the United States was not a threat to the Church but would rather help it, in that it would allow people to pursue the good life properly, without coercion from an authority such as the Papal States.

Placing states in the hands of the Church means bad governance, which Dante demonstrates both in The Divine Comedy and other texts. Rather than bring about a kind of quasi-perfect state, wherein citizens would be totally directed toward God, who is Goodness, the power of governing would corrupt the Church, making it too interested in worldly affairs and thereby corrupt the people, who would become afflicted by all sorts of pathologies. So advocates of integralism might consider revisiting Dante Aligheri and his Divine Comedy. There they can see the results of their political-theological project. And then, rather than attempt to turn the Church into an empire, they might encourage it – its clerics, its religious, and its lay – to do and be better, so that they could go out and bring the peace and joy of the Gospel to the world yet again.

A charm of Ffinches

Alexander Ffinch, by Harriet Lloyd-Smith (2011)

Parallels

Alexander Ffinch, the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel, Divine Art Recordings. DDX 21112

RICHARD DOVE is transported by a new album of organ music

My father adored church organ music. At the weekend, I would often wake to the grand noise of Nôtre Dame, Rouen, or the three manual, 44 stop organ at Freiburg Cathedral (a particular favourite). I was constantly reminded of him as I listened to Parallels, a new CD by Alexander Ffinch.

Ffinch is the organist at Cheltenham College and oversaw a complete rebuild of the organ in 2017. There is an intimacy between player and instrument which is both rare and wonderful. There is also a refreshing boldness in the selection of compositions. Where else could one find Gustav Holst alongside Coldplay’s Chris Martin? As Ffinch explains in the sleevenotes:

Today, one of my daily duties is to play to 700 students at the start of their working day. I am facing a generation with the power to instantly access the music they want at any time and trust me, it’s not likely to be original organ music. So to capture their attention, I have enjoyed turning to classical some pop/rock arrangements to present music they hear elsewhere.

The Coldplay song ‘Paradise’ soars around the college chapel, stirring even the most indolent student.

There are other surprises on the recording – a Suite by Florence Price, an African-American composer who combines her classical training with Southern black American culture. Her ‘Symphony No 1 in E Minor’ was premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The concert was the first performance of a composition by a black woman by a major orchestra in the US. The ‘Suite’ is jaunty, mellifluous and immediately engaging, with jazz phrasing and gospel singing inspiration.

There is a wonderfully atmospheric, gently-paced interpretation of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ benefiting from the resonance of the chapel’s ancient stones.

Dan Locklair’s ‘Rubrics’ is another surprise, and requires Ffinch’s masterful dexterity. After a tumultuous first movement, we move to a gentle second movement using silence as a sort of leitmotif. As the composer explains in the excellent accompanying booklet: “To be sure, it is impossible to have true silence when music is sounded. But the illusion of silence can be suggested.”

The recording closes with Leon Boellman’s ‘Suite Gothique.’ It was early morning when I listened to the Suite and its third movement ‘Prière a Nôtre-Dame.’ My father was almost with me in the room as the melody floated and swirled. Nôtre Dame was his first port of call on any visit to Paris. From this embracing reverie we launch into the thunderous final movement, the Toccata. It awakened the household as Dad was prone to do. Time to put the kettle on.

Enlightenment on Nirvana

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD feels slightly guilty about Kurt Cobain

The Peaceable Kingdom probably isn’t the first place one might have looked for Kurt Cobain. Of all the ironies and confusions of his brief life, perhaps none was as pointed as his choosing to kill himself in a room overlooking that sign, announcing the entrance to Seattle’s exclusive Leschi neighbourhood, with its panoramic views of Lake Washington and the snow-capped mountains beyond, where one morning in April 1994 Cobain, then in the third year of his marriage to his fellow musician and sometime actor Courtney Love, first injected himself with heroin and then took a shotgun and blew his brains out.

Yes, he was 27, like several other high-profile musicians including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Amy Winehouse to follow, which has helped popularise the belief that age is imbued with a mystical horror for anyone who plays the guitar or goes near a microphone for a living. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney named Dianna Kenny has even published a statistically detailed paper on the subject. It concludes that the most common age for a rock musician to leave the mortal stage is in fact 56 (2.2%, compared to 1.3% at 27), although she concedes that an inordinate number of those both in and out of the 27 Club have succumbed by suicide, murder, injury or accident. The percentage of professional musicians dying by their own hand reached 9.6% of all such fatalities in the early 1990s, before falling to 4.5% today, set against an overall suicide rate which remains broadly stable at 0.25% of the adult UK population as a whole, while remaining the major single cause of death for males under the age of 45.

Why did Cobain do it? That’s a question the statistics can’t answer. Among other contributory factors, there was a history of self-harm in his family; he was a heroin addict, and, perhaps not coincidentally, suffering from crippling stomach pain; he may have been bipolar. And then of course there’s Richard Burton’s aphorism about the toxic nature of fame, which he defined as ‘a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps, before you come to choke on it.’ In 1989, Cobain moved from the ghost town of Aberdeen, Washington (British readers need only think of one of the country’s sadly reduced former Northern manufacturing hubs, but with rows of domino-like houses built of decaying wood, rather than brick, to get some of the flavour) – where, showing a bitterly precocious lyrical talent, he once scrawled on his childhood bedroom wall, ‘I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you sad’ – 100 miles up the road to the comparative bright lights of Seattle.

Kurt Cobain (playing drums) in 1981

Within two years Cobain and his group Nirvana, with a sludgy, bottom-heavy guitar sound and a matching dress sense that some critics fastened on to dub ‘grunge’, had accommodated themselves to signing a seven-figure contract with the corporate behemoth Geffen Records. Six months later, the band released its breakthrough album Nevermind, which to date has sold 35 million copies worldwide, been recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important’ to the nation, and which Rolling Stone magazine, displaying its usual air of critical reserve, describes as

…a dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and life-changing words … boast[ing] an adrenalised skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock … At the album’s sonic extremes, “Something in the Way” floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while “Breed” and “Stay Away” race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble that’s both prehistoric and very contemporary in its approach.

(No, I don’t really know what it means, either.)

Before long, Cobain was wasting away in his own private Graceland, in this case a multi-level Seattle lakefront home hidden behind a brick wall topped by a screen of bushes with a sign out front reading ‘Beware of the Dog.’ He seems to have enjoyed the money, if not the deceitful comfort of living amongst the very software billionaires and corporate bankers whom he despised.

At bottom, I think the sad but inescapable truth is that Cobain saw himself as ill-placed in life’s queue. Perhaps only in America could a multi-millionaire in his mid-twenties complain of being under-valued, but there were compelling reasons for his dissatisfaction beyond the obvious material ones. Not only did Cobain have the misfortune to come from a family of depressives, he chose a profession notorious both for the brevity of its successes and the shark-like aspect of most of its managerial class, whose business morals might well have raised tuts of disapproval among the more malevolent attendees of a Sicilian Mafia conclave. Add the proximity of drugs and guns, for both of which he had a marked taste, and you can see the beginnings of the potential for disaster.

Cobain’s cousin Beverley, herself a psychiatric nurse, once told me that it was always hard to envision him growing old and contented, or for that matter reconciling himself to the indignities of today’s burgeoning senior-citizen rock tour circuit. For what it’s worth, I happened to write a slim biography of Cobain which appeared in the summer of 1995, about a year after he died, where I allowed myself the reflection: ‘The prospect of him playing Nevermind to a crowd of paunchy, late middle-aged fans in the year 2020 must have been unthinkable for a man who insisted life effectively ended at the age of 30.’ I’d change quite a lot of the book if I had the chance to do so today, but I think that one observation, at least, has stood the test of time.

Speaking of which biography: looking back on it now from my advanced antiquity I feel that in certain fundamental aspects I may have done its subject a disservice in suggesting to the world, or at least that small part of it that actually bought the book, that Cobain was at bottom little more than a petulant, self-loathing young man, admittedly with an ephemeral talent to entertain, who ultimately stands as a representative specimen of the sort of individual, surely found predominantly if not exclusively in the United States, who can be both materially pampered beyond avarice and yet simultaneously and vocally unhappy. This was not quite fair of me.

Cobain had certain quantifiable reasons for his misery: ill health, the residual effect of his wretched childhood in the backwater of Aberdeen, a difficult marriage, the bitter aftermath of Nevermind, which led to renewed record-company pressures for more of the same and to the consequent regime of doing tour after album after tour ad infinitum, which Cobain himself likened to the spectacle of a caged gerbil running on a treadmill. Both perversely nostalgic for his impoverished childhood and ever apprehensive about the future, he seems not to have had the gift of enjoying the moment. In the years since his death, several of Cobain’s journals have come to light in either commercial or private form. His disregard for dates and names, his rather approximate handwriting, and his apparently only passing familiarity with the rules of English grammar can often serve to confound the reader. As a rule, he narrates in a kind of singsong stream-of-consciousness which, disconcertingly, gives equal weight to events great and small; drugs and deaths, and thoughts of suicide, roll along with minute observations on the physical appearance of things. But Cobain’s voice is nonetheless always compelling. Reflecting on the whole thing today, one is increasingly left with a profound sense of sadness and waste, as opposed to any more venal emotion, at his loss. There’s also the fact, in passing, that with hindsight I should never have wholly swallowed the reminiscences of certain of those of Cobain’s near contemporaries with an axe to grind against him, or for that matter with some obscure agenda to pursue of their own that might have led them, and thus their interviewer, to an at best partial understanding of the events of the-then recent past. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that none of those who in their different ways contributed to my understanding of my subject can be blamed for the shortcomings of the text. They are mine alone.

Three decades on, Cobain’s image as the unwitting poster-boy of Generation X, the ones experiencing the world through the fun-house mirror prism of MTV and cheap drugs (later stigmatised by the American author Douglas Coupland as “42 million gripers”) serves as a distraction from his actual body of work. For the patron saint of slackers, he was surprisingly prolific. Nirvana released three full studio albums in just four years, which borders on the Stakhanovite by modern standards, quite apart from the profusion of greatest-hits compilations, live recordings, remixes and box-sets padded by spurious ‘rarities’ that help to pay for the Geffen company Christmas bonus to this day. Added to that, Cobain was constantly writing, touring, subjecting himself to interviews and in general becoming the world’s consensus rock star in the era between Michael Jackson and Michael Stipe. No, none of Nirvana’s music changed the world, despite what some of its more excitable proponents claimed for it. But it was always meticulously well crafted, and there are countless stories about Cobain’s habit of simulating ennui (what was Nevermind, but a shrug of indifference?) while in reality spending endless hours polishing the product. An early and rather touching example of this dedication to the job was recalled by a woman named Betty Kalles, who hired the 22-year-old Cobain to work as a summer maintenance man at a Washington state seaside hotel at the time Nirvana were coming up through the ranks.

Kurt was quiet, but he was also clean-cut and polite,’ Kalles told me. ‘He was never able to work on Fridays or Saturdays because his band would go out and play on those days, but he would always make it in to work on Sunday morning on time. He was really a model employee, but when he finally quit his job he told me the chemicals he was using to wash the windows were making his fingernails soft, and he was unable to play guitar. “I have to do everything for my music,” he said.

The author William Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about life (and for that matter death, having once drunkenly shot his wife through the head), whatever one makes of the literature that ensued, once remarked that he thought Cobain had been ‘acting out a kind of morality tale about what it means to be famous in America.’ Essentially, the plot was a simple one: the mother-dominated yet wayward boy from the wrong side of the tracks, discovering a talent to amuse, knows enough to turn it into money and stardom, but would always rather be elsewhere, doing something else.

In that context, I’m always reminded of the story Cobain’s estranged father Don told me about seeing his son for the first time in seven years after talking his way backstage at a Nirvana concert in Seattle in September 1992. The scene was an unprepossessing, concrete-walled room filled with tables of sweating, plastic-wrapped cheese plates and domestic beer, with people constantly tugging at Kurt’s arm even during his few minutes alone with his father. ‘I felt sorry for him,’ Don said poignantly. ‘It didn’t look very glamorous to me.’

Perhaps in the end it’s enough to say that when a materially and emotionally stunted childhood gives way to an adolescent taste for heavily amplified rock music and nihilistic literature, and factors such as debilitating stomach cramps, heroin, and the need to project oneself on stage in front of tens of thousands of delirious strangers are added to the mix, even a more self-confident man than Cobain might have been brought to the point where he considers his options.

Just twelve months after Cobain’s brief reunion with his father, Nirvana released a new album containing a sardonic and often caustic collection of songs named In Utero. One of the record’s tracks contained the line, ‘Wait, I’ve got a new complaint’, and another one ended with the repeated chorus, ‘I miss the comfort in being sad.’ Six months later, Cobain barricaded himself in a spare room above the garage attached to his Seattle home, took a lethal dose of drugs and then put a shotgun to his head. Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s entirely conceivable that had he lived he could have become a sort of David Bowie figure, his cutting edge progressively dulled, perhaps, but still remaining creatively restless across a variety of media, and on balance not likely to be found today crooning a medley of Nevermind-era hits from the stage of a Vegas casino auditorium. He is badly missed.

Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU

Keys to the past – Restoration in Rochester

Wenceslaus Hollar, Coronation Procession of Charles II Through London, 1662
STUART MILLSON visits one of Kent’s great houses – and savours a perfect choice of music

On the eve of his royal return and progress from Dover to London in 1660, the heir to the throne, the second Charles Stuart, paused for rest at the City of Rochester on the River Medway. He stayed in an Elizabethan mansion built in 1587, on a gradient just above Rochester’s main thoroughfare – a stately town abode that took the name, Restoration House, in honour of the great event that would soon be formally confirmed by the English state

Today, some 360 years since that first visit, Restoration House continues to project and transmit an aura of history to its many visitors, thanks to the care, custodianship and ownership of patrons of the arts, Jonathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker. On Saturday 7th October, these renaissance and restoration gentlemen hosted a recital by the emerging eminence that is harpsichordist, Nathaniel Mander – a young musician already distinguished by a recording of J.S. Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, and performances with the celebrated Les Musicians du Louvre and Marc Minkowski. 

In a grand, yet intimate candlelit room, accessed by an ascent of a wooden staircase (upon which a ghost must surely walk past midnight), Mr. Mander performed a recital of harpsichord pieces, from Frescobaldi and Froberger in the middle of the 17th century, to Bach and Handel, a century later. But at the centre of the concert, echoes of Tudor and Elizabethan England abounded, in the form of Grounds, Almans and Fantasias by the masters of that first English musical renascence, Byrd and Gibbons.

The audience was particularly delighted by the soloist’s engaging introductory mini-talk before each work, a sometimes humorous, neat lacing-up of the historical context of the music – none so remarkable as Johan Jakob Froberger’s travels to England, during which he was not only robbed on a European highway, but intercepted by pirates at sea, thus arriving at the royal court in little more than rags donated by sailors. Froberger had to play some music before his Royal hosts believed who he was.

Historical authenticity was very much the lodestar of the evening – Nathaniel performing on Restoration House’s Zenti Harpsichord of 1658, an instrument once in the possession of and adapted to the needs of Queen Christina of Sweden (r.1632-1654). The craftsmanship which created the instrument remains a thing of wonder – a work of art itself, a piece of furniture so delicate, it seemed almost dangerous to walk near it. Yet Nathaniel Mander drew from the elegantly-turned casket on its delicate, spindly legs sounds of such antique quality, that audience members – judging from their closed eyes and expressions of sheer peace – seemed transported to the candlelit past.

For me, two of the highlights were the Ground by Thomas Tomkins and Nathaniel’s first encore to the evening’s proceedings, the Aria to Bach’s Goldberg Variations ~ the five-minute meditation that forms the beginning and end to the piece. For Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) church music was a lifelong calling. From his early days at St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, to his life in the service of Worcester Cathedral (during which time he endured the ravages of the Civil War), Tomkins came to signify all that we understand by the English ecclesiastical choral tradition – anthems, pieces for services, which rely so much on great spans of sound (the imprint of Tallis and Byrd) and which, centuries later, would continue through Parry, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Howells. Yet we discovered from Nathaniel that following the destruction of the Tomkins home in a Civil War bombardment, the composer – taken in by kind friends – sought solace in the writing of dozens of pieces for harpsichord. An English melancholy was certainly conjured by our soloist in the Tomkins Ground.

However, happier thoughts were prompted by the inclusion of Byrd’s folk-based airs, The Woods So Wilde and Selingers Round; music which, along with a spirited Allegro by a gourmandising Handel, provided an uplifting, animating spirit to a memorable oak-brown October evening.

Nathaniel Mander is artist-in-residence at Restoration House. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Vatiations is available on the ICSM label

Transporting music

Image: On the South Downs Way. Malcolm Oakley. Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE savours the sounds of Ed Hughes and Airat Ichmouratov

On a couple of occasions, I have cycled across the South Downs, and even managed (once) the slow climb up Ditchling Beacon. I should have had Ed Hughes’ music to accompany me. It would have made a wonderful bike ride even more special. 

His Music for the South Downs is a recent release on the Metier label and part funded, in a most enlightened way, by the South Downs National Park Authority. The music embraces the rolling landscape and its endless natural variety.  We can be in open fields and wooded valleys, beside fresh bright streams and rolling waves. The music is both evocative and grounded in this verdant environment. Listening to Flint Movement 2 on a dull and rainy afternoon, I was transported to a forest watching the sunbeams dance through the leaves – and then in the next movement I am on the bank of a fast-flowing stream. Such is the magical power of Ed Hughes’ music. 

It was composed for Sam Moore’s film, South Downs: A Celebration, to mark the National Park’s tenth anniversary, and is played by the New Music Players, founded by Hughes and the Primrose Piano Quartet. Ed is professor of composition at the University of Sussex and is very obviously steeped in the South Downs landscape. He has walked the paths that he now portrays in this music. I will ensure that Hughes’ music is with me when I next tackle the South Downs trails.  He might even encourage me to ascend effortlessly up Ditchling Beacon. And that takes some doing.

On a first listen to Airat Ichmouratov’s Piano Concerto (a recent release on Chandos) I could not get Tchaikovsky out of my mind. He is clearly an influence on Ichmouratov. The notes to the CD underline my first impression in a description of piano, woodwinds and glockenspiel engaging in a Tchaikovskian exchange of scurrying semiquavers. Indeed, the use of percussion throughout the work to punctuate, embellish and encourage is consistently surprising.

In the Viola Concerto, also on the CD, Ichmouratov brings in tubular bells to build the rousing climax before closing with the melancholic tones of a clarinet. Both works are masterfully played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. Ichmouratov is guided by tonality and romantic traditions in his exuberant music coupled with a very original sense of drama. The soloist in the Viola concerto No 1 is Elvira Misbakhova who wanted something new and challenging for her doctoral performance at the University of Montreal.  She certainly got it. 

For the Piano concerto, Jean-Philippe Sylvestre is the soloist and it needs all the energy of this “poet of the piano” (as described by conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin) to take on this demanding Concerto where the piano is rarely silent for more than a few bars. In the words of Airat Ichmouratov: “When I compose I hear a certain tonality and simply follow what I hear.  Sometimes I end up with surprising key relations.” Quite true and well worth an absorbing listen.   

The Concert in the Egg

MICHAEL YOST is a poet and essayist living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems have been published in places like Modern Age, First Things, The University Bookman, Dappled Things, The Brazen Head, and others. He substacks at The Weight of Form.

The Concert in the Egg

And now we climb the marble stairs, and roam

Beneath the LED’s electric wash.

We see, within the art museum’s dome.

A painting by a follower of Bosch:

I

Placed in the quarter of the upper right,

A snake hangs on a branch that seems to grow

Out of the chaunt-book’s leather back. By sight,

Notation’s bars and measured ratio

Are present, silent. See a branch suspend

A slender rosy jug for furniture,

that seems impossibly, to rest its end

Upon the polished, creamy curvature;

While further up the branch, a basket holds

a dead upended bird, an orchard limb

With fruit, of shadowed pinks and quiet golds.

It dangles lusciously, almost by whim.


Then sang the funnel hatted quack: 

“I read the birds, and note the star,

And scan the viscera of pigs

For knowledge of the things that are.


And these are the most casual facts,

That anyone could understand.

The world expands, goes round, contracts,

And blows like grains of gusted sand.”

                              II

The lapwings, stork, the bat in half-light blacked,

An owl, with eyes in back of the beaky head,

A neck that twists like one whose body’s racked,

Are met, as ghouls who come to eat the dead.

The owl winds talons in a wimpled nun’s

Habitual veil. He hovers over tangled

Night, who sees much, hears much, in the sun’s

Departure, over air presiding, angled

On eastern winds. And he is thus their vane

and orient; eyes black, intelligent

of good and evil, of desire’s pain,

And old rebellion’s rich impoverishment.


And harped the man with the tuberous nose

“To make a lad feel young and gay

There’s nothing like a tub of beer

Make haste, for all things pass away.


For drink and life are much the same:

There’s both too much, and not enough.

I drink enough to keep me tame,

And to forget the other stuff.

                              III

Over the open fissure of the shell

— Whose slabbed sides cracked like pistol shot,

Or plates of broad midwinter ice in hell,

that frigid deadland, deep as hate or thought —

Thus, in the dimming dawn, (or end of day),

The snake is honored in its figuration.


A type and image merely for the way;

Effective only via dispensation.

One man, birdhouse on head, in back, observes. 

A stork stands on the crimson chaperon

Belonging to the piper who disserves

His neighbor’s ear with wheedling semitone.


And pipes the man in the scarlet hat:

“The wealthy never need resign

their riches to the poorer man.

Of Virtue, Wealth’s the surest sign.


My avarice is needed, too;

It all coheres, in one great whole

Where good and evil, false and true

All twist toward one final goal.”


                              IV

Beneath the egg’s receding, round horizon,

a village of the plain lies feverish,

Afire. Floating in darkness’ orison,

A leopard guards a tender, cooking fish.

A tortoise plods beneath the egg as well

Who’s yet to be flipped over, unstrung, bored 
And hollowed with a knife blade from his shell

To make a merry lyre’s sounding board,

And blend all chaos in harmonious love.
His peeling, wrinkled hams drag needled claws,

His ancient eyes scan all the scene above

For food to pinch and tear in beaky jaws.


Then sang the fish on the cooking grill,

“The fireside is near and warm

But though it burns a bloody red,

I know it will not do me harm.”


Sensation heats my chilly flesh

And is a sign, at least, of life.

A sign is substance, rendered fresh,

And cannot lie, or deal out strife.”


                              V

Then breaking out, a monkey blows a shawm,

And hunching, gazes cunningly at you,

And grips his instrument with hairy palm,

As if to hide it secretly from view.

The egg tilts on a ledge, half off the ground,

Into the dark, where, lit by new moon’s shine,

An elf prince sits, attended all around.

His nude well-favored, red-skinned concubine,

Flirts and displays herself to minute men,

Who tender their respects, with downcast cross-eye,

to her idolic, tiny frame; and then

All nuzzle closer with their stiff probosci.


Then sang the scarlet elfin queen

“Come close, my thin-legged lovers all,

There’s more to sight than you have seen.

Come feel the flesh that caused the fall.


There is no love that knits all life

Together, save rampaging lust,

Therefore, embrace me, little men

And bend your bodies as you must.”


And at the centre of it all, alive,

Bizarre, grotesque, and painted out of tune,

Out sprout a clutch of human beings. They strive

Like lilies in the thorns inopportune.

Remember: “ex nihilo, nihil fit.”

What hen, I wonder, laid and warmed this brood?

What blimpish, half-breed cockerel seeded it

With half-born harmonies and music rude?


Then sang an echo from the egg:

“I am myself, a ship of fools,

And all my crew are born in me

And learn my inner logic’s rules.


They breed, and fight, and learn to play

The little game I teach to them.

It is a game where no one wins.

I hatch them only to condemn.


And when at length, they break my crust,

And venture through the outer space,

The darkness is all light to them,

And all the road before their face.”


We leave the gallery, and take the street.

And silence breaks beneath the weight of feet.