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.

The Testified and Witnessed Ballad of the Truly Risen Elvis Aaron Presley

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 Testified and Witnessed Ballad of the Truly Risen Elvis Aaron Presley (As Reported in World News Weekly)

He rises from the purple sheen

    And velvet of his box

His sequined vest aquamarine

    Pomade spread in his locks,


His face unaged, bright red with youth

    As an immortal god.

He’s risen! This I know for truth

    (Although it may seem odd.)


He rocks death’s jailhouse even now,

    From Graceland, where he waits,

To play his last, and take a bow,

    Before the mighty fates.


For when Amurka’s own true king,

    Begins to gyre his pelvis

The juke-box joints will leap and sing

   “Salvation comes from Elvis.”


His golden buckle girding on,

    Likewise his golden shades

The King has come in bronze and brawn

   As our world’s music fades.


And after Armageddon, all

    Will be Banana-Bacon-

Peanut-Butter Sammich. All

     The lost, unloved, forsaken


He’ll shower with amphetamines,

    Cake, Coca-Cola, Jam,

Butabarbital, morphine,

    And piles of honeyed ham.


    Girls will dance naked, all for love

And T.V. sets will ring

    And squawk our songs and praises of

Our Once and Future King.

The Wounded Healer

LUCIUS FALKLAND is the nom-de-plume of a writer and academic from London

The wounded healer

The job description was always very clear:

You have autistic breakdowns, lose control.

Uncertain futures, a general sense of fear,

Takes hold of you and cuts into your soul,

So you palpitate and snap and use a word

That might cut me, but who cares? I’m not you. 

I’m part of unpredictable, absurd.

It comes upon you; I notice every clue.


My job is to absorb it like some spring

Mounted building on a fault line in Peru.

Sometimes you shun me, other times you cling

To me for comfort and I accept that it’s just “you.”

When I’ve got you back to calm and you say “Sorry,”

I feel closer to you then than I can show.

To be avalanched in anger, angst and worry;

I see the “me” of nineteen years ago:


The “me” at the age that you are now

Rejection-fear so strong I dare not send

My writing into journals, scared of how

I would take it. Would I contemplate the end?

Fear of talking about money. If things changed,

I would shout it like some primal, tribal chant,

Infantile and manically deranged:

“I can’t do this, I can’t do this; I just can’t!”


Now, when I hear those words from you,  

I know that only I can understand

The sensations, fear of chaos, fear of new,

That traps you like a foal in mud and sand.


Is our age gap merely a statistic?

Or must love on the spectrum so ensue?

To be soul mates you both must be autistic,

But the young girl will need guiding through

The shattering emotions that transfix her,

While the man, a wounded-healer, like a priest,

Controls his now, and age is an elixir

That mellows; the most frightening pains have ceased.

The job description wasn’t clergyman, but clear:

You have autistic breakdowns, lose control . . .

Prom perfection

Image: Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE relives a wonderful Last Night

For some it is all about vexillology.  For some the study of the flags being waved defined the evening. For the Daily Mail, the plentiful EU flags were a clear and obvious betrayal of Brexit. But they chose not to notice the quite resplendent union jack blazer on display in a plush box or the St George flag shirt (mine) on display in the stalls.

I had to look up another dominant flag being waved in the hot, sweltering arena. It was the flag of Norway to honour the statuesque mezzo soprano Lise Davidsen. Her voice soared around the Royal Albert Hall as she embraced arias by Wagner, Mascagni and Verdi. She stands tall – indeed, the same height as conductor Marin Alsop even as she is perched on the conductor’s podium. Lise’s dresses (three changes) were wonderfully theatrical and created for her for the evening by Norwegian designer Carejanni.

The programme was diverse, adventurous and traditional. The perfect mix. Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei was played with great sensitivity by star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who for one piece took up a solo location in the centre of the arena, giving the ardent Promenaders, many of whom had queued since early that morning, a privileged view.

Marin Alsop in action in 2017. Image: Mastrangelo Reino /A2img. Wikimedia Commons

We had three world premieres with the composers present and spotlighted after the performances – James Wilson’s 1922, Roxanna Panufnik’s Coronation Sanctus and Laura Karpman’s Higher Further Faster Together. You felt the strong guiding hand of Alsop in these choices. She is a pioneer of new music and, as she said in her closing speech, gender equality in classical music. She was even brave enough to mention Aberystwyth as a location of a Proms concert next year. She admitted she had been practicing the pronunciation all day. I imagined the maestro stalking the back rooms of the RAH not with a Verdi score but a guide to Welsh place names. Let’s hope Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiligogogoch puts a bid to host one year. Marin will certainly earn her fee.

It was a party atmosphere but tempered by reverence for the performers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out, and the loudest sustained cheers were for the BBC Singers, once threatened with extinction but now sort of reprieved (we must remain vigilant to keep them a going concern). The BBC Chorus was full of gusto for Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory and the concluding Auld Lang Syne when our collective voices drowned out the orchestra. Marin turned to conduct us all as balloons were sent soaring and crackers were set off almost in time to the music. This was a profound, passionate celebration of classical music with the barriers of elitism and traditions dissolved into pure joy.  In one evening we had the soaring wonders of William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the festive and glittering Coronation Sanctus of Roxanna Panufnik composed for King Charles III’s coronation service and the theme from the upcoming film The Marvels by flamboyant US composer Laura Karpman with Marvel Comics celebrating super heroines; very appropriate given Marin Alsop’s absolute control over the proceedings. Super Marin, perhaps.   

Last Night of a distinguished Prommer

MARTIN GODLEMAN witnesses Sir Simon Rattle’s LSO swansong

Sir Simon Rattle. Image: Monika Rittershaus. Wikimedia Commons

I should have had a more pronounced focus on advanced ticket sales of Prom 56 when I casually noticed that Simon Rattle would not only be present at the eight week festival of music, but there to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No.9 [27 August, but available until 9 October on BBC Sounds].

Rattle, himself British-German, was born in Liverpool in 1955, the same year that the International Gustav Mahler Society was established. Needless to say, the concert had sold out almost immediately by the time I had become aware of it. Fortunately, thanks to a generous and industrious benefactor, I managed miraculously to procure a seat for myself just a week before the event.

Mahler, an Austro-Bohemian, actually earned his living at the turn of the 20th century as a conductor of opera, interpreting the stage works of, amongst others, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. His was a career that led to his post as director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. On his days off, most of which he must have spent travelling across the world from concert to concert, he managed to somehow find time to attend to his other passion as a composer, one that brought him little financial success in his own lifetime, but one which, thankfully for us, he never abandoned.

Perfect then that Rattle, whose lifespan covers the years over which Mahler’s reputation as a composer has been established, should conduct him. Equally sublime that Rattle, for whom this is a final UK outing as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, should choose to conduct Mahler’s farewell symphony, the ninth. Rattle himself was knighted in 1994, eight years before becoming principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, then taking on the challenge of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 at his opening performance in September 2002, almost exactly 21 years ago.

Gustav Mahler

I had been fortunate enough to attend Mahler’s ninth at the Proms before in July 2011, when Sir Roger Norrington conducted the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in his final concert with them. The appeal of this piece of music to orchestrate a professional farewell from one’s role as principal conductor of a world-renowned orchestra was therefore not lost on me, or indeed Rattle. Few conductors are recognisable from outer space, but I’d wager that any alien with a penchant for classical music would immediately recognise the white, crimped locks of Rattle, monochromous tonight against his smart black livery.

Rattle takes initially to the podium to conduct the BBC Singers performing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine, a cantata, a hymn to freedom, dedicated to Picasso and composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. The BBC Singers were also behind its premiere in London, in English, on Palm Sunday, 25th March 1945 – the score having been smuggled over to the UK five months before the war ended. A beautiful and intense choral work, chosen specially by Rattle who has described it as ‘profoundly moving; one of the greatest masterpieces that people don’t know.’

It was tonight the perfect appetiser for the evening’s main course, radiant in energy and harmonic, a choral masterpiece against tyranny. Rattle makes a point of leading out Sofi Jeannin, the Swedish chief conductor of the BBC Singers, to share the applause she has paid a central part in promoting. Then, after a short rehydration break, the conductor faces his ‘farewell’ challenge with the LSO, a group of people he has on more than one occasion described as his ‘family’. There is something religious about the falling silent of audience, orchestra and conductor before the onset of a final performance, whether it be of the night, a concert series, or of a career in post.

The ninth is, I would argue, the most self-consciously reflective of all of Mahler’s works, its tone set by the ponderous and lugubrious opening to the symphony, so alien to any of Mahler’s other, bolder dramatic initiations. I am gripped in anticipation by that silence. What a man is Rattle that he can let the whole of this majestic, mysterious and magnificent piece of music inhabit him as he hangs over that silence, ready to conduct.

Through Rattle, Mahler’s work tonight occupies a landscape of sound, narrating a man’s pain as cuckolded husband, unrecognised composer, dying… a man who was intimately aware of his own fate. James Joyce once said that for anyone to be serious about the study of his writing, they would have to be prepared to dedicate a lifetime to the task. For me, this single piece of music cries out for the same attention.

I find myself drawn to the horn section, and tonight the emotion of the opening movement is cradled by the subtlety of their handling of its many hanging moments. With his back to me, I cannot see Rattle’s cheek puffing, his teasing out of the connect between the players and the piece, but I can see them looking up at him, their eyes smiling. His family. The tiny mallets skilfully tap out the ringing of the tubular bells at the edge of that first movement; the climbing and scaling of the players across the terrain that Mahler has challenged them to cove. From the roof of the piccolo to the floor of the contrabassoon, Rattle weaves them in and out of the musical foliage.

It is a wondrous performance, and like the knowledge of death that Mahler hints at across the piece, the experience tonight is ultimately mortal. At the end of the first movement, Rattle nods knowingly in judgement of what we have all experienced, players and audience alike. I wonder at how effective my ears are tonight. Like reading a book at 18 and again at 65, the words, the notes, are static on the page, only ever brought to life by the human experience. As the orchestra move gently, urgently, left and right, I contemplate the cold fact that Mahler never heard or directed this piece himself. It only ever moved in his head, as he wrote it. What would he think about all of this? This performance 114 years on from the writing of it, conducted by someone whose love of the work has given us all this sublime evening. The thought is worthy of something with which to underpin tonight’s unforgettable experience.

Italian light, and Nordic darkness

Image: Stuart Millson
STUART MILLSON (celebrating his 43rd season) reports from the 2023 Proms

‘Where are the Proms of my youth?’ asked Barrie Hall’s now almost forgotten book, The Proms and the Men Who Made Them – a title that would be unlikely to pass the sensitivity readers of today’s London publishers. When I first attended the Proms, one joined a queue (along with all the other sixth-formers and undergrads) for the Gallery or Arena. You paid your few pounds at a little booking-office-type hole on the south side of the Royal Albert Hall and in you went. For the Last Night, people camped outside on the pavement near the Hall’s South Steps for two weeks, just to ensure a place on the front rail of the Arena, or close to it. Today, Promenaders no longer queue up: you book your Arena or Gallery ticket online. And the Last Night camp was abolished years ago, on health and safety grounds.

There have been changes in the repertoire and in presentation: this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborated in a Northern Soul Prom – something that would have been virtually unheard of in the days of past Controllers of Music and Directors of the Proms (although Soft Machine did manage to creep in under Sir William Glock’s radar in 1971). Have such initiatives opened up the Proms to a younger audience? I am not sure. In 1983, the Arena was composed of 75% youth, 25% oldies. The ratio seems to have reversed. So more work needs to be done – perhaps more classical music, less Northern Soul, or at least another type of soul from the North.

Sir William Walton. Image: NPG (Wikimedia Commons)

For the 3rd August Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic (formerly, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), Oldham-born William Walton (1902-83) provided the centrepiece of the concert, in the form of his Violin Concerto of 1939 – a work inspired by the composer’s abiding love for Italy and its riviera. Tinged with Mediterranean sunsets and shadows, and containing many moments of deep lyrical introspection and unbridled romanticism, the Concerto nevertheless provides some ferociously exciting and incisive sections for both soloist and orchestra. Playing the solo part that night was Manitoba-born James Ehnes – a musician renowned for his interpretation of Walton – and one who finds the true measure of a composer too often seen as something of a steely recluse, but who, in his heyday, was a determined, passionate and often avant-garde figure.

The Violin Concerto (like the stormy First Symphony written some four years earlier) has a surprise up its sleeve for the listener – a break from all the heavy preceding passion via a ‘presto’ movement, laced with a dash of jabbing, smirking, sardonic humour; softened by a waltzy, Neopolitan dance rhythm – the effect, like a generous glug of wine tipped into a glass during a fiesta. The movement, though, also broadens out into a serious nocturne: dreamy, intense; the dissatisfied Englishman abroad sinking into his local surroundings, yet thinking (perhaps) of glimpses of home. But for Walton after the Second World War, ‘home’ ceased to be England; with his new Argentinian wife, the composer turned his back on queues and nationalisation, settling on the little isle of Ischia out in the Bay of Naples. Continuing to compose, he produced such fine pieces as his Cello Concerto and a grand opera, but never quite recapturing the ardour and brilliantly-written soundscape of the Violin Concerto. As author Laurie Lee once observed: “All the great hymns to the sun are written in cold garrets.” When you are in the sun, you just… sit in the sunshine.

Image: Daniel Nyblin (Wikimedia Commons)

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 ended the concert. In a lifespan similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius lived from the era of empires and Grand Duchies, to the atomic age and world order of the United Nations. Yet throughout the changes remained rooted to a vision – and a physical reality – of an unchanging landscape and heritage. In his music, Nordic deities make brief, spectral appearances through endless pine woods; swans in flight sweep like angels across frozen lakes, on corridors of cold air – and at night, bards tell tales of heroes and worlds gone by. The First Symphony comes from 1900 – or rather, it was revised in that year, because it is essentially a late-19th-century piece, influenced by the dense harmonies of Tchaikovsky, but still (in the opening movement) showing signs of the fleeting, sparkling, supernatural Northern Lights that characterise the fully-individual works that would come – the kind of delicate, subliminal Nordic Impressionism of, say, the Sixth Symphony. Conducted by the Finnish maestro, John Storgards, both Walton and Sibelius found a worthy interpreter.

Just a word about the opening piece, Kafka’s Earplugs (a BBC commission for Irish contemporary composer, Gerald Barry, born 1952). Not even the Kafka title and the composer’s self-described “sense of humour, which I obey” could rescue this ten-minute monotony – and mediocrity. As the piece ended, one member of the audience shouted: “Total rubbish!” Who are we to disagree? 

Good times in Kent

Photo: Drew de F Fawkes. Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE cavorts to Chic at Rochester Castle

In this year’s Grammy Awards, Nile Rodgers received the rare and prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. He told us last night (6 July) that whilst very honoured, it implies a career end and he announced: “He ain’t done yet.” On cue, his band launched into ‘Everybody Dance’ – and we did.

The grounds of Rochester Castle saw the latest chapter in Nile’s legendary career. His band, Chic, were drilled, tight and in the groove. The thousands of us sprawled on rugs and mats got to our feet (some with difficulty) and threw shapes in the night air. Chic was always Rodgers and partner Bernard Edwards, but he died in 1996 and the band has become Nile Rodgers and Chic. They play hit after hit of their own and Nile’s other work with Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Peter Gabriel and Daft Punk, with whom he co-wrote the megahit, ‘Get Lucky’.

Rodgers is now a sprightly 70 and has survived, he engagingly told us, two bouts of cancer. He says music has its own way of healing and we all swing into the infectious groove of ‘Lost in Music’. It is a balmy evening and the ruins of Rochester Castle are illuminated behind the crowd of thousands. The cathedral tower shines a vivid blue into the dark night sky. The audience contains young and old, some wearing that old glitter dress or top found at the back of the wardrobe – a gathering, largely, of the well high heeled.

There is little room for extended solos as the band glide one dance floor hit with another, with the subtle moves of musicians complemented by the sinuous choreography and almost gospel-like singing of Audrey Martells and Kimberly Davis. Chic’s music relies on restrained but virtuosic drumming and bass playing. Ralph Rolle looks as if he was born behind a drum kit, and filling the huge gap left by Bernard Edwards is the heavyweight (in all senses) Jerry Barnes who plays some breathtaking bass lines throughout the evening. He keeps the less mobile in the audience literally on their toes.

Rodgers’ career is that on both a survivor and innovator. He was at the forefront of Studio 54-inspired disco music and then moved on swiftly when the tide turned and disco was regarded as mindless or toxic or both.  His work with Madonna (‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Material Girl’) and David Bowie (‘Let’s Dance’) put him back on track. Along with his Lifetime Grammy award he has also won this year a Grammy for the best R&B song with Beyoncé. He certainly ain’t done yet.

Rodgers dedicates a song to his old band mate, and the backdrop screens black and white photos of Edwards. Astonishingly, Chic has in some form been on the road for over 50 years. It has to be ‘We Are Family’, and we all shout out the words more or less in tune.

Whilst reminding us of his sackful of Grammys, Rodgers remains a modest stage persona with his precise, jaggling rhythmic guitar playing. He confesses he is not much of a dancer himself but encourages us once again to shake our ‘tushes’. I reflect that there will a variety of aches and pains and sprains in the morning. We wave our arms to his and Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ as the moonlight slips across the River Medway. This is a wonderful setting for an open-air concert. Indeed, this is the first of four concert evenings with the Sugarbabes and Soft Cell entertaining the ancient stones of the castle.

How to close the concert? It has to be the beguiling beat and melody of ‘Good Times’, a song that has been sampled by hip hop artists countless times. It dates from 1979 and is still as fresh and energising as ever.

The song is extended allowing some bass gymnastics that his old partner Bernard Edwards would approve. With a ‘Thank you Rochester’ they are gone, and we bounce and shuffle into the night hoping we can recall where we put that parking ticket. As the song says: “Let’s cut the rug, a little jive and jitterbug. We want the best, we won’t settle for less.” Long may Nile and Chic continue. Get out the Voltarol.

Decadents abroad

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War, 1929-39

Florian Illies, Simon Pare (trans.), Profile Books, June 2023, 336 pages, £20

KEN BELL says Weimar-era Bohemians failed to respond to the Nazi threat

On one level, Florian Illies’ Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War comes over as yet another lockdown volume produced from the writer’s own resources when trapped in his home. Thus, it draws exclusively on previously published sources, presumably pulled from Illies’ shelves at home, with whatever could be found on the internet added for good measure. I have reviewed quite a few such works over the past year, and I suspect that lockdown works have become almost a niche in their own right. That said, this is a work that transcends its lockdown limitations and presents the reader with a lyrical account of bohemian, intellectual life in the decade that ended with the outbreak of war in 1939.

Love in a Time of Hate is not divided into chapters; instead, the whole work is presented in three sections named Before, 1933 and finally After. Josephine Baker features prominently in the first section as a warning sign of what was to come. As a dancer in the 1920s, this Black-American woman was both famous and popular in Germany, yet when she returned in 1929, the press was outraged when she danced with a White German girl. The Volkischer Beobachter, never one to be outdone in the crude attack stakes, described her as a “half-ape”, and SA men then set off stink bombs at one of her performances. By then, the Jewish producers of the show had come under attack, so Miss Baker cancelled the tour and fled back to Paris in the early summer of 1929.

Others, perhaps the majority, were far more sanguine. Christopher Isherwood travelled to Berlin in his Cambridge tie because he knew that the city “meant boys” whose seductive company he longed for. Ruth Landshoff continued to be the good time that was had by all, and introduced Charlie Chaplin to her favours. Ruth loved swinging both ways and had enjoyed a dalliance with Marlene Dietrich, so spoke with authority when she advised one of her casual lovers: “Go for Dietrich. She has legs you’ll want to run your fingers along all day.”

Looking at this cast of characters, the reader is amazed at just how indifferent they seemed to be to the political events that swirled around them. The hedonism on display in a country where the bulk of the population were struggling to survive, against a backdrop of a state that to many people was only semi-legitimate, was not calculated to make them very popular with the average man in the street or his wife. Unfortunately, the role of the bohemian intellectuals in the rise of the Nazis is not a theme Illies discusses.

Of course, 1933 marked the start of the intellectual exodus from Germany, with George Grosz leading the stampede, leaving for the States even before Hitler came to power on the 30th of January. His satirical drawings – “the fat bellies, the top hats, the naked dancers, the madness and the poverty” – depicted Weimar with searing acuity. As Illies notes, “Someone who kept such a close eye on the age is able to sense when it is over.”

Second only to Grosz in the Nazi hate list was probably Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, who drove wildly for the Swiss border on the 29th of January and settled into a comfortable exile in his palatial home. By May of that year, his book had been banned in Germany and all copies in private hands had to be handed in to the authorities. Soon after, Remarque moved to the USA where he spent most of his remaining life bedding film stars and barmaids. The Nazis took vicious revenge in 1943 by beheading his sister.

The exodus that began with Grosz and Remarque continued throughout the 1930s, but it is interesting that very few of these exiles ever got involved in anti-Nazi activities. Some did, such as Marlene Dietrich, but she was quite the exception rather than the rule. Most, such as Remarque, just seem to have settled down into a comfortable exile and lived the same hedonistic lifestyle that they had enjoyed in 1920s Germany. Illies should have made that point. Actually, most of the 1920s bohemians would have made a pretty poor example of a resistance movement, but it says a lot about them, that so few even tried to create one.

Of course, the vast majority of writers, dancers and film makers made their peace with the Nazis, and continued to live and work in Germany. Leni Riefenstahl is the one Illies mentions, which may give the impression that she was exceptional; actually, she was the norm, since most people desire a quiet life and go along with whatever governments want.

Florian Illies has produced a mellifluous account of the final days of post-Great War German bohemianism, without fully analysing just what role hedonistic bohemianism may have played in helping to create the terrible reaction. That seems a pity, in what is otherwise a fine work about a doomed world.