Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I found this video on Youtube the other day. Christy Moore and Co. gigging around the time I was doing my mock O-levels, forty Christmas Days ago. Words come to mind: water, bridge, a lot. Tapestry, life, rich. Sideburns.

This video works really well on "full screen".

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Elisabeth Lutyens

I think of the composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) every time I go to the island of Lindisfarne. The reason is quite a tenuous one - her father, the architect Edwin Lutyens, renovated the castle there in 1901. Her music definitely falls into the "potentially difficult" category, although I don't think one should be deterred by this. For me it has an engaging, haunting quality about it.

The few British composers I've featured so far in this series produced, by and large, accessible music (an intriguing exception is John Tavener who, as the only "avant garde" composer to be signed by Virgin Records raises interesting questions about what constitutes "accessible" music). Lutyens, on the other hand, was one of the few composers in Britain at the time to follow the lead of continental composers writing atonal music. She adopted, modified and developed their methods to suit her own needs. Think of her, if you like, as a Barbara Hepworth of postwar British music.

I particularly like this Youtube video of Lutyens' Five Bagatelles for piano. OK, it could be all sorts of places but I'm guessing  the illustrations are of Norfolk. They certainly go well, I think, with the music, which is interesting, as British landscape is usually associated with the sound-world of Vaughan Williams.

Lutyens also worked as a film composer. She was the first woman to compose music for a British feature film - Penny and the Pownall Case, starring Diana Dors and Christopher Lee.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the link to read them all.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Lighting a Fire

We've had an electric fire here for years now. We used to light fires but with one thing and another, it seemed a lot less trouble to put a board in front of the fireplace and stand an electric fire in front of it instead.

Recently, we thought it was time to sort out the fireplace again. We got the chimney swept. It turned out to be full of old birds' nests - the sweep managed to fill a whole binliner with twigs and mossy tufts. He recommended we get a wire contraption fitted to the top of the chimney to prevent a repeat performance. I went outside and had a good look at the other chimneys in the village. No wonder ours was birds' nest central. Just about everyone else had one of the aforementioned contraptions fitted.

I went to a hardware store and bought one. I then borrowed a neighbour's ladder with a view to fitting it onto the chimney pot. It shouldn't bother me -I climbed huge rock climbs in my youth- but I really don't like ladders. It doesn't look that far from the ground to the top of our chimney - from the ground. However, once I start up the ladder everything looks a bit different and I have to admit I had what climbers term "a bit of an epic" getting up the last few feet and getting myself into a position next to the chimney pot where I could actually fit the thing. The "thing" (I still don't know what it's called) is a springy, conical cage of wire legs, all of which need to be squeezed in while it's put into the chimney. I'd tied string around it to hold the legs in and intended to cut the string once it was well in, allowing the legs to spring out and grip the pot. Everything was just six inches further away than I wanted it to be and, of course, everything had to be arranged so it could be done with one hand, the other hanging like grim death onto the nearby "stench pipe".

To my amazement, everything went according to plan and I didn't fall off. To celebrate, we went and bought a sack of coal. We're never short of kindling round here and I've always got a pile of old newspapers handy, so lighting a fire was no problem. Walking up the lane gathering sticks had a real whiff of self-sufficiency about it. I had visions of  keeping chickens, of turning over the front garden to vegetables - now, I reflected, would be a good time to dig it over, let the frost break up the clods... So far, I've got no further than sitting in front of our "real" fire drinking a Martini and watching Youtube videos about vegetable-gardening. It can't be that hard, can it?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Benjamin Britten - Phaedra

I also enjoyed listening to another Britten piece I didn't know the other week - the cantata Phaedra, written for Janet Baker in 1975. Britten was seriously ill when he wrote it (he died the following year). It was one of a number of pieces he wrote towards the end of his life -the most famous being the opera, Death in Venice- that featured in the recently re-shown documentary, Britten's Endgame.

In it, Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, finds herself passionately infatuated with his son, Hippolytus. He rejects her and she decides to kill herself. The documentary included an interview with Janet Baker  in which she said how, when she was rehearsing the work with Britten, she felt overwhelmed by the evident personal significance of the words (those I've put in italics) in this excerpt and felt hardly able to sing them:

Oh Gods of wrath,
how far I've travelled on my dangerous path!
I go to meet my husband; at his side will stand
Hippolytus. How shall I hide my thick adulterous passion for this
youth, who has rejected
me, and knows the truth? Will he not draw his
sword and strike me dead? Suppose he spares
me? What if nothing's said? Can I kiss Theseus
with dissembled poise? The very dust rises to
disabuse my husband — to defame me and accuse!
Oenone(1),  I want to die. Death will give me
freedom; oh it's nothing not to live; death to the
unhappy's no catastrophe!

(1)Oenone is Phaedra's nurse and confidante in Racine's Phedre. The text of Britten's Phaedra is taken from a translation of this by Robert Lowell.

And finally, another powerful revelation of the Britten centenary for me were the letters that passed between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears...

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on this link or the British Composers label to read them all.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Fleak!

Last weekend I got in a couple of short, local walks.The first was with friend Alex and my son, Daniel.  Oxnop Beacon is a top on the broad ridge of moorland that separates Swaledale from Wensleydale, the highest point along which is Great Shunner Fell, famous for the fact that the Pennine Way crosses its summit.

Oxnop is visited less regularly. I'd not visited it before - mainly due to the fact that although I'd seen it on the map there was always something to do that looked more exciting. Much of the track to the summit is a well-established landrover track.

The walk itself was a pleasant surprise. Half way to the beacon the track peters out into a line of faint ruts and the signs of human activity are generally intriguing rather than intrusive - at one end of the gentle summit-ridge a sturdily-built cairn marks the summit itself, beside which is a stone shelter which may have been built for miners, walkers, or shepherds - we could not make our minds up which. The "beacon" is another tall cairn at the other end. It is often said that the lower tops in hilly areas offer the best views and this fell is no exception - you can see virtually all the major hills in the Yorkshire Dales from it. Unfortunately, though, we didn't take a camera.

This was not a mistake we made the next day. From the beacon I'd noticed a tarn, Summer Lodge Tarn, further along the ridge, to the East. It sits on a fell known as The Fleak. With a name like that, who wouldn't want to explore it? Lots of people, apparently. It seems to be rarely visited by walkers. From what I could find on the internet its main fans seem to be trig-point collectors (a hobby not without its attractions, I thought). What may put some people off is the fact that a road passes quite close to the summit. It has to be said that as roads go it's not for the faint hearted: it is an exceedingly steep, narrow thread of tarmac that, at it's highest point (1,775 feet), known as Windgates Currack, runs along the top of a steep edge - almost a cliff. We've often driven along this road, usually stopping to admire the view. It must surely come close to the top of any list of wild, hilltop roads in England - and ahead of several better-known ones. I had never, though, left the car behind and set off to the summit - the eccentrically named Conny Tammy Currack.

By Summer Lodge Tarn. Oxnop Beacon  is in the background.

The next day, Daniel and I set out to find it, armed with water, digestive biscuits, tangerines - and a camera. I drove most of the way up. We parked on the edge of the moor and set off along a ghost of a path, a landrover track that the fell was gradually reabsorbing, its ruts full of spongy moss. We found ourselves walking though an area of pits and low spoil-heaps, probably dug by lead miners years ago. There were shake-holes, too - natural pits where surface material has fallen into openings in the limestone underneath, like sand into an egg-timer. Oddly, though they were similar, there seemed to be subtle differences between these and the man-made pits. One fancied one could tell one from the other.  On our left, we caught sight of Summer Lodge Tarn. We made for it, as from it we'd be able to clearly see our way to the summit.

Great Whernside and Buckden Pike from The Fleak
As it happened, the top was easy -almost too easy- to find. A new-looking wire fence runs over the top of the moor, from the tarn to the trig point. Once there, recreational eating being one of the great pleasures of hill-walking, we stopped for a while, to admire the view and consume the biscuits and tangerines. I'd planned on walking from the summit to the highest point on the road (and, from there, back to the car). This turned out to be a boggy, pathless adventure, the peat riven in places with impressive, rambling groughs - the sort of place that cannot help but remind a Sherlock Holmes fan of the Great Grimpen Mire.

It wasn't that far to the road - but at least it was invisible almost to the last minute. Once on it, one could not help but wonder why anyone would build it there. I can only think that the builders opted to go up and along the top of the edge, rather than round it, as it provided the driest, firmest ground available. Either that, or they just did it for kicks, which I doubt.

Smoke by Semerwater, from The Fleak
A cairn on the Fleak, looking towards Summer Lodge Tarn and Swaledale