Sunday, 8 November 2009



Bluebeard’s Castle is a one-act opera by Bela Bartok to a libretto by Béla Balázs . It is a version of an old story which has appeared in many forms. Judith abandons her family and fiancé and accompanies Bluebeard to his castle, although she is aware of many rumours about Bluebeard, his castle, and the fate of his former wives. The hall of the castle is dark and has seven locked doors. With varying degrees of reluctance, Bluebeard agrees to Judith’s requests to open the doors and let in the light. Behind the doors are found: Bluebeard’s torture chamber; his armory; his treasure house; his garden; his vast kingdom; a pool of tears; and behind the seventh door his three wives. Although, much blood has been found behind the doors, the wives, notwithstanding rumour, are alive and at the conclusion, Judith is obliged to join them as the fourth wife. There is a review of the work in Wikipedia.

The story can be read as a creepy gothic romance, or a metaphor for Judith’s desire to open the doors to Bluebeard’s mind; it can be interpreted in Freudian terms (if you like that kind of thing) and so on.

I first saw Bluebeard’s Castle at the Washington National Opera in 2006, in a production by the film director, William Friedkin (who made The Exorcist ) which was first seen in Los Angeles. Samuel Ramey was Bluebeard and Denyce Graves, Judith. It was an elegant, abstract production in which Bluebeard and Judith approached the castle in a gondola with birds swooping over their heads. The seven doors were seen to open at the rear of the stage letting in light of various colours. The production was very effective and allowed the imagination to roam over the possible readings or meanings of the work. I was left with the feeling that it was an opera which emaphasised the wonderful orchestral score over the singers, and this may have been influenced by the production itself to some extent. The orchestral score is a great piece in itself – (there are echoes of it in Bartok’s later Concerto for Orchestra).

I have mentioned this production because, while I enjoyed the new production of Bluebeard by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, I was very glad that it was not my introduction to the work.

The new production was directed by Daniel Kramer with ENO musical director Edward Gardner conducting. Clive Bayley is Bluebeard and Michaela Martens, Judith.

The ENO production confines the story to particular reading, some parts of which were obscure to me. The castle is reduced to a room, which appears at times to be below street level. Bluebeard is depicted as a psychotic with a tendency to revert to childhood fantasy; for example, his armoury contains a castle made of toy blocks and a ride-on canon on wheels. He sometimes moves in an odd jerky way, which I suppose is intended to represent his appalling mental condition. Clive Bayley has a fine voice and sung the role very well. He may have been even better if allowed to sing unimpeded by some of the strange bodily contortions the characterisation required.

The greatest departure from a traditional account of the work was that Bluebeard’s kingdom revealed at the opening of the fifth door was not a vast estate, but children who emerged from bunk beds at the back of the stage, stood from time to time in order of height, and were united with their mothers when the wives emerged from behind the final door. While this did some violence to the original conception, it is an interesting approach as it seems possible, even likely, that Bluebeard’s household included children. Like the location of the “castle” in a cellar, the children may also be a reference to recent cases of the abduction or imprisonment of women, which are mentioned in a program note.

There is a violent conclusion in which it appears the wives including Judith are subjected to genital mutilation by a sword wielding Bluebeard. Apart from theatrical shock value, I did not understand this and am unable to see how it fits with the overall concept of the production. Both the music and the impetus of the story seem to lie better with the realisation that Judith’s fate is to join the other wives in their joyless imprisonment.

Michaela Martens Judith was well acted and marvelously sung. Her character seemed to develop with the story as the intensity of her demands for the doors to open increased with the bloodstains which eventually covered her dress.

The orchestra too was excellent. There was a specially exciting moment at the opening of the fifth door when it was augmented by an additional brass section in a upper box and the luminous sound of Bartok’s music for Bluebeard’s kingdom filled the theatre.

Unlike some “director’s opera” this production does not impose anything foreign to the work itself. It is one of many possible readings of the story, but a very limited one. By approaching the work in this way, the director closes out other readings and to some extent at least extinguishes the ambiguities which make it such a fascinating opera.

In Washington, Bluebeard’s Castle was followed by Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. This combination is faulted by Edward Gardner in an ENO program note, but I thought it worked very well. The change of tone is welcome, and it gives the baritone the opportunity to sing two entirely different roles on the one night. The Washington production carried some scenic elements (stylised birds for example) from Bluebeard to Schicchi with amusing effect.

At ENO it was a night of serious modernism: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was performed by Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre as the second half of the program. I know nothing about ballet or dance, I can only say I enjoyed it.

Duke Bluebeard's Castle and The Rite of Spring.  English National Opera at the London Coliseum,
 6 November 2009

Sunday, 1 November 2009


I became interested in Nicolas Hawksmoor and his London churches in April this year when I saw the Lion and Unicorn gamboling around the tower of St. George’s Bloomsbury and looked into their history. I visited each of the six churches in May; but I only saw St. Mary Woolnoth from the outside as it was closed on the Bank Holiday of my visit. I had only known of the church from its appearance in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

And I wanted to hear if it indeed kept the hours. It was approaching 2 p.m. and I waited near the clock for the hour, but no sound was heard. I wondered if Eliot’s line was an obscure joke of some kind, or if the clock struck, but only some of the time.


I returned to the church in late October and found it open. The clock was set at 12, indicating that it was not in working order. But inside the church I was surprised to find a clock mechanism and pendulum in a glass case inscribed with the passage from The Waste Land. Perhaps this was the clock that kept the hours but I couldn’t find anything about its history.


A young man was arranging a display of Christmas Cards for sale in the porch and I asked him what he knew.

“Sorry, I only started here yesterday.”

And “The Reverend’s away until Monday”.

The Waste Land is not the only verse associated with the church. There is a memorial on the wall for John Newton, author of the words to Amazing Grace.

John Newton

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

According to the Wikipedia article on this hymn, it only began to be sung to the tune associated with its modern popularity in the twentieth century, the tune first appearing in 1829; and if this is correct Newton was blessed by never having to endure it himself.

It’s an unusual combination of associations: an eighteenth century evangelical hymn and probably the best known modernist poem in English.

When I find out more about the final stroke of nine I will add it here.

Friday, 18 September 2009



Opera Australia has opened a new production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte directed by Jim Sharman. "It's not in an airport lounge this time" a I heard someone explain to her companion " though that is a good setting as they are soldiers going to war". I fear this was a confusion with the recent production of Abduction from the Seraglio; but it shows the risk a company runs locating shows where they don't belong.

This production is located in a Japanese wedding: "I don't understand why the bride is there", someone else remarked. The program notes don't explain it either, but I will try.

It's not a Shinto wedding with the bride and groom staring at the camera from their ancient costumes, but one of those weddings that happen on Guam or at the glass walled Crystal Wedding Chapel in Port Douglas. The popularity of these ceremonies is one of the mysteries Japan presents to outsiders. The tradition behind the elaborate dressing up, chauffer driven limousines and wedding formalities seems completely detached from the participants but they find great enjoyment in it nevertheless.

Guam wedding

The plot of Cosi, is famously absurd. The much adored fiancés of two sisters are shipped off to fight a war at short notice, but return immediately so convincingly disguised as Albanians that each is able to seduce the other's girlfriend. It's best seen as a fantasy, and this production successfully creates one by staging the opera as an entertainment performed at the Japanese wedding. ( If Mozart had known of this scheme he would have allowed a little more time for setting the scene, I think.)

So we have a comedy wrapped in a fantasy inside a daydream, or something like that. Anyway, this device works as a way of overcoming the inherent improbability of the plot and oddly enough makes many of the incidents and interactions more believable and intense than might be possible in a production which attempts realism. Admittedly, the OA production which this replaces did involve the idea of a performance, but it didn't realise it nearly as well.

There is also an irony involved in a story of deception and romantic betrayal told in the framework of an idealised, if fanciful, wedding ritual.

There is a deep, mainly white, single purpose set, which seemed a little too big at times for a work which has only a small chorus and many scenes with only one or two participants. It does, however allow for a lot of movement, and this enlivens a piece which is potentially too static. The liveliness is reflected in the marvellous, frequently changed, brightly coloured costumes. The exuberantly coloured camouflaged greatcoats would maybe provide some cover in sideshow alley, but nowhere else.

It goes without saying that without the music, this story would be of little interest. But too much can be, and is made of it. I don't think we enjoy it because it demonstrates "profound human truths"; or as an embodiment of Enlightenment thought. The story gives Mozart many opportunities, and the score incorporates a remarkable range of moods, situations and colour. It's magic because it can't be conveyed in words, but the best description I have found is the Cosi chapter of David Cairns' Mozart and His Operas.

In some recordings, the youthful exuberance and emotion of Cosi is lost because the singers, however excellent, sound too old. In this production, Opera Australia has found a cast of young but sufficiently experienced artists who sing well individually and blend together so well in the ensemble pieces.

I enjoyed all the performances: Jose Carbo is an active Don Alfonso, more cynic than philosopher. Tiffany Speight as Despina takes advantage of the scope offered in this production to give a more interesting performance than was possible in the 2006 production by Victorian Opera which only just became airborne.

Henry Choo has sung major roles with OA for some years, beginning as a light tenor in productions of Elixir of Love and Lakme. I had some concerns that as he moved to more dramatic roles he could be progressing too fast for the development of his voice, but he was perfect here; more convincing than his Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni only a year ago.

Rachelle Durkin is a wonderful artist and her portrayal of Fiordiligi ranged from girlish delight to intense emotion. This combination was most convincing. Older singers can bring dramatic intensity but can't be very convincing in the lighter moments.

Sian Pendry, Dorabella , and Shane Lowrencev, Guglielmo, are both singers who have emerged in stages from the OA chorus. Last year I mentioned Sian Pendry's fine performance in the MSO Flying Dutchman concert and this performance confirmed my opinion. It is difficult to judge the quality of singers in minor roles. Their ability and potential must be clear to the music staff and management when they are first selected, but the audience must wait for the opportunity for their talent to fully emerge in performance.

I was surprised how suited Shane Lowrencev was to a lyric role as he has been cast more as traditional bass, most recently as Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea, a part more suited to an older and more resonant bass baritone. It was a pleasure to hear him in full flight for the first time.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Saved from Oblivion

St Bartholomew-the-Great

I visited the church or St Bartholomew the Great on bank holiday in May for no particular reason. The church has a long history going back to twelfth century. What remains is only part of the original structure. Large parts of the building were demolished on the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century and other parts were substantially altered and given over to secular use. The original Lady Chapel was bricked off, altered and became an ordinary house, before being further subdivided. Part of it became the printing works where Benjamin Franklin worked in 1725, and then a lace fringe factory. It was restored as a chapel in 1896.

The current state of the building recalls what could be its original appearance with thick Norman columns and walls of stone blocks.

I took some photographs of monuments on the walls there and gave them no further thought. The pictures were not particularly interesting images and I was about to discard them when I discovered British History Online, and excellent site containing digitised versions of historical documents, records and books including The records of St. Bartholomew's priory [and] St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: volume 2 Year (1921) by E.A Webb. This appears to be a very thorough review of historical records relating to the church; and it includes material about the monuments I photographed in May.

As far as I can tell from internet searching, none of the people for whom the memorials were erected was of any significance in history. We know of them by the pure chance that someone decided to erect a substantial memorial, and that the memorial has remained in a church whose fabric has been changed in the intervening years. Webb records that some of them have been moved from different locations in the church. I imagine there have been others lacking their decorative interest which have been removed and lost.

Monument to Percival and Agnes Smallpace

Monument to Percival and Agnes Smallpace

The Latin portion of the above inscription may be thus translated:

All welfare is vain.

Remember that death will not be long in coming and that the covenant of the grave hath been showed unto thee for the covenant of this world is 'He shall die the death'. All things come forth at their due season and pass away.

Judge none blessed before his death since it is in his sons that the man is known.

Percival Smalpace Esquire died the 2nd day of February A. D. 1558 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. His body lies buried near this monument.

Agnes his wife and daughter of John Tebowld Esquire died the 3rd day of September A. D. 1588 in the reign of Elizabeth. Her body lies buried near this monument.

Their children Michael and Thomas are still living and in affectionate memory of their most excellent parents have erected this monument.

To the dying man all things become peaceful;

blessed are they who die in the Lord.

Posterity will award to each his due distinction. Be wise and adopt with reverence this precept: Thy life is of no account for thee, enrol thyself in the full service of the true God: proffer to Him prayers from thy heart, and express thy praise and thanksgiving. To this end was a man born. And, O! very far more steadfast is a faith which repentance renews. There are no parochial records of Percival Smalpace. From his will (fn. 8) we learn that he was one of the clerks of the Board of Green Cloth. The monument was restored by Mr. Gilbert J. Smallpiece in 1897.
 The Board of Green Cloth, named for the covering of the board table, audited Royal accounts and made travel arrangements; athough its functions changed it continued until 2004.

Sir Robert Chamberlayne's Monument

Sir Robert Chamberlayne's Monument

In English: To Robert Chamberlayne, son of Robert by the institution of the pious happy and ever August James, of Great Britain France and Ireland, made a knight of the most noble order of the Bath; lord of the castle of Sherburn in the county of Oxford, descended by a long line of ancestors from the most ancient Earls of Tankerville in Normandy. Fit for any fortune, however great, born with an intellect and an equally great character, whilst cherishing these for himself and his own people, he also travelled many foreign countries, skilled in their habits and languages. Eventually he reverently approached the Holy Land and the Sepulchre of our Lord, and found also (alas) his own (sepulchre) of what kind or on what shore is unknown, dying in the year of the Virgin Birth 1615. A bachelor, far from his own people he perished by the inclemency of the weather or of man between (as far as can be guessed) Tripoli and Cyprus. A sorrowing friend, mindful of so sweet and old a companionship and unequal to support so great a grief and loss erected this (monument) (to a well deserving friend). He lived about 30 years.

He is covered by heaven though he has no tomb.

I wonder if he travelled for his own amusement; or whether he was a government agent of some kind; he was knighted by James I. And I don't know if pilgrimages to the Holy Land were common in the seventeenth century. I seems as if he went missing at sea between Tripoli and Cyprus; the "inclemency...of man" could refer to piracy which was common particularly off the African Coast. From 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 merchant ships to Barbary pirates.

And who was the sorrowing friend?

James Rivers

Torn from the service of the state in prime by a disease malignant

Within this hollow vault here rests the frame
Of that high soul wch. late inform'd the same
Torne from the service of the state in 's prime
By a disease malignant as the time
Who's life and death design'd no other end
Than to serve God his country and his friend;
Who when ambition rytanny and pride
Conquer'd the age, conquer'd himself and dy'd.
Here lyeth the Body of James Rivers Esq. (Sonne
and Heir of John Rivers of Chafford (fn. 59) in the County of Kent (Baront) who married Charity Dautr and Cohers of Sr. John Shurly, of Isfield in the Couy of Suss'x, Who died June the 8th 1641.

We learn from the parish registers that he was buried on the 9th June, the day after his death, 'out of the house of W. Freake Esq. the close side' from which, and from the fact that we find no other record of him in connexion with the parish, we assume that he was staying in the Close with a friend at the time and was not resident here. He probably died of the plague as did Sir George Hastings three weeks later. His great-grandfather, Sir John Rivers, Knight, of Chafford, was Lord Mayor of London in 1573. His father, Sir George Rivers, was made a Baronet in 1621 and was still living when his son died.

The monument was formerly on the south side of the quire on the spandrel over a circular pillar, from whence it was moved during the restoration of 1864 because it cut into the arch mouldings. It was at some period covered with black pitch, which was removed in the year 1912 when the inscription was re-written at the request and charge of a descendant, Mrs. Rivers-Moore.

At the moment, I have no idea why this and the next monument were, at some stage, covered in black pitch.

Edward Cooke, 1652.

Unsluice your briny floods

A marble monument (covered with black pitch) in the south ambulatory on the west side of the entrance to the south chapel.

It can be seen that the black pitch has now been removed from this monument also.

Unsluce yor briny floods, what! can yee keepe
Yor eyes from teares and see the marble weepe,
Burst out for shame: or if yee find noe vent
For teares, yet stay, and see the stones relent.

The tablet is made of a stone which readily condenses the water from the air in damp weather; before the hot-water pipes were placed below drops would often be seen condensed upon it.

In English: Here lies interred all that is mortal of a truly reverend man, Edward Cooke, an exceedingly learned Philosopher as well as a very notable man of medicine, who, on the third of the ides (the 11th) of August A. D. 1652, and in the 39th year of his age, yielded perforce to nature in the sure hope of a resurrection.

Edward Cooke is described in the Parish Register in the record of his burial on the 14th of August 1652 as 'Doctor of Physick'. Otherwise his name does not occur in the parish records. His father, also Edward Cooke, occurs in the charter of the Society of Apothecaries, of which he was a Fellow in 1617.

Formerly this monument was on the opposite side of the south ambulatory, where it filled one of the stilted arches at the south-east corner of 'Purgatory'. The restoration of the apse necessitated its removal in 1864.

All of the italicised passages above come from 'Monuments, memorials and heraldry', The records of St. Bartholomew's priory [and] St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: volume 2 (1921), pp. 449-487.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Fellows at St. James


The Sydney Symphony fellowship program provides opportunities for aspiring orchestral players to be part of the orchestra, and take part in performances and further education designed to assist them in their careers. It's part of what I recently heard described as the "academisation" of the beginnings of a career in music. There have been great changes.

Charles Mackerras was appointed second oboe of then ABC Sydney Orchestra at the age of 17, and by 19 was principal. Earlier, Neville Amadio joined the 2FC Broadcasting Orchestra at 15, and was principal flute of the ABC Orchestra by the time he was 21.

More recently, it was not uncommon for conservatorium graduates to obtain orchestral positions on graduation. Now it is much more competitive.

This year, David Papp, who was a member of the fellowship program in 2008, became the orchestra's youngest member, at the age of 24, when he was appointed second oboe.

Each year the fellows give chamber music concerts at St. James King Street; and I heard one of the best so far on 2 September.

There are all kinds of pitfalls in writing about concerts. The Daily Telegraph reports that the pianist and musical critic David Money, who died on July 17 aged 97, " liked to include positive remarks, but occasionally he was reduced to referring to 'a well-balanced program'."

When I read this, I was about to write enthusiastically about the program at this concert, which was very well balanced, and very well performed at well.

The first item was Mozart's Horn Quintet K407, scored for two violas, violin, cello and horn. As the excellent program note says, the scoring for two violas lends a warmer sound which complements the sound of the horn. The horn part, which is really like the solo in a concerto, was beautifully played by Alex Love. The fellowship string players were joined by Roger Benedict, SSO principal viola and artistic director of the fellowship program.

Next came Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp. There is not, as yet, a harp player among the fellows, so the ensemble was joined by the fine player Owen Torr, for the this and the next item. As part declaration of interest and part excuse to wander, I should mention that a few years ago Mr. Torr, was my daughter's harp teacher.

This all began in the tropical warmth of the Sunday market at Port Douglas where we heard the delightful playing of a young man with a small harp. We asked where the harp had been made.

In due course I travelled to the Atherton tableland where I found the maker, surrounded by harps of various sizes in the course of manufacture. He was from the United States and had, I think, found American society uncongenial and exiled himself to the wilderness outside Mareeba. As well as the harps, he had a large aviary full of cockatiels. For those with the skills to do it, working with wood must be a very satisfying occupation, particularly when making something as attractive as the harp.

We soon learned that, attractive as they were, these harps were not concert harps, but ours was still fine for a beginner to use for practice.

Although I hadn't played it recently, I have a old vinyl LP including Debussy's Sonata played by William Schegler, Flute, Fritz Ruff, Viola and Helga Storck, Harp. I found that the piece, or parts of it at least, were recorded in my mind as a result.

I thought fellowship flautist, Lina Andonovska, played with great subtlety and variation. The first movement, Pastorale, seems to echo some of the cadences of Debussy's preludes while evoking the atmosphere of the jungle as depicted by his contemporary Heni Rousseu. Did Debussy have the tropical warmth of the Snake Charmer in mind, I wonder. Ms. Androvska played this with a marvellous smoky, lugubrious tone which was exactly right.

The mood changes in the second movement, Interlude, which does in fact provide an interlude between the more distinctive outer movements, giving Ms. Andononvska the opportunity to play with a brighter timbre.

The Finale is a reminder that we are in the musical world of the early twentieth century, with an edgy dialogue between the flute and viola, well played by Charlotte Burbrook de Vere.

Next we heard the Elegiac Trio of Arnold Bax, written for the same instruments at about the same time. Bax was about 20 years younger than Debussy, but his Trio lacks the modernist feeling of Debussy's Sonata. It was most interesting to be able to hear the two works together in the same program.

I heard the Trio as recently as 6 August at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, in the distinctly less elegiac setting of Jupiters Casino Ballroom. It wouldn't often have been played by finer musicians: Lorna McGhee (flute), David Harding (viola) and Sebastien Lipmann (harp), but I found, hearing it again, that the piece itself had made little impression, unlike the Debussy I recalled from a recording heard years ago.

The concert ended with a performance of the sextet from Capriccio by Richard Strauss. The sextet is so full of associations for those who have heard and loved the opera that it's difficult to talk about in isolation. It is similar to Debussy's Sonata, having contrasting passages of calm and agitation; the agitation in this case reflecting the anxious mood of the competing artists of the opera. The excellent acoustic of the church suited the string playing very well.

Perfectly balanced.

For my notes on an earlier Fellowship concert:

Monday, 31 August 2009

Ethics in Edinburgh


The ABC has a program called The Philosopher's Zone which is often worth hearing. A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion on the morality of ethicists. Apparently, they steal library books.

I learned about ethics from Professor Alan Stout (whose childhood was spent in St. Andrews and who taught at Edinburgh before moving to Sydney). He talked quite a lot about honesty as an important factor in personal relations and social cohesion. I can't begin to imagine that he had any library book that was as long as a day overdue.

One of the speakers on the Philosophers' Zone was Eric Scwitzgabel from the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, who said:

I'd had a number of philosophers tell me anecdotally when I first started thinking about moral behaviour of ethics professors that they'd noticed that ethics books were more likely to be missing from academic libraries. So I decided to test that empirically. So what I did was, I looked at the library holdings in philosophy at I think it was about 31 leading academic libraries in the United States and in the United Kingdom, and compared the rates at which ethics books were missing, compared to non-ethics books in philosophy that were comparable in age and popularity.

So what it turned out was across the spectrum, ethics books were more likely to be missing.

There was no reason to suspect that this was a hoax of some kind; but there must be some limits to empirical testing. So just in case it's just a fiction, I note here that I have entertained the possibility.

The project had a theoretical element as well:

Yes, I guess there are two versions of that hypothesis. One would be a lot of professors go into ethics because they maybe don't have the same intuitive gut moral sense that other people have, and so they have to compensate for that by thinking rationally about things, than a lot of people would respond to much more naturally. Now I don't know if that's true or not. If it is true it would be nice if we could think of a way to measure that.

It was a coincidence that, shortly after hearing this, I came across Isabel Dalhousie. She is fictional. She edits the Review of Applied Ethics and is the protagonist of the Sunday Philosophy Club novels by Alexander McCall Smith. I had been looking for something set in Edinburgh to read. I knew about Ian Rankin, but after looking at a few pages of an Inspector Rebus novel in a shop decided it was not what I was after. Isabel sounded promising so I looked for her in the bookshop at Cammeray which had only the second book of the series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, which I bought and took to read while eating lunch in the adjoining Simmone Logue cafe. The only table available was in the window looking out onto Miller Street and the expressway entrance.

I mention this because there is an interesting tic or repetition in the story telling, it is that Isabel and her friends are seated by the window of any cafe or restaurant they enter.

While it is true that I bought the book to reminisce about Edinburgh, it was a shock to find that it opens with a character making his annual visit to the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson in the Canongate kirkyard. A grave I had visited as recently as 13 May last.


When Robert Burns visited Edinburgh in 1787, he found that Fergusson had been buried in an unmarked grave. He commissioned the gravestone which we can now see there. The architect engaged to make it, named Robert Burn, took two years to erect it . Burns, accordingly, took a further two years to pay for it. He said:

"Considering that the money was due by one Poet for putting a tombstone over another, he may, with grateful surprise, thank Heaven that he ever saw a farthing of it."


Robert Louis Stevenson was concerned about the condition of the grave as he found it, and intended to restore it, but I don't think he did. I tried to find out more by chatting to the gentleman on duty in the front porch of the church.

" Ah, Jamie Fergusson" he said.

Not a promising start. He did have a copy of a guidebook to the graves of Edinburgh but this said nothing of Stevenson's plan.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate was probably written before the statue of Fergusson by David Annand was placed outside the Canongate Kirk in October, 2004, as one guide books puts it, striding away from his grave. It is a very moving tribute to an energetic poet who died at the age of only 24 in 1774 .

Robert Fergusson

Auld Reikie, wale o' ilka toun
That Scotland kens beneath the Moon;
Where couthy chiels at e'ening meet
Their bizzing craigs and mous to weet;
And blythly gar auld Care gae bye
Wi' blinkit and wi' bleering eye:
Owr lang frae thee the Muse has been
Sae frisky on the simmer's green...

Robert Fergusson

Isabel Dalhousie is not only an ethicist. She is a music lover and makes large anonymous donations to Scottish Opera. She has an adverse opinion of the lists of donors which appear in theatre and concert programs.

Almost as soon as she is introduced to the narrative she is off to a concert at Queens Hall. It is explained that it was once a kirk, hence the high straight backs on the seats to ensure that members of the congregation assumed a correct posture. She avoids these seats and seeks out the more modern chairs placed in the centre.

I didn't know the history of the hall or the nature of the seats when I arranged to hear a concert there last December. I had heard the violinist Jack Liebeck at the Townsville chamber music festival and thought it something of a coincidence that he was playing in Edinburgh at the time of my visit. I was accompanied by a group of impecunious students; and not being aware of Isabel's views, we found ourselves in a neat row in the same posture improving seats which had earned Isabel's disapproval.

The concert was given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, (also mentioned in the novel) and included Points of View a new work by Scottish composer Thea Musgrave, who was interviewed before the performance.

She mentioned a dream she had in the 1960's in which orchestral players stood in their places and challenged the conductor. This gave her the idea of requiring players with a solo passage to stand while playing.

The orchestra also played a concerto grosso by Handel and Mozart's Haffner symphony. Jack Liebeck was the soloist in the recent violin concerto of Magnus Lindberg. This is an exciting piece which I have heard again on CD with Lisa Batiashvili accompanied by the Finish Radio Symphony. There are some reminders of the Sibelius concerto in the work I think: maybe just a feeling of the vast icy wastes of Scandinavia. Looking for some confirmation of this, I found the program note mentions "a momentary echo of Sibelius, perhaps," towards the end of the concerto.

Jack Liebeck is a violinist whose playing of more romantic pieces has an intense emotional edge which only a few can achieve; and though I was disappointed not to hear a work which might have allowed this to emerge, I was grateful for the introduction to Magnus Lindberg's concerto.

I'm pleased Isabel Dalhousie wasn't there. She is an ethicist, as I mentioned, and takes ethics very seriously. From time to time she is motivated by a sense of ethical duty to take action. It seems to me that this motivation arises somewhat at random, but when it does, analysis and duty force Isabel to intrude. Never mind that the objects of interest are bereaved families - there are two of these in the book - her duty must be done.

I am reminded of Mrs Jellyby, though in her case chaos at home resulted from her preoccupation with distant good works. Noel Coward wrote a story called The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe, concerning a woman whose smothering helpfulness led to disaster in every case, and I am sure there are others.

Isabel is also inclined to make remarks which would have better been left unsaid, leading to complications in her private life. She is not an attractive figure.

So I wonder if Alexander McCall Smith had heard of the missing library books. Isabel seems to lack " the same intuitive gut moral sense that other people have " and could have become an ethicist for this reason. Where others act out of empathy, she constructs a moral rule and proceeds without regard to the consequences for her victims.

If you can stomach this kind of thing, Lovers, Friends, Chocolate is an enjoyable book to read, particularly if you want to reminisce about Edinburgh.

My other reservation is that the plot turns on coincidences.


16 February 2010

Last week  Alexander McCall Smith himself appeared on The Philosophers Zone and talked about Isabel.

Quite contrary to what I have said about her, he seemed to agree that she was "nice": 

Alan Saunders: This is an interesting aspect of her character. You're very good I think as a writer at creating nice people like Isabel and Precious who are still interesting, which is quite a difficult task for a writer I think. And part of what makes Isabel a nice person is something that you've already alluded to, the fact that she gets drawn into other people's lives, because she thinks that they have a moral claim on her.

Alexander McCall Smith: Yes, that is something which I find very interesting, and I suspect that most of us think about that problem from time to time. We think about it if we're walking along the street, and let's say we see a beggar, or somebody asks us for something. ...

Dear Isabel - I have no moral claim on you.


Jack Liebeck's CD on Sony, which is also on iTunes.

Magnus Lindberg and Sibelius

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Burns Pomeroy Lawson MacDairmid

The Bard
There are statues of Robert Burns all over the world, and we have one in The Domain. The sculpture is by Frederick Pomeroy (1856 - 1924), who also contributed four of the eight statues on Vauxhall Bridge in London.
The Burns statue dates from 1905; and adopts the legend of the heaven taught ploughman, who leans on a large plough holding a small pen, or perhaps the stylus he used to inscribe verse on window panes.
The Bard
He seems over dressed for ploughing and wears a Tam o' Shanter (rather than his farmer's hat) in tribute to his eponymous hero.
When Burns went to Edinburgh for the first time in 1786 , he adopted the persona of a rustic bard, attracting comment by wearing his farmer's boots everywhere. Pomeroy missed an opportunity by giving this statue less robust footware.

Australia's own bard, Henry Lawson, saw the statue unveiled and published this in The Bulletin:

Grown tired of mourning for my sins—
And brooding over merits—
The other night with aching heart
I went amongst the spirits;
And I met one that I knew well:
“O Scotty’s Ghost! is that you?
And did you see the fearsome crowd
At Bobbie Burns’s statue?
“They hurried up in hansom cabs,
Tall-hatted and frock-coated;
They trained it in from all the towns,
The weird and hairy-throated;
They spoke in some outlandish tongue,
They cut some comic capers,
And ilka man was wild to get
His name in all the papers.

“They showed no sign of intellect,
Those frauds who rushed before us;
They knew one verse of ‘Auld Lang Syne’—
The first one and the chorus.
They clacked the clack o’ Scotlan’’s Bard,
They glibly talked of ‘Rabby’;
But what if he had come to them
Without a groat and shabby?

“They drank and wept for Rabbie’s sake,
They stood and brayed like asses
(The living bard’s a drunken rake—
The dead one loved the lasses);
If Bobbie Burns were here, they’d sit
As still as any mouse is;
If Bobbie Bums should come their way,
They’d turn him out their houses.

“O weep for bonny Scotland’s Bard!
And praise the Scottish nation,
Who made him spy and let him die
Heart-broken in privation:
Exciseman, so that he might live
Through northern winters’ rigours—
Just as in southern lands they give
The hard-up rhymer figures.

“We need some songs of stinging fun
To wake the States and light ’em;
I wish a man like Robert Burns
Were here to-day to write ’em!
But still the mockery shall survive
Till Day o’ Judgement crashes—
The men we scorn when we’re alive
With praise insult our ashes.”

And Scotty’s Ghost said: “Never mind
The fleas that you inherit;
The living bard can flick ’em off—
They cannot hurt his spirit.
The crawlers round the poet’s name
Shall crawl through all the ages;
His work’s the living thing, and they
Are fly-dirt on the pages.”

If, like Lawson, you identify with the writer and the poetry, it's easy to dismiss the statues and the myth out of hand. But these emerged from the poetry, or some of it, as well and are interesting in themselves.

Lawson anticipated the thoughts of Scotland's 20th century bard Hugh MacDairmid (Christopher Murray Grieve 1892-1978) who wrote of:

"The world wide attention devoted today ( at least once a year) to the mere man and his uninteresting love affairs and the ramifications of the genealogies of his acquaintances and the poor bric-a-brac of his lars and penates and the witless lucubrations of the hordes of bourgeois "orators" who annually befoul his memory by the expression of sentiments utterly antipathetic to that stupendous element in him which ensures his immortality."
"The Burns Cult" reprinted in At the sign of the Thistle at 168
Compare Lawson (above):

We need some songs of stinging fun
To wake the States and light ’em;
I wish a man like Robert Burns
Were here to-day to write ’em!
But still the mockery shall survive
Till Day o’ Judgement crashes—
The men we scorn when we’re alive
With praise insult our ashes.”

And MacDairmid (A Drunk Man Looks at The Thistle):

Rabbie, wad'st thou wert here - the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o' the likes o' thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre's become
A laxative for a' loquacity.
I found the details of the statue and the poem by Lawson in an excellent guide book to the Royal Botanic Gardens, The Domain, and Centennial Park Sydney: Poetry of Place by Edwin Wilson.

For a further page on the Burns statue click here