Endnotes, June 2023

J.S. Bach, A Portrait in Leipzig, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, June 2023

In this edition, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in a new recording on the Chronos label, reviewed by Stuart Millson

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – stands alongside Rachmaninov’s Second, or Mahler’s Symphonies Five to Seven, written some 150 years later – as one of the great voyages in classical music: one of those rare pieces in which the composer, heart and soul, stands before you. In Mahler’s case, the journey might involve a transition from darkness to brilliant light, but in Bach’s – being the creator of a purer, abstract, but no less emotional form of music – the pathway offers endless illumination, intricacy and invention; from the wintry introspection of the 14th variation, to the carefree, courtly Canone, the dance-like variation 27 (track 28).

The Goldberg Variations (so-called) were published in 1741, but as Corrina Connor reminds us in the CD’s excellent accompanying booklet, the elaborately engraved title page of the original score read as follows:

‘Keyboard study, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for the refreshment of music-lovers’ spirits by Johann Sebastian Bach, Composer to the royal court of Poland and the electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and director of choral music in Leipzig.’

As the story goes, Bach’s work soothed the spirits of one Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony; a nobleman who engaged at his establishment a musician by the name of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-56) – an artist who could be relied upon to restore the mental vitality of the insomniac diplomat – hence, Goldberg Variations.

The work begins with an Aria, followed by 30 variations, concluding with a recapitulation of the original theme. The Aria has a religious stillness and is shaped with great pathos, even intimacy, as if Bach is confiding his deepest thoughts and regrets. In this new recording by the outstanding harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander (a Junior Fellow at the Royal College of Music), we find an interpretation every bit as fulfilling as the old gold-standard recording by Kenneth Gilbert, issued some 35 years ago by the Harmonia Mundi label. Except that the new Chronos edition shows an artist of the younger generation, unafraid to let the monotone harpsichord meander into slow tempi, revealing huge detail where necessary, and always avoiding the somewhat jangling ‘rush’ that sometimes manifests itself whenever the instrument is hurrying through an allegro passage. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham described the harpsichord as sounding like “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”!

In Nathaniel’s hands, we listen again to a light and shade, not often heard in this genre. His epic performance of the variations is characterised by the clear, controlled accentuation of phrases, and by a refined, reverential shaping of Bach’s loveliest melodies – which appear like rays of sunshine in the often knotty and difficult, more extended passages of the piece. Arguably the greatest moment on the recording is in variation 30, the penultimate part. At just one minute and nine seconds in length, this short final statement (given a broad, noble pace by the soloist) is a triumphant fulfilment for composer, performer and listener. All that has gone before is reviewed and reconciled before we return to the soft breaths of the opening Aria. We have come full circle. And what an experience, both in terms of interpretation and playing, and in the astonishingly clear recording quality. An unreserved recommendation and a nomination for the baroque-era/early-classical-period CD of the last twelve months.

Bach, Goldberg Variations, performed by Nathaniel Mander, harpsichord. Recorded at St. Martin’s Church, Barcheston, Warwickshire; Sound Engineer, Tony Faulkner; Executive Producer, Fiammetta Tarli. CHRONOS ICSM 018.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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Cadmus Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth, Maxfield Parrish, 1908, credit Wikipedia


Matthew Goodwin, Values, Voice and Virtue, The New British Politics, Penguin, 2023, Pb, 239 pp, U.K. £10.99, reviewed by Leslie Jones

A major realignment is taking place in British politics, according to Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. In a “post-industrial and knowledge based economy”, “cognitive-analytical skills” (Spearman’s g) are at a premium.[i] Hence the exponential increase in university places. In the 1960’s, 8,000 people entered British universities each year. In the 2010’s, the corresponding figure was 350,000.[ii] Goodwin discerns here the emergence of a new “ruling class” of university educated professionals, located mainly in London and other urban centres of the new economy. R Herrnstein and C Murray, in similar vein, refer to the “cognitive elite”, those with the requisite intelligence to enter the “high-IQ” occupations.

Some may dispute the author’s contention that the working class once dominated Britain’s economy and society.[iii] But what is clear is that manufacturing jobs have declined from 30% in the 1950’s to 9% at the time of the Brexit Referendum.[iv] The power of the trade unions, which boasted 9 million members in the 1950’s, has also been dramatically reduced – ditto working class representation. The Labour Party once resembled its supporters. Prominent figures like Manny Shinwell, Ernest Bevin and Aneurin Bevan had working class credentials. Some leading figures in the party, in particular Peter Shore and Tony Benn, although privately educated, were staunch supporters of British sovereignty as a bulwark of workers’ rights.

But the number of Labour MPs with working class roots fell from 64 in the 1980’s, during the leadership of Neil Kinnock, to 7 under that of Keir Starmer.[v] And indicatively, the proportion of Labour MPs who opposed Brexit was 96%. Little wonder that the working class, once instinctively loyal to Labour, are deserting an institution widely perceived as part of the Liberal establishment. This declining support can be linked to the rise of national populism throughout the West. The author rejects the condescending and facile explanations of the disaffection of manual and skilled workers, notably the media (especially social media) manipulation of a “morally inferior underclass of racist, irrational and ignorant Little Englanders”. [vi] Likewise the notion that Brexit was driven by “institutional racism” and nostalgia for empire.

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Konrad Horny, Eisenach  Schlosberg, 1800, credit Wikipedia. Eisenach was J S Bach’s birthplace


Selma Gokcen and Kenneth Cooper, Bach Revealed: A Player’s Guide to the Solo Cello Suites by J.S. Bach, Volume One – Suites I and III BWV 1007–1008, reviewed by Joseph Spooner

Judging by the designations given to musical events, it is not uncommon for composers to be ‘revealed’, even when that composer’s works are staples of concert life and their author has been the focus of intense intellectual endeavour for decades. Beethoven has been ‘revealed’ more than once recently. Such events, of course, perform important functions: engaging audiences who are already interested in Classical Music, but inviting them to listen differently, and engaging those who are interested in Classical Music, but feel alienated by standard presentations of it. The revelation to which Gokcen and Cooper aspire could not be more different, aiming as it does to understand Bach’s suites for solo cello –a cornerstone of the repertoire – at a profound level. An exercise of this sort might seemingly be the preserve of such groups, but the subtitle, A Player’s Guide, indicates the work’s intended audience; other groups may however be also be drawn to this– those interested in Bach who are able to read music, analysts, etc. This is certainly not an edition as it is commonly understood, even though it has been termed such in the foreword to Bach Revealed by several of those commending the project. No comparisons with editions can or should be offered, but mention should be made of the splendid Urtext package published by Bärenreiter, which reproduces all the original sources and provides the materials for any performer to create their own edition.

In his introduction, Cooper states that the work’s overarching aim is ‘to discover the dance rhythm within [the dances’ ornamentation]’, so that we do not end up ‘hearing (or playing) continuous melody without any sort of internal rhythm’. This is a natural aspiration for any performer or teacher of the suites in the dance movements. Cooper goes on to provides useful notes on the structure of the suites and the Baroque dance forms they feature, as well as brief notes on performance practice; the introductory material in the Urtext is comparable, though rather wider in scope on performance practice. Both works agree on the necessity for understanding the nature of the dance forms, though approach the matter in (stimulatingly) different ways. The sequence of dances in each of Bach’s cello suites is prefaced with a prelude, but both Bach Revealed and the Urtext are somewhat short on the nature of this purely instrumental form that raises a set of issues very different from those associated with the dances.

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Speke for England

Richard Burton in Arabic attire, credit Wikipedia

Speke for England

River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, Candice Millard, Swift Books, 2023, pp349, reviewed by William Hartley                      

Two Victorian explorers risking their lives and wrecking their health in search of geography’s Holy Grail. If that wasn’t challenging enough, then add the fact that they were incompatible and knew it. This was the situation when Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke set out to find the source of the Nile.

Burton has been well served by biographers (at least a dozen). He was a man of striking appearance and author Candice Millard raises the possibility that Bram Stoker used him as the model for Dracula. In contrast, Speke has vanished into obscurity. There is a third party in the story and posterity has been done a service by Millard in shining a spotlight upon him. It’s appropriate that he too should appear on the book’s cover, since in telling us some of his story, she has reminded readers that these Victorian feats of exploration couldn’t have taken place without the army of anonymous bearers and guides who accompanied them.

The two men had ventured into Africa before, originally in Somalia. It should have been sufficient warning that they were not compatible; Speke seems to have felt that he was better equipped to be in charge. For his part, Burton was disdainful of the other man’s lack of interest in the people and cultures they encountered. It all went horribly wrong. During a fight with tribesmen on a beach near Berbera in 1855, Burton took a spear through the face from cheek to cheek. Somehow doctors and dentists patched up the wreckage. Not to be left out, Speke picked up eleven stab wounds.

River of the Gods concentrates on the relationship between the two men, dominated as it was by the search for the source of the Nile. The author has brought Speke out of Burton’s shadow, revealing someone who bore grudges and resented the older man’s fame and charisma. Striking a balance between the two must have been difficult since Burton has much more to offer a biographer. He was an ethnographer, a polyglot who spoke at least twenty five languages and could so assimilate himself into an alien culture that he entered Mecca posing as a pilgrim. Speke preferred slaughtering the local wildlife.

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Endnotes, May 2023


In this edition: Carl Nielsen, an inextinguishable force in music, reviewer Stuart Millson

The surging Nordic seascapes of Denmark – winds from the North and Baltic Seas; the rustle of springtime in the rural realm of Funen; the Danish national spirit (a combination, perhaps, of atavistic Viking yearnings with a modern-era feeling of sovereign contentment), are all to be found in the music of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Often overshadowed by the seven symphonies of Finland’s Jean Sibelius, Nielsen, nevertheless, in his four offerings in that genre, generates a raw, elemental power – as if Shostakovich had marched back in time, with his snare-drums, nerve-shattering timpani and overwhelming, snarling brass, and insinuated himself into the Danish composer’s bloodstream.

In a new recording from Chandos, Edward Gardner conducts the superbly-balanced and recorded Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in a monumental account of the early Great War-era Fourth Symphony (Op. 29), subtitled ‘Det Uudslukkelige’ – The Inextinguishable. There is no preamble: Nielsen, almost maniacally, launches himself into a maelstrom – orchestra and audience suddenly enveloped in a storm, which soon into the first movement confuses us: an uneasy calm, expressed by a sad, folkish tune on woodwind then following. But a recapitulation of the opening is not far away, and the music bursts out again in a noble, affirmative, almost Brucknerian resolution – the proud, ‘inextinguishable’ motif on brass, upheld by glistening, rolling, exultant strings. I use the term Brucknerian, but this interpretation is far from being a late-romantic wallow. Instead, Edward Gardner’s reading is often characterised by nervous, quick, stabbing precision; an approach which generates excitement and which emphasises the 20th-century angst of the score.

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The Categorical Imperative


HM Prison Wakefield, sometime home of prisoner Charles Bronson, credit Wikipedia

       The Categorical Imperative,

by Bill Hartley

For many years our prison system has operated on the basis of incentives. A prisoner who behaves himself can expect to earn remission on his sentence. For those serving longer periods of imprisonment, parole, also known as Release on Licence, may also be available. Part of this process involves engaging with the regime and actively preparing for release. If progress is made then during the course of the sentence the initial security category may be reviewed and downgraded. In turn, this may affect the type of prison to which the prisoner is sent. The majority of prisoners eventually move on to what are called Category C prisons; places not requiring the highest levels of security. What happens though, when an individual chooses custody as a career?

Periodically we are treated to a television documentary about some infamous criminal. These days those with real notoriety are thin on the ground or safely dead. There are a few left and the latest to get this treatment is Michael Peterson, better known to the wider world as Charles Bronson, though he has since changed his name once more. Peterson/Bronson wasn’t a particularly successful criminal since he was soon caught and imprisoned. The offences which actually got him into prison occurred decades ago. What makes him unusual is most of his subsequent crimes were committed whilst in custody. He is an institutional criminal, something that no prison system is designed to deal with.

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The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity

Work by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, credit Wikipedia

Benjamin P. Laird, The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity: its Formation, Publication and Circulation. Hendrickson Academic (2022). Pp. i-xx, 1-371. $59.95. Reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Revisions of doctoral dissertations are not necessarily a pleasure to read. In this case, however, B.P. Laird (henceforth BPL) has published a useful contribution to Pauline studies. After an introduction that surveys what will follow, there are six chapters and three appendices. His writing is clear, although at times he contradicts himself, as he subtly does in the below quotation. Even so, his research in this book is founded upon a set of well-studied beliefs:

‘I will consider a large body of internal and external evidence which together supports the conclusion that at least three major archetypal editions of the corpus—those containing ten, thirteen, and fourteen letters—were formed and designed as early as the first century and certainly no later than the mid-second century. It will further be suggested that these major archetypal editions circulated simultaneously for many years until collections containing fourteen writings became widely recognized no later than the fourth century. Although it is unlikely that the most primitive edition of the Pauline corpus contained all fourteen of the writings traditionally associated with Paul, it will be suggested that each of the fourteen writings originated either with Paul or with those who were members of the early Pauline circle, and that many of these writings were likely composed much earlier than is often assumed in modern scholarship’ (p.4 my italics)

The book follows a circuitous orbit around the above statements. If three different editions were extant in the earliest era of Christianity, and if real proof shows that they were utilized, it proves that equal standing should be given to the three reading traditions. Therefore it is unnecessary to doubt the prevalence of the fourteen writings in the most primitive edition ascribed to Paul. Continue reading

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Special Review

Salvador Dali, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, credit Wikimedia

Special Review by Stuart Millson of Handel’s Messiah, at the Church of St. James the Great, East Malling, Kent

The Bach B minor Mass, Haydn’s The Creation and Handel’s Messiah are probably the best-known choral works of the 18th century: towering pieces, whose religious certainty matches the very stone arches and stained-glass glory of the cathedrals and churches for which they were composed. Yet Messiah received its first performance (13th April, 1742) not in Westminster Abbey but in the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin; a secular setting for a work of exalted valleys, highways through deserts, the glory of the Lord, the Prince of Peace. However, 281 years later ~ this time in mid-Kent ~ Handel’s masterpiece echoed through the impressive space and acoustic of the Norman/early-mediaeval church of St. James the Great, East Malling; performed by the nearly-80-strong village choral society, the East Malling Singers ~ buttressed by a superb array of top-rate visiting soloists, plus a trumpeter and organist.

For months prior to the concert, intensive rehearsals were held under the baton of Music Director, Ciara Considine, with piano accompanist, John Hayden, helping to keep the choral singing together ~ John (with his stylish, characterful playing) being the next best thing to a baroque orchestra. Ciara Considine is a musician of great imagination, who sees her ensemble not just as budding amateurs, but as true, fellow-musicians who are capable of entering into the territory of professional choirs and the great works by the old masters. To this end, Ciara brought to the East Malling rehearsals interpretive touches associated with some of the finest baroque recordings of Messiah: for example, an emphatic staccato effect in the great chorus And the glory of the Lord ~ at the point where the words, ‘The Prince of peace’ conclude a particularly moving, cumulative flow of Handelian authority. Continue reading

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Approaching Storm, Edward Mitchell Bannister, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, April 2023

In this edition: review of the music of John Ireland; an interview with composer Nimrod Borenstein, both prepared by Stuart Millson   

Throughout the flowering of the English musical renaissance (the period from about 1890 to the mid-1930s), composers have returned, again and again, to the idea of a lost English Eden: a time just out of reach, a landscape or village somewhere over yonder, where youth, mirth, renewal, beauty, love provide an endless solace. From the time just after the First World War when John Ireland wrote his song-cycle for tenor and piano, The Land of Lost Content, to the Cold War period when Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A Time There Was’ appeared; the sense of a composer dreaming of ‘blue-remembered hills’ remained constant.

Attracted to the poetry of A.E. Housman, John Ireland started work on the poet’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad, in 1920, conceiving a song-cycle that would span the many moods of Housman’s rural idyll. But was it a rural paradise, or instead, a place where sorrow and loss could be sensed in every woodland shadow? The Lent Lily, the first song of The Land of Lost Content, opens with a gentle, dreamy piano introduction embracing springtime and the yellow flowers of the woodland ‘that have no time to stay’; that die ‘on Easter Day’. Here, everything suddenly seems transient; the life of man (even that of the son of God) is but a moment in time. Interpreted by tenor Sir Peter Pears, accompanied by Benjamin Britten on the piano, their vintage recording on the Decca label of the mid-1960s has never been bettered: the voice of Pears – remote, even ghostly – pitched  as if singing from the edge of morning mist, intoning a pagan ritual, yet perfectly entwined with the Schubert-like classicism and purity of Britten’s piano-playing.

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Pauline Conversion

Paul Gauguin, The Vision of the Sermon, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1888
credit Wikipedia

Pauline Conversion

 After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, National Gallery, 22nd March 2023, curated by MaryAnne Stevens; After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, Catalogue of the Exhibition, National Gallery Global, 2023, reviewed by Leslie Jones

After Impressionism covers the supposedly pivotal period from 1886 (the date of the eighth and last Impressionist Exhibition in Paris) to 1914. The curator MaryAnne Stevens maintains that modern art was invented in this era and that a key factor here was the transition to “…non-naturalism, albeit expressed in various degrees from a modest distortion of reality to pure abstraction”. New painting techniques were developed and the artistic ideals of Greece and Rome that had informed the French academic tradition took a battering. Contemporaneously, there was what historian of ideas H Stuart Hughes called “the revolt against Positivism” (see his Consciousness and Society, 1958).

Paul Gauguin was emblematic in this context. Like Thomas Carlyle, author of On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), Gauguin thought that “artists, like priests, were individuals with special powers…”, who gave “physical form to great ideas”. The Vision of the SermonJacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888) symbolises a man, possibly Gauguin himself, fighting with his inner demons. Abandoning perspective, Gauguin believed that the aesthetic quality of a painting should “…no longer be measured by the accuracy of its representation of the natural world” (Stevens, Catalogue). In the still life Fête Gloanec, (1888), an assemblage of objects “appears to float rather than sit on the round table”. In The Wave (1888), the horizon is eliminated and the genre of the landscape painting thereby subverted. In Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-6), likewise, recession is negated “through horizontal bands of colour”. And, in his portrait of his wife Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90), there is an emphasis on the “rectangular forms of the chair back, fireplace and mirror frame”. The dress itself, on closer inspection, seems “insubstantial, not solid”.

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