AOTM “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush

AOTM “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush

Once again, I have been given the great honour and privilege of writing this month’s edition of AOTM on the magisterial webpages of Cedric Suggests. This year I have chosen an album by an artist I ignored for years: Kate Bush. Friendship can often form around shared interests and pursuits. For this reason C.S Lewis envisioned friends as being side by side, in pursuit of a common goal or truth. But every so often a friend will also introduce you to something or to someone you had previously ignored and perhaps would never have discovered without them. This was certainly the case with Mrs Bush, who I had dismissed out of hand quite frequently despite Master Conboy’s many pleadings, but who I now love because of my friendship with him.

The first track is ‘Sat in your lap’. Musically, I think I would best describe it as drum-led and up-tempo. It makes for a very energetic start to the album to say the least. The lyrics concern someone who wants knowledge but does not want to expend the effort necessary to acquire it. Instead, the protagonist desires a quick fix summed up by the lines “Ooh, just gimme it quick, gimme it, gimme gimme gimme gimme!”. One of life’s paradoxes is that in order to achieve a level of effortlessness we are so often required to put in a great deal of effort to possess it. To play the piano with real ease, for example, means one must put in hours upon hours of sometimes painful practice to get to that level. Sometimes the work one puts into acquiring something is integral to value of having that thing. The man who reaches the summit of a mountain via an elevator, might enjoy the view, but he can hardly pride himself as a hiker.

kate bush sat in your lap / lord of the reedy river donovan 7" 45 single 1981 !! | eBay

“Bush as Dunce” 

In the chorus the protagonist sings that “I must admit, just when I think I’m king (I just begin)”, which reminds me of those times I have thought I understood something but later realised I did so only rather superficially. So often, our knowledge of things is rather skin deep, a point that can cause us quite a few problems if we begin to think we are a “king”. The philosopher is defined by the knowledge of how little he really knows, the saint by his knowledge of how little he has of anything when compared with the fullness of God. “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, as Alexander Pope said, “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”. But I regret to say a little learning is a more common thing than a “deeper understanding” and is if to exemplify that I have quoted Pope without having read the whole poem!

The third track, “Pull out the Pin” is I think a Kate Bush classic. I particularly enjoy the upright bass part as played by Danny Thompson in this track. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame provides backing vocals. The lyrics are from the perspective of a Viet Cong soldier which I think testifies to the tremendous diversity of Bush’s subject matter (which might be unparralled in pop). The protagonist sings of how close they are to the village and the innocents left behind, of the smell of “baccy” and “Yankee hash” of his enemy, of his “silver Buddha”, and of his tremendous will to live which is in opposition to this life-destroying invasion:

Just one thing in it:
Me or him
Just one thing in it:
Me or him.
And I love life!

Pull Out The Pin | Kate Bush Encyclopedia

“Mrs Bush at War (not Barbara)”

Another track I love from this album is “the night of the swallow”. The lyrics outline a dialogue between two lovers, the woman pleading for the man to stay, the man desperate to leave and start his adventure. It seems to be some kind of illegal mission, perhaps smuggling something or some people, for which he will serve as pilot. The logic of the lady’s position appears to be the opposite of Bruenhilde’s thinking in the prologue to the Goetterdaemmerung, who says to Siegfried: “wie liebt’ ich dich, liess’ ich dich nicht?” (“how do I love you, if I do not let you go forth”). I love the Irish folk music that backs the chorus and provides an excellent contrast with the more restrained verse sections, echoing the chasm between the protagonists’ positions.

Kate Bush - Very Rare : Night of the Swallow - 45 rpm - Catawiki

“Bush, the Irish Bard”

The final song I wish to speak about, for the sake of brevity, and in order to complete this post within this month, is “Houdini”. This is the source of the rather interesting album art for “the Dreaming”. Bush, playing the part of Houdini’s wife (Bess), prepares to kiss the great escape artist with a key on her tongue that he will use to escape from the handcuffs. The album art I think illustrates well how Bush transcended our modern pop conception of “sex symbol”. She is perhaps “sexy” here, but I think it is an expression of her own sexuality and will, and is not the same as our contemporary game of peep show disguised as “liberation”. I rather suspect that for those who did/do fancy her, she was no mere object to gorp at. But it is such musings that have led Paul Conboy to suggest Mrs Bush might need to file for a restraining order against me, so I best stop…

Houdini | Kate Bush Encyclopedia

“A Key Moment”

The song’s lyrics discuss how Houdini’s wife attempted to speak to her husband after his death through the occult. Houdini had apparently come up with a solution while still alive to ensure that when Bess did reach him through a séance, she could be sure it was no hoax. The code was apparently “Rosabel believe” and the lyrics suggest she heard him say this during a séance. Now I do not agree with “this sort of thing” myself, but it makes for an interesting song as does the bass and strings parts. All in all it is gripping story telling.

Why do so many Irish Catholics love being mocked by Father Ted?

“Careful now, with these séances!”

I have only just dipped into the surface of the brilliance of this album in this blog, so please listen yourself and drink deep the springs of its genius. Lest we be guilty of thinking we are “king” when we have only just begun.

We must all remember we are only at the beginning of things. We have just begun being friends, just begun being lovers, just begun our mission to perfect and regulate our love. Our King, who is alpha and omega, the beginning and end of all things, will find us at our beginning and lead us to our ending.

Mahler Symphony No. 1 “the Titan”

Mahler Symphony No. 1 “the Titan”

Please note I have inserted timings for moments in the symphony that I have discussed in the blog. These timings relate to the recording linked at the bottom of the page if you should wish to listen along while reading. 

Around eight years ago, during one idle summer, I stumbled across a youtube video with a recording of Leonard Bernstein performing Mahler’s 1st symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. I was immediately drawn by the symphony’s unusual nickname “the Titan”. Titanic symphonies of almost an hour length were a passion of mine at the time and so I was keen to give it a try. I sat stunned as the mysterious introduction unfolded, just as I had been when hearing the openings of Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Bruckner’s 3rd. But this was different, while in Beethoven’s 9th the first D minor theme proper had quickly emerged from the mist with a tutti outburst (as was the case more or less with Bruckner’s 3rd albeit with a good deal less haste), the introduction of this symphony seemed to remain in a kind of musical stasis for much longer. When eventually the first theme did surface I was faintly horrified. It seemed to me to be a tune of such absurd banality that I was stunned. How could this Mahler follow something so sublime with a theme like that?! I turned the video off immediately. Over the years I have learnt to appreciate and indeed love this contrast of the sublime and banal that is so typical of Mahler’s music, but it has been a long process. Let us take a closer look and see if we can re-evaluate things from the beginning.

What are the special ingredients of this hushed opening that so attracted me on that occasion. The first element is an A natural drone spanning several octaves (the same note played very quietly, moving up by an octave in a glissando), about as close as one can get to a kind of musical quietude (0:05 to 0:11 of track 1). This drone is soon joined by the second element, an interval of a descending fourth played in a call and response type fashion by the woodwinds, and a little later forming a short motif based on this descending interval (0:11 to 0:34 of track 1). This is then joined by a fanfare motif first played by the clarinets (0:35 – 0:43 of track 1), then eventually by muted trumpets (Mahler calls for the latter to be played in the distance as if they are heard far away) (1:07 – 1:14 of track 1). The clarinet imitates the call of a cuckoo but with a slight twist, unlike in nature the interval is here once again a descending fourth (1.28 of track 1). We now have a beautiful chorale theme in the horns that sounds full of innocence like the new morn (1.33 – 1.49 of track 1). From the musical void we are beginning to hear stirrings of life. A chromatic bass-line brings the first signs of any real tension to the music urging it towards a new direction (2:21 of track 1). Soon the “banal” theme emerges, but listen closely to how it starts with that same interval of a descending fourth that has been so prominent thus far in the music (3:02 of track 1). The theme has been prepared all along.

The question we may well ask is what does this strange and quiet introduction signify? Mahler gives us a clue in the score, he marks this section “Naturlaut” (sound of nature). In other words the music is conveying the hushed sounds of nature at its most tranquil, the impression one gets when alone in a wood perhaps. And what about the meaning of the main theme? Here, we also have some indication from Mahler. The melody is derived from the song “Ging Heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (which describes the happy sensations upon observing the natural world) from Mahler’s song-cycle “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”). This theme seems to represent nature, or a view of nature, at its most joyously innocent. The contrast was necessary: Mahler wanted to represent both views of the natural world, the sublime and the naïve. With all the musical elements in place Mahler now draws both from the introduction’s motifs and the mono-thematic exposition to construct a movement in unconventional sonata form. Close attention should be paid to the role the descending bass-line motif plays in injecting drama and tension into the movement, and the role of the fanfare motif in overcoming that tension.

Photo Tour of the Czech Republic - Radio Prague

The second movement begins with a Ländler, the country cousin of the Viennese Waltz, beloved throughout the Habsburg lands including in Mahler’s own native Bohemia. This rustic music has a surprisingly raucous atmosphere for the concert hall. Mahler would certainly have heard music like this as a boy in his father’s tavern in Iglau (modern day Jihlava). The horns are required to use a technique called “stopped horn” whereby the player blocks the bell of the instrument with their hand creating a veritably gnarly and uncouth sound. The central trio section is more elegant and intimate in tone and provides a respite from the stomping jollity of the peasant dance in the outer sections (2:50 – 5:36 of track 2). One more contrast in this symphony of contrasts.

If I had been patient enough to listen past the opening movement on that first occasion, there is no doubt I would have been shocked further still by the third movement, one of Mahler’s most unique creations. It begins with an eery funeral march which employs the tune of the popular round “Frère Jacques” refashioned in the minor mode (Mahler marks it “Bruder Martin” in the score). Here, then is a yet more bizarre contrast, nursery music used to create a solemn funeral march. The strangeness is intensified by the choice to introduce the melody with a solo double bass – an unusual instrument to say the least for a solo (0:10 of track 3). Later, the music gets weirder, sounding to many audiences like a Kletzmer band (2:27 of track 3). It seems unlikely that Mahler was actually channelling Kletzmer here as he had almost certainly not heard such music at this point in his life and this part of the movement probably owes much more to the Bohemian folk music he would have heard as a child. One thing is for certain though, this sped-up almost grotesque folk music provides for a very odd juxtaposition to the solemnness of the opening march.

Mahler explained that the movement had been partially inspired by a famous engraving known as “the Huntsman’s Funeral” by Mortiz von Schwind. The engraving depicts a torchlit funeral procession of forest animals carrying the body of their deceased enemy the hunter. The beasts appear to celebrate his demise with an unrestrained whimsy that gives the engraving a sharply ironic air. It is that same juxtaposition of earthy revelry and themes of death and loss that permeates the main music of the third movement. A lyrical contrasting section is set against this morbid humour (5:20 – 7:19 of track 3). It is based on music from the fourth stanza of another of Mahler’s songs “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”: “Die Zwei Bluen Augen”. The text of the song describes how the protagonist and spurned lover has set out into the wide world and eventually found comfort asleep under a Linden tree. As with Schubert’s “der Lindenbaum”, we sense that there is a longing for the consolations that might come through death and an end to earthly miseries. 

“The Huntsman’s Funeral” by Moritz von Schwind

The final movement is the dramatic linchpin of the whole symphony. Mahler gave the movement the title “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso” (“from the Inferno to Paradise”) and it appears to represent a battle between these two oppositional forces for one man’s soul. The movement begins abruptly with a cymbal clash followed by an orchestral outburst that Mahler described as the “outcry of a deeply wounded heart”. There ensues are short introduction with several motifs taken from Liszt’s Dante symphony, for example the motif first heard at (0:09 of track 4) is based on Liszt’s crux fidelis motif (used in the Dante symphony and elsewhere by Liszt), though Mahler has modified the intervals so that it conforms to the minor key. Another motif taken from Liszt’s Dante symphony follows based on chromatically descending triplets (0:11 of track 4). Out of this infernal introduction arrives a terrifying march-like main theme, its first four notes taken from the minor-version crux fidelis motif (1:06 of track 4).

Gustav-Mahler-Kohut.jpgMahler at the time of writing his First Symphony

This first theme is developed, hogging the stage like a rude bully, before finally culminating in swelling sounds in the brass and sneers based on the descending triplets (2:41 – 3:16 of track 4). A transition section follows that leads into a surprisingly beautiful song-like second theme that in turn builds to a sumptuous outpouring of emotion (3:17 – 5:48 of track 4). Does this theme perhaps represent the divine love that must necessarily save us from our ruin? Whatever the case may be we are not allowed to rest too soon, the exposition closes with music from the first movement’s introduction now combined with the minor-version crux fidelis motif and the descending triplets motif heralding a return to the stormy beginnings of the finale (5:49 of track 4).

The development begins dramatically with a combination of the minor-version crux fidelis motif and another inferno theme from Liszt’s Dante symphony (6:13 of track 4). Yet out of the maelstrom emerges hope, with fanfares reminiscent of the first movement returning followed by the crux fidelis motif now in the major mode with its original intervals restored and combined with an adapted version of the grail theme from Wagner’s Parsifal (6:58 – 7:14 of track 4). The trumpets attempt to mount a chorale-like theme which is interrupted by a return to the minor key and the tumult of the beginning (7:15 – 7:25 of track 4). The theme of victory first heard at (7:01 of track 4), however, soon emerges again but now fortissimo and what is more it leads to a surprising and spine-tingling modulation to D major (the key by which Mahler is to represent paradise) (8:25 – 8:39 of track 4). The chorale-theme returns resplendently (8:40 of track 4), its source of inspiration being the theme first heard at (0:25 of track 1) at the very start of the symphony based on descending fourths. From 8:51 of track 4 try singing “and he shall reign for ever and ever” to the melody and you might find yourself also believing Haendel’s Hallelujah chorus had some influence here too.

Motifs from the first movement now return at the conclusion of the development like memories of a past innocence fast receding but not forgotten (9:46 of track 4). They are heard, however, alongside motifs from the finale such as the devilish descending triplets motif. From memories of youth, we return to the song-like second theme which mounts to a beautiful though almost heart-breaking climax (11:33 – 13:14 of track 4). The dreaded march-like theme comes back and seems at first in danger of gaining momentum but it soon dissolves preparing a recall of the climatic passage which came near the conclusion of the first movement (13:15 – 15:15 of track 4). Fanfares herald the return of the motif of victory, a modulation to D-major and the finally the chorale-theme that leads us on triumphantly to a glorious conclusion (15:16).

And so a symphony of contrasts, of both sublime and naïve elements, the beautiful and the grotesque, ends with the greatest contrast of them all: that between heaven and hell, with heaven victorious at the last.

A Belated AOTM – Great Recordings of the Century – Maurizio Pollini

A Belated AOTM – Great Recordings of the Century – Maurizio Pollini

Keen readers of this weblog may well have noted that October was conspicuously lacking in any Album Of The Month (“AOTM”) post. Indeed, the more anxious amongst you may well have begun to worry that an AOTM post for October would never materialise. Fear not, however, for I am happy to present what I believe to be the world’s first “October Album Of The Month But Neither Cedric Nor I Had The Time To Do One That Month So It’s Actually Published In November” post  (“OAOTMBNCNIHTDOTMSIAPIN”).  A catchy title I am sure you will agree. 

It must be said my belated choice for this august blog category is a somewhat unusual one, but nevertheless I believe it to be deserving of the accolade. Released by EMI at the turn of the century as part of their “Great Recordings of the Century” series, my album of the month is strictly speaking a compilation of two earlier recordings by Maurizio Pollini. The first being a recording of Chopin’s piano concerto No. 1 in E minor from April 1960 and the second a recording of a recital of solo piano music by Chopin from 1968.  

Pollini began his recording career as an EMI artist before heading over to Deutsche Gramophone. Although recorded very early in his career, these performances are particularly fine, indeed some have argued that a few of his later efforts at DG have been a little “cold and mannered” in comparison. The performances here are far from lacking in warmth and lyricism, characteristics that are particularly on display in the Concerto’s Romanze second movement and the nocturnes. At the same time, Pollini’s playing on this album displays a clarity of expression that belies his then youthful inexperience. 

For the piano concerto Pollini is very ably accompanied by Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia, albeit given the dominance of the piano in this work, we should be scarcely surprised that Pollini takes centre stage. Written while Chopin was still living in Poland, this is not a piece I know well, although, I must say, I did  enjoy the Romanze movement very much. 

The highlights of the album for me, however, are definitely Pollini’s rendition of Chopin’s D-flat major nocturne and the Ballade in G minor. Pollini handles the nocturne with its dreamlike excursions so deftly, while his playing in the Ballade brings rigour to a piece that at times feels hardly able to contain its (for the time) unparalleled ferocity. The album ends with the Polonaise in A-flat major, a fittingly dramatic and uplifting departure to a truly captivating album. 

The Craven Arms, Birmingham – An Unexpected Find

The Craven Arms, Birmingham – An Unexpected Find

One of the surprising things about returning to a place you once lived in is discovering just how many good things you had hitherto overlooked. Prior to my recent visit to Birmingham, I thought I had a comprehensive idea of all Brum’s best establishments for the imbibing of strong liquour. As always, I hadn’t reckoned on Cedric pulling something extraordinary out the bag when least expected. Upon his first mention of the Craven Arms in fairly glowing terms, I was intrigued. Not long after, a cursory google search convinced me we were in for a winner. With a single-minded resolve not unbefitting the grand old name of Jenkins, I determined the Craven should be the first building I entered upon exiting New Street station. Once I arrived, I was not disappointed. 

The Craven Arms | Black Country Ales

The Craven Arms is owned by Black Country Ales, a very fine brewer of ales with a number of pubs across the Midlands including the Wellington (arguably Birmingham’s very best pub).  While the Craven does not quite compete with the breadth of the Wellington’s cask ale selection (11 pumps to the Welly’s 16), it has one chief characteristic that venerable establishment cannot hope to match: the Craven is never rammed to the rafters. Situated ever so slightly off from the city centre, behind the Mailbox and towards the Peace Gardens, the Craven Arms is a great place to enjoy a pint in relative peace. 

And let’s face it 11 pumps ain’t half bad. The beer is generally very good too. On my first visit I had a pint by Black Country Ales called chain ale and a pale ale by Green Duck called Revolution (but don’t worry I didn’t get up after drinking that last beer and start singing the “Internationale”). On my second visit I opted for a pint of pig in the wall, a nutty brown mild, once again by Black Country Ales. On each occasion I ordered a pork pie with my pint, a pub snack I was delighted to find they served at the Craven. There really is no finer comestible on this earth to be enjoyed with a pint of beer than a pork pie. 

Pig On The Wall - Black Country Ales - Untappd

It was splendid to once again visit this city I used to call my home and may call my home again someday. If I do move back, I know I will be spending many more a happy hour in the Craven.  

High Times at the Wolds Inn, Huggate

High Times at the Wolds Inn, Huggate

The Wolds Inn is situated in the village of Huggate which claims to be the highest settlement in the Yorkshire Wolds, though at only 170 metres above sea level this is hardly East Yorkshire’s answer to Kathmandu. Nevertheless, Huggate undoubtedly is a lovely spot, peaceful and serene. Situated on both the Wolds Way and the Way of the Roses, it is also an ideal stop for walkers and cyclists seeking refreshments.   

Cedric and I had the pleasure of visiting the Wolds Inn recently in August whilst half-way through a little cycle ride I had devised. I consider it to be one the finest pubs in the East Riding. Its exterior is rather pretty in an understated sort of a way with red titles, whitewashed walls and a delightfully old-fashioned pub sign. The interior is equally pleasing to the eye, traditional and cosy  – exactly what you want in a village pub. Most importantly, the drink and grub ain’t half bad either.  

File:The Wolds Inn Huggate.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

I think there were about three real ales on the bar the day we visited. I had a pint of Sleck Dust, a refreshing session ale by the Great Newsome brewery. This was chosen for me as owing to my rather slow and steady pace on two wheels, I was quite a few minutes behind Cedric by the time he arrived at t’pub and ordered. I think they had another Great Newsome beer on that day: Frothingham Best, a delightful best bitter. Incidentally, this terrific little brewery, based due east of Hull, appears to be gradually taking over East Yorkshire and frankly I am all for it!

The Wolds Inn - Huggate | Food & Drink

When it came time to order our mains, Cedric opted for the dish that has deservedly earned British cooking such a disastrous reputation worldwide: bangers and mash. It boggles my mind to think why but then he has always been a fairly inscrutable fellow. I, on the other hand, judiciously selected the steak and ale pie with chips for my main. The pastry was excellent. Chef Cedric tells me it was a little softer in places, indicating the pastry had not quite been cooked through evenly. I am sure he is right, but nevertheless it was a sterling effort for a country pub. The beef was excellent, locally sourced, tender and delicious. 

All in all, this is a fantastic little pub in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds, well worth visiting should you happen to be in the area.