Saturday, 29 September 2018

'Merry Melancholy' at Leeds Library

C. Beck writes:
Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett
         Photo: Richard Wilcocks         
A performance of A Rehearsal of the Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex by Merry Melancholy (Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett) took place in the performance space of Leeds Library last Thursday (27 September) in front of a substantial, very appreciative audience. It was a rare treat, more a recital than a play.  

Jenny Hill was in role as 'Susannah' and Simon Nisbett as 'Richard' who are rehearsing and planning for a book launch - in 1624. The book in question is Honour in his Perfection by Gervase Markam, which is dedicated to the live of Robert Devereux, who was, it turns out, not very perfect. Arcane? Entertaining? Relevant to today? Yes to all of those. Mainly entertaining.

Shaped, most appropriately on this occasion, like a teardrop, the lute was the popular instrument of choice in the Renaissance period, closely related to the oud played then and now in the Arab world and probably an import in medieval times from Spain. It was valued for its gentle, meditative sound and has been increasingly popular in the last few decades.

Devereux knew one of its most famous users - the great singer, composer and lutenist John Dowland, who died in 1626, a couple of years after Markam's book was published. His music was everywhere, and he was one of the many artists (like playwright Christopher Marlowe) who dabbled in espionage on his jaunts to perform in countries like France and Denmark, under the control of Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. There were rumours that he was a secret Catholic.

In conversations between Susannah and Richard, the details of Devereux's life were relayed to the audience. His relationship with Elizabeth was crucial. A reckless and attention-seeking man who was loved by the London masses, it seems, he was really worried that she was a mere woman, and like other courtiers, tried to install himself as her lover and possible replacement. It worked up to a point.

On one occasion, presumably because of a tiff, he turned his back on her, something one never, ever does, and she boxed his ears. At this, his hand went to his sword. He actually survived, but she sent him abroad on official business. This was not as a diplomatic emissary but as a military leader. Aristocrats were assumed to be good at things like that.

He arrived in Ireland to engage with the army of the rebellious Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Oppression and conquest of the barbarous Irish was the order of the day, but Devereux failed miserably, and one morning, back in London, he barged unannounced into the presence of the queen, something one never, ever does. She was outraged, because he hadn't washed since the campaign and she hadn't had her wig or her make-up put on. 

He was ordered into house arrest, and his monopoly on the import of sweet wine into England was curtailed. At home, he wrote lyrics in the fashionable melancholy style and no doubt finished off the last of his stock of sweet wine with his friend John Dowland. It was not long after this that he managed to organise a doomed, quickly-crushed coup against the royal palace, ending up in the Tower of London to have his head chopped off.

All of this fascinating story (the theme of a number of films and plays) was conveyed to us exquisitely with Simon Nisbett's lute and Jenny Hill's voice. Devereux, Dowland, Fulke Greville and others were all featured. Here is the opening part of probably the most well-known one, by Dowland:

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil'd for ever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Light Perpetual: Echoes of War

This concert took place on Sunday 23 September in St Chad's Church, Headingley to commemorate the Armistice of 1918. St Peter's Singers collaborated with Trio Literati to interweave poetry from the First World War with movements from Fauré's Requiem.

C. Beck writes:
The word 'veteran', a word which can be applied to retired combatants, has other connotations, so it can be applied appropriately to the performers at this beautiful concert. They are veteran actors, readers, singers and musicians, with the word bringing long experience, polished skills and professionalism to mind. In short, they are pretty good at their job, and it showed.

Gabriel Fauré painted by John Singer Sargent 1890
The soulful and melodious Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, a shortened version of the Latin Mass completed in the late nineteenth century, is ever-popular, a standard at commemorations like this, and its final movement In Paradisum is often included in funeral services, because not only is it the most serene section of the whole thing, which conjures a vision of a world at peace, but it is actually part of the liturgy of the Catholic burial service which was added by the composer. It gives the impression that Fauré was a man of unassailable faith, but this is misleading, because apparently he was a sceptic. 'Light Perpetual' in the concert's title is from the words of the Agnus Dei movement - 'et lux perpetua luceat eis' - 'let perpetual light shine on them'.

St Peter's Singers were on excellent form, conducted by Simon Lindley, with soprano Julie Kilburn and baritone Edward Thornton as soloists. The organ (Alan Horsey) substituted for an orchestra. Richard Rastall, Jane Oakshott and Maggie Mash, who make up Trio Literati, were also on excellent form, providing the 'Echoes of War' part. This was more tormented than serene. The words of mostly well-known war poets were used to conjure sometimes horrific images of the catastrophe which was supposed to be the 'war to end all wars'. The poets were certainly not well-known until after the Armistice, with the exception of A E Housman and Rudyard Kipling, slim pocket editions of whose works were sometimes inserted into soldiers' knapsacks.

Wisely, Trio Literati presented a range of views on the war, from John McCrae's 'In Flanders fields', always heard at Remembrance services, to 'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen, which was delivered particularly powerfully by Maggie Mash. One short poem was in German, with an accompanying translation - August Stramm's  'Wache' (Guard Duty) - read by Jane Oakshott with a pretty good accent. Carol Ann Duffy's 'In all my dreams' ('Last Post') was the final offering - 'if only poetry could tell it all backwards'.

Other events marking the Armistice in Leeds include Penthos Requiem by two members of St Peter's Singers - emerging composer Matthew Oglesby and award-winning poet Hannah Stone. This is at another Headingley church - St Michael's at 6pm on Saturday 27 October. Admission free.

St Peter's Singers conducted by Simon Lindley

Audience comments
Dear Jane, Richard and Maggie
I just wanted to say how much we enjoyed the Trio Literati and St Peter’s Singers concert at St Chad’s yesterday evening. It was a truly moving performance. …Thank you again for a memorable evening.
Best wishes

Morning Jane, ( From AC)
Just to say how much Peter and I enjoyed last night's moving performance at St Chad's. 

Dear Maggie. That was wonderful! It was so powerful and poignant at the same time. Thank you . I really enjoyed the evening. 
(LB )

Hi Jane
You definitely caught me on the hop when you asked me if I had enjoyed it last night.  I had been very affected by the readings - almost moved to tears at times and had been amazed when people clapped.  I wanted to sneak away and just think about it, so not enjoyment, stunned or even over-awed might have been a better word.  I did not know all the poems and some I had not heard for years.  I love Faure's Requiem though.  I thought it was a beautifully thought out performance over-all.

 Dear Richard, 
Thank you for inviting us [St Peters’ Singers[ to join you at St. Chad's last evening. My guests found the combination of music and readings really powerful, with the images adding an extra dimension to music they've heard so many times before. It was a special evening.

Dear Jane
Thank you all for Sunday’s very moving event. Wonderful choice of poetry commemorating all those poor lads and,  as always, beautifully read.
J and J L

St Chad's Church provided an atmospheric setting for a captivating evening of music and poetry. A very entertaining and sociable evening. Thank you!   
? BD

Jane - Thank You so much! What a wonderful evening:) just beautiful, the music and poems worked so well alongside each other. The friend I brought along also loved it .  You should be very chuffed,! Mxx

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett - Tudor Excellence!

History, Poetry, Drama and the sound of the Lute!

Merry Melancholy is at the Leeds Library in Commercial Street at 7.30 on Thursday 27 September. It's free!
Meet a pair of brilliant performers - poet Jenny Hill and lutenist Simon Nisbett 

Light Perpetual - Echoes of War

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Ralph Dartford in Bradford

Our friends over in Bradford have got a treat waiting for them on Sunday 8 July. Ralph Dartford will be performing 'Recovery Songs' there for Bradford Literature Festival at Theatre in the Mill.  Those of us who saw his show at the Hyde Park Book Club in March will tell you that he gives a gripping and deeply moving performance.

Read Beckie Doyle's review:

Here's an excerpt on video:


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Charlotte Brontë in Brussels - Helen MacEwan's talk

Richard Wilcocks writes:

Helen MacEwan's talk at the Leeds Library on Thursday 7 June was received enthusiastically by an audience which appeared, for the most part, to be very much in touch with the works of the Brontës, especially Villette. They must be even more in touch now, because the speaker brought in plenty of material which is new: MacEwan's research, and the observations based on it, is largely original. Her slides showed mainly the older section of Brussels which Charlotte Brontë knew, consisting of historic buildings (like the Pensionnat) which have fallen victim to the greed of insensitive developers. An underground stretch of the Rue d'Isabelle appeared in one of the images on the screen, just about the last remnant of a destroyed world. Villette is greatly valued by Belgian historians for the information it provides about the capital city a few years after the country's independence, information which is unavailable elsewhere. The contemptuous remarks about Belgians made by its author have to be seen in context. 

So were the citizens of Brussels interested only in living quiet, boring bourgeois lives and eating and drinking well? Perhaps there is truth in that, Helen MacEwan told us, but consider what had been going on in the Low Countries for centuries - war and bloodshed. It is understandable that people thought they had experienced more than enough enough excitement. 

Through Belgian Eyes: Charlotte Brontë’s Troubled Brussels Legacy by Helen MacEwan

In this fascinating book, the author once more reveals herself as the current leading figure in the area of Brontë studies which concentrates on the time spent in Brussels by Charlotte Brontë, as a pupil and as an assistant teacher. Her well-known negative observations on Brussels and its inhabitants, and on Belgium in general, are rehearsed, embroidered upon and set in context, and the influence of her experiences in the city on her writings, particularly those relating to her beloved teacher, Constantin Heger, are examined in detail in a discourse which is both scholarly and accessible to less academic readers.

Less well-known ground is ploughed in addition: MacEwan has researched not only what Belgian commentators wrote about Charlotte Brontë, but what other literary figures thought of Brussels and the relatively new country at a crossroads of Europe in the nineteenth century. Many of their opinions were not too different to hers.

Baudelaire, Thackeray, Picard
Charles Baudelaire, in temporary exile from France, wrote posthumously-published notes about the ‘menacing stupidity’ and the boring ‘spirit of obedience and conformity’ in the country contemptuously named by Charlotte as Labassecour (Farmyard) in Villette, and thanked God he was born French. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote ‘…my impressions of this city are certainly anything but respectful. It has an absurd kind of Lilliput look with it.’ The writer and politician Edmond Picard recalled Brussels in the reign of Leopold I as ‘a provincial town that was slowly getting used to its role as a new capital… a town of quiet streets and sleepy squares with grass growing between the paving stones’, an account which, as MacEwan points out, brings to mind Lucy Snowe’s description of her excursion to the old Basse Ville to visit Mme Walravens, just one of many examples which indicate that Charlotte’s detailed descriptions of a vanished ‘little town’ Brussels are essentially accurate.

Pensionnat Heger
The Professor and Villette are often valued by Belgian historians as sources of knowledge about the Brussels of the mid-nineteenth century, and not just its layout and buildings. A surprising amount of evidence appears to have disappeared. Charlotte’s time at the Pensionnat Heger is covered fictionally in great detail, and much of the fiction can be taken to match the facts of life in a girls’ boarding school at the time. MacEwan adds rich pages of information about comparable schools of the time, their regimes and their intakes. As for the citizens about whom she was so scathing and dismissive, especially her fellow pupils and the girls she taught as a sous-mâitresse, it could be that she got it right, in spite of the fact that she spent much of her time confined, stricken by boredom and loneliness, in a school which she considered to be a type of convent. She was not much of a teacher after all: evidence for this can be found in accounts of her early experiences at Roe Head School in Mirfield. MacEwan balances Charlotte’s negative opinions against those of others, including those of former pupils who actually enjoyed their time at the Pensionnat, which appears to have been, according to them, less rigorous and more friendly than other schools.

Constantin Heger
So was Constantin Heger a little too friendly as a teacher, or just more or less in line with modern, less-authoritarian practitioners? He is arguably the most significant fictional brusselois in literary history. In a chapter with the title ‘Grande passion and petite pluie: Charlotte and the Hegers’ which will be read first by many, I suspect, MacEwan refers to Claire Harman’s biography, which was launched to coincide with the recent bicentenary. This begins not in Haworth but in Brussels. Charlotte, in her second summer, ‘depressed and tormented by her feelings for Heger’, is moved to confess to a Catholic priest in the Church of St Gudule. It ends in Brussels too, in the study of the 78 year-old Heger, who is writing a letter to another former pupil at the Pensionnat, Meta Mossman.

Addressing her in affectionate terms, he includes: ‘Letters and the post are not, luckily, the only means of communication, or the best, between people who are really fond of one another…’ which has led some to speculate that he was flirtatious and to wonder ‘what else went on’ with Charlotte, who might have been one of many. Jane Eyre’s long-distance communication with Rochester comes to mind, and Lucy Snowe’s description of Paul Emmanuel in Villette: ‘his mind was… my library, and whenever it was opened to me, I entered bliss’. Of course, MacEwan weighs this against other views of Heger as a mediocre and unimaginative pedagogue. Whatever category he fell into, Charlotte created various versions of him in her novels, a fact unknown to those (the majority) who read just Jane Eyre, unaware of her experiences in Brussels.

Madame Beck
The portrayal of Madame Beck in Villette, probably based on Madame Heger, has been praised in Belgium, amongst other countries, as a masterpiece, full of psychological insights. Some who knew her recognised a number of similarities. Others, especially those close to Madame Heger, like her daughter Louise, thought of the portrait as a libellous caricature, and the whole novel as a work of revenge and ingratitude. Yet others detect a certain admiration as well as antipathy in Charlotte’s mind: Lucy Snowe compares Madame’s abilities to those of a police commissioner or prime minister. Here and throughout the book, MacEwan deploys all of the available evidence when dealing with autobiographical elements.