Archive for the ‘poetry’ category

Happy New Year!

January 14, 2014

After a busy Christmas and a nice quiet New Year, time to roll up the sleeves and get down to some challenges to kick off 2014.

Been doing some last-minute translations for a couple of recitals in a certain distinguished London recital hall, including an obscure set of songs to poems by the great 14th-century Italian poet, Petrarch.  Not wishing to boast (ahem) but I was quite pleased with my efforts:

Or che ’l ciel e la terra (Sonnet CXXXI)

Or che’l ciel e la terra e’l vento tace
E le fere e gli augelli il sonno affrena,
Notte il carro stellato in giro mena
E nel suo letto il mar senz’onda giace,
Veggio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è inanzi per mia dolce pena:
Guerra è ’l mio stato, d’ira et di duol piena,
Et sol di lei pensando ò qualche pace.
Così sol d’una chiara fonte viva
Move ’l dolce e l’amaro ond’io mi pasco;
Una man sola mi risana e punge;
E perché ’l mio martir non giunga a riva,
Mille volte il dí moro e mille nasco;
Tanto da la salute mia son lunge.

Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374)

Now that heaven and earth and the wind are silent
and the beasts and the birds are bound in sleep,
Night leads her starry chariot on its rounds
and the ocean lies waveless upon its bed,
I look, I think, I burn, I weep;  and she who is my undoing
is always before me in my sweet pain:
I am in a state of strife, full of anger and sorrow,
and only by thinking of her do I have some peace.
Thus from a single clear gushing spring
come both the sweetness and the bitterness I feed on;
one hand alone both heals and hurts me;
and so my torment never reaches its end,
a thousand times a day I die and a thousand times I am born,
so far am I from salvation.

English translation by Jonathan Burton (c) 2014

We shall remember them, 11/11/11

November 11, 2011


poppies-in-flanders.jpg

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
  There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
  And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.
 
There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
  And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
  And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.
 
I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
  The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
  And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.
 
But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
  And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
  The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

From A E Housman – A Shropshire Lad.  Housman’s poems were published in 1896 and referred to the Boer War, but they were seen as prophetic of the Great War, and many a soldier carried a copy into the trenches.

(I know I have posted this before, but we can never have too many reminders of what Remembrance means to us on this day.)

Here is a setting of this poem by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who died on the Somme. 

(Sung by Christopher Maltman, from a BBC Music Magazine CD):

Philharmonia/Salonen, Festival Hall – review | Music

September 27, 2011

“Kullervo Departs for War” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Not blowing my own trumpet, but it was nice to get a mention in Barry Millington’s Evening Standard review of Sibelius’s KULLERVO at the Festival Hall:

Philharmonia/Salonen, Festival Hall – review | Music.

Sorry about the legibility of the titles — disadvantage of PowerPoint if you are projecting on to a screen just below the lights shining on the orchestra and chorus (though the tech chaps did what they could to shutter the lamps off the screen).

Anyway, a riveting perfomance of a stunning (and far too rarely heard) work!

An interesting article on Kullervo here — with thanks to Phil Paine (from whom I have stolen the picture)

for Remembrance Day

November 11, 2009

ww1_action1

Wilfred Owen:  Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

for Remembrance Day

November 9, 2008

railway6

Andrew Motion read this poem on BBC Radio 3 this morning.

Lest we forget.

Wilfred Owen — The Send-off


Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

picture from newmilton.org photo archive — thanks

Mark Padmore sings Schubert

May 22, 2008

Mark Padmore (c) Marco BorggreveTwo magical evenings at the Wigmore Hall, thanks to a friend’s generosity (thank you, Paula)… Mark Padmore (tenor) sang Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin (‘The Fair Maid of the Mill’) and Winterreise (Winter Journey).

After fifty years of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, we are used to hearing our Schubert songs sung by a baritone, in low keys, with perhaps exaggerated ‘expression’ and rather muddy piano accompaniments (played on a clanky modern Steinway, of course, rather than Schubert’s very light Viennese pianos).  To hear them sung by a tenor is a revelation:  there is a lightness and airiness in the vocal lines, with top notes becoming true clarion high points in the drama, offset by Mark Padmore’s warm baritonal lower register (the vocal range of these songs, particularly in Winterreise, is enormous).  And the lighter texture of the accompaniments in higher keys is a breath of fresh air, even on the modern piano.

Mark Padmore is better known for his ‘early music’ – Rameau, Lully, Handel, and above all the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  So Schubert is a big step into the unknown for us, if not for him (in his illuminating programme notes he tells us that he has known and studied these cycles all his life).  His performances were masterly.  His stillness and concentration were most affecting, and frequently appropriate to the near-catatonia of Schubert’s first-person protagonists;  his range of expression was powerful and moving, the more so by being firmly controlled and never degenerating into ‘emoting’ or drawing attention to the singer instead of the song.

The cycles of poems themselves are extraordinary.  By the otherwise little-known Wilhelm Müller, they both depict the progress of a rejected lover towards his doom.  Schubert’s settings are perfectly matched (more…)

…and what’s on the other side…

May 5, 2008

Cuckmere Haven

Well… sorry about all those deadlines I was supposed to be meeting today – but I couldn’t face being stuck indoors (it was a public holiday).  Having checked the weather forecast and discovered it had upgraded from ‘probably rainy’ to ‘mostly fine’ in the South-East, I hopped in the car (which also welcomed the chance to stretch its legs) and whizzed down to Sussex for my favourite walk, up and over Seaford Head, with the fabulous view of the Seven Sisters on the other side.

The thinnest of cloud and the lightest of breezes ensured the sun was not too blazing hot.  I travelled light – no jacket or sweater, no bag, no camera, just my phone.  I was well rewarded;  it was a glorious day, Seaford very quiet, a classic Monsieur Hulot-ish slightly eccentric unfashionable seaside resort.  Not many people about, apart from a coach load of Italian kids, singing, on a guided tour (when they weren’t singing they were being earnestly lectured by a tall gent in a long red coat, looking oddly like an escaped Cardinal.  But I digress).

Up on the clifftop path I was assailed by multitudes of flying insects.  No rabbits though (but plenty of evidence that they were about).  Rooks and seagulls everywhere, even sparrows (a rare sight these days), and some very pretty slim beige and brown bird which obligingly perched on the cliff edge before flying off and revealing a fetching white bum;  the bird book in the back of the car suggests it’s a Wheatear (female and/or in winter plumage).  I feel honoured. 

And the skylarks!  They are supposed to be a vanishing species too, but fortunately no one has told these chaps, who were singing their little hearts out ‘in profuse strains of unpremeditated art’, as Shelley described it.  I watched one skylark take off, and followed its soaring, singing flight until my neck ached and I began to think passers-by would think I looked like an idiot.  But as I walked on I could still hear it, hundreds of feet above me, for several minutes, until its song was lost among half a dozen others.

At the far end of the walk, instead of going down to the rather grubby beach (which I gather is called Hope Gap), I turned inland a bit, looking (in vain) for a viewpoint from which to see the sinuous curves and oxbows of the Cuckmere River.  My eye was caught by a triangular cairn I’d never noted before.  It turned out to be a war memorial, complete with faded poppies and crosses.  A plaque described how a company of Canadian soldiers in World War 2 had camped out in the valley, heedless of warnings that they were under the flight path of German bombers.  The next morning, sure enough, two Messerschmitts destroyed them all.  The Captain was shaving in one of the coastguard cottages, and was killed instantly ‘when a bomb came through the wall that held his mirror’.  A sad bit of history.

War memorial, Cuckmere

More details here, with the text of the plaque – the writer has had the same experience as I have just had!