“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”
William Congreve (1670-1729)
From The Mourning Bride (1697)
It has been a pretty horrible few weeks since my last post – what with massacres at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey, and in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida and at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France, and at the Olympia shopping mall in Munich, Germany – not to mention the knife and axe attacks carried out (by Afghan and Syrian “refugees”) in Würzburg and in Reutlingen, Germany, and, only the day before yesterday, the brutal murder of an 85-year-old priest as he was celebrating Mass in his own church in the French town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray by Islamic terrorists.
I do not believe, for one moment, that music has the power to soothe the breasts of the savages who carried out these attacks. Indeed, in their case, the common misquotation, which substitutes the words “savage beast” for “savage breast”, would probably be more appropriate, but even then, I doubt the power of music to soothe (in fact, I believe the adherents of the Islamic State actually consider music to be “un-Islamic” – and I have written, in the past, about the attitude of Hamas to musicians).
It may, however, provide a brief respite for the troubled hearts of those who have to suffer the malice of these fiends. To that end, I will (finally!) fulfil my promise and tell you all about my choir’s musical activities over the past couple of months, starting with a “Singalong” performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” at the beginning of June – not really a project of my choir, but rather of one of our members, baritone Louis Sachs, who took the role of Major-General Stanley and who recruited members of the choir, as well as other musical acquaintances, for a most enjoyable evening at a community centre in Jerusalem’s picturesque Nachlaot neighbourhood. This was by no means a staged performance, but the policemen were supplied with British police helmets (some of them, at least), the pirates donned various articles of pirate paraphernalia (plastic swords, eyepatches, ear-rings and bandanas, etc.) and we ladies were asked to wear flowery summer dresses and big straw hats. Yours truly, in the supporting role of Edith Stanley, added a fan – always useful for flirtation and for rapping saucy pirates over the knuckles😉
Entrance was free – and so were the refreshments. Looking back, I think I can safely say that a good time was had by one and all. Kudos to Louis, who initiated and produced the programme, and who also conducted.
One week later, our choir (the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, for newcomers to this blog) gave our end-of-the-season concert at Christ Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. The programme, of music from the British Isles, was entitled “In Windsor Forest”, in deference to the central piece of the evening, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata of that name, adapted from his own opera “Sir John in Love”. This piece, being a setting of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, was, of course, admirably suited to the fact that this year, 2016, marks four hundred years since the death of the Bard of Avon.
Helping to translate the various works of the programme taught me a great deal. For example, one of the sections of “In Windsor Forest” is a drinking song for male chorus, entitled “Jolly Good Ale”. One of the verses reads:
I love no roast but a nutbrown toast,
And a crab laid in the fire;
A little bread shall do me stead,
Much bread I not desire.
Translation of this verse involved me in earnest debate with Liora, who was in charge overall of translating the various works for the printed programme, but who is not a native English-speaker. My researches had led me to the conclusion that “crab” referred here to the crab-apple, rather than to the shellfish. Liora did not feel comfortable with this, maintaining that it was hard to picture someone in an alehouse eating fruit, rather than seafood. I, on the other hand, was not at all certain that common folk in Elizabethan London were accustomed to eating seafood other than ordinary fish. This, in turn, led me to research diet in Tudor England – a fascinating subject in itself! In the end, we were both convinced – myself, of the wider-than-expected range of food available to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and Liora, of the likelihood that, in this particular case, at least, the reference was, indeed, to the crab-apple.
Another section of this cantata, the “Wedding Chorus”, contained a line referring to “the bee’s bag” and, while it was clear enough that the reference was to the honey sac, I had no idea how to translate this into Hebrew, because I have (or perhaps I should say, had) no knowledge of the proper zoological terminology. Thus, I went scuttling off to Wikipedia in Hebrew, to research the digestive process of bees. And I have to say, that too was fascinating. What amazing creatures they are!
Now, that’s enough talk. It’s time for music!
As I said, this was a programme of music from the British Isles, music of all kinds, and from all periods, ranging from the Renaissance to the 20th century, music for church and for the stage, folk songs and art music – and even an excerpt from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” which some of us had sung the previous week.
Let us start with a madrigal by the Elizabethan-Jacobean composer John Bennet, one of three madrigals we performed during the course of the evening:
Music for the church was represented by two pieces. One of them, “In Exitu Israel”, a motet by Samuel Wesley, was a setting for double choir (eight voices) of Psalm 114. I was surprised that the nephew of the founder of the Methodist Church should have composed a Latin psalm setting, but apparently, Samuel Wesley converted to Roman Catholicism, to the horror of his father and uncle!
The other was a setting of Psalm 119, v.1 – “Beati Quorum Via” – by that stalwart of the Anglican Church tradition, Charles Villiers Stanford:
I have already mentioned Gilbert and Sullivan, who, together with Henry Purcell, represented the English stage in our concert.
The British folk tradition was represented by “Loch Lomond” (kudos to Liora for the polished way in which she dealt with the idiosyncrasies of the Scottish dialect, in translating the words for the programme), as well as by a setting by Stanford’s pupil Gustav Holst of the Cornish ballad “I Love My Love”, and by this beautiful setting of “The Londonderry Air” (at the piano, Rina Schechter, whom you can’t see, because of the camera angle):
Naturally, we also performed music by that giant of 19th-century British music, Sir Edward Elgar, but also by the 20th century Anglo-Jewish composer Gerald Finzi. The latter’s joyous setting of Robert Bridges’ poem “My Spirit Sang All Day”, with its repetition of the word “joy” and its triumphant final line – “Thou art my joy” – is a love song to his own wife, Joyce, known as “Joy” to her friends and family.
The central piece of the evening was, as already mentioned, the cantata “In Windsor Forest” by Vaughan Williams. Here it is, all 20 minutes of it – conducted, as was the entire evening, by the inimitable Kate Belshé and with the soloist Shira Cohen, a former member of the choir who is now studying at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and of whom we expect great things.
As I said, this concert was our end-of-season performance. However, we find it hard to part from each other, even for a two month summer vacation😉 and so last week saw us all together again, in the same location, this time, to record what will be our first disc under Kate’s baton.
Today, we received the first intimations of Kate’s plans for us in the coming season. I can hardly wait
Before I go, I will leave you with this thought. Today’s post marks a decade of blogging. I started “The View From the Palace” ten years ago tomorrow, July 29th 2006. Tomorrow is also the 42nd anniversary of my aliyah to Israel.
What a time it’s been!