Monthly Archives: October 2016

The lichts o’ Hallowe’en

 

I have always been sceptical of the authenticity and value of modern writing in the Scots language, but I must concede a powerful example is some of the poetry of Violet Jacobs. Mind you, she lived from 1863 to 1946 so might be regarded as being closer to the era of Robert Burns  than to anyone living today.

I first came across her poem “Hallowe’en” in the musical setting by Jim Reid, which gives it added power as well as makes its reflective structure seem strangely similar to John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas”. Jacobs’ narrator observes all the features of a local Hallowe’en – the children dressed up, the sharing of ghost stories – and finds them especially poignant because her loved one is in France, probably a casualty of World War One.

Burns himself also wrote a poem called “Hallowe’en”, which is a description of various folklores of the season, carried out by some named characters, with accompanying notes by the bard.

Biographer Maurice Lindsay felt it “one of Burns’ least successful poems…perhaps (because it was) a too-conscious attempt to preserve customs.” However, Lindsay did point readers in the direction of two livelier poems which probably influenced Burns’ “Hallowe’en”.

“Hallow-Fair” by Robert Fergusson, the contemporary whom Burns greatly admired  reports on a public celebration near Edinburgh, while “Hallowe’en” by the less well -known John Mayne provides tips for family celebrations at half the length of Burns and at twice the pace.

 

Reference :  Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns : The Man, His Work, The Legend   London : Robert Hale

 

 

 

 

 

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A time to meet in Ayrshire

 

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The A Frame of the former Barony coal mine in Auchinleck. “The Barony A Frame” was the title of a piece of music by Scott Lygate given its world premiere at the Cumnock Tryst this year. The coal mine closed in 1989.

 

Three years ago, a Leaf Collecting post drew similarities between contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan and the earlier Benjamin Britten.  If I had waited another year, I could have added the further similarity of their two music festivals.  

MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst is still small by the standards of other festivals, but it is significant for being a classical music weekend in an area which does not normally host such things and which will benefit greatly from any such cultural and financial investment. Cumnock, the former mining town where MacMillan grew up, and its smaller neighbour Auchinleck together boast several handsome churches and other buildings which can ably stage classical concerts, especially of sacred music. 

 

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The interior of the Catholic Church of St John the Evangelist in Cumnock is the more striking, but its sloped, wooden-framed entrance vestibule still catches the eye and hints at the varied influences of its architect William Burges.

 

I was thrilled to be at the first concert of the first festival in 2014 to see the world-famous and brilliant choir The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, in the church of St John the Evangelist, Cumnock, with its sumptuous Arts and Crafts/Gothic interior by architect William Burges. Their programme included a mix of works by the 16th century English composer Sheppard and modern compositions based on the “Stabat Mater”.

 

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This view of Cumnock Old Church displays its proportions but not really its prominence in the centre of The Square in the town.

 

Nothing in the second festival line-up enticed me like The Sixteen, but the concert at the Cumnock Old Church was still highly satisfactory. It included Fauré’s “Requiem”, some Bach and a MacMillan première, performed by the collected forces of the Hebrides Ensemble, Genesis Sixteen and the newly-formed Festival Chorus.

This year I was back at St John’s Church for a performance by the aforementioned Genesis Sixteen, the younger “apprentice” ensemble of The Sixteen, conducted by Eamonn Dougan. Their varied programme included Renaissance composers like Lassus, Bertolusi and Ramsay and 20th century names like Peter Maxwell Davies, Kenneth Leighton and Roderick Williams.

 

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The exterior of Trinity Church in Cumnock, where Nicola Benedetti performed as part of a trio at this year’s Cumnock Tryst, is echoed by the distinctive shop fronts next door.

 

One tiny criticism of the Cumnock Tryst is that twice in three years it has featured another Scottish classical music celebrity, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and thus might create the impression that it is too heavily reliant on two local star individuals. Another is that the use of the 18th century Robert Adam-designed Dumfries House, already a great tourism and commercial development for the area since a Prince Charles-led consortium secured its future in 2007, unbalances the shape of the Tryst as it has hosted three Sunday finale concerts with the most expensive tickets which have all sold out quickly.

 

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Dumfries House, designed by Robert Adam and his brothers in the 1750s.

 

However, I know these criticisms are not really fair.  Benedetti is the designated patron of the festival and her appearance this year was as part of a trio in a varied programme which included the contemporary music by Mark-Antony Turnage, which I would rather liked to have attended myself. And why should the fans of the splendid Dumfries House not enjoy their rare chance to hear live music in its period setting? Elsewhere throughout the weekend, the Cumnock Tryst celebrates less famous composers and musicians, plus some fine buildings in Cumnock and Auchinleck.

Next year, I should go more often than once to this valuable social and cultural enterprise.

 

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No fixed points

 

During the 20th century and into the 21st,  culture in the UK became wider and more democratic, but not necessarily deeper. When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, their audiences consisted of people who had far less formal education than any of us   yet those plays are today still considered mostly too inaccessible to read or to watch. Few people today feel shy at making fun of contemporary art and architecture. My own generation certainly played our part in this decline through our dismissal of classical music and exaltation of pop and rock music from the 1970s onwards. 

Such a gloomy perspective probably springs automatically from ageing. Whatever, Radio 3’s programmes to mark the 70th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme provided several opportunities to reflect back on some of the country’s (and my) steps in the cultural journey. 

One of many intriguing facts which emerged both from the documentary The Envy of the World, first produced for the 50th anniversary in 1996, and the discussion Who Cares if You Listen?, was that William Haley, BBC Director General of the time, imagined that each of the new post-war radio stations would overlap in their content and that people could be coached into listening to the most intellectually demanding material on the Third Programme. Of course, that would have seemed a reasonable ambition then since the mainstream listening of the Home Service and the Light Programme would be regarded today as specialised and not always easy!

Haley’s vision of the Third Programme may now seem grandiose and pompous, but, as pointed out by Jenny Doctor and A.C. Grayling on Who Cares if You Listen?, it was formed from a widely-shared post-war ideal of renewal, building on generations of individual auto-didacticism.  “The war had made a lot of people more serious,” said Etienne Amyot, the Third Programme’s first head of planning. Similarly, Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of the Arts in the new Labour government, believed, as Philip Dodd observed on People Power, that Britain could become “a Third Programme nation”.  

The Envy of the World was able to bring forward several distinguished cultural figures  – playwright Harold Pinter, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, philosopher Bernard Williams –  to reminisce eagerly about the exhilarating education in music, poetry, drama and ideas which they received as regular listeners to the early Third Programme, but they of course were all young at the time, and, when you are young, adventure and experimentation of all kinds comes naturally. As mentioned earlier,  my own Radio 3 listening in the pre-internet age was always erratic, but one programme which I did hear regularly was Critics’ Forum. Acquiring a radio of my own at the age of 17 or 18 in the mid-1970s,  I came across this arts review magazine by accident one Saturday tea-time and was quickly lured by its elevated conversation on books, theatre, cinema, music and broadcasting. Its time slot was inconvenient but I was always happy to catch some part of it regularly even as my activities and priorities changed during its broadcasts of the next 15 years.

Critics’ Forum was produced by Philip French, also a long-time film critic with The Observer. The engrossing Philip French and the Critical Ear  included the snippet that the programme might have continued longer than 1990 but for disagreement between French and the new Controller of Radio 3, John Drummond.  Critics’ Forum was based on a Home Service programme from the 1950s and 1960s called The Critics, and so, as the documentary pointed out, it is apposite that its closest modern equivalent is back on Radio 4, Saturday Review

(Although the premature termination of  Critics’ Forum reflects badly on Drummond, I always associate his tenure as Controller with that great early 1990s initiative of weekends of programmes from cities abroad – Berlin, Minneapolis/St Paul and Prague    which must have been the inspiration for the themed or residency weekends and seasons which have continued on Radio 3 to this day.)

The Third Programme ran for six hours every evening, although that was cut to just three hours in 1957, due to a combination of low audience figures and the then widespread fear in broadcasting circles that the popularity of television was dooming all radio to extinction. Amazing in many ways that the concept of a radio channel dedicated to high culture remained sufficiently strong in the BBC management mind for a full decade more until the more confident days of 1967 and the new stations of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. 

One of William Haley’s ideas for the Third Programme was that it should have “no fixed points”, no mandatory programme or timing such as for a news bulletin. Each evening was a blank page for whatever the planners imagined, no matter how different to what had been broadcast the night before, and occupying the full six hours with one event or theme if appropriate.

It seems natural now to compare the Third Programme story to that of those later TV channels which were created with smaller and specialised audiences in mind: BBC2, Channel 4, BBC4. Each of these gradually shifted into something blander and less innovative. A neglect of foreign-language and small-budget films and of the famous plays from the theatre canon; a neglect of opera and classical music outside the Proms; a tendency to repeat and recycle the safe rather than the challenging from the archives; factual programmes which adopted a sensational tone and style and which were dominated by the personality of the presenter rather than the richness of the topic; an over-fondness for the history of popular music and TV; a serious over-fondness for the format of the game show.  It has happened to BBC2 and Channel 4 since the millennium, in my opinion, and most disappointingly, to BBC4 within only a few years of its launch.

In contrast, the present-day Radio 3 still bears a good deal of similarity, in the best way, to that original template for the Third Programme. On a few random glances through early Third Programme schedules via BBC Genome, you can find Bach music alongside a Bernard Shaw play Jacobean drama and discussions about contemporary Africa and literature and the visual arts alongside world musicAny evening on Radio 3 this year could have provided an equally invigorating mix.

 

 

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