Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A random collection of music for my birthday

In celebration of my birthday today here is a random collection of pieces I have written, chosen for no special reason, though it goes without saying that I am fond of all of them!

Cradle Song, Op.64

"Be still, my sweet sweeting, no longer do crye, Sing lullaby, lullaby, lullaby baby" are the opening words of the lullaby a nurse sings to the child in her care in John Phillip's 1566 play The Commodye of Pacient and Meeke Grissill. Phillip's play is based on the folklore of Grissill (or Griselda), in which a cruel husband tests the loyalty of his spouse with a series of dreadful scenarios. According to some scholars Phillip's 1566 play was possibly intended as a thinly disguised attack on the recently deceased tyrannical king Henry VIII, in order to help restore the reputation of the out of favour Anne Boleyn, mother of the newly crowned queen Elizabeth I — since her execution, Anne Boleyn had been a persona non grata in England. My setting of the nurse's cradle song was written in June 2005 and exists in three different versions: the original version for one voice, a duet arrangement for two sopranos (the version presented here, sung by Hillary Barlow and Danielle Riggins) and an arrangement for two soprano voices with added descant for children's choir. This video also features the poignant photographs of the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 — 1879).

Siciliano, Op.70b

This work has great personal significance, composed on Christmas Eve of 2005. Five years later, on October 14 2010, just after I had begun my artist-in-residency at Davis & Elkins College in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, USA, flautist Elizabeth Brightbill and cellist Andrew Gabbert gave the first performance (at Davis & Elkins College) of a new arrangement I made for them of the piece. Here is a recording of their performance at the college (the video shows the wonderful fall foliage of that autumn, as viewed from the windows of one of the college buildings).

Sleep Not, Op.19

When I returned to composing at the end of 2000/beginning of 2001, after an absence of 25 years, I was particularly interested in writing songs, and was therefore constantly searching for words that inspired me. It wasn't long before I realised that Emily Brontë's poems gave me more inspiration than most writers, and in the first few months of 2001 I set four of her poems, including this one.

Emily's older sister Charlotte wrote in 1850 that Emily was "a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove" in her appreciation of the wild beauty of Yorkshire's moors where they lived in northern England. She described how inconsolable Emily became when taken away from the moors to attend Roe Head School 18 miles away, where Charlotte taught (today Roe Head School is part of the Hollybank School for children with special needs):

"My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was liberty. Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall. She had only been three months at school; and it was some years before the experiment of sending her from home was again ventured on."

In this video the soprano Ann Mackay sings Sleep Not, a live recording from a concert given in August 2003. The video also contains some rare images connected with the Brontës, including the earliest photographs taken of the parsonage in Haworth were the family lived. Sadly there are no photographs of Emily, Charlotte or Anne Brontë (to the best of our knowledge) though there are several photographic images of their father Patrick. The earliest known photograph connected with the Brontës appears to have been taken in January 1857, when John Stewart visited the parsonage and took several photographs for Elizabeth Gaskell's forthcoming book The Life of Charlotte Brontë, including one of the parsonage from the top of the church tower. At this point in time all Patrick Brontë's family (his wife and children) had died, though he himself was still living there when the pictures were taken. These early photographs show the bleakness of the setting, before there were any trees in the surrounding graveyard, and before the gable wing had been added on the side of the parsonage. From their front door the Brontës had immediate access to the wild moors which Emily adored.

The Bourne, Op.27

In March 1863 Macmillan's Magazine published a short poem by Christina Rossetti entitled The Bourne (originally part of a much longer twelve stanza poem written 9 years earlier, on 17 February 1854, entitled There remaineth therefore a rest). In June 2001 I set Rossetti's poignant words to music, and since then the song has had a small life of its own. It was first sung by Ann Mackay in England in July 2002, and by Charlene Aruta Taub in New York in August 2002. Since then it has been sung or recorded by a number of singers including Ann Mackay, Mary Plazas, Leona Mitchell, Christine Brewer, Suzanne Fleming-Atwood and others. The attached video includes a live recording of a performance given by Ann Mackay in August 2003, accompanied by the beautiful photographs of the northern English countryside taken by the blogger Heather of Uphilldowndale

O Magnum Mysterium, Op.105

The final offering in this birthday selection is one of my most recent compositions, a carol I wrote for the choir of Davis & Elkins College for their most recent Christmas carol service, composed in October and first performed on 6 December 2015. The video features a recording made at that carol service, with members of Davis & Elkins College choir, with myself playing the lovely Casavant Frères organ of Davis Memorial Church in Elkins, West Virginia.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A matinée musicale

There's nothing like the intimacy of live music-making in the company of a small group of friends, an environment that's so different to the formal atmosphere of public concerts (and more focused than the often distracted environment that comes with listening to recorded music). A few days ago, on a cold but bright February afternoon, I gave a private soirée at home in honour of a special birthday of one of our party. Coincidentally a day later, while reading some correspondence connected with Chopin, I came across a reference to a private soirée Chopin held at his apartment for a similarly small number of friends, likewise on a cold February afternoon (in 1844) at the very same time of day (4PM), to honour a member of his party. We know that Chopin preferred these intimate music-making occasions to more impersonal public concerts. Before the invention of recording devices live music-making was a common occurrence in the home, whether you were lucky enough to have Chopin himself playing for you, or perhaps just a gifted family member, as was the case in the Brontë family for example. Lacking the connections that would have attracted an artist of Chopin's calibre to their isolated Yorkshire parsonage, the Brontës instead made their own music at home. Emily Brontë in particular was said to be a gifted pianist who "played with precision and brilliancy when she did play — which was not often if others than the family circle were within hearing" (family friend Ellen Nussey recalled). Emily's music collections included pieces by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Schubert, Rossini, Mendelssohn and others, as well as the songs of Robert Burns. She was particularly fond of playing Beethoven, judging by the markings in her 8-volume collection The Musical Library (published by Charles Knight), which she purchased in 1844, the same year that Chopin held his February afternoon soirée. It's an intriguing thought to think of Emily Brontë, after walking for hours on the moors she loved so much with her beloved dog Keeper, in the evenings sitting at the piano playing through the well-thumbed pages of Beethoven's sonatas or the transcriptions from his Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. She may not have been a Chopin, but ask yourself this: given the choice, would you rather play music from your electronic device, or hear Emily Brontë play something for you herself?

[Inside Chopin’s apartment at 9 Square d’Orléans, Paris. The picture on the wall, beyond the Pleyel grand piano, depicted the pyramids of Egypt, while the firescreen was a gift from one of his pupils. Also visible is a chaise longue on the right, where Chopin sometimes lay while giving his lessons, when not feeling well]

Below is a selection (with brief introductory notes) of recordings of some of the works I played at my February 7th matinée musicale, the full programme of which was as follows:

J.S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations
J.S. Bach: Gigue from French Suite no.5 in G major
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C# minor (Well-Tempered Clavier I)
Gibbons: Prelude in A flat, Op.37
Gibbons: Folk song, Op.99
Chopin: Etude in F minor (no.1 of Trois Nouvelle Etudes)
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu
Chopin: Etude in E major, Op.10 no.3
Chopin: Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Gibbons: Waltz for a musical box, Op.77
Gibbons: Melody in F sharp, Op.80
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): I Got Rhythm
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): Sweet and low down
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): Rhapsody in Blue

1. J.S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations

In 1722 Johann Sebastian Bach presented his new wife Anna Magdalena with a notebook of his own keyboard pieces, which Anna Magdalena titled on the front page "Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin". The volume likely served as both an aid to Anna Magdalena's keyboard studies and an album of favourite pieces. The couple were married in December 1721; a few years later Bach described his growing family in a letter to his childhood friend George Erdmann, one of the few letters of a more personal nature written by Bach that has survived: "Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. I am married for the second time, my late wife having died in Cöthen. From the first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living, whom Your Honor will graciously remember having seen in Weimar. From the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living... The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form both a vocal and instrumental ensemble within my family, particularly since my present wife sings a good clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly" [letter from Johann Sebastian Bach to George Erdmann, 28 October 1730]. Elsewhere Anna Magdalena was described as "an outstanding soprano"; before her marriage she was employed as a singer at the court of Cöthen, and it's clear from the way she and her husband worked together that Johann Sebastian valued her musicianship highly. A second Anna Magdalena Notebook of musical pieces was started in 1725, most of the entries being added by Anna Magdalena herself, including items composed both by her husband and other composers, as well as pieces written by the Bach children. The album also includes a number of songs transposed to the soprano range, presumably which Anna Magdalena would have sung herself. In 1741, on two blank pages in the notebook, Anna Magdalena copied out the aria from her husband's Goldberg Variations. Clearly the theme must have been well loved, and no doubt would have been often played by Anna Magdalena herself, or perhaps their children. In the following video can be seen images of the Bachs' home in Leipzig (an apartment in the St. Thomas School, where Bach was employed) including Bach's Componir-Stube (composing room). Sadly the building was demolished in 1902, the photographs of the interior being taken shortly before the demolition. Other images seen in the video include Anna Magdalena's own handwritten copy of the Goldberg Variations aria, and a few short excerpts from the 1968 biographical movie "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach", including a scene of Anna Magdalena with her beloved songbirds: in 1740, around the time Bach was working on his Goldberg Variations, the composer gave his wife a special gift of linnets, whose song must have become a regular accompaniment to all activities in the Bach home.

2. Gibbons: Prelude in A flat, Op.37

I began my own compositional efforts as a young child, one of my earliest pieces being a short Sonata written around the age of 9. By the time I was 14 I had a small collection of pieces to my credit including a concerto for piano and orchestra. However I then convinced myself (with all the self-consciousness of a teenager) that my creative efforts were in vain, destroyed many of these early pieces, and instead began concentrating fully on my ambition to become a concert pianist. Twenty-five years later, during an enforced break from performing while recovering from a very serious car accident, I finally had the opportunity to return to composing in a serious way and during the first year of this musical renaissance began writing many songs (settings of poems by Rossetti, Shelley, Brontë and others) before returning to the medium of solo piano. My short piano Prelude Op.37, composed in 2002, was a favourite of Edward Jablonski, the author and Gershwin biographer; the performance in this video was filmed at a special birthday concert held in his honour in New York in 2003.

3. Gibbons: Folk song, Op.99

My piano composition Folk song Op.99 was completed on 4 April 2014, and first performed five days later at a concert in Oxford, England. This video contains a recording of that performance, accompanied by a slide show of images of rural northern England, including the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, famous for its dry stone walls and undulating hills.

4. Chopin: Etude in F minor, no.1 of Trois nouvelles études

Chopin's "Trois nouvelles études" were written in 1839 as a contribution to the pedagogical volume Méthode des méthodes de piano, compiled by François-Joseph Fétis and Ignaz Moscheles. The publication, which appeared in Paris in 1840, with an English edition appearing in 1841 under the title The Complete System of Instruction, included instructional essays on the history and art of piano playing, as well as specially composed pieces by Heller, Mendelssohn, Henselt, Liszt, Moscheles, Thalberg, Chopin and others. The title page also boasted that the volume contained "works specially composed for the Piano Classes at the Brussels Conservatory and for the Schools of Music of Belgium by F. J. Fétis, Master of the Chapel of the King of Belgium and Director of the Brussels Conservatory of Music". One of the piano pupils at the Brussels Conservatory while Fétis was the director was none other than Emily Brontë, who during her brief 9 months in Brussels, in 1842, could well have heard Fétis conducting Beethoven symphonies at the conservatoire (she might even have heard Liszt and Berlioz, both of whom performed in Brussels while Emily and Charlotte Brontë were staying in the city!). In the first of the three studies he contributed to the Fétis Méthode des méthodes de piano Chopin chose to explore the rhythmical task of playing groups of fours (in the left hand) against groups of threes (in the right hand). Needless to say the end result is work of great beauty that far surpasses any dry technical exercise!

5. Chopin: Etude in E major, no.10 no.3

1832 was the year in which Victor Hugo set his famous novel Les Misérables. It was a pretty momentous year, not least from a musical point of view. Much of the action of Les Misérables is based on real events that Hugo witnessed himself in Paris, including the June revolution of June 5 and 6 1832. Though Hugo ennobled the actions of the students who tried, unsuccessfully, to start an uprising against the French king Louis-Phillipe, other contemporaries took a less favourable view of the rioters. Louis-Phillipe was more a constitutional monarch than a dictator: appointed by the elected government his powers were limited and his liberal leanings (influenced by his 3 year stay in the United States) had initially made him a popular figure, hence his nickname Citizen King. Nor did the rebelling students help their cause when they briefly kidnapped the American and French revolutionary hero Lafayette! Chopin's father took a dim view of the student riots when he wrote to his son on 28 June 1832: "I am glad to see from your letter of 6 June that you were lucky enough not to be involved in the riot which occurred and which was instigated by rascals. Some papers say that Poles took part and thus abused the hospitality they enjoy: have they not had their fill of such nonsense? They have caused enough trouble here. I am sure their numbers were small, for who would be so mad as to share their destructive ideas?". Chopin had only been living in the city for a few months. Having arrived late in 1831 he gave his Paris debut on 25 February 1832 at the Salle Pleyel. A few months later he wrote one his most famous melodies, the manuscript of his Etude in E major, Op.10 no.3 being dated 25 August 1832. If reports are true of Chopin's emotional reaction after hearing his pupil Adolphe Gutmann play the work during a lesson, it was a piece filled with nostalgia for his distant homeland of Poland.

6. Chopin: Polonaise in A flat, Op.53

The polonaise is a stately processional dance from Poland, made famous by Chopin's extraordinary compositions. One of Chopin's finest examples of the form is this, his passionate Polonaise in A flat, Op.53. The work was composed in 1842, and is often referred to as the Heroic, though not by Chopin, who strongly disliked descriptive or emotive titles. Though there is no speed indication or metronome mark on the work, only the description maestoso (majestically), we know that Chopin hated the piece to be played too fast. His pupil Charles Hallé (later founder of the Hallé Orchestra) wrote in his autobiography: "Any deliberate misreading of his compositions he resented sharply. I remember how, on one occasion, in his gentle way he laid his hand upon my shoulder, saying how unhappy he felt, because he had heard his 'Grande Polonaise', in A flat, jouée vite [played fast], thereby destroying all the grandeur, the majesty, of this noble inspiration". To avoid playing polonaises too fast Chopin suggested to his pupils that they should be able to count out 6 beats in every bar, even though the tempo marking is 3 beats to the bar. It's likely that it was the Polonaise in A flat that Chopin performed at the February 1844 soirée mentioned at the beginning of this blog. The Polish poet Zaleski, in whose honour Chopin gave the soirée, wrote in his diary for 2 February 1844: "It was snowing - just like one of our winter days [in Poland]. At 4PM I went to Chopin's [at 9 Square d'Orleans], where I found Witwicki … Chopin entered unexpectedly, pale, tired, but in good spirits and in an inspired mood. He greeted me affectionately and sat down at the piano. It's impossible to describe the form and subject of his playing. For the first time in my life the beauty of the music moved me so vividly that I could not hold back my tears. All the nuances, all the musician's emotions, I could grasp, and I remember in the most exact way the motives and the feelings I had while listening to each piece. First he played a magnificent Prelude, then the Berceuse, then a Mazurka, again the Berceuse — of which Mme Hoffman [one of the other guests] said that the angels in Bethlehem must have sung like that. There followed a splendid Polonaise, and finally, in my honour, an improvisation in which he evoked all the sweet and sorrowful voices of the past. Chopin sang the tears of the dumkas and finished with the national anthem, 'Poland is not dead', in a whole gamut of different forms and voices, from that of the warrior to those of children and angels."

7. Gibbons: Waltz for a musical box, Op.77

On 11 December 2007 I wrote my Waltz for a Musical Box Op.77. Two weeks later I played it for the first time to a group of friends at an intimate New Year's Eve gathering. Here is a video of that first private performance.

8. Gibbons: Melody in F sharp, Op.80

My Melody in F sharp Op.80 was composed on 12 January 2008. The video below is of the performance I gave two months later, in March 2008, at a special memorial concert for my childhood piano teacher, Elizabeth Brazell, who tragically had died the previous summer, at the age of 63. When I was around 12 years old Elizabeth Brazell mentioned at the end of one lesson that I seemed to enjoy performing and "rising to the occasion" and perhaps I should consider becoming a concert pianist. Needless to say I was immensely thrilled by the confidence she placed in me; in fact I was so excited that I remember skipping all the way home after the lesson singing to myself over and over again "I'm going to be a concert pianist...". Many years later, as I was about to walk out onto the stage to make my Lincoln Center debut in New York, I suddenly thought of that scene, of 12-year-old me skipping home from my lesson in such excitement. Dedicating my Melody in F sharp to the memory of my early, and much missed, teacher is the very least I can do to honour her.

9. Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Sweet and low down

The piano was at the centre of George Gershwin’s musical life, and he never tired of performing, whether to an audience of one or thousands. According to the film director Rouben Mamoulian, who also directed the premiere production of Porgy & Bess, “George loved playing the piano for people and would do so at the slightest provocation... I am sure that most of his friends, in thinking of George at his best, think of him at the piano. I’ve heard many pianists and composers play for informal gatherings, but I know of no one who did it with such genuine delight and verve. George at the piano was George happy.” Gershwin loved creating elaborate improvisations on his songs, and during the 1920s he recorded a number of these song variations on 78 discs. Beginning in the late 1980s I began reconstructing Gershwin's recorded improvisations, note-for-note, from his 78 discs, recorded radio broadcasts, and piano-rolls. What began as a fun project soon changed the direction of my career as I embarked on an annual series of Gershwin concerts at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, along with a series of recordings entitled The authentic George Gershwin. At the same time I was invited to the United States for the first time, to meet Gershwin's sister Frankie and eventually to make my US debut as a pianist. Now based in the United States, 25 years after my first visit to the country, it would not be an overstatement to say that Gershwin's music has "changed my life". Sweet and low down was the first song improvisation of Gershwin's that I transcribed, and the performance on this video comes from my studio recording made in 1992 (the video also features rare footage of Gershwin himself, courtesy of Edward Jablonski).

10. Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Rhapsody in Blue

The final item in this matinée musicale selection, and the music with which I concluded my intimate soirée a few days ago, is Gershwin's concert work Rhapsody in Blue (in my transcription based on the composer's own 1925 piano-roll recording). Gershwin once said “I'd like my music to keep people - all kinds of people - awake when they should be sleeping. I'd like my compositions to be so vital that I'd be required by law to dispense sedatives with each score sold”. The vitality of Gershwin’s music is one of it’s greatest hallmarks. S.N. Behrman put it perfectly when he wrote, in his ‘People in a Diary’: “I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor - above all, the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it.” When the guest of honour at our birthday soirée was asked if he had a special wish for his 80th birthday, he answered without hesitation: "to live for ever". Here's to Gershwin's oxygenated vitality making that wish come true for all of us!

Friday, January 29, 2016

On the ancient art of consolation

The poets of ancient Greece loved to remind everyone of the levelling effect of death, "the sleep that is due to all" (Callimachus), the destiny that "no man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun" (Homer's Iliad), "let him remember that the limbs he clothes are mortal and that in the end he will put on a garment of earth" (Pindar). In a world of so many unknowns death was a stark certainty. Nor did the poets hold back in expressing their grief at such an unwelcome visitor:

So he spoke, and a black cloud of grief covered Achilles;
with both hands he gathered up the sooty dust and
poured it over his head, disfiguring his handsome face,
and the black ashes settled all over his fragrant tunic.
Mightily in his might, he lay stretched out in the dust,
and with his own hands tore and disfigured his hair.
The maidservants captured by Achilles and Patroclus
cried aloud in agony of heart and all rushed out of doors
to stand around war-minded Achilles, and with their hands
they beat their breasts, and each one’s limbs were loosened.
On his other side Antilochus grieved, weeping tears and
holding Achilles’ hands and groaning in his noble heart,
terrified that he might cut his throat with the iron.
Achilles gave a terrible cry, and his revered mother heard him,
sitting in the depths of the salt sea near her father the ancient,
and in turn screamed in grief, and the goddesses gathered round,
all the daughters of Nereus who lived in the deeps of the sea
[from Homer's Iliad, translated Anthony Verity]

In actual fact, in the mid 6th century BCE, Solon, chief magistrate of Athens, was concerned enough about uncontrolled expressions of grief that he introduced regulations to restrict mourning practices he felt were getting out of hand: "Laceration of the flesh by mourners, and the use of set lamentations, and the bewailing of any one at the funeral ceremonies of another, he forbade" [Plutarch, Life of Solon].

[Terracotta funeral plaque from Attica, c.520-510 BCE (courtesy Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York). Possibly used as a tomb decoration the plaque shows mourners gathered around the deceased, crying lamentations and tearing their hair out. The chariot race below is also highly symbolic, evoking the funeral games that honoured departed heroes (as depicted in Homer's Iliad).]

With the rise of the Stoic philosophies of the 3rd century BCE self-control came to be seen as an asset in Greek, and later in Roman, culture. Consolatory orations became popular to ease bereavement. By the time of Cicero, in 1st century BCE Rome, the consolatio had become almost a form of medication for the treatment of grief (Cicero even wrote his own consolatio in the hope that it would quell his own grief following the death of his beloved daughter).

Regarded as a gift from the gods, music held a preeminent position in ancient Greek culture and naturally was called into service to provide lamentations and comfort at funerals. According to Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, "the Pythagoreans used medicine to purify the body and music to purify the soul".

[A drawing on a drinking vessel from 480-470 BCE, found in a Delphi tomb (courtesy Delphi Archaeological Museum). The image shows Apollo (a god of music), wearing a laurel or myrtle wreath, holding a tortoise-shell lyre in his left hand, while pouring a libation with his right hand. The crow facing him possibly represents Coronis, one of Apollo's lovers (the word Coronis translates as crow or raven).]

Plutarch described how "during the early period the aulos [a reeded wind instrument] was drawn to mournings and performed on these occasions a public service — though neither a highly prized nor cheerful one". Sextus Empiricus, in the 2nd century CE, wrote "in general, music is heard not only from people who are rejoicing, but also in hymns, feasts, and sacrifices to the gods. Because of this, it turns the heart toward the desire for good things. But it is also a consolation to those who are grief-stricken; for this reason, the auloi playing a melody for those who are mourning are the lighteners of their grief".

[Images on an oval ceramic container from Greece, 460-450 BCE (courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The illustrations possibly depict the poet Archilochus being called to his art by the Muses, one of whom can be seen here playing a double aulos (a reeded wind instrument).]

The Roman philosopher Boethius, born in the year that the Roman Empire finally collapsed (480 CE), was concerned that important aspects of Greek and Roman culture might be lost to future generations (which of course they were for several hundred years); in his De Institutione Musica Boethius wrote "why is it that those mourning in tears express their lamentation through music?... Nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites... there is no age at all that is not delighted by sweet song. Thus we can begin to understand that apt doctrine of Plato which holds that the soul of the universe is united by a musical concord. And someone who cannot sing particularly well will nevertheless sing to himself, not because it is pleasant for him to hear what he sings but because it is a delight to express certain inward pleasures which originate in the soul, regardless of the manner in which they are expressed... It appears beyond doubt that music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired."

Plato did indeed place music very highly in the overall scheme of things: "Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful" [Plato, De Republica, c.380 BCE]. These words were echoed 300 years later when Cicero wrote (in his Tusculanae Disputationes of c.45 BCE): "Honour nourishes art, and glory is the spur with all to studies; while those studies are always neglected in every nation which are looked upon disparagingly. The Greeks held skill in vocal and instrumental music as a very important accomplishment, and therefore it is recorded of Epaminondas [4th century BCE Theban statesman], who, in my opinion, was the greatest man among the Greeks, that he played excellently on the flute; and Themistocles [5th century Athenian statesman], some years before, was deemed ignorant because at an entertainment he declined the lyre when it was offered to him. For this reason musicians flourished in Greece; music was a general study; and whoever was unacquainted with it was not considered as fully instructed in learning."

In another example of the extraordinary power that the ancient philosophers felt was vested in music Cicero, in his De Re Publica, creates an imaginary scene involving the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus dreaming that he can hear the music of the spheres (Pythagorus's music of the spheres theory was based on the idea that the movement of celestial bodies created an imperceptible sound measurable by mathematical formulae):

As I looked at these things I was dumbfounded but when I recovered myself I asked: "What is this great and so alluring sound which fills my ears?" He replied: "It is the sound which is produced by the motion of the spheres themselves. They are separated by unequal intervals but they are arranged in an exact proportion and the treble is moderated by the bass to produce variable sounds equally. Movements cannot be performed in silence and nature brings it about that at one end of the universe they sound in the treble, at the other end in the bass. As a result the highest star-bearing circuit of Heaven whose movement is swifter moved with a treble, lively sound, the lowest, that is the lunar circuit, with the deepest bass... Learned men have imitated it on strings and in songs and thereby have opened a passage-way for their return to this place like those others who devoted during their human lives themselves and their intellectual genius to the study of the divine."
[from Cicero's Somnium Scipionis translated by Niall McCloskey]

[Marble statue of Atlas holding the celestial sphere, 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 2nd century BCE Greek sculpture (courtesy Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli). This is believed to be the oldest existing statue depicting the Greek god Atlas and the oldest representation of the celestial sphere (to which Pythagoras refers in his music of the spheres theory). It is believed that the statue's celestial sphere was based on the star catalogue or celestial globe of the Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus, completed c.129 BCE, showing the constellations.]

Cicero's Dream of Scipio even inspired a 15-year-old Mozart to write a mini opera, Il sogno di Scipione, K.126.

[Painting of 14-year-old Mozart by Saverio Dalla Rosa (private collection). The painting was created about a year before Mozart composed his mini opera Il sogno di Scipione, based on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis.]

Though most of the music of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome has not survived (since the notating of music was still very much in its infancy), literary examples of consolation from the same period have survived. The consolatio orations of ancient Rome usually had a clearly defined form: according to Menander Rhetor (a 3rd century CE rhetorician) a typical consolation of the period might consist of several parts, portraying very different emotions, such as praise (laudatio) and lamentation (lamentatio) as well as consolation (consolatio) — the overall context being important to the effectiveness of the consoling: "Having ampified the lamentation as far as possible, the speaker should approach the second part of his speech, which is the consolatory part". Sadly Cicero's consolatio, written for his own bereavement, has not survived, but we can get a sense of Cicero's struggles with his sorrow from his personal correspondence. Here is a note of consolation offered to Cicero by his friend the legal scholar Servius Sulpicius Rufus, followed by Cicero's response:

When I received the news of your daughter Tullia’s death, I was indeed much grieved and distressed as I was bound to be, and looked upon it as a calamity in which I shared. For, if I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow. They cannot attempt it without many tears, so that they seem to require consolation themselves rather than to be able to afford it to others....
[letter from Servius Sulpicius to Cicero, March, 45 BCE]

Yes, indeed, my dear Servius, I would have wished — as you say — that you had been by my side at the time of my grievous loss. How much help your presence might have given me, both by consolation and by your taking an almost equal share in my sorrow, I can easily gather from the fact that after reading your letter I experienced a great feeling of relief. For not only was what you wrote calculated to soothe a mourner, but in offering me consolation you manifested no slight sorrow of heart yourself.
[letter from Cicero to Servius Sulpicius, April, 45 BCE]

[Marble bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE - 43 BCE), philosopher, lawyer, writer and politician, 1st century CE (courtesy of Museo Capitolino, Rome)]

Cicero describes his grief in even more personal terms in his letters to his close friend Titus Pomponius Atticus:

You are as kind as usual in wishing that I could get some relief from my grief; but you can bear witness that it is no fault of mine. For every word that has been written by anyone on the subject of assuaging grief I read at your house. But my sorrow is beyond any consolation. Why, I have done what no one has ever done before, tried to console myself by writing a book. I will send it to you as soon as it is copied out. I assure you no other consolation equals it. I write the whole day long, not that it does any good, but it acts as a temporary check: not very much of that, for the violence of my grief is too strong; but still I get some relief and try with all my might to attain some composure of countenance, if not of mind. In so doing sometimes I think I am doing wrong, and sometimes that I should be doing wrong if I were not to do it. Solitude helps a little, but it would have much more effect if you at any rate could be with me... However even the idea of seeing you upsets me: for now you can never feel the same towards me. I have lost all you used to love.
[letter from Cicero to Atticus, 8 March, 45 BCE]

In this solitude I don't speak to a soul. In the morning I hide myself in a dense and wild wood, and I don't come out till the evening. After you I have not a greater friend than solitude. In it my only converse is with books, though tears interrupt it. I fight against them as much as I can: but as yet I am not equal to the struggle.
[letter from Cicero to Atticus, 9 March, 45 BCE]

I have lost the one thing that bound me to life. Accordingly, I seek solitude
[Cicero to Atticus, 19 March, 45 BCE]

* * * * *

In a modern equivalent of Cicero's personal 'consolatio’, the writer C.S. Lewis wrote a deeply moving account of his own grief in the hope it would help him in his loss following the death of his wife Joy Davidman in 1960. Eventually published as "A Grief Observed", but under a false name, N.W. Clerk, the book was then recommended to C.S. Lewis by his concerned friends, who were unaware it was Lewis's own work. In this extract C.S. Lewis describes the fear that he might eventually replace the memory of his wife with his own version of her (Lewis uses H. in place of his wife's name):

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes — like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night — little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes — ten seconds — of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

[C.S. Lewis with his wife Joy, photographed at their Oxford home, The Kilns.]

* * * * *

At his residences at Tusculum, Antium, and on the Palatine in Rome, Cicero had extensive libraries of literature — when his library in Antium was being restored, in June 56 BCE, Cicero wrote to Atticus: "Tyrannio has made a wonderful job of arranging my books... Now that Tyrannio has put my books straight, my house seems to have woken to life". Cicero’s libraries were well stocked with the works of his favourite Greek writers. And just as we today might look back 400 years to the glorious era of Shakespearian England, so too would Cicero have looked back 400 years, to the glorious days of Classical Greece and the era of Aeschylus, Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides, Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero's beloved Plato and so many others earlier and later (Homer was as far removed in time from Cicero as Chaucer is from us today!). Today we have all the benefits of modern technology, not only printed books but now digitalized libraries on the internet from where we can access all this material at the touch of a screen. The complete surviving works of Cicero are freely available on the internet for all to read and enjoy. Cicero’s influence on history is of course immeasurable: he has been credited with introducing western Europe to Greek philosophy, being the main inspiration behind the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the birth of the United States, and the French Revolution! Yet spare a thought for those who helped to create Cicero’s libraries: every single parchment scroll would had to have been laboriously written out by hand.

As well being an admirer of the ancient Greek poets and philosophers, Cicero also had an appreciation of the art of Classical Greece, his homes were enthusiastically decorated with artifacts and pieces of sculpture, and in his writings he mentions the “admirable sculptures” of Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Scopas and others, and the paintings of Apelles, Zeuxis, Parrhasius and many others.

Despite the fact that music was more highly esteemed in Greek culture than any of the arts, Cicero never mentions any specific musicians (apart from a couple of poets who also wrote songs) though he refers to music often in his writings. The inability to record music for posterity prevented individual composers (who did exist in ancient Greece and Rome) from becoming as well known as their painter and sculptor colleagues, and most of the music particularly as far back as Classical and Archaic Greece can now only be reconstructed using careful scholarship and a fair amount of guess work, with varying degrees of success.

[Fresco wall painting from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor Boscoreale (nr Pompeii), c.50-40 BCE (courtesy Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York). Cicero valued music, and possibly kept slave musicians to provide music for his Rome households. In his famous defense speech Pro Roscio Amerino from 80 BCE, Cicero writes of the defendant Sextus Roscius: "he has so many slaves to gratify his mind and ears, that the whole neighbourhood resounds with the daily music of voices, and stringed instruments, and flutes".]

It's a mind-boggling thought to imagine how the odes of Pindar must have sounded when they were first performed (Pindar wrote them to be sung by a "sweet-singing band of revellers" as he put it). Pindar's odes were commissioned to celebrate the victories of athletes at the various games of ancient Greece, and one in particular has become very well known, the 8th Pythian ode, written to celebrate the victory of the wrestling athlete Aristomenes in the Pythian games of 446 BCE. In addition to praising his athlete, and weaving in heroic legends, Pindar makes several references to the ephemeral nature of mankind, the need for the athlete to step up and earn his place in destiny, and the importance of good fortune. The line "man is the dream of a shadow" was well known enough in 1547 to be quoted by a 14-year-old English princess, later Queen Elizabeth I, writing to her 9-year-old half-brother Edward VI, as she consoled him following his recovery from illness by reminding him of the frailty of human existence.

[Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) painted in c.1546/7 possibly by William Scrots (courtesy Royal Collection Trust). The painting, first recorded in a 1547 inventory as "the picture of the Ladye Elizabeth her grace with a booke in her hande her gowne like crymsen clothe", would have been created shortly before Elizabeth sent her 9-year-old half-brother Edward VI the letter quoting Pindar.]

ἐν δ᾽ ὀλίγῳ βροτῶν
τὸ τερπνὸν αὔξεται: οὕτω δὲ καὶ πίτνει χαμαί,
ἀποτρόπῳ γνώμᾳ σεσεισμένον.
ἐπάμεροι: τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος. ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν αἴγλα διόσδοτος ἔλθῃ,
λαμπρὸν φέγγος ἔπεστιν ἀνδρῶν καὶ μείλιχος αἰών

Men's pleasure swells in a brief space of time,
and likewise falls to the ground,
shaken by an adverse judgement.
Creatures of a day. What is man? What is he not?
He is the dream of a shadow.
Yet when Zeus-sent brightness comes
a brilliant light shines on mankind and their life is serene

[from Pindar’s Pythian 8, translated by Anthony Verity]

[Discobolus (Discus Thrower). 1st century CE copy of c. 460-450 BCE original by Myron (courtesy Museo Nazionale Romano).]

The American classics scholar Gregory Nagy offers a rather different interpretation of "man is the dream of a shadow" to the one the young princess Elizabeth offered her brother. In his book Pindar's Homer Nagy suggests that these words present an interconnection of the past, present and future: to Pindar the word "shadow" most likely would have meant the spirit of ancestors (the "shades" that occupy Hades) and the "dream" is possibly a vision, already alluded to earlier in the ode, presaging future victories, "as if we the living were the realization of the dreams dreamt by our dead ancestors". To illustrate the point Gregory Nagy quotes a passage from Walt Whitman's poignant 1856 poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried...

I too many and many a time crossed the river of old...

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born...

Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

[Left: Walt Whitman photographed in 1891 by Thomas Eakins.
Right: Fulton Ferry Boat (Brooklyn, New York), July 1890]

* * * * *

Cicero offered a similar sentiment to Pindar when, in February 43 BCE, he requested a lasting memorial for his old school friend Servius Sulpicius Rufus (the same man who, two years earlier, had so kindly offered Cicero consolation on the death of his daughter):

Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum
[For the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living]

[Jack Gibbons performing his Consolation, Op.88, composed February 2011 (filmed Oxford, August 13 2021)].