blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Singing madrigals

On Facebook I'm reminded by Sarah that we sometimes used to sing madrigals of an evening in Welwyn Garden City in the 1980s. Our children and some of their friends (that same Sarah) used to join in, and one of us modifed the name of the activity to Mad Wriggles. We used to stand in a circle to sing
Thomas Morley (1558-1602)
  • Since first I saw your face (Ford)
  • Never weather-beaten sail (Campion)
... they were the easier ones ...
  • April is in my mistress' face (Morley)
  • Sing we and chant it (Morley)
  • Now is the month of maying (Morley)
  • Adieu, sweet Amaryllis (Wilbye)
(There was an occasion when we set a flowering amaryllis in its pot in the centre of the circle for inspiration.)

Even further back: as a student at university I was in a madrigal group which used to sing on the college lawn, and before that I sang first soprano in our Madrigal Group (The New Elizabethans) at school. Further still, one of my earliest memories is of visiting my dad's "big" school as a small child and observing a select group of his pupils sit round a table on the school stage to sing in harmony ... guess what? ... Never weather-beaten sail.

We did the mad wriggles again here at our house, Saturday night, with Bill, Jennie, Gianluca, Dan, Vija, Rolf, Carmen and Frank. We were bottom-heavy in the distribution of parts, comprising three basses, three tenors, two altos and two sopranos, but for this sort of occasion it didn't matter. Towards the end, Bill insisted that we attempt Since first I saw your face without looking down at the music, even those of us who were new to it, and it worked.

When I was young and innocent I was unaware of some of the double-entendres in the Elizabethan madrigals, but it has now been pointed out to me that there's more to such songs as Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone (Farmer) than meets the eye at a first sight-reading.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Not complaining

Chris and I have had yet another discussion about how to interpret of Ich grolle nicht, the Heine poem set to music by Schumann in his Dichterliebe song cycle. Here's a literal translation of the German words showing the poet's and composer's emphasis on the word "heart" (Herz):
I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,
eternally lost love! I bear no grudge.
Shine how you may in a magnificence of diamonds,
there falls no light into your heart's night.
That I have known for a long time.

I bear no grudge, even if my heart breaks.
Indeed I saw you in my dreams,
and saw the darkness in the chamber of your heart,
and saw the serpent feeding on your heart,
I saw, my love, how very wretched you are.
I bear no grudge.
In the Schumann setting, the climax (forte, top G in our copy ... top A in the original key) comes on the final repetition of "heart" in line 9.

Chris maintains that the words are sheer sarcasm and that the song should therefore be sung in an aggressive, furious manner, because actually he is complaining, very much. The girl has married another man, a rich man, what's more, hence the diamonds. The jilted lover is overwhelmed with sexual jealousy. The piano accompaniment would tend to bear out this assumption because it ends with a series of stabbing, staccato chords banged out with both hands.

However, the melody line for the singer is a lyrical flow, therefore I tend to disagree with this interpretation (also judging from the tone of some of the gentler, more forgiving songs in the cycle) and argue that the words could be taken literally. Because he loves her, the forsaken lover cannot blame this girl for being coerced into a marriage that doesn't suit her. In fact he feels sorry for her. With his poet's insight he empathises with her misery.

Is he singing to her, to himself, or to posterity?

It has just struck me that the poet-narrator / singer could be saying: "I won't complain to you because that would make you feel even more unhappy than you already are. I shall keep my own sufferings to myself"—thus making even more of a martyr of himself! In that case, of course, there's irony in the fact that, by singing about it, he's advertising his self-sacrifice to all and sundry.

The words were written 189 years ago, one of around 140 poems (!) within Heine's Buch der Lieder on the theme of unrequited love.

If you have the time and inclination to listen, here are three different interpretations by famous singers:
  1. Fritz Wunderlich
  2. Richard Tauber
  3. Dietrich Fischer-Diskau
I like the first one best.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A round of German speakers?

The Konversationsgruppe met bei mir today, with Eva, Melita, Maude, Ursula, Elvira, Sabine, Hannan, Alba, Paule, Luci, Rosemary, Lolan and Annegret here for coffee, cakes and German practice. It must seem from the names that most of these friends of mine are German. However, only four spoke the language as their mother-tongue and one of those was Swiss and another hadn't lived in Germany for half a century or more. Altogether, we were from nine different countries.

We had the chairs in a circle so as to read a depressing article about the continuing adulation of Stalin whose reputation in Russia seems to have been enhanced by the opening of a Stalin Museum in Volgograd, the city that used to be known as Tsaritsyn ... then Stalingrad. A couple of weeks ago we'd studied another article about the controversial Adolf Hitler exhibition presented by the Deutsches Museum in Berlin, which is having an anything but positive effect on that dictator's reputation, so why are the Russians developing such selective memories, we wondered?

We don't always read and talk about such heavy stuff. Last week we were all laughing at a funny story by a Schwabian writer, Wolfgang Brenneisen, about a retired gentleman who, for the sake of appearances, had to keep taking his wife to the opera. The book it came from was Das Büchle vom Ruhestand (Eine heitere Anleitung in 24 Episoden).

We tend to call our conversation group as "die Runde." Chris sent me a link to an entertaining list of collective nouns today, among which is "a gaggle of women." Well yes, but that's rather derogatory.

"What would you call programmers?" he challenged me.

I came up with "a pondering of programmers."

Any other suggestions?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Being courteous

The Swiss have been making a fuss about their bankers' personal appearance and behaviour lately, and now I see that the Chinese are all set to teach their youngsters how to be respectful, putting good manners on the national syllabus, presumably with the assumption that their parents won't or won't be able to teach this themselves. In Canadian homes, schools and other environments the emphasis on this kind of education is well known, and it continues all the way up to adult level.

I called a friend about coming round for our Saturday supper followed by songs, and the very first thing she said in reply—in fact it's the first thing they all say—was "What can I bring?" Polite, considerate and kind, and it sounds so natural.

The trouble is, I never know how to answer that question. Is there a simple rule?

A full house

Two Japanese ladies with Petra from Germany
On Friday morning I was one of a big crowd at the residence of the Ambassador of Peru, on Island Park Drive, with a park opposite where most of us went for a walk on snowshoes before coming in for the refreshments.

It's a house with a history. During the second World War the Canadian family who lived there then looked after a dozen evacuee children who had crossed the Atlantic from Britain. In the reception room there's a photo of the children standing on the curved staircase. Our hostess (Mrs. Rosa Luz Garcia Rosell de Bellina) told us that three of them had come back for an emotional visit to their place of refuge very recently; they had been well cared for, here.
Fran and me, photo by Barbara Miles

Fran, telling everyone about her book
At our après snowshoe gatherings, the atmosphere is very informal. It's bound to be; with everyone in their casual clothes and woolly socks, the diplomats' wives and Canadians get to know one another more intimately than at the usual diplomatic receptions. On this occasion, Fran was encouraged to tell everyone about the book she has brought out, the one I mentioned recently, and a few of the company bought a copy from her. In another room, I sold photos and the photo-cards I make––the profits go towards the upkeep and replacement of the snowshoes and mukluks used by our group.

Our buffet table at the Residence
The splendid lunch shown here is a "pot luck" affair; we all bring something and volunteers set the table in an artistic manner. There's Yumiko, the tall lady with the long dark hair, who makes the Ikebana flower arrangements for us. (She's going to be demonstrating her skills at the National Library and Archives tomorrow.)

On Friday evening there weren't as many people as this at our own house, only Elva and Laurie this week, and a very relaxing evening it was, too. This Thursday though I'm expecting a larger than usual group of German speakers to come round, maybe 16 or more. I hope I can find enough chairs ... and had better get on with the preparation of snacks right away. Then next Saturday Chris and I will have a group of 10 or so friends here for supper and to do some singing of madrigals and rounds. We're looking forward to that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Polyglot Facebook

As I was drifting off to sleep thinking of my Facebook Friends (I do that sometimes) it struck me how many different countries they come from. In the morning I counted them up—twenty-eight national origins (stretching a point, I suppose, by counting England, Scotland and Wales as distinct nationalities). Then I estimated that between them, my friends were regularly communicating in twenty different languages from five continents. Although I don't have any Africans on my list yet, I should have counted Africa, making it six continents, because I have frequently read messages and seen photos posted from there. In fact I travel the world every week browsing through people's photo albums. It's an education.

I'm not sure I correctly identified all the languages I counted (English, Flemish, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Croatian, Russian, Estonian, Indian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Arabic, Malay, Dutch, Romanian, German, Welsh, Hindi) and I may have come across more on Facebook without knowing it. The people on my current Friends list are—in alphabetical order so as to avoid accusations of favouritism—from Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, England, Estonia, Germany, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Macedonia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Romania, Spain, Scotland, Switzerland, Ukraine, the USA and Wales, although some did move away from their home countries before I met them and others have gone back to their home countries since I met them. Others again have moved to countries not yet on my list.

I posted a status report about my multiracial friends, adding Isn't that a wonderful thought? What is yet more wonderful is that I have noticed nothing extraordinary about this until now.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Syria, next?

After we've been to Beijing (wǒmen jīnnián wǔyuè qù běijīng––我们今年五月去北京) we're now also thinking of going to Aleppo, Syria, in November. A Scottish travel company called Eastern Approaches, guided by an expert historian and archeologist, offers a week's "in-depth look at Aleppo and the Dead Cities of North Syria, staying in a boutique hotel in the old city."

Tempting, is it not?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Called to account

If I didn't spend so much time reading Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles over meals, or trying on all the hats on my way through The Bay, or "sorting" photos or recipes, or updating my new river blog, I might get something achieved. Tomorrow I'll be found out by my Chinese tutor for not having done enough work lately when I log on for the first of another ten Mandarin lessons.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The RFC newsletter and a Caribbean book

I spent an interesting hour this morning interviewing the gentleman who will be featured in Rockcliffe Flying Club's next edition of Crosswinds. I won't anticipate the article here because I haven't written it yet, and in any case the interviewee will have to give his approval before it's published, but there's no harm in mentioning that Terry learned to fly (in RCAF Harvard trainers) in 1955 and has flown innumerable aircraft since, including some home built models as a test pilot. I asked him what made him want to take to the air in the first place and he told me that while he was growing up in Hong Kong he once saw a Spitfire fly overhead. That did it. He has been a loyal member of the RFC since its inception in 1961, fifty years ago this year.

Another publication I've been helping to bring out is the book compiled by Francilia Greaves, Lessons My Mother Taught Me, A Celebration of Caribbean Motherhood, now available in print, thanks to the help of Gilmore Printing Services and a couple of corporate sponsors. It's an anthology of thirty-five essays by people from the Caribbean islands written as a tribute to their mothers. Fran and I worked for months on the layout of this book last year and it's gratifying to see the finished result now: 156 pages. There's a handwritten note of thanks to me on the front page of my copy:
[...] May you reflect on your own fond memories of being 'mothered!'
I didn't design the cover but my husband suggested the use of that picture for it. This is a painting by a Barbadian artist, Trevor Burnett, which hangs on a wall in Francilia's house.

The pilot Terry talked to me about flying to Antigua and to Barbados this morning; he has written about the Caribbean himself.

There's many a link to be found between people and places. Only connect, as is said in E.M. Forster's Howards End. That's what I attempt to do with this blog of mine.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dining and singing

You wouldn't believe how much more I've been intending to put in this blog recently, but ...
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the conception
And the creation
Falls the Shadow
as T.S. Eliot wrote, the "Shadow" in my case being all my other whims and preoccupations and a lack of self discipline.

I haven't yet recorded anything, for example, about a carol concert I went to on 14th December at the Centretown United Church on Bank Street, a musician called Margaret Stubington directing the Canadian Centennial Choir so well that I felt like signing up for an audition there and then; only apparently I'll have to wait till the end of next summer. A friend and colleague of Chris', Gianluca, sings bass in this choir and he was the one who'd advertised the upcoming performance to us while we were having supper with him, Dan, Maha and Nicola upstairs at a Lebanese family restaurant (Les Grillades) on Holland Avenue, the previous weekend.

Gianluca and Dan had a story to tell us about another restaurant they'd tried, a quite extraordinary one––O. Noir, in Montreal, where you literally cannot see a thing you're eating, with the intention that you begin to perceive food in the way a blind person does. There are restaurants like this in London and in Toronto as well. Gianluca said he kept his eyes open while he had his meal and the only thing he could make out was the tiny red light in the overhead smoke detector. Dan said that after a few minutes at the dark table he simply closed his eyes, and kept them closed. It hadn't felt like sensory deprivation because all their other senses had been on the alert.

To go back to the concert I attended: most of the carols were sung a cappella, but there was one accompanied item, The Twelve Days of Christmas, worth mentioning, in which each "day" was composed in a different musical style. So the partridge in the pear tree was conveyed in plainsong, the two French hens with a medieval pipes and drums sort of accompaniment, and so on. One verse was like a madrigal, another like a Baroque oratorio chorus, another like Wagner, another like a Richard Strauss waltz. The twelfth day was a bombastic American military march. I have lost my programme now so can't remember who wrote this, but it was fun.

Gianluca sings in more than one choir, another being Tone Cluster, also known by its members and friends as quite a queer choir, the singers being gays and lesbians with a sense of humour. To hear what they sound like in rehearsal and see a little clip of their conductor and of Gianluca himself talking about this choir, click here.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Never mind

I've got over my bad mood of yesterday after a very pleasant supper here with the usual friends last night and have started a new blog which can be regularly accessed from this page: see below, at the bottom of the left hand margin. It's something I've been meaning to have a go at for some time. I tried keeping a River Diary (same thing) between June and October in 1999, but the blog format suits me better, because I can include photos and hyperlinks and share my pleasure in the local scenery with anyone who's interested.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bad start to the day

Half awake when I check my email after getting up, I find yet another objectionable comment on my blog (an unsolicited advert for a superb system that WILL make me money, sic) which I set about reporting as spam, only to get the message "We're sorry, but we were unable to complete your request." Presumably there's a new bug in the works. I then try going to the comments page on Blogger and in a fury accidentally delete six months of bona fide comments on my blog by friends and relations. There's no way of getting these back now.

I doubt whether blogger is sorry about that too, but I am, very.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Our jaunt to Montreal

I thought I had better describe the Otto Dix exhibition in a separate post. Apart from that worthwhile but upsetting experience, we spent a very cheerful time in Montreal.

Carol, Don, Elva, Laurie, Jill, John, Chris and I had seats booked in the business class car of the outward bound train on Thursday evening. The fare included the cost of a very nice meal, a choice of drinks (wine, beer, whisky...) on board and the use of a "Panorama Lounge" offering complimentary hot drinks and newspapers before departure. I don't want to sound like an advert for Via Rail, but we appreciated this. We sat together, served by a suitably obsequious waiter who had to deal with only four other people at the far end of an otherwise empty coach, so he was in a good mood. He gave us an extra box of chocs at the end which we set aside for the economy class return leg. Since we didn't set off until after nightfall, we saw little of the scenery in either direction.

The meal, lasting for half the way to Montreal, began with cheese with grapes. Then there was a Thai curry with Jasmine rice with "a water chestnut and red pepper-bean medley" and a chocolate square with caramel and almonds. At the end of the journey, all we had to do was find the correct escalator from the station concourse up to the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth hotel, lavish with poinsettias and Christmas trees, and check in to our rooms on the 15th floor. Ours had a good view.

We met for a walk under the Christmas lights around the McGill University area, entertained by the tottering high heels and mini skirts worn by the young females of the city, before retiring for the night.

We had breakfast next morning at Nickels on Maisonneuve, a 1950s style diner decorated with icons of the '50s, the picture on the stairway to the washooms being this one. After that Chris and I headed towards the exhibition at the Beaux Arts Museum via a bookshop where he picked up some more resources for his latest history studies. Reeling from our immersion in Otto Dix and his art, we stopped at Wrapcity Gourmet before wandering back to our hotel room to put the books down, where I lay on the bed and didn't wake up again until nearly 5. Meanwhile, Chris joined the others' shopping spree and, encouraged by Carol and Elva, would have bought himself a new jacket if it hadn't been for the long queue at the cash desk.

After my siesta, Carol, Chris and I swam in the hotel pool and sat in the whirlpool, meeting the others in the lobby at 7. Most of our party had walked for miles round the Vieux Port that day so during our 4km walk to supper at Plein Sud I must have been the least footsore. Jill, who had made the booking, promised us a good supper. The night was mild, the snow beside the damp streets rapidly melting. With Laurie's iPhone GPS and Jill's memory of her home city for guidance we made our way along rue Sherbrooke, crossing St Urbain, St. Laurent, etc., crossed the Carré St Louis, then went up lively rue St Denis for six blocks till we found our destination street, Ave. Mont Royal. We arrived at the restaurant on time, just before 8 o'clock.

Our supper, cooked by the family from Bordeaux and served with three bottles of wine, not to mention the Kir, was nothing less than superb. From the menu displayed on a blackboard behind our table, I had the ...
KIR ACCOMPAGNÉ DE SES TAPAS (the tapas being little tarts filled with foamed goat's cheese––espuma de chèvre frais––and finely chopped herbed tomatoes) 
A blurred picture of our supper table
The mysterious balls at midnight
The "caramel" and other garnishing sauces were blobbed onto our plates (none of them circular) in various interesting ways. What a work of art. The restaurant was quiet and cosy, besides, and we sat near the window through which we could see that it had begun to pour with rain. We did Chris' annual New Year's Predictions quiz between courses and found out who'd won last year's. It was Chris, who ceremoniously presented himself with the prize: a book about Ancient Persia. You can imagine the comments around the table.

Though the others opted for a ride home on the metro, Chris and I decided to return to the hotel on foot, a romantic walk through a quiet old quarter of the city (rue Laval) with midnight fast approaching. As 2010 switched into 2011, having wished one another a total of 40 happy new years to date, we were talking of transience and constancy in spite of change, and at that very moment were passing the fantastic glowing art installation at the Place des Arts, huge inflated balls that glowed from within and changed colour, blue, turquoise, purple and green. The rain was gently falling, but our coats dried out overnight.

On our way to and from the greenhouses
In the morning, another breakfast with the friends chez Nickels, after which I bought a mustard coloured, knitted tunic dress on sale in the hotel shop, and then we all took the metro to Pie IX for the Botanical Gardens, the greenhouses and Insectarium being open on New Year's Day, even though the cafeteria wasn't. I loved what I found in the greenhouses: the jungle plants that produce exotic spices, the hundreds of orchids in their subtle variety of shapes, textures and colours, the bamboo bridges, the little bananas growing on their stalk, the cacti displayed like a children's choir and the Chinese Garden of Weedlessness, the next best thing to being in China itself, where little Bonsai trees, some of them Chinese elms 75 years old or more, with tiny leaves, were displayed among the bamboo and the pointed rocks.

Chris liked the beetles best.


The art of Otto Dix is not to be taken lightly; in the exhibition just coming to an end at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal, which we visited on New Year's Eve, it wasn't.

This artist refused to add "pretentious," explanatory notes to his creations. "Those who have eyes to see, look!" he said. "You'll grasp at a glance that my paintings contain the most accurate information, such as you'll not find in our time." That is to say, his pictures conveyed ideas that were not conveyable in words. And when we see them we are too horror-struck for words ourselves, because his subjects are the victims of war and what war brings in its wake, "all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life."

So why did he dwell on such things? The answers are obvious. The first reason was that as a young man Dix was inquisitive. He went to war, the First World War, because he wanted to see it for himself, to "confirm" that it was as he imagined. No doubt it was far worse than he had imagined, and afterwards he came out with his second reason for drawing and painting those Goya-like nightmares: "All art is exorcism."

Not only did he draw exactly what he saw in the trenches, some of it in full colour, he also did a grinning, vampiric self-portrait in those days, so he was under no illusion about the predatory nature of his art. The titles give some idea of the hideous subject matter: Human Intestines. Soldier and Nun. Wounded Veteran. A typical shocker depicted a prostitute with a wounded man with half his face shot away.

The war fizzled out in the end, but the surviving victims remained at large, and Dix didn't stop putting them into his images: the widows, the half-starving working class children, the limbless veterans playing games of skat (for example). This is what the Nazi generation objected to. They called his art "degenerate," entartete Kunst, and in the 1930s they banned it for being an insult to German "war heroes". Dix had dared to caricature the disabled and portray them as freaks, like the oddities people would laugh at in circuses; he did a series of circus sketches in the 1920s too, reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec. The black and white films of the day, such as the famous Der blaue Engel (we have the video at home but I don't often feel strong enough to watch it) based on the Heinrich Mann novella Professor Unrat (I have that on the shelf, too!), were produced in the same fashion. Unhealthy, yes, very, but true to life. Hamburg (the St Pauli docks in particular) and Berlin in the 20's and 30's were not healthy places. The exhibition also drew parallels with Wedekind's Lulu and Brecht's Threepenny Opera, the misery of prostitutes and their customers being a trendy theme in those days. Dix was by then a man about town, acting the part of a Berlin dandy, sporting the nickname of Jimmy, when underneath he wasn't like that at all; in reality he was an "unshakable proletarian" with a tender heart, as the occasional, astonishingly gentle portrayals of his wife and children clearly show.

A clever and revealing painting was a Still Life with Widow's Veil from 1925: a mask hangs on the wall, the face of Dix' sister, apparently, and on the left is a black veil hanging on a skeleton human spine, with a vase of black lilies in the foreground sitting on a piece of cloth full of suggestive folds and shadows. From the exhibitions of 1925 and 1926 were several large portraits, one a sad, beautifully executed one of an emaciated poet (Iwar von Lücken) in a frayed suit, with a perfect rose in a beer bottle standing on a chair beside him. This man later starved to death in Paris. Dix paid lip service to Dada but was considered too much of a "brutal realist" to be truly representative of that movement. He classed himself as a leader of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. The Nazis had him dismissed from his post at the Dresden academy, whereafter he was no longer allowed to exhibit, although several of his works—doomed to be destroyed—appeared in the infamous 1937 exhibition of Degenerate Art.

He went into self-imposed exile on the Swiss border by Lake Constance, no doubt in order to protect his wife and three children, and the last galleries were full of surprises: lavish landscapes painted in a neo-Renaissance or neo-Romantic style, such as The Enchanted Forest (1942). But it is his horrific ones that stick in the mind.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Three views from the same window

Photos taken from a hotel room in Montreal on December 30th and 31st and the 1st of January.