Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Alice Herz-Sommer (Part 1)

“Every day is a miracle. No matter how bad my circumstances, I have the freedom to choose my attitude to life, even to find joy. Evil is not new. It is up to us how we deal with both good and bad. No one can take this power away from us.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer

After reading a moving and inspiring book about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger), I’ve come to the conclusion that the word remarkable doesn’t exactly do her justice.

Alice Herz-Sommer was a phenomenon.

So many facets of her life were outstanding, her musical ability, her attitude and resilience, and her extraordinary longevity. Alice Herz-Sommer is known as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. She was born on 23rd November 1903 in Prague, which was then part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alice both experienced and witnessed the highs lows of the twentieth century before she passed away on 23rd February 2014 at the impressive age of 110.

What’s even more astounding is that Alice was practicing her piano for at least three hours a day when she was 107! Alice’s musical discipline proves that playing an instrument can keep the mind sharp and fertile right up to the end. There was no sign of atrophy in her grey matter, which included her amazing memory. She must have had a huge hippocampus!

Alice was probably as close to a flesh and blood angel as you can get.

Reading about her life has frequently moved me to tears, and made me reflect and re-evaluate my own attitudes. You can’t help but be drawn in by her warm, radiant smile and the twinkle in her eyes, or fail to be inspired by Alice’s pearls of wisdom when you watch her interviews.

Even though Alice’s mother and husband were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and she and her son endured the horrors of internment at Theresienstadt (Terezin), for two years, she did not have an ounce of hatred in her.

She never succumbed to self-pity, bitterness or hating; she simply focused on what was beautiful in her life. For Alice that was mainly two things: her love for her son, Rafi, and her passion for the piano and classical music. One of Alice’s sayings was, “My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.”

She was young at heart because of her ‘joie de vivre’, and perhaps her deliberate immersion in beauty played a part in her longevity.

Her childhood friend, Franz Kafka, seems to have summed it up perfectly:  “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

Several aspects of Alice’s personality stand out for me: her unquenchable and eternal optimism, her work ethic, her curious mind and love of learning, her early exposure to culture and music which inspired her career path, her gift for teaching as well as performing, and her sweet, sanguine nature. Alice seems to have been friendly to all who came into contact with her. These formidable attributes combined were greater than the sum of their parts, the basis and core of her incredible life.

Alice’s life is an example to all for experiencing a richer, happier existence in the face of the seemingly random vicissitudes that we all face at times. It is surely a gift to humanity.

Malcolm Clarke and Nick Reed’s short documentary film about Alice, The Lady in Number Six won an Oscar in 2014. Filmed shortly before her passing, it is a poignant portrait of a beautiful spirit:

Childhood in Czechoslovakia

Alice grew up in the heart of Bohemia during its cultural zenith. Alice had a twin sister, Marianne (Mitzi), an older sister Irma and two brothers, Georg and Paul.

‘Alice’ in Czech means ‘of the noble kind’, a most fitting name for a truly wonderful lady.

Her Moravian mother, Sofie, was raised in a cultured environment. Her parents ensured that she was highly educated and she became a fine pianist who loved music. She instilled her own cultural education as best she could in her children. Sofie’s parents were friends with Gustav Mahler’s parents, so they played together as children. As an adult, Sofie moved in circles of the great artists, musicians, composers, writers, scientists and thinkers of the day; such as Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

In her wonderful book, Caroline mentions seeing an old photograph of a bearded man in Alice’s London flat, presumed to have been taken by her mother. Alice explained that it was Sigmund Freud.

Also born in Moravia, Freud had met Sofie through mutual family friends in Vienna. Alice recounted the story of a visit to a relative in Vienna with her mother in the late 1920s, who happened to live near Freud’s office on Berggasse. They would often run into him on their walks and Freud would always stop and engage with them in a brief conversation.

As a child Alice knew and spent time with Franz Kafka, whose best friend married her older sister Irma. She shared her treasured memories of him with the writer and pianist Caroline Stoessinger. Kafka would take Alice and her twin sister Mitzi on walks in the countryside outside Prague and regale them with stories. In Alice’s recollections of Kafka to Caroline she would remember him as an ‘eternal child’.

Kafka would often say to Alice, “Writing is a kind of prayer,” and although he did not know anything about music, he understood Alice’s respect for music. Alice mirrored his his sentiment in her view that listening to music, playing concerts, and practicing is a kind of prayer.

Through his friendship with Kafka, the journalist, biographer and music critic Max Brod also became a firm friend of the Herz family.

“Children must study music. It helps with everything in life. This beauty is always in my mind.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Sofie had taken Alice to Vienna with her in November 1907 to attend Mahler’s farewell concert of his Second Symphony, just before her 4th birthday. No doubt this partly inspired Alice to take up the piano. They chatted with Mahler after the performance and stood among the crowd to wave his train off alongside composer Arnold Schoenberg the following morning.

The Israel Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Zubin Mehta perform Mahler’s 2nd Symphony ‘Auferstehung’ (Ressurection):

The theme of this symphony appears to be in harmony with Alice’s views on death, which were greatly influenced by Spinoza’s writings that death and life are part of the same infinity of God. Alice believed that the soul lives on without the body, as do I. She listened to Mahler’s epic work again and again, finding solace in the song ‘Urlicht’ (primal light), at the begininning of the 4th movement. The opening words of the song appear to have served as her spiritual theme song: I come from God and I will return to God.

Alice’s father, Freidrich Herz ran a local engineering factory, and was known to be kind and generous in spirit, something he clearly passed on to his daughter.

At some point in her childhood, Sofie had made it clear to Alice that Freidrich hadn’t been her first choice of husband, for she had previously been in love with another man, but had ultimately acquiesced to her parent’s choice of suitor. They made it work, but perhaps there had been some lingering resentment on her mother’s side at having to give up the love of her life. Alice remembered how her mother loved to play the piano, commenting, “It was one of her diversions from melancholy.”

A grand piano took pride of place in their living room, a precious heirloom passed down from Alice’s grandmother.

The Herz’s hosted many musical soirees and concerts in their welcoming salon. Alice and Paul would play Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ together, Alice on piano and Paul on the violin, as well as sonatas and concertos.

I imagine they slept well if they played it anything like this:

“Music was always all around me. I mean live music, people playing or singing, not recordings. That came years later.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger).

It is heart-warming to hear Alice reminisce about those early chamber sessions with her brother and how they stayed with her over the years. We should never underestimate the power of music in the home for our children.

Life as a piano virtuoso

Alice’s sister Irma, an accomplished pianist herself, began to teach Alice the piano in 1910.  In her lessons she imbued in her younger sibling her love of practicing. Their twelve year age gap worked well, as there was no jealousy or rivalry between them.

Alice was dedicated to improving and followed her sister’s instructions and guidance in the early years. As she progressed and showed talent and commitment, Irma took her to play for her former music teacher, the Czech musicologist and pianist Václav Štěpán, widely considered Prague’s finest pedagogue.

Alice performed an early Beethoven sonata at the audition, and Štěpán had been so impressed with her passion that he agreed to see her once a month (even though he did not normally teach younger children), while Irma continued her weekly lessons. A few years later Alice took lessons in earnest with Václav Štěpán, whom she revered as her mentor and friend.

During her time studying the piano at the Prague Conservatory as a young woman, Alice came under the tutelage of Franz Liszt’s former pupil, Conrad Ansorge. Whilst the brilliance of his playing wasn’t in question, it seemed Alice didn’t rate him as a teacher.

A vintage recording of Conrad Ansorge playing Mozart in 1928, only two years before his death:

She was surrounded by brilliant musicians who had been only one generation away from the immortal talents of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin.

Alexander Zemlinsky, (the founder of the German Prague Conservatory) befriended Alice. Himself once a favoured student of Brahms, he had been bequeathed the composer’s grand piano. She also learned from the pianists Wilhelm Backhaus and Moris Rosenthal, both students of Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli.

After Alice graduated from the conservatory Václav Štěpán arranged for her first debut as a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic, coaching her performance of Chopin’s E minor piano concerto. He also invited Max Brod to the concert, who was spellbound by her technique and tone. He duly wrote a glowing review, and Alice was launched in her promising career as a concert pianist.

“Stage fright comes mainly from caring more about what others think than about the music itself. The only possible fear that I might have had was of my own inner critic. But once I began to play, even that anxiety disappeared.” ~Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger)

Alice took masterclasses with Eduard Steurmann and Artur Schnabel, but rather than inspiring her they impressed upon Alice the need to trust her own judgement, and in the process she learned to teach others.

It speaks volumes about Alice’s character that she believed her life as a committed artist in search of excellence came before her performance career. To successfully experience the latter, the former is fundamental.

Alice was a frequent soloist with the Czech Philharmonic and she also undertook commercial recordings prior to the Second World War.

Here she is, playing Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 by memory with arthritic hands, just before her 108th birthday!

Alice’s musical inspiration

I share Alice’s admiration and reverence for the genius of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. When asked in a private moment in her apartment by Golda Meir, (who she developed a close friendship with in Israel after the war) about her religion, Alice responded:

“I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Her inspiration came from playing the works of the great baroque, classical and romantic composers, which included her compatriots Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, who had achieved international fame and recognition.

“When I play Bach, I am in the sky.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Her early duets with her brother Paul and her evening performances also inspired a deep appreciation for the works of Schumann, Chopin and Strauss.

Alice talking about how music takes us to another world:

Their family entertainment was mainly in the form of the Hauskonzerte (house concerts). It wasn’t just the Herz’s who indulged in this form of enjoyment; many families who had everyday professions were skilled amateur musicians and held house concerts.

Hauskonzerte by Giacomo Mantegazza

The word amateur is derived from the Latin word amator – lover – and during the Bohemian zeitgeist, music was, for many, their grandest love affair. I don’t think I’ll say I’m only an amateur anymore, because it somehow belittles the fact that music is an amatory activity.

I can’t think of a better pastime for improving memory, keeping your brain, body and spirit healthy, as well as bringing joy…

In her beautiful book, Caroline explained that Alice often talked about Beethoven, saying, “As I grow older, I appreciate Beethoven’s depth more and more.”

Alice would extol how Beethoven created new music dictated by fearless talent, breaking the bonds of established rules when necessary; becoming the first musician to call himself an artist, and about how he searched for meaning in life, keeping a journal and notebook of musical sketches and philosophical quotations.

Alice loved that Beethoven was free from conventional prejudice, standing up to royalty and nobility when he disagreed with them. She told Caroline, “Beethoven would not have been afraid to stand up to Hitler.”

Her love of Beethoven would provide Alice with moral and spiritual courage throughout her imprisonment in Theresienstadt.

“In the camp, I sometimes felt that I was protesting against the inhumanity of the Nazis when I played Beethoven. I could feel the audience breathing, feeling with me as they clung to their memories of a better time.”

Caroline marvelled at seeing Alice throw her head back in hearty laughter when she found a new solution to a difficult passage that she had already been practicing for at least one hundred years!

Alice’s work ethic is unmatched, because apart from her being the oldest Holocaust survivor, she was also the world’s oldest concert pianist.

“I am an artist. Some days I admire myself. Not bad, I think. But the longer I work, the more I learn that I am only a beginner. No matter how well I known a work of Beethoven, for example, I can always go deeper, and then deeper still. One of the rewards of being a musician is that it is possible to practice the same piece of music and discover new meaning without boredom for at least a hundred years. I study the language of music with the same fervour that scholars re-examine the holy scriptures. The artist’s job is never done. It is the same with life. We can only strive towards rightness. As with music, I search for meaning. I practice life.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom, by Caroline Stoessinger).

She was most certainly on the same page as Nietzsche in his view that, “Without music life would be a mistake.” Alice had many interests to sustain her throughout her long and rich life; she loved poetry, art, philosophy and architecture, but she agreed with Schopenhauer that music is the highest of all the arts.

This lovely chat with Tony Robbins highlights Alice’s philosophy on life:

Marriage and Motherhood

Alice met Leopold Sommer in the wake of a personal tragedy. Her close friend Daisy had died aged twenty from an infection that could have been cured if she had had access to antibiotics. Alice was devastated, it was one of the few times she stopped playing the piano.

Shortly after Daisy’s funeral Alice’s friend Trude mentioned that her good friend in Hamburg, Leopold Sommer, had written her a comforting letter. She showed Leopold’s thoughtful words to Alice who then resumed her practice regimen. Leopold was himself a fine amateur violinist, also raised in Prague, but he had decided to carve out his professional path in the business world. Alice met Leopold at a Hauskonzerte hosted by their mutual friend Trude.

Their relationship quickly blossomed, and Leopold made many trips from Hamburg (where he was working), to visit her in Prague, and was there for Alice when her father died suddenly from a heart attack. As their relationship deepened Leopold began to seek employment in Prague. They decided to get married during a romantic walk around Prague Castle one evening, with the city lights glimmering beneath them.

Alice and Leopold were married in 1931. Alice’s career as a concert pianist was burgeoning, and for a time life was good. At their wedding breakfast I love that they both performed Beethoven’s Spring Sonata together as a fitting symbol of their union.

“I grew up in friendship. I fell in love with my future husband’s mind and his knowledge. In marriage, friendship is more important than romantic love.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice and Leopold lived in an apartment in the same neighbourhood as her mother and sister Irma, and Alice was gifted a Forster grand piano by Leopold’s parents. Alice practiced on her new piano and began giving lessons to young students.

Their son came into the world on June 21st 1937. They named him Štěpán after her beloved piano mentor, but he later changed his name to the Hebrew Raphael, and was always affectionately referred to as ‘Rafi’ by his mother.

Rafi was only six years old when the Sommer family were sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He was one of the few children to survive; most likely because of his mother’s musical skill and determination to protect him.

Sadly, in 1944 Leopold was moved to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he perished just six weeks before the camp was liberated. His last act before being wrenched away from his wife and son was to save their lives.

Alice spoke of how Leopold told her not to volunteer for anything that the Nazi’s offered; no matter how appealing it might sound.

Soon after Leopold and many of the other men had been deported, the wives and children were given the opportunity to be with their husbands. Alice declined as per Leopold’s instructions. None of the mothers and children who took the offer and boarded the special trains ever returned.

Rafi had been taught to play the piano by his mother, but around age 11 he decided that the cello was his first musical love. He studied in earnest at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and was fortunate to meet and play for the legendary cellist Paul Tortelier during a Kibbutz. Tortelier became a teacher, friend and mentor to Rafi, who, like his mother, was an outstanding musician and conductor.

Rafi’s sudden death at the age of 65, after performing a concert of Beethoven chamber works with his Salomon Trio in Jerusalem was a devastating blow for Alice. At almost 98 years of age, her closest friends worried that it might be the catalyst for her own passing, but their love and support and her connection to music sustained Alice through the immense sorrow.

Alice’s stoic approach to life and her concern for Rafi’s widow and her two grandsons also kept her going. You could forgive her for indulging in self-pity at such a time, but she told Caroline, “After all, I am not the only mother who has lost her son. Maybe I draw from the strength of Clara Schumann, who one hundred years before me lost two of her children, Felix and Julia. Music kept her going until she closed her eyes for the last time.”

In part two, I will cover Alice’s harrowing time in Theresienstadt, her immediate post war recovery in Prague, her new life in Israel, her formidable contributions as a teacher and mentor to her students, and her final years in London.

I feel it’s right to end part one with a video of her beloved son Raphael Sommer, playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 with unbelievable emotional intensity and beauty:

“A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

 

A Brave New (and Hopefully) Best-Selling Cover for The Virtuoso

“There is much to discover that’s not on the back cover!” ~ E.A. Bucchianeri

We’ve all heard the well-worn idiom, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. After all, the phrase goes back to at least the mid-19th century, first printed in the newspaper Piqua Democrat, in June 1867:  

“Don’t judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants.”

Yet it’s something we all do, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s even harder to be objective when that cover belongs to your own book!

An author’s emotional connection to their work is usually strong, and sometimes personal preferences can unconsciously override what might be more popular with readers. The challenge is to strike a balance or fusion between the author’s ideas and appealing to the marketplace.

When it comes to covers, whatever will accurately represent the story and arouse a potential reader’s curiosity is the priority.

Some eye-opening stats about the Amazon literary marketplace

Here is a comparison of titles held by the Library of Congress (the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, thought to be the largest library in the world), versus Amazon, the world’s largest online book retailer.

Library of Congress (LOC):

  • Total Books & Printed Material – 14, 602, 487
  • English Titles – 6, 804, 199
  • Titles available online – 199, 160

Amazon:

  • All Books (in stock) – 40 million (2.7 x LOC)
  • English Titles – 10 million (1.5 x LOC)
  • English Kindle Titles – 4, 794, 589 (24 x LOC)

With around 4.8 million English books available on Amazon Kindle, it is by far the largest single platform for ebook sales in the world. A staggering 70,000 new titles are added to Amazon every month, with a 17% growth in book supply every year. Over 2,000 books are launching every day onto this publishing behemoth…

It’s a tough job to create a compelling book cover that’s both eye-catching and unique, in order to stand out in a crowded market and entice readers. It has to embody the story with flair on the outside, and then fulfill the promise of that visual hook on the inside.

The bottom line is, does the book cover create the desire to read it?

A cover plays a major part in helping to differentiate your book from the plethora of titles available online and in book stores.

“In the old days, books had awful covers and marvellous content; nowadays, the opposite happens.” ~ Giacomo Leopardi, Thoughts

Is it greedy to want both a stunning cover and great content? No, I don’t think so. These are the standards professional authors aim to achieve and that readers expect.

There are some amazing and iconic covers out there. Here is a list of the 50 coolest book covers chosen by shortlist.com.

I am hugely excited and a teeny bit trepidatious about changing my literary ‘brand’. The new cover is very different from the first, but that’s a good thing in my opinion. Otherwise, what’s the point in a fresh look?

New front, spine and back cover of The Virtuoso

I asked Oliver Bennett at More Visual Ltd. to redesign the cover of The Virtuoso to include my Publishers Weekly review, and of course, the beautiful contemporary classical soundtrack (embedded on the sidebar), performed by violinist Adelia Myslov.

I think he has done me proud, and I love it. But what I think doesn’t really matter.  It takes creative courage to judge your own book by its cover, and you can only go on your own impressions as well as feedback from others. I’m grateful to those I’ve asked for giving me their honest opinions and suggestions.

Ultimately, artistic design is highly subjective, just like the act of reading itself.

3D view of The Virtuoso

I hope the new design will garner positive comments, and perhaps, (in conjunction with favourable book reviews), help generate more book sales…

If you fancy giving it a go, here are the UK and US Amazon links. The Virtuoso’s new Goodreads page.

I’d be delighted for any feedback from readers: either past, present or possibly future! I am currently offering free digital copies to book reviewers and book lovers who are willing to leave an honest review.

Just drop me a line via my contact page and I’ll email the link. If you prefer to hold a paperback I’d be happy to send you one in the post.

For U.S. based readers I’m running a Goodreads Giveaway of 100 Kindle copies of The Virtuoso between 16th and 24th June. You will be able to enter this giveaway from the link I will post on my sidebar.

8 Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Exercise: Guest Blog by Harper Reid

“Walking is man’s best medicine.” ~ Hippocrates

Most people are aware that exercise as a general concept is good, but that doesn’t mean they care. Eighty percent of Americans and forty percent of people worldwide don’t get their recommended amount of exercise, which is largely due to easier access to transport and an increase of people working in offices.

Photo Credit: Geert Pieters via Unsplash

Although most people know exercise is good, they don’t know the full benefits of the recommended 20 minutes of exercise a day – so here is a breakdown for you:

  1. Exercise helps with mental health

Among other major benefits, exercise can reduce anxiety and help relieve depression. Exercise boosts your mental health by releasing chemicals and endorphins, such as dopamine and serotonin, into your brain. These chemicals are generally perceived by your brain as happiness – lightening your mood and having a calming effect on your body.

Exercise also raises your body temperature which can be pleasant and calming. Regular exercise also creates increased blood flow to your brain, encouraging the development of new brain cells and reducing the risk of dementia. 

  1. Exercise helps manage weight loss

 Exercising regularly also causes you to burn more calories, which is a key way to lose weight. You will also build muscle mass through exercise, particularly if you’re doing strength training. This leads to increased metabolism, which helps you process your calories faster.

Photo Credit: Bradley Wentezl via Unsplash

Although building muscle will increase your overall weight, regular exercise will also keep you fit and trim by keeping your body fat at a healthy level.

  1. Reduces your chances of cancer

 Exercise can actually reduce your chances of getting some cancers – including lowering the chances of bowel cancer by twenty-five percent and womb cancer by thirty-three percent.  Since exercise already helps you to manage your weight, you will have a lesser risk of obesity, which is also the cause of some cancers.  Of course, exercise cannot provide a complete safeguard from the risk of all cancers, with factors such as environmental conditions, genetics, smoking, and food, alcohol and drug intake also playing a role in managing the risk of cancer.

Photo Credit: Andy Beales via Unsplash under License

  1. Improves overall energy and performance

 Exercise fills your brain with endorphins and increases blood flow – oxygenating your brain and body and giving you more energy throughout your day. Because of these long-lasting energising effects, many people choose to exercise in the morning at home or before they go to work. Even gentle exercises can improve lymphatic system function, reduce common pains such as headaches, and increase balance and coordination. Exercising will also help you to gain a stronger cardiovascular system, meaning you will be able to stay energetic for longer periods of time. 

  1. Reduces chances of disease

Exercising regularly helps to alleviate fatigue and prevent certain diseases. People who exercise will develop a stronger heart and stronger lungs, which helps to alleviate fatigue and reduce your risk of getting diabetes. Aerobic exercise has also been proven to help people gain relief from asthma symptoms. 

Photo Credit: Pexels under cco license

  1. Helps you sleep

 Studies have shown that regular exercise can lead to a sixty-five percent improvement in sleep quality. So, if you often have trouble getting to sleep at night, try exercising to relax your body and mind, and watch your sleep improve. 

  1. Lowers stress levels

Exercise is a worthwhile focus that helps take your mind off stresses and worries. When working your exercise plan, you will see yourself achieving goals and hitting targets, giving you a sense of reward. This satisfying combination, created by setting and reaching goals combined with the rush of chemicals your brain gets from exercise, will help lower your stress levels. 

  1. Improves brain power

Studies have shown that exercise improves memory and brain power through generating new tissues in your brain which are likely to be directly related to memory function.

Exercise will help you lose weight, improve brain function, lower stress and help improve mental health, but the list of benefits doesn’t stop here. There are countless physical and mental health benefits of exercise, so consider jogging, walking, swimming, jumping on a trampoline, rowing or working out at the gym today.

An interesting article about the benefits of bounce.

Photo Credit: Bruno Nascimento via Unsplash

If you’re looking to start a vigorous workout routine or have pre-existing medical conditions, speak to your doctor or a training specialist to discover what exercise method is best for you.

Harper Reid is a freelance writer from Auckland, New Zealand who is passionate about healthy living and fitness. Her idea of a perfect weekend is going for a beach run, hiking with friends or simply practicing yoga in her backyard. You can find more of her work on Tumblr.

Musings on the Wondrous, Indestructible Quality of Water… 🌎🌊💦

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water.” ~ Bruce Lee

Water fascinates me…

Its shades, sounds, textures and beauty, as well as water’s many uses are truly a gift to the human race. How we manage its resources will be key to the survival of our species and the innumerable amazing creatures that live beneath its beguiling surface.

The purifying and symbolic qualities of water are why it used for baptism.

Water has inspired many an artist. Claude Monet captivated the world with gorgeous impressionist paintings of his water lily pond at Giverny, as well as his French  landscapes and seascapes.

Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet c. 1919

Pont d’Argenteuil by Claude Monet

Somehow, the watery depictions captured by Norwegian Impressionist Frits Thaulow look so real, more like a photograph than pigments on canvas.

The Watermill by Frits Thaulow c. 1892

Composers have also been drawn under the magical spell of watery environments. I can imagine myself alive in one of Monet’s dramatic paintings of Étretat or on the cliffs at Fecamp, looking out towards the dramatic coastal scenery along the Alabaster Coast when I listen to La Mer.

Sunset at Etretat by Claude Monet

If you close your eyes, what sensations or visuals are inspired by Claude Debussy’s evocative orchestral piece?

The BBC’s Blue Planet II documentary, made by our national treasure and indefatigable champion of the natural world, Sir David Attenborough (and many other dedicated marine biologists and cameramen all over the world), showed us the devastating impact of man’s plastic pollution in our planet’s oceans.  But they also showed us in ravishing detail the many beautiful and diverse underwater habitats.

Our family watched it in awe.

This scene was heartbreaking:

We have got into the habit of using longer life, heavy duty shopping bags, ditching plastic as much as possible and we recycle like most families. It’s encouraging to see an Indonesian business man doing his bit for the planet with non toxic cassava bags:

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Water is such a fundamental part of life, essential to survival, to ingest, to promote physical strength, to cleanse and to create earth’s atmosphere. But it also provides us with relaxation, sporting opportunities, and memories. It is literally part of us, as around sixty percent of our bodies are made up of water.

The Adige River at Verona by Frits Thaulow

As well as its healing properties, water can be incredibly destructive; as we have witnessed at various times, the horrors of natural disasters such as tsunamis and torrential floods on the news. In a biblical sense I’m sure it probably wasn’t Noah’s favourite thing!

Concepts like flow state, and the language to describe Flow is to me, also reminiscent of enjoying time in and around water.

From Wikipedia:

In positive psychology, flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

The term ‘Flow’ was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, which I elaborated on in my post: Shining a Spotlight on your Awesome Character Strengths.

Sometimes it’s good to let go, and stay in the flow. Wait a minute, that phrase sounds familiar…

“Water is the soul of the Earth.” ~ W.H. Auden

We can often take it for granted, but it is perhaps, one of our greatest gifts…

The Subsiding of the Nile by Frederick Goodall c. 1873

I love this eerily beautiful contemporary classical music, ‘Wreck of the Umbria’ composed by Jakub Ciupinski and played so exquisitely by Anne Akiko Meyers:

James Horner’s celtic Hymn to the Sea written for the blockbuster film Titanic, on Irish Uileann Pipes:

I’ve penned some prose in gratitude to this nourishing, life-giving (and sadly, sometimes life-taking) liquid.

The Wonders of Water

Water’s silky stroke rinses away dirt, revives the spirit,
Boiled droplets captured, to comfort shivery cells,
Cool sips to hydrate when heating we must limit,
Listening to gentle, trickling streams darkness dispels.
A primordial power, water’s subtle vigour is irrefutable,
Eroding rocks, gouging landscapes, shaping shores: illimitable.

Sunset on the Nile by Frank Dillon

Glinting sunlight, evanescent on its shimmering, undulating surface,
Free to flow as a waterfall, or be held in pretty ponds,
Mutable mass of vast oceans, an untameable temptress,
Beckoning us to unfathomable depths past waving fronds.
Floating blissfully on buoyant dreams, avoiding violent storms,
Invisible, swirling currents spewing and spraying fleeting forms.

Off the Coast of Cornwall by William Trost Richards

Liquid particles are greater merged, than a single drop,
Yet individual, like the human family, of one source,
H20 soothes my soul, but also dampens if rain won’t stop,
Frequently changing form – precious water; life giving force
Whether contained in a cup, bath, lake or sea,
Views of aquamarine awaken senses, inspire glee…

Antibes by Claude Monet c. 1888

Gliding through glistening pools, my heart’s longings,
Swimming weightless, no constriction, just water…
Sunset and moonlight cast their magic onto paintings,
A vision to behold or immerse in; the ultimate transporter,
Reflections of nature glimmer on mirrored, placid surfaces,
Tears of emotion, translucent and pure, shine flawless.

By Virginia Burges

Midnight in Boulogne by Theo van Rysselberghe

In keeping with my theme I’ll leave you with some highlights from Blue Planet II.

I don’t know about the crab, but this is hypnotising me!

Another hunting/feeding frenzy:

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
~ Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

Escaping to the Beautiful Dales and Coastal Delights of Dorset

“Let me enjoy the earth no less because the all-enacting light that fashioned forth its loveliness had other aims than my delight.” ~ Thomas Hardy

The weather over last weekend’s May bank holiday in the UK was something of a miracle! It was the hottest early May bank holiday weekend on record. They are traditionally damp and dreary affairs, spent doing household chores or various indoor pursuits…

The Burges household decided we needed a change of scenery, and wanted to make the most of this unusual glimpse of summer, so took ourselves off to one of England’s quintessential counties: Dorset.

Rolling green fields near Whitchurch Canonicorum

Cornwall has long been our favourite, with the Lake District a close second, but Dorset has similar scenery for three hours of driving instead of four to five, so we settled for two nights in a quiet and unspoilt hamlet called Whitchurch Canonicorum. The small development of holiday cottages (formed from an old farm around a courtyard), was charming and rustic, with the added benefit of a modern indoor pool to keep the kids happy.

The nearby paddock with the alpacas was also a big hit with my girls, who noticed a striking resemblance between their brother and Buttercup!

We arrived late Saturday night, and all was quiet; no traffic, no light pollution, just a glittering sky littered with sparkling stars. It reminded me of the stunning southern hemisphere night sky I became enamoured of in Queensland, Australia many years ago.

“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“Yes.”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
~ Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Sunday morning was a relaxed affair, me with a book supervising the kids in the pool and a cooked breakfast. We piled into the car and headed for the nearest beach at Charmouth, a ten minute drive from our base. Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is stunning. It has the sheer cliffs, topped by rolling green fields, pristine pebble beaches, and eons of history and fossils to go searching for. Fossil hunting wasn’t on our agenda this time, relaxation was.

Charmouth Beach – not so far from the madding crowd!

My youngest son decided to take a dip in the sea (he likes cold showers as well), and I was in awe at his bravery. However, despite the soaring temperatures on land, the water was not far off freezing, and poor Will struggled to get back to shore across a stony seabed. He spent a tad too long in the sea and began shivering violently when he came out. Being wrapped in towels and sat in the sun with a hot chocolate soon brought his core temperature back up.

Meanwhile, I was busy getting sunburnt as I was so focussed on making sure the family had sunscreen on, I neglected myself. A brighter shade of lobster is not a good look! Fortunately I took my Trulūm skin care with me and the Intrinsic Complex worked wonders with the sore, red skin on my shoulders and arms, bringing it down to bearable levels. Nothing like a bit of DNA repair when you’ve been overexposed!!

We spent the early evening wandering around Lyme Regis and consuming the best fish and chips in Dorset. I haven’t been there since I was Emily’s age on a school geography field trip. It’s still magical.

Monday morning we did a short coastal walk, it was too hot to exert ourselves beyond a leisurely stroll. We chatted with a lady who had been on an organised National Trust ‘orchid walk’ by the cliff.

I really wanted to visit Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and home (Max Gate), but my family don’t have the same literary interests, so I was outnumbered! I will have to wait for another visit. Classics like Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Jude the Obscure and his other novels are set in Dorset and the surrounding counties. Hardy’s fictional town of Casterbridge was based on Dorchester.

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace at Higher Brockhampton, Dorset where Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd were written.

Many may think of Thomas Hardy as a purely literary author; he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1910 and had been frequently nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was a trailblazer as well!

Hardy is credited with being the source and inspiration for the term ‘cliffhanger’.

Cliffhanger: A story or situation that is exciting because its ending or result is uncertain until it happens.  (Cambridge Dictionary)

As I tell W.I. members on my fiction talks, there is a suspenseful scene in his third novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, where a male character (Henry Knight), is literally hanging by his fingertips to a cliff face, unable to climb back up to safety. The object of his affection, Elfride has gone to seek assistance.

Suspense is from the Latin word ‘to hang’ (suspendo). Because I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing and the Victorian precursor to the modern suspense genre, I have included the excerpt, which also ties in with the scenery of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast:

“At first, when death appeared improbable because it had never visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of anything connected with his past. He could only look sternly at Nature’s treacherous attempt to put an end to him, and strive to thwart her.
From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a hollow cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the bay to the extent of nearly a semicircle, he could see the vertical face carving round on each side of him. He looked far down the façade and realised more thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of those early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their place of death. It was a single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.”
~ Thomas Hardy (A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873)

Hardy has kept the focus on Knight and we are probably convinced like he is; that he’s going to die. It’s great to find that the dramatic, ancient landscape is fundamental to the story, acting as another character, as well as the obvious contemporary influence of Charles Darwin on him. Hardy met the composer Sir Edward Elgar late in his life and they discussed the possibility of him writing an opera based on the novel, but sadly Hardy’s death put an end to the project.

Spectacular Corfe Castle

In the afternoon we drove across to the east side of Dorset to the Purbeck region to explore Corfe Castle. If you’ve read my post on Gwellian ferch Gruffydd, you may have gathered that we absolutely love castles!

Approaching what’s left of the Keep

Corfe is a magnificent ruin now, but you can’t beat the romantic setting it commands. It has a turbulent and colourful thousand year history, and for five centuries was one of the most important castles in England.

Lovely light behind the ruins.

Corfe’s history came vividly to life for us as a group of Saxon and Viking enthusiasts had been camping out in the grounds all weekend participating in various events. They were regaled in fabulous period costumes, brandishing weapons and displaying handicrafts from their era. It all added to the jubilant atmosphere.

Will was especially interested, talking to a ‘viking’ who had travelled down from York for the events, and was thrilled when he let him borrow his gear and told him about how it would have been used. His sisters were very keen to murder or maim their big brother!

We all enjoyed exploring the ruins, and because the sky was so clear and blue, at the top, you could see right across to the Studland Peninsula and Poole in the distance.

View towards the Studland Peninsula, Sandbanks and Poole.

I’ve included some more of my photos in the gallery and epic drone videos I found. We couldn’t have picked a better day to visit.

Corfe Castle Timeline

  • 978 – It is thought that King Edward the Martyr was murdered by his (very wicked) stepmother Aelfreda at the site of the Old Hall. She wanted her own son, Ethelred, to be King of England. It is said that Aelfreda offered Edward a goblet of poisoned wine and then had him stabbed in the back while he drank it.
  • 1086 – Corfe Castle was one of a number of castles built by William the Conqueror soon after his arrival on English shores in 1066. He exchanged a church at Gillingham for the mound and other land at Corfe, which was owned by the Abbess of Shaftesbury. Built on a natural mound, the castle was a guard to the gateway of Purbeck. It was good hunting country and nearby Wareham was an important port linking England and France. Much of Purbeck was a Royal Forest and the killing of game without royal permission was punishable by death. The castle was built with Purbeck limestone quarried about two miles away and brought by horse and cart to Corfe. A simple pulley system was used to haul the stone to the tops of the walls.
  • 1106 – By now Corfe was one of the best fortified castles in England. Henry 1 (son of William the Conqueror), ordered the building of the Keep as a prison for his brother Robert of Normandy, who was threatening to take the English throne. The Keep was painted white, a symbol of the King’s power and wealth.  At 23 metres tall, sitting on the top of a 55 metre hill it would have been the equivalent of a 12th century skyscraper!It was one of the first Norman keeps to be built from stone instead of timber. The sturdy construction would have kept the king safe from archers and trebuchet attacks, as well as housing his treasure and hosting lavish royal banquets. The village grew up around the castle as it was being built. This was a small community of skilled stone workers and tradesmen who provided services to the castle. Many farmers working small plots of land supplied the castle with provisions when the king visited.
  • 1138 – While Stephen was King, his cousin the Empress Matilda raised an army against him, thinking she should have the throne of England. Stephen besieged one of her saupporters, Baldwin de Redevers.
  • 1202 – King John (1199 – 1216) had a new royal residence built next to the Keep, called the Gloriette. He imprisoned his French neice, Princess Eleanor of Brittany at Corfe Castle. She survived, but 22 of her knights were not so lucky.
  • 1220 – 1294 – Edward I (1272 – 1307) improved the defences of both the Outer and Southwest Gatehouses. Henry VII (1485 – 1509) made many home improvements hoping his mother would spend time at the castle.
  • 1572 – Queen Elizabeth I, the castle’s last royal owner, sold it to her Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton and Corfe became a stately home.
  • 1635 – Corfe Castle was bought by the Chief Justice to King Charles I, Sir John Bankes and his wife, Mary.  He and his family stayed true to the king during the civil war, while almost all of Dorset was under the control of Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces.
  • 1643-46 – Under the command of brave Dame Mary Bankes Corfe Castle twice held off sieges during the English Civil War, but was finally captured because of treachery within its walls.

    Corfe Castle in 1643

  • 1646-1663 – After partial demolition by order of the government, which took around six months, Lady Bankes’s son, Ralph, tried to recover what he could. He later built a new mansion at Kingston Lacy.
  • 1982 – After three and a half centuries of ownership by the Bankes family, the castle (part of the Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle Estate), was bequeathed to the National Trust by Ralph Bankes, a direct descendent of Sir John Bankes.

Corfe Castle 3D historical reconstruction:

We drove back to Buckinghamshire through the scenic Studland Peninsula and across the two minute Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry as the sun was setting over the placid water. It was really quite lovely.

I can see why the Studland Bay area and Sandbanks is one of the most prime property locations in the country after London!

“In making even horizontal and clear inspections we colour and mould according to the wants within us whatever our eyes bring in.” ~ Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Photo gallery:

Maestro Vengerov Inspires Artistic Growth at the 2018 Menuhin Competition

Masterclass: a session of tuition by an expert, esp a musician, for exceptional students, usually given in public or on television.

This year’s distinguished Menuhin Competition, (12 – 22 April) now in its 35th year (but held every two years), was founded by its iconic, eponymous violin virtuoso, Yehudi Menuhin, with the goal of nurturing promising young violinists.

Violinist Maxim Vengerov has certainly continued that tradition over three inspiring master classes in Geneva, the host venue for the 2018 competition.

Diana Adamyan from Armenia was the overall winner of the senior category. The 2018 prize winners. Her performance of the Bruch violin concerto was so nuanced, sublime and effused with emotion that it’s hard to get your head round the fact that she is only eighteen years old! A star in the making.

Anyhow, back to the tuition. A Menuhin Competition masterclass is a valuable opportunity for a young musician to learn from one of the most revered living violinists in the world. And if you want to do something you’ve never done before, it makes sense to be guided by someone who has already done it, and even better if they’ve excelled at it.

Maxim Vengerov duly stepped up to the teacher’s plate and knocked it out of the park.

I attended a masterclass he gave in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford a few years ago, recorded for posterity in my first blog!

These 2018 recorded masterclass sessions are manna from heaven for music students and violin lovers. Maestro Vengerov gives priceless advice to participants to help them develop their technical, artistic and performance skills.

As well as being a world renowned violin virtuoso and conductor, Maxim Vengerov is currently the Ambassador and visiting Professor of the Menuhin Music Academy in Switzerland (IMMA) and as of September 2016, the Polonsky Visiting Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music in London.

Maxim Vengerov is not only an outstanding performer, but also a natural and gifted teacher. His love of the instrument, the music and his students is like a rich, warm sonata that envelops you in a hermetic bubble of energetic nurturing, lighthearted humour and scholarly encouragement.

Is it obvious I worship him?!

These recent masterclass videos are entertaining and inspiring for music lovers and non musicians alike, because they instill an appreciation of the talent, work and dedication that goes into perfecting just one piece; highlighting the depth of knowledge and mastery required to truly convey a composer’s mind through the sound of his notes, to draw the listener in.

It takes a virtuoso to express advanced technique infused with emotion and not get lost in either. It’s called interpretation and it’s a fine line to walk.

What I love is that Maxim immediately knows where the improvement points are, and uses a range of methods to help the students expand their abilities. He is assertive and appreciative in equal measure, a winning combination. I love how he invigorates and encourages them without being overpowering or striking fear into their hearts, and motivates without crushing their confidence.

Not everyone it seems, can give an accomplished masterclass. A Masterclass in how not to give a masterclass.

Vengerov shows the pupils where they can improve, be it in phrasing, the intricacies of bowing, depending on the type of colour and sound required, their technique, voice and musicality, all demonstrated with such wisdom and wit.

He humbly shares his own experience of learning with the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and jokes about how hard it is to just play two notes evenly!

Even more funny, he quips about the quality of a student’s bow, casually telling the audience that he has multiple bows, and how he uses different ones for Mozart, Shostakovich and Brahms, adding as an afterthought, “It’s an expensive profession!” Then he winks, and clarifies further, “We are starting to work from the age of five.”

You can really hear what a difference his 1747 ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivarius violin paired with Jascha Heifetz’s bow makes.

I have included these wonderful masterclasses as a tribute to musical artistic endeavour!

Nineteen year old violinist I-hao Cheng from Taiwan works through the ‘Andante’ and ‘Allegro’ from Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003:

Eighteen year old violinist Zachary Brandon from the United States (with pianist Nicola Eimer) tackles Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy:

OMG! Thirteen year old violinist Nurie Chung from South Korea (with pianist Nicola Eimer) plays Eugene Ysaye’s Caprice d’apres l’Etude en forme de Valse de Camille Saint-Saëns:

It’s also worth seeing the excellent masterclass observations and teachings from some of the other 2018 Menuhin Competition jury members.

Japanese violinist, conductor and jury member Joji Hattori works with seventeen year old violinist Julian Walder from Austria (with pianist Nicola Eimer) on Ravel’s Tzigane for Violin and Piano:

Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra Artistic Director and jury member Henning Kraggerud coaches sixteen year old violinist Elli Choi from the United States on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major:

Judging and competition insights from the 2018 Menuhin Competition jury members:

I think the students themselves deserve a round of applause, it must be nerve-racking enough to be taught by a legend, let alone in front of an audience, and I applaud them for their dedication and ambition.

While I’m on the subject of masterclasses…

A violin masterclass happens to be the setting of the opening chapter of my fiction novel, The Virtuoso.

I am in the process of creating a new book cover with a new strapline. I think the current strapline: her life is her cadenza, (although it embodies the story) may be too narrow for non musical readers.

So far I am undecided between:

  1. Performance is everything to a virtuoso. Could you give up the one thing you felt you were born to do? 
  2. Performance is everything to a virtuoso. Is redemption possible without the music?

Let me know what you think if you have read it, or have a constructive opinion. Feedback is always helpful when implementing changes. Thanks!

Red Sparrow: Spookily Good Spy Fiction for a Vicarious Double Life

“God, she’s serious, thought Nate. Typical Russian, afraid of putting a foot wrong. But he liked her reserve, her underlying sensuality, the way she looked at him with her blue eyes. He especially liked the way she pronounced his name, “Neyt.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

As today is #WorldBookDay, I thought it timely to share my thoughts on Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.

There are plenty of suspenseful and harrowing scenes in this book, and from page one my heart lurched from my chest to my mouth where it remained for 547 pages. It was like John le Carré on steroids, it totally gripped me!

The writing itself wasn’t quite on par with le Carré, but still a very accomplished debut novel. I thought the characters and plot were totally plausible, and that’s probably because the author was involved in CIA operations for 33 years. The intelligence community may lie and steal for a living, but they put their lives on the line regularly; all so the balance of world power can be precariously preserved…

I deliberately haven’t seen the film yet, but I doubt it can match the book, which is brilliant. However, it was knowledge of the film that put the book on my radar.

I do think that Jennifer Lawrence is a good choice for the titular character, Dominika Egorova, aka Red Sparrow. She seems to embody her character’s essence from the book.

I found myself liking and sympathising with the beautiful, spirited and feisty Dominika. Her dream was ballet, (and I love that her mother is a professional violinist), but a cruel attack resulting in a broken foot ends her promising dance career with the Bolshoi, and she is left devastated and disillusioned when she is approached by her late father’s brother, Uncle Vanya. He has a small request to ask of her.

Not so dear Uncle Vanya is the deceptive and ambitious First Deputy Director of the SVR, who times his contact with his niece when she is most vulnerable. Needless to say, he does not love and respect Dominika like a normal uncle would.

Jason Matthews paints a picture of a modern Russia whose intelligence service (now the SVR instead of the KGB), which despite new names, appearances and PR, is very much rooted in the methods and attitudes of the ‘old times’.

Dominika has a ‘prodigious memory’, is physically stunning, strong, idealistic, cultured and determined – but she has a short fuse like her mother. With Uncle Vanya threatening her mother’s welfare she has no choice but to do his bidding and join the SVR.

After her traumatic job for her uncle Dominika is thrown among the wolves, but decides to run with the pack and beat them at their own game.

Her resentment at being a pawn for her boss is perfectly understandable; she is lied to, used and hindered in her progress, and her life is considered expendable in a revolting system that does not value its operatives beyond the glory they can bestow on their political masters and the State.

She is betrayed by her uncle when early in her training he sends her against her will to Sparrow School, where she and others are subjected to the vile methods of State sponsored seduction and ‘sexpionage’.  She survives humiliation after humiliation and uses her experiences to build her inner strength and fuel her anger against ‘them’.

Dominika is the first female agent to be recruited into the SVR, but her internal struggle to be seen as anything more than a ‘Sparrow’ is a challenge she must  overcome. She clashes with Soviet era forces within the Centre on her first case involving Simon Delon, a French embassy diplomat in Moscow whose daughter in the French military is the ultimate goal for passing classified information.

The only friend she has at Yasenevo (other than her self-serving uncle), is the kind and distinguished, but ageing General Korchnoi, who is head of the Americas Department.

The sections of brutal torture are not easy to read, but it is not just physical violence that is an ever present threat for the characters, but the psychological manipulation that drives their decisions and actions.

The most chilling, blood-run-cold encounters all include Sergey Matorin, Moscow’s most efficient grim reaper from the Centre’s F Line. He is the kind of ruthless, soulless assassin you would never hope to meet, a literal killing machine, who takes great pleasure from his work.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War hasn’t really ended after reading this novel.

It seems to have morphed into something even more complicated. Whether it’s done for dramatic purposes, or whether there is any basis in reality, only those sequestered in secret government buildings know the truth.

Red Sparrow is as smart, edgy, authentic, compelling and realistic as spy fiction gets. I was transported to a clandestine world of surveillance, subterfuge, street survival, (being ‘black’), mole hunts and forbidden love; quite a literary ride…

In the course of escalating emotions and events I discovered canary traps, barium meals, spy dust, whore school, burst transmissions, spy training, torture, murder and treason.

It also seems that spies can be foodies, and in Red Sparrow they do a lot of ‘business’ over dinner or in restaurants. The author (unusually for the genre), gives a recipe from the action at the end of each chapter. Whilst I’m not against this, I probably didn’t need to know everything they consumed in every chapter, so at times it came across as contrived, and had the effect of distracting me temporarily from the story.

KADDO BOWRANI—AFGHAN PUMPKIN
Deeply brown large chunks of peeled sugar pumpkin, cover liberally with sugar, and bake covered in medium oven until tender and caramelized. Serve over thick meat sauce of sautéed ground beef, diced onions, garlic, tomato sauce, and water. Garnish with sauce of drained yogurt, dill, and puréed garlic.
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Locations include, Moscow, Washington, Helsinki, Rome and Athens. Matthews’s knowledge of these cities is impressive, as is the everyday life of the CIA Case Handler, Nathaniel (Nate) Nash. Wanting to take control of his own destiny rather than be sucked into the family business like his older brothers, Nate feels the need to prove himself in espionage rather than law.

As agent handlers go, Nate is enthusiastic and honourable, and his main concern is always to protect his agent’s life from constant danger. He is the kind of man you can trust if you are looking to spill state secrets…

After a near fatal brush with the FSB during a meeting with his Moscow agent (code name MARBLE), who happens to be the CIA’s most valuable asset, his stellar career falters. Gutsy, street savvy and fluent in Russian, Nate is now at odds with his chief of Station in Moscow. With his cover blown, he ends up in what he considers a bit of spy backwater, Helsinki.

However, his expectations change rapidly when he is tasked with making contact with Dominika. He ‘meets’ her in a public swimming pool, initially unaware that she has also been sent to ‘befriend’ him and discover the identity of his informant in Moscow.

Anatomy of a scene with film director Francis Lawrence:

From there the plot really twists and turns, and I don’t want to give too much away, other than to say that Nate cannot help falling for Dominika (code name DIVA), even though he strives to always be professional, but their passion risks the mission and their lives.

I thought it was original and a nice touch that Jason Matthews gifted Dominika’s character with Synesthesia, so when she hears music she also sees colours (Bach is red to her), and in her dealings with other operatives she can see the colours they emit, which helps her intuit their thoughts and intentions.

Quite a handy skill for a spy, to almost be able to read minds, to know when you are being lied to!

“I want to feel that sometimes we leave the operation behind, that there is just you and me.” Her bossom heaved in her brassiere. He stood up and put his arms around her. His mind was a riptide of damage control battling the stirring of his passion for her. He smelled her hair, and felt her body.
“Dominika,” he said, and the rushing in his ears started, the old danger signal.
“Will you break your rules again?” she asked. She saw his purple lust, it lit up the darkened room.
“I want you to violate your rules … with me… not your agent, me” said Dominika.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Only three of the men in the novel (including her lover, Nate), have purple halos, deemed by Dominika to be ‘true’, the safest and most sincere, the ones she trusts the most, but even their actions cause her to question everything…

Some scenes in this novel are truly shocking and provoked a visceral reaction in me, others are thought provoking and pertinent to current affairs.

This spy thriller is not just a seat of your pants roller-coaster ride; it stimulates deeper, more meaningful questions about the nature of international politics and its impact on all of us. The human motivations are insightfully portrayed and sensitively stereotyped, as the characters move in a world which is not black and white but mostly grey, where the lines of right and wrong are blurred, even in the CIA.

“She was tired of being used like a pump handle by all of them, the vlasti, the inheritors of the former Soviet Union, General Korchnoi, the Americans, Nate, telling her what was expedient, indicating what had to be done. She needed something more from them all. She was weary of having her feelings denied to her.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow encompasses first rate storytelling that evokes the life of a spook in startling detail. It left me breathless. It’s also the first novel in a trilogy, but I need to wait a while and let my nerves settle down before embarking on part two: Palace of Treason.

I’m leaving it there, because it would be criminal to spoil this superb book for you!

“It’s quite simple,” said MARBLE. “Dominika will discover I am the spy and turn me in.” ~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Tchaikovsky and Oistrakh Pluck at Sturdy Heart Strings

“Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living.”  ~ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Russian’s are in the house! Thankfully not malicious, vengeful spies, instead respected individuals of the intelligent, cultural and artistic kind – and they are playing heart-felt music. Classical music is an auditory nerve agent of a spiritual nature; it seeps into your cells and elicits various emotional reactions, ideas, memories, feelings and visual imagery.

Tchaikovksy’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35 is one of the great romantic violin concertos ever written, and a staple of the concert violinist’s repertoire. It was the only violin concerto the Romantic era composer wrote, and I don’t think he could have followed it up with a better one somehow. It has many wonderful, subjective attributes which weren’t fully appreciated after it was first published and performed.

It is, in my humble opinion, melodic, lyrical, soulful, virtuosic and so very Russian in its expressive depths… Did I mention it’s also fiendishly difficult to play?

Where to start…

There are many tricky trills, finger-bending and eye-watering double-stopping, glissandi, frequent leaps and thrilling passages to for a soloist to negotiate. The opening movement is lengthy and physically demanding, with many notes in the stratosphere of what is possible for the violin.

It’s hard to maintain intonation and energy throughout these gruelling sections. A full body/brain workout for sure. It’s way over my playing ability for the most part, and even causes consternation for the professionals.

Tachikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to revered Russian virtuoso and teacher Leopold Auer, who rather embarrassingly declined to play its debut performance.

Relations between composer and artist cooled, and Tchaikovsky ruefully wrote in one of his letters that the episode ‘had the effect of casting this unfortunate child of my imagination into the limbo of the hopelessly forgotten’.

The front page of my own score for violin & piano with violin part edited by David Oistrakh

Thankfully it wasn’t forgotten, and rather paradoxically, it is Auer’s revised edition of the concerto that is most widely performed today.  Heifetz and Kreisler also made their own tweaks and some repeats were cut out. Leopold Auer gave his ‘official’ viewpoint in a 1912 interview, on what the press today might have dubbed ‘Dedication-Gate’:

“I had championed the symphonic works of the young composer (who was at that time not universally recognized), I could not feel the same enthusiasm for the Violin Concerto, with the exception of the first movement; still less could I place it on the same level as his purely orchestral compositions. I am still of the same opinion. My delay in bringing the concerto before the public was partly due to this doubt in my mind as to its intrinsic worth, and partly that I would have found it necessary, for purely technical reasons, to make some slight alterations in the passages of the solo part. This delicate and difficult task I subsequently undertook, and re-edited the violin solo part, and it is this edition which has been played by me, and also by my pupils, up to the present day.
It is incorrect to state that I had declared the concerto in its original form unplayable. What I did say was that some of the passages were not suited to the character of the instrument, and that, however perfectly rendered, they would not sound as well as the composer had imagined. From this purely aesthetic point of view only I found some of it impracticable, and for this reason I re-edited the solo part.”

There have been many wonderful performances over the years, but I especially love this 1954 recording of the late Russian virtuoso, David Oistrakh with Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Franz Konwitchny:

It seems to me that Oistrakh connected with the music on a soul level. In this sublime recording of his own version he conveys its musical essence through a beautiful and plaintive purity of tone, a restrained yet intense vibrato, and mind-blowing virtuosity without sacrificing accuracy. It is astounding!

He gives a performance full of pathos, passion and precision but does not slide into schmaltzy self-indulgence, or become sentimental to the point of being sickly.

Oistrakh takes us to dizzying heights in the first movement (Allegro Moderato) with stunning syncopated semi-quavers interspersed with soft, pianissimo passages of eloquent singing on his Stradivarius, only to forcefully proclaim his intermittent chords in conversation with the orchestra before the final ascending, chord-laden runs that build in volume and speed until they climax with the entry of the lush main theme from the orchestra.

Professor James Stern provides nuggets on the first movement for violin students at Juilliard:

The violin’s soaring passages of rhythmic complexity and melody in increasingly higher realms make my heart dance.

This movement seems entirely evocative of Spring: there is some leftover wintry grit and determination giving way to vivid, vibrant and powerful new shoots of life and energy.

It is like an epic ballet score (of which Tchaikovsky was a master), without any dancing. Come to think of it, maybe someone should choreograph a dance routine to the first movement?

Itzhak Perlman, one of my living idols on the violin, gives his take on the Tchaikovsky violin concerto:

I love to play the second movement (Andante), titled Canzonetta in the key of G minor, which expresses a mournful, song like interlude, a kind of reflective musing on suffering; perhaps a lamentation of Tchaikovsky’s soul.

Oistrakh’s dynamics are exquisitely soft and gentle, and the music is marked con sordino (use of a mute), to subdue the effect further.

I also enjoyed Arabella Steinbacher’s ‘uncut’ interpretation and performance of Oistrakh’s edition, which is played at a slightly slower tempo than Oistrakh himself.  I am in awe at how she makes such mastery look effortless. Here’s what she says about the Canzonetta:

“Then, when Tchaikovsky writes con anima, it’s like the sunshine comes through the clouds. It’s on the E string and this positive energy comes through.”

The third movement (Allegro vivacissimo), back to the D Major key, is a vivid tapestry of Slavic and Russian folk tunes woven together in a very bold, brisk and dynamic finale.

A masterpiece!

Tchaikvosky’s personal circumstances behind the Violin Concerto

Despite being written in the key of D Major, the concerto has an unmistakable melancholy feel. Tchaikovsky composed the work in spring 1878, after a period of personal strife and unhappiness. His disastrous six week marriage to Antonina Miliukova had failed and he was seeking solace from his misery with a tour of Switzerland, France and Italy.

It is widely thought that the inspiration for the work sprang from his infatuation for a violinist he had tutored in composition and music theory at the Moscow Conservatory, Josef Kotek.

It was Kotek who came to his rescue in Clarens, Switzerland, carrying many scores in his suitcase. Among them was Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, a concertante work for violin and orchestra which influenced Tchaikovsky greatly on his concerto. I can ‘hear’ similarities between Lalo’s finale and Tchaikovsky’s opening movement.

On the banks of lake Geneva they worked together on the solo sections and the sketching was completed in just eleven days, with the complete scoring finished in two weeks. He must have written it in some kind of creative frenzy.

Somewhat surprisingly, given his close collaboration with the composer, Kotek also refused to perform the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Another early setback for the work.

However, Josef Kotek redeemed himself by instigating a life changing friendship for Tchaikovsky, as he enthusiastically edified his former tutor to his employer, Nadheza von Meck, a wealthy arts patron. Tchaikovsky began composing for her ‘in house’ string ensemble, (which Josef Kotek played in), resulting in a rewarding, if bizarre, fourteen year working relationship vital to Tchaikovsky’s composing career.

A later work by Tchaikovsky, the Valse-Scherzo for Violin and Orchestra was dedicated to Kotek.

Allegro Films have made a superb documentary about this period of his life:

Tchaikovsky rededicated his violin concerto to Adolph Brodsky, who premiered it in Vienna on 4th December 1881. The music critic Eduard Hanslick notoriously described it as “stinking music” — an insult which cut Tchaikovsky to the core.

A moving account of Tchaikovsky’s gratitude to Adolph Brodsky:

“In referring to this outstanding artist, I cannot help availing myself of this opportunity to express publicly the fervent gratitude which to my dying day I shall always feel for him because of the following incident. In 1877 I wrote a Violin Concerto and dedicated it to Mr L. Auer. I do not know whether Mr Auer felt himself flattered by my dedication, but the point is that, in spite of his genuine friendliness towards me, he never wanted to surmount the difficulties of this concerto and in fact pronounced it to be impossible to play—a verdict which, coming from such an authority as this Saint Petersburg-based virtuoso, plunged this unhappy child of my imagination into an abyss of what seemed to be irrevocable oblivion.
One day, some five years after my concerto had been written and published, when I was living in Rome, I went into a café and happened to pick up an issue of the Neue Freie Presse in whose feuilleton section there was an article by the famous critic Hanslick  about a recent concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Society which, amongst other things, had also featured that hapless violin creation of mine which L. S. Auer had condemned to non-existence a few years earlier. Herr Hanslick reproached the soloist (who was none other than A. D. Brodsky) for having made such a bad choice and lambasted my poor concerto, liberally strewing the pearls of his caustic humour and firing the most poisoned arrows of his irony.
“We know,” he wrote, “that in contemporary literature there have started to appear works whose authors love to reproduce in detail the most repulsive physiological phenomena, including foul smells. One might describe literature of that kind as stinking. Well, Herr Tschaikowsky has shown us that there can also be stinking music (stinkende Musik)”
Having read the above comment by this famous and highly influential critic, I could vividly picture to myself how much energy and effort it must have cost Mr Brodsky to get my “stinking concerto” performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, and how aggrieved and unpleasantly struck he must have been by this attitude of a critic towards a work by a fellow-countryman and friend. I of course hastened to convey my most heartfelt gratitude to Mr Brodsky, and from his reply I found out how many trials and tribulations he had had to get through in order to achieve his goal—and his goal was precisely to rescue my concerto from the abyss of oblivion. Mr Brodsky subsequently played the “stinking” concerto everywhere, and was everywhere attacked by critics similar to Hanslick in their approach and their exclusivity of tone, but still the deed was done—my concerto had been saved, and now it is quite frequently played in Western Europe, especially since another excellent violinist, the young Haliř, has come to the aid of Mr Brodsky (further down I shall have a lot to say about this young violinist).
It should now be understandable why I was so pleased to meet A. D. Brodsky in Leipzig, where I had never been before and otherwise had no friends amongst the locals, and to know that, throughout all the emotional agitation and even fears that were lying ahead of me on this tour, I could count on the moral support of his warm and firm friendship of many years’ standing.”

Musical influences on Tchaikovsky

An excerpt from his Autobiography in 1889 highlights how hearing Don Giovanni had affected him:

“Would play through my beloved Don Giovanni over and over again, or rehearse some shallow salon piece. From time to time, though, I would set about studying a Beethoven symphony. How strange! This music would cause me to feel sad each time and made me an unhappy person for weeks. From then on I was filled with a burning desire to write a symphony — a desire which would erupt afresh each time that I came into contact with Beethoven’s music. However, I would then feel all too keenly my ignorance, my complete inability to deal with the technique of composition, and this feeling brought me close to despair…”

From Wikipedia:
This declaration suggests that it was Beethoven’s symphonies in fact which kindled in the young Tchaikovsky the zeal to write music himself, rather than just escaping from everyday reality into the magical realm of Mozart’s opera. Moreover, the feeling of “sadness” which overcame him whenever he heard Beethoven’s music is one that would remain with him all his life, and, if around 1860 it was perhaps mainly due to his despair at the thought that he would never be able to write anything similar since he knew nothing of compositional technique, in later years it was certainly the “tragic struggle with Fate and striving after unattainable ideals” expressed in many of Beethoven’s works that struck a chord with Tchaikovsky. This affinity he felt with Beethoven and the element of ‘struggle’ in the latter’s life and music is perhaps most interestingly revealed in the additions he made to a compilation of biographical material on Beethoven which he started writing in 1873 but did not complete — ‘Beethoven and His Time’. These extra observations of his own suggest that Tchaikovsky clearly empathized with some important moments in Beethoven’s life: the early loss of his mother, the German composer’s struggle against adverse circumstances and against the failings of his own character. Thus, far from being merely a remote, awe-inspiring Old Testament God to him, Tchaikovsky recognized in Beethoven a kindred spirit, namely an artist who was deeply aware of the tragedy of human existence, and who sensed that the only true happiness he could find in life was in music. The comparison in his diary between Mozart and Beethoven, at first sight so ‘unfavourable’ for the latter, might therefore be interpreted, firstly, as a way of expressing how Mozart’s music acted like a balsam on his troubled soul as opposed to Beethoven’s, which reflected back his own suffering, and, secondly, as an implicit confession of how daunting it was to have to write music in the wake of Beethoven — a feeling that was shared by almost all the other great composers of the nineteenth century!

An insightful BBC documentary (sadly without subtitles for the Russian bits) on the life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893):

After an emotionally fraught birth and challenging early years, this musical ‘enfant terrible’ evolved through much struggle, and grew to walk and talk and eventually sing on the world stage, thanks to the magnificent potential Tchaikovsky suffused within its poignant notes, as well as the dedicated soloists throughout the decades who  underwent countless hours of bruised fingers, chafed necks, aching arms and mind-altering concentration, pouring out their heart and soul in bringing it to life.

In a comment about Beethoven’s masses Tchaikovsky observed that they were not strictly religious works but, similar to his symphonies, as ‘poetically intensive effusions of sentiment’, permeated by the same ‘spirit of despair and struggle’.

I definitely get the feeling that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major could be described thus, originating from the ‘ideal realm’ that Beethoven inspired in him, both from the perspective of performing and listening.

Any creative individual whose work may not have received glowing reviews or achieved early success can take heart from this story – all it takes is a determined and influential champion to make history.

How Brain Plasticity can Direct Life for Better or Worse

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” ~ Donald Hebb (Hebb’s Law)

Last week was #BrainAwarenessWeek, and as I find neuroscience a fascinating subject, I thought I’d share my key learning points in a bid to better understand and make the most of the electrical activity that happens within the grey matter nestled inside the cranium.

Your brain can change – it’s called plasticity!

Whether we tend to manifest slightly neurotic, nebulous or nifty neurons, Brain Plasticity (Neuropalsticity) can direct us to achieve our highest potential if understood and developed to positively influence an individual’s life experience.

I can hear Patrick Stewart’s deliberate and deep voice, laden with gravitas, that kicks off Star Trek episodes with the immortal words: “Space, the final frontier….”

I too would like to boldly go where no man has gone before, into my left prefrontal cortex! I’d like to make a case that it’s the six inches between our ears that has uncharted territory, and it’s certainly worthy of exploration. The human brain and psyche still has many secrets to reveal.

Now is a good time to give our neurons a second thought…

Think that affirmations are hooey? Visualisation is fantasy? Mindfulness is a load of rah-rah new age fluff?

I’ve sometimes had my doubts, but science backs it all up.

For me, learning and expanded awareness is a life-long process, and I know from past experience that the mind can be a powerful ally or your own worst enemy. I suspect you, like me, when you have wanted to implement positive change or more empowering habits have sometimes encountered resistance. It feels hard at first with conscious effort.

Oh boy, I’ve sabotaged myself more times than I’ve had hot dinners. However, I do eventually overcome the backlash from my brain; indignant that I’m making it work when it has previously been happily running on automatic.

If there ever was a case for being aware of our habitual thoughts, beliefs, habits and actions, this is it: once the circuitry is thoroughly embedded over time, our brain (doing what it is designed to do in conserving energy), runs those items on autopilot – what is known as Automaticity.

Until recently, Brain plasticity was thought to be a biological process unique to childhood, and that after a certain age brain development halted. Neuroscience has now proved that theory incorrect.In fact, our brains continue to evolve into old age if we take an active process in keeping our neurons firing. Scientist believe that our brains peak in our early forties, but we can use brain plasticity to slow cognitive decline.

The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ certainly applies to our brain cells.

Our brains have the capacity to create new neural pathways and new cells (neurogenesis), the latter being mainly in the memory HQ, the Hippocampus. Neurons are not hardwired like computer technology.  I know that I’d have been up the creek without a paddle if they were!

You’ve most likely upgraded your computer software at certain intervals to ensure smooth running, more speed and improved features. Well, we have incredible biochemical software in our heads which can be continually upgraded; possibly the most complex electrical equipment in the universe…

Our brains consist of around 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), surrounded and protected by ten times more glial cells, which give physical support, nutrition, repair and to some extent they assist neural communication and neuroplasticity.

On average a neuron fires between five and fifty times per second, forming thousands of links with other neurons and the more signals are sent between neurons the stronger they become. A typical brain might experience between a 100 and a 1000 trillion synapses. These hyper connected neural pathways form neural networks.

Imagine a field of wheat, just before harvesting. The tufty wheatears are swaying in the wind. If you walked from one side of the field to the other, you would leave an indentation in the crop. If you took a different route each time you crossed the field the paths would be there, but they would be faint.

If you kept using the same route each time you walked through the crop, the pathway would get flattened and leave a greater visible mark. It’s bigger and stronger than lots of less used paths. I find this a helpful analogy when thinking about neural pathways and brain plasticity.

“A particular train of thought persisted in, be it good or bad, cannot fail to produce its results on the character and circumstances. A man cannot directly choose his circumstances, but he can choose his thoughts, and so indirectly, yet surely, shape his circumstances.” ~ James Allen (As a Man Thinketh)

Through repetition, emotion and visualisation we fire certain neurons together repeatedly, forming new pathways.

Honing habits

Turbo-charging our brain takes work. Our brains evolved over millennia to do five things above all others: ensure survival, control bodily functions, keep us safe, conserve energy and experience pleasure, (including desirable sensory experience).

Our brains take up about 25% of our body’s daily energy pool.

At birth our brains are a blank canvas, a neutral sending and receiving set which does not contain any limiting beliefs, thoughts or perceptions.

When we are little and learning to walk and talk and co-ordinate our bodies we stumble and fall time and again, but we are determined and we eventually develop enough muscle memory, persistence and plasticity to succeed. So when we have mastered walking, talking and riding a bike, it comes to us as second nature, we don’t have to think about it because those strong neural patterns are embedded in our brain.

Even if I haven’t ridden a bike for years I can get back in the saddle and although I may have a wobbly start, I can very quickly find my balance and the plasticity of my brain enables me to reuse that skill.

Constant repetition enforces automaticity. This is great news for productive thought patterns and habits, not so much for disempowering ones.  Deeply held beliefs are re-enforced based on meanings we assign to events and situations. The stronger the emotion the stronger the pathway.

Scientists did an experiment with fleas in a jar. Because the fleas were trapped in the jar and would hit their heads on the lid when they tried to jump out, after a while they stopped jumping so high. They associated jumping with pain. When scientists removed the lid so they could escape they witnessed that the fleas still only jumped to just below the level of the lid. No fleas jumped out of the jar, even though they would have been able to, due to their conditioning.

Our parents, early environment and experiences shaped our thought processes as we expanded our internal ‘map of reality’.

Our habitual thoughts, feelings and actions create a sort of electrical loop, which is made automatic and becomes part of our unconscious expression. Those deeply created patterns run automatically whether they are positive and helpful or negative and self-limiting.

Trauma in childhood can be especially hard to overcome as the networks built around those experiences; thoughts of anxiety, lack of self-worth,  fear and depression reinforce dysfunctional behaviour over time, which can be become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative thought investments that we continually make, without often being aware of them, can be counter intuitive for this reason.

The brain will distort or delete anything that does not confirm with our subconscious map of reality, so we always prove ourselves right.

Such partisan and often vociferous political division in America seems to stem from both sides being entrenched in certain belief systems. We see what we are conditioned to see, so in a sense the eyes don’t see; the brain sees.

Behaviour, practice and activity are the primary drivers of change in the brain. The brain is shaped structurally and functionally by everything we do and don’t do. Science has also noted that if the learning involves increased difficulty that it leads to greater neural structure.

Music education

One example of this is learning a musical instrument. When I first began to learn the violin I found it extremely challenging and I would come home from my lesson feeling tired. Eventually I mastered the basic skills, how to read music, first position, bowing, trills, double-stopping, 3rd and 5th position and started taking grades.

After a few years one of the pieces I really wanted to learn to play was Beethoven’s Violin Romance No. 2 (which was on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus a few years back).

There were sections I thought I would never master. But one time, I had a Eureka Moment and saw the music in a different way and was able to understand how to play the section I had always got stuck on before. It removed my self-imposed glass ceiling. I can play it pretty well now, but I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it like a virtuoso.

Whenever I hear it being played I can ‘see’ the notes and move my fingers in the air as if I’m playing it, visualising where I would place them on the fingerboard. I can even play it with my eyes closed and ‘feel’ where my fingers should go.

At one time I had the entire piece committed to memory, but I obviously didn’t play it enough on an ongoing basis to keep firing the neurons, so now I can only remember the first third or so of it.

Now to tackle Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin!

It’s important to practice music correctly as playing a section with a slight mistake again and again will mean that it’s harder to fix it later on because the mistake will become automatic.

Playing music lights up the brain like a fireworks display, and I have touched on this in my post: The Importance of a Musical Education.

Setting goals and implementing new habits

So when we recognise a habit or thought pattern that is no longer serving us and try to replace it with a more constructive one which is sparked in the thinking, conscious mind (the left prefrontal cortext), it can sometimes conflict with hidden beliefs wired into our subconscious and our brain experiences chaos.

John Assaraf eloquently explains this concept:

The new goal is therefore not in alignment with a story we have continually told ourselves, so we might talk ourselves out of doing something new or procrastinate. The ensuing brain confusion can make us a slave to our conditioning if it is self-limiting.

This cognitive dissonance that we experience can keep us stuck.  We have to pay a price to implement new thoughts, behaviours and learning, which is also known as the switch cost. Our brains go through a period of uncertainty, fear and other emotions.

Dr. Srini Pillay, a professor of Neuropsychology at Harvard University and a specialist in brain imagery and best-selling author, says that we must become committed to this new change and convince our brain that the change is essential.

There are various methods to help us rewire a new habit or thought pattern, such as self-talk, positive affirmations and corresponding physical actions. Self-talk is meant to be even more effective when we talk to ourselves in the 2nd person. For example, I might say to myself before a speech to a group of people: “Ginny you’ve got this, your talk is engaging and interesting, it will resonate with the audience and be successful.”

New actions and self-talk changes brain blood flow and increases neurotransmitters such as dopamine. He also recommended activating reward pathways.

When we experience fear the lizard part of our brain is activated, the AMYGDALA. This is our ‘feeling’ and danger processing centre, and yep, you guessed it, our amygdala doesn’t like change!

So these fearful thoughts and feelings that overwhelm us sometimes when we try new things, or find ourselves out of our comfort zone, can cause a sort of ‘earthquake’ in this part of the brain. But because all parts of the brain are connected this has an impact on our left prefrontal cortex, (the Einstein part of the brain) and that can rattle and shake in after-shocks which disrupts mental clarity.

I have certainly experienced this with some challenging circumstances recently which also meant I had experienced severe and prolonged sleep deprivation as well. This caused a huge amount of stress. I wasn’t just stressed, I was distressed. There were times when I felt like I had lost my mind!

Stress

Dr. Pillay confirmed what I had been experiencing, and that is that when we are emotionally stressed and the amygdala is activated, it makes it much harder to think rationally, and tends to trigger our brain to revert to old, well worn pathways and habits.

An obvious example is how someone who was once an alcoholic, but has been sober for many years can spectacularly fall off the wagon when confronted with trauma or intensely stressful situations.  Same with smoking, retail therapy, or any dysfunctional behaviour or coping mechanism.

From all angles, rampant, out of control stress sucks.

He stated that stress is the key to habit health. How we manage it is fundamental to getting the most out of our grey matter. Productive, self-empowering daily habits are more important than strategies.

The first step is awareness, noticing what we are noticing.

“If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs—and becomes automatic—it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable.”  ~ Charles Duhigg, (The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business)

Developing mental muscle

The human body has a total of 650 muscles at its disposal. If we want to tone our physique or define those muscles further we have to exercise and add resistance to our workouts. We’d also picture in our mind’s eye what we want our body to look like. Athletes and sports people often use visualisation in addition to physical training to enable strong physical and mental prowess.

The same fundamental principle also applies to our brains.

It’s very important to find mindfulness practices that work for us. Meditation with Holosync is a life saver for me, as well as breathing exercises, physical exercise, reading and playing my violin. A hug helps too!

Meditation

“Meditation has also been proven scientifically to untangle and rewire the neurological pathways in the brain that make up the conditioned personality.
Buddhist monks, for example, have had their brains scanned by scientists as they sat still in deep altered states of consciousness invoked by transcendental meditation and the scientists were amazed at what they beheld. The frontal lobes of the monks lit up as bright as the sun!
They were in states of peace and happiness the scientists had never seen before. Meditation invokes that which is known in neuroscience as neuroplasticity; which is the loosening of the old nerve cells or hardwiring in the brain, to make space for the new to emerge. Meditation, in this sense, is a fire that burns away the old or conditioned self, in the Bhagavad Gita, this is known as the Yajna.”
~ Craig Krishna, (The Labyrinth: Rewiring the Nodes in the Maze of your Mind)

This is a simple but effective way to attain an altered state of consciousness very quickly, by Dr. David R hawkins:

Dr. Pillay suggests using CIRCA:

  • C – Chunking down the problem/situation (defining/taking manageable steps when overwhelmed)
  • I – Ignoring mental chatter (employ meditation, mindfulness, joy filled activities)
  • R – Reality check (recognising that ‘this too shall pass’)
  • C – Control check (Understanding that not everything is within our control and letting go)
  • A – Attention shift (Focusing on the solution which also involves epigenetics)

Innercise

Self-empowerment coach John Assaraf devised internal exercises known as Innercises, which can be different according to want you want to achieve. Today we don’t have to contend with the appearance of a sabre tooth tiger in the village, but in the modern world we are vulnerable to a vast array of internal or external stimuli which can trigger our evolutionary fight or flight response. When that happens, blood is drawn away from the prefrontal cortex into the amygdala.

Innercises are effective in the Autonomic Nervous System (in the Hypathalamus), consisting of the Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Sympathetic Nervous System. When we are relaxed and responsive we are in the Parasympathetic Nervous System, where we generally exhibit good judgement and consciously choose how to react.

When we are fearful, emotional or distressed our bodies prepare for survival and Cortisol is released into the blood, via the Sympathetic Nervous System. When this happens we need to actively empower the left prefrontal cortex and limit the time the amygdala is running the show, and therefore activating unhelpful previous neural patterns.

Take 6, Calm the Circuits

Breath in deeply through the nose (from the abdomen not chest) and count to six. Release slowly through your mouth, slightly pursed as if blowing through a straw. You can also say: “I breathe in calmness,” as you inhale and “I release stress and fear,” as you exhale.

Another Innercise is AIA: Awareness, Intention and Action.

Awareness: Take 10 minutes and ask yourself – What are my dominant thoughts, emotions, feelings and behaviours right now? Write them down, note if positive or negative. Pay attention to whether you are behaving in a constructive way. The golden rule here is not to assign blame, shame or guilt, just observe without judgment.

Intention: Now that you are aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions and in a calm state, ask do you want to be in this state, or something more positive? Set your clear intention for what you want. Ask: what if you’re worthy of being your future self?

Action: Do one action you can take to interrupt the dysfunctional pattern. Recognise the ones you want to keep and strengthen those, and let go of the ones you want to release.

I love these short and sweet bursts of inspiration from Dr. Robert Mark Waldman:

There are two reasons we look to upgrade our subconscious conditioning: longing and discontent. These emotions motivate us to change and tell ourselves new stories so that we can experience an expanded version of life expression, to be more fulfilled and joyful.

The ability to be able to translate potential into results is summed up perfectly by Maxwell Maltz, author of Psycho Cybernetics:

“Within you right now is the power to do things you never dreamed possible. This power becomes available to you just as you can change your beliefs.”

Neuroplasticity matters, because we can never outperform our own self-image.

Helpful aspects of neuroplasticity:

Flex your cortex!

7 ways to make the most of brain plasticity:

  1. Single task! Do one thing at a time and avoid multi-tasking. I used to pride myself on being able to switch between tasks, but in reality I wasn’t doing justice to any of them. Our brains are not wired to do two things simultaneously. The brain toggles using the frontal lobes and this increases stress hormones. Single task for improved mental productivity.
  2. Inhibit information. Whilst the internet has been a massive benefit for humanity, it’s now such a behemoth of content that if not controlled information overload can fry your circuits! The highest performing individuals are the not the ones who know the most, but who know what to block out, inhibit or bounce and focus only on a few things.
  3. Detox distractions. If we’re not careful we can let technology control us. Smartphone addiction is detracting from living. Who wants to live with constant buzzing and beeping? It is said that the average person in a corporate setting works for only 3 minutes without interruption. How can anyone do high level thinking in just 3 minutes? It takes about 20 minutes to recover from a distraction and get back into flow.
  4. Big idea thinking. This is rocket fuel for your brain. To take ideas from disparate sources, learning and various areas of your life to combine them with the rich knowledge and experience you already have and thereby form some generalised higher way of thinking. It means we have to synthesise and interpret life. The meanings we derive are the powerhouse transformative communication. Is learning boring or rote? Big idea thinking makes thinking, memory and learning more robust and increases all levels of brain health. It can increase blood flow by 8-12% so neurons are happier! This state can elicit a 30% increase in speed of neural connection across the executive networks. Reasoning and problem solving is improved. Big ideas are to the brain what push-ups and pull-ups are to the body.
  5. Calibrate: balance mental effort. Don’t waste mental effort on less important items, do the big thinking and important tasks in the first few hours of the day.
  6. Innovate: the brain becomes stale with the status quo, it’s not firing on all cylinders.
  7. Motivate: Motivation trumps talent. It’s what will help inspire us to reach our full potential. It can be elusive, but it’s easier if you are doing something you are passionate about. Innovation fuels motivation which injects our brains with powerful neurotransmitters such as dopamine. It makes us happier and increases the speed of learning.

Dr. McKay also gives us permission to indulge in our neurobiology:

In many ways the body and brain could be viewed as a biological virtual reality suit for our consciousness. Perhaps these scientific ideas and practical exercises will be useful for further exploration and understanding, so that we can all perform at a higher level.

Dr. David R Hawkins teaches about the benefits of the etheric brain after someone reaches a certain level of consciousness, but that’s a whole new post for another day…

We are the drivers and mechanics of the most powerful engine in the world, but it certainly helps if we have an instruction manual!

 “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ~ Aristotle

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Théodore Géricault’s Masterpiece: Raft of the Medusa (c. 1818-19)

“The truly gifted individual does not fear obstacles, because he knows that he can surmount them; indeed they often are an additional asset; the fever they are able to excite in his soul is not lost; it even often becomes the cause of the most astonishing productions.” ~ Théodore Géricault

The Raft of the Medusa is not an easy painting to study or appreciate, but it deserves our attention; for we can learn much from the real-life tragic event that inspired it, as well as the feverish dedication and skill with which it was painted.

Measuring a whopping 23 by 16 feet, this epic oil on canvas masterpiece now hangs in a gallery near the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris.

Le Radeau de la Méduse was Théodore Géricault’s most famous and shocking work of art.

Le Radeau de la Meduse by Théodore Géricault c. 1818-19

The Raft of the Medusa portrays a brief moment of euphoria as the men on the raft spot another ship in the distance, hoping and praying to be rescued after thirteen horrific days at sea. The Argus can only just be seen on the horizon.

You can almost hear the men’s hoarse cries in an attempt to draw attention to their desperate plight, mustering their last ounce of strength to shout and wave a stained, ripped shirt. This is their last chance of survival…

Théodore Géricault, a courageous, passionate, Romantic era French painter and lithographer, sadly passed away from tuberculosis at the tender age of thirty three. Géricault didn’t live long enough to see his paining achieve its greatness, but that seems to be the way of things for many artists and creatives.

Probably the ghost of Vincent van Gogh would be flabbergasted (but happy), to know the sums of money passing hands for his prized paintings; or of his universal popularity and posthumous fame. Yet of the prolific oeuvre of 900 paintings he produced in his lifetime, he sold only one:  Red Vineyard at Arles.

It is a curious phenomena. Many artists, composers and writers were under appreciated or misunderstood in their prime… In the spirit of originality they were simply being true to themselves, following their inner compass, regardless of the trends, thoughts and fashions of the time.

Who knows what Géricault might have produced had he been gifted with a few more years to bestow his artistic talent on the world. But in my humble opinion he has earned a place at the table of the greats with this heart-rending work.

The Raft of the Medusa depicts the harrowing and calamitous historical outcome of the ill-fated voyage of the French Navy’s forty gun Frigate Méduse, carrying around 400 passengers (including the new Governor and his wife),  plus various French officials who were en-route to reclaim Senegal from the British.

Wreck of frigate Méduse

The Méduse ran aground on the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania in the summer of 1816. The shipwreck and its raft tragedy elicited considerable public emotion, making Méduse one of the most infamous shipwrecks of the Age of Sail.

An incompetent captain

Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was installed as ship’s captain by King Louis XVIII in a political manoeuvre because of his support for the monarchy after the Bourbon Restoration.

Louis XVIII of France in Coronation Robes by Francois Gerard

The king overlooked the fact that he had hardly sailed for twenty years, and was clearly unsuitable for the posting. It was an act of unparalleled hubris by the French monarch, as Monsieur de Chaumareys proved himself to be incompetent and grossly negligent for the unnecessary deaths of many of his passengers and crew.

The Méduse was not the first vessel to not carry enough lifeboats for all its passengers, and sadly it has not been the last. There were only enough lifeboats to accommodate 250 passengers on the voyage should the need arise. And arise it did.

In his attempt to impress the new governor and important guests, the captain sailed too fast and too close to the shore (ignoring the warnings of a senior crew member), in his bid to arrive at their before the accompanying vessels. Inevitably, the Medusa struck a large sandbank.

Perhaps the ignominy made too big a dent in his pride, as de Chaumareys refused to offload the heavy cannons on board the Méduse so she could be re-floated. Another unconscionable decision with others to follow that would cost more lives.

Stranded off the West African coast, the Méduse listed helplessly. Initially, it was decided that the lifeboats would make two return runs to shore (around thirty miles away) in order to get everyone to safety, and a raft was hastily built, twenty metres long and seven metres wide, to transport the ship’s cargo.

Raft of Méduse at the moment of its abandonment by Alexandre Corréard

However, inclement weather whipped up a storm that hit them on 5th July 1816 and the captain, fearing the Méduse would break apart, gave the order to abandon ship. Seventeen soldiers and crew remained on the ship in order to protect her cargo, while 250 passengers were placed in the lifeboats and 147 souls were packed like sardines onto the raft, which was being towed by the lifeboats.

Human nature always seems to be either at its worst or its best during times of crisis, and there does not appear to be any signs of heroism emerging from this particular historical debacle.

The people in the lifeboats (perhaps fearing for their own lives), cut the ropes towing the raft after a bit, and with barely any food, drink or life sustaining supplies and no way of steering or navigating, the raft drifted into the swell of the Atlantic…

The apparent cruelty and callousness with which they were jettisoned by the passengers in the lifeboats would unleash hellish conditions and unbridled panic on the unfortunate men (and one woman) clinging to the raft, as they rapidly perished through drowning, starvation, suicide, disease, fighting and murder.

Although shocking, it’s probably not surprising that some of them eventually resorted to cannibalism.

The centre of the raft was the safest place and violent attacks broke out as the men clambered and fought to be away from the exposed edges, the prowling sharks and the unforgiving waves…

After thirteen days of being tossed around at sea, one of the accompanying ships, the Argus, saw and subsequently rescued the survivors from what was left of the raft. They found only fifteen men left alive from the 147, and a further five of these died when they reached land, including the last African crew member, Jean-Charles.

Suddenly, here was a historical painting not of heroic deeds, not drawn from ancient Greek or Roman mythology, but of real people struggling with a contemporary disaster, shown to the French nation in the form of Géricault’s brutally visual social commentary on the tragedy.

To add insult to injury de Chaumareys sent a salvage crew back to the Méduse to recover her cargo of gold. The ship had not been broken apart as he had thought, but remained intact, with only three of the seventeen men who stayed aboard still alive after fifty four days.

During his court martial in 1817, de Chaumareys was acquitted on three counts: of abandoning his squadron, of failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft. However, he was found guilty on two counts: of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off.

The verdict carried a potential death penalty, but de Chaumareys was sentenced to only three years in jail.

However, I do feel the British must have had their fair share of bumbling idiots put in unsuitable positions of power and responsibility by favour of royal or noble patrons, without due consideration to the consequences of their actions.

Even though The Raft of the Medusa must have highlighted further the embarrassment and subsequent attempt to cover-up the shipwreck by the French monarchy, its sizeable depiction on canvas was nonetheless displayed at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1819.

Raft of the Medusa shown in Salon Carre of the Louvre depicting Gericault’s painting on display by Nicolas Sebastien Maillot c. 1831

King Louis XVIII commented: “Monsieur Géricault, you’ve painted a shipwreck, but it’s not one for you.”

Its grisly, visual storytelling wasn’t so far removed from the tenets of the Romantic Movement: to arouse emotions, feelings and passion; reacting against cool, hard logic and depicting individuals in peril. Although Romantic in genre there is still an element of Classicism in the work.

The underlying theme of Romanticism was that not everything could be understood.

“Feel the forces of nature in all of their grandeur and power so you feel insignificant. Only then can you feel part of something bigger.” ~ Edmund Burke

People were smaller parts of a larger, mysterious whole; usually painted at the mercy of the forces of nature in wild and untamed landscapes.

Romantic art works were designed to make people feel overwhelmed, and I think when we look at this painting, the best word to describe the Raft of the Medusa is overwhelming….

Géricault grafted and crafted a work that was overwhelming in subject matter beyond anything that had been painted by anyone before.  It confronts us with strongly visceral material: physical, mental and emotional suffering, all the more poignant for its tiny element of hope.

Despite the painting’s similarities with the historical event it portrays, there are notable differences. For all its authenticity, Géricault may have decided to heighten the drama for aesthetic considerations. There are more people on the raft in the painting than there were left in real life, and the weather was sunny and calm on the day of the rescue, not brooding and stormy. But we’ll forgive him for taking such artistic licence!

“With the brush we merely tint, while the imagination alone produces colour.” ~ Théodore Géricault

The entire Raft of the Medusa project was completed by Géricault in eighteen months.

The right hand triangle of tangled, contorted bodies is crowned by a black man, waving a makeshift flag at the ship on the horizon. Perhaps he was also commenting on slavery, as well as the desire to survive, for Géricault was an Abolitionist.

The scene is dark, it does not hide the madness, desperation and death that these souls experienced, but Géricault still manages to impart some aesthetic beauty into the work. The figures are obviously Baroque in their physical appearance, muscular and of the type you might see in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens (who was a major influence on Géricault).

The lighting is somewhat “Caravaggesque”, after the Italian artist closely associated with tenebrism—the use of violent contrast between light and dark.

It could be said that there is also the influence of Michelangelo if you study the detail of the underworld from his immortal Renaissance masterpiece, the Last Judgement on the Sistine Chapel.

Detail of The Last Judgement by Michelangelo

“Michelangelo sent shivers up my spine, these lost souls destroying each other inevitably conjure up the tragic grandeur of the Sistine Chapel.” ~ Théodore Géricault

A literary influence is also prominently on display in the painting, Géricault’s clever way of making the viewer question what they would do in a similar situation. He does this by depicting a character from a well-known story to his audience of the time: Count Ugolino from Dante’s Divine Comedy.

It is thought he ‘borrowed’ the image from a painting of Ugolini by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).

Ugolino and his sons starving to death in the tower by Henry Fuseli c. 1806

We see the dolorous, mature, grey haired man, red scarf draped over his head, his right elbow on his knee, sitting hunched in grief and resignation with his left arm resting over his dead son.

Géricault is asking us through these figures representing Count Ugolino and his lifeless son: is hunger stronger than grief?

In Inferno, Dante writes that the prisoners were slowly starved to death and before dying Count Ugolino’s children begged him to eat their bodies.

“’Father our pain’, they said,
‘Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away’.
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 56–59)

 

“… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me”
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 70–73)
Research above and beyond the call of duty!

In his quest to make an impact and accurately depict the events that took place on the raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault first read damning newspaper accounts in the Journal des débats which appeared on 13 September 1816, then contacted two survivors from the shipwreck: the cartographer Alexandre Corréard and surgeon Jean-Baptiste Henri Savigny.

They had co-written a book about their ordeal and agreed to meet him and relay their traumatic experiences. He put them up in his home during this time.

Géricault learned that the ship’s carpenter had also survived, and duly invited him to build a smaller scale replica of the actual raft in his studio. He was then able to study the perspective of a realistic scene for his epic painting.

Portrait of the Carpenter on the Méduse by Théodore Géricault

And if you didn’t think that that was enough, he also visited the morgue to sketch and study corpses and cadavers, so that he could accurately portray their lifeless, pallid expressions and complexions.

Géricault  even took the unprecedented step of bringing body parts back to his studio to paint. The stench of putrid flesh must have been overwhelming, not to mention the most unpleasant and macabre nature of this undertaking.

Study of body parts in preparation for the Raft of the Medusa

That he went to such lengths over this painting is almost incomprehensible.

Preparatory work of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

Composition and structure

The majority of the raft’s inhabitants are arranged in two pyramid type structures along with the small sail, while the open space at the forefront of the raft makes it seem closer and invites us to step aboard if we dare…

The way the light shines and reflects on the living (and dead flesh), in a brief moment of euphoria as they spot a ship on the horizon is really quite eerie. The large wave on the left threatens to engulf them all before they can be rescued, their situation is still precarious. The sun’s rays illuminating the sky from beyond the horizon offsets the foreboding dark clouds. There is not much left of the raft itself at this stage.

French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix posed as the dark haired figure lying face down at the front of the painting with his arm stretched out in front of him.

Delacroix was a friend and admirer of Géricault, and later painted his famous Barque of Dante along similar thematic lines.

“Géricault allowed me to see his Raft of Medusa while he was still working on it. It made so tremendous an impression on me that when I came out of the studio I started running like a madman and did not stop till I reached my own room.” ~ Eugène Delacroix

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

The raft of the Medusa was exhibited in London in 1820 at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, from 10th June until the end of the year, and was seen by around 40,000 visitors. It proved more popular in London, partly because it was hung low to the ground (unlike at the Salon where its high position lessened its monumental impact).

Influences on Géricault for The Raft of the Medusa

French contemporary artists that would have left their mark on Géricault and influenced his approach and execution of the Raft of the Medusa, were Jacques-Louis David, Antoine-Jean Gros and Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.

From Wikipedia:

Several English and American paintings including The Death of Major Pierson by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815)—also painted within two years of the event—had established a precedent for a contemporary subject. Copley had also painted several large and heroic depictions of disasters at sea which Géricault may have known from prints: Watson and the Shark (1778), in which a black man is central to the action, and which, like The Raft of the Medusa, concentrated on the actors of the drama rather than the seascape;

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 (1791), which was an influence on both the style and subject matter of Géricault’s work; and Scene of a Shipwreck (1790s), which has a strikingly similar composition. A further important precedent for the political component was the works of Francisco Goya, particularly his The Disasters of War series of 1810–12, and his 1814 masterpiece The Third of May 1808.

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824)

Born in Rouen to a wealthy family, young Theo was first educated in his art by the painter Carle Vernet, in the sytle of English sporting art. Many of his earlier works were mostly of horses or with a military theme, and sometimes combined both.

Théodore Géricault in his studio c. 1818

He was allowed to paint the magnificent horses in their stables at Versailles. Pierre-Narcisse Guérin taught him classical figure composition, but Géricault decided to self-direct his education at the Louvre from 1810 to 1815, copying works by Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt.

His last works were a series of ten paintings of the insane, the patients of a friend, Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatric medicine, with each subject exhibiting a different affliction. Five are known to have survived, including the Insane Woman. ‘Les monomaniacs’ portraits are subtle and brilliantly nuanced.

Interesting history of the artist by Dr. Christian Conrad:

In addition to his influence on Delacroix, Géricault’s work had an important effect on Edouard Manet and the future impressionists. JMW Turner even strapped himself to the mast of ship to experience being out in a storm in the quest for authenticity!

Géricault could be considered the pivotal founding figure of modern art.

The event and the painting inspired the German composer Hans Werner Henze, who wrote a suitably epic oratorio on the subject, Das Floß der Medusa.

The powerful presence and authenticity of this work; its scope, its grisly subject matter and enthusiastic, atmospheric rendering will ensure the Raft of the Medusa remains in the cannon of humanity’s greatest art works.

All I can say is I’m glad I wasn’t there! Thankfully lessons were learned from this tragic episode of French Maritime history. The Gouvion de Saint-Cyr Law ensured that promotions in the French military would thereafter be based solely on merit.

“Our whole society is aboard the raft of the Medusa.” ~ Jules Michelet