Genuine Music Legend Leonard Bernstein Asks: Why Beethoven?

“I can’t live one day without hearing music, playing it, studying it, or thinking about it.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

In the summer of 1948 the pianist, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein took a road trip with his younger brother, Burton Bernstein (who appears to have been their speedy chauffeur) and a literary British friend.

Their conversations are far from humdrum, as you would expect from such luminaries. I wanted to share a section of their dialogue that I found fascinating, intellectual and insightful, as documented by Bernstein in an early chapter of his book, The Joy of Music under the heading: Bull Session in the Rockies.

At the time of the conversation they are somewhere in the mountainous region of the Picasso Pass of New Mexico, and Leonard Bernstein refers to his brother as Y.B. (maybe some affectionate nickname) and his literary friend is called Lyric Poet ( L.P.).

Bernstein has these gracious words about his friend: L.P. is a poet’s poet from Britain and one of those incredible people who are constantly so involved in politics, love, music and working ideals, that, despite their established success, they often find themselves embarrassed in the presence of a laundry bill. When L.P. speaks, he is oracular; when he is silent, he is even more so.

I totally admire Lyric Poet, whoever he is/was, for attempting musical discourse with such a mind as Bernstein’s. He must have felt exasperated at times!

I have interspersed the text with Beethoven recordings by Bernstein where he has made a recording pertaining to their conversation to enrich the overall experience.

The following is what transpired between them…

Why Beethoven?

LP: My dear Y.B., I suspect you have forgotten the fact that our tyre burst yesterday was caused by just such driving as you are now guilty of.

YB: Don’t end your sentence with a preposition. (But Y.B. is impressed enough to reduce speed considerably-though gradually enough to preclude the suspicion that he has yielded a point. Few can impress hard-boiled Y.B.; but even he is not immune to the oracle. Some minutes pass in relieved silence; and, with the tension gone, L.P. may now revert to the basic matter of all trip-talk: the scenery.)

LP: These hills are pure Beethoven. (There is an uneventful lapse of five minutes, during which L.P. meditates blissfully on his happy metaphor; Y.B. smarts under the speed restriction, and I brood on the literary mind which is habitually forced to attach music to the hills, the sea, or will-o’-the-wisps.)

LP: Pure Beethoven.

LB: (Ceasing to brood): I had every intention of letting your remark pass for innocent, but since you insist on it, I have a barbed question to put. With so many thousands of hills in the world- at least a hundred per famous composer- why does every hill remind every writer of Ludwig van Beethoven?

LP: Fancy that- and I thought I was flattering you by making a musical metaphor. Besides, I happen to find it true. These mountains have a quality of majesty and craggy exaltation that suggest Beethoven to me.

LB: Which symphony?

LP: Very funny indeed. You mean to say that you see no relation between this landscape and Beethoven’s music?

LB: Certainly- and Bach’s, and Stravinsky’s, and Sibelius’, and Wagner’s- and Raff’s. So why Beethoven?

LP: As the caterpillar said to Alice, “Why not?”

LB: I’m being serious L.P., and you’re not. Ever since I can recall, the first association that springs to anyone’s mind when serious music is mentioned is “Beethoven.” When I must give a concert to open a season an all-Beethoven program is usally requested. When you walk into a concert hall bearing the names of the greats inscribed around it on a freize, there he sits, front and center, the first, the largest, the most immediately visible, and usually gold-plated. When a festival of orchestral music is contemplated the bets are ten to one it will turn out to be a Beethoven festival. What is the latest chic among young neo-classic compcosers? Neo-Beethoven! What is the meat-and-potatoes of every piano recital? A Beethoven sonata. Or of every quartet program? Opus one hundred et cetera. What did we play in our symphony concerts when we wanted to honor the fallen in war? The Eroica. What did we play on V Day? The Fifth. What is every United Nations concert? The Ninth. What is every Ph.D. oral exam in music schools? Play all the themes you can from the nine symphonies of Beethoven! Beethoven! Ludwig v-

LP: What’s the matter, don’t you like him?

LB: Like him? I’m all for him! In fact, I’m rather a nut on the subject, which is probably why I caught up your remark so violently. I adore Beethoven. But I want to understand this unwritten proscription of everyone else from the top row. I’m not complaining. I’d just like to know why not Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann-

YB: Andybody want a piece of gum?

LP: Well, I suppose it’s because Beethoven – or rather there must be a certain tra- That is, if one thinks through the whole-

LB: That’s just what I mean: there’s no answer.

LP: Well, dammit, man, it’s because he’s the best, that’s all! Let’s just say it out unashamed: Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived!

LB: (Who agrees, but has a Talmudic background): Dunkt dir das? May I challenge you to a blow by blow substantiation of this brave statement?

LP: With pleasure. How?

LB: Let’s take the elements of music one by one- melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, orchestration- and see how our friend measures up on each count. Do you think it an unfair method?

LP: Not at all. Let’s see, melody…Melody! Lord, what melody! The slow movement of the Seventh! Singing its heart out-

LB: Its monotone heart, you mean. The main argument of this “tune,” if you will recall, is glued helplessly to E-natural.

LP: Well, but that is intentional- meant to produce a certain static, somber, marchlike-

LB: Granted. But then it is not particularly distinguished for melody.

LP: I was fated to pick a poor example. How about the first movement?

LB: Just try whistling it. (L.P. makes a valiant attempt. Stops. Pause.)

LB: (Brightly): Shall we move on to harmony?

LP: No, dammit, I’ll see this through yet! The…the…I’ve got it! The slow movement of the A-minor quartet! The holiness of it, the thankfulness of the convalescent, the purity of incredibly sustained slow motion, the-

LB: The melody?

LP: Oh, the melody, the melody! What is melody anyway? Does it have to be a beer hall tune to deserve that name? Any succession of notes- Y.B., you’re speeding again!- is a melody, isn’t it?

LB: Technically, yes. But we are speaking of the relative merits of one melody versus another. And in the case of Beethoven-

LP: (Somewhat desperately): There’s always that glorious tune in the finale of the Ninth: Dee-da-da-

LB: Now even you must admit that one beer hall par excellence, don’t you think?

LP: (with a sigh): Cedunt Helvetii. We move on to harmony. Of course you must understand that I’m not a musician, so don’t pull out the technical stops on me.

LB: Not at all Lyric One. I need only make reference to three or four most common chords in Western music. I am sure you are familiar with them.

LP: You mean (sings) “Now the day is o-ver, Night is drawing nigh; Shadows of the eeee-v’ning-“

LB: Exactly. Now what can you find in Beethoven that is harmonically much more adventurous than what you have just sung?

LP: You’re not serious L.B. You couldn’t mean that! Why, Beethoven the radical, the arch revolutionary, Napoleon, all that-

LB: And yet the pages of the Fifth Symphony stream on with the old three chords chasing each other about until you wonder what more he can possibly wring from them. Tonic, dominant, tonic, subdominant, dominant-

LP: But what a punch they pack!

LB: That’s another matter. We were speaking of harmonic interest, weren’t we?

LP: I admit I wouldn’t advance harmony as Beethoven’s strong point. But we were coming to rhythm. Now there you certainly can’t deny the vigour, the intensity, the pulsation, the drive-

LB: You back down too easily on his harmony. The man had a fascinating way with a chord, to say the least: the weird spacings, the violently sudden modulations, the unexpected turn of harmonic events, the unheard-of dissonances-

LP: Whose side are you on anyway? I thought you had said the harmony was dull?

LB: Never dull- only limited, and therefore less interesting than harmony which followed his period. And as to rhythm- certainly he was a rhythmic composer; so is Stavinsky. So were Bizet and Berlioz. I repeat- why Beethoven?

LP: I’m afraid you’re begging the question. Nobody has proposed that Beethoven leads all the rest solely because of his rhythm, or his melody, or his harmony. It’s the combination-

LB: The combination of undistinguished elements? That hardly adds up to the gold-plated bust we worship in the conservatory concert hall! And the counterpoint-

YB: Gum, anyone?

LB: -is generally of the schoolboy variety. He spent his whole life trying to write a really good fugue. And the orchestration is at times downright bad, especially in the later period when he was deaf. Unimportant trumpet parts sticking out of the orchestra like sore thumbs, horns bumbling along endlessly repeated notes, drowned-out woodwinds, murderously cruel writing for the human voice. And there you have it.

LP: (In despair): Y.B., I wish I didn’t have to constantly keep reminding you about driving sanely!

YB: You have just split an infinitive. (But he slows down)

LP: (Almost in a rage- a lyrical one, of course): Somehow or other I feel I ought to make a speech. My idol has been desecrated before my eyes. And by one whose tools are notes, while mine are words- words! There he lies, a bedraggled, deaf, syphilitic, besmirched by the vain tongue of pseudocriticism; no attention paid to his obvious genius, his miraculous outpourings, his pure revelation, his vision of glory, brotherhood, divinity! There he lies, a mediocre melodist, a homely harmonist, an iterant riveter of a rhythmist, an ordinary orchestrator, a commonplace contrapuntist! This from a musician, one who professes to lift back the hide from the anatomical secrets of these mighty works- one whose life is a devotion to the musical mystery! It is impossible, utterly, utterly impossible!

(There is a pause, partly self-indulgent, partly a silence befitting the climax of a heart-given tribute).

LB: You are right L.P. It is truly impossible. But it is only through this kind of analysis that we can arrive at the truth. You see, I have agreed with you from the beginning, but I have been thinking aloud with you. I am no different from the others who worship that name, those sonatas and quartets, that gold bust. But I suddenly sensed the blindness of that worship when you brought it to bear on those hills. And in challenging you, I was challenging myself to produce Exhibit A- the evidence. And now, if you’re recovered, I am sure you can name the musical element we have omitted in our blow-by-blow survey.

LP: (Sober now, but with a slight hangover): Melody, harm- of curse, Form. How stupid of me to let you omit it from the list. Form- the very essence of Beethoven, the life of those magnificent opening allegros, those perfect scherzos, those cumulative-

LB: Careful. You’re igniting again. No, that’s not quite what I mean by form. Let me put it this way. Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But this is all mere dust- nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard. When he really did it- as in the Funeral March of the Eroica– he produced an entity that always seems to me to have been previously written in Heaven, and then merely dictated to him. Not that the dictation was easily achieved. We know with what agonies he paid for listening to divine orders. But the reward is great. There is a special space carved out in the cosmos into which this movement just fits, predetermined and perfect.

LP: Now you’re igniting.

LB: (Deaf to everything but his own voice): Form is only an empty word, a shell, without this gift of inevitability; a composer can write a string of perfectly molded sonata-allegro movements, with every rule obeyed, and still suffer from bad form. Beethoven broke all the rules , and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness.  Rightness- that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds that last is is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms- leave them to the Chaikovskys and the Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish:  Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

LP: (Quietly): But that is almost a definition of God.

LB: I meant it to be.

***

I feel that this lively discussion formed the basis of several of Lenny’s famous recordings about the genius of Beethoven in which he espouses the idea of the perfection of each subsequent note in Beethoven’s music.

Rather paradoxically Bernstein slates as well as salivates, over Beethoven. Some of us aren’t happy! Thomas Goss take’s up Lyric Poet’s mantel in defending Mr B!

Whatever your thoughts on Beethoven, mine have been regularly expressed erring on the side of praise, neigh, worship for his craft! Beethoven is a composer of the people and for all time. His music speaks to everything that truly matters in life. Even when it seems trivial it is anything but. And when it is powerful it is transcendent…

It’s why Beethoven has the starring (historical) role in my fiction novel, The Virtuosowhich drew the parallel from one publisher: “A modern day Beethoven story.”

I do hope you enjoyed the debate! I’d love to hear your views. I feel Beethoven deserves the last word!

When You See a Sensational Sky: Images and Poetry From Cloud Nine… 🌥⛅️🌤

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore, (Stray Birds)

This is going to be a quintessentially English kind of post. Why? Because I’m talking about the weather, and for once, I’m not moaning about it! We Brits are not used to this kind of heat!

As I was sunbathing during Sunday’s glorious, baking hot afternoon, I watched the sun’s rays fan out spectacularly around a solitary cumulus nimbus cloud above me, and felt compelled to capture this astral scene in real time.

I took nine photographs as this huge cloud (my cloud 9), shrouded the blazing sun and then slowly broke up under the onslaught of a sweltering June heat wave. I was grateful to that cloud, without it I would have burnt to a crisp!

If I were an artist I probably would have painted it, but words came instead. My observations have been sublimated into a stream of consciousness, free-verse poem.

In that respect you could say clouds are the ushers of zen as well as the providers of shade…

“Clouds on clouds, in volumes driven, 

Curtain round the vault of heaven.” ~ Thomas Love Peacock

Contemplating Cumulus Clouds

My eyes crinkle at the contrast of silver-lining

Against foreboding, grey cotton sitting above me,

Enveloping every ounce of moisture in the air;

A luminous outline from the sun’s insistent rays,

This incandescent string of pure, bright light.

Illuminating my retina from behind the shadows,

As if nature is saying, there is good within the gloom;

I want to reach up and touch its rounded edges,

Grasp it’s elusive, fleecy form, behold for eternity,

But it is changing with every passing moment.

Life giving rays are only temporarily hidden,

Earth’s star, determined to dissolve suspended droplets

Scorching beams will once again permeate the ground,

Bathing all living things in its glowing reach,

Imperceptible breeze, to break up stifling humidity.

As I watch candy-like white wisps breaking away,

The puffy edges are swirling in constant motion,

Moving to form anther cloud, or simply evaporate,

Demonstrating the eternal flow of the universe…

How all primordial ingredients are reused, recycled.

Cumulo – these Latin piles of shaded air,

Resplendent swells of watery weather,

Floating purposefully or aimlessly, gathering or fleeing

Deliberate, or speeding; depending on the wind,

Patchwork ceiling for humans, lift for soaring birds.

We may frown and fret at an abundance of nimbus,

Bemoaning their frequent outbursts of precipitation!

Today cumulus shades me from the searing heat,

Another day they will bestow liquid on parched earth

Is God decorating the sky, with an ever-changing palette?

Meteorological material; from mysterious misty layers,

To floating pale tufts, or brooding, bulging monsters,

Swollen and violent with rain, blocking out the sun;

Ephemeral fluid shapes: never forever, and never the same…

Scarce or plentiful; permeating and patrolling the skies.

Cloud 9!

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” ~ John Lubbock (The Use Of Life)

#GE2017 #hungparliament – Democracy or Dog’s Dinner?

“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” ~ Mark Twain

After the shock narrow Brexit vote almost a year ago and the recent election of Donald Trump as U.S. President it was hard to imagine that politics could get any weirder…

However, when I woke up to the news this morning that the UK General Election had resulted in a ‘hung parliament’ I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. I had a feeling in my gut that it would go badly for the Conservatives. After all, how many mistakes will an electorate tolerate?

Before Theresa may so brazenly backtracked on her promise not to hold a snap election her party held 13 more parliamentary seats than it does today. I think this result proves that arrogance and complacency are not the qualities that people value or desire in members of parliament.

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

This was a text book lesson in how to throw away your core supporters and a majority in the Commons, in what should have been  (according the government and the polls), a straightforward election meant to strengthen the PM’s hand in upcoming Brexit negotiations.

Before and during the campaign Theresa May has been chipping away at the nation’s goodwill with bad decision after bad decision. Their proposed ‘hard Brexit’ and some of their policies and her reversal on banning the ivory trade incensed me.

Does she think she can continually say one thing yet do another? Such hypocrisy is prevalent in politics, I’m not naïve enough to think she’s the first politician to be guilty of that, but power always manages to corrupt on some level except for an extraordinary few leaders.

I find myself agreeing with Tim Fallon that our prime minister put her party above her country. How can we possibly believe her claims to lead with certainty when she has achieved the very opposite?

The Conservative election campaign ignited rage among the elderly, frustration in the Remain camp, and did not engage or provide any form of positive policies to the population. The cuts to our police were thrown back into the limelight after the horrendous terror attacks in Manchester and London, and I think many people felt angry. I know I did. I voted through gritted teeth.

In comparison, the far left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, (previously unpopular within his own party) and the definite political underdog, managed to run an effective election campaign and gain the support of young voters. Probably many who didn’t vote in the EU Referendum have made their voices heard this time, as it appears that there was a 72% turnout in the 18 – 24 age group, an increase of 30% from 2015. This is all very encouraging, as we need fresh blood and fresh ideas in politics.

The Tories didn’t appear to be bothered about the youth vote and alienated the elderly voters with their disastrous proposals for social care. Cuts to school budgets have also rankled with parents.

The fact that Theresa May did not participate in the election debate also damaged her credibility. Trust comes from openness, and May has been mostly tight lipped, sending Amber Rudd in her stead, thereby further demonstrating her lack of charisma and leadership skills.

The seismic shift in losing the ultra safe Conservative seats of Canterbury and Kensington to Labour shows just how badly the government have misjudged the public mood. You cannot gamble with power, especially when you are portrayed and perceived as the ‘nasty party’.

It’s clear that the majority of the population do not wish to see a ‘hard Brexit’, meaning a complete withdrawal from the single market, and now May’s original negotiating position is going to be very difficult. There is unprecedented uncertainty facing the nation since Article 50 was triggered, and that has only been exacerbated.

Politics without principle as cited in Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Seven Social Sins’ is profoundly prophetic in this messy election result.  It’s worth sharing all seven:

Why is it we can’t seem to find the happy medium in a more centrist party that has sound economic policies, but just as importantly, moral backbone and a social conscience?

As some commentators have said, it feels like the ‘revenge of the Remainers’ today.

“An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.” ~ Mark Twain

This quote is perhaps true of Jeremy Corbyn today. I may not agree with some of his views, but he did come across as a decent bloke.

It felt like all Theresa May wanted to do was ram a hard Brexit and ill thought out social care policies down our throats. Despite losing 13 parliamentary seats she is still in power by the skin of her teeth and only with the help of the far right DUP in Northern Ireland.

Whatever the PM’s intentions with the election campaign, the abysmal execution has been the deciding factor in the hung parliament result.

Have political campaigns lost their drama?

Who could have predicted that Labour would win an additional 32 seats?  It turns out the exit poll wasn’t that far off the mark…

I fail to see how Theresa May can still be our prime minister at the end of the next general election. And the way things are going that may be sooner rather than later…

The FT post election analysis:

So I return to my original question, do we have a true democracy or a something resembling a dog’s dinner? It certainly feels like the latter after Brexit and the shambles of a poor election campaign on the part of the majority party. But maybe the system needs a dog’s dinner now and then to shake things up and sort out the wheat from the chaff. Maybe it has to be both to be effective. A true democracy can survive a dog’s dinner and learn the lessons of each successive vote.

If it takes humiliation for a leader to become more humble and in-tune with the public sentiment rather than coming across as uncaring, implacable, blinkered and hypocritical then so be it.  Contempt for the electorate when you take them for granted is rewarded in kind with contempt at the ballot boxes.

I rather feel Ruth Davidson, the Conservative MSP who has galvanised the younger voters north of the border may have just single handedly saved the union from a second, more fervent and fierce Indy ref.  In this topsy-turvy election the SNP lost a third of its seats, including that of former SNP leader Alex Salmond.

Having suffered such a humiliating defeat the PM’s speech outside number 10 made no reference to the resounding views of British voters, brushing over the whole debacle as if it had never happened!

It seems I’m not the only one who thinks this was outrageous hubris. Author Robert Harris tweeted: No hint of apology or regret in PM’s statement. No humility. Full North Korean mode. She won’t last long

One thing is for sure, we have many challenges ahead of us and as we have born witness to today, things can change very rapidly in politics!

Regardless of the balance of power we all have a responsibility to look after ourselves and others as best we can, because as collective individuals we make up society. As one of the most inspirational human beings and spiritual leader’s the world has ever known, Mahatma Gandhi stated: “Our greatest ability as humans is not to change the world; but to change ourselves.”

“The government is merely a servant―merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.” ~ Mark Twain.

5 Powerful Life Principles at the Heart of Everything

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

The power of personal creation is probably the most profound ability that human beings possess outside of our capacity for love.

At our core we are creative beings. We only have to look at the world around us and back through our history at how we have developed storytelling, music, art and culture, industry, inventions, architecture and transport to know that our unbounded curiosity, inventiveness and ideas have shaped our evolution thus far.

But beyond these collective creations that are part of our everyday life each person on the planet has the potential to create the life of their dreams. This capacity to manifest what we want (or don’t want) is more highly developed in some than others, and maybe in particular areas, not necessarily the entirety of their lives.

We may look at someone who appears to be successful on the outside, but we don’t know what other circumstances are lurking in their life. It’s a waste of time comparing ourselves to others, because we are each on our own journey (albeit crossing paths now and then).

I’ve had some challenging creations and circumstances to deal with lately, and so have been on a mission to create more of what I want and less of what I don’t want. In my quest to improve my power of personal creation I came across several different teachers that have helped me to understand where I am, and more importantly, where I’m going!

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and if they can’t find them, make them.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

I wanted to share some of my insights with you in this post, in the hope that they might benefit you as they have me in my time of need.

5 Powerful Life Principles

  1. The energy of attraction, which is our expression of divinity. It has been labelled as the ‘law of attraction’ and it gives us power.
  2. The law of opposites, which gives us opportunity.
  3. The gift of wisdom, which gives us discernment.
  4. The joy of wonder, which gives us imagination.
  5. The presence of cycles, which gives us eternity.

These life principles are the mechanisms of manifestation, regulating the process of personal creation, by which we can express ourselves in thought, word and deed. These principles are a continuous source of power, continuously on, whether we are conscious of them or not.

The power of personal creation

The energy of attraction has been espoused for millennia, in various instructions and descriptions. You’ll no doubt recognise some of these:

“As you sow, so shall you reap.”

“As a man thinketh in his heart so is he.”

“Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive, because your words become your behaviours. Keep your behaviours positive, because your behaviours become your habits. Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.” ~ Gandhi

“Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.” ~ Albert Einstein

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.” ~ Henry Ford

“All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” ~ Buddha

“Everyone creates realities based on their own personal beliefs. These beliefs are so powerful that they can create (expansive or entrapping) realities over and over.” ~ Kuan Yin

What you focus on, what you use the energies of life to create, you can create.

The energy of attraction:

I’ve decided to change my script and I’m working on my vision. As we grow it’s to be expected that we will fall back into old thought patterns. I was fortunate that at my lowest ebb I was in the right place at the right time to hear exactly what I needed to hear. It felt like the speaker was talking directly to me…

There were plenty of of aha! moments. I realised I hadn’t been a good gardener. I had allowed the weeds of my mind to take a strangle hold of the flowers. Because certain aspects of my life hadn’t yet worked out how I wanted them to, my sponsoring thoughts were coming from a place of lack and I had perpetuated those thoughts.

He made it clear that problems arise when we don’t have a clear vision and control over our thoughts and daily habits.  Your mind becomes more powerful where you direct its energy.

He told us to work on our recovery time from setback or defeat. That’s where I had come a cropper. What we say emotionally is deeply imprinted on our mind and comes about.

Had he been a fly on my wall?!

He asked: why don’t we do what we know to do? He told us what we needed reminding of: that we all have blocks, fears and doubts which have been created through past experiences, which influence our current decisions.

He told all of us in the room to let our negative emotions go, to shake them off. He said: “You’ll never ever, ever outperform your set autopilot.”

That’s why we have to get our sub-conscious mind working for us instead of against us. The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality and an intensely imagined experience.

“The unconscious self is the real genius. Your breathing goes wrong the moment your conscious self meddles with it.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Our thoughts and programmes will try and talk us out of our greatness. He did a hilarious sketch about getting all the committee members of our brains on board.

Captain Frontal Lobe is the cheerleader and motivator. He is up for anything. Colonel Amygdala is the cautious one, where emotions are processed, analysing all aspects of what captain frontal lobe is proposing.

General Limbic brain is the most ancient of the committee members, storing every negative or embarrassing scene from our childhood memories. Under no circumstances is he going to give his approval for us to potentially fail again. Sargent Motor Cortex is responsible for helping captain frontal lobe put his ambitious plans into action. Oh boy, it’s a maelstrom of desire, resistance and fear.

If we listen to the limbic brain we start to believe his assertions that we’re not good enough, or that we don’t deserve this. The little voice is suddenly loud and clear: Better to be safe than sorry.

Skillset Vs. Mindset

Although both are fundamental to any achievement, skillset is much less important that mindset. Success is 80% mindset and 20% skillset.

I have vivid memories of learning to swim when I was eight years old. My father used to try to eliminate my fear of water by throwing me in to pool, but that didn’t work.  It made me scream and run and frustrated him. When I was left to my own devices I would aim to move through the water just by tiny increments.

I would then move a little further away from the side each time and swim back to the wall. My skill level hadn’t significantly improved after each attempt, but what did grow was my self-belief. I just decided that I was going to make it to the side. It wasn’t graceful; my arms and legs were thrashing about and I was spluttering, but as my mindset became more positive so my skills grew in tandem.

I went very quickly from being terrified of water to a confident and competent swimmer. Action cures fear. Doing the thing we fear innoculates us against that fear.

The Law of Opposites

Once I understood this principle I was able to see my circumstances objectively, I could see how I had hoodwinked myself.

Another spiritual teacher explained it this way: In the absence of that which you are not; that which you are is not.

I had to really think about that. Essentially the law of opposites is a contextual field that exists in order for us to create.

The moment we invoke the law of attraction and focus on something we wish to be, do, or have, the law of opposites comes into play. In our two dimensional physical reality everything is polarised. We cannot experience love without hate, happiness without sadness, hope without despair, hot without cold, positive without negative, peace without war.

“He who has never hoped can never despair.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

If you take away the opposite of something it cannot exist experientially. So the moment we decide we are going to achieve a certain goal or dream, we immediately experience that which is not our goal/dream. The exact opposite turns up.

We might assume that the law of attraction does not work for us, only for others, because we have attracted the very antithesis of what we wanted. This is where I had got stuck. It’s easy in this stage to feel discouraged or to assume that we can’t do it. We buy into the illusion that we are not supposed to have it, or tell ourselves it’s not meant to be.

He used the acronym SATAN: Saying Anything As Negative.

However, the very appearance of these experiential opposites proves that we are indeed successfully using the law of attraction. The two cannot exist without each other.

This made me feel a whole lot better!

Whatever we set our minds and hearts to in life there will be challenges. That is a given. The universe will require us to go deeper, to learn that failure isn’t really failure, to believe without doubt and to ‘judge not by appearances’.

Our circumstances can change for the better if we don’t get bogged down in them when they are less than easy or uncomfortable for us.

On the path to greatness we are going to face obstacles and enemies. But if we can move from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm we will prevail.

Sergio Garcia was widely considered the best golfer in the world never to have won a major. But in April in Augusta he won the daddy of major’s, The Masters. This was after 19 years of professional competition. It was his moment. He was patient and persistent.

“A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, The one I feed the most.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Don’t let discouragement stop you in your tracks or make you change your intention. Give yourself permission to continue to call forth that which you wish to create.

The Gift of Wisdom

This gift is utilised when the Law of Opposites presents its effect in your daily life. When you have magnetised and contextualised your creations you get to discern and decide how to manifest the life you want. Using your inner wisdom is how you remain positive in the face of what appears to be overwhelming challenges, those moments when you are faced with a reality that is anything other than what you had imagined.

Neale Donald Walsh describes a person who succumbs to this principle as ‘a magician who has forgotten his own tricks’.

Move with clarity through the contextual field and invoke the law of attraction again and again inside the contextual field that you have created. All wisdom lies within you. You know internally higher truth. Discernment allows you to see things as they really are.

“Not many people are willing to give failure a second opportunity.” ~ Joseph Sugarman

Wisdom helps us to see and accept failure as a blessing in disguise and bounce back.

Each problem that we encounter as a result of the law of opposites carries a hidden opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem. The challenge is to be able to recognise the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit and turn it into an opportunity. The challenges are really gifts. This requires a shift in perception. There certainly have been times I wished that God wasn’t so generous!!

With wisdom we can celebrate all of life’s lessons.

I love the way Wayne Dyer explains inner wisdom in his trademark humorous style as he talks of being inside a house during a power cut and all the lights go off. He has lost his keys, but because there is a light on outside in the street he decides to look for his keys there rather than fumble around in the dark. A friend comes along and asks what he is doing. He explains that he has lost his keys and they look for them together under the street light.

Eventually the friend asks him where he last had his keys, to which Wayne replies that he had them inside his house. It’s a ludicrous scenario, yet that is what we do regularly in our thinking. We look externally for answers, when the source is inside us.

The Joy of Wonder  

All things are filled with wonder; it’s our natural state of being. Abundance isn’t what we have. It’s not about ‘stuff’, but about what we are BEING. Life is an extraordinary journey to express our real selves, our inner beings.  Heartfelt gratitude puts us in touch with the part of ourselves that has no limits. When we are grateful, we have enough and we ARE enough.

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire; you will what you imagine; and at last you create what you will. ~ George Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah)

I’m constantly learning from my children, who exhibit the most enthusiastic wonderment at times. Wonder is the antidote to cynicism. Stepping out in nature is a great way to awaken wonderment. Witnessing the miracle of our planet, all the living creatures that live here with us, and indeed, the human body, the most amazing piece of equipment we will ever own. Whatever we appreciate appreciates.

The Presence of Cycles

There is no straight line in the universe. The movement of energy and mass creates the experience of infinity.  Energy cannot be destroyed, it merely changes form. There is no start and no finish, therefore patience is one of the most important elements in applying the Law of Attraction.

As much as I love the summer, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much without having experienced winter. Cosmic forces and the seasons of nature are always in flow, bringing different blessings and challenges as they come and go. We must work with the cycle we’re in.

The purpose of these energies and principles is to allow life to preserve itself, for all those lives you touch and for you. The law of energy empowers us to empower others. I heard a saying that I never really understood before, but it makes more sense now: if you help enough other people get what they want, you will get what you want.

It means working through the lives of others. It’s having a service oriented attitude. Do unto others as you would have it done unto you is a spiritual teaching at the core of the Law of Attraction.

How many lives can you touch? Expanding the use of universal energy is known as the multiplier effect. If you want to be wealthy you will achieve one level, but if you make 100 people wealthy you will have multiplied the energy exponentially.

“There is the eternal war between those who are in the world for what they can get out of it and those who are in the world to make it a better place for everybody to live in.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

What flows through you sticks to you. What you give to another you give to yourself, as at the level of spirit we are all ONE. It’s moving away from a me first attitude to giving of ourselves.

Be the source of THAT which you wish to experience in your own life. Be the source of THAT in the life of another.

It is a lifelong process to attain mastery over oneself, but if we learn to harness the principles of life, the universe will be our business partner.

I’ll leave you with an illuminating talk by Bob Proctor:

Let’s smash through that terror barrier!

“What is life but a series of inspired follies?” ~ George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion)

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Paolo Veronese’s Masterpiece: Feast in the House of Levi (c. 1573)

“I paint and compose figures.” ~ Paolo Veronese

At first glance this Italian Renaissance painting appears to be depicting your average 16th century lavish Venetian banquet; but when you focus on the central figures beneath the middle arch it becomes apparent that it’s actually a scene of Jesus and his twelve disciples at The Last Supper.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

The Last Supper was in fact the painting’s original title, as commissioned by the refectory of the Convent of San Giovanni e Paolo, to replace Titian’s Last Supper which had been destroyed by fire in 1571. The monks did not take umbrage at the painting’s contemporary aristocratic setting and adornments.

Exterior of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice

The Inquisition however, took a more pejorative view! During the political and religious landscape of the Counter-Reformation all religious art works had to strictly convey the spiritual message and theological doctrine that was dictated by the Roman Catholic Church.

A brush with the Inquisition!

Despite its magnificence as a work of art, the Last Supper got Veronese hauled up before a tribunal of religious inquisitors who were less than impressed with the painter’s secular additions.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

Some of the questioning went along these lines:

TI: Why have you depicted buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarves, and other like fooleries?

PV: We painters take the same licence as do poets and madmen…for ornament, as one does.

TI: Who do you think had been present at the Last Supper?

PV: I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…

TI: Has anyone given you orders to paint Germans, buffoons and similar figures in this picture?

PV: No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

TI: Should the ornaments in the picture not be suitable to the subject…or have you put them there only to suit your fancy, without any discretion or reason?

PV: I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.

TI: Do you not know that in countries that were besieged by heresy- particularly in Germany- many such pictures full of foolishness had been painted in order to ridicule the Catholic Church?

PV: I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters.

TI: What have your masters painted?

PV: In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling. (I bet he thought he’d stumped them with this reply).

TI: Be advised that clothing was not necessary at the Last Judgement, but no foolishness was present there either.

PV: I do not pretend to (defend) it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration.

A page from the transcript of the Inquisition.

It must have been a trifle intimidating being questioned thus about his motives and his art. Not wanting to fall foul of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, Veronese agreed on a solution to correct the picture according to the requests of the tribunal at his own cost.

Veronese may have felt more defiant than he let on, and rather than alter the picture as directed, he simply changed the title of the painting to The Feast in the House of Levi, and the Inquisition was satisfied.

Veronese’s renamed painting remained inside the Convent of San Giovanni e Paolo until 1797, when it was removed on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte and taken to Paris. When it was returned to Venice a decade later it sat once more in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo until it was relocated to its current home at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Interior of San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

When compared with other Last Supper paintings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Jacopo Tintoretto the questioning of Veronese by The Inquisition appears concordant with what they were trying to achieve.

The Last Supper Fresco by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1495 – 1498

The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto

Paolo Veronese was clearly not burdened with the same concerns, as he wanted to put his own artistic spin onto the traditional biblical scene.

From Wikipedia:

The revised title refers to an episode in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5, in which Jesus is invited to a banquet:

And Levi made himself a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

The Feast in the House of Levi

The oil on canvas painting was completed in 1573, measuring 18 ft 2 in x 42 ft (555 x 1280 cm) and its home is in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

What I love about this painting is the vibrancy and range of colours, and its realistic rendering as a supper that may have taken place in the grandeur of Veronese’s Venice. The diversity of people in their cultural and social depictions highlights Venice as an important and eclectic centre of trade, culture and wealth in the late 16th century.

Veronese had painted what he knew best – people. Whereas his older contemporary, Titian, was more concerned with exploring the psychology of his subjects, Veronese painted people in their outward public appearance, in realistic activities and attire for the era. It would have placed the Last Supper in a setting viewers could relate to; in many ways making it more human and accessible to its audience.

Detail of Christ, Saint Peter, Saint John and Judas

You have the divine figure of Christ in the centre, engaged in teaching and sharing with his disciples, and around them (almost as if the holy party aren’t really there), a whole raft of ordinary people: Venetians, merchants, moors, German guards, various guests, jesters and animals, feasting without a care in the world.

Detail of the Germans

It probably seemed entirely feasible to him that Jesus would tolerate a cat gnawing and playing with a bone at his feet beneath the table, with a dog curiously looking on, or a parrot sitting on the arm of a dwarf.

The sumptuous green clothes of the wealthy man on the left portrays an open, communicative stance, whilst the corpulent Venetian guest on the right of the central archway comes across as more inebriated; his belly full of food and wine, his stripy robe somewhat dishevelled and saggy, his skin pallid and sweaty, as if he suffering the after effects of a little too much indulgence…

The smooth marble pillars of the three archways are formidable and luminous, anchoring the scene in a majestic backdrop, where from behind the figures ghostly silhouettes of buildings glow in the moonlight of an immortal Venetian evening.

His use of colour and attention to detail of the ordinary folk gives us an evocative snapshot into the more decadent side of life in Renaissance Venice.

The Lord Jesus Christ is depicted in a translucent salmon tunic with a dark blue cape with his loving light surrounding his head; in deep conversation with Saint John, as Saint Peter listens whilst helping himself to a leg of lamb. Even though they are the chosen ones they are still shown in their human aspects.

The traitor Judas, the figure in dark red in the shadows, to the right of Saint John on the opposite side of the table is looking away from his Lord, likely ashamed of the betrayal he has agreed to commit, knowing it will lead to Christ’s crucifixion. He seems afraid that Jesus will see through him to the vile act in his heart, even as Jesus already knows what will happen.

Paolo Veronese (1528 – 19 April 1588)

Born Paolo Caliari in Verona, Italy, the son of a stonemason; his birthplace immortalised his artistic name, Veronese.

Paolo Veronese – Self Portrait

He joined the workshop of his uncle Antonio Badile before studying under Giovanni Francesco Caroto (1480-1546) and subsequently working on the decoration of Venetian villas.

Veronese created numerous pastoral frescoes in well-known villas such as the Villa Barbaro by famed Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in Maser. He gifted aesthetic beauty to the walls and ceilings of the houses and churches of ‘La Serenissima’.

As a fun-loving Venetian patron of Veronese you would have been confronted with the imaginary landscapes, lively festivals and various illusory effects that served as a backdrop to your entertainment and possibly your portrait.

Another of his grand banquet scenes was the Marriage Feast at Cana (except it’s Venice); an explosion of colour and an extraordinary depiction of humanity ensconced in celebration.

Forerunner to the Baroque era

Veronese’s ceiling paintings of Esther Brought Before Ahasuerus and The Triumph of Mordecai in the Church of San Sebastiano as well as The Rape of Europa in the Doge’s Palace are particularly ahead of their time, providing a model for the Baroque style that was soon to sweep the continent.  Perhaps he had anticipated the coming epoch.

Veronese’s legacy was partly as an influence for Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, one of the most important Baroque fresco painters.

The Complete works of Paolo Veronese:

Last Work

Veronese’s final painting was his homage to the Serenissima, The Triumph of Venice. It was completed just three years before his death and had taken him five years of toil. It shows the people of the republic willingly surrendering to Venetian power, and among the envoys paying their respects is no less a figure than the French King Henri III.

The Apotheosis of Venice by Paolo Veronese

I wish I could have seen his exhibition when it was on at The National Gallery in London, although I think the Feast in the House of Levi was too large to transport:

If pomp and splendour was your pleasure, I doubt anyone else could have outshone or outdone Paolo Veronese!

There are three Venetians that are never separated in my mind — Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. ~ John Ruskin Art Culture : A Hand-Book of Art Technicalities and Criticisms (1877)

Revealing Reflections on Life, Survival and Soul Stamina

“In your soul there are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you. “ ~ Oscar Wilde

I have been pondering the meaning of life these last few weeks, or at least more than usual!  Lately I’ve found myself caught up in seemingly endless vicissitudes, and have been telling myself it’s all for a higher purpose. This thought helps me get through the chaos. We have to embrace all of it, the good, the bad, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Writing is like a purging of my soul, it’s a cathartic comfort blanket that enables me to have perspective. I’ve written some poetry as I muse over developing soul stamina, which I hope you can relate to in some small way.

It seems to me that just one lifetime (even a long one), is too short a time for our souls to fully experience earthly life and attain nirvana. I have entertained the idea that maybe we get to come round many, many times, building on what we said, thought, did and achieved before.

This idea is nothing new. Plato believed in an immortal soul that partakes in a multitude of lives, and the concept of reincarnation is a central tenet of religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

The bigger picture of human existence and the universe eludes us for certain, but faith, love and hope are really all we need while we’re here.

I’ve also included some music which for me perfectly encapsulates soul stamina. The composer who I believe most embodies these qualities is Beethoven, (no surprises there!) but any music which really affects you emotionally is speaking to your heart and soul, being the universal language.

After all, Plato did say: “Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.”

Bach’s music was the backbone of his religious convictions, it was solely to glorify God. This particular transcription for cello and organ of his Adagio in C, BWV 564 by Jacqueline du Pré and Roy Jesson could only have been composed and played by individuals with loving souls:

Mozart knew how to plumb the depths of his being. He must have been wearing his heart on his sleeve when he wrote the adagio of his Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in 1786:

I feel Richard Wagner captures the torment of the soul with the battle of the sacred and the profane in Tannhäuser – The immortal Overture and Venusberg:

While I’m at it, Tristan und Isolde could not have been written without a deep well of emotion. The glorious and heart wrenching Prelude and Liebestod (Georg Solti – Chicago Symphony Orchestra):

Vivaldi’s music brings joy and exalts the soul – The Gloria in D Major, RV 589 with John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists:

Beethoven’s magnificent Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (The Choral) was the pinnacle of his musical genius. For me, it encompasses life in all its guises and every day glory, with a finale that overcomes the suffering and struggle of humanity in unity and brotherhood – the unforgettable Ode to Joy by the Sabadell flashmob:

“The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” ~ Daniel Defoe

Soul Stamina

The mind may forget, but the soul remembers,

Explorations in humanity, countless footsteps…

The faces of yesteryear, now etheric embers,

Glowing from the heart of our eternal depths.

Do we bear these former translucent portents?

Embedded and merged, in our body of the moment?

Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Soul wisdom is creative; desiring experience anew,

Looking behind your eyes, I see the real you…

The one who has always been; wore bodies through

Your radiance surrounds and shines so true.

Everything you are, is held and holding you fast,

It’s all here now; the future, present and past.

Self-portrait with a dark felt hat at the easel by Vincent van Gogh c. 1886

Do we transfer it over, the healing and the heartache?

A name, a pattern, a place, a talent, a skill,

Drawn to our soul’s connections; not fully awake,

Distant memories reflecting, through windows of Will.

Sojourns of unfinished karma, or perhaps dreamy plans?

With souls to share our journeys and time spans?

Reflection by Alfred Stevens

Meeting of souls: spiritual, chemical reactions abound

As astral beings reunite; immutable yet impermanent,

Knowing each other long before – apart then found,

Different yet the same; embalmed in the moment.

Living to enrich the soul, on its timeless fray,

Ancient selves expressing; mortal games to play.

The Storyteller by Hugues Merle

We envy souls on a seemingly smooth path,

Whilst we are buffeted on rocks for measure,

Honouring our struggle for growth, not wrath,

Physical interludes of pain, parsimony and pleasure.

En route to glory, souls are breached time and again,

With wounds that sear and scar; no two the same.

The Kiss by Carolus Duran

Whether in lofty social status, or ordinary life,

Have we chosen the routes to our Shangri-la?

Maybe comfort and warmth, or problems and strife?

In divine unfolding, we are blind to reason,

But for every learning; belongs a perfect season.

The Honeysuckle Bower (the artist and his first wife Isabella Brant) by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609

The soul has no colour, creed, race or gender,

Myriad of vessels from life’s eclectic diversity,

Anatomical robe of being, searching for an answer…

Archetypal beneath, evincing modes of personality.

A pilgrimage of passion; rebirth will come,

Adventurous spirits, immortal inside, part of one.

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Wake gently from sleep, oh consciousness,

Hear and know your inner voice, your soul

The higher part which exists in opulence,

I will see through those eyes, in fleshy stroll.

Do our human journeys build soul stamina?

Mind, body, spirit: metaphysical phenomena.

By Virginia Burges

Our Corner (Anna and Laurense Alma-Tadema) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The soul of man alone, that particle divine,

Escapes the wreck of worlds,

When all things fail. ~ William Somerville

The Way Gut Bacteria Affects Anxiety and Depression Will Blow Your Mind

 “Every molecule in your brain starts at the end of your fork.” ~ Dr. Drew Ramsay (Nutritional psychiatrist).

Have you ever had a gut feeling about a person or a situation, or perhaps had butterflies in your stomach? Has hunger ever changed your mood? It certainly brings on grumpiness in my children!

Our digestive system and brain are physically and biochemically connected in a number of ways, meaning the state of our gut microbiome can alter the way our brains work and behave, giving a whole new meaning to ‘food for thought’!

In my first post, What You Need to Know About the Most Influential Organ in Your Body I covered some pretty startling facts about the microbiome, but today I’m focussing on how the second brain in our gut microbiome can literally ‘speak’ to the brain in our heads, controlling mood as well as impacting on our mental health.

#MicrobiomeMorsel: There are more microbes in the gut alone than there are cells in our bodies.

Lifestyle and the Microbiome

Hippocrates was telling everyone back in 400 BC that all disease begins in the gut, and that food is your medicine.

Life in the 21st century has strayed a long way from this ethos. Global populations live mostly in urban areas and are exposed to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs,) such as Glyphosate which is prevalent in the western food chain. We lead busy, stressful lives, with many relying on shelf-stable, processed food that is high in sugar and salt, with no nutritional content, which have been designed and marketed for taste buds and not for health.

Simple carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread are another nail in the coffin. Whilst we all resort to pizzas and fast-food once in a while, it’s worth remembering that on a regular basis, convenience kills. And it kills us with a raft of modern plagues because it is damaging our microbiota.

If we don’t feed our microbiota with the food to make them flourish then we are self-harming at a fundamental level.

Western medicine, it seems, has a pill for every ill. Drugs are adding to the problem rather than solving it – what has been termed rather aptly as ‘Pharmaggedon’.

There are 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants every year in the UK alone.

Poor gut health is the root cause of the global health crisis we see today: obesity, diabetes, allergies, auto-immune and disgestive disorders, and believe it or not, mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, OCD and autism.

Obesity and diabetes alone threaten to bankrupt the NHS in the next 10 years unless as a society we take a more proactive attitude to our wellbeing.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: If you fix the gut, you fix the problem!

The genes contained in the microbiome outnumber our human genes by 100 to 1 – and by that reckoning we are only 1% human! We are literally walking bacterial colonies. Humans have evolved over millennia alongside these micro-organisms in a symbiotic relationship.

The Invisible Universe of the Human Microbiome:

The friendly, essential bacteria helps us to synthesise and absorb nutrients, control appetite, manage weight, make short chain fatty acids (SCFA’s such as Butyratethe primary source of fuel for the cells of the colon), activate our genes, regulate metabolism, signal the immune system (of which 75% resides in the gut), and affect our mood and skin.

Harmful pathogens can upset the balance and if not rectified, a toxic gut microbiome will evolve, known as dysbiosis– a dangerous state indeed.

Causes of Dysbiosis

In addition to a poor diet, a toxic environment caused by traffic pollution, pesticides/heavy metals in food, personal and household products; emotional stress is also a big factor. Because the microbiome is so sensitive, even two hours of severe upset and worry can have a negative impact.

When we are under emotional stress our bodies are gearing up for an emergency response, and need extra fuel, therefore using more of the amino acid L-Glutamine, which is stored in the gut lining.

The mucous membranes are the primary interface between the external environment and the internal environment of the body. Most absorption of nutrients and toxins occurs across the mucous membrane. Most pathogens enter the body by binding to and penetrating the mucous membranes.

If this becomes ravaged over time the damage to the gut lining causes leaky gut, where pathogens escape through the now permeable gut wall, and can travel all over the body, igniting many potential health challenges.

Inflammation starts in the gut but generally ends up manifesting in any number of symptoms:

  • Constipation/diarrhea – many people who suffer with depression also suffer with constipation or dysfunction of the gut.
  • Gas and bloating
  • IBS
  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Anemia
  • Increase in allergies
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Immune dysfunction

Inflammation Assesment Quiz

The Second Brain

Our gut microbiome is part of the Enteric Nervous System and weighs about the same as our brain. Even though our brain only makes up 2% of our body weight it uses up to 20% of our energy resources. Inflammation in the Gastrointestinal tract also directly impacts the levels of the feel good chemicals of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

Through evolution our species has had 4 billion years of optimising inter-cellular communication. Our second brains have 100 million nerve cells sandwiched in between layers of the gut which regulate digestive processes. These nerve pathways go both ways, but predominantly travel from the gut to the brain via the Vagus Nerve.

These powerful neurotransmitters and sensors communicate with our brain which then processes the information and acts accordingly. The second brain can survive being cut off from the brain via the Vagus Nerve but cannot generate conscious thought.

A fascinating TED talk about how our bellies control our brains by Ruairi Robertson:

Moody Microbes!

A whopping 95% of the serotonin used by our bodies is stored and produced in the gut in special cells; by far the largest store of that molecule that plays such a crucial role in modulating our mood and wellbeing, appetite, pain, sleep and sensitivity.

Serotonin is synthesized in the gut from precursors that come from the food we ingest, because the microbes that live in our gut microbiome produce powerful mood regulating neurotransmitters.

It is estimated that 60% of chemical production in the body is due to signals that come from our gut bacteria.

Food for thought…

The food you eat determines the bacteria you grow in your ‘gut garden’.  Bacteria turn on different genes, and genes either prevent or activate disease. Bacteria follow the diet not the other way around…

Ladies, be aware that the contraceptive pill depletes vitamin B12, folate, zinc levels and kills off beneficial bacteria. When certain beneficial bacteria are missing from the microbiome, so is their protection from disease.

Cravings – the devil in your gut!

In my best Bridget Jones moments I used to regularly sit and consume a whole bar of Galaxy after my evening meal. I felt powerless to resist these cravings.

If bad bacteria and fungi such as Candida Albicans get out of control they communicate via the information highway from the gut to the brain that you must consume sugar, which they thrive on. It’s almost impossible to resist.

The more they get fed the more they crowd out the good guys and the more acidic our bodies become, creating a cycle of cravings for carbs, sugar and chocolate, continually feeding our harmful bacteria, creating a vicious cycle of dysbiosis and ultimately disease.

In my next installment I’ll cover the best foods and nutrients that promote a well balanced gut microbiome, as well as a holistic supplementary 21-day programme that turned my gut health around.

When you reset the gut and alter your body chemistry these cravings disappear – they did for me. Since last October chocolate has had absolutely no control over me whatsoever. Seven months and counting!

Helping people to improve their energy levels and overall health and wellness is a passion for me, so I will soon be setting up an Elite Health Page on the main menu, with links to my health articles (and others), as well as the Holy Grail of supplements I personally use to achieve elite health.

Until the next time, be well.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, (Warrior Princess of Wales)

On a cloudy afternoon in March my son and I stood at the top of the tallest tower of Cydweli Castle in Kidwelly, Wales. Sleety rain dispersed over us, cold droplets like tiny needles driven into our flushed faces on the crest of a biting wind. Panting and puffing, our breath mingled with the boisterous breeze as we recovered from a steep and winding climb up the tower, our feet carefully treading over centuries of narrow, worn stone.

Towers and battlements of Cydweli Castle

A low lying mist shrouded the rolling green landscape around us. On one side the view looked over the coast of Camarthenshire, a narrow estuary and marshland that had been developed with housing, leading to the village and the surrounding fields and hills.

Over a thousand years of history lay silent around us except the rushing of the elements and the occasional whooping of my daughters elsewhere in the castle.

We looked out over Maes Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s Field), about 500 metres from the castle, near woodland. The once stirring battle cries of the brave warrior princess, Gwenllian echoing silently down over the centuries through the legend of her deeds.

After I learnt of her story I was inspired by her courage and sacrifice and felt she deserved to be remembered in my writings.

Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (1100 – 1136)  

Princess Gwenllian was the youngest daughter and child of Gruffydd ap Cynan (1055 – 1137), King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad. Born at the family seat in Aberffraw, she had four older sisters (Mared, Rhiannell, Susanna and Annest) and three older brothers (Cadwallon, Owain and Cadwaladr). She was said to be beautiful with long, flame red hair, intelligent and well educated.

After the French Norman Invasion led by William the Conqueror in 1066 turmoil had been unleashed across the kingdom. The Welsh lords had lost many of their lands and possessions to the Normans, who built impressive fortifications and castles in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Camarthen, Pembroke and Cydweli.

These castles stood on land that had once belonged to the Kingdom of Deheubarth.

Map of Welsh regions c. 1093 when Rhys ap Tewdwr died.

It was in this environment of repression, rebellion and Welsh patriotism that she was raised. Even though physically striking she was no wilting violet, having been taught how to use a sword by her father!

Gwenllian was about 13 years old when she first met the love of her life, Gruffydd ap Rhys, prince of Deheubarth. He had received a warm welcome from her elderly father and promptly fell in love with his spirited daughter Gwenllian.

The couple eloped to Gruffydd’s castle home of Dinefwr in the Tywi Valley, Deheubarth. They had four sons: Morgan (1116 – 1136), Maelgwyn (1119 – 1136), Maredudd (1130 –1155) and Rhys (1132 – 1197). Gwenllian and Gruffydd were a kind of medieval version of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, making daring raids on the Normans in Deheubarth, redistributing their goods and wealth among the local Welsh population.

Their raids would surely have been an annoyance for the Normans, but no significant turning point came until early 1136, shortly after the passing of Henry 1st, the Norman King of England. His death had created a power struggle between his nephew, Stephen of Blois and his daughter, The Empress Matilda, in a civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’.

A revolt began in South Wales, where a Welsh army lead by Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog defeated Maurice de Londres at Llwchwr near Swansea. The Norman lord fled back to Cydweli Castle.

Sensing the Normans were on the run, Gruffydd and Gwenllian made the fateful decision for Gruffydd to ride north with his men to gather support and the forces of her father based in Gwynedd in the north. An army of that size would have been able to drive the Normans out of Deheubarth.

Battle and betrayal at Cydweli Castle

With her husband and the majority of his men away, Gwenllian and her sons were left vulnerable. In the early hours of the 28th of February 1136 Gwenllian received news that the Normans were amassing an army at Cydweli Castle, likely aware that Gruffydd and his men were away. Gwenllian had already decided to fight should the need arise, and after making sure her two younger sons Maredudd and Rhys were safe she rallied support from the local men.

Working men from the Tywi Valley left their labours to join Gwenllian in defence of their lands. Maybe she said something like:

“Men of Deheubarth, will you join me in battle? I am the daughter of a king, but you are the sons of Wales. This is your land, and the Normans have already stolen much of our birthright. Shall we let them steal even more?”

Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess, led her army consisting of her two eldest sons and around two hundred ill-equipped local men and by the afternoon they had reached Cydweli Castle. The short winter daylight hours meant they had to camp nearby. She decided on two strategies, namely lightning raids which she had organised before with her husband, while waiting for his return to launch a major offensive.

She split her troops in half; one group to remain with her at their camp in the woodland to the north of the castle, intent on cutting-off supplies to Maurice de Londres in the castle, while the other group, headed by a local chieftan, took men by boat to stop the Normans landing on the coast.

This may well have worked, had it not been for the traitor in her midst. Gwenllian was betrayed by no less than her chieftan, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, who instead of cutting-off the coastal landings as instructed, met with Maurice de Londres and gave away Gwenllian’s position.

She had lost the element of surprise and was the victim of a surprise attack herself as Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and the Normans descended from Cydweli Castle along the banks of Gendraeth Fach, their banners fluttering in the wind. Soon they had surrounded Gwenllian’s camp.

A fierce battle ensued, with archers and dagger men, and eventually Gwenllian was felled from her horse. Her eldest son Morgan was killed trying to protect her, and Maelgwyn was made to watch as his injured but defiant mother was captured.

The cruel Norman Lord, Maurice de Londres, who instead of acting in a chivalrous manner towards a woman captive (which was the etiquette of the time), decided she should be executed.

Poor Gwenllian was spared being burned at the stake but was beheaded there and then on the battlefield. A gruesome but quick death. It is said that a spring welled up in the place where she died, fighting to the end for Welsh freedom.

When her husband Gruffydd ap Rhys and her brothers Owain and Cadwalar heard that Gwenllian and her two sons had perished at the hands of the Normans they were filled with grief and vowed revenge. Her death was the catalyst for the Great Revolt of 1136.

Revenge for Gwenllian!

The furious Welshmen attacked the castles of north Ceredigon, slaughtering the Normans there. They had a further victory at Cardigan in 1136, but Gruffydd ap Rhys died only a year after his wife. Of their four sons only the youngest Rhys ap Gruffydd lived to old age.

There is a touching monument to Princess Gwenllian at Cydweli Castle, and stories abound of her headless ghost roaming the field where she was so mercilessly slain. For centuries after her death Welshmen used the battle cry, “Revenge for Gwenllian!”

For decades after her death the welsh and the Normans battled over castles and territories, but eventually her youngest son Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys), became the greatest Welsh lord of his time. He regained many of the lands his family had lost in Deheubarth and won others to boot.

In 1159 he retook Cydweli Castle from the Normans avenging his mother’s murder. He rebuilt the fortress in 1190 and held it until his death in 1197. Rhys also claimed Cardigan Castle, where in 1176 he founded the first Welsh Eisteddfod. Thus was started a festival tradition that continues to this day. Singers and musicians have performed for centuries, long after the court poets, harpists and bards of Lord Rhys’ era.

Royal descendants

The title of ‘Prince of Wales’ may well have first been used by the Lord Rhys. He must have been a man of vigour as he was known to have fathered at least nine sons and eight daughters. There was a bitter feud between his eldest legitimate son, Gruffydd ap Rhys (II) and his eldest, illegitimate son, Maelgwn ap Rhys.

Two of his daughters were named Gwenllian after his legendary mother, but the younger Gwenllian (1178 – 1236) married Ednyfed Fychan, seneschal of Gwynedd under Llywelyn the Great, and through her offspring her grandmother, Gwenllian ferch Gruffyd became an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty.

Posthumous bust of Henry VII by Pietro Torrigiano made with Henry’s death mask c. 1509 – 1511

Through the Tudors inter-marrying with the House of Stuart, Gwenllian is an ancestor to the House of Windsor and also an ancestor of several ruling houses in Europe. When Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1485 to make a bid for the English throne, his descent from the Lord Rhys (and Gwenllian), was one of the factors which enabled him to attract Welsh support (Henry flew a Welsh dragon banner at the battle of Bosworth Field).

Caniad Hun Gwenllian

Gwenllian is remembered in a traditional Welsh lullaby known as the ‘Caniad Hun Gwenllian’, by Meilyr Brydydd (1100 – 1137), chief bard at the court of Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd.

Sleep, Gwenllian  

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight

Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,

An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;

Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,

Thy heart as happy day and night!

Mid all our woe, O vision rare!

Sweet little princess cradled there,

Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.

Thy brethren battle with the foe,

Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,

Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep

All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!

What are the angels whispering low

Of thy father now

Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,

How many a Queen of high degree

Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

Our Welsh sojourn was fun and fascinating, summed up for posterity on a blog with photographs (Wales is Always Poetic, Even in the Rain).  For me Gwenllian really embodies the spirit of Wales, wild, beautiful, patriotic, cultured and courageous, having left a tremendous historic legacy on the UK and the world.

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Vieuxtemps

“Vieuxtemps’ art – expressive, human, romantic and distinctive – belongs not only to history, but to the contemporary world as well”. ~ Prof. Lev Ginsburg

To my shame and consternation I have never played a piece of music by Vieuxtemps on my violin. I honestly wasn’t that familiar with his repertoire before reading up about him. I knew of him, but I had no idea just how beautiful and virtuosic his music really is.

Henri Vieuxtemps by Marie Alexandre Alophe

An outstanding virtuoso violinist of the romantic era, he mastered his performance craft and was completely in tune with what was and wasn’t possible on the violin; pushing soloists to their technical limits in his violin concertos.

He had almost certainly been influenced by the brilliance of the famous violinist Paganini. The two met in London in 1834 when Paganini was in the twilight of his career and Vieuxtemps had given his debut in the city. Both were said to be mutually impressed with each other’s talents, but differed in their musical philosophy.

Vieuxtemps eschewed excessive showmanship, and although his compositions were undoubtedly rhapsodic and extremely technically challenging, he never sacrificed unbridled virtuosity at the expense of the music. This philosophy was impressed upon his renowned Belgian pupil, Eugène Ysaÿe, who quoted his teacher: “Not runs for the sake of runs – sing, sing!”

If one could know a person through his creative output I would say that Vieuxtemps possessed a great love for the violin and wanted to explore what it was capable of within the parameters of aesthetic enjoyment.  It seems that the virtuosity in his music is the epitome of his flair and improvisational skills, but it is never misplaced or garish.

A man of taste, passion and emotional intelligence, his numerous qualities translated into his solo career and romantic concertos, an enduring legacy for the most poignant and expressive instrument of all…

Henri Vieuxtemps (17 February 1820 – 6 June 1881)

 Although Henri Vieuxtemps, (literally translated as Henry ‘old times’) was incredibly popular during his lifetime his work has slipped into comparative obscurity today.

The young Henri Vieuxtemps – Portrait of a Violinist by Barthelemy c. 1820s

His early development seems to follow a similar path to that of others I have written about in the violin virtuoso/composer series, in that he was a child prodigy from the age of four. Oh what it must be like to be gifted from the get-go! Henri was initially tutored by his father, a weaver by trade, but also an amateur violinist and luthier.

Vieuxtemps the virtuoso

Vieuxtemps made his first public debut playing a violin concerto by Pierre Rode aged six, and later came to the attention of illustrious violinist/composer Charles Auguste de Bériot  at one of a series of concerts in Brussels and Liege. De Bériot became his private tutor and took the young Henri to Paris in 1829, where he made his debut with another Rode violin violin concerto.

The July Revolution of 1830 in Paris and de Bériot’s marriage to Maria Malibran forced his return to Brussels where he continued to perform for a time with Pauline Garcia, de Bériot’s sister-in-law.

During a tour of Germany in 1833 Henri met and became friends with Louis Spohr and Robert Schumann. He also garnered the attention and admiration of Hector Berlioz during his touring of various European cities.

Now established on the European classical circuit Vieuxtemps also made three concert tours of the USA, firstly in 1843 – 44, in 1853 and again 1857 – 58.

Henri Vieuxtemps standing (with his Guarneri violin), alongside noted musicians and composers who performed in John Ella’s 1853 season of the Musical Union. Louis Spohr is seated with his score, with Berlioz next to him.

Perhaps it was the influence of traditional American folk music that inspired his composition of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ Souvenir d’Amérique.

A brilliant encore by Joshua bell:

Vieuxtemps in Vienna

Not content with performance alone he studied composition with Simon Sechter in Vienna, after having performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major as his debut in the composer’s home city. A mature work indeed for a tender teenager of fourteen, and a concerto he would champion throughout his career. He also became a pupil of Antonin Reicha in Paris.

Franco-Belgian School

Vieuxtemps was an influential performer, composer and teacher, especially in the history of the Franco-Belgian School of violin during the mid nineteenth century. The school dates back to the evolution of the modern violin bow such as those made by François Tourte, often referred to as the Stradivari of the bow.

Qualities favoured by the Franco-Belgian School (and most likely epitomised by Vieuxtemps) included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a ‘long’ bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet, (as opposed to Joseph Joachim’s German school of wrist bowing and Leopold Auer’s Russian concept of using the whole arm.)

Vieuxtemps the composer

What stood out for me listening to and discovering his violin music and overall oeuvre was the singing, ‘bel canto’ quality of the violin, especially in the higher registers. This is a quality that Tartini also embodied. The works aren’t overly violin dominated but encompass the entire orchestra in partnership with the violin and are richer for it.

Whilst he may not be on par with Beethoven in terms of composition, (whom he admired and performed), alongside Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn, he certainly used his intimate knowledge as a player to bring out the emotion, rising above the obstacles of technical difficulty.

His violin music has a freedom to express emotion that is most endearing and attractive for a soloist; enabling a player to impart their own style and personality on the music.

Vieuxtemps’ violin concertos

Henri Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos, the first being completed in 1836, but published as number 2 in F sharp minor, opus 19. Hrachya Avanesyan does the honurs:

Violin Concerto No.1 in E-major, Op. 10 (actually his 2nd), performed by Misha Keylin with Dennis Burkh and the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra:

Violin concerto No. 3 in A Major, Op. 25 composed in 1844, performed by Misha Keylin:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31

The most famous of his violin concertos was number 4 in D minor, composed while he was in Saint Petersburg as the court violinist to Tzar Nicholas 1 of Russia in 1846. Unusually for a violin concerto it has four movements, which Vieuxtemps (rather astutely in his experience as a performer), advised that the challenging ‘off-beat’ third movement was optional for programming purposes.

The orchestra’s opening few bars of the concerto are gentle, lush and romantic, with a dramatic, if slightly melancholy melody that soon reaches a crescendo infused with a dark edge, hinting at unknown depths…

When the violin makes its expressive and singing entrance, free and interpretive, forward moving with increasing tempo and power in the higher notes, a certain forcefulness in the chords, virtuosity in the runs and harmonics – a drifting and energetic solo using the whole range of the instrument – you have a concerto worthy of immortality!

I love this fantastic performance by Hilary Hahn and the Berlin Philharmonic. Hilary has been playing this concerto since the age of ten, and rightly knows it inside and out! She brings a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to it:

To my mind it’s better and more complete with the 3rd movement included; said to be difficult even for professional violinists with its the tricky rhythm between soloist and orchestra, but at the same time lilting and lyrical with a rather playful quality, especially in Hahn’s gorgeous interpretation.

The final runs in the 4th movement indicate a March like theme with impressive motifs and changing melodies. It’s what Hilary Hahn refers to as a ‘finger twister’!

I am in awe of anyone who can play this concerto, especially the section in the finale that requires the fingers of left hand to move in alternating small and large increments whilst the right, bow arm and hand keep the pressure in the sweet spot so that 3 strings are simultaneously depressed; a violin multi-tasking mind bender!!

Another performance of this beautiful concerto I really like is by the late Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux:

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 ‘Grétry’ written in 1861, played by Shlomo Mintz:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in A minor, ‘À Jenő Hubay’, Op. 49 c. 1870 (Op. 3 posthumous) with Misha Keylin:

Salon, concert and chamber works

I adore this rather operatic style composition for violin and orchestra, the Fantasia Appassionata in G minor, Op. 35 in this wonderful 1980 recording performed by Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly:

Ballade et Polonaise Op. 38 with Heifetz:

Romance sans paroles Op. 7 Nos 2 & 3 with David Oistrakh:

Vieuxtemps ‘Reverie’ with Lola Bobesco:

David Nadien plays Vieuxtemps’s Regrets:

Duo Brilliante in A Major, Op 39 for violin, cello and orchestra with Aaron Rosand:

Elegie for Viola and Piano Op. 30 with Robert Diaz and Robert Koenig:

Capriccio in C minor for Solo viola ‘Hommage à Paganini’ played with heart and soul by Anna Serova on the Amati 1615 ‘La Stauffer’ Viola:

The ‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesù Violin – the most expensive violin in the world

Famed violin maker Guarneri del Gesù made the violin in 1741, three years before his death, and it was used extensively by Henri Vieuxtemps in his performances as a virtuoso violinist.

Later musicians who played the Vieuxtemps Guarneri included Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell.

The violin’s excellent condition and undisputed provenance led to a steady increase in price and the instrument was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2012 by J & A Beares in London in conjunction with Paolo Alberghini and master violin restorer, Julie Reed-Yeboah. The final record-breaking price was said to be somewhere in the region of $16 million, with the purchaser gifting lifetime use of the ‘Viuextemps’ to the ecstatic virtuoso violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers.

As Anne says, with other legendary violins owned and played by Paganini, Kreisler and Heiftez now resting largely unheard in museums, it is a precious gift to have the ‘Viuextemps’ being played on!

Anne gave this moving interview after receiving the violin – ‘Art and Soul’ of World’s Most Expensive Violin:

Anne Akiko Meyers History of  ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu:

‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri Del Gesu Returns To The Concert Stage…

News coverage of the sale by npr.

Russian legacy

Henri Vieuxtemps achieved great success and popularity in Russia. He made two concert tours there in 1837 and 1840 as well as his later 5 year stint at the Imperial Court. Perhaps his lasting legacy from his most revered time in Saint Petersburg (1846 – 1851), was his founding of the Violin School of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his early guidance of the ‘Russian School’.

The teachers that followed him in Saint Petersburg were violin luminaries Henryk Wieniawski and Leopold Auer, whose students inlcuded some of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, such as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Georges Boulanger, and Oscar Shumsky.

Final Years

An excerpt from Robert Cummings’s Biography sums up Vieuxtemps’ final years:

“He took a teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory in 1871, where his students included Eugène Ysaÿe, and two years later suffered a stroke resulting in paralysis of his right arm. This episode effectively ended his career as a soloist, though he eventually regained enough ability to perform chamber music in private concerts. He was also able to compose in his last decade. In 1879, he moved to Algeria where his daughter lived. His inability to play with proficiency in his final years was a source of great frustration for him.”

I feel strongly that Henri Vieuxtemps deserves more recognition and to be heard regularly on stage and in recordings.

Memorial to Henri Vieuxtemps in Verviers

I hope you have enjoyed his music as much as I have during my venerative Vieuxtemps interlude!

A Sunny Sunday at the Beautiful and Bucolic Blenheim Palace

One never needs an excuse for a family picnic. As Sunday was my birthday, and rather fortuitously, the sunniest and hottest day of the year to date, we drove to Woodstock and spent a fabulous few hours at Blenheim Palace.

Roughly 25 years have flown by since my first visit and my children have never been, so we decided to explore the vast park and gardens that have been home to the Dukes of Marlborough for 300 years.

Blenheim was also the birthplace and ancestral home to former UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, being a grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and a direct descendant of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.

“Under the auspices of a munificent sovereign this house was built for John Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722, and the Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of £240,000 towards the building of Blenheim, was given by Her Majesty Queen Anne and confirmed by act of Parliament . . . to the said John Duke of Marlborough and to all his issue male and female lineally descending.”

~ Plaque above the East gate of Blenheim Palace

It was fascinating picking up bits of history through an exhibition in the stables, just off the main front courtyard.

Aerial views of Blenheim in winter:

The Battle of Blenheim

During the War of the Spanish Succession, John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough proved to be a canny general and diplomat. England was allied with the Dutch Republic, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, together forming the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV in his brazen attempt at dynastic rule over Spain and their European territories.

The Battle of Blenheim (fought at Blindheim, Bavaria on 13th August 1704), was won under John’s leadership in alliance with Prince Eugene of Savoy, and was a major turning point in deciding the European balance of power.

Rather than engaging in siege warfare against Marshall Tallard and his French forces, Churchill made a strategic, surprise attack forcing an open battle. It was hard fought and hard won, with many casualties on both sides.

The Duke of Marlborough signing the despatch at Blenheim c. 1704

He won further victories at Ramillies in 1706, in Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709, elevating and securing his position as one of the most successful and respected generals in Europe. The Battle of Blenheim was such an important turning point for Great Britain and its emergence as a military and political leader in Europe, that the estate in Woodstock was gifted to John and Sarah Churchill by a grateful monarchy.

Despite the glorious victory that preceded and heralded Blenheim’s existence, much acrimony surrounded its construction. Blenheim’s birth was not an easy one!

Plan of Blenheim Palace and Gardens c. 1835

A major reason for discord between the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough was John’s controversial choice of architect, Sir John Vanbrugh.

Aided by Nicholas Hawksmoor, he designed and built Blenheim Palace in the English Baroque Style. However the duchess, Sarah Churchill, a close confidante of Queen Anne, had wanted to employ Sir Christopher Wren, who was unassailable after St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was constant bickering between the Duchess and Vanbrugh.

The two could not agree about the fate of the existing Woodstock Manor and lodge, which had served as a royal retreat since the time of King Henry I.

Princess Elizabeth, before ascending to the English throne had been held captive in the lodge between 1554 and 1555 by her half-sister and Queen, Mary Tudor. It had lain in ruins after its destruction at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians since the Civil War.

Ruby in the perfect climbing tree near our picnic spot.

All but a stone pillar was swept away before construction of Blenheim Palace at the behest of the duchess; against the wishes of Vanbrugh, who had wanted to conserve what remained of the original dwelling.

Political infighting with the Tories and Whig Party and a fall out with Queen Anne sent the Churchill’s into ignominious exile on the continent, only returning after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. They took up residence in the east wing of the then unfinished Blenheim, and found themselves back in favour with the new monarchy, the Hanoverian dynasty.

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough first cousin of Winston, inherited his dukedom in 1892 under the shadow of personal and family bankruptcy.

The debts incurred by the extravagant spending habits of George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough, which John Winston Spencer Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough had not been able to stem, even after selling off many of the family’s heirlooms, forced him into a mercenary and loveless marriage with Consuelo Vanderbilt; the beautiful, young American railroad heiress in 1895.

9th Duke of Marlborough with Consuelo and their sons, by John Singer Sargent

New world Vanderbilt money ensured old world Blenheim’s survival, but the Duke and Duchess were unhappy together. They had two sons to carry on the Marlborough line, but separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921, after which Charles had their marriage annulled.

Consuelo Vanderbilt by Carolus Duran c. 1900

We didn’t go into the house, my daughters made it clear that walking round a stately home would be a fate worse than death; but we did enjoy parts of Blenheim’s formidable 2,000 acres of gardens and grounds.

The Fountain Terraces (complete with sculptures from Bernini’s Italian studio) and lakeside walk are a pleasure to amble through on a sunny afternoon. An ice cream treat doesn’t go amiss either!

Blenheim Palace is unique as a country house in that it is the only non-royal residence (apart from the Church of England’s Lambeth Palace) allowed the status of ‘palace’. Its grandeur had even beguiled Hitler, who instructed that it not be bombed during World War 2, eyeing it as a possible residence should he invade the UK. Fortunately that nightmare scenario did not prevail!

Blenheim Palace was first opened to the public in 1950 and made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

The estate is now home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, who in his younger, reckless days was labelled the ‘Black Sheep’ of the family by his estranged father John Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough, also a cousin of Winston Churchill and given the nickname ‘Sunny’, (but not due to his temperament). Eventually father and wayward eldest son were reconciled.

The millions of visitors each year provide the funds for Blenheim’s onerous upkeep.

Before we departed I wandered over the Grand Bridge built and designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, with the Column of Victory looming before me.  Ruby was very tired and had taken to dragging her feet whilst pulling my arm and wailing intermittently.

She begged me mercilessly to let her roly-poly down the steep hill, but I decided the generous amounts of geese poo and the thought of her rolling straight into the lake prohibited that particular fancy…

Grand Bridge and Victory Column

The sun was slowly sinking, its fading light reflected as brilliant, squint inducing starbursts off the water, shimmering and glinting at passers-by, illuminating every last drop of Blenheim’s peace and tranquility.

I eventually turned to head back to our picnic spot to search for Emily’s lost bracelet, but took a moment to admire the distant sandy coloured façade and columns of the palace, standing noble and proud to this day. Blenheim will always be an emblem of courage, fortitude and empire that presides over its Capability Brown landscape and beyond.

William also admiring the view!

Blenheim Palace is the legacy of its founding father and his outstanding military achievement, but each generation of its famous chateleins, (the Spencer-Churchill family), have left their mark in the process of preserving Blenheim for future generations – a national treasure with a magnificent, historic heritage.

“At Blenheim I took two very important decisions: to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill

The temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill rather romantically proposed to Clementine Hozier during a rain storm in 1908. He later wrote: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”

Bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the WC Memorial Garden

I hope you like my photographs of the grounds and gardens. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the vicinity of Oxford. It will be especially fun for families this Easter weekend. Happy Easter!