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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After her traumatic job for her uncle she is thrown among the wolves, but decides to run with the pack and to beat them at their own game.  Her resentment at being a pawn for her boss is perfectly understandable; she is lied to, used and hindered in her progress, and her life is considered expendable in a revolting system that does not value its operatives beyond the glory they can bestow on their political masters and the State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anatomy of a scene with film director Francis Lawrence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tchaikovsky and Oistrakh Pluck at Sturdy Heart Strings

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

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

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

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

Where to start…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A masterpiece!

Tchaikvosky’s personal circumstances behind the Violin Concerto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical influences on Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Brain Plasticity can Direct Life for Better or Worse

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

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

Your brain can change – it’s called plasticity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honing habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music education

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

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

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

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

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

Now to tackle Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin!

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

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

Setting goals and implementing new habits

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

John Assaraf eloquently explains this concept:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing mental muscle

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

The same fundamental principle also applies to our brains.

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

Meditation

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

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

Dr. Pillay suggests using CIRCA:

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

Innercise

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

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

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

Take 6, Calm the Circuits

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

Another Innercise is AIA: Awareness, Intention and Action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful aspects of neuroplasticity:

Flex your cortex!

7 ways to make the most of brain plasticity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wreck of frigate Méduse

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

An incompetent captain

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

Louis XVIII of France in Coronation Robes by Francois Gerard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail of The Last Judgement by Michelangelo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Portrait of the Carpenter on the Méduse by Théodore Géricault

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

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

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

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

Preparatory work of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

Composition and structure

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

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

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

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

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

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

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

Influences on Géricault for The Raft of the Medusa

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

From Wikipedia:

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

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

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

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824)

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

Théodore Géricault in his studio c. 1818

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

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

Interesting history of the artist by Dr. Christian Conrad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review: Despite its Bleak Subject, Darkest Hour Will Lift Your Spirits

“You are strong because you are imperfect. You are wise because you have doubts.” Clemmie to Winston in Darkest Hour

Winston Churchill remains one of my all-time heroes so it was a must for me to see the latest Churchill film focusing on his early days as Prime Minister in May 1940: Darkest Hour.

Unusually I found myself sans offspring, and spent 2 hours in the cinema completely absorbed by this stunning movie. In fact, I was on the edge of my seat and the hairs on my arms were stood on end throughout most of it, as I was furnished with many facts that I had previously been ignorant of; illuminated beautifully with dramatic and cinematic flair by director Joe Wright, his cast and crew.

I was already a fan of Joe Wright, his version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen has a special place in my heart, I very much enjoyed his cinematic version of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, and my son was an extra in PAN.

Kazuhiro Tsuji did an amazing job of making Gary Oldman unrecognisable (except perhaps a tad around the eyes), his facial prosthetics transformed the actor into an uncanny resemblance of the great leader.

There aren’t really any words adequate enough to praise Gary Oldman’s performance.

I think he was outstanding and gave the performance of a lifetime, well worthy of a coveted Oscar from the Academy, or a BAFTA from the British Film Academy for an actor in a leading role.

The spirit of Winston must have whispered to him and imbued him with the emotions he experienced at that desperate, turbulent time from far beyond the grave.

For me he perfectly captured Winston’s dogged demeanour, his bullish, bellicose mannerisms that cloaked his sensitive and kind nature, his courage of conviction, his private moments of anguish, unsurpassed oratory abilities, his inner metal, his fiery emotional side, his razor sharp wit and prolific intellect, his enduring love for Clementine; in short, the sum total of all his vices and brilliance that made him so human and relatable.

Gary Oldman himself talks about his reservations in playing such an iconic man that would be compared to other performances by a range of accomplished actors:

Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as Clementine Churchill, his beautiful, elegant and long suffering wife, who admits in a congratulatory speech to Winston and their family on their first night in No. 10, that she knew she would always come second to his public life.

They raise their glasses to Winston and make a jocular family toast to, “Not buggering it up!”

There are a few touching scenes where Winston is feeling down on himself in the face of overwhelming problems, with the weight of the world (or at least the balance of power in the world), on his shoulders. Clemmie is his equal, his guiding star, the one person who is his rock as he faces impossible odds.

Lily James is wonderful as his sweet and loyal personal secretary, Miss Elizabeth Layton and Ben Mendelsohn is also perfect as the beleaguered and skeptical King George VI. In a meeting with Lord Halifax he asks: “Why have I been forced to send for Churchill? His record is a catastrophe.”

Their first formal, awkward meeting as Winston is invited to Buckingham Palace is acting at its best.

It is only after watching interviews with the key players that I discovered Ben is about as Australian as they come!

The film unfolds against a back drop of fear and panic running rife through the houses of Parliament, invoked by Hitler’s ruthless invasion of Europe, as well as personal and professional enmity from politicians in his own party, who attempt to thwart Winston at every turn.

The older, wiser, portly, but nonetheless still sprightly Winston is surrounded by enemies, both domestically and abroad; fighting battles on all fronts…

The magnitude of his task makes for jaw dropping viewing.

We begin to understand the impossible poison chalice that Winston Churchill had been given when the opposition party declared on 9th May 1940 that Neville Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the House and that they would support a new leader in coalition.

A shadowy House of Commons is in uproar as Chamberlain is ousted, and the camera comes to rest momentarily on an empty front bench seat, save for a Royal Naval Yacht Club cap.

Kingsley Woods leans over and asks Antony Eden, “Where’s Winston?” to which Eden’s sardonic reply comes, “ensuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.”

That is the start of a fantastic screen play by Anthony McCarten, witty, clever and original (obviously littered with many of Winston’s own words throughout), and it more than does justice to the man and the events he is crucially caught up in.

The Conservatives make it obvious they want the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax for the role, also the choice of King George VI, who did not warm to Winston at first. They regarded him as impetuous and his military failure at Gallipoli had followed him like a bad smell into his role as Prime Minister.

The knives were sharpened, gleaming and out on display.

One comment of a passing politician can be heard saying: “He has a hundred ideas a day, but only four of them are any good, the other 96 are useless.” Even his ally, the French Prime Minister referred to him as ‘delusional’ after their first meeting.

Gary Oldman’s superb portrayal showed us a man who was under no illusions about the unimaginable difficulties that lay ahead, yet who still relished the challenge and rose to his calling. He became the leader he was born to be, just when the nation (and in a wider sense, Western Europe), needed him most.

Winston chooses his War Cabinet, who grudgingly admit ‘he was right about Hitler’ which includes his enemies Chamberlain, Halifax and Labour leader Clement Attlee, who Churchill describes in derogatory terms, as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’, so that he can keep them close and gain all perspectives.

This is admirable on his part, but they rarely agree with him and actively plot to get him removed by a vote of no confidence and replaced by Lord Halifax, using Winston’s unwillingness to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler as their reason.

Darkest Hour highlights Winston’s heart-rending dilemma: there are over 300,000 British soldiers (plus allied soldiers) stranded in Dunkirk, surrounded by Hitler’s military forces in control of France, with only 4,000 men stationed nearby at Calais who can possibly draw fire from the Nazi’s long enough for the evacuation to take place at Dunkirk.

Survival is the victory Churchill hopes for, so that he can bolster and regroup the nation’s war efforts to avoid the same fate of invasion that has just taken place in Western Europe.

Winston knows it will take a miracle even to get 10,000 men out alive. He gives the order for Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his brave men at Calais to make a heroic ‘last stand’ for the greater good, knowing he is effectively signing their death warrants. A decision that proves unpopular in his War Cabinet and that affects him very deeply.

Sadly, that is the nature of leadership; especially during war time, impossible decisions had to be made.

If he can’t get the men out of Dunkirk he knows that our island faces almost certain subjugation and possibly annihilation, and is being pressured to negotiate peace before the outcome of Dunkirk has unfolded. On top of that he has the memory of his past failures haunting him.

The tension is palpable, as much as any fast paced thriller, probably all the more because we know it really happened. Having recently seen Dunkirk (another spectacular film), it put those closely linked events into context for me.

It sent shivers down my spine watching Winston determining the best course of action, and of how the outcome could have been very, very different.

Even though it’s a heavy subject matter, with scenes of desperate news coming from Europe and shouty, strategic meetings taking place in atmospheric, oppressive, smoke filled underground War Rooms; they are interspersed with light and comic moments.

Such as when (and this is most likely fictional), Winston’s first ‘V for Victory’ sign is captured on a newspaper front page the wrong way round, so Miss Layton educates Winston to turn his fingers round the other way to ensure he is not swearing, and Winston being told his response was required to the Lord Privy Seal, whilst he is seated on the toilet at No. 10. We hear his dry remark as he flushes, “I am sealed in the privy, I can only deal with one shit at a time.”

In another scene when he is at lunch with the King at the palace, he asks Winston about his relationship with his parents, and gets the candid response that his mother was beautiful and glamorous and had many admirers, and that his father was like God. Busy elsewhere.

This is not mentioned in the film, but luckily Winston was very close to his nanny growing up, who to all intents and purposes was a surrogate mother to him. I wrote about my visit to his ancestral and birth home, Blenheim Palace.

The scene in which Winston makes his first radio address to the nation highlights his perfectionist approach to his writing and speaking and his attempt to buoy the nation in the face of tyranny and terror.

Another funny yet serious moment comes when Winston is in what is thought to be his toilet in the War Rooms, which is in fact a private phone booth, as he calls on US President Franklin D Roosevelt to ask for delivery of the aircraft that the British have brought from them with money they had lent to the British for their purchase!

Although sympathetic to Churchill’s plight, FDR tells him that due to their Neutrality Act the aircraft cannot be transported to British coastal waters, but that they can be pulled by horses across the border to Canada.

Whilst the audience are likely thinking WTF? Winston seemingly goes into a trance as Franklin calls his name down the line, while he is having a flash of inspiration.

It is when he emerges that he orders a broadcast requesting all fishing boats, yachts and pleasure craft over 30 foot long be dispatched from the south coast to assist the Navy with evacuating our stranded army at Dunkirk.

This clip from Anthony Nolan’s brilliant film Dunkirk depicts Winston’s ‘Operation Dynamo’ in action:

In the end hundreds of civilian craft answered the call and nearly all the British forces were thankfully rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk.

Churchill had already made the decision not to negotiate with Hitler on the courage of his convictions, a leap of faith in the nation and what he knew of dictators from history and their insatiable appetite for power.

I can understand to some extent that Lord Halifax wanted to save lives and explore peace, but I think his ideology was misguided in that particular situation. Had he been Prime Minister, and had the War Cabinet ultimately gone down that path it would have been more devastating long term than the losses we sustained during the war years.

It would perhaps be like living a scenario similar to Robert Harris’s chilling novel, Fatherland.

How can you measure, or put a price on human freedom?

Before making his decision, literally during his darkest hour, as pressure mounted from Chamberlain and Halifax to negotiate and all seemed lost for our forces in France, a depressed and lonely Winston sits on his bed, when in bursts Clementine announcing that he has a visitor.

You sense it’s an important visitor, and when he gives a curmudgeonly grimace and asks who it is, she tells him matter-of-factly, “The King.”

“Which King?” Winston scrunches up his face in confusion. He genuinely looks shocked as the tall, well-groomed George VI enters the room.

It is a beautifully crafted scene in which the two men find common ground, portrayed as the beginning of their friendship. George is angry at having to consider fleeing to Canada, something the Royal Family, to their credit, did not do.

He offers Winston his full support in his defence of the realm and seeing his increasing leaning towards entering so called ‘peace talks’ gives him the same advice that Winston had previously given him: to listen to the mood of the people.

I’m sure the scene where Winston slips out of his official car and takes the District Line to Westminster is also fictional, but its dramatic effect works well in the context of the film.

He chats to shocked and nervous passengers on the underground, who show him respect and admiration, something very rare for any politician to experience in this day and age. He puts to them the choice of fighting the Nazi’s or surrendering, and they all give him their support to fight.

With his mind made up once again on defeating Hitler ‘whatever the cost’ he strides through parliament and gathers politicians for a chat before addressing the house. He tells them him his mind, and the mind of the people he has spoken with, asking if they wish to see Swastika flags flying above Buckingham Palace and Windsor, to which they resolutely respond they do not.

Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

The mood has changed to defiance, and then we see the spine tingling scene in the commons where Winston gives his ‘never surrender’ speech on 4th June 1940. Even his enemy Chamberlain, takes his white handkerchief and pats his forehead at the end as a signal to his party to back Winston.

We see that he has navigated the nation through its darkest hour to what we know will eventually be ‘their finest hour’ speech.

Here is the actual full ‘We shall never surrender speech’:

Was Winston Churchill a perfect man?

No. Not by a long shot. He had his fair share of foibles, but he proved to be the perfect flawed man for the job of rousing the nation, instilling its will to attain victory and building its belief that it could defeat an evil force that threatened its shores, its way of life, and no less than civilisation itself.

Much the same as we face now on a smaller, but no less insidious scale, in fundamental Islamic terrorist groups.

Interviews with the writer, director and cast give an interesting insight into why and how Darkest Hour was made:

This film gets five stars all-round from me; it’s a stunning fictional portrayal of a great man during a momentous historic event, that makes you appreciate so very much that we didn’t end up living under the grip of the Gestapo.

I will no doubt watch Darkest Hour time and again in the future, especially when I need reminding of how good we’ve got it compared to previous generations.

Not everyone is a fan of the film itself, Mark Kermode gives his views:

Darkest Hour filled me with gratitude and admiration for Winston Churchill and his courage and unwavering leadership, and also to the many men and women who bravely fought for the freedoms that we take for granted today. Winston took on the burden of delivering us from unspeakable tyranny.

Although this is not a traditional Valentine’s Day post, it embodies the love that is expressed through service and duty. Jesus reminds us:

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

I have total respect for my grandparents’ generation. My paternal Australian grandfather flew spitfires for the RAAF in Burma and my maternal grandfather was part of the Home Guard in the UK. My daughter’s paternal and multilingual great grandfather was secretly operating in Norway during WWII and was awarded the Freedom of Norway by the King of Norway for his services.

We must never take our freedom for granted, and should do what we can to assist other people and nations being persecuted by tyrants, who are going through their own darkest hours around the world.

Even with Brexit looming I feel we should do our best to keep our long standing friendship with our European allies alive; as bonds that were forged in the fire of adversity could potentially be eroded through nationalist sentiments and a hard line approach by the current Conservative government.

Thankfully, being an island nation worked in our favour during WWII, but as poet John Donne so eloquently espoused in his prose, and Gary Oldman so touchingly portrayed; no man is an island.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
~ John Donne

Poetry and Appreciation of the Seasons: A Winter’s Walk

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
 ~ William Shakespeare from Sonnet 97

We woke to thick flakes of snow falling on Sunday morning, and a white layer soon started to cover everything.

Winter Snow in Louveciennes by Camille Pissarro c. 1872

By the time I had got my act together the snow had turned to freezing rain and the dim light was fading further under a heavy blanket of cloud. Still, I felt the need to suffuse my stale blood with fresh air, clear my mind and stimulate my muscles, no matter the rather unappealing prospect the environment was making it.

It’s amazing how even on the coldest and dullest of days there is inspiration for a muse –  if she looks for it.

The Road From Versailles to Saint Germain by Camille Pissarro

Winter can be a tough time: reality sets in alongside the Christmas credit card bills, piling on worry with the extra woolly layers and the battling of virulent, seasonal germs, whilst rousing sluggish motivation.

Even Tchaikovsky agrees we should be warm and snug in January! Mind you, I’m sure Russian winters must be way more brutal than English ones. By the Fireside is the title of January from his 12 pieces of The Seasons, Opus 37. Richter reflects his sentiments on the ivories:

The days are short days and the nights, long. Everything seems to be focused inward.

It’s like we are curled up in a metaphorical fetal position, taking comfort from an enclosed, but secretly nourishing dark space, all growth shielded from view.

Garden Under Snow by Paul Gaugin c. 1879

We dig deep, perhaps drawing on inner reserves to see us through this forlorn time. Nature too, is hunkering down, despite her wintry displays. It seems to me that the stark scenery and empty trees are a sign of mother nature baring her soul to us, her naked branches giving us a sign that we too will flourish again.

Already I have noticed the days are drawing out in small increments.

All traces of snow were gone today. The sky was blue and the sun hovered like a low, bright disc, surely brightening all ragged spirits.

Effect of Snow at Argenteuil by Alfred Sisley

Winter certainly has its unique charms, when everything is stripped back and thrown into sharp relief, but they remain so because of their temporary time span. That is indeed, the magic of all the four seasons.

A Winter’s Walk  

Trees and birds are silent while relentless rain holds court,

A rhythmic, yet random patting against my hood, hypnotising,

Lazy lungs expand with chilly, desolate air, as breath is caught

Coalescing with mist, hot and swirling: my efforts rising,

Icy droplets numbing face, nerves sparking, fingertips tingling,

Under a darkening, dreary sky, life and death are mingling.

The hushed landscape wears a sparse cloak of glory,

Insulated feet stumble, eyes explore meadows, trees and bracken

To discover pockets of beauty, embellishing winter’s bleak story,

A silvery sheen coats soaked ivy leaves – refusing to blacken,

Precarious droplets of watery diamonds hang, almost suspended

From bare and spindly branches; my hibernating heart is mended.

I feel alive as winter reveals its cool, contrasting shades;

Mulchy leaves decorate slippery, muddy trails and stumpy grass,

Ghostly barks shimmer amid the muted inhabitants of glades,

Translucent pools occupy smooth hollows of holly; green glass,

Wet wings carry birds across exposed clearings; swiftly to go

Beneath nature’s cleansing tears; dimpling patches of snow.

Life holding life in abeyance; abundance in perfect stasis,

As unseen activity unfolds within death’s enveloping hands,

Humans eagerly anticipate spring’s invigorating, energetic kiss,

Warming damp, weary bones and awakening purged lands,

But subtle beauty lingers, in the wild depths of decay,

Winter’s test of faith and spirit never does betray…

I want to lose myself among elevated regal trunks,

Their rough and knotted surfaces standing proud,

Witnesses of earth’s creatures, and striding hikers, lifting funks

Their swaying whispers soothing senses; a welcome crowd,

My body feels cold, but my soul is wandering free…

Home beckons: promising shelter, and a hot cup of tea!

 By Virginia Burges

If we want to embrace winter, both the challenges and the beauty, Vivaldi evokes the musical themes that will eternally embody such sentiments.

‘L’Inverno’, Concerto for Violin and strings in F minor, RV. 297 by Cynthia Freivogel and Voices of Music:

You may like to be reminded of a true romantic bard’s words on the subject with the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ode to the West Wind 

Yours in wintry wonderment! Ginny

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ~ John Steinbeck

Photos and Musings on the Beautiful, Pioneering Tintern Abbey

“Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul.
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep layer of joy,
We see into the life of things.”
 ~ William Wordsworth from Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.

Some places are sacred. Their energy flows through you and fills you with a tangible connection to the past, a gratitude for the present, and a hope for the future.

Tintern Abbey in the Welsh Wye Valley is one of those places.

Arches in the north-east corner

Arches along the south-west transept

It’s customary to map out your goals and plans for the year ahead in January, something I advocate and do myself; but I also think it’s also good to spend some time in contemplation, and to glance back at the positives and negatives of the previous year, especially to share and savour that which nourished your soul.

The timeless tranquility of Tintern Abbey filled me with wonder during our family visit on new year’s eve.

My youngest exploring

After a scenic drive through the Forest of Dean my children were keen to stretch their legs and explore. A heavy rain storm ceased abruptly before we parked, and the sky began to brighten auspiciously for our visit. Equipped with a poor choice of footwear for the muddy and quagmire like ground, we gradually lost ourselves among its crumbling and ascending ruins.

Tintern’s mottled, lichen covered, Old Red Sandstone walls, and lofty symmetrical arches, have housed and presided over numerous beings that lived simply and stoically throughout four centuries of tumultuous history.

There is a sense of nobility and majesty in the fresh air that pervades its spectacular, ruinous spaces.

High walls and arches…

Our eyes roamed over the soaring remains of this 12th century Cistercian settlement, still standing resplendent inside a sweeping bend of the ancient River Wye, which weaves and curves like a silvery snake through the heavily wooded Wye Valley.

Tintern Abbey by Benjamin Williams Leader

Remote, often shrouded in mist, you soon get a feeling of reverence for the architectural brilliance that has defied the elements for over 700 years. It’s not just the complexity and beauty of the buildings either, the surroundings are peaceful, pristine and primal.

The early Cistercian monks could not have chosen a more picturesque and serene setting for their new home…

View towards East window and transept

Sketching the Ruins of Tintern Abbey by Samuel Colman (1780 – 1845)

Any place that has been built for the purpose of devotion and worship of the divine creator carries a pure energy, a high vibration I can only describe as a sort of ‘healing’ vibe.

Even the children were in awe at its impressive design, scale and sheer longevity…

Alignment and height

As I walked from west to east along the water logged great church I could imagine the ghostly chanting of the choir, devout voices floating ever upwards…

A major turning point for Tintern Abbey came when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales (for both financial and religious reasons), after he broke with the Catholic Church in Rome.

Book repositry and Sacristy

Abbot Richard Wyche and his 12 remaining monks surrendered their dwelling to the king’s men on 3rd September 1536; the defining historical moment of its decline.

Tintern’s lead roofs were removed and sold, and the buildings systematically stripped of all valuable material.

Outside the North window

After 400 years of continuous habitation on the site by Cistercian monks, and with their peaceful home plundered – Tintern Abbey was finally abandoned. Without the attention of its dedicated inhabitants and open to the onslaught of the welsh weather, it fell into disrepair and neglect.

West window and transept

The abbey lay forgotten and slowly decaying for nearly three centuries, until it was rediscovered by fervent artists and poets in search of wild, unspoilt and romantic landscapes to inspire their art and creativity in the early 19th century.

Tintern Abbey – North Window by Frederick Calvert c. 1815

A new road to the area in 1820 made the site more accessible to adventurous and well heeled tourists, and the decaying buildings were eventually saved when Tintern Abbey was purchased by the Crown on behalf of the nation in 1901.

View towards monks’ quarters from the infirmary

There are some wonderful watercolour and oil paintings of the abbey by Turner, Colman, Calvert, Dayes, Leader and van Lerberghe from this time period, during which its sturdy walls and pillars languished under copious ivy growth and masonry lay scattered throughout the transept.

Tintern Abbey – The Crossing and Chancel, Looking Towards the East Window by JMW Turner c. 1794

East window with sepia effect c. 2017

A wonderful recital of the poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth:

Or, if you prefer, you can read the lines whilst listening the Moonlight Sonata, which was composed by  Ludwig van Beethoven only 3 years after Wordsworth wrote his poem :

Over the next 27 years an extensive programme of conservation was carried out, as well as in later, subsequent years.

Tintern Abbey took my breath away, and I can only image the splendour it must have exuded in its medieval heyday.

This stunning aerial footage really gives you a sense of the scale of the abbey in its location, accompanied by the celtic lilt of Loreena McKennit (The Mystic’s Dream):

History of Tintern Abbey

The abbey was founded by Walter fitz Richard de Clare, the Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow, on 9th May 1131.  Tintern was only the second Cistercian house in the British Isles and introduced the order’s pioneering brand of monasticism to Wales.

Looking towards monks’ quarters from north window gallery

The original 13 ‘white monks’ who settled here travelled from the abbey of l’Aumone (Loir-et-Cher), itself a branch of the order’s great Burgundian ‘mother house’ at Citeaux, France. The site at Tintern was chosen in this secluded country location because it was ‘far from the haunts of men’, as was typical of those preferred by the Cistercians.

This newly formed, pioneering religious community needed land to prosper, and Walter de Clare granted the monks a substantial estate on both the Welsh and English sides of the River Wye.

South window and transept

The land was organised into compact farms known as granges, and throughout the site’s growth in the 12th century the land was consolidated into areas for arable cultivation, the construction of farm buildings, cutting down woodland and draining coastal marsh to improve productivity.

Unlike other monastic orders, the Cistercians (who had no Norman links), found much favour in Wales, and could be self-sufficient with generous grants of land from Welsh rulers.

Emily and Will under the West window – the main visitor entrance during Tintern’s Medieval era.

Will chilling outside the great church

It’s thought that at first the monks lived in temporary wooden structures, but by the middle of the 12th century they had built a relatively modest stone church and monastic buildings set around a square cloister. As the community grew the monastic buildings were gradually rebuilt over the first half of the 13th century.

Rick Steve extolling the beauty of the Ruins of Tintern Abbey:

The chapter house and refectory date from this period. Without doubt, the abbey’s greatest glory is the stunning Gothic church which still dominates the site today, built between 1269 and 1301, when it was consecrated under the patronage of Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk (1270 – 1306).

A corner of the cloister

North window and transept

The great church is 228 feet long and 150 feet wide. The tall east window’s original stained glass contained the 5th earl’s coat of arms in gratitude to its benefactor.

Unsurprisingly, the numbers of lay brothers fell during 1348-49 when the Black Death struck England and Wales. We walked around the foundations and low walls of the infirmary, which was almost as large as the church. The infirmary housed the sick from Tintern village and surrounding areas, as well as their own modest population.

Foundations of the infirmary – main hall

Monastic life of the Cistercian Order

The Cistercian way of life began in 1098 when a group of pioneering monks departed from the Burgundian abbey of Molesme with the intention of leading a life of austerity and perfect solitude.

An east facing window

Robert, their abbot, led them to settle in an area of forest and marshland and their ‘New Monastery’ was given the Latin name of Cistercium, now known as Citeaux.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a charismatic French abbot who transformed the Cistercian Order; somewhat of an early trailblazer (and today’s equivalent of religious brand marketer), for his influence on the creation of the Cistercian identity.

By the time of his death in 1153 there existed around 340 Cistercian abbeys across Europe, organised in a network of ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ foundations.

Over time there were upwards of 700 white monk abbeys across the length and breadth of Christendom, with 86 of these living in Great Britain.

Tintern Abbey Interior by Moonlight by Peter van Lerberghe c. 1812

View from North to South

In 1165 Rhys ap Gruffudd, prince of Deheubarth gave his support to Strata Florida, and the daughter houses of Wales flourished. Whitland Abbey in the heart of Wales became a ‘daughter house’ of Clairvaux.

The Cistercian adventure proved to be one of the most successful and remarkable phenomena of the medieval church.

Eastern and northern corner

View of Tintern Abbey by William Havell c. 1804

Cistercian Values

Their main focus was to lead a contemplative life, a strict interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict, with an insistence upon poverty. They shunned wealth and luxury and observed a rule of silence whilst living on a meagre vegetarian diet. It doesn’t sound like much fun, but in many ways it was free of the pitfalls and complications of what we might consider a modern, desirable lifestyle.

They would have been men of virtuous character, living off the land, focused on their inner life and service to God and community.

There was a grand total of three fireplaces in the whole of Tintern Abbey, one in a ‘warming room’ adjacent to the monks’ day room, one in the kitchens, and one in the infirmary, so heaven only knows how cold and drafty it must have been in the winter… or at most times of year come to think of it!

Admiring stranger, that with lingering feet,
Enchained by wonder, pauses on this green;
Where thy enraptured sight the dark woods meet,
Ah! rest awhile and contemplate the scene.
These hoary pillars clasped by ivy round,
This hallowed floor by holy footsteps trod,
The mouldering choir by spreading moss embrowned
Where fasting saints devoutly hymned their God.

Tintern Abbey and the River Wye by Edward Dayes c. 1794

Unpitying time with slow but certain sweep
Has laid, alas! their ancient splendour low:
Yet here let pilgrims, while they muse and weep,
Think on the lesson that from hence may flow.
Like theirs, how soon may be the tottering state
Of man–the temple of a shorter date.
 ~ Edmund Gardner, Sonnet Written in Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey is a masterpiece of medieval architecture created in a time when construction methods did not have the benefit of modern technology and machinery, which makes it all the more inspiring.

Arches at the intersection of the transepts

Do go if you get the opportunity, it’s a wonderful, sacred place and you’ll be following in the footsteps of Wordsworth, Turner and countless other admirers…

There are some stunning walks nearby at Symonds Yat Rock, where 300 million years of nature’s patient erosion has formed a breath taking river valley view and scenic woodland trails. We did a short trail as the light was fading and Emily was a tad grumpy, so progress wasn’t as brisk as usual.

It was a wonderful few days to close out 2017 and see in the New Year. All blessings for 2018!

“For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.”  ~ William Wordsworth

Peace, Joy and Love be With You… ✨🙏🎄

“Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” ~ C.S. Lewis

Christmas Eve has settled upon us once again, with its magical promise of celebrations, joy and peace, and the prospect of a tasty roast dinner in good company and a present or two for the children…

The Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Altdorfer

As is usual at this time of year I get a tad overwrought at my workload. I do love making my children happy, and spending time with my family, but the preparations are time consuming and stressful. By Christmas I’m usually done for.

I felt this year I was managing better than previous festive holidays, but in my perceived invincibility my body had other ideas.

I convinced myself I didn’t have time to slow down, I was ramping it up another level. I had cards to write, gifts to wrap, the house to clean and tidy and a pile of laundry resembling the north face of the Eiger.

On top of that I was still concerned for my eldest son who had recently had a stint in hospital with a pneumothorax and is having to go back to cardiology for follow up tests. He doesn’t live near us so that proved an added challenge.

So much for super mum – I have been forced to slow down, to stop and take stock.

The two days of being bed ridden with every bone, sinew and muscle aching, my leaden limbs screaming yet listless, as my body was overtaken by a vicious fever, took my mind off everything other than trying not to expire.

My condition alternated between shivering so violently my whole body was shaking and my teeth were rattling in my mouth, and so I would pull on yet another jumper and feel like a yeti, only to find I was sweating for England an hour later and throw all my layers off. In between I tried to breathe through a heavy chest, ceaseless coughing and a burning throat.

You’ve probably guessed I don’t do illness. It’s made me appreciate my health, which has been excellent this year. I just had to get this flu out of the way.  Luckily my girls weathered it better.

So I have emerged from my sick bed sounding like I smoke fifty a day, but grateful to be feeling vaguely human again. The house is still a bomb site, the presents still need wrapping, but the most important thing is being able to share love and goodwill with friends and family.

I’m even resigned to the shenanigans of our recent trip to the cinema with the family to see The Last Jedi. I’m not sure the force was with us that day…

I turned around in a car park adjacent to the cinema, dropping the kids off, only to find a vile individual filming us for the purposes of obtaining a parking fine. We were there for a grand total of two minutes. I commented that a little Christmas spirit wouldn’t go amiss, but it fell on deaf ears. She had chosen to work for a company without any moral fibre or human decency.

So I wasn’t surprised when a £100 fine landed on our door mat yesterday morning. I’ll never understand why people want to make a living from pure meanness of spirit.

Despite mounting bills there is much to be thankful for.

L’adoration des Bergers by Geroge de La Tour c. 1644

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to all of you who have either purchased my novel, The Virtuoso, followed my blog, read my posts, liked them and perhaps shared them on social media. It means so much to me that something I have touched on may have proved helpful and worthy of a second thought.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas wherever you are and whoever you are with, and all my good wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018.

I am excited and bursting with creative ideas for next year. This year is almost over, and I don’t feel as though I’ve had a chance to catch my breath, let alone achieve anything worthwhile. It has been a roller-coaster, probably with more downs than ups, but in hindsight perhaps a vital stepping stone to greater things.

Have you also found 2017 flew by a trifle fast?

The clock is ticking and I must resume decking my small hall with boughs of holly and the like.

My thoughts drift to Mary, who, over two thousand years ago may have wanted a different birth scenario but who had to put up with her unborn infant being hunted by mad King Herod and making do with a draughty stable full of animals to give birth in.

But she probably didn’t complain about her lot. She had a devoted husband who did his best to support her, and instead she gave us the light of the world and his message of eternal salvation.

The Nativity by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

My daughter did her class assembly last week, during which I learnt about the Festival of the Radishes in Mexico. ‘Noche de Rabanos’ as it is known, is celebrated by farmers in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve.

Most of my lot don’t eat radishes on the grounds that they find the taste quite disagreeable, but thought carving them into nativity scenes and traditional Mexican symbols an artistic and an unusual way to celebrate the Nativity.

Over the centuries there have been many images in a multitude of mediums from mosaics to altar panels, murals, stained glass, oil paintings, architectural features and sculptures depicting the Nativity, perhaps the greatest story ever told…and now with radishes!

Oaxaca farmers have celebrated an annual ‘Night of the Radishes’ festival for the last century:

I feel it’s fitting to round off with a little Christmas confusion from Joshua Bell and Igudesman & Joo:

From his album Musical Gifts – Greensleeves with Joshua Bell and Chick Corea:

Peace, joy and love be with you…

“I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale

Massimo Quarta Conjures Paganini’s Diabolical and Divine Daemon on ‘Il Cannone’

Daemon: An attendant or indwelling spirit or one’s genius. An action exhibiting superhuman or diabolical energy or skill.

It was Paganini’s 235th birthday on 27th October, and I thought it was high time I revisited some aspects of the maestro’s life and share the incredible performances of his six violin concertos by Massimo Quarta on Paganini’s beloved violin, ‘Il Cannone’.

Portrait of Niccolo Paganini with ‘Il Cannone’ by the Italian School

For me these concerto recordings are special, not only because are they performed on ‘Il Cannone’, or because of the virtuosity, sensitivity and artistic fervour they are played with, but also for the fact that they are performed and recorded using Paganini’s original autograph score, which differs in quite a few aspects from the printed 19th century versions. Truly authentic! 

This was the first time the Violin Concerto No. 1 has been recorded in the original key of E Flat-Major, with the violin tuned up a semitone as Paganini directed on his autograph score.

It’s hard to imagine the pressure that Massimo Quarta and his orchestral colleagues must have felt in performing such historic and culturally important recordings.

Massimo Quarta was a pupil of Salvatore Accardo and winner of the 1991 International Paganini Violin Competition. His performances with the Orchestra of Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice strike a passionate chord and somehow convey a spiritual affinity with Paganini.

We can listen to these romantic works exactly as Paganini conceived, composed and most likely played them!

“You can feel all the tears and pain from his terrible life, and also the joy in music.” ~ Massimo Quarta

But first, a story…

When Niccolo Paganini was five years old and began learning to play the mandolin and guitar under his father’s tutelage; his mother, Theresa had a vivid dream.

Possibly it was spurred on by knowledge of Giuseppe Tartini’s infamous dream and ensuing composition: the Devil’s Trill Violin Sonata, and it was to have a powerful effect on Paganini’s future as a violin virtuoso of the likes the world had never seen.

Theresa’s dream could well be said to have proved a self-fulfilling prophecy for Niccolo. She saw a theatre in flames, and her son, playing triumphant music and standing tall over the flames, with Tartini conducting next to a red devil with a guitar, competing for Paganini’s soul. An angel then appeared and she asked that her boy become a great violinist, whose name would be immortal in the pantheon of musicians.

It was his mother’s bizarre dream that likely inspired Paganini in his relentless pursuit of glory and gold.

Paganini believed his mother’s dream and carried her vision throughout his astonishing life. This vivid, early association with the devil no doubt contributed greatly to his supreme confidence and later his professional reputation and personal notoriety.

Being the devil’s violinist made an interesting narrative, with drama and furore following him almost everywhere he went. It is incomprehensible how he was able to play beyond the limits of his endurance as a man who constantly struggled with his health, and his energies weren’t just reserved for his music!

Portrait of Paganini by Eugene Delacroix

My first blog about the maestro goes into more detail about his life.

His personality was full of contradictions, many of which Paganini was happy to portray when it suited him. His fame and wealth far exceeded that of any previous violinists.

With an inner strength he battled his physical ailments and tilled his creative, commercial and musical soil with an alacrity possibly still unmatched by modern day soloists.

Paganini’s Violin Concerto’s No. 1 in E Flat-Major and Concerto No. 2 in B minor on Paganini’s violin, ‘Il Cannone’:

He certainly had a significant impact on the young Franz Liszt, a musician who also broke the mould of Romantic era composers and virtuosi, leaving his particular legacy on the piano.

Liszt’s amazing piano composition Grandes études de Paganini, S.14 was his impressive homage to the violinist, performed here by Daniil Trifonov:

“The excitement he caused was so unusual, the magic that he practiced upon the fantasy of his hearers so powerful that they could not satisfy themselves with a natural explanation. All tales of witches and ghosts came into their minds. They tried to explain the wonder of his playing through his past to fathom the magic of his genius by invoking the supernatural. They even suggested that he had dedicated his soul to the devil.” ~ Franz Liszt

I do feel sympathy with Paganini’s childhood. As a frail boy, he was often ill, but was made to play his violin for long hours by his father. I see shades of Mozart and Beethoven in his upbringing. If he didn’t practice enough his father would beat him and deprive him of food. Herr Beethoven wasn’t averse to beating young Ludwig…

Paganini lamented that it was ‘difficult to imagine a stricter father.’

Niccolo had composed his first violin sonata (now lost), at the age of 8, only too aware of Mozart’s achievement in writing his first piano concerto at the age of 6!!

In addition to his rigorous practice schedule the Paganini’s first showcased their son’s talents in a public concert when he was 11 years old.  His parents’ high expectations for their son must also have had a bearing on his beliefs that his destiny was to become the greatest violinist that ever lived; thereby steering him on a path that wasn’t always to make him happy and certainly seemed to possess him.

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, M.S. 60:

At the age of 19, he had come to the attention of a government minister and was asked to play a short piece during an Easter mass in Santa Croce, Lucca. Paganini brazenly performed a 28 minute concerto!

As a young man approaching the apex of his near miraculous abilities, Paganini began composing his stunning 24 Caprices for Solo Violin.

His immense talent, (possibly overlooked as the result of blossoming skill attained throughout the many years of hard graft as a sickly youth), was a source of jealousy, envy and hostility, but also of intense admiration from his audience and peers alike.

He wrote his music to elevate his prestige as a virtuoso, which sometimes proved too much for the more sensitive listeners, and for those who could not come to terms with his startling innovations on the instrument.

From Project Gutenberg:
Paganini did occasionally play concertos by Rode and Kreutzer, though it was said that in these he was less successful than in his own. The Rev. Dr. Cox heard Paganini play the first movement of Beethoven’s Concerto—in fact it was performed for his special edification. This is what he said of it:
“Never shall I forget the smile on that sad, pale, wan, and haggard face, upon every lineament of which intense pain was written in the deepest lines, when I caught his eye, or the playing, into which a spirit and sympathy were thrown that carried one wholly away. As soon as he had concluded, and before I could rush up to him to express my thanks, he glided away. I never saw him afterwards.”

Paganini’s critics and detractors did not hold back in their efforts to malign him.

Thomas Moore going for the jugular: ‘He abuses his powers. He can play divinely and sometimes does for a minute or two, but then come his tricks and surprises, his bowing convulsions and his inharmonics like the mewling of an expiring cat.’

Wolfgang von Goethe seemed more bewildered, commenting, ‘I can find no base for this column of flame and smoke. All I know is that I heard meteoric sounds that I have not yet succeeded in interpreting.’

Karl Friedrich Zelter pronounced, ‘I find him irritating,’ and went on to describe Paganini as ‘not so much a lunatic as a poseur.’

Another reviewer in Hamburgisches Handelsblatt slated his Vienna performance: ‘I have never been so let down as by this so-called virtuoso’, accusing him of trickery and writing, ‘it was more like a twittering of sparrows than any legitimate musical sound.’

At a concert I ran a nail into my heel and came limping onto the stage, which made the audience laugh. As I was preparing to play, the candles fell out of my music desk, which produced more laughter. When I began to play the concerto, my E string broke, which again provoked laughter. But when they saw me continue on three strings, it caused a furore. ~ Niccolò Paganini

However, no-one remembers or celebrates his harsh critics. Fortunately Paganini also had his ardent fans…

“There was nothing wanting to the greatness of Paganini, not even the failure of his contemporaries to understand him.”  ~ Albert Jarosy
“His never-erring execution is beyond conception. You ask too much if you expect me to give a description of his playing. It would take up the whole letter; for he is so original, so unique, that it would require an exhaustive analysis to convey an impression of his style.” ~ Felix Mendelssohn
“On Easter Sunday in the evening I heard Paganini. What ecstasy. In his hands the driest exercises flame up like pithy pronouncements.” ~ Robert Schumann
“In Paganini’s Adagio I heard the singing of angels. We will not see this fellow’s like again.” ~ Franz Schubert
“Never has an artist caused such a sensation within our walls as this god of the violin. Never has the public so gladly carried its money to a concert, and never in my memory has the fame of a virtuoso so penetrated to the lowest classes of the population. When we say that in his hands the violin sounds more beautiful and more moving than any human voice, that his glowing sound kindly warmth in every heart, that every singer could learn from him, one has still said nothing that illuminates his playing – that is Paganini.
Anyone who has not heard him can have no idea of it. One must hear him, and hear him again – only then can it be believed.” ~ Ignaz Castelli
“It was a divine, a diabolic enthusiasm; I never saw or heard anything to equal it in all my life. People have all gone crazy. But you should see how awkward he was. He is the most magnificent lout that nature ever invented.” ~ Ludwig Boerne
“In a dream, Tartini saw a devil playing a diabolic sonata. That devil was surely Paganini.” ~ Francois Castil-Blaze
What a man! What a violin! What an artist! What suffering, what anguish, what torment those four strings can express! ~ Franz Liszt

One of the supporters firmly on the side of Team Paganini was Carl Guhr, the German violinist, composer and conductor based in Frankfurt. According to Guhr, there were six differences and innovations that set Paganini above the rest of the violin pack:

  1. His method of tuning. Paganini raised the pitch of all strings by a semitone and altered his G string alone when needed to a minor third higher.
  2. His method of bowing. ‘Paganini’s unique bowing gives his playing the greatest vitality and variety. His subtle nuances give his singing melodies a sweetness that words cannot express. But the chief difference is his astonishing staccato. He throws his bow on the strings with a whipping action and plays scale passages with incredible rapidity while the sounds of his violin roll off as smooth as pearls.’
  3. His practise of combining bold notes with left hand pizzicato. This was a device used traditionally by the Italian School, especially in the time of violinist Niccolò Mestrino, and neglected by the French and German Schools. ‘Today only Paganini uses the technique and with the greatest success.’
  4. His use of harmonics. ‘One can say with certainty that much of Paganini’s security and clarity on the violin is directly related to his complete mastery and extended use of harmonics. This enables him to play with astonishing ease phrases that would otherwise be quite impossible on the instrument.
  5. His compositions for the G string alone. ‘In these the G string is tuned a minor third high, sometimes even a major third high, while using a much thinner string, and they have won him the greatest celebrity.’
  6. Paganini’s Tour de Force. ‘I cannot be expected to describe them all, almost everyone who hears him for the first time is astonished and excited by so much that is new and surprising. Paganini can touch the deepest levels of the soul and perform unprecedented feats with dazzling perfection. The effect is far beyond description.

Paganini Violin Concerto No. 3 in E Major and Concerto No. 5 in A minor:

It seemed that public opinion of him went up and down according to whatever rumours and stories were circulating about him at any given time, but despite the vicissitudes of his popularity throughout his career, Paganini had the innate gift of being able to surprise his audience.

Everyone says that such a triumph here (London) is unprecedented. I played, and all the malignant slander changed to ineffable praise. ~ Niccolò Paganini

Even Paganini’s appearance fed the myths and legend of his association with the devil. Heinrich Heine wrote of his physical attributes:

He wore a frock coat of dark grey which reached to his heels and gave him an appearance of great height. His long, dark hair fell to his shoulders in twisted locks and formed a black frame for his pale, cadaverous face, on which sorrow, genius and hell had left their ineffaceable stigmata.

La Comtesse de Lamothe-Langdon described him as ‘a figure that looked almost twisted. His nose and mouth matched the rest of his appearance as did his deep set eyes that burned with a dark fire. All of this gave a look of the Satanic to his whole person.’ However, she goes to state that when he spoke of the violin and when he began to play, she no longer thought him ugly.

In Paris, in the spring of 1831 Paganini put on a gala concert at the Opera House with the help of Rossini, (having declined to give a private performance for King Louis Philippe I on health grounds), where ticket prices were selling at double their normal price.

The refined French School was more concerned with artistic expression than pure technique and blazing virtuosity, but Paganini had both in abundance – plus a generous helping of showmanship.

Paganini by Richard James Lane

In the audience were the musical, literary and artistic icons of the day: George Sand, Eugene Delacroix, Cherubini, Heinrich Heine and Franz Liszt.

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 6 (aka. No. 0) in E Minor, MS 75, Massimo Quarta:

“Although this work carries the number 6 it is actually the earliest of Paganini’s surviving concertos. For a long time only a version for violin and guitar was available and Federico Mompellio and Francesco Fiore provided the orchestral accompaniment (published in 1973).
Paganini wrote this concerto to flaunt his violinistic virtuosity as no other music of his time could. In and around melodies that are ardently if not profoundly expressive the soloist gets to show off lines in the violin’s highest compass, wide leaps of register, dashing scales and arpeggios, strings of trills, saltando bowing, and passages in double stops . The orchestra accompanies discretely and sometimes speaks up in tutti passages of its own. Much of the music recalls opera, and the tone is predominantly plaintive.” ~ Aaron Rabushka

After 8 concerts in 11 weeks Paganini was 158,000 francs richer, an incredible sum of money for a soloist to earn at that time. Following his stint in Paris he went to London and 151 concerts later made five times his weight in gold, even though his concerts sold at normal ticket prices.

Paganini’s grand tour of Europe made him wealthy beyond all imagining, but sadly, towards the end of his life he made a disastrous investment in a casino that failed and ultimately cost him a fortune in excessive fines.

There is a touching story about his enduring friendship with French composer, Hector Berlioz, and the origins of Berlioz’s Piece for Viola and Orchestra, Harold in Italy (via Gutenberg Press, by Stephen S. Stratton):

It was sometime in January, 1834, that Paganini called upon Berlioz and said he had a wonderful viola, a Stradivari, upon which he should much like to play in public, but he had no music for it. Would Berlioz write a solo for him? Berlioz was flattered by the proposal, but replied that in order to produce a composition sufficiently brilliant to suit such a virtuoso, he—Berlioz—ought to be able to play the viola, and that he could not do. So he thought Paganini alone could meet his own wishes. Paganini, however, pressed his own point, adding that he himself was too unwell to compose anything. Berlioz then set to work. To quote his own words: “In order to please the illustrious virtuoso, I then endeavoured to write a solo for the viola, but so combined with the orchestra as not to diminish the importance of the latter, feeling sure that Paganini’s incomparable execution would enable him to give the solo instrument all its due prominence. The proposition was a new one. A happy idea soon occurred to me, and I became intensely eager to carry it out.”
Paganini was impatient to see the music, and as soon as the first movement was finished, it was shown to him. He did not like the long silences. “That is not at all what I want,” he said; “I must be playing the whole time.” “You really want a concerto for the tenor,” Berlioz replied, “and you are the only man who can write it.” Paganini said no more, and soon afterwards left for Nice.
Berlioz then gave free play to his fancy, and wrote the series of scenes for the orchestra, the background formed from the recollections of his wanderings in the Abruzzi, the viola introduced as a sort of melancholy dreamer, in the style of Byron’s “Childe Harold.” Hence the title “Harold in Italy.” Now, this is the point: “Harold” was inspired by Paganini, who indirectly gave a new art-form to the world. The piece was produced on November 23rd, 1834, but Paganini was then in Italy, and he did not hear it until four years later.
Berlioz: “The concert was just over; I was in a profuse perspiration, and trembling with exhaustion, when Paganini, followed by his son Achilles, came up to me at the orchestra door, gesticulating violently. Owing to the throat affection of which he ultimately died, he had already completely lost his voice, and unless everything was perfectly quiet, no one but his son could hear or even guess what he was saying. He made a sign to the child, who got up on a chair, put his ear close to his father’s mouth and listened attentively. Achilles then got down, and turning to me, said, ‘My father desires me to assure you, sir, that he has never in his life been so powerfully impressed at a concert; that your music has quite upset him, and that if he did not restrain himself he should go down on his knees to thank you for it.’
I made a movement of incredulous embarrassment at these strange words, but Paganini seizing my arm, and rattling out ‘Yes, yes!’ with the little voice he had left, dragged me up on the stage, where there were still a good many of the performers, knelt down, and kissed my hand. I need not describe my stupefaction; I relate the facts, that is all.”

Paganini paying homage to Berlioz after Harold in Italy

In his frenzied state Berlioz went out into the bitter cold, met Armand Bertin on the boulevard, told him what had occurred, caught a chill, and again had to keep his bed.
Two days later, the little Achilles called, the bearer of a letter, and of a message to the effect that his father would himself have paid the visit, but was too ill to do so. The letter ran as follows:
“My Dear Friend,
Beethoven dead, only Berlioz now can revive him; and I, who have enjoyed your divine compositions, worthy of the genius which you are, entreat you to accept, in token of my homage, twenty thousand francs, which will be remitted you by the Baron de Rothschild on presentation of the enclosed. Believe me always your most affectionate friend,
Nicolo Paganini.”

His powerful story became a legend, even in his own lifetime; fuelled by his incredible performances and quirky persona so that it took on a life of its own. Paganini’s legend has not simply endured, it has burgeoned into a mythical tale of tempestuous talent, suffering, greatness and infamy.

It seems Paganini was possessed by his Daemon at the expense of all else, so despite his shortcomings and irrepressible ego, his musical greatness will never be forgotten.

Portrait of Paganini by Maurin

An interesting documentary about the first performance of Paganini’s first violin concerto on ‘Il Cannone’ (not from the original autograph score), by Shlomo Mintz. He gets acquainted with Paganini’s favourite violin at its home in Genoa, before travelling to the Netherlands for his performance in Maastricht. There is plenty of footage of the violin in action:

The recordings with Massimo Quarta and Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova are possibly the closest thing that we will ever hear to what Paganini may have sounded like when performing his violin concertos.

The combination of the original music score, Massimo’s reverent virtuosity and the projection power of Guarneri del Gesù’s 1742 ‘Il Cannone’ is one to be savoured…

The greatness of this genius, unequalled, unsurpassed, precludes even the idea of a successor. No one will be able to follow in his footsteps; no name will equal in his glory. ~ Franz Liszt

Martial Arts: The Best Kick-Ass Cure for Troubled Teenagers?

“A black belt is just a white belt that never quit.” ~ Genesis Martial Arts                            

When my younger son, now 15, hit his early teens my lovely, polite, happy and kind boy transformed into a being unrecognisable to me.

I knew the hormones had hit – big time.

It must have been hard, he had all that testosterone circulating round his still relatively childlike body and it made him antsy, aggressive and confused. At this time his OCD became a real problem and he stopped doing his extra curricular dance and drama. I was worried. I didn’t want him to get sucked into a gaming obsession.

I tried not to pressure him and just let him be, but at times I was pulling my hair out. He wasn’t interested in music, but I remembered Genesis Martial Arts – a local company run by passionate, principled and well qualified instructors, specialising in kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA).

I floated the idea to William, who was not keen to do anything his mother suggested at that time. I managed to get him along to a trial session, as I suspected afterwards he might feel differently, and rather than railing against it because of me, he would experience the benefits it could offer him.

Three years down the line I can honestly say it was the breakthrough and blessing he needed in his life. Recently William did his kickboxing green belt grading; a tough, two hour session alongside his fellow Genesis students.

The green belt grading

I watched as they were first asked to stand and have their attire and kit inspected. This is the basic making sure your belt is tied correctly, you are properly dressed and have the appropriate sparring gear to hand.

There is no room for sloppiness in this sport. Attention to detail is key. The physical aspect of the grading began with three bouts of skipping, each for two continuous minutes, mixing up different styles as you see professional boxers so effortlessly doing.

It was like watching a room full of Rockies!

Then they spent time split into two organised rows doing the green belt syllabus moves; a series of kicks and punches in a certain order.

Green belt moves – Will in the middle facing forward.

After some water the group got out their gloves and mits to do some set moves in pairs, then donned the full gear and did several bouts of full sparring, changing partners each time.  When the sparring was completed they were required to each do thirty sit ups, thirty crunches, and set defensive moves.

At this point they all appeared just about done for, but they were asked to hold four minutes of horse-riding stance.  This is the closest thing to torture you can get to!

With legs apart, toes outward, sitting on an imaginary seat with a straight back and arms stretched out front, hands at right angles. The position has to be held without moving for the allocated time.

The lactic acid build up in the quads, hamstrings and glutes is intense. After a couple of minutes it’s sort of mind over matter.  William has gradually built up to that length of time, and when he takes his purple belt next year he will have to hold it for five minutes.

4 minutes of horse-riding stance

Brown belt is six minutes, and when he reaches black belt horse-riding stance must be held for fifteen minutes. Luckily that is a few years down the line… I’m hoping he’ll achieve his black belt by the time he turns eighteen.

I’m glad to say he passed his green belt grading with flying colours! The only segment he failed on was the horse-riding stance!

William sporting his new green belt.

These last three years of regular kickboxing lessons have been instrumental in the amazing young man William is becoming. He has been able to channel his aggression into a worthwhile physical pursuit.

He is laser focused on his school work and is highly goal oriented.

He is doing drama lessons again, he is strong and fit and loves physical exercise, he doesn’t smoke or do drugs, he is respectful (at least to his teachers), as they usually extol his virtues to me whenever I meet them. I rarely have to remind him to do homework.

With ten GCSEs to take in six months time, and a goal of getting into a local Sixth Form, Will is now doing an average of two to three hours of homework and revision a night. He also studies at weekends.

I am in awe at his work ethic.

William is a self-starter, has a healthy self-esteem and is well on his way to a bright future.

He still has has his narky moments (mostly when he’s hungry), but don’t we all?

Sparring

But it could so easily have gone the other way.  I’d rather have an insatiable teenager than a monster who’s smoking, doing drugs, partying all the time and generally slacking.

My love has always been a constant, and indeed that of his family, but I feel what has made a big difference is his overwhelmingly positive involvement in martial arts. He has made massive progress physically, emotionally and mentally since he started.

He is very fortunate to be taught by Corey Cain, who is a black belt (triple Dan). Corey’s titles include: five times world kick boxing champion, World Tae Kwon-Do Champion and British Kickboxing Champion.

Corey has high standards and expects his students to give their best, but he doesn’t ask them to do anything he is not prepared to do himself. He is highly skilled, but more than that, he is able to teach others how to attain that same skill should they desire it.

Corey pushing himself with the 100 Burpee challenge:

Corey is dedicated to his young acolytes and teaches them skills for life. His students listen, because if they don’t they will drop and do thirty or more push-ups. Lateness is the same outcome. Disrespect even more so.

William is translating all of these values into every aspect of his life and has set the bar high for himself.

“Fall down 7 times, get up 8 times.” ~ Japanese maxim

Martial arts is not necessarily for everyone – my daughters did not quite manage a year, but for those who embrace it there are many, many benefits. Kick boxing has invigorated William as it suits his drive and personality.

It has certainly helped to preserve my sanity…

12 kick-ass ways martial arts changes young lives for the better:

  1. Mutual respect – Respect for the teacher, your opponent and everyone is paramount. Students face their teacher and press their left fist into their right hand as they bow. This attitude of respect underpins the entire sport.
  2. Discipline – Students are encouraged to practise their sport, improving their skill and fitness level.
  3. Punctuality – Good time keeping is a lifelong habit that impacts every area of your life even into time management. Lateness is not tolerated and on more than one occasion Will has had to do 30 press-ups.
  4. Stamina and strength – Mental strength is just as important as physical prowess, both are developed in classes.
  5. Definite goals – Working towards each subsequent belt teaches the students to break down the overall goal into smaller steps that they build on progressively.
  6. Patience & perseverance – It can take time to master the techniques required for each belt, plus injuries may delay gradings, (as has been the case with William). He does not want to rush taking his purple belt, but to thoroughly learn and be fully ready when the time comes.
  7. Reward for effort – Even though he appeared physically tired I could see a sense of achievement in Will’s face. The presentation of the belt is a reward, but so is the knowledge you have worked hard and achieved something worthwhile.
  8. Self esteem & confidence – Ever since Will achieved his white belt, then blue, orange, and now green, he has grown in confidence in all areas of his life. The knowledge and the belts are part of his male quest, and being as the teenage years are a particularly vulnerable time for boys and girls, any achievement is a feather in the cap for mental health.
  9. Love of learning – They learn new skills on an ongoing basis, but they don’t run before they can walk. The learning is embedded, and later contextualised into everyday life. They learn that they can do anything they put their mind to.
  10. Focus and fortitude – Single mindedness of purpose is at the forefront of achievement in the sport. Techniques and values are instilled until they are expressed. If a student cannot get a move right they are encouraged and shown time and again to overcome perceived failure and push through mental blocks and barriers.
  11. A form of meditation – Just like playing a musical instrument is a form of meditation for a musician, the form and movement of martial arts quiets the mind to the movement itself, taking the person out of worry and distraction.
  12. An attitude of service – Students not only work to improve their own skill, but also partner with other students to teach and help each other in the process. Lessons are inclusive and everyone’s contribution is appreciated.

A love of martial arts at this crucial time has provided a steady course that has enabled William to steer his teenage ship unscathed on turbulent emotional waters. I’m grateful to Corey for being such a great role model and mentor and for how much he has helped William develop.

Black belts training in the Genesis gym:

Martial arts does not indoctrinate or aim to make students something they are not, but harnesses and encourages positive traits and builds strength (mental and physical), in a structured and supportive environment.

When hormones are raging and things might not be great at home, martial arts is a valuable outlet that channels energy and anger into a more productive pastime.

Anyone who undertakes martial arts with integrity will embody these skills for life and will undoubtedly make a difference in the world in their own unique way.

“The tragedy of life lies not in not reaching your goals, but in having no goals to reach.” ~ Benjamin Elijah Mays