Breathtaking Memories of the Alhambra – A Rare Jewel of the World

“Though the shadows of these walls have long since gone, the memory of them will live on as the final refuge of dreams and art. And then the last nightingale to breath on this earth will build its nest and sing its farewell song among the glorious ruins of the Alhambra.” ~ F. Villaespesa (plaque beside the Gate of the Pomegranates).

Lately I have been tearing around preparing three of my kids (two for new schools), like something of a Mad Hatter on caffeine overload. The moment we arrived back from holiday I had an extra guest in the form of my eldest prodigal son, and various activities all requiring mum’s taxi service. GCSE results day was soon upon us, followed by a grammar school sixth form interview, as well as making sure our kittens weren’t able to produce more kittens…

It turns out my worries were unfounded. An embarrassed phone call from the vets confirmed that the one we thought was a she (including an earlier vet inspection), is actually a he, so I hastily renamed Saffron Samson!! Fortunately he seems to have recovered from the early gender confusion.

Amid the recent chaos I have tried to eek out, here and there, some precious time to reflect on a holiday that wasn’t particularly restful, but certainly had its highlights – one of which was a visit to the Alhambra.

The Mirador of Lindaraja – Palace of the Lions

Alongside numerous other tourists from all over the world, in a state of high anticipation, we entered the ancient city walls of the Alhambra Palace in Granada; nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Southern Spain.

Our arrival was marred by the fact that Iberia had lost three of our cases due to a delayed outbound flight from Heathrow and a rushed connection through Madrid.

Our brief time spent visiting the Palacios Nazarias (palaces of the Nasrid dynasty), will stay with me forever. I enjoyed it despite a petulant youngest who made it clear she didn’t want to look around and was determined to moan and do her best to make us leave as soon as possible, (which included getting herself lost).

Cultural sightseeing with a reluctant child is enough to test the patience of saint, let alone an overheated parent’s patience!

I got the ‘why are you making me do this?’ stare from my youngest at the start of the tour in the Golden Courtyard of the Mexuar Palace.

Now that I have seen the historical, architectural and cultural gem that is the Alhambra with my own eyes, I can fully reminisce and revel in the music ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’ performed by John Williams and composed by Francisco de Asís Tárrega:

The Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra took my breath away. The Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty certainly knew how to express their power, as well as utilise nature to their full advantage and pay homage to the divine hand of creation.

I was bowled over by the intricate stucco decorations and sublime geometric patterns carved and tiled by long dead hands onto the floors, walls, arches and ceilings. There is a sheer timeless effulgence to the Alhambra – it dazzles in every respect!

It is quite simply jaw-dropping.

“The only conqueror is God.” ~ Nasrid motto inscribed in numerous epigraphs at the Alhambra.

The fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces is in perfect harmony with the landscape, designed to incorporate nature and paradise into a man made masterpiece.

Somehow it transcends the searing Andalusian summer heat.

The clever design of the palace and the orientation of the columns means that they can be effectively used as sun dials, being aligned from north to south to within tenths of degrees.

Shade in the Courtyard of the Lions

Apparently the rooms receive much more light during the winter months than in summer, mainly because of the wide, overhanging eaves and cornices. Certain secluded corners are said to be warmed by the slanting winter sun but sheltered from the wind.

During the summer the sun is so high that its rays rarely penetrate the sheltered corridors to warm the marble walls and floors. The places that receive most sun in winter stay in the shade in summer so many of the south-facing rooms remain as cool as they would if they were air-conditioned.

The name Alhambra has evolved from the original Madinat al-Hamra, meaning ‘the red one’, thought to be a reference to the colour of the soil of the hill itself and the red clay used in the building materials.  It could also allude to part of the name of the founder of the Nasrid dynasty: Muhammed ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr.

The Hill of the Alhambra Granada by Samuel Colman

I noticed the pervading redness of the ground inside the walls of the Alhambra, apparently due to oxidisation of the soil. The plateau on which the fortress and palace complex sits is aptly named ‘The Red Hill’.

The Fortress of the Alhambra by David Roberts

Our timed entry was mid-morning. In order to preserve this very special and unique UNESCO World Heritage site, a limited number of people are allowed in to the Nasrid Palaces at any one time on any given day.  Even the Alhambra’s existing quotas felt like too much. It’s crowded on and off as new groups are admitted, which makes decent photography limited. It didn’t help that we visited during peak season.

Having said that, it’s still a magical experience.

Apart from the middle-age fort of the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces are the earliest buildings of the Alhambra, (consisting of the Mexuar, Comares and Leones), which were inhabited and expanded through the centuries by each subsequent Nasrid generation.

They were eventually altered in places and added to by the conquering catholic monarchs, to encompass the sprawling fortress complex that commands the hill top today.

Luckily the technology of the present enables audio recordings to help visitors understand the aims and achievements of the palaces and their previous royal inhabitants.

The Mexuar

The Hall of the Mexuar is one of the oldest surviving parts of the royal palaces. The council met within the square formed by the four columns to decide upon important judicial matters, being the royal court of justice originally.

Elaborate wooden coffered ceilings in the Hall of the Mexuar

Facade of the Comares Palace in the Courtyard of the Mexuar

Comares Palace – The Courtyard of the Myrtles

Substantial amounts of water are harnessed throughout the gardens, palaces and especially in the Courtyard of the Myrtles; which is both stunning and serene.

Courtyard of the Myrtles – view towards the North Gallery and Comares Tower.

“Water forms the mysterious life of the Alhambra: it allows the gardens to grow exuberantly green, it gives birth to the splendour of flowering shrubs and bushes, it rests in the pools reflecting the elegantly arcaded halls, it dances in the fountains and murmurs in rivulets through the very heart of the royal residence.
Just as the Koran describes paradise, ‘An orchard flowing with streams.'” ~ Titus Burckhardt

The Courtyard of the Myrtles has inspired quite a few artists in recent centuries…

The Court of Myrtles Alhambra by David Roberts

A more detailed view of the North Gallery by the American Orientalist Edwin Lord Weeks:

A Court in the Alhambra in the time of the Moors by Edwin Lord Weeks c. 1876

The Courtyard of the Myrtles and Comares Tower by Impressionist painter Childe Hassam c. 1883

The tower and archways of the North Gallery are reflected from the water at the entrance to the majestic Sultan’s throne room in the Comares Tower, magnifying the sultan’s power as well as symbolising abundance. It may have also served to amplify the elusiveness of ‘reality’. The use of water to mirror the structure above it was also employed centuries later to great effect by the builders of the Taj Mahal.

The combination of natural and man-made elements mingle in ethereal movements of space, air and light in the Alhambra like nothing I have ever seen.

The Alhambra feels like an eternal Moorish Elysium: a sanctuary made up of gardens, fountains, pools, halls, towers and courtyards; perched high above fertile plains, yet with a view of lofty, mountainous terrain.

View towards the South Gallery from the Hall of the Boat

Perfect and secluded, yet an intrinsic part of the rugged and ruddy landscape, the Alhambra is now a well restored and preserved physical window into Spain’s Moorish past.

Comares Tower – The Hall of the Ambassadors

The Comares Palace was built between 1333 – 1354 during the reign of sultan Yusuf I, during which time Europe was beset by the Plague and the 100 Years War began. His son Mohammad V, decorated the Comares Tower in some style between 1362 – 1391.

The Hall of the Ambassadors was the symbolic centre of Nasrid power, and contains the faded but still magnificent vestiges of the last Muslim court in Europe.

Windows and ceiling of the Throne Room – Comares Tower

The ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors (or Throne Room), in the Comares Tower is a sight to behold. The mosaic roof contains 8,017 separate pieces of wood in seven concentric circles with cedar wood adornments and a mocarabe boss in the centre.

During repair work a wooden peg was found protruding which had written on it the original colour scheme, that surely would have appeared even more stunning with whites, reds, ochres and greens a few centuries back…

The sultan would have had a psychological advantage over his subjects and visiting dignitaries when seated resplendent in the hall, surrounded by glowing, golden walls and vivid colours streaming in from the stained windows behind him.

The centuries have taken their toll. The windows are still impressive, even without their once colourful stained glass.

The explosion of a gunpowder factory in the valley below in 1590 destroyed the stained glass, which was geometric in design to complement the surrounding tiled dados.

The Hall of the Two Sisters

The cupola of mocárabes contains an astounding 5,416 alabaster pieces.  As the square walls meet the base of the ceiling they become octagonal in shape, with two windows placed in each plane of the octagon. These windows were said to be of stained glass until the late 16th century, giving the effect of movement on the ceiling, imparted by the light according to its angle at any given moment.

There is a poem inscribed in the walls of the Hall of the Two Sisters which extends around the room above the dado, written by Ibn Zamrak, comparing the beauty of the room with a garden.

Here is an excerpt that relates to the cupola of mocárabes, (honeycombed gesso):

“How much pleasure there is here for the eyes! In this place the soul will find idyllic reveries. The dreamer will be accompanied by the five Pleiades and will wake to the gentle morning breeze. An incomparable cupola shines with beauties both hidden and open to the gaze. “

My photograph does not do justice to the incredible cupola of mocárabes in the Hall of the Two Sisters

My gaze floated up over the exquisite honeycombed arches, as if being drawn into shimmering celestial realms. There is so much beauty and symmetry throughout the Nasrid Palaces it’s hard to take in.

My brain was on aesthetic overload!

The Hall of the Abencerrages

The hall is accessed through the Courtyard of the Lions, but the lore of its violent history does not detract from its magnificence.

It is said that in Granada legend and history are so so closely intertwined it is impossible to distinguish between the two. The name of the hall is derived from the Abencerrage family who played an important part in the politics of their day.

A conspiracy was engineered by a rival family, the Zenete, involving the Sultana in an amorous affair. In a fit of jealousy and rage against the offending Abencerrages, the sultan invited 36 men from the Abencerrage family to celebrate in the hall and then had them slaughtered in it.

Portrayal of the slaughter of the Abencerrages in the Alhambra by romantic painter Mariano Fortunay c. 1871

The russet veins in the bottom of the marble fountain are cited as the bloodstains of the murdered courtiers in such perfidious circumstances and manner. Others believe it is the oxidisation in the marble itself.

Ceiling of the Hall of the Abencerrages

The Courtyard of the Lions

This would have been the focal point of the sultan’s private dwellings, (including his nearest and dearest), and possibly also used for some aspects of the sultan’s political and diplomatic affairs.

My eyes absorbed the timeless radiance shining forth from every facet of this cloistered style courtyard, and its seven hundred year old energy filled my whole being.

As I passed through the entrance to the Courtyard of the Lions I was rendered speechless. I could see it was having a similar effect on other tourists too. We were  wandering around in awe, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, taking photos from every possible angle as we spotted new, alluring vistas of shadows and light against the pearl like marble and fine filigree arches.

Courtyard of the Lions by Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis, resident at the Alhambra between 1833-34.

It’s interesting to see how much more foliage was growing in the Nasrid Palaces (as depicted in various Romantic art works), compared to now.

The 19th century literary guest of the Alhambra, Washington Irving, wasn’t a fan of the gardens: “The court is laid out in flower-beds, instead of its ancient and, appropriate pavement of tiles or marble; the alteration, an instance of bad taste was made by the French when in possession of Granada.”

The Courtyard of the Lions by Leon Auguste Asselineau c. 1853

“Space in the Alhambra is as open as in the desert, where intimacy itself is to be found beneath the stars. The Courtyard of the Lions isn’t a house with a garden but a garden containing a house, which should be looked at from its corners at floor height…”

The shaded central chamber, (east pavilion) the privileged area for the sultan and his retinue.

Symmetry and perfection adorn the exterior of the eastern pavilion of the Courtyard of the Lions.

View from west to east in the Courtyard of the Lions

The Palace of Charles V looms in the background over the Courtyard of the Lions.

I can but try, but in reality the Alhambra defies description. You have to trace over centuries of vanished footsteps to properly experience and appreciate first-hand the artistic brilliance and reverence of the craftsmanship embedded in the fabric of its architecture.

The elegantly cloistered entrance has been described as ‘walking through a forest of gilded pillars, which little by little began to appear like “gold fringes of lace hanging from the sky”’.

Heavenly archways crown a pavilion of the Courtyard of the Lions

“The architecture, like that in most parts of the interior of the palace, is characterised by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste, and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When one looks upon the fairy traces of the peristyles, and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of the centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war, and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller: it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition, that the whole is protected by a magic charm.”
~ Washington Irving (Tales of the Alhambra)

I later passed through the governor’s rooms in the Lindaraja wing of the Palace of the Lions, famously inhabited for several months in 1829 by American writer Washington Irving. He duly fell under the spell of the Alhambra and revealed her legends and secrets in his book: Tales of the Alhambra.

The Hall of the Kings

The Hall of the Kings runs along the whole of the east side of the Courtyard of the Lions and is divided into five separate areas. This design creates a wonderful interplay of light and shade among the richly decorated three larger chambers that open out onto the court, bordered by the two smaller closed porticos.

Light, shade and decoration in the Hall of the Kings.

Al-Andalus by Wilhem Meyer (The Hall of the Kings)

The Hall of the Kings Alhamba by Leon Auguste Asselineau

Alhambra – Hall of the Kings by David Roberts

Isaac Albeniz – En la Alhambra, with Juan Carlos Garvayo on the piano:

The history of the Alhambra

The Alcazaba (old citadel), was first constructed in 889 by Sawar ben Handum, at the same time Alfred the Great was King of Wessex. The founder of the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada, Muhammad I, (1238 – 1273), rebuilt and extended the Alcazaba as his feudal residence, and his ancestors each built and consolidated the three Nasrid Palaces.

The Alhambra covers an area of around thirteen hectares enclosed by more than two kilometres of walls reinforced by thirty towers, of which twenty or so are still standing.

The 14th century witnessed the zenith of the great Muslim builders: the sultans Yusef I and his son Moahmmad V, during whose time the Palace of Comares, the Comares Tower and the Palace of the Lions were constructed.

Muslim rule in al-Andalus lasted for seven centuries, and the Alhambra is an outstanding example of medieval Islamic art that has its roots in Persia and North Africa.

Entrance to the Alhambra on foot can be made through the Justice Gate

Gate of Justice Alhambra by David Roberts

The last Arab monarch to rule in Granada was Abu-Abd-illiah Muhammad XII. To the Castilians he was known as Boabdil, and his retreat from Granada ended Muslim rule in southern Spain during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in January 1492.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were originally laid to rest in the monastery, and I saw the alcove where they had lain for a time before their remains were transferred to the Royal Chapel at el Escorial, the final resting place of Spanish monarchs.

It was Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who eventually married King Henry VIII of England. She was the aunt of King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.

The Departure of Boabdil’s Family from the Alhambra by Manuel Gomez-Moreno c. 1880

The Capitulation of Granada by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz

Palace of Charles V

The Nasrid Palaces became dilapidated and left to ruin in the wake of the Reconquista. The neglect would last until the 19th century, when the stories, poems and art that was produced by the romantics helped to instigate renewed interest and restoration to its former Moorish glory.

The importance of Granada as a royal site ultimately proved beneficial in its preservation.

The undisputed queen of Celtic music, Loreena Mckennit performs her evocative and lilting songs inspired by the Alhambra, and of course her Celtic roots, in a special concert inside the Palace of Charles V :

The New Royal House, the Palacio Carlos V, was conceived as a grand new monument by Charles I of Spain 1500 – 1558 (also Charles V Holy Roman Emperor 1519 – 1558), built to consolidate the powerful role of Granada in political and royal life without destroying the existing Muslim architecture.

It was thus differentiated from the Nasrid Palaces, which were referred to as the Old Royal House.

The Marquis of Mondejar, (governor of the Alhambra), was in charge of the new palace’s construction, but the actual building of it was entrusted to Pedro Machua, who had trained in Rome with both Michelangelo and Rafael. His legacy was to create a monument in the Italian Renaissance style that was popular at the time, but never fully completed.

The Palace of Charles V stands on an old Christian quarter in the lower annex to the Nasrid city.

Washington Irving also had an opinion on that era’s architecture too:

“In front of the esplanade is the splendid pile commenced by Charles V., and intended, it is said, to eclipse the residence of the Moorish kings. Much of the Oriental edifice intended for the winter season was demolished to make way for this massive pile. The grand entrance was blocked up so that the present entrance to the Moorish palace is through a simple and almost humble portal in a corner. With all the massive grandeur and architectural merit of the Palace of Charles V., we regarded it as an arrogant intruder, and passing by it with a feeling of almost of scorn, rang at the Moslem portal.”

Accommodation

We were fortunate to stay in a small boutique establishment, Hotel America, (one of only two hotels inside the Alhambra’s walls), close to the Parador de Granada (once the Friary of San Francisco).

Hotel America Alhambra

Hotel America is a far cry from the elaborate Moorish Islamic art that attracts millions of visitors every year to the Alhambra. However, I loved its authentic colonial style and the cosy vine covered courtyard for dining.

Its simplicity was refreshing. Some rooms had small balconies that opened up over the courtyard. Sparrows made their home there and were not afraid of guests as they darted from floor to table in a bid to grab morsels of food.

The night we arrived we had a traditional meal at the café of the Parador, overlooking the valley and the Generalife. For a while we could hear the voices, guitars and castanets from a nearby flamenco evening. We were able to walk among the gardens of the old monastery which were lovingly landscaped with exotic plants and flowers from all over the world.

View towards the Generalife from the Gardens of the Parador (Monastery)

You can’t help but be filled with a sense of tranquility and peace. The setting sun was casting a warm glow over the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the sacredness of this site filled my being.

The 1926 live performance of Sviatoslav Richter performing “Soirée dans Grenade” from Debussy’s Estampes (composed 1903):

I wished I’d had more time (and willing offspring), to explore every amazing nook and cranny of the Alhambra, but the portion I was fortunate enough to see was an unforgettable experience.

If you haven’t yet been to the Alhambra I’d recommend putting it near the top of your bucket list.

As Washington Irving so eloquently stated in his book of tales:

“My object is merely to give the reader a general introduction into an abode where, if so disposed, he may linger and loiter with me…”

Alhambra Photo Gallery

Could this Year be the Perfect, Blissful Summer…?

“My soul is in the sky.” ~ William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

It’s been a struggle to find time for my blog lately, what with end of term craziness, juggling my ‘working mum’ balls and looking after ginger tabby kittens Simba and Saffron; plus another exciting project I’m keeping under wraps for the time being.

I feel like a little poetry and an inconsequential natter about the weather might hit the spot. We need something to combat the frequent depressing news headlines about Brexit…

A recent sunset

The ongoing searing temperatures in the UK have been reminiscent of the summer of 1976.  I remember it quite clearly as a slip of a girl: splashing around in the paddling pool with my brother, who to our mum’s dismay, also took an unscheduled plunge into the murky garden pond.

Wow, it’s been a long time since us Brits have really had a decent summer! We always bemoan the drizzly, wet weather that mostly visits our shores, so I have been determined not to complain about the heat. I think we are slowly getting used to it…

Or not.

A selection of recent tweets about #heatwaveuk

The extreme temperatures have been challenging at times, even my computer is whirring grumpily and refusing to operate at its normal speed. Oh well, school is out for summer as of lunchtime today, and my children are officially on manana time.

Summer is symbolic of life, love and abundance. The opening lyrics to Gershwin’s jazz aria ‘Summertime’ from his opera Porgy and Bess springs to mind.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy… Well, at least it’s meant to be.

Mostly people are more relaxed and tend to be quite sociable; we spend more time enjoying nature and outdoor pursuits. And who doesn’t love alfresco dining on balmy evenings?

My brood have always loved the simple pleasure of picnics and barbecues with friends and family. It’s been so hot lately we’ve been able to take a few refreshing dips in the Wycombe Rye Lido.

I feel like celebrating with a light-hearted mix of music, art and poetry, and perhaps a sip or two of Pimms and lemonade, hic!

Dance at the Moulin de la Galette by Pierre Auguste Renoir

As a mum I also love that my never-ending laundry dries in a nanosecond at the moment!

But can we have too much of a good thing?

Not when it comes to music.

Rimsky Korsakov – Flight of the Bumblebee with the Russian National Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev:

Mendelssohn – Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for clarinet and piano with Alexey Gorokholinsky and Vassily Primakov:

In the summer of 1717 composer Georg Friedrich Händel was commissioned by King George I to write some suitably regal music to accompany his grand flotilla of royal boats as they set sail down the river Thames. The result was his Water Music Suite in F Major, HWV 348 performed by fifty musicians (a large number for the time period), on the banks of the river.

Canaletto – London, The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day c. 1750

It must have been quite an occasion, one that’s easy to visualise when you listen to the English Baroque Soloists with Sir John Eliot Gardiner:

The Heatwave

Intense heat: blasting, humid, relentless, baking the land,

Verdant, manicured lawns – turning the colour of sand

Butterflies dance and flit among hazy meadows,

Pollen seeking bees casually meander in hedgerows.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton. This was the first Australian Impressionist painting that was sent to Europe for display in London in 1891 and Paris in 1892.

English roses, wild and cultivated, open then wilt,

The cadence of nature’s eternal rhythm and lilt

Soft, sweet flesh of fruits, hastens to ripe,

Even walking makes damp brows to wipe.

The Basket of Apples by Paul Cézanne

Hear the birds, chirping in a chorus of mirth,

Eager to pluck juicy worms from parched earth

Heady scent of honeysuckle hangs in the air,

Long, lethargic days, perfect for a summer fair.

Wild Honeysuckle by Pierre Andre Brouillet

Skin craves the cooling caress of a soft breeze,

Throw off layers, constraints; wander like Uylsses

Seeking adventure across kingdoms, never to yield,

Abundance thrives, opening up a flower filled field.

Poppy field near Argenteuil by Claude Monet c. 1873

Torpid days fade away in vibrant, orangey balls,

Horizons bathed in luminous hues, as darkness falls

My thoughts drift like weightless dandelion seeds,

Scattered. Where they will land? Which will take heed?

Pont Boieldieu Rouen at sunset by Camille Pissarro c. 1896

Summer’s gifts are bountiful; but no rain drops!

Without swimming, drinking or bathing we flop;

Halted, by an unquenchable thirst, dehydrated pores,

Water, wine and crisp cider are liberally poured.

Frederick Carl Frieseke

The last summer I remember as this, was seventy-six,

A young girl was I, unburdened by politics – polemics

Carefree in the garden, to dream of woodland sprites,

Tales by Barrie and Shakespeare create magical nights.

By Virginia Burges

The Adagio from Vivaldi’s Concerto for solo baroque violin and strings in G Minor, ‘Summer’ (L’Estate, RV 315), performed by Cynthia Miller Freivogel and the early music ensemble, Voices of Music beautifully captures the languor of a hot, humid day:

Summer Sun 

Great is the sun, and wide he goes

Through empty heaven with repose;

And in the blue and glowing days

More thick than rain he showers his rays.

🌞

Though closer still the blinds we pull

To keep the shady parlour cool,

Yet he will find a chink or two

To slip his golden fingers through.

🌞

The dusty attic spider-clad

He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;

And through the broken edge of tiles

Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

🌞

Meantime his golden face around

He bares to all the garden ground,

And sheds a warm and glittering look

Among the ivy’s inmost nook.

🌞

Above the hills, along the blue,

Round the bright air with footing true,

To please the child, to paint the rose,

The gardener of the World, he goes.

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Frederick Delius composed ‘Summer Night on the River’ after being inspired by the sights and sounds of the River Loing, which he would sit and ponder during long evenings from the back of his villa in the village of Grez. The impressionist tone poem recreates the gentle lapping of the waves and boats bobbing in the summer breeze:

Boating on the Seine by Pierre August Renoir

Staying on a nautical theme, Debussy’s En Bateau makes me want to be in and on the water, especially with Fritz Kreisler at the helm!

Anthony Hopkins reads The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats:

The Poppy

Summer set lip to earth’s bosom bare;

And left the flushed print in a poppy there:

Like a yawn of fire from the grass it came,

And the fanning wind puffed it to flapping flame.

By Francis Thompson

Maurice Ravel’s iconic ballet Boléro, with its hypnotic drum beat and mesmerising flute melody, building up slowly and deliberately to a dramatic conclusion is perfect for sultry summer nights.

Ravel worked on Boléro over the Summer of 1927 at the behest of the Russian actress and dancer, Ida Rubinstein. Here is a wonderful ballet version choreographed by Maurice Bejart with Nicolas Le Riche and orchestre de Paris:

I can’t end without the bard’s immortal Sonnet No. 18 – Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Tom Hiddleston’s velvet voice was meant for Shakespeare:

Have a fabulous, sizzling summer!

A Fascinating Tour of the Historic Heart of Trinity College Cambridge

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” ~ Sir Isaac Newton

Monday 25th June was an important date in my diary. My job was to take my younger son, William, to visit Trinity College Cambridge for an Arts Open Day. The invite had come via his school, and I was determined that he shouldn’t miss the opportunity to get an idea of what it might be like to study at one of the most respected universities in the UK, if not the world.

Trinity College – the Great Court and fountain

Until now, Will has not considered attending university; he wants to go to a specialist drama school after A-Levels. But he now has another option depending on his academic results at GCSE and A-Level over the course of the next two years.

The invite came as part of the university’s drive to take on students from more diverse and less privileged backgrounds than they traditionally would consider.

Trinity College Cambridge – Clock Tower

Trinity’s motto is Virtus Vera Nobilitas (Virtue is true nobility), a fitting slogan for all who aspire to achieve, no matter their circumstances.

I was hoping the experience would inspire William and create a belief that anything is possible regarding his future – if he is prepared to work hard. He has shown an incredible work ethic in year 11 and while studying for his GCSEs, to the point that his school have bestowed an award for his attitude to learning which will be formally presented at a special ceremony on 17th July.

Trinity College – the Great Gate from inside the Great Court

Trinity College – Dining Hall – presided over by Henry VIII!

There is no doubt that Will was impressed by Trinity, and he is absorbing the information he received during the visit. He would not be able to study drama there, but under the subjects encompassed in Arts & Humanities he could read History. Trinity only take around 10 – 12 students per year as undergraduates in History, so he would have to get top grades in history and across the board, as well as pass an entrants exam and interview.

History is probably his favourite after drama, and one of his chosen A-Level subjects.

I don’t have a glass ball with which to predict the future, but I do know that if he sets his mind to something he will move heaven and earth to make it happen.

“History provides an intellectual training and a stimulus to the imagination: it enables one to put expertise into its human context.” ~ Trinity College Cambridge

Whilst Will was involved in his history discussion subject, as a parent, I was permitted to have a tour of the college.

Trinity College Cambridge – view of the Dining Hall from Nevile’s Court beneath the Wren Library

Trinity College Cambridge – Bowling Green off the Great Court.

I would have been rather at a loose end in Cambridge for most of the day after I dropped Will off to register and attend the welcoming lecture, as no parents were allowed to accompany their children. My dad and step mum live near Colchester and so met up with me for a leisurely lunch on the terrace at Prezzo’s, watching the punts go by on the peaceful and serene River Cam.

River Cam

River Cam by Queen’s College, Cambridge

We then returned to Trinity for our tour of the college. It was the hottest day of the year so far, marking the start of the current heat wave sweeping the UK. I don’t think we could have asked for a more beautiful day to see the college.

Afterwards we strolled along past Gonville & Caius College, King’s College, Corpus Christi and Queens College before a much needed drink to cool off in The Anchor.

The Corpus Clock and Chronophage in Cambridge, photo taken at 3.13pm

There’s an amazing, if somewhat bizarre, clock on the route, the Corpus Clock:

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

A recording of the famous King’s College Choir inside King’s College Chapel from 2011:

Entrance to King’s College Cambridge

A university side street

Corpus Christi College Cambridge

Will loving the Cambridge vibe…

The Round Church (Holy Sepulchre) in Cambridge c. 1130

Short history of Trinity College Cambridge

Trinity College was founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, as an amalgamation of King’s Hall (founded in 1317 by Edward II) and Michaelhouse (founded by Hervey de Stanton in 1324).

1575 map of Trinity College Cambridge

Henry was hell-bent on plundering the monasteries, abbeys and church lands, (as touched on in a previous post about Tintern Abbey), and Cambridge University may well have suffered the same fate, but for the intervention of his sixth wife, Catherine Parr; who persuaded her husband to create a new college from existing ones rather than shutting them down.

Henry’s statue on the exterior of the Great Gate commemorates his forming of Trinity College.

Trinity College Cambridge – The Great Gate from Trinity Street

The Great Court

Just stepping inside the Great Court makes you feel intelligent! Perhaps it’s a sense of being part of something bigger than even the University of Cambridge and its constituent colleges such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, St. John’s and King’s – the act of higher education itself.

The centuries of learning that has taken place on this site has somehow seeped into the bricks and permeates the air with inspiration…

Trinity College Cambridge – the Great Court (Great Gate and fountain).

The Great Court was designed and conceived by Thomas Nevile (Master of Trinity from 1593 to 1615), who adapted buildings where necessary and added new ones, including the Great Hall in the early 1600s, to what is essentially still in daily use.

Unknown artist – Thomas Nevile (1548-1615), Master (1593-1615), Dean of Peterborough (1590-1597) and Dean of Canterbury (1597-1615); Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Print of the Great Court and Nevile’s Court of Trinity College by David Loggan c. 1690

Trinity College Cambridge – Dining Hall from the Great Court, adjoining the ivy covered Master’s Lodge.

Trinity College Cambridge – Lavender around the fountain in the Great Court.

The Great Court Run is a long running tradition; an all-out 400 yard dash undertaken by freshers around the court on the day of their matriculation dinner, (portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire about the British Olympic runners of 1924).

Trinity College Chapel

It was especially wonderful to experience the college chapel, built in the Gothic Tudor style, and Grade 1 listed like much of the college. The chapel construction dates to the mid 16th century by order of Queen Mary,  completed by Queen Elizabeth I.

The only part of Trinity College Chapel seen from Trinity Street

The chapel is on the right as you enter through the Great Gate. We were fortunate to hear choral undergraduates rehearsing. Their voices resembled a choir of angels, rising like ethereal vibrations into the vaulted ceiling, wafting peace and tranquility over us  mortals below…

Trinity College Cambridge – entrance to the chapel from the Great Court

Trinity College Chapel during a choral rehearsal

Beautiful windows inside the chapel

Trinity College Chapel – Royal crests on the ceiling

Marble statues of Tennyson, Newton, Bacon and other great alumni are placed in the entrance to the chapel.

Trinity College Chapel – Tennyson

Trinity College Chapel – Sir Francis Bacon

Trinity College Chapel – Sir Isaac Newton

The Wren Library

As the name suggests, Thomas Nevile also built the smaller, eponymous Nevile’s Court in 1614, between the Great Court and the River Cam.

Trinity College Cambridge – the cloisters of Nevile’s Court

Trinity College Cambridge – facing the Wren Library from the opposite side of Nevile’s Court

Its elegant cloistered space remained three sided until the addition of the prestigious Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1676 and 1695 to house the college’s burgeoning requirement for books and keep up with Trinity’s growth and diversity of interest.

My dad admiring the Wren Library

View from the lower stairs at the back of the Wren Library over the River Cam.

I could have spent all day in there, but it is a place of scholarly reading and not generally open to the public. I was thrilled to see one of two of Shakespeare’s First Folios housed in the library, alongside a handwritten poetry book (which preceded paradise Lost), by John Milton – the only known example of his handwriting.  My eyes devoured original writings by Alfred Lord Tennyson, A.A. Milne and A.E. Houseman.

The Wren Library also holds Sir Isaac Newton’s own original copy of Principa Mathematica, (Will was stoked to see that and took a sneaky photo).

The Wren Library – Newton’s Principa Mathematica

There have been many notable and famous alumni across diverse fields of study and achievement: science, mathematics, politics, literature, music, history and philosophy.

“Cambridge has seen many strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk, it has seen Porson sober. I am a greater scholar than Wordsworth and I am a greater poet than Porson. So I fall betwixt and between.”
~ A. E. Housman, in Richard Perceval Graves A.E. Housman: The Scholar Poet 

Two British composers that had much success here included Sir John Villiers Stanford, who would go on to teach Trinity Alumni Ralph Vaughan Williams at the RCM as a post graduate.

“Stanford’s music the sense of style, the sense of beauty, the feeling of a great tradition is never absent. His music is in the best sense of the word Victorian, that is to say it is the musical counterpart of the art of Tennyson, Watts and Matthew Arnold.”
~ Ralph Vaughan Williams

Portrait of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the top of the stairs leading to the Wren Library

Stanford’s most well-known composition is probably ‘The Blue Bird’, set to words by Mary E. Coleridge:

“The lake lay blue below the hill.

O’er it, as I looked, there flew

Across the waters, cold and still,

A bird whose wings were palest blue.

~

The sky above was blue at last,

The sky beneath me blue in blue.

A moment, ere the bird had passed,

It caught his image as he flew”.

My favourite composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams is The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra, closely followed by Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

Land and investments

Trinity is thought to be the richest of the Oxbridge colleges, with a landholding alone worth £800 million. Trinity is sometimes suggested to be the third or fourth wealthiest landowner in the UK (or in England) – after the Crown Estate, the National Trust and the Church of England. In 2005, Trinity’s annual rental income from its properties was reported to be in excess of £20 million.

Trinity purportedly owns:

  • 3400 acres (14 km2) housing facilities at the Port of Felixstowe, Britain’s busiest container port
  • The Cambridge Science Park
  • The O2 Arena in London (formerly the Millennium Dome)

There is so much history and greatness embedded within these ancient, sandy walls, but as you would expect, plenty of learning, debating, drinking, socialising and unabashed fun as part of atavistic university life.

I would be thrilled if he made it into their hallowed ranks, but either way, I’m immensely proud of him.

“I am looking forward very much to getting back to Cambridge, and being able to say what I think and not to mean what I say: two things which at home are impossible. Cambridge is one of the few places where one can talk unlimited nonsense and generalities without anyone pulling one up or confronting one with them when one says just the opposite the next day.”
 ~ Bertrand Russell, Letter to Alys Pearsall Smith (1893)

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

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

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

Alice Herz-Sommer was a phenomenon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childhood in Czechoslovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life as a piano virtuoso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice’s musical inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

Alice talking about how music takes us to another world:

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

Hauskonzerte by Giacomo Mantegazza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and Motherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some eye-opening stats about the Amazon literary marketplace

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

Library of Congress (LOC):

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

Amazon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New front, spine and back cover of The Virtuoso

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

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

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

3D view of The Virtuoso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Geert Pieters via Unsplash

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

  1. Exercise helps with mental health

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

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

  1. Exercise helps manage weight loss

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

Photo Credit: Bradley Wentezl via Unsplash

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

  1. Reduces your chances of cancer

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

Photo Credit: Andy Beales via Unsplash under License

  1. Improves overall energy and performance

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

  1. Reduces chances of disease

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

Photo Credit: Pexels under cco license

  1. Helps you sleep

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

  1. Lowers stress levels

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

  1. Improves brain power

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

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

An interesting article about the benefits of bounce.

Photo Credit: Bruno Nascimento via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Water fascinates me…

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

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

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

Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet c. 1919

Pont d’Argenteuil by Claude Monet

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

The Watermill by Frits Thaulow c. 1892

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

Sunset at Etretat by Claude Monet

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

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

Our family watched it in awe.

This scene was heartbreaking:

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

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

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

The Adige River at Verona by Frits Thaulow

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

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

From Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

The Subsiding of the Nile by Frederick Goodall c. 1873

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

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

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

The Wonders of Water

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

Sunset on the Nile by Frank Dillon

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

Off the Coast of Cornwall by William Trost Richards

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

Antibes by Claude Monet c. 1888

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

By Virginia Burges

Midnight in Boulogne by Theo van Rysselberghe

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

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

Another hunting/feeding frenzy:

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

Escaping to the Beautiful Dales and Coastal Delights of Dorset

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

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

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

Rolling green fields near Whitchurch Canonicorum

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

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

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

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

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

Charmouth Beach – not so far from the madding crowd!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectacular Corfe Castle

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

Approaching what’s left of the Keep

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

Lovely light behind the ruins.

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

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

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

View towards the Studland Peninsula, Sandbanks and Poole.

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

Corfe Castle Timeline

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

    Corfe Castle in 1643

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

Corfe Castle 3D historical reconstruction:

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

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

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

Photo gallery:

Maestro Vengerov Inspires Artistic Growth at the 2018 Menuhin Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it obvious I worship him?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While I’m on the subject of masterclasses…

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

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

So far I am undecided between:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anatomy of a scene with film director Francis Lawrence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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