Sunday, 2 December 2012

Delights for the eye and ear give food for thought

If music be the food of love, painting isn’t far behind. So it was good to get a good dose of both this weekend.

The paintings were at the pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate in London, and what a glorious display it is. I always think of pre-Raphaelites as being a mixed bag: the occasional outstanding piece that speaks straight to the heart; but also a few pictures that leave me wondering, ‘oh, right. And there’s a lot of fuss about this canvass, is there? With its figures that look as though they’ve been cut out and pasted in place afterwards?’ 

But there are so many of the outstanding paintings in this exhibition that the others simply don’t impinge. I was delighted to get to know some painters I knew not at all – William Dyce, for instance, and Arthur Hughes – and one at least who I knew far too little – Edward Burne-Jones. But above all I was glad to discover paintings I didn’t know, including some by John Millais, the member of the group I had always felt stood head and shoulders above the rest, a view the show did nothing to dispel. 

John Millais, Mariana. A glorious discovery (for me)
That pose – so natural and yet with such erotic overtones

The music was a completely different experience. We went to see Papatruck, a bluegrass band in a jewel of a Church, St Michael and All Angels, in the Chiltern Hills, North-West of London on the way to Oxford. The band’s sole female musician is Nia, a school-friend of my stepson’s. It was the first time we’d seen her in twenty years, but hey, blood runs thicker than water, and it was a joy to meet her again and another to hear the music.

It was also magical that they were playing in a Church whose crypt contains the remains of my favourite Conservative politician bar none: Benjamin Disraeli.

The Queen's tribute to Disraeli.
Ben's disguised as 'Earl Beaconsfield' in the
time-honoured English style of preferring aliases.
Queen Victoria, who lost her husband Prince Albert shockingly young, always adored Disraeli, no doubt in part because he flirted with her outrageously. She had a memorial plaque to him raised in the Church. It made me think of a story our history teacher told us, that she’d offered to visit him on his death bed, an extraordinary offer by a reigning monarch to a man who’d been born a commoner (and of Jewish extraction, to boot). 

‘Oh, no,’ Disraeli replied, ‘she’ll only give me a message for Albert.’

I loved it that the concert was taking place in an Anglican Church. We were addressed twice by the vicar who managed to talk about the purpose of the evening – to raise funds for the care of the homeless of High Wycombe – without once mentioning God, the Church, faith, hope or charity. You see what I meant in an earlier blog? The Church of England belongs to us all in this country – it doesn’t even make a point of thrusting anything potentially contentious, like religion, in our faces.

Glorious setting for music to set the pulse racing
Thanks to the spellbinding novels of Hilary Mantel, I’m steeped at the moment in the sixteenth-century world of Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England, when ‘our Church’ first emerged. In those days the European presence in the Americas was essentially Spanish. Certainly, there was no English presence though eventually, and long after Cromwell’s death, English colonies would take root in the northern part of the landmass. In time, some of the settlers would penetrate into a territory which they would name, after the Iroquois word for meadowlands, Kentucky. 

Eventually transformed into a commonwealth and then a State, Kentucky would grow so strongly and successfully that it developed its own distinctive style of music, called after the startling wealth of those meadowlands, ‘bluegrass music’. And the music travelled back to the old country so that in 2012, we could sit in the knave of one of the churches that owe so much to Thomas Cromwell, and listen to five of his descendants play those haunting songs to us.

Would old Cromwell have approved or disapproved?

I have a nasty feeling he would have been shocked by the irreligious nature of the music, in a place dedicated to the glorification of the gospels. I wonder whether he would have thought of Kentucky, if he had ever thought of it at all, as a savage land and its music as no better. And I imagine he would have been horrified at the secular message of the priest, as he would have been by the fact that the audience for the concert was significantly larger, I suspect, than any congregation to assemble in that Church these days.

‘Was it for this that I struggled, lived and died?’ I suspect he might have asked.

I rather fear it might have been, Tom. And I hate to say it, we had a great time. Lutheran hymns just don’t do it for us the way Bluegrass music does, especially superbly performed the Papatruck way.

Papatruck - inspirational though far from Kentucky.
Nia's on the left (of course). Her instrument's on the right.

No comments: