Monday, February 23, 2015

The Bolt

Dmitri Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt (1931) is a riveting example of experimentation in music in the Soviet Union before the Stalinist doctrine of socialist realism restricted artistic freedom of expression. According to the musicologist Francis Maes -

The most important creative work of this period was that of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975). Together with Myaskovsky he wrote music of lasting significance during the first Soviet period, that is, the period between 1926 - the year of his first symphony - and 1936, when the Party leadership shackled his creativity.....Shostakovich was a passionate  champion of Soviet modernism. In Shostakovich’s early work, Soviet culture received its clearest musical expression, as witness the astonishing First Symphony, the daring symphonic experiments from the Second to the Fourth Symphonies, the ballets The Golden Age, The Bolt, and The Limpid Stream, the operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. [1]

The one and only performance of The Bolt was on April 8th 1931. Immediately after its first performance it was banned and not performed again until 74 years later in 2005. Following its ban Shostakovich rescued material from the music score of 2 hours duration to create a condensed thirty minute concert suite. Its through the orchestral suite that the music of The Bolt (opus 27a) is known today.

The ballet's thin plot, by Viktor Smirnov, reveals why The Bolt failed to impress the critics and why it was banned. The protagonist, Lazy Idler, is a drunken lout, who upon being sacked from his factory post, seeks revenge on his employers by convincing a hapless sidekick, Goshka, to throw an enormous-sized bolt into one of the working lathes. The scheme succeeds and the lathe short-circuits. Lazy Idler points the finger of blame at an upstanding member of a team of Shock workers, Boris, but the guilt-ridden Goshka confesses to his role in the crime. Lazy Idler is detained by the factory guards, inspiring a celebration among the foreman and laborers, who cheerfully return to the production line. [2]

The musicologist Gerard McBurney stated of The Bolt - "The waspish and delightfully colourful score bowls along like a children’s cartoon-film, every number full of drama and parody and fine take-offs of serious and popular music of every kind." McBurney succinctly identifies two strong characteristics of Shostakovich's music, namely, the cinematic and the art of parody.

It was through the economic necessity of having to provide piano accompaniment to silent-films as a teenager at Leningrad cinemas that Shostakovich acquired his driving, dramatic style, so readily adaptive to the rapid action of cinema. Works such as the programmatic 11th and 12th symphonies which aurally depict the historical events leading up to the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and the Piano Concerto no. 1 for trumpet and strings (1933) which includes rapid passages of cartoon-like humour are characteristic of Shostakovich's 'soundtrack narrative' style. But above all, it's Shostakovich's ability to mimic and parody musical styles which The Bolt is an early example of. Sarcasms, quotes and quips follow in swift succession, while the musical styles associated with jazz, folk-song, military marches and the tango, as well as the parodying of western sentimentality, are included in The Bolt.

The first and last movements of The Bolt suite reveal the full extent to which Shostakovich's mastery of orchestral technique had already developed. In the opening movement of the  suite, Beethoven's well-known 'Fate or 'Destiny' motif is quoted, only to be swiftly answered by the factory whistle. The Bolt also includes some fine examples of Shostakovich's witticisms, notably in the hilarious Drayman's Dance which celebrates the joy of alcohol and drunkenness. It is occasionally performed as an encore, including by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra following a performance of Shostakovich's 5th symphony at St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich in 2003.

Besides highlighting the taboo subject of industrial sabotage, The Bolt asks the difficult question of what's to be done with the non-conforming individual who doesn't meet official productivity quotas and fails to conform to State ideology, refusing to march to a dictated beat. There are three possible options open to Governments in the face of non-conformity, namely, ignore, integrate, or eliminate; the hallmark of a totalitarian state such as Stalin's being to eliminate.

The set designer of The Bolt, Tatiana Bruni (1902-2001) gives a valuable first-hand account of the only performance of the ballet.

At the time the dress rehearsals were open to the public at large. the theatre seemed overcrowded. As soon as the curtain opened, applause rang out, when the factory started to move, the applause transformed into an ovation that did not let up until the end of the spectacle. the dancing chapel and the individual costumes delighted the public. I swear by all that is sacred that this took place. The catcalling of the opposition (manifest philistinism!) was drowned out by the applause. But the spectacle was withdrawn. It was performed just once. We somehow became responsible for a "failure". They rebuked us in the press. I've remembered the title  of  one article. 'Bolt and chattering formalists'. Not one sketch was left to me,  some of them were destroyed in the theatre by particularly zealous "socialist realists".....We were unaware at this time art had veered sharply to the side of realism. The 'terrible'  words 'socialist realism' had appeared. [3]

Socialist realism was made the official doctrine of the Soviet Union in 1932. It was a doctrine which demanded traditional forms of representation. The Bolt, with its Constructivist leanings and bold choreography was consequently branded a failure and the director of the Mariinsky Ballet at the time, Fedor Lupukhov was forced to resign from his position.

Following the ban on The Bolt Shostakovich used subject-matter less controversial in his music, in the hope of not drawing attention to himself. He wrote a number of film scores, a genre in which he was active throughout his life. However, when in 1936 Stalin visited the theatre to hear the phenomenally popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Region Shostakovich was denounced personally by Stalin. The cat-and-mouse game played between Shostakovich and Stalin is well-documented. Some of the casualties of Great Terror of Stalin's era in which many of Shostakovich's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed include -  his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky (shot months after his arrest); his brother-in-law Vsevolod Frederiks (who was eventually released but died before he got home); his close friend Nikolai Zhilyayev (a musicologist who had taught Tukhachevsky; shot shortly after his arrest); his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar (sent to a camp in Karaganda); his friend the Marxist writer Galina Serebryakova who served 20 years in camps; his uncle Maxim Kostrykin (died); and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky, both of whom were executed.

Shostakovich's response to his denunciation resulted in his profound and monumental 5th symphony in D minor  op.47 (1937) which carries the title A Soviet artist's response to just criticism.  According to Wikipedia -

During the first performance of the symphony, people were reported to have wept during the Largo movement. The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic works written in memory of the dead, including pieces by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. For an audience that had lost friends and family on a massive scale, these references were apt to evoke intense emotions. This was why the Fifth Symphony was received and cherished by the Soviet public unlike any other work as an expression of the immeasurable grief they endured during Stalin's regime.

Shostakovich wrote music for one more ballet, The Limpid Stream in 1936. The genre was left open to development by  the home-sick and somewhat politically naive Sergei Prokofiev upon his return to Russia to create what remains the most well-known and loved of Soviet ballets, the traditional in style, Romeo and Juliet (1940). But it is Shostakovich's The Bolt which epitomizes the hope and optimism experienced by many Russians in creating a new, fairer society in the early years of the Soviet Union's history.

Coincidentally there is, until the end of February, an exhibition of costumes, designs and photographs of the first production of The Bolt at the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design ( GRAD ) based in London.

The 2006 DVD of the World premiere production of The Bolt with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet and Orchestra of the State Theatre Bolshoi, Moscow is a joy to watch.


[1] Maes, Francis; Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (translators) (2002) A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[2] Simon Morrison's notes to the Bel Air 2006 DVD production of The Bolt
[3] Ibid.
[4]  New York Times review of 'The Bolt' and GRAD exhibition

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Golden Cockerel

Discoursing once more on avian symbolism in Russian music, as if a phoenix revivified, this time focusing on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel  (previously Swan Lake and The Firebird) and Russian classical music in general.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) the composer of The Golden Cockerel (1907) was one of the 'Mighty Five', also known as 'The Mighty Handful' (Russian: Могучая кучка, Moguchaya kuchka) a group of amateur composers who aspired to create a music which was distinctly Russian. Utilizing folk-song and emphasising the 'asiatic' and oriental aspects of Russia's vast Empire, along with developing a highly original orchestral style and coloration, the 'Mighty Five' endeavoured to create music equal and antithetical to the Western Viennese tradition of music-making. However, in reality the 'Mighty Five' were only four of any significance, for music critic Cesar Cui never wrote any music which was Russian in either style or melody.

Although only amateurs, the four remaining composers of the 'Mighty Five' together created characteristic Russian music in subject-matter, melody, rhythm and orchestral colour. One fanciful way to contrast the styles and artistic temperament of these four Russian composers is to loosely juxtapose them to another group of equally ground-breaking composers, the British 'Fab Four' of 1960's pop music, the Beatles.

The highly-original genius of 'rebel' group member Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was the composer of the epic national opera Boris Godunov with its sharp observations upon the relationship between church and State in Russia, and the hallucinatory nightmare tone-poem Night on a Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky also had a hedonistic streak of self-destructive bravado in him, resulting in his premature death from alcoholism aged just 42.  He's not unlike a kind of 'John Lennon' figure in his revolutionary ideals and love of the people to the Russian Nationalist composers.

Like Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was also self-taught. Over decades of industrious study he created his own unique sound and orchestral palette, which, combined with his ability to integrate folk-song from Russia's many regions into his music, resulted in his appointment as a professor at the prestigious Russian Conservatoire and becoming a leading figure of Russian music, particularly after Tchaikovsky's death in 1893. As a mainstream composer, especially in the popularity of his operas, many of which were regularly performed from the 1890's onwards, and long outliving Mussorgsky and Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov roughly equates as the 'Paul' of the Russian 'Fab Four'.

The quieter, often overlooked, but no less talented, if not the most productive member of the Russian 'Fab Four', was the chemistry professor, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). Borodin's tone-poem In the Steppes of Central Asia aurally depicts the geographical vastness of Russia's Imperial Empire, while his opera Prince Igor with its famous Polovtsian Dances, harks back to the splendour of Russia's early history. Borodin may be considered as the 'George' of the Russian Fab Four.

The group's mentor Balakirev, himself an original composer as his oriental tone-poems Islamey and Tamara demonstrate, performed the role of impresario not unlike Brian Epstein in his influence upon the group's image and ambitions. Cesar Cui (1835-1918 )  fulfills the role of  'Ringo' in this analogy.

Although he wrote over 15 operas, Rimsky-Korsakov is nowadays only known by many today for the miniaturist tone-poem, The Flight of the Bumble-Bee, however, a closer familiarity with his music reveals that during  a white-heat of creativity, he composed three great orchestral masterpieces - the suite Capriccio Espagnol, a dazzling pastiche of Spanish melodies, the gorgeous in 'Neo-oriental' orchestral colour, Scheherazade, an orchestral showcase and one of the most frequently recorded works in the classical music repertoire, and the stirring Russian Festival Easter Overture based upon the Slavic liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Miraculously, all three of these works for large-scale orchestra date from the single year span of 1887-1888.

Because Rimsky-Korsakov out-lived the tragically short lives of Mussorgsky and Borodin, he often took it upon himself to edit and complete his compatriot composers' unfinished works. It was not until an original manuscript of Mussorgsky's  tone-poem Night on a bare Mountain was discovered in the 1970's that the full extent of Rimsky-Korsakov's academic styled 'tidying-up' became known. Such are the differences between Mussorgsky's original, rough and vigorous aural depiction of a Witches Sabbath, to those of Rimsky-Korsakov's much better-known 'tidied' version, that the Dutch musicologist Francis Maes declared -

'Rimsky-Korsakov considered the work impossible in the form which Mussorgsky had written it. Rimsky-Korsakov's own version, therefore, cannot be fitted into the category of redactions and orchestrations; it is. rather, a radical composition, loosely based on the same thematic material but wholly different in structure, orchestral colouring, and expression, so much so, in fact, that Mussorgsky can no longer be considered its author.' [1]

Rimsky-Korsakov was paradoxically both a progressive and a conservative composer. His early style was based upon his mentor Balakirev, as well as Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt while in his latter development he was heavily influenced by Wagner and Debussy. Considered as directly influencing two generations of Russian composers, in particular Stravinsky, as well as non-Russian composers, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas and Ottorino Respighi, among others.

In The Golden Cockerel Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov returned to a political theme. Transforming a poem by Pushkin, which in turn was based upon a tale by the American author Washington Irving, Rimsky-Korsakov's fairy-tale opera is in fact a thinly-disguised political statement which is highly critical of Russia's recent defeat military in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, its also a scathing attack upon Russian Imperialism in general, and even ridicules on a personal level, the last of the Romanov's Tsar Nicholas II. Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to hear his opera performed. The stress caused from its being banned most probably exasperated his medical condition of angina.

Musically, Le Coq d'Or ( as it's frequently known  from its first production in Paris 1914) features some of Rimsky's most developed and radical tonal language. The combination of full orchestra, chorus and soloists including a colorata soprano, results in a musical palette awash with oriental-coloured scales and melodies, often to gorgeous effect and exemplary of Rimsky-Korsakov's so-called Neo-Oriental style, which he first conjured in his Antar symphony, and famously in his large-scale, Arabian-themed orchestral suite, Scheherazade (1888).

In the prologue to the first of three acts of Le Coq d'Or, an astrologer appears announcing a disclaimer-  although the following fairy-tale happened far away, a long time ago, such tales can be instructive, he informs the audience. Whether with this disclaimer Rimsky-Korsakov hoped to outwit the Imperial Censors isn't known. A few years earlier his support for students during the 1905 revolution, had resulted in a temporary suspension of his professorship from the conservatoire and a ban on the performance of his works. However the very name of the fairy-tale's Tsar Dodon is a deliberate word-play upon the name of the extinct dodo bird and throughout the opera Rimsky-Korsakov ridicules Tsar Nicholas II personally through the character of Tsar Dodon.  

In the Introduction and Bridal Procession to the orchestral suite of  Le coq d'Or Rimsky-Korsakov employs the startling compositional device of a rapid change of key and mood; the opening alarm-call of the cockerel, announced by trumpet is swiftly followed by a brooding theme upon cellos, to depict the lugubrious mood of King Dodon in his palace. The Introduction quotes all the major themes and motifs of the opera, much of which is in Rimsky-Korsakov's highly-evocative 'neo-oriental' style, it also includes musical passages conjuring a dreamy fairy-tale world along with some exciting syncopated rhythms.

The decorative arts in Russia were well-developed by the early 20th century, including in design and art-work for stage-sets and theatrical costume. An amazing array of artwork by the designer, Natalya Goncharova of decor based upon woodcuts, homespun fabrics, folk ornaments and icons for the 1914 Paris production of Le Coq D'Or  is featured during the 6 minute video clip here -

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's support for students during the 1905 Russian revolution resulted in his being suspended from his teaching position at the Conservatoire and a ban on the performance of his works. How exactly he hoped to outwit the Imperial Censor's scrutiny is unclear, the very name of the fairy-tale's central character, Tsar Dodon, is a deliberate word-play which strongly hints of the Tsar's likeness to the extinct dodo bird; and in fact throughout the opera Rimsky-Korsakov ridicules Tsar Nicholas II personally through the character of Tsar Dodon.

In the first act of the opera, King Dodon in his Palace, the grotesque and blundering Tsar Dodon, irritable, brooding and bored since youth, is presented by the astrologer with the gift of a golden cockerel which crows whenever a threat of danger to Dodon's kingdom occurs -

Watch out ! 
Be on guard !

However, Tsar Dodon prefers it when the golden cockerel crows the advice -    Go ahead and rule from your bed !

In essence, Rimsky-Korsakov portrays a Tsar who is suffering from the Russian psychological trait of Oblomovitis.

In Ivan Goncharov's hugely popular novel Oblomov (1859) the young nobleman Oblomov rarely leaves his room or bed and only moves from his bed to a chair in the first 50 pages of the novel. Incapable of making important decisions or of undertaking any significant action, the novel satirizes Russian nobility, whose social and economic function became increasingly questioned in mid-nineteenth century Russia. Allusion to Oblomov became well-known throughout Russia, as late as the 1920's, during the early years of the Soviet Republic, Vladimir Lenin declared, - "the old Oblomov is still around, and we will need to wash, clean, rub and scrub him, before he can be of any real use."

The entrance of Queen Shemakha which is sung by a colorata soprano in the fairy-tale opera, includes extensive and intricate octatonic scales which are as experimental and radical as those of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Queen Shemakha introduces an explicitly erotic element to the opera when teasingly she declares to King Dodon -

Thou art to be pitied knowing
The Queen only in her garments.
I am not so bad without them.
When I go to sleep, I look a long time in the mirror,
I throw off all my garments...
I look and see if anywhere
There is a mole or any blemish on my body..
Over my marble thighs

On my breasts fall drops of liquid fire
And I have breasts indeed !
They vie with the glory of the southern roses
Magnificent and firm - and they are
As white, light, and translucent as a dream.....

Tsar Dodon's  response to Queen Shemakha's erotic invitation is to announce he has a stomach-ache. His downfall occurs when, after his ill-matched marriage to Queen Shemakha, the golden cockerel pecks him to death, perhaps an allusion by Rimsky-Korsakov to the rumour that Tsar Nicholas himself was henpecked by his wife, and that it was the Tsarina who ruled the roost of the Imperial Household. Its also worth remembering that the very symbol of the Romanov, that of the double-headed Imperial eagle, the true subject of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'fairy-tale'  bears an avian similarity to the cockerel.

Its little wonder that the opera The Golden Cockerel was immediately banned from theatrical performance by the Imperial Censors. Rimsky-Korsakov's harshest words were reserved for Tsar Nicholas II personally, the operatic chorus singing these words-

He is a tsar in rank and appearance
but a slave in body and soul.
In behaviour and attitude he is a real ape.
His head is devoid of true emotion
his spirit is terribly lethargic.
Among the beauties with their shining eyes
he looks like a ghost.

Ominously, as if alluding to the methods by which autocratic governments remain in power, Tsarina Shemakha warns - Whoever we don't like is done for.

while the chorus, representing the common people, anxiously ask of their future - What will we do without a Tsar ?

When an essentially conservative member of Russian society such as Rimsky-Korsakov feels it necessary to use music as a vehicle to denounce political and social wrongs of his age, the warning signals of a society about to radically transform itself may be imminent. The catalyst for such a transformation occurred shortly after Rimsky's death, through the great loss of life experienced by the Russian people during the first World War, which triggered the 1917 revolution, the abolishment of Imperial Romanov rule and the establishment of the Soviet Republic (1917-1989).

The impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s 1914 Parisian production in ballet form of The Golden Cockerel, (known as Le Coq d'Or from its French production)  in which the singers performed offstage, while mimers and dancers portrayed the characters onstage, became the model for Rimsky-Korsakov's one-time pupil, Igor Stravinsky’s own stage works. A close study of the score of Stravinsky's innovative puppet-drama Petroushka (1910-11) reveals that its radical harmonies derive ultimately from the experimental octatonicism of his teacher, Rimsky's opera. Such was the high regard in which  The Golden Cockerel was held that, when in December 1917, the composer Sergei Rachmaninov hastily left Russia for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sledge, among his few possessions he carried with him were a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions including his unfinished opera Monna Vanna and two orchestral scores, one of which was The Golden Cockerel.

Sadly, Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to hear his opera The Golden Cockerel performed. The stress caused from its being banned by the Censors probably worsened his medical condition of angina and he died before its first performance. However his introduction of overt political statement in music paved the way for a younger generation of composers to either integrate or denounce political ideology in their music. The musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker proposed his opera The Golden Cockerel to be the forerunner of the anti-psychologistic and absurdist ideas which  culminate in 20th century 'anti-operas' such as Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose (1930) and that it laid, "the foundation for modernist opera in Russia and beyond." [2] . Rimsky's name today is now celebrated as one of Russia's greatest composers, with the St Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire honouring him in its name.

Andrei Bely's Symbolist novel Petersburg (1913) also reflects the fevered atmosphere of the dying years of the Romanov dynasty. Set in the 'window on the west' city of Petersburg, and greatly admired by James Joyce for its fragmentary narrative, Bely's novel features a psychological cat-and-mouse game between a high ranking bureaucratic official and his decadent 'asiatic' would-be anarchist son. Sometimes hilarious, at other times sinister,  the backdrop of an often crepuscular city, whose citizens, not unlike the Dubliners  of Joyce's Ulysses (1922) become a central character of the novel. Bely's Petersburg  not only depicts the social tension of  Russia before the 1905 Revolution, but is a landmark work of 20th century literature.

There can't surely be any connection between Sir Thomas Browne and Norwich with early 20th century Russian history and music, can there ? Well, there's these two tenuous connections - Firstly, in 1922 the English author Virginia Woolf wrote an introduction to a selection of Sir Thomas Browne's writings for the prestigious Golden Cockerel publishing house. Secondly, Browne's Norwich associate, Arthur Dee (1579-1651), whose father, John Dee (1527-1609) secured for his eldest son the post of court physician to Tsar Mikhail I, the first of the Romanov Tsars. After enduring 14 bitterly harsh Moscow winters, sometime in the early 1630's, Arthur Dee left Moscow to eventually retire at Norwich, abandoning his alchemical writings to the care of the Imperial Library. Centuries later, during the rise of the charismatic, shaman-like figure of Rasputin's uncanny influence upon Tsar Nicholas II's family, Rasputin, having gained access to the Imperial Library, is alleged to have stolen Arthur Dee's alchemical writings, perhaps during the very time Rimsky-Korsakov was engaged in The Golden Cockerel's composition.

I imagined there might be a possibility that a fairy-tale about a prophesying bird's introduction into a Royal household, which a whole Kingdom fatalistically begins to rely upon, may symbolically allude to what was a commonly-held concern of the time - the unhealthy influence of Rasputin upon Tsar Nicholas II and his family in matters of Russian politics. But no, the dates don't quite match up !

Although Milica of Montenegro and her sister Anastasia, both of whom were interested in Persian mysticism, spiritualism and occultism, are credited as introducing Rasputin to Tsar Nicholas I and his wife Alexandra in November 1905, Rasputin did not gain any real influence upon the Russian Royal family until 1908, long after Rimsky-Korsakov had completed The Golden Cockerel.


* Scheherazade - Berlin Philharmonic-Karajan 1967

* The Snow Maiden - Sadko -Mlada - Le coq d'or Suite
   Seattle Symphony - Gerard Schwarz - Naxos 2011

* Capriccio Espagnol- Russian Easter Overture etc.
   Seattle Symphony - Gerard Schwarz -Naxos 2011

* Borodin Symphonies 1 - 3 Gerard Schwarz -Naxos 2011

 * Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) 
    Night on a Bare Mountain -original and Rimsky's version
    Ukrainian  National Symphony Orchestra  Naxos 2003

[1] Maes, Francis; Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (translators) (2002) [1996].  A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

[2] Frolova-Walker, Marina (2005). "11. Russian opera; The first stirrings of modernism". In Mervyn Cooke. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera. London: Cambridge University Press.

* Natasha's Dance : A Cultural History of Russia.
   Orlando Figes Penguin 2003
*  From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 
    1870-1925  from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. 
    Royal Academy of Arts 2008


The Golden Cockerel 
soloists Albert Schagidullin  and Olga Tritonova
with the Chorus of the Mariinsky theatre, Orchestre de Paris 
conducted by Kent Nagano  directed by Thomas Grimm 2003.
Youtube clip of this DVD production, 'Hymn to the Sun' 


Top - Ivan Bilibin: Court Astrologer and King Dodon

Video of Natalie Goncharov's art

Ivan Bilibin: King Dodon and the Queen of Shemakha

Below - Rimsky-Korsakov by Igor Repin

By a remarkable coincidence The Golden Cockerel  is currently being staged in a new production at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 

The World premiere of The Golden Cockerel was on 24 September 1909, at the Sergei Zimin Private Russian Opera, Moscow. It was  premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 14 February 1919  and the premiere of its latest production was on 25 December 2014, at Mariinsky-II, St Petersburg. Next performance, Sunday 1st February 2015.  Here's a trailer of the production.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Firebird

First performed in Paris in 1910 by the Ballet Russe company, 
The Firebird is as Russian as a Faberge egg or a Matryoshka doll. 

The theatrical director of the Ballet Russe, the aristocrat and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, exploited a craze for all things oriental during the French era of the Belle EpochDiaghilev’s vision was to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences, and to produce new works in a distinctly 20th century style, in which costume and decor, dance and music all combine into one harmonious whole (Gesamtkunstwerk - total artwork). In order to achieve this total effect Diaghilev recruited talents such as the choreographer Michel Fokine, the designer Léon Bakst and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to his Ballet Russe company. After hearing Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral work Fireworks in 1909 he took the bold step of commissioning the then unknown composer to write a ballet score based upon a combination of Russian fairy tales

With its mysterious opening bars of  double-basses conjuring up a magical fairytale world, and its extensive usage of chromatic scales borrowed from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, The Firebird is the only example in Stravinsky’s entire oeuvre of the colourful, neo-oriental school of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of  the 'mighty five' Russian Nationalist composers.  Following a brooding introduction, the music of the ballet follows in strict line by line to the action of the plot. Some of the most dazzling moments in the score describe the tussle, struggle and eventual peace between hero and Firebird. A lush, romantic apparition of the twelve princesses ensues, before the Infernal Dance in which Stravinsky provokes his audience's attention to sit up and pay attention to his genius. There follows a Lullaby with a jazz lilt to it. The ballet concludes with an apotheosis in which a stirring brass finale for a wedding occurs. Several versions of the orchestral score exist. In addition to the full 50 minute ballet score Stravinsky re-wrote a conciser, concert-hall orchestral suite of  The Firebird  in 1911 and 1919 and once again in 1945. 

Loosely-based upon several plots and characters from Russian folk tales the curtain rises on the enchanted garden where the magician Kostchei holds a dozen princesses captive. The princesses and a tree of golden apples are protected by a high fence. The firebird enters, intent on stealing one of the golden apples, but she is seized by Ivan Tsarevich, who has been following her. Their struggle, and her eventual subduing, is expressed as a pas de deux, and Ivan refuses to release her until she gives him one of her feathers. Armed with this talisman he is assured of her help should he ever need it. In the gathering dark one of the princesses, the beautiful Tsarevna, tells Ivan of her plight. They dance, and part at dawn. Ivan, however, fails to heed her warning not to follow her, and enters Kostchei's castle. A crowd of grotesque creatures rush out,, followed by Kostchei himself. the grotesques grovel before Kostchei, who approaches Ivan, intending to turn him into stone. Remembering the feather, Ivan waves it in Kostchei's face. The firebird appears, and forces the grotesques to dance until they are exhausted. She then reveals to Ivan that Kostchei's soul is contained in a great egg. Ivan takes the egg and dashes it to the ground. The magician dies, and Ivan marries the Tsarevna. [1]

The complex nature of evil and the difficulties which the hero must face in order to defeat evil are expressed well in the original Russian fairytale about the magician Kostchei. The soul of Kostchei is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on an island  in the ocean. As long as his soul is safe, he cannot die. If the chest is dug up and opened, the hare will run away; if it is killed, the duck will emerge and try to fly off. Anyone possessing the egg has Kostchei in their power. He begins to weaken, becomes sick, and immediately loses the use of his magic. If the egg is tossed about, he likewise is flung around against his will. Only if the egg or needle is broken, will Kostchei die.

Ever since the success of its first performance in 1910 with the ballerina Tamara Karsavina dancing in the physically demanding role of the Firebird, Stravinsky’s ballet has been a perennial favourite with audiences around the world. Such was its success that it initiated a twenty year collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky. Two more ballets, equally brilliant, swiftly followed; the puppet drama Petrushka (1911) and the seismic anticipation of the World War, set in pagan Russia, The Rite of Spring (1913) a revolutionary work in 20th century music.

Like Tchaikovsky’s innovative ballet Swan Lake (1877 revised 1895) Stravinsky’s ballet also has an avian theme. However, in many ways it is also a mirror opposite of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in which the hero Siegfried resists an arranged marriage in favour of a passionate union with an enchanted swan. Both ballets feature the metaphor of young women imprisoned by an enchanter but are allowed a measure of freedom at night. There’s an erotic element in much ballet, not least in both Swan Lake and The Firebird. Wherever the erotic is encountered, in art as in life, invariably there is also a strong psychological element. 

In essence the enduring appeal of The Firebird lies almost as much in its archetypal nature as a magical fairytale as its music and dance. The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung noted that fairytales -  'tell us how to proceed if we want to overcome the power of darkness: we must turn his own weapons against him, which naturally cannot be done if the magical underworld of the hunter remains unconscious'. [2] 

Jung argued that- 'If we wanted to explain the fairytale personalistically, the attempt would founder on the fact that archetypes are not whimsical inventions but autonomous elements of the unconscious psyche which were there before any invention was thought of. They represent the unalterable structure of a psychic world whose "reality" is attested by the determining effects it has on the conscious mind'. [3] 

In Jung’s view - 'Fairytales seem to be the myths of childhood and they therefore contain among other things the mythology which children weave for themselves concerning sexual processes. The poetry of fairytale, whose magic is felt even by the adult, rests not least upon the fact that some of the old theories are still alive in our unconscious. We experience a strange and mysterious feeling whenever a fragment of our remotest youth stirs into life again, not actually reaching consciousness, but merely shedding a reflection of its emotional intensity on the conscious mind'.  [4] 

'As in alchemy, the fairytale describes the unconscious processes that compensate the conscious, Christian situation. ..the fairytale makes it clear that it is possible for a man to attain totality, to become whole, only with the spirit of darkness, indeed that the latter is actually a causa instrumentalis of redemption and individuation'. [5] 

'Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious'.  [6] 

Finally, Jung believed that - 'It is extremely important to tell children fairytales and legends, and to inculcate religious ideas into grown-ups, because these things are instrumental symbols with whose help unconscious contents can be canalized into consciousness, interpreted and integrated'. [7] 

Stravinsky's Firebird is one of several works of classical music including Berlioz’s Symphonie FantastiqueDebussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Sibelius' Swan of Tuonela, Brahms Piano concerto no. 2, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Shostakovich's 5th symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, which I ‘discovered’ when a teenager through 12" vinyl discs during the 1970's. 

'A mass of riotous colour and swirling bodies, the Infernal Dance (Youtube clip above) which brings the entire company into Firebird could feel, occasionally like being caught up in the spin cycle of a washing machine. Garments everywhere, whirling fabric, blurred colours...' [8] 


[1] The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet - Deborah Bull and Luke Jennings - Faber 2004
[2] CW 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' (1945/48)
[3] CW 9 i: 451 Ibid.
[4] CW 17: 43
[5] CW 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales (1945/48)
[6] CW 9 ii: 280
[7] CW 9 ii: 259
[8] The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet - Deborah Bull and Luke Jennings - Faber 2004


The World of Diaghilev- Charles Spencer - Philip Dyer 1974
Stravinsky -Roman Vlad - OUP 1960

The essential book covering 19th and 20th century Russian culture -Natasha's Dance - Orlando Figes - Penguin 2002


Return of the Firebird - Ballet Russe Recreation - Decca 2002
The Royal Ballet - Margot Fonteyn 1960
Royal Ballet - Leanne Benjamin/ Jonathan Cope - BBC 2010

Royal Danish Ballet Company - Glen Tetley - Virgin 1982
Glen Tetley's choreography adds a new dimension to a perennial favourite. 

for Shimon, with thanks for inspiration.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Quaternity of the Homo Maximus

The Christian Tetramorph of Lion,  Bull,  Eagle and Angel, the four symbols associated with the New Testament gospel authors, often with Christ at their centre, are collectively, an ancient, potent and complex, religious symbol. Depictions of the tetramorph (from Greek tetra four, morph shape) can be found in Christian art such as illuminated manuscripts, engravings and stained glass in churches from the Middle Ages to the present-day. 

The significance of the number four in Christianity occurs quite early in its development. The early church Father and bishop of Lyons, Saint Irenaeus  (end of 2nd century CE - c. 202 CE ) declared -

'It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the… “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side…. He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.'

However, it was the Christian Church Father, Saint Jerome (370 -420 CE) who is credited as being the first to designate the symbols of the Bull, Eagle, Lion and Angel, as emblematic of the four Gospel authors. Jerome’s designated the three animals and one human form and their associated virtues as each being exemplary of specific attributes of Christ. 

In modern times, the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung noted of the Tetramorph in which Christ is sometimes depicted at its centre, 

'He (Christ) holds an important position midway between the two extremes, man and God, which are so difficult to unite. ..He is lacking in neither humanity nor in divinity, and for this reason he was long ago characterized by totality symbols, because he was understood to be all-embracing and to unite all opposites. The quaternity of the Son of Man, indicating a more differentiated consciousness, was also ascribed to him (via Cross and tetramorph)'.  [1] 

C.G. Jung recognised that a four-fold pattern dating from prehistory was of near universal occurrence in world art and religion. In ancient Egyptian mythology the god Horus is accompanied by his four sons, while the three animals and human form of the tetramorph, first mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel's vision (Ez.1:10) is now recognised as alluding to the Sumerian zodiac. The universal occurrence of  a four-fold design representing a totality, is commented upon by C.G.Jung thus-

'The quaternity is an organizing schema par excellence, something like the crossed threads in a telescope. It is a system of coordinates that is used almost instinctively for dividing up the visible surface of the earth, the course of the year, or the collection of individuals into groups, the phases of the moon, the temperaments, elements, alchemical colours, and so on.' Elsewhere Jung states, 'the four quarters of heaven, the four elements are a quaternary system of orientation which always expresses a totality...the orientating system of consciousness has four aspects, which correspond to four empirical functions: thinking, feeling, sensation (sense-perception), intuition. This quaternity is an archetypal arrangement...' [2] 

Remarkably,  a quaternity comprising of four quite distinct entities, namely body and mind, spirit and soul, can be found in Christ’s commandment in the Gospels of Luke and Mark. [3]

'And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; this is the first commandment'.

In Christ's commandment, adapted from the Jewish Shema, two of the four entities in the totality of human life, mind and soul are named. Of the heart it’s worth considering the crucial role which the anatomical organ has symbolically to kingship, the lion and the Spirit. One thinks of the Crusader King Richard the Lionheart for example, while in astrological symbolism the zodiac sign of Leo rules the heart and is associated with fire. In Judaic and Christian symbolism fire is frequently associated with encounters with the Divine and with the Holy Spirit.  In the non canonical gospel of Thomas (340 CE) has Christ declare, 'He who is near unto me is close to the Fire', while in the Gospel of Luke, Christ says, 'I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?' 

Religious symbolism involving fire in the final analysis originates from the fire-worshipping Zoroastrian religion of Persia. The qualities of Courage, kindness and love in its various guises, are also associated with the heart, all of which are also related to Spirit.

Strength can confidently be identified as comparative to the physical world. The exemplary animal associated with strength, the Bull or Ox, has a legendary enduring strength which serves it to even commit an act of self-sacrifice. Strength is predominantly associated with muscular activity and the physical realm, and above all in element has an earthy quality to it. 

The mental faculty of thought, along with the imagination is associated with the element of Air in various symbolic schemata. Ideas are sometimes described as being plucked out of air, while the phrase to have one's head in the clouds also suggests a relationship between the mind and Air.

The Soul is often described as passive, receptive,  feminine and as 'The Other', usually by male theological commentators. Dissolution and hidden depths are also related to both the soul and the element of Water. Thus a quaternity involving a totality of body and mind, spirit and soul occurs within Christ’s commandment. 

There's also the extraordinary idea that the 'clock number' of the four 'fixed' zodiac signs Taurus (2), Leo (5), Scorpio (8) and Aquarius (11) when added up total 26, the very same number in Hebrew Gematria for the Tetragrammaton  JHVH in which Yod (10), Hey (5), Vav (6) and Hey (5) also equal 26.

In a tetramorph dating from 1482 (picture below) Christ is depicted as the ruler of the four elements. 


Ultimately however, the symbolism of the tetramorph originates from the Babylonian zodiac, specifically the so-called 'Fixed Cross’ of astrological signs in opposition and right-angles to each other, Taurus representing Earth and its associations, Leo and the element of Fire, Scorpio for Water [4] and Aquarius as representative of Air. 

The Christian tetramorph is a superb example of syncretism, that is, how religions and beliefs sometimes overlap each other, and how old symbols are adopted for newer beliefs, sometimes quite different from their origins. 

One of the 20th century's greatest scholars of religious symbolism, C.G. Jung, held a great regard for his fellow compatriot, the Renaissance alchemist-physician Paracelsus. Besides being an early pioneering advocate for the use of chemical remedies in medicine and a theologian as radical and original as his contemporary, Martin Luther, Paracelsus (1493-1541) was also a proto-psychologist. In an essay entitled Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon (1942) C.G. Jung delved into the questing and confused world of Paracelsus’s four mysterious Scaiolae. Jung first consults the Dictionary of Alchemy (1612) by Martin Ruland (1569-1611), a Paracelsian scholar and lexicographer who was resident at the Prague court of the alchemy-loving Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II (1552 - 1612).

Ruland defines the Paracelsian Scaiolae as - 'Spiritual Powers of the Mind, its properties and virtues, which are fourfold, according to the number of the elements, and the four wheels of fire which were part of the Chariot in which Elias was taken up to Heaven. They emanate from the soul in man. Fancy, imagination, speculative faculty, etc., are included under the term. It also embraces, in a special sense, the Articles of our Christian Faith in Jesus Christ, Baptism, partaking of the Eucharist, Charity towards our neighbour, manifesting the perfect Fruits of Faith, whereby we attain not merely prolonged but eternal life.' [5]

Jung continues, 'Ruland interprets the four first psychologically, as phantasia, imaginato, speculatio, and agnata fides (inborn faith).. Since every archetype is psychologically a fascinosum, i.e., exerts an influence that excites and grips the imagination, it is liable to clothe itself in religious ideas.... it would not be overbold to conclude that the four Scaiolae correspond to the traditional quadripartite man and his all-encompassing wholeness. The quadripartite nature of the homo maximus is the basis and cause of all division into four: four elements, seasons, directions etc... [ibid]

Jung also consulted the writings of Gerard Dorn (1530-84), a Belgian philosophical alchemist, who like Ruland, was an advocate of Paracelsian ideas. Dorn emphasized the psychic nature of the Scaiolae (“mental powers and virtues, properties of the arts of the mind”)...these external principles, of the invisibilis homo maximus. The four Scaiolae appear to be interpreted by Dorn as mental powers and psychological functions. [6] 

Finally, connecting the function of the four Christian Gospels to the proto-psychology of Paracelsus, Jung declares - 'The Scaiolae, as the four parts, limbs or emanations of the Anthropos are the organs with which he actively intervenes in the world of appearances or by which he is connected with it, just as the invisible quinta essentia, or aether, appears in this world as the four elements or conversely, is composed out of them.  Since the Scaiolae, as we have seen, are also psychic functions, these must be understood as manifestations or effluences of the One, the invisible Anthropos. As functions of consciousness, and particularly as imaginato, speculatio, phantasia, and fides, they “intervene”. [7] 

C.G. Jung devoted the last thirty years of his life to the study of alchemy and its symbolism. His belief in man as essentially a religious animal who quests for meaning and purpose in their own unique, individual life, has today lost no relevance. Jung's profound study of comparative religion, in conjunction with his being consulted by many patients, along with the events of two World Wars, led him to the conclusion that all too few experience the living Christ within their own lives, a lack often hindered by fossilized Christian dogma. 

Revealingly, in regard to the four-fold design of the quaternity and the central figure of the Tetramorph, Jung concluded that - 'The Gnostic quadripartite original man as well as Christ Pantokrator is an imago lapidis. [8] Its also enlightening to visit the church of Saint John the Baptist's, Maddermarket, Norwich, with Jung's thoughts upon the quaternity as an image of the Philosopher's stone, held in mind. Sir Thomas Browne's exhortation at the apotheosis of his hermetic phantasmagoria, the discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which the physician-philosopher encourages his reader, 'to search out the Quaternio's and figured draughts of this order'  also seems apt. 

No less than three examples of the tetramorph can be viewed within the church; in its East window, accompanied by respective Evangelist, high up in the bell-tower of its West window, and also carved upon its Nave processional gates. The church houses a fourth example of a quaternity, a highly original and sophisticated variant upon the theme of the quaternity of the homo maximus. Encased within the two pilasters of the early seventeenth century marble funerary monument the Layer monument are four figurines exemplary of Paracelsian scaiolae. The upper pair represent the two eternal rewards for the Christian, Pax and Gloria (Peace and Glory). Its lower pair of figurines represent mortal psychic entities, one of which is positive and one of which is negative, Vanitas and Labor (Vanity and Labour). At the centre of the monument there is a large skull.

C.G. Jung identified Christ as none other than a symbol of the self. Another symbol which predates the Christian era, but which is equally potent as a symbol of the Self, is the skull. Besides being universally recognised as a momento mori symbol, the skull is also associated in alchemy with the Vas Philosophorum, the philosophical vessel and the place where the opposites reside, clash and are reconciled. The skull in alchemical symbolism is also where the incubation of the Philosopher’s Stone occurs and where the homo maximus or greater man within, more often than not either slumbering or invisible, dwells.

In the final analysis discussion upon the quaternity of the Tetramorph can never be or exhausted or its significance in religious and psychological terms explained; for like all living symbols, it will always transcend interpretative attempts. However, the original Greek definition of a symbolon as a tally-stick, coin or object broken into  two halves used for identification, recognition or completeness when united, greatly assists our understanding; for Man only ever holds one half of the broken coin, tally stick, or object, the other, 'invisible’ or missing half' of the symbolon, is firmly held by God.


[1] Collected Works vol 10 paragraph 692
[2] CW 9 ii paragraph 381
[3] Luke 10 v. 27 and Mark 12 v. 30
[4] Just how and why the astrological sign of Scorpio, the 'King' of the Insects is replaced by the regal and heaven-inhabiting King of the birds, the Eagle, goes beyond the confines of this short essay !
[5] Martin Ruland Lexicon Alchemia (1612) is in Sir Thomas Browne's library p. 22 no. 119
as is Paracelsus Opera (1603) p. 22 no.118 as well as Gerard Dorn in Theatrum Chemicum 
(5 vols. 1613) page 25 no. 124
[6] 'Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon' (1942)
subsection C. The Quaternity of the Homo Maximus CW 13: paragraphs 206-208
[7] CW vol. 13 paragraph 215
[8] CW vol. 12 paragraph 173

Top - Medieval illuminated manuscript example from Bode Museum Germany
Next -  Glanville - Le Proprietaire des choses (1482)
Next -  Leonhard Thurneysser (1531-96) the Hermaphrodite from Quinta Essentia 1574
Bottom - Realization of the Layer monument as a Quaternity and with skull as a Quincunx, Norwich, circa 1600.

Collected works of Carl Gustav Jung - volumes 9 i, 12 and 13. pub. RKP
Catalogue of the libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward. pub. E.J. Brill 1986
Faulkner, Kevin - The Layer Monument- An Introduction and Interpretation as an Alchemical Mandala. Pride Press 2013

Wiki-link Tetramorph

Monday, June 16, 2014

Albert Cooper

“I am a Norwich Man born and bred who has tried his best.”- A.C.

Throughout its long history the city of Norwich has produced a breed of hard-working, highly skilled and independent artisan craftsmen, the 'old master' artists, John Crome, John Cotman and Joseph Stannard for example. One must add to these illustrious names, the jazz and blues vocalist Albert Cooper, who's been performing in Norwich for sixty years now.

One evening, when visiting Albert at home, sharing a bottle of wine, we catch a recently made film portrait about him on Mustard TV recollecting his long life of music making. The short documentary includes Cooper's reminiscing on his first stage appearance aged 12 singing Christmas carols at the long-gone Hippodrome Theatre, his epiphanal moment when first hearing 'Black Anna’ and his memories of singing with her at The Jolly Butchers pub in the 1950's. 

Albert Cooper shares his birthday not only with the great Anglo-American comedian Stan Laurel (1890 -1965) but also International Bloomsday. And in fact he's a great admirer of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses (1922) ; there’s even a touch of the Leopold Bloom in Albert in Chris Bailey's film as he walks the streets of the city he loves while remembering the pubs, shops and smells of a Norwich long gone. 

Albert Cooper’s two great lamentations are the madness of Norwich City Planners in their wanton vandalism masquerading as ‘development’ throughout the 1960's to the present-day, and the outcome of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Nevertheless, hailing from one of Norwich's oldest Catholic families, the Roman Catholic faith remains the bedrock foundation of Cooper’s belief. Nurtured since a boy chorister upon the music composed for Mass by Gounod, Schubert and Mozart, he's been a committed Catholic his entire life, regularly attending Mass at the Roman Catholic cathedral of Saint John the Baptist’s at Norwich.

As the wine flows and the evening progresses, Albert, I discover, is an extremely engaging raconteur. Talking on Norwich in the 1950's in the days before TV and video when the Capitol, Odeon, Electric, Regent, Haymarket, Carlton and Noverre cinemas thrived, young Albert would sometimes visit the cinema three or four times in a week. These days he's a bit of a film buff and swiftly names Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, Dr. Zhivago, Sabrina, the Ealing comedies of the 50's and, keeping abreast with modern trends The Lives of Others as favourite viewing. But above all, its David Lean's Brief Encounters (1946) with its soundtrack of the passionate and romantic music of Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto which is Albert's all-time favourite film.

Albert Cooper has performed at numerous venues throughout Norwich over the decades. He even co-managed his own music venue The Jacquard during the 60's and 70's where artists of the calibre of Paul Simon, Sandy Denny, George Melly and Ralph Mctell, among many others, once performed

There’s a certain laid-back vigor to Cooper's own performing these days. His lifelong suffering from 'stage-nerves’ is testimony to his conscientious nature, wanting to give the audience his very best, which as a consummate artist, he invariably does. At present Cooper can be heard on a monthly basis at the Rumsey Wells. Visiting the pub on a night billed as a Blues evening, I catch his excellent interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Stuck in Mobile Blues, which I and others consider he performs as good, if not better than Dylan. I also realise he's older than Dylan himself ! Brilliantly accompanied by a driving Hammond Organ, by Albert's son Chris Cooper who is an accomplished musician and a distinguished, prize-winning Cambridge scholar in Jazz studies whose keyboard playing is an integral part of the Albert Cooper sound. Loyal band members bassist Owen Morgan and drummer Robert Masters also make no small contribution to the Cooper sound. 

Albert's high reputation these days is such that when he hears of his lead guitarist Ronnie Dearing's illness (Get well soon Ronnie) his call for a stand-in guitarist is filled within hours. Of all the many songs he performs it is perhaps My Love will never Die which has become his signature song.

I was probably in an highly emotionally charged state when visiting the excellent Rumsey Wells pub on an evening billed as a Jazz night. On this particular evening Albert wears another hat from his diverse repertoire, that of the romantic crooner. He himself admits to having a strong romantic and even at times a melancholic and depressive streak. His highly developed ear for a good melody and meaningful lyric results in his continuing to expand his repertoire. This evening he sings for the first time,  I Read a Lot by Nick Lowe. Like healing balm to the soul, one senses that here is a man who sings lyrics with great insight and sensitivity.  Hopefully its a song which will be added to his already extensive repertoire. Other songs Albert sings that night include Lush Life, Sentimental Journey, Stella by Starlight and Jobim's Night of the quiet Stars. 

The diversity of Albert Cooper's music-making can be gleaned from the fact that during the 1970's he inadvertently became the star of the show at Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre in performances of Old-time Music Hall, singing songs which his hairdresser father taught him as a boy. He also contributed his talents to the Keswick Hall Choir and UEA choir over the years and deeply regrets, like myself, the University of East Anglia's closing of its School of Music, a decision based supposedly upon financial considerations.  A golden opportunity lost for the far from impoverished University to contribute and integrate with its host City.  

Cooper's musical likes are numerous, and an inventory of all his diverse tastes in music would be exhausting, however balladeers such as Dick Haymes his all-time favourite, along with Frank Sinatra, as well as the song-writing talents of Ray Davies, Justin Hayward and David Bowie deserve mention. In particular he admires the song-writing skills of Bowie, from his earliest song, the mysterious Man who sold the world (1969) to the Thin White Duke's latest song, Where are we now? (2013). Albert's bemused when I quote Bowie's lyrics which serendipitously allude to two of his favourite holiday destinations -

See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads. 

Working at managerial level in tailoring and carpets until his retirement, in the words of his brother Kenneth, its probably just as well fame and fortune didn’t beckon big-time for Albert as they may have drastically shortened his life-span. In a statement typical of his modesty and self-deprecation, Cooper once declared-

"I am a realist and the grand illusion of greatness is a mirage, unless of course you are great which I am not."

In an world increasing mobile and rootless it can be difficult for some to appreciate the deep love and devotion a born and bred Norvicensian such as Albert Cooper has for his home City. Few people, however brief their acquaintance with Norwich leave it without admiration for its vibrant cultural and civic life. The world’s loss and Norwich's gain is now being re-balanced with many clips available on Youtube of Albert Cooper performing, some of which reveal him to be a master of small talk banter with his audience.

Once, when asked if he had any unfulfilled ambitions, Albert replied, "Not really". On reflection however, Cooper, who is a great admirer of American popular culture, confessed he would like to visit the home of the blues, Chicago, USA. To his surprise and delight tickets to Chicago were provided for him by a fan. It was while at Chicago, visiting a nightclub owned by brothers Phil and Buddy Guy, that Albert Cooper received what he considers to be the greatest compliment ever given to him. Buddy Guy declared that Cooper’s singing The Thrill has Gone was simply the best of all interpretations. Today whenever the octogenarian jazz and blues vocalist performs B.B.King’s song one senses he has a close identification and poignancy with its sentiment. A plain-speaking and honest man, Cooper may be said to join the ranks of Norwich literary figures who indulged in physiognomical observations, namely Sir Thomas Browne, Amelia Opie and George Borrow, when making the perceptive statement -

“In most cases when you are old and wrinkled and white that’s exactly how you appear, but if Black you have the look and style of a true Bluesman”.

Cooper's deep understanding of the human condition is encapsulated in his saying -

'Who wants to be where they are in truth. Thank God for what you have, no matter how small, and in spite of how others seem to be more successful, more talented, more material goods, but still try, still do your best and reap rewards of being you, a total individual, no one else like you. We are all unique, its amazing!'

That evening when leaving Albert Cooper I notice that the view from his studio flat includes a impressive Cityscape in which both the Norman Castle and the Cathedral can be seen in direct alignment, believed by some to be an ancient lay-line of psychic energy, and that his door-number signifies none other than The Star in the Tarot cards. But even without such dubious and nebulous hints, one rock-solid fact I'm confident of, Albert Cooper is dearly loved far and wide by many today. Rightly named as the Godfather of the Blues in Norwich, his musical talents are quite simply one of the city's greatest treasures. Happy 81st birthday Albert !

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sir Thomas Browne and China

Throughout his life the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) possessed an insatiable curiosity upon numerous subjects. Books upon ancient history, geography, philosophy, anatomy, theology, cartography, embryology, medicine, cosmography, ornithology, mineralogy, zoology, travel, law, mathematics, geometry, literature, both Continental and English, the latest advances in scientific thinking in astronomy and chemistry, as well as books on astrology, alchemy and the kabbalah, are all listed in the 1711 sales auction catalogue of his library. Browne was often attracted to subjects considered exotic, mysterious, or little-known of. It should come as no surprise therefore that the distant land of China would attract the curiosity of the learned doctor.

During Browne’s life-time a slow but gradual increase in trade and import of Chinese goods to Europe occurred. Ceramic earthenware was among the earliest and most popular of all Chinese imports, to such an extent that it's very name became synonymous to the country of its origin. However, the manufacture of Chinese porcelain remained unknown in the West. Browne determined to resolve this mystery in his vanguard work of the English scientific revolution, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). Though quoting Portuguese travellers to China, Browne's observations upon Chinese porcelain are the earliest extant in English.   

We are not thoroughly resolved concerning Porcellane or China dishes, that according to common belief they are made of Earth, which lieth in preparation about an hundred years under ground;.........Gonzales de Mendoza, a man imployed into China from Philip the second King of Spain, upon enquiry and ocular experience......found they were made of a Chalky Earth; which beaten and steeped in water, affordeth a cream or fatness on the top, and a gross subsidence at the bottom; out of the cream of superfluitance, the finest dishes, saith he.....

Later confirmation may be had from Alvarez the Jesuit, who lived long in those parts, in his relations of China.The latest account hereof may be found in the voyage of the Dutch Embassadors sent from Batavia unto the Emperour of China, printed in French 1665 which plainly informeth, that the Earth whereof Porcellane dishes are made, is brought from the Mountains of Hoang, and being formed into square loaves, is brought by water, and marked with the Emperour's Seal: that the Earth itself is very lean, fine, and shining like Sand: and that it is prepared and fashioned after the same manner which the Italians observe in the fine Earthen Vessels of Faventia or Fuenca.. they are so reserved concerning that Artifice, that 'tis only revealed from Father unto Son.  [1]

Elsewhere in Pseudodoxia Epidemica Browne demonstrates his awareness of China’s vast population, stating -

So the City of Rome is magnified by the Latins to be the greatest of the earth; but time and Geography inform us, that Cairo is bigger, and Quinsay in China far exceedeth both. [2]  

Athanasius Kircher (1601-80) a near contemporary and favourite author of Browne's, was a Jesuit priest who had various missionary contacts to China through the Jesuit Order. Like the Norwich doctor, Kircher had an insatiable curiosity and fascination with obscure or esoteric learning, named in the introduction to his Oedipus Aegypticus (1656) as - ‘Egyptian wisdom, Phoenician theology, Hebrew kabbalah, Persian magic, Pythagorean mathematics, Greek theosophy, Mythology, Arabian alchemy, Latin philology’. [3]

When Athanasius Kircher published his China illustrata  in 1667 Browne was finally able to satisfy his curiosity about the distant Eastern civilization. Kircher’s China illustrata [4] was a work of encyclopedic breadth and the most informative book available on China for many years. It included accurate maps as well as mythical creatures, and drew heavily on reports by the Jesuits Michael Boym and Martino Martini who worked in China. Kircher emphasized the Christian elements of Chinese history, both real and imagined and highlighted the early presence of Nestorian Christians in China. However, he also claimed the Chinese were descended from the sons of Biblical Ham and that Chinese characters originated from Egyptian hieroglyphs ! In the above illustration Chinese botany and horticulture, costume and customs, along with architecture, are each faithfully recorded from an eyewitness account of a social gathering, feasting upon the giant 'polomie' jackfruit.

Throughout his life Browne took a keen interest in botany, especially for its medicinal properties. In correspondence to his son Edward, and presuming him to also have access to an edition of Kircher's China illustrata , Browne made one of the earliest recorded references to Ginseng. Widely cultivated in China for centuries, Ginseng is now scientifically recognised for its anticarcinogenic and antioxidant properties.

Deare Sonne, - You did well to observe Ginseng. All exotick rarities, especially of the east, the East India trade having encreased, are brought in England, and the profit made thereof. Of this plant Kircherus writeth in his China illustrata, pag. 178, cap. "De Exoticis China plantis". [5]

Less reliable than his reports on Chinese botany, Kircher’s at times wildly misguided theories in comparative religion are described by Joscelyn Godwin for the illustration below as - ‘A confused memory of Buddhist iconography may have led to this weird image, which Kircher regards as the equivalent of the Great Mother of Western religions. To the Egyptians she is Isis, to the Greeks Cybele. The lotus upon which she is seated represents the ‘Humid principle' which nourishes all things.' [6]

Sir Thomas Browne retained an interest in China until late in his life. His extraordinary, and at times surreal, list of books, pictures and objects rumoured to exist, lost, or imagined, Bibliotheca Abscondita (circa 1675) includes the 'wish-list' entry - The Works of Confucius the famous Philosopher of China, translated into Spanish. [7] 

Inspired by the popularity of the cryptic verse of Nostradamus, first translated into English in the 1670's, Browne’s A Prophecy concerning the future State of Several Nations (circa 1675) predicts the end of the Slave-trade, a full one and a half centuries before its eventual abolition-

When Africa shall no longer sell out its Blacks
to be slaves and Drudges in the American Tracts

Browne continues with the 'prophecy' of  - 

When Batavia the Old shall be contemn’d by the New, 
and a new Drove of Tartars shall China subdue.

- with the following explanation -

Which is no strange thing if we consult the Histories of China, and successive Inundations made by Tartarian Nations.... And this hath happened from time beyond our Histories: for, according to their account, the famous Wall of China, built against the irruptions of the Tartars, was begun above a hundred years before the Incarnation. 

Browne also speculated upon a quicker trading route to Cathay (China’s ancient name) for European traders via circumnavigating the Arctic Circle -

When Nova Zembla shall be no stay
Unto those who pass to or from Cathay.

- once more accompanied by explanation.

That is, Whenever that often sought for Northeast passage unto China and Japan shall be discovered, the hindrance whereof was imputed to Nova Zembla;  ......the main Sea doth not freeze upon the North of Zembla except near unto Shores; so that if the Moscovites were skilfull Navigatours they might, with less difficulties, discover this passage unto China: but however the English, Dutch and Danes are now like to attempt it again. [8]

Finally, its a neat coincidence that Norwich, the city where Sir Thomas Browne lived for the greater part of his life, has a cultural heritage associated with an archetypal mythic creature of China. Ever since the days of the Medieval Guilds Norwich civic processions have been led in parade by the half playful, half fearsome creature 'Snap’ the Dragon; Browne in his day may have witnessed this civic event and the Dragon, emblematic of China, continues to be celebrated as part of Norwich’s cultural heritage to the present-day.

Part 2

Time hath endless rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth it self a discovery. -Urn-Burial 

With their highly polarized themes, Browne’s two philosophical discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus of 1658 may be interpreted as mirroring the concept of Yin and Yang from classical Chinese Taoist philosophy. However, in order to apprehend this association, its useful to first consult the foremost scholar of comparative religion and esoteric learning in the 20th century, the seminal psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). 

In 1929 Jung received a copy of the Chinese Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower from the Sinologist and Missionary Richard Wilhelm who discussed the possibility that his translated text - a blend of Buddhism and 'inner elixir' Taoism, may have originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)  at the beginning of Nestorian Christianity. For Jung, Wilhelm's translated text proved to be revelatory. In his 1931 commentary to The Secret of the Golden Flower Jung reminded his reader that-

Science is the tool of the Western is part and parcel of our knowledge and obscures our insight only when it holds that the understanding given by it is the only kind there is. The East has taught us another, wider, more profound, and higher understanding, that is understanding through life. [9] 

Writing before the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Jung stated -

'Western consciousness is by no means the only kind of consciousness there is; it is historically conditioned and geographically limited, and representative of only one part of mankind. The widening of our consciousness ought not to proceed at the expense of other kinds of consciousness; .... The European invasion of the East was an act of violence on a grand scale, and has left us with the duty - noblesse oblige (privilege entails responsibility) - of understanding the mind of the East. This is perhaps more necessary than we realize at present.'  [10]

The Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower confirmed Jung's hypothesis - that globally the substratum of the human psyche has no fundamental differentiation. Within both Western and Eastern psyche, Jung detected, are deeply embedded symbols drawn from a shared collective unconscious. The patterns drawn by Jung's patients in therapy, he realized, share distinct similarities with Mandala art of both Eastern and Western religions as well as in alchemical symbolism. The concepts of medieval western alchemical art, Jung detected, just like Chinese Taoist philosophy, utilize similar symbols which describe psychological processes entirely independent of cultural references or contact with other sources.

The word Tao itself Jung noted, has no satisfactory translation and is variously translated as ‘The Way’ ‘Meaning’ or even ‘God’. Jung comments-

'The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way  "Tao”, and likens it to a flow of water that moves irresistibly towards its goal. To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, one’s destination reached; the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in all things. Personality is Tao.'[11] 

Classical Chinese philosophy in Jung’s view was the natural counterpart to medieval alchemy, stating-

the alchemical mysterium coniunctionis is the Western equivalent of the fundamental principle of classical Chinese philosophy, namely the union of yang and yin in Tao.[12] 

Polarity and the union of the opposites is central to Taoist thought. In Chinese philosophy they are characterized by Yin and its associations of the feminine, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, passive, water, earth, the moon, slowness, and nighttime. Yang, by contrast, is characterized by associations of masculine, solid, focused, hardness hot, dry, aggressive, fire, sky, the sun, and daytime. Jung explains further that-

'Opposed to the guiding principle of life that strives towards superhuman, shining heights,  the yang principle, is the dark, feminine, earthbound yin, whose emotionality and instinctuality reach back into the depths of time and down into the labyrinth of the physiological continuum. No doubt these are purely intuitive ideas, but one can hardly dispense with them if one is trying to understand the nature of the human psyche. The Chinese could not do without them because, as the history of Chinese philosophy shows, they never strayed so far from the central psychic facts as to lose themselves in a one-sided over-development and over-evaluation of a single psychic function. They never failed to acknowledge the paradoxicality and polarity of all life. The opposites always balanced one another - a sign of high culture'. [13] 

Although little recognised until modern times, Browne’s diptych discourses of 1658 utilize the basic space-time continuum of alchemical mandala art in their respective framework. Urn-Burial thematically concerning itself with Earth and Time, while its counterpart The Garden of Cyrus ranges throughout Space and Heaven for evidence of the Quincunx pattern. Both Discourses are saturated with one of the most common forms of spiritual symbolism, found in Chinese classical literature and western medieval alchemical texts, that of Darkness and Light. Together the synergy of Browne's twin Discourses works on a profound associative level, often unconsciously to their reader, as they engage in the fundamental goal of alchemy, the uniting of the opposites. 

The dark, earthy, sublunary doubts, gloom and uncertain speculations upon the after-life in Urn-Burial  - lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing  and the alchemical Nigredo of the opus - are intrinsically compatible to the Chinese Taoist concept of Yin.  In perfect harmony and equilibrium The Garden of Cyrus concerns itself with Light, includes solar symbolism, the discernment of scientific certainties through occular observation, while its tone is playful, delighting in  the beauty of art and nature. The Garden of Cyrus is saturated with symbolism involving Light, Optics and the heavens and harmoniously represents the Yang half of the literary diptych. Even in terms of the respective music of their prose, the slow, solemn, stately yin rhythms of Urn-Burial are answered by the fast, hasty, Yang prose of Cyrus. Incidentally, it was Browne who coined the very word 'polarity’ into the English language.

Because the psyche at its deepest and most archaic level shares the same symbols which pre-date particular civilizations or cultures, the Chinese Taoist philosophy of Yin and Yang can equally be discerned in the alchemical mandala known as the Layer monument. Located in the church of Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, Norwich, the right-hand pilaster of Christopher Layer's marble monument depicts sub-lunar suffering, the earth and the feminine, corresponding to the principle of Yin while its left-hand pilaster with its depiction of masculine genitals, vigour, playfulness and victoriousness corresponds perfectly to the principle of Yang.  

Richard Wilhelm's translation of The Golden Flower includes an image of a Chinese adept in contemplation of 'inner heaven'. It may well have appealed to Browne's predilection for the number five and its variants (image below). One can't help also wondering that had Browne ever viewed the modern-day national flag of China with its 4+1 symbolism of 5 stars, each of which is five-pointed, he may have included mention of it in his discourse as yet more visible evidence of the archetypal pattern of five. 

Jung simultaneously reminds his reader that Chinese alchemy is structured upon five elements, identifies the alchemical theme of Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus and obliquely links his hermetic phantasmagoria to Chinese alchemy when stating -

'the quinarius or Quinio (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx) does occur as a symbol of wholeness ( in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely’.  [14] 

Astoundingly Jung declared of the Quincunx pattern itself- 

This is a symbol of the quinta essentia, which is identical with the Philosopher’s Stone. It is the circle divided into four with the centre, or the divinity expressed in four directions, or the four functions of consciousness with their unitary substrate, the self. [15]  

In modern times Edward W. Said's seminal study Orientalism (1978) explores Western perceptions of the East in the arts. The development of stereotypes and the reinforcing of Western cultural and intellectual prejudices are examined in Said's ground-breaking foundation work of Oriental studies. Crucial to Oriental studies since William Said's publication, is the understanding, for example, that the philosopher Zhuang Zhou (circa 325 BCE), a contemporary of Plato, is not inferior, less profound  or  a weaker philosopher than the 'father of Western philosophy'. It is simply that the two philosophers fundamentally differ in their focus, rather than concern himself with metaphysical and cosmological speculations like Plato, Zhuang-Zhou is more concerned with individual ethics and personal morality.

Although Sir Thomas Browne is the very earliest English philosopher to be interested in China, he is only one of many writers, painters and composers who have shaped Western perceptions of the Near and Far East, for good and bad over centuries. Incidentally, another very early Norwich-Chinese cultural connection exists through the figure of the founding father of ballet, the dancing-master Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810). Noverre occasionally resided in Norwich. Recognising the English and French craze for Chinoiserie he choreographed his very first ballet  Les Fetes Chinoise (1754) with music by Rameau, with a Chinese theme.

                                                      *  *  *

The English journalist, novelist and poet William Dunkerley (1852-1941) penned the lines of the famous hymn which begins - In Christ there is no East or West. Dunkerley was inspired by Christ's prophecy in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus declares- I tell you, many will come from the East and the West, and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven [16]Dunkerley's Christian sentiment echoes that of the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) a sympathetic ambassador of East-West relations, who declared in his secular verse. [17]

                         East and West
                        Can no longer be kept apart.  

It is the imperative task, with China's advance in role upon the world-stage, of developing a greater understanding between Western and Eastern minds, a task which remains unresolved in the world today.


[1]  P.E. Bk. 2 chapter 5: 7
[2]  P.E. Bk. 6 chapter 8
Quinsay now Hang-chou was visited by Marco Polo.
[3]  Oedipus Egypticus Rome 1652-56 Catalogue p. 8 no. 90
[4] China illustrata Amsterdam 1667  Catalogue p.8 no. 92
[5]  Letter dated April 2nd 1679
[6]  Athanasius Kircher - A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge
Joscelyn Godwin  London 1979 Thames and Hudson
[7] Miscellaneous Tract 13
[8]  Miscellaneous Tract 12
[9]  CW 13: 2
[10]  CW 13: 84
[11] CW 17: 232
[12] CW 14: 660
[13] CW 13: 7
[14] CW 18: 1602
[15] CW 10:  737
[16] Matthew 8. v. 11
[17] In Original- Orient und Occident/Sind nicht mehr zu trennen 

See Also

Wikipedia - Library of Sir Thomas Browne

Wikipedia - Athanasius Kircher


* Athanasius Kircher - A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge
Joscelyn Godwin  London 1979 Thames and Hudson

* Athanasius Kircher - The Last Man Who Knew Everything
   ed. Paula Findlen RKP 2004

* Richard Wilhelm/C.G.Jung - The Secret of the Golden Flower RKP 1931

* 1711 Sales Catalogue of Thomas Browne and his son Edward's libraries ed. J.S.Finch pub. E.J.Brill 1986

* E.J. Holmyard - Alchemy  pp. 31-41 Chinese alchemy pub. Penguin 1957

with thanks to Y. for the inspiration.