Friday 10 October 2014


“Love is when the other person's happiness is more important than your own.” - H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Giuseppe Verdi (Oct 9 or 10 1813 – Jan 27 1901) was born in Italy in 1813, prior to Italian unification. Verdi produced many successful operas, including La Traviata, Falstaff and Aida, and became known for his skill in creating melody and his profound use of theatrical effect. Additionally, his rejection of the traditional Italian opera for integrated scenes and unified acts earned him fame.

Verdi was born Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi on October 9 or 10, 1813, in the community of Le Roncole, near Busseto in the province of Parma, Italy. His mother, Luigia Uttini, worked as a spinner, and his father, Carlo Giuseppe Verdi, made a living as a local innkeeper. Verdi first developed musical talents at a young age, after moving with his family from Le Roncole to the neighbouring town of Busseto. There, he began studying musical composition. In 1832, Verdi applied for admission at the Milan Conservatory, but was rejected due to his age. Subsequently, he began studying under Vincenzo Lavigna, a famous composer from Milan.

Verdi got his start in Italy’s music scene in 1833, when he was hired as a conductor at the Philharmonic Society in Busseto. In addition to composing, he made a living as an organist around this time. Three years later, in 1836, Verdi wed Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of a friend, Antonio Barezzi. In 1838, at age 25, Verdi returned to Milan, where he completed his first opera, Oberto, in 1839, with the help of fellow musician Giulio Ricordi; the opera's debut production was held at La Scala, the famed opera house in Milan. While working on ‘Oberto’, the composer suffered what would be the first of many personal tragedies: His and Margherita’s first child, daughter Virginia Maria Luigia Verdi (born in March 1837), died in infancy on August 12, 1838; just one year later, in October 1839, the couple’s second child, son Icilio Romano Verdi (born in July 1838), died, also as an infant.

Verdi followed ‘Oberto’ with the comic opera ‘Un Giorno di Regno’, which premiered in Milan in September 1840, at Teatro alla Scala. Unlike Oberto, Verdi's second opera was not well-received by audiences or critics. Making the experience worse for the young musician, ‘Un Giorno di Regno’ debut was painfully overshadowed by the death of his wife, Margherita, on June 18, 1840, at age 26.

Dispirited by the loss of his family, Verdi entered the 1840s disheartened, struggling to find inspiration to continue creating music. He soon found solace in his work, however, by composing two new, four-act operas in 1842 and ‘43, ‘Nabucco’ and ‘I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata’ (best known simply as ‘I Lombardi’), respectively. Both pieces earned the composer a great amount of success. Subsequently, Verdi held a prominent reputation in Italy’s operatic theatre scene and, later, in the country's political scene as well. He became known for his skill in creating melody and his profound use of theatrical effect. His rejection of the traditional Italian opera for integrated scenes and unified acts only added to his fame.

For the rest of the 1840s, and through the 1850s, '60s and '70s, Verdi continued to garner success and fame. Comprising a popular operatic series throughout the decades were ‘Rigoletto’ (1851), ‘Il Trovatore’ (1853), ‘La Traviata’ (1853), ‘Don Carlos’ (1867) and ‘Aida’, which premiered at the Cairo Opera House in 1871. Four years later, in 1874, Verdi completed ‘Messa da Requiem’ (best known simply as ‘Requiem’), which was meant to be his final composition. He retired shortly thereafter.

Despite his retirement plans, in the mid-1880s, through a connection initiated by long-time friend Giulio Ricordi, Verdi collaborated with composer and novelist Arrigo Boito (also known as Enrico Giuseppe Giovanni Boito) to complete ‘Otello’. Completed in 1886, the four-act opera was performed for the first time at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on February 5, 1887. Initially meeting with incredible acclaim throughout Europe, the opera—based on William Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ —continues to be regarded as one of the greatest operas of all time.

Never one to rest on his laurels, even in his old age, Verdi followed Otello’s success with ‘Falstaff, another collaboration with Boito. Completed in 1890, when Verdi was in his late 70s, ‘Falstaff’ (a comedic adaptation of the Shakespearean plays, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ and ‘Henry IV’, and consisting of three acts) debuted at Milan's La Scala on February 9, 1893. Like Othello, early reactions to Falstaff were, by and large, tremendously positive, and the opera continues to be popular today.

Here is ‘La Traviata’ in its entirety, staged at La Scala of Milan. 'La Traviata' (‘The Fallen Woman’) is an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It is based on ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ (1852), a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The opera was originally entitled ‘Violetta’, after the main character. It was first performed on 6 March 1853 at the La Fenice opera house in Venice. Piave and Verdi wanted to follow Dumas in giving the opera a contemporary setting, but the authorities at La Fenice insisted that it be set in the past, ca 1700. It was not until the 1880s that the composer and librettist’s original wishes were carried out and ‘realistic’ productions were staged.


“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”-  Charles M. Schulz

Feeling decadent today, had a hard week? Boss has been beastly to you? Kids have been driving you crazy? Traffic was horrendous on the way home? Had an argument with your other half? How about a chocolate cake recipe to make a yummy cake that will prepare you for the weekend? This is a rich and smooth, super-sweet cake with a middle layer of orange that complements the chocolatey flavour. Enjoy in small portions!

Chocolate Jaffa Cake
Ingredients - Cake
2 cups self raising flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon instant coffee powder
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

Ingredients - Icing
3 cups icing sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
3 oz unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled
3 to 4 tablespoons milk

Several tablespoonfuls of Seville orange marmalade to join the cakes together in a sandwich.

Method - Cake
Preheat oven to 180º C. Prepare two 25 cm diameter cake tins by buttering and lightly flouring.
Put the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, coffee powder in the bowl of a mixer. Whisk through to combine until mixed well.
Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and mix together on medium speed until well-combined. Reduce speed and carefully add boiling water to the cake batter. Beat on high speed for about one minute to add air to the batter.
Distribute cake batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and spread the marmalade over the surface of one of the cakes. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, and then place the plain cake on top of the cake with the marmalade. Place wire rack over the sandwiched cakes and upend, removing from and allowing to cool completely.

Method - Icing
In medium bowl, beat icing sugar and butter with spoon or electric mixer on low speed until blended. Stir in vanilla and chocolate.
Gradually beat in just enough milk to make frosting smooth and spreadable.
If frosting is too thick, beat in more milk, a few drops at a time. If frosting becomes too thin, beat in a small amount of icing sugar. Spread the icing over the cake and decorate as you wish.

Please share your favourite recipes using the Mr Linky tool below:

Wednesday 8 October 2014


“Here are the values that I stand for: Honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values.” - Ellen DeGeneres

I recently became aware of a fantastic initiative that promotes health and well-being in some of the most needy and disadvantaged populations in the world. It is the Mercy Ships, which is an international charity that was founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens. Mercy Ships currently operates the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, providing free health care, community development projects, community health education, mental health programs, agriculture projects, and palliative care for terminally ill patients. Mercy Ships has operated in more than 70 developing nations around the world, with a current focus on the countries of West Africa.

The organisation has its International Operations Center (IOC) in Garden Valley, Texas. Mercy Ships also has 16 national resource offices in countries that include Spain, Britain, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Australia. A major inspiration for Mercy Ships founder and President Don Stephens was the work of the international hospital ship SS Hope. Stephens’ research showed that 95 of the 100 largest cities in the world were port cities. Therefore, a hospital ship could deliver healthcare very efficiently to large numbers of people. The birth of Stephens’ profoundly disabled son, John Paul, also inspired him to move forward with his vision of a floating hospital. A visit with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, further deepened his commitment to serving the world’s neediest people.

Mercy Ships currently has one vessel in service: the 16,500-ton flagship Africa Mercy, which measures almost 500 feet long. The Africa Mercy has greater capacity than all three previous Mercy Ships combined. The Africa Mercy is currently serving in the port of Pointe Noire, Congo, where its field service will last from August 2013 to May 2014. The ship was previously docked in Conakry, Guinea from August 2012 till May 2013. Before that it was docked in Lomé, Togo, for the first months of its 2012 Field Service. The Africa Mercy docked in Freetown, Sierra Leone for its 2011 field service, which lasted for 10 months. At the conclusion of each field service, the Africa Mercy goes into dry dock, where it is resupplied and receives any needed repairs or upgrades before heading to its next port of call.

Early in 2010, the ship was docked in Lomé, Togo for the 2010 field service. In August 2010, the Africa Mercy went into shipyard in South Africa, where it was equipped with new, more efficient generators. In 2009, the ship was docked in Cotonou, Benin from February to December, providing free surgeries and medical care. Mercy Ships also worked with Beninese citizens on agriculture and water development projects on the ground in Benin. In 2007, the ship made its official maiden voyage to Monrovia, Liberia, from the shipyard in England.

In 2008, the Africa Mercy continued its service to Liberia, offering free surgeries, assistance in healthcare infrastructure development, and community-based preventive health care programs that benefited thousands of individuals and many communities. More than 1,200 surgical procedures and 10,000 dental procedures were completed, along with community health projects such as HIV/AIDS prevention and construction of wells and latrines. Before the Africa Mercy arrives in port, flyers are distributed to alert the public to the ship’s upcoming visit. An advance team begins a massive screening of thousands of prospective patients, to see which men, women and children qualify for a surgery. It is common for people to walk for days (and even from neighbouring countries) to find out whether they may be eligible for surgical treatment.

The video below shows the ship and describes some of the work carried out by the dedicated staff that sail within.

Please share this and if you can, donate and help to continue the good work that is carried out by these worthy people.

Tuesday 7 October 2014


“Never regret anything you have done with a sincere affection; nothing is lost that is born of the heart.” - Basil Rathbone

Poetry Jam this week has as its theme the phrase “If I Were…”. My contribution below:

Second Chances

If I were to be born again,

I’d choose once more,
To suffer through the birth that almost robbed me of my life,
Even before my life began;
For all that passed, and I grew strong.

If I were to live another childhood,

I’d choose once more,
To live through my tortured years
Of pain and suffering;
For all that passed, and I grew resilient.

If I were to be young again,

I’d choose once more,
The same wretched adolescence
When days were long and nights sleepless;
For all that passed, and I grew wise.

If I were to fall in love again,

I’d choose once more,
To love you, and only you
Even if that caused me more woe than pleasure
And even if my heart still bears the scars
Of that bitter-sweet experience.

Yet if I were to love again,

I’d choose this time,
A calmer sentiment, not a burning passion,
A sweeter, more benign affection,
Whose long-lasting ardour gently warms, assuages
And whose tender care will make me age with delight.

Monday 6 October 2014


“The piano is always true to me. In times of despair, happiness, and joy, its mood is always my own.” - Bradley Joseph

Paris is a gorgeous city to visit and every time I have been there I have enjoyed it immensely. The museums, the boulevards, the cafés, the restaurants, the churches and cathedrals, the Opera, the Seine, the public buildings, the squares, the monuments, Montmartre, and of course the Parisians! There is a certain atmosphere that this city exudes and which captivates me every time. I am not the only one, of course, and few people can honestly say that they dislike Paris, no matter if they have had an unpleasant experience or two there.

I have read a book that is rather special as it manages to capture some of that Parisian air and combines it with another love of mine, the piano and its music. It is Thad Carhart’s “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank - Discovering a Forgotten Passion ina Paris Atelier”. This personal and highly unusual book is a memoir about life in Paris, music and human relationships.

Carhart recounts his accidental discovery of Desforges Pianos, a little obscure shopfront in his Paris neighbourhood that seems to want to hide its wares. He finds it extremely difficult to gain entry into the shop until an accidental introduction finally opened the door to this oddest of shops, where locals (university professors to pipe-fitters) gather on Friday evenings to discuss everything, but especially so music, love, and life over a glass of wine.

Luc, the shop owner and atelier grand master, proves to be an excellent teacher about the history of this most popular but quirkiest of instruments. A great variety of pianos passes through Luc’s loving hands for restoration: Ancient fortepianos and delicate pianofortes, even one that may have belonged to Beethoven! Erards, Pleyels, Steinways, Bösendorfers, grand pianos, box pianos and upright pianos and even the little piano “with the heart of a lion” that became Carhart’s.

The book is appealing and intimate, full of confidences related by an aficionado, a loving account of a passion for music and piano playing. I highly recommended for music lovers, for lovers of Paris and Parisians, for people with any deeply felt artistic passion, or those who need to read an engaging book even though there is no stirring story, no drama and heros, no derring-do, suspense and cliff-hanger climaxes. A charming book written by an amateur, straight from the heart!

And now that I’ve mentioned “amateur”, how often do we hear of this term used in a derogatory sense? The origin of the word is from the late 18th century, from the French, derived itself from Italian “amatore”, from Latin “amator” = ‘lover’, from amare ‘to love’. It describes a person who engages in a pursuit, on an unpaid basis, simply for the love of it. How many wonderful amateurs in various arts we have had that have achieved so much! The term is often used to mean a person who is contemptibly inept at a particular activity, but that denigrates the wonderful world of the amateur who enjoys and creates so much.

Here is Claude Debussy’s “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” (Preludes Book 1 No. 8) courtesy of YouTube!

Sunday 5 October 2014


“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” - George Sand

It’s Movie Monday and today a very witty, funny, poignant and quite robust film. It’s about one of the great love affairs of the 19th century and instead of the usual romantic and soppy cinematic excursions into this story that have been made, this film injects a dose of realism and mischief, while it does not detract from the romance of the story. The film is James Lapine’s “Impromptu” (1991).

Georges Sand was perhaps the most celebrated novelist of the early nineteenth century and one of its most notorious Bohemians, better known and more popular at the time than even Charles Dickens. Frederic Chopin was among the greatest pianists and composers of his age. “Impromptu” chronicles the meeting of George Sand and Chopin. It tells of Sand’s reckless pursuit of Chopin, of how Chopin resisted Sand’s advances and of how, despite the best and most mischievous efforts of many of those around them, they eventually fell in love and became a couple. In case you are unfamiliar with Sand, and think this is film about a homosexual couple, let me clarify the situation by saying that George Sand was the nom-de-plume of Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, Baronne Dudevant, a French noblewoman who liked to wear men’s clothes in public and who was one of the few female pipe smokers of her time. Unconventional and Bohemian, with a long string of lovers and two children, she continually shocked her contemporaries in her search for true independence and freedom.

The cast of the film is exceptional and well-chosen. Judy Davis is fantastic as George Sand, Hugh Grant makes a surprisingly good Chopin, Mandy Patinkin revels in his role as Alfred de Musset, Julian Sands is an inspired Franz Liszt, Bernadette Peters does a great job as the fertile and bitchy Marie D’ Agoult and Ralph Brown is good in his supporting role as Eugene Delacroix. The actors interact with each other in wonderful syntony and although direction is a little patchy at times, the script and cast make one forget this and one’s interest never wanders away from what is essentially an involving and amusing story.

In the film, the foibles of the rich and talentless are contrasted with the intellectual and creative brilliance of the talented but penurious. The stay at the estate of the Duke and Duchess of D’ Antan is hilarious. Sharp satire is coupled with witty dialogue and the way that the romance between Sand and Chopin unfolds takes an almost secondary role to the intellectual and emotional fireworks between Sand and two of her former lovers, who are also staying at the estate. Needless to say that Chopin’s music features prominently in the movie, and there are many touching and tender moments in it as well. Historical accuracy and attention to costumes and sets transports one into the period of Paris of the 1830s and engages one into the lives and times of the individuals portrayed.

Unlike many costume dramas, this is not an “epic” film, nor a melodramatic biopic where facts have been slaughtered on the altar of romantic expediency. If one contrasts “Impromptu” with Charles Vidor’s 1945 “A Song to Remember”, what I mean becomes obvious. The older film is a highly romanticised and hollywoodised version of Chopin and Sand’s love affair. Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand, is enough indication of the romantic interest shown in the film. While cinematically, Vidor’s film is what one would expect of Hollywood period dramas and no doubt this famous director knows his craft and has produced a highly engaging film, this biopic is essentially “world history according to Hollywood” and in the resulting glamourised and at times schmaltzy end-result, Sand’s character was the one most to suffer.

Watch “Impromptu” if you wish to have a pleasant 107 minutes, enjoying the witty dialogue, good acting, a good script and engaging cinema. Many laughs, wry chuckles and the occasional moment full of pathos are bound to please you.