Friday 6 February 2015


“Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God.” - Felix Mendelssohn

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847), born and widely known as Felix Mendelssohn, was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period. A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. Although initially he was raised without religion, he was later baptised as a Reformed Christian.

Mendelssohn was recognised early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalise on his talent. Mendelssohn enjoyed early success in Germany, where he also revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in his travels throughout Europe. He was particularly well received in Britain as a composer, conductor and soloist, and his ten visits there (during which many of his major works were premiered) form an important part of his adult career.

His essentially conservative musical tastes, however, set him apart from many of his more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz. The Leipzig Conservatoire (now the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig), which he founded, became a bastion of this anti-radical outlook. Mendelssohn wrote symphonies, concerti, oratorios, piano music and chamber music. His best-known works include his Overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the overture The Hebrides, his mature Violin Concerto, and his String Octet.

His Songs Without Words are his most famous solo piano compositions. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes and anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his creative originality has now been recognised and re-evaluated. He is now among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.

His Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, was composed in the autumn of 1825 and completed on October 15, when the composer was 16. He wrote it as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Ritz (1802-1832); it was slightly revised in 1832 before the first public performance on 30 January 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Conrad Wilson summarises much of its reception ever since: “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.”

The work comprises four movements:
Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
A typical performance of the work lasts around thirty minutes, with the first movement usually comprising roughly half of this. The scherzo, later scored for orchestra as a replacement for the minuet in the composer’s First Symphony at its premiere, is believed to have been inspired by a section of Goethe’s Faust entitled “Walpurgis Night’s Dream”. Fragments of this movement recur in the finale, as a precursor to the “cyclic” technique employed by later 19th-century composers. The entire work is also notable for its extended use of counterpoint, with the finale, in particular, beginning with an eight-part fugato. The work has been compared to Louis Spohr’s 1823 Double Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 65.

Here is Hidemi Suzuki’s Gut Salon playing this octet, with violins: Shunske Sato, Natsumi Wakamatsu, Azumi Takada, Guya Martinini; violas:Hiroshi Narita, Kouichi Komine; violoncellos: Hidemi Suzuki, Emmanuel Balssa. 

Thursday 5 February 2015


“I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead.” - Woody Allen

I must say, that I agree with Woody Allen – eating a fresh oyster au naturel is not for me. I’ve seen people doing it and it seems that they swallow it whole, immediately it enters the mouth, rather than chew and savour it. If that is the case, gobbling it down seems to be a rapid engorgement to derive nutrients rather than enjoying the sensation of chewing, tasting and enjoying a tasty morsel of food…

I first tried oysters mornay only several years ago, but they were not cooked enough and I could still feel the slimy oyster, half-cooked in my mouth. That put me off oysters again. I then tasted an oyster Kilpatrick (which was well cooked) and I actually liked it. The next stage of my adventures with the Ostreidae was when I devised my own recipe, which finally allowed me to enjoy them greatly. So here is my recipe for Oysters à la Nicolas, which we have often and savour!

1 dozen oysters, freshly shucked, in their half shell
100 g tender, rindless, lean bacon, cut into small cubes
12 tsp Worcestershire sauce
12 tbsp homemade mayonnaise (no sugar please!)
Grated parmesan cheese

Prepare a grilling tray by coating with aluminium foil, crumpling it up so that it can receive the oyster shells without them tipping over.
Wash the oysters in cold water and place each drained oyster back in its shell. Arrange the oysters on the foil on the grilling tray.
Put a teaspoonful (or a little more, depending on your taste) of Worcestershire sauce on each oyster.
Add the cubed bacon to each oyster, covering the oyster flesh.
At this stage, I always place the oysters under the grill for a few minutes until they are semi-cooked, and the bacon a little browned. Remove from grill.
Add a tablespoonful of mayonnaise to each oyster in its shell, smoothing the top out.
Sprinkle grated parmesan cheese over each oyster.
Return tray to grill and grill gently for a few minutes, until the parmesan is a golden brown colour and the mayonnaise has cooked. Watch this step carefully as it is easy to burn the whole thing up!
Serve with icy cold brut champagne. It is a remarkably filling dish and even if I am famished, I can only manage to eat 7-8 oysters and I feel sated. As an entrée, allow 3 oysters per person.

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“No one would talk much in society, if he knew how often he misunderstands others.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Communication is a thorny topic. The most eloquent, intelligent, rational and verbose amongst us may have trouble with it when trying to converse even with someone who is sitting across the table from us. How much more difficult does it become when we are limited by time constraints, the medium of the electronic message and of course, distance and language limitations! It may be become even more complicated if one is trying to be tactful, diplomatic or discreet. The written message may become less clear and more convoluted through loss of intonation, facial expression, gesture… The opportunity for misunderstandings increases a thousand-fold.

St Exupéry said: “Words are the source of misunderstandings”, and yet words are our only weapon against misunderstandings also. How do we resolve situations where our words have been misconstrued? By using more words. Resolution of communication breakdown needs simple words, honesty and a genuine sense of wanting to clear up confusion. However, the situation becomes more vexing when words simply fail us. One may talk plainly, communicating lucidly what is in one's mind, but the recipient of that information may pass the words through a personal filter that is tinged with any colour of the perceptional or emotional rainbow, and thus construe a meaning completely different to that of the originator of the message.

Context is important when we are communicating and the social and psychological environment of the communicating persons need be kept in mind also. The simple word “love” can be uttered in such a bewildering variety of contexts that it can become a quagmire of communication breakdown. We love our spouse, love our parents, our children. We love pizza, love our country, love our friends, love going on holidays. We love playing games, we can score love in tennis, we can meet the love of our life, we make love, fall in love, fall out of love. Context matters.

Communication can be made difficult purposefully. We may choose to be deceptive in what we say or write. “No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” Said Henry B. Adams. Words can be a fortress we hide in, words can be the fog that obscures our actions, words can be our defence or our offence. Words can be daggers that are thrust to maliciously wound and hurt. Words can be uttered in a facile way so that they flatter and fawn. Compliments and cajolery, blarney or sweet-talk, propaganda, can all get in the way of true communication. Rumi advises us: “Know that a word suddenly shot from the tongue is like an arrow shot from the bow. Son, that arrow won't turn back on its way; you must dam the torrent at its source.”

In the world of Blogland the failures of communication are manifold. We write our blogs, publish our blasts, show our pictures and we are the originators of messages that the world receives. Just like any other form of communication, blogging can create misunderstandings and can have consequences that range from the amusing to the dire. What we blog about and how we choose to do it can have an immense effect on other people that may be quite dramatic. What we choose to write about can heal or hurt, amuse or anger, attract or repel, inflame or influence, excite empathy or indifference. Our words can be balsam or poison.

There those amongst us who communicate with an open heart and an outstretched hand. We wish to share with others what we feel and experience, what we know and create. We honestly communicate such things so that we unite ourselves with those around the world that experience life in ways that we can recognise in fellowship. But just like in any other society, so in Blogland there are those that communicate abstrusely (whether willingly or subconsciously). There are those who mislead and deceive. Those who flatter and praise, who compliment and say the nicest things… For a while.

I speak plainly, and communicate what I feel. If I choose to write about something, I do it because I want to. If I choose to not talk about something I do so for a reason. I can only speak for myself and choose not relay others' voices or opinions. They can do that for themselves. My tact is genuine, for I do not wish to hurt anyone. If I am misconstrued, it is has not been my intention to be so. If what I say seems obscure, words are there to be used, ask for an explanation. If I can resolve misunderstandings, I will almost certainly do so.

Now, blog on!
Image above is by Isabelle Cardinal

Tuesday 3 February 2015


“True love, especially first love, can be so tumultuous and passionate that it feels like a violent journey.” - Holliday Grainger

Poetry Jam has its theme this week “journeys”. Participants are asked to think about journeys and offer a poem relating to a literal or figurative journey. Here is my offering:

The Voyage

I am readying myself for a long voyage
On an ocean of tears wept long ago.
Dry-eyed now I fashion out of the fragments of my heart
A new, sea-faring ship with sails unfurling.

I am readying all that I shall take with me
Wrapping it in a cloth woven of old sorrows -
Would any other contain loss, despair, defeat?
Would any other wrap bitterness, pain, regret?

I am readying myself for the stormy seas ahead
By burning my remembrances, tearing my maps,
Scraping my tablet’s wax, denying all that I have learnt
Effacing dearly paid for past experience.

I am readying flesh and soul that they endure
New hardships, new sufferings, new betrayals.
I take with me the same knife that wounded me before
Resigned to let it test my scars for yet new pain.

And then what if before my voyage ends,
Even as I set my eyes on distant and welcoming new shores,
What if it should come to pass
That my feeble craft fail and sink?
That would not stop me boarding it,
I am ready for the shipwreck,
For after all I have survived a shipwreck once before...


“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” - Mohandas K. Gandhi

Last week I saw a highly disturbing video on YouTube. Even in this day and age where we have become inured to the harshest of images, where we hardly bat an eyelid at the horrors that assail us every time we turn the news on, this item made me sick and I had to question our humanity, the humanity that still allowed such acts to be carried out.  The video is available on YouTube, but I do not suggest that you watch it if you are sensitive, as it quite distressing!

It is a video of the public stoning to death in Iraq of Du’a Khalil Aswad. This was a 17 year old Kurdish woman of the Yazidi faith who was brutally killed (while many watched on), for having converted to Islam to marry a Muslim boy that she had fallen in love with. Although the video taken with a mobile phone is blurry and indistinct, the barbarity of the scene is gut wrenching and the muffled cries of the victim as she is crouching and trying to protect herself against the hate surrounding her is enough to make your flesh creep. The incident sparked off reprisals by Muslims who killed many Yazidis and the violence keeps on escalating and is never ending. The full story is to be read here.

I put myself in the place of those watching on while the stoning took place and could not imagine standing by and allowing such a thing to happen. Some may say that I am a Westerner and an infidel, one who does not understand the religious law that commanded this act to occur. I am horrified as a human being - independently of religious or legal issues. As a human being I question any religious teaching that preaches death instead of life. I abhor a religion that does not allow its adherents the right to question their own beliefs, that does not allow its followers the free will to believe in it or not to. I do not support a religion that allows things like this woman’s death to occur under the circumstances that it did. I do not recognise a religion, as a religion, one that encourages hate and violence and death under any circumstances. This is a crime against humanity, something uncivilised, inhuman.

This incident brought to mind a novel that I read some time ago by the writer Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931). She is an Egyptian novelist, essayist and doctor, whose feminist works have widened the scope of the novel in the Arabic language. Nawal El Saadawi’s theme in most of her work is the oppression of women and women’s desire for self-determination and freedom of expression. Her non-fiction writing raised her to international prominence but still, her books are banned in many Arab countries. She also writes in English and is an active supporter of women’s issues and pacifism throughout the world.

The novel I am referring to is “The Fall of the Imam” (1987). Soon after its publication in Cairo, El Saadawi started to receive threats from fundamentalist religious groups. “The threat of death seemed to give my life a new importance, made it worth writing about… Nothing can defeat death like writing.” She wrote when she received these death threats. In 2004 Al Azhar in Cairo (Islamic University) banned this novel but it is widely (and illegally) available both in Arabic and in the English translation (the latter by Dr El Saadawi’s husband, Sherif Hetata).

The novel is about the confrontation of an Imam and his illegitimate daughter, Bint Allah. It is set in a fictitious, imaginary land (as thinly disguised as this is...) and is written in a beautiful poetic style whose dream-like atmosphere is disrupted by the nightmarish events it describes. The Imam is a religious leader and represents the collective male who has been empowered by God and State to subdue and rule over woman. The Imam who projects a public image of rectitude, piety, God-fearing religious feeling, is revealed through his actions and interaction with his daughter as a man with weaknesses, self-doubts and unworthy of his religious leader’s role. His daughter is the image of womanhood, resistant and blameless, and a threat to the paternalistic system that he stands for.

Here is an extract from the book that reminds me of the unfortunate young Du'a Khalil Aswad, the 17-year-old stoning victim, who in her quest for love and freedom found death instead:
“On the night of the Big Feast while the drums were beating and the pipes were blowing in celebration of victory, they came upon her body where it lay on the way leading from her house to the front, just where the hill starts to climb midway between the river and the sea. She was lying on her back and her eyes wide-open and black looked up at the sky steadfastly. Her face was still and the world was still, as though everything had stopped to look at her there where she lay. Not a hair moved on her head in the night breeze, not a tremor touched the down on edge of her nose or over her neck. Under the moon her skin which was as brown as silt had turned pure white like that of a maiden in Paradise or a mermaid rising from the sea. Nothing covered her naked body, neither robe nor blouse nor slip. Her nakedness was stark, complete, so revealing of every detail that in death it seemed to speak of sin. For what woman living or dead would go stark naked like that?”

The novel is a powerful and beautifully written castigation against the injustices that many women in fundamentalist regimes have to cope with on an everyday basis. We take too many things for granted in our society and we do not often pause to reflect on the many millions of people worldwide to whom basic human rights are denied.