Saturday 2 April 2016


“The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth.” - Andrés Segovia

Sergey Rachmaninoff, in full Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (also spelled Rakhmaninov, or Rachmaninov) was born March 20 [April 1, New Style], 1873, Oneg, near Semyonovo, Russia and died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California, U.S.), was a composer who was the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism and a leading piano virtuoso of his time. He is especially known for his piano concerti and the piece for piano and orchestra titled Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934).

Rachmaninoff was born on an estate belonging to his grandparents, situated near Lake Ilmen in the Novgorod district. His father was a retired army officer and his mother the daughter of a general. The boy was destined to become an army officer until his father lost the entire family fortune through risky financial ventures and then deserted the family. Young Sergey’s cousin Aleksandr Siloti, a well-known concert pianist and conductor, sensed the boy’s abilities and suggested sending him to the noted teacher and pianist Nikolay Zverev in Moscow for his piano studies. It is to Zverev’s strict disciplinarian treatment of the boy that musical history owes one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century. For his general education and theoretical subjects in music, Sergey became a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory.

At age 19 he graduated from the conservatory, winning a gold medal for his one-act opera “Aleko” (after Aleksandr Pushkin’s poem Tsygany [“The Gypsies”]). His fame and popularity, both as composer and concert pianist, were launched by two compositions: the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor”, played for the first time in public on September 26, 1892, and his “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor”, which had its first performance in Moscow on October 27, 1901. The former piece, although it first brought Rachmaninoff to public attention, was to haunt him throughout his life—the prelude was constantly requested by his concert audiences. The concerto, his first major success, revived his hopes after a trying period of inactivity.

In his youth, Rachmaninoff was subject to emotional crises over the success or failure of his works as well as his personal relationships. Self-doubt and uncertainty carried him into deep depressions, one of the most severe of which followed the failure, on its first performance in March 1897, of his “Symphony No. 1 in D Minor”. The symphony was poorly performed, and the critics condemned it. During this period, while brooding over an unhappy love affair, he was taken to a psychiatrist, Nikolay Dahl, who is often credited with having restored the young composer’s self-confidence, thus enabling him to write the “Piano Concerto No. 2” (which is dedicated to Dahl).

At the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Rachmaninoff was a conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre. Although more of an observer than a person politically involved in the revolution, he went with his family, in November 1906, to live in Dresden. There he wrote three of his major scores: the “Symphony No. 2 in E Minor” (1907), the symphonic poem “The Isle of the Dead” (1909), and the “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor” (1909). The last was composed especially for his first concert tour of the United States, highlighting his much-acclaimed pianistic debut on November 28, 1909, with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch. “Piano Concerto No. 3” requires great virtuosity from the pianist; its last movement is a bravura section as dazzling as any ever composed. In Philadelphia and Chicago he appeared with equal success in the role of conductor, interpreting his own symphonic compositions. Of these, the “Symphony No. 2” is the most significant: it is a work of deep emotion and haunting thematic material. While touring, he was invited to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, but he declined the offer and returned to Russia in February 1910.

The one notable composition of Rachmaninoff’s second period of residence in Moscow was his choral symphony “The Bells” (1913), based on Konstantin Balmont’s Russian translation of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. This work displays considerable ingenuity in the coupling of choral and orchestral resources to produce striking imitative and textural effects.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff went into his second self-imposed exile, dividing his time between residences in Switzerland and the United States. Although for the next 25 years he spent most of his time in an English-speaking country, he never mastered its language or thoroughly acclimatised himself. With his family and a small circle of friends, he lived a rather isolated life. He missed Russia and the Russian people—the sounding board for his music, as he said. And this alienation had a devastating effect on his formerly prolific creative ability. He produced little of real originality but rewrote some of his earlier work. Indeed, he devoted himself almost entirely to concertising in the United States and Europe, a field in which he had few peers. His only substantial works from this period are the “Symphony No. 3 in A Minor” (1936), another expression of sombre, Slavic melancholy, and the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for piano and orchestra, a set of variations on a violin caprice by Niccolò Paganini. Rachmaninoff’s last major work, the “Symphonic Dances” for orchestra, was composed in 1940, about two years before his death.

Rachmaninoff’s music, although written mostly in the 20th century, remains firmly entrenched in the 19th-century musical idiom. He was, in effect, the final expression of the tradition embodied by Tchaikovsky—a melodist of Romantic dimensions still writing in an era of explosive change and experimentation. As such, his music and fame has remained in the forefront of the public’s hearts, while other “experimental” composers of his era have vanished into obscurity.

Here are his 10 Preludes for Solo Piano, Op.23 played by Nicolai Lugansky. These preludes are marvels of textural innovation, harmonic imagination, gorgeous counterpoint (Rachmaninoff's brilliance at counterpoint is really not noticed often enough), and lyricism in all its forms: Bleak, sweeping, stark, doleful, lush.

Friday 1 April 2016


“Absolutely eat dessert first. The thing that you want to do the most, do that.” - Joss Whedon

As the weather becomes more autumnal every day, our diet changes also and we indulge in slightly heavier, more substantial fare that warms and provides energy. English toffee pudding is always appropriate for this time of the year…

Toffee Pudding
60 g butter, plus extra for greasing
180 g demerara sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 large eggs
2 tbsp black treacle
220g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
200g pitted dates
300 mL boiling water
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
For the sauce
120 mL double cream 60 g butter, diced
60 g brown sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp golden syrup
Vanilla ice cream, to serve

Preheat the oven to 200˚C. Grease and flour 6 individual pudding moulds. Cream the butter and sugar together in a food processor until pale and fluffy. Add the golden syrup, treacle and eggs, a little at a time, and blend until smooth. Add the flour and blend, at a low speed, until well combined. Transfer to a bowl.
Meanwhile, blend the dates and boiling water in a food processor to a smooth purée. Stir in the bicarbonate of soda and vanilla. Pour the date mixture into the pudding batter and stir until well combined. Pour the mixture into the moulds and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the top is springy and golden-brown.
To make the sauce, heat all of the ingredients in a pan, stirring occasionally, until boiling. To serve, remove the puddings from the moulds and place onto each of 6 serving plates. Pour over the sauce and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Thursday 31 March 2016


“There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference...” – Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

rue 1 |ruː| verb (rues, rueing or ruing, rued) [ with obj. ]
Bitterly regret (something one has done or allowed to happen) and wish it undone: Ferguson will rue the day he turned down that offer | She might live to rue this impetuous decision.
noun [ mass noun ] archaic
Repentance; regret: With rue my heart is laden.
Compassion; pity: Tears of pitying rue.

This definition above is one meaning of the word rue, the other relates to the herb that the quote from “Hamlet” is referring to. Shakespeare is of course in punning mode in that quote and the herb rue lends itself well to Ophelia’s sentiments.

Ruta graveolens, commonly known as rue, common rue or herb-of-grace, is a species of Ruta in the family Rutaceae grown as an ornamental plant and as a herb. It is native to the Balkan Peninsula. It is now grown throughout the world in gardens, especially for its striking bluish leaves, and sometimes for its tolerance of hot and dry soil conditions. It is also cultivated as a medicinal herb, as a condiment, and to a lesser extent as an insect repellent.

The name Ruta is from the Greek reuo (“to set free”), because this herb is so efficacious in various diseases. It was much used by the Ancients; Hippocrates specially commended it, and it constituted a chief ingredient of the famous antidote to poison used by Mithridates. The Greeks regarded it as a remedy to magic, because it served to assuage the nervous indigestion they suffered when eating before strangers, which they attributed to witchcraft. In the Middle Ages and later, it was considered (in many parts of Europe) a powerful defence against witches, and was used in many spells. It was also thought to bestow second sight.

The stem of rue is woody in the lower part, and tender in the young shoots. The leaves are alternate, bluish-green, bi- or tripinnate, and emit a powerful, disagreeable (for most people) odour and have an exceedingly bitter, acrid and nauseous taste. I rather like the smell of rue, while my mother dislikes it intensely, and my father is quite indifferent to it.

The greenish-yellow flowers are in terminal panicles, blossoming from June to September in the Northern Hemisphere. The first flower that opens has usually ten stamens, the others eight only. In England Rue is one of the oldest garden plants, cultivated for its use medicinally, having, together with other herbs, been introduced by the Romans, but it is not found in a wild state except rarely on the hills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. This wild form is even more intense in smell than the garden rue.

The plant grows almost anywhere, but thrives best in a partially sheltered and dry situation. Propagation may be effected by seeds, sown outside, broadcast, in spring, raked in and the beds kept free from weeds, the seedlings, when about 4 cm high, being transplanted into fresh beds, allowing about 40 cm each way, as the plants become busy. Alternatively, it is easy to strike cuttings, taken in spring and inserted for a time, until well rooted, in a shady border. It is said the best cuttings to use are those stolen from a thriving plant in some stranger’s garden. However, every slip or cutting of the young wood will readily grow, and this is the most expeditious way of raising a stock. Rue will live much longer and is less liable to be injured by frost in winter when grown in a poor, dry, infertile soil rather than in good ground.

Rue does have a culinary use if used sparingly, but it is bitter and gastric discomfort may be experienced by some individuals. Although used more extensively in former times, it is not an herb that is typically found in modern cuisine, and is today largely unknown to the general public and most chefs, and unavailable in grocery stores. Rue extracts are mutagenic and hepatotoxic! Large doses can cause violent gastric pain, vomiting, systemic complications, and death. Exposure to common rue, or herbal preparations derived from it, can cause severe phytophotodermatitis, which results in burn-like blisters on the skin! One can see why most people eschew it!

Nevertheless, rue is a component of berbere, the characteristic Ethiopian spice mixture, and as such is encountered in Ethiopian cuisine. It was used extensively in ancient Near Eastern and Roman cuisine (according to Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and Apicius). Rue leaves and berries are an important part of the cuisine of Ethiopia. Rue is used as a traditional flavouring in Greece and other Mediterranean countries.

In Istria (a region in Croatia), and in Northern Italy, it is used to give a special flavour to grappa/raki and most of the time a little branch of the plant can be found in the bottle. This is called grappa alla ruta. Seeds can be used for porridge. The bitter leaf can be added to eggs, cheese, fish, or mixed with damson plums and wine to produce a meat sauce. In Italy in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the young branches of the plant are dipped in a batter, deep-fried in oil, and consumed with salt or sugar. They are also used on their own to aromatise a specific type of omelette. Rue was also used in Old World beers as a flavouring ingredient.

In the language of flowers, the rue plant stands for sorrow or repentance. Rue flowers mean grace, clear vision. At one time the holy water was sprinkled from brushes made of Rue at the ceremony usually preceding the Sunday celebration of High Mass, for which reason it is supposed it was named the Herb of Repentance and the Herb of Grace.

Rue has been used in herbal medicine from time immemorial. Pliny reported rue to be of such effect for the preservation of sight that the painters of his time used to devour a great quantity of it, and the herb is still eaten by the Italians in their salads. It was supposed to make the sight both sharp and clear, especially when the vision had become dim through over-exertion of the eyes. It was with “Euphrasy and Rue” that Adam's sight was purged by Milton’s Angel in his “Paradise Lost”.

Gerard tells us: “The garden Rue, which is better than the wild Rue for physic’s use, grows most profitably, as Dioscorides said, under a fig tree.” But this is, probably, only a reference, originally, to the fact that the plant prefers a sheltered position. Country-people boil its leaves with treacle, thus making a conserve of them. These leaves are curative of croup in poultry. It has also been employed in the diseases of cattle.

Piperno, a Neapolitan physician, in 1625, commended Rue as a specific against epilepsy and vertigo, and for the former malady, at one time, some of this herb used to be suspended round the neck of the sufferer.

Rue is strongly stimulating and antispasmodic and is often employed, in form of a warm infusion, as an emmenagogue. In excessive doses, it is an acro-narcotic poison, and on account of its emetic tendencies should not be administered immediately after eating. It forms a useful medicine in hysterical affections, in coughs, croupy affections, colic and flatulence, being a mild stomachic. The oil may be given on sugar, or in hot water.

Externally, Rue is an active irritant, being employed as a rubefacient. If bruised and applied, the leaves will ease the severe pain of sciatica. The expressed juice, in small quantities, was a noted remedy for nervous nightmare, and the fresh leaves applied to the temples are said to relieve headache. Compresses saturated with a strong decoction of the plant, when applied to the chest, have been used beneficially for chronic bronchitis. If a leaf or two be chewed, a refreshing aromatic flavour will pervade the mouth and any nervous headache, giddiness, hysterical spasm, or palpitation will be quickly relieved.

If you intend to use rue medicinally, consult a qualified herbalist as rue in high doses can be toxic!

This post is part of the Floral Friday Fotos meme,
and also part of the Friday Greens meme.

Wednesday 30 March 2016


“Cherish all your happy moments; they make a fine cushion for old age.” - Booth Tarkington

This week PoetsUnited has as its theme “Ninety”. Here is my contribution:


You turned ninety last month
And I can see it in your eyes –
Rheumy and glaucous blue
Revealing all.

The years weigh heavily on your back
And I can see it in your heavy step –
Your tottering gait
So limiting…

You turned ninety last winter
And I can see it in your hair –
White, thinned, still soft,
Like snow.

The years have not been kind to you
And I can see it in your skin –
Translucent yellow parchment,
Where all is written.

Ninety years, a thousand months and more,
And I can see it in your wrinkles –
Each tells a story, sadness mixed with laughter,
It’s been a full life.

And when you speak to me, I listen:
The voice of the last century, still strong and loud;
And when you touch me, I feel:
Your heartbeat, propelling blood we share;
And in my embrace, your frail body trembles:
Your love unchanged, still burning undiminished,
Inextinguishable, a beacon for eternity,
Deriding death…

Tuesday 29 March 2016


“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” - Theodore Roosevelt

Welcome to the Travel Tuesday meme! Join me every Tuesday and showcase your creativity in photography, painting and drawing, music, poetry, creative writing or a plain old natter about Travel!

There is only one simple rule: Link your own creative work about some aspect of travel and share it with the rest of us! Please use this meme for your creative endeavours only.

Do not use this meme to advertise your products or services as any links or comments by advertisers will be removed immediately.
The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile (Triumphal Arch of the Star) is one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle (originally named Place de l'Étoile), at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. It should not be confused with a smaller arch, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which stands west of the Louvre. The Arc de Triomphe honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.

Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. The Arc de Triomphe is the linchpin of the Axe historique (historic axis) – a sequence of monuments and grand thoroughfares on a route that runs from the courtyard of the Louvre to the Grande Arche de la Défense. The monument was designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806 and its iconographic program pits heroically nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors in chain mail. It set the tone for public monuments with triumphant patriotic messages.

The monument stands 50 metres in height, 45 m wide and 22 m deep. The large vault is 29.19 m high and 14.62 m wide. The small vault is 18.68 m high and 8.44 m wide. Its design was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus. The Arc de Triomphe is built on such a large scale that, three weeks after the Paris victory parade in 1919 (marking the end of hostilities in World War I), Charles Godefroy flew his Nieuport biplane through it, with the event captured on newsreel (see below). It was the tallest triumphal arch in existence until the completion of the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City in 1938, which is 67 metres high. The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, completed in 1982, is modelled on the Arc de Triomphe and is slightly taller at 60 m.
This post is part of the Our World Tuesday meme,
and also part of the Ruby Tuesday meme,
and also part of the Wordless Wednesday meme.

Add your own travel posts using the Linky tool below:

Monday 28 March 2016


“Hard times don't create heroes. It is during the hard times when the 'hero' within us is revealed.” - Bob Riley

Sometimes a DVD falls into one’s lap and it seems a shame not to watch it as it is a freebie and the jacket notes read wonderfully well. This was the case with a movie that we watched recently and unfortunately, I must say that sometimes freebies are worth the price one spent on them, i.e. nothing…

The movie is the 2014 Renny Harlin sword and sandal epic “The Legend of Hercules” starring Kellan Lutz, Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam McIntyre and Liam Garrigan. The writing credits (or should I say debits?) go to Sean Hood, Daniel Giat, Renny Harlin and Giulio Steve. This quartet was responsible for a puerile scenario that has little to do with Greek mythology and dialogue that is as cheesy as Swiss fondue.

The plot, if one can call it that, has as follows: King Amphitryon (Adkins), the father of Hercules despises his son since the day he was born, as he is really the son of Zeus, king of the gods and Queen Alcmene (McKee), Amphitryon’s wife. As soon as Amphitryon is able to find an excuse he sends Hercules to war, having to leave behind his true love, Princess Hebe (Weiss). King Amphitryon favours his elder son, Iphicles (Garrigan); unfortunately Iphicles is not warrior material let alone being able to lead a kingdom and win the heart of Princess Hebe. As fate would have it, Hercules survives the war and returns to reclaim his love and save the kingdom from the bad rule of King Amphitryon… A little familiar? Shades of “Gladiator”, perhaps?

The plot, thin as it is, is really an excuse for (lame) battle scenes (shown in brain-numbing slow motion) and the display of beefcake. The love story is ridiculous and the dialogue in the “tender” scenes is woeful and delivered just as badly. The mind boggles why with source material so full of fantastic possibilities, the writer quartet turned to half digested tripe in order to make this less than mediocre movie. There are so many other sword and sandal films that have done everything this film attempts to do so much better.

The acting is quite lamentable, the only actor who perhaps manages to speak lines convincingly being Liam McIntyre who plays Hercules’ bosom buddy “Sotiris” (ha ha! A modern Greek and very Christian name). Add to that terrible CGI and battle scenes where nobody bleeds or gets maimed (the film is PG13), and the whole things cries “fake” very loudly (just like the yelling of all of Adkins’ lines in every scene).

We definitely do not recommend you waste 100 minutes to watch this very bad film – if you do, the only hero will be you for having survived till the end. Disney’s animated spoof of 1997 “Hercules” is better! Or if you must have some live action Hollywood version of Greek mythology, the 2014 Brett Ratner film “Hercules” with Dwayne Johnson is OK.

Sunday 27 March 2016


“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” - Abraham Lincoln

Grant DeVolson Wood, (born February 13, 1891, near Anamosa, Iowa, U.S.—died February 12, 1942, Iowa City, Iowa), was an American painter who was one of the major exponents of Midwestern Regionalism, a movement that flourished in the United States during the 1930s. Wood was trained as a craftsman and designer as well as a painter. After spending a year (1923) at the Académie Julian in Paris, he returned to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where in 1927 he was commissioned to do a stained-glass window. Knowing little about stained glass, he went to Germany to seek craftsmen to assist him. While there he was deeply influenced by the sharply detailed paintings of various German and Flemish masters of the 16th century. Wood subsequently abandoned his Impressionist style and began to paint in the sharply detailed, realistic manner by which he is now known.

A portrait of his mother in this style, “Woman with Plants” (1929), did not attract attention, but in 1930 his “American Gothic” caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. The hard, cold realism of this painting and the honest, direct, earthy quality of its subject were unusual in American art. The work ostensibly portrays a farmer and his daughter (modelled for Wood by his dentist, B.H. McKeeby, and Wood’s own sister, Nan) in front of their farmhouse. As a telling portrait of the sober and hardworking rural dwellers of the Midwest, the painting has become one of the best-known icons of American art.

The meaning of “American Gothic” has been subjected to scrutiny since Wood painted it. Was it meant to be a homage to the strong values in the Midwest or was it a satire? Is it a husband and wife or a father and daughter? Wood’s own statements on its meaning were wishy-washy, leading to further ambiguity and debate. Open to so much interpretation, the “American Gothic” image lent itself to countless parodies in popular culture as well as in the political arena, in advertisements, in television shows such as “The Simpsons”, in albums, in comic books, on magazine covers, and by Jim Henson’s Muppets.

Wood became one of the leading figures of the Regionalist movement. Another well-known painting by him is “Daughters of Revolution” (1932), a satirical portrait of three unattractive old women who appear smugly satisfied with their American Revolutionary ancestry. In 1934 Wood was made assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. Among his other principal works are several paintings illustrating episodes from American history and a series of Midwestern rural landscapes that communicate a strong sense of American ambience by means of a skillful simplification of form.

Wood was married to Sara Sherman Maxon from 1935–38. She was considerably older and friends considered the marriage a mistake for him. Wood taught painting at the University of Iowa’s School of Art from 1934 to 1941. During that time, he supervised mural painting projects, mentored students, produced a variety of his own works, and became a key part of the University’s cultural community. It is thought that he was a closeted homosexual, and was attempted to be fired because of a relationship with his personal secretary. Critic Janet Maslin states that his friends knew him to be “homosexual and a bit facetious in his masquerade as an overall-clad farm boy.”  University administration dismissed the allegations and Wood would have returned as professor if not for his growing health problems.

On February 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday, Wood died at the university hospital of pancreatic cancer. When Wood died, his estate went to his sister, Nan Wood Graham, the woman portrayed in American Gothic. When she died in 1990, her estate, along with Wood’s personal effects and various works of art, became the property of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

Illustrated above is his “Young Corn” of 1931. This is a rolling idyllic farmland scene painted during the Great Depression, which was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place during the 1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. Perhaps it is Wood’s vision of the salvation of the nation’s economy by Americans returning to the land. However, the vision is ironic given that the Dirty Thirties soon dawned. This was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the US and Canadian prairies during the 1930s; severe drought and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion (the Aeolian processes) caused the phenomenon.

The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the high plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. Wood’s vision was a utopian dream…