Mercoledi Musicale

Inspire by a Sirens’ concert just before Christmas an old Twelfth Night tradition is spoken of.

On January 6th we observed the old custom of celebrating Twelfth Night – the end of the Christmastide festivities as proclaimed at the Council of Tours in 567 CE.  A gathering of friends was held with food, wine, and the traditional Twelfth Night cake with a coin hidden in it.  In the old days it would have been a ha’penny piece but sadly they have gone the way of the sovereign and a bright shiny one pence had to do.  Our friend Alex found it – fortunately before biting into his portion.  There was no crown on hand and the evening was almost over so we fudged tradition just a bit: rather than becoming King of the Revels he was awarded our wishes for a happy and healthy 2018.  From our lips – our rather coin – to God’s ears!

Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples now.
— 19th century Sussex, Surrey

So why bring this up this late in the season?  It’s January 17th for heaven’s sake, well after Christmas and eleven days after Twelfth Night!  Ah but you see that’s the point!  If you go by the old Julian calendar which England (and her colonies I might add) did until Wednesday September 2, 1752  when everything changed by eleven days then I am spot on.  At the stroke of midnight that evening the next day became, by act of Parliament, September 14.  Up to that time the Twelfth Night after Old Christmas would have been today – January 17.

The Apple Tree Man
from Strange Lands
by Andrew L. Paciorek

In the apple growing counties of England it was the tradition to wish good health – waes hael – to the oldest tree in the orchard on the night of the Twelfth Day of Christmastide.   Each village and region had their own customs surrounding Orchard Wassailing or Apple Howling.  But common to all were the offering of toasted bread and ale or cider to the Apple Tree Man who lived in the oldest tree in the stand.  It was thought to guarantee a bountiful crop the following season.  Though the first recorded instance of the quaint ceremony appears in 1585, it possibly originated in an old Celtic custom of offering libations to the spirits that dwelt in trees and forests.

musicians-wassailPots and pans would be banged, guns fired into the air to scare away the evils spirits and goblins and often the tree would be thumped with a stout shovel to awaken the Apple Tree Man  from his winter slumber.  The toast would be hung off the branches for the robins, who were thought to be good spirits.  The roots of the tree would be liberally watered with cider from a large jug that had, of course, been passed around.  Rhymes, songs, and incantations would exhort the tree to be fruitful and multiply.  From some of the rhymes it was suggested that if the harvest was not good it was that oldest tree that would suffer the consequences.

What brought this all to mind was an arrangement Stephen Hatfield did of the traditional Apple Wassail for female chorus that we heard at a Sirens‘ concert just before Christmas.  Though it should be noted that originally women would have been excluded from the ceremony in the orchard if not the house party that often followed.  I have trouble understanding the spoken lines at the end but fortunately a bit of a search revealed this incantation:

Hatfulls, capfulls, three-bushel bagfulls
Little heaps under the stairs.
Hip hip hooray!

Unfortunately there isn’t a video of the Sirens available but here’s a excellent version by The University of Toronto Women’s Chorus recorded back in 2013.

And for good measure, in an effort to ensure a few good jugs of PEI apple cider, here’s a more “earthy” version by The Watersons, an English folk group known for their close harmony renditions of traditional British songs.  I find the sound perhaps a bit contrived in its “Mummerset” dialect but it is close to what would have been heard in Southern England on Twelfth Night.

wassail3Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
— South Hams of Devon, 1871

On this day in 1917: The United States pays Denmark $25 million for the Virgin Islands.

Lunedi Lunacy

When I need an educated (for want of a better word) laugh I often check out the BBC programme QI (Quite Interesting) on YouTube.   Now I freely admit that often the references draw a blank but the interplay is witty, erudite, and often blushingly (for my delicate North American sensibilities) earthy.  And I have learned all sorts of often useless information with which to bore my friends and family at social gatherings.  Such as: did you know that Killer Whales are memers of the dolphin family and actually are ruthless and calculating killers.  Well there you go! Now you do!

The host for the first twelve years of its broadcasting history has been that delightful “lovey” Stephen Fry.  His sidekick since the show’s inception in 2003 has been Alan Davies.  Their double act cast Fry as the all-knowing headmaster and Davies as the lovable but naughty schoolboy.

Here’s Sandi Toksvig, David Mitchell, Rob Brydon, Davies, and Fry holding forth on airline pilot accents.

There are several references in this episode that escaped me – though I finally figured out the Jordan Sandi Toksvig refers to is UK personality Katie Price and I must say Rob Brydon does a pretty good imitation.  Geordie I knew was a North Country accent  and it turns out Brummie that of Birmingham.  And apparently Fry’s Aussie accent is dead on for Melbourne.

Fry retired from the show in February of 2016 and Toksvig took over the moderator’s chair.  Davies has stayed with the show and though the dynamics have changed it is still witty, informative, and a good laugh.  One of my favourite clips is the entire panel – Bill Bailey, Jimmy Carr, Brydon, and Davies – takes the piss out of Fry as he tells us what “they say at the Acropolis where the Parthenon is ….”

On this day in 1822:  Greek War of Independence: Demetrios Ypsilantis is elected president of the legislative assembly.

Wonder Winter Land

I know those words don’t seem to be in the right order but then this winter hasn’t been very orderly either!  Now despite the surprise that most Canadians express when it appears, the season of winter is a given here in the Greatish White North.  It has been since the ice bridge brought the first peoples over 6,000 years ago (I got this figure from a Bible-based website so live with it!)  Which is why it always surprises me when people complain about weather delays when travelling – but that is another story.

A typical Charlottetown Winter Scene
This beautiful photo was taken last winter by Jared Doyle, a very talented photographer.  I’m proud to say it hangs in our entrance way.

Back to my main theme – this has been one of the strangest winters I can recall in my seven decades.  It was abnormally warm most of October and November and there was no snow until just before Christmas.  We had a white Christmas but by Boxing Day warm weather made for a slushy grey Boxing Day.  Then the “weather bomb” brought truly Arctic temperatures to most of North America for Christmastide.  Here on the Island it was -35c (-31f) with winds up to 135 km/h (85 m/h). This was followed by heavy dumps of snow as the temperatures became a sub-sub-tropical -10c (14f).  In the past few days the temperature has risen to a sub-tropical 11c (52f) and great puddles of water and brown winter lawns are more common than piles of pristine snow.  However never fear winter is returning and in some places the temperatures are predicted to plummet more than 25º within a few hours.

However  there are still moments when that well-worn cliche “a winter wonderland” does apply.  As an example yesterday pilot Paul Tymstra was flying into Charlottetown; as he came over the Abegweit Passage, the narrowest part of the Northumberland Strait, he noticed the unusual ice patterns created by the movement of ice flows passing under the Confederation Bridge. (Left click for a closer look!)

Taken from 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) over the Northumberland Strait – the black arrow points to the span of the 12,900 metre (8 mile) long Confederation Bridge at the Abegweit Passage.
                                                                         Photo by Paul Tymstra

Aside from the beauty of this photo it also gives an indication of the engineering of the 12,900 metre span.  Apparently there are ice shields on the pylons that act as cutters or as one commentator suggests “a giant bread slicer”.  Tidal movement at that narrow point can be up to 7 km/h and more if there is a strong westerly wind blowing.

It’s only a coincidence but the pattern is almost like the patchwork of fields and roads you see as you come over the Island.  Unfortunately I was unable to come across a photo that would compare the two but I’ll continue searching.

On this day in 1554: Bayinnaung, who would go on to assemble the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia, is crowned King of Burma.

Throwback Thursday

In which an video is replayed.

Several times – okay many times – in the past I have expressed my fondness for the work of the great Sir Thomas Beecham.  He was one of the musical greats of the last century – an innovator, founder of orchestras, and an early champion of music that is now part of the standard repertoire. But he also had an ear for an enchanting melody that would please his audience.

A comment I received on a video I made and posted on YouTube back in January of 2013 had me taking another look at it.  It’s such a charming piece of music and never fails to brighten my day each time I hear it.

A left click on this caricature of Sir Tommy from 1931 will take you to that post and the video. The details can be seen more clearly by click the full screen icon fullscreen_grey_192x192.jpgat the lower right of the video.


On this day in 1922: First use of insulin to treat diabetes in a human patient.

Mercoledi Musicale

One of the selections at a recent Christmas concert was a version of Ave Maria, the angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary at the Annuncition.  Several people mentioned to me that it was not the version they knew.  They were familiar with the Franz Schubert setting* of the Angelic Salutation but not the Bach-Gounod that was being presented.  Though both are beautiful I have always preferred the unlikely combination of the great Baroque composer and the French romantic.

In 1853 Charles Gounod took the opening prelude from Bach’s Das Wohltemperirte Clavier of 1722, altered it slightly and superimposed an improvised melody over it.  It was published as an instrumental piece with the title Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach.  In 1859 music publisher Jacques Léopold Heugel issued it as a vocal piece using the Ave Maria as the text.  It has since become a favourite of singers (instrumentalists) in arrangements for various instrumental combination from guitar to organ to full symphony orchestra.

Here is a version sung by Kathleen Battle with Christopher Parkening on guitar.

I thought it would be interesting to hear just the Bach prelude as it originally sounded.  It’s played here by Glenn Gould in that highly individual style that was a mark of all his playing but particularly his Bach.

And while searching around I found this rather amusing and ultimately touching version by Bobby McFerrin and the audience at a Montreal concert in 2005.

*It should be noted that Schubert’s piece was composed as part of a song cycle based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.  It is a setting Ellen’s prayer to the Virgin Mary from a German translation of this story of Scottish clans and clashes.  It was only later that it was adapted as a setting of the Latin prayer.  Like the Bach-Gounod it was never intended as a sacred piece or for liturgical use.

On this day in 1812:   The New Orleans, the first steamboat on the Ohio River or the Mississippi River arrives its namesake, New Orleans, 82 days after departing from Pittsburgh.