Mercoledi Musicale

Trouthe – Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400) An anonymous painting from the early 17th century.

Yesterday’s final entry on the Golden Age of Mardi Gras included a reference to a short poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is one of his minor works and appears to have been sent to Sir Philip de la Vache, the son of a friend of his. Sir Philip was a well-placed and influential courtier during the reign of Richard II.  For a brief period between 1386 and 1389 he was out of favour and had lost his positions at court. It is thought that Chaucer wrote this homiletic ballad to encourage and comfort him.

And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede

It follows the seven-line ballade tradition six lines  with a refrain and includes an “Envoi” or address to the receiver – in this case Sir Philip.  Unusually the rhyme scheme is ABABBCC. There are several versions of the ballad including earlier ones without the “Envoi” stanza.

I had thought to post it in the original Middle English however that would be too pedantic even for me. So here it is in a translation by A. S. Kline from Poetry in Translation (PIT).

a ballad of good counsel
to Sir Philip de la Vache

Flee from the crowd, and dwell with truthfulness,
Let your thing suffice, though it be small;
Hoarding brings hatred, climbing fickleness,
Praise brings envy, and wealth blinds overall;
Savour no more than ‘tis good that you recall;
Rule well yourself, who others advise here;
And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.

Trouble you not the crooked to redress,
Trusting in her who wobbles like a ball.
Well-being rests on scorning busyness;
Beware therefore of kicking at an awl;
Strive not like the crockery with the wall.
Control yourself, who would control your peer;
And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.

That which is sent, receive in humbleness,
Wrestling for this world asks but a fall.
Here’s not your home, here is but wilderness.
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beast, out of your stall!
Know your country: look up, thank God for all;
Hold the high way, and let your spirit steer,
And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.


Therefore, La Vache, cease your old wretchedness;
To the world cease now to be in thrall;
Cry Him mercy, that out of his high goodness
Made thee from naught, on Him especially call,
Draw unto Him, and pray in general
For yourself, and others, for heavenly cheer;
And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.

But given this is Mercoledi (Wednesday) and I normally post something musical I thought the music of Chaucer’s language would suffice.

On this day in 1852: Great Ormond St Hospital for Sick Children, the first hospital in England to provide in-patient beds specifically for children, is founded in London.

Mercoledi Musicale

In which an old fart moans about those youngsters today.

A recent posting on the CBC addressed the number of singers who seem to be developing vocal problems these days – Adele, Celine Dion, Michael Bublé et al.  It went on at length about the trials of touring, two shows a day, and audience expectations based on recordings.  Looking at that list I saw nothing that singers have not had to deal with in the past.  One thing that was not mentioned was sound engineering that gives the balance of sound to the instruments.  Nor the David Foster inspired arrangements that required a singer to start forte and end at fortississimo.   It’s a bit like bad sex – if you start with a climax where the hell do you go from there?

And something I’ve noticed in musicals recently:  despite the presence of those wireless mini-mics that are taped to widow’s peaks and ear lobes often the lyrics are unintelligible.  Last year we saw a production of The Threepenny Opera  at the National Theatre in London in a specially commissioned translation.  They should have avoided the expense for all that could be understood of the lyrics even with the body mics.  Only one of the performers who was intelligible – not a good thing in Brecht-Weill.

Now lest you think I am being an old curmudgeon – well fine I am but .. – I have two videos of singers who have the technique to sell a song without resorting to shouting to indicate emotion, who make every word count, and who were able to withstand the touring, do two or three shows a night, and meet their audiences expectations.

And here’s Mel Tormé showing how to set a mood and deliver a song without destroying your vocal cords.  And just for the fun of it as a coda June Christy chirping, Mel drumming and Nat King Cole jamming.

It was surprised and sad to read in the article that Sophie Milman, a singer I have admired since hearing her back in 2015, has developed trouble.  But she admits that she hasn’t learned how to husband and manage her voice.  It would seem to be a skill set that is lacking in vocal training today.

On this day in 1747: The first venereal diseases clinic opens at London Lock Hospital.



Mercoledi Musicale

I wasn’t sure what category this post was going to fit into.  It’s music but today is Thursday (though I suppose it could be Mardi Musicale for alliteration); it’s Robbie Burns Day which to some is a Feast and Festival; and for some reason I thought I had posted this video previously so there was a chance it was a Throwback Thursday.  Well a search indicates that the video that I made back in April of 2015 was never posted so it can’t be a Throwback.  Since Laurent will be consuming a dram of scotch (no rubbish Dr. Spo)  in honour of the poet tonight it qualifies as a Festival. And again it definitely is musicale of the highest order.

In previous posts I have mentioned the efforts of George Thomson to published folk songs from the British Isles in a form that would be appropriate for “respectable” drawings rooms of the early 1800s.  He had collected melodies and lyrics from Scottish, Irish and Welsh sources including some 25 that he had received from Robbie Burns. He ordered adaptions – mostly for the popular combination of piano, violin and violincello – from  Joseph Haydn, Leopold Kozeluch, Ignaz Pleyel and Beethoven. All in all 150 song adaptations by Beethoven of Irish, Welsh and Scottish songs have been preserved.

Beethoven’s settings of Scottish Folk Songs was published in Berlin in 1822 with lyrics translated into German.

In 1818 Thomson published Beethoven’s op 108 Scottish Songs (Schottische Lieder) which contained twenty-five melodies that the composer had adapted – remarking that this was a less pleasant work for an artist but surely a good work for business.  He was to arrange 175 pieces for Thomson based on folk melodies that had been collected from various sources throughout Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  One hundred and fifty of them were published in various anthologies – twenty-five were left unpublished.  Amongst the 1818 songs was Faithfu’ Johnnie with lyrics attributed to “Mrs. Grant”, and it is presumed that is Anne Grant of Laggan* who both collected from and wrote poetry inspired by the Highlands.  The melody is of an unknown origin and in several music books is simply listed as “old Scottish melody”.

Here is that “old Scottish melody” with lyrics by Mrs Grant in an arrangement by Ludwig von Beethoven sung by the great Janet Baker accompanied by Yehudi Menuhin (violin), George Malcolm (piano), and Ross Pople (cello).  Not a bad pedigree for a folksong!

When will you come again, my faithful Johnny
When will you come again, my faithful Johnny
When the corn is gathered, when the leaves are withered
I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again

Then winter winds will blow, my faithful Johnny
Then winter winds will blow, my faithful Johnny
Though the day be dark with drift that I cannot see the lift§
I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again

Then will you meet me here, my faithful Johnny
Then will you meet me here, my faithful Johnny
Though the night be Hallowe’en when the fearful sights are seen
I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again

§ An old dialect word meaning “sky”.

So to all my friends who are celebrating Burns Night and to all of you who aren’t but wish you were and just to all of you I wish:

Sláinte Mhath! – Good Health!

*Anne Grant is a fascinating woman and her short biography on Wikipedia is worth the click.

On this day in 1858: The Wedding March by Felix Mendelssohn is played at the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Victoria, and Friedrich of Prussia, and becomes a popular wedding processional.



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.

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.