Mercoledi Musicale

Bohuslav Martinů was one of those composers I had heard about but never really paid too much attention to until the past five or six years.  I always figured his music would be too “modern” for me.  It wasn’t until I attend a performance of his The Greek Passion in Palermo that I began to understand him as a composer.  I came out of the Teatro Massimo that Sunday afternoon with tears streaming down my face, a complete and utter emotional wreck.  He had touched an emotional well and has continued to do so as I’ve explored his work.

Granted most of my exploration has centred around his vocal works – particularly The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hry o Marii (The Plays of Mary) I’ve started to listen to his symphonic and some of his chamber works.   Yes Martinů  broke with the romantic tradition but like Smetena, Dvořák, and Janáček is strongly influenced by the folk melodies of his Czech heritage.  And unlike many modern composers he writes vocal music to a language – it’s cadences, subtleties and rhythms.

First English edition
(publ. Bruno Cassirer)

The story of the opera is based on Nikos Kazantzakis‘s Christ Recrucified, a powerful novel that caused a stir when it was published in 1954.  It paints a painful and unflattering picture of the people of a Greek village, who turn away refugees from another village.  Their fear and bigotry is fuelled by the Church and their Politicians who incite them to murder a young shepherd who had been chosen to play Christ in their Easter Passion Play the following year.  His actions had become too Christlike and his association with the refugees threatening, particularly to their local priest.  The opera ends on Christmas Eve with his murder by the villager who was to play Judas.  As the bells ring and the Kyrie is sung by the devout villagers the refugees, lead by their priest Fotis, leave still searching for a place and people that will welcome them.

The final scene from that moving performance I saw in Palermo is available on YouTube but sadly not for embedding.  A left click will take you to the video – the quality is not the finest but it will give an idea of the performance that moved me so much and stays with me to this day.

“Toward midnight the bell began ringing, calling the Christians to the church to see Christ born. One by one the doors opened and the Christians hastened toward the church, shivering with cold. The night was calm, icy, starless.”

“Priest Fotis listened to the bell pealing gaily, announcing that Christ was coming down on earth to save the world. He shook his head and heaved a sigh: In vain, my Christ, in vain, he muttered; two thousand years have gone by and men crucify You still. When will You be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity.”

On this day in 1803: Thousands of meteor fragments fall from the skies of L’Aigle, France; the event convinces European scientists that meteors exist.

Beasts of Battle

In the famous Charge of the Light Brigade it is estimated that the British lost over 335 horses and that during the 1914-18 War on the Belgian Front alone 800,000 horses were killed. And a conservative figure lists 40,000 war dogs used by the Allied Forces died in that same conflict which ended in a stalemate and an Armistice. The totals for other campaigns are as staggering for animals that served as mounts, war machines, carriers and vehicles of communications.

And given that the British are known for their animal rights activism I am frankly surprised that it has taken so long for a monument to be erected remembering the animals that died in various armed campaigns throughout the ages. In a city overwhelmed with monuments in prominent locations to long forgotten heroes (?) of often long forgotten wars it is a shame that this lovely tribute to those who did not have “ a choice” is lost in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. I happened upon it as I was leaving Hyde Park near Speakers’ Corner to cross Park Lane and return to the hotel.

The monument was created by sculptor David Backhouse and dedicated in November 2004 by the Princess Royal in the presence of a goodly number of people who had contributed to its creation including Dame Vera Lynn. When I passed it on Friday there were still wreaths strewn around the base from last November 11th commemorations from various animal societies and individuals as well as a few more recent tributes.

The four bronze figures parade through a crevice in a stone wall lead by a cavalry horse. the rear of the procession being brought up by, it seems to me, a sad and rather reluctant mule carrying munitions. I do find it strange that in this procession the dog cannot be viewed through the crevice in line with the other animals – though that may just be my prejudice in favour of canines speaking.

Though the dog in question does appear to be looking back and urging on the ghost image of his fellows incised into the back wall – the elephants, camels, goats, horses and birds used in the various battles that Britain has fought through the centuries and throughout the world. In a rather strange oversight though a flight of carrier pigeons are included the caged wrens that were used to test for the presence of poisoned air during the Great War are missing.

But the mere fact that this tribute exists is a wonder and the fact that while I was photographing it a good number of people stopped to look at it. There was one trio of young trendy types who ended up spending as much time as I did looking at it and an overheard comment suggested it had made them stop and reflect in a way that other monuments to forgotten battles had not.

Perhaps it is my own fondness for animals but I found it a touching and emotionally moving tribute to creatures that went into battle because “They had no choice.”

23 febbraio – San Policarpo