Sunday, 30 May 2010

English music in an English landscape

Visiting Dorchester Abbey for the English Music Festival,
and by chance, (for I had not known they were near)
walking within sight of the Wittenham clumps,
I was offered in one day a perfect fusion of early twentieth century
 English music and painting.

Paul Nash was obsessed with these small rounded hills, 
and painted them numerous times -
this, Under the Hill, in 1912.

Wittenham Clumps was a landmark famous for miles around. 
An ancient British camp, it stood up with extraordinary prominence
 above the river at Shillingford. There were two hills, both dome-like 
and each planted with a thick clump of trees whose mass 
had a curiously symmetrical sculptured form. 
At the foot of these hills grew the dense wood of Wittenham, 
part of the early forest where the polecat still yelled in the night hours.'
'Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. 
I felt their importance long before I knew their history. 
They eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes I knew. 
This, I am certain was due almost entirely to their formal features rather than to any associative force... They were the Pyramids of my small world'. 
(extract from 'Outline' by Paul Nash, quoted in 'Paul Nash Places')

Fortified by tea and cakes in the best tea rooms in England
but in typical English May weather conditions 
(drizzle, sharp showers and a tugging, blustery wind) 
we trudged towards them, 
past quiet cottage gardens,

by wheat fields

down fragrant high-hedged footpaths 

under a circling red kite,

towards Day's Lock on the Thames.

We got soaked.

So damply wedged in our penitentially hard pews 
we listened to the City of London choir performing
Holst, Elgar, Bridge, Finz, Britten, Pearsall, Stanford and Wood. 
Paul Guinery wrote in the foreword to the programme,

'Much contemporary music is very good indeed at conveying anxiety, 
pain or hostility but far less apt at communicating 
exaltation, serenity or resignation.' 

I think we had the last three moods covered today.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful concert heralding life with 'exaltation, serenity, and resignation.' Resignation as in determination to seek grace and pursue good - the penitentially hard pews? Also I like the reference to the promontory in the surrounding countryside in photo, verse, and painting.

  2. Would love to see Wittenham Clumps, after seeing the Nash exhibition at Dulwich. Elgar is definitely the soundtrack to his paintings!

  3. There's a quality of gentle restraint and temperance to the English landscape that your pictures convey really well.
    It's mirrored in John Rutter and most 20th century British music.
    Perhaps climate has much greater play in the expression of national character than I realised.

  4. My sons were able to hear Holst's The Plantets played by the Vancouver Symphony this year. It was quite a hilight for the violinist son, but the singer-songwriter son fell asleep. Perhaps it was the rain that day...

    That is a wonderful quote about contemporary music by Paul Guinery. And I enjoyed your description and photos of your wet walk.