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Friday, 31 January 2014

Macbeth

Macbeth or, in Gaelic, Mac Bethad, was King of Alba (Scotland) from 1040 to 1057 so he died almost a thousand years ago. Although this post is about William Shakespeare's play it is important to know that (1) Macbeth was a real person and (2) the play is, historically, very inaccurate.
Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth


A brief description of the background to this play is important and relevant. King James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland when the two nations were united in 1603 and William Shakespeare's company of players wisely became known as The King's Men instead of the The Queen's Men. They depended upon a certain amount of Royal patronage so when Macbeth was written, probably in 1606, it was natural that he wanted to please the new King.
James was known to have been a believer in Witchcraft and had actually written a book on the subject. Our William was rather clever in making the witches central to the Macbeth's tragedy. You are probably aware of the famous opening scene with the three witches. Click here to view that opening scene. The witches occur at intervals throughout the play.
Here is a brief synopsis of the plot: At the outset of the play Macbeth and Banquo are shown as heroic generals who have bravely helped Scotland defeat two invading armies. When the witches predict that Macbeth will be King he is sceptical until the King promotes him to a high rank (Thane of Cawdor) so he begins to believe the prediction. The themes that develop are deception and the destructive power of unchecked ambition (through hallucinations and 'blood'). When King Duncan comes to stay at Macbeth's castle in Inverness Lady Macbeth (the original femme fatale?) persuades him to murder the King, which he does. He then decides that his friend Banquo is a rival so he kills him too.
However, at a feast hosted by the newly-crowned Macbeths, Banquo's ghost appears at the dinner table and Macbeth begins to loose his mind. He is eventually killed by MacDuff, whose family Macbeth has also had murdered.
Shakespeare's genius shows in his psychological insight (before psychology existed!) such as this scene where, on his way to murder King Duncan, Macbeth hallucinates about a dagger, "Is this a dagger I see before me?", brilliantly played by Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard of Star Trek if you prefer). This speech is a superb example of Shakespeare's craft and, in this clip, I especially love the menace evoked by the wonderful background music that hovers behind Macbeth's soliloquy.
It is often not appreciated how much the English language owes to the creations of William Shakespeare. Here are just a few quotes that originated in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

"Fair is foul and foul is fair"
   - The witches indicating that all is not as it seems in life.
"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it"
   - Malcolm's description of Macbeth's slaying of the traitor Macdonwald.
"Yet I do fear thy nature; it is too full of the milk of human kindness"
  - Lady Macbeth fearing that her husband isn't evil enough!
"Double,double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble."
And
"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."
   - The witches awaiting the arrival of Macbeth.
"Out damned spot!, out I say!"
  - Lady Macbeth referring to blood on her clothing, while she is sleep-walking.
"She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day 
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
And then is heard no more: it is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
  - Macbeth on hearing of the death of his wife.
Macbeth: "If we should fail?"
Lady Macbeth: "We fail.But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we'll not fail."

Finally, my favourite part of the play (and there are many contenders) is this:
Macbeth has asked the witches if all of their predictions will come true, will no-one defeat him? and they tell him:
"Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Burnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him."and
"No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth." 
Burham Wood is a small forest about five miles from Dunsinane Hill where Macbeth's castle is situated.
Naturally Macbeth is pleased to hear this declaring that his overthrow "can never be"
However when an English army of 10,000 men advances on Macbeth in support of the legitimate Scottish King, their general tells them to cut branches from the trees in the wood to camouflage themselves.
So, when a servant informs Macbeth that Burnham Wood is advancing on the castle, Macbeth becomes even more unhinged (well, wouldn't you?)
And at the end of the play when Macbeth is fighting MacDuff, he still believes himself to be invincible because "no man of woman born" can harm him.
But he is then in informed by MacDuff that he was "ripped from his mother's womb" (ie: came into the world by Caesarean section).....oops!
MacDuff kills Macbeth

If you would like to see a BBC production of the play click here


Thursday, 23 January 2014

My Heroes (38): Django Reinhardt

It's been too long since I posted a new item in the self-indulgent My Hero series. But if one can't be self-indulgent on one's own Blog, then where?
Jean "Django" Reinhardt 1910-1953
Django Reinhardt led a colourful and romantic life. He was born in Belgium into a Romani (Gypsy) family and remained immersed in that culture all of his life. His father had changed the family name on his birth certificate from Weiss in order to avoid military conscription
He is regarded as the first European musician to make an important contribution to the world of jazz music. He formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France with the violinist Stephan Grapelli in 1934 and is considered to have been one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived.
Amazingly two of the fingers of his left hand were paralysed after a fire in the caravan he shared with his then wife at the age of 18! He re-learned his playing technique after the injury and was able to make use of those fingers in chord playing but not in solos thereafter.
I always find joy listening to his music; its so full of energy and the deceptively casual playing could only be the work of an absolute master.
Django was greatly influenced by American jazz records that he heard and referred to Louis Armstrong as "my brother". He was also one of the first people in France to recognise the brilliance of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie.
He died of a brain haemorrhage at the early age of 43. 
I have a link to a great selection of his music below: Enjoy!
The Quintette du Hot Club de France
In this line up they were unsual in being an all-strings jazz band
Click here for Bouncin' Around
Click here for Minor Swing
Click here for Body And Soul

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Pam Ayers, writer of comic verse

Pam Ayers is a quintessentially English writer of comic verse who, because she speaks with a lovely Oxfordshire accent and is sometimes thought of as a 'corny' comedienne is, to my mind, often under-rated. But I think that she is a gifted writer of comic verse. I don't know if she is much known outside of the UK which would be a pity. Here is one of her typical verses. You can hear her reading one of her poems in the link at the end of this post. I recommend it.

I'M GOING TO KILL MY HUSBAND  by Pam Ayres

I am going to kill my husband, I have stuck all I can stick,
His constant criticising is getting on my wick.
He takes it all for granted, but tonight I can relax,
For the minute he complains, I shall whop him with the axe.

Yes, I’m going to kill my husband, I shall have him to be sure,
He’s never going to curse my navigation any more.
I drive him to distraction when I read a map, I know,
But tonight I’m going to drive him where he didn’t plan to go.

So when he starts haranguing me till I’m a nervous wreck,
Shouts and spits and rages till the veins swell in his neck.
As he grabs the map from me there’ll be no turning back,
I will calmly reach behind me and I’ll whop him with the jack.

I mean, he gets a cold and I’m supposed to sympathise,
And his sneezes shake the rafters and tears roll from his eyes.
He looks so woebegone, just like the back end of a bus,
And yet when I am ill he’ll tell me not to make a fuss.

It’s true, he’s got to go, you may not think I’ve got the right,
But he snores you see and I should know, I’m with him every night.
With a horrifying steady rhythm, whistle, snore and snort,
Well tonight he’s going to stay asleep for longer than he thought.

“Your honour, I confess, that with a satisfying thwack,
I hit him with the frying pan from seven paces back.”
The weapon was examined by the jury good and true,
It was all made up of women, and they all said,”After you!”

Click here for a wonderful, hilarious reading by Pam Ayres



Saturday, 11 January 2014

Painting of the Month (41) January 2014: Gericault

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault 1791-1824
(Completed 1819, oil on canvas, approx 16 x 23 feet) 



This painting is possibly more interesting for it's non-art elements than for the art work itself. In 1818 Théodore Géricault was a young man trying to build an artistic reputation but the innovation of this work is that it depicted a recent, true event.

'History painting' is a genre in art that was dominant from the sixteenth century. It was intended to have moral or didactic overtones and usually depicted stories from the Bible, mythology or literature. It was only history in the sense of having a story or narrative and usually depicts a certain single point from that narrative. These paintings were often very large and this one is on a larger-than-life scale. It was viewed as the most important genre at that time and seen as the pinnacle of an artist's career.

In 1816 the French frigate Méduse ran aground off the coast of Senegal. The story that followed was one of 15 survivors left on a hurriedly constructed raft after 13 days at sea experiencing starvation, dehydration and....cannibalism. There was political outrage because an inexperienced captain had been appointed through his good connections rather than his skill.

Géricault had conducted extensive research before starting to paint and had visited morgues to get the decaying flesh tones right. His scheme worked and the controversial first showing of this painting in Paris catapulted him to fame and it was soon shown in London with similar success. It greatly divided the critics some of whom did not want to be 'repelled' by a 'heap of bodies' and thought that this could not be art.

On the other hand he was praised (by others) for showing a negro at the focal point of the picture. The triangular composition raising upwards to the right indicating the hopes of the survivors as a distant ship is seen on the horizon. The ship didn't see them and passed by. I think I can just make out a tiny point on the horizon. Earlier studies for the painting do clearly show a large vessel .
There were ten survivors from the Méduse. Géricault died five years later at the young age of 32. His painting lives on as an icon of French Romanticism. 
You can just about see the ship on the horizon in this detail.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Phil Everly 1939-2014

The death last night of Phil Everly, the younger of the Everly Brothers duo, truly is the end of an era. The importance of their influence on the world of popular music is impossible to overstate. Pop, rock, folk and country music in general owe a huge debt to them and The Beach Boys and The Beatles in particular have both acknowledged the inspiration they received.
Phil Everly: Born January 19th 1939, died January 3rd 2014
Linda Ronstadt, said: "They had that sibling sound. The information of your DNA is carried in your voice, and you can get a sound with family that you never get with someone who's not blood-related to you. And they were both such good singers -- they were one of the foundations, one of the cornerstones of the new rock 'n' roll sound."
They had such perfect close harmony that their live performances were a delight. I saw them on stage several times, most notably their 'Reunion Concert' at The Royal Albert Hall in London in 1983. I was the only person in the audience whom I had never heard of; talk about star-studded! They retained their popularity much longer in the UK than in the USA and were frequent visitors here.
They spent their early years growing up in Shenandoah, Iowa where their parents had a musical show on the radio so Don and Phil started to learn their craft from an early age.
There are some relevant links at the end of this post.
The Everly Brothers with Buddy Holly
Their many hits include:
Bye Bye Love; All I Have to Do Is Dream; Wake Up Little Susie; Poor Jenny; Take a Message to Mary; Bird Dog;  When Will I be Loved; 'Til I Kissed You; Let It Be Me; Like Strangers; Cathy's Clown; So It Was, So It Is, So It Always Will Be; So Sad/Lucille; Walk Right Back; That's Old-Fashioned; Ebony Eyes; Temptation; Don't Blame Me; Crying In The Rain; The Price of Love; No One Can Make My Sunshine Smile; On the Wings of a Nightingale. There are many more.....
Of course our loss is as nothing compared to that of Phil's family and friends. His brother Don was reported as being unable to speak about it. Although they had a famous ten-year split, Phil once said that they were closer than most brothers are. Their lack of ego and show-biz behaviour coupled with their homely charm says a lot about them.
Don and Phil.....thank you.