Monday, October 29, 2007


John Broom

An email from Eric Thomson serves as today's post. I added a few notes at the end.

I’m delighted to see you’ve taken to Ivor Gurney. I wonder if you’ve listened to any of his music? I have an old LP - Severn and Somme – that I’ve not listened to for years. I don’t even know if the gramaphone still works.

I thought you might be interested in this Gurney-inspired nomen omen:
“Brahms has more of Autumn in him — the full coloured new ploughed earth also; rich-tinted, strongly fragrant soil unplanted. He has given us even the smell of leaves, it seems to myself at least; … Autumn is strongest in memory of all the seasons. To think of Autumn is to be smitten through most powerfully with an F sharp minor chord that stops the breath, wrings the heart with unmeasurable power. On Brahms it is so strong, this royal season; has given him much, worthily and truly translated. What! do you not know the Clarinet quintet, the Handel Variations, the C minor Symphony? And do you not smell Autumn air keen in the nostrils, touch and wonder at leaves fallen or about to fall? Have you not hastened to the woods of the F minor Quintet?”
Ivor Gurney Musical Quarterly 8 (July 1922): 319-322.
“[I]t fell to the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch to place within his first culture spanning magnum opus Geist der Utopie, an elegant characterization of Brahms as a master of the orchestra:
He does have colour: his orchestral sound has been compared not unfavourably to the North German heathland, which appears from a distance like a broad, monotonous expanse, but whose greyness, as we enter, suddenly dissolves into a myriad little blooms and specks of colour.
Behind that poetic comparison lurks an unstated pun on the composer’s origins, and even on his name. The sweet-flowering broom, planta genista, is known throughout North Germany by the dialect name Bram: from Hanover to Schleswig people bear variations of that name, usually in a possessive form ending in ‘s’ – Brams, Brahms, Brampst, and so on. In a French-speaking culture, therefore, the composer might have borne the resoundingly aristocratic name ‘de Plantagenet’, but in German ‘Brahms’ has no connotations of noble birth – rather the opposite, for it means a ‘child of the heathlands’.”
Malcolm MacDonald Brahms London: Dent 1990 pg. 3-4

From the same Musical Quarterly essay, Gurney writes intriguingly of trees and music:
“From poplars has come much: the larch has given grace to thought in many of the smaller forms. The oak has strengthened many, and in the shady chambers of the elm many have found peace. Trees are the friendliness of things, and the beech with its smooth A major trunk, its laughing E major foliage; the Scotch fir which passionate or still is always F sharp minor, cannot have been without influence on men.”
Mabey’s Beechcombings is excellent, but poorly edited. Here, transcribed to the best of my very meagre abilities, is a nice passage on grafitti (pg. 2-3):
It [The Queen’s Beech] grew up in the open unrestricted by other trees, and its long low branches trail out like the arms of a giant squid. Its trunk is vegetable hide, a mass of burrs, bosses, wounds, flutings, folds of scar tissue congealed around the points where the branches were lopped. One storey up there are mosquito pools in forks, old woodpecker holes, generations of graffiti. Some of the scratchings are in implausible positions; the higher you carve your message, the code reads, the more impressive your feelings. With my binoculars I can just make out some of the inscriptions. The names and homesick addresses of American servicemen stationed nearby during the Second World War. The linked pledges of sweethearts from the outbreak of the First. The copperplate initials of Victorian schoolboys, now stretched beyond deciphering. The letters 'S.A.' many times. A heart. A rose. Not really tree abuse, as it’s so often reckoned, nor always a compulsion to leave one’s mark on the world. More, I think, the result of the world's leaving a mark on you. No one encounters trees like this without some kind of converstion taking place, an exchange that deserves a momento. Beech-scribbling goes back to classical times, and has its own Latin epigram: Crescent illae, crescit amores. 'As these letters grow so will our love.'
Not an epigram; not crescit but crescetis; and the antecedent of illae is 'arboribus', but perhaps we should be grateful that anyone these days can be bothered to quote any Latin at all.

I liked the still-lifes you posted, and tried in vain to make out the titles of the books. 'Companions', with its extinguished pipe and rather funerary-looking smoking urn, seems a benign variation on the vanitas-studium theme. In fact it rather undercuts it.

I think I’ll have to disinter the gramaphone and the pipe and see if they both still work.

Gurney's essay in the Musical Quarterly can be found here. The Latin quoted by Mabey comes from Vergil, Eclogues 10.54. Here is an illustration of broom from Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich, und der Schweiz (Gera, 1885):

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