Bach and me

Bach200I’ve been learning Bach’s Goldberg Variations recently. I know that sounds absurd. It’s the piano music Glenn Gould dazzled the music world with in 1955 and it’s famous for its technical and interpretive challenges. If you didn’t have the chops or the months or maybe years to commit, you’d have to be nuts to even try.

I’ve sight-read them over the years, learning 4 or 5 to performance level, but thought it would be too much effort to learn them all. Then I thought, well why not? At least I could say I gave it a shot.

Of course, not all the variations are finger-breakers. As well as the evocative aria and final recapitulation, there are quite a few simple, relatively non-contrapuntal bits that let you focus for a while on interpretation rather than technique.

The difficulties arise from the fact that Bach wrote them not for the piano —  which had only just been invented — but for the two-manual harpsichord. In fact he identifies which variations should be played on one keyboard and which on two.

The ones played on two have parts where the hands overlap. The right hand, normally playing alone at the top of the keyboard, suddenly heads south towards the bass clef and the left hand, normally playing alone on the other keyboard, heads north. It’s not a problem when you’re playing on a two keyboard harpsichord. But on the single keyboard of the piano the fingers can get hopelessly entangled. It’s a bit like ten people all playing hopscotch on the same patch of sidewalk at the same time. They have to land on a different square one after the other in perfect synchronicity.

This bit of fingered choreography requires a huge amount of practice and decisions have to be made about whether right should go over left or vice versa. Be assured, if you’ve heard a performance of the Goldbergs played well, the pianist had to play certain bars in the fast movements thousands of times to get them right.

One of the reasons I love them is because they were sort of Bach’s neglected step-child. They lay gathering dust for a couple of centuries, relegated to a pedagogic limbo. Then along came Gould who discovered there was gold buried in them thar Goldbergs. He dug out the nuggets, then hammered and burnished them into a string of glowing pendants.

To me they’re a microcosm of Bach’s biography. Neglected after his death, it wasn’t until the young Mendelsohn conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that musicians started to take him seriously. Since then, and certainly at this moment, there isn’t a single second where Bach isn’t being performed somewhere in the world.

Part of this is a result of his almost incomprensibly huge output. Hänssler Classics put out a collection of CD’s a few years ago of his complete works — 155 disks. If you do the math it means if you put the first disk in your player on a Sunday and play them one after the other, you wouldn’t take out the last one until the following Sunday. And the amazing thing is that nearly every minute of it is worth hearing. Much of it is truly great music.

The other daunting aspect of this is that Bach probably wrote the Goldbergs in less time than it’s going to take me (or anyone else) to learn to play them.

I’d better get busy.

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy (Book review)

The AnatomistI finished reading Oliver Sacks new book On The Move: A Life this week and towards the end he writes about his late-blossoming relationship with Bill Hayes, author of The Anatomist. It reminded me that I’d written a review of it for the CMAJ. You can see why they might be drawn to one another — medicine, writing, San Francisco… 

Pity Bill Hayes, writer of the new biography of Henry Gray (The Anatomist, Ballantyne Books) the British surgeon who gave the world Gray’s Anatomy. A fitness buff,  magazine freelancer and writer of two popular medical books, Hayes noticed there had never been a biography of the writer of the world’s most famous anatomy textbook. He must have thought he heard the knock of opportunity tapping out ‘bestseller’ on his laptop. But after a few library enquiries and search engine marathons it became apparent why the book had never been written: the good doctor had left a very cold trail. There was about as much personal detail about him in the archives as there was about the anonymous cadavers laid out on the pages of his textbook.

While a few photographs of Gray survive, nearly all of his papers were lost in a fire that destroyed his publisher’s archives the year he died and a mere handful of published scientific papers grace the shelves of medical libraries. Worse, he lived a tragically short life. He died at 34 of smallpox after treating his 10-year-old nephew for the disease, meaning a potentially interesting life swept along on a wave of early fame wasn’t available to be written about.

What to do? Faced with same dilemma that bedevils biographers of Shakespeare, Hayes resorts to similar strategies to plug the gaps: he mixes personal experience with imaginative fantasies of what his subject’s life might have been like in the social and scientific context of his time — mid-19th century England.

Starting with an examination of a photograph showing Gray surrounded by his students in the pathology lab, Hayes moves quickly to its contemporary equivalent. In San Francisco he signs up for a course in anatomy at the University of California, joining medical students in performing dissections and prosections.  Much of the book is a first-person account of Hayes’ experiences in the dissection lab and his reactions mirror that of Western civilization’s conflicted relationship with post-mortem examination since Leonardo da Vinci first started hauling bodies out of the Arno. Fear is his initial reaction, then revulsion, curiosity and finally amazement and delight. In his final days at the lab he is almost gleeful as he peels back the skin and rattles off the names of the muscles attaching to the pes anserinus.

Hayes then goes to England, where he takes us along on research expeditions to Gray’s home, St. George’s Hospital in London (now a luxury hotel) and a small museum dedicated to his work.

If this were the extent of the story, this small volume might exude the faint odor of formaldehyde. Fortunately, Hayes finds another way to enliven and expand it. Gray’s Anatomy is not the product of one mind, but two. Henry Gray wrote the text. Another Henry, artist/surgeon Henry Vandyke Carter, did the woodcut illustrations. And when Dr. Carter wasn’t engraving woodblocks or wielding a scalpel in the pathology lab, he kept a diary. Little of it was about the writing and illustration of the book but it does provide a glimpse into the life of a young doctor at the school where Gray taught and insight into Victorian medical education. It also shines a light into the soul of an introspective, deeply religious young man, struggling to find a direction for his life and career.

In many ways it’s the most interesting part. As Hayes points out, ”The sprawling paper trail left behind by H.V. Carter would lead me… into the troubled heart of a gifted man of science.” It’s easy to forget in a secular age that 150 years ago the best science was being carried out by researchers who held strongly to the traditions of mainstream Christianity. Confronted, as Carter was, with the wondrous mechanics of the human body, he struggled to find a philosophy that reconciled scientific practicality with religious belief.

His relationship with Gray was far less burdensome than the one with God.  As a student four years behind the gifted, fast-tracked Gray, he expressed an admiration that verged on awe. By the time Gray was twenty he was already the equivalent of an MD, by twenty-five, a Fellow of the Royal Society and head of the anatomy museum. In a burst of intense activity that lasted a year and a half these two young men produced the magnificent volume that turned  the interior of the human body into a work of art and the learning of its parts into a pleasurable ordeal. It became the standard reference manual for generations of medical students. The irony is that Henry Gray whose name is forever identified with it, is a near total mystery. The artist, Henry Carter, whose name is all but forgotten, left a fleeting but penetrating sketch for us to remember him by.

Ron Bolt, artist

For the past little while I’ve been co-chair of the Art Committee at the Arts and Letters Club here in Toronto. This month there’s a one-man show by Ron Bolt, a renowned landscape painter and print-maker. If you want to see the show, call me and we can do a walk through. At the opening night dinner I introduced him with the following:


Evening Surf by Ron Bolt
Evening Surf by Ron Bolt

I want to begin this introduction with a quote from Alain de Botton, a British author who writes about the modern world. It expresses today’s conventional wisdom. I’ve changed the tense but it goes something like this,

“But then came a transformation to which we are still the heirs…. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime has ceased to be nature. We are now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe can most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We are now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.” Amazed by ourselves…

I think Ron Bolt might disagree with that sentiment and looking around this exhibition I see a powerful rebuke to that notion.

You’ll notice that there are few human figures in his work. Ron doesn’t seem to be terribly amazed by modern humanity or in the thrall of technology. What he is amazed by is the gift of the natural world. He will take a patch of Canadian wilderness or rugged shoreline and transform it into something akin to a religious icon — an exquisitely constructed object that mainlines the viewer right to the emotional core of its subject matter.

There’s a lot of discussion these days about ‘mindfulness’, about heightening one’s awareness of the world around us. Ron Bolt does that and more. He directs our attention to the sacred places on our planet and hopes that our attention will not only give us aesthetic and spiritual sustenance but perhaps help to protect these places from exploitation.

I won’t list the scores of awards and honours he has received over the years. I’ll just mention that this is just one of 100 one-man shows he has had in a 50 year career. His paintings, prints and limited edition books are in the collections of public galleries and libraries across Canada. He has collaborated on books with some of the finest writers in the country. And he has played a prominent role in the development of a positive work environment for Canadian visual artists, serving as president both of the Royal Academy of the Arts and the Society of Canadian Artists, among other roles.

And just as a by the way, he’s also a fine pianist and, for an artist, an exceptionally modest person. I asked him at lunch on Friday whether he still played. He said, ‘Yes, once in a while. I’ll fumble my way through something.’ Then, before people showed up for the Sunday Opening he sat down at the Steinway and gave a note-perfect rendition of some very difficult Albeniz.

The fact that he can make the very difficult look easy doesn’t mean that he is amazed by himself. Far from it. He works hard to produce works that are brilliantly crafted, unmistakably his own and that connect us to the miraculous beauty of our planet. It’s left to us to be amazed…. Please welcome Ron Bolt.

The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Book Review)

by Alan King

British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper seems to have had a lifelong fascination with fakes and fraudsters. The first book of his to reach beyond an academic readership was his 1976 exposé of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the turn-of-the-century sinologist who was regarded as an expert on the Chinese Empress Dowager and her court. Trevor-Roper revealed that the court diary Backhouse relied on was actually a forged document. A well-written, fascinating chronicle. Unfortunately, hardly a word of it was true.

The posthumous publication of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence with Bernard Berenson shone a light on his relationship with the famous scholar/entrepreneur who made a fortune authenticating, then selling Renaissance paintings to rich Americans. A number of those paintings were later found to be wrongly attributed but coincidentally boosted the commissions for Berenson who worked with the dealer, Joseph Duveen. Trevor-Roper could hardly have been unaware of Berenson’s unsavory record.

Then, of course, there were the Hitler diaries. In 1983, as a director of the London Times, he authenticated the hand-written notebooks when they appeared out of nowhere and was forced to make a hasty reversal when they were proven, conclusively, to be fakes. For the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, aka Baron Dacre of Glanton, it must have been a humiliating climb-down.

Now his interest in deception seems to have followed him to the grave. An enterprising editor, Jeremy Cater, has fine-tuned a manuscript about the history of Scotland that Trevor-Roper had left not quite finished a few years before his death. Though incomplete, there was still enough material to  challenge many of the country’s most cherished beliefs. He felt that much of what the Scots thought they knew about their history was untrue or wildly embellished – a fraud, in other words.

He made no secret of his reasons. A vociferous opponent of Scottish independence, he began writing the book during the resurgence of the independence movement during the 1970’s. He felt that Scotland owed much of its success to its commercial and intellectual ties to England. His opinion of pre-unification Scotland was that it had been a backwater and feared it would slip back if it severed its ties to Westminster. An icy dip in the turbulent waters of Scottish history might be just the thing to bring the Scots to their senses.

His first splash of reality is a reminder that the first people to use the name ‘Scots’ were actually Irish. Sometime after the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 AD, a group of Irish raiders set up a ‘petty kingdom’ in the north west of Scotland called Dariada. Over the next five centuries they fought intermittently with the long-established Picts whom they eventually came to dominate. “The result” says Trevor-Roper, “was that the Irish Scots, from a small original colony in a corner of Argyll, succeeded in imposing their name, customs, and their language upon the more ancient and numerous people inhabiting the rest of the country.”

Like the Germans, the Scots harkened back to early fables of warrior kings to reinforce their sense of identity and as psychological compensation for defeat on the battlefield. The consequences of this imaginative rationalization were obviously much more benign for the Scots. In the 18th century one of those myths was given life in the romantic poetry of Ossian, who, according to his discoverer, James Macpherson, was a wandering bard who recorded the noble exploits of the great highland chieftains back in the mist-shrouded centuries before Christ. The original fragments of Celtic poetry from which the poems were translated never seemed to be at hand when Macpherson was asked for proof, but that didn’t stop the brilliant minds of the Edinburgh Enlightenment from being swept along by its Scot-affirming message.

No less than David Hume was caught up in the fever. And he was far from alone; incredibly, much of France was in its thrall as well. Massive murals depicting scenes from the poems decorated Napoleon’s Malmaison chateau.

Trevor-Roper tracks down all the extant sources – diaries, letters, Highland Society records – and concludes it was about as authentic as Japanese Glenfidditch. James Macpherson did own a few fragments of early Celtic poetry but the Ossian epics could really only have been written by one person – James Macpherson himself.

As the Scots’ fascination with Ossian faded it was quickly replaced with another history-burnishing fiction. This time, a sartorial myth. The story of the kilt is an oft-told tale but Trevor-Roper treats it with a sympathetic understanding of the psychological currents that swirl beneath national character. The tartaned kilt was essentially invented, woven and marketed by Thomas Rawlinson, an English Quaker from Lancashire. Far from being the ancient Caledonian dress, it didn’t make an appearance in Scotland until the 1730’s.

But the myth was a useful one. It served to unify highland and lowland Scotland. It was “a process whereby the customs and costumes of the Scottish Highlanders, previously despised as barbarous, and at one time formally extinguished, were resumed, elaborated and extended.” It was a fraud, yes, but one that Trevor-Roper was, and the rest of us, are quite happy to live with.

Breakfast With Lucien by Geordie Grieg (Book review)

by Alan King

Naked Man With Rat – Lucien Freud

Whatever it was the author shared with famous British figurative artist Lucien Freud at the breakfast table it definitely wasn’t sunny side up. The meal served in this brief memoir is a dark, all-you-can-shag buffet. Much of it entails Freud bloviating unapologetically about his lengthy conga-line of bed partners — many of them married to his friends or were teenage schoolmates of his daughters — and it’s not long before you feel faintly queasy.

But Geordie Grieg former editor of the Tattler, the chronicle of the British upper classes, gamely swallows everything put in front of him and barely bats a dyspeptic eyelash. The perspective is one of benign, worshipful indulgence, an attitude for which his editorship at the toff-burnishing glossy prepared him well.

Not far into the book Grieg reveals that he relentlessly pursued Freud as a subject for a magazine interview after being gobsmacked by one of his paintings (‘Man with a Rat’ — a painting of a nude, legs spread with a rat nuzzling his crotch) in the 80’s. Freud kept turning him down and it wasn’t until he suggested that Freud be photographed with his old friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach that he finally relented. Thus began a thirty year relationship which centred around breakfasts at Clarke’s, a posh eatery in Kensington a short dodder from Freud’s home.

Freud was the Greta Garbo of the art world. His phone number was given out to only a few close friends. His mailing address was his solicitor’s office and he occasionally turned in fury on people who pointed cameras at him.

In the nineties he worked quietly with a writer on an authorized biography but eventually it became clear that there were going to be some awkward revelations. To forestall publication he wrote the author a large cheque. Another potential biographer suddenly found he had writer’s block when a group of East End gangsters showed up at his home. Bookies and gangsters were apparently a leitmotif in Freud’s life because of his addiction to horse racing and gambling. (The largest collection of his paintings belonged to Afie McLean, a Northern Irish bookmaker).

Grieg somehow managed to stay in his good graces — and injury free — publishing occasional magazine pieces about him until he died at 88 in 2011. Now that he’s gone, the story as they say can be told, though it’s a safe bet that much of what is written here is only a glimmer of pentimento.

The dramatis personae is a familiar one if you’ve read Edward St. Aubyn or Evelyn Waugh though in this case of course not fictionalized. ‘Debo’, the Duchess of Devonshire, various Rothschilds and Andrew Parker Bowles (Camilla’s ex) have walk-ons.

Rich, titled, entitled, self-indulgent narcissists crowd the pages, sealed off from the world in a bubble of privilege and snobbery. Many are preposterously eager to have themselves painted by Freud, an artist whose rendering of the human figure, clothed or unclothed, can hardly be described as sympathetic. His portraits have a psychological intensity that borders on personal violation.

Why submit to one of his painterly dissections? The obvious reason is that Lucien Freud was regarded in some quarters as the greatest figurative painter of his time. He bore the surname of psychiatry’s presiding genius and who knows? your face might find immortality of a kind underneath that crusty impasto.

But revealingly, his most exploitive paintings are those of his social inferiors — the bookies, models and fame-dazzled girlfriends who found their way to his studio. Here are the splayed figures for which he is best known — genitalia front and centre. Contorted, bent bodies fixed like butterflies on a collectors panel. That’s not to say that some are not rivetting images and show immense technical skill, but one has to ask why the vast power differential between artist and model. Why for instance always the downward viewpoint, the cringe-inducing vulnerablility of his subjects? Why the pitiless gaze?

These are questions that his grandfather would surely have had a vast, multi-layered answer to and that one of his putative 30 legitimate and illegitimate children might be tempted to ask.

%d bloggers like this: