Pellegrina's Notebook

"In art, as in love, instinct is enough."


‘Leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!”


When I first heard about the tragic accident in the French Alps yesterday, my first thought was: there will be at least one musician on that plane because, in recent years, I have rarely been on a European city-bound flight without a colleague or friend on board – I have bumped into them as we queued for boarding, in an airport lounge, or seen the familiar form of a violin case or the bulk of shiny cello armour as it makes its way down the aisle. On a flight to Vienna a while back I met two singers engaged by the same theatre – and they had just met each other. So, when I learned that two lyric artists were lost on that flight, though I did not know them personally, I knew many I know would.

A poignant synchronicity struck me when a recording of Maria Radner, the young and beautiful voiced contralto who lost her life on the doomed flight, singing Mahler’s ‘Urlicht’ surfaced on Facebook. I can see no other more apt commemoration of art and life and the art and life we must value every day as if it was to be our last. ‘Urlicht’ was the low grisaille morning light over those primeval mountains when tragedy struck and folded those souls into its embrace, taking them to we know not where. I write these words and implore you to listen to Maria’s voice in tribute to her, her husband, their baby, Oleg Bryjak, the children from the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium in Haltern am See, their teachers, the other passengers,  and the crew of German Wings flight 4U9525. They were all simply the friends we did not have the chance to meet. I hope with all my heart they saw the light and that it was a comfort on their last journey.

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
—From Des Knaben Wunderhorn


Two hands – one heart

I was truly moved today by watching this short film below about the pianist Leon Fleisher who, due to a crippling dystonia, had to give up his career at the peak of his powers. Thankfully, a valedictory journey into various therapies but most of all through the meaning of identity in music brought his right hand back to join his left .


What made this so resonant for me was that his words brought to mind all I had written when I wrote the fictionalised story of my own journey to self-realisation through identity crisis, different from his but not too much. The understanding of self is not self-indulgent whimsy  – it is a necessary corollary  on one’s lifeline. There is no weakness or selfishness in recognising self – because the self in the world is the only way we love, feel empathy and understanding, and commit to living fully; being the best of ourselves is being the best for others. No matter how insignificant the things that matter to you seem to be, they are the sinew of living and defining that most elusive and misunderstood posture, happiness.

We all need to empty those spaces that are too filled with longing and remember that life must be lived forwards but is only understood backwards. And looking back I see just how much I created, positively, out of the experience of being lost to myself, as Leon was, when the one thing he was born to do was seemingly smote from in front of him in the form of curling fingers. One has to be really lost to find oneself. A half-turn does not cut it. No, one has to journey to the hinterlands of alienation, of failure in any sense, to be able to recognise and pick out those shards of diamond in the dust.

I have seen wonderful things come and go more in these last months and the diamonds are still there and I see more everyday.  I am not empty at all. I am with you all, at my best, or trying to be, every day, with two hands and a full heart. As is Leon, demonstrating here in Bach the sublimity of his journey; sublime because every extended and overused posture is removed and he plays all that matters. I want to live as he plays this, because this playing reflects my maxim:

‘In art, as in love, instinct is enough.’




Words wider than wisdom

Wisdom broader than worlds

Worlds higher than waves

Waves whiter than snow

Snow deeper than oceans

Oceans fuller than clouds

Clouds colder than ice

Ice clearer than dreams

Dreams lighter than thoughts

Thoughts broken like splinters

Splinters thornier than roses

Roses silkier than satin

Satin softer than waves

Waves higher than wisdom

Wisdom truer than words

Words rounder than laughter

Laughter sadder than tears

Tears purer than rain…

Just words…

Immortal beloved

On a damp, grey day during my last visit to Vienna, Ana and I took the long tram ride from the Westbahnhof  to the  Zentralfriedhof to visit Beethoven’s grave, not I hasten to add his place of burial – his remains were moved here from the Währinger Ortsfriedhof in 1888. While the rain beat down, having abandoned my useless umbrella, I read the eulogy written for his funeral by his friend Franz Grillparzer from my rain-spattered BlackBerry. Trying not to, my voice caught on the words – dramatic, beautiful and prescient, and tears fell, blurring my eyesight making it difficult to read the small screen, and less proficient a gesture as I had hoped. I would certainly have failed a radio audition, but I read on allowing Grillparzer’s narrative to add providence to the rain.  A few Korean students appeared, mystified, yet captivated by my exposure,  chatting to each other until Ana asked them in international language to ‘shush’ and I continued till the end: ‘And whenever, during your lives, the power of his works overwhelms you like a coming storm; when your rapture pours out in the midst of a generation yet unborn; then remember this hour and think: we were there when they buried him, and when he died we wept!’

Later, I recalled Beethoven’s own tear-drenched words to an unconfirmed lover, the first of these words always haunt me:  “My angel, my all, my very self”. Never forget that the space between the notes contains so much feeling. Music without this feeling is just noise and for one who ‘heard’ only in his soul, this is ever more resonant.

The First Letter

July 6, in the morning

My angel, my all, my very self – Only a few words today and at that with pencil (with yours) – Not till tomorrow will my lodgings be definitely determined upon – what a useless waste of time – Why this deep sorrow when necessity speaks – can our love endure except through sacrifices, through not demanding everything from one another; can you change the fact that you are not wholly mine, I not wholly thine – Oh God, look out into the beauties of nature and comfort your heart with that which must be – Love demands everything and that very justly – thus it is to me with you, and to your with me. But you forget so easily that I must live for me and for you; if we were wholly united you would feel the pain of it as little as I – My journey was a fearful one; I did not reach here until 4 o’clock yesterday morning. Lacking horses the post-coach chose another route, but what an awful one; at the stage before the last I was warned not to travel at night; I was made fearful of a forest, but that only made me the more eager – and I was wrong. The coach must needs break down on the wretched road, a bottomless mud road. Without such postilions as I had with me I should have remained stuck in the road. Esterhazy, traveling the usual road here, had the same fate with eight horses that I had with four – Yet I got some pleasure out of it, as I always do when I successfully overcome difficulties – Now a quick change to things internal from things external. We shall surely see each other soon; moreover, today I cannot share with you the thoughts I have had during these last few days touching my own life – If our hearts were always close together, I would have none of these. My heart is full of so many things to say to you – ah – there are moments when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all – Cheer up – remain my true, my only treasure, my all as I am yours. The gods must send us the rest, what for us must and shall be –

Your faithful LUDWIG.

The Second Letter

Evening, Monday, July 6

You are suffering, my dearest creature – only now have I learned that letters must be posted very early in the morning on Mondays to Thursdays – the only days on which the mail-coach goes from here to K. – You are suffering – Ah, wherever I am, there you are also – I will arrange it with you and me that I can live with you. What a life!!! thus!!! without you – pursued by the goodness of mankind hither and thither – which I as little want to deserve as I deserve it – Humility of man towards man – it pains me – and when I consider myself in relation to the universe, what am I and what is He – whom we call the greatest – and yet – herein lies the divine in man – I weep when I reflect that you will probably not receive the first report from me until Saturday – Much as you love me – I love you more – But do not ever conceal yourself from me – good night – As I am taking the baths I must go to bed – Oh God – so near! so far! Is not our love truly a heavenly structure, and also as firm as the vault of heaven?

The Third Letter

Good morning, on July 7

Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now and then joyfully, then sadly, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us – I can live only wholly with you or not at all – Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits – Yes, unhappily it must be so – You will be the more contained since you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart – never – never – Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. And yet my life in V is now a wretched life – Your love makes me at once the happiest and the unhappiest of men – At my age I need a steady, quiet life – can that be so in our connection? My angel, I have just been told that the mail coach goes every day – therefore I must close at once so that you may receive the letter at once – Be calm, only by a calm consideration of our existence can we achieve our purpose to live together – Be calm – love me – today – yesterday – what tearful longings for you – you – you – my life – my all – farewell. Oh continue to love me – never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved.

ever thine

ever mine

ever ours

Es muss sein…

Some think that to describe music is like trying to describe the air – too infinite, too labile or inchoate, to capture any real meaning. I beg to differ. For me, music provides pictures of vivid colour and texture so I give those colours to the words, and those words in turn convey how it feels to make music, to feel it take shape inside you. ‘Es muss sein’, as Beethoven said, and he knew. He could not hear, but only see and feel the music he wrote.

Below is  the epilogue to my book ‘The Conductor’s Wife’. Here are words, perhaps inadequate, and the music they describe, with the help of Ravel and Martha Argerich.

Time had been suspended, excluded even, for she was now in the relativity of stage time and wrapped in its gossamer protecting veil, under the accretion of gathering sound.  The first movement had been harder but then her wrists forgave her and floated away into runs of notes, extravagant cascades of colour that never withdrew until in the slow movement with her solo ingress, when all the glory unfolded and what were merely black and white wooden drums became form and pigment – golden, lyrical, swimming into their own providence.  She did not own it now – it came from the composer to her, then out into the world.  Julien had said:  “This is how it will be,” and it was.  To say she had conquered was to belie her journey, for she had only music, which she could plainly see…and she herself filled the place where it went.

The C major of this life

Some time ago I wrote on the eschatology of art – the coda of an artist’s life that often produces works that reach far out into the future with a mighty sweep of providential foresight, like the incandescent light on the last minutes of a butterfly’s flight. The last works of Schubert bear this significance particularly deeply, and no more so than in Schubert’s achingly plangent Quintet, written only months before the composer’s death in 1828. This work, now regarded as an epitome of the majesty of the chamber music canon, was disregarded by Schubert’s publishers, who preferred to see him as a simple penner of songs and piano music.

I heard it in an exquisite performance at the Proms last night by the Belcea Quartet, augmented by the wonderful Valentin Erben, cellist of the great Alban Berg Quartet. The vast classical vaults of the Royal Albert Hall hung an eerie shroud over a rapt audience on a cool, damp weekday night while the ensemble of players on a stage that only days before had hosted an orchestra and choruses of Cecil B de Mille proportions for Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, looked refined and delicate, humbled by space – the juxtapostion of the archly overstuffed to the filigree sound world of pure chamber music. Even with the crimson flash of Corina Belcea-Fisher’s gown, they seemed spectral and removed as if they were locked away in a snowglobe waiting to be tilted. Until the sublime but somewhat questioning final notes, the Neapolitan chord, it were as if we were waiting for the world to end, so that another might be born.

Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:

I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.

Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,

Sliding by semitones, till I sink to the minor,—yes,

And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,

Surveying a while the heights I rolled from into the deep;

Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,

The C major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.

From ‘Abt Vogler’ ~ Robert Browning

Schubert Quintet in C – Adagio. The Emerson Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich

Everyday, not just for one

An expression of love belongs to  every day – make it count, give it resonance and depth and above all, clarity.

i leave you with the emperor of lower case. i know it makes sense to me. an honest expression of love belongs to every day, not just one day of the year…

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

ee cummings

At year’s end is the beginning

“Life is the game that must be played, this truth at least, good friends, we know; so live and laugh, nor be dismayed as one by one the phantoms go.” Arthur Rubenstein

I used one of those Facebook apps today to compile my year in a sum of statuses (stati?) – a stream of wisdom, irrelevance,  sometimes frustration, sometimes delight and just plain fun. This macro nostalgia made me think of the very real surprises, joys and disappointments of my life in the year past, which actually awoke a deep contentment in my spirit. For the year that is now burning out has been singularly replete with a joy I can barely describe, just as the year that preceded it was a year of shadow, doubt and sadness. In the first weeks of 2010 my spirit began to slowly resume its former poise and I was lifted through circumstances into the light again. I think I must have been karmically rewarded as I have no other explanation for such a contrast. As Rumi said – ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you’ and so the hollowness and loss I felt in January and February turned to enlightenment and joy.

Music and love did indeed return to my life and sit with me here as I write, and I thank love itself ultimately, for music can only shine most brilliantly through it.   But I must also thank  those special friends of old and the wonderful people new to my life who have been such a gift for me in learning to ‘keep the faith’. One especially…

Also today and very much related to this, Jess Duchen reminded me of the great romantic pianist Arthur Rubenstein, who upon a similar contrast of fate set upon a life of loving the world he created, for nothing brings about a miracle in time as much as unconditional love. His philosophy, as he attests above, was to live, laugh and play the game.

So I wish you all a new year of light and joy – but above all love life, for as AR promises, it will love you back!

Here is the man himself playing the exquisite Grieg concerto 2nd movement – a rare diamond in the snow.

The order of the universe

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

Kahlil Gilbran

This perfect song was featured in a wonderful film called ‘The Music Master’ which I watched again recently.

A voice imprinted on water – music and musicians

What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. 

Ludwig Van Beethoven

My earliest musical memory: the room was green and I danced on the table to Mozart, I think it was the Jupiter symphony, and in those sounds I heard the world around me took shape, all its curiousness and bewildering angles were suddenly rounded, polished and brilliant and I understood that I existed and why. It was for music like this. I was about four or five years old and this is the age of’ “why?’ – “Why am I here? What happens when you die? Why do you get old? Why is an apple green and sometimes red?” Furthermore, I was still coping with a new forming memory – time has a strange relativity when you haven’t been long on the earth. I saw photographs of myself taken the summer before and yet I thought my parents had a secret other daughter they never told me about,  I could not recognise myself, but when I asked for music and my father answered my whim and played the Mozart symphony for me, I saw myself reflected back to me fully for the first time.

It sounds clichéd, pompous, even tautological, (for musicians are innately ‘musical’ of course) to be prosaic on why musicians make music but it’s more than that  – we are born and not made. The enjoyment of great classical music (in the generic sense) is a gift many receive but its idiosyncratic imprint on a musician is gifted before birth – in the womb. I have often wondered if there is a sensor, a kink on the labyrinthine configurations of DNA that grafts it onto us and that all those recently fashionable theories about playing Bach and Mozart to the unborn have reasonable merit. We absorb the vibrations, sounds fall into voids and replace an impenetrable silence with energy and form; music chooses us and sets an unbroken seal upon the heart. Don’t ever ask if I would choose my strange life and the turns and detours of my fate line – this life, chose me.

To make things further complicated, I was granted an auxilary gift so that great music and the empty plains of the imagination it builds upon, resound with patterns of colour, texture and sensitivity so vibrant that sometimes I am left entirely breathless. This ‘gift’ is called synaesthesia, but I digress, for although many musicians have ‘syn’ (we are not unfamiliar with the other kind too!), the fuel of it is sound – sounds that change us every minute we live them. Every black dot on a stave would be a riculous anachronism  were we not to pull it from the page and attempt to make sense of it – musical notation, such strange runes, centuries old, is something out of which we can attempt to create an eternity.

For the power to negate time is with us in every performance – music comes and goes and we fight with just enough will to win – almost, but the hunger to receive more of its secrets lends every day of a musician’s life the illusive hope of a voice on water  rippling through to eternity. I tap the meniscus of this hope every day and would not exist bereft of it. I just would not exist at all.