Pellegrina's Notebook

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

Month: July, 2009

The Undiscovered Country

‘It is love, not reason,  that is stronger than death.’  Thomas Mann

I don’t know why, but these Nietzschean themes keep bouncing up in my life at the moment – somewhere between having a discussion with someone about Hamlet’s Soliloquy (Hamlet currently a stir in the West End, starring Jude Law) and thinking about the great love-death scenarios in German Romanticism à la ‘Tristan und Isolde’.  Somehow the resulting mass produces the axis of existential essence, the two things which we can really hold in no doubt – love and death.  I should also mention the unassailably  moving story of  the recent deaths in Switzerland of conductor Sir Ted Downes and his wife Lady Joan, which lifted many questions as well as profound compassion in me, as it must do in all of us.

I am a writer, reader and a musician – everything I do and think is bound by the creative forces born of these certainties: music and words composed in the candour of madness and love in darkened places.  This will of course exclude the classical and enlightenment ideals of the late 18th century and bring us up post Sturm und Drang into the 19th – into the realm of Byron, Beethoven and Schiller.  However, the existential part of the axis – the death bit if you like, precedes that considerably, particularly in the words of Hamlet and in those of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne.

But let us start with love – love creates, love is art, love is life.  Above all else love is the farthest we go from death – it is life in its concentrated form, its quintessence.  When we are in love, our senses are intensified, our hearts and limbs pulsate, we are infused with sanguine glory in a state of intoxicating rush. Yet, we would be happy to die in a moment as if there were no other, at the highest pitch of feeling as if so consumed and now having really lived,  need to live no more.  So here is the proof of love’s removal of death’s sting and the ‘Liebestod’ element of the Romantic movement, the potent juxtaposition of both, entwined in the ecstasy of the inevitable.  This idea is also related to why we refer to orgasm as ‘la petite mort’ – at such a moment  we would be happy to die, we desire to choke on loves’ fumes.  We think above all, that love is what makes life worth living, and it is.  Love holds the real dark at bay, the pall that awaits.

This is where the existential frame assembles – whether  there is nothing beyond love and life, or whether indeed there is.   I think there maybe a higher creative force – a thing to which every atom bows, but it is not the monotheistic notion of god at all, if there is – with this creative power there is no redemption, repeal, confession or servitude.  So in denying a particular god I do not deny the idea – Voltaire thought of course that if ‘God’ (note capitals!) did not exist it would be necessary to invent ‘Him’ and  science has even established that a part of our brain is designed for such ‘blind faith’.  But I personally, cannot speak of  that which I do not know, only of what I know for certain – and that is that I am here.  An awareness beyond death, and the very notion of a deity whose realm this is, is for me terra-incognita.

So I identify with Hamlet’s cry to the universe, which has only the feel of the moral questioning that comes to one when one has faced death: disgruntled, angry, seeing the teethmarks of it upon yourself and those you love.  There is actually much hope and honesty in his words.  There is also much Sartre, and I am sure the Danish prince would identify with “L’enfer, c’est les autres”,  for hell was certainly other people for him!  It is when Hamlet is up against it all – the constructions of his fears and passions, that he realises that there must be something else, something with which to turn away death, to heal his hopelessness, and that of course is love.  Unfortunately, by then it was too late for demented and drowned Ophelia.

…But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.


Song without words, sister without brother

To the memory of Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn

November 14th 1805 – May 14th 1847

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel 2

I have always wanted to write about Fanny Mendelssohn and it seems apposite to do it now while we observe her younger brother’s bicentenary, for somehow I strongly believe, Felix would not have become so revered without her.  She, rather than the more regaled Clara (Wieck) Schumann has enthralled me since I was a novice pianist playing through the wispy melancholy of her brother’s elegiac Lieder Ohne Worter (Songs without Words), and I was told by my piano teacher that in fact several of these were Fanny’s rather than Felix’s compositions,  but that she could not have published under her own name.  In her day, women simply did not compose and would only be tolerated as pianists in private soirées and family gatherings.  Her parents forbade her work in music, which she deeply loved – you can hear it in every note she penned, and polished the laurels of Felix instead.  Her father told her – “You must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman – I mean the state of a housewife… The appreciation of every moment and its improvement for some benefit or other – all these and more… are the weighty duties of a woman.”  With reference to the encouragement being poured upon her brother, Abraham Mendelssohn adds – “Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” This naturally ignited my female  indignation and righteous outrage and thus Fanny became to me a heroine – a musical totem and icon.

Fanny, brought up in a radiantly musical household and inordinately gifted was only allowed to be daughter and sister, a somewhat muted participant in the rising fame of her younger brother Felix – his shadow, and though bestowed with the devotion and admiration of her brother, had  to greet a life of pursuance and wifehood.  Supported by Felix however, and later by her husband, the painter Wilhem Hensel, she did at least take some pride of place in the lauded Sunday Musicales which took place in the Mendelssohn household at 3 Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin, when some of her works were presented, albeit privately.  Indeed, Felix considered her a greater pianist than himself and asked her to premiere his 1st Piano Concerto in 1838,  purportedly then giving her only public piano performance.

Thankfully, the suppression of her musical activity by her parents did not stop Fanny producing a healthy and glowing portfolio in her oeuvre – piano, chamber music and songs, including a cycle called Das Jahr (The Year).  It could be said that a lot of her work  leads the way where Felix was soon to follow, developing a delicate and distinctive romantic style that was to be most popular with the mid-Victorians, particularly in the limpid textures of the Songs without Words .  The Queen herself, was noted to have liked some of her songs, presuming them of course to have been written by Felix.  Goethe wrote poems for her to set and became a great admirer of hers after visits to the Mendelssohn home, which developed into a paternal friendship with the siblings.  Though encouraging of her exemplary skill and talent, Felix himself declared that the pressure of publication would be too much for Fanny, and there is evidence that Fanny felt wronged and disappointed  by this.  Fanny’s work when performed received very enthusiastic approval and it could be argued that Felix was in fact not a little jealous.

Fanny Mendelssohn manuscript

One of Fanny’s songs, beautifully illustrated by her artist husband, Wilhelm Hensel.

The sibling relationship was undoubtedly a very complex but loving one.  Felix was devastated by Fanny’s death in May 1847 – she suffered a stroke whilst preparing for performances of one of Felix’s oratorios – Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Felix himself died less than six months later from a similar affliction. Ironically, after her death a few works from her folio were published by her family, but only relatively recently are there any commercial recordings of these.  Below I have an extract from her piano trio, completed in the year of her death, and the blissful song for two voices – Aus meinen Tränen. ( The latter is absolutely gorgeous and I have sung it!)  When you listen to these beautiful pieces, please wonder why we did not afford celebrations of her bicentenary in 2005 in the manner we are her brother’s.   The brother without the sister was a song without words…

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel Piano Trio in D minor Op. 11 2nd movement

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847) \”Aus meinen Tränen\” Barbara Bonney, Soprano, Angelika Kirchschlager, Mezzosoprano, Malcolm Martineau, piano

Sometimes, the words of another…

…are enough, when your own have grown a little tired.


If you should ask me where I’ve been all this time
I have to say ‘ things happen’
I have to dwell on stones darkening the earth,
on the river ruined in it’s own duration:
I know nothing save things the birds have lost,
the sea I left behind , or my sister crying.
Why this abundance of places? Why does day lock with day?
Why the dark night swilling around in our mouths?
And why the dead?

Should you ask me where I come from, I must talk
with broken things
with fairly painful utensils,
with great beasts turned to dust as often as not
and my afflicted heart.

These are not memories that have passed each other
nor the yellowing pigeon in our forgetting;
these are tearful faces
and fingers down our throats
and whatever among leaves may fall to the ground:
the dark of a day gone by
grown fat on our grieving blood.

Here are violets, and here swallows,
all things we love and which inform
sweet messages seriatim
through which time passes and sweetness passes.

We don’t get far, though, beyond these teeth:
Why waste time gnawing at the husks of silence?
I know not what to answer:
There are so many dead,
and so many dikes the red sun breached,
and so many heads battering hulls
and so many hands that have closed over kisses
and so many things that I want to forget.

Pablo Neruda

The dance of scent – still life awakened

Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will.  The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally.  There is no remedy for it.

– Patrick Süskind Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Van der Ast - Flowers

Basket of flowers,  Balthasar van der Ast c. 1622

I have been a happy prisoner of scent for as long as I can remember.  On the right of this text under the section ‘Les battements de mon coeur’  there is a link to Luca Turin’s website.   I came across him when trying to uncover what lay behind my own obsession with perfume and I stumbled upon his theory of the science of scent.  Turin, a biophysicist, has such an obsession with olfactory pleasure and how it works upon us that a book about his work ‘The Emperor of Scent’ (what a glorious epithet!) was written by Chandler Burr.  Since then he has written up his new theory, utilising the ideas established by an older theory, of  what makes scent work.  I had long been convinced that my own preoccupation with fragrance was somehow related to my synaesthesia, which is  in turn inseparable from my sense of music.  Turin’s theory grabbed me straight away – he concluded that unique molecular vibrations, a symbiosis of chemical elements hitting off each other lies behind how scent is ‘built’.  I am not going to attempt to explain his theory here, he does it so well himself, and there is a link below to see him do so.

To a musician this made perfect sense – entirely Pythagorean, a panoply of the accordant and the discordant it overawes, a ‘musica universalis’ for the nose.   This mischief of fragrance’s molecular dance is enchanting.  I am not saying that those who really ‘get’ scent are indubitably musical, maybe there are some who are tone deaf, somehow I doubt it,  but herein may be the answer as to why I am so obsessed with scent.  There are people who apply perfume thoughtlessly, it is bought for them, it is there and they use it, without ever really knowing if they truly like it or even love it, perhaps the same way they would only listen to a certain movement of fairly unimaginative music and not venture into the complexities of late Beethoven.  Then, there are those whose noses catch even the slightest waft of a favourite fabric softener or stumble across an old bar of Morny soap and are in raptures, the accords of those valuable molecules gripping us as a Chopin nocturne might.  We are different, we are obsessed with the pleasure and moreover, the depth of pleasure there is in scent.  Believe me, this is not confined to the floral – yes flora will always appear in perfumes but so do suggestions of burnt rubber, coal,  pipe tobacco, leather and antiquarian books.  Magnificent combinations of these, or rather their biochemical counterparts, assemble  in the complex structures of some of the world’s finest perfumes.


Advert by Darcy for Guerlain 1949

Scent changes mood, builds pictures, delivers us enchanted dreams and emblazoned memories and yet it is so immediate. Perfume moves us, like music, as Baudelaire describes in ‘Correspondances’ –

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,

Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,

Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

It has the expanse of the infinite, it sings of the ecstasy of the mind and of the senses – with one small bottle of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie you are an emigrée marquise in deep green velvet on a train anointing her temples amid old Vuitton trunks, or in the case of Guerlain’s potent paradise – L’Heure Bleue, walking slowly through a garden on the Cap d’Antibes, clutching a cape as an early autumn breeze blows off a Corsican escarpment over the Mediterranean.  Perfume is more than flowerbeds and Fragonard belles, perfume is art and moreover it is affordable art, affordable luxury.  You may not be able to buy a Rubens or a Picasso but it is not beyond even the more modest purse to purchase some of the world’s greatest perfumes –  a living, breathing version of a Van der Ast still life, the alertness of the lemons in a Zurbaran, or a Botticelli cornucopia.  That it plays upon my senses the way Turin describes assigns it to a satisfying answer, but one that has no less mystery. I treasure it, I cannot live without it.

Luca Turin explains the science of scent