Pellegrina's Notebook

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

Category: Philosophistry

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.’


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.

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.

Gathering stardust and butterflies

Nice, a good while ago, on an orchestra/choir tour, abandoned in an abrupt and vicious manner by my boyfriend, a violinist friend comforting me, though he was a little tipsy (as was I, as well as incredibly tearful) said some unforgettable words which have marked me since.  I paraphrase slightly: “Barbara – when you give out so much love, one day, if not now, it will come back to you.” AB’s philosophy has come to my mind in the intervening years many times. It is the idea of ‘love karma’. But the memory also elicits the fact that we musicians are strange lot – wayward and romantic all of us, whether we think we are or not (I am a Leo so this is certain! ). Because there is not one note that moves the soul that was not written with a heart of fire, the music we issue drawing out all our desire and passion, stirring us sometimes into very unexpected journeys.

In the years since Nice (a particularly raucous ECYO tour with the Britten War Requiem), my life has spun and turned in this fashion all sorts of ways – the ‘love karma’ floating in, and sadly out. No stronger an example could I give than the past year. I don’t want to bore you with it, but it is almost exactly a year on since my life took on shades of explosive drama and intense emotional pain. I am bound to consider where I was then, and where I am now. In my earlier post in May I spoke of my rebirth into hope –  my ‘love karma’ rewarding me with joy and perspective again. I also knew that my innate creativity, ostensibly musical – the sense of profound inner joy I receive from music was pulling me out of the listless loneliness I felt. I know that love and music are completely intertwined for me. Both are powerful forces of destiny, both give immutable pleasure and a reassurance that colours all of life.

Since I wrote that post, I have realised that not all is perfect but that I am still receiving my ‘love karma’ – what I have given and what I give now to the things and people that move me is refining my destiny. And my voice, well, my voice feels like it has arrived in a very good place indeed. I am brimming full of ideas and energy and I have hope that, though all is not as I would wish, I am going to find a happy place to be and share that with some special people and a special someone. I know I am. To celebrate this, and another birthday, I am getting a small, pretty tattoo – of a butterfly. The butterfly represents reinvention, reincarnation, the metamorphosis of dark to light. No other symbol so defines my journey to this place. Like the aria I quote in my earlier post  perhaps I should live by the mantra – Io sono l’amore! For as brim full of music I am, love is never far away. It always returns. My butterfly celebrates this hope. Let’s hope it doesn’t hurt too much – what a metaphor for love is that!

Byla ne byla

If I had a Russian Grandmother, she would have said this to me, as an Italian Nonna would say – ‘quello che sarà, sarà…’ Those who are older than us understand the caprices of fate so much more.  What will be will be… it must be. Yet, when I take a blow I think of the butterfly – the heart of resurrection oblivious to time, reborn in a moment as she must be. I am getting a tattoo of one soon, for the butterfly is my symbol.

I have found when challenged by fate, I only open my arms wider to the world. I have no need after the first pains to sit in loss, I only look it at from ‘both sides now’ as Joni Mitchell sang, and take a measure of what has been thrown at me, learn to see it as it really is – outside of me, certainly not a part of me but of something else, and redress it in possibility. Yes, it probably sounds like a cliché but I look at this ‘imposter just the same’ as if I had been given a great gift.

For what pain should I feel when I have lived in my own truth and once knew the love that climbs into your soul and never leaves, that changes everything?  When I have breathed through every blow and learnt to draw full breath again and love life for its panoply of POSSIBILITY.

There are no rules but possibility – nothing dies to us, it is only reborn in a new form. The energy of life is the old idea of the law of attraction – you draw it to yourself, you magnetise it, not by the confinement of hope to one thing or one idea, the labelling of desire. Open it out and see what else you can see in the folds that are hidden for an action disguises so many things.

To be happy is to feel the bounty of life’s rhythms – fast, slow, moderato, inbetween the occassional interrupted cadence.  The surprise intake of breath – the unexpected oxygen of hope can lie in the most mordant of gestures. Nothing is as bad as it seems and sometimes it is better.  What you desire will come to you – byla ne byla – and it will be beautiful, kinder and more replete than you had hoped.

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Albert Einstein

For no reason at all but that she is wonderful, here is my namesake singing the ravishing ‘L’Aigle Noir’ –

Brazen beauty – the life and art of Veronica Franco

“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”

Veronica Franco (1546–1591), was a 16th century Venetian courtesan and poet and in part inspiration for Pellegrina, a character in my Venetian set novel and for whom this blog is named. She lived an extraordinary life as a cortigiana onesta –  a high-class Venetian courtesan who was well- educated and versed in the art of poetic and courtly love as well as physical pleasures.  Veronica is named as one of the most celebrated of them in the Catalogo di tutte le principale et piu honorate cortigiane di Venezia, a sort of guidebook for wealthy men seeking to indulge in the ars amoris of Venice, which contained the names and addresses of the finest courtesans in the Serene Republic. Married as a teenager, when the marriage failed Veronica was left in precarious circumstances, not least in fear of destitution, so she decided to seek her fortune and destiny in order to support herself and her child as cortegiana onesti could do very well for themselves and were held in high esteem in Venetian society.

However, it was an ambivalent role and women as intelligent and beautiful as Veronica, holding court in the sovereign echelons of Venetian patrician society and with incredible access to those in power (indeed she was courted by and had a passionate liason with Henry III of France) were prone to be treated with suspicion by the authorities, and Veronica was defamed  by the notorious Venetian inquisition for witchcraft, for which, due in part to her patrician connections, she was eventually cleared.  Furthermore, Veronica not content with being just an adornment in high chopines, also wrote and published her own poems and letters, works as powerful and spirited as any of those by Petrarch or Boccaccio, as well as those of other writers and founded a charity to support courtesans and their children.  Veronica’s portrait was painted by several distinguished artists, such as Tintoretto and Veronese.

Capitolo 13

(a playful challenge to a lover:)

No more words! To deeds, to the battlefield, to arms!
For, resolved to die, I want to free myself
from such merciless mistreatment.
Should I call this a challenge? I do not know,
since I am responding to a provocation;
but why should we duel over words?
If you like, I will say that you challenged me;
if not, I challenge you; I’ll take any route,
and any opportunity suits me equally well.
Yours be the choice of place or of arms,
and I will make whatever choice remains;
rather, let both be your decision….

Come here, and, full of most wicked desire,
braced stiff for your sinister task,
bring with daring hand a piercing blade.
Whatever weapon you hand over to me,
I will gladly take, especially if it is sharp
and sturdy and also quick to wound.
Let all armor be stripped from your naked breast,
so that, unshielded and exposed to blows,
it may reveal the valor it harbours within.
Let no one else intervene in this match,
let it be limited to the two of use alone,
behind closed doors, with all seconds sent away….

To take revenge for your unfair attack,
I’d fall upon you, and in daring combat,
as you too caught fire defending yourself,
I would die with you, felled by the same blow.
O empty hopes, over which cruel fate
forces me to weep forever!
But hold firm, my strong, undaunted heart,
and with that felon’s final destruction,
avenge your thousand deaths with his one.
Then end your agony with the same blade…..

Capitolo 21

(on an absent lover…)

I said: “My heart, if my own weapons
do this to me, what will those do
with which cruel fortune pierces me?”
If I myself feel, having fled far from my love,
that pain closes in on me ever more,
that my leaving brings it closer to me,
I must surely have taken medicine opposed
to my languid state and to my heart’s raving,
which sends me down a miserable path…..

“Such,” I say, “is my love’s handsome face,
where heaven bestowed all of its gifts,
and nature most reveals her perfection.”
Then when I see through the dark night
so many stars light up in the sky,
Love, who is with me, assures me and swears
that those lights in the sky, fair and everlasting,
are not as numerous as the virtues of the man
who ruthlessly tears the soul from my breast.
And to make my days even sadder and darker,
far from my light, I always carry alive in my heart
the burning sun from which I once caught fire,
to whom, weeping and sighing, I write……..

One hundred hours of forgetting – a thousand years of memory

We can all do this.  Maybe these moments are all that matter – maybe they form the soul. This is just an exercise in forgiving time for moving on, changing and changing us; for it really doesn’t matter when the exuberant or delicate pictures of our senses touched and moved mark the beginning and end of us. These moments are our immeasurable experience of a lively and sensual world and a reminder that we are born to be only our essence – disparate, passionate and free.

There may be hundreds, there may be ten. Here are some of mine in no order, just as I feel them come back to me:

Chartres Cathedral. Aged six. The impact of stained glass. I wept.

Seeing the Hrad across the Charles Bridge in Prague for the first time, in moonlight.

Paddling in coral sand, aged seven, Connemara, Ireland.

The Bach Concerto for Two Violins. Largo. Always as if I would float away.

The scent of lilac.

Singing The Chorus Mysticus in Mahler 8, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt.

Under a lemon tree with a lover on Hydra.

My true ‘inner smile’ revisiting me, not that long ago, looking into the azure sky across the Thames,  listening to Chopin.

First day in Florence two years ago – breathing in liberty.

Discovering Beethoven piano sonatas, aged 12.

My mother’s embrace.

Evening in the Piazza Bra in Verona, after performing Rossini in the Arena.

Moments when I live inside the worlds I have created in my books. Knowing their colours, music and fragrance.

Sunset: pink, peach and refulgant, anywhere.

A voice – the most silken sounding rich voice.

The opera Garnier,  Paris. Always.

A beautiful head resting on me.

Ladurée macarons crumbling into my lap sitting on the Pont des Arts.

THE kiss… I’ll say no more…

~Et in Arcadia ego~

Gathering stardust – living with spirit

Fu in quel dolore
che a me venne l’amor!
Voce piena d’armonia e dice:
“Vivi ancora! Io son la vita!
Ne’ miei occhi è il tuo cielo!

It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me!
And murmured in a sweet, melodious voice
“You must live! I am life itself!
Heaven is in your eyes!

In the past few weeks I have experienced the reawakening of something that had remained elusive to me for the last few years as life pulled me into a difficult and traumatic personal situation. While I struggled to cope there were certainly moments of clarity and hope but until the curtain had been drawn on it I could not see what it really was. The immense sense of loss I felt for the great joy I had been given only to have it brutally taken away was as palpable as the death of someone very close well before their time.  This joy itself had been hard won after years of struggle and was then so appallingly lost. I had called it my ‘rose domino’ moment –  inspired by the sight of hundreds of toppling red dominoes I had seen once on French TV – the sense of release – the culmination of building something into a moment of intense spiritual unity, freedom and relief. But it was gone.

Day after day I keened for its return but nothing came back and I had to painfully turn the leaves of time and deal with the immense void its loss left. However, as this blog might occasionally testify, I did feel I had some form of spiritual strength growing inside of me.  It was only when I reached the strange culmination of events earlier this year that I realised that the journey had elicited in me strengths I did not know I possessed. The only challenge that remained to me was to trust my capacity for love and to trust once again in all those I would allow close.  For me, to close off the spirit of love is to close off life and that spirit is the same that allows words and music to flow through me. That was the difficult part. However, in the last few months  I have  begun to see the light that had withdrawn from me return through the unquiet of my own noisy spirit – through my creativity, through these words I write, in the notes I sing and I play, and my courage began to return.

I saw the film ‘I am Love’ recently, Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino’s tribute to classic Italian cinema, and absorbed its theme of the rebirth of  a suppressed identity through memory, desire and love. It takes its title from the aria La Mamma Morta (some of the words of which are above) in Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier. The Countess de Coigny recalls that in the darkest moments of her despair and grief the voice and spirit of love awakens her hope.  If I had not clung to this hope myself my victory might have been unnoticed but the truth is that nothing dies to us, it is only born again in a new form.  Nor is true happiness  found in outer success, material possessions, laurels and rewards  – some things I have, others I did and lost, and some I have not at all. Joy is the triumph of creative journeying with every step laced through with the spirit and hope of love.  There is no ‘art’ in itself, there is just the art of living with creative imagination and without love, and the hope of love,  that cannot breathe. My faith has already proven itself – I am my own joy and Heaven is in my eyes.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Jalal-al-Din Rumi

I want you to know

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

~Pablo Neruda~

It is that day when we honour an obscure Roman martyr who has little to do with the romantic love we all yearn for, but is attached to a clumsy, commercial holiday pervasively marked by vulgar pink clouds of hearts and cheap roses. However, we all know that romantic love deserves so much more than that and so I have edited this post to honour the day my way, with Pablo’s help.

This is my favourite love poem – it captures the memory of love as well as its warming hope, its succour, its aching poignancy, and most of all its truth. This poem is not sentimental in the least and will draw each one of us back to something we have felt for someone or still do. For me, I know I can say little here to you – you may not know me or the things of which I speak. I am marked forever by something – you need not understand how or why, nor need you accept it but that will never change me or it.  A piece of my soul is shot into a thousand pieces like stardust and goes out there and finds its home. That is its nature.  I cannot explain it to anyone – it just is. Only two people know what it is, and others who wrote books about such things, and they were true.

This is my Valentine to me, because where there was suffering, a thousand times over I still wouldn’t change a thing. True and unconditional love is the smile you cannot see – don’t look for it, let it sneek up behind you and kiss your stiff limbs and straighten your fears and you will be forever changed.  I hope it finds you,  if it hasn’t already.

Tryst – a story of Venice

“There is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness.”

Francesco Petrarca

July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374

There were three months I hardly spoke at all, so struck was I with such a place, a torment of the senses. I glided down the rivas, watching spools of ribald light throw rainbows of colour, which ducked under bridges, catching the seraph sterns of the gondolas. She was but three breaths and a corner away, behind her iron lace curtain, her quiet sighs warming her camphor drenched tissues, with which she wrapped her pearl, silken arms, just in case…

The beginning.  The rest is all Venice. These words were inspired by Canzoniere of Petrarca (Petrarch), the poet whose entire life was defined by longing, of ideal love, by a woman he never really met – Laura de Noves. Then there is the Ospedale della Pietà. All I can say now is – watch this space…