79. VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS – Mahler (8th Symphony)

… But please don’t let that choice lead you to expect any kind of erudite musical analysis . What you’ll get here is just some faltering attempts to chart my introduction to and enthusiasm for this ‘song’, this song-and-a-half (!), this extraordinary spirit lifting piece of work.

I was first introduced to Mahler when some teaching colleagues of mine at my first school (so we’re talking 40 years ago) invited me for coffee one evening. They had recently moved in together and seemed to have very little in the way of luxuries but they had a record player on the floor of the living room, and a bunch of LPs, and the guy was eager to play some of them for me. ‘Listen to this’ he said with some excitement, putting on Mahler’s first symphony, and moving the needle to the third movement. ‘Listen to the way he plays with ‘Three Blind Mice’!’ I listened politely, was amused and intrigued and something more by what Mahler was doing with this simple canon of a tune – three blind mice or Frere Jacques or Bruder Martin or whatever you want to call it. He had made of it a very neat, slightly spooky funeral march and it gave me a little bit of a chill. Yep, Mahler, one to watch, I thought. But although I bought a copy of that first symphony, it’s fair to say I more or less forgot about Gustav for the next two decades.

So we picked up our acquaintance again about a decade and a half ago in some local municipal library where, browsing through the CDs, I noticed the complete symphonies of Mahler, a nice little box set that I could book out of the library for a minimal fee for three weeks. It was the days of the mini disc player – (in fact, if I’m honest, I can’t quite disassociate Mahler from that now defunct, outdated little silver machine, which for at least a year or so I carried everywhere..) What I did was to transfer all ten symphonies onto two mini-discs, yes, feeling a little proud of myself for condensing so much music into so small a space. (Ha) And I became, as you do, a little obsessed. When I was out and about, or when I was marking papers, it was either symphonies 1 to 5 in my ears, or symphonies 6 to 10. And perhaps I ought to be a bit ashamed to say that although I loved and lived in the music, they all kind of blended into each other, and I didn’t really take the time to distinguish one masterpiece from another.

But…. a few years further on… that is less the case. In particular this here eighth symphony has established a particular place in my listening and in my heart, especially, as you might not be too surprised to hear, the first section, based as it is upon a ninth century Pentecost hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’.

A 9th Century Latin text, certainly (some scholar called Rhabanus Maurus, apparently) though I suspect that this kind of invocation song has been a bread-and-better chant amongst Christian Communities from their earliest foundations ; since Pentecost, perhaps, a communal reminder and an affirmation of our dependence on God’s own spirit to infuse, strengthen and enable us. I’ve long known Edward Caswell’s 19th century hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost, creator blest’ without realizing that this too was a translation of the same ninth century Pentecost text; another similar version ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ is probably of the same origin. Isaac Watts in the early 18th century wrote his own invocation hymn – ‘Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove’. The wonderful Taize repertoire includes the powerful chant ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ where soloists sing more extended invocatory prayers over the general repetition of that one phrase. And many contemporary Christian songs echo the same call. It’s our heart cry.

And in Mahler’s eighth symphony, after one brief organ chord, the cry ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ breaks upon us in full throated chorus – in fact this symphony, often nicknamed with slight hyperbole ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ boasts three choirs (two mixed choirs and a boys choir) as well as eight (count ‘em, eight!) soloists. It packs quite a punch, and the phrase is repeated, broken up and overlapping for the next couple of minutes, before the soloists come in separately and the rest of the Latin text is taken up and developed. Let me be honest and say that in the whole 25 minutes of this section of the symphony ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ are more or less the only words that I can clearly distinguish; for most of the time I am just carried along by the twists and turns, the changes in key and tempo, the shifts from one choir to another, sensing the more reflective passages, till we surge back towards the end of that time to the words of that initial invocation. I find it utterly exhilarating. I’ve read enough to know that Mahler himself felt that it was one of the most special and most optimistic pieces that he had ever created. I believe he felt it to be ‘an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit’. I can see that – but isn’t it kind of ironic too that it’s in crying out to be touched and invigorated by the Original-Creative Divine spirit, that the unique wonder and creativity of the human spirit also comes into focus?

I have yet to, but would love to, see this symphony being performed live. Up until now I have made do with youtube clips. I recently watched one with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Such is the intensity of the piece that within minutes, Bernstein’s hair takes off and acquires a life of its own as he stabs the air with his baton in a seeming frenzy of ecstasy. I know I don’t need it exactly, but I’m searching for clips that have simultaneous Latin and English translation subtitles ( as yet no luck) wondering if understanding the lyric will give an even further dimension of joy and enlightenment to my appreciation of this ‘song’. You never know.


70. BAÏLÈRO – Canteloube from Songs of the Auvergne (as sung by Kiri te Kanawa)



This is definitely one of my ‘happy’ songs – but I only tend to play it when I’m up in my shed/study/den/man-cave at the top of the garden, because that’s where I have it on a little cassette.  Let me tell you about that little cassette tape.

Isn’t it true that sometimes the greatest songs and the most beautiful pieces of music we seem to stumble across by accident? – and somehow that kind of adds to their magic and charm.  When we lived in Paraguay, it was notable that when non-indigenous colleagues and friends returned to their own countries after their period of work there, they would often want to offload items they no longer deemed necessary, or didn’t want to pack to take back.  Sometimes, in a way that I hope didn’t appear too ghoulish, those of us who remained might sort of sidle up, ‘help to pack’ in ways that meant we might pick up a few little items (no? Oh, just me then).  Anyway, thanks dear Nigel and Ally for a lovely red sleeping bag, and for this cassette tape by Kiri te Kanawa, showcasing music I had never heard before, or even heard of.

Joseph Canteloube was apparently as much of a musicologist as a composer, and I think this means  that he was as fascinated by songs as I am!  I’m joking – he was much more fascinated, because he actually got off his backside and went around the country ‘collecting’ songs that had developed and emerged through the oral tradition.  Yes, in other words he was a bit of a French Cecil Sharp, I suppose.  He went and collected throughout the region of the Auvergne, and then presumably took his collection and composed beautiful orchestrated versions of the songs. So the little tape was ‘Kiri te Kanawa sings Chants d’Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube’, and this song is the big ‘hit’ of the collection!

I’ve seen it called ‘Pastoral’, ‘Shepherd’s Song’, but most often ‘Baïlèro’, with its funny accents and all, because of course the songs are all in the local lingo, Occitan (thanks Wikipedia).  I think I may have assumed, listening to this first of all in a Spanish speaking country, that the title definitely had something to do with dancing (Spanish ‘bailar’ to dance), but no, from all the transcripts and translations I’ve seen, it appears that bailero and the frequently repeated ‘lero lero lero’ in the song is nothing more than your average kind of ‘fal-de-ri’ or ‘fa-la-la’ folk song filler!  But the repetition of those beautiful spilled out liquid sounds is part of this song’s glorious charm, for me.

These songs of course are filled with the staple diet of good rustic folk song- rather less murder, sprites and such than might appear in their rustic English counterparts – but plenty of shepherds and shepherdesses, hard work, harvesting, seducing, and unrequited love.  And it may seem a bit funny that I have called it one of my ‘happy songs,’ for apparently what we have in this particular song is the pining of a shepherd separated from a shepherdess (or vice versa?) by a river, and resigned to singing some melancholy but maybe hopeful(?) lero lero leros.

But there you go – sadness when depicted by the artist, the writer, the composer, is often heartbreakingly beautiful, and so – perversely – solidly life affirming, and happiness making!

As a kind of footnote…  I had also assumed that Kiri te Kanawa must have claimed this particular bit of music/song territory as her own, and certainly as I have played and replayed (and ‘lero’ed along to) that cassette tape up in my shed, it’s been hard to imagine anyone bettering her vocal interpretation!  But, dear reader, if you are at all interested/intrigued or can be bothered, the magic of youtube allows us to sample other singers taking on this particular classic.  I’m not sure that my ear is good enough to distinguish great from greater…  but take a listen –none of them disappoint, and some are accompanied by very nice pictures of the Auvergne!


49. ALL IN THE APRIL EVENING – Katherine Hinkson & Hugh Robertson

Well, here’s a little song which has hung around, in a hazy fragmented state, in the back of my brain for half a century.  And every year, around this time, at Easter, and afterwards… and also when I’m seeing ‘sheep with their little lambs’ dawdling across the mountain lanes in front of my car, it surfaces –that is, the snatches of it that I remember surface.

It all goes back to a school eisteddfod; and I was probably in form one or form two.  In those days school eisteddfods were serious affairs (even ironically for us valleys grammar schools with no jot of welsh on the curriculum at all!), often lasting not just through the whole of saint David’s day but often continuing the next day as well; and we dutifully and enthusiastically dressed up in our house colours (did my mother really buy me a yellow roll-neck pullover so that I could support Glyndwr house?  This is perhaps a memory best buried…) cheering our teams.  And ‘worthy’ items of culture were generally chosen as performance pieces: so we would listen to the six or seven entrants/finalists all playing, say, Für Elise, one after the other –hoping of course that one of them would hit a wrong note so that we could at least distinguish the performances.  And in this particular year that I’m thinking of, ‘All in an April evening’ was chosen as the item for the upper school’s girls’ solo singing performance competition.

You might think that having to sit through half a dozen performances from an earnest group of girls (most of them, if I recall rightly, a diligent crowd from Bedwas who entered absolutely everything) might have wearied the listener?  Not this listener.  The effect was, I suppose, equivalent to putting an unfamiliar song on iPod repeat today.  It seeped, seeped deep into my soul and –well, it’s stayed there a long time, hasn’t it…  without any particular conscious nurturing!

Living in the valleys, as I still do, the images of ‘sheep with their little lambs passing us by on the road’ and references to the ‘weak human cry’ of the lambs were familiar enough…  It was perhaps the connection with the ‘Lamb Of God’ that was a little new and surprising, and the poignant melody somehow made the connection more intriguing.  I’m not going to pretend that my listening to that song contained anything as sophisticated as analysis –but something must have stuck in me.  I wasn’t at that time a Jesus-follower (though I imagine that the stirrings of conviction and grace were there –just like ‘April  airs were abroad’) but within a couple of years I had indeed joined that great company and accepted the grace, forgiveness, life and hope which I was beginning to see vividly in that ‘Lamb…’

Yes, half a century on then –those ‘April airs’ are still ‘abroad’ –those beautiful/pesky sheep and lambs are still strolling and jumping on the high roads above the valleys, or occasionally loitering into our garden…  And I am indebted to Catherine Hinkson wherever she was, and to Hugh Robertson, the music man (Wikipedia tells me that he also wrote the music to ‘Mhairi’s wedding’!) and to the music teacher who chose it for the eisteddfod, and those earnest participants, because sometimes – not always of course, but sometimes –‘ I [think] on the Lamb of God/going meekly to die..’ for such as me.

42. BLOW THE WIND SOUTHERLY – Kathleen Ferrier


I knew that I wanted to write about a Kathleen Ferrier song, And I suspected that it was going to be ‘What is Life’ (from ‘Orfeo’) though it never felt like the one I most remembered…and then recently I heard Colm Tobim on Desert Island Discs who picked this one and a distinct Aha! Lightbulb moment of recognition and recollection reminded me that this indeed was the song, from a disc of Ferrier favourites, which had brought me such shivers of delight in my youthful listening.

My sister Judith may never know how much she indelibly engraved onto the soundtrack of my early years. Working as she did in London, and coming home to the valleys on visits during school holidays, she blew in with a touch of the exotic and the what’s-happening-in-the-capital in her tastes: one sensed that she had been exposed to a whole otherness of culture, droplets of which she shared, with modesty, but with generous enthusiasm, on these visits.

Musically these were often in the form of EPs (exotic enough!) – ‘extended play’ 45rpms, usually with a couple of tracks on each side, and a glossy ‘picture’ sleeve. These were beatnik times, late 50s, early sixties, pre-swinging sixties (though Judy was there for that too) and although my understanding of the scene was hazy to say the least, I can see that she availed herself to some extent in the experiences presented by the surging interest in folk clubs etc. (She told me, a few years ago, that she had seen the young unknown Paul Simon singing in one of these, as he did, of course, in the early sixties). So, I can remember her bringing home a ‘Tommy Makem and the Clancey Brothers’ EP – some fine Arran jumpers on the cover; I certainly recall at least one Joan Baez EP, with selections from her early Vanguard albums of traditional ballads. ‘All my Trials’ was on there.

But Judy’s treasures also extended us classically. One EP was a concert from the Hollywood Bowl; another was of Mary O’Hara’s harp music. And yet another was of Kathleen Ferrier. And wow. This was a voice quite unlike the familiar chanteuses from the radio: – very different from the girliness of Brenda Lee or the nasally womanliness of Connie Francis; not a belter like Shirley Bassey or Anne Shelton;  different from Doris Day and Helen Shapiro… If there were four tracks on the EP, the aforementioned ‘What is Life’ was certainly one of them, and I liked the touch of drama, the touch of implied theatre about it as much as I liked the voice.

But this song ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ was something else. The extraordinary timbre of that voice is highlighted by the unaccompanied singing on this traditional song. Only with late adult reflection do I begin to think of the incongruities of this kind of recording: songs that were birthed and nurtured from the rawness of oral tradition, shared in proud regional lilts in ragged impromptu sessions…here ‘polished’ with technical perfection of RP, with exquisite trilled rhotics accentuating the practised precision of diction and enunciation – not just the “ rrrolling” sea, but even within words – “brrring him..”, “sea brrreeze..” None of this incongruity occurred to me when I fell in love with the recording, or matters much now, if truth be told. That extraordinary trembly contralto makes of this simple song something starkly other.

There’s not a lot of it as a lyric – a woman is longing for a southerly wind to bring her sailor lover back home, and that’s it; and perhaps the sparseness of the content – the lexical repetition within its three choruses sandwiching two simple verses –adds to the poignancy and charm. And in childhood, not just mine, there’s always something mysterious and alluring about sea imagery isn’t there –  think of those John Masefield poems, quinqueremes of Nineveh etc, and the lonely sea and the sky. Here  the sound and images of ‘ships in the offing…’, ‘the deep rolling sea..’, ‘the barque/bark(?) bearing my lover to me..’, ‘the bonny breeze..’ all blew salt-tanged airs that swelled my childhood imagination.

Judy’s gifts and visits were always doing that, as I said. Here she had the help of this wonderful singer whose early death (and yes, a bit like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and Eva Cassidy) gives her legacy the quality of myth and legend, and why not.