Sunday, December 23, 2012

Winter scene with skaters

Two contrasting faces of Winter to end the year with.

In the Dutch painter Frederick Marinus Kruseman's Winter scene with skaters many characteristics associated with later nineteenth century Romanticism and its idealized view of Nature as a benevolent and beautiful phenomena are present. The fun of the winter sport of ice-skating performed in a setting of scenic snow and ice against a backdrop of a spectacular castle and a dramatic cloudscape, all warmly coloured, are featured in Kruseman's romantic painting.

Paintings of winter scenery and landscapes are a peculiarly Dutch genre. Begun in the Renaissance by Jan Bruegel and developed by Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) the crowded scenes of Dutch winter paintings give strong clues as to the high density of the Netherlands population during the century which saw the zenith of Dutch ambitions, establishing an overseas Empire and in European cultural influence.

I've a sinking feeling however that a certain painting  from the seventeenth century, the Golden Age of Dutch art by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682) may in the light of this year's economic and environmental woes, today exert a greater resonance to a large percentage of society than the sweetness and light of Kruseman's romantic painting.

In Jacob Ruisdael's painting's nature has a far less benevolent relationship towards humanity. In Winter Landscape I (1670) the sky is uncompromisingly gloomy and threatening, while in its foreground something has occurred which is rarely depicted in winter scenes, yet which invariably must happen to those skating, a person has fallen down onto the ice. To the credit of Ruisdael he has also depicted an onlooker expressing  an awareness of common humanity, dashing to assist the unfortunate faller. 

Although now more than ever we all appear to be skating upon the thin-ice of the world economy and climate, may I take this opportunity to wish all visitors to this blog a Happy Xmas and a New Year full of the rosy-cheeked, cheerful optimism of the above painting, with little of the black gloom of Winter as depicted below.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Crome Yellow

Aldous Huxley's first novel Crome Yellow (1921) is a dazzling display of wit which satirizes the follies and foibles of post world-war society. It established Huxley's literary name and anticipates in its themes, setting and didactic dialogue, subsequent literary works written in the 1920's decade by the English novelist and essayist.

The template of Huxley's early novels resembles those of the Victorian novelist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) whose Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Crotchet Castle (1837) involve a gathering of a variety of characters in the setting of an ancestral manor. Once arrived, the various guests are used as voice-pieces to represent differing view-points and outlooks on life. By setting the main action within the walls of a castle or ancestral Hall, the 'English country house' approach to novel-writing, the novelist gives rein for characters to inter-act with each other and their view-point is satirized, often mercilessly, sometimes with hilarious effect, as in Peacock's dialogue novels. 

In Crome Yellow, Dennis, a would-be-poet searching for the meaning of life, visits the ancestral manor of Crome as a guest of Henry Wimbush and his wife. Once there he encounters several other guests, each representing a specific point of view, these include his hostess Priscilla who is fascinated with 'spiritual vibrations' and casts horoscopes of racing horses and football teams, the hedonistic painter and bon-viveur Gombrich who has aesthetically developed beyond abstract painting, and the journalistic-cum-mystic Mr. Barbecue-Smith who is capable of writing hundreds of meaningful aphorisms on life before breakfasting.

Throughout the novel topics such as the place of women in the modern world, sex and morality, art and the role of the individual in society are humorously touched upon, while event's witness the protagonist's increasing indecisiveness in love. In some ways early novels such as Crome Yellow and Antic Hay read not unlike an highly intellectualized version of a P.G.Wodehouse novel; over time however, the formula of P.G. Wodehouse's country house novels portray a fossilized English world, far removed from the realities and changes in the world.

The serious and deteriorating situation of the world in politics and economics during the 1930's obliged Huxley to take a less light-hearted approach to novel-writing to debate on humanity and its future, in particular humanity's relationship to science. Anticipating the theme of Huxley's later novel Brave New World (1931) its the cynical and slightly sinister Mr. Scogan in Crome Yellow who speaks of -

an "impersonal generation" of the future that will "take the place of Nature's hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations.

Huxley's Brave New World retains its power to shock and challenge the reader and its mood of prophetic doom remains thought-provoking.

In his 1994 introduction to Crome Yellow, the English novelist Malcolm Bradbury (1932-2000) and co-founder with fellow novelist Angus Wilson (1913-1991) of the prestigious MA Creative writing course at UEA, Norwich,  stated -

For the fact is that, though there is personal satire involved, Crome Yellow, like any good book, easily transcends all its first stimuli. The characters become unmistakeably Huxleyan, just as their world of obsessive ideas becomes the means for the author to analyse a time when chatter does not disguise despair, people all live alone in their own individual worlds of story, and all lives, as Denis comes to see, are parallel straight lines...................................The comic novel of ideas is one of the treasures of British fiction, not always sufficiently appreciated. Crome Yellow is one of the modern classics, which is why, well after its time, it can go on being read with complete delight and pleasure. [1]

Although I've now read and re-read a fair percentage of Huxley's novels over the decades (see book-shelf bottom of page) Crome Yellow was the first novel I've ever read on a Kindle. It's a gadget which would have appealed to Huxley who suffered with poor eye-sight throughout his life, giving it as the main reason for migrating to California in 1937. I don't doubt that Huxley would have viewed a the Kindle reader as an example of how science and technology has transformed the lives of millions in the twentieth century. Huxley himself suffered from poor eyesight, but had he lived to witness its invention, he would with little doubt enthused over the Kindle reader's ability to enlarge its reading font.  

A few tenuous connections may be indulged and noted between Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and Sir Thomas Browne. Both literary figures share a reputation of being leading intellectuals of their day who were capable of discoursing upon metaphysical questions in a bold and original manner. Both authors also had a penchant towards mysticism and are sometimes termed as mystics themselves. It's quite likely that Huxley read Browne, as he was in vogue during the 1920's due to attention received from Virginia Woolf and members of the Bloomsbury group. It's even possible that in terms of literary style, Browne may have influenced Huxley in his use of parallelisms, that is, stating the same thing twice within a single sentence in a variant manner, it's a literary technique found in the writings of both authors.

Aldous Huxley, like Browne before him, also took an interest in drugs. His essay on his empirical psycho-nautical experiments with mescaline, The Doors of Perception (1954) has now acquired a near legendary cult-status. All that Huxley attempted to articulate upon the transcendent may however be succinctly summarized in the lyrics of the song Tomorrow never knows from the Beatles album Revolver (1966)  in the line - It is not dying. 

It's interesting to note in passing that it was due to Browne's early interest in what is now known  as the medical fields of psychology and psychiatry, that the word 'Hallucination' was introduced into the English language. More recently, the eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks (b. 1933) discusses the psychological implications of medical case-histories such as phantom limbs, the bereaved sensing the presence of a deceased partner, synaesthesia and his own psycho-nautical experiments in his new book Hallucinations (2012).[2]

Of far greater interest, there seems to be some kind of play on words in  the title of Huxley's first novel. The colour chrome yellow, as it is correctly spelt, was first discovered by Louis Nicolas Vauquelin in the mineral crocoite (lead chromate) in 1797. Chrome Yellow became available as a pigment for oil-painters around 1816 after the cessation of the Napoleonic wars. Aldous Huxley has in all probability, rather slyly one suspects, conflated the fictitious setting of his first novel and the surname of an English painter with the technical name of a colour pigment.

The founding father of the Norwich School of Painters, John Crome  (1768 - 1821) was inspired by the natural beauty of the Norfolk landscape and painted several master-works, some of which are set in urban riverscapes. In his late work Late Afternoon on Norwich river circa 1819, John Crome draws the viewer's eye to the centre of his painting through colour. At the  painting's centre  a young woman seated at a boat's stern can be seen wearing a fashionable early Georgian dress. The colour of her dress, a bright chrome yellow, as painted by Crome, is reflected in water.

Finally, just as the composer Sergei Prokofiev's death was overshadowed by the dying on the  same day as Joseph Stalin, so too Aldous Huxley's death was overshadowed for on the 22nd of November, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

[1] 1994 Introduction by Malcolm Bradbury to Crome Yellow pub. Vintage Classics 2004
[2]  Hallucinations - Oliver Sacks - pub. Picador Nov. 8th 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance

Matthew Bourne is surely one of the most innovative choreographers in the modern dance world. His male-roled Swan Lake (1994) propelled him to international fame and he's continued creating highly original productions which are performed throughout the world ever sinceHis latest production Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance  re-interprets one of the most-established works in the ballet repertoire. Recognising the age in which Sleeping Beauty was first performed, the 1890's, as an era in which beneath a straight-laced exterior there was a fascination with the supernatural involving stories of vampires, fairies and angels along with romantic tales of love enduring beyond the grave, Bourne's ballet fully indulges in Gothic fantasy and spans over a century, from 1891 to the present-day. In his new interpretation of one of ballet's near fossilized works, Bourne breathes new life into a well-worn classic, effectively reclaiming Tchaikovsky's highly danceable, lush and sensual orchestral score with a new interpretation of an old fairy-tale. 

Featuring designs by Olivier Award-winners Lez Brotherston (set and costumes) Paule Constable (lighting) with sound design by Paul Groothuis, the audience's attention is seized from the very opening, with the crying and tantrums of a life-size marionette baby. However, its during a dazzling change of setting to the Edwardian era of picnics and tennis on summer lawns bathed in a golden light, that the evening's brightest star enters. Hannah Vassallo, in the lead role of Aurora, charmed the audience with her innocence and vulnerability. Other memorable highlights include striking Gothic-style make-up for the dancers, the use of angel's wings to identify who among the dancers were among the dead, a hilarious Waltz of the flowers and a stage flooded with a deep, ruby red light at the dénouement of the up-dated fairy-tale. A recorded sound-track also allowed for a variety of sound-effects to create a suitably Gothic atmosphere to the ballet. 

Not wanting to post spoilers for those attending Sadler's Wells, London, where Sleeping Beauty:A Gothic Romance will be performed from December 4th to January 26th 2013, I will just say that Bourne's humour is very much of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't variety, rewarding the attentive viewer with quick-witted and often very funny incidents and gestures. Its worth remembering that modern ballet includes not only innovative dance, and many original dance movements occurred throughout the performance, but also mime and gesture, which in their turn are augmented by costume and scenery; it's the overall combination of these varied factors which modern choreographers such as Bourne fully integrates into his vision of ballet. More than any other production I've ever seen by Bourne's company, there seemed to be a complete harmony and togetherness in the ensemble of dancers. Although on the night several individual dancers shone in performance, none, not even the charming Hannah Vassallo in the lead-role of Aurora, out-shone at the expense of the collective ensemble. 

Remarkably, after the last performance on Saturday, the manager of the Theatre Royal for seventeen years, Peter Wilson came onto the stage. He reminded the evening's audience that the theatre had now hosted no less than three productions by Matthew Bourne - Highland Fling (1995) and Edward Scissorhands (2005) were all first performed at the Theatre Royal before being staged in London.  I too  remember seeing both productions at the Norwich theatre. Although he could not persuade choreographer Matthew Bourne OBE (b. 1960) to come up onto the stage, seizing the moment, Wilson led the audience in giving Bourne and his company New Adventures, now celebrating their 25th anniversary, a standing ovation from an audience which is renowned for its appreciation of dance. 

Here's  a video clip from Matthew Bourne's Highland Fling

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Benjamin Britten

Today is the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and also the birthday of the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

Throughout next year there will be a multitude of performances and analysis of Britten’s music, including a nation-wide project involving over 75,000 school-children who will be coordinated to sing simultaneously on his birthday. There's even to be a 50 pence coin issued in 2013 with a portrait of Britten on its reverse, such will be the high-profile centenary celebrations of arguably, the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

With its close geographical proximity to Lowestoft, the east coast town where Britten was born, Norwich and its rich musical heritage played no small part in Benjamin Britten’s musical development. The city is home to England's oldest music festival and several early musical compositions by Britten were premièred there.  

Benjamin Britten exhibited all the traits associated with a child prodigy. He had his first piano lessons aged four and began writing music aged five, nurtured by his mother’s amateur talent. Such was young Britten’s musical precocity that he was soon acquiring and studying orchestral scores of major works of classical music. His viola teacher, Audrey Alston who played in the Norwich Quartet, obtained tickets for him to hear the Ravel string quartet in Norwich as well as the Beethoven E minor (opus 59 no. 2) which the ten-year old school-boy described as ‘absolutely ripping’. More importantly, Audrey Alston also chaperoned the budding composer to a concert in October 1924, at the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival, to hear Frank Bridge conducting his orchestral suite The Sea (1911). Britten, aged ten, latter described himself as being ‘knocked sideways’ upon hearing the music of his future teacher and mentor. Audrey Alston subsequently introduced her pupil to Frank Bridge (1879-1941) and the young composer later took lessons from him. Britten's first published work, Sinfonietta (1932) is dedicated to his mentor, Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge (1937) written for string orchestra and the Four Sea Interludes which intersperse the action of the opera Peter Grimes (1945) are compositions which pays homage to his influential music-teacher. 

Like his mentor, Britten rejected the 'Little Englander' perspective of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in favour of mainstream continental influences. Much of Britten's music is a fine equilibrium between the influence of more progressive European composers such as Mahler, Berg, Bartok, and Stravinsky, counter-balanced with the best of the tradition of English music-making, an aesthetic choice which has reaped dividends for his musical legacy. 

Britten’s musical genius developed in 1930 with his A Hymn to the Virgin a choral work composed when convalescing from an illness at Gresham’s Public School in North Norfolk. During his boarding at Gresham's there must also have been occasions when the young school-boy passed through Norwich when returning home to Lowestoft during the school holidays, or visited the city to purchase one of the many 78 r.p.m. shellac discs or orchestral scores which he avidly collected throughout his life. A Hymn to the Virgin was first performed in January 1931 at the church of Saint John's, Lowestoft. Many years later, Britten wrote Hymn to Saint Peter (op.55) for the quincentenary anniversary of the church of Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich.  C.J.R.Coleman, who had been organist at St. John’s Lowestoft in the 1930's, was by 1955, organist at Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich. Coleman and his son, with young Benjamin and his father, had made music together during Britten's childhood. Britten held a deep attachment to memories of his youth, and the composition for St.Peter's was, like several others, written in gratitude for early encouragement from his mentors.

With the opportunity to enlist at the Royal School of Music in 1931, Britten’s knowledge of music, through study and attendance at concerts in London developed considerably. Upon completion of his studies at the R.C.M. he was however dissuaded from travelling to Vienna in order to study composition further under the tuition of Alan Berg. However, sometime in 1932 Britten met another composer he also admired, Arnold Schoenberg.  

Britten returned to Norwich to conduct the first performance of his Simple Symphony for string orchestra in 1934. Recycling and re-arranging various juvenile compositions, nearly all of which were written between the young age of nine to twelve, Simple Symphony indulges in youthful humour, heavily hinted in each movement's titles- Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Serenade and Frolicsome Finale. It was dedicated to his viola teacher, Audrey Alston. Britten's first fully professional engagement however was in 1936 at the Norwich Festival, where he conducted the première of his song-cycle for soloist and orchestra Our Hunting Fathers. It features a dominant theme in Britten's music, mankind's inhumanity. In the first of Britten's many song-cycles, it is cruelty towards animals and the barbaric blood sport of hunting, as its title suggests, which is strongly condemned. The libretto of Our Hunting Fathers was supplied by the poet W. H. Auden. The work is startling modern, influenced by the lieder of Mahler. 

Britten travelled to America in 1939, however his sojourn in America was short-lived, he soon became home-sick and returned to England in 1942. The sea is a big theme in Britten's music , its featured prominently in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, but it was while actually at  at sea, in the cramped conditions of a cabin, avoiding ice-bergs and U-Boats on the way, that  Britten composed A Ceremony of Carols. Written for boy's choir and harp, each of the nine poignant medieval carols besides being technically demanding, has a magical innocence and a winter-like atmosphere rarely  evoked in English music. A Ceremony of Carols was first performed in Norwich during the darkest days of World War II, December 1942. Since its first performance A Ceremony of Carols has become one of the most recorded of all Britten's works and dozens of recordings are currently available of one of his most popular works and continues to be performed at Advent at Saint Peter's, Mancroft, Norwich. 

Britten’s great international success came in 1945 with the opera Peter Grimesa work which brought the composer world-wide fame and which single-handedly re-invented English opera. Peter Grimes is the first of several operas by Britten which explore the theme of the individual who suffers from social prejudice. With his life-long pacifism (he registered as a conscientious objector upon returning to England  from America in 1942) Britten could easily relate to the plight of the outsider who is castigated by society. The central character of Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice explores the relationship and conflict between the outsider and society, each in quite different ways.

In addition to his anti-war beliefs, Britten’s open relationship with the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) his partner for almost forty years, also caused him to be the subject of prejudice (homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967). In reality however, Britten and Pears relationship is a love story which is testimony to love enduring in the face of, at times, intense social prejudice. Britten wrote some of his finest music with the voice of Peter Pears in mind and the musical sensibilities of both Pears and Britten were considerably enhanced in their mutual artistic support to each other. Together they established the world-renowned Aldeburgh music festival, settling permanently in the Suffolk coastal town from 1947 until Britten's death in 1976.

Britten’s association with Norwich continued when he included the ancient, medieval city as a setting of one of the acts of his opera Gloriana. Written as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Britten's opera features a visit made by Queen Elizabeth I to the city in 1578. Act Two of Gloriana is set against the back-drop of the the flint-knapped Guildhall at Norwich. Elizabeth I is welcomed by the City Recorder, a masque is performed which she and the Royal court watch. In total six dances, including a Morris dance are performed. Personifications of Time and Concord are among the principle characters in a masque which, accompanied by a chorus of rustic country maids and fishermen, concludes the entertainment with a homage to the Queen.

Biographical details of Britten’s life reveal the fact that there was hardly a single year of his life in which he was not ill, often quite seriously, and towards the end of life, fatally, nor is there hardly a single year in his life in which he did not travel extensively abroad. He often combined a holiday with performing, accompanying his life-time partner Peter Pears in song-recitals on the piano. He visited what was the Soviet Union no less than seven times, becoming a close friend of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, his wife, the mezzo-soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who once said to him in broken English, ‘You great composer, I little composer’. Rostropovich and Britten's music-making is now legendary and Britten wrote more music for the Russian cellist than any other musician other than Pears. His friendship with Shostakovich was also rather special by all accounts. Shostakovich gave Britten gifts of recordings of his symphonies, while towards the end of his life Britten granted Shostakovich a private view of his work-in-progress score of his last opera Death in Venice, a rare and intimate gesture which he granted to few.

One of Britten’s most distinguished musical admirers wrote in her diary for 1970 -

‘The record of Les Illuminations has arrived and Ruth & I have played it several times, & listened with the greatest joy. There is no sound here except the shushing of the sea & the crying of the seabirds, & this music is exactly right for the atmosphere here of sea & sky & silence. I find it extraordinary moving’. 

Britten’s admirer was Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). Although in the 1930's Britten held communist sympathies, in common with many artists in the 1930's, his relationship with the Royal family, in particular with  the Queen Mother developed throughout the decades of 60's and early 70's into a respectful relationship. Britten and Pears not only performed at the Royal Estate of Sandringham in Norfolk, but Britten became the first composer to ever be awarded the honour of Life-Peer. 

Britten was no musical elitist and much of his music is arranged for the ease of amateur performance. While he admitted to no personal liking for pop music he nevertheless kept abreast of the latest developments in English music, stating in 1968 - 

Everything I read about the Beatles gives me pleasure. They have a wit and they have a directness – a freshness of approach which gives me a great pleasure, and I also think they are frightfully funny. 

and a copy of the Beatles long-playing vinyl disc A Hard Day's Night (1964) is listed as once in Britten's vast record collection.

Britten had an innate ear for literary texts to set to music and was one of the 20th century’s most well-read composers. His first opera was based upon the poetry of fellow Suffolk artist, George Crabbe. Other notable literary figures Britten set to music include Rimbaud, Keats, Blake, Shakespeare, Henry James, Herman Melville and W.H.Auden with whom he collaborated on a number of occasions.

Like many school-children I was disinclined from listening to Benjamin Britten’s music after over-exposure to his pedagogic Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. His music struck me as traditional and conservative in nature and there seemed to be more interesting music to discover and explore; my favourite British contemporary music L.P recording as a teenager Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double-string Orchestra (1936) and Symphony no.2 (1953); however in 1973, during what was one of the last rehearsals for a performance of  Britten's Church parable Noyes Fludde as part of what was the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival (now the N&N Festival) a sudden hush fell upon the rehearsal at Saint Andrew's Hall, a surprise visitor had arrived, the composer himself had called to thank all the boys and girls for their hard work rehearsing. The photo at the top of this post is how I remember him. The photo below is of Britten wearing his school cricket blazer and cap, aged circa 13.

I've only covered a brief review of Britten's music up to the international success of his opera Peter Grimes in this post. Rather than waste any more of the reader's time, and far more informative on Britten than words, is my exhortation to seek out and hear Britten's music. A large percentage of it is vocal, choral or operatic, while the themes of the Sea, the social outcast, innocence betrayed and Man's inhumanity to man are often encountered, especially in his operas. The Britten 100 web-page allows the  new listener to the composer's music to select samples by  genre, mood, instrument and tempo. Here's a brief list of Britten's music which I've found rewarding and recommend hearing.

Peter Grimes
Four Sea Interludes
Pasacaglia op.33b
Simple Symphony
Violin Concerto
Piano Concerto
Serenade for horn, strings and tenor
String Quartets 2 and 3
Prince of the Pagodas
A Ceremony of Carols

Books consulted

The Faber Pocket Guide to Britten - John Bridcut pub. Faber & Faber 2010
An accessible book, full of facts, insights and trivia about Britten.
Highly recommended

Benjamin Britten by Michael Oliver pub. Phaidon Press 1996

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne

The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) has a fascinating, yet little explored relationship to the 17th century physician, hermetic philosopher, scientist and literary artist, Sir Thomas Browne.

It’s only relatively recently in the light of modern understanding, notably by scholars such as Carl Jung, Frances Yates and Jean Seznec that the profound influence of hermetic and esoteric thought upon scientists, artists and physicians during the Renaissance has been recognized.

Following the early death of the 'German Hermes', as his advocates termed him, the writings of Paracelsus, a conglomerate of practical advice on how to develop new chemicals for medicine, mixed with proto-psychology and mystical theology attracted many followers.  The new Spagyric medicine which Paracelsus taught during his short, wandering life, retained a potent influence upon alchemists, early scientists and in particular, physicians. Indeed, the radical physician has been called- "the precursor of chemical pharmacology and therapeutics and the most original medical thinker of the sixteenth century."[1]

The two favoured professions of would-be alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike were those of priest and physician. These two professions witnessed a wide spectrum of the human condition. Daily in contact with suffering and the inner spiritual man, priest and physician often worked in tandem, notably in attendance at the sick-bed. Indeed, the very title of Browne’s Religio Medici, (The Religion of a Doctor) is indicative of the intimate connection between the two vocations. It cannot be under-stated that as devout Christians, both Paracelsus and Browne shared a deep piety and viewed the healing of the sick as a religious duty. In Paracelsus’s own words - ‘Compassion is the physician's teacher’; while in his voluminous theological writings there can be found a theologian as original and free-thinking as his contemporary, Martin Luther.

In all probability Thomas Browne was introduced to Paracelsian literature during his student years when studying medicine either at the university of Padua, Montpelier or Leyden circa 1627-1630. Originally written upon completion of his medical studies, Religio Medici reveals its author as one well-acquainted with the ideas of Paracelsus.

Although objecting that –

‘the singularity of Paracelsus be intolerable reviled all learning before him’,

Browne nevertheless also confesses in Religio Medici to having- 'perus'd the Archidoxis and read the secret Sympathies of things' the Archidoxis being a treatise by Paracelsus on medical cures by means of magical properties attributed to gems and amulets. Likewise, although vehemently refuting Paracelsus' claim to have created a Homunculus, the fabled test-tube human of alchemy, declaring -

'I am not of Paracelsus mind that boldly delivers a receipt to make a man without conjunction' [2] 

Browne nevertheless did believe in the Swiss physician's claim to have performed the alchemical feat of Palingenesis, that is, the revival of a plant from its ashes-

A plant or vegetable consumed to ashes, to a contemplative and school Philosopher seems utterly destroyed and the form to have taken his leave for ever. But to a sensible Artist the forms are not perished, but withdrawn into their incombustible part, where they lie secure from the action of that devouring element. This is made good by experience, which can from the ashes of a plant revive the plant, and from its cinders recall it into stalk and leaves again. [3]

The poet Coleridge, who was an early and enthusiastic reader of Browne, rose to his defence, annotating his  personal copy of Religio Medici thus-

'This was, I believe, some lying Boast of Paracelsus, which the good Sir T. Browne has swallowed for a Truth'. [4]

An even greater number of statements on Paracelsus can be found in Browne's encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-1672).  In an early example of scientific journalism, Browne  revised each of the six editions of his best-selling encyclopaedia in his life-time, duly up-dating reports of his 'elaboratory' experiments, for example -

It is not suddenly to be received what Paracelsus affirmeth, that if a Loadstone be anointed with Mercurial oil, or only put into Quicksilver, it omitteth its attraction for ever. For we have found that Loadstones and touched Needles which have laid long time in Quicksilver have not amitted their attraction. And we also find that red hot Needles or wires extinguished in Quicksilver, do yet acquire a verticity according to the Laws of position in extinction.[5]

Although in Pseudodoxia Epidemica  Browne debunks Paracelsus’s fervid quest for the Philosopher’s Stone –

More veniable is a dependence upon the Philosophers stone, potable gold, or any of those Arcana's whereby Paracelsus that died himself at forty seven, gloried that he could make other men immortal.  [6]

when writing on the mythical creature the Phoenix, he reveals himself to be well-acquainted with Paracelsus and esoteric literature in general-

Some have written mystically, as Paracelsus in his Book De Azoth, or De ligno & linea vitæ; and as several Hermetical Philosophers, involving therein the secret of their Elixir, and enigmatically expressing the nature of their great work  [7]

Strong evidence of Browne's own adherence to the goals of alchemy occurs in the so-called 'Alphabetical Table' to Pseudodoxia Epidemica which includes the index entry - 'Philosophers Stone, not impossible to be procured' a statement which seems to be unequivocal evidence of Browne's cautious and critical, yet believing, approach to alchemy. [8]

It's from Paracelsus' interest in Austrian folk-lore that Browne wrote-

and wise men may think there is as much reality in the pygmies of Paracelsus; that is, his non-Adamical men, or middle natures betwixt men and spirits.[P. E. 4:11].

The Swiss alchemist-physician proposed that a particular spirit resided over each element. Nymphs ruled the water, the Salamander, fire, Sylphides, the air, and citing Germanic folk-lore, he claimed that deep in the earth there exists a race of dwarf- like Earth-spirits, which he named Gnomes. According to Paracelsus these little people were the guardians of the earth who knew where precious metals and hidden treasure were buried. The word gnome, another neologism of Paracelsus, originates from a  play on the Greek words of gnomic meaning knowledge and intelligence and genomus meaning 'earth-dweller'. Paracelsus described Gnomes thus-

The gnomes have minds, but no souls, and so are incapable of spiritual development. They stand about two feet tall, but can expand themselves to huge size at will, and live in underground houses and palaces. Adapted to their element, they can breathe, see and move as easily underground as fish do in water. Gnomes have bodies of flesh and blood, they speak and reason, they eat and sleep and propagate their species, fall ill and die. They sometimes take a liking to a human being and enter his service, but are generally hostile to humans.

Browne concluded his speculation upon the existence of little people open-mindedly stating -

we shall not conclude impossibility, or that there might not be a race of Pygmies, as there is sometimes of Giants.  [P. 4:11].

The first ever Gnome named in literature was Umbriel in Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock (1712). An eerie aural depiction of the Gnome can be heard in the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's suite Pictures at an Exhibition which was imaginatively orchestrated by the French composer Maurice Ravel.

Paracelsus, the self-styled 'Luther of Medicine' was an early advocate of opium in medicine. Throughout the history of alchemy a considerable knowledge of substances, minerals and drugs can be found. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, opium was used to relieve such disorders as dysentery and respiratory ailments. By the seventeenth century, physicians required a license in order to obtain Opium, the only available pain-killer and tranquillizer in medicine of the day. Such was its widespread usage in seventeenth century medicine that Browne's contemporary, Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) declared-

Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.

In 1959, the critic Peter Green suggested that one reason why Browne's prose is stylistically unlike any of his contemporaries, may have been due to his experimenting with drugs. Green noted that the twin Discourses of 1658 were penned by a Royalist who was under intense emotional and psychological distress, and proposed that the last chapters of both Discourses were written in a trance-like condition. On several occasions in Urn-Burial Browne poetically links opium's effects with the  theme of the unknowingness of the human condition such as-

The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her Poppy. 

while crucial evidence that he observed the psychological effects of opium can be found in his medical-philosophical declaration-

'There is no antidote for the Oblivion of Time which temporally considereth all things'

The phrase 'temporally considereth all things'  is Browne's succinct observation of opium's psychological effects, whilst the moralist in him however denounced all trafficking in substances, sternly declaring later -  'Oblivion is not to be hired'.

Today there's strict legislation and laws on drug consumption, however, this was not so during the seventeenth century, which saw the foundation of addictions now long-standing in Western society with the widespread introduction and consumption of the newly-discovered tobacco-leaf and Coffee throughout Europe. Although it is difficult nowadays with our politically correct thinking to accept that a devout Christian and respected doctor may have written his 'deep, stately, majestic' prose (De Quincey) with its slow, sombre contemplations under the influence of Opium, for the empiricist, such as Browne, as for the alchemist, the self and the sensory impressions were the seat of all experiment. There are several notes upon the effects of dosages of narcotics in Browne's common-place books but whether his empirical nature endorsed experimenting with drugs it is not documented, however he may well have done so accidentally, or as part of his alchemical quest. It's also worth remembering that as a botanist with an interest in toxicology, Browne may well have been able to identify psilocybin  and fly agaric fungi.

Whether or not Browne ever had his hand in the medicine-cabinet will never be known, however it’s certainly a big coincidence that his labyrinthine prose was 're-discovered' by the early Romantic figures of Coleridge and De Quincey, both of whom suffered from the ravages of drug-addiction at cost to their longevity and artistic productivity.

The 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne and his son Edward’s libraries, supplies further evidence that the ideas of the Swiss Renaissance physician were an influence upon the Norwich physician. Not only does it list an edition of the complete Opera of Paracelsus, but also many books by followers of spagyric medicine, including the chief protagonist of Paracelsian medicine, Gerard Dorn, as well as books by Alexander von Suchten, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, Joseph Duchesne, Martin Ruland, Petrus Severinus and John French. In fact it would have been near impossible for any medical practitioner  of the seventeenth century not to have had a  strong view upon Paracelsus. England saw slower acceptance of what was perceived to be continental medicine. In any event such a number of books by medical advocates  in Browne's library once again suggests more than a casual interest in Paracelsian medicine. [9]

Paracelsus was fond of inventing new words to describe his alchemical/astrological form of medicine. For example he described himself as a pagoyum a neologism composed from the combing the words "paganum" and the Hebrew word "goy". Similarly, Paracelsus described his type of medicine as an 'Yllaster' a word coined from plaster and astrum a star ; in this context its worthwhile looking at the verse inscribed upon the Coffin-plate of Sir Thomas Browne's lead Coffin.

It’s not known who composed the inscription verse upon Browne's Coffin-plate. It may have been written by Browne's eldest son Edward, one of the few people who really knew him well, or the author may have been Browne himself. But whether written by father or son, the fact remains that the Paracelsian word, spagyrici the name of Swiss alchemist-physician's distinctive brand of alchemy, is engraved upon Browne's coffin-plate. The word spagyrici is a typical Paracelsian neologism which is believed to derive from the fusing of the Greek words  Spao, to tear open, and  ageiro, to collect

Browne’s coffin-plate inscription alludes to the commonplace quest of alchemy, the transformation of metals which for the spiritual alchemist signified a far deeper goal - the transformation of the base matter of man to acquire spiritual gold –

Hoc locuolo dormiens, corporis spagyricci pulvere plumbum in aurum convertit

translated reads-

Sleeping here the dust of his spagyric body converts the lead to gold.

The usage of the Paracelsian word spagyrici meaning to tear apart and to bind, a polarised maxim not dissimilar to the commonplace maxim of alchemy solve et coagula is perhaps the strongest concrete evidence which refutes claims that Browne's interest in Paracelsian medicine was merely marginal.

Far from being opposed to Paracelsian medicine, all the evidence suggests, that like the German chemist Andreas Libavius (1564-1616) Browne possessed a thorough and critical knowledge of Paracelsian literature, in both its practical and mystical forms, and just like Libavius (who is approvingly alluded to by Browne in P.E.) he was a critical follower of Paracelsian medicine.

But perhaps of far the most important influence of Paracelsus upon Browne is that of the Swiss physician's usage of proper-names from mythology in order to describe the psyche and its components. Most striking of all is Paracelsus's choice of symbolic proper-names to represent the alchemical art, namely Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. A flavour of Paracelsian alchemy can be gleaned from this extract-

This process is alchemy; its founder is the smith Vulcan… And he who governs fire is Vulcan, even if he be a cook or a man who tends a stove….To release the remedy from the dross is the task of Vulcan…This is alchemy, and this is the office of Vulcan; he is the apothecary and chemist of the medicine. Everything is at first created in its prima materia, its original stuff; whereupon Vulcan comes, and by the art of alchemy develops it into its final substance….Alchemy is a necessary, indispensable art…It is an art and Vulcan is its artist. He who is a Vulcan has mastered this art; [10]

It can hardly be coincidental that the very opening sentence of Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus depicts the Roman god Vulcan as an alchemist of the Creation.

That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology,may passe for no blinde apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted into Orbes, and shooting rayes, of those Luminaries.

The Roman god Vulcan, patron 'saint' of alchemists is named twice more in The Garden of Cyrus, crucially at the discourse's apotheosis in which Browne states his determinants for acquiring scientific certainty.

Flat and flexible truths are beat out by every hammer, but Vulcan and his whole forge sweat to work out Achilles his Armour.

Scattered, throughout both Urn-Burial  and The Garden of Cyrus there can be found observations made from two of Browne's amateur pursuits, namely archaeology and botany which add empirical depth to the  alchemical theme of the discourse's study of 'solve et coagula' or decay and growth; more importantly Browne's diptych discourses, not unlike passages of the Ur-Psychologie of Paracelsus, attempt to delineate components of the psyche. Indeed, not only does one of the very earliest usages of the word 'archetype' occur in The Garden of Cyrus but throughout the discourse highly original proper-name symbolism is employed to designate components or archetypes of the psyche.

In the twentieth century C. G. Jung held a deep interest in Paracelsus. The Swiss physician was well-aware of his earlier compatriot's importance in the history of the understanding of the psyche, an understanding which only began with a tentative recognition of the psyche itself, in writings by hermetic philosophers such as Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne. Jung's two essays on Paracelsus remain rewarding reading. Indeed, during the darkest hours of World War II in 1943 Jung calmly lectured upon Paracelsus in Zurich. Jung also shares with Browne a remarkably similar assessment of Paracelsus for while he described Paracelsus' writings as –

'long dreary stretches of utter nonsense (which) alternate with oases of inspired insight'.[11]

Browne, late in his life considered –

'many would be content that some would write like Helmont or Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations. [12]

Today, Jung’s assessment of the relevance of Paracelsus to our own time has become equally applicable to the growing interest in Sir Thomas Browne-

Paracelsus was, perhaps most deeply of all, an alchemical "philosopher" whose religious views involved him in an unconscious conflict with the Christian beliefs of his age in a way that seems to us inextricably confused. Nevertheless, in this confusion are to be found the beginnings of philosophical, psychological, and religious problems which are taking clearer shape in our own epoch.


[1]  Manly Hall
[2] R.M. I: 36
[3] R.M.  2:35
[4] R.M. 1 :45
[5] P.E Bk 2 :3
[6] Bk 3:12
[7] Bk 3 :12
[8] 1658 edition in author's possession.
[9] 1711 Sales Catalogue
[10] Paracelsus - Selected Writings Jolande Jacobi pub. Princeton 1988
[11] C.W. 15
[12] Christian Morals  2:6

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

Bronzino's masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time is archetypal in its subject-matter and style to the art movement of Mannerism.
Mannerism originated in Rome about 1520. The style continued with undiminished vigour and conviction in secular and decorative works in Italy until about 1600, and in the Northern courts of Paris, Munich and Prague until about 1620. The last truly vigorous manifestations of Mannerism in art were in a group of Dutch artists from the schools of Haarlem and Utrecht.

The Florentine artist Agnolo di Cosmi (1503-72) also known as Il Bronzino, depicts in Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time  a quartet of allegorical personifications enacting a drama of the psyche. While Cupid, Venus and Time are easily identifiable from their attributes, the personifications of the three characters in the background to the main action are more ambiguous in their identity; it has been proposed they may represent Despair, Pleasure and Jealousy. 

Typically of Mannerist artists, Bronzino employs a complex symbolism taken from classical mythology in order to make an intriguing psychological statement. Nor can one easily overlook the erotic content of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time another frequently encountered focus of Mannerist art.

Mannerism has been defined as an artificial style, a style of excess and as an art for connoisseurs. Its main thematic concerns, as in Bronzino's work, often feature the infinite varieties of antiquity, in particular, Roman antiquity, with its refinement, elegance and grace. Mannerist art is also characterised by hidden classical references, interlacing of forms, unexpected departures from common usage and symbolism of an esoteric or mythological nature.

According to critic Arnold Hauser, Mannerism was a refined and exclusive style, intellectually sophisticated and even surrealistic in its outlook, it catered for an essentially pan-European cultured class. Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time c.1547) certainly fits Hauser's definition. It was commissioned by a member of the Medici family as a present for King Francis of France. Bronzino's masterpiece has been at the National Gallery, London since 1860.

Mannerist art  is now recognised as having influenced stylistic effects of the modern art movement of surrealism. In a series of paintings Archimboldo (1527-1593) ingeniously exploited the optical trickery of multiple images, a device copied centuries later, in the artist Salvador Dali's own double-images; the unusual perspective of Joachim Wtewael's Perseus and Andromeda is echoed in Max Ernst's Temptation of Saint Anthony, while the receding horizon and vast urban spaces of Mannerist artist Antoine Caron is imitated in Italian Futurist artist De Chirico's eerie cityscapes.

Arnold Hauser noted of  Mannerist art -

'At one time it is the deepening and spiritualizing of religious experience and a vision of a new spiritual content in life; at another, an exaggerated intellectualism, consciously and deliberately deforming reality, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse.'

Although differing in medium, the quaternity of statuettes upon the Layer monument share a number of thematic concerns and stylistic traits to Bronzino's masterpiece. Both art-works allude to the antiquity of the classical era, both involve the interplay of a quartet of allegorical personifications, indeed there's more than a little shared symbolism between Folly, Venus and Time to Vanitas, Gloria and Labor respectively on the Layer Monument. Both artworks are boldly coloured and exhibit lively, if stylized movement and nudity. They even have a near-identical object in colour and geometric shape in common. Crucially, both Renaissance artworks utilize a complex inter-related symbolism of an esoteric nature to make a profound observation upon the human psyche, which ultimately is unfathomable in depth. 

It's often stated that the left foot of Cupid in the lower left corner of Bronzino's work can be seen  in the opening credits of the  British comedy-sketch TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus. However, a closer inspection reveals the left foot on Bronzino's Cupid doesn't exactly match up with animator and film-director Terry Gilliam's trademark image .


Wiki-Links   Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time  -  The Foot of Cupid

An essay on Bronzino's painting  here

Books quoted

John Shearman –Mannerism - pub. Penguin 1967
Arnold Hauser -Social History of Art, Volume 2: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque: pub. Routledge 1951

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Magic Square of Numbers

Recently, while browsing in a charity shop, I found a small brass square with numbers inscribed upon it. After purchasing it and taking it home I discovered that the same total sum occurs, not only on vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines of the square, but also in each quadrant section and the central quincunx of  its squares; in each way, including all four corners, the resultant number of thirty-three is made. (Photo above).

Turns out I've stumbled upon a discarded souvenir from Barcelona, Spain, from the cathedral of Sagrada Familia to be precise. The latin words inscribed upon the reverse of, what is little more than an esoteric fridge-door magnet- TEMPLE EXPIATORI SAGRADA FAMILIA confirm the  probable origin of the brass magic square of numbers.

The unfinished cathedral in Barcelona was designed by Antoni Gaudi and later sculpted by Josep Maria Subirachs, when  he started work on the Sagrada Familia in 1987.

In squares of order 4 where the numbers run sequentially from 1-16 the magic constant (the sum of a single line, row or diagonal) is 34, however in Joseph Subirachs' square the numbers 12 or 16 are omitted while the numbers 10 and 14 are duplicated, making a magic constant of 33, a number associated with the age of Jesus Christ at the crucifixion.

A section of the text on the great doors at the west end of the Sagrada Família includes a magic square which was added by the Catalan sculptor. Every diagonal, row or line sum equals 33, symbolizing Christ's age at crucifixion.

Subrirach's magic square can also be found on the Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia.(above).

Another well-known example of a magic square of numbers occurs in the German artist Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I.(above). In its background a magic number square can be seen in which the year of Durer's composition is inscribed in the bottom row, 15-14.

Number, along with colour, is among the deepest-rooted of all unconscious symbols. We are incapable of expressing consciously all the known associations of a symbol. Psychologically, just like each individual life, a symbol is alive and simultaneously consists of both a known and an unknown content. The colours, (not strictly colours) black and white for example, will forever hold positive and negative associations with virtue, vice, morality, emotion and mood. The colours of National flags and sports teams are often embedded deep within individual psyche's; just as the colour pink is invariably culturally embedded in gender association; no matter how consciously resisted, number and colour hold deep unconscious associations.

The ancient Greek Pythagoras based much of his teachings upon number. Worshipped as a god for almost 1000 years, the mystical philosopher once declaring - 'All is arranged to number'. Pythagoras expressed his mystery religion through symbols such as the celestial 'harmony of the spheres', geometry and the tetraktys, a pyramid of dots structured upon the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10  the number by which the followers of Pythagoras swore allegiance to him.

Number symbolism occurs in many world cultures and religions, including the Old and New Testaments of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, from the first book of the Bible describing the four rivers flowing out from Eden in Genesis, to the naming of the beast 666 in the 27th and last book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation. The numbers 7, 12 and 40  - frequently encountered in the Old Testament, retain spiritual significance to believers.

It's due to a Christian perspective in western culture that the number 13 is considered unlucky and why some high-storey buildings such as hotels omit the floor number. The whole conflict and religious schism between Protestantism and Catholicism can be expressed as a conflict between the numbers 3 and 4, the number three being favoured by Protestantism as representing the Trinity, while the number 4 is closely associated with the addition of the sacred feminine of the Virgin Mary and the symbolism of the tetramorph, the four figures of the evangelists of the New Testament in Christian iconography.

In the twentieth century the Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung based his psychology on their being four distinct functions or entities of psychic activity. He also liked quoting the opening words of Plato's influential philosophical dialogue the Timaeus as an example of Plato's awareness of a conflict existing between the numbers 3 and 4. C.G. Jung considered it highly significant that both Plato, and in the modern era, the German polymath Johann Goethe, were aware of this conflict-

'One, to, three -  but, my dear Timaeus, of those who yesterday were the banqueters where is the fourth ?

C.G.Jung also interpreted the numbers 4 and 5 as representing a dilemma between nature and culture, stating-

'There is thus a dilemma between four and five. Five is the number assigned to the 'natural' man, in so far as he consists of a trunk with five appendages. Four on the other hand, signifies a conscious totality. It describes the ideal 'spiritual' man and formulates him as a totality in contrast to the pentad, which describes the corporeal man....The dilemma of four and five corresponds to the conflict between “culture” and “nature”.  [1]

The number ten is prominent in the Judaic tradition of the ten commandments of Moses and in the ten entities or Sephiroth of the kabbalah of Judaism. It is also the number the hermetic philosopher Sir Thomas Browne consciously evokes in the totality of chapters in his literary diptych  Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus.  Browne confidently declared in Religio Medici (1643) - I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magic of numbers  and Pythagorean numerology plays no small role in his last published work, The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Like the known half of a symbol conjoining the hidden half of a symbol, Browne's The Garden of Cyrus is dense in associative symbolism as its artificer playfully provides evidence of the number five, including its geometric form, the Quincunx pattern, is archetypal in nature and art-design; its presence as an archetype is also discerned in the spiritual mysteries of Christianity, the kabbalah and astrology.

Browne concludes his speculations upon the significance of the number five in the Bible in The Garden of Cyrus thus-

whether this number be oftner applied unto bad things and ends, then good in holy Scripture, and why? He may meet with abstrusities of no ready resolution.

We can be fairly confident that Browne was knowledgeable on mystical numerology;  In  a chapter of his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica  entitled  'Of the great Climacteric year, that is, Sixty three'  he discusses the influence of numbers thus -

Thus is it not improbable it hath also fared with number, which though wonderful in itself, and sufficiently magnifiable from its demonstrable affections, hath yet received adjections from the multiplying conceits of men, and stands laden with additions, which its equity will not admit. 
For first,  not only the number of 7 and 9 from considerations abstruse, have been extolled by most, but all or most of the other digits have been as mystically applauded. For the number of One and Three have not been only admitted by the Heathens, but from adorable grounds, the unity of God, and mystery of the Trinity admired by many Christians. The number of four stands much admired, not only in the quaternity of the Elements, which are the principles of bodies, but in the letters of the Name of God, which in the Greek, Arabian, Persian, Hebrew, and Egyptian, consisteth of that number; and was so venerable among the Pythagoreans that they swore by the number four.That of six hath found many leaves in its favour; not only for the days of the Creation, but its natural consideration, as being a perfect number, and the first that is completed by its parts; that is, the sixth, the half, and the third, 1. 2. 3. Which drawn into a sum, make six. The number of Ten hath been as highly extolled, as containing even, odd, long, plain, quadrate and cubical numbers; and Aristotle observed with admiration, that Barbarians as well as Greeks, did use numeration unto Ten, which being so general, was not to be judged casual, but to have a foundation in nature. So that not only 7 and 9, but all the rest have had their Eulogies .. [2]

A casual perusal of the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne's library reveals the 17th century physician-philosopher possessed a commentary on Pythagoras and books by the ancient Greek mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes.  Janus-like, he also kept abreast of the latest discoveries of modern-rational deductive mathematics as advanced by his contemporaries. The British mathematician William Oughtred (the inventor of the slide-rule who is also credited with introducing the symbol X into mathematics) along with contemporary mathematicians Seth Ward and Henry Briggs are represented in Browne's library. [3]

It's worth remembering that no small proportion of the scientific thinking developed in the 17th century scientific revolution by men such as Galileo, Kepler and  Robert Hooke, Boyle and Newton in Britain, were scientists who promoted new ideas on nature, maths and physics and whose ideas formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, often held a deep interest in esoteric disciplines.

The scientific revolution, in Britain in particular, as Dame Frances Yates amply demonstrated, was the product of a hybrid of scientific thinking which evolved as much from the study of esoteric sources such as Pythagorean numerology as the methodology of rational, deductive science. In fact, many embryonic scientific discoveries were incubated in the womb of pre-Christian, pagan sources, especially from the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato, along with a host of esoteric traditions, notably from the triumvirate of alchemy, astrology and the cabbala, all of which utilized sacred numerology in one form or another. 

Esoteric symbolism continues to live in modern architectural wonders such as the cathedral Sagrada Familia at Barcelona in Spain, and in mundane and trivial souvenirs for tourists.

Nave roof of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
[1] C.G.Jung C.W.  9 i  680
[2] P.E. Book 4 chapter 12
[3]  Pages 28 - 29 - 30 of the 1711 Sales Catalogue lists 98 books under the generic term, Libri Mathematici includes books on astronomy, astrology and geometry along with mathematics, such as  -

ArchimedesOpera   page 28  no.2
Henry Briggs - Arithemetica Logarithmica London 1644   page 28  no. 15
Thomas Fincke - Geometria Rotundi  Basle 1583  page 29 no.11
Seth Ward - Idea Trigonomeriae  Oxford 1654  page 29 no.12
Thomas Digges  -Alae seu Scalae Mathematicae  London 1573 p. 29 no. 51
William Oughtred - Clavis Mathematica  London 1648   page 30 no. 13

Article on  Magic square numbers

Monday, October 08, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

First performed in its current production in Leeds, December 2011, and now on tour throughout the UK this October and November, Northern Ballet's Beauty and the Beast, choreographed by artistic director David Nixon.

In the course of the performance at Theatre Royale, Norwich, there was a giant hologram, full stage projections, on stage explosions, a judicious use of strobe lighting and bungee cords, seven different stage settings and seventeen scene changes in total. No mean achievement for a company which is currently suffering the effects of a draconian  25% funding cut.  

Artistic director David Nixon became interested in choreography when at the National Ballet School of Canada while still a dancer. His interest became more serious when he took over his first company, stating-

'I discovered that my work was pivotal in developing dancers’ potential and that I had an ability to tell stories through dance'. 

David Nixon has been artistic director of Northern Ballet since 2001. He's created new versions of Madame Butterfly, Swan Lake, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Peter Pan and The Three Musketeers. A highlight of his choreographic career is his innovative Dracula (1999). He received an OBE in the 2010 New Year Honours for his services to Ballet and his latest work, Cleopatra, was given it's world premiere in  Leeds in February 2011. 

The skeletal framework of Nixon's stylish interpretation of the archetypal story of the opposites, of outer beauty and inner moral worth, is the music of several French romantic composers. Setting the atmosphere firmly in the world of the daimonic and fairy-tale, the ballet opened with the Northern Ballet Sinfonia's lively rendering of Saint-Saen's Danse Macabre. 

Highlights of the evening included a tender pas de deux by the principal dancer's (Martha Leebolt and Giuliano Contadini) to the music of Debussy's Clair de Lune and a dream sequence pas de trois, in which Beauty and the Prince dance a rapturous love duet while the Beast despairingly gambols around them in torment. It was also nice to hear a zestful extract from Glazunov's The Seasons, a sprightly invitation to the dance matched by a riot of colour in costume change. 

Interspersed throughout the romantic fantasy there was humour, in particular from Beauty's two vain shopaholic sisters and most amusingly from the Beast's ape-like servants. The  prop link between a hand-held white rose and a giant-scale white rose in which Beauty slept as a guest of the Beast (photo above) was neat too.

Personally, I felt the last movement of Debussy's La Mer seemed a little too powerful and out of synch emotionally with the ballet's narrative, however, the love-story was well-served returning to the music of the composer opening the ballet; the celebrated pomp and grandeur of the final movement of Saint-Saens Organ Symphony was highly effective accompaniment to the climax and apotheosis of the fairy-tale ballet. The company of dancers received rapturous applause from an appreciative audience which seemed to enjoy the acrobatic talents of the Beast slightly more than Beauty's charms, for he received the louder applause at the curtain-call.

The story of Beauty and the Beast has inspired various artists since it's first recorded appearance in the 18th century. Earlier last century, the French multi-genre artist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) made a film based upon what is, in essence, an utterly French tale of love, beauty and deception, La Bete et La Belle (1946)The American composer Philip Glass in turn, wrote an opera in 1994 based on Cocteau's film, which, closely following each scene, is effectively a new soundtrack for Cocteau's masterpiece.  

First performed in 1997, it's beginning to look as if Beauty and the Beast is establishing itself firmly in the ballet repertoire. I certainly hope so as David Nixon's stunning interpretation deserves preserving in the ephemeral world of modern dance.