Autobahn

SOME YEARS AGO, I began listening to music performed by the German group Kraftwerk, formed in 1970 in the West German city of Düsseldorf. They specialise in electronically generated music, a field in which they were pioneers in their country. In the 1980s, I used to drive across Europe from my home in North Kent to places as far afield as Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. The cars I drove at the time were equipped with music cassette players. I recorded my own cassettes from LPs and CDs in my own large collection. Amongst the music I found satisfying during the long journeys I made were some of the creations of the Kraftwerk band. Amongst my favourite of their albums were “Autobahn” (first released 1974) and “Radio-Aktivität” (released 1975). The music was a great accompaniment to speeding along the highways of Europe including Germany’s Autobahns.

I used to break my journeys along the highways at regular intervals, stopping in villages or towns to take a short rest and refreshment. On one journey, I drove off the Autobahn into a picturesque small town in Bavaria, whose name I have forgotten. I entered a busy Gasthaus (pub with a restaurant) and found a vacant seat next to an elderly gentleman who was enjoying a stein of lager.

I remember seeing people sitting nearby drinking beer with slices of lemon. However, what I remember most is the brief conversation I had with my elderly neighbour. My German was, and still is, rudimentary but sufficient to have a simple conversation. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing. I explained that I was driving to Yugoslavia. Then, I said something about the high quality of motorways (Autobahns) in what was then West Germany. The old man smiled, and said (in German):

“Naturally. They were made by our leader Adolf Hitler.”

I was at a loss for words because few if any Germans I had met until then had ever mentioned Hitler and certainly not in such a favourable light. Without waiting for me to respond, he explained that he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Russians during WW2 and had spent many years in prison camps there. I would have loved to have discussed this with him in detail, but my German was not up to it and also, I had to get on with the journey I had planned for that day.

Most people, including yours truly, credit Hitler with stimulating the building of Autobahns and similar highways. This is a mistake depending how one defines a motorway. In this context, a motorway is a road often with limited access and limited to motorised vehicles.

While Germany was being ruled by the government of the Weimar Republic, work began on an ambitious scheme to build a car only highway/motorway linking Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main and Basel (Switzerland). Parts of this were constructed before Hitler came to power. That road lacked a central reservation as found on modern motorways, but excluded traffic such as cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles pulled by animals. The Autobahns constructed after Hitler came to power were similar to those currently constructed.

In the 1920s before Hitler ruled Germany but after Mussolini became Italy’s dictator, Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways reserved for motorised vehicles travelling at speed. The first Italian autostrade (motorways; singular: autostrada) were completed between 1924 and 1926 and by the end of the 1930s, the country had over 250 miles of both single- and dual-carriageway autostrade. It is sad to relate that the UK had to wait until 1958 for its first motorway, the Preston by-pass, now part of the M6. In 1959, the first section of the M1 was opened, linking Watford and Rugby. This stretch of highway had no central reservation, no lighting, no crash barriers, and no speed limit. Things have changed since then.

When I used to cross Germany, the motorways (Autobahnen) had long stretches where there were no speed restrictions. Once, I decided to check out the ability of my box-like Volvo 240 estate car on a German Autobahn. To my surprise, the vehicle whose shape looked anything but aerodynamic, effortlessly achieved a speed of 105 miles per hour going up a steep incline. When driving at high speeds in Germany, you can be sure that there will be plenty of vehicles that shoot past you at even higher speeds.

After the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, many former East Germans flooded the Autobahns with their poorly powered Trabant vehicles. Often when driving along the motorways in Germany I saw these slow-moving cars valiantly sitting in the overtaking lanes trying to pass vehicles with far more powerful engines. The drivers of speedy cars like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, needed fast reflexes and good brakes to avoid crashing into the Trabants being driven by those who were enjoying the freedom of travel after many years of repression in the former DDR.

My days of driving across Europe from the UK have ended. The short journey from Kensington to the Channel crossings is tedious on account of the heavy traffic in London and South East England. Also, it is tiring to drive for at least a day and a half before reaching lovely countryside, be it the south of France or the mountains of Switzerland or Austria. I still enjoy driving but not the great distances I used to cover, and my enjoyment of the music of Kraftwerk remains as great as ever.

Water music

I BELIEVE THAT SOUND travels well over water. I do not know if that is scientifically proven, but I like to think that it is the case.

BLOG KENWOOD 2

Yesterday, we visited Kenwood in north London. The neo-classical mansion, remodelled by Robert Adam (1728-1792) and completed in about 1780, contains a superb collection of fine art (the Iveagh Bequest), mostly paintings. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, Kenwood House was closed, but its extensive grounds were open. Although the official car park was fully occupied, there was no sense of crowding in the grounds.

A wide terrace at the rear of the mansion overlooks a sweeping panorama including a lake at the bottom of the grassy slope that falls away from the terrace. From this vantage point, the viewer can see what looks like a fine bridge with balustrades and three arches at the eastern end of the body of water. However, what meets the eye is not a bridge, but a sham, a trompe-l’oeil, made in wood to produce a picturesque view. It was designed by Robert Adam and constructed in about 1767 and fully restored in the late 20th century.

The bridge has survived the progression of time, but another structure that was a notable feature on the side of the lake furthest from the House has not.  This was an edifice shaped like the quarter of a sphere. Within this shelter, a whole symphony orchestra could be comfortably seated with their instruments. On summer evenings, orchestras used to play music that travelled across the lake to huge audieces seated on the grassy slope leading down to the water.

I used to attend these concerts occasionally during my younger days. They were, as I can recall, often on Saturday evenings. Two kinds of tickets were available. The costlier ones allowed a person to sit on one of the deckchairs arranged in rows on the part of the slope closest to the lake. The cheaper ones permitted holders to sit on the grass above the rows of deckchairs. Many people, who sat on the grass, brought rugs and picnics, which they enjoyed whilst listening to the music. I have never liked sitting on the floor and always preferred to experience the concert in a comfortable deckchair.

It was delightful sitting outside hearing well-performed music whilst the sun set slowly, and the twilight enveloped us all. The acoustics were good, but the first halves of many concerts were subject to the frequent the competition from noisy aeroplanes passing overhead. Usually, by the second half of the performance, there were few interruptions by ‘planes.

When we returned to Kenwood yesterday, the orchestra ‘dome’ was not visible. Where it had been has been replaced by bushes and trees. There is not a trace of it left. It looks as if it had never existed and I worried that maybe my memory had played a trick on me. We stopped a couple of elderly women and asked them about the concerts. They remembered them well and told us that they had been stopped a few years ago because, incredibly, local residents had complained about being disturbed by the noise (and increased traffic) during the few events that occurred each summer.

The lakeside concerts were held every year between 1951 and 2006, the year the English Heritage was forced to put an end to what had been a lovely annual event and an important money-spinner for them. I remember those concerts with fondness and hope that the wealthy inhabitants who live around the area, quite distant from the lake, will one day relent to allow music lovers to enjoy fine music wafting across the water. Well, as often is the case, money has more clout than culture.

Divided but unified

CZECH BLOG

Notting Hill Gate, not to be confused with ‘Notting Hill’ as in the Hugh Grant film, on the western edge of central London is not lacking in mediochre modern architecture, mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. One building stands out as being aesthetically a cut above the rest. This is the former Czechoslovak Centre, the Embassy of Czechoslovakia, a fine (if that is an appropriate adjective) example of ‘Brutalist’ concrete architecture.

The Centre was built between 1965 and 1970, and was designed by “…Šrámek, Stephansplatz and Jan Bočan, from the Atelier Beta Prague Project Institute, were the architects of the embassy, working in cooperation with British architect Robert Matthew and based in his office” (see HERE for detail). The building won an architectural award from RIBA in 1971. Unlike many buildings built at te same time, the Czechoslovak Centre building has not suffered from ageing. It stll looks in great condition.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. It split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Despite this, the Czechoslovak Centre building continued to have diplomati cfunctions. The building was divided into a Czech Embassy and a Slovak Embassy.

Before and after the separation of the two parts of what was once Czechoslovakia, I was a member of  the Dvorak Society, an English organisation for promoting interest in music from  the Czech and Slovak lands. The Czechoslovak, and then later the Czech and Slovak embassies used to host occasional congenial recitals of music for the Dvorak Society.

On one occasion after 1993, my wife and I attended a recital at the Slovak Embassy. After the music was over, we were treated to delicious food and Slovakian wine. The ambassador mingled amongst the guests. My wife asked him how the Czechs and Slovaks were coping with sharing the same building. Smiling, he replied:

We have to cope well because we have to share the central heating and hot water system that was installed to serve the building when it was a single embassy.”

DisCONCERTing

I have attended concerts at BBC recording studios. Before the performance begins, the audience, members of the public, are asked to be very still and silent, so as not to spoil the recording or live broadcast. The audience is politely requested to be so silent that one feels that even the sound of breathing might disturb the event.

With the exception of one western classical music concert in Bombay, audience disturbance is well tolerated at concerts I have attended in India. Pepole arrive and leave the auditorium whenever they feel like. They chat and take photos and often mover from one part of the auditorium to another.

Once, I attended a musical performance that was being relayed ‘live’ on All India Radio. Unlike the BBC recordings and live broadcasts, the audience was far from placid. Throughout the event, there were disturbances as described above, but no one seemed in the slightest disconcerted .

But, all is no longer well with British audiences. Recently, I have been to a few classical music performances in London, at which there has been applause at inappropriate places in the music. An example of this is clapping at the end of a movement of a symphony, rather than at its ending. Maybe, orchestras are getting used to this, but I find it a bit disconcerting.

Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

A vulgar audience

music

 

I enjoy attending events at the Nehru Centre, the Indian High Commission’s cultural centre in London. However, the audience can become quite unruly occasionally. 

Only afew days ago, I attended a concert of Bengali and Hindi songs pertformed by an excellent Bengali male vocalist, Soumyen Adhikari who accompanied himself on a harmonium. He was also accompanied by a superb tabla player. 

The audience was, as is often the case, restless. People arrived late throughout the performance. Others kept moving from one seat to another or leaving the auditorium only to return a few minutes later. All around us people in the audience were chatting to each other loudly whilst the musicians performed. They would not be silent even after having been asked repeatedly. All of these disturbances are quite normal amongst Indian audiences and are more or less tolerable.

What really upset me at this particular concert was the ignorant comments shouted by some members of the audience. After the singer had sung several beautiful songs in Bengali, some people began shouting things like “Sing something in Hindi”, “we can’t understand Bengali”, and “enough of Bengali songs”. 

I cannot understand either Hindi or Bengali, but that does not detract from my enjoyment of songs sung in these languages. What is important to me is that the singer has a good voice and that the musicians play well. Just the lovely sounds of the songs and the music is a great pleasure for me. It upset me that so many of those around me lacked the  ability to appreciate the beauty of what was being played. Their approach was so parochial that all they wanted was something familiar, which they had heard over and over many times before. I felt sorry for the singer, who is clearly a masterful performer whom I would happily hear again.

Conducted by an Albanian

OLSI 1

 

The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.

The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.

The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).

In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.

Calm sea and Prosperous voyage

Digital_500

 

A few years before my mother died, I persuaded my parents to invest in a stereo hi-fi system. My mother would only have such a system if it looked nice. So, they settled on a Bang and Olufsen system. Unfortunately, the aesthetically pleasing speakers sounded awful and we replaced them with something less pleasing to look at but which sounded good. When CD’s (compact discs) became available, I added a CD player to the system. By then, my mother was dead and the appearance of the player no longer mattered.

After my mother died, I was living in Kent. I used to visit my father on Sundays. We used to have lunch together in various restaurants in Hampstead village in north-west London. Always, after we had eaten, we used to viit the Waterstones bookshop and the Our Price music shop nearby.  Often, I would purchase a CD to add to my father’s small collection. On one occasion, I bought a CD with some orchestral music by Beethoven.

Some weeks later, I asked my father if he had enjoyed that CD. He said:

“There is something wrong with it. There is complete silence for the first few minutes.”

I said that I would look into this. When I reached his house, our family home, I turned on the hi-fi system and inserted the problematic CD. My father was right. For the first few minutes, there was nothing to be heard.  Then, I looked at the volume adjustment slider which was marked at equally spaced intervals from 0 to 10. I discovered that my father had been using the system with the volume slider set between 0 and 1. 

The first track on the CD was Beethoven’s Opus 12: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The first few minutes of this piece are very quiet, which is why setting the volume so low made it sound silent. My father’s penchant for barely audible low volume background music was the reason for doubting the integrity of the CD, which I had given him.

 

You can listen to the music mentioned above by clickingH E R E

Poetry

Steaming_240

 

I have never been able to enjoy reading poetry and enjoy it. However, if it is read out aloud by someone else, I usually love what I hear.  Poetry is like music made with words.

Here is a poem that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young teenager. It is Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He was killed in France during WW1. His poem captures the essence of the world that reveals itself gradually when a train stops at a small country station.

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.