Russian music with an Albanian conductor in a London church

THE ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR Olsi Qinami, who began studying music in Tirana (Albania), lives in London. He certainly knows how to get the best out of the orchestra he helped to found, the London City Philharmonic. On Saturday the 2nd of October 2021 he conducted the orchestra in a wonderful concert of music by three Russian composers, two of them from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. The musicians performed to a large and enthusiastic audience in the church of St James in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Many of those present were Albanian speakers and amongst them the Albanian ambassador, Qirjako Qirko.

Olsi Qinami

The church, a fine example of Victorian gothic, was built to satisfy the spiritual requirements of the rapidly growing population of 19th century Paddington. Designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the building was completed in 1882 on the site of an earlier, smaller church that was built in the neo-classical style in about 1841. Apart from being a highly successful example of gothic revival, the church is notable for having been that in which the unjustly vilified writer Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Despite being a large, spacious building, the church’s acoustics coped well with the orchestral music.

The concert opened with a spirited rendering of the “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin. This piece holds a special place in my heart, as I will now explain. In the late 1950s, my parents bought or were gifted an LP entitled “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Know Anything About Classical Music”, which I played often in my childhood. Its cover has a sketch of four people in the living room of a very modern looking house, even by today’s standards. A lady, looking pleased with herself or the music or both, stands next to a gramophone player clutching a record cover (sleeve). Behind her, three people are seated in armchairs: one looks puzzled; another looks a bit bored; and the third has fallen asleep with a drinking glass resting on his armrest. One of the tracks on this LP was the “Polovtsian Dances”.

Borodin’s piece was followed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”, with which I am less familiar than the “Polovtsian Dances”. Although this brief piece was nicely performed, it is unlikely to enter my list of favourite works by this composer in the near future.

After the interval, we were treated to an exciting and brilliantly performed rendering of the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Olsi Qinami and the orchestra handled the constant alternation of the composer’s triumphant sounding sections of the symphony with its comparatively peaceful, lyrical sections with exquisite mastery.

Shostakovitch completed his 5th Symphony in 1937, soon after having been heavily criticised by Stalin for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, first performed in 1934. Had the Fifth Symphony not been so well received and liked by Stalin, the composer’s future might have become exceedingly grim. As Olsi Qinami pointed out in a brief speech before conducting the symphony, the piece, which was praised by the authorities, contains subtle musical messages expressing the composer’s criticism of the ruling regime. Whether or not one was able to detect these messages did not matter because the performance we heard was exciting, uplifting, and invigorating. In the last minutes of the symphony, I noticed one of the violinists breaking into a wonderful smile, no doubt because she and the rest of the orchestra had so successfully mastered this complex and difficult piece of music.

An odd thought occurred to me whilst listening to the Shostakovich piece. It was composed in 1937, when life for ordinary people in the USSR cannot have been at all easy. Although the situation here in the UK in 2021 is hardly comparable to that distant time in Russia, we are also going through times far more difficult than anyone has experienced since WW2, what with the covid 19 pandemic, Brexit-related problems, and shortages in shops and filling stations. It must have been a source of great solace for Soviet citizens to escape from their daily problems, if only for a few hours, by joining an audience at a concert of fine classical music. Well, that is how Olsi’s joyous concert felt for me as soon as he lifted his baton, and the orchestra began to play.

Two heads in Cornwall

BIRDS WITH TWO heads have fascinated me ever since I first became interested in Albania when I was about 15 years old. Just in case you did not know, the flag of Albania (and several other countries) bears an eagle with two heads. Another place that uses this imaginary bird with two heads as a symbol is a place I visit frequently: Karnataka State (formerly Mysore State) in the south of India. Currently (June 2021), unable to visit either Albania or India, we are on holiday in the English county of Cornwall. At least two Cornish families have employed this imaginary double-headed creature as a symbol: the Killigrews and the Godolphins.  The famous banking family, the Hoares, also use the double-headed bird on their crest. A branch of this family might have originated in Cornwall (www.houseofnames.com/hoare-family-crest).

In the Kings Room at Godolphin House, Cornwall

I do not know for sure when or why the two-headed bird was adopted by these leading Cornish families, but here is my theory. John (1166-1216), King of England from 1199 until his death, had a son, his second, called Richard (1209-1272). His older brother, who became King Henry III, gifted him the county of Cornwall, making Richard High Sherriff of the county as well as its duke. The revenues collected from his county made Richard a wealthy man. Cutting a long story short, Richard of Cornwall was elected King of the Germany in 1256, often a position held by candidates being considered for becoming Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This allowed him to become known as the ‘King of the Romans’. He was the ruler (but not the emperor) of the Holy Roman Empire, a position he held until 1272, when he was replaced by Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218-1291). Richard hoped to become emperor, but never made the position. His crest bore a single-headed eagle, but that of the realm to which he aspired, The Holy Roman Empire, employed an eagle with two heads. At this point, I enter the realm of speculation. I suggest (with no evidence to back this up) that some noble families in Cornwall, who might have been associated with Richard, might have borrowed the double-headed eagle of Richard’s German kingdom for use on their family crests to enhance their family’s importance. Or, they might have used it in deference to Richard.  But, as my late father-in-law often said, I am only thinking aloud.

Recently, we visited Godolphin House, a National Trust maintained property just over 4 miles northwest of Helston. Set in lovely gardens, the house is what remains of a building that dates to about 1475, built by John I Godolphin. It was part of a far larger building, much of which is in ruins. It has a good set of stone outhouses. Godolphin built his house about 7 years after the death of the Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1405-1468), also known as ‘Skanderbeg’, whose coat of arms, helmet, and seal includes a double-headed eagle. I do not know whether Skanderbeg was aware of the Godolphins, but it is possible that the reverse might have been the case, as much was written about the Albanian hero, even soon after his death, and many members of the Godolphin family were well-educated.

The name ‘Godolphin’ is derived from several earlier versions of the family’s surname. In 1166, there was reference to ‘Edward de Wotholca’. A record dated 1307 mentions the family of ‘Alexander de Godolghan’, who died in 1349. It was he who built the first fortified residence at Godolphin, the name that the family eventually adopted. John I Godolphin demolished the first dwelling and replaced it with what was the basis for the existing building.

The Godolphins of Cornwall included several notable figures. Sir Francis I Godolphin (1540-1608) constructed extensive defensive works to protect Cornwall and The Scilly Isles against Spanish incursions, as well as improving the efficiency of his tin mines. His son William Godolphin (1567-1613) was a loyal supporter of royalty during the English Civil War. It was said that the future King Charles II visited Godolphin House and stayed in what is now known as the ‘King’s Room’.  

Sidney, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645-1712) was involved in the Court and Parliament during the reign of Queen Anne, which ran from 1707 to 1714. His most important position was First Lord of the Treasury. During both Anne’s reign and that of her predecessor, King William III, he was strongly associated with the military career of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Sidney’s son, Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678-1766) was also a politician and a courtier. Although he was born in London, he represented the Cornish constituency of Helston, which is not far from Godolphin House. Francis worked his way up the governmental hierarchy to become Lord Privy Seal in 1735. a position he held for five years. In 1698, Francis married Henrietta (1681-1733), eldest daughter of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The Godolphins were spending hardly any time in Cornwall by the 18th century. From 1786, Godolphin House was owned by the Dukes of Leeds, who never lived there. Despite its now distant connection with the Godolphin family, their double-headed eagle can still be spotted around the house. There is a fine example in the Kings Room and several more on the hopper heads at the top of the rain collecting downpipes.

Whether or not birds with two heads fascinate you, a visit to Godolphin House, remote in the Cornish countryside, is well-worth making, not only to spot the mythical birds but also to enjoy fine architecture and wonderful gardens.