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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

My Wet and Windy Week in London Town

Carlos at the Royal Albert Hall in the London rain, 2010

Carlos at the Royal Albert Hall in the London rain, 2010

John Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fantasy sums it up, but there is lots more to it than that…

This has been a week of renewing my acquaintance with a diverse set of activities and events. They have included listening and discussing musical gems with my students, the Great British Weather (GBW), and a London underground (subway) strike. Oh, the pleasures and woes of each in sequence would fill verse after verse of one of those interminable epic songs so beloved of ancient minstrels! Taken ensemble they form the disunited whole on the brink of chaos, that has characterised life in the capital this week. And all the while music itself acted as a thread weaving its way through my rich tapestry of existence, and as threads do, turning mere fabric into a warm garment with which to wrap myself and feel good.

If my slightly archaic language seems more akin to that of Tudor monarchs than of the modern House of Windsor, it is because the musical highlight of the week for me has been revisiting John Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fantasy with one of my students. Although composed during the reign of Elizabeth 1 (she, the defeater of the Spanish Armada) this great music has a totally contemporary feel in its emotional unease and uncertainty. The piece occupies a pre-eminent position in the music for lute and guitar – more of this anon.

This week in London started on Sunday with my return from Madrid whose tapas bars and restaurants are some of my favourite haunts when I take time off. Truthfully I have to tell you that I cannot now recall whether it was not raining when I arrived. The name of the game this week has been to step out during the brief respites from lashings of rain and violent gusts of wind. One evening I meandered from one side of the pavement to the other – not, you understand, because I was drunk but because of the gale force wind. I pulled my hat down on my head as far as it would go, so far that I was scarcely able to see where I was going, and all to no avail, for whoosh, off it flew and skipped madly along the pavement coming to rest against a wall. There I was on Exhibition Road next to Imperial College feeling completely miserable as I picked up my bedraggled head-cover. At that moment a jaunty voice from a distinguished-looking gentleman said:
“You’re lucky, my hat has ended up in that basement over there, and I am waiting for the security guard to retrieve it for me. Ha, ha, ha!”
Now there is nothing on earth more likely to encourage the English to make conversation with complete strangers than pets and the GBW. If they cannot find anything to say to each other about these topics they are quite likely to meet every day of their lives at work or as neighbours and never exchange a single word or pleasantry!

Soldiering on, I pressed my hat to my side whilst trying to avoid being blown off my feet from the pavement into the oncoming traffic. My face was by now covered in rain-water, whilst thin streams of the stuff began to form a whole new landscape on my bald head. The underground entrance came into view, just another hundred yards or so and I would reach safety, except of course, the underground might not be running because the staff were on strike! Is this what John Dowland had in mind with his Forlorn Hope Fantasy, a musical tale of almost unremitting gloom from a composer who may have been a Londoner himself? Who better to reflect on the ups and downs of city living than our lute-playing hero?

It has no words, and yet the tortured melodic line speaks as eloquently as any Italian madrigal of the time

Seriously now, let me tell you what other music I have heard in my intense week of teaching: Tarrega’s Capricho Arabe, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the Allemande from his 4th cello suite, Rodrigo’s En Los Trigales and Tres Piezas Españolas, Albeniz’s Asturias, Ginastera’s Sonata, Mompou’s Suite Compostelana, and Walton’s Bagatelles. That is an impressive range, but nothing resonated more with me than Forlorn Hope, it seemed to chime in with my mood. The piece itself is a masterpiece. It is perfectly structured. The harmonic language takes unexpected dark turns through its chromatic counterpoints. It has no words, and yet the tortured melodic lines speak as eloquently and as powerfully as any of the madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi or Carlo Gesualdo, both contemporaries of Dowland. If you have not heard this work, listen to Julian Bream’s stunning rendition after you read these words!

And so I staggered on towards the end of the week. Even as I write I hear the damp tread of car tyres splashing water as they drive past my window through yet another downpour. But not all is gloom: a yellow disc appeared high up for 30 minutes or so one day this week, I think it was on Thursday about 11am. I, in the company of other fellow creatures, stopped in our tracks and stared in wonder. The sun – hello!

And what does Forlorn Hope have to say about that? Everything. The piece winds its way through melancholy and darkness with shafts of sunlight piercing its gloom once or twice, before turning an emotional corner on the home straight towards the finish. A contrapuntal sequence contrasts an obsessively melancholic melody with uplifting passage-work of great virtuosity. It seems barely credible that it can all be played on one lute. I wouldn't exactly call it a triumph of light and hope, the finale is too short for that. It is more a smile than an arm raised: in musical language a plagal finish rather than a perfect cadence. It is as if Dowland were saying only God Himself can alter my mood and lead me, if not to lasting happiness itself, at least towards brief moments of elation and acceptance.

Acceptance and brief moments of elation, ah yes, that was the name of the game this week, to cope with the various challenges in London town. Thank you John Dowland. Thank you Forlorn Hope Fantasy. Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel after all.

8th February 2014, London

Listen here to Julian Bream play Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fantasy

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Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=3059 .
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