Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Thursday 26 April 2018

Cecil Coles - Scottish composer, died on the Western Front one hundred years ago today

(Note: I posted this on the morning of 26 April. However, the date that appears at the top is the 25th, presumably because it was before midnight Pacific Daylight Time. Just to be clear, Coles died on the 26th, not the 25th (and not the 28th, as Holst mistakenly thought).)

A few days ago I was casually looking through a pile of CDs (I've not got around to shelving my collection yet), and, almost at random, chose Music from Behind the Lines by Cecil Coles. I've owned this for some years, but listened to it only two or maybe three times. 

Reading the extensive booklet (one of several reasons why I'll never entirely go over to downloads), I noticed, with a poignant shock, that he died on April 26 1918, that is, almost exactly a century before I'd chanced upon his music. This coincidence seems to me to be worth memorialising, though I don't claim any great significance for it.

It's quite likely that any readers this blog might have have never heard of Coles, as I hadn't until I bought the CD some years ago, as casually and near-accidentally as I picked it out of the pile recently. I'm always ready to give my time to obscure 20th century British composers, and, apart from those who've never been recorded at all, Coles counts as one of the most obscure. In 1995 a programme about him was broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, the disc above was released in 2002 and his music featured in the Proms in 2003 and is very occasionally featured in concerts, but that's about it. BBC Radio 3 doesn't seem to have anything scheduled to commemorate the centenary of his death. There are some articles about him on the web (see here and here, for example), but they mostly derive (so far as I can tell) from the essay in the CD booklet (by John Purser). (Clearly, this post relies on the same source.) 

Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles was born in Kirkcudbright on 7 October 1888; he studied music at Edinburgh University, and won a scholarship to the London College of Music, and met the older Gustav Holst (b.1874), who was Director of Morley College from 1907. The two became great friends, holidaying in the Alps together. Holst later dedicated his 'Ode To Death' (1919) to Coles.

In 1908 he won another scholarship, this time to study in Stuttgart, where, in about 1911, he was appointed assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House. Some of his works were performed in the same city; a remarkable achievement for a composer in his early 20s, and a foreigner to boot. 

He married in London in 1912, and although they lived in Germany for a while they returned to England in 1913; he found work as chorus master with the Beecham Opera Company and as a teacher at Morley College. 

In 1915 he joined the army, and spent a considerable time on the Western Front, where he somehow managed to keep composing. On 26 April 1918 he was killed, aged 29. He had volunteered to rescue some injured men who were languishing in a wood; on the return journey two of the stretcher-bearers were killed outright, and Coles mortally wounded by a sniper. It's said that he hummed Beethoven as he awaited medical attention.

His wife, presumably finding it impossible to cope with her grief, never spoke about her husband to her children, not even to tell them that he'd been a composer, and isn't known to have made any effort to have his music performed. Consequently it was forgotten. His daughter Catherine (b.March 1917), who published children's books in the 60s and 70s, didn't learn about her father's talent until she was in her seventies. She'd been a pupil at St Paul's School for Girls in London, where, seemingly by a resounding coincidence, her music teacher was none other than Gustav Holst, her father's great friend who lived until 1934. Didn't he ever speak to her about Coles? Apparently not.

She began researching, and discovered that, remarkably, the scores for forty compositions were stored in a cardboard box in her father's old school in Edinburgh - schools are always in need of more space, and regularly throw out ream after ream of paper, most of it of no significance, so it's astonishing that the manuscripts, unlike her father, had survived. How exciting, and moving, it must have been for her as she first opened that unassuming box. This began Coles' mini-revival.

I can't say anything learned or profound about the music; I'll just remark on the bitter irony of Coles' numerous German connections - his third forename 'Gottlieb' (he had no German ancestry as far as I know), Holst's partly German ancestry, his productive and (I assume) happy time in Stuttgart - contrasted with his death in a war fighting that same country. What a stupid bloody waste.

There's very little music by him on Youtube. (But there are some short clips from his works on the BBC website.) In the Cathedral (from 1907, when he was only 19) is a rhapsodic short piece for string orchestra, sounding to my amateur ears as if it's influenced by English (and perhaps Scottish) folk songs, whereas much of his later music is  broadly in the German Late Romantic tradition. Cortege (from 1917, the last full year of his life), here arranged for a brass band (originally intended for a small orchestra), has a particularly poignant story behind it. He worked on the score of a four movement work called Behind the Lines in the trenches, and sent some of it to Holst at Christmas. It's reproduced at the head of this post, stained by muddy trench water and what must be a large splash of blood. Holst has written on it at the bottom, recording that only the first movement had reached him; a shell had destroyed a number of Coles' manuscripts. In fact, the third movement ('Cortege') had also survived, though the other two have been lost. Two out of four going missing in action is somehow symbolic of life on the Western Front, and in particular of Coles' own short life.

I'll leave the last words to Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935), a Scottish composer of highly international outlook, who had written a Scottish Concerto, and which had been published in Leipzig. They're from a letter to the English pianist Frederick Dawson (1868-1940), written 12 October 1914 (that is, in the early stages of the war; things were going to get very much worse):

I see that the Germans are melting down all music plates [i.e. the metal plates on which the music was engraved and from which the published music was printed] for bullets . . . no doubt by this time the concerto has been re-cast in another form, less musical, but more effective perhaps. You see how this ghastly business touches us all in many queer forms.

Thursday 5 April 2018

Flemish stained glass amid the furniture in Hitchin, Herts

Some months ago I happened to go into a furniture shop in Hitchin, Herts. I was looking at tables and sofas and so on, probably without much enthusiasm, when suddenly my eye was caught by this window. It seemed from a distance to contain some late medieval stained glass, which hardly seemed possible in a run-of-the-mill shop probably built in the 1920s. However, a closer look showed that I was right. For a moment I was deluded and arrogant enough to think that I might have 'discovered' them (that is, that I was the first person who knew what they were to have noticed them). Back home it took about thirty seconds on the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aeva website to realise that far from being ahead of the field I was trailing a long way behind; the glass has indeed been noticed and documented before. Nevertheless, it feels like a discovery of sorts - I'd lived in Hitchin for twenty years without knowing of its existence, and how many inhabitants of Hitchin realise it's there? (and how many would care?) - and this afternoon, passing by with my camera in my pocket, I took the opportunity to photograph them.

Getting decent photos isn't at all easy, as the bottom two roundels have as their natural background an intrusive street scene clearly visible. You have to crouch down onto the floor, in a very restricted space, to find an angle that has the sky behind (which distorts the perspective). Also the shop lights create distracting reflections. All this while the shop workers plainly think you're bonkers. Nevertheless, I think my photos of the last two roundels are better than those obtained by the CVMA.

There are four roundels, a coat of arms and a crown. The roundels date from the 1520s, and are probably Flemish or Netherlandish. The heraldry and crown are probably of similar date. The roundels are quite elaborately painted in monochrome on a single piece of glass, and heightened here and there with yellow, made by applying silver nitrate (or another  silver compound) to the glass. (See here for examples of 13th and 14th century glass, very different in style and technique, and much more expensive.) 

Top left is a Resurrection. Two soldiers sleep on while Christ arises from the dead, witnessed by two other soldiers (the one on the left doesn't seem very impressed). The soldiers, with their swanky feathered helmets (the one on the top right has three feathers, including a yellow one, while all the others have to make do with just one relatively drab specimen), frame the composition. The left leg of the bottom left soldier is weirdly bent to fit. Christ is handsome and heroic, though the lid of the tomb was much too small to cover the aperture, so pushing it aside can't have been all that difficult.

Top right, the archangel Michael skewers Satan in the form of a dragon. It's been decapitated, and its claws are extended in its death agonies. Its whippet-like tail extends between the archangel's legs, and its testicles are clearly depicted. The background suggests a rocky landscape with three trees, and a cliff on the right. I'm not sure how the brown of the dragon was created; maybe an alteration to the recipe of iron or copper filings that were applied to the glass to create the monochrome lines and washes did the job. Similarly, the green of the trees was probably made by changing the silver compound that usually produced yellow (or orange).

On the left in the middle tier is a crown, on half of what I think is a rose. This may refer to the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, but without more context it's impossible to be sure.

On the right is a coat of arms, with a shield displaying three crossbows. There's a motto, but I can't read it. Very likely someone knows whose coat of arms this is (or was), but unfortunately I don't. The acanthus leaves are painted vigorously, and end, strangely, in tassels. The colours were made by applying enamels to the glass.

On the bottom left is a scene known as the Visitation. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth puts her hand solicitously on Mary's swelling belly; the latter casts her eyes down modestly. The event takes place in a pleasantly wooded landscape.

The final roundel shows St Nicholas bringing three murdered boys back to life. The story goes that, during a famine, a villainous butcher lured three boys into his house, murdered them, and stored their bodies in a barrel to cure, intending, Sweeney Todd-like, to sell them as ham. Nicholas, whose face isn't well-preserved, resurrected them by his prayers; another symbol of the triumph of good over evil and life over death.

What are these stained glass scenes doing in a furniture shop in Hitchin? We can guess that  when it was built, c.1920, the proprietor wanted to add a bit of class to his premises and picked up the glass, probably for a song, and it's been there ever since, largely unnoticed and unremarked.

The image above is from the CVMA website. It seems to have been taken in 1987, and brings back nostalgic memories for me. I moved to Hitchin in 1985, and did most of my shopping, on my bike, in the Safeway supermarket visible through the window. I could have been in the shop or street when the photo was taken. Incidentally, the building (now a Wilkinson's) is a dismaying example of 1960s or 70s planning. It's in Bancroft, but forms the termination of the view down Hermitage Road, which has the greenery of Windmill Hill at the east end, and once had an unexceptional but dignified Georgian building at its west. (I can't find a photo on the web.) But somehow, despite its sensitive position, it was allowed to be demolished, and somehow, despite the aggressive, ill-proportioned brick facade of the new building, it was allowed to be replaced. Let's be thankful that at least these random bits of stained glass have remained untouched over the years.

Sunday 1 April 2018

Baskets from Bangladesh and more mermen: St Peter's church, Cambridge


Last week I was preparing a post about Anstey church, and decided it would be a good idea to pay a visit to St Peter's, Cambridge (where I'd often been before) to compare its mermen font to Anstey's example. The church is immediately next to Kettle's Yard gallery, which has recently reopened after a lengthy refit.

St Peter's is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, being surplus to the requirements of the Church of England. It's been disused since 1749, and was roofless and windowless by 1772. Apart from the 14th century tower and spire, it was mostly rebuilt in 1781. It's very small, essentially just one room (plus the tower), and mostly plain inside. Its outstanding feature is without doubt its mermen font (Pevsner, or his reviser, Simon Bradley, calls the figures 'fish-men'), which dates from the late 12th century. Anstey's font is of about the same date:

Anstey's font - all other photos are of St Peter's

The design of the two bowls is very similar (the pedestals are different, but both may be later additions*), and either one is a copy of the other, (or of other, now lost, mermen fonts), or, more likely, they were both carved by the same sculptor. Both feature mermen at the four corners who hold one strand of their twin tails in each hand. 

Anstey's font pays more attention to the hands, while St Peter's lavishes more care on the tails, which end in forks, or, on the east face, divide into five - you might call them finny finials. It also has cable moulding around the rim, while Anstey’s font has an unadorned top.

Both have been broken into several pieces and mended, most notably in St Peter’s on the south east corner: the repair and the different coloured stone are plainly visible. Damage to, or even destruction of, fonts is most often associated with the Civil War, and especially the Ordinance of 1645 which effectively banished fonts (basins were to be used instead). But we can't know if that was when St Peter's font was broken. It's hard to date the repair; none of the authorities I've consulted even try. Of course, the sculptor of the repairs was working not in his own style, but was trying to imitate the original style of the figures, which makes dating them more than usually difficult.

Neither of the two old images of the font that I've been able to find are of much help in deciding when the repair was made. (The other can be found by clicking a link in a footnote below.) The one above dates from 1812 and is an engraving from James Storer and John Grieg's Ancient Reliques. (Their books, including The Antiquarian Itinerary and The Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet, are almost like early 19th century Pevsners.) It shows the font standing, improbably, immediately inside the door, with a Regency buck leaning louchely on the jamb, looking as if he's eyeing up the mermen with lascivious intent. The engraving gives a good general impression of the font, but doesn't provide enough detail to see if the repairs were in place by 1812. 

The text accompanying the engraving says that 'At each corner of the Font are figures, in some respects representing mermen or mermaids, each having two tails; they are encircled round the loins, with an ornamental belt, and with hands, each embracing one of the tails.' It also claims that 'This very curious relic of antiquity had not, previously to the present annexed Plate, been introduced to the notice of the antiquarian world, neither has any attention been paid to it by historians of Cambridge, with whose writings the Editors and Proprietors of the Ancient Reliques are acquainted.' This is very likely true; two hundred years ago the systematic study of medieval art was still in its infancy.

In writing about Anstey, I mentioned a different interpretation of the figures; a century ago some took it to represent men grasping the prow of a boat, which perhaps is the ark, or a symbol of the Church. But I didn’t discuss why mermen (if that’s what they are**) should be found on a font. Mermaids, despite being pagan in origin, aren’t rare in churches. The usual explanation is that they represent the sin of lust; they’re often shown with a mirror, displaying vanity and dolling themselves up so they can all the more effectively tempt men down the primrose path to damnation.***

Mermen, however, aren’t so common. In European folklore they generally aren’t presented as being any more auspicious than their womenfolk, often getting the blame for storms, for example. And mermen on fonts are rarer still. Apart from St Peter’s and Anstey, the only other merperson on a font that I’m aware of is to be found in Braybrooke church, Northants. The figure here is sometimes interpreted as being a merman, but looks to me like a mermaid; it’s of about the same date as Anstey and St Peter’s, but otherwise has little in common with them. 

So why were the fonts decorated with mermen? Unfortunately, this is something we’ll never know. I can hazard two guesses: that the sculptor had taken a whimsical fancy to these figures from folklore as purely decorative devices. This seems unlikely, given the central importance of baptism;  would he have been given such licence in such a prominent place in the church? Or that the mermen represent the evils from which the child being baptised would be protected by becoming a member of the Church. This would be a more convincing explanation if there were more fonts bearing symbols of sin or evil. 

The opening exhibition in the newly refurbished Kettle’s Yard, called ‘Actions’, is inspired by a letter by Naum Gabo, and (according to the website) ‘seeks to reassert the potential of art as a poetic, social and political force in the world.’ St Peter’s, while not officially part of the gallery, has been used for a site-specific sculpture by the British-Bangladeshi artist Rana Begum. It’s called No. 764 Baskets, and comprises many (the catalogue says a thousand) bamboo baskets hand-woven in Bangladesh. They’re strung together in the church, forming a wave-like roof visitors can walk beneath. The catalogue says that ‘the work draws upon the artist’s childhood memories of basket weaving in her village in Bangladesh, as well as time spent reading the Qur’an at the local mosque, where the dappled morning light, sound of the water fountain and the mesmeric recitation created an atmosphere of peaceful concentration.’

At first when I entered the church I was focused entirely on the font, but I gradually allowed the baskets to impinge on my concentration, and the more I looked at them the more I was charmed and lulled. The effect is encradling, womb-like and comforting, making the small church even smaller, but also the baskets are star-like and reminiscent of the vast night sky, making it infinitely large. The baskets are soothingly repetitive, yet, being handmade, there must be tiny differences between them. I loved it, even though it gets in the way of the font a little.

It will remain in the church until April 29th. The font, fortunately, will stay there for as long as our civilisation lasts.

* See here for a drawing of St Peter's font dated 1858, showing a different pedestal.

** The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (1959) calls them 'tritons', which, given that the the makers and original users of the font probably knew very little about classical mythology, seems inappropriate.

*** But on the other hand, mermaids were in the later middle ages sometimes used as symbols of Christ, as their dual natures - part woman, part fish - was said to be like Christ - part man, part God.