Keep calm and listen to Handel

Enjoy five minutes of calm with George Handel on this Wednesday ‘hump’ day –

George Frideric Handel’s Pifa (Pastoral Sympony)

George Handel by Harry Everett Townsend (1879 – 1941)

I’ve gone all ‘pastoral’ again this week. Must be James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful set in the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales that I’ve been reading.

Handel’s Messiah is arguably his most well-known piece of work, if not his finest. In the scene called ‘the annunciation to the shepherds’, movement no. 13 is a lovely five-minute piece which is known as the Pifa, or Pastoral Symphony.

There are lots of explanations surrounding the meaning of the term Pifa. My understanding is that as the shepherds are being introduced, Handel alludes to the music of the Italian Pifferari, the rural bagpipers who come down off the mountains to play in the village streets. If I’m wrong, please correct me!

Handel was born in Germany in 1685. He showed promising musical talent even as a young boy, however his father discouraged his musical pursuit believing that a profession in law would provide him with a more acceptable income. Fortunately his mother recognised his talent so she hid a clavichord in the attic where Handel would sneak up to practice. At eighteen, he dropped out of law and committed himself to a career in music.

At the age of nineteen he nearly got himself killed during a sword fight with fellow composer, Johann Mattheson. The sword struck a button on Handel’s chest saving his life. The reasons for their quarrel were never discovered. Teenagers!

At age 41, Queen Anne enticed him to London with a sizeable income (Dad would have been happy) where he remained for the rest of his life. His operas were so successful that he was permitted to choose his own leading ladies. During one such opera, two rival diva’s of their time began fighting on stage and had to be dragged away, tearing strips off their costumes as they went.

George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames by Edouard Hamman, 1717

Over the next 30 or so years he continued composing and at the time of his death at the age of 74 he had written nearly 80 oratorios and operas. His final years were plagued with health issues including two strokes, injuries from a coach crash and blindness for the last eight years of his life. He kept composing.

Although experiencing bouts of depression he was known for his positive outlook, pleasant demeanour and generosity. He was never married or bore children, so he left his considerable fortune to his servants and numerous charities. Over 3000 people attended his state funeral. He is buried in London’s Westminster Abbey.

If you’re living in or visiting London I wonder if you’ve been to the Handel & Hendrix? “Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London and changed music.” This looks like a fascinating museum, beautifully restored.

It’s been a lovely little ‘project’ reading, albeit very briefly, into the life of George Handel. The portraits from this era give their subjects an austere quality and their talent, intimidating. But I have an inkling he would have been a friendly, down-to-earth sort of fellow.

Keep calm and listen to Ravel (inc. book review of Sylvia Kahan’s Music’s Modern Muse)


Another piece…just seven minutes…to help you get through Wednesday, ‘hump’ day!

Maurice Ravel’s ‘Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte’

I’m as middlebrow a listener of music as I am of reading. All I know about classical music is what sounds pleasing to my ears, and just like books, I like music to uplift and entertain me. There are seven or eight pieces that are my go-to, so I’m using this series of posts to discover new ones and to learn a little bit about classical music in the process.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, Maurice Ravel was considered the greatest French impressionist composer of his time. The piece I’ve chosen is ‘Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte’ which translates to Pavane (a courtly Renaissance dance) for a Dead Princess. Sounds macabre right? Don’t worry, it’s not. It’s beautiful, subtle and atmospheric. In fact, the only reason Ravel called it that, is that he liked the sound of the alliteration of the words infante and defunte.

He declared the piece was actually a wistful daydream of something a 16th century Spanish princess might have danced to, not mourning a dead princess!

I loved it the first time I heard it on the car radio. In fact, I pulled the car over so I could note down the name and composer (I don’t remember these things!) as I had to find out more. What I didn’t expect was to be reading the biography of the heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune!

Ravel dedicated Pavane Pour une Infant Defunte to the Princesse de Polignac. I’d never heard of her. Fortunately Sylvia Kahan has written a vivid and fascinating biography, Music’s Modern Muse about Winnaretta Singer who became the French Princesse who socialised with the glittery echelons of the who’s who of Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Self Portrait, Winnaretta Singer, c.1885

American-born Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was the 20th child of 24, born to sewing-machine magnate Isaac Singer and Parisian mother, Isabella Boyer, who was thought to be the model for the Statue of Liberty. At the age of eighteen, Winnaretta was a millionaire after inheriting a substantial part of her father’s sewing machine fortune.

On the wedding night of her first marriage, it’s said that her new husband found her atop the wardrobe, umbrella in hand, shouting “if you touch me, I’ll kill you”. Openly homosexual, she had the marriage annulled and then went on to marry, far more conveniently, the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac.

Their marriage, although not physical, was based on deep love, respect and passionate supporting of the arts, and especially music. Together they headed what has been considered the most significant avant-garde musical salon of the time and were absorbed into the most elite strata of French society.

She offered her salon as a gathering place for luminaries of French culture and were pals with Debussy, Ravel, Cole Porter, Monet, Claudette Colbert, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Nadia Boulanger, Virginia Woolf among many others.

After Edmond’s death, she used her fortune to benefit the arts. She contributed significantly to composers, the ballet, opera and symphony orchestras. She made a lifelong project of commissioning new musical works from composers, many of them unknown and struggling, to be performed in her Paris salon.

So, thank you Maurice Ravel, firstly for your music, then for introducing me to the fascinating Princesse de Polignac.

Keep calm and listen to Beethoven


If you have a spare 42 minutes today, here’s Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, a beautiful pastoral piece to calm, uplift and inspire.

The symphony is made up of five wonderfully evocative annotated movements:

  1. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside.
  2. Scene by the brook.
  3. Merry gathering of country folk.
  4. Thunder. Storm.
  5. Shepherd’s song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.

Can’t you just see the country folk gathering merrily by the brook?

I bet, when Beethoven wasn’t composing or roaming the Viennese countryside, he was curled up with a good book. Here are some of the books that were published while he was composing his 6th symphony, 1802 to 1808.

What do you listen to when you want to relax, read or create?