St. Cecilia and an Elevated Chicken

Today is St. Cecilia’s day. She is the patron saint of music and musicians, so it seems an appropriate day for a composer to be born. I already knew that today is Benjamin Britten’s birthday, but Wikipedia informed me that, along with several other composers most of whom I’ve never heard of, it’s also the birthday of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Actually, it’s just gone midnight so all my references to “today” are actually yesterday at the time of publication and quite probably even longer ago by the time you read this; 22nd November in any case.

This particular member of the Bach dynasty was the eldest son of the illustrious Johann Sebastian, who as I’ve occasionally mentioned before, is my all time favourite composer (much easier to decide than trying to pick a favourite photographer, as I was discussing yesterday, though Beethoven would be a fairly close second and if my last.fm listening stats are a reasonable indicator, Benjamin Britten is in my top 10 classical composers – he’s currently in joint 13th place with Queen on my overall list of scrobbles per artist, but there are several other non-classical ones high in the list, though Bach and Beethoven are well ahead of the rest of the field). As with most of the other members of the family, Friedemann was apparently generally referred to by his second name even though there were not quite as many Wilhelms as Johanns among them. He was a fine composer (and also organist and improviser) in his own right, though somewhat overshadowed by his father and his younger brother Carl Phillipp Emanuel (who, I gather, was usually known by his second middle name). I’ve got a handful of works by Friedemann (as well as some by quite a few other Bachs and quite a few by Emanuel and especially Sebastian) and this evening I’ve been enjoying listening to one of his cantatas.

As well as learning this factoid about W. F. Bach’s birthday I learned another interesting fact that, while not directly related to St. Cecilia’s day, came about (my learning, that is, not the fact itself, as far as I’m aware) in a tangentially related way.

To follow the tangent from the point where it was connected with St. Cecilia (since, as every mathematician knows, a tangent to a circle – or for that matter any other curve – is a line that touches it at one point; or technically it can for some curves, though not for circles, be more than one point but to further explore that point would itself be to go off on a tangent, so I’ll refrain), I started by looking at the Wikipedia article on St. Cecilia and then found my way onto the related disambiguation page, which contained amongst other things a reference to a band called St. Cecelia (note the variant spelling) who, in 1971, had their only chart success with a song called “Leap Up and Down (Wave Your Knickers in the Air)”

This wasn’t a song I’d ever heard of previously and my curiosity got the better of me so I googled it and soon found a video (not, you may be relieved to know, one containing any footage of anyone actually performing the suggested actions). It didn’t strike me as being a particularly noteworthy song, though it was quite jolly and it vaguely reminded me of another song that I haven’t heard for years, namely the Chicken Song by Spitting Image. In fact, I did briefly wonder if the latter may have been a parody of the former.

Unlike the St Cecilia number, which had presumably already pretty much faded into obscurity by the time I was born a few years after it came out, the Chicken Song was released in my lifetime and at a point when I actually used to watch Top of the Pops at least semi-avidly. I can’t remember when I last listened to it, but it may well not have been in the current millenium. On listening back to it today (again, easy enough to find on YouTube), it didn’t take long to realise that, while sharing some stylistic similarities, the two songs are not particularly closely related and while I couldn’t rule out the possibility that the Chicken Song’s authors were aware of the St Cecilia song from about 15 years previously, it certainly doesn’t seem that they were directly inspired by it or deliberately (or even accidentally) ripping it off.

Speaking of the Chicken Song’s authors, this is the point where I made my exciting (to me, at least) discovery. For it turns out that the lyrics were written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, better known to me as the creators of Red Dwarf, which remains one of my favourite TV series (especially the early seasons, which first started to appear a couple of years after the Chicken Song). So now you know 🙂

That last sentence, incidentally, is a catchphrase of Cara Devine, the host of one of my favourite cocktail-related YouTube channels, but that’s not really even a tangent to the rest of my post!

I was right!

If you were to ask me to name my all-time favourite photographer, I would probably struggle to choose one. However, if you asked me for a list of my favourite photographers it wouldn’t need to be a very long list before I could guarantee that Edward Weston would be on there.

I have long admired Weston’s work. He was an American photographer active in the early decades of the 20th century and as far as I know all his work was in monochrome, which suits me fine as I haven’t significantly changed my opinion since I last wrote about my fondness for black & white photography.

One of things I particularly like about a lot of Weston’s work is that he often focuses on relatively mundane objects, such as vegetables, and presents them in a way that makes you look at them with fresh eyes and appreciate their intrinsic beauty. A particularly fine example of this is arguably one of his most famous images, with the gloriously unexciting sounding title of Pepper No. 30 (NB that’s a link to the Wikipedia article on it – yes, it’s a famous enough image to get its own Wikipedia page – which doesn’t actually contain a picture, at least at the time of my writing, but you can easily enough google one for yourself if you want).

As you might expect from the title, this is a photograph of a pepper – more specifically a capsicum pepper (or bell pepper as Weston himself probably would have called it, coming from the USA). The title also suggests that he took quite a few other photos of peppers – in fact, a quote from Weston in the Wikipedia article indicates that there were at least 50 in total, though No. 30 definitely became the most famous of them and is the finest of the handful that I’ve seen (only ever as reproductions in books or on websites).

It is, to be sure, a relatively interesting pepper with a lovely gnarly shape that provides a lot more to work with than any pepper I’ve ever come across in a supermarket. It was also, of course, expertly positioned, lit, photographed, developed and printed by a master of his art (actually, at least some of the prints were done by Edward Weston’s son Cole; he, along with his brother Brett, was also a professional photographer in his own right though neither of them achieved the same level of fame as their father).

Many years ago, between 2001 and 2003, I did a series of drawings and paintings based on Pepper No. 30 (though I don’t think I knew its official number at the time). I think they can all be seen (along with a few other pieces based on Weston’s photos) here on Flickr. I don’t think I did any others, and if I did I certainly don’t seem to have got any photos of them.

Probably my single favourite of my own Weston pepper inspired works is this oil pastel painting from July 2001, which I still have hanging on my wall:

Pepper (oil pastel)

Of course, since Weston’s photo was monochrome I had to make an artistic decision for this and the other colour versions I did as to what colour the pepper should be. In all cases, I went for green. This far down the line I can’t remember if I was working on a hunch or just giving rein to my own preference for green (as a colour, not necessarily as a choice of pepper). I’m certain that I didn’t know what colour the original pepper was and at that time Wikipedia was only a few months old and even if I’d thought to check it (which I’m fairly sure I didn’t) it was still a couple of years away from getting an article about Edward Weston, let alone one specifically about his Pepper No. 30.

In fact, while I’ve definitely looked at the Edward Weston page a handful of times over the years I don’t think I discovered the pepper one until about a month ago. When I did finally read it, I was delighted to read in the very first paragraph that it “depicts a solitary green pepper in rich black-and-white tones, with strong illumination from above”. I just checked the revision history and that sentence was in the very first version of the article, written by Wikipedia user Lexaxis7 (whom some folks call Tim). According to his bio, he is a photo historian specialising in the early 20th century, so although he doesn’t cite a source for that particular information I assume it’s correct that the pepper was green.

Incidentally, while I don’t often delve into the page editing history on Wikipedia, it’s quite handy on occasion to be able to do so. In fact, I appear to have my own somewhat outdated bio page, though sadly it doesn’t provide links to any of the articles I helped edit (most, if not all, of them at least 15 years ago). Amongst others I contributed 3 edits to the banjo page, including this one which was apparently the second ever edit to that page (not counting the initial version of the page), as well as one to the crwth page (at the time, I was a fairly close personal friend of Cass Meurig, who was more or less the only active crwth player in the world, so I felt reasonably confident to edit the article based on conversations I’d had with her about the instrument); there were others too (including at least a handful of maths based ones, those perhaps done largely to assuage my guilty feelings about surfing Wikipedia when I was supposed to be researching my PhD in algebra) but none that I remember very clearly.

Talking of delving back, while I was digging out the photos of my paintings based on Weston’s pepper, I also came across my own (somewhat less successful) attempts at photographing peppers, dating back about 10 years. Like Weston (though I didn’t know it at the time) I used a green capsicum pepper, but I also included a red (and presumably hot) chilli pepper, as well as a few cloves of garlic for some of the photos. And like Weston, I presented these as black & white photos (though I was actually shooting digitally, in colour, and desaturated my images later – in fact I still have the colour versions, albeit not in my public photostream, and I think the monochrome ones work better). My favourite of them, with which I shall leave you for now, is this one:

Peppers

Not too sweet

Tonight I made an apple crumble for tea. I’ve made quite a few of these over the years, certainly dozens though probably not quite yet hundreds. This one was a bit different in two or three respects, one of them accidental.

Usually I make crumbles as a dessert (although it’s actually fairly unusual for me to have a dessert at all, which may come as a surprise to many who know me and my sweet tooth), but this one was made as a standalone meal. Mainly that’s because I was feeling too lazy after my lunch (which, as usual for a Sunday, was my main meal) and also had some yoghurt that needed using up at that point. So today I made it for tea instead, served up with custard (made up from a packet mix – not from first principles, though that would be even nicer). I don’t think it’s the first time I’ve made it deliberately as a standalone meal, but it might be.

The deliberate way in which this was different from previous crumbles I’ve made is that instead of all butter I used a roughly 50:50 mix of butter and lard, as I had a block of the latter that needed using up. In fact, I still have most of it but there’s now about an ounce less to worry about. Incidentally, while I usually tend to prefer metric measurements for cooking and pretty much everything else, I consider myself to be more or less bilingual between the imperial and metric systems (though I usually have to look up the conversion factors if going between the two). I got my crumble recipe from my mum years ago when I went off to university (though I don’t think I actually made one until several years later) and it’s given in imperial units (6oz plain flour; 4oz butter; 2 oz caster sugar – though I usually halve the quantities, use granulated sugar instead of caster and add a handful of oats and some mixed spice). I can’t say that I noticed any particular difference in the flavour or handling properties from my usual version, but it is several months since I last made a crumble and my memory alone is probably not an entirely reliable guide. Really I’d have to do a side-by-side comparison (or better, a blind triangle test) but I only have one crumble dish so that would be a bit of a faff to arrange

The accidental way in which this crumble was different from my usual (though possibly not unique among all the crumbles I’ve ever made) is that I forgot to add any sugar or other sweetening agent to the apples. Sugar (generally granulated, though sometimes caster if I have it to hand, or brown if I’m feeling more adventurous) is my go-to sweetener for crumbles, but I have occasionally used honey instead to good effect. This time I forgot completely, though I did add a bit of lemon zest and juice (the latter mainly to help stop the apple going brown before I added the crumble topping and got it in the oven) and some chopped ginger, as well as a bit of water and some cinnamon. That (apart from the lack of sugar) is pretty much my standard approach to an apple crumble (and similar to how I’d do a rhubarb crumble, which is the only other kind I often cook – for that I’d probably leave out the cinnamon, but otherwise it would be basically the same, and probably suffer more for lack of sugar).

I gave it about half an hour in the oven at gas mark 6, which gave me the kind of result I particularly like with the fruit nice and soft but still having a slight bite to it. Even without the sugar it was quite pleasant to eat, as the crumble topping and custard made up for the lack of sweetness in the fruit. However, I did miss the syrup that usually forms from a combination of the sugar, water and juice from the apple, so I don’t think I’ll be dropping sugar from my regular recipe anytime soon. And I’ll probably be having another apple crumble before too long (not to mention the rest of this one, which I’ll enjoy for dessert, or possibly for lunch, tomorrow) as I still have a few apples that need using up.

Hopefully not lost

A few days ago I was asked to help try and find a translation for a Welsh poem for Remembrance Day. The poem, “Y Pabi Coch” (The Red Poppy), written by Isaac Daniel Hooson in 1924, is apparently quite well-known in Welsh language culture but I was only vaguely familiar with it. Here it is, for those of who can speak Welsh or just like to look at texts in languages you can’t speak (I’m sure I’m not the only one):

‘Roedd gwlith y bore ar dy foch
Yn ddafnau arian, flodyn coch,
A haul Mehefin drwy’r prynhawn
Yn bwrw’i aur i’th gwpan llawn.

Tithau ymhlith dy frodyr fyrdd
Yn dawnsio’n hoyw ar gwrlid gwyrdd
Cynefin fro dy dylwyth glân,
A’th sidan wisg yn fflam o dân.

Ond rhywun â didostur law
A’th gipiodd o’th gynefin draw
I estron fro, a chyn y wawr
Syrthiast, a’th waed yn lliwio’r llawr.

Y Pabi Coch, I. D. Hooson (1924)

I did a bit of Googling but was unable to find any translation. The closest I got was a bibliography which seemed to indicate the existence of a translation by Tony Conran (himself a noted Anglo-Welsh poet who used to be a member of the English department in the University of Wales, Bangor; I met him on a number of occasions when, as a very old man, he used to come and listen to the Welsh folk music sessions I played at in my early years in North Wales, but I digress). I ordered a copy of the anthology it was supposed to appear in (“Welsh Verse: Fourteen Centuries of Poetry” translated by Tony Conran; 3rd Ed., Seren, 2017; ISBN: 978-1781724040) but when that arrived I found that while it did indeed contain a translation of a poem by Hooson and a translation of a poem about poppies, they were different poems (the latter was called “Poppies” and was a translation of a poem, presumably called “Pabïau”, by Nesta Wyn Jones, though I haven’t managed to locate a copy of the original poem).

I therefore had to resort to my backup plan, which was to do my own translation. Initially I intended to just do a prose translation to convey the meaning (or at least the surface meaning) of the words to those who couldn’t read the Welsh (this, incidentally, was for an Act of Rembrance led by the Bangor University Chaplaincy), but once I’d finished that I decided to have a go at doing a verse translation too. This was a task I attempted with some trepidation, bearing in mind Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry is “what gets lost in translation”.

I wanted not only to convey the sense of the original words but also to preserve the original meter (iambic tetrameter, if I remember my terminology correctly) and rhyming scheme (AABB). There’s also at least a bit of cynghanedd (a somewhat complicated scheme of alliteration that’s characteristic of much Welsh poetry) going on, but I figured that was a step too far and decided to ignore that for my translation. To the best of my knowledge, Gerard Manley Hopkins is just about the only poet who’s successfully managed to make much use of cynghanedd in English poetry and he wasn’t working with the extra constraint of trying to translate poems from Welsh (or any other language).

In the end, I think I managed to achieve a reasonable result with only fairly minimal poetic licence employed to make it fit (most notably rendering “flodyn coch” as “red flower meek” rather than simply “red flower”):

The morning dew lay on your cheek,
In silver drops, red flower meek.
The sun throughout the afternoon
Cast gold into your cup that June.

You with your many brothers seen,
Dancing merry on the green,
The place frequented by your ilk,
A flame of fire your garb of silk.

But someone with relentless hand
Plucked you out of that fair land
And far away before the dawn
your blood did stain some foreign lawn.

tr. Magnus Forrester-Barker (November 2021)

I think something has been inevitably been lost in translation but I trust that not too much has been lost and that any loss is balanced by the gain of opening up Hooson’s beautiful, moving poem to a wider audience.