For my birthday last month I was given a turntable and can now revisit some of those old gramophone records in the attic. Amongst the survivors of several moves around three countries is a complete set of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink.
Completed in 1896 but years ahead of its time, Mahler’s Third Symphony would be my ultimate desert island disc. Composed in a modest hut overlooking an Austrian lake during his summer breaks from conducting at the Vienna Opera, its six movements were initially given programmatic titles, such as “What the flowers of the field tell me”, “What the angels tell me” and “What Love tells me” which Mahler later dropped, letting the music speak for itself. Yet the source of its inspiration remains apparent. When the conductor, Bruno Walter, arrived at Mahler’s summer retreat he was told, “Don’t bother admiring the landscape, it’s all in my music!”
Listening to the symphony again recently, I wondered how someone could compose something so monumentally beautiful: from the sometimes dissonant terrors of the opening movement to the exquisite Romanticism of the long finale, it seems too complex, too other-wordly, to have been written by one man in a shed. Mahler seems more like a conduit for the mystical power of Nature itself and hearing it is, to me, approaching a spiritual experience.
“Today I became horribly aware that the first movement will last half a hour, perhaps longer,” he wrote, “What are people going to say to that? They won’t leave a hair on my head. This work is truly concise, even brief, though it lasts two hours…It is though the torrent of creation has proved to be an irrisitable force, having been pent up for years; there is no escape!”
My drawing shows the composer sifting some of the elements that went into this mighty symphony. I wanted to do something to celebrate Mahler, and it would either have to be a drawing like this or some wall-high painting that would take about a year to complete. Until I have the time and ability to produce the latter, this will have to do.
“Every year, there’s a day when Spring suddenly stops being a tease and goes the whole hog,” wrote naturalist Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, “And, of course, it’s ravishing: the light turns an unabashed gold, the sun offers actual warmth, chiffchaffs arrive from the Mediterranean to pour down their twin-syllabled song from the canopy – all at once the world is abuzz.”
Here in East Anglia we don’t do winters well. There’s rarely snow and our mild sea climate denies us those crisp, bright winter mornings that I remember from my northern childhood. For us, winter is a sustained and oppressive greyness, amplified by our big skies which press down upon us like a felt blanket. It’s a relief to see the back of it when spring arrives.
Our neighbours have a magnolia tree which I’ve come to see as Spring’s over-eager messenger. Earlier and earlier it starts to bud, sometimes so early that we often wonder if a frost will damage it, but a few weeks later those buds turn into lovely white ragged flowers, like torn strips of paper or discarded handkerchiefs, and then you know that spring is close at hand.
Daffodils are so much a part of the British spring that’s it’s odd to remember that they’re not native flowers at all, but originally southern European, possibly Greek. They were introduced to northern gardens by Dutch bulb traders. Now they’re everywhere: not only in gardens, but surrounding public buildings, scattered through woodlands and even brightening up roundabouts along with discarded plastic bottles and home-made signs wishing someone a happy 50th birthday.
Bees are already in evidence, especially those plump bumble bees woozily searching for a place to nest and give birth to a whole new colony. There are fewer each year however, and our dismal government has ensured this trend will continue by authorising the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Whether it’s straightforward stupidity or some slavish commitment to a free market economy the result is the same – a spring with ever fewer bees to polinate the plants and trees that not only brighten our days but make our world habitable.
It’s been a while since I posted some images of dogs so I feel it’s time to redress the balance on this cat-obsessed internet, especially as – in the US at least – yesterday was National Pet Day (I’m reliably informed).
The first (above) is a dog called Pikelet, and comes from a photograph in a My Modern Met story about two dogs who ‘adopt’ two ducklings. The story pushed my Cute-o-meter well into the red, I’m afraid, but I couldn’t resist drawing the ever-bemused Pikelet and his enormous paws. Look at them – they’re huge.
This dog’s body is a piece of Hubble from Meg Greene Malvasi’s excellent Little Dogs Laughed blog. Meg has three wonderful rescue dogs but my day is made when Hubble makes an appearance. This is from a photograph posted in January: I kept getting his neck too long and his body too wide, but I decided to keep this fragment for my next attempt.
Finally, above is a rough sketch of our late and much-missed Gerald, doing what he used to do so well: sleeping. There is a corner of our living room that is forever greyhound.
Did you feel it? That was the internet shifting ever so slightly in favour of dogs!
There’s no real story to tell about this week’s drawing. It was inspired by a review that I read of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear-Spotting illustrated by David Roberts; a demonstration by Lynne Chapman on how to illustrate a children’s book in pastels; and this photograph of shoes in a designer shop that I saw on Easter Saturday in London’s Burlington Arcade:
Put them all together and you have a brown bear in cool shoes.
PS When I win the lottery, and I can enter shops that don’t have prices on items in the window display without fear of humiliation, I’m going to treat myself to those lime green suede brogues third from the left. They represent the height of frivolous materialism to me and the exactly the sort of thing you should wear when you’re eight million pounds richer overnight (after that you can start doing good deeds). A colleague of mine once sent me an SMS to say that he’d seen Simon Schama in the Nordic Cafe in London in something like the ones pictured fifth from the left, so I’ll be in good company.