Friday, quotidian

Because you were up in the night, reading obsessively about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, imagining your own family in Drumheller, the laying out of one body after another, your grandmother somehow going on afterwards, because you were reading and trying to place them on maps (where is Ploeg Street? Is the area where you stayed last April, in view of the Dinosaur Hotel, roughly where they lived above the river?), because you were groggy when you woke but delighted to find a review by your son online, the son who has always loved history, and that made you remember the summers you spent camping, in search of places like Batnuni Crossing where traces of the grease trails could still be seen, and where you wandered Barkerville, each moment somehow shimmering, so that you made notes and wrote “Days of Gold and Fireweed” as soon as you got home (published in Red Laredo Boots),

at barkerville2
the historian and his brother (the mathematician) on old cart, at Barkerville, 1992

anyway, because you were groggy and lying quietly in bed, reading the Ormsby Review online and waiting for your coffee, you tried to ignore the cat’s rumbling stomach against your leg, no, you shouldn’t have ignored it because suddenly he rose and (there is no nice way to say this) threw up his entire breakfast and what suspiciously looked like a mouse corpse partly digested onto the homemade log-cabin quilt on the foot of the bed and then on the duvet (luckily not a down one this time of year), its lovely cover, and down onto the carpet. So instead of drinking your coffee, which was in fact on its way up, carried by your thoughtful husband, you leapt from the bed, the two of you found old towels and a bucket of warm water, you stripped the bed of every cover, and while you rinsed various linens, your husband scrubbed the carpet. The cat washed his paws nearby without a second look. The morning which you had hoped to spend writing was instead spent doing load after load of bedding, rinsing everything twice because, well, cat’s breakfast (and mouse corpse), and hanging it outside on the line where it will no doubt come in dusty with the Douglas fir pollen that is everywhere right now (between laundry loads you vacuumed the kitchen where a golden haze of pollen was on the floor and other surfaces because yesterday you had doors and windows open to the sunlight), and only now you are sitting at your desk, having taken a little time to read Alex Ross’s beautiful piece about Brahms and grief, so lovely that you immediately put on one of your favourite singers, Kathleen Ferrier, singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody (preceeded on the cd by the ravishing “Two Songs for Contralto with Viola Obbligato, Op. 91”), and maybe it is time to get on with the day.

The first rose anticipates the last

Is this even true, I wonder? The thought came to me just now as I discovered the first roses of summer blooming by the back steps leading up to the deck off my bedroom. They are “Mme. Plantier”, an alba-noisette hybrid, of such innocent pale pink, fading to white, and with a sweet musky scent. It’s a rampant plant, this one, rambling up the stair railings and even finding its way under a transparent roof over our hot-tub. In fact, that’s where these blossoms were — tucked under the panels of PVC or whatever it is.


Somehow the first roses, their sweetness and beauty, remind me that seasons have their beginnings and their endings. That it was only a few months ago that this plant was leafless and bare, that I trimmed a few of the longer canes, and remembered cutting bouquets of roses the previous June, for it’s June when the roses will be so numerous that I bring them in most mornings to fill vases and jugs with them. And lament the fallen petals a day or two later.

One of the discoveries of my middle years was the music of Benjamin Britten. I love the operas (and saw a spectacular Gloriana in Prague last winter), his chamber music, and oh, his settings of English and Irish folk songs. I took voice lessons for a few years and kept trying to sing the Irish ones and they’re very difficult. One of my favourites is “The Last Rose of Summer”. In my childhood, this was something we’d sing in choirs, thumping our way through it without any idea of its power. It wasn’t until I heard a recording of Peter Pears singing it that I realized it was so darkly beautiful. That the line, “Oh, who would inhabit this bleak world alone?” was so heartbreaking. It felt like a travesty to even attempt it during my lessons — the line is so beautifully embellished, nothing like the version we sang in elementary school. But when you hear these arrangements, somehow you imagine your own voice rising to the challenge. (Mine never did.)

I can’t find a Youtube link of Peter Pears singing it (or the Canadian soprano Lois Marshall, accompanied by harpist Judy Loman — an exquisite recording if you can find it) but discovered this, the young English mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, accompanied by David Jones. She’s wonderful, with something of Kathleen Ferrier in the dark richness of her voice. Perfect for Britten.


(One day soon, I promise, I’ll figure out how to actually embed the video on my screen. It’s not rocket science…)

Once in a blue moon

Once in a blue moon (last night’s) you hear a piece of music that stops you completely in your tracks — in this case, preparing some food for a dinner party this evening — and you stand, helpless, listening to something so beautiful and somehow life-enhancing that you can only keep pressing  Repeat (until your husband sighs loudly). Yesterday I received a package of cds in the mail, several discs I knew but didn’t have in my own collection. One of them is Kathleen Ferrier singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53. I’ve heard several recordings of this over the years — Janet Baker’s, which is gorgeous; and I’m almost certain I’ve heard Anne Sophie von Otter’s version too, also heart-stoppingly lovely. And Christa Ludwig.  But Ferrier’s, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Male Choir, conducted by Clemens Krauss, in December 1947, is music I could hear daily and never tire of.  The tonal quality and warmth of her voice anticipate Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, I think. Which makes me wonder if LHL ever sang the Alto Rhapsody?

The English translation of the first verse, from the German of Goethe,  is this:

But who is that apart?
His path disappears in the bushes;
behind him the branches spring together;
the grass stands up again;
the wasteland engulfs him.

One in a blue moon, but the sensation will last forever.