Monday, 10 December 2018

Approaching Strangers

When I approach a songbird in the hedgerow it seem to think: "Shall I sing my usual from the top or skip the odd verse?"

The kestrel on the wire thinks "Here comes trouble, but he is not going to get me for sure."

In such circumstances a dog looks at your face; a cat at your feet. A sheep squats briefly, then moves away a few paces and looks at you with alternate eyes. Bullocks run over for a closer look and a sniff, each daring its chums.

Humans can resemble any of these.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Contempt of Parliament

To the Editor of the Times (London),

Dear Sir,
   The Queen has indeed charged her ministers (and not the House of Commons) with the task of formulating policy and managing the day to day running of the country. But the Queen, though the monarch, is not the sovereign; the sovereign is Parliament.
   This status and hierarchy was established in the Civil War of 1642 — 1649. In some countries these battles for supremacy have to be fought every few few decades by successive generations. (See, for example, France.)  In England we have been spared such traumatic struggles by simply remembering the Civil War and its outcome. Let us continue to remember.
   Yours sincerely, Ian West

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The New Referendum Question

A Second Referendum is Not Undemocratic

(But what is the Question?)

To resist a second referendum shows a Brexit-inclined insecurity and a willingness to exit the European Union AGAINST the will of the majority. 

"Respecting" the result of the June 2016 referendum does not rule out a second referendum. Were it indeed the current will of the majority to exit the European Union, a second referendum would surely confirm that. But there are many reasons why people could have changed their mind. And this new, better informed, opinion has as much right to be "respected" as the first opinion.

However, there are problems about holding a second referendum, in addition to the cost. One problem, raised by Paul Embery (twitter @PaulEmbery) arises if the second result is 'Remain' but on a smaller turnout than the first. 

Another is the question of the validity of Government by Referenda. Are referenda more than merely advisory; a straw poll for the government? Should we not revert to Parliamentary Democracy?

If we do have a second referendum on Brexit, should it be before or after a General Election? And what should be the question? Perhaps it needs to be in two parts. E.g.:
1. Knowing what you do today, should Britain LEAVE the European Union or REMAIN? (Indicate your preference with a cross X in the appropriate box.)

2. In the event of a clear (5%) majority of leave votes over remain votes in this referendum, would you ACCEPT the government's proposal or REJECT it, and thus force a General Election.  (Indicate your preference with a cross X in the appropriate box.) 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Racists and Racism

Racists and Racism
     Jeremy Corbyn is said to have wanted to add the following rider to the Labour Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition of ‘antisemitism’: it should not be considered antisemitic to describe, Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict”.
    I have been trying to think of a way in which Jeremy Corbyn could possibly be regarded as other than perfectly correct to say that the policies, and manner of founding, of Israel was racist. But, even if his statement was correct [ref.1], it may have been ‘wrong’ to say it. It may even have been anti-semitic to spell out the rider; though there is often a case to be made for telling your friends unpleasant and hurtful truths. 
    Both semitism and anti-semitism are racist. On the 19th of July this year Israel’s Knesset passed a law [ref.2] that itself declared Israel to be a racist state: “the national home of the Jewish people”.  But racism is not necessarily bad. (Who could take offence if I say “Ethiopians and Kenyans make outstanding marathon runners.”?) However, racism does represent a certain type of loose thinking that allows generalizations, which can be productive as well as dangerous.  
    Corbyn may have been wrong in thinking this was the right time to raise a pedantic, linguistic or philosophical point. But what about the political point? The State of Israel exist. There comes a time when the past seems beyond the reach of the law. In the various courts of world opinion (legal and lay), judgements are still pending on the actions of the Egyptians in 1948 and 1967, of Israel in 1982 against Lebanon, 2014 against Gaza, and in 2018, in the Knesset. 
    It is hard to draw a clear line between the living issues and the dead. Perhaps an issue is ‘dead’ when less than half the population remembers it. On this basis Israel exists, but perhaps it should be helped back towards democracy and the rescinding of its law of 19th July 2018. Sometime one has to be hurtful to be kind.

[1]  The online Oxford dictionaries give two meanings for the word ‘racism’:
i.  Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.
ii.  The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. )

[2]  Among the 11 provisions of the new law, it describes Israel as "the national home of the Jewish people" and says the right to exercise national self-determination there is "unique to the Jewish people".

Thursday, 16 August 2018

God: non-existent but important

God for Atheists

Dear X,

I find it frustrating to hear you expound yet again your problems with Faith and Doubt and to be unable to comment. So here I try to begin a dialogue. My challenge to you is to see how far down the page you are willing to read. For, as you have nurtured your doubt for so long, I suspect you ‘need’ it and will not welcome a re-thinking of you position. 

I want to expound a view of God which I do not claim is unique to me, but which I have not heard expounded by anyone else, except in parts. My thesis, or  ‘book', could be called “God for atheists”. I suppose I started writing it as an apology to my children for my not being as dismissive as they of the whole religious business. But that was more than 20 years ago.

So I am talking first to 'atheists' to say “Not so fast! Do not dismiss this whole bundle of ideas, hopes, and myths, which has loomed so large in the history of mankind since the beginning of thought itself. You may be 'throwing the baby out with the bath water'!” 

But secondly (and this is the more difficult part), I am talking to those who do 'believe in God', and who practice religion. I wish to ask, with sufficient humility and politeness, could it be that you are misunderstanding the nature of God, asking perhaps the wrong questions, accepting too literally the answers provided by previous generations. 

The logic of my argument can be stated succinctly, though to convince an audience embedded in a different world of ideas my exposition would need space; space to introduce ideas gradually, with repetition and illustration. The following is only the bald logic of my argument.

[1]  God surely does not exist. If he did, he would resemble everything else, and we would face the 'regression problem' of who ‘created’ God.
[2]  What, in any case, is existence? We do not know any thing that does not exist. Every THING we know has mass, extension, and duration. It is difficult (nigh impossible) to talk of types of non-existent reality. Take a knotted string; the string exists, but what about the knot? It contributes no extra weight. Yet different observers can view it objectively. We hesitate to say that it does not exist. Take pi, or infinity, or guilt; they certainly do not exist in the way that stone does, or magnetism.
[3]  So there can ‘be' things that do not exist, and they can be discussed objectively, and have meaning; like a unicorn; like patriotism.
[4]  ‘God’ for Newton was the total mass of the universe; for Einstein perhaps the total energy of the universe. It is fairly easy to go along with such definitions even if we do not understand them, but it is quite clear that such concepts of God lack all the human features that made God feared, obeyed, loved, and indeed worshipped. Man has clearly made God in his own image, for God commands, judges, and forgives. 
[5]  Let us make it quite clear that we are now talking about a third and altogether different concept, a Humane God; not the God of Magic (which is incredible), nor the God of Physics (which for most of us is incomprehensible, and in any case does not care sufficiently about us personally). We make this clear to get Richard Dawkins off our backs. 
[6]  Many people, perhaps most, will acknowledge a sense of right and wrong, contrition, a hope for forgiveness, and gratitude. There is (objectively) a cloud of ideas in the collective heads of mankind which we have projected onto the God of Magic. Like the image of a man behind the mirror, it is meaningful, can be discussed objectively, but does not exist. 
[7]  Yet the cloudy 'Humane God' is terribly important for man as a thinking, social, animal; it is needed as the foundation for morals. 
[8]  If you ask yourself, “Who says abortion is wrong?”, or “To whom can I turn for forgiveness?” the answer emerges very clearly that our Humane God resides in the heads of our fellow men. “Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you.”  See, for example, the Quakers, who conduct all their business “in the presence of God”.
[9]  How much better is it to have a concept of God that can be easily accessed for advice, and love, and that cannot be doubted, compared with a magical God who spins matter out of nothing, who raises souls (and even bodies) from the dead, but who covers thousands of innocent believers in mountains of mud, and who in any case we cannot believe in? 

Yours sincerely, Ian West

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Programme Notes – String Sextets

Programme Notes – String Sextets

String Sextet from Capriccio (Op.85) —  Richard Strauss  (1864-1949)

Capriccio was Richard Strauss' final opera, written in the early years of the 2nd world war. Sublitled "A Conversation Piece for Music", the opera is long, conversational, and theoretical, as it discusses the relative merits of words, music (and dance), and in consequence it has not proved poplar. Countess Madeleine has to choose (as a future husband) between a composer and a poet. The sextet is the work of the former and is heard in its entirity early in the 1st act. (The opera ends with the Countess secretly wishing to retain both the magic of words and music.)

String Sextet (Halbr. 224) — Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)

i. Lento/Allegro, ii. Andantino/Allegro scherzando/ Andantino, iii. Allegretto poco moderato
Martinů’s sextet was written in less than a week in 1932, which may to some extent explain its organic unity, if not its structural originality. His catalogue for that year contains 22 other compositions.  It was awarded first prize in a competition funded by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, but Martinů initially ignored the telegram announcing his success, assuming it to be a joke. It was first performed in Washington the following year. Martinů, born in a provincial town in Bohemia, impressed his fellow citizens who raised enough money to send him to study at the Prague Conservatoire, where (however) he did not thrive and was eventually dismissed at the age of 19 for "incorrigible negligence". At the age of 33 he left Prague, which he found too conservative, for Paris, where he married, took lessons with Roussel, and stayed till the Germans invaded. Though formally this work is in 3 movements, the pulse goes: slow/fast//slow/fast/slow//fast. It begins in C minor in a mood of 'uncertain pessimism', but concludes in an extrovert D major.

"String Quintet in C major " —  Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805); arr. Johann Christoph Lauterbach (1832 – 1918)

The first thing to remember about Boccherini is that he was himself a cellist; and clearly enjoyed the richness achieved by adding an extra cello to the classical (Haydn) quartet.  It is strange to reflect that 120 years ago the music of the Baroque was so thoroughly neglected that it was possible for musicians such as Lauterbach to 'discover' these rich and 'unknown' archives and attempt to present them to the public in the best light he could. Today's arrangment takes movements from 4 different Quintets of Boccherini (indicated below by their Gérard numbers and dates) written between 1779 (Boccherini, happily married, with 2 daughters and enjoying royal patronage in Madrid), and 1789 (Boccherini widowed and his daughter and his royal pupil dead). 
1. Andante con moto (G 349, 1789); 2. Menuett (G 314, 1779), and trio (G 318, 1779);
3. Grave (G 325, 1780); 4. Rondo (modified from G 310, 1779).

String Sextet in G major Op.36  —–  Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

i. Allegro non troppo; ii. Scherzo (Allegro non troppo/Presto giocoso); iii. Adagio; iv. Poco allegro

Very few string sextets were written between those of Boccherini and those of Brahms. However, the rich and bass-heavy modification of the classical quartet, with its extra viola and extra cello, obviously appealed to Brahms. This sextet (Brahms' 2nd), was written during the summers of 1864/65 in the country near Baden-Baden, when Brahms was still only 31, but living now in Vienna and finding his mature voice. His devotion and enduring fondness for Clara Schumann is well know; less well known is the fact that (in 1858/9) he passionately loved and was briefly engaged to Agathe von Siebold. The engagement ended and rings returned when the bad reception of Brahms' 1st piano concerto (in 1959) induced feelings of inadequacy. To escape, Agathe left Germany (in 1864) to become a governess in Ireland while this G major sextet seems to be Brahms' attempt at catharsis. There is a Clara-based motif that pervades the meditative and complex slow movement, but, at the passionate climax of the 1st movement, Joachim points out the notes A-G-A-D-H-E. (An excellent essay can be found at

Progamme notes – Haydn, Ravel, Schumann

Progamme notes – Haydn, Ravel, Schumann

String Quartet in E flat Op.76 No 6  –  Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

i. Allegretto – Allegro; ii. Fantasia (adagio); iii. Menuetto (presto); iv. Finale (allegro spiritoso)
Haydn is regarded as the 'Father' both of the symphony and the string quartet (and arguably of sonata-form as well). This combination of 4 string instruments, regarded by some as the apex of western music if not of western culture itself, apparently arose by the mere coincidence of the 18 year old Haydn being invited to compose something and having exactly these players to hand. He wrote such an engaging piece that he was encouraged to write more works for this combination; eventually he was to write 83. Ours is the 80th, written in 1797, after which Haydn turned to oratorios. The first movement is in strophic variation form (verse, or verse and chorus), the second is a slow and harmonically wandering fantasy in the semi-remote key of B. The minuet is unusually fast (more Scherzo than minuet?), while the last movement (in 3/4 time, as are 3 of the 4 movements) is in sonata-form with its characteristic, and indeed defining, modulation into the dominant and return to the tonic.

String Quartet in F, Opus — Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)        

i. Allegro moderato, Très doux; ii. Assez vif, Très rythmé; iii. Très lent; iv. Vif et agité
Ravel tried 4 times for the Prix de Rome (awarded annually since 1663 for painters and sculptors, but extended to musicians in 1803), but failed each time to names now long forgotten (André Caplet, Aymé Kunc, Raoul Laparra, Victor Gallois). This piece, composed 1903, was his final attempt (in 1905) and was eliminated in a preliminary round, the ensuing controversy leading to the resignation of the director of the Conservatoire. Ravel admitted its imperfections but insisted that it embodied his aims. It has become a staple of the repertoire, and will be familiar to the many viewers of BBC's 'Chamomile Lawn'. Innovative and exploratory rather than revolutionary, Ravel's quartet, while dedicated to Fauré, is clearly influenced by Debussy's earlier Quartet, and like that work adopts César Franck’s ‘cyclic form’, in which each movement is a fresh transformation of a germinal theme. Its first movement is in a sort of quasi-sonata-form, for, instead of developing from F major towards C major (the dominant), Ravel favours the more distantly related keys of D minor and A minor. (He extends this idea in the second and fourth movements where the note A acts as a pivot between the major and minor modes.) The second movement achieves its effect by flying pizzicato figures and a strong rhythmic conflict between 6/8 and 3/4 meters.  In the slow third movement the key sequence is even more advanced as A shifts to A sharp, then enharmonically to B flat, to G flat minor, and to G flat major (as remote from F as you can get). The rhythmically complex finale (largely 5/8 time) returns to A, before eventually descending to F major for its exhilarating conclusion.

String Quartet in A, Op.41 No. 3  ———  Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

i. Andante espressivo - Allegro molto moderato; ii. Assai agitato; iii. Adagio molto; iv. Finale Allegro molto vivace - Quasi Trio
Before his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann composed only for the piano; thereafter he composed also songs (1840), symphonies (1841), chamber music (1842), and choral works (1843). Today's quartet, and its two preceding quartets, all written in 1842, have been regarded as overly pianistic. It is true that they differ from the standard quartets of the period, in timbre particularly. Though there is plenty contrapuntal writing, there is also writing that would look like chords on a piano score, all 4 instruments in phase and with the same rhythm. But these works should not be overlooked on that account alone, for they are deeply serious contributions by an outstanding composer, and contain unique qualities of melody and mood. No. 3 is by far the most often played. One of the persistent motifs is a drop (or a rise) of a 5th; quite a jump. It is first heard at the very beginning of the first movement; and again at the very end of that movement, where it seems we are to end on the dominant, and only on the last beat of the last bar do we fall back to A (the tonic, or 'home note' for this movement). Another feature is the frequent use of unsettling rhythms; off beat notes for 16 bars at a stretch, or notes starting at the end of one bar and tied over to the next. The Agitato 2nd movement is particularly varied in terms of rhythm; it contains a risoluto section that sounds almost like a separate movement. The finale is a sort of Rondo, but with a section marked Quasi Trio in Clara Schumann's edition of 1881, of slower tempo and different mood as is characteristic of Minuet and Scherzo movements, but unusual in Rondo finales.