Category Archives: Music

Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room


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The Mozart Effect

When my Aunt was pregnant with my cousin, she was every bit the conscientious first-time mother, equipped with a state of the art pram and a seemingly unending wodge of dribble cloths in a range of gender-neutral tones. However, what particularly interested me were her reports that she had been listening to classical music in an attempt to make my growing cousin more intelligent. This rather pleasantly arty hypothesis has become an internet phenomenon, guiding tentative expectant mothers to indulge in some cultural bonding with their imminent bundle.

The idea that listening to classical music can somehow increase the intelligence of a developing child is an extension of what has been simply named ‘The Mozart Effect’, a term first coined in 1991 by Alfred A. Tomatis, who claimed that Mozart’s music had the capacity to heal and encourage brain development. Later in 1993, psychologists claimed that it had been shown to improve spatial-temporal reasoning. And with the Austrian composer’s oeuvres stirring the concert-goer and the scientist in equal measure, it came as no surprise that websites were set up for eager parents to download Mozart tracks to nurture the neurones of their developing offspring. Indeed, according to the website, a Governor of Georgia, no doubt inspired by the laboratory hype, mandated that a CD of Mozart’s piano sonatas should be given to all new babies on their leaving hospital.

‘The Mozart Effect’ has since been dismissed, with mother-baby websites instead promoting Mozart’s work as merely mood music, as a means to soothe the fretful baby and introduce it to the classical canon from a young age. Nevertheless, whilst it may not manifestly increase a child’s intelligence, the intriguing scientific and psychological potential in music suggests it may have something to teach us about human nature.

This prompted me to think about the way that we listen to music today. Whilst in the past our desire for music would have been satisfied by a maiden at a harpsichord or a trip to a velvety concert hall, we can indulge our ears today with whatever tones we yearn for, whenever we yearn for them. You Tube and Spotify have opened up vast empires for auditory exploration, conquerable by a few taps on a keyboard. And this is a privilege that we must cultivate. Just in writing this blog, I have listened to a miscellany of melodies that I have accessed with minimal effort, filling my head with sounds that invariably syncopate the steady metronome of my typing. At this late hour, I find myself believing that music can stimulate the brain’s creative capabilities.

However, with such a diverse portfolio of music available to us, perhaps we are all too ready to choose music moulded to our mood, rather than letting ourselves be moulded by music’s own powers. Indeed, I recently came across the website, a site that allows you to enter your mood into a search bar and have melodies matched to your current temperament. Mood categories ranged from ‘dish washing’ to music to ‘snuggle’ to. Whilst Buddhist chanting might be requisite for yoga, the notion of mood music can surely become too dictatorial. Music is, after all, an art form and the way that we react to aestheticism is always driven by subjective impulses. Classical music of the Romantic Period was written to emote. And emotions are unpredictable, personal and private. It is our individual response to music that makes listening to it in a group or community so valuable and interesting, and is certainly a way to support public performances.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the premise of ‘The Mozart Effect’. There is some value in listening to music neutrally and experimenting with its effects, allowing people to enter the imaginative world of a piece and read it, as one would a book or poem. My ongoing study of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poetry sequence of 1912-1913 for my dissertation drew my attention strongly to the fundamental link between music and poetry. As a keen musician himself, Hardy frequently employed ballad and hymnal forms to structure his work. Responding to the tones and textures of a piece of music is like reacting to the details of language in a poem.

I am organising an event in my College of Jazz and Blues music to brighten up the notorious work slump that is ‘Week 5 blues’ in the Cambridge term. Some of us might associate such instrumentals with chill-out hour, others with the glamour of Gatsby’s parties. Frank Zappa once said that ‘Music, in performance, is a kind of sculpture. The air is sculpted into something’. It is the diverse ways that we respond personally to music as an art form that makes it such an interesting canvas on which to learn about humanity, whether in the whitewash of the laboratory or the plush comfort of the theatre row.


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A Night at the Opera

With her deep upturned pout, ragged blouse and tangled locks, intertwined in the French flag as black and white bleed into red and blue, the face of Cosette is instantly recognisable. Les Misérables’ ceaseless popularity is testament to a particular musical taste that has been fostered since it first opened in the West End in 1985. Victor Hugo could never have imagined that his novel would be seeing in the new year of 2013 with the release of Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film of the stage musical. What is it about this French revolutionary drama that has so captivated the minds and hearts of the world? The catchphrase of Hooper’s film catalogues basic human passions: ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’. For me, this very aptly encapsulates the essence of the musical. There is little more harrowing than Fantine’s impassioned and desperate reminiscence of a life that could have been in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, a performance  delivered with much raw sincerity by Hathaway in the teaser trailer of Hooper’s film.


Yet personally, these four words of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are equally relevant to a form of theatrical music that glows much more dimly in the vivid forum of world entertainment. And that is opera. Whose voice can be more dreaming than Madame Butterfly’s in ‘Un Bel Di’? More full of love than Isolde’s in her ‘Liebestod’? More hopeful than ‘Nessun Dorma’, an anthem so inspiring it was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World cup?

Why is it then that comparative to musicals, we seem to be less roused by opera? Perhaps it is because we associate it with the velveteen hues, cut glass chandeliers and gilt of an expensive night out at the theatre. Zachary Woolfe’s article (@zwoolfe) in ‘The New York Times’, ‘How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera’, notes that it is only the use of famous divas in America that guarantees audiences. This prompts us to ponder whether the quality of operatic music in itself is no longer enough to secure profits. Woolfe also points out that the Hollywood glamorisation of opera has done little to help its credibility as an artform. Citing Vivienne’s trip in ‘Pretty Woman’ to see La Traviata as an example, his point becomes crystal clear. She is taken on a glitzy date escorted by helicopter, peering out of the box with her opera glasses, a bold vision of diamonds, white gloves and a full, sweeping red gown. Much as she is moved by her experience, it seems superficial and frivolous: all she can say is  ‘It was so good I almost peed my pants!’ Julia Roberts’ fame, beauty and cinematic presence inevitably leaves the impression that a night at the opera is an elite evening of entertainment enjoyed only by the glittering and the fabulous.

Vivienne indulging in the opera

Vivienne indulging in the opera

The use of opera in the advertising world is similarly problematic. Two recent adverts for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male aftershave shows a changing room of half clad athletic men pouting, perfuming and preening as they change into sharp tailored suits, no doubt preparing to attend a decadent party. In the second, a man and a woman in a similar state of undress awake in a sumptuous boudoir. The male, playing the quintessential ‘man in uniform’ as a sailor,  mysteriously disappears, leaving only his scent to linger in the love nest. By coupling opera with such scenes of modellesque beauty, rose tinted light, silk and indulgence, we cannot help but feel it exists in a world of perfection, a world of high fashion. It is not something that we can immediately relate to.

The mystique surrounding opera frustratingly veils it from stirring emotions within us just as powerful, if not more so, as any resounding chorus of an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Certain companies and productions are working hard to unclothe opera of its supposed pretensions, stripping it down to accentuate best its movingly human qualities. Opera North’s 2011 ‘Carmen’, for example, set the saga in the mellow grounds of a Spanish wine bar complete with fairy lights and rickety tables. To the audience, it was a scene not too distant from a favourite Mediterranean summer holiday. As a classically trained singer myself, I was a member of the chorus of Leeds Youth Opera for four years. In my time there, I was a Germanic huntress in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, a medieval crusader and harem girl in Verdi’s ‘I Lombardi’ and a Greek wench in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’. As a company, we always aimed for diversity and to challenge our audience’s expectation. With this in mind, Hades in our production of Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ was transformed  into a seedy underground nightclub and the sopranos, myself included, played burlesque dancers in fishnets and platform heels. Finishing off the party in the final act was a drunken performance of the famous Can-Can dance to disco lights, as energetic and frolicsome as a girly hen do.

Leeds Youth Opera's chorus for 'Idomeneo'

Leeds Youth Opera’s chorus for ‘Idomeneo’

It is staging and costume that prove vital tools to ground opera in a way that all audiences can access and enjoy. Indeed, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, a newly composed opera ‘Lost’ was performed in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It involved both audiences and performers moving through the galleries parallel to the narrative’s progression, becoming themselves lost and immersed in the art work. It is this sort of intelligent innovation of operatic performance and reception that inspires and fosters emotional and intellectual connections between the listener and the music. The passions of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are allowed liberation from the cobwebbed traditions of more conventional theatrical performances and simultaneously escape the romanticised associations of the media and film industry, invigorating a diverse multitude of people. Opera is supposed to be a dramatic work set to music. And so we must keep experimenting with where that drama can take us.

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