Archive for the 'Mendelssohn' Category

Caning John Pilger

Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983) was a brave and intrepid Australian journalist who mainly reported from the other side in the Cold War. He was the first western reporter to visit Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, something he did without permission, and was thus able to counter attempted US military lies about what we now know was radiation poisoning; he did this most dramatically at a US military press conference in Japan immediately after his visit to the city.  For many years in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Australian Governments refused to renew Burchett’s Australian passport, something only remedied by the incoming Labor administration of Gough Whitlam on 6 December 1972, four days after Labor’s election win.

Another Australian journo, John Pilger, wrote a preface to a collection on articles about Burchett, edited by Ben Kiernen in 1986. On the second page of his preface, Pilger quotes from Burchett’s autiobiography, and then commits a schoolboy howler. “Soon afterwards [Pilger writes, page x], Wilfred went ‘on the road with a swag’ and in Queensland was adopted by a group of cane-cutters . . . ”

No, Mr Pilger, no! Although Burchett is careful not to name the location of the sugarcane farm he worked on, he says (page 62) it is on an arm of the Clarence River, upstream from a sugar-mill whose chimney effusions he could smell and possibly also see, on a large island bisected by a canal with horse-drawn barges transporting bundles of cut cane. The mill would be the one at Harwood (still in operation today, thanks to former state MP, Don Day), and the island most likely Palmers Island. Other large islands upstream of the Harwood Mill would be Harwood Island itself or Chatsworth Island, but these are not bisected by canals.  But all of these, including the entire mouth of the Clarence River are in New South Wales, Mr Pilger, not Queensland.

Burchett is briefly mentioned as a social acquaintance of Guy Burgess in Moscow in the 1950s in the recent biography of Burgess by Andrew Lownie, reviewed here.



Wilfred Burchett [1969]: Passport: An Autobiography. Melbourne, Australia: Nelson.

Ben Kiernan (Editor) [1986]: Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World 1939-1983. London, UK: Quartet.

Female composers


Several newspapers have recently carried reviews of a new book presented short biographies of 8 female composers (Beer 2016).  It is certainly true that female composers have suffered from misogyny, and probably still do. But the situation is more subtle than it may appear at first.  The discrimination may arise because composers such as Fanny Hensel (neé Mendelssohn) wrote mostly for small-scale, intimate forms, such as lieder and solo piano.  Hensel wrote no operas or concertos or symphonies, as far as I know.   Since the industrial revolution our society, one could argue, has favoured the grand and the grandiose, so anyone who writes only in small forms is ignored.   This is true even of male composers:  Hugo Wolf, who wrote art song, is unjustly overlooked, for instance.   (This bias for the big and bombastic could also be a strongly male one.)  Against this argument that composers need to go large or be ignored, one could cite the case of nineteenth century French composer Louise Farrenc (pictured), who wrote symphonies and full-length chamber works (indeed, very good ones), yet still was ignored by the musical establishment.  Despite her music being as good as Schumann’s or Mendelssohn’s, she still is ignored.  Even Beer does not, apparently, profile her.

Hensel’s brother, Felix, was a symphonist and composer of overtures who audibly honed his technical craft writing a dozen string symphonies for the pick-up orchestra his mother assembled for the family’s weekly salon concerts each Sunday afternoon in Berlin.  Very few women composers have had such an advantage, which perhaps explains something of Felix Mendelssohn’s comparative abilities.   But Fanny Mendelssohn certainly had access to this resource.  What explains her failure to write for it? Was it some pressure in the family, or just in herself?  Did their parents, perhaps unconsciously and subtly, expect Felix to write pieces for the family salons, but not expect Fanny to do so? Was it a matter of social and class expectations of gender roles which the family had internalised? Or was Fanny simply lacking in confidence?   She once wrote a song to secretly communicate her love for the man who later became her husband at a time when her parents refused to allow the pair to meet or write letters, so it seems she could disobey the spirit of any explicit family imposition, if not the letter.

Or are we looking in the wrong place entirely here?  The Mendelssohns’ father and his brothers were bankers.  Felix’s father took him to Paris as a teenager to meet Cherubini explicitly to assess whether the boy had a future as a composer.  It is easy to imagine that his father wanted him to follow in the family bank, so perhaps Felix had to fight to get to be a composer. It was not, perhaps, that the family discouraged Fanny in particular from a career as a composer but that both children were thus discouraged, but only Felix resisted this pressure.  To be honest, Felix’s letters do not reveal any such discouragement from their parents.


Anna Beer [2016]: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Oneworld, London, auK.

Influential Music

Having written posts on influential non-fiction books and on influential fiction books, I thought it interesting to list pieces of music that have  influenced me.   To start with, I’ve confined myself to western art music (aka “classical” music).   Jazz and world music to come in due course.  The music is listed in alpha order of  composer surname.

  • Adams:  Phrygian Gates
  • Arriaga:  String Quartets
  • Arriaga:  Symphony
  • Bach:  Double Concerto for Violin
  • Bach: Piano Concerto #1
  • Bach:  St. Matthew Passion
  • Bach:  St. John Passion
  • Bach:  Mass in B Minor
  • Bach:  The Well-Tempered Clavier
  • Bach:  Cantatas
  • Bach:  Toccata and Fugue in D minor
  • Bach:  Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin
  • CPE Bach:  Magnificat
  • Beethoven:  Piano Sonatas
  • Beethoven:  Symphonies 3, 5 and 9
  • Beethoven:  Piano Concertos
  • Beethoven:  Piano Quartets
  • Beethoven:  Piano Trios
  • Beethoven:  Violin Concerto
  • Bernstein:  Overture to Candide
  • Cage:  Music for prepared piano
  • Cherubini:  The String Quartets
  • Chopin:  Preludes
  • Debussy:  Preludes
  • Farrenc:  The Piano Quartets
  • Farrenc: The Symphonies
  • Feldman: Triadic Memories
  • Handel:  Messiah
  • Haydn:  Sturm und Drang Symphonies
  • Haydn:  The Creation
  • Haydn:  The String Quartets
  • Hummel:  Trumpet Concerto
  • Maxwell Davies:  Eight Songs for a Mad King
  • McPhee:  Tabu Tabuhan
  • Meale:  Clouds Now and Then
  • Mendelssohn:  The String Symphonies #7-12
  • Mendelssohn:  Magnificat
  • Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture
  • Mendelssohn:  Octet
  • Mendelssohn:  String Quartets and Quintets
  • Mendelssohn:  Piano Trios and Quartets
  • Mendelssohn: Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Mendelssohn:  Elijah
  • Mendelssohn:  Violin Concerto in E minor
  • Mendelssohn:  Violin Concerto in D minor
  • Mendelssohn:  Concerto for Piano and Violin in D minor
  • Mendelssohn:  Songs without Words
  • Montague: Piano Concerto
  • Mozart:  Last 3 symphonies
  • Mozart:  Requiem
  • Mozart: The String Quartets
  • Nishimura:  Bird Heterophony
  • Ore: Codex Temporis
  • Orff:  Carmina Burana
  • Reich:  Nagoya Marimbas
  • Reich:  Music for 18 Musicians
  • Riley:  In C
  • Schumann:  Dichterliebe
  • Schumann:  The Symphonies
  • Sculthorpe:  Sun Music III
  • Shostakovich:  Concerto for Piano and Trumpet
  • Shostakovich:  Incidental Music for Hamlet
  • Shostakovich:  24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano
  • Stockhausen:  Stimmung
  • Stravinsky:  The Rite of Spring
  • Takemitsu:  A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden
  • Tchaikovsky:  Symphonies #4 and #5
  • Tchaikovsky:  Violin Concerto
  • Vanhal:  The Symphonies
  • Wagner:  Prelude to The Mastersingers of Nuremburg
  • Xenakis:  Metastaseis
  • Xenakis:  Pithoprakta.


Against anti-Mendelssohnism


The death of the pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen (1927-2012) last month led to many tributes.   While I have read and admired much of Rosen’s writing, he had a strange and unreasonable dislike of Mendelssohn’s music which led his thinking astray.

Continue reading ‘Against anti-Mendelssohnism’

Biedermeier Orientalism

Listening to Mendelssohn’s Auf Flugeln des Gesanges (“On Wings of Song”), a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine, I am reminded of the composer’s orientalism.    The poem expresses a deep interest in orientalist thought; indeed, the words are quite remarkable for their cosmopolitan and surrealist flavour.  Mendelssohn was well-read in Asian thought, particularly Hindu and Sufist philosophy, and was close friends with Friedrich Rosen (1805-1837), an orientalist and first Professor of Sanskrit at University College London (appointed at age 22).  In his letters, too, Mendelssohn recommended to his brother Paul a book of Eastern mystic aphorisms by another orientalist, Friedrich Ruckert, saying this book, (“Erbauliches und Beschauliches aus dem Morgenlande” – Establishments and Contemplations from the Orient),  provided “delight beyond measure” (Letter of 7 February 1840).    (At roughly the same time, of course, Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists were also being strongly influenced by orientalist ideas and literature.)  Mendelssohn was well-read in theology and philosophy generally, and particularly influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher. There is something more profound here in Mendelssohn’s thought and music than is usually noticed by people who dismiss his music (and often Biedermeier culture generally) as being lightweight and superficial.   That an activity is inward-focused does not make it light or superficial; indeed, the reverse is usually true.

Among the more there that is here, I believe, is a relationship between Sufist ideas and Mendelssohn’s love of repetition, something one soon hears in his melodies with their many repeated notes.  A similar relationship exists between JS Bach’s fascination with Pietism, and his own love of repetition, as in the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto (BWV 1052), or the proto-minimalism of, for example, Prelude #2 in C minor, in Book 1 of the 48 (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Those dismissing Mendelssohn for being superficial included, famously, Richard Wagner, whose criticisms were certainly motivated by anti-semitism, jealousy, and personal animosity.  But I wonder, too, if Wagner – that revolutionary of ’48 – was also dismissive of what he perceived to be the inward-focus of the Biedermeier generation, a generation forced to forego public political expression in the reimposition of conservative Imperial rule after the freedoms wrought by Napoleon’s armies.    But not speaking one’s political mind in public is not evidence of having no political mind, as any post-war Eastern European could tell you.  While visiting Paris in the 1820s, Mendelssohn attended sessions of the French National Assembly.  While in London in 1833, Mendelssohn attended the House of Commons to observe the debate and passage of the bill to allow for Jewish emancipation, writing excitedly home about this afterwards.  (Sadly, the bill took another three decades to pass the Lords.)  

In July 1844, while again in London, Mendelssohn was invited to receive an Honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin, and hearing that he would be going to Dublin, Morgan O’Connell, son of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, asked him to take a letter to his uncle, then in a Dublin prison.  (As it happened, Mendelssohn was unable to go to Ireland on that occasion.  See: letter to his brother Paul, 19 July 1844, page 338 of Volume 2 of Collected Letters.)   One wonders how O’Connell could ask of someone such a favour, without first knowing something of the man’s political sympathies.  So perhaps those sympathies were radical, anti-colonial and republican. In an earlier letter, Mendelssohn described standing amidst British nobility with his “citizen heart” in an audience at the Court of Victoria and Albert (Letter of 6 October 1831).  As these incidents reveal, there may have been much more to this Biedermeier mister than meets the eye.

Music as thought

I have remarked before that music is a form of thinking.  It is a form of thinking for the composer and may also be for the listener.  If the performers are to transmit its essence effectively and well, it will be a form of thinking for them also. Listening recently to the music of Prokofiev,  I realize I don’t think in the way he does, and so I find his music alien.

But what is the nature of this musical thought?

Continue reading ‘Music as thought’

Santayana and chemistry

The philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), whom I have written about before, was fortunate to have two families, one Spanish and one American.  His mother was a widow when she married his father, and his parents later preferred to live in different countries – the USA and Spain, respectively.  Santayana therefore spent part of his childhood with each, and accordingly grew up knowing his Bostonian step-family and their cousins, relatives of his mother’s first husband, the American Sturgis family.   Among these relatives, his step-cousin Susan Sturgis (1846-1923)  is mentioned briefly in Santayana’s 1944 autobiography (page 80). (See Footnote #1 below.)

Susan Sturgis was married twice, the second time in 1876 to Henry Bigelow Williams (1844-1912), a widower and property developer.   In 1890, Williams commissioned a stained glass window from Louis Tiffany for the All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts (pictured below), to commemorate his first wife, Sarah Louisa Frothingham (1851-1871).

The first marriage of Susan Sturgis was in 1867, to Henry Horton McBurney (1843-1875).  McBurney’s younger brother, Charles Heber McBurney (1845-1913) went on to fame as a surgeon, developer of the procedure for diagnosis of appendicitis and removal of the appendix.  The normal place of incision for an appendectomy is known to every medical student still as McBurney’s Point.    The portrait below of Charles Heber McBurney was painted in 1911 by Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941), and is still in the possession of the McBurney family.  (The painting is copyright Gerard McBurney 2013.   As Ellen Emmet married William Blanchard Rand in 1911, this is possibly the first painting she signed with her married name.)


Charles H. McBurney was also a member of the medical team which treated US President William McKinley following his assassination.  He and his wife, Margaret Willoughby Weston (1846-1909), had two sons, Henry and Malcolm,  and a daughter, Alice.    The younger son, Malcolm, also became a doctor and married, having a daughter, but he died young.   Alice McBurney married Austen Fox Riggs (1876-1940), a protege of her father, Charles, and a pioneer of psychiatry.  He founded what is now the Austen Riggs Centre in Stockbridge, MA, in 1907.   They had two children,  one of whom, Benjamin Riggs (c.1914-1992), was also a distinguished psychiatrist, as well as a musician, sailor, and boat builder.   The elder son of Charles and Margaret, Henry McBurney (1874-1956), was an engineer whose own son, Charles Brian Montagu McBurney (1914-1979), became a famous Cambridge University archaeologist.  CBM’s children are the composer Gerard McBurney, the actor/director Simon McBurney OBE, and the art-historian, Henrietta Ryan FLS, FSA.   CBM’s sister, Daphne (1912-1997), married Richard Farmer.  Their four children were Angela Farmer, a yoga specialist, David Farmer FRS, a distinguished oceanographer, whose daughter Delphine Farmer, is a chemist,  Michael Farmer, painting conservator, and Henry Farmer, an IT specialist, whose son, Olivier Farmer, is a psychiatrist.

Henry H. and Charles H. had three sisters, Jane McBurney (born 1835 or 1836), Mary McBurney (1839- ), Almeria McBurney (who died young), and another brother, John Wayland McBurney (1848-1885).  They were born in Roxbury, MA, to Charles McBurney and Rosina Horton; Charles senior (1803 Ireland – Boston 1880) was initially a saddler and harness maker in Tremont Row, Boston  – the image above shows a label from a trunk he made.  Later, he was a pioneer of the rubber industry, for example, receiving a patent in 1858 for elastic pipe, and was a partner in the Boston Belting Company.    It is perhaps not a coincidence that Charles junior pioneered the use of rubber gloves by medical staff during surgery.  All three boys graduated from Harvard (Henry in 1862, Charles in 1866, and John in 1869). John married Louisa Eldridge in 1878, and they had a daughter, May (or Mary) Ruth McBurney (1879-1947).  May married William Howard Gardiner Jr. (1875-1952) in 1918, and on her death left an endowment to Harvard University to establish the Gardiner Professor in Oceanic History and Affairs to honour her husband.  John worked for his father’s company and later in his own brokerage firm, Barnes, McBurney & Co;  he died of tuberculosis.

Mary (or Mamie) McBurney married Dr Barthold Schlesinger (1828-1905), who was born in Germany of a Jewish ethnic background, and immigrated to the USA possibly in 1840, becoming a citizen in 1858.  For many years, from at least 1855, he was a director of a steel company, Naylor and Co, the US subsidiary of leading steel firm Naylor Vickers, of Sheffield, UK.    Barthold’s brother, Sebastian Benson Schlesinger (1837-1917), was also a director of Naylor & Co from 1855 to at least 1885; he was also a composer, mostly it seems of lieder and piano music; some of his music has been performed at the London Proms.  At the time, Naylor Vickers were renowned for their manufacture of church bells, but in the 20th century, under the name of Vickers, they became a leading British aerospace and defence engineering firm;  the last independent part of Vickers was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1999.   Mary and Barthold Schlesinger appear to have had at least five children, Mary (1859- , married in 1894 to Arthur Perrin, 1857- ), Barthold (1873- ), Helen (1874- , married in 1901 to James Alfred Parker, 1869- ), Leonora (1878- , married in 1902 to James Lovell Little, c. 1875- ), and Marion (1880- , married in 1905 to Jasper Whiting, 1868- ).   The Schlesingers owned an estate of 28 acres at Brookline, Boston, called Southwood.   In 1879, they commissioned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), the designer of Central Park in New York and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, to design the gardens of Southwood;    some 19 acres of this estate now comprises the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, of the Greek Orthodox Church of North America.   The Schlesingers were lovers of art and music, and kept a house in Paris for many years.  An 1873 portrait of Barthold Schlesinger by William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

While a student at Harvard, Henry H. McBurney was a prominent rower.   After graduation, he spent 2 years in Europe, working in the laboratories of two of the 19th century’s greatest chemists: Adolphe Wurtz in Paris and Robert Bunsen in Heidelberg.   Presumably, even Harvard graduates did not get to spend time working with famous chemists without at least strong letters of recommendation from their professors, so Henry McBurney must have been better than average as a chemistry student.    He returned to Massachusetts to work in the then company, Boston Elastic Fabric Company, of his father, and then, from November 1866, as partner for another firm, Campbell, Whittier, and Co.  From what I can discover, this company was a leading engineering firm, building in 1866 the world’s first cog locomotive, for example, and, from 1867, manufacturing and selling an early commercial elevator.  Henry H. and Susan S. McBurney had three children:  Mary McBurney (1867- , in 1889 married Frederick Parker), Thomas Curtis McBurney (1870-1874), and Margaret McBurney (1873-, in 1892 married Henry Remsen Whitehouse).  Mary McBurney and Frederick Parker had five children: Frederic Parker (1890-), Elizabeth Parker (1891-), Henry McBurney Parker (1893-), Thomas Parker (1898.04.20-1898.08.30), and Mary Parker (1899-).  Margaret McBurney and Henry Whitehouse had a daughter, Beatrix Whitehouse (1893-).  The name “Thomas” seems to have been ill-fated in this extended family.

HH died suddenly in Bournemouth, England, in 1875, after suffering from a lung disease.   As with any early death, I wonder what he could have achieved in life had he lived longer.


POSTSCRIPT (Added 2011-11-21): Henry H. McBurney’s visit to the Heidelberg chemistry lab of Robert Bunsen is mentioned in an account published in 1899 by American chemist, Henry Carrington Bolton, who also worked with Bunsen, and indeed with Wurtz.   Bolton refers to McBurney as “Harry McBurney, of Boston” (p. 869).

POSTSCRIPT 2 (Added 2012-10-09): According to the 1912 Harvard Class Report for the Class of 1862 (see Ware 1912), Henry H. McBurney spent the year from September 1862 in Paris with Wurtz and the following year in Heidelberg with Bunsen.  He therefore presumably just missed meeting Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1841-1880), son of composer Felix, who graduated in chemistry from Heidelberg in 1863.   PM-B went on to co-found the chemicals firm Agfa, an  acronym for Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation.   I wonder if  Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy ever returned to visit Bunsen in the year that Henry McBurney was there.

POSTSCRIPT 3 (Added 2013-01-20):  I am most grateful to Gerard McBurney for the portrait of Charles H. McBurney, and for additional information on the family.  I am also grateful to Henrietta McBurney Ryan for information.  All mistakes and omissions, however, are my own.


NOTE:  If you know more about any of the people mentioned in this post or their families, I would welcome hearing from you.   Email:  peter [at]


Henry Carrington Bolton [1899]: Reminiscences of Bunsen and the Heidelberg Laboratory, 1863-1865.  Science, New Series Volume X (259): 865-870. 15 December 1899.  Available here.

George Santayana [1944]:  Persons and Places:  The Background of My Life. (London, UK:  Constable.) (New York, USA:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.)

Charles Pickard Ware (Editor) [1912]:   1862 – Class Report – 1912.  Class of Sixty-Two.  Harvard University.  Fiftieth Anniversary.  Cambridge, MA, USA,  Available here.



1. Santayana writes as follows about Susan Sturgis Williams (Santayana 1944, page 74 in the US edition):

Nothing withered, however, about their sister Susie, one of the five Susie Sturgises of that epoch, all handsome women, but none more agreeably handsome than this one, called Susie Mac-Burney and Susie Williams successively after her two husbands.  When I knew her best she was a woman between fifty and sixty, stout, placid, intelligent, without an affectation or a prejudice, adding a grain of malice to the Sturgis affability, without meaning or doing the least unkindness. I felt that she had something of the Spanish feeling, So Catholic or so Moorish, that nothing in this world is of terrible importance. Everything happens, and we had better take it all as easily or as resignedly as possible. But this without a shadow of religion. Morally, therefore,  she may not have been complete; but physically and socially she was completeness itself, and friendliness and understanding. She was not awed by Boston. Her first marriage was disapproved, her husband being an outsider and considered unreliable; but she weathered whatever domestic storms may have ensued, and didn’t mind. Her second husband was like her father, a man with a checkered business career; but he too survived all storms, and seemed the healthier and happier for them. They appeared to be well enough off. In her motherliness there was something queenly, she moved well, she spoke well, and her freedom from prejudice never descended to vulgarity or loss of dignity. Her mother’s modest solid nature had excluded in her the worst of her father’s foibles, while the Sturgis warmth and amiability had been added to make her a charming woman.”