Thursday, November 22, 2012

November 22, 1928. Maurice Ravel's Boléro premieres at the Paris Opéra

Maurice Ravel's Boléro premiered at the Paris Opéra on this day in 1928.  Legend has it that during this performance a woman yelled "au fou!" ("he's mad!") before leaving.  When informed of this, Ravel said, "celle-là, vois-tu, elle a compris." ("that one, you see, she understood.")

Here's the Copenhagen Philharmonic performing Bolero at Copenhagen Central Station. As a flash mob.

Turn the volume up and annoy your neighbours!


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Furs and snow: The wintry paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff.

When I was visiting the Royal Ontario Museum about a month ago, I was struck by the work of a celebrated painter from North America`s past. Cornelius Krieghoff, born in Amsterdam, painted during mid-nineteenth century. He can best be recognized for his winter scenes and so the deeper we delve into the winter months, the more I felt the desire to share some examples of his work.

What seems to strike me most in Krieghoff's paintings is how much attention has been paid towards the objects in each scene.  Though the landscapes and people in Krieghoff's scenes are certainly beautiful in their romantic styling, the clothing, the furniture, and the textures are so finely painted that they demand the most attention from the observer.

An Officer`s Room in Montreal

I particularly love An Officer`s Room in Montreal. You can nearly feel the cushy softness of the fur blanket draped over the chaise by the fire, where you sit to gaze at the innumerable objects that add such coziness to the room, and scratch the friendly dogs absentmindedly after they've both wandered contentedly towards you and compete for your affection.  The room itself is dry and maybe a bit too warm, but it is a welcome relief from the outside cold.

This officer appears to be an intellectual member of the merchant class (or wishes to present himself as such). The room is a 'cabinet of wonders,' filled with items acquired through trade and travel, samples of his intellectual interests. The traps above his desk reveal the origins of his trade as a fur trader, and the various pelts, beaded boots, slippers, and mitts strewn about the room demonstrate his interactions with First Nations.  These boots, as well as the pair of snowshoes, have been warn - are not merely items for display - and so he also interacts with the land himself, he is not just a passive observer.  The room is both a demonstration of the European Enlightenment as well as of Canadian entrepreneurial spirit and colonialism of the time.

Cornelius Krieghoff born Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1815; died Chicago, Illinois, United States, 1872
Calling the Moose, around 1860 oil on canvas, 27.0 x 21.5 cm The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
Calling the Moose

Winter was one of Krieghoff`s favourite seasons to depict in his work. The people in his paintings were fur traders newly arrived from England and Scotland, French Canadians who had already been been part of the landscape since the seventeenth century, and First Nations peoples who had known the winters around the St-Lawrence since time immemorial.  He didn't just paint people in wintry scenes, he painted these people interacting with the landscape  They were as much a part of these landscapes as any hill, river, or tree. He painted these people working, travelling, interacting, and having fun with winter.

An Early Canadian Homestead
The snow in these scenes managed to accentuate the bright colours and fine detail in the fabrics of the people, furs, trees, houses, tools, and decorations he so carefully painted. Krieghoff painted people who loved bright colours for their clothing and houses in the depths of winter.

I also love how his paintings are so animated. You can nearly hear the people in the paintings yelling to one another across a snowy yard, the winter wind blowing, the sound of crunching snow beneath mocassined feet, or a dog barking.  Krieghoff's paintings demonstrated how winter in Canada near the St-Lawrence could be great fun and stunningly beautiful or utterly difficult and nearly hellish.

The Trapper's Return

File:'The Blizzard', oil on canvas painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1857, National Gallery of Canada.jpg
The Blizzard

Not only did Krieghoff capture people living in the midst of winter, he captured the development of new social identities and was just as much a part of it as his subjects. The people in these scenes lived winter in such a way that it molded the way they viewed the world around them.  Their experiences during this time were neither strictly those of First Nations or strictly those of Europeans; these experiences were part of a burgeoning notion - of a new sense - of what it was to be Canadian.  Though the idea of what it means to be "Canadian" today is something quite complicated and the subject of ongoing study, a hint of its origins can certainly be found in the subjects of Krieghoff's paintings and how he chose to portray them. 

Interesting stuff.

Wishing you all the best over these winter months!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thoughts on "The Life of Charlotte Brontë" by Elizabeth Gaskell

While perusing the stacks at my local library I found The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, author of Cranford and North and South.  I'm quite a fan of all three of the Brontë  sisters (though admittedly I am particularly an admirer of Charlotte and of her novel Jane Eyre). I've already read a few contemporary books about the Brontë family, though I had not yet read Gaskell's biography of her close friend.  It was time to take it home and acquaint myself.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë was first published in 1857, a mere two years after the celebrated author's passing at the age of thirty-nine as the last of the six Brontë children.  It is the first biography of a female author, written by a female author in a time when it was still greatly questioned if it was even possible for a woman to formulate her own ideas and if so, was it acceptable or proper for this woman to make a living on these intellectual capabilities. The book and its conclusions are still being studied and debated by scholars (for instance, the anecdote of Patrick Brontë, the father, shooting a pistol out into the back yard to relieve his heightened emotions; did this really happen? why? was he as odd as he's made out to be?). Not only does the book provide great insight into the individual personalities and inclinations of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, but it also plunges the reader into understanding the social climate and surrounding circumstances in which the sisters and Gaskell wrote and lived.  

Gaskell presents the Brontës as people with minds who shone despite great shadows. For instance, their lives were blighted by illness and the death of loved ones. Their health and spirits withered (especially Emily's) due to homesickness which surged whenever they had to leave their family home.  According to Gaskell, the sisters were also particularly shy or reserved in most social situations, though I suspect that their above-average intelligence had to be stoked by the selective company of equal minds and temperaments. Any substandard company seemingly left them to languish. It was in each other's company that they were strongest. When they were lucky enough to be at home which was the parsonage adjacent to the church where their father was minister, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne discussed their ideas in the evenings after the rest of the household had gone to bed. It was during this time that they supported one another, perfected their notions, and strengthened their resolves.


The sisters are still famous today, though at the time I'm sure they were perceived as a bit odd. They were quite determined to be as self sufficient as possible in an age where intellectual options were limited for women. They dreamed of opening a small school together so they wouldn't have to take on employment which they hated (namely, being governesses) and could continue writing in the hope that someday their works could be published. The sisters also had their own ideas when came to the subject of marriage.  It was not expected for a woman to be yet unmarried by the age of twenty-five. Charlotte was once made an offer of marriage and, after declining the offer, wrote about the experience to a friend.

I had a kindly leaning towards him, because he is an amiable and well-disposed man.  Yet I had not, and could not have, that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him, and if I ever marry, it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my husband.

This is passage demonstrates how Charlotte couldn't bring herself to settle for someone she didn't adore.  It seems she couldn't let the circumstances or expectations of society drive away the values she held onto strictly throughout her life.  Charlotte felt that life couldn't be lived with only half-baked thoughts and tepid feelings. I love this.

The more one learns about the Brontës, the more one begins to understand just how much each sister's masterpiece is a projection of themselves. Many (though not all, sorry Cathy) of the heroines in their books carry the same values as did their authors. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne wrote books which still manage to captivate and inspire each new generation and it's evident that the authors were just as engaging as the books they wrote. 

I'll leave you with the following excerpt, taken from one of Charlotte's many letters which Gaskell chose to include in the biography. In this letter, Charlotte paints a beautiful image of her beloved sister Emily and how she was linked, heart and soul, to her beloved moors.


My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her;--out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was--liberty. Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall. She had only been three months at school; and it was some years before the experiment of sending her from home was again ventured on.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bleak autumnal evenings.

"Draw your chair up and hand me my violin, for the only problem we have still to solve is  how to while away these bleak autumnal evenings."

Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.

It's been rather dark and dreary here lately and I've found that curling up with a Sherlock Holmes mystery, my tartan wool blanket, and a nice cup of tea do just the trick in fighting this autumnal chill.
It's been years since I've read the Holmes mysteries and I'm find them a great deal of fun to read.  What with all the BBC Sherlock mania (and discussions about the controversial Elementary) I decided I needed to brush up on the source of it all; the original stories! I love when treasured books and stories are brought to life on stage and on film, but I always prefer being familiar with the original literature.
Some of the Holmes stories are rather dark, some rather humorous, and some even have a shade of romance!   It's no wonder that these tales have remained so popular well over a century and continue to thrill and inspire people around the globe.

Which is your favourite Holmesian tale?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Adventures and new beginnings

About a month ago I moved to a different province to be with my fiancé in Southern Ontario. My brother made the trip of well over 2500 kilometers with me in just two days.  We took turns driving and made very good time, taking the route along Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

The whole journey seemed to be a Group of Seven painter's dream of golden and fiery leaves, sharp hills, lapping waves, and strong winds to animate nature's canvas.  Northern Ontario along the Great Lakes is stunningly beautiful and I am happy to have witnessed it in autumn's brightest palette of colours.

The Sleeping Giant outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Storm clouds were brewing, but after the rain came one of the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.

(Can you spot the rainbow?)

On the second day we took the Chi-Cheemaun ferry across from Manitoulin Island to Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula. Clouds were scarce that day.

The trip was memorable for its sights and for the fun my brother and I had driving to our destination.  I found that good company, tasty/frequent snacks, entertaining/interesting podcasts (here's to you The Nerdist, In Our Time with Melvin Bragg, Keith and the Girl), and a sense of humour are paramount to the success of a lengthy journey.

 The beauty I witnessed on this trip and the great memories made are experiences I now carry with me and I could not have imagined a greater launch to my new beginning in Southern Ontario.