Review: Giant’s Bread

Giant's Bread
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those of you who are up on your Agatha Christie lore will know that she wrote six books under the assumed name of Mary Westmacott. This was her way of writing something outside her regular genre of detective / mystery without feeling the pressure from the general public.

She got away with it for 15 years apparently before it was revealed that Mary Westmacott was Agatha Christie. Since I’ve nearly finished the complete canon of the Queen of Crime, just for completeness’ sake, I decided to have a crack at the Westmacott novels.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. One of the problems I struggle with the most with Christie is that while her plots are diabolically clever, with red herrings galore and zillions of plot twists, I always find her upper-crust toffee-nosed Englishfolk far too two-dimensional for my liking. But I will confess, this story sucked me in, perhaps because of its connection with music.

It begins with a concert in London for a new avant-garde composer which reminded me a little bit of Stravinsky’s famous Rite of Spring premiere. There is no riot from the crowd, but the piece is thoroughly modern, incomprehensible and is saying something about the human condition that no one understands. The rest of the story is then a huge flash back following the life of Vernon Deyre, the composer, his childhood friends and what becomes of them.

It’s all very melodramatic (and somewhat racier than I would have expected from Christie) with love triangles, marriages for money, a reported World War I death and the pursuit of new sound worlds in music. It was written in 1930, and some of the themes (particularly the WWI setting and the rampant anti-Semitism of the times) have probably taken on more significance since the story was written.

I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece (it’s not really) and I’m not even able to get an objective bearing to say whether any non-Christie fans would enjoy this (probably not, and probably not even Christie fans). But I enjoyed it, and it kept me reading and I’ll be curious to read the other Westmacott novels.

View all my reviews

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 8: Part 1

mahler8-ljubljana
There’s nothing quite like seeing 1,000+ musicians about to make an epic noise. This is a photo from a performance of the Mahler 8 in Slovenia in 2001 with 1,083 performers. (Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.)

The best way to listen to this whole symphony is to simply follow along with the words. Mahler thought they were important enough to have nearly the entire symphony sung, and so looking at the words will immediately put you on the wavelength of what the symphony is about. So for this blog post, I’ve mainly just listed the words, but I’ll throw in a few comments from time to time. (My translation is courtesy of Wikipedia, BTW.)

It essentially plays with two types of music – a vast, epic choral sound that you hear right at the beginning with the full choir, and some more gentle music that you will usually hear from just the soloists (of which there are eight!). So it simultaneously hits listeners with the full power of God, while bestowing grace and beauty on them as well.

Also, if you’ve been following along with the blog, you might recognise that the whole thing, as well as being spiritual, is also a type of sonata form, where he sets out his main themes, plays around with them in various ways in the middle and then brings everything full circle at the end with a recapitulation.

You will have to forgive the fact that it’s broken up into lots of separate tracks as well. It makes it easier to skip to your favourite bits second time around, but it does take up a lot of room on this post!

(Track 1) The organ chord that everyone loves, and then straight into the big Veni creator theme which opens and closes the whole symphony. I find with a choir this size (and technically the choir here is actually split into two choirs – singing back and forth at each other), most of the words seem to disappear, but you can hear the big soul-transforming sound easily enough. The music perfectly matches the idea of the Holy Ghost with his “bright heav’nly throne”.

Veni, creator spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita;

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;

(Track 2) Soloists – then choir – then soloists again; beautiful peaceful second theme. The first go round is with the soloists, then with the choir joining in quietly. Bit by bit, the singers work their way higher and higher up, so that the solo part climaxes on the words “spiritual anointment”.

imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paraclitus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,

fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
et spiritalis unctio.

come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.

You are named the Comforter,
A gift from the highest God,

Living fountain, fire and love,
Spiritual anointment.

(3:28) Returns to the Veni creator theme of the opening.

(4:03) Awesome orchestral interlude begins …

(Track 3) The interlude continues, now with bells and strings. The choir re-enters at (0:38) with the Infirma nostri section. Because this is about feeble bodies being strengthened, Mahler has the choir almost whispering at this point, with a solo violin flitting around, somewhat like an annoying mosquito. (That may be just my opinion, however. The word Mahler uses is “fleeting”.)

The soloists re-enter on the bit about “with divine power” and offer a bit of comfort.

Infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti;

Therefore, strengthen our feeble bodies
With divine power!

(Track 4) Another orchestral interlude begins. This one has hints of the first three notes, tolling bells, and off-stage brass.

(Track 5) I like to think that this brilliant little bit of flute music inspired the soundtrack for every creepy moment in children’s films from then on. It leads into more Infirma nostri from the soloists.

(1:15) The enlightenment arrives, and it’s as delicate and beautiful as can be.

lumen accende sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus.

Enlighten our senses,
Infuse your love into our hearts!

(Track 6) Accende lumen sensibus (the words slightly switched around) – the LOUD version. Soloists and choir take off.

(1:16) Next is the hostem repellas moment, which is great fun because the choir actually shouts its lines, just to really emphasise that they’re driving away an enemy here. And I should just repeat that when I say “choir”, there are actually two large choirs plus a children’s choir singing here, so there are approximately nine choral vocal parts plus eight soloists all going at once. It’s huge.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus;

Drive away the enemy
And give us everlasting peace!

(1:51) Then with almost no warning, Mahler heads into the next section.

ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne pessimum.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae paternae digitus;
Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus Filium, spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Da gaudiorum praemia,
da gratiarum munera;
dissolve litis vincula,
adstringe pacis foedera.

Guide us on our pathway,
So that we may shun all perils!

You, sevenfold tribute of the Father.
The finger in his hand,
Reveal to us the Father and the Son!
Let us have faith in you forever,
The Spirit that from both of you emanates!

Grant us the joys of heaven,
Bestow on us your offering of Grace!
Settle matters where conflict prevails,
And bring peace there!

This is a massive exercise in counterpoint (meaning all the voices have their own separate melody lines, but they all layer on top of each other perfectly), so the music sounds infinitely complex, but not at all like a cacophony. It goes on in this vein for several minutes, becoming more and more joyfully ecstatic.

(3:30) Accende Lumen comes back in full glory. Any other piece of music and you’d think this was the ending, but this is a fake ending. Instead, it starts working back up towards the real recapitulation.

(4:14) But not without stopping for the choral equivalent of a Mahler collapse along the way. The music sounds as if it’s falling apart, but slowly you can hear it stirring and you can feel things building …

(Track 7) This is essentially the start of the Recapitulation section. Back to Veni creator. Tennstedt slows it down for dramatic effect. Most of this is music from the beginning of the movement, but as always with Mahler, re-orchestrated and subtly adjusted. I must confess, there are many moments in this next stretch where you think the whole thing is about to finish and then it just keeps going … it will either start to wear out its welcome, or – especially if you crank it loud on a good set of speakers – the hugeness of it all will be amazingly overwhelming.

(Track 8) And just when you thought it was all over, there’s more! It’s a coda! A little orchestral interlude leads up to a children’s choir and the soloists singing:

Gloria Patri Domino,
Deo sit gloria et Filio
natoque, qui a mortuis
surrexit, ac Paraclito
in saeculorum saecula.

Let God the Father be praised
And his resurrected Son
And the comforting Spirit
In all eternity!

At first the melody is the Infirma theme, then it’s the Veni creator theme. Soon the organ kicks in, the choirs join in, the whole kitchen sink, climaxing with a massive series of upwards runs (2:19) at the end. Played loud or heard live, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.