MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


The Rossini Tradition

'Water, ' said Stravinsky firmly, 'is for the feet. ' As one of the outstanding composers of the century, and one of the longest living, he knew what he was talking about. Art and abstinence are sullen bedfellows. Good wine and food are essential adjuncts to artistic endeavour.

Rossini set a good example. Having achieved fame and fortune as an opera-composer, he retired at the age of 37, and for the remaining 40 years of his life gave musical parties at his Paris home. Everybody who was somebody craved an invitation. The musically talented wife of an American banker, Lillie de Hegermann-Lindencrone, reported in her memoirs: 'We were invited to one of Rossini's Saturday evenings. There was a queer mixture of people: some diplomats, and some well-known members of society, but I fancy that the guests were mostly artists; at least they looked so.'

Rossini wrote a lot of music for these parties: al- together fourteen volumes of songs and piano pieces, later published under the collective title, Sins of My Old Age. They include the first ever piece of music depicting a train journey, a song sung by a baby wanting to be put on the potty, another entitled Ouff les petits pois, and of course, his famous Duet for two cats. But people came not only for the music, and the skits devised by entertainers like Gustave Dore and Eugene Vivier, but also for the food and wine.

The cuisine was lavish. It included delicacies sent to Rossini as gifts, such as macaroni made by nuns at L'Aquila, Seville hams, Modenese zamponi, olives from Ascoli Piceno, Bolognese mortadelle and special wines. The composer himself often prepared dishes, for in- stance, Tournedos Rossini, which happily survives this day. Baron James Rothschild once sent Rossini some splendid grapes from his hothouse. Although grateful, Rossini nevertheless wrote back, 'Bien que vos raisins soient superbes, je n'aime pas mon vin en pillules.'

The Rossini tradition is more rarely found in our own penurious age. Between the wars, it was kept alive to some extent by Lord Berners, who was well known as a professional diplomat, painter, writer and musician. Stravinsky, no doubt recognising a kindred spirit, en- couraged him a lot. Berners was both rich and generous and often invited fellow artists to his country home, Faringdon House in Berkshire, where the wine and food were dependably of the best. His eccentricities included painting the pigeons in his garden in brightly contrasting colours and placing a notice on the dining-room door at dog-level, which read 'Dogs not allowed in here' (his pet Dalmation duly obeyed). Amongst Berners' compositions are three funeral marches for, respectively, a states- man, a canary and a rich aunt - and, unwittingly a possible theme-song (or bin-end song) for Le Nez Rouge:

Red Roses for Red Noses.

Some people praise red roses:
But I beg leave to say
That I prefer red noses
I think they are so gay.

A Kempis says we must not cling
To things that pass away!
Red noses last a lifetime -
Red roses but a day.

Berners died in 1950, but his soul must surely be gleeful at the thought of a song intended as a typically tongue-in-cheek lament for a dead maiden now attaining wide approbation amongst the tipplers of Brewery Road.

The only composer, to my knowledge, of today's generation to come out of the closet and celebrate musically the joys of good wine is Derek Bourgeois (who, as Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, must surely exert great influence upon the up-and-coming Nez Rouge-istes). A few years ago he wrote a Wine Symphony (which I hesistate to call 'Cru Bourgeois exceptionnel') in nine movements, in which 'the blend of themes as represented by the grape varie- ties is carefully adhered to', the character of the music being the composer's subjective response to wines of different regions. Bourgeois's preface to the score is almost worth quoting in full, but here is just a taste:

'1st movement: Prelude - Champagne (tonal centre F minor): after a popping cork, and amidst rising bubbles throughout the rest of the orchestra, the brass play in counterpoint, two themes representing the two grapes that are blended to make champagne, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Chardonnay... 7th movement: Passacaglia - Alsace (tonal centre C minor): Because of the relatively large number of grape varieties used in Alsace, they have been linked together in the form of a passacaglia (or, Chaconne a son gout)... 9th Movement: Rondo alla marcia (tonal centre G minor)... The Syrah grape used in both north and south red wines forms the rondo theme which is sturdy and robust... In the coda, amidst a welter of counterpoint, the trombones play an old French drinking-song, 'Chevaliers de la Table Ronde' (in which a drunken wine-taster asks to be buried with his head under the tap of a large barrel in his cellar, JB please note) and the symphony comes to a noisy and extrovert close.'

The association of wine and enjoyment of the arts is not, fortunately, limited to an exclusive social group. Many of this country's festivals (notably Bath and Edinburgh) have always looked for possibilities of combining the two. Generally, in our concert-halls, theatres and galleries, the catering is poor - though there are notable exceptions such as the Tate Gallery, and the plucky and enterprising Almeida Theatre in Islington (which has now gone over to Le Nez Rouge wines). I applaud greatly, also, the efforts of the late, (and by the artistic community) much-lamented GLC to extend and improve catering in the South Bank Arts Centre. In the past, when surly, green-uniformed men did their utmost to keep you off the premises, the very notion of a wine and cheese stall at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was too fantastic to be contemplated. Yet, after an inspired stage-performance or concert, nothing surely appeals more than a drink and food that refresh and please your palate.