Conference of the Birds

Spent much of this holiday weekend at a performance of all Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. The Russian pianist Elizaveta Kopelman played them magnificently, and the venue was the beautiful St Mary’s Church in Suffolk, a part of the world that time, but fortunately not good music has passed by.

This has been a year of cycles, the Tchaikovsky Quartets in January, a wonderful cycle of the Beethoven Quartets by the Borodins in March, the Ring at Longborough, and now the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. It has also been a year for music in churches, most memorably a Rachmaninov Vespers in St Peter’s Mancroft in Norwich.

But what has this to do with birds? An earlier posting talked about wanting to recall every fork and path that led me to a masterpiece such as the 24 Preludes and Fugues. Well I can recall the path precisely. I was staying in an old house by a river after one of the not so good periods coming back from the worst ever visit of the black dog, and trying to sort out the woefull IT systems of a book distributor. I was looking out of the bathroom window as I shaved one morning, and there outside on the riverbank was a heron (or was it a kingfisher? - birds are not one of strong points). And on Radio 3 was a fugue that clearly wasn’t Bach, but was equally clearly a miracle. That moment of serendipity led me to Tatyana Nikolayeva’s classic first recording , and the thread led me to a Suffolk church this weekend.

The divine inspiration of Shostakovich’s music, and the bird thread leads me back to the writings of Bernard Levin. In his book Conducted Tour (out of print, but available from second hand dealers - highly recommended) he recounts the ancient Persian poem that became Peter Brook’s Conference of the Birds....

The birds go to seek their mysterious king, the Simorg. Their journey is beset by terrible hardship, amid which some die, some desert, some turn back, some lose heart. When the survivors reach their goal, it is to learn the world’s most profound and vital truth. They are told that they have carried the Simorg with them all the time, and they realise that the treasures which we believe lies across cruel wastes, boundless oceans, towering mountains and dreadful valleys really lies within our own hearts.

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