Bristol is a fine city. We used to live there, in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 80s, during what I think of as the Punk, Reggae & Riots years. It was a good time in a place congenially disposed to good times. Everyone should have a "lost decade" in their life, and that was mine. When other, more sensible folk were putting their student years behind them and busily establishing careers, I ... well ... was not. I had a job, cataloguing Russian and German books in the university library, but it was the sort of routine-but-absorbing work that goes well with a hangover or the after-effects of a shining white night without sleep.
My partner's sister still lives in Bristol and, as it happens, has a member of the Exultate Singers lodging in her attic. Which was how we came to be at the Tallis performance at St. George's last night; the offer of a meal followed by an evening of Renaissance polyphony was a sisterly birthday offering, and well worth a four hour round trip.
If you don't know Spem in alium, or could not care less about choral music, it's hard to describe its impact. Composed by Thomas Tallis around 1570, it is thought to have been performed for
But, as it turned out, for me the highlights of the evening were the setting of the Miserere by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, and two pieces by Carlo Gesualdo. If you don't know about Gesualdo, he's best summarised as "that Renaissance nobleman who slaughtered his wife and her lover having discovered them in bed and hung their mutilated bodies on the front of his palace, was allegedly a practitioner of Dark Arts, and wrote angst-ridden music with strange discordant harmonies that now sound incredibly modern". Oh, that Gesualdo! His story and legacy are sufficiently strange for Werner Herzog to have made a film about him (Tod für fünf Stimmen / Death for Five Voices, 1995).
Most amazing of all, however, was the transformation that has been wrought upon Bristol itself. By daylight, I had just about recognised the hilly, higgledy-piggledy Georgian warren of enormous, multi-story buildings stacked onto a multi-level, terraced site above the river Avon. Driving back through the centre at night, however, it seemed that every other former shop, bank or institution was now revealed as a fast-food outlet, restaurant or club. On a freezing February night, long, lively queues of young people were stretched along the streets outside the most popular venues, and the place was ablaze with colour and lights. It was as if a switch had been thrown, and an alternative city to the one I though I knew by daylight had been unveiled, like some trick of stage lighting.
It's a common enough story, of course, but the extent of it still took us by surprise. Most symbolic of this transformation is that the venerable George's bookshop -- situated on its strategic central corner opposite the University just before the nose-dive descent of Park Street, and once the home of one of the best second-hand book sections outside London -- is now a Jamie Oliver restaurant. Very popular it appears to be, too.
It was a strange but not unpleasant feeling, to emerge from the emotional and musical intensity of St. George's, where we had been surrounded by hundreds of grey-headed academics, artists and culturati -- people just like us -- into the neon streets of a party town, watching the equally intense hedonistic antics of thousands of youngsters -- people just like we once had been.
Amor, io sento l'alma
Tornar nel foco av'io
Fui lieto et più che mai d'arder desio.
[Oh love, I feel my soul
Return to the fire where I
Rejoiced and more than ever desire to burn.]
Jhan Gero (fl. 1540-55)