The Year that Almost Was


A few thoughts before Christmas

Are all – or most – happy memories bathed in sunshine outside? Or inside? Or does remembrance make them so? Now, in a dark moment as 2019 slides away, shards shine through impending darkness in no particular order, thrown up randomly.

I think of Rome and Piazza Navona, the bustle in the Roman amphitheatre now an elegant open space with three Bernini-inspired monumental fountains and crowds milling around them – humdrum vendors, gypsies, beggars, pretty girls arm in arm, artists anxious to draw your portrait in a quick, formulaic way, entitled young bloods of the sort who used to race their chariots around it in past centuries, and pickpockets. It is a ‘square’ but oval, moulded into the shape of the ruins.

I went up the steps into the church of Santa Cecilia on the far side of the piazza to find a quiet, cool space. A sacristan emerged from the shadows to invite me to look at the pictures and shrines in the dark and dusty rooms behind the vestry. I recalled all this when, earlier the year, I was lucky to get seats for a performance of Bach’s Saint John’s Passion. I may have already mentioned this, but when I lived in Rome there were no performances of my favourite composers’ works because Bach and Handel were Protestants, and therefore infidels. Not so in Paris, where I had heard this rarely performed oratorio. It too was in a church when, the only time in all the concerts I have attended, the conductor stopped the performance to berate the choir. Some of the audience left in protest. The nervous singers and instrumentalists started again where they had stopped, but they were clearly shaken. I wonder what it must be like for a conductor when the choir is singling one part of the score and the orchestra another – a unique nightmare?

Thinking back over 2019, I return to the church of Santa Cecilia and to Saint John’s Passion. I have described it already, but I can’t help returning to a special memory. At last, the city of Rome is welcoming a religious work written more than 350 years ago by a protestant northerner. The church is crammed full and people are being turned away. Many are standing at the back. The choir is crowded round the glittering gold altar with the orchestra before it. In front of me is the guest of honour, Moricone who composed the music for the ‘spaghetti westerns’ shot in southern Italy. Beside him are two cardinals. Other dignitaries, both religious and secular, filled the front row. The soloist who sang the words from Saint John’s Gospel, the most poetic of the four gospels, was only a few metres away.

To end with a simple memory of 2019 that consoles me. Two people are relaxing on deck chairs by the side of a small swimming pool. It is evening. The sky is clear. The evening star has just appeared. Is that Venus by a sliver of the moon? Below us, a row of tall poplars and oaks are mirrored in the grey-blue water just turning a pink and lighter blue in the sunset. A breeze freshens the air and ruffles the surface breaking it into intriguing patterns of grey, green and blue. This was something precious that slips into my 2019 volume of time, its covers almost closed

Enjoy the Christmas holiday!

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