Aug 302018

The 18th-century English landscape gardener, Lancelot “Capability” Brown was baptized on this date in 1716. His date of birth is unknown. He designed over 170 parks for estates, many of which still survive in mature form. He was nicknamed “Capability” because he would tell his clients that their property had “capability” for improvement.

Brown was the fifth child of a land agent and chambermaid, born in the village of Kirkharle Northumberland, and educated at a school in Cambo until he was 16. Brown’s father William Brown had been Sir William Loraine’s land agent and his mother Ursula (née Hall) had been in service at Kirkharle Hall. His eldest brother John became the estate surveyor and later married Sir William’s daughter. Elder brother George became a mason-architect. After school, Brown worked as the head gardener’s apprentice in Sir William Loraine’s kitchen garden at Kirkharle Hall until he was 23. In 1739 he moved south to the port of Boston in Lincolnshire, then to Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire where he received his first landscape commission for a new lake in the park. He then moved to Wotton Underwood House in Buckinghamshire, seat of Sir Richard Grenville.

In 1741, Brown joined Lord Cobham’s gardening staff as undergardener at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where he worked under William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style of landscape gardening. At the age of 26 he was officially appointed as the head gardener in 1742. Brown was the head gardener at Stowe from 1742 to 1750. He made the Grecian Valley at Stowe, which is an abstract composition of landform and woodland (with a fake Greek temple on a hill. Lord Cobham let Brown take freelance commission work from his aristocratic friends, thus making him well known as a landscape gardener. As a proponent of the new English style, Brown became immensely sought after by the landed families. By 1751, when Brown was beginning to be widely known, Horace Walpole wrote of Brown’s work at Warwick Castle:

The castle is enchanting; the view pleased me more than I can express, the River Avon tumbles down a cascade at the foot of it. It is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr. Southcote.

By the 1760s, he was earning on average £6,000 (equivalent to £753,000 in 2016) a year, usually £500 (equivalent to £62,700 in 2016) for one commission. As an accomplished rider he was able to work fast, taking only an hour or so on horseback to survey an estate and rough out an entire design. In 1764, Brown was appointed king George III’s master gardener at Hampton Court Palace, succeeding John Greening and residing at the Wilderness House. In 1767 he bought an estate for himself at Fenstanton in Huntingdonshire from the Earl of Northampton and was appointed High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire for 1770, although his son Lance carried out most of the duties.

It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Croome Court (where he also designed the house), Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Harewood House, Appuldurcombe House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village), in traces at Kew Gardens and many other locations. His style of smooth undulating grass, which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts and scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes formed by invisibly damming small rivers, were a new style within the English landscape, a “gardenless” form of landscape gardening, which swept away almost all the remnants of previous formally patterned styles.

His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion in his day. They were fundamentally different from what they replaced, the well-known formal gardens of England which were criticized by Alexander Pope and others from the beginning of the 18th century. Starting in 1719, William Kent replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown’s landscapes.

Perhaps Brown’s sternest critic was his contemporary Uvedale Price, who likened Brown’s clumps of trees to “so many puddings turned out of one common mould.” Russell Page, who began his career in the Brownian landscape of Longleat but whose own designs have formal structure, accused Brown of “encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes.” Richard Owen Cambridge, the English poet and satirical author, declared that he hoped to die before Brown so that he could “see heaven before it was ‘improved’.” This was a typical statement reflecting the controversy about Brown’s work, which has continued over the last 200 years. By contrast, a recent historian and author, Richard Bisgrove, described Brown’s process as perfecting nature by

judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. The difficulty was that less capable imitators and less sophisticated spectators did not see nature perfected… they saw simply what they took to be nature.

This deftness of touch was recognized in his own day; one anonymous obituary writer opined: “Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.” In 1772, Sir William Chambers (though he did not mention Brown by name) complained that the “new manner” of gardens “differ very little from common fields, so closely is vulgar nature copied in most of them.”

Brown’s essays in the field of architecture were a natural outgrowth of his unified picture of the English country house in its setting. Brown’s work as an architect is overshadowed by his great reputation as a designer of landscapes. Brown’s first country house project was the remodeling of Croome Court in Worcestershire, (1751–52) for the 6th earl of Coventry, in which he most likely followed sketches by the gentleman amateur Sanderson Miller. Fisherwick in Staffordshire, Redgrave Hall in Suffolk, and Claremont, Surrey, were classical, while at Corsham his outbuildings are in a Gothic vein. Gothic stable blocks and decorative outbuildings, arches and garden features constituted many of his designs. From 1771 he was assisted in the technical aspects by the master builder Henry Holland, and by Henry’s son Henry Holland the architect, whose initial career Brown supported; the younger Holland was increasingly Brown’s full collaborator and became Brown’s son-in-law in 1773.

Brown’s reputation declined rapidly after his death, because the English landscape style did not convey the dramatic conflict and awesome power of wild nature. The landscapes lacked the “sublime” thrill which members of the Romantic generation (such as Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price) looked for in their ideal landscape. During the 19th century he was widely criticized, but during the 20th century his reputation rose again.

In 1768 he purchased the manor of Fenstanton in Huntingdonshire in East Anglia for ₤13,000 from Lord Northampton. This came with two manor houses, two villages and 2,668 acres of land. The property stayed in the family until it was sold in lots in 1870s and 1880s. Ownership of the property allowed Brown to stand for and serve as High Sheriff of Huntingdonshire from 1770 to 1771. He continued to work and travel until his sudden collapse and death on 6 February 1783, on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget Holland’s house, at 6 Hertford Street, London while returning after a night out at Lord Coventry’s.

Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!” Brown was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of Brown’s small estate at Fenstanton Manor. He left an estate of approximately ₤40,000, which included property in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire. Brown sent two of his sons to Eton. One of them, Lancelot Brown the younger, became the MP for Huntingdon. His son John joined the Royal Navy and rose to become an admiral.

On Brown’s tricentennial Doddington Dairy in Northumberland – Brown’s birthplace – created a special cheese in his honor, as well as a rhubarb ice cream made from heirloom variety rhubarb. If you fancy a quick trip to Northumbria you can nab some cheese to celebrate. Otherwise here is an 18th century recipe, taken from A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery by Mary Kettilby and others (2nd ed. 1719)

The best Orange-Pudding that ever was tasted

PARE the Yellow Rind of two fair Sevil- Oranges, so very thin that no part of the White comes with it; shred and beat it extremely small in a large Stone Mortar; add to it when very fine, half a pound of Butter, half a pound of Sugar, and the Yolks of sixteen Eggs; beat all together in the Mortar ‘till ‘tis all of a Colour; then pour it into your Dish in which you have laid a Sheet of Puff-paste. I think Grating the Peel saves Trouble, and does it finer and thinner than you can shred or beat it: But you must beat up the Butter and Sugar with it, and the Eggs with all, to mix them well.


Oct 252014


Today is the birthday (1838) of Georges Bizet, registered at birth as Alexandre César Léopold Bizet but baptized as Georges,  a French composer of the Romantic era. Best known for his operas in a career cut short by his early death, Bizet achieved few successes before his final work, Carmen, which has become one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertoire.


During a brilliant student career at the Conservatoire de Paris, Bizet won many prizes, including the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1857. He was recognized as an outstanding pianist, though he chose not to capitalize on this skill and rarely performed in public. Returning to Paris after almost three years in Italy, he found that the main Parisian opera houses preferred the established classical repertoire to the works of newcomers. His keyboard and orchestral compositions were likewise largely ignored; as a result, his career stalled, and he earned his living mainly by arranging and transcribing the music of others. Restless for success, he began many theatrical projects during the 1860s, most of which were abandoned. Neither of his two operas that reached the stage in this time—Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth—were immediately successful.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, during which Bizet served in the National Guard, he had little success with his one-act opera Djamileh, though an orchestral suite derived from his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne was instantly popular. The production of Bizet’s final opera, Carmen, was delayed because of fears that its themes of betrayal and murder would offend audiences. After its premiere on 3 March 1875, Bizet was convinced that the work was a failure; he died of a heart attack three months later, unaware that it would prove a spectacular and enduring success.

I’d like to focus on the reception of his first and last staged operas, Les pêcheurs de perles and Carmen, to give some insight into the torments that Bizet, and other great musicians, had to suffer in their lifetimes largely because they broke new ground and were, in consequence, ignored or vilified by uncomprehending critics who would have done a greater service to the world by waiting tables than writing hopelessly ill-informed critiques. I love the title (and content), of James C. Whitson’s analysis of the early reception of Les pêcheurs – “Perles Before Swine” (Opera News 73 (4): pp. 34–36). Worth a read.


The reception of Les pêcheurs is curiously dichotomous. The premiere, originally planned for 14 September 1863, was postponed to the 30th because of the illness of the soprano lead, Léontine de Maësen. The first-night audience at the Théâtre Lyrique received the work well, and called for Bizet at the conclusion. The writer Louis Gallet, who later would provide several librettos for Bizet, described the composer on this occasion as “a little dazed … a forest of thick curly hair above a round, still rather childish face, enlivened by the quick brown eyes…” The audience’s appreciation was not reflected in the majority of the press reviews, which generally castigated both the work and what they considered Bizet’s lack of modesty in appearing on stage. Gustave Bertrand in Le Ménestrel wrote that “this sort of exhibition is admissible only for a most extraordinary success, and even then we prefer to have the composer dragged on in spite of himself, or at least pretending to be.” Another critic surmised that the calls for the composer had been pre-arranged by a group of Bizet’s friends, strategically distributed in the audience.

Of the opera itself, Benjamin Jouvin of Le Figaro wrote: “There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music.” He considered that on every page the score displayed “the bias of the school to which Bizet belongs, that of Richard Wagner.” Bertrand compared the work unfavorably with those of contemporary French composers such as Gounod and Félicien-César David. “Nevertheless”, he wrote, “there is a talent floating in the midst of all these regrettable imitations.” Hector Berlioz, however, provided the opinion of a genuine musician in the midst of the general critical hostility. His review of the work in Journal des Débats praised the music’s originality and subtlety: “The score of Les pêcheurs de perles does M. Bizet the greatest honor.” Among Bizet’s contemporaries, the dramatist Ludovic Halévy wrote that this early work announced Bizet as a composer of quality: “I persist in finding in [the score] the rarest virtues.” The youthful composer Émile Paladilhe told his father that the opera was superior to anything that the established French opera composers of the day, such as Auber and Thomas, were capable of producing. The moral of this tale is that you should listen to true musicians.

Les pêcheurs de perles ran for 18 performances only, alternating with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It closed on 23 November 1863, and although it brought the theater little financial success, Bizet had won admiration from his peers. I’m given to wonder if the lack of success of the opera initially was a result of the hostile critics, given that the premiere was received well by the audience.

After its opening run, Les pêcheurs was not performed again until 11 years after Bizet’s death when, on 20 March 1886, it was presented in Italian at La Scala, Milan. After this it was performed regularly in European cities, often with an Italian version of the libretto. These revivals, which possibly reflected the growing success of Carmen, were followed by the publication of several versions of the music that incorporated significant differences from Bizet’s original. In particular the finale was altered, to provide a more dramatic ending—”a grand Meyerbeerian holocaust” according to 20th century music historian WintonDean. This revised conclusion included a trio composed by Benjamin Godard. These corrupted scores remained the basis of productions for nearly a century.

Having completed the score of Les pêcheurs in August 1863, Bizet fell out with his publisher, Choudens, over publication rights. The quarrel was patched up and Choudens retained the rights, but published only a piano vocal score in 1863. After Bizet’s death in 1875 his widow, Geneviève Bizet, showed scant care for her husband’s musical legacy; several of his autograph scores, including that of Les pêcheurs, were lost or given away. Choudens published a second piano vocal score in 1887–88 and a “nouvelle édition” in 1893 that incorporated the changes that had been introduced into recent revivals of the opera. A full orchestral score based on the nouvelle edition was published in 1893.

A trend towards greater authenticity began in the 1970’s with various attempts at staging the work in its original form. This process was further aided by the discovery in the 1990’s of Bizet’s 1863 conducting score. In this, the orchestral parts were reduced to six staves, but notes and other markings in the manuscript provided additional clues to the original orchestration. These new finds became the basis for Brad Cohen’s critical edition of the score, published by Edition Peters in 2002. It is a travesty that it should take well over a century for the corruptions of incompetents to be expunged.

Carmen suffered more or less the same fate as Les pêcheurs initially. The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic death of the main character on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial. After the premiere, most reviews were critical, and the French public was generally indifferent. Carmen initially gained its reputation through a series of productions outside France, and was not revived in Paris until 1883; thereafter it rapidly acquired celebrity at home and abroad, and continues to be one of the most frequently performed operas – the “Habanera” from act 1 and the “Toreador Song” from act 2 are among the best known of all operatic arias. Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opéra comique and the realism or verismo that characterized late 19th-century Italian opera.


The music of Carmen has been widely acclaimed for its brilliance of melody, harmony, atmosphere, and orchestration, and for the skill with which Bizet musically represented the emotions and suffering of his characters. After the composer’s death the score was subject to significant amendment, however, including the introduction of recitative in place of the original dialogue; there is no standard edition of the opera, and different views exist as to what versions best express Bizet’s intentions.


The premiere, which was conducted by Adolphe Deloffre, was attended by many of Paris’s leading musical figures, including Massenet, Offenbach, Delibes, and Gounod. During the performance Gounod was overheard complaining bitterly that Bizet had stolen the music of Micaëla’s act 3 aria from him: “That melody is mine!” Ludovic Halévy (co-librettist) recorded his impressions of the premiere in a letter to a friend. The first act was evidently well received, with applause for the main numbers and numerous curtain calls. The first part of act 2 also went well, but after the toreador’s song there was, Halévy noted, “coldness”. In act 3 only Micaëla’s aria earned applause as the audience became increasingly disconcerted. The final act was “glacial from first to last”, and Bizet was left only with the consolations of a few friends. The critic Ernest Newman wrote later that the sentimentalist opéra-comique audience was “shocked by the drastic realism of the action” and by the low standing and defective morality of most of the characters. According to the composer Benjamin Godard, Bizet retorted, in response to a compliment, “Don’t you see that all these bourgeois have not understood a wretched word of the work I have written for them?” More consolingly, shortly after the work had concluded, Massenet sent Bizet a congratulatory note: “How happy you must be at this time—it’s a great success!”

The general tone of the next day’s press reviews ranged from disappointment to outrage. The more conservative critics complained about “Wagnerism” and the subordination of the voice to the “noise” of the orchestra. There was consternation that the heroine was an amoral seductress rather than a woman of virtue. Galli-Marié’s interpretation of the title role was described by one critic as “the very incarnation of vice.” Others compared the work unfavorably with the traditional opéra-comique repertoire of Auber and Boieldieu. Léon Escudier in L’Art Musical called Carmen ’​s music “dull and obscure … the ear grows weary of waiting for the cadence that never comes.” It seemed that Bizet had generally failed to fulfill expectations, both of those who (given Halévy’s and Meilhac’s past associations) had expected something in the Offenbach mold, and of critics such as Adolphe Jullien who had anticipated a Wagnerian music drama. Among the few supportive critics was the poet Théodore de Banville who, writing in Le National, applauded Bizet for presenting a drama with real men and women instead of the usual opéra-omique “puppets.”

So much for the critics. My general advice to all those who aspire to be critics but lack true musicianship is: DON’T !! Do something useful such as driving a cab.

I was surprised to discover that there is a version of the meringue dessert, Pavlova (see ), called Bizet torte in eastern Europe, especially Latvia and Russia, but using flavored whipped cream without fruit. I have no idea what the connexion is between meringue and Bizet.


Here is a fine photo from this website about making Bizet torte There’s a good recipe here But there is no need if you are experienced at making meringue. Basically you make three flat disks of meringue, then stack them with coffee flavored whipped cream in between the layers, and more cream on top decorated with chocolate shavings and sliced almonds.