It’s Baroque week at Dartington. As I type, there are three guys in jeans and t-shirts playing natural trumpets and horns on the ramparts. As you do. Elsewhere, recorder music billows out of every other room, with the spiky twang of harpsichords clattering away in the background.
I’m more at home with 440 hz, so this week I’m spending time playing my other instrument, the imagination. James Runcie, writer, director, curator of ideas, is giving a course in crime-writing and I’m on it. Every morning we meet at the Playhouse, a ludicrously cute cottage in the gardens with a thatched roof and leadlight windows and talk about MURDER; who, where, how and, most importantly, why.
Last night, James Runcie talked death in a different way, in a meditation on last words, the end of life, and what we leave behind. Poet John Keats, philosopher David Hume and writer Virginia Woolf knew all too clearly that they were about to die. For Keats and Hume, they were aware of the illnesses taking over their body. For Woolf, it was the illness taking over her mind.
Runcie read their letters to loved ones and, in the case of Hume, part of a succinct but profound life summary, written over the course of a few hours in the days before his death. It goes without saying that they were intense and moving.
In addition to these trenchant words, we also had music (from Joanna McGregor at the piano), playing works written contemporaneously with the words; Haydn for Hume, Beethoven for Keats and, for Woolf, Regard de la Vierge from Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jesus by Olivier Messiaen. Again, it goes without saying that the music was moving: in particular, MacGregor drew a radiant sound from the piano in the Messiaen, like big blobs of pure colour dropping into a pool of water. But more important, the music served an important purpose by giving the words we had just heard space; space for contemplation, space for resonance.
I’m still thinking.