Who was Muriel Spark and why is her centenary being celebrated with a classical concert?

Thursday, September 13, 2018 - 16:30

If you hear the name Muriel Spark, you’d be forgiven for thinking immediately of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and perhaps wondering why an event we’re hosting called Muriel Spark Centenary is a classical concert.

But the Scottish writer, born in 1918, is so much more than this slim (utterly brilliant) novel. She was also a critic, a literary biographer – and a poet.

In fact Spark (née Camburg) was just 12 years old when she won her first poetry prize. She grew up in Edinburgh, working as a secretary after leaving school. Aged 19, she married and moved with her husband to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her son Robin was born. But the marriage was unhappy and Spark returned to England in 1944, taking a wartime post with MI6.

She started working as a journalist in 1945 and in 1947 became editor of the Poetry Review. In 1951, she won the Observer’s short story competition and a year later her first poetry collection, The Fanfarlo and Other Verse, was published.

Muriel Spark - passport photo from 1947, courtesy of Muriel Spark 100/National Library of Scotland

Between 1957 and 1962 she published six novels, including The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark went on to write 22 novels in total, living in New York and Italy, and being made a dame in 1993. She died in Florence in 2006.

It is her poetry that is being celebrated at Southbank Centre in her centenary year, with the world premiere of White Flame, a setting of five of her poems.

The music is by the revered British composer David Matthews, and the work is performed here on Saturday 13 October by the Nash Ensemble with mezzo soprano Victoria Simmonds.

One sonnet, ‘The Victoria Falls’, describes the Zambezi’s path from ‘the hush/Become a sibilance that hints a sigh’ to ‘A murmur, mounting as the currents rush/Faster, and while the murmur is a cry’.

Matthews has also set Spark’s love poem ‘Like Africa’ in which she returns to the image of the mighty Zambezi, this time as a metaphor for her lover’s ardour:

       And like a river his Zambesi
       Gathers the swell of seasons’ rains,
       The islands rocking on his breast,
       The orchid opens in his loins.

The other three poems in the cycle are Spark’s translations of Roman poets Horace and Catullus.

Matthews says: “Muriel Spark always thought of herself primarily as a poet. The five poems I have chosen for the song cycle were all written between 1948 and 1949, eight years before the publication of the first of her 22 novels, for which she is now best remembered.”

The Nash Ensemble - ICMS 18/19
The Nash Ensemble, who perform David Matthews' White Flame on 13 Oct

The Nash Ensemble programme also features works by Mozart and Brahms, ending with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No.2.

Before the concert there is a free talk with Matthews, along with sculptor Penelope Jardine, actress Hannah Gordon and Alan Taylor, author of Appointment in Arezzo – a friendship with Muriel Spark.

So if you love Spark, this is a great chance to enjoy some of her lesser known work. If you’re unfamiliar with her writing, come along and get involved – it could spark a love affair with one of Scotland’s greatest ever writers.


The Muriel Spark Centenary Concert takes place on Saturday 13 October and tickets are now on sale.

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