Archive for the 'music' Category

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021


If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

Lockdown activities

April 6, 2021

I’ve used a couple of good ideas originally mentioned by someone else to focus myself and renew pleasures during lockdown. Somewhere, I read about someone who had decided to listen to a Bach cantata a day, and someone else had decided to read aloud a Shakespeare sonnet every day.

I’ve finally reached the end of listening to all the cantatas now; it’s taken me since the beginning of November and there are about 200 of them. I haven’t listened to one a day regularly or religiously; sometimes I did, sometimes I forgot or didn’t find the time, and other times I binged, but it has been very interesting renewing my acquaintance with them. I took the opportunity to compile a list of my favourites and a list of the ones that really didn’t do very much for me. The whole exercise has made me want to go back to the list of my favourites and listen rather more carefully, with the texts alongside, and deepen my understanding and appreciation of the music and the words.

I’ve had a working knowledge of probably a dozen of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a teacher; they came in useful when teaching the open-ended Love Through The Ages unit at A-Level back in the day. Now I’m working my way through all 154 of them, and I’m about a third of the way. It was interesting how hard I found reading them aloud initially, getting the phrasing and pauses right, and sometimes needing a couple of attempts; now I’m really into the rhythm, and I like the way I can wade in confidently and deliver a classroom-ready rendition straight off…

What I’m actually discovering, reading all of them for the first time, is how dull, pedestrian and same-y a lot of them are: there are only so many ways in which you can re-work a fairly hackneyed trope in a fourteen-line poem, The good ones are powerful because of their originality; that’s the key. But I have also renewed my intention of studying at least some of them in rather more depth once I have finished this read-through. And I came up with an original project of my own, too: I would like to re-read all of the plays, in chronological order of their writing (insofar as that’s known). How far I’ll get with that resolution before I’m side-tracked by something else, I don’t know…

And somehow these two activities have got me thinking again about the nature of genius, because in my mind J S Bach and William Shakespeare represent two examples of that kind of person. Sometime, there will be a post on that subject.

C H H Parry: Johann Sebastian Bach

March 22, 2021

This book was written over a century ago; I’ve had my copy over 30 years before giving it any serious attention, and a fair amount of it I skimmed because I don’t have the musical knowledge to access it. Apologies in advance, therefore, to any serious musician who may stumble across this piece hoping for something useful.

I’ve read a lot about J S Bach, and visited many places in Germany connected with his life and work; his music has fascinated me for years in the same way Shakespeare’s plays and poems have entranced me, the difference being that I can make some claim to understanding the latter…

And yet, I learned some interesting things from Parry’s book. He details how Bach studied carefully the works of many other composers, visiting some of them. I learned of the importance of court patronage for musicians and how this worked; the importance of the church and religion in Bach’s time I had obviously been aware of, but there was interesting reading on the differences between Catholic and Protestant church music and the respective churches’ attitudes to it. For Protestants, it was personal, and a link between the individual and the divine (which I realised may well explain my attraction to it). Parry took this further with detailed exploration of the genesis of the B Minor Mass, in which the Catholic service receives its most magnificent and astonishing treatment from a profoundly pious Lutheran…

But the most astonishing thing I learned was that it was only around Bach’s time that composers were experimenting with musicians using their thumbs in keyboard playing: previously they had not, partly because of the different way the hand was held while playing… and endless new possibilities were opened up, with Bach being at the forefront in the development of keyboard music.

Parry deals with the church cantatas thoroughly, some briefly, some at great length but I think they are all covered; I found it difficult because he was writing in the days before Schmieder’s great catalogue attributed BWV numbers to all Bach’s works and made it easier to refer to them. Overall – and remember I’m a non-musician – I felt there was often a rather broad-brush approach compared with that of more recent writers; what I was aware of throughout was of someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the composer and his music, as well as a sensitivity and understanding and a deep love and appreciation of the unparalleled musician and composer. And the book is probably nowadays a historical curiosity.

Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

February 29, 2020

81onguNJfRL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I don’t often get to the end of a book and find myself thinking, “What a lovely book!” But with this one, I did. And I’m quite particular in my choice of travel-writing nowadays, and tend to avoid ‘easy’ travel; you can’t call Siberia ‘easy’.

Sophy Roberts’ tale is a bizarre one, of tracking musical history, and more specifically pianos, in Siberia. So weird that the Russian authorities at times think she’s either a little cracked, or else using her quest as cover for something else – she could be a spy. I found the very idea that a piano could survive a nineteenth century journey to Siberia astonishing in itself (Roberts travels to places where there are still no roads today), before even coming to consider how it would fare long-term in the climate, with its extremes of temperature and humidity. And there was clearly a great demand for culture and music among the thousands of people exiled there, for various crimes under the Tsars.

What comes across most powerfully in the book is her developing love for the place and its people: she travels widely, meets a great variety of Siberians, not all of them musical, and is drawn in by the size and the diversity of the region, its vastness and its bleakness. I imagine – never having been there myself – that this must happen to most Westerners who travel there. Her fascination matches mine, and her atmospheric language creates vivid pictures; she describes very sensitively the sadnesses of so many of the people she met there, and who shared their stories with her.

In the end, what unifies the book is her rambling quest for a suitable piano for a gifted Mongolian pianist: it’s a cross between a detective story and a history of Russia and Siberia with a focus on the musical and cultural side of things, a bizarre but quite gripping idea, which eventually reaches a successful outcome.

Given my fussiness, I must mention that the book is very well-produced and illustrated, and supplied with helpful maps, a rarity nowadays, but which allowed me to dig out my well-worn Road Atlas of the USSR, and my large atlas of the Soviet Union in order to track her travels more closely. The bibliography is also extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked for this book as a birthday present, but I’m really glad I did.

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

I like silence. And the older I grow, the more I seem to like it.

When I was much younger, I loved to be surrounded by music; I drove my parents to distraction as a teenager, listening to pirate radio all day long. As a student I built up a decent collection of rock music, hardly any of which I still possess; I spent long hours into the nights with friends talking, setting the world to rights while chain-listening to albums. Gradually my interest in jazz, and even more in classical music, elbowed rock aside. A lot of it, I realise, is quieter music. And I have built up another enormous collection.

However, my default position is now to sit in silence and read, occasionally chatting with my other half, whenever anything interesting comes up. Sometimes, not very often, we listen to music; it’s often a surprise, a very pleasant one, to rediscover an old favourite. And despite my huge collection, built up as I explored the world of music, what I listen to has narrowed. Anything by J S Bach, of course; Beethoven string quartets; Chopin; Gregorian Chant; anything by the unbelievably gorgeous voices of The Sixteen; trad jazz. Chamber music and instrumental – I can’t remember when I last listened to a symphony.

I used to love listening to the radio as I cook; Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons was a particular favourite and a serious part of my musical education. But then the presenter was moved to a midnight slot and his replacement was not as congenial – how many times has that happened in my years of listening? – and so I gave up. The only programme that has remained un-destroyed on the radio is Composer of the Week, and its work giving me my background classical music education ended years ago. Radio has become blather with gobbets of music…

The world is so noisy: traffic, wallpaper music in shops (which like as not drives me our before I’ve even contemplated a purchase), vehicles which talk at you… it’s enough to make me want to be a Trappist sometimes. So much pointless wittering. And I have a hearing problem, reduced hearing in one ear, which necessitates a hearing aid. Perversely this means the world is often even louder.

One of the things I love and appreciate most about my regular walking holidays in the Ardennes is being alone and in silence. I can walk, and the only noises are my feet on the path and the birds about their business in the forests: I can be at peace, with myself and the world around me; I can hear myself think; I can review my life and plot the next stage…

I need to re-read The Misanthrope, and see if I recognise myself in Molière’s eponymous hero. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Silence and Sara Maitland’s account of retreating from the world both call to me strongly. Yet I don’t feel anti-social, just resentful of the unnecessary noise, which I think has made me more liable to sit in silence as we read rather than enjoy the wonders of music. I’m sitting typing this listening to the Busch Quartet performing late Beethoven String Quartets, recordings from eighty years ago, utterly intriguing and beautiful to this person who understands nothing of the theory of music…

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

5142oySDKtL._AC_US218_This is a lovely little book, and beautifully produced, too.

Years ago, I learned that the young Johann Sebastian Bach had taken leave of absence from his post as organist in Arnstadt to go to Lübeck in northern Germany to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, who worked at the Marienkirche in that city. Bach stayed way for longer than he had permission to do, and must have learned much from the old composer; I’m useless in terms of understanding music, but those who know recognise his influence on my hero’s work.

What astonished me then, and still does, was that Bach made the 230 mile journey on foot, in both directions. In a sense that’s obvious, as he was not wealthy enough to travel by horse, but it shows the devotion to his art, and the determination to pursue it to the limits.

A couple of years ago the writer of the book, accompanied by a BBC sound recordist and a producer, covered some sections of the walk, capturing the sounds and atmosphere for a series of broadcasts (which I have yet to listen to). To me, it seems weird that they only did selected bits of the journey, but if they had done it all, it would still have been edited for broadcasting, I suppose. And yet the book captured the essence of the journey: some of the key places, the terrain, landscape, sounds that Bach would have encountered, along with reflections on the man and the stage in his life when he made the journey, at the age of twenty or so; a relaxing and thoughtful hundred pages or so.

My personal love of Bach’s music took me to Arnstadt and other places five years or so ago, and then last year I also managed to spend a few days in Lübeck, so I can connect both ends of the journey at least; were I younger I might consider the entire walk.

August favourites #23: reference book

August 23, 2018

One thing about Bach’s church cantatas is that they are in German; another is that they are full of religious references. Although I can speak German after a fashion, my command of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century theological German is quite limited. Reference books are needed, although the internet is now an absolute gold-mine of interpretations and translations. The first purchase I ever made from, in the days before they took over the world, was made with the help of a colleague who had a US account and could get a book delivered to the UK: a huge tome with interlinear texts and translations, rather after the fashion of a Latin crib from my school years, so that you could follow the German, see it parsed underneath and then read a passable translation of the text. And alongside are all the necessary scriptural passages to go with each cantata. Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts – clearly a labour of love – is always open next to me when I’m listening seriously.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #21: Music

August 21, 2018

Some readers of my blog may be aware of my passion for J S Bach’s music, especially his church cantatas; one of my best memories is of a trip I made exploring his world in deepest Thuringia a few years ago. My interest in his music was sparked by a teacher at school – cellist and organist too – who felt that the master’s music was not for peasants like us students and so would not play it to us… For my favourite piece of music I go back to an Eastertide cantata (BWV 104 Du Hirte Israel, höre), which probably sealed my passion for the man’s music. Many years ago whilst a student at Lancaster University, I picked up a second-hand LP on a stall in the city market, and this was one of the two pieces on it. I played it to death and wore it out, and it led me to listening to more and more of the great man’s church music. I never looked back. Bach’s music has been one of the great joys of my life, and combination of the words and music in his church cantatas I have always found spiritually uplifting.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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