Archive for the 'music' Category

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…

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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 Amazon.com, 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.

Marshall: Exploring the world of J S Bach

August 13, 2018

61pagT2fIHL._AC_US218_I wish this book had been published before I went on my Bach holiday to Leipzig and Thuringia a few years back, not because I’ve realised I missed anything then, but because here is the most complete guide I can imagine to all the places where the great composer did live, may have lived, did work, travelled to or through or visited, or may have travelled through or visited… It’s well-written and illustrated and almost every bit of information you could have wished for is there, except for – maps! And the book is subtitled ‘A Traveler’s Guide’.

I’ll clarify. There are historical maps, illustrating the various states and principalities that made up what we now call Germany. But, when it comes to visiting the actual towns and cities where Bach lived and worked, are there any street maps to help the tourist? No. Now I know that maps are easily available on your phone, or from a tourist office, but that’s not the point, really. When a book has everything else, this does seem a glaring omission. Why didn’t the editor sort this out?

41bah4hU2pL._AC_US218_I bought a slimmer, less comprehensive, but still very useful book, in German while I was there: Mit Johann Sebastian Bach Unterwegs, by Hans-Josef Jacobs. I just about managed the German, and there were street maps of all the towns and cities, which made life quite a bit simpler.

I’ve spent some time complaining about the one fault in an otherwise extremely good, detailed and useful book, which has given me plenty of ideas should I ever decide to return to Bach-land. I’d love to, but I have lots of other plans as well. And there was one place I did miss; I knew about it but it was closed and I didn’t managed to arrange to get in, to the little village church at Dornheim, where Bach married his first wife Maria Barbara.

My A-Z of Reading: M is for Music

December 2, 2016

People read music, I know; I don’t, I can’t: it might as well be Martian. Music is something I’ve roundly failed at, from being unable to play the recorder at primary school to being bribed not to sing at secondary school (my voice broke very early, and I am tone deaf). But I have always loved listening to music, and reading about music and musicians, and reading a good book whilst listening to good music, perhaps accompanied by a good drink, does take a lot of beating.

I grew up with pop music, graduated to rock, then moved on to classical and jazz, which is where I have stopped; if I were restricted to one composer only it would be JS Bach. I’ve often wondered about the nature of genius, and found myself thinking about Shakespeare’s magical mastery of our language, and Bach’s similar wondrous musical skills. Both, it seems, could just create – plays pouring from Shakespeare’s pen onto the page and thence to the stage; cantatas regular as clockwork every Sunday from Bach’s pen to manuscript to the stunning Thomanerchor

I’ve read a lot about Bach, his life and music in an attempt to learn and understand, and it’s been quite hard. Obviously the biographical stuff I can follow, and the origins and sources of his musical ideas, and the religious themes that he explores and develops, but whenever a writer moves on to analysing and writing about the music itself, I find that I’m completely out of my depth. I used to resent this mental block I clearly have, but now I have come to accept it, and realise that the music remains special, even magical for me, and I don’t have to be able to understand it for it to give me intense pleasure.

When I visited Bach’s Thuringia a couple of years ago, I took John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven to read; I probably understood only about half of it, but it did take my understanding and appreciation of the musician and his music a bit further. I have found Malcolm Boyd’s Oxford Composer Companion to Bach an invaluable reference book over the years, and Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts is a wonderful companion which offers an interlinear translation as well as links to all the related Bible passages from which the master took his inspiration. Alfred Durr’s The Cantatas of JS Bach is finally coming in to its own (as it should, given the price of the English translation of the book).

Shakespeare, for me, touches the spirit with words or through words, summoning powerful responses to characters and situations. Yes, the situations he puts his characters in, and how he has them behave, are part of what evokes my responses, but the ways they use words – Shakespeare’s words, ultimately – to communicate their feelings, are a major part of their effect and my response. With music and with Bach, it is different. There are words – religious words, but in German – which conjure up feelings and ideas, but it’s the musical notes, the tunes that allow the words to achieve their powerful effect. And I am lost for words, whether watching Shakespeare or listening to Bach.

Inarticulate responses

July 11, 2016

Reading has been such an integral part of my life – of me – for so long that sometimes it gets in the way of other things. Following those words on a page, instantly processed by my brain, reflected on, agreed or disagreed with, moderated, absorbed or rejected, is second nature. And I find this presents me with serious challenges when faced with other similar and yet very different stimuli.

I’ll try and be clearer. Along with reading I also enjoy listening to music, mainly classical, but some jazz. The input to my brain, my consciousness, my mind, is very different – no words! – and I’m far less sure what goes on, and what to do with it. Sounds don’t operate like words, obviously, don’t produce the same sort of response in my brain, in me; my response is mostly emotional – I think. But then my response to what I’m reading can also be emotional, and yet it’s not the same…

I enjoy art – huge generalisation there! – some kinds of art, painting from the time of Turner onwards, some sculpture, some strange conceptual art. Joseph Beuys fits in there somewhere. And I find responding to pictures and sculptures even more challenging. I can happily sit or stand and stare for ages; sometimes I have an intellectual response, which is easier and means I can talk about what I’m seeing; sometimes it’s a purely emotional response, and sometimes, quite honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m mesmerised or entranced by what I’m looking at; I think I like it, but couldn’t really begin to tell you why… I realise that I don’t really have enough of the tools, or the necessary language (English teacher speaking here!) to explain my response.

And then I find myself wondering: is that OK? Is it necessarily like this, or is it because something was lacking in my earlier education? I don’t really think it matters that much, and yet, as I feel quite articulate in my specialist field of literature, I’d really like to be able to be like that, too, in my response to other areas of the arts.

My musical education at school was pretty non-existent; my voice broke early and I was bribed not to sing; I never had the opportunity to learn an instrument; most musical notation and terminology verges on the incomprehensible. And yet listening to the music of Bach has brought me as close to heaven as I’ll probably get. I can hear the complexity – that some call mathematical – and I can appreciate the genius; I can feel a man drawn to God. The late Beethoven String Quartets I find eerie, haunting even, and compelling, but that’s about all I can manage to articulate.

I never really had any education in art, either, apart from some very interesting and helpful stuff on architectural history at one point. My practical attempts at art of any kind were futile. Later in life, I have come to enjoy photography, which I find satisfying, and I have accepted this is as far as I’ll get.

If any artist speaks to me, it’s Turner, who to me is an impressionist before his time, whether in his huge canvases – particularly of Italy – or in his smaller watercolours and sketches; he does marvellous things with light, and can suggest a whole through the merest stroke of a pencil or dab of a paintbrush. But again, I can’t really get further than that in articulating what is is that affects me, moves me deeply, entrances me.

When I think more deeply, I realise that my responses to music and painting resemble my responses to poetry, when out of the words carefully chosen come images, words far less concrete than those I consume so voraciously when I read. But then it comes to me as I reach the end of this piece: the real problem is the words, which get in the way.

John Eliot Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven

September 20, 2014

9780713996623 I’ve recently fulfilled a 30-year-old ambition, and visited the sites in Germany linked to J S Bach, and I took this book along as suitable reading to accompany my exploration. It’s a difficult book, especially for someone like me who loves music but has very little musical knowledge or understanding and plays no instrument; it’s a rewarding book which I read slowly and know that I can and will come back to in smaller doses as I re-listen to Bach’s music.

Gardiner takes his own track through the composer’s life and musical development, seeking to and succeeding in demolishing some of the hagiography that surrounds Bach. The focus is on his church music in particular, which suited me, as that has always been at the heart of my enjoyment of Bach. It’s highly contextual, which I found extremely helpful – all sorts of information is brought in to explain and enlighten aspects of Bach’s life and work, and Gardiner does benefit from all the latest research into the composer’s life and career (one of the things I found most eye-opening on my trip was just how much is still to be found/ discovered/ worked out).

That the book is also written by a performer – and a very distinguished one – with a love of the church music at the heart of all he does, was significant to me, and provided plenty of new insights for this uneducated reader. So, not an easy read, and probably not one to start with in an exploration of Bach, but nevertheless highly recommended.

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