Looking back…

This year has resolved itself nicely. On a personal note, only a few months ago I would have assumed this year would end in discontent. The considerable improvement in my state of mind can be attributed to the beautiful things in my life — which, for the sake of this blog, means music. I hope I am not being too self-absorbed. I simply want to affirm what most people reading this already know: what a consolation music can be — how meaningful it is for many of us.

I’ve noticed some changes this year in the way I listen to music. I spend less time sitting at home listening to music and more time going to concerts, playing guitar and composing (however badly). When I first discovered classical music a couple of years ago I was in such an excited rush to hear new music that I approached many composers and their works superficially. Spending more time playing, reflecting, composing, attending performances etc. seems to me more meaningful and lasting than binge-listening online.

When I do listen to music, I close my eyes more often. This is much less trivial than it might sound. I am bombarded with visual stimuli throughout the day and this soon becomes habit-forming. My head in particular has the peculiar habit of jerking about trying to survey the room as if I were doing an impression of a pigeon. On top of that, I’m a terrible fidgeter, pen-chewer and joint-cracker. Closing one’s eyes concentrates the mind to the extent that, with a really good piece of music, I remain quite motionless and totally absorbed.

The highlight of the year has undoubtedly be the discovery of the lute repertoire. I’ve had the privilege of hearing three extraordinary lutenists perform this year (Thomas Dunford, Matthew Wadsworth and Paul O’Dette), then the joy of learning some of this music on guitar, and finally the thrill, just in the last two weeks, of getting my hands on a lute (which I’ll blog about soon).

My favourite concert this year was the early music group L’Arpeggiata performing relatively obscure works by Luigi Rossi (c. 1597-1653). Runners up include The Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (just two days ago), Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Thomas Ades conducting the Beethoven symphonies, and Monteverdi’s Vespers (annoyingly I can’t recall the performers).

I am completely enamoured of this aria from Rossi’s opera Orfeo. L’Arpeggiata performing:


What Pop Owes Classical Music

Popular music is fundamentally derived from western classical music.

All popular music, from death metal to R&B, uses twelve pitches. These pitches are organised into chords. The two most common chord progressions consist of either I-IV-V (essentially every blues song and many rock songs) or I-VI-V-VI (every pop song).

This system is completely reliant on tonal harmony. Without classical music we would not have twelve standard pitches. We would not have the major and minor scales (or the modes). We would not have the chords that are formed from these. We would not have polyphony — in its broadest sense, where music moves deliberately from one group of notes to another, e.g. a chord progression.

And so the origins of popular music instruments should come as no surprise. First there was the organ, then the harpsichord, then the piano, and now the electronic keyboard and synthesiser. Acoustic and electric guitars are in large part descendants of the vihuela, early guitars and Spanish guitar. Jazz and rock and roll musicians originally used the double bass, playing it pizzicato (plucked rather than bowed), and this was later replaced by the electric bass guitar.

Guitarists and bass guitarists have found their own method of notation for their instruments: tablature. But I doubt many guitarists realise that this was originally an invention within classical music. Tablature has in fact existed since medieval times, and was most notably the notation system used to record centuries of lute music. From the exquisite Capirola Lutebook (1520):


Then there are the more specific points: that musicals owe much to opera, especially operettas, and that pop songs clearly owe something to the likes of Dowland and Schubert — I’m sure many readers can think of other examples.

So although popular music likes to present itself as international and progressive, it owes nearly everything to periwigged and ruff-wearing white men employed by princes, aristocrats and churches.

In the excellent second chapter of Alex Ross’s Listen to This, ‘Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues’, he discusses the history of lament bass from Monteverdi to ‘Hotel California’. (Ross briefly summarises this chapter, with musicians to help demonstrate, in this video.) So let’s end with Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa. Monteverdi did it centuries earlier and, I think you’ll agree, far better:

A Miscellany of Things

We haven’t had snow like this for years. Occasionally we get a drizzle of sleet or a smattering of snow, soon to be washed away, but never anything so settled and plump as this:


But as wonderful as the view is, I have almost no desire to go outside. I’m plenty entertained sitting in the study — by the radiator — watching the snow establish its temporary empire, enthralling its subjects, overwhelming the ancient trees, whose branches are forced to bow, and enchanting the drab aspects of life — it coats even the powerlines in a stately, pure white.

This weather is quite congenial to playing music, reading, writing, composing — all the things I most enjoy. So I’m taking this opportunity to blog about things that have been festering in my mind and in my notebook for a while.

Early Romantic Guitars

The modern Spanish guitar, invented by Antonio de Torres, has gradually became the classical guitar. But in the nineteenth century there were other guitars with quite different sound characteristics. Most were were smaller, less boomy, more crisp. To my eyes they are more attractive than modern guitars, though it’s always easy to be seduced by an old instrument simply because it is old. They certainly look more curvaceous.

One the most visually striking is the Austrian Stauffer guitar:


Starting a Commonplace Book

I keep intending to write an ‘about page’ for this blog, but while writing a 1000-word blog post is quite doable, a 100-word biography is nigh impossible. Moreover it’s incredibly dull. I have little musical experience and only one, rather unexceptional musical qualification (grade 8 theory). For good or ill, I am a hobbyist and an amateur.

I am wondering whether to start a commonplace book instead. Here are some quotations I’m considering:

‘I quote others only in order the better to express myself.‘ — Michel de Montaigne

‘Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music — not too much, or the soul could not sustain it — from time to time.’ — Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

‘New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.’ — Felix Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn and His World

‘When music is a national possession, when people want music for their churches, for their homes, when they want to produce their own art and not to pay others to make it for them, then is the age (as it was in Tudor times) of the anthem, the madrigal, music for choral singing on a small scale, music for the lute or the virginals.’ — Vaughan Williams, ‘British Music’ in Vaughan Williams on Music

But it is taking rather a long time to collect such quotes. Most writings on music don’t seem to lend themselves to concise quotations. I will probably end up throwing in some Chesterton for instance, just to bulk it out. Plus, I’m not sure I even want this to be an exclusively musical blog. Which brings us to…

On Reading

As a blogger, it might surprise you to know that until recently I didn’t enjoy reading. I never read books when I was young; I was probably 16 when I read my first book, and perhaps 18 when I read my second (as of writing, I’m 22). It was somewhat of a gruelling process to become literate enough to read. I’d falter at every punctuation mark, my eyes would muddle up or miss words, lose track of the line and so on. I approached it meticulously: I wanted to know exactly why an author used a comma here but not there, why this word and not that. I took very little interest in the content, just the method of writing and communicating. I began this process in my mid-late teens because of a realisation that if I couldn’t read efficiently and write articulately, I wouldn’t have much of a future. At least that’s what I thought at the time. But now I’m not so sure it’s a particular advantage in most of life.

Reading is a marvellous hobby though. I have a bookshelf of about 150 books. That’s about two years worth, mostly acquired this year. Not that many, perhaps, but as I said this is a recent hobby. I used to own a Kindle but sold it a year ago. Holding a physical book gives me a sense that this is an activity, not something passive. It becomes tactile — flicking through pages, marking text, making notes. Okay, you can do this on screens, but it’s a simulation, and one kept at an impersonal distance by a glass pane. I was much less likely to finish an ebook.

Still, I do miss the many the ebooks I read and loved. How I want to go over to the shelf and flick through a copy of Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen, reread parts of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, look up that essay in Taruskin’s Danger of Music. The worst of them is Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a small book but one I gave a great deal of attention to, with many electronic notes. Fortunately, I have just recently acquired a physical copy which belonged to my grandad, and I fully intend to pencil in all those annotations trapped inside the cold, dark Amazonian cyberspace.

Most of my reading has been non-fiction. For a while I was convinced that novels were an unproductive use of time. How I got this absurd notion I’ve no idea. I finally broke free of this mindset this year. These are among the novels (and novellas) that did it:

  • Don Quixote
  • The Leopard
  • A Journey Around My Room
  • Mendelssohn Is on the Roof
  • An Equal Music
  • The Man Who Was Thursday
  • Out of a Silent Planet and Perelandra (still need to read the third one)
  • The Death of Napeoleon
  • The Noise of Time

I am currently staring at my bookshelf admiringly. There is no particular order to it. Some authors are grouped together but not others. It seems that books of a similar size are kept together; this might simply be because of the way the shelves are designed. The oldest book (as in physical age) is probably a first edition of Chesterton’s The Return of Don Quixote (1927) which I just purchased recently, quite unaware of its age. I doubt it’s worth anything. I generally prefer older editions simply because I find the clean whiteness of new books slightly irritating. Though the sense of history is nice too. At the beginning of the Chesterton, written in unfaded pencil, is ‘M. Hursey, 1934’.

I’m a slow reader, I think. I frequently pause, and if it’s non-fiction, and I’m by a desk, I’ll probably take some notes. So I was curious about my reading speed and took these two online tests. The results:

Test 1: 419wpm and 82% comprehension

Test 2: 512wpm

But I’d never read that fast unless under pressure, and even then I couldn’t sustain it for long.

Sparky’s Magic Piano

This is one of the great, though unlikely, hits of the 1940s. It was incredibly popular and has not yet faded from memory, appearing on many children’s music albums. Sparky is learning to play the piano and like most children hates practising. But one day the piano speaks to him, telling him to play any of the keys and that he, the piano, will in turn play whatever piece Sparky requests. You’ll have to listen to find out how it all ends.

The magic piano speaks with a vocoder effect — well, technically the device was called a ‘sonovox’. Gilbert Wright invented it in the 1930s while shaving. With the razor pressed against his Adam’s Apple, he noticed something unusual. Experimenting, he found that the razor altered his voice. There is something very frightening about the sound. As I child, I vividly imagined myself as Sparky, except my Sparky was a timid soul frightened by the expressionless series of notes with which the piano spoke. In fact, it just might be the source of my peculiar disliking of pianos. How soulless that voice is, how little of humanity there is to it, how well it represents the cold mechanical operation of a piano. At the same time, the piano has incredible power — just look at how it enchants and empowers the boy. There’s nothing more frightening than that. The piano is too powerful, too totalitarian in its scope. The vocoder voice of the magic piano is the voice of a dictator.

Walking in Medieval Times — Toe to Heel

According to this video, medieval people walked with the balls of their feet touching the ground first, rather than heel to toe. They wore leather shoes, little more than glorified socks, meaning that their feet were not adequately protected from rocks, creatures etc. Walking toe-first allowed them to feel for any potential hazards. I tried walking this way in my socks, and although I managed to amuse myself for a few minutes, this is clearly one area where humans have made some progress.

I can’t help feeling that there must be some kind of analogy here to ‘historically informed performance’.

My Favourite 20th Century Symphonies

Kalevi Aho — Symphony Nos. 7 & 9

Shostakovich — Symphony No. 15

Ives — Symphony Nos. 3 & 4 and the New England Holiday Symphony

Sibelius — Symphony No. 2

Vaughan Williams — London Symphony

Pettersson — Symphony No. 7

Korngold — Symphony in F Sharp

Szymanowski– Symphony No. 4

Stravinsky — Symphony of Psalms

Poor Little Sullivan

There isn’t much competition for the title of Britain’s Greatest Nineteenth Century Composer. Elgar was 19th century in spirit, but really blossomed at the start of the twentieth century. John Field is excellent I’m told, but I’m unfamiliar with his work. Hubert Parry wrote some cracking songs but I don’t much have an ear for his orchestral work. That leaves Arthur Sullivan.

People often think of Sullivan as a second-rate composer, one who could have been great if he’d tried harder. Indeed, Sullivan is a peculiar kind of chap: a first-rate composer, for sure, but one who composed very little first-rate serious music. One symphony, one grand opera, one cello concerto, the song The Lost Chord and that’s about it. (He also composed Onward Christian Soldiers, a fact often forgotten.) The music was perhaps old-fashioned, but that’s no crime in my view. It is very good music, and we should be ashamed at how we neglect one of our great composers. His ‘Irish’ Symphony:

For the most part, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are performed so badly that we forget how marvellous the music really is. Too often they are left to amateur groups to perform. (And there was that awful film with its synthesised score and hammy acting.) Very few decent recordings exist. If you’re fortunate enough to catch the ENO, say, stage a G&S opera you’ll release how ingenious they are.

Sullivan had the most incredible ear for melody. And his music was witty. Take With Cat Like Tread which, given the song is about sneaking quietly about, is hilariously loud, and with the grandest of endings.

And the snow has stopped. A sign that I should stop writing. I am trying to think of a piece of music related to snow, but embarrassingly nothing is coming to mind. (Well, except for The Four Seasons, but that’s far too obvious!) So going back to the first item, here’s a video of Tarantella by Johann Kaspar Mertz performed on an early romantic guitar by Juliane Bergemann:

Two Concerts at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall is undoubtedly my favourite London venue. It’s tucked away just round the corner from the increasingly gaudy Oxford Street, a place that exemplifies the devastating effect overcrowding, motor vehicles and chain stores can have on an area of otherwise incredible architectural beauty. Wigmore Hall is a sanctuary from all the bustle. Tardis-like, its modest entrance conceals a remarkable interior. When you first walk into the hall your eyes wander around the room, taking in the alabaster and marble walls, the plush red seats and carpet. Soon enough your eyes are drawn upwards to the cupola above the stage, where they become fixed on the most extraordinary mural. It is impossible to find a picture that does it justice, but this will give you an idea if you’ve never been:


The sound is astonishing and the ticket prices exceptionally reasonable (especially for those of us under 35 — £5 tickets!).

Last week I finished reading Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music, in which Wigmore Hall plays a somewhat important role. I was really quite excited to visit the place where the Maggiore Quartet had performed, where Michael and Julia’s romance was rekindled and severed and then– well, we never do find out… It is, I suppose, how Harry Potter fans feel when visiting King’s Cross station. Though I had been to Wigmore Hall before, it felt like I was returning to a different place, somewhere even more magical. Life is wonderful like that: the way two things, begun independently, unexpectedly come together, even if just for a brief time…

The first concert I saw was L’Arpeggiata performing arias from Luigi Rossi’s operas Orfeo and Il palazzo incantato (as well as some Cazzati and Allegri). Not exactly well-known stuff. In fact, I can’t seem to find any recording of Il palazzo incantato. I was desperate to hear it again as it was such exhilarating music, especially the way L’Arpeggiata play it. Director Christine Pluhar’s tendency to play this music ‘freely’, let’s say, has at times been too radical: the crossover Handel-does-jazz stuff is forgettable. (Though occassionally it sort of works.) However, when they get it right — that is, when they are just an early music group and steer clear of the dreaded crossover genre — it is some of the most invigorating music you’ll ever hear:

Compare the above with other versions and the difference is plain. Here’s Anthony Rooley conducting the Concert of Musicke:

Not very exciting, is it? What a limp dance at the end! And what a difference the cornett makes!

Classical music often risks becoming a museum culture, perhaps now more than ever. There is a fine line between something being a dead tradition, upon which it is exiled to museums and history books, and it being a living tradition. A lot of ensembles seem to play early music in a somewhat lifeless way; L’Arpeggiata do not. I would in fact suggest that early music can sound quite contemporary. It is closer to popular tastes than most classical music, allowing greater autonomy for performers, greater scope for interpretation, using more intimidate ensembles, a more familiar understanding of dynamics, modality, and much of it is dance-able, in a way. It’s far better for classical music evangelisation than concertos for turntable or orchestral representations of nightclub music. Here are L’Arpeggiata again, this time performing Lasciate Averno from Rossi’s Orfeo. How could this fail to win anyone over? What overwhelming beauty! That melody! To hear this performed was the most wonderful consolation. Everything about it is right; nothing feels more meaningful than hearing and playing music like this.

The second concert was a piano recital. Imogen Cooper performed a Haydn piano sonata and Beethoven’s 7 Bagatelles in the first half, but I was primarily interested in the second half: Thomas Ades’ Darknesse visible (an ‘explosion’ of John Dowland’s song In Darkness Let Me Dwell) and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 Op. 110. I love both Beethoven and Haydn of course, but much of the piano repertoire does little for me. I have a stubborn prejudice against the instrument; I often just hear a lot of plonking and miss the expressive, less mechanical sounds of other instruments. But especially since listening to Igor Levit’s album, I have found a new appreciation for the Beethoven piano sonatas. Cooper gave a great performance so I’m very glad I went.

The Ades was particularly interesting. The second half began with a surprise: from behind us we suddenly heard Dowland’s song. The lutenist and countertenor had obviously snuck into the back of the hall unbeknownst to most of the audience. Then just as the last note faded out, Imogen Cooper whammed down on the piano. It was very cleverly done.

Dowland’s original song:

And Ades arrangement:

Let’s end with the Beethoven piano sonata:

Recreating Ancient Music

I just came across this video, a sort of mini documentary, on recreating Ancient Greek music. They go through the methodology and extant sources. I am particularly fascinated by the double aulos, the two pipes played simultaneous (though, unlike the technique that was de rigueur at my primary school, not through one’s nostrils). It’s not clear the extent to which this was to expand harmonic possibility (playing two different notes at once) or to increase the instrument’s range. The music is harmonically very basic, and indeed sounds like a lot of ‘world music’. It goes to show what an extraordinary development polyphony was. More than anything else, it is what distinguishes Western classical music.

I find it odd that a recreation of ancient music has someone conducting. And for such simple music.

What do you think? The music sounds terribly boring to me. But I very much doubt they are performing it as the Ancient Greeks would have done. This recreation sounds academic and staid. I recall Roger Scruton making this distinction somewhere: that what is musicologically interesting is not necessarily musically interesting.