Things that fall out of old books…

I’m doing a bit of reading on George Bernard Shaw while waiting for his three volumes of music criticism to arrive. From what I gather, Shaw’s writing should be, if nothing else, stonkingly good fun. I finally settled on buying the books when I read about the pseudonym he wrote under, Corni di Bassetto. It’s a ‘wretched instrument’, we are told — ‘the devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle’.

The first book on Shaw I bought was a worn but attractive first edition of Chesterton’s very unbiographical biography (for pennies might I add; Chesterton first editions aren’t hard to come by). As I turned to page 22, a curious photograph fell out:


I love it. I imagine they are father and daughter playing some silly game. Looking at his uniform, it must be around the time of, or before, the First World War. And searching online, I am told that his cuff insignia is that of a lieutenant. There are no notes either on the photo or in the book to indicate date, name or place.

I quite often find odd stuff falling out of old books. Shopping lists, newspaper cuttings (often reviews of the book), torn fragments of notes, envelopes with old stamps reminding us of that wonderful pre-decimal currency we did away with. People must have picked up any old rubbish to use as a bookmark — yet I, decades later, find such rubbish terribly fascinating.

But I doubt the above photo was used as a bookmark. I wonder how it ended up in the book — did the daughter grow up and keep the book and photo as memories of her father? did she die, her books donated to a shop, and that’s how I found it?

Who knows. But getting back to Mr Bassetto, here’s a quotation from Chesterton’s book on Shaw (p. 37):

He is a daring pilgrim who has set out from the grave to find the cradle. He started from points of view which no one else was clever enough to discover, and he is at last discovering points of view which no one else was ever stupid enough to ignore.

I really can’t wait to read his music criticism.


Learning to Play the Lute

It’s strange how ordinary learning an instrument becomes. When you first get your hands on a new instrument you are completely enamoured of it, almost to the point of disbelief. I’ve been fortunate enough for this to happen a few times in my life, but none compares to the lute. One can quite reasonably imagine oneself playing, say, a cello. I was certainly mesmerised by the guitar when I started, but I’d seen and heard plenty of guitars before. So while it was indeed mesmerising, it was, at the same time, rather usual. But I struggled to imagine myself ever playing the lute. It is anything but usual. When playing the Renaissance lute there is a four-hundred year gap between you and the repertoire. How can that fail to astonish? Here I sit in my jeans, a laptop in front of me, playing a lute. There are few things more delightful than anachronisms. I remember being elated for an entire afternoon because I’d seen a man casually cycling by on a penny farthing in an otherwise drab modern street. But the lute is not a mere novelty. I was drawn to it because of the enormity of its history. It was the most important instrument in Europe. Among the greatest musicians played and composed for it.

That these musicians and their music are so distant from us can, however, present additional challenges for the beginner. Guitar pedagogy is well established, aided by the fact that the modern classical guitar belongs to a continuous tradition dating back to around the late 18th century. But roughly the same time as the six-string classical guitar was gaining prominence, the lute died out. Modern lutenists therefore have a severed connection to their instrument’s tradition. This means one approaches the lute historically: rediscovering how lutenists played centuries ago and playing it in a very similar way, on very similar instruments. Learning the guitar is not so historical. The modern guitarist plays a somewhat different instrument to his forebears (bigger, higher tension, different timbre, nylon strings), with a different technique (straight right-hand wrist, use of nails) and with evolving repertoire. The lute had a similar, if not greater, evolution up until the mid-eighteenth century. Strings kept getting added, technique changed, repertoire changed.

But unlike the guitarist — most of us play 21st century classical guitars in a 21st century way, building on centuries of tradition — the lutenist learns to play his instrument in a variety of unfamiliar historical ways, rather than simply the modern way. He will play Francesco da Milano on a six-course Renaissance lute, John Dowland on a six- to ten-course Renaissance lute, Silvius Leopold Weiss on an eleven- or thirteen-course Baroque lute (and with a different right-hand technique). A classical guitarist isn’t going to play Fernando Sor on a Lacote guitar. Moreover, the lutenist has to learn essentially dead systems of tablature. These systems are not that difficult (well, except for German tablature), but they can seem cryptic at first. It’s easier, at least for me, to learn a modern instrument simply because it is modern (i.e. familiar).

But don’t let any of this put you off learning a lute, if you are so inclined. There are now several tutor books available (I’m using Diana Poulton’s for the Renaissance lute). And as I began by saying, what initially seems unfamiliar and even daunting about learning an instrument, especially the lute, soon becomes ordinary. Before you know it, you’ll have the lute strapped round you while sight-reading sixteenth-century manuscripts — and you’ll think nothing of it!

That makes it sound like I’m already proficient at playing. I’m not. I have become comfortable with the technique, which is quite unlike the guitar. On a Renaissance lute you play with your thumb inside your hand, like this:

(Not my fingers: source)

When you have spend some time learning to play with the thumb on the outside on the guitar, it is hard to discipline yourself to then do the opposite. The other problem is that the lute is a much lower tension instrument. If I pluck as hard on the lute as I do on guitar the strings will smack against the frets — a horrible brittle sound. Having to pluck paired-strings as opposed to single strings (and without them hitting one another) adds to the difficulty. And that there’s usually at least one extra course (paired string) to contend with.

Learning fundamentals is never much fun, especially when you’ve been through (or are going through) the same process on another instrument. Rather, the temptation is to play that piece you’re within an inch of managing. It’s always much easier to attempt something ambitious than to perfect something basic. But, alas, one has to do the latter: practise the simplest things, and practise them very slowly. The revealing thing about practising slowly is that I often makes exactly the same mistakes as I do playing fast.

So you begin to pay very close attention to your playing. You try different angles of attack, work on economising movement, controlling which joints do and don’t move, adjusting the angle of your hand/wrist. Hand tension is often a problem when starting out — the little finger should not be pressing hard against the soundboard, the right-hand thumb should not be pushing the neck. The end goal is consistency. Not sameness, but rather where your sound is consistent with your intentions. You want to be able to control your tone, and to play the same thing multiple times with equal accuracy. Needless to say, I am far from either of these.

I have nevertheless learnt a few pieces. The very simplest stuff — Mr Dowland’s Midnight, for example. I attempted to record myself but this was a torturous exercise. It is hard enough, starting out on a new instrument, to make it through a piece. It is impossible to do it with the burden of knowing that any mistakes you make will be made permanent. What’s worse, recordings of you playing never sounds like you playing. It’s the same disconcerting sensation as when you hear you own voice. And it’s made even worse by the fact that recordings — usually on a budget device and in an acoustically dry room — will be anything but flattering for you and your instrument. I have wondered whether it’s helpful to have a bit of an ego when first learning an instrument, to be slightly ignorant of just how bad one sounds. In which case, don’t record yourself for at least the first several months.

I’ll write another post in a few days. For now, here’s an intabulation of Josquin’s Adieu mes amour by Italian Renaissance lutenist Francesco Spinacino’s, and performed by Ophira Zakai:


Dashing to the Wiggy

At around 7:25 last night there was a strange young man using the streets of Marylebone as some sort of obstacle course. He started at Regent’s Park tube station, from which he walked purposefully down Marylebone Road. Once on Harley Street he began running in odd fits. As he approached Wigmore Hall he launched into a sprint, apologising to passers-by and dodging London taxis (who seemed to speed up as he approached). For you see, the exits out of Oxford Circus were closed, and he had a viol concert to attend. He made it with a barely a minute a spare.

This peculiar chap — who ran in such a floppy, gelatinous way, as if running were a concept that had just occurred to him for the first time — was, alas, me. All I can say is that I really wanted to be at that concert.

This was my first time seeing a viol consort (no puns, please!). The performers were Phantasm, who I knew for their recording of John Dowland’s Lachrimae or Seaven Teares for viols and lute. My interest in the lute, particularly English lute music, has naturally led to an interest in Elizabethan music more broadly. Last night’s concert consisted entirely of viol music by William Byrd, possibly better known for his sacred choral music.

Let me back up. A viol is an early string instrument, or rather a family of early string instruments, similar to violins, violas and cellos. Except viols are played upright rather than under the chin (viola de gamba, the instrument’s full name, means ‘viola for the leg’) and most have six strings (rather than four). Like lutes, they use gut tied round the neck as frets, adjustable for different intonations. I suspect most performers also use gut strings, as the members of Phantasm had to tune between every set of pieces.

Viol consorts generally consist of four to six viols, with varying combination of bass, tenor and treble. The instruments blend into one another, creating a more homogeneous sound than a string quartet. Viols have an austere timbre, somewhat lacking in warmth but quite direct. You won’t hear great changes in dynamics or expression; some listeners might at first find it too plain. But with time they will hopefully come to find the viol an especially intense instrument, as I do.

The music is highly polyphonic, and some of the Byrd viol music uses particularly dense polyphony (even his dances seem to). A lot of viol music was imitative of vocal music, as indeed most instrumental music was. Byrd would have written for viols in a similar manner as he wrote for voices. One can only appreciate this music by listening to its separate lines. I think it’s easy for people to mistake it for relaxing, pretty music because they are focused on the vertical aspect of the harmony, the alignment of notes, and not the horizontal movement — the remarkable interplay of the melodies.

But we are fast approaching where my very limited knowledge ends. If you are at all interested in reading more about the English viol consort, I thoroughly recommend this article by Brian Robins on his website Early Music World.

For now, here are Phantasm playing Byrd’s Fantasia No. 2:


Samuel Barber — Symphony No. 1

What a blistering, glorious, compact symphony this is! I’ve been enamoured of it since hearing a performance at the Barbican a few days ago. This, and Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 10 a week before, has rekindled in me a love of big orchestral music.

Samuel Barber is one of the most successful American composers — but also one of the least American. Unlike composers such as Ives and Copland, who wrote works often infused with distinctively American music — patriotic and civil war songs, ragtime, nineteenth century hymns, jazz — Barber was unabashedly European. And not only European but decidedly conservative, his style rooted in the nineteenth century, and remained so until his death in 1981. He was therefore a popular composer but also a much criticised one.

Barber is still well known, though only for a single piece, Adagio for Strings. I have to admit the piece doesn’t do anything for me, probably because I’ve heard it so often. Quite honestly I suspected I might find Barber’s Symphony No. 1 insipid. It’s not — in fact it has an unrelenting, primal urgency that could almost rival the Rite of Spring.

The symphony is about twenty minutes long and condensed into a single movement. Still, it uses a fairly standard four-movement structure, except for the fact that the recapitulation for each theme is withheld until the end of the symphony. Most of the music is boisterous — bellowing horns, big crescendos, fast strings, stabbing chords, all that good stuff — but the third movement gives way to the kind of beautiful lyricism one might more readily associate with Barber.

Anyway, just listen:


Classical Music’s Diversity Problem

I sometimes wonder if, unbeknownst to me, other musical traditions have their own diversity wars. Do the Chinese lambaste their operatic tradition for not having enough white people? Do Indians feel shame at the lack of sub-Saharan Africans performing Indian classical music? Do Indonesians moan about the underrepresentation of Hispanics in gamelan music? No, I imagine not. How lucky they are.

The reason I bring this up is that I just read an article titled ‘Systemic Discrimination: the Burden of Sameness in American Orchestras’ on the music site I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The author, Douglas Shadle, argues that there is a ‘lack of diversity on concert programs [that] is built into the institutional structure of American classical music organizations, leading to systemic discrimination against women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented musicians.’ Orchestras therefore need to commit to having ‘inclusive’ programming, and audiences should hold them to account if they don’t.

There is a core disagreement between those like myself, who believe that music can be judged aesthetically, and those like Shadle who believe that the quality of a piece of music is inextricably linked to its reception and cultural milieu. He writes:

…the underlying premise here is the false belief that greatness is a quality inherent in a piece of music, rather than a culturally conditioned designation given by someone else.

Ask yourself: do you love Bach’s music because someone told you to like Bach, or do you love it because it is great music?

Shadle later continues the theme:

Drop the singular focus on phony subjective concepts like “great symphonic music” and “the highest level of artistic excellence,” since these in no way conflict with diversity.

This is the pernicious reality of egalitarianism. Merit is substituted for equality and diversity. Therefore, if I see that the first violin walks onto stage and he or she is black, or if I see an ethnic minority or a woman composer being championed, a voice in my head whispers ‘affirmative action’. And I feel horrible for it, as it brings into question the merit of someone who is most likely an extraordinary musician or composer. This is the dangerous egalitarian game we are playing. Surely it can only breed disillusionment and resentment?

I say it is a ‘dangerous game we are playing’ because, contrary to what Shadle suggests, these diversity policies are already in place. One orchestra he singles out for its systemic racism and sexism is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Well, like most orchestras the CSO has an explicit commitment to diversity. From their website: ‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is an Equal Opportunity employer which values and encourages a diverse workforce’. You will find the ‘Equal Opportunities’ stamp on most orchestras’ websites, and if you are applying for a job you may well be asked to fill out an ominously titled ‘Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form’ detailing your ethnicity, gender, and any disabilities you may have.

In a recent Telegraph interview, the great baritone Roderick Williams, who happens to be half Jamaican, made a brief but revealing comment about how his ethnicity has affected his career:

Has my colour stopped me being cast in certain roles? Well, that’s something I’ll never know, because I never hear what gets said on audition panels. But nowadays I imagine that our obsession with diversity means that, if anything, it works in my favour. Quite honestly, I would rather people judged me on the basis of my singing.

How wonderfully sensible. It’ll never catch on.