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: