31 December 2011

Mahler and the Organ

Gustav Mahler’s writing for the organ is confined to a few chords and pedal notes mostly supporting the chorus in the Second and Eighth symphonies, and a breathtakingly unidiomatic pseudo-continuo role in the first movement of his Suite after the Orchestral Works of J S Bach.  True, Mahler himself recognised the un-organistic nature of his writing in that last work by suggesting that what he wrote was “a sketch which should bear, in general, the character of a free improvisation”; in other words, “don’t play what I’ve written, make up something better”.

For a composer universally hailed as one of the great orchestrators of the late 19th century, such an obvious inability to write for an instrument or to recognise its value in an orchestral texture seems somewhat strange.  After all, Richard Strauss used the organ to riveting effect in many of his scores (and wrote for it in a distinctly idiomatic fashion too), as did Respighi, Wagner, Bartók and Elgar.  Admittedly Rimsky-Korsakov never wrote organ parts in his scores, but the organ was virtually unknown in Russia at the time so we can excuse him.  Ravel, too, avoided the instrument, but for French composers - more so even than German, Italian or English ones - the organ was so inseparably bound up with the church that they found it difficult to fit into a purely secular composition.  (No excuse, I know; Saint-Saëns was a prolific writer for the organ out of an ecclesiastical context.)

One could suggest that Mahler’s Jewish heritage effectively closed the door on the organ for him: but that does not hold water, not least because he DID use it in two works which celebrate Christian ethical concepts.  Perhaps he considered the organ too inseparably associated with religion to put into a secular score: yet how does that square with his use of it in a work which celebrates Bach’s secular rather than sacred music?  No, there is some other reason why Mahler avoided the organ – other, of course, than the obvious conclusion that he disliked it.

Perhaps the fact that he spent much of his professional life in Vienna holds the clue.  It might seem odd to suggest this, but let’s look at Viennese-based composers and the organ.  Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all played the organ to a level at which they were at various times employed as professional organists, yet they seemed to avoid it like the plague when it came to writing serious music.  Schoenberg, Berg and Webern also gave it a miss as did the Strauss family – the only organ writing I can recall in Johann Strauss the younger is his weird but charming Hochzeits-Praeludium which is hardly a work intended for public consumption.  Bruckner, you would have thought, would have put the organ in just about everything he wrote.  But no, he may have treated the orchestra like an organ, adding and subtracting instruments like an organist pulling out and pushing in handfuls of stops, but when it came to combining organ with an orchestra, he never did it.  Franz Schmidt did – and to good effect too – but he is hardly a household name, and neither in Anton Heiller who was one of the very few Viennese composers to write a substantial body of organ music.  So, can we suggest that living in Vienna prejudices a composer against the organ?  That might explain Mahler’s reluctance to add such a potent colour to his orchestral mix.

But there is more to it than that.  Mahler seems not to transfer to the organ even at the hands of someone especially gifted in turning orchestral music into organ sound.  Apart from a handful of transcriptions of the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, few have tried to transcribe Mahler for the organ.  Yet his large and colourful scores, with their vast dynamic and expressive range might seem natural fodder to a keen transcriber.  One who has done much to put Mahler on to the organ is British organist, improviser extraordinaire and assiduous transcriber, David Briggs.  I’ve just reviewed (for Gramophone) a recording of his transcription of the Sixth Symphony and found the experience, to put it in a nutshell, weird.  It doesn’t sound like Mahler at all, and one is painfully aware how much aimless note-spinning there is in the original score.  Nothing sounds right or natural, and while Briggs gives a devastatingly brilliant account of his music, and the mere fact that he has transcribed this massive score in its entirety, is evidence enough of an extraordinary musical talent, one is left ultimately wondering why he did it.  It certainly offers no new or valuable insight into Mahler’s creative process and certainly doesn’t add anything of significant value to the repertoire of the organ.

The fact is Mahler and the organ just don’t go together.

22 December 2011

Music on the Cheap

This is the time of year when television news programmes root out stories which purport to show how the Spirit of Goodwill To All Men permeates even the most austere realms of officialdom.  You know the sort of thing; the Norwegian Post Office employing a full-time staff to ensure all letters posted to Santa Claus are answered personally, the front office staff at the Tax Office donning Santa Claus hats, supermarkets handing out all their left-over perishable goods to children’s homes on Christmas Eve, and so on. 

The one that caught my eye this year was about staff at the Trading Standards Department of Wandsworth Borough Council (the council where my good friend Peter Almond spends his waking hours – including, it seems, all of Christmas – being astonishingly courteous to members of the public who call up to complain at all hours of the day and night) who, going about the grim task of confiscating fake designer-label garments from market traders and back-street shops, have chosen not to destroy the goods but pass them on to a church which painstakingly removes the fake labels and sews in their own legitimate ones.  The church then gives these garments away free to the homeless.  It was a truly heart-warming story, and had a nice extra moral about it in that the church had recently been given permission to use a former fake-goods factory in the area in order to re-brand the illicit goods professionally.

True, when the motley assortment of tramps and winos who had been presented with formerly-fake Gucci, Guess, Levi, Miss Selfridge and whatever else people seem to think warrants and extra pair of noughts on the price tag, were asked what they thought, they were, to a man, deeply unimpressed; “It’s OK”, said one, of his rebranded North Face anorak, “All right, I suppose”, said another from the depths of a quilted Formerly-Known-As-Barbour.  I wondered if they might not have been more enthusiastic had the church left the fake labels on.  But, there again, it might just be that designer clothes, fake or real, are more about appearance than practicality.  The point was, illegal copying of goods, useless or otherwise, is being ruthlessly stamped out in Wandsworth (God Bless It), but is being done so this Christmas with a humane face.

Perhaps next year the story might be of an equally conscientious council in the Far East exporting briquettes made from the pulped paper used to produce pirated music to heat the homes of freezing Euro-bereft Europeans, or sent to India as material to fill pot-holes.  Certainly there are vast quantities of such material just waiting to be confiscated, and would-be confiscators would do well to look first at the choirs of the region.  I don’t suppose there is a single choir in the whole of south east Asia that possesses more than one copy of each work they sing; my estimate is that there are 10,000 singers for every original copy, but I suspect that is ridiculously conservative.

A few days ago I attended a choral concert of Christmas music given by a collective of south east Asian choirs.  It was a lovely occasion and despite a certain tackiness (an inevitable side-effect of Christmas concerts anywhere), musically it was well worth the hefty admission fee. 

But… Five choirs, five conductors, five pianists.  Original copies?  None.  True to form, the singers had no music with them on stage (which caused a certain discomfort with the arms and hands which was only alleviated by the horrible inevitability of synchronised movements) but one could almost hear the clatter of clear-folders stuffed to the brim with photocopied sheets being cast aside in the wings as they all filed on stage. 

No such pretence for conductors and pianists, all of whom marched on with their clear plastic folders, glinting in the stage lights and revealing page after page of badly photocopied extracts from Carols for Choirs and the like.

I can sympathise with those who find it difficult to sort through the pages of a large carol book to find the next item, and with those whose books are so new they have yet to crack the bindings and sit flat on the music stand.  But we all know this is a fiction.  Why buy when you can steal, is the choral motto.  How I wish they adopted a similar attitude to their Mercs, BMWs and Porsches.  Yet, for some reason, while music should be free for all – after all, it’s only fun – driving a state of the art German automobile – which is a fatal weapon both directly and indirectly - should be the unique preserve of the wealthy.

Choral societies are the worst offenders, but by no means the only ones.  Once the trading standards people have taught them not to steal, they might start to look elsewhere.  The greatest Christmas present for those of us who make our living out of music would be some serious legal attempts to stop people getting our product for free and then, effectively profiting from it by charging an audience to witness the fruits of their theft.  Only when music is appreciated as a costly necessity rather than a cheap accessory will people begin to value it.

06 December 2011

Liszt, Lang Lang, Lunacy

Two of the major composers in the long history of music fail to find a sympathetic ear with me.  It will come as no great surprise to readers of this blog that I do not really enjoy the music of either Chopin or Liszt.  I admire what they did, I respect the admiration with which their compositions are greeted by the great mass of music lovers and I recognise myself the marks of genius in their music.  I acknowledge them as major composers; I just don't like the sound of their music.

Trying to be objective, I think my problem with Chopin are the superficial layers of pianism obscuring the core of the writing.  The genius lies in the harmonic adventurousness and the elevation to distinctive genres of previously inconsequential musical forms.  The re-defining of idiomatic piano writing was probably his greatest gift to music; but I just baulk at what I see as excessive and often quite pointless ornamentation and florid decoration.  Too many arpeggios and complicated quasi-improvisatory passagework add, for me, an excessive sweetness which is utterly cloying.

With Liszt, my objections are more easily voiced.  Simply put, he wrote too much and had no concept of self-restraint.  Self indulgence is probably an essential aspect of any composer's psyche; with Liszt, however, it just goes too far and I find his music, in the main, tasteless.  It doesn't help that, unlike so many admirers, I am left cold by flashy displays of extreme pianistic virtuosity.  I can't get thrilled by the idea of a man so taken up with his own greatness that he labelled a set of his piano pieces "Transcendental" studies – I merely find them pointless exercises in technical proficiency.  Nor can I really take seriously someone who wrote a musical diary about his "Years of Pilgrimage", decades after the events he purported to depict.  The organ music is, with a couple of exceptions, agonisingly dreary, and while I respect the genius of someone who could come up with the concept of a Symphonic Poem, I find his own forays into the genre little short of embarrassing.  Hearing the Singapore Symphony Orchestra programme two of them alongside one of Richard Strauss, it was pretty obvious that Strauss had an infinitely better grasp of the genre's potential than had Liszt.  (It was quite an interesting programming choice, which might have worked better under a more mature and authoritative conductor, but that's another story.)

However, I found myself leaping to Liszt's defence when I attended a talk about him the other day.  The speaker falling into the trap all speakers fall into (myself especially) of equating a figure from history with modern life, came up with all the usual things; Liszt the first rock star (because of his legions of female admirers), Liszt the great showman (with his flowing white hair and pseudo-clerical garb), Liszt the tireless performer (800 concerts in a 10-year period, or some such statistic).  And then he did the outrageous thing of showing a clip of Lang Lang doing unspeakable things on a piano keyboard and saying something like "This is the modern-day Liszt".

No it is not.  Liszt was a great artist, unquestionably a brilliant pianist and very clearly a sensitive musician.  Lang Lang is a brilliant pianist.  Full stop.


Not a wart in sight
Warts and All
Liszt was an extremely ugly man, with a face full of warts and physical properties of a pig.  You can't begin to translate him into a society where physical appearance is everything.  Today we go by looks and only then endeavour to find some substance. In Liszt's day society went by substance, and physical appearance mattered not a jot.  We could say it was Liszt himself who began to change that, by creating a physical appearance which was, if you like, the icing on the cake of the artistic substance.  But what those legions of female admirers saw in Liszt was a man of great artistic skill.  They admired his brain, his fingers, his heart.  His antics were immaterial to their admiration of him.

Lang Lang is an extremely handsome man, with a face as pure as the driven snow and the physical properties of a sculpted movie star.  Thousands of dollars' worth of grooming, carefully selected photography shots and a portfolio of poses to go on to record sleeves, concert programmes, publicity posters and Rolex commercials have created a look which is immediately attractive even to those who believe a piano is a small box with the word Roland printed in large letters between the various inputs and outputs on its back.

Lang Lang is also a peculiarly gifted pianist.  I have never forgotten a BBC interview he gave seated at a piano.  At one pointed he illustrated what he had to say by playing just two chords.  I have never heard anyone play two chords so arrestingly.  There was something in the tone, the touch the balance, the sense of leading somewhere which completely caught my attention.  Had I not known it was Lang Lang and heard those chords while doing something else, I would have stopped everything there and then simply to savour the sound.  Few, if any, pianists have ever had that effect on me.  He has the indefinable gift of touch, which no amount of showmanship can completely disfigure, and that makes him a pianist in a million.  I imagine Liszt had the same skill.

But comparisons stop there.  Lang Lang, great pianist maybe, but a very, very pale shadow of the totality of Liszt.  It's quite wrong for us to equate the great men of the past with the popular idols of today.  That only cheapens the concept of artistic greatness.  Whether you like his music of not, Liszt was a one-off, a unique figure whose like we will not see in our lifetimes.  Let's not try to diminish his stature by comparing him with a far lesser mortal.

02 December 2011

Why Music Theory?

The study of musical theory, especially at pre-university/conservatory level, is very rare.  The apparent spike of interest in the subject amongst younger students is wholly due to the obligation on those taking ABRSM graded practical exams at grade 6 and beyond to have passed a grade 5 theory exam.  Educationally this makes sense, as a basic understanding in theory is absolutely essential in anyone wanting to take music in any shape or form seriously.  But in reality it probably does more harm than good, since those teaching it are usually instrumental teachers whose obligation is to get their students to pass the exam and so, themselves, have a very peripheral interest in and knowledge of the subject.  Music theory is one of those subjects which is uniformly badly taught and becomes a matter of deep interest only once the student has broken away from the teacher and has the time and luxury to investigate its charms unaided.

The charms of theoretical trills!
Enough to make Beethoven go mad?
I love musical theory, but readily confess to having hated it as a student.  All those hours spent dissecting trills into upper and lower auxiliaries, counting up the number of notes to make the required multiples of four, working out whether to add a triplet or quintuplet to get it to finish on the right note, the murky world of mordents, inverted mordents, turns on the notes, turns after the note, not to mention learning by rote those reams of alien Italian, German and French terms and remembering names for harmless little signs which you had no problem playing, but never knew their proper name – is that an appoggiatura or an acciaccatura, is that a tenuto sign of a marcato sign?   When I did my statutory study of theory to get through ABRSM grade 5, my teacher made no attempt to instil any enthusiasm into the subject nor, indeed, relate it to what I was doing in my practical lessons, and, despite getting the usual 99 marks in the exam (ABRSM used to – perhaps still do – mark theory exams out of 99 merely to imply that nobody could ever get 100; something they certainly still do in practical exams, banning their examiners from issuing top marks at any level) I remained completely disinterested in theory right through my university days.

And that dislike of theory is widespread.  Ask teachers and students why they choose to do Trinity practical exams over ABRSM at the upper grades, almost always the response is, "Because Trinity doesn't need you to do any theory". 

Superficially, this is absolutely right; there is no theory pre-qualification demanded at any stage in the Trinity exams.  In actuality, however, it is wrong, for there is a theoretical element in all Trinity practical exams.  This might take the form of Musical Knowledge questions - which by grade 4 require a pretty extensive knowledge of key relationships and modulations and by grade 5 extend to an understanding or musical form and structure, while all the way along expecting a thorough understanding of the signs, terms and ornaments the students encounter in the music they play – or Aural Tests – which are based around the aural (and from grade 3 visual) identification of those same elements in a piece of music.  On top of that, just as in any other exam board, an understanding of theory is essential for a successful performance of the set pieces.  How can you, for example, give a good performance of a Grade 3 Gigue if you do not understand the concept of compound time or, at its most basic, play a Grade 1 Allegro, if you do not know what Allegro means?  Theory is part and parcel of any musical performance, and it is a shame that, if it is taught at all, it is generally done execrably.

I often allude to what I describe as the Dolce question.  Ask a student what Dolce means and they will nearly all answer "Sweetly".  Correct, so far as it goes, but then ask them what that means and they are stumped.  If a composer writes Dolce above a phrase, just knowing what Dolce means is pointless; you need to apply the theoretical knowledge to the practicality of a performance.  Theory is an integral part of any performance, not an adjunct to allow you to pass on to higher grades.

It is a matter of constant amazement to me how teachers so often fail to connect the theoretical with the practical in their lessons.  After hearing a succession of grade 6 students rushing through a Vivaldi Largo with no concept as to what Largo meant and a plethora of young children spoil their chances of a good exam result by assuming leggiero to be synonymous with legato, my irritation with bad teaching got the better of me and I raised the issue at a teachers' meeting.  To my horror I realised that this failure to teach anything other than the mechanical of producing the sound and the literacy skills necessary to read the notes is the norm rather than the exception.

My understanding is that whatever appears on the page in front of the student needs to be taught.  From the title down to the page number there are implications on the performance.  Before you even play a note, if you see that the piece is called Waltz, has a key signature of one sharp and ends on a chord of E, is in ¾ time, is marked doloroso and begins with a piano dynamic, you have a very good idea what the music's message is – this is going to be a slow, sad, perhaps ghostly echo of a ballroom dance.  With that information to hand, how much easier it's going to be for the student to learn the piece, rather than merely learning all the notes and then wondering, after a fast, lively, loud and cheerful performance, why the examiner has failed it.

I was, to a certain extent, rather hoist with my own petard when I set an exam for conservatory students recently.  Presenting them with a couple of pages from an unlabelled score, I asked them to come up with a suggestion as to the work and composer from the evidence on the score.  It was a Haydn Minuet and Trio from a String Quartet and I was expecting comments about style; harmonic relationships, writing for instruments, regular phrase structures, etc. etc..  A number, however, noticed at the very bottom of the page, photocopied from a miniature score, the tiny legend "H-46678".  Trained to look for everything on the page they quite rightly suggested that this was the publisher's code and that H probably stood for Haydn.  Quite right; but how many students, inculcated with ABRSM grade 5 would have shown such insight?

28 November 2011

The True Blues

In lectures about music I have often used a famous TV advert from the 1990s to illustrate what the Blues is.  It remains, for me, the perfect description of the Blues and all it stands for.

Ex MPO-horn player, good friend and utterly lovely bloke, Nicholas Smith, now teaching in Brunei (lucky Bruneians) has been to stay over the weekend and asked me if I remembered the television sketch which had so succinctly encapsulated what the Blues is all about.  I was able to root out of my stock of VHS recordings made in the days when I used to leave the video recorder running while I went off to the pub in the UK, and on one of those I found the advert.  He, being rather more tech savvy than I, immediately decided it must be on You-Tube; and so it proved to be.

So here, courtesy of a disgusting beer, but one which immeasurably enriched the lives of all those of us who used to watch TV adverts, is the PERFECT DESCRIPTION OF THE BLUES!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP5EC1S_F20

19 November 2011

Singapore Organ News - The First Chapter


The organ programme may have died a death in Kuala Lumpur, but it’s still very much on the go in Singapore and on 9th December I’ll be giving a recital on the Klais in The Esplanade (to book follow the link). 
Always one with an eye on anniversaries, I decided that I’d look ahead to 2012 in my programme and choose music by composers who celebrate some kind of anniversary next year.  More fool me!  No sooner had I got the Esplanade to agree to the idea than I realised that, after years in which major composer anniversaries had been two-a-penny, 2012 is one of the most anniversary-free musical years we’ve had for a long time.  No major composers to celebrate centenaries, bicentenaries of tercentenaries of births or deaths, and surprisingly few 150th or 250th anniversaries.  Choosing the programme became a real headache and required a lot of investigation.

But every cloud has a silver lining and out of the paucity of birthdays I was able to put together a programme of pieces which, in the normal order of events, I might not have thought about. 

The programme on the flyer isn’t quite right – even after first submitting it, I remembered that Messiaen and Mathias both died 20 years ago and, as the recital takes place the day before what would have been Messiaen’s 104th birthday it would have been wrong not to include some music by the Ms – but I’m glad I’ve been able to have a legitimate excuse for airing Boëllmann’s ever-popular Gothic Suite and thrilled to have been forced to unearth some of the music of Coleridge Taylor, a composer for whom I have had a deep affection ever since I made my choral conducting début with a double-bill of his Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast and Tales from Old Japan.

So here’s the final programme;      

·         Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897) – Carillon (Op.16 No.5)            
·         Jan Pieter Sweelinck (1562-1621) – Variations on Unter der Linden grüne           
·         John Ireland (1879-1962) – The Holy Boy (A Carol for the Nativity)
·         Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau (1663-1712) – Chorale Prelude: In dulci jubilo  
·         Henry G Ley (1887-1962) – Cradle Song           
·         William Mathias – Variations on a Welsh Hymn Tune (Op.20)          
·         Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) – Zarifa (Op.19 No.2)
·         Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Fantasia in G (BWV572)
·         Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) – Le Banquet Céleste  
·         John Stanley (1712-1786) – Voluntary in D (Op.6 No.6)
·         Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897) – Suite Gothique (Op.25)


Boellmann
The 150th anniversary of Boëllmann's birth falls next year on 25th September.  Born in Ensisheim in the Alsace region of France, the town's website lists him as one of just three "famous men" born there – the others both being Jesuit preachers, Johann Rasser (1535-1594) and Jakob Balde (1604-1668) – but doesn't mention that he left the place at the age of nine and spent the rest of his life in Paris, where he died barely a month after his 35th birthday.  He was one of 14 children, and his musical skills encouraged his parents to send him to the Ecole Niedermeyer where he studied organ with Eugène Gigout.  He graduated in 1881, married Gigout's niece (spending the early years of married life lodging in Gigout's home) and was appointed organist of the church of St Vincent de Paul in Paris and a teacher at the Ecole Niedermeyer.  Despite his early death, he composed some 40 opus numbers and several unnumbered works, and while these include several pieces for chamber ensemble and orchestra, it is his organ music which has kept his name in the public consciousness. 
Sweelinck
The earliest composer in the recital celebrates his 450th birthday in May 2012.  He has gone down in history as the most important Dutch composer of the period and the last great composer of the Renaissance era: indeed one Dutch commentator has gone even further, declaring, “It is universally known that Sweelinck is one of the foremost personalities of music history”. He spent his entire life in Amsterdam where he was not only the city’s most important organist – holding the position at the city's Oude Kerk from 1573 until his death in 1621 - but also a highly-respected and sought-after teacher.  He was also a prolific composer writing over 500 songs, madrigals, religious motets, lute pieces and keyboard music and well in excess of 100 pieces for the organ.  

John Ireland
The Esplanade wanted the programme to have some Christmas theme, so I found three pieces by composers with an anniversary in 2012 which have a distinctly Christmassy element.  The first is John Ireland’s famous pieces, which he devised in several formats, including as a solo organ piece, The Holy Boy.  Ireland gets into the programme on account of the fact that 12th June 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of his death, in Washington (a small, picturesque village in the classically English country of West Sussex, NOT the seat of American power).  He had been born in Cheshire, near Manchester, and after the early deaths of both his parents, managed to gain a place at the Royal College of Music where he studied organ and became the youngest ever Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.  He was appointed Assistant Organist at the important and famous church of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, London, before, in 1904, being appointed organist at St Luke’s Chelsea where he remained for some 22 years.  Eight years into his time at St Luke's, Ireland wrote a simple piano piece for, according to Muriel Searle's biography, "Bobby Glasby, a young chorister at St Luke's", called The Holy Boy and subtitled "A Carol for the Nativity". 
Zachau
(sometimes known as Zachow)
If an 11-year-old chorister called Bobby Glasby helped John Ireland achieve musical immortality, a seven-year-old chorister called Georg Friedrich Händel did much the same for Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, the 300th anniversary of whose death falls on 7th August.  Zachau was organist at the Marienkirche in Halle from 1684 until his death.  Handel was sent to Zachau to learn the organ in 1692.  Within a year he was standing in for Zachau who had "an inclination to be absent from his duties from love of company and a cheerful glass".  Zachau was, however, solitary and sober long enough to compose 30 cantatas, criticised by the congregation for being "excessively long, unedifying and unintelligible", which complaint can surely not be levelled at his delightful little chorale prelude on the Christmas hymn, In dulci jubilo, one of dozens he composed which were, at one time, mistakenly thought to be the work of J S Bach.

Henry G Ley
24th August marks the 50th anniversary of the death, in the picturesque Devonshire village of Ottery St Mary, of one of the leading figures in English church music of the first half of last century.  Henry George Ley was born in Devon and was admitted to the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, as a young chorister.  He learnt the organ from the then organist, Walter Parratt, continuing his studies with him at the Royal College of Music in London.  He won an organ scholarship to Oxford, became organist at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford (an appointment which created much controversy as he had yet to graduate) and, in 1926, was appointed Precentor (director of music) at Eton College where, according to Stanley Webb, "his remarkable playing and genial personality left a lasting impression on generations of schoolboys".  He composed relatively little and mostly for use in the Eton Chapel, the Cradle Song, based on the 17th century German carol "Come Rock the Cradle for Him", written for the chapel organ in 1949.
Bill Mathias
On 20th July 1992 the Welsh composer William Mathias died at his home on the Isle of Anglesey near the city of Bangor where he had served as Professor of Music from 1970.  It does not seem 20 years since his funeral was held in the enchanting little cathedral at St Asaph where, for many years, he had organised an exciting and innovative arts festival.  Mathias was one of the most distinctive and respected British composers for the organ during the latter half of the 20th century, although his output for the instrument amounted to just 17 works, one of the earliest being these variations on the ancient Welsh hymn tune, "Braint", which Mathias wrote in 1962 and was given its first performance exactly 50 years ago today by Robert Joyce in Llandaff Cathedral.  I recorded the work myself on the organ of St David’s Hall, Cardiff, and I’m happy to say that the disc is still around 30 years on! (Priory PRCD914) – and if you bring a copy to the recital, I’ll autograph it free!)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
(named after the great poet as
it was deemed unsuitable to name
him after either of his natural parents)
A current resurgence of interest in the music of one of England's first black composers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, may mean that some notice will be taken of the centenary of his death at the age of 37, which falls on 1st September.   There is a very long way to go, however, before his music regains the huge popularity it once had with audiences in Britain and the USA.  His great choral work, Hiawatha, was performed annually in costume in London's Royal Albert Hall until the Second World War, and it was so universally popular that, on his death, his widow was given a pension personally by the King in gratitude of her late husband's contribution to the musical life of the country. Born in London of an unmarried English woman and a Sierra Leonean doctor (who never knew of the existence of his son) he was brought up in the genteel town (now a less elegant London suburb) of Croydon, and entered the Royal College of Music as a violin student.  He studied composition with Stanford, taught at Trinity College London, conducted the Rochester Choral Society and, at 22, created a sensation with the first part of his Hiawatha trilogy, the undoubted choral masterpiece, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast.  That same year (1897) he composed two Moorish Tone Pictures evoking what he assumed to be the character of north African music. 

A suggestion by Peter Williams that Bach’s Fantasia in G could be dated to 1712 was enough for me to feel confident about including it in the recital – after all people expect some Bach in an organ recital! I fell in love with this piece when as a young boy I used to rush home after school to catch Choral Evensong on Radio Three.  In those days you were lucky to catch the concluding organ voluntary, they usually faded out as the final Amen died away, but on one occasion I caught a few bars of something utterly magical.  They never told you what it was, nor put it in the Radio Times so I decided I had no choice but to write to the organist as listed in the programme information.  The service had come live from St Michael’s College, Tenbury Wells – a great institution which sadly closed down many years ago – and the organist was one Lucian Nethsingha (who went on to be organist at Exeter after Lionel Dakers headed up the RSCM).  He charmingly sent me back a postcard (which I treasure to this day), in which his writing seems almost to have been written above a ruler.  “I am so glad you liked my voluntary.  It was Bach’s Fantasia in G S.572”.  Nethsingha did something very original with the closing section which so intrigued me that I have tried to emulate it in my performances.  Come along next month and you will find out what it was!

Messiaen
Meeting Messiaen in Cardiff as student was one of the truly great experiences of my life, so I’m glad I can include one of his works in the programme.  His death occurred on the day of my own 38th birthday, 28th April 1992.  Appointed Organist at the church of Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, Messiaen was to remain in that post for a staggering 60 years fulfilling the daily duties of a parish church organist, playing at Sunday Mass, the services of the Office, for weddings, for funerals, and for major festive events.  He wrote just 14 works for the organ all of which are thoroughly permeated with his profound, if unconventional, Catholic faith and visionary zeal.  His first published organ piece, written in 1928 while on summer vacation from the Paris Conservatoire and staying at an aunt's farm in rural France, reflects on the sacrament of the Eucharist, where the body and blood of Christ are symbolically represented by bread and wine and, for the Catholic, actually become physical parts of Christ through the mysterious process of transubstantiation.  In Le Banquet Céleste ("The Celestial Feast"), while the hands play slow moving ethereal chords (appropriately using the stops known as the voix celestes – "heavenly voices"), the pedals intone a peculiar figure at a very high pitch which are said to imitate the drips of Christ's blood as he hung on the cross (the score instructs the organist to make these sound like "drops of water").
John Stanley

So far as the organ world is concerned, the major anniversary being celebrated in 2012 is the 300th birthday of the most important English composer for the instrument of not just the 18th century but possibly of all time, which falls on 17th January. John Stanley composed six concertos for the instrument as well as three volumes of 10 Voluntaries each.  On top of that he wrote four works for the stage, three oratorios, 19 cantatas, numerous songs, choral pieces and music for the royal court, was the youngest person to obtain a BMus degree from Oxford University (he was 16 at the time) and was the leading organist in London, attracting a wide circle of admirers, not the least among them being Handel.  All this is made all the more remarkable since, when he was two, he suffered an accident at home which left him permanently blind and the study of music was encouraged by his parents more as a distraction than with any real hope of it becoming a career.  He did well by marriage, too, marrying the daughter of a leading figure in the East India Company who brought in a dowry in excess of £7000. 


18 November 2011

Hideous Musical Instruments

It doesn't get better than this
Living in Northern Ireland during the late 1970s and early 1980s was a wonderful and deeply rewarding experience. I certainly learnt an invaluable lesson about people, society and human values, but, to my eternal surprise, I found I also had something which people there wanted to learn from me – to such an extent that they were willing to pay for it.  I got myself on to the After Dinner Speaking Circuit.  Perhaps because my work was in a field which was alien to the vast majority of those – mostly male – societies and organisations who held formal dinners at the various posh hotels around the Province, or maybe simply because I was then something of a Radio Voice, after I had given a talk to some Round Table in County Derry, the bookings poured in.  I spoke to architects, accountants, bank managers, dentists, haulage contractors, even politicians, as well as the usual crop of those simply out for a good time salving their consciences by giving part of their time to charity.  Fortified by plenty of good Irish liquor – black and amber – they laughed uproariously at my jokes, listened with suitable attentiveness to my serious points, and jostled with each other to buy me a drink at the bar afterwards.  And there was never any shortage of questions.  Whatever the background, the profession or the social standing of my audiences, one question that unfailingly came up was; “What’s your favourite piece of music?”

It doesn't get worse than this
I never did develop the skill of fending off this ineffably inane question politely, and soon learnt to drum up a fictitious composer with a name cunningly associated with the group to whom I was talking - dentists got the Belgian 19th century violinist/composer I.F Noteef, while accountants heard me regale the great works of US jazz virtuoso of the 1920s, Matty Mattix – and a work of similar dubious authenticity – Les Fonds de la maison for architects, Aitch Jivvee for haulage contractors.  It all came to a head when I spoke at the surgeons’ annual dinner at Belfast’s Europa Hotel.  Deciding that enough was enough, when some inebriated amputator posed the predictable question, I responded with my own.  “Do people ask you which limb you most like to amputate?”  He was not amused, muttering something about polite questions. I carried on, “If I asked you, out of politeness, what limb you most liked to amputate and, similarly out of politeness, you suggested that a removal of the leg below the left knee was always your favourite, you’d rightly be putting yourself up for a charge, when you next sawed off a lower left leg below the knee, that you were only doing it to gratify your own personal pleasure.  Your standing as a surgeon would thereby be diminished”.  It’s not a matter of life and death which piece of music I like more than any other, but by forcing me into a similar position, you are diminishing my integrity as a musician.  If I say “Bach’s Prelude in G”, then, whenever I play something else; “He doesn’t really like playing that”, and dismiss my performance accordingly.
Now there is one question which nobody asks me and which I’d happily answer; “Which is your least favourite musical instrument”.  Easy! The Soprano Saxophone.

I have no logical reason for detesting this instrument as much as I do, and even by professing this hatred I can expect a school of soprano saxophonists to start off on an anti-organ rant.  But I can’t help it.  Of all the noises known to man, that made by the Soprano Saxophone has to be the most ghastly.  Funnily enough, the Alto Sax is among my most favourite instruments, and I simply adore the Clarinet.  But somehow the awful moaning of the soprano sax is like poison to my ears.  Hideous, colourless, featureless, bland, grotesque…words can’t describe its effect on me.  There are some really nice people around who play the sop sax (the late Anthony Camden told me a lovely anecdote about Kenny G, but I mustn’t repeat it here), and I mean no offence to them when I say they are woefully misguided in their instrument choice.  I’m sure some of them play it well.  But by the time they do, I’m long gone.  More than a couple of seconds’ exposure to it will render me incoherent with rage.

Worse is the dreadful combination of a cappella chorus and meandering solo sax.  Whatever criminally insane musical reprobate came up with this appalling combination of sounds (and I can’t blame Karl Jenkins for this, much as I’d like to) it should rank as a capital offence.  After innumerable CDs in which some fairly good choir intones some almost authentic Gregorian chant while some drug-raddled saxophonist groans out above them in an egotistical burst of self-indulgence, I told my editors that I’d had enough.  It got to the stage where all I could imagine when I heard such a din was a requiem mass for a dog where the poor canine was still howling in its death throes under the wheels of a juggernaut outside the church where the choir was singing.

Luckily the manic obsession with sop sax mood music seems to be passing, but only today I was forced into uncomfortably close proximity with one.  Its ghastly howling, its grotesque parody of sound and its utterly charmless ability to spew out notes were literally a stone’s throw from my ears – and I had no stone to hand.  But suddenly it occurred to me how akin it is to the bagpipes.  True, it lacks the subtlety of the pipes, the moderating influence of gentle arm pressure on an air bag and the diluting qualities of a drone, but, all the same, there is something distinctly bagpipey about the hollow and direct noise it makes.

There is one big difference however.  When the bagpipes start there is always ample warning and you can retreat to a safe distance (unless, that is, you are Mendelssohn who apparently loved them so much, he couldn’t get close enough).  Sop saxes burst out of nothing and attack innocent people without warning.  Given the fact that bagpipes often play out of doors and in the most lovely of places (you can’t walk down Edinburgh’s Princes Street without a piper or two saluting your passing), that also goes in their favour.  Perhaps we could insist a similar setting for sop saxes.  But I’d suggest a run-down inner-city area as the best setting, then respectable people would be unlikely to pass by unprepared.  Certainly not anywhere in the north of Ireland.  One question which I am always asked and am happy to answer is, “In all your world travels, which is your favourite country?”.  Not a moment’s hesitation or desire to avoid the issue with me here.  The North of Ireland.  It’s a little bit of Heaven on Earth which I’ve never found anywhere else and remains, as yet, unsullied by soprano saxophones.  Long may it last!
Not a soprano saxophone in sight!

10 November 2011

Music Machines

Far be it from me, a performer on the most impersonal of musical instruments, to criticise music-making machines.  Virtually all musical instruments – with the obvious exception of the human voice – are, to a certain extent, machines, and the greater their state of evolution, the more distanced the performer has come from the sound created.  Even the harp, an instrument in which the player would seem to be intimately involved in the sound creation, relies on a complex system of pedals, levers and pulleys to provide the full range of chromatic notes.  When I went with a bunch of students from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory to attend a rehearsal by the outstanding Belgian period instrument ensemble, Il Gardellino, the students were astonished by the direct connection the players had with the sound their instruments were making.  And when the members of Il Gardellino so generously allowed some of the woodwind players among the students actually to play their instruments, the students were bowled over – to the extent that a couple of them immediately ordered new instruments from one of the players (who makes them).  The feedback I received more often than any other from the students was how “in touch” one felt when playing these “primitive” instruments.

Unlike these early flutes and oboes, my instrument, the organ, was never designed even intended to be a musical instrument.  It was designed as a clever sound-effects machine, and played that role right up until the time someone decided to harness its effects into musical sounds.  An animated debate during the 1960s and 70s when organists felt that tracker action got them more closely involved with the sound the instrument created than the more complex pneumatic or electric action was valid, but rather missed the point; tracker or electric, the player was still at the mercy of a great range of mechanised procedures to transfer the touch of the fingers into musical sounds.  As I tell all my organ students, only a supreme musician can really make music on an organ; and since so few achieve it, there has grown up an understandable antipathy between organists and executants on other, less mechanised, musical instruments.
Keyboard instruments in particular are machines which can only produce musical sounds when a musician plays them.  A cat walking up a piano makes a noise, but hardly a musical one despite the legend of Scarlatti’s cat suggesting a fugue subject by its antics on a keyboard.  Like so many stories about Domenico Scarlatti that is totally false.  (Why is it that poor old Scarlatti has been so misrepresented in musical history?  I was appalled when a respected musical education organisation recently published a comment that he had never written any operas – he wrote well over a dozen – and by the refusal of modern text books to acknowledge that he wrote a darn sight more music than his 555 keyboard Sonatas.  And, there again, why does everyone still insist on proclaiming that he wrote these for the harpsichord when the fact that Maria Barbara, his Iberian patroness, possessed an early piano is so well documented?  It’s difficult to maintain that these are harpsichord Sonatas when the evidence of pianistic and, in several cases, organistic – there were organs a-plenty in the Spanish and Portuguese courts – idioms are so blatant in the writing?)

When I transferred my examining allegiance from ABRSM to Trinity in 2000, the most difficult change I experienced was the presence in the latter’s syllabus of exams for Electronic Keyboard.  The ABRSM steadfastly refuses to accept the musical validity of this instrument and, bringing my ABRSM prejudices with me when I moved to Trinity, I was aghast when, on my first tour to India, I was confronted with several hundred of these.  (India, it has to be said, is the Land of the Electronic Keyboard, so far as music examinations go.) A dozen or so into the first day and I was sold.  What these students were doing was giving genuine musical performances using the instrument to express their variable but unquestionably valid technical and musical skills.
I have had some worries about performances where the players seem to rely too heavily on the automated effects of the Electronic Keyboard (or EK as we Trinity examiners so affectionately know it).  Adjudicating at a music festival in the English midlands some years ago I was confronted by the unwholesome spectacle of a dozen teenage boys dressed in alarmingly tight-fitting white tail suits with matching top hats standing behind as many EKs.  In perfect synchronisation they all raised their index fingers in a gesture which, in those days, was not considered as offensive as it is now, before bringing them down in perfect ensemble to a button on their instruments.  Glorious and foot-tapping music burst forth, and as it did the boys shimmied luxuriantly to their left until such time as they reached the next EK along the line, whereupon the finger raised and, in perfect synchronicity, descended on another button, setting in motion another layer of glorious music and a further shimmy to the left.  And so it continued round all 12 instruments.  What the dénouement was I cannot say; by that stage, doing my adjudicating duty, my head was down and I was busy writing.  From the adoring screeches of the teenage girls in the audience I wondered whether they might not have ripped off the tails to expose gold lamé underwear (or less – it seemed to have been heading that way), but that was not my concern.  When, at the end of the competition, I awarded first prize to a bevy of indifferent violinists for whom intonation was an unknown concept, the audience was aghast.  Surely when the Boys in White had created such sumptuous sounds while the Vile Violinists had scratched their way through a dreadful version of Clair de Lune I needed my head examined?  My reasoning was that while the Boys in White might have done their thing with good music in the background, they did not create that good music.  The Vile Violinists might have made a din which would have been music to the ears of Scarlatti’s cat, but at least they were doing it themselves.

I had a similar problem in the examination room the other day when a series of EK candidates at an extremely early grade came in and played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Usually a harmless ditty in which a finger on the right hand picks out the notes to a simple pattern of pre-set chords directed by the left, on this occasion the teacher had got them to spice it up by setting the auto-play in motion.  I was treated to a lavish and hugely entertaining wash of jazzy sounds which was only marred by the unrhythmic picking out of seemingly random notes which represented the Twinkle, Twinkle theme.  I can’t help thinking how roundly the music examination system will be castigated by adoring grannies and mammies when the results come through.  “How”, the angry matrons will ask each other, “can the examiner be so deaf?  It sounds really lovely to us”.  It sounded really lovely to me, too, but it’s the machine that’s making the lovely sound, not the person.  And while it may be that months of careful programming by the students went into the setting up of the auto-play intro, with three of them all using exactly the same thing, I suspect it was already in the machines when they bought them.
Ironically, it was during one of these EK examinations that I had to stop the proceedings because of extraneous noise.  Not an examiner who demands total silence from outside the exam room – I feel that candidates only get more nervous when they feel that the outside world has come to a temporary halt and is holding its collective breath while straining its ears to hear what’s going on inside the exam room – on this occasion a delivery truck had pulled up in the yard directly outside the exam room window and the driver had left the radio blaring.  Asking my steward to go out and ask them to turn it down, she reported back that while they had happily obliged, they were puzzled.  They had not the foggiest idea what a music exam was, nor why anyone would want to do one.  With music so easily accessible at the flick of a switch, what possible skills were involved which would warrant an examiner assessing them?

Such is the fate of musical talent if we let the machines take over.

03 November 2011

Save The Song!

The English language, like any truly living language, is in a state of constant change; words come and words go as society evolves and the demands on language change.  I welcome the constant additions to this wonderful language and conjugate the verb To Google as merrily as the next man, while never feeling the inclination to make use of the word Wight in my everyday parlance.  True, this latter word might have made a useful comeback a few decades back when the feminist movement was at its height and was vociferously objecting to the masculine implications of Wight’s modern day manifestation, Mankind.  (Those were the days when ardent feminists were so anti anything male that they even described themselves as Wo-persons, although I don’t recall anyone addressing the male implications of the last syllable of that word which, fortunately, never did make it into common usage.)

The English language is also fortunate in adopting new words which have some logical etymology; not for us those vaguely ridiculous phonetic concoctions such as the Welsh Ambiwlans or the farcical Malay Ais Krim.  When new words are invented for English they usually have some individuality even if, as in Google and its predecessors Hoover, Xerox and Biro, it’s merely the original trade name or, as in the case of the Fax, a simple abbreviation.  New words like Motherboard and Laptop trace their origins clearly while describing precisely the objects to which they refer.
Unfortunately, though, there is a downside to all this linguistic fine-tuning.  When a new word is required, there is a nasty habit of merely stealing an existing word and forcing not only its meaning to change but denying the word access to its original meaning.  A classic case is Gay - I used to be Gay (happy) but now I’m not Gay (homosexual) – but that’s by no means the only one, and I’m currently drumming up support for the preservation of Song.

It may have been the late Steve Jobs or some other blinkered Geek (and there’s another fine new word) who, lacking in linguistic imagination, chose to employ the word Song when devising the i-Pod.  The fact is, by that little act of thoughtlessness, he has risked perverting the English language for all time.  True, most early adherents to the i-Pod did use it to store songs, but many also used it to store purely instrumental music too.  And the damage has been done.  They put their Beethoven Symphony, their Brahms Sonata, their Debussy Prelude, in the ubiquitous song-list and thereafter refer to these great works as Songs.  It’s become so endemic that a huge number of young people now assume Song is merely an alternative word for Music.  At the moment no major dictionary defines Song without alluding to the necessity of words:  “A Song is musical composition with words performed by one or more voices” is the consensus definition.  But for how long is it going to last?
Sadly, although most dictionaries still define the word Sonata as a musical composition without words performed by one or more musical instruments, in the musical world Sonata appears in too many differing contexts to allow it to resume that generic meaning.  If we need to use a generic word to refer to a musical work for instruments, we tend to use Piece, which already has far too many alternative meanings to be a really satisfactory equivalent to Song.  So, into the vacuum created by the absence of a suitable catch-all term for a non-vocal composition, the late Mr Jobs has been able to exert his pernicious influence over our language and in doing so has caused confusion.

Confusion?  You say.  How so?  Surely this is just the natural evolution of a living language?
Mendelssohn wrote a series of wonderful pieces for piano which he called (in German) “Songs Without Words”.  A perfect title for music in which the pianist is obliged to imitate the effect of a voice while, at the same time, providing the implied singer’s accompaniment.  Most who know them will accept they are the products of supreme genius.  Sadly, after hearing countless young students treat them as exercises in aggressive touch, virtuoso pianism or simply staccato articulation, I have started to ask questions and discovered that young pianists have no idea what a Song is anymore.  Take this conversation with a teenage pianist; and I have it on tape (or at least the digital equivalent, an SD card – for which no suitable word has yet been developed) so this is absolutely verbatim (and what a lovely word that one is).  He had just thumped his way, toccata-like, through Op.67 No.2.  Not a hint of a cantabile line or of any legato phrasing.
“Can you explain the title of this piece?  What does Mendelssohn mean by calling it a Song Without Words?”
“He means you to play it without words”
“Surely you usually play a piano piece without words.  Why do you think this one has that specific title?”
“So that you are not tempted to use words”
“Can you tell me what we mean in music when we call something a Song?”
“A song is something you play”
“What kind of musician in particular would perform a song?”
“A guitarist; a keyboard player; a drummer.”
So you see, we have a problem and unless we do something very soon we’re going to lose the word’s current meaning and thereby deny generations of performers easy access to understanding some of the great works in musical literature.  Not all linguistic development is to be welcomed, and here’s one we must fight with all our might.  We must Save The Song!

27 October 2011

Music Exam Nerves


Holed up in a school for orphan and dispossessed girls set in a remote part of the African veldt, I am obliged to stay overnight in the visitors’ quarters.  In the queue for breakfast I overhear a plaint from a young girl further up the line; “I have a really stressful day. Today I have to do my English paper and then my Math paper, and then this afternoon I have my bassoon exam”.  Cries of anguish from her friends, and words of sympathy; “Agh!  A music exam!  How terrible!  You poor thing!”  No concern at all about English and Maths, but real commiseration for the child with a music exam to face.

This is a phenomenon that is familiar to all of us who are involved in music exams.  From parents and teachers to students and examiners, the music exam is enmeshed in a level of anxiety and anguish which is out of all proportion to its importance in the greater scheme of things.

Personally, I would have thought that presenting the English paper was by far and away the most terrifying of that girl’s ordeals.  After all, in any community even those in which English is not a principal means of communication, the ability to master the language has a direct bearing on your subsequent employability.  As for Mathematics (the English in me refuses that nasty abbreviation “Math”), whilst I was a dismal failure at it through all my school years (I was dropped from the O level class when I achieved 17% - a school record low – at the mock exam), I accept that it is a hugely important subject when it comes to setting you in good stead for a future career.  Set beside tests in such vital – not to say fateful – subjects, surely an early grade bassoon exam is of no consequence whatsoever?

As an examiner I have lost count of the numbers of students who have broken down and sobbed their hearts out all because of a forgotten scale, a missed accidental, a couple of miscounted rests, even, memorably, a left hand scale played with the right hand; which so destroyed the candidate’s confidence that she fled the scene and no amount of coaxing could induce her to come back into the examination room.  No amount of admonishment from me that “We can try it again”, “Don’t worry”, “It’s not a matter of life and death” has worked.  The astonishing fact is, when faced with a music exam, something affects the brain which sets in motion a sequence of horrendous nervous reactions which are devastating in their ability to destroy self-confidence; reactions which do not seem to occur in almost any other situation.

People who glibly sail into their A levels, their degree finals, their professional diplomas, their driving tests, their medical examinations, their dental procedures, with merely a small flutter in the stomach and a slight sweatiness in the palm, turn into quivering and incoherent jellies when faced with Grade 1 Flute.  Adult candidates, especially those retirees who have taken up music as an idle hobby to keep them away from the bottle or the TV screens, are a thousand times more prone to these crippling nerves than the younger ones who, in most cases, are only doing the exam at their parents’ behest.  As one elderly gentleman told me, when he burst unaccountably into tears after fluffing a couple of bars in his grade 3 piano; “I was a dentist for 40 years, and was never once as nervous as I was doing this!”  (I did tell him that now he knew what we felt like when we sat in the dentist’s chair, but in truth, I have never been so incapably nervous, even facing a major extraction, as he clearly was facing Windmills by Felix Swinstead.)

We as examiners are deeply conscious of these nerves and do all we can to alleviate them.  Short of sitting the candidate on our lap and handing out sweeties to help keep tears at bay (that’s all been banned), we have a whole armoury of techniques designed to take as much stress out of the event as we can.  We keep formality to a minimum, we are trained to smile and keep cheerful (and believe me, it does require intensive training), we know how to pick a candidate up from apparently unrecoverable errors, and we do all we can to help them forget what it is they are doing.  None of which stops the tears or calms the shaking fingers for a moment.   

The question is, why do music exams – which rarely have a bearing on future careers and certainly have no implications for health or wealth – engender such terrible nerves in the candidates?  Why be more afraid of a music exam than a life-affecting English or Mathematics one?

Some will tell you that what spooks candidates is the one-to-one relationship between candidate and examiner; yet similar situations in language oral exams do not incur such nervous reactions.  Some will also suggest that the motor skills required in playing musical instruments are so alien to normal human behaviour that the simple feeling of oddness triggers powerful nervous reactions.  But do typists and painters suffer the same nerves?  Both professions trigger serious RSI problems, yet I have yet to hear a prospective secretary or a budding decorator crumbling from nerves at the first hurdle en route to their chosen profession,

I have an answer, but I’m not sure if it’s a correct one.  I’ve certainly never heard anyone else propound it, and it is based purely on instinct rather than scientific analysis.

My belief is that, in playing an instrument, irrespective of the level at which we are playing it, we are - often deeply unconsciously - exposing something of our inner soul.  If the famous assertion that “Music expresses thoughts which go beyond words” (I think that particular phraseology came from Orwell, but I’m probably wrong) is true, then by playing even something so banal as Windmills by Felix Swinstead we are actually expressing some of our inner thoughts which we never usually expose to ourselves, let alone complete strangers.  I think that adults, with their inbuilt reticence and sense of reserve, are particularly prone to this inner sense of exposing something deeply private to public scrutiny; which is why they get so nervous.  And that also may explain why it is that only in the very young, whose ability to express themselves in words is still embryonic, do nerves not come into play; the sheer enjoyment of communication is still a novelty and has yet to become a precious and treasured indicator of unique personality.  It certainly explains why it seems to us that some incredibly young children are able to perform complex musical works from which even the most self-assured and capable adults shy away.  Only this afternoon, for example, I was being shown a video of a six-year-old Finnish boy giving a very impressive account of a Chopin Nocturne. 

Glad to report the African girl acquitted herself well in her Grade 4 Bassoon and left the room calmer and less agitated than she had entered it.  She even managed a smile as she fled into the arms of her waiting classmates, tearfully relived that the terrible ordeal was over (and perhaps privately conscious that only the strange fat white man left behind in the room had been afforded that unique and very intimate view into her naked inner soul); until, of course, next year, when she goes through it all again for Grade 5.