31 December 2012

One Note or Three?

The Hong Kong Philharmonic has just released a disc of orchestral showpieces by Tan Dun.  There’s some exciting music on it and clearly the HKPhil are relishing the opportunities Tan Dun has given them for virtuoso display, not only of instrumental skill, but also of shouting, whispering, vocalising, stamping of feet and various other non-musical physical activities.  It’s good, too, that this major Asian orchestra has finally joined the others in the international record catalogues, their earlier efforts appearing either on obscure labels (David Atherton directed them in some Stravinsky released in 2000 on the GMN label) or going back to the very early days of Marco Polo when neither recording quality nor performance standards rose above the  abysmal.  What’s more, while the Malaysian Philharmonic are on a hiding to nothing working their way through Dvořák for Bis – a hiding to nothing because, no matter how good they are, they can never seriously compete with the giants who have set the yardstick in Dvořák recordings – and the Singapore Symphony (also on Bis) cast their net so widely that their discography looks like Lan Shui’s favourite hits, the HKPhil has the virtue of sticking to repertoire with which it has a special, not to say unique, affinity.

One of the pieces on the Tan Dun disc is his Symphonic Poem on Three Notes.  Inspired by the name of Placido Domingo (if you say that name with a Chinese accent it sounds like Lah-Si-Doh which, as everybody knows, are the last three notes of an ascending scale) the work manages to stretch the musical figure A-B-C to a staggering 12 minutes.  Cleverly using lots of percussion and non-melodic effects, Tan Dun nevertheless shows what an ingenious composer can do with fundamentally minimal material. 

What couldn't Bach do with 3 notes?
It set my mind thinking about other composers who had built works around such meagre melodic motivs.  The obvious one is, of course, Bach and his Fugue in D (BWV532).  I remember when I first heard this played at a recital, the programme notes mentioned that the work showed Bach’s supreme genius in developing such seemingly restrictive material, and I was duly amazed by his audacity in building a substantial fugue around the notes D-E-Fsharp.

But even Bach, like Tan Dun, had to break away from the three notes in places to prevent the music becoming terminally repetitive.  As a student organist, having mastered the ubiquitous Suite Gothique by Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897), I looked around to see what else he had composed.  I came across a publication in the long-defunct Ashdown imprint called “Four Recital Pieces”.  I quickly understood why he was known almost exclusively for Suite Gothique, and for 40 years the volume rested pristine in my music drawers.  Then, for my last public recital in Singapore, I decided to present a programme looking forward to the musical anniversaries in 2012.  Boëllmann’s was among them and, having played the Suite Gothique at a previous recital at the Esplanade, I decided to resurrect the Four Recital Pieces and see if one of them would do.  I chose the Carillon (Op.16 No.5) which is based entirely on three notes reiterated endlessly in the pedals for all of the work’s 132 bars (a little under 4 minutes in total).  It was not Boëllmann’s greatest hit, but I wonder whether he was inspired by another French composer whose life was cut short in his mid-30s, Georges Bizet (1838-1875).  I imagine every music-lover knows the famous Carillon from the first of his L’Arlesienne suites which, too, is based on just three notes, but with rather a lot more interest added than Boëllmann dared.  (So many three-note French carillons!  But the French are not alone in their penchant for bells in threes.  The chapel of St Salvator in St Andrews boasts three bells and I could swear I heard attempts at ringing changes on them the other Sunday morning.)

Nevertheless, three seems to be the very minimum number of notes any composer can work with in building a coherent melodic line which can extend to a reasonable length of time.  Try as I might, I cannot think of a single work built on just two notes (although Bruckner tried his hardest in some of his symphonies, and Beethoven went  some way down the path in the 3rd movement of his Eighth Symphony before deciding to branch out into more fertile pastures), but I can think of one which makes a positive virtue out of being based on a single note (and I’m not talking about Jobim’s One Note Samba).

For the one and only public appearance of the Malaysian Philharmonic Chorus, destroyed almost as soon as it was born by the toxic combination of an incredibly foolish German ambassador and a frighteningly weak MPO CEO, I chose to end the concert with a performance of The Immovable Doh by Percy Grainger (1882-1961).  The story goes that Grainger was playing his harmonium when a note stuck.  Not wishing to waste good composition time, he devised a choral work around the note C which sounded continually whenever the harmonium’s bellows were filled with air.  It was an absolute masterpiece, since, while the C dominated and the music sung by the choir unfailingly associated itself with that C, it made perfect musical sense and, moreover, easily had enough interest to maintain its five minute duration.  I have a recording of the performance in which we asked the organ tuner, Tan Eng Pin, to sit at the console and hold down the C while the choir sang.  I had suggested he might like to keep on holding it even after the choir had stopped and the recording captures a fake gunshot from the stage which ended his C and the life of the Malaysian Philharmonic Chorus.

30 December 2012

Annual Musical Highlights

Sometime in September the first request comes in; Can you select a disc/performance/artist/work which, in your opinion, is the finest of the year?  As most magazines and newspapers run a retrospective of the year which includes some mention of classical music, there is no need for this blog to do the same, and it is certainly not my intention to turn this into the electronic equivalent of those round-robin Christmas epistles which have come in for such a pasting by the media this year.  I’m not sure why they have suddenly been made the source of so much ire.  Like women priests and gay marriage, I have no basic philosophical objection to round-robins, I just object to the kind of people who indulge.  Women priests are so often, in my experience, aggressive to the point of outright hostility in their proclamation of their right to administer the sacraments, while those who feel the need to make a public display of their same-sex relationship all too often hide behind outrageous self-parodies involving silly clothes and affected voices.  Similarly, those who send out round-robins usually lead lives of such terminal dreariness that they seem to find pleasure in afflicting their boring existence on those whose lives are much more interesting.  Not that all round-robin writers fall into that category.  The end of this year was much darkened by the absence of the annual missive from my old friend Donald Hawksworth.

Donald Hawksworth (1930-2012)
Donald and I first met when he was on an extended ABRSM examining tour of the Far East in 1987.  He lived a truly eventful life and his annual letters detailing his multifarious activities over the previous 12 months were best read with both a stiff whisky and a world atlas to hand.  He was an insatiable traveller who, usually travelling on a shoe-string and relying on strangers he met along the way to accommodate him and point him in the right direction, managed to live life, as they say, to the full.  I recall the momentous year when, while on an examining tour of Malaysia (he was at Taiping at the time), he was informed by that his house in Scotland had been completely destroyed in a gas explosion.  Upset only by the loss of his Steinway, Donald realised there was no point returning to Scotland until the house had been rebuilt, and sending instructions to various people back home, he set off on a world tour which took him to the Philippines, just in time to get caught up in a military coup, to Fiji, just in time to find himself half-way up an erupting volcano, to New Zealand, just in time to catch a major earthquake and finally to the USA, where he got caught up in a major shoot-out between police and drug dealers.  All this was recounted in Donald’s round-robin almost as an afterthought – for him, the interesting thing were the people he met and the mountains he climbed.

Donald’s death in April was just one of many sad things which led to my regarding 2012 as about the worst year in living memory.  But while I could bore everyone with tales of woe and despondency, without a shadow of doubt, nothing has been so depressing that a goodly dose of decent music could not lift my spirits, and it is in gratitude to the unfailingly uplifting effect certain recordings, performances, compositions and musicians have had on my year that I offer this personal retrospective of 2012’s musical highlights.
Naxos 8.573049

Even as I write, I am relishing a lovely disc of music by Gabriel Jackson.  Beautifully sung by the ever-magnificent Vasari Singers and magically recorded on the Naxos label in the chapel of Tonbridge School, the headline work is the Requiem, and while that might seem an antidote to any feelings of joy, so richly expressive is Jackson’s writing and so warmly affectionate is Jeremy Backhouse’s direction, that the overriding mood is one of profound optimism and contentment. 

My Choral Disc of 2012 - LSO0728
But much as I am enjoying that disc, the choral disc which most effectively lifted my spirits this year and which has been a constant companion ever since I first heard it, was a splendid account of Fauré’s Requiem.  (I assure you this obsession with Requiems is not symptomatic of a fundamentally depressed state; just a reflection of the ultimately uplifting nature of these composers’ response to these age-old texts.)  Here we have another of Britain’s excellent choirs, Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short.  With members of the London Symphony Orchestra adding more colour and depth that one normally expects to hear from a performance of the John Rutter arrangement of the work, what really makes this disc so tremendous is the Bach pieces which precede the Fauré.  On their own, they receive decidedly uninspiring performances.  But the cumulative effect of Bach plus Fauré is to shed a whole new light on the latter, bathing it in a glow of such radiance that one cannot but be profoundly moved.

My Record of 2012 - ODE1191-2D
That, though, was not my personal record of the year.  That accolade goes to a two disc set of orchestral music by Erich Korngold.  There’s a sumptuous account of the Sinfonietta, which is wonderful enough, but there is also the first ever recording of the complete incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing.  Ingeniously scored for a chamber ensemble (with a prominent part for harmonium) this is, for me, the great musical discovery of the year.  Sitting on a train held up interminably by flooded tracks in some God-forsaken part of northern England, all sense of anxiety vanished whilst listening to this lovely and ingenious music.  A glorious performance from the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgårds, and a ravishing recording to boot on the Ondine label.

There were plenty of music eccentricities which brightened up my year.  Not the least of these was the sight of Singapore’s Orchestra of the Music Makers performing Delius’s Paris at the Cheltenham Festival.  Turning up at one of England’s most twee towns on the wettest July day ever recorded, with an 11 hour flight and minimal sleep behind them, playing Delius to an audience with an average age of 70 all of whom knew the work far better than anyone on stage, was a pretty ridiculous spectacle.  On top of that, conductor Chan Tze Law managed almost to fall off stage when a misguided stage hand moved the stairs away, and pianist Melvyn Tan could barely see the orchestra or conductor from his position in the corner of an ante-stage.  Nevertheless, the orchestra won over the audience and while I know they can, and usually do, do a lot better, I suspect many Cheltenhamers went back to their sodden homes feeling uplifted.  The weirdness didn’t stop there.  At the post-concert receptions, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK put the final gloss on the evening by proclaiming that, for Singaporeans, Cheltenham was synonymous with “young girls and fast horses”.  Ah, that all diplomats showed such contempt for political correctness.

The ultimate sadness for me in 2012 was being obliged to leave my beloved Singapore and, especially, my work with the students at the Yong  Siew Toh Conservatory.  Without a shadow of doubt, I can say that my brief time at that fine institution was about the happiest of my life, and certainly  it was among the more musically enriching.  My former students continue to keep themselves in my consciousness with a welter of kind and informative emails, but it is their musical prowess which lingers longest in the memory.  One of the best performances I experienced there came in one of the Monday concerts given in March.  This included a performance by Chinese pianist Zheng Qingshu, who almost convinced me that Liszt was worth listening to.  She gave a great performance of the Second Concert Etude, and I don’t recall ever having been so uplifted by hearing Liszt before. 

Much of the sorrow I have experienced this year has emanated from Malaysia.  My home for several decades, I saw it rise and then fall musically, witnessing, towards the middle of the year, it hurtle towards self-destruction.  All that we had dreamt of and worked for fell apart, those of us who cared enough to comment were subjected to vicious verbal (and in some cases physical) abuse, and it seemed as if serious classical music in Malaysia had gone forever.  But among the students populating the music department at Middlesex University, I came across Isabella Pek, and a lengthy tutorial with her suddenly made me realise that there was still hope in the face of the self-inflicted carnage from Petronas.  Isabella is a competent composer and arranger, very good at her duties in RTM of arranging music and adapting Malaysian melodies for popular public consumption.  In most Malaysian eyes, that would be good enough.  But her bosses in KL decided that she would benefit by studying overseas and, eschewing the mind-numbing mantra “Malaysia Boleh!”, gave her a grant to enable her to spend time at Middlesex studying composition from foreign experts.  I am not sure what I admire most; the intelligence shown by the RTM people in sending one of their composers to the UK in order to expand her horizons, or the determination of Isabella both to show her bosses that their money has not been wasted while refusing to abandon the style of writing which has so obviously satisfied Malaysian audiences.  Both of these I find incredibly uplifting.

2013 can barely be less grim for me than was 2012, but I sincerely hope that all of you who read this will have a very successful and happy and healthy 2013.  You can be sure of lots of interesting stuff to read here on this blog – even if it can never quite live up to the fascinating glimpses of world life as viewed by the late, great Donald Hawksworth,

23 December 2012

Iconic Organ Records

Myself and Peter Almond in familiar surroundings
One of the joys of advancing years is the accumulation of memories which can be accessed and replayed at will.  Indeed, one of the drawbacks of advancing years is the tendency to play these memories so extensively that they obscure the present and obliterate the future.  Aware of this tendency to dwell in the past rather than use it to direct one’s present actions to the benefit of the future, I try to avoid too much gratuitous recollection, especially in polite company.  But spending a couple of days with my oldest friend Peter Almond – our friendship goes back over half-a-century – had us quickly falling into the trap of looking to the past when, ostensibly, discussing the present.  Having presented Peter with a copy of the Rütti Organ Concerto over which I have enthused both in this blog and in Gramophone, we got to discussing the music, the playing and the recording. 

The Rütti appears on the Guild Records label and Peter wondered whether it was in any way connected with the Guild Records which our mutual boyhood hero, Barry Rose, had founded during those heady days when he was Choirmaster at Guildford Cathedral.  I was able to tell him that it was, that the enterprising Swiss music enthusiast, Kaikoo Lalkaka, had bought the whole business and the catalogue, and while he has been busily increasing its scope to bring in Swiss music as well as British choral and organ music, unlike some other labels who delete discs almost as soon as they release them (Priory came up for especially criticism in our communal rant), Guild continue to make the back catalogue available, whether they were released by the Barry Rose company or the Kaikoo Lalkaka one.

Proof of the Pudding
Or so I thought.

Peter suggested that, if I was right, then he would be able to buy the EP recording of one of my old organ teachers, Michael Austin, playing on the Wimborne Minster organ.  No, I assured him, the current Guild catalogue included no Michael Austin and comprised original CDs or transfers to CD of former LPs.  In any case, I told him, the Michael Austin record was on the Ryemuse label.  Rifling through his impeccably maintained collection, Peter quickly rooted out the record in question and, sure enough, it was Michael Austin at Wimborne playing Bach, Vierne and Francis Jackson on an EP released by Guild Records.   I do have a copy of that record, but my extensive cataloguing system has not yet included the EPs in my collection and, in any case, it all seems to have been put beyond my reach for perpetuity following my relocation from Singapore, so I have no means of checking, but I could swear my copy is not on  the Guild label.  I am probably wrong.

But the discussion led us, with awful inevitability, to a trip down memory lane and the organ records we had, as boys, regarded as prized possessions.  In addition to the Michael Austin, there were the EPs of Fernando Germani doing Widor’s Toccata and the Bach Prelude & Fugue in G on Selby Abbey (with its wedding-themed sleeve from HMV) and the Ryemuse one (yes, I am certain of that) of Noel Rawsthorne on the mighty Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, a record which introduced us to the Mushel Toccata and Pietro Yon’s Toccatina for the Flute.  And on LP there was the Ace of Diamonds recording of several organists playing on the then new Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral instrument, and “The King of Instruments” compilation LP released by EMI as a test for stereo equipment.  As we mentioned each one, Peter recalled how a recent conversation with another organist friend had revealed that he had accumulated the same records in his youth, while I know of numerous organists of our generation who, similarly, possessed the same records.  Then there is the anecdotal evidence; I never forget a trip into the old UMP showroom in Montague Place in a bid to find a copy of the Jean Berveiller Mouvement which Jeanne Demessieux plays so brilliantly on the Liverpool Metropolitan record only to be told, “Everybody is coming in asking for that.  We don’t think it can have been published”, while mention of the Norman Cocker Tuba Tune when it appeared on a recent CD from St Edmundsbury occasioned a flurry of correspondents recalling the “iconic” recording by Francis Jackson on York Minster included on “The King of Instruments” record.

It seems very much as if those boys who, in the 1960s, developed a keen interest in the organ, all seem to have bought the same records.  Could it be, we asked ourselves, that these were the only organ records available?  I’m sure not.  I remember about that time attending something at the RSCM in Croydon where Michael Fleming claimed that organ and church music records were more numerous than any other genre; something I am sure was not then, nor has ever been, true.  But certainly there were a lot of organ records about.  Every trip to a British cathedral netted an EP of the organist playing the organ there (often remarkably badly), while EMI capitalised on this with their intriguing, if flawed, “Great Cathedral Organs” series.

Perhaps it’s rose-tinted nostalgia, but I happen to think that this quintet of organ records was, in every sense of the word, iconic.  They not only captured fine organs and fine organists of the day (something the EMI series did, if at all, only by accident) but they presented enticing repertoire which offered vivid entertainment for the enthusiast.  I don’t really see the same enthusiasm for organs generated amongst today’s youth by the ghastly screeching of Couperin on authentically-restored 17th century French organs, the nerve-wracking unequal temperaments of wheezy 18th century North German museum-pieces giving us Bach and Buxtehude as it was originally heard, or the stomach-churning weightiness of Widor complete symphonies on a dusty Cavaillé-Coll.  Worthy and important as these are, you do have to attract your audience before you can lead them in the direction of historical authenticity or specialist repertoire; something which is often lacking in a lot of organ discs today.

I certainly would never suggest that organ recordings were much better in my youth than they are today, but few engender quite the same level of deep affection among the young.

12 December 2012

Traditionally Unauthentic

Faced with a bevy of Scottish Traditional Fiddlers I found myself seriously out of my musical depth.  Not that I’ve never encountered Scottish Traditional fiddlers before nor that I do not enjoy the sound they make; I’ve always admired the way they can seamlessly move from pathos-laden laments to jaunty jigs with barely a flick of the bow, and I just adore the crisp snaps of a Strathspey.  But in this occasion I was there to adjudicate each of them individually and I was very much out of my comfort zone.

By a peculiar twist of fate, while my sisters, brother and myself attended the same infants school in what was then a twee suburb of south east London where our Scottish teacher insisted we devote one afternoon a week to Scottish Highland Dancing, we have all eventually gravitated to Scotland.  Indeed, my eldest sister has been living there since the early 1970s.  An abiding memory of my niece’s wedding was the stunning Scottish fiddlers who led the dancing at the whisky-laden reception, while a nephew used to play in a Ceilidh band.  He used to explain to me some of the ins and outs of Scottish Traditional music, but I always regarded these as the sorts of things only of real interest to those actually involved in playing in the bands, and I was content just to sit back and enjoy, in my unashamed ignorance of its undoubtedly manifest nuances, the sound of the music.

What always struck me with Scottish Traditional Fiddlers when I observed them from the outside, as it were, was their astonishing ability to produce rapid playing whilst grasping the instrument with their left hand.  I foolishly assumed this was part of the essential technique which differentiated it from other schools of violin playing, but with my first Scottish Traditional Fiddler, I saw the instrument held classical-style under the chin, leaving both hands free to manipulate the bow and move freely over the fingerboard.  This player produced a lovely, opulent tone full of rich vibrato and warm dynamics which would not have sounded at all out of place in Tchaikovsky.  Excellent violin playing, but was it legitimate Scottish Traditional Fiddling?  I really did not know.

Luckily a colleague passed on to me a leaflet written as a guide to adjudicators so that we would have some idea of what we were supposed to be looking for.  This guide included the following extraordinary statement; “Traditionally fiddlers held the instrument almost under the shoulder rather than under the chin, however the demands musically and technically were not so high.  As a result modern traditional players and students are encouraged to use a more violinistic approach”.

Which begs the question, where does traditional fiddling end and classical violin playing begin?

Surely, if Scottish Traditional Fiddlers no longer play the fiddle in the traditional way, they merely become classical violinist playing Scottish Traditional Music?  That seems to negate any purpose in having a specialist skill in Scottish Traditional Fiddling.  I am not committed enough to the cause of Scottish Traditional Music to have a worthwhile opinion as to whether it is evolving or merely aping what is happening in a parallel art form; I simply suggest that evolution along these lines leads, eventually, to the extinction of an entire tradition, and that cannot be a good thing.

However, it opens up the broader question about what we mean in music as “traditional”.  Strangely, while all art forms naturally evolve, music often seems to believe in regression as the way forward.  Back in the 1950s Thurston Dart was among several pioneers in reviving awareness of historical performance practices in classical music.  I was lucky enough to be taught by one of his students, and I remember attending several concerts given on historic instruments or instruments made as copies of historic ones.  The sound was certainly revelatory and deeply fascinating; and it certainly opened up a wholly different perspective on how the music of earlier periods could sound.  The abiding memory, however, was the fact that after every few bars, the whole thing stopped while they all had to re-tune their instruments.  That doesn’t happen in historical performances today.  Why?  In part, players are more adept at handling their delicate instruments, but mostly the instruments have been sensitively adapted to the demands of modern day performance occasions.

We do know that in the past musicians tuned their instruments – we can tell that from the presence of easily operated tuning pegs and keys on old instruments.  But to what did they tune?  I once presented an academic paper on the history of pitch to a conference, and pointed out that ISO 16 was established to standardize pitch at A=440 internationally only in 1955, and almost immediately orchestras and ensembles have broken away from that short-lived pitch standard.  Pitch before and since has varied from country to country, often from orchestra to orchestra, with few regarding 440 as the norm.  However, I was always led to believe that while pitch was more-or-less randomly selected for each early performance, in general pitch in the Baroque era was around a third lower than it is today.  Many of the historical performances in recent years have addressed the issues of pitch and tuning, but a disc I had to review last month of very early 17th century choral music commented that, although the performances followed strictly historical practices, the pitch had been selected at 440 in order to make it comfortable for the singers. 

We seem to have got ourselves into a continually revolving cycle of evolving music up to a point at which someone decides to return to historical performance practices, only to set off in motion the whole sequence of evolution again and again. I suspect that if I live long enough I shall witness another revival of historical performance practice to undo the developments that have taken place since 1950, while I am sure that before long someone will look at Scottish Traditional fiddling and suggest it goes back to how it used to be done in the past.

08 December 2012

Music for The Moment

There used to be an early evening programme called Nationwide on BBC television which featured some of the more idiosyncratic stories from the various regions of Britain.  I used to watch it as a school boy and remember one particular feature they ran in which viewers were invited to suggest a piece of music and an accompanying image from their region; the BBC editors would then put it together as a film sequence.  I can only recall one of these; following the course of the River Thames to the accompaniment of Vltava.  It worked very well, but only proved that Smetana’s vision of a great river was sufficiently descriptive as it stood to obviate any associated visual images.

That the idea soon died a death was due, I imagine, to the extreme difficulty of marrying music to a particular image.  When, around the same time, the editor whose job it was to select the title music for the serialised book read on the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour was interviewed, the real skill in this job was vividly demonstrated.  She had recently chosen to introduce a serialisation of a book (and I can’t remember which) with a passage from Richard Adler’s Wilderness Suite and the two married so perfectly that listeners had written in their droves to congratulate her.  When she explained what was involved – not being able to listen to any music without a notebook in hand to jot down any passage which, to her, summoned up a particular mood or image – I was amazed.  This seemed to my teenage ears like a dream job and from that day onwards, I made a note of any potentially descriptive passages in music I heard.  I now have a vast and increasing database of suggested musical images (tragically, largely wasted since my precious record collection has been lost in transit from Singapore to the UK) which, if anyone ever asks, I can refer to.  Unfortunately, career choices have never allowed me to work as a BBC editor, so my database is destined to remain unused.
Once or twice a particular piece of music has been so ideally suited to the images it accompanies that it sticks in the mind.  I first fell in love with Rachmaninov, not because of the syrupy pathos of the great piano melodies, but because of the urgent and thrusting main theme of the last movement of the 1st Symphony which was the perfect title music for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Panorama.  But the fact that all these great musical pairings belong to the distant past is not mere nostalgia on my behalf.  Sadly, for most people, music now accompanies everything from moments of passion and tragedy, to mundane things like cooking a meal or travelling on a train, and the idea of associating music with a particular occasion or emotion has been subverted by a blanket desire to use music to obliterate silence.

Title music for radio and television has been diluted by the omni-presence of music throughout the programme.  A famous spat blew up a few years ago when a serious programme about astronomy was, in many listener’s opinion, ruined by a constant soundtrack of unrelated pop music which made the programme unbearable for those with hearing problems (the one disability largely ignored in the current climate of disability sympathy which is sweeping the UK) and undermined any scientific authority it may have had for those with a real interest in the subject matter.  The response of the presenter to the complaints was that young people cannot listen to anything unless it has a musical background.  (The obvious extension to that is that young people cannot listen to music – they merely hear it.)
The Organ Music makes you stop and stare
at the National Museum of Scotland's
Millenium Clock
So it came as a real shock to me today when suddenly I was pulled up short by a piece of music which was so perfectly suited to its context that I found myself rooted to the spot while it played itself out.  Calling into the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh – a wonderful place, if ever there was one, boasting, among other things, a tremendous display of old gramophones – I encountered the great clock room.  While the cogs of one clock were pushed continually onwards by a giant fly, another, a real Heath-Robinson affair, incorporated mechanical deer ringing bells, a Penny-Farthing bicycle, all manner of weird and wonderful machines and a disturbingly alluring female monkey constantly turning a handle.  This latter clock marked each hour by playing the third movement of Bach’s organ transcription of Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto (BWV593).  Judging from the crowds who just stopped and stared at the clock when the organ music started. I was not the only one who found the music arresting.  It was a touch of genius.  In its original guise (it’s the Concerto for 2 violins RV522) it would not work nearly so well, but Bach’s transcription, with its almost relentless mechanical drive, its multi-faceted detail (including an extended piece of writing for two independent feet) and its sense of inexorable movement, perfectly matched the detail in the clock and the concept of time running relentlessly onwards.

Clocks playing music on the hour are pretty standard fare. The Edinburgh one is something very different and, in the true sense of the phrase, one in a million.

06 December 2012

Christening Tunes

Just over the road from where I work in St Andrews is a cafe.  In a town full of architectural gems and charmingly comfortable eateries, this particularly cafe is notable only for the plainness of its exterior and the utilitarian dreariness of its interior.  Yet every day, come wind, rain, snow or (occasionally) sun, one can spot a party of (usually) Japanese tourists armed with cameras and V-signs (why do Asians always wave this disgusting gesture at whomever is pointing a camera lens their way?) outside this cafe, often blocking the street to get them and the unexceptional exterior in view.  Why? 

The answer lies in a large notice pasted to the inside of one of the windows; "Where Wills met Kate".

Those who work across the road in the Younger Hall regard this with a certain disdain; after all, they were the people who hosted a fashion parade at which the future Duke of Cambridge was seen to look on dewy-eyed as the future Duchess of Cambridge strutted her stuff.  While, of course, the University itself can lay claim to being the real catalyst for this famous relationship; it, though, is more discrete in its publicising the fact, content to run out a statistic whenever the public is around that 70% (or some such figure) of St Andrews University students end up marrying fellow St Andrews University students.

That St Andrews is still seen primarily as the place where a real live prince met his princess was emphasised last week when, sitting in a warm and snug candlelit bar in Cork, a swarthy Irishman on an adjacent stool (and lurching dangerously close to a candle perched precariously by his elbow) did what all Irishmen in bars seem to do, and engaged me in a conversation rather more philosophical than one might usual expect in a bar.  He was attached, in some way, to an educational establishment in the city and when he learnt that I, too, worked for a University, he immediately took an even greater interest.  He had already discovered that I was a musician and an organist, and when he heard that I was based at St Andrews he waved a copy of that day's Irish Independent at me (all Irish pubs are overflowing with daily newspapers - there is always one to hand, whether or not the place is lit by electricity, gas or a naked flame) and pointed to the full page devoted to the announcement of the Royal Pregnancy.  "Will you be playing the organ at the Christening?" he asked. 

It was a peculiar question from a man who had already shown an intellect barely troubled by the intake of copious quantities of Guinness, and even more peculiar that he should have assumed that the royal christening should take place in St Andrews at all. One assumes that royal christenings take place near a royal household (such as Sandringham in Norfolk) and would do so in private with no music around.

It crossed my mind, though, that perhaps Christenings in Ireland are accompanied by lots of noise and music.  That same copy of the Irish Independent included a wonderful statement from an Irish local politician complaining that Muslims in his town had asked that bodies of their dead relatives be buried without coffins in accordance with their religious beliefs ("When in Rome do as the Romans do.  They should mark a death by drinking alcohol for 24 hours").  Perhaps the Irish deal with "Hatches" in much the same way as they deal with "Dispatches".

Considering how important baptism used to be (we don't know when Beethoven was born, for example, but we know when he was baptized, while Vivaldi, born premature during an earthquake, was rushed by his nurse to the church to be baptized within hours of Camilla Vivaldi giving birth in case he didn't live long enough to pen the Four Seasons) it seems to have slipped dramatically down the life/church stakes and now happens almost in secret.  True, in a bid to get people interested, some clergy use the most popular services of the year as an opportunity for infant baptism (how many Easter Day services have been extended interminably by hordes of screaming infants getting their heads wettened?) but as a rule, baptism is a quiet and unassuming event.  And certainly not one which calls for music.  If my daughter is anything to go by, the merest sound of an organ playing would  drive an infant into paroxysms of wailing which not even a mighty Tuba Mirabilis can drown out.

But, harking back to my very early days as a church organist, I recall having to go to the local church quite often on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to play for a baptism service.  As a mere handful of relatives and a couple of elderly ladies, who never seemed to leave the comfort of their pews, looked on, a screaming child was baptised while I drooled something innocuous on the organ.  I vaguely remember George Oldroyd, William Wolstenholm and Henry G Ley provided suitably bland music (some of it coming from a very useful book called A Book of Simple Organ Voluntaries) but if there were hymns or psalms, I don't recollect.  The organ was simply there to drown out the crying and added a certain religious atmosphere to the occasion.

Organs and baptisms don't seem to mix anymore.  If Wills and Kate want to breathe new life into the monarchy, they might like to insist on a Christening complete with bland and dreary organ music to match the bland and dreary surroundings of the cafe in which they, allegedly, met.