26 September 2018

Pulling in the Punters


Taking my daughter to Covent Garden to buy ballet shoes and other assorted paraphernalia to feed her obsession with dancing, we stopped off for coffee at one of the elegant French-style stalls which surround the piazza.  As ever, the place was buzzing, and periodically you would hear a round of applause or a cheer break out as some magician, acrobat, dancer or musician pulled off some stunt which impressed the flock of people looking on to what must be London’s greatest free show of the arts.  Forget pretentious Edinburgh and its horribly predictable Fringe, Covent Garden’s where the real class acts try out their stuff and attract attention.

As we paid up and left for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, one of the more static wonders of Covent Garden, the strains of Handel and the roar of the crowd drew us to the balcony overlooking the lower level courtyard where a string quartet was performing.  In the true sense of the word, we were mesmerized.

This was a true class act which combined great music, great music making and great entertainment.  They walked and danced as they played Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, et al., and the sight of the athletic cellist dancing as he played, the cello supported round his neck rather than stuck into the floor is one that will live with me for many a long year.  They brought the music to life through their naturally free actions and boundless enthusiasm, they embraced the audience with their mobile playing, and they had children up and ready to dance along with them.  And all of this without once compromising the musical quality or stooping to “accessibilize” the programme with little bits of rehashed pop and film scores. 

Many classical musicians try too hard to shake off their perceived stuffy image in a frantic bid to make music accessible to those who find it irrelevant and boring.  This group, far from playing down the boring image, played it up for all it was worth, hamming away and showing that while the stuffy image of string instruments, black and white attire, and 17th and 18th century music is part and parcel of what string quartets are, it can still be amusing and entertaining. These four players were not ashamed of what they played; rather they were so proud of it that they had no shame in pulling in the punters to Pachelbel and Telemann, and brightening up their Saturday morning in the process.

There is a lesson to be learnt here.  Forget “Kids’ Konserts”, forget “John Williams’ Greatest Mangled Hits”, forget dressing as footballers, divers, cartoon characters or clowns.  Celebrate the glory of music and music-making, and show that it is both serious and fun.  That way, should your audience then go on and venture inside a concert hall, they will not immediately feel alienated.  I often despair that all these dumbed-down concerts only ever attract audiences because of the side-shows, not because of the music.  With this group putting music and music making of quality at the heart of their performance, they showed that you could still get people on side.

There’s another lesson to be learnt.  I have no idea who this quartet was or where they came from.  A young girl running around the crowd with a hat for the money also had some CDs for sale at £10 each.  I bought one, and saw others do the same.  But while I don’t begrudge giving the money to these excellent musicians, I do begrudge the waste of resources that went into making the travesty which is this utterly ghastly CD.  It has gone straight into my waste-paper bin.  The CD did not tell you a thing about who these musicians were – indeed the playing is so grotesque and out of tune on the CD that I suspect it’s nothing to do with the ones I heard.  Horribly recorded with a weird electronic boom and oddly unbalanced sound which varies disturbingly between tracks, I don’t think I’ve ever put anything so hideous in my player before.  The CD was a disgrace but the live performance was brilliant.  I wish I knew who these people were!
So if you hear and see brilliant string quartets dancing around as they play, stay and watch; if a young girl heads your way bearing a box of CDs marked "Lotus Classics", give her the money and run.

03 September 2018

Love for Her, Love for Hymn


The Gymanfa Ganu is an uniquely Welsh singing festival in which a large number of people gather together with the sole purpose of singing hymns.  I know of no equivalent hymn singing fest anywhere in the world, yet thousands are held the length and breadth of Wales every year.  It is because of these hugely popular and frequent mass gatherings of hymn singing that the Welsh have earned a reputation as a nation which loves to sing.
To understand why the Welsh approach hymns in a way so different from anyone else, we need to look at the distinctive quality of the Welsh hymn tune itself.  To put it in a nutshell, the Welsh hymn tune is designed to be sung en messe by untrained voices in a way no English, Scottish, Irish, German, American or any other hymn tune is.  
Possibly the most famous Welsh hymn of them all.


Born and bred in London and having spent my later adolescent years on the Surrey/Hampshire border, my acceptance into the University of Wales to study music brought me into daily contact with what seemed to me then a wholly alien culture.  Apart from an aunt’s husband, whom I saw once a year when the extended family met for dinner on Boxing Day, I had absolutely no prior exposure to Wales, and certainly had no knowledge of its rich and unique musical culture.

The University of Wales is not a physical university, but a collection of autonomous colleges scattered around the Principality.  I was studying at what was then called the University College of South East Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff; and in the early 1970s Cardiff seemed almost proud of its detachment from the cultural identity of that part of Wales which lay to its west and north.  But within weeks of arriving, I had fallen desperately in love with one of my fellow music undergraduates, and that brought me into closer contact with authentic Welsh culture than would otherwise have been the case in what was then the nominal - but not the psychological - capital of Wales.

The object of my passion was the indescribably beautiful (well I thought so) daughter of a Welsh Nonconformist minister from deepest Cardiganshire.  We carried on an illicit relationship hidden from patriarchal gaze, since my girlfriend rightly believed that the notion of her getting involved with one of the hated English colonialists (which is how the English were regarded by many Welsh then – and possibly now) would have incensed her father so much he would have immediately withdrawn her from what he already regarded as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Wales, Cardiff.

Tafod y Ddraig -
the symbolic representation of
a dragon's tongue
As our relationship became more intense, so it became imperative for me to adopt as much of the Welsh culture as I could.  I learnt the Welsh language and joined a bunch of idealist activists intent on achieving parity between the Welsh and the English languages throughout Wales by whatever means possible.  I proudly sported my little red enamel badge depicting a stylized dragon’s tongue, which those in the know (notably the police) recognised as the symbol of an active member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, and duly disrupted political rallies, eagerly participated in non-violent campaigns against English-only broadcasters polluting the Welsh air waves with their signals, and aggressively expunged as many symbols of English Imperialism as I could.  It all gave me a lifelong passion for politics, a deep-seated love of Wales and an enriching linguistic outlet, it equipped me with the tools necessary for living what has been my entire life since in and amongst those whose culture, beliefs and languages are very different from those of my own antecedents (I have never actually lived permanently in England since the 1970s), but it did not net me a wife – my girlfriend died of meningitis before she had completed her undergraduate studies.  It was decades later that I found true and lasting love with my wife of 20 years who, perhaps inevitably, belongs to a land long occupied by an alien people, and who is a passionate supporter of political action to restore the unique cultural identity of her homeland.
As it turned out, my eagerness to impress what I hoped would be my future father-in-law with my anti-English activities and command of what someone (and I cannot find out who) described as the only language which can express every thought or emotion known to man, was unnecessary.  Barely a month into my intensive Welsh language course and still awaiting my Cymdeithas yr Iaith badge, I was suddenly dragged from my organ practice by my girlfriend who had heard from her father that he was in desperate need of an organist that evening for the annual Gymanfa Ganu at his Cardiganshire chapel.  Without consulting me she had promised my services, and commanded me to fetch my car and drive the 100 or so miles west to her home village.  Protests that I had no idea what a Gymanfa Ganu was, and certainly needed time to practice the hymns, met on deaf ears.  Here was a chance to ingratiate the English enemy with her father, and my girlfriend was not going to let that slip. 

This may have been the chapel where I had my
first taste of Gymanfa Ganu, but if so, it's been
tarted up quite a bit since 1973,
We arrived at her father’s forbidding Welsh chapel to find the place full and the Minister impatiently waiting the appearance of the organist.  Without any preamble, I was pushed up to the chapel organ and handed the one hymnbook in the entire place which had the hymn tunes in what the Welsh quaintly describe as hen nodiant (“old notation”) – everybody else sung from SolFa copies. I vividly remember that it was a dusky leather-bound, much thumbed volume with the word EMYNAU (“hymns”) embossed on the cover.  You do not have a programme in such events, you simply let the spirit move the Minister to  select which and how many hymns the massed congregation will roar their way through.  I had sufficient Welsh to recognise numbers, and while the Minister simply called out the names of the hymns, he did make the grudging concession to add the numbers from the hymn book.  Frantically, as each number rolled off his tongue and he gave incomprehensible instructions to his flock about how he wanted them to sing, I leafed through the hymn book, found the relevant hymn and struck up a few lines of the tune - eliciting encouraging or, more likely, derogatory comments (my Welsh classes had covered basic swear words, but not the kind of venom so beloved of Welsh Nonconformist Ministers) – and then we were off.

Passion, anger, tears, laughter; all emotions went into every hymn.  The minister would shout and yell, stirring his flock to a peak of ecstasy through the singing of hymns, and it was a thoroughly exhausting experience, musically, spiritually, physically and emotionally.  At particularly passionate movements, the Minister would yell above the hundreds of genuinely harmonious voices, “Heb Organ!”.   Assuming he wanted more, I piled on the stops, adding dazzling descants and making up for missing ranks by playing everything an octave higher or an octave lower at will.  It was only when he called out “Heb Organ!” with more than usual vehemence and looked at me as if my English ancestors were entirely to blame for all the ills of the world (which they perhaps were), that I began to wonder.  I asked a nearby chorister what “Heb” meant.  “Bloody ‘ell”, came the response, “It means stop playin’.  Ee wants you to shut up!”

Whether or not my linguistic ignorance rankled with the Minister, I never knew.  He never uttered another word to me, grudgingly instructing one of his vestry to pass me a cheque, and warning his daughter that, just because I had played the organ for him, she did not need to think that he approved of me or any of the English.

I was however, hooked on Gymanfau Ganu, and for the next 20 years was a frequent attendee as singer, organist or even, on one memorable occasion, conductor.  I fell in love with Welsh hymnody, and started to study it in some detail.  I noticed, for example, that Welsh hymns nearly always starting in stepwise motion or with repeated notes, generally cover a fairly wide range, avoid too many large intervals, and love to work up to a single note and stick there for a while.  They all have climaxes where they reach their highest pitch, and these are so positioned in the tune that they can be (and in a Cymanfa Ganu, usually are) held indefinitely by the singers.  Traditionally, hymn tunes in England were often led by a cantor, with each line repeated by the congregation, but in Wales this was not so common a practice, and as a result, the tunes have longer lines but less complex melodic patterns - ideal for communal singing.

Hymn, dirge or late night drinking song?
Perhaps the most interesting Welsh hymn fact I learnt in my Cymanfa Ganu days, came from a great aunt of my then girlfriend, a woman of extreme old age, who lived in a large house in the village of Llangrannog, tucked away on an isolated part of the Cardiganshire coast.  She hated the Minister, adored her great niece, and enthused over young people in love.  She also had a soft spot for music, and whenever we visited I was compelled to play hymns from the hen nodiant book of Emynau she had permanently on the ancient piano in her parlour.  It had candleholders either side of the music stand, and whenever I played she would ceremonially light the candles as if preparing an altar for mass.  Then she would go into the kitchen and butter bread in the traditional Welsh way, upending the loaf, buttering the cut surface and then very thinly slicing the buttered section off.  I would play through the book in continuous sequence, eliciting various comments.  With “Ebenezer” she stopped and came over.  “Is that in the book?” she asked.  “I remember when the men came out of the pub the worse for drink each Saturday night, they would sing that as they walked past my door.  I never knew it was a hymn”.  It had not been.  Like so many Welsh hymns, it had begun life as a drinking song, and its Welsh name, Ton y botel (“Tune of the Bottle”) rather makes that clear.

Perhaps the greatest memory the great aunt had, though, was shared after I had played one of the old parlour pieces I had found buried deep among all the old sheet music under the lid of the piano stool.  A dreamy look came over her face when she said how beautiful it was.  The last time anyone had played it on the piano in the house had been when she was a young girl and a frequent English visitor to the village had called in to have tea with her mother. She recalled that, “Apparently he was some kind of composer in England”.  “Can you remember his name?” I asked.  “Yes.  Edward Elgar”.