Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s ‘Childhood Memories’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 August 2018 under Books, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been reading the ‘Childhood Memories’ (published 1958) of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, the Sicilian aristocrat and author of ‘The Leopard‘, an award-winning Italian novel published posthumously and later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster.

Lampedusa’s memoirs concern life in his family’s Sicilian home – or homes – at the start of the 20th century. Not so long ago as the crow flies, perhaps, but some of his descriptions seem to belong to another age altogether. Was it really only last century?

Here are a few of the innumerable descriptions that struck me. The first is a recollection of 1900, when Lampedusa was three years old:

‘I remember how in the evening of that same day, at about 7.30, while I was in my grandparents’ dining room (I often sat with them when they dined, since it was earlier than my own mealtime)’ ….

The second concerns the dining room:

‘I’ve forgotten to describe the dining room at Santa Margherita, which was peculiar for many reasons, above all for the fact that there was one. I believe it’s very rare in any eighteenth-century house to find a room expressly designed for dining in: in that period meals were taken in any room, and the room where one dined changed all the time, as indeed is my habit today’.

He recalls a journey by train to one of the family’s country houses:

”At that time trains had no corridors, and therefore no toilets: when I was a very little boy, an ugly brown ceramic chamberpot, bought especially for the journey, would be brought along for me and thrown out of the window before the train reached its destination. The ticket collector did his rounds gripping on to the outside of the train: at a certain point his braided cap and black-gloved hand would suddenly appear in the window.’

Finally there’s a description of a picnic excursion to yet another of the family’s country homes:

‘Our cooks had set out from Santa Margherita at 7am and already had everything prepared. When the boy on lookout announced our approach, the dishes containing the memorable timbali di maccheroni alla Talleyrand would quickly go into the ovens so that when we arrived there was barely time for us to wash our hands before going out onto the terrace, where two tables had been laid for us. Under an unsweetened papery crust of puff pastry, the pasta in the timbales was glazed with the lightest of sauces and steeped in the flavours of ham and truffles cut into match-thin strips.’

It reminded me of Bob’s [Robert Philip’s] remark about his first experiences of listening to historical recordings – for example of Elgar conducting his own music. The orchestra’s sound and style were surprising, although only half a century had elapsed since the recordings were made. As Bob said: if the sound of only 50 years ago was unguessably different, how much more so must have been the sound of Bach’s era, or Mozart’s or Beethoven’s?

First customer review of my book on Amazon

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 August 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

One never knows whether to fear or look forward to ‘customer reviews’ on Amazon. Ever since a couple of high-profile rows involving well-known authors hiding behind false names in order to rubbish their rivals’ work on Amazon, we’ve all been alerted to the possibility that customer reviews may not be what they seem. At the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, are those anticlimactic ‘reviews’ which simply report that the book arrived promptly and in good condition, or merely that it was ‘as expected’. Either way, an Amazon customer review is not always a moment of joy.

Except when it’s like this, of course: the first customer review of my book Speaking the Piano!

‘There are many books on various aspects of piano playing and a vast number on piano teaching but this book makes a unique contribution. The author’s vast experience as a performer at the highest level and as a teacher, including of adult amateur pianists as well as young professional players, is evident throughout. The writing is highly original and displays a degree of psychological insight that would be the envy of Freud. The author is known primarily as a classical pianist and especially as a chamber music player but the book reveals that she could perfectly well have had a career as a jazz pianist and her candid account of her experiences in that field is remarkable. In her discussions about the process of learning, it is very refreshing that the author does not focus on mere method but proposes an approach to music-making and personal development which is sensitive to the needs of the aspiring musician as a whole person. Stunningly good and highly recommended.’

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Speaking-Piano-Reflections-Learning-Teaching/dp/1783273259

Gramophone magazine review of Speaking the Piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 August 2018 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

A fine book from an underrated pianist

‘When my biography of Leopold Godowsky was first published some thirty years ago [writes Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone magazine], I prefaced the narrative with a quote from Confucius: “I do not seek to be known. I seek to be worthy to be known”. It is a quote that Godowsky himself was fond of using. It is a quote that could well apply to Susan Tomes.

‘…Her tone of voice is inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial, gently provocative ….
Above all – and this is the great value of ‘Speaking the Piano’ – she dispenses insight and information with grace and clarity. Despite its title and inevitably favouring the piano, the precepts she articulates are equally applicable to all instrumentalists – and indeed musicians of every kind, professional and amateur.’

Gramophone magazine, September 2018

 

Tackling Chopin’s F major Nocturne

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 August 2018 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

One of my summer projects has been to learn all the Chopin Nocturnes. Strangely enough I have never tackled them properly, and some of them, it turns out, I hardly knew even by ear. Getting to know them has given me tremendous respect for Chopin’s compositional skills as well as his genius for piano writing. Although there are so many many notes, he never seems to waste them.

Today I was studying the F major Nocturne, which I do know by ear but had never tried to learn. I got to know it as a child when the older boy who had his piano lesson before me was learning it. Every week I would go in for my lesson and listen while he received tuition on this Nocturne, which he was preparing for a competition.

I used to sit there, enjoying the music but wondering why he didn’t do this or that. For example, in the turbulent middle section in F minor the melodic theme transfers to the bass, with complicated oscillating sixths above it in the treble. Each week our teacher gently reminded him that the left-hand theme must be clearly audible above the seething sixths in the right hand, but to achieve this result was beyond the lad’s technical skill at that time. I used to listen and think, ‘Why does he not do it?’

Now, of course, decades later, I discover that it is very difficult to do! With the clatter going on in the treble, and the effort of grappling with those stormy sixths, it is hard to make the bass theme stand out so that the listener immediately notices it. I can so clearly remember feeling frustrated when my fellow student had difficulty with this passage. Now I have difficulty with it too, so I have sent my sympathies back in time.

Talking about memory on BBC Front Row

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 August 2018 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Last night I was on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, taking part in a discussion about playing from memory. Presenter Stig Abell spoke to me and Torun Saeter Stavseng, principal cellist of the Aurora Orchestra, who are about to perform Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony from memory at The Proms.

Listen to the Front Row interview on iPlayer here.

It’s unusual for an orchestra to perform from memory, though there are a few historical examples including the Meiningen Orchestra in Germany during Brahms’s lifetime. Even at the time, opinions varied about whether the experiment was worth making or not. On the plus side: once they have memorised the music, members of the orchestra can look around, notice more, even move around. They are not tethered to their music stands. They could arrange themselves in new ways, playing from amongst the audience, perhaps, or standing around the perimeter of the hall to provide ‘surround sound’.

On the minus side, the effort of playing from memory makes some people more tense than they would otherwise be. Instead of opening them up, it may make them more self-conscious. Perhaps it is easier if you’re in an orchestral section such as violins or cellos, with colleagues around you playing exactly the same musical part. You get swept along by the collective memory.

The Front Row interview began with an audio clip of the Aurora Orchestra playing from memory. Well, I’m a trained musician, but I wouldn’t have known if they were playing from memory or not. It made me realise that a live concert performance is about much more than just the sound. When you can see people playing from memory, it’s impressive – massively so in the case of a whole orchestra. But is the result also audible? That’s an interesting question. If I think about my favourite CDs, I’m pretty sure I would not be able to guess whether the artists were playing from memory or not when they made those wonderful recordings.

Torun Stavseng said that the Aurora Orchestra finds the memorising experiment profoundly worthwhile and I’m sure she’s right. Speaking for myself, although I do play recitals from memory, I probably feel most free when playing chamber music from the score. I always know the music very well, I can look around at the others, listen to them, glance at the music occasionally for comfort. And it’s surprising how often I see new things there when I do. Not new things, exactly: I perceive the written marks with extra attention.