Readers who followed my enthusiastic recommendation of ‘The Real Charlotte’ may be interested in another recommendation from the same period. I’ve just finished reading ‘Maurice Guest’, published in 1908 by Henry Handel Richardson, the pseudonym of Ethel Richardson, an Australian novelist. It’s a book I’ve been trying to find for ages, because from time to time it’s mentioned as a forgotten classic about musicians, but I only managed to track it down recently.
‘Maurice Guest’ is a long study of a young English pianist who goes to study in Leipzig in the 1890s (as Ethel Richardson did herself when she was an aspiring pianist). Leipzig at the time was full of music students and their well-known professors, whose adherents gathered in coffee houses to compare their teaching methods and speculate about the future glory of their star pupils. As there were no ‘halls of residence’, each student lodges with a landlady somewhere in town, so the book is full of students hurrying from cobbled street to cobbled street to visit one another and persuade their landladies to warm them up a cup of coffee. All the townspeople are aware of which professors are ‘in the ascendant’ and whose pupils are struggling for the limelight, and they gather at regular ‘house concerts’ to keep track of who’s playing what and how. Students burst in on another’s lodgings to say things like, ‘I’ve got to tell you! Schwarz is letting me play the C minor Beethoven next term.’ It made me feel rather nostalgic for an atmosphere I’ve never really experienced.
The hero of the novel is smitten by love for a fellow piano student, a fascinating ‘dark lady’ named Louise Dufrayer, who is Australian (like the author) and possessed of a haunting beauty. Maurice’s feelings for Louise gradually take centre stage, push music to the margins and bring out a dark side of his nature. Louise, naturally, loves Another, a red-haired violinist who is morally despicable and unfairly gifted. I started reading for a description of musical Leipzig, but became fascinated by the brilliant way Richardson charts Maurice Guest’s descent into obsessive, irrational love, for which he sacrifices everything. The detailed descriptions of many scenes between Maurice and Louise – especially when things start to go wrong – rang so true that I felt sure the author was drawing on her own experience of life in Leipzig. It’s a tour de force of psychological insight, beautifully written and one of the most gripping novels I’ve read for a while.
Lots of people have written to me today about coughing. Why? Because of a BBC News report about violinist Kyung-Wha Chung’s comeback recital at the Festival Hall in London. She was disturbed by a child coughing in the audience, and remonstrated with the parents. Her response to the coughing divided the audience. Some were shocked or disapproving, others sympathetic, even grateful to her for raising an issue which bothers many music-lovers.
I was interviewed by the BBC last year about coughing in concerts, and for some reason I was quoted in today’s news report – that’s why people wrote to me to ask if musicians are really so sensitive that they are thrown by a bit of innocent coughing?
As a matter of fact, there’s a whole chapter on coughing in my new book. To sum up: it’s complicated. Musicians tend not to mind the genuine cough, particularly if they realise that someone is desperately trying to stifle it. What performers resent is the loud, self-indulgent bark which rings out around the hall. This kind of cough can give a performer a real start. If you study such coughs and their timing, you begin to realise that it’s not a straightforward matter. For example, there’s often a volley of coughing in the quietest passages, when the performers (and hopefully also the audience) are most immersed in the music. Could there be an element of … shall we call it unconscious sabotage? There’s more on the subject in my book.
My book ‘Sleeping in Temples’ has been named as one of the ‘Books of the Year’ by Classical Music magazine. In November it was their ‘Editor’s Choice’ with a five-star review, and now in December it has been upgraded to one of the ten ‘books of the year’. What a fabulous Christmas present!
The November review of my book in Classical Music is now online.
It’s delightful too that one of their other ‘books of the year’ is ‘Capturing Music’, a history of notation by Thomas Forrest Kelly of Harvard University. I knew Tom when I was a student, when he was (I think) a Visiting Scholar, considered extremely charming and witty in that wonderfully dry American way. We lost touch for years and years, but I was very pleased to see his new book alongside mine in the list.
Three more mentions of my new book have appeared this weekend:
Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker and eminent music blogger, includes it in his ‘Recommendations‘.
Frances Wilson reviews it in her Cross-Eyed Pianist blog: ‘This absorbing and insightful book will delight and inspire musicians and music-lovers’.
And broadcaster Sheena MacDonald chooses it as one of her Books of the Year 2014:
‘You hear her music through her words’.
I’m very happy to hear that my new book ‘Sleeping in Temples’ is the Books Choice in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC Music. ‘Rare insight. Susan Tomes illuminates at the piano and on the page.’
‘Susan Tomes compares her first encounter with chamber music as akin to Dorothy’s flight from her black-and-white homestead to the Technicolor land of the Munchkins. One could extend the analogy to this book, where she plays Dorothy, unmasking not the Wizard of Oz but the hard-to-talk-about myths, conventions and fictions of the classical music world…. Her penetrating intelligence is refreshing in a discourse often reduced to cliché and lazy generalisation. Her thoughts on musical memory and interpretation draw us into a largely hidden world and she asks the hard questions: what is a performer actually doing? How do you play ‘the contents, not the container’ of music? The concept of ‘listening in’ to a score is illuminating, capturing the complex relationship between a performer’s imaginative understanding and a composer’s attempt to codify their work. And I love the idea of the musician as ‘hermeneut’, like Hermes, mediating between Gods and mortals.
‘… Has this colossal commitment been worth it? One has only to think of Tomes’s exceptional playing to understand why her faith still burns bright.’
Thank you, the readers who take the trouble to alert me to these reviews. It’s hard to keep up with the press, especially when many journals have subscriber-only websites, so please keep telling me about things I might otherwise miss.