Toe-tapping in the Baroque era

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 March 2019 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

I did some guest teaching at the University of St Andrews the other day. During one of my sessions, a member of the audience asked an interesting question. I didn’t know the answer and am still thinking about it.

He said: ‘I have some modern recordings of Baroque music. The orchestra plays with a lot of swing and bounce. The tempos are fast. It makes you want to tap your toes along with the music!

‘I wonder though whether this entertaining, toe-tapping style is something modern, something that has developed since the jazz age, the swing era, and all that. Obviously that music is in our blood now, so maybe it’s natural for today’s musicians to try the style in old music as well.

But do you think musicians in the Baroque era played with that kind of rhythm and swing? Did audiences smile, nod their heads and tap their feet to the music? Or would that have been  impossible, something they would never have dreamed of doing?’

I said what came into my head: that we can’t know for sure how long-ago musicians played, nor how audiences reacted. There are no 18th Century films or sound recordings, so unless we have first-hand descriptions, we can only speculate.

But my guess would be that in every era, especially with music which originated as dance, people would have enjoyed tapping their toes along with the music. Of course Baroque audiences might have been restrained by the setting they found themselves in – the church, for example, or the formal atmosphere of the court. Even today we are held in check by that sort of context. Apart from that, however, I’d guess that musicians have always hoped to get their audiences’ toes tapping, and listeners have always been happy to respond.

A calendar of marmalades

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 February 2019 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

The season of Seville oranges has come to an end and with it the chance to make Seville marmalade, by general consensus the tastiest of all marmalades. We have tried making others with ‘ordinary’ oranges combined with lemon, grapefruit or lime, but nothing quite matches the tart, slightly sour aromatic tang of the Seville orange.

Bob has been busily at work making batches of marmalade. His aim is to get us through the whole year with home-made Seville marmalade, never resorting to the shop-bought version – which, frankly, is a pale substitute once you’ve tasted the real deal, the orange peel lovingly and painstakingly cut by hand while listening to umpteen radio programmes.

Having polished off quite a few of our own jars already, we counted up the remaining jars and arrived at a total of 32. More than enough for the year, you might think, except that we and all our house guests devour Bob’s marmalade every day. (I know, I know: sugar, and all that.)

There are about 40 weeks until the next Seville oranges appear, so we can make it with 32 jars unless we get carried away, or the jars do.

We discussed the possibility of rationing. Perhaps we could set up marmalade alerts on our phones, to tell us when we may start the next jar? It would be like a huge advent calendar of marmalade jars, marking the steps through the year until Seville oranges next ripen in the Mediterranean.

Is there a way to avoid concert clashes?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 8 February 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  3 Comments

I’m preparing for next weekend’s Winterplay, my mini-festival of collaborative music at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. We have a children’s music-and-movement workshop led by Monica Wilkinson, a music and words event with Janice Galloway, a pre-concert talk by Robert Philip and a trio concert. Violinist Erich Höbarth is about to arrive from Vienna and I’m so looking forward to rehearsing piano trios with him and cellist Philip Higham.

I keep thinking about the observation that a career in music is 90% admin and 10% music-making. Not quite true, because one has to practise one’s instrument every day, but it certainly feels as if the work of organising concerts is vastly out of kilter with the time spent giving the concerts themselves.

I find myself wishing there was a centralised concert diary where one could check what else is scheduled. Nothing like that seems to exist. I try to find out, from season brochures and advance publicity, what other concerts might whisk away my listeners on the night I need them. You might think that the music world was small enough that we’d all know about one another’s plans, but in fact there are many independent circles within the music scene.

I sent out a big concert mailing the other day and then sat back and glumly read the responses:

‘I’m going to a baroque concert that evening’
‘We’ve been invited to a jazz event’
‘Alas, it’s a choir evening’
‘Our children’s school has a pupils’ concert that night, sorry’
‘My amateur orchestra has a rehearsal then’

And these are only the musical events! People also mention sports events, weddings, holidays and half-term activities which no organiser could possibly factor in. But surely it would be sensible for concert organisers to have a way of checking what other musical events are planned on the date they have in mind?

Bob tells me to keep calm. ‘All the people who saw your mail and thought ‘I’ll go to that’ probably didn’t bother to tell you so. They’ll just turn up.’ Amen to that.

Musicians still in the dark about Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 January 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  2 Comments

As the Brexit story accelerates, musicians are still in the dark about what will happen to their freedom of movement after we leave the EU. For two and a half years now I have been listening to colleagues and students worrying about whether they will still be able to study here, or if they are from the UK, whether they will still be able to afford to study in cities like Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam or Brussels where they are happy. Will the Erasmus scheme still be open to UK students? What will happen to student fees? Will they still be able to go in for that competition in Paris or Rome? I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve asked young musicians whether we might meet again on the same course next year, only to be told, ‘I have no idea. Will we still be eligible?’

Young professional musicians are the group I most often work with. They are desperate for clarity. Many of them are from European countries. They love London and were thinking of staying here, getting jobs here, basing their performing careers here, settling down with partners they met here. Now there’s talk of a minimum salary level of £30,000 being required of European migrants after Brexit. That would rule out most of the young musicians I know. When you are paid £128 for an orchestral concert it takes a long time to earn £30,000.

I occasionally serve on the jury of international competitions. The other day, when I was talking to one of them about the extra paperwork that might be required for me after Brexit, an administrator ‘jokingly’ remarked that it might be easier for them just to choose their jury members from European countries. I’m one of those jury members now, but not for much longer.

When I think back over my working life I realise that one of my greatest pleasures has been discovering other European countries and their cultures. I suppose I was predisposed to like them because most of my favourite composers (see photo) had lived there. My professional life began more or less as the UK joined the EU and travel to other European countries became ‘frictionless’. As I ventured further afield, my eyes and ears were opened to other ways of doing things. Breathing the same air as Mozart, Schubert or Debussy made everything easier to imagine, their music easier to ‘speak naturally’. A bit of extra paperwork won’t stop us going to those places, of course, but it feels like a step backwards.

Donald Tovey’s piano playing is brought to life

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 January 2019 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

One of my Christmas presents was a memoir, ‘Divided Loyalties – a Scotswoman in occupied France’ by Janet Teissier du Cros. It was written by an Edinburgh-born woman who married a Frenchman and spent the years of the Second World War in the Cévennes region of France during the German occupation.

In her Edinburgh years, the author was a talented young pianist who studied with Donald Tovey, then professor of music at Edinburgh University. Tovey is now remembered mainly for his essays on musical analysis, but he considered himself a practising musician first and foremost. In fact, many of his essays started life as programme notes for concerts which he himself conducted. He was also a composer and a fine pianist who played recitals with many leading international performers (Casals, Jelly d’Aranyi) when they visited Edinburgh.

Janet Teissier du Cros gives a wonderful portrait of Tovey’s piano-playing which evokes it more vividly than I’ve seen elsewhere. I am a fan of Tovey’s writing on music, but hadn’t really grasped what a superb performer he was:

‘To say that he unwittingly bewitched me with his playing, as Othello bewitched Desdemona with his story-telling, would be an understatement. It was something even beyond that. I believe that no-one who heard Tovey play when he was at the height of his powers will ever forget the experience, or cease to feel that there was something there which no other pianist possessed. Not only had he the great executant’s powers; he understood the whole genesis of what he was playing, it spoke to him in the language he best understood and initiated him into the composer’s inmost thoughts, those he could never express in words.

‘Both his understanding – not the cerebral appreciation of the musicologist, but the re-creation of a fellow artist – and his emotion were things he succeeded in transmitting more directly than any other player I ever heard. For as long as he played he made you a person far superior to what in fact you were, and the language became intelligible to you too, which before had simply been intoxicating sound.

‘Every now and then at a crucial moment, it might be some unexpected modulation that cut the ground from under your feet and plunged you reeling and giddy into the fourth dimension, or a blazing forth in the major mode of some tragic minor theme, its message of hope no sooner uttered than you were cast down again by a return to the minor key; whatever it was, you were always warned to the tiptoe of attention by a fleeting glance of blue fire from Tovey’s wide-apart eyes, and for a brief moment you were absorbed into him and understood not with your own heart and mind but with his.’  Janet Teissier du Cros, ‘Divided Loyalties, p11