Traditions of music-making can’t be allowed to fade away

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 September 2022 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

I often tweet about music and related matters. Usually the response is small – I’m thrilled if my tweets reach a couple of hundred people. So my experience yesterday was exceptional.

I was watching The Queen’s funeral which, as you’ll know, had a variety of music in it – pipe bands, regimental bands, organ music, trumpeters, sacred choral music, hymn singing by the whole congregation, a lone piper, and two newly-composed choral pieces by Judith Weir and James MacMillan. As usual, the power of music was striking.

On the day before, I heard John Rutter say on the radio that for many people now, such grand occasions are the only time they encounter the great tradition of sacred choral music. It’s true. The first time I heard such music on a regular basis was when I was a student, lucky to be at a college with a choir whose mastery of this repertoire was famous. I could have heard it sung live in the chapel almost every day, except that I didn’t, because I ‘had other things to do’. One of my tutors advised me to go as often as I could because I’d never again have the chance to hear this ancient music being sung ‘live’ with such expertise. He was right.

Great traditions of music have become remote from many of us as music has been de-prioritised in school education. Music is not one of the favoured STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It isn’t considered a route to a proper job. Never mind that so many of us turned to music and other arts for sustenance during lockdown; there is no link between the arts and earning power. A few musicians may indeed ‘make it big’, but the recipe has never been dependable.

When I hear complex music – instrumental or vocal, sacred or secular – beautifully performed, it strikes me that we need a steady supply of skilled musicians if such music is to remain performable in the future. And that means training. It means skilled teachers. It means immersion in music and styles of performance. Individual practice has to start in childhood in order for adult skill to be firmly based. But does it start in childhood? Less and less.

Yesterday I tweeted, ‘No-one watching the Queen’s funeral can fail to have been moved by the power of music and the skill of the performers and composers. Can we now please stop treating music as an optional extra in UK education?’

To my surprise the ‘likes’ started ticking up instantly, and as I write there have been 4,408 ‘likes’ and 798 retweets. For me this has been an exciting experience. I can only assume that my comment has struck a chord with many who would like musical training to be part of the core curriculum.

A minute’s silence at the start of a concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 September 2022 under Musings  •  6 Comments

I went to a couple of concerts at the Lammermuir Festival – by the excellent Quatuor Mosaiques – over the days since the Queen’s death. Each concert started with a minute’s silence in honour of The Queen.

At the end of the minute, the players arrived quietly on stage and the concert began without the usual tuning.

The audience was probably in the mood to listen anyway, but I felt that the minute’s silence had deepened the sense of focus. It made me wonder whether the custom of beginning a concert with a minute’s silence (not in honour of anyone particular, just to recognise the musical occasion) would be a good thing to adopt more generally.

Back in the 1980s my group Domus used to do children’s concerts in our portable geodesic dome. We tried various formats, and for a while we got the children to do ‘listening practice’. We all stayed quiet for a minute or two and then shared what we had heard during the quietness. It was never silent, of course. As we were in a glorified tent there were always noises outside, from birds singing and traffic noises to funny snippets of talk from passers-by who didn’t know we were listening. Some children had even noticed the sound of their own breathing.

Eventually we dropped ‘listening practice’ because it felt a bit too much like a lesson. But we always felt that after listening practice the young audience was in a better frame of mind to settle down and listen to us playing. It was probably good for us too. The exercise focused everyone’s minds on the possibility of paying attention, a skill which can enhance any aspect of life.

Picking blackberries

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 September 2022 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

Several times recently I have been out blackberry picking on the hills around Edinburgh. I’ve gone at different times of day, mostly at weekends.

Each time I’ve met other people picking blackberries too. We’ve swapped ideas about what to do with them. Blackberry crumble, blackberry jam, blackberries combined with apples or plums in various ways. Blackberry syrup, to pour over ice cream.

After a few such occasions it dawned on me that my fellow blackberriers were all of roughly my age. Where were the children? We agreed that we hadn’t seen children picking blackberries this year. Yet we all remember picking blackberries ourselves as kids.

My companion suggested that perhaps blackberry picking was like classical music – ‘something you come to later in life’. After all, picking blackberries requires patience, delicacy and persistence in the face of setbacks.

Blackberry picking as the classical music of the harvest season? Something to ponder.

Lili Boulanger’s Cantata ‘Faust et Hélène’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 August 2022 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

At the Edinburgh Festival this week we went to the Usher Hall to hear the French orchestra Les Siècles performing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on instruments of the period. (The difference in those instruments was not immediately apparent, though there was a soft grain to the famous bassoon solo which opens the piece, and other subtle adjustments to the more assertive sound we’re used to from modern orchestras.)

The famous premiere of the Rite of Spring – at which enraged members of the audience protested at the ‘ugly’ and ‘primitive’ style of dancing by the Ballets Russes on stage – was given in 1913. That year also saw the 19-year-old Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) become the first woman to win the prestigious ‘Prix de Rome’ with her cantata on the subject of Faust’s meeting with Helen of Troy. Alas, Lili Boulanger only lived for a further five years after that early success, and those years were dominated not only by illness but also by the First World War. Normally, the prize for winning the ‘Prix de Rome’ would have been an all-expenses-paid year in Rome to work on artistic projects, but in 1914 the onset of war put paid to that.

It was fascinating to hear the music of this young woman who had studied with Gabriel Fauré and whose music was bathed in the influences of leading composers of the day. Right from the opening bars of the cantata one could hear the influence of Wagner, and later of Debussy, and Fauré, and perhaps César Franck and Ravel. Her weaving together of these influences was surprisingly mature.  But at this stage, her skill seemed to lie in a talent for synthesising elements that she loved, rather than striking out on a new path.

Aged 19, a student at the Paris Conservatoire and a young woman in a man’s world, Lili Boulanger was experimenting with her ‘voice’. If she had had better health and more time, one could easily imagine that she would have developed into an important composer. As it was, it was touching to hear her student work performed with such conviction and I found myself hoping that somehow she was listening in.

1913 – what a year! All these artistic ingredients bubbling together in a melting-pot as the shadow of war fell across Europe.

Sempé, au revoir

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 August 2022 under Musings  •  2 Comments

It was sad to read that the French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé has died at the age of 89.

I first came across his drawings when my French class at school studied Le Petit Nicolas, the delightful adventures of a little French boy in an idealised 1950s world. It was probably my first encounter with that particularly French blend of charm, irony and humour achieved with a light touch.

Later on I came to relish Sempé’s cartoons of musicians. One of the earliest I got to know was ‘le chat de la violoncelliste’, in which a bored cat slinks out of the room while a lovely lady cellist practises with a rapt expression. It prepared me for the experience, in later years, of several cats of my acquaintance who made a habit of getting up off the sofa with a sigh and leaving the room with a withering expression when I practised the piano.

Sempé became famous for the many covers he drew for the New Yorker. I loved the one he drew for the cover of March 12, 1984. A symphony orchestra has just finished performing something, and the conductor is gesturing grandly towards the solo pianist to acknowledge his contribution. The pianist in turn is gesturing grandly towards the leader of the orchestra who is gesturing grandly towards his desk partner; she gestures grandly towards the player sitting behind her, and so it goes on, each musician gallantly acknowledging the next, round four or five tiers of the concert hall platform until we come to the percussion section at the back and the smiling figure of the little triangle player who bows as he receives the accumulated congratulations of all his colleagues.

Many of Sempé’s musical cartoons show a small performer striving valiantly to make some kind of impact in a large world. He seemed to understand very well the feelings of the pianist trying to look confident as he traverses the acres of empty space between himself and the huge black instrument just daring him to sit down and make a fool of himself.