Plain vs mysterious music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 April 2014 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

I’ve just been in Italy, where as usual I tried to discover if there were any churches where one could hear some live sacred music on a Sunday, and once again was told that there is no longer any real tradition of church music performance in Italy, except for the simple ‘responses’ sung by the congregation.

Once in Venice, I went to St Mark’s and asked one of the clergy whether there would be any live music that Sunday morning. He replied, ‘No music. Only singing.’ I’ve always thought this would make a great topic for a university exam question.

While in Italy this time, I had the chance to attend the inauguration of a bishop, which I did partly in the hope that such an important occasion would be accompanied by glorious sacred music. Sadly, it was not. Everything else was splendid, from the ceremonial robes of the welcoming committee, the beautifully polished and decked cathedral, the glossy ‘order of service’ booklets with their lovely art reproductions, and the pleasing appearance of a large and excited congregation in their Sunday best.

However, there was no music at all – sacred or secular – throughout the first hour of the proceedings, which took place outside in the piazza, and once inside the cathedral there was nothing more than hymn singing  – admittedly in several parts when sung by the official choir. But of the wonderful heritage of Italian sacred music there was no sound. By contrast this made me appreciate all the more the English church tradition kept alive in many cathedral churches, ordinary churches, the college choirs of Oxford and Cambridge, and so on. What a remarkable thing, to have five hundred years of sacred music still in daily use and performed with consummate skill by singers and musicians who do it mostly for love.

An Italian friend explained that the church wishes everyone to be able to participate in the singing; therefore the melodies must be simple enough for all to learn. Nobody is to be intimidated or shut out by music beyond their reach. I understand the principle, but can’t help feeling that much is lost through such an approach. Surely it’s a mistake to think that complexity is beyond people’s instinctive understanding. Some of my most striking experiences in churches have come through encountering some stirring or mysterious choral music resonating down the ages. Often it’s music of great intricacy, in a style which has long ago ceased to be ‘daily bread’. But its remoteness has done nothing to dispel its power – quite the reverse. I’m no church-goer, but it seems to me that this music actually makes manifest what the liturgy is talking about.

I’m baffled too as to why music is singled out for simplification. As I listened to the very basic ‘call and response’ chants in the Italian service, I looked around me at gorgeous and sophisticated painting, fresco and sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards. The building itself was lofty and majestic, designed to draw the eye upwards. The colourful brocade robes of the principal participants were antique and elaborate. The structure of the service, and some of its expression, was formal and theatrical. Only the music seemed to be purposely simple, even elementary, and I felt deprived of the complexity which I saw around me in other art-forms.

‘The Real Charlotte’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 April 2014 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful Irish novel written at the close of the 19th century. ‘The Real Charlotte‘ was written by Somerville and Ross, a pair of female cousins who co-authored a number of books including one of my all-time favourites, ‘The Memoirs of an Irish RM’ (‘RM’ meaning Resident Magistrate). The title sounds dry, but the tales are brilliantly funny.

Though I’ve read ‘The Irish RM’ several times over the years, I had never even heard of ‘The Real Charlotte’ until I read Hermione Lee’s biography of another favourite writer, Penelope Fitzgerald. In that biography I read that Penelope Fitzgerald had once numbered ‘The Real Charlotte’ amongst her Desert Island Books. I looked it up and discovered that it had recently been re-issued by Capuchin Classics, so I lost no time in acquiring it.

And what a treat it turned out to be. I can hardly believe that such a fine book has fallen out of the public eye. I tend to assume that anything of real quality will endure, but I suppose I should know by now that this isn’t always so. It’s a little scary to think of the vagaries of fashion and politics which sweep some works of art into the margins, or out of the picture altogether. Anyway, ‘The Real Charlotte’ has been a great discovery. The authors’ understanding of character and motive is remarkable, and their description of life in Ireland at the end of the 19th century is memorably vivid. Even better, the intricate plot closes slowly upon its characters like a giant pair of pincers.  The best compliment I can pay the book is to say that I had lots of other things I should have been doing instead of reading a novel, but ‘The Real Charlotte’ drove them out of my mind, and kept me happily stuck in a chair for hours by the window.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 March 2014 under Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

A young musician friend has been telling me about a fully-funded chamber music group based in Denmark. Each member of the group, which is supported by the Danish Government to expand the reach of chamber music across the country, is paid a full salary and has accommodation provided. They also have a full-time manager who takes care of the practical side of things, from organising local concerts in schools and community centres to arranging for the musicians to travel to cultural centres and perform concerts, both in Denmark and abroad. Yet travelling abroad is only a secondary purpose, for their main task is to establish a presence in the community, bringing live classical music to all sorts of people.

And of course a chamber group is ideal for such a purpose, being smaller, cheaper and more nimble than an orchestra of sixty or eighty people. In Denmark there is also funding for professional development, such as attending masterclasses or making records, and the funding even stretches to counselling and therapy for inter-personal problems that develop within the group.

My mouth was open as I listened to this description, which might as well have been of Shangri-La. A full salary for each person in a chamber group! A dedicated manager and a counsellor on tap! Such a thing is unknown in the UK. From time to time, stories filter out from Scandinavian countries of musicians on government grants equivalent to full-time salaries – I’d heard of similar things happening to string quartets in Norway – but I always wondered if they could be true.

Years ago at a festival in Finland, I met a pianist who had allegedly just received three years’ funding from the Finnish Government to shut himself away and prepare all Beethoven’s piano sonatas for a cycle of performances three years hence – for which he was going to be paid additionally. It was so far from my own experience that I made a point of laughing and saying it probably wasn’t as fun as it sounded. But the story came back to me when I heard about the salaried Danish group. My life and the lives of my chamber music partners would have been utterly different with such possibilities. Well, all I can say is : good for the Scandinavian countries and their enlightened governments! What an admirable example of cultural vision!

Louise Farrenc’s piano music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 March 2014 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  5 Comments

I’ve been learning the piano part of the first piano quintet by Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French woman composer who enjoyed a fine reputation in her day as a concert pianist and teacher as well as a composer. Unfortunately, at a time when the French music-loving public was fixated upon operas, Madame Farrenc never wrote an opera. She loved instrumental music, and as Saint-Saens complained at one point, anyone who wrote instrumental music in Paris was fated to have to put on the concert themselves, inviting their friends and the press, for the general public wasn’t interested.

Louise Farrenc made her name as a pianist, and when she turned to teaching and was appointed to a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire, she had great success with her students, many of whom won prizes and became professional musicians. Despite her success and the esteem in which she was held, you may not be suprised to learn that for over a decade Louise Farrenc was paid less than her male contemporaries were.

Learning the piano part of her first quintet reminds me of similar experiences with learning the piano parts of works by  Hummel, Berwald, Spohr and early Mendelssohn. It’s a style of writing where the pianist is constantly rushing up and down the keyboard in fluent arpeggios, brilliant scales in thirds, arpeggios in contrary motion and the like. The fingering needs to be worked out in detail in order for the figuration to be secure at the fast tempi the composer indicates.

To my ear this kind of 19th century piano writing, often in sharp contrast to the long melodic lines in the other parts, is like the kind of shading or cross-hatching that an artist would use to give contour to a line drawing. Most of it is, in fact, just virtuosic decoration of the harmony. It’s harmonically simple, but mechanically tricky. As such, the piano writing falls into the category of ‘more difficult than it sounds’, a category which every pianist will recognise with a sigh.

A passion for communication

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 March 2014 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been clearing out old boxes of letters dating from student days. In these days of email and texts, when most messages are brief and casual, it’s amazing to sort through these handwritten letters. I’m struck by what a passion for communication we had. Whenever my friends were apart from one another, we all wrote to one another constantly, describing daily events, and more particularly, our feelings about them, which in many cases ran to multiple pages of closely-written blue ink. Most of the envelopes were bulging with thickly folded wads of paper.

It was touching to re-read them. Apart from anything else, there was an enormous amount of good writing there! I intended just to ‘sample’ each letter, but was unable to tear myself away from the fascinating accounts of people and places. During this period, my friends had dispersed to various places around the world to continue their education or their musical training with particular teachers. They were trying out jobs in orchestras around the world. They wrote from the United States, from Hong Kong, from Florence. They reported on life in Las Palmas, in California, in north Germany and Scandinavia. And not just occasionally: we wrote to one another regularly, sometimes apologising that a whole week or fortnight had gone by without putting pen to paper. We wrote about the books we were reading, the concerts we’d heard, the late-night conversations we’d had. We wrote about the people who had influenced us, and about our personal philosophies as they started to become clear to us.

These days, a handwritten personal letter arriving in the post is an incredibly rare event. I probably communicate as much as I ever did, but in a different way. That way is circumscribed by my awareness that electronic messages can easily fall into the wrong hands. I never thought about that in the days when I sat at my window with a big pad of notepaper and a pen newly filled with blue Quink. Remember Quink?

Looking back, I see that these letters played a very important role in my development. In writing to my friends I was forced to try and articulate what my feelings were; in mulling over their replies I was able to extend my understanding of how situations and dilemmas could be tackled by people with more ‘nous’ than I had. I read about people trying for jobs, thinking about money, considering which country to live in, falling in and out of love. It was a heart-warming collection, and set me musing about how much our modes of communication have changed.