News of my new book

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 May 2014 under Books  •  2 Comments

I’m delighted to be able to say that my fourth book will be published by Boydell Press later this year. I’ve just pressed ‘send’ on the final version of the manuscript – a huge relief after working on it intensively for over a year. I had to prise my fingers away from the computer keyboard this afternoon to stop myself embarking on yet another round of tweaking. Probably no-one but me would notice the changes, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop. And of course you always hope that someone, somewhere will notice and be pleased by some particular phrase (so, just like practising the piano really).

The book is another collection of thoughts on what it’s like to be a classical musician. It contains chapters on why I like this kind of music, what it’s like being a pianist, what ‘interpretation’ is, the custom of playing from memory, the challenges of keeping a chamber group together for a long time, the demands of daily practice, and the link between music and health. There are reflections on what it’s like being a classical musician in a world obsessed with other kinds of entertainment. There are other chapters too, but perhaps that’s enough for now.

The book is called ‘Sleeping in Temples‘. The reason for the title is explained in the last chapter. It’s due to be published in November – just in time for Christmas.

‘The noblest prospect …’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 May 2014 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Travel  •  4 Comments

piano moveI’ve been quiet lately because I’ve been busy moving house (see scary picture of my grand piano being hauled through the window). After living in London since leaving university, Bob and I have moved to my home town of Edinburgh. To my surprise my return was mentioned in this delightful column by Michael Tumelty in the Herald on May 6.

It’s an exciting time to be returning to Scotland. How do I feel about an independent Scotland? That’s the question everyone asks me, both north and south of the border. I’m still mulling it over. I’m trying to amass information about the choices, with the help of some very well-informed people.

But there’s no doubt that the atmosphere is different in Scotland these days. When I was growing up and hoping to become a professional musician, there was a strong feeling that anyone serious about a musical career would have to move south of the border. ‘The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road which leads to England’, Samuel Johnson quipped in 1763, and over 200 years later there was still quite a lot of that sentiment about. Most of the talented Scottish students I looked up to had gone to English universities or music colleges, and in due course I followed their example and stayed.

But now there’s a sense that moving the other way would be invigorating. Scotland now has a more positive sense of identity, an international outlook, and a growing sense of its own potential to do things differently. In the past couple of years I’ve met creative people in a number of different fields who, like me, once felt that they had no place in Scotland, but are now excited to live or work there. We all feel that whatever the result of the referendum, Scotland has signalled its intention to be heard. It feels good to be here at this moment in its history.

BBC Young Musician

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 April 2014 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  2 Comments

Here it is again, the heart-warming parade of talented young musicians competing to be BBC Young Musician of the Year. With every passing year it seems more remarkable that there is such a wellspring of young talent directed at classical music. It’s tremendously motivating to see it in action.

And here again are all those remarks from listeners – judges, presenters, the general public – about the ones who ‘look as though they’re really enjoying themselves’. The ability to look as if you’re enjoying yourself is also highly prized by people tweeting about the competition. In many people’s minds it seems that the more enjoyment you can show, the ‘better’ you are.

Why does that annoy me? I suppose because I know that preparing for such a competition is actually a very serious matter. It requires hard work and dedication over a long period. The pieces themselves are emotionally complex, and often extremely difficult from a technical point of view. It’s a matter of wonder to me that so many teenagers have attained such a high technical level, a level that seems in fact to rise from year to year. But I know that in their long hours of solitary practice, how they look is a very minor ingredient if it’s an ingredient at all. If you were able to spy on them during their practice hours, I doubt whether you’d see much smiling or gyrating.

So when I see them on the platform, I’d expect them to look absorbed, focused, and involved. I’d expect to see concentration, determination, and perhaps nerves or insecurity. I’d hope to see (and I often do see) grace and stylishness of manner. I’d expect to see body language – even awkward, ungainly body language – which expresses their commitment to music, or their love of the pieces they’re performing. But ‘looking as if they’re enjoying themselves’ is, for me, neither here nor there. They might be feeling all sorts of emotions on the platform, and witnessing those emotions can contribute to my feeling that they’re authentic and interesting. If they are actually enjoying the performing experience, then great! That’s fun to see. But I don’t want them to be encouraged to ‘act enjoyment’ for its own sake, and I don’t want them to think that failure to smile and bounce around makes them any less compelling as musicians.

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.