Edvard Grieg and Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 November 2020 under Daily Life, Musings  •  6 Comments

It’s been a turbulent week, and I have found some distraction in playing through a volume of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. I’ve always liked them, though I admit I knew only the more famous pieces, and only recently discovered that there are many more – all worth getting to know.

The first set, opus 12, contains a little piece called ‘Watchman’s Song’, over which Grieg noted that it was written after seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Over the middle section, Grieg wrote ‘Spirits of the Night’. Which would lead us to expect something atmospheric and scary – wouldn’t it?

Actually, the Watchman’s Song consists of two verses of a tranquil hymn in E major, separated by a short ‘intermezzo’ of gently rippling arpeggios and distant fanfares. ‘Spirits of the Night’ seems too bold a stage direction for a few bars arousing the merest hint of unease.

It’s quite amusing to wonder what would happen if you gave the ‘Watchman’s Song’ to someone who knew nothing of Macbeth and asked them to imagine what sort of play this represented…!

All of which raises some interesting questions. First of all, I suppose one would have to ask what sort of production Grieg had seen, and how it affected him. We know he saw the version of Macbeth devised by the German playwright Schiller. Surely this conveyed all the tragic and fateful qualities of the original. Yet the play, whose sinister atmosphere has provoked long-lasting superstitions in the theatre world, seems not to have ruffled Grieg’s feelings. So perhaps it was a terrible performance? It’s hard to imagine that one could see Macbeth and come out with nothing more than the desire to write a cheery little tune for the watchman. Or was Grieg was so terrified that the watchman was the only character he could bear to describe?

Anyway, what watchman? To my recollection, there isn’t a watchman in Macbeth, at least not named as such. There’s a porter, who diverts proceedings by telling the audience how he imagines being the doorman at the gate of hell. There’s a messenger who comes to Dunsinane to tell Macbeth that he thinks he saw ‘a moving grove’ coming towards the castle. Is one of these the watchman? Or did Schiller perhaps put one in? If so, why was he the character who stuck in Grieg’s mind? And what about the ‘spirits of the night’ – did they not inspire any terror?

It can’t be that Grieg lacked imagination, because many of his Lyric Pieces are beautiful little cameos conjuring up all sorts of delicate emotions. How intriguing it would have been to hear his take on the Witches, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, or the drunken Porter!

Grieg’s family emigrated to Norway from Scotland – the family surname originally having been spelled Greig, as is the custom in Scotland. Funnily enough, in 2010 the Scottish contemporary playwright David Greig wrote a play called Dunsinane –  a kind of sequel to Macbeth. So the play links Grieg and Greig – perhaps they have a connection?

Musicians fighting for their jobs in an age of recorded music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 October 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

At last there is more commentary about the challenges facing freelance artists. Yesterday there was a strongly-worded cry for help in The Observer from several leading musicians, warning that if the UK’s musicians are not supported, we could lose them for ever.

I have still seen no explanation of why self-employed people are being so poorly treated compared with employees. It seems morally indefensible.

As I pondered the article, it occurred to me that many people must read such things and think, ‘Well, does it really matter if lots of musicians turn their back on the profession? There’s so much recorded music in the archives already. We wouldn’t run out for years and years. And lots of it is free!’

There are dedicated concert-goers who would be devastated if live concerts dwindled away, but they must be a minority compared with those whose musical tastes are fed exclusively by recorded music on YouTube, Spotify and all the rest of it. For them, the prospect of fewer live concerts probably doesn’t cause them anxiety.

The era of recorded music is little more than a century old, but has affected our attitudes profoundly. If this pandemic had occurred in, say, the mid-19th century, people’s reactions to hearing that musicians were abandoning the profession would be entirely different. At that time, you could only hear music if you played it yourself, or if someone was playing it in your presence.

If some major crisis caused all the musicians in your town to give up their jobs, you might never again hear those symphonies, those string quartets, those lovely songs, those exciting concertos with orchestra, those Chopin piano pieces you can’t play yourself. There would be no music at your wedding, your birthday or your Christmas party. Unless you or your friends could provide it, music would disappear from your life.

Today, recorded music is with us all day long. It’s the soundtrack of our shopping trips, our visits to cafes, our waiting rooms, our TV programmes. I have friends who swear that nothing will ever take the place of a live concert in their lives, but I also know plenty of people who would shrug their shoulders at the prospect of fewer musicians, because subtracting live music from their lives wouldn’t change much about their  listening habits. They would just put on their headphones and press ‘play’.

It’s ironic that most concert halls are closed at the moment, because this would be the perfect time for people to go to concerts and discover the pleasure, interest and solace of being in the presence of music as it comes alive in the hands of skilled musicians, connecting us to other dimensions.

Fatima, and an excerpt from ‘J is for Job (not a proper)’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 October 2020 under Books, Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

In response to yesterday’s outrage about an HM Government ad showing ‘Fatima’, a young ballet dancer as an example of someone who might switch to ‘working in cyber’, I’m posting an excerpt from ‘J is for Job (not a proper)’, from my book A Musician’s Alphabet (Faber, 2006). It seems to have new relevance at a time when musicians are being advised to ‘rethink, reskill, reboot’.

J is for Job (not a proper)

‘All my life I have been squeezed between the contradictory opinions of people divided on the topic of whether being a musician is, or is not, a proper job. Sometimes it seems as if I hold an elevated position in the hierarchy of jobs, and sometimes that I never even made it on to the bottom rung of the career ladder.

When I was a child, the overwhelming message I got from those around me was that I was lucky to have a talent for something. Biblical language was often used by adults to convince me that I should not hide my light under a bushel or follow in the footsteps of the lazy son who was given some coins (poignantly identified as ‘talents’) by his father and who, alone among his brothers, did nothing more enterprising than dig a hole and put the money in the ground for safekeeping. It was often put to me that it would be wasteful and selfish not to make the most of my musical aptitude. If you had ‘a gift from God’ you didn’t decide to be a secretary instead.

As soon as I turned professional, however, I found that the outside world regarded music as a deeply suspect choice of career. Many people seemed to think it self-indulgent to be a musician. The long childhood training suddenly seemed as if it had only been preparation for a hobby, for clearly music was not real work. Did we musicians think we could do something we loved, and would have done for pleasure anyway, and be paid for it?

Looking around me, I realised that many people did not love what they were doing from 9am to 5pm. They accepted that boredom and routine were their only way of getting their hands on a reliable pay packet. They thought it was just greedy of musicians to expect an income from something which actually gave them pleasure. When I first complained about the hardships of the freelance music world, friends told me sourly, ‘Well, at least you like doing what you do.’ It was generally held that there was an inverse relationship between liking what you did and being remunerated for it. I was tricked into thinking that lousy income was a small price to pay for interesting 9-to-5 activity.

Of course, every society has its own view of what a proper job is, and the obvious question is, why is music not a proper job? The question must have a different flavour in different countries. In Britain, none of the arts are considered proper jobs. Most parents would experience a tremor of anxiety if their offspring announced they were marrying an actor, painter, poet, folk singer. But if society regarded these jobs as valuable, they would be better funded and better paid, becoming ‘proper’ in the process. In Britain a proper job means regular hours and reliable pay. Better still, you should be seen to be at work, seen by people around you in the same position; having a proper job contains a large element of fitting in.

If you laze around at home and occasionally produce something that earns lots of money, that’s not a proper job. If you work extremely hard and make almost nothing, that’s not a proper job either.  A prizewinning poet who labours for weeks over a poem and wins a £50 prize cannot congratulate themselves on finally having a proper job. If that same poet writes a film script that wins an Oscar, is that more proper? Is being Leonardo da Vinci a proper job? Is it more of a proper job to be Leonardo than to be Damien Hirst? Is being a supermodel a proper job, earning thousands of pounds each week? Is working in a Far Eastern sweatshop a proper job? Even the notion of a proper job may be under attack, now that many jobs are losing their security.

When I started off as a young professional musician, concert offers were slow to materialise. I sometimes worked as a ‘temp’ secretary because my keyboard skills had enabled me to become a fast typist.  These were the only times in my life when I worked office hours (I could say ‘the only time I worked as little as office hours’) in someone else’s office. I could not get over the empty feeling of spending eight hours a day typing someone else’s letters, filing someone else’s forms. Every day I came out at 5pm feeling as if my own mind had been ‘on hold’. Yet friends were impressed I was actually engaging with the world of work.  Was this the proper job that society would have preferred me to do?

I was used to spending the day practising, rehearsing, listening to music, memorising things, doing my own admin, trying to create concert opportunities (all unpaid). On concert days, I would work late into the night. My glimpse of office life was unsettling. I knew that any competent person could have done what I did there. In other words, I and any other competent person were interchangeable: it didn’t have to be me. This was not something I had ever felt in the world of music. Nevertheless, as a secretary I was paid by the hour whether I was doing anything useful or not. Being brilliant wouldn’t earn me more pay, but I couldn’t be paid less either. If there was no work to be done, I was paid anyway.

This was all utterly different from life as a musician. When I joined a chamber group, we spent enormous amounts of time rehearsing.  When we finally got concert offers, we were usually paid for the concerts, but the fees had to cover retrospectively all the unpaid time that we had spent practising and rehearsing. On paper the concert fees themselves looked fine, but they never covered all the time and effort spent in getting and preparing for the concert, trying to publicise it, buying music, travelling across the city to rehearsals, buying concert clothes and accessories, maintaining instruments, travelling to the concert itself, staying overnight if it was far from London, and paying commission to any concert agent who had been involved.

I felt this keenly when applying for my first bank loan. My bank manager looked through my accounts and pointed out that his secretary earned the same as I did, but that she was considerably richer in real terms because she had no expenses, whereas I had to spend about a third of my total income in order to get the work (and therefore should not be lent a large sum of money).

When we compared our lives with those more sensible friends who had gone into, say, civil service or accountancy, our position seemed foolhardy. If we did not play concerts, there would be no money. The satisfaction that we got from a successful concert would be offset by the worry of weeks without income until the next one. Clearly it was not a proper job in the accepted sense. And yet we loved music and were still fuelled by the years of preparation which brought us to this point.

In a pre-industrial society we might have found a happier place, with people around us making things and getting paid erratic prices for them, or not making things and not getting paid. If everyone around us were responsible for their own handiwork, living on the proceeds of what they could grow or produce, seeing the immediate result of their labours, we might fit in better. As it is, being a free-lance musician probably hasn’t changed very much for centuries, whereas many other jobs have changed beyond recognition.

These days, when we meet free-lance musicians from other countries, we like to compare notes. We envy them in at least one important respect.  Many foreign musicians thrive on the knowledge that their work is considered important. Musicians have high status in the community, even if they are not rich, and their vocation is regarded as a higher calling than a mere ‘proper job’. The luckiest ones are supported with all manner of grants, residencies and rewards unavailable in this country. Here, the status of musicians is equivocal. People are happy to come and applaud at concerts while breathing a sigh of relief that they are not married to a musician. Musicians themselves regard their work as culturally important, but wish it were equally valued by the community. And as for enrichment and reward, these remain largely metaphorical.’

from A Musician’s Alphabet by Susan Tomes, Faber 2006

‘Adapting to the new reality’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 October 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

So the UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has suggested that musicians and other creative artists may need to re-train and look for other opportunities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis”, he said. ‘Everyone is having to find ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality.”

I don’t know how long politicians spend in training before they can expect to be appointed to a top job, but I daresay it is only a fraction of the time that most classical musicians spend in training. Most of us start learning our instruments when we’re children, practising daily alongside our schoolwork for years, attending music courses in the holidays, playing in youth orchestras and other kinds of music groups.

I’m probably a typical example: after about ten years of daily music practice as a schoolchild, I went to music college for a year, and then to university. My course was largely academic, so in the summers I attended music courses to improve my playing skills. After I turned professional, I continued to do so, at my own expense. The training got more and more advanced and refined – what the French delightfully call ‘stages de perfectionnement’. I and my colleagues considered it necessary if we were going to subject ourselves to assessment by music critics and international promoters. We knew we were going to be judged by global standards.

As a professional, when I had important recitals coming up, I went for lessons with eminent pianists. Nobody said I had to, but I wanted to judge myself against people I admired. Most artists, even when they have their own careers, want to keep travelling that path towards greater expression and mastery of the instrument.

All this amounts to years of full-time training, plus years and years of part-time training. Which is why it is so painful to be told that some musicians will need to ‘adapt and adjust’. Surely this is Catch-22! Our workplaces are closed. We can’t work. Because we are not working, the government says our jobs may not be viable. Because they are not viable, they are not worth supporting in the future. Clearly, in the government’s eyes, ‘viability’ has nothing to do with value beyond mere finance.

In fact, the musicians of this country have proved time and time again that they are industry leaders on the global stage. Our government should be standing up for us!

Re-classifying music as ‘hospitality’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 September 2020 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

Like many other musicians and freelancers in the arts world I have been shocked this week by further evidence that we are being treated less well than employees on furlough. Our workplaces remain closed by government order. Many freelance musicians have earned nothing at all since the pandemic began. Yet government support is about to be reduced yet again.

From November, freelancers (and remember, not all of them qualify) will receive only 20% of trading profits. How is this remotely adequate when we have no opportunity to work? How are musicians supposed to pay the bills over the winter?

It’s yet more unfair when you think that – unlike most employees – musicians have to spend money in order to be in a position to earn money. They have the upkeep and maintenance of their instruments, and sometimes also payments on the loan they took out to buy those instruments. They have instrument insurance, membership of professional organisations, clothing costs, car insurance and maintenance, piano tuning, maybe studio hire for private practice or group rehearsal, sometimes public liability insurance. Without keeping these things up to date, musicians are not in a position to take work when it comes. Now they have these outgoings, but no income to make sense of them.

It’s clear that the government has a lot of sympathy for the hospitality industry. Even though it may not make sense in public health terms to do so, the government is bending over backwards to enable bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels to remain open and keep trading.

Perhaps what we in the arts should be doing is re-classifying ourselves as part of the hospitality industry. After all, ‘hospitality’ just means ‘entertaining guests’. And don’t we do this? Every concert aims to entertain guests, to give the audience a nice evening in exchange for the price of a ticket, to provide them with pleasant opportunities to socialise as well as artistic nourishment. Are we already within that fold? (I’m joking, but not entirely.)

If concerts were classed as a branch of ‘hospitality’, maybe the powers-that-be would be more sympathetic to our plight. We could easily operate within Covid restrictions and close at 10pm!