What’s in a title?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 July 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  14 Comments

I haven’t written much recently because I seem to have turned into a ‘news junkie’ following the UK’s vote to Brexit. I did write a blog post about Brexit, but it attracted no responses so I went back to reading newspapers and law blogs. Many other music organisations have since published their own statements of concern and alarm about the effect of Brexit on the world of classical music. So I’m leaving the topic aside unless there’s any indication that readers want to join in.

The other day, I was listening to a Scottish radio station while working in the kitchen. It was a programme of folk music – reels, strathspeys, old bagpipe melodies and so on. Once again I was struck by the delightful titles of these old tunes, some of which seem almost too dramatic for the plain little tunes they are harnessed to: ‘The Unjust Incarceration’. ‘The Lament for the Sword’. ‘The Tune of Strife’. ‘Grain in Hides and Corn in Sacks’. ‘The Flame of Wrath for Squint Peter’. ‘I return no more’. ‘I am proud I play a pipe’. And my long-standing favourite, the classic pibroch melody ‘Too Long in This Condition’. What a range of interpretations this summons up!

As I was listening to a dance winningly called ‘The Burnt Potato’, I found myself wishing that classical music had adopted the same approach to its titles. I’ve long thought that the neutral titles of classical music are part of what’s now called ‘its image problem’. Now that music fans have got used to the colourful titles of today’s pop songs and albums, it’s perhaps hard for them to feel curious about somebody’s ‘Symphony no. 2’ or ‘Etude in F sharp minor’, their Concerto K488, their Invention in C minor or their ‘Sonata in A flat opus 110’.

Of course, to those who know and love the music, the title is nothing more than an identifier. Why should the title matter when the music is a whole world?

But these days when writing down the titles of works for concert programmes, I’ve often wished that instead of writing ‘Prelude opus 39 no 2’ or whatever, I could write ‘The Burnt Potato’. Or perhaps ‘The Crispy Aubergine’, or ‘The Handful of Thyme’. Maybe ‘The Path through the Labyrinth’.

Yes, there are some classical pieces with great titles. Janacek’s ‘Intimate Letters’. Debussy’s Preludes for piano: ‘The amphitheatre by moonlight’; Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. But most of the great works are very sparingly named, according to the custom of the time. It would be fun to be able to re-name them.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 June 2016 under Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

The UK vote to leave the European Union has shocked the classical music world, particularly the young European musicians who have opted to study, live or work in the UK courtesy of EU rules and funding. I’ve taught them and played with them on various courses and have always regarded their presence in the UK as highly beneficial. Bringing other cultural and musical traditions with them, they have enriched the musical life of this country and, in many cases, driven up instrumental standards. Their work ethic, cosmopolitan outlook and ambition have been educative for us. Many orchestras and many of the best young chamber groups, such as string quartets, are now heavily dependent on the skills of European players. I personally have never heard any British musician complain that ‘EU migrants’ are taking jobs away from them.

Until now, young musicians have taken it for granted that they can study and work in other EU countries. The opening up of EU travel and funding, which seemed such a luxury for us in the UK when it started in the 1970s, has come to seem to them like their birthright. There is a constant and enthusiastic flow of students to the UK’s principal music colleges and universities, and a lesser, but still significant flow of UK music students going to study in places like Berlin, Leipzig, Paris and Vienna. EU rules and EU funding have made these educational exchanges affordable and popular. Now they may suddenly come to an end. (I’m aware that on the larger scale, UK universities are aghast about the effect of Brexit on their EU-funded research programmes, but for now I’m just thinking about musicians.)

Orchestras and artist managements have issued statements expressing concern about the impact of Brexit on British artists hoping to perform in the rest of Europe. The falling £, the rising cost and bureaucratic complexity of going abroad, the likely changes to visas and reciprocal tax arrangements with EU countries – all these will make life harder and more costly for UK musicians, who depend to a greater or lesser extent on the steady appetite for classical music of European audiences. European musicians can go home and travel freely and easily between other European countries, but British musicians hoping to play abroad may be faced with all sorts of hurdles. Of course they will still go, but it won’t feel the same.

On Twitter, people have been quick to remind me that most people never study or work abroad, and that I am bleating about a tiny minority. That may be true, but my whole professional life is contained in that minority.

When I first started travelling to other European countries – first as a student and then as a performer – I had to realise that other countries felt different and did things differently to us. I smelled the air and walked the streets of the cities where my musical heroes lived and understood them better. Weather, food, transport, attitudes to life, appreciation of music and musicians – so many things opened my eyes to the realisation that ‘our way’ wasn’t the only way. I developed a broader outlook. That in itself was an education which many musicians experience and which makes them long to keep those doors open.

Making the tricks of memory seem natural

Posted by Susan Tomes on 17 June 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Recently I’ve had to memorise various piano pieces by Schubert. I find his music unusually hard to memorise, for a reason that throws light on why it is so profoundly satisfying.

Composers often use themes or musical material which they bring back later in the piece. Sometimes whole passages, whole pages of music come back. Usually when this happens it makes the task of memorising somewhat easier. But Schubert has a special way of bringing back material but changing it very subtly, so that it feels the same as when you first heard it, even though it actually isn’t. Mozart is the only other composer I know who has mastered this art to the same extent.

Sometimes superficial things change, like trills or other kinds of decoration added to phrases which didn’t have any when we first heard them. Sometimes octaves are added or taken away. Inner voices may be introduced, adding a quiet commentary to a returning motif. The same melody may come back, but with a different bass line, or with a new twist of harmony, leading to a new escape route and a new consequence. Sometimes a bit of music comes back but is compressed into a shorter span. Pauses or little rests may be introduced. Chords may retain the same harmonies as before, but reappear in different inversions. Something which was moderately loud in the original context is now reprised softly, or the other way round. A little four-bar digression may be extended to five or more bars when it reappears. A ‘legato’ phrase from the opening section may be non-legato in the closing one. A modulation to a distant key may be reprised with an even more adventurous modulation. Sometimes big things change, and sometimes the changes are so tiny that ‘only a real princess would notice them’.

Most composers use these techniques of variation to mark out a theme’s journey through a piece. But often their technique is plain to see when you study the score, and thus not too difficult to remember. The difference with Schubert (for me at least) is that he seems instinctively to grasp the way that memory works, and to translate the workings of human memory into music. In other words, he understands that we sincerely try to recall something as it was, and think that we have. But in fact we may have forgotten certain elements, or half-forgotten, or adjusted them unconsciously. Time and distance from the original event have rubbed away some of its contours, or made others stand out more vividly than they did. As we listen to Schubert’s music, we may feel that this was indeed the phrase as we first heard it, with all the same details. But it rarely is.

For the listener, all this happens so gently that they may feel they recognize things, just as they were, when they reappear later in the music. But in fact there is constant change. Schubert’s gift is to make this process feel natural, almost undetectable. Natural to listen to, that is  – but incredibly hard to memorise!

Reviews: how can we quote them if the press doesn’t print them?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 June 2016 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Reviews  •  3 Comments

Two recent topics of conversation have come together in my mind to prompt a question.

Topic 1: the number of classical concert reviews is shrinking rapidly. Everyone in the profession has noticed it. Many newspapers are reducing the number of classical reviews they print and the number of days a week on which they print them. Reviews are moved from the print edition to a web page. Critics are moved from salaries to free-lance arrangements, or are ‘let go’ altogether. Budgets are cut and papers don’t want to pay for critics to travel. Therefore many concerts come and go with no recognition in the press.

When I was a young professional musician, I used to go down to the newsagent on the day after a big concert and collect all the reviews. Often there were three or four on the same day, and magazine reviews followed later. I had ‘reviews’ folders bulging with newspaper pages.

But now, getting a review is an red-letter day. None of the old ways of guaranteeing a review –  giving a debut recital, putting on a premiere, exploring unusual repertoire, including interesting guest artists – are guaranteed any more. Even printed reviews are often subjected to the sub-editor’s knife. Occasionally a well-disposed critic has found a way to let me know that they were actually at the concert and did actually write a review, but it was ‘spiked’ (meaning never printed). Once I asked, ‘Can I have a copy of it, to quote from?’ but the answer was no. If it wasn’t officially published, it isn’t officially a review. The critic said, ‘I could let you have it, but it would have no more force than a personal letter from a member of the audience.’

Topic 2: funding bodies, etc. When you apply for money, you have to submit ‘proof of critical esteem’, which basically means reviews. If you apply for a visa to perform in certain countries, you have to send ‘published reviews’ from reputable papers. In the past, you could simply photocopy some recent reviews and attach them to your application. But now things have changed. Often there is no recent review.

However, this does not mean that there have been no successful concerts. There may have been halls full of enthusiastic listeners, but how can musicians prove it? They can send programmes to prove that the concerts happened, but that is no ‘proof of esteem’ in the eyes of funding bodies or foreign immigration departments.

A friend of mine was struggling with this problem lately as he compiled a funding application for a festival. There had been lots of good concerts, but no reviews. So I asked whether he was allowed to quote Tweets, Facebook messages, ecstatic emails from members of the audience? He laughed heartily and said, ‘I hardly think so.’

But something has to change. If official bodies require ‘published proof of critical esteem’, but newspapers are getting rid of their critics, then something has to give. There must be other acceptable ways of proving that your concerts were well-received. I can see the problem: tweets, personal letters and ’emails from members of the public’ would be easy to fake, or at least easy to generate with the help of some sympathetic friends. That’s the whole problem with, say, Tripadvisor. I can appreciate why ‘a published review in a newspaper’ is regarded as a guarantee of impartiality.

But as these grandly impartial platforms fade away, we need other ways of ‘proving esteem’. So how are we to do it?


Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 June 2016 under Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

IMG_20160517_140414218_HDRWe have a lovely cat, Daisy, whom we ‘rescued’ from a cat shelter. Shortly after she moved in, another cat got in through the catflap one evening. We were out and didn’t see what happened, but the two cats had clearly had an epic struggle. Clumps of cat fur were on the stairs. Objects were strewn around as if the cats had been grappling on table tops in various rooms.  Daisy was traumatised by the event.

We decided to splash out on a state-of-the-art high-tech catflap which would be programmed with Daisy’s electronic ‘chip’ and would open only for her. Naturally it was expensive, and so was the joinery required to fit it in the door. But we consoled ourselves by thinking that Daisy would never again have to confront predators inside the house.

Daisy too mulled over the incident and came to the opposite conclusion. She instituted a regime of guarding the catflap. From early morning she stations herself in a viewing position from which she can look through the catflap to check for enemies. Occasionally enemies present their evil faces at the catflap window, but they can’t come in.

But Daisy doesn’t know this and is always alert to danger. Now it is my turn to be tormented by the impossibility of explaining the situation to her. It weighs on my mind to see her carrying out her long vigils when I know that her enemies can’t get in. But how can we explain this concept to Daisy? I often feel there’s a metaphor here, but it never quite crystallises.