Happy New Year to readers of this blog – and thank you for sticking with me. It is lovely to know that somewhere out there is a circle of readers. Quite a wide circle, geographically. Visualising that circle definitely helps to combat the feeling of isolation to which pianists are often prone.
Those of you who are e-book readers probably know already that my book ‘Out of Silence’ is available as an e-book.In January, my first book ‘Beyond the Notes’ (Boydell Press) will also be published in electronic form. It’s available on several platforms: Kindle, Apple i-Store, Barnes & Noble’s e-platform, eBooks.com – an Australian supplier, Gardners (who sell on behalf of independent bookshops), Kobo, Sony, Waterstones,and Overdrive.
I don’t like to admit that I don’t possess an e-book reader, but perhaps you do. Happy New Year! I have a feeling that 2014 is going to be a better year.
Yesterday I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme about Henry Cole, the founder of the splendid V&A Museum in South Kensington. They were talking to a curator of the David Bowie exhibition, one of the most successful of the V&A’s recent exhibitions. The curator was asked why they had chosen to focus on David Bowie. Explaining that he was ‘one of a very short short-list’, the curator added something to the effect that they had chosen Bowie ‘because music is perhaps the one art-form that the man in the street knows about and can relate to’.
I felt a bit sad when I heard that, because it seemed to me there was a word missing from the sentence: ‘pop’. Perhaps pop music is the one art-form that the man in the street can be relied upon to relate to. But it is not true that you can depend on him to know about other kinds of music, and probably not about classical music, more’s the pity.
We heard this week that TimeOutLondon is to drop its coverage of classical music entirely. There have been similar threats elsewhere. The harder it is to come across news and reports of classical music, the less will people be aware of it. There are lots and lots of classical concerts going on, a great many dedicated musicians, and as John Gilhooly pointed out in his Royal Philharmonic Society speech, many determined people working like mad to make sure that classical music continues to flourish.
But everything is relative, and it sometimes feels as though those numbers, real as they are, are swamped by the sheer tide of people who’ve never come across classical music and take no interest in it. We have a generation of young people who were never introduced to it at school, and nor were their parents. They regard classical music as nothing to do with them. Researchers keep trying to tell us that music is good for the brain, that long-form music (such as classical) is a wonderful training in concentration, and that playing and singing are peerless ways to nurture co-operation. But is anyone listening?
We face a big challenge. It is all very well to talk about ‘cultivating the audiences of tomorrow’, but you can’t cultivate things where no seeds were ever planted. Yet things could change tomorrow if classical music were given a real presence in the school curriculum.
The BBC2 series ‘Masterchef‘ has come to an end with Steven Edwards winning the title. One of the competitors’ final tasks was to cook for a roomful of distinguished chefs, well known from Michelin-starred restaurants around the UK.
This is always a fascinating event, partly because of the way these leading chefs talk about food. When asked for their opinion on the dishes before them, they often say straightforward things like ‘well cooked’, ‘bang on’, ‘looks great’, ‘well-flavoured’ and ‘very enjoyable’. These are all people who perform artistry with ingredients on a daily basis. Yet they all seem very reluctant to commit themselves when it comes to describing the food they’ve just eaten. Perhaps they feel shy in front of the others and don’t wish to be teased. Perhaps they don’t feel relaxed in front of a TV camera. Maybe they say ‘it was well cooked’ and then go home and write in their diaries that it made them feel they were walking alongside the Seine on a crisp autumn afternoon with the scent of woodsmoke in the air. Maybe they call their partners and say it was like seeing the poetry of Seamus Heaney come to life on a plate.
I couldn’t help comparing them with a roomful of wine writers at a similar event. Surely the adjectives and metaphors would flow as freely and colourfully as the wine! But then let’s not forget that wine writers are not the ones who actually make the wine.
It’s a useful reminder that people who are very good at ‘doing’ are often not very good at ‘saying’. You see it in all sorts of fields, music included. I suspect some people actually feel it is important not to put things into words. Fair enough. Though in the case of Masterchef Professionals, it feels like a missed opportunity to give us a glimpse of how these eminent chefs actually think about food.
I’ve been practising Schumann’s ‘Papillons’, a cycle of piano pieces containing various motifs and references which reappear in his later piano music. It seems that for Schumann, butterflies were associated with the novels of Jean Paul, one of his favourite authors, who often wrote about the soul’s struggle to resolve its identity. In fact, the link between butterflies and souls goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Psyche, goddess of the soul, was often portrayed as having butterfly wings. I believe that other cultures have also linked butterflies and souls.
So it’s not surprising that butterflies have appealed to composers. In Schumann’s case they seem to be some sort of code for little motifs which come and go, appear here and there, turn upside-down and backwards if they want. One of Grieg’s best-known piano pieces is called ‘Butterfly’. Ravel wrote his piano piece ‘Noctuelles’ about night moths. Poulenc has a piano piece called ‘Phalenes’, another kind of moth. More recently, Harrison Birtwistle has written a ‘Moth Requiem’ inspired by Robin Blaser’s poem about a moth trapped inside a grand piano. It’s a curious thing that all these butterflies and moths should be associated with the piano, on the face of it too percussive an instrument to evoke these mysterious creatures.
Butterflies, starting life as caterpillars, represent the possibility of transformation. What could be more magical than something which begins as an earthbound, slow, crawling creature and ends as an airborne scrap of colour and beauty? I’ve read that the butterfly is the only creature which changes every cell in its body when it transforms itself inside the chrysalis. The DNA of a caterpillar, it seems, is wholly different from that of a butterfly. No wonder this unique process has inspired composers to take simple cells of music and give them new identities.
But why did Schumann use the French word ‘Papillons’ for his piano pieces? He wasn’t French. Why not use the German word? It’s a bit of a mystery, but it seems that in Jean Paul’s ‘Flegeljahre’ there’s an important chapter about a Masked Ball which made a great impression on Schumann. The German word for a masked ball is ‘Larventanz’, and ‘Larven’ can mean not only masks but also larvae, or butterflies-in-waiting, a play on words which doubtless appealed to the author as he made his characters mistake one another’s identities. ‘Larventanz’, though, perhaps isn’t the prettiest of words. Maybe Schumann just liked the sound of ‘Papillons’ better than the sound of ‘Larven’, or preferred it to the brittle sound of ‘Schmetterling’, the German word for butterfly. Maybe he wanted to conceal a direct link to the novel. Or maybe when he swapped from German to French he simply made a graceful sideways hop and a skip to another part of the forest.
I was doing some teaching at Oxford University the other day, and we were discussing the challenges of making a good entrance on to the concert platform when giving a recital as part of your exams. I was discoursing on the need for calm or confidence, and trying to recommend various thoughts and mind-games that might help as the performer crossed that strange space between the entrance door and the piano stool, chair, music stand or whatever.
My students agreed politely and then added that it was perhaps especially difficult to make an elegant entrance with your instrument if you were wearing a long academic gown and ‘mortarboard’ hat.
I had had no idea that Oxford students taking exams were required to wear academic dress, but it seems that they are. Nobody is exempt from this long tradition, not even musicians giving a concert performance. Apparently they may, once they reach their chair, take off the academic gown and mortarboard and put them aside while they play, but at the end of the performance, these items must be picked up and put on again.
I asked whether it was not possible to ask for a dispensation in the case of musicians who are, after all, trying to prepare themselves for the world of public performance, but was told that it was out of the question. All sorts of other groups would object to the exemption, asking (understandably) why it is any more relevant for engineers, doctors, IT specialists and so on to have to wear academic dress for their exams. In fact, not so long ago, it seems that there was a vote on the subject at which students displayed a preference for keeping the old traditions going.
I was fascinated by this unusual spin on the challenges of the performance situation. It may even be that wearing a black academic gown and mortarboard can be used to advantage when making a dignified entrance, but I imagine it is not so easy to make a dignified exit, especially if you have to carry a large musical instrument.