Practising in the dark, 1812

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 January 2015 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

I’ve been reading the wonderful ‘Memoirs of a Highland Lady’, written by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus. What a series of unforgettable pictures she paints of her life in the Highlands of Scotland in the early years of the 19th century!

As a teenager, I used to get up early to practise the piano, feeling sorry for myself on winter mornings, but I now realise my discomfort was nothing compared with Elizabeth Grant’s. In 1812 she and her sister Jane used to practise in the dark, as she describes in the following passage:

‘In winter we rose [at 6.30am] without candle, or fire, or warm water. Our clothes were all laid on a chair overnight in readiness for being taken up in proper order. My Mother would not give us candles, and Miss Elphick [our governess] insisted we should get up. We were not allowed hot water, and really in the highland winters, when the breath froze on the sheets, and the water in the jugs became cakes of ice, washing was a cruel necessity, the fingers were pinched enough.

As we could play our scales well in the dark, the two pianofortes and the harp began the day’s work. How very near crying was the one whose turn set her at the harp I will not speak of; the strings cut the poor cold fingers so that the blisters often bled. Martyr the first decidedly sat in the dining room at the harp. Martyr the second put her poor blue hands on the keys of the grand pianoforte in the drawing room, for in those two rooms the fires were never lighted til near nine o’clock … Our alfresco playing was not of much use to us; we had better have been warm in our beds for all the good it did.’ (Memoirs of a Highland Lady, I, p221, Canongate Classics).

Why would their Mother not give them candles? Was such a scene really normal at the time, and was it repeated by young musicians all over Europe? I can’t help feeling slightly traumatised by the thought of these two young Scotswomen practising scales in the dark.

Guardian review of ‘Sleeping in Temples’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 January 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

There’s a review of my new book in today’s Guardian. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Fascinating essays from the celebrated pianist … Susan Tomes has devoted her career largely to chamber music – a niche market within the niche market of classical music, and one in which she has achieved a singularly high reputation as an executive musician.

‘…Her professional focus has been the classical duo and chamber repertory, and she has been inspired by some remarkable people, among them the Hungarian violinist and teacher Sandor Vegh, whom she first encountered at the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall in the late 1970s, and whom she remembers with a mixture of humour and deep affection in “Old People”.

‘Her title refers to an ancient Greek practice whereby individuals would sleep in temples to incubate dreams and so help them to interpret life. For Tomes, it has been Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert who have provided the sacred texts whose “individual notes can feel like words of truth”, yet in this wide-ranging collection she considers in some depth not only matters of pianism and artistic interpretation but also the practical issues, large and small, that performing musicians grapple with every day of their working lives.’ Guardian, 10 Jan 2015

Ex Libris

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 January 2015 under Books, Musings  •  2 Comments

At New Year we played a game we hadn’t played for ages – Ex Libris. It’s a game where all the players have to write the opening or closing sentence of a book which already exists. Each player in turn selects a book from the shelves (obviously you have to have lots of books to hand – this isn’t a game to play on a hiking trip). They read out the ‘blurb’ on the cover, or explain what the book is about, who wrote it, when and where, etc. Then each person has to imagine the opening (or closing) sentence and write it down.

The person who is ‘It’ gathers up all the suggestions, retires to somewhere where the others can’t see them shuffling the papers (behind the sofa in our case) and reads out the sentences, including the book’s real opening sentence, smuggled in amongst the rest. The other players then have to guess which is the real opening sentence. Anyone who guesses correctly gets a point. Anyone whose invented sentence is chosen as the ‘real’ one also gets a point. Guessing correctly is fun, but it’s even more satisfying to make up a sentence which other people think is the real one.

It’s amazing how skilful and imaginative people can be in coming up with a plausible sentence of the right style, era, atmosphere etc. We had players of every age, from schoolchildren to senior citizens, and they were all really good. Time after time we found that the players’ spontaneous inventions were chosen as the most likely ‘real’ opening, and sometimes they seemed almost more apt than the author’s own.

Browsing the shelves for suitable books, I noticed an interesting thing. Many of the books I picked up, even books I knew were fabulous, had quite neutral opening sentences, not hinting at the richness to come, not seeking to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck. Indeed, the closing sentence was often ‘quiet’ and modest as well. Yet when we played the game, we all tried to pack our single sentence with as much promise and colour as we could. Nobody wanted to waste their turn by writing a few matter-of-fact words. Yet this is what a confident author often does in reality. They begin with a single step, not a flourish.

International Piano magazine review

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 January 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

There’s a nice review of my new book, Sleeping in Temples, in the Jan/Feb issue of International Piano magazine. I know from my own attempts that it isn’t always easy to track down this interesting magazine, so I thought I’d take the chance to reproduce an excerpt here:

‘Unlike other pianists, whose blogs can too often be egoistic whinges about the rigours of being worshipped on tour, Tomes writes with enough literary panache to blend into the tradition of the British essay. Her writing is somewhat akin to GK Chesterton’s ‘A Piece of Chalk’ or ‘What I Found In My Pocket’. … The book’s somewhat esoteric title refers to an ancient Greek attempt to ‘incubate dreams’, which Tomes likens to spending a lifetime with piano masterworks ….   a captivating reverie of a book.’

I have been very fortunate with the specialist music magazines’ reaction to my book, but my goal is still to see it mentioned in the mainstream press, which so often chooses to ignore news from the classical music world. An ambition for the new year!

Freedom to add, change and take away

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 December 2014 under Concerts, Musings  •  5 Comments

I’ve been listening to recordings of pieces I’m currently working on. One is a Moment Musical by Schubert, represented by many different performances, including a YouTube clip of Horowitz playing it in front of a rapt audience in, I think, Carnegie Hall.

Horowitz’s touch is wonderful, and he clearly had the audience in the palm of his hand, but I can’t help feeling puzzled by how free he felt to add and change things for greater effect. He plays staccato where Schubert marks legato, and more loudly where Schubert marks ‘quieter’. He adds tiny ornaments to the melodic line, introduces new notes into the middle of certain chords for a more ‘sentimental’ harmony, holds certain bass notes for longer than prescribed, and plays a few ‘passing note’ harmonies on the beat rather than off the beat, to make them more noticeable. All tiny changes, beautifully played, but not what Schubert wrote.

Does it matter? From the roar of approval which greets the final chord, I can only conclude that most people in the audience were thrilled. Yes, there were probably half a dozen pianists who frowned pedantically at Horowitz’s twinkly amendments, but their disapproval would easily have been drowned out by the shouts and cheers.

Times have changed, though, and partly because of the influence of the period instrument movement we have become more attentive to exactly what the composer asked – and a good thing too, in my view. For if we assume the freedom to add or take away whatever we like, how do we know where to stop? In we find that adding a little trill to a well-known melody makes people smile, why not try a schmaltzy little harmony? Might it not be more effective to change the printed dynamics? Why not slow down, if that would seem more touching?

One might argue that such interaction between composer and pianist is a good thing, expressive of relaxation and spontaneity. It might be described as the currently fashionable ‘ownership of the material’, or as updating old music for a modern audience. But I feel uncomfortable if I sense it’s done to draw attention to the performer, rather than to illuminate the music. Is an original text just to be treated as source material, to be varied as the mood takes us? Some might say yes: after all, music is a practical art. But the danger is that by making innovations, we may actually be obscuring the beauty of the music rather than enhancing it. We’re saying we know better than the composer did, and that seems to me a cheap kind of victory.