Edinburgh International Book Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 August 2016 under Books, Concerts  •  2 Comments

DSC02912On a night when the brilliant Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov was playing at the Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival, it was not to be expected that any piano fans would still be available to come to the Edinburgh Book Festival to hear my talk, which clashed directly with the Usher Hall concert. Fearing disappointment, I deliberately stayed out of the way in the Authors’ Yurt before my talk, and didn’t venture out to see how many people were in the queue. So it wasn’t until my interviewer Sheena McDonald swished back the curtain as we entered the Studio Theatre that I saw hundreds of friendly-looking people sitting in the audience. What a nice surprise! I even quite enjoyed playing several little pieces on a digital piano to punctuate the talk. And, as Sheena had predicted, there were plenty of intelligent questions from the audience when we got to the Q&A. The questions continued as I sat signing books in the Signing Tent afterwards. Altogether a good experience. Thank you, Edinburgh Book Festival audience!


Classical music post-Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 July 2016 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

This morning there was a discussion on Radio 4 about the response of the arts in the UK to the Brexit vote. Contributors rightly said that there is much we can and must do to understand who we are, what are the social issues facing us, how can we forge a constructive identity in the future? We must listen (they said) to what people are saying and reflect it, bring it alive through metaphor and portrayal, suggest paths through the maze we appear to be in.

Many of the contributors were from the world of writing and theatre, where these topics can be – and are already being – addressed head-on by the UK’s talented writers and actors. It’s easier to discuss and diagnose social ills if you can use satire and poetry, role-play and humour. In that respect, poets and playwrights at least have an obvious means of pondering our troubled situation.

As I listened I wondered where that leaves UK classical musicians. Abstract music cannot directly address the political issues of the day in the same way that words can. It is transcendent – which is its unique quality, but also one that in an unsympathetic climate can make it appear ‘out of touch’. Our position is somewhat specialised: our core repertoire, and the core of every conservatoire syllabus, is the historical music of central European composers. (Yes, there are many fine British composers past and present, but their music is not the backbone of our repertoire.)

We’re immersed in the inexhaustible music of Bach and Beethoven and Schumann and Brahms, Mozart and Haydn and Schubert, Vivaldi and Verdi and Puccini, Dvorak and Janacek, Debussy and Ravel and Fauré (to take just some obvious examples). They were German, Austrian, Italian, Czech, French. Our lives have been harnessed to European music since we started our training as children. Most classical musicians have studied, lived or worked (and indeed loved, married and had children) in other European countries, taking it for granted (for the past 40 years) that the whole of Europe was ‘our patch’.

So we all desperately want to keep open the bridges to Europe and its music. This isn’t going to be easy as the UK struggles to cut its ties to the EU. Of course we remain geographically close to mainland Europe. We’ll still be able to travel – with some added administrative and financial hurdles – but it isn’t going to feel quite the same. It already doesn’t. We’re hearing that the Erasmus study scheme, which for 30 years has allowed UK musicians to study at European universities, cannot be guaranteed beyond 2017 for UK applicants. ‘Access to Europe’ will be a step further away.

Classical musicians don’t want to feel a step further away. Nor do we want European classics to feel a little bit more distant from anyone. Our mission now must surely be to make sure that in the movement away from the EU we do not lose our ties to European music.  We must fight for it and make sure that it’s made available to people in all walks of life, particularly young people. Such schemes already exist and many musicians are involved in them. But they have been based on the underlying assumption that we are part of the EU. Now they must acquire an urgent sense of keeping those European bridges open and using music to help young people cross them.

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!