Eva, Janice and me at the RFH
Here are Eva Hoffman, Janice Galloway and me at the Royal Festival Hall discussing what it’s like to write about music and musicians. Janice got us all laughing, and it turned into a fun evening. We three speakers all said something about why we wanted to write about music; we read extracts from our books, I played four pieces of piano music, and the audience asked lots of questions.
There was an interesting digression on regional accents. Janice pointed out that Clara Schumann, the pianist who was the subject of Janice’s biography, had a strong Leipzig accent for which she was mocked in certain other cities when she was on concert tours. Somehow I had never thought of Clara speaking with a Leipzig accent, but of course she must have done. And in that light it was very amusing hearing Janice read from the book in her naturally dramatic Glasgow voice, which I shall now hear in my head every time I look at her books.
We discussed the fact that Chopin spoke foreign languages with a Polish accent, as Eva Hoffman does herself, and we agreed that it’s difficult to make your message straightforwardly heard if it’s delivered in an unusual accent. And then we got on to the BBC’s attitude to regional accents. Janice recalled that when she was young, she loved listening to classical music on the radio, but was very nearly put off for good by the exclusive upper-class intonation of the Radio 3 announcers, which ‘seemed to have nothing to do with her’. The BBC’s attitude has changed over the years, and now seems to have swung almost to the opposite end of the spectrum, with not only announcers but also performers with regional accents being rather in vogue.
On Saturday night I gave a solo recital in Cambridge. It was unexpectedly enjoyable because of the audience’s warm response. Even in this season of coughs and colds, they kept utterly silent while I was playing (which has not always been the case elsewhere this winter). Every audience has its own character, and this audience had a particularly likeable one.
I played the programme from memory, with the exception of one piece. And though I was really happy with the evening, I found afterwards that I was brooding on what an enormous amount of my preparation was taken up with the effort of memorising. If I had not been aiming to play from memory, I could easily have performed the recital months ago. I’d estimate that at least half of my total preparation time has been taken up with the long task of embedding the music in my memory – which for me (as I suppose for everyone) means activating several different methods of remembering, from visualisation of the score to muscle memory. Understanding the structure of the music is a vital thing for me as well, when photographic memory or muscle memory lets me down.
But it takes so long before you get to the point where you can play a recital programme from memory. And I can’t help wondering how important it really is. Some players feel freer when they play from memory. I sometimes feel that way too, but just as often I’m a little anxious, as I play, about whether my memory will hold firm. To play from memory is a way of proving to the audience that you have taken your responsibility very seriously. But how important is it to them that the performer plays without the score? Would they have minded if I didn’t?
I’m looking forward to taking part in a literature event at the South Bank on Monday evening at 7.45pm. The novelist Eva Hoffman has invited fellow novelist Janice Galloway and me to join her in a discussion of what it’s like to write about music. I don’t really know either of them except through their work, but our meeting should be interesting. We’re all women, so is that likely to mean that we share a certain approach to our subject, or not?
Writing about music is famously difficult, and we’ve all approached it in different ways. Eva herself nearly became a concert pianist, and her novel ‘Illuminations’ is about a fictional concert pianist who experiences a crisis in her personal and artistic life when she becomes romantically involved with a political terrorist. Janice’s novel ‘Clara’ is a fictionalised biography of Clara Schumann, the 19th century virtuoso pianist who was married to the composer Robert Schumann. And I’m a real-life pianist who writes about my experience of performance. It will be intriguing to see what comes out of our discussion, which will be punctuated by bits of relevant piano music played by me. There are still tickets left …
outside the Gulbenkian Foundation
This photo shows me outside the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, standing beside the poster for the Florestan Trio’s three concerts.
On the day after the concerts, Bob and I caught the old tram up the hill of the Alfama district to visit the castle. While we were standing on the crowded tram, Bob’s wallet was stolen. We knew nothing about it until an Italian tourist, sitting near us with his wife, tapped me on the shoulder and handed me Bob’s wallet. I couldn’t imagine how Bob’s wallet came to be in his hand until he indicated to me what had happened: a pickpocket standing next to Bob had stolen the wallet, the Italian tourist had seen it happen and had reached forward, grabbing the pickpocket’s arm and wrenching the wallet away from him. We knew nothing of it until I turned to see the Italian man handing me the wallet and the pickpocket frantically jostling his way to the back of the bus.
The pickpocket jumped off at the next stop and disappeared. At the following stop, there were a number of police standing about. By this time the whole tram was full of the excited chatter of passengers exclaiming to one another about the incident. As we drew up next to the police, several passengers leaned out of the tram windows and told the police what had happened. The police asked us to get off the tram and tell them ourselves. So we dismounted, and so did the Italians. As I spoke no Portuguese and the police no English, we spoke French. The Italian man was by no means eager to explain his part in the event, but when I had told the police of his brave action, they all turned and congratulated him. I made a speech of praise in schoolgirl French, and then we all shook hands and wished each other well.
Afterwards, we realised what an extraordinary thing our hero had done, especially when the Lisbon guidebooks advise tourists not to resist if they are robbed. He came to the aid of a complete stranger when it would have been so easy to turn a blind eye. He will probably never see this page, but we will always remember him with admiration.
When I got back from Lisbon this afternoon, I looked at my website statistics and saw that an awful lot of people had looked at the website on Saturday while I was away. I realised later that it must have been because of the Guardian’s heart-warming review that day of the Florestan Trio’s Wigmore Hall concert. ‘Every interpretative judgement betrayed class and unegotistical musicianship’, wrote Guy Dammann. What a nice homecoming gift.