Motherly imagination

“Who Is Musical?’ – not perhaps the most eye-catching title for a book, but this is indeed the title of a book by Brahms’s close friend Theodor Billroth, who Brahms dedicated his Op 51 string quartets to.   Billroth was working on the text of this first ever scientific study of the nature of musicality late in his life and it was published posthumously. A highly regarded and innovative Viennese surgeon, he was also a very good musician.  I find it moving playing the viola part of the Brahms quartet knowing that he would have played this very part and that to some extent Brahms would have had his friend in mind in his musical imagination. Billroth stated that “it is one of the superficialities of our time to see in science and art two opposites. Imagination is the mother of both.”         Max Klinger. Brahmsphantasie: Accord   1894 Brahms was a great enthusiast of the art of Max Klinger – and Klinger was equally enthusiastic about Brahms’s music.  They were without doubt artistic soul mates, in touch with their subconscious and finding ways to express their imagination. Brahms felt that writing his music was about realising what he heard in his dreams, the sphere of imagination. Perhaps with science so pivotal and revered today, and with the arts being existentially challenged, the friendship of Brahms, Klinger and Billroth can show us the importance of imagination.  Against all odds, we can still...

My First and Last Love

Music was my first love And it will be my last. Music of the future And music of the past.   To live without my music Would be impossible to do. In this world of troubles, My music pulls me through.   John Miles ‘Music’ Songwriters: Breyon Jamar Prescott, Michael C. Flowers © Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd. I was rather keen on this song when it came out and still retain a curious fondness for it.   I related to its obsessive, repeated message and found it musically and structurally interesting – well, more interesting than some.   Apart from its obvious message, the lyrics also summarise the lives of many composers and artists who have produced extraordinary and elevating works of art, often in the midst of suffering and difficulty.  Beethoven, Schubert, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Proust, Joyce – the list goes on and on. The lyrics also convey something of the compulsion musicians have to make music, and touch on the reason why people act on their wish to experience live music and go as far as venturing out to attend concerts – when it is safe to do so! Since this quartet’s live public music making was terminated, albeit temporarily, along with music making the world over as a result of lockdown, we have enjoyed putting together some videos to connect with those who have been drawn to our music making, and to show that we are still up for it.   Obviously we are aware that the videos may reach an audience but it is a very different sort of chemistry from playing live, interacting...

Lace Space

In the current situation that we find ourselves in, where life has largely been put on hold, apart from the valiant key workers who are tirelessly and admirably going about their work, it seems apt to consider the significance of rests and pauses, using music as a starting point.  I have touched on the subject of rests in music briefly before in a previous post but I have found myself recently reflecting more extensively on the subject in the light of our enforced break. Firstly: isn’t lace wonderful! Here’s an example of Honiton lace that has a decidedly spring-like burst of life about it: Sample of Honiton Lace circa 1870 from the Allhallows Museum Collection (www.honitonmuseum.co.uk) Photo copyright The Allhallows Museum. Lace provides a perfect illustration of the importance of rests in music.  The needlework represents the notes and the spaces between imply the rests.  They co-exist; without the spaces there would be no meaning. (I find that many of my pupils are rather baffled by this concept – that rests are so important and meaningful.  In their minds, music is about making sound.) It’s often not clear to the listener what a profusion of rests exists in the music they are hearing.  Often, a player will have a rest when someone else is playing, so the rest is not so noticeable.  A good example of the importance of rests in music is the end of Haydn’s string quartet Op 33 No 2 (‘The Joke’), where his use of rests sets up the ‘punchline’ at the very end of the last movement.  We played this quartet in a concert...

Hesitation, Repetition, Deviation

It was sad to hear of the recent death of Nicholas Parsons, the genial presenter of Radio 4’s popular comedy programme Just a Minute.   “Without hesitation, repetition or deviation” has become a catchphrase used in common parlance.  It is something that any musician who presumes to stand up and talk about the music about to be played would be wise to bear in mind.  As audiences may have noted, I am still very much a learner in this respect. I’d only last a few seconds on that programme. Turning the rules upside down to make hesitation, repetition and deviation permissible in a musical context, some thoughts have struck me in relation to the works that we are playing in our current concert series. Hesitation I suppose the most obvious musical manifestation of hesitation is the pause, indicated by the composer in the printed music by what could be described as a dot with a sideways bracket above it, looking a bit like an all-knowing eye and eyebrow.  There isn’t a single pause in Mozart K 421. There are several in the Webern Bagatelles – momentary lulls in the intense abundance of textures and expressions. There are a few more in Beethoven’s Op 59 No 1. He was an inveterate pause man, even more than your most avid dog or cat lover.  His most famous work (arguably), his 5th symphony, has two pauses in close succession at the beginning of the piece.  Sometimes the pause is used like this for dramatic effect. At other times it marks an important place in the structure of the music where it is time...