A composer in ordinary
In our next programme we will be starting with music written long before the advent of the string quartet as we know it. The viol consort music of the early English baroque period in particular has a very strong affinity with the concept of the string quartet – four equal parts interacting and ‘talking’ together. It seems that as long as there have been chambers (as opposed to big halls), there has been chamber music.
Let me take you up the Exe estuary.
Topsham, Devon, in 1788, bustling with life and trade.
Topsham was a key port with strong trading connections to places as far away as The Netherlands to the East and Newfoundland to the West. A century and a half before this picture was painted a boy chorister at nearby Exeter Cathedral brazenly inscribed his name in the stone structure of the organ loft.
It is not known why he used this spelling. Maybe he was worried that the correct spelling, Matthew Locke, would have taken him too long to scratch in the stone; he might have got caught vandalising the building and have been severely punished. One wonders what he was doing in the organ loft anyway. I suppose he must have had to pump the bellows occasionally.
Locke’s tutor at Exeter would have been Edward Gibbons, brother of Orlando Gibbons. This curious little piece ‘What Strikes the Clocke?’ by Edward Gibbons, originally for three viols but here played on recorders, shows that instrumental chamber music had a place even at that time.
After his time as a chorister Locke broadened his vision considerably, travelling to the Netherlands and subsequently becoming ‘Composer in Ordinary to His Majesty, and organist of her Majesty’s chapel’ (Charles II and Catherine of Braganza.)
When Locke died, Henry Purcell, who clearly considered Locke to be something of a mentor to him, was moved to write an ode with the sentiment ‘What hope for us remains now he is gone?’ That is quite a tribute, from Purcell.
When I was studying in my first year at the Royal College of Music, I attended a lecture/demonstration given by Francis Baines, co-founder of the Jaye Consort along with his wife June. (The Jaye Consort was at the forefront of the revival of interest in the well informed performance of baroque music on instruments of the period.) Ostensibly it was a one-man introduction to the wonderful viol consort music of the early baroque but it started with him coming on to the stage seemingly with instruments hanging off him and he immediately enthusiastically demonstrated their particular characters. He was decidedly eccentric. He eventually sat down and started playing the viol, showing us how to produce the sound. He was talking enthusiastically about the harmonies and intervals in the music, which is often surprisingly dissonant. He got so involved in what he was showing us that he was overcome with emotion and excused himself saying that he couldn’t do any more and walked off the stage, instruments in hand.
That really cut it for me. I wanted what he had. A few days later I sought him out and he very kindly encouraged me to come along and join in the viol consort group that he was teaching. I attended these sessions for a while but couldn’t continue with them as I had to focus on my viola studies but I will always be grateful for all that he showed me and for the unforgettable experience of intimate communal music making that is at the heart of viol consort music and that resonates strongly in string quartet playing too.
The suite by Locke that we are playing is basically a set of dance movements. Here is the Courante. By the time we get to the concerts it will run even faster. And you will be able to see all four of us.
Next blog post: From Topsham to… New York. The transatlantic connection and the music of Caroline Shaw.
Behind the scenes
Greetings from Divertimento String Quartet.
Lindsay and I (Andrew) had injuries to our fingers quite recently that temporarily jeopardised our playing commitments. I had a bizarre altercation with a handle of a chest of drawers that left one of my fingers lacerated and Lindsay performed impromptu involuntary surgery on a finger tip while chopping vegetables. Fortunately our digits recovered just in time for us to be able to fulfill our playing engagements.
So, on the same theme of extra-musical behind the scenes trivia and in the spirit of seasonal story telling and merriment, we thought that we would share a few other pre-concert incidents that have happened over the years, just in case we have ever given the impression that our rarified artistic world is devoid of the experience of the mundane.
I was playing in a concert with the English Chamber Orchestra. The soloist in the first half of the concert had been the violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman. We were chatting with him in the green room and then it was time to go back on stage for the second half of the concert. I couldn’t get my violin out of the case; somehow the lock had jammed. Frank Peter pushed his Strad into my hands and I hastened after the others to get on stage.
Every violin takes getting used to, but I enjoyed trying to control this amazing instrument. After the concert Frank Peter triumphantly held up my fiddle… as he had spent the time prising open the lock on my case with a knife that he had got from the restaurant.
I could waste rather a lot of your time recounting numerous pre-performance ‘incidents’. For instance a waitress was divested of her work outfit because I turned up to play for a wedding without my concert clothes. Yes, people sacrifice their dignity for me for the cause of art.
I was booked to lead an orchestra in Plymouth and when I arrived at St Andrew’s church for the rehearsal I opened up my violin case to find nothing inside. This is a bit of a theme, I confess, and I am very grateful to my family for saving the day when I’ve not managed to get to a rehearsal on a concert day with an instrument to play.
Amongst other ignominious stains on my reputation, I offer this:
Concert day at The Royal College of Music. The Director, Sir David Wilcox and other big wigs were sitting in the gallery of the main hall awaiting the arrival of the orchestra on stage to play Brahms’s Serenade No 2 Op 16. This piece has no violins so the violas are very much in the spotlight.
As I got to the stage door to walk on with the other musicians it dawned on me that my music wasn’t on the stand – I had taken it home to practise it after the rehearsal earlier that day. I knew that I had brought it back to the College though. I told the conductor that I was going to get the music from my viola case. I discovered that the music wasn’t there. I realised that I must have left it in my locker – in another part of the large building. I informed the conductor of the situation. To get to the corridor where the lockers were involved going through the opera studio that was underneath the main hall – it still is, probably.
The floor had very shiny lino on the floor in the audience area of the studio and as I rushed through the room, I found myself skidding around the corners, not unlike the sliding movements of those professional tennis players on clay courts. When I got to my locker in the dark corridor I reached for the key in my pocket, searching, but in vain. I’d left it in my viola case.
I rushed back to the green room of the main hall, skidding all the way, grabbed the key and returned to the corridor, extricated the music and headed back, performing skating movements that Torvill and Dean would no doubt have been impressed by.
I arrived at the stage door breathless and flustered. The conductor, Michael Lankester, was surprisingly calm. I was thankful for this as the forthcoming ordeal of my arrival on stage was looming. I bit the bullet. It wasn’t exactly an entry greeted with tumultuous adulation. I seem to remember some rather feeble hand clapping. I tried not to think about the people in the gallery.
It is a really beautiful piece, that Brahms Serenade. I haven’t heard it since that day. I think that I need to revisit it.
At a recent DSQ concert, I forgot to bring the correct shoes to wear in the concert. A good friend of mine – also a cellist as it happens – was in the audience and when I mentioned to her my predicament, she said “I will go and get my spare pair from the car for you.” rushed off with only minutes to spare before the concert and I found they were much too big. I headed off down the aisle of the church but to my horror I could barely put one foot in front of the other, as the shoes kept falling off. I had to skate my way down the church, clutching my cello, trying not to lift them at all, a difficult feat (feet!). The situation made me and the others in the quartet collapse into helpless giggles. I managed with difficulty to climb onto the platform and was still trying to control myself, with tears rolling down my cheeks, when we started playing Haydn, which quickly sobered me!
Laughter is the best medicine. We hope that you all have jocular and good times over Christmas and the new year with your families and friends, whilst keeping safe at this very difficult time.
We are so looking forward to performing our next programme in the new year. We will be playing works written between 1596 and 2011 and finding connections between Devon, Denmark and North America across the seas.
Mary, Andrew, Lindsay and Vicky
(We are indebted to the late and great Hollywood String Quartet for the photo idea.)
Fun and games
I may have given the impression in the previous post that Haydn’s Op 76 No 4 is full of angst. Don’t let this put you off. There is lightness too. Everything is in balance.
It is a tricky game to play, but great fun. Haydn offers so much.
To be, or not to be?
Haydn’s quartet op 76 no 4 (written c. 1798) is known as ‘The Sunrise’. Sunrise? It is not a nickname attached to the quartet by Haydn himself. It is very likely that the association arose because Haydn was writing his oratorio The Creation around the time that he was writing the quartet and some people saw a relationship between the opening of the quartet and the inspired depiction of sunrise near the beginning of the oratorio.
And yet…this quartet surely begins not tentatively like the first inkling of morning light but with a matter of fact held chord over which the first violin sets off on a dreamy, rising melody. Basically the chord acts as a pause, over which the violin extemporises. A pause at the beginning of a piece! What is going on?
There are several pauses indicated by Haydn in Op 76 No 4 – nine in all, not including implied pauses like the opening chord. One in particular is most unusual:
It is at the end of the first section of the first movement, before the usual repeat is indicated, implying a proper break in the flow of music – a settling before re-establishing that opening chord. Sunrises don’t have pauses in my experience. There’s surely much more going on.
Looking at the opening a little closer: after the placing of the first pause-chord, the first note that the 1st violin plays is dissonant and this dissonance happens each time similar pause-chords appear in the piece.
After the first section is repeated, the pause-chord appears again, firstly in minor mood
followed by another pause-chord (after three shorter chords) that surely must be one of the darkest Haydn ever conceived:
Amidst much that is vibrant and energetic in this first movement, these moments of reflection seem particularly telling.
Haydn attended Viennese salons where Enlightenment intellectuals were present and he would have been very aware of the massive wind of change going on with the thinking around the Enlightenment and the march towards the ‘age of reason’. He was a Roman Catholic man of faith. It is said that he was very attached to his rosary and often felt inspired to compose once he had held it for a while and prayed. (If this rosary still exists, it must be worth a lot!) The relationship between reason and religion would have exercised the mind of such a sensitive and thoughtful person.
The pauses in the music induce thoughtfulness in the listener. ‘To be, or not to be?’ Haydn takes us to a place of questioning, perhaps possibility, even doubt, and sometimes there is disintegration, like disappearing into an abyss. This happens in the last movement of this quartet where the first violin gets stuck, unable to find a way out, lonely, almost losing its personality:
Does his music simply stem from his thoughtful, imaginative character or does it reflect the revolutionary and enlightenment storms sweeping through Europe at the time, putting everything into question? I suspect that it is all of those things. Today his music is as relevant as ever, drawing us in to the wonder of life and opening up existential questions that perhaps have no answers.
“A quartet, honey?”
Could there be anything better to do on your honeymoon than write a string quartet? I am sure that Cécile,
Felix Mendelssohn’s wife, did know what she was letting herself in for, marrying the foremost musical celebrity of that period (in Frankfurt, at the French Reformed Church, where her father was the minister – the building was sadly destroyed in the Second World War.)
They really did the honeymoon in style – seven weeks in the Rhineland and Black Forest in 1837. The Rhine, bearer of ancient myths and symbolic of the connection with the wider world must have helped to stimulate their romantic souls. Surely they also debated the relationship between their respective Lutheran (Felix) and Calvinist (Cécile) backgrounds, that would also have involved reference to J.S. Bach no doubt.
Somehow Felix found the time and focus to work on his string quartet in E minor Op 44 No 2. They had five children – not all during the honeymoon, I hasten to add. Ten years later, Felix was dead, completely at a loss after his sister Fanny’s sudden death. Cécile was to die of tuberculosis six years later than him, aged 36, her family torn by tragedy.
Cécile is remembered primarily as a helpmate for Felix, in rather passive terms, as if this is what was expected of her, and it is clear that this is the ideal norm of that time and society. We hear little about her views or interests. It is all about Felix.
The music speaks volumes though, of their love. The slow movement of the quartet in particular is a give away, just as this Song without Words written around the same time contains a decidedly intimate dialogue between high and low voice that becomes symbolically unified as the piece progresses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4CEiVZMo9A
Another hugely significant woman in Felix’s life, Bella Salomon, had given Felix a copyist’s manuscript score of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion around 1824. The Mendelssohn family were Bach obsessed and even had original Bach scores in their possession but this close encounter with the St Matthew Passion so enthused Felix that it led ultimately to him undertaking a Bach revival, the legacy of which we still benefit from today. (I wouldn’t hold him solely responsible for Bach’s ‘re-discovery’. Amongst others, Mozart had already gone back to Bach and seen how very important he was. Mendelssohn’s particular mission was in reviving performances of Bach’s works.)
There is a passage in the last movement of the Op 44 No 2 quartet that shows very clearly how Mendelssohn is irresistibly thinking along Bachian lines.
In the context of the movement as a whole, it passes by without drawing attention to itself, which just goes to prove how totally integrated the profound influence of Bach was for Mendelssohn. Just as the Rhine was the central geographical current in the Mendelssohn honeymoon, musically Bach was Felix’s primary source of sustenance.
(Portrait of Cécile Mendelssohn by Eduard Magnus courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute)
The Sweet Spot – music and sport part 2
Serena Williams on form… again.
With Wimbledon in the offing, I can’t resist continuing the tennis/sport/music theme from the previous post.
I have always seen parallels between music and sport – I admit to being biased towards bowed string playing, tennis, and football here – but actually pinpointing the similarities has produced a list the length of which has surprised even me.
Trajectory. Momentum. Movement. Awareness. Preparation, swing. Placing. Watching. Receiving. Listening. Movement. Attack. Weight. Agility. Goal. Target. Live – in real time. Warm up. Nerves. Euphoria. The psychology of confidence. Doubt. Doldrums. Team work. Social side. Morale. Accuracy. Improvisation. Adjustment. Frustration with the manager/conductor. Uplift of the inspiration of other players. Analysis. Focus. Muscle memory. Balance. Preparation – mental and physical. Unrepeatable event. Importance of the crowd/audience relationship. Supporters. Commentators. Critics. Play. Fun. Importance of heroes of the players in their minds. Stamina. Pacing. Speed. Skill. Technique. Training. Parental support. Psychology. Mental attitude. Collective awareness and understanding. Visualisation. Presentation. Performance. Imagination. Dreaming. Physicality. Adrenalin. Post mortem. Pacing. Build up. Release. Relaxation. Suppleness. Flexibility. Fluidity. Strength. Training. Balance. Timing. Set pieces. Strength. Softness. Resonance of playing objects. The bounce (ball/now on string). Sweet spots. Finding the most efficacious point of contact. Working with the tightness/pressure of the ball is like working with the tightness of a string to transfer energy and create momentum in creative ways. The visceral experience of responding to kinetic energy and managing latent energy. Substitutions. Athleticism. Reaching – calculated and instinctive – for the ball, for a note. Concentration. Beauty – of action, movement. Intention.
This list without doubt opens up all sorts of possible avenues to pursue, but for the moment, perhaps I can summarise it all in the following drawing that I came up with after considerable thought on what happens when sports people make contact with the ball and likewise what happens when string players produce notes:
(Looking at this, you can see, I am sure, how very wrong it is to label musicians as arty-farty and without any scientific aptitude.)
The drawing is of course simplified but I’m going with the maxim that there is a beauty in simplification. In particular, what it doesn’t show is where the real skill of the event takes place – what happens at the point of contact (R) where there is both mastery and mystery – mastery in the sense of understanding exactly what will happen if the ball or string is approached in a certain way (speed, weight, angle) – and mystery because there are so many indefinable factors too, like instinct, the nature of the moment of contact, the way that imagination is transferred from thought into physical action.
These videos show in slow motion the point of contact where ball meets racquet and bow strokes string. There are differences of course but the similarities are remarkable, not least the way that bow string and racquet strings are set into motion by the contact. The action and nature of the bow and the construction of the racquet in facilitating friction and tension is a huge subject in itself, which I won’t even attempt to launch into here, but they are hugely significant factors.
When a pupil informs us that he or she won’t be attending the next music lesson because they are in a hockey match, or sports match of any kind, it’s tempting to be disappointed and even disapproving. (How could anything be more important than their violin lesson?!) But we can’t; sport is good for their health, and complements their music studies in more ways than they probably realise. I have often thought that I’d like to be out there on the pitch too, in the fresh air, enjoying the game, bizarre as that would be in reality – apart from anything I might inadvertently crush someone half my size. The last time that I played cricket was at a father’s match against my son’s team about twenty years ago. I started getting into my stride at the crease, holding the bat one handed like a tennis racquet, swatting the balls away playfully. I was a bit of an embarrassment treating the opposition like that and my son disowned me, temporarily.
There are so many aspects of sporting performance that are similar to musical performance. Rather than talking about it, here are some videos to enjoy. I hope you can see the parallels. If not, I have totally wasted your time, for which I apologise.
David Oistrakh performing Tchaikovsky:
Pete Sampras and John McEnroe – two tennis artists
A collection of football volleys – impeccable timing and execution
Alina Ibragimova playing Saint-Saens
“Oh, I say!” Music and sport part 1
Mozart enjoyed a game of skittles, and Shostakovich loved football to the extent that he qualified as a referee. He is seen here playing football with his son Maxim. He supported Leningrad Zenit (now Zenit St Petersburg), frequently going out of his way to attend their matches. According to Maxim Gorky ‘he was a rabid fan. He comported himself like a little boy, leapt up, screamed and gesticulated’ at matches. Generally thought to be introverted and depressive, it is good to hear that Shostakovich found a way of releasing tensions, even if his interest in football is also inextricably linked with the state approval of the game as being beneficial for society. As ever with Shostakovich, it is never a simple story.
I think it is undeniable that he translates some of the energy and fun of football into his music at times. This is arguably evident in the 3rd string quartet’s first movement, but even more overt in this piece, ‘Football’ from ‘Russian River’ Op 66.
Without doubt there is a parallel in his music with the extremes of euphoria and despondency that players and fans feel after an important match.
Shostakovich at a football match
I don’t know if Shostakovich played tennis. He may well have been persuaded to play a set or two with his friend Benjamin Britten on the grass court at Britten’s Red House home when he visited. Britten was a very keen tennis player, and it seems that he was rather intimidating on the court, as he could be when making music with others.
My violin teacher, Colin Sauer (first violin of the Dartington String Quartet, renowned for their performances of Shostakovich and Britten quartets, amongst others), was a superlative violinist as well as an extremely gifted sportsman – tennis in particular. The war intervened just as he was heading for Junior Wimbledon – he was being coached by Dan Maskell, who later became the strawberries-and-cream-mouthful voice of Wimbledon, with his trade mark “O, I say!” when a player’s shot impressed him. Colin would have given Britten some difficulties on court, for sure.
Colin Sauer wielding his Maxply. (Photo included courtesy of the Sauer family)
This picture shows how close, in a way, the tennis racquet is to a violin bow – it’s spring and tension, and how it is wielded creatively for its impact with the ball. There is artistry in both. There will be more on this subject in the next blog.
Colin was the inspirational conductor of a youth orchestra in Devon in the 1970s. Along with his excellent musical tutelage, his anecdotes during rehearsals were legendary. I remember him recounting a first hand incident when Toscanini implored the musicians he was conducting to ‘”Play louder….louder…. LOUDER!!”. The stories were certainly a helpful pause from his exacting and inspirational musical demands. I’m sure he was aware of the benefits of some light relief during rehearsals although there’s no doubt that he loved to hold court too.
The orchestra residential courses always had a table tennis competition built into the timetable. The winner faced the ultimate challenge of playing Colin in an entertaining ‘demonstration’ match that as far as I’m aware always resulted in a slaughtering by Colin.
Perhaps it is not surprising that I was completely obsessed with tennis in my early teens. I used to fantasise about Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors or Chris Evert driving by on their way down to holiday in Cornwall (on their own, not all together), spotting me practising on court and offering to give me a game. It never happened. They drove on by, the heartless people.
Fortunately for me, when Colin and his family came to visit my family home on a sunny summer day I persuaded him to have a ‘knock around’ on the tennis court there. He had a heart condition that was causing some concern but he agreed to a short session and I thought that I would go kindly on him rather than be the cause of his demise.
I could tell from the outset that everything about his game exuded class – footwork, timing, and a fluid grace in his playing style. We knocked up for a bit and then played a set. I was annihilated. As ever, I learnt a lot.
Like Colin, who tended to time rehearsals around important tv coverage of Wimbledon or a cricket test series, DSQ’s Mary likes to keep abreast of how matches are going. How she manages to remain focused in rehearsals with this going on is a marvel; how the rest of us do too is even more of a marvel.
Vicky enjoyed playing netball, hockey and tennis at school, and still loves games, particularly Scrabble with her family. Lindsay’s preference over almost everything else in life is to be swimming in the icy cold water of a river or feeling at one with the sea. We all have our particular forte, and the odd piano too.
Next subject: The Sweet Spot – Sport and music part 2
The thrill of a trill
Like that moment of hearing the first cuckoo in spring or the long awaited arrival of the first house martin, live music making is returning after the long sabbatical due to the pandemic. It will be very good to resume this unique communal experience, which has been much missed by audiences and musicians alike.
Along with a profusion of flowering plants, the glorious abundance of birdsong and the visits of multitudes of birds to our birdfeeders all indicate that spring has well and truly sprung.
Looking after my grandson recently, on our way from the play park we were entranced by the singing of a blackbird close by.
Birdsong has often been an inspiration for composers, not least Mozart, who even had a pet starling for a while. Musical trills (rapid alternations between two adjacent notes) have, without doubt, strong associations with birdsong.
While rehearsing Mozart’s quartet K. 464 (which we will be performing in our forthcoming concert series), each time we have played a particular passage in the slow movement, my colleagues have in turn expressed surprise at hearing me indulge in a trill. One of them even said that she assumed I was “at it again, adding extra ornamentation.” For once, this wasn’t the case; Mozart indicates a trill in the viola part alone while nobody else is at it.
Often ornamentation such as this is in the first violin part in music of this era so for the viola to be given a share of the extra embellishment shows how Mozart viewed music making as fundamentally collaborative and communal. I suspect that when he and his friends played chamber music together there was considerably more embellishment than we see actually written in the score, often no doubt resulting in hilarity. Oh to be a time-travelling fly on that wall!
There is a particularly wonderful example of how emotionally telling a trill can be in the slow movement of Mozart’s last piano concerto, No 27 K. 595 https://youtu.be/DKZ3rqmYJ38 The passage is between 7:08 and 7:28 – not in the solo piano but first in the violins and then the oboe – a true sharing, and somehow all the more effective because of where it happens in the structure of the piece – where the coming together of all the constituent parts is most intimately and tenderly expressed.
For a while a particular Mozart piano concerto will be my favourite, but then I hear one of the others again and the hierarchy is disrupted. It’s a rather silly game. You may recognise it from your own experience of listening to the music of various composers and artists – for example, Bob Dylan’s songs, or Joni Mitchell’s, or Schubert’s, or Bacharach’s, or Ian Dury’s etc etc.
Mozart’s 21st piano concerto (K. 467) was on the radio recently. I listened, transfixed by it – particularly the first movement. Somehow, despite having studied the work for music O level, it still brings on the goosebumps. Of all of his piano concertos though, I certainly couldn’t do without No. 27 and not just for the thrill of the trills.
Next blog subject: “Great shot!” – music and sport.
Pictures by AG
The surprising joy of street furniture
Hello from the Divertimento String Quartet bunker. We very much hope that our friends and followers are keeping well amidst the current restrictions and difficulties.
We are planning on a return to concert giving as soon as we possibly can – hopefully in May. Details will be announced soon. We are very much looking forward to performing Shostakovich’s 3rd quartet and Mozart’s K.464.
The insularity of lockdown is challenging in several ways. I would however like to highlight a curious symptom of lockdown that is rarely if ever discussed, which is a shame because it has the potential to bring much benefit to our experience of lockdown. I am sure it is something that many of you will have noticed; namely an increased awareness of sounds.
Sometimes a sound that would have gone unnoticed before comes to the fore in a surprisingly vivid way. I have found myself being enthralled, amused, bemused and amazed by such sounds, many of which are very quiet. Often they are completely new and original. Even something as mundane as pulling tea bags out of a shelf becomes a remarkable sonic event:
I have discovered the surprising joy of street telecommunications furniture. Out walking along a street normally plagued by a stream of noisy cars but becalmed in lockdown, I became aware of a hum emanating from this box:
(Please note the other piece of street ‘furniture’ here, which it has to be said is a load of rubbish in comparison.)
And here is the veritable symphony of sound that I heard – headphone listening is advisable for full enjoyment:
Yes, it is a very quiet symphony but none the worse for that.
Some sounds have arisen during the routines in lockdown. I will let you guess what this is.
Here is a clue:
Several composers have incorporated the sounds of everyday life in their compositions, from Bach’s donkey in Cantata BWV 201 (audible around 2:00 in this recording) https://youtu.be/9RnmGBgHsQ4 to the inclusion of recordings of birds in Rautavaara’s Concerto for Birds and Orchestra “Cantus Arcticus” https://youtu.be/HLjXgV-Mhp0 . I also recall the very effective inclusion of children’s voices in Supertramp’s ‘School’ https://youtu.be/mYP7RpZqAs8 .
There are without doubt countless other examples in classical and popular music, and who knows what everyday sounds percolate into music, unknown to both composer and listener. Please feel free to comment with your own favourite examples of everyday sounds in music and add links if possible.
The sounds that we hear in lockdown can intrigue and entertain us, for sure. They don’t need to be translated into a formal musical context to become meaningful. They draw us into a fascinated contemplation of the phenomenon of their existence and of our perception of their existence.
It is now just under a year since we posted an arrangement of a Bach prelude for violin and viola during the first lockdown. It seems appropriate to add another one during the current lockdown and we hope that you enjoy it. It is a cliché to say it, but it’s true: Bach’s music is timeless, ceaselessly flowing like his name. (Bach = brook or stream in German). Of all composers he is arguably the most cosmic – and yet he could also revel in the comic braying of a donkey. The mundane can also be priceless.
Warmest wishes to you from Andrew, Lindsay, Vicky & Mary
I have heard it said that the music of Haydn and others from his era is like ornamental porcelain. Quite what is meant by this, I am not sure. Maybe it is a compliment; I suspect not. I think the implication is that it is a thing of beauty but rather distant and somehow rather fragile and passionless.
From the musician’s perspective, Haydn’s music is supremely crafted, as is the very best porcelain of this period, with classical proportions, but what makes it so rewarding to play is the way the parts balance, there is an astoundingly sophisticated awareness of texture, and the emotional content is so varied, from melancholy to silly humour. His music – his quartet music at any rate – is clearly written for friends and emanates from a warm heart.
Eirene, goddess of peace. Meissen (Michel-Victor Acier). The Hermitage
This stunning Meissen figure was made in or around 1772, the same year that Haydn wrote his ground-breaking but not porcelain breaking Op 20 quartets.
Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace, stands elegantly – almost provocatively – atop various symbols of war that have been immobilised by her, presumably. The ancient classical allusions are very clear but this is a decidedly modern take on the subject, and unmistakably of this neoclassical period of European art. (There is no doubt a potentially lively feminist response arising from this depiction of Eirene, and on the origin of the subject. An online group debate could be fun.)
Can we see a link with Haydn’s music? Well, it is porcelain, which Haydn’s music is too, apparently! The classical basis is there, and the ornamentation, and grace, and colour and texture. Does it touch the soul as Haydn’s music often does? I leave that for you to ponder on. Responses to music and art are so varied.
Eirene is holding a torch – presumably one that doesn’t require a battery. It is possible to see this as symbolic of the Enlightenment that was blazing through Europe and beyond at that time. Haydn was very much a part of this.