While doing some background reading as preparation for my first experience playing Peter Grimes, I discovered an unpublished poem by George Crabbe that would surely have resulted in a somewhat different opera had Britten come across it.
There once was a fisherman named Grimes
Accused of some terrible crimes:
The mood got so dark
He said: stuff this for a lark!
And sailed off for sunnier climes.
Orchestras are sometimes presented as a model for businesses to emulate: the conductor as managing director, different instrumental sections as different corporate departments and so on, all working harmoniously to some common purpose.
But if your business is making cars and you somehow ended up making something different like a bicycle, or worse still something of no commercial value or practical use, that would be a disaster. In an orchestra, that would be tremendous.
Music is organised sound: unmistakeably the words of a composer (Varèse). A musician would prefer: music is expressive sound.
Did you know that, before modern-day industrial techniques made mass production of rosin possible, local authorities were the only providers of the stuff? They would hang great municipal cakes of it in public places and local fiddlers would prep up their bows en route to the gig.
Thankfully those days are over. While some nostalgic observers lament the disappearance of the dangling amber nugget from the urban landscape, now every string player can treasure their own supply, keeping it nestled in a personalised velvet cushion-lined box, wrapped in a silk handkerchief, until such time as it is dropped and shatters on a stone floor leaving only shards to be applied to the bow hair hair by hair.
Let’s not forget that with their removal, the burden on the taxpayer is now substantially lighter too! And, since we are speaking of burdens being lightened, that brings me to another way in which local government could ride to the rescue of the travelling musician.
By providing cheap and easy access to publicly owned music stands, which would be available on street corners in much the same way as are London’s colourful if ungainly hire bikes, the authorities would alleviate one of life’s most irksome requests: please bring a stand. Even the selfish bastards who generally can’t be bothered to do such a thing (“Oh sorry, I totally forgot/thought there would be enough/had to take it to the dry cleaners”) would benefit, being henceforth able to go through life without having that misdemeanour as a burden tugging on their conscience like rosin on a string.
Daniel Barenboim, piano hipster?
I was as disappointed as everyone to find that Daniel Barenboim’s new piano design, presented to a London public (although not the world) for the first time yesterday, was not some hopeless ramshackle wreck, a tangle perhaps of chicken wire and odd-shaped planks nailed together in a shed somewhere.
No, the actual design and construction was left to the likes of piano maker Chris Maene and manufacturers Steinway & Sons. So rather than standing there aghast, humouring some modern-day, deluded Gambara as he proudly unveiled his wonky handiwork, the crowd of journalists invited to the presentation could listen as Barenboim explained the thinking behind the new design
Part of the idea is that each register of the instrument – each string, even – should have its own sound that the player then has to work to blend together. As he said, “It gives you the opportunity to create a blend yourself as a player – and I like that.”
Already you may be able to detect the overlap with modern currents in food preparation and more besides: the move away from ready-mixed flavours, from homogeneity of blend, the emphasis on personal taste, perhaps even a positive revaluation of older modes of craftsmanship and the use of traditional tools (the impetus for Barenboim’s venture was the experience of playing Liszt’s piano in Siena).
A couple of years ago, the Twitter hashtag #hipsterclassical made a brief appearance. But in general, and using the term in an non-derogatory way (full disclosure: I am myself unbearded), hipsterism has made scant inroads into the mainstream of classical music. But such is its openness to artisan values, once you get past the gloss and sheen, that I wonder if Barenboim has just become one of its more unlikely outriders.
A short while ago I played Mozart’s Requiem, something I could have said on more or less any day over the past 10 years. But on this occasion, as chance would have it, I found myself surrounded by bassoons and basset horns, double basses, cellos and my fellow violas, a somewhat more mellow envelope than the trumpets and trombones that conventions of orchestral seating usually provide.
It was during the Recordare, which everybody knows is the best section in any case, that I really began to enjoy the euphonious combination. So much so that I began dreaming that someone would write a piece for it: not necessarily directly inspired by the Mozart, but drawing on the same ripe instrumental sonorities, the same unheavy mood that hangs around the movement, and bringing them to the fore.
The arrangement of Couperin’s Les baricades mistérieuses by Thomas Adès – a beguiling morsel scored for a quintet made up of low strings, clarinet and bass clarinet – gives some idea of what my dream might have sounded like. But follow that with a longer piece including bassoons and with the clarinettists back on basset horns and you have the potential for a beautiful prelude to the nearly hour-long Requiem.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it happen, not being a composer myself nor being in the position to commission stuff and get it put on. But I’ve added it to my list of imaginary music and will try to enjoy it all the same. Just one thing: please, if you do ever write such a piece, make sure you ask me to play.
Generally speaking, when we start to learn to play an instrument it is on an inferior model. We trade up as and when we improve, partly as a reward for improving and partly as an investment in our future development because we believe this would be limited in scope or rate without the advantages that a superior instrument offers.
This continues even as our technical ability elevates and our musical insights deepen. As musicians, we can easily find ourselves fretting over our instruments, wondering if our dissatisfaction with the noise we are making is because we’ve outgrown them or, rather more simply, because we just need to practise more. Singers, needless to say, have no choice.
The process, if not the fretting, only comes to a halt when the increasingly elevated price of instruments makes further progress up the instrument ladder impractical for all but a very few: those with access to private wealth; those able to arrange financing on the back of stellar careers or career potential; those who secure the benevolence of individuals, corporations and bodies who have instruments to loan.
Almost invariably, the assumption is that the instrument given up must be inferior to the one taken up, at least when the decision is in the musician’s own hands. The generous players at the end of their careers who hand over their fine instruments to younger colleagues, content to continue playing on something less esteemed, are exceptions.
But I wonder, has a master musician ever made the choice to trade down precisely in order to develop as an artist? It may be customary to assume that a fine instrument gives a fine musician access to a greater range of possibilities – it may even be our overwhelming experience. Perhaps it would mean refining our understanding of artistic musical expression, but is it inconceivable that a great musician would deliberately put aside a fine piece of craftsmanship in favour of a poor instrument: the next stage in her development, the true vehicle for her artistry?