Alive with the sound

High Street, Crickhowell

As many know, Crickhowell in Wales was recently named as the Best Place to Live in Wales by The Sunday Times (as well as being awarded the accolade of UK’s Best High Street).

What better time then for this small market town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Crickhowell Music Festival, the main events of which took place in St Edmunds Church approached, appropriately, from the High Street down Silver Street.

Under the inspired musical direction of conductor Stephen Marshall since the festival began, its main event in 1995 was a semi-dramatised performance of Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen; and this was a work the Choral Society chose to repeat in this special year, along with Bach’s magnificent B minor Mass. Bookending these performances were a recital given by the choir’s young choral scholars and other young musicians and, as a finale, a rousing concert by Welsh folk band ALAW, both in the town’s Clarence Hall.

As a marriage of words and music it seems an apt event to note here on this bookish blog written by a classically trained musician…

Continue reading “Alive with the sound”

Trilogy

Stained glass triptych of Faith, Charity and Hope (St Catwg’s church, Llangattock: own photo)

A trio of recent micropoems from sister blog Zenrinji which you may have missed: an alphabetical, quizzical and musical triptych

Alpha et omigosh

Aetiologically, behind church dogma
exist fairytales, glossed historical
in Jewish knowledge: legends,
mythological now our periodic questing
reveals said tales unverified;
voices waxing xenial, yet zigzagging.


A maze

A
man,
woman
and a cat
amazingly
attracted my
attention: they
entered a zoo, flew
through a maze. Exits
blocked, quick as a
flash, cornered,
three jumped,
reversed, u-
turning,
and so
did
I


Impromptu
Inspired by a recital given by pianist Llyr Williams

The audience is audibly awaiting:
chattering, anticipating, alert.
Now obbligato applause, a white noise,
greets our soloist, striding then still,
biding by keyboard, lid glinting, spotlit.

A waltz by Chopin, a mazurka or two,
insinuate themselves into the silence.
Tinkles and ripples and staccato notes
stipple the auditorium airwaves.

Seconds pass, minutes; a barcarolle beckons us
for an aural tour right round Europe,
through France and Poland and then into Italy.
But now a crescendo glissando, fortissimo:
an impromptu motorbike adding its basso
to the soundscape again and again.
And again. Then diminuendo.

Now, as Greig’s trolls begin their march
a monotone idée fixe intrudes
its extruded ostinato from the street:
the persistent trill of burglar alarm riffing its repetitive roundelay.
Through the Norwegian notturno it rings
and on into rippling brooklet arpeggios
till suddenly conspicuous by absence.

Interval over, Fauré leads us back
to La Serenissima with a barcarolle.
His nocturne’s punctuated by a percussive bark,
subsiding, stifled, as cough-calming,
transcendental Liszt breathes un sospiro,
his sighs and harmonies du soir checking chair creak
and soft yet sonorous snores.

Tumultuous hail-like clatter greets our virtuoso.
He smiles, he acknowledges, he returns
and settles to our final reward:
Schubert’s G flat Impromptu.
You can hear a piano drop to pianissimo;
a few tear drops are shed, and shared.


More poems, micropoems, senryu, haiku, doggerel and flash fiction on Zenrinji

Died o’ Fright

Schubert’s manuscript of a German Dance in G for piano duet, probably composed in 1818 for the children of Count Esterhazy

The final (?) post in my exploration of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa.

As a classically-trained musician I have been, as you might expect, intrigued by author Joan Aiken’s rhymes and allusions to tunes and other music in her fiction, particularly her short stories (one collection is called A Harp of Fishbones and a novella even has the title The Song of Mat and Ben). I’m often tempted to set the lyrics that are quoted to music of my own.

In Dido and Pa we have a plethora of song titles and compositions mentioned, all the work of Desmond Twite, Dido’s father: he first appeared in Black Hearts in Battersea as hoboy- or oboe-player Abednego, and when he wasn’t trying to teach Dido the instrument he turns out to also be a prolific composer.

Some of these tunes have been mentioned in earlier instalments of the Wolves Chronicles, others appear here for the first time. What follows is a list of those I have noted in Dido and Pa, with short discussions after.

Continue reading “Died o’ Fright”

Touching base

Crickhowell Literary Festival (http://cricklitfest.co.uk) 2018

Just touching base (and touching bass too, as it were) after a busy week of books and music has meant fewer blog posts than usual here.

As you can see from the header photo Crickhowell in southeast Wales has just had its fourth literary festival over the last week and a bit, and I’ve been involved stewarding a few of the events. These included authors as diverse as comic fantasy writer Jasper Fforde, debut novelist Katy Mahood (whom I used to teach music in Bristol) and stand-up comedian and broadcaster Robin Ince, as well as subjects ranging from Frankenstein to dry-stone walling and poetry featuring historic characters associated with a short stretch of our local canal.

I’ve also sung in an ensemble which took part in Open Day events marking the re-opening of a 15th-century Welsh farmhouse, singing medieval songs, madrigals and commissioned choral pieces within an ambient soundscape. Refined techniques involving dendrochronology established that Llwyn Celyn‘s framework came from trees first felled in 1420, with significant additions documented around 1690; the last owners only vacated the property recently so the range of music reflected its long history. The choral singing combined with homemade instruments and the ambient sounds of sheep, birds retiring for the night and high-flying aircraft to echo round the valleys in the Black Mountains of the Welsh borders as dusk fell.

Llwyn Celyn’s medieval farmhouse
Visitors to Llwyn Celyn

Other literary matters haven’t been neglected though. I’ve completed some books which are awaiting reviews — these include Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Gail Honeyman’s bestseller Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — and, in concert with Lizzie Ross, I’ve been helping prepare for this year’s Witch Week which this year has Feminism+Fantasy as it’s theme: look out for at least one more advance notice in the days to come!

Winterlude

In case you were wondering I’ve not gone away.

(Of course, you may not have noticed.)

Life has been a bit hectic. If I ever was in any doubt, being retired is no holiday — not if I want to live a little. Well, live a lot.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve been involved in over the last few weeks.

1. Playing the keyboard part in a Haydn Mass for a Sunday service in a local medieval church. (PS: it boasts a hollow yew tree said to be two millennia old.)
2. Accompanying the local choral society for rehearsals, leading to a concert in Brecon Cathedral where I sang in the tenor section. (This featured the Mass in D by Dvorak, Haydn’s Te Deum and choruses from Handel’s Israel in Egypt.)
3. Attending Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsals, playing the piano part, and performing in two concerts. (Film music by John Williams — 85 this year — was the theme, including items from The Cowboys, Warhorse, Jurassic Park: The Lost World and E.T., plus selections from Episodes IV, V and VII of Star Wars.)
4. Accompanying a student performing for the opening of a Confucius Classroom in a local school. (The goal of this UCL Institute of Education initiative is to help local schools to start or strengthen the teaching of Chinese language and culture.)
5. Accompanying students for instrumental exams. (Cello, violin and euphonium, since you ask.)
6. Conducting the local choral society performing a capella carols around the town. (And if it wasn’t for a recent heavy dump of snow which led to cancellation, I’d’ve today been singing with another choir a concert of Advent music by Praetorius,  Gabrieli and other contemporaries, all accompanied by sackbuts and a cornett.)
7. Not all activities have been musical: I’ve been clearing a wild patch of ground of vegetation and rubbish so we can do something with it in the coming year, and we’ve attended a couple of events in Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend. (Hay-on-Wye is one of the globe’s Town of Books, running a famous literary festival every summer.)

There we have it: a busy few weeks which has precluded much blogging. I can’t guarantee there’ll be much literary blogging this side of Christmas, or anything but random following of fellow bloggers’ posts.

But I’ll try. 🙂

Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time

Beethoven in middle life, a new portrait by Batt (1937) on loan from a private collection to the Royal Academy of Music

Percy Alfred Scholes The Oxford Companion to Music
Oxford University Press 1963 (1955)

The ninth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, first published in 1955 and still under the control of the original editor, is authoritative, idiosyncratic and certainly of its time. A typical example of Percy Scholes’ writing style can be seen in the Preface to the original edition of 1938:

Following this preface will be found the long list of the many who have tried to save the author from, at least, the faults of his own ignorance or inadvertence, but should the reader chance to discover that the author is anywhere insufficiently saved he should not take it that the blame necessarily falls on those enumerated in the list.

A footnote helpfully tells us that In the present edition this long list, with its many additional names from the seven intervening editions, has been merely summarised. This circumloquacious tendency may appear to explain the nearly twelve hundred pages of this hardback, but in truth they are packed with detailed information and references. The detail includes entries on composers, styles, genres, countries, foreign musical terms, instruments, synopses of operas and much else. Interwoven are close on two hundred monochrome plates illustrating different themes, using old prints, photographs and diagrams. Continue reading “Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time”

Judging a book

books2.png

We all know the adage Never judge a book by its cover, and of course there’s some truth in this assertion. But if we ditch the visual side of a book’s presentation are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? I’ve talked before about the art of book reviewing and so am trying not to repeat myself, but perhaps in discussing the process of judgement in a related field that I do know something about — musical performance — I hope to throw some light on (and not the proverbial baby out of) the issue of assessing a book’s merits.

I’ve some experience of music adjudication, having for some years now presided at regional schools music festivals, individual schools’ music competitions and young musician contests run by Rotary International (not forgetting the many competitions at which I’ve accompanied soloists on the piano). My main criteria, based on a career in teaching music, are these:

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Enthusiasm, experience and expertise

keys

Charles Rosen Piano Notes:
the World of the Pianist 
Penguin 2004

The late Charles Rosen, who died in 2012 aged 85, is remembered as both pianist and writer, and Piano Notes is in large part a personal response to the art and pleasure of keyboard playing. I found this a wonderful book, full of enthusiasm, experience, expertise, knowledge and humour, and it helps that this reviewer largely shares the writer’s philosophy (though, sadly, not the experience, expertise and knowledge). Continue reading “Enthusiasm, experience and expertise”