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…

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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.

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Siren song

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Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist
Introduction by Neil Gaiman 2000
Gollancz 2018 (1926)

“… there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.” — Endymion Leer

Something is, if not quite rotten, then unsettling in the state of Dorimare, a sleepy and somewhat smug country centred on its main town, Lud-in-the-Mist. Its principal citizen, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is to all intents and purposes a paragon of conformity, adhering to the letter of the law and to centuries-old traditions, but deep down he fears he is not what he tries to be: he worries he may be an outsider, his concerns arising from the fact that he has heard … the Note.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Note that haunts Nathaniel — which manifests itself as an awareness of something beyond his prosaic, mundane existence — is somehow connected with a nobleman ousted some centuries before and with smuggled goods known (but never referred to) as fairy fruit. Whether he wants to or not the good man will find himself drawn into a situation that will threaten both edifice and foundations of a way of life the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist — Ludites all — take for granted.

This novel, despite clearly being a fantasy, crosses quite a few other genres while yet feeling one of a kind. Is it a philosophical meditation or a detective story? Is it about the conflict of civic duty and personal honour or about family life versus personal quests? Is justice about vengeance and retribution or about readjusting balance? As a novel does it retain a core of realism or is it veering towards a self-indulgent idyll? It is a bit of all these things and yet Lud-in-the Mist is not heavy: there are comic touches aplenty in amongst the satire, smiles amidst the malice, love in the face of broken friendships.

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Word hoards

A collocation of dictionaries

I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.

I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)

And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?

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The bells, the bells

Garth Nix’s Goldenhand (Hot Key Books 2016) is the latest addition to a long-running fantasy sequence generally known as the Old Kingdom series. This post is a short overview of what preceded Goldenhand for those in the dark about the series, and looks forward to what questions may be addressed when in due course I post a review.

If you haven’t come across the Old Kingdom before, or even find fantasy tedious or derivative, I may still be able to persuade you to at least consider the novels for their, ah, novel approach to all things magical.

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A little of what you fancy

A midsummer sunset, from a garden

To the Reader, confused at my Inconstancy

Here we are, at the start of the second part of the calendrical year (no fanfare as far as I’m aware). I’m not one to boast but I offer this post as both apology and excuse in the spirit of glasnost: I’m not being contraire — I really do care that of late I’ve been remiss (had a lot on my plate) in missing your posts. Note, I’m not really a ghost follower

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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”

A Breve History of Time

CredoPlainsong
The Credo as plainchant in neum notation; the C on the second line down represents the position of note C, and the lower case ‘b’s or flats indicate that the Credo is in what we’d call the key of F

Wandering among Words 3: Time

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
— Words by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1784), music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini

In the dim and distant past I sang plainchant. When Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church my school would congregate on high days and holidays to massacre Gregorian chant. Then along came the Vatican Council in the 1960s, vernacular tongues were after nearly two millennia now allowed in Catholic rituals — and plainchant went out the stained glass window. Protestant hymns became more acceptable in services, and in time songs which some call happy-clappy (‘happy-crappy’ according to cynics) came creeping in.

I must admit as a schoolboy I was never much an admirer of plainchant: throughout practices and services I usually had to stifle yawns. Though musically literate I found the old notational conventions bizarre by modern standards, particularly over how long notes needed to be held for — however did any one know how long to hold a note? One of the few conventions seemed to be that a note with a dot after it had to be held a little bit longer.

I knew where I was with modern notation. Semibreves, minims, crotchets — they all made sense to me, having had them drummed into my head from the age of five. It wasn’t till I began to teach music as an adult that I realised that these words made as much sense as calling them Fred or Mary or Voldemort. (Maybe not the latter.) So here’s what I pieced together after some research and the application of guesswork masquerading as logic.

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Judging a book

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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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Wise as a serpent

dragon

Rachel Hartman Seraphina Ember 2014 (2012)

In Hebrew and Christian tradition a seraph (plural seraphim) is a winged celestial being, sometimes imagined sometimes as an angel (from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’), sometimes as a serpent. It mayn’t come as a surprise, then, to find that this fantasy’s protagonist, Seraphina, partakes of a little of each of these attributes — as author Rachel Hartman, with a degree in Comparative Literature, will surely have known. Young Seraphina often acts as go-between as well as having an affinity for those mythical winged serpents called dragons; and fittingly she is, as St Matthew has it, as wise as a serpent (though not necessarily as harmless as a dove).

In Goredd and its surrounding states humans have kept a truce with the ancient dragon species for many year, thanks to the foresightedness and bravery of its aged queen. But dragons, as we mostly see them, have developed a particular ability over a millennium: they are able to transform into the semblance of humans, though sharing human emotions is not something that comes easily to these reptilian creatures.
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