Cambridge University nurtures and protects some reticent scholars: uncelebrated people who pursue arcane fields of research that are important to them. Because the university provides solid support, such scholars remain in post without threat. What is a university for if not to encourage the study of everything?
During the 1960s, in the days of the BBC ‘Third Programme’, one such scholar in the Department of Music at Cambridge University was immersed in researching ‘Vowel inflexions in the choral works of Giovanni Palestrina’. Hmm. At the time, I didn’t quite know what that meant, and still don’t today, but apparently someone at the BBC did. The scholar received an invitation from a Third Programme producer asking him to give a 15-minute broadcast on his topic during the interval of a concert devoted to late 16th century sacred music.
He was flattered, but wondered whether he had the nerve to talk on his much-loved subject without fluffing it and doing harm rather than good. Then he saw at the foot of the letter, ‘The fee will be £50.’ He wrote back, ‘Glad to accept. Do you want the fee now or shall I pay on arrival?’ He thought it was a bit of a bargain.
A crotchet is a musical note, often thought to represent a single beat – that’s not always the case, but never mind. It consists of a black blob with a stem going upwards or downwards. I wondered whether its name, ‘crotchet’, had the same derivation as ‘crochet’, the knitting-like pastime? It has, because the word means ‘hook’ in either version, and a crotchet is supposed to look like a hook. Because ‘crotchet’ is a strange and slightly unwieldy name for such a commonly-mentioned note, I looked up its translations to see whether the rest of the world was being more sensible than the Brits in its nomenclature, and I was surprised.
We borrowed it from the French. Maybe the French returned the compliment and called it a ‘hook’ (or un ook). No, they call it ‘noire’ and the Spanish call it ‘negra’. Those seems sensible. Do the Italians do something similar? No again; they go for the hard-to-pronounce ‘semiminima’, and then it gets worse, and worse still. The Americans use the ugly ‘quarter-note’; the Germans, ‘Viertelnote’; the Finns, ‘neljäsosanuotti’; the Poles, ‘ćwierćnuta; the Czechs, ‘čtvrťová nota’; and the Swedes, ‘fjärdedelsnot’. (Look! I’ve found a Swedish crotchet in my handkerchief.’) That’s probably enough.
The internet allows indiscreet remarks to reach the wider world easily, but gossip is not a new phenomenon. Since insults were invented, private thoughts have been made public somehow or other, even if they took a little longer to get out. Here are a few musical nuggets of yore.
*When the old Saxon cantor has no ideas, he sets off on anything and is truly merciless. In short, he is unbearable… (Claude Debussy on J.S. Bach)
*The fourth movement is so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial, I cannot understand how Beethoven could have written it. (Louis Spohr on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony)
*His orchestration is such an incongruous mess, one ought to wash one’s hands after handling one of his scores. (Felix Mendelssohn on Hector Berlioz)
*He has no charm for me. I find him cold and obscure, full of pretensions, without any real depth. (Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky on Johannes Brahms)
* Very nice.  Symphonic boa-constrictors ( Richard Wagner  Johannes Brahms on Anton Bruckner’s symphonies)
*A piece for orchestra without music. (Maurice Ravel on Bolero by Maurice Ravel)
More gems another day.
Who were these energetic Victorians, sharing identical dates: 1820-1900?
One was a prolific writer on music. He was a close friend of Arthur Sullivan. Together they visited Vienna to research their musical hero, Franz Schubert. Their prize was the discovery of the hitherto unknown incidental music to Rosamunde, including the now famous overture. Having been active in the development of the Crystal Palace Orchestra, he mounted the world première of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony. He became the first Director of the Royal College of Music and wrote the first comprehensive Musical Dictionary.
The other was a civil engineer whose varied career took him to the West Indies, where he oversaw the building of cast-iron lighthouses. On his return to the UK he joined the Chester and Holyhead Railway Company, helping to construct the bridge over the Menai Strait, thus connecting Anglesey to the British mainland. As an architect, his best surviving building is Chester railway station. He was a friend of Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry. Living in Sydenham in South London, he was closely involved in the creation of the Crystal Palace for the great Exhibition of 1851.
Both were George Grove.
Keen followers of this website will have noticed the CCSO’s new initiative of encouraging young conductors by offering a chance to conduct part of a concert in the future, the rehearsals to be overseen by the CCSO’s Director of Music, Robert Hodge.
The three finalists emerging from the rigorous initial auditioning process (with piano duet) were let loose on the orchestra itself on December 1st, each of them being allotted 25 minutes to do their best or worst in front of experienced musicians, on average twice their age. They were asked to rehearse sections of the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overture by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky. Every member of the CCSO was invited to return a slip indicating an order of preference plus comments if they so wished.
The great majority expressed similar views, namely that all three applicants were remarkably competent, given their comparative youth, and that one outshone the other two by a narrow margin because he managed to bring about more noticeable improvements in the short time allowed. Having forged a rapid bond with the winner, Sean Dunn, the orchestra now looks forward to developing a firm rapport with him through their making music together in the future. Rumours are that next Autumn will seem him on the podium at West Road.
Sometimes orchestral players are required to wear costumes appropriate to the period of the music they play. Thus, a programme of music by W.A. Mozart leads to wigs for the men, hoops for the ladies and any number of stockings, garters and fancy waistcoats. It is charming for the audience, irritating for some of the players but above all, it is ironic. Ironic?
Yes, it’s ironic because the costume matches the music of the 18th century but in an ‘up-to-date’ concert, the costume is about 100 years behind the times. Why do orchestral musicians wear black, the dreariest of shades? It is alienating – a sort of faux-respectability akin to the Victorians covering the legs of their furniture in case men became aroused through glimpsing a castor.
Classical music will always attract audiences but traditional practice seems to alienate its patrons rather than nurture them. A little informality: colourful clothes; the conductor chatting with the audience; welcoming applause between movements if the audience is so minded. All this would be like the collapse of the Berlin Wall. There’s a smidgen of evidence that the old ways are losing their stranglehold. Can the CCSO help to accelerate that trend?
We’re really excited to report that Chris Roe has been nominated for a British Composer Award for his piece In Search of Strategy. CCSO performed this piece last year and the performance was broadcast live on Radio 3. Chris states “the orchestra, and its conductor Robert Hodge, did a fantastic job”. Thanks Chris! We wish you lots of luck and look forward to hearing the results when they are announced on Wednesday 9th December.
During the 1970s and 80s, music was especially vibrant at University College, Cardiff. Unlike others, Cardiff encouraged practical music-making, composition and performance, and built a concert hall to boot. I was fortunate to be working there as a lecturer during this heyday, and was pleased to receive a visit from the late Peter Tranchell, fellow of Caius College and a lecturer in music here in Cambridge. He had been my supervisor, so I knew him well. He visited Cardiff to inspect the new concert hall because the Music Faculty in Cambridge was proposing to build one for itself.
He did a good job. He noted the strengths at Cardiff, such as a permanent sound-proofed recording studio alongside the main auditorium, and some weaknesses, such as a level rather than a raked floor. The benefits of the West Road Concert Hall cannot be numbered. Prior to its opening, concerts were given in unsatisfactory locations such as college chapels, the Guildhall, sport centres and the like. West Road holds enough people to create a sense of occasion yet is intimate enough to encourage expressive playing and attentive listening: a wonderful venue for the thriving musical life in the city.
Answer to question posed in By the Musical Way #2: Josef Myslivecek contracted syphilis, lost his nose as a result, and died naked in a shed.
We had an exciting day of auditions, the candidates all provided food for thought to the audition panel and made the task of reducing the list down to a shortlist of three very difficult.
We were fortunate to secure the services of two wonderful pianists who provided 4 handed piano versions of the first movement of Beethoven, Symphony 1 and the Dvorak, Slavonic Dance Op. 46 no.2. Jill Morton and Mariko Brown were exceptional in providing candidates with a realistic conducting challenge whilst meeting even the fastest tempi demanded of them.
Eventually, the panel of Robert Hodge – Musical Director, Julia Frape – Leader and David Watkinson – Chairman decided on three candidates to go through to the next round where they will meet the whole orchestra on the evening of 1st December 2015. Details of the winner will be available in the New Year.
Only one of these three tales is true. Which? No prizes offered. Answer in about two weeks’ time.
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), the reclusive English composer, wrote many lengthy pieces, including Opus Clavicembalisticum for solo piano, which occupies 250 printed pages and takes over two hours to perform. His only opera, ‘Noremac’, explores corruption in high places, and plays for four hours without interval. It requires three brass bands and a ‘small herd of asses’ besides the usual forces. It has yet to be staged.
The Bohemian composer Josef Mysliveček (1737-81) was a close friend of the Mozarts, (père Leopold and fils Wolfgang Amadeus), both of whom much admired his compositions. He was exceptionally prolific, with 55 symphonies under his belt. His private life was colourful, and this was his undoing because he contracted syphilis, lost his nose as a result, and died naked in a shed.
The pioneering American Composer, John Cage (1912-92), famous for a work of total silence: 4’33”, composed another piece, this time of indeterminate length, called ‘Telephone’. The ‘music’ is the sound of a telephone ringing. The audience is expected to sit within earshot until someone dials that number; then they can go home. It is rarely performed.