Return to Rotherhithe

Musica Antica in Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe.

Last night I returned to Rotherhithe to hear another concert by Musica Antica – having first heard the group perform, and interviewed the group’s co-founder Oliver Doyle, earlier this year.

Like that summer concert, Holy Trinity church – with its excellent acoustic – was packed. But unlike that concert, we arrived in autumnal darkness, which enabled the performance to take place by the magic of candlelight.

The programme was music by Lully and Charpentier, among others, but one of the highlights of the evening was an unfamiliar name: Antonia Bembo (1640-c.1720). Her song Ha, Que l’absense was sung beautifully by the counter-tenor Tristram Cooke, as a break in the middle of a theorbo suite. He sang sitting down, side-on to the audience, totally out of the spotlight, which made its impact all the more startling.

As I discovered back in the summer, this group are presenting less familiar early music in an approachable and imaginative way. I strongly recommend signing up to their mailing list to follow their future events.


Yaniewicz at the Lithuanian Embassy

Steven Devine, Kate Semmens and Tabitha Appel at the Lithuanian Embassy, London.

I spent an informative and entertaining evening at the Lithuanian Embassy in London, learning about the life and music of composer, violin virtuoso and impresario Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848), and his collaborations with the soprano Angelica Catalani (1780-1849).

I was invited by Josie Dixon – daughter of composer Ailsa Dixon as well as a several-times-great-grandaughter of Yaniewicz. Josie gave an impressive talk on Yaniewicz’s life, which started in Vilnius (a city celebrating its 700th anniversary this year) and later encompassed Italy, revolutionary France, England and ultimately Edinburgh, where he co-founded the Edinburgh Festival.

The concert that followed was given by Steven Devine on piano, alongside soprano Kate Semmens – who had great fun demonstrating the indulgent vocal ornamentations that made Catalani (in)famous – and violinist Tabitha Appel. 

I fully recommend a visit to the Yaniewicz website to find out more about this fascinating figure, including information about another of his activities – the custom decoration of Clementi pianos.


Inside The Temple Of Music

Shortly after arriving at Bearsted station in Kent, I found my way to a picturesque village green, bordered by Tudor houses and Oast kilns. Peeking over the roofs on the other side was the tower of Holy Cross Church. I’d taken two trains to get here under the assurance it would be open. 

I headed up a lane that wound gently uphill, and the church disappeared from view entirely. After a few minutes, I was starting to wonder if I’d taken the wrong road. Then I turned a corner, and suddenly I was right upon it. 

The first door I came to was locked. Continuing round, I found the southern porch, which was clearly the main entrance. The interior was fairly typical for a parish church. I was alone.

I checked my phone for the email describing the location of the door I needed, and where the key was kept. I found the latter on a large bunch, with a fearsomely long, medieval-looking companion.

The bell tower was locked, I’d been told, to prevent the public going up into the ringing chamber. No matter: I wasn’t interested in bells today. Feeling a bit like a man on a mission, I slowly opened the door into darkness. I turned on my phone torch to find the light switch, and the beam flashed across a pale face. This was who I had come to see.

Lights on, and he was brightly revealed: presiding like a judge over an open book, with large moustache and ruff. But this was also a mundane scene of casual storage – odds and ends cluttered a bench constructed around his pedestal. An undignified state, for one of Bearsted’s most illustrious sons.

I carefully shifted a few things aside (I would put them back before I left). I could now see the lengthy Latin inscription. In the recesses on either side, running up from the floor, were faintly etched staffs with winding snakes: the Rod of Asclepius, ancient symbol of medicine. And in the left-hand recess were two smaller books with words inscribed. Looking closely, one was marked ‘Misterium Cabalisticum’, the other ‘Philosophia Sacra’. 

This was the monument to Robert Fludd, born in nearby Milgate House, and buried in Holy Cross after his death in 1637. The inscription tells us that he travelled abroad, ad recipiendum ingenii cultum – ‘to receive the cult of genius’ – before returning home and being elected to the London College of Physicians.

Fludd was a doctor, but those two books of ‘cabbalistic mystery’ and ‘sacred philosophy’ suggest what he is best remembered for today: publications of occult science. In particular, his magnum opus Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia – ‘the metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser’. 

Those ‘two worlds’ are the macrocosm and microcosm, as expressed by the Hermetic principle of correspondences between man and the universe: ‘as above, so below’. Utriusque Cosmi combines influences of Hermes Trismegistus with Christian Caballah, Astrology, and Alchemy, and includes a range of practical topics, from mathematics to optics, military strategy, and music. 

Creative Commons, see source.

Music, in fact, was particularly important to Fludd’s occult worldview, as can be seen in some of the sumptuous engravings that accompany his work. These visions, rich in wonder and mystery, have an enduring fascination – with tongues of flame, billowing clouds, and lines of radiating energy in geometric frameworks. And among them we find depictions of the monochord: a single-stringed instrument used to show the proportions of consonances, and a representation of universal harmony, or musica mundana.

For Fludd, in fact, the octave divisions of the string were a crucial metaphor for the universe. He positions the monochord at the centre of diagrams, running the scale from earth to God, matter to light, through the spheres of the elements, planets and angelic hierarchies. It also runs through the microcosm of man, representing the descent and re-ascent of the divine soul. In one engraving, a Monty Python-esque hand emerges from a cloud to adjust its tuning peg.

Creative Commons. See source.

Another part of the Utriusque Cosmi covers practical music theory. For this, Fludd constructed a fantastical memory palace, a ‘Temple of Music’ festooned with musical symbols around its columns, walls and towers. Its scheme is populated by legendary figures – the muse Thalia gives a music lesson in an alcove, Pythagoras listens to the hammers of the smithy in another. Apollo sits with his lyre, representing harmony, while Saturn stands on an hour-glass for rhythm. Two doors symbolise the ears, a spiral the motions of the air. Fludd’s introduction invites us to imagine the setting as Mount Parnassus, surrounded by woods, fields and fountains, and filled with dancing shepherds, satyrs and nymphs.

The Temple of Music, Creative Commons. See source.

This delightfully realised image showcases the Renaissance penchant for mnemonic devices. And in the final chapter of the treatise, Fludd turns to another intellectual fascination of his era: automata. He gives detailed instructions for building a mechanical psaltery, an instrument that can be hidden behind a curtain or a wall and play pavanes or galliards by itself, for the delight of dinner guests. 

Fanciful as all this may seem, Fludd’s ambitious publications, and the wondrous engravings that accompany them, have ensured him a place in intellectual history. In popular culture, he has also appeared in works of conspiracist fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, thanks to his association with the Rosicrucians. He wrote a defence of the two anonymous manifestos credited to that supposed secret society – the Order of the Rosy Cross – manifestos which were published to widespread consternation, promising great advancements of human knowledge for those worthy to receive their truths. 

Whatever the origins of those cultish documents, Fludd has perhaps inevitably been conflated with the Order, and assumed to have been a member. No doubt, the manifestos suggest an occult worldview very much in tune with his own. Among the Rosicrucian claims was a kind of singing, which could gather precious stones and move the princes of the world. In Fludd’s defence of the Fraternity, he writes of ‘wonderful music of true and mysterious power in every creature both animate and inanimate’. 

Much of Fludd’s work envisioned hidden forces behind observable reality, and so it seems somewhat fitting that this occultist’s monument is now locked away, sealed in Hermetic secrecy. I find his philosophy fascinating, partly because there is an appealing completeness to it, an audacious wholeness that opens up a different mental space to modern science, with its separate specialisms and materialist assumptions. 

And what, more precisely, is the nature of that appeal? As I’ve looked at the news this summer, with fires raging around the world, it’s been hard not to perceive a stark disconnect between the macro- and the micro-level events in our own time. We have highly developed and sophisticated science, the like of which Fludd could never have dreamed, informing us that our climate on which all earthly life depends is being systematically destabilised. But the microscopic trivia of the everyday still largely holds us in thrall, and enables its further destruction. For which you might ask: what is the point of all our intellectual progress? In four hundred years, it seems, we’ve travelled from universal harmony to universal cognitive dissonance.

I locked the door, put the key back, and left the church to have a look round the grounds. There are three carved beasts perched atop the tower, and on a cloudy day that threatened rain, the whole scene felt suitably gothic. But as I was about to leave to catch the train back to London the sun came out, and Holy Cross Bearsted stood bright against the dark sky. 

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. You can support Corymbus by buying me a coffee on PayPal, or subscribing to my Patreon. For updates on new posts, sign up to the mailing list.

Further reading:

Peter Ammann: The Musical Theory and Philosophy of Robert Fludd.

Dante Diotallevi: The Case of Robert Fludd

Urszula Szulakowska: Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine

Frances Yates: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment 


Musica Antica Rotherhithe

Musica Antica Rotherhithe perform Lo Spedale in November 2018: photo credit Annika Derksen.

‘I got sick to death – particularly at university – of being asked to perform nothing but Handel and Bach. And I thought: there is more to music than this’.

I’m in the cafe at the British Library, speaking to Oliver Doyle. He’s a PhD student, harpsichordist and tenor, and in 2016 he co-founded Musica Antica Rotherhithe, a group which specialises in performing rare early repertoire. The previous week, I’d gone to Holy Trinity Church in Rotherhithe to hear their concert of opera excerpts by two 17th-century composers: Stefano Landi and Adriano Banchieri.

Those names would be a tough sell anywhere, you’d think – even more so in a residential part of London many aren’t familiar with. But the church was packed. Clearly this group was doing something right, and I wanted to find out more.

‘A lot of people said oh, it’s hard to get audiences for this’, Oliver says of his desire to break from the Bach-Handel mould. ‘And I thought: look at France, or Germany, Spain, Belgium…look at the audiences that will pack out venues to hear obscure 17th-century Air de cour or Italian opera of the same period. Why can’t we emulate that here?’

The concert certainly provided lessons in how to engage an audience. Before a note was played, Oliver introduced the music with a warm and easy manner, setting a tone of informality that made us feel included (it’s amazing how often this courtesy doesn’t happen, or is done poorly). After a particularly virtuosic trio in the first half by sopranos Camilla Seale and Emily Atkinson and countertenor Tristram Cooke, he turned to the audience from the harpsichord and said ‘feel free to applaud that’.

But this relaxed approach really came into its own for the surtitles, which were projected onto a screen behind the ensemble – only slightly obscured by the wandering head of a long theorbo. They paraphrased the gist of the libretto into modern parlance, and had the audience in fits of laughter. One character’s response to an overly effusive admirer, for example, was rendered as ‘not at all creepy’.

‘The way that I do this was entirely stolen from the Brighton Early Music Festival’, Oliver admits. He saw a low-tech opera production in which cast members held up humorous placards to summarise the libretto. He seems particularly proud that, in one of his translations, he managed to include a couple of quotes from Mean Girls.

But this sense of fun is balanced with a lightly-worn erudition and enthusiasm for the music. Oliver’s skills as historian and Italian speaker were evident in his excellent programme notes. Also impressive was the total lack of hand-wringing apologetics for the unusual repertoire – none of the tiresome ‘it may not be a masterpiece, but it’s still worth listening to…’ – nor overly grand claims for its worth.

A performance of Falvetti’s Il Diluvio Universale in 2020: photo credit Jo Furniss.

I wanted to know what the journey had been like, starting out as an unknown group to selling-out concerts. He’s clear that they’ve had one big advantage: Oliver’s father is the vicar at Rotherhithe. ‘We talk a lot about positions of privilege – a lot of classical musicians have gone to private school. I went to state school in Bermondsey, but my privilege was having a church in the back garden’.

This meant the group didn’t face the ‘crippling’ venue fees that most come up against. Though now, he says, the church makes more on the bar than they would in venue hire anyway. A strong trade in glasses of wine was certainly in evidence at the concert, as were a bewilderingly large selection of flavoured gins to take home.

But you still have to find an audience in the first place. Here, Oliver’s professional experience – marketing for The Sixteen and fundraising for English Touring Opera – put him in good stead. ‘I probably spend more time marketing than I do preparing my own side of the performances’, he admits.

Musica Antica Rotherhithe flier designs.

And what does that mean? ‘Immense flier runs of London. Everywhere we possibly can. All the city churches, libraries, supermarkets…’ What’s more, to establish their own brand they moved away from the familiar, tired format: a Carravagisti painting overlaid with text. They took the imaginative step of imitating documents of the period, starting with a mocked-up 17th-century playbill in a historical font.

‘As we went along we realised the more outlandish we could get, the more attention we’d attract’. For a concert of 15th-century repertoire, they reworked an image of the Chanssonier Cordiforme, a beautiful manuscript of love songs in the shape of a heart. ‘The amount of interest we had from people saying ‘I’ve never seen a heart-shaped flier before!’.…’ 

Gradually, what started out as a group of friends making music – including soprano Jessica Euker, the group’s other co-founder – gained a big enough audience that they could pay proper musician fees. Now, unlike Oliver, the majority of their performers are full-time professionals. But it has not been all smooth sailing, and various factors have affected sales – Covid, performing on the same day as an anti-Brexit march, and a generally lower enthusiasm for religious repertoire.

Performing rare music also comes with its own challenges. The performing edition of Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo was riddled with errors. And that’s when there is published score at all. Part of the group’s mission is to make their own editions and put them online in the public domain – after his PhD, Oliver plans to do at least one piece a year that requires editing, resulting in a score that others can use. It’s hard work though – a book of Cavalli arias took him months to put together.

What advice can he give other groups starting out? Many, Oliver says, are too reticent in seeking mutual help. ‘Once you’ve worked in mainstream classical music, you realise people are constantly sending emails to each other saying: ‘I’ve got this concert, it’s not selling, can you mention it in your e-news’…that attitude I don’t think has been cottoned on to by smaller groups of young professionals’. When they’ve tried writing to such groups to propose marketing swaps, they ‘rarely if ever get a response’. 

Another mistake new ensembles make, he says, is going through the onerous process of setting up as a charity before having trialed  staging more than a handful of events. MAR have only recently become registered as one, and even then they ‘ran against numerous problems’ in securing the status.

Oliver sees the future for the group in moving to different venues, with Rotherhithe as ‘a test tube for developing interesting programmes’ that be taken elsewhere. This year they’ll perform a programme of female composers in Sheffield, and bring Nicholas Lanier’s music to the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the same space where he performed for Charles I 400 years ago (made possible by a small syndicate of Greenwich-based supporters).

Oliver recalls his introduction to early music as a 14 year old, when he was taken to hear Cavalli’s La Calisto at the Royal Opera House. He was unsure about going, expecting to hear something like Verdi, which he wasn’t keen on. Suffice it to say he was pleasantly surprised.

‘And from there on I thought, how wonderful is this music? If I, having come from my background, can fall in love with this stuff, who’s to say that lots of other people who aren’t from particular educational or wealth brackets can’t also enjoy this music?’ 

Visit the Musica Antica Rotherhithe website.

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The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York

By Peter Davison

At the end of May, I was delighted to attend the annual Colorado Mahlerfest to participate in the symposium which accompanies five intensive days of music-making. Founded in 1987 by the conductor Robert Olson, the festival is one of the world’s longest-running Mahler celebrations, taking place under the gaze of the Rocky Mountains in the university town of Boulder. Since 2016, Mahlerfest has been led by the Cardiff-based American conductor, Kenneth Woods. But, with Mahler performances no longer a rarity, his challenge is to find ways to rekindle the festival’s original pioneering spirit. 

Woods has followed Olson in performing a single symphony each year, although the emphasis has shifted to contextualising Mahler’s work. In 2023, the Symphony No.2, ‘The Resurrection’ provided the festival’s beating heart, alongside works by other composers ranging from Richard Wagner to the likes of Erich Korngold, Hans Gál, Luciano Berio and Scottish composer, Thea Musgrave.

The day-long symposium provides a more reflective moment in the festival’s busy schedule and a chance to explore the changing face of Mahler scholarship. Among the speakers this year was Joseph Horowitz, a renowned and sometimes controversial commentator upon the American classical music scene, who introduced his newly published novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York.

The book offers a fictional account of Gustav and Alma’s brief period at the heart of American musical life, following Mahler’s acrimonious resignation from the Vienna Opera in the summer of 1907. In truth, the scope of the text extends beyond its title, including significant moments in the couple’s troubled relationship that occurred in Europe such as the revelation of Alma’s adultery with Walter Gropius, the spectacular premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich and Mahler’s fabled meeting with Sigmund Freud in Leiden.

The stresses on the Mahler’s marriage were already present when they embarked for the USA late in 1907, having lost their eldest child Maria in the summer of that year, discovering too that Mahler was suffering from serious heart disease. New York represented an opportunity for creative and personal renewal but, on a pragmatic level, it was a chance for Mahler to earn the money that would allow him to keep composing during the down-season in Europe.

Crucially we are informed that Mahler came to New York as a belated replacement for the Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl, who had once been a trusted collaborator of Richard Wagner. Seidl had died unexpectedly in 1898, having won the hearts of New Yorkers with his Wagner performances and encouragement for American composers. His untimely death caused his supporters genuine grief. Mahler, it was hoped, would be a worthy successor, inheriting Seidl’s cultural legacy and further transforming American musical life. But it was not to be. 

Horowitz’s contention is that Mahler’s time in New York, where he took on a dual role as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and what became the New York Philharmonic, was a failure because he did not understand the city’s classical music culture as Seidl had done. Seidl had loved New York and even adopted American citizenship. By contrast Mahler was homesick, the perpetual outsider who underestimated the sophistication of the Manhattan cognoscenti, especially its music critics whom he suspected of antisemitism. 

The received view is that Mahler was tyrannised by an ignorant ladies committee who preferred to hear Tchaikovsky more than the great works of the German canon, while the orchestra conspired against him. American classical music was a cultural backwater so that its composers lacked a viable tradition in which they could thrive. Whatever the truth of the matter, undoubtedly New York’s monied elites possessed the will to create a concert and opera-going culture of a quality unrivalled anywhere in the world. 

According to Horowitz, the ‘Mahler as victim’ narrative stems largely from the fourth and final volume of Henri Louis de la Grange’s vast biographical account of the composer, which idealises him to a fault. Alma Mahler’s reminiscences are also dismissive of the couple’s American hosts, even if she enjoyed the opportunities for socialising more than her husband. By comparison, the author paints a quite different picture in which a weary Mahler engaged only half-heartedly with American composers, treating the public as uneducated and the city’s music critics as inherently hostile. The orchestra’s anger, we discover, was to a degree justified, having learnt that Mahler had recruited a spy among their number who was passing on malicious gossip. The ladies of the committee, acting with forthright intent, insisted the spy should be sacked, and Mahler had to comply.

We are offered by the author a portrait of Mahler that is real. Here was a man of formerly prodigious energy weakened by illness, wounded by his experiences in Vienna and thus prone to paranoia. We can only imagine what might have ensued if Mahler’s American sojourn had not been cut short by his final illness. Would he have fully embraced the opportunity before him, realising that Seidl had bequeathed a well-informed and open-minded audience? Would Mahler ever have engaged with a musical innovator like Charles Ives, for example, with whom he potentially shared so much in common?

There’s reason to take Horowitz’s view of events seriously since, aside his trenchant opinions about the current state of classical music in the United States, he is acknowledged as a leading expert in the fin de siècle period of American musical history. He has also run orchestras and programmed concerts, knowing at first-hand how conversations unfold between celebrity artists, promoters and wealthy board members. His reconstruction of these dialogues therefore has a ring of authenticity. 

However, the most striking insights of The Marriage are about Alma. Horowitz told me that he did not set out to portray her in a more sympathetic light but that this emerged from observing her awkwardness in imaginary social interactions. The book lays bare the paradoxes of Mahler’s character which Alma had patiently to endure. His hypersensitivity and infantile insecurities co-existed with a tyrannical willpower which spared no one – particularly not Alma, least of all himself. 

We see how Alma was at one level willingly compliant with Mahler’s demands. She needed to be needed, to be lover, mother and nurse, as well as mid-wife to the products of genius. And, we are told, because she projected her father complex on Mahler, Freud predicted that she would stay with him, despite her magnetic attraction to the younger Gropius that was pulling her away. Then Alma was another bundle of contradictions, more unsure of herself in New York society than might have been expected, particularly when faced with independent-minded women such as Mary Sheldon and Mimi Untermeyer who were the negotiators for Mahler’s financial backers. Far from being interfering busy bodies, they proved themselves shrewd and decisive, knowing exactly what they did and did not want from their expensive maestro.

Horowitz reserves his strongest censure for Mahler’s poor relations with the New York press. They were by no means blindly set against Mahler, but nor did they withhold their legitimate doubts. They acknowledged Mahler’s skill as a conductor and the originality of his music, but his reworkings of scores by Beethoven and Schubert, while judged musically effective, were in the end considered a self-indulgence. The critics also found Mahler’s own music a puzzle, juxtaposing moments of great beauty and wilful ugliness. What we may now hear as ironical or exploring the dark side, they interpreted simply as breaking the laws of aesthetics. 

We are informed in the novel that Mahler consistently refused to meet his most significant opponent, Henry Krehbiel, the leading music critic of the day, because he did not like Mahler’s music and remained loyal to his deceased friend, Anton Seidl whom he considered to be a superior artist. Yet we learn too that Krehbiel and Mahler were two of a kind. Both were stubborn moralists sharing a Germanic cultural background steeped in Wagner. Both were eager to improve the general public’s taste and knowledge of musical history. 

In conclusion, I should draw attention to Horowitz’s use of language, which is vivid – occasionally extravagant. Most impressive are his poetical accounts of Mahler’s music which profoundly acknowledge the composer’s genius, signalling that the author has no wish to diminish Mahler’s musical achievements. Descriptions of rehearsals for the Fourth Symphony in New York and the triumphant premiere of the Eighth in Munich stand out, capturing in just a few words the spirit of these great, if vastly different, works. 

The Marriage is a brave experiment, following wherever the imagination leads to fill gaps in historical knowledge and to test the validity of long held assumptions. The approach is demanding for the uninitiated who will need to work hard to unpick the elaborate patchwork of interior narratives, flashbacks, cultural references, archive materials and real events. Helpfully, the author has provided a brief introduction and a twenty-page Afterword which identify key personalities and explain salient issues. In addition, a glossary of main characters will aid those entering for the first time into this esoteric world of big money and high ambition, tormented feelings and inspiring music.    

©Peter Davison

Details of Joseph Horowitz’s The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York can be found at

For further information about Colorado Mahlerfest go to


A ‘Peculiar Spiritual Make-Up’

Literature on the life and music of Edmund Rubbra is not vast. Spiritual Dimensions in the Music of Edmund Rubbra, a new book by Lucinda Cradduck, offers an analysis of the composer’s life and works through the lens of his various spiritual interests. At 250 pages plus references, it’s considerably more approachable than Ralph Scott Grover’s exhaustive 1993 survey of his output, and offers a suitable companion to Leo Black’s 2008 study of his eleven symphonies.

The Wilfrid Mellers remark that Rubbra was a man endowed with a ‘peculiar spiritual make-up’ often serves as an introduction to his music. But spirituality is a dangerously nebulous concept, liable to become a fuzzy stand-in, a catch-all for the ineffable. It’s to Cradduck’s credit that she foregrounds it here, and unpicks the various strands of spiritual influence in Rubbra’s life with care and erudition. It becomes clear that Rubbra was a widely-read and curious man who took spiritual ideas seriously, and as listeners of his music, so should we. 

She draws out a nuanced picture of Rubbra’s place in 20th-century British musical life, beginning with the early, Theosophy-infused influence of Cyril Scott and Holst and his work with progressive dance and theatre groups. His creative responses to Asian musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan and the dancer Madame Menaka complemented an intellectual engagement with Eastern spiritual traditions.

She identifies aspects of nature mysticism too – Rubbra lived for decades in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and associated with artists and thinkers whose worldviews were shaped by Medievalism and the Arts and Crafts movement. The analysis of the bewitching Canto from the sixth symphony is particularly compelling here, as is her nuanced answer to the question of Rubbra’s place in the English ‘Pastoral’ tradition, something often lazily equated with nostalgia in the wake of industrialisation and war, but which, in Rubbra’s case, arguably manifests itself more as a progressive ideal for a humane and spiritually fulfilling existence.

What emerges is that Rubbra was as likely to be influenced by what he read and saw as the music he heard. He fed his mind on poetry and novels, and it was a library book that first introduced him to the esoteric Theosophy movement as a teenager. The colours and moods of Italian religious art inspired him, as did the idiosyncratic evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin. He adored the tranquility of Abbeys, and despite his somewhat chaotic love life, considered joining a lay order. While he was eventually received into the Catholic Church, he retained a lifelong interest in Buddhism – and even had to defend himself for it, when it was made known to a church music society who had commissioned him. 

Cradduck’s use of musical analysis is extensive, with plenty of scored examples. I found it most enlightening when drawing on the organic qualities of his music – how it expresses the ideas of divine interconnectedness, the fusing of opposites, and the innate expressive powers of certain intervals. Her identification of ‘golden sections’ and numerical sequences, on the other hand, I found more speculative than convincing, and arithmetic always makes for heavy reading. But overall, this book is an admirably serious attempt at grappling with the manifestation of spiritual ideas as dots on the page, something which is no easy task. That it includes some of his unpublished, unrecorded and unfinished works is particularly valuable context for the Rubbra fan.

Cradduck avoids the temptation to bang the drum for Rubbra as an unjustly neglected composer – her approach throughout is to illuminate the specifics of his life and works, something which I feel actually makes the case for his music more powerfully than direct pleading ever could. Nonetheless, her final summary draws comparisons to the popular, spiritually-influenced composers James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener, and so the question of why Rubbra’s music gets comparatively few performances still hangs unsaid in the air.

Also implicit in this book is another absence – that of a true biography of Rubbra aimed at the average reader. Oliver Soden’s recent book on Tippett and Leah Broad’s brand new Quartet have shown publishers turning to 20th-century British composers as ripe material for the mass-market biography, in both cases to critical acclaim. Could Rubbra one day receive similar treatment? While Cradduck’s valuable study succeeds on its own terms, it also suggests a life eventful enough, and connected to enough colourful personalities and intellectual movements, to make a worthy addition to this genre.

Spiritual Dimensions in the Music of Edmund Rubbra is available from Routledge.

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Songs on Diagon Alley: The Story of Travis & Emery

It’s a short but steep set of stairs down to the basement. I cling to the handrail as I descend, turning a tight angle to duck under the low doorway. The space inside is as narrow as the shop floor above, but extends considerably further. It’s as equally stacked high with stock, and space is tight.

It’s a condition acutely familiar to used book buyers like myself: cramped abundance. I’m told we will have to perch on stools. So I find a nearby shelf space for my laptop to record us, above a pile of Purcell scores.

I can’t remember when I first chanced upon Travis & Emery, a business specialising in old music books and sheet music in the heart of London’s West End. It’s a short walk from some of the capital’s prime cultural and tourist assets. The Coliseum – home (for now at least) to English National Opera – is literally around the corner.

But even for the seasoned Londoner, Travis & Emery is easy to miss. It’s part of Cecil Court, which runs between the busy Charing Cross Road and St. Martin’s Lane. One day I must have made a detour down here while killing time. After all, it’s often on the side-streets where you find the most interesting things. 

This was a fact understood by J.K. Rowling, who set the secret Wizard retail destination of Diagon Alley just off the Charing Cross Road. Today, tour guides will stand at the mouth of Cecil Court and claim this street was its inspiration. The presence of occult bookshop Watkins certainly lends credence to the theory, but its other stores showcase antique specialisms with their own kinds of magic – from old maps to editions of Alice in Wonderland. 

A blue plaque notes that the Mozarts lodged in Cecil Court in 1764. An auspicious sign, perhaps.

Your first sight of Travis & Emery might be the crates of discounted scores placed outside, but a smartly arranged window display promises greater goods within. Inside, various categories of sheet music run high up the right wall, and books about music populate the left, while an island unit is replete with further offerings. Room to manoeuvre is not ample.

Joining me in the subterranean gathering is Giles, whose aunt founded Travis & Emery in 1960, and from whom he inherited it after her death in the 1990s. Alongside him sits Charlie, a young choral conductor who’s also the shop manager.

The shop’s wooden, cupboardly charm is the sort of retail experience that’s not supposed to exist in central London anymore – tales of beloved independent businesses closing have become axiomatic in recent years. So I wanted to know how a business like this can still operate in the belly of the capitalist beast. I ask, is Cecil Court protected somehow?

Giles recalls his lease conditions. ‘I’m not allowed to sell food, run a betting shop…or run an immoral house’, he laughs. ‘It tends towards being bookshops, but because bookshops are not particularly profitable, it doesn’t always end up being bookshops’.

There’s more to Travis and Emery than immediately meets the eye. Their trade spans a wide gamut. At one end, a cheap score is picked up by a cash-strapped music student, a passing operagoer buys a biography. But at the other are the serious collectables: antiquarian music books, scores and ephemera, the rarest of which can sell for hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

‘Someone came in on Valentine’s Day looking for something for his wife, and he says she likes Benjamin Britten’, Charlie tells me. ‘I thought to myself: we have a book signed by Britten and Peter Pears. That was an instant sale of something that was two or three hundred pounds. So that’s a nice feeling.’

I ask Giles to explain how the shop came about, and he begins in an unexpected place. His grandfather, Sir Edward Travis, was the director of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, the famous Wartime codebreaking centre, and then at GCHQ. His daughter and Giles’s aunt, Valérie Travis, worked at Bletchley too before going into the book trade. 

She worked in Cecil Court for Alec Clunes – father of television actor Martin Clunes – but when she married the organist and Bach scholar Walter Emery, the name for her own business was born. ‘She had managed to get a typewriter from a U-Boat, which her husband then used to type up his musicology notes’, Giles adds.

After Valérie’s death, he inherited a business in bad shape. ‘We’d got about three years left on the fag-end of a 100-year lease. There had been water coming down…’, he gestures at the wall. The shop still had an archaic rotary telephone, and a forbiddingly inscrutable computer. It also had debt. That problem was solved by the discovery of a rare manuscript, under an old box of tissues.

Today, Travis & Emery does a lot of business online, although a print catalogue of recent acquisitions still goes out by mail. Im handed the latest edition, with Saint Cecilia on the cover. Mail orders make up about half of the trade, and during lockdown it naturally became a lifeline. But about half of these orders are international, and Britain’s exit from the EU Customs Union has added a bureaucratic burden. ‘We’ve probably lost a couple of customers that way, people who just don’t want to deal with the hassle’, Charlie says.

Giles’s own musical education didn’t extend beyond playing horn at school and college, but now most of the shop staff have music degrees. Its regular shifts are useful for those working in an all-too-precarious music industry, and a couple of jobbing actors sometimes fill in too.

Downsizing institutions are one way they acquire stock. Auctions are another, and sometimes the estate of a deceased musician will get in touch directly. If they’re well known, it can be a selling point – a note goes on the door about their scores. ‘We catalogue every interesting book that passes through the front desk, telling you about its condition, Charlie adds.

But one thing becomes clear: what you see in the shop is only the tip of the iceberg. Giles’s home is often the first port of call for acquisitions – a sort of home-counties Ellis Island for the huddled masses of music publishing, yearning to breathe free.

The personal collections that the shop acquires may also come with unexpected items. A photograph might need returning to relatives, or an embarrassing letter kept under wraps. Giles recalls a volume covered in brown newspaper with ‘Beethoven’ written down the spine. Inside was a compilation of soft pornography. To each their own Immortal Beloved, I suppose.

But for me at least, that lingering sense of history is precisely what makes second-hand books so appealing – a personal inscription, a curiously dated style. So often they seem lived in, loved, and have a story to tell.

I ask Giles and Charlie what they think about the recent news that Hal Leonard have closed seven MusicRoom outlets, leaving only the flagship store on Denmark Street. Is the state of the music market a concern for them? Might they even benefit from less competition? 

‘We thrive together as music shops’, Charlie says. But he notes a crucial difference: the bread-and-butter of those stores, such as the latest ABRSM syllabus, is the same whether you buy it in-store or online. ‘It’s not the same experience as coming here and having complete serendipity of what you might find – hundreds of years worth of sheet music’. Giles adds that theres a lot of mutual goodwill among dealers in their musical niche.

The rise of tablet scores is something they both see as a potential challenge for the 63-year-old business. I point out that while e-readers have been around for a while, the paper novel still seems to be going strong. 

‘The differentiation is the beauty and physicality’, Charlie says. ‘I think that maybe sheet music will go the way of books. Since Kindles came out, books are generally more attractive, have more interesting designs, they’ll make more of a point of what paper they’re using, there’s more collectable editions…the desire for physical objects is very much still strong.

And in his own life as a conductor, does he stay loyal to paper? ‘I only use sheet music’, he says, and smiles. ‘At this point I feel like I have to’.

You can find Travis & Emery at 17 Cecil Court, London, and visit their website.

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Of Byrd And Bard

This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd. Many musicians are celebrating this leading composer of the English Renaissance in concerts, church services, and recordings. 

Byrd’s life entirely overlapped with that of another Renaissance William – Shakespeare. Yet there is a great chasm between their posthumous reputations. Both are recognised as masters of their respective fields, and leading lights of a wider school, but only Shakespeare has become a world-famous cultural export, an ageless titan of western civilisation. Byrd, while celebrated and respected, remains more contained – a figure of his time and place.

I won’t try to argue that Byrd deserves the huge cultural profile bestowed on Shakespeare. But it is nonetheless interesting to consider what factors are at play in this discrepancy.

Principal, I think, is the fact that Shakespeare’s works are overwhelmingly secular – he is returned to again and again for his insights into our common humanity. Whereas for Byrd, it seems, sacred music is front and centre of his legacy. 

His choral works are still sung as a living part of the Cathedral tradition, and in concerts. His life story is bound up in the dangerous politics of the Reformation, within which his recusancy, and intrigues of possible Catholic messages in the music, add clandestine spice to the tale. A ‘Secret Byrd’ concert series is taking place this year, aiming to recreate some of this illicit atmosphere. The shadowy historical storytelling is both an engaging selling point for public interest, but at the same time distances him – places him as someone looking backwards to the middle ages, even while it celebrates his forward-looking music.

How can such a figure compare to Shakespeare? Music certainly formed a part of Elizabethan theatre – Byrd himself composed variations on the song ‘O Mistress Mine’ from Twelfth Night. But it took another couple of centuries of musical development before we get to the composer who is most commonly mentioned in the same breath.

Immediately after the death of Beethoven, an obituarist was making comparisons between his legacy and Shakespeare’s. Beethoven owned translations of the plays, and the Bard’s influence on him is well documented. In the two centuries since the composer’s death, this equivalence seems to have stuck. Only recently I was reading Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which includes the character of a music teacher for whom the two artists were ‘a twin constellation outshining all else’.

You might argue that the musical practices and technologies of Byrd’s time were simply not yet sufficiently developed, in range of articulation and form, to merit the comparison to a dramatist who at least had the head-start of using the stuff of everyday life: words. Music needed time to catch up, and poor Byrd was born two hundred years too early to be on a level playing field.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in this 400th anniversary year I would love for more attention to be paid to Byrd’s secular side: his glorious instrumental music and songs. In 2021 the pianist Kit Armstrong’s released a double album of early keyboard music, contrasting Byrd with his contemporary John Bull. It’s easy to dismiss this repertoire as a kind of proto-Bach – a precursor to more elegant, finely wrought counterpoint that’s better suited to a modern piano. Interesting, but ultimately worth passing over. But Armstrong’s recording makes a different case for this music. It shows how much experimentation, cleverness and joy it holds.

Take the fantasia Ut, Mi, Re. Its childish Solmization title is deceptive. Byrd is working from a simple starting principle, but out of humble beginnings he creates a fantastically unpredictable and virtuosic piece. There are moments that seem to leap forward in time, where – dare I say it – his exuberance is not a million miles from the ebullient moods and eccentricities of Beethoven himself. 

It’s well worth reading Armstrong’s own detailed notes on how he approached this recording. We are long accustomed to modern updates and experimentations with the timeless plays of Shakespeare. My wish for 2023 is that more musicians outside of the early music specialists would explore the playful side of the other William.

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Locke for Quartet

I’ve long been a fan of the consort music of Matthew Locke – composer and graffiti artist of the 17th century. Sitting chronologically between Gibbons and Purcell, his music is fascinatingly caught between two eras, and takes harmonic twists and turns in surprising and elegant ways.

So I was delighted to find that a fantasia of his was included on a new album by Ruisi Quartet, alongside music by Haydn and Oliver Leith.

I’m accustomed to hearing this music on viols and continuo, which of course has its own grainy appeal (see a recent record by Fretwork). But the greater brightness of the string quartet works beautifully here too. Perhaps more ensembles might pick up this fresh and charming music? My only complaint is that Ruisi haven’t given us more.

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Wycinanki is the Polish art of paper cutting. In the words of composer Andrzej Panufnik, it’s a rustic art, consisting of ‘symmetrical designs of magical abstract beauty and naive charm’. A Google image search will provide countless examples that shows what he meant.

Panufnik titled his third string quartet Wycinanki, and it was composed for the London International String Quartet Competition and premiered in 1991, a few months before his death.

In his programme note, Panufnik wrote that this work is made up of five contrasted short studies, as a sonic equivalent to these small craft designs. But the conceptual link to Wycinanki was balanced by the needs of the competition, in which different aspects of string playing were tested, from dynamic control to rhythmic precision. And as his daughter Roxanna wrote in the notes to a recording, each quartet only had 24 hours to prepare their performance.

The resulting piece is compact – a short parade of highly contrasted movements, each operating by its own incisive logic. The final and longest of these studies is especially memorable, an Adagio sostenuto written as a continuous arch encompassing the fullest range of dynamics from pp to ff and back again. Its rich textures, clashing dissonances and yawning glissandos make it impressively poignant.

I’ve been listening on Apple Music (Brodksy Quartet) and YouTube (Tippett Quartet).

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