At some point while I was studying for music A Level, we had a class in which we were each performing for constructive criticism. One of the students sat at the piano and sang a song she had written. The accompaniment was simple – a few repeating chords, giving prominence to her expressive voice.
At the end, the teacher remarked that it had been very effective, but it would not be a good submission as composition coursework. This kind of minimal style, he explained, did not exhibit the variety of techniques that examiners would be looking to see that students were aware of.
In other words: the song was lovely, but it did not tick the right boxes for varied harmonic structure that, say, an Elton John song might do. Deeply felt self-expression, an idea which makes studying music attractive, was not what we were there for.
And yet the simplicity of my classmate’s song was certainly of its time. Wayne Marshall has noted how the four-chord sequence used in the 2017 hit single Despacito has become remarkably widespread in recent years. Another article by Dean Olivet identifies a decline of traditional ‘functional’ harmony in modern pop music. Instead, Olivet suggests, much of it meanders or cycles around, ‘like a lost monk chanting in the woods’.
Perhaps this is just a matter of changing fashions. It could be that a more rootless approach to tonality resonates with the zeitgeist in some way. Perhaps harmonic structure, with the potential to ‘modulate’ between keys, has simply become a less important musical parameter. Hip-hop – by one measure the world’s most popular music genre – puts more emphasis on lyrical content, rhythm, and the sonic possibilities of sampling.
Whatever the explanation, the priorities of our A Level were made clear when we learnt to compose perfect cadences in the style of chorales from 18th-century Leipzig.
At around this same time, I became aware of the pianist-composer Ludovico Einaudi. His albums Le Onde (The Waves) and I Giorni (The Days) had been taken up by Classic FM, and he blended the kind of chord sequences that saturate pop music with minimalist piano textures.
I came to admire Einaudi’s piano music as much for its gentle poetry as its audacious simplicity. The remarkable fan base it has gained, including a large cohort of young listeners, is something that should give pause for thought. To some, Einaudi is understood as part of a ‘dumbed down’ wave of classical crossover music. ‘The Land Modulation Forgot’ was the mocking sticker I once noticed attached to his drawer in the music section of a London book shop. Words my A Level teacher might have used to my fellow student, had he been less kind.
But to notice only a lack of modulation in Einaudi’s music reveals a curiously insular view. Besides songs like Despactio, how many musical traditions around the world do not use modulation to a great extent? It must surely be many, especially when – like European music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance – the capabilities of instruments do not easily facilitate it.
After a gap of several years, I recently revisited I Giorni, whosetitle track tinkles away in the background to BBC TV trailers. By chance it was straight after listening to Mali In Oak by Tunde Jegede, a kora player I have written about here. Suddenly, with this serendipity of juxtaposition, Einaudi’s music started to make sense in a different kind of way.
This should have been no surprise. I had completely forgotten that I Giorni was itself inspired by a trip to Mali. The sleeve notes describe a car journey near Bamako with another kora player, Toumani Diabate, where he explained the story behind an ancient Mande song playing on the radio.
I Giorni is not African pastiche, but it is interesting how Einaudi uses the piano much like the 21-string kora, with its far more limited harmonic range. He mostly keeps within one key centre, and manipulates textural figurations in ways that bring out the sound colour of the instrument.
Now our bookshop joker may or may not be culturally insensitive enough to dismiss Mande musical traditions as A Land Modulation Forgot. But either way, a careful listen to I Giorni reveals that there is a subtle musical intelligence at play. Einaudi understands the power of creating space, and making the listener wait. Often simply through pausing, but also by holding back harmonic movement, textural weight, or melodic prominence, and then variously releasing it to shape the music.
It sounds easy, of course. But as with composing text, the ease of simple communication can be deceptive.
With all this in mind, we can see how the idea of Einaudi representing the ‘Relaxing Classics’ touted by Classic FM is misleading. He is tapping into an aesthetic of graceful simplicity, of ‘less is more’, that can be found within all sorts of musical traditions, from Mande song to Gregorian Chant to the wildly successful recording of Gorecki’s third symphony. Einaudi studied under composers like Berio and Stockhausen, but has also said that ‘all my life, my heart has felt closer to Rock’n’Roll’. Many of his melodies would sound, in another arrangement, just like folk music.
Einaudi has never ‘forgotten’ modulation. But he does have an understanding of the broader and older ways that music speaks to people, and the role it can play in busy lives, which renders modulation a moot point.
The scope of his musical sympathies are exemplified most vividly in the 2015 collaborative album Taranta Project, which features African and Turkish musicians. Complete with upbeat percussion and electric guitar, it explores a colourful sound world that is a far cry from the marbled piano tones of I Giorni.
Nonetheless, it is true that much of Einaudi’s music is gentle, and avoids a sense of conflict. His solo piano works tend to move in phases, often separated by pauses, without any sudden extremes of dynamics. As I argued in relation to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, this kind of approach creates a built-in versatility: the music can work as a background to other activities as well as the focal point of a concert experience.
But if listeners find Einaudi ‘relaxing’ – as a lifelong fan of relaxing, I take no issue here – we might also say that, like Olivet’s monk roaming the woods, it is transcendent or meditative. ‘The landscape is always the sand, the sky, the clouds, the sea,’ he writes about his breakthrough album Le Onde. ‘Only the waves change, always the same and always different’.
This peaceful scene painting also points to a humane perception behind his music. Its simplicity expresses a common yearning for a truer existence, the kind of impulse that fires idealistic dreams of quitting the city job and going to live off the land somewhere. The same sort of sentiment expressed in the oft-tweeted lines of Langston Hughes:
I am so tired of waiting, Aren’t you, For the world to become good And beautiful and kind?
In essence, Einaudi’s repeating arpeggios and gentle melodies suggest a form of contented self-limitation. And perhaps that is the one thing our bookshop vandal can never forgive. Such an outlook cannot be computed by the intellectual and aspirational value set that classical music is bound up in, the same values that my fellow A Level student encountered when her sincerely heartfelt song was deemed to be ultimately unworthy.
Like the omnipresent chord sequence of Despacito, his extraordinary popularity probably arises from a multitude of factors. But my hunch is that Einaudi’s quiet music embodies an idea which, for many, carries a quiet appeal. It is an idea that is considered dangerous to any overarching culture – musical, political or otherwise – that conditions us to strive, compete, demand more, and achieve the exceptional. The idea of simply saying ‘this is enough’. That most radical notion: choosing humility.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
In 1795, the 23-year-old Mungo Park set sail from Portsmouth. The young Scottish physician had offered his services to the African Association – a British society set up to fund expeditions into Africa, with a view to opening opportunities for trade.
Park joined the brig Endeavour, whichset out to trade in beeswax and ivoryat the Gambia, the great river flowing out of Africa into the Atlantic. An established meeting point between African and European merchants, the Gambia not only enabled the transport of goods, but also enslaved Africans, to be sold and shipped to the Americas.
Of particular interest to the Association were two features of West African geography which held a near-legendary status: the river Niger, whose precise course was unknown, and the ancient city of Timbuktu, rumoured for its wealth.
Landing at the Gambia and heading upstream to a British trading station, Park stayed for several months to learn the local Mandinka language, before setting out with guides on his journey inland.
It was two years before Park arrived back in Britain. He brought news that he had found the Niger, but had been yet unable to reach Timbuktu. In 1799 his published account of his adventures, Travels In The Interior Districts Of Africa, thrilled the public andbecame a bestseller.
The book’s success is easy to understand – it is an often breathless narrative of a genuinely exciting story. Park being an educated man with an eye for detail, his keenly observed descriptions of unfamiliar cultures and landscapes stimulated the public’s imagination.
In one passage he summarises the African musical instruments he had seen, and he mentions a korro, ‘a large harp with eighteen strings’.
This seems to be the first ever written description of what is today called a kora, a West African lute-harp with twenty-one strings. The kora is a traditional instrument of the Mandinka people, one ethnic group within the larger group of Mande people.
In the 1980s, the American ethnomusicologist Eric Charry made his own trip to West Africa. Here he spent several years studying the wide variety of music of the Mande. Charry’s book Mande Music is a deep, authoritative analysis of a rich musical culture.
The Mande are descendants of the Mali Empire, which at its height in the fourteenth century commanded a vast swathe of land from the Atlantic coast into the centre of West Africa. Today, populations of Mandinka people are found with particularly high concentrations in the former western Mande territories, such as The Gambia, Mali, and Guinea.
Constructed from local materials,the kora is distinctive for its large round resonating chamber made from a calabash gourd. It is one of several instruments performed by Mandinka artisan musicians known as Jalis.
Jalis have equivalents across the Mande peoples, and are referred to more generally as Griots. But music is only part of their role – Jalis are also oral historians, story-tellers, and public speakers. The essence of their art, in Charry’s words, is ‘instilling in the listeners pride and strength derived from the example of the deeds of their ancestors’. Lineage is key – Jalis are born Jalis, and through a limited number of families they trace their ancestry for this role as far back as the thirteenth century.
The kora is not the only instrument belonging to their tradition, but with its striking look and beautiful sound, it has become perhaps the most well known outside Africa. Kora technique is based around polyrhythms, with the two thumbs and forefingers creating a pattern of interweaving parts. Players also specialise in dazzlingly fast improvised solo runs, a technique with the wonderfully onomatopoeic name birimintingo, or ‘rolling’.
When Mungo Park finally set eyes upon the Niger, he had been travelling from the Gambia for seven months. He had survived sickness, thirst, robbery, and even imprisonment to get this far.
One of them called out, geo ajffilli (see the water); and looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission; the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and, having drank of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer, to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success.
While Park observed that the river flowed east, he did not know that its course is in fact a colossal boomerang. Rising in the Guinea Highlands, the impetuous young river charges directly inland, where it forms a wide delta. It then continues almost as far north as the Sahara, before turning to sweep down in an immense arc to the Gulf of Guinea.
Geologists now believe that this bizarre shape resulted from what were once two separate rivers, with the original upper Niger emptying into a large long-lost lake. This would mean that the river Mungo Park found was a descendent of something even more elusive: an ancient river entirely trapped by a continent. Never trading its waters with the world, but spreading out wide to vanish in the hot African sun.
The height of the Mali Empire coincided with the reign of Mansa Musa. He is thought be one of the richest people to have ever lived, and news of his wealth spread far enough for him to be depicted holding a gold coin in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324; one chronicler recorded that his lavish gifts of gold along the way single-handedly deflated the metal’s price in Cairo.
During Musa’s reign the Mali Empire annexed Timbuktu. Situated between the Niger and the southern edge of the Sahara, this was an important destination for the trading caravans coming across the desert. In the following centuries control of Timbuktu changed hands several times, while the city went through a golden age as a centre of learning, with several Madrasas (Islamic universities) and a bustling trade in Arabic manuscripts. When the Andalusi diplomat Leo Africanus visited in the sixteenth century, he was struck to discover that the city had ‘more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise’.
Reports of Timbuktu’s wealth intrigued Europeans, and its remote location beyond the vast Sahara lent it a mystique – even today, its name is a byword for a near-mythical place. By Park’s time, the city’s fortunes were in decline, but its heritage of Islamic scholarship remains a powerful symbol of the propagation of the religion across the African continent.
Political power comes and goes, but ideas can cling on with much greater tenacity. Today the Mandinka people are predominantly Muslim. While the role of Jalis is not religious, quotations from the Quran are common in their songs and speeches. Charry also suggests that their tradition of monophonic singing (without harmony) and the melodic ornamentation of birimintingo may have some connection with this spiritual drift – ‘the musical aesthetics carried in the recitation of the Koran that is bound up in Islam wherever it travels’.
‘They say that when a Griot dies, it’s like a library burning down’, explains the kora player Tunde Jegede, in the 1995 BBC film Africa I Remember.
Born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Jegede was not descended from Mande lineage. But as a child he heard a kora player at the Keskidee Centre, an arts hub for London’s black community. He was so taken by the kora that his mother took him to The Gambia to learn the instrument with a Griot.
Jegede also studied cello in London, and his training in both the European and West African classical traditions has given him a diverse career, in which he has collaborated widely as instrumentalist and composer. He describes an affinity between the Baroque music of Bach and Scarlatti to the polyphonic textures of the kora.
Jegede’s Kora Concerto was commissioned by the Psappha Ensemble. Here the delicate, silvery sound of the instrument integrates into a chamber orchestra of just thirteen players. Far from any awkward incongruity, the intimacy of this musical fusion seems to speak of an intimacy of understanding – a deep appreciation of two traditions that Jegede has been in the unusual position to acquire from a young age.
In 1805 Mungo Park embarked on a second journey to the Gambia, sponsored by the British Government. He would return to the river Niger with a simple intent: to ‘set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination […] or perish in the attempt’.
Park was never to return. The only report of his fate comes via Amadi Fatouma, an African guide who accompanied him nearly to his end. Though much depleted by deaths through sickness, the party had navigated the river past Timbuktu, and far into its southbound section. But they had been repeatedly troubled by hostile local forces. When passing through the rapids at Bussa, in modern-day Nigeria, they were ambushed. Facing volleys of arrows and stones, they fled their boat in a desperate attempt to swim to safety. But Park and the remaining British men drowned.
The mighty Niger, whose glittering waters Park had drunk from ten years previously, was the end of him. He was just 34.
Park may have failed in his mission. But through his writings he revealed a continent rich in natural wonder and human life. He is notable for his self-effacing approach – he does not cast himself as a swashbuckling hero, and he recorded the invaluable kindness shown to him by Africans on his journey, commenting that ‘whatever difference there is between the Negro and European […] there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature’.
Nonetheless, some uncomfortable facts remain. On the first expedition, his route back to the Gambia was secured with the help of a slave trader, and his return to Britain came via a slave ship to Antigua. He wrote with unflinching frankness, and sometimes sorrow, at seeing both the types of servitude practiced among Africans, and the transatlantic trade. On board the slave ship he gave medical assistance, and was able to converse with some slaves in Mandinka. ‘They had in truth need of every consolation in my power to bestow’, he remarked grimly.
A year after his death, Britain passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which abolished the trade of slaves (but not yet slavery itself). Over the following decades, the mouth of the Gambia was bolstered with a gun battery and a fort to enforce the law. But these buildings, like the work of the African Association, fit into a larger pattern of increasing European involvement in Africa, one that would lead to the near-total colonisation of the continent in the early twentieth century.
Today The Gambia, once the western edge of the Empire that brought immense wealth to Mansa Musa, is Africa’s smallest nation state. Its borders, negotiated between Britain and France in the late nineteenth century, track only a few miles each side of its precious river, slipping like a dagger into surrounding Senegal.
Precisely 200 years after Park first landed at the Gambia, the BBC broadcast Africa I Remember. In the film, Jegede returns to visit the Griot who taught him as a child, only now with his sister Maya, who, breaking the tradition of the kora as a male domain, was learning to play it herself.
As the Griot goes into a recitative about Mandinka ancestry, Jegede notes that ‘this is what makes the history a living history. It’s not used in the past tense’. Today, Jegede is just one of many musicians who have brought this Griot tradition to international attention, while finding fresh streams for the sound of the kora in jazz, classical and folk music.
‘I think my quest for African classical music really stems back to the first journey I that made to The Gambia’, he says, ‘because it was there that I got an understanding of my inner self, or my inner voice. And it’s that voice I’ve followed which has led me to this idiom, and redefining it, and the need to redefine it. It’s almost like that’s my way of paying back what I’ve received’.
He tells of how the slave trade was made more real for him when he visited James Island, once the last stop for slaves before their departure from the Gambia. It has since been renamed Kunta Kinteh Island, after the protagonist of Roots, Alex Haley’s hugely popular novel centred on the Gambian slave trade. Park’s travelogue would not be the last bestselling story to emerge from this river.
Walking along the island beach, Jegede described how beads worn by enslaved Africans are still washed ashore to this day. On his first visit, he found one of these beads. Tourists would often take them home – artefacts of a cultural identity left behind, a humanity stripped away.
But Jegede could not. ‘I felt that since that was the last piece of them, if you like, to remain in Africa, the bead that I found I had to pass back into the sea’.
On a concert poster from 1931 is a photograph of a young girl. She calmly smiles while holding a cat, a picture of domestic innocence. Below her run the words ‘CHILD PIANIST AND COMPOSER-AGE 10’. This musical prodigy will perform a Haydn concerto, alongside some of her own compositions.
Yet go in search of Ruth Gipps today, and you mostly find a legacy of absence. CD racks run seamlessly from Gershwin to Glass. Most of her compositions are not available on commercial recordings. Halstead’s excellent study, the outcome of scholarly research and her own correspondence with the composer, is seldom seen on bookshelves.
I first discovered Ruth Gipps (pronounced with a ‘hard’ G) while browsing a YouTube channel that features uploads of old broadcast recordings. Though the sound quality was far from perfect, the music immediately stood out: emotionally direct, memorably melodic, expertly crafted. I was amazed that I had not heard her name before.
From the very beginning gender forms a pattern of difference in Gipps’ story. Struggle for recognition in a man’s world is a main theme, but as Halstead’s book shows, the role that womanhood played in her life was also more nuanced and complicated.
Beside talent, one advantage that the young Gipps enjoyed was an ideal musical environment. Born into a family of musicians, her mother Hélène, a larger-than-life Swiss pianist, ran Bexhill School Of Music from their home. Perhaps equally important, she was also an unusually powerful female role model, the ‘undisputed head of the Gipps family’, and main financial provider.
By the age of two, Ruth insisted on being called ‘Widdy’ – later simply ‘Wid’ – a name that stuck for life. It was an early omen of a determined personality.
The young Gipps’ talents proved exceptional when she began piano lessons. Performing from the age of five, she astonished audiences. Music for her simply seemed to be a way of being:
I had known all along of course that playing piano was my job; the first concert merely confirmed it. But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt, although I had not yet written anything, that I was a composer. Not that I wanted to be a composer – that I was one.
And so it came to pass. At age eight, her piano piece The Fairy Shoemaker won competitions, and was even published. By ten she had a regular performing schedule in the south east of England, by fourteen she was composing a piano concerto.
Gipps’ journey into adulthood is littered with stellar achievements. Entering the Royal College of Music at sixteen, she took up the oboe as a second instrument, progressing from complete beginner to professional standard in only a few years. In composition, she won various College prizes, including for her first symphony. Her symphonic poem Knight In Armour was chosen by Sir Henry Wood for the last night of the Proms in 1942.
But the smile of the girl on the poster masked a less happy story. Hélène brought up her children with an unusual degree of independence, treating them as equals, which – alongside her extraordinary talents – meant the young Gipps had difficulties fitting in at school. Initially she was one of a handful of girls in a school of mostly boys, but found no solidarity there. ‘They made my life a misery’ she said, ‘in all the small ways known to little girls with an odd one among them’.
With the boys, however, she was much happier. Consequently, a later move to a girl’s school proved disastrous. The physical and emotional bullying – from staff as well as pupils – was so horrific that Gipps was eventually given permission to leave at age twelve. Such early isolation from her peers, Halstead writes, would go on to breed ‘a particular kind of self-sufficiency’ but with a high emotional cost, creating ‘a deep rooted sense of alienation and defensiveness’. Gipps’ self-defined outsider status would develop into a mentality that attack was the best form of defence.
Her arrival at the Royal College of Music was a chance for a fresh start. But while she was a provincial Wunderkind, Gipps discovered that her piano playing was no longer so exceptional here. Her self-esteem tied up in childhood adulation, this was a blow to confidence which, combined with a long-term hand injury, gradually drew her away from the path of a concert pianist.
However the relationships she formed at this time were crucial. Gipps became engaged to the clarinettist Robert Baker at age 19, marrying him in 1942. As he was called up to the RAF for the war effort, they spent much of the first years of marriage apart. At the same time, a friendship with a young conductor called George Weldon proved pivotal. When he was appointed to the City of Birmingham Orchestra (later the CBSO), he secured her a full-time oboe position.
Furthermore, this friendship enabled Gipps to have the orchestra showcase her other talents, a chance she seized on with unapologetic enthusiasm. In one 1945 concert, she was both the soloist in Glazunov’s piano concerto and played the oboe in her own first symphony. This led to a perception of favouritism which began to ruffle feathers in the orchestra; their closeness aroused suspicion, with rumours that they were having an affair. While there is no indication that this was true, such was the growing hostility that Gipps was eventually forced out.
In 1947, while seven months pregnant with her son Lance, Gipps passed an exam for a doctorate in music, completing the degree with a cantata, The Cat, the following year. Around this time, Weldon recommended her for the job of chorus master to the City of Birmingham Choir. This involved rehearsing the choir for concerts, and she took to it with characteristic flair, discovering a love for conducting that would go on to define her career.
Seeing her clear abilities in this new role, and sensing her growing ambition, even the supportive Weldon began to feel uneasy, complaining that ‘one day you will want to conduct symphonies’. He seems to have summed up the conflicted attitudes to women conductors at the time, and Halstead’s analysis of the gender politics in this period, drawing on the work of the scholar Lucy Green, is particularly fascinating. ‘When conducting work stood within the parameters of ‘enabling’ it could be encouraged, as it seemed a natural extension of woman’s role as nurturer’. As a chorus master, or conductor of a youth orchestra, women could ‘enable’ some later musical goal, but a woman conducting professional concerts – embodying the ultimate authority on stage – was another matter.
Gipps was characteristically undeterred. But securing work would prove difficult. In 1955 she applied for an assistant role at BBC Midland, only to be told that a woman could not command the respect of the orchestra. ‘Any woman taking to the podium has to confront all these negative notions of feminine distractiveness’, Halstead writes, ‘while also negotiating a traditionally male space’. When conducting opportunities did come Gipps’ way, her approach in the early years could be provocative – where other women might have played down their femininity, she deliberately cultivated a stage persona with eye-catching dresses.
Gipps’ eventual solution was simple: she would set up her own ensemble. Having now moved back to London, the One Rehearsal Orchestra – later named the London Repertoire Orchestra – was designed to help musicians at the start of their careers to improve their sight-reading, addressing the common challenge of performing unfamiliar works at short notice. A very practical initiative, it was both an enabling role for musicians, but also for her – now she could finally conduct regularly. She led the orchestra for 31 years.
Further to this, when her husband came into an inheritance, Gipps was able to found the London Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961 – a professional body that later received Arts Council funding and performed with up-and-coming soloists, including a young Julian Lloyd Webber.
But running her own orchestras would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse. While it allowed her complete control, it also increasingly isolated her from mainstream musical life. Gipps’ concerts received relatively little attention from the press. A sad and damning illustration of this came in the 1980s, when the music critic Keith Potter mused on the fact he had never seen a review of her work as conductor or composer:
A full examination of the implications of this would very likely lead to a survey of the whole way our cultural scheme of things operates in this country […] whatever one’s conclusions about all this, it did seem time […] that one of us actually went to one of Gipps’ concerts.
Gipps’ work in conducting, teaching and music administration meant that her rate of composition slowed down, but her musical outlook remained resolute. She saw her art as a continuation of an English tradition of Vaughan Williams, Bliss and Walton, and she fiercely opposed all forms of musical modernism, which she considered a ‘conning of the public’. Like many composers at this time, she fell the wrong side of the more progressive focus of William Glock, the influential Head of Music at the BBC from 1959, and her music suffered as a result. Her tirades against the BBC’s position and their enormous centralised power can hardly have helped. But through her own orchestras she performed a wide range of overlooked repertoire, including music by fellow women Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams.
Today, a stark injustice is simply that so little of her music is able to be heard. What has been recorded shows that, while the ingredients are familiar, there is a powerful imagination and distinctive personality at work. Listening to the magnificent and moving fourth symphony, it is hard not to conclude that a man who had written this score would have had a complete box-set of symphonies released by now. Currently, only the single-movement no.2 has a modern commercial recording – a woeful state of affairs. I will make a rare prediction: awards are waiting to be won for whichever label is shrewd enough to give this piece a new start in life.
Despite her often brash personality, Gipps was known to be enormously generous and helpful to other musicians, and was admired for her courage, energy and integrity. Yet as a figure forced to be defined by her gender, her views on the position of women can seem contradictory. She campaigned against the ‘sex bar’ that prevented married women from playing in many orchestras into the 1960s. She refused to let motherhood hold back her career – a stance admittedly aided by the class privileges of nannies and boarding school. And yet she held very conservative views on sex and marriage, and emphatically distanced herself from feminism. It is particularly interesting that she composed a cantata setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market – an erotically suggestive fairytale of two sisters and their temptation by fruit-selling goblins. ‘Well into old age’, Halstead recalls, ‘her need to discuss sexuality was palpable, leaving the impression that it remained an unceasing source of fascination and anxiety.’
A consistent theme is that music, a steadfast force in her life, would always come first. Even so, one particularly startling fact stands out. Gipps freely admitted that she had only ever kissed her son once, and then by mistake. It occurred when he was a baby, and she momentarily thought that, like the little girl on the poster, she was holding her cat.
The thorny thickets of Gipps’ character seem to stand in contrast to the clarity, emotional appeal, and tenderness in her music. After her death in 1999, a poem was found among her belongings, typed on a scrap of paper. It speaks of a world-weariness, and a wish to be ‘Reincarnated in the sea / So deep that steamers passing by / Are fathoms over where I lie.’
The poems ends with an image of retreat unfamiliar to her gung-ho public persona: ‘A shell my homely habitation / A hermit crab my designation.’ Go in search of Ruth Gipps, and even when you find her, something hides away. Inevitably you are drawn back to that smiling prodigy, both applauded and bullied, gradually fencing herself in.
At age seven, Gipps would say, she learnt how to win respect from the boys at school. One day a boy pushed her to the floor, expecting her to cry. But she got back up, fists raised, ready to fight back. What sounds like a trivial account of a childhood horseplay has, Halstead notes, a kind of romantic symbolism of how she saw her life. Of how an extraordinary but isolated girl would compete in a world of men, aggressively navigating her own kind of Goblin Market.
‘I learnt that I, who was always the odd one out with girls, got on fine with boys’, Gipps said. ‘They very, very nearly accepted me as one of themselves’.
How’s your day? Not your social media whoo-hoo day, but your real, emotional, volatile, unpredictable, roller-coaster day? The one that causes you to take long, hard breaths when something doesn’t quite work out, the one that requires you to dig deep and find a bit more resilience. There cannot be many of us – musicians, writers, actors, artists – who have not lived through (or are still to experience) a patch of our artistic life where rejection features quite significantly. To survive as an artist, a young Sinead O’Connor once said, you need to have the delicacy of a feather and a core of steel. Too right.
‘No’ of course, comes in many forms. The unanswered email. The phone that doesn’t ring back. The stomach-lurching grant refusal letter. The face-to-face verbal feedback in an audition. The score returned to the composer. The harsh review. The scathing look in response to a passionate project pitch. When I was trying to get a place at a music conservatoire some 20 years ago, one college posted up names of those who had made it through to the final round. Around 200 hopeful 17 year olds (and their parents) crowded round that piece of A4 paper that revealed our fate. It would have made great reality TV.
The ‘brace-yourself’ clues are often there if you know what to look for. A grant rejection letter is thin and has a second class stamp. Its fat, first-class counterpart is the one you want. A cursory skim usually confirms the presence of the words ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unsuccessful’ in close proximity. But hang on…it says there was ‘an unprecedented number of applications and competition was very high’. I wait for the feelings of warmth and optimism to kick back in…except they don’t.
Is there any other way of saying ‘no’? Is there anything that the over-stretched administrator could have written that prevents our psyche from interpreting these well-mannered words as, ‘Dear applicant, your project sucks, love from The Funding People’. Feedback on the application might be constructive – a welcome spot of logic to ease injured feelings. But no funding body has the man-power to provide this level of individual response. The best rejection I ever had came from Sound & Music a few years ago. My project didn’t make it on to the scheme, but my ‘no’ email came with an offer of some free publicity and promotion of my event. That simple consolation gesture not only saved me a few quid on my marketing, but it also said ‘hey, your project doesn’t completely suck…and to prove it, we’ll get behind it and help promote it for you’.
But what does ‘no’ really mean? Is ‘no’ always an end-point or is it an obstacle to be overcome and a creative force?
Perhaps those of us who head up small organisations or are self-employed are at an advantage when faced with barriers; we can often scurry around these obstacles (financial, logistic, geographic, structural…) in our path like ants on the forest floor and we sometimes find a better route in the process. Temporarily scattered, we re-group, we-rejoin, the circles close up again. Most projects and organisations feature some ‘well, I didn’t quite see THAT coming…’ moments. Maybe, in fact, we need the injection of these surprises, these sudden turning points to keep our minds, our art, and our processes lively. In a culture that expects us have well-formed ‘right or wrong’ opinions, an obstacle can offer up the luxury to rethink, to understand better, to learn. And almost certainly provides an extra boost of adrenaline too.
Can obstacles themselves be creative forces? Certainly. In the 2003 film The Five Obstructions, Danish director Lars von Trier makes a deal with his mentor and idol, filmmaker Jørgen Leth. Trier asks Leth to remake one of his own films five times with a series of ever-more difficult obstructions (rules) that Leth must adhere to. Trier describes the Leth film as ‘a little gem we are now going to ruin’. His premise is a belief that ‘the greatest gift an actor can offer a director is to screw up’. Trier’s intention is for the obstructions to trip Leth up in order that Leth might unlock more of his own creative potential. The Five Obstructions is like watching Jørgen Leth’s own personal Room 101 unfold; each set of obstructions is more elaborate and challenging than the last, from ‘no set, no shot lasting longer than twelve frames’ through to filming in the ‘worst place in the world’ and finally (Leth’s personal horror) re-making the film as a cartoon. It’s a fascinating documentary-essay-film on the nature of artistic thought processes and encapsulates Leth’s can-do ability to find a new creative stride in this world of ‘no’s’. In an interview about the film, Leth stresses the importance of being receptive to accept obstacles: ‘There must be room for them and humility to receive them – the key word is open-ness’.
History is full of stories about artists who worked within severe restrictions, who persevered in the face of astonishing adversity, who proved their critics wrong (or at least stopped giving a hoot about what they thought). Of course, our knowledge and hence our culture is built upon the successes, upon what did happen. But I’m curious about what didn’t happen; all that was considered untenable, unfundable, undesirable at a particular moment in time. What might be done with these rejected ideas? It seems rather a missed opportunity to let them fall beside the wayside and slip away unnoticed and unheard.
To put the scope and scale of unrealised ideas into a mind-boggling context, look to the British Library where the UK’s national patent database is housed. Established in the mid 19th century, this is a collection of some fifty million patent specifications with another million added annually. For anyone with geek-ish Rowland Emmett tendencies (such as me) this database is a Wunderkammer of inspiration, a treasure trove of humanity’s response to historical concerns, delightful, shocking and poignant. With help, you could locate the patent for the ATM, the hovercraft, the cat’s-eye, the thermos flask. But most striking of all are the countless bright ideas in the collection that never got off the ground – quite literally in the case of British Rail who applied for a flying saucer patent in 1970 as an unrealised attempt to move into other methods of transport.
Rejected, unrealised ideas sit dormant in databanks, in notepads, in creative minds. In 2012, art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist devised the Agency of Unrealized Projects. The premise was to draw attention to unrealised artworks which were unnoticed or little-known. It was also a chance to explore ideas of partial expression, of incompleteness in art, the whisper of unfulfilled intention. The Agency of Unrealized Projects also highlighted a working practice common to many creative thinkers: that not all projects are intended to be completed and that there is great value in experiments and interesting ‘failures’. Some of the projects featured were rendered impossible due to the utopian or conceptual contexts needed to realise them. In the musical world, I think immediately of Varèse and his well-documented 1930s prophecies for electronic sound-projection and a future time when one could compose ‘symphonies in space’.
For Varèse, for thousands of ideas in the patent-bank and the Agency exhibition, that lack of a supportive context was often the crucial missing ingredient for success. What might commuter life be like today if British Rail had indeed pursued urban space travel in the 1970s? What if funding had not been withdrawn from Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower plans? Had they come to fruition, ‘magnifying transmitter’ towers could have provided free electricity and wireless communication as early as the 1920s. What would contemporary art have been like if New York had not embraced John Cage and Marcel Duchamp? What would 20th century music have been like if the spirit of the 1940s been less receptive to the fiery young Boulez and his revolt against his forefathers? Ideas blossom when they are presented at the right place and in the right time. They need a nurturing infrastructure to thrive.
Who drives the criteria for this infrastructure? We do. What society values in inventiveness will directly influence the kinds of innovation that it produces. As a direct extension of our work, I would strongly suggest that we – the creators – play a role in establishing that criteria for acceptance. If you like it, if you value it then support it and get excited about it. Want more funding for opera? Go to the opera and keep going to the opera. Want more support for new music? Programme it, talk about it, write about it. In one of my producer notebooks is a quietly unrealised ambition to curate a project all about quietly unrealised musical projects of the past. And now I’m interested in building an infrastructure for it to flourish in…replete with obstacles, obstructions, rejections and all.
Noted as ‘one of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now creates ‘Adventures in Sound’ with her own production company and chamber music ensemble. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is never enough for music. Sergei Rachmaninov
You might think that, because I have a music degree and I edit a classical music website, I would have an extensive knowledge of classical music.
In fact, there is a lot of repertoire – even by the most famous composers – that I have not heard. While I will improve on this over time, in truth not even a professional musician playing music every day can ever fully know such a vast tradition, one which spans centuries and to which new scores are constantly being added. To tweak the quotation by Rachmaninov above, a lifetime is not enough even for classical music.
Then consider the music I do know – what is meant by ‘knowing’? Take for example Beethoven’s eighth symphony. I have heard this piece at least twice in concert, and probably many times on CD or radio over the years. But at this very second, I could not hum you any of its themes. This is not the fault of Beethoven so much as my imperfect memory. I have a rough idea of its character and length, and through other works by Beethoven, I know what his music tends to sound like.
So in what sense do I really know Beethoven’s eighth? If I heard a performance, I would certainly recognise parts of it – the themes are lurking my head somewhere. Though if you mischievously told me that this music was from another plausible piece from the same period, I might believe you.
Music I have closely studied, or performed, may result in a different story. As anyone learning a foreign language knows, instant recall requires a lot more work than recognition. They are both forms of knowledge, but they are not the same.
But here’s the thing. If asked, I would say I know Beethoven’s eighth. Socially, this is simpler and it benefits me too – it projects authority. Admitting ignorance in an area you are invested in does not always come easily. From the knowledge-proud we hear the reluctant admission: ‘I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know this’, signifying that an oversight is not for want of trying.
There is something rather sad and futile about a shame of imperfect knowledge. Since a degree of ignorance is inevitable, should we not learn to make peace with this fact? Even while we cultivate knowledge, perhaps by embracing ignorance, and leaving shame behind, we can better understand what we know.
I know that I know nothing. The ‘Socratic Paradox’
The fear of beingignorant seems bound up in the ugliness of the word itself. The phrase ‘pig-ignorant’doubles the harshness – and is rather unfair, I think, on those charming and highly intelligent animals. And yet, as the pig contentedly wallows in the mud, there is the expression ‘ignorance is bliss’. We recognise that knowledge, even as it empowers, tends to complicate things.
In The Black Swan, Nassem Nicholas Taleb described the ‘antilibrary’ of the writer and scholar Umberto Eco. At over 30,000 books, Taleb argued that this collection was not a means of Eco putting his erudition on display, because for the dedicated pursuer of knowledge, the value is in having as many books that you haven’t read as possible.
Many people, myself included, have criticised classical concert programming for an over-reliance of a limited pool of familiar music. But would we want a concert series like the ‘antilibrary’, a constant stream of new discoveries and world premieres? You could argue that a narrow repertoire is a sensible response to an overwhelming avalanche of potential scores – that at least it allows audiences to develop a deep relationship with a certain set of pieces.
Part of understanding our knowledge is its multi-dimensional shape. With limited time available, how much do we pursue a broad scope, and how much a deep understanding of a particular field? This will have consequences on the patterns of our ignorance. But with the case of a musical canon, another question arises: what forces have constructed it, and what forms of power are involved in the processes of selection?
An example of such power can be found in a blog by Liz Garnett, which shows how through the 20th century, the Grove music dictionary – a standard scholarly reference text for classical music – ‘forgot’ women composers. By researching subsequent editions, she discovered how many women composers listed during their lifetimes would later disappear. ‘This was when I grasped, emotionally, that history isn’t a neutral collection of facts about the past’, Garnett writes, ‘but a collection of facts that people have actively selected. Or, in this case, deselected.’
The widespread ignorance of women composers is not only the fault of Grove; though it seems crazy now, I cannot recall being taught about any examples during my music degree. A few years ago I realised my ignorance on this topic and vowed to educate myself. It turned out there were many fantastic women composers I had never heard of, from all parts of history. Their forgetting is a particularly stark example of how cultural ignorance is developed, through all of the ways – many of them no doubt unconscious – that patriarchy operates within systems of authority.
Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit. J.S. Bach
From today’s standpoint, we might associate classical music with the values of The Enlightenment – reason, liberty, the cultivation of knowledge through science and exploration. But travel far back enough in history, and we find the origins of western music notation in the chants of the Medieval church.
It is ironic that one of the earliest composers still regularly performed is also one of the women least marginalised by classical music history: the 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a mystic who claimed to receive holy visions (less inspiringly, some have speculated that these may have been migraines). She was also a polymath: besides composing music, she was a writer on the human body and herbal remedies, she even invented her own mysterious ‘unknown language’, the Lingua Ignota.
The range of worldly and spiritual knowledge that Hildegard cultivated exemplifies the fallacy of the idea that there has been some eternal battle between science and religion, fact and faith. And through the expressive concentration of her music, and we can sense something of the worldview of her distant Abbey, where study and spirituality complemented each other in understanding God’s creation.
Mysticism derives from the Greek for ‘conceal’ – it is concerned with what can only be known by means outside normal perception. In contrast to the harshness of ‘pig-ignorant’, compare the gentle poetry of The Cloud Of Unknowing – a 14th-Century Christian mystical text of anonymous English source. The author contemplates the unknowable nature of God: ‘beat evermore’, one passage reads, ‘on this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and thy God with a sharp dart of longing love’.
It is a phrase that has provoked several musical responses, including a large-scale orchestral work by American composer John Luther Adams: Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing.
In a fascinating essay about his piece, Adams explains how the English text ‘has much in common with the teachings of contemplative traditions throughout the world’, whose essence he describes as ‘voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence far larger than ourselves.’ The aims of his response – to ‘consecrate a small time and space for extraordinary listening’ – are manifested in musical textures in which he ‘purposely tried to lose perspective’.
The relationship between ignorance and perspective can also be found in L’Infinto (‘The Infinite’) by the Italian poet Leopardi. The poem begins:
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
It isn’t hard to see a hedged-in hill as a metaphor for the limits of human experience. These lines were quoted by Edmund Rubbra above the score of the slow movement of his sixth symphony, whose music opens with a very musical ignorance – the elemental sound of bare ‘parallel fifths’, the crude mistake every student of classical harmony is taught to avoid. But with bold use of orchestral colours he, like Adams, takes us deep into the moment.
L’Infinito zooms in and out of perspective; from his lonely hill, Leopardi goes on to imagine ‘unending spaces /and superhuman silences / and depthless calm’. Rubbra’s music alternates between this mystical simplicity and a more learned style, with passages of flowering counterpoint. While Adams tried to lose perspective, Leopardi and Rubbra, in contemplating their smallness in a vast unknown, both seem to gain it.
A more ambivalent approach to mystery comes in Charles Ives’ short orchestral work The Unanswered Question. In an intriguing guide to the piece, Ives explained that slow string chords set out ‘The silence of the Druids -who know, see and hear nothing’. Beside this an atonal trumpet figure recurs throughout, ‘the perennial question of existence’, in response to which woodwind solos represent ‘fighting answerers’, who play at a different tempo, increasingly agitated, before giving in to futility.
The strings persist from beginning to end, indifferent to everything happening around them. Their quiet consonance is seductively soothing, but such unreal detachment is disconcerting, like the unchanging smile of a statue. The cares of foolish humans seem to simply pass as clouds in the sky. Nothing is resolved. In this short but radical work, the idea of knowing anything at all starts to feel worryingly absurd.
The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite. Felix Mendelssohn
Even as the culture of classical music values learning, literacy, and mastery through hard work, the intangible nature of music makes it highly effective at expressing the unknowable. But classical music has its own unanswered questions. What is a ‘masterpiece’, for instance? Through its elevation and frequent invocation, this word has its own kind of mystical ring to it.
Even as they abound in classical music culture, I find terms like ‘great’ and ‘masterpiece’ a little boastful, if not hopelessly vague. What are such assertions if not claims to authority and denial of doubt? They allow us to bypass the messy business of articulating precisely what it is about music we value, and why. Yet the wish to do so is understandable. Music is a slippery medium whose effect is hard to understand, but our deep feelings for it demand some kind of articulation.
Perhaps no amount of formal analysis, or scientific brain-imaging, will ever fully explain our felt response to music. Or, as Mendelssohn suggests, could it be that words, as a means of communicating understanding, are simply inadequate for the job? Perhaps an understanding beyond words is precisely the communication that music enables, perhaps it is that which makes it so special. From this viewpoint, we could see a score as a repository of unspoken knowledge, interacting with the physical understanding the musician has cultivated through years of practice; the many subtle instincts of manipulating sound, the unconscious recall of ‘muscle memory’.
One radical challenge to the cult of the scored-out masterpiece arrived with experiments in ‘indeterminate’ music, by composers such as John Cage. By using elements of chance to define musical events, this music made a shocking embrace with ignorance – the composer becoming the designer of a process, while abdicating total mastery over the result. It was an idea which foreshadowed that which computers have more recently facilitated: the creation of music by algorithms and so-called artificial intelligence.
The paradox here is that such systems are still the products of human design. If we choose to create music where we are ignorant of the outcome, then that may deliver interesting surprises. But in removing ourselves so far from the process of creation, it makes more explicit the question of what exactly we want music to be.
Of course, it is important to remember that western classical music is unusual for the degree it transmits musical knowledge through notation, and for the relatively marginal place it gives improvisation in its traditions – something many other musics of the world involve to a greater extent.
It would be easy to create a mystique around improvisation; the quip often attributed to Louis Armstrong – ‘if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know’ – has the pithy formulation of a Zen saying. But any competent improviser draws on a deep knowledge of musical modes, harmonic progressions, and expressive gestures as they play. It is a place where intellect and intuition meet.
Nonetheless, by definition the improviser cannot fully know what is about to unfold. While we might cherish scores for their clarity, improvisation makes no pretence about the ephemeral uniqueness of a performance. It is an honest reckoning with the state of music itself, as it existed for millennia before recordings – ever-changing, unrepeatable, quick to evaporate. Its own cloud of unknowing.
I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. Igor Stravinsky
Like me, you may have had the experience of taking a friend to hear a concert performance of music you adore, only to sense that – no matter how polite their comments afterwards – your response was clearly not shared.
On an intellectual level, the fact that music can affect people so differently ought to be one of the most fascinating things about it. But on a social and emotional level, it can be confounding and disappointing, particularly when the gap falls between a close relationship. We want people to share in our love for music, but if it is hard to sense precisely how it moves us, what hope is there to fathom its workings in others? So often the great communicator and unifier, music can also symbolise a troubling doubt – the thought that, alone in our heads, we might never fully connect with those around us.
Even so, it is surely how we respond to such confrontations with our limits that is more important than the fact itself. As we cultivate knowledge, it is important to remember that we inevitably sow the seeds of our own ignorance. Like Leopardi’s hedgerow, a dense body of detail will obscure a far horizon even as it fascinates us.
But by thinking about the ways that we learn, and the systems and powers bound up in this, we can contemplate what we might exclude, and what we may never be able to know. In doing so, we might arrive at a different place of understanding, one perhaps of a more cultivated ignorance. An ignorance not of shame or denial, but of better self-awareness.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
‘Pilgrymes are we alle’ (William Langland, Piers Plowman)
Most of the computers in our offices sport screensavers portraying distant lands and exotic destinations. Although it is hardly surprising that we yearn to escape our humdrum, everyday lives, I often wonder whether this reveals a more deep-seated and atavistic urge to travel; a suppressed legacy, perhaps, from our nomadic ancestors.
The world’s great religions certainly seem to have recognised Man’s wanderlust and given it a spiritual dimension. Indeed, the practice of ‘pilgrimage’ – what we may call a ‘holy journey’ – is encouraged in the major faiths. A pilgrimage is first of all an act of homage, having as its final destination a sacred place or shrine held dear by adherents to a particular religion. But the journey itself is deemed a prayer, a form of cleansing, a penance from sin. It is also metaphor for life itself, for the journey of our existence – il cammin della nostra vita – to paraphrase Dante.
In An Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin suggests that ‘travel began as pilgrimage’, singling out Islam as the religion which codifies this practice most systematically. In this article however, I will focus on pilgrimage in the Christian tradition and the influence it has had on Western music. As we shall see, in the Medieval period, well before the advent of mass tourism, holy journeys provided an impetus for far-flung travel, leading to cross-fertilization between different cultures. During their travels, pilgrims entertained themselves by telling stories and making music and, their journey completed, they sang hyms and sacred songs which expressed their simple yet profound faith. This led to the composition of new works and the compiling of some of the earliest surviving musical codices. Even when the practice of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation and the rise of the secular society, the concept of the ‘spiritual journey’ remained a potent metaphor and a source of inspiration to artists and composers.
Urbs beata Jerusalem – Journey to the Holy City
Christian Pilgrimage was encouraged by early Church Fathers such as Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Jerome (347-420) who, in his own extensive travels, visited Jerusalem and Galilee, eventually settling down and dying in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The places connected with the life and ministry of Jesus were the earliest pilgrim destinations – the first Christian ‘travelogue’, the Bordeaux Itinerary (named after the anonymous ‘Pilgrim of Bordeaux’ who penned it) describes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the years 333 and 334. Journeying to the Holy Land received a boost with the support of Constantine who, as the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, had imposing edifices constructed on sites which were already popular with early pilgrims. Thus, in Jerusalem, Constantine built a basilica on the site of the Crucifixion and a rotunda around the Holy Sepulchre and, in Bethlehem, he built another church over the cave reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
It is no coincidence that Jerusalem is dubbed the ‘Holy City’. Within its ancient walls, the claims of the three Abrahamic religions jostle, and pilgrims of these faiths congregate to see and touch the sites special to their respective traditions. Medieval maps show Jerusalem as the navel of the world, with Europe, Asia and Africa – the continents then known – pictured surrounding it. To this day, it is a city which holds its visitors in thrall. Just as ‘Stendhal’s syndrome’ explains people’s psychotic reaction to a surfeit of artistic beauty, so does the term ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ refer to the temporary religious mania which grips some otherwise level-headed individuals when visiting the city.
Jerusalem must have exercised a strong pull on believers for them to set out on the gruelling journey leading to its gates. If in the age of the global village, a trip to the Holy Land still presents challenges, just imagine what it must have meant in the Middle Ages. When the Roman Empire was still unifying the Mediterranean states, pilgrims were at least assured a common political rule throughout the countries they travelled through, but the road and sea journeys still involved daily dangers caused by weather, bandits and disease. Following the Christianisation of Hungary around 1000 CE a new land route became possible through the Balkans, Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria and then on to Palestine. Again, the trek was arduous, sometimes taking over a year and passing through countries with wildly different cultures.
In a joint recording for the Naxos label, early music outfits Ensemble Unicorn and Ensemble Oni Wytars, under their respective directors Marco Ambrosini and Michael Posch, recreate such a journey through an imaginative programme combining European art-song, Sufi music and traditional dances from the Balkans and Near East. The Holy City is evoked by a setting of the 8th century hymn Urbs Beata Jerusalem by Guillaime Dufay, where Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for the heavenly city glimpsed by St. John in the Book of Revelation.
The recording features Near and Middle Eastern instruments such as the oud and the chalumeau. In the Middle Ages, some of these instruments, which are still used in the traditional music of the area, were brought back to Europe from pilgrimages and Crusades, subsequently influencing the development of Western instruments.
Lonely Planet, Field of Stars
Those who could not make the journey to the Holy Land or were not in a position to pay somebody else to complete the trip on their behalf, could make do with a visit to a destination closer to home. In the Medieval period, faith was often given a very physical and ‘place-based’ expression. Thus, an area where a holy person lived and worked, or where a saint’s relics or remains were venerated, was considered as particularly holy. This led to a proliferation of shrines around Europe – some more famous than others. In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) famously uses a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury as a narrative frame device, implicitly highlighting the communal aspect of pilgrimages which brought together people from different classes and walks of life. Other ‘local’ shrines whose fame spread throughout Europe were the ‘Holy House’ at Walsingham in Norfolk, which became a major centre of pilgrimage in the 11th Century, and the shrine of the Three Magi at Cologne Cathedral (which Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ claims to have visited).
In the first half of the 9th Century, another European pilgrimage site emerged in Spain where Bishop Theodomar of Iria (d. 847) claimed to have found the remains of Saint James the Greater, one of the Apostles of Jesus. The discovery is shrouded in mystery and coloured by legend. It is said that on a clear night in the year 813, a magnificent shower of stars and the sound of an angelic choir drew the hermit Pelayo to a forgotten tomb in a field in Galicia. Amazed, Pelayo reported the matter to Theodomar who decided to investigate further. The field was dug, and a sarcophagus was found, together with an inscription identifying it as the resting place of ‘Jacobus, son of Zebedee and Salome’. Theodoric and Alfonso ‘The Chaste’, King of Asturias, had St. James declared patron of Spain. By 865, the area was already known as a site of peregrination, with early visitors reporting astounding miracles.
It often happened that initial enthusiasm about a miracle-working shrine waned after a few years or decades. However, the cult of Santiago de Compostela (or ‘Saint James of Campus Stellae – Field of Stars’) grew from strength to strength. A number of walking routes to the shrine (collectively known as El Camino or, the ‘Way to Santiago’) were developed, winding their way between monasteries and frugal inns and hostels. In La Vita Nova, Dante claimed that ‘none can be called a pilgrim save he who is journeying toward the sanctuary of St. James’ and in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia sings of a pilgrim’s ‘cockle hat and staff/and his sandal shoon’, a reference to the scallop shell often found on the shores of Galicia and adopted as a symbol for pilgrims to the shrine.
The growing importance of the cult of St. James is evidenced by the so-called Codex Calixtinus, or Compostellus, a collation of five volumes and two appendices kept at the Cathedral of Santiago which appear to have been compiled into one manuscript between 1138 and 1145. Purportedly prepared at the behest of Pope Callixtus II, its compiler is probably the French scholar Aymeric Picaud. The Codex presents a melange of legends, liturgical texts and a biography of Charlemagne but its strangest part is the fifth book, a sort of Medieval ‘Lonely Planet’ or ‘Rough Guide’ for pilgrims which shares with its modern counterparts the same impish sense of humour: ‘in this country there are evil toll keepers […] may they be utterly damned […] these people dress repulsively […] and eat with their hands’.
Of particular interest to musicologists however are Book I and the appendices. These include several musical works associated with the local liturgy of St. James, comprising music for the Mass (Missa Sancti Jacobi) and Office of the Saint, in which the pilgrims would have participated on their arrival. Whereas Book I presents the liturgy in monodic form, the appendices present around two dozen polyphonic settings, in which the original chant is decorated with a florid counterpount above it. One of the most famous and controversial of the pieces is the conductus (an early form of non-liturgical, sacred motet) Congaudeant Catholici. The manuscript provides two contrapuntal lines to the chant, leading some musicologists to claim that this is the earliest known example of three-part polyphony. Other scholars, such as Richard Taruskin, dismiss this, arguing that the contrapuntal lines are alternative and have been added at different times.
Incidentally, Congaudeant Catholici is also the first known musical piece whose source credits the composer – one ‘Magister Albertus Parisiensis’, cantor at Notre Dame. This is, in itself, an indication of the strong French influence on the Codex, also confirmed by the notation used, which is typical of central France. Clearly, it was not just the pilgrims who travelled – musical styles travelled with them. It is a journey which is musically reconstructed in The Pilgrimage to Santiago, a double album recorded by Philip Pickett with the New London Consort.
Pickett varies the programme with early music taken from other Medieval collections with strong cultural links to the Camino, including the Cantigas de Santa Maria (songs of praise to the Virgin compiled by Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’) and the Codex de las Huelgas found at a Cistercian convent in Burgos, on the way to Santiago:
Another codex from the same cultural period and milieu is the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat or ‘Red Book of Montserrat’, so named after the red cover in which it was bound in the 19th Century and the mountaintop monastery of the Virgin of Montserrat in Catalonia, where it is found to this day. Montserrat was itself a major pilgrimage site. The Llibre Vermell contains a Canconiero Musical with ten pieces of music which provide an interesting contrast with the Codex Calixtinus. Indeed, whereas the works in the St. James codex were meant for performance in a liturgical context, the Montserrat pieces were composed as a sort of sacred entertainment, giving the music an earthier traditional feel, as helpfully explained by the manuscript compiler:
Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.
The music of the Llibre Vermell has been widely recorded, including by Catalan early music superstar Jordi Savall, who intersperses the pieces with colourful improvisations aptly tinged by folk music:
I have also enjoyed a recent album issued on Brilliant Classics, in which the Llibre Vermell songs are presented in the context of a programme depicting ‘an imaginary coming together of pilgrims from various places, who meet en route and head to Montserrat to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve’.
All Roads Lead to Rome
After the Holy Land, Rome was the main destination for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Sites popular with pilgrims included the Scala Santa (or ‘Holy Stairs’), reputedly the steps leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ stood trial, and which, according to legend, were brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th century. The Roman-era catacombs were also a strong crowd-puller, a reminder of an age when Christianity was still an underground, persecuted faith. Traditionally, Medieval pilgrims to Rome also paid visits to Le Sette Chiese – or ‘seven pilgrim churches’. These were the four major Roman basilicas (St. Peter, San Paolo Fuori le Mura, St. John in Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore), San Lorenzo fuori le mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (with its relics of the Holy Cross) and San Sebastiano fuori le mura. The custom was subsequently revived and codified by St. Philip Neri in the 16th Century.
The popularity of Rome as a pilgrim destination meant that a number of routes leading to the city were developed. One of the most ancient and best-known ones was the Via Francigena, a route which led from Canterbury through France and Switzerland on to Italy. This route is first described in the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi of 725, a travel-diary of sorts kept by one Willibald, bishop in Bavaria and is first named as the Via Francigena in a parchment of 876 known as the Actum Clusio.
In 1299, thousands of believers converged on Rome at a time when Europe was being ravaged by famine and disease. This led Pope Boniface VIII to issue a bull declaring ‘the most full pardon of all their sins’, to those pilgrims who fulfilled certain conditions. 1300 was, in effect, the first Christian ‘Jubilee’, a periodical festival which would further entrench Rome as a leading pilgrimage destination. Among those who are recorded as pilgrims of that first Jubilee are Dante, Cimabue and Giotto. In later centuries it became customary for Jubilees to be marked by, amongst other events, celebratory concerts featuring premieres of major musical works. Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo by Emilio de’ Cavalieri (c. 1550-1602), often cited as the first oratorio, was performed in the Jubilee year of 1600 in the presence of over forty cardinals. The ‘Holy Year’ of 1700 witnessed new works by several composers then active in Rome – Mario Bianchelli, Pietro Paolo Bencini, Severo De Luco, Francesco Mancini, Carlo Cesarini and Francesco Grassi.
The Roman pilgrimage also inspired later composers. In Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser, the eponymous protagonist joins a band of pilgrims to Rome, to cleanse himself of the lustful excesses of the Venusberg. The Pilgrim’s Chorus – balm to the soul of Tannhäuser – is also a default choice in any self-respecting ‘best of … opera’ compilation.
The Jubilee pilgrims also make an appearance in Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem Feste Romane, where their steady march towards the Holy City is evoked through a reworking of the 12th Century German Easter hymn Christ Ist Erstanden.
The Grand Tour – A Secular Pilgrimage
From the earliest times, ‘place pilgrimage’, that is, actual travel to a holy destination, was generally seen also as a symbol of ‘moral pilgrimage’ (the Christian’s journey to salvation) and ‘interior pilgrimage’ (inner spiritual growth). In the late Middle Ages, some writers started to be critical of the practice of place pilgrimage, questioning whether this was really conducive to moral and interior pilgrimage. The narrative poem Piers Plowman by William Langland (c. 1322 – c. 1386), considered one of the highlights of Medieval English literature, attacks pilgrims to Rome and Compostela as ‘liars and hypocrites’ and presents as the authentic pilgrim the Christian who lives a life of daily obedience and service to the community. The Reformation was in the air. In the 16th and 17th Century, following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and with Reformist zeal at its height, pilgrimage was one of the practices banned in Protestant states as ‘superstitious Popery’. As a result, pilgrimage sites in England and the Northern countries were suppressed or at the very least discouraged. This meant that whereas pilgrimage remained an important practice within the Catholic tradition, it more or less died out in Northern Europe. Apart from this, travel became more widespread and the centrality of ‘pilgrimage’ as a spur to cultural exchanged waned.
This notwithstanding, ‘pilgrimage’ remained a potent literary and cultural metaphor. Indeed, there are clear parallels between the concept of ‘pilgrimage’ and the ‘Grand Tour’ which became popular with upper class English and Northern European young men from the 17th Century onwards. The final destination of the Tour was generally Northern and Central Italy, particularly the cities of Venice, Rome and Naples, although more intrepid travellers went on to Southern Italy, Malta and even Greece. Significantly, the Roman leg of the tour, besides taking in the sites of Classical remains, generally included a visit to the Pilgrim Churches. The main element which the Grand Tour shared with the Christian notion of pilgrimage was the idea that travelling could be an edifying ‘rite of passage’, leading not only to knowledge but also, more importantly, to self-discovery.
This concept was particularly dear to Romantic authors. It is no coincidence that Lord Byron’s epic narrative (and autobiographical) poem about a melancholic young man who seeks distraction in foreign lands is named Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This work inspired Hector Berlioz’s Harold en Italie Op. 16, a four-movement symphony with viola obbligato which draws loosely on Byron’s poem and the memories of Berlioz’s own peregrinations in Abruzzo. Quite appropriately, in the second movement, Berlioz has his protagonist join a band of pilgrims on their march:
Another quintessentially Romantic figure, Franz Liszt wrote his piano cycles Années de pèlerinage as a diary of his travels. The title refers to Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman – or Pilgrimage – Years), but a number of the pieces in Book I (Premiere annee: Suisse) are prefaced by extracts from (again!) Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
One of the pieces in Liszt’s collection – Le mal du pays (Homesickness)– is an important plot element in a recent bestselling novel by Haruki Murakami whose title also references Liszt. Unsurprisingly, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimagedescribes a protagonist who sets out on a journey to come to terms with his past. Tsukuru is introduced to Liszt’s work through a recording by Lazar Berman (which actually exists and sold out soon after the novel was published):
Ralph Vaughan William’s lifelong quest
One of the major literary works inspired by the concept of a spiritual journey is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, sometimes referred to as the first English novel. It is the tale of a traveller called Christian, who sets off on an incident-laden journey from the City of Destuction to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion. This work fired the imagination of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who, time and time again, turned to Bunyan’s Christian allegory for inspiration.
Indeed, Vaughan Williams’s involvement with Bunyan’s text can itself be seen as a lifelong pilgrimage, one that would reach its culmination in the 1951 premiere of his opera ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ at Covent Garden. In a prologue, four acts and an epilogue, The Pilgrim’s Progress was in many ways the summation of the composer’s oeuvre, combining the folk-inspired simplicity of his Pastoral Symphony, the ecstatic mysticism of the Tallis Fantasia and the more angular and dissonant world of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies. Vaughan Williams preferred to call his work a ‘morality’ rather than an opera but was equally adamant that it should be performed in an opera house and not in a church setting, possibly to distance it from established religion. Similarly, he renamed Christian ‘Pilgrim’, universalising the work’s message. Unfortunately, The Pilgrim’sProgress has not managed to enter standard operatic repertoire. Hubert Foss, who contributed an enthusiastic essay-length review about the ‘morality’ in Music 1952 (an annual then published by Penguin), describes the audience’s perplexed reaction to the work:
At the end curtain […] the audience hardly dared to applaud – a bewildered but deeply moved audience. Vaughan Williams had (it was palpable over three hours of presence) transformed the Covent Garden theatre into a place of worship; the audience knew it, and was blushfully ashamed about what should be their new behaviour. A lady told me, after a later performance, that she thought at the closing curtain that she had been at a Church service. Listeners who have talked to me have recounted their enthralment – some a little shame-facedly, as if it were not respectable thing to be absorbed in one’s one home by a new and unconventional operatic production.
It seems that modern audiences are no less confounded by the ‘morality’s’ strange mix of the sacred and profane, as was evidenced in reviews to ENO’s recent revival. This is a pity, as it is a work which meant much to the composer and contained some of the his best music.
The journey which led to the 1951 premiere had a number of stations along the way. In 1906, for his edition of the English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams had set the Bunyan text To be a Pilgrim or He who would Valiant be to the Sussex folk melody known as Monk’s Gate. He would turn to Bunyan again for the motet Valiant for Truth.
More substantial Bunyan-themed works were the incidental music Vaughan Williams wrote in 1909 for a dramatic performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress at Reigate Priory (later expanded for a 1942 BBC production) and the ‘pastoral episode’ The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, for six soloists, chorus and small orchestra, which would be incorporated largely unchanged as Act IV, Scene 2 of the opera. However, the work which is possibly closest to The Pilgrim’s Progress in spirit and inspiration is Vaughan Williams’s fifth symphony. Written between 1938 and 1943, it draws heavily on music which the composer had already written for his operatic project. The third-movement Romanza, which strikes me as the emotional core of the work, uses themes which eventually resurface in Act 1, Scene 2. The score was originally headed by a line which is sung by Pilgrim in the opera: ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death’. The moving gravitas of the music seems worlds away from the self-declared ‘cheerful agnosticism’ of its composer.
The journey continues
Within the Catholic tradition, pilgrimage has never died out, with Marian destinations such as Lourdes and Fatima remaining particularly popular. However, past decades have seen a surprising resurgence of interest in the practice of pilgrimage in other quarters, and not just ‘religious’ ones. In an unexpected cultural shift, many young people – and not-so-young travellers as well – are rediscovering the Medieval routes and retracing them, in a bid to experience the spiritual fulfilment sought by early pilgrims. El Camino de Santiago was declared a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 1987 – the first in the Council’s history. From around a few thousand yearly visitors in the 1970s, the Camino now attracts a staggering quarter of a million pilgrims annually. In 1994, the Via Francigena was also designated a ‘Cultural Route’, with its status upped to ‘Major Cultural Route’ in 2004. In November 2009, on the initiative of the Region of Tuscany and with the cooperation of the Vatican’s Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the Italian Government announced a project to revive the Italian leg of the via ‘not only in spiritual and religious terms but also in terms of the environment, architecture, culture, history, wine and cuisine and sport’.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the British Pilgrimage Trust seeks to promote ancient pilgrims’ routes such as St. Hilda’s Way. Its website takes pains to distance itself from any particular religion, advocating a vaguely new-agey ‘bring-your-own-faith’ attitude. Yet, the advantages of spiritual travel which it lists on its website, including ‘rediscovering your relationship with self and nature’, the blessing of ‘companionship […] kindness, friendship and hospitality’ and ‘experiencing birth to death in a walk’ are goals which would have sounded familiar to the earliest pilgrims. It doesn’t stop here. Last month the UK National Lottery announced a funding of £399,000 to develop the Fife Pilgrims Way, a 70-mile route that will travel from Culross and South Queensferry to St. Andrews. On Easter Sunday, the 900th Anniversary of death of St. Magnus (known to many music-lovers through the works of Peter Maxwell Davies), a new pilgrimage route in his honour was launched in Orkney amid calls to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to recognise the role of pilgrimage in spiritual life, thus reversing centuries of hostility towards the practice.
Given this refound enthusiasm for the practice of pilgrimage, it is hardly surprising to find Arvo Pärt – possibly the best-known living composer of sacred music – writing a ‘Pilgrim’s Prayer’. What might be more unexpected (especially to those who consider Pärt a mere purveyor of meditative pieces) are the dark, dense textures of his Ein Wallfahrtslied. A setting of Psalm 121, it suggests the world-weary tread of the People of the Way, as much as the solace they seek.
A different sort of journey is provided by Andrew Norman’s virtuosic work for string trio The Companion Guide to Rome, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is inspired by the year spent by Norman in the Italian capital as a recipient of the Prix de Rome and it consists of an idiosyncratic itinerary of his nine favourite Roman churches. Admittedly, the work is closer in spirit to the secular Grand Tour than to a spiritual journey in the conventional sense. However, its arresting gestures and use of unconventional techniques effectively convey the sense of wide-eyed wonder evoked by the sacred spaces portrayed.
For me, the work which best represents the reawakening of interest in pilgrimage is Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. Talbot composed this choral a cappella work in 2005 for the vocal ensemble Tenebrae Choir. Their critically acclaimed recording has just been reissued, coupled with Footsteps, a companion piece by the young choral composer Owain Park, newly commissioned as part of the ensemble’s fifteenth anniversary celebrations.
Path of Miracles is a representation of the journey to Compostela, each movement portraying a major ‘stop’ on the route from Roncesvalles to Santiago, via Burgos and Léon. Talbot resorts to a panoply of influences and vocal effects, from techniques borrowed from the Taiwanese Bunun people to Medieval chant, from dense clusters to haunting ostinatos mirroring the onward trudge of the pilgrims. The libretto by Robert Dickinson is similarly wide-ranging, using texts from the Psalms, Roman Catholic liturgy and the Codex Calixtinus sung in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German. Its intriguing combination of the familiar and the innovative, and the way it expresses the rich vein of Medieval tradition through a 21st century language, will certainly strike a chord with contemporary pilgrims who set off on ancient paths, seeking answers handed down from a common, half-remembered past.
Joseph Camilleri is an amateur organist and occasional chorister. He regularly writes articles and programme notes to accompany concerts, opera productions and CD recordings. He has presented radio programmes on classical music and for a number of years served on the Board of Directors of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. When not musically occupied, he can often be found reading books, generally of the ghostly type. He tweets at @joecam79.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
The word piobaireachd is literally the Gaelic for ‘pipe playing’ or ‘pipe music’. The term (often anglicised as ‘pibroch’) is now normally restricted, however, to the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is Ceòl Mòr, meaning the Big Music (that is, ‘art music’), which distinguishes piobaireachd from other forms of pipe music (marches, reels, jigs etc.) which are referred to as Ceòl Beag – the Little Music (‘light music’).
Bagpipes have been known in countries throughout the world, and are still used in folk music in many rural areas. We know of early bagpipes from depictions both in unsophisticated woodcuts and from classical paintings by the likes of Dürer and Breughel. But the origin of the emergence of the pipes is obscure, and old instruments in museums are difficult to date. At least one Scottish family (the Menzies Clan) claims to be in possession of instruments dating back to the fourteenth century – in this case the remnants of a pipe carried in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – but the claim is extremely unlikely to be true.
The traditional view is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was developed about 1600, but recent scholarship, particularly by Hugo Cheape, has called this into question, and has demonstrated the complexity of the historiography of the instrument. What is certain is that as early as 1760 Joseph Macdonald published his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, the first treatise/tutorial on the topic. The particular musical form piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr is highly stylised, often slow in tempo, and tends to celebrate famous figures or events in lament form. It is normally performed while the piper processes slowly, often in a circle in the open air, especially in piping competitions. The playing of piobaireachd is now followed with enthusiasm other parts of the world, especially in areas with close Scottish connections such as Glengarry and Guelph in Canada; British Columbia and other places in the USA; and in Australia and New Zealand.
Construction and sounds of the Great Highland Bagpipe
A set of Great Highland Bagpipes is constructed of four main parts: the blowstick, the bag, the chanter and three drones. The piper blows through the blowstick into the bag, filling it with a constant air supply. The bag is first filled by the piper before playing starts and is continuously refilled as it continues, thus allowing the piper to create continuous sound. The drones are tuneable, and each contains one reed. The chanter, also provided with a reed, produces the tune by the piper covering and releasing finger holes, rather as in a recorder. Owing to its construction, a bagpipe generates an unusual scale.
Technicalities, notation and structure of piobaireachd
There are a number of technical problems in the notation of piobaireachd, partly due to the characteristics of the instrument, but also because even a fairly strict interpretation of a tune almost always displays significant individual variations between pipers, particularly in the often highly complex ornamentation.
Tonality and notation
This deceptively simple basic bagpipe scale hides a number of difficulties. First, although the pitches of the drones and the tonic note on the chanter are referred to as ‘A’, they are actually much sharper than this on the modern Great Highland Bagpipe (indeed, higher than B♭). Measurements have shown that modern chanters tend to tune between 470 and 480Hz instead of the standard 440Hz. For this reason, tunes are sometimes written with a D or even an A key-signature containing the accidentals for the benefit of non-pipers trying to reconcile bagpipe tuning with conventional classical notations. Second, the pipe scale is far from equal temperament: the nine notes available on the chanter are fixed, but not in the same relationship as in classical, Western instruments, and there is even still some debate as to precisely what they should be.
The Campbell Canntaireachd
In the early 1800s the Highland Society of Scotland staged a competition to encourage the writing of piobaireachd on the stave. A number of pipers submitted proposals, but one competitor – Colin Campbell – came up with a radically different approach now known as the Campbell Canntaireachd [Gaelic for ‘chanting’]. His document, containing 168 tunes, was written in about 1797; instead of representing the music in staff notation, a form rather reminiscent of the sol-fa system was adopted – as if the tunes were being sung. Images of the tunes in the manuscript can be found on the Ceol Sean website. The story goes that Colin Campbell was taught (sung to) by his father Donald, who himself was a pupil of the piping dynasty the MacCrimmons. The distinguished piper and musicologist Barnaby Brown has reported his own experience with the canntaireachd technique in aninteresting projectsupported by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The following example is paraphrased from the Campbell Search website. The beginning of the tune called Lament for the Viscount of Dundee appears in handwritten manuscript canntaireachd form as below.
This is more easily read in the transcribed version:
Anyone learning this today from a teacher of piobaireachd, is likely to have the music written on the stave:
Note there are gracenotes which appear small, and some of these are meant to be longer than one might assume. For example the tiny E which is a gracenote at the very beginning of the line, might last up to half a second long, depending on the performer. A teacher of piobaireachd would sing the music to his/her pupil, using the canntaireachd syllables, to demonstrate how long these little notes should be.
The following figure shows three common types of such gracenotes.
From 1959 onwards a series of highly influential piobaireachd books was published by Roddy Ross called Binneas is Borereig [loosely translated as ‘Sweetness of the Pipes’], using a different notation format, probably closer to the real expression of the music. Bar lines and time signatures were omitted, to render the phrases more easily seen, and the long E notes at the beginning of tunes (such as in The Viscount of Dundee) were expressed as normal notes:
A classical piobaireachd tune starts with the ground/urlar, which usually follows a regular pattern – for example with three lines of music, the first two being six bars long, and the last line having only four. In the so-called ‘primary’ pattern, the ground is composed of two two-bar phrases, A and B, played in the following order:
There are, however, several other forms the ground can take.
Some modern musicologists have criticised the traditional, rather simplistic, urlar structure given above. Their approaches are too complex to be discussed further here, however, and require a good familiarity with piobaireachd; indeed, typically, hundreds of tunes were analysed in order to come up with the more elaborate schemes.
The initial urlar is followed by a number of formal variations, some of the most important are the taorluath (related to the Gaelic for ‘noble’ or ‘free’), and the crunluath (probably meaning ‘crowning movement’) which follows the taorluath in a piobaireachd tune. To complicate matters even further, each can be doubled, or exist in a number of sub-forms! Dublachadh, ‘doubling’, is a quicker version of a variation, played in strict tempo (comparable to the use of the term in a Baroque dance suite).
The ‘classical’ repertoire
The majority of the piobaireachd repertoire to this day consists of the ‘classical’ corpus of tunes, largely collected and printed in the 19th Century. The most important of these was Angus MacKay’s 1838 Collection Of Ancient Piobaireachd (illustrated below) although more recently some have questioned its historical and musicological accuracy. The National Library of Scotland holds many relevant manuscripts, easily found by searching for piobaireachd in the National Library of Scotland Manuscript Collections.
A useful fourfold classification of titles / themes is:
Salutes, laments, marches and gatherings
Names reflecting musical characteristics of the piece
Quotations from song lyrics, usually the opening words
In addition to MacKay’s book, a slightly earlier publication by Donald MacDonald (1820/1826) is the other major source; for reasons that remain obscure, serious collecting appears to have ceased soon afterwards.
One of the characteristic features of the piobaireachd repertoire is that, like many other musical traditions, great pride is shown by players in their ‘piping genealogy’ as a series of master-pupil relationships. Indeed, many, if not most, of the distinguished players of recent times trace their piping ancestry to the great piping families the Camerons, the MacPhersons and the MacCrimmons. (Again, however, Hugo Cheape has criticised this ‘tradition’.)
As is the case in many genres of highly-skilled traditional music,competitions play a large part in the social life, the maintenance of identity, and the education and training of piobaireachd players. The most prestigious of the piobaireachd competitions is probably the Northern Meeting, held in Inverness, but there are also many local competitions and performances at local and national Highland Games, as well as another celebrated national annual event in Oban and the North American Winter Storm gathering.
Competition rules have become stricter over the years, and are now characterised by (usually mandatory) repertoires, expert adjudication, and long preparation by the contestants.
Listening to piobaireachd
To the beginner, approaching piobaireachd as an art form is often problematic; it is certainly truer of piobaireachd than of many other genres that some knowledge of form and structure is vital.
The embedded video is a full performance of Donald Duaghal Mackay’s Lament played by the distinguished piper Roddy MacLeod at the Glenfiddich Championship of 2016 (the recording is introduced by some interesting remarks given by the Master of Ceremonies).
Experienced musicians may find the full score of interest. Such musicians will find this extract straightforward to follow initially (apart from a very different approach to the ornaments in the performance), but as the piece goes on it is easy to get lost even for those skilled in reading a score. There is no very obvious distinction between the various structural elements and melody, and ornaments are often difficult to disentangle (often modified by the performer); if one’s attention wanders it can thus be difficult to pick up the reading. For this reason, it is better for a novice interested in piobaireachd to be introduced to the art by attending an event, preferably with a knowledgeable companion, in order to experience the social context of piping performances as a whole. As with many other musical genres, listening to piobaireachd requires active engagement, rather than simply passive exposure.
By the beginning of the twentieth century piobaireachd was in decline: difficult, unfashionable, and often backward looking. The establishment of various specialist and interest-groups, however, such as the Piobaireachd Society (formed in 1903), and The College of Piping (founded a few decades later in 1944, and devoted to pipe bands as well as piobaireachd) played a vital role in putting the form on a sound musicological basis, thus ensuring the future of the genre. The original aims of the Piobaireachd Society were – and remain – clear and simple: ‘to encourage the study and playing of piobaireachd’. To this end, the Society has collected and published many important available piobaireachd manuscripts, and has a well-designed and comprehensive website including audio files, texts, images, and much else. While many documents and recordings are restricted to members, a significant proportion is freely available to users. Nevertheless, the Society is largely conservative, concerned above all with the preservation and editing of the classical piobaireachd tradition. Even the so-called piobaireachd ‘revisionist’ movement is concerned with re-interpreting such tunes in the light of rigorous modern research and scholarship.
Many younger pipers, however, have experimented with highly novel approaches, such as composing and playing music with a ‘fusion’ ethos or in unusual ensembles. For the latter, the tuning issues of the bagpipe must be addressed. If all the instruments can be appropriately re-tuned (predominantly strings) there is no problem. Barnaby Brown, Allan MacDonald and Matthew Welch are some names to watch, incorporating other genres such as jazz, eastern music, and so on.
Using a bagpipe with a whole range of orchestral instruments, however, is always problematic. Peter Maxwell Davies’s entertaining An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise is a case in point: the drones and chanter have to be tuned to a standard A of 440 Hz – that is, the pitch must be lowered by about a semitone, an enormous modification for a bagpipe. It is possible to buy a special chanter (expensive if used only for rare performances) or modify an old one (difficult except for music technicians). The resulting, modified, instrument feels and sounds very different, and depending on the auditorium and the position of the piper, it might be necessary to ‘lead’ the orchestra by a significant amount.
The more avant-garde and revisionist modern attempts, on the other hand, have not been universally well received in the piping community. Barnaby Brown has noted in a blogpost the absence of a review of the newly released and (in some quarters) widely admired Dastirum in Piping Times; when he queried this, the editor is said to have explained, ‘I don’t have a good word to say about it. It would lead people astray’ – in other words, it’s not ‘real piobaireachd’.
The bagpipe is one of the great cultural symbols of Scotland, known the world over and popularised by drum and pipe bands, the military connection, and the romanticised image of the ‘solitary piper’. In spite of such romanticisation, and the many myths surrounding the bagpipe, the classical music of piobaireachd is a complex and highly-developed art form, understood, performed, listened to, and appreciated by a small minority of Scots. Nevertheless, its circle of enthusiasts is probably greater than ever before, with societies large and small, and activities ranging from the most modest local events to the great piping meetings in Scotland, North America and the Antipodes.
Chris Bissell is about to retire from nearly four decades as an academic at the Open University, where he has taught mathematics and technology, and researched the sociology and history of these areas. He has also had a long-standing interest in music, and is currently a student of the Open University MA in Music. This essay derives from his Master’s studies; thanks are due to his tutor, Lucy Cradduck, for her perceptive comments.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
For those of us who have learnt an instrument in the classical way, certain books of music often have a way of finding a special place in our affections. Those which contain a wealth of music we enjoy are revisited again and again, and left worn out with repetition.
If like me you studied piano, it might be Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, a two-volume set of the Beethoven sonatas, or a collection of Chopin’s waltzes. I have all of these and have enjoyed them in their turn. But there is another book, one I first encountered as a falling-apart old edition in my mother’s collection, that always fascinated me too.
The first version of The English Hymnal appeared in 1906. As an object it is something of a hefty brick, hard-backed and crammed with over 1000 thin pages. Held within is a collection of hymns spanning hundreds of years from many different choral traditions, even going as far back as plainchant.
To flick through these pages is to enter a rich world, one structured around the rhythms of the liturgical year. Each tune is given a name, often mysterious or evocative – Kingsfold, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Forest Green. In the older editions, the note engraving has its own archaic charm – with short stems, and wide voids on its semibreves looking almost handwritten, overlapping like little venn diagrams when two parts land on the same note.
The musical editor of The English Hymnal was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This task came at an early stage in his career, and he told the story of how it began with an unexpected visit:
It must have been in 1904 that I was sitting in my study in Barton Street, Westminster, when a cab drove up to the door and ‘Mr. Dearmer’ was announced. I just knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing room; but he had not come to me about tramps. He went straight to the point and asked me to edit the music of a hymn book. I protested that I knew very little about hymns but he explained that Cecil Sharp had suggested my name […] and the final clench was given when I understood that if I did not do the job it would be offered to a well-known Church musician with whose musical ideas I was much out of sympathy.
Percy Dearmer was a priest in Primrose Hill, and an avowed socialist with a passion for social justice. As the head of the committee overseeing the new hymn book, he told Vaughan Williams that his work would take about two months. In fact it would last two years:
The truth is that I determined to do the work thoroughly, and that, besides being a compendium of all the tunes of worth that were already in use, the book should, in addition, be a thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world – at all event all such as were compatible with the metres of the words for which I had to find tunes.
Inevitably, some tunes would need new words – Dearmer himself penned Holy God We Show Forth Here to fit a chorale from Wagner’s opera DerMeistersinger. In other cases, fine words required new tunes. Vaughan Williams composed his beautiful Down Ampney, his friend Gustav Holst contributed his much-loved arrangement of Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter,alongside music from other contemporary composers.
Altogether the hymnal contained melodies from across Europe and America. ‘No particular country, period, or school has been exclusively drawn upon to supply material’, Vaughan Williams wrote in the hymnal preface, ‘but an attempt has been made to include the best specimens of every style’.
However, at around this time Vaughan Williams was a leading figure in the British folk-song revival. His work involved traipsing through villages, cajoling older locals to sing him the country ballads that were fading from collective memory. ‘They will require a little persuasion’ he wrote of this delicate fieldwork, ‘and to be assured that they are not being laughed at’. The immersion in these songs went on to profoundly influence his own music.
Consequently, many of these folk melodies found their way into the hymnal, wherever appropriate words could be fitted to them. These became some of its now most familiar numbers: the christmas carol O Little Town Of Bethlehem was pegged to a tune sung to him by a man in Surrey, while the rousing melody of He Who Would Valiant Be was provided by a woman in Sussex (its new words, from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, were bowdlerised by Dearmer to remove references to lions and hobgoblins).
The hymnal would therefore cross England’s deeply entrenched class divides, combining the songs of manual labourers with melodies blotted down by prestigious composers of the past like Thomas Tallis and J.S. Bach.
This diversity of material is one reason why the hymnal is so rewarding to delve into, though the sheer quantity also produces its biggest irritation – the thick spine is reluctant to stay open on a music stand without something to pin it down. To play these hymns offers tiny lessons in simple forms of musical construction: how a set of phrases can be put together, how harmony builds and releases tension, how different voices in the part writing provide movement. And with some at an endearingly humble eight bars long, there is a satisfaction gained from their simple completeness.
It is worth remembering how easily this book could have been different. A less committed stewardship of the project would have produced something that was functional but dull – after all, hymnody is particularly susceptible to the perils of the plodding dirge. It is a testament to the efforts Dearmer and Vaughan Williams expended that, whether obscure or familiar, these hymns are more often than not interesting.
One important factor was Vaughan Williams’ insistence, unlike earlier hymn arrangers, of not ironing out musical quirks:
The original rhythms of many of the old psalter tunes have also been restored, especially the long initial on the first syllable, which gives such a broad and dignified effect to these tunes. Attempts to adapt them to the procrustean bed of the nineteenth century hymn tune have merely taken away their character and made them appear dull. For the same reason no attempt has been made to square the irregular times of some tunes. These irregularities are always easy to sing by ear–and this is the way in which a hymn melody should be learnt.
Out of necessity, many of the hymns keep their arrangements simple. Chromatic harmonies are, for the most part, used sparingly and judiciously, making the lines more easily singable for amateur church choirs. A good example is It Is A Thing Most Wonderful, which allows the natural eloquence of the the beautiful folk tune Herongate shine through.
For the 17th-century German tune in Deck Myself, My Soul With Gladness, Vaughan Williams uses a few suspended notes in the lower parts to poignant effect.
At other times, the choir is instructed to sing in unison with the congregation, and Vaughan Williams provides greater intricacy to the hands of the organist. Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, another old German tune, is given a flowing accompaniment that unfurls mellifluously like a peal of bells.
A similar technique was used for Vaughan Williams’ own melody in his processional hymn For All The Saints, its verses alternating between unison singing over a marching organ part, and softer four-part choral writing.In both cases the loving craftsmanship casts the melody as the backbone of a more ornately beautiful texture – the unison passages from the choir adding extra force to the majesty of the melody.
The long process of poring over these hymns left a lasting impression on Vaughan Williams, echoed in subsequent works like his famous Tallis Fantasia, and his beautiful organ prelude on the Welsh hymn Rhosymedre. Nor would his collaboration with Dearmer end there. He was involved with the 1925 book Songs Of Praise, which drew heavily on The English Hymnal with the added intention of being more suitable for schools. An updated edition of the original book appeared in 1933.
‘The music is intended to be essentially congregational in character’, Vaughan Williams began his 1906 preface, ‘and this end has been kept in view both in the choice of tunes and in the manner of setting them out’. It is a book written for mass participation, not just for those who can read the notes. In putting the needs of church choirs and organists second, he offers a pre-emptive and amusingly forthright reproach to any dissenting voices:
The choir have their opportunity elsewhere, but in the hymn they must give way to the congregation, and it is a great mistake to suppose that the result will be inartistic. A large body of voices singing together makes a distinctly artistic effect, though that of each individual voice might be the opposite. And it may be added that a desire to parade a trained choir often accompanies a debased musical taste.
Today England is a more secular country than it was in 1906. For those like myself who are not church-goers, the relevance of hymns is different. They may not play a regular role in our lives, but like our parish churches they point to a beautiful and meaningful part of our history, one we wouldn’t want to lose altogether either.
What music today might we think of as being ‘essentially congregational in character’? It is one of those peculiarities of modern life that an audience is more likely to sing at a football match than at a classical concert. At pop and rock gigs, audience participation is often compulsive and unstoppable. Classical music is different: there is a distinctive value of collective stillness in listening to high-calibre musicians, and the concentration and attentiveness that involves.
Nonetheless, it is surely inarguable that singing together is one of the most instantly powerful bonding experiences that music can provide. Is it a coincidence that the most famous classical tradition in Britain, the last night of the Proms, culminates in a singalong? Yet it is precisely this that makes it eccentric and exceptional. I am not nostalgic for some golden age of church-going, if such a thing ever existed. But playing through The English Hymnal does make me ponder why there are not more opportunities for audiences to sing together, in our rather restrained art form. Vaughan Williams himself was not a man of faith. It was not belief that made his work a success, but understanding the human value of collective song, something which ultimately transcends religion.
It is easy to take books like The English Hymnal for granted. It can seem too mundane and commonplace to feel valuable – hymns are an unsexy topic, and the idea of creativity by committee doubly so. And yet through Vaughan Williams’ whole career, has anything else he did seeped into as many ordinary lives through a century of church services and school assemblies? To put aside the romantic idea of art as individual expression – and consider it as a civic act – his musical editorship of The English Hymnal, and its subsequent iterations,is arguably his most important achievement of all.
Importantly, it is also a model of inclusive, progressive Englishness, one which nurtures native heritage while casting its gaze wide abroad. It is not a window into the past but into many different pasts, brought together in an attempt to create a better future. ‘Is it not worth while making a vigorous effort to-day for the sake of establishing a good tradition?’, Vaughan Williams wrote. The book is bound with this simple idealism – that common worship can be more enriching, beautiful and dignified.
‘We have endeavoured to produce a book that shall suit the needs of learned and simple alike’, Dearmer says in his introduction, ‘and shall at the same time exhibit the characteristic virtue of hymnody – its witness, namely, to the act that in the worship of God Christians are drawn the closer together as they are drawn more closely to the one Lord.’
Whether singing these wonderful hymns, or fumbling through them at a piano, the lesson of this book is not just about how to craft music in a highly distilled form. It’s also in intent. To absorb the meaning of The English Hymnal is to ask the question of for what – and for whom – we compose at all.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
In 1965, a letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph from the concert pianist Harriet Cohen. She was writing about the programming of the BBC Proms, and recalling how one composer had been neglected at the festival in recent decades.
I, in company with dozens of people all over the country, consider it a grave wrong […] to have omitted ever since Sir Henry Wood’s death (so far as I remember) the yearly performances of the Third Symphony – played to packed houses and to scenes of incredible enthusiasm – that took place under the masterly and loving baton of Sir Henry, who told me, as did Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, that the work was one of his favourite modern symphonies.
Cohen was born in 1895, the same year that the Proms were founded. The composer of this symphony was a man she had met when she was a bright teenage talent at the Royal Academy of Music, way back in the 1910s. A married man twelve years her senior, their friendship would develop into a passionate love affair, and a fertile artistic partnership lasting for forty years. His name was Arnold Bax.
Bax’s third symphony was premiered by Henry Wood in March 1930, and under him it went on to be an enormous success. By 1942 he had conducted it at the Proms no fewer than eight times, and taken it abroad to Zurich, Rome, and Los Angeles. Its second movement was heard at the 1937 coronation of King George VI.
The story of Bax’s third symphony is one of music’s ephemeral power. How it can light up a moment in time, and linger long the memory of those it captivates. How its fire, if left untended, turns to embers and ash.
The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to the Scottish port of Mallaig. It is widely considered one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. This is just as well, as even today a train takes five hours to complete the route. The penultimate stop is the tiny village of Morar, near a beach of silver sand and views of the islands of Rhum and Eigg.
Here in December 1928, Bax came to orchestrate a new symphony in the quietness of the Highland winter. As his train wound its way along the so-called ‘Iron Road To The Isles’, the short score he carried with him was inscribed with a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
My wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; upon barren stones she brought forth her young.
Bax had an intense affinity for dramatic, ancient landscapes. As a young man, he had fallen in love with the poetry of W.B. Yeats, which sparked an infatuation with Ireland, particularly its rugged west coast. It would lead him to spend ‘more and more time alone in places lorded by the Atlantic and the dream-light of old tradition’.
The early poems of Yeats also fired Bax’s fascination with legend and mythology. ‘The sagas and dark winters of the north’, he later conceded, might have subconsciously influenced this symphony. There is always a sense that a hidden story runs through his music, and this is often reflected in his titles. The work he composed immediately after the third symphony would be called Winter Legends.
The narrative of the symphony is a complex, twisting one. Like the journey to Morar, Bax’s music is not just about reaching a destination, but also the variety of fleeting vistas along the way, the glimpses we are offered, however briefly, into other worlds.
Four notes – A, B flat, C sharp, D – are the puzzle that this symphony repeatedly tries to solve. We first hear a solo bassoon, rocking back and forth along this angular shape. Other woodwinds join in with harp, weaving a dense counterpoint in which key and pulse are both ambiguous. If the music evokes an ancient saga, this could be its untamed setting, a primordial woodland in sound.
The minor-third interval at the centre of this motif is a key driver in the music’s shifting moods – by turns it is mournful, mischievous, and mocking. What follows quickly escalates into a thrillingly vivid dance – savage repeated rhythms, lunging figures in the bass, and our four notes now a manic mantra in the violins.
And yet at the heart of this movement lies a wide pool of slow music. Bax introduces a romantic string melody, richly harmonised, but in a revealing detail asks that it is played con sordini: with mutes. As if shrouded in mist, we cannot fully fathom this place. It must remain half-unknown.
‘BAX’S MASTERPIECE’, proclaimed the Daily Mail. ‘An impressive outpouring of wild and melancholy music, sustained in a world of legend that is all his own […] the composer’s triumph is to keep us so engrossed in the strange, mysterious scenery that we hardly ask where he is or whither going.’
At the time of its writing, Bax was in his mid forties. He was at the height of his fame as a composer, admired at home and abroad. Cohen, who had been his lover for over ten years, was becoming one of the most celebrated pianists of her day, performing Bax’s music all over Europe.
Their relationship was passionate and turbulent, dogged by periods of insecurity. It was also an open secret in musical circles – Vaughan Williams, who was a friend to them both, was once greatly amused to find Cohen listed in a musical dictionary as ‘See under Bax’.
Bax’s family wealth meant that he had a private income. It afforded him a life of enviable freedom, in which he could travel and compose whatever he wanted, without seeking paid employment. It also enabled him to support various love interests throughout his life. These included Harriet Cohen, and but also his wife, Elsa.
It was Elsa whom Bax forsook for Cohen in 1918, financially supported with their two children, but emotionally abandoned. As Lewis Foreman puts it in his book Bax: A Composer And His Times, ‘Bax was not a married man by nature, but a nomad, and the encumbrances of married life stifled his free spirit’.
It would be easy to pass by Elsa. She is a mostly hidden figure, as Cohen insisted that Bax destroy her letters to him. But one letter does survive, in which she pours out her anguish and bewilderment to a friend, shortly after the separation. It gives us a poignant insight into the emotional wreckage of Bax’s affair, and her self-deluding optimism that he might come back:
To me, marriage always was the most sacred thing on earth, so much so, that once married nothing would justify a breaking of the word & promise given, and if one’s life partner turned out the most terrible bargain on earth, it is still up to one to be faithful and helpful in every way – that alone makes me act as I do – waiting until the return.
For Bax, the arrival of Cohen inspired an intense burst of creativity. In 1917, his passion for her shone with ecstatic splendour in his tone poem Tintagel, while the inner conflict he felt with his domestic commitments is thrashed out to exhaustion in the stormy November Woods.
‘She came at a most difficult period when all ideals seemed slipping,’ Bax wrote that year, ‘and now this that has happened has set them like fixed stars in the sky to burn for ever through what ever dangers and troubles may come’.
But with Bax’s nomadic lifestyle and Cohen’s performance schedule, their relationship would have to be played out through snatched periods together. Letters filled the gaps, and these now give us a precious insight into their romance. They are often passionate, sometimes erotic, and show they were both jealously possessive of the other. This is in spite of the fact that they both pursued other lovers – or maybe, precisely because of it.
In the mid 1920s, Cohen contracted a particularly virulent strain of tuberculosis. Bax paid for her to have a pioneering new treatment, which involved long stays in Geneva. This was a testing time, in which he fretted over the many admirers she was collecting.
‘Every man I meet seems to have fallen in love with me here,’ she wrote, teasing him. ‘I assure you I have had a very difficult time – they won’t believe in my mythical ‘fiancé’ in London. Is it true that I have got a marvellous figure? It’s all yours by the way.’
But it was also around the time of this long absence that Bax began an affair with a young woman called Mary Gleaves. It would be a relationship that had untold consequences for him and Cohen more than twenty years later.
A short walk inland from Morar village lies the western edge of Loch Morar. Dotted with forested islands near its shore, it stretches like a thin finger along a secluded valley for eleven miles. It is the deepest body of freshwater in Britain.
In February 1929 Bax wrote to Cohen:
This place is most enchanting when it is fine as it was this afternoon. I went down to the loch, and the silence and peace simply flooded me all through. It is impossible to feel disturbed about anything in such a place.
The second movement of the symphony seems to drink deep from this stillness. Here Bax achieved one of his most beguilingly gorgeous pieces of orchestration. A dim opening leads us through to an enchanted paradise, with glowing woodwind and brass, tinkling celesta, and lush divided strings. In the words of Colin Scott-Sutherland, it is like ‘a pristine world gradually illuminated by the first fingering beams of the morning’.
And yet, a bitter-sweet regret soon cuts across the landscape like a cold wind.
On the very same day that Bax visited the loch, Cohen was wowing Berlin on a European tour. There, she had the honour of an invitation to meet Albert Einstein and his wife at their apartment.
‘You are incandescent,’ the physicist told her, ‘you have a light within.’
Few days better illustrate the divergence of their lives, and the contrast of their personalities. Bax was a respected artist, but Cohen was a star. Not only a brilliant musician, she was a socialite with a seemingly magnetic attraction, one that drew in some of the most illustrious men of her day. As Helen Fry reveals in her biography, towards the end of the 1920sCohen embarked on ‘a series of sexual liaisons’, though quite how many is impossible to say. She certainly kept close relationships with many men, including the author H.G. Wells, Daily Express proprietor Max Beaverbrook, and even Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
It is some testament to Cohen’s allure that she inspired several novels by those she knew. D.H. Lawrence had been an early admirer, and the character Harriet in Kangaroo may have been partly based on her. Around the time of the third symphony, Harriet Hume by Rebecca West told the story of a young pianist and a corrupt politician. The writer William Gerhardie, who definitely did have an affair with Cohen, used extracts from real letters between them in his novel Pending Heaven.
None of this glamour, of course, should distract from her musicianship. Major composers of the day composed for Cohen. Her repertoire encompassed music from Russia to Spain, and she was one of the first pianists to promote early English keyboard pieces. Her Bach was, for many, considered peerless. More impressive still is that she achieved this with a small hand span of barely an octave.
But her public role did not end at the applause. In the 1930s, she used her profile to lobby on behalf of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. In 1934, this cause would lead to a reunion with Einstein. Having since fled to America, it was he who played the violin with her on stage in New York, as they took part in a fundraising concert.
‘It is the best thing that Mr. Bax has given us so far’, announced the Daily Telegraph, ‘and, surely, one of the best things our contemporaries have produced’.
‘I was very delighted that the Symphony was so much appreciated,’ Bax wrote to his brother Clifford, ‘and somewhat taken aback at its strangely uproarious reception’.
‘We are very proud of him’, Henry Wood later said. ‘His brilliancy and even his complexity are alluring, and his output is staggering’.
Bax’s third symphony would go on to be admired by Rachmaninov and Sibelius. According to Cohen, the Finn once described him as ‘my son in music’, though it was a son he would outlive.
However, not everyone was completely won over. ‘I enjoyed the Bax’, noted the 16-year-old Benjamin Britten in his diary, ‘but didn’t understand it’.
The peace of Loch Morar is dispelled with a smash of a gong and a series of strident string chords. The third and final movement returns us to frenetic action, and a marching theme takes up the mischievous minor thirds. But there is a sense of optimism, even touches of sardonic humour in the story now.
With a triumphant brass climax, we sense an arc towards a blazing major-key close. But we are hoodwinked. It immediately starts to fade away, and a violin line slowly rises, as if vanishing up to heaven. We will not get to see the heroic endpoint of this saga, rather what Bax reveals to us requires another literary term, one that puts everything we have heard so far into sudden perspective.
There was a precedent for having an ‘epilogue’ in music. Vaughan Williams had drawn on that description for his London Symphony. Bax had been at its premiere in 1914, and the older composer even asked for his advice on a passage that had disappointed him. Bax persuaded him to add an oboe counter melody. The favour was returned at the time of the third symphony, with Vaughan Williams’ suggestion that Bax extend the abrupt ending of the first movement.
On paper, Bax’s epilogue looks simplistic, crude even. Low chords of C, D minor, and E minor repeat, each with a C and E over the top. A long high G emerges, cascading down the scale as a gentle melody.
But notation can never describe the magic of music, it merely offers us dark words with which to cast its spell. In Bax’s hands, these disarmingly simple gestures become something confoundingly beautiful.
As Foreman puts it, the chords in the strings and harp arrive ‘as if they have been going on for ever, but have only just come into our hearing’. The blend of unison woodwinds in the melody beckons us, like some far-off instrument not quite of our time. Meanwhile, the consoling loveliness of these shapes is gently disturbed by a low rumble, murmured half-thoughts in the music’s sleepy rhythm.
Vaughan Williams’ connection to this symphony has its own after-story. He so admired the epilogue that when he completed his piano concerto in 1931, he tucked away a brief quotation from it near the very end of his score. Naturally, Cohen was to perform this work. Vaughan Williams told her to play this passage ‘quite slow and very far off like a dream’.
But he later had a change of heart. This quotation was ‘a mistake for public performance’. The significance of this music was clearly personal for him. Quite what it meant is unclear. But an intriguing note lies beside these bars in the original score. It reads: ‘according to my promise’.
It was in 1944 that the symphony’s fortunes turned. That year, Bax’s music was wrapped up a Proms season that seemed to be strangely cursed.
It was wartime, and London was facing the new threat of ‘doodlebugs’ – V1 flying bombs. During a performance of Bax’s violin concerto, a doodlebug approach gradually became audible in the Albert Hall. By one account, the audience heard its engine cut out. The soloist, Eda Kersey, continued playing, ‘apparently oblivious to the fact that one ton of explosive was somewhat overhead. No one in the audience moved. It was a long wait. Then, at last, there came the muffled roar of the explosion’.
The next day, the BBC closed the venue for the rest of the season. It was a sad turn of events in the Proms’ 50th Jubilee year, and it thwarted a scheduled performance of the third symphony. But that summer would become sadder still. Eda Kersey died of cancer just two weeks after her performance, aged only 40. Then a month later came the passing of Sir Henry Wood himself. He had co-founded the Proms, and conducted its every season for nearly half a century.
With Wood’s death, this symphony’s great champion was vanquished. To this day, over 70 years on, Bax’s third has not been heard at the festival since.
It is therefore fitting that, in the very same year, the first recording of the symphony was released, conducted by John Barbirolli. 1944 marks the turning point towards this music’s modern fate: a creature beautifully preserved in amber, but never glimpsed in the wild. A collector’s curiosity, starved of the breath of life.
For now, this symphony remains the music that time forgot. Music which, through its own inspiration, chooses to forget time.
Elsa died in 1947. And in death, Bax’s wife would strike a final blow against his betrayal. Throughout their separation, her refusal to divorce had become convenient, effectively excusing him from any future commitments. He did not dare tell Cohen that he was a now a widower.
But such matters cannot be withheld forever. The following year, Cohen was recording Bax’s score for the David Lean film Oliver Twist, and over this period she discovered that Elsa’s will had been published.
‘All she wanted was to be Lady Bax’, Cohen’s sister would later say. But Bax was in no mind to remarry. Under pressure from Cohen, and possibly in the heat of an argument, he finally revealed his continuing affair with Mary Gleaves.
In the long saga of their love, they had both been unfaithful. But his rejection of marriage, combined with the revelation of a twenty-year mistress, must have been devastating. At some point in the following two weeks, Cohen severed an artery and damaged tendons in her right hand. She spent several days in hospital, and received nine stitches to her wrist. It was a terrible injury for a pianist, one her career would never fully recover from.
The cause was reported to be an accident while carrying a tray of glasses. In her biography, Fry pours some scepticism over this claim. We may never know if this injury was an act of self-harm – a cry for help, or even a suicide attempt. But you would expect that any accident so brutally damaging to Cohen’s craft would be mentioned in her memoir, A Bundle Of Time. Instead, there is silence.
It is unlikely that Bax wanted to hurt either women – from his letters, it seems, he loved them both. But a lifetime of duplicity and evasion had led to this juncture. Cohen’s injury would eventually heal, though her best playing days were now over. In the mean time, with one hand incapacitated, Bax composed her a Left-Hand Concertante for piano and orchestra.
A few months after her injury, Cohen wrote to Bax. She was still angry, and like all his betrayals, would never let him forget. But now she laid her cards on the table. She was nearly fifty three, and had loved him for over thirty years.
I’ve come to the conclusion that only complete happiness will make me well. It is all in your hands – all of me is in your hands – my life, and my future […] And you? Are you going to make an honest woman of me at last my precious? […] Perhaps everything had to happen to show you just how much you love me – & how awful a blank should you lose me. You never will, my love. I just won’t let go. Never will I go.
On some level, she must have known her plea for marriage would be futile. But she never did let go. And neither did he.
It was in keeping with Bax’s wishes that, in 1953, he died while visiting his beloved Ireland. In Dublin, he heardthe music professor Aloys Fleischmann conduct a concert of his music. Unknowingly, it became a final tribute to two great forces in his creative life. The orchestra performed the early tone poem The Garden of Fand, perhaps the most passionate flowering of his youthful love affair with that country. And Cohen was there too, playing his Left-hand Concertante, a testament to the strangely unshakable bond they had forged across four decades.
That weekend, Bax was staying with Fleischmann in Cork. He was driven out to a local beauty spot on the coast, the Old Head of Kinsale. By the account of Fleischmann’s mother Tilly, he witnessed the most glorious sunset over the Atlantic – Fand’s garden itself. ‘The whole sky was ablaze with colour of every possible hue; red, deep orange, yellow and far away on the horizon, there was a pale blue mist. Arnold was lost gazing at it.’
In the evening, Bax fell ill. A doctor was called, but by 10pm he had suffered coronary thrombosis and pulmonary edema. He was gone.
‘I can’t grow up and long for home and children and settled things,’ Bax once wrote. Throughout his life, he retained a streak of restless, wide-eyed adolescence. It formed a wellspring of his art, one he channelled into music of incredible richness and beauty of expression. But it is also there, swirling in those currents, that we can sense a source of his personal shortcomings.
Cohen died two years after her letter to the Daily Telegraph, in 1967. In many ways she had led the more extraordinary life – a woman of brilliance, determination and enormous accomplishment. It was never quite clear how this extrovert force of nature became so inextricably entangled with Bax, the introspective dreamer. Perhaps it is something they never fully understood themselves.
‘I received two tremendous moral lessons from great men in those months,’ Cohen recalled in her memoir, about the period of the third symphony. The cellist Pablo Casals left her speechless when he described how he practiced as if he would live to be five hundred. ‘Those few words affected my whole life: the wavering flame in me was rekindled and I never doubted or flagged again’.
The other was from Einstein, on that February day when Bax was walking beside Loch Morar, the place where the waters lie deepest. As she left the great scientist’s apartment and stepped into the cold Berlin air, he shared with her a favourite saying by Lessing. ‘The search for truth is more precious than its possession’.
Some puzzles in this story must remain unsolved. Who knows when Bax came across the Nietzsche quotation, buried near the end of a chapter in his mysterious screed? Who knows on what level it spoke to him, or why he left it out of the full score of the symphony. In that part of the book, Zarathustratells us of his Wild Wisdom, his lioness. It continues:
Now she runs foolishly through the harsh desert and seeks gentle turf – my old wild wisdom. Upon your hearts’ gentle turf, my friends, upon your love she would bed her most dearly beloved.
In the middle of Bax’s epilogue, our four-note motif returns. An eerie haze of tremolo strings and muted brass, it sounds like a distant memory, one whose meaning we can no longer quite remember.
But in the very last bars of the symphony, it builds to a deep brass rumble. Only now, with a twist of harmony, this figure melts into a radiant C major triad. In the music’s dying breath, its tortured shape has, at last, found its resolution.
The final C chord is lit up by woodwinds and harp, recalling that wild forest where our journey began. It hangs there, gently glowing. An island of perfect peace, forever beyond our reach.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
With special thanks to Graham Parlett for his help with this article.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.
‘DO, a deer, a female deer, RE, a drop of golden sun’, sings Maria in a well-known song from The Sound Of Music. In doing so she teaches the von Trapp children about the notes of the major scale, through puns on the Solfège system. This proceeds well enough until LA, which lacks a suitable wordplay partner and merely becomes ‘a note to follow SO’. But there is a more subtle pun hiding at the end, one only recently pointed out to me. After ‘TI, a drink with jam and bread’, we have ‘that will bring us back to DO’ (dough).
Puns or no puns, to learn about distinct notes is normally one of our first encounters with music theory. The idea that the frequency of a sound wave can be segmented into pitches, and into pitch classes which recur in different octaves, is a fundamental starting point. In the film, Julie Andrews’ Maria has the von Trapp offspring scampering up a set of steps as they sing the scale.
This is an appropriate metaphor, as ‘scale’ derives from the the Latin scala, a ladder or staircase. The rungs of this ladder let us navigate any number of musical journeys. They are plainly visible in the lines of a musical stave, and in the bodywork of our instruments – the keys on a piano, the frets on a guitar, the holes in a recorder.
When Orsino in Twelfth Night recalls ‘that strain again, it had a dying fall’ he alludes to the remarkable fact – one easy to forget – that we can hear a series of these discrete pitches and ‘join the dots’ in our head. We can perceive a melodic contour, and grasp the story within it, out of a stream of entirely separate musical moments.
But the human voice has no in-built divisions of pitch, and some instruments also defy these segmentations. The trombone has its famously sardonic slide. The violin family (including violas, cellos and basses) allow the player’s finger border-free travel. To slide between notes is called a glissando, from the French glisser, to slip or glide. Some instruments, like the piano, can only approximate this effect with an extravagant sweep. The harp is well known for creating a mesmerising sound this way, but it is merely a flurry of notes in rapid succession.
Despite all these capabilities, the role of glissandi has for a long time been rather limited in western classical music. Opera singers might use portamento, a short expressive slide between two notes, though too much could be considered vulgar. When a real glissando happens, it is most often an ear-catching flourish, a special effect that briefly subverts (but is subservient to) the arrangement of fixed pitches. And because it defies our expectations, it can – like the cartoony swoop of the swanee-whistle – even sound comical.
Perhaps the most famous glissando in the orchestral repertoire is the clarinet solo that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This is notated as a scale figure, but – so the story goes – the virtuoso clarinettist Ross Gorman improvised an upward slide during the rehearsal for the premiere. Gershwin loved it and told him to keep it in. It’s not something the clarinet was designed to do, but a skilful player can pull it off, and it has become standard performance practice ever since. But then pitch-bending – the ‘blue’ note of the title – is a part of the jazz traditions Gershwin was drawing upon.
However, we cannot forget that Maria’s explainer is an introduction to tonal music. The arrival of atonality in the twentieth century freed notes from key hierarchies, while Serialism reorganised them into tone rows. Some composers have explored the subtler shades in between the twelve notes of the standard chromatic scale, such as ‘quartertones’, and other ‘microintervals’.
Quite what Maria’s song to explain these techniques might have sounded like, we can only imagine. But much like the puns in Do-Re-Mi, our word scale echoes with other meanings. If tonality gives us ladders of fixed points, microtones are more like the smooth scales of snakes – from the Old French escale, or shell – which, as in the children’s game Snakes And Ladders, we can slide along.
One composer who has explored the regions between our notes in a serious way is the American Gloria Coates. Coates was born in Wisconsin but moved to Munich in 1969, and has lived in Germany ever since. She has become known for the fact that many of her works feature extensive use of microtones, and in particular long string glissandi. In an interview with New Music Box, Coates cites their origin as an ‘Ur Schrei (primitive cry) which comes from a deeper part of me in singing’.
The experience of working with electronic music sharpened her perception of pitch – ‘there was much more space’ she recalls, ‘in between the quartertones’. At the same time, Coates points out how our technology-saturated lives also means we encounter more microtonal sounds, and mechanical glissandi, as ambient noise:
The sound of a car slowing down or speeding up, planes, machines of all sorts, even computer noises […] microtones are present in our speech, and they are present in nature […]
Quite unlike the archetypal flourish, perhaps Coates’ most distinctive use of glissandi are slow and creeping. Usually these are scored for string instruments, so it is unsurprising that she has explored the technique in a number of works for string quartet.
Here we hit on another aspect of music that Maria’s song left out: rhythm. Rhythm is an equally fundamental entry point, one that springs from the very motions of being alive – our heartbeat, our footsteps, our breath. But a long glissando cannot articulate rhythm as a series of notes can – at least, not on its own. If these glissandi sound strangely inhuman then, it is because they literally have no pulse. They might suggest an elemental force of nature, like a rising tide, as much as an accelerating engine. Or it could be our musical world sliding out of focus, a warping of reality. Either way, it is disorientating.
For me, this is part of their strange appeal. But Coates tells the story of presenting her composition teacher with an early glissando string quartet, and leaving him completely baffled. If you’re new to her work, you might react similarly. Coates is confronting us with something musically quite unfamiliar: sound always travelling, but rarely arriving.
My reference to Snakes And Ladders offers a little bit more than a laboured metaphor. You might remember it from childhood as a simple game of chance, but as Doug Bierend has shown, it has a long and fascinating history originating in ancient India. There exist many beautifully ornate interpretations of the familiar grid, some of which link the snakes and ladders with Hindu and Jain moral and spiritual concepts, such as karma and Moksha (salvation).
When the British took the idea to Europe in the late nineteenth century, mass-market versions soon appeared, some of which transposed western virtues and vices onto the board. In one hilariously pompous edition, cartoon scenes illustrate ‘kindness’ and ‘self-denial’ jumbled among such perilous pitfalls as ‘unpunctuality’ and ‘frivolity’.
Far from being just a way of helping young children learn to count, the very simplicity of the Snakes And Ladders concept, Bierend writes, served ‘as a durable chassis for any culture that took it up, containing and transmitting their moral and spiritual beliefs’.
The bigger lesson here is that the systems we teach children, no matter how innocent they seem, are always embedded with our values. And as for the lesson in the Do-Re-Mi song,it arrives with all the subtlety of an Alphorn. When the children sing along with Maria, we see them cooperating and bonding; their carefree frolicking around Salzburg shows us that learning is fun. Arguably, the principal theme of the film is the power of music to strengthen relationships. And from the opening shots, Austria is a glistening ideal of European culture, a place where the hills are alive ‘with songs they have sung for a thousand years’. In a story which climaxes with an escape from the Nazis, we come to understand music as the essence of a loving, joyful life – everything good which is under threat from Fascism.
For a contemporary composer, trying to find a voice in a post-atonal world, things may not be so simple. But whether you reject tonality and construct your own system, whether you re-adopt tonality, or adapt it to your own uses, your response will resonate with your own values. What particularly interests me about Gloria Coates is the relationship to tonal music in her work.
Despite the outlandishness of her musical gestures, Coates draws on that fustiest of musical techniques – the canon. If her music sometimes seems simple in construction, this can be deceptive: often the counterpoint, she hints, is ‘like a mathematics problem with only the solution given.’
Several compositions take much older pieces of music and re-cast them with a microtonal glaze. Her symphony no. 15 uses a ‘puzzle canon’, in which a section of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus is heard both forwards and backwards. Symphony no.14 makes dissonant play with the works of two obscure New England hymn composers (William Billings, and the fabulously named Supply Belcher). These resurrections seem to emphasise a distance, the uneasy coexistence of past and present, as much as any continuity of tradition. But her curiosity extents outside of the classical repertoire too. Symphony No.8, Indian Sounds, mixes microtones with Native American music to compellingly mysterious effect.
My favourite of all these invocations, however, is the first movement of her symphony no. 4, Chiaroscuro. Here we are introduced to a haze of microtonality, through which gradually emerges the outline of Dido’s Lament, the exquisitely poignant aria by Purcell.But it is fragmentary and unnaturally slow,a shadowy apparition which grows louder and louder as it lumbers towards us. The title of the movement is Illumination, and its light is decidedly gothic. The result is genuinely sinister.
Dido’s Lament is composed on a ground bass that descends semitone by semitone, a feature which, as Alex Ross described, has been used for centuries to express lamentation. In its own way it is also an approximated glissando, with the poetry of Orsino’s ‘dying fall’ in chromatically tonal terms. For Coates, this had a personal relevance. Symphony no. 4 is an orchestral expansion of the earlier chamber work Transitions, one she described as ‘the translation of metaphysical experiences I had after the death of my father’.
The mention of metaphysics recalls that Ur Schrei, the ‘deeper part of me in singing’, the sense that there is an aspect of Coates’ art which is forever unknown. And this is an important point to remember. However many ladders we climb in the pursuit of knowledge, there is nobody alive who has truly fathomed how music works, not in the way that matters most: the unique spaces of consciousness it opens within us. If Coates’ music often sounds simple, then it recalls our ancient board game, where an idea can unexpectedly lead us in all sorts of directions, even into ourselves.
There is another meaning of the world ‘scale’ – from the Old Norse skál, or bowl – which is the instrument we use to make precise measurements of weight. Perhaps we could say that Coates’ music is a kind of ‘precise imprecision’ – it is highly calculated, and yet it takes us through a continuum of pitch that by its nature can never be settled. It peers in between the lines of the stave, into that mysterious malleability that people have tried for so long to set into something beautiful and ordered. If her work speaks to us, it is by reminding us – quite literally – of the very sound of music.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider helping to fund Corymbus. Make a monthly pledge on Patreon, and you will get access to extra posts there. You can also donate at any time on PayPal.