Singing in the Autumn

Singing in the Autumn

I love autumn. There is a sense of the rhythm of life returning after the enforced laziness of summer. Even as an adult, my working and my musical lives seem to adhere to the school term timetable.

Choir rehearsals have started again. After a few weeks with – I’m ashamed to admit – rather limited singing practice, there’s always the worry about how long it will take to get the voice working again. I was pleasantly surprised that it was just a few days this time – so all good!

Well, all good until I came down with a virus last week. My throat glands were swollen and I developed a bad cough.

Now I am afflicted by the singer’s dreaded enemy – phlegm. A certain amount of phlegm keeps the vocal cords lubricated, but too much disrupts the air flow, leading to cracked notes. Singers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about phlegm, and seeking for remedies and preventative cures.

But enough of the mucus and on to the music. I’m working on two contrasting pieces at the moment. First, Berlioz’s Grand Messe des Morts, a work for huge forces which we will perform in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 25 September and again in Gloucester Cathedral in November. It’s very dramatic and idiosyncratic – typical Berlioz. Despite the large choir and orchestra, it isn’t loud all the time. As ever, it’s the quietest passages that are hardest to pull off.

The other piece is Rachmaninov’s Vespers, which I love. This time I’m singing it in English, so I have to remember not to sing ‘Ameen’ or ‘Slava tebe, Bozhe’. The advantage of the English version is that I don’t gave to worry about the dark Russian vowels making the high notes difficult to sing. In fact, the translation was approved by Rachmaninov himself when he’d fled to the US after the Russian Revolution, so that’s all fine. We perform the work in Bristol in November.

I’ve sung both these pieces before, two and three years ago. It’s been reassuring to find that they feel more comfortable in the voice. I suppose my technique must gave improved. Now I just need to get rid of this phlegm.


A Tourist in my Home Town

It can be very easy to overlook what’s on your doorstep. Whenever I travel, I make a point of visiting the important historical monuments or places of natural beauty. If I don’t, it feels like a missed opportunity. Yet I rarely do the same at home. In part, there are practical reasons for this: there are always too many things to do at the weekend. But I wonder if there’s a little bit of taking for granted what is around me all the time.

This weekend we’ve enjoyed Heritage Open Days around the country. It’s a time when buildings that are normally closed to the public open their doors; when entrance fees for some places are waived; or when there’s an opportunity to go behind the scenes at museums. It’s a licence to be a tourist in your home town.

I’ve been recovering from a throat infection so I had to scale back my original visiting plans. The first stop was St Mary De Crypt church in Gloucester.

Originally a Norman church, it was largely rebuilt in the Perpendicular period (mid-13th to 15th centuries). Inside is a real treasure: the remains of wall paintings. The clearest shows the Adoration of the Magi. It is believed that the paintings date from around 1530. So many of these wall paintings were lost during the Reformation.

Also in the church is one of the earliest portraits of a member of the merchant class. John Cooke (d. 1529) was Mayor of Gloucester and this portrait of him and his wife is one of a series of portraits of local worthies.

Fast forward 300 years or so for my second visit. I’ve wanted to see Holy Innocents Church in Highnam for some time, but had not got round to it. It was time to remedy the omission.

The church was the brainchild of Thomas Gambier Parry, father of the composer, Hubert. It epitomises the Oxford Movement’s theatricality and emphasis on aesthetics. Perhaps it is too rich for some tastes, but I loved it.

IMG_1571.JPGGambier Parry had complete control over the design and it seems to have given him a focus for his energies after the death of his first wife and three of his children. His wife Isabella’s bust was placed in the Lady Chapel.

IMG_1579.JPGHe even repainted the legs of the font (originally white) as he thought they didn’t look good.

IMG_1590.JPGI’m grateful to the Heritage Open Days for giving me the impetus to discover some more special, local places. I must also say that in Holy Innocents there was a very friendly, knowledgeable local lady who greatly added to the enjoyment of my visit.

Should Classical Singers Know How to Sing Pop Well?

The renowned countertenor Andreas Scholl certainly thinks so. Yet when the Royal Opera asked the question on Facebook, the reaction was generally negative. In particular, people talked of pop singers’ lack of technique.

To be fair, though, Scholl wasn’t talking about technique. This is what he is quoted as saying:

Classical singers should know how to sing pop music well. In pop, the music lives through the personality of the singer. People like Sting, Elton John or Bob Dylan have had success for 30 or 40 years and they’re real characters. They cannot hide behind a cliché of somebody else. I believe pop music can teach classical singers a lot about ‘How much of my personality am I giving to this song? I should invest my own thoughts and pretend I’ve never heard this music before.’ This can help them create this personal feeling, and make you feel they’re singing only for you.

I think Scholl has a point, and a rather important one at that.

It is true that I’ve complained about having to sing songs from musicals in my singing exams. I have a fairly light soprano voice and in the musical theatre/Gilbert & Sullivan world, that means I’d sing the ingénue role. And there is very little less dignified than an ageing juvenile!

But I do feel there is a lot I can learn from some pop and folk singers, without necessarily singing their songs. The best have a directness and immediacy that is rare in the classical world. I feel that they communicate directly and make the song fresh and new-minted. Why shouldn’t we strive for that effect in Dowland or Schubert as well?

How do you do it? For me, it’s a work in progress but it has to involve inhabiting the song completely and engaging fully with the text. Perhaps also there needs to be a loss of self-consciousness and, as Scholl says, pretending you are singing the song for the first time.

Some singers do this very well. Here are four of my favourites:

Joni Mitchell – A Case of You
A brilliant song, lyrically and musically, and perfectly delivered. You can criticise Joni Mitchell’s technique, but she sings with an unflinching emotional honesty that makes the frailty of the voice a thing of power.

Kate Rusby – My Young Man
Written about her grandparents, this is a powerful song. Kate Rusby sings it in an almost conversational, stoical way that feels very true to the people who are its subject. Again, there is so much honesty. And it never fails to make me cry.

Jeff Buckley – Lilac Wine
Is it easier to sing with this emotional honesty when you have written the song yourself? Perhaps, but it isn’t impossible to communicate someone else’s song in an intensely direct way. Jeff Buckley’s version of this song from the 1950s is deeply felt and raw.

Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
After all that intensity, I feel the need to lighten the mood. When Linda Thompson sings about the release of a night on the town after a week in a dead-end job, you fully believe her.

Ice-warm: Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Gloucester Cathedral, 11 July 2014

When I found out that Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble were coming to Gloucester as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, I knew I had to be there.

It was a special concert, with the spaces of the cathedral proving ideally suited to the music.  For once, there was a virtue in sitting in the cheap seats with extremely restricted views.  The music washed over me as I gazed at pillars, arches and vaulting.  It seemed the sound of the stones, timeless.  One piece followed on from another, almost seamlessly, so the spell was unbroken.

The programme notes recalled the initial reactions to the collaboration between a renowned early music group and jazz saxophonist: a collaboration which on paper should not have worked.  The Herald Tribune described the first recording, Officium, as ‘Sobering and soaring, ice-warm, as it were.  And the texture is so enveloping that you don’t want to listen to anything less pure than Bach or Billie Holiday afterward.’

The release of Officium roughly coincided with the rise in popularity of contemporary music with a spiritual dimension (John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt) that was played seemingly endlessly by commercial classical music radio stations in the 1990s.  The work is more challenging than this suggests, though, with some of the music taking a distinctly atonal flavour.

It is still the version of Morales’s Parce mihi, Domine that for me is the most moving and this was performed at the heart of the concert.  Ice-warm, indeed: there is a containment here.  Unlike, say, an aria by Puccini, it does not grab the listener and say, ‘I am going to move you’.  The four-part choral singing is restrained, unobtrusive.  Over this, the soprano saxophone floats, sometimes reflective, sometimes insistent.  In Seamus Heaney’s wonderful phrase, it ‘catch[es] the heart off guard, and blow[s] it open’.

The concert ended with a magical encore – Remember Me, My Dear.  This was most fitting in The Hilliard Ensemble’s 40th and final season.  It is an evening I will remember for a long time.

On New Grub Street

Sobering news in The Guardian today: authors’ incomes have plummeted, with the median income of those surveyed standing at only £11,000. While there are a few writers who make fortunes, most barely scrape a living.

Perhaps this is nothing new. George Gissing, in New Grub Street, described a world of literary poverty in the London of the late 19th century. Gissing himself is little read now and he is, arguably, one of The most underrated of the Victorian novelists. What he is so good at is exploring work. How many of the 19th century English novels really focus on work. There are the Brontës’ governesses and teachers, Dickens’s lawyers and money men, Hardy’s farmers and merchants, but how often is work the central theme?

Gissing also demonstrates empathy for all his characters: the struggling literary novelist, Edwin Reardon; the would-be successful writer’s wife, Amy Reardon; the literary drudge, Marion Yule, toiling in the stacks of the British Library Reading Room; and Jasper Milvain, the man who understands the literary market and what it demands. No one is castigated for their views.

New Grub Street also inspired one of my favourite Radio comedies, Ed Reardon’s Week, as the curmudgeonly writer lives in complete poverty and rails at a world that does not appreciate his literary genius and requires him to ghost-write appalling books by the latest instant celebrity, while his former collaborator, Jaz Milvain, enjoys the riches gained from a series of truly terrible, but wildly popular movies.

Any fantasies about giving up office life to write novels are quickly dispelled by New Grub Street. The likelihood of earning an income solely from writing is slim. Is the literary novel dead, as Will Self suggested? Or have things really not changed all that much? How many writers ever made a decent living from their art?

As a reader, I’m going to read more by living authors. It’s not much, perhaps, but it’s a start.

Tweeting about Books, Part 3

The June #BookadayUK challenge has now ended, so it’s high time for the final round-up.

Day 21: Summer Read
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

What’s the ideal summer read? For me, it has to be a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while but haven’t had the time to do so. It should not be too closely related to work. We’re talking about holiday reading here. For a while I’d toyed with taking Thomas Piketty’s Capital on my holiday this year, but decided graphs and tables would be too much like hard work. Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch, fits the bill much better.

Day 22: Out of Print
The Interpretation of French Song – Pierre Bernac

Pierre Bernac was a French baritone who made his name singing the French song repertoire and worked particularly closely with Francis Poulenc. This book is one of the key works on the subject and as I’m becoming mildly obsessed with French songs, I need to get my hands on a copy. Sadly, it appears to be out of print. But let’s look on the bright side: it’s a very good excuse to spend a day in Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand bookshop capital of the UK.

Day 23: Made to Read at School
Poetry – John Donne

There’s been so much controversy over the English Literature syllabus and whether the books that are taught in school appeal to pupils. I could have chosen a book that I had to read but didn’t enjoy: Treasure Island and The History of Mr Polly spring to mind. I can’t recall having finished either of those, so perhaps my teachers were equally unenthusiastic. Instead, I have chosen poetry that I studied for A level and have loved ever since, thanks to the energy of the language and Donne’s daring imagery.

Day 24: Hooked me into Reading
Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne

I could equally have chosen Beatrix Potter. Apparently, I could recite passages from Peter Rabbit before I could read. But I loved the Pooh books and still think they contain recognisable characters in the shape of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. We all know Rabbits, Tiggers and Eeyores. There’s also a hint of sadness at the close of The House at Pooh Corner, as the childhood idyll comes to an end.

Day 25: Never Finished It
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

I used to feel so guilty about giving up on a book. It seemed a failure on my part. As I get older, I realise that there are so many books that I want to read and relatively little time. My life is certainly too short to read Clarissa, one of the longest novels in the English language. The middle-class 18th-century reader had a lot more time on his or her hands.

Day 26: Should Have Sold More Copies

I thought this was essentially the same category as ‘I can’t believe more people haven’t read it’ (Day 16) – unless we believe people should buy books but not read them.

Day 27: Want to be one of the Characters
The Jeeves stories – P G Wodehouse

When I grow up, I want to be one of Bertie Wooster’s Aunts, or Aged As. What fun it will be to terrify my nephew and nieces! Or I’d settle for turning into Miss Marple.

Day 28: Bought at my Fave Independent Bookshop
Keeping the World Away – Margaret Forster

I bought this book in the Aldeburgh Bookshop, a great independent bookshop in a special place. It’s sad that there are so few independents, although a well-stocked chain shop has to be preferable to an independent that only stocks the most popular titles that you can pick up in a supermarket.

Day 29: The one I have Reread Most Often
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Jane Eyre. Quite young, I think, and it was the chapters about Jane’s schooldays and the Mad Woman in the Attic that made the most vivid impression. Later, it was Jane’s determination to make her own place in the world and live with integrity, that stayed in the mind. A great novel reveals fresh insights at different points in your life.

Day 30: Would Save if my House Burned Down
My Kindle

Yes, I know this is cheating, but e-readers are a wonderful innovation. Never again will I worry about being stuck on a train with nothing to read. It also means I can include some of the ‘missing’ books, such as Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Wings of the Dove.

Despite e-readers, though, books still do furnish a room.

Tweeting about Books: #BookadayUK, Part 2

Borough Press’s #BookadayUK challenge is generating lots of interest, and is providing welcome relief from all the World Cup tweets that are filling my Twitter feed.  So many books waiting to be read!

Time for another round-up of my choices: 8-20 today.


Day 8: Have more than one copy

Plays – Anton Chekhov

This was a tricky one.  I don’t generally have more than one copy of a book and I’ve certainly not bought another copy of a book I’ve forgotten that I owned.  I can see that it’s worth having different translations of a foreign language book that you love, and specialists will always want different editions of the same book.  Most of us have limited book-buying budgets, though, and a duplicate copy means a brand new reading experience foregone.

I have a few of the Russian classics in duplicate copies, but this is more by accident than design.  One of my husband’s colleagues was getting rid of a set of Russian literature, all bound identically in red and gold.   They now sit on our shelves, but I suspect the days of the paperback duplicates are numbered.


Day 9: Film or TV tie-in

The Shock of the New – Robert Hughes

There’s not much non-fiction on this list so far.  Given that I tend to alternate my reading between fiction and non-fiction, it’s time to remedy this.  I’ve chosen Robert Hughes’s account of modern art, which was published shortly after the TV series of the same name was made in 1980.  He was a great, enthusiastic, opionated commentator on art, with a voice that resounds from the page.  Sadly, the BBC have not seen fit to release the programme on DVD, although it was repeated recently after Hughes’s death.


Day 10: Reminds you of someone I love

Short Stories – Saki

I first came across Saki in an anthology of British short stories.  The chosen work was ‘The Toys of Peace’ in which a well-meaning liberal uncle buys his nephews some new toys (a John Stuart Mill doll, a model municipal waste facility) as a substitute for the toy soldiers and weaponry that little boys at the time were supposed to prefer.  The story made my husband and I laugh out loud.  We later discovered Saki’s other stories, including the thoughts of the wonderful Reginald.  Shared laughter.


Day 11: Second hand bookshop gem

A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

I love the smell of new books and the feel of the fresh pages.  So while I like the idea of second-hand books, and enjoy a good browse in a second-hand bookshop, I rarely buy.  In Beckside Books, Penrith, I picked up a copy of A Suitable Boy in very good  condition and some piano music.  Seth’s novel is one of the longest in the English language, but you don’t notice that, and I enjoyed it as much on the second reading as I had on the first in the 1990s.  It has the breadth and pace of a good Victorian novel (and I mean that as a compliment).  A sequel (A Suitable Girl) is scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2016.  Will it live up to the first book?


Day 12: I pretend to have read it

There isn’t any book that I pretend to have read.  I’ve always thought that that’s a dangerous game to play, as someone is bound to find you out.

If the challenge had been to name a book that I pretend not to have read, that would be interesting.   Can I shamefacedly admit to reading anything by (say) Jeffrey Archer?  I was young, I didn’t know what I was doing…


Day 13: Makes me laugh

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

Much safer ground here.  I could have chosen Saki again, or P G Wodehouse, or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, but for a book that is guaranteed to make me laugh, I turn to Lucky Jim.  It’s not perfect: the female characters are unconvincing, unsympathetic, or both.  But there are wonderful set pieces, including the famous Merrie England lecture.  I’m not sure that Amis wrote anything better than this.


Day 14: An old favourite

Martha Quest – Doris Lessing

This is the first in the five-volume Children of Violence series.  The books tell the story of Martha Quest from her adolescence in the African veldt, to her young womanhood in the city, her political awakening and ending up with her leaving Africa for London.  They are semi-autobiographical.  I read these a lot when I was in my late teens and early twenties.  An English teacher recommended them.  One of the most inspiring things about my education was that our English teachers actively encouraged us to read far and wide outside the A-level syllabus.  It was about more than passing exams.  I suspect Doris Lessing would have approved.


Day 15: Favourite fictional father

Emma – Jane Austen

There were lots of worthy choices on Day 15, with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird leading the way.   I suspect, though, that most fictional fathers are absent (see Little Women or The Railway Children) or inadequate.  Jane Austen’s fathers are definitely not paternal role models – even the much-loved Mr Bennet abdicates effective responsibility for his younger children and undermines his wife.  Mr Woodhouse in Emma is a wonderfully comic creation  with his selfishness and hypochondria, yet concern, albeit in a limited unempathetic way, for his friends.


Day 16: I can’t believe more people haven’t read this

The Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen isn’t much read these days.  There is, perhaps, a buttoned-up quality that reflected her times (1930s and 1940s) but which is out of tune with modern tastes.  This is another book that I first read in my late teens and the character of Portia, an awkward teenager, was probably guaranteed to attract my interest.  The novel deals with betrayal and cruelty, that cold cruelty that isn’t really aware of what it is doing.  This passage impressed me so much when I first read it:

Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous. Finding no language in which to speak in their own terms, they resign themselves to being translated imperfectly. They exist alone; when they try to enter into relations they compromise falsifyingly–through anxiety, through desire to impart and to feel warmth. The system of our affections is too corrupt for them. They are bound to blunder, then to be told they cheat. In love, the sweetness and violence they have to offer involves a thousand betrayals for the less innocent. Incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness. Their singleness, their ruthlessness, their one continuous wish makes them bound to be cruel, and to suffer cruelty. The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet–when they do meet, their victims lie strewn all around.


Day 17: Future classic

The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

I could equally have chosen The Line of Beauty but wanted something more recent.  The book is beautifully written with an elegiac quality.  It addresses the relationship between past and present, and explores memory.  As with Bowen, character ultimately matters more than plot.


Day 18: Recommended

Memoirs – Hector Berlioz

I’ll cheat a little here, because I haven’t bought this book.  Instead, I borrowed it from the local public library – a fine institution.  However, I would probably not have read it had it not been recommended by our choir’s conductor when we were rehearsing Berlioz’s Te Deum.  If Berlioz hadn’t been successful as a composer, he would have made a great writer, although his main subject would most likely have been himself.  The Memoirs are very funny.


Day 19: Still can’t stop talking about it

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

It’s taken 19 days but at last we’ve arrived at The Master and Margarita, probably my favourite book.  The Devil comes to Moscow and exposes the hypocrisy of Soviet society.  The novel also tells the story of The Master, a novelist, and his lover, Margarita, and the book written by The Master about Pontius Pilate.  It explores good and evil, love, compassion, cowardice and bravery, while remaining very funny.  In Margarita, Bulgakov has created a bold and compassionate heroine.  To cap it all, there is a Demon Cat, Behemoth, with a love for vodka, pickled mushrooms and chess.


Day 20: Favourite cover

BqjO0_RIQAAcKTsCultural Amnesia – Clive James

I love the simplicity of this cover and its echoes of the Jugendstil.

Clive James is one of the best writers around on culture, both high and low brow.  He was one of the first people to take television criticism seriously, and is equally at home writing on Rainer Maria Rilke.  His Prospect piece on Robert Frost is still available, as is his critique of Dan Brown.  The latter almost makes me want to read the Da Vinci Code.