In his brilliant Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran Carson devotes a chapter (“The standard”, pp.91–8) to the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. A few instances:
Deirdre was once asked to adjudicate the fiddle competition in the County — Fleadh. Unfortunately, the event attracted no entrants; but the competition had to happen and a winner be selected. It so happened that a Mr X, generally regarded as the best fiddle-player in the area, might well have gone in for it; however, he couldn’t be got out of the pub, except for the official free high-tea that it was his duty to attend. Deirdre was dispatched to the tea-room above the hall, and managed to inveigle Mr X into playing the requisite reel, jig, and slow air, in between the soup, the salad sandwiches, and the jelly trifle. He was then presented with an enormous trophy, much to his surprise.
I was once present at a singing competition in the town of —, in the province of —. The adjudicators were the well-known singers Mr Y and Mr Z. The venue was the local Temperance Hall. The competition started rather late, as the adjudicators found it difficult to leave the nearby pub. They eventually arrived with a brown paper bag which they discreetly shared under the trestle table. At the finale, everyone was awarded medals. The adjudicators sang a duet. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt well-adjudicated.
Another story, from the 1908 Freeman’s Journal:
“Our country musicians are possessed of the talent of music and have in their minds the beautiful in it, but they cannot reproduce them, for they lach the technical means of doing so.” Applause. “Were they reasonably educated they would produce a race of musicians worthy of our history. Again, we had those who believed that Irish music should be rendered in scales of unusual construction. [SJ: shades of de Selby?!] Many scales existed in ancient times, but, alas, those who could teach us have gone. Because a singer or player, through lack of technical means, sang or played with a total disregard of any correctness of intonation, that did not qualify them to claim that they were using a scale of unusual construction. The majority of them did not adhere to the accepted musical scale, not that they used any other form of scale, but that their ear being totally untrained, they involuntarily produced a music not in any one scale, but in an infinity of scales of impossible construction.” Laughter and applause.
Mr Darley then gave his violin recital of Irish airs.
Most delightful is Carson’s citation of a fine story from Mick Hoy—a caveat to reverse musical snobbery:
There were these three fiddlers once upon a time.
And they were in for this competition
And the first one came up
and he was dressed in a dress-suit
and he had a dicky-bow and bib on him.
And the fiddle-case was made out of crocodile skin.
And when he brought out the fiddle,
what was it, but a Stradivarius.
And he started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.
And the second fiddler came up
and he was wearing a nice Burton’s suit
and a matching handkerchief and tie
and socks with clocks on them.
And he had a nice wooden case
and not a bad fiddle in it,
so he got it out and started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.
And the third fiddler came up
and the elbows was out of his jacket
and the toes peeping from his shoes,
and the fiddle-case was tied with bits of wire
and when he brought out the fiddle,
there was more strings on the fiddle
than there was on the bow.
And he started to play.
And beGod, he was desperate too.