Bach and the oboe

My love of the oboe is related partly to immersing myself in Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations on the guanzi, dovetailing with the vocal liturgy of Daoist ritual (my film, and playlist)—as well as in the ear-scouring shawm bands of north China and other double-reed traditions around the world. But it’s also to do with playing Bach Passions and cantatas.

In Bach’s Leipzig, as in 1940s’ Yanggao, the standard of wind playing must have been high. But as usual, accustomed as we are to wallowing in soupy French film music, we may hear such music with ears different from those of Leipzig congregations. For them, the wider soundscape was the civic stadtpfeifer bands. As in China, such wind bands were first used in the army, and later also by courts, playing for ceremonies, processions, weddings and funerals, and so on.

Again like north Chinese ritual specialists, Bach’s oboists had to play several types, each suitable for different keys; and they doubled on other instruments such as violin. Bach’s long-serving oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch must have been a fine player.

Not forgetting the oboe and violin concerto, here’s a little playlist (full list here):

Wo zwei und drei versammlet from Cantata 42 Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats:

And the end of the Christmas oratorio, second video from 59.06 (do listen to the following quartet too, and right to the end!).

Quia respexit from the Magnificat:

But alongside such melodic genius, I also love the sustained unison notes of the two oboes in the Suscepit Israel of the Magnificat:

Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.

Buddhist ritual in south Shaanxi

***Link to this page!***

Most of my accounts of local ritual in north China (under “Themes” in main menu) concern Daoist practice. This new page mainly concerns folk Buddhist ritual traditions transmitted by former temple monks around Yangxian county in south Shaanxi.

It’s even more sketchy than my introductions to some other areas that I haven’t visited, but again, as I continue to regret the superficiality of the ICH material, I’m hoping to entice people to go and do some serious research. I’ve also revised the introductory page on Buddhist ritual.

Yangxian nianjing


Daoist ritual and football

Daoist football

WOW. Following my post on the Haka, Chinese football has just gone one better. On 23rd September a Henan team had a Daoist ritual performed on the pitch, going on to get their first home win in months—and getting a slapped wrist from the Chinese FA, what’s more:

Sure, unlike the Haka, in this case it’s not the players themselves who perform the ritual—yet.

Chinese Twitter is buzzing with discussion. Daoist fans aren’t taking the stern rebukes lying down: pointing out that Daoist ritual is protected under the brief of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, they deftly play the old “culture, not feudal superstition” card.

有道教网站转发新闻办的微博称:来来来,我给建业支个招,各地的道教音乐中包括全真十方韵,全国很多地方都有批准为非物质文化遗产, 建业去问问那次的道长是传承自哪里,在比赛前进行音乐演奏,非遗文化表演。是受非遗法保护的。《中华人民共和国非物质文化遗产法》里 面有支持其参与社会公益性活动。这么喜闻乐见不如看怎么合理弘扬?

Others worry that it may give rise to competitive rituals in which the other team employs their own ritual specialists to break the magic of the opposition’s Daoists. Of course, it has long been common to hire two or more groups (Buddhist, Daoist, Tibeto-Mongol lamas…) for a single ritual event—competing between each other but not for rival patrons.

Another article defends the move by pointing out various international instances of teams seeking divine assistance (for a recent one, see here).

For a related debate, see here; note also the rebuttals of local government’s restrictions on funeral observances in Shandong.

Early Chinese versions of football were popular, though I’m not going to devote much time to searching for specific blessing rituals in Song-dynasty ritual compendia… Not will I detain you here with a discussion of the constant historical adaptations of Daoists to their patrons…

football painting

Chinese women’s football. Du Jin, Ming dynasty.

I note that during the Song dynasty only one goal post was set up in the centre of the field—now that would be an intriguing modification to the FIFA rules. Further to the magnificent ripostes of young female footballers to the British FA, at a match in the Tang dynasty

records indicate that once a 17-year-old girl beat a team of army soldiers.

YAY! Could it have been after this match that the men shifted the goalposts? Typical!

Under Maoism a leading CCP apparatchik (can anyone put a name to this fine pundit?) observed twenty-two players chasing around after one ball, and in a spirit of egalitarianism, unhappy with the conventions of what he supposed was a misguided capitalist invention, declared grandly:
“We’re a socialist country now—why not give them a ball each?”

Anyway, my new dream is for the Li family Daoists to perform a ritual to help Arsenal win the Champions’ League.

Lost for words

Besides the Pearl and Dean theme tune, and the potentially cruel There was a young man from Calcutta, another song that might make a suitable anthem for the Stammering Association is Rossini’s Mi manca la voce, or “My voice fails me”, from his 1818 opera Mosè in Egitto:

Apart from the sheer beauty of the music, it reminds me of group therapy sessions I’ve taken part in. Despite their protestations, all four (unusually, both male and female) stammerers seem to have overcome their imp-p-pediment; but again, singing does often offer a temporary reprieve.

The specious connection with stammering didn’t occur to me when I first relished the quartet from the pit at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in the early 1980s. Of course, joking aside, this is an excuse to play an exquisite composition, a departure from our usual diet of Bach, Daoist ritual, and Billie Holiday.

That’s the best version I can find online. I’m sure scholars of Italian opera can discuss at length the authenticity of such a style—one might assemble a less, um, operatic vocal ensemble, but that’s just me and my knit-your-own yogurt purism for you.

* * *

My distinguished friend Hugh in Verona (where long ago I did my time in the pit at the Arena) draws my attention to this sextet (see also here), which might also be part of a group therapy session for stammerers:

Apart from simple consonants, diphthongs can also pose a challenge. But syllabic, rhythmic speech is an outmoded technique that offers only temporary relief…

As Hugh observes, such operatic set-pieces are known as concertato dello stupore—perhaps “ensemble of the nonplussed” rather than the charming “stupefaction ensemble”.

Here’s another wacky and exhilarating Rossini tongue-twister (with dindin for bells, tac-tà for hammer, bumbum for cannon, and so on):

The speaking voice

Since I write a lot about performance, I’ve been thinking about public speaking.

Having endured innumerable dry lectures over the years, I’ve only belatedly got used to giving talks myself—while they’re rather informal in style, in delivery my stammer still limits the ease with which people can listen. Introducing the Li family Daoists on tour, at least, I rise to the occasion. True, for me to discuss public speaking is like an old celibate man in a frock offering women advice on family planning. Oh, hang on…

That aside may lead us on to the astounding Michael Curry:

A tradition of oratory inherited by Michelle Obama, indeed.

But it’s not just a question of performance style and personal charisma, it’s also the quality of the voice itself. Timbre remains one the least well defined aspects of vocal music, but it’s also crucial to how successfully the speaking voice communicates.

So I’ve become very aware of various delightful engaging media voices. Women, gifted with empathy, do have an advantage. You can compile your own lists, but I think of the informative and funny Natalie Haynes, irresistible Sharon Horgan—and Brian Cox, born with a sweet smile while digestibly divulging arcane mysteries. And having praised Keith Richards and his passion for the open-string tuning, here he is, imparting his experience seriously in between conspiratorial chuckles:


A most engaging presenter (and now a brilliant dancer on Strictly!) is Stacey Dooley, who has all the virtues of rapport that fieldworkers need.

But for me the all-time most inspiring voice is that of Mariella Frostrup—wise, sensuous, and intimate.


Anyway, neither style nor timbre seems to be on the agenda of academics reluctantly obliged to communicate. Just as in fusty WAM, text often seems to outrank act. And the more obscure your subject, the harder you need to work at communicating. We could all learn a lot from standup comedians, honing their delivery to perfection for maximum effect. But that’s a different thing: here I’m thinking mainly of the natural quality of the voice.

All this is not to be sneezed at.

To end on a somewhat different timbre (an occasion for the old “I don’t like yours much” snowclone):

Of course, ways of communicating are always determined by social milieu—but with all due respect, I think I’ll stick with Keef and Mariella.

Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But seriously though folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always has it in front of him, and it was electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.

What better illustration of the wonders of memorization than S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does:

More Daoists of Yanggao

** Link to this page!**

Following my pages on local Daoist traditions scattered around north Shanxi (ShuozhouTianzhen,Guangling, and Datong county!), I return to my base of Yanggao.

From my film and book on the Li family Daoists of Upper Liangyuan (and indeed throughout this site) you can already see that Yanggao is a hive of Daoist activity. Until the 1950s over twenty Daoist groups performed ritual around Yanggao; this page gives brief sketches of three more lineages with a long Daoist history, who are also still active today.

The Pardon, 1991