A thrilling new sub-category!


By popular demand [not—Ed.] I’ve now added a new sub-heading of early music to the WAM category in the sidebar. True, early music is constantly getting later (Mahler, Ravel, and beyond), but here I’m defining it as “before opening time”.

Apart from earnest articles on Bach and Taruskin (Bach has his own tag; and I haven’t included posts on Rameau, Purcell, Buxtehude, Handel, and so on, whom you can type into the searchbox), it also includes more jocular items like Early music put in its place, The Mary Celeste, and A music critic.

The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s, concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no, bold as brass my desk partner decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.


And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half as I was, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado.


* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.

Barbed comments

My dubious encomium for Rowan’s CV (The Feuchtwang variations, n.3) reminds me:

The brilliant Roy Mowatt (see under comments here), a real bedrock of the early music orchestral scene, has long tolerated my violin playing in the section he led. I treasure a remark he made to me over a beer or three in a piazza in Parma after a Mozart opera (evoking Hugh Maguire’s comment to Pete Hanson—“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”):

Thing about you, Steve, is that it doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!

You can take that either way, and I think he meant it both ways. I was quite adaptable; yet my intonation wasn’t necessarily helped by tuning up… Cf. “It was in tune when I bought it”.

While I’m in confessional mood, here’s another comment I might add to my CV. Just around that time, a certain maestro took me aside and observed suavely,

Steve, I can’t help noticing that you have a somewhat low threshold of boredom…


Photo © Jim Four.

Like the review of the Berlin Phil’s response to Simon Rattle, it lacks a certain nuance.

A tribute to Francis Baines

Baines concert

Cartoon of Francis by Gerard Hoffnung, 1958.

This week at the Cadogan Hall (among few London concert buildings that I find conducive), luminaries of the early music scene assembled to pay homage to the late great Francis Baines (1917–99) in a concert of music reflecting his wide-ranging tastes.

All-round eccentric and bon viveur, Francis was a true renaissance man, on double bass (sometimes deposited in left-luggage at Victoria because he couldn’t get it onto his barge), viols, hurdy-gurdy, and as composer. Despite being in constant demand on the professional scene, he was a true amateur at heart, a servant of music almost like an ashiqa dervish whirling with his bass. From the late 1970s, as the early music world became ever more polished, fragrant, and marketable—the inevitable transition from “knit your own yogurt” to Chanel No. 5—one might imagine him finding his amateur ideal going against the tide, yet being both pragmatic and other-worldly, it never cramped his style. He always maintained a sense of both mischief and awed discovery.

He is also lovingly remembered in a beautiful book Francis Baines: musician of several parts, with reminiscences, both moving and hilarious (including more fine maestro-baiting stories), from a variety of egregious musicians—a contribution to the ethnographic history of musical life in 20th century Britain.

I’ll limit myself to one story from the book:

Nimbus recording session sometime in the 1980s. Mozart symphonies, Hanover band. Complete takes of whole movements being the modus operandi of this recording company, the rather inexperienced producer emerged from the box to report back on the first take. He said something along the lines of
“It started off well, and then became a bit confused and not so clear in the middle, but towards the end it got better and finished well.”
Francis piped up
“I believe it’s what they call sonata form.”



MYL played

Some may (wrongly) imagine folk cultures as a kind of “living fossil”, but in China, thankfully, few yet seek to recreate the performances of the past in arid concert halls. Or at least it’s still a small industry, such as attempts to recreate Tang music… And so far it’s been an exercise performed, with little or no concern for historical style, not by folk musicians but by urban educated pundits and conservatoire performers, trapped within their modern preconceptions. [1] Folk musicians, like symphony orchestras (at least until recently), are quite happy working within their evolving tradition, without agonizing over “preserving” some supposed “authenticity”.

Scholars of Daoist ritual aren’t necessarily seeking to “hear a centuries-old piece of music as it was heard when it was composed”. What they may do, though, is silently equate living performance with that of the Tang or Song dynasties. From my book, p.369:

While Lagerwey’s fine accounts of Daoist ritual in Taiwan occasionally suggest clues to changing ritual practice in modern times, “our primary interest […] is less to give a complete description of actual practice […] than it is to analyze the deep structure of that practice” (Lagerwey 1987: 91)—an influential perspective that tends to lead to the noble yet arcane goal of studying texts as evidence for the ritual structures of medieval times.

And Daoist scholars do sometimes seek to recreate rituals from the memory of elderly Daoists, as in Shanghai—evidently a worthy “salvage” project, albeit without reference to the changing social context since their youth.

Context and style have changed far less than with WAM—but they have changed. Apart from more general social changes, early music studies influence me in noting all kinds of changes in the Li band’s performance practice since the 1930s (my book pp.358–60):

Recently they have reduced the personnel from seven to six, discarding one guanzi, and the dizi has hardly been needed since the 1990s,

Turning to rituals, since current practice is dominated by funerals, this might at first seem to be their tradition. But they clearly recall a tripartite system of funerary, earth, and temple rituals; even if the latter two are now virtually obsolete, it is clear from their manuals. Thanking the Earth, once their most frequently performed ritual, has been lost since 1954; people can now afford to commission it again, but don’t. Though some temples have been restored, those holding fairs are fewer, and ritual sequences have been simplified along the lines of funerals. Three-day funerals are less common; and when they are held, the old sequence has become simplified and homogenized.

As to ritual segments within funerals, some were already largely obsolete by the 1940s, while others could still be performed in the 1990s but weren’t. Some, like Communicating the Lanterns and Judgment and Alms, have been radically simplified into mere symbolic tokens since the 1990s. Some—such as Dispensing Food or those from the “outer five rituals” like Crossing the Bridges—have become virtually obsolete since the 1950s; Li Qing and his colleagues could perform Opening the Quarters and the Pardon, but his disciples have hardly needed to do so. Yet others were probably rare even by the 1930s (Presenting the Memorial, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells) or already lost by then (Offering Viands). Though segments have been adapted under Li Manshan’s leadership, his elders were already doing so long before.

As for the ritual manuals, we must take care to avoid some timeless ideal depiction. As the repertoire shrinks the manuals are not needed at all, but even before the 1950s many segments were performed without them. Li Qing probably didn’t know how to perform some of the rituals whose texts he copied in the 1980s. The lengthy chanted scriptures—around half of the total collection of manuals—were indeed placed on the table during performance, yet Li Qing and his colleagues could recite them so fluently that they barely needed to glance at them; now they are no longer expounded.

Along with the reduction in ritual repertoire, all three performance styles have been reduced—vocal liturgy, percussion items, and melodic instrumental music. The current repertoire of hymns is smaller than that in Li Qing’s score, so where there is a choice (as for Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings), that choice has become smaller. The “words of blessing” for Thanking the Earth are no longer performed, and fewer shuowen recited introits and mantras for offering paper are used. As the rituals that require them have been lost, instruments like the chaoban tablet, muyu woodblock, and qing bowl have fallen silent; and the dizi flute is no longer part of the melodic ensemble. The lengthy instrumental suites for Thanking the Earth and temple fairs are hardly performed, and the old variety of scales has been reduced. The repertoire of percussion items has also diminished.

But I don’t seek to lead the Li band towards reconstructing the practice of the 1930s, still less that of earlier ages.

Two small examples. Chatting with Li Manshan, I have mentioned how the “classic” instrumentation of the melodic ensemble that accompanies Daoist (and Buddhist) ritual around Beijing, and elsewhere in Shanxi, includes a ten-gong frame of yunluo—like Wutaishan further south, and Tianzhen (adjacent to Yanggao), where they still use a seven-gong frame, the lowest row missing. If Li Manshan felt so inclined, he could order a ten-gong frame, and “restore” it to the ensemble.

“But we don’t know how to play it!” he comments, reasonably.
“Even I could teach you!” I point out impertinently, adducing the common folk saying,
“A thousand days for the guanzi, a hundred days for the sheng; you can learn the yunluo by the fifth watch”.

But one reason I won’t press the idea is that, despite the Tianzhen yunluo, even his father didn’t recall a ten-gong frame. I may surmise that it must surely have been part of the band at some stage before the 20th century, but I don’t interfere. Li Manshan isn’t in the business of recreation, and neither am I. I describe, not prescribe—except when I transplant them to the alien context of the concert hall, when my subliminal influence, and their own perceptions of the demands of the situation, seem to prompt them to perform with somewhat more grandeur than in the casual current conditions of rural funerals.

Another instance: in my book I note that since 1953 there have been hardly any patrons commissioning the two-day Thanking the Earth ritual. Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (b.1925) described its sequence to us before his death in 2010; Li Manshan and Golden Noble were interested enough to take notes, but can’t mobilize their local patrons to invite them to do it. Most of its components could be recreated, if there were demand. But there isn’t. This is the kind of thing that Daoist scholars might commission specially as a worthwhile salvage project, but my gentle suggestions lead nowhere. Some other obsolete or rarely-performed funerary rituals (my book ch.13) could also be restored, just about. But local patrons wouldn’t welcome it—it’s inconceivable, until such time as they suddenly do request them.


[1] A rather different, if minor, case is recreations of obsolete rituals at the behest of local Bureaus of Culture. Such initiatives feel artificial, and scholars should take care both to point out the conditions under which they are made and to avoid silently equating them with some “authentic” folk practice. See e.g. Overmyer, Ethnography in China, pp.287–95.

A music critic

Talking of free-tempo preludes

Many years ago (indeed, “more years ago than I care to remember”—a new entry in the Flann O’Brien Catechism of Cliché), we were in a London church recording some exquisite medieval instrumental pieces called Estampies. They are said to have spread through Europe by way of the Crusades, and have been recorded by worthier musicians than me, often with Middle Eastern style in mind. I was on rebec (“What does that even mean?”).

Right in the middle of a take, an irate elderly janitor burst in to subject us to a withering tirade, exclaiming:

“Are you gonna give it a rest? It just goes on and on. I mean, it’s not as if there’s any MERIT in it…”

We decided against inviting him to write the liner notes for the CD.

More early music

In Irish music I already cited the tale of the three fiddlers from Carson’s Last night’s fun. “The standard” (pp.91–8) has many fine quotes, bearing on the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. The final passage in this section is remarkable (p.98):

I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.

It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved through the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony… They introduce and leave the rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sounds of the thicker strings so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if ‘that which is concealed is bettered— art revealed is art shamed’. Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, and in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.

That passage might seem like a fine description of Irish music today—but it was written in 1185, by Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hiberniae!

Generally (my book, p.291),

I wage a tireless campaign against the Chinese scholarly trend to make ambitious links between ancient citations and living folk practice, but here is one case where I totally support it. Comparable to the centrality of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters, the sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the 6th century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches, a custom that has persisted throughout imperial history right down to today. Of all the wise sheng masters we have met in north Chinese villages, Li Qing was among the most outstanding.

Doubtless Irish music has changed in many ways since the 12th century, and that passage is just general enough to allow us to discern parallels that may not add up to so much—but still, it’s impressive.