Peter Sheppard Skaerved April 11-12th 2015
I’m standing on the bridge over the river Wandle, a cold paper cup of espresso in my hand, enjoying the wrecked boats in the mud, wishing for a Saxon spearhead, or better still, a pristine ceremonial object, like the ‘Mortlake Axe’ made with precious Jadeite mined in the Alps, thrown into the Thames for the god. I am a violinist, an artist, a writer (of sorts) and a walker. How these activities tie together is not entirely clear to me. Or rather, to put it better; I am not sure how to articulate how these ways of being interact, but it seems simple enough, from where I sit (or stand, that they do. However, the various aspects, the things, which make this up are clear. And they seem to behave in the way that Sergei Eisenstein defined ‘overtones’: ‘For the musical overtone (a throb) it is no strictly fitting to say: “I hear”./ Nor for the visual overtone: “I see.”/ Fort both, a new uniform vocabulary must enter out vocabulary: “I feel”’[i]
I live on a cobbled street in Wapping, by the tidal Thames. I feel my ancestors, refugees from Spain and France, by this river, under my feet, their voices in the air around me, every day. My wife, a Dane, hears her forbears, in the ‘Ta’ of shopkeepers, and the place names of Viking saints, Magnus, Olaf, and the shopping street, the ‘Købe-side’ (Cheapside), that they left. Wapping is named for a Saxon prince, or princess, W?ppa (no one seems to be able to agree), and amongst the stone tools, broken roman glass an clay pipes which I have fished out from the river 50 metres from my door, is a bone knife handle, carved by a Saxon fisherman, setting his traps in the river, into the shape of his prey.[ii]The 8 metre tide, , the salt stench of the river, the memories of shipping, the over-layering and palimpsest of cultures which is London, led me to feel, that this was a place to leave, to travel great distances from. Gradually, I realised that travelling had created a fascination in me, in the paths which led from my front door, around, in and out of my city. Sensing the voices of émigrés after the ‘Terror’, not only on the streets of Marylebone, but in the Beech and Hornbeam woods of Epping Forest near my parents’ home, offered a sense of a to-and-fro to the city, travellers for trade, for war, in cease-fire, for pilgrimage, for visiting, for escape. The relationship to my art seemed obvious, and reciprocal; seen, or heard, on the simplest level, it is in the music which is in my head the whole time. A memory: walking in woods somewhere between Sarajevo and Banja Luka, with Beethoven’s Horn Sonata and Dante (‘In the middle of this journey which we call life/I found myself in a dark wood, where the way was lost and gone.’) in my head. Also in my head, the concerned admonition from my escorts: ‘Don’t go off the path. Landmines.’ Initially, my reaction would have been that the music was little more than a sound-track to the experience. But I came to realise that the paths under my feet were not only eliciting responses, in music, in images, but condition it, affecting not only the way I hear and see, but what I make. And of course, the ‘path under my feet’, in many manifestations, offering so many casts of characters, objects, stories, memories and suggestions, finds counterpoint with the ideas which interest me.
Walking, is quotidian, and often disrespects scale or distance. The walk around my street corner in Wapping, to the butcher, or to the station, just a few steps evokes so much: Samuel Pepys comes to have his Viol repaired or to talk to striking sailors’ wives: ‘And in the open streets of Wapping, and up and down, the wifes have cried publicly, “This comes of your not paying our husbands: and now your work is undone.”[iii] Earlier, Dutch engineers working for Henry VIII, which, during the Blitz will briefly become a river of molten rubber. Any sense of accumulations of stories, or resonance, of overtones on a path, are directly proportional to the frequency with which we tread it, so the greatest layering of our myths and tale-telling, will be where we walk the most; the shortest paths. If I walk west from this room, I will have Captain Bligh, Wedgewood Benn, Helen Mirren, Thomas Moore, Captain Kidd, Judge Jeffreys, Dickens, Whistler, Graham Norton, Jack the Ripper, Mrs Booth and Turner, and Lord Shaftesbury in my ear before I have gone 100 metres. By contrast, the longer walks can seem less peopled, as we pull on our five mile boots and mark out thirty miles plus in a day. But this is like music. As I feel it, that’s the difference between the concentration of Britten’s Lullaby Op 6, which is so ‘peopled’ with memories, a (not so harmonious) colloquy between the composer’s and mine own, and the long view, of say the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, whose second subject spins around the same melody again, and again, as Manoug Parikian pointed out to me, finding its lyricism, its memory, in the reach for an unattainable, flat horizon, in a longing for home, which its composer could not feel, or even articulate, except when he was far from it, be it in Clarens or Florence. I’m not sure that I could even begin to crowd that endless theme.
Friday, Waterloo station. I buy bread and coffee and take the 936 to Hampton Court. Forty minutes on the train; time enough to read the paper, and let care drop away, be unreachable. No mobile (I have never owned one), just cash, train ticket, water, Gawain and the Green Knight and notebook. At the final stop, there’s a moment of doubt; should I change my route, and walk south west down the river Mole (‘Sullen Mole’)[iv], to Dorking, to the North Downs, onto another familiar route, maybe Box Hill… I poke around the gardens east of the station, momentarily unsure, looking for the energy not to change my mind. The walk home is a known quantity, as is the pain that goes with it. I turn away from the daffodil-filled Elmbridge Gardens, and cross the river to Wolsey’s palace and the 30 miles home. Perfect walking weather, although I realise that I am going to have to take off one of my pairs of socks. This will demand a five-minute stop, something which I resent. I put it off until it’s necessary, a sunny bench new Kew, a misspelling of ‘Key’ (Quay) Phillipps says: ‘Key of a River or Haven, a place where ships ride, and are as it were lock’t in. Some deduce it a quiescendo, i.e. from resting, or from the old Latin Casare, i.e. to restrain.’[v] Phillips says nothing about sock-changing. I also realise, to my chagrin, that I have not, marked, checked the time. I know that I will be able to see the clock no a church tower on the opposite bank of the river, as I come into Kingston, but until then, I am uncalibrated, floating. My life is carefully broken down into temporal units, bars, crochets, quavers, and most importantly, the division of my three hours of daily practice after midnight, and I am aiming at hitting Westminster in roundabout six hours. There’s a deal of frustration that I can’t get this outset, this setting out, precise.
The riverbank is pristine, and the first of hundreds of robins which will beautifully protest my passing all morning, is somewhere at my feet. I am always moved by the attention of ‘lovely Robin’, accompanying, it seems, ever step through hedgerow and woodland. I always find myself talking to the bird, and then remember John Webster’s more morbid perspective: ‘Call for the robin-red-breast and the wren/since o’er shady groves they hover, /and with leaves and flowers do cover/The friendless bodies of dead men’.[vi]
Hampton Court on my left, and the ‘splendid wall, too, that bounds the Home Park.’[vii] At a river door, two English Heritage employees, gossiping: ‘I really did not want to go to that party…’ The first of the musics which wreathe around my walk rises, the Mendelssohn D minor Piano Trio, which I had been teaching in a front room in Highgate the day before, prefacing an unexpected walk along a lost railway line from Muswell Hill to Alexandra Palace, part of it on a busy viaduct, high above the terraces below. Victorian London, without Doré’s grime. By the time I reach Pimlico, find that I am listening to the theme of the slow movement and the violin recapitulation countersubject of the first at the same time. The obvious dawns on me: they are the same A small gift of the time, rhythm and distance on foot, a lesson in Mendelssohn’s thematic unities. From Pimlico to the Rodin by the Palace of Westminster, I obsess over whether this apparent stunt, was actually the germ which initiated the piece. Even though I think at various times during the walk, that Mendelssohn is not in my mind (the trio that is), I am, in retrospect, completely unable to shift him; garrulous as ever, he keeps popping up. As I pass a number of hollowed out tree trunks on the path, ‘Mendelssohn’s Tree’, a piece of a felled beech tree marooned bizarrely on one of the walkways above Barbican Station, flits in and out of my mind. I wonder, worry even, how long it will last. It also strikes me as bizarre, that a 500 year old tree would be immortalized, in the middle of a 1970s concrete monstrosity, not, for being a natural wonder, a tree, but because when it fell in the 1880s, the legend spread that it was one of the Burnham Beeches which the teenager had liked to sit beneath, composing his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
I walk on; a good pace. Tower Bridge, 29 miles, the sign says. The other morning walkers are happy and smiling, this dissipates before midday, and certainly has gone by the time I am in the city. Walking around the great ox bow on which Wolsey built his palace, later his frantic bribe to Henry, I resent the manicured gardens and topiary on my left, the grotesquerie of nobility and royalty, carving out such a segment of the lovely Thames for themselves. In younger, more restful days, I would come to be still to be alone, to sit and draw Wren’s extension with my feet in the reflection pool. I was also thrown out of the palace for drawing in 1995, on the grounds that the Royal Family had copyrighted every inch of it. I once painted a grey autumnal view of this piece of the river, before I knew how to walk it, and gave it to a girl I was trying to impress. I stole a bit of Eliot for the title ‘here and in England’[viii], and inscribed it thus, to impress her. It didn’t work. When and where was it thrown away?
Setting out fascinates me, both in terms of its adventurous, and everyday qualities. We get up, have breakfast, put on shoes and coats, gather our things, and set out. In my life, it’s difficult to articulate the difference between such settings out and musical ones. But I have two simple types-the setting out to practice, and the setting out of a piece, which, of course, offer typologies, between composition, performance, and study. But the setting out of my desk, to work, each night, is the simplest place to begin. There’s no foot on the path, of course, and that which is set out, is the tools of my work. Music on the desk, pens, pencils of various types, ink, pencil sharpeners, pot of tea. Verbena; my little homage to the Romans, who crowned their victorious heroes with the leaves. Laurel was just for athletes. My work routine is static, almost silent. My practice table is set up in a high-ceilinged room of an old factory in Wapping. The large windows face south west, towards the river, which is just beyond the park beneath. Most of my work, violin in hand, is done at this desk, between midnight and 4 in the morning. Each night, my family goes to bed, and sit down to work, my back to the window. Practice is emphatically non-visual, and I certainly don’t feel isolated fro[ix]m the world, but while working, I hear it. By 2 am, the chimes of Big Ben are clear, and the loudest noise will be the family of foxes that play under my window.
Passing Tagg’s Island, I start to worry about the etymology of Kingston. The Romance of the stone on which nine Saxon Kings were crowned is irresistible, of King Egbert’s gathering of his thanes at ‘Kynigestun’ in 838, but so is the doubt. If this is ‘stone’ and not ‘town’, then what about every other ‘-ton’. And of course, all the other ‘King’s Stones’-the one at Belton, on which Charles 1 is supposed to have rested after the battle of Naseby[x]. The waymarker that I had been waiting for, Parker’s Italianate ‘St Raphael’s Church, on the Surrey bank, gives, me what I need. A clock. 1050. I can start counting my steps, start the ‘passacaglia’ which will bring me home, like Biber’s pilgrim.[xi]. For the last 20 minutes, there has been a counterpoint of young rowers, three in single sculls, a coxless four and as the river begins to turn, towards the first hint of the tide, more beginners on the river; one of them a nervous young woman being coached by, an overweight man on a bicycle. He’s riding slightly slower than my walking speed, a wheezing hazard lurching behind me on the towpath, so I am very glad when his charge admits defeat and turns back upstream. Teddington, and Thomas Traherne a ‘footfall in the memory’: ‘I felt a vigour in my strength/That was all spirit.’ I have no idea which poem that is from; I saw it when I was a child, on a gravestone on the Lizard.
And then, other dreaming drifts in; I start to muse on my lifelong obsession with various musical sequences, variations, cycles. Bach, Telemann, Paganini, Cui’s ‘Kaleidoscope’, Rochberg’s ‘Caprice Variations’, which he told me was a homage to Wordsworth’s method of writing. Then more dreaming, lulled into a kind of doze by the walking; music that marks out time, and composers using the composition of music to mark out their lives. Some of ‘my’ composers incorporate walking into their practice; Michael Alec Rose in Nashville is writing a series of pieces based on our wanderings on Dartmoor, and David Matthews has written me a Ranz des Vaches on top of a mountain in Liguria. But one of the fascinations for me is what happens to us, as people, as artists, when we ‘take time’. With walking and music, ‘taking time’ is the only option. Nothing can, or should happen fast. Walking the Thames, there’s an element of masochism to this, heightened by the foreshortenings of river bends and strange light effects on water. As I have come to know this path well, the longeurs of certain stretches have increased. I pre-empt the ennui that sets in, for instance, when I cross the miniature delta of the Wandle River (where I finish my coffee this time), behind the waste recycling plant, and start the haul towards Battersea Park, where Battersea Power station forces the third crossing of the Thames, over Chelsea Bridge (my least favourite). I once made the mistake of walking in spring without protective gear, and was caught in a storm on this bridge. I spent the next hours soaked and shivering, blisters bursting, toes bleeding. There’s little doubt, that that experience has coloured my lack of affection for that part of the river.
But this time, all is sunshine, and, as I came into the shadow of the Battersea Park Pagoda (noting the old Coastal Patrol Boat moored in the river there for years); I remembered that here I saw my first ballet. My primary school teacher, Mrs Morgan, got some of us tickets for the Royal Ballet’s Giselle, in a tent in the Park. She did me (and I suspect many of the other children), a huge favour, and taught us the meaning of the classical ballet gestures. I walked into that theatre ready to read dance as a language, excited at the grammar and storytelling. It all seemed, I remember, so clear and obvious. Today, I am not sure whether the Royal Ballet had their tent, but the fountains blowing rainbows on the lake seem most appropriate, and I am thankful to Mrs Morgan.
But the discomfort doesn’t go away. Anyone who really walks knows that there is no way to do it which does not involve loving the pain. There’s always a moment when I wander about the state of my feet inside my boots. I will find out later. The bodily extremities become less refined, walking. I look at my hands, and realise, 20 miles in, that there is no way that I could pick up a violin at that moment. My fingers have lost their dexterity.-my hands are mere clubs. Part of this is simply practical; the body marshalling resources, just like the ‘butterflies’ which some performers experience going on stage-signalling that the digestive system is powering down; it’s not going to be needed for a while. But, with the feet, there are blisters, and bruising, and there pride in this. I know that I was not alone, as a young violinist, in admiring the damage which playing did to my body. My ‘violin mark’, a running sore on my neck, was a source of disgust and admiration for school friends. But it was the track marks on my left hand, the ‘ringing grooves of change’[xii] on my fingertips, which I cherished, and cultivated. There was always a worry, particularly after what seemed a particularly effective practice session, that my perfectly lined callouses, might soften up, or wash off in the bath, that the ‘magic’ would be lost. I did not stop washing my hands; this, I later learnt, was, and perhaps is, remarkably common. But when I get home from this walk, I run a bath, and sit on the edge of the tub to take my socks off. No blisters, not on the right foot. But the left sock is soaked in blood; triumph. But at Kingston, these thoughts are very far from my mind. [xiii]
My walks along the river, from haunted Faversham west from the Estuary, east from Hampton, to Windsor, Thame, and Henley, reach out, and intertwine, with other paths. Two months earlier, I was back in New York City. Winter had come late to the East coast, but it had arrived with fury. The bitter cold matched my mood; I was in back in the city for my friend, the poet Guy Gallo, who had died a month earlier, after a year-long fight with cancer. So I was here to sit with his family, and to play his memorial at Barnard, and to walk. With me, to practise, and to perform, hard on my return to London, was a walking violin piece which I had put off playing for two decades. Luigi Nono’s final work La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica. It matched my mood perfectly; unsustainable, impoverished lyricism in a desolate, intimidating landscape. And, like Philip Glass’s Strung Out, or Jim Aitchison’s Shibboleth, the violinist walks, in this case, amidst a forest of music stands. I had been hunting for the landscape in which to place this piece, a ‘Silva oscura’ in which it might happen, for a number of weeks. My score had become encrusted with images and writing, from Marx to Colonna, as a scrabbled fruitlessly for handhold, for purchase. Midwinter on Manhattan offered clarity, if not solace.
So many paths which we tread are conversation, discourse, with friends, lovers, spouses, with our children. They are all temporal, temporary. They all end. And we learn, bitterly, or sweetly, that there is no ideal ratio of intensity to importance, which might yield significance. I had tracked nearly two decades of conversation with my friend, Guy, 19 years colloquy, about poetry, music, architecture, history, writing, and the unanswerable question, of how to be, as an artist. It seemed that Guy was just about to find an answer, and then he was taken. Early each morning, I set out to walk the long way, around Central Park, from West to Eastside, but around the circumference, , with Christina Rosetti on my mind: ‘In the deep midwinter/Frosty wind made moan/Earth stood hard as iron/Water like a stone.’ I left ‘El Dorado’ building, with murals of gilded flappers crossing into the city of gold-the venture capitalist’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to walk into the empty park. Fifteen centigrade below, and was it more like the Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa which had inspired Olsted and Vaux. I discovered that I did not know how to walk on deep, frozen snow, and that every bird expected me to feed them. Nono was in my mind (Frankly, I would have preferred Schubert), it warped around memories of Guy. He loved early baroque violin music, so I began an incoherent, freezing, musical conversation with him about landscape gardening and music, replaying one which we had had about 17 years earlier, but this time, interspersed with snippets of the Walther Hortulus Cheliculus, and the Biber Passacaglia, which did not suit, as there was now Schutzengel for me. Answers to the problems that Nono was posing me loomed up, in the fractal beauty of the edges of ice and snow against the black stream flowing into rock-hard Harlem Meer. And gradually, colour began to find its way, the slightest touch of roseate sunlight reflecting on the reservoir, a hint of Robin’s egg blue on the westerly horizon beneath snow-fraught clouds, with the water-towers of the Upper West Side in relievo.
Practising the violin, every day, hour after hour, for the whole of my life, offers many such moments of clarity, of cloud-clearing. And it doesn’t matter how many times we set out, often in an apparently disappointing dawn, crestfallen, initially, like Leonard Bast,[xiv] even if we are not offered a radiant sun-up (‘Very grey..’), there will be other gifts, a ford worthy of Ruisdael in the woods south of Ware or a moment of understanding, chained to the practice desk, violin in hand, where the mind, or the hands, find a way, and we are given insight, offered something which is in front of us the whole time. A few days into my cold sojourn in the Big Apple, I was offered a curious way home, by way of Norway. I need to step back, to step forward.
Living in what was once the Wapping orchards and kitchen gardens drained by the Dutchman, Cornelius Vanderdelft in the 1530s, my a constant walk has been West, in to the nearby Square Mile, trampling absurdly rich layerings of history, finding every more serpentine routes through the labyrinthine shambles and back alleys where my immigrant ancestors have made their lives over the past four centuries. Little Britain, Pinners’ Passage, St Mary at Hill, Watling Street, Drapers Alley, Fish Street Hill. Hundreds of years of merchants, street sellers, fish-porters, mountebanks, thieves, churchmen, footpads, wide boys and pickpockets cluster around, whispering in my ears. Some of them rose, some of them fell, all of them touched by the mud which, as Dickens noted ever adds ‘new deposits to the crust upon crust…’[xv] on all who live near the Thames. One of these was about to rise, and find his way into my imagination, and into my hands. On my third day in New York, I was in the galley kitchen on Central park west. The normal routine; up very early to deal with administration back home, and a cup of coffee to kick-start the day, before setting out like Frithof Nansen across Central Park. An E mail address which I did not recognise: ‘Would you be interested in seeing the 1647 Amati violin which Ole Bull owned’. I looked at the screen, shocked, to say the least. Another path in my life had swerved and forked into the track I was on. I had written about this violin, taken pictures of the embroidered coverlet which Bull made for it, and which sits in his exquisite music room in Lysøen, outside Bergen. I knew that he called the violin ‘my pearl’, and that he had bought it for an enormous amount of money, in 1864. I also knew that the violin had basically, disappeared, into a Boston bank vault, in 1910. It had been unheard, since 1880. Bull is one of my heroes, not just as a musician, but as an artist who was prepared to offer a new model as to what, or who, an artist should be. He was a pioneer, an explorer, an athlete, a builder, an activist, a freedom fighter, a storyteller, a craftsman, a thinker, a challenge to any living musician, whose response to adversity was indefatigability. He was, perhaps the first musician to live a transatlantic life, with houses in Norway and the USA, and is regarded with as much reverence in Minnesota, as he is in Norway, where he is a national hero.
Two weeks later, I meet this violin in London, and it proves miraculous, as I had hoped. But by then, the story had looped back, right onto my stamping grounds, to where I am writing this, now. The history of this beautiful violin in the 19th century reached an initial climax in 1827, when it was bought, for an outrageous sum, by a City business man, determined to make sure that King George IV did not further weaken the parlous Royal Household finances, by purchasing it. In fairness, it was the king’s brother, Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, who was the true connoisseur of instruments, purchasing ‘Cremonas’ found for him by the greatest of all amongst violinists, Giovanni Battista Viotti. After a fire broke out at St James Palace in […], he wrote immediately, reassuring Viotti that he had saved the violins first of all, carrying them out of the palace, under his arms, from the flames.[xvi] But it was the seller of this violin that brought it, quite literally, close to home. I should not have been surprised, of course. Ever since the 1560s, violins had travelling across Europe, famously beginning with the set of ornamented violins, which the inventor of the modern violin, Andrea Amati, made for Charles IX of France. And before the days of the traveller’s cheque itinerant musicians carried their currency in the form of violins and fittings (leaving Dover in 1499, Erasmus was horrified that he could not take more than 6 ‘Angels’ with him).[xvii] In 1702 the violinist Nicola Cosimi travelled to the UK to work as musician for the Duke of Bedford. He brought with him Cremonese violins by the Amati family. These all stayed here; when he left three years later, he exported violins by the London based Robert Cuthbert, to sell back home. So it’s likely that is how the 1647 Amati found its way into the hands of its first famous London owner, Sir William Curtis.
Curtis was best known in his lifetime by the affectionate moniker ‘Billy Biscuit’. He was born in Wapping, no more than fifty metres from where I am writing this, and when his father died he inherited a bakery, backing on to the river on what is now called Wapping High Street. He was a gifted man of business, and parleyed his bakery into a primary supplier for ‘ships biscuits’ for the Royal Navy as the smaller conflicts with pre-revolutionary France found their way to the Napoleonic War. This little corner of Wapping, whose cobbled streets and customs walls still preserve much of the atmosphere of the 18th Century, was a the shipping goldmine of the age, with local businessmen cornering the market for sugar, of course, profiteering from slavery, and beer. Curtis became as rich as Croesus, Lord Mayor of London twice, revered in the annals of the Square mile, and a member of parliament, where, unlike many of his peers, he actually voted once in a while. But most of all, he is remembered as a massively overweight bon viveur, and for his tenuous grasp of the ‘King’s English’. His most famous bon mot was the expression the ‘Three Rs’, trotted out as part of one of his many enthusiastic and unsuccessful toasts. It seems that he genuinely thought that the Writing and Arithmetic did begin with ‘R’. He was a keen amateur musician, playing chamber music on more than one occasion with Viotti, who admitted that he had a good hand at the cello. Viotti was honest enough to admit, that his reason for putting up with the corpulent EastEnders’s cello-playing was ‘unmusical’; he hoped that Curtis might underwrite his failing wine-business. As a socialite (chamber music had took a central role in salon life in early 19th century) it was necessary that Curtis had instruments. Even professional players did not travel around more than was necessary with their own instruments, and for good reason. Musicians ‘roped in’ to add bon ton to parties, at Carlton House, or Elisabeth Vigée-le Brun’s little apartment, where the Prince Regent sat under the fortepiano,[xviii] could not afford a carriage, or a litter, and maybe not even a ‘link man’ to light them home to the growing suburbs of Marylebone and Fitzrovia where they had cheap lodgings. It was not worth the risk of carrying instruments in the undoubtedly dangerous London streets at night. . So it was normal for a host to have a set of violins (echoing the ‘chests’ of viols of earlier times), consisting of at least two violins, one viola and two cellos. When the 1647 Amati was sold two years before ‘Billy Biscuit’s’ death in 1827, it was the start of greatest collection of instruments ever sold in London, a sale still written about in hushed terms, nearly a century later. Little did I know that that first E mail, read at a kitchen table in Manhattan, before walking across the frozen park, this winter, would bring me, first of all, right back to my home, to the ‘setts’ of the streets that I walk the most, and to a man known by my London ancestors, traders at Billingsgate Market, on the river near his bakery (those who weren’t footpads, and housebreakers, of which we had a few). But it also took me to the outdoor pursuits of violinists.
Born in Bergen, Ole Bull, like his protégé Edvard Grieg, was an outdoorsman, who loved to walk from the front door of the apothecary’s shop where he was born, near the fish market, up the steep hill that looms over the old town (Bryggen), through beech and oaks, spruce and larch, and higher, above the tree line, out onto the Vidder, the mountain plateau, and sometimes to the Saeter the mountain pastures which inspired his most famous tune, Et Saeterbesøg, the rally cry for Norwegian resistance in World War 2. When I first had the violin in my hands, in a room a few houses down from Berlioz’s London digs, the very first thing that I played on this gem of a violin this aching melody, which sings of distance and enchantment, and the blue empyrean, which I encountered walking the Vidder.
The violin is a malleable, almost squishily organic object. Every honest player of honesty knows that it is impossible to play without leaving traces, marks, damage. Some of this is irreversible, and much of it can be read, testament to previous performers, like animal tracks on a damp path. The generic abrasions and scratches are easy to see – varnish rubbed from the scroll by the left thumb, angular chips and indentations on the right hand bout of the violin, from the chopping heel of a modern bow and modern aggression. Then there are more historical marks, strata of changing practice and social mores. Most violins older than 200 years have the back of the scroll worn down, a memory of when the ‘non-travelling’ instruments mentioned earlier were slid into shelves in cupboards and cabinets for storage (only shops and non-players would ever hang a violin up, exposed). Then there’s memory of the beard-boom of the mid 1850s, when John Joseph Mechis, who had made his fortune on ‘magic razor strops’, was forced out of business, and the youthful Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim made a duet out of facial hair. Beards brushed away the ‘ground’ on the right hand side of the tailpiece, under the chin. In our time, the violin equivalent of mountain-bike damage to ancient footpaths, horrific scars in the back of many beautiful violins, legacy of collapsing shoulder rests, and a high-pressure clamping of the instrument between head and body. But these are not really the marks which players are looking for on an instrument, any more than we really expect to find the footprints of John Clare north of Epping Forest, or the conversation of Alexander Pope written in the tow path near Twickenham. But we all sense that something is there; I put the ‘Bull’ violin under my chin with the barely whispered expectation that, maybe, he has left something, an echo, a timbre, which I can learn, and voice.
Sometimes, this sense of presence is palpable, in the moment, but needs to be revealed, in symbols. Walking the North Downs, East towards Shoreham, I felt a presence behind me, and turned, to see a Church spire rising from the white of a ploughed field of chalky soil. Suddenly, the Samuel Palmer of the 1824 notebook was stalking me. Many years ago, giving my first cyclic performances of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas in a church in Norwich, the candles burnt down during the performance, revealing the carving in the gravestone at my feet, in sharper and deeper relief. ‘Deathe’. I have experienced such symbols, to greater or lesser degrees, with the instruments of Paganini, of Viotti, of my teacher, the late Ralph Holmes.
Initially, I don’t notice the ‘presence’ in the Bull Amati. But my son Marius is with me, entranced at seeing such a meeting, for the first time. He films first notes on the violin, Et Saeterbesog. We walk home to Wapping, snaking through the west-east alleys of Soho, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Inner Temple, Billingsgate, the Tower, and past the Hermitage, now a charming modern school, but named for a John Ingham, who lived there in splendid isolation in the 14th Century. My wife is waiting: ‘What was it like?’ I can’t say anything, but put the film on. ‘My god, it’s so pure,’ she whispers. She’s right. I had not noticed. That’s what had drawn Bull, the countryman, the nature lover. This was a violin sound with the clarity of a mountain stream, of the ice melt in Lysekløster, near where he would build his home. This was a clue to the voice he was seeking.
Back on the path, I am walking through the preparations for the Oxford/Cambridge boat races. Taking a picture of the white iron balconies of Gustav Holst’s house, I notice a camera set up on the river. ‘No. 24’. This reminds me of the torture of the long curl the Surrey Bank, to the cup of coffee which I have promised myself at Putney. The Oxford women’s team flies past me on the river, barely touching the water, communicating like a string quartet. Oars, backs, heads, arms, even spray, in exquisite choreography. Then two sisters of Putney divert me, or rather, the four giantesses of Putney and Guildford, and two paths, merge into one. The westerly arm of the North Downs trail is a geological wonder. The Trail slips from the chalk line of hills, now the roaring Hogs Back to the north, quite literally, on to the beach, or the memory of a beach, cutting its way, as it rises west from crossing the river Wey, through miniature canyons and grikes of yellowest sandstone, deep enough, even in the driest weather, to form and protect astonishing ecosystems, micro-climates, tropical clusterings of lush fern and moss, lurid green and blue moulds and slimes which glint and glister in the light finding its way through ash and pine. No one, approaching Guildford or Putney on the river, from the South, can fail to see the paired churches, the chapels of St Catherine and St Martha-at-Chilworth on their bluffs over the Wey, and All Saints and St Mary’s on the Fulham and Surrey shores. According to legend, which I incline to believe, they were all built with the same modi operandii, preserved in the apocryphal etymology of Putney-‘Put it Nigh’, and Fulham-‘Heave it Full Home’.[xix] In his ‘Bygone Surrey’ George Clinch noted that the two churches over the Wey, were built by giant sisters, who only had one hammer, which they threw the three kilometres or so, over the river ‘backwards and forwards as they required it.’[xx] In 1781Francis Grose, noted about the Putney Fulham churches: ‘…two sisters, had but one hammer between them, which they interchanged by throwing it across the river, on a word agreed between them’.[xxi] Hence the names. All Saints Putney (where I can get my caffeine shot) seems to be taking longer and longer to arrive, and I have to pick my way through the women’s rowing squads, now washing their boats on the slipways. None of them, it strikes me, would have any trouble flinging a hammer across the river. I quicken my pace, remembering my wife’s favourite joke. She’s very much a Viking, so it comes with war hammers. ‘How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? ’That’s not funny.’
Putney was where one of lifelong musical passions began, violin-piano duo playing. In my mid-teens, I gave some concerts with Australian pianist Piers Lane, newly arrived, and living in a little house a few blocks in from the rowers. His practice room was filled, as I remember, with postcards of beaches back home. We played Prokofiev, the wondrous Cinq Melodies which the composer transcribed for American (Spalding), Polish (Kochanski), Hungarian (Szigeti) and Norwegian (Cecilia Hansen). But the original set was composed as vocalises for the soprano Nina Koshets, who was in love with the unresponsive composer. Koshets followed Prokofiev to America, who advised her, when she prepared her publicity material, to transliterate her name as ‘-shets’, not –‘shits’, which as he noted ‘means something else’.[xxii] But now, with the giants throwing hammers over two rivers, my memory of a brilliant young pianist playing Prokofiev, and being very tolerant to a teenage upstart, and the river alive with small boats, measuring out the starting line, I finally get my coffee, and set my feet on the path home.