National Portrait Gallery-Only Connect

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by


National Portrait Gallery: Only Connect

'Only Connect' nears completion. Wednesday April 14th. National Portrait Gallery

9 September 2011, 18:30 Free admission

My exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Only Connect’ runs until 27th November. This Friday, I am presenting a ‘Paganini in London’ response to the exhibition, which features portraits of Paganini and his circle in London-Mendelssohn, Lindley, Mori, Cartwright, Dragonetti, Leigh Hunt. In the spirit of the exhibit I will not only explore links betwen Paganinin and his London contemporaries, but musicians working right now, inspired by his example. The concert will feature brand-new Caprices by London-based David Gorton, and Tennessee-based Paul Osterfield.

Niccolò Paganini – Caprices Op 1 nos 6, 13, 14, 20, 23

Niccolò Paganini -Capriccio ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’ (Paiseillo) (Magdeburg MS 1828)

Niccolò Paganini -Adieu a Londres (1835) –dedicated to Edward Eliasson

Edward Eliasson-‘Farewell to my friend Paganini’ (1835)

Nicolas Mori-Prelude (1835)

David Gorton-Caprices (2006-2011)

Paul Osterfield –Caprices (2011) World Premiere

Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840) gave hundreds of performances in the UK between 1831 and 1835. An engraving of this first performance forms part of ‘Only Connect’. Whilst in London, he got to know Mendelssohn, Landseer and the pioneer dentist Samuel Cartwright. In the audience in one of his last performances in London, was the young Princess Victoria. She confided to her diary that she was ‘most amused’.

LINK to NPG info

Niccolò Paganini

On the 13th May 1831, the young singer and pianist, John Orlando Parry wrote in his Journal, ‘Remarks on things in general’: /“That wonder of wonders, viz “Paganni” , arrived in the Country! He does the most inconceivable things on the Violin-He is going to give a Concert on the 21st-all the world will be there.”

The vital part of Niccolo Paganini’s rise was for private for audiences. Whilst the public saw his vaudevillian appearances in theatres and halls, he gave revelatory, improvisatory performances in the drawing rooms of doctors, amateurs, and enthusiasts.

It was reported that, Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bacciochi was in the habit of lying on her couch listening to Paganini play, much as she had listened to the Vicomte Réné de Chateaubriand; she was in the habit of fanning herself coquettishly as her poets and musicians declaimed and performed. Under the rule of Elisa, the Court of Lucca became a musical centre, driven by the enthusiasm of Felix Bacciocchi for the violin, and that of his wife for the company of musicians, which made her the subject of much gossip. Paganini played for Elisa, and gave violin lessons and played duets with her somewhat feckless husband.Elisa Bacciochi, was born Marie Anne Elisa Bonaparte. In 1797, she married Felice Bacciochi, a captain in the French Army. When Bonaparte unified Piombino and Lucca into a principality, he conferred the responsibilities of government upon her. In 1809 she became the Grand-Duchess of Tuscany, at which time her court transferred to Florence, which made Paganini hopeful that he was still in favour and could benefit from the move. This, however, was not the case. Her Kapellmeister was Antonino Puccini, who was the second generation of Puccinis to direct the Capello Palatino. His great-grandson Giacomo, also born in Lucca, would later bring true lustre to the family name.

Perhaps advised by Rossini, himself an accomplished self-publicist, Paganini was careful to curry favour with the establishment and to play variations on the most popular melodies. He paid homage to the Emperor Franz by composing his Maestoso Suonata Sentimentale shortly after his arriving. This was based on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, better known as Haydn‘s ‘Emperor’s Hymn’. There was method in this careful dedication. Paganini was seeking out a rare and useful appellation, that of k.k. Kammervirtuoso. Achieving this rank would give him a vital bill of safe passage all over Europe, as it announced that the bearer was considered a subject “of the Austrian Emperor in all countries and always under the protection of the Austrian envoys.”

Niccolo Paganini demonstrated an almost unequalled appetite for touring, and when on tour, to perform everywhere, however small the venue. I was very moved to discover, that on at least one occasion, he refunded his fee to promoters when audience was too small to justify playing. He came to resent his celebrity in London.

“Although the curiosity to see me had long been satisfied, although I have played in public more than 30 times, and although my portrait has been published in every conceivable style and pose, I cannot leave my rooms without collecting a crowd, which is content to follow or accompany me, they walk beside me, ahead of me, they speak to me in English, of which I do not understand a word, they touch me as though as to make sure that I am real flesh and blood. And this does not apply merely to the ordinary crowd, but to the better class of people”.

Paganini’s visits to London irrevocably changed the expectations of audiences, both of the nature of the concert experience, and the standard of soloists. This can be seen both in his imitators, such as Isaac Collins, who immediately tried to capitalize on both the financial possibilities of this new style of concert giving, and the new cult of ‘celebrity’ which Paganini represented.

In 1835, four years after Paganini’s first appearance in London, Madame Tussaud opened her museum as part of the ‘Baker Street Bazaar’, where historical figures were mixed with celebrities of the stage, first amongst them, Paganini himself prima inter pares amongst the waxwork stars.

Madame Tussaud wrote: ‘celebrities strictly up to date should be continually added to every part of the exhibition.’

Of course, the new style and standards of concert giving, were not comfortable for many of the touring artists accustomed to the London stage before Paganini. In 1830, the pianist Johan Nepomuk Hummel had given triumphant concerts in London, but when he returned, hard on the heels, of Paganini in 1831, his concerts failed to sell; the pianistic style which had aroused the admiration of Beethoven and Mozart was now passé.

Edvard and Nina Grieg - Peder Severin Krøyer


The links are all around us, constantly reaching out, I find, to me. In 1988, I took myself to Boston. I was seeking out the great violinist Louis Krasner. It was Krasner, who in 1935 had arrived in Vienna, determined to eke a Concerto out of the composer of the age, Alban Berg. Berg initially demurred, but famously, produced his extraordinary Violin Concerto in the weeks before his death. It was premiered by Krasner in Barcelona, the following year, with the young Benjamin Britten in the audience, the Civil War stirring outside.

Louis Krasner. Boston 1989. Photo: PSS

Krasner believed that connections between us were, are, everything. He demanded that I believe, as a Credo , that J.S.Bach had arranged the chorale, es ist genug, specifically so that Berg should find its meaning, the ‘kronende Abschluß’ of his own ‘requiem’ centuries later. He made me promise that I too, would, in sixty years, ‘pass it on’, as he had passed it to me.

And Louis Krasner appears here, a link in the chain back to Beethoven, to Burney. On the 27th September 1825, Charles Burney’s daughter, Sarah Burney Payne, handed her ‘album’ to Beethoven in Vienna; perhaps it was she who gave Beethoven her father’s great work of music history. He inscribed the album, in his mother’s French: “Come [sic] un souvenir a Sarah Burney Payne, …par Louis van Beethoven….’ With the inscription, as was his wont, a 13 bar canonic piano piece, in G minor. This autograph was one of the treasures of Louis Krasner’s collection.


Composer Edvard Grieg takes counsel from Goethe:’Well,  never mind. In art, one city is like another, one human being is like  the next-equally envious, petty and personal. The only thing to do is to hold fast to Goethe’s words, ‘let everyone take heed how he lives, and let him who stands take care lest he fall.’ One does not understand that sort of thing until one becomes a man, but then one grasps its significance in all of its profound seriousness. /Enough for now! Write soon…’ Grieg to Danish composer Gottfred Matthison-Hauser (Christiana, July 30, 1867)


The young Felix Mendelssohn meets Goethe: Mendelssohn to Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy November 6th 1821 (Weimar)‘In the afternoon I played for Goethe for two hours in part fugues by Bach, and in part I improvised. In the evening they played Whist, and Prof Zelter, who played at first, said to me: Whist means that you should keep your mouth shut. Strong Language!’


Alma Schindler (later Mahler-Werfel) ‘connects’ with Mendelssohn: Tuesday 24th January 1899 – Pm. Composed a song by Heine … and believed it’s not bad. Unfortunately, as I later realised, Mendelssohn took pleasure in the song too – dangerour competition. Nothing can compare with my joy when I take a song I’ve just finished and play it through. I it over and over, and in the sound, I hear my own image. When Mama sings my songs it’s something very special. When she makes a mistake, my anger knows no bounds … as if I’d been torn apart. Alma Mahler-Werfel (née Schindler) Diaries 1898-1902 Selected by Antony Beaumont, Cornell Paperbacks, New York 1997

By way of introduction

‘Only Connect’ exists in the imagination, that is, the shared imaginations of the communities of ideas represented by the figures on the walls. Of course, this is limited, one might say, grotesquely, by my imagination. I come to the collection of the National Portrait Gallery as a musician, a performer, and perhaps most relevantly, as in interpreter. The interpreter exists in limina, intermediary between listeners and pieces f music. More often than not, in building a programme, I will find that a conversation has been initiated, between the various correspondents of the works involved. This will alos be reflected in the in dialogue which seems to arise between the composers and the listeners. In turn, that is mapped onto conversations between the listeners themselves, and perhaps, between the performers, if there are more than one. Sometimes, the communications between the composers and dedicatees of works reflect actual dialogues, which actually happened (or are happening).More often than not, there is a creative disforia between such historical chatting, and interactions which did not, or perhaps could not have happened. For me, the communication between Beethoven and T.S.Eliot was as real as the conversations which Eliot and Tippett enjoyed, which can also be said to mirror discussions which both the twentieth century figures enjoyed with the composer. Artists expect such dialogues, accept them as their quotidian stock-in-trade; it is clear to me that one of the reasons for our need for the arts, is that people as a whole also have a palpable need for these interactions, and a gallery or concert allow them to be in a space where such a belief or activity is not transgressive. Perhaps that is something which this exhibit does.

Like the National Portrait Gallery itself, it is grounded, centred in London, a city which has always been defined by its constant arrivals and departures. However it stretches, from right to left, from the 18th Century to our time, from Italy to Cornwall, from the salons of Emma and William Hamilton, the childhood of Maria Hadfield, to St Ives, to the community of makers around Hepworth, Rainier, Leach and Nicholson. Music is a constant, but perhaps that is my weakness, as it has been my passport, an all-purpose shibboleth, and good for all time zones.

E.M.Forster has provided a clue as to how things might work together, even if, as an artist, I have never been sure what one is working towards.

‘I opened Walt Whitman for a quotation, & he started speaking to me. That he unseen is justified by the seen; which in turn becomes unseen, and is justified by the other…That the spiritual world might be robust – ! … No more fighting, please, between the soul & the body, until they have beaten their common enemy, the machine.’ E M Forster

Perhaps the truth is, that quite apart from our motto, emblazoned on the front page of Howard’s End like the Montaigne on the title page of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, I always identified with ‘Leonard Bast’. Bast has no real idea what Art is for, but knows that somehow, bringing it altogether, might ‘do him some good.’ Bast reminds me powerfully of my Grandfather, who trusted the Reader’s Digest to broaden his view of the world, to enrich his understanding, to ‘improve his word-power’. When his mind failed him, it was these scraps of erudition that were left to him, fluttering from him like the cuttings of enlightenment that fell from his wallet after he died.

‘Leonard listened to it with reverence. He felt that he was being done good to, and that if he kept on with Ruskin, and the Queen’s Hall concerts, and some pictures by Watts, he would one day push his head out of the gray waters and see the universe.’

So, I nurtured the forlorn hope that if I spent time in this convocation of composers, artists, thinkers, socialites, music, pictures, poetry, and ideas, it would sink in-that there is some magical osmosis through which their erudition, their inspiration, their grace, might seep through. Perhaps this is the reason that I stand in front of their portraits, or play their music, or read their writing. And perhaps, this is not too far from the reason that they found their way towards each other, both in the rooms in which they met, and in their communication, which does not respect time.

In his Book of Prefaces Alasdair Gray put it better than I can. I own that he is talking of literature, but his ‘pleasure’ clearly applies to all creative minds:

‘The pleasure of hearing writers converse…It is refreshing to read how makers find great allies in the past to help them tackle the present. It helps us to see that literature is a conversation across boundaries of nation, century, and language.’

It is perhaps impossible to grow up in London, and to not start to sense that these voices are all around us, that round any corner I might run into  ‘Hodge’, Johnson’s ‘most excellent cat’, a few steps from the bas-reliefs of King Lud, at his ;circus’. It seems as if they are all around us; Stravinsky, cigarette holder held rakishly, striding into the Savoy Theatre for another dose of ‘G & S’ , the ‘Singing Mouse’ regaling us in 1853 with Angelica Catalani’s version of a Pierre Rode Air Varié ,also on the Strand.  Osbert Sitwell was ever enamoured of the cross-section of creative Europe that could be found on the street in London:

‘What fantastic, what beautiful people have been provided for us to see and know. Though Shelley and Pope and Shakespeare have long been dust, we have all of us been given the chance of passing in our own streets Yeats, than whom no human being could look more noble, with his sweeping grey-white mane, that appeared to be almost blue, and his fine and enrapt features, or of seeing the octogenarian Bernard Shaw striding down Piccadilly in all the vigour and sparkle of his unending youth. Though Cézanne and Seurat, though Schubert and Brahms, lived before we were born, we have been able to sit in the same room as Picasso and Matisse and Tchelieff, as Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy…’

It was actually a conversation, if it could be called that, with the artist Anthony Gormley, which set things in motion. The cellist Neil Heyde and I improvised in his eyrie-like study. While Neil played Bach, Gormley stood at his work table and, with both hands, drew ellipses, in contrary motion, in wallpaper paste. The whole thing had been initiated by the composer Jim Aitchison, handing us sheets of manuscript to initiate our playing, his dream like responses to Gormley’s matrices and nets.

Later, we talked about drawing, about nets, about the hidden forms that lurked beneath apparently quotidian intersections. The drawings which resulted from this conversation formed the basis for Only Connect.

 Of course, we had reactivated a salon principle. The wonderful portraitist Elisabeth Vigée-le Brun collaborated with, chatted to and hung out with musicians, with writers, with thinkers, with socialites, all ‘doing their thing’ while she painted, resplendent in flowery hats or elegant turban. Wherever she found herself, in London, in Epping Forest, in Paris, she and her circle seized the opportunity to create, in company, just as she seized the cinder from Sir William’s grate in Naples to draw her radiant portrait of Emma in a door panel of the great collector’s casino.

It is perhaps appropriate that we are presenting a Salon here, in the surroundings of a Museum. It is a useful word to describer a floating space, where music is played, poetry is read, there might be discussion of ideas, of the arts, of politics, of sociology, that engineers, scientists, designers, artisans and performers should be able to exchange ideas in a comfortable space that encouraged such activities. Once initiated, salons become entertaining, diverting even, difficult to live without. Here ideas, innovations, Luftslotter can be road tested, or where an extreme opinion can be floated without fear of redress, where a reckless flight of artistic fancy can be essayed and assayed with the reassurance of the particular safety net that this environment offers. No one makes, but becomes part a salon. Most important of all, it is not necessarily clear what it means, how it happens, who owns it, or even how to preserve it.

Ironically, perhaps one of the definitions of a salon is that the strength of support that it proffers to its habitués is inversely proportional to its delicacy, its susceptibility to change. And it is that change that fascinates me when I find myself ,looking at the period covering the years which lead up to the years of revolution, the revolutionary era, the Napoleonic wars, the restoration, further revolution…and then, well then we are deep into the nineteenth century and the process of flux heats up. There is one important change which can immediately be seen in the course of these years; it is the change that one would expect. That is to say, that in the era that we shall call the ancient regime, the salon was the privilege of the court, of nobility, and of those with access thereto. By the end of the age of revolution, the post- Jacobin era, if you like, the salon had become the playground of a new bourgeoisie. I would take it further and argue that when the social revolution which began to accompany the industrial revolution really began to bite, then the salon ceased to be exclusive of class. If these years offered anything, in terms of how the largest cross section of the population spent there time is that the notion of leisure time, of free time, even of play time, began to be a commodity which was available to an ever larger cross section of society; put another way, what we might first view in the word games, elegant musical performance, hot chocolate on porcelain in the salons of pre-revolutionary Versailles gradually morphs into the family sing song around the precious piano, on which there might stand a mass-produced bust of the Prince Consort, of a parlour of a small family house in a mill town in the North of England a hundred years later.

Curiously, it is this question of access that fascinates me, as I started to think about today’s talk. Because it struck me that historically the salon has always tended towards exclusivity; initially this was an exclusivity of money and class. Money and class, prior to the revolution, might buy one education, the knowledge to survive the various hazings that seem to have marked out the history of the salon. More to the point, as the exclusivity of money, class, connections, faded, it was the knowledge itself which became the mark of the initiate the habitué, the salonista. If you like, salons have always tended to shibboleths.  In Judges 12 vs 5-6 we read.

“And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites, which were escaped said Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said Nay; then said they unto him, Say thou now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth, for he could not frame it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there ell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”

I am not suggesting that salons were the purveyors of the homicidal behaviour described in the old testament, but rather that there have always been certain passes, be they shibboleths, modes of behaviour, or indications of previous access to the right knowledge, or simply, being one of the ‘in’ crowd, which has guaranteed their exclusivity. An indication of how this can work is provided by the last film in fabulous ‘Thin Man’ series, which was built around characters created by Dashiell Hammett in the early 1930’s. These films were built as star vehicles for the charming pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, both of whom could pass for bright young things before the Second World War (even thought Powell) was, if truth be told, rather longer in the tooth than his publicists liked to let on. The final movie was made, after a 4 year hiatus, in 1947. By this point, two truths were obvious; that the stars were at the very least, older and that times had changed. A new jazz age was dawning, one not based around dancing, that of Bebop, and with it, it brought a whole new vernacular of street slang, whose complexity and quixotishness matched the new prestidigitations demanded of its players. In the movie, our two central characters, Nick and Nora Charles, embark on a tour of the after hours hangouts of the new young jazz players, on the trail of a murderer, their Virgil a street smart ‘hep cat’, who is mortified at the prospect that he might be caught bringing a ‘couple of squares’ into the ‘joints’ where the initiates gather. It  becomes very obvious, very soon, that our heroes are completely unable to ‘cut it’ , demonstrating complete ignorance as to the aesthetic of the music that they are hearing, and no knowledge of the ‘double talk’ that is the shibboleth of this particular type of salons. Whilst not quite as vicious, the exclusion that results mirrors the savagery of the world of such as Madame de Pompadour which was depicted in the Fanny Ardent vehicle, Ridicule.

Any musician lives in this world, both in the day to day exchange with collaborators, be they performers or living composers, or the more mysterious communication, with the voices from the past, that it is the musician’s work to reveal, revenant, in the present. Beethoven noted the situation to himself, one of the entries in his Tagebuch, which he kept from 1812-13:

If one had wanted to separate oneself from the past …still the past has created the present…

So Only Connect is a reflection of that. Our subjects and artists meet on the street, chatter, make music, make love, argue, paint, die. And, often, they and we meet, and do the same things, even though we are sometimes separated by place or time. Art  does not much respect such shallow limitations as location or history, and, I suspect, nor are humans, however much they pretend to be. Perhaps this is the reason that it seemed so natural that the whole of this exhibition should radiate from Patrick Heron’s portrait of Eliot.

      ‘Words move, music moves

      Only in time; but that which is only living

      Can only die. Words, after speech, reach

      Into the silence.’ (T S Eliot, Burnt Norton Lines 137-140)

In order to set my ‘virtual salon talking’, I set limits for myself: only the links which were in my mind already – music that I know, composers and writers I love, the equally loved books on my shelves. So Only Connect is, in part anyway, a journey through my perceptions of these people, the linkages of their lives, their arts, their thoughts, a tentative, faltering path, as I remember

 Diary Entry 16th June 1908 

 Howard’s End, E M Forster, Penguin, London, 1985, P.62

 The Book of Prefaces, Alasdair Gray, Bloomsbury, London,  2002, P.9

 Left Hand Right Hand, Osbert Sitwell, The Reprint Society, London, 1946, P.x Ibid. Entry 44: 258

 Four Quartets¸T S Eliot, Faber and Faber, London, 1944, P.17