Overnight practice/ afterthoughts

Posted on January 2nd, 2021 by


If this is your first time visiting this website, do look around – use the ‘Search’ facility (there are over 2000 posts on many subjects!) -If you have a question, use the contact button, or E mail me direct, at ptrshpprdskrvd@aol.com 

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Here is the link to my recordings available on Spotify:


Time for quiet practice. St Paul Minnesota 8th July 2010


This year (2021), I have decided to keep a record of ideas, impressions and digressions that come up in my nightly practice sessions. I usually start work at or around midnight, and work till 3am or so. Lets see what emerges! The post is, of course, in reverse order. The beginning … is at the bottom.

Overnight 22nd – 23rd February

Sometimes, inspiration has to come from what’s immediately around. A 15th century caravel rides a sea of stones, pottery shards and fossils. 22 1 21

So, tonight, back to Röntgen. I have been finding help from the shelves around me. The image of the storm – tossed Caravel, maybe the Pinta, on the stony sea( above), was an accidental one. We are having a reorganise, and I droped the model ship there while shelf space was being prepared (too many models, as well as books…). And then I saw the romantic picture, which sums up so much of the wonderful, creative, pointlessness of artistic adventure. The ship will stay there, for now.

Tonight, I have been working on the extensive first movement of the Röntgen’s  2nd Sonata. In this column, I have spoken at some lenght about the way that the practising musician can negotiate the structure of music in order that they might find their way in. Sometimes this way in, is backwards: I started with the coda, with is a bit of hurdy-gurdy/dudelsak writing. It uses a melody which does not appear at any point in the movement, but is formed around a half memory of the opening theme, just the rhythm and rhetoric. This is not in itself surprising, and it’s clear that Röntgen is quietly showing his hand -and one of the cards says ‘Mozart’. Everyone who holds a violin, will feel, in the hand, the memory of the Gassenauer sections of Mozart’s 3rd and 4th  Violin Concertos – that buzzing G under the musette melody. And the ‘trick’ of charming the ear with  new tune in the closing material, is Wolfgang  par excellence.  Or perhaps it’s just Vanessa Williams ca. 1991 (‘Sometimes the snow comes down in June’), ‘Saving the best till last’.

But as I worked, I realised that the street-music coda did not not come from nowhere.  The droning pedal appears, in  many disguises, throughout the movement. Some of these appearances are Bach-ian, a throbbing 8th-note undertow aound a sustained melody, explicitly referencing the third movement of the  A Minor Solo Sonata. On one occasion, this builds in  intensity to a Vivaldi-esque storm – it has shape-shifting tendencies. The crucial thing, is that its rose-tinted use as envoi forces me to reconsider the whole movement, to remember, and then to reevaluate. And then I have found my way to nearly half of this 90 bar movement.

But, even after the detailed technical work, I end up with a ‘to-do’ list. It’s a melancholy truth that certain things just take a long time. Some of the necessary technical work can be done on the first ‘slow pass’, but some of it must be delayed, no later that the second. I am, of course, talking about voice leading, as it pertains to, and must be executed, on the violin.

For the majority of fiddlers, this technique simply will never be necessary, as it (mainly) pertains to contrapuntal writing. However, I have to acknowledge that Manoug Parikian elegantly demonstrated, using Beethoven Op 30 no 2, how it can, and should be applied to passage work. What, of course, I am talking about is the vital importance, moving from one chord to another, of deciding the ‘route’. It we are in two parts, can/should we sustain both lines? If we are going to simple carry one line over, and release the second, does the ‘carrying’ complement or contradict the line in the music? If the latter, does such contradiction obstruct or enhance the material?

Of course, it is perfectly possible to get from one chord to the next without this work, but that’s analog to bashing chords up and down the piano with gloves on. It’s do-able, but lacks elegance, and I would argue, along with a number of my teachers, that an ethical obligation was being skirted. The right thing to do, is very often just that. And it takes time, as it should: That will be tomorrow night’s work.

Overnight 21st-22nd February

On the desk. Martin Ellerby’s ‘Canit di Colore’ 21 2 21

Tonight has been practice in two parts, the one informs the other. I have said this so many times, in so many ways, but it’s always worth saying it again. So here goes:

We study the music of the past to inform what we do in the present. We study the music of the present to help us better understand the work of the past. And of course, this is me talking, so, at the heart of all this, is collaboration.

I will do anything to better understand the shared work of artists in earlier times: Colombi and Vitali in Bologna, Mozart and Michael Haydn in Salzburg, Clara Schumann and Joachim in Hanover, Barbara Hepworth and Priaulx Rainier in St Ives, Nadia and Lilli Boulanger in Paris, Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound … the list is wonderfully endless. When I sit with one of the composers I am honoured to call partner, that spirit is in the room, and the mutual-informing to which I alluded, above, is working its magic.

Tonight, as you might have worked out, I have been working on two pieces, two composers, two eras, two environments for music-making, at the same time. Of course, one of this has been Julius Röntgen – as I start to dig into the Sonatas from the Op 68 set. But alongside him, in conversation, for sure, is Martin Ellerby’s wonderful Canti di Colore, a sonata for violin and piano. This was dedicated to me, ‘in celebration of Hans Werner Henze’. I don’t mind admitting that it was not easy for me to start work on this, and that is a measure of its power as a work: because it offers a door to the past, is a past that has my younger self in it – indeed, I discovered, digging into the piece, that there is graceful allusion to music that Henze wrote for me.

But all that I am going to say today, is to tell a story which will illustrate Henze’s character, the world he lived in, and how Martin’s wonderful piece has made me think about it. Henze was an enthusiastic self -taught watercolorist. No one would begin to claim that his drawings and paintings aspire to or have, the technical brilliance of Mendelssohn’s pen-and-inks, or Victor Hugo’s wonderful pen-wash-and stencil work. But the there’s something magical about the imagination to which Henze’s croquis naïfs  offer a window.

And this is where, for me, a little magic and regret come in. Martin Ellerby encountered Henze’s paintings at an exhibition in Montepulciano, Tuscany, where Henze founded his Cantiere, in which it was my great privilege to work, for a few years. He brought the catalogue back, and gave it to me, when work on the sonata began. However, a penny dropped, when I started working on the nuts and bolts of the piece, the ‘songs of colours’ – was there ever a better description for Henze’s work?

And here’s what I remembered. Henze’s partner, the wonderful Fausto Moroni, was a vital part of all Hans Werner’s work. No trip to the house on Fairholt Street, in Knightsbridge, or a drive in the Italan countryside, or a production meeting in a grim north-German Kulturamt‘s office was not gilded by Fausto’s beatific presence, his elegant smoking, his caring arm-around-the-shoulder when things were difficult – but most of all, his astonishing cooking. Fausto was one of the great cooks, a master of rustic Italian cuisine, and I was lucky enought to spend time cooking with him – actually, now that I come to think of it, he taught me, in between work sessions with scores and violin.

But when Fausto and Hans Werner threw a dinner party, with their collection of elegant 18th century china and silverware, the table was graced with hand-painted place cards, which HWH would festoon with swags of fantastic flowers, and multi-lingual-punning  respellings of everyone’s names. I can see a number of mine, in my mind’s-eye. I bitterly regret that I did not save them. But the memory is precious, and the place cards are drifting around my exploration of Martin’s beautiful piece.

And of course, all of this is simultaneous with the technical explorations which are the nights work: If ai am to seize on one, it’s a question of fingering in an extending chromatic context. Violinists (more than cellists and bassists) are always negotiating with quasi-tonal fingering (the large stretches for the larger instruments, mean that semitones are friendlier, the knitting patterns – I won’t say crocheting- are easier to read! One of the challenges of material like the one that I have shown – offset symmetrical contrary motion – is how to make it work with the limitations (very real) of the hand on the little violin fingerboard. I think it’s begining to work and Röntgen has been helping me, for which I am grateful.

Overnight 19th-20th February

The climax of Michael Alec Rose’s brand-new ‘Daedel Earth’ on my desk 19 2 21

Suddenly, I find myself back in the now! In a 24 hour period, four fascinating and beautiful and challenging new works landed on my desk (or this being then 21st Century, in the my inbox): the manuscript of a new work by David Matthews, a new Harp Quintet by Edward Cowie, and two new solo movements, by Michael Alec Rose and Naji Hakim. So it was inevitable that the two solo pieces would be on the practice desk tonight.

I spent a good hour talking with Michael Rose in Nashville during the afternoon, so I will focus on his piece today. This is the latest to arrive in an emerging set of pieces based on the landscape and geology of Utah. Michael and I were working together in London, and in the recording studio this time last year, just as the Covid shutters were about to come down, and this piece has been emerging ever since then. I would like to focus on one aspect of Rose’s communication with the performer, with me, which is language, most particularly words.

Rose is as literatur -obsessed as I. In part of our conversation, our workshop in the afternoon, he mentioned that he is just getting to the end of reading all of Henry James’ short stories, and in the course of our chat, George Eliot, T S Eliot, Shakespeare, to name just three, wove their way in and out of the conversation. He has also written, extensively, and beautifully about art, and has always engaged vigorously with my drawings and paintings (which form a part of our Dartmoor collaboration ‘Il Ritorno’). Art – that’s where this begins…

The title of the movement, ‘Daedal Earth’, was the first thing that we discussed, and a factor in my night of practice, because it speaks to the question of sound.

MAR’How would you pronounce it?’ / PSS ‘Well we say Deeedalus, but there’s that ‘ae’, not a diacretic, I know, but it should probably be ‘Daydelus’/MAR ‘Well in Greek of course, it’s ‘Die-‘/PSS ‘You’ve got a point/MAR ‘Doesn’t it sound, funnily like ‘Dredl’/PSS ‘You mean that should thrown’/MAR ‘ Exactly’/ PSS ‘ I should play ‘spin the Dredl …. that’s DREADful!!! Gettit!!???/ MAR ‘I get it, Yeah!’

Much of our conversations tend to go like this, sempre accelerando. Then, of course, the question of the fall of Icarus raises its head (we’re still talking about the title here), and Breughel’s ‘ The Fall of Icarus’ in the ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ in Brussels is in the room, and though we don’t  mention it, W H Auden’s eponymous poem:

‘About suffering they were never wrong,/The old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position’

…because we have talked about it so many times. And our ratatatat dialogue is in mind as I practise, the idea of the father-inventor, still flying, as his son plunges to earth. And then our converstion turns tothe idea of Pan and Apollo, which underlies the  piece, whose title is a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley – from his Hymn to Pan:

‘I sang of the dancing stars, I sang of the daedal Earth, /And of Heaven, and the giant wars, /And Love, and Death, and Birth—’

Clearly Walt Whitman knew and loved this too…

The very first performance instruction in the piece is ‘Panicked’, which technically is ‘fear inspired by Pan’, so the very essence of the piece is  (et in Arcadia ego) Shelley’s proposal of piping-Pan’s victory over the string-playing Apollo -revenge for Apollo’s murderous contest with the faun, Marsyas.

As I put bow to string at night, I am searching for not only the dash and helterskelter of the work, but the rasp and scratch of the bow hair and rosin to gut. Talk of the capriole-hairiness of Pan and Marsyas is helping me to find the bristle and leap of the bow flying on the string in this fast piece (under ‘Panicked’ is the first metronome mark  – minim = c.144 . It gets faster…).

But of course, there’s no way, for Michael and I, ro begin to be a conversation about Marsyas, without Titian’s masterpiece looming up. I have written about that elsewhere on this site,  adn even based a long lost double concerto on it many years ago (in my version, the God and the Goat were fighting over a scrap of a Bach Sonata). As I work out hand positions and bow-distribution, the river of afternoon conversation is still in my head:

‘MAR ‘ I know how you love that painting’/ PSS ‘ Did you see it in New York, when it came to the Breuer?/ MAR ‘Is there a sketch as well’/PSS ‘You do realise that Beethoven knew it, as it was owned by the Archduke Rudolph’/MAR ‘Can you imagine…’

So I start finding my way through Michael’s fecund use of words in the instructions to me. I am always half-aware of the language games which pioneered, at the beginning of the 20th Century by the (imaginary) duo of René Margrite and Eric Satie. There’s a relationship between the playfulness of Margritte’s:

‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’

In his 1929 La Trahison des images  the wicked playfulness of Eric Satie’s ‘instructions’ to his performers in his 1913 Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes), which include:

‘les os secs et lointains’, ‘tranquil comme le Baptiste’, ‘penaud’, ‘ les dents du fond’

My point being that once you have allowed for slippery-ness in the language of instruction and information, and in Michael’s case, noted his love of puns, acrostics, palindromes, anagrams and creative re-spellings,  you have a wonderful tool to communicate between composer and performer.

So here are a few performance instructions from Daedel Earth :

‘searching’ ‘epochal’, ‘fleating’, ‘precipitando’,  ‘tenuto!’, ‘Dithyrambic’, ‘unseamly, uncomforming’, ‘settling down’, ‘settled’, ‘quasi incapace’

I think that you can see how gravid all of this shape-shifting is:  Rose ‘shifting ground’ has a direct impact, for instance, on the the way I even pitch certain notes. Above,  I have included the climax of the movement which is based on a  D-Aflat pedal, with a rotating ostinato D-C sharp-D-E-F, whirling around. It’s actually the slowest moment in the piece (crochet=c.154). Look at the performance instruction – a direct order- and how that incorporates a geology joke, linked to the ‘unseamly’ in the dynamic instruction under the stave:

‘bend the A flats out of tune, showing how deeply they are at fault’

The pitch bend has been ‘prepped’ by the creatively slippage in the use of words to which I have been aluding.  found the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of ‘overtones’ useful while practising:

‘For the musical overtone ( a throb) it is not strictly fitting to say: “I hear.”/Nor for the visual overtone: “I see.”/For both, a new uniform formula must enter our vocabulary: “I feel.”‘ (The Filmic 4th Dimension 1929)

You only have to look at how Michael’s urgency , is mirrored, counterpointed and concentrated by the life in his handwriting: jamming in as many notes a possible at the end of a line where the musical intensity heightens, the joy in exclamation marks (look at the extract again), so see the useful truth in the the brilliant young Eisenstein’s insight:

‘[…] and yet we cannot reduce aural and visual perceptions to a common denominator. They are values of different dimensions. But the visual overtone and the sound overtone are values of a singly measured substance. Because, if the frame is a visual perception, and the tone is an aural perception, visual as well as aural overtones are a totally physiological sensation. And, consequently, they are of one and the same kind, outside the sound or aural categores that serve as guides, conductors to its achievement’ [Ibid]

I have loved that since I first read it over 20 years ago, and was so grateful to have at hand, at mind, when practising this night.

Overnight 18th – 19th February

Morning coffee. Rovelli’s ‘Seven brief lessons on Physics, Roentgen’s sonata movement and some scribbling

The brain works, or does not work, in my case, in odd ways. And so it proved overnight. Like millions of us yesterday evening, I was transfixed by the live-feed from the NASA mission control for the Perseverance mission to Mars. How amazing to watch those brilliant women and men watch live, as the fruit of their work, their imaginings, slowed towards the surface, and then deployed a parachute, and then hovered, and craned the rover onto the surface. What things we can do, and how it lifts us up.

But clearly what was lodged in my mind was that it takes radio waves roughly 11 minutes and 22 seconds to travel between Earth and Mars (that’s according to NASA). So to be blunt, we were watching, live, things happening in the past (as we always are, of course, but heightened in this case). I went to bed early, around 12, and woke to practice for three hours at 2am. And It was back to Röntgen – now moving fom the three suites (I have completed technical work on those) to the linked set of 3 Sonatas Op 68b. 

Earlier in the evening I had been chatting with Gwendolyn Masin about why he’s neglected. I wrote her this:

‘I am beginning to think that two things are at play here. Firstly, that he, a little like Camille Saint-Saëns, was a human slightly out of time, that he was at once too adventurous and yet not modernist in the slightly sequestered way which was seen as ‘right’ from the post-Darmstadt perspective. Secondly, and this is simply the first reason, upside down, his harmonic fecundity and clarity, the sense of play (and in this I would put him alongside figures like Antoine Reicha and Telemann) dream of other futures, and for people like me (and as you know, I love so many styles and languages) offer a Neruda-esque lightness, at once profound and spun-sugar fragile.’

…And the question which was occupying me now as I began work on the sonatas was/is. What is different, and what is the same, between the two sets. Obviously Röntgen was playing with a version of the da camera/da chiesa  counterpoint which obsessed Bach. I was interested, of course, to see how he, like Bach, breaks the mould, the strictures respectively (a ‘siciliana’ has no business in a Church sonata, no sir-way too sensual). But the only thing which I came too, working on a lovely ‘Andante Pastorale, from the second sonata, was that like Bach, Röntgen approached scale in a different way.

Bach’s partitas have (mostly) shorter, more numerous movements … or do they. Does the B minor Partita have 8 movements or 4 (are doubles different movements or dark-matter equivalents) …. if you see the Chaconne as an interloper in the second partita, there for its place in the whole cycle, and moreover, deeply rooted in the nature of the Sarabande two movements earlier … is it there at all, or a figment of our imagination, a dream, Traum,  trauma … (no, not down that rabbit hole today).

I could not help noticing that even thought Röntgen is writing longer movements in the sonatas, the integers of those movements are smaller, the raw materials more atomised, pulverised, granular . I was clearly getting tired, and realised that it was nearly 6 am, and I needed to get up at 7 to get ready for the day … and I had Joni Mitchell running in my head ‘We are stardust/Billion year old carbon’ muddling it self up with Einstein …’If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating’… Sleep came easily.

But when I woke, I was thinking about all this, and remember that Carlo Rovelli wrote about Einstein’s ‘year of doing nothing’, while his  father was installing power plants around Padua: for a moment I imagined a conversation between the young, violin-playing Einstein, and Padua’s greatest musician and mathematician, Tartini. What might they have talked about. I pulled Rovelli’s wonderful ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics‘ from the shelf to read in the bath.

And he gave me this wonderful reminder to start the day-he’s talking about how Einstein’s equation fro special relativity uses the work of Carl Friedrich Gauss’s great student Bernhard Riemmann (describing movement in a curved space_’. Rovelli writes:

‘You woudl need, of course, to study and digest Riemann’s mathematics in order to master the technique to read and use this equation. It takes a little commitment and effort. But far less than is necessary to come to an appreciation of the rarefied beauty of the late Beethoven String Quartets. In both cases the reward is sheer beauty and new eyes with which to see the world.’

I won’t bore you with the undeveloped idea my disorganised brain was working on whilst reading this, and which is beginning to crawl over the pages of my notebooks. But, I think that Rovelli reminds us that what we all do is not, and should not be simple, but it can give us new visions, and I think that those geniuses in that control room at NASA are leaders in this: poets one and all, and I thank them for a night of wonder.

Ovenight 16th – 17th February

The ‘Violin Shelves’ in our library – or ‘Where writing goes to die’

Last night’s practice began in front of the book shelves. There are quite a few books in this apartment, and a small proportion of them are about music. There are fascinating tomes amongst those, and of course, a number of them pertain to violin-playing. But, lets be honest, very few of those are good writing. Ther are notable exceptions: Jacques Thibaud’s Un Violon parle is wonderful, Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Friends & Fiddlers  charming. Perhaps Stuff Smith’s memoir Pure at Heart is the stand out. But most of this particular corner of out library, is whilst useful, just bad writing.

In amongst the bad writing there are volumes which I take down the shelf with an advisory. First amongst these is  The Memoirs of Carl Flesch.   I was never a fan of his teaching – his voluminous Violin Fingering: Its Theory and Practice might as well have been called, 1500 Short-cuts: but, that tome could, at least, claim to be helpful. His autobiography, which was translated by Hans Keller, is, to put it mildy, unsympathetic. When I read it for the first time, I was greatly relieved to find that it broke off in the late-1920s, a decade and a half before he died. This is not the writing of someone overflowing with the milk of human kindness, or who had ever heard Thumper’s motto:

‘If you can’s say something nice, don’t say anything at all’

I won’t say more than that. I don’t speak ill of the dead. But I remembered that Flesch had talked about Julius Röntgen. And I remembered a wonderful photo in the plates, of Röntgen, the d’Aranyi sisters, Pablo Casals and Donald Francis Tovey. Here it is -it fell open at this page when I opened the book. What  a roomful of talent – the picture was taken at the house of Robert Calverley Trevelyan in 1911:

Sure enough, Flesch writes about Röntgen – a lot. He regarded him, as ‘a second father’. But then he goes on (next sentence):

‘The only cloud darkening our relationship was the objective frankness with which I judged his compositions […]’ P.212

I looked back to the previous page ( I don’t read in straight lines):

‘His creations lacked an individual note; they were  honest enough in expression and thoroughly craftsmanlike, but they reamined characterless.[…]’ P211

By this point I was, to put it mildy, reassured. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I am reminded of the words of Cary Grant’s character, the immortal ‘Johnny Case’  in Holiday (1938):

“When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself: ‘What would General Motors do?’ And then I do the opposite!”

I feel this about Flesch – it he pours scorn on something or someone, then it’s worth a look (this rule applies to much of this book, so I guess that it is useful). A few lines later, I found the glimmer of an insight, albeit unrealised – like a photo of a unsuccessful gold prospector, not noticing the nugget in a heap of spoil behind them. His ‘father figure’ wrote,  he writes, as patronisingly as possible;

‘[…]purely from a joy of composing, without any prospect of ever hearing the greater part [the works] in public performance, let alone seeing them in print’ P211

Flesch does not show much understanding of joy, or the love of music-making. But here he did show, the inkling, the hint, that he recognised it in others, whilst blind to the sadness, that he had never felt it to the same degree. Because this ‘joy of composing’ of musicking, if you like, is the very quality that I am loving getting to know Röntgen’s solo works in detail. I won’t go into the qualities that Flesch misses, but can suggest that the clarity and wit of these pieces, will ensure that they find their way back into our hearts. And I would like to help with that. It’s also a joy, to put this book back on the ‘violin shelves’, wash my hands ( I did), and get back to the music.

Tonight, I have been working on the marvellous ‘Ciaconne’ from the the second Suite. I won’t get into the possible ramifications of the title here. However, it is linked to the picture above, as it is based on a ‘Thema von D F Tovey’. Two years after his death in 1930, Tovey described him as:

 “[…]one of the greatest masters of absolute music I have ever known.”

… he was devoted to his music, as pianist and conductor.

I won’t comment at all on the practice session, not yet. But I will say this. This, chaconne, is to quote much-missed Ralph Holmes, is a ‘hum-dinger’. It’s a sure-fire hit. Why did I not play it before?

Secondly, the whole suite, not just Tovey’s theme (which is also used for the second movement Fugue), is a homage to Tovey’s style, and most particularly the style of his epic  Sonata Eroica (1914) for solo violin, to which I will be returning.

And last, for today: anyone playing this piece, who has grown up playing the ‘standard’ violin repertoire, will have a strange sense of deja vu. There’s something familiar here: an echo of Eugène Ysaÿe’s 1st Solo Sonata.  That piece would not be written until after these were published in Berlin by Simrock. Ysaÿe was the most suggestible of players -elsewhere on this site you will find my delight that he used a sliver of material from a Joseph Joachim study in the 4th Solo Sonata. LINK It’s Tolkein’s ‘wheel of stories’, and of course, when it’s a chaconne, Bach had given it a push.

And here’s the Chaconne!



Overnight 14th – 15th February 

On the practice desk. Anders Heyerdahl’s ‘Norsek Danse og Slalatter, optegenede efter gamle Spillemaend fra 1856 til 1861’

Tonight, I found my way back to the roots, my roots, in many way. I had spend much of the day thinking about my work on nordic violinism and the interlink between traditional and art musics in the early 20th century. This lies at the heart of not only my fascination with the violin writing of Carl Nielsen and Edvard Grieg, but thanks to my very early acquaintance with Johan Halvorsen’s pioneering, and idealistic, transcriptions of Slaatter, came to be the touchstone for my whole approach to the violin alone, even though I rarely performed any of them.

This is often the way with artists, and something which is not often spoken about: the vast majority of the creative work needs to be obscured, a hefty counterbalance to the minimal material which can find its way to public view. The curse of the Covid situation has been ameliorated, to a degree, for me, by the opportunity to explore this material.

So tonight, I dug deeper into the work of collectors of folk music in the 1800s. I was already fascinated by the work of the composer Anders Heyerdahl, and I have performed, recorded and spoken about the extraordinary ‘Nissespel’ which he seems to have written for Ole Bull.

Tonight, I was able to spend 3 hours working on his pioneering collection ‘Norsek Danse og Slalatter, optegened efter gamle Spillemaend fra 1856 til 1861’. This little handful of 21 transcriptions, which appeared in the 1860s, asked questions, and set standards, for so much of the work that would follow and especially for Halvorsen’s labours, listening to the playing of Knud Dahle, three decades later.

Some players might ask, why I put such a lot of work into such simple material. There’s a sense, amongst classical players, that music needs to either have enormous profundity, or present great technical challenges, in order to be worthy of our work. I have to say, that what I have learnt from time amongst folk and roots musicians, from the Middle East to the Midwest ot the USA, has taught me to respect, and to love, the effort, the inhabitation of ‘simple gifts’ ( I choose that moniker carefully). Simplicity, whether it is the beauty of a five-bar gate to a field, or folded linen, needs no more than itself.

So what emerges tonight. I will skip over the technical work, much as I find it fascinating, to some of the felicities of Heyerdahl’s work, communications to the player, to me, to us, which enable to begin to find myself to the players, the ‘gamle spillemaend’ (‘old fiddlers’ – literally ‘play-men’), to whom he paid such careful attention:

  1. ‘2.Springdans fra Urskog’: Heyderdahl notes that, and I translate – ‘the first crochet of every bar should be held longer, and the second, shorter, in most ‘Springdanse”
  2. Throughout, there’s a sense of history, of what the Spillemaend of his time learnt from the past. Part of this involves the incorporation of wind music into the string tradition. A wedding march is noted ‘this was played on the Oboe in the 1700s’ – A Springdans played by P. Gunhildrud ‘as he learnt in 1789 from soldiers from Trondheim’ – or simply ‘fra gammel Tid’ – ‘ from the old days’. One is simply marked as ‘how the Filefjeld clock rang’
  3. But what really struck me, was the beginnings of some real care regarding scordatura/tuning. You will note that the little piece I have inset by Heyerdahl, is tuned to A E A Cis (C sharp). Of course, this is a notation of one of the many tunings used by traditional violinists in the north. When Halvorsen came to publish his collection, he noted that the Hardanger players used a higher ‘A’ (roughly ‘C’ by our standards), and included the ‘sounding original tuning’ the tunings of sympathetic strings, and the ‘useful’ tuning at ‘ A- 440’ for the ‘normal’ violin. In both of these cases, the notation was ‘tablature’ (in the loosest sense), the method of writing down scordatura used in the second half of the 17th century (see Biber, Vilsmayr etc). That is to say that the notes tell you where to put your fingers, not the sounding pitches. But this collection shows me that Heyerdahl was the vanguard of a shift of notation –  here we find that the pitches written are the pitches heard. and the player has to puzzle out how to get them. There are a handful of helpful hints – some position changes to clarify what might go where.

But let me say this here. All of this work, from Heyerdahl to Halvorsen, set the stage for much of what we can see happening, both in collecting and composition, from 1900 onwards. There was a copy of Halvorsen’s ‘Slaatter’ in Bartok’s library, and writing an arcticle in the journal Zeneközlöny in 1911, he mentioned Slaatter and the Rumanian ‘Joc’ as simlar types of instrumental folk music.

It’s an exciting way to spend the night. As H C Andersen exhorted us, in 1831:

‘Spillemand spil paa Strænge!’

and here they are!




Overnight 13th-14th February

Cadenza writing as practice, as composition, or not. My cadenza for the second Priaulx Rainier Concerto – which I can see I wrote for a performance in Wichita, Kansas, in 2004

So, tonight, I completed the ‘stage one’ technical work on Edward Cowie’s (4 book) ‘Bird Portraits’. I did the the 3rd book last ‘Wood and Garden Birds’ ( Tawny Owl – Green Woodpecker – Song Thrush  – Wren – Wood Warbler). It has not been lost on me, that I did not practise the books in order. In fact I want, very briefly to comment on that. It’s useful:

  1. I practised the books (see below if you don’t believe me), in the order 1 – 2 – 4 – 3
  2. Within each book, I came up with different strategies for working through the order of the  movements. Tonight, I worked on the 5 movements in the following order 5 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
  3. Within each movement I came up with differerent systems to find my way through the materials, using the motivic paradigm I have talked about earlier these scribblings. But in general, the method of working on each section motivically, can be summed up as ‘follow the white rabbit(s)’ – that is, chase down each motif and then its cousins, systematically, one by one, until all the ‘rabbits’ have been caught and are sitting in hutches, contently munching on a carrot (that’s quite enough of that metaphor).
  4. However: over the past 24 hours I noticed that I was using another trick, within the motif/rabbit-hunt system, to move around each movement. This has emerged over the weeks findig my way into Cowie’s world, and it’s not something that I have planned. It works thus. Work across a movement, just covering one figure/motif. Then before finding the next one, begin at the other end of the movement and work on the next one, in the reverse order, and repeat. Effectively the technical work is bouncing off the ‘end wall’ of each movement, like a very early computer game. I am surprised to find myself using this technique.

I am sure, that it is glaringly obvious, that there is a relationship between the various methods listed above, that the large and small scale approaches map onto each other. It will also be clear, that now, before I start to investigate how integration with the complexities of the piano part dovetails with this work, I need, desperately to look at all my technical conclusions and procedures in one arch, to find out what doesn’t fit. This will be exciting, but I am not going to attempt it tonight!

Practising this, I find that I am using a procedure I discovered whilst giving performances of Priaulx Rainier’s second violin concerto, Wildlife Celebration  .  When this work was written (for the writer and naturalist, Gerald Durrell), in 1983-4, concerti where the soloist has to write a cadenza were comparatively rare. Indeed, I did not find out that there should be a cadenza, until I was on my way to the first rehearsal with orchestra, in St Helier, Jersey in 2003 ( the piece had been premiered there in 1983, by Yehudi Menuhin), and my driver, who had played in the original performance, said:

‘I’m looking foward to your cadenza'[….!]

…which led to a hasty leafing through the music in the back of the car, where I then realised what the words ‘ad lib’ might mean. That night, I sat up till the sun came up with the score, in my (rather uncomfortable) hotel room, asking what Rainier might have wanted me to do. Then I realised, that a structural procedure that she was using, vertically and horizontally, throughout, might be described (rather appropriately, given the title of the piece) as ‘nesting’. What I mean simply, is that as a theme finds its way though her concerto, backwards and forwards, more or less material, from other motifs, finds its way between its lines, bars, staves, leger lines and note heads, elbows ITS way in and then acts in the same way –  more interstitial material finds its way into that theme. When I realised that, I was able to build a cadenza using similar procedures – circlings, interventions, and nestings. You can see my second version of that cadenza, which I wrote for a performance in Wichita, the following year.

This is exactly the way that I have been practising Edward’s piece, and may, or may not, have a relationship to the procedures he may or may not have used to write it! Whatever, I am grateful to Rainier for helping me along the way. It’s clear, to me, that we always must consider how our practise techniques map onto, scrutinise, the way in which a piece has been written.

The most important thing for me, in all of this, is Cowie’s notion that piece of music is a habitat, or habitats. And any habitat offers space for myriad more. I think about the young Gerald Durrell watchin a wall in Corfu in My Family and other animals , which I discovered, like thousands of children, when I was 10 or eleven, and then was delighted to find was a set book at school! Rainier’s concerto is a habitat, with all the players, different families of animals and the violin some mad, vicious, cross between a phoenix and the ‘Emperor’s Nightingale’. Cowie explores the idea, the layers, the ecologies of ‘habitat’ on every level of his miraculous piece. I am sure Durrell would love it.

Snow, lichen, moss 24 1 15

And here’s that cadenza, by itself as ‘For Priaulx Rainier’:



Overnight 10th – 11th February

Comfort at the practice desk. Pencils, pens, Verbena and a steam engine built at Nine Elms 10 2 21

I have been thinking about something that I have heard a lot over the past 11 months. Many musicians have been talking about how hard they find it to practise during the current situation, or that they are not practising/have not practised, or are so out of practice that they find playing uncomfortable when they return to the instrument. I do not and will not downplay the disaster of Covid for artists, but what is interesting, particularly in the light of some advice I noticed handed out by a musician yesterday, is that what is actually being talked about is how the ‘situation’ has highlighted, thrown into sharp relief, a discomfort, anxiety, that many musicians have about their ‘practice’ in the broadest terms.

I think that the crucial word here is ‘discomfort’. In order to do good work, on a daily basis, we have to be comfortable. So, when we think about out ‘practice space’ (literally and figuratively), I think that it’s a good idea to ask the question -Is this the place I feel comfortabl/happy, or not?

I am lucky. Practice is the best work I know. If I am feeling scratchy, discombolulated, ill-at-ease, I know that taking time at the desk, with violin, with the music that I love, is closr to a panacea.

Of course, on the negatiev side, I might simply be addicted to practice, and the withdrawal from practice might be so dreadful, that I don’t do it (I need my fix). But I am not sure that that’s such a bad thing, even if it were proven to be true; which I am sure that it is not.

So the only answer that I have, is that the ‘practice space’ should be set up, in the way most condusive to good work, and to ensure that we feel good. This was on my mind last night, when I set out to work on the last book of Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’.

Now, of course, the most important, the vital comforting integer of the safe practice environment, is the music itself. And tonight I have been working on the music of a living composer whose work I love, who is a true friend, Edward Cowie. So that means that I am not alone: I have a companion with me, and their view of the world comes with them. So, last night, what Ed, and his exquisite music brought into the practice room was his love of birds – most particularly, sea birds. Here were my thoughts, reflections as his music finds its way into my hands, my mind, and my imagination:

  1. Curlews. For me, this is childhood summers by Gillan Creek on the south coast of Cornwall. Long late August evenings, with the sun going down behind the oak trees that reach down to the water, and silhouetting a stand of Scots Pines that stood on a bluff of the creek up stream from the sandbank on which we stayed. Tide on the ebb, and the cascading calls of the curlew, rill-like scrolls of song – the decoratives on a Stuart signature.
  2. Cormorant. Here by the river, the Cormorant is the dominant hunter. When we go and drink coffee by the docks, there are couple of the mediterranean variety, (Parlocrocorax sinenssis , not -carbo) who haunt the pontoons with their mohican haircut and surly attitude. They are funnier than they would hope to appear.
  3. Osprey. I have never seen an Osprey near the sea, but only inland, hunting with Golden Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks along the Mississippi in the Midwest. The best place to see them is from the sandstone bluffs south of Redwing. He we watch them from the woods, from eye-level and above, readying their plunge into the river below. It reminds me how much I miss Minnesota.
  4. Arctic Terns. I think about travel. The Arctic Tern is one of the great travellers – migratng vast distances. And it has a little head and shorter bill than the Common or Roseate Terns – so that, when it loops, dives and pauses, the wings look as if they are ahead of the body
  5. Puffin(s). I have never seen a puffin at rest, or at eye level, but only in flight, from the deck of a ship. There’s a frantic busy-ness about the wing speed as they buzz along the waver tops, always in a determined hurry to get somewhere.
  6. Great Northern Diver. I am back in the Midwest, by the St Croix river in the evening. It’s the state bird of Minnesota, the ‘Great Northern Loon’ and Ed’s piece reminds me of its song ‘aaoowww …. eea eah ee eah’. What a way to end the cycle .

So I have been sitting here, journeyed with my violin, with Ed, with the birds, but in at the comfort of my practice desk. It’ bitterly cold outside, but I have a blanket over my shoulders, Verbena tea, and a wonderful little model of a Victorian tank engine, an LSWR B4 – ‘Guernsey’ which was built upriver from here, at Nine Elms, in the 1890s. Ed loves trains like I do, so will understand why I might need one on my work desk!

Overnight 9th- 10th February

Röntgen meets Bach!

It was a long day, so tonight I just played around with two movements from Julius Röntgen’s 2nd Suite. Do look below for clarity (these posts build, of course, backwards). The second of these, is a tiny Bouree, marked ‘Alt-Hollaendisch’ and ‘con sentimento’.

One of the most charming things about playing, and especially practising, the music of every composer is hearing, and feeling, the music that they love, both to hear, study and to play. With Brahms, it’s Beethoven, with Mendelssohn-Bach, Britten-Purcell, Paganini-Locatelli … there’s no ‘anxiety of influence’ for composers and musicians! It also means that we are never alone: practice the music of Bach, and often, he brings Vivaldi, Torelli and Marcello into the room to help!

This tiny movement is based on a simple earworm, and the minute you play, or see it, you will notice what is in the composer’s mind. It’s the beginning the second of the two Bourees from Bach’s C Major Cello Suite  –  which, until the current dominance of the G Major prelude, used to be the most heard of all Bach’s solo cello works. The reason that this is interesting, is that there is clearly a compositional relationship between the way that the Bach’s interlocked movements (two sides of the same coin) work. I find myself imagining Röntgen, viola in hand, joyfully playing the Bach, appreciating the brilliance of the construction, and the germ of this little piece’s construction appearing. The 2 bar motif, in various forms, appears 14 times in the 21 bar piece. There’s nothing else to it – the brilliance is how Röntgen turns it into a pun of it self – one version takes the dropping fourth of the second bar, inverts it, and puts it on top of the theme – which then accompanies itself. It’s a witty conversation with Bach, and a light one. Nothing to it, and it blows away like a Dandelion clock – but is there anything more beautiful than that?

The other movement that I spent time with was a Loure. Its interesting to me that Röntgen is most interested in the dance movement that Bach used the least – in the solo string works, just once, in the E Major Partita . But then it gets interesting. The most wonderful thing about the Loure is the ‘poise’ of the upbeat, meaning that the following down- lands like a feather. I am thinking about Shakespeare:

‘The Swan’s down feather, that stands upon the swell at full of tide, and neither way inclines […]’ (Anthony and Cleopatra 3:2)

Of course, this is a type of minuet, but an elegant one. Röntgen’s solution, or maybe his game, with the form is to give the impression of the 1 – 2 – 3, using a 3/4 – 2/4 trick. It took me a moment to realise how this works … then then the penny, or the feather, dropped: each pairing of two bars 123/12 works thus in the mind  1 2 [123] [12]. So ‘5/4’ (3:2), as a ‘limping pentasyllable’  – it’s Choliambic verse (?????????). Now I have Catullus on my mind:

‘Miser Catulle, :desinas ineptire’ (Carmina VIII)

And like Catullus, however trenchant, however desperate the subject matter, the execution is, as everything today, down and windflower!

Overnight 8th – 9th February

‘Bizarria’ from Julius Röntgen’s first Suite (1922) – first technical work complete 8 2 21

So, tonight -time for me to get my teeth into the all the technical material for Julius Röntgen’s 1st Suite. It’s moments like this that I remember Josh/Bradley Whitford tying himself into his his chair in order to make sure that he gets the work done … disaster ensues. But I made myself a pot of tea, and writing this at 5 am, as I am justfinished. This is not a complex or large work – 8 pages long  – and I had worked on one and a hald of the movements prior to tonight. It is, about 15 minutes long. So it’s a useful guideline, to know that this simple structural/technical work, took about 4 1/2 hours.

I have been thinking about how practice needs to work on micro and macro levels. Digging into the detail, I take note of the simplest aspect of the structure. the movements – these work thus:

Praeludium (Allegro giusto), Air (Lento espressivo), Bizzaria (Con moto), Sarabanda (Largo) -Fuga (Allegro non troppo) – [Sarabande/reprise] Largo

The composer’s playfulness with a traditional form (the ‘Bizarria is in 2/4 5/4 3/4), is a clue (maybe as to the manner in which the piece should be played, and marks out a clear distance from the Preludes and Fugues by Max Reger for solo violin (from a decade or so earlier). There’s more than suggestion of the raised eyebrow and smile of the playful chamber musician. This music, clearly, wears its learning lightly, can smile and giggle as well as weep.

The next, maybe obvious, thing to note, is that a technical issue which seems initially intractable, can ‘thaw and resolve itself into a dew’ 24 hours later. I don’t want to suggest that we should use this as a practise techique, as I have experienced the opposite (!), but it’s fascinating when it happens. I was having trouble last night, finding a hand position, a block, for some of the chromatic figures used, and, I confess, was too tired to face the work ( I gave up and took my tea to the sofa, if I am honest). Today, last night’s problem had, at least, clarified: it still needed work, but the way forward was clear.

Much on my mind tonight, the question of style. Tweeting a few nights ago, the pianist Peter Donohoe asked:

‘Here’s a question for the clever and thoughtful: should ornaments from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period (which is often actually neo-baroque) be played in the style of the 1920s and 30s, or with classical/baroque authenticity in mind?’ (@PeterHDonohoe Feb 5th 2021)

I answered:

‘This is one of my favourite questions. Tippett cheerfully complicated the question, in conversation,saying his music took off (and of course, there’s so much baroque and renaissance poise and grace) when the generation who grew up with the informed movement started playing it’

Röntgen’s suites make reference to barouqe music in title, form and material. And of course, he was an accomplished string player (he played chamber music with Casals, as well as Nielsen). So I have been going back and forwards on this question. On the surface, if might be seen as simply – how would he/did he play ‘baroque music’ (see Donohoe’s question) but it’s complicated by the fact that the way a composer writes and the way that they play can be in opposition to each other (Bela Bartok is an example of this), whilst being complimentary. And, as I hinted, in my comment about Tippett (above), composers are prone to moving their position as stylistic changes take place: there’s no question that Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No 1  (1977) was changed permamently, both in performance practice, and by extension, substance, by the encounter with the young players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the first generation of modern players to grow up with broad awareness of and involvement in the light-footed approach to early music of the period movement.

I am not sure that I have an answer to this yet. So in the morning, I will get the violin out, and see what happens!!!

Here it is!


Overnight 7th – 8th February

Nielsen playing chamber music with Julius Röntgen

Sometimes practice is far more thinking than playing. This often happens when a new voice enters the hands and mind, or/and (both in this case) when a project becomes clear. Over the past week, it has become clear to me that there’s a project emerging, which explores the to and fro between a linked groups of musicians – the characters at the moment are Carl Nielsen – Hindemith -Emil Telmanyi – Percy Grainger – Paul Hindemith – Spillemaender ( Dansk og Norsk)  – Johann Halvorsen – and the link between so many of them, Julius Röntgen.

So practice tonight, on the first of Röntgen’s 6 Serenades & Sonatas Op 68  for solo violin, consisted of working out some of his technical procedures, thinking about the link betweemn these pieces (published in in 1922 – see where I am going with this {see below}), and the other works in this ‘foullis’, and leaning out of the window watching the snow find its way in. For there’s no question that this ‘idead of north’ project is influenced by the circling winter, that seems to gradually digging iron claws into the land.

If there has been one technical question which has occupied me all night, even though my practice is scattered, it’s a simple one, and related to the question of ‘finger fall; which flowers from my exploration of Hindemith’s solo works. How shall explain, maybe a series of propositions will do it:

  1. the violin has 4 strings GDAE
  2. at any time, I will use or not use these strings in an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ manner
  3. Imagine a dominant seventh figure I III V VII
  4. played on two adjacent strings 1 3 1 3
  5. Moving up and down 1 3 1 3,1 3 1 3, 13 13,
  6. OR  1 3 1 3, 2 4 2 4, 1 3 1 3, 2 4 2 4,
  7. As this goes down the instrument (presuming we start on A and E strings), this will cross to adjacent strings  AE, DA, GD
  8. SO: should the hand moving down the vioiln be  AE (1 3 1 3), DA (1 3 1 3 1 3), DG (1 3 1 3 3)? keeping the sequence ‘pure’
  9. OR: AE ( 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 2 0 2 0), DA ( 3 1 3 1 3 1 3 2 0 2 0), DG ( 3 1 31 3 1 3 2 0 2 0)
  10. OR: AE ( 4 2 4 2 3 1 31 2 0 2 0), DA (3 1 3 1 4 2 4 3 1 3 1 2 0 2 0), DG (3 1 3 1 4 2 4 3 1 3 1 2 0 2 0)
  11. or other combinations ?

These questions are more happily vexed when we take into consideration enharmonic procedures. Telmanyi and Nielsen make the answer to these questions clear in their exhaustive technical instructions, but, like Hindemith, Röntgen does not – his solo writing is comparatively free of editorial.

This is linked to the question of block fingerings in Mozart concertos – Mozart, like Hindemith and Röntgen, was prone to using technical short cuts as compositional devices in his teens (see the violin concerti). The esthetical and ethical question is, what do we do now.


Ovenight 6th-7th February 

The composer’s hand, and the composer’s instructions! In three languages

So, I am still luxuriating in Nielsen’s wonderful violin writing. Tonight, I worked on the whole of the Presto- the second half of the piece I began talking about below.

First of all, some benefits. It was immediately clear to me, that spending time yesterday with ‘The Children are playing’ has really helped me. It should be obvious, but I am always surprised, at how effective working in this way is – if you are practising something complex, find your way to something less fraught, by the same composer, to clear the air. Then when you come back to the the more challenging material, you will find that things seems clearer, the way more apparent.

As I write this, I am reminded of being disappointed, albeit briefly, when I was 14/15 by the great Ralph Holmes, demanding (not surprisingly) that I stop bringing Vieuxtemps & Paganini virtuoso works to my violin lessons (it must have been awful) and:

‘Lets work on some vocal … simple and singing, that’s what we need’.

He made me work on the Kreisler version of the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ for two weeks – nothing but that. I was furious, and ashamed, initially … and then I worked out what he wanted, and that it was the real challenge. I never heard Holmes play the piece, but around the that time Ginette Neveu’s astonishing performance (at 19, in 1938) was re-issued, and I got the message. Here it is:

It’s a miracle, and listening to it, I am just astonished at Gluck’s achievement. No more perfect, less predictable melody was ever written … Blessed Spirits indeed.

What I want to note today, is how Nielsen and Telmanyi came up with an edition which aimed to help players, to help me, get as close to the music as possible. It’s not entirely clear why this was not published by Peters Verlag, who had taken such care with the ‘Prelude, Theme and Variations’, but this was a ‘home-produced’ publication (see my other writing on this). The upshot of this is two-fold:

Firstly I, we, are in direct contact with Nielsen (and perhaps Telmanyi’s handwriting). There’s something so expressive, and helpful about a composer’s physical interraction with their own music, particularly, in my opinion, when they are copying, rather than composing. I sense, to a greater or lesser degree in each case, a hint of how the composer might play the piece … by this time, Nielsen was not playing the violin regularly any more.

Secondly, Carl and Emil were able to mark the score up technically, to an almost absurd degree of exactitude. If you look at the photo above, you will see, in Nielsen’s formal hand, the instruction to hold a ‘covered 5th’ (my words) on the E and A string. It’s been notated in Danish, German, and slightly individual English. When the ‘Critical Edition’ of this score was brought out as part of the Danish Royal Library ‘Carl Nielsen Edition’ they removed the Danish and German and ‘corrected’ Nielsen’s English. This edition is not an improvement, but for all the interesting editorial commentary, fails to come up to the beauty of the ‘hjemmelavet’ first edition

But here’s all that I would like to say. It’s worth noting that this score appeared in 1928, four years after the publication of  Eugène Ysaÿe Six Sonates. Whilst Telmanyi does not mention these works in his memoir, there’s no question that he would have been aware of them – the point being that the edition of these works, prepared by Ysaÿe’s son, Antoine, set new standards of technical information for players. I think that it’s fair to say that they took the opportunity to push the envelope – it’s made very clear in by the intensity and look of this beautiful publication that notes, expressive indications and technical information are all of equal importance.

Here’s the Ysaÿe, live at the desk, as a reminder of more wonders from the 1920s!


Overnight 5th – 6th February

The first page of Prelude and Presto. ‘NB’!!

So back to Nielsen tonight. It was a long and happy evening of conversation, so I am unlikely to get so much done tonight. One thing which I learnt, happily, from my Yoga teachers, was that there is no virtue inv overstretching ourselves, literally and figuratively. Don’t do as much practice as you can. Don’t work as hard as you can. Aim for about 70-80 percent – that top 30-20  will just have to be (at best) reworked, or (more likely) damaging. So I just let my work tonight find its way and followed the ideas.

Before I go any further, some of you might think that I am skirting some obvious questions and issues with regard to this piece. By way of self-defence, here is a link to some writing (and playing) around abd about this piece, from a while back. This work, of course, is the foundation of the way the project is developing now. LINK-SHH! THE NIELSEN PROJECT

But tonight, something exciting has happened. For me, not anyone else. One of the reasons that we practise, and sometimes, it might see, practise pointlessly, is so that stuff can be allowed to happen. As should be obvious from the link, and from other work that I have done on Danish folk music, I have given this a certain amount of thought. But last night, violin, and cup of tea in hand, the way forward, bringing together these pieces, some of my transcriptions of Nielsen, Spillemaendmelodier, and regional folk dances, suddenly coallesced into a recoring project. So watch this space.

But, and this was the step forward, I realised that the way that I wanted to push this forward was working with some miniatures. These were tiny pieces, orginally for flute and viola, which Nielsen wrote for a performance of ‘Moderen’ (The Mother) (his Op 41)  with verses by Helge Rode at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen in 1921. One of these, ‘Tågen letter’ (The Fog is Lifting) is the epitome of everything the fascinates me about the ‘Danish Voice’. Listen to ‘Nielsen’s flutist’, Holger Gilbert-Jespersen playing it in 1936.

So, tonight, I have confined my work to ‘Børnene leger’ (The Children are Playing) – also originally for solo flute, also from ‘The Mother’. I won’t say too much about it, but here it is


Overnight 4th – 5th February

Refacing a wall on our building. Wapping 4 2 21

The weather is beginning to turn cold again, after a couple of warmer wet days. But it poured all day, so my son and I went off for a  little four mile amble to find bread and beigels. London in the rain is beautiful, and the walk became all about brick and stone. Indeed, when I got the violin out to do the final tranche of ‘first stage’ technical work on the Nielsen variations for Emil Telmanyi, those textures, colours and relections filled my  ear and eye.

The end of the set is not  a coda, nor a brilliant finish, but a restatement of the ‘Tempo di Tema’, marked ‘Solenne’. It’s worth noting the expressive instructions with which Nielsen gives in each section of the work, as these offer a clue as to the dramatic shape and quality of the whole work.

‘…con fantasia…semplice…grazioso…a la Arlequino…molto espressivo…mystico e fantastico…molto deciso…giusto…quieto ad lib…solenne’

What is fascinating to me is that the piece is so polarised. Each time that the Theme is presened in ‘recognisable’ form – Theme, Variation III, Variation VIII, and the final Tempo di Tema – it is solemn, a hymn tune. But all the other variations, and the extended Prelude which begins the work, are filled with multi-faceted brilliance and highly characterised, even caricatured, virtuosity, and wit. It’s like a switch-back between a lutheran service and a carnival performance. Of course, no one who knows Nielsen’s output will be in the least surprised by this: chorales and commedia dell-arte are dominant polarities in his work.

It’s also worth noting that the piece finds its way to a homage to Bach. The three- and four – part polyphony of the last movement is an explicit allusion to the Fuga from that composer’s C Major Solo Sonata.  Of course, Telmanyi was, famous, even infamous, later in his career, for his performances and recordings of Bach with the ‘Vega Bow’. But his experimentation with bows which aimed to ‘solve’ the problem ( as it was seen) of sustaining large chords in countrapuntal writing did not begin until1935, over a decade after this pieces was written for him.

So it’s very clear, that both Nielsen and his violinist, worked very hard on the voice-leading in this section, using very carefully presented slurs and beaming to show where the the chord should be ‘led’ ( I really never use the work ‘break’) – top, bottom or middle. The diligence with which this has been executed makes it clear that they expected the same thought to be given to the ‘routes’ from chord to chord, throughout the work. It’s going to be very exciting to move straight to the other great work for solo vioin,  ‘Praeludium og Presto’, with this in mind, especially as that work, about which I have written a lot in the past, is notated with fantastic exactitude.

Having completed (humour me), the technical work on the finale, my next task was to being the task of tying the whole structure together. As will have been clear, over the past three nights, one of the curious consequences of working in an organised way on variation form is that I tend to not use the ‘motific’ methods outlined earlier this week. Writing this, I am coming to the conclusion that this is a mistake, and that it will be helpful to make a pass at the piece as if it were one movement, hunting through it, figure by figure, to see what the outcome will be, expressively and musically.

Telmanyi’s memoir ‘Af en musikers billebog’ (from a musician’s picture book), is, in my opinion, by far and away the best, and the most amusing autobiographical work by a violinist. It’s never been published in anything but Danish, which is a shame for anyone who can’t read a nordic language.

Inspiration on the practice desk. Telmanyi’s memoir

His account of the genesis of this piece, sheds light on the clear Bach influence. He notes that, in 1920, Nielsen was very excited by his son-in-law’s Bach playing. He expressed a desire to write a major solo work. This did not begin to appear until the end of 1922, and was finished (in the composer’s opinion), ready for their trip together to the UK in the spring of 1923. However, this version of the piece had 7 variations, not 8. Telmanyi, never shy of confronting composers, told Nielsen  the last two sections were simply ‘too sad’, and encouraged him to write something more, brilliant, along the lines of the Paganini Capricci. He wrote variation 7 in the great Russell Square Hotel, which still stands today – a magnificent building, in the four days between their performance of the Violin Concerto at Queen’s Hall, and Telmanyi’s solo recital at the Aeolian Hall on New Bond Street (now Belstaff’s  Store). When it was finished, the violinist sweated away in his hotel room, to get it ready in time.

Interestingly, his last performance of teh work was back in London, a BBC broadcast in 1955.


Overnight 3rd-4th February

One of the most wonderful pages of inventive and expressive virtuoso writing. Variation VII of the Nielsen set, with påskeliljer, which he would like, I am sure

So I am really enjoying digging deeper into this exchange of violin-ideas with Nielsen and Telmanyi. I found myself working very late/early tonight, and the last hour of practice was graced by birds singing their hearts out, outside my open window.

Side Bar on temperature: I find that the best temperature to work at, is as cold as I can get the room (as long as there is no wind). So all pratice is done with the window open (I sit about two metres from it). This is the temperature I think best and seems to help me find the right shapes and physical configurations – I also like to record cold (this does not work for ANY of my colleagues…!)

As it turned out, the birds served as a useful reminder. They sang the most while I was working on the wonderful 7th varation. This has 64 notes per bar, and, I confess, I have tended, in the past, to miss its charm. Bird song in my ears (thrush, wren, blackbird and robin the most vocal tonight) offer the clue how this should be played – great lyrical outpourings of gilded, silvered, liquid storytelling … not frantic scrubbing. I  refered myself back to the Chaucer that I mentioned earlier in this blog!

With this in mind, Telmanyi’s exacting fingerings offer insight into who that should be achieved. Whilst there is a lot of block-fingering used (it’s how Nielsen-as-violinist imagined the music in his own hand), Telmanyi finds myriad devices to move the hand, mid-block, introducing delightful swoops and graces and rills into the rivers of notes. I remember Coleridge:

‘…here were gardens, bright with sinuous rills.’

I had written many of these out, in my previous technical approach. As regards the right hand, Telmanyi also constantly reverses the bow direction. This has a delicate effect on syntax and scansion – one might even think of it as a stage direction, as if a run of 64 notes starting down-bow, comes from stage right, a similar run beginning up-bow, from stage left. I had also neglected this subtletly, which often works itself out, over long stretches. I have a bad conscience about this, but am relishing rectifying my oversight!

I found that there was one technical area which Telmanyi was pushing me hard tonight. That was in the area of low contractions of the left hand. This is, perhaps the most ‘Hungarian’ aspect of his playing – it can be heard to brilliant effect in the cadenza of Bartók’s 2nd Violin Concerto.

Ede Telmanyi

If you want to imagine this, put a second finger on the Enatural on the D string, first on B flat on the A String, then third on the A natural on the A. Then make the following movement to the first inversation B flat major chord via the third finger G on the Estring. The hand has to remain in situ.


here’s the contraction I am talking about

Now, it is possible to ‘cheat’ – to play a ‘spread’, ‘open’ fingering. But the technique enables to to strike the chord ‘in one’. The challenge is that the hand needs to arch back almost to the pegs, and most players don’t realise how much they use the ‘nut’ where the fingerboard meets scroll, as a a locator (trying playing a violin where the nut has been configured in  a non-standard way and you will find out how much you use this). It’s really healthy, like tonight, to spend some minutes reminding myself to use this shape, and to remember th harmonic benefits it offers. This is not somethinf which Carl Flesch really understood – I recommend Principles of Violin Fingering Paperback – by I.M. Yampolsky, if you want to go deep into this.

Overnight 2-3rd February

Lying on a 1040s Danish school map, my violin points towards Odense. Appropriately enough

As promised, I found my way back to Nielsen tonight.  I have realised that the vast majority of my work on Danish music in the last decade, has been online. I am fascinated, obsessed even, by the interweave between the music of Gade, Weyse, Hartmann, Nielsen, the chamber music societies of the 19th century, hymn-singing, instrument technologies in DK in the 20th century, and of course the ‘Spillemaend’ tradition. But it’s been largely private. Here’s one of the tiny outcomes, recorded in Lockdown.


If I am honest,  at various times, I made various suggestions in the country, about exploring some of these things – often at meetings with important ‘men with pipes’ (this is the way that my wife and I have always characterised surprising aspects of the Danish establishment). It was made very clear to me, more than once, that: yes, the ideas are lovely, and we would love to do it, but only with a Dane. Which was not unexpected. But has been disappointing! But I refuse to complain.

So tonight I have been working on 4 of the variations from the Nielsen set. I began with a tiny album fragramnet given to his violin pupil Agnes Bauditz in 1890. Its the simplest thing, but has some of the elements which distinguish his most challenging violin style (confidence with big chords, and ‘slippery’ figuration)

If you have read his Min Fynske Barndom, the memoir of his childhood, you will know that he included in it  his earliest work, a Polka, which aroused the disapproval of his father, renowned as the best ‘Spillemaend’ on Fyn. Nielsen played the violin to a high level for the whole of his life, but I would say that there is always the sense of a ‘sprung’ approach to the instrument that can be see/head here.

The 9 year old Carl Nielsen’s Polka. This did not please his father….

Tonight, I have been focusing on technical innovations. It’s not entirely clear how much these were Nielsen, or Emil Telmanyi’s (see below) inventions. With everything that I have said about collaborative work in the past, I am comfortable with saying that it does not matter. The shared workshop between Nielsen and his Hungarian/Danish son-in-law was the closest and the most interlinked that I can imagine.

In variation one, for instance there are left hand pizzicato passages, alternating arco/lh pizz as we recognise from Paganini. In this instance, the player is instructed that this passage is to be played ‘left hand and arco at the same time’. This produces a wonderful fevered effect, and is, if not unique, striking,

Looking at the extraordinarily elaborate score, published by Peters Verlag in 1925 and revised in 1953, we are able to ‘take a violin lesson’ from Telmanyi, using the very precise fingerings and bowings indicated. It’s pretty clear, that when the edition was revised in 1953, Telmanyi was able to add to the plate – careful exmaination reveals some fingerings added ‘free hand’ to the plate. These do not contradict his earlier thoughts, but clarify intentions which were, perhaps less than clear 2 decades earlier.

I have to be honest. If I look at the (dated) technical work that I did on this, 12 years ago, I was resistant to Telmanyi’s brilliance, and failed to take the opportunity that is in front of us when we work with an exhaustively marked score like this. Which is this: Have a violin lesson with one of the greats. Last night, working away with his markings, getting my body and hands into the shapes he demands, thinking about why he has written certain devices, my knowledge of and wonder at his playing, I felt his hand on my arm, shaping my fingers, shaping the lines. I do urge you to do this, and sat ‘tut-tut-ing’ at my failure to do this earlier.

Here’s what came out the next day – the little albumleaf for Agnes Bauditz and three readings of early Danish folk melodies. A sunset for Carl Nielsen



Overnight 1st – 2nd February

Nielsen and Hallgrimsson, plus the all-important cup of tea on my work table. 3am

Tonight’s work took an interesting turn. I am in the midst of reorganising the never-ending maelstrom of my music library, and that pushes music back into my mind. I had already decided to that practice would focus on an ‘orphan’ movement. I am just in the process of preparing the commercial release of Hafliði Hallgrímsson’s solo works , including his  15-movement ‘Klee Sketches’, which he composed for me, between 2005 and 2018. Along the way movements were revised and, in one case, dropped. A movement ‘Klee the Virtuoso’, written in 2011, failed to make the final cut. But I am very fond of this piece, particularly because I learnt such a lot from first studying and performing it. So it was fascinating to go back and work in detail on this movement, particularly after the intense work over the past 18 months, with  performances, broadcasts, recordings and lectures of the completed cycle.  It’s like coming back to an old friend.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Hafliði’s writing, is that he writes from a string-player’s (he had a very successful career as a cellist) point of view, but a string player who is liberated from the need to perform. I think that you can imagine where this might feel different from playing the work of Hindemith, who remained an active violist and violinist as long as he composed. What this gives Hafliði is the freedom to demand that I leap over certain problems: he knows precisely where the challenges lie, but also requires that I/we. find the courage to transcend them. Very often, and especially in this particularly capricious movement, the leaping that he requires of me is leaping over strings, across the compass of the instrument. This reminds me of the great flutist and teacher, William Bennett, demonstrating the Arthur Honneger ‘Danse de la chèvre’ (1921) by leaping up and between chairs in his teaching room (412) at the Academy – like the eponymous Mountain Goat -the very essence of capricious capering (think ‘Capricorn’ if my meaning is not clear).

Where of course, there’s a huge difference between Hallgrímsson and Hindemith’s respective approaches to the string instruments which they played, it is in the matter of colour and timbre. Now, I am the greatest admirer of Hindemith’s music, but I could never say that he was a colourist – at no time in his writing or playing, does he require us or himself to utilise anything but the most direct bow contact, the most honest ( if you like) palette of dynamics and expressive devices. By way of contrast, colour and timbre are not only fundamental to Hallgrímsson’s gamut of musical signs, he often uses pools of colour or thickets of timbre, not as resting points or atmospheric evocations, but as the music itself – the flicker of hot-house tremolo on major and minor thirds as structural and fundamental to the ongoing drama, the story telling of his music, as the octotonic scales, and chains of 7ths and 9ths (in this piece) which Hindemith would recognise.



But while I was practising, I realised that Hallgrímsson was pointing me back to another work which is very important to me, and back, again to the 1920s, in this case 1923. In that year, Carl Nielsen was invited to the UK to conduct the LSO. His son-in-law, the Hungarian/Danish violinist Emil Telmányi came with him to play the violin concerto, and Nielsen wrote him the wonderful  Præludium og tema med variationer Op 48 to play on that tour. This piece was crafted around Telmányi’s extraordinary playing, and, like the other great solo work that he would wrote for him, Preludio e Presto,  demands quite outrageous physical and emotional exactness and control. So it felt very natural, to go from the refined ear and virtuosity of ‘Klee the virtuoso’ to the brilliantly presented Nielsen work – just working on the initial prelude, which is 4 pages (one quarter of this large-scale set).

And I was reminded of a turning-point moment, which took place in a public library in Jylland/Jutland in the summer of 1988.  I was visiting Denmark, and completely entranced by the landscape and atmosphere of  Midtjylland. I was under strict instructions, to ask for recordings of Telmányi, and to pull this piece, and the Violin Concerto from the shelves. The library is magnificent, and I found a comfortable table and chair in the music section, and sat down to read and listen. To be honest, I was thunderstruck, by the demands of Nielsen’s violin writing, and initially confused and what seemed to be over intellectual complications and tortured technical obscurities on the violin.

But then I heard Telmányi. All that I can say was that I came back to the home I was staying at, shaking. I had quite literally not known that that the violin could do that. If you want to know what I mean, I will point in the direction of Telmányi playing der Zephir, by his teacher, Jen? Hubay. I had never  realised that such direct emotional engagement with every note, all the time, and such character could be achieved. Listen to this:

It now strikes me that something strange was happening. As far as I can work it out from my sketch journal keeping at this time, I was sitting in that library sometime in the third week of June 1988. Telmanyi died in Copenhagen on the 18th June.

Overnight 31st February – 1st February

Score with two pictures of Thorvald Nielsen’s quartet (with Erling Bloch, Louis Hensen and Hans Kassow) from the book printed in 1865 to celebrate 100 years of Kammermusikforingen

I was not expecting to practise tonight, as I have nasty cold. But, by 4 am, it was obvious that the only thing that was going to be comfortable was playing the violin, so … back to the desk and back to Hindemith, back again in 1922.

I have been intrigued, for some time, by the relationship between the two violin sonatas written for Hindemith’s colleagues in the Amar Quartet, and a single movement ‘Praeludium for violin alone’ that he wrote in 1922. As is often the case, I became diverted by the history of the piece at the practice desk.

It struck me that the in terms of construction, this works in a very similar way to the ‘Prestissimo’ movement from the Op 31 no 1 that I worked on last (see below). It’s also a very practical way of composing fast and well. Here (and of course, this is how my practice organised itself as I ‘followed the white rabbit’):

Whole movement – 46 bars

Bar 1 motif: 6x untransposed,  3x transposed  (9 bars)

Bar 2 motif: 2x untransposed, 3x transposed (5 bars)

Bar 3 motif:8x untransposed 5x transposed (11 bars)

Bar 17 motif: 3 times untransposed, 4 x transposed (7 bars)

Bar 18 motif: 3 times untransposed, 1x transposed (4 bars)

That’s 36 bars. The remaining 10 bars are related to the above, with the exception of a sneaky weavins scale of whole tones. Just like Haydn, another emminently practical composer, Hindemith uses a virtuoso scale to introduce a sense of reprise. And of course, the last bar, a held B flat octave, could be seen as monumentally unrelated – it’s the only octave in a piece dominated by clangorous  minor 7ths and major 2nds. If one was uncharitable, one could say that there’s an unavoidable sense of resolution, if you hammer away at every clashing, even dissonant (never atonal) gesture for 90 seconds and then play a lovely B flat octave! Like the sun coming out. But with a composer of Hindemith’s mastery, that is very far from the case. I really love it!

Paul Hindemith wrote this piece for the violinist and quartet player Thorvald Nielsen. He met him and the other members of Nielsen’s quartet (see above) at concert they gave on the 30th November 1922 (the dates on the MS). This concert took place at Copenhagen’s celebrated ‘Kammermusikforeningen’ (the oldest chamber music society in Denmark). In the memoir that Erling Bloch wrote for the Centenary ‘Festskrift’ for the society (1965), he remembered that the concert also featured ‘the famous pianist Arthur Schnabel’, and took place in the hall of ‘Industriforeningen’. New music was never featured on the programmes of the society – when the Amar’s played Honneger, Webern and Hindemith, it was at ‘Ny Musik’ the day after this concert and the date on this MS. The very first time I played in Copenhagen, it was at this society.

And here it is!

Overnight 30th-31st January

Last movement of Hindemith’s solo sonata for Licco Amar.

First of all, I should note that this is the last overnight session for the month. I have tallied up the sessions, and found that I have done 23 of them. From a neurotic point of view, this, very roughly means that I do 7 night sessions every 8 days. As I average 3 hours practice per night, this lets me know that I can expect to do 1000 hours nocturnal practice per year ( as separate from daytime work and rehearsal). This month has been very busy, from a editing, lecturing, lecture recitaling, teaching point of view, so that’s instructive.

Lets keep counting…

Tonight I returned to the pair of sonatas (2) that Hindemith wrote for the two violinists in his quartet, in 1922-3. Op 31 no 1 was dedicated to the leader, Licco Amar. Working on the last movement (5), I thought that should bring together my interest in motif-driven practice and technical gambits, most particularly the idea of ‘finger-fall’ – where the fingers naturally fall on the strings in rapid passage work.

Just to provide a window in the train-spotting element of motif work. The opening gesture of the work, in this context, is best understood as the number created by the fingering contained in one bow:


This appears, in the home pitch, 5 times – but like this

  1. Full (1)
  2. Extended by ‘21231’ (1 +)
  3. Shortened ”410120310131230123′  (1 -)followed by the same pattern ‘41012[4]31[4]131’ an augmented 5th lower with tonal adjust ments  resulting in the ‘4’s replacing open strings.
  4. Extended by ‘21231’ (1 +)

Then the coda is built from ”410120310′ (1 –) played 5 times, then ”41012′  (1 —)played 12 times.

As this motif is built from relaxed intervals in the hand (perfect 4ths, minor thirds, tones, semitones  and open strings) it is idealy for rapid playing. The whole trick of the movement is to sound much harder that it is.

Another motif, found across the movement is provided by blocks of held dyads  (2) on adjacent strings, played 1/4,.1/3, 1/2, 1/1,  or 2/3,(repeated) and played ‘bariolage’. Hindemith eschewed Italian for technical instruction, so this is marked, just the first time ‘Über zwei saiten’ (over two strings).

The ‘working out’ section of the piece, the middle, which I will not call ‘development’, is entirely genereated from what can be reached by playing ‘13131313’ on ‘GDAE’ (I.II.III.IIII), then ‘EADG’ (IIII.III.II.I), whilst moving the hand up and down by semitones (O.5). And of course, it’s the most relaxed, and the most brilliant part of the movement.

The corellary to all of this physical stuff, is the material which is harmonically generated – I come at this material in the same, manner, but if you like, working from the other end of the ‘stuff’.

What’s particulary exciting, is that Hindemith recorded so extensively across his career, that this style or writing was linked to his sound and attack at the instrument. Some found that it lacked charm or subtlety – But listen to him playing with the greatest cellist of the age (Emmanuel Feuermann) and you can hear how fantastically their playings gel.

One last observation which fascinates me about Hindemith, is bow distribution. most of the piece is later out in gatherings of six-quaver-bundles (6). If you look at the first page, you will find that the numbers of gatherings related to bow direction is this – if the first ‘forte arrival is a down-bow:

‘D4,U3, D4,U3,D2,U2,D4,U4,D5,U3,D5Plus’

The reprise, on the last page is:

‘U4, D3,U4,U3,D3,U3,D2,U3,D3,U5,D5,U3,D3,U3,D6,U6’

And, finally. Here’s something strange. In my mind’s ear, this piece ended quietly, whizzing off to the horizon like the last page of Vaughan Williams’ violin concerto (composed 1924-5), But of course, if does not; that’s the end of the 3rd movement ‘pppp …….’. Hindemith gives us three iterations of the opening ‘41012’ {3(1 —)} which I will, finally, admit is ‘B Fsharp,E, F sharp, G’ , framed with chromatic descending octave pillars: B, Bflat, A, A flat – and accompanied by another descending scale ‘C ….A’, ‘D….Bflat’, ‘D sharp….Blat/FSharp….C sharp’.

When I first studied this, when I was 16 or 17, I struck by the possibility that the whole of this movement had been built by avoiding pitch as a driver, but rather, in the manner of a some of Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘diagrams’ from 1927 – which are at once, choreography, map, drawing, and even score, but are, deliberately, abstracted from the traditional expectations of resonance and recognition (whilst, of course, relying on them, albeit in the background). After a night’s work on this lovely piece, I am more convinced of this than ever. Of course, 1922, was the year that Schlemmer and Hindemith collaborated on ‘Triadisches Ballet’, so this is hardly a revelation.

Oskar Schlemmer -‘Diagramm zu ‘Gestentanz’ 1927

And here it is!

Overnight 28th- 29th Jnauary

A favourite pen illuminates my score of de Machy

It’s been a long day, with two 90 minute online talks, so I knew that I would not have the energy to practice for more than a couple of hours tonight. I also knew that I need what might broadly be termed, ‘restorative’ practice. When I think in these terms, I have a tendency turn to the glories of the French baroque Viola da Gamba. Tonight, I knew that I wanted to work on one of the pieces by de Machy, known as Le Sieur de Machy (fl. 1655–1700). His Pièces de Violle (1685)  are a source of wonder to me, and the panacea for tiredness, and jadedness at the instrument.

I am a little surprised that viola players, whilst seeking out the gamba sonatas by J S Bach, resist the  richesse of the works for gamba alone from France. All the indications are, that these works were played on any instrument of the viola ‘ilk’, and I am a ‘broken record’ in my insistence that the wall between the gamba and violin families, is an artificial, anachronistic construction, which musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries would not acknowledge or understand.

Naturally, like any endeavour, there’s a little work involved. The most obvious of these is to do with tessitura. These work stretches an octave below the  pitch of the viola, so decisions have to be made as to whether to essay the same relative compass – from the low C on the viola and upwards, or to contract the tessitura. The answer is often different from piece to piece.

Today, I am working on a G Major ‘Chaconne’, and have really been enjoying the colour and voicing challenges of ‘fitting’ the piece to a viola (made 30 years before the work was published). It’s worth noting that, like most non-tablature viola music of the time, this work is written in two clefs (alto and bass). For the purpose of tonight’s exploratory work, I am tabling de Machy’s rich and detail suggestions of ornamentation, and working on the piece, if you like, ‘bare’.

I find the folllowing techniques have been useful to bring the work to from viol to viola:

    1. whilst most of the work is being played an octave up, I am only notating the ‘8ve’ on those portions notated in alto clef. Curiously, I find it more counter-intuitive to do this with alto clef than bass. I am not sure why.
    2. The close tuning of the high strings of the gamba make it very easy to move from one passage in thirds to a nearby one. The instrument tuned in fifths can make it more challenging. In this case I have elected to bounce the low accompanying line up an octave, from a third below the melody line to a sixth above, on alternate bars – which removes the necessity for ungainly shifting, and is charmingly light, and suits the style.
    3. To increase the sense of ‘altitude’ in high passages, I have taken de Machy’s ‘punctuating’ lower notes to the very bottom of the instrument – providing an illustion of a greater height and depth than the instrument actually possesses.
    4. There are more open string available to the gambist than to me, so I have hunted down bariolage style fingerings wherever possible, to get the open strings heard more often, and with the kind of ‘clang’ which suits this style.
    5. Rather than an over-fingered, heavy finial three note chord to end each couplet, I have elected to use ‘spread/grace note’ fingerings to keep the whole thing light and graceful. There are a number of places in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas (written 40 years after this), where this technique is to be desired, rather than a chunky chord.
    6. Following on from this  – the use of a harmonic to introduce the onset of a pitch works very well in this music, and keeps the instrument sounding ‘open’.

Thats enough. Can’t wait to play this tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s a pair of movements in rehearsal on the huge 1700 Barak Norman


Overnight 26th – 27th January 

A proportion of practice will always consist of ferreting out editorial mistakes. Here’s a clear one. 27 1 21

So after two days of writing (and taxes), I was desperate to get back to the violin. I think ( I hope) that it is a good sign, that I am physically and psychologically more content when I practice, even if I am exhausted when I begin each midnight, and would prefer to sleep.

So tonight, I worked on the remaining movements of the Jarnach Sonata (see  the post below). It’s perhaps an obvious point, but technical and musical work goes much faster 1. when one has established a technical framework to approach a composer/particular piece 2. if you step away from it for 24 hours.

But, and it’s a big but, I am very suspicious of fluency. The vital lesson I got from Louis Krasner, was that there was/is a moral imperative to avoid over-functional fingerings. He portrayed these as, quite literally, a ‘primose path…’ and we all know where that leads to. Jarnach’s violin writing, a decade and a half earlier than the Alban Berg concerto (which he commissioned) comes from the same technical source, or school, which I would generalise as ‘expressionist hyper-emotional virtuosity’. Krasner insisted that the best image for the ideal technical solution to music such as this should be:

‘You should feel as if you are on a rock face, holding on by your fingertips.’

I feel sure that he would have loved the grace of the great Alex Honnold, apparently gliding up El Capitan, with no ropes. That’s exactly what he was talking about and provides a wonderful model for the ideal technical path/route.

Alex Honnold – the ideal of challenge and grace – free soloing on El Capitan (2017), Photo National Geographic


With  Honnold and Krasner in mind, I would like to offer a question of aesthetics and ethics.

I have been laying out my system of motivic practice. This gives me a set of technical tools which are matched, as closely as possible, to the compositional methods which are used to build pieces. If you spent time looking at the work of certain violin/composers, you can find that there’s a direct correlation between the figuration which they utilise and the limited technical means attached to the motives which build that figuration. So, for example, Mozart’s D Major Concerto includes chains of material which can not only be played with, but is built from, the same hand position, repeated across the instrument in different places.

I think that it should be clear, where I am presenting a problem. This does not square with the ideal/obligation on which Krasner insisted. There’s a simple question. How do we balance the convenience, the fluency which results from this technical approach, and the moral obligation which Krasner lays on us as artists?

I find, that I have a different answer every time.

Louis Krasner at NEC Boston. Photo: PSS

One more observation: If you look at the photo if the score, you will notice,  that in the second bar of the third line (this is the second movement ‘Prestissimo’), I have corrected a slur. Even in the most beautifully engraved and presented material, there will be mistakes. The Schott-Verlag scores of the 1920s are astonishing – models of how beautiful and usable music can be/look. But even material this well presented, will have the occasional mistake, and it’s important that we find them. The kind of practice I am advocating helps to see an obvious error like this full-bar slur (it’s right at the reprise), and gives us the confidence to correct the mistake – and avoid building the error, be it architectural or merely decorative, into our reading of the music.

Here’s the whole sonata!



Overnight 24th-25th January

Elegant writing like this Jurassic Palaeocoma- the first movement of the ZImmermann sonata

Tonight, I have gone back to one of the many works which has fascinated me for years: It’s been in my hands for as long, but never performed – Philipp Jarnach’s (1892-1982) Sonate Op 13. Jarnach is one of a group of German based  early-twentieth century composers on whose music I worked in great detail in my early thirties – leading to an unrealised project ‘The lost chord’. A number of them, such as Heinrich Kaminski,  and Jarnach himself, were from the circle of Ferrucio Busoni in Switzerland and then Berlin (he worked as Busoni’s assistant, whih meant that one of his early students was Kurt Weill).  Jarnach, who studied piano at the Paris convservatoire (he was born in Noisy), was a self-taught composer. His music, for whatever instrument, is strikingly original, and tonally intriguing, to put it mildly.So it was excitingly to get teeth and claws, back into this piece, which was dedicated to his wife, Amalie.

We violinists have one particularly unfortunate tendency (amongst many others), which is to shy away from virtuoso works (in the true sense) which demand ‘unpacking’ technically. There’s a big difference between violin music which is physically challenging, because it requires athletic prestadigitation (this includes Paganini, Prokofiev, most of Stravinsky), and that whose challenge is a more cerebral – the notes don’t play themselves, but we need to think our way into the poise of the arms, hands and fingers, in order that the ‘choreography’ which will enable the notes can be revealed. In the case of Jarnach, there’s a synthesis between this physical choreography and the conceptual map of the architecture of the music, which we need to build, mentally.

Now, anyone who has talked with me about the intricacies of violin technique will know that I am averse/allergic to one of the solutions to such problems which became widely used at the end of the last century. I call it ‘jamming it through’. The origin of this solution lies in a contempt for the nature of the music whose challenge it endeavours to elide. To whit, if the music is sufficienty chromatic or atonal  (‘gnarly’ is a giveaway term for this attitude), then it won’t really matter if the notes and chords are not heard, but ‘grazed’. So rather than investigate the nature of the music in depth, this approach treats the piece like a rock to be rolled down a hill, and trusts that the insitia of the descent will enable the player to avoid the most salient obstacles en route. And, there’s a broad acceptance that the listener won’t really be able to tell the difference anyway …

So that’s a very roundabout way of saying, that we should take the challenge that is offered by complex, subtly written music and not take short cuts. It’s  not for nothing that composers such as Jarnach came to maturity as the writings of Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse. This sonata dates from the same decade as Der Zauberberg (1924), and Siddartha (1922). They, like it, demand thought, demand work.

Tonight, I have been working mainly on the last (third) movement of the sonata. I have spoken a lot about motif-driven practice techniques. This is a fascinating challenge, working with Jarncah’s idiosynchratic language. For instance, it’s clear where the ‘reprise’ appears – 2/3rd of the way through the movement, but it’s  the character – ‘forte e giocoso’ – and the attack – ‘martellato’ which return, not the material.

But then I rethought. The centre of the piece  is a piano arpeggiated section, with a hint, just a hint, of Bach. This snakes up and down a relatively narrow compass of the violin. Its chromatic/enharmonic morphings offer a window into the language which Jarnach uses across the movement, and maybe the whole piece. So I begin there. There’s something wonderful slippery about the experience of this music. The mind and the hands can’t settle into a pattern, but like climbing a rock face, have to gracefully anticipate and grasp constantly changing ‘volumes, crimps, edges, pockets and slopers’. I won’t say that, once I had grasped this section, the work flowed, but a ‘passport’ seemed to appear, and the movement found its way back into my imagination.

Here it is (following morning)

It’s impossible to play this music withough feeling Jarnach’s influence on at least one of his students, Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Here’s my recording of HIS solo sonata, which has been posted without my name (but the score is useful).

Overnight 22nd-23rd January

David Hackbridge Johnson’s ‘Versets’ Op 395 with the 17th century viola which inspired them

Tonight it was time to consolidate the technical work on one of the most inspired pieces to have been written for me during the past year of lockdown. If things were normal, I would have played this piece any number of times in public by now – and there’s so much that I learn from that. But I need to synthesize that experience, to imagine what these beautiful miniatures will feel like, in a wonderful acoustic, enlivened by the active listening of an inspiring audience.

David Hackbridge Johsnon’s ‘Seven ‘versets’ was inspired by the amazing 1641 Jacob Rayman viola, which I first met just over a year ago. It is the property of my dear friend, the luthier and historian of the violin, Ben Hebbert, who has enabled me to explore this tremendous instrument over many months. I am profoundly grateful for that, and have learn so much.

The work was competed in the middle of April last year. I can tell from my copy ( I always date technical work on my scores),  that I competed the first detailed work on the piece in the second week of May.

I recorded this on the 22nd April. 3 days after the completion of the set. But for all the excitement of getting into a new piece while the ink is still wet on the page, there’s also real enlightenment to be found, musically, technicallly and conceptually, if we can return to the the well-prepared ground, say, half a year later, as in this case. Away from the scores, the brain continues so work, in the shadows, while they are actively in the hands, and there’s a real clarity that can be attained, if we trust to that  process.

In the case of this piece, I can safely say that what has matured, in the time away from the music, is characterisation and colour. To pick at one small aspect, I can say, that in each movement, the heart, or pivot point of the drama has become clearer, and with it, the type of expression that needs to be associated with it. In the first movement, at the 2/3 point, there’s a delicate F –  E flat, which needs a ‘feathered’ quality, on the G string. At roughly the same point in the Puck-like 2nd movement, three floating  fermate in harmonics, demand a shaft of moonlight. In Bar 15 of the ‘Lento e rubato’ 3rd Movement,  a glissando snakes an octave and a half, from C sharp to F Sharp, ‘tremulously’ –  I find myself thinking about the ‘Eve…Eve’ moment from Stravinsky’s ‘ The Flood’. In the 4th movement, the equivalent moment, or moments, is the point of maximum harmonic strain, reminding me of some the places of stretto/contraction in Bartok’s  3rd Quartet  or the 2nd Concerto. I am still hunting for the ‘passport’ to the 5th movement, which responds to writing by French poet and essayist, Charles Pierre Péguy (1873-1914). David is himself a noted poet, so I really don’t want to project my preconceptions on to this ‘Chemin de croix’  – this will be something for our workshop sessions together, when we can do them. The last movement spins some elements of the previous 6 ‘versets’ into  a more discursive envoi. The clue to getting this right will be when I find exactly the sound for the glistening ‘ghostlike’ scurrying/whispering harmonics that bring the movement to and end. It’s all Queen Mab for me, not just Shakespeare, but very much Fuseli!

‘Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs, /The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, /The traces of the smallest spider’s web, /The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,/ Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film’ (R&J Act 1 scene 5)

Can’t wait to record the whole set this weekend!

And here it is What a delight, to have this music in my mind and my hands. 

Overnight 20-21st January

One of the reasons, that I love working late at night/early in the morning, is that things are simpler. Being alone, and with most of the world asleep,  I notice starlight, weather, and animals -the birds were singing at 2 this morning. On a still night, after midnight, I can hear Big Ben ringing the hours – it’s about 4.5 miles away. Tonight, though, it’s not still-  everything is about weather. I put the violin down every 30 minutes or so and lean out of the window over our cobbled lane here in Wapping – wind and rain whipping my face, water streaming along the setts below, whooshing and whistling as the storm blows through. It’s magic.

Skylarks on my desk, by Edward Cowien and Steen Steensen Blicher 21 1 19

So I have returned to Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits‘. My aim, tonight, has been to complete technical work on Book 2: Field Birds. So tonight it’s Rook, Magpie, Starling, Lark. I am thinking a lot about list-making, and how much early art was cataloguing, particularly animals. It immediately strikes me, violin in hand, that in this case, the birds are getting smaller (tonight’s list, that is), and more songful (though, of course, that’s just from our/my standpoint). And, as I work on Ed’s wonderful music, the birds cluster around me, like the astonishing depictions of Goldfinches, Wrens, Kites, Owls, Hoopooes etc., that shine in the margins of the 14th century Book of Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, completed in Paris, during the Black Death. And, then a second murmuration of birds fills my dark room, shielded from the storm outside, the tuneful choir which awakens the narrator in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess,  published in 1368:

I loked forth, for I was waked/ [line 295] With smale foules a gret hepe, /That had affrayed me out of slepe Through noyse and swetnesse of hir song; /And, as me mette, they sate among, /Upon my chambre-roof withoute, / Upon the tyles, al a-boute, /And songen, everich in his wise, /The moste solempne servyse /By note, that ever man, I trowe, /Had herd; for som of hem song lowe, /Som hye, and al of oon acorde./ To telle shortly, at oon worde, /Was never y-herd so swete a steven […]

The reason that I am stuck on these 14th century bird observations, is that they, like Cowie’s deeply felt and understood evocations and observations, are both marginalia and fundamental. Neither of these sources are ABOUT nature, but neither are the contemporaneous bestiaries, however much they pretend to be. They are about everything, about our (in the broadest sense) joined-together-ness. Edward asks me, the violin, to be a rook, to sing and fly like a lark, but to also sing and fly about these creatures, as they sing and fly about themselves, about us, about nothing, just as playing the violin is about me, the composer, the music, the storm outside, and … nothing.

And. just like Jean Noir, who illuminated much of the book of hours I mentioned, the greater the versimilitude in the rendering of the birds, the free-er our imagination wanders. Edward’s birds are rendered with total freedom and total fidelity: there’s no contradiction here, just as we all understand, that to render a piece of music with completely identification, we need, as musicians, to dig deep into the essence of it’s detail, its technique, going beyond exactitude to the essence of its making … and then to realise this, with the lightness and grace of a Starling-song.

Along with the Chaucer, another poet who is always within reach of my desk is Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848), possibliy the most beloved Danish writer of the early 1800s. In 1838, he published Trækfuglene/Naturconcert (Birds of Passage/Nature concert), in which, amongst other things, he watched enviously, caged, as he saw it, in Jutland, the freedom of the migratory birds across the seasons. There’s a wonderful lark, and I had it open on my desk while working on Edward’s Skylark. It’s a reminder, for me, of how the dis-contented Romantics found their own liberation in our flying cousins. I will leave you with two wonderful lines,

‘Og, medens frosten lukker søens bryst, / Vil aabne mit med dine jubelsange.’ (And, as the frost locks up the breast of the lake, your jubilant song will open mine)

Overnight 19-20th  January

Preparatory materials for Nigel Clarke’s new concerto on the practice desk with a relic of our student days – a great practice talisman 19 1 21

Meeting Nigel Clarke, when I was an 18-year old student at the Royal Academy of Music, marked the beginning of the longest shared workshop of my musical life. I know he won’t mind my saying that we have slowly worked out how to collaborate  in the very long-term, and that the astonishing pieces that he has written for me – concertos, pieces for string ensemble, solo works etc. – are just one result of the workshop and our friendship. He’s very much one of the family. This means that trust is a fundamental element in out work together – trust that, however much we step into each other’s compositional and violinistic territories, we both know that we are working on the same project.

In the spring of 2020, we started swapping ideas for a new piece. I have written a lot about the processes which we have explored for laying the groundwork for a new piece. With no composer I work is there more sense that the beginning of a new piece is us meeting and saying ‘what shall we do?’. This does not mean that I have any compositional stake in the works that emerge, but that we always begin the journey, from the real and literal tabula rasa together.

One of the results of this process is that the pieces that Nigel writes are form a long project of ‘what the violin can do’. This does not mean that they are every easy, or convenient, but that my hands train for the challenge as part of the process, and their shapes and tendencies have increasingly become a small part of the composer’s toolbox. Here’s an example of one of the results, his epic solo piece ‘Pernambuco’ which I have performed hundreds of times.

The new piece, about which I will say nothing, has now found its full form, and I think I think it is fair to describe it as a ‘symphony with violin’. It’s five movements long, running just about an hour. Watching and discussing it as each movement has emerged since about May last year, has been astonishing, and I have, at each stage, itched to get my hands more and more onto the material. Last night was (for me) an exciting way-station, the first time that I had all the solo materials in my hands, and on my practice desk.

What I am doing, to start with, is not really practice, but assimilation. This is not only (selfishly) important for me, but for the composer. There are some dramatic musical and technical statements on the violin in what Nigel has written, and I need to spend a lot of time with them to find the ‘key’, what Stravinsky called the ‘passport’, to make them sing and fly.  This means that the motif-driven practice, about which I have spoken a little in this little column, is more important than ever. I take motif by motif, and chase each down across the whole arch of the piece. As I do that my imagination, and my hands, finds the form which will allow me to inhabit the work, musically and technically. Let me explain one area that this is important:

Some years ago, Nigel started challenging me to find a way around the violin, which I will call ‘flying’. In the concerto which he wrote for me to play with The Zagreb Soloists, blistering passage work began to appear where, rather than using running or leaping movements to whizz around the instruments, he demanded my extending/contracting left hand glide and hover over the whole gamut of the fingerboard, giving access to material in multiple registers, attacked vigorously by the right hand – whilst the left remains light and floating. I am pretty sure that ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ (Muhammed Ali) formed part of our initial discussions. This is, funnily enough, a technique which is easier to execute, than to practise for me. For the new concerto, the technique is used a number of times, so part of my work this early morning has been to build the ‘hand-machine’ for its appearances.

In addition to this, tonight I spent time on some of the passage work – scales, arpeggios, roulades – setting up the fingering and bowing procedures and paradigms which will be ‘kit’ for the piece. This is the one time, that I notate my technical work in short- not long-hand. Normally, I aim for the most thorough record of bowings, fingerings, voice-leading etc., but as these pages will not be used in my playing-part, I don’t want to over-notate! I am going to write it all out again!  It’s terrrific fun, as this fantastic writing finds its way into my whole body. I will go to sleep dreaming of the music, and the ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ which inspired the composer.

Overnight 18-19th January

….Es ist so schönes Wetter draußen….
The opening of Hindemith’s second solo sonata, dedicated to Walter Casper, violinist with him in the Amar Quartet (and standing over him at left)

A curious thing: I found that I was not ready to begin practice until 3 am this morning. So I finished at about 7am. That was not the time to write. So am back at the computer, with a coffee, two hours later, refreshed, and inspired by the night of music…

… because, I decided to return to another beloved piece of my teenaged concert life, Paul Hindemith’s second solo Sonata, Op 31 No 2.  This time, I  didn’t explore my youthful fingerings and bowings. Even at the time, my 18-year-old self knew only too well, that what I was doing was not at a level which I would want to preserve, or that Hindemith would approve. In those days, I was in a constant ill-advised rush, hurling myself at things before they were ready, and performing them using energy and ‘seat-of-the-pants’ derring-do as an alternative to actual (what’s the word?) … practice.

And yet -there’s no question, that I learnt something from that, and there’s a reserve tool, which I keep, resentfully and a little guiltily, in my ‘technique shed’. I know (thanks to my lazy-energetic younger self) what I can do, what I can reach, in extremis. Occassionally, this tool can be useful, in moments, performing, that demand emergency procedures, when I need something more than a Hail-Mary.

Practising this piece early in the morning, I remembered a live performance I heard, on the radio, when I was 15 or 16, which filled me with admiration and jealous … and gave me ideas. It was Joseph Silverstein, and he played the Sonata as part of a duo recital. The performance was incisive, colourful, wonderfully laconic, even droll …But it was what happened at the end, which got to me  – of the variations on Mozart’s ‘Komm, lieber Mai’, which later became the finale of his last piano concerto. The piece ends with a return to the last two bars of Mozart’s tune, marked ‘Etwas Langsamer’.

The audience burst out laughing, delightedly.

This was the first time, that I had ever experienced humour in serious instrumental music being funny, and not ‘funny’. Many years later, an audience burst out laughing in the middle of my performance of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ (it was the Bridgetower violin cadenza that got to them). I tipped my hat quietly to Silverstein – at last, I had got it. Music can/should be funny. God prizes a giggle:

‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh’  (Psalm 2:4 King James Bible)

For this, as I came to know, is a piece, which is about all kinds of joy. The first movement has the most lovely title ‘….it’s such lovely weather outside…’. It’s notable that Hindemith imagined that the violinist was/is playing indoors, longing for the gentle breeze, and trilling birds he/she can see outside the window. Indeed, it was always clear to me, that the whole piece imagines the world in which Mozart/Overbeck’s Lied took place. The last verse (Mozart adapted the text for his purposes) perorates:

‘Bring’ auch viel Nachtigallen und schöne Kuckucks mit!’

And the nightingales and Cuckoos sing, not just in this movement, but throughout, along with some more rustic-sounding fowl – corvids, from the sound of things!

It was always clear to me, that Hindemith was also writing about flowers: I was convinced, long before I read the text, that these were violets, maybe the violets which made Tchaikovsky cry in the Val d’Arno – they made him miss home. Overbeck’s original text had roses, but Mozart changed it to:

‘O komm und bring’ vor allem uns viele Veilchen mit!’ (Komm and bring all of us lots of violets!’

We need lots more solo pieces about flowers and birds, in times like these, and with the storm which is gathering outside the window.

For all of the links between the movements, each explores a different set of techniques, and different ‘affects’. This is a feature of much of Hindemith’s work, and results in a certain ‘useful’ quality to the writing. If you know the Fünf Stücke  (Schulwerk für Instrumental-Zusammenspiel, Op.44), you will recognise what I am talking about.

The first quests for sweeping lines across the whole instrument (interrupted by uckoo-ing birds) The challenge for me, now, was to come up with technical solutions which are ideal and not ‘cheating’. As Hindemith was a violinist of note, this is complicated – the notes themselves spring from his ‘finger-fall’ on the instrument, so we need to discover that, as well as thinking about the most integrated answers, harmonically and timbrally, to the various conundra.

SIDE BAR: surprisingly, Hindemith never allows himself to insert fingerings  or bowings. His immaculately prepared Schott Mainz scores, delights to look at, are free of any such clutter. Solo movements don’t have time-signatures (except when they are Mozart’s): more clarity, less furniture.

The second movement wobbles back and forth between (unmarked) 3/8 & 2/8. It utilises a deliberately queasy, slithery harmony, which matches the tottering taktus marvellous. Clarity flowers in the middle, where one of the nightingales/violets from the previous movement garlands the space with open thirds and fourths.

The third movement is a march (of sorts), and Hindemith, in his ‘pizzicato’ instruction, described it as ‘Sätzchen’ , or little movement (the word can also refer to sentence structure). It has very much the feeling of a witty intermezzo, maybe a variegated  marching gaggle of the less-songful birds – hens, rooks, pheasants, like the avian marginalia in a medieval manuscript.  There are lots of colour questions to think about – finger angle to string, distance from the bridge of the pizzicato attacks, chord-splitting, and hammer-pizzicato (left-hand), which is the only way that the central grace-note ictuses  can be played. It’s all very charming (with a sneer – just a hint of the Prussian duelling-corps).

The last movement is a wonderful set of five variations on the Mozart. I won’t comment on each individually, but want to point out that varation three is a Mozart joke. In the finales of Mozart’s thrid and fourth concertos, we hear the whine of the ‘Dudelsak’ or ‘Hurdygurdy’ – melody climbing up one string against against the drone of the adjacent open string. Sitting in the middle of Mozart’s landscape sits a happy rustic musician, me,  piping or sawing away.

I will finish with my favourite lines from the Mozart, very appropiate for Hindemith’s get-up-and-go musicianship:

‘Ach, lieber Mai, wie gerne einmal spazieren geh’n!’ (Oh, lovely May, how we wish to go and walk again.’)

I have not walked across an open field, like so many of us, for nine months. How I wish to go and walk again. And I can’t wait, to bring this to the mic, later today! What glorious music, and how glad I am to have discovered it, all those years back.

And here it is!


Overnight – 17-18th January

Autumn 2012 -pushing through a brake of ferns  in Epping Forest. A barn owl bursts from beneath my feet (echoes of other walkers around here-John Clare, de Stael, Viotti all around)

I have bracketed my ‘weekend off’ overnight practice with  work on Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’. Now work on the Barn Owl, Pheasant, Rook – the first three Book 2: Field Birds.

I don’t mind admitting that, sometimes, practice is hard. It is hard for so many musicians at the moment, as they are not sure why they are doing it? – after all, we all miss each other desparately, and with the exception of some bizarrely privileged TERRIBLY FAMOUS AND IMPORTANT musicians, no-one is allowed near a concert stage here in the UK (Rant over).

However, I wonder if part of our worry is linked to a disproportionate value that is given to audience-size-as-measure-of-a-worthwhile-activity. This has definitely been thrown at me in the past. In the early 2000’s the Blair government closed down projects run by the British Council, if they were not ‘getting to’ 1000s of people instantly, which meant that (and I am dating myself here) that a Spice Girls concert had greater value than teaching a small group of children to draw.

However, I have always had, and loved, small audiences. Many years ago, when I was first recording commercially, I received a letter from a listener in New Zealand. My disc of Cesar Cui had recently been released, but was not being distributed globally:

‘I hope that you will forgive me, but a friend sent me a tape of your recording, and I have been really enjoying it! Thankyou and congratulations’

I think that, for the first time, I was aware of the enormous privilege that it is, to have some one take the time to stop and listen to what we are doing, what we are saying, what we are singing about. You are reading this, and we can have a conversation, and that is amazing.

And the greatest musicians around us, the birds, sing all day, all night, filling our time with light and joy. And they ask for nothing in return.

Edward’s birds, of course, summon up all sorts of associations. As I sit here, in the middle of the night, I remember where I was when I saw and and heard the birds he evokes. At the top of this post is my impression of the most dramatic encounter I ever had with a Barn Owl…I almost trod on it, in undergrowth  in the Forest south of Epping. This is all the funnier, because ‘Tyto Alba’ is such a quiet bird: its flight is inaudible and it’s call made famous by Shakespeare:

‘The time when screech-owls cry and ban-dogs howl,'(King Henry VI)

Of course, that’s my time of day, when I work – though there areno barn owls here in central London, and we don’t have so many ban-dogs, neither. Ed does represent the scratching-screech, at the end of his piece. The beginning, soft and muted, seems to be about the wonder of this bird’s silent flight. Note to self – this flight has deadly purpose.

Spring afternoon; Today, again, Ivy covered rookery, at Stonegate Station. 30 minutes to wait-5 buzzards, three sparrowhawks, and everything else. For Gregory Rose (more trees) . 7 4 17

The last bird that I practised tonight was a Rook. The latin name, Corvus Frugilegus, celebrates that the bird is a collector, specifically, of fruit – although rooks will eat almost anything, from nuts to small rodents ( have never seen one with an apple).

Every time that I have drawn rooks, it has been their habitat. We all know the sound, and the feeling, standing by a copse of beech, ash or oak, as a rookery gathers to roost. The chit-chat, the wheeling flights – multiple cats and dogs circling in their beds to get comfortable – and the sense of community, of family, of the group. It seems to me that Rooks are most like us – they need each other, and they share ideas (they are fantastically inquisitive and intellegent, like all Corvids). And they have so much to talk about: I have a theory, a prophecy. At some point in the next millenium, scientists will work out how to listen in, to translate the conversation, the thoughts, the ideas of all the animal kingdom. We will find that every species has its inventors, artists, composers, dreamers, poets, philosophers, and comedians. I am sure of of it – I hope I get to experience it. In the meantime, the birds are giving us the biggest clues, and reassurance, that even at this time of isolation, I, we, you, us, are not alone.


Still not overnight – Morning 17th January

My cold has almost vanished, but I was still not able to work overnight. However, I was able to get to the violin during the day, and made a strange (for me) experiment. At the beginning of 1986, when i was 19, I learnt a piece by the Italian composer Irma Ravinale ( 1937 – 2013). I never had the chance to meet the composer, but this was the first contemporary solo work which I learnt in close detail ( I used to play it from memory). I have not touched the piece since I was 20, but have often taken it from the shelf, and looked over the score, with great affection.

So, today, I decided to confront my 19 year old self, and to play the piece, from the scores, without adjusting any of my teenage technical procedures. It was a fascinating exercise for me. I needed to get past my frustration at the lack of really integrated detail marked in on the score. I think that it is fair enough to say that I learnt the piece well enough at the time, that the comparative paucity of information on my part was ameliorated, to a degree by my memory of the piece, once it was in under my hands again. There was no doubt, in my mind or body, what I had done.

But, and it’s a big but, I have two criticisms of my youthful self. Firstly, everything was sequential – all that I was trying to do at the time, was to string notes and phrases together, sequentially, as if music is ‘…and…and…and….and…'( You get the picture -not pretty, technically or musically). The second criticism is that I did seem to have given any thought to colour or timbre. Everything was as interesting as a dull dy at a motorway service station. It was impossible for me to play the piece, now, without addressing that. I hope that the new reading ameliorates that.

For all that, it was exciting to return to this fascinating, and very beautiful piece, which is, in some ways, and elegant modernist improvisation, eschewing repetition or traditional structures. At the time, I had no idea how much this piece would lay the foundation for a lifetime fascination with solo writing.

Intermezzo – Morning 16th January

Swapping ideas with a friend and colleague -Cecily Ward 16 1 21

I have a cold, so there was no chance of a any practice last night ( wrapped up on the sofa with hot lemon/ginger/honey). But this morning was a reminder of how wonderful it is that we musicians can share ideas. Over the course of the ‘the situation’ I have got to know the inspiring American violinist Cecily Ward, and had been privileged to take part one of the creative online projects she has curated.

Today, we spent the first of what I hope will be a series of  mornings swapping ideas about a piece of solo music. Cecily had suggested that we look at the ‘Soliloquy’ (1998) by the fascinating American composer  Andrew Imbrie (1921-2007). She noted that there was an interesting situation with the piece, as both the composer and its dedicatee, violinist Janet Packer, are deceased – it’s quite rare for a piece written comparatively recently, and means that it’s difficult to know where to go for the ‘primer’, the performing tradition for the piece.

Cecily sent the music to me, earlier in the week, and I had great plans on studying the piece, prior to our first session, last night. My case of the sniffles put paid to that best-laid-plan, so I came to our zoom session un-prepared.

It was absolutely fascinating and uplifting for me, to have the privilege of a fellow-artist playing for me,, and to explore questions of structure, sound, articulation, tone production, voice-leading, physiology in the spirit of the shared workshop. By now, all of us are completely comfortable with the online medium for collaborative work, and, of course, the violin is ideally suited for the at-the-desk exploration (it’s very easy to pus the hands right up to the camera, and the brutal honesty of the microphone is nothing to the sound of the instrument under the ear!).

Things to think about, for me, coming from the session:

  1. Integrity of line and melody
  2. A composer’s precise understanding and intention in articularion marmings.
  3. How do we decide on expressive fingers or ‘clean moves’
  4. When are rhythms merely suggestions of natural flowerings of pulse and line?
  5. What is the balance between voice-leading and linear autonomy
  6. Should technique protect or reveal?

It’s clear to me that one of the blessings, the joys, which have flowed from this state-of-play, is the renewed understanding, among artists of the importance, the inspiration, which comes from nourishing the communication, the sharing of ideas and techniques, within our salon community of artistic creation. I am looking forward to where this will lead … and I need to learn the Imbrie!!!

Overnight 11 14th-15th January

On my desk: Book One of Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’

I have been waiting to embark on tonight’s pratice for some weeks. My collaboration with Edward Cowie is one that I treasure. I have had the privilege to perform, premiere, and record much music by this wonderful composer, and in the next year, the journey will get even more exciting: I will record his violin concerto in Hungary ( as soon as the Situation) allows, and prior to that Roderick Chadwick and I will record his wonderful new cycle for piano and violin – ‘Bird Portraits’. This 50-minute long piece is composed of 24 miniatures, divided into four books. Each one, is a bird.

Tonight, I am working on Book 1: Water Birds. In my mind, one aspect of my work today is the difference between these pieces and Edward’s earlier 25 movement cycle for String Quartet ‘Birdsong Bagatelles’. This a core work for the Kreutzer Quartet repertoire. The most striking difference between that piece and this, is that the quartet is based on bird movement. whereas this piece includes the voices of the birds.

Tonight’s practice focused entirely on technical issues – finding the ideal means to voice the colours, timbres and articulations that the music and its characterisation demand. The most important thing that I reach for, working on the fingerings, bowings, the poise for each movement, is not to make things easy,  but rather that ithey offer the most integrated approach to the music – one which at times, will present challenges, which, if I meet them, will give the music, and in this case, the birds, wings.

Ed, like me, is an artist, so tonight, I found myself drawing while and as part of my practice. Whilst I draw and paint every day, this is relatively uncommon- Painting and violin pratice are usually separate from each other. At some point in the study of these works I will go back to the drawings which Ed did as part of his process. This evening the miniature which emerged on my desk, certainly helped my work on the 6 waterbirds of Book 1 – Mute Swan, Kingfisher, Great Crested Grebe, Dipper, Coot.

Just one observation tonight: The first movement, is a portrait of the Mute Swan. The composer begins with a delightful joke for the players. The violin is ‘con sordino’ (Muted). This made/makes me smile.

I wont write much tonight – I studied about 35 pages of music, so am ready to sleep. I will return to this piece here in a few days time. Watch this space. In the meantime, here’s the Mute Swan from Edward Cowie’s ‘Birdsong Bagatelles’ in our recording on NMC.

Overnight 11 13-14th January

Amazingly expressive handwriting: part of Solo-Solissimo, dedicated to me by Karmella Tspekelenko in 1999

So far, in this sequence of later night/early morning reflections on practice, I have yet to speak of a long fascination of mine: the composer’s hand. For many years, I have been thought about by the messages and ideas which flow from the expressive hand of the composer. To a greater or lesser degree every composer chooses or chooses not to convey aspects of their musical intentions, or arguments. in the way that the pen, pencil, and I have to say, computer programme, lays the music out on the page.

There’s certainly no composer with a more striking hand than the Ukrainian composer, Karmella Tspekelenko. I premiered this piece in Ky’iv and Odessa in 2000, and have played it many times since, and recorded it live.  On first sight, it might be tempting to see her hand as far from what it is – a wonderfully articulate guide to the timbres, tempos, shapes and colours of her dramatic music.

Even in the passage you can see above, every left-hand tremolo is articulated with extraodinary precisiopm and freedom. This is not a contradiction: and, in the world of notation, the only time that we might see it as being so, would be if we make the mistake of thinking that the function of notation is to facilitate the quickest execution, even sight-reading, with the least rehearsal. Very often composers are berated by musicians for not providing the simplest notation possible – this demand (from we players) runs the risk  of removing the possibility of adventure, of exploration, which can flow from the interraction with an expressive hand, which, through scrutiny and study,  should eschew the prima vista  performances which bedevil much of the classical music scene.

A clue as to the degree of attention which a score like this demands is contained in the first instruction to the player, in this piece,  which is about stagecraft, theatre. Getting these opening silent gestures right, from a dramatic point of view offers a shibboleth into the whole language of this unique piece. The composer never SAYS what she wants to hear, beyond notes, articulation and dynamics – it is for us to dig into the score and try to find out.

The ‘composer’s hand’ in this case is not limited to one system for messaging  between composer and peformer: here are a few of them.

  1. The structural shaping of the music is not indicated through rhythm and pacing, but though the layout of the score,
  2. The most obvious exanples of communication from the compsoer are the shaping of ligatures on quavers.semis etc.
  3. The least obvious message conveyed by the score, but perhaps the most powerful, is that contained in the composer’s pen/pencil control, their (maybe unconscious) graphic response to their music as they write/copy it out. THE esthetic/ethical questinon for the perforner is how much or how little the composer wants  our performances to map on their emotional states of mind whilst writing.

I can;t wait to record it in the morning.

PSS and Composer Karmella Tsepkelenko-Odessa 2000

…and, here it is:

Overnight 10 12-13th January

End of tonight’s practice. An ancient F-hole to inspire

A few months ago I spent time with one of Lennox Berkeley’s two works for solo violin, and recorded it at the desk. That one was written for the great Ivry Gitlis, who we lost a few days ago. There’s no question that that piece was written as a portrait of that musician’s whiplash musical temperament and passionate lyricism. Here it is:

The piece that I am working on tonight ‘Theme and Variations’ was written in 1950 for the Canadian violinist Frederick Grinke (1911-1987). For many London-trained violinists, ‘Fred’ was a constant – many of the musicians who inspired me as a very young violinists – Beatrix Marr and Rosemary Rappaport in particular- were students or colleagues of his.. John Georgiadis, who died last week was a pupil of his (I sparred with him, no doubt to his irritation, in my early teens).

This work has a very different tenor, musically and violinistically from the piece written two years earlier for Gitlis. I read it as just as much of a portrait – a portrait of Grinke as a thoughtful, collaborative musician, who worked with musical material in generous manner that he worked with his colleagues and students. My mother had some lessons with him, and spoke of his insights with affection. Edmund Rubbra’s Variations on a Phrygian Theme, which I recorded at the desk,  early in last spring’s lockdown, bears witness these traits – it too was dedicated to Grinke.

And then there’s the elegant genius of Berkeley’s writing. I never had the chance to work with this great composer, but was able to play for him. I played his Violin Concerto at the very last concert to which he came, celebrating his 85th birthday. So his violin writing is very much in my DNA.

This piece consists of a theme and eight variations. Practising it this evening I had two things in mind (one technical and one musical – yes, I know that these two are not mutually exclusive!).

The first is to do with the distance one sometimes can observe, between the technical procedures a composer imagines, and the solutions their performers come up with. There’s a lot in common between Berkeley’s approach to string writing and and that of Paul Hindemith. This might be seen as a little suprising, as Hindemith was a virtuoso violinist (yes I know that he is better known as a violist). But they both took compositional inspiration from what we players sometimes refer to as ‘finger fall’, that being the way in which the fingers naturally align themselves on the strings and across the fingerboard. This can especially clearly observed in the violin solo in the last movement (Lebhaft) of Hindemith’s Fünf Stücke for string orchestra. It takes a great composer to make these procedures sound more than mere note-spinning: with Berkeley it never does. What’s interesting, and this is not in anyway a criticism of Grinke, is how, when we examine the technical solutions offered by Grinke in the edited score, they are at an angle from the hand positions which the composer had worked out. When I sit working on a score like this, I find myself in a conversation with both of them, and asking what, estheticalu and ethically, is the right thing to do on each occasion. Tonight, I could not scrub out Grinke’s fingerings, but I put the ones I rejected in brackets. It will be interesting to see how/if I can change my  mind when I come back to the piece later (even tomorrow morning, when i record it)!

(the result!)

The second thing that struck me was musical influences. Portraits of performers are always confusing, because of course, they don’t just depict, or record them doing something undegfined, but in the act of performing, intepreting another role or piece of music. Think of Fuseli’s 1812 portrait of Sarah Siddons in the role of Lady Macbeth, seizing the daggers from her milksop husband. to go and finish off the king. Is this a portrait of Siddons, or Lady Macbeth, or Siddons as Lady Macbeth?

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers -exhibited 1812 Henry Fuseli

In the case of this piece, the two composers that sprang to mind (as if Grinke was playing them) were Bach and Alan Rawsthorne. Grinke premiered Rawsthorne’s 1st Violin Concerto at the Promenade concerts in the same year this piece was written (1951). However, the piece which was perhaps in Berkeley’s mind was Rawthorne’s violin duo  Theme and Variations (which I regard as the greatest work for two violins alone). There’s more of a hint of that work’s laconic grandeur in this set of variations.

But the most obvious musical underpinning to this piece is Bach, most particularly the Adagio from the  C Major Solo Sonata . This becomes salient in the fourth variation. Between the Ysaye Six Sonates and the Bartok Solo Sonata, the performance of Bach, or its memory, became a recurring trope in solo works. This ofter revealed a lot about the performance habits of the day: personally I don’t like the sort of Bach playing to which the first two movements of the Bartok Sonata allude  – it’s far too heavy and agressive. However ‘Berkeley’s Bach’,  which is, perhaps, Grinke’s,  was/is something I can understand. It’s gracious and understated. Dare I say it, its ‘English’ Bach – and I like it! Tune in tomorrow to hear the recording of this piece, at the desk.

Overnight 9 11-12th January

Details: the first page of my working score of Richard Causton’s ‘Fantasia & Air’, on my practice table

Tonight I returned to a wonderful piece by my friend Richard Causton. Richard’s violin writing is marvellously delicate, his highly refined ear is reflected in a very personal approach to what the instrument can do. Everything that he writes, is in the truest sense, natural. But his nature is a very precise, one, like the lines of cleavage of a crystal, or the harmonics and percussion of the heavy rain falling outside my window right now.

One technical feature that the composer, uses is what might be described as ‘shadow’ double stopping. If you have played any of Bartok’s great works from the `1920s, particularly the 3rd Quartet ot thre 2 Sonatas with piano, you will immediately know of what I speak. The basic principle is that any melody line, as it moves around the instrument, affords the hand the possibility of reaching certain material on adjacent strings and areas on the violin. Richard rarely uses these accessibly areas contrapuntally, but for harmonic accentuation, counterpoise, contradiction, underlay, and colour. As you might expect, the duration of this material stretches from grace notes to drones. If you think that there’s an echo of northern folk traditions, you would be right. The second movement of this work, ‘Air’ has more than and echo of Pibroch, as drones weave their way about the melody, demanding some wonderful ‘cats-cradle’ fingerings.

The second section of the first movement is a ‘Double’ marked ‘presto possibile’. Whilst the phsical activity is fast, the harmonic material is slow, slower even than the first part, which it varies. This raises some fascinating challenges and questions about the crossover point  between measured bowing and ‘tremolo’. Along with that, there’s a technical challenge, being: to give the impression that the left and right hands are flying independently, but, serendipitously, at the same rate. The peroration of this movement sums up the challenge. We have to fly along at Presto ca. 140, playing semiquavers, diminuendo-ing so much that the last two lines, still flying at the same rate, are marked ‘motionless’. There’s no contradiction here, but another version, manifest, of the tip-of-the-sword balance, which marks our this compsoer’s beautiful work.

One last point: a constand fascination, for me as player, is the ever-changing balance between accuracty and suggestion in a score. When a composer writes a movement full of instructions such as ‘improvisando’. ‘muscular, energetic’, ‘con intensita’ and lots of ‘tempo amnd rubato changes, all in the context of,  for example ‘ ‘7/8, 5/8. 6/8. 8/8’ u.s.w., we have to ask a question -does the notation represent freedom (as it does in say, late Respighi -see his great Sonata)written down exactly, or does the composer hope we will treat this as a jumping off point. It’s clear from my conversations with the composer, that the latter is true!

And here it is:

Richard Causton, centre with fellow composer Jeremy Thurlow. Roderick Chadwick prepares the piano for ‘Seven States of Rain’ and an Amati scroll waits for action! Kettle’s Yard 27 4 14 (Photo Malene Skaerved)


Overnight 8: 9th-10th January 

My practice violin at work’s end (3 am)

One of the most obvious to-and-fros of daily practice, is that between new and old pieces in my repertoire. I began this first week’s practice observations with  a lovely piece by Naji Hakim (which had been on the sheld for while. I ended it, unexpectedly, with a new work from the same composer, which arrived in my inbox in the middle of the  week, a ‘Bagatelle’ for solo violin, which I have very much enjoyed exploring tonight.

Just a few observations:

I believe, passionately, that we should remake ourselves technically and musically for each composer, and each piece that we play. One aspect if this is physiological. As I worked into Naji’s marvellous piece tonight, what started to emerge with ever-greater clarity was the importance of establishing a poise, of the hands and arms, as well as the body, to play the a new work. For the first 30 minutes of practise, this seems a frustrating, elusive goal, then, suddenly, the clouds clear and I can see the physical solutions clearly.

And: How do we decide of fingering and bowing paradims for a new piece, or a new collaboration. We need clues. In this Bagatelle, the composer has given a huge clue with an instruction to the player:

‘Natural resonance above all else!’

Even before I have begun to shape hands, arms and torso to this piece, I have  a clear idea of a paradig, to follow. If in doubt, I should use low positions and open sounds (free ringing open strings). Immediately upon reading this, before picking the violin up, even before reading the score, I have a soind-idea in my head. All the rest of the work builds from this point.

Lets ses what happens in the morning, when I record this piece. It’s a joy to explore!

-the next day -Here’s a first listen to Naji Hakim’s joyful ‘Bagatelle’ for violin. I began and ended this week with Hakim, which has been wonderful. LoFi, at the desk, and getting much too excited…

Overnight 7: 8th-9th January

Tonight, I found my way back to a work that I have not played for even longer,  a wonderful piece by the great Japanese composer, Toshi Ichiyanagi. This a beautifully produced score, like so much which emerged from Schott & Co Japan at the end of the last century. In addition to the beautiful single-leaf four-page gatefold format, enormous care and thought have been given to what it will feel like to travel through the score, whilst playing it. In this days of computer-produced scores, which, 95% of the time can look very generic and standardized, this is enormously refreshing. The composer has spoken about the importance, even when using very precise rhythmic and dynamic notation, as is the case here, of the concomitant importance of graphic precision, to infuse the printed or handwritten scores, which as much of the spirit of the work as is possible, all the better communicate with the perform.

Tonight it was wonderful to work through the score using the motivic technical method I mentioned, intermittently berating my younger self for violinistic sloppiness. For I first got hold of this score in the early nineties, at the moment when I, to a certain extent, stumbled accross the enormous repertoire and possibilities of the violin alone. The title, ‘Perspectives’ forcesd me, tonight, to revisit that time with a little more honesty: the reason that that I found myself exploring the violin by itself was not the most comfortable one, and I have never spoken of it. Decades later, it seems silly not not mention it. It was a disaster at the time, but in the long run, a gift … but with a sting in the tail.

In 1991, a row blew up between the BBC and Hans Werner Henze, the reasons for which don’t bear repeating here. I was,  very much, irrelevant to the dispute, but was young, and without representation or advocacy, an independent artist, as I have remained. The upshot was that I got caught in the cross-fire, between a powerful composer and THE copororation – all sides, by accident or design, found it useful to unload most of the debris from the fight as possible on me ( a situation not helped by my naive misconception that I should have hiring and firing authority over the ensemble that I was running, and my refusal to be told how to (mis)treat players – who were my friends).

I was told  that, to use the charming phrase, I was ‘shit-listed’ ( I had not heard it before, but got the message), in the specific european circuit of venues where I had been booked to play contemporary concertos etc … I was then informed that I was ‘black-listed’ by the BBC (there was a wonderful letter which accompanied this , which I still have). It’s worth noting that the live performance around after which this initial row exploded (Henze 2nd Concerto ) has since been released commercially, to critical acclaim.

Suddenly months of planned bookings evaporated, and I found myself, at 24, washed up (for the first time! – it happens to most artists intermittently), and without most of my work. I worked out how little I could live on (Tower Hamlets Council gave me rent support, for which I am eternally grateful).  I had a space to live, a violin, and a long summer.

I wrote to every publisher I could think of: ‘Please send me any music for violin alone by living composers which you think that I might find interesting’. Within a week, my postman in Limehouse was complaining -and hundreds of works arrived from publishers all over the world. I spent the summer months learning as many of them as I could, and  also beginning my journey with the Teleman Fantasies. Within 18 months, I had built the modest beginnings of the repertoire of works for just violin, which has nourished me ever since – many hundreds of pieces, from the late 1500s to many new works, and many being written as I write.

I started recording around this time, and one of the earliest discs was my first recording of the Telemann 12 Fantasies. A few months after that recording came out, I got a letter from Henze, about the Telemann recording, apologising for the earlier contretemps. We started working together again, and, since then, his works have remained central to my performing and recording work, and got me a little Grammy nomination. He is much missed.

The BBC remained stony-faced from there: every so often a producer would moot a project which would die on the rocks of my ‘black spot’ with the corporation. I am not alone in this, but never speak of it in public (This is hardly that). But it’s clear to me, that my years of discretion afforded me, well, nothing.

But I got more from the disaster, in the long run, than I lost – a field of exploration to last a lifetime. But having ‘perspectives’ means that I need to not pretend that this was not the sort of thing that a behemoth corporation should do to a young artist, even thought this was in the distant past. And, it proved, that they would not be alone!

But I have music -making, violin practice at dead of night, as my joy. And I love it now, even more than I did during that first summer of solo rebirth after my little catastrophe. Lets play!

Overnight 6: 6th-7th January

On my practice table. Henri Vieuxtemps 2nd Concert Etude Op 16 No 2

This evening I returned to the Vieuxtemps Concert Etudes  Op 16, whcih he wrote wheh he was 24 years old. And it’s time for a confession: I have loved, studied and learnt from Vieuxtemps works, all my life – in my early teens, I was obsessed with the 4th Concerto, and since then have relished working on his etudes, caprices, the fabulous viola works, and yet, I have never performed a note of his music in public. Here’s the glorious Elegy for solo viola:

Looking at my score of the Concert Studies, I can see that I did extensive technical work on it in 2000-2001. I date my scores every time I make technical adjustments to them: the most simple reason for doing this, it that it is fascinating to observe, in detail, how our musical and physical fascinations ans predilections change, develop and circle over time.

But there’s a second point that I really wanted to make, which is that, I believe, that the bulk of a musicians’s studied repertoire, even material which might be important to us, should remain hidden – but, and this is a important but – this material has a vital function – like the 2/3rd of an iceberg which is hidden, or the root system of an oak tree, this hidden repertoire provides stability, a counterweight, a low centre of gravity for the public-facing repertoire.

The second Concert Study is a delicate barcarolle, and it’s best understood, musically, as a study of second-beat poise. Every bar pirouettes, delicately around its second beat. Vieuxtemps puts a thoroughly Schubert-ian accent/diminuendo on 2nd beat of 38 of the  63 bars of the piece. Vieuxtemps was a serious-minded composer – a student of Anton Reicha, he spent months sitting alongside the individual players in the orchestra to write better for it – the glorious opening Tutti of the 4th Concerto is evidence of his diligence and ear.

I found that this evening, I was focusing on a particulary narrow range of technical priotities. The coda of the study- the last 8 bars is an arpeggiated, but slurred passage, not unlike the viola part of the ‘Pilgrims March’ in Harold in Italy . It’s worth remembering that Vieuxtemps became friends with Berlioz round about the time he was working on these studies. It’s simple enough to play sparkling, saltando arpeggiated material, but this offers a greater challenge – of controlling the bow in rapid string crossing to produced a legate, sinuous line, without defaulting to generic leaping-arpeggiations.

And the second area which I found that I was giving particular attention was the snaking of finger over finger, the crossed portamenti that happen, for instance when a shift is set up which necessitates one finger going past another – audibly- the result is a very different ullulation to what happens when, for instance we slided on one finger, or we slide from one to another, with a smooth changeover mid-shift – very different to the emphasis of the ‘get out of the way’ shifting of cross-fingered hand moves.

And here it is:

Overnight 5: 5th-6th January

Working on Naji Hakim’s Fantasia with help from Munch and Hammershøi 5-6 Jan 2021

I have been an admirer of the composer/organist Naji Hakim since I first met him in my late teens ( we were both giving concerts at the Huddersfield International Organ Festival). I first had the opportunity to work with him in my early 30s, when we improvised together in St Giles Cripplegate, and he introduced me to his wonderful Solo Sonata LINK

Edvard Munch – Unge mennesker på stranden (Linde-frisen) (1904)

I have been meaning to work on his Fantasia (2011)on Edvard Munch’s ‘Unge mennesker på stranden’ from the Linde – Mural for some time, so tonight has been a wonderful chance to get closer to the piece.

I would like to talk briefly about the technical ‘route’ into any piece. It’s a truism, of course, that there’s very little point in studying a piece by working from begininning to end. In addition, I am not a fan of ‘playing a piece  through’ to find out ‘how it goes’. The simple reason for avoiding the former is that it will not bring you close to the compositional process, and for eschewing the latter that, firstly it’s our job as musicians, to be able to hear music in our heads (reading music) without the impediment of a cack-handed stumble through the material, and secondly, it rarely offers enlightenment.

So, where to begin? I took a harmonic route today, and chose the most eleborate of the graceful roulades which garland themselves across the piece. The dominant scale in the main body of the piece, is a C Major ‘Harmonic’ scale/Lydian diminished scale/the raga ‘Sarasangi’ in Carnatic music.

After setting up a technical paradigm for the most elaborate manifestation of this  scale(deciding on modes of shifting and use/or not of open strings), I can reach across the piece, backwards and forwards. In a concentrated (short) work like this one, I don’t expect to find much repetition, but where a figure is repeated, there’s an ethical/esthetic question – should a repetition be played with the same or different technical means? If similar means are used, does that impact on whether the expressive approach is the same on unalike?

All of the technical exploration is done with the picture in front of me, but I would not be comfortable with noting how Munch’s material finds its way into what I do on the violin. I can say, that I found myself pulling an early volume of Vilhelm Hammershøi paintings (1918) down from the shelf. For some reason, I wanted this picture (below) of the corner of Montague Street and Great Russell Street, with me. It’s melancholic beauty helped me with the ‘hunt for colour’ which is the most mysterious part of studying a work like this. It also struck me that it was painted within 18 months of Munch’s painting.

Vilhelm Hammershøi – British Museum (Winter 1906)

I tend to map my way through new works by chasing motifs, in tonal, real and morphing realisations. As a general rule, when this is done in full there’s usually a bit of material left that does not fit, an outlier. Talking to composers about this, I have found that such remnants are often vestiges of a composer’s first ideas for a work. But unlike the human Appendix, these have an important function in a work like this: they often carry the heaviest expressive load.

That’s enough for now. I will record this lovely piece in the morning.

And here it is!


Overnight 4: 4th-5th January

On my practice desk with some illuminations. Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Pibroch- Fugue’ 4th January 2021

I have been planning on studying Ronald Stevenson’s six-movement ‘Scots Suite – Homage to the Fiddlers who have gone’ (1984) for some time. And tonight I have made a start, with the second movement, ‘Pibroch-Fugue’.

I am fascinated with the challenge of playing contrapuntal and polyphonic music on the violin, and ithe issues that it raises. I would just like to mention one  of these, that came to mind and to hand tonight. When playing in more than one part on any instrument, its vital to consider the aural, harmonic and technical filaments that bind note to note,, chord to chord. The ear, the hands, and the music need a route through, and in most cases, the ear, hand and music are not served by all voices being held, emphasised, stressed all the time. I am not, in this particular, talking about the body, the substance of the the notes themselves, but the conjunctions, relative pronouns, the elisions that get us from one point to the next.

From a purely technical point of view this question can be observed thus: in moving from point to point (these can be placings on the fingerboard, the poise of the bow on the strings, or the resultant tones in the air, or the ear) we must ask whether we simply  drive the material from grabhold to grabhold, or do we consider, utilise, observe and shape the potentially elegant shapes that can take us from one point to the next, with grace and meaning.

In the case of this fugue, the question is heightened, because the composer has been very precise with the use of a number of joining gestures – most particularly the use of portamentic, grace notes and tremolandi. These are used, in the main, as rhetorical devices, and almost entirely, within slurs. But hey raise questions as to what happens outside theseslurs and linked phrases? These questions are aesthetic ( for instance, how do we get from, say perfecth Vth dyad on two strings, to a single line on just one string?) and ethical  (how SHOULD we get from, say perfecth Vth dyad on two strings, to a single line on just one string? ).

To heat the question up a little: in a simple fuge like this, is it better keep the integrity of fugal lines, or can the human ear be better stimulated if we subvert some of these cliches, (allowing the ear to puzzle out the basic counterpoint) whilst putting lines in relief which cannot be justified structurally, but which lend charm and challenge to the material.

It is, it must be said fascinating to be exploring these pure contrapuntal questions within the stately varation tread of a Pibroch: the mimesis of the bagpipe, drones and demands another approach altogether more original than standard voice leading of counterpoint.

And here it is;

Overnight 3: 3rd-4th January

The score and instruments for Sadie Harrison’s 6 part work for me!

I like working out how things work, and I like making things. Puzzling out a score satisfies both of these pleasures. I have worked with Sadie Harrison for most of my life, and her music always amazes and challenges me in equal measure. This is the first score that she has written for me to play with myself times 5. It’s scored for 4 violins and two violas, and is designed to be multi-tracked. THAT will be tomorrow’s challenge.

The piece is called ‘Street Musics’, and reflects my love of London and of its street life. Like many people, I grew up with the ‘Cryes of London’ on the walls of my parents and grandparents’ walls. As I put this piece together, I am relishing witnessing the composer marshalling the street life of 18th century London, with a memory of an imaginary bird owned by Mozart during his sojourn in the city with his father and sister in 1765. He later owned a starling, whose song found its way into his 17th Piano Concerto. There’s no more London bird than Sturnus vulgaris – brilliant, intellegent, friendly and vulgar, so it’s completely appropriate for this piece, appearing immediately after:

‘Dawn-the first cry, a call to work’

On page two ‘Caller 1’ is described as ‘Bright-eyed, with a spring in their step’. Who is it, perhaps they are selling  ‘Ripe Asparagus’. Caller 2 is ‘a little hungover’, whilst Caller 3 is ‘a little flirtacious’ (immediately Caller 1 is ‘somewhat beguiled’)  – a reminder that music is conversation, humans interchange, that real life is going on between the characters of a score, between players.

There’s a lovely sequence of events, descriptions and instructions:

‘Caller 2: back to work!’, ‘Caller 2’s drunken mate’, ‘Spoiling for a fight’, ‘Brawling in the Street’, ‘Peace returns, the street bursts back into life!, ‘The Streets begin to empty’, ‘with the red glow of sunset’.

For this is the city of Mayhew, of Dickens, of Charlotte Despard, of the philosophising butcher on our corner, of the long-forgotten newspaper seller on Baker Street, whose cry of ‘Evening Standard! Lovely!’, slipped, over the years to ‘ ‘tandat! Lubly’, and of the setts outside right now, populated only by the family of foxes in the park under my windor here in the old docks.

Motifs, and characters are not exclusive to the 6 instrumental parts that I play in this piece, they slip  around the group, like the echoes across an narrow street in Whitechapel, or the masks in Mary Renault’s descriptions of ancient Greek theatre. Join me tomorrow, to see how it slots together. I have conned my lines, and now we need to make the drama. In the morning:

‘I’ll have grounds /More relative than this—the play’s the thing’


Overnight 2:  2nd-3rd January


On the desk, Paul Pellay’s
‘Winter Consolation’ 2 1 21

Tonight, a slightly different approach. I began my work on Paul Pellay’s ‘Consolazione Invernale’ without the violin or bow. Just pen, coloured pencils, candle and coffee. First things to note, articulations, then caesurae/rests – the most basic syntax of the piece. Then dynamics ‘p’ ‘un poco piu p’, ‘mf’, ‘pp’, ‘sempre p’. Then gradations ‘hairpins/mese de voce’, ‘cresc.un poco….’, ‘poco a poco cresc…’, ‘perdendosi’, ‘diminuendo’, and the final ‘diminuendo lentamente fino al silenzio assoluto’. Then salient emphases-the ‘pocchissimo accentuato/fp’ at the 5/8th point. Then the poetic instructions ‘meditating silently on an Italian Christmas dirge’ (the composer/performer/and listener all need to do this/are doing this). ‘sempre tranquillo, legato, con calma e calore’ : ‘calm and warmth’, how fabulous. Then ‘ma mai forzare il suono’ (but never force the sound). then ‘portando un poco’: at once a technical, expressive and structural instruction and observation. Then a wonderful instruction in italian ‘like an distant glow in the depths of the night’ (any english-speaker will think of ‘in the dark streets shineth, the everlasting light). Lastly ‘Allontanandosi’ (becoming further away). Paul knows my love of Italian, so always makes his scores for me a wonderful web of poetry.

The whole thing is ‘per la terza e quarta corda’ (for the D and G String). So theres a sense of a duo, of a two low voices. We need to think about how vertical the alignments or displacements should be, when the voices meet. There are some moments when the ‘nenia’ has a drone-like quality, a melody moves against the open string. Because, I am realising that this is a bagpipe carol, to be played on a zampogna.  This is the “Carol of the Bagpipers” (Canzone d’i zampognari). It is, of course, Neapolitan, the song of the shepherds on the way home from Bethlehem, a version of which was used by Corelli in his ‘Christmas Concerto’:

Tu scendi dalle stelle,/ O Re del Cielo, e vieni in una grotta, al freddo e al gelo./ O Bambino mio Divino Io ti vedo qui a tremar, /O Dio Beato Ahi, quanto ti costò l’avermi amato!

This version of the melody was written down in the early 1700s in Nola (in the plain of Vesuvius) by Saint Alphonsus Liguori.

And now I come to the notes! The ‘pastorale’ 3/4  slips into 5 and 4 as the shepherds step along the road home, at the height of the melody, the two parts, move away from the drone D and G, climbing in similar motion like a pair of ciaramellas, or a double flageolet.

As the shepherds move into the distance, the flageolet effect appears for real, played in ‘fingered (4th and 5th) harmonics’. And then it’s just distant bells, around the necks of their sheep, or a chapel in the mountains.

Magic. I can’t wait to record it in the morning. In the meantime, here’s some Neapolitan bagpipe music notated in the middle 18th century.

Overnight 1: 1st-2nd January  

Violin, music. tea, pencils, rock, lamp, floor, blankets

I am going to begin on the floor. Over the Christmas/New Year break, I put away my practice table and practice less. It’s good to pratise on the floor anyway, as we can sit in half-lotos, and spread the music out. I am using my 1900 Hill/Boulanger and an early baroque bow. Most important, a pot of Verbena tea and a good selection of pencils.

Today I started work on the second of the new cycle which Michael Alec Rose is writing for me. This one’s called ‘Strata’. The focus of tonight’s work was voice-leading, colour, and syntax. All basic/fundamental things – which means … important.

Here’s the first piece in the cycle – recorded last week:

Observation for tonight: I am unwilling to change a composer’s slurs. I spent a long time working backwards from stressed moments in any piece like this (where the choice of bow will be clearer) to work out the ideal bowing, in reverse. I would suggest that we resist the termpation to split up the slurs and phrases a composer has worked out (even if they are challenging). So much of the life is to be found in these strictures.

And the result – at the desk recording morning 2 1 12

Such a joy to bve able to premiere/play such glorious music and work with the composers who are my friends!