Mat, Music, Milton – a thought after practice 21-22/1/22

Posted on January 23rd, 2022 by

Mat, Music, Milton – a thought after practice 21-22/1/22

Mat, Music, Bow, Lamp, Milton 3 am 22 1 22 Wapping


I wonder how it is that I have not mentioned this before. Perhaps it’s just that it is such a little thing. Many years ago (I was 14 or 15), I spent £1.50 on the Penguin collection of John Milton Selected Prose. I had just had my first encounter with Paradise Lost, and wanted more. Most of the collection made no impression on me – The Reason of Church Government, or An Apology for Smetymnuus didn’t appeal. However, I came to the sixth essay in the collection, Of Education, and a chord was struck, one which has resonated ever since. It suggested an approach to music, or rather an holistic approach to the broad notion of practice, which at the time seemed a fantasy, a castle in the air. At various times I found myself talking about Milton’s ideas, and then realised that I was tentatively putting them, quite literally, into practice.

The structure of this evening, or night’s work practice itself particularly well to the approach which I culled from Milton’s tract, and the constant of the Yoga mat, never far from the practice desk. I wanted to spend a couple of hours working on Julius Röntgen’s beautiful Chaconne (Tema von D M Tovey), which I am playing in Manchester soon, alongside Satie and Saint-Säens.

Here’s a snippet of the Milton. I make no apology for the dated notion of who should be practising/exercising. Mores of the 1640s are completely different from ours – but that does not mean that we cannot gain from the ideas and insights of the time:

‘They must be also pratiz’d in all the Locks and Gripes of Wrastling, wherein English men were wont to excel, as need may often be in fight to tug or grapple, and to close. And this perhaps will be enough, whereinto prove and heat their single strength. The interim of unsweating themselves regularly, and convenient rest may both with profit and delight in recreating and composing their travail’d spirits with the solemn and divine harmonies of Musick heard or learnt; either while the skilful Organist plies his grave and fanciful descant, in lofty fugues, or the whole Symphony with artful and unimaginable touches adorn and grave the well-studied chords of some choice composer, sometimes the Lute, or soft Organ stop waiting on elegant voices either to Religious or Martial ditties, which if wise men and Prophets be not extreamly out, have a great power over dispositions and manners, to smooth and make them gentle from rustic harshness and distemper’d passions.’[i]

Over the years, I realised that Milton’s words influenced the weave which worked itself into night-time practice, when I was careful to make the time, between time at the instrument and time on the mat. Tonight was a particularly happy and simple example. I wanted to spend time on each variation of the Röntgen (there are 15), and it seemed natural to gently alternate between the violin in hand, working each section, one by one, and individual asanas. While I did this, I had the words of Swami Vivekananda in my mind:

             ‘Man works with various motives: there cannot be work without motive’[ii]

The question of motive is a fascinating one. As I have grown up (if I have), I have realised, like many fellow artists, that the point of practice, is, well, practice; that my motive for practice, is just that, practice. Vivekananda, by the way, was a close friend of Sara Chapman Bull, Ole Bull’s second wife. She considered him the reincarnation of her husband, who died four years before she met the Swami.

Perhaps it helps, that I practise late at night/early in the morning, when the city outside my (open) window has fallen quieter, and round about now (3 am), a wren will start singing in the Blackthorn Tree outside my window (it has).  It seems natural to roll the mat out next to my practice desk, and work slowly, always remembering my teacher Nino Nanava’s repeating motif of ‘effortless effort’, or Milton’s direction that we should:

               ‘…send [our] minds back to study in good tune and satisfaction.’

Röntgen’s elegant chaconne is in some ways perfect for this, and any division between asana and variation soon becomes moot.

Practice draws to a close – the violin goes back in its case – the mat is rolled up and put away: before all the lights are turned out, I find myself remembering a beautiful nautical diminuendo, described by Alexander von Humboldt, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, en route to the Canary Islands, and then South America, in 1799:[iii]

‘At around nine we spotted the light of a fisherman’s hut at Sisarga, the last we would see on the European coast. Soon distance weakened that feeble light, which we began to confuse with stars on the horizon, but our eyes refused to stop staring at it. These impressions are never forgotten by those who begin a long ocean journey at an age when the feelings remain vivid and profound. So many memories are awoken in our imagination by a dot of light in a dark night, flickering on and off above the waves, signalling home.’

…the Wren still singing.

[i] Milton – Selected Prose Pp 192-192 (Penguin 1974)

[ii] Swami Vivekananda – Karma Yoga 1888

[iii] Alexander von Humboldt Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent 1815 P.20 (Penguin 1995)