Sunday, September 19, 2021

the elusive hornplayer

some thoughts on

The travelling hornplayer
Barbara Trapido

I picked up a battered paperback edition of this novel from a book exchange mainly on the merit of its musical title (a reference to the poetic source of Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” as I found out later) and the fact that there was a cello shown on the cover. The cello arrives fashionably late in the book, making its entry on page 90, but with a strong back story, involving a five-generation transfer in the family line, and a period spent buried in the woods. The young cellist who inherits the instrument is arguably the main character in the book, although the author has carefully constructed a kind of hypercube in which a dozen characters are connected in multiple ways, sometimes involving very improbable coincidences. The only living hornplayer mentioned, however, remains an elusive and very marginal character.

Apart from the welcome presence of celloing (although some very subtle details tell me the author perhaps doesn’t know much about cellos), other bonus points include occasional visits to Oxford, where Trapido lives, and, for me coming to it with 23 years delay, a glimpse of the almost forgotten world of the 1990s. People using their mobile on the train because they can, only to say “I’m on the train”, people smoking in restaurants, professionals mentioning the internet as a special tool at their workplace, and students studying without worrying about tuition fees. Characters can have Middleton as a family name without any royal implications. A distant world – although Oxford sounds very much the same as always.

All in all, a well balanced tragicomedy, great fun to read, and, notwithstanding the hornplayer of the title, I’ll file it under cello books. Oh, and I am listening to a CD of “Die schöne Müllerin” sung by Fritz Wunderlich right now (inherited from my mother). That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t read the book.

cover of the edition I have. The cello is (just about) recognisable by its spike.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

wonderful Welwitschia

The desert plant Welwitschia mirabilis has accompanied my writing for a while. It featured in my book Exzentriker des Lebens / Life on the Edge. The info in the books is mostly 1990s plant physiology. Now however, researchers have published a high quality genome structure of Welwitschia in comparison with its closest relative - which isn't very close. I've used the opportunity to also have a look at other plant life in deserts on other continents - in the context that the climate disaster will produce more extreme conditions for life to cope with, so we'd better understand how it does.

The resulting feature is out now:

How to survive in the desert

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 17, 14 September 2021, Pages R1017-R1019

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Welwitschia_mirabilis, Plate 5369 from vol89 (1863) Curtis's Botanical Magazine (source: wikipedia)

bonus illustration not included in my feature, as images in portrait format are awkward with the column format we use.

Friday, September 10, 2021

journey inside my guts

In January 2019, as I was 55 then, I was invited to a bowel scope screening. According to the brochure I was sent at the time, "The NHS offers bowel scope screening to all men and women aged 55." It sounded like a good idea, because "for every 300 people screened it stops 2 from getting bowel cancer and saves 1 life from bowel cancer."

While experiences may vary, I didn't find it terribly unpleasant and as a scientifically curious person I rather enjoyed the opportunity to follow the camera view on a large screen and travel through my own guts.

I just found out that the programme has since been scrapped, and its history, shall we say, adjusted to the situation. The relevant NHS website now says:

"Previously, some people aged 55 were invited for a one-off test where a healthcare professional uses a tube with a camera to look inside the bowel. This is called bowel scope screening. Bowel scope screening is no longer offered."

NB: some people were invited. When it was my turn, the official info said, as quoted above "all men and women aged 55."

For a competent analysis of the withdrawal of the screening programme, see this blog entry from a cancer charity.

Although I was lucky in getting the screening before it disappeared, I find it upsetting that there is very little interest around here in preventing disease before it happens. The NHS is brilliant because it's free at point of use as it should be and good at treating people when they get ill, but preventative measures aren't its strongest point and they are the first to suffer when things get difficult.

To me preventing disease is the most important job of the health system. I remember my grandparents being in and out of hospitals for bowel operations repeatedly, and I'm quite sure I prefer a camera up my bum to their experience.

Checking up the numbers:

There are 900,000 people in the UK aged 55 right now. We're talking about 3,000 lives that could be saved every year and 6,000 bowel cancer cases that could be prevented according to the NHS info I cited above. This may be small fry in comparison to the numbers currently killed by the mishandling of the Covid pandemic, but I am sure those 3,000 55-year-olds would have liked to live a bit longer ...

Cover of the brochure I received in 2019. Shows it's good to keep the paperwork, because online info gets adjusted to political convenience.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

the trouble with Volksmusik

Last week, Germany’s Green Party got into trouble with a TV ad using the 19th century folk song “Kein schöner Land” in a somewhat sugary video extolling the loveliness of the country without mentioning any of the problems that the next government will have to address. Right now, the youtube video has three dislikes for every like.

At around the same time, I also ran into trouble being asked to share a German folk tune, something which I have studiously avoided so far, while playing music from all corners of Europe for the last seven years. As I am bad at explaining such things in conversation, I decided to a) do a write up as to why there are Irish folk sessions in Germany but no German ones, and b) just learn a suitable tune to present at such occasions in the future.

The trouble with German folk traditions is a complex mix of many factors, but the biggest one is that it has fallen into bad company and kept the wrong sort of friends for too long. Specifically, Nazi organisations hijacked everything that could be prefixed with Volks- (which means folk, the people’s, or popular), from the Volksempfänger (people’s receiver = radio) to the Volkswagen (VW), and the traditional music and song repertoire (Volksmusik) played a huge part in their project.

Post 1945 one would have had to denazify the canon in some form, but that didn’t happen. Lots of harmless and simple songs from the 19th century were kept as children’s songs, a compendium of maybe 100 songs that are endlessly reprinted in different orders. These are ok in their way, but one wouldn’t normally play them among adults.

The grownup folk songs, with only the most horrific Nazi songs swept under the rug, kept their cultural home on the right wing of the political spectrum. Especially those who wanted to recover Germany in the boundaries of 1938 were very keen on songs celebrating the beauty of their country.

Progressive people meanwhile turned outward for inspiration, discovered popular music and folk traditions from other countries and liked those. Which was a good thing as such, but had the unintended consequence of hardening the divide – people who engaged with Volksmusik were likely to be on the right wing and suspicious of other cultures.

There were only very few exceptions in bands and singers working to reclaim the people’s music of times past for the kind of people who used to sing it, namely the workers, sailors, farmers, and the failed revolutionaries of 1848. Zupfgeigenhansel (named after an early 20th century folk song book) and singers like Hannes Wader spring to mind, but the list doesn’t grow much longer than that.

All of this has been my perception until reunification – as I moved to the UK in 1993, I didn’t witness developments since then as closely and may have missed changes that happened. Bands I happened to hear about, like Santiano, Faun, Triskilian, may now be heralds of a different social context of folk music, or they may still be exceptions that prove the rule, I couldn’t judge from the distance. In any case, the story until 1993 explains why I don’t walk around singing Kein schöner Land (and haven’t dared to watch the Green Party clip yet, which, from what I heard, seems to be targeted at the old-fashioned Volksmusik fans).

So, as all this is a bit tedious to explain when the situation arises, I’ve now had a look around for any German folk tunes that are sufficiently interesting musically and come without any horrific historical baggage. The result is a very short list, but maybe if readers want to add suggestions, I’m all ears.

Some simple tunes for the D whistle:

Muss i denn (Friedrich Silcher) in G, start on G, end on B
This one is globally famous because it was recorded by Elvis Presley (Wooden heart, 1960) - which fits my much neglected folkmash tag

Warum (Vom Truge; Ponthus et Sidoine)
I’ve actually played this one at Galician sessions, as Carlos Nuñez has recorded it, although he learned it in Brittany. A UK catholic person told me it’s used as a hymn here as well. The song version I knew is called Warum and sung by Triskilian, who give as the source the song book of the Duchess Sophie-Erdmuthe von Nassau-Saarbrücken from 1750.

Zogen einst fünf wilde Schwäne
An anti-war song from Eastern Prussia

Something a bit more interesting that sounds nice on the alto recorder:

Ich hab die Nacht geträumet in G: range from B to e’ – doesn’t work on D whistles.

Loreley (Friedrich Silcher) in G, start on D
Travelling up the Rhine on the train Cologne – Koblenz is actually as close as I get to feeling at home in Germany, so I might as well make this my go-to German tune (although one could dispute its folkicity)

on the way towards Loreley (own photo, 2017).

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

quartets for random instruments

In addition to duets and trios, we (a hardy subset of Cowley Orchestra and some newbies) have also played some quartets over this summer. These included baroque pieces set for three melody instruments plus basso continuo (Baroque composers didn't mind very much what melody instruments were used). On some meetings, when we had a strong ensemble, we also ventured into the string quartets of classic/romantic periods.

This Bank Holiday Monday we had a particularly strong ensemble (nothing to do with me, I am either the weakest link or hiding behind a stronger player) with an interesting variety of instruments and played Dvorak's American quartet among other things. It struck me that I actually prefer our version with five different instruments (violin, flute, oboe, clarinet on the viola part, cello) to the string quartet performance. Listening to string quartets, I don't really like the fact that the four string instruments have similar sound textures and all blend into one sauce - having a variety of different sounding instruments is actually an improvement to me. Also, with its richness of textures, the random instruments version is a lot closer to the New World symphony. (UPDATE 11.9.2021: Just discovered it's been done before. Somebody called David Walter arranged it for string quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, published by Billaudot - Paris 1986) and YouTube has live videos from the Amsterdam Wind Quintet (fourth and first movement) as well as sound-only recordings from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic (complete) and Meliora Winds.)

Anyhow, here's my nascent collection of quartets so far:

Boccherini: 9 string quartets (various opus numbers).
Dvorak: string quartet No. 12 in F major (American quartet)
Haydn: Quintenquartett Op 76, Nr. 2, in D minor
Pachelbel: Canon in D, arranged for string quartet by Donald Fraser
Schubert: Excerpts from 5th symphony, strings pack
Schubert: Quartet for flute, guitar, viola and cello (YouTube). Found this in an edition published 1956 - it later turned out that Schubert had just arranged a trio by Czech guitarist Vaclav Matiegka (1773-1830) and added the cello to give it a bit more oomph. The original trio (Notturno op 21) is lovely, actually, but doesn't harm to have the cello part too.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 1 Op 49.

And a bunch of baroque quartets I borrowed for the summer:

MA Charpentier, Noels (9 short pieces, some christmassy)
Naudot, concerto in C major
A. Scarlatti, Sonata in F major
GP Telemann, concerto in G major
JB Fasch, quartet in Bb major
JC Schickhardt, sonata in D major

The last page of the autograph score of Dvořák's American quartet with his inscription: "Finished on 10 June 1893 in Spillville. Thanks God. I'm satisfied. It went quickly."


Updated 6.9.2021 to add the Schubert quartet based on the Matiegka trio.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

the crazy history of Germany

some thoughts on


A personal history of Germans ancient and modern

Simon Winder

Picador 2010

Like the authors of fun history books for children such as the horrible histories series, Simon Winder treats history with all due disrespect. He exposes the lies in nationalist narratives, the madness of feudal rulers, and the crazy coincidences that make unfortunate events happen.

Following a vaguely chronological route through the history of German speaking lands (minus Switzerland), from Tacitus’s eponymous book through to the end of the Weimar republic, he revels especially in his visits to the monuments and curiosities left behind by hundreds of insignificant small feudal states, which all felt compelled to build a Schloss to mimic Versailles (the author uses Schloss and insists there is no good translation, which is a relief, as we’ve been looking for ages). Incidentally, these very same deluded mini-monarchies also provided suitable (because protestant and coming without major power political strings attached) marriage partners to British royalty for centuries. Go figure.

The fates of these mini states varied wildly. In the wars before the foundation of the Empire, some rulers placed their bets against Prussia and lost, including the kingdom of Hannover. Meanwhile, next door, the tiny principality of Schaumburg Lippe, with its very sumptuous mini capital Bückeburg survived until 1918. This was lucky for my grandmother in nearby Minden, because she got the opportunity to study at the conservatoire which the duke of Schaumburg Lippe had founded in 1913 in a last firework of cultural exuberance.

Winder is adept at making connections and parallels that you don’t normally find in history books. Karl Marx and Prince Albert moving to London at around the same time. Louis XIV burning down the Palatinate while everybody else was busy fighting off the Ottomans outside the gates of Vienna, showing that the unity of Christian Europe wasn’t as strong as we are often told. One tiny, unreferenced remark about composers Mahler and Strauss meeting in a Strasbourg piano shop led me to a journey of discovery which I have already reported here.

All in all an extremely enjoyable “horrible history” for grown-ups. Words like “demented” and many synonyms thereof occur on every page. An immaculate sense of place provides many ideas of towns and cities that one should really visit. The only serious blind spot I noticed is Wuppertal – it is mentioned only once, and then anachronistically, in the 19th century (page 359) when its position was still held by the separate, rapidly industrialised cities of Barmen and Elberfeld. Looking up the author’s details, I found that he has written two sequels covering the Danube watershed and Lotharingia, the middle bit in the tripartite heritage of Charlemagne. I will look out for these.

Monday, August 23, 2021

followers of fishes

I'm not a scuba-diving kind of person, but from my armchair studies of marine biology I recall seeing many photos of larger fish species apparently being followed by smaller ones. Never thought much about it, until I came across a publication referring to the followers of manta rays as hitchhikers. That sounded like an interesting feature topic, so I had a closer look and discovered all sorts of marvellous things I hadn't known. In addition to the obvious ecology implication, the social network of marine species if you will, there are also interesting bits of physics about the suckers allowing hitchhikers to hold onto fast moving transport vehicles.

All this in my latest feature which is out today (I love the title, even if I say so myself):

Friends, foes and followers of fishes

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 16, 23 August 2021, Pages R973-R976

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Manta rays are often seen with other species attached to them or following them closely. The image shows a giant ocean manta ray with some passengers. (Photo: Simon Fraser University/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Mahler and Strauss in Strasbourg

Reading Simon Winder's excellent book Germania (about which I rave in more detail here), I stumbled across the surprising statement (on page 369):

... the vigour and pleasure of the pre-1914 world [...] can be summed up in the image of Mahler and Strauss in 1905 happily playing through the score of the latter's forthcoming opera Salome in a piano shop in Straßburg, ...

Which struck me as it falls in the period when both Heinrich the cellist and his then fiancée Maria were living in Strasbourg. Presumably they weren't so astronomically lucky to wander into that piano shop at the right time, but it made me wonder what Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949), then based in Vienna and Berlin, respectively, were doing in the faraway and musically less illustrious town.

As it turns out they were both guest conductors at the first Elsass-Lothringen Music festival, which aimed to build cultural bridges by featuring both French (Franck, Charpentier) and German composers (Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner, and the two famous guests). Mahler conducted his 5th Symphony on May 21, 1905, and an all-Beethoven programme the next day (the Mahler Foundation provides full details for both days here and here). Assuming that Strauss also had a couple of concerts, and then a few for the French guest conductor, Camille Chevillard (1859-1923), this adds up to a whole week worth of music. The festival happened just one month after Strauss had completed the score for Salome, so at the time of that piano shop meeting, nobody in the world knew the music.

The whole event took place at the Sängerhaus in Sankt-Julianstraße, a huge venue built in 1903, which today is the Palais des Fetes in rue Selenick. Located in the Neustadt (German quarter), this location is literally only one block away from where Heinrich the cellist lived. So I'll henceforth assume that he did pop over to watch Mahler and/or Strauss do their thing.

Source: Wikipedia

PS: Here are some lovely postcards from the first decade of the Sängerhaus.

Stop press: I found the shop! It's Wolf Musique, it even had a plaque commemorating the one-man premiere of Salome, but it sadly closed down in June 2020 after 195 years in business. That news item was in French, but here's one in English. The French source mentions Mahler and his young wife Alma (along with baffled clients of the shop) as the audience, whereas Winder had only mentioned Gustav and left me with the impression that he and Strauss had played the orchestral score four-handed. The shop was located on the main island, 24 Rue de la Mésange.

Friday, August 13, 2021

real life art

Art exhibition with works by Alexander Calvelli about real life (working lives) opening in real life today:

The venue, Kunstraum Eigelstein, does not seem to have a web presence outside Facebook - find them there if you must.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

professor leather trousers

Coming back to the biography of Heinrich our family cello after a couple of months being busy with other things. Heinrich the cellist and his wife Maria had met at Strasbourg in 1903/04. He had come from faraway Tangermünde (joining the army), she came from the other side of the river Rhine (Bruchsal), to train as a secretary at the main hospital of Strasbourg. Like the rest of the city, the university and its hospital had benefited from a major programme by the newly founded German Empire to make the city a showcase for the world.

Maria's niece recently told me that she remembered her mother saying that Maria worked for "Professor Lederhose" at Strasbourg, which the children found understandably funny. It was almost true, though, add an extra "d" that is not part of the German word for leather trousers, and you get:

Professor Georg Ledderhose (1855-1925)

a prominent surgeon who, like Maria, had arrived from the other side of the river as a youngster, studying medicine at Strasbourg and then rising through the ranks there. After WW I, he ended up in Munich. He even has a syndrome to his name, Ledderhose's disease or plantar fibromatosis, which I understand is just a bump under the sole of your feet.

He also has a Gedbas entry - no children listed, but you can find his wife, parents and several generations of ancestors here. His paternal grandmother was Sophie Susanne Dupré, and her ancestry and relations are the main focus of the online genealogists who gave us the Ledderhose entry. A name that neatly links back to the cello theme ...

Source: Wikipedia

So where did Maria and Professor Ledderhose work? Presumably in the Hôpital civil (the French wiki is very interesting on its history, the English version less comprehensive). As I understand it, the Hôpital civil under German governance became closely connected to the medical faculty at the university, even though it wasn't a university hospital as such. It expanded dramatically using up former military land just south of the main island. This map shows the location in 1921:

Source: Wikipedia

I think Professor Ledderhose must have worked as a surgeon in building number 6, ie Clinique chirurgicale A, in place since 1881 (Clinique chirurgicale B was only opened in 1914). Not much hope of finding the place today, as Wikipedia says it has been turned into a car park, but I'll take this map the next time I visit Strasbourg.

Historically, every department was housed in a separate building, but many of these have now been demolished, and the new hospital, opened in 2008, aims to combine all services in one block. Today, the facilities are employing some 11,000 people.

As always, all hints appreciated ...

Monday, August 09, 2021

cat gods and coexistence

The recent paper on how worshipping cat gods helps people in India to coexist with leopards and even tigers inspired me to look for other examples. Naively, I assumed I would find similar stories around the world, but most of the surviving cultures codifying coexistence with dangerous wildlife led me back to India. So it became a slightly lopsided tour du monde, but I also have mentions of Central America, Australia, and Nigeria in there. The feature is out now:

A culture of coexistence

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 15, 09 August 2021, Pages R931-R934

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
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Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Children play with Waghoba at Manali temple
(this picture didn't quite make it into the published article)

Sunday, August 08, 2021

goldilocks instruments

Discussed alto flutes and other size variations at a session earlier today and it struck me that I have a very clear preference in several instrument groups, but they don't line up. Basically, I like to make deep sounds, but there are limits to the amount of suffering I am willing to take for that, such as straining my arm to lift a bass flute, or spreading my fingers more than a comfortable width to play low recorders. So the balance works out as follows:

* strings: cello (obviously)

* flutes: concert flute (I just don't feel the few extra notes added at the bottom are worth the suffering with heavier flutes).

* recorders: alto (a discovery I only made a few years ago, when I saw an alto recorder at a fleamarket and bought it on the spot - basically, it feels exactly right, presumably because it scales to the adult hands exactly like the soprano recorder to primary school kid hands).

* saxophones: tenor (haven't tried any of the other sizes, but the tenor feels so right, I can't imagine any of the others being a better fit).

Based on this, I should try low whistles, which I haven't done yet. And while I never cared much for trumpets, I am curious about tubas, euphoniums and such like.

Different sizes of recorders, from bass to sopranino. Image source: Wikipedia

PSA: this is blogpost no. 2000, and also a reminder to myself that I will resume the all our instruments series once the plague years are definitely over.

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