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.

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