A few of my favourite strings

Back in the distant past, when a (small) part of my job was to be an IT Manager, I found the movie back-catalogue of Julie Andrews to be a fruitful source of passwords.  These days, more solid passwordage is required if I am to keep the few secrets that I haven’t already revealed to a resentful public via this blog.  Nevertheless, there is a pleasant seam of nostalgia to be mined using Ms Andrews’ ouvre for a title.

When I was up in Edinburgh last week, I did manage to fit in a couple of trips to the Queen’s Hall – to listen to some music, rather than merely to do some penance by sitting in its dreadfully uncomfortable pews.   I have some bad news for you, dear reader: there was no scotch bonnet ice-cream for sale.  According to the usherette, they were rather a slow seller and so are unlikely to return.  Apparently, my marketing efforts here on GofaDM were not enough – perhaps a major drive to boost readership is in order.  As a result, GofaDM will soon be introducing a talent contest where a panel of judges will mock various disadvantaged minorities for the entertainment of a baying public (as my research indicates this to be the formula for a sure-fire ratings hit).

Anyway, back to the music.  I have already mentioned the excellent Winterreise, which I would have described as an emotional roller-coaster (we love a cliché here) but as the “ride” was almost exclusively downhill it was more like an emotional luge (though rather warmer and with a lower risk of broken limbs).  Nonetheless, it was a stunning concert and provided a level to which my singing can aspire.  Whilst 88 strings were involved in the performance (though mayhap Mr Lewis did not strike every possible key on his pianoforte), these are not in fact the strings referred to above.

No, for last Tuesday I once again found myself in the more comfy, temporary red seats of the QH to hear the Dunedin Consort play (and sing – or could I consider that playing with the voice?) some Bach: two cantatas and a couple of Brandenburgs (no yellow and pink squares were involved, you’re thinking of Battenbergs).  The Dunedin Consort play on period instruments (though the organ was electrically powered, so some compromises were made – either that, or Michael Faraday’s breakthrough was not quite as revolutionary as we have been led to believe) which meant a much greater instrumental variety in the string section than is common nowadays.  Usually, one is limited to the standard set of violin, viola (much under-rated), ‘cello and bass – but in Bach’s time, the choice was much greater.  The concert did involve the first three of the now traditional four, but also some charming instruments that have been largely forgotten.  The Violone (or large viol, a relative of the bass), the viola de gamba (an alternative to the ‘cello and something to do with legs, if my Italian is any guide) and, mostly delightfully, the viola d’amore (the love viol).  This last instrument comes with 7 strings, and another 7 sympathetic strings – which makes for a lot of tuning I’ll be bound.  Not only did we have this great diversity of stringed instruments – they were also tuned in a great variety of ways.  The A above middle-C could be 415, 440 (current concert pitch), 460, 486 or even 392Hz depending on the instrument and piece, indeed in many pieces different parts of the orchestra were differently tuned and so playing in different keys (though always to a harmonious result).  This did somewhat blow my mind, but does offer a potential excuse if I am found to be singing off key – I shall just say I was using an historic pitch (and see if anyone is fooled).

Using period instruments also meant that the brass that is sometimes heard in the Brandenburg Concertos (yes, I’m talking to you Antiques Roadshow) was replaced by that primary school favourite: the recorder.  Not the descant so beloved of those in single figures (and so feared by their parents), but the treble (or so I think based on the size and tone – though I last played a treble back in 1977, so my memories may be a little fuzzy by now).   Period instruments produce a much more mellow, neighbour-friendly tone than their more popular modern counterparts.  In these days of ever higher population density and noise pollution, perhaps it is time for a renaissance (or baroque revival?) for these old favourites.  Apparently, there are worries about the future of guitar bands in today’s hit parade: could there be an opportunity for the viol band to fill the breach?

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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