I was already in a good mood, because I went to a concert last night and enjoyed some music I didn't think I would. I got to Birmingham's Symphony Hall excited to hear Bach's Cello Suite No 3 (my second-favourite one after 4 or perhaps 5) and OK about the other stuff on the bill: Liszt, Schubert and Rachmaninov. Not my taste but I knew that Adrian Brendel (cello) and Imogen Cooper (piano) would be great anyway. Or rather, I thought that his father Alfred would be great because that's who I thought was playing.
Eventually I got to Birmingham Town Hall where the concert actually was, which just shows you how attentive a reader I am. The place was only two-thirds full, which was a bit disappointing. Even worse, I think lots of them had come on the bus from a cholera hospital, because at times it felt like the Massed Bronchial Choir with a little background music playing in the breaks between eruptions. Particularly unfortunate given that the Cello Suite requires a single person playing one instrument to fill a concert hall with sound. Despite the beauty of the music I was ready to reinstate the quarantine laws. Or perhaps the death penalty.
So, first piece. Here's Maisky's rendition of the Bourrée:
My taste in classical music largely leaps from Bach to the twentieth-century, with some exceptions partly because I like Bach's austerity and that of the minimalists, and I think all the pretty stuff is a product of decadence and denial of life's misery. Not too keen on escapism, on the whole. I know this is rather Philistine, and it's not quite as stark as I'm putting it, but it's how I feel. I just don't go for powdered wigs and frilly bits (on clothes and music).
All this means that while I've heard plenty of Classical and Romantic music, I've never really made a point of getting to grips with it. Maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age, but I loved Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata even though it felt as emotionally manipulative as a Georgette Heyer novel. Here's a version of it arranged for cello:
And here it is played on the arpeggione, a 19th-century fretted instrument which didn't last very long: it was like a bowed guitar and was only invented a year before Schubert wrote for it, so he was clearly a Romantic neophyte. I'm sure he'd be playing with Garageband, sampling and theremins if he was about today.
For an added treat, read the comments, in which classical music scholars suddenly get really rude and snippy with the musician even though he posted the video and tries to engage with them… no wonder the first rule of the internet is Never Read The Comments.
Anyway: all of the above was played astonishingly beautifully – from memory – through the rolling thunder of coughing. After the interval, we got more of the stuff I thought I didn't like: three Liszt pieces, and then Rachmaninov's Sonata for Cello and Piano, to which I was looking forward.
Either I am getting soft or the virtuosic playing carried me through, but I enjoyed every second of those pieces, perhaps more than the Rachmaninov. I expected more violence from that: although there was plenty of drama, I wasn't expecting the nostalgic sentiment:
So that was my night: learned a lot and also got to stuff my face at the German Market before heading home in time to laugh at Fresh Meat, a very different cultural experience. Then tonight, rather than going home or doing some marking, I sat in on my friend's lecture on DM Thomas's The White Hotel. If you haven't read it, do. You may hate it, but that's OK, in fact quite normal. Not many novels mix Freud, Freudian analysis with the Holocaust tack on an extraneous happy ending which may or may not be part of the narration, attract accusations of plagiarism and generally yank you out of the realist rut. I'm pretty sure I don't like the novel, but I do admire it and keep re-reading it because new ways to understand it always occur. Going to Mark's lecture added several more, especially as the students contributed some really good ideas. In return, I told them of the existence of Stalag Fiction: pulp erotic fiction written in Hebrew sometimes by Holocaust survivors set in concentration camps.
That drew some gasps, which at least proves that the young aren't entirely desensitised. As Mark said, 'people are weird'.
I recommend going to other people's lectures. Apart from picking up tips on how to lecture, there's so much to be learned. It's really easy as an academic to be so tightly focussed on your patch that you forget how interesting other fields are. I really enjoy just popping in occasionally and listening, free of the need to memorise bits for examination or research – just sitting back and learning for fun.