My friend J texted me in some distress. He had tickets for a concert at the Wigmore Hall, which he referred to with the informal affection permitted to one of his status as a season-ticket-holder as ‘Wiggies’. The Doric String Quartet was to play Haydn, Bartok and Schubert. J’s wife A, whose job I believe involves bringing high fashion to poor people, or possibly just telling them about it, was unlikely to be away in time; would I like the ticket? I was at Worthing Crematorium at the time, so I replied briefly and in the affirmative.
We arranged to meet fairly early in the bar, and I arrived first. Goodness, what poor social skills the Wiggies patrons have. Some of course are elderly and cannot help lurching around but even the younger ones tend to stand right where you want to go breathing heavily and gazing into the middle distance, as if anticipating their coming treat and already assailed subliminally by the music of the early Nineteenth Century.
In front of me in the queue was a German couple. They spent ages discussing in German the delights on offer, breaking off to issue instructions, or as it might be enquiries, in their perfect English.
I will take, please, a teapot full of peppermint tea and a glass of cranberry juice ‘on the side’, as you would say…
And then there was the endless matter of cakes.
The nice lady behind the counter served me over their heads as they plunged into a lengthy tortetraum. As she passed me my glass of red wine the German man lurched hard in its direction, but I was too quick for him.
There were four in our party, all lads, and in we went.
They played the Haydn quite nicely. I think, as the Doric Quartet apparently don’t, that Haydn requires a certain dispassionateness and that when he writes little runs you should play them as written and avoid cuteness. But it was well worth hearing.
The Bartok was terrific. I remembered loving it years ago but I have recently revisited Bartok’s orchestral music and been terribly disappointed and I feared the worst. I needn’t have done.
We trooped out for half time. We were unqualified for a smoke in the street and we decided against the bar. This was just as well. A number of patrons lurched into the doorway at the same time and some of them were trampled under foot.
Or so someone said: I didn’t see it myself.
We found a comfortable place to perch, but a nice old couple lurched up and displaced us, staring at us as they did so with a look of insatiable malice.
The second half comprised Deaf and the Maiden by Schubert.
Goodness, what childishness. Dear woolly-headed old Franz and his Feelings. I did my best to sympathise, but it was too much – or rather not enough. If Schubert were here, I thought, I would say to him: If you want me to sympathise with your Feelings, you’ll have to make them a lot more interesting than this.
But of course one wouldn’t. He was not such a bad old stick and shouting at him only made his syphilis worse.
The quartet went at Deaf and the Maiden with gusto. They all tossed their hair, except the viola player. The cellist waved his bow in the air in the intervals when it was not required to agitate the strings. He must have told the Wiggies management that he intended to do this, as sufficient space had been left between his chair and that of the viola player for him to do so without causing more injury.
Seconds before each particular passage of gusto, all eight eyebrows went up. This is specific to classical music of the early Nineteenth Century when it is being played with gusto. In my experience it is nearly always a bad sign. With proper music the musicians’ eyebrows go down not up, even when gusto is about to be employed.
As all this washed over me I mused about the background: as so often more interesting than the piece itself. The inspiration for the music, and indeed the title, was an amitié between Ludwig van Beethoven, Schubert’s great hero, and a young woman, little more than a girl. Beethoven had a landlady at one time called Braun (the dedicatee incidentally of a number of important works, such as the two Piano Sonatas Op. 14) and she was the mother of this person.
Beethoven wrote one of his more commercially successful songs for her, entitled, Mrs Braun, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. More controversially when he was creatively stuck while writing his third symphony he persuaded the girl to pose on the other side of his fortepiano stripped to her underwear. I don’t know enough about the history of Viennese dress in the early Nineteenth Century (J’s wife A would certainly know) to say what this might have comprised. I believe that drawers had not yet been invented, nor the brassiere, so it was probably a shift of some sort, modest enough by the standards of today. Anyway without the sight of the landlady’s daughter in her dishabille posterity would have been deprived of his immortal Erotica Symphony.
There is no suggestion incidentally of Savilian activity on Beethoven’s part vis-à-vis the girl. He never touched her. Had it been Schubert it might well have been different. He didn’t after all contract his syphilis from a lavatory seat.
This may explain the wistful quality of some passages of Deaf and the Maiden.
I made a mental note to discuss this with the producer of my film company’s masterwork Van!, which is now in preproduction. Should we include this touching story in our movie? Could we get Goldie Hawn for the girl, and maybe Julie Christie for her mother? Maybe it was Schubert that killed the man, and not Mozart after all…
Anyway, it came to an end. The audience rose spontaneously as one to an upright position and recalled the musicians again and again to the stage. Eventually they obliged us with an encore. It was one of the sections from Haydn’s Seven Last Words, and they played it beautifully.
Being four lads we went (or as people often say – I can never understand why – ‘repaired’) to a pub and J called for ‘ale’. This turned out to be very tasty; quite like beer. J told stories of the enduring qualities of the dog, whom the other two had sadly never met. There is no end to these stories, but J, who is a psychologist, says that you have to ‘move on’, so we talked variously about Leonard Cohen and cricket instead until the landlady enquired whether we had homes to go to.