Never assume you know why…

Last Sunday night my daughters were singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. Quite right too. Nothing unusual or alarming in that.

Except that the concert blew my mind.

Fair enough. The Fauré Requiem is a moving piece. But the piece still echoing in my head at 48 hours’ remove is the piece that opened the programme: Bach’s Partita no. 2 for solo violin, superbly executed by Adrian Adlam, its movements interspersed with a series of chorales performed from the back of the auditorium by a semi-chorus. The final movement, the chaconne, saw four of the semi-chorus weaving the chorales into the violin part, to extraordinary effect.

This interpretation of the Bach is based on the work of musical cryptologist Professor Helga Thoene. There is a recording available by the Hilliard Ensemble, and a review which discusses Prof. Thoene’s theories, not all of which are entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, the interpretation turns the Partita, which Bach wrote shortly after his first wife’s death, from a sublime piece of absolute music into a moving reflection on loss, grief and hope.

The programme note was quite clear: there’s no evidence that Bach intended it to be performed this way, but it offers an intriguing insight into how he might have heard it in its own mind.

I will certainly never hear the piece in the same way again.

Here’s the thing, though. It was all a complete surprise. We had a series of letters from our daughters’ school telling us only that they would be singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. Even Winchester College, where the concert took place, only had on their website: “Fauré Requiem 7.30 pm”.

What a pity that nobody thought to mention the Bach beforehand. I have a friend I could have invited who would have loved it. Part of me wishes I’d known how they were going to stage the Bach, with the semi-chorus moving round the sides of the auditorium as the piece progressed.

What a pity, too, that nobody mentioned beforehand the fact that the Fauré would be followed by the première of a piece by the concert’s conductor, Oliver Tarney. A fascinating and thought-provoking piece, it was, drawing together several of the musical and thematic components of the Fauré and the Bach, and setting several of the chorales we had heard earlier in the evening. It’s one of those pieces that begs to be listened to carefully and repeatedly, though as always, no amount of listening to a recording will re-create the impact of its live performance.

The schools’ assumption was–quite rightly–that we would turn out to hear our little darlings sing. But that wasn’t the only reason I would have gone. And it certainly didn’t do the evening justice, or prepare me for what to expect.

There is a parallel here with those books that are marketed as “the next…” (fill in the blank) – the ones that the publicists pay thousands to place on the front tables in Waterstones, with some generic six-word strapline that is supposed to encapsulate the content. (Take Robert MacNeil’s Burden of Desire, for example, which is saddled not only with a title that makes it sound like tired erotica, but also with a strapline from a review, “An intricate, satisfying romance”, which would stop most men from being seen reading it in public. A pity, because as I’ve said elsewhere, it is actually a thoughtful historical novel of depth, complexity and insight, as well as being a thumping good read.)

It’s a parallel with the soundbite-based approach to life that I wrote about a few weeks ago. Give the punters a one-line message – “An intricate, satisfying romance”; “Your daughters are singing the Fauré Requiem” – and that’ll be enough.

Er, no. What if that isn’t enough? What if your six-word strapline doesn’t hook the reader? What about my friend whose daughter wasn’t singing the Fauré but who would have loved the Bach?

The strapline is an invention of the ad-man. It presumes that the book or the concert or whatever is a commodity, to be piled high and sold cheap. I’m writing this in a pub, listening in to a quiz round about corporate slogans–Every Little Helps; I’m Lovin’ It; And You’re Done–which are noteworthy for being instantly recognisable rather than because they convey much of a message. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, you can’t sell a book or promote a concert on that basis.

(Mind you, there really are no words that could adequately convey, whether in the pre-concert publicity, the programme or anything I could say, that can adequately convey the impact of Sunday night’s music. That is how music works.)

I’m pretty sure Sunday’s performers didn’t see their concert as a commodity. But the one-line publicity begs the question, Why did they perform the Bach? And when someone chose this very interesting and unusual–and no doubt controversial–interpretation, who were the audience they had in mind?

I’m pretty sure Sunday’s concert was intended for an audience who were willing to stop and think, to listen to something new, to listen anew to something familiar. I’m reminded yet again of Salley Vickers’ comment that until the reader engages with it, about 45% of a book isn’t even there yet.

I can easily believe–and this is no reflection on a magnificent performance–that a healthy proportion of the impact of Sunday night’s concert lay in the audience’s response. Not in our applause, but in the quiet way the music worked on us and has continued to work on us. No doubt others reacted to it differently, but that is one of the things about art: its creator cannot predict or foresee or circumscribe its effects.

Note to school, therefore, and to every author or maker of art who has swallowed the sleeping-pill peddled by the ad-man:

Don’t believe your own PR.

Don’t fall for the old lie that the strap-line will sell your work. Your work is worth more than a strap-line.

Please don’t assume that you know why people will want what you have made.

Expect your work to transform and surprise your audience, sure. But then expect your audience, and your work, to surprise you.

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4 Responses to Never assume you know why…

  1. margaretskea says:

    Lovely post, Really thought provoking – have shared and tweeted

  2. yangszechoo says:

    I really liked your perspective on this — am retweeting!

  3. Gwen says:

    I shall certainly try to hear the partita again and with full attention this time. Was that or the use of strap lines your main purpose? Your own ‘strapline’ (the intro) was cleverly misleading, perhaps to illustrate the point?

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