Comfort music

One of the great conundrums in music, any music, is the extent to which our choice of listening reflects our mood.

Obviously if you’re feeling all Tigger-like, you’re not going to go and dig out a funeral march. But if you’re erring on the Eeyore perspective of life, you’re hardly going to seek out an Alleluia tonic.

In the space of a few weeks, the country’s mood has shifted seamlessly from the ennui of Brexit to the fear of Coronavirus. Neither of these emotions is conducive to feeling chipper, and it makes selecting appropriate music in a lighthearted way all the more challenging. Oh, for the elation that swept the land when in 1981 Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, and Botham and Willis overcame the Aussies! ‘Bliss, [indeed], was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be young [as I was] was very heaven.’ And then some 30 years later the collective high spirits as the Olympics came to London.

Two things are now clear: we are in need of consolation, comfort and care; and without in any way seeking to trivialise the current climate, a little amusement would not go amiss either.

Which is why my quandary has directed me to two pieces today, in the hope that between them both there will be something here for everyone. Step up J. S. Bach, and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.

Bach wrote just one concerto for two violins, probably around 1720, but what a gem of intermingling dialogue it is. In this recording the canary-coloured-clad Anne Sophie Mutter shares the three movements with different members of her ensemble. The first, marked vivace, meaning lively, upbeat, is taken at a very sprightly lick and the final allegro almost has each violin chasing the other; but in the midst of these outer movements Bach slots in a largo ma non tanto, slowly but not overly so, which gives lie to the belief of some who find his music unmoving. It is an exquisite eight minutes, imbued with melancholy and comfort as one.

I am indebted to a first cousin for bringing the second piece to my attention. Victor Hely-Hutchinson, about whom I have written a couple of times before, was my great uncle and a child prodigy. He was still at Heatherdown prep school, so maybe not even in his teens, when he set Edward Lear’s 1871 poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, to music. I’m not here to read anything particularly insightful into this, for it is, after all, ‘nonsense verse’; but at its heart is an endearing trust – two completely incompatible beings sailing into the unknown ‘for a year and a day’. Looking out for each other. A message for our times?

I can’t hide a huge pride that this top rate trio, Mark Padmore, Roderick Williams, and Julius Drake, saw fit to perform this. It may be fun and playful, but it is far from kitsch: Victor conveys the gentle rocking of the boat from the opening bars, and the blending of these two lovely voices underlines the harmony between the two characters, heading into the unknown together.

‘There may be troubles ahead, but while there’s music and moonlight…’

Click on the images.




18 thoughts on “Comfort music”

  1. You may think of yourself as just an amateur enthusiast, but you are so much more than that. First, your knowledge of music and performance is out of sight compared to an average music-lover. You may take that for granted, but your readers do not. Your writing skills are excellent, so you can convey your knowledge and enthusiasm with written words. Then you add a carefully-chosen video or recording for illustration, and that enlarges our understand immeasurably. I am totally in awe of your talent and abilities to promote music for average people. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your most excellent blog.

    My husband is a prime example of a person who was influenced by music writers. He grew up in a home where music was important. The children had music lessons, sang in church choirs, and went to concerts. They liked good music, and that’s as far as it went. John’s music education came from record jackets. Any time a new recording came into the home, he read the performance notes carefully. Fast forward to university years. He majored in history, and his roommate was a music major. The music major came back to the room one day and asked John if a particular statement from the music professor was right. John knew the teacher had made a mistake and told him why. Writers like you were the ones who educated John and expanded his horizons. Please be assured that you possess a most valuable skill that few others have.


    1. Goodness me, I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to you for writing this – and the trouble you have taken to do so. I am seriously touched by what you say, it makes it all worthwhile. And so, from the bottom of *my* heart, my very sincere thanks. Truly, who could ask for more? I think I’m actually blushing as I write this!


  2. A beautiful performance of the the Bach Concerto. A delightful performance of your cousin’s clever setting of The Owl and the Pussycat. Thank you, lovely moments of pleasure amidst the raging viral maelstrom of misery we are all experiencing.
    I agree totally with Anne Mehrling and I admire you, as does she.
    Keep safe.
    Kathy Braithwaite


  3. I am here st the suggestion of Anne Mehring. She wrote good things about your blog and I can see why. After listening to the news, I was more in the mood for the Bach piece this morning! 🙂


  4. I grew up with that rendition of the “Owl and the PussyCat” and was delighted to hear it again after probably 65 years. I always loved the sound of the runcible spoon! I always was deeply moved by Bach and it never occurred to me that others weren’t. Thanks for that stunning performance on violin.


    1. How lovely, thank you. I’d never heard it before and by pure chance stumbled on the sheet music for it here a couple of weeks ago! I’ve met a number of music lovers who say that Bach doesn’t ‘do’ it for them – a steer to this piece, the Sts Matthew and John Passions normally puts them on the back foot. Delighted you’ve found this site and hope you enjoy it, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, Nick, once again you have hit the spot and also I too thoroughly endorse the words of Anne Mehring! I look forward to introducing my two little granddaughters to this version of The Owl and the Pussycat when I am allowed to see them again. They will love it and I am so grateful to you for this wonderful blog.


    1. Thank you so much, Rosemary. I was rather embarrassed, but obviously very touched too.
      I do hope you are keeping well. I think I may need to be a little more active in the coming weeks!


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