'A Beautiful Addiction: My Life In Chamber Music'
This article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Viola Society in Spring 2021.
The challenge when speaking about a life in chamber music is that honesty is risky, but dishonesty is pointless. We’re talking about a human activity that must be at the top of the totem pole of the transcendently difficult, comprehensively illuminating, and potentially most
satisfying and startlingly ego-drowning experience known. We could also say it can wreck lives, torment the practitioners into disastrous decisions, impoverish them beyond their parents’ wildest fears, and lead to violence — physical, emotional, and mental.
Not for the timid or faint of heart. But not for the blindly bold and foolhardy either.
A picture comes to mind: The cellist is about seven years old. The second violinist is five. The first violinist—the maître d’, the omnipotent, the terrifying, the “he who shall not be contradicted,” the man who wields the antique ivory conductor’s baton and flicks it across the knuckles or on top of the head when any slight intonation lapse occurs (though more usually it’s his own bow that’s so used), who towers over the ensemble—that’s my father.
The gentle yet oh-so-powerfully evocative triads and rhythms of Corelli Trio Sonatas fill the house giving no hint of the power struggle going on. Sister infuriated by the recalcitrance of the rebellious second fiddle; the father, commandingly in control, yet past whom it’s possible for the siblings to slip snide little comments at each other, fast and slick, hoping they’re not heard and the baton or the bow doesn’t descend.
Later, at the local music festival competition, the comments are uniform: How absolutely lovely, the little angels, how wonderful to be able to make family music, you are SO lucky, so beautiful . . . oh . . . ah . . . ooo. They gush. Basically we’ve just survived another internecine war. But it WAS beautiful. There is an old cassette tape in the cupboard, itself a copy of an old reel-to-reel recording made by my father during one of our battles, er, rehearsals. At one point the second violinist, now maybe eight years old, has the temerity to risk an argument with father.
Father: That’s an A flat boy! (At home I was invariably referred to as “The Boy.”)
2nd fiddle: Sorry?
Father: An A flat, not an A natural.
2nd fiddle: But . . . I played an A flat . . .
Father: Hmm, harrumph . . . from letter B . . . (lifting his violin again).
2nd fiddle: But Dad . . . I played an A flat . . . honest I did (demonstrates a strident A flat).
Father: (Already bow on the string) . . . Letter B!!
2nd fiddle: But Dad . . . I don’t get you. I really played an A flat! (Mock sorrow and tears, but also extreme indignation.)
Father: (More harrumphing) . . . Right. OK. LETTER B!
What I hear now from that recording, listening as a father myself, is a man who was trying very hard not to laugh. It was all an act. He genuinely loved the music more than words can say. He wanted only for us to experience something incomparably wonderful, and experience it with him. Yes, one could say he was being self-indulgent. But then we’d have to include by that accusation any person, anywhere, ever, who has been hopelessly seduced by the addiction to a cornerstone of our civilization: The most utterly, overpoweringly wonderful experience of losing oneself (the ego-drowning) in a sound world, creating a vibrational power that can materially affect the health of individuals where one must be both assertive and receptive at the same time, their relationships, societies, countries and . . . You can see where this is going. Intonation helps! That which happens when two notes, then three, are played at the same time, and are adjusted at reflex speed to within one hertz of purity, is little short of a profound religious or spiritual experience. Lucky the kid who has, as part of his or her daily bread, the task of creating that purity of three-part harmony. Yes, I was lucky. That monster . . . my father . . . Bless him!
And so started a curious life as an addict. It came with incalculable self-inflicted loss, and a sense that I nevertheless had no control over any of it.
From the Beginning
When I was nine years old, my father felt sure that I would be more in demand and a happier amateur musician if I played the viola. Being a professional player was never an option: it made no sense whatsoever in postwar Britain. There was a lack of everything, of food, clothes, housing, security of any kind. So a “proper” job that paid you something, no matter what, was required. Joy and meaning would be experienced through music and the arts, and particularly from making music.
Only rarely could many of the population afford to go to a professional orchestral concert, so the golden age of chamber music and of amateur music-making was born.
Groups such as the Amadeus Quartet became household names. My father would attend chamber music classes at Goldsmiths College in London taught by that quartet.
After the classes he would give them—all perched perilously on top of his open top MG sports car—a ride to the train station. Given the lack of resources, I can only imagine it was a car held together by string. But “resourcefulness” in those days was the name of the game.
When they were in their early teens, my father and his brother ground a piece of glass into a condenser lens and built their own perfectly functional photographic
Still in their teens, and before World War II, they also received free music lessons from teachers who volunteered to brave the journey from more well-heeled areas of London to the underworld of the Isle of Dogs (modern Docklands). As my father said of the teachers: We knew they were posh because they wore shoes. Docklands was the most heavily targeted area of London during the Second World War and essentially still just a bombsite when I visited my grandparents there in the 1950s. My father learned the violin, the piano, the trombone (where did they find that?), keyboard harmony, and formal analysis sitting in the organ loft of the local high Anglican church with the organist Godfrey Sceats, who was a close friend of Karg-Elert, while his father (my grandfather) built a one-string fiddle in the garden shed.
In those days on the Isle of Dogs, everybody’s front door was open. If you didn’t have any toilet paper, you knew your neighbors didn’t either. When your scraps of newspaper ran out, your neighbors’ had too. But if you stepped around the corner you were in enemy territory. You’d better know how to protect yourself with your fists from the lads who lived 200 yards away, whose front doors were also open, their mothers chatting on the doorstep. My father would regularly be jumped on the way home from school, his violin case opened and violin thrown into the road and his hands stomped on. I have thought many times how deeply and passionately he must have felt about music to have survived all this (how many times did he repair his violin?), continuing to play something, somewhere, for the rest of his life.
Given all this, I suppose my sister and I had little choice in the matter of whether we learned to play something! For me, it was first the recorder (about three years old) on which I apparently learned to sight-read before I could talk. Then I was given a Salvation Army cornet, then an 1/8-sized violin (age five), and a viola (age nine, but it was actually a strung-up violin), and I began playing the piano, taught by the fabulous harpsichordist Andrew
Pledge, from age eight. It was impossible to be accepted into the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music unless you played at least two instruments. My father clearly had plans.
A scholarship allowed me free tuition at the RCM when I was 11. By incredible good fortune one of the most esteemed and remarkable viola teachers working for the RCM said he was looking for a junior student “to keep his hand in,” i.e. to keep practicing his skills as a teacher of children. This was Bernard Shore, Lionel Tertis’s student and friend. He was a wonderful player and educator, the man who created the peripatetic music teaching system in the UK (sadly no longer in use) and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Music in Schools, for which service he received the decoration of CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). It
is safe to say my life would be unrecognizable without Bernard’s wisdom and nurture. He became my second father. There is so much I would love to tell of this man, but space forbids. Another time.
Bernard Shore (foreground) in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, immediately before or after WWII. His right hand clearly visible.
Frontispiece from Shore’s book, The
Orchestra Speaks (London: Longmans, 1948).
My first string quartet experience at the Junior RCM was playing Schubert’s A-minor quartet, the “Rosamunde.” Adrian Levine, Martin Hughes, Julian Lloyd Webber, and I played our hearts out, and Julian tormented Miss Farmer, our poor beleaguered teacher, by arguing every inch of the way. We must have been beyond infuriatingly opinionated 11-to-13-year olds! But I still think one of the most deeply heart-wrenching of musical utterances is the falling minor triad that Schubert gives to the first violin at the very beginning of the piece. It’s silly to say this, I know, but I’ve often thought that Schubert can do more damage to my equilibrium with three notes than Mahler can manage with a whole movement.
And so began the addiction.
Various groups, various connections: thrilled by Dvořák, besotted with Ravel, unashamedly showing off in Spohr, ravished by Mozart quartets (played by the Amadeus), learning about the opus 18s and playing three of them, afraid of “the lates,” transported by Sibelius, weeping with Tchaikovsky, traveling in Transylvania with Smetana. It continued. I had no idea how badly lost I was.
Of course we’re joking here. Or are we? Musicians get married, they have children, sometimes they hold down steady jobs and buy houses, and no one would ever guess the tumultuous forces that rage within them. Is it the music that has created the neurosis, or is it an early neurosis that has allowed the obsession for music to develop? Impossible to answer. But there is certainly a need in the people that I know and love, those who also know and love and practice chamber music. And if that need can be considered capable of disrupting or damaging certain aspects of one’s life, it is no longer technically merely an obsession, but an addiction.
But what a glorious one to be sure!
A Mentor and a Career
If we are speaking about the determination to follow a path no matter the difficulties and dangers, my mentor, my second father, Bernard Shore, needs a mention here. When Bernard was eighteen, he was a member of an Officer Training Corp during WWI. There was an accident. A grenade exploded in his hand, killing another man. Bernard found himself on the operating table talking to a surgeon. Bernard’s precise words to the surgeon, when he related this story to me, were: "Now my man, I want you to save every eighth of an inch you can." Remember he was eighteen years old. When the surgeon had saved every eighth of an inch he could, Bernard had on his right hand a thumb, just one phalanx of a first finger, the second and third fingers joined as one short stump of similar length to the first finger, and a complete fourth finger. He was no longer a keyboard player.
Think about a bow. You need a fulcrum (the thumb), a point of effort (the first finger, or what remains of one), and a counterbalance (the fourth finger). Bernard had what was necessary.
In his youth Bernard had studied piano, organ, and violin. After the accident, he picked up a viola at age nineteen and became Tertis’s favorite student, and later, the principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a member of the Arthur Catterall and Spencer Dyke String Quartets. He was known as a soloist, many works being written for and premiered by him. He himself composed and arranged. His book The Orchestra Speaks is a marvelous read: A description of every wellknown conductor of the time from the vantage point of the principal viola chair. He was an incredible teacher and a man of great charm and persuasiveness, graced with dignity, fiercely principled, with never a need to reprimand. He had the extraordinary gift of somehow making one feel only disappointment if one had not achieved what was possible, if one had not done one’s best. I have no idea how he managed that. But his greatest joy was to use those same skills and work with amateur chamber musicians or orchestra players. To see the thrill in their eyes when they managed to achieve something new, no matter how humble: that was what gave him purpose.
Years later when I was considering different professional paths, and believing that he would be encouraged to know that I’d been asked to join several reputable string quartets, I wrote to him asking for advice. Unexpectedly he wrote back to tell me that he had never had the courage to join a full-time quartet because he couldn’t imagine living with the restrictions and limitations that it would bring to his life. It’s hard to imagine anyone refusing such opportunities now; people dream of such a life as if it would be a veritable heaven on earth.
Well, let’s think about that. Is it?
In the more than 20 years that I played with the Nash Ensemble, from 1978 to 1999, I saw more joy, sorrow, pain, cruelty, emotional wreckage, AND magnificent music making than I could imagine was possible for any small group of people to create, without any assistance from the outside world. It has been suggested that a book or play or film should be made of the history of the group. But no one would believe it wasn’t fiction.
The chamber ensemble Hausmusik holds what must be a record: In the twelve years I played with the group (1987 to 1999) there were three divorces, one mental breakdown, one physical breakdown, and one person who gave up music altogether. Yet that group received more critical acclaim for its first five recordings than any other group ever signed to EMI. We didn’t have a therapist on site when rehearsing or recording, but it might have been a good idea.
Of the Esterhazy Baryton Trio, with whom I played from 1976 to 1986, I can happily say we survived, went everywhere once, and are still friends. “Going everywhere once” reminds me of the story of the quite famous group that was invited back to give another concert, the return gig, about which the viola player was prompted to say, “Well, I guess they couldn’t believe it the first time.”
Quartet of London (1986–1988): After one of the members threatened to leave another on the side of the motorway when returning from a European tour, it was considered wise to quit while we were still ahead, i.e. alive, not thrown into an Amsterdam canal. When I go to chamber concerts now, particularly string quartet concerts, if the group has been together for more than 20 years, I will of course be applauding the music. But I’m applauding equally vehemently, if not more so, the fact that they are still on the concert platform together. They have forgiven each other. They have accepted each other’s failings, limits, unfortunate habits,
annoying ticks, miserly behavior, what they “always” do (as in: “You ALWAYS do that at letter B!”).
It would be natural for the reader to conjecture that the problem lay not in professional chamber music playing per se, but in this writer’s psyche. I’ve often thought this too, but it’s a troublesome theory because it often seemed to be the writer who was desperately searching for olive branches, wishing that he’d taken a course in marriage guidance counseling, had been an international diplomat for a quarter of a century, or simply had no opinions of his own. That last wish would have helped, one must confess. I’m a viola player after all. Traditionally, we read moderate newspapers, are mindful of our station in life, try to keep out of trouble, and don’t raise our heads above the parapets unless all else has failed. But unfortunately I had my opinions so I was just as capable as the next man of pouring fuel onto the fire. The question is: Why was it all so important as to force most of the protagonists to
the limits of their sanity and self-control? I don’t need to tell the reader the stories of quartet players that traveled in separate taxis, stayed in separate hotels, and who would avoid talking to one another unless absolutely necessary. (The cartoon of the old Budapest
Quartet that shows four music stands in a room, each as far away from the others as possible, is well known.) That technique seems to solve a lot of problems. But who
wants to live like that?
The viola player who had the temerity to suggest that the first violinist might like to come to his house to rehearse for a change—for the first time in fifteen years, saving the viola player, just once, the twelve-mile drive—found himself suddenly without a quartet to play in. Again the question: Why is it all so important?
The best I have to offer, because it’s so very difficult to put into words the most sublime of human experiences, is that finding yourself dismantled by the beauty and power of something that cannot be touched whilst you yourself are one of the co-creators is something that bears the hallmark of fatal attraction. It is NOT possible to give it up even though you know that it may well kill you.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I call it an addiction. May God help you all!