Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Lute Damage

I leave the lute in the car, but the searing heat melts the glue and warps the soundboard so that I cry out involuntarily when I open the case and see the horrifying damage. The new Mayor of Waltham Forest does not get his investiture lute song after all. The singing cellist’s leave of absence from the hospital is not wasted however, as we have a part each in Byrd’s Haec Dies which we sing with a choir sitting in the front row of the public gallery while the Mayor himself conducts from his throne below in the council chamber. We have to sit through an interminable council meeting beforehand, however, with Tory and Labour councillors arguing over who was more responsible with the public money they had their hands on. No one objects to the lavish party afterwards, which the voters of the North Eastern London Borough have paid for.

The Mayor provides a barrel of Adnams ale because he and I used to drink it every night after Evensong at Norwich Cathedral 35 years ago when we were choral scholars in the cathedral choir. It is from then that my lute dates and I travel up on the coach during half term because the lutemaker comfortingly reassures me, ‘everything is reparable!’ He steams the front off and it is like peering into the past. There are even bits of fluff from a costume I used to wear busking. I renew my membership to the Lute Society of which he is now President.  In a few days’ time the society will me a sheaf of new music suitable to my standard, which I describe as medium.

We discuss the writer WG Sebald who was my tutor at the University of East Anglia. He became world famous in the 1990s with four novels and then died in a car crash on the road into Norwich. The lutemaker is a fan too and gives me a copy of the film about him Patience, which packed out cinemas with his many followers earlier this year. I tell the lutemaker about a book I have bought in Düsseldorf which, under the title Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis (on terribly thin ice) contains transcripts of a number of interviews he gave. I am most interested in the chapter called Die Sensation der Musik which records Sebald in the German radio programme Zwischentöne, a version of Desert Island Discs. He chooses an extract from Bellini’s Norma because the teacher Paul Bereyter (based on Sebald’s own teacher Armin Müller) plays Bellini on his clarinet in the first story of Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants).

Secondly Sebald requests Mark Knopfler’s The Long Road from the film Cal which he saw just after finishing the long prose poem After Nature. The first part of the poem focuses on the painter Mathias Grünewald whose Isenheim Altar appears by chance towards the end of the film hanging on the wall of a house in a Belfast suburb much to Sebald’s shock. Thirdly, he asks for Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould, because, he says, he has heard it was written for someone suffering from insomnia, a problem with which he could very much identify. With much chat not about music in between, he then has the aria Che puro ciel from Gluck’s Orfeo, because, he says, the opera is about man’s attempt to drive out darkness from the world, which, for him, usually ends in failure. Finally he has the Andante sostenuto from Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat D960, because the composer’s strange chromaticism reminds him of things so far back in his being he can no longer picture them, and because his basic disposition inn music is above all towards slow movements. 

Sebald came to my tiny 500-year-old house once in the Cathedral Close when the future mayor of Waltham Forest was my neighbour. My girlfriend served cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and Sebald and the colleague he had come with, sat on a very low sofa with their knees jutting upwards at the ceiling. In the hot afternoon, I showed him round the cathedral among whose treasures he was especially taken with the crudely carved, somewhat chilling text scratched beneath a mediaeval caricature skeleton: 

All ye that do this place pass by
Remember this, for you must die
As I am now so shall you be 
For as you are so once was I