Category Archives: music

Alice, Joachim and Mr Hesketh

My grandmother, Alice Hilda Wright, was born in 1887. By 1976 she had become too forgetful and frail to manage on her own, and was living with us. She died towards the end of that year, aged 89, when I was 13.

I was in the early stages of learning the violin. It’s fair to say I didn’t play very well. I had begun teaching myself from A Tune a Day Book 1 when I was 11, then joined the school orchestra without having had any lessons. A year later, I’d started having some; and now, my teacher was struggling to undo all the destructive things I’d taught myself. I’m sorry to say he wasn’t having much success.

So it’s not surprising—especially at that age—that I absolutely hated anyone listening while I practised.

This created a problem: whenever my grandmother saw I was going to get my violin out, she said “Oh! Are we going to have some music?” and perked up. Typically she then reminded us that she had once played the violin, and that she’d had to give up when she got married “because Pop didn’t like it”. Pop was what she called my Welsh grandfather, who died before I was born. She hadn’t played the violin since she was 20. She loved being reminded of playing, and was obviously looking forward to me practising.

I would then go and do some violin practice, painfully aware that every note was being heard from downstairs.

Being in the early stages of dementia, she had poor short-term memory but a good memory for events from her early life. So she would tell you all about one of these memories, forget she’d told you, and tell you it again another day, and another, and another . . .

Many of these stories were fascinating as long as you didn’t mind hearing them so frequently. In fact my father, who enjoyed restoring tape recorders to good working condition then using them, made recordings of her telling some them. These should still be in the house somewhere, on reel-to-reel tape.

She remembered when Ardwick Green in Manchester was a green, with horses on it. She remembered her childhood at Swinyard Hall Farm in High Legh, and how it was necessary to curtsy to the squire when he came by. She remembered walking, then cycling, five miles to school. She remembered the time she shot underneath a shire horse on her bicycle: the horse was standing sideways across the road, at the bottom of a hill, and she couldn’t stop. So she put her head down, went underneath the horse, and fell off the bike. She said the owner of the horse was really worried she might have hurt herself, but that she hadn’t and was laughing her head off about what had just happened because it was so funny. She told all of these stories many times.

The story

But if you asked about her violin playing, another story often came up. She said—very consistently—that she had once played on Joachim’s violin. That’s right: Joachim, the great 19th century soloist.

I believe the story was set in Alderley Edge, where the family had moved. It was a village in those days, not the suburban town it is now. Her family had what she called “a hut at the bottom of the garden”, which they rented out to people for their summer holidays. One very regular visitor was Mr Hesketh, from Manchester.

Now, Mr Hesketh repaired violins. On one occasion, he had Joachim’s violin in for repair—and when he visited, he brought it with him. He let Alice try playing it, and she remembered this for the next seventy years.

Might it have happened?

Mr Hesketh

For years, I remembered this story but forgot my grandmother had given the violin repairer a name. So I assumed I’d never be able to investigate whether it happened. But after my father died in 2008, the subject came up and my mother said “Oh no, he was called Hesketh! She always called him Mr Hesketh from Manchester.”

So now I could at least check whether it might be plausible.

I typed something like “Hesketh violin Manchester” into a search engine, and immediately found lots of auction reports for recently sold violins. Along with each violin’s final price, they gave the name of its maker and the date on its label. They were all made between about 1895 and 1940. The maker was Thomas Earle Hesketh. The price was mostly several thousand pounds, meaning they were decent quality violins.

Now we need to do some guesswork about dates.

My grandmother was 20 when she married, at which time she stopped playing. So if the incident happened, it was no later than 1907. Coincidentally, 1907 was also the year Joachim died.

At what age would you trust a young player with a valuable instrument? Say 12 as a minimum? That gives 1899 as a tentative early limit. So let’s set the incident between about 1899 and 1907.

Finally, was Thomas Hesketh around at the right time? Yes he was: from the auction reports, he was making violins before 1899 and well after 1907.

Joachim and the violin

OK, so now we need to ask

  • is it at all likely that Joachim would have been in Manchester, with a violin needing repair, between 1899 and 1907?
  • and if he was, would he have taken it to Mr Hesketh?

In 1899, several years had already passed since Joachim’s retirement from full-time playing. However, players at that level very rarely retire completely. They keep on playing as long as they can: just doing less of it than they used to. According to Joachim’s Wikipedia entry he made some gramophone recordings in 1903, so he was still playing then; if I’ve understood correctly, his last visit to Britain was in 1904, when Alice was about 17.

Asking around, I discovered from a player with Hallé connections that after Joachim’s retirement, he still came to Manchester each year to play a concerto with the Hallé Orchestra. I’m not sure how long this continued for—finding out would need someone to check the Hallé’s records or old concert programmes and I’ve not got as far as trying to do that—but it could well have brought Joachim to Manchester in the period we’re talking about.

But if he wanted some work doing on his violin, would he have gone to Mr Hesketh?

The next time I needed my bow rehairing, I went to a violin repairer in Hyde called Harry Ash. He had previously done a superb job of repairing my violin for me, turning it into a vastly better instrument which also made twice as much sound. The repair had involved taking the front off. He hadn’t been able to resist checking all the joints inside and re-gluing them all, at no extra cost. When he handed it to me, he said they wouldn’t need doing again in either of our lifetimes. Then, with an evil grin, he added “Well, not unless you drop it . . . ”

Anyway. Back to the bow rehairing. When I collected it I told Harry the outline of the story. He knew the history of local violin makers, and had also encountered some of Hesketh’s violins. From what he knew of Hesketh’s reputation, he considered Hesketh was precisely the kind of person someone like Joachim would go to for a violin repair if they happened to be in Manchester.

Yes, but did it happen?

There’s not enough evidence here to say for certain whether the incident happened. Almost everything is circumstantial: all we really know is that my grandmother said that Mr Hesketh had brought Joachim’s violin with him and let her play it. The story needs corroborating from another source, which I don’t have.

But there are a few plausible scenarios for Joachim:

  • Joachim was in Manchester to play with the Hallé, and wanted some work doing on the violin he used in the concert—maybe urgently before concert day.
  • Or maybe he brought a “spare” violin with him that needed repairing, knowing there was a good violin maker in Manchester to do the work while he was busy with the concert.
  • Joachim bought a violin while he was in the country, and took it to Hesketh to get it properly set up.
  • Maybe the violin was actually one Joachim had sold after retiring, and no visit by him was involved.
  • Maybe my grandmother somehow got the idea that the violin was Joachim’s when it wasn’t.

And for Mr Hesketh:

  • The repair was urgent and he brought the violin with him to get it done; when he’d finished, he showed it Alice and let her play on it.
  • He felt Alice was a good player who ought to have the opportunity to experience a really good violin, and brought it for that reason.
  • He was excited about having such a famous player’s violin to repair, and was friendly enough with Alice to want to show it her.
  • It was actually Alice he was excited about, and this made him do insane things like taking a famous player’s valuable instrument on holiday with him.

The last is of course the most tempting to speculate about. Suppose it happened when she was 18 or 19, not long before she married at 20. We can immediately see a potential reason why my grandfather hated her playing the violin and insisted she stop. And a reason why Mr Hesketh visited so regularly . . .

But this is all speculation. What’s actually needed is more evidence, for example

  • Living relatives of Thomas Earle Hesketh who have family memories relating to the incident. Did he go to Alderley Edge, or High Legh, for his holidays? Did he once repair Joachim’s violin? Was there an Alice who married a Welshman?
  • Records relating to Joachim. Did he have a violin repaired in Manchester around this time? Is a violin maker or repairer called Hesketh mentioned in any of his correspondence?

If anyone reading this can shed any further light on the story, I would be very pleased to hear from you—you can leave a comment below, or use the contact form to send me an email.

Audio illusion: the accelerating metronome

Here’s an experience I had a few years ago while practising to play in Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture. As I remember, I was playing in the second violins at the time.

The music

The main feature of the overture’s opening is that each violin section has to play a long, continuous stream of very fast semiquavers for the first page or so. (Probably this applies to the other string sections too.) Since  players of other parts have to fit their semiquavers to them when they join in, the music can hold together only if they’re played accurately in time. Accuracy is essential.

This is a dangerous situation: the natural tendency of a stream of equal notes is to rush, and they’ll rush even more if the player is feeling a bit panicky about playing them. In an amateur orchestra it’s likely that at least some players will be tempted to experience such panic. And once any rushing starts, it won’t be unanimous: everyone will accelerate differently so they’re no longer playing the same notes at the same time.

This kind of rushing is contagious, too. So all a passage like this really needs in order to risk disaster is for one player to start rushing and a few others nearby to lose their nerve. It’s a very short step from that to total chaos.

The practice

So this was one of those rare cases where it was a good idea to practise with a metronome. (Normally this is a bad idea; it leads to a mechanically rigid tempo, which in most circumstances is unmusical.) There were two main aspects I had to practise: (i) learning the notes and fingerings well enough not to stumble over anything; (ii) keeping the tempo absolutely constant.

So I practised with a metronome, considerably below tempo at first, and increasing the speed very gradually. (The aim in this sort of practice is to repeat the experience of getting the notes right until you can do so at full tempo—not to repeat the experience of getting them wrong and of being forced to play too fast. Otherwise you’re training yourself to get them wrong, not to get them right.) Eventually I could play the entire passage, up to speed (with a little extra left over for comfort) and in time.

Practising like this involves quite intense concentration on very short timescales: listening to hear whether each note is coming out correctly, paying attention to the feeling in the fingers as they either automatically go to the correct note or try to play the wrong one, keeping the bow stroke metronomic, watching out for any hint of stumbling, and so on.

The illusion

But what was really interesting about these practice sessions was what happened once I stopped playing. Within a few seconds, I had the impression that I could hear the metronome speeding up. In fact it seemed to be accelerating quite dramatically. So much so that if it had been a fellow player in the orchestra I’d have thought they were rushing quite badly. I estimate that the apparent increase in speed was around 15%–20%.

But of course the metronome wasn’t suddenly speeding up; it’s a highly accurate electronic one, and all that had happened was that I’d stopped playing notes on the violin. Yet it was almost impossible to believe that the metronome wasn’t accelerating. I could hear it going faster and faster.

I interpreted this as my perception slowing down, now that I was no longer concerned with what happened from one tenth of a second to the next. It seemed as though my mind had sped up in order to play the fast music, and was now returning to its normal pace.

I wonder whether this is one of the reasons musicians have to train themselves not to rush when playing fast music. If your time perception changes so the music feels much slower than it actually is, you’ll have no idea that you’ve sped up. It’ll feel as though you’re playing at just the same speed you were all along. As musicians we have to learn what kinds of passages are prone to rushing, and how it feels not to rush. Often this involves playing at a speed which feels as though it’s definitely too slow, or making a conscious effort to slow down—while in fact playing at exactly the same speed.

I was reminded of all this today when a friend tweeted a link to this article about an experiment on mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation emphasises awareness of the present moment. The research found that the meditation made time appear to pass more slowly for the participants, in a way that sounds very similar to what happened while I was practising. And maybe for similar reasons: focusing on the current moment as a meditation exercise, and focusing on the current note being played as a practice exercise, seem to me to involve exactly the same focus of attention, even if the mental state involved isn’t identical.

In any case it was fascinating to be able to witness my own sense of the passage of time changing over the course of a minute or so as I came out of intense practice mode.

Dancing fingers

Last night, unable to sleep, I was wandering around YouTube encountering unfamiliar music. And so I encountered Anouar Brahem for the first time. He’s an oud player from Tunisia. I’d not heard of him before, which is probably bad as he seems to be one of the world’s most famous players of the instrument. But I think I may have heard of one of his pieces before, Astrakan Café. Here it is:

I don’t know about you, but what most strikes me about this piece is is the rhythmic sensitivity of the playing. What I mean is that he knows precisely how loud each note should be to bring the music alive, and does so brilliantly. Everything weighted just as it should be.

What happened when I tried to tweet about the music was slightly unexpected. I had quite a lot of difficulty in typing continuously and without making more typos than usual. I don’t think that was just because it was 3 am, since the same thing is happening today if I try to type while listening to the piece. It’s this: typing has its natural rhythm. The music has a different, competing rhythm. And whereas it’s normally possible to separate the two and just keep typing, in this case my fingers don’t want to do that. They try to dance along with the music. And they try so hard that my typing slows down to half speed, as I type little bursts of three or four characters whenever the music allows.

I’ve also found that Astrakan Café is quite difficult to get out of my head once I’ve heard it. So here’s another of his pieces, The Astounding Eyes of Rita, in case you’d prefer to have that stuck in your head instead (at least I can type to this one):

Virtuoso balalaika

I haven’t posted any music here for ages, so I thought I’d remedy that.

Many musical instruments are associated with a particular style of music. Sometimes it’s an uncomplimentary style and an unfair association. For example, in Britain most people unfamiliar with baroque music think a recorder is a children’s instrument, normally played badly and out of tune.

Sometimes the association is so strong that virtually all the music you hear on an instrument is in that one style.

But it seems to me that pretty well any musical instrument  which actually works reliably can become a virtuoso instrument. Sooner or later, someone will come along who’s enthusiastic enough about the instrument not to be satisfied with just playing in the one obvious style with the few obvious techniques. They’ll try to push it as far as they can manage to go.

I’ll freely admit that I’d never heard of Alexei Arkhipovsky until I came across him by chance on YouTube a few months ago. Think for a moment what kind of music you expect to hear coming out of a balalaika. I suspect the word strumming may well be in your mind. Well, have a listen to Balalaika Amok:

A piece in a more Eastern style, appropriately enough titled Eastern:

His version of Mission: Impossible (this is in a rather similar style to Balalaika Amok):

And last but not least, The Barrel Organ, which is effectively a long cadenza containing favourite bits of Paganini and so on. This uses a whole collection of techniques including harmonics and what on a violin would be called left hand pizzicato. It lasts about twelve minutes, but is well worth listening to in full:

A music-and-science blog

The two things I find the most immensely interesting and continually impressing are music and neuroscience . . . Philosophy and politics are my second loves.

Science and music often go together—many of the best amateur musicians who I know are GPs, for example—but they aren’t all that often explicitly put together in blog form.

Today I finally got round to having a look at Science with Moxie, which is Princess Ojiaku‘s blog on the Scientific American Blog Network. If you’re interested in both science and music you should probably have a look. And if you’re interested in the science (not solely neuro-) of music you should definitely have a look.

The most recent post, for example,  describes brain-imaging experiments designed to look at the brain’s processing of words, pitch and rhythm. All three elements are present in both singing and speech, so (for example) is there a difference between the brain’s processing of pitch in speech and its processing of musical pitch? It also includes a nice video illustrating the way in which a fragment of speech, when repeated, begins to sound like a fragment of song in which the individual notes are so well defined that a listener can sing the tune back.

I’m tempted to list more of the posts but really, the best way for you to find out what’s there is to go and see for yourself . . . which I hope you will.