21 questions

Apologies in advance. I can’t expect anyone to read this. It’s just become much longer than is strictly necessary, and not in a good way like Schubert’s 9th.


As suggested previously, I have no Grand Plan for this blog, just some vague ideas festering in the more distant recesses of my mind, a mind which is at the moment more than usually vacant, Dahlian matters aside. This vacuum I expect to persist for at least a couple more months, so in the meantime I will answer some questions for my own amusement and hopefully that of others. I like answering questionnaires about myself. I’m afraid it’s the closest I will ever get to Desert Island Discs or Private Passions. I wish there was a way one could wangle an appearance on one of these programmes without having to work to become a prima ballerina or CEO of Marks & Spencer first, but it can’t be done. I don’t want fame, but I do want to share things I love with other people. This is the same instinct that in a person of a different temperament would lead to a career as a teacher, or perhaps a DJ.

The template is taken from the regular “20 (plus) questions” feature from the American Playbill Arts website. Worth a look, I’d say. Maybe, if you have your own blog, you would like to post something similar.

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

A lot of music I came to know when I was very young is still among the music I love most of all – Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances. Discoveries from later on – Bach’s chorale preludes, Beethoven’s late quartets and the op. 109 piano sonata, the Brahms symphonies, Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, much of Britten’s vocal and choral music and especially Rejoice in the Lamb, Fauré’s Messe Basse, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Debussy’s Jeux, Bartók’s string quartets, much of Chopin’s piano music, Copland’s Billy the Kid, the songs of Finzi and Warlock, Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, Messiaen’s piano music, Milhaud’s Carnaval d’Aix, Mozart’s violin sonatas and concerti, the Vesperae solennes de confessore, Requiem and C Minor Mass, and some of his music for piano four hands, Parsifal, Poulenc’s chamber and piano music, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Sibelius’ fourth symphony, and assorted hymns and music from the Anglican Choral Tradition. That’s more than a few, isn’t it? Quite a lot to be going on with, in fact, and I hope and expect to write much less superficially about some of it in the future.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

Thibaud and Cortot’s recordings of sonatas by Franck, Fauré and Debussy, Pascal Rogé’s Ravel, the early Britten/Pears folksong recordings, anything played by Marc-André Hamelin, especially his Godowsky, Grainger and Villa-Lobos, the Concertgebouw and Kondrashin’s Scheherazade, the King’s College/Cleobury recording of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, the Fischer-Dieskau/Demus Winterreise, Robert Tear and Philip Ledger’s Fraser-Simson Pooh songs (do give them a try), Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, Boris Christoff’s recording of Mussorgsky’s Nursery, the Choir of Westminster Cathedral’s Victoria on Hyperion, Anne Sofie von Otter’s Weill, and anything sung by Sebastian Hennig.

© Karlheinz Stockhausen

3. Favourite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

Roughly in the order I got to know them, Fats Waller, Madness, the Beatles and the Kinks, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and then various bands of my teenage years – Blur, Pulp, Radiohead, Eels, Fountains of Wayne, Ben Folds Five, the Divine Comedy, the Strokes – and singer-songwriters like Tom Waits, James Taylor and Aimee Mann. Flanders and Swann, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, John Shuttleworth. Musicals, generally in the film soundtrack recordings, especially My Fair Lady, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and West Side Story. Paul F. Berliner’s field recordings of Shona mbira music. (This is precisely the kind of thing that would get me into Pseuds’ Corner if I were somebody).

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

Very little. The only music that I can state confidently has made me cry without accompanying visual stimulus is the middle section of Ravel’s Menuet Antique, and that was at a time of emotional vulnerability. It makes me sound very cold and heartless, I know. There’s a lot of music that could make me cry given the right circumstances, but those circumstances rarely occur. Some kind of emotional syzygy is required to make it happen. “Salix” from Whitlock’s Plymouth Suite might do it, given favourable timing.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

I’m not always very good at gauging exactly the standing of individual composers, but the more Respighi I listen to the more I love him. I think Howells would be more highly thought of in the classical music world at large if his greatest works weren’t so cloistered by being primarily for liturgical use. The most exquisite pieces of choral music he wrote forbid concert performance, and rightly so, even if that restricts the audience they reach. They are too special for the concert hall. I think there is a tendency to dismiss composers like Saint-Saëns and Fauré as mere craftsmen, which is something I would resist. Their chamber output alone gives the lie to this notion. And I wish Steve Martland had a higher public profile. His output is somewhat inconsistent, but his best music possesses a tremendous power and I think he has much of importance to communicate.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

I am loath to describe any composer as overrated. Usually there is something I have missed somewhere, some key that I live in the hope of turning eventually to unlock a world of hitherto unforeseen joy. Vivaldi is a mainly closed book to me, as are various composers of bel canto opera. Rossini bores me, and so does most Berlioz I am familiar with. There are certain modern classical composers I could name whose output is anodyne in the extreme, but they at least are not overrated by anyone whose opinion carries any weight.

7. Live music performance(s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

Noye’s Fludde conducted by my father when I was about five; The Pearl Fishers, my first full-scale opera, in Leeds, which I detested (the opera, not the city); the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel at the 2007 Proms.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

The films I have loved most of all from the past ten years have tended to be quite violent. I really liked both the Mesrine films last year, and Zodiac. I went to see Bowling for Columbine twice, I thought it was so good. I thought Lost in Translation was sweet, and I don’t mean that in a damning way. With a little more exposure to it, I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could become a favourite. I love the melancholy of its opening. Moving a little further back, the ’90s films that continue to impress me most are probably Breaking the Waves and Magnolia. Tarantino as well.

9. A few films you consider classics:

I tend to find flawed films more interesting than perfect ones, but I think the film I love that comes closest to perfection is Kind Hearts and Coronets. I can discern no weakness in it. Older films that have bowled me over at the cinema are Buñuel’s Los Olvidados and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista. Other favourites – Malle’s films about childhood, Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Lindsay Anderson’s If…., 12 Angry Men, Dr Strangelove, Paper Moon, Walkabout, and anything with James Stewart.

Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne, unimpressed

10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

There are many, but The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is a book for which I do not expect my affection will ever diminish. It contains many of the qualities I also prize highly in music and films – tenderness, poignancy, fragility, and eventual redemption. There’s something about cricket as well. You can’t beat a cricket match in the middle of a novel. The absence of any comparable event is the one thing that prevents Anna Karenina from attaining true greatness.

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

Niceness, I think. I hope. I aim to be sensitive to other people and to give them the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes succeed.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

Tendency towards public self-analysis.

13. Three things you can’t live without:

Three things I would be anxious to keep even if I were to lose everything else would be my sight, my family and my ability to play the piano. I suppose I’d get by without them, but it would be a struggle.

14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

stay at home. Watching TV (especially sport), playing the piano and singing, listening to music. Standard relaxing mechanisms, really.

15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

I really don’t know. I’m not a surprising person. I used to have a prodigious knowledge of trivia – composers’ dates, US state capitals, results of and scorers in every game Chelsea played in the 1999/2000 season – which might have taken aback the unsuspecting, but it has fallen away somewhat in recent years, and perhaps I am less odd as a consequence, which may be a positive development.

Jon Harley: headed the winner against Watford on 26th February 2000 and got a black eye in the process

16. “My favorite cities are…”

Cambridge and London.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

Even if I had one I would not be able to reveal it without the question becoming a paradox, so I will refrain. But thank you for asking.

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”

Junk food? I suspect writing about myself is a vice I ought to try and crack. Almost anything else would be preferable.

19. “I’d really love to meet – or to have met…”

I’d make a total dick of myself if I tried to talk to my heroes. When I bumped into Stephen Fry this time last year I didn’t approach him, just tracked his movements in a stalkery manner and ended up sitting at a table next to him drinking tea and reading a book but saying nothing. If I hadn’t felt so tongue-tied I’d have liked to ask him whether he’d ever read Montherlant (this rather good piece suggests he has), but that’s such an unusual opening gambit that I’d probably have lost him immediately. Music, on the other hand, I feel more comfortable with. There are a number of people I’d love to have had the chance to perform with – Charlie Parker’s probably top of the list, but the more I contemplate the question the more I realise I’d love to have been in the Beatles. I could easily have played George Martin’s keyboard solo in “In My Life” if they’d only asked me and I’d been alive.

20. “I never understood why…”

No comment. I’ve lost interest in this myself now.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q. What superpower would you most like to have?
A. Invisibility, though I expect I would abuse the privilege. I try to be realistic, but do occasionally find myself wishing so strongly for the power to make myself invisible, simply because I think it would be fun, that I almost believe it will one day be possible. It’s a big part of the appeal of Harry Potter to me.


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8 Responses to “21 questions”

  1. Mike A Says:

    I always think the piano bit in ‘In My Life’ starts really well, but ends up rather daftly, with that over-rushed fancy coda before the main guitar bit comes back in. But that’s a minor point in an otherwise great song.

    Not moved to tears by the slow movement of Beethoven 7? Are you sure you’re actually human Gareth? 😉

  2. Gareth Says:

    Couldn’t agree more about that piano solo. Starts brilliantly, descends into silliness. The reason it sounds funny (and perhaps the reason it doesn’t quite sound like a real piano, which I believe it is) is that it’s played at double speed. George Martin recorded it only half as fast and sped it up.

    The slow movement of Beethoven 7’s marvellous, of course, but I can think of a handful of other slow movements of his that move me more – the slow movement of the Archduke trio, the middle movement of the op. 132 quartet, the Cavatina from the op. 130 quartet, and the final theme and variations from the op. 109 piano sonata, which may be my favourite of all. Profoundly moving music. But still no tears! Perhaps I have underactive lachrymal glands.

  3. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    What a splendid idea! I really enjoyed reading that. I’ll have to start thinking of my own answers to these questions, but as far as your choices are concerned, I’m not surprised to find so wide and so erudite a choice of music – although I never realized you loved “Parsifal”. And, although I’m sure you know it, there’s a rather fine game of cricket in “Pickwick Papers”, between Dingley Dell and All-Muggleton.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Somehow I missed your reply entirely yesterday, Himadri. I suppose Parsifal‘s a fairly recent love of mine. I believe the rantings of a certain translator of Baltic literature may have spurred me into getting to know it, so I at least have something to thank him for. I can think of few operas that have such a powerful effect on me, the third act especially. I’d love to see it performed. I’ve watched the Wolfgang Wagner production on DVD, but it’s not the same.

    I have a curious relationship with cricket – not a great fan of it, though I certainly have no objection to watching a bit from time to time, but when it pops up in books I can’t escape a feeling of contentment. Must be something to do with being English, I suppose. The famous match in The Pickwick Papers is one of my chief reasons for anticipating reading the book so eagerly.

    An amendment – one person I would quite like to meet is A.S. Byatt. She gives an impression of erudition and approachability combined. I’d love to have been one of her students in her lecturing days.

    Himadri, I will reply to your own blog post once I’ve had a chance to read through it all!

    • argumentativeoldgit Says:

      “Parsifal” is perhaps the most objectionable of all Wagner’s operas, but also perhaps the most beautiful. I saw a performance many years ago in Edinburgh directed by Peter Stein and conducted by Claudio Abbado, with Thomas Moser and Violetta Urmana as Parsifal & Kundry. The plotline never made any sort of sense to me, but it’s hard not to respond to the increasing intensity in the meeting between Parsifal & Kundry in Act 2, or the extraordinary beauty of the final act. As for the Bartok string quartets, I have recordings by the Juilliard Quartet, and by the Takacs Quartet – but I get the feeling that all quartet groups know that these works are among the highest peaks of the repertoire, and they all put something a bit special into them.

  5. Evie Says:

    I really enjoyed this too. A few things occur:

    1. No Eels?

    2. If you ever gain close proximity to Stephen Fry again, please ask him if he has read Montherlant – I am sure he would find it an utterly charming open gambit.

    3. One of my favourite cricket matches is in PG Wodehouse’s Mike and Psmith, where Psmith (I think…) expresses his shame at being caught at point by a man wearing braces, and refuses to play in a village match as a result. “It would have been madness to risk another such shock to my system. My nerves are so exquisitely balanced that a thing of that sort takes years off my life.”

  6. Gareth Says:

    1. I believe Eels are present and correct, but being such a short word they are easily overlooked. I should have emboldened them, given their importance. They’ll get a post of their own one of these days.

    2. Will do.

    3. I must read Mike and Psmith. I’ve read Psmith in the City, about which I can remember not one single detail, though I presume cricket was involved. I see that one of the editions of Mike and Psmith available on Amazon is published by Tutis, of the hilariously inappropriate cover pictures. I doubt this gives a fair representation of what the book’s about…

  7. Evie Says:

    I would say your doubts are confirmed! Though my description of the context of that quotation isn’t very accurate either. But what a cover – fabulous. Mike and Psmith are not quite in the Jeeves and Wooster league, but are great fun.

    And how did I miss Eels?! Order is restored, anyway.

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