I often think of things in terms of artfulness and artlessness. To give musical examples, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is the work of an artful composer, motivic and rigorous; Satie’s Gymnopédies are in the other corner, projecting an intentionally childlike naïveté. They give the impression of having been born whole, not worked out. It probably says something about me that nine times out of ten I’d choose to listen to the Satie rather than the Beethoven. (It’s a specious way of looking at things. Debussy’s piano prelude ‘Voiles’ shares the watery sound world of the Satie and feels similarly weightless and ethereal, but underpinning it are discipline and organisation. Still, bear with me.)
My increasingly infrequent attempts at composition tend towards Satie’s model. Artlessness is the refuge of the man who can’t write a fugue. Easier to introduce naïve mistakes into your music in an attempt to make it sound charming. Even the great composers did this. I remember one of my lecturers saying Berlioz (or was it Mahler? but Berlioz sounds more likely) prepared for a modulation to E major with a chord of E major. (If this means nothing to you, take my word that it is a solecism.) Childishness or incompetence? It’s hard to tell with Berlioz. One trick I like is to combine chords I, IV and V in different permutations. In a ‘proper’ piece of tonal music there is a strong relationship between these chords, but you don’t use them simultaneously. Belle and Sebastian exploit this neatly (listen from 0:45). The effect can be poignant.
Artlessness is essentially a pose, though. Like playing the piano badly (see Les Dawson or Eric Morecambe), you can only do it effectively if you know the proper way too. Real artlessness is hard to come by. For that you have to look at things created by children.
Perhaps you know the short novel The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, written at the age of nine. It’s one of my favourite books. All the things I wrote at that age were either very short or abandoned before completion. It wasn’t until I was twelve that I managed to sustain a narrative over several chapters (my magnum opus, The Spikenard Archipelago). This passage comes towards the end of Ashford’s book:
Next morning while imbibing his morning tea beneath his pink silken quilt Bernard decided he must marry Ethel with no more delay. I love the girl he said to himself and she must be mine but I somehow feel I can not propose in London it would not be seemly in the city of London. We must go for a day in the country and when surrounded by the gay twittering of the birds and the smell of the cows I will lay my suit at her feet and he waved his arm wildly at the gay thought. Then he sprang from bed and gave a rat tat at Ethels door.
Are you up my dear he called.
Well not quite said Ethel hastilly jumping from her downy nest.
Be quick cried Bernard I have a plan to spend a day near Windsor Castle and we will take our lunch and spend a happy day.
Oh Hurrah shouted Ethel I shall soon be ready as I had my bath last night so wont wash very much now.
No dont said Bernard and added in a rarther fervent tone through the chink of the door you are fresher than the rose my dear no soap could make you fairer.
No adult writer could capture this fantasy world as effectively as a real child.
The spur for writing this blog post was my rediscovery of Marjory Fleming, a Scottish diarist and poet who was born in 1803 and died in 1811, a month short of her ninth birthday. Mark Twain described her as being ‘made out of thunder-storms and sunshine’. Years ago I read Oriel Malet’s biographical novel about her, but it wasn’t until this week that I actually sat down and read her writings, in the edition edited by Barbara McLean and published by Mercat.
Marjory (let’s abandon surnames given her tender years) is best remembered now for her poems. This is an epitaph for three turkeys.
Three Turkeys fair their last have breathed
And now this worled for ever leaved
Their Father & their Mother too
Will sigh & weep as well as you
Mourning for thre osprings fair
Whom they did nurse with tender care
Indeed the rats their bones have cranched
To eternity are they launched
There graceful form & pretty eyes
Their fellow pows did not despise
A direful death indeed they had
That would put any parent mad
But she was more then usual calm
She did not give a singel dam
She is as gentel as a lamb
Here ends this melancholy lay
Farewell poor Turkeys I must say
Marjory is a natural entertainer, and knows that her shortcomings as a poet can provide amusement too. The ending of her sonnet to a pug:
His noses cast is of the roman
He is a very pretty weomen
I could not get a rhyme for roman
And was oblidged to call it weoman
The diaries she kept, at the suggestion of her cousin Isabella, who became her tutor, are the most beautiful and entertaining things.
I am now going to tell you about the horrible and wret[ched] plaege that my multiplication gives me you cant concieve it – the most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 & 7 times 7 it is what nature itself cant endure
I think the price of a pineapple is yery dear for I here it is a whole bright goulden geinie that might have sustained a poor family a whole week and more perhaps
To Day I bronounced a word which should never come out of a ladys lips it was that I caled John a Impudent Bitch and [Isabella] afterwards told me that I should never say it even in joke but she kindly forgave me because I said that I would not do it again I will tell you what I think made me in so bad a homour is I got 1 or 2 cups of that bad bad sina [senna] tea to Day
Sometimes she seems much older than her years.
I love to walk in lonely solitude & leave the bustel of the nosey town behind me & while I look on nothing but what strikes the eye with sights of bliss & then I think myself tronsported far beyond the reach of the wicked sons of men where there is nothing but strife & envying pilefring & murder where neither contentment nor retirement dweels but there dwells drunken[ness]
One of the delights of this edition is that the original spelling is preserved. Although Marjory’s vocabulary is wide and many of the most difficult words are spelled correctly, you do encounter the occasional Kermical (Carmichael) or Pisplikan (Episcopalian).
In 1969 Richard Rodney Bennett, the most sensitive of composers, wrote a song cycle to texts by Marjory Fleming. This setting of lines from Marjory’s poem about her beloved Isabella strikes just the right balance of tenderness and tartness.
Here lies sweet Isabell in bed
With a nightcap on her head
Her skin is soft her face is fair
And she has very pretty hair
She and I in bed lies nice
And undisturbed by rats and mice
She is disgusted with Mr Wurgan
Though he plays upon the organ
A not of ribans on her head
Her cheak is tinged with conscious red
Her head it rests upon a pilly
And she is not so very silly
Her nails are neat her teath are white
Her eyes are very very bright
In a conspicuos town she lives
And to the poor her money gives
Here ends sweet Isabellas story
And may it be much to her glory
The ‘conspicuos town’ is Edinburgh, where I will shortly be going myself, armed with a copy of Berlioz’s memoirs. Perhaps inspiration will strike.