• Also

I was reminded the other day of a concert I played in many years ago, at the end of a particularly riotous student orchestral weekend somewhere deep in the Berkshire/Oxfordshire countryside.  If there had been smart phones back then, a pic of the poster would have been whizzing around social media.  It was quite a programme.

Romeo and Juliet  Tchaikovsky

Symphony  Webern


Sprach Zarathustra  Strauss


• Plink-Plonk

Tom Service in his Guardian article today – ‘The five myths about contemporary music’ – referred to a current derisive term for contemporary music, ‘squeaky gate music’.  Does anyone know how long this has been in use? When I was a student, the description ‘plink-plonk’ was the most common, but I don’t know when that started either.* Perhaps someone has already done some research into such terms and their chronology.  I’d love to know more.

Princess Margaret

Thinking about the term ‘plink-plonk’ earlier today, I remembered an incident that occurred when I was working at Radio 3 in the early 1990s.  Each November there is a Festival of Saint Cecilia concert in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.  It is a tradition for a member of the royal family to be guest of honour and to be presented to people involved in the concert beforehand.  I met Princess Anne before the 1991 concert and was also introduced to Princess Margaret the following year (I dug up this photo this afternoon).  I was towards the end of the line and was introduced as the Head of Music at Radio 3.  I bowed obsequiously and crushed her hand.

Princess Margaret, who was the most musical of the royal family, looked me straight in the eye and half-whispered: “Can’t stand it when it’s ‘ding-dong’. Switch off when it’s ‘ding-dong’.”  And with that she moved on.  Only later did it dawn on me that she was referring to ‘plink-plonk’ music on Radio 3.  Perhaps she’d got it muddled up with Leslie Phillips’s famous catchphrase.  By all accounts, she enjoyed a bit of ding-dong herself, as well as gin-gin.  I doubt that she ever drank plonk.


* If you search online for uses of both these terms, they have been appropriated for positive rather than critical purposes:

• www.squeakygate.org.uk is a Cambridge-based charity: ‘Squeaky Gate is an extraordinary and creative charity, empowering people through music and the arts. We deliver a wide programme of live performance, creative training and accredited learning, focusing on producing and performing strong and original work.’
• http://www.plinkplonk.co.uk/ is the website of a harp teacher in Tunbridge Wells.

• To Be- Or Not To Be-?

At the New Year, a member of the family tried to get a word past the rest of us in Scrabble.  His logic for ‘bedot’ was inescapable (he said that it’s what you do when you put dots all over something, like a wall).  But we said that it didn’t exist.  And it doesn’t.  The Shorter OED does have ‘bedote’, though that means something else.  Then yesterday I tweeted an updated definition of a related word, which does exist:

to bespot  to do Damien Hirst’s work for him

My computer keeps trying to change ‘bespot’ to ‘besot’ … to make sottish, dull or stupid.  No comment.

All this got me thinking about ‘be-‘ words and as a result I’ve just spent a bewitching half an hour over an early lunch, scouring my Chambers dictionary.  I found some 200 ‘be-‘ words, around 1/3 of which are more or less in current usage, such as: becalmed, befall, befit, begin, behave, behead, belabour, beleaguered, belong, bemuse, bequeath, beseech, besmirch, bespoke, betide, between, betwixt.

The ‘be-‘ varies quite a bit in significance, sometimes reinforcing the meaning of the stem word, sometimes contradicting it (‘behead’).  Sometimes the stem word itself has no separate currency:  ‘queath’ no longer exists, but apparently it came from the same stem as ‘quoth’.  By return, though, ‘bequoth’ doesn’t exist either, although I rather like the sound of it.  Ah, language!

The greatest fun was coming across words new to me.  Here are ten of my favourites, which I might just try to use:

beblubbered  disfigured by weeping
to beduck  to plunge under water
to bedung  to befoul with manure
to begunk  to trick, befool, jape
to bekiss  to cover with kisses
to bemad  to madden
to beprose  to discuss in prose and tediously
to besing  to celebrate in song
to bespeed  to help on
to bethwack  to thrash soundly

How about promoting some new ‘be-‘ words?  I think I ought to start with ‘bedot’.  Any other suggestions?

• Cheap Flights

One of the highlights of my recent trip to London was an hilarious evening spent in the company of Fascinating Aida. I was eager to see them again after almost 30 years – their first visit to the Queen’s Festival in Belfast in the mid-80s is still imprinted on my memory.  The two original members now have ‘maturity’ on their side and are even more outrageous, like favourite aunts or grannies behaving badly.  It’s topical satire at its best, musical cabaret with flair, debunking everything left, right and centre.

My favourites are their piercing ‘Bulgarian’ ditties with killer punch-lines – brilliant (we had 13 of them last week).  If there is anyone out there who doesn’t know Fascinating Aida, try to catch them next year (they’re touring the UK until mid-April).  In the meantime, here’s their YouTube hit ‘Cheap Flights’ (over 3 million hits) with bonus plugs and clips at the end.


Those of a sensitive disposition turn away now, as here comes a second clip.

• The Polish Poet’s Red Bus – in English!

It seems a good moment – the 30th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland – to post an English translation of Jacek Kaczmarski’s 1981 song Czerwony Autobus.  I wrote on this six days ago, but did not then have a translation.  Thanks to extremely helpful friends in Warsaw, I have been able to fashion a more-or-less literal translation, although the bite and cryptic nature of some lines remain hard to render in a foreign language.

Interestingly, Kaczmarski reinvents some of the characters from his source of inspiration (Bronisław Wojciech Linke’s painting Autobus, 1961).  His performance (reposted below) is vehement, but the translation also reveals the anger in the text (the Polish lyrics and English translation are as side-by-side as I can make them in the WordPress system!).  This recording was made before 13 December 1981, so formed part of the cultural-political landscape of the Solidarity period.  Kaczmarski found himself abroad on that date and did not return until 1990.  To give hope and support to his compatriots at home, he worked and broadcast for Radio Free Europe.

Pędzimy przez Polską dzicz
Wertepy chaszcze błota
Patrz w tył tam nie ma nic
Żałoba i sromota
Patrz w przód tam raz po raz
Cel mgłą niebieską kusi
Tam chce być każdy z nas
Kto nie chce chcieć – ten musi!
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie
W Czerwonym Autobusie mija czas!

We tear through Poland’s wilderness
Bumpy roads, scrub, mud
Look behind, nothing there
But sorrow and shame
Look ahead, again and again
The destination entices with blue mist
Each of us wants to be there
Those who don’t want to, must!
In the Red Bus
In the Red Bus
In the Red Bus time goes by!

Tu stoi młody Żyd
Nos wskazuje Żyd czy nie Żyd
I jakby mu było wstyd
Że mimo wszystko przeżył
A baba z koszem jaj
Już szepce do człowieka
– Wie o tym cały kraj
Że Żydzi to bezpieka!
Myślimy, że poczeka!
Myślimy, że poczeka!
Myślimy, że poczeka, na nas Raj!

Here stands a young Jew
The nose shows if Jew or non-Jew
And as if he is ashamed
He had survived despite everything
A peasant woman with a basket of eggs
Is already whispering to someone
“The whole country knows about it
Jews are the secret police!”
We think that it will wait!
We think that it will wait!
We think that it will wait, for us – Paradise!

Inteligentna twarz
Co słucha zamiast mówić
Tors otulony w płaszcz
Szyty na miarę spluwy
A kierowniczy układ
Czerwony wiodąc wóz
Bezgłowa dzierży kukła –
Ich dziełem jest marszruta!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta!
Ich dziełem jest marszruta! – Luz i mus!

An intelligent face
That listens rather than talks
A torso wrapped in a coat
Tailor-made to fit a gun
And a steering system
Guiding the red wagon
A headless dummy steers
Generalissimus [Stalin]!
The route is up to them!
The route is up to them!
The route is up to them!  – Take it easy, it’s a must!

Za robotnikiem ksiądz
Za księdzem kosynierzy
I ktoś się modli klnąc
Ktoś bluźni ale wierzy
Proletariacki herszt
Kapować coś zaczyna
Więc prosty robi gest
I rękę w łokciu zgina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina!
Nie ruszy go lawina! Mocny jest!

Behind a worker, a priest
Behind the priest, peasant recruits with scythes
And someone prays, cursing,
A blasphemer who believes
A proletarian boss
Gets what’s happening
So makes a simple gesture
“Up yours” with hand in elbow!
An avalanche won’t move him!
An avalanche won’t move him!
An avalanche won’t move him!  He is strong!

A z tyłu stary dziad
W objęcia wziął prawiczkę
Złośliwy czyha czart
W nadziei na duszyczkę
Upiorów małych rząd
Zwieszonich u poręczy
Krew w żyły sączy trąd
Zatruje! I udręczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy!
Za oknem Polska w tęczy! Jedźmy stąd!

And at the back an old creep
Clasps a virgin in his arms
A malicious devil lurks
In the hope of a soul
A row of little ghosts
Dangling from the handrail
Blood dribbles leprosy into veins
Poison them! And torture them!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!
Through the window, Poland in a rainbow!  Let’s get out of here!

• The Cello in Art (11) – Doisneau and Baquet/3

Aren’t words wonderful?  There I was, looking for a brief post, and my eyes lit upon this image.  It’s called Le Sabordage, another in the series of inspired photographs by Robert Doisneau in collaboration with the whacky cellist Maurice Baquet.

• Not knowing what sabordage meant, I had to scurry to my Harrap’s Shorter French and English Dictionary (1).
• On the way, I knocked over the family’s Old English coal bucket (2).
• And I discovered that it means the deliberate sinking of one’s own ship (3).

• Conundrum – When Does ‘Late’ Mean ‘Early’?

Talking about the dead is fraught with difficulties, dressed up in all sorts of niceties.  We seem to have gone past phrases like ‘the dear departed’, but we still cling to euphemisms whenever possible (dead parrot, anyone?).  But ‘the late’ sticks around.  Why?  To remind us of a recent death, in case we’d forgotten?  Or in case we hadn’t realised that he or she had ‘left us’ in the first place?

I was set yesterday to musing (well, frankly, fuming) on the general idiocy of ‘the late’.  It seems to have no boundaries or rationale.  In its most vacuous incarnation it has the urge to alliterate – ‘the late, great’.  Aaagh.  Taking purely musical examples, I can just about understand why the singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006, aged 52), on the left, is still referred to on the radio as ‘the late’.  It’s harder to comprehend why presenters feel it necessary, as they still sometimes do, to talk of another soprano, Arleen Auger (right), as ‘the late’.  She died 18 years ago (1939-93, aged 53).

What took the biscuit for me was listening yesterday morning to the first edition of BBC Radio 3’s new morning programme Essential Classics.  Rob Cowan, whom I like and respect as a presenter, referred to the early-music pioneer, David Munrow, as ‘the late’.  Well, honestly.  That’s ridiculous.  He died 35 – yes, 35 – years ago (1942-76, aged 34).  What can ‘the late’ possibly signify?

It seems to me that there’s a prolonged whiff of undue sentimentality, bordering on mawkishness.  The past tense surely suffices and nothing else.  Benjamin Britten (1913-76, aged 63), who died in the same year as Munrow, lost the label long ago.  I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘the late Witold Lutosławski’ (1913-94, aged 81) – and he died less than a year after Arleen Auger.  I wouldn’t even use it when speaking about Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010, aged 76), who died ten months ago yesterday.

It’s noticeable that all three of these ‘late’ musicians were performers, not composers, and all died ‘before their time’ (two of cancer, one by suicide).  Has ‘late’ therefore come to mean ‘too early’?  I suspect so, but did people in 1863 still refer to Schubert (1797-1828, aged 31) as ‘the late’?  Or talk likewise, in 1915, about Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80, aged 44)?  I hope that devotees of Maria Callas (1923-77, aged 53) no longer apply it to their ‘dear departed’.  Somehow I fear that they do.

Should there be a statute of limitations?  Ten years?  Five years?  Six months?

Or why don’t we just have done with it and abolish it altogether?  Better never than ‘late’.

• Rain

Hiroshige Shōno - Hakuu/Shōno - Sudden Rain (1831-34)

Ochiba ochi
kazanarite ame
ame wo utsu 

Falling leaves fall,
pile up; rain
on rain, beats

Gyōdai (1732-93)

• Charles Trenet in ‘Cavalcade des heures’

Following on from yesterday’s ‘What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?’, I thought I’d point up one of the delights of ‘inessential’ revelations in Classical Collection which I caught two years ago.  I think it was Rob Cowan who played Mam’zelle Clio, sung by Charles Trenet.  I fell for its joie-de-vivre and humour straightaway and immediately ordered CDs and sheet music.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Here was a singer and composer with a very special talent to amuse, à la français, bien sûr (he was known as ‘le fou chantant’), as well as to pull on the strings of sentiment.  I knew La Mer, his greatest international hit, but nothing else.  Thank you, Rob Cowan.  May you continue to throw unexpected, non-mainstream and ‘inessential’ items into the mix of your new programme, whatever its title.

I’m attaching two contrasting clips from a film Trenet appeared in when he was turning 30, La Cavalcade des Heures (Yvan Noé, 1943).  In the first, he doesn’t sing on screen, but listens to a 78 of a song that he co-wrote and recorded a year earlier, Que reste-t-il de nos amours?.  Its mood is suitably seasonal: ‘Tonight, the wind that knocks on my door/talks to me of dead loves/in front of the fire which is going out.  Tonight, it’s a song of autumn/in the house that shivers/and I think of distant days.  [Refrain] What is left of our loves?/What is left of those fine days?/A photo, old photo/of my youth. …’  You may recognise the melody, which was reused for I Wish You Love and recorded by Marlene Dietrich, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart and others.  But nothing beats Trenet’s understated original.

The second clip shows Trenet singing a very different song, in his trademark trilby.  Débit de l’eau … Débit de lait is one of his most popular in France, mainly because of its clever and delightfully whimsical lyrics and tongue-twisting patter.  The refrain includes lines such as:

Ah qu’il est beau, le débit de lait, Ah qu’il est laid, le débit de l’eau
Débit de lait si beau, débit de l’eau si laid
S’il est un débit beau, c’est bien le beau débit de lait.
Au débit d’eau y a le beau Boby, Au débit d’lait y a la bell’Babée …

Here’s a resumé of the main threads of the story: two shops (débits) in the street, one ugly (laid) selling water (l’eau), one pretty (beau) selling milk (lait); Boby sells the water, Babée the milk.  They don’t get on and quarrel over the churns (bidons).  But they get married; Boby puts milk in his water and Babée puts water in her milk.  And Boby makes sure he keeps pretty Babée’s two best churns of milk for himself (Oui mais Boby garde pour lui Les deux plus beaux bidons de lait de la Babée jolie) …

• Conundrum – When Does A Shower Become Rain?

Yesterday at 06.30, BBC Radio’s weather forecasters predicted “showers in the West”.  It then proceeded to rain solidly – and heavily – for three hours.

So when does a shower become rain?

I’d like to think that there’s Zen-like enlightenment to be found in that elusive moment of transition.

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