• RPS 200: Beethoven & Brendel

Last week, in the Argyll Arms pub in London, the Royal Philharmonic Society launched the programme celebrating its bicentenary early next year.  I’m delighted to be playing a wee part in its roster of events: I’ll be discussing Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto with the cellist Johannes Moser in a pre-concert talk at Poole Lighthouse on 23 January 2013.  (The RPS anniversary falls the next day, sandwiched between the Poole concert and Lutosławski’s own centenary on 25 January.)  The concert is being given by the Bournemouth SO, which gave the world premiere of the concerto on 14 October 1970, when the soloist (and dedicatee) was Mstislav Rostropovich and the conductor Edward Downes.  At the same concert, Rostropovich received the RPS Gold Medal.

The RPS published this photo from the Argyll Arms on Facebook, and my immediate and predictable response was to provide a corny caption (others followed suit).  At one point, The Guardian was going to publish both photo and caption but had second thoughts, opting instead for the punchy “Alfred Brendel poses with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s bust of Beethoven. Only one of them looks pleased about this”.

For what it’s worth (stall your groans!), here’s my original effort.

Buy us a drink, Alfie, I’m bust.


• On Experience

I’m back reading Montaigne (earlier posts: On Idleness and On Three Interactions), partly because he challenges me to think, partly because he was one of Lutosławski’s favourite authors.  I’ve just started reading ‘On Experience’, which fittingly was his last essai (Book III/13).  This morning, I was brought up sharp by these two neighbouring though characteristically tangential passages early in the essay:

Les hommes méconnaissent la maladie naturelle de leur esprit.  Il ne fait que fureter et quêter.  Et va sans cesse, tournoyant, bâtissant, et s’empêtrant en sa besogne : comme nos vers de soie : et s’y étouffe : Mus in pice.  Il pense remarquer de loin, je ne sais quelle apparence de clarté et vérité imaginaire : mais pendant qu’il court, tant de difficultés lui traversent la voie, d’empêchements et de nouvelles quêtes, qu’elles l’égarent e l’enivrent.

Men mistake the natural ailment of their mind.  All it does is ferret and quest.  It ceaselessly keeps whirling, constructing, and entangling itself in its task – like our silkworms – and there it suffocates itself: Mus in pice (‘A mouse in pitch’ [Erasmus, Adages, II/iii/68]).  It thinks it notices some sort of clarity and imaginary truth from afar. But while it runs on, so many difficulties cross its path, so many impediments and new quests, that they lead it astray and intoxicate it.


Ce n’est rien que faiblesse particulière qui nous fait contenter de ce que d’autres, ou que nous-mêmes avons trouvé en cette chasse de connaissance.  Un plus habile ne s’en contentera pas.  Il y a toujours place pour un suivant.  Oui et pour nous-mêmes, et route par ailleurs.  Il n’y a point de fin en nos inquisitions : Notre fin est en l’autre monde.  C’est signe de racourciment d’esprit quand il se contente : ou de lasseté.  Nul esprit généreux ne s’arrête en soi.  Il prétend toujours et va outre ses forces.  Il a des élans au-delà de ses effects.  S’il ne s’avance et ne presse et ne s’accule et ne se choque, il n’est vif qu’a demi.  Ses poursuites sont sans terme, et sans forme : Son aliment, c’est admiration, chasse, ambiguïté …

It is nothing but personal weakness that makes us content with what others or we ourselves have found in this hunt for knowledge.  An abler man will not be content with this.  There is always room for someone to follow on. Yes, even from us, and by another route.  There is no endpoint to our inquiries: our end is in the next world.  It is a sign of incapacity or exhaustion when the mind is content.  No generous spirit comes to a standstill within itself.  It always asserts and goes beyond its own strengths.  It leaps further than its capabilities.  If it does not advance, does not press on, does not stand and fight, it is only half alive.  Its pursuits are boundless, and formless.  Its sustenance is wonder, the chase, ambiguity …

I admire Montaigne’s ability to give free reign to his thoughts, even though he recognises the pitfalls of this approach. Without an enquiring mind we are nothing.  It’s the ‘journey’, to use that clichéd word of our own times, which is more important than a hard-and-fast conclusion.  I’m sure that Lutosławski understood such ideas.  In important ways he brought them to bear on his creative processes and in the early sections of many of his finished compositions.

%d bloggers like this: