Original Instruments

Normally it is the end of a year that for some reason sees an accelerating procession of obituaries. The conjunction doesn’t seem inappropriate: people bow out once the trees are bare and the afternoons darkening. But since Christmas, and into a new year that is meant to proclaim optimism and fresh starts, it has been one goodbye after another – I’m talking about music still. First Lemmy, on Boxing Day, followed by Bowie, but then the Specials drummer, the Mott the Hoople drummer, Glen Frey of the Eagles, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, George Martin…

In classical music the departures have come just as fast: Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Kurt Masur and, also last month, another living legend of a conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In most cases, including Harnoncourt’s, it may have been just old age, but it’s still our past that’s dying, from the making of the Beatles to, in the life of Kurt Masur, one man’s experience that spanned conscription into the German military to fight in Holland during the last war; building the magnificent new Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig for one of the world’s greatest orchestras – including using his NATO contacts in the West to secure state-of-the-art circuitry unavailable in Communist East Germany for its mixing desk; opening the doors of that concert hall in 1989 when the military police turned on the pro-democracy demonstrations that would lead to the Berlin Wall coming down, to provide sanctuary for the protestors; and conducting the New York Philharmonic in Central Park after 9/11.  

I saw Nikolaus Harnoncourt just once, in 2012, on what would turn out to be his last appearance in London, conducting what his Guardian obituary accurately describes as a “serene and moving performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis”. A dignified, imposing man – according to the Guardian he “was descended from various Holy Roman emperors and other European royalty” – by then already into his eighties, between movements he sat slumped on a stool on the rostrum, head limply bowed, in reverie or exhaustion it was impossible to tell. Afterwards he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s award for lifetime achievement, and his short speech, having courteously affirmed his gratitude, concluded like this: “But against all the great composers whose music I have had the privilege to conduct; and against all the great musicians whom I have had the honour to work with; against all of them, a conductor” – he pinched thumb and forefinger together – “is but a speck of dust.”

But Harnoncourt’s lifetime achievement was more than just disavowing the role of the conductor as autocratic maestro, whose florid, narcissistic bow seems to imply that he (always a he) has not only conducted the piece but also composed every note and played every instrument. Musically Harnoncourt was central to another innovation in the performance of classical music which has since become mainstream. He went back to the original scores of composers like Brahms, to try and appreciate with the finest, most forensic study how this music would have been intended to be played, and then, especially with Baroque music, he arranged for it to be played on original instruments from the period. Hitherto the performance of classical music, to be very broad-brush about it, had since the nineteenth century become both progressively louder and increasingly undifferentiated: all music from all periods tended to be bashed out in the same cavalier way. Harnoncourt was more exacting, but also more humble: valued historical awareness: took it as read that you couldn’t perform something in the present without being aware of its past.

And now the cricket season is upon us, and we’ve seen the last of the World T20 for a good while, all this has taken me back to Steve Waugh at Canterbury.

It was the summer of 1988, I think, when he was playing for Somerset, in the great days when the world’s best overseas players still put in a full season for their county, and came out to bat that Saturday at the St Lawrence Ground against, not a vintage Kent bowling attack, but one still mustering Matthew Fleming and Roy Pienaar. By late afternoon he was walking back to the pavilion after a hitherto chanceless 177. By chanceless I mean just that: not a single shot – not one! – was played in the air. Every stroke – not a blow, not a hit – was to the pitch of the ball, and a classical cover drive, on-drive, late cut or sweep. “We’ll wait a long while to see another innings like that,” my friend Richard murmured to me as we all sat down again after the standing ovation. I still am.

When Gideon Haigh was over for the Ashes last year, he was telling me how much he hates to get out, when he plays cricket for his club back in Melbourne. Many top players these days, he mused, don’t seem to mind as much. There’ll be another T20 along tomorrow for them to have another go, I suppose, which is why holing out again on the boundary is no big deal. Gideon only gets the chance to play once a week, and then not even bat every time. So isn’t there something to learn, for all forms of cricket, from that chanceless innings at Canterbury? If you don’t hit the ball in the air you can’t get out caught?

It wasn’t an insight that seemed to have penetrated the brief – like, one-minute – highlights of the World T20 I watched on the BBC website, the most that the hoi polloi without a satellite subscription were allowed. But I found I didn’t miss more: I was already bored… Nowadays the boundary rope appears to be five rows back in the top tier. I was even bored by that Chris Gayle century against England, granted the singular skill of stepping back to smack every short-of-a-length ball over mid-off for a “maximum”. It looked exactly like the one he scored in the T20 Blast last season for Somerset.  

A different kind of highlight came to mind: a single over of a BBC-televised Benson & Hedges match between Northants and Hampshire that Bishen Bedi padded in to bowl to Trevor Jesty. No runs were scored; no wicket fell. But Richie Benaud, commentating, who as a spinner himself appreciated these things, and especially in a limited-overs match, was as spellbound as I by the guile, the variation, the wit, of those six deliveries that had Jesty poking and jabbing and lunging to keep off his stumps, which to his equal credit he did.

In cricket the music has got louder these days, more strident, less differentiated, with all forms, 20-over, 50-over, even Test matches, increasingly being played in the same way. But if the game were humbly to acknowledge that however we do it now presumes a certain attitude to the past, and accept we might at least make a point of studying how they did things then, perhaps we’d find it being played as Waugh and Bedi did, and “played on original instruments” could even become a viable marketing strategy. “Ponsford’s innings reminded us that there is one glory of the sun and another of the moon,” writes Cardus, in a little volume called Good Days I picked up last summer at Sussex’s Horsham festival. (My edition was published in 1937 in Jonathan Cape’s “New Library” series along with titles by, among others, Herman Melville, Edward Thomas and Gertrude Bell – how wonderful that back then it seemed second nature to include a cricket writer among such peers.) The sun was Bradman in the Fourth Test of the 1934 Ashes series at Old Trafford, scoring 388 to Ponsford’s 181; together they achieved a record stand for a Test match of 388 in five hours and a half. “He was no bass fiddle in the orchestra of the day’s batsmanship,” declares  Cardus; “his innings was a solo part, too – in a double concerto of classical cricket.”