A Musical Wanderer - a tale

I once shared a bedsit with an extraordinary gothic desk. The drawers were guarded by grotesque lions, dragons and floral arabesques. It would be hardly proper, surely, if one did not open one of the smaller drawers to find a manuscript such as this?

The Mysterious Itineraries of a Musical Wanderer

There are certain musical works which seem to suggest hidden meanings, stories, adventures, or the record of a journey. Take the series of six part Fantasies by Orlando Gibbons, for example. They are windows into a world.

You may have come across allusions to the tale of a composer who wandered on his travels and left only a series of musical sketches as clues to his experiences. Did the music record his travels - or were his travels purely visionary? Though I can see, and almost hear, this music, as if it's buried in my own memory, it is always just too distant to be transcribed, a mood rather than a concrete sound.

As for the story itself, so familiar in its essence but vague in its details, the closest I ever came to its heart was one evening at the bar at a conference. It was, I think, at one of the least significant universities and the bar was as far as we could go from the depressing concrete of the campus. Several of the delegates had found their way there. Some I knew, others were unknown to me. Heres the story, just as Toller told it to me over several pints of the local ale.

"Its one of those things that eludes the grasp," he began. " It seems so close and yet, when you try to pin it down, there is always the sense that it was always someone else, a step further away from your own experience and yet I feel sure what I heard was true and there is, after all, the music that remains and the secret, such as it was."

"I was at a bar just such as this after a long day of lectures. Amongst others I was with Blissett, at the time just beginning to become known as an authority on Cipriani Potter. (1) He had performed one of Potters concertos that season. We were chatting about some of the truly attractive forgotten figures of 19th century music when a man I did not know, who had been following our conversation rather rudely I thought, butted in:

" ' You remember,'  this character said from the far side of the table (in such a way that I knew that this was not going to be a brief interruption to our conversation), 'the story of the composer who followed the ways of the legendary Scholar Gypsy and travelled the world rather picturesquely in what I believe we call a "Romany vardo..'

" ' It would have been picturesque, no doubt,' interjected Blissett, interrupting the interruption, 'if there had been anyone to observe this mythical creature.'

" 'I do not claim to have observed the man or his unlikely conveyance,' the stranger went on after giving Blissett a killing glance, 'but I have no doubt that he existed and that his travels were real in some way. If you know the story you will recall that the significant feature was that this traveller is said to have recorded his experiences in music, believing that he had learned a language of music that could translate the essential meaning of what he had seen, heard and known.'

"It was a story I, myself, knew well. The Scholar Gypsy in Arnolds poem (2), (inspired in turn by an anecdote in Glanvils 17th century Vanity of Dogmatizing (3), a tract arguing, against the extreme rationalism of his contemporaries, that there were more thingsetc. etc.) had abandoned Oxford University to seek the secrets of the travelling people. He apparently still travels the countryside. On one of his re-appearances he demonstrated some curious form of sympathetic imagination or mind-reading to the startled guests at an inn.

"This legendary composer had taken a similar turning perhaps some two hundred years later, having discovered some similar musical secret, and was reputed to have gained an exemption from time, like the Scholar Gypsy, wandering for ever and scribbling away at pages and pages of manuscript, recording the world that perhaps only he could see.

" 'There has always been a question in my mind,' the stranger continued, 'whether this composer actually did travel (and maybe still travels) the lost roads and drovers ways, or whether the music was his travelling. Did he travel only in his mind, following the course of his endless compositions?'

" 'It's an attractive idea,' I volunteered. 'We often like to think our music has a meaning. We often don't feel responsible for where it takes us either.'

" Harrison, beside me, objected to this, as I knew he would.

" 'Music has no meaning. Its just ordered sound. Delightful in itself, or so we might hope, but with no more meaning than this delightful glass of ale. No meaning but pure delight.'

" 'Harrison is a severe classicist', said Blissett.'We could surely argue that Tester's Ragged Rascal has a distinctly different meaning to Folker's Old Intire.'

"This inevitably led to Harrison pulling himself away from the table and pushing his way to the bar for a refill of the local ale.

" 'Of course no one has ever found the music,' the stranger continued, with a determination to continue without any further interruptions. 'There has always been a rumour that the traveller ended his days (assuming that he was not, unlike the Scholar Gypsy, a kind of eternal avatar) in a "House on the Border", a mysterious resting place that was neither in England nor Wales. Though he is said to have studied in Germany, in the shadiest period of romanticism, he returned to his home country and made most of his journeys here.

" 'As you are no doubt aware the story has always fascinated me. There is a romantic attraction in the idea of travelling the old ways and seeing through the veil to hidden landscape. There is also the mystery of the music itself. Can the composition of music be a way of entering another world - in which the sounds are a translation of sights and experiences?

" 'I found myself contemplating this legend anew when I was occupied on my monograph on the consort fantasies of the early 17th century. You may be familiar with it.'

" 'Only if it was published in Titbits (4) old boy, ' said Blissett softly.

" ' These instrumental pieces, of which the glorious Gibbons (5) and Lawes (6)are the masters, were written and performed in dark days of conflict. You can imagine sombre and philosophical gentlemen playing their viols in shadowy panelled halls. The soft and yet intense music seems to explore intangible concepts like a series of dialogues or debates, or it may seem to open windows onto distant evening vistas.

" 'This is not purely my personal response. This style of music faded away in the brighter days of the Restoration apart from the divine Henrys strange final glances into the dark mirror of viol music.'

" 'Purcell, I think he means,' (7) whispered Blissett.

" 'Indeed. And in that same period we have old Thomas Maces testimony in "Musicks Monument", implying that this music had hidden meanings. I quote from memory:

" ' "We had our Grave Musick, Fancies of 3,4, 5 and 6 parts to the Organ, Interposd (now and then) with some Pavins, Allmaines, Solemn and Sweet Delightful Ayres; all which were (as it were) so many Pathettical Stories, Rhetorical, and Sublime Discourses ; Subtil and Accute Argumentations, so Suitable, and Agreeing to the Inward, Secret, and Intellectual Faculties of the Soul and Mind ; that to set Them forth according to their True Praise, there are no Words Sufficient in Language ; yet what I can best speak of Them, shall be only to say, That They have been to myself, (and many others) as Divine Raptures, Powerfully Captivating all our unruly Faculties, and Affections, (for the Time) and disposing us to Solidity, Gravity, and a Good Temper, making us capable of Heavenly, and Divine Influences. Tis Great Pity Few Believe Thus Much, but Far Greater, that so Few Know It.(8) "

" ' It's easy to understand how musical conversations, such as these four, five or six part fantasies, can be experienced as coded conversations and "sublime discourses" but when I listen to these pieces I sense a more specific meaning. Is there, in fact, a tradition of music composed as a record of what Traherne, also a contemporary of Mace and the Scholar Gypsy, calls "Journeys of the Soul' (9)?. I sense there is something hidden in the baroque sonatas of Biber. (10) It is a matter of spiritual attitude and intention rather than musical technique.

" 'If you don't me coming in here,' said Blissett,  ' I think you may have a point. There's the example, as I am sure you are aware, of Froberger. (11) ' "

" ' Of course there is always the example of Froberger,' " muttered a person who was less entranced by the conversation.

" ' Froberger, " Blissett continued, "wrote pieces that were intended to describe in detail his experiences of crossing the Rhine, or his depression at being in London - a feeling with which I do not, personally, sympathise. This was around the 1640s. As far as I know it's the earliest example of someone claiming to translate such exact ideas into music.' "

" ' If I were being fanciful, which I do not think I am being, I might speak of a continuous occult tradition of attempts to translate actual experience into sound - converting the "hidden music" of the world to harmony. Or, conversely, of meditating through performance, and even more through composition, in such a way that the music guides an experience, a "Journey of the Soul."

" 'Ah,' , Blissett interrupted again,  'I seem to recall that Froberger was a pupil of the Jesuit polymath Anthanasius Kircher - so almost any esoteric meaning could be inferred from his music. Kircher was obsessed with Hieroglyphics - as a symbolic language. There step from Hierogylphics to the concept of music as symbolic language is but small.'

" 'It's all bilge,' said Harrison.  'Music is no more than aural sculpture. Pure form in time.'

"The stranger was unperturbed and continued his story.

" 'By chance I was researching this possibility when I was sent a contribution to a small metaphysical journal which I have the honour of editing for a certain wealthy anonymous patron. It was a series of philosophical dialogues. To my astonishment the principal character in these conversations was the travelling composer himself. There was a suggestion, perhaps no more than a literary device, that the musician was the author of these texts. They did not have bearing on the legendary manuscripts, being about the creative process in general in a Platonic tone, but they did seem to end at the point where our hero was about to begin his musical quest in his picturesque vehicle.

" ' I was intrigued to say the least. Who was the contributor, the person who claimed to have edited these pages?

" ' They had been sent to us by a lady whose name I had not heard before.

" ' "Please consider these sketches", she had written. "They were discovered in the library of a house I have recently inherited from an uncle who sadly died tragically in an experimental balloon ascent. "

" ' The address, which I will not pass on at present, was a house which is best described as being in the Welsh Marches. I will not be more precise. This, surely, must be "The House on the Border" where our composer spent his last days, or, of you prefer, his period of repose.

" ' As rapidly as I could without seeming unnaturally enthusiastic I made contact with the Lady, explaining that I was fascinated by the texts. Within a few days I had taken the train to the nearest station on a line now long since closed. (12)'

" I remember being puzzled by this. Our companion at the dark end of the table did not seem of any greater age than my colleagues and yet he had suddenly pushed the time that the events of his story took place into an unexpectedly distant past."

" ' Of course there was still a suggestion that the dialogues were purely a literary conceit and that they were entirely her own invention. I am still unsure about this. When I met the lady at the long stone house, closely set to forested rising ground, I was impressed by her sharp eye and a quizzical look. She was middle-aged, elegant but simply dressed like a country lady, but with a curiously elliptical humour in her expression. I wondered if she were a modern day equivalent of Lady Conway,(13) a female philosopher or was it that she was always on the very edge of laughing at me?

" ' I was there several days. We never discussed the origin of the dialogues but she was happy for me to explore the library and search for any other relics of the wandering composer. Of course she was fully aware of the story, or so she seemed to imply.

" ' "I see," she said early in our conversation, as if it had not struck her previously, "you are suggesting that the character in the Ravello Dialogues(14) was this traveller and that this was his House on the Border. An amusing idea, whether or not there is any substance to the story. Of course you may feel free to look for his lost manuscripts or whatever they may be."

" ' I thanked her. I only realised later that I could have asked her how she came to find the Dialogues. Where had they been hidden? It was as if we were playing a delicate game and that nothing should be discussed too materially or the dream might shatter.

" ' It was a dull library on the whole. The bulk of it came from a Welsh cleric and missionary. (15) There were sermons in Welsh and many books on South American botany. This gentleman had possessed the house in the late 19th century. I understood that the ladys uncle, or his father before him, had bought the house from the clergyman. I found I could not begin to imagine at what point the composer might have lived there. He may not have been cursed with eternal life but his story, at least, seemed to have been granted an exemption from time.

"  ' Nothing came of my search in the library.

" ' On another day I returned from a walk in the hills. It had been a wonderful autumn day with a sunset that would have excited my old friend Arthur Machen (16). The lady dropped into our conversation as she was pouring tea:

" ' "You see glorious sunsets from the upstairs study. There are some music books there I seem to think. "

" ' At this point, though I was thankful for the warm Welsh cakes and butter after my walk, I did wonder even more if she were playing a game with me.

"  ' After tea, and she was very leisurely about it, she took me to the small room on the top floor, as if under the eaves, which served as a study. Yes, the window caught the last glow of the sky and I could hear the sound of a nearby waterfall, and the desk was placed against it. I found myself sitting at the desk uninvited. To my right were a few shelves of books. They were a curious mixture of very old and fairly modern, all very well thumbed. I knew as soon as I saw them that this was just such a collection as might have occupied the very limited space in a small horse-drawn vehicle. I touched them carefully. Was I touching a leather binding that my half-mythical traveller had touched?

" ' Surely it was so. Here was Dr Burneys (17) diary of his musical journey in Europe, Jones's (18) translation of Dalbergs (19) study of Indian music (our composer claimed to have been a friend of the sadly forgotten Dalberg), and here was, lo and behold, an ancient copy of Glanvill's "Vanity of Dogmatizing", the source of the legend of the Scholar Gypsy. In contrast there were far more recent titles, not musical, such as both "His Last Bow" and several translations of the adventures of Arsene Lupin.

" ' There were no musical scores.

" ' "Ah yes," the lady said in her vague manner, "It could almost be - " ...as if she were not fully aware.

" '  I asked her if I were at liberty to look for any other effects, as it were, of this person who I was sure had sat exactly where I was sitting, haunted by a similar sunset and the distant sound of water.

" ' "Perhaps it would be wrong to say", she answered "treat what was his as yours. Or would that be acceptable - in the interests of musicological research?"

" 'Sitting in his own chair at the desk where I supposed he had worked I felt close to understanding. Did he translate his wanderings into music? Or was the music an imaginary journey? Neither alternative seemed satisfactory. Perhaps it was a different kind of journey, through a different kind of reality.

" ' " Could we say," the lady of the house suggested, breaking into my contemplations, " that some things only retain their power when they remain a mystery?"

" ' There were no manuscripts as such but I found something unexpected in the draw of the desk. At first I thought it was a pack of playing cards, hand painted and colourful. They were, certainly, cards, rather larger than playing cards, decorated with lively rather than expert designs, all featuring the signs of the zodiac and what may have been representations of the creatures and symbols of the constellations, though I did not recognise these as being the traditional images. There were also tantalising hints of landscape in the surrounds and backgrounds which reminded me of some of Blakes pages with their dolmens and eternal hills.(20)
" ' This symbolism was a surprise and a complication. I had no doubt that these were his work. Crude, but vivid, perhaps painted in watercolour as his caravan jogged along the old green tracks. If, of course, there ever was a caravan.

" ' Seeing that there were more cards than the 12 signs of the zodiac I counted them and found there were 24 in total. I then recognised that each sign was painted twice, once with a sun and the colours of day, and once with a moon the hues of night. The other symbols I did not immediately understand.

" ' "Could he have read the stars?" the lady wondered. (I rather wished she would leave me alone to my investigations.) "or did he use these stars for navigation?"

" ' Though she laughed a little as she said this I had a sharp and deep sense that she had hit on the truth in a way that I assumed at the time that she may not have understood. The traveller had not taken up astrology, or any kind of magical system, I was sure of that, even though he may have pursued all manner of false leads, cabala and the like, in his apprenticeship days. His true discipline was harmony and the work of the imagination. It took no time to deduce that these 24 cards were not occult in their significance but simply represented the 24 keys of the tempered chromatic scale. The twelve major keys were marked with the sun, the minor keys were indicated by the moon. A fanciful but simple device. Was it Athanasius Kircher (21) who first associated the signs of the zodiac with the twelve keys, arranged in the circle of fifths (22) which demonstrates their tonal relationships?