(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings

Unless I am much mistaken, today is the 26th anniversary of me taking my violin grade 1 exam (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) [I had thought it was the 25th anniversary, but then I realised that 10th April 1987, which I’m fairly sure was the big day, was actually 26 years ago, not 25].  This was the only practical music exam I ever took (unless you count the performance part of GCSE music, which I suppose should really count), although I did start working towards my grade 3 and grade 5 violin exams on several occasions and did take theory grade 5, largely in preparation for doing the higher grade violin exams.

Although I haven’t got a huge collection of certificates to say that I can play, I do have quite a bit of experience and I have gained a lot of pleasure (and hopefully given some pleasure and not too much pain to other people) through playing music over the years.

As a way of celebrating this auspicious anniversary, today I have mostly been listening to violin music that I have played (albeit not recordings of my own performances), in roughly chronological order of when I first approached them.

First up on the playlist was Vivaldi’s Violin concerto opus 3, no. 6 (RV358) in A minor.  The first movement of this was my solo piece for my GCSE music performance exam and I think I also played it once in a school concert. As far as I can remember, I’ve never performed the other two movements, although I have played them all many times and I still like to dig the piece out and play it from time to time.  One day I’d love to play it with piano accompaniment again (as it appears in the edition I have), or perhaps even with a full string orchestra (as it was written).

The next piece I listened to this morning was Dvořák’s Sonatina op. 100 in G (for violin and piano), which was, I think, the next piece I studied in violin lessons after the Vivaldi concerto.  My biggest solo public performance to date was when I played the final movement of this piece in front of an audience of (IIRC) about 1000 people at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford.  That performance wasn’t helped when, a few bars into the piece, my accompanist stopped,  announced that his page turner had failed to turn up and waited for someone to step in to fulfil that vital role.  I was a  bit miffed, not least because I had to turn my own pages anyway (although to be fair, I only had one page turn with a fairly conveniently located multi-bar rest, compared to the pianist’s many page turns in mid-flow). Were the same thing to happen today I’d probably keep the audience entertained with a selection of jaunty jigs or something but, at the time, I didn’t think of that (and I’m not sure I knew any jigs then anyway) so I just stood like a lemon on the stage for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only  a minute or two.  By the time we restarted the piece I was so nervous that I was painfully aware of an unscheduled tremolando in my bowing, although I gather it wasn’t too obvious to most of the audience (and at least I managed to avoid dropping the bow altogether).

The final major piece I studied in my violin lessons, although I don’t think I ever publicly performed any of it, was Bach’s Violin concerto in E, BWV1042, which was my first introduction to playing Bach (apart from one small keyboard minuet) and probably what got me hooked on listening to him too.  I’ve subsequently spent quite a lot of time on his cello suites, mostly in an arrangement for viola though I’ve also played some of them on violin, and I have a sheet music copy of his solo violin sonatas and partitas too, which represent a considerable challenge to my violin playing abilities (but also a lot of fun and some moments of sublime ecstasy).  As with the Vivaldi and Dvořák pieces, I still like to dig the Bach violin concerto out and give it a bash from time to time.

Speaking of challenging music, I also have a copy of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin, Op. 1, which is probably one of the hardest violin works out there.  My final violin teacher had a copy and played several of them for me, which inspired me (in a moment of what I can only describe as either blind optimism or pure wishful thinking) to get my own copy.  I can just about manage a few of the simpler passages, including bits of Caprice no. 5 (my personal favourite, not least because a guitar version – or at least something very similar sounding – was featured in the epic guitar duel at the end of the film Crossroads) and the theme and the first couple of variations from no. 24 (the famous one, also well-known as the theme from the South Bank Show, which happens to be another of my favourites, mainly because I can actually play some of it) but I don’t hold any serious hope of ever actually being able to play them properly.

During my sixth form years, I joined my first proper orchestra (which is not to denigrate my school orchestra, which was pretty good in its own fairly limited way): The Crockenhill String Orchestra.  I was one of the back row second violins in this august ensemble.  I can no longer remember precise details of most of what we played but the one that sticks most vividly in my mind is Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K525.  I remember this mainly due to a concert in a church in, I think, Farningham on a dark and stormy night when we were hit by a power cut just as we approached the end of the first movement; this plunged us into total darkness (apart from occasional flashes of lightning) and caused about half of the orchestra to grind to a halt while the rest of us valiantly struggled on to finish the movement from memory. After this, there was a short pause while we dug out candles to illuminate the rest of the concert. I remember thinking, as we played the remaining movements of the Mozart, how well the music seemed to fit with the setting of a candle-lit stone building (which my imagination transformed from a small church into a vast gothic castle) with a storm raging outside.  I also remember playing Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, which I think I remember just because I particularly liked some of the tunes in it rather than for any notable performance-related incidents.  On the other hand, I do recall one particular tuning-related fail (in a piece I can’t remember, though I’ve a feeling it was a (piano?) concerto with a guest soloist, performed somewhere up in London) when, shifting down to first position from on high (yes, even second violinists sometimes have to play up the neck!), my thumb accidentally caught the tuning peg of my G string and knocked it completely out of tune.

Since my potted history of my violin playing is turning out to take  a rather larger pot than anticipated (this already being my longest blog post to date, as far as I can remember, and me not yet having started on my university years, let alone what came after), I’ve decided to split it across several posts.  The next installment should follow fairly shortly.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering how I did in the exam, I passed with distinction (just about) – gaining 131 out of 150 marks, just one more than the minimum required for a distinction.  As it happens, I also blogged (a day late) about the 20th anniversary of this exam, 6 years ago (obviously!).  I also blogged some of my thoughts about Bach’s music (specifically the solo violin/cello stuff that I’ve played) on that blog.