Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Clarinets, clarionets, Dickens, and bagpipes

I played at a concert last night.  It was held at the clubrooms of a women's group that's dwindling in the way of many old clubs - in other words, as the members get older there are no younger people to replace them.  Seems to be the way of society in this present age.  Maybe it'll change again once all the old clubs have died out and people figure out new ways to get together.  For all the complaints about Social Media and the like damaging personal contact, especially face-to-face contact, human beings are immensely social creatures, and will find ways to keep in touch no matter what the technology.  So the idea in all those movies where people appear totally separated by the technology will probably not come to pass.

Photo courtesy of Devin Langham
What do I know?  This isn't even what I started to write about. Which is that one of the women approached me after the concert and asked to see my music.  She stared at the two staves (one for the right hand, one for the left) and exclaimed, 'So that's how they write it out; I wondered how you knew what to play in each hand.'  This was a little bit surprising, because I would have assumed everyone knew what piano music looks like - there's enough of it around - but plainly not.  And then I learned that she's a bagpipe player and has been for decades.  And wants to play something that doesn't require her to blow!  (Bagpipes also have only nine notes, which is quite limiting.)

So suggesting a clarinet is probably a bit of a waste of time, since clarinets also require blowing.   The word clarinet used to be spelt, if Charles Dickens is anything to go by, as 'clarionet'.  I'm reading Little Dorrit at the moment, and finding it a bit slow.  Dorrit is one of Dickens' unspeakably righteous people - the trouble is, we just don't believe in her.  She's too goody-good for this world, or even the next.  Maybe Dickens thought that giving her some scenes in which she expresses her sadness at the restrictions of her life might help; they don't.  And her eventual husband, Arthur Clennam, is much the same.  He seems almost without personality. There's one scene where he fancies that it might be nice to fall in love with the daughter of a friend.  The girl is twenty years younger than him, and Clennam decides it probably isn't a good idea.   I suppose all of us have had that kind of thought at some time in our lives: what it would be like to fall in love with someone different to the person we seem to be in love with (Clennam must know he's in love with Little Dorrit by this stage of the book, so it's odd that he speculates like this).  But falling straight out of the thought again, as Clennam does, is a little too sudden.  Most of us would give it a day's reflection, or two.  

Straying from the topic a bit tonight: I started to talk about Dickens' using the word, clarionet.  He has a character who plays clarionet in a pit (theatre) orchestra.  His description of this man's life is wonderful, and makes up for all the soppy stuff about Little Dorrit and her forty-year-old lover boy. In this extract, Little Dorrit goes to find her sister at the theatre (her sister's a 'professional').

Little Dorrit, as her eyes became used to the darkness, faintly made him [her uncle] out at the bottom of the well, in an obscure corner by himself, with his instrument in its ragged case under his arm. The old man looked as if the remote high gallery windows, with their little strip of sky, might have been the point of his better fortunes, from which he had descended, until he had gradually sunk down below there to the bottom. He had been in that place six nights a week for many years, but had never been observed to raise his eyes above his music-book, and was confidently believed to have never seen a play. There were legends in the place that he did not so much as know the popular heroes and heroines by sight, and that the low comedian had 'mugged' at him in his richest manner fifty nights for a wager, and he had shown no trace of consciousness. The carpenters had a joke to the effect that he was dead without being aware of it; and the frequenters of the pit supposed him to pass his whole life, night and day, and Sunday and all, in the orchestra. They had tried him a few times with pinches of snuff offered over the rails, and he had always responded to this attention with a momentary waking up of manner that had the pale phantom of a gentleman in it: beyond this he never, on any occasion, had any other part in what was going on than the part written out for the clarionet; in private life, where there was no part for the clarionet, he had no part at all. Some said he was poor, some said he was a wealthy miser; but he said nothing, never lifted up his bowed head, never varied his shuffling gait by getting his springless foot from the ground. Though expecting now to be summoned by his niece, he did not hear her until she had spoken to him three or four times; nor was he at all surprised by the presence of two nieces instead of one, but merely said in his tremulous voice, 'I am coming, I am coming!' and crept forth by some underground way which emitted a cellarous smell. 'And so, Amy,' said her sister, when the three together passed out at the door that had such a shame-faced consciousness of being different from other doors...

And that mention of the door reminds me of a slightly earlier passage, when Dorrit turns up at the stage door...

Little Dorrit was almost as ignorant of the ways of theatres as of the ways of gold mines, and when she was directed to a furtive sort of door, with a curious up-all-night air about it, that appeared to be ashamed of itself and to be hiding in an alley, she hesitated to approach it; being further deterred by the sight of some half-dozen close-shaved gentlemen with their hats very strangely on, who were lounging about the door, looking not at all unlike Collegians. On her applying to them, reassured by this resemblance, for a direction to Miss Dorrit, they made way for her to enter a dark hall--it was more like a great grim lamp gone out than anything else--where she could hear the distant playing of music and the sound of dancing feet. A man so much in want of airing that he had a blue mould upon him, sat watching this dark place from a hole in a corner, like a spider; and he told her that he would send a message up to Miss Dorrit by the first lady or gentleman who went through. The first lady who went through had a roll of music, half in her muff and half out of it, and was in such a tumbled condition altogether, that it seemed as if it would be an act of kindness to iron her. But as she was very good-natured, and said, 'Come with me; I'll soon find Miss Dorrit for you,' Miss Dorrit's sister went with her, drawing nearer and nearer at every step she took in the darkness to the sound of music and the sound of dancing feet.

The delightful incidental touches are what makes Dickens so great: 'a curious up-all-night air', 'more like a great grim lamp gone out', 'a man so much in want of airing that he had a blue mould upon him', 'in such a tumbled condition altogether, that it seemed as if it would be an act of kindness to iron her.'  Who else has ever been able to write like this?

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