J D Davies

Music While You Work

Happy 2013, everybody! I hope Santa was generous to you all. He certainly was to me…I was particularly chuffed with a T-shirt that has ‘HISTORIAN’ in large print, and underneath in smaller type, ‘You’d be more interesting if you were dead’. There was an inevitably eclectic range of books, ranging from Melvyn Bragg’s Credo, which I’ve wanted to read for a long time, to Edward Corp’s book on the Stuart court in Italy, 1719-66 (I’ve always had a hankering to write a Jacobite book, either fiction or non-fiction…maybe one of these days), to C J Sansom’s interesting and enjoyable foray into alternative history, Dominion, of which more next week.

I also got a new mini-sound system for my office, The Lair, and as I type this it’s pumping out Thomas Tallis’s Gaude Gloriosa. I’m one of those people who likes to have music playing while working; I find it helps the creative juices, although it has to be a certain type of music. I was a creature of the 1970s, so have always been a big fan of the likes of ELO, the Motors and Elvis Costello, but I wouldn’t dream of having Oliver’s Army blasting away while I’m attempting to think of a plot twist in a Quinton book. I’m particularly drawn to choral music – hence the Tallis. This might be a Welsh thing; after all, we’re meant to be ‘the land of song’, and I grew up immersed in the culture of the male voice choir. (In truth, there are only three kinds of Welsh songs: ones about rain, ones about death; and ones about a close relative dying while it’s raining. Honestly.) As for my own singing, it is to music what the Greek economy is to the Eurozone. Nevertheless, I’ve occasionally been known to transmit a noise somewhere vaguely in the range of bass to baritone and back again via alto, so I’ve always admired the lower registers in particular. When I was at university, I was lucky enough to hear the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff sing his signature number, the death scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, in the Wren-designed splendours of the Sheldonian Theatre (below). He was well past his peak by then, but even so, it was still an astonishing experience. At much the same time, the superstar of Welsh music was the great Sir Geraint Evans, who always seemed to be on TV when I was young, and now, of course, the baton has been passed to the incomparable Bryn Terfel.

Consequently, my background music is usually choral, and usually music of the late 17th to late 18th century. Not only is it my kind of music, I find that it helps me to think myself into the period I’m writing about; when I’m working on a Quinton novel, for instance, I’ll often play a lot of Purcell in the background, because his music generates such a vivid sense of the age of Charles II. (Readers of the series will notice that this sometimes slips into the narrative, as in Gentleman Captain, when the perpetually grumpy ‘old Matthew Quinton’ compares Handel’s sublime Zadok the Priest – incidentally, my favourite single piece of music – unfavourably with the William Laws version used at the coronations of Charles II and James II. I have the CD of the music used at the latter, and this gets a play every now and again!) Handel is pretty much my favourite composer, particularly his oratorios, so they get plenty of air time, as do the likes of the masses and oratorios by Josef Haydn and his brother Michael, the Bachs, and the works of more obscure composers of the age like Boyce and Linley. I’ve recently taken to the works of Zelenka, more and more of which are now becoming available as recordings, while my research trip to Sweden last year introduced me to the likes of Joseph Martin Kraus. I’ve also been going further back in time, discovering more and more of the choral music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century by the likes of Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina and Victoria. Indeed, the most played CD in the house in the last few months has undoubtedly been that of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts – Wendy, my partner (the ‘LadyQJ’ of my Twitter feed) loves it!

Anyway, the Tallis has just finished, so that’s clearly a sign to finish this blog, too. Next week, as suggested above, I’ll be taking a look at ‘alternative histories’, and asking if they have any value at all.