Danses Sacrée …

danses sacree - catrin-finchOn those rare afternoons when Mrs Crotchety is out and I have nothing particular to do I like to listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music. Last Monday Stuart Maconie was presenting solo and in amongst the usual rock and indie tracks he played something by Debussy called Danses Sacrée et Profane. It’s a quiet, contemplative piece for harp and string orchestra. I found it soothing, calming, relaxing, like something you’d hear in a New Age incense-and-trinkets shop but with rather more depth and substance.

Stuart had included Danses Sacrée because the BBC was promoting its coverage of The Proms, a series of popular classical concerts held in London’s Albert Hall in August every year. I hadn’t heard this work before but it made a pleasant 10 minute interlude to accompany my afternoon cup of tea. Those two short early twentieth century dances sat surprisingly comfortably between the half-spoken, bass-heavy Sorry My Love, It’s You Not Me by Ghostpoet and the driving beat of The Ground Walks With Time In A Box by Modest Mouse. Only the BBC’s 6 Music radio station would run that improbable sequence.

So, three cheers for the BBC, for 6 Music and for Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane, which is my Track of the Week.

P.S. The link I’ve given here is to a YouTube video of Anneleen Lanaerts and the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michel Tabachnik. There’s also a version by the US Marine Band that is available for streaming and download under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence. The free one suffers from a little background noise, though.

P.P.S. The picture is of the Welsh harpist and composer Catrin Finch taken from a web page about the Wales International Harp Festival in 2014.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Every two years since 1978 the BBC has staged a Young Musician of the Year competition. I watched the final in 1982. One of the finalists was an 18 year old pianist. I liked her. Well, of course I liked her, she was a young woman with poise and confidence, and she was about to play my favourite classical concerto. I wanted her to perform well. I wanted her to do justice to the piece. I knew I was biased, but I wanted her to win.
Anna Markland had chosen Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. It was a bold choice. Sergei Rachmaninov was both a respected composer and a virtuoso pianist. He had exceptionally large hands and he had spread them wide for the first slow chords of his second piano concerto. Like many professional concert pianists Anna had to break the chords, but she did so expertly.

Soon the pace picked up and the pianist’s fingers began to skip and dance deftly across the keyboard. This girl could play. Mesmerised, I sat on the edge of my seat, willing her to maintain the high standard of the opening few bars. By the end of the recital I was emotionally exhausted. If there was a wrong note I didn’t hear it. If the phrasing was imperfect I didn’t detect it. If the confidence faltered or the conviction waned I must have missed it. It had been a performance to savour and remember, perhaps even the performance of a lifetime.

Almost trembling with anticipation, as if I had been the one at the piano, I waited for the judges’ decision. “I hope they choose Anna”, I thought to myself as each judge said a few words about the half dozen pieces they had heard that day. Then finally, came the announcement. “The Young Musician of the Year 1982 is … Anna Markland”. I was overjoyed. I was pleased they chose Rachmaninov, pleased they chose a pianist and pleased they chose Anna. And I dared to congratulate myself on having good taste, too.

Rachmaninoff - Anna Markland

Anna Markland-Crookes in 2010

Many years later my other half, Mary, took part in a creative writing course. As an exercise she was asked to write a two-part piece of prose. The two parts should describe the same scene or the same event in two different ways – perhaps from different perspectives or different times. When the course tutor reviewed the students’ work Mary’s was described as a ‘tour de force’. This is what she wrote:

Picture this. A woman sitting at a keyboard. She must concentrate. She must impress. She must excel. Today is the most important day of her life.

Her future lies in her fingers. What else is there, if she cannot play, cannot perform to the highest standard? Failure is unthinkable. She cannot envisage any other life but the one for which she has been working so long.

She gathers her thoughts and begins. Her hands perform a complex duet across the keys, sometimes together, sometimes apart, never touching, like partners in a delicate ritual of mutual awareness, their destinies choreographed.

The notes soar upwards and outwards, twisting through the air, gymnasts on a mat, filling every corner with their lines and twirls, never a movement out of place. They follow each other around the room, out of the doors and windows, into the sunlight to fade away.

It is done. There were no slips, no staggers, no stumbles. The woman rests her hands in her lap. She hears the quiet appreciation of the other candidates, the murmurs of the judges, the beating of her heart.

She bows and waits to hear her fate.


Picture this. A woman sitting at a keyboard. She gently blows off the dust, which lingers for a while like remembered triumphs.

“Can you play it Grandma?”

Slowly at first, then with increasing fluidity, her fingers seek the familiar paths. The music dances through the room.

“I want to do that!”

She nods her assent.

“You will” she says, “You will”.

– Mary Opie, 2011

The link I gave above is to one of several versions of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Spotify. There’s also a nice YouTube video by another Anna here: Anna Fedorova.