Clement Thime - Sonata ab. 8 - Optimism amid adversity

'Zen in the Art of Archery':

‘Occasionally several […] right shots came off in close succession and hit the target, besides of course the many more that failed. But if ever the least flicker of satisfaction showed in my face the Master turned on me with unwonted fierceness. "What are you thinking of?" he would cry. "You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had shot well. This, too, you must practise unceasingly - you cannot conceive how important it is." - Chapter VIII, Zen in the Art of Archery - Eugen Herrigel

As diaries display the crossed-out remnants of ‘what might have been’ over the coming months, it would be understandable for musicians to feel a bit deflated at present. To quote the cellist Steven Isserlis: ‘Suddenly our lives are filled with double bar lines, tacet signs – silence’. I have always tried to maintain the idea that ‘a gig is not a gig until you are home and have been paid’. This zen-like attitude has helped me to level out some of the highs and lows of life on the freelance rollercoaster so far. Of course Covid-19 is a devastating illness, and I do not wish to trivialise its severity by writing about my reasons for maintaining optimism amid adversity. However, aside from a few short-lived anxious moments, I do feel quite optimistic and resolved at the moment - for a number of reasons:

Social distancing is reducing the impact of the pandemic, and saving lives. What we are doing is of vital importance. It is reassuring to know that by following the rules, we are all helping in this way. Cancelling or postponing rehearsals and concerts has undoubtedly helped to save lives.

It has been lovely to make video calls to friends and relatives that we cannot meet, for no other reason than to check that they are well. Perhaps we should all continue to do this in the future, especially if we didn't already.

I am thankful to those who help others to stay healthy, and supplied with essential supplies. I am also glad that we, the public, are not taking their help for granted. NHS and other key workers are getting the recognition they have always deserved.

Many of my former anxieties about freelancing were worries about hypothetical long periods of unemployment. Although that is what we now face, there is a developing infrastructure to support the under-employed. For many freelancers this may be, in a sense, the first time we have had the reassurance of regular income - which will thankfully take a lot of the financial stress out of the equation for many of us.

Trumpet players are generally well-accustomed to occasional quiet seasons. We do not always expect to be invited back to an orchestra or a festival that we previously played in, as many pieces of music have no trumpet parts. Some whole years can be relatively quiet for us if there is an anniversary of a piece that does not call for trumpets. As a result many trumpet players have a well-established hibernation mode - other projects or interests to pursue - and so we are mentally well-practiced at coping with quiet periods. For some of my colleagues this has included (pre-covid) everything from teaching and lecturing through to ski-instructing, house-building, and instrument making. It's actually much easier to cope with the lack of employment at the moment as all musicians (not just trumpet players), and many other professionals, are in the same situation. 

Personally, I have been using my newfound free time to continue to learn new skills in the workshop. I am currently learning to make (modern) bassoon crooks - repurposing and refining my skills. This is almost certainly something I would have never got around to without the current lockdown. Over the coming weeks I will be making many more engraving tools, and engraving several more trumpet garlands by hand. It is wonderful to put an audiobook on, and disappear into 'the zone' for hours. N.B - I’m not trying to insinuate that we should all be trying to be especially productive or ‘busy’ during this time, far from it. It must be particularly difficult for parents who are having to juggle many roles at the moment.

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Of course, music itself still exists and I am very glad to be able to keep listening to new and pre-existing recordings, and I’m keeping my trumpet playing ticking over. Although it is much more difficult to experience live music, there have been videos shared of homebound or doorstep performances. Musicians are evolving or developing the way they can deliver their art, often using technology. Students can also sustain their interest by continuing to have lessons via video calls. Ensembles are using this time to revisit or re-release archive recordings. Some are also creating new content to release to their audiences. All of these methods may be encouraging and nurturing future music-lovers. [I was very pleased to hear that the hymns I played with the Brandenburg Brass quintet for an Easter Sunday service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 2013 were re-aired as part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2020 Easter Sunday message on the Sunday Worship programme on BBC Radio 4.] 

My concentration has improved, as there are far fewer distractions for me at the moment. Imagine the (pre-covid) scenario - you finally start work on a project that you have been meaning to do for some time. You start work and get interrupted by an email asking if you are free on Thursday. You drop what you are doing, book your travel, pack a suitcase, pack your instrument and disappear for at least a day, or sometimes a couple of weeks. When you return, you need a day or two to adjust back to life at home, and recover from the trip. It is then you realise that you never did start that project, so you finally start working on it again. Just then, an email drops into your inbox. ‘Are you free on Thursday…?’!

I also have a feeling, which isn’t strictly true but the sentiment is at least helping me to remove inert jobs from my to do list. If there’s a project that I still haven’t started - and I know I will certainly not get around to it, even with this much available time - it makes me wonder if I will ever get around to it. I am finding this is making me more selective, more driven and more pragmatic than normal. This is also a good thing to think about, as it reinforces the idea that this lockdown is a temporary measure.

I appreciate nature even more at the moment, and I look forward to exercising once a day. My wife and I have started walking around the cemetery near where we live. It is always very quiet, as most people seem to prefer to walk around the adjacent park. Being limited to one form of exercise per day makes me appreciate it more.

It is now socially acceptable to be much less ‘busy’ which is having many positive outcomes. Being busy is not (nor should it ever have been, really) synonymous with being successful, whatever that is supposed to mean. People who have multi-tracked all 40 parts of Thomas Tallis’ 'Spem in alium' (though I haven’t actually come across this one yet) might have been labelled as having too much time on their hands, formerly. Now they are keeping themselves active, and in practice in a constructive and meaningful way. I think it’s great.

Knowing that we possibly have more time on our hands than usual, I have been approached by some groups I work for to help create interesting new media content. One group interviewed me via video call for a future release, and I made a warm-up video to share on an educational social media channel.


Steven Isserlis’ aforementioned article found resonance with me. ‘I imagine that there are two extremes among musicians at the moment: those that take the opportunity to […] practise endlessly, and those who can’t see the point and therefore leave their instruments untouched. Of course, most people will fall between the two extremes, but they’ll probably lean towards one end of the scale or the other…’. I was certainly leaning towards the untouched side, as I don’t tend to practice unless I have a very specific aim.

Time? Greetings to all my fellow strandees in the music world! Isn’t this a nightmare? Suddenly our lives are filled...

Posted by Steven Isserlis on Monday, 30 March 2020
 

A few days after I read Isserlis’ article I watched a video where one player had, very impressively, multi-tracked all of the violin and viola parts from the first movement of Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto in G Major [BWV 1048], using the Acapella app. The player was George Clifford, who I’ve known for quite a number of years. We toured Southeast Asia together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as part of the Toyota Classics tour in 2018, and we had a very memorable curry together in Kuala Lumpur on his birthday. I contacted George and asked him if he’d be interested in recording a piece together. 

The piece I wanted to record was ‘Sonata ab. 8’ by Clement Thime [Clemens Thieme]. Thime was born on 7th September 1631 in Grossdittmannsdorf near Dresden, and studied under Philipp Stolle in Dresden. Heinrich Schütz took him to Copenhagen and was to exercise a great influence on his future. Thime was supported and subsequently employed by the Elector of Saxony, before moving to the Kapelle of Duke Moritz of Saxony at Zeitz in 1663. The trumpet parts in 'Sonata ab. 8' are quite complex, especially considering how old they are. Thime died on 27th March 1668 in Zeitz. 

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I came across the manuscripts in January 2020, and I decided to do an edition of the sonata. I had not yet found an opportunity to get four viola players in the same place at the same time to try it out, so I was very pleased that George was prepared to multi-track them (and the violin parts). As far as I am aware this piece had only previously been recorded on piccolo trumpets, and there is one other recording which uses violins instead of trumpets. The manuscript parts says ‘Trombetta 1’ and ‘Trombetta 2’, and the title page on the continuo part uses the term ‘clarino’. I think it is a charming piece, and I look forward to playing it in a live performance one day. 


I hope I haven’t been over-optimistic in my above ramblings. Of course, I am missing conventional social contact with friends, family and colleagues. Professionally, it would have been an enjoyable few months. The next few months showed great promise with performances at Snape Maltings, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, at three Handel Festivals (London, Göttingen and Halle), and at many other places besides. This pandemic could go on for much longer, and it is important to remember that we are helping to save lives. One of the groups I regularly work for sent an uplifting email with the subject: ‘It's only an interval’, terminology that we can certainly relate to. This period is certainly going to make us appreciate live music all the more, once it is safe to continue, after the interval.

Russell Gilmour
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writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.