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Meteorological obligati



'And if we look at the works of J S Bach -- a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity -- on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.'

-- Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

After leaving Grammar School, I spent a year at the Liverpool Matthay School of Music before taking a further two at the Royal College of Music in London. In fact, this first year was invaluable. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. As in London, I was left pretty much to my own devices, but in Liverpool, I had an orchestra to which to listen and no restriction in attending their rehearsals. These were the days of John Pritchard, and I listened and learned far more about orchestral playing and the standard, and not-so-standard repertoire, than I ever could as a student in London.

I was taking oboe as my principal study, and had branched out from piano, to study organ with Dr J Roland Middleton, organist of Chester Cathedral. It was he whose presented Bach's Christmas Oratorio in that wonderful cathedral setting that was to be my first professional orchestral engagement.

I sat spellbound as the principal oboist played the transposition of an obligato for an instrument marked 'oboe d'amore'. I asked what it was. 'Some old oboe nobody ever uses any more', was the reply. 'Prepare Thyself Zion' is an aria for contralto with a solo obligato melodic line for oboe d'amore, the alto oboe. Although I wasn't playing it myself, I saw the name of my future instrument written on a score for the very first time.

I have a collage of wonderful memories of that day. After the afternoon rehearsal, we had all been invited for refreshments in Dr Middleton's home. As the cathedral organist, he lived just beside it in a lovely old Georgian house. There was a log fire blazing in the hearth. It was Christmas time and there was a coating of snow. The walls in his music room were a cheerful red, and I have never forgotten how warm and friendly his house was to enter. The ceiling, wood work and fireplace were as crisp a white as the snow outside, and the windows and sofa were covered in a cheerful white chintz with large red pointsetias and deep green leaves. There was a lot of dark wood glowing with lavender-scented polish, and brass candlesticks shone in the glow of the flames.

Inside Chester Cathedral there is a mediaeval painting of the Madonna and Child. Perfect after many centuries, this treasure is painted on a silk canvas made from spiders' webs. Everything about that concert seemed magical, the music, the painting, and the warmth of this kind musician's home.

I chose this same obligato line to play with a few local musicians in Shiraz, in the very cradle of what had been the Persian Empire. I was about to play by myself, knowing that I alone could hear the contralto's aria and the accompaniment in my head. The local musicians, hearing my instrument and this music for the first time, were to respond to my playing and the music I performed in their own musical language. This time, I was deliberately using Bach's haunting melody as a gesture of friendship, putting my musical hand forward in greeting without any idea of the result. Of course, I could have chosen to play anything at all, but the strong rhythm of this obligato seemed ideal. I was going to demonstrate the most usual usage of my instrument within its own culture, after all. They responded with the same, in theirs. Differences were very apparent, but somehow, unimportant.

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Copyright © 1 February 2002 Jennifer Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland





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