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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On Wallace, Gromit, Sir Edward and Aunt Alice,
beta-blockers, hate mail, were-rabbits and Americans,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH


What exactly is the point of 'Elgar''s Third symphony? It seems to me like a complete load of rubbish. What Anthony Payne seems to have done is pad out a couple of Elgar's most mediocre ideas into a piece of extraordinary banality. Also, what price the moral dimension? Wasn't it Elgar's dying wish that his fragments be destroyed?

W B, Bromley

Dear W B,

Well, yes, as far as my research can figure, it was at least ONE of his dying wishes, but great artists can expect their dying wishes to be ignored. He might have realised that such fragments as he wrote weren't as good as the nuts and bolts he pasted together (this WAS his compositional method, apparently) in the first two symphonies -- or he might have distrusted whomever he thought his wife might pick to mess around with it ... We'll never know.

I tend to agree that the third symphony is pedestrian, especially in both forward propulsion and in orchestration. The cello part is a doddle, and there is nowhere the excitingly screaming forays into thumb position that Elgar so loved. However, it has been widely admired by a lot of people, so there you go. I can't get excited about it myself -- though I can about Elgar's first two symphonies.

Tell you what I CAN get thrilled by, though, is the score for the award-winning new Wallace and Gromit film. That is quite simply superb: a melange of Holst, Elgar, jazz -- you name it -- all divinely suited to the characters and the action, and stylishly and sometimes exquisitely played. Buy it now!!!!!!

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit -- soundtrack by Julian Nott and various other composers


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I'm not quite sure whether someone has put one over you, or you are trying to put one over us, or you're just trying to work out how many of your readers think. (Yes, that full stop is correctly placed.) Just how seriously are we supposed to take a series of ostensibly American maths problems that blithely represent Americans as (1) cheating, (2) superstitious, (3) lynching, (4) murderous racists? I mean, really?

I am not prepared to either agree or disagree with the underlying propositions, mind you. You are welcome to the hate mail from any of your American readers who notice!

Malcolm Tattersall, flute

Dear Malcolm old buddy,

I welcome your letter, and I will also welcome any hate mail (which is yet to arrive, by the bye) from any outraged fellow US (or dual US/UK citizens).

What I think this proves is (contrary to popular British belief) that Americans DO actually have a sense of the ridiculous, and do NOT think their history any less full of inglorious incidents as anybody else's. That there are Americans whose eyes mist up at the opening bars of the national anthem I will not attempt to deny, but they are hugely (and thankfully!) in the minority, just as neo-Nazis are in the UK. No sane American can deny that some completely harmless women were burned as witches in Salem, or that some American Indians were almost as shabbily treated. The British had imperialism, and the US had slavery. There are more recent episodes in the histories of both countries which will equally ill bear close examination.

The fact is that Americans are NOT humorless bastards and I'll go out with mah forty-caliber rahfle an' shoot anybody who dun am says so!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yours, even more cordially than usual,

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I have been playing the 'cello for almost fifty years as an amateur and started fiddling about on the violin (sorry) about thirty years ago, although I am not really up to your lofty standard on either. (As a grumpy old male pensioner I am not so good looking either.)

Yet when I first started the violin I was immediately impressed by how easy it was to play compared with the 'cello! I will go through your points in order.

  1. The titchy space between the notes is actually an advantage. If you land a bit skewiff you just roll your finger a little one way or the other, instead of trying to mask it with a vibrato.
  2. I have tried pencil marks on my 'cello fingerboard, but I find that I can never see them. I think there is a bit of placebo effect -- you know you've marked it so it gives you enough confidence to aim correctly. (Agreed that you can't see the fingerboard on the violin, but the shifts are shorter anyway.)
  3. I have to agree here that the violin position is much harder. If Houdini had lived in the 15th century he would have invented the violin as part of his act.
  4. If you hold the fiddle bow properly, ie with the 1st finger curled round the stick and the little finger tip resting on top of the stick, the bow hold is just as secure. If you (Alice) suffer from extra nervous tension I prescribe another beta-blocker!

With regard to passagework I find the difference in left-hand finger pressure is not significant. What is significant is that you effectively have an extra finger and can play any two-octave scale/arpeggio in any key without shifting or hoiking your thumb round in front of the finger-board. It is just because the passage work is easier that such difficult passages are written -- over the centuries the composers and players have been trying to outdo each other.

I admit that thumb positions are a bit awkward on the 'cello, but this is partly a state of mind. As for vibrato, I know that on the violin there are three kinds of vibrato, but you can get away with just wrist or arm. I fact I have never seen a violinist use more than one in real life.

So, dilemma451, I personally think you are right. For playing the same passage at a relevantly equivalent pitch (eg a 12th apart) the violin is easier than the 'cello. On the other hand the 'cellist can have a much easier life strumming away in the bass and laughing his/her guts out at the poor fiddlers struggling with the near impossible.

I would personally advise you to stick with it. It is easier to make a pleasant noise in the early stages of learning the 'cello.

Name withheld but I think Alice knows who I am.

Dear Edwin,

It seems to me that most of what you've written goes to support my case (that the violin is harder than the cello) rather than, as you seem to feel, to dismantle it.

I know what you mean about the 'extra finger' on the violin, but the rapturous encouragement this seems to have given most composers (which you acknowledge) towards laying on the technical difficulties in the orchestral repertoire seems to more than compensate ... If you've really 'never seen' a violinist use more than one kind of vibrato in real life then I can only advise you to get out more. London is full of violinists who alternate expertly between all three, to my secret envy!!!! (If, however, you've only been clocking me on the violin, then I must plead guilty: arm vibrato on the violin is frankly as far as I generally go). And the very fact that the cello WANTS to make a pleasant noise (something you admit to dilemma451) just goes to prove the point about the bow arm. Even beginners making a hash of most things often make a decent(ish) splash on the cello, whereas the average beginner violin sound amounts to incitement to murder.

Yours, still convinced by my own arguments (surprise!!!!)

Copyright © 10 March 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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