The clue, as they say, is in the title
In a 1971 article for the Italica journal, A. C. Keys suggested that the etymology of concerto belongs in-part to a complex genealogy of conserere, the past participle of conserto: to join, to unite, to weave, and consertare: to compete, to strive, to fight. Following Keys, then, concerto is a word that reads uneasily, a word at war with itself. It is both unison and separation, a weaving and an unwinding, a calm and a chaos.
It strikes me, as I reflect on the piece, that this Concerto is precisely that: a playing out of conserere and conserto which weaves its tale like a complex tapestry. Indeed, like the greatest and most revered tapestries, Concerto tells not one story, but many; woven, both literally and metaphorically into a crescendo of music, war and camaraderie; an orchestra, and an assassin. Like all of Pinchbeck’s work, there is a fluidity and rhythm to the writing that bears the hallmarks of great music. Not a note or beat is left unconsidered; image and text are harmonious, but the fragility of the score – its potent liveness and the potential for discord – is ever present.
A conductor stands and raises his baton. The baton is also a gun. He is here, with us, we are his orchestra. We are in unison, unisono. We are here, in Sarajevo. There is a man with a gun. The gun is also a baton. We are here Prima Volta: we are here for the first time. We are in a theatre, an orchestra pit, a trench, a lorry, a train. The conductor takes aim, and fires. The sound is war like; guierro. An Archduke’s breathing is laboured and heavy; stentando. The music, if there is any, is the rhythm of boots and the booms of artillery. We just loved our country.
At times, it threatens to be too much, to engulf and overwhelm. Because it’s difficult. It’s difficult to think about the connections; the complex, interwoven threads of the tapestry – of history, of performance – and make any sense of them. It’s difficult to understand how a truck driver in the First World War who is also a composer, who writes Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for a pianist who loses his right arm after being shot in the elbow in the same war, might relate to the arm of a jailed assassin of a minor European Archduke which – as a result of tuberculosis – is being held on with silver piano wire which also connects to here, now; to this orchestra, this space, to the expectance of music, to a piano in the background which vibrates with its silence.
It’s difficult, I think, because it’s important. Or at least, the sound of that importance was the sound played loudest when I heard Pinchbeck’s Concerto. It’s important that we try to understand, even if all the pieces don’t quite fit, when there’s not an easy line to trace between peace and war, life and death, music and silence. There is of course a timeliness to all this, too. As I sit here and write, it’s late 2016, a year that marked the centenary of the battle of the Somme, and as is our wont with such milestones there is ample public and private opportunity for reflection and reconsideration of the events of 1914-1918.
And yet it is perhaps for our own time that Concerto offers the most sobering message. In a year that has seen the UK mark its intention to sever its ties with the European Union, a growing rhetoric of hate and othering in the media and on the streets, and a dramatic swing in western politics towards demagoguery and isolationism, I can’t help but wonder what tapestry we are weaving now, and the stories it will tell in another hundred years.
The subjects of Concerto – Ravel (the composer), Wittgenstein (the pianist) and Princip (the assassin) – all seem too small (even Princip) to bear the weight of the troubles of their age. Along with their politicians, their generals, their neighbours, the families and their friends, they appear bound up in a concerto of ill-fated ideas: of nationalism and empire; racial and social Darwinism; the naval arms race; territorial losses in the Balkans; protection treaties; Germany’s pervading fear of encirclement, and the mechanisms of industrialisation.
But it can be hard to see the tapestry when you’re the one being woven into it, either through choice or complicity. And yet seated as we are, in the orchestra – together, tutti – there’s a clear indication that we are the ones making the music, and that the tapestries wound throughout history are of our own making. Moreover, that we can put the baton down. We’re taking our country back, we’re making our country great again, and so on, and so on…
We just loved our country…
A pianist plays.
Andrew Westerside, Proto-type Theater
Programme notes for Concerto
Images: Julian Hughes