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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 July 2022

Back at Girton, Malcolm Guite hears a performance by a virtuoso violinist

IT HAS been a joy to return to live music after the various lockdowns and restrictions, a joy to share the same room and breathe the same air as the musicians, a joy to see them spread their wings, like birds long caged, and summon us to join them in their flight. As George Herbert so well expressed it in “Church Music”, a poem in which he addressed music herself almost as a long-lost lover:

Now I in you without a bodie move,
Rising and falling with your wings:
We both together sweetly live and love. . .

I was very fortunate in my recent visit to Cambridge to return to Girton and hear a brilliant performance by the virtuoso violinist Charlie Siem, whom I remembered as a student, but who now flourishes, and plays with enormous confidence and panache, on the world stage.

On this occasion, he was playing a Brahms violin sonata, accompanied by his sometime director of studies, Martin Ennis, on the piano. Remembering the fledgling student, I was unprepared for the mature musician, at the height of his powers, returned, as it were, to the nest, to give us all a tour de force of precision and delight.

With a kind of courtesy and reverence, he lifted his violin (a violin made in 1735 by Guarneri del Gesù, and once owned by Yehudi Menuhin), and, as soon as he began to play, it was as though the player and the instrument were one single being, as though the sound flowed, direct and exuberant, from the heart of the player to the hearts of his hearers, as naturally as it might if he were singing in his own voice.

I knew, for I remembered his student labours, how many thousands of hours of training, of practice, of discipline and concentration, lay behind his astonishing technique and fluency; but it was impossible to think of technique at all: the fluency was everything. And what that fluency expressed, for me at least, was not only the tenderness and beauty of Brahms’s composition, but something more: a long undersong of the heart, a counterpoint to all the pain and endurance of these past few years, given voice at last.

And I was encouraged in my own lesser art; for all art, especially poetry, aspires to the condition of music. I care a great deal about poetic technique and discipline, and have spent many years mastering particular metres and complex poetic forms: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, though few contemporary poets use them now.

I love and employ these forms not only because they are beautiful in themselves, but because I believe that, paradoxically, mastered form makes possible an experience of freedom, and even spontaneity, once those forms are sufficiently embedded in your practice: once they have become, as it were, a poetic equivalent of a musician’s muscle memory — once they serve rather than restrict your writing.

Then, sometimes, the words, flowing, as it were, spontaneously into these chosen forms, come quick and clear from the heart.

As Eliot wrote, comparing poetry and music:

Only by the form, the pattern
Can words or music reach
The stillness. . .

And, listening to Charlie Siem’s playing, it was another phrase of Eliot’s which expressed perfectly what was happening to all of us in that concert room; for we encountered

                        . . . music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the

While the music lasts.

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