A Room at the End of the Mind
Twelve short piecesduration:
published by: Composers Edition
This collection of short pieces forms a sequel to an earlier dozen entitled A House of Ghosts (after a line in a largely-forgotten poem by Humbert Wolfe). In a prefatory note to the older group I described them as a disparate collection of stray thoughts and modest ideas which had accumulated haphazardly, a little like an intermittent diary, but which one day suggested themselves as a set simply because by then there were quite a few of them, each looking a little lonely on its own. I had brought them together more for convenience of presentation than through any integrated intention. The pianist was invited to play them in any grouping or sequence, according to whim or occasion, even though the order given seemed best suited to a complete performance at one sitting.
A Room at the End of the Mind is a phrase borrowed with permission from a poem by John Burnside. This is another set of twelve pieces, but they are generally a little more substantial and for slightly more advanced players than the first set, ending in a more overtly virtuoso piece. A Room at the End of the Mind also differs from A House of Ghosts in that, whereas the letter was dedicated to my children in hopes that they might derive some playing pleasure from them one day, the later set is variously dedicated to friends and colleagues, each having a prefatory paragraph explaining its provenance. Indeed, (pace Elgar) the score bears an inscription ‘To my friends not exactly pictured within’.
iA third dozen, Gallimaufry (published by Composers Edition in February 2020) consists of more random items such as a pastiche of Medtner, a quasi-Irish love song, a toccata on two Christmas carol tunes and a deeply-felt elegy in memory of my ‘best man’ and dear friend since school days, Jon Leyne (1958-2013), aka Joffy: bassoonist, pianist and the BBC’s talented and dependable anchor news man at the UN in New York, in Tehran and latterly in Cairo, whose death from a malignant brain tumour leaves a lasting void, both in my life and in radio and television journalism. An unrelated short work also bears a dedication to Jon: the chorale prelude Schmucke dich, O liebe Seele (q.v. elsewhere in this website) commissioned for William Whitehead’s important Orgelbuchlein project which is steadily amassing original modern works based on the chorale tunes which Bach never reached.
Notes on the individual movements of A Room at the End of the Mind, as found in the published score:
This movement evokes the opening of Chaucer’s eponymous envoi to his Canterbury Pilgrims. Earlier there had been some thought of calling it The Maypole, a reaction to recreations of mediaeval dancing which, as a local, I have seen annually over a long period in Winchester at the ancient city’s celebrated Hat Fayre. This accounts for its slightly heavy and deliberate swing. Chaucer eventually carried the day through his specific evocation of spring (the Hat Fayre occurs later on, during the summer months). The dedication here is to Philip and Lizzie Glassborow. Philip’s central involvement as scriptwriter and producer for The Winchester Passion in 2008 rendered this inscription especially apt in view of that event’s shared narrative ‘pilgrimage’ through the streets of the old city towards its Cathedral.
- The Fall of the Leaf
This little piece takes as its title one used by more than one sixteenth-century keyboard composer, and also by Gerald Finzi in an extended piece which his friend Howard Ferguson arranged for orchestra. Here, however, there is no reference to earlier treatments .The music is an autumnal evocation of deserted woods and of the weightless descent of a leaf from sky to earth. Its marriage of English pastoralism to a hint of blues pays affectionate tribute to the music of a good friend, the fine composer and pianist Lionel Sainsbury, whose own work sometimes approaches such a synthesis in an entirely personal and different way (elsewhere it embraces a fiery, flamenco-inspired virtuosity).
This music offers a loose parallel to a poetic form which went through many transformations in its time, being first a bucolic sort of round and, later, a pastoral poem sung to any suitable rustic dance melody. Its form remained very changeable until around the end of the sixteenth century. The mood of the present piece is slightly plaintive, reflecting a lasting affection for the poetry of the sixteenth-century French poet Joachim du Bellay, one of whose shorter lyrics is a thirty-two line, strophic Villanelle lamenting his unrequited love for belle et franche Marguerite. The concert pianist Robin Zebaida (also a demon exponent of bridge – with a small b – and the possessor of a table tennis spin so deviously extreme that he is almost capable of playing without an opponent) performs introspective miniatures such as this with an ideal wistfulness and beauty of tone so the piece is his. It aims to suggest a sung melody accompanied by that quaintly metallic timbre which is the preserve of a number of mediaeval plucked instruments.
- The Church Mouse (and the Organist)
This, the unpremeditated product of a bout of insomnia, was conceived complete in my head before I dragged myself out of bed in the small hours to write it down and exorcise it. It is an irreverent little tribute to my very dear friend and collaborator over more than a quarter of a century, Jeremy Filsell, unquestionably among the world’s very few finest organists, and even rarer among that elite for being also a virtuoso pianist of the first rank. The Church Mouse pokes fun at him on two levels : first by offering him the most inadequately slender warm-up vehicle for his pianistic talents; secondly by evoking his noisy advent in the organ loft and consequent panic in the breast of the building’s other occupant (in this case, humble rodent rather than appalled – and probably tone-deaf cleric).
Dedicated to my wife, this slightly more extended piece seeks to marry English pastoralism to the sensibility of the sixteenth-century lute song tradition. Its gentle main theme recurs a number of times in varying ornamental guises but always in the same key. The piece exists also in a simplified and abridged version in which it was published during 2008 by Fand Music Press.
Like Villanelle, this piece responds in an abstract way to the imagined sound quality of an instrument, rather than to any idiomatic means of writing for or playing it. David Glynn is a fine pianist and his wife Pat is a highly accomplished performer not on the psaltery but on the lute and theorbo, so it seemed fitting to dedicate this little work to two friends and former neighbours, who may perhaps find their respective skills and interests recognised in some general way here. Psalterye maintains a consistent alternation of three and four minims to the bar and hints at mediaeval practice through canonic writing, fragmentary hints of ancient organum (particularly in the prevalence of open fifths) and intermittent drone-like bass lines that seem perpetually drawn back to the same pitches.
- Master Finzi: His Ghoste
From 1987 until 1991 I served as a member of the Choir of the Temple Church, Fleet Street, singing there on Sundays and (in a more secular capacity) at occasional dinners for the Inns of Court. From this time dates my friendship with a fellow singer, Martin Wimpress, a talented composer whose choral setting of Weep you no more, sad fountains remains among the finest things of its kind. We shared journeys from South-East London to Fleet Street, a taste for the poetry of Larkin and a capacity to recite its more lapidary corners in a spirit of morosely competitive relish. We also shared a deep affection for the music of Gerald Finzi. I wrote Master Finzi: His Ghoste at Martin’s prompting, and found a recurrent use for it later when a tenor with whom I was working as accompanist decided that Finzi’s Hardy cycle A Young Man ‘s Exhortation would be the less vocally taxing for a brief instrumental entr ‘acte halfway. The piece deliberately hints at a number of fleeting moments or mannerisms from Finzi ‘s wider output, though its main theme is an entirely original conception. It takes its cue, perhaps, from Finzi ‘s Rest, the tribute offered by Herbert Howells in his collection, Howells’ Clavichord. A professional piano tuner and an able pianist, Martin Wimpress sat down and played the piece perfectly at sight before gleefully issuing as critical coup de grâce one of the more scatological turns of phrase from Larkin’s letters to Kingsley Amis. A man of deep kindness, with a famously lugubrious sense of surreal humour which was the scourge of the choir stalls at the Temple Church, Martin died in tragic circumstances shortly before his fiftieth birthday, mourned by his family and many friends. Finzi likened the setting of words by Traherne and Hardy to ‘shaking hands with an old friend across the centuries’. It is in that spirit that both Finzi and one of his most faithful adherents are remembered through these few pages, which come as close as they dare to sounding like the great man himself:
In the early nineteen-seventies my Sunday afternoons as a boarder at school were regularly devoted to a mediaeval consort run at his home by the incomparable Michael Fontes, an inspired teacher of French and a housemaster. Grandson of a former president of Portugal and epicure par excellence, Fontes had formerly been (inter alia) chef at a gastronomically discerning French hotel at the same time as goalkeeper for the town’s league football side. He collected antique clocks, was an inexhaustible source of hilarious anecdotes, knew everything in any language and was staggeringly generous not only in his hospitality but also in his unobtrusive way of treating all his pupils as equals (this rendering them fair game for all manner of leg-pulling, though it was generally safe to reply in kind). Through him I came to know and play the arrangements of the Dutch publisher and composer Tielman Susato and the dances of Attaignant, Holborne, Dowland and others. The consort performed at concerts, embracing recorders, reedcap instruments, viols and voices. A stentorian solo tenor rendering by Fontes himself of William Cornysh’s Blow Thy Horn, Hunter (complete with supposedly rustic argot, in the interests of verisimilitude) became the stuff of legend and had to be reprised ceremonially when, upon Fontes’s retirement, a dinner was held in his honour by many generations of consort players, preceded by a long afternoon’s instrumental wander down memory lane. Passamezzo is dedicated not to Michael Fontes (for whom other things might be in store), but to a longstanding friend and fellow consort member, Simon Phillips, and his wife, Alice, whose own generosity is legend in the same honourable tradition. A passamezzo was a dance of greater mobility and lesser gravitas than a pavan (which it otherwise resembles). Rightly or wrongly, this one envisages the gliding horizontal foot movements of the basse danse, the pavan’ s generic predecessor. It is in a loose ternary form, with the motivic material of its central passage recurring in the final section as a free counterpoint to the reprise of the first section. More than any other movement here, this one probably owes something to a fondness for Warlock’s Capriol Suite and its appropriations of the mysteriously anagrammatic ‘Thoinot Arbeau’. The mood is generally one of decorous restraint.
- A Toye
This piece was mostly written in one sitting and away from the piano (a piano is not generally necessary, but I tend to use one because I like playing it). My son was reluctant in the face of homework, so out of solidarity I sat down nearby to work on something of my own, and these pages were the result of this companionable arrangement. Beneath a certain Englishness lurks some hint of my longstanding love for the music of Fauré, detectable perhaps through fluidity of texture and the occasional use of chords of the major seventh. The inscription here is to Roger Owens, one of the UK’s finest pianists and, inexplicably, a man prepared to play two-piano music with me in public (a dubious privilege nobly shared by Jeremy Filsell, dedicatee of the fourth and final pieces). If there is no particular reason why Roger should have ended up with this piece rather than another, neither is there any doubt that his graceful facility and finesse would elevate it to a far higher level than it deserves. In former times ‘toye’ denoted simply an amusement or diversion of any kind.
- A Leave-taking
In contrast, this is a very private farewell, intended to evoke music improvised from the heart by someone playing very quietly and inwardly in the next room. It is dedicated to my sister in memory of my brother-in-law, who died in 2007 after many years of illness faced with cheerfulness and good courage. He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght. Nothing else need be said here.
- Le Temps qui n’est plus
The origins of this piece are the oldest among the set. Its opening melody was originally that of the slow movement in a piano concerto, written at the age of seventeen, which I performed as soloist with the orchestra of Winchester College on 6 November 1975 under the baton of the school’s wonderfully supportive Director of Music, Angus Watson. The score survives, but only as an adolescent effort, long since rejected. For some reason I retained a certain fondness for this little tune, and thirty years later (having acquired the necessary objectivity through distance) enlisted it again here. Though the title of the piece is suitably consistent with the short (complete) poem by Patrick Kavanagh quoted on the first page, some may wonder why it is in French. This is an affectionate nod towards the great but still underrated nineteenth-century French piano composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan. Hiding behind his many gargantuan and notoriously challenging virtuoso works are many delicate and evanescent miniatures of a uniquely confiding intimacy and sadness. One such is an inspiration whose title I have borrowed here, to be found among his Twenty-five Preludes in all the major and minor keys, opus 31 (Alkan rounds off his set with a final revisiting of C major -hence the extra item). His little wisp of a piece conveys more in a single page than many works of comparable intent do in several – including probably my own. It was fitting to borrow from Alkan not only his title but also his chosen key, which I have done here.
- The King Went Forth to Normandy
This noisy piece appropriates the Agincourt Carol as vehicle for an exuberant toccata. It is dedicated to Jeremy Filsell (see also the note on piece no.4), and celebrates his appointment in 2008 to a prestigious performing post in Washington DC, USA, – a development which seemed amply to justify his getting two pieces to himself where everybody else managed only one. Had Henry V ever gone forth across the Atlantic instead of the Channel, the resulting title would have better suited Maestro Filsell’s triumphant migration; but one cannot have everything. The music is considerably more demanding technically than much that has gone before, and represents a letting-down of compositional hair for the final slot after a certain amount of virtuoso self-denial. The style makes obvious nods towards mediaeval practice, with vestiges of older organum technique intermittently peeping through. It also salutes the general toccata idiom of much late-romantic and twentieth-century organ music, of which Jeremy Filsell’s performances have so consistently won him worldwide acclaim. In the final bar of the piece is inscribed the macaronic refrain of the Agincourt Carol itself, a fitting celebration of Filsell’s triumphant progress towards the New World and not, as the man himself was at pains to point out, a cry of relief at getting rid of him:
© Francis Pott, 2008
Sound clips from Jeremy’ Filsell’s Acis recording of A Room at the End of the Mind may be heard here:
‘One of those composers who seldom tests boundaries, preferring to turn back in search of roads less taken’, is how Francis Pott describes himself. In other words, conservative, or even ‘derrière-garde’. To which I reply: who cares? For Pott’s piano music communicates warmth, beauty, sophistication and heartfelt expression. It falls easily and memorably both on the ear and (presumably) on Jeremy Filsell’s expertly caressing fingers.
Twelve delightfully diverse short character studies comprise A Room at the End of the Mind, the cycle from which this CD takes its title. Since space prevents detailed descriptions for each piece, I’ll draw attention to The Church Mouse and its wry alternations between scampering high jinks and moments of not-so comfortable respite. Passamezzo might be described as Rachmaninov’s Vocalise as rewritten centuries earlier by William Byrd. The King went forth to Normandy puts that traditional Agincourt carol through energetic and virtuoso paces, barely leaving the pianist breathing room, yet never sounding the least cluttered or overwritten.
In short, the myriad attractions of Pott’s palpable musical gifts belie the modest and sometimes self-deprecating persona he depicts in his extensive booklet notes.
Jed Distler, Gramophone, November 2019
Pott’s music may not be at the cutting edge of radicalism, but displays idiomatic sensitivity, exquisite craftsmanship and often touching memorability. Pitch centres and Romantic gestures are never far away, but without any sense of cliché or pastiche. …There is something timeless yet of its time about Pott’s writing which makes this music strikingly individual. Pianists in search of a challenge that is never off-putting for listeners will welcome the bold conception and sweeping declamatory gestures, as well as its wide range of characterisation. A significant achievement worth exploring.
Murray McLachlan, International Piano magazine, February 2020