Saturday, 16 January 2010

Punchinello!

I've pretty much bedded in for the day, just like Pepys did yesterday. It’s cold and rainy outside and I could do with a day of television and relaxation.

Last night was a proper treat. I ate with Sam at the glorious West End kitchen off the Haymarket. Our food looked like road kill - I've never seen so much orange on a plate - but it was cheap and filling. After eating, we decided to go on a Pepys-inspired wander. I wanted to buy my own copy of the complete diaries, so we visited nine different bookshops. Very strange to note in a year as important as this – and in London – not a single shop had the full diary in stock. Foyles offered to order me a copy; but at £100, I thought better f it. Instead, I bought a copy of John Evelyn’s Diary. Evelyn was Pepys’ contemporary and they were close friends, particularly towards the end of Pepys’ life. I look forward to reading about our hero from someone else's perspective.

We left the bookshops on Charing Cross Road and wondered through Covent Garden, stopping underneath the plaque commemorating Pepys’ account of the very first Punch and Judy show in 1662. Unfortunately as I jumped around repeatedly shrieking “Punchinello” in the style of Mr Punch, a very strange dwarf person with a hunch on his back walked past us in the street. Uncomfortable.

Spem In Alium was a joy to hear. A little rough around the edges, but for a group of amateur singers they did amazingly well. They stood in a circle in the gallery at St Martin In The Fields, giving it absolutely everything, and the polyphony drifted down onto us in a sort of angelic haze. It was incredible to hear the music spinning around in a circle, being passed from one mini-choir to the next. It brought the house down and gave me a sense of quite how extraordinary the Pepys work could be. It also made me feel quite terrified. Before it began my palms were sweating and my head was spinning with countless questions. Am I a good enough composer to write such a challenging work? Will my music writing software even allow 40 staves? What if I end up with one rubbish singer who brings the whole thing crashing down on his or her shoulders? But as the singing began, with that first empty, tragic interval, a tear came to my eye and all the worries drifted away. 440 years old, and this work is still capable of moving a grown man to tears.

I do wonder if Pepys ever saw the work performed. 350 years ago, he was making music of his own, with various groups of friends. Music regularly sent Pepys into a near ecstatic state and this night was no exception. He boasts about having sight-read music on his flageolet and talks about the company singing one song after another until none of them could believe how late it had got.

The diary entry ends with Pepys returning home and writing a closing line laced with such wonderful detail, that if I could, I'd transport myself to that drafty Westminster bedroom, just to feel the shiver and hear the sounds that Pepys notated:

“Staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing of this very line, and cried, "Past one of the clock, and a cold, frosty, windy morning." I then went to bed, and left my wife and the maid a-washing still."

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