Pericles and the Violin (June 2023)

Last week I introduced you our new idiom of calling staff by their title and surname without resorting to the abbreviations of “miss” or “sir” and since then I have been alarmed by the number of people willing to go on record, on the internet, in print, on the television to complain about my plan to have you all call me James. This shows a remarkable inability to read and so one of the things I plan to emphasise today is the importance and value of reading and another is that I really don’t want you to call me James. My main inspiration comes from a musical instrument. To start, though, I wish to repent of the worst excesses of last week’s assembly in which I quoted liberally from a popular 21st Century musician and so, to offset that, and re-establish my credentials as a purveyor of traditional as well as modern culture, I shall begin with some Shakespeare: the play Pericles, prince of Tyre, which he wrote, probably, in collaboration with George Wilkins a playwright and innkeeper that I shall be neglecting from now on – apologies to any of you who are great George Wilkins fans..

The play is the story of the eponymous Pericles and is narrated by a character called “Gower”. John Gower was a real person, a 14th century poet and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, who you will know kicked off the tradition of Poet’s Corner by being buried just over there in the South Transept. He (Gower) wrote a long poem called Confessio Amantis which tells, in Middle English, a collection of stories: for example a tale of a mechanical automaton, a brazen head – an idea that recurs in many more modern tales, including John Masefield’s Box of Delights which is one of my Christmas favourites. Confessio Amantis also includes a telling of Pyramus and Thisbe which you might know is the play within the play in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and, relevant to today, Apollonius of Tyre.

Shakespeare renames this character Pericles with no connection that I can find to the real politician and general of the same name who led Athens during the fifth century BC. The Athens of Pericles is a fascinating story that deserves an assembly of its own to explore the impact of the golden age of Greece on the centuries that separate us. This is not that assembly and I must return to Shakespeare’s Pericles whose story starts in Antioch, whose king, Antiochus, has decreed that anyone who wishes to marry his daughter must answer a riddle – if they fail to do so they are executed. The daughter, who I note in the light of last week’s assembly, is not even given a name, is beautiful and so Pericles chances his arm and takes on the Riddle:

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

Talk about hiding in plain sight – this is not the most difficult of riddles to resolve and our hero does so swiftly, identifying both the incestuous relationship and his immediate peril. He says

“You are a fair viol, and your sense the strings; Who, finger’d to make man his lawful music, Would draw heaven down, and all the gods, to hearken; But, being play’d upon before your time, Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime. Good sooth, I care not for you.”

And in that predicament, surely doomed if he exposes Antiochus’ crime, doomed by law if he fails to resolve the riddle, we leave Pericles because after an extended preamble we’ve come across our musical instrument – the viol. This is a stringed instrument from the middle ages with five or six strings, usually tuned in fourths and played vertically, smaller versions held in front of the chest and larger ones between the legs which might justify Shakespeare’s use of it as a sexual metaphor. In modern orchestras the role of the viol is taken by the violin, developed in sixteenth century Italy but apparently not known to Shakespeare (although he does, in the Merry Wives of Windsor talk about a fiddle – again somewhat lewdly). The violin is shaped slightly differently to a viol, is held under the chin, has four strings tuned in fifths – GDAE, and will be demonstrated for your delight and convenience by our very own Sam Song who will play an excerpt from Jules Massenet’s Meditation from Thais.

The violin is the underpinning of the modern orchestra – the melody string instrument that is so important that there might be 20 of them compared with a mere handful of flutes. It is, however, also a beautiful solo instrument, as we have heard, and a key ingredient of folk music, the music of our rural past – which is an interesting thought because whilst each of us will have a rural past, an ancestry that dates back beyond the migration into the city, those inheritances, and therefore that folk music, are going to be very different. There’s an entire assembly on folk music of the world and what it has to say about the similarities and differences of human cultures – this, however, is not it and I wish to focus on a very specific rural past – that of Gloucestershire in the early 20th century and a young man called Laurie Lee who grew up in a small village there. He was born in 1914 and is best known for the autobiography of his childhood “Cider with Rosie” that tells of a village resolutely stuck in the 19th century. It’s an excellent book, but actually my recommendation to you is the sequel “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” which is sufficiently remarkable to top my list of recommendations to students. If I could arrange for you all to have read one book during your time at Harris Westminster this would be that book. It begins like this:

“The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last of my country home as I left it to discover the world. It was a bright Sunday morning in early June, the right time to be leaving home. My three sisters and a brother had already gone before me; two other brothers had yet to make up their minds. It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune. I carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese. I was excited, vain-glorious, knowing I had far to go; but not, as yet, how far.”

It tells how he makes his way to Southampton and thence to London at which point, inspired by a woman from Buenos Aries who had once visited his Gloucester village, he catches a ship to Vigo in northern Spain and makes his way across that country, almost dying of heatstroke in the mountains. He’s rescued, looked after and continues until he reaches the south coast and, caught up in impending civil war, is evacuated in a British gunship. The reason I recommend this so strongly is that as well as being beautifully written (always get poets to do your travel writing), it asks a question: how can we (you) who are not quite nineteen on this midsummer’s morning have the courage that it takes to go out into that great world, to have adventures and do marvellous things. And the answer, I think, comes in that violin, preserved carefully in a blanket – because the violin is not just a source of joy and consolation – it is, via busking, Laurie Lee’s main source of income. With the violin he can stroll into a strange Spanish town and expect to make enough from the evening trade to pay for food and lodging. When the glue holding the violin together gives out, weakened by hot sun and hard use, and the instrument falls apart, so the bottom falls out of his world – that confident belief in good fortune dries up.

I do want you to have those adventures, to do marvellous things, and so I think you will need a violin – a metaphorical one at least, and not one of Shakespeare’s metaphors, but one of my own where the violin stands for the confidence that you have skills and abilities that will enable you to earn money wherever you go. And that’s one of the reasons for education – it’s not the main reason for it, not the most beautiful reason, just as its use for busking isn’t the main purpose of a violin, but it’s a reason to practice it, to carry it with you when you go. So, as you pile into those books in the library after school, revising what you learned in the last two terms even as you grapple with new content, remember that you are working on a metaphorical violin that will support you when you walk out to explore the world. Remember too that education is more than qualifications – it’s things you know and can do that set you apart, make your combination of skills and abilities unusual, worth paying for. Your qualifications might get you an interview but it’s what you can do, what makes you interesting that will land you the job. One of the most valuable qualities you can acquire, by the way, is the ability to get things done without dropping existing commitments – which I mention because I know the temptation some of you face to truant lessons, telling yourself that you have to concentrate on your “end of years”. Those are important, but so is everything else – your schedule here is carefully designed to give you the best possible metaphorical violin – please don’t try to second guess us, it would be like taking the violin but forgetting the glue. Teachers may be saying to you “don’t get the interview at the expense of the job” – don’t focus on the qualifications and forget the rest.  Instead read books, plays, poetry, Laurie Lee, John Masefield and Shakespeare; enjoy music, develop leadership skills, look out into that world and wonder what is out there waiting for you. If Laurie Lee can be inspired by a chance visit to Gloucestershire by an Argentinian woman think what wonders might inspire you, who come here, under the watchful eye of Geoffrey Chaucer’s literary ghost to plot your futures.