ADDRESS DELIVERED BY MR RAYMOND LEPPARD AT THE MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR MR PETER TRANCHELL, 12 FEBRUARY 1994
It is said that when anyone you have come to love departs this life they take with them some part of you that can never be replaced. And, while I would be hard put to it to defend this view intellectually, I know that it is so. But, being of an optimistic nature, I also know that those to whom you have given something of such significance that you sense its loss, are sure to have left behind as much if not more of their own vitality as an enduring gift, a sort of compensation for their departure. The evidence for this is in their constant reappearance – in conversation with others, in remembering what they might have said, how much they would have enjoyed a certain moment, how little they would have approved, how much they would have minded, how they would have reacted in certain situations, or how they would have laughed. It may be a very simpleminded intimation of immortality but undeniably it happens and it’s a great legacy to receive and one, I suspect, that Peter has left to a high percentage of the people here today.
Of course the proposition would have intrigued him greatly, but he, almost certainly, would have conceived it in a quite different way, perhaps twisting the tail of some wild existentialist theory that would have revealed a profound knowledge of Sartre’s philosophy – or, perhaps, he might have recalled the evidence of some good, trustworthy soul, a former bedmaker, perhaps, who had been reported in the Cambridge Daily News as receiving regular visits from her deceased parrot bringing words of wisdom from Parrot Heaven. Peter had a flexibility and virtuosity of mind that led him into flights of fancy be it in words or music that were uniquely his and usually supported by the most amazing background of classical, mythological, historical, astrological, literary, theological and scientific knowledge – or, sometimes, they were prompted by pure frivolity that was as infectious as it was inventive. Which route he took depended on the time, the company and the occasion. You could rarely anticipate it and it was often surprising but always appropriate to the situation as he saw it, if not always as everyone else did.
Most of his close friends received from time to time long and elaborate letters - which many of us, I’m sure, have kept. Recently I came across his side of an exchange we had some years ago about the origin of the Sarabande - that dignified dance that occurs frequently in the suites of Bach and his contemporaries. There must have been a portentousness in some performance he had heard, for the first letter begins with the delighted discovery that in 1583 Philip the Second of Spain banned the dance on account of its obscenity - which of course, as Peter said, accounted for its subsequent popularity throughout Europe. On looking it up in a Spanish etymological dictionary he found it was claimed that Zarabanda, though of uncertain origin, probably originated in Spain. In a poetic dictionary by Giovane di Segovia of 1495 he discovered that Zara was the Quechua - Peruvian - word for corn; a word that was later ousted for the most part by the Haitian word mahiz – maize. Banda, it appeared, not only means a band of people as in posse or an orchestra but also a band, as in head-band or strip. Thus Zara-banda may have meant a strip off a corn on the cob. What then if stripping a band of foliage off a corn on the cob were cognate with the dance of stripping the willow? (And, as Peter pointed out, we all know what that leads to.)
Moreover, as the argument progressed over several weeks of correspondence about other things, he observed that the willow wand, like the corn cob, after being stripped has a somewhat phallic appearance, not unlike the Thyrsis carried by Greek Bacchanals – which was a pine cone stuck on the end of a reed or wand. So it might be that the Spaniards brought back the Zarabanda from Peru having learnt it from the Indians and as a folk dance it was fast in tempo, wild and lewd in steps and movement. In addition the lyrics were disgusting. Peter concluded: ‘So that’s that. My next quest is the origin of that equally wild dance, the Chaconne.’ Unfortunately I can find no trace of this project in subsequent correspondence.
His capacity for intellectual adventure was endless – and fearless. It was just as true of the more extreme days of his youth as in later years when he focussed so much on this University, this College, this Chapel, and the young people who came into his care because of them. This concern with humanity entailed the forsaking of ambitions as a full-time composer and some of us regret that for he had great gifts and the ability to realise them. He wrote music in a style that was already old-fashioned but its lack of more general acceptance did not worry or sour him and one day, I believe, works like the Mayor of Casterbridge will be heard again and their true value appreciated. Of course the entertainments he wrote for Cambridge will frequently re-appear: there is a durability about Miss Bletherby Marge, the smiling female detective, that will ensure her survival. It was all Cambridge’s gain. I think Cambridge in its self-concerned way did not always sufficiently realise it.
How can one describe Peter? He was infinitely kind, a wonderful friend, relentless in his assaults on mediocrity and shabbiness, generous to a fault. He could not tolerate fools, but was endlessly caring and tender towards those who could not help their folly.
There’s an interesting scrap of paper which Johnny West, who is one of his executors, has shown me, on which Peter had scribbled some lines presumably for an entry into a musical Who’s Who. The first part about achievement and biography is a muddled confusion of condensed and amended information, but, at the end, there, without a moment’s correction or hesitation comes an addendum as if in answer to a concluding question:
When asked recently how he would like to be remembered, he replied ‘for a bright mind, a lively ear, a sharp tongue, an accurate hand, a generous heart, a job well done and the right road pointed to’ – a reference, surely, to the concern he had that those he cared for followed well their own star.
Among the most gifted people I’ve known I have discerned two distinct types. There are those who achieve by absorbing the vitality of others. You come away from their company drained even if you continue to admire them. The others seem to flourish by giving, and time spent with them is life-enhancing. Peter was one of those. When a dear, much loved, long loved mutual friend died he wrote a wonderfully careful letter as much to assuage my sadness as his own. It will serve, if I can get through it, to express our sadness at losing him.
My dear, it is a horrid, wretched business. I knew in advance and had, so to speak, steeled myself. But shock is one thing, the other thing, which is far worse (and incurable), is the gnawing sense of loss of a super, true friend – a sense which all of us close to him cannot escape.
Alas and Alack.
Only the other day I happened to read those lines of Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam - they’re meaningless of course, but they struck a chord:
There was a door to which I found no key;
There was a veil past which I could not see.
Some little talk awhile of THEE and ME
There seem’d, - and then no more of ME and THEE.
Ah well. Be seeing you,