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THE PRESERVATION OF THE LINGUA FRANCA, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 6th June 1959

We all remember the success of Kreisler, not only as a fiddler, but as a diddler. Many a time and oft the critics praised his performance of some ancient piece which he said he had copied direct from a little-known manuscript in some remote archive. No-one spotted, till he blandly blew the gaff, that these pieces were fakes composed by himself. While a rash of pink faces spread angrily across two continents, the Cambridge Faculty of Music laudibly [sic] redoubled its efforts to instruct its students to emulate his masterly penetration of musical styles.

We are glad to say that hoaxes nowadays elicit but little reaction. Who did not take the Piltdown Man in his stride? No-one even bothers to suspect foul play, when would-be pundits stream in and out of the British Museum, to reap a harvest of photostats, authoritative editions allegedly based on urtexts, condescending prefaces to vindicated scholarship, material for innumerable talks to “learned” societies, and the sobriquet of “expert”. Are we naïve enough to think they actually consulted a manuscript and it actually exists? Of course they are obliged to say as much. But what is more important is that they are helping to preserve the Lingua Franca of music, though only a few of them discern this in their preoccupation with climbing and crowing on their own particular dung-hill.

These few are banded together in a society whose name I forbear to mention, lest I prejudice their activities. And their patriotism and musical zeal has recently received a fillip from the announcement to the whole thinking world (that is, to readers of The Times) that in a museum in Prague there has been collected such a quantity of hitherto unknown manuscripts as will keep the cataloguers busy for a decade and musicologists for three quarters of a century. The material has come to light through state-confiscations from monasteries and castles.

But England is not to be outdone in providing a counterblast of “study-material”, of which incidentally, the Americans, for instance, may be running short, now that more of their people are engaged in research than are literate.

Thus at Little Tolbraham in East Anglia we can confidently expect in the future a “discovery” of a similar and epoch-making mass of overlooked treasures. The three nissen huts in which the happy few are at work, will shortly be found to contain enough musicological pabulum to keep recording-companies at full volume for at least a month. The material will be announced as having been confiscated from various libraries of the University as a result of the next Royal Commission.

The sheer antique-value of the collection will be considerably enhanced by a special team of “denovators”, whose expertise is to simulate fragility, worm-holes, and the effects of damp. While for the more detective-minded researcher, certain manuscripts will be carefully ripped across and used to pad the binding of ledgers and bibles distributed by local presses, as it is known with what pleasure this type of scholar tears open venerable volumes, especially if found on ecclesiastical premises. Other manuscripts will be treated with the substance called Wisterium Inchoate, which is effective in its initial resistance to the infra-red scrutiny hitherto so successful in determining that certain works of Handel were actually written by Handel though in the handwriting of a certain Mr Smith. Research, obviously, should not be too easy, or it will be finished too quickly.

The East Anglian discoveries will embrace a wider field than the work of mere eighteenth-century musicians. A literary note will be struck. The agenda is to include a very plausible fugue for crwth by Wordsworth (to go with his Prelude), the original melody (or psalm-chant) to Brooke’s “Grantchester”, a Serenade to the Fellows of Trinity by Byron, an Evening Service—“Tennyson in D minor”, Housman’s own orchestral tone-poem on the Shropshire Lad, originally withdrawn in deference to Butterworth, together with Oscar Browning’s “Mudlark” Variations on a theme of the Prince Consort, the Twopenny Opera by Maynard Keynes on a libretto by Lloyd George, and “Chambre des Nuages” by George Thompson*.

The reasons why such antiquarian revivals should be applauded are numerous. The more time spent in clogging our radio broadcasts with this good old stuff, the less time spent in disseminating the mediocre and pretentious effusions of contemporary composers. After all, life is short, and if art is made long enough, only a small proportion of it can be encountered in one life-time: A healthy privation; for it may be argued that the confused and self-consciously perverted musical experimentation of the twentieth century is spiritually undermining. Bread may be dangerous until a proper recipe for dough is reached; and it was reached; but our contemporaries have wantonly discarded it. Atonal music, for instance, (since music is a thing only heard) implies the atonality not of the music but of the listener. In the same way, an illegible book is appreciated most by an unlettered reader; and the more illegible books there are, the less need we be able to read. With “Atonal” music, our fear is for the corruption of the Public’s ear.

Antiquarianism also gives rise to gentle intellectual snobberies. It is best so; lest other trends induce snobberies more harmful.

The more recherché the history of a piece of music, the more ample can be its disc-sleeve disquisition; and we should hate to be deprived of this source of solace.

But most significant of all: The more a man hears and enjoys the music of the seventeenth-, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century styles (whether it be genuine or fake), the more firmly does he accustom himself to the wholesome and traditional conventions of our music; which is right and proper. The meanderings of a Palestrina or the incoherence of a Webern are equally to be resisted. Let us not pollute our palate with these primitive essays of rude forefathers or extravagant deviations of prodigal Sons. Let us be content with our Golden Age and proud of its glorious Vocabulary, neither too early or too late.

So, we should well-wish our happy band of archivists. May their pastiche prosper! For every Briton may justly ask: If in Prague, why not in Little Tolbraham?

Peter Tranchell

* In 1959 the Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir George Thompson was Master of Corpus Christi College. His early research showed that electrons could behave as waves in spite of being particles, presumably involving use of the cloud chamber as a detector.