Handwashers’ Newsletter 13th December 2020


I much enjoyed reading last week’s newsletter on Beethoven. Here are a few personal reminiscences of some of my encounters with this extraordinary composer.

A very long time ago, when I was taking A level music, I remember my teacher attempting to explain how difficult it was to pigeonhole Beethoven as a composer. Was he classical or romantic? A few years later whilst studying for a music degree, a lecturer was rather more confident. ‘It’s simple’, he said. ‘There’s classical music and there is romantic music, but in between, there is Beethoven!’

It is true to say that early Beethoven sounds classical: the first Symphony, for example, could almost have been written by Haydn. You cannot say that of the Eroica or Choral symphonies, or the late string quartets! The Mass in C – which I sincerely hope we do have the opportunity to perform again one day – belongs very much to the classical tradition of masses by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert whilst the later, and much grander, Missa Solemnis stands apart as something quite unique. This latter work is a technical tour de force for any chorus although, it does seem at times that Beethoven is perhaps trying just a little too hard!

Whilst I have directed the Mass in C on various occasions, I have never tackled Missa Solemnis although, some years ago, I played the organ part in a performance at Cheltenham Town Hall. Sadly, the organ there is rather undistinguished and under-powered. After the concert the conductor (who happened to be a friend) told me that he didn’t hear me once – it did rather feel like I was playing a continuo part for the back row of the basses!

A rather undistinguished and under-powered organ

My very first encounter with Beethoven was via one of his easier piano sonatas, which I learnt for an Associated Board grade exam. I went on to learn quite a number of these wonderful pieces – the famous ‘Pathetique’ became something of a party piece and I used it as an audition piece when I was applying to music colleges. I continue to love his piano music and symphonies in particular, and the late string quartets are widely considered as amongst the greatest music of all time. Undoubtedly, he was one of the great composers and a hugely important and individual voice in the history of music.

It’s not seasonal, but here is the famous Pathetique Sonata – played by a proper pianist! I hope you enjoy it:


GLYNDEBOURNE Margaret and Willie McIvor mingle with A listers:

On Sunday 24 June 2018 one of my life-long dreams was realised.   We went to Glyndebourne to see Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

It was a gloriously sunny day, as we drove off in our finery – dinner jacket etc for Willie and long dress for me – plus a picnic lunch and camping chairs.   We arrived at 2.00 pm, found a quiet picnic spot by the riverside, and tucked in.   Afterwards we walked along the riverbank, then threaded our way among the other picnickers, fascinated by the elaborate table-settings of some of our fellow opera goers.  

We indulged in a spot of retail therapy in the theatre shop and a quick tidy-up before making our way into the auditorium.

The performance began at 4.30 pm.   I can only give a flavour here of the experience of seeing Puccini’s most famous opera of love, deception, heart-break and tragedy.   Butterfly was exquisitely sung and performed by Olga Busuioc, a Moldovan-born soprano, and American Elizabeth DeShong gave an empathetic portrayal of the role of Suzuki with her fine, rich mezzo-soprano voice. After dinner during the long interval, we returned to our seats for the final, heart-rending act.   We walked outside feeling dazed and uplifted by the glorious music, and deeply thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Glyndebourne experience.

Here are some scenes from the same production filmed just a few days before Margaret and Willie were there:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXrcRZtDz84 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbjznmP3eRo


and the love duet sung in a different performance by Jussi Bjoerling & Victoria De Los Angeles  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZNHizxKNPY

CHRISTMAS ORATORIO Remember singing it just two years ago? Here’s John Elliot Gardiner trying to raise his singers to our standard: (if only!)



Purcell’s Music for a While sung by counter tenor Jacub Jósef Orlinski and the King’s Singers:


‘Jakub not only has a lovely voice, but he is very pleasing on the eye too – a bit of a treat for the ladies!’ Said swooning Di.




An awkward elderly woman was up before the Magistrates for stealing a tin of peaches. She was asked how many peaches were in the tin. ‘Nine’, she growled. ‘Then we sentence you to nine days in prison,’ came the response from the Bench.

At this point a downtrodden man in the public gallery struggled to his feet. ‘What do you want?asked the Bench Chairman. ‘Well, sir, that lady is my wife and I want you to know that she also stole two large tins of peas’.