Thursday, 19 March 2020

But to the Ophicleide...

'After tea, Father went to see Mother. They talked, and he played his ophicleide to her. He played gentle tunes, not the ones for Sunday.'
  He played his what to her?
  Reading the above passage in Alan Garner's The Stone Book, my eye was snagged by 'ophicleide', a word that sounds like an obscure saint's name – blessed be St Ophicleide... I had a vague memory that it was a more or less obsolete musical instrument (it probably featured in the Observer's Book of Music of my boyhood). And that is pretty much what it is – a kind of keyed serpent, the serpent being a still more obsolete wind instrument of serpentine shape that was played in church ensembles before the pipe organ conquered all.
  Father – the little girl Mary's father – plays his ophicleide in chapel.
  '"Why are we Chapel?" said Mary.
   "We're buried Church," said Father.
   "But why?"
   'There's more call on music in Chapel," said Father.
   "Why?"
   "Because people aren't content with raunging themselves to death from Monday to Saturday, but they must go bawling and praying and fasting on Sundays too."'
  'Raunging'? Another strange one – probably Cheshire dialect. 'Raunge' is an obsolete form of 'range', which might be the root. Ranging about.
  Father, a stonemason, is a man of few words, but well chosen. When he and Mary have descended from the church tower in the great opening scene of The Stone Book, he slaps the stone of the church and says: 'She'll do ... Yet she'll never do.'
  'Why?' said Mary.
  'She's no church, and she'll not be. You want a few dead uns against the wall for it to be a church.'
  'They'll come.'
  'Not here,' said Father. 'There's to be no burial ground. Just grass. And without you've some dead uns, it's more like Chapel than Church. Empty.'
  Was ever the difference between Church and Chapel more pithily expressed?
  But to the ophicleide (that's the kind of sentence that only comes round once in a lifetime). This forerunner of the tuba was invented in 1817, and in the mid-19th century was widely used in the operatic repertoire – and it featured in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, along with its parent, the serpent (nowadays they are usually replaced by two tubas). And the ophicleide can sound rather lovely, as when this brave fellow tackles Fauré's Après un rêve...


And here is the Sydney Ophicleide Quartet – what do you mean, you didn't know Sydney had an ophicleide quartet?

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