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Plenty of the plain


Arthur Butterworth

No-one now believes the romantic notion of the composer being the pale, under-nourished, consumptive artist starving in some damp, mouse-infested garret, existing on a dry crust of stale bread and driven by some inner fire of burning zeal to communicate to an indifferent world his heaven-sent inspiration.

Musicians on the whole seem to have no mean ability to look after themselves. For my own part, when it comes down to serious eating "I know what I like".

My wife Diana is a stunning cook; she has an unfailing source of inspiration and supreme artistry in the kitchen which I wish I could match when I am on the rostrum, or (far more frequently) staring blankly at the white pages of virgin manuscript paper lying on my writing table at 9 o’clock on a wet Monday morning.

If she is sometimes beset by the exasperation of wondering what to get for tomorrow’s lunch, little does she know how much more I am exasperated — even alarmed — at having to decide what to dish up for the next piece of music I have been badgered to write; be it a tasty little snack for wind trio to keep them going on a tour of schools concerts in Caithness or Cornwall, or a gargantuan symphonic banquet for the ninety or more epicurean tastes of the members of some distinguished orchestra to consume at the Royal Albert Hall.

Alas! My wife’s artistry has, for virtually the whole of our married life, been condemned (like the flower "blushing all unseen and wasting its sweetness on the desert air") to unappreciation. I am no gourmet. I like the most ordinary, plain (some would say drab) English food, and Northern dishes at that.

So her exclusive cordon-bleu upbringing is generally forlornly wasted on me. None of that fashionable Continental stuff — no pasta, Greek food, Chinese takeaway. goulash, ravioli, kebab or whatever. Nor have I ever (knowingly) eaten a banana. But I quite like fish and chips.

As for conducting — the bigger the concert the bigger the meal beforehand. This is usually a solid English ritual affair: most of the fattening things middle-aged conductors ought not to eat, especially before a concert. Not for me the wafer-thin biscuit and thimbleful of black coffee (no sugar) and a tense, nervous pacing to and fro in the green room an hour before the concert begins.

I like roast beef, Yorkshire pudding (even in preference to my own native Lancashire hot-pot), potatoes, thick brown gravy (like Brahms’s orchestration is supposed to be!), trifle, apple, blackcurrant or gooseberry — or, best of all, strawberry pie with ladles of mountainous thick Devon double-cream or custard, or both. Then biscuits and cheese; Wensleydale, obviously — none of that suspicious-looking, malodorous Continental stuff with mould looking like the inside of the garage windows after a wet summer. And coffee.

Now some composers have celebrated food and drink in music in one way or another: Strauss’s "Schlagobers," for example, and, of course, "Wine, Women and Song" by the other Strauss. Coming nearer to home, Derek Bourgeois has even written a "Wine Symphony". I am a bit hazy about wine; not through imbibing it too often, you understand ... far from it. Perhaps my sensibility towards the delicate nuances of bouquet — that subtle, je ne sais quoi — the difference between, say, a Nuits St Georges ’62, a Chateau Perenne (Côte de Payes) 1971 and a Wincarnis Tonic (£1.23 special offer), might be compared to the appreciation of an Elland Road football crowd’s response to the subtle shades of emotional difference between a late Beethoven quartet and Boulez’s "Eclats multiples" should they ever be played before the match by the band,

Whisky? Well, I have to treat this with the reverence and sense of awesome respect rightly due to the stern puritanical Presbyterian country of its origin. But I never drink the stuff. However, I believe it is quite useful to have a spare bottle or so in the boot of the car; if ever one is unfortunate enough to run out of petrol late at night somewhere over Fleet Moss or Ribblehead. Whisky is reputed to have a higher octane rating than Shell four-star: it should have, it is more expensive.

Brass players - and I began my orchestral career as one - are noted for their devotion to beer. To me, however, it is a noxious, peculiar, evil-smelling liquid which seems to make willing fools or aggressive, raving lunatics out of otherwise sane and sturdy men. The stench of it reminds me of dreary station refreshment rooms or the smoke-filled bar at Offa’s Dyke Colliery Welfare Institute — home of that celebrated Welsh (championship section) band — after the tumultuous civic reception to celebrate success in the 'National’ brass band finals.

Wining and dining — or for me just dining — in the social sense can certainly be a pleasure. But one of the best ingredients for such an occasion is not so much the food itself — of which we generally eat far too much — but the leisured, absorbing conversation with the right companion. Perhaps the kind of thing one imagines Elgar to have relished in company with his publisher, Jaeger, the "Nimrod" we all know so well.

Arthur Butterworth



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