Thursday, 17 June 2010

Fustian, newts and love-bites

Thalia Quartet: (l - r) Amandine, Sonia, Clémentine, Oriane

As our train drew into Toulouse station a heavily built Frenchman sitting near J. and me, who had been reading throughout the journey, suddenly produced an A4 sheet of typescript which included the words 'fustian manufacturers' surrounded by yellow highlighter. What did 'fustian' mean? he asked.

He must have heard J. and me speaking English (we do speak French to each other occasionally, mostly when French people are present, so that they don't feel we're talking behind their backs in front of them, if you see what I mean) and immediately assumed that one of us at least must know what fustian was.

'A coarse material,' I said.

'For clothes?' he asked.

'Yes,' I said, but very uncertainly. It was the sort of thing I imagined mediaeval peasants wearing, one quality notch up from sackcloth. Itchy. Tickly. Ooyah. Robin Hood and Friar Tuck scratching themselves. Wat Tyler and his Revolting Peasants too. Gyrth and Wamba from Ivanhoe a perfect mess of sores and weals and rednesses where the wretched material had chafed.

But he seemed satisfied, so presumably it made sense in the context of what he was reading. I was glad not to have confused matters with Shakespeare's alternative meaning of 'rubbish', 'high-flown twaddle', 'bombast'.

We wished each other bonne journée and went our separate ways. Ours led us to the Toulouse conservatoire, nothing to do with conservatories but something like a regional version of the Royal Academy of Music. We were met by Amandine, and one of the first things I noticed about her was a sore, a weal, a redness on her neck, beneath the jaw and forward of her left ear.

I knew about this. A couple of years ago I remarked on exactly the same thing, with an unwarranted smirk of complicity, to Kamila, a Polish string player who is now principal viola with the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra. 'It's not what you think,' she said sharply, and I blushed. And here was Amandine with the same. Aha, but I knew better now. Not love-bites, but an occupational condition of violin and viola players: where they grasp their instruments between jaw and collarbone it can chafe, particularly after a long play.

Amandine (1st violin) introduced us to her fellow quartet members, Sonia (2nd violin), Clémentine (viola) and Oriane (cello), all final year conservatoire students and really first-rate musicians. The richest of pleasures to work through the string quartet accompaniments to my cantata (to which you were invited a few days ago) The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon.

At one point the viola has to play continuously the interval B-F. This is the 'spooky' interval (try it on the piano if you're in a position to) recognised as such by musicians of Robin Hood's day, who called it diabolus in musica, The Devil in Music, down to modern composers wanting to invoke an eerie, unearthly effect. This interval has got three names, diminished fifth, augmented fourth and tritone. I didn't want to get tied up in linguistic knots with the French for the first two, so I stuck with tritone. In a sensible world, the French for tritone would be triton.

Unfortunately, triton in French means 'newt'.

After a really enjoyable rehearsal we went home. Despite the day's subliminal suggestions I stayed completely sober.


Dave said...


Christopher said...

Thank you, Dave. Short, sharp, succinct. Like your sermons?

Dave said...

Indeed. Not being musical, I hesitate to tread further on this ground.

Charlene said...

It's always an unpleasant thing for me to see someone with a huge sore or bruise visible, and not a hickey. Do I comment? Do I ask how it happened? Do I inquire about their health? I usually say, "Are you alright?" letting them determine what they want to say about the obvious situation.

I, Like The View said...


I'm reminded of an unshaven area under the chin of the boyfriend I had in my youth who played fiddle for the LSO and others

very unsightly

Christopher said...

Hi Charlene: Yes, these things are are matters of a sensitivity not always apparent in France, where their insularity sometimes prevents the French from realising that snappy, zingy, slightly American names they may - in all innocence - borrow for various products may be entirely unsuitable: J. and I once had coffee outside a Mediterranean beach bar, next to a placard advertising their range of ice creams, lollies, sodas, etc., one of which read 'Zits - 6 francs'. H'm.

Jax: Did Jean Seberg play the violin? Maybe that explains the shadow under her cheek? Did she bow with her left hand? Or has her photo hanging on the staircase at your place been printed the wrong way round?

Z said...

Indeed, when I play the clarinet for a longer time than usual I can appear distinctly pouty and well-kissed in the lip area. The Sage is, on these occasions, eyed with renewed respect.

Vicus Scurra said...

I am convinced that when humanity has died out, and the only evidence remaining is a snippet of blog here and there, the intelligent life that discovers said snippets will read your words and form a completely distorted view of this age. They will probably think that we were warm, erudite and cultured.
And those of us who strive to present the world as it usually is will be dismissed as fools or liars. Or both.

Christopher said...

Z: I'd better not repeat Beecham's rude joke about the cello, then.

Dear Vicus, there's much to think about here. If much later ages tend to interpret the remote past in terms that are sometimes superhuman, as Arthur C. Clarke did, suggesting for instance that aliens built the pyramids and that certain Mediterranean islands are in fact boulders hurled by Cyclops, then you would come out as a stern giant of social criticism and I a giggling dwarf tugging at your trouser turn-ups to play with the dust therein.