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.