As I sat in the coffee house yesterday a group of young men strode confidently by, one carrying two very large jugs of what looked suspiciously like Pimms, two carrying oars and another four carrying two large dinghies between them. Clearly people off to claim an early spot on the river in preparation for May Morning.
It was strange, as always, to be back in Oxford. I had been standing on the High Street for only two minutes when I heard a gruff “hello” and looked up (definitely up!) to see my former piano pupil standing there, now a Choral Scholar at Magdalen, my former college. While I semi-expected to bump into him, and was very pleased to have done so, there was always the nagging feeling that I might bump into somebody else from my own time in the city, but that feeling never went further than realising that my instinctive recognition of somebody from afar was really just a relic from over half my life ago. Why would Adrian still be aged twenty and cycling down Holywell Street in 2014?
I was in Oxford for the official CD launch of EM Records CD021, the disc which contains the premiere recording of Stanford’s 1892 Mass in G, alongside Flyht, of course. Another of my former students, George De Voil, conducted the choir of Exeter College in two of Parry’s Songs Of Farewell, also on the CD, and then directed the second performance of Flyht, and I was delighted to realise that the piece works much better in the college’s chapel than in the University Church, where it was premiered, and that my vision of the sound and space was actually pretty accurate.
Having taking a walk around the city I had also been gratified to see the CD sitting at number four in the Blackwell’s Music Shop Classical Sales Chart, above some very illustrious names indeed. I am not misguided enough to believe that people are buying it because of Flyht, but I think that the recording of the Stanford (which, I have to say, is wonderful) is a very big draw, and I am happy to piggyback along on that. Being on the same CD as those two great pillars of native music is a big honour.
I must admit that, when May Morning rolled around, I was not the most reliable Organ Scholar, so I know, for example, that exactly twenty four years ago today I was asleep in the organ loft and that twenty three years ago today I was asleep in my bed. I did finally make it up cold, wet, windy, shaky Magdalen tower at 6 in the morning on 1st May 1992, and it was just as thrilling an experience as it sounds, but I had to do it at least once.
I cannot remember 1st May 1993, but twenty years ago I was in the middle of my Sunday morning church rounds before heading off to play the piano at the Queen’s Hotel in Cheltenham, planning to catch up on a few laps of the Grand Prix during my breaks. It was during that first of these that I realised that something bad had happened to Ayrton Senna, although Nelson Piquet, Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto had all had big accidents at the same corner in previous years and come away battered and bruised (and, in Gerhard’s case, burned) but still in one piece. The Senna accident, of course, followed on the heels of the death of poor Roland Ratzenberger, attempting to qualify to start his second Grand Prix, and the races which followed were strewn with injuries.
While I admired Senna, I was never his greatest fan and disliked his ruthless determination to win, manifested not only in his often aggressive driving, but also other ways, such as in stopping Derek Warwick going to Lotus to be his team mate, for example. Of course, after his nemesis, Alain Prost, retired at the end of 1993, fourth championship won, Ayrton suddenly became the hunted rather than the hunter, and, going into that Imola weekend, he had scored a fat zero points off the first races to the twenty of a certain Michael Schumacher, whose tactics, learned from watching Ayrton himself, the Brazilian suddenly found beyond the pale. Thankfully the sport has gone through a period of relative safety ever since, but those who follow the other formulae know that it can never be 100% safe.
There are a couple of other ghosts hanging around today as I settle down to a morning of writing, memories of time past. Make no mistake, I am very happy to be where I am, very comfortable in being forty four and having the grey hairs slowly appear (or go-faster stripes, as I like to call them). The good news is that I believe that I am writing better music than I have ever done before, and somebody even remarked to me the other day that they thought people would go on performing bits of it after I am gone, when even I am a ghost…
…which draws us back to Finzi, whose biography I am reading at the moment. He was a man acutely aware not only of the passing of time, but also of the value of art. A song outlasts a dynasty he wrote and wrote again.