Have you ever been browsing the stacks in the library or perusing the new releases at the bookstore when you come across a book that just doesn’t seem to fit the mould? Maybe it takes an unexpected position, or features a unique voice, or for whatever reason just feels different from the rest.
That feeling is something I’ve experienced a time or two, myself, in libraries and bookshops, but also occasionally when venturing into our unsolicited manuscripts here at PQL. In fact, I experienced this feeling quite clearly when I stumbled across Ian Hampton’s beautiful memoir, Jan in 35 Pieces.
Jan in 35 Pieces recounts the life of Ian Hampton, an accomplished cellist whose career brought him to Canada as part of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the acclaimed Purcell String Quartet. Over the course of his career, he travelled the globe, graced some of the world’s most respected stages, and performed alongside a who’s-who of storied musicians and conductors. His memoir is, not unexpectedly, full of hilarious anecdotes, judiciously balanced with enough fascinating music history to appeal to pros and novices alike.
Needless to say, the book caught me with its lyrical writing and fascinating subject matter, but what really struck me as unique and important about the book was the way it was put together. The manuscript was billed as being “structured like a concert”, and as I scrolled through the chapters, I began to see just what that meant. It was not only an organizational device, but also as a useful way to immerse readers into the narrative and a novel way to experience Hampton’s musical journey. In focusing on pieces of music as an organizing principle, Hampton demonstrates his development as a musician, relates his experiences as a performer and provides readers with a slice-of-life glimpse into a life as a professional musician. With its interludes—intervening glimpses of a tight-knit quartet—and its portraits—commemorative depictions of influential figures—it is an ode to music and an appreciation of the culture surrounding it.
Needless to say, this elevated the manuscript, piqued my interest, and made it one of the submissions that we thought was worthy of publication.
Keep reading for an excerpt pulled right from the pages of this delightful book.
From “Nine: Sibelius Second Symphony”
As Jan was growing up, he became accustomed to a certain postage-stamp-sized photograph of Jean Sibelius, regularly featured in the BBC schedules printed by The Radio Times. There it was, year after year beside the announcement for the upcoming BBC Symphony concert—Sibelius in his retirement years, unsmiling, a hairless skull over the furrowed brow of a career of concentrated musical thought.
So it comes as a surprise to Jan, now almost as bald but not as furrowed, to come a cross a large-for mat photograph of Sibelius standing in a doorway dressed in a white suit, smoking a cigar and laughing, the glee on his face strongly suggesting a penchant for banana-peel humour. Who is standing beyond the doorway? It almost seems as if Sibelius is laughing at the unseen someone’s hilarious discomfiture.
The Scherzo is going faster than Jan practised. His fingers leap at the notes like a dog running after rabbits. Checking that he’s in the right bar, he looks ahead to Rowena, the principal cellist, whose tight skirt seems inappropriate for cello-playing; the zipper seems to be stuck at the halfway mark. ‘Keep your eye on the music, laddie,’ says Doug as Cameron, the cello instructor, standing close by. Jan blushes. His fingers catch up with the rabbits.
Jan is playing in a symphony orchestra for the first time—the Second Symphony of Sibelius is exhilarating. This is also Jan’s introduction to the music of Sibelius.
‘Sibelius’s music doesn’t look like anybody else’s,’ Elf had once said to him. Nor does it sound like anybody else’s. The National Youth Orchestra (NYO) is large, with copious string sections and a full complement of winds and brass. Jan has never been confronted before with such a legion of trumpets, French horns and trombones. In the second and last movements, Sibelius provides columns of brass sound entirely new to Jan, accustomed to the modest school orchestra at Bedales.
Sibelius’s music is of a different place. The language is post-Tchaikovskian but the ingredients are shaken up. Jan loves the warmth of the first movement with its consummating melody opening with five repeated notes, and the second movement’s suggestion of a slow walk through Finnish forests with its hint of bad weather. In the NYO, Jan does finally learn to scamper through the Scherzo. (Later, in the LSO, Jan will listen to the conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent, putting the words, ‘Oh what a long and beautiful summer we’ve had’ to the repeated notes of the Scherzo’s middle section that echo the opening theme.) He revels in the glorious brass sound of the Finale when Sibelius inverts the symphony’s opening notes to a motif of increasing intensity.
Jan’s deep experience with the NYO is such that he remembers the hall in Liverpool instantly every time he encounters the Second Symphony. On one such occasion, as principal cellist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, he’ll play it in Seattle and the local critic will observe that the conductor, Meredith Davies, ‘has fine horns’. Listening to these fine horns in the Finale on the car radio, the mother of one of Jan’s students is pulled over for speeding: ‘Oh, officer, listen to this. How could I possibly keep within the limit?’
What did you think of this excerpt from Jan in 35 Pieces? Doesn’t it tug you along on a journey through space and time, buoyed by music? Doesn’t it make you long to do a little reading, perhaps with a carefully curated soundtrack? It gets me every time!