music and words

We get a bit put off by classical music, because it seems daunting and full of codes and facades, perhaps a little illegible. I don’t know the first thing about football, I haven’t kicked a ball for years: where would I begin, with all the teams, players and chants, home stadiums, famous games? Where would I begin with orchestras, great performers, composers, and famous symphonies?

Despite the facade, music brings so much good, when we get to know what we’re looking for. Then it feels like an old friend, a great mine of solace and fun and wise advice. It can help us feel understood in our problems, whatever they are – and help us feel bright through it all, and find hope. All we need is an introduction.



Music and Composers: an introduction to John Danyel

John Danyel is one of those personalities from the English Renaissance that we deserve to know more about. Biologically very little survives: we know that he was born in Wellow, Somerset, in 1564, and died in London in 1626. John was a lute player, and in 1607 he published a book of 21 lute songs. Besides this, only a few fragments and isolated pieces of his survive. Despite this, he deserves to be known as one of the finest composers of the age.

John was the younger brother of a very famous playwright and man of letters, Samuel Daniel. Daniel’s histories and poems were household texts, which influenced Shakespeare: he was welcomed in the highest academic and social circles of his time. Unsurprisingly, the brothers collaborated: John set several of Sam’s poems, and later they founded a children’s theatre company together. Moreover, the brothers believed in working for the good of society: they discussed vital ideas about ethical behaviour, time, moral virtue, weeping, femininity, aesthetics and catharsis, drawn from Classical examples.

Like his brother, John was an incredibly gifted artist: a virtuoso lutenist who developed his own unique style. His music is dextrous, complex, quirky, and brilliant, and great fun to play. It never quite goes where you would expect, it’s notoriously difficult to sing, and especially to know where to come in: the parts unwind like an elaborate watch, seemingly going on their own routines, yet ticking along together. It’s part of the fun – John would have loved cryptic crosswords.

In 1607, John published his Songs, for the Lute, Viol and Voice, and dedicated it to his then student, Anne Greene. Anne was 13 years old, from a gentry family: the songs John wrote for her are extremely complicated, musically and intellectually, so she must have been very intelligent. Smart, cultured, aristocratic, young and attractive, it must have felt – to 40-year-old John Danyel – like tutoring Emma Watson.

This explains the content of the songbook: in essence, the 21 songs tell a story about a musician’s advances and his rejection by a younger girl. Eventually, the girl wins, and the musician must be content with his misfortune. The whole story is told with good humour, pathos and wisdom, and its message is one of dignified acceptance. How unlike love songs as a genre!

Danyel offers us very humane advice, wrapped up in quirky, charming music. He would have been a wonderful friend to have at the coffee table. Fortunately, we still have his music, with its wit and wisdom, to keep us in good company.



the importance of Stories

Metaphors are extremely important to us – they’re the language of our imaginations, motifs that we can recognise, embedded in our very chaotic perception of the world. Borges wrote once that the whole of humanity is the endless repetition of a very few metaphors.

It’s easy to believe, because they can embody our experiences in an extremely profound way. Think of the Biblical metaphor for coming of age: discovering yourself, losing grace and discovering awkwardness, being ousted from the Garden of Eden. Likewise the Epic of Gilgamesh documents those existential pangs of early civilization – abandoning the animal kingdom, and searching for meaning in a cruel world. Myths and legends are elaborate metaphors, which embed human experiences in narratives that we can understand.

Storytelling of this kind isn’t just for fun: when we listen to a fairytale or a nursery rhyme, Aesop’s fables or the Panchatantra, we’re being given cultural information. The story is a metaphor for something, some piece of experience, which we know to look out for. We learn behaviour from stories, about good children being kind like Jesus, and what happens when you’re lazy, or cry wolf, or go away with the fairies.

In this way we learn to navigate by stories. We need films, books, poems and celebrity gossip to compare to our own lives and where they might lead. We need metaphors to describe ourselves (I’m wandering in the desert), and stories to offer us hope, to show us through the desert or the dark wood.

Eating a poisoned apple has a strong niche in our unconscious: from Eden to Snow White, it’s a powerful image. This apple is a nest of contradictions, truly bittersweet: hard seeds and soft fruit, snowy flesh and crimson skin, delicious fruit, poisoned.

Isaac Newton was knocked on the head by the same fruit that gave Eve self-knowledge. It’s a story we all remember for that very reason. And poor Alan Turing died just like Snow White, eating an apple that he had poisoned with cyanide. We’ll never know whether it was on his mind, but it moves us at least in part because it resonates so strongly with that story. We navigate by metaphors: they’re stars in the night of our unconscious, and they can pull us into their orbit.

We’re lucky if we can make songs, pictures and poems our stars, and this is why it’s so important to have them and even make them ourselves. If we draw a picture or a poem we’re sketching the co-ordinates of our souls: we’re free to make the metaphors work for us, free to journey as we need, free to write our own stories.



the caption of this article is taken from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. the symbols can be seen as spiritually significant metaphors 


Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor

You walk a little way along the valley through the moors – the landscape is coarse and somehow ancient, guarded but not unfriendly. The little valley is carved out through rolling hills, which are yellowish with scrub and grasses and the dark-and-yellow dots of heather. Through it the river sparkles, mirror-black and musical.

About half an hour and over the stye, and you come to a small copse of twisted dwarf oaks. With their gnarled trunks and wyrd, splayed out branches these trees look unusual, though not out of place on these moors. Rightly they seem odd – this kind of stunted oak grows in only three places on Dartmoor and in the world.

The forest floor is a rough sea of granite boulders, which the trees grow amongst: lichens and mosses cover every surface, every rock and trunk, hanging from branches in great cumulus veils. Wistman’s Wood is nimbly navigated, ducking through the dwarf oaks and over rocks and the odd, spidery shadows.

Amidst these eerie trees and the strange luminosity of the mosses, it’s easy to see why oaks were sacred to our druid past. Sacred doesn’t have to be cherubs and sweetness: earth and mystery are sublime, profound in their silence. Wistman’s Wood is suffused with its great age: you feel only a footstep away from those celts who called this enchanting place holy.


CD review: Ich Ruf Zu Dir

It is a pleasure to listen to Ich ruf zu dir, a 2015 recording of JS Bach, Weiss and David Kellner by Austrian lutenist Bernhard Hofstotter. This intense, special music is explored with honesty and rhetorical finesse, from the solemn pathos of the chorale Ich ruf zu dir, to the most robust Bouree from Weiss. Hofstotter is a considered, careful player, and although this sometimes leads his pulse towards relentlessness, his playing is compelling and his silvery tone is seldom compromised. His sincere approach lends itself magically to Bach’s Second suite for cello – his own, convincing arrangement – with its impassioned Sarabande being, for me, the highlight of the disc. Although marred by some erratic tuning, the luminous Chaconne by David Kellner that concludes the recording is a delight, and the CD overall promises a very rewarding hour’s listening.

Ich ruf zu dir is available at

Sam Brown, 2016. Review originally written for Lute News, the journal of the UK Lute Society 

a Poem: what we are is Memory

What we are is memory
The rest, is food for grass;
The sun sets on our absences,
And yet, though we but pass
An eye blink of the universe
We hold a weight as rare
As the tombeau of a sparrow
In the hands of whom we care.
Can we disturb the universe?
No, change a smaller world
Through the mind and breath and fondness
Of a heart in friendship held.
And that must be our universe,
Our landscape and our home,
Our cage, perhaps, and garden
Of an Eden’s own.
We are of a Eden’s own,
We flourish, love and die,
And what becomes of either of us
Either you, or I?
What we are is memory,
When we are growing grass,
And I remember fondly
That time for us did pass.

Copyright Sam Brown 2015 
Filmed by Duncan Appleby  




Nathaniel Mander: London Festival of Baroque Music

London Festival of Baroque Music 2017
“Baroque at the Edge”

Nathaniel Mander, Harpsichord

St John’s, Smith Square


William Byrd, c.1540-1623
a Fancy
Fantasia, “The Woods so Wild”

Thomas Tomkins, 1572-1656
Barrefostus’ Dream
a Ground  

John Blow, 1649-1708
Morlake Ground

Johan Christian Bach, 1735-1782
Sonata in C minor, op.17 no.2

Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809
Fantasia in C, Hob.XVII:4


Today’s recital is bookended by two fantasias, on either side of the High Baroque. In their earliest form, fantasies or fancies were just that, improvised flights of fancy. This first gem blooms almost from nothing, unfurling with elegant flourishes of polyphony.

 Shall I go walk the wood so wild,
Wandering, wandering, here and there?

This fragment is all that survives of The Woods so Wild, but though the lyrics are lost to us, the melody sings on in this setting by William Byrd. These 14 variations are pastoral and rustic, not so elaborate as others, but a small masterpiece. The harmony of the song oscillates between F and G major, which is striking to modern ears, but gives a rich, lilting quality.
Byrd died an influential man and England’s most famous composer, though he drew political fire as a Catholic: despite his constant employment by Queen Elizabeth, he fell under such suspicion that his house was raided twice.
Byrd’s keyboard style, with its sophisticated polyphony, laid the groundwork for the instrument. What better place to begin today’s recital?


A student of William Byrd, Tomkins was devoted to the great English virginal school, carrying it well past its heyday until his death (and its). His ornate, brilliant style is uniquely virtuosic – like Bach, Tomkins adhered to an archaic tradition, which he pushed into some of its finest expressions. His eight variations on Barrefostus’ Dream, a ballad tune possibly connected to Dr Faustus, are characteristically grand, rich and rhetorical; growing from its repeated, hymn-like ground bass, the Ground stands in more meditative contrast.


Blow’s ground, heard next to Tomkins’, shows us quite how much music was to change. The Restoration in 1660 brought continental tastes into vogue, emphasising simplicity and elegance. Lyrical, charming and straightforward, Morlake Ground has everything to do with this new style.
Like his contemporary Henry Purcell, John Blow was a key musical figure of the early English baroque. After a distinguished career he died Composer to the Chapel Royal, like William Byrd almost a century before.


 The youngest son of the great J.S. Bach, Johann Christian Bach truly hails from the edge of the Baroque. The “English” Bach, he made considerable fame writing music for the elegant tastes of Regency London; for the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and elite venues in Soho and St James’.
This Sonata, despite its dark key, is eloquent, poised and beautifully structured: Mozart, who visited London at the age of 8, was a huge admirer of Bach’s refined, effortless music. Some accounts report that Bach would improvise a phrase of music at the keyboard, and the young Mozart, sitting on his lap, would play back.


Far from his isolated role at Esterhazy Palace, where he was “forced to become original”, Joseph Haydn met with instant celebrity in London. It’s easy to hear why: “Papa” Haydn’s was a boyish, charming sense of humour. As a choirboy, he’d been royally whipped for climbing on Palace scaffolding – he was later expelled for cutting off another boy’s pigtail.
Capricious, tuneful, and ticklish, this Fantasia delights in twists and turns: full of jokes and mood swings, sudden fortes, accelerating into sudden pauses, veering off into new ideas, this music slips the rug from under our feet.

This wit belongs to a different age, an age of satire and caricature, far from the earthiness of the past. Haydn, and his pupil Beethoven, would take this sort of music still further away from the edge of the Baroque.



A performer with “style and panache”, Nathaniel Mander trained under Carole Cerasi at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating with first class honours in 2011. Winner of the 10th Broadwood Harpsichord competition, he gave his debut London recital for the British Harpsichord Society at Handel House in 2011 and his Wigmore Hall concerto debut in 2012.

Nat is hugely in demand as a recitalist, chamber musician and continuo player, and has held the Linda Hill Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music for two years running. He has performed in prestigious venues and festivals worldwide, and recent performances include for the London Festival of Baroque Music, in Katowice, Poland with London Baroque, and a two-week concert tour in Bolivia with the Royal College of Music. He has a deep affinity for the music of the French Baroque, and his debut CD of this genre has earned great acclaim.
Sam Brown, 15.3.17

us and technology

When the printing press rolled out people whined it would be the death of conversation, storytelling, chitchat, but like always human interaction subsumed the new technology and made it good.

But whereas pencils dance to the tempo of the hand and the brain, iphones call the tune. The magic box creates more and more easily what it took lifetimes to pick up: impeccable handwriting, for one. Thinking becomes auxiliary to the device rather than manipulating it, and it sodoing transfigures articulation to txtspk. There’s an analogous translation of music to beats.

We can’t turn the tide on technology – newspapers and record players in their way assimilated small bits of human experience – and apps will shape our thinking yet into short, sharp, immediate blocks. We will, and already do, think differently and experience differently, in some ways for the better.

But the value of crayons and instruments remains intrinsic, and the sensation of creating sound or shape with the fibre of your skin and bone will endure in us. They command discipline, which gives muscle to our expression. They conduce a pleasure more lasting than mild clickbait surges of dopamine. We’re right to whinge that kids spend their lives on screens but more crucially we might practice those things which bring better. Dance classes, fearless cooking, grade 2 piano, anecdotes and jotters. It means to keep that space alive and thriving which makes us better than screen addicts – or rather, which addicts us to healthier things.

The caption from this article is a picture taken from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

discipline and music

It’s almost a slogan that, to get anywhere in music, you have to discipline yourself. Of course it’s true, but I think we tend to confuse it with that quasi-military, “I WILL overcome, I WILL succeed” type of discipline, the one that pushes you past 20 or so pushups.

When we’re flirting with somebody we like, it’s incredible how positive we become. We’re positively anxious to say nothing offensive, scanning sentences to scrub the callouses from our talking. In fact, we’re disciplining our conversation, which makes us more attractive.

I think it’s this type of discipline that we’re closest to as musicians. We regiment our fingers not because we’re conquering the strings, not because we’re bodybuilding, but because we’re madly eager to please, to make a beautiful sound. It’s as though we’re flirting with life, through our instrument.

The caption for this snippet is from Baekdamsa monastery in South Korea. Balancing stones in this way is a marvellous practice of deliberate action, a similar kind of positive self-restraint.  

February 2017


The city is crazy in many ways. The first fact is that everyone on the road acts like a caffiene-addict schizophrenic. Black smoke billows out of rickety matatus, and people transport anything up to and including sofas on the back of a motorbike. Nature is everywhere, underfoot, overhead; ibis, gangly storks, pretty purple trees, forested skylines, all meandering inbetween concrete and roadways. The beer is great.

People are friendly, I thought there was a real deep goodness and positivity. Counterintuitively, you drive past swathes of the city that are shanty town – wooden lean-tos covered with plastic and corrugated iron. You have a real laugh – and also cause for a sad pause, too: nightmare stories about children unable to scrape together pitifully small school fees, rampant poverty and rampaging corruption. Everyone wants to get on, do well, get along. I hope that they do.

November 2015

co-ordinates for the soul

Mostly we live by trails that wend their way along the ground. Often they’re the beaten track. But for whatever reasons we look up, and make our way upwards, orthogonal to the road… then, we steer by the stars.

The danger for anyone who makes their journey skywards, is losing anchor. Norms are the grooves entrenched by sheer belief and repetition: living by these we might never turn our head skywards, they are so sure. Small wonder those changes imposed by a turning world, globalisation and technology, bite so – they ask us to abandon our familiar road.

Steering by the stars is only the first choice for those stung by the earth. Often they’re castaways. Sometimes they leave us co-ordinates – art, philosophy and mythology, libraries: these delineate another’s journey through inner space, map references for the soul. They let us know that it’s okay to think and feel outside of norms. And they might also give us the courage to wander heavenwards.

The caption for this snippet is a bollard from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. The cloud design gives us the illusion that, as we take the staircase into the temple, we are ascending into the sky.