Autumn term 2020. Back to school after the long summer break as per usual, except not quite. The “long summer break” this year was six months rather than six weeks. The school environment we returned to was an unfamiliar landscape of one way systems governing footfall, regimented mass hand sanitizing routines, and strict confining of pupils to the same desk in the same room for the duration of the school day. Teachers and support staff donned visors more usually associated with riot police at a Cardiff vs Swansea local football derby. (Some might think the British education workforce should have been issued with riot gear years ago, but that’s a whole other article!) A new intake of Year 7 pupils began their secondary school journey in a world vastly different to that experienced by their predecessors just a single year older.
One thing that remains unchanged however is the sense of structured routine that the school day provides for all involved. Despite the extensive alterations to the physical environment and rules for Covid-safe conduct alluded to above, the reopening of schools heralded a resumption of at least one aspect of ordinary everyday life, and was perhaps for many the first glimpse of a hoped-for return to normality. For me, even though the family time I was privileged enough to enjoy during the period of lockdown was precious, it was lovely to see friends and colleagues again after so many months. After seemingly unending days to devote to composition, playing online chess and basically doing whatever I wanted, it felt wholesome to be back at the coalface engaging in activities more altruistic. Despite being at times guilty, like many of an artistic persuasion, of resenting the demands of “the daily grind”, in reality I thrive on routine. I often find myself feeling happier when time is organised into a framework and there are designated periods to look forward to, e.g. weekends and school holidays, rather than the vaguely depressing sensation of never being quite sure of the date as one day merges meaninglessly into the next, as was sometimes the case between March 21st - August 31st 2020.
I freely admit, however, that I am not saintly enough to feel grateful for the benefits of an obligatory routine at 6 a.m. on weekdays during term time. After six months off, it was jarring to suddenly have to wake up when the beeping electronic device on my bedside table dictated, rather than whenever I felt ready or inclined. A colleague of mine once pointed out how unnatural the use of alarm clocks is, and his observation struck me as particularly true. Our brains know how much sleep our bodies need for recovery and repair, so artificially interrupting that process, particularly on a daily basis, cannot be healthy. Having been a physical slob for much of my adult life, I took up jogging in earnest during the lockdown. It was relatively easy to summon the resolve to do so given sufficient sleep and the luxury of being able to wake at your own pace, leisurely drink coffee then head out to pound the pavement in the fresh air. The fantastic weather we experienced in Wales during late spring/early summer 2020 allowed my family and I to take our two Jugs (Jack Russell/Pug cross dogs, for the uninitiated) on daily walks in the beautiful countryside of the Amman Valley where we live, then return home and sit outside to play cards over a glass of wine. (Yes, I know our dogs drink too much wine, OK?) I am very well aware of how extraordinarily lucky we were to have had an experience of lockdown that contrasted so sharply with the media horror stories of escalating domestic violence, fuelled by people cooped up together for months in living arrangements devoid of any ‘escape’ space to allow tensions to dissipate. According to The Guardian, in China’s Hubei province, domestic violence reports to the police more than tripled during their lockdown in February. Despite feeling guilty due to an awareness that I shouldn’t in any way be enjoying lockdown because of the havoc and misery it was causing, in reality it gave many artists who work a more conventional job alongside their craft a one-off taste of our imagined ideal life; one in which we are at liberty to devote all our time and energy to our passion. I can say that I at least managed to keep procrastination to a minimum. During lockdown, in addition to penning a song for my acoustic duo TangleJack and filming several YouTube videos, I completed two classical guitar compositions, one of which has been accepted for publication and will be commercially available in the near future. I’m unashamed to say that this is one of my major life goals achieved, so I’m naturally very excited about it. More updates to follow!
Perhaps it’s not just the part-time writers, painters and YouTubers who found some benefit in the pause button being hit. Workers in various industries fortunate enough to be placed on furlough experienced what for many would’ve been a once in a lifetime chance to get off the treadmill and just stop for a while. Thanks to the wonders of modern communications technology, employees found themselves able to work from home or perform their roles remotely far more effectively than they might ever have imagined possible. While changes to working arrangements required to keep things going in the “new normal” doubtless entailed stress, I suspect that for many, not being sleep deprived or relentlessly exhausted by work and the related commute, and having additional family time, would have been adequate compensation. Zooming out for a still wider perspective, Planet Earth herself must surely have breathed a sigh of relief at the absence of motor vehicles and their toxic exhaust fumes from the world’s roads, as the following meme illustrates:
“Humanity: there’s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.
Mother Nature: Here’s a virus. Practise.”
This attempt to extract some positives from what is ultimately a dire situation for basically the entire human race is, however, naturally doomed to be outweighed by the abundant negatives. Aside from the severe human tragedy of lives prematurely ended by the awful Covid-19 disease, even those thus far fortunate enough to retain health and livelihoods in the face of the pandemic may have paid a price in terms of emotional wellbeing. I recall a pervading sense even pre-Covid that the prevalence of mental health issues in the U.K. was rising rapidly, with support services stretched, but this can only have been exacerbated by the lockdown. Loneliness endured by people living by themselves and/or shielding due to medical vulnerability must have taken its toll after such a long period of enforced isolation. A July 2020 survey by Alcohol Change UK revealed that more than a quarter of the British population believe their levels of alcohol consumption increased during lockdown, despite the closure of pubs and clubs. It would frankly be surprising if it were otherwise. Loss of contact with friends and family, loss of employment, loss of sense of purpose, boredom… In our culture, all of these factors lead naturally to self-medication via a few beers or glasses of wine. Despite being lucky enough to have avoided most of those adverse states myself, I admit that my own drinking increased during lockdown, for the most part simply because I could. With freedom from the requirement to be up by any particular time the following morning, and gorgeous weather in which to sit outside with my family, the temptation was often too much to resist. For me, the only factor keeping this indulgence in check was my aforementioned new hobby of jogging. To those of us not naturally athletically inclined, strenuous physical exercise is itself pretty close to our conception of Hell, let alone accompanied by a hangover!
Hangovers are phenomena I am unlikely to experience again in the immediate future, as the second half of Autumn Term 2020 kicks off tomorrow. Despite Wales (and now England) going into full lockdown, schools are staying open this time around. On the one hand, we have the PM attempting to justify this decision by declaring in yesterday’s press conference, “we cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already”. On the other, National Education Union (NEU) Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney is reported in the Metro as stating, “it would be self-defeating for the Government to impose a national lockdown, whilst ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus.” A new study by the Office For National Statistics concludes that “rates now seem to be steeply increasing among secondary school children”, with the NEU’s analysis of ONS figures suggesting that levels of the virus are now nine times higher amongst primary pupils, and FIFTY times higher amongst secondary pupils than they were at the beginning of September.
Back in May, I recall the Daily Mail leading with the particularly crass headline, “Let Our Teachers Be Heroes”, claiming that “magnificent staff across the nation are desperate to help millions of children get back to the classroom - but militant unions are standing in their way.” (This came the very next day after they’d reported that “Kawasaki-like disease affecting children IS caused by the coronavirus”, but hey.) So, at the crack of dawn tomorrow when my colleagues and I are being roused mercilessly from our beds by the unforgiving tones of an alarm, we can at least take comfort in knowing that in the eyes of the Daily Mail, we start this half term as heroes.
While hoping that we don’t end it as martyrs.
Romanza. Spanish Ballad. Spanish Romance. Three titles from one publication alone - the infamous “All Time Classical Guitar” compendium that many of us grew up on - for this most iconic yet enigmatic staple of the guitar repertoire. The piece’s enigma derives not only from the fact that, rather unusually for a musical composition, it possesses no definite fixed title, but also because its provenance remains unknown, and is therefore usually credited mysteriously as ‘anon’ or ‘trad’ in published versions. "Romance Anónimo", “Estudio en Mi de Rubira", “Romance de España", "Romance de Amor", "Romance of the Guitar", "Romance d'Amour"; thank you Wikipedia for filling in the gaps in my knowledge of alternative names for this single piece of music, and for informing me that the finger of suspicion for its authorship might point at anyone from Sor to Yepes! Phew. For the sake of simplicity, for the remainder of this article I will refer to the piece only as ‘Romanza’.
When I recently read a question on an internet classical guitar forum, conspicuously tentative in its tone, from a young guitarist asking whether it’s still acceptable to perform ‘Romanza’, I appreciated the ridicule-fearing tone entirely. This is the classical guitar equivalent of ‘Wonderwall’ or “Smoke On The Water”, so in a day and age when even the most patronisingly unadventurous of pub cover bands would never dare trot out that dreaded power chord riff or Noel Gallagher’s uber-famous jangly intro, I found the question, along with the caution it expressed, to be well founded. By the time I happened upon the article the asker had already received the full spectrum of opinions by way of response, but having long been concerned about the narrowness of the standard classical guitar repertoire, reading that post inspired me to explore some thoughts on the matter.
To directly address the question of whether ‘Romanza’ should still be performed in public, my short answer has to be ‘yes’, simply because - three hail Marys - I play it myself. Having always been determined to keep the old chestnut at a suitably safe (think Chernobyl exclusion zone) distance from my concert programmes, I was horrified to find it sneaking its way in through the back door at unexpected moments; when confronted by that crippling surge of adrenaline at the start of a concert that renders just about everything impossible, causing the supposedly straightforward icebreaker you’d picked to suddenly feel enormously risky. When performing in an unfamiliar venue or in front of a new audience, and that initial nervousness prompts you to err on the side of the utterly safe and familiar. When my long term and still yet to be precisely diagnosed chronic overuse performance injury feels particularly aggravated, and my poor battered abductor pollicis brevis desperately needs a break from heavy barre chord work, meaning that finishing on “La Catedral” as grandiosely envisaged beforehand is no longer medically possible. (For me personally, this is the most positive reason for slipping ‘Romanza’ into a set at short notice, so hopefully I'll at some point compose an original piece based on open strings that consciously avoids barre chords to fill the gap? Watch this space!)
Anyway, so much for my own reasons for playing ‘Romanza’. As for the much larger and more relevant question of which factors have caused it to be maintained as a standard of the repertoire, handed down through countless generations of guitarists to the present day, perhaps we could speculate that the piece’s enduring popularity can be attributed to it being at the same time both quintessentially Spanish and quintessentially guitaristic. The soft romantic lilt, contrasting minor-major-minor ABA structure, endless possibilities for expressive use of tone, timbre and rubato, as well as ringing open string arpeggio figurations certainly qualify it for this dual honour. I would also suspect that the combination of familiarity and technical ease (at least up until the major key section!) has served to make ‘Romanza’ an attractive proposition to a great many guitarists besides myself. For the restaurant or wedding performer, it is the ultimate easy ‘filler’ piece. For teachers, it is the ultimate introduction to Spanish guitar music that is both accessible and educational for learners. ‘Romanza’ has, it appears, much to recommend it.
If we were, just for the sake of raining on the parade of the popular, which is always a noble aim in itself, to examine the factors that ought not recommend the piece, chief among them would be - paradoxically - its sheer ubiquity. Every non-guitarist who has a six string gathering dust in their spare room or attic can play that treacherous opening melody. Like ‘Wonderwall’ or “Smoke On The Water”, ‘Romanza’ constitutes the most unimaginative of banal programme choices. It may still be alive and kicking, but is as close to being done to death as is Bach’s “Prelude in D Minor”, or the word ‘Brexit’ in the current English lexicon.
There is also the more thorny question of the piece’s quality. Without possessing any hard data on the matter, my gut alone tells me that many, many more musically intriguing and intellectually sophisticated compositions have fallen by the wayside down the years while it has survived. My lack of data to back up this assertion can be justified by the probability that the hypothetical pieces concerned, along with their composers, are by definition obscure and thus not preserved in performance or recording. Yet somehow I know they exist, just like I somehow know that wandering into any small to medium sized music venue across the U.K. would introduce me to a pop artist more interesting than Ed Sheeran. The rhythmically simplistic and relentless melody of ‘Romanza’ gives nod to the plebeian associations of the guitar, and serves as a reminder of the reason the Royal Academy of Music refused to accept it as a viable instrument until Julian Bream came along and demonstrated to that institution how wholly misplaced their traditionalistic snobbery was.
I mentioned earlier that I have for some time felt uncomfortably aware of the static and stale nature of the established guitar repertoire, even as it continues to inspire promising young players to aspire to become the next Williams, John Mills or Segovia. Yet it is a fact that most if not all of these pieces will retain their deserved if disproportionate place in the concert programmes of talented performers for decades or even centuries to come, assuming the human race is fortunate enough to survive that long. For ‘Asturias’ and “Variations on a Theme of Mozart”, the musical excitement and not to be underestimated allure of the “look at what I can do” factor is enough to elevate these pieces to milestone status in the eyes of any ambitious budding guitarist. ‘Recuerdos’ (I don’t even need to type its full name) will forever remain the de facto tremolo standard. ‘Romanza’ by contrast is no badge of honour; it survives essentially because it is too big not to. Like Wonderwall, it simply is. And just as it can be guaranteed that socially awkward teenage boys with unwashed shoulder-length hair will still bash out shaky renditions of Deep Purple’s classic long after no-one recalls the name of the band, let alone of its members who crafted that iconic riff, so will ‘Romanza’ long outlive us all.
Love it or loathe it, it’s here to stay..