Reflections on our musical tours of Spitalfields
This is one of the reasons why we love doing what we do. When people share with us how Spitalfields Music has affected their lives it’s hard not to get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. One of our longtime supporters Humphrey Evans has written an e-book 14 Random Observations which features some of his memories of attending our In the House events over the years. Part concert series, part historical tour, In the House presents intimate music performances at venues such as Town House and other Georgian Fournier Street buildings, many with strong ties to the Spitalfields silk weaving industry.
We are audience
When you come out of the Bishopsgate entrance to Liverpool Street station, look up to your right. That plainish Victorian red-brick is effectively the back of what was once the Great Eastern Hotel, now refurbished as the Hyatt Andaz. Walk on and the more florid Bishopsgate frontage itself comes into view, stepped gables and stone detailing, but what you will notice, now I have drawn it to your attention, is that on the first floor, running round that corner, the windows, eight in all, I think, have been bricked up.
Weird. What you will work out is that behind those blanked-off windows there must be quite a large room, cut off from any contact with the outside world. And there is. It’s a Masonic temple which you reach from inside the hotel down an almost secret winding staircase.
The temple is a place of marble and mahogany dating from 1912. There’s a throne-like seat at each end, about 50 chairs banked up along the sides, a black-and-white chequered floor, an ornate ceiling featuring zodiac signs, a dark and somewhat oppressive grandeur. Who knows what the Masons get up to in there. For me it will always be where I heard Rebecca Crawshaw, then a student at the Royal Academy of Music, take on the baroque trumpet, perhaps two metres of brass tubing looped back on itself and drilled with a couple of finger holes, no valves, in order to render two movements from Henry Purcell’s Sonata for trumpet in D major.
Interesting music in interesting places could be the unofficial motto for the organisers, Spitalfields Music, who, for some years now, have often featured a generically named In the House event as part of their summer or winter festivals. In the early evening, some 60 or 80 people meet up outside Christ Church Spitalfields, the Hawksmoor masterpiece, and then, split into groups of 15 or 20, are led off for a series of mini-concerts, soloists from the Royal Academy of Music telling us a little bit about the instruments they play before performing a mix of older pieces and modern works, often with the composer in attendance – world premieres, in fact.
After the masonic trumpeting, we moved on to hear a guitarist play in the excavated remains of a crypt that had turned into a charnel house, a saxophonist in the Raven Row art gallery, and a cellist in Dennis Severs’ house.
Dennis Severs’ house. Spitalfields. 18 Folgate Street. Some half a dozen streets round here – Fournier Street, Folgate Street, Wilkes Street, Princelet Street, Hanbury Street – pack in terraces of top-of-the-range Huguenot silk merchants’ houses. Here’s a date to hang on to: 1685. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, revoked the protestant-protecting Edict of Nantes, put in place by Henri IV, Henri of Navarre. More than 200,000 Huguenots left France, perhaps 25,000 joining those already in London. These houses were built from the 1720s on, and through that century, with Spitalfields silk a sought-after status symbol and the import of French silk banned, the area must have been awash with money. (Digression: if you want some idea of why the Huguenots fled so precipitately, take a look at the film La Reine Margot, which starts with the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of protestants in 1572.)
In Spitalfields, things went downhill in the nineteenth century. Money ran out. New waves of refugees came in, such as Jews fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe. The houses mouldered, falling into something beyond multi-occupancy with whole families crammed into single rooms. But then, in the 1970s, people such as the architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, author of The Secret History of Georgian London, came to realise that these houses, unprepossessing in their run-down near-derelict state, could be restored to something that was structurally sound and, because of their high-spec origins, impressively desirable. Much of the Georgian panelling and the woodwork of the staircases, for instance, had been boarded up over the years, rather than ripped out. Dan Cruickshank’s own house still has uneven Georgian glass in some of the windows.
Dennis Severs’ House is typical. Well, typical is a relative term. Dennis Severs was an artist who took his house right back to what it once was – not what it could have become, but what it was. There’s no electricity in the place, for instance. Anyone can visit, can have the experience, because they do paid-for tours. On this December night, our group files tentatively in – these houses can be both big and yet constrained with tight-fitting staircases and, in this case, tables awash with knick-knacks and fripperies to carefully avoid.
Glowing fires in the fireplaces mean the house is warm. Candles everywhere let you see how much you see in a dimmer light then you are used to. We hear Emily Smith play Bach on her baroque cello and then a modern piece, one of those world premieres, by Robert Peate – 300 years bridged, in all sorts of ways, just like that.
On other nights we have heard other players in other buildings: a bassoonist in the lived-in first-floor living room of a family home in Wilkes Street; an accordion player in the rectory behind Christ Church Spitalfields; a tuba player in that same rectory; a double-bass player in what has become an architects’ office in Princelet Street; a recorder player in Worrall House, tucked into a courtyard between Fournier and Princelet Streets, giving us Georg Telemann and a new work by Elo Masing, a young Estonian composer.
We have been exposed to musical cutting edges. Violinist Galya Bisengalieva hooked herself up to a computer to offer us Sebastian Rapacki’s Vox humana for violin and live electronics. The 23-year-old Swedish composer himself was there to listen and comment: “At one moment in the rehearsal process, I swear I could hear a human voice crying out in despair – but that was just Galya.”
We have been invited to identify ourselves with the aristocratic audiences of eighteenth-century Parisian salon concerts, this in the austerely comfortable L-shaped one-and-a-half rooms on the first floor of a private house on Fournier Street. The half room is very nearly filled by a harpsichord, itself bought on Brick Lane. I am standing virtually in the harpsichord, a few have chairs, others are sitting on the floor or perched out on the stairs: “Take care. The stairs are uneven.”
Our harpsichordist, Nathaniel Mander, dark blond hair, cleft chin, wearing a black velvet jacket and polo neck sweater, tells us something about one of the composers whose pieces he is going to play, the massively fashionable Claude Babastre, whose pupils included Marie Antoinette (“The French took the harpsichord for their own”), before exciting us with the elaborately exuberant La Lugeac.
In another house in Fournier Street we have sat in another L-shaped conformation, a small fire burning in the corner, painted panels of flowers among a ribbon of leaves on every wall, while a cellist played extracts from a Bach cello suite and a George Crumb sonata. Afterwards we have come downstairs for a glass of wine and, wonderfully, a permitted wandering around. Everywhere there are paintings and pictures, including a large view of Christ Church from along Brushfield Street. “This is the one I want to live in,” says Ros.
And again in Fournier Street, this one more commercial, a larger, panelled room with nothing in it but the chairs set out for the 16 people in our group, we have experienced the astringent, visceral thrill of a full-power onslaught by close-up flute. The player, Kayoko Minamino, is small, slight, as severely presented as the room itself in a floor-length gown over a dark scarlet dress. She breathes in, she begins – and the sound spears through you, cleaning out every cobweb.
Our most recent experience featured a violin and accordion duo playing in the Sandy’s Row synagogue. The building goes back long before the Jewish influx. As synagogue president Harvey Rifkind described it, when explaining why they had needed to seek a restoration grant: “A Huguenot roof was collapsing onto a Huguenot ceiling which would have fallen onto our very non-Huguenot heads.”
What we heard was violinist Abe McWilliams and accordionist Martynas Levickis playing an Anton Piazzolla tango and their own arrangements of Lithuanian folk songs. “We have the melody,” they said, “but, to be honest, most of what we are doing is improvisation.” They swing from slow, dragging plaint to driving rhythm, the violin cascading notes, the accordion opening up like the breathing rib cage of some primordial creature.
And then we can look back to our first time, our entry into this hidden world, our wonder at what lay behind the street facades. A front door opened up. A man said come in. We rattled down two short, cramped flights of stairs and out into a courtyard garden, high slightly unexplained brick walls suggesting a vanished presence of past buildings. A silver birch, almost house high, stands amid flagstones and greenery. The tiniest of rills splashes water along the length of one wall. And as the setting sunlight of a June evening lingers, we hear clarinettist Scott Lygate play Luciano Berio’s Lied and Belá Kovács’ Hommage à J S Bach.
I could live like this. I am astonished to have been invited in.
By Humphrey Evans
If you were inspired by Humphrey’s writing and would like an opportunity to explore Spitalfields, you may be interested in Flow Forms, part of Scanner’s Associate Artist series co-curated by Elizabeth Walling of Gazelle Twin. Discover secret Spitalfields in an unusual tour of its underground spaces via site-specific sound installations and pop-up performances.
To read the rest of Humphrey’s We are audience amongst other tales check out his Kindle e-book, 14 Random Observations.