A Musical Wanderer – a tale


I once shared a bedsit with an extraordinary gothic desk. The drawers were guarded by grotesque lions, dragons and floral arabesques. It would be hardly proper, surely, if one did not open one of the smaller drawers to find a manuscript such as this?

The Mysterious Itineraries of a Musical Wanderer

There are certain musical works which seem to suggest hidden meanings, stories, adventures, or the record of a journey. Take the series of six part Fantasies by Orlando Gibbons, for example. They are windows into a world.

You may have come across allusions to the tale of a composer who wandered on his travels and left only a series of musical sketches as clues to his experiences. Did the music record his travels – or were his travels purely visionary? Though I can see, and almost hear, this music, as if it’s buried in my own memory, it is always just too distant to be transcribed, a mood rather than a concrete sound.

As for the story itself, so familiar in its essence but vague in its details, the closest I ever came to its heart was one evening at the bar at a conference. It was, I think, at one of the least significant universities and the bar was as far as we could go from the depressing concrete of the campus. Several of the delegates had found their way there. Some I knew, others were unknown to me. Here’s the story, just as Toller told it to me over several pints of the local ale.

“It’s one of those things that eludes the grasp,” he began. “ It seems so close and yet, when you try to pin it down, there is always the sense that it was always someone else, a step further away from your own experience – and yet I feel sure what I heard was true – and there is, after all, the music that remains – and the secret, such as it was….

“I was at a bar just such as this after a long day of lectures. Amongst others I was with Blissett, at the time just beginning to become known as an authority on Cipriani Potter. (1) He had performed one of Potter’s concertos that season. We were chatting about some of the truly attractive forgotten figures of 19th century music when a man I did not know, who had been following our conversation rather rudely I thought, butted in:

“ ‘ You remember,’ this character said from the far side of the table (in such a way that I knew that this was not going to be a brief interruption to our conversation), ‘the story of the composer who followed the ways of the legendary Scholar Gypsy and travelled the world rather picturesquely in what I believe we call a “Romany vardo”…..’

“ ‘ It would have been picturesque, no doubt,’ interjected Blissett, interrupting the interruption, ‘ if there had been anyone to observe this mythical creature.’

“ ‘ I do not claim to have observed the man or his unlikely conveyance,’ the stranger went on after giving Blissett a killing glance, ‘but I have no doubt that he existed and that his travels were real – in some way. If you know the story you will recall that the significant feature was that this traveller is said to have recorded his experiences in music, believing that he had learned a language of music that could translate the essential meaning of what he had seen, heard and known.’

“It was a story I, myself, knew well. The Scholar Gypsy in Arnold’s poem (2), (inspired in turn by an anecdote in Glanvil’s 17th century ‘Vanity of Dogmatizing’ (3), a tract arguing, against the extreme rationalism of his contemporaries, that there were ‘more things…etc. etc.’) had abandoned Oxford University to seek the secrets of the travelling people. He apparently still travels the countryside. On one of his re-appearances he demonstrated some curious form of sympathetic imagination or mind-reading to the startled guests at an inn.

“This legendary composer had taken a similar turning perhaps some two hundred years later, having discovered some similar musical secret, and was reputed to have gained an exemption from time, like the Scholar Gypsy, wandering for ever and scribbling away at pages and pages of manuscript, recording the world that perhaps only he could see.

“ ‘There has always been a question in my mind,’ the stranger continued, ‘whether this composer actually did travel (and maybe still travels) the lost roads and drover’s ways, or whether the music was his travelling. Did he travel only in his mind, following the course of his endless compositions?’

“ ‘It’s an attractive idea,’ I volunteered. ‘We often like to think our music has a meaning. We often don’t feel responsible for where it takes us either.’

“ Harrison, beside me, objected to this, as I knew he would.

“ ‘Music has no meaning. It’s just ordered sound. Delightful in itself, or so we might hope, but with no more meaning than this delightful glass of ale. No meaning but pure delight.’

“ ‘ Harrison is a severe classicist,’ said Blissett.”We could surely argue that Tester’s Ragged Rascal has a distinctly different meaning to Folker’s Old Intire.”

“This inevitably led to Harrison pulling himself away from the table and pushing his way to the bar for a refill of the local ale.

“ ‘Of course no one has ever found the music,’ the stranger continued, with a determination to continue without any further interruptions. ‘There has always been a rumour that the traveller ended his days (assuming that he was not, unlike the Scholar Gypsy, a kind of eternal avatar) in a “House on the Border”, a mysterious resting place that was neither in England nor Wales. Though he is said to have studied in Germany, in the shadiest period of romanticism, he returned to his home country and made most of his journeys here.

“ ‘As you are no doubt aware the story has always fascinated me. There is a romantic attraction in the idea of travelling the old ways and seeing through the veil to hidden landscape. There is also the mystery of the music itself. Can the composition of music be a way of entering another world – in which the sounds are a translation of sights and experiences?

“ ‘I found myself contemplating this legend anew when I was occupied on my monograph on the consort fantasies of the early 17th century. You may be familiar with it.’

“ ‘Only if it was published in Titbits (4) old boy,’ said Blissett softly.

“ ‘These instrumental pieces, of which the glorious Gibbons (5) and Lawes (6)are the masters, were written and performed in dark days of conflict. You can imagine sombre and philosophical gentlemen playing their viols in shadowy panelled halls. The soft and yet intense music seems to explore intangible concepts like a series of dialogues or debates, or it may seem to open windows onto distant evening vistas.

“ ‘This is not purely my personal response. This style of music faded away in the brighter days of the Restoration – apart from the divine Henry’s strange final glances into the dark mirror of viol music.’

“ ‘Purcell, I think he means, (7)’ whispered Blissett.

“ ‘Indeed. And in that same period we have old Thomas Mace’s testimony in “Musick’s Monument”, implying that this music had hidden meanings. I quote from memory:

“ ‘ “We had our Grave Musick, Fancies of 3,4, 5 and 6 parts to the Organ, Interpos’d (now and then) with some Pavins, Allmaines, Solemn and Sweet Delightful Ayres; all which were (as it were) so many Pathettical Stories, Rhetorical, and Sublime Discourses ; Subtil and Accute Argumentations, so Suitable, and Agreeing to the Inward, Secret, and Intellectual Faculties of the Soul and Mind ; that to set Them forth according to their True Praise, there are no Words Sufficient in Language ; yet what I can best speak of Them, shall be only to say, That They have been to myself, (and many others) as Divine Raptures, Powerfully Captivating all our unruly Faculties, and Affections, (for the Time) and disposing us to Solidity, Gravity, and a Good Temper, making us capable of Heavenly, and Divine Influences. Tis Great Pity Few Believe Thus Much, but Far Greater, that so Few Know It.”(8)

“ ‘It’s easy to understand how musical conversations, such as these four, five or six part fantasies, can be experienced as coded conversations and “sublime discourses” but when I listen to these pieces I sense a more specific meaning. Is there, in fact, a tradition of music composed as a record of what Traherne, also a contemporary of Mace and the Scholar Gypsy, calls “Journeys of the Soul” (9)?. I sense there is something hidden in the baroque sonatas of Biber. (10) It is a matter of spiritual attitude and intention rather than musical technique.

” ‘If you don’t me coming in here, “said Blissett, ” ‘ I think you may have a point. There’s the example, as I am sure you are aware, of Froberger. (11) ‘ ”

” ‘ Of course there is always the example of Froberger,’ ” muttered a person who was less entranced by the conversation.

” ‘ Froberger, ” Blissett continued, “wrote pieces that were intended to describe in detail his experiences of crossing the Rhine, or his depression at being in London – a feeling with which I do not, personally, sympathise. This was around the 1640s. As far as I know it’s the earliest example of someone claiming to translate such exact ideas into music.’ ”

” ‘ If I were being fanciful, which I do not think I am being, I might speak of a continuous occult tradition of attempts to translate actual experience into sound – converting the “hidden music” of the world to harmony. Or, conversely, of meditating through performance, and even more through composition, in such a way that the music guides an experience, a “Journey of the Soul.”

” ‘Ah,’ “, Blissett interrupted again, ” ‘I seem to recall that Froberger was a pupil of the Jesuit polymath Anthanasius Kircher – so almost any esoteric meaning could be inferred from his music. Kircher was obsessed with Hieroglyphics – as a symbolic language. There step from Hierogylphics to the concept of music as symbolic language is but small.’ ”

” ‘It’s all bilge,’ ” said Harrison. ” ‘Music is no more than aural sculpture. Pure form in time.’ ”

The stranger was unperturbed and continued his story.

“ ‘By chance I was researching this possibility when I was sent a contribution to a small metaphysical journal which I have the honour of editing for a certain wealthy anonymous patron. The document purported to be a series of autobiographical sketches. To my astonishment, though the fragments implied a Napoleonic period and there was nothing certain to make the connection, I was sure the subject was the travelling composer himself and the ‘Episodes’, as they were titled, were clearly intended to be a form of hermetic initiation into the secrets of music. Something about them suggested that they were leading to the point of his departure on his wanderings.

“ ‘I was intrigued to say the least. Who was the contributor, the person who claimed to have edited these pages?

“ ‘They had been sent to us by a lady whose name I had not heard before.

“ ‘ “Please consider these sketches,” she had written. “They were discovered in the library of a house I have recently inherited from an uncle who sadly died tragically in an experimental balloon ascent.”

“ ‘The address, which I will not pass on at present, was a house which is best described as being in the Welsh Marches. I will not be more precise. This, surely, must be “The House on the Border” where our composer spent his last days, or, if you prefer, his period of repose.

“ ‘As rapidly as I could without seeming unnaturally enthusiastic I made contact with the Lady, explaining that I was fascinated by the texts. Within a few days I had taken the train to the nearest station – on a line now long since closed. (12)’

“I remember being puzzled by this. Our companion at the dark end of the table did not seem of any greater age than my colleagues and yet he had suddenly pushed the time that the events of his story took place into an unexpectedly distant past.

“ ‘Of course there was still a suggestion that these episodes were purely a literary conceit and that they were entirely her own invention. I am still unsure about this. When I met the lady at the long stone house, closely set to forested rising ground, I was impressed by her sharp eye and a quizzical look. She was middle-aged, elegant but simply dressed like a country lady, but with a curiously elliptical humour in her expression. I wondered if she were a modern day equivalent of Lady Conway,(13) a female philosopher – or was it that she was always on the very edge of laughing at me?

“ ‘I was there several days. We did not, at first, discuss the origin of the autobiographical texts but she was happy for me to explore the library and search for any other relics of the wandering composer. Of course she was fully aware of the story, or so she seemed to imply.

“ ‘ “I wonder,” she said early, after a day or two had passed, as if it had not struck her previously, “if the thought has struck you that the character in the ‘Episodes’(14) was this musical traveller in which you are so interested – and that this was his ‘House on the Border.’ An amusing idea, whether or not there is any substance to the story. Of course you may feel free to look for his lost manuscripts or whatever they may be.”

“ ‘I thanked her. I only realised later that I could have asked her how she came to find the ‘Episodes’. Where had they been hidden? It was as if we were playing a delicate game and that nothing should be discussed too materially or the dream might shatter.

“ ‘It was a dull library on the whole. The bulk of it came from a Welsh cleric and missionary. (15) There were sermons in Welsh and many books on South American botany. This gentleman had possessed the house in the late 19th century. I understood that the lady’s uncle, or his father before him, had bought the house from the clergyman. I found I could not begin to imagine at what point the composer might have lived there. He may not have been cursed with eternal life but his story, at least, seemed to have been granted an exemption from time.

“ ‘Nothing came of my search in the library.

“ ‘On another day I returned from a walk in the hills. It had been a wonderful autumn day with a sunset that would have excited my old friend Arthur Machen (16). The lady dropped into our conversation as she was pouring tea:

“ ‘ “You see glorious sunsets from the upstairs study. There are some music books there I seem to think.’ ”

“ ‘At this point, though I was thankful for the warm Welsh cakes and butter after my walk, I did wonder even more if she were playing a game with me.

“ ‘After tea, and she was very leisurely about it, she took me to the small room on the top floor, as if under the eaves, which served as a study. Yes, the window caught the last glow of the sky and I could hear the sound of a nearby waterfall, and the desk was placed against it. I found myself sitting at the desk uninvited. To my right were a few shelves of books. They were a curious mixture of very old and fairly modern, all very well thumbed. I knew as soon as I saw them that this was just such a collection as might have occupied the very limited space in a small horse-drawn vehicle. I touched them carefully. Was I touching a leather binding that my half-mythical traveller had touched?

“ ‘Surely it was so. Here was Dr Burney’s (17) diary of his musical journey in Europe, Jones’s (18) translation of Dalberg’s (19) study of Indian music (our composer claimed to have been a friend of the sadly forgotten Dalberg), and here was, lo and behold, an ancient copy of Glanvill’s “Vanity of Dogmatizing”, the source of the legend of the Scholar Gypsy. In contrast there were far more recent titles, not musical, such as both “His Last Bow” and several translations of the adventures of Arsene Lupin.

“ ‘There were no musical scores.

“ ‘ “Ah yes,” the lady said in her vague manner, “It could almost be…” – as if she were not fully aware.

“ ‘I asked her if I were at liberty to look for any other effects, as it were, of this person who I was sure had sat exactly where I was sitting, haunted by a similar sunset and the distant sound of water.

“ ‘ “Perhaps it would be wrong to say,” she answered “treat what was his as yours. Or would that be acceptable – in the interests of musicological research?”

“Sitting in his own chair at the desk where I supposed he had worked I felt close to understanding. Did he translate his wanderings into music? Or was the music an imaginary journey? Neither alternative seemed satisfactory. Perhaps it was a different kind of journey, through a different kind of reality.

“ ‘Could we say,’ the lady of the house suggested, breaking into my contemplations, ‘that some things only retain their power when they remain a mystery?’

“ ‘ There were no manuscripts as such but I found something unexpected in the draw of the desk. At first I thought it was a pack of playing cards, hand painted and colourful. They were, certainly, cards, rather larger than playing cards, decorated with lively rather than expert designs, all featuring the signs of the zodiac and what may have been representations of the creatures and symbols of the constellations, though I did not recognise these as being the traditional images. There were also tantalising hints of landscape in the surrounds and backgrounds which reminded me of some of Blake’s pages with their dolmens and eternal hills.(20)

“ ‘ This symbolism was a surprise and a complication. I had no doubt that these were his work. Crude, but vivid, perhaps painted in watercolour as his caravan jogged along the old green tracks. If, of course, there ever was a caravan.

“ ‘ Seeing that there were more cards than the 12 signs of the zodiac I counted them and found there were 24 in total. I then recognised that each sign was painted twice, once with a sun and the colours of day, and once with a moon the hues of night. The other symbols I did not immediately understand.

“ ‘ “Could he have read the stars?” the lady wondered. (I rather wished she would leave me alone to my investigations.) “…or did he use these stars for navigation?”

“ ‘ Though she laughed a little as she said this I had a sharp and deep sense that she had hit on the truth in a way that I assumed at the time that she may not have understood. The traveller had not taken up astrology, or any kind of magical system, I was sure of that, even though he may have pursued all manner of false leads, cabala and the like, in his apprenticeship days. His true discipline was harmony and the work of the imagination. It took no time to deduce that these 24 cards were not occult in their significance but simply represented the 24 keys of the tempered chromatic scale. The twelve major keys were marked with the sun, the minor keys were indicated by the moon. A fanciful but simple device. Was it Athanasius Kircher (21) who first associated the signs of the zodiac with the twelve keys, arranged in the circle of fifths (22) which demonstrates their tonal relationships?

“ ‘ I knew immediately that these cards were the key that opened the gates to his journeys and memories. I placed a few cards on the desk and there it was. One card may represent a musical key, but I saw that if you interpreted the card as the tonic triad of that key, as a chord, then two cards side by side were the beginnings of a musical progression. This was all he needed to spark off a journey in music. Which sign went with which key hardly mattered. It was a question of relationship. If I took Capricorn with a moon to be D minor, then this Aquarius with the sun would be A major. (I assumed the relationship to move in fifths.) The cards simply provided a musical idea, I supposed at random.

“ ‘ Yes, you could have three or more cards but just two would be a step on a road. Some chord combinations would be very simple, within a conventional musical scale, others would suggest ancient modes (23) or provide more exotic combinations of harmonies. If he took two cards at random from the pack as a starting point, then two more for the next piece, he would have twelve keys to twelve musical works or movements. I found myself thinking of this potential series of 12, using each chord once only, as an Itinerary. A new term, perhaps, for a greater journey, a full circle. And then a new shuffling of the pack would begin another circuit, another Itinerary through the stations of the stars and days.

“ ‘Indeed, she had guessed correctly. The cards were his means of navigation, a symbolic map of the landscape of his mind – not, I was sure, of fantasy, but of an imagination in which his experiences of the landscapes and encounters of his life became the terms and grammar of the musical language.

“ ‘ This was all he needed. These chords, of course, were merely the starting point. Memory and the mysterious power of creativity that works through our souls just as it works in forming the hills and valleys of our earthly travels, would do the rest. The working of the device depended on all the knowledge and experience of his life.

“ ‘ There had been no sign of any manuscripts. I am sure they exist somewhere. However, as I sat in his room, at his desk with the sound of the waterfall from the dark valley beyond, I felt I would be able to reconstruct his journeys. Looking at those few cards I found I could hear the music coming to life. Melodies grew from the harmonies. The notes became clothed with instrumental sounds.

“ ‘ I am convinced that my work since that visit has been an act of reconstruction rather than original composition, As I have worked I have felt the fragments of a life have been unfolding, detached fragments at first, gradually finding their order. Some episodes are mysterious. I have composed the music but the music has not yet summoned up images or meaning. Others are lucid stories. I know that the first chapter of our composer’s journal of a pilgrimage is the story of his abandonment of his formal studies. Did he leave Germany, if it was Germany, to cross the mountains in search of sunlight, as so many romantic travellers have done, inspired by the song of the ‘land where the lemons grow?’ (24)

“ ‘ Or was this first journey a metaphor for the discovery of his new vocation? Beyond these romantic scenes the journey becomes more mysterious – a quest along ancient tracks through the Forest of Unmade Forms. (25) The experiment continues.

“ ‘If you wish I could supply you with scores of the first seventy one of the stages of the quest. Yes, I have travelled so far with my unknown friend. Has the music become my “vardo?” I have wandered through the south and into the western lands of this island. I am following our composer’s footsteps, or the wheels of his caravan, and I feel I have met some of the same people that he encountered, some with messages to pass on, or ways of seeing. As I say, my work is one of reconstruction. It’s more than following in his footsteps – I am seeing through his eyes. I sense that he was always looking for something. I still don’t know whether there was a fixed object for the quest, but there was certainly a constant desire to go on, to understand something.

” ‘ I feel I have one more to complete, founded on the difficult augmented fourth relationship, and I will have achieved a greater itinerary, a Septuagint. (26) Pardon my esoteric allusion, it is easy to fall into unnecessary symbolism. Concerning which, I eventually discovered that the painted symbols were not the signs of the zodiac but the traditional images of the twelve tribes of Israel. A friend of mine who has the honour of being a Companion in the Chapter (27) immediately recognised them. Were they a legacy of my travelling friend’s cabalistic youth, or were these cards, in another dimension of paradise (28), also “the leaves of the tree which are for the healing of the nations”’ (29)

“ ‘ I have never returned to the ‘House on the Border’ or corresponded with its owner. It was only after I had departed on the slow branch train that I felt sure she had known more than she had spoken. I had certainly felt she had been playing a game with me, if not actually mocking me. Was there something in the strangeness of my visit of an initiation, or of some secret (or curse) being passed to me, as if my apparent discovery of the secret was a contrivance?

“ ‘I had been too occupied with calculating the number of possible relationships of two randomly chosen chords to react to what she had been saying at the time but as the train left one of the desolate junctions of the marches I found I could hear her voice clearly above the weary work of the engine and the rumble of the track.

“ ‘ “Was there ever an end to his journey, do you imagine?” I seemed to recall her saying, “Do we need an object to our quest? Should we just be travellers, isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t we simply travel to see clearly, to feel clearly? I seem to remember our friend saying to me so long ago: ‘One of the greatest of my teachers, madam, used to remind me when I became too analytical that “some things only retain their power when they remain a mystery.” ’ ” ’ ”


  • Philip Hambly Cipriani Potter (1792-1871) composed an uncertain number of fine symphonies which, unusual for an English composer, are completely up to the minute and can stand happily beside Schubert and Beethoven. Indeed Beethoven met “Botter” and thought well of him. Sadly Potter gave up composing and concentrated on his work as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Wagner conducted Potter’s Symphony in G Minor (available in a Musica Brittanica edition) on his visit to England by which time he seemed a ghost from the past. Of all the forgotten figures of the early 19th century Potter seems the most worth reviving, especially now his music is “exempt from time” and can be seen as original and new rather than dusty.
  • Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) “Scholar Gipsy” is a nostalgic interpretaion of the story which he found in Glanvil. (See note 3). Arnold writeswith a sense of regret that he had not had the wildness to followthe scholar himself and have a more romantic poetic career. He continues this mood in “Thyrsis”, a lament for his fellow poet Arthur Clough. Vaughan Williams used parts of both poems in his “An Oxford Elegy”, perhaps a key to the pervading meaing of the Gipsy/Scholar/Composer tradition.

3)         Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680), philosopher and clergyman.

  • Correctly “Tit- Bits” – a journal founded by George Newnes which was published between 1881 and 1984, though its years of greatest popularity were in the first quarter of the century.
  • Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was a church music composer but he also wrote some of the most intense and sophisticated consort music for viols of the early 17th century. His series of six part fantasies seem, if any thing does, to have a meaning beyond themselves. Each piece is a window into a concise but vivid world. What kind of effect did this music have on the small groupsof musicians who would play them in their private chambers?What effect would they have if performed now in an appropriate setting, surrounded by the memorabilia of their first performers?
  • William Lawes (1602-1645) was the master of the consort style. His fantasies (and “setts” of pieces) are more expansive and full of strange harmonies and depth.

7)         Henry Purcell (1659-1695) belongs to a later style of baroque when viols had been replaced by violins. His viol fantasies are a strange throw back to the lost world that Thomas Mace lamented. However it’s important to note that the mysterious qulaity of “meaning” that the fantasy tradition had is passed on to a new musical style and Purcell’s Trio Sonatas, though quite different in technique, are in the same supposed “tradition.” The secret of this music is not one of theory or technique but content and feeling.

  • It may be that Mace is only implying that the old consortmusic created a particular mood rather than claiming that it had actual meaning, though the idea that the fantasies were like “Patheticall Stories” is very striking. I have read more than one writer who finds they have to speak in terms of landscape to describe the unfolding of Lawes’fantasies so there is an inescapable quality of something depicted in these works.

9)         Thomas Traherne (Hereford 1634? – Teddington 1674) “Centuries of Mediations”, 1st Century no. 56: “It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the Soul, that we travel thither.” Traherne’s work, particularly his poems, contain celebrations of the imagination which are influenced by the Hermetic tracts amongst other things. He is a figure associated with the border country but it is grossly misleading to suggest he is in any way influenced by so-called “Celtic Christianity” which would have been an unknown quantity in his day. He has his own vision and style based on patristic theology, Hermetica (a little), Ficino and, in particular, on his own experiences of the religious controversy of his times. He was trained under the Protectorate and a priest under the restored monarchy. He had to argue the theology with himself and became a firm Anglican.

  • Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) wrote astonishing violin sonatas that explore all manner of meaning and expression. His famous “Rosary” sonatas depict the 15 stations of the Rosary, but his other 1681 sonatas, though in theory abstract, have as much of a sense of meaning as the Rosary sonatas. If I were to posit a “tradition” offantasy writing, or music with hidden meaning, Biber would be a key figure. As I think the story suggests the music may createmeaning as much as it attempts to convey an intended meaning. The music is a means of exploration of what could be called the “imaginal world”, or the impersonal imagination in which our personal memories and images are merely the surface.

11)       Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) was one of the earliest proponents of the keyboard suite. Several of his pieces have very detailed programmes or explanations of the stories they depict. The full details have only recently come to light in rediscovered manuscripts. It does seem that Froberger is a more likely influence on the music of our musical “Scholar Gypsy” than the English consort tradition. Froberger probably studied with Anthanasius Kircher in the 1640s. Kircher is a complex figure who tried to master all sciences and esoteric learning. The significant difference between the English consort tradition and the Italian and North European early baroque sonata is that the English style tends to favour “conversation”, music to be played by private groups, whereas the “stylus phantasticus” (Kircher’s term) favours individual virtuosity before an audience.

  • Both the Great Western and London Midland and Scottish railways had branch lines serving the most remote parts of the border country. Most of these closed as a result of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s but some had gone long before, such as the Bishop’s Castle Railway (closed as early as 1935) and the New Radnor branch (closed in 1951).

13)       Lady (Anne) Conway (1631-1679) of Ragley Hall, Worcestershire, was an extraordinary 17th century philosopher, influenced in part by the Cambridge Platonists. Her anonymously published work is “ Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy” 1690.

14)       The “Episodes” remain unedited. They do, in fact, conclude with the composer’s meeting with Dalberg and his departure in his caravan.

15)       This does not necessarily imply that the house itself was in Wales.

  • Arthur Machen (1863-1947) was a Welsh writer, famous for his atmospheric supernatural tales. The link here is probably with Machen’s novel “The Hill of Dreams” in which a vividly described sunset plays an important part. As with note 15 it has to be said that the connection with Machen’s world is a matter of mood and does not necessarily imply that the setting of this story is west of the border.

17)       Dr Charles Burney (1726-1814) published his entertaining journal as “The Present State of Music in France and Italy” (1771)

18)       Sir William Jones (1746-1794) was a judge in India, as they say, and became an enthusiast for Indian culture of all kinds.

19)       Johann Friedrich Hugo von Dalberg (1752-1812) is another sadly forgotten composer. He spent some time in England at the time of Haydn’s first London visit. He also wrote fanciful essays on the spirirual value of music. There is an unpublished manuscript from the same source (apparently) as the “Ravello Dilaogues” mentioned in the story which claims to be based ona journal of the (fictitious?)composer Mordant in which Dalberg appears as a character.

20)       William Blake (1770-1827) was an eccentric and rather amateurish artist and poet. He is claimed as a visionary though his visions are limited to his own private mythology which recycles second hand imagery and conveys nothing more than the jumbled content of his constipated brain. His follower Samuel Palmer, in contrast, was a true visionary.

21)       I believe this is not the case, though Kircher (1602-1680) does give a scheme associating the signs of the zodiac with the twelve tribes of Israel.

22)       The 12 possible keys are often placed in a circle showing their relationships. The key the interval ofa fifth above, for example, would be the closest to the starting key. They key opposite would be the most tonally remote, at the interval of an augmented fourth or tritone.

23)       The medieval church modes include modes which are in effect the same as modern major and minor but they include others, as if starting on a different white note on the piano. They are only vaguely linked to ancient Greek modes which used more subtle tunings.

24)       Goethe’s poem, in “Wilhelm Meister”, sung by the mysterious waif Mignon, is the classic symbol for the longing for the south.

25)       In medieval philosophy, derived from Platonic roots, there is an association of forests and unformed matter – both “silva” in Latin. The imaginary forest the realm of adventures in which new forms are constantly struggling to be.

26)       In Talmudic tradition 72 scholars were set to work to translate the Old Testament in Greek. Each scholar, kept apart, produced an identical translation, known as the Septuagint. Though this seems to support the divine authority of the Greek it is curious that apparent mistranslations have caused all manner of theological complications. The number 72 has deep symbolic meanings. The mystical verses in the Book of Exodus known as the Schemamphorash (Exodus 14: 19-2) each contain 72 Hebrew letters and are said by cabalists to contain the secret Name of God. This may have been known to the speaker’s Masonic friend. (See note 26). Perhaps more appropriately to this story in cabalistic tradition there were reputed to be 72 steps to the ladder which Jacob saw stretching to heaven.

It seems that one of the features of this nebulous tradition which I am trying to define is that the composer uses some kind of musical starting point, such as the chords mentioned in the story, and often a series of these gives a structure to what is called here an “Itinerary.” This may simply give the incentive or momentum to the exploration. It may be in earlier times a fragment of plainsong was used, derived from the use of plainsong as seed of a mass setting. In some cases a composer may simply use the 24 keys as an overall framework to guide the mental journey. There seems to be a creative importance in having something “random” so that the composer’s personal imagination doesnot provide the starting point and dominate the work. The personal imagination and the composer’s musical technique provide the language rather than the content.

27)       This implies that the friend was a member of the “Royal Arch”, the Masonic order that is said to “complete” the three well known “blue” degrees of freemasonry. Perhaps the earlier reference to the significance of the number 72 may imply that the speaker had also learned from his friend (or could it have been personal knowledge?) something of the more esoteric Masonic societies?

28)       “Dimensions of Paradise” is a book concerning mathematical symbolism by the late John Michell. (Thames and Hudson, 1988).

29)       This is a quotation from the Book of Revelation (22:2) referring to the leaves of the Tree of Life in the Heavenly Jerusalem. John Michell’s book (See note 27) makes much of this phrase, and sees the leaves as a symbol of the power of harmony, or the fundamental canon of proportion in art and nature. The biblical source does not number the leaves but the elaborate symbolism of the Holy City is probably based on the tradition of the twelve tribes of Israel.


Toller found himself unable to ask the unknown figure at the the table to show him the 71 pieces he had completed. There was a trerrible danger that he might actually produce them. The alternative outcome would have been that the stranger would have been embarrassed by the fact that no such music existed and there would have been the painful excuses – “Oh, I seem to have left my briefcase in my room” or “The manuscripts are currently with my copyist, you must know him, old Kreisler who maintains the old traditions of musical orthography in his room in Coptic Street.”

And so the story recedes into the mist that spreads from the foot of that waterfall somewhere on the border.

Except that the glimmers of the story seems to dance in that mist and emerge from it as irresistable will o the wisps. I find I can sense that atmosphere of travel and quest growing.

The image of the musical traveller has been with me for many years. What is the “truth” of it? I can see now that the “vardo”, the caravan that took him on these wanderings may have been the music itself – not the clavichord on which he composed to record his memories at nighttime but the music, the “hieroglyphic language” that created the vehicle in his mind in which he could travel through the world of his imagination. His map, the guiding path of his itinerary, may or may not have been the musical device of the zodiac chords. There is nothing more real than this. If we work with this language, even a shaky wooden language that seems to run on rutted tracks, we can follow our roads into that infinite world. It’s one device of many. Of course there are those, like Harrison, who would say it was all fantasy – but I would have to reply that fantasy is our way of experiencing truth. The images we see on our travels are, like the music, a language that conveys a deeper reality, pure form, pure meaning. Without the device of the music, his wooden travelling machine, our Composer Gypsy may have become lost in self reflective fantasy, but the music can be a discipline, a road to follow.

The spirit of the Scholar Gypsy posesses us. It is this spirit that the mysterious and rather arch lady in that “House on the Border” seems to have passed on to me through the webs of parenthesis, and needless to say the pages of score are appearing on my desk like rutted tracks in the wake of the “vardo.”