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A Notational Joke

Recently I was asked whether I might play my violin ‘for a 10 minute interlude’ during a dinner. A strange request, but less conspicuous in Cambridge than most places.

       Based on previous experience my response was very nearly ‘no’: it’s a kind of musical graveyard shift. After a big meal with lots of wine who wants, really, to listen to ten minutes of serious music in an unsuitable acoustic, accompanied by lots of indigestion (also on the part of the performer)?

       I could think of one situation that wouldn’t be so objectionable and contacted Rachel Stroud, a close friend and colleague (a fantastic violinist, musicologist, and rites cofounder): a violin duo would be more palatable. Kindly—very kindly, since she would alight a plane from Shanghai at 6. 30 am on the day and would, therefore, be operating at roughly 6 am Chinese time by the time of the performance)—Rachel agreed to play, and we settled on some Telemann.


In 1726 Jonathan Swift published Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. or, as we might know it today, Gulliver’s Travels. By 1728 a copy of the book had found its way into the hands of a certain Georg Philipp Telemann who composed several short pieces after Swift’s tales. Amongst the collection are five duos for violin:


Lilliputsche Chaconne

Brobdingnagische Gigue

Reverie der Laputier, nebst ihren Aufweckern

Loure der gesitten Houyhnhnms & Furie der unartigen Yahoos

Telemann plays a kind of joke on the performers in these pieces. For example, the ‘Lilliputsche Chaconne’ is written in tiny notation of tiny values, inspired by Gulliver’s adventures with the tiny Liliputians, but is deceptively slower than expected. If you find yourself reaching for your glasses, be sure we were magnifying the music.

       The ‘Brobdingnagische Gigue’—Gulliver meets some one-legged giants—is notated with big, clumsy noteheads, and is deceptively quick.

Neither piece sounds at all like they look (my students at JRAM will attest to this following the slightly cruel dictation I gave them on Saturday). In other words it’s a joke restricted to the performers. To this end, to share Telemann’s joke we had the extracts above printed in the programme to the dinner.

Rachel and I were happy to play during this evening, the 1441 Dinner, celebrating philanthropy at King’s. We’re very privileged to be part of this college—now for some time—and Gulliver’s Travels felt an appropriate piece to play: as Rachel said to me, we’re all essentially ‘travelling’ through these wonderful buildings, and benefitting from this institution whose reputation is set, quite literally, in stone.

Here’s a photo of the two of us mid-performance:


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