Back Desk Mutterings – by Peter Adams

peter mss back desk mutter

This post companions “Character in Bird-Songs”  in my other blog.

I rather go for the mutterings in the crossed-out title! What is going on under the orchestral baton? Often I watched at the back of the local orchestral society at which my parents played, but liking to sit near the percussion, I  was less aware of what seethed beneath the docile strings.

I wondered what it will be like to lose a parent;   now I know. (19 February at 9.15pm:  planted 4th March in North Devon.)  For me, Peter is not ‘lost’, he is loved and he is free in an unlimited way. The truth he listened for is his real statement, and it is all the time eternally full and ripe to live.

I discover the deepest feelings in life released through death;  the music for ‘requiem’, ‘agnus dei’  and ‘dies irae”.

“Back Desk Mutterings” is not dated, nor had it been typed for Peter’s writing class, like the Bird Songs, but may have been drafted during my parents’ Somerset County Orchestra hay-day, in the 1960s and 70s possibly – a work in progress.


24 Peter Adams


Back Desk Mutterings

The shadowed anonymity of the back desks brings its own problems.  Far from the brilliance and the tense excitement of that cherished few that encircle the conductor, anxieties of right or wrong loom somewhat larger, the problems emerging suddenly out of that quite other ‘Cloud of Unknowing’.

It must be admitted, it is very useful at times to see the conductor’s beat – at beginnings and endings and those hardly perceptible but so vital withdrawings and pushings-on for instance – but the bottom and active part of the beat, and the lower twitchings of the hands  are often quite concealed behind the broad committed backs of our leaders and their fine heads of hair.  Frequently all that comes our way is the scowl that follows our innocent but uninformed pressings-on.  That we may be more easily aware therefore of his intentions, could any conductor under the height of 6ft 3ins be provided with a stand to raise him and his arms more fully into the view of all those unfortunates committed to following his directions?

norrington 3

Roger Norrington rehearses at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

There is a subtle communication between that half circle of the front desks and the conductor, which seldom percolates far back.  Those sudden quips with their attendant bursts of laughter are missed or at best release a belated grin as they are retailed backwards.  More important, the sharp instruction which follows an abrupt stop is also often missed or only half heard.  Perhaps one of the front desks may half turn his head and snarl out of the corner of his mouth, “Up bow, three bars after X1V!”  The second desks struggle to find the place and write it in, dropping their only pencil meanwhile.  The third desks lean forward asking hoarsely, “What did he say?”   Lurching to their feet, the back desks reach forward, endangering instruments and music stands as they endeavour to find out what is going on.  Not only that, but this paragon of a Heavenly Conductor, if he did change his mind – and even conductors do that – stands calm after issuing his instruction and will not resume whipping the air until he sees that all his players have recorded it and are ready to attack.

norrington 2

But the music has restarted.  The stick flashes and the brass relieved of their boredom are brazen.  The horns twirl their instruments and quaver, and the back desks relapse no wiser into their seats and attempt to catch up among the rush of semi-quavers that surround them.  They say that correct bowing is important, and certainly wrath and scorn fall upon those whose bow flips up, on a ‘down’.  But where and what to mark?  And why should the back desks be condemned to hurriedly copy down the leader’s often hardly legible marks in those few moments of precious relaxation while the front desks quoff coffee and share each others’ jokes?

Sometimes the writer dreams of playing in a Paradisal Orchestra in which the parts are clearly marked with the conductor’s and his leader’s directions, and nowhere is there doubt or misunderstanding.  Ah, what ease and what pleasure thus to play: an ideal situation and yet not impossible;  for lo, in playing for a local choral society recently, this same writer received his music through the post with all the bowings and the conductor’s introductory beats and intentions clearly marked.  All that this fortunate had to do at the rehearsal was to concentrate entirely on the music and the conductor’s interpretation, and he was thus able to play at the performance with confidence and energy.

norrington 1

There is nothing more dissipating of musical energy than anxiety about an entry, or uncertainty about bowing.  Fortunate are the winds who can simply blow.  Only the mouth organ and the concertina share with strings, the up or down dilemma

So confused can this marking of copies become, that it is not unusual to find string-players feverishly marking in their parts at the end of the afternoon rehearsal before an evening performance that is to be the flowering of weeks of preparation.  This means that although they may know the notes, they are virtually sight-reading much of the bowing and dynamics for the benefit of an audience.  And an altered bow marking means changed bowing for the rest of that phrase, and perhaps for a page.  A bow checked in full flight and turned to bring it into line with the others means a break in the stream of the string-tone, and a shattering of the disciplined spectacle of an orchestra in full play.  Attention that is half on the front desks to ensure that one’s playing is right, is attention that is no longer totally in the action of the music of which one is a part.


This gallery includes sketches of
Timothy West with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Click to view:


john eliot gardiner 1986

john eliot gardiner 1986


Sketches of Bernstein


If it were just for our own fun that we played, then none of this would be quite so vital, but “folk come a-flocking to hear” and to see – they even pay for this pleasure – and their interest is probably as much in watching as in listening to our efforts.  It would be well therefore, for us to remember that we are a visual as well as an aural experience, and to ensure that our preparations are both accurate and timely.  For our responsibilities to the audience and to the music are great.

P.A., West Newton,1960s/70s



Each morning as I wake
and in the evening as I lie
to sleep, I say –

“Come fair, come foul,
come blow or kiss
into my open arms
those are my equal
as into the Now I bow.”

P A, Shebbear




My adventure invites fellow travellers. I am a poet, an artist and a seer. I welcome conversation among the PHILO SOFIA, the lovers of wisdom.

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