I spent the middle week of this month in a house on the edge of a cliff. I decided to take a week off work to volunteer at the International Musicians Seminar (IMS) at Prussia Cove, near Penzance, Cornwall. And how much a week can do!
IMS hosts two annual sessions in this great stone house overlooking the sea. In April, talented young musicians take master classes with maestri - Andras Schiff and Steven Isserlis among them - in one of two 10-day programmes. Some of the students come as soloists, others in quartets or trios. In September, the exceptional students are invited back to play chamber music with the maestri and older professionals; some of them then tour Britain, finishing up at the Wigmore Hall in London.
Music is taken seriously at Prussia Cove. IMS was set up in 1972 by the Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh, who saw that this beautiful, remote place could serve as both a retreat and an inspiration for musicians. The atmosphere, particularly in April, is intense: I soon learnt that most of the students had been playing their chosen instruments since the age of four and had grown up listening to the maestri playing, be it on the radio from Melbourne or in concert halls in New York.
As a “helper”, I found Prussia Cove a place of intensity and great freedom. I felt focussed – writing, reading, even thinking more than usual – yet unpressurized. Perhaps being surrounded by music-making stimulated my own version of creativity. Every room became a practice room, and I liked to walk slowly down the long, cool corridors of the house hearing different pieces of music drift through each door. It gave me the strange sensation that I was hearing my various (and often contradictory) thoughts.
The masterclasses are “open” classes - somwhere between rehearsals and recitals. Students come to listen to the maestri imparting wise words; helpers wander in with novels and mugs of coffee after shifts in the kitchen ; and IMS supporters pay a little to come and discover the “next big thing”.
I had never heard music of that standard played in such informal settings, and it was a revelation. In one particular cello lesson I sat in on, the maestro stopped the student’s playing at various points to ask her, for example, what the “colour” of the last phrase had been and where the tensions lay. They discussed which emotions should inhabit which bits of the score, and how all this could be achieved with different lengths of bow, kinds of pressure, types vibrato etc. It was a fascinating mix of technical and psychological.
To musicians it will seem obvious, but I learnt at Prussia Cove that playing a piece of music is like reading a script. That it is about an imagined relationship between composer and musician, and playwright and actor – a meeting of intention and interpretation.
Between helping in the kitchen, listening to classes and walking the clifftops with new friends, I set about preparing a lesson on John Donne (I do one-on-one A-Level tutoring in the evenings). I have always believed that my reading of a poem changes depending on where I am or who reads it to me. This was especially true of that week and Donne’s “The Good-Morrow”: the more I read it the more it seemed to me to be about Prussia Cove.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
Prussia Cove might be Donne’s “little room” - one that was both “an everywhere” and different from anywhere else. When I was there, I had no mobile reception and no contact with anyone outside that small natural harbour; for one week, it was as though nothing else existed. Perhaps that made Prussia Cove unreal; yet there everything seemed somehow more real and more meaningful - and normal life “but a dream” of it.
When I got back to London, I opened an email from my father about Prussia Cove. “That place, the sea, the wind, the birds, the music, the cheesepie,” he wrote, “what a heavenly mix an match. The word ‘fulfill’ might have been coined in that half walled garden.”
I think he puts it perfectly.