By James Montgomery
Does Professor Norris ever sleep? He must be the most energetic and prodigious musician alive today. You name it, he’s done it, does it, plays it, and will tell you anything about it. A walking, talking, broadcasting, teaching, instrument-playing encyclopaedia of music. A flag bearer too for a 19th century musician who possessed the same attributes (except broadcasting of course), and whose surname was similarly unhyphenated – William Sterndale Bennett.
The name may not trip off the tongue, but Sterndale Bennett was in many ways Britain’s most influential mover and shaker of the 1800s, and not just in the music world. Mr Owen Norris devoted the concert’s second half to his Piano Sonata Opus 46, composed in 1871 and based loosely on Schiller’s story of Joan of Arc. All the movements reflect vividly their titles, whether battle, prison, pastoral paradise, sorrow or joy. Owen Norris played the sonata impeccably, with all the drama and contrasting peace the music demands.
Although his programme was devised to mark two bi-centenaries, Sterndale Bennett’s birth in 1816 and the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, the most musical of her novels, he called his concert simply ‘A Musical Soirée for Jane Austen’. One piece he performed was copied in Jane Austen’s own hand, Fandango E Los Giganos. Originally a lady called Ann Thicknesse from the so-called leisured classes played this on the guitar. Her father was so outraged that his society daughter could have been ‘… placed in a becoming Attitude …’ while playing the instrument, that he set the Bow Street Runners on her, causing the Horse Guards to be brought out in her defence.
The evening’s music was charming, most of it written in Jane Austen’s time when, because of the expense, music was lent or borrowed rather than bought. Happily many of the manuscripts from that era are viewable not only at her former house at Chawton near Alton, but now online. Interestingly though, only in Emma is piano music alluded to specifically in any of her novels. Robin Adair was something of an Irish hit in those days, and Frank Churchill tells Emma that Jane Fairfax, ‘ … is playing Robin Adair’ on the new Broadwood piano that he’s given her anonymously.
Indeed it’s on a treasured 1828 Broadwood, just one of his beautifully kept and precious collection of instruments, that we were privileged to hear Owen Norris give his recital. As usual, he invited audience members to inspect his piano in the interval, and between each musical item he read amusing extracts from contemporary diaries and articles in his characteristic, inimitable and lively style. Hardly surprising that we left for home feeling happy.