Now where did I leave my glasses?

My reputation as a cool dude when playing jazz (pause for ironic jeers) has taken a bit of a hammering recently as I’ve had to start wearing middle distance glasses in order to see the charts. My optician tells me I’ll soon be needing multifocal lenses.

Which brings me to Random Fact Number 742… In the middle of the 18th century, the same eye surgeon – an Englishman called John Taylor to be precise – carried out eye operations on both JS Bach and Handel.

John Taylor

Neither operations were successful; indeed history has characterised JT more as a charlatan than a miracle worker.

I am tempted to add Random Fact Number 743 at this point. Although Bach and Handel were born in the same year (1685) and within 80 miles of each other – and, yes, they were operated on by the same surgeon: they never actually met. One can almost hear Michael Caine muttering: there’s not a lot of people know that.

Anyhow, back to composers and eyes. It is perhaps not surprising that men and women whose job required them to spend hours writing and studying manuscripts in fine detail (especially in the days before electric lights and digital printers) would strain their eyes over the years. In more recent times, Frederick Delius suffered serious health problems in later life – including losing his sight. It is thanks to another Englishman – Eric Fenby – that many of Delius’s late works (e.g. Songs of Farewell, Two Aquarelles) were able to be set down and published.

One thing that the blues musician Ray Charles and the 18th Century English composer John Stanley share is that they both went blind in childhood. They were also pretty remarkable people. John Stanley was the youngest student ever (aged 17) to obtain a B Mus from Oxford; he was also regarded as the finest English organist of his generation and was able to direct long oratorios (including many by his older contemporary Handel) from memory. Ray Charles was notoriously independent (flying his own plane, for example), was outstanding at chess, and achieved mastery across musical genres as diverse as jazz, gospel and country & western.

Another blind jazz pianist brings us full circle back to Bach. Alec Templeton, originally from Wales, had considerable success in America either side of the Second World War – something achieved a few years later by another blind jazz pianist, George Shearing. Templeton is perhaps best known for a piece called Bach Goes to Town, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liUA4cKUsek) a tongue in cheek Prelude and Fugue in swing style. It boasts a formidable range of performers, including the Benny Goodman Band  and the English harpsichordist George Malcolm.

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6 comments for “Now where did I leave my glasses?

  1. Terry
    3 June 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Are ironic jeers a form of praise?

    Another fascinating post, many thanks Andrew

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  2. Yiannitsa
    3 June 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Lovely, i can’t stop listening to it.

    Thanks Andrew!

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    • Andrew
      3 June 2010 at 3:51 pm

      Glad you are enjoying it, Yiannitsa.
      Incidentally, the Benny Goodman version on YouTube only features the second half of the piece (the fugue). I couldn’t find a good version of the first half (prelude). There is a rather straight-laced pianist who plays both on YouTube but I didn’t think it captured the jazz feel of the original.
      Perhaps surprisingly the harpsichordist George Malcolm did manage this on a recording from the 1960s but this isn’t on YouTube. I say ‘surprisingly’ since George Malcolm was from the mainstream classical tradition (a former Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, for example). However, he had a delightful sense of humour and composed another spoof called Bach Before The Mast which is a Theme and Variations on Sailor’s Hornpipe – in the style of J S Bach!

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  3. Bruce Ronaldson
    4 June 2010 at 1:04 pm

    George Shearing [probably best known for'Lullaby in Birdland'] was askedin an interview:

    “Have you been blind all your life?”

    “Not yet.” came the terse reply!

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  4. 5 August 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Andrew’s list of blind composers omits Joaquin Rodrigo, the blind Spanish composer of perhaps the most famous guitar concerto ever. He became blind as a child, as did John Stanley whom Andrew does mention – a great musician indeed, who became a governor of the famous Foundling Hospital for which Handel wrote Messiah. That was one of the oratorios he learnt and conducted many times, though it is not certain how he would learn the music. My aunt was blind, a good musician and very competent pianist. Her music was produced in Braille and she would learn right and left hand parts, bar by bar separately before putting them together. Transcribing music for the blind is a costly business, but thankfully computer programmes have been developed in America that should make it more practicable.

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  5. 17 February 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Well, the day has finally arrived that the Great George Shearing can finally say yes to your question ‘Bruce Ronaldson’. George Shearing passed away this week at the ripe old age of 91. I’ve been reviewing my collection of his work and I’m so struck by his almost classical style.

    I can hear him saying “I can finally say that I’ve been blind all of my life” … ;-)

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