A friend of mine the other day was shocked by my admission, that when I eventually got the opportunity to visit the Museum of Modern Art, New York, I was so familiar with some of the paintings from reproductions, that the actual works bored me. I instanced Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Dali’s melting watches and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He thought that this was ridiculous but I explained that I was only honestly relating an experience, not putting forward any principle.

I mention this because I have just visited the National Gallery of Scotland to see Manet’s Mademoiselle Claus, recently acquired by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Seeing originals is more important for an appreciation of Manet’s genius than practically any other painter: some of his works in reproduction can seem almost academic, even photographic, only revealing their quality and originality when actually confronted. The economy of his brushwork is astounding and seeing how the dabs of paint coalesce to form perfect illusions of reality, is truly magical.

There is no direct analogy between actual paintings versus reproductions and live performances of classical music versus recordings. A particular CD may be superior, as an interpretation of a composer’s intentions, to a given live performance. Colin Wilson’s On Music is the only case that I have come across where an admission of a preference to listening to recorded music over attending concerts, has been made.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot of snobbishness connected with classical music and there are people who live their lives so vicariously that they seem to feel the need to be attached to celebrity, however tenuously, so that there is a thrill in attending a performance by a famous musician even although they are getting very little from it musically. Charles Rosen has written about how audiences in the past would contain a higher proportion of competent pianists who would know the music being played from direct experience. The equivalent of  recorded symphonic music before the modern age was the arrangements for piano duet that composers like Brahms supplied for home consumption.

I have often thought that, having no musical ability myself, I would not have gained the immense pleasure from classical music that I have had, if I had lived before the advent of recorded music. And it may be true that the musically accomplished get more from of it than I do, although I know quite gifted individuals who close their minds to anything composed in the last hundred years. Before a concert I like to do my homework. I am not going to pay for an expensive ticket and get lost so that I dream.

My last live music experience was the concert by the Arditti Quartet at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. The concert began with Janacek’s first quartet, which I have known for a long time but I was attracted to this concert because of two quartets by Conlon Nancarrow. I had read about him and had duly bought a CD to sample his music. (Generally this is my route to musical enjoyment. It began when as a schoolboy in Orkney  I  read about modern jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, sent for a record from Keith Prowse in London and played it until I understood it.) There were two other pieces in the programme both by Xenakis and they gained  from live performance.

My previous experience of the work of Xenaxis was over forty years ago. On holiday in Paris, I attended with my wife an event in the ruins at the Musée de Cluny, where we lay on our backs on matting, watching a lighting display overhead to the accompaniment of electronic music. It was a fun, holiday curiosity and it didn’t make me want to mug up on Xanakis’ music. Watching the Arditti Quartet producing the gratings, slides and textures from conventional instruments was a much more engaging experience. It gave something I don’t think you would get from a recording.

The piece I have taken to most from my Nancarrow recordings is Piece No.2 for Small Orchestra not the two quartets played by the Arditti Quartet, much as I enjoyed them. l may never have the opportunity to hear Piece No.  2 live.


The major art exhibition during last year’s Edinburgh International Festival was entitled Symbolist Landscape. I was apprehensive about the show: there are many ghastly Symbolist paintings. In the event, I was pleasantly surprised. The category was stretched a bit but there were many fine paintings that I had not seen before and several beautifully hung walls. The curator had no axe to grind and he or she (I am in favour of curators having a low profile) had assembled an exhibition of great and interesting paintings.

But ghastly paintings, in every sense do predominate in one of this year’s Festival shows at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. For the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies, which is advertised as being a first to explore artists’ view of witches, the curator has obviously struggled to come up with many artists of quality. The show relies heavily on Goya who is represented by one small painting based on a long-forgotten play, The Forcibly Bewitched, and several etchings from The Caprichos that can be seen at any time on request, at the Scottish National Gallery. If, as I understood from an interview on Scottish Newsnight, the curator is making any point about the horrific treatment of women during the witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries, the inclusion of Goya is to say the least problematic.

Goya, as his letters make clear, didn’t believe in witches. Robert Hughes in his scholarly monograph explains how the painter completed a small series of witch paintings for his patron the Duchess of Osuna who was interested in them ‘rather as one might display a faux-naïve or campy taste for horror movies without actually believing in reincarnated mummies or creatures from the black lagoon.’ Without being aware of the context, many of us must have wondered about the great Goya’s Witches Sabbath (1797-98) with its comical billy goat. It’s difficult to take it seriously. And, of course, the witches and hobgoblins of The Caprichos they’re meant to be satirical aren’t they?

Other exhibits too, have a very tenuous connection with the persecution of old women as witches. Fuseli’s Weird Sisters was produced for the dealer Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and the witches in Macbeth are really a dramatisation of the inner monologue of Macbeth’s demented ambition. No artist has been found who deals with the witch craze at a serious level. Even the painters and printmakers contemporary with the grim realities produced fantasies with a carnival spirit that make them appear sophisticated Halloween events.

I’m sure that a search among popular prints of the time would produce images of the atrocities but there is no evidence that any serious artist bore witness as Goya did, of the horrors of war, or recorded with relish the barbarities of the age. Among Rembrandt’s drawings there are two sketches of a woman on a gibbet but there is no suggestion that she was an executed witch. An axe hangs beside her. Perhaps she struck down a brutal husband. Rembrandt doesn’t turn her into a monster. The mood of the drawings seems even compassionate

So what is the point of this exhibition? If one wants to know about the witch craze there are several well know studies. If one expects aesthetic excitement, disappointment is in store.