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picture of girl in hammock
The patient wait for meaning
Picture of old writing on parchment paper

Some years ago, I participated in a week-long summer school in palaeography at the University of Keele. The focus was not on deciphering illuminated manuscripts, but rather on learning to read working documents from the Middle Ages – proceedings of manorial courts, wills, deeds, affidavits, and so forth. These were all written in Latin in a variety of rapid clerical hands designed to save time and parchment.


What was particularly challenging about decoding these scripts – apart from the mediaeval Latin itself – was the use of formations for capital letters that differ from almost all modern (or Ancient Roman) capital shapes, and also the employment of space-saving abbreviations that had to be learned as discrete sense units, almost in the manner of hieroglyphs.


Altered mental state


I was in a group of six students who spent seven hours a day translating these manuscripts, for six days in a row. Years of studying Latin and French at school provided some preparation for this, but I had never experienced a translation approach of such radical intensity. It had something genuinely monastic about it – something that over the course of time induced a genuinely altered mental state.


Each student would translate one sentence, taking as long as was necessary to decode the sentence in its entirety. Then another student would translate the subsequent sentence, and so on until the text under scrutiny had been completely translated.


“You have the means to understand it”


When a student reached an impasse, the teacher would say, “Look at the sentence. You have the means to understand it.” If the student failed to make progress, the teacher would repeat the same exhortation, with a range of variations, the simplest and most powerful of which was: “Look at it until its meaning becomes clear.”


At the beginning of the week, this pedagogical approach struck me as lunacy. But after hours and days of patient waiting for meanings to reveal themselves, I began to understand it. The human mind has evolved specifically to learn language and explore its deeper meanings. Our individual capability is infinite; it is only our impatience that gets in our way.

A life divided in two
Image of violins

There are works of art that divide our lives in two. There is the part before we encountered the work in question for the first time; and there is the entirely different part after that encounter has taken place.


One of the works that has organized my life in this manner is Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor (BWV 1043), and specifically the second movement, Largo ma non tanto in F major.


I first encountered this composition when visiting a friend at Newnham College, Cambridge, in early January 1979. We were planning to walk through some scenes from a play in which we were to perform at the end of the Lent term; but the moment I entered that room, all thoughts of theatre fled my mind.


Garlands of melody


My friend had a room overlooking the beautiful gardens of Newnham College, whose architecture, stemming from the 19th century, evokes the earlier period of Queen Anne. Through the large windows I could see the gardens, heavily frosted and with the low morning sun reflecting off every motionless surface. The whole interior space in which I found myself, indeed, appeared to be a winter garden, and in that frozen stillness the sound of two violins was intertwining in long garlands of exquisitely tender melody.


This largo is unusual in that it gives the solo violins equal status, deploying fugal elements to convey the impression of continuous change and at the same eternal repetition. Looking back to those moments, I realise that my encounter with this music was very much like the experience of falling in love: I was confronted with something that was utterly unknown to me which yet seemed entirely familiar, and which I wanted to spend my life learning to understand.


From generation to generation


Bach’s largo from BWV 1043 remains one of the cornerstones of my musical world, lovingly handed down from generation to generation, just as its solo violins hand the melody back and forth to each other. And I like to meditate on the fact that there was a period of Bach’s life in which this music did not exist – and a moment in which he might have allowed himself to reflect on the fundamental transformation that he had just brought about.

A Blessing from Urbino

Jonathan Steffen.


First published in the magazine of the British BMG Federation, Issue 106, Autumn 2023.

Photo of inside detail on a harpsichord

This summer, I had the good fortune to participate once more in Mauro Squillante’s Summer School in the Baroque Mandolin, held in Urbino, Italy, as part of the annual festival of the Italian Federation for Early Music (FIMA). Classes, consisting of individual lessons and ensemble playing sessions, were held daily in the Oratorio Sant’Andrea Avelino.


Two minutes to nine on the third morning of the course found me standing outside the Oratorio, waiting for the door to be unlocked.


At one minute to nine, an elderly lady in a housecoat appeared with the key, the dry skin on her withered limbs reddish-blue with age and her feet slowly shuffling in slippers. After several attempts, she managed to turn the key in the lock. “Blessed are those who make music,” she said to me in Italian as she pushed the door open, following this with a more prosaic: “Did you understand that?”


I had indeed understood. Italian is a very beautiful language, and I have heard and read many lovely things expressed in it, but nothing quite as beatific as those words uttered at that moment: “Beati coloro che fanno la musica.”


The photo, incidentally, is a detail from the inside of the lid of the harpsichord stationed in the Oratorio as part of the summer school. It will be noted that in this depiction of Paradise, even the dog is enjoying the music.


For more information about this wonderful festival and Mauro Squillante’s mandolin classes, please visit

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