Schubert and the Trout Quintet

Schubert, I feel, would have no sympathy for procrastinators. Before he died at the age of 31 – the age at which Beethoven wrote his first symphony – he wrote over 1000 pieces. More than 600 of those were ‘just’ songs, but they also included major works such as operas and symphonies. A friend of his said he was capable of writing seven songs in a day, with one of those seven being a masterpiece.

The most impressive fact from the Radio 3 programme I learned all of this from (which will sadly be no longer available very soon) was that the presenter, Steven Johnson, calculated the time it took Schubert to write his final three piano sonatas is equal to the time it would take for him to copy them; and these were some of the greatest works in piano music.

The reason I came across this programme was an article in the New York Times suggesting that listening to classical music requires both an ability to appreciate, and equally the patience to sit through, long pieces. I used to play the piano and violin to a reasonable standard (for an amateur), an achievement I would ascribe more to hard work and parental cajoling than any innate talent, and so I would consider myself somewhere in the middle of ladder when it comes to appreciating classical music. Put it this way – I don’t listen to Classic FM, but I don’t listen to Radio 3 either.

I tend to enjoy more melodic or dramatic pieces, a preference that causes my jazz-loving friend Alex much amusement when I ask him for jazz songs that ‘have more of a tune’ to them. This explains why I prefer Schubert’s wonderfully melodic Trout Quintet to his more complex Unfinished Symphony (which I also enjoy a lot). Feeling a little defensive about my apparently unadventurous tastes, I did a search for the Trout Quintet to find some commentary on it, and discovered that Radio 3 had aired a programme dedicated to it less than a week ago.

Schubert wrote the Trout Quintet at the depressingly young age of 22, as a commission from Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy music patron and mining engineer; Paumgartner suggested that he incorporate the melody from one of his extremely popular songs at the time, Die Forelle (The Trout), hence its name. If you like the Trout Quintet, it’s well worth listening to Die Forelle, which is quite a catchy tune.

Listen to a stream the fourth movement of the Trout Quintet (probably the most popular, and unsurprisingly my favourite as well).

Puzzle Quest, and the USA alone

Unfortunately I’m going to have to disappoint you – I’m not actually going to write a review of Puzzle Quest here; there are plenty of good ones already out there. The one thing I will say is that the game ended far earlier than I imagined – it comes with a large, scrollable world map, and when I reached the final mission, at least half of it was unexplored. I was quite relieved though, as I’d already spent a good dozen hours playing it and was getting worried at the amount of time I was wasting (and yes, I call it wasting, because even though playing Bejeweled is sometimes fun, there are more interesting ways to have fun).

Up until the final mission, I’d sailed through the game, having discovered a strategy that would reliably defeat all opponents except in the unluckiest of games (wear the Firewalker’s Staff, then cast Hand of Powe twice, then Fireball on the densest collection of skulls you can find, in case you were interested). I assumed that the final mission would be tricky and require a few tries, but I’ve found it so overwhelmingly difficult that I’ve just given up. Your opponent in the mission, Lord Bane, frankly has spells so powerful that they break the game; the only way to beat him is to be extremely lucky. On one try, I almost succeeded, but even then I knew that it was a complete fluke. A disappointing end to an otherwise entertaining and impressively addictive game.

(Incidentally, I don’t think that the computer cheats in Puzzle Quest – I often had incredibly good luck in battles. But I do consider the setup of the final battle to be cheating.)

On a completely different note, there’s an interesting discussion going on at the Apolyton forums. What would happen if:

…in the blink of an eye the United States of America as it exists right now is placed on a imaginary Earth where humans have been extinct since the late stone age. To the Americans it seems like every country in the world has instantly reverted to a pristine natural state without any infrastructure or population and with undepleted resources. They have no instant explanation, but assume that with a few months of research they could realize they were dropped off on a alternative Earth.

Of course, this is a completely fantastical scenario, but it’s educational to speculate on because it reveals a lot of assumptions about America’s economy, military, politics, religion, ethnic groups, all sorts of issues. What would the military/industrial complex do without any enemies to fight? Would religious groups go to found new colonies? Would expatriates in the US want to re-establish their home countries? Could America retain high-technology (e.g. computer chips) without their factories in Asia? Does America grow enough food for itself, or will it suffer from lack of imports? If the US can’t rely on cheap labour in Asia to produce its goods, who can they use?

Mr. Otis and Mr. Schindler…

For the benefit of those who don’t subscribe to my Twitter feed, or don’t know what Twitter is (almost everyone), I heard a funny and mysterious message while on the plane from Toronto to London. We’d landed only minutes earlier and were taxiing to the terminal when a flight attendant said:

We have a message for Mr. Otis and Mr. Schindler – your lifts are waiting at the gate.

A couple of people chuckled, because it’s quite funny – Otis and Schindler are the two largest lift manufacturers in the world, founded by Elisha Otis and Robert Schindler over a century ago. I find it hard to believe, however, that their descendants, or even representatives, were actually on the plane – certainly no-one actually called Mr. Otis or Mr.

Perhaps the message was just a joke, but I doubt it. Most people have no idea what Otis and Schindler mean, and even if they did, I find that flight attendants aren’t usually given to making jokes over the PA. It’s not as if this message was appended to another announcement, either.

So, what was it all about? I suppose it was for the benefit of some passenger on the plane who didn’t want to be named. Or maybe it’s a codeword for an emergency, like the ‘Mr. Sands’ message on the London Underground that’s actually a fire alert.

If you have any ideas on what this message might mean, or if you’ve heard it elsewhere, please let me know in the comments. And no, this is not an ARG or anything like that, I really did hear it on the plane.

Sharpe, and the 95th

Sharpe remains a fond favourite of mine, and I’ll often reminiscence about the scenes (essentially identical in every movie) in which French soldiers slowly march towards the British in a line while being blasted by Sharpe’s green-jacked rifles, firing three shots to the minute.

This Christmas, the oddly-named UK TV History channel are running a Sharpe marathon, and I eagerly tuned in to watch Sharpe’s Eagle. Like other childhood favourites, I was worried whether it would age well, and first impressions indicated that it had not. The quality – at least on TV – was grainy and blithely non-widescreen. Once I’d gotten over these superficial problems though, Sharpe looked pretty much the same as if you’d produced it today – there’s only so much you can do with a story about some Napoleonic-era soldiers marching around in Spain, sleeping in tents and shooting each other with rifles.

The dialogue and acting held up wonderfully; Sean Bean is Richard Sharpe (thus ensuring a lifetime of typecasting) and the writing, presumably closely adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s original novels, barrels along with jokes, action and backstabbing. It’s about the only ITV programme I can bear to watch any more.

I noticed that Brian Cox featured in Sharpe’s Eagle, and I had a nagging suspicion that I’d seen one of the other actors before. A quick trip to IMDB revealed that the extremely nasty Lt. Berry was in fact a young Daniel Craig with black hair. Even better, he spent most of the movie either playing cards or beating people up, which provided a wonderful moment of serendipity given that I was occasionally flipping channels to watch Casino Royale at the time.

What I found most interesting about Sharpe, however, is the history that it’s based on. The main characters in the shows belong to the 95th Regiment of Foot, a highly innovative and experimental company:

In 1800 an “Experimental Corps of Riflemen”, the 95th Regiment of Foot was raised by Colonel Coote Manningham and Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. William Stewart, drawn from officers and other ranks from drafts of a variety of British regiments. The Corps differed quite a bit from the main infantry of the British Army. The Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red more customary to the British Army of that time … The “Rifles” were armed with the formidable, but slow-loading Baker rifle which was more accurate and of longer range than the musket

The Rifles were trained to think for themselves, not to blindly follow orders and together with the riflemen of the 60th (later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) were the sharpshooters, skirmishers and scouts of the British Army. They went into battle not in line, but in skirmishing formations ahead of the main infantry, who were bunched into close formations, to snipe at their opponents and take cover in the process. These tactics – originated by the 60th in campaigns in North America – were unusual for that time. It was generally deemed to be dishonourable to deliberately aim at an individual, and conventional tactics favoured the volley from a close formation and the bayonet…

On top of this, the unit’s operation was markedly different from the line infantry. Flogging was abolished as a means of enforcing military discipline (a very progressive move and unheard of for the times), they held regular shooting and sporting competitions, and were rewarded for their achievements. Officers would regularly dine with their men and in so doing would become familiar with each man in their respective companies, a practice also unheard of at the time.

The performance of the regiment can be demonstrated by the story of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. Plunkett, armed with a Baker rifle, allegedly shot the French General Colbert at a range of between 400 and 800 yards during the Peninsula War. Apparently, he then shot a second Frenchman who rode to the general’s aid, proving that his was not just a lucky shot. By comparison, a standard issue Brown Bess musket could not be relied upon to hit a man-sized target at over 60 yards.

(compiled from Wikipedia)

It’s hardly surprising that Bernard Cornwell picked the 95th as Sharpe’s company given its groundbreaking nature, and this finally explains the eternal mystery of why the French would always march – very slowly – towards their doom in every single movie…

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon’s new novel, Gentlemen of the Road, was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, echoing the lurid and massively popular penny dreadfuls from the turn of the (twentieth) century. Its working title was originally ‘Jews with Swords’ which evokes all sorts of strange images, while the story itself sees a duo of Jewish ‘gentlemen of the road’ – that is, itinerant rogues – embark on an epic adventure in the Kingdom of Khazaria in the 10th century. They’re conmen, thieves, hard-bitten and cynical – but of course, like all true adventurers, they’ve got hearts of gold and are immensely loyal to each other.

I’m a big fan of Chabon’s – I enjoyed reading Summerland, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and I tend to buy his books as soon as they come out. I was a little disappointed with Gentlemen of the Road though. Partly this was because of its serial format, which doesn’t work well when stitched into a novel, and partly its because the adventure, for all its wit and colour, was not all that exciting. It felt oddly cramped, at odds with Chabon’s love of run-on sentences and numerous asides, which often obscured the action.

The world itself, 10th century Eastern Europe/Middle East, with Jews pressed up against Muslim Caliphates, Christian Franks and vicious white raiders from the north, pressed home the point that things were really quite interesting back then, and there are ways for different religions to get along – to an extent. So if you liked Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, you’ll like Gentlemen of the Road.

I had high expectations of this novel – too high, perhaps – but despite my disappointment I don’t regret buying it. It’s an entertaining read, one that’s best consumed at a measured pace, as opposed to my frantic reading. I picked it up on discount for £5 in a handsome hardback format, but I would suggest reading it online for free instead. You can do this without any guilt whatsoever, because it’s still on the New York Times Magazine website. Enjoy!

Ratatouille and Mario and Sonic

A brief roundup of things I have watched, read and played over the Christmas period:


Ratatouille is in contention for my ‘most rewatchable movie’ award. This has previously been the sole province of Master and Commander, another movie that doesn’t adhere to normal traditions of pacing and plotting. I’ve watched Ratatouille about four times now (at the theatre, on the plane, on DVD) and I’m not in any danger of getting tired of it – or its wonderful song, Le Festin.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympics (Wii)

I lent my Wii to a friend using it for a church teen videogames night, and he asked me to recommend a new party game, under the assumption that Wii Sports probably wouldn’t provide the same draw as it did last year. Mario and Sonic at the Olympics was what he ended up getting, and he kindly gave me the game afterwards.

It’s not a bad four player game, I suppose, but I can’t say I enjoy it much. It’s a compilation of sports minigames, of course, which needn’t be a bad thing – I quite liked Wario Ware, for example, and Rayman Raving Rabbids was entertaining as well. The problem with Mario and Sonic is that the minigames are surprisingly difficult to play well. Each minigame has anywhere between four and twelve pages of instructions, at the end of which you’re left scratching your head wondering what buttons you’re supposed to press, and in which order to do them in. And when you finally get around to playing the minigames, you find that they are either trivially easy, or frustratingly obtuse.

Trivially easy: 100m dash, 100m swimming, 110 hurdles, shooting, fencing. These all involve either shaking the controllers very fast, or pointing at things.

Frustratingly obtuse: Javelin, triple-jump, long jump. None of these are supposed to be hard, but despite reading the instructions several times and pressing the buttons at the right times, we just couldn’t figure it out. Four Oxbridge graduates couldn’t work out how to throw the javelin, and it took me literally a dozen tries to realise what I was doing wrong.

Some games are entertaining; archery, trampolining, rowing… that’s about it. And you can unlock some interesting ‘Dream Events’ which are basically Mario or Sonic-related games (i.e. nothing to do with ‘real’ sports). After a couple of hours of play, I’ve managed to unlock one, and I don’t think I have the patience to get the other three. I suspect it will be on eBay before long.

Tomorrow: Puzzle Quest, and an entire new novel by a bestselling author for free – legally!