Once upon a time, forever ago, I sat and listened to a man who loved Russian music.

His name was Professor Brown. He was a lecturer not only to me, but to listeners to Radio Three, the classical music channel here in the UK. He talked to radio audiences about Tchaikovsky.

He oozed kindliness. And this one day, in a music lecture room in the bowels of a provincial theatre, he spoke to just a handful of young music students. He played a recording which changed the way I thought.

It was a recording of a harsh old woman’s voice singing a single melody, with no accompaniment. She was Russian, I think; and the tune she sang behaved utterly differently to the ones I was accustomed to hearing.

Here in Europe our tunes have a stately ancient order to them. Typically a melody might have a question, and an answer, then an elaboration of the question and a final conclusion.

Rather like musical rhetoric.

This woman, Reader: she was singing something far more untamed.

The tune she sang started with a premise: and then wandered back over it many times, changing a bit here, a bit there, languishing in the shape that first little snatch of music had taken, telling the same phrase over and over, the same and yet different.

It spoke of the vast steppes, of mountainous regions, of bitter cold and death, and life that persisted and blossomed despite harsh realities. All that, Reader, in a small snatch of melody sung hauntingly by an old woman.

It has never left me. Neither has the romance of the people who went out to far-flung places to collect music which man had been moulding for millennia, never choosing to write it down.

Take Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.

They undertook to travel to the far reaches of Hungary to record the music of the Magyars, the Hungarian people. Bartok would record the songs on manuscript paper; Kodaly, though, was  a man of technology and opted to use the phonograph cylinder, which recorded an etching of a song on the outside of a cylinder made of wax or plastic.

They discovered something new: that the tunes were largely built around the pentatonic scale, a haunting five-tone system which pulls the heart strings but remains heart-breakingly distant, like a wild animal.

These travellers and collectors, these ransackers of history and time: they are singular adventurers. We only get to see their finds second-hand.

But second-hand is good enough for me.

Which is why I found myself at a huge repository of Things That Have Changed The World, set near Bloomsbury Square in the heart of London.

The British Museum is an enchanting magpie’s nest of booty, a cornucopia of beautiful objects on which to feast the eyes. As for the provenance of the objects, and how they were come by: I cannot say.

I was in search of what I collect: leads. Hints of much bigger stories, dropped by the things which once adorned the lives of people around the word, and which now have been deemed so significant  that they stand in a glass case in a national museum.

I skimmed the Egyptian gallery but the Assyrians were calling. Where the Egyptians are all grace, light and linen, the Assyrians were gravitas, power and stunningly inscribed stone.

I elbowed my way to the front for a moment alone with the Rosetta Stone. One piece of rock, so much understanding.

Then I looked at the map.

Reader, there were so many stories and there was so little time: a room of prints and etchings of rapier-sharp 19th century wit; a room hung with iron age jewellery which beckoned across two thousand years and some.

There were inscriptions and helmets from Roman Britain and the findings from the Saxon Noble’s tomb at Sutton Hoo. Swords and torques and chessmen and incense holders and minor deities and five hundred years of clocks and watches….

Each took a little time to record. One has to know about a lead before one can follow it up. And I worked and worked, skimming and scanning this plunder for the finds which must surely have the most captivating tales attached.

Finally, about three, it was time to leave. I will be returning very soon: I have a date already set.

But I sloped out unwillingly onto the great pantheonic steps, watching tourists surge in the opposite direction.

Why does mankind collect stuff?

Bartok and Kodaly made a lasting change to the direction of music with their ground-breaking discovery about Magyar melodies. The museum provides academic evidence to allow us to plot the past.

But most of all, Reader, it’s a captivating collection of finds which lift the spirit. They track, in a haphazard fashion, the aspirations of mankind from its earliest moments. Each object is something very beautiful.

And each exhibit is a lead to a much bigger story.

29 thoughts on “Plunder

  1. I love museums. I always wish I could touch everything. Instead I have to stand and try to feel the vibrations of stuff, try to imagine the people who made or handled the things. Someday I hope to get to the British Museum.

  2. So much to see, so little time.
    Still, you’ve given me an idea for next week – not sure Nicky will thank you for that!
    M x

  3. Interested in Assyrians, huh?

    Have you been to the Ashmolean since it reopened? I thought you may like this snippet

    Part of which here:
    “Luxury versions of such writing-boards were made out of ivory, of which several Assyrian examples have survived in Assur PGP and Calah PGP . One such ivory writing-board from Calah, now on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, was patiently assembled from its many fragments by Agatha Christie, the creator of the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple detective novels who, as the wife of archaeologist Max Mallowan, spent many years on excavations in the Near East.”

      1. Just been there and I’m overjoyed with the Cuneify facility. Although, to be fair, ‘My name is Kate Shrewsday’ was translated 𒄑.


      2. Thought it may tickle your fancy. If you come up in person to Oxford do let me know and I’ll treat you to a coffee 🙂

    1. A cursory glance at Miami’s museums, Carl…..Bass and Frost Art museums, Jewish museum, Museum of Science and Planetarium, Museum of the Americas, Vizcaya museum and gardens, Wolfsonian…..somebody goes there 😀

    1. Memory does not serve, UE, but I’ll root around. Knowing Prof Brown it was one he found himself to demonstrate a point: I’m off to check whether Kodaly’s recording still exist in any shape or form.

  4. Beautiful, thought provoking post. Fabulous, Kate.

    Here’s what gets me: Every human to ever draw breath has stories of his or her own–stories by the hundreds. So many experiences unmarked and untold, no matter how important.

    1. True beyond words, Maura. Most of humanity remains unmarked and their stories never findout. a glass case in which to sit. To find the stories one can only ever hope to skim and scan. That, of course, is where blogs are so wonderful.Stories have a new place to filter out.

    1. You would love this museum, Cindy, it’s full of trinkets and curiosities.
      Kodaly’s music is wonderful but he was more than a musician. He loved to educate, wrote a lot of music for children; and he developed the Kodaly method for teaching violin. He was a philosopher and loved his research. A man of many talents.

  5. Almost like a museum inside the museum. What fun! Just your sharing gives me ideas of things to write about, Kate, I can only imagine what may be spinning around in your head.

    1. It’s disciplining it all which will take the time now. A lot is well known and has already had its story written: but linking different objects from various collections has not been done, I think, looking at the literature.
      Wonderful visit, Penny. Like a holiday.

  6. You are lucky in the richness of the lode you can tap into. In South Africa, the museums are still fascinating, but really superficial by comparison.
    The roots and kinds of music, and the ways in which it can speak to one … oh, what a topic for a little essay about the length of War and Peace.

    1. ….and a subject which would keep us both talking animatedly until the sun went down and afterwards 😀 A snatch of tune like that is a red rag to a composer….good to hear the book is going so well, Colonialist. I do enjoy the little updates when they come. Your sense of humour never fails.

  7. I like museums with stuff better than museums stuffed with art. 😀

    I loved going to college in Williamsburg . . . walking where footsteps had fallen for 400 years.

  8. Lucky you, to be in a position to elbow your moments alone with the Rosetta Stone – I’d need a lo-o-o-o-ong elbow…;) I knew a woman slightly (mother of a friend) who owned a recording that I found beautiful (and which drove my friend nuts) – it was the voice of a mendicant on some street corner somewhere, singing words that were barely distinguishable, in a chanting sort of half-melody, both words and melody highly repetitious, a song without beginning or end, you could say. There was something about it, so simple and yet containing worlds, it seemed. I could never quite look Gregorian chant in the eye after that, though I had used to love it.

    1. Wonderful what our ears find beautiful, isn’t it, Ruth. I love the story of that song. And I know just what you mean about Gregorian chant. All life and ten thousand years are wrapped up in some of these snatches of melody sung by the humblest of the humble. I hear it at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring too.

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