Keeping Time

Last week, I was invited out for dinner and ended up going home with a Grandfather Clock.   At approximately the same time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle went to the Wirral and were given a Pineapple Clock.  This curious clock was a gift to the royals from a teenager who had very sadly lost her father to cancer at the age of 11.  At the time, Pineapple was her ‘safe word’ and she opened up to Prince Harry about this when discussing the loss of his Mother, Princess Diana at a similar age. This is a curious paradox because without Diana, Princess of Wales, we would still all be referring to Long Case Clocks.

The story starts in in the mid-17th century, after Christian Huygens determined a formula by which a clockmaker could craft a pendulum that would complete one swing per second. Before this breakthrough, clocks were powered by weights or springs, neither of which was particularly reliable. To be accurate, though, the pendulum had to be long, hence the long case.  It wasn’t until 1876 that Long Case clocks became known as Grandfather clocks and to find out why, we have to travel to the George Hotel in Piercebridge, North Yorkshire.  The year was 1820 and the hotel was run by two Jenkins brothers.  They possessed a long case clock which was notoriously reliable. When one of the brothers died, the clock started to lose time. The surviving brother brought in the best clockmakers in the land, but the clock just kept losing time, up to an hour each day. Then, when the second brother died, at 90 years old … the clock totally stopped working.

A few years later, American Songwriter Henry Clay Work was staying in the George Hotel and was told the story about the old Long Case Clock in the hall which sat there serving no useful purpose.  Of course whether this is a true story, we may never know. It is possible that the older brother’s job was to wind the clock and so when he died, the clock merely stopped!  Or maybe the clock just went wrong and the new owners decided to make up this story instead of bearing the cost off having it repaired. Regardless of this, Work thought it was a great story.  The song he wrote, inspired by the Jenkins’ tale, was called Grandfather’s Clock, and became his best-known song, selling over one million copies of sheet music in America.

From then on the long case clocks became known as Grandfather Clocks, but what I hear you ask does this have to do with Princess Diana?  Well, quite simple: Henry Clay Work was a distant cousin to Frances Work, who was a great grandmother to Diana, Princess of Wales. All of which brings me on to the concept of musical timing.

As regular readers of my blog or those who follow me across the various facets of social media will know, amongst my many ‘jobs’ I am Musical Director for Cirencester Male Voice Choir. Now this may sound like a grand title, but the reality is that for the most part I am simply a glorified metronome.  One of the basic principles of conducting is to keep different factions of a musical group in time and hopefully together!

That said I am not a fan of music which is performed ‘metronomically’.  There is a place for the metronome – mostly it is to help music students around Grade 5  standard to keep time and understand the principles of rhythm.   The ABRSM for example, place a lot of emphasis on a pupils ability to keep to time when performing their set pieces, certainly up to Grade 5.  Beyond that musical interpretation is encouraged and, whilst timing is still important, the concept of phrasing and the inclusion of ‘flexibility’ is introduced.

I often find myself caught in the middle of the timing debate.   On the one hand when I am teaching the piano, I encourage pupils to use the metronome with their practice, certainly in the early stages of learning.  In part this is not just to keep their performance in time, but a metronome can also be a useful guide to how well a pupil knows a piece.   For example if you set the metronome at a steady speed and start playing through a piece of music, if there comes a point where you consistently are not keeping up with the metronome, that’s the bit which needs more work.

However, when it comes to a performance, of any piece of music I personally dislike the idea of the timing being ‘rock steady’.  Music needs space and it needs to breathe just like the singers.  Regardless of whether I am conducting a choir or directing from the piano, I see this as a chance to shape the music and develop a musical performance which, although broadly in time, has a certain ebb and flow to suit the particular piece or phrasing.  This is the main reason why I’m not a fan of choirs who sing along to rigid, metronomic backing tracks.  I confess to being amused by choir leaders who feel the need to conduct a choir which  is singing to a backing track that never strays from crotchet = 120bpm and has a drum track clearly beating time.  To me that is not what music is about.  If you just want to keep time, go and buy a Grandfather clock.


Jules Addison attempts to keep control of 4 choirs in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.  So far he has never yet resorted to taking a metronome to rehearsals.

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