A String Quartet playing in the Gothic Room

Anyway, on this occasion, instead of people socialising, they treated our string quartet performance at a concert performance and stood around our ensemble listening to each piece of music and applauding after each piece. It was most unusual for a wedding, but a very nice deviation from the norm for us, and they seem to thoroughly enjoy having a formal concert as the prelude to the wedding ceremony.

Another, somewhat wackier experience, was when we played for a wedding ceremony where half the guests were Japanese. They were a delightfully enthusiastic group of people, as the Japanese so often are, and as one would expect took thousands of photographs of us. But some of them decided that it was unfair that they were eating canap├ęs was we were playing, so insisted on feeding us anything that was on a cocktail stick, but whilst we were playing. I've never played a violin eaten canopies, and I wouldn't recommend it as there is a severe danger of choking to death!

When the bride is ready to descend the stairs to make her grand entrance, the staff at the castle givers a few minutes warning, so that we can bring the piece of music to stop and move herself to the foot of the stairs. What happens at this point depends on whether we are playing with a conventional string quartet of 2 violins, viola and cello, or with a flute and string quartet where one of the violins is replaced by a flautist.

Normally we would play in the great hall for half an hour before the bride makes her entrance, but as you know it is traditionally the bride's prerogative to be late, and my goodness, sometimes brides take full advantage of this. I think the longest delay has been about an hour. You keep playing and thinking "when on earth is she going to be ready?" And keep playing pieces music that are structured such that you can bring it to a close quickly, (some pieces of music are written in lots of short repeating sections, so that they can be drawn to a sensible conclusion within about 20 or 30 seconds. Other pieces music are structured differently, typically complete string quartets by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, where it can sometimes be very very difficult to stop without a jarring jolt.

Another couple of occasions that I can think of where we had to keep playing for a long time was first wedding, where the wedding cake was accidentally demolished by one of the guests. We kept playing for about an hour extra while the staff and the kitchen didn't amazingly good repair to the cake. I think the particular problem was that the cutting of the cake was choreographed to be a central part of the wedding day, which was a little unusual, so the accident with a cake was particularly unfortunate. But the Eastnor catering staff did a wonderful job and the Midsummer string quartet kept playing to entertain the guests.

Another incident that comes to mind was a corporate event, not a wedding ceremony. Guests were arriving in coaches from Heathrow or Gatwick airport, I can't remember which. When the coaches arrived on time and we were supposed to play with a string quartet for about an hour before the banquet. The 2nd coach however, did not arrive. Nobody knew what had happened to it, so reasonable Castle asked us to keep playing, which we did. It eventually transpired that the driver of the other coach admits read Herefordshire and interpreted it as Hertfordshire. He'd gone miles in the wrong direction before he realised his mistake. I can't remember if it was one or 2 hours extra that we played, but it was a long time. It was even worse for the kitchen staff were preparing a lavish banquet where timing is of the essence, but I think they coped with that in the inimitable style.

What happens for the entrance the bride depends on which kind of quartet has been booked. If it's a conventional string quartet, the quartet moved to the foot of the stairs to play as the bride and the bridesmaids, (anywhere between one and sometimes it seems more like 1000), to send the stairs. Sometimes the stairs also descended by fathers or mothers, depending on the traditions that are being followed.

It's quite common for there to be a delay when the bride reaches the bottom the stairs so that the photographer can take some shots, and then the quartet play is the pride, groom and guests process across the great Hall, past the Knight on his horse, into the Gothic room. When most guests are out of earshot, the string quartet stop playing and move into the Gothic room via the doors joining it to the octagon room, (i.e. not the door the guests may still be passing through.) They would have set up a new set of standards in the Gothic room complete with the music that is going to be played for the wedding ceremony, so that the movement from one location to the next can be done quickly and unobtrusively.

An alternative scenario is when the flute and string quartet have been booked to play. In this case the violin, viola and cello move into the Gothic room whilst the flautist moves to the foot of the stairs to play as bride, bridesmaids (however many there may be) perhaps mothers, fathers, uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, descend the stairs. Once photographs have been taken, the flautist leads bride, groom and guests across the great Hall, and as before passed the night in armour, into the Gothic room, rather in the manner of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The flute is quite useful for doing this, not just because of the connotations with Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, but because it is quite possible to walk and play a flute. This, together with the fact that a basic flute is a very simple instrument to make, (I'm not meaning here concert flute), is why flutes have been used in religious ceremonies back to the days of the Romans and ancient Greeks and before. There is a lot of archaeological evidence for the use of the flute in this context, so the Midsummer is continuing a tradition that has spanned many thousands of years and many civilisations that have come and gone. (That's pretty good when I think about it like this. I've never thought of the Midsummer flute and string quartet being eternal and being a connection from our ancient past at the dawn of civilisation. Well, there you go, what you know!)

The flautist leads the bride, groom and guests through the red Hall, passed the Knight in armour and in through the double doors of the Gothic room. The flautist walks at a speed to carefully time it, so that when they enter through the doors with the bride and groom following close behind, it is it just the right moment in the music for the rest of the quartet, (who are seated already in the Gothic room), to join in. The sound level rises at this point and the couple make a grand entrance and walk to the location where the ceremony will take place. The quartet continue to play until all guests are seated, at which point they bring the music to a close.

The signing of the register can take quite a long time, especially if there's a wedding photographer photographer and perhaps a videographer who goes through a re-enactment of the signing, after which the guests are usually invited to take their own photographs, which can take a variable amount of time depending how enthusiastic the photographers amongst them happen to be. The string quartet will always have at least 2 pieces of music available for this point in the ceremony, as the time taken is never known in advance. Sometimes they would play just one piece of music, sometimes moving on to a 2nd piece and very occasionally even a 3rd base. They always have to be alert to what is happening in the room and particularly alert to the registrar who at any point might look towards them and signal to stop playing, particularly if the guests are taking an unreasonable time for photographs and the registrar is keen to move on to the last part of the ceremony.

The final task of string quartet is to play as the bride and groom exit the room through the double doors into the octagon room, (not the double doors they came in by from the red Hall). This needs to be a rousing piece of music, is typically the guests applaud and cheer at this point, and it's important that they string quartet music is not ground out. It also needs to be something that is easy for the couple to walk to, preferably with a march type rhythm to it, (you don't want them to have to hop skip and jump out of the room or walk solemnly as if it was a few norm rather than wedding). A string quartet have got to be alert and ready to move their music stands and themselves right into the corner so that they don't obstruct the exit route for the happy couple. Waiters awaiting in the octagon room with trays of drinks for the guests of they leave. The string quartet keep playing until the last of the guests have left the octagon room, after which they are ready to move location once again.

In the summer, on those occasions when the weather is good (though as we all know in this wonderful climate of ours, the summer can be some of the worst weather and spring and autumn are often the best), then guests may very quickly go out of the octagon room onto the veranda that overlooks the lake. When the weather is bad, the guests would normally linger in the octagon room and gradually drift into the great Hall if the mood took them. Whatever the situation, the string quartet follow. If moving outside, locating themselves central to the veranda so that guests can hear the music wherever they may be. The brand of Eastnor Castle has quite good acoustics, firstly because there are the flat, hard, sound reflecting walls behind the quartet, and secondly because it forms a kind of parable politic reflector, with the end terrace of the castle in effect curving the stonework into an approximate parabola which reflect sound the centre of the veranda.

We have sometimes had jazz bands playing here in a similar location to where the string quartet plays, and for the evening reception, occasionally a marquee has been erected in which we have played for a barn dance or ceilidh.

Sometimes the photographer will march everyone down to the lawns below the veranda for photographs. Unless it's definite bride, groom and guests are going to remain the for the whole of the drinks reception, the string quartet don't follow. It takes a long time to get all instruments down all the steps and one has to be very careful of the instruments. In any case, the sound of the music does carry down onto the lawns.

As I'm writing this, a very amusing incident comes to mind that happened many years ago on the veranda. There's a balustrade along the edge of the veranda with a very long drop down to the gardens and lawns below. We were playing on the veranda when a helicopter appeared and hovered above the grounds. (I think we were playing there before the ceremony, the ceremony had taken place somewhere else, I can't quite remember, but the bride was not there at that time.) Whatever the precise circumstances, which are rather hazy in my memory, I do remember that the string quartet got completely drowned out by the helicopter, so we stopped playing. Then the helicopter started to drop down towards the lawns and was obviously going to land on the lawn. Everybody in the veranda rushed the balustrade to watch, as did the members of the string quartet. However, as a trained engineer as well as musician, my mind turned the fluid dynamics of the air flows from the helicopter blades, and it dawned on me what was going to happen before anybody else realised. I just had time to grab the members of the quartet and tell to get away from the balustrade, which fortunately they did. Moments later the downdraught from the helicopter blades, which was forced out sideways by the ground it was approaching, hit the garden wall and was reflected back upwards at high speed, right past the faces of the watching guests. Hats flew, dust blew in their faces, and ladies skirts rose. Everyone lept back in alarm. No one was harmed, the whole event was taken in the best of heart, and it was generally agreed that it was the most impressive arrival that had ever been witnessed. Life is never dull as a string quartet player!

Music ends after the last of the guests have entered the dining room, and it's time for the string quartet to pack away their instruments and music after another successful day's work. We are very fortunate to have a working environment like Eastnor Castle. This is our office in effect. Except for those corporate executives who may have offices at the top of the gherkin building in London, few could have such a congenial working environment. Thank you Eastnor Castle!