The best of memories

I didn’t get around to writing a blog post last week. I’d just received the very sad news that Philip Weller, one of the most important musical influences on my life and career, and a dear friend, had died. Philip was a long-serving member of staff at the University of Nottingham, where he taught me both as an undergraduate and Masters student, conducted the university choir for which I played, organised other performances, took me and a few others on opera trips, and dropped round for tea and cake. I’ve always described Philip, in speaking of him to others, as the person who taught me to think. Certainly he was the person who opened all kinds of doors to other things I knew nothing about – musical, artistic poetic – and always with huge passion, wit and lightness of touch. So I thought I’d share just a few of my favourite Philip memories.

Critical Thinking. Each year, Philip taught a first and second year history course to all the music students called ‘Critical Thinking’. It was very varied in its musical content, from Renaissance to twentieth-century repertoire (and in one session he got everyone to turn on their mobile phone ringtones and wandered around the room listening to them and passing judgement on which tunes he liked the best). He spent a lot of time working on how we thought about subjects, organised information, planned essays and so on. His tutorials always included the production of little spidery mind-maps which he would then photocopy so he could keep a version for reference. His handwriting was not the easiest and quite soon I became chief interpreter for the younger students. By the time I was doing my Masters I had become a sort of unofficial translator and I didn’t think he knew… until he came to find me not long before I graduated. ‘It’s going to be strange with you gone,’ he said. ‘What am I going to do now that the students can’t come to you for secondary tutoring?!’

Translation in action. In my first year at Nottingham, Philip conducted the university choir. The repertoire was largely Schubert, Schumann and Brahms – in fact, it was this that got me into the repertoire which would eventually form the basis of my PhD research, thanks to the support and encouragement of Robert Pascall. Since Philip knew I’d done German A/S, he asked me if I’d put together some basic translations of the pieces so that we could work through them together. For whatever reason I found it particularly tricky to  track down a translation of the German word ‘girret’, and in one of the songs I had to look at, a group of little doves begin to ‘girren’. We sat the next day outside Philip’s office as he looked through, and fixed, my decidedly wobbly translations. ‘It’s onomatopoeic,’ he said when we got to the mystery dove verb. ‘Girren’ is ‘to coo’ – because it sounds like cooing, doesn’t it?’. And he began to coo, rather convincingly, as various other students wandered past looking decidedly baffled.

New books. I think it would be fair to say that I was a pretty precocious little swot at university. I can’t quite remember how it began, but after a while, Philip used to sit with me and make me reading lists for the holidays. But they were not simple reams of music biography – on the contrary. It was through those lists that I came to read Arthurian Romances; see the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson; discover Roland Barthes, and quite a bit about Greek mythology, and the heartbreakingly beautiful Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier. I owe him an awful lot for those.

A fitting send-off. That’s not to say, of course, that all we did was study and translate and write. A mutual friend had a canal boat, and one sunny day (I think I was a postgrad by this point) we all went off along the canal and into Nottingham. It was a lovely journey, Philip and I were in charge of locks, and so far along the route we set about making tea. No one had been in the boat for a while, and on fiddling about getting the tea ready, one of our little group let out a shriek on discovering the body of a very large, though thankfully very dead, spider in one of the mugs. Philip took it out to the front of the boat, waited until we were passing under a particularly resonant bridge, and then sang it a brief and entirely liturgically accurate Requiem in Latin before plopping it into the water.

Are you getting a sense of this amazing man? He was utterly brilliant, and his knowledge across subjects and history was just astonishing… but he was also wonderfully eccentric and had a grand sense of the ridiculous. No wonder we all adored him so much. The final anecdote, however, must go to something he said to me once which irritated me hugely at the time, but in retrospect was a rather valuable lesson. (Of course – I should have trusted him by then, really, to have worked out such a thing.) We were performing together in a concert, playing the Three Pieces for String Quartet by Stravinsky in the piano duet arrangement. I was tired, and I imagine so was he: it was near the end of term, we didn’t have long to learn it, all the usual business. There was one particular bit that I kept screwing up, and I was getting more and more frustrated. As we played it through for the third or fourth time, I messed up again and said angrily, ‘Aaargh, I keep hitting this note instead of this note.’ Philip looked at me and smiled slightly. And he said simply, ‘Well, don’t.’ I think I mumbled something grumpy and we carried on. But he had a point – a very good one. And that calm, slightly amused voice is with me still when I’m getting irate about similar problems. Just as his lovely resonant voice is there when I think of recitation and singing (and spiders’ burials at sea), and his ways of thinking are with me every time I pick up a pen. How wonderfully lucky I was to know him. He will be sorely missed. And so very warmly remembered.

14 comments

  • Louise Golding

    Ah, Katy. What a privilege to read your carefully and lovingly-written words. I am Louise, one of Philip’s sisters. I’m finding it hard to process what has happened, but reading anecdotes, stories and tributes about Philip such as yours, is a huge comfort. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings. I can literally picture and hear him saying ‘well, dont’…in his gentle, whimsical way, with a half smile and a twinkle. Thank you. Louise.

    • Dominique Faure Espes

      In the late eighties early nineties, thanks to a mutual friend who lives in Paris, I Had the oppotunity to meet Philip several times .In 1994 I also went to Nottingham to visit him and eventually to London where he was « housesitting » a Beautiful georgian house belonging to a friend of his, located between camden and Regent’ s park. Apart from his numerous gifts for music, singing, and art in general, what always amazed me in Philip was his talent for european languages. He mastered italian, french and german , respecting all the Subtelties of each idiom and he was very demanding with himself as far as pronunciation or grammar or exact vocabulary was Involved. I have the feeling that the premature death of his mother was a great shock to him, which somehow made him lose some of his taste for Life .After this loss, he never came to France as often as he used to and we didn ´t see each other anymore . Tonight I will look for this photo of a christmas evening where Philip and my father are both sitting at my piano, playing and singing.I feel sad.

    • Michel Chasteau

      Dear Louise, we haven’t benn seeing each other for a very long time but I suppose You still remember me. I am Michel, Philip’s friend from Paris. I had sent him a message a few weeks ago and was surprised that he didn’t answer, contrarily to his habit. So I decided to consult his professional site in order to check his adress, and I happened to read the news about his death. It is a terrible shock to me. Philip has played a very important role in my life, as for my intellectual, artistic and spiritual development. But first of all he was my friend, a very close and dear friend. We did a lot of travelling together, in Eastern Europe, in Greece and Italy, and shared many happy moments at your parents’ in Croydon, singing, reading french and english poetry or theater. I felt there really at home. I think of all of You, Louise, Mary and Richard. I feel deeply, deeply sad today.

      • Mary

        Michel – it’s Mary. I have just found your reply to Katy’s post re Philip. We (Louise, Richard (Sam) and I have been trying to find a way to get in touch with you. How can I contact you directly please?

        • Angela Voss

          Dear Mary
          I would very much like to write to you privately about my memories of Philip, as there is so much to say. May I do this?
          Thank you
          Angela

      • Louise Golding

        How wonderful to hear from you Michel. We all most definitely remember you, and have spoken of you often. We had wondered how to get hold of you, so I’m really glad you found Katy’s blog. I’ll get in touch with you privately. Are you on FB/Messenger? Or perhaps I may have your email address? With love and fond memories…Louise x

    • Angela Voss

      Dear Louise
      I knew Philip from 1989-1992 in London when we were both writing our PhD theses, and he was a true soul-mate, emotionally and intellectually. We would spend hours together translating Latin, playing music and discussing Renaissance philosophy. We met up again in 2000 for an amazing music project. I am so shocked to hear of his death, and I am deeply sorry that I had not seen him for many years. I’m sorry too that I only heard of this today, too late to attend his funeral. Sending you and your family many condolences,
      Angela.

  • Sam Weller

    Hi Katy, my name is Richard (people know me as Sam), I am Phillip’s brother. Thank you for writing this, your very kind words and these fabulous anecdotes (my elder sister Mary shared it with me). We (his siblings) always knew Phillip was such a wonderful person, intense but soft and so kind , Kind regards Sam

  • Kenneth Robinson

    Katy, thank you.
    Kenneth Robinson, Denis Arnold Music Library

  • Helen Arnold

    Katy, this is wonderful. I think that capturing just how much of a brilliant human Philip was is a very difficult task to undertake, yet something that you have expressed beautifully. Philip would be very touched. x x

  • Barbara Blackie

    I was so sad to hear of Philip’s death. I have very happy memories of long conversations with him when I used to work in the Music Library at UoN. These were usually about art (once Philip knew I’d done an art history degree, he often brought me pictures he thought would interest me) – his knowledge far outstripped mine, but I appreciated his time, humour, and friendliness.

  • Christine Jones

    Katy your tribute is wonderful.

  • David Bennett

    Katy, thank you so much for writing this and being in most ou our heads! It’s hard to write a heartfelt piece of prose like this – I must have deleted paragraphs I an attempt to try to write something – you have succeeded and with grace, understanding and love. I, with Andrew Kirkman and Lucy have been clearing his room at the University with a huge effort of respect, a lot of humour, lots of love and admiration but above all with a sense of the mans enormous diverse intellect. He will be missed hugely and we all think of him in a single word, when all his senses were aroused, vinously, gastronomically, and musically. That word we can all hear him utter as he stuck his nose into a wine glass containing a very fine Burgundy… FUCK!

  • Theresa Chong

    Hello, so sorry to hear about Philip’s passing. I was at UoN from 1997-2001 and sang with the uni choir. Philip was our choir master for some of those years. He was strict, hilarious, dramatic and so enthusiastic. He made every session engaging and memorable. He will be missed. Many condolences to his family.

Leave a Reply to Kenneth Robinson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.