Travelling, Then and Now…and a minimum temperature clause.

For about a decade, four colleagues and I played together in a group called Musick Fyne. That name is an old Scots term for ‘art’ music and, not surprisingly, we chose it as our name because one of our repertoire focuses was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish music. We were a singer, harpsichordist, lutenist and two wind players, so we had lots of programming options. We also designed a concert of music from eighteenth-century Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada and New England, the repertoire for which was drawn from (or suggested by) concert programs and concert descriptions found in 18th-century diaries and newspapers. Years later while in Philadelphia to teach at a workshop, I took a walking tour of the old city on my afternoon off, and ended up in one of the rooms where some of these 18th-century concerts had taken place. That was pretty inspiring! Here it is, if I’m not mistaken, with a fresh coat of paint:

Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

This program also included a piece called The Hector, written for us by Canadian composer John Beckwith,*  which fit the program beautifully with its tale of a historic eighteenth-century sea voyage that brought Scottish immigrants to Canada after the Highland Clearances. There were many such voyages, but this one was particularly well documented. Beckwith drew his libretto from the captain’s log, describing the ship’s journey from Ullapool to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773. It was an arduous and unpleasant journey with a rough ending for the settlers, who arrived to find the land they’d been promised to be completely uncleared of forest, and no other provisions for accommodation and food made for them.

We gave many performances of this program, including several for a Nova Scotia tour which included the town of Pictou on the itinerary. It was very touching that in our audience that night there were descendants of the people whose emigration journey was described in Beckwith’s piece. Some of those people came to speak with us after the show. While we were there we saw the replica of the Hector, which was under construction in Pictou’s harbour; today you can go on board and take a tour of it, at the Hector Museum.

Can you imagine crossing the Atlantic in this?


For information about the trip of the Hector, and a passenger list, look here:

The travellers on the Hector endured some horrific conditions during their journey, on top of the requisite seasickness: lack of sanitation, insufficient food, dysentery, smallpox, and more. Many deaths were recorded on board, as were numerous births. The weather was dreadful at times, including one massive storm which blew them so far off course that their journey was extended by ten days or so.

Musick Fyne’s journeys around Canada were mercifully pale by comparison. The weather was often a total surprise: we had fantastic bright sunshine and NO snow for every day of a February tour in Saskatchewan, we had sunny skies and very little rain in BC, and our Maritime province travels were similarly deluge-free. ‘Lucking out’ with the weather seemed almost the norm. Our only real challenges came with winter concerts in southern Ontario, one of which involved a memorable white-knuckle drive from Gananoque back to Toronto, at night and in a blizzard. Visibility was maybe six feet. On the bright side (if you can call it that), the harpsichord in the back of the rental van provided us with some extra ballast. We would’ve probably made some quite spectacular sounds had we ended up on our side in a ditch, but happily we didn’t have to find out.

Moral of this part of the story: when in a snowstorm, always let the guy from Saskatchewan drive.

One January afternoon during a central Ontario tour we arrived at the elegant, stately old home that was the venue for that evening’s concert. The grounds were gorgeous, with massive evergreens and shrubs blanketed with fresh snow, and the grey stone house looking both regal and melancholy. We loaded the harpsichord and the rest of our gear into the designated performance space – a fabulous big dining room – but after standing there for a few minutes I thought I’d better go and get my coat from the van. It was absolutely %#$&ing freezing in that big dining room. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the parking lot when I realized that something was pretty wrong if I was in greater need of my coat indoors than out.

I came back with all my layers on to find my colleagues in various states of consternation. It turned out that the owners of the stately old home usually left that part of the house unheated. They didn’t normally use it, preferring to live in another wing of the place, and heating the entire house was colossally expensive.They did plan to turn on the heat on about an hour before the concert, but it was far too cold to do any rehearsing in the space, which we’d arrived early to do. And as for acclimatizing the instruments, forget it. The harpsichordist was already looking a bit blue, both from the cold and from thinking about how many times she was probably going to have to re-tune. (This was an instance in which that joke about how harpsichordists or lutenists ‘tune for two-thirds of the time, and play out of tune for the rest of it,’ was not even remotely funny. It’s not really very funny anyway, but in this situation it might have gotten you a tuning hammer in your eye.) The other wind player was wondering if we should take bets on exactly how long it would take before our instruments cracked once we started playing, even if the room warmed up by concert time. Nooooo pre-concert warmup for us.

The heat did get turned on about an hour before the show and the temperature rose from Siberian to semi-toasty over the next couple of hours, as the collective body heat of the audience added to the furnace’s contribution. It was certainly warm enough to play and when all was said and done, everyone seemed to have had some fun. Well, almost everyone. I’ve never seen a harpsichord tuning hammer make so many appearances in a show, before or since.

Second moral of the story: always include a minimum temperature clause in your contract. Seriously.

That said, there are many good reasons to tour Canada in the winter. It might be cold, but it’s beautiful. Here’s a shot taken on tour, on the highway just outside Banff, Alberta.

Outside Banff

*For more information on John Beckwith, please see:


2 thoughts on “Travelling, Then and Now…and a minimum temperature clause.

  1. I enjoyed reading these reminiscences. Touring is really a way to get to know this country — & its people. Especially enjoyed the recollections of my piece, The Hector. When will it be revived, or dare I say recorded? Great fun to write & to rehearse!

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