I think the most important thing I’ve ever learnt is that if you follow your enthusiasms then all sorts of interesting things can start happening. This is the story of one of those times. Forgive the long post, but I think it’s a good story.
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I first heard the name Stephen Paxton when my cello teacher gave me a sonata of his to look at and casually mentioned that not much was known about him, and what little about him that had been written was probably wrong. I was beginning to write Instruments of Darkness at the time, and as part of that research was trying to find something about the working lives of musicians, and the musical world, in late 18th century London. Tracking Stephen Paxton through the archive seemed to me an excellent way to see the period from a fresh perspective, also there was some mention of his being a northerner by birth, so I felt a surge of local loyalty. At the British Library I was lucky enough to find a brilliant article by Dr Brian Crosby, who had come across Paxton during his own researches of the period and done a great deal of work to untangle his biography. In the article he wrote was a mention of Paxton’s concerto, with the note that only one copy of it was known to exist in a library in New York.
It made me very nervous to think that this collection of parts was all that might prevent the concerto being lost forever, so I tracked down the library catalogue on-line, then emailed and phoned the librarians there. They seemed a little surprised at my interest, but very kindly agreed to scan the material and make it available online.
It was a comfort to have it, and it became one of my ‘when I win the lottery’ dreams to have the concerto performed and recorded, specifically, and as you’ll see, this is the spooky bit, by the cellist Sebastian Comberti as I had just fallen rather heavily for a recording of his of Boccherini sonatas. In the meantime I folded the concerto into a key scene of Instruments, stole elements ofPaxton’s biography for one of my key characters, gave the man himself a walk on part in the book and kept buying my lottery tickets.
Some months later I met up with a friend who was playing with Sebastian in the London Mozart Players. I told her I was a great fan of his playing and she offered to introduce me to him during the interval, and I said no at first because I’d just be too star-struck and spend the time staring at my shoes. She told me off, introduced me anyway and told him I’d been researching obscure 18th century composers. He asked who, I said Paxton and his jaw dropped. At first he was quite convinced our friend Maya must have set him up. I can forgive him for being skeptical; he had been recently looking at what works of Paxton’s were in circulation, and given the fact that probably only ten people in the world have had any interest in Paxton in the last century, the chances of two of them meeting in a church in Croyden over a glass of red wine were pretty small. I told him that it was me who had asked the Sibley Library to scan the concerto parts, and asked if he had come across a set of duets for violin and cello, including a couple of bonus sonatas I’d found in the BL. He hadn’t and it was with great pleasure I put copies into his hands a few days later.
It was an intensely moving experience to hear the concerto being played at the recording in June 2008, just after I’d heard that the completed Instruments of Darkness would be published by Headline. It felt as if almost 250 years had disappeared and I was back in the presence of my characters and their friends. It is a wonderful thing to help reclaim what has been lost.