THE HIGHEST EXPRESSION OF THE DIVINE: Anne Cuneo’s ‘Tregian’s Ground’, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Roland Glasser

Anne Cuneo, Tregian’s Ground: The Life and Sometimes Secret Adventures of Francis Tregian, Gentleman and Musician, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Roland Glasser (And Other Stories, 2015)

By S.J.L.Constantine

The late Anne Cuneo’s work traversed all boundaries of genre, wending its way incessantly between historical fiction and journalism, and alighting at all interim stops. Her last, and posthumously, published novel, Tregian’s Ground is an unparalleled contribution to the Bildungsroman genre, currently being dominated by novelists such as Faulks and Boyd. It is perhaps surprising that, originally published in French as Le Trajet d’une Rivière in 1993 and winner of the coveted Prix des libraries in 1995 (celebrating the best Francophone work each year), the translation has only just appeared this year. But, as shall become clear, Roland Glasser and Louise Rogers Lalaurie’s translation of the quasi–biographical account of the extraordinary Tregian is well worth the wait.

Francis Tregian the Younger had a torrid life: as the son of a recusant Catholic under Elizabeth I and James I, he was stripped of his lands and home through praemunire facias, often forced to flee for his life from his homeland, eventually establishing new lives in Italy, Holland and Switzerland. He knew the joy of falling in love in an instant, fathering children and meeting the period’s greatest artists — and yet he also spent time in a debtor’s prison, suffered on the wrong end of political and murderous intrigues, and came face to face with the grizzly reality of the Plague which took with it most of his family. But while there are certainly passages of the novel which Cuneo (and her translators therein) dedicates directly to Tregian’s dark nights of the soul, it is through his chief love and talent that the truth of his travails comes to light: music. Music leads him to encounters with royalty, friendship with artists and companionship with peasants. It is his salvation, and yet his prime distraction.

At the novel’s UK launch party on April 28th 2015, the novel’s translators, staff from publisher And Other Stories and the legendary harpsichordist Patrick Ayrton came together at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for an evening of readings from the text, discussion and music. Ayrton accompanied the event with pieces by composers who feature in the plot, and whose works were transcribed into the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, written by the protagonist himself, which is on display in the same room of the Museum. After the last sublime note had died away, the audience were treated to a Q & A session, in which two particularly tantalising question caught my attention; first of all, what did it mean to be a musician in High Renaissance Europe? And secondly, how did the translators (Lalaurie and Glasser) strike such a fine balance between preserving Cuneo’s narrative efforts while using an English that is both contextual and idiomatic In fact, neither question is answered without serious thought — but why would they be, given that the novel in its entirety is essentially dominated by them both?

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As for the former issue of defining the Renaissance musician, in the novel he seems simultaneously to be a gentleman, a member of Royal courts for whom the art is merely a distraction, and at times a professional, serving both the high and low classes, tracing their steps between exclusive concerts to the broken down organs of backwater village chapels. They are the most versatile of creatures, and Cuneo’s novel paints them as such. Music is both a trade and a gift, quite unlike any other art.

While the answer to the above issue may present itself in a descriptive guise, the answer to the problem of quite how the translators invented such a winning formula — a fact to which anyone who has read the novel since its release earlier in the year will testify — is more analytical in nature. Indeed, perhaps the most fascinating and defining characteristic about this particular translation is that instead of dealing with events exclusively relating to the country of the source language, many of the main events happen to a protagonist who both speaks the dialects of, and belongs to the country from which the translation’s target language comes: England. Cuneo’s original manuscript dealt with largely English events which happened to an Englishman in French. And yet, for all this, Lalaurie and Glasser’s job was about far more than just translating Tregian’s thoughts back into the language they belong in. At the Q&A session, it came across very clearly that the translation work was heavily influenced by the author’s deteriorating health. The plan had been to have just one translator involved, but the second was brought on board as it became apparent that Cuneo’s illness made finishing the translation urgent, if she was to see it while still alive. Thankfully she did, but this unique (and obviously far from ideal) situation impacted the work in such a way that Lalaurie and Glasser felt that while some scope for interpretation, as in all translation work, was necessary, it was of paramount importance to respect the late author’s original work. And for all these good intentions, the issue still remained of how to strike a balance between the two different styles of the translators themselves. Having initially written a chapter each alternately, they realised that this prevented the narrative flowing tonally, and thus resorted to editing one another’s chapters as they went. As we shall see, this balance works well.

For the young Francis Tregian, music is a part of his studies not to be sneered at and to be respected — it is his music lessons with William Byrd, while at Mulcaster’s Merchant Taylors School, which teach him that. While working on the practice of reworking a piece’s leitmotif into a new piece, the already gifted Tregian narrates of his teacher that,

It is an honour to be summoned by a musician of the Royal Chapel, and by Byrd in particular, and Giles finds himself joining Adrian (Francis’ brother) and me at Byrd’s house the following Tuesday […].

And yet, despite the reverence accorded here to Byrd by Tregian (and Cuneo), it is the context of the admiration that elucidates best the position of the Renaissance musician in society. Tregian makes a reference earlier on the same page to the music of Thomas Tallis, which he is studying. It is perhaps worth to expand here a little on the life of the latter, so as to shed light on the other characters within the scene and the novel. Born in 1505 or thereabouts, Tallis arrived at Court in 1543 as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and held the post under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Amongst all his contemporaries he was, and still is, certainly the most renowned and prolific, a fact to which his gaining (alongside Tregian’s teacher, Byrd) a 21–year monopoly on polyphonic music from Queen Elizabeth in 1575, alongside an unprecedented patent to publish and print music, testifies. Indeed, Cuneo clearly chose deliberately to include this brief epithet to the master, given the historical evidence which indicates he was an unreformed Catholic (or recusant). In this he resembles Tregian, who managed to stay out of religious politics — an example that both Francis Tregian the Elder and Younger should have taken to heart. His extraordinary versatility allowed  him to shape his musical style according to the childish whims of the monarchs he served, as well as to write in French, Latin, and Italian, and to achieve mastery in anything from choral to organ compositions. He and Byrd struck up an incredibly close bond, both professionally and privately, and so it is of little surprise that the latter uses his work as a teaching method.

And yet, for all this, while Tallis, Byrd (and Tregian in his own way) are certainly admired through the English Court for their artistic prowess, there is an aspect of commerce within English music which is inescapable, and yet fundamental to its survival. This is even applicable to Thomas Morley, who — along with Giles Farnaby — completes the selection Cuneo makes within the plot of exceptional English High Renaissance composers. There is an incessant oscillation for these characters, between what they want their art to be, and the financial reality. For Morley, his access to the Court and the possibilities therein come through Mulcaster and his school, as we learn that “Thomas Morley has composed some lively music, to which the others dance, while for Farnaby, it is the trade of “building instruments that actually leads him to composing and performing. Cuneo writes of one “Master Farnaby, assisted by his son Giles — and yet on the very same page this boy, of far humbler origins than any of the Tregian boys, has seemingly leap–frogged these aristocratic children, hinting that perhaps, perversely, it is privilege that stands in the way of Francis’ being a truly renowned musician in England. Giles only manages to encounter music through his inherited craft and friendship with Francis, which in its turn leads him to meeting Byrd. Had he never started as a virginal and spinet maker, he would never have been led to this pivotal meeting, without which his future as a composer of some of the period’s finest pieces (including his Fantasia, transcribed by Tregian into the Virginal book and played at the recent book launch by Ayrton) would never have come to pass. Even from the outset of Tregian’s life in London then, it becomes clear that the path of the musician is necessarily vicissitudinal, as they wend their way between artist and craftsman — and that far from being a guarantor of success, class privilege is actually something of a barrier.

Perhaps the single exception to this general rule is the character who proved to be the general exception to all rules in Renaissance: Elizabeth I. A little known fact about the monarch was her proficiency on the keyboard, which Tregian very briefly encounters while visiting Lord Burghley at Court. When asked by her if he knows ‘The Car–man’s Whistle’, a novelty piece, he instead “indicate[s] that she might play it herself” – yet of course this is not the decorous thing for a monarch to do, and she declines. This is as close as the reader gets to discovering the artistic side Elizabeth inherited from her father, the ostensible composer of ‘Green Sleeves’, and the tantalising suggestion of her talent only serves to highlight the trend seen above: in the English Court, music is a profession best left alone by the higher classes.

However, if we move further afield to the Continent, we find the position of the musician within the class structure shifts dramatically. While in France, outside of his musicianship at the English College of Douai, Tregian’s skill goes largely unnoticed through his encounters with King Henry: it is instead his proficiency in language and aristocratic standing which serve him best in his role as part–time spy. Here though, it is worth our considering the work of the translators in rendering Tregian’s thoughts and words into English. The issue of which language Cuneo has him use while in France is slightly complicated, for it depends heavily on the company he keeps. Indeed, as is the case with many linguists, Tregian will have even developed different personalities in his various languages, which is well reflected by the translators’ work. In the English College, surrounded by his fellow countrymen, he is the ostensibly devout Catholic, devoted to his studies. He recounts that, as far as the majority of his fellows were concerned,

I was a model pupil when required, and reached my twentieth year without ever having contradicted a soul. God granted me a good memory and an aptitude for learning, and I am grateful to Him […].

The reader already has ingrained their image of the rebellious Tregian, running riot in Clerkenwell. Thus, they are never quite going to subscribe to the image he makes for himself (with a knowing wink to the reader) of a well–behaved scholar, with the feigned deference shown in the capitalisation of “Him” and the syntactic prioritisation of “God.” This deliberate spatial separation made between the ignorant students and the pseudo–omnipotent reader is carefully engineered by the translators.

And yet outside of Douai, particularly in the company of those who don’t know him, Tregian assumes the personality of a flamboyant Frenchman, responding to questioning over whether he is a spy that,

Me? Dear Lord, no! I am François Trégian of Reims, sent here under orders. And I assure you that if I am not taken to the Duke of Mayenne, he will see that you regret it.

One can almost hear the undertone of the original “Moi? Bon Dieu, non!” in the English, as the translators have worked carefully to preserve the foppish arrogance assumed by Tregian here, which, while more overt in the French, is carried over in the outrage of the punctuation. The translators’ impact here is key in shaping the reader’s response to the duality of Tregian’s personality, and appears to adhere to Cuneo’s creative desire throughout.

And in Italy, a fine line is trodden between music as art and commerce, most spectacularly testified to by the life of the master Monteverdi. When Tregian first encounters him, he narrates that, “To my great surprise, Claudio Monteverde was not accorded the reverence due to a master”. Instead Monteverdi is openly criticised for his ‘Prima’ and ‘Seconda Pratica’, as a musician (who remains anonymous – Cuneo maintains a sense of dramatic justice through his anonymity in history) is said to note that

This is what happens when one attempts to make music without having the necessary theoretical foundations. Neither yourself [Tregian] nor Signor Monteverde has the slightest idea of the most elementary rules of this art.

 If we are to take this anonymous detractor’s opinion, as well as the initial reflections of Tregian — as well I think we are meant — as the sum of the public opinion on such musicians and composers as such, it becomes clear that the idea of being a professional in the art is largely scorned upon by the public (or at least the aristocratic class) – outside of the Court. Indeed, inside the circle of European musicians, Monteverdi’s exploits do not incite admiration so much as consternation: Tregian narrates: “I met musicians from all over Europe, drawn by the controversy surrounding the ‘second pratica’, of which there was much talk in music.” As the aforementioned critic of the master mentions, the work is an utter violation of the traditional laws of counter–point, and while retrospect has allowed modern thought to award the praise he deserves, by the sounds of it in contemporary public, the only thing Monteverdi’s work merited was a swathe of self–righteous head–shaking.

In the Italian courts — though it is perhaps worthy noting that, being nearly three centuries still removed from unification, Italy is hardly comparable to England in the sense of being represented of general national aristocracy — Monteverdi’s reputation, and that of music–makers in generals, is quite unrecognisable. As Tregian narrates of a particular concert: “It took place in the Hall of Mirrors, in the afternoon, after the card games. Through the translators’ syntactical structuring of the sentence they lend the act of aristocratic musical enjoyment a sense of vanity, as the levity of card games and the self–reflection of the “Hall of Mirrors” traps the afternoon’s activity — i.e. the concert — within. For the higher classes, the concert, and music in general is important for utterly selfish reasons. Is Cuneo suggesting that it is only the aristocratic classes of the period who could really understand beauty in music, who truly had “taste”? It seems somewhat unlikely, given the meteoric rise of the author herself which confounds her impoverished background and social boundaries too. The message I believe we are meant to take away instead is of the way music touches each of the Renaissance classes differently: for the Italian public, music is entertainment, something which fills their very lives with itself and the conversation it engenders. For the upper classes the reality is quite different: it is an opportunity to see and be seen.

In Amsterdam, music is completely other: it dominates public life as entertainment — in the streets, in homes — and yet goes virtually unmentioned with regards to the aristocratic class, which surely says something about the existential mind-set of Tregian during the period of his life spent in Holland. The extent to which music dominates public life is highlighted in Tregian’s narration:

Dutch women are tireless dancers. They can dance for two days at a stretch, and their partners and musicians are worn out long before they. The Dutch dance on every occasion.

That music is so intertwined with day–to–day life, and that, as he later narrates, even the greatest musicians, such as the organist Sweelinck, deign to set foot in Tregian’s “madrigal evenings” is clear evidence of the sincere love the Dutch have for the art. While, as we’ve seen above, in England, music’s importance was often of a professional nature, the amateur standard of it in Amsterdam during Tregian’s life is put into sharp relief by the comparable cloth trade which equally dominates the protagonist’s life. Sharing the family’s trade with his brother, Adrian (in disguise), and his former valet Giuliano, whose mercenary past in diplomacy gives him a vast network throughout the continent, Tregian takes to the business naturally.

And yet, for all this, elements of the pure public distraction–element of music in England do arise, specifically through theatre and country life. The former is most clearly explicated in Tregian’s fictional encounter with Shakespeare, particularly in the response of the public, where he recounts an intense artistic clash of wits between the playwright and the composer Thomas Morley over the musical accompaniment of the former’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Cuneo should present anyone, not least a composer, as capable of rhetorically jousting with such a genius does music great credit, and highlights the parallel and intertwined nature of the twin arts.

For all this, arguably the most clear–cut example of Cuneo’s musical message comes during Tregian’s stint as a landlord back in Golden, his Cornwall homeland. He nostalgically recounts the end of Harvest tradition of “the neck”, in which the last sheaf of the season is saved and mounted on a villager’s wall. During the Q&A at the novel’s launch in April, Glasser was asked after reading the extract in question aloud how he had gone about researching the appropriate Cornish dialectal variation (such as “what hav’ee” and “we yen”) for this section of the translation. He flippantly replied that he had simply “googled it”. And for all his self–deprecation, it seems that in this case the usual issue of the original manuscript being written in French despite the story’s English origin works in the translators’ favour. While Cuneo spent five years or so hunting through libraries for historical accounts, when it came to Glasser and Lalaurie twenty years later, the internet worked to their advantage.

The contented workers in the Cornish village form choirs to sing the traditional celebratory song, each echoing the other in a manner deliberately reminiscent of the aforementioned Tallis’ forty–part masterpiece Spem in Alium. Tregian recounts that,

Suddenly, the chanting starts over again and, as if by chance, invisible in the twilit fields, voices call out, responding, entreating, each in their own way: counterpoint in its most natural and perfect form.

That music can thus exist in the minds and souls of the uneducated tenant farmers so exquisitely perfectly encompasses Cuneo’s subtextual and artistic message to the reader.

In trying to shed some light on the joint issues of music and translation in the novel then, our semantical journey through Cuneo’s seminal novel is as eventful as the Tregian’s literal one. The genius of the translators’ work becomes self–evident. As for music, while it comes to be valued at times as profession and at others as merely a hobby, akin to sport for the upper classes, the author’s message is at once complex and simple: music is for the masses, to be rejoiced and delighted in, as something that transcends professional and artistic boundaries.

2 responses to “THE HIGHEST EXPRESSION OF THE DIVINE: Anne Cuneo’s ‘Tregian’s Ground’, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Roland Glasser”

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