Monday, 21 April 2014

A life in letters: classical music

Up until the age of about 10, I was exposed to very little music of any kind. I was familiar with kid’s nursery and party songs (‘The famer’s in his den’); I regularly heard church songs and hymns from The Believers’ Hymn Book and Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos; I knew the choruses we sang regularly at Sunday School (‘I’m H.A.P.P.Y.”); and there was music at school – more ‘establishment’ hymns from the Church of Scotland Hymn Book (such as ‘O God of Bethel’ and ‘By cool Siloam’s shady rill’), and the pieces I was supposed to learn for the school choir at Westerton but didn’t (‘All in an April evening.’)

I also heard a variety of music on Children’s Hour on the BBC Home Service, including the memorably menacing music (from Stravinsky’s Firebird) which introduced Angus Macvicar’s science fiction serials. I remember once hearing of a new Home Service programme called Just Jazz. I turned it on, assuming in my innocence that it would be about some cute animal called Jazz. My realisation that I was mistaken, and the instruction from my mother to turn the radio off came at about the same time. In my mother’s opinion, jazz was not ‘good music’, and she clearly felt it was her duty if not actually to protect me from it, at least to discourage me from listening. Later, when I was 11, and recorded English country garden on the small reel-to-reel tape recorder I had been kindly given, she was similarly dismissive of it as ‘light’ music.

While we stayed at Westerton, whenever I was ill in bed, the radio would be relocated to my bedroom and plugged in so that I could listen to schools broadcasts in the course of the day. In fact these, listened to through a feverish haze, were decidedly dreary, and I actually heard much more. I remember catching some joyful, lively music which appealed to me greatly, followed by an announcement that the hall it had been played in had been bombed during World War 2, which had ended some fifteen years earlier. The poignancy of this lingered with me. It was only much later that I realised that the music had been Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasy on British Sea Songs, and that the hall in question the Queen’s Hall in London, home to the Proms, which was destroyed in wartime.

Another link with classical music when we lived in Westerton was Mr Chapman, who regularly came to tune our piano, and also tuned for the Scottish National Orchestra. His presence seemed a link to a distant and glamorous world. And my grandfather had a ‘radiogram’ and a pile of old 78 recordings, including a set of Handel’s Messiah from which I remember him playing the Hallelujah Chorus when we visited him and gran at Townhead Road, Coatbridge.

Shortly after we moved to Carluke in 1962, my father purchased our first record-player, a rather upmarket model, I think, produced by a firm called Dynatron. My parents, probably for my benefit, subscribed to the World Record Club – you selected an album from a monthly catalogue, and it was posted to you. Besides the orchestral classics, this brochure also listed recordings with intriguing titles such as Chattanooga Choo Choo and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Dorita y Pepe , but I knew this was not ‘good music’ and was happy for my mum to select long-play classical recordings.

And I found out very quickly that I loved classical music. I discovered Beethoven's 5th and 6th symphonies, and Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think I appreciated these works for their innate beauty, but also for their ability to fuel day dreams. I would sit, my mind far away, given wings by the music.

I particularly remember sitting in a coolish living room listening to Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony while reading Ian Serrailier’s The Silver Sword.  These works are now inextricably intertwined in my memory.

I broadened my knowledge of classical music when I began attending Wishaw High School in 1964. Baird’s store in the town, where I went for lunch, stocked Classics for Pleasure, part of the Music for Pleasure range at the budget price of 12s 6d, and I began buying music for myself – thus I discovered Rachmaninov, and Holst’s Planets suite. I had never before heard anything like it.

I also bought a set of records of Handels Messiah, three discs in a red box, each disc in its own paper sleeve with a plastic lining and a booklet with the text. I loved Messiah more than any other work, for the beauty of the music, I think, rather than for any religious reason.

About the same time I became aware of the Proms on BBC radio to which I used to listen almost every evening during their run. I’d sit in the rocking chair in our living room, and listen intently, swaying back and forth in time to the music. My appreciation was not technically profound, but it was passionate. The conductors and performers were my heroes, and I remember beginning to compile my own dictionary of classical music, with a big envelope for each letter of the alphabet into which I’d file appropriate cuttings, notes and photos. My mother came across a picture of some soprano I had cut out in preparation for filing, assumed I fancied her, and teased me, much to my mortification.

One of the highlights of my year was watching the Last Night of the Proms on television. I recall Sir Malcolm Sargent’s final appearance at the event, already frail, stricken with the cancer from which he would shortly, and I subsequently bought the BBC recording of excerpts from Sargent’s repertoire which included the pulsing ‘Allelujah chorus’ from Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast which I had never heard before. Again this was to me a new way of using sound, enormously exciting. I remember playing it at full volume to my friend Linda Bryce in her house, bursting with passion for the music, and perhaps for her too.

I didn’t personally enjoy every single item performed at the Proms. I wasn’t a fan of music which simply seemed to make a virtue of loudness for loudness’s sake, and atonal works were beyond me. ‘You don’t like that, do you?’ asked my mother, when a piece by Webern or Berg was on. Clearly she did not judge it to be ‘good music.’ In truth I wasn’t enjoying it either, but I wished she could have asked a more open question which would have acknowledged the possibility that I might have appreciated it.

In my mid-teens, I was given my own record player, so that I could listen to my growing collection of discs in my bedroom. My parents therefore encouraged me in my interest in classical music, although they only once took me to a concert, when I was about 16. We went to a Scottish National Orchestra Prom concert – the Proms were then held in the Kelvin Hall Arena in Glasgow. Bryden Thomson conducted among other works a spirited performance of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor.

Pop music would have been judged to be ‘not good’ by my mother, and I guess I would have considered it, in religious terms, to be ‘wordly.’ I got the impression that music was ‘good’ on the basis of its being acclaimed by some select group of cognoscenti, and so I prattled on mindlessly about the academic who had praised Eleanor Rigby and other Beatle’s songs for their lyrics and imaginative use of ‘pandiatonic clusters’ a phrase which I imagined made me sound knowledgeable as it rolled from my lips though I had not the remotest idea of its meaning. But I was never a fan of pop music (other the odd song which moved, and connected with me – such as Procul Harum’s Whiter shade of pale and Bridge over troubled water.) I hope, however, that had I been passionate about 1960s bands I would have collected and played their music as defiantly as I went out and bought a boxed set of Verdi’s Requiem, a work which my mother had said she didn’t want in the house because of its Roman Catholic ethos.

I remember watching some classical music broadcasts on black and white television. I sat through Verdi’s Aida, enthralled by the power of the story and music. I watched a performance of Messiah in which the producer, with a primitive use of special effects, overlayed the counter tenor’s mouth with flames as he sang For he is like a refiner’s fire so that it seemed he was singing in tongues of fire.

As I teenager, I judged, and kept telling people that Wagner’s Tannhauser overture was ‘the greatest piece of music ever written.’ I was moved by the nobility of the Pilgrim theme, but what really thrilled me was the moment when very near the end, out of a chaos of orchestral texture the theme returns, swelling with increasing confidence and power, until it blazes out triumphantly. Order from disorder. It was for exactly the same reason that I was thrilled by Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: again the seeming chaos of the fugue births a triumphal return of the main theme. All is well with the world. This was anything but sophisticated musical analysis, but I knew what I liked.

For many years my favourite composer was Elgar. I simply loved his music, both the brash and brassy, and the profound. The 1st Symphony moved me: again there was a triumphal return (of the main theme at the end of the final movement), and the third, slow, movement must surely be one of the sweetest, loveliest moments in all music, the violins reaching up and up and up into clear blue sky. I bought a Penguin book on The Symphony by Robert Simpson. I didn’t ever read it (just like I never really read Donald Tovey’s Essays in musical analysis which I purchased, somehow thinking to establish my credentials as a serious classical music enthusiast.) But the Simpson book did include musical examples, one of them of the main theme of Elgar's 1st,  played over and over on the piano, impressing my mother who thought I was performing by ear.

I loved The Dream of Gerontius, although there would be a time later when this troubled me when I didn’t agree with aspects of the work’s theology. Could something untrue be so beautiful, I wondered?  Or did the beauty vouch for the truth of the words? Or in truth, as I would now think, is the beauty reflecting something true beyond all words, beyond all theological formulations?

I bought, and read avidly Michael Kennedy’s 1968 volume Portrait of Elgar and walked through Elgar’s life with him, sharing his moments of triumph and despair, particularly moved by the scene in which, emotionally exhausted after completing the 1st Symphony the composer turned to experimenting in his chemistry lab. I recognised in the smallest measure something of that joy which lets you, in your tiredness, do fun stuff because you are confident in the glory of what you have created.

The most poignant piece of all was the Cello Concerto (1919) – I had Jacqueline du Pré’s recording shortly after it appeared. I read the work (perhaps wrongly) as a creative swansong, the last time Elgar was able to pluck music from the air, a mournful, resigned farewell to a lost pre-war society. There would be no return of the grand theme, only silence.

At the same time, I was also passionate about Berlioz, particularly the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy, and read his zany memoirs in the David Cairns translation, again walking his life with him and sharing his triumphs.

I learned to play the piano to some extent, but never well enough to really perform the pieces I loved. I could just about make it through Für Elise, and bought piano arrangements of Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and the Enigma Variations. Most of the variations were too fast for my fumbling fingers, but I achieved a passable rendition of Nimrod.

Sometimes I’d meet up with friends to listen to music. At Jim McGonigle’s we listened to Evita, (released on disc in 1976 before the first stage performance) which I was prepared to concede was rather good. In my house, I played Campbell and Jim Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, the power of which left us speechless, followed (to help us unwind) by the melodious serenities of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings.

My life has always been enriched by music, but when I was living on my own, I didn’t listen much. There were times when music, especially music in a minor key, evoked sadness and anxiety. Much Baroque music seemed to breath this sadness, and music with a valedictory note, such as the famous theme from the New World Symphony, sung as ‘Going home’ filled me at times with an almost suicidal gloom. Background music when I was out for a meal with friends could ramp up my sense of tension. But such emotions are now very rare.

One of the most electrifying performances I have ever watched on television was of Valery Gergiev performing the Pathétique Symphony with the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. His engagement with the piece was total, and you felt Tchaikovsky’s pain in this clearly autobiographical statement – a gifted man, alienated because of his homosexuality. The rich theme of the final movement, blossoming, then struggling to rise again, struggling to sing, yet plunging ever downwards in a terrible poignant beauty until only the silence remains.  Gergiev’s expressive fingers remain motionless for many, many seconds, for the silence is as much part of the music as the sounds which preceded it. And then, slowly, he relaxes. I still feel the pain of this piece, but I see it now as articulating the human condition, and I welcome its unflinching take on humanity’s anguish.

I am relatively untouched by visual art, but healed, elevated and transported by classical music, and this is a very precious thing. I much prefer listening to music on my own rather than as part of a live audience. My family are not particular fans of classical music and so I tend to listen when I am alone in the kitchen, washing the dishes, or out in the car.

As I grow older, I realise that what I really appreciate now is not loud, angst-ridden or exultant music, but works of a gentle, reflective richness, especially from the Baroque period – Bach, Handel, Albinoni. Perhaps I have now passed through the chaos of the fugue, and feel the main theme of God’s love lifting me up. Certainly, I find something of the gentleness and deceptive simplicity of divine beauty in the notes of the Baroque composers who never doubted that God knows every conceivable combination of notes, and that their task was to seek to capture what God has already sung.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The God who remembers

I’ve just finished a wonderful book which I think everyone in the country should read. It’s Where memories go by BBC journalist Sally Magnusson telling the heartbreaking story of Sally’s mother Maimie Magnusson’s experience of dementia, the cruel disease which stole her away.

It describes her fear, her struggle to hold on to elusive memory and to continue deploying meaningfully the words which as a writer had been so important to her, and the moments of clarity when she glimpsed tragic reality.

‘Everything makes me sad these days,’ Maimie said. On another occasion ‘I just feel so, so lost.’ And on another day still ‘It’s like being on a long road getting further and further away from myself.’

The book records one woman’s memories of her mother’s illness. Everyone’s experience of dementia is different. But we all know people with dementia – there are 800,000 suffers in the UK, 35.6 million worldwide. Sally Magnusson’s powerful, insightful writing and her mother’s despatches from the journey help us empathise with those who suffer and their carers. And much in Where memories go resonates with us as Christians.

The book isn’t simply a memoir, but a polemic which while recognising and applauding good practice in dementia care, rages against the absence of joined up provision, the apparently powerlessness of the system to address the atrocious ethos in some care homes, the lack of dignity, the low level of funding directed to dementia research in comparison with other major health issues.

It is crucial, says Magnusson, to regard everyone as ‘equally precious.’ One of our roles as Christians is to be a campaigning voice for the weak, for those who do not have a voice of their own. Sally Magnusson brings a prophetic message, heralding the need for change.

What is impressively evident in the book is the deep love between Maimie and her four surviving children. Sally researches the causes and the journey of dementia not simply from journalistic interest, but in order to understand her mother’s anguish, to accompany her as she takes her lonely voyage.

The daughter recognises that what her mother needs from her is mothering – ‘unconditional care, endless forgiveness and constant understanding.’ Addressing her mum, she writes of ‘the sore privilege it has been to accompany you into the deepest darkest places and sometimes to be able to turn on the light.’

And she can say without sentimentality, having been honest about her struggle and tiredness and pain, that she has learned lessons which could be learned no other way. ‘To do this for you has been to learn how to love.’ This is the kind of love which was modelled by Jesus Christ.

Where memories go also addresses the nature of human identity. Is there no more to us than the complex biology of our brains? If dementia steals our minds, has the treasure of self been annihilated? Sally Magnusson is convinced that her mother was still present to the very end. That there is ‘a separate selfhood, a secret core of self which I imagine as a glossy pearl, existing separately and staying safe from the most violent assaults on the body and of the body.’

This is the Christian conviction, that our souls exist separate from, but expressing themselves in our bodies, at all times nurtured by the love of those around us and by the love of God.

Sally Magnusson discusses euthanasia and assisted suicide in the context of dementia. She acknowledges that other people have different views, but argues in the light of what she has seen of her mother’s capacity for joy and laughter even at a very advanced stage of her illness that we can never know when ‘the end of any meaningful life has come.’

Perhaps dementia is what we fear above all else, especially those of us with dementia in the family. In response we must treasure each moment, each memory, each opportunity to love and to be loved, and say to our families, as Sally Magnusson says in effect to her children that no matter what happens, no matter what cold mists her mind may conjure she will love them forever.

Our faith will be shaken as we enter the black hole of dementia. Watching a hymn on Songs of Praise, at the line ‘Then thank the Lord….’ Maimie bellows ‘You can thank the Lord if you want to. But don’t expect me to.’ But her daughter highlights theologian John Swinton’s view: that what matters is not us remembering God, but God remembering us.

Sally says to her mum ‘You know me, you know me not. It really does not matter. I know you.’ And it seems to me that those words express what, to those adrift in the mists of dementia, God whispers.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 13th March 2014)

The God who pictures our future

Deryn Blackwell (14) had suffered from two forms of cancer for almost three years, during which time he had numerous treatments, including four bone marrow transplants in 2013, none of which seemed to ‘take.’ By last December, his immune system no longer functioning, he had three major infections.

His family celebrated Christmas on 14th December because they’d been told he wouldn’t make it to the 25th. Yet even though he had been taken off antibiotics as his case was judged hopeless, somehow his wounds healed, somehow his body began producing white blood cells again.

He had begun a recovery, reported in the press last week, which doctors deem ‘impossible.’ It is further evidence that sometimes, miracles happen.

Deryn had faced up to the fact that he was dying. His mum Callie says ‘Deryn said that when he finally accepted his was going to die, it was the best day of his life because it gave him this calm and peaceful feeling, like he finally had control over his life and where he was going.’

No one who has not received a diagnosis of a terminal illness can possibly imagine what it must feel like. But there are frequent reports of people given a limited number of weeks or months to live who say that despite the sadness they have found peace and meaningfulness, and even a strange wistful joy.

My recent mini-stroke was not life-threatening, but it did confront me with my own mortality. Together with the recognition that it might be followed by a far more serious episode came a heightened sense of the value of each day, each moment, each person, each conversation.

The old Christian writers advise us to ‘Live every day as though it were your last.’ It is, I believe, true that a healthy acceptance that we are not here for ever is the key to wise living, the key to extracting the most from life, and contributing the most to life.

I was interested in Deryn’s view of what happens when we die. Callie tells us ‘He described it as having an open door in front of you with a light, and you know that when you walk through that door all pain will end and you will be free.’

Our view of what dying entails colours our approach to death. Do I believe that when the last brain cells cease firing, I am gone forever? Do I believe in the tunnel of light to the place of welcome (or perhaps of anguish) which the stories of near-death experiences describe? Do I believe in multiple incarnations? Or do I accept the Christian vision of death, as entry into another dimension where our lives will be assessed, and the quality of our loving, and above all our attitude to the Jesus who offers us freedom from fear of judgement?

It seems important not to latch on unthinkingly to cultural assumptions about death, but to explore the issues and the evidence, and to listen out for the God whom Christians believe assures us that death is not the end, and encourages us to put our confidence in Jesus Christ.

I was struck by the difficulty Deryn had in coming to terms with not dying. ‘Cancer boy faces his toughest test coping with a miracle recovery,’ one headline ran. His family say ‘Deryn has had every certainty removed.’ For a time he even stopped eating because he couldn’t face the prospect of living, but now he is able ‘to picture his own future.’

This feeling of being sentenced to life, not death seems counter-intuitive. But it reminds me that while it’s healthy to live in the light of our morality, it is not healthy to be defined by our mortality.

I can imagine that if I had a troubling diagnosis, or found myself limited physically, or if I was depressed or otherwise mentally ill, or even if I reached a significant birthday, I might say ‘This is it. Life is over’ and find some dubious comfort in withdrawal from life.

If ever I feel that way, I hope I will remind myself that accepting my mortality is a gateway to entering as fully as I am able into the life God calls me to, a life which continues beyond death. For Daryn, death was ‘the next adventure.’ Sometimes we need to rediscover the ‘next adventure’ which life offers us. God pictures our future, and summons us into it.

It’s easy to talk about death. Harder to accept that I will die one day. And yet, as I reflected in the aftermath of my mini-stroke, I realised that everything would be OK, really it would, as I entrusted myself not to rumours of a tunnel of light but to the living Jesus.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 6th March 2014)

Seeking the land of liberty: 12 years a slave

It was named Best Film at the Baftas, at which one of its stars Chiwetel Ejiofor won the Best Actor Award. It’s been nominated for 9 Oscars at this Sunday’s ceremony. It is 12 years a slave, Steve McQueen’s powerful film about what one reviewer called ‘America’s original sin.’

Set in the USA before the Civil War, when slavery was practised in the southern states, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, born a free man in 1808, but abducted in 1841 and sold into slavery in the South.

The movie vividly depicts the horrors of slavery, the attitude which regards other human being as “$1000 animals”, the violent beatings which Northup described in his 1853 book as being ‘like the burning agonies of hell.’ It is not a comfortable film to watch, but nor should it be. Truth telling can be painful.

For slaves, death was the only escape, heaven a vision of ultimate rest. For fellow-slave Patsy, grievously mistreated, life was as Northup puts it ‘one long dream of liberty.’ She had heard of different conditions in the North: ‘Far away, to her fancy an immeasurable distance, she knew there was a land of freedom.’

Christians find both book and movie illuminating. Northup was a Christian, seeking strength from God, and praying in time of crisis. Through his experiences, he discovered the depths of evil, ‘the limitless extent of wickedness man will go for the love of gain.’

He also noted the effect which unrestrained violence had on slave owners: ‘It had a tendency to brutalise the humane and finer feelings of their nature.’ Book and film confront us yet again with evidence of our human potential for evil.

We ask ourselves how we react to one of the uncomfortable truths of our time – that an estimated 27 million people worldwide are afflicted by 21st century forms of slavery – sex trafficking, forced labour and the exploitation of migrant workers. Where are our howls of protest and rage at this evidence that ‘the love of gain’ still holds the power to corrupt?

Not all American slave owners treated their slaves badly. Northup describes a young woman who was ‘an angel of kindness.’ His first owner was a devout Christian in life as in word, who preached to and prayed with his slaves in gentle sincerity.

Says Northup: ‘In my opinion there never was a more kind, noble Christian man than William Ford.’ A later owner, Peter Tanner also read the Bible to his slaves (as depicted in the film) but he was a man of a different spirit, using it to manipulate them, to justify his beatings, to inculcate obedience.

The Bible can be used to bless and encourage, or to control and manipulate. Ford and Tanner challenge every one of us who shares the Bible with other to examine our motives.

And Northup’s experiences highlight how slow we can be to challenge our assumptions. William Ford was blind to the iniquities of slavery, Northup argues, because he had never questioned the system in which he had been raised. ‘He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection.’

Similarly, people who had been life-long slaves would instinctively ‘cringe before a white man’s look,’ not believing themselves worthy of freedom.

We too are children of our age. What assumptions do we accept unquestioningly? I may never have seriously considered the claims of Christian faith because the predominant view in Scottish culture is that God is an illusion. As a Christian, I may have accepted assumptions on, say, the role of women or gay people without seriously exploring these issues. 12 years a slave challenges us to examine our assumptions.

Solomon Northup was liberated after 12 years through the agency of one man who saw things as they were, and was unafraid to speak the truth.

At the deepest level, book and movie invite us to question what freedom is, asking what freedom looks like, and whether we are truly free. I may be outwardly free, while inwardly enslaved by fears, troubles, by a restless craving, by my assumptions, by my religion. My life may in fact be ‘one long dream of liberty.’ As a Christian carrying such burdens, I may see heaven as the land of freedom ‘at an immeasurable distance.’

But as Christians we believe that someone came among us, someone who saw things as they were, who was unafraid to speak the truth, who died for his truth telling. Jesus, who by rooting our security in an unshakable, loving God, sets us truly free. And having found in Christ ultimate security, and strength to cope with difficult circumstances, we realise that the land of liberty is here, a spiritual dimension where we find the strength to be.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 27th February 2014)