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.