If I were to say that I grew up in a musical family it would conjure up an erroneous vision.
No one played an instrument….and when the school obliged its pupils to learn to play one father perused the options – recorder or violin – and announced that he was against torturing cats, so the recorder it was – ghastly thing.
My fingers were all thumbs, it made an abominable sound in my hands and it was quietly agreed between the music department, my father and myself that life would be better for all of us were I to have a session in the library instead.
I suspect that this agreement came in the wake of Rhonwen’s father storming the school bearing her violin and announcing that lessons were all very well, but that in future his daughter could practice on school premises and thus avoid waking her baby sister.
In other fields further agreements were reached…..the school made a token gesture towards fitting its girls for home making (something the headmistress regarded as the ultimate failure unless undertaken in support of elderly parents) by giving classes in needlework and cookery in the first year.
I thus achieved not one but three library sessions per week (double periods at that).
An unfortunate incident involving lighting a gas oven with a taper saw me removed from the cookery room – and my parents spared the horrors of rock hard raspberry buns – while sewing the skirt I was supposed to be making to the skirt I was wearing at the time saw my time at the sewing machine cut short in drastic fashion.
And if you think you can’t sew one to the other, you should have seen the school uniform winter skirts of that era.
Built from serge so stiff it could stand up on its own, six gored and long enough to cover the knees of a giraffe we used to reckon that it was an initiative on the part of the school governors to keep the Clyde shipyards in operation.
Only the rivets were lacking.
But father loved music…and sang – when he was not smoking.
You knew when father was home as soon as you opened the door: whorls of blue smoke would engulf you in the hall, which was imbued with the odour peculiar to hand rolled tobacco – known to us as tram driver’s glove – in maize paper wrappers.
Venturing further into the house, father would either be silently smoking while reading the newspaper – articles varying from Manchester Guardian leaders to the racing page of the Daily Mirror – or be concocting something in the kitchen…and singing.
He sang just about everything except hymns.
Opera, light opera…music hall ditties, folk songs, political stuff….it is thanks to him that I have a vast ragbag of musical memories which rise unbidden to the surface, from ‘se vuol ballare’ from “The Marriage of Figaro’
Via the Red Air Force song:
‘Propellers roaring, roaring to the battle
High in the air above the clouds we speed
Our bombas are ready, machine guns rattle
Against the world’s imperialist greed.
Fly higher, and higher anf higher
Our emblem’s the Soviet star
When every propeller is roaring’ class front’
Defending the USSR’.
(For some reason this does not seem to exist on Youtube but I was delighted to hear it played as part of Moscow’s recent VE day celebrations.)
To ‘Stop your tickling, Jock’
‘Jock of Hazeldean’
And the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco:
And the explanations came with the music…why ‘The Mikado’ was written when it was…who was the butt of ‘HMS Pinafore’…
Why the operas of Verdi were so popular with supporters of Italy’s Risorgimento: Verdi – Viva Emmanuel (Victor Emmanuel of Savoy) Re D’Italia….his love and knowledge of history bubbling through the music.
Having a voice like the Muckle Flugger on a foggy night does not deter me from giving song in the mornings and most of my repertoire comes from my father…though I have to hold him blameless in respect of ‘The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom’, which you can look up for yourselves if so inclined.
He was not so enthusiastic for ‘stand alone’ music…so it was due to the school music department that I grew to enjoy orchestral music: those two Welsh ladies – while sending me once more to the library during choir practice – gave us all a grounding in the history of music and its stylistic manifestations which illuminated the records they played to illustrate their lessons.
They ran a music club so that we could play records in the lunch hour…and gently allowed our emotional development to echo itself in music; always ready to explain, to offer other examples…it seemed at the time a relief from the rigours of study, but, looking back, their instruction was equally rigorous – just couched in a different fashion.
The school was conscientious in taking pupils to the theatre…to the ballet…to the Greek play at some public school whose name I have forgotten, but will never forget the thrill of hearing classical Greek spoken which enlivened my plodding attempts to learn it…and to the Proms.
Which brings me to the Ode to Joy.
My father had introduced me to Schiller….his was the remnant of a generation which looked to Germany for its culture and was brought up on German literature…and I had heard and responded to Beethoven before…but this was the first time I was to see and hear a performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
The second part of the programme was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which, as it progressed, took me further out of myself than I had theretofore experienced; I looked at my friends alongside – all were as involved, living it.
And then the final movement and the Ode to Joy….I can still remember how it affected me: borne up, the heart overflowing, the senses overcome.
For someone wary, withdrawn, it did indeed reveal Schiller’s ‘Joy, daughter of Elysium’.
It changed me.
I have heard it since – notably Bernstein’s concert at the fall of the Berlin Wall with its cry of ‘Freiheit’…and heard parts of it again on a programme in a series called ‘Soul Music’ on BBC radio tonight, which led me to play the whole symphony again.
And to recall the supreme irony…that the European Union, that oligarchic institution in which the people of Europe have no voice, has the damned sauce to use the ‘Ode to Joy’ as its anthem.
The words of this are supposed to read ‘meep. meep, meep’ but sound more like ‘me, me, me’.
How apt for the EU, that perversion of democracy, which quibbles while children drown.