Ode to Joy

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.

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37 thoughts on “Ode to Joy”

  1. Well that’s an eclectic play list. No one in the immediate family’s very musical, but an aunt’s sister married Oscar Natzke.Or something like that.
    For myself, I can claim to have been a quite proficient player on the linoleum when very young.Then we got carpets…

  2. . . having grown up in a family where music consisted of a ballerina that popped up out of a box and pirouetted to some ‘plinking’, I grew to have an abiding love of most things ‘musical’. Through partner J (a music graduate and sometime performer), I now have the pleasure of friends and family dotted across the jazz and classical spectrum and a never ending prospect of aural delights. J and John S (undoubtedly the greatest baritone sax player in the world) once tried to teach me to play a blues harmonica – the result was a retreat and the gift of a jaws-harp – I can’t play that, either!
    Your sentiments about the theft of ‘Ode’ by the cleptocratic EU are shared.

    1. We have a young member of the family who is a member of a group in Belgium who seem to be taking off for success….but that’s the nearest we get!

      Ah, the jaws harp…otherwise known to us as the jews harp or the trump and no, I can’t play it either…

  3. This is a lovely post Helen. What a gift your dad gave to you with all that music. (Apropos of which it makes me a bit annoyed when you hear schools saying they are only going to offer children things that the children themselves find “relevant” – as I was reading in the paper today). You don’t know what will be relevant to you in your adult life until you are one!

    1. It always amused me that when my parents were going out he would always come down the stairs singing ‘Cigareets and whisky and wild, wild women’….not much hope of that at the engagements they frequented!

      How i agree that schools offering children only what the children find relevant is a negation of all that education should stand for…!

    2. Hi Jennywoolf. I’m lucky to have 5 children. You are right – parents/society/our education system fail our children when it only gives them what they say they want… But that’s not been our experience. Our experience is, too often, that education is dictated to by Governments in thrall to the needs of business… so the curriculum becomes less about education and more about what vocational gaps in the system are anticipated to be. I worry about that. Scotland’s education system has purportedly moved toward encouraging children to think for themselves. And it manages that half-heartedly. In reality the pressure on schools and educationalists to ‘prove’ they are ‘good’ means that children become fodder for a results driven system. Maybe it has always been thus. I know I only started to ‘think’ when my school education ended and I had to learn independently at Uni. Of course, now our Universities are criticised for ‘spoon-feeding’ students… (though I can’t confirm that as my current Masters degree doesn’t evidence any of that).

  4. I put Beethoven’s No9 on; looked and Schiller’s original 1785 poem and then reread your blog.

    You describe the rousing, overwhelming, self-obliterating impact of ‘Ode’ – because that’s what it does – what powerful music does. It allows us to transcend ourselves. I used to think it was a quasi-religious experience – the nearest I’d ever come to that anyway.

    And then I’m always reminded of that day when I joined the local Youth Orchestra (stuffed full of very talented musicians, the majority of whom would go on to greatness in the Halle or Berlin or Chicago or our own SNO etc) as a 2nd flute – only to shame myself so completely that I couldn’t bring myself to go back. I committed what I was given to understand was THE musical cardinal sin…

    I was so utterly wrapped up in the music that I forgot myself – and spontaneously started to play the solo flute piece (not well I have to admit)… Mr Suckling, the Conductor (awful name which I experienced a peculiar embarrassment bringing myself to say – so I’d avoid uttering it at all) was so appalled by my breach of etiquette (he had never heard such a thing – where was my discipline – had I been listening!) that he shouted long and loudly for a good minute.

    The strangest thing is: I can remember the shame as though it were today – but I cannot remember the music…

    Anyway… music is the stuff of life… your father gave you the gift of remembrance through sound.

    My Mother remains tone-deaf. It’s my Father who’s the musical one. Playing the sweetest, mellowest soprano cornet (no mean feat because it’s not really a mellow instrument). I can’t hear a brass band without crying. But with a deep joy.

    1. One of the participants in the radio programme said how hard it was, as a performer, to remain detached from the emotion of what you were expressing….

      The Ode is not the only piece that moves me…but it is the only one which moves me in this fashion.

      Mr. Suckling…..no relation to the poet, I imagine…but i can imagine the hesitation to speak the name at a certain age…

  5. My mother-in-law (whom I have mentioned before and whom I adored) belonged to a choir wherever she lived. She said that it was the best cure for depression and based this theory on the large amounts of oxygen you take in whilst belting out Bach or The Beatles. I shall now work my way joyously through your playlist and sing along lustily 🙂

  6. I credit my mother for always having a radio, a hi fi and books in the house. Without music of all stripes and books, I would be a lost woman today. Whether it is humming, singing in the shower, chanting prayers, performing in a choir, strumming a guitar or listening to others, music is good for the soul. Your dad knew that, and so do you. Best to you both.

  7. Great grand-father was a chorister at Westminster Abbey. His brother was a chorister at St Paul’s. Grandfather was a sheet music salesman for Novellos. Grandmother was an operatic singer. Then it all went pear-shaped and I cannot even hum a recognisable tune. I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. I would so love to have been able to sing, or play an instrument, but it was not to be. The genes must have run out of juice.

  8. Did I not comment on this before?
    I must have forgotten to post it!!!
    Lovely music, I myself am musical via the wireless and YouTube!
    Singing aloud is banned by all and sundry for some reason.

    1. I think that lurgy of yours needs a bit of attention.
      What about cutting out the honey and the hot water from your toddy?
      Luckily for the sanity of others in the household my singing bout usually ends when I finish the morning washing up…

  9. I tried playing the piano, but I was so bad at it my piano teacher gave up in despair. I never had the nerve to try any other instrument after that.

    The songs that played the biggest part in my childhood were a bizarre mixture of hymns (my boarding school had two chapel services every Sunday), filthy ditties passed on at a cadet-corps camp in Aldershot, and sixties rock music.

    1. It’s quite amazing what makes up our playlist’!
      Thanks to father I had quite a varied selection..embellished by the University rugby club in later years and added to in France…

  10. Sorry have been busy with bottling and visitors and blogging has some how got left behind. Now trying to catch up 🙂
    Great post but sadly with our useless connection here videos just do not work. I often wonder if it would be cheaper to use dial up which is equally as fast!
    Both my parents were musical, My Dad could play anything on either piano or an organ but could not read a note of music. My Mum was excellent on the piano but could only play with sheet music. As for me I was useless, I could not play an instrument and my singing voice was best left unheard. For all that I love listening to almost any music and I can certainly follow a beat. The worst ever was my ex brother-in-law who decided that he wanted to learn to play the bag pipes, Thankfully it did not last long as his parents told him to play elsewhere!!! Hope that you are both well. Diane

    1. I suspect that my father – having plumped for the recorder – had a notion that it might serve as an introduction to the pipes….
      I think our parents were more musical because music was not immediately available…you had to go to a concert or turn on the radio…

  11. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to learn an instrument at school (violin in my case) and have always loved music, though we only had the radio to listen to at home – no records. I really enjoyed the variety of your playlist and also the glimpses of your childhood and your father’s influence . I can identify with your overwhelming experience of listening to Beethoven’s 9th. For me the youthful equivalent was singing soprano in Handel’s Messiah and especially the Hallelujah Chorus. I thought my feet were going to leave the ground when singing those high notes!

    1. How lovely to be able both to sing and play an instrument! I enjoy my morning honk but would love to be able to reproduce the sounds I hear in my head….

      I do owe a great deal to my father….but the older I get the more I appreciate the input of those two Welsh ladies who made up the school music department, who put music in its societal context.

  12. Your father sounds like a wonderful man. I don’t know how many fathers today have that amount of culture, or give as much time to educate their children in the finer things in life.
    I was the weirdo at school who didn’t have a telly at home, so I did lots of other things, including playing the flute and singing in different choirs. I still have my flute, and sing off tune but don’t care who hears me. My favourite piece of music is from Grieg’s Peer Gynt – much to the horror of my offspring, who hear it being belted out of the kitchen on a regular basis. 😀

    1. He’d led an ‘interesting’ life and could be mercurial….but was never without a book on hand and some music on the record player.
      Education was prized and encouraged in Scotland in his time and he passed on that love of learning – not just of books, but of music and art.
      We only acquired the goggle box when it dawned on father that he could watch horse racing on it…
      Your offspring should think themselves lucky….it could be ‘The Mucking of Geordie’s Byre’….

      1. Maybe if certain parents today realized how lucky they are to be able to send their children to school, their children would use more of their potential…
        I’m not a TV fan at all. Having grown up without it, I call it “the black eye in the sitting room” 🙂

        1. It doesn’t entrance me either…though it did enable me to watch the Rugby World Cup matches…but i don’t know what has happened to the BBC – all facile ‘factual’ prorammes and endless reality shows…

          1. I watched the rugby too – apart from the odd documentary or film in English, I find French TV tepid and mediocre. The “reality” shows are far from anyone else’s reality – bottomed lips, siliconed busts and tattooed torsos vying for attention in luxury villas abroad. *Vomit*

  13. Recorder was compulsory and for those of us who could play we were recommended to diversify to treble or tenor. I went for tenor as it was the same fingering. Piano and violin at junior school were optional, and clarinet was added at senior, taught by a family friend interestingly. I found it quite funny that posh fee-paying girls were taking private music lessons from a teacher whose main job was selling veg on the local market. Because, people who worked on markets were rough and common.

    Anyway much as I wanted to learn another instrument my parents didn’t seem too keen so it never happened. I did make senior school choir, the madrigal group, and later, the university choir. I can echo Perpetuas comment about hitting the high notes. It is a sublime feeling. My favourites, along with the messiah, were/are Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (the top A is perfect), verdi’s requiem, and Vaughn Williams Serenade to Music. Sweet harmony indeed.

    My operatic knowledge came from my mother. No idea where she got it from but she was incredibly knowledgeable and could easily identify one tenor or soprano from another. With which I will shut up as I could go on about opera and sopranos for ever.

    1. Quite welcome to go on forever as far as I am concerned. Father could point out the difference of approach of various artistes and could tell one from another with accuracy. He always reckoned that it was a shame that M\ario Lanza gave up on opera…

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