Index of Memos


Listening To Music – an Apologia

I was brought up, between the wars, on the BBC Midland Light Orchestra. Radio sets had reached a sufficient standard of audibility just about when, at the age of five, I was ready to start listening. The one in our sitting-room was rarely switched off and (apart from the unforgettable Children’s Hour) what it gave out was light music.

Or rather, just music; for at that time I had no idea that there was music which was not light. Our household was good at sport, but not so good at penetrating beyond substitutes for art into the real stuff. Beyond the Daily Express, not much reading was done. Painting, (or more often family photographs), was not so much something to be looked at as rectangles where they always had been behind glass on the walls. And music was music as understood by the Midland Light Orchestra. (Gramophone records, which I was not allowed to touch, were exclusively music-hall songs.)

As a result, burned into my memory are what must be at least three hundred undemanding tunes. Oddly, I can remember almost none of the titles and very few of the composers. Delibes, Strauss, Franz Lehar, Eric Coates, Souza – that’s about it. But, give me the first few bars and I guarantee to sing the rest. Also I don’t remember actively listening to them: they were simply what was there in my ears.

I’m not sure what happened when Hitler wrenched me out of that setting at the age of thirteen. Nobody, as far as I recall, took me in hand and introduced me to this ‘other’ music. But I do remember, crouched over the radio in my alien wartime billet, one or two first encounters; not so much pleasant as spine-chilling. Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. For me they were wonderful in themselves, but were also gates into territory I never knew existed. And they demanded active and concentrated listening.

Later came live concerts and recordings taking me more deeply into a less comfortable landscape: the late Beethoven quartets, the Bach organ preludes and fugues, Schonberg and Stravinsky, and all of it demanding an active shutting out of anything that was not part of that particular noise.

(Many years later I took up the cello. It was far too late to get very far, but I could at least fight my corner in the easier Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven quartets. It had a malign effect on my quartet-listening. I was following just the one instrument. But I was still intently listening.)

Are the effects of this history good or bad? At the very least, they seem to be anti-social. I cannot readily stand public places, restaurants or cocktail or dinner parties where background noise is thought to be necessary. If the music is interesting, I want to listen to it. If my neighbour is interesting, then I want to listen to him/her without intrusive noise. It is at its worst when, at the dinner table, a late quartet of Beethoven, just below the threshold of concentrated hearing, is competing with a neighbour’s account of a forthcoming divorce. Clearly I ought to listen only to my neighbour, but I just cannot do both.

Private living is different. In their rooms my academic and literary friends have their main activity and adjust what noise they want in that space. Some, in defence against traffic or jet aircraft, have ‘white noise’ in the form of blower-heaters which, in summer, give out no heat. Others find that they can concentrate best if from a niche in the corner, the dying Mozart or Schubert give what they have left to give. It’s a wonderful idea, but I just cannot do it. Either it’s the late Schubert quintet or it’s what I’m trying to write. It can’t be both.