Music: the best of all life-enhancers

Once upon a time I used to have some influence, indeed full control, over what music was being played in the car when ferrying children. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but there came a point when I just accepted that the channel would be changed, without request, even before a seatbelt was fastened.

I suspect this presumptuous behaviour extends far beyond the Hely-Hutchinson household.

Initially I was disappointed with this. When still in a car seat, my youngest daughter had filled me with enormous encouragement when she enthused ‘Oh, yes, I really like this one’ to the strains of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Her initiation has not endured. My eldest daughter will take it in moderation, especially if I help her listen to the tune.

At about 10 years of age, my son was a little more enquiring. ‘Why do you actually like this stuff, Dad?’ And not in an aggressive way, but in a way that was genuinely seeking an understanding of my love of it. It was a curved ball: how do you answer that satisfactorily, when the simplest, but wholly inadequate response, is ‘I dunno, I just do’? When you are asked such a question out of real interest, your questioner deserves a better explanation.

Music in all its forms is the one art form above all others which can elicit the widest range of human emotions: the same piece – classical, jazz, pop – can make one person weep, another dance. There is no correct reaction: the experience, and its toying with our imaginations, is all. That, in itself, does not need to be explained: it really doesn’t mater why.

And it is the ultimate comforter.

2018 will go down as one of the most turbulent years of modern times. There is no need for me to rehearse the ingredients here. The saddest theme for me is a noticeable, and, I fear, growing sense of anger. People seem to have even less time to ‘stand and stare’; less time to communicate properly; we are all in a mad rush; stressed; too much emphasis on doing, and not enough on being. And before knowing it, our being will be done.

You will know by now that I am quite a fan of George Handel (1685-1759). Choosing music at this time is not easy, but clearly something of a Christmassy nature is apt, and Handel’s Messiah, a work lasting nearly two and half hours which he composed in just  24 days, has grabbed my attention as the perfect antidote to this division. Even more so, for Handel leaving his birthplace in Germany to live his last days in London. I hope we did not place his remains in Westminster Abbey against his will.

Listen to these few minutes of a very familiar passage ‘For unto us a child is born‘. With a little more attention, you will notice from the opening note its freshness; its lightness, in voice and orchestra. Sir Colin Davis was one of the kings of choral conducting (just noticed his second name was Rex), and the articulation requires no subtitles. And what words! ‘Wonderful! Counsellor…The Prince of Peace.’

It is a brief  passage full of hope, joy, excitement, optimism; a few minutes, if you like, completely devoid of anger. The embodiment of the ability of music to ‘enable us to pass our lives with a little sweetness amidst all the bitterness we encounter here’ – words written by Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie universelle, and just as appropriate today as they were in 1636.

Thank you for your lovely support for these humble jottings – feel free to pass on the link to friends or family, especially younger ones. Happy Christmas and a peaceful 2019 wherever this finds you.

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In October last year, I wrote a post about Josef Haydn (1732-1809), alluding, in particular, to his sense of humour. At the heart of this was his eagerness to engage with his audiences: a tough demand in an output, apparently, of some 340 hours of composition.

If he were alive today, I am certain he would be on the side of those who clap between movements, a debate which tends to divide listeners today almost as passionately as…well, take your pick from the current crop. Can’t imagine what might spring to mind.

Even if you are new to classical music, it is likely you will be familiar with the second movement of his Symphony 94 (out of a mere 106), which came to be called The Surprise. Haydn’s intentions were perfectly clear: ‘That will make the ladies scream’, he wrote.

And he was right.

To appreciate its effect, you need to imagine yourself sitting in the audience at its first performance in Hanover Square, London, in 1792. It’s no big surprise to us now, because, unless you’ve not heard it before, we know what’s coming. In 1792, they had no idea.

The Andante starts off innocently enough on the strings with a simple melody, which is repeated more quietly; and then, just as you are getting yourself comfortable, BANG. Everyone comes in on a thumping chord, with what the Germans call a Paukenschlag (great word, meaning kettle drum stroke).

The joke is not repeated, but the genius of the ensuing minutes is sometimes overlooked: Haydn plays with the original tune, turning it around and keeping engaged with his audience. This was more necessary than you might think – competition for their attention was high. One of his pupils, Ignace Pleyel, was in London at the same time and was very popular.

Some of us like surprises, some not. This movement reminds me of a personal experience, which only a handful of people know about, so I’d might as well share it. It is scarcely believable, but every word is true. As surprises go, this is right up there.

About forty years ago, I was to have dinner with a girl, who was going to a drinks party beforehand. She encouraged me to join her there, even though I didn’t know the host, insisting “it’ll be fine.”

Suited and booted, I rang the doorbell, to be greeted by a young girl, no more than five or six years old. “Hello,” I said, “where are Mummy and Daddy?” “Just up the stairs” came the confident reply.

And so up I went. The more I climbed, the more tentative I became. There didn’t seem to be any obvious sounds of a buzzing drinks party. These steps were just like the opening seconds of Haydn’s Andante. I turned to the girl at the bottom of the stairs. “In here?” She nodded.

So in I went. And this was the BANG moment. Mummy and Daddy were there.  But not quite as I expected. Daddy was in the bath, and Mummy was sitting and chatting to him from a wicker chair, also naked as the day she was born, glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other. Anyone who has seen the 1974 film, Emmanuelle, will know the image.

I was in the wrong house.

I bolted fairly hastily, although I could have taken my time, for they were in no state to give chase. Just imagine a complete stranger opening your bathroom door at such a moment. It’s fair to say, however, that the surprise was far from one-sided. I was also in some shock.

These are lovely, beautifully crafted minutes, and the conductor, Mariss Jansons, extracts a terrific sound. Haydn is so underrated, his music often used in concerts as an appetiser for something larger in scale. He is so much better than that.

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