PC 109 That reminds me (1)

 

I hear the notes of the start of some music or song and almost immediately seem to be able to recall what it is called or remember when it meant something to me, such is the power of association. I doubt whether you are different and between us there will be hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music that we hold dear to our hearts, tunes that stir our soul. What follows are some of mine. Naturally some of you will identify with them and others will ask: “Really?”; such is life!

In my early teenage years I thought that the only ‘opera’ I liked was the accompanying overtures and none of the singing. This dislike was probably initiated at school as the teacher responsible for putting on the classical concerts and operas, Mr Oboussier, always seemed to choose Mozart. One year ‘Don Giovanni’ and the next ‘The Marriage of Figaro’; “One foot …. two feet ….. and that makes three….” sang Figaro and the squeaky strings of the school orchestra violins started these painful memories. However the school Tuck Shop was run by Mr Pickford, a delightful man with a clipped white moustache, short of stature but big in generosity; for some reason he always wore a white coat rather like a laboratory assistant. It was here we played cribbage, bought snacks and had our daily ⅓ pint of milk, invariably to the strains of Wager’s Tannhäuser Overture, obviously Mr Pickford’s favourite. I got to love it too and I get goose pimples whenever I hear those first stirring notes.

Years later my brother and I were making an infrequent visit to our father in Newcastle, driving north up the M1 in his Morris 1000 Traveller. At one point north of the Watford Gap Service Station the car radio played Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ overture …… and the link between this and travelling together on that wet grey day was cemented. I would search for record collections of ‘Overtures from the Operas’ whenever I could.

Then it all changed. You may recall my parents lived in the little village of Balcombe here in Sussex, and during my time at university (1969-1972) I would often drive down from north of Swindon for a weekend. On the Sunday evening, on the way back to a week of studying ‘Materials of Construction’ (good!) or ‘Mechanics of Fluids’ (not so good!), I would be passing through Camberley around 2100. At that time Alan Keith presented a BBC Radio 2 programme called ‘Your Hundred Best Tunes’; astonishingly he did so for 44 years – yes forty four years!! Quite often he would play the famous duet from Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers “Au fond du temple saint” (In The depths of the temple) – and in his wonderfully warm and cultured voice announce it would be the 1950 recording by Robert Merrill and Jussi Björling. I knew nothing about the opera but boy oh boy did this duet fill the car with a cacophony of passion, love and sheer magic. I was hooked. No more only orchestral pieces; duets and grand choruses became my love although I still dislike men or women ‘warbling’.

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That dislike probably started in my teenage years if I think about it. My grandmother, a very accomplished pianist, would organise concerts to raise money for Bath charities. Occasionally some man or woman would get up and ‘warble’……. .not for me. But Granny practised …… and practised …… and practised Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, and then played it as a duet with a Rose Tobin in the concert. Hear this piece today and I am instantly transported back to the 1960s and Bath! Lovely huh!

On my journey of discovery of classical music I stopped learning the piano and took up the trumpet. The former had been taught at school in a small room by a teacher who, unbelievably, chain smoked! Clearly my strenuous but largely unsuccessful attempts to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps irritated him a great deal. I remember him trying to position my hands over the appropriate keys, leaning over me, all the time puffing on a cigarette that dangled precariously from the corner of his mouth. He gave up on me; it was mutual and everyone was happy.

A Mr Weeks taught brass instruments so I asked him to teach me how to play the trumpet. Being virtually tone deaf this presented a problem for me, well for him too I guess, but if I heard the music first, I sort of was OK. Mr Philip Oboussier decided one year that the school orchestra should perform Sibelius’s Symphony Number 2. Initially I didn’t like what I heard, as we all sat around his Grundig Gramophone and listened to a recording. Then we dissected the piece and rehearsed each bit. We brought it all together, performed in in the School concert and now it’s possibly my favourite orchestral piece. Sibelius scored his compositions with a heavy accent on the brass section, so maybe I was slightly biased!

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Music can often be associated with the untimely departure of a friend or loved one. During our unforgettable first term at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, one of our fellow Officer Cadets developed a particularly vicious form of Leukaemia. He went from being an energetic, charming chap to his death bed in about four weeks, or so my memory informs me. The Company Sergeant Major, a mature figure to us 18 year olds, loved Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto. Up until that point squeaky violins didn’t do it for me; maybe this was the right time to be educated. We cried our way together through this emotional music, laying the basis for a love of weeping violin and viola concertos that continues to this day.

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In my second term at Sandhurst our intae were accommodated in some Nissen huts (see note) some distance from the main buildings. They were rudimentary, poorly insulated at best. I had been given an old record player, for which I was grateful, but there was something wrong with its ability to rotate the turntable at a constant speed – a fairly basic requirement you might think. Further investigation revealed that the drive was transferred from the central spindle to the turntable by a rubber belt attached to a plastic disc. This disc was not a true circle and despite endless attempts to shave it ‘round’ eventually I gave up ……. and put up with its idiosyncratic variable speeds! So why am I thinking of this now? Well, one of the records I had was a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 – The Emperor ……. and I have always thought that the opening of the slow movement, the Adagio ‘un posso mosso’ was a dead ringer for the beginning of the song from West Side Story ‘There’s a Place.’ (aka Somewhere) written by Leonard Bernstein. Maybe he was a Beethoven fan? Let me know if you agree.

You might think that I only love classical music but that’s not true. As someone who spent some formative years during the Summers of Love in the 1960s, how could I have not been influenced by ‘pop’? More anon …….

 

Richard 4th November 2017

Note: Designed as cheap accommodation in the First World War by Major Peter Nissen, these prefabricated structures had a half cylindrical corrugated steel skin, with brick ends.

 

 

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