Friday, 10 December 2010

My Kind of Music(4)

At university I decided I hated playing in orchestras, and still do. I fell out of love with the double bass.  I had yet to get into jazz, in which the bass comes into its own. I changed to playing the treble viol instead and found myself living in what was for me a far more conducive musical world. I'd visited it before: at home with my parents on Sunday mornings we played chamber music. Friends and acquaintances who played would come round and join in. As the years went by we ended up playing more and more early music.

One of my favourite inhabitants of that world was the English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). In fact, I wish that in the days when I played the viol (and knew other viol players)  I'd played more of his music. This is a fantasia for three viols - for  me, it's definitely one for the desert island. When I played it just over 30 years ago I don't think I'd ever enjoyed playing a piece of music more:

I'm enjoying writing this series of posts. That worries me a little: it could easily become self indulgent exercise. I'm afraid you'll have to indulge me a bit! It's actually turning into a bit of a voyage of self-discovery for me - the aural equivalent, perhaps, of looking back through a box of old photographs. As with the old photographs, you can sometimes see things there that you were oblivious to at the time.

Pausing for thought, I've just turned the radio on - to find it's playing a piece I'd totally forgotten about, the Toccata from Widor's Organ Symphony  No. 5, famously played at Charles and Diana's wedding. Less famously, it was played to death (at 45 rpm) on the bedroom record player, before I'd started to raid the local record library. Listening to it now takes me right back to school, sitting in the chapel and listening to the organ - usually Bach.  It strikes me now how our teachers wanted us to be exposed to good, emotionally rich, interesting music. If there was any conscious effort, it was a conscious effort to exclude music that was deemed unsuitable - at that time, in short, anything that relied on a drum-kit for its sense of movement! Looking back, I'm grateful: I could discover rock music for myself, and I'm glad I was led to try and appreciate the breadth of music's possibilities before I did. I'm sad, though, that it took me years to get round to jazz.

I think we underestimate the way we use music to help shape the minds of young people. I've heard Muslims express surprise at the amount of singing that goes on in Christian worship. It's no surprise to me. If you teach a child -or anyone- a song about something, the music embeds a potent emotional charge in the ideas and images expressed in the lyrics. Most people brought up singing hymns in school assemblies have, deep down, a whole common set of emotional responses to Christmas and the Nativity (to take an obvious example), whatever they have come to believe, intellectually, about faith as adults. I know I have.

I'm not saying this is a wrong thing to do, but that it is simply what we do. It can be wrong, as the Nazis demonstrated in the thirties but, on the whole, it's simply an important part of the way societies socialize their children.  In fact, at the risk of sounding stodgy,  much of my job is about choosing music for children to play and listen to. If we dislike certain aspects of the society we live in, we'll probably feel correspondingly uncomfortable with some of the music we're surrounded with. (To take an obvious example, someone uncomfortable with British patriotism will probably feel ill at ease with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance). However, whatever kind of society we live in, I suspect we will always use music in this way. It plays a huge part in defining who we are.


George said...

Thanks so much, Dominic. I enjoyed the piece by Gibbons, as well as your interesting discussion of the role of music in our lives. Keep it up. This if a great music appreciation course, as far as I am concerned. Merry Christmas to you.

Titus said...

I listened Dominic, but I am a barbarian who needs voice or electric guitar. But thank you for the introduction.
So right about music, and your musical history being a personal history.
And I still blub at certain hymns and carols. Not a good mascara-time-of-year.

Argent said...

I really liked the Gibbons. That kind of music has a terrifically calming effect on me. You've pointed out something here that I had not consciously appreciated - the shared musical culture. Most people of my sort of age do know the same hymns/carols from having massacred them during assembly or Sunday School and singing them together in groups does engender a feeling of shared identity to some degree and brings back very strong memories. Music is indeed very powerful.

Dominic said...

George: Thanks for that. And a Merry Christmas to you, too.

Titus: Titus the Barbarian? Surely not. :)

Argent: Interesting, isn't it? And it's subconscious so much of the time.