Thursday, 8 November 2012

Music, memory

I thought Fingers's encounter with nineteenth century opera would be good for a few cheap laughs, the clash of 8 year olds and nineteenth century consumptive courtesans, but it turns out his reaction has blown every shred of cynicism out of me, at least temporarily: he's mad about it, and you can't snigger at a rather diffident, careful 8 year old falling in love with Verdi, it turns out. Every Tuesday he comes home with a new aria to sing to me, a new set of facts about Rigoletto or Falstaff, and all week he sings, hums, whispers libretto secretively to himself. Whatever they're doing in those classes (and I don't know much, volcanoes continue to be a recurrent theme, and Fingers has been taking on the role of an anvil during some sessions), I salute them, because they've definitely done what they set out to do with my son: he's a complete convert: normally the least demonstrative of children, he apparently stood up in front of the class and sang an aria a couple of weeks ago. It seems like a brilliant and generous gift to give this class of ordinary kids, this exposure to an alien, colourful world of strong emotions, heroism, villainy, sacrifice, tragedy. For the opera company it seems a curiously distant investment, a declaration of faith in the power of music. It makes me quite unexpectedly happy, and very grateful.

In turn, his enthusiasm seems to have catapulted me back into my own long ago, far distant singing past. I find myself walking around the house singing scraps from half-forgotten oratorios, remember responses from masses and evensongs in the shower. I'm back there, in overheated music rooms and draughty chapels and churches, nursing sore throats and waiting for the tenors to fuck up again.

I'm not really sure how or why or when I stopped singing, but it used to be something I did without thinking, without effort. I was quite good at it - not gifted, but competent - but I did all my grade exams, had lessons, and growing up, there was always a choir in my life. Choral singing in particular used to be one of those things that gave me the kind of complete absorption, concentration, and enjoyment that the best hobbies do. Yes, we've been here before. This is probably the third time I've thought about finding a choir in Brussels, but every time I scare myself with worrying about not being good enough, about my rusty sight-reading skills, about not coping if I get rejected.  It's pathetic, I know, but I've had a pretty comprehensive loss of nerve over the past couple of years so I dither, and retreat, and miss out. Grace wrote something lovely recently about being too scared to join a band, and it really resonated.

Singing in a choir, though, was always such a happy, simple thing: I joined the chapel choir in my college in Oxford more or less the minute I got there and it was, I think, the sole extra-curricular activity I ever committed to.  For three years, Sundays had a reliable shape and rhythm when much of the rest felt alien and uncertain. Two hours of practice, dinner, then the strange and beautiful combination of liturgy and music of a choral evensong, wood polish and Brasso and dust and the pervasive, all-permeating chill of bare 17th century stone. Without a shred of religious faith, the act of singing in a group, in that setting, felt like a tiny shred of transcendence, a moment outside my unhappy self.

I've been thinking further back, too, to school choirs. Singing carols in geriatric wards, lunchtime practices, trips across the country in coaches to perform in school halls and parish churches and Quaker meeting houses. Crushes on boys almost as tragically uncool as me. Forgetting all that angst, and self-doubt and the pervasive insecurity of adolescence for a few minutes, a few hours, in music. I feel very glad I had choir for that easy sense of wellbeing, but also for the things it opened my eyes and ears to. When I was about 16, we sang Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, that strange, dreamy oratorio based on Newman's poem about, well, death. I remember whole swathes of it, melodies, words, timing, perfectly preserved in some dusty corner of my brain, all those big ineffable thoughts feeding and expanding the hormonal stew of confusion that was my brain. It was an odd choice for a bunch of teenagers, and that was down to Goblin.

Goblin our music teacher - everyone called him that, though of course he has a name - gave off the friable, taught aura of one permanently teetering on the verge of catastrophic nervous collapse. He was not, I think, wholly suited to teaching - there was some throwing of chairs, a lot of staying in his office and not coming out for days at a time, occasional outbursts of incoherent fury, lots of random disquisitions on subjects unrelated to the GCSE curriculum  - but he was a proper musician, a man of vivid and vividly communicated passions, and he certainly broadened my musical horizons unimaginably.

I think, particularly, of the time when I was probably 13 or 14 when he made us sing Britten's setting of Jubilate Agno, 18th century madman Christopher Smart's rambling, mystical and intermittently very beautiful devotional poem. There wasn't even a performance, I think: we just learnt it, sung it, and moved on, all in the matter of a couple of months, but it has stayed with me ever since. I thought of it for the first time in ages yesterday: I remember trying to find out more about it, half-heartedly, in the days before the internet, and giving up, but of course, now it's all conveniently laid out for me to rediscover. If anything it's an even odder choice than Gerontius,  but it completely captivated me. The poem is recognisably written by one in the grip of intense mania, but it's also full of clever, agile imagery, punning and wit and passion. The famous bit about his cat, Jeoffry, is marvellous, but it's all full of weird, beautiful madness. I like "The mouse is a creature of great personal valour". It's funny and visual and many, many layered. The music, too, sparkles. I don't generally get along with Britten, but singing it forced me to make the effort, to learn to love it and to be blindsided by the moments of glorious harmony. I feel very grateful to Goblin for having the confidence, or the insouciance, or the cussedness or whatever it was motivated him, to expose us to that peculiar, adult universe. I suppose that's what good teachers do, at least in part? They challenge, provoke, stretch. Perhaps he was better than I give him credit for.

Having remembered Jubilate Agno, I put it on, loud, last night as I made dinner and bits of it just poured out of me, note perfect, a thing untouched for maybe twenty five years.

"Euh, tu peux baisser?" said the children, irked, turning up the sound on Spongebob and I ignored them. I was back on the wobbly wooden chairs in the music room and Goblin was bashing out the accompaniment on the wonky music room grand piano (this one go plunk) and I was lost again in the combination of words and melody and the happy complicity of singing as a group.

I love how music can do that, take me to a perfectly preserved cache of memory: a time, a place, a sense of utter, contented absorption. I think of my son, one day, thirty years from now, finding all the words of the Slaves Chorus from Nabucco safely preserved, perfect, within him, and it's a very happy thought. So thank you, Goblin, for my memories, and thank you, La Monnaie, for Fingers's.

15 comments:

Grace said...

What a great post. You're able to recount such vivid memories, and I truly believe that whatever is holding you back from joining a choir again should be batted to the back of the room. You obviously take huge pleasure from singing, so go back and give it a go. I wish you lived in London... we could go and find a choir together. My last post was all about being too afraid to ever join a band. The frustration I feel now! It's ruinous...

As for Fingers. Wow. What a great thing that at 8 to be so enamoured with Verdi. I wish I had been educated in such things at such an early age.

Anonymous said...

Oh Waffle - this is lovely. There is a yearly anthology of Best Music Writing (I know Alex Ross edited one volume; they had some funding problems but I think they're back), and this should go there. I also loved your Messiah piece and was really glad when Red picked that up.

Do join a choir - I've been wanting & waffeling on that, too, for pretty much the same reasons. (Also: what if they all HATE me?) So I'll go if you go!

Re opera: as a six-year old, I was mad for the Magic Flute (an old, old girl friend told me a while ago that she found that phase rather trying. Oh well.) And now my daughter's class are putting on a (simplified) version, so she is singing it, and I sing along, and we have such fun. Good on La Monnaie for doing this!
Annette

Meropes said...

Waffle - yet another wonderful post (I confess that I have been stealthily, greedily lapping up your posts for several years).

If my own experience is anything to go by, not only will Fingers have the warm and happy comfort of recalling the words perfectly in 30 years' time, he can maniacally fall about laughing trying to sing them falsetto, unless he learns the tenor or bass parts after his voice has broken.
Matt

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. Chimed heartily with my experience. I too sang in a good choir as a teenager, forgot all about it until my eldest son discovered he had a voice at around Fingers' age.

What happened next meant changing schools to one across town, where singing was A BIG DEAL and NOT AT ALL A BULLYING EXCUSE, supporting the boy through weekly singing lessons, church services, concerts, you name it.

A shy, awkward boy, he had found something he was very good at. He is now at Oxford, with a choral scholarship.

One thing which really helped his confidence along the way were the Eton Choral Courses (http://etonchoralcourses.co.uk/). They now run a junior version for 8 year olds and upwards. I can't recommend these guys highly enough, Emma. Maybe you could find something similar for Fingers? http://www.choralcoursefoundation.co.uk/projects/the-junior-choral-course/

Nimble said...

I am glad you have those memories. Choral music is something that just about lifts the top of my head off. It has to be in person. Recorded choral singing is fine. But if I am in the room or singing it is much bigger. A group breathing as one and making a fabric of woven voices, there's nothing like it.

Opera strikes deep and you never know when or where!

The Reluctant Launderer said...

This is so lovely. Your writing at its best (which is saying something). Yes join a choir! Yes get Fingers as involved as you can! And please keep us all in the loop about how it all goes.

MsCaroline said...

Always love your writing, but this post struck such an enormous chord (pun intended) with me I just had to write in and say, "thank you!"
I, too, grew up in choral groups, but let them fall during my busiest mothering years - ironically, while trundling my children around to their own choral and instrumental practices. I was desperately jealous when Son#2, at age 9, was given a spot in the children's chorus in a local production of La Boheme. I trotted him to 4 or 5 lengthy rehearsals each week and happily sat there, soaking it all up.
When we moved to Seoul last year, one of the first - and smartest - things I did was to join an international women's choir. Yes I was a little rusty, and yes, the music was challenging, but those moments of complete absorption that you described so perfectly were a wonderful reward. Join a choir. Really. Do it. And then, please,please, write about it.

Kim Velk said...

I heart this. I had no musical education and I have no musical talent, but I can appreciate with the best of them. (Well, except for the half deaf part, but never mind about that now). I hope you get all your music back (and more) and that doors to opera &c are flung open wide, one by one, for Fingers.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes - I want to say I agree with every comment before me as well! I have also sang in choirs nearly all my life, and when I returned after the only break (of 10 years) it was like coming home.
Choir singing is the best exercise and therapy - physical, spiritual and intellectual - as well as a wonderful "team sport" to contribute and belong to.
Go on - have another go! And how wonderful for you and Fingers! I love this story...
Heather (NZ)

Barbara said...

I humbly join the chorus of voices exhorting you to be brave and find a choir to sing with. And my dear God keep writing

cruella said...

Please go find yourself a choir! Of course they'll have you. Auditions are horrid but a skilled choirmaster can clearly evaluate your voice in a just manner even if your wavering from nerves etc.

Lovely post, thanks.

Sonya said...

This.. just ...this. It sums up my experiences with choral singing and what it meant to me and my fears about rejoining this world and...

For me it is Bach's Oratorio and Handel's Kyrie. And it seems I do nothing but sit in meetings and make power points and review the clinical data of patients I will never meet...and it is like a piece of my soul (if I believed in such a thing as an atheist) is missing.

You do write so beautifully.

Helen said...

A glorious post, your writing is always good but this is great. I hope that you and Fingers can find a piece you can share together.

You transported me back to my college choir and reminded me how much I loved it even when Oxford was killing me. Evensong, oh!

If I do move to Brussels next autumn (when the PhD is finally over) I'm planning on joining two things - Stitch'n'Bitch and a choir. I'll hunt you down and drag you with me!

Alison said...

You should come and join us in the Brussels Choral Society!

Alice said...

The brussels choral society needs you! The first rehearsal of the new term will be on the last Thursday in August. Come by and see what you think.