These days I don’t listen to music as carefully as I should. Very often the poor musicians have to contend with my typing at the computer or doing the dishes or sorting stuff out in my ‘office’ or any manner of other things. It’s the nature of radio – and also of CDs – as we know it.
However, there are times, such as when I’m sick, or when I really determine that I’ll listen carefully to something that I find myself back in the place I was when I was young and first came across great pieces of music in a totally fresh way.
In the home I lived in as a child and teenager the kitchen doubled as the living room, and everything went on there. My grandmother would be cooking at the coal range, the washing machine might be going into the adjoining scullery (there’s a word you don’t hear much these days) and I’d be doing my homework at the kitchen table.
When I first went to work I bought myself a record player and joined one of those postal record companies that sent out classical music on a regular basis. You could either take their choice of record of the month or choose something different. Very often I took what they chose, because they had good taste.
The record-player, having nowhere else to live in the living room/kitchen, sat on top of the radio. (This radio had been a gift to my grandfather when he left Coulls Somerville and Wilkie after many years of service.) The radio already stood on a specially made shelf at head-height. Thus the record-player was some six feet or more above the floor. Not convenient. My solution was to stand on a chair and listen to the music while leaning on the radio.
Not everyone would have first listened to Mahler’s 4th Symphony, with its wonderful soprano voice singing through the swirling strings and its children’s choir and sleigh-bells (what were they all doing in a symphony?), or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with its evocative country sounds, or Stravinsky’s Les Noces (I told you the company had good taste) by standing up on a chair, leaning on a radio, their ear pinned to a record-player not turned up too loud so that it wouldn’t disturb others. But it was there that I heard – and really listened to those wonderful pieces.
It’s difficult, now, to stop and really listen to music. Sometimes a piece played on the car radio will strike me, and I’ll stop and sit and listen to it in without disturbance. When I’ve been sick, I’m much more aware of the detail of pieces: for instance, Tchaikowsky’s Serenade for Strings was on one time when I was lying in bed. It was a totally new piece: I’d never heard all the movement within it before.
Maybe one of my new year resolutions should be to stop and listen to music, to let it get a real chance to get inside my head and soul.
I first heard Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time when I sick this last year. It seemed unbelievably beautiful, and I actually made time one night to lie down in the dark and listen to it again. It didn’t quite have that same impact the second time around, but at least I was listening, not cocking an ear towards the CD player while I was concentrating on something else.