I’ve had a real hunger for classical music lately. I don’t want just ‘the famous bits’, I want entire symphonies, whole piano concertos, all movements of a string quintet. It feels much more satisfying to hear the progression of an idea and its resolution, especially when we live in a sound bite age where everything is reduced to easily-digestible fragments, like party food. I’m usually pretty happy with that and my music app is full of it but at the moment I don’t want party nibbles, I want a slap-up meal. The food of love for some, perhaps, but for me it’s the food of life.
I’m not sure why I’ve always preferred classical music to any other. Who taught me? I could cite my parents but my sister had exactly the same upbringing and she always preferred contemporary music, everything from pop and rock to folk and even jazz. She still does, and her love of music has been passed down to her children who are all accomplished musicians with broad tastes. I’m not saying I don’t have broad tastes. I love all sorts, too, especially film music, but classical is my bedrock, my salve.
The very first time I went to an opera I was very young. My parents took us to see Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Cardiff and I’d like to say it was a revelation but actually all I remember is how bored I was, squirming in my seat, praying for it to end. Even my parents admitted afterwards it was, perhaps, too soon. A few years later they took us to ‘Carmen’ and that was much better – more interesting to look at, more drama in the music, and we were old enough to endure it. It’s what makes it a classic crowd pleaser still and an entry point for many to the classical music world.
The same goes for Holst’s The Planets, which was the very first classical concert I went to. This time it was in Bristol and I remember my mother telling me that the conductor, a rather stately Sir Adrian Boult, was the very first person to conduct it in 1918. I was familiar with The Planets by then as my teacher, Mrs Vaughn-Evans, would play bits of it to the class from time to time and get us to write stories that the music inspired. This was around the time of the first moon landing so anything planetary was definitely in. Maybe that’s what’s stuck with me ever since, the stirring of fanciful imaginings inspired by classical music?
Later, I had another charismatic teacher in my final year at junior school called, rather wonderfully, Mr Erasmus. He had made a record player a permanent fixture in the classroom and he knew I liked classical music. Each morning he would say, ‘Right, Douglas, what will we hearing today?’ (He always called me by my middle name, part of his winning charm.) There were several LPs to choose from but I would invariably plump for Rossini’s overtures, so maybe my parents’ early efforts hadn’t been entirely wasted. Mr Erasmus would put on the LP and we would all carry on with whatever we were doing. I can’t remember anyone complaining.
We moved to Yorkshire when I was fourteen, by which time I had grown to like some of the music my sister was playing – Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Pink Floyd – but what I truly loved were symphonies by Mahler and Sibelius, which always took me into a different space. I was obsessed with Russian gulags and Jewish concentration camps at that time so I can’t hear Sibelius’s Second today without thinking of Solzhenitsyn and Babi Yar.
My best friend, Glyn, was vaguely interested in classical music, too, and we would often spend a Saturday afternoon at his house, gossiping over tea and buttered fruit bread, with The Tales of Beatrix Potter or Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in the background. At one point we even started to write a musical with songs based on Chopin’s music, not realising what a hackneyed idea that was. The highlight was to be a set piece called the Gossip Waltz. We were definitely two dangerously affected schoolboys.
At university my new soulmate Fran, whom I shared a house with, introduced me to Puccini operas and Verdi’s Requiem, and I repaid that with Rachmaninov’s Second symphony, which was rarely played in those days. We studied the emergence of modern classical music as part of our History of Art degree, too, and the memory of hearing the haunting first bars of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring will never leave me.
And so it evolved. Living in London, I might have been at nightclubs flinging my arms in the air to the Pet Shop Boys and Soft Cell but I would go to lots of classical concerts, too, falling in love with new pieces all the time. It was so easy to do when ticket prices were so low. You could even buy a standing room ticket to the opera for a couple of quid. It means that listening to, say, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet takes me back to the wonder of watching it for the first time on stage at the Coliseum. It was also the music I listened to constantly in the weeks I would drive to and from the hospital where my beloved Glyn was dying.
So classical music is many things to me. I think the reason it particularly resonates is that it opens the gateway to my imagination. A song directs you to consider its words and often requires you to stop and empathise with its emotion, whereas a classical orchestral piece can be anything at all. It might evoke love or hate, dancing in the woods or being in faraway lands but everything it conjures is yours and yours only. And maybe that’s why I’m craving it now as I embark on writing a novel again. I don’t know where it will lead but I am certain the music will take me there.
Where did your musical taste come from?