Classical Notes

Richard’s Classical Notes

I like music – lots of different kinds of music – including pop, jazz, folk, musicals and even the occasional little old country and western song. I also love Church music, hymns and choruses which I have lived with and enjoyed most of my life, but apart from this it is classical music which has enriched my life most. Classical music, or incidents connected with it, have also given me some of my most inspiring and amusing moments. So, here are my classical notes!

Home

I begin with an experience in the home I grew up in, No.9 Blyth Grove, Worksop. My Dad was a great classical music fan, and he amassed a good collection of LPs of the greats, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms. He would listen to his records, mainly in the sitting room, but he had a speaker put into the dining room so that records playing on his precious ‘black box’ record player could be relayed through. One of his records was of the Brahms Violin Concerto. At first I couldn’t get to grips with it. The violin part sounded like a cacophony of discordant scratching. But because I was often in the dining room when dad was playing his records, I heard it several times. Suddenly, one day something happened – the discordant scratching became to me a beautiful melody. What a revelation! It showed me that beautiful music does not always reveal its delights at once. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.

School

My love of music was fostered at my senior school, Worksop College. I joined the Chapel Choir and enjoyed much classical Church music especially singing part of Haydn’s Creation and How Lovely are Thy Dwellings from Brahms’ German Requiem. At the age of 15 I was cast as Little Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. The reason was that before my voice broke, I was threatening to leave the Choir and was persuaded to stay on as an alto, since they had fewer practices. The result was that as my voice got lower I retained my top voice and gradually acquired a mellow tone, just right for the part of Buttercup. Unfortunately my physique was all wrong. At one point in the operetta Buttercup is described as a ‘plump and pleasing person’. Despite wearing a corset with lots of padding I was still nearly 6ft tall and as skinny as a rake!

I had also started having violin lessons with a private teacher. This enabled me to play in the School Orchestra, a position for which I was actually not well fitted. The chief music teacher, Mr Martin, once made a joke at my expense outside the music school, hailing me with the words ‘Hoy Yehudi’. This was an ironic reference to Yehudi Menuhin, the outstanding violin virtuoso of the 1950s. I remember sitting in the orchestra behind Mr Thoday, the Biology teacher. He was an excellent violin player. On one occasion I managed to hear a pleasant sound by moving my bow up and down soundlessly while listening to the sweet notes of Mr Thoday’s violin in front of me. My practising the violin at home drove my two younger brothers to distraction. Eventually they forced a showdown – my violin against Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ played on the record player at full volume. After a while it became clear it was no contest – my violin playing was much more raucous and ear splitting that Elvis. My brothers had to concede defeat!

It was at school that I had another special musical experience. The music school had a number of small rooms, which could be used for individual lessons, or for listening to music on a record player. On one occasion I was listening on my own to Bruch’s Violin Concerto, a beautiful romantic piece. There is one phrase, never repeated, whose beauty completely captivated me. It was a magical moment I have never forgotten.

Mr Martin used to take us for musical appreciation classes. One piece I remember him talking about was the Romeo and Juliet Overture by Tchaikovsky. He explained how the composer had chosen his melodies to express the different elements of Shakespeare’s tragedy – for instance, the bitter disputes between the Montague and Capulet families, the poignant love of Romeo and Juliet, a lovely flowing melody, the appearance of the dignified friar, and what he called pot boiling music to link the various sections together. Mr Martin was opening up another area of classical music, in which music is used to illuminate human drama. I have always enjoyed listening to this piece ever since.

Abroad

Monday was C.C.F. (Combined Cadet Force) day. I didn’t enjoy it. But the holiday trips were a different matter. One year we travelled to France for what was called arduous training, mostly hiking in the foothills of the Alps. On the way home we stayed in Paris. A friend suggested we should go to an opera at the Paris Opera House. I think we must have heard Verdi’s Rigoletto, because I can vaguely remember my Dad indicating he had had rather too much opera after I played the record of Rigoletto constantly on my return home! We were dressed in our army kit, and perhaps didn’t smell too good after a week’s hiking in the hills. It was touch and go whether we would be allowed in. Eventually the manager took pity on us and speaking to the lift attendant, who was to escort us up to the fifth floor, pointed at us and said par excéption, indicating that the Paris Opera House had never before entertained such scruffy patrons! It was boiling hot up there, and one of us took off a jumper and the other his shoes. I recall hearing a member of the audience nearby referring disparagingly to les américains! We didn’t put him right about our nationality!

Records

It was about this time that I started to buy records. I bought the recording of Zara Nelsova playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, largely on the strength of hearing his Ninth Symphony. This Concerto has remained a firm favourite ever since, and my CD of Rostropovich’s performance still gets a regular outing. It is a wonderful piece of music! I also enjoyed Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, played by David and Igor Oistrakh, and Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto which provided a tuneful background for my pre-university studies.

University

At Oxford my violin playing was not much in evidence, although for a while I was a member of the Holywell Orchestra. The great attraction of this Orchestra was that no audition was required. If I had had to attend one it is unlikely I would have been allowed to play more than a couple of bars before receiving ignominious rejection. The only thing I remember about playing in the Orchestra is that, when sitting at twelfth desk of the second violins in a run through of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, I managed about twelve notes as the final allegro rattled through!

My violin did provide a couple of amusing incidents. One day I was cycling along with it under my arm, when my bike missed a stroke and deposited both my violin and me in the road. As people came up to see how I was, for once in my life I managed the perfect bon mot: Don’t mind me, what about the violin? On another occasion I was hitching home carrying my violin. I was picked up by a lorry whose driver found great amusement from confessing some unspecified fraud You’re on the fiddle – I’m on the fiddle. Ho Ho.

Two of my friends, David and Vic, were both musical. They used to play duets, mainly Mozart as I remember, on David’s piano. That piano provided another amusing episode. Vic hid a block of cheese in it, unknown to David, and it gradually got riper and riper. Poor David was driven to distraction. He just couldn’t work out where the smell was coming from. He found it eventually and got his own back by hiding it in Vic’s room.

In 1964, the three of us went on a wonderful holiday to Greece. In Athens we heard about a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, which was due to be put on in an open air theatre in the city. The tickets were far too expensive for us students, so we sat on the bare rock of the Acropolis for one and a half hours. At least we could hear this glorious music even if we couldn’t see much. Apparently, King Constantine and his fiancée were among the audience.

In the car

Many years later, I was listening to the last (choral) movement of this Symphony and was so moved that I found myself filling up and had to stop the car as I couldn’t see to drive! It is amazing to think that this immensely uplifting and inspiring music was written by a man so deaf that he had to be turned round to see the applause of those attending its first performance.

Another experience of listening to music in the car is rather less serious. It goes back to the time when there were still petrol pump attendants who filled your tank for you, probably in the 1970s. I was listening to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the most exciting moment for me is when the composer brings back the majestic opening theme at the end of the First Movement. This point in the Symphony came just as I was pulling up at a filling station. Leaping from the car, I greeted the attendant who was approaching me with his hose with the words Listen to this – it’s one of the most exciting moments in music. History does not record whether he became a Schubert fan from that time on but I can’t say I am convinced of it!

Overseas

On leaving Oxford, I went to Tanzania as a volunteer teacher at Chidya Boys’ School. Classical music was not particularly in evidence although I could pick up the lunch time concert from South Africa on my radio. The dining hall had a few records including some of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. My most powerful memory is of a time when I was staying at Ndanda, a Roman Catholic Boys’ School about 30 miles from Chidya. I was there to mark exam papers, a tedious business at the best of times and extremely tiring in the heat. It was towards evening and suddenly I heard a familiar sound wafted on the still tropical air. I left my exam papers and followed the sound to a hall where boys were watching a film. I have no idea what the film was about, but the sound track was belting out the most magnificent notes of Brahms’ Second Symphony – a wonderful tonic to a weary exam marker.

Back home

There are several musical occasions whose dates I can’t remember, but I think they must have been in the 1960s or early 1970s. One evening I attended a concert with my Dad at my old school Worksop College. It took place in the Chapel in which I had sung so often. The work was Haydn’s Nelson Mass, a setting which had I believe been recently rediscovered after years of neglect. The opening kyrie is a powerful piece with a soaring soprano solo. My Dad and I were quite blown away by the impact.

Dad’s parents, my Granny and Grandpa, lived in Ipswich and we often went there on holiday. One day we went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah in my Grandparents’ Church. All went well until we came to The trumpet shall sound, which features a solo bass and a solo trumpet. The trumpet was being played by a young lad who was clearly very nervous. His rendition was all over the place. The bass was an older man and he manfully kept his part going despite the distraction of the wayward trumpet. I am afraid to say that we found it rather amusing.

Many years later, I sang in a do-it-yourself performance of the Messiah at St Nicholas Hornsea where I was vicar. You practise the piece in the afternoon and perform it in the evening. I had sung tenor back in the 1970s and so took on the tenor part. Unfortunately I hadn’t kept up regular singing of the tenor high notes and so, carried away by the music, I sang far too loudly and seriously strained my voice. I am a bit more careful of it now.

The Bach Choir

When working in London in the 1970s I was privileged to sing in the Bach Choir under the direction of (now Sir) David Willcocks. Attending an audition with Mr Willcocks, I was asked whether I was tenor or bass. When I confessed that I was uncertain, he asked me to sing a few notes and immediately declared me to be a tenor. Most choirs have more difficulty in getting tenors than basses and probably that’s the reason I got in! The Choir provided many memorable moments, and it was wonderful to sing Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the Festival Hall and Family Carols in the Albert Hall. One of these last occasions was televised, and I found I was the odd man out – the only one to bob their head from side to side to the music! Sylvia tells me that she was able to point me out to her parents as the one moving his head. I was pleased that my Mum and Sylvia came to see one of these performances. The quality of the Choir was amazing, and I was just carried along by some superb singers. There was a chap in the tenors called Freddy Steyn. I just made sure I stood next to Freddy and followed his lead and I had no fear of going wrong!

One thing that David Willcocks was a stickler for was intonation. I remember one occasion when he suddenly stopped the practice with the words There is a soprano singing flat. Out of about 40 sopranos there was just one who was out of tune and he could hear her! If he had worked out who she was, I am afraid she would almost certainly have got the order of the boot.

I used to tag along with a group who went for a meal after the practice. I was usually very much on the edge of the conversation, but one evening I got a word in. One of the ladies suddenly said I feel a wreck. To which I replied Never mind Dorothy, remember that wrecks sometimes contain treasure! Another time in the summer I was invited to a picnic. I think it was in one of the group’s garden. For some reason, I took my specs off and one of the girls managed almost a compliment. You know, Richard, without your specs on you’re really quite good looking. Note to the reader, my wife thinks I am quite good looking even with my specs on. Incidentally, I came a bit of a cropper about this time when courting Sylvia. We were attending a concert together, and wishing to impress, I confidently told her what to expect for the first piece. When it started, I had to whisper Sorry I got that one wrong. For the second piece, I did the same, and was wrong again. They say that pride comes before a fall, and after the third time of getting it wrong, I suppose I gave up!

Although the Bach Choir sang sacred music nearly all the time, I remember only one occasion when I had what I would call a spiritual experience. The Choir used to practise on Monday evenings in Westminster Cathedral Hall. One evening we were practising the Sanctus from Bach’s B Minor Mass. Suddenly I felt as if I was being lifted up to the ceiling, almost an anticipation of being lifted towards heaven. It happened just once and never in a performance, but it is something I won’t forget. I believe that Bach’s music is a powerful argument in support of the existence of God. Bach wrote that music should be for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. And it isn’t just his sacred music. There is for instance the majesty of his organ music, the tender tunefulness of the Air on a G string, and the exuberance of his violin concertos which I find a real tonic. Michael Ball, the former Bishop of Jarrow not the singer, once declared They’ll only play Bach in heaven. This was an exaggeration, no doubt, but you can see where he is coming from.

London

Another moving occasion, during my time of living in London, was attending a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius which tells the story of a man’s journey through death to Purgatory (Elgar was a Roman Catholic). This followed shortly after the death of Charles Tett, a stirling worker for the Church Mission Society, the mission society I was working for at the time. I just seemed to identify Charles with the subject of the Oratorio and that made it particularly moving.

Chamber Music

Classical music provides such a variety of sounds – from the majestic splendour of a full orchestra playing symphonies or concertos to the intimacy of chamber music or a piano or violin playing a sonata. Some of my favourite music is small scale. Both Mozart and Brahms have given us clarinet quintets of melting tenderness, Schubert’s C Major String Quintet has a sublime slow movement. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata never fails to bring me pleasure.

In fact it was a small scale piece that gave me a magical moment quite recently. Not all of the musical occasions I have attended with Sylvia have been a great success. We went to a concert in a large church and were confronted with a double orchestra. The fire power of the brass section in Wagner’s Overture to the Meistersingers left us almost literally blown away! But we had a much more pleasant experience when attending a concert given by a piano trio (piano, violin and cello) at Wassand Hall. Wassand Hall is owned by Rupert and Catherine Russell who attend Goxhill Church, where Sylvia was in-charge. We went to several concerts there and enjoyed them all. On our final visit the group played the Second Piano Trio by Mendelssohn. One movement in particular gave me that wonderful magical feeling that comes all too rarely even when listening to great music.

Swinstead

Since coming to live in Swinstead, most of my listening to classical music is when I am washing up or ironing. I have lots of variety since my own purchases have been supplemented by CDs from my dear Dad’s collection and also quite a few given to me as presents by my brothers Patrick and Andrew.

When we visit Kathleen she sometimes plays the piano for us. Over the last few years we have enjoyed pieces by Beethoven, Debussy, Tchaikovsky and Schubert. I have joined Stamford Choral, a local Choir, and sing first bass. Last April we sang music by Dvorak and Elgar in Peterborough Cathedral. Sylvia, Kathleen, Neil and David sat in the front row of the audience and were most appreciative of the performance. Recently we sang in a presentation to commemorate the Centenary of the start of World War I on August 4th, 1914. Having missed the final practice, owing to a slight bump with the car, I was pleased to manage the event itself. The Choir sang Elgar’s setting of Lawrence Binyon’s poem entitled For the Fallen. This includes the familiar words They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old… Despite being rather crammed together, under an awning on Stamford’s Broad Street, the Choir performed admirably, and I think our rendition was much appreciated.

This year we are due to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Leamington Bach Choir. It is a lovely work and I am looking forward very much to singing it with the Choir in Peterborough Cathedral.

And finally … an article in the Daily Telegraph last year headed Bach appears to egg them on reported that according to findings by the University of Bristol hens entered their nest boxes l59% more frequently when music was playing in them (no paltry increase)! Also the hens clearly preferred Beethoven and Bach to pop band One Direction. It’s good to know that our feathered friends, like me, enjoy their classical notes.

Richard Rice-Oxley
March 2015