by Vincent Guy
Caruso on my gramophone Photo: Vincent Guy
Among my childhood baubles, one item stood out: a shellac 78 rpm record of Enrico Caruso singing ‘La donna è mobile’ from Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’. It was my mother’s, or perhaps my grandmother’s. Part of the first-ever classical best-seller collection hitting the market around 1903. I played it in awe on my black wind-up gramophone. That gramophone I still have, and it can still play Caruso.
Looking through the remaining records now, I find Noel Coward’s wartime song ‘London Pride’ which still touches me, even if it skitters close to schmalz. A decade older is Jack Hylton’s half-forgotten masterpiece ‘I lift up my finger and I say tweet tweet’.
Other music I grew up with was standard middle-class English stuff: my father had a penchant for Kathleen Ferrier’s ‘Blow the wind southerly’ and, following the tradition set by King George III, would stand up for the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when Handel’s ‘Messiah’ came on the wireless. And there were Gilbert and Sullivan, hymns at church, the BBC’s ‘Two-way Family Favourites’, and all the output of 1950s Tin Pan Alley, eminently forgettable, but I still remember every one of those cheap songs.
At Pate’s Grammar School some classes in music appreciation (e.g. ‘The Planets Suite’ by Holst who’d been a pupil there), but they made little impact. A few piano lessons which I found painfully dull and abandoned once I’d mastered ‘Chopsticks’. Singing? Always had a strong voice but could never hold a key. Still can’t, despite 6 months’ tuition more recently. The main thing I learned from that is that my voice, which I’d always thought rather light, is actually a bass.
As a teenager, late at night I’d twiddle the dial to the BBC Third Programme: Bartok, Schoenberg, perhaps Shostakovich (whom I would now prefer to switch off). Thought they were cool. Went to the local jazz club, rubbing shoulders with the future Rolling Stone Brian Jones (another alumnus of Pate’s), but jazz never got to me.
With my first girlfriend I attended my first classical concert: Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ at the London Festival Hall. Spending a year in Peru took me deep into Andean sounds and Latin dance, especially Cuban. Sat through a Mozart concert there which failed to touch me; in my journal I unknowingly echoed the Austrian emperor along the lines of “Too many notes, my dear Mozart.”
At Oxford in the Sixties my fellow undergrad Mark had his bulky Ferrograph tape-recorder tuning my ear to somewhat austere preclassical sounds: lots of harpsichord by Scarlatti, Rameau, Bach. At the same time, I lived through the explosion of the Beatles, the Stones, the British pop scene in the wake of American Black music.
1971 saw me in the audience at the Isle of Wight Festival facing some of the greatest: The Who trialling their rock opera ‘Tommy’, Jimi Hendrix playing his last gig before he died a few days later. It was a life-changing experience, if more for my dipping into psychedelics than for the music. I never felt the urge to attend another rock concert, though I did go on to enjoy a few popular names like Leonard Cohen, Queen, David Bowie. The enduring Bob Dylan always left me admiring but unmoved. What really got me going was a recording of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’; a friend had it constantly on his turntable in a flat we shared. Then by chance, an uplifting moment: hearing Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Mozart’s Violin Concertos over the loudspeakers in a record shop. I bought the two vinyl LPs and played them again and again.
As soon as I got a proper job, with the first shillings saved from my salary I bought a Tandberg HiFi system, complete with speakers the size of Dracula’s coffin. Between them our bay window gave onto the streets of London. Listening to Ralph McTell’s hit song of that name, I watched the reality: a derelict house, last refuge of a crew of homeless winos.
A feature of the Tandberg was a classy cassette unit. With a hint of obsessiveness, I’d get up early before work and transcribe LPs, mainly classical, borrowed from my friend Takis. Despite the Tandberg’s best efforts most of the tapes would end up wowing and fluttering, but until that point, I enjoyed the music. Takis has since gone back to Greece where he still plays those records on his turntable.
Then along came CDs, which meant I could listen to high quality versions of specific musical works that I had actively chosen. I discovered there was more to Schubert than ‘Ave Maria’, more to Mendelsohn than ‘Fingal’s Cave’ and that ‘The Messiah’ was but a detail in Handel’s vast repertoire. Moving to Scotland revived and deepened my appreciation of traditional music, especially through my involvement in producing a CD, ‘Love Burns’, with my singer daughter Zoë.
Then came BBC 3 and BBC Sounds: passive but selective listening on an extended scale. My regular fix is ‘Through the Night’, several hours of classics, mostly calm, with the minimum of intrusive chitchat. Friends have sparked my interest in opera, not least Hugh Kerr, editor of the website Edinburgh Music Review. For him the great arias are like food at breakfast, lunch and dinner. A recent experience of getting inside opera was acting a role in Harwood’s ‘Quartet’ with the local drama circle. The climax has the foursome of aging singers presenting ‘Bella figlia del amore’ from ‘Rigoletto’. Fortunately for the audience, the role didn’t require me to sing but to lip-sync the words to the recording.
There are different levels of engagement with music: in the background from radio or streaming while I get on with some other task; choosing something to play from my collection; going to a live performance. More actively, I’ve filmed ballet choreographed by a ballerina friend, which has taken me deep into renaissance pieces under Jordi Savall, Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto, even dancing with her myself to Schubert’s ‘Notturno’.
Edinburgh Castle...as Vincent waits for a concert Photo: Vincent Guy
My latest musical adventure is writing reviews for the Edinburgh Music Review*. This generates a panicky intensity of listening and learning. The Impostor Syndrome lurks: “What on earth am I going to write about this? How can I, with no musical talent or training, presume to sit in this reviewer’s seat?”. The result is a level of concentration, of presence, of alertness, that no other musical experience provides.
Despite my lack of native abilities, my head reverberates with music, including genres I haven’t mentioned here: film themes, nursery rhymes, advertising jingles, folk and popular melodies from five continents – even birdsong.
In the words of Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’:
“Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!
You lovely art, I thank you!”
Like this one, though slightly altered from the original.