Wednesday, 4 April 2012

‘Mahler’s 5th Symphony’, and why I don’t need to hear it for a while.

When I was about ten or eleven years old, can’t quite remember, we got a new deputy Headmistress at our school. Mrs. Holden was her name. Most of the time she was stern, devoid of all humour, the rest of the time she was humourless and rather stern. In her eyes I could do no right, exceptionally dim, and a bleak future ahead of me. She shouted at me more times than any other teacher had. To her my work was sloppy, unimaginative and dull. Whereas the year before my teacher, Mrs. Jenkinson, had loved my writing and poetry and made me read in front of the class whatever I had written that week, Mrs. Holden wouldn’t even consider me inflicting the class on my immature drivel. Everything I presented to her was received with a heavy sigh of, ‘what new rubbish is this now?’ I could go on about the absolute year of hell I had with her, never any praise, only criticism, I’d rather save that for now. But, even after all that, I liked her.

I liked her because on Thursdays, which has always been one of my favourite days of the week, don’t know why, (Wooden Tops, Top of the Pops, Music and Movement, all on a Thursday, could be the reason, I’ll get back to the story), on a Thursday we had The Classical Music Club. It was all Mrs. Holden’s idea to bring some culture into our sad little lives. And my friends went to it, so I naturally tagged along.

Every week she would turn up with her ‘portable record player in the shape of a suitcase’, and a small selection of records of her choice, and the even smaller group of us crawly bum lick kids would turn up to be enlightened. I say ‘crawly bum lick’ because, to be honest, what kid wants to give up his playtime of running round shooting Germans once a week to listen to classical music unless it’s to creep to the teacher. I digress. As it was, instead of shooting Germans, we were listening to them.

Out of the small tinny speakers we listened to Beethoven, Bach, one and two, Brahms, Bruckner, Händel, Haydn, Mahler and the rest. Sometimes a bit of Offenbach, but usually the greats. She always gave us a brief history of the piece then tell us to close our eyes and try and imagine the scene that was going on, what the music was saying. Needless to say, the pictures I conjured up were nothing if not a bit drab. The music didn’t really grab me, unless it was a piece I knew like Tchaikovsky, or Canteloube’s ‘Bailero’ (that was used on the old Enva Cream adverts. I think. Or was it for Camay? Anyway..). Then one week she brought in a piece of music that changed my life completely. I can still remember that moment, I can almost smell the hall we were sat in, the reek of school dinners, the air thick with boredom and fear. I closed my eyes, and for the first time in my life I heard ‘Jupiter’ by Holst in its entirety. Immediately I was swept away. What was this sound? This fanfare? It was exciting, rushing speeding, the strings a flurry waking you up, the brass imposing and important. It wasn’t Classical, it wasn’t high brow and boring. It was captivating. It was, and I can only describe it like this from how I felt then and now when I hear it, and I do apologise if I offend, but to me it was the music for the Northern and the Working Class. But mainly for the Northern Working Class.

It wasn’t romantic or melancholic, it didn’t make me want to cry or reminisce about an old Battle, it was flying over the roof tops of the terrace houses round St. Pauls Road where I was born. It was the high chimneys at Horrocks up New Hall lane, the smell of the hot malt, and truck fumes from the factory on St. Georges Rd. It was the great lake Windermere, the powerful jutting hills of Cumberland, it was cold, bleak, black and white, dirty and smoke filled, everything foggy and damp, it was Tom Finney scoring the winning goal for Preston North End at the World Cup, it was a celebration of all this and more.

It became the first LP I bought, closely followed by Beethoven’s ‘Emperors Concerto’, and the start of a love affair and appreciation of all things in the classical music world.

Moving on through the years, and one or two things have been a constant. I’ll always read and collect comics, I’ll always support the mighty North End, I’ll always find Bob Hoskins the sexiest thing on two legs, and my love, and collection, of classical music will grow and grow.

Now, I’m not very high brow, and to be honest, the majority of my classical collection has been stuck on the front of certain magazines, or, as with some CD’s, actually been inside a cereal box. I’ve never been to the Proms, though each year I say I’ll go, and I can sit listening to Radio 3 all day without hearing a piece I actually know. But there is nothing like the thrill of hearing that ‘new piece’, discovering that arrangement (the vocal arrangement of Barber’s Adagio is even more haunting and beautiful than the actual symphonic version.), of coming home with my own shop bought copy of Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, and sitting there listening to every note uninterrupted by news or adverts, or worse still, bad reception. To quote Peter Gabriel in his Genesis days; ‘I know what I like, and I like what I know.’

Like me, you’re probably thinking, ‘where is this leading?’ Well, Dear reader, I haven’t a clue. But I’m sure we’ll get there.

I’ve been away recently, a family matter. My partner’s father, Trevor, died at the age of 90 just a few weeks ago. I’ve mentioned this in the previous Blog, but don’t worry, it’s not a repeat.

Trevor had many loves in his life. He’d been a pilot and navigator in the RAF during the Second World War, flying his beloved Mosquito’s. He built and collected an entire room of Airfix models, nearly all planes, nearly all Mosquito’s. He’d played, coached and watched his beloved Rugby (Wales, of course), right up until the end. But his main love was his Classical Music, and we’d happily talk for hours about different pieces, what they meant to us, why we liked them. His collection, like mine, was a mish mash of Classic FM CD’s, box sets, presents, free with newspapers, but all loved and appreciated, it’s the music not how it’s packaged or acquired that matters.

He’d stated that for his funeral he wanted two pieces of music, Parry’s version of ‘Jerusalem’, the school song from when he was a Headmaster, and Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

And so we sat, my partner and I, going through Trevor’s collection to find the right version, the right length, right arrangement. We listened to it going into the Chapel, coming out of the Chapel, a week later we did the same at the Crematorium, we came home, sat with a cup of tea, put on the radio, and, as happens in these occasions, Mahler’s 5th was playing.

My partner looked at me, put on his bravest smile and said; ‘If you don’t mind, I don’t think we need to listen to this for a while.’

There are certain pieces of music I can’t listen to anymore because of the memories they conjure up. Whitney’s ‘I will always love you’ was played at my sister’s funeral, Dionne Warwick’s ‘Valley of the Dolls’ always reminds me of my Mum. I hope that in the not too distant future I can listen to Mahler again without thinking of a Co-Op Funeral Home, but instead think of Trevor. My partner’s father, and my very good friend.


  1. A lovely piece of writing, a very lovely memory of Trevor, a heartfelt piece...welcome back x

  2. Thank you. Sorry for being away. xx

  3. Welcome back x, the Whitney track does the same to me,apologies in advance I am having Adagio for Strings via William Orbit for my funeral entrance,my wedding hymns & I am gong out to The Killers All These Things I've Done( to let the those upstairs know I am on my my way!) xx

  4. Sounds like a perfect music list. No offence, but I hope I'm not there to see it. xx

  5. Hi Dermot,
    I had a teacher one year as you described. It was my worst year growing up and left me doubting any abilities for a long time. Those types should be banned, but who would know?
    It is quite interesting how music can bring back time periods and events.
    Thanks for following on my blog. Though my giveaway was over earlier this month, I'm following back on your blog. My dh and I live in the woods too. Makes for a lovely life.
    Coleen, an American in Ukraine

  6. Hey Dermot,
    That was lovely, thank you. And btw, "Jupiter" was one of my early favorites too, and still is--the whole Suite, actually, but that one in particular. As an adult I've thought of it sometimes as music for a Bear God, lordly and portly and jovial while strides among the other planets.

  7. I know what you mean about associations with pieces of music, especially as a music-lover.

    Listen to them in those quiet moments when you can. That's beautiful.

    The difficulty is being confronted with these sounds when our guard is down, when we're in public, or trying to operate in a professional capacity. I hope the list doesn't grow too long.

    As it happens, my choral society will be performing Mahler's 2nd symphony in May. That has no associations for me - yet.