My late father (1925–2017) and his love of music
On 2 April 1957 my father wrote, as both he and his father regularly did, on wafer-thin blue airmail notepaper, to an uncle in Johannesburg. My father was recently engaged, and wanted to tell his uncle something about his wife-to-be, my mother. She had been born in Prague, a city she had left for Denmark as a refugee at the age of 15 in 1939, and had come to the UK in 1946, the same year that my father left the Navy, where he had been conscripted as a wireless telegraphist during the Second World War, and went to Cambridge as an undergraduate. My father wrote:
“[She] shares my passion for chamber music — alas, we are both listeners, not executants. I imagine that when you lived in Bloomsbury you were familiar with the South Place Sunday Concerts at the Conway Hall. These we rarely miss”
A love of music, as a listener, not an “executant”, was a very important part of my father’s long life, and one that he shared with his parents, brother and cousins, and with his wife and children. Like him, we are all listeners, not executants.
What was the source of this love of music? The Mitteleuropa which his grandfather had left as a teenager was a small settlement in what is now Poland, not a place of drawing rooms and grand pianos. Nor did their family resemble the Bach family in anything other than their prolific male line, for there were no musicians or composers or instrument-makers among them. I asked my uncle, my father’s younger brother, who grew up in the same home in the Liverpool suburb of Crosby, where their father was a retail pharmacist, and he told me about their parents’ attendance at concerts of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in the 1930s, and I found a photograph of my father at the age of about 10 playing the piano at home.
My uncle also confirmed what I remember my father telling us as we grew up: that Wagner was absent from their pantheon, and that although they listened to the music of Bach, their knowledge of his music was truncated — even as liberal Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, their listening was limited to his secular works only. By the time my brother and I were children in the 1960s and 1970s, this was no longer true. We had a much-played and deeply affecting recording from the late 1940s of the alto Kathleen Ferrier singing in a Bach Choir St Matthew Passion — in an English translation, and conducted with an orchestration and at tempi that would probably be regarded as unlistenable-to today. The admiration my father had for Kathleen Ferrier was not only for her remarkable voice, which we heard often, in her recordings of Bach, Handel, Gluck and Mahler, but sprang from a Lancashire connection. He spoke with warm admiration of her surprising life story, which took her from working as a telephone switchboard operator in Blackburn to international renown as a singer before her tragic early death. In addition to the St Matthew Passion, we had recordings of the St John Passion, the B minor mass and later the Christmas Oratorio at home. My uncle recalls that in 1953 he and my father both went to a Good Friday performance of the St Matthew Passion at the Royal Festival Hall with two cousins to whom they were close, before a short holiday journey to the West Country of “the motoring quartet”, as they called themselves, in my father’s Morris Minor. I went to hear both the St Matthew and the St John Passions with my parents on many occasions, and with my father only, after my mother’s death, on Good Friday, often at St John’s Smith Square, year in and year out until well into the 21st century. My mother would almost invariably comment on the anti-Semitism she found in the original Gospel texts, yet in the same breath speak of how deeply she admired their musical setting. My father was particularly fond of the “lion of Judah” (der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht) aria in the second half of the St John Passion, and would always hum its tune as we left the performance. Even in very late life, at a time when his dementia had progressed to a point where he could no longer even name or recognise his grandchildren, my father could instantly recall and nod along to the tune of the spirited trumpet-led “Jauchzet, frohlocket” opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio. In earlier years this was always the prompt for an annual paterfamilias joke along the lines of “Christians awake, salute the happy morn . . . .and Jews can stay in bed and have another hour’s sleep”, at which we dutifully laughed, no matter how well-worn it became.
In our childhood, my brother and I were also taken to hear Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, a work we loved, and to many other concerts throughout the year, from a quite young age. These were often less accessibly enjoyable than the Messiah. My early memories of the concrete architecture of the South Bank are intertwined with those of stopping for fish and chips in Battersea on the way home from an evening of Beethoven or Mozart. My father had a special attachment to the Royal Festival Hall, as he and his brother had been to a concert there in its very opening week in 1951. Toscanini was to conduct the inaugural concerts but had withdrawn because of ill-health and was replaced by Sir Malcolm Sargent. My uncle remembers them driving down from Leicester, where my father was then working, and my father returning to Leicester on the train, then coming back to London a few days later to collect his car and go to another concert: on this occasion Yehudi and Hepzibah Menuhin playing Brahms at the Royal Albert Hall. My father retained a long affection for the Brahms piano concertos, the variations on Haydn’s St Anthony Chorale, and the symphonies, especially the Fourth, which looks back to Bach and Beethoven but with a vigour and depth of orchestral colour that could only come from the late 19th century in which it was written.
Closer to home as children, we frequently went to concerts given by the Thames Concerts Society in Kingston parish church. This had been founded in the 1960s by the distinguished conductor Louis Halsey and there was nothing suburban about either the repertoire or the performances that we attended. Amongst the musicians we regularly heard was the harpsichordist Basil Lam, who introduced us to a sound of Baroque keyboard music that was probably closer to the original than anything we had heard before. We often met another family we were friendly with at these concerts, and enjoyed their hospitality, which was of a rather more sophisticated variety than fish and chips in Battersea, at their home in Kingston afterwards. We also went to the Proms — although not to the hearty jingoism of the Last Night, and to St John’s Smith Square, and later, as I gradually acquired a love of chamber music, to Wigmore Hall as well.
Amongst other early memories of my father and music are of him driving me to school in Hammersmith in the 1970s, listening to Radio 3, playing “guess the composer” as we tuned into the radio mid-piece, and laughing at the Radio 3 announcer Tom Crowe, who once, in a moment of memorable confusion in between some sprightly Baroque work and the 8 o’clock news, introduced himself with the words “This is Tom Handel in London”. The Conway Hall concerts about which my father had written to his uncle in 1957 also continued, and indeed still do (although now at Kings Place). We would often drive to Holborn on a Sunday evening without even consulting the programme beforehand, with a stack of miniature scores of string quartets on the back seat of the car, taking our chance as to what we might hear. Conway Hall was a place with a distinctive atmosphere of earnest secularism: a wood-panelled stage, with Shakespeare’s Polonius’ “To Thine Own Self Be True” engraved above it, and a fringed standard lamp casting a pool of light on the quartettists as they played. The programme usually featured a lesser-known or more avant-garde work between two more famous ones. A number of men in the audience, who I remember as generally bearded and with the sartorial style of Michael Foot at the Cenotaph in 1981, would disappear to the pub for the more challenging listening and return slightly flushed in the face for some well-loved Beethoven at the end.
My father never embraced opera, apart from some admiration for the music of Fidelio which sometimes featured on concert programmes. Perhaps this was because of the grandiose silliness of many opera plots, or because it was a genre that included Wagner, or because it was associated with the dressing up and socialising of the English haute-bourgeoisie, a class he never felt part of, or perhaps a mixture of all three. He did, however, develop an interest, as I did, in Bach’s cantatas as they became better known in England in the 1970s and 1980s, through the great project of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt to play and record them in a manner authentic to the period of their composition. My father found their musical inventiveness compelling, despite their roots in the Lutheran church service, with hymn tunes alternating with arias which were often written in florid religious poetry of a kind I think he would have disliked in any other setting. We played cassette tapes of them virtually to destruction on a holiday in Ireland just before I went to Cambridge in 1979.
My father never took to rock or pop either, but he liked jazz very much, and that, if anything, was his young man’s rebellion of taste against that of his father, who was not interested in it at all, and whose sense of decorum was such that he insisted on his sons wearing jackets and ties if school friends came round to visit to listen to records on Sundays. My father acquired his taste for jazz when he served in the Navy between 1943 and 1946, or as an undergraduate at Cambridge just after that. He took his brother to a Humphrey Lyttleton concert in Liverpool in the late 1940s, and kept a lifelong interest in traditional jazz, religiously tuning in to Radio 3’s Saturday Jazz Record Requests every week.
I took my father to a concert at Wigmore Hall on the evening of his 86th birthday, 13th May 2011. We had dinner at the Italian restaurant Due Veniti in Wigmore Street, where solicitous waiters brought a cake with a sparkling candle for him to extinguish. We then went to a late evening ensemble performance of the Goldberg Variations. The next day he sent me an email about how much he had enjoyed hearing a performance of “a Bach cantata” at Wigmore Hall, a sad sign of the cognitive loss which he was already suffering, and which increased sharply in the course of that year. It was to be the last time he would ever hear a live performance of music or spend an evening out in London. It is some consolation that the memory of it, although touched with sadness because of its finality, is of a man of advanced age celebrating a birthday in a way that made him very happy.
9 October 2017