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Daniel Barenboim: An artist governed by instinct more than rationale (©Silvia Lelli)

Waiting for a prescription in a hospital pharmacy in the dying days of 2016, I saw a young woman stacking shelves with toothpaste and analgesics. “First concert I ever went to,” she announced to me, unprompted.

“What was?”

“Status Quo. I was fifteen.”


“And now he’s dead, Rick Parfitt.”

“Terrible year.”

“I’m writing a novel,” she went on. “Every chapter taken from a George Michael song. He’s gone, too.”

I grasped what she was trying to say. We measure our lives in the musicians we loved, each mortal loss a milestone in our own short term on earth, each death a diminution of our intimate selves. You would know, if I asked, where you were the night John Lennon was shot. You may also have been among the million who jammed the streets of Paris at news of the death of Barbara, bard of solitude, or the several millions who thronged Cairo when word spread that Umm Kalthoum was gone. We shed tears when musicians die, more than we do for a cousin or a neighbour, because theirs is the elixir that elevates humdrum lives, allowing an ill-paid shop assistant to dream of her future Nobel Prize for Literature.

It doesn’t quite work that way with classical musicians. Of all the sombre losses of 2016, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie loom larger in most minds than Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Neville Marriner or Nikolaus Harnoncourt for the simple reason that serious music, lasting half an hour or more, does not furnish our lives with anything like the shot of a three-minute song or an iconic album cover.

The Observer critic Fiona Maddocks has written a wonderful little book, Music for Life (Faber, £12.99), in which she selects 100 works that, to her mind, have the freeze-frame quality of a Robert Capa photograph or a Le Corbusier design. Her selection is sensationally eclectic, including esoteric gems by the cruelly murdered Canadian Claude Vivier and the suppressed Chicagoan Florence Price alongside a plucked lament by Dowland and a flash of Shostakovich defiance. The author describes her pack as “music to carry you through”, a first-aid kit that should be stocked in every pharmacy. It provides an instant remedy for almost every urgent physical need.

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