Music Lessons

Rapturous: The Dresden Staatskapelle at the Proms (©OLIVER KILLIG/BBC)

My abiding memory of the 2016 Proms is of the rapt expression of a young guest for whom this was a new musical experience, listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for the first time. At a fine performance by the Staatskapelle Dresden, his concentration never flagged. Nikolaj Znaider drew a luminous sound from a Guarneri violin made before Beethoven was born, then finished with a solo Bach encore that filled the vast space of the Albert Hall. After a second half concluding with Richard Strauss’s glittering tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel”, the conductor Christian Thielemann rewarded the rapturous applause with a rousing encore of the Third Act Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin. Our cup overflowed.

If there were one thing that Theresa May’s grammar school revolution should not ignore, it is the central role of music in any school designed to promote academic excellence. The appreciation of music is not difficult to teach and the thrill of immersion in the sound world of an orchestral concert should be accessible to every pupil. At my grammar school more than four decades ago, it was not the music teacher, but a history teacher, Mr Chetham, who sparked my enthusiasm by allowing me to join his lunchtime record sessions for colleagues. My ignorance was total but the capacity of the adolescent brain to absorb new knowledge and experience is infinite. By the time I got to university, I knew my way round the classical repertoire.

The Proms, live and on Radio Three, played a big part in my lifelong musical education. This year’s season was no exception: my memories of it range from operas such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, with Bryn Terfel in the title role, to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle; from premieres such as Colin Matthews’s Berceuse for Dresden to Gérard Grisey’s Dérives; from warhorses such as Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Holst’s The Planets to rarities such as the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart by Max Reger.

One concert sent us back in time from the late romantic melancholy of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder to the solemn grandeur of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Another moved forwards from Berlioz’s memorial to a lost love, his King Lear Overture, to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with its darkling Chinese landscape transfigured by eternal longings. Mahler was worried about the effect of this work on audiences: “Won’t people just want to go home and commit suicide after this?”

We didn’t. But when I apologised for the tears streaming down my face, my elder daughter simply smiled and said: “You always cry at concerts!” We had just time for dinner, now joined by my wife, before the late-night concert that followed. This was a performance by The Sixteen under their founder Harry Christophers of three Bach Motets and two unaccompanied sacred pieces by Arvo Pärt. This performance came as close to perfection as I expect to hear this side of the grave. Indeed, after Pärt’s sublime “Nunc dimittis”, my wife whispered to me: “Would you like me to have that sung at your funeral?” There’s no answer to that.

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