The Snug2nd March 2014

My Music (with digressions) and Hearing Loss

Becoming Hard of Hearing later in life has all sorts of implications, the inability to enjoy music being one of them

by Les Birch

I am 91 years old and for the better part of 80 of those years I have been passionately fond of classical music.  Sadly, over the past few years, my increasing deafness has meant that much of my recorded music collection has now become little more than a cacophony.

My adolescent formative years in the 1930's were spent in Manchester, home of the internationally famous and well-loved Halle Orchestra. Each winter Manchester Corporation would sponsor a series of 4 so-called Municipal Concerts to which we, as grammar school pupils, were admitted for the princely sum of sixpence (2.5 pence in current coinage). I admit that our initial enthusiasm for these concerts was based solely on the fact that it gave us the chance to meet the girls from my sister's corresponding grammar school, secondary education in those days being strictly single sex. (I am reactionary enough to believe even now that secondary single sex education is to be preferred to the present system and also reactionary enough to believe that all pupils at whatever level should face the front of the class instead of sitting around tables with half of them with their backs to the blackboard, or whatever the modern technological equivalent may be.)

In about my third year at grammar school a new young teacher arrived to take, amongst other subjects, Latin in which I had just started my second year. It was he who introduced me to the brutality of Caesar's Gallic Wars and the lyricism of Virgil's Aeneid and I was always fascinated that we could read the actual words of these two great writers in their original tongue nearly 2000 years after they were first written.

But, this teacher had another talent – he could play the piano. On the days of these Municipal Concerts he would take those of us who were interested and who were going to the concert that evening into the assembly hall at lunch time. There he would introduce us to the pieces that were being played, overtures, symphonies, concertos and so on by playing, for example, the first theme of the opening movement of a symphony. He would then explain how the composer developed this theme and then introduce the second theme and explain how the themes became interwoven and further developed. So when we heard the full orchestra playing these very themes later in the day, the music became alive and had a purpose and meaning. I owe that master a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me into this musical world and I have never forgotten him. His name was Mr. Salmon and little imagination is needed to realise how he was nicknamed by us wicked schoolboys.

At home, sadly, my new found interest in the classics was not fostered by my parents - the sole domestic entertainment in those days was the radio (then called the wireless) and they only had to hear the words 'symphony' or 'concerto' for it to be immediately switched off. None the less my mother was musical - she played the piano and insisted that my sister and I should take piano lessons. My sister took to it very well and went on to become a church organist and music teacher amongst other talents. I dropped the lessons as soon as I could, pleading pressure from my academic studies - which was true enough.

I left school in June 1939 to start what proved to be a reasonably successful career in H.M. Stationery Office. I had qualified for university entrance in 1938 but with the prospect of the imminent war looming I had opted for a career rather than face the possibility of an interrupted period of university education. And of course the war did indeed start just 3 months after I started work. As civil servants we were not allowed to volunteer for the armed services until our age group was called upon to register for such service and so it was not until September 1941 that I was able to join the army. I had been able to attend a couple of concerts after leaving school but tragically the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, where the Halle Orchestra was based, was destroyed by the German air raids on Manchester of 22/23 and 23/24 December 1940. Nearly 700 people were killed during those 2 nights, including an entire family of 4 from our church. (We heard the stick of bombs which killed them whistling down over our house during the attack and always considered ourselves singularly fortunate to escape unharmed). Interesting that a building could be erected in Manchester in the 19th Century mainly to provide a platform for those two great orators for Free Trade, Bright and Cobden, who finally succeeded in having the vicious Corn Laws repealed in 1846. Interesting too that the building erected to replace the bombed Free Trade Hall is still called the New Free Trade Hall.

War service left little time for listening to music although I did manage a visit to the Hamburg Opera House when I was stationed there after May 1945. How that building survived amidst the almost total destruction of that city by the RAF and American Air Force is something of a miracle - a destruction which I consider totally justified as indeed I do all the air attacks on German cities, even including, controversially, Dresden.

After demobilisation I resumed my career with HMSO and having spent some 3 years or so in Nottingham, with brief spells in Newcastle and Reading, I finally arrived in London in 1951. By then I had a wife and small son and although money was tight we managed a couple of trips to what was then the new Royal Festival Hall and very occasionally a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was at the Festival Hall that I first heard a very young Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a dazzling performance, and there too that I heard Sibelius's Second Symphony for the first time, another performance never to be forgotten. But for the most part our entertainment was the BBC's Third Programme, as it was called in those days, long before television became affordable.

One other unforgettable experience of that time was the great London smog of December 1952. It is estimated to have killed between 4,000 and 12,000 people and I still remember vividly walking to the office with buses being led by men with flares. Crossing the road was a hazard and one could quickly become very disoriented. One good result of the smog was the Clean Air Act of 1956 and after I had lived in the resulting smokeless areas for over 20 years it was a real shock to the system to come to South Wales in 1976 and see chimneys belching out smoke again.

My daughter was born in London in 1954 and shortly after that we bought our first house in the lovely Sussex village of Hassocks, just 11 miles north of Brighton. Money was still tight (when was it not ?) but it was here that I constructed my first hi-fi set, buying the components from a wonderfully helpful little shop in Fleet Street. The first record I bought was Brahms's Second Piano Concerto but from then on the music collection and my knowledge of music really took off. Our London office was very near to the old department store of Gamages and I had a field-day, or days, when they had a fire sale of records. Prices were slashed to ridiculously low levels and I could not resist what was on offer.

One of my other great passions in life has been France and all things French. This all started during my first visit to Paris as a schoolboy in 1937 - two weeks in Paris, including a 2-day coach tour of the chateaux and cathedrals of the Loire valley, for seven pounds - when, just short of my 15th birthday, I fell in unrequited love with a beautiful girl dancing up and down the steps in front of the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. I learned French for 6 years and was fortunate enough to become fluent in the language, a gift which I have fortunately retained into my old age. I was fortunate enough too to be involved in the June 1944 landings in Normandy, which led to the ultimate liberation of that country and indeed of the rest of Europe.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that my two great passions, music and France, should come together in the music of that great romantic composer, Hector Berlioz (1803 to 1869). His romanticism was indeed innate and even for a Frenchman he had innumerable affairs. He married, in turn, a concert pianist, an English Shakespearean actress, Harriet Smithson,whom he had seen playing Ophelia in Hamlet, a second-rate Italian singer, Mademoiselle Reco, and finally a charmer from his home village with whom he had fallen in love at the age of 14 because she was wearing pink slippers!

His music is on the grand scale. His Requiem, written in 1837 for French soldiers killed in Algeria {where they were still being killed over 100 years later), demands over 200 voices, and he would have had more if possible, an enormous orchestra, sixteen kettledrums and four brass bands. These bands call to each other from the four corners of the auditorium in the Tuba mirum and, having heard a superb performance some years ago in the Royal Albert Hall, which of course has no corners, I can assure you that the effect is almost overwhelming.

He wrote several operas including The Trojans, inspired by Virgil's Aeneid and tracing the wanderings of the Trojans under Aeneas around the Mediterranean,until they at length fetch up in Carthage where Aeneas falls in desperate love with their Queen, Dido, only to leave her in the last Act to go off and found Rome whilst she suicidally throws herself on to her funeral pire. The music slowly fades away to cries from the departing sailors of "Italia, Italia, Italia"- wonderful stuff.

Berlioz also wrote an inspiring arrangement of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, all six blood-thirsty verses of it, for two choirs, an enormous orchestra, lacking flutes and oboes, but very heavy in brass and timpani. The fifth verse is for tenor solo and full of magnanimity for their foes but the sixth returns to the fight against those "tigers who, without pity, tear their mother's womb to shreds". Heady stuff.

My daughter started to play the piano at the age of 10 or 11 and in her first year made such progress that her music teacher insisted that she then also took up the violin. Her progress continued at such a pace that she was shortly awarded a West Sussex County Council scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where she would travel each Saturday morning to receive very high tuition in both piano and violin. I had to make a career move to Scotland in 1970 and it was here that I heard her first play in public, when she performed quite brilliantly Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso at a concert in her new school, Linlithgow Academy. Sadly, my marriage broke up in Scotland but not before I had heard my daughter play the piano part in Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock, which is set for piano, soprano and clarinet - a charming work. On a much happier note my daughter went on to Aberdeen University where she received her MA in music and where she met a young lecturer, fresh from Oxford and by name Colin Lawson, a brilliant clarinettist. He went on to lecture in Sheffield, where they married in 1982, she meanwhile having been with BBC Radio 3 since 1978. He was appointed Chair of Performance Studies at Goldsmiths, London University in 1998 and was then Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Music and Media at Thames Valley University (now The University of West London) from 2001 to 2005 when he was appointed Director of the Royal College of Music, where he holds a Personal Chair in Historical Performance. So a wheel came full circle in that my daughter's husband became the Director of the College she attended 40 years earlier as a Saturday morning pupil. She, incidentally, has just retired from BBC Radio 3 after 36 years of deep involvement in its output of wonderful music, drama and so on.

I hope that you can now understand a little more what the loss of my music has meant to me. I am pleased to see that research is now beginning to focus more on tackling the enormous problem of making hearing aids more receptive to music. It has very rightly been concentrated in the past on making speech intelligible through hearing aids. Interestingly enough, listening to live music, as opposed to recorded music, is still a pleasurable experience. Since my hearing loss, I have heard my son in law give two performances of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the most recent being in 2013 in the new auditorium at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. On each occasion I have "heard" every note and this may be because, as I know the work very intimately, I believe that the brain "hears" what the ear does not. I have read of this phenomenon elsewhere and clearly it does not work with unfamiliar or new music.

I hope too that you will allow me a brief mention of so-called 'pop music'. As soon as my daughter showed such good musical promise her teacher told us that we should not let her listen to pop music, this being of course the 'swinging sixties'. The teacher said, quite rightly, that her ear could be so easily damaged by this new craze and I, of course, as I suppose a rather strict father for those days, was only too happy to comply. The ban has clearly paid dividends in that my daughter is still happily playing her violin in an orchestra in Harrow.

But I continue to be much saddened by the fact that probably 99% of people in this world pass through it thinking that 'pop music' is indeed the only music and that so-called classical music is not for them. Personally I cannot stand pop music - I made one exception in my life and that was the music of Abba, and I only came to them some 20 years after their original popularity. But when I hear modern pop music (and it is hard to escape it when it intrudes on News Bulletins and other programmes) it just sounds to me like constant repetition of simple themes, and simple words, with these words being positively bawled out, accompanied by grossly distorted faces and endless repetition of the same percussion rhythm. Now, perhaps if somebody could explain pop music to me as dear Mr. Salmon explained classical music to me some 80 years ago, then it is possible, although I think highly unlikely, that I could enjoy it. But, I suppose pop music is popular simply because it does not have to be explained and after all instant gratification without effort is the order of the present day. There speaks the grumpy old cynic.

Article by Les Birch

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / The Snug

2nd March 2014