Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall 1970 (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
Artillery Row

How I discovered classical music

Daniel Johnson describes the joy of indulging in music as a teenage boy

In his 1910 novel Howard’s End, E.M. Forster divides families into the cultured (the Schlegels) and the practical (the Wilcoxes), who have “nothing in common except the English language”. As so often, Forster was wrong. Real families are commonly a mixture of both. I grew up in a family where culture was valued, perhaps even exceptionally so: the house was full of books — a growing number of them written by my father — and paintings, of course. He is a good artist; his father had been a professional one. My mother reviewed books for the TLS; I wrote my first book review aged 7 or 8 for a feature in the Evening Standard. You get the picture.

Within a matter of weeks its sensuous solemnities had infiltrated the very entrails of my being

But there was no music. We had a piano, but I never had lessons. There was a record player, but very few records, all fairly random. The only ones I recall listening to with my parents as a little boy were Noel Coward’s song The Stately Homes of England and the Beatles’ She Loves You. Home was no place for serious stuff. It wasn’t until I went to the grammar school that I could make friendships and develop independent tastes. It was only then that music — real music, though it never occurred to me to call it “classical” — suddenly hit me with the force of an aural revelation. Although it was a couple of years later that I read Nietzsche, without knowing it I already subscribed to his credo, articulated in The Birth of Tragedy: “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world eternally justified.”

How did I discover music, by far the most intense manifestation of this aesthetic phenomenon? Music coincided with puberty, with the discovery of love and, especially, death. Still vivid in my memory is the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica, played at the obsequies of the murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. That symphony was one of the first records I owned, soon to be surpassed in my personal pantheon by the Ninth. Even more suggestive was Mozart’s Requiem, which I sang with the choir and which I instantly felt familiar. The dying composer had consciously incorporated echoes of earlier eras, from baroque fugues to medieval modes, into his score.  Within a matter of weeks its sensuous solemnities had infiltrated the very entrails of my being. A year later we sang the less gothic and more ethereal Requiem of Fauré. Its heartfelt plea — Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna (“liberate me, Lord, from eternal death”) — struck a chord with this particular adolescent, just as Brahms did in his profoundly Protestant German Requiem, with its anguished acceptance of mortality: Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss (“Lord, make me to know mine end”).

I suppose it was due to a Catholic upbringing that I thought a good deal about what theologians call the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven, hell. Yet the thought of suicide, which preoccupied me almost daily from the age of 15 to about 25, was anathema to the Church. Lacking experience of the reality of death, I fell half in love with the idea of it.

I had barely heard of clinical depression, let alone considered any form of therapy; I was left to confront the shadows that fell across my life during that decade alone. My greatest consolation was music. I could play no instrument; I had no voice; but l needed no encouragement to devour the orchestral, chamber, choral and operatic repertoire.

The early 1970s was a golden age of BBC music, when the dulcet voice of Patricia Hughes could effortlessly open eager ears like mine to the riches on offer. Radio Three’s unashamed elitism did not deter me in the least; nor did I even notice the evangelism of the Modernists who then dominated the airwaves. Their leader was Sir William Glock, the BBC’s Controller of Music and the Proms. He has been much castigated for privileging composers of atonal Modernism over those who remained in the mainstream of Western music. I own Glock’s copy of the great postwar manifesto of “New Music”, Adorno’s Philosophie der Neuen Musik; he has signed and dated it, 1951. But in his own 1991 memoir, Notes in Advance, he says that he “read — or endured — T.W. Adorno’s attack on Stravinsky in his Philosophy of New Music”. Glock and his colleagues were not dogmatic about 20th century or indeed any music, but offered a broad range of styles, from Schoenberg to Stockhausen, from Britten to Boulez. I was just grateful to find total immersion in the baroque, classical and romantic sound worlds every time I switched on the radio. That, and the joy of browsing in record shops, was just what was needed to escape from O-levels, A-levels and the Oxford entrance examination. Once I had found the components of my very own “stereo sound system”, worked, saved for and finally bought them, my bedroom became a miniature auditorium, where — closeted away in the company of the masters and the maestros — I was transported to Elysium.

Though born a Londoner, I grew up in Metroland, so concerts were a rare luxury. My grandmother would invite me occasionally, for which I was grateful, but her taste was conventional and I needed to discover music for myself. No phantom haunted the opera more assiduously: my first was Don Giovanni at the Coliseum and I can still sense the hairs on my neck standing up when I heard the voice of the Commendatore summon the Don to his final reckoning. Promming was and is the cheapest and best introduction to classical music; the Albert Hall is still, for me, the place to encounter Mahler, Bruckner and the other great symphonic composers.

But the early concerts that remain most vivid in my memory took place in less exalted and more local surroundings. A Beethoven series at nearby Brunel University, given by a then unfamiliar virtuoso from Russia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, unleashed the astounding energy of the Appassionata and the enigmatic grandeur of the Hammerklavier.

Most memorable of all — perhaps because, with hindsight, I realise that it was the first time I had asked a girl out — was a performance of Beethoven’s late quartets at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. The peerless Amadeus Quartet was still playing at the pinnacle of perfection. They already seemed old enough to have played for Beethoven himself, though the last survivor — “the Benjamin” — Martin Schidlof, died only this year. The evening seemed to go swimmingly: a journey into the interior, from the beautiful to the sublime. With the wild tarantella of the C-Sharp Minor Quartet, Opus 131, still ringing in my ears and tears streaming down my cheeks, I turned to my date. She looked at me in alarm and asked: “What’s the matter, Daniel?” Poor girl: I don’t think I even tried to explain. It was insufferable: an experiment not to be repeated for a decade or more. The only lovers who interested me were music-lovers. Luckily for me, I married one of them.

This is the first of a summer series on the theme of youthful discovery.

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