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Blood Brothers and the mystery of music


ROGER Scruton argued that the most complex philosophical issues were presented via the experience of music. How does it speak to you? How does it have an expressive function? How is it that some arrangement of chords speaks to the tragic part of your soul, while another makes you feel energised? Occasionally both at the same time?

Music, he argued, is a message from another dimension, and to interpret that message might require cognitive and aesthetic skills most of us do not possess. Furthermore, that we don’t possess them is why it is a form of universal comfort. Why try to analyse that which comforts you? I do not ‘understand’ Bach’s St Matthew Passion, but I do feel it. If asked to write an essay on it I’d fall out of love with it.

There can still be a message from another dimension, but one which feels closer to home. Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers has been with us for forty years. I first saw it with my Nana at the Liverpool Playhouse. The narrative is nature versus nurture framed in a Liverpool working-lass context. I’m not going to ruin it for you. But there is contained within the musical narrative a deep lament for the loss of a mother for her child. It’s here.

The wonderful but upsetting lyrics are self-referential . . . she’s singing as if she might be part of a play. Which is extremely clever. She can’t quite believe the situation she is in, so questions it.

The musical subverts casual assumptions about mother and child and asks this: what if one thing goes wrong and a category of mistake is redeemed twenty years down the road? If it means the loss of your son, how do you redeem that cheque? It’s a moral tale about the nature of chance, wrapped in beauty.

And on the nature of time: the story contextualises the role of time in the life of a child. From God’s perspective life is the blink of an eye; from ours? An endurance test. Willy Russell makes serious play with that idea.

You don’t need a Bach to write something as beautiful as this. And there are subtleties in play here (her cultural reference point being Marilyn Monroe).

Music works in ways that are unfathomable. To understand how to appreciate a piece of music is to understand how the mind works.

Which we don’t. Nobody gets that. Kant was right about this: there is no such thing as subjectivity in aesthetic appreciation, but there might be a version of common agreement.

My mother has bought tickets for Blood Brothers for the October half term. I expect my son will clutch my hand on the way out. Tragedy wrapped in beauty.

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Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh is a writer.

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