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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Music – the glorious soundtrack of my life

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The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus;
Let no such man be trusted.

                              Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

I CANNOT imagine what my life would have been like without many years of performing and listening to good music. These activities have not just added to my life but have shaped what life means to me. Music has led to the majority of my friendships, and it is a central part of what I am. Beauty nourishes the soul, and music reaches out to wordless ecstasy and other deep feelings.

Although I was later to participate in classical music, my life-changing moment came at the age of ten when I was taken to see the film The Benny Goodman Story, which portrayed the life of the great jazz clarinettist. I was gripped, and in particular by the performance of Memories of You. 

The haunting opening notes of the refrain entered deep within me, and I became obsessed with the mellow liquid sound of the clarinet, so much so that I felt a compulsion to take up the instrument and have regular lessons. I wanted to be Benny Goodman but, like Goodman himself (who also started at the age of ten) I spent my childhood being drilled in scales, arpeggios and exercises, as there are no shortcuts to good playing.

I did give in to some impatience. Less than a year later I played some of Goodman’s solos in children’s talent competitions while visiting Great Yarmouth on family holidays. These daily contests at the Marina were led by professional band leader Neville Bishop

and those voted by the audience as the winner were allowed to perform solos with his band during an evening performance – an experience I was lucky to have several times.

Here I am in the talent competitions with Neville Bishop on stage.

At 13 I joined an adult orchestra in Northampton, playing classical music. By the time I was 16 I was playing in several local orchestras and took up the alto saxophone in order to play in dance bands – full dance bands which used marvellous professional arrangements, including some by Glenn Miller, which players were expected to sight-read (no rehearsals). We played many pieces from the golden age of popular songwriting in the 1930s and 40s. What a different world it was then, with proper ballroom dancing, quicksteps, slow foxtrots and waltzes, and songs that had a gentler and more civilised attitude to courtship and love than the coarse attitudes of today. Ballroom dancing was a sociable activity in which partners were able to converse, unlike today’s ear-splitting discos with detached bodies waving themselves about to machine-made electronic cacophony and thumping, deafening beat.

I was also in a chamber orchestra and the picture below shows some of us in rehearsal with the conductor (I am on the left.)

As a 17-year-old sixth-former at grammar school, I was performing solos of ‘serious’ music, including the Mozart clarinet concerto and Weber’s Concertino.

When I went to Trent Park College in Hertfordshire to do a teacher training course I was fortunate enough to be tutored for three years by the excellent professional clarinettist, Basil Tschaikov, who helped me to develop my tone and my interpretative abilities. With his encouragement, I developed a more lyrical sound, especially with my forays into Brahms (including the wonderful Clarinet Quintet). Inspired by such outstanding clarinettists as Jack Brymer, Gervase de Peyer and Reginald Kell, I found it came naturally to me to use a very slight vibrato (now out of fashion with a number of young players who do not combine their obvious technical skills with a feeling for expression). I felt that the instrument should sing. I took lessons to develop my lyric tenor voice, urged on by my voice coach who wanted me to become a professional singer. Instead, I had many years of amateur choral and solo singing. That also inspired me to play the clarinet as if I was singing, as if the clarinet was not external to my body but part of it. I later discovered that the philosopher Michael Polanyi described this type of experience as ‘indwelling’.

The dance band years ended in the late 1960s, but years of classical performance lay ahead of me in orchestras, ensembles and solo recitals. This gave me further opportunities to participate in works by the great composers, and at times I sat alongside full-time professional players. Solo recitals enabled me to play great clarinet works by Mozart, Weber, Brahms, Schumann, Poulenc and many more. This picture shows me in my early thirties.

I was sometimes accompanied by professional pianists and occasionally I shared joint recitals with the professional opera singer Helen Astrid, performing duets by, for instance, Schubert (Shepherd on the Rock), and Louis Spohr (Six German Songs for Soprano, Clarinet and Piano). We also included a few lighter duets from the golden age of songwriting (including Gershwin) in which I played alto sax. Here we are with professional pianist Geoffrey Bowyer on the left.

I sometimes wish I had been a professional musician instead of a professional philosopher, though both mean a great deal to me. When I met Roger Scruton, when I was a philosophy undergraduate in the 1970s, we gave a few informal performances for students and staff of London University in which he accompanied me on the piano while I played clarinet works and sang some operatic arias by Mozart and Donizetti. He was a highly competent accompanist whose playing was sensitive and giving.

In his preface to his wonderful book The Aesthetics of Music, he endorsed Plato’s view that the ordering of sounds in music ‘is an ordering of the soul’. Good music is so much more than mere enjoyment; it is involvement in the most profound art form, and one which seems to reach to a transcendental realm beyond the temporal and petty concerns and the imperfections of everyday life – or as Beethoven put it, ‘music is the mediation between the spiritual and the sensual life’. So the idea that a computer could compose music is anathema to me, as it would have been to Roger. It is essentially a human activity, as he put it so strikingly in his book – ‘Our music is the music of upright, earthbound, active, love-hungry beings’.

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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