Because it’s music – and that’s enough

The last few weeks have been a time of many people saying even more loudly than usual that the humanities are important to our society. Following Nicky Morgan’s insistence that STEM subjects were the best choice for students who wanted to keep their job options as broad as possible, critics, educationalists, arts leaders and many others have stood up to be counted: you cannot downplay the importance of the humanities, nor can you claim on the back of empirical evidence that science A-levels and degrees will help you fare better in the job market. (There is one additional point to be made which I’ve not so far come across elsewhere in print: namely that if the government hadn’t done such a good job of torpedoing adult education, and massively increasing the cost of retraining in HE, your first degree becomes even less of a defining feature of your possible employment options.)

The arts, of course, help us to understand ourselves and the world, other people, dreams, possibilities, thoughts and feelings. They have the power to provoke, explore and move. They show us worlds beyond our own. As a musician, I feel I understand this keenly. But two events this week have brought it all to the fore in new and unexpected ways.

On Wednesday night, I set off to the Wigmore Hall for a recital of Schubert’s final three Sonatas, given by Christian Blackshaw. Each piece is substantial, and a world of its own – and the decision had been taken, very sensibly, to have an interval between each Sonata. At our soloist’s request, the lights were dimmed far beyond their usual levels during the performance, so that only two rather gentle spotlights shone onto the stage. Otherwise we were in hushed darkness throughout.

It had been a long week already by Wednesday, and I was tired and grumpy and in the sort of mood where every person who had shoved past me on the street, or pushed in front of me at the tube gate, made me despair of humanity. So I settled down to listen expecting something beautiful (because I love Blackshaw’s playing), but emotionally rather squashed. After two minutes, I was completely focused on the music. After five, I felt as if I was in a space so close to Schubert’s own listening world, that intimate, candle and lamp-lit room, that everything else ceased to have reality. By the second movement there were tears streaming down my cheeks.

The intervals were like being woken up from the perfect dream by someone cranking on the bedside light, and I genuinely couldn’t understand how anyone else in the hall managed to get it together enough to drink wine, make light conversation, and buy ice creams. The second and third Sonatas… But actually, I can’t describe it – there are no words that can capture what it was really like, how it sounded, as I mumbled incoherently at Blackshaw afterwards. I was left scrabbling through a critical vocabulary – sublime, magical, perfectly beautiful – that seemed woefully inadequate. It was an evening I shall never forget, and an experience I feel could only be captured in the language of the early 1800s, in Jean Paul or E.T.A. Hoffmann. Quite simply, you had to be there. You had to hear, see, feel it for yourself.

Myra Hess at the National GalleryToday, I was at the National Gallery at lunchtime, introducing a programme entitled The National Gallery remembers: Myra Hess and the Blitz. The Gallery had asked me to help them put together a suitable programme, and so I had opted to choose a concert given as part of the wartime concert series (that of the 20 February 1941, to be exact), and reconstruct it. We had a fine line-up of young musicians: the Jørgensen Trio from the Royal Academy of Music (Myra Hess’s alma mater) and Soraya Mafi and Jennifer Carter from the Royal College of Music (the institution whose students gave the first ever concert at the Gallery, in 1922). There were piano trios by Haydn and Mozart, and songs by Duparc, Chausson, Debussy, Koechlin and Delius. Despite the rather grim weather, a good crowd turned out for the event, and I was asked to give a brief introduction. In it, I laid out the barest of facts about the wartime concerts.  1,698 concerts in all, given between October 1939 and April 1946. In total, 824,152 people attended, and around £16,000 was raised for the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund (in today’s terms, roughly £600,000). Over 700 musicians took part, all for the same flat fee, from young up-and-comings to major stars.

There is more – so much more – to be said about this concert series, and researching it was profoundly moving and completely humbling. Most important for me, I think, was discovering Hess’s speeches, given on the occasion of the 500th concert and at the end of the very last, and her summary of what the concerts had come to mean: ‘music is not only a pleasant diversion… as some would have us believe.. but to many thousands of people it is a necessity – for the preservation of those spiritual forces for which we, as a Nation… are ready to give our lives.’ Or, in her later speech (and with her own emphasis): ‘IT IS SAID SOMETIMES THAT MUSIC IS A FORM OF ESCAPE, but the experience of these years has made us understand that it is infinitely more IMPORTANT THAN THAT.’

At the end of the concert, three audience members came over to speak to me. The first of them was a lady who had played to Myra Hess as a young girl. Hess had been kind to her, complimented her on her playing and suggested a teacher for her, with whom she went on to study. The second was a gentleman whose father had attended the wartime concerts. He was badly choked up, and kept struggling to finish his sentences as he fought through the emotion of seeing the concert series brought to life again. And the third? The third was Myra Hess’s niece, who wanted to thank us for what we had done, and tell us how much it meant to her that her aunt’s work was still so warmly remembered.

Music has an amazing number of beneficial effects that we have come to understand better in this and the last century: improving concentration, helping children learn more effectively, building community, keeping brain activity up even in later years, strengthening core skills, and so on. That is all wonderful, and much should be made of it (particularly if it gets policy makers to listen). But at root, music is amazing, moving, powerful and infinitely precious all by itself, in every passing sound and phrase and breath. To paraphrase Myra Hess: for all the social and educational good we can enumerate in favour of music, it is still infinitely more important than that.

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