Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


This evening I sit at my neighbour's house listening to a 1957 recording of Beethoven's 9th with the Philarmonia Chorus and Orchestra, on which my mother sings. The neighbour is a dedicated follower of Otto Klemperer and archivist of Philarmonia Chorus doings. My mother is someone who - with a certain insouciance, but no bravado - sang with the Philarmonia for the years from 1957, when they were new and not even credited on the recording we are listening to, until 1979 when new rulings about the need to read music ruled her out.

Sitting in the presence of the two of them is strange and exciting. For mum, the conductors and choir masters that my neighbour revered are flawed but entertaining people who came periodically into the life of the chorus and were judged on their ability to get a good sound out of the singers. Wilhlem Pitz, the mainstay of the early chorus and the one that rounded them into shape, gets her enduring respect.

No doubt the Philarmonia were the chorus of the period - amateur, chosen for the warmth and harmony of the voices, young and plentiful. I didn't come into the picture until the heyday, when everyone was tuned in and knew what they were doing and then I was only aware of the choir for its impact on my daily routine - my mother off to Spain or Portugal, my cousin bathing us instead, and then later, the trips to watch dress rehearsals on the South Bank and miming along with conductors' names I couldn't spell, like Guilini or Fruhbeck de Burgos (or Fruhstuck as he was informally known at ours). We followed on to the Roman amphitheatre in Orange, south of France, for the Verdi Requiem, in our caravan and watched over parapets, between the legs of guards, chewing almonds in the daytime between concerts, catching swallowtail butterflies and grasshoppers and letting them loose in the living areas and climbing back down Provencale scrubland with our father to see the sawing violins and heaving singers as the night closed in.

But this wasn't my story, sitting there, watching mum for 15 minutes solid and unblinking as the final movement of the 9th plays out and seeing thoughts cross her face. Not aware of being stared at, either by my neighbour or me, and this being extraordinary moments in which we were silent and her intensity sets the tone. That she sits in a reverie, part sizing up the music and part remembering. Mum is a mixture of turmoil and possession. Spending time in her younger days, but a time both shared and separate from our dad, who didn't sing, but did love music of this ilk.

The cup and ball patterns of the South Bank were my youth as much as the lino in the hallway.

My neighbour is the archivist, telling mum that she had sung on recordings and brandishing the CD for her to look at. He has pictures of Joan Sutherland and Otto Klemperer on his wall. He tells stories of writing to key players and having tea with them. He has the autographs of major artists. He is a collector, he avows. He is wowed that he has met my mother, the real thing, the artifact that knew them all.

My mother is duly different. She can hardly remember which concerts she sang in, or who presided from the podium (that's alright, as my neighbour can fill her in) and she is appropriately scathing about the people who 'didn't quite work with the choir' but totally unceremonious about her part. 'It was just what I did - but we were a good choir, better than the Huddersfield or the Bach choir at the time.' It is part of her stuff of life and when she wipes her eye, it is the over-active tear gland that has stimulated it, not history alone.

I sit and watch, in awe at a history that I cannot touch, reminded of my father's wealth of knowledge now gone. Reminded what rich stock I come from. People who could be bothered to do something mid-century and grand. A rich voice, an alto that could sit amongst the finest chorus in the land. I was dragged willy-nilly after, and pieces like the Verdi Requiem and the Carmena Burana are my blood. I conduct the Dies Irae again in my head. My mum sings on. My dad is dead. But somewhere we are back in times before my birth. And my neighbour watches and stokes the CD player and finds in another programme, another reference to my mum.