Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Whatever it takes

I was discussing a music-making project that aims to involve children and young adults who may be described as being on the fringes of society. It was taken, almost as a given, that the emphasis would be on 'popular' music because it is so much more accessible. We accepted that classical music, although wonderful in itself, was unlikely to be the best starting point. It is not impossible to interest children, especially the very young, in the great composers of orchestral music but their initial interest is more likely to be fired by something more familiar.

I found myself thinking back to my own early exposure to classical music. My father had an old record player in a cabinet, most of which was taken up with the single speaker. It was a piece of furniture styled in the manner of the first televisions - a small sideboard that could be closed when not in use, it's inner workings becoming invisible. On this we could play 78s (Tubby the Tuba) and Long Players. It had a 16 rpm setting as well. The fact that we had no 16 rpm records did not deter me from playing discs at that speed. I don't remember it having a 45 rpm setting - the only 7" vinyl in the house played at 33 rpm. (It was Paul Robeson singing 'Old Man River' - painfully slow and I preferred it at 78. I only once gave it the 16 treatment but didn't have the patience to see it through to the end.)

Possibly the best purchase my father ever made was the Readers' Digest 'Festival of Light Classical Music', a 12 album boxed set. This introduced me to Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Borodin, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Verdi etcetera, etcetera. At the time I was unconcerned by the quality of sound reproduction which must have been dreadful. I had never been to a live concert and the piano we had once owned was never played so I had nothing to compare it to. No doubt a purist would have taken issue with the validity of my experience but for me it was sufficient to inspire a life in music.

Fast forward four decades or so and I am teaching a child of twelve to play Beethoven's Ode to Joy on the clarinet.
"You might recognise this," I tell him. "It's the anthem of the European Union."
(Actually, in Britain at least, that appears to be a little-known fact.) He begins to play and tells me he does indeed recognise the tune.
"It's my dad's ringtone."

I confess I felt somewhat put out by this revelation. Back in the 1970s one of my favourite actors, one Terry Thomas, destroyed my enjoyment of a piece from The Nutcracker Suite by singing a lyric in praise of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut (chocolate). [The link is to a Frank Muir version.] Much worse has happened since and listening to a cheap and synthetic rendering of Mussorgsky's Promenade when put on hold is right down there with old TT. Yes, I could have condemned this outrageous misappropriation of one of the greatest tunes of the 19th century. But I didn't.

Just as my first introduction to great music came through an old box that would have horrified the composers whose music it approximated; just as my first hearing of Pictures at an Exhibition (to which Promenade forms the introduction) came via Emerson Lake and Palmer; so there is no telling what will inspire the children of today to listen to great music and seek its source. The fact that Ode to Joy still sounds memorable as a ringtone is testament to its enduring quality. Maybe Terry Thomas inspired some great musicians to become what they are today (maybe...) and it is finally time to forgive, nay to praise, him.


  1. I wonder if (like me) you sing along to ice cream vans? We had two going the other day,one was "I'm popeye the sailor man..." with a curious B section. I kept making up new lyrics each time and battling with the B section. (Just like old times).

  2. Actually, my introduction to "Pictures" was also from ELP, which identifies a debt of gratitude that I owe the group. It was through that that I became interested in orchestral music generally, my "classical" education up to that point being limited to what I could play on the piano. Rather later, I discovered that the work was actually composed for piano, and I learned to play bits of it.

  3. I also remember my dad's old record player, probably of similar sound quality to yours. Our wireless set had a "gram" input and you could connect up the player, trying not to get too much hum. I remember "jealousy" (tangouzine) and "The entry of the Boyards".

    I also experimented with a pin and a matchbox, making the thing into a soudnig box, playing 45 RPM classics like the original 45rpm Chubby Checker's "Let's twist again"

  4. "Come on, everybody,
    Clap your hands!
    Aaaahhhh you're looking good!
    We're gonna sing a song
    And it won't take long,
    We're gonna do the twist
    And it goes like this......."

  5. I hear Popeye round my way too. I wish I could remember all the 'rude' verses I sang when I was a kid. None of them had the exuberance of Chubby Checker. I won't try to follow the lyrics of Let's Twist Again with those of Old Man River (any exuberance it may have possessed went right over my head), still less the tale of Tubby the Tuba.

  6. 's funny, I can remember the main theme tune from Tubby but none of the words, nor even the theme of the story.

  7. It was very sad. I think it has a happy ending but those mean violins always made me cry. To this day I'm wary around fiddle players. It's probably a bit late to scare my own kids with it though (youngest is 11).

  8. You can hear Danny Kaye reciting it, on Spotify. I am listening now.....

    Spotify is amazing, if you have a PC with a sound card, go for it, it's free too.