Saturday, 13 January 2018

Mozart in Mono: on rediscovering a childhood LP

In my last blog I wrote about the loss of hearing in my left ear following a Christmas virus. I wish I could tell you it’s been restored. It hasn’t - it feels as lifeless as a withered arm. The doctor is reasonably sure that it’s just a matter of time. So I’m trying to get used to life in mono. Maybe it’s a bit like black-and-white photography. You sacrifice the colour in order to discover other riches in greyscale. I’m listening to music in a different kind of way. It’s more intentional, as they say, perhaps more aware of the shapes and textures than before.

I’m also aware that I’m cherishing what hearing I still have in my right ear. It makes every piece of music that much more precious, something I tried to put into words last time. And with a good set of headphones that give a full rich sound, my mind can even begin to imagine that all is as it used to be. By chance, since writing my last blog, I’ve found in a charity shop Oliver Sacks’ remarkable book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. In it he describes the experiences of people who have lost their hearing function in one ear. One person, a composer, found that what he could hear with his ‘bad’ ear was out of tune with his ‘good’ one, as I found myself when this all began. Sacks talks about how the human brain has the extraordinary ability to make up for the loss of function in one ear (or eye). It can’t heal it. But it can, so to speak, begin to reconstruct your sound (or sight) world, restore some sense of spatial awareness so that in time, the loss is partially compensated for.  

It’s funny how the right book falls into your lap just when you need it. And in another strange way, as I browsed classical music recordings on the web, I came across an album cover that was so familiar that I exclaimed out loud, even though I hadn’t set eyes on it for fifty or more years. It’s Joseph Keilberth’s recording of two Mozart symphonies with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Actually I’m cheating slightly. The image I found on ebay (above) is of the 1960 stereo recording. Ours at home was the 1956 mono disc, but the scarlet Telefunken covers were identical. I think it may have been the first LP my parents owned. If it wasn’t that, then it was Beethoven’s Eroica or Schubert’s Winterreise. 

At the age of six or seven, I fell in love with the Mozart disc, especially the 39th. It’s still my favourite Mozart symphony. I think it was the slow introduction that seduced me. Those few portentous bars, full of rich brass and woodwind, seemed to presage something miraculous. E flat was a key that brought forth some of Mozart’s most wondrous music - think of The Magic Flute or the Gran Partita whose slow movement Salieri so envied according to the film Amadeus. The solemn rising violin scales of the symphony’s introduction, together with one of the sharpest and most sustained discords in all of 18th century music captivated me. And when the clouds finally parted and the sun broke through in some of the happiest music in the classical repertoire, it was a revelation. 

Today I’ve found the stereo version online, thanks to the ever-obliging Spotify. Listening to it for the first time in decades, I’m aware that it’s probably not among the greatest of Mozart recordings. The Bamberg play with tremendous conviction, but tuned as we are to the delicacy of authentic performances on period instruments, it now sounds a bit rough in places. Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968) was the Bamberg’s chief conductor at the time, but he was best known for his opera interpretations, especially Wagner. His Wagner performances were famous; poignantly he died in the middle of conducting Tristan und Isolde. I doubt if you can be a truly great Mozartian and a Wagnerian conductor, though in modern times many conductors have made a convincing showing of both. Some might say you can’t really love Wagner’s music if you love Mozart’s, but that’s a different question. It would be some years before I came to Wagner but when I did, the revelation was as unforgettable as my childhood discovery of Mozart.

But now that I’ve rediscovered it, I shall treasure this recording till I die. It represents so much that was joyous in my childhood: parents who loved me and encouraged me in everything that fascinated me, whether it was riding my tricycle and not long afterwards, my 18 inch pavement bike, my first Brownie camera, my Hornby ‘0’ gauge model railway (which would be worth a fortune nowadays), reading Alice, Pooh, the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales (I always preferred them to Andersen’s - they were darker and more complex and didn’t always have happy endings) and - I admit it - Enid Blyton. 

But before all these, my parents wanted me to love music as they did. My grandmother would sit me down at the piano and we would pick out Schubert melodies like Heidenröslein. It was probably thanks to her that Winterreise found its way into our home because it was she who told me about Schubert’s unhappy wanderer as we sat and listened. Piano lessons must have begun about then, though I was too lazy to practise very much (and regret it even today). I was not too young to have a go at Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena, my introduction to the other great musical passion of my life. 

So many musical memories to be thankful for. I’ve written about some of them before on this blog. But today they have been rekindled afresh as a result of seeing that LP sleeve on the web and hearing once again that much-loved disc. I suppose that when we grow old, such glowing memories become all the more precious, of remembered childhood days and the people who loved us and our awakening to God’s wonderful world as it seemed to blossom all around us. 

And maybe too, early inklings of pain and mortality in the music I was learning to love? I don’t know. I hear them now clearly enough in the introduction to Mozart’s 39th. And in adulthood, it does make me feel for the many whose memories of childhood are far from happy, whose upbringing has been occluded by pain, abandonment, cruelty or illness. How innocent and protected, how secure and happy my early childhood was, and I never knew it at the time. There is so much to learn about the world and our own selves as we grow up. What matters is that we don’t unlearn what was important to us in childhood, that we don’t, as a psychoanalytic writer once put it, lose the capacity for flowering and instead find we are unripening, shrivelling to a bud. With my one good ear, I’m trying to reflect on that for a while too.

7 comments:

  1. Michael,

    I hope your doctor's prognosis works out well - and before too much time has passed. But I can personally attest to the truth of what you've read in the book by Sachs.

    Several years ago, an acoustic neuroma destroyed the hearing in one of my ears and affected my vestibular balance. However, I'm fortunate that medical advances in the last few decades now allow for surgical removal or radiological control of these types of tumors. I'm also fortunate that improvements in hearing devices over the years mean that I can listen to music even though I now hear everything in mono. Although I remember what stereo sounded like, the honest truth is that I do not think of the difference when I'm listening to music.

    Modern hearing aids deal with the problem of sound which occurs on the side where the ear does not function. I need a hearing aid in my "good" ear. In addition to dealing with sound which occurs on my good side, I have a special hearing aid in my bad ear which receives sound and then sends it by radio transmission through my head to the hearing aid in my good ear. The end result is an immense improvement in function especially at family gatherings or in the days when I attended meetings.

    My observational experience is that coping with the very natural grief resulting from a sudden and unexpected disability can sometimes be as difficult as dealing with the actual disability. I write that as someone who has lived with polio related issues since the age of five and, in my teen years, spent much time in orthopedic surgical wards and rehab wards where I saw a good number of car crash victims. Watching them, I often felt that I could not imagine what it would be like having one's life turned upside down at a moment's notice. I felt fortunate that I'd never had to deal with that sort of emotional trauma at an age when I was aware of the potential long-term consequences.

    As you wrote in your previous post, gratefulness for past experiences and abilities is theologically appropriate. It's also an important part of trying to maintain good mental health. Because of mobility issues, I no longer play the pipe organ but I do have the recollection that I used to be able to play Bach's passacaglia and fugue, Alain's Litanies, etc. For that I'm grateful. I'm also grateful that despite mobility limitations, I was able to do overseas graduate work, including in Durham -- with a view of the east end of the Cathedral across the Bailey from my college room.

    Best wishes,
    Bruce

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    1. Thank you for this heartening response (from a Chadsman?). If you once played Alain, the Bach P & F etc, the loss must be all the more deeply felt. I find I am getting used to enhanced mono (in my excellent earphones), no doubt helped by the memory of enjoying stereo sound. It's now a question of waiting to see whether hearing is restored in the left ear. It might be many months, but the ENT consultant I've been referred to will advise.

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    2. Yes, I was at Chad's for a year in the early 1970's. Chad's had only recently ceased being a theological college. John Fenton and Gordon Roe were still in place as principal and vice principal respectively and there was still one ordinand. I remember him well. He lent me his car a couple of times when relatives visited me. This gave us an opportunity to see the countryside around Durham, particularly to the west. A number of years later I was fortunate enough to be able to re-visit North Yorkshire and County Durham. You live in a lovely area.

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  2. There's a lot of it about this year. My deafness, also in my left ear, I am putting down to a blocked Eustachian tube, which I'm hoping will clear. I'm not sure when it's doctor time if you don't have an infection. Probably because I've been slightly deaf since my teens, I've rather got used to it. Unless I stick my finger in my right ear, in which case it becomes painfully obvious that I can no longer hear a thing! I sing. I'm waiting for the heavy hand of the music director upon my shoulder telling me that my out of tune wailing is putting everyone else off! Hope it clears up soon.

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    1. I hope it clears up for us both. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. My spouse is suffering from Noise Induced Hearing Loss in both ears, about 60% in each ear. She is aware of it and finds particularly women's higher pitched voices difficult to hear. So far, she has managed to work with it and is still in full time employment, who have made adjustments for her hearing loss (which is attributable to her Military Service in the seventies), but somehow, she finds that she cannot get on with hearing aids.

    She has been told that it will get worse over time, but as she is due to retire this year, has persevered and will investigate hearing aids more suitable for her needs after retirement.

    She copes well, and has been particularly good at one to one conversations, when she can see and lip read to an extent. But in noisy environments she just cannot distinguish individual voices, particularly higher pitched ones - so, she avoids them when she can.

    In Church, she finds the music and signing, particularly as our choir is mainly female voices difficult, but enjoys what she can and is able to join and sing along, without much difficulty, but cannot actually tell the pitch of her own voice while doing so.

    I suspect that because the hearing loss was attributable, she might have to go back to the Military pensions people for assistance with purpose designed hearing aids in the future. But for now, she survives with a reduced hearing capacity, extremely well.

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    1. Yes, I sympathise when it comes to both live singing and background noise in social situations. Both were challenging at church yesterday. On the other hand, really good earphones can mitigate the effects somewhat, even to the extent of persuading me that I'm hearing stereo sound as I used to do. My good wishes to your spouse.

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