»  The Straggler, No. 9

July 14, 2003

  Name That Tune


I was riding in an automobile the other day with three friends, myself on the back seat next to another conservative journalist. The talk was pretty animated, but at one point there was a gap when no-one had anything to say and all that could be heard was classical music playing faintly on the car radio, something instrumental. "Eugene Onegin," murmured my back-seat companion to herself. I was awestruck. Struck, I mean, with the kind of awe that strikes you when someone does with casual ease a thing you cannot do at all — in this case, recognize a piece of instrumental music. (Yes, yes, I know Eugene Onegin is an opera — I guess we were hearing some orchestral passage.) I can't do this. In fact, I don't get instrumental music.

Now, I was raised with the belief that in order to make a decent showing in society, one ought to do one's best with high culture, and I have been fairly conscientious about this. There are, none the less, quite large regions of high culture that, after decades of trying, I just don't get. I don't really get art, for example. I have taken pains to make myself well-informed about art history, and will go to a famous art museum in any new city I visit, just to brush up, but it's mostly duty work. I would not sacrifice any major organ to save a priceless work of art from destruction. One of the less consequential fingers, perhaps, out of civilizational solidarity, but certainly not a kidney or an eyeball.

It is the same with instrumental music. I have given it my best shot. Though never trained to any instrument as a child, I diligently attended concerts and recitals from college onwards; sometimes because friends were performing, sometimes to ingratiate myself with a woman, but mostly just in the hope of seeing the point, of getting it. Back in the early 1980s, one of the British publishers put out a weekly magazine of the great composers and their music, one piece of music each week, with a description, explanation, and a potted biography of the composer, and an enclosed cassette tape. I subscribed, and listened carefully to each new tape that arrived, and studied the material in the accompanying magazine. The things you can do when you are single and childless!

After all that, I don't think there are more than a dozen instrumental tunes I could name on hearing them. The first notes of Beethoven's Fifth, of course; that bit in Brahm's First that goes "da-daaa, da-di-daaa-da, da-di dardle-di-da-dum"; Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; the horn concerto no. 4 (but only because of Flanders & Swann, of whom more in just a minute); Also Sprach Zarathustra from that Stanley Kubrick movie; Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for some unfathomable reason; a handful of opera overtures — the three-times-three Magic Flute intro, and that wonderful oom-pah-pah that kicks off La traviata. That's about it. No, wait — there's "Duelling Banjos."

Even music that I have paid the most dogged and continued attention to will not stick. I have helped coach my daughter (violin) through Dvorák's Humoresque and my son (piano) through Burgmüller's L'Arabesque, yet I recently discovered by chance that I cannot tell these two compositions apart by ear. The similarity of names does not help, I suppose. But then, nothing helps.

Chinese music ought to be more accessible to one as cloth-eared as myself, tending as it does strongly to the representational. (One of Madame Mao Tse-tung's ferocious campaigns during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was against "abstract music.") I can be sure, when my wife puts on a classical Chinese piece, one of those so restrained as to be wellnigh inaudible, that she will offer me impromptu program notes along the lines of: "This is a wild goose flying low over the desert …" Possibly so: to my ear, it might as well be a tame duck splashing through barnyard puddles.

My failure in this regard is occasionally embarrassing. I have just published a book that contains some incidental references to the family of Felix Mendelssohn the composer. As part of the process of marketing a book, your publisher sends you off on "events" at bookstores around the country. You give a talk, answer questions, then sit at a table signing books that people have bought. Well, I recently did one of these events at a bookstore in the suburbs of Washington DC. The event manager at the store did a marvellous job of organization — she had even had a cake prepared, with my photograph printed on the icing somehow, and an image of the book's cover beside it, with a witty remark to the effect that the book's topic — a great unsolved problem in mathematics — is a piece of cake. As we were winding up, the manager called my attention to the piped music that had been playing on the store's PA system all through the book-signing part of the event. "See, I even put on Mendelssohn for you!" God bless this kind lady, but I hadn't recognized the music at all.

Introduce some words in among the crotchets and quavers and things are altogether different. I love most kinds of song, and have a large personal repertoire. Opera, definitely — my four-year infatuation with bel canto was so intense I had to write a novel to get rid of it. If you name an opera, at any rate one of the top twenty, and excluding Wagner, whom I also don't get, there is an excellent chance I can sing you an aria from it — though usually transposed into my own personal key, as I don't have much of a voice.

Likewise with the great classic mid-20th-century pop songs: Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, etc. Country and Western? No problem: my children, when babies, were lulled to sleep with "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." Folk, bluegrass, hymns, soft pop …  Humani nihil a me alienum puto, boasted Terence: "Nothing that is human is alien to me." Substitute vox humana — I can't work out the inflections — and you could put it on my tombstone. I even have a small stock of Chinese revolutionary ditties, having been a member of the college choir when teaching in the People's Republic. In fact my wife and I first exchanged glances while rehearsing that fine old standard "Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China!" I used to love humorous singing, too, before that genre died an inexplicable death sometime around 1970. Where are today's Alan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, Victor Borge, Flanders and Swann?

A bradypus, or sloth, am I.
I live a life of ease —
Contented not to do or die,
But idle as I please.
I have three toes on either foot,
Or half a doz. on both.
With leaves and fruits, and shoots to eat —
How sweet to be a Sloth!

So why do I fall asleep at a concert of instrumental music? I put it down to genetics. My people are solidly English for as far back as I know, and the English genius is for words, words, words. The Germans are the master musicians of Europe, the French the painters, the Italians the architects, and the English the poets. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Really? Well, for us Anglo-Saxons, if it ain't got those words, it's strictly for the birds.