I remember listening to a lecture on teaching by the philosopher David Carr, in which he noted (I’m paraphrasing what I remember, so I hope I’m not misquoting) that literature was often a better place than educational textbooks to find out about what makes a good teacher. You can see his point: Jesus and Gradgrind are just two potent examples of teaching that stick in the popular imagination.
I thought of this, but in relation to music, as I was reading Hans Fallada’s novel about Berlin under the Nazis, Alone in Berlin. It’s a merciless book, in every sense: you know from the outset that there can be no happy ending, and there’s no light relief from the vileness of most of the characters. Even the good ones are misguided and fallible or rendered powerless by circumstance, and there is no honour among the Nazi thieves: they’re all weak, drunk, opportunistic bastards and nutters who can’t even trust each other to be good Nazis.
And then quite unexpectedly towards the end of this impassioned, bilious tirade, there’s one of the most moving accounts of the power of music. Otto Quangel, a factory foreman convicted of disseminating anti-Nazi messages ends up in a cell with Dr Reichardt, a similarly dissident conductor. They have nothing in common except the cell and their dissent. Quangel finds it hard to understand what a conductor is. He can understand the value of his own job, but finds it difficult to know what Reichardt’s is about:
” ‘First class carpentry, pinned and glued, things that will last a hundred years. But music – the minute you stop playing, what have you got left?’
“There is something, Quangel. The joy in the people who hear good music, that’s something enduring.’ “(p.471)
Reichardt himself is one of those people: in the face of humiliation, imprisonment and death, he remains calm partly through humming quietly to himself the music he remembers: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. Quangel, for whom this music is remote and unfamiliar, is nonetheless moved and positively affected by its power, ‘unable to avoid its influence, however basic the doctor’s hummed vocal settings might be.’ (p.473).
It’s an extraordinarily pure and positive moment in a book which otherwise reeks of blood, alcohol, violence, weakness and betrayal. Even though I tend to resist the idea that music transcends reality, this is one of the moments that could most easily convince me otherwise.
It sounds remarkably similar to something that ‘flow’ author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says about music somewhere (I wish I could remember where) – that one of the benefits of having spent time engaged with music is that you have a store of meaningful and engaging internalized musical experiences which you can enjoy and relive in solitude. In other words, instead of staring vacantly at the GMTV sofa or grinding your false teeth on Frinton Pier waiting for death, you could be playing a Bach cantata in your head, because it’s there.
At the moment, I have a little variation on a theme by Dvořák written by Oskar Nedbal going round my head, a constant companion because I’ve been practising it. I don’t even think about it (until now, for a moment), but my mind is in an almost constant state of music, and if it’s not, I can put it in one. It’s not whistling in the dark to make myself feel better, it’s just a much richer alternative to waiting for Eamonn Holmes to entertain me. Until I read Alone in Berlin and heard Csikszentmihalyi, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.