Thursday, July 8, 2010

Life without music

“Life without music would be a mistake.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche

I couldn’t agree more. After lots of fiddle-faddling, I managed to start learning the piano when I was eight (Dad had to stop smoking to pay for the lessons and I had to practise initially on a neighbour’s piano). I started with Step By Step to the Classics, books one to six which introduced me to the company of simple Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Scarlatti and they have been my companions ever since.

Some of the music I listen to is 400 years old, Monteverdi’s Vespers or Schütz’s Christmas Story, music that was written while Shakespeare was writing his plays and Cervantes had just launched Don Quixote out into the world.

I love belonging to a community of people over so many centuries who have listened to and loved and played and sung these works. In Clara and Robert Schumann’s The Marriage Diaries, she mentions his love of the “great B Minor Mass” and especially the “Et crucifixit, Et resurrexit and the Sanctus”. I love sharing such a passion with a great composer.

I have often tried to decide what work I would take on a desert island, but have never managed to agree with myself until I worded it differently. What work is there in the world that I couldn’t bear never to hear again? It’s not necessarily the greatest, but I couldn’t be without the Bach B Minor Mass. I had four to five weeks of joy when I lived in Melbourne and I sang it with a small choir; every rehearsal you could hear the texture of the parts.

Another work which is for me, a close runner up is the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Recently I had been trying to find the right adjective to describe the opening chord. I could hear it in my head and ran through about 20 possible words such as ‘resolute’ or ‘solemn’. The night the doctor had told me of the dire effects I could suffer from a bowel blockage, I played the first C.D of the three C.D set. Two or three notes in, I knew the word I was looking for was ‘foreboding’. This work always makes me weep and at first I wept for myself, but then like all great art it removed me from the particularity of my own pain and fear and made me weep for the world at large. King Lear with its final line exhorting us to: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” would have had the same effect, but this time it was the music: the grandeur of the opening chorus, the disciple’s grief at going to sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane and the wonderful duet plus chorus of “Moon and stars have for grief their light forsaken”.

The weeping was healing, but somehow full of joy. Life without music would be an appalling mistake.


  1. I love hearing you talk about music you love Diana. One of my fondest memories of Christchurch is going with you and others to hear the Bach St Matthew Passion on a Friday, and then back to my place for hot cross buns and cups of tea afterwards. It's the ideal thing to do on a Good Friday and a ritual I've never managed to institute since. I think I'll start planning for next Easter now ... Viv xxx

  2. PS: Diana, did i tell you I've started taking piano lessons? (I'm pretty sure i've mentioned this in previous emails). I'm still v much on book one! I bought a handsome old oak piano off Trade Me and George and I both have weekly lessons. It's giving me much joy.