Well, no, it was probably steam trains, if I'm honest. Music was just there, like the girl or boy next door you hardly notice at first; coming out of the radio, or on the old bakelite 78s we used to play on Mum's wind-up gramophone. Steam trains were huge and noisy and shiny and full of personality, and then they all went away in 1963, which sort of put the seal on it. But "Steam trains were my first love..." doesn't have quite the ring, does it?
I don't know why it's taken me so long to write this piece. It was always going to be there, after all. Music is a ridiculously large and important part of who I am. Anyway, here goes.
As I said, for a long time when I was a child, music was just there. All kinds of music, from Tchaikovsky to Acker Bilk, from "The Voice Of The Bells" (a novelty record based, I think, on "Excelsior") to "Schlafe, Mein Prinzchen, Schlaf Ein" (a German lullaby sung by a female-voice choir). And there was the radio, "Housewives' Choice" and "Children's Favourites" and so on. I'm told I was terrified by "Nelly The Elephant" when very young. I'm not sure why, though I do remember conceiving a violent antipathy to "The Laughing Policeman." As time went on and I began to make up stories, I used the records we had as musical hooks on which to hang the plot (or what passed for plot).
Then two things happened; I went to grammar school, and we got a proper record player. I think they may have happened in the same year, though I'm not sure about that.
At school there was Mr Harvey. He looked a bit like a composer himself, with his bushy grey beard and tweed jacket, and he must have really loved music, because I don't think teaching suited him at all. He mumbled. His notion of teaching music was based on rote learning; first the rules of notation ("clef-key-time") and the beginnings of harmony, and then the biographies of composers. From time to time, though, he'd get out the record player or the old tape recorder, with its three-way switch like a gear lever that always produced an agonising ascending groan as it got up to speed, and we'd listen to a piece of music. What we never did was analyse any of it, which would have been hugely interesting and helpful to me (though I might not have thought so at the time).
And I discovered Sibelius.
I knew about "Finlandia," of course, because it was one of the 78s I'd got used to having, but it was in Mr Harvey's music class that I actually started listening to music and letting it drive my imagination, and Sibelius was a revelation. I loved his symphonies. I went on from there to Tchaikovsky and Dvorak (which should have accents, but I don't offhand know where to find the one on the R) and Beethoven of course, and I was hooked. Haydn and Mozart were all right, but they were just wallpaper. Tum. Tetum. Tetum tetum tetee. Tum. Tetum. Tetum tetum tetoo. Yes, well, so what? Give me the dark pine forests with the snow on the ground, and the dark shapes running just outside the field of vision, and all the eighteenth-century drawing rooms in the world don't compare. I decided I was a Romantic. Holst's "Planets" likewise was a hit. As soon as we had the record player up and running, I was spending my pocket money on classical LPs from Music For Pleasure, and browsing through Decca catalogues from our local music shop in Tiverton, Samuel Beeston's.
And then there was Bach. Four of his organ pieces, played by Karl Richter, including of course the Toccata and Fugue, but more importantly for me the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, and the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (I think I'm remembering the keys aright), The Passacaglia was important because I understood how it worked: you start out with a simple melody in the bass, and then you just put different things over the top. And the Fantasia...well, let's have a section break and do that one in a minute.
The school also had pianos. One in particular was in a little room on its own, and I used to go in and play every chance I got, because I'd discovered the important thing about the piano keyboard. Take three fingers. Preferably your own, and no, I'm not talking about scotch. Find three alternate white notes. Play them all at once. That's a chord, and six times out of seven it's a good one. (I didn't know what to do with the seventh at that point; I didn't even know it was actually called a seventh.) I worked out that some were major and some were minor, and if you went from one chord to another it often gave a distinct impression of movement, either setting out or coming home.
I maintain to this day that if you can do that, and if you can tell the difference in sound between a major and a minor chord and the difference in sound between a "setting out" and a "coming home" cadence (that's the word for those pairs of chords; there are other words for the different kinds), you can learn to do what I do with a keyboard. Almost all the rest is just practice, and I am, gods know, no poster child for that admirable habit.
But what does this have to do with the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, a masterful work by one of the greatest exponents of the keyboard in history? Perpend. There's a bit in the middle of the Fantasia part which is just a succession of chords going up, over a bass line going down. I listened to that bit over and over again, and I worked out how to make my fingers do it, and thus I learned about the circle of fifths. (Again, not a booze reference. I just wanted to be clear on this.) The chords go: A major, D minor, D major, G minor, G major, C minor, C major, F minor, (change gear: road sign saying "Black notes ahead") F major, B flat minor, B flat major, E flat minor, E flat major, A flat minor, A flat major...and then something godsawful that I'm still not sure about, it may be a diminished chord of some sort, but that didn't matter. I'd got the idea. If you go up far enough, making a series of "setting out" cadences, you eventually arrive back where you started, only higher up. The musical world is round. Mr Harvey never even mentioned this stuff.
And I think this is probably enough for part one. Part two will follow in due course.