The writer first connected with English folk songs – but wishes he’d started violin lessons a little earlier.
My earliest musical memory would be half-remembered folk songs, sung to me when I was a tiny child. Just scraps of English folk songs, even though my parents were resolutely Australian. There was the radio of course, and hymns we sang at Sunday school when I was really young.
At one point my grandfather and cousins were getting rid of their collections of 78s and because I was known to love classical music I was given all these old boxes of records. A lot of these sets had one record missing – I suppose it had got broken along the way. Sometimes even now I find myself in a concert and I realise this is the missing bit. I was at Tchaikovsky’s Fifth last year with the Concertgebouw and I suddenly realised, this is the broken record – this is the bit I don’t know as well. Certain pieces of music have this strange kind of archaeology for me.
When I was about 14, I decided I wanted to play an instrument. I went to Sydney Church of England Grammar School and the headmaster of the prep school, a man called Mr Jamieson, played the fiddle. Sometimes instead of teaching us English and Maths he would play his fiddle in class. I loved that and thought it would be wonderful to play too. Anyway, it was much too late. I don’t have good pitch and it was all a bit of a disaster. I drove my family mad for about four years.
My tastes shift. I was knocked off my seat by Neil Armfield’s recent production of The Ring. Wagner is something I’ve really only faced in the last 20 years, but I’ve come to feel that, for all its excesses and waywardness, it’s amongst the very greatest music. For orchestral music I’d choose Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart; chamber music – again Mozart and Schubert. I think two of the greatest catastrophes for the human race were the early deaths of Mozart and Schubert – and I’d add, as a coda, also Purcell. I’m not particularly fond of French vocal music. Sometimes I wish they’d take a big gulp of fresh air, have a square meal and get over it. But German vocal music I’m fond of. I’m not really sure how open I am to fresh experiences.
I don’t play background music at home but curiously, some of my greatest listening experiences have been in the car. Years and years ago, a good friend of mine said, “never trust music in the car because everything sounds so wonderful,” but I’ve heard some great things. Put on a late Beethoven piano sonata, turn it up high and put your foot on the floor – it’s a wonderful way to cover a lot of miles.
As for the future of music, I’m always reluctant to denounce the taste and enthusiasms of the young based on any vain notion that my own generation represents the peak of cultural knowledge. That mistake is as old as recorded literature. They were saying there was a decline in interest in poetry, music, ethics and politics in Roman times – it’s a big fallacy.
There are challenges for orchestras and opera companies, particularly in a country like Australia that doesn’t heavily subsidise the arts, and those challenges are often being met in ways that look a bit naff to me – nights with pop musicians and gimmicky things like that. Well, if that’s what it takes – but I don’t sense a decline. Tastes shift and change, but in the end I think classical music endures.
David Marr is a featured speaker at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival, June 6-9