Down With Music

MARJORIE RIDDELL is on the staff of a London newspaper and is the author of many liyht articles and an entertaining book, M IS FOR MOTHER.

It seems to be taken for granted nowadays that there are only two kinds of musical taste. It is quite customary to be asked, “Which do you like, classical or pop?” The assumption, apparently, is that no other choice exists. And I, for one, have grown tired of being gaped at in glassy incredulity when 1 answer, “Neither. I am neither with it nor not with it. I don’t very much like any kind of music. I am tone-deaf.”

I am not this way for want of trying, and it seems very hard that such eye-popping should be my only reward. And it is a fact that musical people have been of no practical help whatever, not in all the years I was working on my problem.

I first became aware of it at school. I hadn’t noticed it before, because my parents are tone-deaf, too, although my father says he isn’t. Anyway, music simply didn’t happen in my family. It wasn’t until I went to school and did what was called “Singing” that I began dimly to comprehend that for some people music wasn’t just something that one hurried across the room to switch off after the news.

“Ridley,” my singing mistress used to say, because she always thought my name was Ridley, “why are you using only one note? There are several in Cherry Ripe. And the one you have chosen is not among them.”

This used to amaze me, partly because I knew I was singing all the notes and partly because I could not see how she knew I wasn’t. After all, there were twenty-five of us singing.

We did dictation, too. She would play a few bars on the piano, and we would write them down in our manuscript books. When parents came to look at exhibitions of our work, I used to hide my manuscript book under my sewing, but when I went back later, someone had always moved my sewing to one side and turned it inside out to show all the knots. Not my own parents, either; they wouldn’t have bothered.

“Ridley,” my singing mistress used to say, “why have you written this in B flat?”

What could I say? I didn’t know why I had written it in B flat. I didn’t know I had written it in B flat. I would not have known if I hadn’t. I didn’t know what B flat was. I still don’t. “What is B flat?” I would ask. And she would play a few bars and say that was B flat. “Yes,” I would say, “but what is it?” She would play it again. “Listen,” she would say. So I would listen. But what was I listening for? I didn’t know.

I had an idea it was a different part of the piano, but as soon as she saw I was trying to see where her hands were, she would make me turn around. If only I had known what it looked like, the way you can say to a doctor, “It’s a round, gray ache, sort of darker in the middle and turning to silver at the edges.” But musical people don’t seem able to express themselves like that.

One day my singing mistress asked me if my parents were musical, and when I said they weren’t, she nodded and told me not to worry. 1 wasn’t worrying, but I would have liked to know what it was they were all talking about.

“Why are you beating in threefour time, Ridley? Everybody else is beating in four-four time.” Well, I had noticed, of course, that I kept crashing hands with the girl next to me, but otherwise, what difference did it make? It fitted in all right. And I could stop when the others did.

All this was nothing more than a mild source of irritation, however, and it wasn’t until I had left school that I began seriously to listen to people who said, though still without any reasonable explanation, “You don’t know what you arc missing. You should try to understand it, even if it is more difficult for you than for most people.”

So off we all went to concerts and the opera, but after three or four years I still hadn’t got the hang of it. 1 think now this was mainly because there were too many distractions, like the expressions on the faces of the audience, the rigid doll nearly pulverized by Madame Butterfly, the same four soldiers being the army in Faust, Faust himself having to go behind a quivering rock to be transformed into a young man (and coming out looking exactly the same, only now in purple velvet), the length of time it took them all to die at the tops of their voices, the question of who, among a stageful of bearded men, was the one singing, and of whether the opera was in French, or Italian, or English.

Quite the most distracting performance, I remember, was a concert. The orchestra finished a rather serious piece, and everyone relaxed and made those curious little rustlings and murmurings you get with classical music. Then they began to pull themselves together and to look expectantly toward the front, and suddenly I became aware of a change in the atmosphere. People were smiling, and then laughing, though quite quietly. The music started, and this restrained but unmistakable levity increased. The focal point still seemed to be the orchestra, but I give you my word that nobody on the stage looked any funnier than before. Nothing had happened, nothing had changed. Nobody had fallen into his drum or lost his trousers or got his head caught in his harp. I swear there was nothing. And then I saw that everyone in the orchestra who wasn’t blowing anything was grinning, too. And suddenly it was like a nightmare — this vast joke that I alone, out of hundreds of people, didn’t get.

So I turned to the man I was with and said, “What are you all laughing at?” And he said, “Ssssh!” And that was the end of that little romance, I can tell you. Afterward, when I asked him again, he stared at me in amazement and said, “But that is one of the wittiest pieces of music ever written.”

Unfortunately, I have forgotten what the piece was, but I assure you it was a perfectly ordinary example of classical music without any scorpions dancing to it or any hens singing. Disney, I have dug, but this, no.

Mind you, and I admit it, feelings between us were already a bit strained, probably because I’d asked him why an orchestra needed a conductor. “They don’t watch him,” I pointed out. “They never look at him. There he is now, flourishing his baton like a new boy scout with a flag, and not one member of the orchestra has so much as glanced up from his music stand since they all started to play. If the conductor fell off his rostrum they wouldn’t notice, provided he did it quietly.”

I’m sure this is true. I’ve seen it in movies.

And again, in the movies, when the detective stalks grimly up to the conductor, tells him the body has his fingerprints on its neck, and the conductor rushes hysterically out of the hall, the orchestra goes right on playing. Surely this means something? But musical people only get mad when you ask them what it is.

Those were difficult years. I think of them as my musical period. And now that it’s over, I’m not sorry. What really finished it, I think, was the time I went to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. I would have liked to do script writing, but being a realist I suggested I might learn to do some quite humble and off-peak continuity writing. They gave me dozens of forms to fill in, interviewed me three times, asked searching questions about my qualifications, ability, character, schooling, aptitudes, hobbies, grandparents, and childhood illnesses, and gave me a job in the music department.

This actually did not make as much difference to the BBC as you might imagine, because my work consisted mostly of sending memos to the chorus master telling him of time changes in programs which he had broadcast three weeks previously. And as the memos I sent him were copies of copies of the memos already sent to him by the department which sent the copies to me at the same time, it didn’t do as much harm as it might have, considering my typing.

However, it made a difference to me, and I was glad it annoyed them so much when I actually said “sop” and “pfte” instead of just typing them and saying “soprano” and “pianoforte”; although I could certainly have used that four-shilling annual increment which I was disallowed for having an air of flippancy.

You may have got the impression by now that I can’t tell one piece of music from another, and I must say I have often found it just as difficult to distinguish the words of a pop song as those of an operatic aria. Actually, I had given up music by the time pop came along, so I haven’t really been trying as hard as I did with classical music. I don’t really know as much about it.

When properly exploited, an ignorance of music can be quite enjoyable, as well as fashionable; there is a secret joy in telling pop people you just don’t dig classical music, and classical people that you simply cannot understand pop. Sometimes I get quite reckless and go on further to confide that my favorite pop piece is Smoke Gels in Tour Eyes, and my favorite classical piece the first bit of the first part of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, the bit that goes bom bom bom bom BOM bom bom. This causes a momentary silence in nearly any musical circle.