How we come to have music in our lives

Music. Ah, Music!

Another wonderful art form and very different from the photography I write about in these columns from time to time. Or is it different?

I was provoked to recall my own life journey in music by an article in yesterday’s The Australian newspaper, written by Matthew Westwood, entitled ‘Schooling that sings’. The article was stimulated by conductor and educator Richard Gill’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks lecture, delivered on Monday night in Sydney. It is to be repeated this coming Friday 30th November, at the Deakin Edge Theatre, Melbourne. My home in Paddington, Sydney backs on to the former home of Australian composer and critic Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), now a residence for musicians and composers. In Summer the air is filled with the sound of voices practising or instruments being exercised. Music really is in the air.


What is it about music that is so fundamental to our being? From the earliest moments of life outside the womb, mothers in every culture sing to their newborn children. They rock the new little person with a slow rhythm, while gently humming or singing in subdued tones. It’s comfort. Often the cycle of movement is half the pulse rate or around 32 – 35 cycles a minute. Little mechanical (or these days battery-powered) chimes may hang above a baby’s cot, designed to mesmerise them into calming sleep. Lullabies are found in every language and culture. Music is one of our earliest human experiences, even before speech.

In thinking about how important music has been to me in life, I quickly tracked back as I read the piece in The Australian. Pre-school in 1956 had dance and movement, played on the upright piano in Northern Heights school in London, by Miss Hackforth, I think it was. Boys and girls forced to coordinate arms and legs in time. Then we’d be assembled into a semi-circle and taught to sing along with a nursery rhyme already learned from our mothers before our schooling had even started. The Christmas pageant could be relied on to bring out our best (or worst) as we dutifully showed off our new collaborative performance skills. I do recall our triangle concert efforts were not so successful.

At the same time I was being programmed unconsciously to the sounds of my father’s ‘gramophone’. It’s what music streaming once was, only it was played from a vinyl LP! He had been the sales manager for HMV records in the nineteen-thirties. He had wined and dined all the greats of the era; the young conductor Malcolm Sargent, composer Rachmaninov and singer Chaliapin, to name just three. Booming out of my Dad’s dressing room from early waking minutes, before he drove down to the City, would be Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Wagner. No wonder my mother had confined him to his own room after 20 years of marriage. It really was very loud! I could hear it very clearly from down the hall.

Our visits to Hampstead Parish Church give me my first recollection of performance. The choir was directed by Martindale Sidwell, a musician of enormous influence for some 30 years, who combined being organist and choir master with a similar role at St. Clement Danes. Later he would form his own larger choir, performing all over London, the Martindale Sidwell Singers. At Christmas we would have the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, exposing me to soloists and harmony, and the different voices – the baritone lead in Three Kings and the angelic silence breaking of the processional treble solo from Once in Royal. I clearly remember the special glow that followed those packed events. Music was something special.


(The interior of St. John’s Church, Hampstead, London.)

My boarding school years enabled me to learn the power of the collective voice. I joined the choir at 9. As juniors our first year had us in cassocks, but no surplices. When I graduated up about five inches in height after my first year, I was allowed to use a surplice. That’s the white cover to the black cassock used by most Anglican choirs. Unless one is in a Cathedral choir where purple is the colour of the cassock. As I progressed through the ranks I tackled anthems by Dyson, Jeremiah Clark, CV Stanford and Vaughan Williams. When I was 12 in my final term at prep school I was terrified when my name was read out and I was to sing the processional Once in Royal opening to our end of year Carol Concert. But apart from nerves, all went well. The diligence and care to tutor us and to develop our love of Music was the task of a polio-striken teacher, privately wealthy, David Rowe. He would bring groups of about ten across the courtyard to his on-site residence to listen and critique a variety of music. He had a Quad amplification and loudspeaker system, along with Garrard 301 turntable and SME arm. I learned that these were the best of the best in a new word to me, Hi-Fi. This was the best possible sound reproduction. He was the first person to have stereo (two speakers/split channels.) We were IN the concert hall in his house. Here I learned of solo piano, Schubert, Brahms and many others.

When I went to High School, at Winchester College, music was just as deeply part of day-to-day life. Music appreciation exposed me to works I’d not heard at home. Britten’s Peter Grimes, as well as the musical form of the String Quartet were all new to me. Our teacher, baritone Julian Smith, exposed us to depth, tonality, programmatic music and so much more. As a national performer he could immediately illustrate, as they say today, in real time. Then we simply said, there and then! Meanwhile, with a raucous and non-stop insistence, our hall gramophone bleared out Frank Ifield, Jet Harris, The Shadows and an emerging new band from Liverpool, with the song “From Me to You” – The Beatles!

The annual house singing contest, the Bobber Cup I think it was (?) had our house master cajole teenage newly-broken voices into a semblance of unison. We tackled Schubert’s Ich Grolle Nicht as our serious piece, and did an arrangement of Lazy Bones from the 1930’s, written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. We certainly didn’t win. But it was such fun trying. I remember so clearly the advice and encouragement of legendary cellist and head music teacher, Christopher Cowan:  “If you don’t want your voice to fall flat on a long sustained note, just think sharp.” He was so right. I must have passed that advice to dozens of people over the years.

Our boarding residence or House, was across the road from Music School. The air was full of practising students, – horns, cellos, violins, pianos and voices. I joined the school men’s choir and over three years performed in Bach’s St. John Passion, the Mass in B Minor and  Vivaldi’s Gloria. There were concerts from visiting dignitaries in the town. Soprano Galina Vishnefskaya and Tenor Peter Peers and the Bournemouth Symphony gave us Benjamin Britten’s newly released War Requiem. That introduced me to the war poets and especially Wilfred Owen. 1964 was the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. The War Requiem made a huge impression. Later I used the closing Let us Sleep movement in a production of Everyman that the school produced. By then I had become the sound man at school and had assembled recording equipment to transfer and record performances. In the school holidays my father took me to hear a prom Concert at the Royal Albert Hall where they played all six Brandenburg concertos. (In those days the echo was so bad you got two concerts for the price of one.) Despite the fifty year age gap, in music we were brothers. I returned to the Albert Hall 18 months ago to hear Mahler’s great Resurrection Symphony (No. 2) in the last but one Prom concert of 2014. The illuminated blue discs, installed in the late seventies, converted the Albert Hall into a wonderful acoustic, and perfect for the extraordinary summer music festival that in 2016 will be celebrating its 122nd season, if I have calculated correctly.


I was a disc jockey in my University days, and an amateur recording engineer. I managed to produce a demo recording of Hey Jude by a new group called the Unauthorised Version, a Group of Magdalen College choral singers of sufficient quality to get them a recording contract. When re-recorded by CBS, it made no 17 in the UK hit parade in 1970. I also made special efforts to go round to the rooms of visiting Australian post-grad student, Roger Smalley to make a concert recording for University radio York. Smalley died recently in Perth having contributed greatly to music over 5 decades. Later I recorded the St. John Passion in St. John’s Smith Square with Richard Hickox as conductor and choral director and Robert Tear as tenor soloist. The resultant recording was submitted to the BBC. For Richard Hickox it gave him his first major recording contract. We had met through his work as choirmaster at my local church, St. Margaret’s, Westminster. On reflection perhaps I should have been a music recording engineer, so much of my early life was music. But again, as I was hopeless at playing an instrument and could only sing reasonably and read music moderately, it wasn’t a serious option.

By the time I was 25 I had witnessed performances conducted by Klemperer, Sargent, Boult, Mackerras, Groves, Downes, Haitink, Davis, Previn, and many other European maestros. I saw Rostropovich play cello, Menuhin play violin and Ashkenazy delight us with Rachmaninov. I lived in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank most weeks through the season. I was even at the recording session of the 3rd Symphony by the last directly connected Mahler student conductor, Yascha Horenstein. I worked in a wonderful record shop with his nephew, Mischa. I will never forget the electricity of that day in Croydon Town Hall, the venue for the Unicorn recording. John Georgiadis, then leader of the LSO, broke his bow string in the final bars; the second player in the violin desk threw his bow at Georgiadis and the recording went through to the end. Such is the passion of emotion and professionalism of inspiring performers. The show must go on, regardless. When I saw in the closing credits that Georgiadis had featured in the boutique 2012 Dustin Hoffman directed movie, Quartet about retired performers, my mind raced back to his glory days as a 40-something musical giant. Such is the travel of life.

As my own children grew up music was again pervasive in their lives. We visited the Sydney Opera House. I even saw my eldest daughter perform dance there in a young people’s performing arts festival, dressed as a punk Boy George. And if some of the other spectacles were harder to take and enjoy, I only had to look to the ceiling of Utson’s great building to seek visual stimulus.

DSCN1007 sydophse int roof_mono_blog(Roof of interior of The Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. )

The children put on concerts in our house, and combined them with dress-up events. Neighbours and their children were involved. Both performed as singers in their teens, my eldest as a soloist in Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate, no less. Later after being joint-musical director for a University performance of the musical, Guys and Dolls, which she also choreographed, she became a consummate performer of Edith Piaf songs, some of which I video recorded before she ceased singing regularly. So highly treasured. My youngest has been a part-time concert/artist promoter for six years, bringing over 200 artists together with a musician friend to over 10,000 audience members. We have also sat together in Sydney’s superb Opera House and watched the finals of the ABC Young Performer’s awards. She gripped my hand as I sobbed my way through a rising young star’s breathtaking performance of Mahler’s Der Kindertotenlieder (Songs for a departed child).sydoperahouse_normalfield_jds_8517 2_blog

(Detail of the archway at the ground entrance of the Sydney Opera House)

Our lives have been enriched profoundly by music. But it’s been through passion, enthusiasm, encouragement, and stretching our comfort zones to learn. If a record dealer, David Foulger, had not goaded me into going to a concert to hear Messian’s Turangalila Symphony in 1969, I would never have discovered the French composer’s enormous range of organ works which are perhaps the finest examples of their type from the 20th Century. And now, in later years, possibly I would not find so much solace in the magic of John Rutter’s choral masterpieces, or the eternally uplifting tones of Miles Davis’ rendition and arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime.

“If Music be the food of love, Play On,” said Shakespeare.

Let no student go without the life-enriching learning of performance and listening to music of all types. Richard Gill’s initiative so needs to be supported broadly in all Australian communities. This journey will make for a unifying link for our multi-cultural nation that can unite us like nothing else. Because it speaks from our souls and disperses our differences, in harmony. And, as it turns out, it’s a universal language that speaks to us like the great photograph.

All images and text are Copyright John Swainston, 2015. All rights reserved.