May 072008

Whilst campaigning in the 1980s against the nuclear deterrent, my father befriended a fellow pacifist, the late English composer Robert Simpson. Although politically interested, I was far too young to appreciate their political bond, which was in fact rooted in a love of great music. But I well recall my father recounting to me, when I was no more than ten years old, something Simpson said to him about nuclear war. Simpson’s greatest fear about nuclear annihilation, at a time when the superpowers of the day held in their hands the power to eliminate planet earth seven times over, was not the extinction of species, or even mankind, but a terror that the scores of Beethoven’s precious and timeless symphonies could be destroyed forever.I must admit, to a young teenager more interested in beer and girls than the intricacies of classical orchestration or even war with the Soviets, this profound thought was somewhat wasted on me. But as I sat in the Royal Festival Hall on Friday evening listening to a staggeringly talented 28 year old Greek conductor (unusually, in her profession, a woman), Stamatia Karampini conducting the London Philharmonic playing the Overture to Wagner’s epic ode to love, Tristan & Isolde, I think I knew what Simpson meant. No less so when the truly brilliant Norwegian pianist, Sigurd Slattebrekk, played the Grieg Piano Concerto as though he had just discovered the meaning of sound itself.I have long felt that those who yearn to save our wondrous planet have so much in common with those who truly appreciate and honour great music. Yet their worlds have too seldom collided. Environmental gurus revere Dylan and other popular cultural relics (albeit great ones) of the sixties. Classical music buffs are too concerned with the greatness of Mahler or Mozart to worry themselves about natural beauties like the turquoise mot-mot or the orangutans of the Asian rainforests. How I wish the two groups could combine (Classic FM is after all the most successful commercial radio station in the UK) and pool their common interest in the survival of all beauty on this earth for our common good. My father died, last year, at 92, having divided his life between journalism, political activism, poetry and the theatre. Perhaps a sub-conscious attempt to reconcile his concern for the people of this earth with the wonders they inherit in the arts. He lived long enough to see my passion for the survival of both our natural world and the musical culture that sustains its human habitants. In our day to day corporate lives, I wonder whether we would not all benefit from a little less time on email and a bit more energy devoted to the things, man-made and natural, that surely hold the key to our long term survival. On Friday night, listening to this heavenly sound flow from the orchestra, I would have deleted even the most important work email. Because in the grand scheme of things, it could not possibly have mattered. It reminded me always to remember the things that really count, be they sights or sounds.  If you don’t believe me, listen to that Wagner overture before you browse one more web-page today. It’s truly worth saving. It’s hard to believe anyone who heard it would engage in the carefree destruction of the planet that gave it life. Humanity has become the planet’s resident expert in waste. Some things are simply too good to waste, and the music that has survived generations is one of them. It represents natural beauty of a kind that only a nuclear holocaust could extinguish. In that sense, it is stronger than the vulnerable species that stand on the brink in the face of our wanton destruction.

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