Why I rejoiced in Britten in the broom cupboard


The radio is almost a constant in the cottage in much the same way as it is my flat in Glasgow, which is why I’m writing this now instead of heading straight out for a walk up the valley.  This is the Britten centenary weekend on Radio 3, and although the landscape up here merits an ambient Celt type soundtrack, Britten is equally appropriate for an east coast village.

Now how the hell did a girl who was given Jim Reeves EP in her Christmas stocking (my mother’s present to herself) and spent all her pocket money on NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Fab 208 (in which George Best wrote and an advice column) come to love Britten.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to have spent time in what amounted to a smoke filled soundproofed cupboard at Inverness Royal Academy in the 1970s will know why. And if that sounds like something that merits an investigation by the Serious Case Team, it was far from the case.

It was here that our chain smoking music teachers Ninian Bowman and Ruth Grant created a salon in what was in my opinion a somewhat elitist school more interested in science and hearty sports (Mr Brennan, the Lawrencian young history teacher was one of the few glorious exceptions).

In this room we would listen to and learn about the prescribed works – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Kodaly, after all, we had some serious talent in our tiny group – the soprano Janis Kelly, as cool and beautiful as her extraordinary voice who would go on to star in Nixon in China at The Met and so much more, the tenor Harry Nicoll and John Doyle, Tony award winning director of Sweeney Todd on Broadway – not bad for a boy from Benula Road.

In this room, sometimes long after the bell had gone (a miracle in itself) we would listen to Britten , Elgar Schubert – gossip about the recording and the singers of the day such as Janet Baker,  Victoria De Los Angeles and the conversation would punctuated by words like rhapsodic and contrapuntal. I still favour those recordings from the music room’s LP library.

When Mr Bowman’s wife died leaving him with a young family to bring up, I remember him playing the Nimrod Variations and saying that this had been one of her favourites. Then tiptoeing out way after the bell had gone, leaving him at the piano play sad Schubert.

But it was the day he put Britten’s Missa Brevis on the turntable that the broom cupboard room felt as it was being engulfed by ice and fire. I am as transfixed by it today as I was on that dark December afternoon.

The Denis Brain recording of the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings was another piece high on the playlist and made all the more exotic when Mr Bowman told us that he died tragically young when his sports car (a Triumph TR2) hit a tree when he was driving back home from a recital.

Grant and Bowman were equally energetic in terms of school productions and as a choir we teamed up with our sister school at Fort Augustus Abbey (oh dear) and performed Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb – and as a Goth before her time, I was thrilled when Mr Bowman said that the librettist Christopher Smart had written in a lunatic asylum – ‘For the flower glorifies God and the root parries the Adversary; … For flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ’.

So what was I, a rebellious teenager who was the only girl in the school to get sent home from wearing a skirt that was too long, and who spent a lot of time hanging out at Tomnahurich Cemetery under the Fairy Glen doing doing in this exalted company.

Mrs Grant knew I could sing a little and insisted that I should be excused from compulsory PE ‘ because Heather needs her music’ (how right she was even ‘though I lacked the insight to realise this at the time) and although I didn’t as much as sit an O Level in the subject, more than anything, my time in that avant garde enclave has enriched and informed my entire adult life.

Which takes me back to Radio 3’s Britten fest – sometimes I cannot believe that his music thrills me in the way it does – there is no explanation, it touches my soul. And this is why it is crucial that every child should have access to music at school and not just those who are musically gifted.

Creative Scotland’s new Time to Shine manifesto for children aims to generate opportunities for young people to experience and enjoy the arts, as well as making skills and training available.  Everyone should have the chance to experience the arts at all levels – and no ticking of boxes or subsequent appraisals can ever highlight the intangible effect this may or may not have on their lives.

Without Mr Bowman and Mrs Grant taking risks, sharing their palpable joy of music in a non-elitist way, I wouldn’t be pressing the Radio 3 button today. And I’m writing this from the same kitchen, where as a surly teen, I listened to Led Zeppelin’s live on the John Peel sessions.

In the meantime, here is that glorious Britten/Pears parody by Dudley Moor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n7BCUVJkhU


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