Alan Bennett's recent play, "The History Boys," achieved resounding success in London and New York (and in Tel Aviv). The play portrays a group of clever British provincial 17-year-olds, discussing books and ideas with their teachers as they prepare for the entrance examinations to university. Not, you might think, the most promising dramatic material, but in the skillful hands of Bennett, this strongly autobiographical piece of theater proved to be hugely entertaining.
Perhaps I was especially drawn to the play because it struck a chord with me. I myself was a history boy and I recall that first heady feeling of being treated by my teachers as an intellectual equal. And, like Bennett's boys, we were encouraged to deride accepted ideas. A concept that was particularly scorned was the Idea of Progress. It was a peculiarly Victorian idea that, in parallel with economic, medical and scientific advances, there was a kind of law of history that things were getting better. Even in 1950, my first year as a history boy, when the destruction of European Jewry had not yet been sanctified as the Holocaust with a capital "H," the intelligentsia was still turning a blind eye to the gulags, Mao was a heroic resistance leader and not a mass murderer, and Pol Pot had yet to set out on his merry, grisly way - it was already perverse to accept the idea of the perfectibility of Man.
Still, while the idea of moral, political and social progress could not be sustained, no one could deny that in technology, progress had been staggering and no more so than for music lovers. For those who listen to music, progress in little more than half a century has been staggering. Like a speeded-up version of those drawings which graphically, though inaccurately, depict the artist's idea of evolution, the creature dragging itself out of the primeval swamp represented by the 78 rpm. vinyl record has, via the 33 rpm. LP, the tape cassette and the compact disc, achieved perfection. The sauropod has given way to the iPod. You can now pack on to an after-dinner mint the symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Verdi, the piano concertos of Mozart and the chamber music of Schubert with room left over, if you must, for Wagner's "Ring."
Still, you might say that the iPod is a solitary, anti-social pleasure. A digital "After Eight" cannot, after all, possibly supply the atmosphere of the concert hall. What piece of electronic wizardry can recapture that expectant hush as the conductor raises his baton, that signal for the lady in front of you to unwrap her candy, for your neighbor to consolidate his already commanding position on the armrest, and for the basketball player behind you to do his knee exercises on the back of your seat? And how can a brilliantly engineered but essentially soulless artifact show compassion for the principal beneficiaries of symphony concerts, the National Association of Consumptives? Musicologists report that moderate coughers will generally leave it to the more bronchially afflicted to punctuate the sotto voce passages, but will joyfully explode in a show of pulmonary solidarity at the close of each movement.
Yet, creature of habit that I am, I continue returning to the concert hall. That there are social reasons for going to concerts I cannot deny, but there is more. Perhaps it is the ever-present possibility that I will hear something memorable, something unpredictable that no recording can provide.
There have been concerts the recollection of which will stay with me for the remainder of my life. I was in Jerusalem at the end of the '60s as I listened with mounting excitement to the electrifying performance of Schubert's "Trout" quintet by five young prodigies - Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pre and Zubin Mehta. Nor will I ever forget the "libera me" of Montserrat Caballe in the Verdi Requiem in Tel Aviv a few years ago, which so inspired me that I went back to hear it again the following day.
But all pales in comparison with what proved to be perhaps the most historically significant concert of all time. Only the performance of the "Ode to Joy" at the fall of the Berlin Wall could compare to the BBC Promenade Concert on August 21, 1968 - the day that the Prague Spring ended. As the tanks of the Warsaw Pact rolled into the Czech capital, the USSR State Symphony Orchestra performed at the Royal Albert Hall.
They cannot have felt comfortable appearing anywhere in the West that evening. But with a timing as spectacularly maladroit as it was unintentional, the musicians' woes were aggravated by the program, advertised months in advance. They could hardly have made a worse choice. The principal work was the Cello Concerto of Antonin Dvorak, symbol of Czech national aspirations.
There was a sullen mood in the audience that evening and there were catcalls from the gallery. But then everything changed. The soloist was none other than the pride of the Soviet Union, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This was six years before the maestro left Russia for the West. We could not know how he viewed the actions of his government. What right, we thought, had a Russian to play a work suffused with Dvorak's love of his country on that evening of all evenings? That Rostropovich was aware of the irony was evident from the start. Only a few bars in, the great artist let us know what he felt. There could be no misunderstanding of what his famous Stradivarius cello, the "Duport Strad," was telling us. In tears, he made that instrument sing on behalf of freedom for the Czechs. It was a piece of history and everyone who was present that night felt himself uniquely privileged.
For lovers of music of all kinds there surely cannot be a better time than now. So I am being more than my usual curmudgeonly self in discovering a dark lining to this particularly silver cloud. Please do not think I am complaining, but I have to say, in a still small voice that, with the advent of all this stunning technology, and the easy access to the greatest artists, something has been lost. We have become spectators instead of participants. We no longer play football, we watch it. We have given up reading aloud to our family circle, we watch TV. And in music, we do not play or sing -- we listen.
I cannot play an instrument; I never learned. I am listening now to the Beaux Arts Trio playing the exquisite Schubert Piano Trio, Opus 99. The pleasures of music cannot get better than this. And yet, what would I not give to be able to play chamber music with like-minded friends? There can surely be no greater artistic experience.
But until I succeed, whether in this incarnation or more likely in the next, in playing the clarinet in the Brahms Quintet, I shall have to be satisfied with listening to it on my trusty iPod. Not too bad a compromise.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now