My mother advised me that Tchaikovsky was ‘chocolate box’ music.
Jani Allan grew up in a household where pop music was banned. She was raised on a strict diet of Chopin and Hanon. At ten she was a classical pianist and child prodigy. Stan Katz played her the Bee Gees every morning on 702 during their courtship. She set the soundtrack when she returned to South Africa as a talk-show host on Cape Talk.
Music expresses the quintessence of life and its events. It is precisely this universality that gives music the high worth that it has as the panacea for all our woes.
Forget paracetamol and don’t even think about calling the doctor: listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, so they say, is the quick route to feeling better.
According to a survey carried out to mark BBC Radio 2’s Faith in the World Week, whose theme was the “healing power of music” in a poll of 1,000 people, nearly 90% of respondents agreed that listening to music can make people feel perkier when they are sick or are under the cosh.
Music speaks crescendissimo about the civilisation in which it is birthed.
Mozart perfectly reflects the polished perfection of Salzburg. Don Giovanni is a direct reflection of the culture in which it was created.
“What is their music?” is the question asked in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In some way, knowing ‘their music’ enables you to know them.
The dictionary describes music as “an art form consisting of sound and silence, expressed through time. It is a system for writing musical sounds with their pitch, rhythm, timing, volume, and tonality.”
That’s the clinical definition.
According to Schopenhauer music “stands alone, quite cut off from all the other arts.”
“Music affects the innermost nature of man powerfully. It is deeply understood by him in his most secret consciousness.”
Music’s power, according to Schopenhauer, lies in the fact that in music we do not recognize the copy or repetition of any idea that exists in the world.
This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself.”
Our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit world which speaks to us directly, and to clothe it with flesh and blood, i. e. to embody it in an analogous example. Which is a great misconception and a piece of utter perversity;
Cintra Wilson once said
‘You can hear the longing for fame in your stomach when listening to your favourite music; you can feel your spirit reaching towards your ultimate greatness, and the intrinsic undertow of millions of arms reaching out to embrace you, begging for you to come into their love….”
Music can indeed make you unfold like a flower fast-forwarding in a nature video.
My mother was a classical music snob. My first musical memory must be when I put my hand through the mangle of the washing machine. My mother first put Chopin’s Preludes on the record player and then me on her lap.
“Listen to that piano playing,” she ordered.
Alfred Cortot’s brilliant technique sliced Chopin into lacework which swirled around the room.
When I began to play the piano I was astonished to realize that black marks on a staff, when interpreted, could make one’s heart sing or weep depending on the intervals. Perfect fourth. Optimism. Perfect Fifth. Triumph. Minor third. Uncertainty.
I would dance around the sitting room in my pink ballet tights and matching pink headband to Tchaikovsky. My mother tolerated it but advised me that Tchaikovsky was ‘chocolate box’ music. The musical equivalent of Tretchikoff.
Recently Lana Del Rey sang Once Upon a Dream to the music of Tchaikovsky and all the satin ballet slipper memories came glissando-ing to me.
Growing up, I was not allowed to listen to pop music. My days were devoted to two hours of Hanon (for technique) and a further two of practicing the piano. When I was 16, on my way home from a piano lesson, I bought my first seven single. It was “See Emily Play” by Pink Floyd. It was an act of rebellion.
After lights out I would listen to John Berks broadcasting out of Lourenco Marques on my transistor radio hidden under my pillow.
He played ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone,’ by the Temptations (I loved the way he talked over the opening bars), Matthew and Son and ‘Never my Love” by the Association.
On Friday nights there were what were called ‘sessions’ at the Lemon Squeezer in Victory Park. A band called The Staccatos sang ‘Cry to me’ and the Peanut Butter Conspiracy closed the evening with ‘In the Midnight Hour.”
Eventually my mother gave up trying to stop me listening to pop and admitted that ‘Obladi Oblada’ was quite catchy. She also liked ‘Eleanor’ by the Turtles.
My memories of Hillbrow were driving in the car with the top down and listening to Talking Heads ‘Swamp” on our way to see Ella Mental or Via Afrika or Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mnchunu. Hillbrow was edgy but not dangerous. Someone once offered to sell me some grass. I thought he meant a grass mat. Later I would listen to Otis Waygood Blues band and of course Alvin Lee, the fastest guitar player in the world, The Allman Brothers, Rodrigues, Cream…
There was a curious innocence in our jorling.
When I was sent on assignment to Cape Town there was the thrill – it never grew old – of landing at D.F. Malan, finding a hire car and putting on The Cars ‘Heart Beat’ City.
Once I saw George Benson in Cascais. I became quite emotional and had to remind myself to breathe when he sang ‘In Your Eyes.’ That was back in the day. These days I am more Leonard Cohen than George Benson.
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
A Canadian writing the musical narration of the biblical tale of David and Bathsheba. Now that’s what I call music.
The most exhilarating music of all was that played at the Last Night of the Proms which is held at the Royal Albert Hall every end of summer. There is wit and funning in ‘Sea Shanties” and gungho British nationalism in Land of Hope and Glory. You’d have to be tired of life not to respond to this music on a visceral level.
When I was dating Stan Katz and he was station manager of Radio 702, he would play me a song every morning on his show.
It was the Bee Gees – You Win Again.
As my playout song on Cape Talk I decided on ‘United we Stand’ by the Brotherhood of Man.’
For united we stand
Divided we fall
And if our backs should ever be against the wall
We’ll be together, together, you and I…
I was sanguine about the country in those days.
Write in and share the soundtrack of your life.
A wonderful and evocative piece, Jani, you capture the mysterious and primal hold music has over us. When I got to the paragraph about the “Perfect Fifth” and the “Minor Third”, I wondered to myself, will Hallelujah get a mention? And lo and behold, it did! Thank you for the memories. Keep on playing the music!
Ciao bella …… you have a delicious way of telling a story ….about anything.
I love all music with the exception of rap and heavy metal, or any song with a boring melody. Music should be declared the 8th Wonder of the World. It’s magic.
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Benjy Mudie said:
Great piece Jani, anyone who namechecks ” See Emily play” gets a place in rock heaven ….mine was Jimi Hendrix`s ” Purple Haze” The use of the tritone or flattened fifth in the song was regarded by the papal authorities as ` diabolus in music`- “to play it was like ringing Satan’s doorbell” Just up my then Catholic schoolboy`s street !
Jani Allan said:
Benny! How great to get a message from you! Bless
Brilliant piece Jani and thank you for sharing this treat. I was very interested to read this after listening to your People of Note interview on Fine Music Radio. Your mother’s attitude to popular music reminded me of a scene in Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicide Diaries where the daughters reluctantly burn their records.
Gee van Veijeren said:
Beautifully captured, stylishly expressed. The Ms Jani I adore.
You knock on the door saying,
but don’t bother to buy insurance,
you have already died…