I heard on the radio that Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, the singer, has died at the age of 90. I will always hold a particular affection for her, because she, unknowingly, helped me and my mother through a dreadful year.
1970 – in brief, my father died suddenly in January, all his possessions were valued for death duties* and a few weeks later a company he had invested many thousands of pounds in lost its entire value (tax still payable), then my sister was involved in a serious and agonising accident, which nearly killed her. And then my mother was badly scalded. Me? Oh, I was fine, accidents never happen to me.
*Inheritance tax is still charged – at 40% – but nowadays you are not expected to pay tax on your spouse’s effects. In those days, furthermore, a house and capital was often in the husband’s name – so he was deemed to own everything.
On an impulse, my mother bought a record called ‘Elisabeth Schwartzkopf Sings Operetta’ – I knew nothing about opera, or the operatic style of singing .. it seemed a bit screechy to me. Growing up in the town of Benjamin Britten’s birth – his father was my father’s dentist and my dad used to hear young Ben practising the fiddle during the school holidays – this seems wrong, but hey, it was the 60s, think of the music. I didn’t need opera.
But this record struck a chord (as it were) with us both. We played it over and over, daily, more than daily – when it ended we would lift the needle and start it again. It kept us going, uplifted us and somehow enabled us to carry on. The music was quite light – late 19th Century Viennese operetta; Lehar, that sort of thing. It was very low-brow for her, but it was just what we needed then and, for the future, provided me with a light introduction to the sort of sung classical music that I have loved since.
When my mother was terminally ill I couldn’t listen to music that challenged me. The three CDs I listened to most were Prokofiev (particularly the Lieutenant Kije suite), Hoagy Carmichael and Bix Beiderbecke. Don’t know why. But they helped me through a difficult time too.
Music is an arrow straight into one’s memory. Like a scent, it goes beyond conscious remembering and takes you back, vividly, to a time or a place. And it hits your emotions, where words and deeds can’t always reach.