Music and Belonging

Do we own music or does music own us? We buy music, we listen to it: it exists and we make the moves. Someone writes it, someone plays it, someone records it, someone hears it. We seem to be the agents, the music the passive product.

And yet, we say, it moves us, meaning by that that it affects our emotions. We let it act on us, not just emotionally but physically, though the distinction between the two is not altogether clear. We allow music to take control when we dance or run or rest or sleep. We let it engulf us. We let it sweep us away. It is the cleanest of drugs. We say it ennobles; that all arts aspire to the condition of music.

Beyond all this, music binds us socially: we naturally gravitate to those who share our tastes, but not only our tastes, our culture, history, personal memory, prejudice and predisposition.

My parents’ musical tastes were, I suppose, middle brow in that they professed to prefer classical music to all others but their ideas of classical music were limited by the standards of sophisticated modern taste. They belonged to a record club that offered them choices. Their great loves were Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies (though, naturally, they included the Sixth) and some chosen pieces of romantic violin music. To them, these represented aspiration, fortitude, survival, and resolution. It was, I now think, the music that the Second World War taught them. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart were all great composers, of course, but, as far as I knew, most of the time their compositions did not speak to their self-perceived condition. There was serious music (what they loved), there was heavy music (it needed more concentration than they could afford and it was, in some ways, purer than they felt their lives to be) and there was difficult music (never really meant for them, it being the distant conversation of people in their own intellectual and emotional ivory towers). They preferred orchestras and solos to chamber music. They liked Italian opera but had not much time for German, indeed, in the light of the war, almost anything German was suspect, Beethoven being the one great exception to this, but then they saw Beethoven as beyond nation, as an internationalist.

I mustn’t forget light music. Johann Strauss was the bridge. They loved Strauss. They knew he wasn’t fully serious but Strauss was release and romance and fantasy, the light-heartedness of cavalier manners, a breezy flirtation with the impossible that somehow remained as respectable as the little porcelain ornaments of shepherdesses exposing a calf or indulging a kiss that almost everyone we knew in Budapest seemed to possess. One shouldn’t undervalue this: Strauss was an emotional climate in which everything worked or could be sorted out in the swish of a cloak: that was very rarely the case in their lives.

Beyond Strauss lay the entire word of operetta, that very Central European genre wherein Rogers and Astaire meets Ruritania. They knew the words of arias, and could quote passages. Next to those  they loved faintly risqué cabaret songs with double entendres sung by chanteuses and comedians with manners that operetta never countenanced. Underneath this gathered a layer of gloom, almost of impending tragedy that flowered darkly in an equally beloved form of music, the tzigeuner ballad, the Magyar nóta, that seam of Hungarian identity gift-wrapped and processed for the passions, and the wild tzigeuner dance that stirred them both but particularly my Transylvania-born mother.

Pop was trash to them. Swing music was all right, songs from the musicals were all right. Jazz was all right up to a point. They could listen with pleasure to Sinatra or Ella or Sammy Davis Jnr, or indeed Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong but that music didn’t belong to them, nor did they belong to it. Piaf was a different matter, and the French generally. They had some stake in Piaf.  They were shareholders in a voice that suggested something of their own experience to them.

I began by saying they were middle-brow which suggests a kind of blandness or laziness. They were neither bland not lazy. Far from it. Their lives were harrowed, humiliating, and threatened. Music was not comfort food: it was the noise of their private and public history.

But what of Bartók, you may ask. Or of Kodály, of Kurtág, of Ligeti? Weren’t these Hungarian composers? And didn’t Bartók and Kodály go to the very roots of Hungarian identity? Yes, but that identity wasn’t truly theirs. The noises it made came in the form of what they regarded as ivory-tower angst, and the identity to which it referred, born as it was out of villages and rural custom, arose out of ideas not experience. It wasn’t what they had grown up with. It was, partly, what had grown up in opposition to their own windblown metropolitanism. They needed the synthesis, processing and gift-wrapping of the tzigeuner version of life. They wanted an amplification of their condition, not the refined primitivism, as they regarded it, of the concert room. They were Eliot’s rootless cosmopolitans. Their notion of the ‘the people’ was closer to Hugo’s Les Miserables than to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Their minds lived in cheap apartments but had lived in both better and worse, much worse.


The first time I returned to Budapest in 1984, after twenty-eight years absence, my wife and I sat in at a restaurant in the Castle District. It was still light. As we ate a gypsy band began to play and the primás, the solo violinist, came to our table and played to her. I was in tears at the time.

Not because of the music in itself, not hearing music as music, but because of a bundle of half-digested material that I have tried to summarise above. The music was a trigger and I doubt very much it would have mattered which particular piece the violinist was playing, it was simply that he was playing this kind of stuff, in a city where everyone was speaking a language I had only heard in scattered rooms in England, in a city where everything seemed immediately familiar yet nothing was precise. The music was part of what I had walked into, a sense of life as substance, as content.

Of course I felt embarrassed and foolish. There was something creepy about the man playing sentimental musical compliments to my wife, the kind he would pay to any other woman at any other such table. It was a cheap trick with cheap music, although it wasn’t the cheapness of the music that struck me. Nor, to be honest about it, was it the cheap trick. It was the recognition that this cheapness had managed to conjure  for me the vastly extended shadows of perfectly real lives. What had it to do with him? Was it his life too?

Some sixteen years later I spent a semester as the first International Writing Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin. As everybody knows, Ireland is a singing culture. Sing in the pub, sing after dinner, sing when you’re sober, sing when you’re drunk. Individuals own the songs they sing. ‘You can’t sing that, that’s Deirdre’s song!’ someone will say. It belongs to Deirdre and Deirdre, in turn, belongs to the song. And it is a beautiful song in the way that many Irish airs are, melancholy, modulated, lost in the valley of its own ancestral, childhood memories, unlike the musical clichés of the well-known tzigeuner. What my Irish hosts sang were songs not clichés or, if we must talk about cliché, they were clichés undiminished in effect, not yet devalued, clichés with power, which is to say, they were simply loved, their associations remaining fresh, still sustaining to those who believed they owned it.

And are owned by it. The ownership is part personal-part tribal, for many others have sung and will continue to sing Deirdre’s song but not in Deirdre’s presence. The song did not have Deirdre particularly in mind when it took possession of her. It was a tribal song, a tribe that recognised and identified itself as a tribe, as only isolated and defeated tribes can and do. The song is a prophylactic. It protects. It develops its own passive-aggressive history as do the people who sing it. Hearing it is an invitation to become briefly of the tribe, to be the resistance, the memory, or rather the preferred edition of a memory that is capable of sustaining the tribe so beautifully, like a drug in fact, the purest drug that we learn to take from our earliest years. We are addicts by the time we can sing.

You see the crowds at international rugby matches rise and sway to song. ‘Flower of Scotland’, ‘Land of My Fathers’,and rather synthetically yet powerfully, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. I am moved by the people rising to their feet. Isn’t ‘the Marsellaise’ a wonderfully stirring piece of music? And what about the Italian national anthem,  ‘Il Canto degli Italiani’ a jaunty and stirring operatic chorus. As for the Hungarian national anthem, the ‘Himnusz, Isten áldd meg a Magyart’, it breaks my heart. ‘This people has suffered long enough’ it says. I don’t suppose it belongs to me now, but I can’t help belonging to it, if only when my guard is down.

Of course it belongs to many people. It also belongs to the belligerent, the xenophobe, the fascist and all those to whom it is a symbol, a flag, a weapon, a constant coat. Yeats had something to say about that in his poem, ‘A Coat’.

I  made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

No music is naked. It is clothed with lives. We are the fools that wear it and we cannot let it go. I see my father in his suit, his tie, his trilby, his raincoat. I see him shrinking in old age, remembering the words of old songs. He is wearing a coat that is bigger than he thinks. I see my mother dancing, her dress flying. It is not quite the dress she thinks it is. Then they all fly off. This is my coat, I say, but I cannot quite read the embroidery that owns me.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis