Tunnel to Bruckner



She sat in our car slightly forward in her seat. She expected to be taken. My father drove. He was the taker. He administered as would a man in thrall to number and system. He was a Bank Manager and was, I was told, the only member of the Midland Bank in North Wales who could count all three columns of pounds, shillings and pence in one look down the page. He dealt with farmers; some would come in to the branch office in Llanrhaiadr-ym-Mochnant and ask to see all the money they had in the bank. A tin trunk with loose money in it was kept for such an occasion; and solemnly the cash would be laid in piles on the mahogany counter, the farmer’s hands caressing it as if it was the last thing in the world.

But now it was a trip to Liverpool. I loved these trips; sometimes they were to Chester, and other times, more ambitiously, to Shrewsbury where we had lunch at the Red Lion. Shopping was their purpose, for clothes.Mother would look for a new two-piece suit.And in Bon Marche, I was equipped with a grey suit, with short trousers when in the lower forms of Ysgol y Green, but when in the Modern School, I had long trousers.

I sat in the back seat, observing the strange world outside. I was not used to hundreds of houses together. I was used to the village square with its Post Office, Evans the Butcher and Williams’ hardware. We came to the place with a smell of soap, Port Sunlight; the name redolent of light and modern living. And the shipbuilding site on the right, with its tall cranes and the glimpse of the part ship, its prow or stern huge against the clouds. Then the tunnel with its strange sound, a faint insistent hissing.

And hissing it does still. A grey tube in which we are inserted.Keep in lane. In the middle distance there are presences; an alive presence yet unembodied. It may be the sound of blood. In the veins of the body there must be some sound. 

Liverpool is perpetual and different and broken and not broken and dissonant and melodic and sounding in that unique accent like a tune on an instrument that existed nowhere else but in the exchange of words, wit, money, helpfulness, mutual thought and activity; a place allocated to the gift of life, the energy of breath, to the exchange of wills to live and in celebration of the day. Liverpool is in essence where we would want to be; tied to the pursuit of happiness, facing the frail, the failure of vision, yet keeping up faith and appearance in defiance of experience, looking ahead, building those ships in Cammel Laird even though there are no ships.

In that Hall which is like the inside of a Lalique vase, gold plaques on its walls like corn enriched, older men with white hair predominate in the bar area, with earnest yet subdued conversation. The human voice.A music integrated, purposive. We utter, we emit; we bring it to the world in an attempt to what is vainly called communicate; we make sounds; we try to order and assemble, we accompany ourselves with tone as we submit to the day. 

What we bring to music is as important as what music brings to us. Robert Schumann had his fixation with the young lady who created music, and so he created music in return. His Piano Concerto in A Minor came and went with a silver line of fast lyricism wrought with a fixation on the beautiful in action; she was not just attractive, she was a creator; our pianist looked like an accountant but the piece was fast and faultless as the young woman who was Robert’s only girl; pressing his extended observation and concern as one would build a house or create a statue. The piece has passion extended; it is about one thing, the being of Robert Schumann at that time.

My father survived Ypres. He came out of it, gassed and shot, in August 1917. Was this about the time that melody died?Where is tune; where is melody?It is, strangely, in Lennon and McCartney, in ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Penny Lane’, born around me here, in these streets.In orchestral writing of our time, discord prevails; the clash of cymbals; the tang of clarinet, plaintive and alone; the length of note in the French horn. There is uncertainty and disharmony.

It may be that Bruckner is the last, and the first.We have the sound of a broken sequence of generation. In 1920 we were short of young men. An emptiness prevails. The old ways, the customs of the aristocracy, are fading out.  Necessity of economics rolls like concrete down the century. But he prevailed. He was a warrior, with his strong hands and bony chin. He held a gun and shot rabbits at seventy yards. He wore his leather belt; he wore the crossed rifles of the Machine Gun Co.

And mother played at our black piano, marked Rushworth and Dreaper, another product of Liverpool; playing hymns on Sunday and through the week whatever else she could manage, touching the keys with gentleness. Robert Schumann as ghost is here.

And there, in the driver, wearing his three-piece grey suit and his brown hat, was my father, in the distance; to be relied upon; one who stepped forward when needed, who created order in the middle distance. He had his music too. Not the silver thread; not the single emotional commitment; not the lyrical under pressure of intellect. He had his Sixth Symphony. He had the real in culmination, loud and clear. He had the spirit in action; a distillation and finally the single sound.  Bruckner asks each section of the orchestra:  ‘Now show what you can do.  Do the thing you know and do it whole and clear.And loud, so that we can all hear what you are. Be yourself.  Be a man in whole.’

The single voices were there. The horn, the clarinet, the speaking of small insistence. The strings of viola and bass, strummed, picked, represented the beating of heart, continuing, standing for us all. And in this great conversation, the strings started and built up their majestic tune, flowing with certainty, moving up to a round of conviction, loud and very clear; exhaustion followed; almost as if we had said too much.

We need that. We look for that certainty. The small voice of the self with its doubt and questioning. Moving to the swinging of strings, the togetherness of dozens bowing together. Then the ultimate which is a single sound banging in the air; a wholeness announced with certainty.

Clarity and order balanced by discord. Chiaroscuro. The fragments meld. The search has echoed in sound. Unity has rippled out. 

On the return in our car, the faint hissing of the Mersey Tunnel was there again.