The line ‘If music be the food of love play on,’ always brings a smile, especially when I think about my mother. She was a music fan, a lover indeed, and the words from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night were something that she truly, deeply believed in.
Our house was never quiet when mum was around, as the sounds of opera singers and orchestras drifted merrily from big 331/3 rpm records that were treated like family heirlooms. They were her pride and joy, and she loved nothing more than tearing the cellophane from a new disc and placing it gently on the turntable. I remember the look of anticipation on her face as the needle dropped, scratched and hissed momentarily, before the strains of violin, piano, quartet or singer made her smile the broadest of smiles. It was transfixing, and one of my earliest, and happiest, memories.
Growing up with such a lover of music I was encouraged to get involved, and for many years I took piano lessons. Although I practised hard and often felt my mum’s hand gently squeeze my shoulder as she whispered ‘That’s nice, really nice,’ I knew that I was never going to be the next Mozart. It didn’t matter to her as long as I tried, but I grew to love the Austrian maestro and his wonderful works. Of all the great composers she introduced me to on my musical journey Mozart’s warm, inspiring and exuberant music is something that has stayed with me, and for that I will always be happily in her debt.
Mum’s parents were not themselves musically inclined, but she told me that they were always enthusiastic for her. They brought her to singing lessons, and concerts when they came to town. She remembered getting a record player that had to be started with a winding arm, and a box of new needles. The records were heavy, black vinyl plates that all too often became scratched and cracked. And so she spent hours in record shops and got to know the best places to go, and sometimes the owners gave her records for free because they knew she loved the music. She collected music by all the great composers and she was as knowledgeable of classical music as anybody I ever knew. I found a few of her old records recently in the attic, the sleeves dusty and torn, and I wondered how many times did she slide them out and put them on her record player. Countless, no doubt, I thought, and gently brushed them clean before putting them beside my CD collection. They may have looked awkward but their content was no different and just as enlightening.
As I grew up pop and rock music became a bigger part of my life. I listened to the radio and discovered The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and countless other bands that I now cannot remember. The music made an impression, be it good or bad, and it was discussed endlessly with friends late into the night – our musical rite of passage. Some of us were fans of one band or another and we took great delight in defending our own personal favourites. We were committed to the music and I came to understand why my mother had such a love of this mystical medium. It was something that I could not touch, taste or smell but I could most certainly feel it. It could inspire and lift the soul and express a sadness that words could never hope to do. The magic of music is wonderful and it always had the power to surprise and make me feel better.
Years later I often took my mother to concerts in the National Concert Hall (NCH) nights out that I remember fondly. One particular one stands out, and the more I think about it the more I understand her love of music. It was a Mozart Night and the foyer was abuzz with excitement long before the start. We sat and had a drink, and my mother was bubbling excitedly looking at the happy faces and listening to the friendly conversations around her. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she said, and I grinned a reply.
I led her to our seats and she immediately leaned forward and looked over the balcony at the milling crowd below and the stage beyond. Then she sat back, clasped her hands tightly and nodded her head slowly in response to some inner rhythm. When the seats were filled the lights were dimmed and the performers took the stage. A silence descended and you could almost hear the audience breath as one before the music began. It opened with a rousing version of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro that was loudly applauded. Then we had some beautifully played piano concertos and the delicious Clarinet Concerto which is my own personal favourite.
Every so often I would glance at my mother and see the concentration and happiness on her face. But it was not until the singers took the stage that I saw what I can only describe as a transformation. My mother was an old woman, in her eighties then, but the singing seemed to unlock something within her and I was privileged to see it. During the Sull’aria, from the Marriage of Figaro, I heard my mother singing very quietly, like the whisper over my shoulder a lifetime ago. I had never heard her sing like this before and I was immensely proud. And when I glanced at her again I didn’t see an old woman sitting beside me but a young girl lost in music, bright-eyed with her life to live. When it finished she smiled at me and it took all the strength I had not to cry. It was a magical moment, and I’m sure even Mozart would agree that he had struck the right chord and that music is indeed the food of love.