December 13th, 2005


Reeding in the dark

Last Wednesday night's CCO concert (in a local nursing home) included "Gabriel's Oboe", by Ennio Morricone, from the film The Mission. Described by one reviewer as "one of the most serene tunes in film music history", the piece is the sort of thing to make it into Classic FM's lists of 'most relaxing classical tunes ever' (as recommended for the over-50s); it's certainly not my usual listening-matter, in fact it's the type of thing I'd probably disregard as lift-music ... were it not for the distinctive sound of the oboe.

How do you describe the sound of an oboe? "Bright and unique", says one writer; "strong" and "easy to pick out" says another. Elsewhere, the sound is described as "beautiful, sweet, haunting" (listen for yourself there and elsewhere and see if you agree). Some of these writers attribute the oboe's "haunting" quality to its descent from "pastoral" instruments such as the shawm, and while I'm as reluctant to subscribe to this sort of romanticized pastoralism as I am to resort to indescribing it as "indescribable", I'm not convinced I can do any better.

However, I do know why the sound of the oboe is particularly magical for me. It goes back to my school Carol Services (which were, essentially, over-produced talent shows for the sort of schoolchildren whom addedentry would probably regard as irredeemably middle-class). I loved the yearly ritual: the term of intense rehearsals finally crowned by four performances (one dress-rehearsal and three 'proper' performances), and for all its pretensions, the school extracted some impressive performances from its pupils. The programme varied from year to year, but there were some staples without which it simply wouldn't have been the Carol Service; and one of these was the performance, on oboe (with piano accompaniment), of Peter Cornelius's beautiful carol "Three Kings From Persian Lands Afar", with the oboe playing the solo melody and the piano acting as the accompanying chorale. For those few minutes the entire school and congregation was spellbound, holding its breath while some young bespectacled oboeist seemed to shine in the halo of the spotlight. I fell in love with each one of those oboeists for the duration of their solo, hanging on the yearning sound produced by their every breath, barely daring to breathe until the last memory of their final note had died away.

The CCO's oboeist, a lovely young man called James, laughed at me when I confessed that his solo part in "Gabriel's Oboe" always brought tears to my eyes, and I laughed it off as one does. I don't know to which Gabriel the title refers, but my mind made its usual associative connections. We may have been jostling for space in a room that was bright and heavy with light and heat, over-decorated with enormous glittering baubles and tinsel; but for a few moments, every ear in the room was focused on that single melody -- the sole star visible in a dark sky, a clear annunciation.

To put one brick upon another

It is useful to be reminded sometimes of the error of my largely unexamined assumption that everybody wishes to contribute something useful to society over and above their presence in it.

It is useful, because I believe (without being able to prove it) that people have some kind of inherent worth, not contingent on the scale of the contribution to society that we (using our own system of measurement) perceive them to be making, which I would struggle to describe or quantify but am wary of accidentally discounting; because I also believe that (by and large) people have to decide for themselves what motives or morals guide them; and because for me to make these unstated assumptions about other people comes perilously close to projecting my own value system on to them in a way that I would prefer not to do.

However, it is also disheartening, not because I want other people to believe or act differently, but because of the effect their stance has on my confidence in my own position. I feel that I could and should (and in some cases even do) contribute to society in excess of the gift of my existence, and yet I am often frustrated by how little I do contribute; so to see other people explicitly disavowing any interest in giving or doing any more, and being content and happy (which are two different things) in that position, makes me wonder if I am going about things the wrong way. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing to wonder; but it deflates, it undeniably deflates.

To every sentence accrues a thousand unstated assumptions.