The Power of Memory

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It came out of the blue. A normal journey, radio on. Pick of the Week.

Victor Hugo’s adulterous shenanigans, Queen Victoria’s dresser, Brigitte Bardot talking about a London pub. So far, so Radio 4.

And then the violin started.

It was just an excerpt, part of a thing about a concert violinist (Joshua Bell, if you’re interested) pretending to be a busker, and the effect this harmless deception had on the passers-by. A familiar story from a few years ago. A nice stunt – uplifting, if you’re in the mood.

But what stopped me in my tracks (not literally – I was driving up the A3 at the time) was the piece they selected.

The Sarabande from Bach’s 2nd Partita in D minor, as familiar to me as any violin music can be to a non-violinist – without the physical experience of playing the music, the muscle memory that connects you with it in a particular way, you are always one level more removed from it than the player, but I know it pretty well nonetheless.

I hadn’t heard it for, I should think, thirty years, but there was a time when that Bach (it has five movements: Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande, Gigue, and the monumental Chaconne to finish) was all I listened to, the one and only, on a loop at home, in the car, in my mind.

And the version I listened to, and the prime reason for the listening, was on an old BASF cassette, recorded from Swedish radio in the late 60s. It remains the only recording in existence (as far as I’m aware) of my father playing unaccompanied Bach. Which is a nice thing to have, even if the reason for my obsessive listening back then was a melancholic wallowing in grief – grief it took me quite a while to shake myself out of, partly, I suspect, because of my habit of listening to my father playing unaccompanied Bach on a loop.

Grief can be like that – circular. And, in a perverse kind of way, pleasurable.

Those opening notes, heard out of the blue like that, set my synapses fizzing – is it synapses that fizz? Something brainy, anyway – and while I was quite aware that it wasn’t him on the radio, the sound was so evocative, so linked in my memory with him, that for a nanosecond I could picture him playing it.

Which, again, was a nice thing to have.

And it set me thinking about the wormholes down which a particular sight, sound, touch or smell can send us, and their unpredictability – and a couple of minutes later, because of those connections, I suddenly felt the distinct smell of linseed oil in my nostrils, which was impossible, but also quite understandable, because while my father would be practising his violin I would be in another part of the house, lovingly infusing the blade of my cricket bat with linseed oil in preparation for the coming season, and that daisy chain, from Bach to my father to our house (which I always remember in the sun for some reason), to the heat of 1976 to linseed oil, just goes to show you what an extraordinary thing the human brain is.

Anyway. Readers familiar with my father’s playing (that dates you) won’t need telling that it was good. If you’re not familiar with his playing, might I, in an entirely unbiased way, point you towards some Mozart?

Happy New Year.

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  1. Lev, this is a beautiful post. I love it – and the playing too. It’s inspired me today. Thank you to you – and your Dad. XX

  2. I guess I am dated then because I did hear your father play… met him afterwards (more by accident than design).I can’t remember which concert it was (we students were forever getting the cheapest possible seats at anything that was something we wanted to hear live) but his name stuck in my mind.

    1. PS The Senior Cat (aka as my father) says this is the recording he likes above all others. (I think he has at least three versions of it – if not more.)

  3. I love that Mozart piece, thanks to the film Master and Commander, perhaps my favourite film, if I were pushed. To have the privilege of hearing your dad play it… it has an ‘extra-specialnous’ to it now.

    1. Thank you so much. Really don’t know where it came from – was slightly fraught because hadn’t written a post this week. And other times I sit for hours and piffle comes out. Typical. 🙂

  4. This is a lovely piece of writing and such a good start to my week. It’s been too long since I listened to any classical music and I’m reminded of what I’ve been missing. So, I’ll be busting out the CDs this week, I think. I am sure I remember seeing a BBC programme back in the 1970s about the Parikian-Fleming-Roberts? Trio; one of my early exposures to classical music. I also remember some time after this my mother coming home from taking part in a craft show/village fete (she was a lacemaker) at Waterstock and mentioning she’d met your father, which was irritating to say the least as I usually went to the craft shows and I’ve no idea why I hadn’t that time. And that’s another chain of memories

    1. Well what a small world. I don’t remember a TV thing about the P-F-R trio (such a snappy name…) but they were regularly on the radio, and also in their second incarnation as Parikian-Fleming-Milne. And I’m impressed that my father went to the craft show – civic duty is a wonderful thing 🙂

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