I’ve no great talent when it comes to music. I came with a musical ear of reasonable quality, which allows me, if I’m not mistaken, to sing in tune to any song in the alto soprano voice range and to appreciate a good lyrical song or piece of music.
But I wasn’t blessed with the kind of musical genius associated with Johann S. Bach or Wolfgang A. Mozart for example. So no operas or even a simple song were penned by me at a tender age, or at any age for that matter. No, I, with my musical ear endured years of plugging through piano pieces, right hand, left hand and then hands together, line by line, page by page until I finally gave up at grade 8, realizing that it was a farcical waste of time. I’d never be a pianist and to this day I haven’t enjoyed the instrument in any shape or form.
Despite all this however, when I think back over the important stages of my life, there is always one song or two that stands out and defines my milestones in time.
Contrary to my own children who have all the music videos they desire at their disposal on YouTube, as a very young child, in my house, there was only one children’s music record that was played over and over on the old player sitting on the sideboard in the dining room as my siblings and I played. I can’t remember the name of the record but I do recall the song that never failed to make me laugh. Of course it’s “The Laughing Policeman” and I believe if anyone can listen to the entire song without at least smiling, they have no fun in their heart at all!
The first record that I could call my own marked an introduction to girlhood. Delivered by Santa Claus, it was a step into the musical world that only my babysitter Sharon knew about. I never really understood what she told us about The British Charts but it did sound cool and when I was at a loss as to what to ask for, I went along with the recommendations of my friend Carrie, and received Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album. It didn’t disappoint.
Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush rocked me through adolescence and in university I buzzed to the entirely different sounds of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and The Smiths “Girlfriend in a Coma”.
I turned my ear to the European tones of French musique when I fell in amour pour la première fois. From those days I remember among others, George Brassens and “La Petite Marguerite”.
And then I met Carlos, my husband. He introduced me to Woody Allen and he still reminds me how I cried out in the English class, (in which I was his teacher), one day,
“I hate Woody Allen!”
Thanks to him, I discovered one of my favorite films, “Radiodays”, which plays great music classics of the forties and fifties. But the song that most stands out from that period of my life (meeting my husband to be) has to be, “When You’re Smiling”, which features in another Woody Allen classic, “Mighty Aphrodite”.
Then came our children. To contrast with my one-record-for-all exposure to music, when we take long road trips in Spain (six hours, Spain is a big country and the aunts, uncles and cousins live very far away), we all take turns requesting songs on the phone. Pablo, the rock fan, has always asked for “Cadillac Ranch” by Bruce Springsteen but his tastes are changing and now Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and ACDC’s “Thunder” feature more often. Ellen’s songs are constantly “Lavendar’s Blue” from the 2015 version of Cinderella and “Let it Go”, no reference needed. Well the girls’ turns are worth double really because they both benefit from each other’s similar tastes in music, for now at least. Ana Maeve invariably requests “Tomorrow” from Annie, and the version she prefers comes with the bonus of a clip from the film too.
The only era that’s left so far in my life is the Breast Cancer one. The era that I’m living patiently day by day now. It is the most challenging time of my life so far. Not because of the operation in itself, that was a piece of cake. But coming to terms with the loss of a body part and the consequent change in my image has taken its time. Enduring the suffering this needfully must cause and confronting disease and its overall significance has been a huge wake-up call for me. A call to assess and re-assess the meaning of my life, my purpose and my relationship with God.
My spiritual searchings have been exciting, fervent and I feel, in a way, lucky to have been woken up sooner rather than later.
And of course, there must be a musical piece that defines this all-important time of my life. Well I think there will be many more tunes as it’s a long road to recovery from cancer. But up to now there has been one piece that I listen to frequently and when it’s not actually playing I can hear it in my head.
I first heard it over a year ago. And even then it resonated deeply with me, like a not-so-subtle forewarning of what was to come. So, I wasn’t being melodramatic in deliberately searching out a tune, that was sad to the extreme. Simply, in the moments of profound realisation of what all this means, all I want to hear is this piece of music.
It is the Cantata number 106, also called “Actus Tragicus” by Johann Sebastian Bach. He wrote it when he was 22 years of age (true musical genius) for a funeral of an unknown entity, perhaps his uncle, perhaps a local politician in the town where he was on commission at the time. It is no accident that he was a devout Lutheran Christian and so the true meaning of death, according to his beliefs, was contained in the music, surely pouring out from the depths of his musically talented soul, and the words, borrowed from the Bible and Lutheran hymns.
I find the sadness of dying (or suffering through your own illness or alongside a loved one, or the loss of a partner or a mother, a daughter, or just feeling the pain of being lost in life) is fully contained within the crying recorders in the introduction. Hope is repeatedly expressed by the soprano singing, “Ja, ja, ja komm Herr Jesu komm” and utter humility in the final “Amen”.
Now I know why I studied German in secondary school. Singing this as part of a choir (my tuneful but too soft voice wouldn’t allow for any solo performances) has unfolded a new unticked box on my list of things I would like to accomplish in life.
It’s not a piece for every stage in life. If you’ve just had a baby or recently got married or engaged or have changed jobs, I doubt it will resonate with you but I think it will pluck the heart and soul strings of everyone at some time in life. It takes over 21 minutes to listen to the four movements of one of the versions I like but in my opinion it is worth every second. (Look beyond the seventies attire and hairstyles and watch the scrolling version with lyrics if preferred here).
And when you’re finished there’s always “The Laughing Policeman”. Enjoy!