My grandmother died during the night, the last of her generation of my family. She was poorly, but had been so many times before and had shown an extraordinary resilience in bouncing back from the brink, although it seems that the fight was too much for her this time. When I last saw her she was quite frail and unwell, as you might expect from somebody in their mid 90s, but still bright enough to engage in short but cogent conversations, her opener to me being “How are tricks?”. I spent the day at her bedside and had an angry “life is too short” moment with myself, especially as I had ummed and erred about cancelling a day’s teaching in order to go back to Cheltenham to visit her. It is safe to say that I had my priorities all out of shape back then, but that experience was a significant shove in the direction of ditching the teaching, so it goes without saying that I am grateful to her for that. I knew then that I would not see her again, so took the opportunity to say goodbye and, of course, am glad I did so.
As a composer I should probably produce some kind of musical tribute, though I did not do so with my other grandparents, and do not feel the need to do so here. Music written through raw emotion can very often leave something substantial to be desired in terms of quality, and you barely need to stub your toe these days without some composer somewhere writing a Lament about it, a few notesmiths being particularly bad in this regard.
I decided many years ago that I would not write a Requiem, for there are more than enough great ones in the world already and I would have to be firing on all cylinders to approach them. However, this does not stop writers churning them out, as if appending the title Requiem somehow allows one to get away with all sorts of second rate scribbling simply because the music supposedly comes from the heart.
If you play for many funerals and memorial services, as I do, you will come to hear your share of the literary equivalent of this, the poem written by the recently bereaved family members, something which is almost always a bad idea, not just because these people are grieving and thus usually unable to get to the end of the opus, but also because the poem itself is not of the greatest merit. Genuinely heartfelt it most often is, but this is poetry written by those who have never written a poem at a time when their critical abilities are at their most compromised by emotional stress. Tributes are normally far better.
One of my favourite books is Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann, something I studied for German A-Level, back when exams were hard. At that impressionable age, and still now, I must admit, I saw myself in TK, the boy who was a mix of northern European reserve and southern European abandon and unable to make the twain meet, the result being somebody who created. There is a scene in which Tonio talks about those who stand up at social gatherings to read out some poem they have written, after which there is an embarrassed silence, as if the reader has crossed over a line. It is a fool, says Tonio, who thinks they can take a leaf from the tree of Art without paying for it with their life, for it is not a gift but a curse.
It may be overblown, but I agree with Mann. I once told a friend that I write because I simply can’t not write, and I think my life would be much more simple and calmer without all those musical struggles. However, a composer I am, whether by choice or by destiny, but I simply cannot find it in me to produce the Laments, Elegies, Threnodies and the like which often bamboozle with their sentiment, leaving musical considerations far behind.
No poem here, then, and probably no piece of music either for my grandmother, but instead a lesson learned. Life stands or falls on the decisions one makes and the correct decision is by no means always the easiest. After seeing her for the last time I travelled back to London and handed in my notice at the various schools where I taught. This, I think, of all the legacies will be the one I value most, that I am now a composer. Here’s to you, Joan, and thank you.