Well, it’s too long a story to tell here: I could cover pages on the engineering genius John Culshaw – you know, it’s weird but I’ve never stopped to ask the celebrated impressionist of the same name if he was descended from him? – and his pioneering Solti recording of Wagner’s Ring – but I don’t have enough time.
The producer Walter Legge, who married Elizabeth Schwartzkopf (or Betty Blackhead as we irreligiously and with a great sense of literalness referred to her at university when we were discovering the Golden Age of gramophone) was one of the giants of this age. Most of the greatest records being produced in the world by this time were either at the EMI Studios in Abbey Road or at Decca’s premises a little further up in West Hampstead. Abbey Road didn’t just produce the Beatles. EMI produced for Legge and his wife, the aforementioned Betty Blackhead, and for Giulini, Böhm and many of the greatest conductors in the world. I still believe Giulini’s Don Giovanni and Klemperer’s Marriage of Figaro and Böhm’s Così Fan Tutte are unsurpassed. Not that my taste matters. It was all such an adventure then, simply getting to know the repertoire.
The figure who most especially stood out as the completest musician and the performer with the most exquisite tone and taste, was, few would disagree, Dirty Fisher Dishcloth, as we dubbed Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. Poor Birgit Nilsson was Beergut Nelly, of course, and the greatest soprano of them, all, IMHO, Kirsten Flagstadt, was Kirsty Flatshag or Kristy FatSlag. How childish we were: the crudity of these names was in inverse proportion, let me assure you, to the matchless mixture of steel and radiance that marks out the great Wagnerian singer.
Music and music
With what open-mouthed ecstasy we listened to these records again and again and again. Sometimes if I so much as connect Spotify or some other music service to Twitter and a follower sees that I am listening to a piece of classical music, they will tweet something charming like “posh twat”, “Why do you listen to that boring rubbish?” or “who are you trying to impress?” I’m beyond being bothered by such tragically irremediable rudeness and intolerance, but I do hope sane, open people will give themselves time to listen to music. Classical music isn’t to be danced to, it doesn’t necessarily remind you of your first snog or your first bust up – those inestimable, moving and essential services are certainly part of popular music’s draw and connective power. Classical music, since that is what we must call it, is something else. It must be payed attention to. It is not wallpaper or “the soundtrack to one’s life” as much other music in my life (happily) is. It is Art. There, I said it and I can’t and won’t apologise for making that distinction. I’d go the gallows for it. And while you may think me an elitist, I have never in my 40 years of engaging with such music encountered the snobbery that is routine amongst listeners to popular sounds, who tell you with absolute cutting certainty that this artist is “crap” and this one is “god”. I can remember the embarrassed parties at which older teenagers would muscle up to my hopeful record deck and sneer “Haven’t you got any decent music?” Some people in the classical sphere will always prefer Couperin to Alkan or Debussy to Rossini, naturally, but it’s very very rare to find the equivalent curled lip condescension as one’s music collection or playlists are “inspected” by some self-appointed schoolboy DJ. I suppose “highlights” and endless versions of Pachabel’s Canon and The Lark Ascending might cause the odd eyebrow to raise, but not from me or anyone I’d give houseroom to. Let people love One Direction and let them love Laurie Anderson, or Mahler, Reich, Kate Rusby or Alfie Boe, but don’t they DARE make anyone feel small for their loves.
Classical music is, functionally at least, beyond fashion and outside time, (though of course it can be studied in quite the reverse way). To engage you need know nothing, only to be able to sit and listen. To make the journey and visit the places the music takes you.