Monday, September 17, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 5: Music and Memory

“Memory is the great perturber of musical meaning. When memory is concerned, music is no longer itself; it ceases to have any proper plane of feeling; it surrenders itself wholly, with all its rights, to memory, to be the patient, stern, and terrible exponent of that recording angel. What is it? Only a few trivial bars of an old piano-forte piece – “Murmures du Rhone,” or “Pluie des Perles.” The drawing-room window is open, the children are playing on the lawn, the warm morning air is charged with the scent of lilac blossom. Then the ring at the bell, the confusion in the hall, the girl at the piano stops, the door opens, and one is lifted in dying or dead. Years, years ago! But passing through the streets, a bar or two of the “Murmures du Rhone” brings the whole scene up before the girl, now no longer a girl, but a middle-aged woman, looking back to one fatal summer morning. The enthusiastic old men, who invariably turned up in force whenever poor Madame [Giulia] Grisi was advertised to sing in her last days, seemed always deeply affected. Yet it could hardly be at what the actually heard – no, the few notes recalled the most superb soprano of the age in her best days; recalled, also, the scenes of youth forever faded out, and the lights of youth quenched in the gray mists of the dull declining years. It was worth any money to hear even the hollow echo of a voice which had power to bring back, if only for a moment, the ‘tender grace of a day that was dead’.”

(H.R. Haweis, Music and Morals, 1872)

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