Sunday 15 January 2012

Serendipity and the Shivers, by K.M. Grant

Serendipity plays as great a part in a novelist’s life as planned research. I was reminded of this through a contribution to the elegant, provocative and completely independent (no advertisers, no sponsorship) Scottish Review, an on-line newspaper edited by the inimitable Kenneth Roy.

The contributor is Michael Elcock, born in Forres, who made his career in Canada. In the winter of 1986/87, he and his wife, Em, visited Prague and saw a ‘subjugated, fearful people living in a cold, grey city devoid of spirit’ but Em managed to get the last two tickets for the Christmas concert in the Dvorakhalle, the Prague opera house. This is what they witnessed:

‘The magnificent old Bohemian concert hall, with its crystal chandeliers and plush seats, was packed. The concertmaster came onto the stage in a magnificent red jacket, and spoke to the children in the audience. A lady beside us translated. “All the children have brought bells,' she explained. “The concertmaster is telling them that they must not ring their bells until he gives the order. On no account.”
The musicians played magnificently. The choir sang beautifully. The children rang their bells with an attention to the concertmaster's instructions that would have been rare in western Europe; only when the conductor told them to and at no other time. When the concert was finished the concertmaster came to the front of the stage and stood for a moment, looking over the audience. Then he made an announcement in a soft voice. An audible gasp went through the hall. Even though we spoke no Czech we could feel an electricity in the great old hall.
We turned to the lady beside us, our translator. “We are going to sing the Czech national anthem,” she whispered. “We are not allowed to sing it; not since the Russians came, not since the Germans before that. It has been banned for years.”
The orchestra began to play and everyone stood, and we stood with them. The voices rose until the crystal rang in the chandeliers overhead. We did not know the words, but that didn't matter. The music was uplifting and ethereal and as we looked around we could see that there were tears running down all the faces. It was a remarkable thing and we were there.’

I haven’t witnessed anything quite like that. As for many History Girls, my shivery moments have mainly come through seeing or touching something old, thus feeling, rather than seeing, history. I had a major shiver, for example, during a visit to the Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where my older daughter and I were allowed to turn a medieval page or two and see the elephant in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Maiora in the flesh, as it were.  If you see it, you'll see it's very fine.

Music, though, produces shivers in a different league. I wish I’d been present at the first performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony. The dominant to tonic chord sequence, not even in the expected key must have been a real shocker. I like to think I’d have recognised the composer’s genius straight off, but would I? Perhaps I’d have been appalled since I don’t think, despite my best efforts, I’m actually very good at novelty. I’ve only just come round to patent shoes and block colours. Nevertheless, whether I liked Beethoven’s innovation or not, I’d certainly have had that shiver, and been glad I was there. I also wish I’d experienced Queen in one of their early concerts, perhaps in Liverpool in 1979. Missed opportunities make me shiver, too.

Queen, 1979 album cover

But one opportunity was not missed. In March 2000, my husband and I went to an extraordinary performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Murray Perahia at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. What was it about that concert? I don’t really know. The music was familiar, the pianist too. Yet it was a shivery thing from start to finish. People who went still ask ‘were you there?’. As a result of these shivers, I began to listen to the Variations rather compulsively and, inevitably, to set them into a novel. And even that’s not quite enough. In a dotty way, I now want to master at least the mechanics, an ambition more doomed to failure than the HS2 project. I’m not, of course, expecting to be able to shiver with delight at my playing, nor even to experience a connection with Bach, who would certainly shudder at my awful technique. Just to feel the shape of some of the Variations under the fingers will be enough. My vague and bumpy progress can be found on my blog, and very vague and bumpy it is too. Don’t worry, though, if you happen to be a neighbour or a passer-by: our piano has a silencing facility. I know a shiver of horror when I see one.


adele said...

This is a really interesting post and I agree entirely about 'shivery moments.' Thinking of one of my own right now...but that will be for ome of my own posts in the future!

Linda B-A said...

I love the premise of this post. Collective moments of nerve-tingling electricity are rare and wonderful. I wish I'd been there is Glasgow. My most memorable experience of this was at a performance, at the Nottingham Playhouse, of The Comedians by Trevor Griffiths. Jonathon Pryce was playing a standup comedian who, in the costume of a skinhead, was berating the bourgeois audience gathered to see the performance. I was 18 or 19 and the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. Suddenly a middle-aged - and clearly bourgeois woman - stood up and shouted back angrily at Pryce before walking out. I thought she was a plant but, like me, only in a different way, it transpired she was reacting to the transformational - and ephemeral - magic of theatre.

H.M. Castor said...

This is a lovely post & I'm very moved by your tale of the concert in Prague & the Czech national anthem. I happened to visit Prague not too long after that, in November 1989, as part of a student theatre tour. Our coach delivered us into the middle of the Velvet Revolution - an amazing experience, though one I did not properly understand at the time.