The process of forgetting is sometimes more a matter of adaptation to circumstances than mental decay. There are things I have taken great pleasure in, but which I no longer indulge, and have largely forgotten. Adaptation is the only reason I can come up with for such self denial. Anything else makes no sense at all, and mostly what I tell myself I’m adapting to is lack of time.
Listening to this opening piece (Bach’s Lute Prelude, BWV 1006) by the guitarist John Williams, I’m reminded how much the guitar once meant to me – the colours, the tones, the varied and emotive pacing. The expression here literally catches my breath and brings tears to my eyes, but then the classical guitar was once my greatest love. I was a student of the guitar for many years, but the time to practice became progressively beyond my means as life and work matured into the routine of decades. It is a pleasure I have largely forgotten now.
I never aspired to mastery of this particular piece, though I once made a good fist of Bach’s technically easier Lute Prelude, BWV 999, after hearing it played by Narcisso Yepes on his stupendous ten stringed guitar. I no longer have that recording. I wore the original vinyl out and have searched everywhere for it to no avail. But here it is in the hands of another master, Julian Bream (a quaintly staged recording from 1962):
It took me a year of practice to grasp even the fundamentals of this piece. There were moments when I fancied I sounded not unlike Bream, or Yepes, but mostly I would fumble my way like any third rank amateur. I only played it fluently the whole way through, once. It was a defining moment, a moment of great satisfaction. I would have been around forty years old. It was about then the process of forgetting set in.
I began my studentship at the age of six with a cheap junior guitar of dubious manufacture, and from then to the age of fourteen learned only how to make a noise with it. The guitar is a difficult instrument and not everyone has the fingers for it, but I loved it for its difficulty, that an instrument of such size and apparent simplicity in construction could enable such beauty in tone and expression. To listen to a piece of classical guitar, is to experience not just the one voice, as with a solo violin, it is to experience an entire ensemble. My love of music is owed to the classical guitar. Here, it says – this is what music can do to you, now go and see what else you can find.
At the age of fourteen, I received my second instrument, a lovely Japanese Moridaria, purchased cheaply from the girl next door, who had given up on it. With this guitar I began to find more harmony around chord improvisation, also some beginners tunes with the help of books. My fingering was nimble enough and quick, but I lacked a good teacher to take me where I wanted to go.
I had been advised by now, however, music was not my forte, at least according to my school music teacher – a miserable, shouty grouch of a man. Intellectually then, music remained an inaccessible mistress, locked away under his tutelage – indeed it was no more than a source of weekly terror. Privately though, and perhaps bloody mindedly, I persevered with the guitar because it was romantic, and I had in mind it would be a sure way to impress a certain girl, should I ever get close enough to her, and have my guitar handy. Oh, the optimism of youth!
I would take lessons, of course, one day, but for now other studies were pressing, squeezing out the time I needed for such an indulgence. As soon as my O Levels were out of the way, as soon as I had done my HNC, my HND, as soon as the nerve shredding years of the Engineering Council Examinations were over – then,… yes, then I would take time to devote to the study of something I loved, rather than something I merely needed.
But by this time I was twenty five, and that’s too late to be doing anything serious with the guitar. I made a start anyway, took myself and my old Moridaria to an evening class, and there met LW, a teacher who was a classical guitarist of mesmerising skill and exquisite tone. She was also of a much sweeter disposition and considerably better looking than my old school music teacher. I signed up with her for private lessons, and discovered music was my forte after all. I had the ear she said, and the rest was just practice. So, I bought another guitar, a serious instrument for a beginner – a Cuenca, from the region of Castilla-La-Mancha in central Spain. It has a beautiful, rich tone,… and between it and my teacher, at last I became a proper student of music!
Thanks to her I could read by now and, with persistence, could work through the beginner’s repertoires of Sor , Giuliani, Dowland, and the collected Estudios of Segovia. I once heard Segovia’s Estudio number 5 – actually Sor Op 35 No 22 – played in the precinct of my local town, a hairy guy in a trench-coat, playing with the power of a God and the expression of an angel. Of all the buskers that day, he was the only one turning heads, and this a northern working class market town, on its late 80’s uppers.
I paused to listen, felt different for the experience, felt inspired. My teacher added that piece to my repertoire, bless her, and it remains among my favourites. But the lessons petered out. My teacher and I were by now engaged to be married,… to other people. Her teaching was replaced by babies, my studentship by the slow erosion of the mundane. I have not seen her in a quarter of a century, but have only to close my eyes to hear her play.
I persevered in private, trying to maintain fluency in those pieces I knew, but without time, without practice, first the fluency, then the shape memory falls apart. Few pieces remain now. I still have the guitar, still treasure it as a symbol, a talisman, but it gathers dust. It’s years since I had the courage to pick it up and relive those days.
I would never have been able to play like Williams, or Bream, or Yepes, or my own teacher – was never even competent to play for an audience of family or friends, nor yet still that particular young lady, had I ever been granted the opportunity – the music would go, robbed by self consciousness.
I close with Julian Bream and another transcription from Bach:
Listening to Bream, I think my favourite among all the greats, I am reminded the masters are there, not to be copied, or lived up to in the competitive sense. They possess something most of us do not, a divine gift to which few can ever aspire. But what they do is grant the rest of us the inspiration, that such beauty is still within the scope of human expression, that so long as some of us at least are capable of attaining such sublime heights as these, there is sufficient hope and meaning in life that, even amid its darkest of days, makes it worth the carrying on.
One day I shall dust off the guitar, and see what I remember of it.
One day, when I find the time.
Meanwhile my thanks to John Williams, to Julian Bream, to Narcisso Yepes, for their their mastery, and their continuing inspiration, and to LW for her life changing tutelage, brief though it was.
I can only hope her guitar is not as dusty as mine.