“If music be the food of love, play on”, says Orsino, Duke of Illyria, in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’.
“Music and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is”, reads the 9th March, 1666 entry of Samuel Pepys’ ‘Diary’.
“For there is music wherever there is harmony, order, or proportion”, wrote Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) in his ‘Religio Medici’.
Now what more can this dusty museum piece of a man possibly have to add to this symphony in praise of music? Within the bounds of propriety, no. But as is obvious by now, propriety is a social attribute very much alien to this old recluse whose pet project is speaking out of turn. He speaks not because he has something to say, but because he has to say something.
Now, what was I going to say? Oh yes, music. Music! My association, or rather my attempt to associate with music, has always been an unhappy affair of unrequited love. Like two ships passing each other in the dark on open seas, if a hollow head might use a learned phrase. Take whistling, for instance.
When I first managed to whistle after days of arduous attempts, I was still a little boy in baggy khaki shorts, thin legs, shoes a size too big. In short, Mickey Mouse, Myanmar version. I had been trying to whistle during each and every class but nothing resembling a whistle emerged. But when it did emerge, it must come when the School Head, an Italian Catholic nun, was on her inspection rounds. When I heard my own whistle, I couldn’t believe my ears. The School Head (we had to address her as Mother Superior) couldn’t either, although for a different reason.My eyes almost popped out. So did hers. I whistled once more. It was a most beautiful feeling, knowing that the gust of wind that had passed your own two lips had produced that lovely sound. I smiled. In exultation. She grimaced. In reproach. “Will the boy who whistled stand on the bench !”, came the order in the wake of the grimace. And that was the only applause this latter-day Beethoven received for composing his First Symphony in W minor ( W for whistle).
Some years passed. The budding Bethoven was by now growing up into a manly Mozart. He was in another school in another town tackling the same set of alphabets that he had once been told was English, but which the mathematics teacher now insisted was Algebra.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Time for another attempt at a symphony perhaps. The clarinet this time. So he went up to the school’s band master, an Irish Brother. But even after two evenings of spitting, blowing, sucking and puffing, not so much as a single note came out of that snobbish instrument. Of course it was just that the snooty black thing did not recognise the virtuoso. The band master however did not see the whole affair in that light. With the wry humour peculiar to his race, he hissed between his teeth, “Young man, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you go try your talent for music in the school library. Go read books!”. And the young man with the great talent for music went to the school library and read books instead. He recognised a Waterloo when he didn’t hear one.