Traveller's tales

Monday, May 22, 2006

If music be the food of love

The Free Trade Hall, Manchester

Before the Bridgewater Hall was built, the Halle, Manchester’s own orchestra performed at the Free Trade Hall on Peter Street, round the corner from the Library, down the street from the Midland Hotel.

It was to the Free Trade Hall that I went every Thursday – on the train from Stalybridge, a few stops down the line to Huddersfield and Leeds. I washed and changed, had my tea, and ran down to the Station, eager to get there and see and hear everything.

Buying a programme came first, and then I sat and read about the music I had paid to hear. This particular night they were putting on Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie Fantastique’. Fantastic Symphony, I called it.

The story behind the music is a good one, and somewhat autobiographical too. Berlioz had seen and fallen in love with the actress, Harriet Smithson, who he later married. At the time of writing though, his love was unreturned, he went through the same agonies that I went through when I was in love, pulling petals off daisies, “She loves me – she loves me not – she loves me…”

Hector Berlioz took his romantic desires much more seriously than I did, though I suppose I would have done if I had been wooing Harriet rather than Katie Hunt from Form 4A.

He dreamed; fantasized; whatever lovers did in those more romantically inclined days, that he had killed his love; that he was to go to the scaffold, and that all this would take place on a Witches Sabbath. At least that is how I remember it.

As the music flowed, I read the programme notes and followed the story, hearing the ‘idee fixe’, the main theme of the symphony, over and over until it became horribly parodied by the scenes at the scaffold, mocked by the witches.

Berlioz’ score calls for some few notes to be played off the platform, audible to the audience, but sounding more remote. Accordingly, so the story goes, the player of the few notes, places himself just outside a door, which he keeps ajar the better to see the conductor cue him in.

On this particular night, though you would never have known it sitting in the stalls, a janitor happened by just as the trumpet player was raising his instruments to his lips to play.
“’ere,” said the janitor, horrified at what he saw, “you can’t play that thing here, there’s a show on just through there!” And so it went on, with the trumpeter struggling with the janitor, who he presumably placated or pushed away long enough to get the notes in at the right moment. I didn’t notice anything, but then it was my first time.

I have since listened to that piece many times, and I always listen out for those few notes played offstage. I have never heard anything untoward, but I will be ready when there is.
Robert L. Fielding

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