Friday, October 21, 2011

The soothing properties of suicide by drowning

It's taken a while to hone our routine for getting young Atilla to sleep at night, and the result is quite a drawn-out process. The final step is mine. I carry him around the darkened bedroom, crooning softly while he makes a spirited attempt to play football with my kidneys. Motivated by physical fear, I restrain him as tightly as possible until he loses heart and - usually quite suddenly - relaxes.

Then I continue to walk him up and down while I sing to him.

The show opens with Waltzing Matilda. On a good day that's enough, and I can put him down by the end of the song; but that's rare. Usually, we have to move on at least as far as Tit Willow. Then, if necessary, I work my way through The Lost Chord, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Once in Royal David's City.

I'm not sure quite where this selection of songs came from. Tit Willow came into my mind when he was a newborn, for the lyrics seemed to cover the sheer inexplicability of his crying.
Is it weakness of intellect, birdie? I cried,
Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?
But for the rest, I really don't know. And why the Christmas carols should have lodged in my head, almost three decades since I last sang them at school, is a mystery. But there they are, and now they're being passed on to Tilly.

It's struck me that all these songs were written within the roughly-60 year span that we know as the Victorian era. Victorian music is reassuringly middle-class: it requires no great musical talent to sing in recognisable form, but it does have a distinct tune and words. Earlier music (at least, those works that have been preserved and handed down to us) was written to be performed by professionals for the entertainment of the elite, while later music (at least since the widespread availability of the gramophone) has been written to be performed by professionals for the entertainment of the masses.

But the Victorian period was a golden age of musical democracy, when every middle-class drawing room had its own piano, and to be "successful" as a composer meant writing songs that could be performed, adequately, by people with no talent or training. People like me.

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