Jonathan Coe has said that the title of The Rain Before It Falls comes from a Michael Gibbs composition which he first heard on a Gary Burton record released on ECM in 1974. It would probably be rewarding to have a rummage through Jonathan’s collection of ECM titles.
He is, for example, on record as being a big fan of Kenny Wheeler, and has written about how ‘Sea Lady’, a composition by Kenny and Norma Winstone was something he listened to a lot when writing House of Sleep. It a song very familiar here from Somewhere Called Home, a particularly beautiful record Norma made for ECM in 1986, with John Taylor on piano and Tony Coe on clarinet and saxophone.
Music plays an important part in The Rain Before It Falls, with Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and in particular ‘Baïlèro’, as sung by Victoria de los Ángeles, being at the centre of the story. It is certainly not the only occasion when classical music features prominently in Jonathan’s books.
Writing in the liner notes of his own 9th & 13th CD Jonathan explains how at a young age his passion for T. Rex went hand in hand with a love of Ravel’s orchestral music, and how this helped shape his love for the Canterbury scene’s “busy, eccentric soundworld” and what through Benjamin Trotter he describes as their “strange compound of influences absorbed from modern classical composers and the English experimental pop groups.” Is this a metaphor for his writing? Perhaps it would work that way.
In What A Carve Up! there is a curious scene where Benjamin bonds with the dangerous prankster Sean Harding over the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams as they listen to a selection of his music, including ‘The Lark Ascending’, ‘Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus’ and the tone poems ‘In The Fen Country’ and ‘Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1’. There is even some local colour with a mention of Vincent’s, the classical record shop in Birmingham’s Needless Alley, which also gets a mention in Jonathan’s essay about his obsession with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
‘Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1’ reappears in The Closed Circle, and again Harding is reported to be playing it when he is tracked down to the deserted Norfolk farmhouse from which he is spreading his racist hate. It is also being played by a London cabbie, who heard it played on Classic FM and went out and bought the CD. The taxi driver also enthuses about ‘The Lark Ascending’, and could well be one of the people who votes for it as their favourite piece of music, so that it regularly tops the Classic FM Hall of Fame.
The way we listen to music changes but that idea of being swept away by hearing something unexpectedly on the radio is still a special one, like idly flicking through the FM stations one Saturday night recently and hearing CyHi The Prynce’s ‘Nu Africa’ followed by Mr Jukes’ ‘Angels / Your Love’ was magical and transformative. And hearing part of Karl Jenkins’ ‘Requiem’ by chance on Classic FM a short while ago and finding a CD of it the next day in a charity shop for a pound felt meant to be.
Not knowing anything about Karl Jenkins it was something of a surprise to learn he had been in Nucleus and Soft Machine, but then it rang a vague bell that he was mentioned in something Jonathan Coe had written about loving the music of the Canterbury scene. He refers to how Karl Jenkins “has won fame of a sort with a series of easy-listening choral works that evolved out of advertising jingles”. It is the sort of sniffy or snippy dismissal that somehow sounds curiously appealing. And actually it was interesting to note that the shakuhachi part on Requiem is played by Clive Bell, who has also played on records by Louis Philippe and whose story connects with that of the London Musicians Collective.
That bit in What A Carve Up! with Benjamin Trotter and Sean Harding enthusing about Vaughan Williams is odd. Classical music just did not seem to exist as something young people liked at our school in suburban South London. There were all sorts of factions, of course, and all the youth tribes and the straights who just liked what was in the charts. But no, classical music was not part of our youth, at all, except maybe PiL and ‘Death Disco’ and other occasions where pop borrowed from the classical sphere. And there were the old Subway Sect interviews where Vic Godard talks about listening to Debussy and Gershwin.
So, one of the things about becoming interested in classical forms at a much later stage is the sense of intimidation, the awareness of knowing so little about a vast area of music which others seem so immersed in. And the counter to that is how classical ‘snobs’ often do not know of anything much outside of that particular sphere. But still, when people like Benjamin Trotter have the “ability to identify almost any snatch of music by a minor twentieth-century composer”, it is incredibly intimidating.
In Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle there is a recurring motif about Benjamin and the ‘Cantique des Vierges’ from Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Judith, a ”passage which had once been one of his favourites, something he would turn to when he felt he needed consolation, which the ethereal simplicity of its gossamer, child-like melody never failed to afford him”. Surely many of us have made an effort to investigate the music of Honegger after reading Jonathan’s books, just as we did with Hatfield and the North?
Honegger also makes an appearance in Jonathan’s 2013 novel Expo 58. At a concert by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Ernest Ansermet, one of the pieces played is Honegger’s tone poem, Pastorale d’Eté. The performance is beautifully described by Jonathan, as is its impact on the book’s characters, one of whom, Emily, says: “It was the sort of music that makes you think of all your childhood summers, don’t you agree?”