Music: consolation for life

Charles 6 Comments


If you didn’t catch the BBC Radio 4 programme Soul Music last week, you can still hear it on Listen Again. It’s worth it.

Soul Music is a long-running series which just seems to get better and better. The format is simple: snippets of interviews with all sorts of people interwoven with the chosen piece of music. You hear it afresh.

The programme on Mozart’s clarinet quintet was outstanding. It was discussed by, mostly, clarinettists. One talked of how he had played it at two weddings and a funeral – and he wondered if there was another piece of music that could work for both.

The valedictory tone of the piece emerged as a common thread. One man described how his mother listened to it as she lay dying – it was the very last thing she heard. Another said it makes him feel as if a relative is about to die – the moment is very serene; the music celebrates the life about to end, and is terribly sad at the same time. The effect is similar on clarinettist Jack Brymer. After playing it he says he feels very complete, as if someone very old and wise has died and you feel very sad that they’ve gone but glad that you knew them.

Another man describes the extraordinary effect it had on him when he was in a coma – much to the amazement of his doctors. It seems that we remain conscious of music when we’re conscious of nothing else. To him, the clarinet quintet sounded like the voice of a woman singing an Indian raag.

Half an hour well spent – you won’t regret it. Funny, isn’t it, how people (rather exhibitionistically, perhaps) delight in choosing their funeral music, but you very rarely hear anyone specify what they want to hear as they lie dying. We should.

Click for the BBC iPlayer here.

Thought for the day delivered by the Rev Dr Giles Fraser on the R4 Today programme this morning was also terrific. It began:

One of the great privileges of being a priest is that I often get the opportunity to be with people when they die. It frequently astonishes me that, despite the ubiquity of death, this is something a great many people have never actually seen. Little wonder we’re so frightened of death. It used to be something public, but now it’s pushed out of life. Whereas we used to die at home surrounded by friends and family, we now die in hospitals, often alone and hidden behind expensive technology.

Read the rest here.


Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
12 years ago

Music has the incredible power to be able to stir emotions at the highest and lowest points in our lives, and I love the idea of choosing a piece of music to listen to as we die, especially as hearing is (I believe) the last of our senses to fade at death. What a wonderful image that portrays. What does surprise me is the concept that there may only be one piece of music that is suitable for both weddings and funerals. My own experience is that there is a great deal of music fitting to both occasions. Hymns, classical… Read more »

Charles Cowling
12 years ago

Very good point, Kingfisher.

Comfort Blanket
Comfort Blanket
12 years ago

Thanks Charles. Music is indeed incredibly powerful, in all times of life. It’s certainly the one aspect that concerned me when I thought about being a celebrant – “will I be able to keep it together once the music starts..”. And it does seem to be the point in the ceremony at which, on many occasions, people start to cry (if they haven’t already). Often, that’s because people have chosen heart-tugging (or stomach churning) tunes they thought were ‘appropriate’ for a funeral; the ‘time to say goodbye’ or ‘you raise me up’ moment. But I think it’s also because, if… Read more »

Rupert Callender
12 years ago

I thought you didn’t ‘do’ music Charles?

Charles Cowling
12 years ago

So right about crem sound systems, CB.

I recognise that music isn’t as powerful for me as it is for other people, Rupert. But some of it rubs off. I often wonder, if it has this effect on me, what on earth does it do for others? Sort of makes me tremble to contemplate that.

12 years ago

Comfort Blanket, it’s not so much a matter of finding a location – just legwork – as finding a funeral director for whom ‘location’ means more than the-crem-or-the-church! (Or being a bold enough celebrant to suggest a venue to the family over the FD’s head.)

All the more reason for we celebrants to bypass them and appeal to the yet-to-be-bereaved public.