When we lived in Berlin in the early Sixties, my older brother Ian and I had piano lessons with Frau Riedel. I was just 12 and she seemed ancient to me, but could nor really have been more than 60 or 65. She was employed by the ‘British Military Government of Berlin’ as it was known - this was, remember, just 17 years after the end of the war and Berlin, divided into its four sectors, was at the centre of the Cold War - to give free piano lessons to service children or those somehow associated with the Brits in Berlin. My father worked as the BBC’s representative, not the Army, but somehow we got quite a few of the service benefits. For example, we lived in one of the houses especially built for service families (as did those working at the embassy - I think they had simply built too many houses).
Frau Riedel had been a concert pianist when she was younger, and whether she took the job giving piano lessons because she needed the money or whether she just liked to keep her hand in and enjoyed the work, I don’t know. My brother Ian was, as in so many things he turned his hand to, a rather gifted player. He seemed to master it, it seemed to me, effortlessly. I wasn’t. I was then and am now something of a plodder. (It used to bother me for years, but no longer does. In fact, I now think there is a certain virtue in taking your time and getting it right. That, at least, is my take on ‘plodding’, and if you feel I am being too easy on myself, I’m sure you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.) Ian learnt to sight-read, I didn’t. I simply memorised the pieces I was learning, which Frau Riedel didn’t like. I finally gave up my lessons, I think because I wasn’t very good, but I do remember the occasion when I told Frau Riedel, and it embarrasses me to this day. I told her that I ‘wanted to play jazz’. The point is that I had hardly heard any jazz and barely knew what jazz was. I was also rather fed up with upping sticks in the afternoon, getting the tram from where we lived in the Heerstraße down to what was then still known as the Reichskanzlerplatz, where the Brits had the NAAFI and all the other facilities, having an hour-long piano lesson and then coming home. All that took the best part of two and a half hours, much of which would have been taken up with waiting for a tram.
But telling Frau Riedel that I didn’t want to carry on with lessons also embarrasses me because I recall inadvertently insulting and upsetting her. I wanted to tell her that ‘my piano lessons are a pain’ and meant to say ‘Sie [die Klavierstunde where Stunde = lesson in this case, not hour] ist mir eine Plage.’ But what I recall saying is ‘Sie sind mir eine Plage’ which is not quite the same thing at all. And saying ‘Sie sind’ rather than ‘sie ist’ had me saying ‘you are a pain’/I find you a pain’.
I can’t actually recall whether that is what happened or not. But Frau Riedel was very, very upset, and I can’t think why I would subconsciously invent such an incident. And she was a really nice woman, too. Sorry, Frau Riedel.
. . .
I have since grown to like jazz more and more. In fact, when talk is of ‘modern music’, I always think ‘yes, jazz’ rather than much of the - to me ears - oh-so-contrived ‘modern classical music’ which would-be great composers are churning out. It’s as though these men and women feel obliged to create music which is ever more arcane in order to qualify to be called ‘classical music’. But what the hell.
As for jazz, I am sadly - or not even sadly - not one of those who can reel of names about this pianist, that trumpeter, this drummer, that bassist as though from a list. I just like listening to it. I can understand the enthusiasm of those who do know the name of every man jack who played on this or that recording, but, well, I don’t. And as with ‘classical music’, I am also like Thomas Beecham’s Englishman: I don’t understand it, but I like the noise it makes. (It is quite untrue that British people don't appreciate music. They may not understand it but they absolutely love the noise it makes.) I have just been listening to the latest edition of Kenneth Clarke’ Jazz Greats - this one was about the trumpeter Lee Morgan (who I had never heard of until now, yes, I’m that much of a fan), and at one point his playing was described as ‘accessible first, intellectual second’. Fair enough. But for the life of me I have cloth ears as far as any ‘intellectual’ dimension to either jazz or ‘classical music’ is concerned. I simply haven’t a clue what they are talking about. Sorry. I don’t deny it isn’t there, it’s just that I’ll just settle for the, often quite sublime, noise it makes.