W J Turner: “The Barrel-Organ in the Rain”

A scraping from the NS archive.

W J Turner (1884-1946) was music critic for the New Statesman between 1915 and 1940. He was also a novelist, playwright and poet. WB Yeats wrote that Turner's poetry left him “lost in admiration and astonishment”, though today it is for his outspoken and regenerative approach to music criticism that he is best remembered. Here, Turner recalls “the most poignant music impression of my life” – hearing a barrel organ in the rain beside Lake Como. I guess barrels aren’t so useless after all. - Philip Maughan

The Barrel-Organ in the Rain

It is not always in concert-halls that one has the most delightful musical experience  - hardly ever, some would even say; but I do not go so far as that. None the less, everyone who has any instinct for music will remember chance occasions when some song or instrumental air, heard, almost accidentally, at some friend's house or, in some countries happier in this respect than our own, in the street has made a vivid impression that remains in the memory long after we have completely forgotten the recitals of an Elena Gerhardt, a Paderewski or a Kreisler.

I remember when quite a boy that by some freak of fortune Paderewski came to my native town for the first time; my mother, wishing me to hear the famous pianist, procured me one seat at what appeared to me—and for our part of the world actually was—an enormous price. At any rate, I went alone, considerably affected by a consciousness that in being there at all I was rather “going the pace.” My seat was very near to the great man, and I remember how his hands trembled and how nervously he clasped his knees. I also remember being more excited by his face than by his playing. He played first of all something by Bach—very likely a prelude and fugue—and then a Beethoven sonata; the rest of his programme I have forgotten. I do not think I was in the least moved by the music, but I returned home in a state of great excitement, and with a feeling that the concert was an event in my life that ought in some way to be celebrated, and that the presence of such a great man in our town must be brought to the notice of the inmates of the house who should not be allowed to pass away into sleep that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Accordingly, I crept round to the back of the house and rummaged about in a shed until I had found—what is unknown in this country—an old kerosene tin. Taking a stick, I then marched into the house, beating the kerosene tin for all I was worth.

Now, musically, this event meant nothing, or very little, to me. I had been often far more touched by the very same music I had heard that night, played by amateurs; and although this experience of the contrast in the pleasure got from amateurs and from professionals is not true of orchestral concerts, it is especially true of singers, for I do not remember ever hearing a professional singer before I was twenty who gave me any pleasure at all. I believe this is a common experience. It is due partly to the fact that in Anglo-Saxon (and to a lesser degree one might almost include German) countries professional singers have no feeling for music whatever. They are simply the possessers of voices that have a marketable value, and they hire out their voices to concert-givers and to music publishers who need them to display their wares. They painfully acquire the minimum of technical musical knowledge necessary to enable them to sing an average ballad, or to take part in the half-dozen oratorios that are the staple musical diet of large masses of the population. They meet the average church organist on the common ground of complete insensibility and almost complete ignorance. They are far more illiterate than the ordinary dock-labourer, and their vanity has to be encountered to be believed. These wretches—I could name a lot of them if the law of libel permitted one such an artistic luxury—are even to this day, in spite of the great improvement that has taken place in England during the last ten or fifteen years, going up and down London, the provinces and the suburbs singing and spoiling the taste of the people. Their mainstay and sheet anchor is human sentimentality—the sentimentality of people who have had no opportunity to learn to appreciate finer qualities, but who, if left alone, would perhaps get out of the trough of sloppy emotionalism in which the modern urban population wallows.

For years, whatever singing I heard worth the hearing was from amateurs, and from them I heard, before I was eighteen, nearly all Schubert's songs and a great number of other German lieder, which, until I went to Germany, I had never heard from the concert platform at all. One of my most pleasurable recollections is that of going suddenly into a drawing-room where someone was singing Schubert's “Wohin.” It was one of those exquisite moments when we are by some happy combination of physical and spiritual health extraordinarily alive, and for both singer and listener the music, though familiar, had a beauty which they had never felt so intensely before. I have never heard "Wohin" sung since either in public or by an amateur, but it is one of those melodies that I can always recall at will. The singing of amateurs is, as a whole, on a far higher level than professional singing, and in speaking of amateurs I am thinking of musical amateurs, not of the people who go to ballad concerts and buy the last song about roses to take home and strum upon the piano, although I should imagine that their interpretation by their own fireside had merits unknown to, and beyond the capacity of, the professional singer to whom the song was dedicated.

In Latin countries, however, the art of singing has never been lost by the people. I believe that of all European countries Spain is the most wonderful in this respect, but I have never been there, and English musicians as a whole know very little about the academic music of Spain and practically nothing about the popular music. As for ancient Spanish music, I do not think I am far wrong in saying that it is absolutely unknown—which is hardly surprising when we consider that 70 per cent of the works of our greatest and most famous English composer, Purcell, are unknown to musicians. His Fairy Queen, for instance, which was given at Cambridge from February 9th to February 14th, with Mr Clive Carey as producer and Dr Rootham as conductor, had not been performed since 1693. There are four volumes of his harpsichord works edited by Mr William Barclay Squire—never played except by amateurs like Mrs Gordon Woodhouse—and I forget how many volumes the Purcell Society has published, all of which, however, appear to be totally ignored by the professional musicians who give concerts. However, that is by the way, and only illustrative of how immeasurably more important the amateur in music is than the concert-giving artist who is so much more in the limelight.

In Italy, of course, you may still hear plenty of good singing, even in the streets, and I daresay it would be possible to bear today, in parts of the country, many of those wonderful old Italian folk-songs which Madame Geni Sadero has spent her life collecting. Although I once walked through a large part of Central Italy it was never my good fortune to come across any old folk-songs, but I must confess that they were not the object of my tour. I do remember, however, going into an old wine-cellar with walls about fifteen feet thick in a small town in a little frequented part of the country and suddenly hearing, to my amazement, a gramophone burst forth into the waltz from The Merry Widow. The gramophone rang the death-knell of folk-song wherever it penetrated. There are musical critics—even good ones—who have a kindly word for the gramophone, but I have nothing for it but execration.

It was, however, in Italy that I received the most poignant musical impression of my life. A friend and I had arrived one day at Como, which we had never seen before. It was a most miserable day: one of those only too frequent days among the Italian lakes when the rain pours down as if it had set in for months. In utter wretchedness we walked along the comparatively deserted streets looking for a suitable restaurant, when suddenly, turning a corner, we heard a barrel-organ grinding out Lohengrin's Narration. It is a curiously beautiful melody, hilt at that moment, pouring out into the empty town among hills and buildings almost blotted from our sight with the steady, down-streaming rain, it was simply marvellous. If Richard Wagner had been there to hear it he would have wept. For it had become part of the earth; it was in some wholly inexplicable sense real—real with that reality that all good creative art has but which we cannot always feel, and that certainly we do not feel once in a hundred concerts.

6 March 1920

Barrel organists perform in Germany. Photo: Getty Images.

W J Turner (1884-1946) was a poet, novelist and music critic, who wrote for the New Statesman between 1915 and 1940.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis