Accessing the past with music

I am watching a documentary about a very old lady in a red jumper.

“What is it like when you believe you will die in the next second?”, the interviewer asks.

She is asked this a lot, she replies; and the answer is that you do not perceive any emotion – just blackness descending on you, and on the small child you are holding in your arms. In the end she was obviously not shot, but most people with her that night somewhere in 1941 Germany were.

Now they show her sitting at the piano, playing Schubert‘s Winterreise, and I cannot help thinking that music is the greatest gift the human race has been given. Any music, actually – although I happen to have a somewhat ludicrous emotional connection to Beethoven’s 9th concerto in D major, because we studied it at school. Every time I hear it, it is indeed Proust‘s stupid madeleine that was the bane of my French degree. I am however indeed transported quite directly back to those endless afternoons in the music room in a small town in Southern Germany, looking out of the window directly onto the pine trees that grew right up against the back of the school. As we all sat there in our bored adolescent way, fidgeting and being self conscious about our every action, it seemed like the first moment of my adult life, a moment of calm reflection combined in a strange way with the strongest emotion, where I felt not so much that slightly edgy euphoria of drunkenness, sex or winning a race, but gratitude at being alive to listen to such beauty. So I suppose it was the first time I consciously appreciated the life I had been given, and briefly emerged from the cavalier attitude mortality that youth confers.

I was seventeen, and I sat there thinking about how long the life ahead of me was.

Now, I am 33, and I suppose I still think it is a long and fulfilling life ahead of me, even if nothing in particular has happened in the meantime. I listen to that music now, in all sorts of unlikely settings (like driving around in Los Angeles), and it makes me simultaneously a little bit sad about lost time, and quite happy that there is plenty more time to lose. So I watched the documentary about the German lady in the red jumper, who conducted most of the interview in an English that suggests she moved here after the war, but lapsed into German occasionally, and I think she was talking about how much the music conveyed to her of that longing for home.

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