The shock of the old

In the summer of 2001, during an 11-day tramp around Iceland, the Beloved and i took a chance and attended a baritone recital, given at the church in Egilsstaðir. It was a strange and beautiful experience; he chatted a fair bit between each song, and we did our best to laugh in the right places and look like we could make any sense of what he was saying. Not surprisingly, while the music drew us in, we nonetheless felt somewhat distanced from what was going on. But that changed, suddenly, towards the end of the recital, as he began to sing, in English, “Danny Boy”. Having heard nothing but Icelandic, Italian and German for the last hour or so, and then to be confronted with our own language, singing this amazingly lovely song—and he sang it extraordinarily beautifully—was a real jolt to the system, and by the end i had tears streaming down my face. It’s very powerful to be struck like that, and it highlighted for me how remarkable and important it can be to find something familiar amidst things obscure; and yet also, how possible it is that the familiar can still carry the power to surprise and even shock us. Fast-forward to last year, and a recording i made of something modern on Radio 3, which caught the tail-end of something sumptuous, melancholic and gorgeous, played by strings. After a couple of perplexed microseconds (beauty always perplexes first, doesn’t it?), i realised this was “Danny Boy” once again—or, rather, its original form as the Londonderry Air—arranged (as i learned at the end) by that fiendish genius, Percy Grainger. To be shocked twice by the same melody is quite something, and i can’t listen to it now without a beaming smile on my face.

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