Teacher has gone…but the music still lingers.


WE often talk about the need for inspirational teachers to help drive up standards in our schools.

Sadly, there aren’t nearly enough. But I was lucky to have come across one who made a big impact on me.

Ken Marshall was the man who introduced me to one of the enduring loves of my life – music.

He was a dedicated professional who would make that extra effort for any pupil in whom he spotted potential.

And I was among a group of 11-year-olds who seemed to show an interest after hearing a piece from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

So along with others, I was invited to Mr Marshall’s home on the first Saturday of every month to squat on the floor of his front room and listen to the works of great composers boom out of his two-foot high stereo speakers.

If we were honest, some were just curious about having a peek inside “Sir’s” home. Or perhaps it was the orange squash and biscuits served by his lovely wife, Joyce.

But we were all swept along by Mr Marshall’s infectious personality – and the music.

In between snatches of masterpieces – he only played enough to entice us – we listened enraptured as our wiry-haired, gravel-voiced tutor told us stories about the lives of Beethoven, Dvorak and Brahms.

He was knowledgeable, funny and enthusiastic and we learned so much more than just music. We learned about manners, use of language and how to sit still.

Mr Marshall wasn’t even my teacher. I was invited along by a former pupil of his I met when we started at the same senior school.

I had to take a typed note to be signed by my parents which outlined the Music Club rules. I still obey rule one to this day and chastise others who don’t. No talking when the music is playing.

So it came that through rain, wind and snow I would make the 40-minute Saturday morning trek to feast my ears on Mr Marshall’s music collection.

Before long, I had passed the fidget test and was allowed to go to a live concert. Mr Marshall had worked a bit of a scam with a friend who worked in the cafeteria of the Queen’s Hall in Widnes.

Whenever the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra came to play, he would smuggle a few of us in to hear the concert for free, kneeling on seats in the coffee bar to peer through a giant, decorative hatch in the wall to see the musicians playing below.

It was in this somewhat awkward position that I listened, usually in awe, for the first time such great works as Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Sibelius’s fifth symphony, Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione,  Britten’s Les Illuminations and the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

I was hooked, and saved up my pocket money until I had 99p to buy my first LP – a Classics for Pleasure recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. I’d only heard the first 10 minutes of the work in Mr Marshall’s front room – but it was the first time I felt my spine tingle.

Thus began a lifelong friendship…and an odyssey, exploring the work of dozens of composers who have provided an endless source of pleasure and fulfillment.

Later, I began to attend concerts myself and now realise life would be empty had Mr Marshall not opened the door to the joy of music.

So I was deeply saddened to learn that the kind, encouraging man who put me on this wonderful path has died.

There will be many other former pupils whose lives were influenced by Mr Marshall who, like me, will want to say farewell and thanks for enriching our lives.

You may be gone but the gift you gave will stay with us always.

The Iron Lady – it’s about so much more than just Thatcher

DAVID WOODING reviews the hot new political movie

THIS fascinating movie shows Britain’s most divisive political figure in a new light – as a real human being.

If you’re a nerd, fan or critic expecting a potted history of Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years in power you’ll be disappointed.

This poignant film barely scratches the surface of the real-life dramas which shaped her Premiership. The Falklands War, the poll tax riots, the miners’ strike and the Brighton bomb are all a sub-plot to a rather sad but charming story about getting old.

It vividly depicts how giants of history are really just frail, ordinary people underneath. And Meryl Streep’s incredible portrayal of Mrs Thatcher achieves what the Tory icon often failed to do herself – by winning  our admiration, sympathy and respect.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

The Iron Lady is about so much more than the rise and fall of a legend.

It’s about the tragedy of old age, the struggle by women for equal rights and the rise to power of a grocer’s girl from Lincolnshire.

Thatcher’s amazing life is seen through the prism of an old lady struggling with dementia, mourning the loss of her husband Denis and having flashbacks to the days when she ran the country.

Tories have been swift to express their uneasiness with the subject matter while Lady Thatcher is still alive – and Labour tribalists baulk simply at the idea of a film about a woman whose legacy they detest.

But you must put the political ethics to one side and watch this as a piece of pure cinema. Forget the historical inaccuracies, too. Maggie never wore a hat in the Commons, she was not with Airey Neave in the car park when he was blown up and I’ve never before heard she barked “sink it!” when generals asked  what to do about the Belgrano.

Director Phyllida Lloyd certainly knows how to use artistic licence to great dramatic effect. She once produced a quirky version of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the ENO, in which the Rhinemaidens were mini-skirted, fishnet-stockinged, spiky-heeled pole dancers and the heroine Brunhilde became a suicide bomber. I was sceptical about that – but it worked. Lloyd’s idiosyncratic style works wonders in The Iron Lady, too.


There’s also great use of music from  Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Bach to Bellini and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Shall We Dance?”

Meryl Streep’s portrayal spans 40 years and the flashbacks give a balanced picture of the woman – her determination, vision, weaknesses and failings – all in nugget-sized  episodes, rather than detailed analysis. The 90-minute film also takes us  back six decades to Thatcher’s childhood working during wartime in her father’s grocery shop.

The movie sends out a powerful message about the tragedy of dementia – and the sadness of loneliness endured by many in old age.

It may struggle to turn Thatcher’s critics into full-blown admirers. But if they’re honest with themselves, they’ll admit to feeling rather more warm towards her after seeing this.

At the very least, thousands more people will see Lady Thatcher for what she really is – a human being.

The all-time Christmas Top Ten


CHRISTMAS is a time for giving,  worship, parties….and dusting off our festive CDs for their once-a-year spin.

I’ve just been going through my favourites and have picked out the ten which have endured the passage of time without losing their appeal.

My choice is purely based on the quality of the music and not because they rekindle memories or have some nostalgic importance. I’ve also shied away from popular songs, which need no introduction, but list those at the bottom.

Mine are all carols and larger-scale “classical” works, some well known and others not. But I hope you’ll lend your ears to them all and perhaps discover a joyful new piece to brighten your Christmases. Click on the title to hear each excerpt.

1. A Ceremony of Carols Benjamin Britten, best known for his operas, wrote this masterpiece in 1942 during a perilous five-week voyage from USA to Britain at the height of war. It is a luscious setting of medieval and 16th century verse, written for boys’ choir with harp accompaniment. It contains 11 movements, starkly contrasting in mood, beginning and ending with the Hodie (On This Day…) and with a solo harp obligato at its centre. To whet your appetite for hearing the whole work, I’ve chosen Balualow, a lullaby to the baby Jesus, in which Mary sings: “O my dear hert, your Jesu sweit, prepar they creddil in my spreit, and I sall rock thee to my hert and never mair from thee depart.” Heavenly bliss.

2. Christmas Oratorio Johann Sebastian Bach wrote this feast of festive music in 1734. It is written in six parts, meant to be played on each of the major feast days of the festive season. Often it is played in it’s entirety – a full three hours of music. The Weihnachts-Oratorium contains many wonderful highlights telling the story of Christmas. As an introduction to new listeners, I’ve chosen the final movement which couples a lively trumpet theme with a slow chorale.

3. Fantasia on Christmas Carols Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote this in 1912 and it was first performed that year at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford Cathedral. The 12-minute work is based around four folk carols he collected on his travels, with snatches of others such as The First Nowell. It starts slowly and quietly with “This is the Truth”, before raising the tempo with “Come All You worthy Gentlemen”.  The excerpt in this link starts mid way through when the Sussex carol (On Christmas Night all Christians Sing) enters. When “God Bless the Ruler of this House” is ushered in, listen for a host of carols played in counterpoint, including In Dulci Jubilo and the Sussex Carol before it reaches a wonderful climax and a joyous but peaceful ending. Try to hear the whole piece. It is one of the great musical pleasures of Christmas.

4. In the Bleak Midwinter Perhaps the most English of carols. Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst set the words of English poet Christina Rossetti to music in 1906 and it has been a firm favourite ever since. But I have chosen Harold Darke’s anthem setting, written three years later. It’s more difficult to sing so used less as a congregational hymn but it was voted best Christmas carol in a poll of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts in 2008.

5. The Messiah George Frederick Handel composed his most famous oratorio in 1741-2 while living in Brook Street, London. He wrote it not for music lovers but to tell the story of Jesus to other people through a large-scale choral work. It is performed in concert halls around the world at this time of year. The Messiah is full of gems, the Hallelujah chorus being most famous. I have chosen this movement – For Unto Us a Child is Born, based on the text of Isiah chapter nine – but do try to hear the whole masterpiece.

6. A Hymn to the Virgin Britten makes a second entry in my top ten with one of his earliest works. The Suffolk-born composer was 20 when he wrote this on plain paper in 1930, drawing in the staves because he had no manuscript book. It is written for eight-part chorus and was one of two pieces by Britten performed at the composer’s funeral in December 1976.

7. In Dulci Jubilo Legend has it this was the luscious sound that filled the air when the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus. The melody first appeared in manuscript form in 1305 but appears to have existed long before then. There have been numerous versions, mostly speeded-up including “Good Christian Men Rejoice” and a modern adaptation by Mike Oldfield. I prefer it played at the original, slower tempo as heard here in an arrangement by J.S. Bach.

8. Bethlehem Down This haunting melody was written to finance a Christmas pub crawl.  Struggling composer Peter Warlock was broke when he teamed up with journalist and fellow bon-viveur Bruce Blunt in 1927. He set the hack’s graceful words to music and entered it for a Daily Telegraph carol contest. They won and blew the money on an “immortal carouse” on Christmas Eve.

9. O Come O Come Emmanuel Perhaps the most solemn of Advent hymns and another gem by that brilliant composer Anon. Originally written in Latin in the 12th century – Veni, Veni Emanuel – it sums up the expectancy of Christmas Day. The composer James MacMillan used the mystical theme for a percussion concerto which I heard premiered at the Proms in 1992.

10.  Gabriel’s Message  This was originally an old Basque carol which was collected by Charles Bordes and reworked in 1892. It tells the story of the archangel announcing to the Virgin Mary of the events that were about to unfold. The words are by Sabine Baring-Gould, who wrote Onward Christian Soldiers.

So you want my pop top ten? Here’s the songs I believe contain some quality for what they are.

1. Happy Christmas. War is Over. 2. White Christmas 3. Have yourself a merry little Christmas 4. Driving Home for Christmas 5. Stop the Cavalry 6. A Spaceman Came Travelling 7. Last Christmas 8. Lonely this Christmas 9. Mary’s Boy Child 10. Merry Xmas Everybody (Yes, you really have got to include Slade!)