Miles from home, standing on a platform late at night waiting for a train home whilst desperately trying to get a Wi-Fi connection on her phone – this the rather less than glamorous insight into the day-to-day life of Fiona Maddocks, classical music critic for The Observer newspaper. Not that she’s complaining really, with a life of fairly constant travel being the necessary grind that goes along with what Fiona readily tells her Literature Festival audience at Swindon Arts Centre is the very real privilege of listening to and writing about music for a living, attending many live classical concerts both throughout the UK and abroad.
In her new book “Music for Life -100 Works To Carry You Through” (Faber & Faber 2016) Fiona presents a very personal selection of musical pieces she felt she wanted to write about, grouped together under broad arc of life headings from “Childhood and Youth”, through to “Love, Passion”, “Grief, Melancholy, Consolation” to “Time Passing”.
Though a violinist herself, Fiona was never filled with an urge to perform music in public, preferring from a young age to write about music, eager to convey her thoughts and reactions to what she was listening to. The audience were invited to listen to brief extracts of recordings of some of the pieces Fiona had written about throughout the talk and the Q&A session that followed, which added another level of interest and engagement with the subject.
As we discover during this thoughtful and thought-provoking talk on how, why and when we listen to different types of music at different times, the book presents each grouping of musical selections with both literary extracts and evocative black and white vintage picture postcard photographs to help illustrate and underscore some of the themes of the musical selections. The old photograph of rough seas at Eastbourne for example, that accompanies the selection of Claude Debussy’s “La Mer”, a piece the composer actually completed at Eastbourne as he sought refuge from his own domestic dramas at the time.
When first setting out to write the book Fiona admitted to a feeling of panic in terms of what musical pieces to select and why. Her eventual rationale was to be led by the music itself rather than consciously trying to cover a particular time period, style or set of composers – the main arbiter being which pieces did she feel were the ones she felt she wanted to write about.
With a broad range of interest and knowledge of music across the centuries and styles of music from medieval, baroque, classical to contemporary 21st century composers, Fiona Maddocks is the ideal guide through these selections whether you are already aware of the pieces or not. With a very open, engaging style, and wry humour to match, this was a talk that made this particular reviewer eager to find out more, to go to more classical concerts and listen to more of these wonderful pieces of music.
Reviewed by Steve Cox