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Soundscapes – A Musician’s Journey through Life and Death
by Paul Robertson
Published 2016 FABER & FABER
There is immediate tragedy here: Paul Robertson died on 26 July 2016, very shortly before the publication of this remarkable book.
Many music-lovers will have paused to wonder what effect classical music has on their minds … and souls? Answers are intimated here, through Paul Robertson’s quest for enlightenment and his remarkable life-story. He recounts details of his developing career, including some quite striking and inexplicable coincidences. We get anguished particulars of how, in 2008, he survived a massive heart-failure, a near-death experience and an extended coma followed by a very slow recovery. He relates that through his coma he experienced many visions of Heaven and Hell.
As soon as he took up the violin at the age of eight, Robertson immediately felt convinced, even as he touched the instrument for the very first time and heard its sound, that the violin and music would be his vocation. He remarked that as that first bow-stroke neared its end he was already envisioning working single-mindedly until the age of twenty-five to acquire the virtuosity he aspired to. He then laboured even harder until he was forty-two to become the very best player within his powers. Later he needed a new instrument for lessons with Manoug Parikian but the family’s coffers could not extend to the necessary £80. His father suggested that Paul do the football pools that week. Incredibly, Paul’s selections won him – exactly £80.
Later he continued his studies with Parikian at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). Robertson was something of a rebel there, turning up for classes in his pyjamas and refusing harmony and counterpoint classes. Neville Marriner unsuccessfully tried to tempt Paul into conducting. Robertson, then, despised the whole race of conductors as being “baton-wielding monsters”. When Marriner asked him for help in auditioning aspiring young female violinists for the Academy orchestra, Paul withdrew, embarrassed because he had been out with all but one of them.
The Medici Quartet was formed in 1971 at The RAM and at first consisted of Robertson first violin with David Matthews, second violin and Paul Silverthorne, viola, plus Anthony Lewis, cello. A lunchtime preparation programme at All Souls’ Langham Place for their Wigmore Hall debut went horribly wrong because of a mix-up over the starting time resulting in an audience of just three sleeping tramps and a dog.
Robertson gives us fascinating glimpses of many violinists and other musicians, reports of their formidable technique and musicianship including Heifetz, Menuhin, Kreisler, Szeryng, Milstein and Oistrakh and Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia and Clifford Curzon.
Always interested in how music affects the mind, Robertson and his American-born wife Chika inaugurated the Music Mind Spiritual Trust to research how music relates to medicine, learning and spirituality – and leadership. His experiences in leading the Medici String Quartet stood him in good stead when using them as a case study at the Harvard Business School. He also describes his own psychological mentoring from the elderly Dr Francis Roles who expressed profound truths in simple, elegant language.
Robertson formed an empathetic bond with the composer Sir John Tavener who himself suffered a heart-attack and a near-death experience. Following this experience, Tavener wrote Towards Silence for four string quartets and Tibetan singing bowl. It was premiered at Winchester Cathedral in 2009 – one of the quartets being the Medici. Tavener expressed the work as being “a meditation on the different states of dying.”
Much of the book is dedicated to the way music affects us. For example we appreciate that sad music can have the somewhat opposite effect in uplifting us. Robertson devotes considerable space to describing the ‘universal’ and the mystical and religious in works by Beethoven – especially the late string quartets - and Bach; in particular Bach's Chaconne final movement of the D minor Partita for solo violin.
The book is prefaced by a Foreword by neuropsychiatrist and neurophysiologist, Dr Peter Fenwick who is known for his studies of epilepsy and end-of-life phenomena. It includes Robertson’s words about his own experience: “As I lay there waiting, I felt myself die – beautifully, ecstatically transcendently. I saw eternity and shed the whole of myself joyfully in order to become unified with it.”
Soundscapes contains 16 photographs and includes a timeline of The Medici Quartet’s activities from its foundation in 1971 to the present (2016) and includes Paul’s departure after a final Beethoven cycle at the Petworth (Sussex, England) Festival in 2007. What it does not include - and it is a major frustration - is an index.
In conclusion and in the context of music and the mind, what might be thought apposite, was Robertson’s mentor, Clifford Curzon’s reply to a Paul Robertson question about what he considered to be the ultimate reward of music. Curzon relied, “Consolation”. A young and naïve Robertson asked further, “A consolation for what?” To which Curzon replied with a look of infinite resignation, “For life, Paul, for life.”