786 At the keyboard, part 2

This will be quite a long story, but bear with me.

It all started in, at a guess, 1982. I was working in Stoke Newington Library (London N16) at the time. A local resident had contacted Hackney Libraries to say that she had some piano sheet music which she would like to donate to the Library. After some initial toing and froing in which it emerged that the music was more than she felt able to carry to the library, I volunteered to go round to her home, which was only a few minutes’ walk away from the Library, to collect the music.

It turned out that she was living alone in a one-bedroom basement flat; she offered me a cup of tea, which I gladly accepted, and began to tell me her story. She said that she and the people upstairs had been “on at the Council” for a long time to get them rehoused. I could see why; the flat was in a terrible state, through no fault of hers. There was running damp on the wall to my right. When I got back outside, I could see that the house next door had been demolished, and although the dividing wall had been propped up, it had clearly not been weatherproofed. The room was heated by a one-bar radiant electric heater, which was connected to the light fitting. My host said she knew this was the wrong thing to do, but the wall socket was too wet to use.

Clearly she thought that because I was “from the Council” I might be able to get something done about this. As gently as I could, I told her that the Libraries really had very little influence on the Housing Department. Nothing daunted she offered me another cup of tea, which I declined, so she went to get the sheet music.

I thanked her as eloquently as I could manage, took the music, which was a very big bundle, and made a show of looking at it and enthusing, and went on my way, more than a little shaken by what I had seen. I now know that these houses were eventually demolished and replaced, in the course of the gentrification which overtook Stoke Newington in the 1990s. And when I feel inclined to lament the state of my own house, I sometimes think back to that old lady and the conditions she was living in.

The sheet music itself, having been in that dank basement for a number of years, was in very poor condition. Much of it duplicated scores we already had, and a lot of it was Victorian party pieces which were unlikely to find many takers in the 1980s. So by agreement with the Branch Librarian I took home as much of it as was of interest to me, and the rest we threw away.

I still have a lot of that music, including several pieces by the mighty Sidney Smith, almost all of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, and a good deal else which is doubtless very hard to find today. Several of the pieces were by one Arnold Bax; he is now rather neglected but has his admirers. He wrote symphonies, songs, various piano pieces and a good deal more. The pieces that I had included two called A Country Tune and Lullaby. I could more or less play these but I knew I wasn’t doing them justice. On the other hand I knew I was unlikely ever to hear anyone else play them, so I persisted.

Then, late in September 2009, while poking around on the internet, I came across recordings of these two pieces, so I downloaded them; and today, 6th October 2009, I put together a CD of various English music, which I am listening to as I write this, and of course I included the two Bax pieces on the CD. 27 years is a long time to wait to hear about 5 minutes of music played properly, but maybe my own efforts will improve as a result. It’s never too late.


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