Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Boreham on Music and Memory


The experience that befell me last evening was of so commonplace a character that I am half ashamed to mention it, yet somehow it sent my mind whirling along a train of thought that was entirely new to me. It was one of those voluptuous evenings that occasionally surprise us in the autumn. Summer has vanished, and we have come to regard the luxury of warm delicious evenings as a thing of the past. We have already felt the nip of winter in the air; and have reconciled ourselves to the arrival of colder weather; indeed, we have already spent one or two evenings by the fireside. And then, like a friend who is loath to go, and who steps back into the room after having once wished us good-bye, the warm weather suddenly returns. So it was yesterday. And in the evening, so far from needing a fire, it seemed a pity to be sitting indoors at all. We sauntered on to the verandah, and, whilst chatting there, caught the soft strains of distant music.
`Oh, it's the band playing in the park. What do you say if we jump on a car and slip down?'

The evening seemed specially made for that sort of thing, so I readily consented; and a few minutes later we were strolling among the grassy lawns, the shady avenues, and the artificial waters of Coniston Park, enjoying the music which, just before, we had heard from afar. The best of a band is its unselfishness. It does not monopolize your attention. Even in a drawing-room, you feel guilty of discourtesy if you engage in conversation whilst a pianoforte solo is in progress. But with a band you have no such scruples. You can talk, laugh, do what you will, without in the least degree disturbing the band or lessening your own enjoyment of its music. Indeed, as a matter of fact, the band, by imparting an unwonted stimulus to the mind, loosens the tongue and renders conversa­tion the more animated and vivacious. Yet, all the while, at the back of your mind, however engrossing may be the discussion, you are thoroughly enjoying the music, and are sorry when it stops.


Nor is this the only respect in which a band enables you to do two things at the same time. In the course of the evening, I became separated from my companions, and found myself listening in solitude to the music. And I suddenly discovered that I was not merely listening to music; I was looking at pictures. What memories these tunes revived! The first time that I heard that particular air was at a school treat in England, years and years ago. How it all came back to me like a cinematographic film, as I heard the inspiring strains again last night! I could see the procession, the banner, the field ablaze with buttercups, the games, the races, the scrambles, the olddominie, the teachers, and the old familiar faces.

Where are they all now? I really believe that some of these faces have never recurred to my mind from that day to this; but that old tune has unlocked some secret door in the chambers of my memory, and this wealthy store of old-time recollections has been suddenly released. A second tune reminds me of a fete to which I was once taken. Here are the tents and the side-shows, with all their gaudy accessories, once more vividly before me! The giants and the dwarfs, the freaks and the monstrosities, the performing dogs and the tame snakes, the wax-works and the merry-go-rounds, how they all rush back to mind! I can see again the highly coloured daubs that proclaimed to all and sundry the marvels to be witnessed on the other side of the canvas; I can hear again the strident voices of the showmen; I can even smell the sawdust that so plentifully besprinkled the grassy floor of each tent. That tune, I very well remember, was being played as the balloon ascended; and the thrill of seeing the huge sphere shoot up into cloudland comes back upon me as I hear those strains again.

A third tune, a selection from a popular opera, I first heard at a county cricket match. It was between Kent and Middlesex, and the premiership for the year depended upon it. Whilst this very tune was being played, a young Kent amateur—one of the idols of my boyhood—brought off a most amazing and sensational catch, imparting to the game a totally new complexion. The ground as it appeared at that moment; the astonished and applauding crowd; the retiring batsman; the feeling that the match had entered upon a new phase; all through the years these things have never once recurred so clearly to my mind as they did when listening to that tune in the park last night.

Here again, then, the band is helping me to do two things at the same time. I am enjoying the music and I am luxuriating in a feast of memory. Other music—considered as music—might have been just as beautiful: but it could not have been as enjoyable to me. For these old and well-remembered tunes unlock the secret treasures of the heart, and, beneath the magic of their touch, memory outpours her precious hoard.

That is the beauty of it. One hears a few strains of a band, or a few notes on the piano, and, in a flash, the imagination is transported to some scene, it may be on the other side of the world, and very possibly half a lifetime away, at which one heard that same tune first or heard it last. A haunting tune or a catchy chorus comes to its own in the first place by virtue of its direct appeal to the fancy; but it grows in sacredness and value as the passing years encrust it with a wealthy cluster of associations.


I really believe that for many of us—especially those of us who are not musically constructed—this constitutes music's greatest and most imperishable charm. It is not, of course, the only one. The fact that I remember the tune, and recognize it when I hear it again, proves in itself that the music captivated me and made an indelible impression upon my mind when I heard it for the first time. A good tune has an intrinsic value of its own; the associations that gather about it are simply a noble tribute to its worth.

We all know the story of the way in which, after a long agony of misfortune, Sparta applied to Athens for a leader. They expected a tall and stalwart soldier. To their disgust, they received a lame little schoolmaster, one Tyrtaeus. They soon discovered, however, that the odd little man could make music that set every soul on fire. And, inspired by his patriotic songs, the armies of Sparta were soon marching once more from victory to victory. Music has this primary virtue.

Its secondary virtue is scarcely less vital. Carlyle has shown that, when the stirring chords of the `Marseillaise' fell upon the ears of the grim and silent revolutionists for the first time, the effect was instantaneous and electrical. But today those chords are invested with historic significance, and to that supplementary fact they owe much of their extraordinary influence. The thoughts that have become interwoven with the stirring strains make such an appeal to the hearts of Frenchmen that they will, with that music ringing in their ears, dare any death or make any sacrifice. 'The sound of the "Marseillaise,"' says Carlyle, 'will make the blood tingle in men's veins, and whole armies and assemblies will sing it, with eyes weeping and burning, with hearts defiant of Death, Despot, and Devil.'

In a later chapter he gives a concrete illustration. He describes the perilous position in which the French army found itself in the struggle with Austria. `Dumouriez is swept back on this wing, and swept back on that, and is like to be swept back utterly, when he rushes up in person, speaks a prompt word or two, and uplifts the "Hymn of the Marseillaise." Every heart leaps at the sound; they rally, they advance, they rush, death-defying, man-devouring; carry batteries, redoubts, whatsoever is to be carried; and, like the fire-whirlwind, sweep all manner of Austrians from the scene of action.'

It was like Orpheus, Carlyle says, building the walls of Thebes by the mere sound of his lyre. And, reverting to the matter in his essay on Natural Supernaturalism, he avers that not only was Thebes built by the music of an Orpheus, but that without the music of some inspired Orpheus was no city ever built; without it no work in which man glories was ever done.


There is a mystic and priceless virtue in anything that brings the soul into immediate touch with the golden traditions of its glorious past. I remember sitting one evening at sunset on the cliffs overlooking the ocean at Piripiki Gorge in New Zealand. As I sat there, an old Maori, with whom I had spent many a pleasant hour, came down through the bush and joined me. As the twilight faded he beguiled my fancy by telling me some of the lovely legends of his dusky race. He told of the fancies that cluster about the famous tomb of Maniapatu, the heroic warrior-chief, who sleeps on the summit of a rugged and picturesque hill overlooking the Bay of Islands. Shrewd in council, astute in strategy, masterful in authority, and an utter stranger to fear, Maniapatu figures with an almost Homeric splendour in the battle-epics of his race. And when, full of years and honours, he died, and was buried on the crest of the splintered hill, his resting-place became a place of pilgrimage, and it was said that cowards could be made brave, and brave men still braver, by a visit to that romantic spot. Among the countless traditions that attach to that lonely sepulchre is the legend of Hoakura. Hoakura was a young warrior of high spirit and dauntless courage, as handsome as he was brave. In one of the bloodthirsty feuds which marked his time, he turned the failing fortunes of a desperate day by a display of extraordinary valour at a critical juncture; but, in achieving his amazing triumph, he fell, pierced by a score of spears. As a tribute to his prowess it was ordained that he should be buried in the ancient tomb of Maniapatu, and—so the myth declares—as soon as his dead body touched the bones of his illustrious predecessor, he started to fresh life and became the leader of his tribe on many a fiercely contested field.

The story that my Maori friend told me in the twilight on the cliff comes back to my mind today. It is a mere legend, grotesque and fantastic as such legends usually are; but it embalms a truth of abiding value and significance. There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past; and, as we have already seen, that is precisely the service that the ministry of music is peculiarly fitted to render us.


Is it any wonder, then, that the Church recognized, very early in her history, the magic spell that music placed at her disposal? The world knew little of music until the angels sang over the fields of Bethlehem. `I do not believe that the ancients ever indulged in simultaneous harmony,' says Charles Burney in his History of Music. `Greek music was confined to twanging gut-strings and blowing reeds,' says Mehaffy in his Rambles and Studies in Greece. `The tibia and the lyre seem to have been the only instruments in use among the Romans,' says Sir John Hawkins in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music. But, as Dr. Storrs has shown in one of his excellent lectures, when Christianity broke forth upon the world, the spirit of man had to find a richer voice for richer feeling. The laws of harmony appeared. Little by little, instruments were introduced, until the organ—the triumph of the mediaeval monks—was perfected. `And so,' as Dr. Storrs says, music became ever richer and grander, in anthem, mass, and mighty oratorio, in the passionate wail of the Miserere, the exultant chords of the Jubilate, in the Gloria in Excelsis, the Benedicite, the Magnificat, and the Te Deum.' `Behold,' sang the angel at Bethlehem, `I bring you good tidings of great joy!' And Dr. Storrs holds that it was the rich and lofty spiritual joy that poured into the world that day that awoke the sublime minstrelsy that marked the ages that followed.


But what has all this to do with the strains of last night's band? A great deal. We have seen that music—music of any kind—exerts a magical and potent influence upon the memory. Half a dozen bars will bring vividly to the mind's eye a sequence of scenes that it would take hours adequately to describe. Nobody who, having heard some snatch of an old melody, has been swept off his feet by a sudden wave of recollection and emotion will seriously doubt the possibility of effects like these. The Church must use this subtle faculty for all it is worth. There is no music like her music: there are no songs like her songs. The melodies of the sanctuary are silken bonds that connect each individual worshipper with all the most sacred experiences of a lifetime.

Here, on my desk, lies a copy of Frank Bullen's With Christ at Sea. Now how did this young sailor find the Saviour of whom he writes so warmly? His book reveals two pivotal experiences. The first is when, standing on the deck of his ship in Sydney Harbour, he hears the church bells on a Sunday morning. They are playing 'Sicilian Mariners,' and the music starts `a dull ache at his heart, a longing for something, he knows not what.'

The second is when, at Port Chalmers, he hears the tune `Hollingside.' 'I was reduced,' he says, 'to blind dumbness. The pent-up feelings of years broke loose; scalding tears ran down my cheeks; and something stuck in my throat like a ball. I knew that tune so well, and I had not heard it sung since those happy days in the Old Lock Chapel in Harrow Road, which seemed to belong to another life.' And, on the crest of that wave of emotion, Frank Bullen entered the kingdom!

And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead. And it is at least possible that the higher harmonies of heaven, by reviving the holiest associations of earth, will prove the most effective link between the life that now is and the life that is to be.

F W Boreham, ‘The Band’, The Blue Flame (London: The Epworth Press, 1930), 56-65.

Image: A band.