Caught up in Time

November 03, 2020

I bought a collection of disks of music – famous 20th century tenors – among whom were Jussi Bjorling; Mario Lanza, Nicolai Gedda; and one disk of recordings by the great Enrico Caruso; whom I discovered died aged 45 years, about 10 or 15 years after these recordings of him were made.

The recordings were extremely ancient; but had been cleaned up pretty well by technicians; although of course if one was looking for state of the art sound one would be disappointed. Still on some tracks could be heard that characteristic hiss of the 78rpm resin discs - present at least a little.

And I noted on Caruso’s disk that the orchestras and conductors accompanying his singing were all classed ‘unknown’ - “orchestra und dirigent unbekant”

The latest Caruso recording was dated 1915, the earliest a remarkable 1904! I pondered the sleeve as I listened to the songs – and I was struck somewhat spellbound by the fact that here was pretty crystal clear coming at me out of my speakers music and song recorded well over 100 years ago!

The passion in Caruso’s voice was as fresh as the flowers in the garden (at this strange unseasonal time of year!). His ability to hit the long high notes of his range in singing the love arias of Puccini, Massenet, Leoncavallo and more was powerfully enlivening - absorbing. But the lingering feeling of ‘being in a time warp’ was ever present in me.

I had had a glimpse of this kind of emotion – it had been conjured up in me, and still is so, whenever I read something like Browning’s ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’ ...strangely enough, this is a poem about music.

I had struggled with whether to write this piece as a poem, or as a piece of prose; you can see that I chose not to write the poem.

A poem would have been the wrong medium I feel, because it would seem false somehow, not only from my use of my usual style, but because we are here 115 or so years later in a world beyond the dreams or nightmares of anyone alive in 1904. Before WWI; well before it, and almost before automobiles and telephones, and certainly before radios. Horses pulling cabs and buses; one or two smoky, steamy underground trains in London, and no shard or gherkin, nor anything near it.

Here then was a guy alive and in my room singing from 115 years back – it was eerie. I had picked up a few months back a pair of wonderful ‘Teake’ loudspeakers at a snip in a charity shop in Monmouth, and they are superb. Every instrument can be heard and every nuance, it seems, of the sound gets sent out – when you have a fairly good recording say post 1965 – either vinyl or cd or even audiotape - yes I still play these.

With Caruso the orchestral accompaniments were very much in the background. I don’t know why.. whether the remastering engineers made it so, so as to make purer Caruso’s voice, or whether in fact a different style of accompaniment happened at the turn of the 20th century. Ours today is strong and supporting with huge acoustics and massive chromatic chords. This was a bare background music which was enough to be heard but it did not help carry the drama so much as I was used to hearing.

This didn’t really matter though – the experience was very much still there to be had.

At one point I felt very strongly that it was impossible that this Caruso, with his magic voice, had just disappeared, gone (back?) to nothing, from the earth out of which he had been formed, as are we all. The power of the experience just did not allow this to be true. Here was a (once) alive human being, and there was such in the voice that said so, that this present and radiant energy and depth of feeling, not in myself, but in the singing of Caruso, just does not die, nor he who made it.

I recall a conversation I was present at some thirty or more years ago when one of the persons present said it seemed impossible to him to imagine not being alive and an end to his life. Another person there said ‘Yes, but it’s just the social thing’; ... I never really ‘got’ what that meant in fact.

I recall a young student of music on the radio a year or two back speaking of ‘being in the moment’ in one’s music - and his example he gave being Otis Redding singing ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’. I understood this.

Most people I’d imagine would say that these feelings are simply subjective and go no further than the emotions and the animal spirits (adrenaline or whatever) being stirred in the person feeling them, sensing them.

I had a friend, now dead, whom I saw and heard exclaim so delightedly and surprised when he opened a window one morning and the birds were singing loudly. He was I’d say ‘taken out of himself’ by the experience – he was there – for a few seconds – with the beingness in things.

These things, perhaps like Shelley’s ‘spirit of delight’, ‘rarely cometh’, and are remembered long after and quite often are considered milestones or trig-points in one’s life. As being those times when for a fraction one was with the world uncritically so; impossible to be critical, no conscious space for reflection nor for self -consciousness. Absorbed, into something greater, and taken out of circumspection, and reserve, and due consideration, and chores, and prudence, and keeping one’s eye out, or guard up, or remembering to buy the milk and bread before you get home.

It may be a primitive response breaking through – it may be a moment in touch with something uncannily divine – the one does not exclude the other.

I read David Jones’s book ‘Anathema’ recently - a piece of poetic prose of book length, and the first section is a rhapsody on the ancestors of man in their setting of before, and during, the ice ages – and even maybe older and during other geological aeons and eras.

David Jones insisted correctly that The Virgin Mary should be viewed, as are we all, as the product, the grandchildren of those ‘scarce half made up’ forms of early hominids. That Mary is in this sense an emblem of the mothers who bore the heading-towards-human children from whom we are all descendants.

He insists that God shall remember these early ‘men and women and children’ and their struggles to keep a life and a family together in a world without technology and in a world far from settled. He discusses their artworks and sees in these cave paintings and bone combs the rudiments of worship, to a rudimentary image of God, And God shall remember them in his roll-call at the time appointed.

Mary then is the woman who takes under her aegis these primitives, most particularly the mothers, the proto-human mothers - their being creatures made nonetheless in the image of the divine.

I found that David Jones’ reflections and poetry on this topic moved me, and I was a little unexpectedly moved, since it opened to me new vistas I had not considered before in such terms.

There was that difficult to envisage life which was the struggle such beings had, and in which they succeeded, by giving life so far as to endow the earth to us and to our own descendants. The unmixed maternal and paternal drives along with the need to contain and handle the aggressive, wilder, passions so as to live as a small society – learning how to do that would have been very wearing and hard.

It has to do with Caruso and my long ago conversations and my dead friend’s delight in the birds. All of these things mean. They mean so deeply that they cannot be passed off. They ask one to ask oneself why they are, so much so, emblems of a permanence which our lives otherwise lack and which evades us utterly. (I am putting to one side The Bible and my beliefs when I talk here about permanence evading us. I mean permanence temporally-speaking).

What part of us ‘goes out there’ to that place of permanence, and to where does that part of us go?

It’s a sign. It’s perhaps happened to all or most of us in some ways and at some times in our lives.

Perhaps vestigial but present in, very early in the life of hominids; a passion, an urge, connecting a sense of meaning in things, answering a call in us and causing us to do, and to continue, in the hope that all shall in the end be well?