Uplifted by music, carried along by song

Susan Boyle: her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" helped win her stardom; columnist Grant Shimmin says he has a new ...

Susan Boyle: her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" helped win her stardom; columnist Grant Shimmin says he has a new appreciation for what is a powerful song.

OPINION: I've been out of the office this week and that's probably a good thing. The humming might have been starting to irritate a few of my colleagues.

Yes, I did mean the humming, rather than the hum.

Not that it's been continuous by any means, but for the last few days, a particular refrain has never been far from the forefront of my mind. And many times, when it's got right to the front, I've found myself sounding it out in the form of a hum.

I suppose you could call it an earworm of sorts, but for me it's not had the growing irritation factor that often accompanies a constantly repeating line in my head. In fact, as the week's gone on, the bit I've been humming, and occasionally even belting out some of - when I've been on my own, of course, stacking the dishwasher, or boiling the jug - has got longer.

It took a little while, but I've finally realised why it's happening.

It's because it moves me.

The music, mainly, although it's the words too.

This particular refrain is one I'd heard numerous times without really hearing it properly before. It took on a whole new gravitas when I could see the lyrics on paper in front of me, and hear it sung in its different voice parts.

It's from I Dreamed a Dream, a powerful song in one of the most successful musicals of all time, Les Miserables. If that doesn't ring a bell, which it will for many readers, cast your mind back to the emergence of Susan Boyle, who sang it in her audition on Britain's Got Talent several years ago.

She was the reason I knew the song, but I really knew the bits that had captured imaginations back then, and not necessarily the bits inbetween. On Monday night, that changed for me, as I got to sing it for the first time with my fellow members of the Rhyth-Mix Singers.

Most of them already knew it, but for us newbies, it was the first time we'd done it with the choir, and I left buoyed, uplifted, and with the refrain that would stay with me through this week already bouncing around my brain.


But the tigers come at night

with their voices soft as thunder

as they tear your hope apart

as they turn your dream to shame.


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I hope Herbert Kretzmer won't mind me quoting his compelling lyrics – that second line is so powerful it gives me goosebumps – because I haven't sought his permission. They're the words that have been in my head for days, but it's tough to put across their full impact without the music of Claude-Michel Schonberg, which I assume they were written to fit, rather than the other way around.

Reading them on their own doesn't tell you, for example, that the last word, shame, is stretched out to shay-ay-ay-ay-ame, starting softly and building to a crescendo. In the context of the story, it couldn't be described as triumphant, but it's certainly filled with raw power.

I wrote some weeks ago that, regrettably, I don't read music, so my terminology may fall short here, but it's the changes in tone, inflection and volume that these 10 or 11 bars – I've counted them on the sheet music – contain that have truly moved me as they've repeated in my head this week.

On reflection, it's certainly not the first time I've been moved like this by music. I wrote previously about my love of the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1, heard as a teenager, and other pieces have a similar effect.

A one-year elective paper I did at university imprinted on my brain, even my soul, refrains from Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini and Sibelius' Finlandia that never fail to stir me on the rare occasions I hear them now. Even my visceral response to a rendition of the magnificent but lyrically weird MacArthur Park, played on the piano at a stage show in Johannesburg, has stayed with me for 20-plus years.

The last time I experienced it was a lot more recently, however, ironically at the karaoke night that indirectly led to my joining the choir whose singing so moved me on Monday.

Somewhat impulsively, I found myself singing Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath, a song two friends - one an accomplished guitarist - and I had often sung together in one of our rooms in residence at uni 30 years ago.

It's a song as musically varied and powerful as any "relatively" contemporary number I've encountered.

And it felt like singing it almost lifted me right out of my normally introverted self. It not only moved me, it might even have changed me a little.

I suppose there's a feeling of regret attached to having taken so long to realise how much music moves me, allied to that I expressed weeks ago about not continuing my piano lessons as an 8-year-old.

So this is partly an encouragement to those reading this to be quicker off the mark than I was, if you can.

But it's also an acknowledgement of how lucky I am to have come to this realisation, and to have the chance to use the other medium that truly moves me to express that.


 - Stuff


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