When I began brainstorming for my column this month, I wasn’t really sure what I should write about, so in my typical manner of procrastination I jumped on Facebook. After a bit of mindless scrolling, I came across an article about the incomparable legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach. For those who know me personally, they will know how incredibly significant the music of JS Bach is to me, so the article was an easy read; I agreed with pretty much everything the author said.
Digging around the music section of the all-encompassing BBC Culture website, I read about men who sang like women (countertenors, or as I prefer to call them, m’altos – man altos), and about what makes the perfect Bond song (supposedly when the singer is a powerful woman; the evidence seems to back this up). But then a headline jumped to my attention: The Worst Singer in the World. Naturally, my overwhelming sense of schadenfreude prompted me to click on it, even though I knew there was only one person this article could be talking about — the infamous opera singer of the early 20th century, Florence Foster Jenkins.
In the history of bad singers, Florence Foster Jenkins stands heads and shoulders above all others. It makes complete sense why Bach is remembered and celebrated today; his genius is unparalleled. But why is Florence Foster Jenkins remembered, to the point where there is even a Hollywood feature film depicting her life? The author of her biography, Darryl W Bullock, suggests that we remember Jenkins because she wasn’t just a cheap laugh; amidst all her musical flaws, she was an eminently likeable person who had a sincere passion for music.
These two qualities of Jenkins' – her evident lack of musical ability and equally evident passion for music – give me a convenient segue back to the organ (to which this article, I must admit, has less of a link to than usual). There are many incredibly talented organists around the world, but there are just as many, if not more, who are not quite on top of their craft. I myself used to be a quick and harsh to judge, but after reading the article on Florence Foster Jenkins, I had a change of mind. Organists are perhaps some of the most passionate and nerdy people in terms of our dedication to our instrument - we are all serious geeks (just ask any of my friends and they will happily confirm that for you). Many organists, amateur or professional, continue to play into their seventies and eighties, long after everyone else in that age bracket has moved onto the likes of lawn bowls and bingo… All jokes aside, this level of dedication is unparalleled. While some of these amateur elderly organists might not be the greatest players or musicians, should we be so quick to judge? Even if the result isn’t entirely desirable, is the intention not the more noble part? If the act of creating music brings joy to these organists and to their listeners, should we not applaud them rather than to criticise so harshly?
Hence, to relate my article with the theme of REHEARSAL in May and June, Getting There, I’m going to humbly suggest that the present participle form of the phrase is the key to our musical journeys. Florence Foster Jenkins was getting there. Well-meaning amateur organists are getting there. Little children who have just begun learning to play an instrument are getting there. We’re all getting there. Has anyone ever gotten to the mystical land of 'there'? Perhaps Herr Bach has. But for us mere mortals, actively attempting to get there is all we can do – and that is entirely okay! To seek perfection is rather foolish, in my opinion. In an oft retold anecdote, the legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked, when he was in his nineties, why he continued to practise every day. Casals supposedly replied (with debatable veracity) “Because I think I’m making progress.”
Florence Foster Jenkins too, was making progress. Slow progress perhaps, but progress nonetheless. She brought joy to her audience with her genuine passion for music; according to the actress Meryl Streep, who is playing Jenkins in the current biopic about her, “The idea of finding joy in what you’re doing… [is] something everybody can understand”. So, perhaps I was wrong. Maybe we can get 'there' after all. If we can find true joy in performing music, whether at home to ourselves, or on stage to a packed concert hall, or in a lonely organ loft to a half-empty church, then maybe we are already there.