Sunday, 10 February 2019


Whilst sorting through some papers today, I came across the score for a piece of music which I learned to play when I was about 15.  There's a recording on youtube here (this is NOT me playing!)

image: youtube (

The children graciously allowed me to get the harp out.  Playing the piece again really was a kind of re-visiting.  I felt myself with my old harp in the old house, with the cat lounging louchely beside me. I felt the sheer amazement and sense of privilege that I felt then, that something so exquisite could become accessible through a bit of practice.  And with these re-visited feelings, whole vistas of connected memories opened up.  The view from the window, the walnut tree, the time my brother knocked over my music stand in a concert because he had a fly on his nose, the time my hands froze because I was so tense, the time they froze in front of my terrifying Parisian harp teacher, her striking use of my lessons to indulge in her own reminiscences, her story of messing up this same piece in a concert in front of  the most famous harpist of the day, Lily Laskine, her flat with its jungle-like greenery, the children's shoe-shop I'd pass every time on the way to a lesson, the homeless man who would offer me a swig from his bottle on the metro ride to the lessons, and so on. And all these memories can be so bitter-sweet and delicious really - and such a journey until something jolts us back into the present.

What strikes me particularly, though, is the sheer power of music to evoke not just the past, but the emotive memory and longing which characterise nostalgia. It is almost a physical sensation.

Proust used the madeleine cake to evoke the power of unconsciously summoned memory.  It's a particular challenge for a historian to have to acknowledge that the most powerfully felt nostalgia is evoked not through words and documents, but through sensation - taste, scent, music.  I'm not sure how I might recover this kind of thing as a medievalist, nor am I sure that this kind of nostalgia is the same sort of thing that is experienced collectively, with political and social implications, which I am trying to study. But its intensity and power is such that it must lie at the heart of the ways in which we interweave the past in our presents and futures.

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