Last month, Harrods announced that after 118 years of serving the country’s music-lovers it was to shut its piano department. The closure, the store explained, was a result of radically declining sales. Today, only about 4,000 acoustic pianos are sold in Britain each year - around 800 grands and 3,000 or so uprights - compared with 14,000 in the late 1960s. And this decline highlights a sad passing.
A hundred years ago, no middle-class home would have been complete without a piano; pubs would routinely feature one, for collective sing-alongs; sheet music was big business driven rather than overtaken by the advent of recording; and everyone would be expected to have at least one party-piece to perform at get-togethers - preferably with a piano accompaniment.
But such antics seem outlandish in this age of downloads and Spotify, iTunes and smartphones. At least here in the West. In China, though, communal music-making is flourishing - as I’m reminded whenever we entertain colleagues from there. Many academics will be familiar with the elaborate etiquette required when dealing with Chinese visitors: the painstaking courtesies, the exchange of gifts, the complicated routines for toasting round the table, each swig to be finished in one swallow with the triumphant declaration of “gan bei” or “bottoms up”. And then there’s the singing.
Singing is known to be therapeutic. That’s why church-goers tend to smile a lot. But it’s not just the singing itself that is so restorative. It’s the act of making music
Like the Japanese, Chinese people adore karaoke. So much so that when it’s time to relax after a good meal, the absence of any backing track is no obstacle. I’ve been at many such dinners. No sooner has the clafoutis aux pêches been cleared than the singing will begin. Academic leaders, city chieftans, bankers, town planners - they’ll all stand up and perform, many with unbelievably beautiful voices. And we wishy-washy westerners will look on in horror as it dawns on us that everyone, but everyone, is required to take a turn. My own attempt is usually Stand By Your Man - although after a few toasts and gan beis I sometimes have difficulty reaching the high notes. A shy junior representative of the Foreign Office once managed a halting When I’m 64 to rousing applause; our director of research opted inscrutably for Diamond Eyes. And Hugo de Burgh, director of Westminster’s China Media Centre, will apply his fine baritone to an eclectic repertoire, from revolutionary Maoist anthems - in Mandarin, of course - to Christmas carols. Last year his Once in Royal David’s City brought the house down.
And most of us, once we’d overcome our very British blushes, found that we were enjoying ourselves hugely; after all, singing is known to be therapeutic. That’s why church-goers tend to smile a lot. And it’s why so many people join choirs in later life, as in the newly released film Song of Marion. Terence Stamp plays an old curmudgeon who is induced to join a choir when his wife Marion (played by Vanessa Redgrave) is dying. Despite being terminally ill, she continues to take part in her local seniors choir, so he is forced to participate too. And the experience transforms him. But it’s not just the singing itself that is so restorative. It’s the act of making music. In his new book, Play It Again, chronicling the year when he made himself learn a ferociously difficult Chopin piano piece, Alan Rusbridger recalls the change that was wrought by his daily practice.
“Call it an escape, call it a compulsion, but it felt like a physical need,” he explains. “If I could spend 20 minutes at the piano before going to work, I had a powerful sense that the chemistry of my brain had been altered. On the days I played, my brain felt ‘settled’ and ready for whatever the next 12 hours would bring. Much later I was to discover that it was not exactly a chemical reaction, but a literal rewiring of the neural circuitry.”
And, while not many amateurs would attempt, let alone master, Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G minor, Rusbridger is not alone in his desire to return to music in middle age. I have friends no longer in the first flush of youth taking up everything from the accordion to the zither. Matthew Taylor, head of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, is tackling acoustic guitar. The novelist Howard Jacobson has started learning ukulele - but, he insists, only when he discovered from the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain that you can play Beethoven on it. And Lionel Kelly, a retired English professor who had never played a note in his life, has started piano lessons - in his seventies. I’m vaguely playing again, too, although another friend, who takes her technique very seriously, scorns my electronic piano and is urging me to get a “proper” one. Not, regrettably, from Harrods.
Whether it’s a return to the keyboard or joining a choir, there does seem to be a connection between the urge to make music and advancing age. It’s a connection, Rusbridger says, that Carl Jung explores, when writing about the difference between our outer and inner life. “Many - far too many - aspects of life which should have been experienced lie in the lumber-room among dusty memories,” writes Jung. But all is not lost, because sometimes these memories “are glowing coals under grey ashes”.
It’s only when we reach a certain stage in life that we are able to rekindle that fire. “This afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage of life’s morning,” Jung suggests. “The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual…Moneymaking, social existence, family and posterity are nothing but plain nature - not culture. Culture lies beyond the purpose of nature. Could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?”
Or maybe it’s only in the West that we experience such a sharp divide between these two halves. Maybe in China, where music and song still belongs to everyone, there’s a much happier cultural harmony.