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Classical Music From Scratch: A is for Au Font du Temple Saint

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So it happened. I can tick one of my musical aims for 2012 off the list. It's number three - possibly the most important, definitely the wettest (see what I did there?)

It started in Liverpool Street station, commuter hour. Not the most promising location for an encounter with classical music. I was battering my way through the herd, sneering at lingering tourists, dodging trashed free-papers and gagging on the sickly-sweet grease wafting from snack bars when suddenly a tune carried along the concourse towards me. It must have been playing from a shop radio.

I'd heard this tune before and I couldn't work out why here, of all places, it should have a new effect on me. But suddenly my eyes were moist and, as I touched my oyster card to the reader and the music grew fainter, the station suddenly seemed a vast, cathedral like space. A beautiful place, not one full of grubby irritants.

When I got home I got on YouTube and played the piece again. And that's when it properly happened (the number four thing that I can't now write down without sounding gag-reflex inducingly twee). I remembered where I'd heard it before and why Liverpool Station was transformed in that way. It's Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill singing the Pearl Fishers Duet by Bizet. And this story has to do with my grandfather, Jack.



Jack was born in 1917 in Neath, South Wales. 22, uneducated and poor when the Second War War started, he signed up to the Welsh Guards as a Private. He came back a Captain and decades later we heard both that he had liberated one of the larger concentration camps and that he had been awarded an honour for bravery.

He hadn't told anyone until he was close to the end of his life. Even then it was to ask that his family shouldn't pry into the details of what he had done that had been so brave.

Rather than talk about what had happened to him or what he'd seen, he got married and had twins. He found a job as a travelling salesman peddling biscuits and settled in a little terrace outside Cardiff. There wasn't a great deal of beauty or culture about but he cut out coupons and saved them till he could send off for books - Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky... he taught himself the canon and treasured them.

Most frequently of all, he would make a flask of tea and set off down the front garden path where he'd sit contentedly in the car for hours, listening to concerts beamed from the grand concert halls of European capital cities on Radio 3.
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Whatever war experience shadowed him, whatever grubby worry over the daily grind was weighing on him, classical music was clearly an escape from it. But when Gigli, the legendry tenor, came to Cardiff, he used most of his wages to buy a ticket as a surprise for his wife while he stayed home to babysit the twins.

Now pop music can instantly pep your mood. It can even transport you to a pastiche of the Brookyln projects or Club Tropicana. But it rarely sends your soul souring on that epic scale, turning a clapped out car or a polluted station - the real conditions of your life in other words - into temples celebrating the overwhelming beauty and poignancy of the human condition. Jack spent a lot of time in his car. And this was one of his very favourite pieces.