News of Hugh Wood’s death in the middle of August came as a shock. I feel with intense regret that too much remains unsaid from my side.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be the philosopher Edward Craig’s student at Churchill during the academic year 1980/1. Craig took a keen interest in furthering music life at the college. One of the best things he did for my education was to introduce me to Hugh. I’ve loved music all my life, but I wasn’t a musician, my musical abilities, education and judgment being underdeveloped at best. Nevertheless, for me Hugh became one of the most brilliant and witty, but always warmhearted, uncompromisingly strict, but wonderfully broadminded and erudite teachers I’ve ever encountered. A cursory look at the essays collected in his “Staking Out the Territory” suffices to show that he was not only a great composer, but also a master of clear thought and writing well from whom anybody can learn without end.
A few days after my arrival at Churchill, a new extension was opened, I believe it was dedicated to John Cockcroft, with the ceremony including a hymn composed and conducted by Hugh. I liked to take part in the singing, but not the piece. I couldn’t suppress the remark that it sounded like “a socialist morning song”. German rudeness, which in many other cases might have ruined the relation right at its inception. Of course, I wasn’t sure whether my mockery had reached Hugh’s ears, at all. But not long after, during lunch in the dining hall, he surprised me with heaping scorn on some ideology-driven rantings of politicians in London who belonged to the radical left wing of the Labour Party. The admirable composer of Pablo Neruda songs didn’t show off a red tie, after all. He adamantly declared that nothing was more revolting in politics than the combination of ignorance and arrogance, incompetence and pretentious bluster, parochialism and hybris. Undoubtedly a valuable standard of assessing public life, even if only a negative one.
I remember his remark so well, because in this instance he spoke with utter seriousness, not in his inimitable hilarious manner which was a jewel in itself. I don’t remember any other Fellow ever to display such a joyful, unabashed, loud continental kind of laughter which greatly contributed to making me feel at home at Churchill. Decades later, in a long political letter, he condemned in exactly the same spirit the rightwing Tories who unnecessarily pushed Mrs. May’s government into a rushed, ideology-driven extreme form of Brexit as people who were going to ruin his country. His outspokenness seemed to me as striking as the consistency of his attitude.
Of course, the repugnant combination of ignorance and pretentiousness can be found in many other areas, as well, not the least among philosophers and their acolytes. I had unthinkingly picked up from Theodor W. Adorno’s writings on the philosophy of music the fashionable idea that Beethoven’s use of counterpoint in his late work was a dubious affair, his Ninth Symphony, especially its last movement, a “problematic” dead end. I still remember how I blushed when Hugh during another lunch unexpectedly spoke about the perfection of Beethoven’s Ninth, especially its last movement, and painstakingly explained that Beethoven’s command of counterpoint was second to none. He didn’t address me directly. But I felt that if I had adopted an opinion, in a matter close to my heart, so carelessly, I had probably done so in many other important cases, as well. I had better start examine deeply held prejudices of my own, not simply criticise those of others. Once in a lifetime, you should question all your basic beliefs and the ways in which you have acquired them, as Descartes memorably put it. It’s easier to do so if you feel the shame of such a moment. In this way Hugh helped me to embark on a genuine philosopher’s journey.
Fortunately, in our talks he seemed to share John Cleese’s doubts about the wisdom of the widespread attitude “Don’t mention the war” which no educated German of my acquaintance has ever found fully comprehensible. Of course, he spoke to me in the most sensitive manner imaginable. He told me how very much he would have liked to be a contemporary and preferably even a friend of Brahms and Schumann. That was the first thing he said to me about Germany. It was only much later that I came to understand that one of the reasons why he revered Brahms was the fact that Brahms himself suffered from being born too late. It’s impossible not to be moved when reading how Hugh describes in his essay “A Photograph of Brahms” the way in which the latter was staking out his own psychological territory in four early works, and the darkness of his vision of human life, telling us that he was “the most profoundly unhappy of all the great composers”. And pointing out the abyss which separates us from his world, in spite of the fact, that we experience his great works as timeless, the true mark of classic art. Others are better qualified to judge whether in Hugh’s case Schönberg’s modernism was a successful way to become a truthful contemporary of Brahms. But there can’t be any doubt that Schönberg’s music provides the means for expressing the unspeakable horrors of our own time which Brahms couldn’t have imagined.
Time and again, Hugh stressed the importance of taking seriously moments when music touches us in an unforgettable manner. I remember how Bach’s music assailed me with immense power for the first time when I was a small boy and, in the company of my parents, entered one of Hamburg’s main churches because one could hear music through the open door. Later I became convinced that it must have been a rehearsal of Bach’s cantata “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” BWV 21, but I still cannot make up my mind whether it was the mournful beginning or the incomparably celebratory blazing end. That was shortly after I had heard on the radio for the first time the number of six million Jews killed by the Nazis for the only reason that they were Jews, certainly one of the most disturbing moments I remember. Bach’s music promised to be a stronger force than that. Hugh agreed with me that one of Adorno’s most famous remarks about the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz was completely wrongheaded. For two reasons.
First, art in all its forms is a celebration of life. To think you must not do so in the face of great evil, in effect concedes complete victory to the very powers of evil in human life. We must never give up like that, not even when we face what the Germans did under Hitler before and during WW2, that black hole of German and European history. Of course, a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth may become an instrument of making us complacent about the horrors of our world. But it may be the exact opposite. Hugh shared my joy when I told him how the then Chancellor Angela Merkel achieved this in 2017. She assembled the heads of state of the G20 in Hamburg’s newly opened concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, and forced even the violent, murderous, joyless rulers among them like the leaders of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and then US President Trump who certainly do not believe in the brotherhood of all mankind, to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth with its Ode to Joy proclaiming the exact opposite, which under these circumstances got its old subversive, revolutionary message back.
Second, art and especially poetry belong to the best means we have to truthfully confront evil, especially that black hole of the Holocaust where we still only partly understand what and why it happened and the uncanny power it has retained until today, globally, and may display in the future. Of course, music in itself doesn’t refer to particular historical events. But it can create a space of expressing the pain, grief, anxiety and fear which the black holes of life and history leave us to live with. And by truthfully confronting evil, it can become a truthful way of celebrating life. Like Phoenix arising from the ashes. I think that this symbol which seems to have accompanied Hugh all his life, is an apt one for the territory which he has staked out in his music.
There must be many listeners who feel that his masterpieces do possess the quality of timelessness he spoke about in Brahms’ case. Actually I didn’t hear much of his music in full before I returned to Germany. Just by chance we met during lunch shortly before I left Churchill in the late summer of 1981. He must have noticed my unhappiness that one of the best years of my life was coming to an end. I was full of doubt how I could preserve all the gems and jewels I had collected in the lessons and writings of Edward Craig and other members of the Faculty of Philosophy. Hugh admonished me never to give in to the temptations of self-pity and never to stop working. And then he went to fetch a present for me, an LP with his cello concerto and his first violin concerto. When I heard these recordings for the first time back in Hamburg, I was similarly stunned by the power of his music as by that childhood experience of a Bach cantata. In the course of time, ever more of his works became my friends, talking to me as if they understood me perfectly well, and creating a space where I could preserve my time at Churchill, not simply as a place of memory which can only too quickly deteriorate into baleful nostalgia, but of learning from and working on the gems and jewels I had brought home, a place of renewal and development. But most of all, as a cherished treasure which helps to truthfully confront the black holes of evil and to celebrate human life.