Once upon a time, forever ago, I sat and listened to a man who loved Russian music.
His name was Professor Brown. He was a lecturer not only to me, but to listeners to Radio Three, the classical music channel here in the UK. He talked to radio audiences about Tchaikovsky.
He oozed kindliness. And this one day, in a music lecture room in the bowels of a provincial theatre, he spoke to just a handful of young music students. He played a recording which changed the way I thought.
It was a recording of a harsh old woman’s voice singing a single melody, with no accompaniment. She was Russian, I think; and the tune she sang behaved utterly differently to the ones I was accustomed to hearing.
Here in Europe our tunes have a stately ancient order to them. Typically a melody might have a question, and an answer, then an elaboration of the question and a final conclusion.
Rather like musical rhetoric.
This woman, Reader: she was singing something far more untamed.
The tune she sang started with a premise: and then wandered back over it many times, changing a bit here, a bit there, languishing in the shape that first little snatch of music had taken, telling the same phrase over and over, the same and yet different.
It spoke of the vast steppes, of mountainous regions, of bitter cold and death, and life that persisted and blossomed despite harsh realities. All that, Reader, in a small snatch of melody sung hauntingly by an old woman.
It has never left me. Neither has the romance of the people who went out to far-flung places to collect music which man had been moulding for millennia, never choosing to write it down.
Take Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.
They undertook to travel to the far reaches of Hungary to record the music of the Magyars, the Hungarian people. Bartok would record the songs on manuscript paper; Kodaly, though, was a man of technology and opted to use the phonograph cylinder, which recorded an etching of a song on the outside of a cylinder made of wax or plastic.
They discovered something new: that the tunes were largely built around the pentatonic scale, a haunting five-tone system which pulls the heart strings but remains heart-breakingly distant, like a wild animal.
These travellers and collectors, these ransackers of history and time: they are singular adventurers. We only get to see their finds second-hand.
But second-hand is good enough for me.
Which is why I found myself at a huge repository of Things That Have Changed The World, set near Bloomsbury Square in the heart of London.
The British Museum is an enchanting magpie’s nest of booty, a cornucopia of beautiful objects on which to feast the eyes. As for the provenance of the objects, and how they were come by: I cannot say.
I was in search of what I collect: leads. Hints of much bigger stories, dropped by the things which once adorned the lives of people around the word, and which now have been deemed so significant that they stand in a glass case in a national museum.
I skimmed the Egyptian gallery but the Assyrians were calling. Where the Egyptians are all grace, light and linen, the Assyrians were gravitas, power and stunningly inscribed stone.
I elbowed my way to the front for a moment alone with the Rosetta Stone. One piece of rock, so much understanding.
Then I looked at the map.
Reader, there were so many stories and there was so little time: a room of prints and etchings of rapier-sharp 19th century wit; a room hung with iron age jewellery which beckoned across two thousand years and some.
There were inscriptions and helmets from Roman Britain and the findings from the Saxon Noble’s tomb at Sutton Hoo. Swords and torques and chessmen and incense holders and minor deities and five hundred years of clocks and watches….
Each took a little time to record. One has to know about a lead before one can follow it up. And I worked and worked, skimming and scanning this plunder for the finds which must surely have the most captivating tales attached.
Finally, about three, it was time to leave. I will be returning very soon: I have a date already set.
But I sloped out unwillingly onto the great pantheonic steps, watching tourists surge in the opposite direction.
Why does mankind collect stuff?
Bartok and Kodaly made a lasting change to the direction of music with their ground-breaking discovery about Magyar melodies. The museum provides academic evidence to allow us to plot the past.
But most of all, Reader, it’s a captivating collection of finds which lift the spirit. They track, in a haphazard fashion, the aspirations of mankind from its earliest moments. Each object is something very beautiful.
And each exhibit is a lead to a much bigger story.