Virginia Barton

12 October 2015: Noises Off


12 October 2015




Friday afternoon, and the last lesson of the week. We sat in a semi-circle round Mrs Lovell for Musical Appreciation, an optional lesson; you could do Prep instead. Nevertheless there were about a dozen of us, for we liked Mrs Lovell and she had a stack of shellac records to play on the old wind-up gramophone. Mrs Lovell introduced us to the “classics”; the music Fritz Spiegl memorably described as, “Despised because so well-known.”

“Never forget,” I remember him saying during one of his programmes, “that someone is listening to this for the first time.”


This particular Friday we were to hear Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, the Habanera from Carmen, and a Brahms Intermezzo. But before anything else we were to sit in silence for five minutes and write down everything we could hear.

Because it was summertime, the window was wide open.

I could hear Maria Brown’s pencil rubbing against the paper (I could also smell her; she was quite the dirtiest girl in the class), and Jilly King, sniffing of course.

From the basement of the building next door came the tantalising sound of a fencing class. In French.

En garde! Prêtes? Allez!”

How we fantasized about the Maître whom none of us had ever actually seen! How we pitched ourselves as far out of the window as possible in order to catch a glimpse of him!

Miss Bywater was yelling at some unfortunate in Remove; a maths class must be in progress next door.

Almost silence … then the meowing of a cat from a wall below the window.

“Fatty” Holly Fitzjames, smothering a giggle.


In fact there never was total silence – one could hear one’s own breathing and a ringing sound in the ears, or was it a distant fire engine?

Mrs Lovell picked a few of us to read aloud what we had written; most sounds were common to all, for example Monsieur and Miss Bywater. Only Maria Brown had heard the bells. But yes, there HAD been bells ringing somewhere.

Nobody except Mrs Lovell remarked on the clock ticking – it was so omnipresent in our school life as to be part of the wallpaper.


dame-evelyn-glennieThose classes not only introduced the classics but started me actually listening – not only to music (a hugely precious part of my life), but to noises in general and to what people were saying to me; to concentrate on voices and the words they said.

Lurching towards eighty I am incredibly lucky to have lost the hearing in just one ear, the other being as good as new. Oh pity, pity for those who cannot hear a thing.


Dame Evelyn Glennie (at right), profoundly deaf since the age of twelve, is a world-famous percussionist. She often performs barefoot, saying she can “feel” the music through her feet – and indeed through other parts of her body. She doesn’t listen as we did, but feels. Those vibrations don’t only go into your ears as “noise,” it would seem.

Mrs Lovell would have thoroughly approved. I hate to think what she would have had us do – stripped off and shivering to Mozart’s Jupiter, in all likelihood.






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