Music to his ears: Every good dog deserves a musical tribute

musical tribute
Maggie Davies

Hector, dog of dogs, is the most glorious companion. Simon Tiffin reveals how he came to commission a piece of music that would evoke his spirit when he finally departs this world.

One of the earliest signs of spring in my garden is a ring of snowdrops and winter acconites that encircles the trunk of a medlar tree outside the greenhouse. This yellow-and-white display was planted to complement a collection of elegantly engraved, moss-covered mini-headstones that mark the resting places of the previous owner’s dogs. Each of these markers has a simple but evocative dedication: “Medlar, beloved Border Terrier”; “Otter, a little treasure. Sister of Medlar”; “Skip, grandson of Genghis. Sweet eccentric.”

Every time I see this pet cemetery I am reminded that, despite a complex denial structure that involves a sneaking suspicion that he is immortal, there will come a time when I have to face the death of Hector, dog of dogs. Hector is a cockapoo and not ashamed to admit it. He sneers at terms such as “designer dog” and “hybrid” and is rightly proud of his spaniel/poodle heritage. Although many people have an origin myth of how their pet chose them, in Hector’s case it is true.

When I went with my wife Alexa to see a friend whose working cocker had recently given birth, a blind, chocolate brown caterpillar of a pup freed himself from the wriggling furry mass of his siblings and crawled his way towards us. Bonding was instant and, on our side, unconditional.

Eight years later, Hector is my companion, confidant and friend. Our relationship is uncomplicated; we don’t argue, we are always pleased to see each other and I never go to bed angry with him (even if he is taking up half of the duvet). Hector’s antics have, at times, astonished me: at the funeral of Marion, an aunt whose life had been dedicated to loving, breeding and showing poodles, Hector, like the dogs of Antioch at the fall of the Roman Empire, threw his head back and released a lupine call at the exact moment the celebrant released Marion’s ashes to the wind; an action he has never repeated. (A friend recently recommended reading Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, by the renowned biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who studies phenomena that conventional science cannot explain, to shed light on Hector’s more baffling behaviour.)

While many of my friends understand and even identify with the depth of feeling I have for Hector, others see it as mawkish. How can a relatively sane and intelligent person invest such emotion in an animal? I have seen this attitude expressed when others who have lost a much-loved dog have been grief stricken. “We dismiss and don’t legitimise people’s grief for a dog,” says Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving. “It is as if people have more value and those that make a fuss about a pet are somehow trivial. As our relationships, however, can be more straightforward with our dogs than with family members or friends, we can invest huge amounts of love and time in our pets. We have no right to begrudge or dismiss people’s grief at the loss of a dog. Indeed, it can be very important to have a ritual or a physical reminder to mark the death of a pet.”

Short of enacting a reverse Greyfriars Bobby, I am pushed to come up with a suitable memento for such a special beast as Hector. Cloning? Too Silicon Valley nutter. Taxidermy? Too mad cat lady. Brian Sewell, in his wonderful autobiography Sleeping With Dogs, suggests planting a tree, but bemoans that he won’t be around to see the Sequoia sempervirens reach its full potential in 200 years’ time, a sentiment I cannot help sharing.

As a more immediate memorial, I consider having Hector sit for a portrait and contact the artist Sally Muir, whose work always manages to capture the innate doggishness of her sitters. “I have been obsessed with dogs all my life,” she says, “and I also love how so many artists have portrayed them. I am particularly fond of Hogarth’s pug paintings and Freud’s whippets. He was much more sympathetic to his canine sitters than his human ones.”

“I do work from photographs,” Muir says, “but ideally I like to meet my subjects and look them in the eye. If you are going to have your dog painted as a memorial, wait until he is quite old. Like people, as dogs age they become an extreme version of themselves; there is a dignity to old dogs.” A portrait would be a fine way to remember Hector and, looking at Sally’s work, I know she would be able to produce a painting that would capture everything but his bark. There is, however, something a little too static, too frozen in time about an image that does not quite get Hector’s delight in being Hector. He is a true energy and like all his kind, simply can’t help living in the moment.

Several years ago, Laurie Anderson composed and performed music intended only for dogs. Performed in a low frequency perfectly adapted to its canine audience’s sense of hearing, this piece complemented her film Heart of a Dog, a work inspired by the bardo – the Tibetan concept of transitioning into the afterlife. It was Anderson’s idea of combining Tibetan mysticism, dogs and music that inspired my final choice of a suitable memorial for Hector: a piece of music composed to celebrate his life and death.

I did not, however, want this to be any mass of the dead in the tradition of Brahms, Fauré or Mozart, but more an uplifting anthem evoking the exuberance, joy and chaos Hector brings to life.

Not a Requiem but a Hequiem. Although I have always suspected Hector of being a rock fan due to his resemblance to Robert Plant when he is overdue a groom, for the Hequiem I took my starting point to be works that brought to life big landscapes, freedom and hope, such as Vaughan Williams’s Lark, the Scherzo: Molto Vivace from Dvořák’s 9th and the “Open Prairie” from Aaron Copeland’s Billy the Kid Suite.

My search for the right composer began with a conversation with William Mival, head of composition at the Royal College of Music. “A good composer will write to order and provide what a client wants,” says Mival. “Mozart did exactly the same. Indeed, his commission for the Requiem was from a client who wanted to pass the music off as his own. As I was attacked by a dog as a child, however, I am not your man, but I can think of a number of Royal College students who would be thrilled with this idea.”

After discussing Hector’s personality and my ideas for the piece I was put in touch with dog lover, composer and recent graduate from the Royal College, Nahum Strickland. Making his own music since the age of three, Nahum is something of a prodigy and was featured in a Guardian piece on child composers in 2004. His approach to composition is also remarkable. “When I watch a video or look at scenery or an image, the music appears to me fully orchestrated, already complete,” he says. “It is just there and if I don’t write it down it disappears – I’ll never get it back again.”

I wanted an uplifting anthem to evoke the joy Hector brings me

So Nahum can get as good an idea as possible of Hector’s nature, I send numerous videos of him charging through the countryside, playing with his dog walking pack and sleeping in his bed. We talk of his loves: playing ball (endlessly), guarding; and his hates: his nemesis the cocker spaniel who taunts him from the back of a quad bike – and being ignored, cyclists.

For Nahum, the Hequiem presented a welcome challenge. “In composition you usually start with an arc – a beginning,
middle and end – but Hector is always charging around. He seems to find it hard to concentrate on one thing and I get the idea he will always do what he feels like; he is a very immediate dog. So I got this very fast-moving time and this piece became more of a progression and odyssey. The piece builds to something a little bit bombastic – like Hector.”

Not only is Nahum’s assessment of Hector’s character spot on but also the piece he produces – from the acerbic timbre of the opening oboe solo that captures Hector’s playful nature to the climax that immediately brings to my mind the sight of Hector charging after a ball or a rabbit – is sublime. I can imagine myself weeping uncontrollably at his grave side. Hector, however, remaining blissfully unaware of his mortality, appears unmoved and gives me a look that reminds that it is time for supper.

 (Article source: The Guardian)

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