Friday, June 02, 2006

Dancing about architecture…

…is what writing about music is like, according to Elvis Costello.

And he’s right, but suffice it to say that from the first note Nicola Benedetti played of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto at Bristol’s Colston Hall last night, I had a vicious attack of the spine-tingles and eye-moisteners that didn’t subside until she’d played the last.

She was accompanied by the Philharmonia, who sandwiched her performance with a frivolous Rossini overture and Elgar’s solid and stodgily-English First Symphony, but Benedetti (the winner of the Young Musician of the Year in 2004) was the show, really.

Which got me thinking about the spine-tingles. I’m not sure how much of it was the actual noise she was making and how much the mere fact of witnessing supreme virtuosity at first hand (doesn’t hurt that she is young and beautiful, of course).

A great puzzle to me is that although good music never fails to directly wallop my emotional and sometimes even my religious buttons in a way that nothing else does, and although according to some tests I apparently have a very good ear for pitch, I have no musical talent whatsoever. Can’t even sing in tune. The only difference between me and a tone-deaf droner is that at least I know when I’m singing out of tune.

And yet here is this 18 year old girl, playing a piece we’ve heard many times before, and still giving the whole audience the tingles. She’s playing the same notes we’ve all heard, yet she’s somehow managed to get her personality into them. Pure religious mystery.

Mozart was, by all accounts, a jerk, yet he wrote the Requiem. Beethoven was a mad, deaf, nasty bastard, who also happened to be the greatest artistic genius of all time not called Shakespeare. Even Tchaikovsky was a tortured soul – a homosexual riddled with self-loathing in a sham marriage. Did he have the spine-tingling gift despite this, or because of it? Does it matter? Should I be doing the cha-cha-cha about St Paul’s?


Peter Burnet said...

Like you, I've been given the gift of music appreciation and have bored many people by trying to force them to listen to this or that recording at high volumne in order to set their spines a-tingling. It doesn't work, but then I don't think I've ever attended a ballet or dance recital that didn't leave me dozing off within five minutes or giggling. (Traditional) art and architecture are great in manageable doses, but I don't remember the eyes ever moistening like with music. So I wonder, has anyone ever done a study on the character types or dispositions of those attracted to this or that art?

BTW, there are no frivolous Rossini overtures, you pagan. I suppose you think Chianti and the Tuscan sun are just frivolous diversions from the serious business of downing pints of bitter in a Bristol rain?

Brit said...

The overture was Semiramade and I swear it was frivolous. Perhaps it was just the conductor, Sir Roger Norrington...he was hopping around like a bunny-rabbit.

I know what you mean about failed attempts to convert non-musical types. Few things more disappointing than an utterly blank look as you're blasting Bach in their faces. That's another advantage of attending concerts - the shared enjoyment (we're lucky in Bristol to have two good venues for classical music). But even at concerts I've been staggered to spot a fidgeter during even the most hypnotic pieces.


Bristol is actually bathed in the most glorious sunshine today, which is confusing. The sun's out, the cricket's on the radio in the background, and the England football team is 4-0 up on Jamaica at half-time as I pop up to the computer to write this and to stick a few quid on the Epsom Derby.

It's enough to give you the tingles...

Duck said...

I've picked up an appreciation for classical music without any musical training whatsoever. If asked to describe what I like or don't like about a certain piece, I'm no more eloquent than King Frederick saying that it had "too many notes", or "just the right notes".

One piece that has mesmerized me, and that I have played enough times that I can basically imagine the whole score, note for note, in my head, is the fourth movement of Mahler's 5th symphony, the Adagietto, preformed by the Berlin Philharmonic with Wilhelm Furtwängler. It has a dreamy, sad, ethereal quality, which kind of describes other musical scores that push my emotional buttons. Another such score is Samual Barber's "Adagio for Strings". Yet another is the "Gayne Ballet Suite" by Aram Khachaturian.

Peter Burnet said...

It isn't just classical music either. Any number of Broadway hits send me into a dreamy fantasyland, although a surprising number of those fantasies involve my singing the songs themselves to impress Debbie Lyman, who I was smitten with in Grade 10 and haven't seen in forty years.

The other music to die for is operetta. Whenever I hear the Vilja song on the radio, I pull the car over out of concern for the safety of everybody else on the road.

Duck said...

If you are a soft touch for dreamy, romantic music, you would probably enjoy the soundtrack to "Somewhere in Time" by John Barry. Thoug panned by critics, it is one of my favorite movies, and one of the few that can bring a tear to my eye, largely because of the soundtrack.

My taste in music was much affected by my father's record collection, which included 101 Strings, Ferrante & Teicher and the Ray Coniff singers. I was enthralled by the theme to "A Summer Place" at a young age. Of course this pegs me as hopelessly bourgeois and middlebrow, as I can't find anything of value in the atonal dreck of the likes of Philip Glass or Leonard Cohen.

Brit said...

If your tastes tend towards the maudlin, Duck, you will certainly enjoy wallowing in Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte.

I think what you’re talking about might be termed ‘mood music’. Music has the ability to hit emotional response buttons with a unique directness, through mood and/or memorable melody (or both together).

Nearly everybody responds to, say, the Ode to Joy chorus from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Nessun Dorma. Good pop music has the same function – an instant, direct assault on your mood.

You don’t really need to acquire a taste for that, but you do to appreciate most classical music – which is music for its own sake.

I remember a moment of epiphany when I was 18 and listening to Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Normally an orchestral piece hits your ear as a sort of conglomerate mass of noise (which is a first requirement of the composer – to get all those different imstruments to work in harmony), but I started ‘isolating’ different instruments. So I listened to the strings, then just the violins, then just the flutes etc, and then all of a sudden I had this giddy and exhilarating sensation of simultaneously hearing every part of the orchestra individually, and as a united whole. It only lasted a few seconds, but if I concentrate I find I can do it at will, especially at live concerts. I suppose that level of appreciation comes as second nature to musically gifted people, but you can ‘acquire’ it to an extent.

Duck said...

Main Entry: maud·lin
Pronunciation: 'mod-l&n
Function: adjective
Etymology: alteration of Mary Magdalene; from her depiction as a weeping penitent
1 : drunk enough to be emotionally silly
2 : weakly and effusively sentimental

Gee, thanks Brit! I'm sure you meant that in the best possible way.

Brit said...

Ah, you don't want to pay too much attention to dictionaries.

Peter Burnet said...


Now you understand what the American Revolution was all about. It really had nothing to do with tea and taxes.

Want to come over to my place and listen to my Percy Faith collection? Great chords and the best part for we baccy-chomping, Bud-swilling North Americans is you don't really need to waste time acquiring a taste for it.

Brit said...

You sadly overestimate the sophistication of British culture. I'm one of those weirdo types who goes to concerts on my own, since none of my friends has the least notion of musical taste, the maudlin bunch of pagans.

Hey Skipper said...

Like you guys, I greatly appreciate music, despite talent that extends no further than deciding whether to set the volume at 10, or 11.

Unfortunately, my tastes are what most would consider to lie in that broad expanse between weird and awful.

All the pieces you have discussed would have no more impact on me than my dog would obtain by sitting down while I spouted logarithms.

Sad, really, as the impact such music has on others is obvious.