Over at The Expulsion of the Blatant Beast, Bo confesses to an inability to make any sense of non-vocal classical music, and reading the post I thought, yes, that is exactly how I feel, words out of my mouth. My rather modest collection of a hundred and fifty or so CDs contains only two Mozarts, one Beethoven and one Haydn, this last a recent addition. They sit on the shelves undisturbed among Indian ragas, Persian dastgahs, African folk songs, Gregorian chant, songs from the Cancionero Musical de Palacio, some Dead Can Dance, a lot of Joni Mitchell, ecstatic Sufis, most of Sibelius, a little Japanese flute and koto music and some frantic crashing, sobbing and wailing from Azerbaijan.
I got a bit fed up of all this. I bought an MP3 player to drown out my fellow passengers on my commute to work but I began to find it every bit as intrusive as I do them. I’d have the thing on shuffle but keep on fast forwarding it, thinking, ‘oh, God, not that one again.’ It was time to try something new, something not an ululation, an amanés or a joyous hymn to Allah. This is where the Haydn came in.
The CD is ‘The London Symphonies’ and it lasts upwards of 150 minutes. I put it on the CD player and let it run and frankly, it drove me nuts. The first movement of Symphony no 95 (he wrote a lot of this stuff) in C major ‘begins with an abrupt five-note unison challenge, which, together with the attractively-scored second subject, provides the material for the fine, dramatic development section.’ You see, it does make sense, it does have meaning, it does have development and conflict and resolution but I simply cannot hear it. To me the entire two hours' worth goes huppity-hopperty-hippity-jipperty-dipperty-huppity, repetitively, relentlessly, interminably. There is for me a mechanical, jerky quality about it that is profoundly irritating, and it’s the same mechanical, jerky quality I hear in my Beethoven and Mozart CDs. The truly saddening thing is that it is ENTIRELY MY FAULT and I am left gloomily mystified, forever excluded from a source of abiding pleasure enjoyed, indeed revered, by so many very discerning people.
I don’t know why it is that music from the 18th and early 19th centuries should be so impenetrable to me. Sure, I have absolutely no technical or academic knowledge of music of any period or tradition, but why is it that while Old Ludwig Van, Handel and Haydn feel intrusive and drive me to screaming point, an Indian raga or piece of Renaissance sacred music will feel clear and soothing and refreshing? How is it that even though I do not really understand them, I feel as though I did?
One of my favourite pieces of ‘serious’ music is the Sibelius Symphony no 7, completed in 1924. The wikipedia article on this symphony is quite beyond me and might as well be written in Navajo for all the sense I am able to make of it, but the music itself, which is by no means simple, somehow does make sense to me. I can follow the development of the ideas in a way I cannot with the Haydn stuff. Here is one listener’s reaction to the symphony's closing bars: ‘Delivered from mortal bonds of earthly understanding, rising above mountains we cannot conquer, gathering with the force of revolving planets, thrust into the chordal Om of the universe, to where the stars dwell.’ Yeah, well. I’m not sure I fancy being thrust up anybody’s ‘chordal Om’ but the thing is, I suppose, that us purely intuitive listeners to western orchestral music have to rely on the visual and the emotional and are forced to invent a narrative, as though the music were the score of a movie, excluded as we are from being able to appreciate the purely abstract interplay of notes and chords and um… stuff. Listening to Sibelius and to Indian and Persian music, I tend to see abstract shapes and three-dimensional patterns rather than narratives and landscapes, which habit might, if I have the patience, help me to get closer to Ol’ Joe Haydn. But I would have to work at it.