Monday, 5 October 2009

I am never merry when I hear sweet music

Music occasionally makes me cry. While I was driving to work this morning, the radio launched into "Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes" from Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker. 'OK', I thought: we had the suites on record when I was growing up, and I've always liked the music. However, I very rarely hear it, and had completely forgotten how this particular section went. I listened a bit mechanically, noting dispassionately how good an orchestrator Tschaikovsky was, even set against such masters as Rimsky-Korsakov, and enjoying the music's chiffon layers of chuffing flute decoration, which well enough suggested falling snowflakes. But the sudden entrance of the wordless female chorus caught me utterly by surprise and (as they say) "blew me away". It brought tears to my eyes and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It may not perhaps be truly great music, but it is hugely effective, though the image it brought to mind was not realistic falling snow, but the artificial magic of the ballet stage, with the coloured lights, imitation snow, and smiling and gesturing dancers. Maybe that's why the music caught at me so, tapping into hidden memories of seeing Nutcracker on stage in London as a child.

My list of those magical moments when music has made my hair stand on end is thus now extended by one. Others include (in no particular order):

the restatement of the main theme near the end of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra;
the key change near the end of Ravel's Bolero;
the moment when the heroine is presented with the rose in Strauss's Rosenkavalier;
a particular descending melisma partway through Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending;
and the natural trumpet solo in his Pastoral Symphony;
the moments in Borodin's String Quartet when the rising scale passages miraculously arrive at exactly the right note to begin the next phrase of the melody;
the last phrase of Walton's A Spotless Rose;
the "sliding" theme in Nielsen's First Symphony;
the opening of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2;
and so on.

There are other Vaughan Williams moments: "walk out with me" in Toward the Unknown Region; the "city with her dreaming spires" in An Oxford Elegy; and my title phrase from the Serenade to Music. And there are other moments which may not produce an obvious thrill to the ear, but which are incomparable when you are actually preforming them: unforgettable little corners in pieces like Lotti's 8-part Crucifixus, Barber's Agnus Dei, Pearsall's Lay a Garland, Faure's Requiem, or Harris's Faire is the Heav'n.

It's funny how much of the music I enjoy performing (renaissance polyphony, baroque and early classical choral music) may be the sort of thing I am good at, but is not really what I want to listen to. I can spend a day happily enough working through some chaste piece of Byrd or Bach, but when I get home what I want is to be engulfed in billowing swathes of Bax or Richard Strauss!

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