Posts Tagged ‘schubert’

“The Soul of the World” by Roger Scruton

Never write about politics or religion, they say. You’re bound to get into a heated argument and you won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. And whatever you say, you’ll alienate a good number of your readers. However, if you’re writing on cultural matters, you can’t really keep the subjects out. Religion especially. The entire culture of the western world – and of other worlds too, I think – rests on its religious heritage. And in any case, it’s a subject that interests me, and what’s the point of writing a blog if I am to steer clear of matters I find interesting? So, having recently read philosopher Roger Scruton’s book The Soul of the World, and generally blogging as I do about what I read, this seemed to me an ideal opportunity to alienate good numbers of my readers.

This post is not, however, intended as a review. For to review anything is to set oneself in judgement, and for someone like myself, not trained in philosophy, and who is, furthermore, not even well read in the subject, to pass judgement on the writing of an eminent philosopher, a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University no less, would be a trifle presumptuous. But since the book The Soul of the World is not aimed solely at the specialist reader, there seemed no reason why a mere layman such as myself should not at least set down, for what they’re worth, some of his more or less random thoughts and impressions. And if I should go badly wrong, I’m not so conceited that I cannot accept correction from those who know better.

The book was a present from my brother last Christmas, who told me (tongue very much in cheek, I hope) that he thought I’d find it interesting as I was into “mumbo-jumbo”. This was because, in some of our previous conversations, I had refused to accept the contention that there can be no more to us than the sum of our constituent physical parts; or that our consciousness is contingent upon our existence as physical entities; and so on. Not that these contentions were necessarily wrong; but, since they cannot conclusively be proved to be right either, I saw no reason to reject at least the possibility that they may be wrong. And, given my temperament, it’s a possibility that I very much wanted to hold on to, for it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that our lives are much diminished if we lose sight of this possibility.

At this point, I realised that I ran into problems: I did not have the words to articulate what precisely I meant. I could, of course, use words such as “transcendence”, or “spirituality”, or whatever, but such words are not merely vaguely defined, they have been used so glibly and so often by various snake-oil salesmen that it’s difficult to attach to them any significant meaning. Poets, of course, can express these things better, so I quoted Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused”; but this is the language of poetry, not of debate. The truth is I do not know how to debate these matters without sounding, after a while, like those various quacks and charlatans, and those professional purveyors of meaningless platitudes that are so regularly plastered across social media as if they were expressions of great wisdom.

We live, sadly, in times where the middle ground is not recognised as valid, or, at least, considered but as the consequence of a timid unwillingness to align oneself with one extreme pole or another. Expression even of doubts concerning the ability of science to answer, or potentially to answer, all questions we may have concerning ourselves and the universe we inhabit, marks one out as merely as a crank. But I most certainly do not wish to disparage science: I myself have a professional background in science (or mathematics, at least), and have no desire to join the ranks of creationists, proponents of intelligent design, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine campaigners, astrologers, homeopaths, crystal ball gazers, tea-leaf readers, and the like. (Oh dear – I have lost myself a great many readers with that, haven’t I? But since I have started, I guess I might as well continue.) Nonetheless, the questions I found myself asking seemed to me worth asking: can we really be so absolutely sure that we are nothing more than the sum of our constituent physical parts? Is our existence as conscious entities necessarily contingent upon our existence as physical entities? Of course, I do not know the answers to these questions. I do not even know if these questions are adequately formulated. But, given the kind of person I am, I cannot help asking them.

I cannot help asking also whether it is indeed the case, as Dawkins and his followers seem to insist, that the entire purpose of my living is none other than to propagate my genes; that, whatever I feel, no matter how precious or valuable – whether it be love for family or the warmth of friendship, or awed wonder at rivers and mountains and seas, or the ecstatic and elevated states of mind induced by the poetry of Shakespeare or by the string quartets of Beethoven – that these are all nothing but the consequences of complex electro-chemical reactions going on in my brain. I may ask why these things should set off these particular electro-chemical reactions in the first place, and my atheist friends tell me that these are but “adaptations”, by-products of the evolutionary process, and nothing more. That even my Wordsworthian sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused is but a reaction to some stimulus determined by the evolutionary process that has made me what I am. Only this and nothing more.

Now, all this may be so, but my point is that, given my temperament, I’m not happy for it to be so. It may well be that I am a mere machine, responding merely to stimuli in a manner determined by the evolutionary process, but I am not happy to be a mere machine. “What’s wrong with being a machine?” I am asked. Are not machines as complex and as intricate as human beings wonderful things? Why attach to such wondrous machines the adjective “mere”? No doubt, no doubt, I reply, but how can I set aside what I can’t help feeling?

All this scientific determinism seems very plausible – and may even be true for all I know – but I can’t help reflecting that if it were that easy to understand the nature of reality, it’s hard to account for philosophers still arguing and tying themselves in knots over these very questions. At the very least, all this may be worth further consideration. And in any case, we tend, perhaps, to make more of our rational faculties than is warranted. I increasingly believe that our thoughts and actions have more irrationality about them than we perhaps care to admit – that not even the most rational of us could ever whole-heartedly embrace any idea or ideology that we are emotionally uncomfortable with; that our thoughts and values are determined to a great extent – to a far greater extent than we are perhaps prepared to admit – by our emotions, and that we use reason to do no more than to justify and perhaps to fine-tune these thoughts and values. But, as I have perhaps already meandered into areas I did not mean to when I set out writing this post, let us leave that particular chestnut for later. For the purposes of this particular post, I found it, and find it still, hard to accept that I am but a machine whose purpose is to propagate my genes; and that any sense sublime I may harbour of transcendence is but an illusion – some mere by-product of the evolutionary process. It is not, after all, to deny the importance of reason, or to refuse to acknowledge the immense danger of jettisoning rationality, to insist that our emotions have their claims also.

It is at this point that my attention was drawn to the book The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton. The blurb on the dust-jacket seemed to articulate clearly the various vaguely formed and even more vaguely articulated thoughts and ideas that had been whirling around my mind:

[Scruton] argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgements hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defence of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean.

This is not really a book on philosophy: it is, rather, a statement of the author’s personal values and beliefs, stated both with elegance and with passion. It is, however, informed by philosophy, and it is not possible to discuss this book without addressing the philosophical ideas the author discusses. And, since I very much want to discuss this book, I must, I fear, put aside my diffidence on this matter: I’m sure I’ll go wrong in some things, but I’ll try my best not to; and, as I have already said, I am not averse to being corrected. So, on that understanding, let us proceed.

Right from the start, Scruton rejects Cartesian dualism – this idea of “the ghost in the machine”, the incorporeal soul inhabiting the corporeal body, but not subject, as the body is, to the laws of nature. So in answer to my question “Is there no more to me than the sum of my constituent physical parts?” Scruton’s answer is a flat “no”: he holds to Spinoza’s idea of monism, claiming – although without going into it here in greater detail – that dualism raises more issues than it solves. But while he rejects ontological duality, he proposes instead a duality of a different order – a cognitive duality.

The exposition of this is complex, and I don’t know that I am capable of providing anything more here than a summary that must necessarily be crude. He speaks first of all of persons as subjects as well as objects:

A person is, for us, a someone and not just a something. Persons are able to reply to the question “why?” asked of their state, their beliefs, their intentions, their plans, and their desires. This means that, while we often endeavour to explain people in the way we explain other objects in our environment – in terms of cause and effect, laws of motion, and physical makeup – we also have another kind of access to their past and future conduct. In addition to explaining their behaviour, we seek to understand it; and the contrast between explaining and understanding is pertinent to our whole way of describing persons and their world.

Scruton moves on from this to introduce the theory of Verstehen, proposed by Wilhelm Dilthey, and he describes it thus:

According to Dilthey rational agents look on the world in two contrasting (though not necessarily conflicting) ways as something to be explained, predicted, and brought under universal laws; and an occasion for thought, action, and emotion. When looking on the world in the latter way, as an object of our attitudes, emotions, and choices, we understand it through the conceptions that we use of each other, when engaged in justifying and influencing our conduct. We look for reasons for actions, meanings, and appropriate occasions of feeling. We are not explaining the world in terms of physical causes, but interpreting it as an object of our personal responses. Our explanations seek the reason rather than the cause; and our descriptions are also invocations and modes of address.

Scruton concedes that Dilthey’s thesis is both “difficult to state and controversial”, but it is a central plank in his own argument. He now introduces a second German term, used by Husserl – Lebenswelt, the world of life, the world that is “open to action, and organized by the concepts that shape our needs”. This, Scruton says, is what Dilthey’s concept of Verstehen leads towards. He equates this with the concept of the “manifest image”, introduced by Wilfred Sellars in “a now-famous article of analytic philosophy” (well – “now-famous” to philosophers, no doubt …). This “manifest image” is the “image represented in our perceptions and in the reasons and motives that govern our response to it”. This is distinguished from the “scientific image”, which is “the account that emerges through the systematic attempt to explain what we observe”. The two are not commensurate:

Thus, colors and other secondary qualities, which belong to the way we perceive the world, do not feature as such in the theories of physics, which refer instead to the wavelengths of refracted light.

[Note: although Scruton is a British writer, the book is published by Princeton University Press, and uses American spellings throughout; I have retained these spellings in my quotations.]

Scruton uses for the rest of the book Husserl’s term Lebenswelt rather than Sellar’s “manifest image”, as Sellars’ distinction, according to Scruton, “does not get to the heart of our predicaments as subjects – that there is, underlying his account of the ‘manifest image’, an insufficient theory of the first-person case and its role in interpersonal dialogue”. Furthermore, he continues, he wishes “to emphasize that the distinction between the world of science and the world in which we live is as much a matter of practical reason as perception”.

I have, so far, used direct quotations from the book wherever I can: unused as I am to writing about these matters, I am afraid I will distort the author’s argument by paraphrasing. And, as this part of the book, laying out as it does the framework for the subsequent arguments, is particularly important, I did not wish to run the danger of misrepresenting it. All this is very new to me, and despite having read these passages over a few times, I am not sure I understand them fully. However, if I continue doing this for the rest of the book, I’ll end up with a post about as long as the book itself. So I will do my best to summarise as best I can what strikes me as being the central ideas and arguments , without too much recourse to direct quotation.

After laying out this initial framework, Scruton goes on to develop this idea of a “Cognitive Duality”, citing Spinoza’s view that “thought and extension were … two attributes of a single unified reality” – distinguishing between the facts describing the real world, and ideas concerning the real world. Kant’s approach too, is similar: we may consider something to be the outcome of immutable laws of biology, but also, at the same time, “from the point of view of practical reason”, a free agent.

Scruton provides many examples of this Cognitive Duality. A portrait may be described completely in scientific terms, by listing for each pixel the shade that is determined by a precise balancing of the primary colours. To reproduce the Mona Lisa, say, the computer will not require any information other than this. But this is not how we see the painting: the shades of the pixels do not enter into what we perceive, even though that’s all there is. Conversely, an account of what we perceive when we see the Mona Lisa is of no use to the computer in attempting to reproduce the picture. We here have two quite different modes of perception of the same thing, each complete in itself, but neither touching the other: partial information in one mode of perception cannot be completed by information from the other mode.

And similarly with music, a subject on which Scruton is particularly knowledgeable, and on which he writes with an evident passion. He describes the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto – a movement up from C to E flat to G, and a stepwise descent back to C again, followed by two emphatic two note phrases from G to C; then a pause; then an answering phrase, this time harmonised … and so on. This is how we hear it. But scientifically, what we are hearing is a sequence of frequencies, and nothing more. Where exactly is this movement occurring that we perceive so clearly? It cannot surely be a delusion, since we can all perceive this musical line, and we perceive it on repeated hearings. But where does it exist?

But could this be a delusion? Could it be the case that this Lebenswelt is merely a mode of perception that we cling to because it is useful to us, and that it has no correlate in the real world outside our minds? Scruton spends most of this book arguing against this contention. Twice he cites Leibniz’s concept of a “well-founded phenomenon” – i.e. “a way of seeing that is indispensable to us, and which we could not have conclusive evidence to reject”.

Scruton ranges across a wide gamut of topics, from architecture to inter-personal relations, from eroticism to our consciousness of our selves, and so on. Intriguingly, he interprets the myth of the Fall in terms of how we view and interact with each other. We do not normally regard our own selves as objects: we are aware of our own existence as thinking and perceiving subjects; and, when we interact with other humans, we grant them the same self-awareness that we claim for ourselves. The Fall, in Scruton’s version, is an allegory of our learning to see the other as objects. It does not necessarily follow that the two modes of perception followed each other in time, as the story of the Fall, set in time, may suggest; but the two co-exist.

In the discussion of inter-personal relationships, Scruton considers the contracts, the responsibilities and obligations, that bind us together. And, as part of this, he considers marriage: is marriage nothing but contractual obligations? Is love for our family, our children, no more than the fulfilment of contractual obligations, no matter how willingly undertaken? Here again, Scruton sees an instance of “Cognitive Duality”: yes, we have contracts that we are obliged to honour; but we also make vows, that present to us an entirely different mode of perceiving the nature of our relationships. Everywhere we look, we find this same Cognitive Duality – an explanation of what things are, and the meaning we attach to them. And this latter, Scruton insists, is not illusory.

This leaves room for – indeed, it perhaps necessitates – the concept of the “sacred”.  Here, I wish Scruton had essayed a comprehensive definition of the term. When he first uses that term, he cites Durkheim’s definition – the “sacred” is that which is “set aside and forbidden”; but that is not how he uses the term in the rest of the book. Neither does he use the term “sacred” exclusively as meaning “relating to the divine”: it is only in the last chapter of the book that he addresses the topic of God, whereas the word “sacred” is used throughout. Rather, he sees the “sacred”, it seems to me, as that the impairment or destruction of which strikes us as something that goes beyond mere impairment or destruction, just as our marriage vows go beyond our contractual obligations; he seems to see the sacred as that which, when damaged, is desecrated. Yet again, we return to the central concept of the book – Cognitive Dualism: the sacred is determined by the way we perceive it.

In the last chapter, Scruton addresses the subject of God. We are not at this stage in the world of philosophical argument: as atheists never tire of pointing out, the existence of divinity is not something that can be proved. Rather, Scruton declares the nature of his own faith, and argues that this faith is not something that conflicts with the philosophical framework he had presented up to this point. Indeed, it is entirely consonant with it.

This book is an account of personal values, a confession of personal faith, written with great passion and with great eloquence, and informed by a vast erudition. I personally found Scruton most companionable, and his arguments, insofar as I understood them (I do not claim to understand it all fully), fascinating.  But then again, given my own starting point, this is perhaps not too surprising.

I started off very much in sympathy with his outlook: I needed no convincing that if we lose the sense of the sacred, that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, we diminish the our very lives: I do believe that very strongly. And, while I have the greatest respect for science, and have no patience with the fashionable “mystics” whose vapid aphorisms litter social media, I am really rather fed up with what philosopher Mary Midgeley calls “nothing buttery” – this tiresome insistence that, as Scruton puts it, “emergent realities are ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them”. Scruton expands on the position of “nothing buttery”:

The human person is “nothing but” the human animal; law is “nothing but” relations of social power; sexual love is “nothing but” the urge to procreation; altruism is “nothing but” the dominant genetic strategy described by Maynard Smith; the Mona Lisa is “nothing but” a spread of pigments on a canvas, the Ninth Symphony is “nothing but” a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre.

Of course, my impatience with this “nothing buttery” is a reflection of my personal temperament; but I think it may be argued that those who hold to “nothing buttery” do so similarly on account of their personal temperaments. Scruton’s idea of Cognitive Duality is one that I find very attractive, but, given my temperament, it is only to be expected that I should do so; those of differing temperaments will, I suspect, remain unconvinced.

It is only in the last chapter, where he speaks of God, that I couldn’t quite go along with Scruton, although, of course, I respect his religious beliefs. I, personally, remain agnostic: there comes a point beyond which I find myself unwilling to speculate. This earns me the disapproval of believers, for refusing to take further steps beyond that point, and also of atheists, who deny that there can be any point beyond which speculation could possibly be required. But my agnosticism is not, I think, a token of pusillanimity on my part: I acknowledge a great mystery, I acknowledge the validity of great questions, but I am content to leave the mystery unsolved, and the questions unanswered.

Let me finish on what is, perhaps, an incidental point in this book. In the chapter on music, Scruton refers to Schubert’s G Major String Quartet. I was delighted to find that Scruton values this work highly – for I do too. Here is Scruton writing with characteristic eloquence on how he views this piece:

… Schubert can show us stark terror in the G Major Quartet gradually interrogating itself, coming to acceptance, finding beauty and serenity in the very recognition that everything must end.

I can’t help seeing this piece differently. It does indeed start, as Scruton says, with an “intense stare into the void”, but in the subsequent descent into the void, heroic though it is, and in the life-and-death struggle to find something in that void that may possibly redeem it, I can find no “acceptance”, no “serenity”: the only passage in the entire work I recognise as “serene” is the central section of the third movement, and, even there, because we know that the movement is in ternary form, we know that the serenity will not last, and that the nightmare will return. Throughout this entire piece, I find unease, anxiety, even terror, and, while it is certainly resolved as a musical structure, this unease and the anxiety and the terror, for me, remain till the end. None of this is to deny that Scruton sees the piece precisely in the terms he describes; but what we perceive in the mode of cognition Scruton refers to as Lebenswelt varies, it seems to me, from person to person, and is as unpredictable as individual human temperament itself.

[10th August: slight edit to the above to clarify that the quote expanding on Mary Midgeley’s objection to “nothing buttery” is Roger Scruton’s, and is taken from his book.]

Winter’s journeys

I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!

– From “Twelfth Night”, Act 1, Scene 3

Lacking both linguistic skills, and any real knowledge or understanding of how music works, I really am not the right person to write about lieder – the form where, more than any other, words and music merge.

For someone who writes a blog devoted mainly to literary matters, I am frequently shamed by my lack of linguistic skills. Even my mother tongue, Bengali, I can read with confidence only with a Bengali-English dictionary within easy reach. French I can read up to a point, but that point is well short of the stage where I can enjoy its literature; and I am easily lost when the language is spoken at conversational speed. The other European languages which I wish I knew in order to read their literatures – German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian (there’s Ibsen), and, perhaps above all, Russian, I am ignorant of. And as for the classical languages, I once again draw a blank. The remedy to all this is obviously in my hands: learn those languages, dammit! Well, maybe that is something I can do once I am retired: it is, for various reasons, not for now.

On top of my lack of linguistic skills, there’s my lack of understanding of matters musical. Oh, I can pen easily enough descriptions of what certain works of music make me feel, but as soon as we turn to anything resembling analysis – you know, all that stuff about harmony or counterpoint or whatever – I find it impossible even to feign some understanding. So, these two great shortcomings on my part – my lack of linguistic skills, and my lack of understanding of how music works – should really mean that I am doubly unqualified to write anything on lieder, German art songs, where so much of the artistry resides in the conjunction of the language and the music – in the way the two come together. But I am nonetheless determined, on the grounds that this is after all my blog and I can therefore write about what I want, to rush in where I really should fear to tread: for this blog was intended to give me a platform to sound off about matters on which I feel passionately, and there is little I feel more passionately than Schubert’s Winterreise, the Winter’s Journey. This cycle of twenty-four songs has haunted my mind for a great many years now, and even though I do not know German, I have followed it so many times with both the original German text and with the translation, the linguistic barrier really does not seem that great. No doubt the work would make an even greater impact on me if I did know German, but I really cannot imagine any impact greater than the one it makes on me even without that knowledge.

The original poems are by Wilhelm Müller. Not a name as well-known as, say, Goethe or Heine or Schiller, but, I am reliably informed, a poet more than merely competent. I am obviously not qualified to judge these works as poems; however, given how inextricably these poems are now linked with Schubert’s music, I’d imagine that even those who know the German language well may find it difficult to judge the quality of these works purely as literary works. But these considerations need not detain us here: whatever the relative contributions of Müller and of Schubert to the finished song cycle, we may acknowledge the searing impact the cycle never fails to make. I have heard it live a few times – the most recent hearing last year at the Wigmore Hall, where we made the unlikeliest of family outings to hear baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake give a quite stunning performance – and I have more recordings of the piece than may seem reasonable to any sane mind. But Winterreise is not about sanity: it is about obsession, and it generates amongst its admirers an obsession perhaps comparable to the one it depicts. There are as many ways of interpreting these songs as there are musicians capable of performing them, and each new performance, each new recording, is a new venture into these still obscure and mysterious reaches of the mind.

Schubert re-arranged the order of the songs. Thus, we get from the beginning a picture of deep winter– the very first song tells of “road shrouded in snow”, and subsequent songs tell us of the ice, the frozen river and so on – while, as late as the sixteenth song in the cycle, we are given an autumnal picture of leaves falling from the not-yet-bare branches. But this is a minor consideration: what matters is the emotional continuity of the work – a work which opens in darkness, and moves on steadily, step by trudging step, into a darkness even more profound and all-encompassing, and, possibly, greater even than the darkness that Müller had envisaged. The story, such as it is, is much the same as that of Schubert’s earlier song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (also set to poems by Wilhelm Müller): boy, rejected by girl, loses the will to live and succumbs to thoughts of death. This is not in itself, perhaps, a particularly interesting story; indeed, in its outlines, the story may even seem clichéd and hackneyed: the sorrows of a jilted lover possibly form the most common theme of songs of all ages and in all cultures. But in both these cycles, this old, old story is mysteriously transformed. And, despite apparent similarities, the two cycles are markedly different. In Die Schöne Müllerin, we witness joy transformed into despair, but Winterreise is even darker: here, we have no direct depiction of joy: despair is there from the beginning – the repeated piano chords opening the first song anticipating the weary trudge the protagonist later makes, longing no longer for his lost love, but only for death. Whatever joy there is in Winterreise is but joy remembered – remembered with pain, and with bitterness. And unlike Die Schöne Müllerin, Winterreise does not end with death: that, indeed, is part of the tragedy. Even death, so devoutly wished for, is denied the protagonist. Instead of death, we find at the end something even more strange, even more enigmatic. And the whole thing seems somehow to transcend the mere sorrows of the jilted lover: lovers, after all, are frequently jilted, but few, one imagines, alienate themselves so utterly from the rest of mankind, and wander through the unpeopled bleakness of the winter landscape, without rest and seeking rest, seeking only extinction.

Schubert’s music takes us into very extreme states of mind. We begin to wonder after a while if the protagonist of this cycle, the singer of these songs, is entirely sane. To begin with, he longs for those earthly delights that he feels can never be his – not merely his lost love, but human companionship, the warmth and comfort of the sleeping villagers who will never know his despair. He dreams of spring, but the only flowers he can see are those painted on window panes by the frost and ice. This may all seem like the self-dramatising of adolescence, but Schubert’s music tells us otherwise: whatever we may feel on reading the words alone, any knowing smile is wiped off our faces by the almost unbearable intensity of the music, depicting a seemingly endless, steady trudge through the snow and ice. The singer sees a crow following him, and imagines the crow waiting for him to die so it can then pick at his body: “let me at last see constancy even to the grave,” he reflects. He begins to hallucinate: a “friendly light” seems to dance before him, and he is eager to follow, even though he knows this is but an illusion.

In the last five songs, we enter into even deeper realms of darkness. He sees signposts, pointing to various towns and villages; he describes himself as “ohne Ruh’ and suche ‘Ruh” – without rest, and seeking rest (Schubert sets this line to the most passionate of musical lines); but then, for the last stanza, the passion subsides into a deeply sinister monotone: he can see but a single signpost now, possibly a signpost of the mind, which points him to a road he must travel, and from which none has returned.

“Der Wegweiser”, sung by Christoph Prégardien (tenor), with Andreas Staier (fortepiano)

The next song is called “Das Wirthaus” – The Inn – but this inn is a graveyard. Here, he lies down, hoping never to wake; but even here death is denied him: even this inn turns him away. The next song is manic – a furious, hysterical outburst that ends with the lines “If there is no God on earth, we ourselves are gods!” And in the penultimate song, he sees three suns in the sky: he wishes for all three suns to set, as “I would feel better in the darkness”. And now, having taken us into the heart of madness and of hysteria, we have the enigmatic final song, where the singer sees an old organ-grinder, who, starving, frozen, barefoot on the ice, ignored by all and seemingly oblivious to the dogs snarling at him, plays as best he can:

And he lets it all go by, everything as it will…

And the protagonist finishes this mighty piece with lines of the utmost tenderness and humility:

Strange old man, should I go with you?
Will you turn your organ to my songs?

What can this mean? What does this strange old man symbolise? To say that he symbolises Death seems to me too pat an answer: to see the protagonist finally seeing Death in the form of an old man seems too simplistic a solution to the complex of feelings and emotions Schubert’s music inspires in us at this point. Could this old man be, perhaps, a projection of the protagonist himself into the future? After all the anger, the bitterness, the madness and the hallucinating, can he be finally resigned merely to dumb, uncomplaining endurance? Perhaps. I personally prefer to see the old hurdy-gurdy man not as a symbol at all, but simply as no more than what he is – an old man, starving and frozen, inured almost to pain and to suffering. And for the first time in the entire cycle, right at the very end, the singer feels kinship with a fellow human being, and compassion for someone other than himself. I find it hard not to be reminded of that scene in King Lear:

Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold? I am cold myself.

I don’t know whether Müller’s poetry on its own can take us into the realms of King Lear, but combined with Schubert’s music, it does. And whatever perverse element in me urges me to return repeatedly to Shakespeare’s most terrible play urges me to return also to this most visionary of works. I have made countless winter’s journeys over the years.

[The English translations of these songs are taken from the translations by Mari Pračkauskas, which appear in the liner notes of the recording of Winterreise by Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel, on the Decca label.]

Concert in Egham on the Ides of March

I tend not to use this site for advertising, but since it’s my site, I guess I am free to break my own rules. For most of you, it won’t matter anyway: this post is aimed solely at those who live within reasonable travelling distance of Egham in Surrey, and who are free on the evening of Saturday the 15th – the Ides of March.

For on that evening, the Egham and District Music Club, of which I am currently chairman, will host the distinguished pianist James Lisney in a concert featuring the three final sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. The concert will be held in the United Church of Egham, on Egham High Street. You may find here  details of the concert here.

The piece by Haydn, I must confess, I am not familiar with. The Beethoven sonata is nothing short of visionary: that long variation movement with which the movement closes – and a discussion which forms one of the most memorable passages in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – takes us into regions of sound and of feeling that had not till then been imagined.

And that final Schubert sonata – the last of the three he composed merely weeks before his untimely death – is simply a miracle. If I were given to gushing, I would describe it as balm for the soul. But since I’m not, I won’t. (How about that for a bit of paralipsis?)

You may see here Mr Lisney’s website, and the various concerts he has in his future itinerary. May I just say that our hall is a relatively small one, and it isn’t often one gets to hear a musician of such quality playing music of such quality from such close quarters.

Have I sold this to you enough? No? All right then, if, during the evening you come up to me and mention this post, I promise to buy you a raffle ticket. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

(You may buy tickets in advance here.)

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (it was composed shortly after recovery from illness, and in the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…

Some thoughts on Schubert

Every now and then, Radio 3 devotes a few days of its schedules mainly, or even wholly, to the works of a single composer. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin have all been given this treatment, to the great joy of their respective fans, but to the chagrin of certain killjoys who apparently find it too difficult to listen their CD collection for a while if they do not particularly care for what is on the radio. Right now, it is Schubert who is receiving this Radio 3 treatment, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier: Schubert’s music has come to mean much to me over the years.

It’s hard to speak about Schubert without speaking of his tragic early death – he was only 31 when he died – and of the shadow of death that haunts so much of his finest work. This inevitably leads to arguments on the extent to which our knowledge of the artist’s life should influence our reaction to his work. The answer to that question is, obviously, “not at all”: a work stands or falls on its own terms. But even if we knew absolutely nothing about Schubert’s life, even if we were to judge his works purely on their own terms, we would still, I think, be detecting in them that death-haunted quality.

Not, of course, that it is all doom and gloom. Very few composers have communicated the sheer joy of living as exuberantly as Schubert has done – even, sometimes, in some of his very late works. But joy in life is not incompatible with awareness of death: indeed, the two often go together, as awareness of the eventual loss of one’s life is all the more affecting when one loves that life deeply. That is at least one reason why the grave doth gape thrice wider for the likes of Falstaff than for other men.

The grave certainly gaped wide indeed for Schubert. That is not merely a fanciful reading: music, of course, is abstract, but there is little abstract about so many of the texts Schubert chose to set to music. The early song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, so full of the joys of living and of loving, so replete with the sounds of nature, turns insidiously towards darkness; while the later song-cycle Winterreise is effectively music to slash your wrists to: the darkness is there from the beginning, and by the end, even the consolation of death is denied. Somehow, even the most angst-ridden of music by other composers can seem insipid in comparison. Compared to the Schubert of Winterreise, Leonard Cohen appears quite a jolly old chap.

And the instrumental works also: music may be abstract, but I doubt there are too many who could listen to, say, the C minor piano sonata, or to the string quintet, and come away thinking they are jolly, happy works. They have happiness in them, sure: Schubert was no monomaniac. But the sense of a deep, impenetrable darkness is never too faraway.

Of course, there’s more, much more, to Schubert than this. Ask anyone who loves Schubert what draws them to the music, and, regardless of how learned or otherwise they may be in musical matters, one thing they are all bound to mention is his extraordinary gift for melody. Oh, other composes have excelled in melody as well – Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin – but no-one quite equalled Schubert in this respect. And it is impossible to explain why. What is melody, after all? A sequence of notes played to a particular rhythm. So what is it that makes certain sequences of notes so much better than certain others? It is an impossible question to answer, and remains one of the great mysteries in life: we simply do not know, and, I guess, never will know, just why it is that a succession of pitched sounds can exert so powerful an effect on us. Analysts may examine what features make for good tunes, but not even the most powerful computer programme armed with all the fruits of such analysis could create a melody that touches the soul so deeply as do so many of Schubert’s. Just listen, for instance, to the melody of the song “Du Bist die Ruh”; or to that second theme of the string quintet, or of the “Unfinished” symphony; or to the serene opening of the B flat piano sonata; or to that heartbreaking theme of the slow movement of the B flat piano trio; or to dozens of others that occur so easily even off the top of one’s head. Art, I realise, is not a competitive sport, and there is little point in creating league tables, but when it comes to putting together tunes, there really is no-one who could match Schubert.

It’s not just melody, of course: I have not had a musical education, and would be very embarrassed even to try to speak of such matters as harmony: I do not know, for instance, just what the modulation is towards the end of the slow movement of the B flat piano sonata; but I do know the effect that modulation has on me, even on repeated listening when I am expecting it. It has the effect of a window suddenly opening on to a new world. And Schubert did this sort of thing so often!

So, if one had to pick a favourite work by Schubert, what would it be? An impossible question to answer, though various musical luminaries offer their thoughts here. Recently, I have been listening almost obsessively to Schubert’s last string quartet (No 15 in G major, D887): it is a work of deep unease, and, despite passages of the most exquisite lyricism, ranges in mood from melancholy to sheer, unadulterated terror: it is a work that has a curious and inexplicable hold on me. But in the last few days, I have found myself listening increasingly to Schwanengesang, which is a collection of his last songs, put together and given that possibly sentimental title after Schubert’s death by his publisher. It is not, strictly speaking, a “song cycle”, although it is easy to see why it is often referred to as such: these are songs that simply ache with loss and yearning and desire. Even the song “Der Taubenpost”, which has the most delightful of melodies and which bounces along quite happily, focuses poignantly near the end on the word “sehnsucht” – “longing”.

At the heart of this collection are settings of six poems by Heinrich Heine, and they are so haunting that I swear I have heard them even in my sleep. One of these songs tells of a parting by the sea: we do not know who these people are, or why they are parting, but in the final line, the singer  tells us that he drunk her tears, and, ever since, has been poisoned by them. Another song tells of a portrait of which appears to come to ghostly life. And in “Der Doppelgänger”, the climactic song of the sequence, and one in which this greatest of melodists appears to abandon melody altogether, the singer returns to the place where his love had once lived but now lives no more, and, in a moment of sheer terror, sees the ghost of his own younger self, mourning his loss. These songs seem to take us into some mysterious hinterland of the mind, and reveal an emotional landscape that is unlike anything I think I have ever encountered.

So, can I take a full week of nothing but Schubert? Unlikely. Much of his music is far too intense. But then again, I doubt I’ll have the time anyway to listen to the radio without pause for a full week, But while the Schubert season lasts, I am more than happy to join in the celebrations of the works of one of the greatest and most  affecting of all creating artists.

My favourite composers

I had promised myself I’d never do another of those stupid lists again. You know the kind – your Top Ten Novels, your Top Ten Symphonies, your Top Ten Hammer Horror Films … No, hang on, that’s quite a good one actually … But then I see posts here, and here, that encourage us to compile our list of Top Ten Composers.

Well, now I am doing it. Since I want to use the blog to write about what I love; and since I love music dearly; it makes sense for me to try to write something about music – at least once in a while. The problem is that I have not received a proper education in music, and can therefore write no more about it than a few subjective impressions. But at least a list gives me a good excuse to mention what I like, so that’s fair enough. I hope.

At any rate, my rather pathetic excuse for compiling his list is that it was New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini is making me do it. So here goes.

But first, the usual disclaimers. One can’t really list the ten greatest composers, since music is not a competitive sport any more than football is. (Football – that’s “soccer” for our translatlantic readers – did, admittedly, use to be a competitive sport until the richer teams got even richer and closed the door on the possibility of any smaller team ever winning anything. Not that I am bitter about it, you understand. But I digress.) If one were to list the Greatest Composers, then one would, I imagine, list music’s Holy Trinity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in some order, and then think of seven others. And even the choice of this top table of music may not be unanimous: ever since BBC’s radio 3 decided to put on a Mozartfest a few weeks ago, I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read telling us Mozart wasn’t that good, really. But leaving aside such people (who appear frankly to have their taste where the sun doesn’t shine), it is quite conceivable for a knowledgeable and cultured music lover nominating for the top table, say, Lassus, Handel and Stravinsky. Or, perhaps, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Wagner. Or something.

What follows is necessarily a subjective choice. These are the composers whose music I, personally, could least do without.

First, for me, is Mozart. The music I could least do without are those three operas he composed to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte – to my mind the finest works for the stage between Shakespeare and Ibsen. And there is also Die Zauberflöte, which seems to me great despite rather than because of the libretto. Of course, the libretto has been defended, but I don’t get it: I really have no idea what it is in that libretto that inspired Mozart, but inspire him it did.

Moving away from opera, is there any medium Mozart didn’t master? Arguably, his string quartets were not quite of the standard of those by Haydn or Beethoven, but they’re masterpieces all the same; and his string quintets, his clarinet quintet, and that wonderful Divertimento for String Trio K563, can surely stand comparison with the greatest chamber works by anyone. His last four symphonies (the last three of which were all composed, apparently, in the course of a mere six weeks) are breathtaking: Beethoven may have extended the scale and the expressive range of the symphony, but even Beethoven never surpassed these works for perfection of form, or for depth of expression. Or take those astonishing piano concertos – at least a dozen of which are masterpieces of the highest order. Or that sinfonia concertante for violin and viola. Or the late clarinet concerto – or the unfinished C Minor mass (or, for that matter, that unfinished Requiem Mass) … Or those wind serenades (did anyone ever compose better for winds?) … It is all too easy merely to reel off these works, but less easy to specify what it is about them that make them, for me, so indispensable.  Perhaps the quality I find in Mozart above that of any other composer is the ability to express so many different things at the same time. As an example, listen to that final movement of the D minor piano concerto, K466. It starts off with a theme of barely contained, surging passion, but by the final bars, we are in the world of pure comedy. Where and how did this transformation take place? God knows how many times I have heard it over the years, but I never could work it out. And I think it’s because there is no transformation:  those same themes have in them the potential both for the darkest tragedy and the most genialcomedy, and Mozart could bring out whichever aspect he wanted at will.

This ability of his to encompass extremes at the same time serves him well in opera, where he frequently depicts the endless complexities of the human heart. In Cosi fan Tutte, characters could simulate and yet be passionately sincere at the same time. In Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira can be an absurd comic figure who fails to learn from experience, and who falls for Don Giovanni repeatedly; and yet, at the same time, even while being absurdly comic, she has also a generous heart with an aspetto nobile and a dolce maestà; she is a figure of immense tragic dignity. The two perspectives co-exist, with neither blotting out the other. Similarly, Leporello can find the gulling of Donna Elvira funny, and yet, at the same time, feel for her genuine pity. Human emotions are too complex, too slippery, too elusive ever to be pinned down: all their complexity and contradictions must be shown simultaneously. It is tempting to say only music could do this, but that’s not quite accurate: only Mozart’s music could do this. I generally find it impossible to describe accurately the mood of any Mozart piece: they seem to encompass everything. And all the time, they all seem lit with some strange and ineffably beautiful other-worldly light.

Next up for me is Beethoven. (Yes, I know, these aren’t terribly original choices, but I don’t claim originality.) Beethoven projects the image (much of it carefully cultivated and promoted by himself) of the heaven-stormer, the man who defiantly shook his fists at the gods. Yes, of course there are elements of that, and yes, I continue to find it thrilling. But there are other aspects also – a great many other aspects. Beethoven could summon up courtly grace and elegance and well as could Mozart; his music contains as much wit and humour as does the music of Haydn’s – although, admittedly, Beethoven’s style of humour is often of a sledgehammer variety; and his music also projected a sense of lyrical exaltation, as in the violin concerto, or in the 6th symphony, where, like his exact contemporary Wordsworth (they were born in the same year), Beethoven found in nature “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”.

And of course, there is the Late Beethoven. Perhaps no other composer had quite so identifiable a “late period” as did Beethoven, although, given that Beethoven was only in his 50s when he died, it is unlikely that he recognised the works of his later years as specifically “late works”. But they are as visionary and as other-worldly as we could possibly expect Late Works to be – although it does seem to me that even at his most other-worldly, there remains a strong sense of the earthy – e.g. in the scherzi of the op. 109 and Op. 110 piano sonatas, or in several of the Diabelli variations.

The other member of Western music’s Holy Trinity is Bach, but I must admit that while much of Bach’s music is precious to me (and, I guess, to anyone who cares at all for music), a great deal of his music I find rather intimidating. And since this post is about the music that means most to me personally, let us keep Bach for later, and skip to Brahms, a composer who, I’m sure, would have felt deeply embarrassed to have found himself placed above Bach even in a list such as this. But there is something about the combination of raw passion and deep autumnal melancholy in his music that I frequently find chiming with my own mood. Those four symphonies of his I find have become almost something of an obsession: certainly, I have more different recordings of them than is entirely sensible, and I spend a disproportionate amount of my spare time listening to them. And those concertos! I remember still when, as a teenager, I was discovering this music, I fell in love particularly with that 2nd piano concerto – which really is more a symphony for orchestra and piano rather than the concerto it claims to be. There is one moment especially in the scherzo that particularly delighted me: I used to play that movement over and over again, and every time that moment approached, I could feel my excitement rising. It comes as the opening section moves into the middle section. Now, normally, when a movement is in ABA format, the section A is allowed politely to come to a decorous end before section B starts: sometimes, there is even a pause to signal the transition. But here, as we approach the end of section A, the music rises in waves of seemingly uncontrollable passion. The piano feels after a while that it can no longer keep pace with the mad rush, and drops out. And then, just as the orchestra reaches the mighty climactic point of this passage, at this very moment, we move abruptly into the middle section – straight into a Handelian theme in double counterpoint. The effect, even on repeated listenings (and how repeatedly have I listened to this!) is exhilarating.

Let us move now to the death-haunted world of Schubert. It is not a world devoid of sunny grace or eloquence – indeed, I find it hard to think of anything of a happier disposition than the Trout quintet – but the general mood I find in much of Schubert’s work is that of a haunting sadness and of melancholy; a sense of the tragic that moves at times into the realms of sheer terror; and a deep, deep sense of loss and of longing. All these elements are found in the song cycle Winterresse – about as bleak a work of art as ever was conceived – but, perhaps even more, I find them in the last collection of Schubert’s lieder, which was published after his death under the collective title Schwanengesang. Strictly speaking, this is not a “song cycle”, but these songs seem so unified in mood, that they are often treated as such. Almost unbearably moving are the six songs in the collection that set to music poems by Heine: there is one song especially – “Am Meer” – that tells of a parting by the sea, and is so haunting that I swear I have heard it even in my sleep.

Those last three piano sonatas, the last three string quartets, and that glorious string quintet of his seem to me to be, like Winterreise, on the edge of sanity. The G major string quartet epecially – a great favourite of mine – seems to take us towards the uncompromising emotional world of Bartók. And Bartók is, indeed, my next choice.  I remember still when I heard all six string quartets of Bartók plyed on a single mad day by the Belcea Quartet at the Wigmore Hall. I am not sure how they kept their concentration, for, even though I was only listening, and even though the concerts were well spread out through the day, by the time that almost unbearably sad 6th quartet came around, my concentration, I’m afraid, had gone. But I’m glad I attended those concerts: each of those six quartets, written at different times of Bartók’s life, is different; each opens up new worlds of sound, of sonority; and yet, each is unmistakably the product of the same astounding creative genius.

It was a recording of the 2nd violin concerto that first alerted me to this strange musical mind – those plucked notes on the harp, followed by that almost ghostly theme on the violin … I had heard nothing like that before, and nothing since. Indeed, there is much in Bartók that may be described as “ghostly”: the slow movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was famously used in The Shining, Kubrick’s attempt at a horror film; but perhaps even more eerie and frightening for me is the middle movement of the Divertimento for Strings. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many Hammer horror films, but I can’t listen to that music without picturing the coach with the lonely traveller driving through the Borgo Pass, and on towards Castle Dracula.

Virtually everything Bartók ever composed is a masterpiece – those string quartets, the sonata for two pianos and percussion, the one act gothic opera Bluebeard’s Castle – right up to that sonata for solo violin, and that late, mellow 3rd piano concerto. But throughout it all, there seems to me a tremendous passion. I find it impossible to remain detached during a performance of any work by Bartók: each work demands total immersion

I have already picked five composers, and am conscious that I have yet to pick Bach. But old Johann Sebastian will have to wait just a bit longer, for the next on my list is his perhaps equally great contemporary, Handel. The comparison between the two composers is fascinating, but it’s difficult articulating it, since to describe the works of such towering geniuses in generalised terms is inevitably to simplify. But on the whole, I find Handel a more theatrical composer than Bach; and, perhaps for that reason alone, I find myself listening to more of Handel’s music.

I actually came to Handel’s music rather late. For a long time, I had imagined him as little more than a purveyor of ceremonial pomp and grandeur. It was only when I heard some of those exquisite arias from Giulio Cesare that I realised how far removed my picture of Handel was from the reality. And so, over the hast few years, I have found myself exploring more of this composer’s music, and moving well beyond Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. And I can barely begin to describe the riches I have found – from the pastoral freshness of Acis and Galatea to the high drama of Saul; from the sumptuous grandeur of Solomon to the melting tenderness of Rodelinda; from the nobility of Belshazzar to the sheer radiance of Theodora. One could go on and on. And throughout, there is a melodic inspiration that is perhaps matched only by Schubert (who was, however, very different temperamentally).

Bach is my next choice (“and not before time”, I hear you say). On the whole, I find him a more introverted composer than Handel. Instead of the great monumental public statements of Handel, Bach gives us – even in large scale works such as St Matthew Passion, or the Mass in B Minor – music of a quiet intensity and inwardness, almost as if the act of making music were a means of speaking privately to one’s God. Much of Bach, as I say, does intimidate me: I have no doubt that his various preludes and fugues, A Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, etc., are amongst the peaks of human achievement: but all too often, I feel myself distanced from it. But what I experience when I do get Bach I don’t think I could even begin to describe.

Only last month, I was at the Wigmore Hall to hear Thomas Zehetmair give a recital of some of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, ending the concert with the D minor partita, with that passionate powerhouse that is the concluding chaconne. Have I ever heard anything quite like that? No, I hadn’t. It was unlike anything else. One doubts whether Brahms would have composed that passionate passacaglia that concludes his 4th symphony if Bach’s chaconne had not existed. It is emotionally exhausting merely to listen to it. But Bach could relax as well: and he could exult – listen, for instance, to the outer movements of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, with its stratospherically high trumpet. Indeed, the sheer range and variety of moods in these six Brandenburg Concertos are such that it seems at times that they contain everything anyone could possibly want from music.

Before I move on to my last three choices, let me briefly mention a few composers I wish I could have included amongst my favourites. I am afraid I had to leave out Janáček, whose increasingly unorthodox operas (as well as the mad Glagolitic Mass, and the two string quartets) I love deeply. I am equally sorry to leave out Mussorgsky, who would certainly have made this list had he remained sober enough to have composed more. But even as it is, Boris Godunov and Khovanschina (Mussorgsky didn’t get round even to orchestrating the latter: we usually hear it in the superb orchestration by Shostakovich) are possibly my favourite operas since Mozart; and I am sorry also to omit Mahler, a composer I have been coming round to recently after years of bemusement and incomprehension. As for Wagner, yes, I have frequently found myself spellbound by his music: I have found myself so immersed that I have lost all sense of the outside world, of time passing. But whether I actually enjoy being in this state is another question. I do like Wagner, but I’m not sure that I like liking him, if you see what I mean; and while I can understand why some people would choose Wagner as their Number One, I am frankly quite happy to leave him out. There are many other very great composers I have had to leave out, of course, but this post is long enough as it is, so let us move on.

Modest Mussorgsky (Have you seen anyone looking quite so pissed?)

Puccini is out of the top ten too, I’m sorry to say – although I’m sure that in other moods, I’d decide that I couldn’t do without La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. But Verdi is certainly in, and is my next choice. I don’t think any other composer had quite so powerful a sense of the theatre. People often complain about the silliness of many of his plots, but that does seem to me to be missing the point: the plots matter less than what Verdi made of them. I dare anyone to read the synopsis of something like Rigoletto, say, and not laugh at the absurdity of it: but the finished product is heartbreaking. It is not what happens that interests Verdi: his interests lay deeper. Rigoletto, for instance, is a man who is despised and mocked, and the only way he can live with this is to despise and mock those despise and mock him. He becomes a part of the evil and the corruption that so oppress him. But his soul must find some respite from this endless cycle of inhumanity, and he finds this respite in his love for his daughter. But the evil around him – and of which he is himself is an agent – cannot be be held back, and he unwittingly helps destroy the very thing that he has tried with all his soul to protect. The plot –  mere mechanism whereby all this happens – may be absurd, but the very real human emotions are overwhelming. In most tragedies, the protagonist dies: but Rigoletto’s tragedy is that he must go on living, even when the earth holds nothing that is worth living for.

In masterpiece after masterpiece, Verdi depicted and explored human passions. In his very old age, he produced what some think are his greatest works. But I’m not so sure. Of course, his Requiem Mass, and his two late Shakespearean operas – Otello and Falstaff – are beyond compare, but I really don’t know that, despite the superior libretti of these last two operas, they are superior to the likes of Rigoletto, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida, etc. It was Stravinsky who said that he loved these works beyond the point where criticism made any difference. And this brings me round neatly to my next choice. 

Stravinsky remains a towering figure. His earlier ballets – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – have all entered the mainstream repertoire now, but the quality of his output, despite a very long creative life never declined. His restless creativity was constantly seeking out new styles, new modes of expression. And whatever mode, whatever style he worked in, it’s almost as if he couldn’t help but create masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine that the composer of a score as richly melodic and as Romantic as The Firebird could compose so bleak and desolate a work as Oedipus Rex; or that the composer of the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms could go on to compose Agon and Thereni. In the 1950s, with the emergence of the postwar avant-garde, Stravinsky may have appeared a bit of a dinosaur: he soon saw to that by taking on the avant-garde at their own game, and composing serialist works. And what works they are!

There is much in Stravinsky’s immense output that I confess I haven’t quite come to terms with yet: Stravinsky seems a composer whose works one may spend an entire lifetime exploring.

My final choice is a safe and standard middle-of-the-road Classic FM choice, but I don’t care: I love the music of Tchaikovsky, so there. Yes, I know, he did compose the 1812 Overture, but it’s Tchaikovsky’s bad luck that this piece has become so well-known, just as it’s Beethoven’s good luck that Wellington’s Victory hasn’t. And I could live without Tchaikovsky’s concerti as well: at best, they are merely decorative. Neither am I entirely convinced by Tchaikovsky the opera composer: there are some fine things in Eugene Onegin and in The Queen of Spades, but neither counts among my favourites. No – it’s those last three symphonies and those three ballet scores (not just the suites – the full scores of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) that I’d find very difficult to do without. Britten, I gather, used to keep the score of Sleeping Beauty near him when he composed, to inspire him whenever he encountered problems with orchestration.

Of course, it is true that I am a sucker for a good tune, and Tchaikovsky wrote some of the very best – but that’s not, I think, the primary reason for my love of Tchaikovsky: Dvořák was at least as fine a melodist, but his music tends to leave me (for whatever reason) indifferent. It’s the kind of melody Tchaikovsky wrote that sends up the spine those shivers that cannot be explained away. I love the grace and elegance of so much of his balletic music (both in his ballet scores, and in his symphonies); and I love the sheer, unadulterated passion. In Western culture, unrestrained expression of raw passion is sometimes looked down upon as being in bad taste: but I probably retain enough of a non-Western sensibility to find myself responding to it. There are many great tragic symphonies, of course – the 4th symphony of Brahms, the 6th of Mahler, the 4th of Sibelius, the 4th and the 6th of Vaughan Williams (something about those numbers 4 and 6!) etc. But none is quite so devastating – for me, at least – as is the 6th symphony of Tchaikovsky – a real slash-your-wrists symphony if ever there was one. There is nothing in all music that leaves me as utterly overwhelmed as that final adagio, which, after its titanic climactic moment, fades away into nothingness.

And yet, not long before Tchaikovsky composed that symphony, he gave us The Nutcracker, a score of magical childlike wonder. I like to think of these two works as his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Here’s Simon Rattle, for long a Tchaikovsky-sceptic who has recently undergone a conversion, speaking of The Nutcracker:

One of the great miracles in music …extraordinary touches of orchestration, ideas that sound as though they were written 20 years later… the fountain of melodic adventure [that] almost beggars belief.

Well, those are the ten I would choose today. As with any list, it leaves out too much: but while there are other composers I’d have loved to have included, there’s none there, I think, that I’d be happy taking out.