Music - the sound our feelings make


At last I can attempt an answer to your email of two months ago*.

I’m ashamed to admit that Ich habe genug is the first Bach Cantata I’ve ever listened to and, apart from appreciating very much that you had wanted to share with me something that had moved you very much, I found it extremely beautiful. The vocal line - again I am ashamed to admit - surprised me with how ‘modern’ it sounded to my ears, particularly at the beginning of the second section, if I am remembering correctly now.

It set me thinking for the umpteenth time what it is about music that gives it such a very mysterious hold on our lives, at least for those who respond to music. We are said to have formed our musical tastes by the time we are 20 and not to change them afterwards. That, I find, certainly applies in my case. ‘Music is the sound our feelings make’ is one way to explain it. ‘Music expresses what cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent’ is another.

Yet, although our feelings are about similar things felt in similar ways, the mystery is music is very different and speaks to us in different ways, seemingly. I remain ignorant about Bach because he lived and composed too soon for me. Do you remember I once told you something MM [a mutual friend] said to me? MM said he could see that Beethoven was great, but just did not like the sound he makes. I never forgot that because it seemed to me to say something central about music: music has to be the sound you want to hear, as well as express the emotions we all share. There is a double mystery in that. Is it simply that we all have the same emotions, but express them, and ourselves, in different ways? I guess it is that simple. We are all individuals, first and last. That is why it can be lonely, and why music can relieve as well as intensify loneliness.

You know my lifelong love of Wagner too well for me to go on about it again and I know you have never shared it in the same way or at least to the same extent. The reason must be - can only be - you want something different in terms of the ‘sound music makes’.

When I first heard the Prelude and Liebestod, it was as if it was what I was born for. The Prelude is frenzied music - there is no other word for it - but it talked to me instantly and unmistakably forever. And so it went on: Richard Strauss, Mahler, Ravel, Debussy. A colleague and friend of mine in Advertising, whose intelligence I much respected, once remarked during a chat together - I can’t remember the context now - “I heard this rubbish ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden'." I nearly burst out laughing that we could be friends and yet be so different. I didn’t tell him The Walk to the Paradise Garden is as lovely as anything on earth.

So where do we come out?  I thought the Bach was beautiful, like you, but it’s the Wagner, ‘the glorious world of Richard Strauss’ - as the host of a radio music programme once put it -  the yearning of Elgar, that I will always choose for my walks to the Paradise Garden.

But even then you never quite know what you are committing to or trying to say when you say anything about music. I once heard a conductor asked in an interview who he most liked to conduct, Mozart or Beethoven, Verdi or Wagner. It may have been Colin Davies, I can’t remember for sure now. He replied he enjoyed them all and when pressed for a better answer, said: ‘Look, it’s like asking what your favourite meal is - steak or prawns or what? You can’t say.’

I go along with that. But I have always played Desert Island Discs with myself through life. Which 8 records would you take to a desert island for the rest of your days - really take, if you really had to - if you couldn’t cop out?

I’ve never been able to answer the question. The nearest I get - if I absolutely had to take just 8 records for the rest of my life - is that they would include Symphonies 2,4,5,6 and 7 of Sibelius - especially 5 and 7. No Wagner. Certainly not Tristan. Now what is the answer to that, do you think?
*In September 2014, a friend had sent me a link to a Bach Cantata that she found very moving. Ich habe genug was composed in 1727 and means I have enough - I am content. It was sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, an Amercian mezzo-soprano. Lorraine died of breast cancer in 2006, aged 52.


Karin Jamotte said...

Paul, I was brought up on classical music, Bach, Buxtehude, Handel, Mozart, Schubert - the lot. I adored Bach's cantatas, and you happen to have mentioned the one I love best: Ich habe genug ...

I suggest you would love to hear Kathleen Ferrier singing from these composers' works. Never have they been sung so well! I first heard this record of hers around 1956, and the moment I was earning, I bought the CD.

I love your writing, and visit your blog quite frequently.

With best regards,

Karin Jamotte (commentary alias = Biloko)

Paul Whelan said...

Thank you, Karin "Biloko"! - I've certainly noticed the upticks you give me and it is very kind of you. KF is of course unsurpassed and I shall track down more of her work as you suggest. I fear, though, the good friend I was emailing in this piece and I don't often see eye-to-eye on music as in thiis case. I'm a lifetime Wagnerian. There's a long piece I wrote about him on my blog as you say you visit it. I wrote it some years ago for my daughter when she first told me she was going to 'The Ring'. You may find it of interest, given your love of music.