Aimez Vous Brahms?…or Bach?…or Beethoven?

Susan Tomes

I don’t do rock and pop.  If that sounds snobbish, it’s not meant to.  It’s just that I was thoroughly bitten by the classical music bug long before my teenage hormones started to kick in.  Mind you, up till I was 10, our gramophone could only play 78s.  My favourite slabs of shellac were the Grasshopper’s Dance, Ghost Riders in the Sky, and the last five minutes of the ‘1812’ Overture (we didn’t have the rest).  Then, one glorious day, a second-hand ‘radiogram’ was purchased and we could finally play LPs–which had, after all, been around for the last 18 years or so. My parents were not ‘early adopters’.

So, at last, I could listen to entire symphonies and concertos: Beethoven’s 5th, Dvorak’s New World, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. I was in rapture.  Up till then I’d listened to pretty well anything that was going on the radio.  I loved Alan (Fluff) Freeman’s’ ‘Pick of the Pops’, and especially Jack Jackson’s wonderfully surreal ‘Radio Roundup’. Once we’d got our radiogram I even bought a Beatles single.  But, gradually, I became driven mad by the boring, incessant rhythmic repetitions of the drums in most pop singles.  It was a kind of torture.

Two further factors then conspired to push me further towards classical music.  The BBC Light Programme (which also included all my favourite comedies), the Home Service, and the Third Programme (a wonderful intellectual challenge to a precocious kid) were replaced in 1967 by Radios 1 to 4. And, not long afterwards, my father bought me my first open-reel tape recorder.  Now I could augment my pathetically small collection of LPs with anything I cared to record from the rich and varied output of the new Radio 3.

The result was that, from roughly 1967 to 1973, I stopped listening to pop and rock music altogether. Later, I would come to realise that I had missed out on probably the richest and most exciting period in the history of popular music, but at the time I didn’t care. Once at University, friends would introduce me to jazz/funk crossover, and prog rock, both of which I loved. But pop music remained, and has remained, almost entirely alien.  So, for me, one of the supposedly fundamental reasons why we care about music just doesn’t apply: nostalgia.  When I listen to my favourite piece of music, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the only nostalgic memory it conjures for me is my excitement at first getting to know the work itself, in performances by Boulez and Barbirolli, not anything else about my life at the time (which was probably very boring, anyway).

So I have always had a fierce interest in how and why music affects us so powerfully, and over the years I’ve read many books and articles on the subject. But only recently I’ve come to realise that most of these studies and explorations relate to the effect of music as a whole, and most of that is therefore irrelevant to me as someone, so to speak, deaf to popular music.  What fascinates and obsesses me is, what is so special and powerful about classical music?  This was brought home to me forcefully earlier this month, when we attended six concerts in three days at the superb Lammermuir Festival. The music-making was outstanding, but why was it affecting me so powerfully?

In the last few weeks I’ve read four books which have brought me about as close as, at this time, I think we can come to answering that question. They’re by, respectively, a composer, a performer, a music educator, and finally a listener who, like me, has minimal experience of actually playing music.

The first is ‘Experiencing Music’ by the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, who is of the generation that links Carl Nielsen to Paul Ruders.  I’ve long thought him as one of the greatest composers of the 20thCentury, his cycles symphonies and string quartets easily the equal of those of his near-contemporary Shostakovich. I was very excited, therefore, to find out that some of his writings about music had been published in English, back in the early 1970s.  A few minutes on the wonderful Abe Books website, and a copy was on its way to me. Holmboe, just like his music, is wonderfully clear, unfussy and honest about what it’s like to be a composer, and his is the best account I’ve ever read of the mental processes involved in imagining and creating something like a symphony.

Next, the educator.  Back in the 60s and 70s, ‘Talking About Music’ was a staple of the BBC Radio airwaves, and a wonderful introduction, for me, to many aspects of classical music. It was presented by composer, pianist and conductor Antony Hopkins, who had one of the great radio voices, and a marvellously lucid way of explaining even music as challenging as that of Michael Tippett.  So I was delighted to come across a copy of his 1979 book ‘Understanding Music’, which is probably the best ever introduction to classical music for the music lover, but non-performer.  Even after more than 50 years of loving classical music, I learned a lot from it.

The ‘listener’ in this group of writers is none other than Armando Iannucci, whose ‘Hear me out—all my music’ was published just last year. I’ve been a huge fan of his since we saw his two-man show with David Schneider on the Fringe many years ago, and his ‘The Death of Stalin’ was my film of 2017. Iannucci is a few years younger than me, but nonetheless he went to some of the same SNO concerts as me in the 70s, and borrowed records from the same Glasgow Library. And we even love some of the same pieces—especially Mahler’s Sixth (as Berg said: ‘despite Beethoven’s Pastoral, the only Sixth’). Iannucci may not have brought me closer to understanding whyclassical music affects us both so strongly, but it was reassuring to find someone so ‘cool’ who shared so many of my feelings about the subject!

But the best of all these books was the last, that by the performer. Susan Tomes is an Edinburgh pianist who has spent the bulk of her career playing chamber music with two very successful groups, Domus, and the Florestan Trio.  She’s written a number of books, but I’ve so far only read the most recent: ‘Sleeping in Temples’, and I’ve never read anything so wise, so humane and so insightful about the life and mental states of a classical musician. Really, anyone setting out on a career in classical music should read this book. It will be a vade mecum for them for years to come.

Ultimately, Tomes doesn’t answer the question of why classical music can affect us so powerfully, but she is very eloquent on its importance, and she comes up with two definitions that I find really helpful. First, she talks about the enormous value and importance of what she calls ‘long form’ music—music that takes half an hour or more to perform, and listen to–as opposed to a three minute pop song.  She believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the effort involved in appreciating ‘long form’ music is of vital importance in our wider life experiences. And then she proposes moving away from the traditional opposition between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ (or, as she writes, ‘heavy’) music, and instead proposes taking an analogy from Gaelic music, where the Piobaireachd is known as the ‘big music’ and everything else is the ‘small music’.

For Susan Tomes, classical music is the ‘big music’, and pop music is the ‘small music’, and for all the current global domination of the latter, she believes that, with movements like ‘slow food’ and ‘slow towns’, the ‘big music’ may be set for a resurgence. I hope she’s right.

So, do I have my own ideas about why classical music can be so powerful? Of course I do, though they have (as yet) little or no scientific basis. I believe that classical music—and other forms of complex, ‘long form’ music such as jazz, or Indian classical music—meshes with our brains at a deep, subconscious level. I believe that this happens even for those many music-lovers (like my late mother) who think they love classical music just for the big tunes and the emotional sweep, and can’t listen to anything more challenging than Shostakovich.  I believe that this effect works on us even when (as I’ve often been guilty of doing) listening to classical music while reading. For me, it’s the only drug I’m truly, irrevocably, addicted to.


© Robert Livingston October 2018



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