To the Finnish composer Rautavaara, “music is great if, at some moment, the listener catches ‘a glimpse of eternity through the window of time’”. I heard this comment a short time ago on ABC Classic before they broadcast his Missa a capella, an extremely beautiful and tranquil work. This comment crystallised a few thoughts I have been having recently about music.
For many people, classical music means music that is calming and zones them out. Everyone will have their favourite pieces that do it for them. Works that come to mind for me are mostly slow movements: those of the “Emperor” concerto and the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, the Piano Concerto no. 21, K.467, of Mozart, the piano concertos of Brahms, and so on. Piano concertos figure a lot in my list, but the experience can come from any type or genre of music. ABC Classic had a regular segment in its morning programs, which they named Swoon, for music of this kind.
Musical works that make time stand still like these have an obviously calming and slowing-down effect. There is something more subliminal that is going on as well. Moments like the examples I have listed are also moments of community: what used to be called togetherness. Like tapestries, music is made by groups. Whether you are an instrumentalist or a singer, your contribution is a strand in the fabric.
In times of anxiety and isolation, like the year we have all just had, music can remind us what cohesion is like. But to be part of the ensemble, you have to be able to play or sing your line. Making music can lift you a mile high. Wanting to be part of the magic, and being unable to do, so can leave you feeling lonely and ashamed.
This came to mind recently in a scene from the wonderful series Unorthodox (currently on Netflix). Esther (Etsy) has had a sheltered upbringing in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York. Her marriage to another member of this community doesn’t work out, and she travels to Berlin to track down her mother. Before she manages to contact her mother, she wanders into a conservatorium, where she is befriended by a group of students. Etsy learns that the conservatorium has scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and applies for one to study piano. Before her audition, her new friends inveigle her into playing something for them. When she does, it clear that she is nowhere near the standard required to enter the conservatorium. She is so far behind, she will never catch up. One of the students tells her this, plainly. Life as a musician will obviously be impossible for Etsy. Worse, she will not be part of a group which accepts and likes her. Etsy is shattered, and flees to consider what options might remain to her.
Those who know me will know I learned the cello for about ten years. I decided to stop, for a range of reasons, a few years ago. The years I spent learning the cello gave me a taste of both the highs and lows of making music. Because I started so late, and for other reasons, the former experiences were much less frequent than the latter. Over the years of struggle, I fell out of love with the instrument. Deciding to stop was like realising that a marriage or relationship you were in was just not going to give you what you wanted — no matter how long you have persevered with it.
People I talked to about my struggles with the cello would say “Can’t you just enjoy your playing?”. But no-one can enjoy doing something badly, with no realistic prospect of doing it better. Like Etsy, I realised I would never catch up. A professional musician’s performance sits atop a mountain of grinding, repetitious, incessant practice. And once you reach this rarefied altitude, you need to practice to stay there. After I sold my cello, I used to console myself with Groucho Marx’s comment that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would admit him.
Everything implies its opposite. There are no sweet harmonies without dissonant ones. The company of those we love is doubly delightful to one who has experienced loneliness and rejection. Without those times when the universe seems a bleak place, music would never open its window for us. For those in the cheap seats, their fingers twitching surreptitiously in time to the cascade of notes, eternity reserves a special place.