By Peter Davison
The loss of live concerts is surely one of the saddest impacts of the current health crisis, and we should spare a thought for those freelance musicians who, even in the best of times, survive close to the breadline. True, there are some brave attempts to use on-line technology to keep performances going, but it is a poor substitute for hearing music in the living presence of others.
Yet in every crisis there is opportunity. Social isolation has made many reflect on the value of their personal space, the nature of our complex interdependencies and also what truly defines our shared culture. These are questions which will continue to be debated long after the crisis is over, but for now, those of us compelled into varying degrees of isolation have time on our hands; a chance to listen perhaps with new attentiveness to some of the vast treasury of recorded music currently available.
Depending on your perspective, you may wish to experience the full horror of biblical plagues told through the dramatic choral tableaux of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt (1739). Or, if isolation causes you outright despair, why not go deeper into your dark mood by listening to Rachmaninov’s brooding tone-poem The Isle of the Dead (1908). Based on Arnold Böcklin’s evocative Symbolist picture of that name, the music overwhelms us with waves of grief and apprehension.
But nobody could be blamed for preferring to escape the gloom by imagining festive crowds once again running wild on Italy’s streets. Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture (1844) employs music from his rarely performed opera Benvenuto Cellini, including a dizzying saltarello derived from the scene where the carnival revellers pelt Cellini’s love-rival with flour pellets.
Completists might need a sufficiently Herculean challenge to fill the hours. Try exploring large boxsets such as Bach’s Church Cantatas. There are 193 sacred works, providing the full gamut of spiritual responses, from melancholy introspection to joyful celebration. Alternatively, there are Haydn’s symphonies, all 104 of them, which trace the development of this good-humoured and devoutly religious composer across four decades.
The later works fizz with wit and musical invention in the mature Classical style, but those written in the 1760s and 70s, during his ‘Storm and Stress’ period, capture a real sense of unease. One of these, his ‘Farewell’ Symphony No.45 is famous for the disappearing-act of its musicians during the work’s finale; a gesture which has acquired some irony in the current crisis. Yet it is the symphony’s first movement, full of minor-key tension and fatefulness, that leaves the stronger impression.
When the future is uncertain, Gustav Mahler seems always to point us towards transcendence. The Adagio finale of his Ninth Symphony (1909) contrasts prayerful pleading with passages of mystical detachment. A soul-piercing high clarinet rises above a rootless melody in the lower strings, creating a vast inner space, unbridgeable by any earthly power. At the movement’s climax, Mahler asserts a Nietzschean ‘yes’ to life, before everything is gradually let go. Tormented memories of a dead child diminish to whispered longing, as former heroic struggles ebb away to stillness.
For some, the lack of work pressure, traffic and aeroplane noise has allowed them to notice the arrival of spring as never before. They will find plenty of music to deepen their experience. Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912) idealises nature with a warm, sensual glow. No hint of nasty viruses here, just the unalloyed pleasure of lush orchestral sounds evoking a delightful reverie. On the other hand, Frank Bridge’s tone poem, Enter Spring (1926) begins closer to the restlessness of our own times. At first everything is unstable and dissonant, but renewal eventually arrives in vigorous music which causes the sap to rise.
For those seeking spiritual peace and joy, I can recommend the unique sound world of Einojuhani Rautavarra’s Symphony No.7, ‘The Angel of Light’ (1994). Rautavarra died in 2016, leaving a substantial body of approachably lyrical pieces. Having rejected serialism, the composer developed an expressive post-modern style, growing ever freer in his exploration of mystical subjects.
His Seventh Symphony has an organic quality that moves seamlessly between states of serenity and ecstasy. Nature is transfigured by the creative imagination into the dynamic play of spirit. Another composer capable of reaching the heights of spiritual serenity is George Lloyd, whose Twelfth and final symphony (1989) is an old man’s acceptance of himself and the world around him. There is no sense of sorry valediction here, more the anticipation of a celestial world that lies ahead.
Richard Wagner always has something to say about the irreconcilable tensions of our modern world. His music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867) is particularly rich in insights, placing music at the centre of social cohesion. The cobbler, Hans Sachs, is a poet-philosopher who complains that in the outside world, ‘Alles ist Wahn’ – all is delusion.
During the sombre Prelude to Act 3, Sachs ponders the human condition accompanied by music of profound nobility and inwardness, before steering matters invisibly to their proper outcome. The opera’s crowd scenes, noisily exuberant and occasionally riotous, remind us what it means to be social creatures. In this instance, the disease to be defeated is the cynical ambition and pedantic criticism of Sixtus Beckmesser, who is universally despised. Meanwhile Sachs’s selfless wisdom is honoured by all.
In these extraordinary times, good music can be a vital source of spiritual consolation, providing a glue which binds us together even in our isolation. So often we take our musical culture for granted, because much of it can be accessed at the click of a mouse. Yet the lost pleasures of live music should make it self-evident that we feel more complete when we share beautiful experiences in the presence of others. Music surely tells us that we are more than victims of nature’s whims, and that our search for meaning amidst the mysterious grandeur of the cosmos will not be in vain.
Peter Davison is a concert programmer and cultural commentator who was formerly artistic consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
Anyone wishing to support musicians of all genres can donate to Help Musicians which has created a £5m fund to support those in difficulty at the current time.