03 May 2012

Love and Music

A brief visit to the Conservatory to collect some final belongings was delayed when, turning a corner in a high corridor, I encountered one of my students wearing a mask of misery.  Assuming the upcoming exams were worrying him, I tried to inject a little cheer by assuring him that I had every faith that he’d come out near the top of my course, at least.  Rather to my disappointment he responded that he had more serious matters on his mind; his girlfriend had just “dumped” him.

We’ve probably all been there and suffered the same feeling that life is not worth living any more and that the future holds no hope.  It never helps anyone in the slough of despond to be told that what they are suffering is a normal part of life; it only deepens the woe to be given such glib platitudes.  How can anyone know, you think to yourself, the true depth of my loss?

I would like to have told my student that every single one of the many dozen heart-breaking “dumpings” I suffered, more than one of which drove me to thoughts of suicide, was well worth it for, when I married at the age of 44, I had found the best companion imaginable, a lovely wife and a true friend.  She even gave me the most fantastic daughter.  It is inconceivable that the mass of shallow but superficially attractive girls who so cruelly spurned my love in the past could have ever given me the happiness I have found in my wife.  But in my teenage years and beyond, I had no idea what was in store, so rejections cut deep.

There was, however, one consolation I could offer my distraught student.  We are musicians and we have access to something nobody else has; an inexhaustible bunch of keys which opens up the very deepest emotions of the soul and allows us to heal the wounds which others can merely hope to paper over.  That something is our ingrained love of music.

Of course, every rejected teenager will seek solace in some song or other with lyrics which seem to match their current sentiments – and often actually dictate the sentiments which are then taken on as personal sensations.  When you feel that everything has gone wrong, that your love has been rejected and that life isn’t worth living, there is always some relevant 2½ minute ditty into which you immerse yourself in a fit of self-pity.  Musicians aren’t immune.  A rejection sometime in the mid-1970s was so beautifully summed up in the words of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone again (Naturally)”, that I played the record back to back for days on end.  (I still have the 45rpm single and occasionally get it out to enjoy a feature of my record player which never usually gets a work-out these days – and, funnily enough, the song still pulls at my heartstrings and brings back poignant memories.)

These, though, are commercially-driven, mass-produced sentiments which, for all their superficial relevance, barely scratch the surface of the emotional turmoil created by lost love.  For most, it’s all they have, but for musicians there is much more.  Working on the understanding that music expresses thoughts which words cannot (to paraphrase Victor Hugo), musicians can dig deeper into their emotions and find an expression of, and outlet for and a cure to their distress through music. 

I think I was around 12 when my first rejection came.  Her name was Alison (I can’t think of the surname now) and we had been at Primary School together but had then gone our separate ways, me to my boys only secondary school, she to a mixed school.  One summer I saw her at the local open air swimming pool and went up to say hallo and hopefully take our childish friendship a stage further.  A big bruiser of a fellow (he may have been 13) told me to get lost and laid a protective arm around Alison who pointedly laid her head on Ape-Man’s shoulders.  The hurt!  The hurt!

Salvation, though, was at hand.  That self-same evening my parents took me to the Festival Hall for a concert conducted by Sir John Barbirolli which opened with Vaughan Williams’s Wasps Overture.  There’s a lovely passage in the middle featuring a French horn and when that emerged, all my upset and hurt floated away and I was transported into a more luminous Heaven than Alison could ever have provided (certainly at the age of 12).  By the time the concert was over I had forgotten about Alison, but had fallen in love with Vaughan Williams (a short and ultimately unsatisfactory affair, I have to confess) and with the French Horn (we consummated our love only a few weeks later when I started to learn the instrument at school, and our love stayed true until, coincidentally, the year of my marriage; make of that what you will!).

We have the power of music to help heal hearts, and whenever I’ve been really down, the last part of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber is guaranteed (once you’ve negotiated the hurdle of that appalling title) to re-forge even the most broken of hearts.  That piece alone has pulled me through more crises than I care to remember, although in the past 20 years or so I’ve turned to the Variations & Finale from Stanford’s Symphony No.7 (has there ever been a perfect cadence so brim-full of sheer, life-affirming joy as you get at the end of this?).

And for simple, innocent joy to get you over the dark complexities of troubled love, surely the Allegretto of Sullivan’s Irish Symphony or Francaix’s L'Horloge de Flore cannot be bettered.  Need cheering up?  Bach’s Prelude in G (BWV541) never fails.  Need calming down? The middle movements of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto are certain to get the heart-beat back to normal.  And should we want to, we can wallow in misery to a degree Gilbert O’Sullivan could surely never have begun to imagine.  Put on the slow movement of Rachmaninov 2 (Symphony rather than Piano Concerto, but the PC does the job almost as well) and you instantly get that warm glow of immense self-pity.

It’s dangerous to go too deep, but the music is there for those who feel the need.  I have often said that the central part of Karg-Elert’s Symphonic Chorale Jesu meine Freude is the saddest piece of music I know, although the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez is sad enough for most.

The list in endless, but it reminds us just how powerful music is in affecting our emotions.  A short snippet of pop to reinforce their perceptions of their maladies might serve as a small sticking-plaster to broken hearts for most, but we musicians have at our disposal a resource built up over centuries which can cure the most deep hurt and transform our whole outlook on life.  No tragedy cannot be salved, largely, if not wholly, by music.


  1. How right you are!

    I used to drown my sorrows by playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, going through each of the variations as I pondered and ruminated on the woes of the world. If it isn't fixed, I'd go on to the next (skipping the difficult ones), and the next, but never missing out the canons. On a particularly rough day, I'd finish the entire piece - all 70 minutes - plus or minus repeats according to how I felt. What joy and solace it brought.

    As Fate would have it, I married the first (and only) girl who professed her love for the Goldberg Variations on the first date (after attending a Mahler concert by the SSO). So music DOES make a difference!

  2. Of course it works both ways.

    Simon Cobcroft, former cellist with the MPO (who will not take kindly to having his personal life exposed in this blog now he is with the Queensland Orchestra), once had a brief interest in an Indian girl called Mala. It all ended abruptly. My wife got the sorry tale out of him; "I can't have a relationship with a girl who is unaware that she has the same name as one of the greatest composers of the late Romantic period", was his explanation for the break up.

    For my part, were I single I'd happily marry the first girl I came a cross who did NOT know who Mahler was.

  3. Chang Tou Liang08 May, 2012 12:43

    Any girl who loves Mahler (or Bruckner for that matter) must be a man in disguise, so keep clear! Even wondered why those Mahler-Bruckner Society members are almost exclusively middle-aged single men?