08 December 2012

Music for The Moment

There used to be an early evening programme called Nationwide on BBC television which featured some of the more idiosyncratic stories from the various regions of Britain.  I used to watch it as a school boy and remember one particular feature they ran in which viewers were invited to suggest a piece of music and an accompanying image from their region; the BBC editors would then put it together as a film sequence.  I can only recall one of these; following the course of the River Thames to the accompaniment of Vltava.  It worked very well, but only proved that Smetana’s vision of a great river was sufficiently descriptive as it stood to obviate any associated visual images.

That the idea soon died a death was due, I imagine, to the extreme difficulty of marrying music to a particular image.  When, around the same time, the editor whose job it was to select the title music for the serialised book read on the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour was interviewed, the real skill in this job was vividly demonstrated.  She had recently chosen to introduce a serialisation of a book (and I can’t remember which) with a passage from Richard Adler’s Wilderness Suite and the two married so perfectly that listeners had written in their droves to congratulate her.  When she explained what was involved – not being able to listen to any music without a notebook in hand to jot down any passage which, to her, summoned up a particular mood or image – I was amazed.  This seemed to my teenage ears like a dream job and from that day onwards, I made a note of any potentially descriptive passages in music I heard.  I now have a vast and increasing database of suggested musical images (tragically, largely wasted since my precious record collection has been lost in transit from Singapore to the UK) which, if anyone ever asks, I can refer to.  Unfortunately, career choices have never allowed me to work as a BBC editor, so my database is destined to remain unused.
Once or twice a particular piece of music has been so ideally suited to the images it accompanies that it sticks in the mind.  I first fell in love with Rachmaninov, not because of the syrupy pathos of the great piano melodies, but because of the urgent and thrusting main theme of the last movement of the 1st Symphony which was the perfect title music for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Panorama.  But the fact that all these great musical pairings belong to the distant past is not mere nostalgia on my behalf.  Sadly, for most people, music now accompanies everything from moments of passion and tragedy, to mundane things like cooking a meal or travelling on a train, and the idea of associating music with a particular occasion or emotion has been subverted by a blanket desire to use music to obliterate silence.

Title music for radio and television has been diluted by the omni-presence of music throughout the programme.  A famous spat blew up a few years ago when a serious programme about astronomy was, in many listener’s opinion, ruined by a constant soundtrack of unrelated pop music which made the programme unbearable for those with hearing problems (the one disability largely ignored in the current climate of disability sympathy which is sweeping the UK) and undermined any scientific authority it may have had for those with a real interest in the subject matter.  The response of the presenter to the complaints was that young people cannot listen to anything unless it has a musical background.  (The obvious extension to that is that young people cannot listen to music – they merely hear it.)
The Organ Music makes you stop and stare
at the National Museum of Scotland's
Millenium Clock
So it came as a real shock to me today when suddenly I was pulled up short by a piece of music which was so perfectly suited to its context that I found myself rooted to the spot while it played itself out.  Calling into the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh – a wonderful place, if ever there was one, boasting, among other things, a tremendous display of old gramophones – I encountered the great clock room.  While the cogs of one clock were pushed continually onwards by a giant fly, another, a real Heath-Robinson affair, incorporated mechanical deer ringing bells, a Penny-Farthing bicycle, all manner of weird and wonderful machines and a disturbingly alluring female monkey constantly turning a handle.  This latter clock marked each hour by playing the third movement of Bach’s organ transcription of Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto (BWV593).  Judging from the crowds who just stopped and stared at the clock when the organ music started. I was not the only one who found the music arresting.  It was a touch of genius.  In its original guise (it’s the Concerto for 2 violins RV522) it would not work nearly so well, but Bach’s transcription, with its almost relentless mechanical drive, its multi-faceted detail (including an extended piece of writing for two independent feet) and its sense of inexorable movement, perfectly matched the detail in the clock and the concept of time running relentlessly onwards.

Clocks playing music on the hour are pretty standard fare. The Edinburgh one is something very different and, in the true sense of the phrase, one in a million.

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