I have been listening a lot to Sibelius this week. JTO says she thinks it sounds cold, drawing pictures of the Finnish countryside in the current season. I, on the other hand, hear warmth in the music. People in the warmth of their homes. The ending of the long cold winter and the arrival of the spring and the warmth. The CD contains symphonies 5-7, The Oceanides, Finlandia and Tapiola played by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund. As you will see from the cover of the CD they did not go with the cold and snowy Finland but with the land of lakes.
The title of this piece is half of a saying usually made about art and attributed to people who are philistines. It continues “…but I know what I like.” I never learnt about classical music, I don’t really know much about it and that which I like I came to via a different range of influences. Take Sibelius. That’s him on the right of this post.According to the notes on the CD, “the ‘age of Romanticism’ was bound up with an outbreak of nationalist fever in those countries outside the well established French/Austro-German/Italian musical traditions.” It goes on to mention “Glinka in Russia, Liszt in Hungary, and Smetana in Bohemia followed by Grieg in Norway, Nielsen in Denmark, Albéniz in Spain, Alfvén in Sweden and Elgar in England.” It places Sibelius in this tradition. The Fifth Symphony is the one I started listening to this CD for. The notes go on to say, “Compared to the agonisingly bleak and introspective Fourth Symphony, Sibelius’ Fifth is a far more outward-going and positive affair, the composer’s final musical statement in the heroically conquering mould familiar from his first two symphonies. Originally cast in four movements and completed just in time for his 50th birthday celebrations, Sibelius later telescoped the first two movements into one to produce one of the most exhilarating utterances in the history of symphonic form. The gently contemplative central movement provides a sobering contrast before the indelible horns calls of the finale push the music ever onwards towards its exultant conclusion.” Ah the horns.
In November 1984 I first heard ‘Since Yesterday’ by Strawberry Switchblade. I loved the ‘indelible horns’ at the start of the song and that recur during it. A friend who worked in a record store knew of my love for this song and, when clearing things out from his record collection, gave me the whole album it came from. It was some time later that I learnt that the musical theme in the song had been taken from the Third Movement of the Fifth Symphony by Sibelius, which was why I bought it and now listen to it.
That has pretty much been a theme of my life. If I find something I like I go back to the things that inspired the author or musician. It was from my love of Echo and the Bunnymen that I went back to the inspiration of the lead singer and found Leonard Cohen. It sometimes went astray. When, as a young man in my late teens/early twenties, I loved the writing of Jack Kerouac I sought out his inspiration Thomas Wolfe, the American writer from the early part of the twentieth century. I instead found Tom Wolfe the then writer of new-Journalism and now noted author.
So, I discovered the late String Quartets of Beethoven from the book ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ by Milan Kundera, one of my all-time favourite books. The main character is agonising over whether to return to Soviet Prague from Paris to follow his partner. She loves Beethoven and introduced his music to him. The last movement of Quartet 135, the last, is called ‘the difficult decision.’ It has a theme running through it “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.” (Must it be? It must be.) The main character reflects on this whilst agonising over the decision and, when he has made a decision he justifies the decision my “Es muss sein!” Beethoven fits into other themes in the book about heaviness and lightness but it was listening to the music after reading that section of the book and hearing the theme as described that led me to fall in love with the piece of music.
Morrissey is to blame for another. The only time I saw the Smiths the first song they played was the eponymous first track from the album, The Queen is Dead, which starts with actress Cicely Courtneidge nostalgically singing the First World War song ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty‘ from the 60’s film ‘The L Shaped Room‘. Before that the Montagues and Capulets from Serge Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliette was played through the PA. I was aware of the piece of music but after being put to such a use I had to have it on record.
There are other similar stories to each of the pieces of classical music in my record collection apart from two which feature Mozart’s last three symphonies. Those were given to me by my mother when I left home and I have played them a lot of times and have come to love them a lot.