Sunday, 14 January 2007

Hunger for seriousness

Why do I love miserable music? I'm not a miserable person at all, and yet it seems my favourite music always seems to be of the kind that most people tend to find depressing.

One of my favourite composers is Shostakovich. Now Classic FM play quite a bit of Shostakovich, but give rather a biassed view by only playing lollipops like the "Romance" from the film score "The Gadfly", or his brilliantly witty arrangement of Tea For Two (In the Soviet Union this was called Tahiti Trot). But none of the Shostakovich pieces that are regularly played by Classic FM capture the true bleakness and tragedy of this man's music. By contrast, I attended a performance by the Lindsay Quartet of Shostakovich's deathly 13th String Quartet at Manchester University a few years back. The quartet ends with an extended passage for solo viola accompanied by deathly taps as the second violin is directed to tap the body of the instrument with the bow. It ends in a high scream. At the end, the viola player was white, unsmiling and shaking having played in a phenomenal fashion. The woman who was sitting next to me in the audience said at the end: "Well, I suppose he has a right to be so negative, but it's not for me". She acknowledged that I had been mesmerised by it, however.

By the same token, when the Radiohead single "Pyramid Song" was first played on Top of the Pops, I was really impressed by it, but the rest of my family thought I was completely mad to like such a mournful song. It appears the song is about suicide (the first line being "Jumped in a river"). I saw a fan on a website commenting on the lines "We all went to heaven in a little rowboat/And there was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt" and saying it meant we would go to heaven when we die and it would be perfect. But I think this perhaps misses the point - a possible way of seeing the lines is that death is a nothingness, where there is literally "nothing to fear" and "nothing to doubt", in fact nothing at all. Such a state might well be looked forward to and embraced gladly by someone in a suicidal frame of mind.

But such negative thoughts - the deathliness of Shostakovich's music, and the gloomy and trancendental contemplation of death and perhaps suicide by Radiohead are far from my own philosophy of life as a Christian. Why, then do such things hold such a fascination for me?

I think it may have to do with the innate hunger we all have for seriousness. This idea is presented well by Philip Larkin in his famous poem "Churchgoing". In the poem, Larkin, an atheist himself, finds himself wandering round a church, not really understanding what it's all about but savouring the atmosphere. He, also is puzzled as to why he finds it pleasing to come to churches again and again, and concludes it is because "a serious house on serious earth it is", and that this can never be obsolete "since someone will forever be surprising in himself a hunger to be more serious".

As a final recollection of satisfying this hunger for seriousness in myself (despite having a jokey nature), I recall going to a Prom concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth symphony (a work that preceded by only a few weeks Tchaikovsky's own suicide following threats of being "outed" as a homosexual). During the first movement there is a section where the music erupts into an almost hysterical outpouring of grief. At that point, I recall the sense of a tingle that passed from the top of my head right through me, and that the smile had been wiped completely not just from my body, but my soul. And yet it wasn't a miserable experience - it was strangely uplifting to be taken solemly to the edge of the abyss, to stare into it, and to get the feeling that this was alright and that there was nothing to fear in this calm contemplation of total loss. Similarly the tragic slow last movement left me incapable of smiling, and in a way enriched that the joker inside me was silenced for a while.

This post was prompted by hearing the same last movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth played on Classic FM yesterday. Again the music worked its solemn magic on me, and again the smile was wiped off my face for a while. Now, I really like to listen to Classic FM quite a bit, especially on the car radio, but occasionally they really irritate me. Such was the case here - after the movement came to an end, the honeyed tones of the announcer said this:

Tchaikovsky ...... at his melancholy best!!

To which the only response can be:


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