Music for simple minds

Since lockdown began six (or is it seven?) millenia ago, I have begun to realise how reliant I am on the companionship of sound, and of classical music in particular.

Violin resting on sheet music

I wake up to Russell Torrance and his gentle Scottish brogue on Classic FM, then move on to my late father’s classical music CD collection for the rest of my working-from-home day. Once meticulously filed in alphabetical order in his study, it’s now a jumbled pile in his old bedroom – my current retreat. I sift through it for old favourites – the B for Bach, H for Handel and M for Mozart sections were always heavily weighted on Dad’s shelves – and spend hours every day of this 21st century pandemic immersed in 18th century music.

In the early stages of lockdown, I set myself a goal to learn more about the mechanics of classical music.

I wanted to work out what it is that appeals to me so much about the baroque period. I love what my father called the pompty-pom of the exuberant Italian (and many German) composers. But I’m most focused on pinpointing the structure of those passages of music that cause me to down tools and concentrate my whole being to the listening of them.

This much I have worked out: they are always in a minor key, and in my imagination I see them as an ascending staircase, every step of which fills my heart almost to breaking point. I have looked up terms that might describe this musical construction – elision, harmonic progression, intervals, half steps and whole steps – none of which fit the bill.

My research has led me to Aaron Copland’s 1959 book What to Listen for in Music.

Book titled What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland

In it, he suggests that we listen to music on three planes: the sensuous, the expressive and the sheerly musical. The sensuous plane is listening for pure pleasure – something I realise I’ve done all my life up to now – but Copland admonishes that ‘you must not allow it to usurp a disproportionate share of your interest.’ The inferior music lovers who dwell solely on the sensuous plane ‘abuse that plane in listening. They go to concerts in order to lose themselves.’ I feel my shoulders slump and read on.

The second plane is the expressive plane. The expressive side of music is the meaning behind the notes, what the piece is about. Copland contends that there is meaning to music, but that wanting to assign a certain meaning to a piece of music is a weakness of ‘simple-minded souls’.

According to Copland, these deficient individuals find Tchaikovsky easier to ‘understand’ than Beethoven*.

This is because the apparent meaning of Tchaikovsky’s music never changes, whereas Beethoven’s music ‘is slightly different with each hearing’. I wonder what Copland would make of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A little too obvious, I’d guess. Talk about appealing to the simple-minded masses. Guilty as charged.

And finally, we have the sheerly musical plane. Copland uses a live theatre analogy to describe the role of the three planes in a piece of music: the sensuous plane is equivalent to the ambience of the theatre; the expressive plane refers to the emotions stirred up by the onstage action; the third plane is what makes up the structure and plot development of the play.

Empty stage with theatre boxes on either sideThis is where it gets complicated. This plane is all about the notes and their manipulation, and for this the listener needs to know about the principles of musical form and actively pay attention to it.

As a writer, I can make perfect sense of his analogy.

I have just completed four years of the study of professional writing to learn my plots from my sub plots, my omniscient points-of-view from my first person, my actives from my passives. And while it has given me a greater appreciation of other people’s writing, I have studied it principally in order to be a better writer myself.

‘It will largely be the business of this book,’ writes Copland, ‘to make [the reader] more aware of music on this plane.’ I flick through the remaining 300 pages – filled with Italian words and complicated musical scores – then close it gently but firmly. I don’t plan to take up music as a profession, either as a composer or a player.

I’m going to stick to my two musical planes and give up my quest to describe the compositional form that is my joy and my undoing. And whenever I hear that transformative run of notes and harmonies that speak to my soul, I won’t interrupt it with questions.

This story was published in June 2020 in Limelight.

*Beethoven is featuring this weekend (June 6-7) on the Classic 100: Beethoven Weekend on Classic FM.

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