Monday 21 September 2015

The Music of Time Passing

The other evening, as I reached for a favourite CD of Dvorak string quartets (12 and 13, played by the Lindsays), it occurred to me that, as I grow older, I am more and more drawn to chamber music, songs, choral works and smaller-scale orchestral pieces - and less and less to the full-blown symphonies and big concertos that were the core of my listening decades ago when I first began to take an interest. Nowadays, many of those mighty works - especially those of the Romantic composers - seem uninviting, overblown, even bombastic and intimidating. This is unfair of course, as a judgment, but it expresses the way I often feel now, as I drift away from the grand and monumental to forms of music more intimate, perhaps 'lighter' in weight, subtler in effect, more impressionistic and allusive than overtly expressive. This has happened within the oeuvre of individual composers - notably Beethoven, whose symphonies I've more or less abandoned in favour of the late quartets - and likewise there are composers whose works I could only ever stomach on a small scale, most notably Mahler, and others I would in earlier years have written off as frivolous but now love, e.g. Poulenc.
 I don't think I am alone in experiencing this movement in my musical taste as I grow older, and I suspect it might apply beyond the field of music. My reading seems to be heading in broadly the same direction, and I'll probably never get round to tackling those big blockbuster classics that I didn't read in earlier years. I marvel at the sheer stamina I had as a youthful reader, and know I could never emulate it now. As I also tend to read more slowly, I am less drawn to books that I know will take up weeks, even months, of my reading time - weeks that could be filled with a variety of lesser (in scale) delights.
 I think the big stuff is best read when relatively young, when it will make more of an impact (on a necessarily less furnished mind) and when it will be more completely absorbed, will sink down and settle, forming a rich and fertile subsoil. Even if much of it is, to the conscious mind, forgotten (as it is in my case), something of that bulk reading will, I believe, continue to diffuse into all our later reading, colouring it, however faintly, and deepening and enriching our responses to what we read. With the spadework done, we can range at large, discovering that, with the fading of our youthful mental acuity, our vision becomes broader, less clearly defined, but deeper in insight and appreciation. Or so I like to believe.
 Some similar movement seems to happen in the careers of some great artists, as they leave behind the unageing monuments of their prime and set sail into chartless waters - Titian's extraordinary late paintings, or Turner's, Beckett's Ill Seen Ill Said, Nabokov's Transparent Things, final condensates of their creators' genius. Or indeed Beethoven's late quartets. None of these would have been possible without what came before; they are the fruits of time and ageing - and, as we age ourselves, we respond to them more and more. Those ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds...
 Talking of which, here is a beautiful piece I came across on YouTube the other day, by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks - that's him taking a reluctant bow at the end of the performance. Enjoy, marvel.


  1. He may never have tired of London's many delights, but if Sam Johnson had lived into the 19th Century he may have happened upon Beethoven's first symphony and sat in wonder at its many marvels. I think you need a refresher Nige. Can I suggest (without straying into the early music camp) you invest about a tenner in a rethinking of these great works made by David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra at the end of the last century. Using the then-new Barenreiter editions it was, for me at least, like hearing the Nine with completely fresh ears.

  2. Thanks for the tip MM - I've certainly noticed that I prefer the more 'period' interpretations of Beethoven, and others. Maybe my drift into chamber music will ultimately carry me back toward symphonic shores...

  3. And now I've invested £1.60 (new) in the David Zinman 9th!