Effect of Beethoven on Lenin, and other musical things!

In a conversation with Maxim Gorky, he extolled the power of Beethoven, but added, “I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.”

That is from Alex Ross’ The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century.

I am half-way through Ross’ book; though the book is good, my unfamiliarity with most of the pieces mentioned in the book is getting in the way of my enjoying the book. For example, here is a description of Richard Strauss’ Salome:

Salome, written nine years after Zarathustra, begins very differently, in a state of volatility and flux. The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; medieval scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil.

In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet. There’s a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The scale might also suggest a meeting of the irreconcilable belief systems; after all, Salome takes place at the intersection of Roman, Jewish, and Christian societies. Most acutely, this little run of notes takes us inside the mind of one who is exhibiting all the contradictions of her world.

The description in this vein goes on for several more paragraphs. Having heard Salome only once (and, I don’t even remember hearing the other two pieces mentioned above), I have difficulty in enjoying the descriptions as much as I would have loved to. May be, after finishing it, I should go to the Rest is Noise blog, listen to the samples, and get back to reading it once more; it would be even better if I can listen to the complete pieces a few times before getting back to the book. In that sense, I think, this is a reference book for long-term use for novices like me.

Having said that, I still found the book enjoyable for other reasons, since in some of the sections, I can see some similarities to the Indian classical music that I am more used to. Anybody who heard MS sing

நாலுபுரம் நோக்கி நாணி நான்
யாரிங்கு வந்ததென்றேன்
(I looked around on all sides, blushed , and said, “Who are you, who has come here?”)

with a coy sounding change in the pitch level for the word நாணி (blushing), can identify with the observation of Janacek, a Moravian composer:

Melody, he decided, should fit the pitches and rhythms of ordinary speech, sometimes literally. Janacek did research in cafes and other public places, transcribing on music paper the conversations he heard around him. For example, when a student says “Dobry vecer,” or “Good Evening,” to his professor, he employs a falling pattern, a high note followed by three at a lower pitch. When the same student utters the same greeting to a pretty servant girl, the last note is slightly higher than the others, implying coy familiarity.

And, to anybody who is trained in Indian classical, I think the following would also sound very familiar:

He observed the flexible tempo of sung phrases, how they would accelerate in ornamental passages and taper off at the end. He saw how phrases were seldom symmetrical in shape, how a beat or two might be added or subtracted. He savored “bent” notes–shadings above or below the given note–and “wrong” notes that added flavor and bite.

There are descriptions of musicians who try to see music in the everyday sound, which reminded me of an anecdote I heard about Mani Iyer: apparently, once, during his concert, when the whistle of a train sounded, he jumped to that note and sang along with it. Similarly, the experiments of classical musicians with folk tunes, motifs and ways of singing reminded me of Omkarnath Thakur and Kumar Gandharva. Music and musicians, from all over the world, do seem to share a common language, after all!


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