An excursion into cultcha

If you’re a classical musician, or musical critic, look away now. I have no qualification whatsoever for writing what follows, and Schubert and Haydn studies will not be moved further by even a millimetre as a result of it. I know enough about music to comprehend approximately what a fugue is, and to recognise a movement in sonata form if it doesn’t stray too far from the exposition-development-recapitulation-(coda) model. I can hear a modulation, but there’s no point in asking me to tell you from a score what key all those sharpened, flattened or naturalised notes mean we’ve modulated to. So you won’t find erudite observations like, “Haydn flirts boldly, yet only fleetingly, with a crushing B flat minor from his sunny starting point of D major, like a cloud passing over a distant sunlit landscape.” I’ve just made that up, but if you’re a music critic don’t try telling me you haven’t written that exact poncey sentence at some time, even though you probably got the keys right.

So with my excuses made, let me unleash on the world my untutored musical thoughts. It struck me whilst I was exercising this morning to the strains of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet (and that I was using a masterpiece of the canon as a backdrop to something as base as exercise surely proves my musical philistinism beyond doubt!) not only that it’s quite hard to maintain a decent aerobic rhythm when a slow movement kicks in, but also that both my favourite string quartets have theme and variation slow movements. The other is Haydn’s “Emperor”, with its famous movement from which the German national anthem derives. I wondered whether it was simply a coincidence that both these quartets contain such movements, or whether it might be a significant component in my choice.

I suspect it has something to do with slow movements in general. From a young age, slow movements seemed to me to be stretches of boredom one had to endure before perking up again with a jolly or bombastic minuet or scherzo, and a hopefully breathless and breathtaking finale. Symphonies with the least dirge-like slow movements – Mendelssohn’s Italian or Beethoven’s 8th come to mind – were thus always those I welcomed most appreciatively. My love of the moto perpetuo of the baroque is another consequence of my preference for music that can be visualised as a rushing, gurgling stream rather than a serene, placid lake. Slow movements such as those of “Death and the Maiden” or the “Emperor” have changes of pace and timbre that keep my attention when a shimmering but unremittingly slow movement would have me drifting off. And to a musical novice such as me, these variation movements have a simple and transparent structure, with clearly delineated chunks that signal that something new is being done to the theme, even if I haven’t a clue about exactly what. And in the case of the Haydn, it’s wonderful to hear that theme moving unaltered amongst the voices, and to marvel at how different the same music can be in the hands of a master.

I’d like to think that my musical taste and appreciation have matured as I’ve got older, but I suspect that deep down it’s still the fast and furious that I love, and that prevents the child in me from telling me that I’m bored.

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2 thoughts on “An excursion into cultcha

  1. There’s nothing wrong with that. I play French Horn, and love the ‘big’ symphonies in which I get to belt out some grand tune or fanfare alongside the rest of the brass section. I can’t stand Classic FM, which seems to devote 80% of its output to smoooooooooth classics at [insert time of day].

    If you like changes of speed and feel, have you tried Schubert’s String Quintet? The slow 2nd movement starts with (IMO) breathtaking calm, but after a few minutes erupts into something much more exciting…

    Nice blog all round. It’s fun discovering new voices…

    • Thanks for the reassurance that I’m not entirely naive in my musical appreciation! Schubert’s String Quintet is indeed one of my favourites, but then Schubert is one of my musical heroes anyway.

      And thanks also for your kind comment on the blog generally. I hope you’ll visit again sometime!

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