Music and the Mind
by Ian Lace
Transcript of a presentation made to the Salisbury Recorded Music Society in September 2016.
Have you often wondered how music affects the mind? What messages, what impressions, what influences are we picking up?
When I was preparing this presentation in early August 2016, I read the Daily Telegraph obituary of Paul Robertson who had been the leader of The Medici String Quartet. It related how Robertson had become intensely interested in exactly this notion, of how music affects the mind – and soul. Especially after his extreme heart failure when he survived an NDE - a Near Death Experience - and afterwards was stuck in a coma for an inordinate length of time after which he had to go through a prolonged recuperation. The obituary ended with a note that Robertson' s book, Soundscapes, A Musician's Journey through Life and Death was to be published in September 2016. Tragically, Robertson died in late July of that year, only months before his book was published. Needless to say I hastened to request a review copy of his book. My review was published on MusicWeb International. Paul recalls his near death experience beginning: “As I lay there waiting, I felt myself die beautifully, transcendentally. I saw eternity and shed the whole of myself joyfully in order to become unified with it."
Paul's book raises some very interesting speculations about the effects of music and I will return to these later. The music I have chosen is mostly British because the composers' comments about themselves, their music and their inspiration is in English. One thing I think we all realise is that music is a sort of heightened language. It is often multi-layered and can say numerous things simultaneously, sometimes paradoxically.
Let's start off with music by Elgar. In 1912 he wrote a work called The Music Makers which was a setting of O'Shaughnessy's Ode. There is a telling section in these verses when O'Shaughnessy remarks that although we are "the music makers and the dreamers of dreams" (referring to the creative artist: be he composer, artist or poet), “That we dwell in our dreaming and singing, A little apart from ye.” In other words he is drawing attention to that extra sensitivity and therefore, essentially, a loneliness experienced by the creative artist that sets him apart. His gift is therefore often seen to be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.
For my first music illustration I have chosen the Adagio of Elgar's First Symphony. This is for me one of the most beautiful pieces of English music. It is calm and reflective and, I think one might agree, essentially pastoral in character, evocative of the Worcestershire and Herefordshire countryside that Elgar loved. But is there also something else going on here - some element of mysticism? I want to draw your attention to the horn-calls near the very end of the movement - I will raise my hand when they come. They at once give a sense of perspective but might I dare to suggest that they might represent something mystical, something out-of-this-world? As we hear more music in this presentation - by Bax and Gerald Finzi - there are comparable horn figures that I believe are similarly used.
One composer whose works have always impressed me very much is Arnold Bax. His music is highly evocative, romantic in the broadest sense, and very colourfully orchestrated. He made the point that inspiration never came to him to order but would command him at any time and under any circumstances. He commented that the truly inspired artist does not possess a gift, but is possessed by it as by a demon.
Bax was an extraordinary character. In a sense he never grew up. Despite coming from a wealthy background he frequently lived oblivious to his surroundings in the most basic, scruffy conditions, existing in rooms over pubs in the most isolated areas of the republic of Ireland and in Scotland. In Ireland he lived and wrote some of his best music in Glencolumbkille, County Donegal on the Atlantic coast. It is a bleak place often enduring the wildest weather. Bax reports seeing stormy sea-spray shooting up and over a local 600+ ft. cliff face. Some years ago I followed in Bax's footsteps to all his Irish and Scottish haunts. I found Glencolumbkille fascinating. The community is tight knit and superstitious. There is a folk museum there and it is interesting to note that the local folk regard Christianity and pantheistic beliefs with equal importance, believing that certain rocks, dells and features as having pagan spiritual significance. These sort of deep-rooted beliefs were not confined just to unsophisticated country folk. They tended to be shared by Irish artists - one of them was the poet and painter George Russell sometimes known as AE. He and Bax were on friendly terms. On one occasion Russell invited Bax to spend a few days with him in the North-West of Donegal. In his semi-autobiography Farewell My Youth, Bax wrote of a strange experience they shared: ‘I was reading … when I suddenly became aware that I was listening to strange sounds, the like of which I had never heard before. They can only be described as a kind of mingling of rippling water and tiny bells tinkled, and yet I could have written them out in musical notation.’ The experience shook Bax and AE neither of whom could offer any logical or natural explanation.
Later Bax set down that experience in the Epilogue of his Third Symphony. It begins with a slow march which seems to have a swaying lumbering gait below a somewhat mournful melody. Then there is this extraordinary episode where Bax recalls his mystical experience in Northern Donegal using muted brass including muted horn, tremolando strings and an array of percussion that includes xylophone, glockenspiel and celesta.
William Wordsworth was not an effete Lakeland poet but a prodigious and adventurous walker covering large swathes of France, Germany and Switzerland. He was a sympathiser of Revolutionary France impressed by what he saw there in the early 1790s before he was repelled by the Reign of Terror. His Intimations of Immortality appears to be an intensely private and personal statement to be read silently, not listened to. It suggests that we come from a previous existence and that in our infancy here we behold and glorify in the true beauty of our earthly surroundings before the veil of forgetfulness descends and we are compelled to follow this life's business.
The English composer, Gerald Finzi, felt compelled to set this poetry to music. Many were appalled at the prospect. Martin Cooper writing in The Musical Times protested that "such words would beggar even the greatest music." Anticipating such a reaction, Finzi observed, "I don't think everyone realises the difference between choosing a text and being chosen by one.”
Like the horn-calls we heard at the end of Elgar's First Symphony’s Adagio, we hear mysterious, glimmering immortality horn-calls at the beginning of the Finzi work followed by a brooding regretful melody. Let's hear just one minute of this opening.
Now I just want to play two shortish excerpts to illustrate the beauty of Finzi's settings
The first is the verse beginning: “The rainbow comes and goes ...”. Note how Finzi rapturises “Waters on a starry night, Are beautiful and fair.” Then the verse, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting" and it includes that oft-quoted phrase “… trailing clouds of glory do we come ...” Trailing clouds of glory - where did that phrase come from? How mysterious, how mystical and what resonance it has. It has been quoted so many times including in Paul Robertson's book.
Paul Robertson's book includes considerable sections on the intensity - and possibly universal, in the sense of other-worldly - of sensations implicit in Beethoven's late String Quartets and the Chaconne from Bach's Solo Violin Partita in D minor. Here again I was spooked because, as you can see, precisely this work is featured in the September 2016 edition of Gramophone and listed on the front page of that magazine. Inside Kyung Wha Chung, a profoundly insightful musician herself, observes that she is spiritually elevated by the Chaconne. "It transcends its earth-bound confines of form and structure", she maintains.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was an agnostic even though he wrote much music for the church; he edited the English Hymnal early in his career and wrote much music that was liturgical or mystical. His music has been regarded as visionary. Rather than comment in detail I would rather remind you of the radiant ethereal beauty that is the Romanza movement of the Fifth Symphony using material RVW created for his opera The Pilgrim's Progress. I remember this music being of great therapeutic value to me when I was recovering from a prolonged serious illness in 1974.
I chose to use the Pentecost Scene from Elgar’s The Kingdom because of its dramatic and emotional appeal - and for the sublime and distinctly moving and deceptively simple setting of St. Peter’s aria, "It shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; and your young men shall dream dreams ..."
Now it is well known that Elgar lost his faith turning away from religion because of the perceived failure of his works - not entirely true of course; his oratorios were hardly failures. Yet in spite of this perceived loss of faith it is interesting to note there are reports of Elgar being seen in tears as he conducted one of his oratorios. In such circumstances one might well wonder about that alleged loss of faith.
Like-wise Delius. He dismissed any religious thought or acceptance of the possibility of an afterlife. Yet it is interesting to note that the very last project he undertook with his amanuensis, Eric Fenby, was a setting of verses by the American poet Walt Whitman suggesting there was something to look forward to after death. The work was Delius's Songs of Farewell which use a sea-going metaphor for a voyage into an unknown future after death. Interestingly, RVW had used similar Whitman verses and sentiments in his extraordinary mystical final movement of his Sea Symphony. The words to the final movement we are to hear are these:-
Now finale to the shore,
Now land and life finale and farewell
Now Voyager depart, (much, much more for thee is yet in store)
Often enough hast thou adventur’d o’er the seas,
Cautiously cruising – studying the charts,
Duly again to port and hawser’s tie returning.
But now obey thy cherished secret wish,
Embrace thy friends, leave all in order,
To port and hawser’s tie no more returning
Depart upon thy endless cruise old Sailor
In conclusion two things. The film on BBC2 TV last Saturday night, A Late Quartet starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken, was about the dynamics and personal issues, stresses and strains within a string quartet - especially when the ageing cellist begins to show signs of encroaching Parkinson's Disease and wants to resign. There are curious parallels with the stresses felt within the Medici String Quartet.
Secondly I would quote again from Paul Robertson's book. One of his mentors was the celebrated pianist Clifford Curzon who was very fastidious. Robertson asked Curzon what he considered was the ultimate reward of music. Curzon replied, "Consolation". "Consolation for what?" the young Robertson persisted. To which Curzon replied with a look of infinite resignation, "For life Paul, for life!"