Blessay 59: Tremble and Transcend (1)

This will be an essay about classical music and how this great European tradition has affected me. It won’t be a condensed history of music or a description of how music accompanied me as some soundtrack to my life. A few years ago, writing in The Gramophone, Simon Callow berated the latter idea. For me, and I think Callow, music exists as a mysterious means to satisfy a cultural hunger and thirst that doesn’t need to be pinned down as a marker for a significant chapter in your life.

The moment you met someone who could be your partner; experiencing the death of a loved one; the birth of a child or simply having a fantastic holiday: all can be celebrated but why should these moments need triggering by music, apprehended at the time of the event? Why should music’s core function be the heightening of significant chapters in your life?

It’s not a question of your location, and what you were doing, when you first heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. More to what space did the Brandenburgs transport you to? Such a space may have had little to do with an intense real memory: far greater than the pull of nostalgia can be a re-living or re-experiencing of this state. And though my thoughts and feeling might be different on each listening to Bach what also delights me is a musical epiphany or frisson. In other words music can frequently posses you irrespective of the special life circumstances you find yourself in.  

I need to provide some dictionary definitions of epiphany and frisson.

EPIPHANY:  (1) The magnification of a supernatural or divine energy.

                       (2) Any moment of great and sudden revelation.

FRISSON:     Shiver. Thrill (An aesthetic one)

James Joyce gave the word epiphany to some of his early fiction and poetry.

“Go seek her out all courteously,

      And say I come,

Wind of spices, whose song is ever


That is verse X111 of Joyce’s Chamber Music. And Epithalamium means a poem or song written to celebrate a marriage. Perhaps there’s a marriage occurring between the experience of an epiphany and a frisson when listening to classical music: what’s heightened (the self) and the heightened effects (the self’s perception).

What follows is a list of moments from 6 classical pieces that for me always create a powerful high as they have the disarming ability to make me tremble at the beauty of their form and content.

(1)   Orfeo by Monteverdi.

The toccata opening of Monteverdi’s opera is a confident announcement, a grand proclamation played on drums, trumpets and strings. The toccata is repeated thrice within a time-span of less than two minutes. Monteverdi’s Orfeo was one of the first operas to be written. In a lovely self-conscious manner this new art form is being announced and the toccata fulfils its function to make me stay and listen to the opera that will follow. But it also does more. Its rhythms propel me into the narrative. The curtain opens (there were no stage curtains in Italy in 1610) for the overture has finished (This toccata is not an overture, the first one written was by Lully and probably for his opera Thesee.) My epiphany is the sense of a great moment in musical history and Orfeo’s toccata frisson is from me imagining I’m witnessing a landmark event.

(2)  St. Matthew Passion by Bach.

The beginning of the passion sets the scene for a drama that for believers and the irreligious has had such a profound effect on Western art and music. The booklet

supplied with my old recording says this is the greatest story ever told. These days

that sounds hyperbolic but the Christ saga is still emotionally gripping.

  “Come ye daughters, share my mourning;

    See Him – Whom? – The Bridegroom Christ

    See Him – How – A spotless Lamb.”

The chorus immediately proclaim the protagonist Jesus. This is followed by the chorale (A boys choir) singing “O lamb of God unspotted / There slaughtered on the cross.” and end with “Have pity on us, Jesus.”

This counterpoint of a double chorus is astounding. The adult one speaks of purity and holy innocence whilst the other boy chorus cries out at the victimisation of Jesus. I find this alternatively shocking, serene and dramatically intense. The passion will have to make both human and musical sense of this son of God’s suffering. Bach does just that. His music convinces us of the rightness and inevitability of a senseless crime, supplying majestic meaning alongside of a harsh drama of betrayal. This music of stark accusation, despair, joy and tender concern are wonderfully presented in these opening choral forces: musical frissons clustering round such beautifully seductive voices almost chilling in their earthly ‘damaged’ joy.

(3)  Symphony no 7 by Beethoven

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler detested Arturo Toscanini’s conducting and is known to have called him a “bloody timekeeper”. Too often I do find Toscanini’s conducting to be hard driven, even relentless. Yet I can forgive him all when I listen to his 1936 recording of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. And especially in the last movement, marked Allegro con brio. Both composition and writing are phenomenal. Toscanini’s interpretation is a precise (though not dogmatic) attack producing an energy that spirals through my body. I can only describe it as having the power of an electrical storm madly dancing inside of me. And Beethoven’s writing delivers a trembling transcendence to leave me both exhilarated and exhausted.

(4)  Symphony no 5 by Bruckner.

The epiphany is to be found in the first movement, marked Adagio – Allegro with its pizzicato effects. Not just Bruckner’s writing for the strings but the sound produced by a clarinet that, for me, conveys the beating of the heart. There are times when I’ve set my CD player into repeat mode to hear this again and again. There is always a pulse in music and great conductors quickly get to this. Yet here a ‘heartbeat’ becomes an extra musical idea – almost as if the strings were pumping blood into the wind section of the orchestra. This is barely audible on most recordings but in the RAH 1971 live performance, BBC symphony orchestra, conducted by Jascha Horenstein; it’s clear, pronounced and highly effective. Of course I can’t just linger on the frisson it provides but follow the whole symphony to its logical conclusion with the great fugal working out of the last movement, frisson after frisson, where heart and head creates such an organic architecture that you sit back, beautifully stretched by the structure, praising Bruckner for his wonderful compositional skill.

(5) Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok.

All those seven locked doors, of Bluebeard, that the curious Judith wants to be opened. Each one painted in a symbolic colour; the first a torture chamber and the last a room of wives. Bartok’s opera was once described by a critic as having “a blood drenched lyricism.” At the white door no 5 Judith reaches Bluebeard’s kingdom of far vistas and blue mountains and is dazzled by the light streaming in. Her cry or scream (depending on which recording you sample) is followed by the tremendous sound of the brass section, blaring out its ‘blood motif’ (in the minor second) with the organ played underneath, quickly followed by ominous strings. Bluebeard sings of his country having “Sun, moon and stars have dwelling. / They shall be thy deathless playmates.” And Judith’s response is, “Yonder cloud throws blood-red shadows / What are these grim clouds portending?” What they portend is Judith’s death, along with Bluebeard’s previous wives, once the last two doors have been opened.

Bartok’s music has often been used in horror films (most famously in Kubrick’s The Shining) yet though he is a master composer of the sinister and violent, I think we have to interpret Bartok’s famous “night music” as not so much pushing us towards the grand guignol but conveying a psychological darkness that has much to do with Bartok’s own private nature. Whether it’s expressing the opera’s source, Perrault’s fairy tale, or other influences I feel such a great visceral power every time the music and its two singers unlock that fifth door of Bluebeard’s Castle. A Bartokian frisson sends a shiver down my spine and projects gaunt thoughts of dread.

(6) Symphony no 5 by Vaughan Williams.

I feel a pride at being British, with Celtic antecedents, but not in a nationalistic way – more a soft-power patriotism. I’m no royalist or a follower of football. The BBC, the NHS and our countryside reinforces my attachment to England. And the English classical music that colours that patriotic identity is that of Ralph Vaughan-Williams. As much as I also love and enjoy Elgar, Britten and Purcell it’s RVW who has proven to be the most persuasive, often irresistibly so.

The visionary impulse, melody and attack of his music has been with me since the age of twenty. After being wooed by his The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Vaughan-Williams’s 5th symphony is the serene masterpiece that I return to more than those works and his other, differently wonderful, symphonies.

The third movement of the fifth is called romanza. The definition of romanza is “a short instrumental piece of song-like character.” Song is probably a keyword here. Vaughan Williams is famous for his collecting of English folk song. Musical themes from his opera The Pilgrims Progress are to be found in the symphony and in the manuscript score there are words by John Bunyan “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.” These words were sung by Pilgrim in the opera. Yet it is the gentle introduction of the cor anglais in this movement which replaces the human voice. This theme is then developed by the wind section. The introduction of the strings brings a Sibelius-like mood, yet as the music progresses its soft-hued, but resolute, climaxes evoke, for me, a very English and deeply visionary sense of the land. It’s as if my reserved spot on the landscape is speaking to me to come and stand or lie there and receive great peace and serenity as things spiritually connect.

The fifth came after the abrasive violence of Vaughan Williams’s fourth symphony. It was premiered in 1943. Astonishing that such a tranquil work was composed during the Second World War. Yet like the 3rd symphony (Pastoral) its healing surface hides conflict. The composer Anthony Payne said of the fifth that the agonies of the fourth and sixth symphonies “lie beneath its spiritual radiance.” To ‘bathe’ in its almost Blakean mysticism and Bunyan rightness, of the pilgrim’s journey, touches me deeply. I don’t believe in God but such music gives me a spiritual identity that I can comfortably live with. 

Of course there are more than six great moments in classical music. Already another dozen or so need mentioning. And many more. Another time. Another essay.

I haven’t done the obvious and given readers a YouTube link to this music. You will of course find them there. But I recommend that you seek out the cd recordings. For me the sound is preferable to the now second-hand vinyl. But what recordings?  There are so many performances in the catalogue.

Here are my personal favourites.

Monteverdi: Orfeo – The Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne conducted by

                                  Michel Corboz.   (Erato – 2 cd set) 1968 re-mastered 1989

Bach: Saint Matthew Passion – Munchener Bach Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter

                                                 (DGG – 3cd set) 1959 re-mastered 1994

Beethoven: Symphony no 7 – The New York Philharmonic conducted by Arturo

                                                Toscanini (RCA – I cd) 1936 re-mastered 1991

Bruckner: Symphony no 5 – BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jascha

                                             Horenstein (BBC Legends CD) 1971 re-mastered 2000

Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle – Hungarian State Opera Orchestra conducted by Janos

                                             Ferencsik. Bluebeard – Yevgeny Nesterenko (bass)

                                             Elena Obraztsova (mezzo-soprano) (Hungaroton – 1 cd)


Vaughan Williams: Symphony no 5 – London Symphony Orchestra conducted by

                                                           Andre Previn (RCA – 1 cd) 1972 re-mastered


There are of course many other recordings. I have some of those as well. But these six are very special: some of my first purchased vinyl, and then cd, encounters with great music. I hope you discover them too.

Blessay 59: Tremble and Transcend