I last posted something here in March, 2020, nine long months ago. That's when I had to cancel my two remaining classes on Beethoven and Schubert. Someday soon, we will gather again and share our love of music -- in person.
In the meantime, here's something I put together about music and mood. I had been mulling this subject for a while -- how does music affect our mood and how can we soothe our spirits during difficult times? When longtime friend Bill Crane, Portland Piano International's executive director, asked me to write something for their new monthly newsletter, called Soundboard, I thought the subject of music and mood might be timely. I hope you do, too.
Those of you who have attended my classes over the years may find some of these selections familiar. Each one is magical in its own way.
Beauty That Pulls Like a River
You can fool your brain, but you can’t fool your heart. Which is why, in these difficult times, we should listen more closely to our hearts. Our brains can think for themselves.
These days, it’s dark, gray and chaotic outside. Through my window, I watch the rain and falling leaves and I can’t help looking for ways to counter the gloom. For many of us, music works best because it tunes in to our feelings quickly and easily. All we have to do is hear the first three notes of a piece as powerful as “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and our hearts calm down.
Or the opening of Mozart’s exquisite “Laudate Dominum.”
Or the serenity that unfolds in Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major.
A poem can distill beauty. A novel can describe it. But music mimics it.
As Tolstoy said, "Music is the shorthand of emotion."
Our interior world is not organized in space or time. Our feelings don’t have shape or form. They ebb and flow in a continuous blend of sensation. The meaning we feel in “Nimrod” comes from our own responses to the world — loss, endurance, memory — responses we have earned and carry with us. Music clarifies feeling, articulating our sometimes incoherent joys and sufferings, reminding us that someone else shares them.
Robert Browning knew this: “He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once.”
Our pleasure in music is immediate. It’s not the sun rising over Mt. Hood. The pleasure is interior and it transforms us for a moment. You could say it possesses us and makes us smile, move, sigh or cry. It invades us, if we let it, allowing our brains to piece together larger understandings than we can in the everyday world. We suddenly perceive reactions that go deeper than in ordinary life. For those brief moments, we seem to attain a greater grasp of the world, as if rising from the ground to look down on our ordinary experience.
We feel ourselves expand and realize we can be more than we normally are.
We know that music reduces stress because Oliver Sacks told us so. The great chronicler of brain behavior found that music is a remedy, a tonic that can lift us out of depression. Medical studies show that patients who listened to music before, during and after operations had lower blood pressure and needed less medication. The Greeks had reason to put one god, Apollo, in charge of both medicine and music.
If you’re looking for beauty — and who isn’t? — these musical gems will make you fall in love with the moment.
Let’s start with chant, that perfect reduction of music to melody, free of rhythm and harmony. Listening to chant is like creating a cloister in your living room. Or, imagine you are walking to a monastery, passing by fields and a stream. The sun warms you as you climb a hill and enter the cool shadows of the church. You settle into a pew and close your eyes.
These are the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, singing “Vir Dei Benedictus” (“Man of God, Benedictus”). The Benedictine monks live in northern Spain and sing the words, “Alleluia. Benedict the man of God was filled with the spirit of all the just; may he himself intercede for all who have made monastic profession. Alleluia.” Listen to the rise and fall of pitches as they arch smoothly and pull like a magnet to the close.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) had been depressed and was about to throw in the towel when his publisher, a man named Jaeger, visited him and encouraged him to keep composing. Jaeger talked about Beethoven, who suffered a great deal, but continued to write beautiful music. "And that is what you must do", he said, and he sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata. The opening bars of "Nimrod" suggest that memorable theme.
“Nimrod,” from the “Enigma Variations,” captures something very British, but also universal: Noble beauty unfolding at a magisterial pace while building to an enormous brass climax.
“Nimrod” by Edward Elgar. Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor.
For a little excitement, let’s look to Rossini. No one wrote a crescendo like Rossini and the Overture to “La Gaza Ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”) contains one of his best. It comes eight minutes into the overture and builds as slowly and relentlessly as the tide. The snare drum, new at the time, plays an important role.
Boian Videnoff conducts the Mannheimer Philharmoniker.
Speaking of Schubert, I turn to the last sonata for a number of reasons — mystery, profound beauty, off-beat humor, sheer, lyrical beauty. In 2015, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross interviewed Andras Schiff after the great Hungarian pianist had played it in Los Angeles.
Schubert finished the great Sonata in B-Flat Major two months before he died in 1828 and Ross describes it as “a work of vast dimensions and vertiginous depths. It has long struck listeners as a kind of premature communication from the beyond…”
Schiff himself says of the opening, “I see a broad horizon, a calm ocean. It’s beautiful how often Schubert writes about the sea, even though he never saw it. Then the trill — a very distant murmuring, maybe of an approaching storm. Still very far, but approaching. It is not a pleasant noise, this murmuring. Maybe it is also the approach of death. And then silence. What other work is so full of silence? And then the original melody resumes. This is only speculation—I cannot say what it really means.”
Andras Schiff plays Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major.
Do you know the extraordinary piece called “Spiegle im Spiegle”? This work for two instruments is by the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Born in 1935, Part has been hugely influential in the style we call minimalism. "Spiegel im Spiegel" in German means "mirror in the mirror,” referring to mirrors that produce an infinity of images. The pianist plays three notes, repeated with small variations as if reflected back and forth. Leonhard Roczek is the cellist, Herbert Schuch is the pianist.
Listen as a mantle of serenity settles on us from the very first notes. Something similar happens in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, with its quiet, rippling triplets. Here, we immediately sense a great and gentle space, a meditation. Nothing is rushed. The notes unspool as if we have all the time in the world.
Let’s end with some joy and promise. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is often called the Black national anthem. It comes from a poem by James Weldon Johnson, set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905. The song gives thanks for freedom, while evoking the bible’s weary and stony exodus from slavery to the freedom of the “promised land.”
Watch the conductor’s face and try to resist the musical current that pulls us along.
The Winston-Salem State University Choir, Alumni Choir and Friends perform Roland M. Carter’s arrangement, with conductors Carter and D’Walla Simmons-Burke and accompanist Myron Brown.
Our brains quiet and our hearts expand when we find beauty like this in this world.
David Stabler is a teacher, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa. In 2017, he rode across America with his brother.