Peter Divey: Crossing the Musical Rubicon

This is an article by Peter Divey.

I knew a little about classical music, I watched the Last Night of the Proms and had enjoyed the film Amadeus. Beethoven, Bach, some of the famous composers were sketchily familiar to me. I did not listen to classical music but neither did I listen to Radio 1. I had never purchased a single, the wonder of the 3-minute hit passing me by. About twenty years ago a friend of mine went outside and retrieved a CD from his car. We were enjoying spectacularly fine wine (my last bottle of old Huet demi-sec Vouvray from Le Haut-Lieu) and he felt it would be a more appropriate accompaniment than another Ritchie Blackmore solo. A late symphony by Bruckner. Big and brassy he said, lasts about an hour. Concentrate, give it a chance he implored, and for the first time I really listened. My friend guided me, explaining the structure of the music, the author’s intention, naming the different instruments as they chimed in and out. There was light and shade, nuance, emotion and mystery.

After that it was all big symphonies, lots of players, huge climaxes. I obtained a recording of the remarkable ‘Gothic’ symphony by Havergal Brian, nigh on two hours of eccentricity and amazement. So many discoveries to make. I began listening to Radio 3. I had sold all my vinyl, keeping back a few rarities and favourites but had yet to begin purchasing CDs in earnest. A new classical CD every week or so became an exciting prospect. I loved Wagner I found, but only when there was no singing. Then another fork in the road offered itself.

Radio 3, late one evening, played a string quartet history section. Several hours. I caught it by accident, flicking the radio on at random. This was so beautiful. For me, less was even more. There was no paucity of emotion or impact. The best composers were seemingly able to weave the four musical voices with plenty of complexity. One particular extract from a Haydn quartet haunted me, and I made sure to remember that it was something to do with Words from the Cross. Turned out it was a reduction of a larger orchestral piece. Opus 51 is spectacular, if emotionally wrought and not for everyday listening. There is some lingering doubt about its attribution to Haydn but great music it will always be. I enjoy most forms of classical music but rarely listen to a big-boned symphonic work anymore. As of writing I have 253 classical CDs, with the majority being recordings employing 8 players or less. My preferences have turned a little again and I now especially enjoy a small chamber group with a wind instrument or two. Sometimes all the instruments are lung-powered. I am ambivalent about piano, especially with a chamber ensemble. Strange to say, sometimes I feel it is just wrong. Can’t make my mind up…

I have moved through vinyl onto CD, and now it is all streaming on-demand. I have internet radio, which does for me. This change to yet another technology has been an opportunity for me. I trawl the charity shops regularly, searching through the CDs and quite often coming across amazing finds for a quid or two. I muse then upon the cost to the original purchaser, £10? £15? I have been there. At this price I am prepared to take risks. If it is not to my taste back it will go. My last purchase was a recording of woodwind with harp in quartets/quintets. I play it often. I smile with pleasure when that very first descending note from the bassoon cues up the harp. A lively yet intimate conversation they manage highlighted by the marked difference in range and tone. The bassoon is the black, heavy canvas, stretched taut, the harp, agile and fleet of foot is the twinkling of stars upon that etched night sky.

Despite the entirety of my collection I tend to select from quite a narrow tranche of recordings. Is this a waste of all the effort, time and cost to acquire this library? I suppose it is, but I did enjoy researching my purchases and my tastes will evolve again. My collection is sitting ready, waiting to deliver on that moment. I will continue to add to it as opportunity and desire dictate. I have no musical talent, I do not play an instrument, I cannot read music.

I have noticed something. It can vary by fifteen minutes or so, but from about 11.40pm the music sounds suddenly better. It must be the electricity supply. Demand falls, the supply is cleaner and more stable. Top listening time, sometimes with headphones. A glass of whisky, or well-aged Madeira. Bliss. I used to be a little obsessive about my hi-fi, but no more. My ears are not what they once were, my left is stronger than my right, constant low-grade tinnitus intrudes. Live music is the best, but unfortunately every concert sets the ears ringing harder for a day. I take in two or three shows a year. I was forever tweaking with my hi-fi system, blu-tack here, speakers moved an inch this way or that, different cables. It sounds fine now. I just leave it and concentrate on the music. I could write an entire article about hi-fi neurosis, replacing items, or even whole new systems. I chuckle when I think about it now. Visitors always remark how good the sound is. Leave it alone…

I also enjoy jazz, big bands and bluegrass. Always loved Roy Harper, still do. That is as ‘poppy’ as I ever get. With classical music you never stop learning. A new composer, a different interpretation of a favourite. Sometimes I catch something on the radio that I will chase up, quite often though new recordings are download only. I have archived my entire CD collection to a digital store and can access it now at the touch of a button. Mostly I don’t though, I reach up to my shelf, and slip the silver disc into the player. Loading a CD is a ritual, no longer a necessity. It adds something. Some of the recordings have amazing essays with them, full of useful information about the composer and the players. Another Haydn quartet is nicknamed the ‘Razor’. Haydn became so agitated with his blunt razor one morning that he ran out into the street asking passers-by for a replacement. An Englishman was to hand, and swapped his Sheffield steel item for a new quartet that Haydn had just written. It was never reported if Haydn was satisfied with his shave, but you have to imagine that he was…

I will always be grateful to my friend. He swam with me across the musical Rubicon into a new land that remains full of wonders and delights that I never want to stop exploring. It is like the Garden of Eden, full of unceasing bounty. Not one snake have I seen and the fruit has never been sweeter.

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4 thoughts on “Peter Divey: Crossing the Musical Rubicon

  1. Relaxing article, cheers

    I am ambivalent about piano, especially with a chamber ensemble. Strange to say, sometimes I feel it is just wrong.

    Same here, I find it too intrusive, percussive and strident. I don’t have a favourite, but I like most Bach, Handel, Holst and Wagner

    Live music inc Cinema & Theatre (and aircraft): I always wear E.A.R Plugs as I find it much to loud. Remove when outside and no buzzing, ringing etc

  2. Delightful post! I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by classical music (and never resented it). I got into rock’n’roll and all its siblings in my early teens, and the two have existed separately but (cough) harmoniously to this day.

    I used to love listening to Radio 3 in the past, and was a little snobby about Classic FM. But Radio 3 ain’t what it was, and now my “new” classical listening tends to come from blogs and accidental encounters. I still have my “lower-end-of-high-end” hifi system from the 80s (including turntable), but 95% of my listening nowadays comes via my computer, albeit via a decent DAC and studio headphones.

    You’re absolutely right that the time of day does affect one’s perception of music, and I don’t think this phenomenon is enough discussed – in some cases it’s as banal as drawing the curtains and there being less noise outside after a certain time, but I think there’s more to it than that.

    May your journey continue!

  3. I rarely listen to classical music but appreciate the sentiment. It’s ambient and spacemusic that takes me away to another realm, especially if listened to in a darkened room with little external noises to spoil the experience.

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