What does a week of ups and downs imply?
A mountaineering holiday?
Seven days on a see-saw?
A crude reference to the art of horizontal pleasure?
Well for the week just gone it has meant a whirlwind of emotions. Learning of the death of an old friend was disturbing. Especially as he was only a bit older than me. In addition to the sadness, it heightens the sense of vulnerability of people of my age.
In terms of personal welfare, Tuesday was a good day. I was busy and I thrived. I taught three piano pupils and had a feel-good workout in physiotherapy.
I expected to pay for it on Wednesday; you know, the usual lethargy, crawling about the place like some idle sloth picking at things expecting them to open or switch on. But Wednesday was good. And so was Thursday. There were no late sleep-ins and I had been relatively early to bed.
So when I emerged on Friday the last thing I was expecting was a gravitational awareness day.
Children and adults have they’re own special ways of making you aware of them. We are all experts in magnifying our own persona in order to be acknowledged. Basically, subtle or otherwise, we can get into the faces of those we wish to engage.
Gravity on the other hand practises no such artifice. It simply increases. On Friday everything, including me was drawn downwards. Even sitting upright was a struggle. Everything I handled was sent earthbound by massive forces of weight. So I dropped a few things; I dropped loads of things. I did some cooking but I had to fight to eat it off the table. It was a sit down day.
Saturday was much better. But in sport there were was one high and one low. I’m not including West Brom’s glorious three one thrashing of Arsenal. Simply put, Everton won but England lost to Ireland.
Ho hum. It pales into insignificance to the events of the beginning of the week.
Then there was Sunday. I’d been looking forward to Sunday. It was a Barbican day. Steve, Jane and I were going to hear the Brahms Requiem.
Driving up to Silk Street on a Sunday evening is a rather mundane affair until you reach the approaches of the Blackwall Tunnel. Just before entering that tube of constricting thunderous traffic, we marvelled at the infrastructure required for the thousands of houses and flats squeezed like sardines into the jumbled landscape around us.
All those phone lines and sewage pipes. And where do all those cars go at the end of the day?
Driving through the jungle we know as The City, I gazed at the office blocks where the old stood cheek to jowl by the new. When I lived in London, Canary wharf and the Docklands Light Railway were shining new icons of commercial optimism. The original tower could be seen from almost anywhere. Now it stands there, strangled by the company of interlopers; square stark over-stretched cuboids of little distinction other than their height.
I particularly hate the HSBC building. HSBC was once the Midland Bank or shall I say that Midland became consumed by the corporate greed and naked ambition of HSBC. But I didn’t like the Midland Bank. For new employees they gave a six month probationary period. I lasted five. I found the whole thing suppressive.
Further into the City, things become a little more cosy. The Barbican itself is a raw throwback to the brutality of sixties architecture; a series of building blocks connected by grey walkways set in a backdrop of faded technicolour.
The weather and diminishing daylight did not help. I’ve seen in in the Summer though; it’s still stands ugly and embarrassed.
Yet this is deceptive. Every time I have parted with the Barbican’s cumbersome grace, I have been exhilarated. Because the Barbican has music. It has the London Symphony Orchestra; that beautifully honed collective of sublime talent.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love the Southbank with its upbeat cosmopolitan chic and its vibrant buzz of twenty-first century culture. I like the way people are just so damned nice to each other and their common embrace of all things ancient and modern. But the Barbican has that unique sense of the odd and the intimate. Even the pizza sliced shape concert hall gives us the sense of being amongst friends.
The first half was Schubert’s unfinished Symphony.
Much of his work lays itself open to the indignity of indifferent performance. I have seen or heard too many matter of fact renderings of this fine work. Why is it unfinished? There have been contrived “realisations” of it’s consequent scherzo and finale but they have missed the point. What Schubert has done in two movements is break the ground rules of tonality.
It is a symphony in B minor. To me B minor is a medium of sharp exquisite pain. It is deep heart felt sharp agonies; it touches nerves you never knew existed. A Scarlatti sonata in B minor may give out a muffled scream. You are hurting but nobody else can possibly know.
For Haydn it is a long moment of yearning for something you crave but just doesn’t exist. The Chopin Scherzo and the Brahms Rhapsody belt out their pulsating anguish whilst Borodin’s second symphony is a hapless struggle of hope against fate. (Other interpretations of these magnificent compositions are available.)
Now what does Shubert do with B minor? He turns it into love. It’s not the love of lovers but the love of beauty. He shows B minor to be a friend of love and trust. He blends it with simple major keys; the sort of keys we expect of minuets or sonatinas and he gives them a platform equal to the keys of more profound works.
When you put this little gem into the hands of the LSO, you get the true beauty of the man’s genius. He gives you the opportunity to sing. He gives you the opportunity to love what you sing. I’d have driven to London and back for that alone.
Brahms wrote his German Requiem shortly after the death of his mother. The death of his great friend Robert Schumann and his growing affection and infatuation for Clara, Robert’s widow, may also have been a contributing factor. But I’m not going to speculate about this. A lot of Brahms’ late piano works have a similar level of depth. I always think of them as the acceptance of his unrequited love for Clara. They are sad but happy to appreciate the beauty of her from a distance. The Requiem was written when he was in his early thirties but it’s one great work. It is a collection of deep profound anthems.
From the first bar you are sucked into a world of personal grief, intense regret and deferential admiration for someone now lost to your conscious world. The choir and orchestra were squeezed into the thin end of the packed wedge shaped concert hall. And the choir is the star. For sixty minutes, they are on their feet, singing out the crucial juxtaposition of life, death and the maker of the universe.
Few fugues come as a welcome relief. Somewhere towards the final quarter of this magnificent work, a fugue bursts into life giving you the impetus of renewed hope of a life worth living. If I’d known the words, I’d have stood up out of my wheelchair and led an audience singalong.
Unlike the Schubert eight which I know from youth orchestra, I’m inclined to leave this requiem as a bit of a mystery. I don’t want to analyse it. I just want it to wash over me. I want to be cleansed by the purity of its emotion. It lets me think, it lets me shout and it lets me cry.
To those musicians I have known or admired from afar; those who no longer walk amongst us, I dedicate this concert to you.
Thank-you for reading.