Pellegrina's Notebook

"In art, as in love, instinct is enough."

Category: Musica Universalis

Es muss sein…

Some think that to describe music is like trying to describe the air – too infinite, too labile or inchoate, to capture any real meaning. I beg to differ. For me, music provides pictures of vivid colour and texture so I give those colours to the words, and those words in turn convey how it feels to make music, to feel it take shape inside you. ‘Es muss sein’, as Beethoven said, and he knew. He could not hear, but only see and feel the music he wrote.

Below is  the epilogue to my book ‘The Conductor’s Wife’. Here are words, perhaps inadequate, and the music they describe, with the help of Ravel and Martha Argerich.

Time had been suspended, excluded even, for she was now in the relativity of stage time and wrapped in its gossamer protecting veil, under the accretion of gathering sound.  The first movement had been harder but then her wrists forgave her and floated away into runs of notes, extravagant cascades of colour that never withdrew until in the slow movement with her solo ingress, when all the glory unfolded and what were merely black and white wooden drums became form and pigment – golden, lyrical, swimming into their own providence.  She did not own it now – it came from the composer to her, then out into the world.  Julien had said:  “This is how it will be,” and it was.  To say she had conquered was to belie her journey, for she had only music, which she could plainly see…and she herself filled the place where it went.


A voice imprinted on water – music and musicians

What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. 

Ludwig Van Beethoven

My earliest musical memory: the room was green and I danced on the table to Mozart, I think it was the Jupiter symphony, and in those sounds I heard the world around me took shape, all its curiousness and bewildering angles were suddenly rounded, polished and brilliant and I understood that I existed and why. It was for music like this. I was about four or five years old and this is the age of’ “why?’ – “Why am I here? What happens when you die? Why do you get old? Why is an apple green and sometimes red?” Furthermore, I was still coping with a new forming memory – time has a strange relativity when you haven’t been long on the earth. I saw photographs of myself taken the summer before and yet I thought my parents had a secret other daughter they never told me about,  I could not recognise myself, but when I asked for music and my father answered my whim and played the Mozart symphony for me, I saw myself reflected back to me fully for the first time.

It sounds clichéd, pompous, even tautological, (for musicians are innately ‘musical’ of course) to be prosaic on why musicians make music but it’s more than that  – we are born and not made. The enjoyment of great classical music (in the generic sense) is a gift many receive but its idiosyncratic imprint on a musician is gifted before birth – in the womb. I have often wondered if there is a sensor, a kink on the labyrinthine configurations of DNA that grafts it onto us and that all those recently fashionable theories about playing Bach and Mozart to the unborn have reasonable merit. We absorb the vibrations, sounds fall into voids and replace an impenetrable silence with energy and form; music chooses us and sets an unbroken seal upon the heart. Don’t ever ask if I would choose my strange life and the turns and detours of my fate line – this life, chose me.

To make things further complicated, I was granted an auxilary gift so that great music and the empty plains of the imagination it builds upon, resound with patterns of colour, texture and sensitivity so vibrant that sometimes I am left entirely breathless. This ‘gift’ is called synaesthesia, but I digress, for although many musicians have ‘syn’ (we are not unfamiliar with the other kind too!), the fuel of it is sound – sounds that change us every minute we live them. Every black dot on a stave would be a riculous anachronism  were we not to pull it from the page and attempt to make sense of it – musical notation, such strange runes, centuries old, is something out of which we can attempt to create an eternity.

For the power to negate time is with us in every performance – music comes and goes and we fight with just enough will to win – almost, but the hunger to receive more of its secrets lends every day of a musician’s life the illusive hope of a voice on water  rippling through to eternity. I tap the meniscus of this hope every day and would not exist bereft of it. I just would not exist at all.

All that is past is but a reflection

Alles Vergängliche

Ist nur ein Gleichnis;

Das Unzulängliche,

Hier wirds Ereignis;

Das Unbeschreibliche,

Hier ist es getan;

Das Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan.”

‘Chorus Mysticus’ from the final scene of  ‘Faust’  ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Many moons ago I sang in two performances of Mahler 8 at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by the quiet, nervous and uniquely gifted Klaus Tennstedt, a conductor on whom Mahler had made an indelible mark.  Those few days changed my life forever.  This is not hyberbole – I was very young and I had just started singing after years as a frustrated pianist, and life was clearly revealing the direction I would take.  In the years that followed Mahler’s music and life was to etch a mystical pattern on my journey that is nothing less than extraordinary. I will spare you all the details, but it is just so.

Mahler 8 is not my personal favourite of the symphonies but the spirit of it levels the most banal of feeling and in moments from Part Two – a setting of the final scenes of Goethe’s ‘Faust’, the gnawing and beguiling essence of the Ewig-Weibliche/eternal feminine is as spellbinding as the hymn that intones it – the elemental Chorus Mysticus. It was clear that Mahler’s life had itself guided him towards this idea of the intense femininity of creation and hope and when his marriage lapsed into difficulties and Alma’s infidelity, he dedicated this symphony to her in a passionate plea for her return to him, a plea which moves the symphony into the ecstasy of those final moments.

That moment years ago, singing the Chorus Mysticus,  seeded the creation of the novel I was ‘born’ to write (a novel distinctly tinged with Mahler) and so over the years, Mahler has flowed into and out of my life, firmly echoing the traces of choices I made, good and bad, guiding me to where I should be. In recent years, completing my book, a book which has certainly changed me and my life for it seems I had written in it my own future, it was the Third symphony with its last movement ‘What Love Tells Me’ and the transfiguring opening Adagio of the Tenth, that coloured my writing and provided the ostinato for my narrative.

The idea of redemption and the absolution of emotion underpins Mahler’s music along with his unerring sense of the spiritual yearnings of humanity and where they take us. It is emotionally unnerving, there is no doubt, but as Jung said – “There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”  It is no wonder then that we hear our own voices stir within Mahler’s sound universe.  For me above all, I can never escape, nor would wish to, that Mahler is always present in my life and the themes return over and over like a karmic incantation much as they did for Mahler himself and for that matter, Alma too. Like the words of the Chorus Mysticus, Mahler is for us the undescribable captured. Bach,  Mozart, Beethoven are all about music. Mahler is about us.  There is no music in the world that so effectively describes us and reminds us that all our emotions – tender, extravagant and passionate, matter and make us. Emotion is self, and self is destiny.

In a perfect confluence of words and music, here is Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Rückert’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. Nothing comes close, in only a few minutes, to describing the prescient emotional  truth of Mahler. Ignore the sentimental overplay of photography – the translation is good and well, as is the magic of Mahler  – you’ll get it. Sung by my lied hero – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on

I have been captured by visions, by the substance and ideas of last words, last notes, last strokes of paint – the eschatology of art.  The creative process is very apposite to summing up, and all artists tend to flow toward the inevitable last moments of their gifts, flourishing like the small flowering bud that waits for the last moments of spring to kick forth its bloom and colour into the unfolding majesty of a new season.  Some of the greatest works of art are born in the last years of a life’s pattern, the rupturing defiance of death or illness, or ignominy –  Shakespeare’s last plays, notably The Tempest, from whence I take my title,  Beethoven’s Goliath glory bursting into the Grosse Fugue and the Last Quartets, along with Goya’s Black Paintings or Schubert’s last piano sonatas.

All works mentioned have a refined sense of the metaphysical, they tip onto the edge of a strange and beguiling end.  There is always something more to say and as one gets older the conduits of self-expression multiply and vex.  Early talent settles and we begin to sense our small part in the proportion of stardust accorded to us. Art, after all, is the defiance of mortality, of ephemera, and music in particular is a stretching sinew of our immortality, in whatever way we choose to structure it.

Nothing declares that more than in Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue.  Schubert’s last piano sonatas too, are full of pertinent edginess, to the point that they jump out of time and context altogether in places just as much as the searing craziness and fury of the Grosse Fugue or the bitten and sordid dreams of Goya’s  Black Paintings.   This is when we observe – doesn’t this sound modern, look modern?  These artists have poked their  fists into the future and proven that great art is beyond time and vanquishes the sting of death itself – its voices mingle into the stardust of our present, be it indeed clothed as an ‘insubstantial pageant’.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. …”

Jalal ad-Din Rumi

– For my Iranian friends  –

Persian tile

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi

Persian Sufi poet and mystic

The Iranian kemancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider play \”Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged.\”

Passacaglia della Vita

Though I should add this is not by Stefano Landi, but an anonymously penned tarantella popular around the time Landi was composing and a wonderful capturing of another time and place, which sounds curiously modern.   ‘Live – for we must die’ is a general translation!