Sunday, 28 June 2009

On Expanding Horizons

I’m back on the word clouds again. Here is the cloud for this post:
Ever since I was born, I’ve been learning new music. Most of the time I’ve gently absorbed whatever was around me, not especially seeking out lots and lots of new sounds, just gradually and organically growing a CD collection and generally sticking to types of music that I already knew.

However, there have been two distinct times in my life when I have quite consciously and deliberately expanded my musical horizons and ventured into sound worlds that were, initially, quite unfamiliar to me.

The first of these occurred when I was at college. Until I went to college to study music, I hardly ever listened to anything written after 1900. However, it soon became clear to me that there was no way I could get a decent mark for my degree if I didn’t embrace the musical developments of the twentieth century. So, I began to learn.

My most intense and concentrated experience involved Britten’s opera, Death In Venice. I learned that I was to study this work as part of my analysis portfolio for finals, and I was determined to make the very best of the experience.

Initially I didn’t even go near the music. First I read Thomas Mann’s novella, upon which the libretto is based. Then I read the libretto (several times). Then I got hold of the score and browsed it a bit. Then, finally, one day I sat with headphones and listened to the entire work at one sitting. It was quite an experience, not only because the music is SO splendid, but also because, by that time, my mind was almost completely transported to Venice!

And then, as I sometimes do, I went a bit mad. I studied Britten’s Third String Quartet as well. I read everything about Britten I could get my hands on, and I even went as far as reading Nietsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Plato’s Phaedrus. At the time I was living in Finsbury Park and commuting via Piccadilly line into central London each day. I read 4 pages of Plato on each journey, usually with my head jammed into the corner of a tube carriage and my viola balancing precariously on my shoulder.

The result of all this work and study was a passion for the work so deep and enduring that it has never since left my list of “music to be taken to the desert island”. When I was awarded the finals prize at the end of my degree, I spent the money not on new shoes (despite the fact that mine had holes in), but on the full score of Death In Venice and I can still lay my hands instantly on most of my Death In Venice stuff:

The second time in my life when I consciously and deliberately expanded my musical horizons was a very different experience and will be discussed in my next blog post. Here is the word cloud for that post:


  1. I also highly recommend Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Gorgeous piece of music, one of my absolute favourite horn works.

  2. I can't play the Desert Island Discs game any longer. When I played, my choices were flavoured by my favourite pieces - or those that gave me a good run at the melody or introduced me to a new level of difficulty. And later I stepped back and appreciated work outside of the genres I played and began to understand the greater complexities between international styles and compositional techniques outside 'the norm'.

    In a burning room now, I'd just grab what was nearest and try to make many trips; sorting through the work would consume me as quickly as the flames.

  3. Hey, more comments, how exciting!

    Thanks so much for the reminder about the Serenade for T, H & Stgs. Haven't listened to it for AGES, so I think it may be time to do so again.

    As for Desert Island Discs - I've never yet finished the game. Every time I settle on "the 8", I suddenly realise there is something missing. I've tried to think of pieces from different times of my life, and come up with a core of definites, but there are too many possibles ever to come up with a final shortlist - good job I'm not famous & Radio 4 aren't likely to seek me out really, because then I'd be flummoxed!