Friday, 17 February 2012

Why can't I identify many classical music pieces which I love?

Man's a fool!
I’ve just listened to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, one of my favourite late Romantic  pieces. I’m particularly fond of the first and third movements.  I listened to it because, in a state of enfeeblement thanks to post-viral thingummydoodad, I’ve just caught up with the last three episodes of that distinctly musical gentleman Simon Russell Beale’s wonderful series, The Symphony, recently shown on BBC4 (where else?).

I recognised practically every piece of music featured (most played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder, who also provided a lot of the musical insights), which included works by Dvorak, Bruckner, Wagner, Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, Coates, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Shostakovich. But if they hadn’t been identified, I can’t swear I’d have been able to identify more than  a handful of the pieces. Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth, certainly, but I tend to get the Sixth and Seventh mixed up. When it comes to Dvorak symphonies, I can only safely identify the Ninth. Sibelius? Forget it. Elgar? Well, it’s either the First or the Second, but I’m damned if I could tell you which it was. Mahler – First, Fourth and Fifth, just about, but it depends which movement is being played. Bruckner and Schubert? Nope. Shozza? Not a clue.

It isn’t that I haven’t listened to these works or that I don’t experience a thrill of recognition when I hear extracts or that I couldn’t tell you which are my favourites, without re-hearing them. I have fairly large sections of many well-known symphonies lodged somewhere in my memory – it’s just that I often can’t match them to their composer, and, even when I can identify the composer, I often can’t identify which of their symphonies I'm listening to.

It’s not that I haven’t listened to the music a lot: I have. And I’m not a complete musical ignoramus – I played the violin and viola at school (albeit very badly), and I had several years of guitar lessons, including quite a bit of musical theory. I’ve read books about classical music. I can read a score. I know how to play every minor and major chord on a piano (though I get confused by 9ths and 11ths and dimished chords). I can break down many pop records into their constituent elements and reconstruct them.

But if I were to hear a Mozart symphony which I’d heard a hundred times before, and which I love, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which one it was. Hafner, Linz or Jupiter? Pass.

I’m slightly better with concertos, considerably better with tone poems, and I find voices a great help. But even symphonies with which I’m thoroughly familiar will defeat me seven or eight times out of ten.

I’m not tone deaf and I have no difficulty recognising tunes. I may not be remnotely as musical as Simon Russell Beale - but I am musical. As it were.

Oh, what the hell! I hear you say. What does it matter, as long as you enjoy the music? But somehow it does matter. I'm convinced my enjoyment would be even greater if my powers of recognition were greater. Besides, one feels such a fool. It’s embarrassing to be able to instantly identify almost any pop song recorded between 1955 and 1980 within a few bars – no matter how much I hate it - but not to be able to identify Bruckner’s Fourth or Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, despite having spent hours listening to and enjoying both.

(I’ve just tried a little experiment – I can still hum the main themes from the first movement of Dvorak's Seventh, but the third movement is already irrecoverable. And by tomorrow, the first will have disappeared as well.)

If anyone can help me with this unfortunate problem, I would appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. Anthem Aficionado20 February 2012 at 09:28

    ....." I’ve just tried a little experiment – I can still hum the main themes from the first movement of Dvorak's Seventh, but the third movement is already irrecoverable. And by tomorrow, the first will have disappeared as well."

    After many years of watching International Rugby and Football I have the ability to hum the National Anthems of Italy and Argentina. They both sound like some passages from a bad, early Rossini opera [and last almost as long] and induce a stupor into the opposition before the matches begin. Every man has some talent - no matter how small or irrelevant.