As I mentioned last week, I think that both poetry and music can have a great effect on our moods. In fact I believe that music has an even greater effect on our moods than poetry, partly because much of it – and certainly the music that I enjoy most – is made by lots of people working together.
I think that if I had to choose eight discs to take to a desert island (I still think of pieces of music on discs – “Desert Island mp3s” doesn’t have quite the same alliterative ring to it!) many of the pieces of music would be from 100 years ago and further back. That’s not because I don’t like modern music – I do – but because most pieces of music written these days are short and generally focused on one emotion – love, longing, anger, hope – so to get all those emotions in popular music written since the 1960s I would have to choose four “discs”. However, if I were to choose “Messiah” (just to take one example of an older work) I would have all those emotions and more on one “disc”.
I don’t want this note to be longer than about 10 pages (I’ll bet some of you just skipped to the bottom to see if it IS that long! :-)) so I am only going to write about music that helps me to feel better if I’m fed up. I won’t include music that might be helpful in other stressful situations – for example, if I had a job interview coming up, or if I had a difficult decision to make; if I were ill or if I needed to focus for the day ahead – though of course some of the music I listen to if I’m fed up can also be helpful in these situations.
First and foremost, I love the music of J. S. Bach – his music for ensembles, his choral music and even his music for single instruments – the whole of human life is there. Its form and structure remind me of the constant rhythms of life and that all will be well. Bach is generally my “go to” composer if I am feeling fed up – I love his empathy. Here is part of his double violin concerto – recorded during lock-down by members of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House:-
Baroque composers such as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are really good to listen to if one is fed up. And for me (going back even further to a time when music was even more carefully structured) so are the composers of the Renaissance – for example, Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd and Dowland. There is an apparent simplicity in their music that appeals to me and helps to clear my brain. Of course the apparent simplicity is cleverly constructed – Tallis’ “Spem in Alium” (he was referring to hope in God but it’s uplifting music whatever one’s beliefs) has 40 parts! Here is a recording made by Stile Antico during lock-down, cleverly produced to show us the eight choirs of 5 singers who sing those 40 parts.
Moving forward several hundred years, if I were to be cast away on a desert island (and who wouldn’t wish for that, occasionally, in the current epidemic) I would take masses of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music – I cannot listen to the finale of Swan Lake, for example, without experiencing enough uplifting thoughts to enable me to fly off the island and back to those I love.
Before coming almost up-to-date (and thereby glossing quickly over almost all the other wonderful composers of the “classical” and “romantic” periods) I will just mention that the “disc I would save from the waves” is a gorgeous recording of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius”, together with his “Sea Pictures”. In these wonderful works is sufficient exuberance, excitement, uplifting thoughts, introspection and, of course, despair, for a lifetime.
Staying with the sea, another wonderfully uplifting work is Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony”. Some people find the words (by Walt Whitman) rather strange, but the music is sublime, and, again, runs through the whole gamut of emotions. Here is the first few minutes of the symphony. It’s wonderful, and in my view the music gets better the further into it you go:-
Many of you will be wondering if I can get to the end of this without mentioning handbells…..No, I can’t :-) The energy of Celtic Praise by Rolf Lovland always lifts my spirits. Do listen and I am sure that it will lift yours too, if only because of the excitement of a fast piece in 5/8 time!
In addition to its excitement, Celtic Praise brings back great memories for me, and I’m sure that there will be some pieces that do that for you, too. Do tell us about them! As I mentioned last week, it would be great if, as a result of reading this, some of you felt that you would like to share music that you find uplifting. Other pieces, for me, are Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ song “What a Wonderful World”, Cole Porter’s “I Love You, Samantha”, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Poppa’s Blues”, from Starlight Express (of all the pieces I am mentioning here this probably brings the biggest smile to my face).
Also, I can’t help smiling when I hear Mike Oldfield’s “In Dulci Jubilo”, perhaps because of its association with Christmas, but more likely just because it’s such a catchy and uplifting tune.
And what about the music that makes me actually laugh? Of course, some music was written to do that, and succeeds brilliantly. For me, one example is Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”:-
And, looking backwards a few more years, the less edgy humour of Flanders and Swann:-
Or, coming up to date again, Paul Drayton’s “Masterpiece”:-
There were other composers who couldn’t set out to deliberately make their audiences laugh, so had to resort to irony. Here is an example from Shostakovitch, who was not only a wonderful composer in romantic style, and a superb orchestrator, but so clever in his work that he could write an ironic piece such as “The Assault on Beautiful Gorky” (actually named “The Assault on Krasnaya Gorka”) and have it accepted by the Soviet authorities. The irony and overstated drama always make me laugh.
Finally, and coming full circle, here is another wonderfully heartwarming (and deliberately funny) clip of the Bach Double Violin Concerto which reminds us of what we have been missing and will be able to do again soon! Please do watch it!
I hope you’ve found something in this blog that is new – and uplifting – for you. Look out for Johnny’s blog on uplifting choral music, coming soon J It would be fascinating to find out more about your favourite music – what do you listen to when you are sad, or when you are joyful. Do let us know!
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