As I write I’m listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven 6.
I’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard this work, but this feels fresh. Particularly the second movement.
So much character is created in the different textures in the strings, right from the beginning when the gossamer lines, undulating movement, and gentle industry make me feel as though someone’s pushed a boat out onto a lake.
In the basses in particular there’s depth, bounce, and lift created by resonant plucked notes. After a gentle take-off at the beginning of the movement, it is as if we’re gliding high above an idyllic pastoral scene.
It is the detail in the playing that matters to me most.
The way a high bassoon playing a short solo with the upper strings creates the most exquisite textural combination. Or elsewhere, the way chords ’emerge’ when flutes join clarinets. Or the sweet warm oboe intertwined with a melodic line in the flutes. Or the utterly divine clarinet solo slap bang in the middle of the movement, packed full of heart that the rest of the orchestra supports instinctively as one.
It’s the detail that is so easy to overlook in the familiarity of the music. I don’t especially love Beethoven 6. I would never pick it out to listen to it. Not really. Not like I would with pop music. But when I listen attentively to something that has detail I’ll hear it, see it or even think I can touch that detail. That’s when it comes alive.
Just like any Beach Boys album, when you ‘lean in’ and pay closer attention to the constituent parts somehow there’s even more joy to discover. It is the listening equivalent of stopping to take your time consuming a plate full of carefully selected cheeses.
It is perfection, especially in the final few chords that end the movement – gentle insistent musical ‘staples’ exquisitely placed by multiple players simultaneously playing as one. Miraculously uplifting stuff.
This is the magic at the heart of classical music I often feel goes overlooked, misunderstood as ‘knowledge’ about the genre when it is only evidence of attentive listening in the moment. This is where joy emanates from. This is our starting point.
This is the listening experience that grounds me. Listening attentively, with awareness and curiosity is all that is required in order to surface the power of this art form. Listening experiences like these are what ground, restore, and sustain me. It is these kinds of experiences I care most about that I want to others to see, feel and touch.
This is where the joy that comes from discovery is to be found. Anything else is a bolt-on. A distraction.
All this is in stark contrast to how was I feeling (and what I was thinking) before I began listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven 6. That feeling of wretchedness and the negative thinking that spirals as a result of fatigue, worry and stress (the details of which don’t need to be outlined here) seem like a distant land. I am reminded that energy levels bring about negative thinking. It’s not the other way around.
I’m reminded too of one other pertinent insight. It isn’t the music itself that transforms mood or thinking or indeed energy levels. It is the practice of listening that engages the brain. It is the detail that brings the joy. Listening releases the much-sought-after serotonin.
Listening is what matters most.
Yet one question lingers. Who wants this? What organisation values this? Who is prepared to sit with exactly what all of us knows about this uplifting art form and put their money where their mouth is to sell the music in the way it moves us individually and personally?
There are so many who assume such detail is anathema to the art form and its appreciation. People associate listening with expertise. Expertise is expected of those on stage, but seen as a problem amongst those who appreciate the art form.
Listening is what matters most. And we all need to get a little more comfortable about celebrating that, I think.