If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Desert Island Discs 5

It took me a while to discover Beethoven after I got switched on to classical music. Coming from a background in rock, the first music that really appealed to me was chamber music, as I found it easy to translate the interplay of single instruments into something I was familiar with. In the days of cassette tapes, I used to visit the library every week and borrow a couple of LPs, tape them, and then listen for while - and then either discard or keep. I listened to a lot this way, and gained some life-long favourites.

I was tempted into borrowing a record of late Beethoven quartets (I think because they had a reputation of being 'difficult', and I liked the idea of being into 'difficult' music). I loved them beyond imagining, and played them over and over. From that, I gained the confidence to listen to more of Beethoven's music, and from that all his near-contemporaries like Schubert, Haydn and Mozart.

Of all the composers I have ever listened to, Beethoven is the master. He understands the human condition better than anyone, whether the exultation of the Ode to Joy, or the jangling torment of the Grosse Fuge. But for me, he is at his most expressive when he writes of simple melancholy. I think, to Beethoven, life was a melancholy affair, full of pain and disappointment, and he understood the dark places of the soul extremely well. When I want to visit my own dark places, there is no better companion.

This piece, the second movement of the sonata usually known as the 'Pathetique', is so well-known as to be almost a cliché. But I never tire of hearing it. It reminds me of many of the sad things I have been through and often moves me to tears if I am in a certain frame of mind. Its genius is in its utter simplicity. The Welsh have a wonderful word: hiraeth. Hiraeth has no exact translation into English, although words like 'longing', 'nostalgia' and 'homesickness' describe the general territory. It is said to be a Welsh person's longing for things that are Welsh, perhaps from a great distance away. I'm sure we all have our own equivalent; I do.

Here, then, is musical hiraeth:

Beethoven, Sonata in C minor op. 13, 'Pathetique', second movement, adagio cantabile, played by Wilhelm Kempff.


  1. I'm eternally fascinated to know what it is about some musical keys that sirs the emotions so - it's almost like there is resonance with some areas of the brain.

  2. Agreed - it's a fascinating subject. Not only the hugely different moods of major and minor, but the quite different emotions from, say, C major and E major. I think you're right about resonance in the brain, with certain frequencies stimulating different areas, but it's all a mystery to me, and one I would love to know more about.

  3. You getting clarity and lack of bullshit with Beethoven. The Piano works, like the sonatas, are rock solid, despite being so well known.

  4. "despite being so well known" - what a shame that you feel, as I did, the need to add a 'despite' for well-known works. It's as if something that's popular can't be good, and something good can't be popular. I suppose that fact that it's on compilations like 'Classic FM's 100 Best Tunes Guaranteed To Send You To Sleep' makes the snobby and ignorant assume it's too easy for serious attention.

    It's got huge depth and compassion, and the fact that he wrote it at age 27 astounds me.

  5. Nikos - your comment got me thinking, and I've done a bit of research. Have a look at this, regarding musical keys and moods or emotions. It's not brain resonance, but it's early days.


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