A blind date with Beethoven

“Dear Sean,

I hope this book makes you laugh out loud in public spaces. Your laugh is your aria. I love you.

Louise xoxo”

About two weeks ago I went to the Lifeline Bookfest, an annual event which fills the Brisbane Convention Centre with probably several kilometres’ worth of secondhand books. These kinds of events are always a bit of a mixed bag, and although I came away with a few interesting finds, it was only after I trawled through endless Dan Browns and Bryce Courtenays. On the dubiously categorised ‘music & art’ tables I had to sift through numerous celebrity biographies of people like Sting and Miley Cyrus, and book tie-ins from once-popular TV shows of the 90s like the X Files. But my effort was eventually rewarded when I came across a gem of a book called Swooning: A classical music guide to life, love, lust and other follies by ABC broadcaster Christopher Lawrence. I’m a bit of a fan of the ‘Swoon’ segment on ABC Classic FM; I knew of this book but hadn’t read it, so I was delighted to find not just one but multiple copies of it buried among the chaff. And when I opened the front cover of one to reveal the handwritten inscription from Louise to her beloved, I knew this was the copy I had to own.

I haven’t finished reading it yet but, as someone who loves reading about musicians and composers but who is actually often bored to tears by anything so dry as an “Introduction to Classical Music” guide, his style immediately resonated with me. I suppose I don’t quite get who such introductory guides are aimed at – maybe I don’t really believe that there are actually people in the world who wake up one day and decide to educate themselves about classical music and go looking for a generic book, course or website to start from. Surely it happens more organically than that? You are captivated by a piece of music first and decide that you want to know more about who wrote it, and when and why. But if you want to delve into the mind of the person who created music that had the power to make you sit up and take notice, do you really turn to a bland overview of historical periods and styles and their defining characteristics? I know I wouldn’t but perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, Christopher Lawrence is anything but bland, and he managed to sum up my hesitation about exactly that (and get me thinking as well) all in the space of two paragraphs:

Words about music for the novice can be had in what is called a ‘music appreciation’ course. This is such an awful term. Learning to ‘appreciate’ good music is a bit like learning to sift patiently through your spouse’s personality in search of the odd attractive feature in an arranged marriage. Of course many arranged marriages do work out, but only after the partners reach an accommodation with each other. These days we don’t have the luxury of twenty years in which to learn to accommodate a Beethoven symphony.

What we’re really after is fulfilment with some romance and excitement along the way. This is as true of people as it is of symphonies, sonatas and operas. We’re not just encountering Beethoven; we’re meeting him on a blind date. First impressions mean a lot. Eventually one learns to look (or listen) beneath the surface to the goodness within, but it helps to have been just a little captivated over the first dinner.

Yes! This is what classical music needs! We don’t need more studying: we need more dating. We need less musical analysis, and more getting to know composers by the fire with a glass of wine in hand. More secretive glances and flirting and seeing whether the composer we’re courting is willing to reciprocate with a spine-tingling chord or a lingering melody. More ‘canoodling’ behind the bike sheds with an mp3 player and the complete Bach motets. Hell, even more casual hook ups should be encouraged: downloading tracks or borrowing CDs with reckless abandon from the library (or the libraries of friends) and returning them when our wantonness has been satisfied. We wouldn’t be hurting anyone. Not even the inspired creators of the music we devour so frivolously.

It’s funny, since beginning Swooning I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to go on a blind date with a composer. Actually, I’ve been thinking about dating generally, since this month I’m participating in a charity fundraiser called Five in Five which involves going on five dates in five weeks to raise money for people in urban poverty. And at this stage it’s just a theory, but I think there’s a lot to be said for approaching new music as you might approach a blind date, except that you don’t have to worry about the bit where you’re constantly focused on making a good first impression yourself. Instead you get to sit back and admire, assess what things immediately catch your attention, and consider whether you see a future between you and this unfamiliar composer. Maybe you’ll decide they’re not for you but you can still appreciate that you took the time to discover someone new. Maybe a piece will intrigue you enough to listen to it a few times but there the dalliance will end. Or maybe you’ll start a lifelong love affair that will still have the potential to surprise and delight you with every new work you discover. And the best bit about going on dates with composers? You don’t need to be monogamous.

So in addition to my real life dating challenge, I’ve decided to set myself a musical dating challenge – go on a ‘blind date’ with five new composers to discover some new music, and report back here on my findings (probably just the musical ones, sorry!) The challenge is open to you too, if you like! Post a comment or send me an email to tell me about it.

I thought I’d leave you with a piece that is probably as close as I come to having had a blind date with Beethoven himself. I honestly don’t remember when I discovered his music but it was a long time ago, certainly at some point while I was still at school. I knew snippets of several works without having ever really listened to them in depth, and once I could play the piano I would sometimes pick up the book of his sonatas and work my way through at random, attempting any passages that looked easy enough to note-bash my way through. The Moonlight sonata and the second movement of the Pathetique sonata are the two I remember most clearly. So I’m not sure I’d describe him as a childhood sweetheart exactly, but he certainly seemed to be a musical presence in my youth. And then last year I had an encounter that was surely the most breathtaking Beethoven moment of my life, when Camerata of St John’s played the Cavatina from his String Quartet No. 13 in a late night performance at the Cathedral. It was like time stood still; I may not have breathed for a full eight minutes. I’ve never been the biggest string quartet fan which is probably why I didn’t already know the work, but played by a small chamber orchestra it was like nothing I’d ever heard before and I couldn’t quite believe that a composer I thought I knew could have such a sudden and immediate affect on me. There’s a reason why this piece was chosen for the Voyager Golden Record and launched into space.

Anyway, who knows what became of Sean and Louise, although I do hope they’re out there somewhere and still sharing a musical life together. I will continue to enjoy reading their book.

About Bronwyn

Brisbane-based editor and choral musician
This entry was posted in Orchestras & Instrumental Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A blind date with Beethoven

  1. Sally Fyfield says:

    Once again, Bronwyn, thank you for your most refreshing insight into music.

  2. Siobhan says:

    What a lovely piece, Bronwyn. I must be in a pessimistic mood, however – it seems sad that a book with such a beautiful dedication ends up in a booksale pile, and I can’t help but think it bodes ill for Sean and Louise! I’m glad you rescued it.

    • Bronwyn says:

      Hi Siobhan, thanks for stopping by! I must admit that the same thought did occur to me as I picked it up. I don’t think I’d ever give away such a lovely gift. But then I suppose not every relationship lasts forever and you don’t always want the reminders around. However the story of Sean and Louise continued, I feel privileged to be its owner now!

  3. Pingback: Date #1: Seduced by Scriabin | music tasting

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