When I am getting a cold, there is a time in the early days of the infection when I think I am in need of a psychiatrist. It isn’t the snuffles or the cough or even that light fever, no, before the main symptoms kick in, I sink into a bottomless depression accompanied by an equally debilitating lethargy. Just like the late English comedy actor Kenneth Williams wrote at the end of his last diary entry, I think “what’s the bloody point?”
Of course, even though I have had many attacks of the Common Cold, I never recognise this symptom for what it is, just a chemical reaction in my brain which topples me every time from my normally optimistic frame of mind. So it comes as a relief when I start to sneeze – oh, fine, I am not becoming psychotic, I am getting a cold. It can be very reassuring to know that some of our most anguished moments are really quite superficial.
So today, full of cold, I have been dosing myself with paracetamol, coffee and Brahms whilst trying not to let the government’s Austerity Cuts get me down. I am not going to get depressed by all that talk of us all pulling together to march forward with an aircraft carrier with no aircraft, pilots with no planes, pensioners cutting their severe weather allowance, whilst schools, hospitals, scientific research and the disabled all take real cuts too no matter how flowery the parliamentary language that announces it today. We are being asked to have less money in our pockets and to bail out the country by spending our way out of the national financial crisis. We are told it is inevitable and unavoidable – the deficit that is – but we are not being reminded that what wasn’t inevitable and unavoidable was the greed and the corruption of the bankers and financiers, mostly now on their fat-cat pensions, who took us all into this crisis and who necessitated the deficit to avoid complete national breakdown. It had better work, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer because if you get it wrong, you will have to put up taxes anyway and you will go down in history as the prat who wrecked the country.
If he gets it right, of course, it will be an historic victory. It would be the first time that a frivolous sneering playboy ever managed to put the interests of his country first. If he does get it wrong though, he will be discredited permanently. luckily for him, he is a rich man and, the good news for him today, Hugh Heffner, the playboy’s guru, has announced that he plans to open a new Playboy Club in London.
I am not looking to Hugh Heffner to cheer me up though when I have got Brahms’ German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) in my CD player. I have heard it many times before and, if I am honest, I have always found it rather dull and depressing. Certainly very clever with all its references back to the music of Bach, Handel, Heinrich Schutz and the Renaissance masters like Palestrina and Lassus but I always used to think why not listen to the originals.
It was completed in 1868, my current year of musical study, so I came back to this piece with some dread. My psychotic cold, George Osborne and the sharp drop in temperatures, weren’t helping but I used my “three plays and you’re out” rule with a recording by the ever inspiring John Eliot Gardiner and his historically-informed but pretentiously-named Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique.
On the first hearing my mind did wander – I have to be honest here. Clever, yes, some nice tunes, certainly, but so gloomy and unvaried, I thought, gazing out of the window and trying to work out who had just bought the shop across the road.
On the second hearing, the next day, I was feeling better, my psychosis was passing and Brahms burst through. I had a brain-wave. All this work needs, I decided, is for me to “pump up the volume”. I did and then Brahms’ subtleties began to register and I was swept away by a magnificence that had up until then escaped me. I have never claimed to be anything more than superficial in my musical taste.
On the third hearing, I think I had begun to understand what the composer was trying to do. Previously, I had seen the German Requiem as pure Nineteenth Century Gothic Revival like all those Victorian churches that pretended to be Gothic Cathedrals but mostly just looked ugly. On that third hearing, with a lot of help from Maestro Eliot Gardiner’s exciting use of rhythm and contrast, I began to hear more than that. I could hear in this piece that Brahms was not just a brilliant recycler of some glorious music from the past, he was also a genius with his eye on the future. My problem had been in trying to slot the piece into my memories of Bach and Handel when, in fact he was anticipating the harsh and bravely sceptical music of the Twentieth Century, anticipating Schoenberg and Benjamin Britten amongst others.
The German Requiem may walk confidently in the clothes of traditional religious music but its uncompromising composer refused to use the Jesus word and, behind all the consolation, he dared to ask, with Kenneth Williams, “What’s the bloody point?”
Maybe I am still feverish but I find that inspiring especially if the volume is turned up to rock ‘n roll levels. Whenever I think I am being profound I am really just being frivolously superficial. Excuse me, sneeze.