Music On The Brain

I have always been deeply interested in music – classical, rock, pop and more recently jazz and various types of Asian, African and South American styles. I have always needed a daily fix of some sort of music whether it is got by performing or listening to recordings.

I have also been a bit of a book-worm for most of my life – being told in childhood that I spent too much time with “my nose in a book.”

This has changed somewhat since my recent brain haemorrhage.

I have found it much more difficult to concentrate for extended periods of time; so a book that I was reading just before my illness had remained unopened until the other day when I was delighted to find myself back into its clutches.

“Johannes Brahms – A Biography” by Jan Swafford (published by Vintage Books) is a lively and perceptive study of Brahms the composer and the man. I was very interested in the portrait of a composer I thought to be very familiar only to find that he was much more complex and surprising than his public image.

I had reached a point in the work where the author was about to describe the reasons why Brahms delayed the writing of his first symphony for so long. The next morning I had my haemorrhage which sent me off to hospital for a few weeks.

On my return, the reasons for Brahms’s problem in writing his symphony suddenly seemed irrelevant to my life. That was his problem, I thought. It was up to him to solve it and up to me to sort out my own life. Ok, I could read the newspaper every day but anything else was just too demanding. I wanted to use my brain for thinking through my new situation.

And that was it, or so I thought until the other day when I found myself back with Brahms and his symphony. Of course I cared about it, I discovered. It was always a work of inspiration to me. So passionate, brave and heroic, I had known it since my teenage years. It is amazing to me that I could have so nearly abandoned the joyful experience of delving deeper into something so much a part of me.

I had the same reaction about listening to other music too – especially classical music but also anything that made demands of concentration beyond the immediate.

Before my illness, I had been doing a lot of writing and, for the first time in my life, I had taken to listening to music whilst I worked. Usually, I had found it impossible to work with music in the background as my concentration always went to the music itself.

Then I discovered Trance Music….that exciting style of club music with its constant fast beat and its interest in the many possibilities of sound studio remixes.

At first this was an acceptable and inspiring form of background music for me, then it broke through and opened me up to a new style. The break-through moment was the work of Above and Beyond – especially their “Tri-State 2008 Remix Edition” and their other album of the year: “Ocean Lab: Sirens of the Sea.”

After my brain haemorrhage, this was the only music I could listen to (sorry guys! no insult intended) and listen to it I really did. Every day for long periods at a time.

This is music about love and death, sublimated by a joyfulness that makes it almost unbearable in times of emotional vulnerablility.

I loved the simplicity but also the emotional depth of their lyrics and, gradually I recognised that there was also something I very specifically loved about their style with its emphasis on the exciting movement of the bass line contrasted to the sweetness of the top melody line, transported by a middle area filled with a delight in the movement of chordal harmony.

It was wonderful in itself of course but, I was feeling more and more, after each listening that they owed so much to the classical music of the Baroque era. The music of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi in particular. The music I could no longer approach.

Then an urge started to grow inside me.

Yesterday, it rose to the surface.

I dug out a recording of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto (Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger with the Academy of Ancient Music; recorded by Harmonia Mundi) – like the Brahms Symphony, I work I have loved since childhood.

At first I could feel my brain rebel against the concentration that this music demands but then the magic worked and I could recognise why this music is so comforting in times of stress.

There is something about melodic counterpoint – where two melodies or more are woven together in numerous ingenious combinations – something about it, that transports the mind into a purer world, forgive me for saying it, but “above and beyond” everyday concerns.

Does this mean I am getting better? With a bit of help from all kinds of music, I do believe that I am.


  1. Funny, I bought the Swafford several years ago and never read it. I’ll have to move it nearer the top of my formidable to-be-read list.

    There’s an early serenade for orchestra that I think could have been Brahms’ first symphony if he’d had the guts. It’s relatively lightweight but it has a fully-developed sonata movement, a beautiful slow movement, a delightful finale….and THREE scherzi. I can never escape the theory that he threw in the extra scherzi to avoid calling it a symphony.

    When I was in college a friend–we had played violin together in high school and then gone on to the same college–dragged me into a cramped rehearsal cubicle in the music building (we weren’t music majors, weren’t even taking any music classes at the time, so it seemed faintly illicit) and we sight-read the solo parts of the Bach double concerto. We weren’t very good, but I remember what a startlingly visceral experience it was to make music so intertwined with another person. Thanks for triggering the memory.

  2. Anatole – I know just what you mean about that visceral experience of playing the Bach Double Concerto at college.

    I remember crashing through a two piano version of the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto with a student friend when we were young and reckless enough to try such things.

    It probably sounded terrible but we loved it and were transported to that special place where performers, even clumsy musicians like me, meet those long-dead but immortal composers.

    Just a thought about those Scherzi. Brahms did seem to use them, like his jolly but not always profound Hungarian Dance endings to works, as deliberately lightweight movements – maybe he thought the more the merrier in the Serenade but I guess you could well be right about his motives.

    He did reject the idea of lighter works being called symphonies – this was the time when a lot of French composers were writing serenade-like symphonies (Gounod for instance). Whether he was disguising symphony-wannabes out of insecurity or because he hadn’t yet worked out how to make a piece grow until the last movement becomes the climax in his works, I don’t know.

    It used to surprize me that , even when he did finally get round to writing his First Symphony, he still used a light scherzo as the third movement.

    Maybe, of course, he just liked them. It might have brought out the pub pianist in him or the man who loved sitting in the park listening to Johann Strauss conducting The Blue Danube.

    I certainly hope so.

    Thanks for taking the time to write. I look forward to future comments which, I am sure, will keep me on my toes.

  3. Yes,if you made a duet of Rach 2 you certainly do know what I mean. Rach 3 would have sent you right over the edge…but that’s my Rachmaninov bias.

  4. Funnily enough, after that Rachmaninov event, I decided to get all snooty about him and sneered at the “over-emotionalism” of the Rach 2.

    I gradually backtracked though….maybe a few knocks on the road woke me up to what he was talking about.

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