Categorized | Music in Medicine

The Hidden Beauty of Ugly Music: Selections From the Music of Spring

Posted on 08 March 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

Why do I love classical music so much?

When I was little my mom told me that while I was still in her womb, she played records of classical music to me. After I was born my parents encouraged me to listen to voluminous amounts of classical music. They desired to bring me up with an ear for what they perceived as “nice music”. And that is what I thought of classical music initially, “nice music”. The first classical CD that I recall ever listening to was that of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I was four at the time. I also remember my experience of hearing Beethoven’s Für Elise for the first time, and how I was so deeply mesmerized by the sound of it. Though I was only five, as the timeless, ethereal melody entered into my soul I knew that I was entranced. Snared. In love.

My formal training in music began in the same year in the form of piano lessons. For the next few years, these lessons would continuously reinforce my already hardened preconceptions of classical music, that of it being “nice music”, beautiful to listen to whether you were young or old, boy or girl, good or bad... Indeed, my first pianistic ambitions were to somehow learn to play Beethoven’s Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata before I die. (I thought that girls would like me if I could play these pieces in front of them, I was very naïve at the time.) Somehow I did eventually learn to play Beethoven’s Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata, but while the girls flocked to me, I felt more musically unsatisfied than ever. By this time I had acquired enough musical knowledge to realize that classical music consisted of more than just Beethoven (not that Beethoven’s music was not profound). I needed to explore further.

Thus from the courtly formalities of Mozart and Beethoven I moved on to the tragic poetry of Chopin, to the mysterious harmonies of Debussy, to the erotic passions of Rachmaninoff. Yet, still I was not satisfied, and asked myself: why should you restrain yourself to the piano when there is an entire world of other instruments out there? I then became obsessed with orchestral music. Ultimately I was crazy enough to try and teach myself to sing opera, and met only limited success. Even that is an overstatement, for I was certain that some of my friends were so irritated by my singing that they were prepared to terminate our friendship.

Sometime during this feverish journey I opened my mind to the music of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other colleagues. I didn’t like them at first, so I tried to shut them out. Only later did I realize that it was too late. Once the door had been opened, it could not be locked again. I had let the monsters in, permanently, and now I had to live with them. But miraculously the creatures that terrified me the most I fell in love with. And they were horrible creatures! I often see their brutal shadows, their bloodthirsty eyes, their barred teeth, from behind which comes chilling shrills that never end. They torture me by day with these unbearable cries, and at night they return in my darkest nightmares. But somehow I cannot resist them. I continue to long for their deathly embrace, and let them rape me and slaughter me in whatever way they see fit. To me they represent the unlimited possibilities of classical music, a genre that will never see bounds. When it is beautiful, it is relaxing. But when it is ugly, it is divine! When classical music shows its other side, that when it is not “nice music”, we see all our flaws, vices, and sins stare back at us, and we fall with our faces flat against the ground in utmost shame. Ugly music is created from the darkness within us, and in that respect it is truly the light that shines into the innermost corners of our souls.

Can classical music really sound ugly? you ask. Well, yes it can. And with the coming of spring, a perfect example comes to mind. We shall compare and contrast Schumann’s Spring Symphony with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. One represents the epitome of classical music that everyone knows and takes delight in, and the other, a sickening, unspeakable abomination.

Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Symphony no. 1 “Spring” (composed 1841) was designed to be a gem of pure ecstasy. Interestingly, it was composed shortly after Schumann’s marriage, for which he fought for many bitter years, to the extent of launching litigations against his now father-in-law. Was the symphony an expression of his long-sought love? We do not have any evidence of that unfortunately, as much as we would like to speculate. But in any case, from the opening trumpet calls which proclaim the arrival of spring, we are immersed in a fresh, green world. After being greeted by a shower of butterflies and birdsongs in the first movement, we sit back while being serenaded with a soothing, pastoral idyll in the second movement. The third movement jolts us to our feet with a vigorous country dance, and in the finale, we wave our farewells to spring, knowing that it will never die, always to return.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvwCdaaidLU

 

Compare this with Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) representation of spring, which is less optimistic. In fact, it is horrendous, so much that it sparked a riot at its premier. From the first note of The Rite of Spring (composed 1913), Stravinsky’s signature ballet, we find complete chaos. Brutal rhythms and outbursts abound, such as near the end of Adoration of the Earth when the village boys get into a fight. Part two, entitled The Sacrifice, is even more diabolical. We see maidens of the village dancing mystically in a circle, awaiting one of them to be chosen as the sacrifice to the god of spring, who must be appeased so that spring would not disappear forever. As the Chosen One is singled out in the center of the circle, the other girls rejoice wildly, perhaps even insultingly, at their unbelievable fortune. And finally, with a last demonic burst of strength, the Chosen One dances until she is completely spent, collapsing in death. Just how do you make sense of this madness? One must appreciate that just as spring makes all things anew, Stravinsky’s ballet reveals our most primitive instincts and behaviours, and in that it is beautiful. And can anyone replace the notes with other notes and still achieve the same effects? I say not. The notes were destined for their purpose, and in that they are beautiful. And if you are looking for a more contemporary insight into their beauty, Leonard Bernstein (composer of West Side Story) once randomly exclaimed this while rehearsing The Rite of Spring with his orchestra: “Don’t you get it? This music is all about sex!”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF1OQkHybEQ (I)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH1t0pCchxM (II)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_7ndqgwxcM (III)

 

We now return to my opening question: Why do I love classical music so much? I love classical music because when it is “nice” it sounds beautiful, and when it is “ugly” it still sounds beautiful. Classical music is like an oasis at the edge of a cliff. When I was little I lived quietly and peacefully in the middle of the oasis, never daring to venture to the edge and peer down. But when I finally did, looking into the bowels of the abyss, my mentality was changed forever, and I was enlightened. For instance, Schumann’s and Stravinsky’s contrasting portrayals of spring taught me an important lesson. Yes, spring is gorgeous; at this time of the year everything is in full bloom. But spring is more than just flowers and birds and meadows. It offers a glimpse into our very humanity, providing a view of what it means to be us.

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