Music, Emotion and Meaning

It’s been a few days since attending a concert at the beautiful Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra performed Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Offertorium by Sofia Gubaidulina and Vaughan William’s Symphony Number 3, A Pastoral Symphony.

Experiences of music performed by such outstanding musicians in what is an aural paradise of a building deserve reflection before pen is put to paper. I have thought about the experience a great deal since it happened on Sunday night.

Both Tallis and Vaughan Williams are composers whose work touches me deeply. The listening experience is always worthwhile and satisfying but there is something beyond listening that happens when I encounter their work.

At the very beginning of April I had the pleasure of singing Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony with a vast choir in Hull City Hall and it is a challenging and exciting work to sing with equal moments of the near impossible alongside the sublime.  I have therefore been immersed in his work for some time and feel as if I am approaching a deeper understanding of him as an artist. On Sunday night I felt washed in the choirs of strings during the Fantasia and transported to that world in which one composer speaks across centuries to another. I didn’t want the Fantasia to end and felt it as a balm to my spirit as it rose and fell and weaved a spell to which I was able to surrender completely.

Gubaidulina is a composer with whom I am not so familiar. Her Offertorium like the Fantasia is a work that draws on themes written by another composer, in this case Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer (BWV 1079).  Offertorium is a concerto for violin and orchestra and it was beautifully executed, particularly by the soloist Vadim Gluzman whose passion and virtuosity were faultless. Having learned a little in advance about Gubaidulina, a Russian born composer with deep spiritual and mystical sensibility at odds with the politics of Soviet Russia I was intrigued by the piece. I listened to it before the concert and found it hard going and hoped that live I would engage with it better.

Prior to the performance Vadim Gluzman spoke about his own spirituality and about what Gubaidulina wanted to express in the piece; Christian principles of self sacrifice, hope, love particularly. I struggled to find hope in the piece as it unfolded. I found it unsettling, dark and ultimately upsetting. For thirty-two minutes there was a relentless darkness that enveloped and affected me to the point where I could feel rage, sadness and profound loss threatening to swallow me. I could appreciate the piece’s brilliance and it’s structural bravery, tackling Bach and deconstructing then reconstructing the theme. The delivery was extraordinary but I was left bereft by it.

During the interval the light began to return and I felt my rage dissipate. I was grateful to return to the concert hall to hear The Pastoral Symphony as the final item of the program. Vaughan Williams was moved to write the symphony in response to the mass deaths of the First World War. It is a most moving and elegiac work and a total contrast to the Offertorium. Light floods in through the symphony bringing hope, a sense of redemption and pure love and honour towards those who were sacrificed in their millions between 1914-1918.

The beautiful trumpet cadenza  in the second movement was inspired by Vaughan Williams’ experience of hearing the lone bugler on the battlefield play an accidental seventh rather than the octave. The sweet poignancy of the cadenza was restorative and generous after the harsh atonality of the Offertorium. 

The Pastoral Symphony finishes with a lone singer singing a song without words, bringing the work back to silence. The rich voice of the baritone on Sunday night was a voice singing for the dead but instead of feeling overwhelmed by rage and sadness I felt connected to humanity at a compassionate level, at the level of love. Vaughan Williams’ music does that for me, it brings me to love and to a sense of great peace and inner stillness.

It’s hard to countenance the horror of war or life under the dark oppression of Soviet Russia. Music is one of the ways in which humans make meaning out of experience. Music makes sense of the world in the same way that poetry and art make sense of the world. We owe much to artists for making meaning in these ways. For me there must be light in the work and hope. As the days have passed since Sunday and I’ve dealt with myself and the world, as we all do, every day I have made space for the light. I have turned my face away from the rage and the sadness of life; not because it isn’t there, it always is, but because the light and hope have more to offer in the end.

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