By Boman Desai
My interest in writing about music was sparked by Donald Francis Tovey’s essay on Brahms’s Piano Concerto in B flat major. He began by providing statistics, continued with a technical analysis, and concluded with the following: “Out of subdued mutterings the first theme again arises and hovers, while the air seems full of whisperings and the beating of mighty wings.”
There is no way to explain the experience of music better than the experience of listening to music. However, there is an art to writing about music that is pleasurable for its own sake.
That quote, extricated from the august rumblings of the rest of the essay, got me interested in the music. I had not heard the concerto before reading the article; had I heard the music before I’d read Tovey’s description I may never have heard “the beating of mighty wings.” What matters is that one led me to the other. I enjoyed both prose and concerto.
On reading the manuscript of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Elisabet von Herzogenberg (among Brahms’s closest friends, whose opinion he valued) wrote to him in a letter: “The Andante has that freshness and distinction of character with which only you could endow it, and even you have had recourse to certain locked chambers of your soul for the first time.”
On hearing the work she wrote: “I was moved to tears—happy tears—by the Andante. It is one of the most affecting things I know, and, indeed, I should choose this movement for my companion through life and in death. It is all melody from first to last, increasing in beauty as one presses forward; it is a walk through exquisite scenery at sunset, when the colours deepen and the crimson glows to purple.”
Of course, different listeners will have different interpretations—the same movement in the Brahms Symphony evoked “moonlight” for Richard Strauss as it did “sunset” for Herzogenberg. What is more important is that each appreciation was sincere and imaginative, as was Tovey’s evocation of “mighty wings.” Whether moving from listening to reading or reading to listening, inciting a passionate response is all that a composer of music (or a composer of words) might wish.
NOTE: The “mighty wings” can be heard in this YouTube video from 16:38 to 17:08.
Boman Desai got his first break when an elegant elderly woman submitted his stories to Debonair magazine, all of which were published, but the woman disappeared, her identity forever to remain a mystery. He has published five novels, won some awards, and is an expert on the life of Brahms.
Illustration Credit: Willy von Beckerath