A Playlist for Troubled Times

During the recent weeks and months of staring at a screen, when there is little variety of scenery or (physical) company, I have found music a comforting companion. When I say music, I mean classical music which has been a frequent backdrop to my life of the pandemic. Listening to Joyce DiDonato’s own choice of playlist of ‘New Year cheer’ on BBC Radio3’s Inside Music this weekend, and the importance she attributed to Nature as, if you like, life-affirming during these pandemic days, I thought of the choices I would make myself to lift my spirits, Nature-related or not.

You should realise I’ve had public opportunities to choose playlists before, but with different purposes, not simply to lift my spirits. The first time was the most scary: Desert Island Discs, with its huge audience (and ongoing availability). My choices then were determined by pieces that had impacted on my life, with a personal story attached to each. With the exception of some barbershop music, it was entirely classical which seems to have caused some sniffiness in some quarters (what, no Bob Dylan?). Then, some years later I was asked to do Essential Classics (the podcast of which doesn’t seem still to be on BBC Sounds, but inevitably was also all classical), with the choices dictated by a series of questions they asked. For instance ‘What was the first classical record/CD you bought yourself’, to which the answer was Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater having sung it at school. Finally, and scary in a different way, was Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions, because – although I think of it as the classical equivalent of Desert Island Discs but with less potentially embarrassing probing about one’s personal life – it requires more ability to talk sensibly about the actual music as opposed to what it stands for in one’s life. Choices were therefore going to be dictated by wishing to have a spread of music genres (albeit still classical), but also ones I could defend, as it were.  I think I survived, but I do know of at least one very public figure who will not participate because of their lack of confidence about their musical competence, and I can understand why.

If your taste in music is grunge, garage, punk or heavy metal, this post may not be for you, but what follows is my playlist for troubled times and why I’ve chosen it.

Let’s start with a few pieces around the theme of Nature (as with DiDinato), beginning with a couple involving swans, but not the famous piece by Saint Saens written for double bass.

1 Jean Sibelius 5th Symphony. Sibelius is not to everyone’s taste, but the French horn motif in the final movement is supposed to have been inspired by watching whooper swans in flight. I have always thought of the motif as this beauty of flying swans with outspread oscillating wings, although I have seen it described as meant to mimic the call of the swans (I’ve never heard a whooper call, though I have occasionally seen them wintering in the UK, so I can’t readily comment on any mimicry.). To me, it is an uplifting movement, with a sense of purpose but also continuity and endurance. Definitely all things we need to hold on to right now.

2 Cantus Arcticus, a Concerto for birds and orchestra by another Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, again with its final movement (Swans Migrating) also celebrating whooper swans. This is a piece of music that has only recently crossed my path, and what makes it so special is the overlaying of recordings of the cries of birds, including the swans, on top of the orchestral music . It is a magnificent, haunting combination. Stuck as I am in Cambridge (although not close enough to the flooded Ouse Washes to go and look for the whoopers), the implicit wildness appeals and cheers.

3 Ma Vlast, and specifically Vltava, also known by its English name The Moldau, the river that flows through Prague, by Bedřich Smetana. This movement beautifully conveys the fizzing eddies of fast flowing water. I learned years ago, when working in my gap year in the Lake District, how much I found staring at tumbling water soothing. Sadly, the Cam in Cambridge is a staid and boring river, the only turbulence to be found at the locks. I’ve tried watching the churning foam there, but it tends to be full of rubbish including the odd shopping trolley, and it doesn’t have at all the same effect. Staring at my local river does nothing for my soul, so I will have to make do with this musical evocation.

4 Fingal’s Cave, also known as The Hebrides Overture, by Felix Mendelssohn. A river anyhow is but a poor relation of a wild sea. Staring at the waves crashing on a beach or rocky promontory – or washing in and out of a cave – is even more satisfying to me than a tumbling beck or waterfall. Fingal’s Cave represents this par excellence. Sadly, not only is Cambridge located on a very unexciting river, it’s almost as far from any beach as anywhere can be in England. There can be no nipping off for some calming sea-watching in these uncalm days. I last saw the sea almost a year ago, and that is far, far too long. So, in the meantime, some musical images to conjure up the sensations are required. I could have chosen Storm from the Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes or Elgar’s Sea Pictures, which is more restful – all have their place in my playlist for watery memories. Indeed, I suspect I could construct an entire playlist based on music associated with water.

5 The Spring Sonata, for violin and piano, by Ludwig van Beethoven. While we wait for both the literal spring and the metaphorical vaccine-induced spring to arrive, this is a piece of music to make one smile and feel full of the energy I’m sure many of us feel we’ve lost, or at least mislaid. A feel-good piece, its name is, however, not due to Beethoven, so perhaps one should treat its place in Nature’s firmament with some circumspection. It therefore serves as an excellent bridge to the less programmatic music on my playlist. I may say DiDonato chose Gustav Mahler’s 3rd symphony to evoke the ideas of birds and mountains. It may shock some of my readers to know, but Mahler and I don’t mix; never would he appear on any playlist of mine.

6 Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Given that the whole work runs to just under three hours, if I simply wanted quick refreshment, the last chorus is an obvious choice. Bach, of course, was deeply devout. Based on this alone, it clearly isn’t true that ‘the devil has all the best tunes’, a view that seems to have originated with 18th century Methodists. For Bach, his faith was central to the music he wrote. However, one doesn’t have to be religious to be uplifted by the music and, on this list, I could have happily placed a range of different religious music to give me that boost: Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mozart’s C Minor Mass and his Requiem, or Verdi’s Requiem  or Brahms Deutsches Requiem. The Dies Irae in the Verdi is enough to wake anyone up if they’re feeling down and out. These are all works I have sung and been moved by, all stirring strong memories of better times. (Although, to be honest, the performance of the B Minor was definitely substandard, with a second tier and under-rehearsed grouping, even if the setting was the magnificent Wren church of St James’ Piccadilly.)

7 The Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi, always known colloquially in my family as the Montevespers, but more formally known as the Vespro della Beata Vergine. When I was a teenager this relatively early music was suddenly creating waves, and period instruments were beginning to be used. In my first term as an undergraduate, being a female undergraduate at a time when we represented less than 10% of the student population, we were in great demand to sing in the (men’s) college choirs, and therefore had the pick of them. I was delighted to spot early on that Christ’s College were planning on singing these Vespers and immediately signed up. They are totally distinct from the other, later masses and requiems I’ve identified, not least in their startlingly different accompaniment by brass and strings plus organ rather than a full orchestra, and ten soloists. Designed for a church where soloists could be placed away from the main choir to give effects of echo and dialogue, it still strikes me as a work like no other. A brassy boost to stimulate me.

8 Staying with a small group of instruments, next up is Antonin Dvorak’s 2nd Piano Quintet. Although I’d always been familiar with the symphonies (one of my earliest concert memories is of Dvorak’s New World Symphony in London’s Central Hall when I was still at primary school) I came to his delicate smaller scale works much later. I love this quintet which, like Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, feels ebullient and outgoing. Just the thing for a dark winter’s day.

9 Johannes Brahms String Sextet No 1 in B flat major is another chamber work, but more sombre and mellifluous than bouncy. As a former viola player, I respond to the texture of having two violas giving depth in the middle register. I have something of a love-hate relationship with Brahms, possibly the after-effect of attempting to play one of his clarinet sonatas (transcribed for viola) and failing to understand it musically at all, but – as with the Deutsches Requiem and this (and the second sextet too) ­– some of his music strikes me as sublime. Thoughtful, calming and equally a good listen for these short days when sombre and mellifluous can seem a good combination.

10 Symphony No 5 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I was brought up in a family where Vaughan Williams was regarded with huge admiration, by a mother and grandmother who had sung with him in the the Three Choirs Festival, but for whom wider English music was also part of their bread and butter: Elgar, Butterworth, Parry, Holst and so on. My playlist has to include some of this sort of music. I toyed with including Elgar’s Overture Cockaigne, a perky piece I equate with the street sellers’ scene in Lionel Bart’s Oliver, but in the end went for something allegedly more pastoral. For all the sense of a countryside idyll, this symphony was written in the run up to the Second World War. It was, perhaps, written as a seeking for peace and hope, when times were bad, so it seems an appropriate final choice in this list.

My choice of music is obviously idiosyncratic, based on my musical experiences as well as the rest of my life, but thinking positively about the joy that music can bring, whatever your taste or preferred idiom, seems a constructive thing to do while waiting for vaccine roll out and an ultimate defeat of the scourge of Covid19. May you find peace as 2021 gets under way.


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