Once Upon a Symphony...

James Inverne on how the notion of story is crucial in music, even if it’s about alien forks.  

When I left the editorship of Gramophone and set up shop to co-direct a company to work with musicians and institutions I especially admire, there’s a reason why I particularly wanted to work with Leon Botstein. It’s because he and I, and a little but ever-expanding tribe of people in the classical music industry, share a belief that music is about stories. Almost everything is, really, but music in particular.

When I was a very young child being taken to concerts by my father I would copy the way he would ‘narrate’ orchestral music playing on the car stereo (you should have heard the story he weaved together around Holst’s The Planets – “Saturn” gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards). So at every concert, I would let my mind go blank, invite the music into my consciousness and allow it to suggest narratives, stories. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony had something to do with a bear (I can’t quite remember what), Mahler’s Second Symphony was the mother of all cosmic superhero battles. And incidentally, my older son has started using this important musical system (ahem) – I took him to hear Korngold’s Symphony in F Sharp Major, and he pronounced it to be something to do with a war against alien forks.

Whether Korngold himself intended a subtext to do with extra-terrestrial cutlery is unclear (it doesn’t seem to be in any of his writings, but maybe something will turn up). On the other hand, the broad point that there is some kind of narrative in all music holds absolutely true. I’m not, you will be relieved to hear, actually talking about interstellar battles or bandits with bows and arrows (though, hang on, didn’t Korngold write some little number about a fellow in Lincoln green?). I’m not even suggesting that there is always a linear plot or even a loose synopsis.

But neither do I believe in the phrase “complete music”, sometimes applied to composers like Brahms. To explain why, let me switch tack – I once interviewed the actor and latterly composer Sir Anthony Hopkins. All of my efforts to draw him out on the subject of his music were met with a polite but firm, “It doesn’t really mean anything I just do it and see what happens.” So far, so dull for an 800-word article. I hung up the phone, thought about it, girded my loins and phoned him back. He sounded surprised to hear from me again, and so soon. “Erm I’m afraid I don’t believe you,” I ventured. “I beg your pardon?” came the astonished reply. I continued to say – and here is my point - that any artist is a creative being, and creativity does not come from impassivity. Rather, creation bursts out the artist as a compulsive force – they have to express themselves in their chosen art. If they were not slave to these primal urges, I would guess that they might choose an economically safer profession. How many accountants account in a frenzy of imagination and feeling?

So for Hopkins to mildly say that, in effect, he just does what he does, didn’t ring true. Not for a minute. And once I put this to him, and he thought about it for a moment, suddenly there was a flood of fascinating material from him – about his process, about what it meant to him emotionally. Had anyone said the same to Brahms or to Bach or even to Salieri (often thought of as a cold fish next to warm-blooded Mozart) one would get a similar response.

Ah, say the naysayers (who always say nay, that’s their job in life), but what about the rebellious composers of the early and mid-Twentieth Century who believed in experimentation for its own sake, or those fellows from the Darmstadt School who believed that eve taking much note of the audience was a betrayal of pure musical instincts? Well, have you ever met a rebel who rebelled without being angry about something, or impassioned? Therein lies the story.

Or a composer like Bach, so often discussed more in terms of form, structure and even mathematics than of emotion and story? We talk about the Solo Cello Suites and we talk about the way he co-opted dance forms. But have you ever listened to them without feeling the composer’s yearning, searching spirit, his incredible energy somehow harnessed in those disciplined structures? There’s your story, or anyway mine – why did he choose dance? What do those structures do to what he was trying to say, or how did they enable him and what does that tell us about Bach himself?

At times, composers’ stories can be accentuated in imaginative concert programs, such as Leon Botstein’s brilliantly put-together “Requiem For The Twentieth Century” at Carnegie Hall last month. There he took three composers’ responses in music to horrific events in that century and together they comprised a requiem for a destructive era that is now over. Tears can flow, lessons can be learnt, comparisons with our own age drawn.

At other times, music can be almost like a “Choose your own adventure” book (remember those? The ones where you got to decide how your lead character proceeded?). I’m pretty sure that Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony had nothing to do with bears as far as Bruckner was concerned. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to. That was the story which channelled my emotional response to his music. And just as there is a famous literary theory about ‘the death of the author’ – that a work of literature as its writer envisages it dies as soon as it is written and is born, anew and different in the mind and heart of every individual reader, this can apply to music as well.

The important thing, the crucial thing, is that one finds the story. The composer’s story, one’s own story. A story. Because through stories, we communicate. That’s human nature.

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone, previously European Performing Arts Correspondent for Time Magazine, a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle and co-director of Inverne Price Music Consultancy. Contact the author at james@inverneprice.com.