Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sounds of Summer

I read somewhere recently that while pop music exists in a fixed moment in time -- when you hear a pop song, it will trigger memories of the circumstances in which you first heard it, resulting in many uncomfortable Lost-in-the-Supermarket experiences -- classical music is timeless in the sense that it evokes memories only of itself. This has never been true for me. There are certain pieces from the Western art music tradition that I associate not only with certain moments in my life, but even with certain seasons and years. When I hear Schumann's Piano Concerto, for example, I'm instantly drawn back to my unhappy adolescence, when I played through my mother's thick stack of classical LPs and found the turbulent yearning of Schumann and Brahms to be a kind of balm for my soul. And late summer has always been linked in my mind with Brahms's and Schumann's chamber music, particluarly their vocal chamber music: Schumann's Spanisches Liederbuch, for instance, for four solo voices and four-hands piano, or Brahms's Liebeslieder Walzer for the same vocal and instrumental forces (Brahms, twenty-three years younger than Schumann and a great friend of both the composer and his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann [pictured above], no doubt scored his piece as a tribute to the older man). This music is redolent of the melancholy longing of late summer, the sense of something coming to an end, and when I hear it I remember my first few summers in the city many years ago, spent in a succession of borrowed lofts and sublet railroad flats, when I had nothing except my own great longing to create a beautiful world around myself. These pieces are woven into my memories of those years of poverty, striving, and solitude.

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