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From Bach to Bernstein, Classical Music is Still the Drug of Choice for Those in Pursuit of the Ultimate Legal High

Guy Noble
Guy Noble
| September 26, 2017

The German writer Thomas Mann said once: “Time cools, time clarifies; no mood can be maintained quite unaltered through the course of hours.” Forget hours, I can’t maintain a mood for more than 20 minutes. Some people seem to be able to travel through various moods like a large supertanker, pushing through the waves of despair or joy and remaining fixed on the horizon in front of them. I, on the other hand, oscillate up and down like a crazy toddler on a playground swing. It’s not bipolar, just being a little oversensitive to external signals such as rainy days.

Some people choose to use mind-altering drugs to affect their moods, but I find the cheapest and healthiest drug to do that is music. If I am in a foul mood, down or dispirited or sad, there are two ways to go. One is to find a piece of music that will lift me out of it, or to find a piece of music that magnifies the misery, bringing the emotion to a head and allowing it to pass like a severe shower at the end of a stormy day.

We all have our ‘go to’ pieces of music that have emotional significance. They might remind us of something important in our past, a piece that is associated with a particular event or emotional state, or they might just have some intrinsic qualities that speak directly to us, something in the harmony or the arch of a melody.  Apparently as a young child (and I can actually remember this) I would burst into tears when I heard the old nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. I don’t know what it was that got to me about that simple music, whether it was the melody or the implied harmony or perhaps the last lines “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” (Now I think on it, a song about beheading seems absurd to sing to a child if you want them to go to bed happily.)

We all have certain pieces that will get us going in the sad sack department. Just imagine you were an actor having to play a very emotional scene, what would you play on your headphones just before the cameras rolled to get you close to a single tear trickling down the cheek? The famous Bach Prelude No 1 gets me every time – it’s not sad, but its simplicity and the changes of the harmonies amaze me so deeply that I can easily choke up. The last of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs always gets me going as well. The Schubert song Du bist die Ruh I find equally moving.

They are the sort of pieces that can turn a moderate downturn into a spectacular catharsis. On the other hand I have a few personal favourites that can turn a sad mood 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  Whenever I feel I am having some sort of struggle, I dial up on YouTube a wonderful performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from Tokyo in 1979. The final movement is so exciting, with its brash and minor opening to a long searching middle section and finally a thumping D Major ‘I Will Overcome All Obstacles’ kind of finale. The roar from the crowd at the end is almost the best part of it, a giant guttural exclamation of excitement and release. Bernstein is drenched in sweat and beaming with such joy, and even at a distance of 38 years it’s impossible not to feel the updraft.

My other recently rediscovered mood alterer is the final movement of the Janáček Sinfonietta. This riot of a piece features the sound of 14 trumpets and a whole extra stack of brass and full orchestra. The final movement gets bigger and grander with harmony that lifts and exalts and by the final chords my mood transforms from something resembling a dog turd to a shining nugget of gold. Such is the power of this mind-altering and completely legal drug called music.

* Article supplied by Limelight Magazine as part of our Classical Music Partnership.

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