Music to focus the mind as Hurricane Sandy bears down on New York City
I was down with my client Alan Gilbert last week at WQXR radio, where Alan was taping his commentary about Beethoven’s nine symphonies. The station is playing all of them in a marathon as part of their ‘Beethoven Awareness Month’ programming in November. I thought about his comments about the Pastoral this afternoon, as I waited – with millions up and down the Eastern seaboard of the US – for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Alan suggested that the storm movement of the Pastoral had to be made terribly frightening to really capture the composer’s intentions. ‘People at that time didn’t know as much about natural phenomena, so a violent storm would have frightened them in a way that’s hard for us to imagine.’ Correspondingly, the final movement, expressing thanks for the passing of the storm, must possess the most heartfelt and sincere feelings. To paraphrase Alan, people aren’t just happy that the sun has come out – they are profoundly grateful to be alive.
Today, we have the luxury of seeing even the most massive hurricane from as far away as space, and from as close up as the TV cameras can get. Science fills all the blank spaces on those weather maps, as well as many spaces in our own imaginations. Still, no matter how much we know about our world, and how secure we might feel at a given moment, human beings are still rather fragile creatures, and as the wind raged tonight, and the water filled the streets of New York (earlier this evening, all of the lights of Manhattan south of 42nd Street had gone out – a scary sight indeed), I thought of Beethoven’s peasants and their gratitude about the passing storm. Countless people would wake up with a terrible mess in front of them tomorrow, but hopefully we would all muster a feeling of thanks for the good fortune that got us through the night.
Music, and a movie filled with music, kept me company over the past 24 hours, and though I turned off my stereo when the hurricane blew at its hardest – and turned to the TV instead – I was happy to have some very satisfying diversions from the storm. For some reason, the wind and rustling leaves that I heard while returning from the country last night put the sound of Franck’s late String Quartet in my head. What a hefty, moody piece! Franck wrote it, along with a number of other masterpieces, in the year before his death, but I can’t recall ever seeing it on a concert program here in NYC. That really should be corrected, as it’s a rather gripping work.
I stayed with French music but of a rather different cast. Thinking about Hurricane Sandy’s origins somewhere in the tropics, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé came to mind – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve got lots of recordings of the Suite No 2 from this voluptuous ballet, but decided to listen to Karajan’s plush late digital recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Ravishing stuff! I can only imagine what my neighbors were thinking hearing that music emanating from my apartment so late at night.
It was after midnight when I decided to settle down in bed with my iPad. Sitting in my queue, for several weeks now, was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Some critical commentary had made me think that I would pass on this one, but I decided to try it for a few minutes and see how it felt. I was mesmerised. The film is about two rather intense and troubled sisters and their strained, often painful relationship. Things are especially complicated because, well, the world just happens to be ending too! The title of the film has multiple meanings: it is both the psychic state of one of the sisters, Justine – played with tortuous honesty by Kirsten Dunst, who makes the illness of deep depression painfully real – and the name of a rogue planet that was hiding behind the sun and is now on course to come near, if not crash head-on with, the Earth.
It would be tempting to write at length about the film, which is by turns maddening, hauntingly beautiful and deeply distressing, but I wouldn’t want to spoil if for someone who hadn’t seen it yet. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross was clearly unhappy with von Trier’s ‘clumsy, unoriginal, and perverse’ use of Wagner’s music – mostly from Tristan und Isolde (you can read his comments here). But I didn’t have the same reaction. Having read one of von Trier’s controversial interviews (his comments to GQ magazine about his sympathies with some aspects of Nazi thought were nothing short of despicable), it’s clear to me that he’s not a very appealing human being. Wagner’s boorish behaviour and strident anti-Semitism didn’t preclude him from creating works of transcendent, lasting beauty. Von Trier is no Wagner, but he’s no doubt an artist, and while his nihilism it utterly alien to me, I’m not sorry that I saw the film. In fact, I found it strangely alluring and captivating, despite its huge pretensions. Spoiler alert: when the sisters finally hold hands in the final scene, as Melancholia (the planet) makes its impact and the world dissolves in a blaze of heat and light, many of the film’s shortcomings dissolved along with it for me.
The film no doubt caused me to sleep restlessly, but tucked safely in my bed this morning, with iPad still at arm’s length, I decided to watch Downtown Abbey for the first time. Okay, better late than never – it is remarkable in every way. By noon I had watched five episodes, and Melancholia thankfully receded into my memory.
I finally made my way outside in the early afternoon to shore up my supplies. Lines were long at the little grocery store across the street, but I got the last loaf of bread and fresh containers of milk, juice and water. Landfall for the storm was still hours away, so, with time to kill before I fully hunkered down, I decided to revisit an old CD that never fails to impress: Karajan’s last recoding of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, with the Vienna Philharmonic. Surely this recording is one of the greatest ever made! Like the work itself, the playing is epic, granitic, an unstoppable force of nature. For the first three movements I sat dumbfounded by the monumental force of the playing. Then, with the wailing horns of the finale pressing out against the windows of my 16th floor apartment, the winds from Sandy were beginning to kick up mightily as the sky darkened considerably. I felt squeezed between the potent forces of this music and the relentless power of nature outside. It all made me feel small, but also incredibly alive. And I felt grateful in ways that I don’t quite understand.