A Musical Journey

I’ve detected a trait in myself over the years – a tendency to set what are for me pointless, possibly unachievable goals. First among these has to be the desire to climb all the Munros. After a few years, it became clear that, although I enjoyed climbing them (and still do, occasionally), I didn’t really have the completist drive to carry on to the bitter end.  I just don’t mind whether I climb them all or not. I’ve discovered that it’s more rewarding -for me- to simply work through them, “collecting” them if you like, using the list as an inspiration to visit different parts of Scotland occasionally, when I have the time, and climb different hills.

So: I’m not going to say at this point that I’m setting out to listen to all of Haydn’s symphonies – all 104 of them. I have, however, started at number one. I don’t know how far I’ll get or how long it’ll take me. I know several already – enough to know I tend to like the earlier ones I’m familiar with more than the later ones. Consequently, I don’t mind very much if the project fizzles out. I’ll almost certainly listen to all the early ones before it does. The aim isn’t to get to 104: it’s to hopefully fall in love with a few pieces of music I don’t yet know. As with the Munros, it can be better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

I don’t know as much as I should about Haydn especially considering he’s one of my favourite composers. He lived in the 18th Century and was a man of his times: he went from working for the aristocracy to writing music for public concerts. There is a dramatic story of the impresario Salomon crossing Europe, knocking on his door and, when a bemused Haydn opened it, announcing “I am Salomon, and I have come to take you to London.” He did, and the result was Haydn’s series of “London Symphonies” (nos. 93-104). I’m currently listening to number seven so that’s, er, eighty-five to go…

The scale of Haydn’s output is staggering and perhaps counts against his popularity. How can one start a pub conversation about a band that has made 104 albums? If you only produce a small, respectable number, fans can compare notes. Also, if you produce so much, people will suspect your work to be watered down, lacking the intensity of artists who produce less. Less is, after all, more, they’ll think. In Haydn’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. Haydn is a one-man Western tradition.

Perhaps the most important thing I know about the man is that he really did have a reputation in his lifetime for being all the things people say about you when you die – he really was, apparently, a thoroughly nice, good natured bloke with a great sense of humour. I say this is important because I think it really does come through in the music. Even when it’s dark it has a good-natured quality that has Haydn’s name written all over it. I would go so far as to say that, for some people, there are prescription drugs out there which are not half as effective at lifting one’s feelings as Haydn’s music can be.

The obvious thing to do was to end this post with a link to the first symphony. However, number six is one of my all-time favourites among the ones I know already. The work is subtitled “Morning” and the opening of the first movement paints an enchanting picture of the sun rising – followed by a dawn chorus of birds.


The Jupiter Tree

I set off. Running on icy roads on Winter nights when the fields are covered in snow is a precarious activity. You seek out the crunchy bits underfoot and avoid the darker, smoother bits. If your feet stop crunching on the frozen snow you know you’re likely to go for a Burton.

I know a point on the roadside exactly a mile away from the gate. When I reach it I’ll turn round and come back. Roughly half way there, I come to the edge of the village. All of a sudden there are no more houses – and no more lights. The dark shapes of trees and bushes loom up around me. On the ground, by starlight, I can just distinguish those dark, potentially icy parts of the road from the snow.

I’m almost a mile out. I come to a short, steep hill. I’ve been slightly worried about this ever since the start but it turns out to be not as slippery as I expected it to be. I soon find myself at the top, running along the edge of the moor. It’s not far from here to the “one mile” point. I feel a sense of satisfaction when I reach it: not because I want the run to be over with but because up until this point I’ve been running West, into the oncoming weather. The Western sky is full of cloud. The view on the return leg is far preferable: I’m now running downhill, back towards the village. A dark landscape studded here and there with man-made lights falls away from my feet. Overhead, the sky is clear and full of stars. Jupiter lies straight ahead.

It’s not long before I’m back among the lights of the village and not long after that before I find myself back at our gate. I run on past it, as I usually do, to the end of the lane. Once there, I stop. I stand and stare. A shower of fine, crystalline snow is falling. I feel it rattle on the crumpled hood of my waterproof. One of the great things about running is that when you stop you feel warm, whatever the weather. Stood in a snow shower surrounded by snow and ice I feel no discomfort (although I might if I stand for too long). This probably serves to intensify what I’m feeling at this point. How can I put it? It’s a feeling of no longer being an individual but merely a part of everything (which we all are, of course). I feel not like a transitory, running blogger but like the whole universe looking out through the eyes of that transitory, running blogger. Jupiter hangs between the branches of a nearby tree. It -and the stars around it- feel to be merely a distant part of what I am, what we are. How long I’ve stood there staring, I’m not sure. Long enough. The transitory, running blogger reasserts itself. It’s time to go in.

Once in, I grab a ballpoint pen and a pad of paper. I write. I keep writing for several minutes. Then I stop and read what I’ve written. It’s almost right, almost what I meant to say, but not quite. Writing down exactly what I felt out there in the lane turns out to be impossible, like trying to recall, on waking, a dream I’ve already begun to forget.

The Snow

It’s that time of year again. It snows. I get up in the morning and photograph it. There are loads of old photos of much the same thing scattered over the hard drives of the computers I’ve used over the years and boxes of slides and prints going back years before that.

Why do I do it? In a way, the world with snow covering it is less interesting than the world without snow. It’s a lazy version of the “go out and build a snowman” impulse, I suppose.

click images to enlarge