This week I was reminded that it’s a year since the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the Wigmore Hall and countless other music, opera and theatre venues shut their doors in the wake of the growing coronavirus pandemic.

At the time, it felt shocking, because for those of us who frequent these venues (and despite living in Dorset, I was travelling up to London at least twice a month to attend concerts and opera performances) it was a stark reminder that this virus, which until that point had felt rather unreal, was something we should now be taking seriously. That week, I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang in concert at the Barbican; both events were of course cancelled, and now the virus had encroached directly upon my world, and my cultural and working life. The directors of a music festival, with whom I was working, hung on until the absolute last minute to announce the postponement of the festival, and then all my publicity/PR work dried up. The next weekend, the UK went into its first lockdown.

Looking back, I recall feeling anxious; I wasn’t worried about catching the virus (in fact, I think I almost certainly had it in January 2020 when I had what I can only describe as “a weird ‘flu”), but I was very concerned about my family, in particular my chef son who was out of work, and my mother-in-law, who lives on her own. When previously I might have taken refuge in music to alleviate or distract myself from the stress, I found I could not play the piano nor listen to classical music on the radio, or on disc. It just served to remind me what we had lost, and I found the prospect of no live music for goodness knows how long a depressing one.

In those early, anxious months of the first lockdown, the only classical music I listened to was the complete Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Jonathan Biss. This was special music – and I don’t need to elaborate here why Beethoven’s music is so meaningful to many of us – not only because I thought it was one of the most interesting interpretations of the piano sonatas I had encountered in recent years but also because the last concert I attended at Wigmore Hall was given by Jonathan Biss, playing a selection of Beethoven piano sonatas, just a few weeks before the Hall was forced to close. So this music felt significant for a number of reasons.

Meanwhile, amateur pianist friends were filling Facebook and YouTube with videos of them playing all manner of repertoire. For many of my pianist friends, this period of enforced isolation was a wonderful opportunity to do more practising, and, confined to their homes, they found they had the luxury of time. I wished I had their motivation – there was plenty of music I wanted to learn and play – but instead I felt a growing sense of estrangement from the instrument and music which I loved. My piano was out of tune as well (the tuner was due to come in the last week of March) and that quickly became another excuse not to practice.

So BBC Radio 3 and my classical playlists on Spotify were exchanged for my son’s playlists of hip hop and rap, reggae and (curiously) mixes of 80s pop music which took me back to my teens and student years. We listened to this music when we were cooking and it quickly became the soundtrack of most of 2020 (my son left London to live with us during lockdown). Occasionally, I would dip back into the music I thought I loved, but it just served to remind me, yet again, of what we missing.

By the early summer of 2020, things began to feel a little more positive and the Wigmore Hall launched a series of livestream concerts which were at once brilliant and incredibly poignant (I cried while watching Stephen Hough’s opening concert – it was wonderful to see beloved Wigmore Hall again but rather tragic to see it devoid of its audience).

As society began to unlock in early summer 2020, my piano tuner was able to work again and came to give my 1913 Bechstein some much-needed TLC. I played a little after that – the piano sounded wonderful and I had some new repertoire to learn and old favourites to revisit, but still I felt a strong sense of estrangement from the instrument and its literature.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Several professional musician friends expressed similar feelings of detachment from their music and instrument – perhaps understandably since the covid restrictions had decimated their concert diaries, and without the prospect of performances, and the focus and motivation which these bring, there seemed little point in practising.

The issue I have now is that I have spent too long away from the piano. It sits in its room in the basement of my house, and where previously I found its presence benign, I now find it rather hostile. It seems to be challenging me, and I feel guilty for neglecting it.

Of course I have nothing to feel guilty about. I don’t earn a living from playing or teaching the piano and it is entirely my choice whether or not I play it. But I am mindful of the fact that without regular practice, or simply playing for pleasure, it becomes harder to get back into the routine of playing. And routine is what I need.

I hope that when the concert halls reopen and I can enjoy live music again, with other people, the sense of estrangement will pass and the stimulation to play the piano once again will return.

This quote from a Meet the Artist interview with pianist Antoine Préat perfectly expresses my relationship with many composers and their music.

When I returned to playing the piano seriously in my later 30s, after a break of some 20 years, there were pieces which I felt I “should” be playing but which never felt comfortable to me. This feeling grew when I co-founded a piano meetup group where members played all sorts of repertoire. I envied those who seemed so at home with the music of Chopin or Ravel, two composers whose piano music I adore, but which does not necessarily love me back.

Of course, we should never feel obligated to play certain pieces or composers out of a sense of duty; the “tyranny of the shoulds” is often inculcated in our childhood music lessons, reinforced in music college, and – for the professional musician, further emphasised by teachers, peers, agents and critics – or for the amateur, at piano clubs and on courses. Students and those at the beginning of their career probably feel the pressure of this sense of obligation most acutely, and it takes confidence to stand firm against the tide of opinion that says one should be playing certain Beethoven sonatas, etudes by Chopin and Liszt, or the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Grieg in order to be recognised and endorsed by those who may help further one’s professional career and reputation. 

We’re very lucky as pianists; we have a vast repertoire to choose from and this means there is music within it to suit our varied, wide-ranging tastes. It is interesting to note that some of the greatest pianists have chosen to focus on a fairly narrow corner of the repertoire – for example, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff or Maria Joao Pires. It really isn’t necessary to have an affinity with or be able to play everything, though of course there are some pianists who seem perfectly at ease with a very broad sweep of repertoire, namely Maurizio Pollini or Marc-André Hamelin. Stephen Hough is quite open about his “uneasiness” about playing the music of J S Bach and I think it is a mark of a pianist’s honesty to admit that certain repertoire or composers do not suit them. 

Our affection for the music we choose to play is, I believe, one of the greatest assets in the learning process. It is what helps to keep us focussed and ensures we will return to the music day in day out to practice and refine it. If you don’t love the music you’re playing, it’s unlikely it will love you back, and the practice of practising will feel arduous and challenging. I recall feeling like this quite a lot of the time when I was having piano lessons as a child, where my first teacher would always select the music I was to learn, without giving me any choice (when I taught piano, I made sure my students played music they liked and enjoyed). It was only when I had passed my grade 5 piano exam, and moved to a new teacher, that I had the foundations of technical facility and the confidence to explore repertoire on my own. It was at this time that my love of Schubert’s piano music developed – and it remains amongst my most favourite music still. 

One of the great pleasures of being an amateur pianist, perhaps the greatest pleasure, is that you are not – or shouldn’t be – under any obligation to play music because someone else said you “should”! Of course sometimes a teacher will suggest repertoire which they feel may help with an aspect of technique or simply that it may appeal to your musical taste and sensibilities – and a good teacher should know and appreciate their students’ tastes. But if it doesn’t appeal, have the confidence to say “it’s not for me”. It’s also worth bearing in mind that our tastes change, and, as our technical facility improves, repertoire we previously loved but might not have been able to play, becomes more accessible.

If the music doesn’t love you back sufficiently for you to play it yourself, simply enjoy hearing others play it – on disc, on the radio, in concerts and via streaming services.

The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz are raising £6,000 to rescue a unique and historic instrument associated with the composer Felix Yaniewicz, and bring it to Edinburgh to celebrate his musical legacy. Yaniewicz was a Polish-Scottish violinist, composer and co-founder of the first Edinburgh music festival in 1815.

Two decades ago, a square piano dating from around 1810 came to light in a private house in Snowdonia.  Despite its dilapidated condition, it was recognised as an instrument of historical interest by Douglas Hollick, who bought it for restoration and embarked on a research project to discover more about its provenance and the link to Yaniewicz.

Above the keyboard, a cartouche with painted flowers and musical instruments bears the label ‘Yaniewicz and Green’ with the addresses of premises in fashionable areas of London and Liverpool.

Inside the piano, a signature in Indian ink has been matched with those on the marriage certificate and surviving letters of Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848). 

DONATE here

On being a musicologist-pianist – guest post by Dr Samantha Ege

As a musicologist-pianist, my repertoire tends to reflect the areas that I am researching. When I started my PhD at the University of York in 2016 with the goal of writing my dissertation on the composer Florence Price (1887-1953), her piano music instantly became a part of my research journey. I found that studying Price’s scores and playing her music helped me write more insightfully about her life. Reciprocally, my writings then helped illuminate new ideas for interpreting her piano works.

In 2017, I went on my first archival research trip to Chicago, Illinois, and Fayetteville, Arkansas. This was a really exciting adventure as I would be visiting Price’s home state and spending time in the Midwestern city that she moved to in the late 1920s. I visited the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Center to see the documents surrounding the premiere of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. I managed to attend a concert too. I remember waiting in the foyer and meeting Sheila Anne Jones. Sheila ran the African American Network of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and told me about her work. I then told her about my research, and we exchanged details.

A year later, Sheila hosted my first major lecture-recital at the Chicago Symphony Center. It was called ‘A Celebration of Women in Music: Composing the Black Chicago Renaissance’. At this time, I was two years into my doctoral studies and had just recorded my first album, ‘Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland and Bonds’. The musicological and performance strands of my work were moving along, but when I brought them together in this lecture-recital format, I felt like I had really found my identity as a musicologist-pianist.

CSO photo

In this lecture-recital, I discussed key themes that would later surface in my published articles and book projects, i.e., themes of community-building and women’s leadership and advocacy. In my performance, where I played Price’s music alongside works by Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, and Irene Britton Smith, I realised that my programming choices could really assist in conveying historical narratives, as well as striking up new connections and meanings for modern audiences. (See the blog post I wrote on “Connection not Perfection.”)

In the summer of 2019, I prepared for what would be my last archival research trip before the pandemic. I had a one-month fellowship at the Newberry Library in Chicago where my project entailed looking at women’s contributions to concert life in interwar Chicago. This led to me writing an article called “Chicago, ‘the City We Love to Call Home’: Intersectionality, Narrativity, and Locale in the Music of Florence Beatrice Price and Theodora Sturkow Ryder” (which will be published in American Music journal later this year). I also returned to Fayetteville with a mission: I wanted to find Price’s complete Fantasie Nègre compositions for solo piano and record them with the label LORELT.

My biggest challenge was recovering the third fantasie as it was thought to be incomplete. As I looked through the archives, all I could see were the first two pages of the fantasie. As I puzzled over where the rest of the music could be, I found myself drawing upon my entwined experiences of writing about and performing Price’s music. I thought about her approaches to key, form, and melody, and started looking for loose sheets of manuscript paper that might match the other possibilities I had in mind. And that’s when I located the missing parts of the fantasie. I pieced it together and it was truly magical hearing Fantasie Nègre No. 3 come to life, perhaps even for the first time since Price’s death in 1953.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had over time to shape my voice as a musicologist and pianist. My new album, ‘Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price’, brings all of these experiences together. Fantasie Nègre combines my passion for scholarship and performance, and demonstrates how both strands can work together to uncover hidden histories.

Samantha Ege’s new album ‘Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price’ is released on 8 March 2021 on the LORELT label.

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Dr. Samantha Ege is the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford. She is a leading interpreter and scholar of the African American composer Florence B. Price. She received the Society for American Music’s Eileen Southern Fellowship (2019) and a Newberry Library Short-Term Residential Fellowship (2019) for her work on women’s composers in Chicago. She has written for American Music, Women and Music, and the Kapralova Society Journal. She released Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland and Bonds with Wave Theory Records in 2018. Her latest album is called ‘Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price’.

www.samanthaege.com

Pianist Peter Jablonski first appeared in the Meet the Artist series on this site back in 2016. In this updated interview, he reflects on his musical influences and inspirations, his new release for Ondine, and what the experience of lockdown has taught him, as a musician. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My first musical experiences were with jazz music, and I started learning jazz percussion at a young age. But piano came into my life very soon after, and it became obvious that it should be my main instrument when I started studying at the Malmö Music Academy, where I studied both percussion and piano performance. Everything in life can have an influence on a musician, big or small, and I count among those my performances at the Village Vanguard in New York when I was nine; meeting and playing to Miles Davis, playing with Buddy Rich and Thad Jones; playing to Claudio Abbado; working with Vladimir Ashkenazy; my first teacher in Malmö, Michał Wesołowski, who was so adept at describing music in colours, scents, feelings, and images; travelling the world as much as I have; reading Bertrand Russel, Pessoa, Oscar Wilde, Sabahattin Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Stefan Zweig, Dostoyevsky; learning my first Chopin mazurka; the realisation every time I play a concert that my profession is unique—one creates in a moment in time something that people can never hold in their hands, but something that they hopefully can carry in their memory for days, months, maybe years; my partner’s infuriating knowledge of obscure composers she continues to throw at me, and whose music often serves as a sad reminder of how unfairly many of them are forgotten. There are so many things that an artist can list as having been influential—it is the beauty of not only being an artist, but being a human.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Overcoming an injury just before Covid-19 struck and wreaked global havoc. I was diagnosed with a condition called frozen shoulder, which took many months to heal, only to then migrate to the other shoulder. In a way, I can say that I experienced Covid-like restrictions imposed on my work two years before Covid appeared, and with it, a shock of suddenly not being able to practice, play, and even travel, and wondering if it would ever get better.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

It is very difficult to listen to yourself, and many musicians would probably agree that it is often painful to hear one’s old recordings. These are just snapshots of those moments in time, and one has a tendency to always find room for improvement. But if I do look back, I would have to name my performances of the first piano concerto by Shostakovich, with Ashkenazy and the RPO and my recording of the Scriabin piano concerto with Ashkenazy and the DSOB.  Tchaikovsky 2 with Dutoit and the Philharmonia isn’t too bad either, considering I had to learn the piece especially for the recording!  Grieg’s Ballade and lyric pieces on Exton released in 2012 have been very dear to me, as I feel very close to Grieg’s intimate side in a Nordic kind of way.

I am also in a very different stage of my career now, where I am much less dictated to in the choices of my repertoire, and can really explore the long-neglected corners and all sorts of repertoire that I simply didn’t have time for until now. My collaboration with Ondine began last year, with the recording of Scriabin’s complete mazurkas, and continues with the upcoming release of piano works by Stanchinsky. These two composers are connected by their historical period, the city they lived in, and the professors they studied with. They knew each other, and were shaped by many of the same events that unfolded in the political and cultural life of Russia. I am absolutely delighted that in collaboration with Ondine, whose work I hugely admire, I have found a perfect mix of freedom to discover for myself the composers and works I long dreamt of knowing, and an impeccable quality control when it comes to all sorts of details and technicalities that I simply couldn’t think of myself.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

This question can be answered differently depending on when it is asked. When I was a 17-year old pianist with a new Decca contract, I capitalised on my rigorous training in percussion and found particular enjoyment in performances of muscular, rhythmical, acrobatic works such as Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky piano concerti (I recorded all three for Decca), of performing and recording works by Gershwin and Ravel, and spending much of my time with Russian romantics and American 20th-century composers. But I am 50% Polish, so Polish composers always loomed large in my life, from Chopin to living Polish composers, and I am so glad I got to work on Lutosławski’s piano concerto with the composer himself, whose encouragement and guidance meant a lot. It was also an honour to have a concerto written for me by Wocjiech Kilar; to premiere works by Zygmunt Krause, Romuald Twardowski, and of course to always have in my repertoire works by Szymanowski, Maciejewski, and many others.   Now I am very intrigued by the works by Grażyna Bacewicz, which I hope also to record for Ondine. So, I guess, to answer this question in another way: I like to think that I give my heart and soul to make sure every composer whose music I perform will get my best.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Life is my inspiration. To wake up every day and to see outside my window how nature changes its colours and patterns in the most minute yet steady way is to be constantly inspired. No matter what, the spirit of nature continues its march towards each season, serving as a reminder to us humans, that we too should continue our pursuits with the same steadfastness, and always have time to stop and notice something wonderful and wondrous. You might say that being close to nature reminds me to try and bring this wonder to every concert.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It varies greatly. A season might be dedicated to celebrating a particular composer, or one might happen to want to explore particular repertoire in a given year. Right now, for me, my choices are, of course, influenced by what recording I might be working on. For example, I can already say that 2022/23 season will be heavily focused on the music by Grażyna Bacewicz, which I am due to record for Ondine and which I will perform.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

It is almost impossible to pick one, there have been so many. Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been a special place for me for many years—it is a large venue, and yet there is an intimacy one feels on stage during a recital that almost defies explanation.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

An eternal question! There are many elements to this answer: diverse programming, daring choices, fresh ideas that show people that there is a huge amount of interesting, worthy music out there that is still waiting to be heard. Hopefully, I will show this with my forthcoming release of piano works by Alexey Stanchinsky. But audiences do not grow just because we want them to—it starts in early childhood, at home, at school. Every child must have an opportunity to learn an instrument, to be exposed to great musical works just as they have to learn maths or learn how to read and write. Music should be embedded in education from the beginning—so many studies and experiments show the healing power of music, the effect it has on brain development, and on concentration, which is particularly suffering in our post-modern, social-media saturated, digital age.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Again, an almost impossible question but certainly one of the most unusual was my first performance in Seoul, South Korea. It would have been around 1995 and I was due to perform Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody with Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Philharmonia.

There was a public holiday in Korea that day so the orchestra bus was heavily delayed on its way to the concert venue. The concert was relayed live on Korean TV and the orchestra was not there at the time of the start, so I was asked if I could play something while we waited for the orchestra. I was still wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but it came to pass that Mo. Chung (who is a great pianist) and I had to take turns in giving an impromptu recital live on TV while the orchestra made its way through the Seoul traffic! Every time I play in Korea someone always comes up to me and reminds me of that day.

Of course I have to mention also the one when the cannon for the 1812 Overture (which was the next item in the programme) accidentally went off during a particularly peaceful moment in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky 1 in my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be in a place that allows you to create at the piano, to be in the moment, for every performance to be an artistic experience and experiment, not just another concert. To be happy with the fact that the process of becoming an artist, a musician, a human being is ongoing and that there is no arrival point, only the journey full of ups and downs, possibilities, gains and losses, and most of all, continuous learning.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Learn how to know yourself, commit to a life-long process of discovering your artistic personality, be adventurous in life and in work, and most of all, do not to give up when things don’t work out straight away, and to keep a positive outlook even in the darkest of times. Remember the ancient Eastern proverb—‘Even after the darkest winter, spring will always follow’.

What has lockdown taught you as a musician?

To appreciate the space it has created around me, to appreciate the slower pace of life, and to find beauty in the smallest everyday things. To take a walk and to marvel at the beauty of nature, and of its indifference to us, humans, in a good way. It is obvious that without us, nature would do quite well, but we without nature—well, that’s a different story. The space, the quiet, the slowing down all help to restart the creative process, to recharge, and to find new energy for new projects.

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

Here in Sweden, still discovering new repertoire, as well as playing what I will forever love of Chopin, Beethoven, and so many others, and remaining open to what life brings.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Does it exist? To me, perfect happiness is perfect for a limited time only: if there is no strife, no challenges, no adversity of some kind, life has the danger of becoming boring. But waking up on a sunny morning and having a cup of coffee outside, listening to a spring song of a bird and being in that moment viscerally comes pretty close!

What is your most treasured possession?

My music scores.

What is your present state of mind?

Calm.

Peter Jablonski’s album of piano works by Alexey Stanchinsky (1888–1914), one of the most talented Russian composers of the early 20th Century, is released on 5 March on the Ondine label. Stanchinsky was not only a talent but a genuine innovator who,  despite his early death, had a profound influence on the generation of composers to follow.

The album will be released one year after lockdown began.  During these difficult and uncertain months, many people may have experienced poor mental health at times, just as Stanchinsky did during his lifetime.  In honour of Stanchinsky’s memory, Peter Jablonski has partnered with Samaritans and will make a personal donation to assist their work.   The official message from Samaritans is: When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org.


Peter Jablonski is an internationally acclaimed Swedish pianist.  Discovered by Claudio Abbado and Vladimir Ashkenazy and signed by Decca at the age of 17, he went on to perform, collaborate and record with over 150 of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, including the Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Mariinsky, La Scala Philharmonic, Tonhalle Zurich, Orchestre Nationale de France, NHK Tokyo, DSO Berlin, Warsaw Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras and worked with such acclaimed conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Valery Gergiev, Kurt Sanderling, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Riccardo Chailly, Daniele Gatti, and Myung-Whun Chung, to name a few.  He has performed and recorded the complete piano concertos by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Bartók and all of the piano sonatas by Prokofiev.  During his three-decade-long career, he worked closely with composers Witold Lutosławski and Arvo Pärt.  Jablonski’s extensive discography includes several award-winning recordings.

Peter Jablonski’s website

Meaning in music is elusive — in fact, there are those who have said that music has no meaning

Alan Gilbert, conductor

Must we always find “meaning” in music? Why can’t our listening experience simply be one of absorbing the sounds which enter our ears without constantly questioning what those sounds might “mean”?

But of course we find meaning in music: it triggers an intuitive, visceral reaction in every one of us, a palpable emotional response, regardless of the genre of the music, and that alone demonstrates that it has meaning. Exactly what that ‘meaning’ is is personal and subjective, and it is this emotional subjectivity in the listening experience that leads me to feel tearfully moved by the slow movement of a piano sonata by Schubert, for example, while others may not feel the same.

This emotional, subjective reaction to music, which we all experience (even those people who say they “don’t know anything about classical music” but can explain how ‘The Lark Ascending’ makes them feel) suggests that the music itself has no meaning, that we invest our personal meaning in the music depending on context. This notion was examined by the composer and scientist Dr David Cope in his explorations of music composed by artificial intelligence: “The feelings that we get from listening to music are something we produce, it’s not there in the notes. It comes from emotional insight in each of us, the music is just the trigger” (interview in The Guardian, 2010). For many of us, classical music in particular is associated with beautiful sadness, deep joy, dramatic battles (between themes or characters), excitement, celebration, reflection, melancholy, tenderness, affection….. The experience of music can be very cathartic for listeners, invoking tears or laughter, with or without reason for the release.

I slightly take issue with Dr Cope’s assertion that feeling is “not there in the notes”, for composers deliberately use various devices in the written score – tempo, dynamics, articulation, harmony, silence – to convey meaning (emotion), and as sentient human beings, just like us, composers experience the full gamut of human emotion which they seek to portray in their music. Performers transmit this meaning through their own response to the score which is based not only on their musical knowledge and expertise, but also their personal emotional response and life experience. And they would not choose to play the music if it did not have some kind of meaning for them. The listener then completes the circle by bringing their own personal emotional reaction to the music.

music is very powerful. It is very difficult to remain unmoved by music

Daniel Barenboim

Responses to music and interpretations of its ‘meaning’ may also be determined by extrinsic factors, such as the reputation of the composer and/or performer/s (classical music being rather too obsessed with greatness in this regard) or the urban legend or infamy surrounding a certain work (for example, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata). It’s curious too how highly virtuosic music often has a greater cultural meaning for audiences and critics than simpler music (is it that the difficulty of the music makes it “better”?), yet many performers would agree that playing Mozart or the very spare music of a composer like Arvo Pärt is actually more challenging. Programme and liner notes also play a part in influencing how music is heard and understood; if the programme notes suggest that the Andantino of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata is an expression of anguish because he was dying of syphilis, some people will inevitably hear that anguish in the harsh modulation, frenzied demisemiquavers and dark chromaticism. And then there are associations which come from other media where certain pieces used in film soundtracks, for example, when heard in concert immediately conjure up emotional responses associated with seeing that film; Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, is for many of us synonymous with space travel after it was used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thus we find meaning through the association of certain pieces of music with personal experiences.

In terms of its construction, every element of music can trigger a response from the listener: a jaunty rhythm or fast tempo may set feet tapping and raise the heartbeat, thus increasing a sense of excitement and energy (think of the opening of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries). A beautiful melody may elicit a sense of serenity, hushed pianissimo sections tenderness or intimacy, a particular interval or suspended harmony poignancy or yearning

The wonderful thing about music is that it offers the listener an experience of value which can be translated however she/he chooses. So while religious or politcally-motivated works of music, for example, may have a specific meaning for the composer in the context of the time when they were written (works by Messiaen or Shostakovich, for instance), each listener will take their own experience – and meaning – from that music. The great power of music, regardless of its genre, is that its meaning is ineffable – “where words fail music speaks” (Hans Christian Andersen) – and for many of us music perfectly expresses that which cannot be adequately expressed in words….


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