Scary music

During a concert on Thursday night, it occurred to me that while we often think about the capacity of beautiful, eloquent, sublime music to move us, it is less often that we eulogise the ability of music to strike cold, stark terror into our minds and bodies.  The experience of the ‘heilige Schauer’ is a well-known phenomenon, but what about the shivers that come from music that is – to use an inadequate word – scary?

Every so often I like to revisit the arrival of the Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s dinner party, just to see whether it is still as terrifying, musically, as it was when I was 8. It never fails me, which is a relief. In the Losey film of Don Giovanni, which we had on VHS and watched very often, these final scenes were my favourite. Everything pleased me: Leporello trying to eat, the Don tearing bits of poultry apart with his bare hands, the orchestra playing ‘Non piu andrai’ (which I always delighted in recognising from Figaro), and then the arrival of the stone guest, and the tremendous moment when the chords from the overture thundered out.

Don G

Now I know many other performances of Don Giovanni, and realise that the Don’s death-struggle with the Commendatore is fairly hammy in the Losey production, mainly because we only get to see Raimondi’s range of facial expressions for an extended stretch. Losey needed another idea or two here.  This seems unfair on him, because until this point, his acting is superb, and the interaction with Leporello (Jose van Dam) is tremendous. Jose van Dam is still my favourite Leporello: urbane, world-weary, and opportunistic, he astutely combines exasperation at the self-indulgent activities of the caro galantuomo with a certain pride at the lascivious achievements of the cavalier, just as other valets might have pride in a master who is a crack shot, or some other sort of virtuoso.

Returning to scary music. Last week I played Schubert’s 8th Symphony in a concert, a piece in which Don Giovanni appears as a quotation/paraphrase/revenant. With the musical legacies of Mozart and Beethoven weighing upon his diminutive shoulders, Schubert managed even more than his two forebears truly ‘to set in motion the levers of fear, of shudder, of horror, of pain’ that ETA Hoffmann had identified in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The contrasts between the gentle, the ecstatic, the beguiling in Schubert’s symphony and the moments of desperately unabashed terror really do awaken the ‘infinite longing that is the essence of romanticism.’ But, while Beethoven’s infinite longing often found its apotheosis in aesthetic Elysium, Schubert’s (in the 8th Symphony) explores the human side of infinite longing, and earthly pain. Schubert’s contemporary, Josef Kenner, who felt obliged to write an unstinting biography of the composer, leaving no salacious stone unturned, recorded that Schubert’s ‘body, strong as it was, succumbed to the cleavage in his – souls – as I would put it, of which one pressed heavenwards and the other bathed in slime.’ Truth may lie in Kenner’s tabloidesque prose, as he sought in sensational terms to expose the less gemuetlich aspects of Schubert’s life, and there is a strong temptation to read this cleavage of souls in both movements of the 8th Symphony. For me, the fear and horror in this piece, which never fails to send an involuntary shudder through me, whether I’m listening or playing, is that it illustrates how Schubert brought together the sublime and the human (rather than Beethoven’s unobtainable super-human) in a way that makes his genius seem even more mysterious: he illuminates human experience.

Also speaking, or more accurately screaming, of human experience, and setting off the levers of fear and shudder and horror that a world of brutal mechanized warfare that Beethoven and Schubert could never have imagined (and even now, for its scale and horrifying depravity still seems unreal), is Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. I have written elsewhere about the ‘invasion music’ in the first movement, an extended stretch of music which begins innocuously, even playfully: then, with Shostakovich’s genius for turning the seemingly trite into the horrifying, he uses a combination of repetition and orchestral transformation to overpower the audience. The psychological impact of so many repetitions of the melody, beyond the point of human endurance, amplified by an increasingly cacophonous accompanying material, is the closest many of us will come to being under barrage. Shostakovich’s achievement here is to turn the intolerable, deafening, terrifying elements of warfare, and its apocalyptic disregard for the human body and the human spirit, into a musical expression of terror. Scary is a wholly inadequate word here, but what words are equal to this music?






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