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The Profound Mysteries of Why We Enjoy Music


A number of readers have written to me about the essay I wrote on the failure to develop a satisfactory philosophy of music, asking where they could find further information.


Not an easy question to answer, for the subject seems to generate more confusion than light. But they should begin by reading Peter Williams’s review article ‘Listening to reason’ in the April 2006 issue of the Musical Times, which first gave me the idea for my piece. Professor Williams is one of the few to tackle this difficult subject, without receiving, he tells me, much help from the academic philosophers. But now, having completed a major study of J.S. Bach, he is writing a book which examines some of the fundamental questions in musical philosophy. What exactly is music? What is its object and purpose, and how does it achieve them? When this work is published, we should all be wiser, or at least have a firm basis for debate.

In the meantime, we struggle on, in the mists and labyrinths which music creates in our minds. To take a small example, there is Brahms’s Intermezzo in B flat minor, the second of his Three Intermezzi, Opus 117. It is marked Andante non troppo e con molto espressione. I have a beautiful recording of it by the Turkish pianist Idil Biret, a pupil of Cortot, and when I listen to it I am lost in a world of delight which is entirely abstract, but nonetheless quite overwhelming. I am at a complete loss to explain why I get such pleasure from this piece, which I suppose many would describe as lightweight. It seems to me, quite simply, the most perfect example of writing for the piano I have ever heard, and my heart glows with gratitude to Brahms for creating it. I get much the same thrill from the Four Impromptus for Piano, Opus 90, by Schubert, though I do not single one out for special mention — they are best enjoyed as a whole. Again, I am mesmerised by Schumann’s Trio No. 1 in D minor, especially in the 1928 recording by Thibaud, Casals and Cortot (issued by Naxos Historical Recordings). But in each of these cases, I cannot give rhyme or reason for my intense rapture.

It is a curious fact that, whereas I have had a passion for painting since the age of three, and gradually over more than 70 years have developed a corresponding love of literature, music gets a deeper grip on my psyche than either of the others can. There is something not merely intellectual but physical in its power. I still remember hearing for the first time, at the age of 14, a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (it must have been Artur Schnabel’s magical recording), and can feel even today the visceral impact of the moment when, in the first movement, the second subject enters. My stomach contracted with a kind of ecstasy of fear or awesome reverence, as though a little miracle had taken place. It was akin to the kind of sexual thrill I was just beginning to experience at the sight of or contact with girls. Nothing intellectual about it. Or spiritual for that matter, but elementary gut feeling. What caused it? Was it the modulation into a different key? Was it the orchestration? Or the peculiar tune? All is mystery. And, needless to say, Beethoven’s own letters give no clue to his reasoning or feelings in creating such effects. It may be that he did not know exactly what he was doing in waving the magic wand of his pen across the sheets of music — or, if he was aware of the power he was exerting, how he was exercising it. A composer is often a Prospero, but a blind one.

Then there is the curious business of the different noises made by musical instruments and their varying effects upon your emotions. I have a special fondness for the French horn because, in messing about in the music rooms at school, I discovered and appropriated one, and learnt to play it after a fashion. It had crooks instead of valves and it was even more difficult to produce pleasing noises out of it than usual, but I succeeded in the end and grew to love the emotional power of this ancient instrument. I mean not just ‘the horns of elfland faintly blowing’, of which Mendelssohn was such an accomplished master, but its rhetorical grandeur on a large scale, as when Brahms uses it to introduce the final movement of his First Symphony — his grand and successful attempt to don Elijah’s Mantle and take up the symphonic form where Beethoven left off. I was not unaware, either, that it was possible to produce on the horn noises of a volume and terror to make even the trombone seem puny. It is one of those instruments which have many characters capable of stirring a wide variety of strong emotions.

Again, I am fascinated by the emotional differences produced by the oboe, on the one hand, and the clarinet on the other. The oboe is said to have a ‘nutty’ flavour, and the sound it makes is not in itself agreeable to my mind. But used by a Tchaikovsky, and raising itself from the depth of an orchestral ocean in solitary pleading, it has overwhelming pathos. Why is this? A clarinet is a much more serviceable instrument. In range and power and variety of tone it can do countless things denied to the oboe. Mozart’s matchless Clarinet Quintet (or the scarcely less remarkable one by Brahms) could never have been written for the oboe. It is music on a tremendous scale in beauty and sublimity. Yet the clarinet cannot pierce the heart in the way the oboe does.

Why is it that tonality, which in essence is merely the relationship between pitches, can exert such a fundamental grip upon the emotions? The word was invented only in 1821, according to Grove. Yet it is central to the emotive power of music both at its most majestic and at its most subtle. A modulation in key or a chord in exactly the right place can linger in our memories for the rest of our lives. We cannot explain why. All we can do is to rejoice in the felicity which divine providence has provided by such mysterious means.



Paul Johnson.

"The profound mysteries of why we enjoy music." The Spectator (September 30, 2006).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The Author

Johnson7 johnson4Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author of many books, including Socrates: A Man for Our Times, Churchill, George Washington: The Founding Father, A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson
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