Listening Note:
Thousand Islands
20 June 2019

¶ This evening, feeling almost serene — Kathleen didn’t travel today; she was parked at her conference at Dana Point — I finally got round to making some blue cheese dressing, and, while I was at it, I made Thousand Island dressing as well. Why these preparations had to linger on my to-do list for so long is no more clear to me than why I finally got round to them. But I think that Brahms’s Second had something to do with it.

When I went into the kitchen, wondering what I would make for dinner, I turned on the music in there, and was greeted by Brahms’s symphony, not far into the first movement. For a long time, Brahms’s Second was the only one of the four that I knew really well (it was the only one of which I had a recording), so it would be wrong to say that it was my favorite. But it always surprised me. Very mildly, of course; it’s the mildest of symphonies — and that, I think, is why. For a masterpiece by one of the two principal exponents of the German Romantic (both of whom are also exponents of the Viennese Classical tradition), it has always seemed to me to go in for understatement. To an American ear of mine’s vintage, the first notes quote Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” a tune utterly devoid of bangs. The movement’s main theme is nothing if not “melting,” and its sinuous course has the effect of endlessness. (Carlo Maria Giulini’s recording does indeed go on for a very long time, although that’s not the one that I was listening to.) Because the surface meanders so gently, it is easy, after a while, to follow the many undercurrents, to spot little flourishes in the winds that are rather like interesting pebbles at the bottom of a clear stream. With the greatest calm imaginable, it defies our expectation that the genial will be simple and straightforward.

As I fetched ingredients — from the fridge, mostly — and measured them into the Cuisinart, I felt as if I were participating in the performance somehow, or at least that I knew what I was doing as well as the musicians. When it came time to purée the fixings, the racket drowned out everything but the bass line, from which however I could extrapolate what I couldn’t hear. When I shut the machine off, the music was just where I expected it to be.

The most wonderful thing about good music is how often — increasingly often — I feel that I’m hearing what ought to be merely familiar as though I had never heard it before. I have considered this phenomenon to the point of concluding that the impression depends upon familiarity. Knowing what I know of a complex score, I’m ready to hear, consciously, more. 

The other day, listening to Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, I could see, through the once-exotic, folk-accented façade, a carefully constructed contribution to the long tradition of concert pieces. With Brahms’s Second, in contrast, I’m bewitched by the notion that Brahms is making it all up, for the very first time. I might add that he got “tradition” out of the way with his First Symphony, but only now; it didn’t occur, and wouldn’t have occurred to me, while I was in the kitchen.

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