I know we’re only four symphonies off the end of the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – and that will continue , don’t worry! But I have the opportunity to make a trip to London in just over a month, and that gives me the chance to track down and go hunting for any information that I can find about a particular person – namely, a guy named George Grove.
So in between the Mahler posts, I’m going to be throwing in the odd extra blog post on this guy George over the next couple of months, which may be far too nerdy for many, but you never know there might be some people that are interested as well. I guess we’ll see.
But let me start with a question: Have you ever had a life-changing moment? Something that, perhaps, you could look back and say, “Yep, that’s one of the major turning points in my life right there.” In some cases, you might have known right at that moment that this was a big thing (like births, deaths and marriages). But sometimes life changes in major ways and you didn’t realise that it was happening until much, much later.
It was this kind of change that happened to me about 15 years ago, and it all started in the building in the photo above – Archives Bookstore in Brisbane. And precisely because I didn’t realise that this particular visit to a bookstore was going to be so momentous, I actually can’t remember the year or even the time of year. I suspect it was 2000 or 2001, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.
Archives, which I’m glad to see is still going strong in Brisbane, even though I don’t live there any more, is a big old rambling bookshop where you can find everything from old rare editions through shelves of pre-loved sci-fi and fantasy, with just piles of odd stuff everywhere.
In fact, obviously the folks at Google were taken with the place, because they didn’t just stop at photographing the outside. You can actually take yourself for a virtual wander through the shelves, which is great fun:
Somewhere up the back, if you wander up far enough, is their section on music books. Possibly, the reason I was interested in music books was because I’d been reading through Phil Goulding’s Ticket to the Opera, which is a fantastic friendly guide to learning about different operas. Anyway, whatever the reason, I stumbled across a little blue paperback that looked brand new amidst the piles of otherwise well-loved books. (Maybe it was donated by some music student who was supposed to read it but had never bothered to crack the cover? I’ll never know.)
This was the book:
The book offered to take you through the music of Beethoven’s symphonies, almost note by note and, perhaps the most friendly aspect of it, it was written by Grove for amateurs. So, while being quite a different beast, it was very much in the same spirit as what I’ve been attempting with my Mahler guided tour.
Of course, when Grove was writing his book (and this was in the late 1800s), the definition of an “amateur” was a bit different. An amateur was somebody who could read music (the book is filled with different snippets of sheet music) and understood music theory – so stuff like sonata form, major and minor, movements in a symphony (which I feel would need to be explained to amateurs today), were all assumed to be understood by his readers.
So when I first started reading it, I had to work hard consulting music dictionaries and such-like stuff to try to understand what the heck he was talking about. (And I can only thank my father and his piano lessons for teaching me how to read music, otherwise I don’t think the book would have meant anything at all.)
But I persevered, and as I read, something jaw-dropping happened.
Let me back up a minute. A few years earlier, I had seen and loved the famous Gary Oldman Beethoven film, Immortal Beloved. And I’d enthusiastically bought the soundtrack which I still think, to this day, is the greatest single Beethoven album anyone can own.
Then, thinking that I should expand my horizons and get into all of the Beethoven symphonies, I one day picked up – because it was always the cheapest set of Beethoven symphonies back in the late 90s – the von Karajan set where he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, this exact box set here:
But I seemed to run into difficulties listening to it. All the Beethoven symphonies have four very distinct movements (except for the “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, which has five movements). But instead of hearing 37 distinct movements, the CDs always seemed to sound like this:
Symphony 1 – Nice Orchestral Background Music (NOBM)
Symphony 2 – More NOBM
Symphony 3 – First five minutes I heard off Immortal Beloved followed by another 40 minutes of NOBM
Symphony 4 – NOBM
Symphony 5 – Opening famous bit; another 25 minutes of NOBM
Symphony 6 – Some NOBM with that bit with the storm and the country dance – this one was a little easier because the tunes were vaguely familiar from Fantasia
Symphony 7 – NOBM – that great second movement where Beethoven’s nephew tries to shoot himself – More NOBM, albeit a bit more up-tempo
Symphony 8 – NOBM leaning towards random
Symphony 9 – What, a whole hour of NOBM before I get to the famous part with the choir? Why can’t he just skip to the good bits? (That said, there are possibly still hugely educated music fans that ask the same thing about the Choral Symphony.)
But, after reading Grove, I discovered that the Beethoven symphonies came into sharp focus, and all of a sudden I felt like I understood a) what Beethoven was trying to do and b) why the music was the way it was. So now listening to the Beethoven Symphonies became like this:
Symphony 1 – Movement I: Energetic opening with the first chord that shocked listeners; Movement II: beautiful little movement with the heartbeat on the timpani; Movement III: Beethoven’s first symphonic scherzo, so fast and furious it could never be mistaken for a traditional minuet (even if that’s what Beethoven called it); Movement IV: The joke with the slow scale at the beginning, like a worm poking its head out of a hole, clearly Beethoven’s sense of humour.
Symphony 2 – Movement I: unmistakable because of its fiery violin parts; Movement II: The slow movement with the intense climax at the end; Movement III: the scherzo where snippets of the tune get thrown between different groups of the orchestra like a football; Movement IV: The awesome one that sounds like a particularly crazy episode of Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner.
Symphony 3 – Movement I: 15 minutes of epic grandness, with a huge sweep from the opening theme to the barricade-storming final minutes of the finale; Movement II: One of the greatest funeral marches ever written; Movement III: The scherzo with all the flash and fire of a cavalry charge; Movement IV: One of the most clever things Beethoven ever wrote, a theme and variations, with a theme that sounds so light and fluffy, you wonder why he put it at the end of such a heroic symphony – until it spectacularly transforms into a thing of majesty and light at the end.
You get the idea.
But I found something had changed as well. With a knowledge of what the music was doing, combined with the enthusiasm of George, all of a sudden, my enjoyment of the music – which up until then I had already thought was pretty high on the scale – increased tenfold. Suddenly, I understood that when previously I had thought I was listening to classical music, I actually wasn’t. Now, for the first time, I understood what that sound world was that was inhabited by musicians and conductors and long-time fans of classical music. I understood why they went back to it time and time again.
And then, when I pondered a bit longer, a theory began to crystallise in my mind: Perhaps people aren’t walking away from classical music because they’ve had a listen and it’s not for them. Instead, they don’t actually really know what it is they’re hearing. The music is like a foreign film with no subtitles, a spectator sport where you don’t know the rules and can’t follow the game. It’s just meaningless sounds.
So – what if you could turn the subtitles on? What if you could teach the rules of the game to the ordinary person on the street, in language they would understand? Would more people then have the epiphany that I got from reading Grove?
it took several years for this idea to emerge, but that idea so took hold of me that I left behind my career path in maths and statistics, which I had studied at university, and spent two years trying any which way I could to get into the classical music industry. And after eight years in that field, it was the best thing I ever did.
So looking back, it was that trip to that bookstore, and picking up that book, that changed my life. But later on in life, I got curious about the man who wrote the book. Who was he? Clearly, he had a drive to share classical music with people as well, but where did that come from? How did he act that out?
I’ll talk about that in my next post about A Guy Named George.