May 12, 2015

Can’t Get It Out Of My Head!

Picture of American String Quartet

The topic of ear worms – or music that continues to play in our heads of its on accord – is one of I’ve taken up in a previous blog but I find myself wanting to comment on the current one plaguing me.

I have always found that whenever I perform a piece of music it tends to replay in my mind for days and days after the performance. When our orchestra used to present an Annual Viennese Ball those Strauss Waltzes would be echoing in there for weeks! But lately I’ve found that even when I lecture on some music – especially when combined with a live performance. . .ear worms abound.

Case in point – this past weekend The Discovery Orchestra presented the members of The American String Quartet in a performance of the Brahms String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 51 as part of our Intimate Evenings series. As always, it was our great pleasure to have Peter Winograd, our concertmaster and the quartet’s first violinist, violinist Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov and cellist Wolfram Koessel with us. . .and they wowed our audience!

But one of the attendees, who frequents our performances, told me later that she was especially moved on this occasion – physically moved, feeling as though the music was affecting her in a way she had not felt in this kind of setting before. I asked her whether she thought it was Brahms, the acoustically resonant gallery at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey or the American String Quartet’s performance. She guessed that all three factors might have been responsible.

I suspect Brahms had a great deal to do with it. We chose on that evening to spend time discovering the details of the fourth movement of Opus 51. Whatever one might believe to be the underlying contributing influences that shaped Johannes Brahms – we can agree that he had complicated personality. And he seems to have spent a fair amount of time passionately yearning for something he could not have. This is the heavy-duty emotional subject matter of the fourth movement of the String Quartet in C Minor. . .and I just can’t get it out of my head.

At the presentation I made the point that it’s not good to hold in emotions like this – remaining unexpressed. And I quipped that one might see a therapist for several years and hope to eventually give voice to these feelings or one could just listen to some Brahms. It remains one of the truly miraculous aspects of wordless, abstract music that a composition written by someone who has been deceased for over one hundred years can have such a profound effect on us when we listen. It’s as though Brahms were very much alive, telling us – without uttering one word – how he was feeling, and we instantly know that we have at some time felt the same way.

Do you have six minutes to give Brahms your undivided attention? If so, take a listen to this movement played here by the Melos String Quartet, an ensemble that played together for forty years (1965-2005) before disbanding. This is from a live performance at the 1966 Geneva International Music Competition at the very beginning of their long, distinguished career – it’s quite remarkable. If you like, download and follow our Listening Guide. Regardless, have a cathartic moment.