The Goose Pimple Factor Or On The Bumpy Road To Mahler
According to Robert Walton
Goose bumps, goose flesh, goose pimples, chill bumps or the medical term cutis anserina, are the swelling on the skin at the base of body hairs which may occur when a person is cold, scared or in awe of something. Basically it’s a rush of adrenalin. To be stimulated or overwhelmed is a very individual thing, depending of course what turns you on. It might be a structure, a view, a painting, a book, a person, a voice, or in my case, music.
The first time I ever experienced a serious attack of goose “bumples”, was when I was laid up with a far worse problem, a digestive disorder sometimes called the dreaded lurgy. But I completely forgot the pain when from my bedside radio I happened to hear the signature tune of New Zealand’s version of the BBC’s “Down Your Way” called “South Pacific Flight”. It was Robert Farnon’s Canadian impression Gateway to the West, once described as the thinking man’s Tara’s Theme from “Gone With The Wind”. It’s difficult to explain why Gateway to the West had such an effect on me but I suspect somewhere in my being was a dormant chemical reaction waiting to happen. I became totally absorbed in the music. In this completely random event, I was instantly caught up in its spell, and as a tsunami of emotion swept over me, it changed my life forever. A profusion of pimples broke out accompanied by an uncontrollable stream of tears. Who knows what triggers such reactions? Maybe it’s in the genes. In the case of Gateway to the West, it was the entire package of melody, harmony and orchestration. I guess it simply struck a chord! Trouble was, it took ages before I discovered the title and name of its composer. Once known, it opened the floodgates to Farnon’s music from which I never quite recovered. Strangely enough I had unknowingly heard his Jumping Bean that at the time meant absolutely nothing.
Not long after that memorable moment, another unexpected incident presented itself. I was on my own at a cinema when a trailer for the 195O film “Teresa” came up showing Pier Angeli in a corn field. Just the sight of her was enough to produce a similar reaction to Gateway to the West. It was her stunning natural beauty that caught my eye and left a permanent black and white imprint on my psyche.
It was in another movie “An American in Paris”, that I first heard the Gershwin composition that inspired the title. Just the opening, a revelation, was enough to send me into paroxysms of delight as the tune clashed with the bass line in a way that went right through me like an electric shock. It was a kind of pain caused by the dissonance.
Most sensible singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist on a tour in the mid-1960s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over. As we walked in, the public address system was playing what I can only describe as “music from heaven”. I immediately went into a kind of trance. Vera and Harry couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I was in another world transfixed to the spot. After making inquiries, the engineer in the control room informed me it was the title track of George Shearing’s album “Touch me Softly” - a Shearing arrangement. Near the end of the piece, the ravishing strings go into overdrive in what I call “tone apart” harmony. Let me explain. On the piano, the right hand plays the chord of say G, while an octave below, the left hand plays the chord of F. Play them together and the dissonance it creates is absolutely sublime, especially if you move them up and down in tones.
By then I thought I’d heard it all, but I had to wait another thirty years before the next big musical discovery. It was as a member of the City of Bath Bach Choir I discovered Mahler. Not just any old Mahler mind you, but his 2nd Symphony (“The Resurrection”). Back in the 1950s Mahler’s music was almost unheard of, but a jazz pianist friend of mine, Crombie Murdoch, was even then extolling the virtues of it. At the first rehearsal I sensed this was going to be one of the biggest weepies of my life. That was entirely confirmed when we performed the work with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Portsmouth, Bournemouth and the Royal Albert Hall. It might have been only the last ten minutes of the symphony but what an unforgettable ten minutes! These were some of music’s most moving moments with shades of Malotte’s Lord’s Prayer, itself probably inspired by Mahler. As it gradually builds, I became so overwhelmed with emotion I found it impossible to sing. The only way to participate was to become totally detached. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do!
posted by William Zucker
Wednesday, 16 November 2016 18:23
Very interesting article - all of us who are musicians or who are listeners of wide and extended experience could cite works that affect us to our very being.Report Comment Link
I myself recognize at least three such reactions to music that have a deep effect on us. First of all, there is the music that can elicit an emotional reaction to the point of drawing tears from us. Secondly, there is the sort that produces goose pimples, although here perhaps I'm not thinking of the same thing that Bob might be, but rather the sort of music that has the power to frighten or even terrify us. And lastly and probably the most extensive group would be that in which we respond to the composer's work as though he/she is really speaking to us personally, and that we are at one with the work and its communication to us.
More than likely, others could come up with different categories or even dismiss some of those that I just mentioned. But regardless, this as Bob states is a very personal, subjective thing, and even if our reactions to a piece of music is potent, others will not necessarily hear in the same piece what we hear.
In what I am describing, I find that such reactions at least for me are more likely to occur with more serious types of music, although in the more extensive category that I have outlined above, it might occur for me with lighter forms of music.
To best give examples (hardly an exhaustive list, although I'm aware that this is basically a site for light music): of the sort of music that produces the flow of tears within me, there is the final movement of the first portion of Bach's St. Matthew Passion entitled, "O Man, Bewail Thy Sin So Great." I experience this in listening to much of Beethoven's C Major Mass, as well as the slow movements of Sixth and Ninth Symphonies. With Mahler - and please allow me to point out that my manner of introduction to this composer was quite different from Bob's, and I do not get the reaction that he describes in the passage in question in the Second Symphony, although I might include the "Uhrlicht" and perhaps even the Allegretto Grazioso from this work. The Third Symphony would fall into this category for me, from the posthorn episodes and following movements to the end of the work, and the Fourth Symphony as well from the Adagio movement through to the end. Much of the Eighth Symphony can set off a Niagara of tears in my eyes, and the final movement of Faure's Requiem, entitled "I'm Paradisum," has me literally crawling on the floor like a baby, and I completely break up whenever I hear it.
With music that has the power to frighten and terrify, I point to the Beethoven Fourth Symphony (passage in the first movement), Fifth Symphony (many passages, and not simply the Scherzo), and Sixth Symphony (believe it or not - not simply the storm). Sibelius' Fourth Symphony (first movement) and Tapiola would certainly fall into this category, and here we have the groundwork for the sound track of many films which call for this mood of terror, especially with those string tremolos and whole tone harmonies in evidence.
Music that simply draws us in by its manner of communication is once again a very personal thing for all of us, but with me it frequently occurs with what I refer to as Cinderella works, that somehow do not receive the critical and popular adulation that they clearly deserve, yet somehow seem to speak directly to me. I will mention Mozart's Sonata No. 4 in E Flat Major, K. 282, Beethoven's Second Symphony, C Major Mass, Triple Concerto, Schubert's Second Symphony, Grand Duo (orch. Joachim), Brahms' and Tchaikovsky's Third Symphonies, Mahler's Seventh Symphony, and much of the work of Glazunov. I find this quality in lighter forms of music such as Leroy Anderson's musical comedy arrangements, Percy Faith's Latin American selections from his earliest period and also the two arrangements I wrote about in one of the last issues of the JIM magazine - Robert Farnon's arrangement of Youmans' "Hallelujah"and Morton Gould's arrangement of Mooney's "Swamp Fire" (in the original recorded presentation). And oh, yes; I would be amiss if I didn't mention many of the happy discoveries I've recently made in the work of Felton Rapley and Peter Yorke whom I've referred to many times.
I could go on and on with these, as I'm sure could many others, but perhaps the salient point to be obtained from all of this is that these reactions to various works of music -emotional or whatever - are completely individual and subjective and we cannot expect others to share these impressions completely, nor indeed to expect to respond to how others similarly receive such works that so deeply affect us.
As for the last section of Bob's article - being overwhelmed in the process of music making - by nature, though a shared experience, it cannot be the same as with passive listening, as in performance, particularly when other performers are involved, it is necessary for one to step back and be aware of the overall perspective, as to one's place in the scheme of things. (This is why the experience of chamber music playing is considered so important to the overall learning experience.) A conductor of necessity has to be ever aware of such factors, but even in the case of multiple performers themselves, in order for the presentation to be fully satisfactory, they must always be prepared to look beyond what passes under their noses in a score part, as what they are primarily aware of may not necessarily be that which calls for prominence within a large texture - whether this happens to be of an instrumental or a vocal nature.
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