Violins and violas. A series of short, repeated notes. A catchy rhythm. The third movement of the Symphony No. 7 by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is truly great music. Yet, in that symphony I can only hear terrible pain – my pain.
In or around January 1980 I went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear a performance of Dvořák’s Seventh. It was a concert given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under a conductor of whom I have long forgotten the name. I forget, too, what else was in the programme. In fact, it was not an especially memorable performance. I went because I was studying ‘A’ Level Music and the symphony was one of the set works.
I went to the concert alone, which was not unusual. Few of my peers listened to classical music. While my friends were still listening to Genesis and Pink Floyd, I had jumped ship and was now exploring the music of Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius and Shostakovich. As some smoked ‘weed’, I was getting high on Pierrot Lunaire and Wozzeck.
Travelling home after the concert turned out to be an ordeal.
I took the Bakerloo Line to Baker Street and changed for a Metropolitan Line train. I sat there on an empty train waiting for it to depart. I was tired (I’d just missed one train and had to wait half an hour for another), I was cold (probably inadequately dressed for the weather) and I was miserable (my teenage years were problematic so my misery already had a head start). The music from the concert, and particularly the scherzo from the Dvořák symphony, was playing in my head – a useful distraction from the discomfort in my body.
Back in the 1980s there were no ‘open’ and ‘close’ buttons on the doors of the London Underground. The doors opened automatically at every stop. And when a train emerged from underground and ran overground, as the Metropolitan Line does at Finchley Road, the continual opening and closing of doors allowed any vestige of heat generated between stations to be discarded onto station platforms and replaced with new, chilled air from outside.
The weather was icy cold. The wintry blast that entered the train at Finchley Road felt especially fierce. For a while I tried reading the concert programme notes. Dvořák’s Seventh, a dark, brooding composition heavily influenced by Brahms’s Third Symphony, was written in the 1880s thanks to a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London. I can still recall many such facts now, but my overriding memory is of the journey.
Psychologists describe two types of long-term memory. Explicit (or declarative) memory remembers facts and events; it is the ‘knowing what’. Implicit (or procedural) memory is the unconscious memory of skills; the ‘knowing how’. As explicit memories are damaged by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, implicit memories remain comparatively robust.
Music, especially, has the power to stimulate our implicit memory. It is surely why BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ is so successful a format. The interviewees, having chosen pieces of music that hold a special place in their hearts, find themselves recalling events and emotions which are significant for them personally, providing fascinating insights for us, the audience.
Dvořák’s grief over the death of his mother is said to be there in the music of his Seventh Symphony. On the other hand, the composer also spoke of it as reflecting the political struggles of the Czech nation. Perhaps the people and landscapes of Dvořák’s native Bohemia were inspirations, too, or at least his emotions about them. Are these the emotions we, as listeners, are meant to experience? When I hear Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony now my implicit memory takes me right back to the that January night and evokes the emotions I felt then. Not Dvořák’s emotions. Mine.
Each time the doors of the train opened I tried to ignore the cold and focus on Dvořák: the insistent rhythms, repetitive, menacing. Obviously it was too much of a distraction because I realised, too late, I was on the wrong train. I got off at the next station and waited on the platform for a train back to Harrow-on-the-Hill.
With the wind now came snow. But this was not nice, fluffy, gently-falling, pretty snow; no, this was angry, biting, vengeful snow, razor-sharp and screaming.
Furious weather. Furious rhythms. Dvořák’s pounding D minor chords my last defence against the gale that was assaulting me. Although the Seventh is really Dvořák’s least ‘Czech’ symphony, the spirit of the ‘furiant’, a traditional Czech dance, is very evident in the scherzo’s cross rhythms, twos and threes struggling for dominance.
Eventually, a train arrived to take me back to Harrow and, once more, I stood waiting for the correct train, the last that night. There then followed another half an hour of starting and stopping, of freezing and cursing.
Given the symphony’s extra-musical associations with Dvořák’s nationalistic fervour and the Czech struggle against foreign oppressors, how ironic that it now served as the soundtrack for my own struggle against the oppressive onslaught of winter. Did I appreciate the metaphor? Did I, bollocks! I was freezing and just wanted to get home. Once off the train I still had my last battle with the wind on a piece of deserted wasteland before, in the small hours, I crawled into bed. And, I seem to recall, I remained there longer the next day than is considered seemly even for a teenager.
Like many, I have often wondered what music I would want to have with me if I really were to be cast away on a desert island. The shortlist is considerable, but one piece of music I would not want in my isolation is Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. Besides, I always imagined the desert island to be a warm, tropical, Robinson Crusoe type of place.