Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Soundtrack stories - Finlandia

I wonder how many of you listen to, or have at least heard of, Desert Island Discs? For anyone who hasn't, it's a radio show where famous guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and they choose the eight pieces of music they'd like to take with them.

I'm glad to say I wasn't around when it first aired in 1942, but I've listened to it hundreds of times and played the game in my head almost as often. My choice of favourite tracks changes almost as often as the seasons and slightly less often than my moods, but there's one piece of music that has been in my top eight for at least the last ten years.

On the radio, people almost always choose, or perhaps feel obliged to select, at least one piece of classical music; apparently, the most popular is Beethoven's ninth symphony. I'm no different, except for me, there's not the tiniest sense of obligation, and it's not Beethoven I'd pick; the track I'd go for is Sibelius' Finlandia. I'd choose it because every time I listened to it I know I'd be taken away from the isolation and desperation of my desert island, and back to the astonishment and wonder of the first time I heard it performed.

Many years ago, I had a pretty dull job in a pretty fine organisation. There was nothing glamorous about my daily tasks - I filed, I typed, I managed databases and dealt with insurance claims, but my employers had a strong sense of history and a long presence in London. They owned a box at the Royal Albert Hall and for every single concert, any tickets that weren't wanted by the Governors, were made available to staff in a raffle. Once a month it was my job to organise that raffle and distribute the tickets amongst my colleagues. It was by far and away the most enjoyable task I've ever been employed to do. I loved the sense of anticipation as staff waited to see the list of winners posted up, and I loved the look of delight as I handed over the tickets to the lucky winners.

Some concerts were very popular and completely oversubscribed, but there were others, usually during the Proms season, when there was not enough interest to fill the box. One night there were several spare seats for a Proms programme that included Finlandia; I'd heard my Mum say it was one of her favourites so I decided to go along, but if I'm honest I wasn't expecting much. The last time I'd been to a classical concert had been with the school, when I'd yawned and fidgeted my way through the orchestra's best efforts in typical teenage boredom.

I don't remember now what else was on the programme that night, but I do remember looking down from my gilt-framed seat in the box, and wondering at the scale of it all - the number of musicians, the range of instruments, the row upon row of people listening intently as the music played and erupting into loud and enthusiastic applause when it ended. I couldn't pick out each of the instruments that leant its individual voice to the marvellous whole, but I remember sitting there as the music built and built, moving from bold, through calm, to triumphant.  And I can picture, even now, the huge kettle drums that pounded out the rhythm and emotion, that matched and lifted the beating of my heart.


Susan Cooper said...

Great memory. Your post takes me back to a similar event. My parents had gotten tickets to a Bolshoi Opera for my brother and I. To say we weren't interested would be an understatement but we went. It was magical and turned my brother and I into opera junkies. :), Susan Cooper

Jim Murdoch said...

I must have been about thirteen at the time when our teacher put on this music for us to appreciate. As always it was a piece of classical music – that was the only kind of music we were supposed to appreciate when I was at school – and he asked if anyone knew who the composer was. I was the only one, of course, to raise my hand and he seemed genuinely surprised that I knew it was Sibelius especially as I didn’t know the work (which I suspect was Finlandia) but I was right, not that I’d heard much by him, probably just 'At the Castle Gate', as used on The Sky at Night although another bit from the Karelia Suite was also used to introduce the current-affairs programme This Week. I actually thought they used that on Panorama but apparently in the early days it was an excerpt from Pelléas et Mélisande.

I have loved classical music of all kinds since I was a kid which is odd because my parents never owned a record and weren’t especially interested in any kind of music other than Bing Crosby (Dad) and Ella Fitzgerald (Mum) but a family friend was getting rid of his old record player and I asked my dad if he’s get it for me. He agreed and the thing came along with a handful of old LPs, mostly classical, and, from the very start, I was hooked. I don’t remember all of the stuff but it was an odd mix: Danse Macabre, a movement from Symphonie Fantastique, The Unanswered Question as a backing track to a soliloquy from The Tempest , Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a bit of Tchaikovsky but no Sibelius. It was the quiet beginning of a life-long obsession in fact I’ve just written a lengthy blog (not posted yet) talking about the music I listen to while I write and there was just so much I wanted to share.

I could never go on Desert Island Discs though. When my wife and I were getting to know each other we used to do Top Tens and none of mine were less than twenty-five long. I doubt I could just pick ten piano concertos. And just one book? Give me a break.

Bobby Stevenson said...

Hi Sharon, I thought I was the only one who played the Desert Island Discs game. It's been an exercise I think about on flights/trains/hotels.To my shame I've never been to a 'proper' concert but I remember my father taking me to see the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey and for the very first time I heard The Blue Danube in all its loud stereophonic glory. I know it will never come close to The Royal Albert Hall experience but I remember that moment so well. I went out and bought my very first record that weekend - the soundtrack to the movie. So The Blue Danube would be in my choice of records for Desert Island Discs and would be the single tune I would take of them all. Thanks for the memories Sharon.

Olga said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. I have a complicated relationship with music. I can't take it in while it's in the background. My whole attention goes to paying attention to a harmonious melody. Music is either a distraction or a pleasure for me.

Nari said...

Your experience was so beautifully described that I can't help but think this post would be a wonderful thing to share with young students in order to promote interest in classical music. Then, maybe more people would place a classical piece amongst their Desert Island Disc list out of sheer desire.

To me, classical music is the epitome of the right and left brain in a passionate embrace, which is how I would prefer to exist.

Alice said...

Tchaikovsky;s piano concerto!! every time

you can find me over at my new blog space 'alice' 9aka saz FFF)

Pat said...

Roy Plomley was the man. He started DIDs.
One day I heard this record of the most beautiful sounding music which immediately transported me to an area in France where - in my youth - I had had a sad sweet love affair. I wrote to ask him what the music was and he sent a hand written reply - how I wish I had kept it - such a gentleman.
The record was Chants d'Auvergne.

Bill Dameron said...

For a period of my life, I labored to be a concert pianist. I can remember being on the stage, bathed in the bright light and playing a Mozart concerto. If we can ever truly know someone, I knew at that moment Mozart's mind; connected across centuries. Music has such magical powers.

Joe Pereira said...

Thank you Sharon for a lovely post and also encouraging me to listen to Finlandia. Hauntingly sublime