Death at the Proms

Flustered, bothered and late, I take my seat in the oval-shaped concert hall. Blue orbs large enough to be menacing hang above me from the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall. Their invisible function of reflecting sound seems secondary to their effect of transforming the auditorium into the set of a 1950s sci-fi film.

It’s my annual visit to the Proms and I have just enough time before the second part of the concert begins to re-acquaint myself with familiar feelings of exposure and alienation. Is it that the Proms are just too English for this Welshman to ever feel comfortable here? Or could it be their sheer middle-classness communicates an exclusivity that shuts out this son of the valleys, this product of the council estate? I swiftly decide, aided by the friendliness of the people I have encountered here over the years, that feeling this way is just a bad habit I’ve picked up.

The orchestra are already reassembling on the stage and now the mesmerising ritual of tuning begins, overseen by the leader of the orchestra like a pagan priest consecrating his companions for the great sacrifice that is to follow. Silence. Then the assembled break into liturgical applause to welcome the high priest with his mystical baton to his place in anticipation at the magic he will perform.

As the conductor raises his baton in the air and holds it in a melodramatic pause I settle back in my seat, composure restored, to hear Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The ninth symphony — any ninth symphony — bears a certain mystique. So many composers have died either during or soon after the creation of their ninth symphony that ‘The Curse of the Ninth’ threatens to transcend its status as a joke and enter the realm of myth. The baton descends, not in a swoosh, but fractionally, quiveringly, so as to signal the shimmering first notes of the violins.

Moments later the brass section takes up the burden of the composer’s thoughts and soon, as the volume and complexity of the music increases, I am led out of the stillness to a place where rest is impossible. Sounds rise from the separate instruments like smoke from a multitude of pyres and, being drawn together at the high priest’s command they interweave and then coalesce until they lose all individuality. The high priest has worked his magic and the separate strands of music have become a single imposing, dreadful form. I shift uneasily in my seat as I recognise the figure of Death in the sounds I hear. Summoned from the underworld by a volume of noise that could disturb any of his victims Death is sustained in his apparitional presence by musical phrases suffused with enchantment. Suddenly, the first movement is ended and a pause, much longer than the usual pause, allows orchestra and audience alike a space to recover.

The second movement begins. At first light and rhythmical, there is something altogether more human about this. I am no longer observing and responding to the music, rather the music has drawn me in; it possesses me. And so I go with it, its highs and its lows, its optimism and then, as if from nowhere, its anger. The lonely timpani player bursts into ferocious action. Arms waving in religious fervour, he leads the orchestra into a maelstrom of semiquavers. There is so much anger here. Is this Bruckner’s response to death – a waving of the fist at a far more powerful enemy? But the anger is mine, I take possession of it with all its vanity, and I rage against my end.

The quiet, melodic beginnings of the third movement seduce me into imagining that peace has broken out between the composer, Death and myself. Is this acceptance? Is there harmony in the face of Death? Something is not right here. How can the rage of only a few minutes before be transformed, no, substituted in this way? The illusion does not last long as the harmony breaks apart and the orchestra spews out an anxiety that alone could bring integrity to this response to Death. Anything else is mere bravado. The high and hanging shrill chords of the strings and the unsympathetic, discordant interruptions of the brass sections come as a welcome relief. This is not enjoyable, but it resonates. The music has at last introduced me to its true subject, and I know him, I have always known him. My relief does not bring comfort, it does not bring resolution; this is the relief of recognition. I am gazing into the mirror and I can trace the fissures of anxiety across my own soul. They have always been there, even as the threat of death is always present in life, but now I have been led by the music beyond the veil of anger and defiance with which I had masked them to see their sharp edges and their dark depths.

As the third movement ends without resolution I know that there will be no fourth. The Curse of the Ninth claimed another victim before it could be composed. We burst into enthusiastic applause that threatens to bury our earlier anxiety under layers of enthusiasm. But perhaps that is its purpose. As I join in with this strange celebration I begin to wonder what Bruckner would have written had he completed the symphony. He was a devout Roman Catholic and so he might well have written of the hope of resurrection. Notes exist of what he was planning for the final movement, but who knows how they would have sounded had they been stitched together by his own hand.

It is finished. And so we empty onto the streets like grains of sand passing through the neck of an hourglass. My skull is still filled with the beats and the sounds of dread, and they seem to turn the Victorian architecture of South Kensington into dust, waiting for the inevitable gust of wind.

What am I to do with these sounds, these rhythms, these feelings? I believe in resurrection, but is this the moment to flee to the refuge of the empty tomb? Is this all that hope is – a coping strategy for the anxiety of death? But I don’t want to flee anywhere and I do not want to make resurrection into another veil to hide my anxieties from myself.

The street lights protect us from the night as we make our way down Exhibition Road. It is a clear summer night, but few stars are able to penetrate the city’s defences. Around me there is the jostling of concert goers morphing into commuters. I too try to think about the long journey home to South Wales but I struggle, without success, to dismiss unanswered questions to the back of my mind. Is hope the enemy of courage? Are these two virtues mutually exclusive so that the courageous person has no need of hope and the hopeful person never has recourse to courage? And yet I feel the weight of orthodoxy on me, pressurising me to combat the anxiety of death with the promise of new life, without really facing that anxiety myself or taking it into myself.

I arrive at Imperial College car park. By now a queue of cars has already been formed by those eager to beat the rush for the open road. I ease myself into mine. I’m in no rush, the drive home is long enough to be unaffected by minor dashes. As I start the engine a resolve forms within me: I choose both courage and hope. I know that the empty tomb is there, it will always be there for me and with it the promise of resurrection, but for now, just for a while, I must stay in Gethsemane.

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One Response to Death at the Proms

  1. Rob and Lyn says:

    very, very good. It’s just that you forgot say about the violin section frantically trying to saw through their violins.


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