Bloggers burning with community spirit who helped me to test WordPress’s polling software by voting in a violin vs. piano survey last month will want to know this: three of a staggering turnout of sixteen voters didn’t prefer either instrument to the other. Two opinionators, I have no idea who, volunteered reckonings of aural perfection that will keep me guessing for a long time yet: ‘fuzzed up freak-beat guitar’ and ‘children’s playground.’
Twelve people cast their vote as I did — in a landslide victory for the piano. Knowing how keenly some comrades lust after originality, I’m sorry to report that their failure to choose the violin cost them their chance to make their mark in the annals of perversity. That’s right, the queen of stringed instruments did not win a single vote.
My fellow bloggers have been scarce on the ground almost everywhere during this month’s seemingly endless Big Freeze in Britain – but perhaps, when you return, you’ll have some suggestions for the obvious question about this remarkable result: why?
An intense – not exactly cheerful — experience of listening to Brahms’ first symphony in early January led me to wonder about the effects of particular musical instruments on our emotions. I’m not thinking of ‘mood music’ – of, for instance, the way the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is in sympathy with soaring optimism and nation-building bravado, or of how perfectly the scherzo passages that come later spell anxiety and mischief — and made E. M. Forster think of goblins (in Howard’s End).
I’m toying with something different — the idea of an intrinsic affinity between characteristic sounds of different instruments and their capacity for creating or enhancing certain states of mind. To me, anyway, the violin sings ‘poignant’ and ‘plaintive’ as surely as the piano does ‘clear’ and ‘transcendent’.
On that rather disturbing evening, the violins in the Brahms piece transformed a wistful mood into a mental state I would illustrate, if I had to, with a human form being sucked up and whirled away by a thundercloud muttering, in a thought bubble, ‘But how could reciprocal cherishing (also) be so sad?’.
Leaving the concert hall was out of the question. Instead, I reached for a pen and purchased moments of relief by scribbling into my programme, ‘Cue piano — please,’ – even though I could see that the orchestra had nothing of the kind. It was as if I were begging for a piano to slice through the emotional excess in what the programme notes described as ‘some of the most violent music [Brahms] would ever write;’ come in and take over, like Robert Frost’s ‘Truth’ breaking in ‘[w]ith all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm.’
No instrument but the violin has such an effect on me. I haven’t yet met anyone else who feels quite the same way about it, though I have reason to believe that my reaction at the concert was far from unique. In Musicophilia, mentioned here last week, Oliver Sacks says that Tolstoy did not entirely like music because of its power to induce ‘emotions and images […] not his own and not under his control.’ Sacks points out that in a short story by the great Russian, The Kreutzer Sonata, the narrator murders his wife for her infidelity, for which he actually blames the Beethoven piece – ‘the real enemy, he feels […] is the music.’
Of course the wife had enraged him by playing the sonata with her lover — a violinist.
I’m sure that there is somewhere in literature a piano that inspires in some people lines like Baudelaire’s ‘Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige, / Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!’ – rendered in one of five alternative translations on the interesting OldPoetry web site as, ‘The violin quivers like a tormented heart,/ A tender heart, that hates the vast, black void!’ If I ever came across a passage in which a piano is supposed to set such a tone, it was soon forgotten. It simply would not have resonated as the strings do in Harmonie du Soir.
Never mind that caterwauling sounds a good deal worse: the unfortunate animal frantic to escape its tormenters and the tremulous sounds in this YouTube video knows precisely what I mean.
But why do the lovers of language who keep me company here so strongly favour plinking over sawing? Can it be that we’re attracted by the articulation that is the glory of the pianoforte – an instrument that can express, honour and revel in, but ultimately transcend, feeling?