After mentioning Richard Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica the other day – you remember: the work that Deryck Cooke’s unnamed colleague described as ‘the nearest thing possible to musical pornography’ — I realised that a very old memory of mine which is connected with the piece has now become investigable in a way that wasn’t possible previously.
As I remember, the time was at some point during my early adolescence, and the place was our not especially luxurious or pleasant living room behind the family greengrocer’s shop. It was fairly late at night, and for some reason our TV was tuned to a BBC relay of a huge piece of music that I’d never heard of, but which I vividly remember had the strange word ‘Domestica’ in the title and was a musical depiction of episodes from the composer’s day-to-day family life…
At least, that’s what my memory tells me. Is it correct — or is this simply one of those odd, retro-fitted imaginings that the mind puts together to create narrative continuity and a fictive sense of self across decades of defective information storage and unreliable retrieval, etc?
Well, thanks to the BBC’s Genome Project, this broadcast can now easily be searched for — and, as it turns out, it really did take place:
(Presumably the ‘Sheila tract’ shown here is merely the creation of lousy OCR scanning, and was in reality the BBC’s Sheila Tracy.)
What jumps out at me from the listings entry above is the mention of those ‘special illustrations for television’ – since, as it happens, I actually remember them and their (to me) curiously lurid and intense appearance. (Does anyone know if – against all probability – they can still be seen anywhere? I might go and look through the relevant Radio Times issue, just in case…)
Two images in particular have always been there in my mind (though, until now, I was never quite certain if they were real memories from a single occasion). One was an illustration depicting a domestic clock, presented to accompany a particular occurrence in the music (the picture below has nothing to do with anything: it’s simply part of the YouTube video linked to):
The other was the illustration that appeared during the ‘love-scene’ that develops within the work’s slow-movement section. The memory I have includes an impression of moonlight streaming into a bedroom; something about the woman’s upward-looking eyes registering a not unmixed set of emotions; and the depiction of fingertips pressed into the man’s back. As I remember, the sight made me feel a bit funny.
What the later illustrations consisted of I’ve really no way of knowing, as I never saw them: the musical evocation of Mr and Mrs Strauss going at it hammer and tongs had barely commenced when my dad grunted to me that it was time I went off to bed. From which I deduce that the picture had made him feel a bit funny as well.
Looking back on this experience in the light of my recently written-up thoughts about my adolescent discovery of Mahler, it’s interesting to see from the chronological data that I heard the Strauss (20 August 1978) before the Mahler (20 July 1979), and that far from changing my life in the way Mahler’s Third did, Strauss’s Domestica made literally no impact on me. I didn’t retain a single musical memory of the piece or the concert itself: my only recollections have been connected with what the illustrations taught me about horology on the one hand and married life on the other.
I daresay what happened — in terms of my own musical development — was that the Mahler was ‘the right piece at the right time’, while the Strauss wasn’t. Further than that I’m not prepared to go — save perhaps to note that, as far as my personal aesthetics and temperament are concerned, I’ve remained rather more of a Mahlerian than a Straussian.
But I do think my experience of those illustrations furnishes at least a little food for thought. Using the broadcast of a work created in one medium as an excuse to present someone else’s work in another medium undoubtedly makes broadcasters feel ‘creative’, and may even give needed employment to whoever they get to provide the stuff to be added. But from the point of view of the original work it is an extremely risky thing to do — certainly when that work is a work of music. Add pictures to a musical performance, and, rather than finding that the pictures clarify the musical thought, you are far more likely to find that you’ve simply turned the music into a background for the pictures.
For the truth, surely, is that our so-called ‘audio-visual culture’ is in reality one that, by a vast margin, prioritises the visual over the meaningfully musical: in a society where electronically reproduced music forms a damn-near omnipresent background noise — an overdubbed, overheard, piped, iPodded, often un-shut-out-able soundtrack to everyone’s life — musical thought is actually something that the ‘normal’ person has to learn to ignore simply in order to get through a normal day without constant distraction and inappropriate emotional arousal. Take a long, complex and not particularly well-known work and add arresting artistic images to it, and all you actually succeed in doing is starting trains of thought and association that lead the listener away from the music that not only ‘ought’ to be, but needs to be the focus of their conscious as well as unconscious attention.
What’s more, you might even get them sent to bed before the thing is over…
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