I’m reading Sophie’s Choice, William Styron’s famous novel about Stingo, a struggling writer who meets a beautiful concentration camp survivor in the New York of 1947. Stingo has learnt about Sophie’s terrible ordeal during the Second World War. Sophie has also described her experience of reaching America, where two things define a better life – plentiful food and music. Following a doctor’s advice not to gorge herself on food, Sophie revels carefully in all the gastronomic variety that New York has to offer. In the same spirit of heightened appreciation, she goes to hear Yehudi Menuhin play the Beethoven Violin Concerto at Lewishon Stadium in Manhattan.
The day after I read this section, I put Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, played by Yehudi Menuhin, on my phone and took it to work. I tried to imagine what it would sound like if I hadn’t been able to listen to music for years. Rather than existing in glorious isolation, music is also a product of the situation of the listener, a situation often engineered to increase the power of the musical experience. In the case of orchestral music, there’s the buying of an expensive ticket, the dressing up, entering a beautiful hall, the cacophony of many musicians tuning to a single reference note, the tapping of a baton on a podium to bring the orchestra to attention. This all has the effect of shutting music away behind a ritual. Listeners have to approach carefully with a sense of reverence for the importance of what they are to experience. Other genres had their tricks, from the artful secretiveness of Prince, to the courting of controversy by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which leads to a ban serving only to boost sales.
In some instances, this wrapping of the musical experience has amounted to an art form in itself. Take for example Miserere Mei Dues written by Gregorio Allegeri around 1640. Religious authorities literally kept this piece locked away, securing all copies of the sheet music in the Vatican vaults. There was only one performance a year, at the Sistine Chapel, no less. In 1770, however, a young musical genius called Amadeus Mozart heard Miserere Mei Deus, immediately memorised every note, carried them home in his head and wrote them down. Mozart’s theft was part of a chain of events, making music ever more accessible, eventually allowing me to take Beethoven’s Violin Concerto to work on my phone. It is wonderful to have this easy access to music, but even imagining years empty of music made it sound better.
Since music streaming cannot offer unlimited access and the denial of access at the same time, I suggest attempting to imagine a world where music is hard to find.