Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Develop a childlike curiosity

Recently, whilst clearing up around the house, I rediscovered one of the first music books I ever acquired. It was The Observer’s Book of Music by Freda Dinn and Paul Sharp (no humour intended I am sure), first published in 1953 and revised in 1959. For a 14-year-old just starting to learn about music it was a great primer for some of the basics. It described the main instruments played by orchestral musicians, the major musical terms you would most likely see on a concert programme and, towards its end, it provided a series of short paragraphs describing the major classical composers and their work.

Having rediscovered the book I could not resist having a quick flick through and one composer’s description made me do an instant double take. The entry was for Anton Bruckner and it read as follows:

‘Bruckner, Anton (1824 – 1896) Born in Upper Austria, and composed many large – scale works. Influenced by Wagner. There is a certain naivety in his work, and it is not popular outside Germany and Austria.’

The above entry made me do a double take because Bruckner is now considered by many to be a composer of the first rank who, along with the slightly later Mahler and Sibelius, took the orchestral symphony to previously unattained heights of expressiveness.

The dates of the book’s publication and revision perhaps provide a clue to the somewhat dismissive description of Bruckner and his work. The book was written within a decade of the end of the Second World War and its only revision undertaken a mere six years later. It is tempting to think that the memories evoked by the recent hostilities between Britain and Germany (and by association Austria) adversely influenced the authors’ opinions of anything remotely perceived as Germanic.

This is borne out by the entries for other composers influenced by the late romantic Germanic style. Gustav Mahler is said to be ‘more highly regarded in Holland and Germany than elsewhere’ and Richard Strauss, although described as ‘the most successful of Wagner’s successors’ is in the end damned with faint praise:

‘His orchestration is brilliant. Outstanding are his symphonic poems, which are of a passionate, emotional nature, sometimes excessively so.’

Sometimes our thinking and perceptions can be so influenced by the attitudes that pervade our times that we begin to look for and, not unsurprisingly, find those things that we have been conditioned to expect. As a consequence we can fail to appreciate the true worth of what is in front of us.

The next time you find yourself struggling with an issue or problem or trying to evaluate the worth of an idea or potential solution, do your best to filter out the prevailing attitudes that impinge upon your thinking.

You can do this best by following the example of Bruckner, who explored life and music with an open, childlike mind. It is this childlike quality that makes the authors of ‘The Observers’ Book of Music’ correct in their assertion that Bruckner’s music is naïve but wrong in the implied criticism that accompanies it. Bruckner’s music is naïve only in the sense that it communicates his innocent, wide – eyed wonder at the world and the universe that surrounds it. It is this immediacy of expression, unencumbered by convention and the accepted views of the time, which gives his music its unique power to move and inspire people.

Get into the habit of being curious and asking why. Look for what is intriguing, stimulating and fun. Play with the ideas and concepts put in front of you. Take a few things at face value and give them a chance to shine and sound out.

If you do this you might well begin to see more of what is really there, rather than an image distorted by the attitudes and assumptions that attach themselves to you as you go through life. In the process you may also gain one or two unique insights you can call your own.

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