Thursday, May 04, 2006

doleful countenances

'. . . . Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . . . And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him -- illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind -- and everything is all right.'

- from "Gooseberries", a story by Anton Chekhov

Today I want to write a bit in praise of misery, but I'm sure I can't improve on Chekhov. If you don't know the story excerpted above, it's one of the most powerful appeals to the human conscience I know - and one of the saddest. Writers like Chekhov may be the closest thing most of us have to that 'man with a little hammer' at the door, our literary consciences there to invoke all the suffering which surrounds and awaits us.

For all the timelessness of great literature, though, music provides perhaps the most direct expression of human despair - and few composers wrote despair as expressively as Sibelius. His Fourth Symphony is, in a word, dark. It cries out with a sense of terror and oppression, of inconsolable longing and vast empty spaces. Playing this symphony feels a bit like wielding that little hammer, constantly pounding out a refrain of endless misery. It's a perverse paradox that doing this should be so enjoyable - I find dark music terrifically uplifting, and pieces like this one leave me with a strange sort of hope. If someone can set these emotions in sound, form them in time and share them with thousands of people, perhaps we're not condemned to lonely unhappiness after all!

Sorry to cut this post so short - our concerts are tomorrow and Saturday night, featuring Strauss' Don Quixote as well as Sibelius' Fourth. We're counting on the Strauss to lift everyone out of their Sibelius-induced suicidal depression; and if not, there may be an encore to do the trick. Please visit for more information!

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