On listening.

I’ve been listening to Tchaikovsky’s music in chronological order while reading David Brown’s biography of the Russian composer. Brown traces a “Fate” theme through many of Tchaikovsky’s works, first appearing in “The Storm” overture in E major, and recurring in a number ballads and operas with unfortunate women at their narrative centre. After many many hours of listening I find myself now able to pick out this theme and other structural, stylistic, and thematic patterns in his music, and I’m enjoying the experience of listening to a body of work in a more nuanced way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the increased amount of time I’ve spent listening to narratives in the last year. I followed along with an audiobook of Moby Dick when I was ill last summer and had large amounts of time where I was too tired to do much moving around. It was a deeply comforting activity, and reintroduced a habit of audiobooks into my daily life — as a way of resting my eyes from a computer screen or book, of dropping off to sleep, of calming anxiety (I find it less easy to fret if my attention is focused on the words of a book that isn’t visually in front of me). The best books for getting to sleep were the Paddington novels (read by Stephen Fry and Jim Broadbent): still good bedtime stories, and I love how funny and charming they still are. Moby Dick (which I re-listened to in the fall when the “Moby Dick Big Read” was running), Madame Bovary, and Jane Eyre have been best while cleaning (they are slow novels with long sentences, the rhythms of which are absorbing during manual tasks). Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway were best for walking with; James’s The Wings of the Dove weirdly less so (I think it might be another “cleaning” book). Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events were wonderful accompaniments to basically everything (Tim Curry reads most of the Snickett books and is absolutely amazing at conveying the different characters as well as the unfortunate Lemony narration). I also went through a number of BBC radio productions (anyone who likes Dickens or nineteenth-century novels can’t fail to love Mark Evans’s Bleak Expectations, whether in audiobook or radio programme form).

Tchaikovsky requires something of a different listening skill. I find that unlike audiobooks, which have a narrative one can fall easily into and not be distracted from, orchestral compositions require a more deliberate attention. Perhaps this difference lies in the fact that a symphony or concerto or opera has layers of sound. One can half listen and get the melody, but miss out on the depths of the music. Or perhaps I’m just more accustomed to listening to stories. Either way, I’m learning to sit still and give them proper attention. Sitting still is a useful skill to learn.

21 March 2013 ~ Hamilton


Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music. London: Faber and Faber, 2007.


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