Fleeting thoughts while listening to Schubert and sipping Rosé

img_0928Halfway through Gergely Boganyi’s piano concert at the One & Only Ballroom this weekend, I was reminded of a scene from a beloved book, EM Forster’s Howards End.

It was probably during one of the exquisite impromptus just before recess; I closed my eyes, and a series of images flitted by. I’m not sure what I saw, it was just a hazy montage of beautiful images, possibly even my favourite impressionist art, but it immediately sparked this memory of Helen Schlegel’s response to Beethoven’s Fifth. 

“The Andante had begun – very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven has written, and, to Helen’s mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered … and the Andante came to an end… Helen said to her aunt: `Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing,’ and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the the transitional passage on the drum…

No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,’ breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.

Her brother raised his finger : it was the transitional passage on the drum. For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent death! […] Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins – they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them. Men like the Wilcoxes, or President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return – and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall.

Beethoven chose to make it all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.”



Published by


I once wrote a diary. When I read it now, it seems childish. Then I wrote a book blog. When I read that now, it seems childish too. See a pattern? I write for a living, and so I've almost stopped writing for myself. The editor who's taken up permanent residence in my head, often strangles my words and ideas at birth. So am I an optimist as the title suggests? I don't know and I don't think I'll be any the wiser by blogging, but I do know one thing - I love beauty - in ideas, in words, in buildings, in art, in science, in clothes, in cats, in make up. Fortunately, even though my pores are on display in the profile picture, this is not going to be an up-close-and-personal, warts all take on my life. In fact, I'm not sure what it is going to be!

7 thoughts on “Fleeting thoughts while listening to Schubert and sipping Rosé”

  1. Haven’t read Howards End, but interesting! I have been taking my 9 year old for violin practice, and while she is in the class I wait in the hall where the high school orchestra practise. They have been practising the Fifth for almost 6 weeks now, along with other pieces, and they’ve been amazing! I look forward to these couple of hours on Saturday afternoon to get some reading done, with the back drop of an orchestra. Couldn’t ask for more 🙂
    Being a Rock/Blues/Jazz buff, which is all about improvisation, I always found it difficult to appreciate Western Classical, and I tried. Indian Classical is a completely different ball game, which in fact closely resembles Rock/Blues/Jazz, IMO. But listening to these kids’ orchestra I started appreciating Western Classical. It was also a revelation to notice how the personality of the conductor influence the energy of the orchestra, the sound, and of course the repertoire.


    1. But how lovely. I would love that opportunity to have a free concert!

      Like you, I hadn’t been able to appreciate classical for a long time. Maybe it’s the absence of a beat/overt rhythm? For me it was the fact that I couldn’t find a hook built around a set of words that would stay recognizably in my brain. All classical isn’t equal either for me. I find I like a lot of Mozart and Schubert, a little Beethoven, a whole lot of Tchaikovsky and a composition or two by an array of composers. I’m taking my own sweet time and pace to find what I like and understand and I can safely say that now, I can’t really relate to music with words in it any more!


      1. I think you are right – for me, I couldn’t relate to music without words. And your last statement is a big shift for you, I reckon? I don’t think I can reach that state, in fact I don’t want to. I absolutely love the singer-song writer genre. Back in the day, there was a magazine in India called Gentleman, and I emailed their music critic Jaideep a few times. Eventually Jaideep sent me a mix tape, in the late 90s, with songs of three artists – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Van Morrison. That cassette was so pivotal and had so much impact on my life, it in fact changed my worldview!

        I go to a music club here where once a month on a Sunday afternoon we get together and listen to recorded music, all genres, for straight 3 hours staring at the audio system, with some banter in between tracks. May sound weird, but it is actually a good way to get introduced to new music. Most of the club members are upbeat about Western Classical, and once I asked the president of the club, Tom who is a very nice, down to earth guy, to suggest 2 CDs for me to get started on classical. He sent me an email, and I am pasting that below, thought it might be of interest to you:

        Two Classical music CDs for a beginner…? Umm… that’s a tough question! If you like full on symphonies then try Pieter Wispelwey “Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen” on the Channel Classic label – it sounds less intense than say Mahler. It has some Tchaikovsky, Saint Saens and Bruch – it is all very melodic and not too challenging.

        If you like string quartets, try The Amsterdam String Quartet playing Haydn (volume 1 or 2), also on the Channel Classic label.

        If you like piano trios, try Guarneri Trio Prague playing Mozart (KV 496, 542, 548).

        No home should be without “Serenate Notturne” and “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, both by Mozart. Jordi Savall version with “Le Concert Des Nations” (a small orchestra) is very good. It’s on the AliaVox label of course (Jordi Savall’s label).


  2. Sorry it took me so long to reply, but I’ve been busy and wanted to reply properly. Yes was very much a Jackson Browne/Dylan/90s Alternative listener, but other than the odd song or two, do not listen to entire ouvres of these any more. Music is one thing for which I don’t harbour any nostalgia, which is saying a lot.

    The classical reccos sent to you are pretty solid. Like I said, I tend to love pieces rather than composers, with Mozart as the exception. And I have an unscientific way of going about it. A lot of times, I will look up some piece referenced in a book and if I like it, will add it to my list. Here are the ones I keep going back to:

    Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Symphony 40, Symphony 25, Rondo Alla Turca, Lachrimosa – Mozart (You’ll recognise them all, they’re some of the most famous bits of music in the world). There’s more Mozart but I hear them less.

    Cello Concerto – Elgar (particularly the Jacqueline Du Pre performance).

    Impromptus (op 90?) – Schubert – these are sublime. There are four and I love them all, and had the privilege of hearing them in the concert mentioned in this thread.

    Traumerie – Robert Schumann (made famous in India by the Raymond ads). Incidentally his life and that of his wife, Clara – real fascinating.

    The Swan – St Saens. Very like another favourite, Schubert’s Ave Maria. Was performed at the Royal Wedding this year.

    Summer – Vivaldi.

    Nocturne in E flat (op.9) – Chopin

    The Lark Ascending – Vaughn Williams (this has an oriental feel. Impressionist musicians were very inspired by the East).

    Gnossienne 1 – Erik Satie – this is a weird piece of music in a really good way.

    String Quartet no. 6, also known as Requiem for Fanny – Mendelssohn composed this after his beloved sister, also a composer, died. He died not long after. Particularly love the 2nd movement and was privileged to hear it performed by a string quartet here in DXB.

    Moonlight sonata – Beethoven. Absolutely adore the crazy fast 3rd movement, that is the downfall of many pianists. Not a fan otherwise, hate his crashing chords and jumpy bits.

    And one choral piece – Miserare Mei Deus by Allegri. This is performed on Ash Wednesday I think and there is a story of how its score was a closely guarded Vatican secret, till Mozart one day heard it and wrote it out from memory. Did I mention I love Mozart? 😉


  3. Wow, thank you so much for the recommendations. Have created a Spotify playlist.

    Since my last response, I had two memorable music experiences which I would like to share, at the risk of sounding very self-indulgent 🙂

    1. 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Van Morrison’s seminal, genre-bending “Astral weeks” album. It has been a favourite of mine, but had not listened to it for a long time. I played it one evening in December, start to finish. Once it started playing, I stopped what I was doing, and listened to the whole album sitting pretty much still. It was a very meditative experience.
    If you are not familiar with the album, you can read Lester Bangs’ reflections on Astral Weeks, considered to be an iconic piece in rock journalism:

    2. I am not sure whether it makes sense to talk about film scores while talking about Classical music… anyway, I watched the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man and it has a beautiful score. Composer Justin Hurwitz won Golden Globe earlier in the week for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if gets the Academy award too! Specifically, the moon landing scene was so spectacular with the score, that it might be one of the best moments in cinema history. It is captured without any of the typical Hollywood theatrics, and at 2:14 youtube mark, the first shot of moon’s surface was shown almost still for around 30 seconds. You can try visualise it if you haven’t watched the movie yet.

    On the topic of classical music or any classical art form, I was wondering why we have to spend so much effort to “get it”, example our traditional Kerala art forms. Obviously, the rewards are much higher. Interestingly, we are in Kochi visiting family, and as you know the Biennale is on. I had the opportunity to go for the Kochi Biennale in 2016, but will skip this time due to family commitments (3 year old boy!). It occurred to me that even contemporary art needs that scale of investment in order to appreciate! The Biennale as such is so overwhelming. An Aussie art critic’s comment about the 2018 Sydney Biennale resonated with me so much – he said going for a biennale is like visiting a second-hand store: there will be a lot of rather pointless things, and a general sense of confusion and overload, but each of us is likely to find something of interest. 🙂

    I think I read elsewhere on your blog that you don’t care much for abstract art. I got much clarity on abstraction after watching the first episode of the Netflix series Abstract where Christoph Neimann, who has done various New Yorker magazine covers, explains an abstract-o-meter:

    Then again, the concept of “just right abstraction” is so subjective!

    I did some reading on appreciating contemporary art (in fact one of the books was titled “Why your 5 year old could not have done that”!), and also watched the legendary John Berger series Ways of Seeing. One book that helped me practically was Ways of Looking (title nod to Berger) by Ossian Ward. He recommends a 6-step process when you approach contemporary art, coined as TABULA (intentional nod to tabula rasa as well), and it goes like this:
    T- TIME: Just stand still looking at the art for a minute or two. Give it a little time.
    A- ASSOCIATION: Can I relate to it? It should have a personal resonance. (I completely agree with Ward.)
    B- BACKGROUND: The artist’s background or interest or even nationality will provide the required context. Or look for wall labels/description.
    U- UNDERSTAND: As all this sinks in some realisations should occur… trying to understand. Haven’t got there yet, don’t worry, there is still another option…
    L- LOOK AGAIN: Yes, prolonged engagement can help.
    A- ASSESSMENT: And now you do the subjective assessment whether the art is good or not.
    (I had these in my notes, most of the text above are from the book)

    Ouch, I digress.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s