I don’t know why I put myself through it. Why do I never learn? I suppose it must be some fugitive spirit of optimism in me which makes me persist when, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, I ought to “chuck it.”
I was at it again last evening. I switched on Radio Three’s teatime music programme. No music – only “studio guests” and “celebs” gushing more soft soap at one another than you could find in Widow Twanky’s laundry. That was my first mistake. The second was even more irretrievable: I switched over to Classic FM where they played one after another late Romantic rhapsodies of such treacliness that they reminded me of one critic’s comment on Tosca as “…the opera in which Puccini’s music achieves its final putrescence.” I was listening to the programme on television and throughout the screen bore a legend which purported to describe for me what I was listening to:
“Sublime, relaxing music to ease the stresses and strains of the day.”
Obviously, I had been mistaken. I had switched on in the hope of hearing some music, but what we were being offered was a short course in psychotherapy. And it was offensive in the extreme.
The word “sublime” does not indicate a palliative nor is it “relaxing.” Edmund Burke in his Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) writes:
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”
Examples of the sublime would include Jacob’s exclamation, “How dreadful is this place!” (Genesis 28:17) and God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
Think of The Tempest and “Be not affeared, the isle is full of noises” Or, “What are the roots that clutch? What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?”
Think Bach and the Sanctus from the Mass in B-minor. Or the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when the chord of C-major finally emerges, blazing out of all that jumble. (He gets it from the Bible and Haydn: “Let there be light!”)
One man asks for bread and is given a stone.
When we switch on a music programme we hope for inspiration, to be exhilarated and, from time to time, overawed. Instead Classic FM gives us a box of sickly bon-bons.
Thank God for CDs and YouTube