Classical Connections: An Inside Job

Conductor Karl Böhm (1894-1981).

One of my friends is a writer of historical fiction. We have a lot in common because I am also a writer, though much of the time I write music rather than words. The other day he asked me whether I can hear the music in my head before I write it down. In return, I asked him rhetorically, “Can you hear the words of your novel in your head or does someone have to come over and read them out to you?” It’s almost the same question – and the answer is obvious. You see, when people compose music, they always hear it internally first, otherwise they would have nothing to write.

Even so, many musicians have difficulty in hearing music internally. I remember showing the printed music of a well-known hymn to a music-teacher friend. The title and the lyrics were omitted. She stared intently at the music, but didn’t recognize the hymn, which she surely would have recognized immediately if I’d sung it. She could read the music, but had not made the mental leap to hearing it internally. The technical term for this skill is audiation and it’s the ability to hear and understand music when the sound is not physically present. It is the basic skill in “thinking musically”. At this moment, you are using a rather similar mental process as you read these words, assuming of course that you have passed the stage of reading aloud.

Reading music is generally more difficult than reading words partly because there is much more information in the same amount of space. Before he achieved fame, George Gershwin once worked in a New York music shop as a demonstrator. Customers would ask him to play piano sheet music they were interested in buying to hear what it sounded like. When I was involved in music education, it always alarmed me how few students had developed audiation skills. To me, it seemed fundamental to musical understanding and for those who lack these skills, composing and arranging are pretty well impossible.

The Italian composer and arranger Ennio Morricone composed over four hundred film scores and over a hundred concert works. He wrote the music for classics such as A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and John Boorman’s Exorcist II. He was remarkably efficient at audiation and could write music while in a restaurant, in the film studio or even while talking on the phone. This is by no means as unusual as it might seem. All composers, however humble, have the ability to hear their music internally and film music composers, who often have to work “on the hoof” are invariably good at this.

Perhaps the inability to hear music internally is why many musicians claim that they cannot compose. Improvisation is rather similar – you could describe improvisation as extremely rapid composing. Jazz musicians are usually good at it because it is the nature of their art. Even then (and I speak as an ex-jazzer myself) they “hear” the music internally a fraction of a second before they play it, even though at the time it probably feels instantaneous. I would guess that it’s a similar mental and creative process to that used in improvised drama in which actors “visualise” their actions and “hear” their words seconds or milliseconds in advance.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561792): Eine Kleine Nachtmusik KV 525. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm. (Duration: 19:33; Video: 480p)

Mozart had a remarkable musical working memory and an enormous capacity for hearing music internally. In Mozart’s time, the work would have been performed by a much smaller orchestra, but the precision and warmth of the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic makes this performance memorable. The work comes in four movements and interestingly follows the standard format of a classic-period symphony with a fast and lively first movement; a lyrical slow movement; a minuet and trio and a sparkling finale.

The work is one of Mozart’s many Serenades and was completed in Vienna on 10 August 1787. And that’s about all we know. No one call tell you why Mozart wrote the work either. Because most of Mozart’s Serenades were written on commission, it’s probable that someone commissioned this work but no one knows who it was. We don’t even know where or when it was first performed and it wasn’t published until 1827, many years after the composer’s death. This is a classic performance and full of magic moments. The slow movement (06:45) is especially joyful and there are some lovely delicate moments in the Minuet (12.11). The intimacy and lightness of touch in the last movement (14:31) is remarkable. A performance with this level of detail and care demands a good deal of rehearsal. You may think that the conductor isn’t doing very much, but the legendary Karl Böhm was known for his attention to detail and you can be sure that a great deal of intensive rehearsal was done well before the film crew arrived.