After short-sleeve days in January and news of an expanding crack in the Larson ice shelf, the arrival of official spring seemed a formality left over from an era that might trust which week the forsythia bloomed. WQXR’s spring-themed playlist offered a twenty-four hour reminder of the day we were all in. A curious absence in iOS and iCal, to mark April Fools and the start of Daylight Saving and not the seasons. But there we were. FBI Director James Comey was before Congress confirming investigation into the possibility of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was in Senate confirmation hearings that Merrick Garland was denied. I was grateful to hear Schumann’s Spring Symphony zoom off to the races, George Szell’s nearly sixty-year-old recording making a clear case for rigor and a sense of through line. Sibelius’s “Spring Song” had made its gradual ascent. I remember, on first hearing it a few years ago, that it seemed familiar from movies I could no longer name, their soundtracks, in retrospect, imitative or as innocent as I’d been of harmonic math converging on common figures:
The turns at 2:45 and 3:08, the brass and timpani concavities at 4:15, the concluding vernal heights stir a hymnal lift wherever I hear them, no matter the weather. They’re free of image, open. Their reverberation time matches any space I’m in.
Pop, rock, hip-hop, folk, for me more often set cinematic scenes. The instrumental interludes of Saint Etienne’s “Spring” descend between verses and I’m in a London street where I’ve never been. It owes less to lyrics or album cover than to a sense on first hearing it that here is a rhythm and mix that people swing to through a springy London. This London is permanently in the 1960s, compounded of movie interstitials in actual London and views across West Village squares where streets cut crosswise into the blue of afternoons too late to explore in more than one direction. I didn’t listen to “Spring” in the Village until after seeing the Village in the song. Being on location confused the point. More immediately springy than Sibelius’s spring, Saint Etienne’s “Spring” is more out of season than Sibelius in October and December, when I’m gladdest to stop in it.
Pop songs that don’t summon something of the era they were recorded in or seem to want to be set in usually get stuck to where I was when they struck me. I hear Jefferson Airplane cry out that it’s no secret on a supermarket sound system and I’m in a coffee house with its door open to a side street. Traffic breezes from the near end of the block. A theatre producer seated behind me is on a long phone call. His rehearsals have had a rocky start. Does the person who phoned him know of any photographers? He finishes his coffee and is gone before I turn to see him. I never decode from his side of the conversation what show is opening soon, nine summers ago.
Almost no orchestral works have picked up specific images for me. Why, I can’t say. Compositions’ complexity eluding my half-tutored listening? Human voices’ presence or absence? No aspect or combination is as consistent as the result.
Apart from Gershwin’s glissandos through Jazz Age New York and Paris, of orchestral music only Brahms’s Third Symphony carries me into realistic scenes. The Second is towering midday, the Fourth nightfall, but I hear them in the light of the day I’m in. The Third always plays from the afternoon half of the nineteenth century. Most often lately I’m listening on a run. If I start out on my most frequent route at the first movement’s opening F–A♭–F in a performance that takes the exposition repeat, and if I keep a good pace with no wait to cross main roads, as the second movement ebbs I reach a favorite stretching-out spot. Two streets in close parallel, one busy, one still except for neighborhood traffic, are crossed by a third. From a curb on the side street, I can see thoroughfare traffic, and its exhaust doesn’t reach me. I position my shadow in the trunk shadows of not yet leafed out trees, or in the deep of summer shadows. The third movement begins, “Poco allegetto.” Cellos play the main theme through.
Violins repeat the theme at a yearning pitch. An oboe brings it down. I’m stretching into an intersection in Saratoga Springs where I stretched out years before I ran listening to Brahms. The town is out of racing season. No cars pass for minutes in either direction. Someone in an apron comes out from the café on the corner and shakes crumbs from a towel. A French horn takes the theme into rumination, and I feel an absurd calm of accomplishment in noticing that in Saratoga Springs off-season I can hear the next street over as I heard a next street years before in Paris, lost and late to meet school friends, thinking how I would prefer to stop in the park I was cutting through, more a square than a park, than to rush on to where I was going.
I’ve returned in Google Street View to the corner in Saratoga and to the arrondissement I rushed through, squares I might have crossed. They don’t resemble what I recall, or the intersection where this year I listen to Brahms, except that in each there’s space to stand with a view to a thoroughfare. I can’t distinguish whether in Saratoga an intersection where I stopped briefly recalled me to a Paris square where I didn’t stop, or if I only see them through each other through the view I have now. I can’t distinguish if their urban quiet depicts what I heard in the third movement before I heard it over the pleasant rustle of hurry one street over, or if the third movement has been fixed to them, a mild lament for scenes that relations didn’t complicate.
After chancing into the same strains at the same cross street several times, I caught myself planning to meet it, fondly regarding the reminiscence ahead. I decided to forestall that. No repeats until I forget to prevent them. No standing in the past until it’s again a surprise.
Photo: Sarah Malone
“Daily Playlist, Monday, March 20, 2017.” WQXR, 20 March 2017, http://www.wqxr.org/#!/playlist-daily/2017/mar/20/?scheduleStation=wqxr
Gibson, Sir Alexander, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. “Spring Song, Op. 16.” Sibelius: Tone Poems, Jean Sibelius, Chandos Records, 1985. YouTube, provided by Naxos of America, 4 Feb. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2k9-O1i03U
Pasquet, Nicolás, and the Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar. “Third Movement: Poco allegretto.” Symphony No. 3 in F major. Johannes Brahms. YouTube, published by hfmFRANZLISZTweimar, 25 May 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PyAkTW5HDU&t=22m