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Goose Bumps Along the Left Insula 

Thursday, Aug 25 2005
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I Love Wolfgang

A recent New York Times Science section had a Q&A about music and emotion. “Why is it,” asked Q, “that particularly beautiful music gives me goose bumps or even makes me cry?” “It’s because,” answered A, “of a particular area called the ‘left insula,’ [which is] involved in the emotional processing of music.”

Armed with this splendid new information, I betook myself and my left insula to the all-Mozart program at the Hollywood Bowl last Tuesday, fully aware of the imminent peril to that part of my brain and the rest of my composure as well. Mozart’s (and my) old friend Sir Neville Marriner led the Philharmonic that night; the last work on the program was the Symphony No. 39. Before that had come the “Haffner” Symphony, the early (but astonishing for its time) E-flat Piano Concerto, K.271, nicely rattled off by Jonathan Biss, and a couple of concert arias yelled at by the young American soprano Marisol Montalvo. It was a poor night for audience behavior, and a worse one for Bowl restaurant caterers’ behavior — as my colleague Mark Swed noted far too amicably.

But it was Mozart 39 that redeemed the evening — came close, in fact, to making my entire summer worth the endurance. There is one particular spot in that lustrous work where I am sure to break out in goose bumps. It’s in the first movement. The low strings hold a sustained note, and the high strings meander around it. Clarinets, in heartbreaking harmony, ask a question, twice. The strings attempt an answer over a pizzicato. In perhaps a minute at a fairly leisurely tempo, we are asked to consider four, five, maybe six interlocked melodic propositions, every one of them gorgeous in a different way; only at the end of this truly amazing sequence is there time to draw a breath and sort them out. Now you know why Mozart specifies that the expositions of his first movements should be repeated. Realities at the Bowl, alas, apparently make this impractical. At least the beautifully spacious, congenial pacing of Sir Neville’s performance made this utterly marvelous symphony, the most richly orchestrated of all Mozart’s 41, come to life the first time around.

Anybody who loves Mozart at all must have a personal collection of goose-bump moments. If I tell you some of mine, it’s with the proviso that the list could change tomorrow. I don’t think I’ll ever stop waiting breathlessly, however, for the moment in The Magic Flute when Tamino and Papageno assault the Three Ladies with questions about finding Sarastro’s palace, and their answer comes with a miraculous change in the orchestra to winds and pizzicato, and the Three Genii appear overhead; it’s for moments like this that people build opera houses. I’ll never stop writing about the moment in the G-minor String Quintet when the change from B flat minor to B flat major is signaled by a high D from the first violin; to me that is the greatest single note in all music.

Then there’s that Sonata for Two Pianos, the one that some psychologists studied for its possible effect in raising students’ IQ scores. I think those findings have been fairly well debunked, which doesn’t come between the work and me in the slightest. There is a passage just before the end of the slow movement, a gradual shutdown of the melodic energy but with the most elegant pianistic decoration to speed the music on its way. More than goose bumps, that passage is the small gray Myrtle I no longer possess, rolling on her back in greeting to re-enact the ultimate act of love. In The Marriage of Figaro there is a similar moment: Susanna in the Act 3 Sextet, spinning out her slow, quiet cadenza over the massed joyousness of five other characters as — for the moment at least — her marriage to Figaro has come out from behind the clouds. And then there’s that . . .


And the Others, Too

For the Crucifixus of his B-minor Mass, J.S. Bach takes a lamenting movement from an earlier cantata, unplugs the original German text (“Weinen, klagen...”) and installs the Latin description of Christ’s crucifixion, ending with “sepultus est” (“he was buried”). For those words, with the deep, dark resonance of the middle syllable (“pul”) sung by basses, Bach gives the harmony a wrench, and this is something you cannot hear (or I cannot and you should not) without the fuzz between your shoulders going rigid. Is Bach trying to tell us something about the emotional pull of the sudden modulation, nearly a century before Schubert and the Romantics? I don’t know, but there is a particular song by Schubert, one of the hundreds, that affects me in exactly the same way: the haunting, small “Nacht und Träume,” a quiet, moonlit nocturne in which, again, the harmony just suddenly drops — and so do we. And then you cannot leave Schubert without sharing the emotional scars from his own last weeks on Earth: the tortured flicker that ends the slow movement of the String Quintet, or the astonishing key changes midway in the final Piano Sonata, when C sharp becomes C natural out of sheer defiance and the music flames hot.

It’s the heat of defiance that reaches me the most profoundly in Beethoven’s music, too: the trumpet that shrieks midway in the “Eroica”’s Funeral March, the horns on their high E all the way through the Seventh Symphony, all four string players in the bloodbath that is the Grosse Fuge. But there is one work of Beethoven that raises goose bumps especially high, and I think something I wrote about it five years ago belongs here.

“Beethoven’s first theme is its own kind of miracle. It crashes in on you, out of the mists of uncertainty, like the Titanic’s iceberg, massive and gruff. Later, it splits apart in wondrous ways: now haunting and melancholy, now a horn solo like a distant benediction. Midway in the first movement, its fragments knock against one another and, with terrific energy, coalesce once more in a recapitulation both sardonic and triumphant. The interweave of counterpoints — close at hand, in the middle distance and afar — is staggering; time and again you have to remind yourself that all this incredible detail is the fashioning of a mortal totally and tragically deaf. At the movement’s end, Beethoven’s incomparable theme pulls itself once more out of a mumbling, eerie blackness and flings itself against us, against the gods.”

Well, I just checked out the first movement of the Beethoven Ninth against the left insula, and the goose bumps still work.

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