Holst, Khachaturian, Górecki, The Shadows, Sky.
by Dave Skipper
Born in 1978 in Luton (UK), I grew up in the 1980s on a steady of diet my Dad’s classical music vinyl and cassette (and then CD) collection. He was especially fond of Bruckner and Sibelius, but listened to a wide variety of composers, from Bach and Handel to Prokofiev and Dvorak to Ives and Gershwin. I had violin lessons for a few years, studied music GCSE at school, and we went to various classical concerts over the years. Despite all this I only really enjoyed a relatively small proportion of the music that I was exposed to, but those that I did I gladly listened to again and again.
The one piece that stood out above all others, and that I love to this day, is The Planets suite by Gustav Holst. Each of the seven parts are extremely evocative of their respective themes, powerfully capturing the mood and essence of the planets’ titles, which Holst took from astrological associations. Looking back, I can see now how this was the starting-point for my love of conceptual music that follows a particular idea or exploration of a theme or story, yet doing so purely by the music itself – no words or pictures necessary! To me this melding of the abstract with some kind of non-explicit quasi-representational meaning is very interesting to me. It’s not a literal journey through a narrative or through space, but it allows for an imaginative journey in the mind within the enigmatic and invisible three-dimensional world of sound.
Two of the planets particularly hit the spot for me: Mars, Bringer of War, for its ominosity and tense momentum, and Neptune, the Mystic, for its mysterious and haunting atmosphere. Going to see The Planets performed in London at the Royal Albert Hall one Proms night as boy was unforgettable – as Neptune brought the suite to a close, the eerie vocal part at the end emanated from all around the topmost balcony of the hall, the singers fittingly hidden from sight, and their sound gently faded away as they walked away into the recesses of what seemed to be secret corridors into the heavens. To this day I can recall few moments of greater musical magic than I experienced then, and it gives me goosebumps just writing about it!
Here are Mars and Neptune:
Gustav Holst: Mars, Bringer of War (from The Planets)
Gustav Holst: Neptune, the Mystic (from The Planets)
Continuing the haunting vibe, Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” has long been a favourite of mine. Górecki stated that the purpose of the symphony was simply “an evocation of the ties between mother and child.” It requires finding a quiet hour to listen to intently, with pure focus, no distractions, no noise. It’s slow, it’s beautiful, it captures something deep and profound. It’s never a wasted hour to give this work its due.
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No.3
Another classical piece that featured prominently in my childhood was Aram Khachaturian’s Symphony No.2, The Bell. Funnily enough, I heard it a lot only because my older brother loved it so much, as I didn’t like it at all! It was too dark and heavy for me, and it seemed he always wanted to put the record on when we played with soldiers or wargames together! Which was appropriate, as Khachaturian wrote this symphony at the height of WW2 and described it as “a requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence.” It was only years later, when I revisited it of my own volition, that I finally got it. It’s intense and powerful, features that became a vital part of my musical tastes that have culminated in harsh noise. In fact, I even tracked down and bought a hard-to-find score of the symphony so I could follow along as I listened! The final movement is particularly spine-tingling.
This symphony is rarely performed, but here is one version (not the one which I have on CD, which I think is more powerful):
Aram Khachaturian: Symphony No.2
At one end of my Dad’s classical music collection were a few oddities that got a lot of hearings from my brother and I – some albums from 60s instrumental guitar group The Shadows, and some albums from 80s rock-classical hybrid band Sky (featuring classical guitar virtuoso John Williams). Not only did these consolidate my preference for non-vocal music, but they expanded my horizons that bit wider than orchestral instruments. Drums and guitars! That extra energy and drive piqued my interest, and it was always the more intricate or punchy tracks that attracted me more.
From The Shadows I’ve picked out an obscure track called Voyage to the Bottom of the Bath that I enjoyed for its sense of humour and particularly for its guitar solo with (at the time to me unfathomable) dextrous run of notes at 1:16.
The Shadows: Voyage to the Bottom of the Bath
As for Sky, my brother and I listened to all their albums countless times while we played games together. For me their absolute pinnacle of a track is a lengthy excursion called Hotta. It has all the seeds of my developing music interests: momentum, extended solos (guitar, keyboard, drums), long structure, and heavier than most of their other material. It’s an adventure! Love this track!
Next time, the guitars get heavier and faster as I discover hard rock and heavy metal…