Insomnia

Ethelbert Nevin

[April 2002.]

WARNING: Strong language appears in this brief letter to condemn and vilify the music of an over-appreciated Russian composer/pianist active during the early part of the past century whose initials are the 19th and 18th letters of our alphabet. Fans of the music and work of said composer are advised to read no further.

A few weeks ago, here in our quaint New England outpost, I was besieged by a terrible flu. There was one night when it was particularly difficult to get to sleep. Sometimes the radio helps to soothe and bring on sleep. But not so on this night.

The radio pulled in the last half of a mainstream tonal and classical piano concerto much beloved on the concert stage and in CD changers. But in my state, I heard music that was ugly and loathsome and without decent melody. It was a true din filled with endless passages of chord-banging and senseless exchanges of pointless phrases between piano and orchestra. A consummate waste of notes. It felt like I was drowning, and it was bizarre that this music had qualities that matched my state of mind.

I recall having heard, perhaps mistakenly, that this work was written by the composer on his way out of a deep depression. A depression that was flippantly cast off because the composer had been told he would go home and write a masterpiece. I also recall that this work contains melodies that generally begin and hover around and end on the same pitch, and that this constancy or inability to move also signifies the composer’s depression. But then again, a lot of this composer’s themes are like this, especially in the piano concerto that came before this particularly heinous one.

Excepting two of the composer’s sets of variations (one for piano and orchestra, one for piano alone), I have never been a fan of this composer’s work. This composer also wrote symphonies, bloated and sappy romantic works that try to blend the sentimentality of one century with the tired chromatic language of another. And there are some beloved choral works which make me ill even when I’m in perfect health.

But what music might have been soothing to me that night in my feverish state: anything by Mozart or Haydn, in fact, anything light or tuneful or sensibly orchestrated (even Delius!). I find it fascinating that I was so deeply upset by this man’s music when I was not in a good frame of mind. I think now that this composer was never in a good frame of mind himself, and I feel like I have learned this man’s secret or defect (even a short trip to Grove’s Dictionary to confirm or deny this suspicion seems pointless).

Altered mental states have produced some viable works, such as Schumann’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s Op. 23 No. 2. I am sure that there are several contemporary works of the 60’s and 70’s that fit this category, and it has been suggested that Mozart wrote some of the Requiem in a fever. But I am wary, almost fearful, of the next time the radio or the concert hall will program one of this particular man’s troubled and flawed works.