Posted by Lucy Rash
Thursday 16th January, 2014

Two days ago, I was sitting alone in Château Periwinkle, WAMster HQ, finishing up my program notes for Brahms’ Symphony No.2. Writing away: headphones on, coffee and an apple to my right. I was quite content, really. Flicking through the score to the second movement, I slipped a CD recording of the symphony into my computer. One more read-through and then I’d
be done.

Having performed the symphony once or twice when I was younger, I know it quite well. Yet like a book with a gripping plot, it still enthralls me – just as it did ten years before. As that achingly beautiful cello melody flooded my headphones, I closed my eyes. And then
it happened.

My muscles starting quivering and my eyes welled up. Tears! Not just one or two, but a full stream of them. Then, you know, my glasses went all foggy and started slipping from the bridge of my nose. I could feel my skin getting red and patchy. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, but I couldn’t have cared less – my insides felt as if they were glowing.

As soon as fellow WAMster Ben entered the room, mid-morning coffee in hand, I forced my headphones onto his head and stuck the opening phrase on repeat like I would have done with Teenage Dirtbag in the 90s. ‘Listen! Isn’t it special?’ I blubbered. Even though I’d heard the movement a million times before, I don’t think I stopped weeping – or shaking – for another ten minutes.

Dear Reader: what was that? And why did it happen?

Think back: have you ever broken down during a concert? What about when your teacher played you a piece for the first time? I know I did, right on cue – it was a G minor chord in Wieniawski’s Legende. Or what about when recalling a particular memory? There are, for example, pieces of music I associate with particular people (that album I was listening to when I first fell in love with a boy), places (that piece I was obsessed with when travelling around Egypt), and milestones (that playlist I couldn’t stop listening to when my band mates and I recorded an album in the UK). But the question remains: why did I experience such a strong physical reaction to Brahms No.2?

One quick Google search and I had myself a lead. Florence Syndrome (FS) – or Stendhal Syndrome, as it’s also known – is a term describing an intense reaction to art. It refers to nineteenth-century French author Henri-Marie Beyle (pen name, Stendhal) who was overcome with emotion when visiting Giotto’s frescoes in Florence during the summer of 1817: ‘I was in a sort of ecstasy…Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations…Everything spoke so vividly to my soul.’ How poetic!

I did a bit more reading and noticed that some descriptions of FS were more medicalised than others, referring to it as a ‘condition’ or ‘illness’. Was this some whacky nineteenth-century logic at play?

I suddenly remembered my dear friend Will Randall, an old band mate who is about to submit his music psychology PhD thesis. Having developed and launched a truly incredible music app called MuPsych (available for free download through your smartphone’s app store! Randall and I love a good, shameless plug!), I knew he’d have some useful information for me. ‘Luce,’ he texted. ‘I’m not familiar with Florence Syndrome, but I certainly know a thing or two about strong reactions to music. Gabrielsson is the author you want. I’ll find a paper.’ Exactly two minutes later, some compelling research was sitting in my email inbox. What a guy.

As far as I could tell, Gabrielsson would reckon that my reaction to the Brahms episode could be explained through the ways in which elements of pitch, rhythm, and timbre were perceived and interpreted by my brain. The effects of this are different for each person, perhaps explaining why Ben didn’t react as strongly as me. Gabrielsson also seems to think the strength of my reaction could be attributed to my association of the music with a particular memory. This makes sense. I remember the lovely people I was sitting next to when I played it for the first time, as well as how elated we felt when we first performed it. Even as I type this, a smile is spreading across my face.

The more I read, the clearer it becomes that Stendhal would have had no solid explanation for why he’d had such a strong physical reaction to the frescoes. All he knew was that they were stunning, and he revelled in that feeling. I’m inclined to do the same.

I check in with Will, telling him that I’m happy to let the universe have its way on this one – for now. What he says back to me is incredible. ‘Luce, you’re right. It’s really important to just sit back and enjoy the music. While music psychology can teach us about underlying mechanisms and evolutionary interpretations – although there's still much to learn – you don't need any of this to be completely moved by music.’  Touché.

So, Dear Reader: be sure to listen out for a sniffle or two from the front row of the audience come Brahms time on Saturday night! I’ll be there, tissues at the ready, and loving every moment.

 

                                                                                                 - Lucy Rash

 

Words About Music participants will be blogging daily.

Submit Comment

Name
Email
Comment