Music and Memory

Carlos Santana (b. 1947)

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me....suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray..….when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.”
“In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust (transl. C.K.Moncrief)

The beautiful, soaring interior of Alvar Aalto’s masterpiece,
Vuoksenniska Church (1958) Imatra, Finland
(drawing by the author)

A taste, a scent, can trigger memories, but how about music? Don’t we all have pieces that represent a period or phase of our lives, or a person, or a place? When I was 24, I lived in Finland in a dormitory on the outskirts of Helsinki designed by the great Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto, one of the reasons I was drawn to that country (the other being Sibelius, of course). Lonely and isolated in a foreign land, I kept the television tuned to MTV, all the rage in ‘91, and the mournful twang of Michael Stipe on the mandolin in R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” was both soundtrack for the summer and a tenuous link to home. It was a painful experience but one I look back on as a formative period of my life. I hear it now and it conjures up Finnish forests and lakes, saunas, and the midnight sun.

When I see Messiaen’s Quatuor pour Fin du Temp (“Quartet for the End of Time”) on a program I’m transported to a stretch of I-95 outside of New London. I’d heard the piece many times and it always seemed slow and, worse, boring. However, colleagues I admired adored it so I wondered what they were hearing that I didn’t. Then, on a stretch of highway it hit me with the force of epiphany. Toward the end of the final movement the tension builds unbearably, the music straining, until finally - finally! - a climax is reached and the harmony resolves, mirroring, I suspect, the composer’s own spiritual journey (he wrote the piece while a prisoner-of-war in a Nazi internment camp during WWII). Messiaen said of this movement: “It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.”

‘There shall be time no longer.”

The Quatuor had left me unmoved the first dozen or so times I listened but on the thirteenth attempt my ears suddenly made sense of it. Understanding that last movement somehow pulled the entire piece into focus. Sometimes great music requires such persistence.

Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

As a professional musician, I can’t hear the recording of Hans Gál’s Serenade with my erstwhile trio, Ensemble Epomeo, without recalling a certain frigid concert hall in Somerset, England and pleading with the management to turn up the heat. British winters are mild compared to Massachusetts but let’s see you try to play the viola indoors at 55 degrees.

warm music, cold fingers

Some music makes me think of specific people. One friend loved Van Morrison’s “Moondance” while Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” is irrevocably linked in my mind with another person. My most poignant personal associations are with my father. He worshipped Bach, especially the choral music, and gravitated towards the more intimate St. John Passion rather than the more grandiose St. Matthew. During his final days, home in hospice, I would play Bach chorales for hours on the piano for him. I’m a terrible pianist and at one point the nurse asked if he minded and my dad signaled with his hand for me to continue (at that point he was unable to speak anymore). His favorite chorale from St. John was Herzliebster Jesu.


Just as looking through a telescope is, quite literally, looking back in time, music can be a kind of time travel, transporting us vividly to the past. And also - in the moment - if we are patient enough, the journey that music takes us on can be transporting. Just think: here coming up you already know the violins will get really quiet, or the oboe has an extended solo, or a singer’s voice cracks just the right way, or the low brass are about to erupt in a triumphant burst. The thrill of hearing a piece you know, anticipating each section before it happens - reliving that journey is one of the deep abiding pleasures of life.

David Yang, Artistic Director            

Light from Saturn takes over an hour to reach earth

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