A Musical Life

My Chornicle column this week is on classical music, inspired by a stint on Canberra's Artsound 92.7FM.
Music Gives Richness to Fabric of Life, The Chronicle, 4 February 2014

In his book Music Quickens Time, conductor Daniel Barenboim argues that classical music has much to teach us about living well together. Good music cannot be pure reason or pure emotion – it must combine both. And music, like life, reminds us that everything is interconnected.

I thought of Barenboim when presenter Jim Mooney invited me to appear on Artsound 92.7FM last month. The brief was simple: no partisan politics, just talk about the role of classical music in a well-balanced life, and play a few favourite pieces of classical music.

With a half-hour for the conversation and the music, Beethoven’s 9th and Mahler’s 6th weren’t exactly going to fit the bill, and we were about 15 hours short of the time required to zip through Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

But there are still some delightful short pieces around. After laying down the ground rules, I started off with a short movement from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony: a musical denunciation of the madness of Stalin’s era (Jim assured me that criticising Stalin didn’t amount to excessive partisanship).

Next we enjoyed a scratchy 1902 recording of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso singing ‘Vesti la guibba’, followed by a modern-day recording of ‘Wie Todesahnung’ from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The half hour finished with the wild ‘Tarantella’ from the 5th symphony of Australian composer Carl Vine. In thirty minutes, we’d covered anti-authoritarianism, Italian and German opera, and modern Australian classical music.

My own musical education has been eclectic at best, a product of a piano-playing mother, opera-loving friends in my undergraduate days, and some time singing (badly) in the choir when I was a postgraduate student. Reading biographies of the great composers, I envy their early successes, but am struck by how so many of their personal lives seemed to crumble around them. For people like Mozart and Mahler, Schubert and Schumann, it is almost as though the act of writing awe-inspiring music used up their bodies.

Visiting Artsound FM reminds you of the depth of musical expertise in Canberra, and the way that a love of classical music can provide balance and inspiration. In the midst of our daily problems, the notes of a Chopin prelude can cool the spirit. But when things seem intractable, the power and energy of a Brahms symphony is a reminder that we really can change the world for the better.

At its best, public life can take cues from music. A good speech contains statistics and stories – appealing to reason and emotion; not just one or the other. Smart governments take account of the interconnections between issues – that a more educated community might be healthier, or that a good transport system might make us more productive. Music can even help address the world’s thorniest problems – as Barenboim showed when he brought together Palestinian and Israeli musicians to play in the same orchestra. Music may not solve all the world’s troubles, but it certainly helps make for a more interesting life.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.

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