Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My inner iPod

There was an article in the March 15 New York Times Science section ("Mental Melodies," by C. Claiborne Ray) on why people get a certain tune in their heads, and then have difficulty saying goodbye to them. For me, it's like an ongoing but beautiful sickness, for there is never a time when music is not going through my head.

In fact, while I was a graduate student, I had a tune stuck in my head for 18 months. Believe it.

A month I can deal with. Two to three months, that becomes a problem. For half of 2009, it was Mahler's Ninth Symphony. But a year and a half can be unpleasant, no matter how nice the melody, or how gracious the tune.

And that's all it was - a tune. I kept singing it to my conducting colleagues, and no one could identify it. I don't have perfect pitch, but I knew it was in Eb major, and that it very likely was part of some sonata, string quartet or symphony. Unfortunately, the melody was too obscure to be readily identifiable. I asked the smartest musicians I knew, even the musicologists and computer brains -- all to no avail.

At the time, I was working on my thesis, the birth of the sonata rondo (kind of like a hybrid of the 'rondo' and 'sonata form') in Haydn's music, mainly the 80+ string quartets, 50+ piano sonatas, and 100+ symphonies. If you know anything about Haydn, then you would understand when I tell you that -- save for this innocuous tune that would not leave me -- it was a very happy year, immersed in the music of the world's most underrated great composer.

Studying the natural evolution of the sonata rondo in Haydn's music naturally led me to other composers, and how they handled this particular form. (Two excellent examples are the finales of Beethoven's Second and Eighth symphonies.)

One day, I looked through the symphonies of Schubert. I had often thought of an excellent performance of Schubert's Second Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, long before he succeeded Riccardo Muti in Philadelphia. Looking through the score that day, the memory of the concert came back to me with a glow.

And wouldn't you know -- while thumbing through the pages of the Schubert score as I listened to it in my inner ear -- once I came upon the finale, and the second theme in particular, there it was. . . .

. . . the tune!

Eighteen months, five hundred forty days, nearly thirteen hundred hours later, and I had finally found it. It felt like I'd climbed Mt. Everest.

And the next day, the tune was gone.