Magazine article The Spectator

Listening to Schumann's Romance in F Sharp Major and Musing on Piano Wheels

Magazine article The Spectator

Listening to Schumann's Romance in F Sharp Major and Musing on Piano Wheels

Article excerpt

In the unlikeliest situations the mind can tear off enthusiastically in unaccountable directions. In the bath, or in the watches of the night, or when almost too exhausted to stand, ideas can suddenly start coming at us, fast and furious. It can happen listening to music, too, as I found out last week.

We were at the Wigmore Hall in London, listening to the Swedish pianist Bengt Forsberg play Bach, Schumann and Faure with artistry and intelligence, when I found myself staring at the wheels of the big black grand piano.

And slowly I realised how ball-bearings work.

It took me the whole of Schumann's Romance in F Sharp Major Op. 28 No. 2, but the engineering discovery was a revelation - and a reproach, too, for never having thought about it before. Ball bearings are desperately important to modern machinery, as in this unbidden burst of reflection I realised.

But why there? Why then? I doubt I'm alone in experiencing inexplicable boosts to my modest powers of thought, in circumstances that might suit a different mental state.

Over the years I've learned what circumstances often prompt these states. One is long-distance running. In the days when I trained seriously it was common for some of the sharpest thoughts and arguments to occur while pounding the streets. You'd begin to feel you could almost fly.

Enoch Powell's fellow undergraduates at Cambridge used to laugh at him because instead of choosing for his exercise runs the many pretty country paths available, he ran repetitively to the railway station and back: a dull and urban beat along a long and dreary road. Powell's response - that to the station and back was exactly the distance he required - was thought rather grim.

But any serious long-distance runner will know exactly what Powell meant. Monotony and ecstasy can be allied. The joy of training is the internal rhythm it can generate: hard to describe but unmistakable when it comes.

The pounding of your feet, the pulse of heart and lungs, become - perversely - an almost hypnotic drumbeat, at the same time calming yet heady.

With the rhythm comes a feeling of power, momentum, unstoppability - and (for me, anyway) some incredible rushes of ideas that would normally be beyond me. I would compose speeches, columns, arguments, letting (as it seemed) something unseen take over.

In those training runs I'd feel just as Powell did: that the less distraction I had the better.

A treadmill would have been fine.

And music, especially live performance, has the same effect. At the Wigmore Hall, it is true that for quite long stretches at a time I was in a world of my own, and only half listening. But I do mean half listening. The half that heard, like a cat being stroked, induced in the half that was elsewhere a kind of bliss.

And as my partner and I were sitting right up to one side of the raised stage, I found myself gazing absently at the brass front wheel of the piano, at the same level as my own head.

I had no direct eye-line to the pianist, but I could see the clearest possible reflection of Mr Forsberg in the propped-open top of the piano: his face two thirds of the way to upside-down because of the angle at which the mirror-shiny black top was propped. He looked like my chemistry teacher at school.

Above his face I could see reflected the internal workings of the piano itself, hammers and dampers lifting and falling with the melody and rhythm. …

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