Back in the old days I thought that my first symphony would probably be about something like a mid-life crisis, that thing that I believe happens at the start of the Divina Commedia, when Dante finds himself in the middle of a dark forest and is unable to find his way out. He is there nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita – in the middle of the road through life – and, to me, this is a perfect description of that moment when the first part of one’s journey is done and the way forward is somewhere other.
That was the thinking that I had for the symphony when I turned forty, although at that stage, despite many sketches, I simply did not have the technical ability to see the project through beyond a faltering start. At least, if I did have the technical ability I had no confidence in being able to use it, but the result was the same and the project stayed on the shelf for another ten years until I hit fifty and took my sabbatical, which then turned into rolling lockdowns, as we all know.
The symphony is definitely not about a mid-life crisis, because I did not really have one back then and am certainly not having one now (being – let’s be generous – a little towards the latter end of mid-life anyway), but it has retained that characteristic of the journey from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from fragments to wholes. That is what appeals to me about the symphonies of the likes of Beethoven, Sibelius and Lutosławski, so it seems natural that that should be how my own attempt at the form would express itself, even if, to my mind, it does not portray a personal crisis but might, viewed through a lens, be about a pandemic, even if I suspect that I might be imposing meaning on abstract processes.
The reason for all this musing is that last week was a tough one. I made good progress on the symphony, ploughing onwards with the string articulations and dynamics and bowings, but the more I worked the more I felt that I was in una selva oscura, and it was an image that I simply could not get out of my head. Each marking, each down bow or dynamic or articulation, was a slash of my blade against the thicket, but, for the life of me, I could not tell whether I was actually heading out of the forest or further in. It was the strangest thing, I have to say, the notion that all the work could well be for nothing, and threw a pall over my mood for the whole week.
Matters were not helped by some dredging up of things from the distant past which, in retrospect, should probably have stayed there, nothing traumatic or shocking, but reminders of parts of me that I had long forgotten, especially my hopes and aspirations from decades ago, and I spent some time wondering how or even if they had been fulfilled. Ultimately, as I wrote last week, even in this time of a headlong return to das Land ohne Musik the trick is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because much as the view from the middle of the forest might be dark and forbidding the way out is definitely there and it cannot be found without cutting back the thickets. The rest we can sort out once we make it back to the open spaces.