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Sandy Denny and Schubert

“When the music’s playing, that’s when it changes, And no longer do we seem like total strangers. It’s all those words which always get in the way Of what you want to say”

So sang the great British folk artist Sandy Denny in her song ‘I’m a Dreamer’, published back in 1977. For me at least, Sandy was the greatest of all folk singers, with the uncanny ability to hack the emotional core of my being. I have written elsewhere about how music, in a way that spoken language rarely does, can affect arousal, stimulate our emotions and memories, and move our bodies. It can even subtly alter our physiological state, both internally by altering heart rate, levels of hormones and so on, and externally – resulting in goose bumps, chills, tears, etc. This is the universal power of music, a communication system that throughout our evolutionary history has played a critical role in enhancing trust, prosociality, and mutual cooperation.

Several weeks ago, while holidaying in Margaret River, a friend played some Sandy Denny songs in versions that I had never heard before – acoustic recordings of songs I knew well in other, more elaborate guises. I quickly bought the double CD and was much moved by many tracks, but especially by her demo recording of the song ‘No End’. It has a simple but beautiful piano accompaniment, in a gently rocking three plus five rhythm, a song bleak in content and yet so full of human warmth, empathy, and understanding. There are some lovely, unexpected chord changes, and one particular transition into a major key for some inexplicable reason reminded me of a beautiful, life-enhancing passage in the slow movement of Franz Schubert’s last unfinished symphony (numbered 10, not the well-known two movement unfinished symphony). And I stood there thinking, what on earth have these two people in common, except that they both reach into my soul, and both have the ability to write music that, in the words of the great American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein “can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable”.

This is the universal power of music, a communication system that throughout our evolutionary history has played a critical role in enhancing trust, prosociality, and mutual cooperation.

Of course, music appreciation is a very personal business, and I don’t expect many to see the Sandy Denny and Schubert link the way I do, but as I thought more about the two of them, more similarities emerged, perhaps spookily so. Sandy Denny was born 150 years after Schubert, and died 150 years after him; both were just 31 years old when they deserted us. In Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, written just before he died, he set the words of Wilhelm Müller to music.

He was apparently melancholy and depressed at this time, perhaps due to a venereal illness, and there is a great sense of longing, lost love, and despair in much of the music:

The frost has overspread my hair with a hoary sheen. I believed I had already grown old, and was overjoyed. But soon it melted away, and my hair was black again. How I shudder at my youth – how far off the grave is!” (The Grey – or Hoary – Head).

Sandy also wrote about loneliness, insecurity, and the transience of existence:

The naked tree of winter seems to stand so proud, lording the poor mortal as he goes. And the tears which well beneath his sombre shroud, will they fall with the shame of somebody who knows he can never be like the thought of a rose. Whose beauty remains even when the bloom goes?” (One More Chance).

Sandy Denny and Schubert seem to have lived a complete and mature lifetime in their brief 31 years. Those of us fortunate to enjoy a longer span of years will undoubtedly also experience loss of some sort, whether it be a lover, parent, partner, or child. Music has the unique capacity to induce feelings of nostalgia; our subjective responses to music enhance our memory and recollection of past events. This is because music activates specific sets of neural circuits in the brain, including regions known to be involved in memory processing and recall. That is one reason why music is increasingly being used to assist in the care of individuals with degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Music helps people remember autobiographical details about their lives and encourages social interactions. As Oliver Sacks wrote in Musicophilia:

“Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed. Its very ubiquity may cause it to be trivialized in daily life: we switch on a radio, switch it off, hum a tune, tap our feet, find the words of an old song going through our minds, and think nothing of it. But to those who are lost in dementia, the situation is different. Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while”.

Touch wood, my brain seems still to be functioning reasonably well, but if the time should come, may Sandy Denny and Schubert accompany me on my outward journey!

Featured image credit: Orchestra by Yanna Zazu. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    What a fine post.

  2. Rebecca Thorne

    A fantastic blog with lovely musical examples. Alan’s book is also a great read for those passionate about the importance of Music education.

  3. David C

    “may Sandy Denny and Schubert accompany me on my outward journey!”
    Departure soundtracks – reminds me of Terry Pratchett and Spem in Alium by Tallis. And how music can be so utterly essential to us that we need to connect with it as a final act.
    Nice post Prof Harvey. I’ve just bought your book and am looking forward to a good read. (What a beautiful cover jacket too!).

  4. Carla Mellough

    A beautifully written post where we have been allowed a personal glimpse into how music resonates in one person’s soul, and find calm in the prospect that our own souls can be enriched and comforted in our final years.

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