Tunes Heard and Unheard: "Internal Songs"

At the end of my last blog I referred to a passage in the writings of the French musicologist Lionel Dauriac in which he talks about the “chant intérieure” or internal song which, for many, perhaps most listeners, accompanies any exposure to a musical performance. Roughly speaking, our mind – or rather that inner chamber of the brain that echoes whatever we are hearing externally - sings along in sympathy. But this is not all that the phrase implies, since for many of us the subliminal response persists long after the outer performance has ceased, returning at irregular intervals, whether we bid it to do so, or not. Sometimes it recurs when something in the outer world prompts it; more often than not, it courses through our daily or even nightly lives as a spontaneous, irrationally connected, recital that we can never, indeed do not want to, control. For many of us, it is life’s greatest secret resource. If unduly repetitious – the same few bars over and over again - nowadays it is sometimes referred to as an “earworm”. In every case, it is literally invisible. Indeed, the mere possibility that it might be detectable by others seems absurd. Imagine walking up to someone on the underground and remarking “I perceive from the expression on your face that you soul is expiring to ‘Dido’s Lament.’ And then shuffling along the platform demanding of each preoccupied passenger in turn: “Schubert?” “Duffy?” “Richard Strauss with interruptions from The Rolling Stones?”

My wife and I first discovered the discussion by Dauriac of this often ignored phenomenon in the library of the British writer and harpsichordist Vernon Lee, held in the office of the inimitable Alyson Price in the Harold Acton library in Florence, where we were researching in July 2013. But Dauriac is not the only one to use the term. A footnote to Lee’s book Music and Its Lovers alludes to an extension of the same phenomenon. Its source is Peter Ibbetson (1891), an early novel by George Du Maurier, in which the protagonist complains – or perhaps boasts – of “a kind of melodic malady, a singular obsession to which I am the subject and which I will call unconscious musical celebration. I am never without some tune running in my head, never for a moment, not that I am always aware of it; existence would be unsupportable if it were.”

Inevitably there are occasional conflicts between this inner recital and external musical stimuli that incidentally disturb it. As I was drafting that last paragraph, BBC Radio Three’s “Breakfast on Three” programme, to which I eat my own breakfast, was giving out “The Procession of the Nobles” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Malada suite, while my inner ensemble had just been singing through one of Vaughan-Williams “Five Mystical Songs”, which I heard performed by the excellent choir in the Temple Church last Sunday. The two did not blend well. And now the radio, damn it, has gone on to Haydn’s “Clock” symphony, prompting recollections of playing it at school. Such clashes and crashes are frequent incidents in the stream of musical traffic that pours along the M25 of our mental lives. But how frequently are they noted down, and how many allusions to them do we find in that great occasional literature of letters and journals on which as researches and interested parties we all draw?

The protocol of the Listening Experience Database draws our attention at one point to an approximate distinction between music that is performed in public and in private. If what Dauriac says is true, however, then all music is in some sense performed - and in every case is experienced - in private. Only we hear what we hear. And when the orchestra packs up its instruments, and moves onto the next town, the concert goes on in a thousand subjective auditoria, furnishing as many minds. Again, some of us have already commented on the way in which modern techniques of reproduction, from the portable CD player to the i-player, have privatised the listening experience more and more emphatically. Nowadays it is possible for a whole carriage of commuters to sit in a communal rocking silence, whilst each one of them is locked into her or his private command performance. If these performances were simultaneously unlocked, the result would be cacophony. Yet this very recent shift of the socio-musical spectrum towards individual audition itself disguises a much older habit of the human personality whereby, throughout history, men and women have drawn solace from inner choirs and orchestras as they perform in spaces way beyond the aural nerve. It would, if we could, be fascinating to track this human habit through time. How have conventions of performance, and the evolution of successive styles, affected it? What did the mind of a medieval farm worker hear? Birdsong, the wind, or Gregorian Chant?

So, breaking all of the rules (since it is existing accounts by others that we are looking for), I offer a few sentences from my Listening Diary for 2013. It is, I am afraid a bit nerdish, and the date is Friday 2nd August: “Chant Intérieur: Last movement of Tippett’s Second Symphony: the pounding of the Cs in the lower strings, culled from Vivaldi (the ‘Seasons’, I am sure, which in 1957 was newly popular as a result of LP recordings. Tippett himself had heard these concerti on Radio Lugarno.)” There must be a source for the Tippett anecdote somewhere, and in any case I’d obviously happened on an interesting cross-over between inner and outer, and between passive and active, listening What, dear reader, is your mind playing to you now, and - far more relevantly to our purposes – what references can you now find tucked away in the archive to the inner songs of others?