What I learnt by not listening to Dvorak
This time last year I was listening to Dvorak’s New World Symphony at any opportunity. I had just started a new job that I was not particularly enjoying, and there was a tenderness infused with hope in the music that I found uplifting.
A few months before I had just moved to London and was experimenting with Hinge. I had never been on dates with an app before, and was slightly sceptical as to their advantages.
However, I had found that in using a profile to distill my personality to a few basic points, I was able to hide my crippling insecurities quite well, and dress myself up as a sophisticated and cultured individual in a way that I have not been able to achieve when actually talking to people.
At the point when I was listening to Dvorak, I had been on a couple of dates with the same person, and they did not seem to hate me, nor had they seen through the shallow persona that I presented to the world.
Anyone who has been on more than a couple of dates with the same person will know the agonies of finding new and interesting places to meet so that the fledgling relationship doesn’t seem stale.
It was therefore with great excitement that I saw the London Symphony Orchestra was playing Dvorak’s 5th and 6th Symphonies at the Barbican. I had not listened to the pieces, but based on my love of his 9th, I assumed I would find the experience pleasant.
More importantly, this was a perfect opportunity to further my love interests and continue my pretence of connoisseur of the arts.
I should have known that my role playing would be short lived when they responded “Perfect, I LOVE Dvorak”, but I was too enamoured with the idea of myself that I had built up to notice the trap I had unwittingly set for myself.
My anxieties were first aroused when we met for a drink in the Barbican bar before the concert. I had been venturing forth on all matters music, offering what I believed to be insights and profound wisdom.
In my hubris, I had been holding court for some time, before I discovered that they had actually played flute, for an orchestra, in Switzerland, to quite a high standard.
Fortunately they were very kind, and gave no indication that I had irreparably embarrassed myself in their eyes, but my heart slowly began to sink as the carefully constructed identity I had built crumbled before my eyes.
You see, whilst at school I had made a concerted effort to be smart, intellectual and cultured in my last two years. This had irked a few of my friends who labelled me a fraud and a try hard, pretending to be something that I was not.
As such, there has been a small but distinct voice in the back of my head that labels me a phony any time I aspire to be something and doubts the sincerity with which I engage with the things I profess to be interested in.
It was with these nagging voices rising out of the depths of my long-term memories that I entered the concert hall and took my seat alongside my date.
As the music started, my anxieties compounded and my mind boiled over with heaps of self-judgement, belittling me for my foolishness and reminding me that no matter how hard I might try, I would remain ignorant and stupid until the day I died.
Who did I think I was to pretend to be interested in art and culture when everything that came forth from my mouth was trite, cliched or just a downright lie?
Much more, what was I even doing on a date with this person? Was I unaware that my inauthenticity was bound to be discovered at some point, rendering myself unlovable and leaving me to die alone?
On and on the voices raged for the entirety of the concert such that I could hardly pay attention to the music. This only made matters worse for my inability to listen was further evidence of the complete absence of any wit that might lie within my mind.
It was with a sense of relief that the concert came to an end an hour and a half later and I busied myself with planning a quick exit to return to my room and hide for the rest of the evening.
My evacuation plan was scuppered, however, when my date suggested a drink in Shoreditch. I might be a fraud and a liar, but I do fulfil my obligations whilst on a date. That, and a stiff glass of spirits sounded like the very tonic for my aggrieved soul.
Greatly humbled by this point, I admitted, when asked what I had thought of the music, that I had been unable to concentrate because of my anxieties and the lamentations of my mind.
Astonishingly, they admitted that the same had been the case for them, and I realised in that moment one’s reaction to a work of art was just as important as the work of art in and of itself.
We are not so separated from the world as we might believe, meaning simply that the world engages with us to evoke memories and feelings that are beyond our control.
That being the case, it would not be too far a stretch to conclude that in fact the music had been partly responsible for the evocation of these unkind and harsh thoughts and feelings.
Indeed, I suggest that this evocation was the point - that in writing this music, Dvorak had himself been suffering from self-affliction, a sense of insecurity and judgement that hung over him.
On this picture, music acts as a means of communicating, showing the audience what it is that the composer feels by guiding them on a journey through their own memories, thoughts and emotions.
I don’t see this as too crazy a suggestion - even the most rudimentary and basic pop song will successfully conjure emotions that are directly linked to your own subjective and personal experience.
Great music, and indeed great works of art, succeed in helping us to realise something eternal through our own subjective experience. Whilst the specific memories, thoughts and emotions that are conjured up might be deeply personal, their quality is that of the universal, and art is the medium through which the connection is made.
What I learnt, then, by not listening to Dvorak is that we all feel insecure, anxious and phony - as if we are about to be discovered for the frauds we are.
And whilst that realisation does little to assuage the onslaught of critical voices in my head, it does at least remind me that perhaps I don’t have to take them so seriously.