Random Constellation 492B5

In his 1928 novel Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley leads one of the main characters through a discussion of biological development, pondering the mystery of how living creatures develop limbs and organs, rather than just proliferating aimlessly. It would be nearly forty years before the discovery of DNA, the unseen threads that govern our identity. It is interesting to consider what remarkable discoveries will be made during the next forty years; what new techniques will be developed to probe the workings of the cell and its unknown constituents. Huxley’s book also includes reference to current politics, such as the far-right Fascist movements. In the UK, nearly a century later, we have the same ongoing debate; anxiety about immigration and the loss of national identity has sparked the rise of the UK Independence Party and the British National Party. These agents offer a simple, clear-cut message to voters; all the nation’s problems are due to interference from the EU, and if we restricted immigration then there would be no shortage of housing or jobs. Surely the same point was being made at the start of the twentieth century. In 1902 the Daily Express and Daily Mail both mentioned ‘alien hordes’ who would arrive in Britain and cause the collapse of the Empire. One of the episodes in Point Counter Point features the character of Spandrell meditating on the slow movement from Beethoven’s A-minor quartet. Younger readers, accustomed to flawless digital recordings, may never have seen or heard a 78 rpm disc (total playing time: about 215 seconds per side), and would not appreciate the feeble sound quality of this medium. Huxley captures the essence of the listening experience, likening the roaring background noise to Beethoven’s own deafness. As for me, I recall seeing the Brandis Quartet at the Wigmore Hall in 1985 performing this piece. The idea that four strangers, sitting just a few yards in front of me, could generate so much…pleasure? No, that word doesn’t do justice to the transports of delight. Or indeed, joy; for Beeethoven’s most famous work is his ninth symphony, a radical piece in every way. A mysterious opening giving way to a grandiose first movement, a stormy scherzo, and a long finale which includes – shock – a choir and four soloists who perform Schiller’s Ode to Joy. A manuscript copy of the ninth was sold at auction in 2003, and fetched a respectable 2.1 million pounds. Compare this with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, which covers four (rather than 500) pages and which is expected to sell at auction for about 2 million dollars. To be fair, the Dylan lyric was actually written by the man himself, unlike the symphony, which just had Beethoven’s notes in the margins. But it still makes me wonder about our priorities…

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