This first appeared on Sirens of Suspense...
I’ve started a new novel, and I was writing along to Classical today (as I am wont to do; I am especially adept at red-pencil conducting), listening to an I Heart Radio station out of Minnesota, and was about to change the station when the host said the magic word: Berlioz!
Now, for me, there are several magic words when it comes to classical music: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Dvörak, and Rodriguez among them, but Berlioz is the one that sets my heart a-flutter, because it is almost always followed by the chill-inducing words Symphonie Fantastique, which guarantees I’m going to stop what I’m doing and turn up the volume.
I think I may have been a conductor in a past life, the way classic music affects me. It is my preferred writing noise of choice, and several of my favorite symphonies have made it into novels along the way, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in creepy ways. (See THE COLD ROOM for a perfect example.)
But the Fantastique holds a special place in my heart. I spent my late teen years in Washington, D.C., and my father is a classical nut, so there were many fine evenings at the Kennedy Center, listening to the National Symphony Orchestra breathe life into the music, riding the strains of my favorite composers as they lilted through the breathless air. Berlioz was always a favorite, but it wasn’t until a fateful day in traffic that it truly became an anthem.
I was nineteen, and deep into my second internship at the White House. Cabinet Affairs, to be exact. We oversaw all the communication between the White House and the Cabinet members, including setting up Cabinet meetings. One of my jobs was laying out the pads and pens in Cabinet Room prior to events. The Oval Office was a handsbreath away, and it was not lost on me that I was rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in our nation and the world on a daily basis. It’s a heady place for a kid to work, for sure.
Heading home, I got stuck in traffic on the WhiteHurst Freeway. I was a football field away from the Key Bridge, and getting very impatient: There was an incredible storm brewing over Virginia, and I wanted to get home before the worst of it hit.
It wasn’t meant to be.
For ten minutes, traffic didn’t move an inch, and the storm swept in, with incredible forked lightning and earth-shattering booms of thunder, all the noise that makes you understand why the Greeks and Romans named, and feared, their gods.
As it happened, Symphonie Fantastique was playing on the radio, WETA (90.3) still one of the best classical stations out there. As if on cue, as the worst of the storm overtook us, on came the Fantastique’s fifth movement, “Songe d'une nuit du sabbat” (Dream of the Night of the Sabbath). The long, tolling bells, mournful clarinet, and deep notes of the bassoon and tuba always gives me chills, but in concert with the dancing lightning, the thunder shaking the car, the pelting rain, it became the world around me. An embodiment of the piece, literally ringing through the very air.
I was unable to run and hide, so I sat, mesmerized by the storm, feeling the world, and myself, becoming one with the music.
It was such a visceral, present moment that I relieve it every time the piece comes on. I drop everything, listen to the fifth movement, and I’m back in the moment: A young, proud teenager, serving her country, stuck in traffic, praying the roof doesn’t collapse on her car, the wings of the music lifting her higher and higher. I think Berlioz must have appreciated a good storm.
Don’t be surprised to see the Fantastique somewhere near the beginning of this new book. A thunderstorm, and the music, and the feels. I think it’s high time, don’t you?
How does music affect you?