38. “Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World,’” Antonin Dvořák

Dvorak Symphony No 9 From the New World

The beauty of being sleep-deprived is that you fall asleep really quickly. I didn’t have that “advantage” in my early 20’s. Back then it took me forever to fall asleep, so I would listen to music through my earbuds to relax. Which is what this piece did to me… that is before it gave me terrifying visions. More on that to come.

Late at night, I would listen to just about anything, really, just flipping through the radio dial to find something interesting, then I’d usually end the night on certain soothing songs I had on tape. I’d go probably 20 minutes to an hour just listening to stuff.

I’d love it when I’d land on songs that took me back to my childhood, songs like the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” or something even earlier like Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light.” Now that I look it up, I was only three when the latter was out, but still somehow it takes me back to that late-70’s, early-80’s time of shag carpets and lots and lots of woodgrain. “Nightshift” isn’t even a song that reminds me of anything in particular, and it wasn’t really a favourite at the time, but it was part of a year, 1985, that remains very evocative for me, especially through music. It’s somehow the first song I think about when I think about my late-night listening.

Which brings me back to the only piece of classical music that I own: Antonin Dvořák’s ninth and most famous symphony, perhaps better known as the “New World Symphony.” Classical music in general has never made much of an impact on me. So why, that night, in my radio station surfing, did I choose to sit on that wave and ride it? I have no idea. But something about it immediately pulled me in. When I came across it, I think it was probably already a few minutes in, maybe partway through the first of four movements. I think, in my late-night, possibly-nearing-sleep haze, I found it at first relaxing. That relaxation sunk its claws into me, trapping me, leaving me no choice but to endure the piece’s later dramatic turns.

I know, my writing took a bit of a dramatic turn there, too. Claws? A piece of music had claws? Yeah, pretty much. You’ll see why soon enough. Throughout my life, music has inspired in me many amazing things: joy, tears, motivation, relaxation, excitement, empathy, the feeling that I’m not alone, memories (hence this here blog). But never before or since has listening to music given me vivid, lifelike visions.

Maybe I was in a half-sleep state at this point, drifting into a dream. But during the piece’s most dramatic, iconic, loudly emphatic theme, I saw a dragon. In my head, of course, but still: a dragon. I was flying through space of some sort and suddenly there was an unspeakably huge red dragon before me. It was ferocious, lurking behind some sort of golden castle, peering from behind the castle’s turrets and towers with its giant yellow eyes. I was its prey and I was in its sights and it was toying with me, delaying the inevitable. It was terrifying. I actually felt terrified. But at the same time it was almost like I was on a giant roller coaster, scared but excited, wanting to ride it out because I ultimately knew that I was safe.

When the piece ended, I listened carefully to the DJ as he revealed the name of the symphony and its composer. I was exhausted, out of breath, just like that feeling when you pull back into the loading area of a roller coaster when the ride is over, but I immediately got up and wrote down the title and composer so I could buy it as soon as possible.

I don’t think the recording I got was the same one I heard that night, because it doesn’t quite hit me the same way. I think it was a one-time thing, anyway. And it was one hell of a wild ride.

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