Nietzsche vs. Flaubert; Or, What to Listen to While Walking

Flaubert says somewhere that thinking and writing have to be done while sitting. Nietzsche vehemently contradicts him, saying that only ideas reached by walking have any value. Well, in this age of IPODs it is probable that large numbers of people routinely hear musical ideas while walking. The streets separating me from my workplace abode aren’t exactly impassable after our recent snow, but the narrowing caused by the combo of encroaching snow and two-sided parking made bicycling inadvisable. And if I drive, I’ll never work off those Pilsner Urquells. So, walking it was this week, an hour at a crack, twice a day, with my IPOD.

What’t the best classical music for walking?

All of the following is corroborated by recent experience. Number one, throw out Webern, throw out Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande; you can’t hear the darn things even with excellent earphones. Also, operas with secco recitative are a bad choice. Secco recitative is never very exciting (that’s why Mozart farmed his out, at least some of the time), but it provides virtually no distraction while taking a lengthy and potentially boring walk. And this sort of recitative is likely followed by a da capo aria. Literal repeats (the da capo, of course) don’t suit the activity very well. Does it seem like coloristic music, say, Respighi or Rimsky-Korsakov would fit the bill nicely? Mais non, messieur, it’s not enough intellectual distraction, firstly, and secondly, this repertory sounds much better live or on a good stereo. I love all the above mentioned music, by the way, but it is not good walking music.

You might think especially rhythmic music would be good walking music, and here you would indeed be right. Can’t do much better than a driving Shostakovich scherzo. But these are his shortest movements, and one is about all you can take in any given hour. Oddly, profound adagios by Shosty or even Bruckner work well, possibly because the sort of music which may cause you to fidget when imprisoned in a chair is even more beautiful when you are physically liberated. The largo from Shostakovich Six and the slow movement from Bruckner Nine provided downright epiphanic experiences. And Shostakovich and Bruckner are perfect, because lots of their symphonies take about an hour. 

In general, exceptionally dissonant music worked poorly, perhaps because the ambient sounds and visual stimulation of a contemporary urban environment don’t provide the right sort of counterpoint for early Hindemith, or Varese, or Carter. Of course, it you are the sort of person who likes to put chocolate sauce on chocolate ice cream, this may be perfect. Lieder works poorly, as well, because it is hard to absorb the words and the meaning of words while dodging maniac drivers, intent on crippling you for life. And piano music sounds tinny, even with excellent earphones. 

What works best? Ballets and string quartets. But not the “Rasoumoffskys”…these are too densely argued, have too much continuity and complexity. Go with Beethoven’s op. 18…not just the perfect music, but the perfect walking music. Go with ballets by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky-the combination of brief formal structures coupled with robust physical energy is a winner. 

So there. Zarathustra has spoken.