Symphonic spirits

Far from destroying our greatest minds, alcohol has spurred them on

Drunkenness is not a pleasant sight, nor is it easy to live with. The conventional morality that abhors it as a soul-destroying vice is undeniably on the right lines. And yet, and yet . . . If we remember the light that has peeped into the human tent from the little corners where the real drunks have rolled from it, we might be reluctant to join the chorus of condemnation.

Think of Turner, alone with his bottle of port and his candle, staring into the flame until those glorious sunscapes took shape in it. Think of Baudelaire, taking glass after glass until his sonnet-shaped desolation turned to a kind of joy. Think especially of the famously drunk composers, whose long-haul visions rolled over bottles to reach their final chord. Only a real drunk could have got inside the skin of old Russia as Mussorgsky did in Boris Godunov. And it is to the grain spirits of Finland that we owe the inspiration of Sibelius, who was carried home nightly, his body poisoned and his mind withdrawn.

The experts tell us that alcohol burns off the brain cells, cramping thought and reducing its scope and vivacity. The symphonies of Sibelius surely refute this notion. Although, it is true, they became more terse, more spare, more intensely inward as the composer pickled his brain, their musical scope became larger, with a more thought-through development and a harder logic. The easygoing lyricism of the First and Second Symphonies, in which repetition and ostinato are the main architectonic aids, gradually gives way to the brilliant elaboration of poetic ideas - as in the Fifth and Sixth - and thence to the musical argument of the Seventh, whose relentless logic has all the necessity of a Bach contrapunctus.

It is true that, at a certain point, the brain seems to have shut down, but it was not because it was destroyed - the wonderful recovery of inspiration towards the end of Sibelius's life is proof of that. It is rather that, in the brain of the real drunk, life itself is pickled, its flavour reduced to a spicy essence like a cucumber shrunk to a gherkin. Real life outside the bottle loses its flavour, becomes bland and insipid when compared with the pickled life within. And the drunk sits in his corner, savouring his inner visions, not bothering now to transcribe them into notes, words or brush strokes, indifferent to the flow of ordinary conversation or to the empty gestures of politeness. Officious people might carry him home, but it hardly matters where they dump him. His home is the bottle, in which the creatures of his dreams lie curled and shrivelled in their essential natures.

It has to be admitted, however, that I have witnessed this sublime condition only in others. As a moderate drinker, I have some inkling of what they feel; but my own symphonies, glimpsed at the bottom of a bottle, have never been written down.