Verdi, Sweat, and Serious Injury

By · Title Image A New Sandow Pose (VIII) by D. Bernard & Co, Melbourne (Public Domain)  · Date 12/14/2017

Things didn’t go so well last time: studying to classical music left me a nervous wreck, lying in a figurative fetal position, and imagining the walls closing in around me. Nevertheless, there apparently remain yet more unintended purposes for orchestras, and we shall not stop until we’ve tested all of them.

So what, then, of classical music for sports? There are plenty of compilations on YouTube which extol the virtues of working out to a music genre almost always listened to while sitting. We’ve all heard about playing classical music to help plants grow, so maybe listening while working out could help me grow. (Perhaps not the best time to mention that a vineyard forced to listen to non-stop baroque music died en masse not long later.) I quickly ripped a playlist from YouTube, put on my track pants, and—short of slapping a couple of electrodes on my chest—was ready for an admittedly unscientific study into the hypotrophic benefits of Handel and the like.

I do exercise regularly. I used to hit the gym most days a week, with the help of Nas’s “Illmatic.” This is a formula that has, for the most part, worked perfectly. It also means that I’m fairly well acquainted with the gym, and long-ago laid to rest any anxiety or nervousness some people associate with the weight room. Any nervous breakdowns this time are a direct result of mixing up the music…

Since I refuse even to run for buses, I decide to hit the iron. The playlist is about an hour, which is well enough suited for an average workout. The “Marcia Trionfale” from Verdi’s “Aida” kicks things off—somewhat presumptuous and premature, unless you’d count successfully avoiding eye contact with the eternally-naked old men of the locker room a triumph. But hey it’s a kick, and I slide a couple of 45s onto a barbell and warm up with some bent-over-rows to get into the swing of things. Then “Nessun Dorma” comes on, and I’m thrown off-kilter—only a few minutes in and it feels like the music has already hit a peak. Eager to catch the moment, I slap on some more weight and really give it some.

Photo Portrait of strongman Eugen Sandow by Benjamin J. Falk (Public Domain)
Photo Portrait of strongman Eugen Sandow by Benjamin J. Falk (Public Domain)

Whether or not the popping of a hernia is an event worthy of Puccini’s grandeur is perhaps a matter best left open to debate. I feel myself overdoing it as an intestinal loop starts practically banging at the gates of my corpus, and begin to wonder whether, when he wrote “Turandot,” this is what Puccini had in mind. Thankfully, Strauss’s “Radetzky March” is the next piece in line, and aside for skipping around the weight room—which would almost certainly result in somebody attempting to either curl me, or use me as a fleshy one-way chest expander—is completely unsuitable for any kind of exercise regimen. Warmed-up to say the least, and having been somewhat thrown about by the playlist’s eclectic programming, I come to the conclusion that some strict-form deadlifts are the next logical step. For the uninitiated, this involves attempting to lift up and put back down a relatively large amount of weight without splintering one’s vertebrae in the process.

But the desperately erratic playlist suddenly brings me back to Verdi: what other than “Dies Irae”? Concerned that nothing else will quite top this as far as classical music for pumping iron goes, and momentarily forgetting about my possibly-ruptured abdomen, I plant my feet on the ground, wrap my fingers around the knurled bar, and push the Earth from the atmosphere through the soles of my shoes. Solvet saecum in favilla. The bar lifts as I push harder, legs slowly extending like two great pistons. Teste David cum Sibylla. I begin to extend my back. The two choirs scream of rapture and reckoning. Dies Iraaaeee, dies illliiaaa, something pops and I think I’ve had an accident. The bar drops from my hands and bounces off the cushioned mat. I look about the room in disarray and then relief as I realize it was a false alarm—most likely just some simple nerve damage, nothing more weight lifting can’t fix!

Given that particular close-call, and that “Ride of the Valkyries,” quite possibly the “Eye of the Tiger” of classical music, has just started playing, I decide to go freestyle with my workout and do something a little lower-weight and higher volume. Definitely no cardio, but something body-weight oriented, a few sets of pull-ups. I hype myself up on the way to the bar, jog a little on the spot, wave my arms in concentric circles as the violins kick in. I think about that scene in “Apocalypse Now” with the Huey helicopters, and picture myself hanging off the rails. I jump up, grab on, and then take a deep breath, which to my horror is thick with the airborne particles of another man’s sweat. I suppress my gag reflex and try to get a visual on the culprit. There he is behind me, in a hoodie with “BEAST MODE” plastered across the front. I want to call it quits to save myself the added pain of tasting this particular patch of air. But in what I realize is quickly becoming a trend, I know that Wagner’s Valkyries won’t wait up—I power through two more sets before going to the bathroom to scrape my tongue raw.

I’m serenaded by the first movement of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” on my return to the gym floor. In my head I flick through the various exercises I know, and rack my brain for something that might be made more effective by the addition of Mozart. I come up with nothing. Something non-strenuous; I’ll learn from my early mistakes. Some cable work, isolation, something where the music doesn’t render everything a life-or-death situation. It occurs to me that the playlist is now dictating my workout, which is taking on the irrational and formless aspect of the former.  

Photo A New Sandow Pose (VII) by D. Bernard & Co, Melbourne (Public Domain)
Photo A New Sandow Pose (VII) by D. Bernard & Co, Melbourne (Public Domain)

But what’s that smell? BEAST MODE is back. He’s working on a bench not 10 feet away. “I must move,” I think. I lack the mental capacity in my panic to think of anything useful, and begin just swinging weights around aimlessly anywhere out of his modus operandi. But he moves toward me again, apparently initiating some twisted game of cat-and-mouse to the overture of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” The whole charade is lifted from Loony Tunes, and my workout loses all structure or purpose. I find myself absent-mindedly picking at machines with little appetite like the buffet at a suburban wedding, my attention occupied by escape routes and contingency plans, with ways to make it through the final few minutes of this playlist while avoiding tasting him again.

After a slight pause in the music, and at a safe distance from my musky friend, I look at my phone as the overture to “Die Meistersigner von Nürnberg” starts. With only 10 minutes remaining, this must be, I think to myself with absolute relief, the final piece. I run the locker room, forgetting my rule about buses, unlock my things with a shaking hand. I practically sprint up the steps, pulling on a hoody and stuffing my towel into my bag as I do so. I’ve left BEST MODE for dust, he’s too busy shadow boxing in the mirror, it’s almost over. Wagner calls it and I tap out. “Time for a burger,” I think. It’s done! ¶