Saturday, 2 July 2016

A random walk in music

I read somewhere that a Zen monk was asked to describe the experience of enlightenment.  After some thought his face lit up and he exclaimed "Everything is exactly the same.... but more so!"

When you're near, there's such an air of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it,
There's no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.
[Cole Porter]

I had a discussion with some friends on a music course one time, on the subject of what was the greatest western classical music.  They all went for Bach's B minor mass, but I opted for his Goldberg Variations.

The Goldberg Variations are written for harpsichord, an instrument that is a bit of an acquired taste.  It was Sir Thomas Beecham who described the sound it makes as that of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.   It's the accuracy of this observation that makes it so devastating and funny.   The variations are often played on a piano, but this is not the instrument Bach had in mind, so for the authentic experience, a harpsichord is recommended.  But it's probably a good idea to get your ears used to the sound first, by listening to some easier pieces.  There are some lovely Scarlatti sonatas, for example, and Bach wrote two- and three-part inventions, all of which are worth a listen.  Take some time.

The Variations start and end with the Aria, and so the Aria (probably best translated as "tune") is what we hear first.  One hesitates to describe anything that Bach wrote as bad, but this Aria is truly strange.  It has barely anything you could call a tune that hangs together, and what there is is almost obscured by a collection of self-conscious ornaments and curlicues that distract from, rather than enhance, the experience.  Still, it's a piece by Bach, and it's reputed to be good, so we carry on listening.

If you want an analysis of the piece, Donald Tovey does a good job, describing the form of the Variations, their overall scheme, and so on, in his book "Chamber Music".  But it is his description of the return of the Aria at the end that carries the impact:   "The Aria returns in its original shape, with a strangely new and yet familiar effect.   Its numberless trills and graces no longer seem curious and posing, and its harmonies are now revealed as what they really are, the support of the whole mighty design, not merely the bass of a delicately-ornamented sarabande. As the Aria gathers up its rhythms into the broad passage of steady semiquavers with which it ends, we realize that beneath its slight exterior the great qualities of the variations lie concealed, but living and awake; and in the moment that we realise this the work is over"

In short, the Aria at the end sounds different from the Aria at the beginning.  Something has changed, but it can't be the Aria.   What then?  This is the strange change described by Cole Porter.  The lark is singing the same song, but the change in the emotional state of the listener changes the effect to a sad, minor key.  The change is strange because it's the listener not the lark that has changed.

But the change wrought in the listener of the Variations isn't as simple as the movement into sadness traced by the lark.  How to describe it?  Our random walk takes us back to our Zen monk.  We can describe the change in the listener by describing the change in the Aria, because they are the same thing from a different viewpoint.   The Aria is exactly the same, but more so.

And we thank Herr Bach for a glimpse of the sublime.


James Higham said...

I was thinking 'sublime' and then you wrote it.

CherryPie said...

Pachelbel's Canon always uplifts me. It is one of my favourite pieces of music :-)

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