Couperin

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If you go to church, you’ll know that your organist was somewhat occupied last week. During Holy Week, the standard schedule of one or two services per week is upended entirely. There are perhaps two services on Maundy Thursday, a long service on Good Friday (lasting up to three hours or more), a service late Saturday evening, and as many as three services on Sunday morning (the earliest of which may well be at six o’clock). On top of that, there are extra rehearsals for the brass, some hand-holding sessions to teach your sopranos innumerable hymn descants, and a lot of conversations with the clergy to reassure them that nothing about this year’s music will come as a surprise to the parishioners who only attend church on Christmas and Easter. It is in this week that organists become miracle workers. They are exhausted.

Compared to other Episcopalian organists across the country, my own Holy Week was relatively light. At Christ & Saint Stephen’s, I managed to get away with only one extra rehearsal, as I only had to play and conduct one service per day from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Other perks: we had no brass on Easter morning (my trumpet player fell ill), nor did we have any hymn descants (as I despise them).

Most of the musical energy this week went into Good Friday, not to ramp it up, but to wind it down. In years past, it’s been customary for the full choir to provide a series of large-scale meditations to accompany the Passion story. This year, the forces were much smaller, comprising two sopranos, a viola da gamba and a baroque harp. The austerity was fitting. Just the night before, the church had been stripped of all ornaments and decorations, depriving worshippers of any visual reassurance. The ensemble performed portions of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah as set by François Couperin. Though it speaks of desolation, abandonment and misery, the music never gives in to the extreme emotionality or pain of the text. There is often a steady tempo throughout, and a sameness in affect for the duration of the work.

The harmonies tend not to wander terribly far. The voices tend to stay in consistent registers. As if suffering is a matter of fact; the lack of extreme external expression of sadness beckons listeners to fill the emotional gap themselves. It is fundamentally music designed to evoke a sense of distance from your surroundings.

How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.

She is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.

Couperin’s preface to the Lamentations informs the performers that the work can be accompanied by an organ and/or a harpsichord. In using neither, I admit to openly admit to ignoring the composer’s intent. But for Good Friday, I wanted to use acoustic stringed instruments. The harpsichord, though it decays, is too loud and clunky. The organ, though soft, does not naturally decay but sustains until the finger is lifted out of the key. In short, these are not “expressive” instruments in the manner a harp or a lute might be—they don’t whisper or naturally expire in the way a human might. Neither breathes and dies.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was lutes, gambas and harps that were often used to materially compliment the story of the Crucifixion, because like the cross, they were made of wood. No example is more famous than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in which the gamba accompanies the haunting aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz.” But more than that, the tension of gut strings and the sheer stress placed on the instruments themselves more graphically mirrors the physical process of crucifixion: as the body lies on the cross, the chest muscles and rotator cuff are extended to the point of hypertension, prompting death not by exsanguination, but by asphyxiation.

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Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.  (George Herbert, 1633)

Baroque harps have three rows of strings, lending the player an ability to play harmonies twice over in quick colorful succession. But the sheer number of strings (92 total) allows for a long natural resonance and decay. Since getting my new baroque harp, I’ve had a bit of fun learning to improvise and get the instrument sound extravagant. But this week, allowing the instrument simply to sound and die was enough. The strings curiously don’t have to be plucked to sound. Just providing sympathetic vibrations helps the harmonies bloom, take shape and fade.

Once Easter services had ended and I’d taken a nap, Richard and I went to the movies to see The Death of Stalin, a fictionalized account of the days after Stalin’s demise, comprised of countless anecdotes from the span of his dictatorship. But, my expectations of escape were somewhat foiled by the manner in which the film is set up. The film begins with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, in which a last minute repeat performance has to be arranged so that comrade Stalin can have a recording. The situation in the film based on the true events of 1944, in which pianist Maria Yudina had to repeat a performance of the concerto and record it for Stalin.

The story is most famously recorded in Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs:

In his final years, Stalin didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee, where the administration was, and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes man, a yes man to a madman.

Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording. I think this a unique event in the history of recording—I mean changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy and sent it to Stalin. Now, that was a record record. A record in yessing.

Soon afterward, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable; Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you Iosif Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.

Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the leader and teacher was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.

By all accounts, everything about Yudina’s musicianship and performances was bound up with her faith, even to the point of fanaticism. She would perform publicly wearing large crucifixes, or read poems by banned poets such as Boris Pasternak before sitting down to play Bach, enduring numerous periods of blacklisting because of the outlandishness of her… piety? In Yudina’s recording and interpretation of the concerto, she’s cool as a cucumber. In particular, the second movement is totally devoid of emotion, empathy or sensitivity. It’s almost deadly.

If we’re to believe pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, such an interpretation arguably flies in the face of Mozart’s own intentions. Slow movements were the musical zones for musicians to take off, improvise and demonstrate their technical fluidity. Furthermore, Levin tells us that “When improvisation regains its former position at the center of classical music making, perhaps the gap between composer and performer, between old and new music, between vernacular and art music, and between classical performer and audience will narrow.”

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Until last night, I would have said that I agree with Levin 100 percent. But intimacy between performer and listener is not always the choice means of communication. If one is perhaps accustomed to outlandish or “external” performances, a cool or distant performance can prompt a different sense of confidentiality: by creating as much distance as possible, the listener has to fill a gap themselves, look inside.

Yudina was atypical in her approach to the instrument. In listening, I don’t hear any of the hallmark muscularity or flat-footedness associated with mid-century Soviet pianism. In her time and place, it was relatively radical musicianship, though now it would be seen as passé or old fashioned. I’ve had Yudina’s second movement on loop for an hour or so now, and I’m admittedly mesmerized. In a month or so, when I’m in a different place, it will likely have less meaning to me. But at the very least, her recording is a testament to the ways in which any interpretation can be meaningful, regardless of its attitude towards history.

Those of us in historical performance spend a great deal of time dressing things up: we improvise, we ornament, we play with extreme tempi, etc. It’s exhilarating or moving in its own right, but I admit to having gotten tired of it as of late. There’s only so much affectation one can add before it becomes an empty convention of its own. If one isn’t careful, the best intentions to “draw out” the past in music can override the music itself. It becomes less a matter of historical performance, but rather historicism performed.

As ever, reading the news these days causes me to cringe. Empty protests over gun control walked through our streets, demanding gun control for citizens, though not for the police forces who wage violence on the nation’s most vulnerable. The gap between the political activism and the motivations behind the activism itself continues to grow, and I fear that no significant political change will result. It’s as if the act of screaming has come to override the reasons for which we raised our voices in the first place.

I’ve done my best to stick to the New York Review or Times Literary Supplement to get my news. In a recent issue of the TLS, I came across a wonderful quote applicable to our time. In a letter to Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini posited:

I wonder, dear Alberto, whether this angry anti-fascism vented in the piazzas these days, when fascism is no more, isn’t actually a weapon of distraction the ruling class uses to tie up the dissent of workers and students.

Like an over-ornamented performance of Couperin or Mozart, the delivery or packaging of our politics can detract from the matters at hand. While the Russia probe drones on, Obamacare is being dismantled, piece by piece. While we are talking about 7,000 annual gun deaths, thousands more are dying of opium overdoses. As we decry a negligible increase in interest rates, it has become clear that many Americans’ investments in the Chinese economy may have been wasted. I know I’m a grouch, but America is simply getting distracted.

Like politics, music has the potential to be derailed. It can get off track, become too eccentric and lose sight of what’s at the core. But a trademark of a highly trained classical music is that of extreme focus, and the ability not just to concentrate on matters of execution but of what the performance will have communicated by the end.

Folks, the midterm elections are coming. Voters are not exempt from the rules that beset politicians and musicians: they too can stay focused and cut out the noise, the excess, the ornaments. They can stop yelling, and start thinking.

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