Ricercar (1/6)

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HarpingOn

Having left New York for the wilds of New England, a man returns home to take his dog to the park. September’s mildness has brought relief to the dog owners of the Upper West Side who, having shaken off summer’s oppressive heat, saunter through Central Park with ease and comfort, free to ponder in silence the prescience of autumn’s hues.

The dogs chase and wrestle on the lawn, and the man paces alone at distance, his ears sheltered beneath headphones and his eyes behind sunglasses. He looks out, his mind retreating into an aural landscape of Bach and distant taxi cabs, embodying the simultaneous contradiction and reconciliation of being back in the city: of being alone amidst millions of others who are also alone. He pauses to feel the breeze and takes in the sight of canine innocence and falling leaves, asphalt and withering grass, things permanent and ephemeral.

That is, until he is interrupted. He looks down to find his dog at his feet, pawing at his leg to vie for affection. The man is taken with her face. As he looks down at her, she rotates her lengthy snout and pert ears exactly forty-five degrees in to form an inquisitive expression. No sooner than he kneels to pet her, she begins to speak.

LUNCHMEAT. What are you listening to?

LOGAN. Excuse me?

LUNCHMEAT. Through your headphones.

LOGAN. I’m not sure how to answer the question.

LUNCHMEAT. Why is that?

LOGAN. Because in one sense, I am listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in another I am not.

LUNCHMEAT. How so?

LOGAN. I mean to say that I am not listening to Bach so much as I’m listening to Bach through another man’s deceptive machinations – that is, another voice.

LUNCHMEAT. Whose voice is that?

LOGAN. Anton Webern’s, in his orchestration of the 6-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering.

LUNCHMEAT. I know it well. What renders your concern that this is not truly Bach?

LOGAN. From the very first notes, the sounds of a trombone, a muted horn and a harp’s harmonic and mark a departure from Bach’s natural realm as I know it. Such instruments are not designed for counterpoint, but for orchestral phantasms, aural visions of alienation and terror. Where I wish to follow a group of equal voices, my ear can only discern a chaos of instruments weaving in and out of each other to pervert the subjects and countersubjects. I simply cannot follow it, and return to the same conclusion again and again that Webern’s treatment represents the absence of lines or shapes: a decadent chasm of formless harmonic plumes.

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LUNCHMEAT. Your description is so poetic that I remain puzzled as to what troubles you.

LOGAN. I’m troubled because Webern’s treatment of the Ricercar eliminates Bach’s careful counterpoint altogether. There are no fugal entries or cessations or any semblance of linear organization. I can derive no notion that the work is comprised of six distinct voices. The experience is almost irritating, as it it no way resembles the experience of hearing it on the piano.

LUNCHMEAT. Ah, well therein lies your problem.

LOGAN. What do you mean?

LUNCHMEAT. What evidence have you that the Ricercar was composed for the piano?

LOGAN. Well we know Bach first played it for King Frederick the Great on one of the fifteen pianos at the Prussian Court.

LUNCHMEAT. Do we?

LOGAN. It’s generally accepted that it is Bach’s only work for the piano. Dr. Charles Rosen’s essay on the Ricercar went so far as to proclaim the work to be the greatest ever composed for the piano, only awaiting reclamation by the modern pianists.

LUNCHMEAT. I hate to disappoint you (or Dr. Rosen for that matter), but those were fortepianos in King Frederick’s court, not pianofortes as we know them today. (And we have no evidence that Bach ever owned one himself.)

LOGAN. Are the two so substantially different?

LUNCHMEAT. I’m afraid so. Consider their size for instance, they do not have the dynamic capacity or sustaining ability of a modern piano. Furthermore, the advantage of the fortepiano was that the sustaining potential was in fact less than the natural lengthy bloom of a harpsichord or the perpetual wind supply of an organ.

LOGAN. But surely it can play counterpoint just like any keyboard instrument.

LUNCHMEAT. Perhaps. But does not Dr. Rosen’s thesis rest on an assumption that the Ricercar isn’t truly contrapuntal, but harmonic in essence as the piano’s dynamic sensitivity is not conducive to the even delivery of counterpoint, but rather of sonority. Think about it: can you name any other great contrapuntal works written for the fortepiano in this period?

LOGAN. I suppose I can’t.

LUNCHMEAT. So why would you only ever want to hear the Ricercar only on the piano? Or rather why should any other rendition imitate the piano, if it is not suited to the counterpoint you treasure?

LOGAN. I suppose I do not know.

LUNCHMEAT. And anyhow, are you so sure that Bach even played “the” Ricercar for the King on the piano?

LOGAN. We’re told he improvised it on the spot, after being handed a theme from the King, and wrote it down on his return to Leipzig.

LUNCHMEAT: Tell me, can you recall what you said in a conversation some weeks ago and textually reproduce it verbatim?

LOGAN. No, that would be impossible.

LUNCHMEAT. Indeed. And even if you could, wouldn’t you take the opportunity to express what you had said better, if given the opportunity? Think back to Bach’s own address to the King at the front of The Musical Offering.

LOGAN. What address? I don’t recall such a document in Dr. Rosen’s essay.

LUNCHMEAT. Does Bach only speak through Dr. Rosen’s lips? You can find it in the opening chapter of Dr. Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher and Bach.

LOGAN. Of course, yes. I do remember now.

LUNCHMEAT. Good. What did it say?

LOGAN. Bach was rather self-deprecatory, if I recall correctly, implying that his improvisation was imperfect and unsatisfactory – that it required editing.

LUNCHMEAT. Hence the title.

LOGAN. Beg pardon?

LUNCHMEAT. “Ricercar” rather than “fugue.”

R e g i s

I u s ta

C a n t i o

E t

R e l i q u a

C a n o n i c a

A r t e

R e s o l u t a

LOGAN. “At the King’s Command….the song… and remainder resolved with…”

LUNCHMEAT. “…with perfect art.” Canonica refers of course to the canons in The Musical Offering (of which Dr. Hofstadter wrote so eloquently with regards to Escher visual matrices), but it also has an implication that “the best possible way” has been found.

LOGAN. So it’s a play on words.

LUNCHMEAT. Think of not so much as a play on words as an insight into a journey towards perfection. The very term Ricercar is taken from the Italian word “to search.” Before the fixed form or genre of the fugue, there was the Ricercar, the musical embodiment of the process the composer goes through to seek out the contrapuntal potential of the subject. In this sense, the musical work functions like an essay, and the composer, an orator. In delivering a thesis or theory, no dux can ever be self-evident unless its evidentiary nature has been manifest in each and every comes. Every last detail in the score of the Ricercar points to the search for an unattainable perfection, even down the format of the score.

LOGAN. How do you mean?

LUNCHMEAT. Each voice is granted its own line, implying an almost primeval equity in contrapuntal annunciation.

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LOGAN. How is anyone supposed read such a score and play it simultaneously?

LUNCHMEAT. Perhaps one is not meant to.

LOGAN. You mean to tell me that some of the most beautiful notes in history are not meant to be performed? At all?

LUNCHMEAT. Are all words made to be uttered? Tell me, as a writer: how do words “exist?” Do they only exist in our ability to say them? Do they not exist in our thoughts, our private confidences or in secrets?

LOGAN. Of course, words exist in multiple plains, but only as a result each individual’s own language. Dr. Michel Foucault spelled that out plainly in The Archaeology of Knowledge.

LUNCHMEAT. But why?

LOGAN. Because languages themselves are not symbols, but dialogical

spaces for the reconciliation of opposing ideas through words. Languages by nature are pure. It is words that muddy the waters and where contradictions occur.

LUNCHMEAT. Once upon a time, some music functioned much the same way: as a language. To inscribe notes on a page was not merely to express a ephemeral idea, but to communicate a piece of eternity found within one’s own musical language – that is, something that can’t be uttered aloud without ambiguity. The closer a composer got to touching the eternal, the more antiquated or archaic the physical presentation.

LOGAN. Other composers did this as well?

LUNCHMEAT. Oh yes, many. So utterly despondent was Josquin at the death of his mentor Ockeghem that he composed his Deploration de Jehan Ockeghem in medieval chant notation, a system several hundred years out of date.

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LOGAN. Why?

LUNCHMEAT. So that the primacy of the cantus firmus taken from the medieval Requiem Mass might be seen, not just heard. Four of the five voices sing the words Wood-nymphs, goddesses of the fountains//Skilled singers of every nation//Turn your voices, so clear and lofty//To piercing cries and lamentation. But the fifth voice, barely audible sings the text Eternal rest grant unto them, the opening lines of from the Requiem. In listening, the ancient religious element is concealed or obfuscated, while the element determines the entire format of the score.

LOGAN. Why this juxtaposition? This sounds like a matter of history, not emotion.

LUNCHMEAT. Because there are things humans cannot hear, but only see: things like sorrow, pain, or proportion. One cannot hear a devastation on par with a catastrophe like the Black Death, a sadness Josquin felt was unparalleled in his own time. But one can see it, when the emotion is framed in format that transcends borders like time. One cannot hear the conjunction of the sacred and the profane, but they can see a French text beneath a liturgical notation system normally used for Latin, the language of the Church. It is a music beyond the ears, and a sorrow beyond comprehension, engaging not only the ear, but the eye and the soul.

LOGAN. Are there such eternal truths in the Ricercar?

LUNCHMEAT. Yes, in both sight and sound. Such is the essence of all musica pura, (pure music) or Augenmusik (music for the eyes). But any truths can only be divined if we accept our limitations in being able to approach them.

LOGAN. How can music be transmitted if not through sound?

LUNCHMEAT. Do we ask “how” poetry is to be recited, all because the visual perfection with which it is presented is immaculate? It would be inconceivable to ask how George Herbert “Easter Wings” ought to be “accurately” conveyed, or to ask how Mallarmé or Apollinaire “intended” their poetry to be read aloud, if at all. There is nothing stopping anyone from memorizing the Ricercar, transcribing it into a more digestible format as suits them, or even from realizing a performance for more than one musician, as Webern did in his orchestration.

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LOGAN. So Webern’s transcription is actually appropriate?

LUNCHMEAT. What I mean is that Webern’s transcription falls no more or less short than any other realization of the Ricercar in sight or sound.

LOGAN. Can anyone ever perform the Ricercar as Bach intended?

LUNCHMEAT. No (and certainly not on a piano (as Bach never owned one). No matter what instrument you play it on, there will be a problem, an imperfection, and a thus miraculous glance at the unattainable. The organ will be too muddy, the harpsichord will be too reverberant, the orchestra will be too diffuse, and the piano will be too dynamic and eccentric.

LOGAN. Is this not troublesome at all to you?

LUNCHMEAT. Not at all.

LOGAN. How?

LUNCHMEAT. Because what instrument any work of Bach ought to be played on does not trouble me, as it does you. Humans are uncomfortable with the notion that they may fall short, without realizing that their own shortcomings only serve to uphold those truths they try to live up to. As I’m a dog, and can play no instrument, I can accept and conceive of a total inability to perform the music of Bach. This is no truer than in the Ricercar, which was composed for all instruments and none. For an invisible instrument. For me.

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