September 5, 2019
King’s College, Cambridge
Upon arriving at King’s, the first person to greet me at the front gate was none other than my old director of studies, Dr. Michael Sonenscher, an eminent historian of political thought. His quiet and pleasant demeanor hadn’t changed since the afternoons of my final year at Cambridge, in which I listened with some degree of awe as he would spout prodigious and encyclopedic knowledge of Hegel, Rousseau and Voltaire in his rooms, just a stone’s throw from the Cam. It was all the more fitting that I should run into him, for on the bus from Heathrow, I had been wading through one of his final literary recommendations to me before my final exams in 2013.
I’m sure reading Marc Fumaroli’s When the World Spoke French in English translation qualifies as a cognitive dissonance, if not a minor crime against authenticity. The book is nevertheless insightful, for in its pages sits an account of the sustained primacy of the French language from the mid-seventeenth century well into the eighteenth, right up to the French Revolution. As France and Europe gradually liberalized from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) to the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), so too did the French language, shedding pretenses of mere authority and gaining status as a tool of self-expression, articulation, even linguistic freedom (don’t worry, having failed a French class myself at Oberlin, I too am skeptical of any notion of flexibility in French). In practical terms, French, having once been a language reserved for official business, soon became the choice language for conversation and socialization. Most famously, the court of Frederick the Great only operated in French, influencing tastes in music, art and philosophy thereby. But even as early as 1687, German writer Christian Thomasius noted that “French clothes, French food, French furniture, French customs, French sins, French illnesses are generally in vogue.”
In the end, Fumaroli’s project takes readers through a series of historical vignettes to paint a picture of 18th-Cenutry European society, while simultaneously pinpointing the origins of its visage: French’s exigency of style. From the era of Greek and Latin as lingua franca to the primacy of Italian in the Republic of Letters, and even now with the primacy of technocratic English in the 21st Century, Europe has seen a series of phenomena whereby languages lay claim to universality (and often with great success, on a practical level). Where Enlightenment-era French differs from these languages was the insistence on exactitude and uniformity, despite the difference in ideas that might be espoused therewith. (After all, the French spoken by the aristocrats was spoken by Robespierre, who like his victims powdered his wig and bore an impeccable profile.)
* * * *
Elsewhere in my bag was a copy of The Illiad, another volume discussed in history seminars, though it itself does not constitute a formal work of “history.” Unlike our modern storytellers and thinkers, Homer appears absolutely and totally unconcerned with leading you along or telling you where things stand in his labyrinthine plot of interactions between mortals and the Olympian heroes.
As anyone who survived either AP literature or an A-level in Classics will tell you, there’s a great rush when you open up the first page of Homer’s magnum opus:
Rage – Goddess, sing the Rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse with the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
But of course it’s not long before you’re lost. Even if you’ve studied the work twice before, made it through a 61-page introduction or memorized the geography of Greece, the Peloponnese and Asia Minor, you’re still likely to be fuzzy about who Peleus is. Or what Achilles is doing there (the ankle guy, right?). Or Agamemnon (DON’T turn on Strauss). Or who the Achaeans are (OK, I may or may not have gotten distracted and watched Christina Goerke for an hour or so. Oops.)
But supposing you want to get organized, it’s necessary figure out who all these people are, and what they are doing same place at the same time, some ten years before the Trojan War’s conclusion. And yet, even with a paperback copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology in hand, a critical commentary and nine Wikipedia pages open in your browser, it’s still hard to piece together why the hell they are doing what they are doing.
As the Argives and the Achaeans are getting their asses handed to them, Achilles calls upon his mother, Thetis, to bargain with Zeus on his behalf. It’s an interesting plot twist, as Thetis is female and thus far we’ve been told that the place of women is merely as interchangeable pawns (for instance when it’s apparent that Chryseis, the object of Agamemnon’s affections, has to be removed from his custody, the stand-in is Briseis, and unrelated woman but whose name intentionally rhymes). What does Thetis possess that mortal women cannot? Or even Hera, Zeus’ sister-wife?
(Dig, dig, dig.)
Thetis is apparently not just any mere nymph but the female who freed Zeus when Hera and Minerva imprisoned him. Zeus is indebted to her, in this respect, having retained his autonomy on her watch. But she’s also apparently the only woman to reject Zeus’ sexual advances, at once angering him but also protecting him from further catastrophe. In raping the goddess Metis, he wrought Minerva, who fulfilled the first prophecy that his first child would rise up and overrule him as would his second. Hence in denying Zeus’ lust, Thetis became a protector of the Olympian status quo, preventing another uprising the likes of which she rescued Zeus from in Minerva’s rebellion.
Homer’s demands on the reader are high, as thousands of years later we have to trudge through Hesiod, Aeschylus and a handful of other sources to divine what the motives might be in the interactions between Gods and men. What we don’t like to think about is that the demands Homer made on readers and listeners were just as high in his own time, as we’ve no evidence of the total standardization of the Olympian origin myths.
Once again, I turn to another of Dr. Sonenscher’s recommended readings. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso points out that the Homeric account of the Olympians is “perfect” as it shows the definitive lines over and over again between where the will of man ends and the interference of the divine begins. But those things which are perfect and circular in logical form necessitate a breakthrough for some emotional impact to be divined. Indeed, the more you read, the more the mitigating zones of inquiry aren’t set up between Achilles and Thetis, or Thetis and Zeus, but rather between you and Homer, as you desperately try to figure out each and every “why” and infer elements of drama on the lives of the Olympians.
* * * *
This summer, I told myself I that I was not only going to write, but write a lot about the Goldbergs, as chasm remains open between the technical demands of Bach’s giant variations and the listener’s expectations for something more. Too often, the work can only be seen for its academic and mechanical elements, from canons and fughettas to movements laden with virtuosic chromaticism or excessive rhythmic drive. That’s all well and good, but the most obvious elements aren’t always the key to understanding “why” these pieces get under our skin, become ear-worms or beckon performers to pour over the score again and again.
Homer drops readers into the middle of the Trojan War, and Bach wastes no time in stranding the modern listener in the cosmopolis of musical style in the eighteenth century. In opening up our scores and turning to the Aria, we see a page of music that is at once coherent, and simultaneously baffling. Take the title for instance. We’re told it’s an “Aria,” but in no way does it resemble the da capo form we know and love from a baroque opera. There is no return to the opening theme, but merely has an A and a B section. And what of these A and B sections? They are different in affect, the first being melancholic, while the second impassioned and then emboldened, having passed through e-minor to make it back home to G major. And yet their journeys are the same in length, making up 16 bars in each section, though the second half invariably feels longer or more constitutionally dense than it’s preceding counterpart. In this sense, the length of the sections resemble more an Italian song form or chord progression, in the 17th Century manner of Frescobaldi and his contemporaries.
And yet the ornamentation speaks French, though the message is derived from Italian. Ports de voix, mordents and tremblements appear one after the other, comprising a minuet for the listener to wander through as if in an afternoon at court in Versailles. The accompaniment too, through providing a rhythmic steadiness does little more than build triads in the style brisée, as if accompanying the right hand on a lute. Bach’s game here is subtle. Because the Goldbergs are called “Aria with Variations” and not “Variations upon an Aria,” Bach sets the scene for a Francophile smorgasbord that never manifests. (Peter Williams points out that even the first four bars can be considered a miniature joke, as they comprise the harmonic scheme necessary for a slow Chaconne, a dance which is almost always reserved for the end of a French dance suite.) As there is no direct reference to the filigree anywhere in the variations, the Aria is not in fact a theme at all, but merely a considered presentation of the work’s repetitive harmonic scheme.
So why all the detail and complexity, just to present a series of harmonies? Why does Bach appeal to us in French?
“French grammar, the French lexicon, whose relative poverty Voltaire was not afraid to mock, French versification, poetry, the memoirs of occasion, the genres in which our language excelled–all this difficult apprenticeship had the meaning of an initiation to an exceptional fashion of being free and natural with others and with oneself. It was altogether different from communicating. It was entering ‘into company.’” (Marc Fumaroli, When the World Spoke French)
But like Homer, Bach isn’t real big on telling us how the ornaments should be played, for just as Homer doesn’t hand us a theogony, Bach doesn’t hand us a French textbook. Herein lies the irony that in order to understand those things which make this Aria perfect and whole, we must deconstruct it first and break the unbreakable circle. From an earlier source, we do have Bach’s account of how his ornaments ought to be played. In his table are a smattering of French, German and Italian terms, reflecting not Bach’s status as a polyglot so much as the state of European music as being composite of a host of geographically identifiable styles.
For all the erudition and galanterie, Bach’s Aria is hummable and immediately memorable in a way that the French Suites or his other French inspired works aren’t. The aspect that makes it so incredibly catchy is the lack of nebulous or ambiguous affect in the melody. For bars and bars on end, every note is seemingly in perfect concord with the harmony or violently dissonant, yearning for a resolution. What’s more is that there are a lot of them. Just in the first four bars there are six such instances of these fleeting extreme dissonance slide into their consonant counterparts.
The big question is of course is what to do with these clashes when we identify them. Do we iron them out immediately, or bask in each an every one of them? Do we set up organized hierarchies, or let the moment move us, accepting that our reasonable faculties are subject to forces of the ephemeral as much as they are to our long memories of performances past. Indeed, for all the ornament table tells us about the order of notes in an ornament, we know not how they are played (pace, volume, affect, etc.).
“Of all natural gifts, goût [“taste”] is the one that makes itself most felt and that is the hardest to explain. It would not be what it is if it could be defined, for it judges objects that the judgment can no longer weigh and, if I dare draw such a simile, is the reading glasses of reason. Among melodies, some songs are more agreeable than others, although all are equally well modulated. In harmony, some things impress, others do not, although all are equally correct. Weaving the pieces together is a fine art that involves using some pieces to make the others stand out, that involves something more refined than the law of contrasts. (Rousseau, Dictionary of Music, 1768)
While treatises innumerable speak of “taste” and “discretion,” or of their utility in times of “necessity,” Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (employed in the Court of Frederick the Great) paints ornamentation with a broader brush
It is not likely that anybody could question the necessity of ornaments. They are found everywhere in music, and are not only useful, but indispensable. They connect the notes; they give them life. They emphasise them, and besides giving accent and meaning they render them grateful; they illustrate the sentiments, be they sad or merry, and take an important part in the general effect. They give to the player an opportunity to show off his technical skill and powers of expression. A mediocre composition can be made attractive by their aid, and the best melody without them may seem obscure and meaningless. (C.P.E. Bach, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, 1753)
“Technical skill” and “powers of expression” stand out in this paragraph, for in the end all the details really are up to us to sort out on our own. For all the time we can spend pouring over ornament tables, French grammar books or different accounts of the Olympians’ struggles, the only truth that be derived is that which we come to individually. The Aria is not beautiful because of the ornaments, but rather because those ornaments sound different under every set of fingers and in every set of ears.