Armistice

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HarpingOn

If we imagine the First World War and the Armistice, our ears turn to England. Nostalgic qualities found in Holst’s The Planets and Elgar’s Nimrod have come to typify a memorial soundscape so strong that little room is made for works from other English-speaking countries. This is no truer than for the United States, whose late entry into the Great War has long precluded American composers from making any significant contribution to the Armistice’s select musical canon. But as November 11 approaches, one might ponder the justice of our deference to Anglocentrism. Why is it assumed that an American composer would only offer a national, and not a personal sense of sincerity?

Last night, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra premiered Silent Night Elegy, Kevin Puts’ newly composed paraphrase of his 2011 opera and Pulitzer laureate, Silent Night. Just as in the opera, the opening harmonies more akin to Copland than Elgar set a distant tone for narration of the lives of English and German soldiers in the trenches. Towards the end of the work, Puts recalled the Christmas Truce of 1914, in which German and British soldiers crossed over barbed wire to lay down their weapons and sings carols together in front of a fireEnglish traditional carols like Dona Nobis Pacem or even the Austrian carol Silent Night made no appearance in the composer’s expansive fugue illustrating a token instance of brotherhood. Indeed, the music was cleverly unmuddied by any national signifiers as the strings instead played tunes of original carols Puts composed specially for his 2011 opera. Puts’ work was by no means all about peace and understanding. Snare drums and spitting trumpets were used to imitate rapid gunfire, while oboe screams and whirring flutes evoked the aural sensation of tinnitus, a condition wrought by shelling. Descriptive material once again offered no musical differentiation between either side, as Puts’ dense orchestrations also showed humanity’s blind capacity for violence.

Silent Night Elegy may avoid pointing fingers, but it implicitly compares two very different occasions when fighting ceased during the First World War. While the Christmas Truce marked a brief, perhaps genuine instance of reconciliation, the Armistice of November 11, 1918 was in fact a formal declaration of victory for the Allies and a surrender for Germany and Austria-Hungary. Perhaps it’s not too surprising, as the 2011 premiere of Silent Night was notable for its stance in holding British and German leadership equally responsible for initiating hostilities.

Slapping the Treaty of Versailles in the face, the opera seems not so much designed to tell a story as to win a Pulitzer, as three hushed chords signaled hope at the conclusion of Puts’ missed opportunity. One can concede that Puts’ compositional voice in Silent Night Elegy may not be self-consciously American, being indicative rather of a desire to be politically hands-off. But rather than appearing sincere, Puts only proves the stereotype of Americans as insensitive to the historical implications of the Armistice.

 

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.

Luzzaschi

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It’s my first full day at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, a place which can be described simply as a musician’s paradise. Rural New Hampshire’s isolation offers both seclusion and quietude, and the immediate proximity of practice studios to one’s bedroom and dining hall offer the opportunity to focus and work with as much or as little interruption as you wish. A Grove Dictionary of Music sits at one end of the barn, a sign that one has the time and space not only to practice, but to satisfy any sudden curiosity about a composer or piece. To get to the lake, one walks through an apple orchard where one can pick a snack off a tree (though the home-cooked food here fills and satisfies dozens of New-Yorquinos who might normally be precious about their Phad Thai or almond latte). For those seeking some animal therapy, there’s ample time to commune with Jessie, a large German Shepherd who often appears at mealtimes along with her owner Fred Tauber, Avaloch’s godfather and spiritual leader.

There are broadly no restrictions here, yet the atmosphere engenders a positivity which tacitly enforces one golden rule: don’t spoil it. There are new and familiar faces alike, but no cliques. Though there are discussions about life and work in New York, they somehow don’t revolve around the MTA’s existential state of dysfunction or the price of real estate (subjects of roughly 40% of Manhattanite conversations). Vulgarity is seldom heard. Exhibitions of resentment or negativity are absent. One gets the feeling that this is what summer camp was supposed to be like when you were a kid, had it not been for inhibiting factors such as homesickness, puberty or adolescent low self-esteem.

All of us are here are working on new music in some form. This week, the resident ensembles include several string quartets, a brass group, a jazz ensemble as well as some soloists collaborating with composers on fresh pieces. Having brought my baroque and modern harps up with me from New York, I’ve met up here with composer/violinist George Meyer and mandolinist/composer Tom Morrison. Having worked with each other in various capacities at Juilliard, we decided to see what we could create if we put ourselves and our instruments together in a room.

This morning’s session started off with the first movement of Bach’s Trio Sonata in E-flat, BWV 525. While the exercise was to collaboratively create a unified sound, the process was one of personal humility. Finding ways to feed off the combination of three different instruments, we took opportunity to listen to the correspondence between bow strokes and mandolin plucks, and pay close attention to how the sounds we produce might accidentally sustain over another instrument. String instruments, be they bowed or plucked, are incredibly noisy and fussy. For instance, an expressive scratch on a bow, perhaps ideal for Brahms or Franck, can cover up a mandolin’s phrase or arc. A boomy line from the harp’s mid-range can turn a refined texture into baby-foody mush. Thus, we worked on the initial attacks of individual notes, only then determining the color and spin of the subsequent production of tone. Introducing one’s presence in the texture becomes a humbling enterprise, so as to ensure that one isn’t obfuscating the mellifluous line of another instrument. This is the joy of chamber music: a process whereby happiness can be derived not just from playing with others, but in witnessing how you can lend encouragement to your colleagues so that they might reveal the best of themselves.

From there we took a break and started improvising, simply to enjoy what might evolving out of some free collaborative chemistry. Initially, Tom and I figured out how to make the combined texture of the harp and mandolin line up, so as to give a wide and flexible base for George to work with. (For those who don’t know George’s playing, it’s really fun to play with. He’s to switch between classical and fiddling styles with incredible virtuosic ease, transforming a downtown minimalist vibe into a soundscape from middle America.) Starting with two note-cells and then moving one by one to 4 or 5 note groupings, we found a common language that would allow the other voice to emerge clearly though seamlessly. As George started playing, patterns of implied harmonies started to take the small melodic shapes he would feed us, and in turn all three of us started to learn each other’s go-to ticks and instincts – the tools we use to get messages across. Before long, a structure took shape, and with each miniature jam session, more would be loosely notated.

The morning and afternoon sessions flew by, both insanely productive, so after dinner we decided to have the evening off. As George and Tom headed down to the basement to play ping-pong with members of the Momenta Quartet, I returned to the studio for some time alone with the baroque harp. Lately I’ve been working through the toccatas from Girolamo Diruta’s Il Transilvano, a collection of pieces not only by Diruta, but by several of his Venetian colleagues, such as Claudio Merulo and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. Diruta’s curatorial project offers insight into how organists and keyboardists were taught in the late 16th century. But more importantly for me, it also offers insight into how harp music started to take off in the same period. Though baroque HP nerds talk about the “Italian Baroque Harp” colloquially, much of it characteristic identity as a florid scale and arpeggio machine is derived from a group of composers in Naples who travelled north to study with the likes of Luzzaschi and Merulo. Since Avaloch is a space for exploration, I decided to start from the source and see what harpists and harp composers were being handed by their keyboardist progenitors.

Throughout Il Transilvano there are scales upon scales upon more scales throughout the manuscript, initially encouraging an impassioned Liszt-like frenzy. Fortunately, Diruta’s accompanying treatise on playing the organ itself offers a key piece of advice early on, telling students that even if they wish to play with force or agility, that they ought to maintain a supple hand, “as if handling an infant.” Luzzaschi’s Toccata del Quarto Tono grants a particular challenge in balancing the sweet with the virtuosic. Because of the huge amount of acoustic ringing that goes on beneath a harp’s sounding board, calculating the proper velocity of attack on the strings takes an anally high level of of care and treatment. For instance, the scales have to pass seamlessly between hands – one has to ensure that the two hands are moving the strings the same amount so that there isn’t a sudden bump when there’s an exchange. The scales themselves also have to sound at an appropriate volume level so that the level virtuosity doesn’t cover up the implicit harmonies. Conversely, one has to accept that there are things that will inevitably not be as clear as on the organ or the harpsichord (confronting the harp’s idiosyncrasies realistically is the flip-side of the coin). The exercise prompts an internal conversation between your hands, the music and the instrument. Each has an equal say in the process, but your hands and sensibilities cannot become constricted or forced.

Sitting in bed, I’m overwhelmed by the care that goes into a space like Avaloch’s. For the first time in a very long while, it feels as if innocence and humility can truly sit side by side with intense and high-pressured creative processes. As my generation’s musical mentors and trailblazers continue to disappoint us in the ongoing revelations of the #MeToo era, a space dedicated to honest and open creative enterprises are more important than ever, as they don’t simply foster musical innovation but emotional restoration. I find myself asking what more I could be doing with my own approach to music this week, as I continue to transport organ music to the harp bench. Organists spend so much time alone, that a week spent with a collaborative mindset is still jarring to the sensibilities. Organists are a notoriously proud breed, isolated by their sincerity yes, but perhaps by a misplaced solemnity which translates into pride. Here at Avaloch, the scenery is too beautiful, the accommodations too comfortable, and the people too honest for any expression of pride. My residency here has already proven to be a humbling experience.

An Interview (7)(8)(9)

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Rather than spending time on the blog, I took a few weeks to interview several figures in the harpsichord world about what it is about the instrument itself that makes them tick. I’m grateful to VAN Magazine in Berlin, for taking these pieces on, as I find many articles and profiles on harpsichordists (including several of my own) to focus on how the instrument it physically approached by human hands, and not necessarily on its autonomy before one sits down to launch into a rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

Robert and Keith Hill graciously explained what it is that makes a harpsichord a harpsichord, not just from a mechanical perspective, but from an acoustical perspective.

https://van-us.atavist.com/out-of-the-pianos-shadow

Thereafter, I talked to Pierre Hantaï (who himself owns one of Keith’s instruments), about what harpsichordists do with the instrument once they have the right instrument.

https://van-us.atavist.com/an-element-of-faith

Lastly, I skyped one of my favorite harpsichordists, Alina Rotaru. While Robert, Keith and Pierre all talked about the necessity of “historicity” as an aesthetic, Alina talked about the multiple plains on which historicity dwells, both physically and intellectually.

https://van-us.atavist.com/process-of-emancipation

(By the way, placing three articles on this page was intentional, as VAN offers three free articles a month to its readers. If you want to read more…. subscribe! You won’t regret it!)

Hai-Q’s

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HarpingOn

While the MTA’s performance has been notoriously underwhelming lately, I’m lucky to live near the reliable Q line for the summer. That said, my commute is by no means uninteresting…

Prospect Park:

Pigeons pecking puke
While I wait for the Q train.
(Yum.) #Sunday.

7th Avenue:

Self-awareness check:
Your DIY pedicure
on the train? Please don’t.

Atlantic Avenue/Barclays:

No 2 or 3 trains
Into Manhattan. EVER.
Mwaha-haha-ha.

Dekalb Avenue:

Colgate saliva
On the train floor. But oh, he’s
Forgotten to floss.

Canal Street:

Old Spice fills the train
Like carcinogen incense.
(“B-O? D-O, bro.”)

Union Square:

Gaggle of burly
Hungover muscle queens musc
Le muscle muscle

34th Street:

Costume change: he’s got
Short-shorts, reading “Monster” on
His crotch. (A moving sight.)

Times Square:

MTA delays.
Platforms slowly fill up with
Proud early risers.

72nd Street:

Two fathers, holding
Their twins’ hands, head southwards
To march for their lives.

(Happy Pride.)

Charleston, 4am

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It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. My attempt to whiz through some Thomas Pynchon has been about as successful my brief affair with Infinite Jest. I don’t particularly want to read Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides either. Around midnight, while I was going back through scores and registration sticky notes, Netflix won out over Amazon Prime in the competition for mindless distraction. It’s got The Godfather readily available for streaming.

I admit a certain amount of dread about my recital here in Charleston. Once again, I’ve rather stupidly programmed BWV 532, the “Little” Prelude and Fugue in D Major. Though not particularly famous among the Bach keyboard oeuvres overall, the D Major maintains a Herculean status in the organist’s canon for no other reason than that it places some incredible technical demands on its performer. From the opening bar, the work is a sink or swim test.

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The Prelude starts with a quick upward scale from the pedals, followed by an intricate descending pattern in the hands. Backwards and forwards the hands and feet play around with scales and arpeggios until it all of sudden, Bach slams the brakes.

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As if to oppose the preceding stratospheric virtuosity, wide angular intervals and a jagged rhythmic pattern jerk everything back down to earth. Though not as technically complex as the opening, the stark contrast of these bars poses a problem of how they should relate to the preceding material, if at all. One could make specific inquiries into matters of tempo, rhythm or articulation, but the overriding question is one of affect or exaggeration. Is the music substantively different enough to be played straight? Or does it ask the performer for something more? It’s all too easy to assume that this is a snippet of a baroque overture, or something regal. But the key of F-sharp minor doesn’t really lend itself to huge amount of dignity or determination, but rather to fear or uncertainty. It’s as if Icarus made it to the sun all too quickly, and the prospect of his doomed descent has made time stand still.

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Gear shift (again). A sweeping scale spanning two octaves gives way to a subdued, lengthier polyphonic section. Marked Alla breve, the new section looks more like 16th-century consort music, stoic and stable, a far cry from the impression one might get that the opening was made up on the spot. All the tension, the excitement and angst seems to have been for nothing, but was rather just an improvisatory introduction – a prelude within the prelude.

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What’s funny is that the most interesting section of the 532 is the least written about. Just as as Bach is about to tidy up the polyphonic section, it all stops again (surprise!). Everything slows down by about half, the texture expands dramatically and some whacky harmonies come out. First you think you’re going to E minor, then to A minor, then to E major… and even to E-flat major… before it settles back suddenly into D Major, the home key.

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The polarization can be tricky to keep track of. Which affect is the “real” essence of the prelude? Was the polyphonic section just a ruse, leading us into a false sense of security? Or are all these crunchy harmonies just a distraction from the solemnity of the Alla breve?

Ok, you got me. The tonal scheme of the final section isn’t all that unusual for Bach. Impassioned chromaticism is considered one of his stylistic hallmarks. But these bars are still strange, emotive, stirring. If you’re a Mario Puzo fan, you’ll recognize the music from the revenge scene from The Godfather. As Michael Corleone stands to witness the baptism of his godson Michael Rizzi, bosses of the families Barzini, Tattaglia, Curneo and Stracci are executed. He stands and tells the priest he will renounce evil and serve as an example to his godson. With every vow, a different boss is shot in line with a different diminished-seventh chord from the organ. Michael’s baptism alibi keeps him safe. It’s all part of the drama in that he has commenced his life as mafioso by decisively going to the mattresses. He has become a godfather.

It’s an important scene for Michael, and possibly the most climactic point of the entire movie. Having spent nearly two and a half hours trying to deny to you the necessity of redemptive violence (a metaphor for Corleone family values), he fully ascends the family throne, killing the bosses of the four families in vengeance for his brother Sonny’s death.

Of course, it is this very internal conflict that makes The Godfather a masterwork, and not a mindless litany of violence. Without the struggle between Michael’s dual life as a mobster and an Ivy-Leaguer-army hero, there wouldn’t be a great deal of dramatic content. By the end of the film, you’re left wondering about the nature of his transformation: has Michael undergone metamorphosis or apotheosis? Is he now victor or a victim?

While Bach’s “Little” prelude ends in the same key as it started, the journey has arguably been frought. Such is the intensity of the dissonance at the piece’s closing that the D major chord can be heard more as a sigh of relief than an herald of victory. There’s no doubt that there’s a sense of finality, but knowing how to feel about it is thrown into flux by a musical device called the Picardy third. By raising the middle note of a chord to make it more joyful in a place where one might expect it to be mournful or pained, the Picardy third thrives on the ambiguity of a single note on a staff. By simply placing a sharp sign in front of it, an F is no longer just an F, but a question.

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Mired in the Byzantine chaos that is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Daysits perhaps one of the best metaphorical descriptions of the effect of the Picardy third on the soul. As the protagonist Lew sits in Chicago, listening to the songs of a group of populist-era radicals, he remembers the lines:

Love never spared a sinner,
Hate never cured a saint,
Soon is the night of reckoning,
Then let no heart be faint.

“. . . moving from the minor mode it had been throughout into the major, ending with a Picardy third cadence that, if it did break Lew’s heart exactly, did leave a fine crack that in time would prove unmendable. . . Here, they were expressing the most subversive thoughts, as ordinary folks might discuss crops, or last night’s ball game. Lew understood that this business would not end with him walking out the door tonight and on to some next assignment.”

As Mario Puzo’s own protagonist comes to terms with what he has wrought, he lies to his WASP-y wife about whether or not he has murdered not only four mob bosses, but his own brother-in-law, leaving his newly baptized godchild an orphan. He lies with ease, so as to spare his family anymore pain than he has already been wrought. The ghost of Sonny Corleone’s temper and Vito Corleone’s cautiousness remain so ever-present, that clearing up the family’s collateral damage is the only option for allowing the family to move on, to mourn, to grieve.

The Picardy third in a way is a small lie, a way of tying up something cluttered with tension, ultimately giving it a false sense of finality. In writing on Joni Mitchell’s music, James Bennighof might have been the most damning about the effect of this ancient musical device: “Replacing an expected final minor chord with a major chord in this way is a centuries-old technique, first dubbed a ‘Picardy third’ in print by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1797 … to express [the idea that] hopefulness might seem unremarkable, or even clichéd.” It’s a sweep under the rug; a sudden, cheap emotional machination.

As with any story, what comes after alters the context or narrative. For Puzo, Michael’s Picardy third is prescient of the Corleone’s eventual inability to overcome their violent inheritance. Pynchon’s protagonist continually witnesses the changing 20th century through a lens of heartbreak. With Bach, however, there is hope. There is a fugue: a difficult, lengthy, yet ultimately joyous reconciliation of all of the prelude’s angst and complexity. But whatever the outcome, the Picardy third is a reminder that life’s baptisms of fire – ultimately periods of discomfort and stress – are ultimately short-lived. What comes next is what really matters.

                                                                                    

Zubarán

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HarpingOn

While I have many faults, there is one which comes up every time I head to an art museum: no matter what I’m looking at, I will likely end up drawing a parallel between the artwork in front of me and a piece of music I know. Blends of colors and indeterminacy in impressionistic paintings always lead me to one or another piece of Debussy. The balance of strict proportion and high ornamentation in 18th Century portraiture will lead me to C.P.E Bach or Gluck. Medieval paintings of courtly love mingled with the divine parable of human sacrifice correspond to the motets of Guillaume de Machaut.

It’s hard to say whether it’s a filter, a means of translation or a tendency to apply some complementary historical context. More often that not, there’s little direct historical or constructive correlation between art and a piece of music I see. It’s all very vague, general. There are similarities between art and music, admittedly, but often the difference between the physical phonomena of light and sound often render the two mutually exclusive. Take ornamentation for instance. A musical ornament strikes me as spontaneous, and even superfluous to a musical performance. A musician can leave it out, lengthen it, change it. But an extra flower, a touch of gilding or any other small addition in a painting is usually seen as a product of something far more willful. Once it’s on the canvas, it’s done (though presumably the artist may have changed his mind several times in the process).

It’s often the case that performers tend to think of process of music as an action executed in real time, while a painting is often seen as a finished product of a past action, somehow immutable. Such distinctions are arguably false, as the composition of music is a process unseen (though often less glorious than painting), and the very processes of how a painting was constructed can be divined through some careful gazing. It’s really a matter of where you want to position yourself when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music. That’s why I love getting to see a piece of art or music that challenges you to sit in multiple time spaces at once.

In visiting Francisco de Zubarán’s (1598-1664) paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons at the Frick, I was struck by their sheer size. Each is not just life-size, but larger, close to seven feet tall. And yet, despite their size, none seemed unsubtle or overblown. Every detail about the sons’ clothing, posture, and possessions bore to me the significance of the blessings bestowed upon by their father in Genesis 49.

Some like Issachar are more conventional and obvious.

Issachar is a strong donkey,
Lying down between the sheepfolds;
He saw that a resting place was good,
And that the land was pleasant;
So he bowed his shoulder to the burden,
And became a slave at forced labor.

Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, is dressed as a dandy. His duplicity can be seen not just in his posture, but in the occlusion of half of his face, starkly contrasted against the Carvaggio-esque green paleness of the half left in the sunlight.

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
In the morning devouring the prey,
And at the evening dividing the spoil.

Asher has more layers. Carrying a loaves of bread and sporting an emblem on his garb used in Zubarán’s Adoration of the Magi, he prefigures Christ as the final incarnation of Melchisedech.

Asher’s food shall be rich,
And he shall provide Royal delicacies.

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But in Naphtali, there was something different. He’s sporting a shovel. Why?

Naphtali is a doe let loose
That bears lovely fawns.

His stance is also oddly commanding compared to that of his brothers. In looking at the Frick’s informational plaque, it said that this particular study was based on a depiction Naphtali’s by Jacques de Gheyn’s II (1565-1629) prints of Karel van Mander I (1548-1606). In particular the rhetorical shape of the hand is very similar. It’s open, though not relaxed. The face in van Mander’s is based on a woodblock of Christ’s apparition to Mary Magdalene by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Christ’s garb and sporting of the shovel however, are seen explicitly in Zubarán’s later painting. Dürer’s? On an engraving of Saint Bartholomew by Martin Schongauer (1445-1491).

Immediately, the music of organist and harpist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) came to mind. In 1570, his son Hernando published a volume of what he described as “mere crumbs of his father’s achievements.” The collection included some of the larger and more popular keyboard works that Antonio had composed in his lifetime, transcribed by his son due to a near total loss of his sight. The volume contains a work entitled “Stabat Mater I” and another, “Stabat Mater II.” Containing the same harmonies but with different variations and ornaments, they stand out because the cantus firmus (that is, the fundamental melody) doesn’t align with any contemporary liturgical chant setting of the Stabat Mater.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

Indeed, it turns out that they are both embellishments of Josquin des Prez’s (1455-1521) monumental setting of the hymn, which uses not a Gregorian chant as its basis, but a secular melody taken from composer Gilles Binchois (1400-1460). Binchois melody was originally set to a text also about the sorrows of a woman.

Like a woman most distressed,
more even than all the others,
with no hope of being consoled on any day of my life,
weighted down by my misfortune,
I desire death, day and night.

The trick in performing Cabezón’s piece however comes in deciding a tempo. There are phenomenal number of notes, indeed too many to play on a keyboard at once.

E775403C-35D9-43E0-B1D5-ECCCC10B283EThere are several possibilities (all conjecture, mind you). Perhaps that the work is intended for the harp, where the natural sustaining quality of the strings allows you pluck a note and leave it. Alternatively, maybe all the notes aren’t meant to be played – much music of this period was written down for the purpose of showing people how to improvise themselves, rather than be performed directly from the score. But supposing that decision is made, what speed to we play it at? There are roughly sixteen of Cabezón’s notes in scales for every half note beat of Josquin’s motet. Is the piece meant to go at a speed similar to which it’s supposed to be sung? Or is it “its own thing?” Indeed, in teasing out how to perform the work, you’re subconsciously determining primacies of authorship, based on pure aesthetics and gut feeling.

I look at Zubarán and I can’t help but wonder if these are really “his” paintings? We know his students’ hands are on them, and we know that the emotive symbols that make each of the characters individual are borrowed from earlier masters. While I can see Zubarán’s genius in bringing all these elements together, I can’t help but also see the beauty in the accumulation of symbols and influences across centuries. In the end, authorship or attempts to divine a scheme of construction dissipate the more you look. It’s as if the artist – or artists – fade away. These are paintings intended to showcase not the self, but the divine – that is, something untouched by time.