About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reading, listening, thinking, about Bach

We have a backlog of books at our house, waiting for someone to read them. A couple of weeks ago I was perusing the shelves after finishing the excellent Island at the Center of the World, a history of New Amsterdam.  After slogging through decades of Dutch politics I was looking for something completely different and picked up Arnold Steinhardt's Violin Dreams. I had read his Indivisible by Four, a memoir about the Guarneri Quartet, several years ago and really enjoyed it. Violin Dreams is another memoir, this time about Steinhardt's musical education and his violins. He is an excellent writer, and I enjoyed this book as much as his first. A significant part of the book is about his teachers and how they taught and about how he worked on a number of solos. The Chaconne, from the Partita in d minor, by J.S. Bach, is a continuing theme through much of the book. Steinhardt worked on this piece throughout his career, each time approaching it with different questions and new ideas. For me, this was the best part of the book. The book includes a CD with two performances by Steinhardt, on different violins, separated by about 20 years.

Back in the early fall, I had signed up for a Coursera class from the Curtis Institute titled "From the Repertoire: Western Music History Through Performance." This was my first experience with Coursera, which offers free online college classes in all kinds of subjects. At the time I signed up, the school year was not yet in full swing and neither were my music groups. I also thought I could handle this class because I took several music history courses in college, so I had a head start! I successfully completed the first two weeks (out of 7) and then became overwhelmed by real life and threw in the towel. It was a demanding class, in a good way.

Week two of the class was on the Baroque and focused on the Bach Chaconne, the same piece featured in Violin Dreams. This included a video lecture, listening to a video recording, and an assignment to pick a variation in the piece and discuss the affect and how the variation fit into or differed from the variations before and after it. The lecturer had discussed the three big sections of the piece - major, minor, major - easy to see and hear! - and also that the variations were short - each being about 4 bars long. The challenging part for me was figuring out what was going on in the variation I had chosen, as well the ones before and after. This is a piece for solo violin and the harmony and melody are woven into one line. It's not like looking at a composition from the Classical era, say, where you hear a nice, clear melodic line. This is what I ended up submitting:

The variation I have chosen to write about is from measures 80-83; by my count this is variation 19.

I picked this variation because it has a plaintive, nostalgic feeling. In addition, the affect could be described as a sad longing, or a pensive melancholy. After the fireworks of swooping runs and arpeggios from measure 63 through 75, the melody begins to slow and calm in variation 18. Then in measure 80, the violin ritards even more and leaps into its upper register, then descending in sighing couplets. The last measure, 83, has an overall ascending line leading into the next variation. Though the rhythm is written in sixteenth notes, the tempo has slowed. The dynamic also gets softer, to piano, also lending itself to the contemplative, pensive mood.

As stated above, this variation comes after an bravissimo section, with fast tempo and note values of sixteenths and thirty-seconds. At measure 76, the tempo becomes slower, marking a change and a new section. This variation, 18, has a repeating melodic figure that begins with an upward inverted arpeggio, then descends and once again ascends with a 7th chord. Variation 19 breaks this pattern with a leap from the ostinato pitch up and octave and a half, then followed by descending thirds or seconds, slurred. The following variation again has a different melodic structure, with groups of 4 thirty-second notes running up and down in groups of 4. Variation 20 also sounds faster because of the shorter note values, changing the mood with its quicker sounding pace.

Variation 19 is toward the beginning of this section, which I think begins with variation 18. The texture here, in both 18 and 19, is a single line, with no double stops, while the rhythm in 19 is sixteenth notes slurred in pairs with an occasional thirty-second note figure added. This section is still in d minor. The harmonic progression is quite different from the opening statement of the theme. We now have a number of accidentals cropping up, making analysis much more difficult. The ostinato holds the section together, as the descending progression can easily be heard on the downbeat of each measure from 80 to 83. I hear variation 19 as standing apart from the technical fireworks that come before and after. It is a moment to step back, take a breath, and feel the longing in the line before we come to variation 21 with its impressive arpeggios.

My homework was successful. I got a good grade from my peers.

Skip to January 2014. The music groups I am a member of all take breaks starting sometime in November or December and continuing into January. In January our Chicago weather caused some cancellations of rehearsals. Therefore I had no ensemble music that I needed to learn, so I decided to tackle the Bach Cello Suites, adapted for horn, as a challenge. They are a major challenge. I am working on the first and second movements of the first suite. The first challenge is purely technical - this was definitely written for a string instrument. It's not hornistic. Working out the runs and jumps has been a good challenge. But I also want to make music with these (even though I have no intention of ever playing them anywhere other than my practice space). It would be very easy to make them sound like etudes instead of a musical masterpiece. Bach didn't write much for horns, so I haven't played much except for the chorales, which aren't at all like the cello suites. It's such a different kind of music than what followed it -- Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler and on into the 20th century. I don't really know how to interpret the piece in a way that makes music and makes sense. I bought a recording of the Suites played by Yo-Yo Ma and have been listening to it. He makes it sound so natural and easy, though I know it's not easy even for cellists. I think I also need to read more about Bach's music to understand it on a deeper level.

Which brings us back to books! John Eliot Gardiner's new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, has gotten great reviews. I bought it and have started to read it. I'll report back in a later post.

Why all this work for a piece I won't be performing? It's much more fun to push to learn new things and test your limits than it is to remain exactly as you are. I expect to grow as a musician, with more ability and knowledge, which will make playing all kinds of music that much more interesting.