Sunday, February 14, 2010


Paul Klee loved Bach, which he played on the violin. He wrote a poem
in which his cat complains about it. Music in Klee is about the arbitriness
of notation--music notation is always turning into pictograms , is always
just about to take an anarchic life on of its own--or the absurdity of social structures--
those twittering machines--or novice angels practising on some side street of heaven,
one which resembles Basle.
George Braque loved Bach, but his Bach had nothing to do with notation or novice angels,
but a great deal to do with multi-angled space, which a fugue might be said to be in sound.
Bach's music was one of the things which aided his recovery from a head-injury
suffered in WW1, and it is a synonym for him of quiet meditation. It is after
this injury that the violin replaces the mandolin as Braque's cubist refracted musical
instrument, so it is entirely possible that Braque recovered through much the
same music as Paul Klee's cat complained of.
This would be one of the three solo sonatas or partitas for the violin alone,
which are held to be the apex of the violin literature. There is a recording from
1903 of Joseph Joachim playing a part of the G minor sonata,
which is the first; it has a prescence which belies its years. Nathan Milstein,
Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Szigeti, Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Henryk
Szeryng,Ida Haendel, Schlomo Mintz, Gidon Kremer, Christian Tetzlaff, Hillary Hahn, Jaap van Shroeder,
among others have recorded them. This does not keep me from regretting
not hearing a gypsy violinist which Huberman(?) took Joseph Szigeti to hear
whose incredible freedom of expression in playing Bach put both these
great violinist to shame.(This story is Arnold Steinhardt's).

My niece and nephew made a bee-line for the solo violin sonatas and
partitas above almost all other music to which I introduced them.
My niece uses the chaconne to warm up before her rugby games;
it seems to work, as she is a national champion. We vote for Grumiaux
and Szeryng after numerous comparisons.

A great deal of Dan Brown-ish nonsense was trafficed in the musical press
a few years ago with the purported discovery that certain Lutheran
chorales were quoted in the great chaconne--or variations on a bass-line--
which ends the second partita. The violinist Christoph Poppen went so far
as to record the chaconne with a choir intoning chorales directly. But
when is Bach not quoting a chorale? He is so imbued with them that it will happen sooner
or later. So Poppen and crew pointed out what is after all
a salient feature.
Numerological decodings of the music are also less illuminating than is supposed,
a way of carving "To the Glory of God" into the joinery rather than an explanation
of the over-arching scheme. Like the omniprescent chorales it is part of the plan,
not the plan. The Czech musicologist, Miroslav Venhoda, compared the Obrecht
masses to medieval computers, the polyphony based on symbolism derived from
the medieval trivium and quadrivium. The question is :if of these medieval
masses be decoded,what would we have? An annotated text of the SUMMA THEOLOGICAE?
A visual model of the cathedral? Would these parts be more or less than the actual music?
My suspicion in both the case of the numerological Obrecht at the
beginning of the polyphonic tradition, and with Bach as its end, is that
it would be less.
It is the fact of Shakespeare which generates theories about the plays being
written by the Star Chamber. It is the fact of Bach which puzzles. Our silliest
theories are due to the suspicion that here magic and science mix.
(to be continued)

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