Sunday, February 14, 2010


Let me admit from the start that I am highly superstitious,
and that for me an angelus or messenger can be incarnate in a work of art.
How this is done or for whom it is done or why it is done is very
particular, and I must not judge what acts as an angelus
for you, but only speak of what so acts for me. I, in fact,
believe that music is curative, and as such is extremely important to
good health. A quick way to induce many manias would be to eliminate music.
(I also believe that art is the crucible of the imagination, and those who
oppose it are enemies of the realm where meaning is forged.)

When I was a young man, I became severely bewildered over questions of meaning,
and it seemed to me that there was no much reason to live in a world which could
countenance Auschwitz. This disturbed me so much that I began to starve myself. There is a terrible,
low-grade perpetual depression attached to hunger; it soon makes the world dull.
There is a slow despair attached to it which I would hesitate to plumb even now.
What saved me was an old recording, a wobbly LP
on RCA's budget label, which you had to flatten out before playing,so bad was the vinyl,of
THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER by the harpsichordist, Gustav Leonhardt.

Leonhardt, whose career is very distinguished, is never-the-less often taken
for the leader of a particularly ascetic Dutch Calvinist tradition of Bach , mostly
due to his angular appearance and unostentatious manner; this is a polite
way of saying that his playing is felt to be as stiff as he looks. While I
don't relish his Scarlatti, and his Couperin has been superseded , no one is
quite so fluent, or as subtle in early, early keyboard work,
in the English virginalists just after Dowland, or Sweelinck, or Froberger.
What is interesting about Leonhardt's Bach is that it sounds more like John Bull or Farnaby
or Sweelinck--music of the 1640's-- than it does a premonition of Beethoven. He puts the musical time travel clock on" before" rather than" after", so to speak.
But for me, this was less relevant than the effect which his playing of Bach had for me,
which was to restore some sense of human perspective. Come on, come into the human
fold, it said,these ultimate meanings are not yours to determine; you are part of the puzzle.
I had been reading Karl von Frisch's THE DANCING BEES--it is he who decoded
their communicative process--and in it discovered that bees will always built their nest
at 90 degrees angles to the earth's magnetic fields. Bach seemed to me to
be righting my angle, so that I too might begin to build.

But I am not alone in my sense of the healing properties of music. Its
track record in the re-routing of neurological channels after strokes is
well documented. There are also such testament's as William Styron's
concerning his depression, DARKNESS MADE VISIBLE. What cracks the human
barrier--the dread wall Styron is captive behind--is the tiniest fragment of the Brahms
Alto Rhapsody. It is in the Merchant/Ivory adaptation of Henry James' BOSTONIANS
and to see it is to marvel at how brief a flicker of hope or heart
can be clung to, as this music happens in the interval in which a door is open and closed.

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