The New Mythologies: Deep Bach, Saint Mahler, and the Death Chaconne
By Michael MarkhamOctober 26, 2013
THERE IS A PHRASE about two minutes from the end of J. S. Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin that, if you are in the right mood or are hearing the right performer, can suddenly sound like a shriek or a growl or a moan. What it really is, in official violinist’s terms, is bariolage: the rapid repetition of one note against which another line rises or falls. In this case the violinist obsessively saws on one pitch while the main melody strains to climb beyond it, bulging and sinking and then repeating the effort. It is a common technique to build tension near the end of a long violin piece and there are numerous possible inspirations for this particular passage in earlier chaconnes. In the Bach Chaconne, however, given that right mood and right performer, it matters not at all if one knows what a bariolage is or where it came from. What matters is that it sounds like a kind of outcry — not the sad little two-note sighs we have been taught to listen for in Mozart or Chopin, but long, hoarse-throated, mascara-streaked, Jessye Norman–collapsing-in-a-heap groans. Once you've felt this passage that way once, it is hard not to feel it that way every time you hear the Chaconne, and even to demand it, judging performers on the Daniel Day-Lewis scale of how many forehead veins they sound like they’re about to pop.
Such personal transformative moments happen all the time. It may be something as accidental as hearing a piece as the soundtrack for a powerful film scene. (Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk has recently pointed out that you never hear the Goldberg Variations the same way once you’ve seen Hannibal Lecter choreograph a meticulous murder to them.) Or it may be something as purposeful and institutionally approved as learning some poignant historical fact about the moment of composition — about Robert Schumann’s fear of mental illness while he was composing Kreisleriana, for example. Aesthetic philosophers can argue what has actually changed, you or the piece, but the result is the same. The music now sounds like something it did not before — something perhaps that was not, could not, have been imagined by its composer.
And then there are the true but half-heard, mistimed, or misapplied bits of information. These often take the strongest hold on us and produce the most lasting changes in what a piece means or how it sounds. Once you are aware, for instance, that Gustav Mahler’s daughter died in 1907 at the age of five, tearing his heart in half, it becomes tempting to hear the Andante of his sixth symphony as an outpouring of grief. It is, after all, a lullaby, or perhaps a children’s play-song, interrupted by searing outbursts of minor-key cello wailing. On a number of concert hall occasions, I have overheard the helpful whispers of neighbors explaining that “He wrote this one after the death of his daughter … No, no, it was his son.” It doesn’t matter that when he wrote the piece his oldest daughter was a healthy two-year-old and his youngest just born, and that he was quite enjoying the role of newish father. It doesn’t matter that most listeners initially heard in the movement a simple pastoral evocation of children at play — wistful and nostalgic, perhaps, but not morbid. In Mahler’s own program it is not the Andante’s children who are to be mourned, but their father, the hero of the piece, who is felled by fate after this one sentimental backward glance. I know all these things. But I don’t let them stand in the way of a good cry. In the moment of listening, the myth of Mahler is more real and more profound than the facts.
Like most canonical figures, Mahler long ago stopped being a person and became a mythological icon — The Hypochondriac — carrier of all our mortality fears, a terrified Jewish mother who never stops reminding that you (or she or someone else you should be calling more often) will probably be hit by a bus or the bird flu tomorrow. We listeners, critics, even musicologists willingly foster this process. We like our composers to fit into simple mythological or emotional slots we’ve set aside for them — a stereotyped image that captures the essence of a composer’s sound and that reminds you what sort of mood you should be in when you are getting ready to listen. You can summarize a tremendous amount of conventional wisdom about most composers in a two or three word emotional-lexical burst — Mozart: drunken child savant, Beethoven: angry isolated revolutionary, Chopin: homesick consumptive waif, Mahler: hypochondriac spiritualist, Bach: priestly mathematician.
These stereotypes are not necessarily wrong. They are a refinement of a lot of years of listening and feeling by a lot of people. They extend to any canonical figure. It is startling, for instance, how much information, stylistic, emotional, biographical, even musical is contained in the five simple words: “Young Elvis vs. Fat Elvis.” They invoke a morality play, the epic struggle we imagine inside every creative person between rebellion and appetite that can be channeled either into pure kinetic energy or, eventually sadly, into spandex. In this both Elvis and Mahler are as immortal as Icarus, stark reminders to us all. Such is the hardly hidden purpose of biography — to find universal truths latent in the chaotic facts of a life. Our own dramatic sensibilities direct us toward thematic coherence. We are addicted to parables. In academic circles this is called “reception history,” but in everyday life a more proper term might be “consumption history,” for art is never passively received. We select it because it pleases us. We change it so that it can continue to please us.
From another perspective, of course, these myths are wrong. They overrule chronology and historical fact. They are filler that bridges the inevitable gaps in real history. They are often demonstrably untrue. Worse, when new historical information does become available, it is often ignored in favor of the more satisfying myths that have grown up around a beloved piece. Knowing better doesn’t change a satisfying feeling once it is embedded in your ear. And so I can confess that as a listener to Mahler, I am a terrible historian. I am aware of the actual known details of the composition of the Sixth Symphony, yet I continue to insist upon hearing the Andante as a something (grieving, meditation, premonition, panic attack) about the death of someone innocent whom I was supposed to protect (probably a child). It proves impossible to separate the past from the past perfect progressive when reading the thoughts of a culture saint — der heiliger Gustav, patron saint of WebMD.
With Mahler, such transformations all lean in one direction — toward death. At their most potent they go beyond the individual listener, affecting an entire audience or even a generation. The most famous example (and proof that knowing better doesn’t change anything) is the famous Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, which began its life as a passionate love song to his wife, Alma, and, at some point in the middle of the 20th century, became a funerary lament — a depressing farewell to a lost love. The evidence for simple love song, which was admirably compiled by Gilbert Kaplan 20 years ago, goes back to the composer’s closest circle. The handwritten notes in the conductor’s score of Willem Mengelberg, friend of the composer and his wife, reads “Love! A smile enters his life.” The lack of ponderous death thoughts seems to be confirmed by the timing written into a bass part by one of Mahler’s own orchestra members, indicating a brisk seven minutes’ duration for the whole movement. Yet it is rare to find a performance from the second half of the 20th century that is any faster than 11 or 12 minutes, and many clock near an excruciating 14 — twice as slow as Mahler or Mengelberg.
Slow down any song to half its original tempo and it is likely to sound miserable. (Sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” slowly enough and it becomes a subversive dirge from juvenile detention camp.) The Adagietto’s transformation is often related back to a specific event: Leonard Bernstein’s performance of it at Robert Kennedy’s funeral in June 1968. That in itself is something of a myth. The average tempo of the Adagietto had been dragging for decades. Bernstein’s version, however, was heard by a larger and more diverse audience than most previous performances of Mahler, and the weight of the event solidified the tradition. Right or wrong, the effect was profound enough to stamp the Adagietto as a work of mourning. By 1971 it made perfect sense as the soundtrack for Luchino Visconti’s film version of Death in Venice — a leitmotif of the pallid death-obsessed intellectual.
According to Kaplan, what has happened is that the Adagietto has “succumb[ed] to a false tradition.” The implication is that the fidelity of a tradition to the composer’s original thoughts is an ethical test. I would argue however that all tradition is false in the way Kaplan defines it. If something is demonstrably, historically true, then it does not need the sanctioning of a tradition. In the case of the Adagietto, there is nothing ethical at stake in choosing the “false tradition” over the true history, just verb tenses. It was a love song, to Mengelberg, to Alma, and most likely to Mahler himself. But to most of us, it is and has always been a lament. As such it fits satisfyingly into Mahler’s mythic slot. Few conductors, and fewer audience members, want to go back to the truth when the “false tradition” hurts so good.
But this is to be expected of a figure like Mahler. He asked for it, composing autobiographically and insisting that music be a statement of personal beliefs. He also lived at the turn of the 20th century, which in the larger mythic story of “cultural history” serves as our turn-to-adulthood, complete with all the emo angst one expects from a college freshman reading Jung for the first time. No one of that era escapes the expressionist lens of existential fretting through which we prefer to view them.
Bach, however, is a different sort. Artists of the early 1700s did not wear their lives on their sleeves, and we do not invest the era with particular psychocultural significance. Their goal was not to expose the hidden and the personal but to replicate the empirical and the universal; their domain was not the unconscious but the observable world. Whatever “truth” might be recoverable about the original motivation behind the Chaconne will be rooted in that culture, not ours. To be a canonical work, however, means to outlive your birth era, and so the Chaconne has undergone a number of emotional transformations since Bach’s lifetime.
First set to paper at some point between 1718 and 1720 as the final movement of the violin partita No. 2 in D minor, the Ciaconna (Bach’s original Italianate designation) was merely an old-fashioned dance made up of variations over a bass, and a pretty standard way to end a collection of dance movements. Bach reveled in extremes, borrowing from other musicians and pushing his models to their technical limits; writing variations was a chance to show his stuff. During his youth, the chaconne/passacaglia (virtually interchangeable terms) was a popular arena for indirect competition between performers, especially organists, each trying to outshine the inventiveness and virtuosity of the last — the organ version of a slam dunk contest. Bach, who took every opportunity to shatter the standing records (longest, fastest, most notes, ugliest dissonance), was Blake Griffin, and his two most famous forays into this style (the other being the massive passacaglia in C minor for organ) were meant to be game-enders. A more musical comparison might be drawn with Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire at Monterey, less a challenge to other players than a declaration of an end to all further challenges: “There is no after me.” As The Who famously refused to follow Hendrix, no one dared follow after Bach, not in this format at least. Where Mahler left little room to push forward with the symphony, Bach fairly well ended the chaconne. After his expansive examples, there was no territory left to claim. It would be 150 years before the title began showing up again regularly, and then only in homage to Bach. Bach’s grandiosity, however, was more a matter of taste than ideology. He enjoyed the process of technical exhaustiveness and he enjoyed showing off.
By 1853, when Brahms writes to Clara Schumann about the Chaconne, the romantic proto-Mahlerian ideals of music as philosophy and autobiography had started to change the meaning of the piece:
Using the technique adapted to a small instrument the man writes a whole world of the deepest thought and most powerful feeling. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.
The Chaconne had become both broader (“a whole world”) and deeper (its “emotional tension” putting your very psyche at stake). Brahms wrote this while reworking Bach’s violin piece as a left-hand-only piano étude, a process that for him bordered on the mystical. In the century since Bach’s death, Kant, then Beethoven, had given us the Romantic sublime, and musical composers had become philosophers-in-notes. For the Romantics, a great piece of art was a psychological sucker punch, knocking loose some terrifying unconfronted truth. The technical grandeur of Bach’s Chaconne (and his newfound role as Großvater of German music) had given it Himalayan stature — immovable, ancient, a platform from which to survey the universe. Brahms was not the last to approach it this way. Forty years later, Ferruccio Busoni came to understand that “a whole world” could no longer be contained on those four strings or in one’s left hand, and arranged the work as a swirling piano tempest of all ten of his own muscular fingers. Another 40 years later Leopold Stokowski made the Chaconne into a paradigm of 20th-century Gothic chic with a massive, Lovecraftian arrangement for Wagner’s orchestra.
The worlds were getting larger and the thoughts deeper. For the first half of the 20th century most listeners to radio or records experienced the Chaconne not as a set of violin variations, or as the final movement of a suite, but as a stand-alone monument in either the Busoni or the Stokowksi versions — slow, deep, terrifying, primordial. It was, for a generation raised on Time-Life’s canon of Music’s Greatest Masterpieces, a symbol of an unfathomable past filled with difficult musical mountains — each a challenge to be conquered with the guidance of academic Sherpas dispensing “music appreciation.” Mythically, it had found its role. It was the Monad that contained within it the secret formulas for all musical creation to follow, the musical equivalent of Kubrick’s black monolith or of Stonehenge.
There is no evidence that Bach himself considered the Chaconne to encode an entire vista of the universe or to sound out his own emotional depths. Such Romantic notions would never have occurred to a court composer who had trained in the late 1600s as a Lutheran town organist. Creating art then and there was not an act of personal expression but one of civic or religious service. Of course emotions could be depicted and messages delivered. But musicians of Bach’s generation did not need to feel an emotion in order to depict it. It was the next generation, beginning with Bach’s own son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who began to demand that a musician express emotions in a way we would call “authentic”:
Play from the soul, not like a trained bird! Since a musician cannot move others unless he himself is moved, he must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his listeners. He communicates his own feelings to them.
To C. P. E.’s old man, that would have been hippie talk. For him, depicting an emotion was like rendering any other natural object. As for other messages encoded in Bach’s music, they were delivered largely through text setting, or by fitting music to particular events. In Bach’s case these most often took the form of religious services for which the message was ordained by the calendar. His form of expression, far from confessional or autobiographical, was instead that of the commentary, or gloss, on the day’s theological moral. Even the act of mourning, when it was done in the musical form of the “Tombeau” or “Méditation,” was public and conventional — a depiction of the posture of grieving undertaken as a tribute, usually in honor of a mentor or patron.
The aspirations, motivations, and meanings that have since accrued to Bach’s works, and in particular to the Chaconne, have been filtered through others — Brahms, Busoni, and Stokowski — and are not Bach’s but theirs and ours. But to say this is not to dismiss such meanings. I experience them, enjoy them, rely on them in my own listening. There is no crime in that, nor any mistake or shallowness. It is inevitable, normal, and necessary. That is consumption history. We select it because it pleases us. We change it so that it can continue to please us.
Last spring I gave a class on the music of the Baroque in which I encouraged my students to be free with such meanings, whether or not they had any basis in the “composer's original intent” or in a historically accurate context. “This,” I proclaimed in our first meeting, “is not a class on the Baroque era, but on Baroque music as it is played and heard and felt today.” Progressive!
I found myself falling into exactly the role I wanted to avoid, that of “professional debunker,” when we came to the Chaconne. I was caught off guard to hear three different students say that finding a compelling meaning required that we look no further than Bach's own original feelings when composing the piece. They then related to me, somewhat accurately, the story of the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara — how Bach had returned home to Cöthen from a trip to Carlsbad in 1720 to find not only that she had suddenly taken ill and died during his trip, but that she had already been buried. Having had no opportunity to mourn her, Bach composed the Chaconne as an impassioned lament. This was the story my students told, and it is a great one. It makes sense to us that such an unfair shock of fate upon homecoming, unthinkable in our era of incessant status updates, must elicit in a great composer some audible act of grieving. The Chaconne — a slow expanding ululation at the unexpected loss of life — was Bach’s. Furthermore, my students were prepared to graft this emotional trajectory onto the big sections of the work, and specific emotional turns onto each variation. All were convincing if the premise was accepted.
When I asked them how they knew all of this, they told me that it was just “one of those common knowledge things, like Beethoven vs. Napoleon or Mozart dying while composing the Requiem.” Myths as the proof of more myths! It was not until after the meeting that I even remembered the recording, now 10 years old and long dismissed by historians as a bit of experimental performance art that most likely produced this strange convergence of ideas about Bach, the Chaconne, and death. I was witnessing the birth of a new musical myth — one that could be tied to one particular event, in this case a hit recording and a triumph of marketing.
There are many who would like to excise Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code from the collective consciousness, along with waterboarding and loan-bundling, as simply another embarrassing hijink remembered dimly through our Bush-era hangover. However that franchise (and the adorable bargain-bin-knockoff Nicholas Cage versions) remains instructive as a reminder that we moderns expect art to communicate in very specific ways. We expect artists to speak to us, to send us a message. And if a work of art is important it must have important secrets to spill, if not political or philosophical or personal, then something about where Thomas Jefferson’s gold is hidden. In music this drive to induce séance with the dead tends to assimilate pre-Romantic composers to the expressive goals of the Romantics — turning Bach, and everyone else, into Mahler.
Two years before Robert Langdon decoded his way into our hearts, there was Morimur — a genuine bestseller, rare even then among classical CD recordings. It was probably the first and maybe still the only Bach CD purchased by a significant number of people in this century. This is no small feat for such serious fare, competing with the more typical bestsellers on the classical chart (film soundtracks, Andrea Bocelli, “classical thunder,” and music with which to mold the future careers of fetuses). It was brilliantly marketed and reviews popped up at all levels of the musical press, from dedicated journals like Gramophone all the way down the AP wire to local newspapers’ “culture and life” sections. The headlines at all levels were enthralling: “Inside Bach’s Mind: Decoding his Secret Language” and, even more tabloid, “REVEALED: Bach’s Hidden Epitaph to His Wife.” It was discussed in intense whispers by the comfortingly authoritative Oxbridge accents that populate BBC Three. It sold well enough to produce a touring production in spring 2002. Perhaps more important, it became a phenomenon just as online music discovery and distribution was taking off and eventually hit No. 3 on Amazon’s newly influential music chart — which included pop — making it a bona fide MySpace-era crossover sensation. As with Bernstein’s Adagietto, or the Busoni and Stokowski Chaconnes, mythmaking is often aided by new or novel means of distribution. Bernstein’s performance was part of a national event broadcast on every major media outlet; Busoni’s version dominated early recordings of the Chaconne; Stokowski had an orchestra built for NBC radio. For many younger listeners of the early aughts, growing increasingly attuned to consume music one downloaded track at a time, “track 21” of Morimur provided their first or most concentrated experience of the piece.
Morimur, however, is not merely a recording of the second violin partita, but also an illustration of a theory. Here, for a moment, I must don my professional debunking gloves and qualify this: it is an illustration of an absurd theory, which had been quietly consigned to the margins of eccentric academia since 1994 when German musicologist Helga Thoene first proposed it in an article entitled “Johann Sebastian Bach. Ciaccona — Tanz oder Tombeau. Verborgene Sprache eines berühmten Werkes” (Dance or Tombeau — The Hidden Language of a Famous Work).
The article first appeared in a collection of essays published in Cöthen (where Bach wrote the Chaconne and where Maria Barbara died) to celebrate the 300th birthday of Bach’s employer there, Prince Leopold I. For nearly 10 years it was, quite justly, ignored. In it, the idea was first broached that Bach composed it as a memorial to his wife. The trigger seems simple enough. She died in 1720. The partitas weren’t copied out until 1720. As any conspiracy theorist might gladly offer: I suppose that could just be a coincidence ... or we could look a little deeper …
Thoene sought to prove the connection by locating hidden melodies scattered about the texture of the score, all of which reference mourning or death-related chorale tunes. This, she claimed, created a “hidden cantus firmus” beneath the busy surface of the violinist’s flittering. The themes she found, however, were nothing more than rising or falling scale fragments. A first-year music student could tell you that any simple chord progression will produce such scale fragments in the middle voices of its chords. That is the essence of what is called “smooth voice leading” when writing harmony. I could choose any piece conceived of in four-part harmony and find the same fragments occurring over and over. Still Thoene had to strain to uncover them in the Chaconne, jumping from voice to voice, connecting dots from one part of the staff to dots in another.
Furthermore, she alleged, Bach commemorated himself and his wife (as well as another dead notable, Jesus Christ) by means of gematria: counting up the number values of letters and using those numbers to determine things like the number of notes in a passage or the number of measures in a section. Bach’s scores are no strangers to the gematria community, having been put through the number-code wringer throughout much of the 20th century. Of course, a fundamental problem with such number games is that the rules are not fixed. A person’s “magic number” changes depending on how you choose to name them. Mine might be 116 (Michael Markham) or 193 (Michael Scott Markham) or 375 (Dr. Markham, PhD in Musicology at SUNY Fredonia) or a paltry 45 (MSM, which any true scholar of Markham-based gematria can tell you is how I sign my emails). Whatever works. Or one might choose to condense the numbers further. Is Michael Markham 116 or 8 (1+1+6)? Thus, for Bach’s reference to Christ, Thoene chose none of the various familiar Latin or Germanic spellings (Jesus Christus, Jesus Christe, Jesu Christus), but instead goes with his quick-form signature “XP.” Whatever works.
The number of arbitrary choices this allows/demands the “decoder” to make renders gematria useless as anything other than a Rorschach home kit. Which alphabet does one use to make the count? Modern German? Latin? Or one of the other alphabets that have found favor with number disciples over the last century (the trigonal, the Hebrew Milesian, the Greek Milesian), or maybe a special “private” set unique to the person in question. It does not take long to see the self-fulfilling nature of gematria, which is the reason that most Bach scholars have given up on it in all but the most obvious and trivial cases. As most followers of Harold Camping might now be able to admit, all it really measures is how patient, clever, and devoted the “reader” of the codes is to the message they already believe is there.
I admit, with some guilt, the glee I took in presenting Thoene’s theories to some of my seminar students following that first discussion of the Chaconne. It was more than just a chance to crush some youthful enthusiasm (cardinal mission of the historian) and to take on the role of state-sanctioned know-it-all. It was also a chance to test the strength of a musical myth that had already taken hold. I watched with growing schadenfreude as their faces slackened and their postures drooped. They were feeling duped. It really hit home when I showed them where in the score Thoene found Bach to have spelled his own name in musical notes. That is something Bach actually did, on occasion, using the German note spellings. But in order to find the name “B-A-C-H” spelled out in the Chaconne, Thoene had to respell it. She never finds B-A-C-H, but she does find C-H-B-A, four notes that produce a common chromatic scale.
“Wait,” came a capitulatory shrug from the last holdout, “so any chromatic scale she finds is Bach spelling his name … but just jumbled up?” I felt a Snape-like grin curling across my face. The myth, I believed, was shattered, at least for this group. Score one for academic killjoys! The class, however, went a different direction and, by the end of it, I had received a schooling in the nature of consumption history. I cannot say it better than they did, so I will paraphrase a few thoughts of my students — most of whom, unlike me, would actually have to perform the piece someday, that is, actually make something out of it:
As a player, the story gives me something to make choices about.
I never read that article and I never knew about the stupid codes and I don’t need them or care about them, just the idea behind it all, the mourning.
You can choose to emphasize moments based on it. Like near the end [i.e., the growling bariolage passage]. If you want the piece to be a lament over someone’s death, then you will really tear into that.
It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t really true then and it doesn’t matter if the code theory is dumb.
It is my music now! I’m the one who’s responsible for making it work. I have to do something.”
And there is the beauty of musical myths. The right or wrong of them does not matter to their survival or their value. What matters is that they match up somehow with something people already expect to feel in the music. They bridge the frustrating gap between sound and emotion that makes it so difficult to describe instrumental music. In the case of the Chaconne, all the hokum about hidden melodies and numbers is merely an attempt to institutionally legitimize a feeling that was already part of many people’s experience of the piece. Thoene purported to reveal that this feeling was actually Bach’s all along. This search for composer-sanctioned “proof” is what Richard Taruskin calls the poietic fallacy — “the assumption that the history of music is the history of composition” and that the purpose of analyzing music is to correctly deduce the composer’s own thoughts about it, as if those constituted the answers in the back of the Teacher’s Edition. But if we want to feel sad while listening to the Chaconne, the justification will have little to do with Bach. It will come from our own tendency to turn art into autobiography, reinforced by our post-Freudian reflex to scan every surface for hidden diary entries and secret communiqués.
Actually, if one wants to hear sadness in the Chaconne, there is no need for puzzles. There is plenty about it that behaves in the way that later composers have since taught us to expect depressing music to behave. Its overall form prefigures perfectly the Romantic “three-part” structure that we encounter again and again in the piano works of Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann — the preferred musical form of the sick, the homesick, and the codependent. In this form, the first section plops you down in the midst of an emotional crisis (usually in a minor key). The middle section offers escape to a happier major key — an emotional “safe zone.” The struggle to escape is hopeless, however. The opening material eventually returns, forcing you back to reality, back to the minor, and into emotional collapse. That temporary escape into happier imagery in the Romantic miniature is so ubiquitous that my own students have taken to calling it “The Gladiator effect” after the flashback scenes in Ridley Scott’s film when the doomed Russell Crowe dreams of the sunny wheat fields and domestic bliss lost to him forever. Listen, for example, to the middle section of the second movement “Funeral March” from Beethoven’s Eroica — its turn toward a major key, the emergence of shimmering woodwinds, the easing of tensions — none of which will last. That’s “the Gladiator effect,” the vain and duplicitous offering of hope to the hopeless in the form of a musical mirage. Its cruel effectiveness is the reason so much Romantic music still hits us so hard. That the structure of the Chaconne parallels this is likely why so many great listeners and players over the last 200 years have projected their own psychological struggles into it. Its famously uplifting middle section, bursting out of a somber D minor and into a radiant D major, has been heard by many over the years as a vision of ascension or resurrection — a hope for a second chance. But as in Beethoven’s Funeral March (and the even more famous one by Chopin), hope evaporates and, after a prolonged harmonic struggle, the music settles back into the shade of D minor. It is just after this that the bariolage occurs, smearing its painful dissonances across the page. Happening just after the mirage has disappeared, it becomes a reaction to it and thus the violin is anthropomorphized. It becomes a human character reacting to life events. So my ears have always wanted to tell me.
In this sense Thoene has done us all, and the Chaconne, a great service, even if her role in it will remain obscure, misguided, and accidental. She has, for the next generation of listeners, provided the historical rumor needed to sanction their emotional listening. This, in turn, has justified the continued existence of the Chaconne in people’s lives — by choice rather than through institutional fiat of The Canon or their Music Appreciation Sherpa. Great performers have always known that music, even great music, requires justification through renewal. One of my favorite quotations comes from a master class given by Pablo Casals. When one of the students was reluctant about an interpretation of Bach’s third Cello Suite that was not “historically correct,” Casals replied simply and steadfastly, “Don’t be afraid,” before launching into his own historically uninformed version of the opening few bars. What he meant was “Don’t be afraid of historians” (“purists” as he would call them with a roll of his eyes). If the imagined follow-up to that comforting answer is, “Then of what should I be afraid?” I would like to imagine his answer would be just as simple: “Irrelevance.”
Particularly in the era of streaming audio and the long tail, there is too much music available, in too many styles from too many eras, for any work to rest secure in our consciousness without being periodically recertified. Brahms and Busoni and Stokowksi did their part to reanimate the Chaconne. Thoene’s cooked numbers can be safely discarded and very few people will ever even be aware of them. But the whispers of death memorials and hidden laments have already trickled into the consciousness of my students, who were nine years old when Morimur came out. In some hazy half-heard form they will continue to color people’s experience of the Chaconne.
What of the recording itself, in particular “track 21,” the Hilliard Ensemble’s fantastical “illustrative” rendition of the Chaconne on Morimur? It was meant to demonstrate and confirm Thoene’s ideas. The ensemble did this by adding their voices to violinist Christoph Poppen’s performance, singing and holding the “code” notes so that the listener can hear the slowly unfolding melodies that, Thoene believed, lurked in the background. As a work of scholarly or theoretical demonstration, it is a failure. But as an act of consumption history, it is brilliant and worthy of a stronger label than “interpretation” or “demonstration.” Like Brahms’s or Busoni’s or Stokowski’s renditions, it is a recomposition, a remix, a reimagining, and a haunting composition in its own right — a contemporary work in step with that of other composers who have been impelled to converse with and manipulate the music of the canonical past: from Charles Ives to Alfred Schnittke, Tarik O’Regan, Tan Dun, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s “Beethoven Remix” concerts, not to mention Max Richter’s recomposed Vivaldi as described in this very journal.
As such the group deserves some author credit and to have their recording detached from the inanities that provoked it. We might call it Bach-Hilliard in the same way we have Bach-Busoni. It is more emotionally charged than the group’s previous mashup, in which saxophonist Jan Garabek’s improvisations conversed freely with the contrapuntal lines of Renaissance vocal music. The result of that earlier recording was — beautifully, but vaguely — a “mood” (in the new age sense — not that there’s anything wrong with that) arising from the ironic mingling of sounds associated with two conflicting worlds, ancient cathedral and modern cityscape. Track 21 hits closer to home. Adding human voices to an instrumental work already stacks the deck. No aspect of music is more loaded with “meaning” than timbre, and no timbre more loaded than the one that comes out of our own pathetic, mortal throats — now floating through the Chaconne in short, faltering sighs. And not just any voices, but the Hilliard Ensemble, the voices that popularized the vibratoless, disembodied “renaissance” sound that has, for 30 years or more, served as the early music fan’s refuge from the fleshy bodies of operatic singers and the phlegmy sensuality of torch singers.
The sound of disembodied voice fragments insinuating themselves into the physical world inevitably reminds us of ghosts — and that is just where the new mythology needs to carry us. It also heightens the level of dissonance, the long vocal tones ringing out in unexpected clashes with the violin lines that scurry around them. This dragging adds a sense of reluctance. Death, loss, and denial — all reinforcing what we already wanted to hear. But the biggest effect of the added voices is to distract the listener from the original music that we recognize going on “underneath.” We know that we are supposed to be following along with the violin, but are constantly pulled away from it, and toward a sound emblematic of our own bodies. Disorienting and narcissistic, the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble become prompters in our own inner dialogue — which is where Saint Gustav reigns. The more I listen to the Morimur arrangement, the more my personal experience of the Bach Chaconne begins to resemble my experience of Mahler’s sad lullaby.
That feels great, but it comes with guilt. Am I too quick to put aside “real” history in favor of fairy tales? What of my role as professional historian? What are we academics, theorists, musicologists to do with such myths? Ought we stand against them, demanding that listeners and performers go through (perhaps impossible) mental gymnastics to forget them? Could we do that even if we wanted to? A thousand battalions of Mozart scholars cannot erase the image of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. But should they try? Is it not the purpose of music to “move” listeners, to affect and excite them, to touch nerves, to be relevant to their lives? If not, then why continue to listen to old Sebastian? Is it just a yearly obligation like a class trip to the natural history museum? Is it my job to shut down the process of consumption and renewal if it does not meet the historical white-glove test? Must we poop on every parade?
Or is such a position an abdication of the responsibility to truth, perhaps the only responsibility (other than office hours) that comes attached to the academic robes? Is the danger of choosing our own history, and distorting the past to fit our desired narratives, not self-evident to any student of that past? Perhaps it is enough to do what I am doing here — to explore the history of our new mythologies and raise consciousness of them. Yet it is a naive kind of denial to believe that we can exempt ourselves from the process of consumption history. Unlike canonical paintings or buildings, which can sit there and absorb our gaze, musical works require our intervention to re-sound. They must be performed, and re-formed by each new generation of players and listeners. In that way, the Chaconne is like the little vampire from the Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Still alive long after its original guardian has passed, it is always on the lookout for a new caretaker. It is now our ward. We can let it whither or take on the responsibility to keep it alive — hopefully with less murdering of hitchhikers. Choosing life (or undeath) for a musical work means, in Casal’s terms, being unafraid to change it. We select it because it pleases us. We change it so that it can continue to please us. But, unlike the code-mongers, we can at least be honest about who speaks through the notes of the Chaconne today. We have met the composer, and he is us.
Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His writings on Baroque music and performance spaces, on solo song, and on J. S. Bach have appeared in Gli spazi della musica, The Cambridge Opera Journal, The Opera Quarterly, and Repercussions. Two recent essays can be found in The Music Room in Early Modern France and Italy: Sound, Space, and Object published by Oxford University Press and The Music History Classroom published by Ashgate.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.