Thursday, March 27, 2008

Music and Morals: Bach

Around the time that my first marriage was ending, I started working with yet another new voice coach. (Not exactly voice teachers, coaches are generally pianists who have a great deal of familiarity with and, at best, love for and insight into the classical vocal repertoire; their job is to help singers learn how to put it across in stylistically appropriate ways. Voice teachers mostly stick to technique.)

In addition to being a monster pianist, this coach possessed several unique characteristics. He hated opera, but coached it to pay the bills; his real love was art song. It was mine too. I had long dreamed of having a career as a recitalist, but my teachers had told me that it wasn't possible for an American singer to do so. So I had jumped onto the opera treadmill in the hope of having a great career that would one day permit me to do the music I really wanted to do -- the sort of career that the very fortunate (and deserving) Dawn Upshaw has had.

When my first marriage ended, however, I found that I no longer had the heart for opera. I just couldn't go on another audition. I was five minutes late for one of the last auditions I ever took, with a famous genre-specialist conductor who lived overseas, but whose tours to the cultural centers of the United States and recordings of rarely-performed operas were wildly popular among music enthusiasts. When his people squeezed me in despite my throwing off the scheduled list of singers by five minutes, the famous man talked on his cell phone during my entire aria. My manager was appalled by the disrespect I had implied by being late, and I wondered myself if there weren't something Freudian about it, but my voice teacher simply rolled her eyes when I told her what had happened. "He's lucky you weren't five hours late," she said. "This is New York."

In the meantime, as my opera career and my life were unraveling, I began to feel a strong rapport with my new, opera-hating coach. I even asked him to play my last few opera auditions as my accompanist, because, in spite of the fact that he hated the repertoire, he could play the hell out of it. In private, we worked together on music that we both loved -- songs by Brahms, Schumann, Messiaen -- and talked idly of doing recital tours.

Another thing that was unique about this coach was that he was straight. In fact, he was married, and I had at one time heard vague rumors that he had been abusive to his wife, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera. They seemed to be happy enough now, though she was often away on singing jobs.

The weekend after my first husband moved out, the coach called me up. His wife was out of town, and he wanted to pay me a visit. I was distraught that morning, and, if I recall correctly, drinking in bed. I thought, why not? But then somehow I got hold of myself and called him back to ask him not to come. I don't know how it happened that I was seized by a sudden attack of virtue -- I'd hardly been a paragon of it lately -- but I was extremely relieved. I never saw him again.

Something that the coach said to me during our work together stands out in my memory. Music, he said, was about the moral virtues. To illustrate this point, he told me that he woke up at 5 AM every day to play Bach's two-part keyboard inventions -- perhaps the purest, most cerebral, and, in a sense, the loneliest and most chaste music that the Western art music tradition has ever produced. (To listen to Glenn Gould playing Invention no. 2 in C minor, go here.)


Mrs. T said...

What a beautiful post. So much discourse (particularly religious discourse of a particular type -- to which I'm sympathetic most of the time) tends to deal with art in terms of superficial morality: do we show the children paintings where ladies are nekkid, that kind of thing. But there is a deep morality in real art, and a deep virtue (or lack thereof sometimes, it's true) which transcends those kinds of "does this fit our sense of appropriateness" questions.

And it's lovely to read about music through the eyes and ears of a real singer. I'm a benchwarmer kind of church choral singer -- one of those altos who do D's and E's really, really well, drone drone drone . . . and I have no end of admiration for people who can truly sing.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mrs. T. One of the most confounding things to me about music is the fact that some of its most spiritually broken practitioners are the same ones who are able to reveal it at its most transcendent.

Anonymous said...

I wish I knew enough about music to write about it. You can lose your humanity studying the humanities, but art is ultimately about the imitation of the divine.

Pentimento said...

I think that the movie Amadeus, although it's not factually accurate about the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, makes this point really well - that God empowers the most cracked, enfeebled vessels to sing His praises so exquitely.