Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Two B's


My two-year-old woke up at five in the morning today and couldn't get back to sleep, so I brought him into the living room to play. I turned on the radio and heard the unmistakable sound of a Brahms cello sonata, the opus 38, no. 1, in E minor, which, as often happens when I hear Brahms by chance, almost brought me to my knees. I've loved Brahms since childhood, and remember having conversations about him with my nearest-in-age brother, G., when we were teenagers; I had not studied music theory at that point and didn't know the principles of harmony and voice-leading, but I tried to tell G. that I loved Brahms because his music was "vertical" rather than "horizontal." What I was referring to, though I didn't know how to say so, was Brahms's reliance on harmonic progression rather than melodic line to advance the emotional meaning of his pieces. Although he could write beautiful melodies, some of his most interesting pieces are devoid of the soaring, lyrical lines which are characteristic of his somewhat earlier Romantic contemporaries. Brahms's melodic motives tend instead to be obscured by his use of delayed harmonic resolution, often in the form of sixth chords, which impart a sense of both resignation and unfulfillable longing to his music. When I hear his music, I feel as if I'm being led one step to the side of my everyday life, into a slightly parallel reality of deep contemplation. It is a somewhat jarring sensation these days, when I have so many things to do in the moment; gone are the days when I could listen and contemplate at leisure. I suppose this is one of the great luxuries of driving a car, which I don't do - the ability to carve time out of the quotidian to listen and contemplate, to go into the denser, moister life that's at the heart of the brittle, outer one. (I try to sing some Brahms Lieder every time I have the chance to perform a solo recital, but that's not very often, and because my professional life as a singer was largely focused on Italian repertoire, there is not much demand for my work as a Brahmsian.)

For another wonderful musical moment, go to one of my favorite blogs, The Western Confucian, where American-expat-in-South-Korea Joshua Snyder has a video up of Joan Baez singing Bob Dylan's "Love is Just a Four-Letter Word," with Earl Scruggs helping out on the banjo. I love Baez's chaste, lyrical singing style, which always seems so anachronistic for both her times and her persona.

5 comments:

Tertium Quid said...

You are always an excellent music teacher and critic. I grew up largely without the former and mostly the latter.

Music, like any good story, puts us in another world. It's like the wardrobe to Narnia.

Tertium Quid said...

Have you seen on YouTube Joan Baez singing "I Shall Be Released" with the Smothers Brothers?

Pentimento said...

I just watched the Baez/Smothers video - thanks for the recommendation. The *chastity*, the almost austere simplicity of her singing, really shines in that clip. I love her version of Dylan's "Ring Them Bells," sung with Irish singer Mary Black on a live album from the 1990s of the same name. Unfortunately, there's no youtube of it, but it is beautiful - you would like it, T.Q., if you don't know it already.

dreshny said...

I liked the clip below it, with Joan Baez struggling through "It Ain't Me, Babe" while holding a baby. She gives up and starts imitating Dylan, which is really cute.

Actually, who I really love singing "It Ain't Me, Babe" is Johnny Cash...

Pentimento said...

That is great, Dreshny! Thanks for recommending it. I bet the baby is Joan's son, Gabriel.