Donne's work rarely pierces the modern cultural bubble, but there was a remarkable film from 2001 in which his work figured prominently: Wit, starring Emma Thompson and directed by Mike Nichols, is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson. (Read a stimulating conversation about the play between Ms. Edson and Jim Leher here.) I'll say no more about the movie now except that it's brilliant.
In The Triple Fool, Donne calls himself a fool for loving and then again for writing about it in poetry. Well, perhaps that's not so bad: he tames his grief in verse. Maybe that's an example of art serving as the guardian of sorrow, as I wrote the other day.
But then, to make things worse, Donne complains that someone sets his poetry to music! His grief is set free and amplified for all to hear. He becomes a fool for the third time!
Here's the complete poem, taken from the Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1, edited by E. K. Chambers (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896):
The Triple FoolI am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry ;
But where's that wise man, that would not be I,
If she would not deny ?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.
(One of Donne's metaphors doesn't work today: it used to be thought that salt was purged from the "narrow crooked lanes" of water as they made their way inland through the marshes to create fresh water rivers.)
My interest in all this stems from my curiosity about who set Donne's poetry to music. It was a common Elizabethan custom to take a popular ballad tune (e.g. Go From My Window, Fortune My Foe) and write new words to transmit news of the day (sensational crimes, hangings); I gather it was equally customary to find a tune whose meter matched that of a poem and join the two, although I imagine this would be quite difficult with Donne's poetry.
I've seen reference to settings by William Corkine and Giovanni Coperario, but have not seen the music. I've poured through my scores of John Dowland's (1563 -1626) lute songs and have found only two with texts by Donne: Sweet Stay Awhile and To Ask For All Thy Love.
Katie Roiphe, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, Meghan O'Rourke, who reviewed it for Slate, and Laura Kipnis, author of the iconoclastic 2003 polemic Against Love, have a lively and intelligent discussion. While conceding that the book is provocative and highly original, they do have some reservations. Perhaps I’m alone in my unqualified enthusiasm for it.
I argued in my recent talk on "The Re-Imagination of Performance" at the Guitar Foundation of America's International Convention and Competition this past June at Ithaca College that the concept of historic authenticity in the performance of early music actually developed concurrently with modernism and shares its values. As Richard Taruskin writes in Text and Act, historically authentic performance—or “informed,” whichever you wish to call it—is actually a modern construct that is “implicitly projected back into historical periods that never knew it.”
First, we need to uncover the modern constructs that we might be projecting backwards. Without being exhaustive, here are a two of the characteristics of modernism in the performance of classical music as put forth by Taruskin:
- It is text-centered, hence literalistic.
- It is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity.
Text-CenteredThe text-centrictricy of early music can be seen in the proliferation of Urtext editions. I find these editions invaluable, yet often the sound of a modern, historically informed performance based upon them “presents the aural equivalent of an Urtext score: the notes and rests are presented with complete accuracy and an equally complete neutrality” (Taruskin). This is both literal and impersonal, a privileging of standardization, virtuosity, accuracy, perfection, and patterns of conformity above experimentation, idiosyncrasy, interaction, individuation, and creative play. And it is anathema to the modern performer to add notes to an historic score. As we’ll see, a prescient Ferruccio Busoni was complaining about the rise of literalism in performance almost a hundred years ago.
ImpersonalTaruskin sums up the impersonalism of early music nicely:
The impersonalism of Early Music has resulted in performances of unprecedented formal clarity and precision. It has also resulted in a newly militant reluctance to make the subtle, constant adjustments of tempo and dynamics on which expressivity depends…
What Busoni saw before anyone else was the early stage of a shift from the work existing primarily as a performance, to the work existing primarily as a written text: the notation was beginning to stand for musical art itself. And as the century progressed, so did the rise of literalism and impersonalism. Toscanini demanded that his musicians “play what was set before them exactly as written regardless of ‘tradition,’” and Stravinsky railed “against ‘interpretation," and wanted his performers to be obedient ‘executants’ of his will,” (Taruskin). These positions typified a performance aesthetic that was gathering strength in the 1920s and 1930s and was the dominant performing style by the 1940s and 1950s.
Guitarists and the Bach ChaconneMost of today's concert guitarists prefer to play J. S. Bach's Chaconne from the Partita in d minor, BWV 1004 directly from the violin score, and the piece works fine that way—although I find most of the readings of it
What Segovia transcribed is important, because, although many amateur guitarists perceive Segovia's transcription as the sine non qua of the guitar repertoire, most professional concert artist reject it for its lack of "historic authenticity," a tricky term, but influential nonetheless.
Historic or simply old-fashioned?It's one thing to reject something on the grounds that it lacks "historic authenticity," or, more correctly, fails to meet a modern criterion, a criterion that had yet to develop when Busoni made his transcription, and betrays the modernist disdain for adding notes and expression markings where there were none in the original; and it's quite another to reject a Romantic tour de force. Busoni's dynamic and atmospheric transcription made no claim to historic authenticity, so why should we ascribe such a claim to Segovia's transcription, which was based upon Busoni's work? If we accept there is no claim to historic authenticity in Segovia's transcription, then perhaps we can place it in a different context and see it more clearly.
Would we have a different reaction to Segovia's version of the Chaconne if it had been published as being by Bach-Busoni? Incidentally, this wasn't the only time Segovia failed to correctly attribute the source of his edition: Segovia based his 1945 edition of twenty studies by Fernando Sor on a nineteenth-century edition by Napoleon Coste.
Rather than accepting Segovia's Chaconne transcription out of unquestioned loyalty to Segovia, or out of some sort of "Maestro inerrancy," to which many amateur guitarists used to subscribe, we should see this piece as a separate genre: not exactly Bach's Chaconne, but not a failed transcription either. What we have is a beautiful and effective concert piece and a wonderful Romantic masterpiece. Busoni's piano transcriptions of Bach’s works have been returning to the concert stage and have been showing up on disc, why not Segovia's version of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne? And after roughly a hundred years, does not this genre acquire its own historic status?
I am not suggesting that performers who choose to play from the violin score should take up Segovia's transcription instead; I am suggesting that Segovia's transcription falls into a different category, a category that has largely been ignored by guitarists and which embodies a nineteenth-century approach to Baroque music. This genre is small and includes only a handful of Bach pieces arranged by Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) in addition to Segovia's Chaconne transcription, but that it includes one of the finest solo instrumental pieces in the Western musical canon makes the genre significant. To reject this genre because it doesn't fit our idea of Baroque performance practice is to miss the point.
To my knowledge Segovia never indicated that he based his work on Busoni's and we have no statements to that effect, but we have the music, so let’s look at that.
Musical EvidenceLet’s compare just a few excerpts from the two versions, occasionally looking at Bach’s original. We'll start with something simple.
Example 1:In measure 4, Bach accompanies the melody with a single note, "d":
Busoni lowers the accompaniment an octave and adds a fifth (note that the upper stave is in bass clef):
Segovia does the same thing and with the same voicing:
Example 2:In measure 29 (and elsewhere), Busoni creates a bass pedal derived from the rhythm of the opening bars:
Segovia does the same, although he limits himself to one bass note because of the compressed range of the guitar:
Example 3:In measure 33-35 Bach presents the illusion of two voices from a single line, the harmonies for which are not explicit. Here's the first bar of the phrase:
Busoni fills out the harmonies:
and Segovia follows suit:
Notice also that Segovia’s dynamic markings reflect Busoni's.
Example 4:Sometimes common errors can be evidence of links between scores. Bach writes an "a" pick-up to measure 137:
Busoni's score has a misprint which has moved the "a" down a line to an "f-sharp," a not uncommon type of error in engraved music (note that the upper stave is in the bass clef):
(Busoni has added five measures to the piece so the comparable bar in his score is m. 142.)
Segovia's transcription has the same error:
Example 5:Finally, in measure 168 of Busoni's score he picks up on a three-note motif introduced by Bach (in m. 163) in the upper voice,
and answers it in the bass (in octaves):
(This section starts earlier and I've not marked all instances of Busoni's additions.)
Segovia once again follows Busoni's example, although without the octaves:
ConclusionBusoni certainly did things in his piano version that would not be possible or convincing on the guitar: larger chords, thicker textures, extended octave passages, and Segovia navigates those sections convincingly in his arrangement. I maintain, however, that there is as much Busoni in the guitar arrangement as there is Segovia.
Whether Segovia was strongly influenced by Busoni, whether he worked directly from Busoni's score, or whether he used both the violin score and Busoni's arrangement matters little. (The latter is the most likely as Segovia did not include the five extra bars that Busoni added to the piece.) Almost all of Segovia's added notes and harmonies were predicated on what Busoni did. And most of Segovia's tempo and interpretive indications, while being only a fraction of what Busoni included, are either identical to Busoni's or convey the same character. This (and other things) may be the subject of subsequent posts.
Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne is a masterpiece of Romantic performance style and there is much to be learned from studying it, either in the original piano score, or through the filter of Segovia.
NoteFor an interesting and intelligent conversation about the Bach Chaconne on the Watson Institute’s Open Source program between Christopher Lydon and violinist Arnold Steinhardt, listen to the January 1st, 2007 edition of the show and read the Open Source blog.
You can comment as “Guest,” or edit the “Guest” button to include your name or nickname. The whole system is a little more Web 2.0 than I’m used to, but those with web accounts on facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Google Friend Connect, Yahoo, Open ID, can have their comments also show up on those pages (I think). The mind boggles.
Be on the lookout for a lengthy post on Andrés Segovia’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in d minor, BWV 1004. Coming soon!
—my adaption/transposition of a comment by Christopher Lasch about sports to music (from The Culture of Narcissism, 1979)
—Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)
(To account for the movement of the planets, the ancient Greeks placed each of the known seven bodies that moved around the Earth— Sun, moon, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn—in its own moveable sphere, which rotated independently of the other spheres. Additionally, each of the seven spheres was associated with one of the seven notes of the musical scale: hence, the Harmony of the Spheres.)
The idea of the sound of creation actually has been receiving some serious consideration by astrophysicists. While giving a concert at the University of Virginia last April, I became re-acquainted with Mark Whittle, an astronomy professor at UVA. Mark had travelled down to South Carolina for a week-long guitar workshop I gave in 1995 and we became friends. After my concert, Mark and I chatted at length about his research, which involves Big Bang Acoustics. It's fascinating, but not unprecedented, at least by the mediaeval and metaphoric mind.
Isadore of Seville, the mediaeval scholar wrote, “Nothing exists without music; for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tones of that harmony.”
The ancients saw their created world as part of a cosmic dance. This, incidentally, is essential to understanding Renaissance instrumental music, which is often glossed over in music history classes in favor of sacred, text-based, vocal music, but dances had their own less-literal sacred qualities, and it is no accident that dances dominate instrumental music in the Renaissance.
Creation as a dance implies motion, and motion implies degree. To the Elizabethan mind, for example, the regiments of earthly, ethereal, and divine beings were sped on varied but controlled wanderings to the accompaniment of music. The slightest disruption of degree was seen to upset the order of the universe.
Shakespeare knew this well when he had Ulysses say in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows.”
Although the characteristics of individual dances might have changed over time, to the musicians of each generation the dance forms themselves were as immutable as the crystal spheres that held the planets in place and reflected the order of the universe. This was less a conscious connection than an unquestioned belief that was simply there.
But this received order was showing its cracks as early as 1543 when Copernicus published his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Still, this great work had limited effect and was banned by the church. The cracks grew larger as the century progressed. In 1577 Tycho Brahe’s observations of the orbits of comets could not be reconciled with the existing view of the universe.
In 1596 Johannes Kepler went public with his laws of planetary motion. Yet even Kepler could not separate his scientific views from his religious views. In 1618 he wrote: “It is no longer a surprise that man, the ape of his Creator, should finally have discovered the art of singing polyphonically, which was unknown to the ancients, namely in order that he might play the everlastingness of all created time in some short part of an hour by means of an artistic concord of many voices and that he might to some extent taste the satisfaction of God the Workman.”
(Galileo’s 1632 book, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), compared the ancient Ptolemaic system with the new Copernican system. This was placed on the church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum and was not removed until 1822. In 1983 Pope John Paul II retracted the ban on Galileo and in 1992 issued an apology on behalf of the church and lifted the edict of the Inquisition.)
By the early eighteenth century musical pieces began to appear without dance titles but with simple tempo indications: largo, allegro, presto. By the time of J. S. Bach’s death in 1750, the dance suite was old fashioned, the Enlightenment was well under way, and musical forms, while retaining certain musical characteristics of the dance, became formed more and more out of their content: sonata-allegro; theme and variations. The cosmic dance had ended.
The illegitimate heir and pretender to Pascal's ideas is the right brain/left brain dichotomy, which is often presented as an either/or proposition. But Pascal suggests that there are not two species of individuals: there are two directions that one human mind can take. As Jacques Barzun writes in From Dawn to Decadence, and as any functioning Gemini knows (Pascal was one), it is possible for a well-trained mind to “think like Euclid and like Walt Whitman.”
The suggestion that one could contain both l'espirit geometrique and l'espirit de finesse within one mind is made clear by Pascal’s statements, “All mathematicians would then be intuitive if…” and “intuitive minds would be mathematical if….” But what if one contains neither? Pascal calls these minds dull.
Read for yourself what Pascal writes about the difference between l'espirit geometrique and l'espirit de finesse, translated in this 1958 edition (with an introduction by T. S. Eliot) of his Pensées as the mathematical and the intuitive mind:
“In the one the principles are palpable, but removed from ordinary use; so that for want of habit it is difficult to turn one's mind in that direction: but if one turns it thither ever so little, one sees the principles fully, and one must have a quite inaccurate mind who reasons wrongly from principles so plain that it is almost impossible they should escape notice.
“But in the intuitive mind the principles are found in common use, and are before the eyes of everybody. One has only to look, and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight, but it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and so numerous, that it is almost impossible but that some escape notice. Now the omission of one principle leads to error; thus one must have very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the next place an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from known principles.
“All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.
“The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselves perceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it. We must see the matter at once, at one glance, and not by a process of reasoning, at least to a certain degree. And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind does not do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technical rules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a few can feel it.
“Intuitive minds, on the contrary, being thus accustomed to judge at a single glance, are so astonished when they are presented with propositions of which they understand nothing, and the way to which is through definitions and axioms so sterile, and which they are not accustomed to see thus in detail, that they are repelled and disheartened.
“But dull minds are never either intuitive or mathematical.
“Mathematicians who are only mathematicians have exact minds, provided all things are explained to them by means of definitions and axioms; otherwise they are inaccurate and insufferable, for they are only right when the principles are quite clear.
“And men of intuition who are only intuitive cannot have the patience to reach to first principles of things speculative and conceptual, which they have never seen in the world, and which are altogether out of the common.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
—Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell To Arms)
This is difficult for us to see but represents the invisible domestication of our unruly and creative consciousness by the marketplace. After all, if you could ask a fish what the most salient feature of its environment was, the chances are it wouldn't notice that it was water.
This past June, Cristina Nehring published her manifesto A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century (Harper/Harper Collins) in which she explores the murky waters of love and relationships in which we swim, although it may more often feel like treading water. Her title pays homage to Mary Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from 1792, which in turn was influenced by Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).
Ms. Nehring’s book argues ardently against the “pragmatic and pedestrian” and celebrates lovers who refused to be domesticated by their cultural norms and who had the creative passion to express their love through more than just the physical. That they suffered only serves to remind us that an archaic meaning of the word “passion” was to suffer as a martyr.
Abelard and Heloise, Frido Kahlo, Margaret Fuller, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Goethe’s Werther had no interest in our obsession with balanced relationships (and who is to say what balance is?), shared bank accounts, equally divided chores, or the need to “work on the relationship.”
Imagine a creature that could only live on the surface tension of the water of a lake and could move only in the two dimensions of the surface. This creature would be incapable of imagining depth. What if love exists in a world containing dimensions beyond the imagination of most, just as depth is unimaginable to our surface-dwelling creature? What if love has its own equivalents of length, width, height and time — the four dimensions we need to locate an object in space and time.
If love has its own dimensions, dimensions we need to be able to experience in order to locate all of love, then maybe we can imagine those who can only love in one or two dimensions. Perhaps they're convinced they are loving fully: It's all they know, yet we know it would feel incomplete.
And then also, can we perhaps imagine those capable of loving in some hidden dimensions, dimensions that are not observable and are experienced by only a few? This love may be inscrutable, but may end up being more real. This is the love that Ms. Nehring wishes to vindicate.
Katie Roiphe wrote of A Vindication of Love in The New York Times, “Nehring sees in the grandeur of feeling a kind of heroism, even if the relationship doesn’t take conventional form or endure in the conventional way. For Nehring, one senses, true failure is to drift comfortably along in a dull relationship, to spend precious years of life in a marriage that is not exciting or satisfying, to live cautiously, responsibly. Is the strength of feeling redeemed in the blaze of passion even if it does not end happily? she asks. Is contentment too soft and modest a goal?” Ms. Roiphe later refers to Ms. Nehring’s “outlandish romantic arguments” but concedes that the book may cause people to re-examine their intimate lives.
Most of the crew (Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner) at Slate Magazine’s Culture Gabfest found it “irritating,” “softheaded,” “the worst-possible argument,” and “a screaming totem of hypocrisy.” (Go to the 28 minute mark where they start discussing the book.) Did they miss the point? Are the thirty-somethings of today irrevocably anti-romantic? Are they embarrassed by the no-holds-barred expression of feeling that Ms. Nehring draws upon? Are they so immersed in the water of today’s culture that they cannot see that within which they are swimming? (Meghan O'Rourke comes closer to the essence of the book in her review for Slate.)
Perhaps what they’re really missing is the essence of the Romanticism. At its truest, Romanticism validates passion, risk, and imagination, and are not these the qualities Ms. Nehring seeks to vindicate? I thought the book was brilliant. Brava, Cristina Nehring!
—Tennessee Williams (Eccentricities of a Nightingale)
Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes
to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not
yours only not left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we
pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit
alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
Perhaps Robert Frost’s statement about poems could be applied to this blog: “A poem… begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness… It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” Pristine Madness starts as a thought, a feeling, a confusion, a small piece of clarity, a connection made, something imagined—all things seeking the light of expression.
The most difficult thing for modern men and women to do is to view the mechanisms of their own age—to say nothing of actually understanding their effects. More commonly, we view the world, past and present, through the small portals of contemporary experience. What is more troubling is that these portals themselves are thought to be incredibly large lenses through which we can view truth. Pristine Madness will explore what we’re seeing, but also how and why we are seeing it.
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