I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The voiceless plea

The only imaginative work that tackled the WW2 death camps satisfactorily was the nine-hour documentary, Shoah, famous for excluding historical footage. Otherwise it has to be music. Not voice because singing emphasises the human source. Not the simulation of recognisable emotions like sympathy because these risk grievous failure. It must be abstract music, on a remote yet parallel course, and it must imply: this is our other side.

As I struggle with the novel unproductive impulses delay me. Gosh it’s ages since I heard Bach’s Chaconne. A piece for unaccompanied violin; the most inaccessible he ever wrote. Two (perhaps) bars of one voice then two bars of the other, over and over. After thirteen minutes of jagged alternating fragments the two lines are remembered as continuous and interweaving. Calling it a masterpiece trivialises it.

The clip starts with snow falling on modern-day Auschwitz. In a corridor in one of the huts Maxim Vengerov launches into the opening, his violin shouting hoarsely. He emerges from the hut, concentrating, still playing, walking beside the wire fence with those overhanging lights resembling metal snowdrops. Somewhere, off-camera, he assumes an overcoat and a carelessly tied scarf; there’s snow on the ground and Auschwitz is cold and wind-swept.

The violent music continues, its seriousness inarguable. Vengerov now wears fingerless mittens so that the chaconne’s intentions are not traduced. Hunched, implacable, he walks along the railway line, then back, out through the archway, crosses over the line, his shoes black and shiny. By now the Bach is everywhere, perhaps saying “This! This!” Then it ends, because everything ends. The early seventeen-hundreds crying out universally to the nineteen-forties.


  1. The first time I heard Bach's Chaconne, the violinist was Victoria Mullova. Her renditions still speak to me. An amazing piece. The 27th of January, 1945 is when the Soviets entered Auschwitz and liberated the remaining prisoners.

  2. RW (zS): It's Viktoria, although I'm not saying this to tick you off. I've just Googled because I realise I've watched her very recently via Google Images (it could have been the Sibelius concerto, I forget) and I was enormously impressed by her technique, her passion and her modesty. The fact that it's a K rather than C seems to fit in with my reactions and, knowing your sensitivity about aspects of language, I felt I had to point it out. There was no intention of smarty-boots.

    As to the Chaconne I've written about it before and will no doubt do so again. The clip I mention drew sneers as well as plaudits and I have no complaints about that; there was always the risk that some would regard it as gilding the lily. Both the situation and the music demand very personal responses and it was inevitable there would be disagreements. I hadn't realised about the imminence of that anniversary and perhaps I can push science to one side for once and acknowledge that strong emotions may turn mere coincidence into something more mystical.

    I have to say that a comment from you was the one I most hoped for.

  3. I depend on you to point out these important details, LdP! Thank you! The 'k' indeed fits her technique. Yes, I agree. I'd not seen the clip you've chosen for your post, and I found myself moved by his playing in that place. And in the winter's cold in particular.

  4. Music which is intended to evoke or complement things, places or words is, I believe known as programme music, and is often contrasted with works such as Beethoven's late quartets and Bach's Chaconne, which rely only upon themselves to move us with their innate qualities of rhythm, harmony etc. The clip you describe seems immensely moving, but do you think that the images by turning The Chaconne into a piece of programme music limits or enhances the music? This is not intended as criticism of the use of the music with film (something which happens all the time with great music being used in this way) but rather to enquire about the effect on one's original perception of the music. An extreme instance of what I am saying is to ask if Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is going to be the same for someone once he has seen the film of The Clockwork Orange.

  5. Plutarch: Programme music. My definition is somewhat cruder: music that attempts to tell a story, evoke an event, or re-create a state of mind. Thus Till Eulenspiegel (who runs about playing practical jokes and is eventually hanged - the only Richard Strauss work I actively dislike), the Pastoral symphony (Awakening to wonderful feelings in the countryside - it never seemed like the LvB I know and love; the villagers jollily dancing; the storm, etc), the Carnival of the Animals, Petrushka (forgivable since it's intended as a ballet), and perhaps even Chopin's second piano sonata (since the third movement is intended as a funeral march). Some of these pieces, and others like them, are well loved but the mus-crit attitude tends to be snobbish, saying that imposing a literary narrative or atmosphere beforehand restricts the composer's invention. Given my uninstructed entry into music I've always adopted this view.

    In the case of Auschwitz and the Chaconne, all that has happened is juxtaposition but I can see the risk. Will the huts and the barbed wire rise up in my mind every time I hear the violins begin to scrape? Will the Chaconne have lost its abstract nature? I think it's very possible but does this differ from other times I've heard the music and my mind has wandered into other sets of images? After all something happens in our brain - is meant to happen I suppose - when we hear music and thus music can't remain pristine for ever. There's a wonderful piano piece by LvB, Andante Favori, that will for ever evoke early morning mist on the Loire (and for Mrs LdP) because we played it - on a tape cassette, remember those? - during our first touring holiday in France. I don't begrudge that association.

    The Ninth is a special case. It was intended as aversion therapy in Orange and one assumes that any piece with a strongish melody would have had that effect. Burgess's point was that you can corrupt someone's mind with music that is officially judged "good". Since then there've been other layers on top of the final movement. Bernstein took the NY Phil to Berlin and played the symphony (in the open air I believe) when the wall came down. Latterly it's been adopted as the EU's "anthem". I think I'm in favour: if the music is good enough it should survive these links though I happen to favour the wall coming down as I favour the idea of the EU. The problem is when good music is inseparably tangled with something I don't approve of - as with Elgar and Holst. As I see it the cure, easy to say, harder to come by, is to listen to inspired performances of these works which re-awaken their qualities.

    As Lucy said recently about one of her re-comments, I shoulda turned this into a post. Out of curiosity I've just done a word count and it tops out at 476-plus. So I would have needed to cut it.

  6. I'm listening to Itzhak Perlman playing the Chaconne as I write and I think I can say that the strength and purity of the music already stands on its own. I watched that remarkable and moving clip from Shoah yesterday by the way. I'm grateful for these reminders to focus more on music and the experiences which they bring.