A Couple of Things After the Triduum
On Benedict XVI

Brahms, and Caroline Shaw

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last weekend, after having argued with myself about whether it was worth the trouble or not. That's no aspersion on the orchestra; it's just that the main attraction was Brahms's Fourth, a work that I love and know pretty well, and I was not sure the pleasure of hearing it performed live, probably not quite as well as on recordings, justified the expense (not that much) and the drive (a little over an hour). Desire to support the orchestra was one of the things that tipped me over to yes, go

It was worth it. In spite of what I just said about knowing the Brahms, it may well be more than thirty years since I last heard it, possibly more. I think I listened to it a fair amount when I was in college and soon afterward, when my ears and my sensibility were young and fresh, and apparently it had really imprinted itself on me. I had forgotten just how much I love it...except for that last movement. I never have been touched by it. It's a passacaglia (a structure similar to a theme and variations, but with the underlying motive a bass or chordal movement, not a melody). And I remember thinking all those years ago that the problem must be that I simply didn't understand it. I don't think I ever made much effort to follow the changes of the form; the music just didn't touch me. 

This time I really made a concerted effort to keep the pattern in mind, actually counting the measures and focusing on trying to keep the foundation in mind as a variety of structures were built atop it. That effort broke down about two-thirds of the way through--I don't know whether the pattern itself varies or I just couldn't keep up.

But that shouldn't matter. One shouldn't have to think about the structure of a piece in order to be affected by it. And, once more after all these years, it still doesn't touch me. That's okay, because the first three movements had me almost ecstatic. I remembered them more accurately than I expected. I remembered it so well, and liked it so much, that I almost feel that I don't need to hear it again, ever. Maybe now I should just listen to the fourth movement several times in a row, and see if anything happens. 

Who, you may ask, is Caroline Shaw? She's a  young composer of whom I had never heard before Saturday, but I'm sure going to hear more of her now. The first piece in the program was a to-me-forgettable overture by Weber. The second was a work for chorus and orchestra by Shaw, "In Common Time." And the third was Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus." 

I was entirely prepared to be bored at best, annoyed at worst, by the Shaw piece. Oh yeah, we know what to expect: some aimless and disconnected sounds, some pleasant and some not, maybe some pretentious notes about how it reflects the anxieties of our times etc. I would not have been at all surprised if it was said to be about climate change.

But it won me over, and then some. Yes, it's...odd to the ears of those who love, for instance, Brahms, but that's hardly a new thing. More deeply,  there's the whole problem of modern music, as with modern poetry and painting, not simply being not very much like but also not really as good, by some semi-objective criteria, as older and more traditional classical music. It does not have either the technical or emotional reach of 19th (and some 20th) century music, just as most contemporary poetry does not come off very well in comparison with, for instance, Tennyson, or even Housman. 

But this mostly wordless piece, which started out as pleasant, went deeper as it progressed, especially when the few bits of words came in: "Years ago...I forget...years to come...let them." 

And what really iced the cake for me was that Shaw's work was followed without a break (this was announced beforehand) by the Mozart. The effect for me was profound, the radiant beauty of the second somehow resolving the restless longing of the first. Afterwards I went to the orchestra's Facebook page solely to offer my thanks to whoever it was who came up with the idea for that combination.

Here's "In Common Time." I did, I should say, find a few things about it a little off-putting: the clattering among the strings, for one, which sounded to me as if it were something more than col legno, striking of the strings with the wood of the bow. It seems gimmicky to me, not to mention ugly. And I could do without some of the vocal effects. Still, I like it. 

Many or most Catholics, and I suppose all Catholics who have an interest in classical music, will recognize "Ave Verum Corpus." 

I can imagine someone saying that the Mozart just proves the deficiencies of the Shaw. Well, what can I say?--I liked it, and I liked the combination. It was a memorable night.

I think there is in fact a good deal of interesting music being made by people trained in classical technique and sensibility. I put it that way because the word "classical" doesn't seem exactly applicable to the music itself. I'll have more to say about that sometime before too long. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

It's funny that although Brahms 4 is also one of my favorite pieces, it is mostly because of the 4th movement (although I love the other movements too, of course). This may partly be because I have actually had the chance to play this movement in an orchestra, an experience that always heightens my appreciation for any work. Understanding the passacaglia form does add something to my love for it, but mostly I love it because it really does move me in a profound way. I often say that my favorite passage in all of music (perhaps hyperbole, perhaps not) is the flute solo at the beginning of the slower middle section.

Speaking of the slower middle section, perhaps the rhythm changes are part of the reason you find the form hard to follow. The middle section is, I believe, in 3/2 rather than 3/4, which makes the measures twice as long as they are in the fast parts.

Well, that’s fascinating. I was pretty sure the problem was with me. It’s weird, in itself and because I love the other three movements so much. Moreover, the famous chaconne from whichever Bach solo violin partita or sonata it is, is one of my favorite things in all of music. So it’s not some inherent disconnect with the form.

You may well be right about the reason I lose track somewhere around the middle. My technical knowledge of music is minimal—never learned more than the ABCs, never played an instrument apart from fooling around with guitar by myself. So I’m easily confused :-)

Funny, when I was reading the first comment I was saying to myself, "My kids also talk about how playing a piece helps you appreciate it." Then I got to the end and saw that the commenter WAS one of my kids!

I had taken a wild guess to that effect:-)

Caroline Shaw has written a very lovely setting of Psalm 84 that has been taken up by quite a few choirs. Here's a good recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mA8UHWFg-M

Good to hear you had such a great night at the concert hall!

Live performance of symphonic music is a rare experience for me, living where I do. I could make it less rare but too often the programs presented by our local symphony don't have enough appeal to me to make me go to the trouble of attending.

I will most certainly listen to that setting. I like Psalm 84, especially in its inaccurate Coverdale translation.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)