The Meaning of Chorale

Yet another coffeeshop: students finishing papers behind me, a couple finishing (amicably?) their divorce settlement to my right, three men forming a start-up on the patio, and to top it all off: some man continuously clearing his throat, an act which produces a bizarre sound, quasi Fat Albert (It is a four-part chorale: studential giggle, strained financial discussion, business bravado, and finally the Fat Albert basso continuo: ahhh, the counterpoint of coffeeshops!) Oh, and it’s a barista’s birthday, they are lifting a cake over the counter and singing and cheering. Grrrr. I have had a rough couple days, with the onset of some cold/flu thingy and yet–no rest for weary pianists–the concerts continue to come on, every two days… I’m industrial-strength miffed.

I’ve played many pieces since getting here–Dvorak D major Piano Quartet, Strauss Piano Quartet, Shostakovich Quintet, Schubert Adagio and Rondo–but the piece that is still sticking in my mind, making me happy, is the Brahms A major Piano Quartet, which I played in North Carolina. As I drove, the last night, over back mountain roads, towards Greensboro (my birthplace)… I found myself needing comfort, which Christian and right-wing talk radio did not seem to provide (to each his own). Instead, then, I played over and over in my head passages from the A major Piano Quartet. The entire black, curvy drive was surreally lit by this sunny piece.

For me, this is one of the holiest, most sacred of pieces, perfect in every detail. But very serious, intelligent musicians have suggested that the opening theme of this piece is evidence of Brahms’ mediocrity… an aberration, a mess. It is true, it is an odd opening theme… made of chords more than melody (there are too many chords for the melody). And yet it would be “fine,” except for an odd move to F#-major in its fourth bar, sounding a little forced, ill-prepared, artificial… the A# jangles like a “mistake” against the A, the main note of the piece… of course this artificial (let’s say “extraordinary”) event, once accepted, clearly poses itself as a premise for the whole piece, as a protagonist. Perhaps the piece, its vast structure, requires an initial suspension of disbelief. Perhaps any vast structure does.
I remember thinking, when I first looked at the score, what a stupid theme it was… what an idiot.

It is a very difficult theme to play because you want to keep the legato of the melody, and yet each chord must have its integrity, must be beautifully voiced, entire. But when it feels good, it feels GOOD; your hands move from chord to chord, as if running over, caressing, the roots of harmony … and the best feeling, the real satisfaction, comes at the recapitulation, when you play the same theme down an octave… the lower, richer register making it sound like a chorus of horns or a men’s chorus, something deep, the root, basis, the fundament. There has been much Romantic angst in the development, and now… harmony.

The four-part harmony of Bach chorales is, in a sense, an “archaic” item, an anachronistic insertion in the more homophonic world of Romantic music; but, paradoxically, can also be seen to underly everything, the whole of Western classical composition (the art of counterpoint, etc.) In the Mendelssohn C Minor Trio, which I also happily played in North Carolina, a chorale makes two entrances in the last movement, and in that case the chorale stands out as an “other,” as a symbol, a triumphalist religious moment which Charles Rosen (I think unfairly) labels “kitsch.”

I was listening in my car to some Bach chorales I played on a recital with the Ives “Concord” Sonata (!) and even though I theoretically played the damn thing, I was stunned at how beautiful the harmonies were, at how they illuminated the simplest notes: going up and down the same old (in this case, G major) stupid scale seemed like a magical journey.

In the A major Piano Quartet, the chorale element intervenes not in order to give the music some “plot.” It is not triumphalist at all (unlike the Mendelssohn), and if it is religious it is utterly nondenominational. When you hear the chorales in that piece, you hear pure voicings; the chords are objects of contemplation; the piece suddenly becomes communal, “harmonious;” the basic building blocks of Western harmony are beautiful for their own sake (and not for the sake of where they are going)… harmony as solace, as shelter (from the storm of rhetoric, of musical plot). This is made clear in one of the piece’s most extraordinary moments: in the slow movement, after the pianist “lets loose” with an anguished, full-throttle outburst, the height of Romantic direction and pouring-over… after this, the strings play the only thing “they can,” a quiet, intensely beautiful chorale. Opposed to Romantic outcry… but somehow also its answer and source, its vanishing point.

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  1. margo
    Posted July 19, 2005 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Cold/flu thingy? Eat several slices of lemon and you’ll be as good as new. Oh, and try to laugh a lot –that helps, too.
    Am I annoying you yet?

    Anyway, just wanted to say I enjoyed your Strauss performance yesterday (over on KING FM). Scherzo was my favorite; I just felt like jumping off of my couch and starting to play something, anything (if only my neighbors wouldn’t call the cops on me every time my practicing went beyond 8:30pm, sigh).
    Andante was lovely, too. Oh, all right, the whole thing was pretty awesome! Nice colors, energy, etc.

  2. cecilio76
    Posted July 20, 2005 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more. Experiencing the Strauss live was like listening to sonic joy! Though being an audience member was great, what I would give to be a part of that kind of music making, to know how it feels to have such an intimate exchange take place within your musical ensemble. At times, it almost felt operatic, passion literally lifting you beyond the realm of reality to that divine place where communication has to happen through music for it to mean anything. It reminds me of Plato’s dialogue, the Phedras, where step by step we learn to love via the school of love…loving our families, to friends, to neighbors, societies to institutions and ultimately, to the transcendental reality that is the Godhead. So too in music, our ability to communicate goes through a type of growth process, a purification that at its height, purges the language of speech until it becomes like Dante’s chorus singing the Divine Praises in the Holy Rose in Paradiso.
    All that to say, thank you for your magnificent performance in the Strauss!

  3. Anonymous
    Posted July 21, 2005 at 10:29 pm | Permalink


  4. daedelus found
    Posted July 21, 2005 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Delightful to have fallen upon your musings and to be transported back (sans madelines) to David W’s pad and a reading of Travesties as the first Ohio snowfall of the season descended. Darrett and Daria and blackberry tea and a fine line between nostalgia and pathos.

    Or bathos….

    I’ll traipse through your maxims and aphorisms when I have a little more time, but I wanted to say hey and kudos on the career and remind you that Brahms got his best licks from playing in a whorehouse as a teen.

    Remember the Rochberg?

  5. Cathy
    Posted July 25, 2005 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Marvelous blog.
    Inspired writing.
    (I’m entertaining secret thoughts of turning it into a radio show. It’d be great).
    Warm wishes.

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