Thursday, February 3, 2011

Violin Dreams

Bach’s Chaconne turns a key in the soul. It gives voice to inconsolable grief. It is achingly beautiful; it lays the heart open and frees the spirit, like a bird, to soar on shining wings.

Bach wrote the Chaconne when he returned from a trip with his princely employer to find that his beloved wife, Maria Barbara, had died in his absence and was already buried.

He made it the fifth movement of his Partita in D Minor. Less than fifteen minutes in length, the Chaconne is the grail of solo violinists, fiendishly challenging.

Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet, was asked to play the Chaconne at the funeral of a dear friend, Petra, who had died tragically young. He had played the Chaconne many times before, and recorded a wonderful rendition, but his grief over the loss of his friend drove him to study again how the music wanted to be played. He practiced and practiced, using a facsimile of Bach’s original music, listened to the recordings of other great violinists, consulted friends and mentors.

Then he dreamed he was up in the attic of his friend’s house, where he used to practice with the skylight open, to give space for the strokes of his bow. In his dream, Petra brings Bach up the stairs to meet him.

Bach was not wearing his flowing wig and was dressed in contemporary clothes, but his identity was immediately clear. What good fortune for me! Here was a golden opportunity to get at the Chaconne’s essence from the master himself.

Steinhardt opens the skylight to play for Bach, but the composer waves the violin away. Steinhardt tries to ask him about the connection between the music and the death of Bach’s wife, but instead of responding, Bach seizes his arms and begins to dance with him in the cramped attic space. Bach dances slowly, gracefully, guiding the violinists through the steps, while humming the rhythm of the Chaconne. He was teaching Steinhardt to dance the Chaconne.

The violinist carried that thrilling sense of movement into his subsequent performances, at his friend’s funeral, and later – in a personal tribute to the source of the music – at the grave of Maria Barbara Bach.

Arnold Steinhardt tells the story of dancing with Bach in his beautiful memoir, Violin Dreams, which celebrates his passionate lifelong love affair with the instrument that cries and sings. At every turning, his rich dream life supports and illuminates his calling. He opens the book with a dream that sends him on a quest to learn the history and prehistory of the violin. In another dream, a beautiful woman visitor reveals herself as the soul of a violin.

At a time when one of his fingers has weakened and he fears he will lose his ability to play at his best, Steinhardt dreams he is standing with a friend before two quaking aspen trees. As the leaves quiver in the wind, the violinists find they can read the leaves as musical notes. They play the music revealed by the trees, and it is of surpassing beauty. That dream lifted Steinhardt’s fear and depression, and gave him strength to move through surgery in the sure knowledge he would be “able to move on and make music”.


Savannah said...

What a beautiful and inspiring example of creative dreaming, thank you so much for sharing this. I was considering the dream I posted on your online dream school earlier, of writing a love letter to my own instrument, realising how powerful a relationship it has been - if a rather stormy one at times - in sounding essential soul strings just when I think they may have grown dull or silent.

Robert Moss said...

Savannah - Sounds like you have the start of your love letter to your violin here.

Wanda Burch said...

I read Savannah's dream on your forum and added in a small coincidence that is also coincidental to your blog post.

I shared with Savannah that I had watched a movie, "Música en espera," about a young film musician searching for a ringtone that he hears on a telephone. It is so unusual and so beautiful he believes it is what he needs to inspire him out of his music funk for a deadline fast approaching. He never finds the illusive ringtone but in the process he falls in love with a young pregnant woman abandoned by the would-be father and welcomes into his life the new, unexpected and natural love that is the real inspiration for life and music.

Savannah's dream speaks to her about how one perceives music and how a musician "fills in" the blanks. Coincidentally in the movie the hero Ezequiel asks Paula, the young woman, to close her eyes. He wants to explain to her how his favorite teacher explained composing to him. He asks her to hear with all her emotions the sounds outside. She hears a train. He then asks her to hear and feel the rhythm. He taps his fingers in a soft beat as she listens. Then he asks her to hear everything else outside, people walking, the wind through the trees, any other sounds that intervene. He paints a picture for her of the rest of the instruments coming in to "fill in" what is missing, like filling in the blanks, each new sound combining with the first rhythm of the train in order to complete the entire music of the day. As a musician he hears it and she feels it. He goes home and sits down at the piano. He no longer needs the ring-tone. He has found his inspiration in the memory of his first true lesson of composition, and in his growing love for Paula and her new baby, who is born on the day of his realization. He has also shared with her his great love of Bach and has developed a system, which he claims comes to him from Bach, of spelling out words on the piano by filling in the blanks between the letters. He plays a piece that spells B A C H [not sure what the "H" might be]. In his own musical love letter to the birth of Paula's child, Sebastian, in his own musical language, spells out the word S E B A S T I A N. His music flows magically as his fingers touch the keyboard spelling out this strange secret language of blanks and letters.

Wouldn't it be inspiring to be able to create life music by listening to everything around us and picking up a rhythm that would allow us to fill in the blanks.

nina said...
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Louisa said...

I heard Guarneri Quartet in March 2009 during their retirement tour. It was fun to watch them perform two octets, by Mendelssohn and Bolcom, with a much younger Johannes Quartet: the young’uns were sweating, the patriarchs were frolicking with abandon like kids in a candy store. Besides Violin Dreams, which is a story of a personal quest, Steinhardt has written another, also very worthy book, Indivisible by Four, about the four-body problem of a quartet.

Alla said...

Thanks for a beautiful story, Robert! Music has, indeed, a lot of amazing stories inside and around.

Dear Wanda,
European names for the keys differ from American:
B = American B flat,
H = American B.
One of the old scales, Phrygian, similar to natural minor with a low 2nd grade, would sound from "A" like "a b c d e f g h", where b and h were the notes that I've described above. The musical acronym "BACH" is well-known as J.S.Bach's musical signature and a very famous motif. Bach used it a number of times in his compositions. R. Schumann loved using acronyms greatly, too.

Wanda Burch said...

Alla -
Thank you so much. I meant to look that up on the endless internet and wrote my response before doing that. I had not been sure if the story about BACH was true or a device in the movie. So, then, when Ezequiel begins his own composition, using the letters in SEBASTIAN for his inspiration, he actually finds in those letters a musical signature for his new piece. That is marvelous! Thank you again.