Friday, July 3, 2009

Music & Catharsis

A few days ago, I wrote a post on sports and catharsis. My main idea was that sports, so often snubbed by the more artistic-minded and "intellectuals," can actually bring spectators an experience of catharsis, just as a powerful tragedy can. Sports, in particular, help us to explore the meaning of victory and defeat.

Today, I would like to provide an example of catharsis through music, specifically J.S. Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 582), and explore history and redemption.

How does this piece work? Bach begins with a simple sounding passacaglia (a dance usually in 3/4 time) in the key of C Minor, played once through. Then, Bach elaborates on this theme with many beautiful variations, but after the first couple variations he starts introducing complications into the harmonies--the piece seems to speed up, and some dissonance appears to compete with the harmony. The two forces--harmony and dissonance--are at war with each other. At times it seems unclear which one will prevail.



At the very end of the passacaglia, the dissonance builds up until the tension feels nearly unbearable. But then, the piece resolves, and harmony is restored. However, the harmony does not last very long. Bach immediately moves into a fugue, taking the theme from the passacaglia as the basis for the fugue (albeit slightly modified). And the tension continues to build up, until it is even more difficult to endure than at the end of the passacaglia. Yet, the original order is still there, and shines through even when the piece seems most complicated and dissonant. Finally, the tensions do resolve, just as they did at the end of the passacaglia, except this time it happens in the most spectacular fashion. I do not know how else to describe it but to tell you the image that immediately came to mind the first time I heard it: fireworks exploding. The drama is finally over, and the harmony, we know, will endure. This is catharsis.



Yet, there is one oddity about catharsis in this piece. If at some point in the piece you are unsure whether harmony or dissonance will win out, just listen a little more closely, and you can pick up on a certain, nearly hidden pattern, an underlying harmony. What is this harmony? It is the same basic melody you heard at the very beginning of the piece. Sometimes the organist is playing the complete melody, and at other times he is only hinting at it with the pedals, but that melody is always there in one form or another. This melody functions as the permanent, though nearly invisible, presence of a higher power. The composer, the creator, always knows what that order is, and no matter what kind of chaos seems to be present in his art, in his creation, he will never allow that deeper harmony and order to be completely submerged.

In other words, Bach gave the plot away at the very beginning of the passacaglia! Can there be any more surprise, any more plot twists in this drama, anything more to contribute to the catharsis? What can be less dramatic than to give away the ending? Why would Bach do this?

First, I would point out that Bach is using the melody as a sort of foreshadowing technique. This is a perfectly valid dramatic technique, and even heightens the tension. Precisely how it achieves that effect can be seen in my next point.

Second, I would suggest that Bach's "giving away the ending" reflects the nature of history for a Christian. Creation started in harmony, but dissonance entered the world alongside sin. Nevertheless, the original order never entirely disappeared. With Christ's victory on the cross, we catch a glimpse of the restoration of eternal order, just as we have the resolution at the end of the passacaglia. However, the piece does not stop there. It continues with the fugue, just as history continues after Christ's resurrection. In the fugue, the dissonance of sin is even harder to bear after we have already been assured of the final victory. We know that Christ has conquered over sin, yet we still sin, and that makes sin even more oppressive. Indeed this existential truth, which the Christian must accept every day of his life, makes life all the more dramatic, and makes the final resolution all the more cathartic, than if we did not know the end--and if Bach had not given away the ending at the very beginning.

Maybe this historico-theological interpretation is a bit far-fetched, a little too allegorical, but at least I hope it will make you think about Bach's music.

(Postscript: Unfortunately, these YouTube videos are not really videos--there are no moving pictures--so, it is hard to get an idea of Dutch organist Ton Koopman's dazzling technique. To see Koopman--and especially his feet--in action, you should watch this video. For another rendition of this piece, here are links to videos of Karl Richter playing the passacaglia and the thema fugatum in the Abbey of Ottobeuren. Many people today regard Richter's playing as too Romantic and unfaithful to the way Bach actually played his music, whereas Koopman is one of the leading musicians in the last couple decades to advocate playing composers' music as they themselves would have played it. In any event, I take no position in this debate, and actually like both versions. Koopman, with his rather loud bass, gives a better idea of the underlying structure of the piece, and his finale is certainly more powerful. Richter, on the other hand, with the quieter bass and the slower pace, especially at the beginning of the passacaglia, brings out the lyrical quality of some of Bach's variations.
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