Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter: Hidden Mysteries of Life

May we travel ever deeper into the mysteries of life. There are hidden secrets that emerge out of involvement and commitment. It has been Holy Week. I could write here about religious things, but I won’t. I had a Fundamentalist aunt with whom I made the mistake of talking about Light, so I avoid those kinds of discussions. The Puritans worked hard to understand members’ spiritual experiences. Unlike the Puritans, my aunt thought she could discern in a quick conversation whether one or another person had had a true religious experience, and of course, it was always in the negative, except for members of her immediate congregation. From when I was young, my mother had warned me to avoid such conversations with my aunt. It only took one when I was in graduate school to make me realize that my mother was quite correct about avoiding such discussions.

So I am going to write about music, as I have played cello and have sung such pieces as Mozart’s Requiem. There are so many little secrets that one learns from actually playing or singing music. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony starts on an upbeat. A note in the cello part of the first movement of Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 131 is a B-sharp, which is slightly higher than a C on the non-tempered stringed instrument scale, and in light of the ambiguity about just how to play the note physically, it often is played as an open-string C. This could be significant because Beethoven had perfect pitch and might well have known precisely what he was doing, even if he could no longer hear when he composed the work. Beethoven’s Third Symphony has open string fifths (C-G which would also correspond to a perfect fifth rather than a well-tempered fifth) at two key transition points that would insert a special musical psychology possibly informed by Pythagoras’ notions about perfect fifths. The tuning of the strings for Bach's Fifth Suite for Unaccompanied Cello is, according to a college classmate who sings sacred music, also a special tuning for sacred choral works from circa 200 years before Bach lived.

I listen to J.S. Bach's Morimur (also authored by an academic who recently figured out that several Bach works went together), done by the Hilliard Ensemble with Christoph Poppen playing baroque violin, mostly during Holy Week because I associate it with an experience in which I received Jesus during church a few years ago during Holy Week. So Morimar is too precious to me to listen to just anytime, even though I would like to do so. Morimur is the result of an academic discovering a secret -- that the basso continuo that completes Bach's Partita #5 for Violin basically starts with the chorale Christ Lag im Todesbanden which Bach also embodied as a Cantata, and continues with that and a couple of other religious choral works. Another way of saying this that would probably be eschewed by musicologists is that the partita is a sort of an obligato around and above the sacred music parts that the Hilliard sings. The overall result of combining works that appeared to be separate but written at the same time is profound and even more sacred.

This is going to sound like a contradiction, but I sometimes have played it in my car as I have driven long distances, and sometimes I have sung to it. Toward the end of the combined Deller Consort and violin version on the Track 21 of 22, I sing along in the falsetto, and it matches with one of the voices. I noticed particularly that the tone quality and stresses of my voice matched that of the singer on the CD. (Those who have heard counter-tenors will know that they have a different tone quality than sopranos.) However, even in the falsetto I cannot get up to the counter-tenor part. No surprise, as my falsetto would be that of a counter-baritone, which I figured was one of the parts in the performance of the piece.

Yesterday my wife and I were at her sister’s house while they were preparing to sing in the choir, and the conversation swung around to Morimar. It turned out that Mary had her own copy and also found it entrancing. It also turned out that she had studied briefly at Oxford, where she had come to know Alfred Deller, the great counter-tenor. She said his speaking voice was a normal male voice, and that he had as a boy learned to sing in the falsetto with excellence and complete control. He was neither a genetic freak nor castrated. So this matched with my experience of singing with the CD, and I determined that I would ask the counter-tenors in my church choir whether they also had learned to sing in the falsetto.

We thus go another long step deeper into the mysteries of church music.

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