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Posts Tagged ‘Sicilian rhythm’

Edward Espe Brown

 “Let things come and abide in your heart,” advised Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, “and let your heart abide in things.” Applying this principle to the culinary arts, Edward Espe Brown, a Zen priest, author, and celebrated chef, instructs the students in his cooking classes to do the same. “The world of flavor opened up,” he reflects in his book No Recipe, “when I began to let tastes come and abide in my heart.” Rather than try to make the food “behave,” or the final product conform to a preconceived standard, he learned to “allow for an intimate meeting with the world,” and the world of food to “awaken [his] heart.”

As with food, so with classical music. If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare’s Duke Orsinio posits, it too can be allowed or not allowed to abide in one’s heart. And just as different foods have different flavors, so do the works of classical composers, which may by turns be sweet or sour, salty or bland, pungent or bitter. Bach, for example, can be ineffably sweet, as in the Largo movement of his Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Bartok can be bitter. Brahms can be deeply pleasing to the palate—or seasoned, as it were, to a fault. And just as we as diners may be drawn to one range of flavors rather than another, we as listeners may feel affinities at different times in our lives for the works of particular composers.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) occupies a unique place in the history of Western music. Although he was a towering figure in his day, and though his symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and string quartets remain prominent in the classical canon, in mainstream culture he has often been overshadowed by Mozart, his brilliant junior, and especially by Beethoven, his monumental successor, over whom he exerted a foundational influence. In my own experience, Haydn dwelt for a long time at the periphery of my musical awareness. And though a live performance of his gorgeous Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, which I heard at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon in the nineties, has stayed with me over the decades, he was not until recently a composer to whom I paid close attention.

All that changed, a few months ago, when I encountered Haydn’s exquisite piano trios, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio. In these lines I commemorate that revelatory experience:

COMING HOME

Here is music for my seventies.

Neither Mozart’s joy nor all those troubled,

Dissonant strings of Beethoven’s late quartets.

Rather, a restrained intensity

That trusts itself but knows full well how fortunes

Reverse themselves and grandeur comes to an end.

What I was responding to in Haydn’s piano trios, and what I attempted to evoke in those lines, is the quality of classical restraint. Having taught eighteenth-century English literature for nearly four decades, I was well acquainted with that quality in such writers as Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Gray. But here was the same aesthetic reserve, the same respect for the unsaid, embodied in melody, rhythm, harmony, and texture.

For all their beauty, Haydn’s piano trios constitute a relatively minor component of his total output. Haydn has been called the father of the string quartet, whose conventions he established and whose standards he set, and within the larger compass of that genre the give-and-take of emotional intensity and formal restraint, so evident in his trios, finds fuller and deeper expression. As but one example, I would cite the Adagio movement of his String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5. The opening bars of this gentle movement establish a so-called “Sicilian” or “pastoral” rhythm—a regular, dotted rhythm derived from a slow peasant dance. But above that steady pulse, the first violin departs on what one violinist has called the “improvisatory flight of a bird,” as its virtuosic succession of sixteenth notes embellishes the quartet’s primary theme. Even as the violin expresses the energy, boldness, and freedom of the music, the cello, second violin, and viola provide the necessary constraint. The result is a felicitous convergence of form and feeling and a serene but animated musical experience.

To be sure, not everyone will find Haydn to their liking. Tastes in music, as in food, are as varied as the world is wide. What matters, however, is not so much the specific object of attention as the capacity, cultivated over time, to connect with that object, deeply and intimately, and to inhabit its inner nature. By inviting the things we have learned to love to abide in us, we are not only abiding in them. We are also coming home.

___________

Edward Espe Brown, No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice (Sounds True, 2018), 94-97.

J.S. Bach, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor

Haydn, Cello Concerto in C Major, No. 1.

Haydn, Piano Trio no. 26 in C minor, Hob.XV.13 (1789)

Haydn, String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, Mvt. 3.

 

 

 

 

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