I’ve spent the morning thus far working on an essay for an anthology about the locations of grief. The essay has given me a lot of trouble, or I’ve given it the trouble, for who can say which came first? If you think of the form as capacious, if you believe (as I do) that an essay can explore anything and can adapt its language, its rhythms, its torque (if you like), to allow any subject as its current beloved, perhaps then the difficulty must be mine, not the essay’s. In any case, I’ve felt my linguistic agility to be challenged as I try to shape my own subject to the forms and gorgeous music of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1004.
Why this music? It’s what I listened to after my mother’s death and I listen to it still, finding in it such expression of everything I’ve ever wanted to say about living and dying. I’ve tried to use the movements—based on dances—to carry my thinking, my enactments of memory and sorrow. I’m not there yet. I printed a draft this morning and see where the clunky moments are. I also see where I’ve done something close to what I hoped to.
Right now I’m listening to Itzhak Perlman play the partita. It’s glorious. I have several recordings—the very young Hilary Hahn, Lara St. John, Arnold Steinhardt (two versions)—and don’t have a favourite (though maybe right this minute? Perlman). Each violinist brings something different to the performance and Steinhardt wrote in Violin Dreams of the texture and sound he understood each of his violins also contributed to his own interpretations, in youth, and later in his life. I’ve also been reading about the Baroque bow and its outward bend and how it suited the dance movements of Bach’s compositions.
What I’ve loved about this work is that it’s encompassing, it’s richly absorbing, and I’m learning how receptive an essay can be to the interests of its maker.
Smoke again, from the Interior fires. The sun that eerie pink-gold when you can see it at all. And the world dry, dry. I was at my desk, finishing the first draft of a long essay on grief and music. I told John the reason why I am playing Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin over and over again is because I need to understand the rhythm of the movements; they correspond with dances of the time. Well, they do, and they don’t. But I listen — Hilary Hahn, who recorded the partitas at the age of 17; Arnold Steinhardt, who recorded the particular partita I’m obsessed with these days twice, as a young man and as an older man, and I can’t say which I prefer (there is such depth and colour in both recordings); Lara St. John; Joshua Bell….In my essay, I am trying to replicate something of that stately music. Only the dancers are old and dying; they’re people for whom this music would have been as foreign as poetry; but they’re mine and somehow I believe they can dance an allemande or a gigue with the best of them.
It’s my youngest grandchild’s birthday in two days and somehow the music reminds me of how rich my life is with him and his sister and his cousin in the world. We won’t be there to help him celebrate but I expect he will like the box I sent to him, filled with little gifts; he will no doubt like the paper and ribbons best. Though in time he will come to the books, the other things. And he will crawl and walk (unsteadily, maybe just a step at a time) in the grass, his beautiful face as expressive as any I’ve ever loved. Sometimes he dances. And he’s in the essay too.
I’ve been thinking of poetry, of poems about families, and the one that comes to mind is Philip Levine’s gorgeous “Smoke”. Here’s a passage…
Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn’t catch its breath or hang on for life.
He alludes in the poem to “the mythology of the family” and in an interview in The Atlantic in 1999, he explained what he meant: “When I speak of “the mythology” in that poem, I really mean a way of losing someone.” Which is exactly what I’m writing about in this essay on music and sorrow—in the smoke, in the heart-breaking Chaconne of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, the dance of the one(s) left behind, as the sun retreats from us, and we move into autumn.
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