I was absolutely stunned when, in my late teens, I encountered the last movement of Bach’s Partita #2 for Violin, the “Great Chaconne”. I never cared why it was called a chaconne.
Whatever value we assign to “Heart and Soul”, or to the “Great Chaconne”, how does understanding artistic craft increase our art appreciation?
Compare a “translation” into modern English of the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the original.2
To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
The question is: is it better to be alive or dead?
Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?
Dying, sleeping—that’s all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that’s an achievement to wish for.
To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream.
Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we’ve put the noise and commotion of life behind us.
That’s certainly something to worry about.
That’s the consideration that makes us stretch out our sufferings so long.
I prefer the original because of the poetry.
I do not think of iambic pentameter with or without feminine endings.
I do not think of how the second to the last line breaks the rhythm, and uses a caesura to reinforce the idea of a “pause”.
I do not think of the metaphors, repetitions, or alliterations, or how if “slings and arrows” were reversed it would change the rhythm.
Thoughts about these things might fly through my mind, but my appreciation is intuitive.
Later I might analyze that poetry, and see things I did not hear before. That will improve my appreciation the next time I experience the art, but at a subjective, intuitive level.
Aaron Copeland wrote about appreciating music on three levels: the sensuous plane, the expressive plane, and the musical plane.3 What he says here applies to all art.
The sensuous plane is the direct emotional impact the sound makes on someone. One loses oneself in the art. It is more about the individual response than the art itself. As Copeland notes, however, this is insufficient for a true appreciation of music.
Within the expressive plane the dangerous word appears: meaning. As I have discussed, words are useful for talking to people about art. But art can express more feelings and emotions than one can put into words. If you insist on having concrete meaning for art, you will be very frustrated. I remember looking at a stunning and moving Jackson Pollack at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. For once, I wanted to take a picture of a work of art. Yet, even if my life depended on it, I would have great difficulty explaining to you why.
Copeland argues that people find Tchaikovsky a more accessible composer than Beethoven because it is easier to assign a consistent meaning to his work. Rehearing a work of Beethoven often express a different meaning than the first one you heard. In any case, it is often impossible to explicitly assign a meaning to his work. Nonetheless, Beethoven is a greater composer than Tchaikovsky partly because his music has less of a chance of becoming dull.
Leonard Bernstein often claimed that music had no meaning. He was wrong. He created that myth to combat the simplistic explanations people had for musical meaning.4
The third plane is about developing an understanding of how the artist’s craft contributes to the work of art. In the case of music it is rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color. But the appreciation has to be intuitive. Conscious cognition interferes with the artistic experience.
1.Pachelbel’s famous canon, with its recurring base line, would be considered a passacaglia. Nonetheless, during the Baroque period the terms chaconne and passacaglia, because of the use of figured bass, were used interchangeably. ↩
2.Crowther, John, ed. “No Fear Hamlet.” SparkNotes LLC. 2005. http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/ (accessed January 21, 2016). ↩
3.”How We Listen”, chapter 2 of “What to listen for in Music”.↩
4. Listen to Bernstein discuss Beethoven’s 6th and 7th Symphony.
For a very convincing refutation watch this video.↩