Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Right Notes

When I was a teenager I read The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. As I remember there were some heavy-handed elements in the novel, but I really enjoyed reading it. What I enjoyed most, though, was a phrase by Coleridge that one of the characters quoted:
Nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.
Before the days of the internet I searched for it in every bit of Coleridge I could get my teenage hands on. I eventually gave up the search, imagining that maybe it was just something Malamud attributed to Coleridge, but only today I discovered that it is from Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria.

I had my brother translate it into Latin, and I used to keep it in my flute case, written in my teenage calligraphy. When I stopped playing the flute those words remained etched in my brain.

The right notes are the ones that are there because they are the best notes for the purpose at hand. The best composers always used the right notes. One thing that puts Mozart in the highest compositional echelon for me is the fact that you just can't make anything he wrote "better." If you play a wrong note, even if it is in the chord, even if it is the same pitch but in a different register, it is never as good as the one that Mozart picked for that musical moment. When you come across something strange in a piece of Bach, the solution that follows always makes the moment that was strange make sense. It always shows why it is so and not otherwise.

1 comment:

Thomas D said...

Trite. Many Bach pieces exist in several substantially different versions: the Chromatic Fantasia, the French Suites... not to mention the myriad alternative readings of the Preludes and Fugues, where we can never quite be sure whether the changes were thought of by Bach himself or someone in his chain of pupils. The funny thing is that every different version, if performed well, sounds like exactly the right notes.

Bach was an incorrigible tinkerer, always willing and able to improve his music if he had the means and opportunity. The feeling of unique inevitability of any one text is an illusion brought on by the vast difference in musical imagination between the composer and the listener.

Mozart is no different, once you accept that certain places in the piano concertos (for example) were to be ornamented by the performer. Although no two good performances would then sound the same, each one should, at the time of playing, sound equally 'right'.

The autograph and the first edition of many of the piano sonatas differ substantially in the degree of ornamentation (as do the two versions of the Matthew Passion); which one is then 'right'? - Both, of course.