“…but that would be boasting”

When biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft, he said: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach … but that would be boasting.”

I wish I knew how to write about music. As with so much else, I do not have a background in music, and have never studied it. Over many years of listening and reading up about it, I suppose I now know enough to be able to bullshit a bit over a few drinks, but any more than that and I’d get found out rather easily. And that leaves me with a problem: one of the purposes of this blog is to talk about my loves and enthusiasms, but how can I talk about music when I know so little about it? At most, I can gush a little. And perhaps write a few sentences trying to explain my very subjective responses – though even there I’d be floundering.

I am now seated at my PC at home, having returned from the Wigmore Hall in London, where I heard violinist Thomas Zehetmair give a recital of some of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. He started with the 3rd partita in E. (If you mention the home key of the work, that tends to give the impression you know what you’re talking about!) And then moved on to the 3rd sonata. Which is in C major, by the way. It’s the one with the massive fugue in the middle. And then, after the interval – which gave us the opportunity to catch our breath – he played the 2nd partita in D minor, the one that ends with that astounding chaconne – some fifteen minutes or so of pure, unadulterated passion.

As I write, it’s now nearly two hours since the concert ended, and I have spent that time negotiating the London Underground system, and then a mainline train back home. And my head is still in a daze: I can’t think clearly. How could one unassuming-looking chap on a platform armed only with a fiddle produce so powerful an effect? Granted, that unassuming-looking chap is one of the world’s finest musicians; and granted also that the music he was playing is unsurpassed for all sorts of reasons that I can’t even begin to articulate. But even so…

When those opening chords of the chaconne rang out, I could feel a shiver … I was about to say I could feel a shiver run down my spine when I realised that’s a bad cliché: but for all that, it was a shiver, and it did run down my spine. And then followed those variations on that series of chords, each variation leading inexorably on to the next in a passionate flood, sweeping all before it. Isn’t it a miracle that a mere arrangement of sounds could have so powerful an effect?

I know that the older I get, the grumpier I get: I moan and whinge and rant and rave about too many things that irritate me, that annoy me, that upset me. But – let’s be honest – if, after work, I can go into London, and, for a ticket costing £15 (one can easily spend that for a round of drinks these days!) experience something like this, then life does have a lot going for it, doesn’t it?


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