In my beginning is my end

One of the most satisfying things to me about the Chaconne is the way it returns to the opening measures at the very end. After all that has happened we hear the music of the first four measures exactly as we heard it at the beginning. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the music is written exactly as it was in the first four measures, for I don’t believe it is possible to play or hear the ending in the same way we play and hear the beginning. Too much has happened, and we are too much changed by the passage from beginning to end to be unaffected by it. Even if, as a performer, I could play the return of those four bars with exactly the same inflection, volume, phrasing, and tone as the opening, the listener—you—could not possibly hear the same thing. 

Thinking about this the other day sent me to my bookshelves in search of my copy of Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, the first serious poetry I ever encountered and a work that, like the Chaconne, retains the power to move me many years and many readings later. Eliot reflects this blurring of endings and beginnings. He opens the second quartet, East Coker, with the line that titles this post:

In my beginning is my end.

In Eliot’s poem this is a great cosmic idea. Every birth will lead to a death, at least in the mortal sphere, and in the first rush of breath and life we begin a journey towards an end that will put a stop to both. But think of the wonders that lie between that beginning and that ending! Joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, ecstasies and pains, the daily routines and extraordinary events, all played out against the dappled waves of a slowly ebbing tide.

One year ago I wrote the first post in The Chaconne Project. As I framed the project, my goal was to learn and perform Bach’s wonderful piece by year’s end, and to gain some skill as a writer. And now that year has ended, and I have learned and performed the piece and written more than 30,000 words along the way. And so the project is done. Or is it? Now another quote from Eliot comes to mind, from the final quartet, Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

There is unfinished business for the Chaconne Project. I promised a video of a performance and I intend to do one when I feel ready. And I have three upcoming performances: a house concert in Florida later this month, a Georgetown University recital in early February, and a New York City recital in April. I’ll be playing the Chaconne on each program, and will come back to write about those experiences. 

After more than 30,000 words of writing, I know that I am just beginning to find a writer’s voice—however small—and that I have more to say. What to say and where to say it remain to be discovered.

And then there is the Chaconne itself. I’ve come far in my quest to learn the piece and it lies more or less comfortably in my fingers. But the last few weeks have been challenging, as with each repetition of the piece I become more aware of my shortcomings. The distance between the performance I hold in my head and the one I can produce with my hands and ears is still very great; sometimes the ultimate goal seems to recede from me like a special effect in a Hitchcock film where the protagonist runs through a passageway that suddenly seems to extend into infinity. But what I wrote in June (See “Why Bother?”) has turned out to be even more true than I might have guessed and I relish my daily conversation with Bach.

I’m grateful to all of you who have followed my journey and encouraged me along the way. Nearly 1800 readers from 44 countries, including one reader in Japan who read every post in one sitting! Arigato. Knowing that someone was reading made the writing more enjoyable and kept me motivated.

Sometimes things take us in unexpected directions. I first encountered Eliot’s Four Quartets in a passage quoted by John Fowles in his novel The Magus. The passage he quoted is my favorite from the work, and it resonates with me today more than it ever has. It seems a fitting way to mark the day and to end this phase of the journey:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In my end is my beginning.

Sei solo

There are at least a couple of myths that attach to the Chaconne, or more generally to the set of pieces to which it belongs.

The first myth concerns Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. She died, unexpectedly, in 1720 while Bach was away from home on a trip with his employer at the time, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. He returned home to the tragic news and a fresh grave. The musicologist Helga Thoene proposed that the D minor partita—and in particular its Chaconne—were composed as a lament for his late wife. Certainly the somber quality of parts of the piece might seem appropriate, and it is the kind of story that can fire the popular imagination. In fact, there is an entire recording dedicated to this premise. But I don’t find the story very convincing. For one thing, it seems far more likely that Bach would have written a sacred work for such an event, as we know quite a bit about his deep religious beliefs. For another, the sheer inventiveness of the Chaconne seems out of character with a piece for mourning.

The second myth concerns Bach’s title for these pieces. The first page of the autograph manuscript reads Sei solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato. This is generally translated as “Six solos for unaccompanied violin.” There is nothing so unusual about Bach using Italian for the title; although German, he was well-acquainted with the music of Italy and France and the musical terms of those languages.

Title page of the 1720 autograph manuscript

The notable thing, and the basis of the myth, is that the Italian title is not quite correct. It really should read Sei soli—six solos—since soli is the plural form of solo. But sei, in addition to being the Italian word for six, is also the second-person singular form of the verb essere (to be); tu sei (you are). And in Italian it’s not unusual to drop the pronoun subject and let the verb alone carry the meaning, as in Sono americano (I am American). That results in a second possible meaning for Sei solo:

You are alone.

This too is the kind of thing that can fire the imagination. How appropriate it would be to give this collection of six pieces—pieces of unmatched musical depth and technical demands—a title that emphasizes the alone-ness of the performer? 

And Bach was not above a little wordplay. The last of the Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet—a mash-up, if you will— of two folk songs. The words of one are “I’ve been away from you so long” and the other is “Cabbage and turnips drove me away, if you’d cooked me meat I’d have opted to stay.” Since this is the last of 30 variations before the theme finally returns, the choice of tunes does not seem accidental!

Still…I think Bach just made a mistake with his Italian.

Moreover, I think it’s wrongheaded to think that the performer of these works is alone. I certainly don’t feel alone when I sit down to play the Chaconne. Segovia is there with me. So is Hahn, and Podger, and Parkening, and Petra, and Shirley Bertsch, and all my teachers.

But mostly, Bach is there. I think about all the performances that this piece has had in the 299 years since Bach wrote it down. How many times has it been played? Thousands, surely. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? In homes and practice rooms and recital halls and churches. In Carnegie Hall, and a living room in Short Hills, New Jersey. Bach has been at each and every one.

Non sei solo.

You are not alone.

Interlude 7: A deep fly ball to left field…

Toward the end of my undergraduate music studies I decided to apply to some graduate schools. My own self-confidence was enough to carry me past any discouragement so I wasn’t intimidated by the idea of further guitar studies. Besides, at that point in my life what I had gotten really good at was going to school, so more school seemed like a good idea.

There were not a lot of graduate programs in guitar in 1981. I had enough self-awareness to realize that I was probably not Juilliard or Peabody Conservatory material. I applied to some local schools, like the University of Minnesota and Indiana University. My sister and her husband were living near Philadelphia at this time and that prompted me to apply at Temple University. I did a round of auditions in the spring of 1982, ending with a trip to Philadelphia to visit my sister and audition for Peter Segal, head of the guitar program at Temple.

I retain a very vivid memory of that audition, which was my first meeting with Peter. My teacher in Vermillion lived in a cramped frame house on the outskirts of town. Peter lived in a large apartment looking out over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in center city Philadelphia. The building had a doorman, which impressed me immensely. Peter’s living room, where I played for him, was capacious and welcoming, with overstuffed furniture and dark wood and music posters and art on the walls.

Peter himself was equally welcoming. Tall, thin, with a somewhat sallow complexion punctuated by a dark mustache, his intense gaze was relieved by a twinkle in his eyes. He made me feel at ease, completely overwhelming my inward feeling of being the little country mouse in the big city for the first time. I was relaxed enough to play up to my capabilities, and his comments were a perfect mix of honesty, encouragement, and insight. By the time I met my sister downstairs I knew that Peter would be my next teacher.

Temple University accepted my application, provided a generous teaching assistantship, and my sister and her husband offered a place to live while I got myself settled in. And so, in the fall of 1982, I began the next phase of my studies in Philadelphia. There is so much that I could say about the next two years—one of the best parts of my life so far—but I’ll focus on just one aspect of my studies with Peter.

At one of our very first lessons together I was playing the Fandanguillo by Joaquin Turina. A long scale passage in the piece was giving me trouble, and Peter stopped me after I played it through the first time. 

“Try it again,” he said.

I played it again, more or less the same way as I had before.

He thought for a moment, and then said something unexpected.

“Chris, try to play that like Gary Matthews running for a deep fly ball.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I did not know who Gary Matthews was. Over the next few minutes I learned that he played left field for the Philadelphia Phillies, and that in order for me to get the most out of my lessons with Peter, I was going to have to learn a lot more about baseball in general and the Phillies in particular. Peter was an ardent fan.

Like many men of my generation, I played some sandlot baseball as a kid. And on weekends with my father after my parents divorced, he would often fall asleep to the afternoon game on TV after he had mowed the lawn, leaving me to watch by myself in the cool quiet of the shaded living room. That was the entire extent of my baseball experience.

I started watching Phillies games on TV and then started going to games when the team was in town. And, odd though it may seem, the first time I actually got to see Gary Matthews run for a deep fly ball in person I understood exactly what Peter had been trying to tell me. Matthews had this way of moving in the field that never felt rushed, no matter how much ground he had to cover. A ball would be hit in his direction, and he would just arrive at the right spot to snag the ball. Watching him, it looked easy. Peter wanted my playing to sound easy, so that the listener would get the effect of the speed without being aware of the effort.

Over the next two years baseball remained a (dare I say it?) running theme in our lessons. Peter’s passion for the game was infectious, and he guided me to some amazing writers like Roger Angell who helped me to understand its intricacies. It was a good time to be a Phillies fan, and I was at Veteran’s Stadium screaming like a maniac along with 60,000 other people when they —when we—won the National League Championship in October of 1983. About the ensuing World Series against the Orioles I will say nothing.

Peter Segal was everything a good teacher should be; earnest critic, unstinting supporter, mentor, and, ultimately, friend. He helped me to be a better musician. Along the way, he turned me into a lifelong baseball fan.

I never did manage to playing that passage like Gary Matthews. Oh, I could sound like Gary Matthews if he was recovering from an injury. Or had a stone in his shoe. But capturing the ease of the man in his prime, loping deep into the outfield to snag a well-hit baseball? No. And perhaps that is why my formal guitar studies ended with my graduation from Temple. I had realized that the major leagues were beyond my reach.

Alone in the recital hall

The stage of Mixon Recital Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music is a beautiful place to be on a sunny Sunday morning in early June. An impossibly high glass wall rises behind you and wraps around to your left before giving way to beautiful square panels consisting of small thin strips of wood that are no doubt a function of acoustic design but exaggerate the height of the hall. You are surrounded by light and sky and trees. In front of you, fourteen rows of seats rise steeply to the back of the auditorium. In a few hours those seats will be occupied by the twenty or so listeners there to observe Jason Vieaux’s master class in which I and others will perform. And not long after that, a much larger audience will fill those seats for what will turn out to be the brilliant closing concert of this year’s Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival, given by Petra Poláčková.

But the seats are all empty now.

On the stage is a single black piano bench. It’s not the flat hard wooden kind, but the smaller cushioned version with a knob on the side that adjusts the height.

I give the knob a turn, getting the height just so. One last tweak to the tuning of my lowest string, and I begin to play.

The first note of the prelude to Bach’s first suite for solo cello—in the guitar version I play—is a low D. Its rich sonority comes back to me from the hall and I linger longer than I should before proceeding with the arpeggio figure that carries the music forward. I haven’t played the piece in some time, but Jason played it on this very spot last evening and somehow it is the first music that comes out of me. It flows, my fingers sure and my sound rich. Mixon Hall is as gratifying to the performer as it is to the audience; not every hall provides the player with such sonic feedback. I can hear my playing, and I can hear that it is good. Hearing such good playing, I’m inspired to try and make it even a little better. And I do. I push harder into the strings, coaxing the most sound I can from them without letting the tone become too brittle or rough.

The last high treble notes ring for a moment before fading to silence, and then I launch into a set of pieces from the Italian Renaissance. My time in the hall will be short, so I don’t play each piece all the way through but skip between favorite bits that I want to hear in this space. Still with my lowest string tuned to D, I play a Catalonian song that has been in my repertoire since I was in college. Today I am doing a particularly nice job of singing the melody on the high E string, and when the harmonics come in at the conclusion they ring out like the tiny little bells they are meant to suggest.

Now I tune my low string up to the standard E, adjust my position on the bench, and begin the piece I had planned to play on today’s master class: Nocturno by Federico Moreno-Torroba. It starts well, and I don’t fumble in the usual spots. Perhaps I should play it after all instead of making the change I’ve been contemplating? It has some nice fiery passages, and the ending is really fun to play. I enjoy imagining the effect it must have on someone hearing it for the very first time. I consider the idea as I listen to the final notes fade.

No, I am going to stick to my plan. Who knows if or when I will ever have another chance to play on this stage for an audience? Nocturno is a wonderful piece and I am pretty well prepared to play it, but I know that nerves will take hold, my sound will become thin, and I will begin to concentrate on playing it correctly rather than playing it musically. Today I want to make music and share it with people.

So I begin to play what I have decided only this morning to play, a little piece called “If You Were Here” by a Norwegian guitarist-composer named Per-Olov Kindgren. It’s a wisp of a thing in the character of a pop song, but lovely over the whole two-and-a-half minutes it takes to play. I get to the last repetition of the recurring phrase—in my head, I can almost hear a singer lingering over “if you were here”—play the last slow ascending arpeggio and just touch the flesh of my thumb to the sixth string to sound the final low E.

Suddenly, a small sob rises up from my gut. Then another. My eyes fill. For a moment I can only sit there. I just recover my composure before Colin Davin walks out on the stage from the side door, guitar case over his shoulder and a quizzical look on his face. I am sure he is wondering how I come to be there.

How do I come to be there? And why those tears?

Over the weeks since that sunny June morning I have been asking myself those questions. The answer to the first can probably be teased out of what I have already written over the course of the last few months, or what is still to be written. But the answer to the second continues to elude me. Somehow, I think it might be what this Chaconne project is ultimately all about.