‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’
(Pre-Concert Talk.Given at Wilton’s Music Hall January 4th 2009)
The very first time that I performed the cycle of solo works by Bach, was in a medieval church in Norwich, late at night. The organisers of the concert had had the bright idea that I should play this concert by candlelight, and at midnight. The whole thing, not surprisingly, was somewhat Gothic, rather fantastic, and frankly, completely unsuitable for playing Bach. However, something interesting, or should I say, alarming happened, which taught me a lot about being on stage by myself. As the candles burnt lower, I passed the half way point of the cycle, and reached the D minor Partita. As I reached the Sarabanda, the morbid pre-empting of the Chaconne, the shadows cast by the guttering candles around the church lengthened to the extent that I was suddenly acutely aware that I was standing on a series of tombstones, which was not really all that surprising, given that I was in a church. I was pulled up short by realising that I was playing whilst reading, over and over, the word ‘death’ picked out in the candle light on the black stone at my feet. I was rattled, to put it mildly, and the light burnt lower and lower, till it became difficult for me to pick out the audience in the gloom, or rather to distinguish them from the wilder personages of my imaginings, released by the arrival of ‘death’ on the floor. By the time I reached the last group of the cycle, I was, it seemed, set upon, on all sides by figures released from Bach’s extraordinary music. Not all of these were alarming, and one has stayed with me, a peasant couple who danced to the bagpipe like second minuet in the last Partita. These two I immediately recognised as being a dancing couple engraved by Dürer, and were a joyful comfort.
What has this to do with today’s concert? I am not playing any Bach. However, all the works that I am performing today seem to explore the wilder ‘fancies’ (then fancies flee away) that are particularly released by the solitary performer. Or, in the case of Biber, they provide solace, in the form of a guardian angel to escort the unfortunate through the darker places.
All of the pieces in tonight’s concert are inspired by this notion, and particularly how it is released by the performer working alone. The works which are the lynchpin of the programme were, until the end of the twentieth century, almost completely neglected. Their economy of means was taken as a sign that they lacked ambition, even lacked ‘Fantasy’. But when they are heard, it is very clear that this is very far from being the case.
Telemann completed his sets of Fantasies-12 for violin, and 12 for Flute, in 1735. This was of course, fifteen years after Bach wrote his extraordinary cycles for violin and cello in Cöthen. There are, of course, huge differences between the styles, structures, and techniques employed in these two works.
An important difference between these respective composer’s sets of solo works is their reception. Much of Bach’s instrumental music lay unpublished at his death; his Brandenburg Concertos mouldering on the shelves of the Palace of the Margrave of Brandenburg, the MS of the Sonatas and Partitas discovered being used to wrap butter. The case of Telemann was the polar opposite. As he composed sets of chamber works; trio sonatas, flute works, continuo quartets, these were eagerly snapped up by a novelty hungry chamber-music playing public. During his life time, works such as these Fantasies were repeatedly reprinted; they hit the nerve of exactly what enthusiastic musicians wanted at that time.
In his 1740 autobiography, Telemann confessed, that to his shame, the volume of his output of chamber works was so immense, that he was aware that he was unable to recall his works. Composers at this point had not begun the e practises of writing Verzeichnisse, or thematic catalogues, so it was hardly surprising, that as Telemann confessed, they were not always able to call all of their works to mind. Consequently, we know nothing of the impetus behind these works. The commercial success of such works as the sets of Fantasies was enormous. The arrival of composers such as Telemann coincided with the rise of a new breed of amateur musician, most of them flautists and violinists, who were hungry for the next poetic morsel for their music stands. Telemann often could net more from the subscription for a single such publication than Bach could earn in a year from writing large scale religious and public works.
So it is all the more wondrous that what Telemann provides is so subtle. One might expect that he would be tempted to produce sui generis cycles of dance movements, standard potboilers to appeal to the taste buds of an enthusiastic, but uncritical public. But in every way, this is not the case, even in the structure or the works, which follow no set pattern. Even when the cycle moves into the three movement pattern at Fantasie 7, the composer varies the movement characters constantly. The gradual build of dance movements, increases this sense of dislocation.
Two years after the publication of Telemann’s Fantasies, Nathan Bailey clarified the view from England.
FANTASY [In Mufick Books] a kind of Air, in which the Composer is not tied up to fuch ftrict as in moft other Airs, but is allowed all the freedom of Fancy or Invention that can reafonably be defired. This Title is given to fome Sonata’s. Ital.
He also defined it from a literary point of view:
FAN’TASY [fantafie, F.] Fancy, Imagination, Crotchet, Humour, Whim.
(The Universal Etymological English Dictionary-Nathan Bailey, 1737)
Fancy, Imagination, Crotchet, Humour, Whim, might be the best articulation of the purview of such works. However, what is missed out from all of this is that historically, there was, and continues to be, an interesting trade off for the ‘composer not’ being ‘ tied up to such strict’, which is the preponderance of fugal writing in such works, a tendency which only gathered steam towards the 19th century. One might suggest that there was a question of conscience at work here, almost as if composers felt that by being allowed such ‘freedom of invention’, they needed to pay for it in counterpoint. Foucault reminded us that there was no such thing as Truth, just ‘multiple forms of constraint’.
‘Tir’d Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy Sleep!
He, like the world, his ready visit pays
Where Fortune smiles ; the wretched he forsakes ;
Swift on his downy pinion flies from woe,
And lights on lids unsully’d with a tear.
From short (as usual) and disturb’d repose,
I wake : How happy they, who wake no more!
Yet that were vain, if dreams infest the grave.
I wake, emerging from a sea of dreams
Tumultuous, where my wreck’d desponding thought,
From wave to wave of fanci’d misery,
At random drove, her helm of reason lost.
Tho’ now restor’d , ‘tis only change of pain,
(A bitter change!) severer for severe.
The Day too short for my distress ; and Night,
Ev’n in the zenith of her dark domain,
Is sunshine to the colour of my fate.
Night, sable goddess ! from here ebon throne
In rayless majesty, now stretches forth
Her leaden sceptre o’er a slumb’ring world.
Silence, how dead! And darkness, how profound !
Nor eye, nor list’ning ear, and object finds ;
Creation sleeps. ‘Tis as the general pulse
Of life stood still. And nature made a pause ;
An awful pause ! prophetic of her end.
And let her prophesy be soon fulfill’d ;
Fate! Drop the curtain : I can lose no more.’
(Edward Young, The Complaint. Night the First on Life Death and Immortality. Night Thoughts)
Which forces me to look back 30 years, to the final Sonata of Franz Ignaz Biber’s extraordinary set of ‘mystery sonatas’. Throughout these works, a similar pay-off seems to be at work, with the composer justifying extraordinary degrees of compositional fancy by demanding that the performer adhere to extraordinary strictures of execution and instrumental setup-viz. complicated tuning. However, the last, and most elegant of the sonatas, which we will hear tonight sings from a different song sheet. The performer has spent 15 previous sections with an accompanying continuo group. This final sonata presents the performer alone, accompanied only by the Schutzengel in the title. In addition, the complicated scordatura or detuning, has disappeared, to be replaced by accordatura , or normal tuning. The performer has cast off his/her shackles, but is not free to wander, to Fantasise. A new restriction a new challenge must be put in place-a passacaglia, a repeating bass line, which the soloist has to present as well as the complex roulades of decoration and counterpoint, the garlands across heaven. In order to indulge his Fancy, Imagination, Crotchet, Humour, Whim, the performer must, as Georges Enescu put it ‘dance in chains’.
The idea of Biber’s Guardian Angel, ‘accompanying’ the solitary performer on their wanderings is not so far from the fear which stalks the notion of the Fantasia. After all, the hymn, ‘to be a pilgrim’ perorates: ‘then fancies flee away, I’ll fear not what men say…’. Curiously, it was just such ‘Fancies’ which composers and writers sought out, as if they were looking for the controlled thrill, skirting the edge of the occult. In his 1616 poetaster¸ Ben Jonson defined this as having a dual nature.
Phansie, [contr. of Fantasy, ad. Lat. Phantasia, a making visible.]
1) A fiction, or fantasy, an illusion
2) Inclination, liking; ‘fancy’
(Ben Jonson/Herbert Samuel Wesley-Poetaster 1616)
The combination of such duality and the fear of the danger that might lurk there, a fear that has shifted, proved irresistible to artists, writers and composers.
“While my mind was pleasantly concentrated on this, I suddenly heard behind me the falling of some tesserae and finding myself solitary, in a deserted and silent place, I was quite frightened. I quickly turned round and saw a gecko or wall-lizard which had caused this accident.” [P. 272. Hypnertomachia Polyphiliae, Francesco Colonna, 1499, Translated by Joscelyn Godwin, Thames and Hudson, 1999]
What might become a little obvious is that there are places, times, when the act of composing, performing, and hearing a piece of music, a text, can be similar acts of imagination, of Fantasy. Perhaps this is easiest, when the gestures involved, the means used are smallest, so there is nothing to protect the writer, the listener, from there intense solitude, just like Colonna, contemplating monuments in the Tuscan heat, and frightened by the Lizard. He suddenly realises that he is truly alone. Ted Hughes put it better than I could.
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no start:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
(The Thought-Fox, Ted Hughes, Selected Poems 1957-1981, Faber and Faber, London 1982, P. 13)
Practising Telemann’s Fantasies at dead of night in Wapping, I know exactly what Hughes means. The foxes bark at the cold outside my window, and I am alone.