Things of Beauty

I promised you a few art recommendations to get you through the last week or so of our national quarantine, and into the difficult economic times that will follow. Here is one from Sherri, re-starting a regular feature she used to do for this newsletter, then one from me below.—RWT

Things of Beauty

Excerpt from the poem Endymion by John Keats.

Those of you who remember the beginning of my old column, Things of Beauty, know that I took this poem as my inspiration. It began during some rather dark days after the 9/11 attacks when I personally needed to be reminded of joy, but also as Rob wrote (and I proofread) his newsletters, we felt that others would also like to be reminded of things of beauty. That is how it all began—I once stated that Rob’s articles were like the meat and potatoes, Jack Wakeland’s articles were the Brussels sprouts that you knew you should eat, and my pieces were like little desserts.

So as we have all once again found ourselves in “unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways,” I aim to reintroduce some things of beauty into all of our lives. I thought perhaps I would start with a rereading of this excerpt from Keats’s poem. It’s the first segment from a much longer poem, but it’s the part that is most widely remembered.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
It’s loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Notice that Keats uses the phrase “thing of beauty” in a broad sense. He doesn’t just mean a pretty flower, though he keeps coming back to flowers and nature imagery. The phrase “a thing” is our invitation to broaden the application of “beauty.” Keats is invoking it to refer to stories of great deeds, as an introduction to his own retelling (in the rest of the poem) of the Ancient Greek myth of Endymion. Past readers of this column know that I often include works of art in my idea of “things of beauty,” but I also spread its meaning to include well-made tools, photographs, inventions, and everyday objects, perhaps even a door knob.

So with that broadened category in mind, and in today’s current unsettling chaos of a global pandemic, reread this first stanza while holding in your own mind your chosen “thing of beauty.” And notice what Keats is saying. This value of yours brings you joy that increases the more you examine it. It’s very existence works like a salve on your soul to bring you “sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

Let’s keep reading. He then tells us:

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondency, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits….

Notice here that Keats sees this as an active task. It is not simply that things of beauty come along while you sit there waiting for it. No, “every morrow we are wreathing,” every day we build that connection in our minds of the value and its importance to us. These things of beauty are “made for our searching,” for our active task of discovery and that task is what “moves away the pall from our dark spirits.”

And in case you were still thinking that Keats was just talking about flowers, he opens it up.

Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest break,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Notice here how Keats switches the verbs in this stanza. At the beginning we were “wreathing” or “searching,” but here these joys are now “pouring unto us”—without any action on our part. It is as if Keats is trying to emphasize that so much joy is available to us in the world that we could be inundated by a flood of such things of beauty if we are not careful.

After warning us of the vast flood to come if we follow his suggestion, he turns our attention to their long lasting affects.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion posey, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.

Notice the word choice that Keats uses in putting “haunts us” and “cheering light” in the same line. Like unwanted ghosts that haunt our gloom, he’s warning us that focusing on our values and those things that bring us joy, that very act of valuing will creep into our sense of life and create a “cheering light.” So reader beware; taking the conscious action of focusing on what gives you joy will cause a cheering light to seep into your soul that will remain with you no matter how gloomy or overcast things may be.

Therefore, ’tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
It’s delicate amber; the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.

Here Keats is talking about his own story of Endymion, but today on rereading this, I hear it as a call to restart my Things of Beauty column. So I will begin now while the cities remain silent and the buds are just beginning to open.

And now, at once adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness:
There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed.

And with that beautiful thought, let’s begin a new adventure of Things of Beauty through the weedy times of this pandemic and onward into the flowering times that we all hope to see again.

And what do you know? A poem that was written in 1818 has brought us joy in 2020. It looks like a Thing of Beauty really does last forever.—Sherri Tracinski

This Is What Freedom Sounds Like

If we’re on lockdown here in America, the United Kingdom seems to be on even stricter lockdown, so I went searching for a music recommendation that might remind my British readers—and all of us—what it will be like to be able to roam free again.

I don’t think there’s a better option for this than The Lark Ascending, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Originally composed in 1914, just weeks before the beginning of World War I, it was rewritten and debuted in 1920, so I suppose you could view it as a late addition to the Romantic era and also to the trend of “national” music.

Vaughan Williams was an advocate of looking back to English roots and traditions for music, at a time when the influence of 19th Century German composers was (for good reason) still dominant. One of the works that first made him famous was his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, using a melody with a distinctly Tudor feel taken from a 16th Century English court composer. He also collected and wrote down traditional English folk songs, and he is probably most famous for his English Folk Song Suite, which drew from that material. (More about that some other time.)

The Lark Ascending is his attempt to capture the essence of the English countryside—so successfully that it has been described as one of the foremost works of English landscape painting. Vaughan Williams took as his inspiration an 1881 poem of the same name, and he put this excerpt at the head of the score.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

The crucial lines are:

Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows

The piece moves back and forth between the orchestra, which provides the sense of a lush, serene, open landscape—the green fields of rural England—and the solo violin, which provides the chirruping song and restless, overflowing energy of the lark.

If you’re not familiar with this piece, you should probably just go ahead and listen to it first. It’s fifteen minutes of your life, and I guarantee you won’t regret it. Then come back here, and if you can give me another fifteen minutes, I’ll walk you through what’s going on in the music.

I linked to a performance on YouTube by violinist Hilary Hahn, partly because I think there is some value in being able to see the musicians perform it, and partly because YouTube is easy and universal to access. I do encourage you, though, to buy a version of this on iTunes or elsewhere, so some small amount of money can go back to the performers. I can’t claim to have listened to every version out there, but Hilary Hahn is always a good bet, and I first found this piece through an excellent version with David Nolan as the soloist, performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley.

Another reason I like to check these out on YouTube is the comments sections, which are often full of nostalgic reminiscences, stories about using this piece at weddings and funerals, and even people saying that this music saved them when they were contemplating suicide. It’s an online comments sections, so who knows—maybe some of it is true. But the comment I saw that I liked the most was: “This is what freedom sounds like.”

There are a couple of ways the piece achieves this effect.

It begins with a series of quiet, gently ascending chords from the orchestra. These chords are composed of notes on a pentatonic scale, a five-tone scale that is simpler and older than the seven-note, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do scale that is the basis of Western music (not to mention the more modern 12-tone scale, the one that includes the black keys on the piano). Pentatonic scales are very old and were developed independently by many different ancient civilizations (which is why people say they notice parallels here to Chinese music.) They are considered “folk” scales that are often the basis for folk music, and you can see why this would catch Vaughan Williams’s ear. But pentatonic chords also have the effect of being somewhat ethereal and “open,” conveying a sense of space.

Those opening chords set the scene, and then the lark arrives, given voice by the violin, at 0:25 in this video. The poem talks of a “silver chain of sound,/Of many links without a break,/In chirrup, whistle, slur, and shake,” and you can hear that in the violin’s warbling trills and arpeggios. For comparison, listen to what a real lark sounds like. Larks nest in meadows, not in trees, and apparently when one takes off, it first circles around at a lower altitude before it rises high enough to catch thermal updrafts. You can hear that motion represented in the violin.

Notice also that when the violin starts playing, it’s a little over two minutes before we hear anything from the orchestra again. The whole opening of the piece is one long cadenza. What is a cadenza? It’s a solo from a featured player. Originally, they were usually improvised. Later on, they were written out (sometimes by the original composer, sometimes by a later composer whose cadenza was so well-liked it was adopted as the standard). Vaughan Williams’s original score of The Lark Ascending bears the marks of repeated and meticulous editing, so his cadenzas have the characteristic of the best Romantic music: hours of tortuous effort devoted to create something that sounds totally spontaneous and rhapsodic. (As an amateur pianist learning Chopin nocturnes, I can assure you that this also involves many of hours of tortuous effort learning to play it as if it were totally spontaneous.)

A cadenza is usually performed “in free time,” meaning that the soloist has control over the tempo and does not have to play along to match the orchestra. Vaughan Williams even presents this opening cadenza “senza misura”—without measures, with nothing to mark the progression of the tempo. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I sent you to a video that shows the piece being performed, because you’ll notice that during the cadenza the conductor is just standing there waiting on the soloist. This is another element of the sense of freedom. Large sections of this piece are meant to sound improvised and spontaneous, free of strict meter, and those are the sections that drive the piece forward and set the tone.

The first few bars of the opening cadenza introduce a fairly simple melody, on which the violinist then offers variations and embellishments. (If you can read music, here’s a helpful breakdown of the motifs and themes used in the piece.) When the orchestra comes back, at 2:35, the violin introduces a new melody, which both the violin and orchestra play around with for a minute, until we get another new theme, introduced at 3:22 in the accompaniment and then taken up by the violin. This melody bounces back and forth for a while between the violinist and various instruments in the orchestra, until they all join in it together, swelling to a high point starting at 4:18.

During these interactions, the warbling and trilling of the violin often seems like a commentary or counterpoint to the melodies carried by the orchestra. This is usually interpreted as representing the relationship between the lark and the meadow. The violin is the bird, the orchestra the natural environment in which it lives. If that’s the case, ask yourself what this piece is saying about the relationship between the two. And then hold that thought, because I’ll give you my own answer shortly.

As it comes off of this mini-climax, the piece become quieter, slower, and less energetic until it fades at 5:34 to a reprise of the opening chords of the piece, followed by a reprise of the opening cadenza, but slightly shorter and simpler. There’s more of that free-flowing, spontaneous quality, the lark flying up free and clear of the encumbrances of the earth.

At 6:37, the orchestra comes back with a new theme, which quickly develops in what most commenters recognize as a dance. I was sure when I started researching this that it would turn out to be one of the old English folks songs collected by Vaughan Williams, with a picturesque name like “I Hunted My Merry Dogs” or “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” In fact, the melody is his own—but coming out of a mind steeped in the old tunes. This dance is usually interpreted as the first glimpse of man in the lark’s world, as he flies over the revelry of a picnic or a village fair. As with the previous theme, this one is traded around a bit, climaxing in a section of virtuosic trilling by a very active lark at 7:58. It’s not quite a cadenza, since the orchestra keeps playing, but it has some of the same free-flowing quality.

After that very animated section, we fade to a muted, tranquil, introspective section. For a few minutes, a sense of melancholy creeps in. You could interpret this as a reflection of the times, of a composer writing in a world on the brink of war and then in its aftermath. But I think there’s something broader. The Lark Ascending is a tribute to the English countryside and to an agrarian way of life that had already been overtaken by industrialization, just as the radio was bringing new music to displace the old folk songs. As with many intellectuals of the time, Vaughan Williams found a tragic element in this change, hence the wistful sense of nostalgia in this section.

This eventually leads us back, at 11:00, to a return to the second theme, the one we first heard at 3:22. Then at 12:21 we return to the first theme, the one we heard at 2:35. This is the underlying structure of the piece: ABCBA. We go from the introductory cadenza through three main themes, then back through those themes in reverse order. So where does that take us? Back to a last reprise of the first cadenza and its warbling motif.

The final cadenza begins at 13:17, and the last notes from the orchestra fade out at about 13:30, two minutes before the end of the piece. The solo violin carries us the rest of the way, taking the same fragment of melody, the same trills and arpeggios, but raising them up into higher and higher registers and becoming quieter and more ethereal until the violin eventually fades out on a high note. This is our lark finally rising up above the world, flying off into the horizon and out of view.

You see what I mean about the cadenzas being so dominant in this piece. This was the great promise of Romanticism. The previous era, the era of Classical music in the strict sense of the word—the musical style of the 18th Century—was characterized by a much greater sense of order, structure, and formality. (Think of the works of Mozart.) The Romantic movement sought greater artistic freedom, and this piece is what that freedom sounds like. The Lark Ascending has a structure, but it doesn’t sound formally structured because it is so dominated by the flowing spontaneity of those cadenzas, which open the piece, are constantly returned to throughout, and close it.

If art is a selective recreation of reality, what does this piece recreate? In the most literal sense, the violin is attempting to imitate the song and flight of a bird. But by these imitations and evocations of sounds and motions, music is really attempting to recreate a state of mind. What this piece recreates is the psychological experience of free, restless, unobstructed motion.

Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows

The Lark Ascending gives us the experience of feeling what it is like to be a living being engaged in joyful, exuberant action in a benevolent universe—what it feels like for a lark, perhaps, but certainly what it feels like for a human.

At the current moment, this might evoke some of the sadness and nostalgia that tinges the piece. But it’s also a much-needed reminder of the normal life and benevolent universe we are trying to restore.—RWT

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