A pianist is improvising. Inadvertently his fingers have hit upon the beginning of a familiar phrase. What is that tune? … How does it continue? … Oh, that’s it … Papillons.

This is how the workings of memory are portrayed in the Florestan episode in Schumann’s Carnaval op. 9 (1837). As I’ve written before, this may be the first time that “the complex process of memory” has been represented in music, to quote Charles Rosen. The identification of the quotation (Papillons) may be lost to the listener, but the pianist can go a long way to make it sound like a quotation.

(Most pianists are tempted to smooth out the contrast; Charles Rosen’s 1984 recording is a notable, almost exaggerated exception.)

Thinking Music

Written-out improvisation or quasi-improvisation is traditionally the domain of the musical genre of the fantasia. Often a vehicle for finger dexterity in fast passage work, it may also include more expressive or reflective elements. More than formally structured compositions, the fantasia may appear to reflect or represent the mental process in which musical ideas emerge.

It would be reasonable to suspect that musical memories, as quotations of pre-existent ideas, would occur frequently (as in fact they do in actual improvisation). But quotations from other music are surprisingly rare in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century fantasia, if not absent altogether.

No memories then; but maybe we may recognize in the fantasia something like the process of thought. It is customary in the later eighteenth century to speak of ‘musical ideas’ or ‘thoughts’ (at least in German: musikalische Gedanken, Ideen). But are those thoughts purely musical inventions, or are they, like actual thoughts, about something?

BWV 903, manuscript copy
J.S. Bach, Fantasia in d BWV903, manuscript copy, 2nd half of the 18th century. bach-digital.de

Thought and Speech: J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia

The most memorable embodiment of the contrasting tendencies of the fantasia, the virtuosic and the reflective, is no doubt the fantasia from Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV903 (ca 1720). From its rapid passage work and wayward chord successions dramatically emerges a ‘voice that speaks’.

Hesitant phrases seeking affirmation, doubting again, impatiently protesting. Expressive attitudes, audible evidence of the thoughts they might express.

Bach’s instrumental recitative borrows features from vocal recitative, or conventional speech-song: typical melodic turns, punctuated by chords, poignant harmonic changes and a freely fluctuating tempo. Particularly striking is how seamlessly these speech-like inflections are fused with the unsingable passage work of the keyboard idiom. As an imitation of operatic manners Bach’s recitative is almost humorous.

Without the ability to recognize these phrase patterns and to guess their dramatic meaning the music would make no sense. We recognize those patterns if they are stored in memory, as part of our listening experience. It is in the context of that experience that those phrases acquire meaning.

(Outstanding among the countless recordings are those on piano by Edwin Fischer (1931), with its subtle shades of p, and, more majestically, György Sandór (1950). Of those on harpsichord, I mention Andreas Staier’s (1989).)

C.P.E. Bach, Fantasia in f# Wq 67 H 300, composer’s autograph. bach-digital.de

C.P.E. Bach, Intimately

It is mostly through its imitation of speech that music suggests thought. In this period, anyhow, ‘thought’ is closely associated with language: what we think is what we can express in words. But much of what goes on in our minds is inarticulate and inarticulable – feelings, sensations, Empfindungen. There was in this period, in fact, an intense interest in those thoughts or images that lie ‘below’ the threshold of conscious conceptualization (it was precisely this interest that inspired the invention of ‘aesthetics’).

There is probably no example of a fantasia that more strongly suggests wordless, searching thought processes than the famous Fantasia in F-sharp minor of J.S. Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, that bears the telling title C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen (1787?).

(This title appears only in the autograph of a rather odd version with violin accompaniment. It may be read either as Bachs [fantasia called] ‘Empfindungen’, or [Fantasia called] ‘Bachs Empfindungen’. In other words, we can’t be sure whether the composer made himself the autobiographical subject of his composition.)

Rapid passage work occurs here in unmeasured sections. Even more strangely than in BWV 903 it is fused with bits of recitative and other, fragmentary ideas. The softly throbbing chords of its recurring opening phrase sound like an accompaniment in search of a melody, a quotation without source. It is less a statement than an idée fixe that involuntarily pops up in different contexts.

Music, Memory, and Melancholy

What both fantasia’s share is a radical exploration of the borders of musical coherence. The musical discourse resembles the irregular flow of an agitated mind more closely, maybe, than any composition before the twentieth century.

They also share their dark mood, rooted in the chromaticism of their minor keys.

‘Melancholy’ is a term that in its long history has been used for a broad spectrum of mental states, from severe depression to pleasant feelings of vague nostalgia. Mixtures of sadness and pleasure (joy of grief, Wonne der Tränen, sanfte Schwermut) were fashionable in the Age of Sensibility or Empfindsamkeit. Like nostalgia, this soft melancholy tends to look backward, reminisce. It involves a sense of loss and longing – the object of which may be obscure.

There is more between music, memory and melancholy than the feeble charm of alliteration. Music, it has often been observed, has a particular ability of making us re-experience past feelings. As a temporal art, it may make us feel the loss involved in all temporality.

Many have been tempted to associate the concept of beauty in music particularly with those softer shades of melancholy. In other words, the musically beautiful tends towards the melancholy. The eighteenth century philosopher and politician Edmund Burke for instance thought that …

[…] great variety, and quick transitions from one measure or tone to another, are contrary to the genius of the beautiful in music. Such transitions often excite mirth, or other sudden or tumultuous passions; but not that sinking, that melting, that languor, which is the characteristical effect of the beautiful as it regards every sense. The passion excited by beauty is in fact nearer to a species of melancholy, than to jollity and mirth.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London 1757), p. 112-113.

Among contemporary philosophers of art, Jerrold Levinson too ascribes “melting” qualities to what he calls musical beauty in a “narrow” sense:

One of the most distinctive marks of narrowly beautiful music is a feeling of melting on hearing such music, a sensation of being gratifyingly disarmed and overcome.
Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Oxford 2018), p. 62

“Narrowly beautiful music” has consoling qualities: it “provides an antidote, if a temporary one, to the annoyances and compromises of the quotidian, and a rejoinder of sorts to the oppressive greyness of existence” (p. 65). That sounds like sweet melancholy rather than “jollity and mirth”. For Levinson, however, melancholy is merely “compatible” with beauty. Still, of his twenty examples of “narrowly beautiful” music (p. 60-61) I would qualify at least five as sweetly melancholic: Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte; the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Andante moderato from his No. 6; the Adagio from Schubert’s String Quintet in C; and Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

But the melancholy of both fantasias is not of that sweet and mellow nature. With their “great variety”, “quick transitions” and “tumultuous passions” they fall outside the Burkean and Levinsonian domain of the “narrowly beautiful”. From those “quick transitions”, however, moments of beauty may emerge. Few musical moments give me a stronger sense of “that sinking, that melting, that languor” than that slowly descending series of deep sighs of the final bars of the Chromatic Fantasia.

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