Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:51 AM

Today I'm taking a page out of thrifty Brillig's book and re-posting something I wrote back when I only had a tiny handful of readers. For those of you who have read this before, you have my apologies; I wanted to participate in Music Monday this week, and I didn't have a minute to write something new. The following is from February 2007.

Last Friday night I was driving home from Book Group. It was late and it had been snowing for several hours. I love being alone in a black night with snow; it always reminds me of one of my favorite paragraphs in the world, the last sentences of James Joyce’s The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It
had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark,
falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on
his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over
Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless
hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly
falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every
part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay
thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the
little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow
falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of
their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Karen, Melissa, and I had carpooled to Book Group over at Camilla's house in Golden’s Bridge, chatting the entire time. On the way home, after I dropped off my two friends, I turned on the radio. I had for company someone playing the piano. I half-recognized the piece, but there was something so different about what I was hearing that I didn’t make the connection for a minute or two. Then it hit me with a flash: it was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And played on the piano, not the harpsichord—but it didn’t sound like Glenn Gould.

I find it particularly appropriate to listen to this piece of music when the rest of the world is asleep. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a Count who struggled with insomnia; the Count had asked Bach to write some clavier exercises to be played in the middle of the night, something to soothe and cheer him through long, sleepless hours. The Variations are named after the Count’s talented young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; I imagine the poor young man being roused from slumber on any given night to play for his patron, because the Count apparently never tired of hearing them.

The Variations were published in Bach’s lifetime, but for many years afterward were regarded as dry, rather difficult pieces to be played on the harpsichord. In the middle of the 20th century, however, a brilliant young pianist changed popular opinion of Bach’s piece forever.

I know Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations as well as I know any piece of music. I’ve listened to it hundreds, maybe thousands of times. It has been a great friend to me, as the Variations were for the Count who commissioned them. But what I was hearing Friday night was so alien: haunting, personal, almost painful in its execution, where the version I know—lively, technically flawless—evokes a detached, peaceful mood.

Puzzled, I drove on and thought about our Book Group meeting earlier. We had had a intelligent and compassionate dicussion of a modern classic: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Its main character, Susan Burling Ward, has chronic myopia when it comes to the life she has chosen; throughout her life, she compares her situation unfavorably to that of her best friend, Augusta. She doesn’t realize that she has within her grasp all the ingredients for a wonderful existence.

Her interpretation of herself, the reader easily sees, is faulty. She has, in fact, married the better man; her life of ‘exile,’ as she terms it, has defined and refined her work as an artist, not limited it. One woman in our group raised a question: How do you know when to be content? In other words, when you are in the middle of living one of life’s countless challenges, how do you stop looking over the fence at seemingly greener grass? It’s a good question, and an old one, one that has given philosophers pause for centuries.

After a lot of thought on the topic myself, I think the secret lies in our interpretation of what we’ve been given. Happiness is a choice; for some it’s a harder choice than for others, but it is there all the same. One need look no further than Victor Frankl for proof of this truth.

I myself have been given all the components for a perfect life: good health, every temporal comfort, lovely friends and children, meaningful work, and a dear man who loves me. But if I’m not careful, I can take the route Stegner’s heroine takes. I can focus exclusively on what I see as being wrong: my weight; brain chemistry that defaults to a baseline level of melancholia; the current state of our yard; the child who is misbehaving on any given day: the list could go on for quite a while, if I let it. But that interpretation of my life is a sure path to misery; I believe this is one of the points Stegner is making in his beautiful book.

Once home, I sat in my dark car in the driveway for few minutes so that I could discover the identity of my mystery musician. At the stroke of midnight, after the last few notes of the Aria died away, Bill McGlaughlin came on the air and informed me that it was, indeed, Glenn Gould playing the Variations—but that this was a performance recorded shortly before Gould’s death in 1982.

This was the same music played by the same artist I thought I knew so well. But the interpretation was so different that it changed the piece completely. Older, wiser, at the end of his life, Gould let his life inform his art and transform it; he put himself wholly into his work, and both were changed thereby.

Stop looking over the fence and start doing all you can to green up what you’ve got. Take plenty of time to rejoice in its verdure, and take plenty of time pay respects to the Source of all that is good and green. It is advice simpler to write than it is to live, but the secret to happiness is in the interpretation.

For more Music Monday, visit Soccer Mom in Denial!
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On 31/3/08 , Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this piece. For the longest time I wanted to learn how to play the harpsichord, but I didn't have one, and I suck at playing the piano.

Isn't it great when a piece of music can transport you so? Mine are the concertos for violin and piano by beethoven played Itzhak Perlman and Vladamir Ashkenazy. It's like I'm in heaven.

On 31/3/08 , Flower Child said...

This is wonderful. Having heard these last year on the harpsichord - with a musician who appeared to be humming the whole time - I am eager to find Gould's piano version. I love me some good piano.

On 31/3/08 , Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Simply beautiful - the piece and the post.

On 31/3/08 , Jenna Consolo said...

So glad you re-ran this one. It's one of my faves. I even think about this post from time to time. Great job!

On 31/3/08 , Kimberly said...

Such loveliness! I really must take the time to go through your archives soonly.

On 1/4/08 , Shellie said...

And the interpretation continually changes and improves over time if we set it in the right direction. Thanks for the music!

On 1/4/08 , Julie Wright said...

what a beautiful piece of music and such a beautiful post to accompany it. How often do I find myself looking over the fence with a dejected sigh? Thanks for this.

On 1/4/08 , Annette Lyon said...

I remember reading this post when I was strolling through your archives several months ago. Loved it. Bummer for me, the clip won't work--says it's no longer available. :(

On 2/4/08 , midge woolsey said...

I'm rereading Ex Libris and reading Rereadings. How lovely to see this reprise of a Mme Perkins treasure.

Grateful to you for all of it. That's what I mean to say.

On 2/4/08 , Virtualsprite said...

I have to admit, the Goldberg Variations is not a piece I normally frequent. I have heard it, and I remember distinctly it was a Gould performance, but I can't say that it ever stuck out in my mind the way Bach's fugues have. Now I will listen for it with a different ear.

I understand what you mean about later performances, though. I have played the Messiah at least 20 times in my career and every year I do it, I learn something new. Music never gets old, it just gets deeper.

Beautiful post.

On 2/4/08 , Brillig said...

Oh yeah. Sure. Thanks. Now I have yet another book to add to my list that I'd really like to read. AND I want to dig through your archives and read everything you've ever written. (Okay, that's not new-- I've always wanted to do that.) I hold you entirely responsible for the fact that if they want to eat, my children will need to scrounge food out of the garbage can.



On 5/4/08 , dawn said...

This post is so wonderful on so many levels that I can relate to right now, let alone the vastness of information you have given. It snowed last night, and is still snowing; I was feeling weather in the quote. My whole family was sleeping as I listen to the music playing. This week I have talked a lot about perspective with people (and children), how when we get a little extra money for a birthday, we don't cry out "Life's not fair", because everyone didn't get extra. There are some people who grow up and say his or her parents messed up his/her life, and for whatever reason continue to make the bad choices he/she always did and continue to blame someone else. I am interested in reading the book you mentioned and I think that is an awesome question your group mate asked, and something to consider. Thanks for reposting this one.