The Rhythm of Life
So goes the chorus from that wonderful song from the show ‘Sweet Charity’. Apart from its memorable melodic lines, sequential harmonies and infectious rhythm, it is has always been a wonderful way to introduce young musicians to the joys of counterpoint. It doesn’t always have to be the preserve of organists and choir trainers, or of string quartets and symphonies, even operas, cantatas, oratorios. Even that wonderful old Beachboys’ song called ‘God only knows’ has a terrific contrapuntal section that fades out at the end. In all these and in many more examples, the counterpoint that we love to play in Bach fugues is defined by that irresistible combination of rhythm and harmony. What I have come to enjoy in Buxtehude’s fugal writings is the way lightness, joy and fun are interspersed with those frothy, exciting stylus fantasticus passages.
Any life form comes to a natural end and the oldest amongst us begin to realise that what was possible aged 25 seems harder to do aged 65. Despite ongoing scientific research into ageing processes which means that possibly the next generation and the one beyond will easily reach 100, for most of us an end will come and we just have to face it.
Music teaches us this. An idea is born, a blueprint like a DNA, which means that the possibilities for development of the idea lie within. Interaction with whatever comes along affects its progress and continuity. Within those stages are the commas and full stops of music, the cadences, phrase endings that build up to a longer section, which joins up with another one, which can then be transformed into something else until a natural end is reached. One always senses when something has gone on for too long. A Radio 4 programme led by Melvyn Bragg discussed the work of Beethoven. Much of what he wrote is instrumental rather than heavily vocal, and the radio conversation didn’t seem to reach any matter of fact conclusions. It was as if they all could sense what Beethoven was trying to say, big, deep revolutionary ideas in fact, but no-one could quite put their finger on what exactly he was trying to say. Napoleon was mentioned a few times. The size of Beethoven’s imagination meant that he could write everything on a much bigger scale than what the then world was used to, which is why it is shame that there is no significant organ music by him. God was to be found in a forest rather than a church, so no hymn singing or improvised organ voluntaries for him, too insignificant. The works of Reubke and Reger go some to way towards realising these ideals, but for me they don’t succeed and it is repertoire I ignore. Apologies to lovers of these composers’ works.
Quite a few organists play Messiaen‘s La Nativité du Seigneur just before Christmas. My husband Norman was one of them, giving an excellent performance at St George’s Cathedral on 16 December 2017. For at least one person attending, this music was entirely new, despite its publication in 1928, 90 years ago. Its rhythmic, harmonic and melodic structures inhabit a world based on rhythms from Hindu culture, melodic shapes from birdsong and the deeper overall framework from Catholicism. It is a rich, heady mix of sounds put together in a way that seems to be the exact opposite of the classical and popular tingling sound structures that we have all been brought up on. Post-Messiaen there is much more freedom musically to express what is deep within one. I recall hearing a Japanese musician’s organ work representing fire. Starting with mixture stops only, the stops that one’s inclination tells you to pull out first were gradually added. It was a truly brilliant idea, and any sense of rhythm that most of us know was absent and brought to a life a different tingle factor than Cy Coleman’s song. The idea of cadence, phrasing and underpinning rhythm was forged into a brand new language. Some will live long enough to witness the results of it. How I would love to be a fly on the wall in 500 years time to see how things have moved on. What would Martin Luther think today of present day progress? We play the results of his efforts each week. Perhaps that music will still be prevailing in the heavenly spheres as well. The chemist says that ‘nothing can ever be created or destroyed, it merely changes state’.