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Monday, April 9, 2007

Genius out of context

Posted By on 04.09.07 at 07:01 PM

click to enlarge 1305.jpg

Gene Weingarten tells a wonderful story at the Washington Post (free registration may be required) -- read the whole thing now if you hate spoilers, 'cause (irony alert) I don't have time.

Joshua Bell, one of the best classical musicians in America, stood at the L'Enfant Plaza D.C. subway stop for 45 minutes during morning rush January 12 and used his Stradivarius to play some of the greatest music ever written. He netted $32.17; twenty-seven people out of more than a thousand stopped or gave.

Bell led off and finished with Bach's "Chaconne" from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, "considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It's exhaustingly long -- 14 minutes -- and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.

"If Bell's encomium to 'Chaconne' seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: 'On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.'"

Does this experiment prove that Americans are "peasants," as my high-school band teacher used to call us on bad days? Or that high culture is a classist put-on, as this blogger and some Washington Monthly commenters hint? Or that Bell could make a reasonable living busking, as he himself said after? Or that he couldn't, as NYC's Saw Lady says?

I'm inclined to think blogger D.M. Papuga at Lyrique Tragedy Reviews got the point that goes beyond our guilty unfamiliarity with classical music:

"It's no secret to Early Modern scholars that Shakespeare was not the blockbuster playwright that we in the Academy tend to make him out to be. One look at the Stationer's Register will show you that his contemporaries were much more sought out than he. Middleton was adored by the 'common' folk. Marlowe's death was mourned as an artistic tragedy. Dekker, Kyd, Greene--they all were performed extensively, and Shakespeare was just 'one of those actors.' ...I think the experiment that Joshua Bell participated in goes a long way to show us just how much we actually know about the subjects we claim to be so proficient in understanding."

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