“They take themselves so seriously,” she said.
“They take themselves so seriously,” my mother said while listening to a recording of chamber music.
I think of that remark whenever I hear chamber music.
It certainly has colored my assessment of chamber music ever after! I always wondered what there was about chamber music that made my mother say that.
Just listening to three, or a larger group of strings playing music which is usually baroque, and usually evokes a sense of the “music room” or the “parlor” rather than the “bedchamber” in its staid rhythm and soft melody with agreeable harmony and a certain lilt. One pictures a small audience of upper-class people sitting on Chippendale chairs with their fans and wigs.
When one watches a chamber music group play, it becomes clearer why they do, actually, have to be serious about timing — about signaling to one another when it’s time for the next passage to begin, or during a special pause or musical comment in the score.
All those notes are important, of course, and someone must play them. Someone who has practiced a lot alone in order to be invited to be in the Chamber Music group.
But, beyond the faithful rendering of the notes, the mood of the music is typically conveyed by a kind of “tone of voice”. I suggest that typical chamber music is sort of conversational, in a polite, measured way, like polite people having a chat. And when you imagine the instruments talking, you can hear certain parts where there is a significant pause. A rest. Or a held note. An exclamation point! Very close to the ebb and flow of conversation — the speaker draws out certain words or phrases to bring special attention to them.
I have a suspicion my wise, inventive, Dutch grandfather taught my mother that when she was a child working on her piano lessons and being taken to concerts and musical events. My grandfather was rather a romantic when it came to music and the arts. The most memorable music he taught me to “hear” was The Moldau which he lovingly narrated to me — the story of tiny watery creeks running eventually into the beautiful sea. It was a glorious nature story, and I remember being enchanted by the music as he talked about the nature of running water, and the drama of the increasing water-flow.
So I know he taught my mother in much the same way.
But because he was a sentimental soul and a great lover of story and fable, he didn’t take chamber music very seriously himself, I think. To him it was more like background music rather than dramatic sagas. Little quips, sort of. Short stories or poems, maybe.
Things that elders say to children can be surprisingly indelible!
I was just listening tonight to some Schumann being played by a chamber group. It was important for me to visualize the violin, viola, cello and bass players rocking their bodies as they felt the cadence of the music — and leaning a certain way when there was an especially winsome or sad or imperious part of the musical conversation. They were, indeed, taking themselves very seriously.
Why would there be a Dutch grandfather’s snicker about such seriousness?Why would it become a mother’s commentary about a music genre?
Performers DO take themselves seriously, usually. Maybe not the ever-relaxed Dean Martin or doll-like Betty Boop. But those who are rendering music that is of a sort of “winking” nature — with sex appeal or suggestive phrases or cute jokes — are performing a show — not just music.
I see Itzak Perleman playing his violin with his whole body, showing his involvement in it in his facial expressions, and I don’t consider his physical performance an “act” because I believe it is not his intention to present an “act” but rather to evoke the music in as faithful a way as he can. Not many can play like Perleman. He comes to each note as if it’s new — right now — and it is the only time he is making this sound for these people and he wants it to be as good a sound as possible. Not taking himself seriously so much as taking the intention of the composer seriously. Similarly, Glen Gould plays the piano as if in another world where he, the musician, actually hums to the piano!
Why does all this matter?
Music does matter to me. I think it’s one of the gifts nature gives us for free and because it is a necessity of life!
Even if it’s just a silly folk song, I want to enjoy it when I sing it or hear it or think of it. I take seriously the lightheartedness of a sound. Or the double-entendre one hears in jazz, for instance, or the little joke that can pop up in a famous symphony. A quote from Yankee Doodle, or an imitation of a cuckoo. It all has seriousness in the delivery.
And it’s a gift. No snickering at gifts! They come from heart.