Hope That I Get Old Before I Die

I have no secret Romantic desire to die young. Some artistic types do, at least in a half-hearted way, but not me—and it’s not just that I’m greatly looking forward to being old and crotchety. The problem is, if you die young, then initial historical judgement is passed on you by your contemporaries, and often they can’t get past their initial impression of you, no matter how misleading.

I was thinking about this after playwright George Hunka posted a link to this page, where the Canadian Broadcasting Company has streamed a bunch of excerpts from Glenn Gould’s radio documentaries. If you’ve never heard these before, you’re in for a treat—Gould’s programs (on mostly non-musical subjects) are still ahead of their time, and entertaining as all get out.

Now, Gould (who died at the age of 50) is primarily remembered as a pianist and an eccentric, and often the latter more than the former. That’s because his posthumous reputation was shaped by people whose opinions were no doubt colored by memories of his first major public appearances in the 1950’s. Gould must have seemed like an alien—he came more or less out of nowhere, with a fully formed style that owed little to any existing school, and a collection of physical mannerisms that no doubt nearly upstaged his music-making. But his astonishing radio work (not to mention his engaging writings, as well as his film and television work) is a reminder that Gould was the real thing, a genius and a conscientious workaholic whose eccentricities were really the least interesting thing about him. Gould would have turned 75 this year, an age at which many musicians are still fully active; no doubt he would have had the opportunity to enjoy being a hero or a villian to at least a couple of subsequent generations. (And here’s one to think about: you know he would have had a blog.)

Here’s another example. My church choir just started rehearsing one of our Christmas favorites, “There shall a star come out of Jacob,” by Felix Mendelssohn. I’ve mentioned my love for Mendelssohn’s music here before, and this is no exception. I could talk volumes about this chorus, but I’ll just point out this short passage at measure 73, which might be one of the most perfectly realized tonal cadences of all time.

The D that the tenors linger over in 77 is an absolutely masterful stroke, coloring an otherwise textbook cadence with a lovely string of rich dissonances.

It’s remarkable enough out of context, but in context, it’s a catharsis of subtle but unmistakable power; Mendelssohn has spent the entire chorus preparing us for this moment. We’ve had fully-formed contrasting A and B sections, including a development where the melodies of both are ingeniously combined and played off of each other. The A material is soaring and lyrical, the B material darker and more violent, and it’s only at measure 79 that the lyricism wins out. And we know it, because it’s the first full V-I cadence in tonic since measure 10, and only the second one of the entire piece. (That’s long-range planning.) But that’s not even the true genius of this moment. The true genius is that it’s not the end of the piece. Mendelssohn has engineered this cadence to be but an exquisite curtain-raising for the coda: a simple but luminous harmonization of the old chorale tune “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.”

In other words, this is the work of a composer at the absolute top of his or anybody else’s game, writing music that unfolds its considerable glories with an effortless sure-footedness. This chorus, of course, is all that we have of Mendelssohn’s planned oratorio Christus, left unfinished at his ridiculously premature death. Every time I hear that cadence, hear Mendelssohn at the point where his craft will finally let him do whatever he wants to do, I can’t help thinking about the fact that it was, unwittingly, the end of his career. And you know what? I don’t feel sadness, or regret, or wistfulness: I’m downright pissed, pissed that he didn’t live to produce a normal life expectancy’s allotment of music, pissed that he didn’t get to let his imagination fly on the wings of his technical mastery, and pissed that he came to be remembered as simply a prodigy who had a certain flair for melody but somehow lacked the mettle and inner strength (you know, because he was a Jew) to excel in the “larger forms” that seemed to be the only criterion anybody knew how to apply in those days.

Which is why I fully intend to move heaven and earth in order to maintain my grip on this mortal coil. On the off chance that I actually get to the point Mendelssohn did, I want to be able to enjoy it for a while, and stick around long enough to supersede anyone’s indelible memory of me as a callow youth. And if I never reach that point? You can call me a failure, but you’ll have to do it to my wrinkled face.


  1. I think that it is interesting that Mendelssohn could have avoided the parallel 5th, and could have gone down to an F in the bass rather than up to an A flat, but he chose harmonic movement that was more fragile in order to make this moment really stand out, reinforced by the switch between close voicing and widely-spaced voicing.

    Yes, it would have been great if Mendelssohn (and his sister Fanny, who was a fantastic composer as well) had lived a full adult life. At least Mendelssohn got an early start as a great composer, and his musical personality was fully developed at a very young age.


  2. Are there additional instrumental parts to make the I65? With the four parts you show, it is a iii chord. This is just as intriguing, given the unclear tonal function of iii chords. This chord also increases the harmonic tension through an ascending fifth progression from the vi chord. The alto line is very intriguing in this measure. It outlines a tonic triad, made explicit by the large leaps, but the measure is a predominant expansion, not a tonic expansion.


  3. Yes, I left out the accompaniment, which does contain the Eb in a lovely minor-2nd clash with the D (thanks for noticing). Every time I poke around this little bit of counterpoint, I find something new—for example, Elaine’s point about the contrapuntally-correct-but-there-nonetheless resultant parallel 5ths (an old Bach trick that I love). What your comment makes me realize is how much Mendelssohn likes to have all those notes from the tonic triad around even when that’s not the actual harmony. It’s the same thing as the major 9 chord in the first line of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”


  4. You people nit-pick too much about tiny details. There are no parallel fifths. To the truly untrained, okay…but they aren’t really parallel.Get a life!


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