You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

November 09, 2009

Bach's Double Violin Concerto (Allegro)

By: Bernard Chazelle

This being a children's blog, I can't use the reproductive imagery needed to reveal the true magic of this amazing piece. I could argue that Bach's music is so great because it was written by Bach, but that might be a bit circular. After sex and Bach, the next best thing, of course, is chocolate mousse.

0:00 The waiter is talking you into ordering the chocolate special. By the end of the segment, the word 'chocolate' is blinking inside your head like bright neon lights. You now understand what Patrick Henry meant when he said: "Give me chocolate mousse or give me death!"

0:39 The mousse arrives, a feast for the eye. While you explore every nook and cranny of this promising lump of sweet darkness (the snobs call it "melody") you're by now a slobbering Newfie ready to pounce. Your dining companion's mousse has arrived, too, which does little to stop the drooling.

1:14 Finally, you take your first bite. The universe explodes and rearranges the laws of physics: up is down, in is out, front is back. The two violinists switch roles with the orchestra, which now takes over the melody, while the two soloists accompany it with high double stops in sixths and octaves. Bach the Lutheran always does that: he'll unexpectedly pulverize the military order of the orchestra just to remind you that all hierarchies will die with us. The effect of this abrupt change is stunning. Swallowing that first bite of chocolate makes the Big Bang sound like a damp squib. Needless to say, the Pavlovian conditioning from 0:00 to 1:13 is essential, for role reversal won't mean a thing to you unless you're told about the roles in the first place. Once in a while, a great piece of music is all about 8 seconds of ultimate perfection: you just need preparation for it.

1:23 The food goes down your stomach. The descent is gradual and, Bach being Bach, nonlinear. Chung and Lin play the sort of dissonant chromatic runs that everyone stole from him afterwards.

1:29 Chung's post-chocoital solo reprises the lovely melody you heard earlier.

Although the mousse was prepared in Dm, by the time it hits your tastebuds, its flavor has morphed to C major (1:13). The chord progression at 1:14 is C-A7-Dm-E7-Am. Bach takes the downwind cycle A7-Dm-G but rejects the VII-i cadence (the Beatles wouldn't) and replace G by its relative minor Em. But Em-Am is a weak cadence that 16th century Italians outlawed. The fix is to raise the third and lower the seventh for the contrary counterpoint of V7-i, ie, E7-Am. Voila.

The audio is awful but the soloists are excellent. Chung plays Bach as she would Brahms. It's unorthodox but cool. Good for her to ignore the purists. That said, I still prefer Perlman-Zukerman. If you want to purchase the double concerto for the holidays, avoid the late Stern versions: there are several of them. I hate to sign off on a negative note but I will. The violin is among the least fault-tolerant of instruments. (There's no such thing as a mediocre quartet ensemble: it's either excellent or insufferable.) The ear-to-hand coordination it requires at that level is so formidable it's really a young person's game. Late Stern is pretty sad. Perlman, my all-time favorite violinist, is now a shadow of himself. He should stick to master classes. Or maybe conducting? I sound callous, but actually I can't imagine how depressing it must be for such fine musicians to see their motor skills decline, as they always do with age. Of course, Mozart never had that problem. Dying young has its benefits.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at November 9, 2009 07:04 PM

The harpsichordist is *rocking out*. I'm guessing he's trying to conduct and play at the same time?

Posted by: Guest at November 9, 2009 09:10 PM

Very lovely music indeed Prof Chazelle and I have always enjoyed this piece. Thank you. And though, I have started to learn to appreciate Bach's music, I guess I do not have sophisticated enough taste to recognise different quality of music composed by various composers. For me, my favourite violin music is 'Dvorak's Romance' is heavenly! And at a platonic level!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at November 9, 2009 09:14 PM

Since you seem to like so many different kinds of music, I'm wondering what you'd think of the Beat Farmers' "Happy Boy". But then sometimes I'm like that.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at November 10, 2009 02:31 AM

Honestly you lost me with "VII-i cadence," but the E7-Am thingy sure reminds me of "Yesterday."

Posted by: godoggo at November 10, 2009 02:41 AM

Did you mean ii V? You got me mentally sorting through all those Beatles records I was weaned on for a ii to V of vi in hopes of foiling you, but nothing so far...

Posted by: godoggo at November 10, 2009 02:50 AM

OK, OK, I getcha, VII i would be G Am, yes? Which brings me back to "Yesterday," if only it could. Sorry if trollish. Interesting post and insomnia, which don't mix well.

Posted by: godoggo at November 10, 2009 03:15 AM

I know Bernie says rock stars don't play serious music, but that's clearly Pete Townsend playing harpsichord.

Posted by: Marcus at November 10, 2009 04:08 AM


Posted by: Jethro Schwarz at November 10, 2009 06:46 AM

How long before robots play with greater feeling than humans? (covers head to avoid brickbats)

The other day was yakking with friends about work dissatisfaction, then Scott Horton at Harpers posted that clip of Karajan conducting Eroica. Herbert just looked so bummed out, like he couldn't wait for it to be over.

Posted by: Oarwell at November 10, 2009 09:38 PM

I wouldn't call this a children's blog, but I do appreciate the effort made to keep it family-friendly.

And Prof. Chazelle, while we're speaking of children and in honor of Armistice Day, I wonder if you are a fan of and would be willing to write about Jethro Tull's War Child - either the title cut or my personal favorite, Back Door Angels?

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 11, 2009 11:21 AM

Oh, you French people and your food. Pretty nice piece of music and playing, though. Yummy.

Posted by: Svensker at November 14, 2009 04:50 PM