The news has been depressing lately: a mysterious air crash apparently taking 239 lives; a distinguished nominee to head up the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division scuttled by a cabal of racist Republicans and terrified cowardly Democrats; the endless reports of the clown show at the annual meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. In a desperate effort to preserve my Tigger-like good spirits, I have retreated into my viola, which never disappoints me, though I often disappoint it.
I have been re-learning the Prelude to the second Bach cello suite as arranged for viola. Almost fourteen years ago, when my sister threw a big party in Washington D .C. to celebrate her seventieth birthday, the invitations asked for attendees not to give presents, as she had everything she needed and her apartment was not large. I decided that despite the request I would give her a gift -- I played the Prelude for her at the party. I explained that the gift had cost me a great deal of effort but no money at all, and that it would not take up any room in her apartment once the party was over.
The Bach suites are of course among the best known works of the Classical repertory, originally made world-famous by Pablo Casals and more recently played with unsurpassable beauty and grace by Yo-Yo Ma. They are quite demanding, but the Prelude is among the more accessible movements for an amateur violist like me, and it is very beautiful. When I went looking for the score in my several shelves of viola music, I quickly found a copy of the six suites, but not the copy on which I had marked my fingerings and bowings fourteen years ago. That has mysteriously disappeared, so I have been laboriously going through the movement putting in new fingerings and bowings. If you listen to the piece [you can hear the great Russian cellist Rostropovich playing it here] you will find that it is relentless -- the notes keep coming with scarcely a pause. Hence it is absolutely crucial to be on the right bow [up or down] at each moment, because if you get wrong-footed, so to speak, there is nowhere to recover. I just about have it sorted out and in a day or two should be able to play it creditably. The low notes sound great on my viola.
Once that is done, I will turn to the viola part of a famous Handel Passacaglia originally written for organ and arranged for violin and viola by Halvorsen. It has come to be nicknamed "the unplayable Passacaglia," and if you listen to it here, as played by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman, you will understand why. It manages to go from quite manageable to impossible in the space of perhaps ninety seconds. There is not the slightest chance that I can play all of it, or indeed most of it, but there are a few sections that I and my companion violinist should be able to handle, and their beauty is worth the effort.
Perhaps all of this will shield me from for a bit from the horror that America has become [and, if one is being truthful, always was.] An old warrior has some right to retreat from the battlefield for a bit and sit around the campfire, telling the old stories and singing the old songs.