Death and transcendance

Two things that happened fortuitously to come together in my life.

One, a Facebook note from Max Vasilatos (prominently quoting MLK’s “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”) about pretty much everyone (me too) crying at yesterday’s twilight ceremony at the reflecting pool (by the Lincoln Memorial), memorializing 400,000 Covid deaths, on the eve of the inauguration of Joe Biden as President and Kamala Harris as Vice-President — on the Erev Inauguration (as Adrienne Shapiro put it on her FB page: the eve of a holy day).

Two, the music that I woke to on my iTunes this morning, Chopin’s Marche funèbre. Everybody knows the initial and final parts, the funeral march itself, tolling death; but in the middle comes the trio, a sweet, serene melody (in a major key), with a rising melodic figure, promising transcendance. Again, the combination of the memorialization of death with the promise of a new kind of life. (So, of course, I burst into tears once again.)

At the reflecting pool. The scene:

(#1) With the Washington Monument in the background, President-elect Joe Biden with his wife, Jill Biden, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris with her husband, Doug Emhoff, listen Tuesday as Yolanda Adams sings “Hallelujah.” [earlier, Covid nurse Lori Marie Key performed “Amazing Grace”] (photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

The lights up close:

(#2) Lights [400 of them] surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims on Tuesday. [in the background: the Capitol building] (photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Connecting One and Two. Max Vasilatos remarked on how just about everybody viewing the event in #1 cried. My response, on FB:

You’d have to be a withered, dried-up turnip not to weep, out of a combination of deep mourning and great hope. As it happens, when I woke this morning, iTunes was playing Chopin’s Marche funèbre. I have always found the trio deeply moving; it can be read as conveying resurrection, the promise of life after death, but I’ve always preferred to read it as conveying the triumph of the human spirit, the endurance of our good will and good works — MLK’s infinite hope (in contrast to the finite disappointment of physical death). So: expressing transcendance, but not necessarily in a Christian religious sense.

The Chopin. Brief overview, from Wikipedia:

Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, is a piano sonata in four movements. Chopin completed the work while living in George Sand’s manor in Nohant, some 250 km (160 mi) south of Paris, a year before it was published in 1840. … [T]he work is considered to be one of the greatest piano sonatas of the literature.

The third movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2 is Chopin’s famous funeral march (French: Marche funèbre) which was composed at least two years before the remainder of the work and has remained, by itself, one of Chopin’s most popular compositions.

I’ll provide a link to a performance of the march below, in a Bonus section of this posting.

Detail about the third movement. On the site: “Breaking It Down: Chopin’s Funeral March” by Wojciech Oleksiak on 2/23/15:

The third part is notable not only for having made it into classical music history but also history as such, as well as popular culture. Chopin’s funeral march has become the default go-to musical piece to accompany the subject of death. The intense, grave and overwhelmingly dark ambience of the music leaves no room for ambiguity and has been used to accompany funerals and death scenes for centuries. It was played during Chopin’s burial at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; during the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher; as well as during Leonid Brezhnev’s last ceremony. It has been used in numerous films, cartoons and computer games and has been reinterpreted by many artists, including a famous contemporary electronic music producer (Deadmau5’s Moar Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff) and the renowned singer-songwriter Neil Young (Change Your Mind).

The first part of this movement is passionate, with the left hand laying heavy chords in a low register, evoking the sound of a ringing church bell. The solemn and heroic melody played by the right hand ultimately makes it sound serious and elegiac.

The second part of the Funeral March comes with another surprising contrast. Within one bar, the movement goes from the darkest mood to the warmest and calmest lullaby with a strikingly simple melody and harmonics. This part brings so much consolation and is so heart-warming that the listener can almost forget about the presence of death lurking around every bar of this movement. However, this ray of hope is soon to be brutally smashed by the return of the first theme – finishing with a cadence fading away, leaving the listener with nothing but dense silence.

Extra-musical associations of the march. One is the event that caused Chopin to leave Poland, his native land, forever, and take up residence (and citizenship) in France — the death of Poland as a nation, not long before he began writing the march. From Wikipedia:

The November Uprising (1830–31), also known as the Polish–Russian War 1830–31 or the Cadet Revolution, was an armed rebellion in the heartland of partitioned Poland against the Russian Empire. The uprising began on 29 November 1830 in Warsaw when the young Polish officers from the local Army of the Congress Poland’s military academy revolted, led by lieutenant Piotr Wysocki. Large segments of the peoples of Lithuania, Belarus, and the Right-bank Ukraine soon joined the uprising. Although the insurgents achieved local successes, a numerically superior Imperial Russian Army under Ivan Paskevich eventually crushed the uprising. The Russian Emperor Nicholas I decreed that henceforth Russian-occupied Poland would lose its autonomy and become an integral part of the Russian Empire.

The other is the fact that Chopin lived with with the specter of death as his companion for a good part of his (short) life. From Wikipedia:

For most of his life, Chopin was in poor health. He died in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39 [Mozart died at 35], probably of pericarditis aggravated by tuberculosis.

Bonus. Paul Barton performing the march on his Feurich 218 piano. You can watch this performance here — with an overhead keyboard view and also a view of the score as the piece unfolds.

About Paul Barton, from the Bach Cantatas Website (not your standard life story, told here is somewhat breathless prose):

Born October 21, 1961 in Yorkshire, England. The English pianist … studied art at the Royal Academy of Arts in London at 16 years old. He won first prizes for portrait painting and portrait drawing in annual student competitions, and graduated at 20 years old with the The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation prize. He exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

Paul Barton then decided to start a career as a concert pianist. Although his brilliant performances quickly helped him on his way to the big stage, the multi-talented Englishman soon realised that this way of life was just not for him. At this point, he chose to travel to Thailand for 3 months, and work as a piano teacher. It was here that he met his wife Khwan (married on September 7, 1996), a wildlife artist, and he decided to make Thailand his home. They work together from their studio in Thailand. In Bangkok, he opened his own recording studio, equipped with a Feurich 218 [piano] …

It was here that Paul Barton started a new career which has helped countless pianists over the world to develop their skills: on social media platforms like Youtube, Facebook and Instagram, he provides free tutorials and interpretations of many virtuoso masterpieces from the classical music repertoire…

Paul Barton’s portrait sitters include …  prominent British politicians … and business leaders … Private commissions include entertainment personalities, actors, writers, musicians and numerous individual and family portrait groups.

Paul Barton has also had wide-reaching influence on many peoples’ lives outside the world of classical piano. In Elephant’s World, a home for rescued elephants in Thailand, he plays piano for blind animals and shows us that it is possible to interact with them in very profound and heart-warming ways.


One Response to “Death and transcendance”

  1. Gadi Says:

    Erev doesn’t really connote holiness. It’s just the word for evening. Though many people may know it only in a religious context and make the association.

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