ANDANTE Music

You can run but you can’t hide

John Lennon used the chords of Moonlight Sonata in reverse in the Beatles classic ‘Because’ from Abbey Road.  

Greg’s face turned stony, his nostrils flared ever so slightly, and brown-red flakes appeared in his grey-blue eyes. We had just had a nice meal in Left Bank, a slightly over-priced French brasserie located in Santana Row, one of the mixed-use developments bordering San Jose and Santa Clara in Silicon Valley, California, after a long day of business meetings. The two glasses of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that I had consumed were already relaxing the taut muscles in my shoulders. I was ready to indulge my sweet tooth. I asked Greg if he would mind sharing a crème brûlée with me, and this question was the culprit that brought about Greg’s facial transformation. He leaned across the table and hissed, “Sudi, I don’t share crème brûlées with men!” He then sat back on the hard, wooden chair, looking very smug and pleased with himself.

That’s Greg for you: a six-feet-tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed hunk, one of my few fiercely loyal, dependable, tobacco-chewing, gun-toting, bear-hunting, Bush-loving, Obama-hating friends. He is the quintessential anti-intellectual, hostile to any serious discussion on art, philosophy, literature, and classical music, and deeply distrustful of people who engage in such ‘deplorable’ activities. He is so fond of classical music that, as he says, he is always prepared with a pair of ear plugs in case it surreptitiously tries to stream into his ‘macho’ ears.

So you can probably imagine Greg’s reaction when I, probably bitter from multiple failed attempts at introducing him to classical music, decided to burst his bubble. Just as he was tapping his feet in the car to the Beatles classic ‘Because’ from the album Abbey Road, I maliciously pointed out that the song he was enjoying so hugely was deeply influenced by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

 

I admit, I wasn’t completely truthful there—John Lennon had actually used the chords of Moonlight Sonata in reverse! Greg had some difficulty accepting this factoid since, as far as he was concerned, pop music was the music of the gritty, tough, and hard-working man; it could not possibly have anything to do with classical music—the music of the latte-drinking, New York Times reading liberals.

Paul Simon copies Bach

I was on a cruel run that day. “Your pop musicians had a difficult time keeping their hands off the gorgeous melodies created by composers long dead, Greg. Take Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ for example,” I said, “the one he sang soon after the break up with Art Garfunkel.”

“I like that song, man. What about it?” he asked, half anticipating and half dreading the answer.

“That song, which reached No. 30 on the Billboard Top 100, is a direct copy, Greg; it’s a copy of a melody from none other than Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a deeply sorrowful Western sacred arrangement that continues to move audiences nearly three centuries after it was first heard in St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Germany,” I triumphantly announced. He looked crestfallen.

 

“Even your favourite country singer, Mr. Denver, had to go out and borrow from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for the lovely ‘Annie’s Song’,” I said, offering yet another factoid.

 

The beginning of ‘Annie’s Song’ is almost identical to the lyrical tune the horn plays after the slow and brooding opening of the second movement, but there is no proof that John Denver deliberately used the melody in his song. Who cares? I was on a roll and poor Greg looked like he was ready to run away and hide in the caves of Tora Bora with the Taliban!

What Greg refuses to accept is that beautiful melodies, like great stories, are timeless and neutral to musical genres. They appear and reappear in unexpected places in a new garb, maybe with a twist, almost escaping recognition before they reveal themselves like a prankster friend.

Take the story of ‘Dies Irae’ (Day of Wrath)—a centuries-old Gregorian chant of the dead and a part of the requiem mass. It captures the whole-hearted, hopeful prayer of a sinful man seeking forgiveness, lest he be cursed into the everlasting fire of hell.

 

This medieval hymn has found its way into many well-known western classical compositions over the centuries: Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D Minor’ composed in 1791, and Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Messa da Requiem’ composed in 1869, being the two most famous. In both these pieces, we encounter a different ‘Dies Irae’—one that’s filled with the imminent fear of being cast into the everlasting fire and more of a desperate cry than a gentle prayer for forgiveness.

‘Dies Irae’ goes to the movies

A discussion of ‘Dies Irae’ will be incomplete without mentioning its impressive film appearances ranging from Citizen Kane and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to Disney’s animated epic, The Lion King.

My favourite use of the chant in a movie is in the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)—the long aerial shot of the car driving towards Overlook Hotel with ‘Dies Irae’ in the background, building an atmosphere of impending doom and hinting at the terrible crisis awaiting at the end of the car ride.

 

We hear Verdi’s version of ‘Dies Irae’, and its urgent call for help in the face of inevitable destruction, in the famous ‘death of Leonidas’ scene in the epic fantasy movie 300, where the Persian archers pick off the Spartan warriors one by one. It is hard to think of any other powerful piece of music equally at ease in a 13th century Benedictine monastery as it is in a 20th century Disney animation film.

 

If Greg, all alone in the mountains of Tora Bora but happy to have escaped the all-pervading intrusion of classical music in his life, accidentally finds an old Philips radio, tunes into a Hindi song channel, and breaks into a happy dance listening to Salil Chowdhury’s ‘Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyar Badha’, he will be dancing to a melody from Mozart’s 40th Symphony. He can run, but he cannot hide!

 

 

The author designs big data systems to earn money, writes to make sense, and plays the classical guitar to escape drudgery.

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Printable version | Nov 15, 2020 7:12:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/you-can-run-but-you-cant-hide/article18050006.ece

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