Part of the Listen to This Audio Guide
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In this chapter, written fresh for the book, I tell a story of pattern recognition, tracing a few simple figures that show up in music across the centuries and across many genres. While I don't believe in the idea of music as a "universal language"—try telling that to a tired mom who is being forced to listen to her teenager's hip-hop, or, for that matter, a teenager who has to sit through his grandmother's Mozart records—there is much common ground in world cultures, recurring strands of musical DNA. Here I focus on two such elemental patterns: the old dance known as the chaconne and a pair of bass lines associated with lament. The path leads from Renaissance madrigals to Led Zeppelin, by way of Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach, whose great Chaconne for solo violin is at the heart of the chapter.
Here is an early written-down chacona, Juan Arañés's "Un sarao de la chacona" (p. 23; first edition above):
Here are the bass lines at the top of p. 25:
The bocet, an old Romanian folk lament (p. 26):
Other folk laments, from Hungary, Russia, and Kazakhstan:
The flamenco singer Manuel Torres and the guitarist El Hijo de Salvador perform "Siempre por los rincones" in 1922 (p. 27):
Daniel's lament in the lion's den, from the medieval Play of Daniel (p. 28):
Dufay Collective; Harmonia Mundi 907479.
Guillaume de Machaut's "Mors sui" (p. 28):
Orlando Consort, Dreams in the Pleasure Garden; DG 457 618-2.
In Johannes Ockeghem's mid-fifteenth-century chanson "Fors seulement" (p. 29), the classic falling figure of lament makes an unmistakable and perhaps influential appearance:
Edward Wickham leading The Clerks' Group; ASV Gaudeamus 168.
The same pattern recurs in John Dowland's "Flow my tears" (p. 31), a masterpiece of Elizabethan melancholy:
Andreas Scholl, countertenor, and Andreas Martin, lute; Harmonia Mundi 901603.
Claudio Monteverdi, master of Italian music in the early seventeenth century, took hold of the chaconne fad with a duet titled "Zefiro torna" (p. 34):
Alan Curtis leading Il Complesso Barocco; Virgin Classics 45293.
In his Lamento della ninfa (pp. 35-36), Monteverdi made canny use of the device of ostinato, or strict ("obstinate") repetition, turning the four-note lament pattern into a steady ground bass:
Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano, with René Jacobs leading the Concerto Vocale; Harmonia Mundi 901736.37. These and other longer excerpts by kind permission of Harmonia Mundi.
The Venetian opera composer Francesco Cavalli, in his 1640 opera Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne (p. 36-37), directly copied Monteverdi's lamenting bass. When Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree, Apollo sings a lament for her, in a short aria marked "Lamento" at the outset:
The four-note bass again serves to generate a seductive, almost comforting kind of sadness:
Mario Zeffiri, tenor, with Alberto Zedda conducting the Galician Youth Symphony Orchestra; Naxos 8660187.
Cavalli's next opera, Didone (pp. 37-38), has laments galore. In Hecuba's cry of rage over the destruction of Troy, the ostinato bass now proceeds downward by chromatic steps (consecutive white and black keys on the piano):
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto, with Emmanuelle Haïm leading Le Concert d'Astrée; Virgin Classics 19044.
The chaconne, having risen from lowly beginnings, achieves its apotheosis at the court of Versailles, where Jean-Baptiste Lully writes such stately dances as the "Chaconne des maures," or "Chaconne of the Moors" (p. 39):
Ballet Music for the Sun King: Kevin Mallon conducting the Arcadia Baroque Ensemble; Naxos 8554003.
In keyboard pieces such as Frescobaldi's Partite sopra ciaccona (p. 40), meanwhile, the dance begins to evolve in a more complex and emotionally darker direction:
Colin Tinley, harpsichord; Dorian 90124.
In Dido's Lament, the famous closing aria of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (pp. 40-41), the chromatic bass line operates much as it did in Cavalli:
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque; Harmonia Mundi 907110.
We now enter the world of Johann Sebastian Bach, where "chaconne" and "lament" characteristics are almost fused together. Here is the beginning of Bach's great Ciaccona in D minor, from the Second Partita for solo violin, (pp. 43-44), with a chromatic descent at 1:44:
A descending chromatic line in the major-key middle section of the Ciaccona:
The convulsive turn back to minor:
The above three samples come from Gidon Kremer's recording of the Sonatas and Partitas; ECM 506502.
Andrés Segovia plays the same passage on the guitar, perhaps bringing out a bit of the old "Spanish" flavor of the dance:
You can see the manuscript of the Ciaccona, in Bach's own hand, at Bach Digital, the online site of the Bach archive at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin.
In the "Crucifixus" of the B-Minor Mass (pp. 44-46), Bach used the chromatic lamenting bass to represent nothing less than the suffering of Christ on the cross. It appears at the bottom of this portion of the original manuscript:
Here is the "Crucifixus" in its entirety:
Philippe Herreweghe conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Collegium Vocale Gent; Harmonia Mundi 5901614.15.
Beethoven, who once asked his publisher to send him a copy of Bach's "Crucifixus," employed a doleful chromatic bass line in the coda of the first movement of his Ninth Symphony (pp. 46-47):
Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra; BIS 1616.
The climactic lamenting passage of the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony has four-note and chromatic figures overlapping (p. 47):
Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra; Philips 456580.
György Ligeti (pp. 48-49) talks about the figure of the lament at the New England Conservatory, on March 9, 1993.
In a discussion of Schubert's Quartet in G the following day, he returns to the topic, singing the beginning of Dido's Lament:
The above excerpts by kind permission of the New England Conservatory.
The beginning of the Lamento of Ligeti's Horn Trio (p. 49):
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Marie-Luise Neunecker, French horn, Saschko Gawriloff, violin; Sony Classical 62309.
A chromatic descent in Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" (p. 50):
Willie Brown's "Future Blues" (p. 51):
Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" and "I'm So Glad":
Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues":
Richard Rodgers's "My Funny Valentine," as sung by Sinatra (p. 52):
A montage of descending chromatic bass lines from 1960s pop and rock — "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Michelle," "Hotel California," and "Ballad of a Thin Man" (pp. 52-53):
Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused," from an epic live performance at the LA Forum in 1972 (p. 54):
Many elements of "Dazed and Confused" were taken from a song of the same name written and recorded by Jake Holmes. Jimmy Page and the band have to this date never given Holmes credit, although a pending lawsuit may finally force them to do so. Will Shade, in an article for Perfect Sound Forever, describes Holmes's remarkable career; he not only co-wrote one of the most famous rock songs of the late twentieth-century but is also responsible for the commercial jingles "Raise Your Hand If You're Sure," "Be a Pepper," and "Be All That You Can Be."