Friday, November 18, 2016
Melancholy were the Sounds on a Winter's Night
In Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf wrote "Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night".
For years it has been one of my favourite lines to describe winter. The sounds on this winter's night is Glenn Gould playing the aria of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, "all over again, after 25--26 years" as Bruno Monsaingeon says seconds before Gould pours into the piano and meticulously lifts and drops his long fingers to play one of the most moving pieces of music ever composed.
Temperatures rose and dropped temperamentally this week: From 12 degrees on Monday, with my light autumn jacket for company, to one degree tonight, two layers of clothes, hot water bottle, and the prospect of snow tomorrow morning. I have locked myself in for the past couple of days and am meticulously ploughing through my to-do list. The luxury of solitude, the good fortune of stumbling upon a novel piece of research, the exquisite beauty of late autumn-early winter, the hint of melancholia suspended in the air, all made me maudlin, and I heaped upon myself the added luxury of not doing the mandatory reading before bed, but rather, watching the exquisite Emma Thompson in Wit. No, I will not write about the film tonight. But, if you know me, you will know how sensitive I am to the use of a good soundtrack in a film. Avro Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel accentuated the melancholia of this evening, making it so palpable that I could extend my hand and touch it. I kept listening to it in a loop, thinking about cold stone, learning, heroes, poetry, and verbosity. If it were still light outside, I would have gone for a walk. To Bole Hills perhaps. No, the beautiful church and cemetery behind my house. Certainly the cemetery, with the the rolling hills on one side. But it is so very dark now, and so very cold. For years I have done walks in my mind, walking in places I have never been to but wished dearly I had, as well as in places I had visited only a few times. Listening to Spiegel im Spiegel I kept thinking about walking in Merton field in Oxford a fortnight ago, on a very cold autumn (? winter?) evening, with evening light threatening to fade, but not going away yet, with the ground covered with dry leaves, with distant houses forming a dark silhouette at the edge of the fields, with ducks on the stream, and with the stone walls of Merton on one side. I had walked aimlessly for an hour that evening, thinking about freedom, and humming Rabindrasangeet constantly, as I do, when I am alone, walking, or waiting. In bed tonight, I was listening to Pärt and thinking about that walk, when I realised that I craved for something else, something different.
Earlier this year, on another very cold evening, I went to a Bach concert. Not simply Bach, but Jeremy Denk playing Goldberg Variations. For a week until the concert, I had constantly, obsessively, listened to Glenn Gould playing Goldberg Variations, both in 1955 and 1981, and had decisively made up my mind that the 1981 version had none of the brashness of '55, and hence was my favourite. (Youthfulness and frivolity, as you know, exhausts me.) I had walked to the concert that evening, trying not to get wet in the freezing February rain. In the silence following the few minutes after I had paused Pärt and was thinking about the Denk concert, I concentrated on that walk, until in my mind, I reached the moment when I had entered the hall and found my seat. Returning from my reverie, I opened YouTube, searched for the aria of Bach's Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould in 1981, and listened to it.
This was his last recording at a studio. Glenn Gould died a year later.
"Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night."
Oxford, November, 2016.