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The stillness of time in Bach’s sarabands

The manuscript of the Sarabande movement from BWV 1004
The manuscript of the Sarabande movement from BWV 1004
from IMSLP

This past weekend a former colleague brought my attention to an article in the latest issue of Nautilus, an online monthly science magazine. The title was “How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time;” and the author was the composer Jonathan Berger. In text far less sensationalist than the title, Berger used Franz Schubert’s D. 956 string quintet in C major to demonstrate the significant discrepancy between the subjective perception of time and the objective ticking of the physical clock. There was nothing particularly novel about this insight. The first name that I associated with it was Henri Bergson; and that association came from Igor Stravinsky citing him in one of the Norton Lectures he gave at Harvard University, subsequently published in the book Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.

Nevertheless, I was struck by Berger’s decision to examine this issue through the lens of Schubert’s quintet. This quintet has such a strong impact on me that I have discovered that it is almost impossible for me to write about any listening experience without going into depth on at least one particular aspect. Indeed, the very first time I found myself writing about this music for, in April of 2010, I realized that even the conception of this piece as a quintet (with a single viola situated between two violins and two cellos) provided grounds for discussion.

Ironically, Stravinsky also figured in that article. I began by citing the story that Stravinsky had told friends that he would always fall asleep during a performance of Schubert’s music, but then he would awaken and find that he was in Heaven. This struck me as an appropriate observation from a man who had recognized the significance of subjective time.

Still, I am not sure I would say that D. 956 “hijacks” our perception of time. Rather, I would suggest that one of Schubert’s skills as a composer was his ability to make time stand still, at least at the subjective level. There is a quality of serene stillness, about as close as one can get to the edge of stasis, in the outer sections of the second (Adagio) movement (separated by an intensely agitated middle section for which, remarkably enough, Schubert does not change the tempo marking). One could imagine Stravinsky dozing off during that opening section, being stirred back to wakefulness in the middle, and finding himself “transported” by the recapitulation, all taking place over the course of a mere fifteen minutes of clock time.

Nevertheless, much as I love Schubert’s music in general and D. 956 in particular, I would not credit him as being the first composer with the capacity to make time stand still. His Wikipedia page includes the story that, at the end of his life, Schubert said that the last music he wished to hear was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor, two of whose movements have a similar capacity to suspend the flow of time: the opening fugue (Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo) and the set of variations on the Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile theme. For my part I find that effect even stronger in the third movement of the following quartet (Opus 132 in A minor) with the ambiguous Lydian tonality of the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit (a convalescent’s holy song of thanksgiving to the Divinity). I would then also add the Adagio sostenuto movement from the Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) piano sonata in B-flat major.

To get very personal here, I should note that I listened to all of these Beethoven selections while undergoing radiation therapy. Treatment required little of me other than absolute stillness. There happened to be a CD player in the room, so I brought my own music.

All these thoughts about time standing still came back to me last night while I was attending a Studio Recital by the violin students of Wei He at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of the students played two movements from the BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Sarabande and the Gigue. I realized that, while there was a distinctive sense of dance in the other dance movements of these partitas, Bach seemed willing to take more liberties with the Sarabande. Whether or not it had been Bach’s intention to “hold eternity” in this 30-measure (with two sections repeated) movement, there was a strong suggestion that this music was taking its own very distinctive approach to the flow of time.

This should not be confused with the prodigious inventiveness of Bach’s approach to prolongation, through which he could hold off coming to a cadence through what I like to call his “and another thing” technique (a technique that would much later be taken to even greater lengths by John Coltrane). Rather, the Sarabande is heavily seasoned with multiple-stop chords and ornate embellishments. If these are to be executed with clarity, then the steady pulse of a ticking clock (or a dancer following the beat), could turn out to be an impediment. Thus, if there is a pedagogical intention behind these solo violin pieces, then the Sarabande movements may be there to teach the student the proper way to expand and compress the periods between those clock ticks for the sake of that clarity of execution. Time may not be forced to stand still; but it may need to be significantly “stretched” for the sake of both performer and listener.

Thus, while Schubert may have provided Berger with an excellent example for explaining the subjectivity of time-consciousness, for those who spend a fair amount of time in concert halls, that subjectivity reaches back at least as far as Bach (and probably further).

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