Concluding thoughts on music

 

Zerlina’s aria “Vedrai, carino” is one of my favorites in Don Giovanni. For most of the song she sings coquettishly about her magical salve for Masetto’s pains, a medicine that will surely cure him, hinting at its power and effectiveness, and you’re convinced she’s referring to sex. Thus, you listen to the enchanting music with an amused grin, charmed by its translation of a lover’s flirtatiousness into the most sublime beauty. Yet there remains a slight doubt in your mind as to whether you’ve guessed the remedy correctly, and you wait for the libretto to confirm it somehow. But suddenly there’s a pause in the music, followed by a pulsating cello that heralds an event of excruciating serenity. A flute is fused with it, pianissimo and legatissimo, whetting your anticipation. Gently Zerlina places Masetto’s hand on her chest and says to him “Feel it [i.e., the medicine] beating”—and you realize you were wrong; she was referring not to sex but to her love, her heart. In an instant the aria has been transformed from a fetching exercise in innuendo to a pure expression of undying love. 

 

*

 

The significance of art.— The overture to Beethoven's Fidelio would violate artistic principles in its shamelessly unsubtle glorification of life were such glorification not the most important principle of all.

 

*

 

The significance of music.— On the way home from work today, while I was on the subway, an Asian man standing near me broke into song. He just…started singing. A nicely dressed, normal-looking fellow. He was reading the words from a book; they were in a different language. It was weird at first. A man sitting next to him, a crotchety old guy with a surly expression seared onto his face, instantly covered his ears. His reaction, in fact, may have been stranger than the actual singing: he didn’t look surprised, he didn’t look puzzled, he didn’t look disgusted; after the first two notes he simply put his fingers into his ears and kept them there. Later he walked away. No one said anything for the duration of the (long) song; I observed everyone’s reaction, and it was, almost without exception, blank. The situation struck me as surreal. But after the first two minutes, in which my one thought was “What the hell?”, I started to enjoy it. The fellow had a good voice. This a capella performance on a subway where everyone else was silent, everyone in his own world, thinking his own thoughts—steered by music into a virtually preordained vein:—it was moving. We were all the same distant atoms as usual, but we were drawn together. I sensed the walls between us dissolving; I sensed my own quietness dissolving; and I wanted to sing myself, or at least speak to everyone as a brother. I realized…‘We’re just people…they’re just people…what’s the point of all this isolation?’ The meaning of the song was appropriate: in answer to a question, the man said it was a prayer, and that each day he prays as often as he can.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright