Today is one of those clear days when my mind is casting about, in its freedom, for something to be unhappy about. Move on, I tell it (my mind), as if jostling someone on the subway; there is no woe here; but presently relentless motion itself becomes that cause of unhappiness which my mind had sought in stationary, obsessive contemplation. Another day, another Catch-22. I know, for example, I want to choose something to do, I am the child in the candy store, but after choosing, what then? I do not want to do the thing I have chosen.
Today's earbug is the "2nd theme" from the final movement of Brahms' Clarinet Trio. It is appropriate that it plays over and over in my head, as the theme has an imperfect subjunctive quality. I await correction of my grammatical insights here, but I believe this tense (which doesn't really exist in English) refers to things which are "repetitive, ongoing, incomplete." My wonderful Musicology prof at Indiana, Leslie Kearney, gave a riveting lecture in which she discussed the prevalence of this tense in the Russian language, its relation to Russian culture and history in general, and its applicability to Russian music. Just today, wandering around the city, I found Oblomov by Goncharov prominently displayed at the Three Lives Bookstore, which was one of my prof's pieces of cultural proof. An odd coincidence: Oblomov is the comic/tragic story of an inactive man, a metaphor for Russian apathy.
This theme I am thinking of, the one from the Brahms trio, is an odd bird. It begins with four singing notes, which could be the beginning of any melody at all. Stop. Then a second, more active, idea is tried; this idea is reworked. No overall arc is yet evident. Then just the beginning of this second idea is tried: stop. Again, the beginning of the second idea: stop. As if unable to continue. Finally, on the "third second thought," the theme finds an ending, sort of. (And begins again). It is full of unquiet rests, open-ended, frustrated phraselets. Each part of it, even the ending, seems like a new beginning, like a struggle to keep singing. And though the notes change, the theme seems to keep trying to say the same thing--not one long thing, but whatever is hinted at in each fragment as it ends.
It hangs in the brain heavily; I was singing it over and over to myself on the streets of New York, and though I was on solid Manhattan ground, I felt seasick from its fragmentary heaves. My brain was woozy; I bored myself singing it; and yet I kept on. Though it seems to get somewhere, and though it seems to have the phrase structure of a "normal theme," it is definitely not normal. It is repetitive (obviously), ongoing (it constantly wants to go on, to find the next phrase), and incomplete: though the melody has a cadence and a structure, it is hard to grasp it all in the hand or mind at once; it is made up of fragments, and these fragments "contaminate" the whole.
Brahms, perhaps, had a clear day like mine? This melody is "casting about," also; in its perpetual, searching motion it finds something reflection and stasis would not. I know my mental pacings will release themselves in some future directed energies, and this makes me want to (with your permission) add to the quasi-grammatical metaphor of imperfect subjunctive the quasi-scientific metaphor of potential energy. The Brahms theme is full of potential energy (try saying that in rehearsal at Marlboro, sometime), which becomes kinetic energy in the ensuing "gypsy" passages.
It would seem, with these kinetic energies of the virtuosic, sweeping coda, that the movement finally addresses and fulfills these lurking, dangerous potential energies of the second theme. I'm not so sure. Though the coda is full of valves to release tension, do any of them finally work? When performing it, at the moment when the audience begins applauding, I find myself looking back over the last line of music, searching for something. I skip back past the last two measure of A minor chords, and also past the two measures before that (the rather conventional cadence I-IV-V-I), in other words past the releases to what must be released: a held D minor chord in the piano. This chord for me quivers with energy, and encapsulates the horrible helplessness of the pianist; how I wish I could "do something" with that chord, rather than just play it and sit there! Once I have chosen how to play it, I must live with it; sit and wish and want is what I must do. I am powerless at this moment of great musical power. I realize as I look at it (and as they applaud, and as I get up to bow with my colleagues) that the F at the top of the chord is a dissonance against the E from the beginning of the melody--with two upward sixths, E-C, A-F, Brahms takes us up this dissonant ninth--and that temporally displaced contradiction is part of what I feel: the D minor chord, though uncontradicted in its moment of existence, though standing alone, defiant, for two and a half measures, is actually in the larger scheme irreconcilable, charged with unstable energies.
As to the final, resolving measures I often feel so what? This is how the great Brahms Clarinet Trio ends--after all its inexpressible longing--with a I-IV-V-I? I long again for the defiant, impossible D minor chord. And I wonder if that is how Brahms intended me to feel.