Digging

There’s a particularly ghoulish scene in Chapter 28 of Emily  Brontë’s Wuthering Heights where the (unreliable?) narrator Nelly recounts the following conversation with the (possibly also unreliable?) anti-hero Heathcliff:

He turned abruptly to the fire, and continued, with what, for lack of a better word, I must call a smile: ‘I’ll tell you what I did yesterday! I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off [Catherine’s] coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there: when I saw her face again—it is hers yet!—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up: not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead. And I bribed the sexton to pull it away when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so: and then by the time Linton gets to us he’ll not know which is which!’

I don’t know what is says about me that I was obsessed with Wuthering Heights when I was about 15. I think I’d seen the old black-and-white movie version from 1939 with Laurence Olivier as Laurence Olivier Heathcliff, and fancied it to be the kind of love story my heart yearned for, Byronic heroes being a bit thin on the ground in the eastern suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand.

Thoughts on revisiting this strange and strangely-structured novel: it’s curious, isn’t it, how cinematic versions of this novel always cut off halfway at the end of the Heathcliff-and-Cathy1 love story and don’t go into the second generation Cathy2-and-Hareton love story, never mind the grave-disturbing bits.

I also think it’s very curious that Heathcliff is so often sold to us as a romantic hero. Because reading the book again, it’s clear to me that he’s not. However much he’s been wronged — and for an interesting reading of this, please go and look at Gloria Steinem’s interpretation in Revolution From Within — he’s still a monster, a psychopath. How else to explain this gruesome, criminal, unthinkable act?

And yet, when I was a romantic teenage girl, I kind of…glossed over the digging-up-the-grave scene in my mind. Of course I didn’t think clambering into a hole in the ground to pry a coffin open was, you know, acceptable, but it seemed so preposterous, so outside of my mindset, that I kind of flipped through that section on my way to the next chapter.

Isn’t it strange how books grow older with us, and when we’re older we notice other things in them, even horrifying things, that we’d missed before?

And we think, why wasn’t I shocked? This is some legitimately shocking stuff here.

And music, too. Thanks to my parents and the CD collections in the Wellington City Library, I listened to so much music in my teens that by the time I was at university, I was familiar with almost every work we studied in music history or analysis classes.

Does it matter that I barely understood some or most of it? Maybe, maybe not?

I was thinking about this today in our cello studio class here at the University of Idaho where I tormented some undergraduates by prodding them to make a harmonic analysis — if such a thing is even possible! — of the jaggedly broken, chromaticism-filled Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. “What chord is implied here? What are the non-chord tones? Why isn’t this what we expect? What on earth is that D-flat doing there?” I kept asking. (I think they were pretty sick of me by the end of this.)

Still, I hope that this kind of minute analysis of chord tones and non-chord tones, phrase shapes, phrase structure, chord progression and so on may inspire them to make their own readings of whatever they learn. I realize now how much I missed in the music I was playing at their age.

For example, aged 18, I played Beethoven’s piano trio opus 1 no. 3. Under duress, I could probably have made some kind of Roman numeral analysis of the first six bars: chord i in bars 1-2, chord V in first inversion in bars 3-4, chord VI in first inversion in bars 5-6…

Beethoven

I’m ashamed to admit that what comes next went completely over my head. I completely failed, age 18, to notice that bars 7-8 have a German augmented sixth chord. Why didn’t I notice this? I’d studied that chord in harmony and analysis classes. And yet, I didn’t see or hear it, not because I didn’t have a full score of my own (I did; my teachers would never have allowed me not to own a full score of any piece I was playing), but because the cello wasn’t playing at the time. I’m embarrassed that I spent that shocking, tortured four measures of harmonic tension feeling bored because I didn’t have any notes to play. I was hanging out for bar 11, when I got to come in and the real action would start. The augmented sixth was outside of my mindset, so I glossed over it on my way to the next thing.

What was I thinking?

Why wasn’t I shocked?

Other questions I wish I’d asked myself:

  1. Why does Beethoven order the chord tones in the first couple of measures in the way he does? What is it about the ascending endings of each of those mini-fragments that sets us up to yearn for more? What would this piece be like if he’d voiced it this way:

Beethoven 2

2. Isn’t it cool that he goes to chord VI? If, say, Mozart had written this piece, it’s conceivable that he might have done something more like this example below, composed by me (and I hope Mozart’s ghost will not mind!). Tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic. Question-answer. Orderly, symmetrical, rational.

Beethoven 3

…which leads me to my next question:

3. What on earth is Beethoven’s first phrase anyway? It’s not a Mozartean sentence or period, at least not in a traditional, “textbook” sense. We have an opening statement (bars 1-4), and then only an incomplete repetition of that statement (5-6) that isn’t even really a statement at all, more of a question.

And then, smack dab in the first line of this piece, Beethoven’s off in cadenza-land. Before we even have a complete first theme or even a perfect cadence in the home key that might, you know, even establish that we definitely were in that key.

Beethoven, by the way, was about 23 when he began this composition. It was the 1790s, and Mozart had been dead just a couple of years.

Another question for 18-year-old me: can you imagine Mozart writing a piano trio like this? Of course not, because it’s clear that we’re in a completely new world now. One that is run by a 23-year-old.

Which isn’t that much older than I was at the time.

The question I should have been asking myself, but lacked the vocabulary to do so, was Who on earth starts a piano trio like this

But this rough magic/ I here abjure, and when I have required/ Some heavenly music, which even now I do/To work mine end upon their senses…….

And that way I could have played it with wonder and expression and yearning, and hopefully inspired those things in the audience. I read my theory textbooks and showed up to all the lectures, but I don’t think I really understood how to use the information in them until much later.

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