Monday, October 31, 2005

heroes, goblins, and bass excerpts

Autumn seems to have come to South Florida for the first time since I've been here, and not content to just shed a few leaves, it has stripped the trees bare, knocked down the branches and sometimes the trunks as well. The trees here tend to be crooked and mangled to begin with, but seeing them defoliated and piled in stacks on the side of the road sets a spooky mood for Halloween.

Double bass audition excerpts can be scary too, and not just "audition's a week away!" scary. Playing through my lists today, I realized that there is some honestly frightening music here - the witches' dance from Symphonie Fantastique, the opening of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, Strauss Death and Transfiguration, the pre-murder music from Verdi's Otello... Somehow we bassists seem to get more than our share of harrowing symphonic moments.

I think it has something to do with the slightly otherworldly nature of our instrument. I've often heard the cello's sonority described as the closest to the human voice, and the bass of course is not far away from the cello in timbre. Still, that difference - deeper, darker, more cloaked and distant - is perhaps what makes it so haunting. It's a voice that could almost, but not quite, come from a living human being.

My camera is malfunctioning, so in lieu of scary pictures I wanted to share one of my favorite (sort of) scary passages in literature. It also happens to describe a famous double bass excerpt, from Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Happy Halloween!

...Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, Aunt Juley."

"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

She read it as a tangible statement, which could never be superseded. The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning. She pushed right out of the building and walked slowly down the outside staircase, breathing the autumnal air, and then she strolled home.

- Howard's End by E.M. Forster, from Chapter 5, Modern Library edition p. 30-31
The entire novel is available (and searchable!) online thanks to The Literature Network.

3 comments:

El Bandito said...

El Bandito is a brave man, but he finds himself shaking in fear at those words. El Bandito needed no costume for Halloween. El Bandito went as El Bandito.

Signed,

El Bandito

Matt Heller said...

Thank you Bandito, and apologies to any more timid readers who were frightened by the Forster. I keep telling myself, 'No more English novels around bedtime, you'll never get to sleep!'

Regarding costumes, hella frisch readers are welcome to wear whatever they please. I only ask that your outfit include some sort of undergarment, since this is not one of those racy NC-17 blogs. Until I decide to excerpt Virginia Woolf, that is....

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Looks like El Bandito is making the rounds. Watch out everybody- you may be next!

El Leedee