Passacaglia — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

A hand passed before my face and I jerked out of my reverie. A cool, almost chilly breeze was blowing from Bethlehem. The muffled sound of the wedding band, playing Levantine-tinged pop settings of verses from the Song of Songs and Jeremiah, filtered through the glass doors, blaring for a few seconds when a child ran in or out.

illustration by Avi Katz

The face to which the hand was connected belonged to Vardit, the bride’s best friend. Unlike the Aviya, whose demure pearl-white dress reached to the floor and had sleeves below the elbow, Vardit was sleeveless and in red. Her arms and face glowed from dancing.

“Bored?” she asked.

I removed the buds from my ears. “I needed a break,” I said.

“I needed some air.” She removed a pack of cigarettes from a small macramé bag she had slung over her shoulder and jokingly offered me one. I leaned back against a marble-faced pillar and surveyed the Judean hills. On this hill in southern Jerusalem you can see the Dead Sea on a clear day. At night, the hills to the southeast are mostly dark shadows, but most of the panorama is alive with the lights of Arab cities and Jewish neighborhoods.

“You look a little sad,” she said.

“So do you.”

She took a long drag. “Well, I’m losing my best friend,” she said quietly.

I looked at her in surprise. “You think?”

“It’s never the same after a wedding, is it?”

“I’m sure it will be different. That doesn’t mean it won’t be, though.”

She looked at me. “It’s not just Matan,” she said. “I have other friends with boyfriends. But he’s taken her.… Well, she’s very different this past year.”

“You mean the religious stuff?”

“She’s so spiritual,” Vardit said, her arms fluttering. “I mean, we both grew up with Shabbat and holidays and kashrut at all that. That’s hard enough. But all these gematriyot and sefirot and kavanot. It’s not Matan who’s standing between us, it’s the shekhinah.”

“There are fifty gates to the Torah,” I smiled. “That’s not the one I choose to go through, but if that’s what she and Matan get into.…”

“The fact is,” Vardit said, “that I really am losing patience with the whole thing. All these rules. And it’s all based on this primitive book that has nothing to do with our lives today.”

The wedding band suddenly drowned us out. A kid in an untucked purple shirt held the door open, looking around. When he saw Vardit he did a leap over the three steps leading up to the garden where we sat and ran up to her.

“Hey, Vardit, I’ve been looking all over. Why aren’t you dancing?”

“How would you know?” she said. “Have you been looking over the divider at the girls? That’s not allowed!”

“Come back in,” he urged her, as if nothing in the universe was more important than her return to the dance floor.

“I’ll be there in a minute, when I finish smoking,” she promised. He gave her a smile as wide as the summer night, leapt back down the steps, and ran back into the hall.

She looked in his direction. “Everyone’s telling me ‘you’re next!’ I don’t want to be next.”

“So don’t be,” I advised.

“Sometimes I think love is, well, so conventional, if you know what I mean. Why should I have to?”

“I can only recommend it,” I said, “from my own experience.”

She turned back to me suddenly. “In synagogue, on Shabbat, I was reading the Torah portion,” she said. “Did you read it? I get the feeling that everyone is just mumbling the words. If they paid attention to what they mean they’d vomit. You know what it says? If someone worships other gods, you should kill him. If he violates the Sabbath, kill him. If he disobeys any law in the Torah, kill him. Who wants to worship a God whose so worried about the competition that he needs to use murder to keep his people in line?”

“So we should throw out the Torah and find a different sacred book?”

“We don’t think that way today,” she said. “So why keep reading it?”

“Your question,” I said, “reminds me of the music I was listening to when you interrupted me.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said with a laugh. “What was it?”

“I was in the middle of the fourth movement of Brahms Symphony number four in E minor.”

“I remember Brahms from school,” she said. “We spent a couple weeks on him in music class.”

“Did you like him?”

“I think I did,” Vardit meditated. “But I haven’t listened to much classical music since. You know, it’s not cool in the army. So I’m not sure I remember. Wasn’t he, well, retro? I seem to remember the teacher saying that he was a nineteenth-century throwback to the classical age.”

“Want to listen?” I asked, handing her the buds. She took out Kleenex, wiped them off, and put them in her ears. I restarted the movement and she listened intently for a couple minutes and then motioned for me to stop.

“Sad,” she said, freeing up her right ear. “But it doesn’t seem to hold together. Isn’t there supposed to be one main theme, or two? This seems to start something new every few measures.”

“You’re right,” I said. “We expect a symphony’s fourth movement to be in sonata form, where two themes play off against each other, or rondo form, with a catchy theme that keeps coming back. Brahms is doing something different here. Listen some more. Concentrate on the background, the bass line and the harmony below the melodies.”

She listened some more.

“There’s something that keeps going,” she said. In a clear voice, she sang five slow notes. “Something like that.”

“Very good,” I said. “That’s called the ground bass. It repeats thirty times, one after the other, below the other melodies. It’s always there.”

“Ground bass?” she said, wrinkling her face. “Doesn’t that something have to do with Bach? Like the Goldberg Variations? I remember Hagit teaching us that.”

“Precisely,” I said. “So here Brahms isn’t a throwback to the Classical era, which was just two generations before him. He’s going further back, to Bach and the Baroque.”

“What for?” she said. “Didn’t he want to do something new?”

“Well, it was new. No one before him had thought to write a symphonic movement based on a Baroque procedure. See, this movement is a passacaglia, a Baroque form in which a continually innovative melodic line sounds over a repeated background theme. It’s the background that holds all that innovation together.”

She put the bud back in her ear and motioned for me to click the Ipod. She listened intently to the end, and then handed the earphones back to me.

“Is that a tear in your eye?” I asked.

She nodded and wiped it away with the Kleenex. “That flute solo.”

“He even stole the theme from Bach,” I said. “Just tweaked it slightly to fit his needs.”

The wedding band blasted again. The kid in the purple shirt bounded out the door again. He caught Vardit’s eyes, did a flourish with his arms, and this time jumped up the steps backwards.

“So?” he said. “Are you coming?”

“Can’t you see I’m having a deep conversation?” she said with mock seriousness.

He held out his hand to me. “Deep is great,” he said. “But now?” After we shook, he placed his hand lightly on Vardit’s wrist and pulled her up. “Come on,” he said insistently.

She gently removed his hand from hers and smoothed out her dress. “I’ll be right there. I promise,” she said.

“I give you two minutes,” he said over his shoulder, running back into the hall. “If I don’t see you, I’ll have to bring reinforcements!”

“Brahms had a great love,” I said. “An older woman. Clara Schumann, piano virtuoso and widow of Robert.”

“She married two great composers?” Vardit asked.

“No, because Brahms refused. He was afraid, it seems, to love.”

Vardit considered.

“So what you were saying before,” she said. “I think I get the point. God is in the ground bass?”

“To improvise well,” I said, “you need a foundation. You need something in the background to hold you. Without a centuries-old melody and structure behind you, you can’t move forward. Not in any real, constructive way.”

“Didn’t he want to do something new?”

“He did something new by adapting something old.”

“And what about slaughtering the non-believers?” she said.

“From the very beginning,” I reminded her, “the Torah hasn’t been just the written word. The written word is the repeating theme in the background, but each new generation of sages and rabbis and believers—and non-believers, too—produce new variations. I don’t think that even the craziest fundamentalist in this century—and God knows we’ve got some crazy ones—takes those injunctions seriously.”

“So why do we need to read them year after year?” she said.

“If you hadn’t heard them on Shabbat,” I said, “if you hadn’t been horrified about what you heard, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“And we wouldn’t be having it if I hadn’t found you here outside listening to old people’s music,” she noted.

The band boomed again. She looked at the door, which was being held open by the kid in the purple shirt, with two friends behind him.

“Oh, he’s such a pain,” she sighed. “I’d better go in.”

“Maybe I’ll come with you,” I said. “It looks like you might need protection.”

She laughed. “Just one more thing,” she said. “Do you think that’s why Brahms wrote something so sad? Because he gave up an opportunity to love?”

“I can only guess,” I said.

I don’t know if she heard. By the time I finished my sentence she’d been swept off to the dance floor.


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2 thoughts on “Passacaglia — “Necessary Stories” column from <em>The Jerusalem Report</em>”

  1. Just heard/saw Andras Schiff perform the Goldberg so been thinking about ground bass/passacaglia/chaconne … but I’ve always imagined Brahms’ 4th last movement as a lament for a world/civilization that was fraying, revealing its corruption and decadence– heading for suicide a few decades later…

  2. I’m listening now to Schiff’s talks on the Beethoven piano sonatas (free downloads from the Guardian!) and they’re a real pleasure. And last year I heard Masur conduct the NY Philharmonic in Brahms’ 4th, very powerful. I doubt that Brahms had a program or idea for the movement, as opposed to a mood. There’s tragedy and wistfulness and a longing for the past and a stubborn insistence on the here and now as well.

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