Of Bach, Chopin, and Emotions

It’s strange to think of something as a lifelong pursuit when I am only in my early thirties, but I suppose at least two pastimes fall into such a category today: reading and music.  I’ve been enjoying both for the better part of three decades, and they are still the first place I turn when attempting to sort out uncertainty.  Beloved authors extol the virtues of the great classical composers, and familiar classical music routinely shows up in my favorite screen adaptations of excellent literature.  And when I am feeling particularly unsettled, I know I can turn to the mathematical predictability of music for reassurance that order and meaning do exist in the universe – if not in my life.

When I am feeling particularly anxious, sitting down at my piano with a bit of Bach tends to ground me both physically and emotionally.  My brain must be completely focused on the notes in front of me as my fingers remove a fine layer of dust from the keys I touch.  There’s a subtle shift – in my posture, my breathing, even my personality – as the reins of control are handed from my left hemisphere to my right.  When I am lost in the music I am creating, I become a very different version of myself.  Nothing matters outside the moment – nothing interferes with the sound produced as my brain and body interact with wood and ivory.

There is a difference between the type of routine playing I use each week to accompany hymns for a small group at my church and the type of intense concentration required to play the masters well.  My brain can essentially check out when it comes to hymns – I’ve played so many for so long that a fair number are cemented into my memory, requiring no thought beyond whether or not I’ve played all the verses the congregation will sing.  My mind wanders, I observe colors and patterns and people around me, I sing along as I lead, and I lengthen my ever-present mental to-do list.  It’s a game of multi-tasking that I usually win because every aspect can occur independent of my conscious engagement.  But classical music presents an opportunity that I indulge far less frequently: the challenge of singular focus.

This morning I found Emotions crowding in on me, so I took to the one route that has always served as a catalyst for expression.  I sat down with Bach’s Inventions.  The vast majority of music is comprised of three elements: the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm.  In general, the harmony and rhythm are in place to accentuate the melody, which tells the primary story in the music.  When it comes to the piano, a solo piece usually has the melody voiced by higher notes, or the right hand.  This is excellent for those of us who are left-brain dominant (i.e. right-handed), because our more dextrous upper extremity is responsible for the most important component of the music.  But Bach’s Inventions are different, in that each voice is, in itself, both melody and harmony.  The simplest Inventions are two-part, meaning two equal voices, or one for each hand.  Three- and four-part Inventions also exist, but I often find I have neither the patience nor the proficiency to attempt such challenges.

Bach is fascinating.  The music is mathematically precise, predictably developed, and satisfyingly complete.  But it can also feel rigidly controlled and measurably cold.  Though Bach’s music can both express and evoke a magnificent variety of emotions, it does not so easily offer the experience of feelings.  That is better left to more recent composers, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries.  And so today, when I found myself yearning for a tad more leeway, I turned to Chopin.  This is unusual, since Rachmaninoff has been my go-to since high school.  Rachmaninoff is sweepingly forceful when it comes to the emotional experience of music, and there have been many times I needed the big, bold sounds of his preludes and concertos to work through difficulty.  But I needed something more pensive, more melancholic, more nuanced today.

In both high school and college I loathed Chopin; he didn’t follow “the rules” and I couldn’t stand the seeming lack of structure displayed by his compositions.  “The rules” were simply my flawed understanding of controlled emotion, and Chopin aired his joys and grievances alike with what I perceived as little reverence for propriety.  What I have been gradually learning (thanks at least in part to seven years in therapy) is that the ability to express emotion is a gift – and that there is no such thing as a “bad” emotion.  With such a gradual realization, Chopin and I have had a chance to become better acquainted.  His music is providing me with a place to “try on” emotions that are unfamiliar to me.

This morning’s soul-searching ended, fittingly, with a half-hour of concentration on Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 15, more commonly known as the “Raindrop Prelude.”  I think I shall be returning to this work repeatedly as I become more adept at recognizing and expressing the array of emotions I find within myself.  I may not yet be able to name these emotions, but I am practicing the surrender of feeling.  And I am ever so grateful for the incredible minds that make such practice possible.  The translation of emotion into art – musical, visual, kinesthetic, or otherwise – is one way God makes his presence known to me.