June 22, 2022

It all started 40 years ago in France...

In 1982, France’s Ministry of Culture dreamed up an idea for a new kind of musical holiday. They imagined a day where free, live music would be everywhere: street corners and parks, rooftops and gardens, store fronts and mountaintops.

And unlike a typical music festival, anyone and everyone would be invited to join and play music, or host performances. The event would take place on the summer solstice, June 21, and would be called Fête De La Musique. (In French, the name means both “festival of music” and “make music!”).

Four decades later, the holiday has spread throughout the world and is now celebrated in more than 120 countries. It has evolved to finally become World Day of Music, World Music Day, or International Music Day. In the United States, the presenting sponsor is the NAMM Foundation.

Music means different things to different people. In the past two years of pandemic and quarantine, it has been a constant companion. It is a means for self-expression, creativity, a vehicle for poetry, a companion in times of utter solitude and a medium to reinforce celebration and unfettered joy. Where else but in music, can we have the direction “da capo”? Imagine reading a chapter in a book, a canto of poetry, and then being asked to repeat it; it could not be endured! Where else but in music, do people stop at the most critical moments of their lives and burst into song, whether in opera, a musical or a movie? But we tolerate it, enjoy it, and go back to hearing it again-and-again because in these musical moments, emotion is so perfectly encapsulated and conveyed with such immediacy.

Music is more democratic than our representative democracies, provided one has the necessary faculties!

In May 1747, 62 year old Johann Sebastian Bach made his fateful visit to the court of Friedrich the Great in Potsdam. In many ways, the King and the composer faced each other as embodiments of two very different worlds. Bach was a devout Lutheran householder who believed the biblical tradition that music was Hebrew. Friedrich was a bisexual misanthrope in a childless, political marriage, and a lapsed Calvinist who held all religions in contempt. Bach wrote and spoke German. Friedrich boasted that he had "never read a German book".

Nowhere were they more different than in their attitudes toward music. Bach represented church music, especially the "learned counterpoint" of canon and fugue, a centuries-old craft, the practitioners of which saw themselves as the custodians of a quasi-divine art.

Friedrich and the generation of Bach's sons were having none of that. They denigrated counterpoint as the vestige of an outworn aesthetic, extolling instead the "natural and delightful" in music, by which they meant the easier pleasure of song, the harmonic ornamentation of monophonic melody.

That evening, Friedrich gave Bach a complex theme of 21 notes and asked him to improvise a 3-voice fugue using this theme as subject. Using this “Royal Theme”, Bach created such a fugue on one of the 15 Silbermann pianofortes in the royal palace “with almost unimaginable ingenuity”: the Ricercar a 3. At this point, Friedrich asked Bach to now improvise a 6-voice fugue using the same subject. Bach balked and requested more time. Two months later he returned the completed work, the now fabled Ricercar a 6 to the Prussian king. It has been described by Charles Rosen, the twentieth century American pianist and musicologist, as the most significant piano composition in history.

In 1638, a singer in the Sistine Chapel Choir composed a setting of Psalm 51 to be sung there during Holy Week. That singer was Gregorio Allegri and his setting, now commonly known as Miserere, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Allegri’s Miserere was the last and the most popular of twelve different settings of the same text written for the Vatican over 120 years.

In April 1770, Leopold Mozart arrived in Rome with his 14-year old son, Wolfgang. On Wednesday, April 11th, they attended a service in the Sistine Chapel where Pope Clement XIV was presiding over the events of Holy Week. What happened next is the stuff of legend!

According to Leopold, Mozart returned to their lodgings where he parsed the 9-part polyphony of the 12-minute Miserere, and then transcribed it from memory. This was a potentially perilous thing to do. In the decades since the work had been written, it had been jealously guarded by the Vatican authorities. Performances were limited to the Sistine Chapel, and making copies of Allegri’s music was forbidden on pain of excommunication.

If Mozart knew all this, it did not seem to bother him. He returned to hear the Miserere again on Good Friday, possibly to check if his memory had served him well on Wednesday, and to make some final adjustments to his transcription. Less than a month later, the Mozarts left Rome to continue with their travels, taking the Miserere manuscript with them.

Later on in their travels, the Mozarts met the British music historian Dr. Charles Burney. They passed on the manuscript to Dr. Burney, who took it to London, where it was published there in 1771. What of Mozart? Well, on July 4th 1770, Pope Clement XIV presented the Order of the Golden Spur, First Degree, to young Wolfgang!

Such is the democratic nature of music. It can be our constant companion, our great consoler and consolation. It will be a jealous relationship but no matter, there are few better and few more rewarding.