The Art and the Hours – Advent and Anticipation Part I

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

The third week of Advent brings us ever deeper into the theme of anticipation and I have been pondering the role of anticipation in music. Initially I was going to talk about my favourite recording of Handel’s Messiah, but instead, I want to share my thoughts about Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in e minor. Many years ago, I was attending a performance of Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto and at the end, the soloist returned for an encore. We were expecting some flashy showpiece, but instead, he played this short prelude by Chopin. My first reaction was one of disappointment. Technically, it is quite straightforward – a piece a diligent student might tackle within the first year of piano lessons. However, for those who appreciate the depths of this music, it was a profound choice. Despite its superficial simplicity it is a work of tremendous genius which only really comes alive through the hands of a master.

There is an almost inexhaustible depth to this prelude which can take years of musical training and maturity to understand and appreciate. Part of the brilliance here is Chopin’s use of anticipation to both satisfy and surprise us. Our brains learn to expect certain melodic and harmonic patterns and much of the delight we take in music comes from the composer’s ability to either take us down familiar paths or to captivate us with an unexpected twist. This tension is fundamental to classical music, but it requires knowledge of the musical structure as well as attentive listening.

For example, the melody of this prelude revolves around a single B which sighs its way downward to the tonic E in the tiniest tentative steps. We expect some kind of resolution in e minor, but it doesn’t quite make it, getting stuck twice on F# (0:39-0:48) before wearily hauling itself back up to B to start the journey all over again (0:50-0:58). The lefthand chords follow the gravitational pull of the melody and are a masterclass in chromatic voice leading. The stepwise descending motion lulls our brain into a sense of complacency, only to lead to some very risky harmonic territory such as the diminished F7 in measure 15 (1:05). Another detail is the Bb in measure 21 (1:31) which our (my) ears inevitably hear as the A# in a German augmented 6th (check Wikipedia if you’re curious). Instead of resolving in the conventual manner to B, it drops downward to A only to appear again in its most dissonant inversion before resolving as expected (1:38-2:08).

This wonderful recording from a live performance by the Polish pianist Rafa­ł Blechacz demonstrates his lithe but introspective touch. It is clear that he understands this piece and he uses an exceptionally broad dynamic range to highlight important harmonic shifts as well as a measured rubato (e.g., 0:30) to divide up the structural elements of the prelude. His playing makes Chopin’s anticipation come to life in a way I hope even non-musicians can appreciate.

I delve into these technical details because they reveal something fundamental about anticipation. At its heart, it is a paradox of knowledge and surprise. We cannot anticipate something in ignorance (just as someone with no knowledge of harmony would think nothing of Chopin’s creative liberties with the German 6th). But there must also be a sense of wonder and discovery for neither can we anticipate something that is already determined and understood. If Chopin followed all the conventual expectations of his era, I doubt his music would have stood the test of time.

This is the same paradoxical anticipation we experience during Advent. Our liturgy lets us see with the eyes of Israel as they wait for their Messiah. Through the prophets and through their entire history they had a glimpse of something great, but something neither prophesy could exhaust, nor wisdom explain. For our God is a God of wonder and while he can be anticipated, he can never be predicted or contained. He draws us ever closer in knowledge of him, but even in the presence of the Incarnate Son of God for which the people of Israel longed, we too must live in hope and wonder.