The Art and the Hours – Advent and Anticipation Part II

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

The fourth week of Advent takes us deeper into darkness. The umbral twilight of the approaching winter solstice evokes the still and silent slumber of a world awaiting its Messiah. In our liturgy and prayer, we ponder through that solemn night, our senses dimmed, yet yearning towards the glimpse of light which glints before the dawn. It is a time of stillness and waiting . . . and hope.

For me, no piece of music better captures this sense of hopeful anticipation than Chopin’s Prelude No. 6 in b minor. I consider this the sister piece of the e minor prelude I shared last week. Both are melancholic laments, and both are almost childishly easy to play while being dauntingly difficult to master. And it is, I think, no coincidence that these two preludes were played together at Chopin’s funeral.

Chopin composed these preludes while wintering at the Carthusian monastery of Valldemossa on the island of Majorca, off the east coast of Spain. The weather was a violent mix of bitter cold, heavy snow, and dense fog. In an old monastic cell, the weak and ailing Chopin often composed in a trance, surrounded by silence, flickering candles, and the music of Bach. It is easy to imagine him dwelling on this prelude in the bleak midwinter, the ostinato B in the right hand perhaps mimicking the slow melt of the ice and snow around his window.

I chose this particular recording by the Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich because he is unmatched in capturing the dismal solitude of this piece. Pogorelich is famous for his unorthodox interpretations and while they sometimes leave me unconvinced, his approach to Chopin’s Preludes is unparalleled. His method is simple in theory: he takes the basic theme or emotion of a prelude and intensifies it almost to the point of absurdity. The slow preludes (such as this one) are very slow and the fast ones leave even the listener a bit winded. Textures are brought to life through subtle elongations of dotted rhythms and accents which edge towards brutal. His tempo here is significantly slower than anything I’d ever heard, and it wasn’t until I had listened to it several times that I fell in love with it. Chopin’s tempo marking, however, is lento assai (very slow) and Pogorelich is not afraid to take Chopin at his word.

This tempo captures the stark, almost brittle texture of the piece and the languorous meandering of the melody is mirrored by harmonies that linger, often for several measures. There are many sparks of genius in this piece such as the implied shift from 3/4 to 2/4 beginning in m. 13 (1:10) and the little chromatic gems in mm. 6-8 (0:29-0:46). But for me, there is nothing more sublime than the A natural in m. 22 (2:04-2:08). It is only a single note, yet I think it is one of the most inspired moments in all of music. For this is music of darkness and solitude and in this measure, the left-hand melody plunges to the sub-terranean depths of a low B illuminated only by the desolate cold-moon light of the b minor chord above. And then, in a moment at once delicate and wonderous, the B on top drops down to A, this almost trivial motion implying D major and bringing with it a whispered glow of consolation to soften the dismal darkness. This single note embodies hope, and light, and solace. It reminds us that sorrow and darkness are but the backdrop to joy and light.

I think this prelude is beautiful parable of Advent. It is full of the sorrow of a world that could not save itself, that had tried its best and could do no more. It contains the darkness of a night fading into obscure oblivion upon the failing throes of men, their great and strident surges languishing into a silent lull . . . but it is a silence of anticipation, not despair. It is a pregnant silence, an expectant hush which bears the liminal and lambent ray of hope and the promise of the new day and the new-born Son of God.