Friday, January 18, 2013

Handeling Perfection

Every morning now I wake up to the Bach French Suite (played by Glenn Gould). I do so because it is as close to perfection as I have found in this world. Every piece in the ensemble is a gem, exquisitely cut and faceted, perfect in its proportions, delightful, profound, intricate, yet breathtakingly simple in significance and execution. It is for such things that I consider J.S. Bach to be the greatest artistic genius of our culture. That he could produce hundreds of these masterpieces, exhibiting such variety and surpassing beauty, is nearly impossible to comprehend.

Reflecting on this made me realize that there are other moments of perfection in my life. For example, every night I put my ten year old to bed with a practiced ritual, at the end of which he always asks me to leave his bedroom door open just enough to let the cat come in during the night and sleep on his legs. The door must be ajar sufficient to admit the cat, but not so far as to allow the nightlight from the hall to disturb him. Getting it just right is, in its own way, a question of perfection.

There is perfection, too, in the lull of rainfall on the sun-room roof which never fails to put me to sleep, and to the bark of the coyotes on the foothills behind my house. The dimensions of the giant ficus outside the back windows, moonlight on the paperwhite narcissus on the slope above the garage, the utter silence which descends brittle with the January chill in the middle of the night, the deep sleep of the cat curled within its tail and orange tiger stripes before the fire... all make for a kind of perfection. Not the abstract and asymptotic idea of perfection implied by Plato or insisted on by Jesus, but a quaint quotidian completeness which means so much more, is so much more real and moving in its proximity and spontaneous calm. Perfection, more often than not in this life, is not to be striven for, but, rather, to be glimpsed in unsuspecting moments of the clear and patient mind.

Which brings me to Handel. He was, I long have known, Beethoven's favorite composer. Late in his life, someone gave Beethoven the complete scores of Handel, and he was so moved that he wept. Though I have listened to Handel's music all my adult life, I never understood until recently exactly why Beethoven, whom I admire so, so admired him. Handel was a genius, unmistakably, comparable to Bach (though it is unfair to compare anyone to Bach, as I suspect Telemann, a contemporary and truly great composer, must have felt), but in its own way, the work of Handel, too, is perfect. Where I find in Bach a gem-like perfection, that of Handel is more brittle, more latticed. If Bach is diamond, then Handel is ice.

I was listening today to a trio sonata, which I had never heard before, and I was struck by its marvelous complexity, together with its fluid clarity of execution. It was a perfect confluence of idea and expression, a faultless blending of breadth and depth, of meaning and structure. The Opus 6 Concerti Grossi are masterpieces, as are the Water and Fireworks music, the keyboard sonatas (which I am only beginning to explore) and especially, of course, the miraculous Messiah, which I understand he wrote in only six weeks.

I must spend more time with Handel, I have realized, in my declining years. Beethoven understood that there was a world of meaning and beauty to be gained in the appreciation of his music, and as my grip on the world relaxes, there is, perhaps a vision of eternity to be glimpsed in its timeless light.